Thursday, February 2, 2012

War on the social wage

Below is an excerpt from "Their Transformation and Ours," the Socialist Workers Party Resolution from 2005. The article is included in New International no. 12 along with "Capitalism's Long Hot Winter Has Begun" by Jack Barnes. Readers of the Militant will find this material useful in countering the arguments of the bipartisan campaign against Social Security and other aspects of workers' social wage. Copyright © 2005 by New International. Reprinted by permission.

Only in face of a social crisis triggered by depression and war has finance capital in the United States been able to mobilize the kind of patriotic appeals for "national unity" and "equality of sacrifice" that can convince broad sections of the population, at least for a time, to accept sweeping cuts in their living standards. It will take such circumstances once again for the rulers to mobilize, on a national political plane, a campaign that attempts to roll back wages and conditions further and to substantially reduce the social wage. Tens of millions in the working class and middle layers have come over decades to consider Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, workers' compensation, and other benefits to be rights. Most depend on these benefits for survival after retirement, or after an injury or illness that has left them unable to work.

The progress thus far by individual employers in increasing the rate of exploitation through assaults on wages, hours, and conditions falls far short of what the capitalists must accomplish. The ruling class needs to slash payouts for Social Security pensions and other components of the social wage. It must shift more of the costs of education, public transportation, care of the young and old, and other government-funded services onto individuals and their families, making them more dependent on the church and charities.

Above all, the rulers must radically lower expectations bred over the last three decades by gains wrested from their hands during the 1960s and early 1970s that transformed Social Security into a modest but real inflation-protected pension to live on and medical coverage to fall back on.

When Social Security pensions were first won by workers in the course of labor battles in the mid-1930s, the monthly payments were at best a small supplement to individual family support and church and county charity. Average life expectancy in the United States at that time was six years below the retirement eligibility age set at 65. From the mid-1960s through the early 1970s, as a by-product of the mass proletarian struggle for Black rights, Social Security was significantly extended and strengthened. Benefits were indexed to inflation for the first time; Medicare was established for all those receiving Social Security; and Medicaid became available for those below a certain income level, and for many with physical disabilities, regardless of age.

Today life expectancy is twelve years—and rising—above the age at which most people become eligible for full Social Security benefits. The bosses are scrambling to devise ways to reappropriate more and more of even this small portion of the wealth workers create through our labor—a portion the capitalists, contrary to the assurances of the reformists, never intended to be settled for all time. Over several decades, however, as both jobs and increases in real cash money earnings have become more insecure, millions have come to believe they need a retirement income and emergency medical protection that are less vulnerable to risk, not more so. Thus, despite its need to slash these entitlements, the capitalist class recoils from the kind of social and political fight they know they'll be picking if they attempt anything more than takeback "reforms" around the edges.

In 1996 the Clinton administration took the initial slice out of the social wage, out of these "rights" of the working class, leading Congress to end federally funded Aid to Families with Dependent Children, which had been established as part of Social Security in 1935—the end of "welfare as we know it," in Clinton's cold and contemptuous phrase.

For more than a quarter century, both Republican and Democratic party politicians have escalated demagogic cries that Social Security is "going broke," implying that blame falls on growing numbers of "greedy geezers" who save too little, retire too early, and live too long. As far back as 1983, Democratic and Republican politicians joined together to raise the Social Security eligibility age, currently heading to 67, and hike the payroll tax—the most regressive and anti-working-class of all federal, state, or local taxes, aside from lotteries. What's more, despite the myth that these payroll tax funds are "put aside," are isolated from the flow of general tax revenues, they are in fact used by Washington year in and year out to fight its wars and prop up the dollar, one of the unspoken consequences of which is to subsidize massively inflated bourgeois consumption.

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