The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 72/No. 12      March 24, 2008

Social Security and fight for working-class unity
(Books of the Month column)
Below is an excerpt from Capitalism’s World Disorder. The Spanish-language edition of the book, El desorden mundial del capitalismo, is one of Pathfinder’s Books of the Month for March. The excerpt below is from a talk reprinted in the book that was given by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes, at regional socialist educational conferences in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Des Moines, Iowa, in 1999. Copyright © 2000 by Pathfinder Press. Reprinted by permission.

As workers today face fewer possibilities of getting jobs and holding them, the capitalists’ attacks on social welfare programs take a bigger toll. If workers have unemployment benefits, if we have workers’ compensation, if we have supplemental unemployment benefits, and we get laid off after working for three or four years someplace, we don’t go out to look for a job the next morning. We don’t want to. We don’t have to.

But the more workers’ comp is eroded, the less often unemployment benefits get extended, the smaller those benefits are as a percentage of a living wage, the larger the proportion of medical bills workers and our families must cover without government programs—the less confident we are. The more likely we are to rush right back out, begin looking for work, and take a job for one, two, three, four dollars an hour less. This is not an unusual experience for many people in this room.

The so-called culture war is at the heart of this assault. Its aim is decisive to the right, and ultimately to the class dominance of the entire bourgeoisie: to single out the layers of the working class who suffer most from this assault and blame them for the social crisis of capitalism. Point to them as an infection in the social order. Go after human solidarity. Go after everything we have won as a class. And by doing so, drive down the wages and conditions of the class as a whole. That is what the employers and their politicians in both parties aim to do.

The rulers try to convince people, for instance, that the conditions faced by the elderly are not the problem of the middle-aged or the young. The capitalist does not care about the first thirteen years of workers’ lives; then he cares about our ability to work hard for the next fifty years; then he hopes we die quickly. That coarse attitude is what the rulers try to get layers of the working population to accept as well.

The most revealing explanations of what the bipartisan assault on Social Security is all about are those made by some of the more boldly forthright statisticians and economists. They say: when we passed Social Security legislation in the mid-1930s, when we conceded to the rising industrial union movement there was a need for it, we never expected to have to pay out most of it, because average life expectancy in the United States was lower than the retirement age of sixty five. (Yes, lower, by about five years on average, much lower than that for workers, and more than ten years lower for Blacks.) But now workers live some ten years longer than retirement age, on average. So our lifespan has become a big problem for the rulers. Why won’t you people face this? the “experts” ask.

Read their economic articles; read their debates and arguments about the Social Security fund. This is the capitalists’ complaint. To them, Social Security was a concession. It might ameliorate some problems that could otherwise become destabilizing, but they never intended for workers to live off it for very long. The insurance specialists, the actuaries had it all figured out: Look at the averages, they said; few will get much of anything for more than a year or two. We can handle that; don’t worry.

Workers had a different view. For us, Social Security was the beginning of the attempt to moderate the dog-eat-dog competition imposed on the working class under capitalism. Social Security was an initial step by our class—by those who produce wealth—toward conquering the social organization of conditions necessary for life, such as education and health care, for a lifetime. Workers think of each other in terms of a lifetime. We cannot think of each other the way capitalists think of us. We cannot make ourselves think of other human beings as though they do not exist up to the age of thirteen or after the age of sixty-five. That is not how workers function. We have a different class view, a different moral view of society. Elementary human solidarity is in our interests, not in conflict with them.

For the working class, there is no real Social Security that does not cover the entire lifetime of a worker. For the working class, there is no real education that is not lifetime education.

That is what the battle for Social Security was and remains. It was never just about pensions. What we won in 1935, with all its inadequacies, nonetheless encompassed the first federal-guaranteed universal unemployment benefits and the first guaranteed disability compensation. It established the Aid to Families with Dependent Children program that politicians in both parties are talking today about dumping. Out of the Black rights battles of the 1950s and early 1960s, the working class won the extension of Social Security to include health benefits like Medicare for the elderly and Medicaid for workers with very low incomes.

To the political vanguard of the working class, Social Security has always been about the battle to bring all welfare payments, all medical claims, all supplemental payments for education and child care into a comprehensive, nationwide, government-guaranteed entitlement. That is why the term “the social wage” is a useful one. We are talking about something that goes beyond the wage any individual worker receives from an employer. We are talking about something that the working class and labor movement fight to establish as social rights for all.  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home