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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 2 million ”99ers”—those who have maxed out their supplemental unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for more than ninety-nine 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.”