While, as Marx argued, periods of expanded accumulation present the best conditions for increasing working-class living standards, the expansion that began in 1982 was based in large part on the rapid fall in the value of labour-power in the US. This recovery and rapid rise in the rate of surplus-value in the US was enabled by the collapse of union-resistance beginning in 1979 and the strategic choices made by union-leaders across the economy from that time on. The expansion was sustained in the 1980s by dramatic work-reorganisation, enabled by the embrace of labour-management cooperation-schemes by much of the trade-union leadership, and the restructuring of several major industries that undermined the industry-wide bargaining on which rising postwar incomes had been based. Productivity, boosted by lean production-methods, would continue to outstrip real wages up until the ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 and resume again in the wake of a weak recovery in the US. The rapid geographic expansion of capital after 1990 provided new investment-possibilities, as did the explosion of financial instruments. What stands out, however, is that rising productivity, far from providing the basis for increases in working-class income, had become coupled with flat or declining real wages and a fall in the value of labour-power as the necessary condition to sustain almost any level of growth in the real economy. The link between productivity and wage-increases, central to Keynesian and institutional collective-bargaining theory, had been broken and Marx’s idea of the most favourable conditions stood on its head. The breaking of this link had, in the final analysis, been an outcome of class-struggle in which capital had the upper hand. All of this underlines the failed strategies and practices of most of the trade-union leadership in the US since 1979. New approaches to the workplace and broader forms of mobilisation will be needed. Signs of worker-resistance to the latest neoliberal clampdowns in Latin America, Europe, China, and even the US, however, may point to a renewed era of intensified class-struggle.
For decades futurists, academics and business experts have argued that automation, robots and other new technology would eliminate millions of jobs. Yet the workforce in the US has continued to grow, even if more slowly, to new heights. Work has changed, but the predicted ‘end of work’ failed to materialise even as technology has advanced, albeit unevenly. This article will argue that the answer to this apparent riddle is not to be found in analysing the technology itself, but in Marxist political economy. The progress of robots and related technology will be examined, but the argument is that the limits on technical progress in the actual production of goods and services lie in the turbulence of capitalism since the 1970s with its uneven profit rates.