Is the “Labor Question” Dead?

The “labor question” was once the principal question confronting American society, the axis upon which other maladies turned. We don’t think about social problems according to the labor question today — but perhaps we should.

President Woodrow Wilson, 1910. (Library of Congress / Corbis / VCG via Getty Images)

A century ago, most people living in the United States and throughout the Western world would have agreed with President Woodrow Wilson who cabled Congress in 1919 from the peace conference in Versailles that, “The question which stands at the front of all others amidst the present great awakening is the question of labor.” At least, they would have understood what the president was driving at.

Today, however, few would see things that way. The very locution “the labor question” has an antique ring about it.

What was once called the “labor question” is now treated as a matter of economic metrics; the concern is with employment, productivity, the labor market, economic growth, industrial relations, and the policies that might affect them. Troubled by human relations departments, studied as a subfield in MBA programs, dickered over by bellicose managements and deeply defensive trade union bureaucrats, shoehorned into public policy proposals about rebuilding the infrastructure, the “labor question” stays in its own lane, one issue among many, no longer a primal challenge to the way things are.

Yet the labor question, at the peak of its public discussion, was never merely about the strength or weakness of collective bargaining, the oscillations of the labor market, or the welfare state, however much those matters preoccupied the labor movement and the political class. Fought over tenaciously, those struggles nonetheless assumed capitalism, took it for granted.

Rather the labor question, when it “stood at the front of all others,” was both about life under capitalism and a life after capitalism. That is what worried Wilson.

There might be ways to address the profound discontents with the existing capitalist order of things which the labor question captured so incisively without actually undoing that way of life. But evidence had been accumulating for a half century that there might not be.

The Long Goodbye

Wilson was driven to issue his presidential warning about the labor question because organizations of working-class people — trade unions and syndicalist movements as well as labor and socialist parties especially — had multiplied and become more and more demanding and muscular, not only in Europe but even in the United States. They were calling into question the distribution of wealth and power, raising profound doubts about the viability of capitalism and the future of democracy. Confrontations between classes were frequent, and, especially in the United States, frequently bloody.

Little of that pervasive combat remains today. Seventy-five years ago, the eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills forecast the death of what he called “the labor metaphysic” by which he meant the conviction that the labor movement carried within it a transcendent mission to overcome capitalism’s inhumanity. He turned out to be right. Indeed, even the memory of such days is practically gone.

A remnant American trade union movement has been hemorrhaging members for decades. Its presence in public life is there, especially in recent months, but still hard to detect. Some blame the precipitous decline of trade unions for the hollowing out of the middle class. But even this claim is touched by irony.

After all, the labor question, in its most portentous formulation, promised or at least threatened to abolish classes, rather than create or strengthen new ones. Outside Democratic Socialists of America meetings and the pages of magazines like this one, few still consider the labor movement the indispensable engine of social transformation. In its absence, the labor question has faded from view, is rarely posed the way it once was.

Some will rightly point to recent instances of worker resistance at places as varied as Amazon warehouses, Starbucks coffee shops, social and print media ateliers, hospitals, museums, coal mines, and tractor plants. Some of these confrontations have circumvented “normal” trade union channels and have occurred outside of or even in spite of existing more bureaucratized modes of collective bargaining. Isn’t this evidence that the labor question is resurfacing?

It might be. Conflicts over the terms of employment — hours, wages, working conditions — were always the subsoil out of which grew more probing inquiries about the social order. A willingness to bypass legal and bureaucratic channels in order to redress grievances “in the streets” suggests a rise in the moral temperature — an impatience, a readiness for action after a long period of quiescence.

When it “stood at the front of all others,” however, the ‘labor question’ enjoyed that unique status because it provoked apocalyptic fears in some quarters and apocalyptic expectations among the lowly.  It raised profound doubts about what used to be called “the wages system” itself, about whether it could or should continue. Capitalism was in the dock not only as a way of organizing economic life, but as a distinct type of society that laid its heavy hands on everything.

Question Everything

Nothing escaped the critical gaze of the labor question.

American society purported to be the birthplace of freedom. But if most people depended on a few to earn the wherewithal to survive, where did that leave freedom in a society supposedly consecrated to liberty?

Hierarchies of ascription were banned in the New World, but the labor question pointed to new forms of domination and inequality, concealed inside the black box of the factory, mine, and mill. If the subordination of women rested on the prerogatives of patriarchy and private property, the labor question suggested real gender equality and sexual emancipation could only begin when capitalism ended.

Equality, inscribed in the nation’s founding documents, would remain stillborn — a condition of formal equality before the law without disturbing the inequality inherent in the process of capitalist accumulation.

