Bernie Sanders’ economics: (the social reproduction of) wages

Asked about his campaign for the US presidency in a recent interview, Sanders replied: “we’ve got to work in two ways.” It was, he explained, important “to take on Trump’s attacks against the environment, against women, against Latinos and blacks and people in the gay community, we’ve got to fight back every day on those issues. But,” he added, “equally important, or more important, we have got to focus on bread-and-butter issues that mean so much to ordinary Americans.”

For many, the unmistakable “but … more important” will be treated as another instance in a long-running skirmish over whether class or ‘identity politics’ are more important. There are of course those for whom that distinction makes sense, on both sides of these debates, including Sanders. My own position however is that if that dichotomy and hierarchy make sense, this is because the understanding of economics and class it presupposes is bunk.


So here is a question that I would put instead: what would it mean to approach “bread-and-butter issues”—social incomes, the structure and levels of wage contracts, and so on—without addressing racism, sexism, homophobia, or environmental issues? That is an enormous question, but I think an important one for those who insist on defining economic issues as if issues of race, gender and sexuality (and I would add, citizenship) were secondary and/or neutral with respect to the organization of economic exploitation.

But one way of answering the above question (as briefly as possible) would be to look at Sanders’ own handing of “bread-and-butter issues.”

Since beginning his campaign for the US presidency, Sanders has repeatedly stated that “no one who works over 40 hours a week should be living in poverty.” This is not a marginal slogan. It has been central and prominent since the beginning of his campaign for the US presidency, and it aligns with his other, consistent, positions.

What does it mean to say that “no one who works over 40 hours a week should be living in poverty,” given the distribution of contracted hours? This is what that claim looks like when plotted across average paid hours per week (broken down according to Sanders’ dichotomy).

Average Weekly Hours Paid Work US

It is not entirely clear why Sanders decided to use 40 hours rather than 35 hours—the latter has long been the mark above which work is classified as full-time. There is a great deal of complexity and shifting around in these figures. In the previous decade in the United States, more women have been working over 40 hours (of paid work), fewer men have—some of that reflects more women in professional and management positions whose work times are in some cases self-reported. Conversely, some of the growth sectors in the same period involves part-time and informal contracts which have expanded along with that growth (and many of these, such as the services sector, tend to employ more women on part-time contracts).

Even so, the difference between using 40 and 35 hours of paid work as a guide for talking about poverty is remarkable.


This is not to say that work times should even be considered an adequate guide when discussing poverty. Sanders’ “40 hours” claim, his emphasis on “working families,” and his understanding of economics is neither progressive nor radical—it draws instead on the history of the Fordist “(white) family wage,” whose enduring legacy is enshrined in contemporary wage differentials and the structure of full- and part-time paid work.

Conservatism in the social sciences (and some unions) tends to coalesce around a claim for higher pay that is, on closer inspection, a more or less tacit claim that (white) men should be able to afford a house, children and a financially-dependent wife. The conservative critique of the welfare state, put simply, is that it might replace the authoritative hand of (white) fathers and husbands in private households. That authority is forged out of the economic dependency of women and children (and possibly some servants too). Some of that argument is encapsulated in white evangelical opposition to the Affordable Care Act—which should raise a question as to what Sanders’ deprecation of anti-discrimination measures means in the context of health care, irrespective of whether it is organized through private insurers or the expansion of Medicare).

Progressive and radical scholars, by contrast, do not link a discussion around poverty to hours of paid work for a host of reasons, not least of which is the history through which gendered pay discrepancies and racial fractions were enshrined as standard from the early twentieth-century in the Fordist “(white) family wage.” It helps, but is not crucial to be aware that Henry Ford was a fascist heavily invested in ensuring the reproduction of the patriarchal family and, by extension, the ‘white race’ by delivering relatively higher wages to (white) men. It helps but it is not necessary to have read the history in which some unions were transformed into institutional weapons for white men who sought higher wages by distinguishing themselves from black people (by drawing on what Du Bois called “the wages of whiteness”) and from women, whose ‘natures’ would presumably be ruined were they to have an income sufficient to make them economically independent irrespective of marital status. These histories are available to anyone with a serious interest in the history of work, of labor and socialist movements. Sanders seems oblivious to that history and its present.

In this historical moment, Fordist nostalgia means invoking a rosy-hued past to support the economic position of white men over other workers (not in relation to capitalists), and doing so in a present that is increasingly characterized by an expansion of precarious work that is not as generalized as is often claimed. (There are currently around 27.7 million people in the US in part-time work (under 35 hours); the number of women in part-time work rose from around 13.5 million in 1990 to 17.7 million in 2016; for men, those figures were 6.6 and 10 million respectively.)

