Feeling exploited? Its the system!

From 1961 until his death in 1999, Victor Perlo wrote the “People Before Profits” column in the People’s Weekly World. For Perlo, this column was an opportunity to apply Marxist thought to the economic issues of the day. He was successful in making the bewildering data and sometimes opaque theories of economics accessible to all of us. Thanks to Vic, political activists could march on to the field of battle armed with an understanding of the capitalist economy and its many injustices.

With the publication of the first volume of an anthology of Perlo’s columns, “People versus Profits, Volume 1: The Home Front,” readers can sample both the breadth and depth of his weekly commentary. When the collected columns are read by theme, one is struck by the consistency of approach, a consistency that springs from Perlo’s unflinching commitment to the Marxist-Leninist method.

Where liberal and progressive economists rightly are alarmed by growing inequality and rising poverty, they write as though these are the result of ill-conceived policies or feverish greed. In contrast Perlo patiently and clearly explains how these are the normal and expected harvest of a system grounded in the exploitation of labor.

In a column published nearly 40 years ago (9/5/1965), Vic uses official government statistics to explain how workers produce the wealth of our society while they accrue half or less of the fruits of that labor. In easy-to-understand terms, Perlo shows how these figures can be used to demonstrate a growing rate of exploitation in the U.S. economy. Thus, even as some aspects of U.S. workers’ standard of living were improving – as it was then, though not today – capitalists were taking a greater share of the products of that labor!

The same point is made with a touch of humor in a column published in 1976. Perlo cites a New York Times ad, sponsored by the state of New Jersey, that shamefully lures businessmen to invest there based upon the state’s average high rate of exploitation. “Value added per dollar of wages is a hefty $3.76 vs. a national average of $3.36. That’s the only measure of labor cost that matters,” they proclaim.

As Vic points out, “Well, now the governors of leading states use the idea of surplus value in order to get capitalists into their respective bailiwicks. Contradicting the main propaganda line of their class, they boast of how much ‘their’ workers are exploited.”

In another column written over twenty years ago, Vic links the decline of U.S. workers’ wages to the “international runaway shop” and a lack of labor militancy. Where many globalization theorists believe that “outsourcing” is a new evil, Perlo shows that this process has always been a feature of capitalism. He cites British economist J.A. Hobson in 1902 describing the migration of manufacturing jobs to the poorer reaches of the world!

The predictive powers of Marxism are shown by Perlo’s words: “…you get the picture of where U.S. imperialism is moving, to the applause of the capitalists who are luxuriating on the huge profits from foreign investments and domestic racism. … Add a monstrously expanded arms industry, adding a fraction of the industrial workers displaced by the runaway shop. And add mass unemployment.”

This makes a pretty accurate snapshot of where the U.S. is some twenty years later. Clearly, Perlo did not believe that this process was either the result of an economic accident or a flawed policy decision. Instead, he correctly identified this development as the continuation of a fundamental tendency within the capitalist economy, a trend identified by Lenin.

“Lenin… made clear that this parasitic process would never be completed – the revolutionary struggles of the workers and oppressed peoples would end the system of imperialism first,” Perlo affirmed.

For those looking for a fresh drink of applied Marxism, we enthusiastically recommend this collection.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org.