Democracy, alleged to have been reborn in the New World, would, like equality, grow ever more anemic; political power gravitated inexorably to the wealthy, so the labor question insisted.

Mechanization, a marvel of human ingenuity at which the American genius was supposed to excel, promised to liberate workers. But capitalism instead made workers slaves of the machine, more and more machine-like themselves. Work as creation and mastery went missing.

Racial subordination was the watchword of the original version of the labor question: Would labor be bound or free? Yet despite emancipation from slavery, capitalism continued to count on racial animosities and repression to blunt the sting of the labor question.

War in the modern world resulted from competition between national capitalisms, all hungry for markets, resources, and pools of immiserated workers. Imperialism and its bloodbaths would end only when capitalism did, and with it the toxic delusion of national self-interest. That was the foreign policy of the labor question.

Savagery or civilization? The labor question posed that stark choice. It was to be sure an economic choice, certainly a political one, and above all a moral one.

Only at rare moments did the labor question in this either/or form stir the public imagination. Other explanations or rationales for war or inequality or racial hierarchy or the subjugation of women commanded attention and were even preferred as less apt to invite social conflict. Nor did even its most orthodox advocates suggest that the labor question established an invariant, isomorphic, and exclusive relationship between capitalism, the class struggle it engendered, and the social ills of modern society.

Nonetheless, the question persisted for a long time. How could it not?

After all, a society once mainly rural, made up of freeholders and artisans and slaves, undergoing wholesale transformation, industrializing, increasingly urban, turning into a society of propertyless wage earners, tenant farmers, and contract and convict laborers, growing ever more unequal in its distribution of wealth and income and power, was bound to wrestle with what was happening.

Answers to the labor question went off in different directions, some less incendiary. No society could hold itself together for too long living perpetually on the moral brink.

Dodging the Question

Arising out of the discontents of everyday life, the labor question is not self-evidently a transcendent one. More often than not, it confines its inquiries to the familiar terrain of the labor market, how fair that market is or isn’t, how it might be made more just and equal without disturbing the basic foundations of the way things are. The labor question thus carved out channels of accommodation, temperate zones where the heat of the labor question cooled, its moral dilemmas rendered less apocalyptic.

Freedom and integrity could, for instance, be transplanted and preserved institutionally through trade unions whose leverage made “free labor” promises of contractual equality more plausible; where the harshness of subordination might be softened.

Meliorative instincts surfaced elsewhere. President Abraham Lincoln voiced a widely held belief that wage labor would be a temporary condition, a staging ground for a mature life as an independent farmer or businessman. Arguments were made and are still made that labor and capital share a common purpose. Periodically, schemes for bridging the gap between the propertyless wageworker and owners of capital cropped up.

Even today, proposals circulate calling for equity sharing to erect an “ownership” society. During the formative years of industrialization, when industrial craftsmen sensed the ground giving way, facing the abyss of de-skilled proletarian labor, they staked a claim to ownership not of capital but of the job itself. What have sometimes been characterized as today’s high-tech “creative workers” have adopted similar attitudes about their work even in the teeth of a less independent, less self-fulfilling reality.

Whether pursued to revolutionary conclusions or not, the labor question was a political preoccupation for well over a century. The four transformative moments in American political history — the Revolution, the Civil War, the Populist revolt, and the New Deal — wrestled with and were driven by different versions of the labor question.

For the Civil War, that is self-evident. The American Revolution kept its hands off slavery, but opened the door to an egalitarianism based on the propertied labor of the smallholder (farmer, artisan, or tradesperson) which would assure his independence and self-mastery. The defeat of the Populist Party killed the dream of a cooperative commonwealth as an alternative to capitalism. Without the insurgency of millions of industrial workers, the New Deal and the welfare state it erected are unimaginable. The Republican Party, the Populist Party, and the modern Democratic Party originated with the labor question.

If the labor question no longer carries that charge, what might be called the “equality question” does. This is due, in part, to the relentless increase in economic inequality in recent times. No doubt there is a kinship between the equality question and the labor question. Echoes of the class struggle — the proper name of President Wilson’s labor question when it was most inflamed — are plainly heard in face-offs between the 99 percent and the 1 percent.

However, the labor question was, and still is, about exploitation; the equality question is about how the product of exploitation is distributed. From the standpoint of bourgeois society, equality may be desirable or antithetical. Equal opportunity is more than acceptable; it is practically a sacred, originating national commitment no matter how often violated.

