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Shall We Die Like Rats or Live Like Human Beings?
by Ken Boettcher
Email: socialists (nospam) slp.org
05 Aug 2001
Speech delivered by Ken Boettcher of the Socialist Labor Party at the 45th National Convention Banquet
VOL. 111 NO. 4
CONVENTION BANQUET ADDRESS--
"SHALL WE DIE LIKE RATS, OR LIVE LIKE HUMAN BEINGS?"
The following is based on an address delivered by Ken Boettcher of The
People's editorial staff at the 45th National Convention Banquet of the
Socialist Labor Party on Saturday, June 2, at the Holiday Inn in Santa
One day, while researching an article for THE PEOPLE, I ran across a
WEEKLY PEOPLE headline of 30 or more years ago that put the social
question in what I thought was admirably direct fashion. The headline
was over a speech by Joe Pirincin, a national organizer for the
Socialist Labor Party well known back then for his directness and
clarity in stating the case against capitalism and for socialism.
The headline said something like "Shall We Die Like Rats or Live Like
Human Beings?" The copy under it warned workers about the grim economic
future they faced under capitalism; but it also pointed to the choice
workers could make to build a happier, secure future in a socialist
Tonight it is my intent to make the case that there is LITTLE IF ANY
HYPERBOLE in putting the social question exactly that way to the
American working class today--"Shall We Die like Rats or Live like Human
Beings?" Moreover, I will show that, despite the intervening years, the
SLP program for building the society of peace, freedom and plenty
workers deserve is still relevant today.
That workers face such a social question is self-evident. Any way you
look at it--whether at unemployment, growing poverty, increasing
workplace stress, working-class housing shortages, transportation
nightmares, the problems of raising and educating children while both
parents work--it is apparent that things just keep getting worse for
U.S. workers as a class. Capitalist development of the economy has for
decades had us increasingly scurrying around like rats for survival.
This is not what American workers in Joe Pirincin's day were led to
expect from automation, computerization and the "high technology" of the
time. The public relations servants of capitalism promised that
technological improvements would one day take hours out of the workweek
even as they raised workers' standard of living. Forty-five years ago,
for example, the National Association of Manufacturers' pamphlet,
CALLING ALL JOBS, made this prediction: "Let the worker face what is to
come with hope...,not with fear....Automation is a magical key to
creation, not a blunt instrument of destruction, and the worker's talent
and skill will continue to merit reward in the fairyland of the world to
With a blind eye to increasing unemployment, declining real wages and
increasing hours of work, the soothsayers churned out reams of
propaganda on the blessings of automation. The promise of those supposed
blessings were used for decades to coax workers and the procapitalist
unions into meekly accepting job losses, hazardous work-rule changes and
all manner of work speedups in exchange for pie in the sky. Like caged
rats on a running wheel that gets them NOWHERE, the U.S. working class
has huffed and puffed to build the very machines that replaced them as
the capitalist class rode workers all the way to the bank.
Today, as the U.S. stands on the brink of yet another of capitalism's
recurring economic busts, and yet another nightmare of increased
joblessness and poverty, American workers should give the most SERIOUS
consideration to their present circumstances, to the prescience of the
Socialist Labor Party's warnings about where the capitalist economy was
headed, and make a conscious choice to work for the better future they
deserve by building a movement for socialism.
Thirty-seven years ago, in an official statement adopted by its 1964
National Convention, the SLP predicted the direst consequences should
American workers fail to grasp the massive job-killing consequences of
automation. It called upon workers to "consider how the impending spread
of job-killing automation may affect you, your family and your class,"
and the "kind of world it threatens to create."
It pointed out that, "Capitalism has always had what Karl Marx called an
'industrial reserve army' to fill its labor needs in periods of capital
expansion," and "that even in the best of times it is 'normal' for 4
percent of the workers to be unemployed...."
Historically, it added, "TECHNOLOGICAL unemployment, the displacement of
workers by machines, has been going on in a greater or lesser degree
ever since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution of the 18th
century," but that two things about the technological revolution of the
20th century set it apart from its predecessor.
The first was "the speed and magnitude of impending labor displacement,
and the fact that automation will hit workers in all industries, and in
offices and laboratories as well as factories and mines."
