One thing this crisis is demonstrating is that there are plenty of bad employers: the Guardian and Labour List both have lists of them. Another is that, as Sarah O’Connor says, “the people we need the most are often the ones we value the least.” As Paulo dos Santos says, society “grossly undervalues” care work and other jobs essential to fighting the pandemic.

Both these facts show the need for a Marxian perspective.

First, we must ask: why are care workers and others so underpaid? It is certainly not because they lack moral desert. Nor is it because they lack skills: caring demands immense “soft skills” such as patience, discipline and an ability to get on with people as well as physical ones. From a purely technical point of view – that is, one divorced from socio-economic factors – it would be cretinous to claim that a nurse is less skilled than the grifter opinion-mongers who pollute the media.

Instead, care workers are badly paid because they lack power. Some of this is the result of longstanding norms: work done by women and immigrants has long been stigmatized, devalued and regarded as “unskilled.” But another part of it is simply a lack of outside options and hence of bargaining power. As Paulo says:

Market wages and conditions reflect the precarious social positions and sometimes utter desperation of those who typically perform them.

The point, of course, broadens. As Rick said, “all pay is, ultimately, a function of power.” It is trivially true that labour is the source of value, as this lockdown is reminding us. But how that value is distributed depends upon power. Your “skills” are only one element in your power: parlaying these into a decent income is another matter.

Power also lies behind the fact of bad employees. Big firms have a degree of monopoly power: they wouldn’t be profitable if they did not. Good employers use this power to share rents with workers. Bad ones, however, use their monopsony power to jack up the rate of exploitation.

What should be done about this? Some leftists think we need to make a moral case for paying key workers more and that we need to shame bad employers into improving.

Moral exhortation, however, might work sometimes but it is not enough. We do not reduce burglary or murder merely by appealing to criminals’ better nature. We use force as well. Similarly, we won’t abolish poverty pay and bad working conditions merely by asking nicely.

We must instead realize, as Marxists do, that material conditions matter. As the late great Norman Geras wrote in his essay Marxism and Moral Advocacy, ethical analysis and advocacy:

Need to be done with some thought for the social and material conditions of attaining any given ideals, the means of and agencies for attaining them, [and] the social interests and movements that can conceivably be coupled with or become attached to the ideals and imperatives in question.  

It is easy to see how we might abolish the material conditions that give rise to inequality, bad employers and poverty wages. Macroeconomic policy must be aimed at ensuring over-full employment. We need strong trades unions and a high citizens basic income to empower workers to reject bad pay and conditions. And government (and local authority) procurement should be used to encourage coops. 

Most social democrats would agree with this. We Marxists, however, have two doubts.

The first concerns how to get there. How do we mobilize the social movements and interests that would deliver a government committed to these, and weaken those that would prevent such a thing? 

The second is that these policies are only stepping stones, part of what Erik Olin Wright called an interstitial transformation (pdf). They will lead to a squeeze on profits. When this happened in the 70s, it led to a backlash against social democracy and to Thatcherism. The challenge is to ensure that it leads instead to socialistic forms of ownership. Historically, social democrats have resiled from this challenge.

This crisis has increased the salience of inequality and injustice. But there’s a huge distance between an issue being salient and it actually being properly addressed. We have little hope of closing this distance without a Marxian perspective.

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