Uncle Sam Does(n’t) Want You: America's Reserve Army of the Unemployed
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.
This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.
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% got a government unemployment check and that check, on average, represented only 35% 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% 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 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.
Initial reactions were varied and dramatic. Local governments rushed to pass punitive laws against tramping and vagrancy, mandating terms of six months to two years of hard labor in workhouses. Meanwhile, the orthodox thinking of that moment raised steep barriers to government aid for those in need. During the devastating depression of the 1870s, for instance, President Ulysses Grant’s Secretary of the Treasury put things succinctly: “It is not part of the business of government to find employment for people.”
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.
Just as telling, the unemployed and those still at work but at loggerheads with their bosses frequently displayed their solidarity in public. During the “Great Insurrection” of 1877, when railroad strikers from coast to coast faced off against state militias, federal troops, and the private armies of the railroad barons, they were joined by regiments of the “reserve army.” Often these were their neighbors and family members, but also strangers who, feeling an affinity for their beleaguered brethren, preferred setting fire to railroad engine houses than going to work in them as scabs. Amid the awful depression of the 1890s, a cigar maker caught the temper of the times simply: “I believe the working men themselves will have to take action. I believe those men that are employed will have look out for the unemployed that work at the same business they do.”
Marching Armies (of the Unemployed)
Demonstrations of the unemployed resurfaced with each major economic downturn. In the depression winter of 1893-1894, for example, ragged “armies” of the desperate gathered in various parts of the country, 40 of them in all. (Eighteen-year-old future novelist Jack London joined one in California.) The largest commandeered a train in an effort to get to Washington, D.C., and was chased for 300 miles across Montana by federal troops.
The most famous of them was led by Jacob Coxey, a self-made Ohio businessman. “Coxey’s Army” (more formally known as “the Commonwealers” or the “Commonwealth of Christ Army”) made it all the way to the capital, a “living petition” to Congress. It was led by his 17-year-old daughter as “the Goddess of Peace” riding a white horse.
In the nation’s capital, the “Army” lodged its plea for relief, work, and an increase in the money supply. (Jacob’s son was called “Legal Tender Cox.”) President Grover Cleveland wasn’t hearing any of it, having already made his views known in 1889 during his first term in office: “The lessons of paternalism ought to be unlearned and the better lesson taught that while the people should patriotically and cheerfully support their government, its functions do not include support of the people.”
Christian charity was not Cleveland’s long suit. Others of the faith, however, believers in the social gospel and Christian socialism especially, staged spectacular public dramas on behalf of the “shorn lambs of the unemployed”—even a mock “slave auction” in Boston in 1921 during a severe post-World War I slump, in which the jobless were offered to the highest bidders as evidence of what “wage slavery” really meant.
The Great Depression brought this protracted period of labor turmoil to a climax and to an end. In its early years, the ethos of “mutualism” and solidarity between the employed and unemployed was strengthened. In those years, railroads began to report startling jumps in the numbers of Americans engaged in “train hopping”—the rail equivalent of hitchhiking. On one line, the “hoppers” went from 14,000 in 1929 to 186,000 in 1931.
In 1930, when the unemployment rate was at about today’s level, in cities across the country the first rallies of the unemployed began with demands for work and relief. Later, there were food riots and raids on delivery trucks and packinghouses, as well as the occupations of shuttered coalmines and bankrupt utility companies by the desperate who began to work them.
“Leagues” and “councils” of the unemployed, sometimes organized by the Communist Party, sometimes by the Socialist Party, and sometimes by a group run by radical pacifist A.J. Muste, marshaled their forces to stop home evictions, support strikes, and make far-reaching proposals for a permanent system of public works and unemployment insurance. Muste’s groups, strong in the Midwest, set up bartering arrangements and labor exchanges among the jobless.
In support of striking workers, unemployed protestors shut down the Briggs plant in Highland Park, Michigan—it manufactured auto bodies for Ford—pledging that they would not scab on the striking workers. A march of former and current employees of the Ford facilities in Dearborn, Michigan, made the unusual demand that the company (not the government) provide work for the jobless. For their trouble, they were bloodied by Ford’s hired thugs and five of them were killed.
President Herbert Hoover took similar action. In a move that shocked much of the nation, he ordered Army Chief of Staff General Douglas MacArthur to use troops to disperse the Bonus Expeditionary Army, World War I jobless veterans gathered in tents on Anacostia Flats in Washington asking for accelerated payments of their war-time pensions. They were routed at bayonet point and MacArthur’s troops burned down their tent city.
How the New Deal Dealt
The Great Depression was, however, so profoundly unsettling that the unemployed finally became a political constituency of national proportions. The pressure on mainstream politicians to do something grew ever more intense. The Conference of Mayors that meets to this day was founded then to lobby Washington for federal relief for the jobless. Even segments of the business community had begun to complain about the “costs” of unemployment when it came to workplace efficiency.
Unemployment insurance, work relief, welfare, and public works—all of which had surfaced in public debate since the turn of the twentieth century—made up the basic package of responses offered by President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal to the inherent insecurity of proletarian life. None were exactly expansive either in what they provided or in their execution, and yet all of them found themselves under chronic assault from birth (as they are today).
The most daring legislation under consideration, the Lundeen bill (authored by a Minnesota congressman), would have provided unemployment insurance equal to prevailing wages for anyone over 18 working part or full time. Though it never became law, it was to be financed by a tax on incomes exceeding $5,000, and administered by elected worker representatives. It was not atypical in its most basic assumption which once would have been thought intolerable—that unemployment at significant levels would continue into the indefinite future.
Unemployment was now to be ameliorated, but also accepted. Harry Hopkins, who ran the New Deal’s relief efforts, was typical in predicting that “a probable minimum of four to five million” Americans would remain out of work “even in future ‘prosperity’ periods.” Consequently, the new relief reforms were to be considered defense mechanisms designed to recharge the batteries of a stalled economy and to minimize the political fallout from outsized joblessness. This menu of “solutions” has constituted the core of the labor and progressive movement’s approach to unemployment ever since.
“The Natural Rate of Unemployment”
After World War II, unemployment became, for the most part, a numerical and policy issue rather than a social phenomenon. By the 1960s, what once struck most Americans as unnatural and ghastly had been fully transformed by economists and political elites into “the natural rate of unemployment”—a level of joblessness that should never be tampered with because it was futile to do so and to try would induce inflation.
More recently matters have turned truly perverse. Neo-liberals, who during the Reagan era of the 1980s eclipsed Keynesians as the dominant thinkers when it came to economic policy, were worried that unemployment might not be high enough. It was increasingly feared that, if the ranks of the jobless were not large indeed, both labor costs and inflation would rise, threatening the future value of capital investments. The world, in other words, had turned upside down.
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.
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