Capitalists love to tell us how all boats will rise when the rich get richer. If folks just studied more and worked harder, salaries would rise and all would prosper, workers and capitalists alike.
No doubt there are times when this has happened. But even in the best of times, the wealth created by capitalism flows disproportionately to the already wealthy. In other times—say, our times—real wage growth for the vast majority of the population simply stagnates or regresses relative to the gains of the wealthy.
Oh, but wait, we are told. New technology, new machinery, new and better ways of educating will break this pattern. It’s merely bad times. The times will get better. A modern elixir is at hand. Imbibe and ye will prosper. Indeed, we will all get rich and live happily ever after in, drum roll please: Silicon Valley.
How long has this song of wage growth been sung? A lot longer than many of us realize. Over 165 years ago, in a short pamphlet, “Wage, Labour and Capital (1849),” the guy we have been told got so much wrong, old Uncle Karl himself, nailed bogus claims about how wages will definitely improve for workers once they became more attuned to modern technologies, which he called machinery, and we call high tech (and machinery).
Here are Marx’s words. The question that should be asked: if this was so clear more than a 165 years ago, why haven’t we faced the systemic problems inherent in capitalism and continue to believe in fairy tales, in the knight of modern machinery, which will permanently slay the hydra of stagnant wages and extreme inequality? (Heeding Marx’s words here doesn’t require that we follow his prognostications. Needless to say, one can be an insightful critic without being a reliable prophet.)
But even if we assume that all who are directly forced out of employment by machinery, as well as all of the rising generation who were waiting for a chance of employment in the same branch of industry, do actually find some new employment – are we to believe that this new employment will pay as high wages as did the one they have lost? If it did, it would be in contradiction to the laws of political economy. We have seen how modern industry always tends to the substitution of the simpler and more subordinate employments for the higher and more complex ones. How, then, could a mass of workers thrown out of one branch of industry by machinery find refuge in another branch, unless they were to be paid more poorly?
An exception to the law has been adduced, namely, the workers who are employed in the manufacture of machinery itself. As soon as there is in industry a greater demand for and a greater consumption of machinery, it is said that the number of machines must necessarily increase; consequently, also, the manufacture of machines; consequently, also, the employment of workers in machine manufacture; and the workers employed in this branch of industry are skilled, even educated, workers.
Since the year 1840 this assertion, which even before that date was only half-true, has lost all semblance of truth; for the most diverse machines are now applied to the manufacture of the machines themselves on quite as extensive a scale as in the manufacture of cotton yarn, and the labourers employed in machine factories can but play the role of very stupid machines alongside of the highly ingenious machines.