All Commentary
Friday, June 1, 2001

Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking Off the Dead Hand of History by Walter Mosley

Mosley Yells at the Top of His Marxist Lungs

Ballantine Books • 2000 • 118 pages • $16.95

Walter Mosley, author of the Easy Rawlins mysteries, departs from the detective genre to offer us Workin’ on the Chain Gang: Shaking off the Dead Hand of History. This economic diatribe is part of Ballantine’s misnamed “Library of Contemporary Thought,” for there is nothing contemporary about Mosley’s economic thinking. As with a recycled whodunit, we’ve seen the plot of Chain Gang before: Mosley’s primal scream against the “voracious maw of capitalism” consists of little more than the class warfare of Marx and Engels.

Labeling Mosley’s thinking rehashed Marxism is not an exaggeration. “Production,” he posits, is “always the job of the lower to lowest classes of society” whereas “the middle and upper classes enjoy the fruits of production.” If anything, Mosley’s world is even grimmer than Marx’s; workers are not only exploited at work but also as consumers: “Today the worker is not only the engine of production but also the consumer. She sells her labor cheap and buys at full price.”

Mosley, however, is just warming up. It is in his chapter “Defining the Great Enemy: The Margin of Profit” that Mosley is yelling at the top of his Marxist lungs. Here he defines profit as “how much you make off the labor of others,” claims that “[t]he world of profit is a world of plunder,” and informs us that “[t]here’s a natural conflict between the Lilliputian population of workers and the humongous beast of production.” Marx and Engels should sue for a share of the royalties.

As with Marx, capitalist exploitation in the world of Walter Mosley extends beyond national borders. He excoriates us for the “economic havoc we have caused in the third world by paying slave wages to local workers to make the price attractive.” (Is the price attractive or full? Mosley cannot seem to make up his mind.) He further opines that the job security and low inflation of the postwar era “were the results of poverty in other countries, which couldn’t compete with our advanced industrialization.” And to think that Milton Friedman believes inflation, or the lack thereof, is “always and everywhere a monetary phenomenon.”

Of course, for any Marxist analysis to be complete, there must be an opiate to keep the exploited masses from rising up. Perhaps in an attempt to avoid lifting the entire story directly from Marx, Mosley does not finger religion. (Maybe this is the contemporary part.) Instead, he tells us that “[t]elevision is our opium, our nightly bowl of hazy, unfocused dreaming” that brings “spectacle and illusion” to the lower classes because “[t]he best way to keep a worker working is to bedazzle her or him” and “[s]ublimation is the best remedy for rebellion.”

That Mosley sees a world of class conflict is bewildering given his background growing up in the Watts area of Los Angeles. Appearing on C-SPAN’s “Booknotes,” Mosley told host Brian Lamb that his parents “had simple jobs” but “they slowly climbed up into the middle class.” Mosley continued: “[M]y father remained being a janitor, became a maintenance supervisor, a building supervisor. My mother just worked up [as a school clerk]. My father started buying apartment buildings . . . . [H]e said, ‘If the buildings pay their own rent, then we’ll always be secure.’ But they actually ended up doing much more than that.”

That’s right—Mosley’s own family was upwardly mobile because his parents worked hard in menial jobs and invested their savings in rental properties. His father was even—gasp—a capitalist! This results in Chain Gang’s only true mystery, namely, why Mosley discards his own life experiences in favor of his chattering-class communism.

So what would Mosley prescribe to get us out of capitalism’s vicious jungle? While one expects that he will settle for nothing less than the overthrow of the capitalist system, the tepid policies he envisions as “impossible and ridiculous” amount to little more than what one might get from Al Gore or even George W. Bush. Mosley believes “we should assure the education of our children and the welfare of our aged” and “everyone has a right to a living wage, a right to competent medical care, and a share in the natural resources that the nation either owns or creates.” Third Wayers of the world unite!

In the end, Mosley’s manifesto is unable to shake off the dead hand of Marxism; Chain Gang is an anti-capitalist rant that ends with a whimper.

  • Frank Stephenson is a professor of economics at Berry College in Rome, Georgia.  He holds a B.A. from Washington and Lee University and a Ph.D. from North Carolina State University.  His research interests lie primarily in public choice and sports economics, and he has published in scholarly journals such as Public Finance Review, Public Choice, the International Journal of Sport Finance, and the Journal Sports Economics.  He has also contributed to Regulation and The Freeman and has taught at IHS and FEE summer seminars.