The second was that, "Very few of the worker-victims of job-killing
automation will ever find 'steady' employment again."
In short, the SLP claimed that 20th-century technology would "create
something new--a MASSIVE army of PERMANENTLY unemployed and unemployable
True to the party's warning, and many others like it over the years,
unemployment--even according to the government's vastly understated
statistics--grew steeply from an average of 4.8 percent in the 1960s to
6.8 percent in the 1970s, jumping to 7.2 percent in the 1980s. The
1990s, thanks in no small measure to the now-bursting bubble of
investment in the rapidly disappearing dot-coms, produced an average
rate of something like 5.8 percent.
But that figure may be more of an illusion than even the figures of
previous years. Can there be an "average rate" for a decade when the
government redefined how unemployment is measured in fully half of the
decade's 10 years? The Bureau of Labor Statistics itself warns that the
data for five of those years is "not strictly comparable with data for
In fact, the government's employment data these days is not strictly
comparable WITH REALITY either. As the lead article in the most recent
issue of THE PEOPLE observed, the official unemployment rate of 4.5
percent in April included 6.4 million workers, but excluded an
additional 4.4 million workers who "don't count when it comes to
counting the unemployed."
They didn't count even though the Department of Labor conceded that more
than a million of them had "looked for work during the last year and as
being 'available to work now,'" that "346,000...were 'discouraged'
because they were the victims of different 'types of discrimination' by
potential employers," and that, "Most of the remaining 778,000...were
ruled off the unemployment rolls 'for such reasons as child-care and
As for the remaining 2.3 million jobless workers who are not counted
among the unemployed, they have simply thrown in the towel.
By bringing these numbers together, THE PEOPLE concluded that the number
of unemployed in April was closer to 10.8 million than to 6.4 million,
and that the unemployment rate was closer to 8.8 percent than the 4.5
percent claimed by the Labor Dept.
Unemployment is not the only problem U.S. workers as a class have had to
bear. U.S. manufacturing workers suffered a decline in the purchasing
power of their average weekly wages of almost 28 PERCENT from 1968 to
1986. In 1992, real average weekly wages were still 20 PERCENT less than
in 1972, and though they have inched up over the past decade, there is
room for debate as to whether they have caught up to the real wages of
U.S. workers a decade ago. This is the thanks U.S. workers got for a
massive increase in their productivity of over 73 percent between 1960
and 1990--and continued productivity increases through the 1990s.
As a result of rising mass unemployment and falling real wages, poverty
has of course grown. The number of people who live below the official
poverty line rose from the 1969 level of 24.1 million to a 1999 level of
But again, government statistics minimize the problem. The measure used
to determine official poverty levels for different family groupings
hasn't been fundamentally changed since it was based on a food budget in
the 1950s. Even the government's own National Academy of Sciences has
recommended a new measure that takes into account the higher relative
costs of housing and day care today--an adjustment that would add more
than 5 million people to the official number.
Many nongovernmental organizations that deal directly with the poor on a
daily basis contend that the federal poverty lines are set too low. Some
set U.S. poverty totals at rates of 150 percent or more of the federal
definitions. A 1999 Census Bureau study lends weight to such views. In
1995, according to the study, 49 million Americans--more than one of
every five Americans at the time--lived in "households that struggle[d]
to meet basic needs, such as paying the mortgage or rent, covering
utility bills, seeing a doctor or getting enough to eat." MORE THAN A
THIRD OF THESE 49 MILLION WERE CHILDREN UNDER 18 YEARS OLD.
In fact, a report released in 1999 by the Better Homes Fund, entitled
"Homeless Children: America's New Outcasts," used figures from national
homeless organizations, the U.S. Department of Education and the Census
Bureau to show that "there are more homeless children now than at any
time since the Great Depression." "Every night," as an article in the
LOS ANGELES TIMES characterized the report's findings, "more than a
million children in America face the dark with no place to call home."
According to the report, the fastest growing group of homeless--now
about 40 PERCENT of the total U.S. homeless population--is composed of
women and their children.
Unemployment and poverty are but a partial picture of the present state
of the U.S. working class. What of the rest, who are still employed--and
a good portion of which are living two or three paychecks away from
officially defined poverty?
