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Massive Unemployment: Proof That Global Capitalism Doesn't Work

We may be witnessing the birth of a new permanent class of the marginalized.

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Punishment and studied indifference were, however, by no means the only responses as emergency relief efforts -- some private, some public -- became common.  The ravaging effects of unemployment, the way it spread like a plague, and its chronic reappearance also put more radical measures on the agenda, proposals that questioned the viability and morality of what was then termed the “wages system.”

Calls went out to colonize vacant land and establish state-run factories and farms to productively re-employ the idled.  Infuriated throngs occupied state houses demanding public works. Elements of the labor and populist movements advocated manufacturing and agricultural cooperatives as a way around the ruthlessness of the Darwinian free market. Business “trusts” or monopolies were often decried for driving other businesses under and so exacerbating the unemployment dilemma.  In some cases, their nationalization was called for.   Militants of the moment began to demand work not as a sop to the indigent, but as a right of citizenship, as precious and inviolable as anything in the Bill of Rights.

The greatest and most prolonged mass mobilization of the mid-1880s was the national movement for the eight-hour work day.  It was animated partly by a desire for more leisure time, but also by a vain hope that its passage by Congress might effectively raise wages. (Industrialists, however, had no intention of paying the same amount for eight hours of work as they had for 12.)  Its main impetus, though, was a belief that mandating a national reduction in the hours of work would spread jobs around and so diminish the ranks of the reserve army. 

Some were convinced that capitalism’s appetite for human labor was too voracious for business ever to agree to such limits.  So long as the business cycle was on its upward arc, the compulsion to exploit labor power was insatiable.  When the market went south, all that surplus humanity could be left to fend for itself.  Its partisans nonetheless believed that the movement for an eight-hour day would expose the barbarism of the economic system for all to see, opening the door to something more humane.

In other words, a wide spectrum of responses to unemployment was enfolded within a broad and growing anti-capitalist culture.  Within the organized labor movement, that proto -union, the Knights of Labor, was immersed in the idea of an anti-capitalist insurgency.  Most trade unions of the time, however, accepted that the “wages system” was here to stay and focused instead on the issues of job security, fighting for unemployment benefit funds for members, seniority, prohibitions against overtime, and the shortening of working hours. 

Even agitation to ban child labor and limit female employment was motivated in part by a desire to temper the pervasiveness of unemployment by curtailing the pool of available labor.  Other trade union procedures and proposals were more mean-spirited, including attempts to ban immigration or exclude African-American and other minorities or the unskilled from membership in the movement.  That insularity bedevils trade unionism to this day.

As part of this tumultuous season of upheaval, which lasted from the 1870s through the Great Depression, the unemployed themselves organized demonstrations.  A gathering in Tomkins Square Park of thousands of New Yorkers left destitute by the panic and depression of 1873 was dispersed with infamous brutality by the police.  Local newspapers labeled the protestors “communards.” (The recently defeated Paris Commune had ignited a hysterical fear of “un-American” radicalism, a toxin that has never since left the American bloodstream.) 

Although the Tomkins Square rally was mainly a plea for relief and public works, there was some talk of marching on Wall Street.  Such radical rhetoric, not to speak of actual violence, was hardly unusual in such confrontations then, a measure of how raw class relations were and how profoundly disturbed people had become by the haunting presence of mass unemployment.

 
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