Wages Versus Progress

by Rob Horning

10 January 2012


In what is ostensibly a news article on the Wall Street Journal front page today (“Revitalized Detroit Makes Bold Bets on New Models”) this sentence jumped out at me as being a clear example of ideology in action:

Instead of having to spend a lot on labor costs and retiree benefits, they are pouring money into engineering and designing cars that can go head-to-head with the best in the industry.

This proposition is not so much a fact as a story about how auto companies compete and innovate; it represents as factual the either-or choice that management supposedly faces: either the companies pay these (obviously extortionate) labor costs—never mind that they are the result of contract negotiations—or they contribute to technological progress that benefits us all. When money is capital—allegedly reinvested in the company rather than distributed to shareholders—it works magic; when money is wages, it forces society to stagnate. It doesn’t say, feed families or obviate want or improve lives and opportunities for wage earners. The idea that fair wages should be a normal part of the calculation for capitalist enterprise is written out of the equation, instead represented as an anomaly, an ingratitude, a covert economic crime being perpetrated by labor in their covetousness and greed. The companies aren’t greedy, nor are their shareholders; they just want to make new, cool cars. But labor, as ever, wants to spoil the party. Of course the idea that investment in labor could also lead to innovation is out of the question. It’s a zero-sum situation.

The degree to which that sentence is true—and I think you can find many like it even if you limited yourself to the rest of the WSJ—is also the degree to which capitalism is riven with contradiction. Labor is fundamental to transforming capital into profit, wages for the efficient circulation of commodities. You can’t do without labor, yet capitalist ideology also relies on an unremitting rhetoric of labor’s parasitism on capital, hampering entrepreneurs and the imagination and creation of new and better products. It seems unsustainable to drive for the elimination of labor costs and the expansion of markets for commodities. It seems impossible to produce value without workers. But articles like these work to make it equally impossible to imagine an alternative way to organize production so that honoring labor’s right to bargain and receive higher wages is not seen as fundamentally incompatible with the possibility of innovation and competitiveness. Creative destruction may wreak havoc on some firms but it relegates all workers to a kind of economic afterthought, an obstacle on the playing field of entrepreneurs.


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