Sep 03 2020

Shlomy Kattan, PhD

Some of the earlier thought pieces to be published about the novel coronavirus' effect on the future of work contemplated how a mass scale experiment in remote work would shift the way companies do business. With businesses required to send employees home in order to stem the spread of the virus, so the argument went, a proof point would emerge demonstrating the benefits of moving the entire workforce to remote status permanently. Teams would not break down, productivity would increase, and workers would be happier, able to spend more time with their loved ones.

Such arguments are attractive but reflect a broader divide between two distinct fields examining the impact of changes to the economy being driven by unprecedented technological innovation. While those of us in what used to be called "white collar jobs" expect technology to augment our capabilities and do away with menial tasks, for a large portion of the workforce such innovation represents a threat. Approximately 30% of workers in the United States, for example, have the types of jobs that permit remote work according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the U.S. alone, a massive 10% of the workforce is employed in the hospitality industry. Workers who clean hotel rooms, check in guests, or serve food and drink can potentially be replaced by technology, but they are not able to re-skill rapidly enough to obtain higher paying positions. 

This disparity in future opportunities for low-income versus high-income workers has been true for the long period of growth after the 2008 financial crisis, when employee wages mostly stagnated as wealth became increasingly concentrated at the top. Until five months ago, the United States had record low unemployment but seven million unfilled jobs. It had the longest bull market in history and the widest wealth and income gaps since the Gilded Age, it had ever-increasing productivity but stagnant wage growth for the middle and lower classes and growing levels of poverty. The vertiginous downward spiral of the global economy as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic has only made this divide more acute. Those households that already faced crushing levels of debt, negligible or negative savings, and low-paying jobs were going to be the first ones harmed by an economic downturn. The speed with which the economy collapsed has only made it that much more difficult for such households to cope.

I've been rereading the Communist Manifesto recently—maybe there is something in the air—and there is this one point that Marx and Engels make that has always stood out to me. It's an argument Marx makes in Capital and in other writings as well, but I think it's really captured well in the Manifesto. Here is one relevant passage:

“The lower strata of the middle class...sink gradually into the proletariat...the proletariat is recruited from all classes of the population.”

In other words, the tendency of the capitalist system is to drive the majority of the middle class into the working ranks and a very small minority into the upper class. If you look at the numbers over the last few decades, you see that to a great extent Marx was right. The middle class dwindles, and small tradespeople, shopkeepers, and artisans cannot keep up with the growth of those who have institutionalized the means of production. Moreover, the labor of the working class becomes a commodity and as that class of laborers grows while the machinery becomes more efficient, the value of the labor of the working class diminishes. To a greater degree, that’s what happened in the U.S. over the past half century. 

With recent events raising yet again the urgency of taking action against racism and bringing to the forefront conversations about the economic and social legacy of slavery, I've also been thinking about why Marxism as an socioeconomic theory never really caught on in the United States, and specifically why it doesn't explain well the social and economic regime in this country.

As much as Marx was right about this aspect of capitalism, because he was thoroughly European and had never been in America, he missed a purely American invention, and that's racism. Now, often if you say that America invented racism people respond with evidence that other empires also had slavery or discriminatory practices or oppression. And while that's true, America did invent a socioeconomic system based at its very foundation not on class struggle or religious beliefs but on a putatively physiological feature. It reified blackness and whiteness and saw the two as unmixable, as fixed. So, while Europe had a history by which feudalism transitioned to capitalism, America was invented as a new feudal system that forcibly imported its serfs.

Because Marx didn’t understand this about the United States, he couldn’t account for how racism is used both to perpetuate class hierarchies and to divide classes against themselves. 

If a materialistic interpretation of American capitalism were accurate, then companies would be overinvesting in workforce training. That’s because once the economy shifted from a goods economy to a service and knowledge economy, the means of production also shifted toward the production of intellectual capital. But until very recently, most large organizations saw little value in investing in their entry level workers. Some organizations, like Walmart and Starbucks and others, have started to make those investments. 

Workforce development is therefore a revolutionary act, because it works against historical systems of oppression. Workforce development creates opportunity. It invests in underestimated communities. That, to me, is the future of work: a world in which every person is able to maximize their abilities in order to meet their needs. 

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Shlomy Kattan, PhD