With respect to equality of opportunity, the labor question need not arise (although it may and has). Equality of opportunity is rooted in the culture’s emphasis on the individual. Whole groups may be denied equal access to opportunity. Once won, however, the right attaches to the individual who is then free to engage in the “race to the top” (for want of more elegant phrasing).

When it comes to the labor question, however, the class dimensions of inequality are more likely to come up. Not even the most thoroughgoing regime of equality of opportunity can disturb the inequality embedded in the class relations of capitalist production.

Equality of condition is a different matter. Here one form of inequality may bleed into another, and mount a more direct challenge to the prevailing order.

Take the 99 percent and the 1 percent. On the one hand, that is not the traditional way the labor question has been formulated. After all, the embrace of the 99 percent is so capacious, well beyond any reasonable definition of the working classes. And by definition, its focus is on the inequality of distribution, not the inequalities, dependencies, and exploitative relationships built into the system of production. Work is on the sidelines, if present at all.

Still, the stark arithmetic of 1 vs. 99 does measure social inequality and can’t be remedied by an appeal to equality of opportunity for individuals. At the very least, it hints at a systematic malfunction (although polemics resort frequently to moral judgments about greed to explain what’s wrong).

Whether implicitly or more forthrightly, the 1 percent versus the 99 percent threatens to cross the line from a form of equality that fits neatly within the comfort zone of contemporary capitalist aspirations onto forbidden terrain. In an age that has otherwise erased the labor question from public consciousness, this new rendition, however categorically different from its predecessors, is perhaps suited to our peculiar moment. It addresses the searing disappointment that mass consumption capitalism has become when it can no longer deliver the goods.

Neoliberal capitalism, or what might be more aptly characterized as an economy increasingly dependent on speculative asset bubbles, is an organized parasitism. It breeds inequality of condition even as it eliminates many previously existing ascriptive barriers to equality of opportunity.

The Labor Question Abides

The rentier economy we live under chronically inflames social tensions not only at the site of production, but at sites of capital circulation as well. That is especially the case with debts, taxes, and prices. Of course, those “off-site” conflicts have always been part of the social dynamics of capitalism. Systems of debt and credit were around before capitalism arose in its modern form, functioning as the nucleotides of capitalism’s DNA.

In the past, resistance in these arenas of circulation were self-consciously tied to the labor question. They were during the Populist era when the “money question” went hand in hand with the labor question. It flared up again in consumer boycotts often mobilized on behalf of striking workers. The anti-monopoly movement of the nineteenth century combined unions, small businesses, and consumers. So, too, demands for publicly owned municipal services were as much about addressing the labor question as they were about price gouging by private utilities.

Today, that linkage is less apparent or missing entirely. While hardly surprising, it raises the question of whether the labor question has passed its sell-by date.

Perhaps not. Outbursts of militant resistance appear with greater and greater frequency. With the evisceration of the industrial economy (at home, that is), much of the newest working-class rebellion arises on the front lines of mass consumption capitalism, at retail outlets, at nodes of distributive logistics, among health care workers, in the workshops of intellectual laborers.

Relentless pressure on work routines, the withering away of what is left of the private sector’s safety net and fringe benefits, the loss of any protections — legal or institutional — against employer dictates, the free fall into precarious employment in the gig economy, the 24-7 regimen imposed on the wired worker, and the taken-for-granted servility expected of workers in and outside of the service economy incite strikes, unionization efforts, and lawsuits. It has contributed to a broader atmosphere of distrust. Portraying the corporation as up to no good, as the fount of venial behavior regarding its own employees (and others sucked under in its wake) has become a cinematic cliché. The question abides.

Life After Capitalism?

Once the labor question interrogated the whole social universe. It challenged everything about what was then a new world order. It touched metaphysical bedrock, including how to think of the self — “He who sells labor sells himself,” labor reformer and leader of the Knights of Labor George McNeill once declared. What did autonomy and freedom consist of? Was the individual real or an addictive fiction, one de-individuated on the production line and through the seductions of consumer culture? Even the meaning of time was up for debate, so the labor question insisted. After all, what was the proletarian but a merchant of time?

As a metaphysical promise of redemption, the labor question was declared dead seventy-five years ago. If so, its death comes at a heavy price. Our ways of talking about, criticizing, and confronting capitalism and its maledictions — war, oligarchy, racism, inequality, not to mention the pervasive violence, manipulations, self-delusions, self-seeking, and self-loss of everyday life — are fatally stunted as a result: a purge of our vocabulary and with it the capacity to see beyond the present.

The labor question reminds us that the problem is capitalism. News of that question’s demise may be premature.