One of the many cruel and irrational features of the capitalist system
is that, despite the mass unemployment the system creates, capitalists
in many industries find it profitable to squeeze more and more hours out
of their current workforce before hiring additional workers.
While millions go hungry or homeless for lack of work, and millions more
struggle to survive on temporary or part-time work, millions of other
workers are being worked into an early grave as they strive to support
themselves and their families. For the latter millions the 40-hour
workweek is a myth.
More than 25 percent of California workers reported putting in above 40
hours of work per week in 1997, according to an economist cited in a
1999 LOS ANGELES TIMES article. A report by the Employment Policy
Foundation cited in the article put the national figure at 19.5 percent
of U.S. workers in 1999. The average overtime among all workers was 11
hours per week. Many workers put in this time without extra pay, because
they are salaried or otherwise exempt from the federal Fair Labor
Standards Act, which ostensibly requires time-and-a-half pay for work
beyond eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, for those industries
covered by the act.
More than 7 million workers now work two or more jobs. Moreover,
according to a 1999 report from the Economic Policy Institute, the two
wage earners in the "typical" married couple family worked 3,600 hours
in 1998, an increase of 182 hours since 1989.
Remember, only a few decades ago, bourgeois economists and the
capitalist media were predicting that automation would greatly increase
leisure time for the average U.S. worker. The most confident predicted a
"crisis" of leisure, a society without labor in which the needs of all
were met by machines and the majority of the population would be left
wondering what to do with themselves.
Today such predictions stand revealed as the pipe dreams and propaganda
of capitalism's shameless defenders. Constant improvements in the means
and methods of production, forced by competition and the profit motive,
have indeed resulted in a productive apparatus CAPABLE of providing an
abundance both goods and services AND leisure for all. But the greatest
portion of the value of workers' product has been expropriated by the
capitalist class. The primary benefits of the increasingly vast
productive capacity of the nation accrued during this period, as they
always have, to the capitalists.
Data reported by economist Edward N. Wolff for the Jerome Levy Economics
Institute in April of last year show that for the period from 1983 to
1998, as the report put it, "Income inequality increased sharply....The
richest one percent [of families] received 53 percent of the total gain
in marketable wealth over the period from 1983 to 1998. The next 19
percent received another 39 percent, so that the top quintile together
accounted for 91 percent of the total growth in wealth, while the bottom
80 percent accounted for 9 percent."
Continuing, the report noted that, "The pattern of results are quite
similar for financial wealth. The average financial wealth of the
richest one percent grew by 62 percent and that of the next richest 4
percent by 23 percent, and that of the next richest 5 percent by 37
percent....Of the total growth in financial wealth between 1983 and
1998, 56 percent accrued to the top one percent and 89 percent to the
top quintile, while the bottom 80 percent collectively accounted for
only 11 percent."
In short, said Wolff, the report's author, "These results indicate
rather dramatically that the growth in the economy during the period
from 1983 to 1998 was concentrated in a surprisingly small part of the
population--the top 20 percent and particularly the top one percent."
The trend bolstered already wide disparities in wealth
ownership--disparities that reflect the class division between the
owning and the working classes. "In 1998," the report noted, "the
richest one percent of households held half of all outstanding stock,
financial securities, and trust equity, two-thirds of business equity,
and 36 percent of investment real estate. The top 10 percent of families
as a group accounted for about 90 percent of stock shares, bonds, trusts
and business equity, and about three-quarters of nonhome real estate.
Moreover...the richest 10 percent of households accounted for 79 percent
of the total value of these stocks, only slightly less than its 85
percent of directly owned stocks and mutual funds."
Leisure time has never been a problem for the idle capitalist class,
which lives by owning the means of life and expropriating the lion's
share of the value created by workers.
Leisure time for workers, however, is dropping fast. As the San Jose
METRO described an estimate by economist Juliet Schor in 1992, "the
average employed American works the equivalent of one more month each
year than he or she did 20 years ago."
A cacophony of howls and shrieks arose from the capitalist media upon
the 1992 publication of Schor's book, THE OVERWORKED AMERICAN: THE
UNEXPECTED DECLINE OF LEISURE. But further studies have corroborated
that by even the most conservative estimates workers today have at least
66 fewer leisure hours per year--a little over eight working days per
year--than they did 20 years ago.