There are good reasons to focus on wage levels, just as there are good reasons to limit work-time and to increase and reform social incomes; but that is precisely not what Sanders’ emphasis on 40 hours does.

While there is a lot of debate among theorists, social scientists and statisticians about how to define and measure the working class, in the United States there is no credible formula which could suggest that straight, white men are a majority of workers in non-management occupations (at most, that figure would be around 25%).

So, the rhetorical foundation of white men’s entitlements within the working class has shifted as has the architecture of political representation along with it. It is not only difficult to claim that questions about the reproduction of labor-power (of the means of subsistence or ‘basket of goods,’ which is after all what “bread-and-butter” means) can be imagined in terms of English staples like bread and butter whose supply-chains have always been more or less global and colonial. It is also far more difficult to make the claim that the figure of contracted labor is still a straight white man, let alone pretend that the working class as a whole is—though that has not stopped both the far Right and some parts of the Left from claiming as much every time they sing the mantra of “the white working class.”


For me, much of this comes down to whether one defines economics in terms of the entire circuit of capital or, by contrast, whether class is defined (in non-Marxian terms) as if it were more or less synonymous with a liberal understanding of wage contracts, in effect whether one stakes a position on an idealized fiction of contractual symmetry. Hence my argument for focusing on oikonomia (rather than a metaphysics of labor which obscures legal-economic tenets of contracts and the terms of exploitation), the historical and social circumstances of property rights and, not least, the extraction of a surplus without which there would be no accumulation of capital.

Fordist nostalgia has regressive implications, given that wage contracts (especially in the United States) are no longer the preserve of white men. What such nostalgia ignores is the long shadow of formal slavery and unpaid domestic work—that is, the labor previously outside of formal contracts, whose exclusion from the contract was rationalized as if servitude were a property of blackness and femininity—which nevertheless continues to structure and segment the labor market and continues to regulate the distribution of precarious work. Sanders (and much of the Left who support him) have a convenient misunderstanding of ‘neoliberalism’ and theories of globalization.  Their most prominent accounts have yielded a selective, gendered, purportedly race-blind critique of capitalism that is nostalgic for the high-point of US global supremacy and the English empire.

On the other side of these dynamics, the distinction between production and reproduction has shifted and blurred with the growth of employment in services and its decline in manufacturing (which follows on from an earlier decline in agriculture). The growth in services has fueled a growth in part-time work, mostly because ‘services’ are associated with ‘women’s work’ and not because it is has ever been of less significance to the circuit of capital and the realization of the value of commodities.


But on Sanders’ candidacy, the question I keep returning to is what kind of political culture did he emerge from that allowed him and others to either ignore regressive economic policy or treat it as if it were radical, let alone “revolutionary,” or—when challenged from the Left—to speak of Sanders’ consistent ‘missteps’ as if he were a bumbling teenager new to politics and not engaged in some fairly obvious triangulation.

Sanders claims a longstanding involvement on the Left and civil rights movements. He has been a sitting Senator for more than a decade. And while it is true that since Sanders began his campaign for the presidency he has shown support for positions which contradict his view of economics—the ‘Fight for 15,’ equal pay—these are not positions he came to on his own. He has borrowed and integrated these (mostly from his rivals and in response to criticism) in the course of the Democrat primaries.

It may well be true that the personnel of the state are less significant than its regulative structure, historical moment and the power of movements outside of the state (I tend to believe this). But consistencies and impulses are good guides to someone’s politics. For those impulses to be turned instead to more progressive (let alone radical) possibilities it is surely crucial that movements not be converted into cults incapable of criticizing a politician, and where the call to optimism is the cynical goad that motivates volunteer election workers.

Sanders’ political impulse toward conservatism may be characterized as ‘missteps’ by his campaign team, but they are nothing if not consistent. He has periodically leapt to defend Trump’s “white working class voters” against accusations of racism and sexism—though there is still no evidence to suggest that Trump’s ‘base’ are not, as most exit polls suggest, white evangelicals and that, in turn, only around a third of this white evangelical bloc could plausibly be described as working class. Sanders’ adherence to the false pragmatism of appealing to this bloc may have changed since the election in Alabama disproved it, but the pragmatism of this approach has been disproved countless times before.

His selective defensiveness has been a fairly constant and, at times gratuitous, theme. Just days before the presidential election (in which he was no longer a contender), Sanders sent off a tweet defending most of those considering voting for Trump against accusations of racism and sexism. It is difficult to see this as something other than giving his blessing to those among his supporters in the Democrat primaries who would, within days of that tweet, vote for Trump in the presidential election. That approach has not subsided. At a rally earlier this year, Sanders said that “[s]ome people think that the people who voted for Trump are racists and sexists and homophobes and deplorable folks. I don’t agree, because I’ve been there.”

