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Why the World Stopped Swinging Left and Began Swinging Right


Marx was wrong about many, many things. However, he was right about one key point. Marx argued that the politics of nations, and in fact the politics of the world, depends on which social classes are mobilized on their own behalf. He argued that the structure of capitalism would make some classes mobilized and powerful, while other classes would become passive. The classes that were not in the winning coalition would become agenda takers rather than agenda makers. Marx himself fumbled in the development of this fundamental insight when he and Engels argued that capitalism would always be dominated by the haute bourgeoisie until such time as the workers organized an inevitable violent revolution. In the highly developed advanced capitalist nations, successful worker revolutions never happened. Industrial and financial elites did not obtain complete political control. However, the fundamental structure of capitalism did shape which social classes would be politically active and inactive, and which social classes would be politically strong versus politically weak.

Classes With Historical Inevitability

The strong classes did not start strong. Typically, they started at a political disadvantage, and had to work their way up the ladder to achieve political hegemony. There was a slow, steady march of the governing-class-to-be, until it stopped being a governing-class-to-be and became a class-that-makes-the-rules-around-here. None of the classes-that-made-the-rules ever completely displaced the business elites of the country. Governance generally meant shared power and the politics of compromise. But with whom the business elite had to divide power made a gigantic difference. The rise of the new governing classes from latent possibility to actualized dominance was among the most important transformation of advanced capitalism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

I refer to the classes that are on this constant trajectory to obtaining societal power as classes with historical inevitability. They did not obtain this power because of great leaders or lucky breaks. They obtained power because the changes in the fundamental nature of the economy gave them bargaining power, and weakened the bargaining power of other social formations. Individual decisions by leaders and good tactical calls by political organizations were able to speed up or slow down the ultimate attainment of enduring state power. However, because the changes in power were based on fundamental economics, individual events did not change the overall trajectory very much. A given election might be won by a left-wing party or a right-wing party. A major strike might succeed or fail. Domestic affairs could be roiled by international war – or they could be allowed to proceed on their own local dynamic. Ultimately, the changes in economic structure would guarantee that a given class would obtain political power. Social policy and law followed right behind.

Modern capitalism has had two classes with historical inevitability:

1) 1800-1975; Working Class

2) 1975-Today; Nationalist Populist Alliance (Conservative Middle Class, Billionaires, Ethnic Majority Working Class)

Yes, by the populist alliance I am referring precisely to the voting bloc that is supporting Donald Trump. Parallel blocs are also supporting populist alliances in many European countries and countries in the Global South.

The rise of the Working Class between 1800 and 1975 led to left wing governments in many of the nations of advanced capitalism. Politics came to be dominated by political parties beholden to unions. These parties had names like the Socialist Party, the Social Democratic Party, or the Labor Party. Unions were officially recognized. National health care plans were instituted. Welfare programs were created and expanded. Governments provided benefits such as subsidized child care. Employers were limited in their capacity to lay off workers. Worker councils existed on factory floors.

Workers did not absolutely positively run everything. Labor parties often divided power with more conservative parties – with control of the government see-sawing between the two groups. Some nations were able to exclude workers from power. Spain and Portugal were controlled by conservative parties favoring landlords and the church during most of the period that was the heyday of worker power in other nations. The Democratic Party in the United States and the Canadian Labor party never became as extreme as did the worker parties in Europe and Japan. (The Democratic party was only half made up of labor supporters. Its other constituency were Southerners in the nineteenth century and early twentieth, and ethnic minorities after the fifties.)

But keeping all those caveats and exceptions in mind, the nineteenth century saw workers rise to power and the twentieth century saw working-class parties governing and holding substantial power.

Today, right-wing parties in Europe and elsewhere have the same inevitability that workers had in the nineteenth century. Regardless of the outcomes of the various elections that will be held in 2024, in the long term, the national populists will attain power in much of the world and they will hold on to power for a long time. In many countries, there will be alternations of power with the populists in and out. There will be countries that never become populist. But overall, the world will be dominated by conservative forces similar to those supporting the current Republican Party.

Let’s walk through the social forces that gave the working-class historical inevitability in the nineteenth century. We can then consider what has changed in the twenty-first century.

