Economics is not morality play, but politics is

For socialist and progressive working-class forces, breaking out of marginalization is the key political challenge of our time. We hunger for a breakout, not just for a few weeks of a big mobilization or a single election, but permanently. A breakout that results in a sustainable political movement that redresses inequality, revitalizes democratic institutions on every level — would be like moving from moonlight to daybreak in civilization.

The case against working class empowerment has always been that we are too uncultured and uneducated to really lead society. We need, so we are told, “Very Serious People” and “genius” CEOs to keep us from imprudent thinking and actions. Given the reckless disregard of these geniuses for prudence in recent years, more people should be laughing at the austerity crowd than yet are.

Most of the serious austerity talk is claptrap to disguise the daily robbery from our pockets. Nonetheless, it’s reasonable to ask: Why is the working class a more trustworthy foundation of governance than other social classes? The reason is: while no class is completely disinterested, we are the most disinterested. How so? Because we have the least property, the biggest investment in public goods, the strongest motivation toward equality of opportunity, and the greatest interest in reward based on merit. In addition, the rising levels of education and access to scientific knowledge among working people — propelled by vast technology-driven changes in the division of labor — negates all the pleas of dictators, corporatists and kings about the unpreparedness of the people to govern themselves.

We have really only one addition to the ideals of the Enlightenment that founded the United States. We simply  say the principles of the Declaration of Independence must be extended to all who labor — not just white men of property, as at our founding, and certainly NOT an unlimited franchise to corporations as recently ruled by our Supreme Court.

Is there such a thing, however, as “scientific” socialism, or, for that matter, any social science that can serve as a reliable guide to solving our political marginalization on the left? Well, there is certainly more scientific, and less scientific, social science, including economic science. And it’s true, for example, that if a social policy is “disinterested,” making it scientifically informed is more important than “the miracle of the market” as a guide.

However it would be unscientific to say that there is a “morality” to any science, including social sciences. All who have spent time studying science have had the experience of letting values color the subject and learning nature often does not conform to our hopes; that correlation does not prove causality.

All societies — this will be true of all capitalisms, and all socialisms — are in both collaboration, and conflict, with nature. Science will tell you there are equilibriums that are relatively stable, that may still be offensive to a value system. For example, there is nothing unscientific about an equilibrium where we all toil building toys for the rich, and live on subsistence. And no equilibrium is permanent.

The place to insert values is not in economics, not in any “inevitability”, but in politics. We do this in two key ways: one is program — the hows, whats and whys of realizing our goals of equal opportunity, rising investments in human capital, and an equitable distribution of wealth based on merit. The class coalition in political power defines “equitable.”

But there is more to winning the battle of values  than program.

Values also include personal and political morality. No one in modern times exemplified this aspect of leadership than the Rev. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. The most common complaint about politics heard from working people is: “They are all corrupt.” Workers’ lives are filled with more trials than rewards. The time available for self-organization cannot, as with the better off, be separated from the cooperative and community relationships necessary for keeping body and soul together. Except through real relationships how can workers have confidence that their leadership has the necessary virtues:

  • Integrity: A trustworthy leader tells the truth;
  • Modesty and simplicity: The trustworthy leader does not live better than those he or she represents;
  • Setting an example of service and stewardship;
  • Peace: How do you know a leader is for peace who does not practice conflict resolution;
  • Equality: If a political organization does not practice it, is there any chance a government led by it will?
  • Courage: The leader is a first responder to crisis and challenge.

A political movement which seeks to capture the hopes, confidence and highest values of working people must live, be, and exemplify, up close and personal, the society it dreams of becoming.

Photo: From a 2012 St. Louis tax day rally (PW/Tony Pecinovsky)




John Case
John Case

John Case is a former electronics worker and union organizer with the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), also formerly a software developer, now host of the WSHC "Winners and Losers" radio program in Shepherdstown, W.Va.