Workers are paying for decreased leisure time in a variety of ways.
Capitalism has never given workers much opportunity for the full
flowering of their abilities and talents. With decreasing leisure time,
many workers find themselves increasingly drained of energy for
self-development, for interacting with their spouses, children and
friends, for enjoying life in general. Life under capitalism becomes
more and more a plodding routine that drains them of their enthusiasm
for living. The trend understandably contributes to rising health care
costs, divorce rates and suicide rates.
Schor also noted the toll it takes on children. "The family system," she
said, "is under tremendous stress, because parents don't have enough
time to take care of their children. Children are suffering increasingly
from a variety of problems: emotional problems, obesity, teen suicide,
poor performance in school...the growth of parental work time and the
decline of contact time between parent and children has been very
central in the growing problem of children." That is putting it mildly.
Across America, millions of households have no parents in them when
children come home from school. As even conservative author Sylvia
Hewlitt noted on a McNeil-Lehrer NEWSHOUR, "There are--just to give you
one figure--7 MILLION seven-year-olds in SELF-CARE after school in 1998.
There is nothing really new about any of this. The pace of change
brought on by technological advances may be accelerating and its social
and economic effects growing more grim with the passage of every year,
but they are also part of a continual process under capitalism.
There is NO reason to believe that anything short of the abolition of
capitalism will suffice to change the circumstances of the working
class. Politicians and reform movements of all stripes, from liberal to
conservative, have tried over and over again in the last 50 years, have
passed law after law ostensibly intended to help the workers, but
nothing has thwarted the general trend a bit.
There IS no doubt about why capitalists are scrambling to introduce new
technology. The purpose is to improve the efficiency of labor
exploitation--to get more out of fewer workers.
The drive to accumulate the gigantic piles of capital needed to develop,
buy and install all this equipment lies behind the bulk of the social,
economic and political phenomena of today. It lies behind the wave of
mergers, buyouts and takeovers; behind a growing number of bankruptcies;
behind the effort to dismantle the so-called welfare state, tighten
their education budget and channel capital back into capitalist hands by
reducing the capitalist tax burden; behind the speedups, forced overtime
and layoffs, which seem contradictory, but which in fact are logical and
consistent with capitalist goals. It lies behind the certainty that
modern computer technology, despite the promise it holds to lighten toil
and abolish poverty, will do the very opposite as long as technology
remains in private hands serving private purposes.
But it doesn't have to be that way. The SLP's revolutionary program of
Socialist Industrial Unionism provides a way out for workers, a means to
realize the potential that technology has to liberate humanity from the
realm of necessity. Its relevance to the problem workers face cannot
even be doubted.
Indeed, as THE PEOPLE has pointed out:
"The whole purpose of the socialist movement...is to solve the grave
social problems resulting from the march of technology monopolized by a
numerically insignificant capitalist class so that the magnificent
possibilities modern advances in technology hold out may benefit all of
"Whatever good there is in modern methods of production, whatever their
potential for making the world a better place, for eliminating arduous
toil, hunger and poverty, that potential is wiped out by a single,
dominating fact. The one fact that overwhelms and nullifies the promise
of all progress is private ownership of the means of production and
"A capitalist future of profound social dislocation and human misery is
an absolute certainty because of the economic laws on which capitalism
is based--laws which compel every capitalist concern to strive for the
greatest possible profit at the lowest possible cost. That can only mean
one thing. It can only mean that permanent joblessness is the only
future that millions--perhaps the majority--of workers can look forward
to as long as capitalism survives.
"To put it another way: Unless the working class becomes conscious of
what a capitalist future holds the time may well come when it will be
reduced to the beggar state of the proletariat of ancient Rome. The
labor of the Roman proletariat was rendered useless by captive slaves;
that of today's proletariat is being displaced by computerized
The working class today faces not merely another in the ongoing string
of capitalist economic crises in which markets are glutted with
commodities that cannot be sold at a profit and masses of workers are
laid off, then called back to work. There will be no turnaround to open
new jobs or new opportunities for many. Most of those displaced will
never find jobs of equal or better pay. What workers face today is a new
stage in capitalist development from which there will be no recovery,
with millions of workers useless to a capitalist class that controls
access to the means of life.
