This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.
Not long ago, the city council of Ventura, California, passed an ordinance making it legal for the unemployed and homeless to sleep in their cars. At the height of the Great Recession of 2008, one third of the capital equipment of the American economy lay idle. Of the women and men idled along with that equipment, only 37 percent got a government unemployment check and that check, on average, represented only 35 percent of their weekly wages.
Meanwhile, there are now two million "99ers"—those who have maxed out their supplemental unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Think of them as a full division in "the reserve army of labor." That "army," in turn, accounts for 17 percent of the American labor force, if one includes part-time workers who need and want full-time work and the millions of unemployed Americans who have grown so discouraged that they've given up looking for jobs and so aren't counted in the official unemployment figures. As is its historic duty, that force of idle workers is once again driving down wages, lengthening working hours, eroding on-the-job conditions, and adding an element of raw fear to the lives of anyone still lucky enough to have a job.
No one volunteers to serve in this army. But anyone, from Silicon Valley engineers to Florida tomato pickers, is eligible to join what, in our time, might be thought of as the all-involuntary force. Its mission is to make the world safe for capitalism. Today, with the world spiraling into a second "Great Recession" (even if few, besides the banks, ever noticed that the first one had ended), its ranks are bound to grow.
The All-Involuntary Army (of Labor)
As has always been true, the coexistence of idling workplaces and cast-off workers remains the single most severe indictment of capitalism as a system for the reproduction of human society. The arrival of a new social category—"the 99ers"—punctuates that grim observation today.
After all, what made the Great Depression "great" was not only the staggering level of unemployment (no less true in various earlier periods of economic collapse), but its duration. Years went by, numbingly, totally demoralizingly, without work or hope. When it all refused to end, people began to question the fundamentals, to wonder if, as a system, capitalism hadn't outlived its usefulness.
Nowadays, the 99ers notwithstanding, we don't readily jump to such a conclusion. Along with the "business cycle," including stock market bubbles and busts and other economic perturbations, unemployment has been normalized. No one thinks it's a good thing, of course, but it's certainly not something that should cause us to question the way the economy is organized.
Long gone are the times when unemployment was so shocking and traumatic that it took people back to the basics. We don't, for instance, even use that phrase "the reserve army of labor" anymore. It strikes many, along with "class struggle" and "working class," as embarrassing. It's too "Marxist" or anachronistic in an age of post-industrial flexible capitalism, when we've grown accustomed to the casualness and transience of work, or even anointed it as a form of "free agency."
However, long before leftists began referring to the unemployed as a reserve army, that redolent metaphor was regularly wielded by anxious or angry nineteenth century journalists, government officials, town fathers, governors, churchmen, and other concerned citizens. Something new was happening, they were sure, even if they weren't entirely clear on what to make of it.
Unemployment suddenly became a chronic and frightening aspect of modern life affecting millions.
Unemployment as a recurring feature of the social landscape only caught American attention with the rise of capitalism in the pre-Civil War era. Before that, even if the rhythms of agricultural and village life included seasonal oscillations between periods of intense labor and downtime, farmers and handicraftsmen generally retained the ability to sustain their families.
Hard times were common enough, but except in extremis most people retained land and tools, not to speak of common rights to woodlands, grazing areas, and the ability to hunt and fish. They were—we would say today—"self-employed." Only when such means of subsistence and production became concentrated in the hands of merchant-capitalists, manufacturers, and large landowners did the situation change fundamentally. A proletariat—those without property of any kind except their own labor power—made its appearance, dependent on the propertied to employ them. If, for whatever reason, the market for their labor power dried up, they were set adrift.
This process of dispossession lasted more than a century. In the early decades of the nineteenth century, its impact remained limited. The farmers, handicraftsmen, fishermen, and various tradespeople swept into the new textile or shoe factories, or the farm women set to work out in the countryside spinning and weaving for merchant capitalists still held onto some semblance of their old ways of life. They maintained vegetable gardens, continued to hunt and fish, and perhaps kept a few domestic animals.
When the first commercial panics erupted in the 1830s and 1850s and business came to a standstill, many could fall back on pre-capitalist ways of making a living, even if a bare one. Still, the first regiments of the reserve army of the unemployed had made their appearance. Jobless men were already roaming the roads, an alarming new sight for townspeople not used to such things.
Demobilizing the Workforce Becomes the New Norm
When industrial capitalism exploded after the Civil War, unemployment suddenly became a chronic and frightening aspect of modern life affecting millions. Panics and depressions now occurred with distressing frequency. Their randomness, severity, and duration (some lasted half a decade or more) only swelled the ranks of the reserve army. Crushing helplessness in the face of unemployment would be a devastating new experience for the great waves of immigrants just landing on American shores, many of them peasants from southern and eastern Europe accustomed to falling back on their own meager resources in fields and forests when times were bad.
The very presence of this "army" of able-bodied but destitute workers seemed to catch the essential savagery of the new economy and it stunned onlookers. The "tramp" became a ubiquitous figure, travelling the roads and rails, sometimes carrying his tools with him, desperate for work. He proved a threatening specter for villagers and city people alike.
Just as shocking was a growing realization—made undeniable by each dismal repetition of the business cycle—that the new industrial economy wasn't just producing that reserve army, but depended on its regular mobilization and demobilization to carry on the process of capital accumulation. It was no passing phenomenon, no natural disaster that would run its course. It was the new normal.