Wednesday, October 10, 2018

The Political Economy of the Working Class

The political economy of the working class is pluralist.

The political economy of the working class is pragmatic.

The political economy of the working class is critical.

Karl Marx chronicled and contributed to the political economy of the working class. He did not invent, conclude or supersede it. In  his Inaugural Address to the International Working Men’s Association, Marx celebrated the first victory of the political economy of the working class, the passage, in 1847, of the Ten Hours' Bill:
This struggle about the legal restriction of the hours of labor raged the more fiercely since, apart from frightened avarice, it told indeed upon the great contest between the blind rule of the supply and demand laws which form the political economy of the middle class, and social production controlled by social foresight, which forms the political economy of the working class. Hence the Ten Hours’ Bill was not only a great practical success; it was the victory of a principle; it was the first time that in broad daylight the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class.
This passage tells us what we most need to know about the political economy of the working class. It is founded upon "social production controlled by social foresight" in opposition to "the blind rule of supply and demand laws." The "most notorious organs of science" had predicted and "proved" that "any legal restriction of the hours of labor must sound the death knell of British industry" and, of course, they were subsequently proved absolutely wrong. Not 'merely' wrong, but the exact opposite of apposite.

The political economy of the working class is innovative.

The political economy of the working class is traditionalist.

The political economy of the working class is eclectic.

The first victory of working class political economy Marx spoke of occurred 17 years before his inaugural address, 20 years before publication of Das Kapital and a year before The Communist Manifesto. It would be anachronistic to give credit for that outcome to Marx's analysis or agitation. Moreover, Marx says that the victory culminated 30 years of struggle, which would make the political economy of the working class at least older than Marx.

The political economy of the working class is conservative.

The political economy of the working class is revolutionary.

Why does this even matter? It matters because the alternative between "social production controlled by social foresight" and "the blind rule of supply and demand laws" cannot be reduced to Marxism vs. non-Marxism or socialism vs. capitalism. It is instead a contest between collective wisdom and a very peculiar sort of solipsistic, motivated passivity. If there ever was such a thing as "laws" of supply and demand, they would only be self-enforcing to the extent that market participants were not aware of them. As soon as those regularities are observed, they will be gamed.

It also matters because units of  radically different type lie at the heart of the two political economies. The political economy of the middle class is denominated in monetary units, while the political economy of the working class revolves around qualitative as well as quantitative time. The limitation of the length of the working day confers "physical, moral, and intellectual benefits" above and beyond simply "more time off" and a better bargaining position for wages. "After all their idle sophistry, there is, thank God! no means of adding to the wealth of a nation but by adding to the facilities of living: so that wealth is liberty -- liberty to seek recreation -- liberty to enjoy life -- liberty to improve the mind: it is disposable time, and nothing more."

Andres Malm tells us that with passage of the Ten-Hours Bill in 1847, "Water power received its coup de grâce." "If labour scored a gain in the Acts of 1847 and 1850, capital retaliated by speed through steam." "[A]ccording to Von Tunzelmann, the Ten Hours Act was 'probably the most important determinant' of the rise of high-pressure steam and, by extension, the final victory of the engine in the cotton industry (and beyond)."

So, there you have it. The great victory of the political economy of the working class over the political economy of the middle class had the unintended consequence of completing the victory of fossil fuel over renewable but erratic water power.

But, of course the story doesn't end there. Might not the same political economy of the working class act as a lever in the transition away from fossil fuels? The IPCC 1.5° C Report and the Ten-Hour Week

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