The claim to know what racism, sexism and homophobia look like is only outdone by the breathtaking arrogance of appointing himself able to declare on everyone’s behalf that those who voted for Trump are not, say, racists, though they were not so repelled by vicious, unrelenting racism as to cast their vote in his favor. It is one thing to believe that racists and misogynists can change; quite another to imply that someone’s endorsement of Sanders can be conflated with the possibility of doing so.

It is also far easier to dismiss Sanders’ critics through ad hominem arguments, as ‘neoliberals’ or ‘establishment Democrats,’ than it is to admit that many of his critics come from the Left and to his Left. Easy and convenient too, to accuse those who talk about race, gender and sexuality of being co-opted by neoliberalism when one’s definition of neoliberalism has been crafted to ignore the racism and sexism of neoliberal governments and theorists. These blanket dismissals engage the cynic’s admission, the poisonous accusation that, like them, everyone has instrumentalized, bad faith commitments. That may be true of some. But it is also a a manifest deflection from addressing the content of Sanders’ positions, facilitating nothing more than the twisted descent of ‘whataboutism’ that glosses over projections and the demolition of one’s own political compass.

More so, it involves the dubious assumption that the language of class and “bread-and-butter” issues somehow retain their pristine status in the course of politicians’ campaigns for election—which is what Sanders’ interminable campaign for the US Presidency is, despite its noisy self-appointment as “Our Revolution.”

Yet conservatives, the far Right and capitalists have been engaged in co-opting the language of class through the use of terms such as “white working class” for a very long time, most recently to redescribe Trump supporters and to ennoble his apologists; but well before this in garnering support among workers in campaigns for Apartheid in South Africa and that of the ‘White Australia’ policy. Sanders’ depiction of open borders as a Koch brothers’ conspiracy is the fake ‘class struggle’ gloss he gives to the periodically debunked claim of crank Malthusian economic theory: that migrants diminish the wages and employment prospects of local workers. No one has ever discovered plausible evidence for this claim because labor markets function on generative principles and not those of scarcity. In a video on Trump’s budget and touting his own alternative economic policy, Sanders could not bring himself to mention either the US-Mexican ‘Wall,’ the ‘Muslim ban’ or ICE deportations once.


Yet part of the reason, I think, that many of these debates have become so poisonous is that there is a far more regressive backlash on what passes for the Left than most care to admit. It is not trivial that the interlocking publishing and academic ventures of one, albeit seemingly variegated part of the Left have invested more than a decade in redefining their narrow, doubtful brand of Marxism as if it were indistinguishable from Polanyian economic conservatism and the political theology of the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. Nor is it trivial that some of the biggest names of this venture are among Sanders’ most enthusiastic supporters in the media, whose ability to furnish his campaign for the US presidency with the imprimatur of ‘bringing back class politics’ rests on the redefinition of class in direct opposition to the changes in the composition of the working class in places such as the US but also within the contracted labor force.

There is no neutrality to economic policy or one’s definition of class, certainly not where it is juxtaposed to the purportedly secondary issues of race, gender and sexuality. That in itself is a regressive disposition, given the givens, the clear staking of a position within a complex set of conflicts (many of which continue to occur within Ford factories). Sanders’ positions should be open to both discussion and challenge on their content and implications, not defended with cynicism or the shallow bombast that is mistaken for radicalism. As for the accusation of bad faith critiques, I can only say that I have not raised one thing here (including criticisms of the focus on “working families”) that I have not discussed before I ever knew of Sanders’ existence.

This is not about Sanders so much about the ways in which his continued campaign for the US presidency is reshaping both movements and, especially, the Left around that campaign. The more important point, then, is that pretending Sanders’ regressive positions are radical is destructive of a great deal, including the integrity of movements without which politicians are simply unaccountable celebrities but, also without which, they would never be elected.

2 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders’ economics: (the social reproduction of) wages”

  1. As long as the radical liberal centrists fail to offer anything other than the oikonomia status quo and non gendered toilets, and the so called radical Left Post structuralists continue to disrupt but fail to cobble together anything that would remotely resemble a cohesive class based narrative that would generate any interest beyond the minuscule readership of Social Text, both will remain irrelevant. While Sokal and others would dismiss their respective corpus as fashionable nonsense or even gibberish, a traditional left perspective offers a more prosaic perspective. Best described as unmitigated malakaonmia, the resultant discourse offered by the centrists and Post Structuralists acts as an contagion to any progressive advancement. As evidenced in the election of Trump the consequence of this malakaonmia is the rise of fascism. Thank You for your contribution.


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