According to a 2003 report on the Federal Reserve website examining changes in wealth distribution from 1989 to 2001, certain stark realities are encountered. The wealthiest individual of 1989, estimated then at a worth of 7 billion dollars, was replaced by an individual today worth 42 billion. The average wealth of the richest 400 increased from 376 to 543 million dollars. There were 97 billionaires in 1989 and 205 in 2001. One third of all wealth was held by the top 1% of the population. The wealth of the bottom 35% of the population declined.
A study by the Helsinki-based World Institute for Development Economics Research, part of the United Nations University, discussed by CBC News in December, 2006, suggested that 1% of the world’s population owns as much as 40% of the world’s wealth. The study defined wealth as assets minus debts. They did so rather reasonably, in fact, because according to its authors “many people in high-income countries like Europe and the United States — somewhat paradoxically — are among the poorest people in the world in terms of household wealth because they have large debts.”
In the United States, it is most likely that the tremendous increase in wealth among the wealthy was at our laborious expense, that of Labor. The years of most dramatic increase in wealth in the United States have interestingly but not so surprisingly paralleled the decline in unionization since especially the 1970s. The “golden age” of unions that started around 1950 ended about twenty years later when membership started to decline from the 1945 rate of 35% to 30% by 1970. Thereafter, the decline became even more precipitous to the present 12% (according to a January 25, 2008 report on the website of the Bureau of Labor Statistics). Unemployment increased dramatically in the 1990s (contributed in part by the wave of layoffs in the military contracting and airline businesses, the latter experiencing a further bout of firings of 10s of 1000s of workers in 2002), international competition increased with manufacturers more and more taking advantage of cheap, non-unionized labor in the Third World, or moving to the traditionally super-low-union Southern States of this country. This move of industry to the South and to rural areas in essence undermined the bargaining position of many unions (statistics from this paragraph derived from “Labor Unions in the United States” by Gerald Friedman of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst on EH.net).
The basic facts of capitalism remained intact throughout the recent information and computer age, didn’t it? Profits and the grotesquely and disproportionately engorged quantities of wealth conferred upon the few can after all only derive from one source, the employed working class, whose value of its labor-power (the amount necessary to keep it going day after day, support its family, pay for its specialized training, and raise a new generation of workers for the owners’ future exploitation) is always less than the value of goods. The latter value of goods after all contains both labor and non-labor values within it, for example the cost of nails, pens and window panes, with even these costs of parts of the production reflecting the generation of values from the application of labor from an earlier phase in the evolution of the good, for example the application of labor by other workers to the metals that produced the nails, by other workers still to the petrochemical processes that generated the plastic for the pens, and by other workers elsewhere from another place and time to the combining of sand and soda that wrought the glass for the panes.
Our employers will always find ways to cut corners, lay us off if necessary to exploit cheaper Third World workers if it can’t exploit our cheaper brethren and sisters in the rural parts of this country, and undermine our ability to organize to protect the conditions of our work and the maintenance of the cost of our labor-power to reflect at least its value.
In short, the stupendous increase in wealth disparity between those of us who work and those who hire us can only originate in one thing: the improved ability of those who hire us to squeeze more unpaid values from us, the international working class who has no interest in “supporting the troops” of our employers, in recognizing any sense of patriotic fervor for the national boundaries we happened to be born into by coincidence, or in voting this November for the continuation of an economic order that exists only to exploit us at any turn for as much as it can get from us. And exploiting us is all that foul system will continue to seek so long as we nine to fivers or midnight shifters remain a passive, non-organized, class of employees too embroiled in our day to day exploited existence to find a little time on the side into organizing for our liberation from it, no less than did the slaves on the plantations a century and a half ago.
Those of us who can no longer afford the mortgages on “our” homes or who are struggling like mad to pay them off; those of us who are getting poorer and poorer compared to those who own almost everything; those of us who spend our entire lives in a nightmare of economic insecurity (all of us), poverty (most of us), or starvation and war (a sizable few of us), have only one shared, common, interest, and that is to regain our class consciousness.
When that happens we will immediately become more assertive in the workplace about what we want from our employers while we remain their chattels. But we will also then begin to notice our common interests in our workplace, among all of us in all workplaces, and among all of us around the entire globe, to begin working for the only future that makes sense for us – the complete and utter abolition of the wages system!