Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 7, 2017

Review: Michael Yates, “The Great Inequality”

Filed under: economics — louisproyect @ 7:50 pm

(Posted with the permission of the journal Socialism and Democracy, where it appeared in the April, 2017 edition.)

The 12 articles in this book address a topic made acute by the Great Recession of 2008. From Thomas Piketty’s Capital to Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches, the issue has been examined from many different angles but not with the sharp Marxist focus of an economist who understands what inequality means on both a theoretical and a personal level, having grown up in a hardscrabble company town in Pennsylvania.

Written in language that ordinary workers could understand, each chapter is filled with data illustrating the ever-widening gulf between the 1% and the rest of us. Chapter two, which has the same title as the book, documents the great divide between the plutocracy and the average American in jaw-dropping detail. Using the Gini coefficient, a measure of inequality with 0 being a state of perfect equality and 1 tantamount to total inequality, Yates observes that the numbers have been moving steadily toward 1 for the past four decades. In fact, the Gini coefficient of the Roman Empire not long after the death of Jesus was more equal than the US today. With Jesus preaching that “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God,” one can understand why opposition to the status quo has reached a religious fervor today. As a socialist, Michael Yates tends to look askance, however, at Great Men who would be saviors of the poor and the working class. In the final analysis, it is up to those who sell their labor power to transform society and make wage slavery a thing of the past.

Globally, the numbers are damning. About 40 percent of the world’s population lives on $2 per day or less. The richest 9 percent gets about one-half of the world’s income while the bottom half gets 7 percent. The wealthiest 80 individuals own as much as the poorest half, some 3.5 billion people. While many are on the edge of starvation, a man with a billion dollars in the bank could spend $10,000 per day and would not exhaust his funds until 274 years had passed.

Beyond the book’s value as a source of powerful arguments based on hard data, it is like everything else that Yates has written – an eminently readable work that can even be described as entertaining in the fashion of a Jonathan Swift essay. Shunning the pedantry of many economists, including those on the left, and drawing upon a lifetime of experience dealing with the boss whether in a coal company town or in academia, Yates has some sharp observations rendered in anecdotal fashion.

Chief among them is an incident that occurred on a nature hike near Santa Fe, about 7000 feet above sea level. Yates and his wife ran into another group of hikers that included an older man who struck up a conversation about what brought Yates to Santa Fe. He explained that he was collecting material for a travel book written from the viewpoint of an economist – the superlative Cheap Motels and a Hot Plate: An Economist’s Travelogue. When asked what he had observed to that point, Yates replied: environmental degradation, suburban sprawl and growing inequality. This did not sit well with his interlocutor who came across like Pangloss in Voltaire’s Candide. For him, everything was getting better. People were living longer and getting healthier. As a sign of what capitalism could bestow, “Almost everyone in the country lives within an hour of a Wal-Mart Supercenter.” Eventually, the Panglossian fellow was revealed to be an economist, just like Michael, but with a difference. As a conventional member of the Dismal Science profession, he was used to covering up for the ruling class through the application of “neoclassical” theory.

While the statistics in The Great Inequality will leave you feeling angry and ready to make a revolution (if you hadn’t reached such a state long ago), the discussion of the daily assaults on the spirit and body for those who sell their labor power will push you over the edge for sure. Chapter five, aptly titled “Work is Hell,” examines factory and office existence today, suggesting that even if the Gini coefficient was 0 – in other words, pure equality – there would still be compelling reasons to abolish a system based on the private ownership of the means of production.

I was struck by the mention of a certain class of workers who might not be thought of ordinarily in terms of Engels’s Condition of the Working Class in England, namely the crews of cruise ships that take people down to the Caribbean islands. They tend to be people of color from poor countries that do the most backbreaking work. If they are injured on the job, they must pay their own way back to their homeland even if better care is available in the US. It is quite a comment on the values of Nation Magazine that it has used Holland America for its fundraising cruises with the leftist glitterati. Holland pays its largely Filipino and Indonesian crew $300 per month for a 10- to 13-hour workday, seven days a week. In addition to screwing its workers, their ships constitute an ongoing threat to the environment. In just one violation, Holland dumped 20,000 gallons of raw sewage into the waters off Juneau, Alaska.

While it is only hinted at in The Great Inequality, there are political imperatives that flow inexorably from the economic miseries it describes. At the very top of a page titled Issues, you can see a link to the section “Income and Wealth Inequality” that states: “The real median income of male workers is $783 less than it was 42 years ago; while the real median income of female workers is over $1,300 less than it was in 2007.” But in the very next sentence, you discover the Achilles Heel of the 2016 Bernie Sanders campaign: “That is unacceptable and that has got to change.”

But how has that got to change?

By endorsing Hillary Clinton, who gives speeches to Goldman-Sachs for $225,000 a pop, Sanders was talking out of both sides of his mouth. This was obvious even to those on the left who found his campaign inspirational. In an article for New Politics titled “True Confession: I’ve Lost that Bernie Feeling,” Michael Hirsch lamented that Sanders let the plutocrat off the hook.

Bernie stoked a fire under millions of Americans but couldn’t muster campaign 2.0 beyond a fund-raising bonanza (no small thing) and promises of a confection of free stuff courtesy of the state, yet with too little attention to Hillary’s and Bill Clinton’s role as abettors of the very corporate oligarchy he so despises and has otherwise sketched so well.

After a yeoman job of revealing the economic divide in the US, Yates has begun to connect the dots between politics and economics, an obligation that faces everybody who considers himself/herself a socialist. In an April 30, 2016 article for Truthout titled “Let’s Get Serious About Inequality and Socialism,” Yates makes the case for socialism – not the Swedish model that no longer exists but the classless society envisioned by Karl Marx that remains just as necessary for humanity and nature as it was in the nineteenth century.

Perhaps the reality is that many of Sanders’ leftist supporters have modest aims, believing that the most we can hope for is to take the first small steps to be like Denmark or Sweden. But those who believe that only gradual, piecemeal changes can occur are, in my view, embracing a dead-end strategy for achieving socialism. There are those of us who believe that, if we are radically prepared for it, sudden, revolutionary change could usher in the dream of a classless society – one that is egalitarian, radically democratic, with a surfeit of leisure, and with collectively provided goods and services. For us there is but one choice. Hold fast to our vision, put our shoulders to the wheel, and struggle on.

Reviews of other books by Michael Yates:

Naming the System

In and Out of the Working Class

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

1 Comment »

  1. Thanks, Louis, Much appreciated. You’ve been a good friend. Not to mention perceptive!!!

    Comment by Michael Daniel Yates — November 7, 2017 @ 11:00 pm


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