According to a video tweeted out today by the AFL-CIO, the middle-class is “a fiction.” That’s probably going to be a real surprise to a lot of middle-class people and also to people who thought the AFL-CIO’s goal was to support workers entering the middle-class rather than deny such a thing exists. Here’s a post on the AFL-CIO’s website titled “Let’s Rebuild the Middle Class by Rebuilding Our Infrastructure.” That was just over a year ago. Do they not believe in such a thing anymore?
The speaker, Dan Whelan, who is identified as a “Marxist roofer” in the clip, said this: “Class is actually determined by a person’s relationship to or ownership of the means of production. The means of production being a factory, a plantation, a skyscraper. Something that generates money and requires workers.”
Okay, let’s take a break here and just point out that this definition is nonsense. The main problem with it is that it takes a given moment of time as if it is fixed. There are workers and there are owners and those things never change. In fact, most factories were built by people who started with an idea or a product and built the business. That’s true of Apple Computer, started by two guys in a garage. It’s also true of Sears, of Amazon, of just about any big chain store or large company you can name.
Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were workers when they founded Apple, selling their homemade computers by mail. The success of their innovations made them owners of a great many things eventually.
Something similar is true of anyone who gets a law degree or becomes a doctor or an engineer. They may start out working for someone else for a few years but at some point they could become a partner in a law firm, or a medical practice, or start their own engineer firm. The line between worker and owner is one that many middle-class people can cross if they are willing to take the responsibility and the risk to do so.
And that applies to blue collar jobs as well. Personal story: I live in a nice part of Orange County, California. Years ago when my wife and I had kids we decided to expand our house to add some space and a bathroom to our home. We really loved the framing contractor and have had a relationship with him ever since. He runs a crew of 5-10 other guys who take local jobs doing additions, repairs, etc. One day about a year ago, I ran into this guy at a local eatery not far from my house. I was glad to see him but surprised and asked “Hey, what are you doing here?” He said, ‘I just live over there’ and pointed to a row of $2 million dollar homes that were just visible from the parking lot. I was briefly surprised but it made perfect sense. This guy runs a very successful business, works hard, and everyone he works with loves him and recommends him to their friends. So it turns out the guy who built part of my house has a bigger and nicer house than mine. He’s a blue collar worker selling his labor and he’s also an owner keeping others working and living a very nice upper-middle-class life.
I’m sure the same applies to roofers. That’s hot, difficult work. But I bet the guy who runs the company (an owner) is someone who worked for years as a roofer, paid his dues, and one day said to himself ‘I can do this better’ and put out his own shingle (see what I did there?). Owners are often successful workers because in America anyone can become an owner.
Back to the video: “Most people, like 90% of us, are working class and do not own the means of production. Damn. Instead, the vast majority of us have to find a buyer for the only commodity we have which is our ability to perform labor. This is the working class. The job they perform is irrelevant.” A bit later he adds, “The idea that a large percentage of people live as some sort of middle class removed from the inherent conflict between workers and owners is a fiction.”
Again, this isn’t how it works. There is some conflict between workers and owners but there’s also cooperation for mutual benefit. And most importantly, any worker could potentially become an owner at some point and switch sides. And any owner could also be a worker in his own shop.
According to the Small Business and Entrepreneurship Council, small businesses started by ordinary people make up about 46% of nonfarm GDP. Nearly 90% of those businesses employ fewer than 20 people, this a dry cleaner, a restaurant, a hobby shop, nail salon, etc. And anyone of those people working in these businesses could save up or borrow enough to try to start their own business at some point. And many of the owners of those businesses are working long hours as workers to keep them going (a chef, a manager, etc.). The line between the two isn’t as clear as this video would like to suggest. Here’s the clip, and I have one more thing to say below:
— AFL-CIO (@AFLCIO) May 14, 2019
This clip was created by Means TV, the same outfit that AOC recently praised. I’m still not sure how to define their output exactly. It’s definitely anti-capitalist and this guy identifies himself as Marxist. But is it communist or merely Democratic Socialist? Well, I’d say the clip itself is at least Democratic Socialist but it’s not predicting a future revolution. On the other hand, the AFL-CIO tweet sounds more like full communism: “We all need to seize the means of production.” Maybe the person doing social media for the union doesn’t know what that means but the seizing described here hasn’t always been about voting. Calling for revolution has historically been a call to violence. Maybe the AFL-CIO would like to clarify that tweet?