Marx and Engels a better bet than Governors Walker and Daniels
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (left) and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels | Gage Skidmore (left photo) and Rogelio V. Solis/AP

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels famously condensed their theory of history in the now well-known formulation, “The history of hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.”  While they list many different historical class oppositions, the over-arching, generalizable class antagonists they identify throughout this history are the haves and the have-nots.

That was 1848.

Remember 2011? That’s when Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker erased decades of hard-fought struggles for labor rights and democracy, working in tandem with the Republican-dominated state legislature to strip state workers of their collective bargaining rights and to pave the way to cut benefits state employees were receiving. To justify this move to the public, he effectively re-wrote Marx’s and Engel’s historic sentence to distort the realities of capitalist society, asserting, “We can no longer live in a society where the public employees are the haves and taxpayers who foot the bills are the have-nots.”

Here is not the place to dissect every disturbing, deceptive, and wrong-headed aspect of this statement (beginning with the fact that public employees are taxpayers!), but suffice it to point out he deploys the common capitalist rhetorical sleight-of-hand of making the capitalist class, those who control most of the wealth and own the means of production, disappear from accountability.

Marx and Engels identified the haves as those who are making their wealth off the value created by workers. Walker sees state workers as a class exploiting other workers—or, not even other workers, but the taxpayers, whom he describes as the have nots.  The distortion and deception here become crystal clear when we consider that Walker slashed upper income and corporate tax rates in Wisconsin, making all the hackneyed promises of Reaganomics—increased job growth, a flourishing economy—which have never come to fruition, as is typical of trickle-down economic policy.  In short, many taxpayers are not have nots; and making taxpayers a class whom public employees exploit and effectively rule is, I hope is clear, patently ridiculous and obfuscates the realities of labor exploitation at the heart of our current class structure and economic system.

But regardless of its ridiculousness, this narrative persists and must be addressed. I bring us back to 2011 because it was then, in the midst of the Great Recession, that it really became de rigueur for politicians, in a bi-partisan pile-on, to target public employees and their supposedly luxurious wages, benefits, and pensions as responsible for state budget woes, heaping blame upon blame upon blame on public employees, despite the fact that study upon study upon study demonstrated that state budget shortfalls were not attributable to public employees’ compensation but to declines in revenues because of the recession combined with unaffordable tax cuts.

Then New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was outspoken on the issue, publicly shouting down teachers.  As a gubernatorial candidate, Meg Whitman attacked incumbent California Gov. Jerry Brown for lavishing overly-generous pensions on public employees at the expense of the state’s fiscal health.  Even Democratic governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, joined the fray, freezing the wages of state workers.

While we see some evidence, particularly in my home state of Illinois, of these rhetorical falsehoods losing steam and even finally being debunked so state governments can get to the real work of solving fiscal problems and making sure residents’ needs are met, one wonders if the attacks against workers can be undone.

For as stale as the tactic is and for all its erroneousness, the myth that public workers are somehow the exploiters siphoning off already scarce resources at the expense of residents—when in fact those workers provide and make possible the state services residents miss when they are cut—informed the recent landmark Supreme Court decision in the Janus case.

Justice Samuel Alito invoked this rhetoric and this false rendering of historical conditions in his decision in order to validate his premise that collective bargaining in itself constitutes political speech because it impacts public spending and state budgets, which in turn affects the lives of citizens in the state. He argued that “the mounting costs of public-employee wages, benefits, and pensions undoubtedly played a substantial role” in mounting state-spending increases. And he continued, “We are told, for example, that Illinois’ pension funds are underfunded by $129 billion as a result of generous public-employee retirement packages,” while also invoking the tired mantra that “unsustainable collective-bargaining agreements have also been blamed for multiple municipal bankruptcies.”

A  cursory look at the studies linked to above highlight the un-researched nature of Alito’s argument, which could not pass muster in a first-year college writing course.

