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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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As official society adapted to the permanence of unemployment, the unemployed themselves subsided into political quiescence. There were exceptions, however. 

Perhaps the most massive unemployment demonstration in the nation’s history took place in 1963 when 100,000 Americans marched on Washington for “Jobs and Freedom.”  It is a telling commentary on the political sensibilities of the last half-century that the March on Washington, recalled mainly for Martin Luther King’s famed “I Have a Dream” speech, is rarely if ever remembered as an outpouring of righteous anger about a system that consigned much of a whole race to the outcast status first experienced by the young women of New England textile mills in antebellum America.

Today, the question is: As the new unemployment “norm” rises, will the “99ers” remain just a number, or will anger and systemic dysfunction lead to the rebirth of movements of the unemployed, perhaps allied, as in the past, with others suffering from the economy’s relentless downward arc?  Keep in mind that the extent of organized protest by the unemployed in the past should not be exaggerated.  Not even the Great Depression evoked their sustained mass mobilization.  That’s hardly surprising.  By its nature, unemployment demoralizes and isolates people.  It makes of them a transient and chronically fluctuating population with no readily discernable common enemy and no obvious place to coalesce.

Another question might be: In the coming years, might we see the return of a basic American horror at the phenomenon of joblessness?  And might it drive Americans to begin to ask deeper questions about the system that lives and feeds on it? 

After all, we now exist in an under-developing economy.  What new jobs it is creating are poor paying, low skill, and often temporary, nor are there enough of them to significantly reduce the numbers of those out of work.  The 99ers are stark evidence that we may be witnessing the birth of a new permanent class of the marginalized.  (The percentage of the unemployed who have been out of work for more than six months has grown from 8.6% in 1979 to 19.6% today.)  Moreover, our mode of “flexible capitalism” has made work itself increasingly transient and precarious. 

Until now, ideologues of the new order have had remarkable success in dressing this up as a new form of freedom.  But our ancestors, who experienced frequent and distressing interruptions in their work lives, who migrated thousands of miles to find jobs which they kept or lost at the whim of employers, and who, in solitary search for work, tramped the roads and hopped the freight cars (even if they could not yet roam Internet chat rooms), were not so delusional. 

We have a choice: Americans can continue to accept large-scale unemployment as “natural” and permanent, even -- a truly grotesque development -- as a basic feature on a bipartisan road to “recovery” via austerity.  Or we can follow the lead of the jobless young in the Arab Spring and of protestors beginning to demonstrate en masse in Europe.  Even the newly minted proletarians of Ventura, California, sleeping in their cars, may decide that they have had enough of a political and economic order of things so bankrupt it can find no use for them at any price.


Steve Fraser is Editor-at-Large of New Labor Forum and co-founder of the American Empire Project (Metropolitan Books). He is, most recently, the author of Wall Street: America’s Dream Palace. He teaches history at Columbia University.

Joshua B. Freeman teaches history at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and is affiliated with its Joseph S. Murphy Labor Institute. His forthcoming book, American Empire, will be the final volume of the Penguin History of the United States.

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