Period I: 1800-1975

Working Class Inevitability and the Rise of Leftist Big Spending Government

The historical inevitability of the working class was explained by Adolph Sturmthal, an industrial relations specialist at the University of Illinois, in 1966. Sturmthal argued that before the Industrial Revolution, most workers were poor because overall levels of economic development were low. Low levels of economic development meant there were not very many jobs. As the economy grew, employment grew. As employment grew, demand for workers grew. As demand for workers grew, employers had to pay higher and higher salaries. Employers who did not pay enough would lose workers to rival employers who were offering more. More employment and higher wages meant that the percentage of the population that was living in poverty was steadily being reduced.

Labor scarcity tends to produce worker political power. When it is hard to replace workers, employees can afford to unionize and go on strike. If employers fire them for joining a union, they can simply find other work elsewhere. Likewise, labor scarcity gives workers political power. The threat that they will lose their job for their political actions is relatively diminished.

Employers facing increased worker demands for higher pay and better conditions turned to the state to suppress labor movements. There were many examples of employers having union leaders arrested, having striking workers jailed or arranging to have union meetings violently broken up. Aspiring unionists came to see that if the union movement was going to be successful, they would have to organize to elect pro-labor politicians.

Working class people in the early nineteenth century did not have the right to vote in many countries. So, the first struggle for aspiring labor organizers was organizing suffrage campaigns to give workers the vote. The campaign for worker suffrage led to the creation of labor parties. (The United States and Canada never developed labor parties because their workers acquired voting rights half a century before European workers caught up.) By the mid twentieth century, workers, workers had major market power and serious political power. The combination led to major benefits. The combination also led to the seeds of the undoing of their accomplishments.

Period II: 1975-Today

Nationalist Populist Inevitability and the Ascendancy of Conservative Policy

High union wages and high taxes got very expensive. The problem of high labor costs did not undercut worker power immediately. For a while, high union wages and high taxes were completely sustainable because they were linked to high profits. The American automobile industry was profitable because the market was dominated by three big companies: Ford, General Motors and Chrysler. They used monopoly power to jack up their prices to pay union salaries. In Europe, companies like Porsche and BMW put a lot of engineering into their products so they could charge top prices. Premium prices paid for their wages and taxes.

Ultimately, though, the high wages and high prices of American and European manufacture created an obvious opening for foreign rivals with lower costs. First Japan, then Korea, then Mexico and then China began to sell automobiles, appliances, clothing and other manufactured goods to the United States and Europe at prices the Americans and Europeans could not beat. The earliest competition came from foreign firms in lower-cost countries competing with the richer nations. But then, companies in the Global North learned to globalize and subcontract their manufacturing operations to these offshore locations. Demand for American and European labor plummeted. Factories in the Global North closed. Entire manufacturing regions were gutted. Job scarcity and high unemployment seriously undercut American and European labor power. The collapse of workers’ economic strength led to a parallel collapse in their political strength. Standing up to management and demanding more money was less appealing when management was threatening to shut down its local facilities and move all of its fabrication operations to China. When workers were concerned that they might not have any jobs at all, they become much more receptive to political parties that promised to take care of the interests of big business.

When workers become too weak to stand up to management, they try to protect their economic interests by targeting minority ethnic groups. There are several reasons that weak workers become ethnically intolerant workers. When workers go on strike, the general public typically does not support them. Most neutral bystanders in labor conflicts are customers. Customers like to see low prices. In a management-labor dispute over pay and conditions, the general public will usually side with management against the union.

When ethnic majority workers racialize their struggles and fight against immigrants and minority ethnic groups, they pick up support from other members of the ethnic majority who are hostile to the minority group in question. For majority workers, ethnic exclusionism keeps minority workers out of the labor supply, preserving jobs for themselves. Ethnic exclusionists in other social classes have other agendas.

A second effect of the globalization of production is that inequality becomes more extreme. Working class employment, wages and conditions deteriorate. This creates frustration and resentment – frustration and resentment that can be taken out on a variety of targets.

The decline of union and leftist government power allows the wealthy to become far wealthier than they were before. Without the organizational limits on upper class self-serving, some members of the upper class are going to become extremely well-off. The extreme concentration of economic power in a very small number of hands leads to a parallel concentration of political power. With money comes the ability to strongly influence elections, notably at the local level, and to buy access and influence at the national level. The wealthy are often concerned about lowering their taxes; however, the economic elite can often be “idealistic” as well, pushing for public policies that reflect their own beliefs. Those beliefs tend to be conservative.

