How the global economy divides the world's workers

January 06, 1994|By Jonathan Schell

THE EXPANDING global market, the author writes, "has drawn from under the feet of industry the national ground on which it stood. All long-established national industries have been destroyed or are daily being destroyed.

"They are dislodged by new industries, whose introduction becomes a life-and-death question for all civilized nations, by industries that no longer work up indigenous raw material but raw material drawn from the remotest zones; industries whose products are consumed, not only at home, but in every quarter of the globe. In place of the old local and national seclusion of nations, we have intercourse in every direction, universal interdependence of nations. The intellectual creations of individual nations become common property."

The author of this up-to-the-minute passage is not Alvin Toffler or George Gilder or some other starry-eyed contemporary panegyrist of the Information Age. He is Karl Marx, author, with Friedrich Engels, of, among other things, "The Communist Manifesto," of 1848, from which this is quoted.

Marx's appreciation of the accomplishments of capitalism was probably unparalleled in his generation. Certainly, it equaled that of the system's greatest enthusiasts. In his scheme, capitalism, though barbarous, was a necessary stage in human evolution. Nevertheless, he believed and fervently hoped, of course, that it would soon be felled by the very productive forces it had created.

As things have turned out, not only did capitalism survive but it outlasted the great totalitarian systems that were founded in Marx's name: the Soviet Union, which has gone to pieces, and China, which, in a procedure unforeseen by either communist or capitalist, appears to be trying to graft capitalism onto communism.

The collapse of those systems brings us full circle, with the great difference that the market system, fueled by the awe-inspiring development of science over almost a century-and-a-half, is more productive, more pervasive and more powerful by several orders of magnitude than it was in Marx's time.

In one of his less prescient moments, Marx wrote, "The working men have no country" -- an assertion laid to rest by the outbreak of patriotic enthusiasm throughout Europe at the onset of World War I. His belief was the foundation for his famous exhortation, "Workers of the world, unite!"

In spite of that, he knew that the unity of workers had at least to begin within nations. Certainly, in the decades that followed, the slow but steady gains achieved by trade unions were in fact won on a national basis. These gains were part and parcel of the amelioration of the lives of ordinary people that growing prosperity itself and the establishment of the welfare state made possible.

Today, the gains of the welfare state are threatened by new pressures brought to bear by the global economy. Employers, able as never before to ship not just their products but their factories to other countries, are quitting nations where wages and benefits are high and moving to nations where they are low. Three events suggest the outlines of what is going on.

The first is the split between American trade unions, most of which opposed the North American Free Trade Agreement, and Mexican trade unions, most of which favor it. It's easy to understand why: The Mexican workers are hoping to get the jobs that the Americans will lose.

The second is the widening gap in the United States and other prosperous countries between the wages of those with a college education and those without one. The third is the pressure in Congress to cut social spending.

In these events, the fault lines of new global class divisions are visible. At the top are those -- variously called "information managers," "symbolic analysts" or, simply, yuppies -- who, because of their education and other privileges, are in high demand in the global economy.

Next come working people in the affluent countries, who are of modest means compared to yuppies, but prosperous compared to workers in poor countries. Third come these poor workers, many of whom, like the majority of Mexicans, stand to gain by getting better-paying jobs. (Lower still are those who seem simply to be left out of the global economy, and may have no jobs at all.)

As things are going now, the first class and the third class stand to benefit at the expense of the second, which seeks in vain for support either from their prospering bosses, who instead ask them to sacrifice in the name of global competition, or for demonstrations of solidarity from the workers of poorer countries, who welcome the arrival of new jobs. The workers of the world, divided against each other by the pressures of the new global economy, have yet to find the path to unity.

Jonathan Schell is a columnist for Newsday.

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