[OPE-L:5915] the wages of war

From: Gerald_A_Levy (Gerald_A_Levy@email.msn.com)
Date: Sat Sep 15 2001 - 08:51:15 EDT

It goes without saying (or does it?) that socialists should support international working-class solidarity
and oppose imperialist wars, but what are the specific causal mechanisms which specially change
wages during wartime?

At least two mechanisms seem to be at work:

1) As a nation enters a war, the industrial reserve army is dried up as workers  (voluntarily or involuntarily) become part of the armed forces and as 
the remaining workers are employed, especially producing additional military goods. This 
has traditionally meant that war-time under capitalism has meant a  prolonged period of 'full 
employment'.  Indeed, the meaning of what 'full employment' is can change during
war-time if members of working-class families who weren't traditionally part of the waged working-class
become wage-earners (e.g. in the US during WW2 when large numbers of women became part of the
waged working-class).  This combination of full employment and a shift in production from commodities which enter into the reproduction of the 
working class to military goods has often manifested itself in a condition of 'excess demand' for 
commodities which enter into the reproduction of labor-power (as customarily understood): i.e. there 
tend to be 'shortages' of commodities that workers can exchange their wages against.  The response, 
predictably, is for capitalists to increase the prices of those commodities. The result is the frequently 
observed phenomenon of 'war-time inflation' (of course, other forms of 'war profiteering' also tend to 
happen).  A consequence of this inflation is for the living standards of workers to be decreased during 
war-time.  Expressing this with more familiar Marxist
terms,  this causes real wages to be epressed below 
the value of labor-power during war-time. 

Some might think that 'wage and price controls' might be used to mitigate this affect. Yet, the
experience -- at least on the several occasions when 'controls' have been adopted in the US --
has been that the state has rigidly enforced wage controls (e.g. a 'wage freeze' -- plus no-strike
pledges -- during WWII) but has simultaneously granted enough 'exemptions' to the price
controls such that the prices of commodities sold to the working-class (and to the capitalist
class for luxury consumption) tends to increase. 

The above is a relatively non-controversial analysis -- although I'm sure there are those who could
argue that it could be entirely explained without the use of 'value-theoretic' terms.  Indeed, it might
even be expressed using Keynesian analysis. 

2) As a capitalist nation prepares for and enters war, the state uses institutions -- such as the
the media, educational institutions,  and religious institutions -- to drum-up support for a war. 
Typically, bourgeois political parties tend to unite behind this call for war and 'labor leaders'
(sic) of trade unions support the calls for war (indeed, much of the 'Left' in the 20th Century
has supported their national bourgeoisie in calls for war).  Beyond that, 'patriotism'  and
nationalism have remained  very strong (conservative) beliefs among the working-class.
Indeed, I don't think it would be unfair to say that more workers internationally identify themselves
as citizens of a particular nation than as workers. 

This has meant, in practice, that workers have voluntarily agreed to war-time sacrifices 'for
the greater good'.  The consequence of this nationalism is a depression of wages below
the value of labor-power during war-time.   This is a powerful stimulus to the economic
growth of individual capitalist nations. 

Examples of strikes during 'popular' wars are very rare (e.g. the Montgomery Ward
strike and the threatened coal miners strike during WWII in the US). This reinforces
the trend for there to be a depression of wages below the VLP.  If, however, popular
support for an imperialist war weakens (as happened in some nations during WWI),
then there is a heightened potential for increased wages.

Of course, international working-class solidarity and mass opposition to war would
tend to mitigate against this trend and could lead to (among many other things) 
increased wages and bargaining power for workers. Yet, promoting international
working-class unity has proven in practice to be more easily suggested than done.
Indeed, sad to say, workers are often the most ardent supporters of war -- even 
though they are also the most frequent victims. Many leftists will nonetheless 
(hopefully) attempt to build anti-war movements but such efforts are often
dangerous to those activists (as internal opposition to war is often criminalized)
and tends to take a protracted period of struggle to change the consensus about
the war. Thus, eventually, there was mass opposition to the Vietnam War in the
US, but it took many years and sacrifices before the anti-war movement gained
mass support.  In some more recent wars (e.g. the Gulf War), the wars have
ended before there is time for mass opposition movements to grow. (*NB*: in the
case of 'short wars', the first mechanism described above is unlikely to happen.
Indeed, it is doubtful whether there is sufficient time for the second mechanism to
manifest itself as a generalized depression of wages either).

*Question*: Does a depression of wages below the VLP during one period (conjuncture)
imply that there are others periods (conjunctures) in which wages rise above the
VLP?  Or, should we conceive of the latter possibility as an increase in the VLP
itself as traditionally and customarily understood?  

In solidarity, Jerry

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