As THE PEOPLE noted on another occasion: "The implications are earth
shaking, not only because of the potential for worsening human misery,
but because the permanent displacement of human labor on such a scale
goes to the root of the capitalist system itself and may well be taking
us to the threshold of what Daniel De Leon anticipated and described as
'feudo-capitalism' or 'plutocratic feudalism.'"
As more and more workers become redundant in and useless to capitalist
industry, the opportunities for the working class to take, hold and
democratically operate the industries and services for the benefit of
all will diminish. At present, however, the working class still runs the
production lines, still delivers the services, still makes the economy
run. As long as that holds true, the SLP's Socialist Industrial Union
program remains not only relevant, but the only route open to prevent
society from falling into a new Dark Age, a high-tech version of
The SIU program is in still in complete harmony with the political,
economic and social development of this nation. Its object forces the
virtue of keeping even step with social and industrial development. Its
object is the integral industrial organization of the useful workers
JUST AS THEY ARE ORGANIZED TO CARRY ON THE PRODUCTION AND DISTRIBUTION
OF SOCIALLY NECESSARY GOODS AND SERVICES.
In other words, the industries and services themselves provide the mold
of the Socialist Industrial Union. The more industry is concentrated and
streamlined, the more perfect becomes the mold and, therefore, the more
perfect will be the industrial union formed by that mold. Let a decade
or more pass in which the majority of workers have become useless to
capitalism, however, and there will be little from which to provide a
mold--how long will the capitalist class keep "useless" workers around
when machines perform the bulk of production?
While the program of Socialist Industrial Unionism contemplates making
the fullest use of the traditional revolutionary and political rights of
the American people to effect the change from capitalism to socialism in
a civilized manner by submitting the question to a democratic decision
at the polls, it at the same time arms the worker-majority with the
economic power to defeat any attempt by capitalist reaction to subvert
the American Constitution and impose a despotic political regime.
The Socialist Industrial Union itself supplies the indispensable basis
of the socialist government that will supplant the obsolete political
state that now serves as an "executive committee" for the capitalist
class. A bona fide socialist government must be capable of coordinating
and administering the complex economic activities of this country, and,
consequently, must be composed of persons having the requisite training
Where are they to be found? In the ranks of those who actually operate
the industries and social services. The various units and subdivisions
of the Socialist Industrial Union become the natural constituencies from
which workers may democratically elect their industrial administrators
and supervisors--and through which they can compel responsibility in
those to whom they entrust directive authority.
The SIU program calls upon the working class of the nation--those who
have jobs and those who do not--to unite politically and economically
for the twofold purpose of abolishing capitalism and its system of labor
exploitation, and of establishing socialism. Socialism will put an end
to the exploitation of wage labor and all it implies. All the means of
life--the means of producing and distributing the goods and services
needed to feed, house and clothe the nation--will be converted from
private into social property to provide for the physical and
intellectual needs of all.
The working class is a sleeping giant. At some stage in the mass
displacement of workers by modern technology the fear that already
touches millions of workers will mature into the realization that they
must act in their own defense. The realization will grow that there is
no solution to the problem within the capitalist system. Instinctively,
workers know their worth and their power, but their understanding is
limited by blinders. When those blinders are finally ripped away--we,
the members and supporters of the Socialist Labor Party, must be there
in sufficient numbers to provide the information workers need to build a
new society that will serve their own interests and end class rule
We must be there because we are armed with the most important piece of
socioeconomic knowledge available: the Socialist Industrial Union
program. That's why it's so important that every reader of THE PEOPLE
redouble their efforts to learn the SIU program, that every supporter
SERIOUSLY consider joining the party instead of staying on the sidelines
in the most important battle of this century, and that every member
renews their energy. Together, we can forge ahead to build up the
circulation of THE PEOPLE and the membership of the party, to make the
SLP message known to every worker in the country. We must shout in every
corner of the land Joe Pirincin's question to workers: SHALL WE DIE LIKE
RATS OR LIVE LIKE HUMAN BEINGS?