On May 15, 2014, a worldwide strike of McDonald’s workers involved workers in at least 33 countries, both imperialist and oppressed.
While participation in the strike varied, and most workers who participated were out for only an hour or so, this was a historic event all the same. It points the way forward to a far more internationalist future for the workers’ movement. To understand why this is so, we have to examine long-term underlying economic changes making the low-wage movement both possible and necessary.
This post is part of a series that explores the evolution of imperialism and the world capitalist economy in the century that began with the events of August 1914—the start of World War I. Let’s go back, not a full century but rather half a century, to the year 1964. This is the mid-way point between 1914 and the present day.
In 1964, the postwar, post-Depression “Long Boom” (strictly speaking, a series of industrial cycles with strong booms and relatively mild recessions) was underway. Indeed, to all appearances the “boom” was gaining momentum. In 1964, the U.S. and world capitalist economy entered a cyclical boom following a period of stagnation—a pause in the long postwar expansion—that occurred in the wake of the global economic recession of 1957-58.
Over the next couple of years, the Long Boom picked up steam as it was fueled—in addition to purely cyclical forces—by U.S. federal government deficits created by the escalation of the Vietnam War (called the American war by our good friends in Vietnam), further increased by a huge regressive tax cut signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, backed up by the Federal Reserve Board’s then expansionary policies.
This was the heyday of Keynesian economics, and even many Marxists were inclined to see the Long Boom as the new norm of capitalism thanks to the increasing intervention in the economy of the capitalist state. The Johnson administration boasted that the U.S. economy was so strong that the government could follow policies that would provide both “guns and butter.”
Despite these “good times,” it was becoming obvious, even to bourgeois economists, that due to the growth of automation in industrial production, the rate of growth of traditional factory jobs, though still rising in absolute terms in both the imperialist and oppressed capitalist countries, would absorb only a small part of the coming generations of young workers. This was especially true in the United States and Britain, where long-term economic growth was much lower than in Western Europe and Japan. Many social scientists and other observers expressed fears that a permanent crisis of mass unemployment was inevitable.
With few exceptions, however, professional economists insisted there was no danger of a crisis of permanent mass unemployment caused by automation. What was really happening, they claimed, and had been claiming since concerns about the long-term effects of automation on employment first arose in the 1950s, was a shift from an industrial economy where most jobs were “blue collar” jobs in factories, mining, construction, and agriculture to a “post-industrial” economy where most jobs would be white-collar salaried office jobs.
Computerization and the automation linked to it, the economists insisted, was actually creating more jobs than it was destroying. As the role of computers grew dramatically in coming years, economists assured us, huge numbers of highly skilled white-collar workers would be needed to write the software programs that would run on all those computers.
As a result, the traditional blue-collar working class would fade away over the next few decades to be replaced by the highly paid “middle-class” white-collar workforce. Since salaried white-collar workers have little interest in unions, unions were becoming obsolete and had little future. These unfolding developments—along with the “boom” that many viewed as permanent due to government policies inspired by the work of British economist John Maynard Keynes—represented the final refutation of Marx, the economists explained to their university students.
Instead of Marx’s predictions of a society increasingly polarized between a relatively few, extremely rich capitalists, on one hand, and a great mass of low-wage blue-collar workers, on the other, the “free enterprise system” was allegedly evolving toward a society that would be made up overwhelmingly of a high-salaried “middle class” without the extremes of wealth and poverty that had marked the early days of capitalism.