Our fight is with capitalists, not with higher-paid workers
A man rests on a pile of dirt after digging ditches in Lima, Peru, in June 2014. Who will dig the ditches in utopia? And how much will we pay them? | Rodrigo Abd / AP

This submission was received as a response to the article Is Black Lives Matter a tipping point on class inequality?, by Tim Libretti, which appeared in People’s World on Aug. 4, 2020. It also engages with the long-running topic of meritocracy which has appeared in previous articles by Libretti.

Author Tim Libretti once again, for the umpteenth time, and using Black Lives Matter as click-bait, makes his thoroughly un-Marxist anti-meritocracy claim that we should be fighting for equal wages for all, that the work of every worker has the same value. This theory is absurd and goes totally against the grain of Karl Marx’s work.

As I have argued, ad nauseum, before, the whole point of Marx’s analysis is to end the exploitation of workers by the capitalists. It is the capitalists, who do no work, that gain the lion’s share of what society produces.

Instead, Libretti focuses his fire on the wrong enemy: those workers who make significantly higher salaries and wages. These people are workers, too, and are natural allies against the capitalists. Why worry about well-off workers when it’s the capitalists who are grabbing huge portions of the wealth that is produced by the very workers Libretti wants to help?

Libretti now argues that the capitalist market does not, in reality, determine wages and salaries. He claims in his latest piece that “[g]ains in benefits and pay and improvements in working conditions have historically been the result of the collective organizing and protest of workers.” I agree. But all that IS part of the market. All actions that take place in a society are part of the market calculus.

When a government imposes taxes, many people change their behavior to take those taxes into account. When a famous actor wears a particular brand of clothes, many consumers, particularly that actor’s fans, go out and buy that same brand of clothes, creating more demand for that brand and driving up its price. All aspects of life are part of the market. Workers organizing and acting collectively is a part of the market. Their success, or lack thereof, will often determine not only their own wages and benefits, but those of millions of other Americans.

In fact, what the worker needs to survive and reproduce is the ultimate calculus of his wages according to Marx. Exactly what goods and services the worker needs is a social determination of the entire country. The capitalists will attempt to reduce that value as much as possible in order to make more money. The workers will attempt to increase that value as much as possible in order to gain a greater share of the wealth they themselves produce for society. This is the market in action.

But, for a moment, let’s forget about the fact that Libretti’s un-Marxist theory distracts us from the struggle for socialism. Let’s look at the implications of his ideas. I like to play the piano. Now if we achieve socialism, and everyone gets the same pay, I can just become a pianist and play the piano for anyone who wants me to, and receive my equal pay. I get to decide my job, right? There’s no merit involved. It doesn’t matter that I play the piano quite poorly, that in bourgeois society I could never have made a living with my piano skills, right? Now who will we get to dig those ditches that need to be dug? I’m sure that almost every ditch digger would prefer to play the piano, or perhaps paint landscapes professionally, or whatever makes them happy. How do we get people to dig ditches?

We would have to pay them more in order to attract them back to the things that society needs, in this case, ditches. So, even in Libretti’s socialist utopia, we end up having pay inequality. Society now needs ditch diggers (because they all changed to other professions), increasing the demand for their skills, increasing their pay. Unless, of course, Libretti envisions doing all this by force. We could force the wiseacre college professors like Libretti and me to now dig ditches.

I have no problem with any worker who earns large amounts of money. As much as I dislike his music, I will never complain about Justin Bieber’s income. That man earned his millions. Just because I disagree with the musical tastes of the millions of Beliebers out there, does not for a second mean that he did not earn his money. Bieber earns that money because he convinced those millions of fans, somehow, to like and buy his music.

Who should we complain about? Those capitalist that also earned millions of dollars from Bieber’s talents without ever having to sing, play, or write a single note of music. The capitalist, who makes money by doing nothing, is the problem, not the artist, even if we don’t like them.

This is what disturbs me about Libretti’s thesis. Marx says clearly that the problem with capitalist society is the exploitation of labor by the capitalist. He never talks about the exploitation of the low-paid worker by the high paid worker. He doesn’t talk about it, because it doesn’t exist. It’s only the capitalists that are exploiting us. The capitalist should be the focus of our ire, not the well-off worker.

Libretti needs to read Marx’s writings: The Manifesto of the Communist Party; Wage-Labor and Capital; Value, Price, and Profit; and Capital. His constant attack on meritocracy is taking our eye off the ball. The fight is with capitalist exploitation, not meritocracy.

As with all People’s World opinion articles, the views expressed here are those of the author.


Laurent Ross
Laurent Ross

Laurent Ross is a professor of philosophy and mathematics at the Technological University of Santiago in the Dominican Republic.