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In Search of the Lost Battalion of America's Unemployed | The Nation

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In Search of the Lost Battalion of America's Unemployed

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How then to accommodate both man and beast under the same beach umbrella of the American dream, make the freedom-loving argument that Franklin’s craftsmen and Jefferson’s husbandmen differ only in their angles to the sun from the hostess in the bunny costume checking coats in a Playboy club? By the turn of the twentieth century, the question of what constitutes the meaning of labor as well as a fair return on its performance was the elephant on the table of American politics.

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Lewis Lapham
Lewis Lapham, former editor of Harper's is launching a new venture, Lapham's Quarterly. His most recent book is...

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Over the decades, this catchall term has lost all bite and meaning.

An alienated proletariat had been imported from China to build America’s western railroads, from Ireland and Eastern Europe to service its eastern factories, and between 1870 and 1914, the bitter, often violent division between the differently purposed lines of work was made manifest in the financial markets and the streets. The great railroad strike in 1877 moved Thomas Alexander Scott, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad, to suggest that the strikers be given “a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread.” State militia and federal troops complied with the suggestion, killing more than 100 strikers in Maryland and Pennsylvania. The putting down of the Haymarket Riot in Chicago in 1886, and the breaking of the Homestead Strike in Andrew Carnegie’s steel works in 1892, reinforced the rule of money; the bank panics of 1893 and 1907, preceded by heedless speculation in the stock markets, led to widespread unemployment, bankruptcy, foreclosure and depression.

The disputes varied in their particulars (the protective tariff, the prices paid for gold and silver, the legitimacy of the labor unions), but in every instance what was at issue were the terms of service as defined on the one hand by President Teddy Roosevelt in a Labor Day speech at Syracuse, New York, in 1903: “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing”; on the other hand by Woodrow Wilson, still president of Princeton University in 1909, speaking to the New York City High School Teachers Association: “We want one class of persons to have a liberal education, and we want another class of persons, a very much larger class of necessity in every society, to forego the privilege of a liberal education and fit themselves to perform specific difficult manual tasks.”

Wilson’s way of looking at things aligns itself with what was to become America’s chrome-plated future, Roosevelt’s with its homespun past. The Rough Rider was trading in nostalgia, looking back to his days as a young man, a young man who also happened to be rich, shooting buffaloes in the Dakota Territory. The sentiment shows up in Norman Maclean’s remembrance of the way it was out among the tall trees in the summer of 1927: “As to the big thing, sawing, it is something beautiful when you are working together—at times, you forget what you are doing and get lost in abstractions of motion and power. But when sawing isn’t rhythmical, even for a short time, it becomes a kind of mental illness—maybe even something more deeply disturbing than that. It is as if your heart isn’t working right.”

It is here that one finds the dignity of labor and the expression of man’s humanity to man. One can illuminate the feeling on which Eugene V. Debs, president of the American Railway Union, mounted his candidacy for US president in the election of 1912, attracting over 900,000 votes on the strength of his belief that “the workers are the saviors of society, the redeemers of the race.”

Wilson didn’t think so, and Wilson won the election, defeating Roosevelt as well as Debs. The establishment in 1913 of the Federal Reserve Bank overruled the prolonged objection by the instruments of labor to their uses in the hands of capital, shifting control of the nation’s currency from the public to the private sector.

The Labor of Consumption

It is man’s nature to be doing something, or at least to fancy that he’s doing something, but to what purpose, and for whom? Satisfactory answers to the questions lately have been hard to find, not only for the unemployed poor but also for the underemployed remnant of what was once a diligently aspiring middle class. It isn’t simply that the consumer markets don’t value work worth doing; it’s that the society’s ruling and possessing classes regard working for a living as the mark of inferior or damaged goods.

The attitude made its first appearance on the American scene during the Gilded Age, dancing with the newly crowned kings of finance under the ballroom chandeliers in Newport and New York. Thorstein Veblen took note of the arrival in 1899, his Theory of the Leisure Class, suggesting that it is the conspicuous consumption of the product of other people’s time and effort that makes up the sum of one’s own worth and meaning. Not the doing of the work, the digesting of it. “Leisure, considered as an employment,” said Veblen, “is closely allied in kind with the life of exploit, and the achievements which characterize a life of leisure and which remain as its decorous criteria, have much in common with the trophies of exploit.”

During the years prior to the Second World War, the attitude was safely confined to a small number of people preserved in the aspic of what was then big money. The victories over Germany and Japan fostered extensions of the franchise. Rescued by force of arms from the Great Depression, America seemed blessed with the enchantments of both Croesus and Colossus, the indisputable proofs of its wealth and military power giving rise to the notion that all its children were the inheritors of a vast fortune and therefore deserving of the best of all possible worlds that money could buy. No reason not to have it all—a new frontier, a great society, guns for a splendid little war in Asia, butter for the old folks at home, a house in the country, a boat on the lake, the face and fortune in the ad for one of Ralph Lauren’s tennis dresses.

Much of the world in 1945 was either bankrupt or in ruins, and the refurnishing of it supplied the American economy over the next thirty years with an abundance of jobs that afforded the means of independence and a measure of self-worth, while at the same time bringing forth the trophies of exploit to a consumer market more wonderful than the wonderful world of Oz, seeding ever broader acres of the nation’s human topsoil with the presumptions of entitlement favored by Veblen’s Newport heiresses. Don’t worry, be happy; go forth and shop. Leisure considered as employment.

Which was all well and good until it turned out, somewhere in the middle of the 1980s on the yellow brick road with Toto and the Gipper, that the Wizard was easy access to conspicuous credit. For how else could the American leaves of grass join their top-dressed companions on a golf course unless they borrowed money? The country’s working and middle classes discovered that it wasn’t the value of the work itself, or its manufacture of a decent living (as architect, bus driver, sales clerk, actress, lathe operator, automobile mechanic) that made up the sum of the country’s wealth and well-being.

Their great collective enterprise was the labor of consumption, and with it the derivative of debt, a byproduct, like the methane exuded by factory-farmed pigs, that funded the patriotic service owing to God, country and the American Express card. The work was maybe mindless, a substitution of what is animal for what is human, but it fattened the gross domestic product, enriched the insurance companies and the banks, welcomed the second coming of an American Gilded Age and now accounts for the increasingly grotesque disparity between the income earned as wages and the revenue collected as rent, interest, dividend, stock option and year-end bonus.

Americans with jobs imagine they now work longer and harder hours than did their forebears on Mark Twain’s Missouri frontier; if so, their labor serves a purpose other than the one in hand. Finance accounted for 47 percent of total US corporate profits in 2007; 58 percent of Harvard University’s male graduates in that same year (the heirs and assigns of Woodrow Wilson’s small class of persons deserving of a liberal education) took up careers as high-end traffickers in the drug of debt. It’s a lucrative trade, up to the standard of the cotton export from the dear old antebellum South. That it doesn’t add to the sum of human happiness or meaning is probably why the gentry on the lawns of Connecticut, together with their upper servants in Washington and the news media, talk about the lost battalion of America’s unemployed as a set of conveniently invisible numbers rather than as a body of fellow citizens.

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