The supply chain blues

A large ship loaded with shipping containers.
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Capitalism is no damn good. A prime example is the global supply chain crisis. It’s tying U.S. West Coast ports in knots and causing massive shortages, from raw materials to finished products. It takes weeks or months to get through the bottlenecks.

Okay, we already knew that capitalism is worthless at providing equal rights. It thrives on vast discrimination by race, sex, LGBTQ+ identity, age, ability, ethnicity — you name it.

But delivering products to market? Besides production, what’s more basic than getting the goods from here to there? You’d think at the very least the reigning economic system could manage that.

As a long-time student and teacher of Karl Marx’s classic critique of the profit system, Capital, I’m not surprised. Quiet as it’s kept, this 150-year-old analysis translates almost directly to today’s many crises, including the one afflicting the supply chain. If anything, these teachings are even more true now than when they were written.

Marx proved that our economic system is all about profit, short-term profit at that. Human needs just don’t figure in.

When the pandemic hit and caused shutdowns across the global market, massive layoffs followed, including of workers in the transportation sector. Sure, the U.S. government gave massive aid to businesses, supposedly to not lay off their workers. But while companies happily took that public cash, the saving-jobs part was generally ignored. After all, where would the profit be in that?

And as logistics experts have observed, there were looming troubles long before the coronavirus descended on us. For example, they estimate a shortage of 80,000 truck drivers in this country. A gap like that does not happen overnight.

Port trucking companies and others have been reclassifying their drivers as “independent contractors.” They were forced to lease their vehicles; pay for repairs, gas and parking; and eat the time wasted in line waiting for loads. Drivers couldn’t make a living. They organized and won a few concessions, but these are still far from quality jobs.

Inside the ports, companies have been chipping certain jobs out of the well-paid Longshore Union. This cuts quality of life for employees in order to pad corporate profits. It couldn’t be otherwise.

In a sensible system, based on people and not profit, mass layoffs, jobs you can’t live on and supply-chain meltdowns would never even come up. After all, we know roughly how many people live in the world, what goods they need to live on, and how many workers it takes to produce and deliver them. We wouldn’t suddenly lay everyone off and stop the flow of the means of life! If people had to shelter in place, we’d plan how to do that. And those who had to work outside the home could do it so much better if it was safe and well-paid. It’s not rocket science. Just impossible under capitalism, where only immediate profit matters.

The other big takeaway from Marx is that only human labor creates value — capitalist wealth. Employees produce far more wealth than the cost of hiring their labor. That puts billionaires and workers on opposite ends of the battle for survival.

Ultimately, owners can only increase their profits by taking away from the income of their employees. As a Marxist friend of mine once quipped, “Capitalists can only have their cake by eating ours, too!” Ever more wealth flows up to those at the top. It’s the nature of the system.

Luckily, there’s a flipside. Whether we are employed in the supply chain or anywhere else, with all profit coming from human labor, we workers have the ultimate power. No work, no profit. So, fighting back is definitely effective, as surging strikes all over the country right now are demonstrating.

This system? Permanently stacked in favor of the robber barons. The power to change the game for good? As Marx said, it’s in the hands of those of us who do the work. Pass it on!

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