Take Illinois as an example. The reason for the pension shortfall is that the state simply stopped making its requisite payments to the pension systems back in the 1990s. So, yes, the underfunded pensions have created a serious budget problem for the state, but it’s not because of overly generous pensions; it’s because of state malfeasance. Even the Better Government Association of Illinois, long a pension watchdog, has come to this realization. Additionally, because Illinois opted out of Social Security at its inception, state workers are not eligible for Social Security, meaning the state has more than likely saved well more than the $129 billion pension shortfall by never having to pay into Social Security.

Moreover, Illinois has one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation; and evidence shows if it had a tax structure more akin to states like Indiana and Wisconsin (namely, red states that are far from liberal), the state would not experience these budget traumas.

So how are state workers remunerated? Are they really receiving lavish benefits? Let’s take the case of pensions, remembering that state employees in Illinois are not eligible for social security because the state opted out of the Social Security System—and thus saves millions every year by not paying into the system—with the supposed promise that the state would create a retirement system equal to or better than the social security system.

Well, in May 2017, after years of unscrupulously producing inflammatory headlines about the outrageous pensions retired Illinois state workers were receiving, thus fueling Governor Bruce Rauner’s assault on public employees in the state, the Better Government Association, finally came clean, reporting that only four percent of retirees were receiving six-figure pensions, and that most payments were far more modest.  Retired suburban and downstate teachers received a median payment of $52,016, while the median for general state workers is $28,946. The median pension for university workers is $26,101, while it is $9.064 for non-public safety municipal workers outside of Chicago.

This is hardly high on the hog.

So given these modest payouts, what is the real motive for this assault on state workers, and why is it important for all workers that this stale yet, as we see in Alito’s Janus decision, nonetheless potent narrative be challenged?

Well, if the powers that be can get the average citizen to say, “Boy, those workers don’t deserve that kind of healthcare and retirement security because I don’t get it,” then those powers have succeeded in erasing decent healthcare and dignified and comfortable senior years from our list of social ideals, of what we’re shooting for as a culture.  Politicians need no longer answer to citizens for these benefits that should be basic to all. They got the average citizens themselves to say people don’t deserve them; healthcare and retirement are not basic rights which those who have served the public, or anybody else, deserves.

Instead of seeing state government as acting responsibly and ethically, in the most basic of ways, towards those employees, politicians have managed to turn voters toward seeing the state’s ensuring the health and well-being of its employees while working and later in retirement as in fact irresponsible behavior.

Thus, turning resentment on state employees also effectively targets for extinction a set of social ideals and objectives that undoubtedly reflects the interests of the majority of Americans.  The result is that suddenly people’s political focus is not on attaining healthcare and retirement security for all, but on taking it away from some and un-declaring these basic elements of human dignity as rights.

Moreover, turning voters against state workers and supporting cuts, ends up finally really means cutting the very state services upon which many voters and their families depend, from education to parks to health services to job-training, daycare, elder-care, and more.

Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels called state workers “the new privileged class,” and on his first day in office in 2006 rescinded their collective bargaining rights.

Challenging this distorted rendering of class dynamics, which effectively pits workers against workers, is key to achieving economic justice and well-being for all in America.  Public employees are hardly the haves.  Again, take Illinois, in which 2/3 of corporations pay no income tax whatsoever and which has one of the most regressive tax structures in the nation.

Ok—well, maybe the taxpayers are the have nots because those who have simply aren’t paying taxes.  That’s the problem.

Recognizing the reality of these class dynamics, indeed of class struggle, is key to challenging the lies of the likes of Alito and the U.S. Supreme Court and directing our political energies in the proper direction to achieve class justice.

Put simply, let’s stick to Marx’s and Engel’s theories of history and class struggle rather than those of Scott Walker and Mitch Daniels.


Tim Libretti
Tim Libretti

Tim Libretti teaches in the English Department at a public university in Chicago where he lives with his two sons.