Which Side

May 23, 2021

by Steve Stofka

A simple economic model of production attributes equal shares to capital and labor. Why then do those who contribute the capital get to keep all the profits? In our political system, Republicans publicly advocate for the owners of capital. The political posture of the Democratic Party falls on the side of workers, but both parties often favor the owners of capital. Most of the 27 Republican led states are ending the Federal program of enhanced unemployment benefits, believing that a weaker bargaining position for workers will help business owners (National Law Review, 2021).

The combined batting average in the Major League Baseball this year is .235, near an all-time low. The ball is too dead, complain the action-oriented fans who think that the batters are the important producers of good baseball. They want more hits. Nonsense, say the fans who like a good defensive game. The pitching is better. Pitchers are the key producers. Nah, pitchers’ battles are too boring, say action-oriented fans. You want a lot of running around, taunt the defensive-oriented fans, go watch basketball. If we can argue this point about a sport, is it any wonder that we split into two political camps, those favoring capital and those favoring labor?

150 years ago, the economist Karl Marx asked why do the contributors of capital get to keep all the profits? Capitalists had more political power, an evolution of the system of property rights under feudalism. Under those arrangements, the workers were bound to the land and the landowners had all the power. Marx predicted that industrialization would continue to concentrate workers in urban areas, a radical prediction at a time when the economy was almost entirely agricultural. Through greater association, Marx thought that workers would command more political power and overthrow the system of property rights that gave capital most of the power (Marx, 1994, p. 169). Why hasn’t that occurred?

In our country, the owners of capital have prevailed, both politically and economically. Policies that favor workers are branded as communist or socialist, and in the minds of many Americans, the two are synonyms. Until a hundred years ago when Progressives enacted child labor laws, American industry, particularly cloth mills, depended on child labor. Before American independence, the colonies encouraged British courts to send them children to work in the linen mills (Abbott, 1908, pp. 18-21). The justification for laws and property arrangements that forced children to work was the Puritan belief that idleness is evil and subverts character and spiritual growth (Abbot, 1908, p. 15). Conservative values are the political form of Puritan religious beliefs.

It is no surprise that Puritan Republicans would favor laws that reduce the bargaining power of workers. They believe that it is better that a worker be employed at any wage than be idle. They can’t force workers to work – that would be slavery – so they construct a system of laws and property arrangements that “induce” workers to “voluntarily” enter employment. As a governing strategy, Republicans believe in less freedom for workers and more freedom for capital. Republicans have picked the side of capital.

Using the impetus of the social uprisings of the early 20th century, Progressives in the Republican Party helped enact greater rights for workers. In a “whose side are you on” split in the party, the Progressives broke away from the Republicans and joined forces with the Democrats in the 1910s. Republicans became the party that favored the owners of land and capital and that was the end of their ideological growth. They became a reactionary party, a party of “No,” acting with one mission – to curb the growth of Progressive policy proposals that changed the power dynamic. Republicans would be the Party of the Haves.

In The Discourses written 500 years ago Niccolò Machiavelli wrote that in any society there are two factions, the “haves” and the “have-nots.” In a discussion of which group is more likely to cause social disturbances, he reasoned that it was the haves because they “can bring about changes with greater effect and greater speed” (1983, p. 118). Republicans disagree. In their analysis, it is the have-nots, the working class, that threaten social stability. When Mitch McConnell, the minority leader in the Senate, voices dismay at the ordinary folk at BLM protests, he expresses the view of the aristocratic haves who are suspicious of any expression that threatens the power balance.  To the haves the existing power balance is social stability.

Republican states are dominated by the interests of extractive industries, the companies that mine, drill and dig to get resources from the land. These industries are a critical component of our economy but they have an extractive mindset, regarding politicians as clay to be molded to their interests and people as replaceable resources to be mined for profit. Because many of these states have low population densities, profits have a greater vote than people. To retain their own  power, Republican governors and legislators lighten the pockets of workers to pad the pockets of big industry owners.

Whether it is sports, religion or politics, each side constructs justifications as castle walls to defend their position. Each side lobs fireballs of criticism into the strongholds of those on the opposite side, and each side is ready to extinguish any criticism before it does damage. For thousands of years, we have migrated across the globe because we could not negotiate with our families or others who held power. America is the land of people who ran away from wherever they were to get away from “those people.” We’re run out of room so now we run into, not away, from each other. Will we learn to negotiate with “those people” or will we destroy each other?

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Photo by Bill Stephan on Unsplash

Abbott, E. (1908). A study of the early history of child labor in America. American Journal of Sociology, 14(1), 15-37. doi:10.1086/211641

Machiavelli Niccolò̀. (1983). The Discourses. (B. Richardson & L. J. Walker, Trans., B. Crick, Ed.). Penguin Books.

Marx, K. (1994). Selected writings. (L. H. Simon, Ed.). Hackett. National Law Review. (2021, May 22). Unemployment insurance system update, Part III: Additional states opting out of federal unemployment benefits. Retrieved May 22, 2021, from https://www.natlawreview.com/article/unemployment-insurance-system-update-part-iii-additional-states-opting-out-federal

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