TCS Daily

The Coming Class Struggle

By Steve Antler - July 23, 2003 12:00 AM

The political right now owns much of the left's former property.

Take the expression "politically correct," for example, with its origins in Stalinist Russia. It migrated to the American New Left of the 1960s, gaining a bit of ironic and even humorous content on the way. But now it is an indispensable part of the Right's basic critical vocabulary, used to bludgeon its political enemies.

Or consider C. Wright Mills' best seller The Power Elite, when it stood at the apex of 1960s Left-wing thought. It introduced the charge of "elitism" as something to be directed at those on the Right. Now, "elitism" is a charge hurled at those on the Left, usually by tongue-tied conservative legislators on cable news talk shows.

What we need are laundry tags for political ideas. Future generations would thank us for them. We should start work right now because class struggle -- once a fundamental aspect of left wing ideology -- is certain to migrate from left to right quite soon.

To understand why, we need to understand that there exists in modern capitalism a dissimilarity of interest between two important groups. We might as well call these Marxist "classes," because (1) each has its own distinct relationship to the means of production, (2) each has its own unique self interest growing out of this relationship, and (3) each occasionally evidences awareness of this relationship -- what Marx called "true class consciousness."

These two economic groups are not workers and capitalists, but the entirety of the goods producing sector on the one hand, and the service producing sector on the other.

Consider for a moment the basic differences between goods and services. Goods can be easily stored, services less easily so. We produce most goods with capital-intensive, technology-utilizing methods of production, while services production still relies on humans -- to move or decide things, for example.

Advances in goods production are more amazing than the most profound science fiction, while methods of services production evolve amazingly slowly -- if, indeed, they evolve at all. I composed this article on a machine much more powerful than the 1985 "Cray Supercomputer," for example, but when finished I went to a barbershop where the owner cut my hair in the same way, in the same length of time, and I suspect with the same level of skill, as did his medieval English counterpart.

There is an inherent "class conflict" between the goods and service producing sectors because economic growth affects each in a profoundly different way. The goods sector constantly discovers how to produce more per hour as the service sector's hourly output stays relatively constant; and much as we might wish otherwise, you can't manufacture time.

And it is this last melancholy truism that generates an "iron law of service pricing": services inevitably get expensive relative to everything else. The law is visible everywhere, from anecdotal evidence of rising costs of hands-on health care, tuition, insurance, to the fundamental statistics of pricing and employment costs. No matter how you choose to measure price ratios of services to goods -- or employment cost ratios of the service to goods producing sectors -- we see prices of services continually rising faster than prices of goods. Much of what's normally called "technical progress" is actually the "iron law" of service pricing in action. Postwar advances that replaced household servants with home appliances evidenced this law. We can say the same for the desktop computer revolution. Machines replace people as people get more expensive -- a kind of "law of motion" of capitalism, to use Marx's terms.

The ratio of service sector to goods producing sector employment cost (regardless of the measure chosen) has risen relentlessly over the past two decades. Recessions slow the advance, but the long run trend is clear.


The major political alliances in the U.S. today are close to (though not exactly) an alliance of service providers on the one side, and goods producers on the other.

If as an abstraction we reduce government activity to two intangible services: tax collection and subsequent redistribution (of revenues/public goods/services), we can posit these two intangible services as public sector equivalents of similar private sector activity. The insurance industry carries out a similar collection/redistribution process. The semi-public activities of torts and other branches of civil law mirror this redistribution as well. So if the manufacturing goods-producing sector represents goods production and distribution of factor incomes, the service sector as just described represents re-distribution of these.

In the grand alliance making up the Democratic Party, the only substantial service sector component missing is the insurance industry, while the only substantial goods-producing components present are the few remaining non-public sector rust belt trade unions. The Democratic Party is quite close to a grand alliance of service-providing re-distributors. The Republicans, on the other hand, seem fast becoming the party of goods-providing producers.

Here is where the iron law strikes hard and loud. The relative cost of service activity continually increases, so with each passing year the cost of re-distribution services increases as well. If the story ended at this point all would be well and good -- but there is more.

Among the members of the Democratic alliance, we seem to be witnessing something like the self-organizing and sometimes self-aware political action Marx labeled class-consciousness, typically taking the form of increasingly hostile, even predatory behavior towards the entirety of the outside world. Brandishing evidence of their failure as proof of their ever-increasing need, teachers perpetually demand more resources. In ongoing waves of litigation establishing increasingly obstreperous themes, trial lawyers first fight the environmental battle, now the battle of lifestyle, and soon, perhaps, the battle for direct judicial control of the taxation/spending powers of the legislature itself. Then there is the Democratic Party's profound and puzzling hatred of the pharmaceutical industry, which seems hard to explain except in terms of ritual, as if Democrats were performing some drama of primal and elemental hatred.

And perhaps that's just what's happening. Perceiving themselves correctly as sterile re-distributors incapable of genuine production, perhaps the Democrats are acting out a kind of ritualized self-recognition. Genuine "humans" versus the dehumanizing (but very productive) "machines," as in The Terminator or The Matrix -- perhaps this is the self-image Democrats generate for themselves in the predatory wars they wage.

On the Republican side, it only remains to claim the mantle of party of the goods-producing machines -- and, of course, their human owners. On the Democrat side, well, it is hard to imagine much change. The future, therefore, seems likely to be one in which conservatives finally take up the banner of class struggle -- the struggle of the producing class on the one side and the re-distribution class on the other. Like "political correctness" and "elitism," once discarded like a used-up toy by one side, class struggle will be adopted, refurbished -- and finally put to very good use by the other.

So get ready for class struggle, modern style. To get a feel for how the future works you don't read only Adam Smith or Milton Friedman. In addition, you should read Ricardo, Marx, and perhaps most important, Ronald Coase. Let's give this political idea a laundry tag right now: how about Klassenkampf 2003? It's what's coming!

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