Not all of the structural forces producing nationalist populism are related to globalization. A marked transformation in the politics of the Global North has been the rise of a conservative middle class that is hostile to taxation and wishes to see a shrinking in the size of the state. James O’Connor’s Fiscal Crisis of the State addresses this issue in detail, as do some of the essays on this website. (See in particular “Tax Revolt: an Unexpected Class Revolution”.) The short version of that argument is that in general, small business, the middle class and wealthy individuals pay the lion’s share of taxes in most countries. The poor have no resources that can be taxed. Very wealthy corporations, such as the Fortune 500 or the nation’s largest banks, avoid taxation either through aggressive tax accounting or by lobbying for changes in the tax laws that favor their particular industry. The largest industrial firms and banks, however, do receive the lion’s share of the benefits of government spending. The result is that small business, the middle class and wealthy individuals end up paying the government’s expenses while receiving a disproportionately small share of government subsidies and public support. This has been a general problem throughout the history of capitalism. However, in the United States, the middle class became aware of the disparity in the 1980’s and 1990’s, which led to the formation of what was then called the Tea Party. The Tea Party organization itself has disappeared. However virtually all GOP politicians and every middle-class supporter of the GOP has internalized Tea Party principles. The GOP is anti-tax and anti-Big-Government.

Why the middle class only woke up to this issue in the 1980’s and 1990’s is unclear. It has been claimed that a misconceived attempt to reform California property taxes created a reaction among local conservative tax-haters that then turned into a larger movement. Other accounts attribute this to middle-class concerns with economic stagnation in the face of the new competition from Japan and China. (This seems to have been a major concern in Sweden which experienced a similar small government movement in a more modest form). Other factors were relevant in other nations. The weakening of the working class and the enhancement of the political power of the super-wealthy, were based on fundamental properties of the world economy. In contrast, the tax revolt of the middle class and its subsequent conversion to conservative shrink-the-state policies were based on local circumstances. Sociologists refer to these semi-random events as being “conjunctural”.

But the net effect of these events mobilizing the middle class into action is that there is now a solid three-way alliance between a working class preoccupied with ethnic issues, a middle class seeking to shrink the state and a set of billionaires interested in imposing their own economic and ideological priorities on government. All of these groups favor the anti-immigrant, isolationist, anti-international, anti-state-bureaucrat, anti-tax position of Trump and the Trumps of the world. This alliance will not disappear regardless of any potential election results in 2024. There now exists a relatively enduring configuration that can be expected to last for decades.

The working class was the dominant force in world politics for the first seventy years of the twentieth century. It is reasonable to think that national populism will last for a comparable period. There will be countries where control by populists fluctuates with more centrist or leftist parties having on-again off-again electoral success. There will be some countries that will be immune to nationalist populism altogether.

However, nationalist populism is coming along with all of the policies that are associated with it. Swapping out Trump or Biden for some other Republican or some other Democrat will not change much.

Nationalist populism will change our world.

Start preparing now.

For More Information

The Sturmthal theory appeared in pages 165-181 of Arthur Ross’s edited collection Industrial Relations and Economic Development. The chapter was entitled “Economic Development and the Labor Movement”.

Sweden is a good case of the rise and then retrenchment of worker power within society and the state. The early chapters of Walter Korpi’s Working Class in Welfare Capitalism (Routledge Kegan Paul, 1980) is strong here. (You can skip the last 80% of the book.) For the entire rise-decline trajectory, see Francis Sejersted’s Age of Social Democracy: Norway and Sweden in the Twentieth Century. Note that the decline of worker power in these countries was less than that observed in many other countries such as the Netherlands, New Zealand or the U.S. In Norway, a continuing oil boom kept demand for labor high. Oil jobs could not be relocated to China. Oil revenues also paid the bills on welfare benefits. Sweden saw far more retrenchment.

On the start of the anti-tax movement in the United States that emphasizes idiosyncratic events in California, see Isaac Martin’s Permanent Tax Revolt: How the Property Tax Transformed America’s Politics. (Stanford, 2008.) For a highly sophisticated nuanced account that emphasizes factors in the Anglo-Saxon world that made Britain and the United States lead the way on state shrinkage, see Monica Prasad’s Politics of Free Markets: Rise of Neoliberal Economic Policies in Britain, France, Germany and the United States. (Chicago, 2006)

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