Against Mass Unemployment The United Struggle of The Whole Working Class

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Despite all the talk about the recovery of the economy, the jobs have not returned, and those who still have jobs are still haunted by the threat of unemployment.

The political sham

Meanwhile, the ongoing political drama on Capitol Hill over the extension of unemployment benefits looks more and more like a daytime soap-opera. The delay in the Senate in late February over the extension of unemployment benefits led to a temporary lapse in benefits for close to one million people. There's lots of bickering with the major capitalist parties blocking each other's measures, while painting their opponents as inconsiderate, out-of-touch, or incompetent.

These back-and-forth battles serve a number of objectives for the ruling class. When the Democrats blame the Republicans for failing to extend unemployment benefits the aim is to present the state as the ultimate social guardian, the lie that the state cares for the needy and protects its citizens. But the very nature of these extensions is that they are only happening one month at a time, constantly keeping the unemployed waiting, worrying, dependent, and always on the verge of total destitution. Despite the claims of "concern" these measures aim to maintain the feeling of helplessness and powerless among the unemployed which is already created by the frustratingly complex and humiliating processes of applying for and collecting these benefits in the first place.

This feeling of powerlessness is reinforced by the mechanism of the unemployment benefits system itself, whereby each unemployed worker relates to the state as an isolated individual - a needy person asking for help - powerless to do anything but beg. But where the individual can feel lost the working class has the capacity to collectively confront the state.

The Republicans, on the other hand speak the language of "fiscal responsibility" to try and reinforce the stereotype of the unemployed not trying hard enough, and being a drain on the national economy. This propaganda tries to mask the real extent of capitalism's crisis as well as undermine the real solidarity those in work feel for those who are unemployed.

Yet when workers see the petty squabbling between the parties it's not taken as proof that one or the other is uncaring or incompetent, but that the state in general, does not care about unemployment. And the idea that the unemployed are undeserving wears thin when more than 1 in 6 people in the US are either out of work or working part-time because they cannot find jobs, and when every worker knows that he or she could be laid off at a moment's notice, like so many others already have been.

A deepening catastrophe

The official unemployment rate in the United States for March was already 10.2%, but if we count those who have given up looking for non-existent jobs, this number is raised to 11.5%, and if we add workers who are employed part-time because they can't find full-time work, the number is 17.5% of the civilian population. [1] On top of that this final figure doesn't say anything about the number of workers who've entered the military due to difficulty in finding work, nor does it count those among the chronically unemployed who have turned to crime and are serving prison sentences. A 2009 study from Rutgers University estimated that only 43% of the unemployed are actually collecting benefits.[2]

Among those who do receive benefits, the average length of their unemployment, as of February 2010, was 29.7 weeks (30.2 in January), with 41.2% of those receiving benefits already past the normal benefit period and into emergency benefits. These figures are the highest on record.[3] A recent statement from Goldman Sachs estimates that in the coming months as many as 400,000 people will lose their benefits. Paying out at an average of $1200 a month per person this means roughly $0.5 billion lost in monthly compensation for these workers, which, in turn, presents major problems for the US economy as it reduces potential consumer spending.[4] With less benefit payments in circulation, unemployed workers will have to cut their spending, thus leading to further economic woes as US consumers will be providing an even less adequate market for commodities produced.

As an indicator of what capitalism has to offer to the working class, unemployment expresses the grim truth of capitalism's dead end very clearly. The crisis of unemployment in many ways expresses the central historic crisis of capitalism: overproduction. Capitalism can only continue its cycle of reproduction at the cost of excluding ever greater numbers of producers from the process of production and thus of their means of earning a livelihood.

But, from the point of view of the exploited working class the phenomenon of mass unemployment can act as a powerful stimulant to the development of class consciousness.

How can unemployed workers fight back?

At first, layoffs and unemployment present a very significant obstacle to the class struggle. The bourgeoisie still try to use the unemployed as blackmail against those who are still working to keep them from struggling. And in addition to having to beg to the state and being made to wait on the mercies of the bourgeoisie for another month's rent, unemployed workers may also feel powerless without the weapon of the strike. But, while the unemployed can't strike, they are still part of the working class, and the struggle of unemployed workers is at its strongest when they see themselves as a part of the wider struggle of the working class as a whole. As the ICC wrote in 1978:

"The struggle of the class for wages isn't a sum of struggles by each worker against his individual exploitation, but a general struggle against capital's exploitation of the labor power of the whole working class. The struggle of the unemployed against miserable unemployment pay or rents or social services (gas, electricity, transport etc) has the same basic nature as the struggle for wages. Although it's true that this doesn't immediately show itself in a clear way, it is still based on the global struggle against the extraction of immediate or past, direct or indirect, surplus value which the working class has suffered and continues to suffer. (...) It is not true that the unemployed workers can only participate in the class struggle by taking part in or supporting the workers at work (solidarity with and support for strikes). It is by directly defending themselves tooth and nail against the conditions capital imposes on them, in the place it makes them occupy, that the unemployed workers make their struggle an integral part of the general struggle of the working class against capital, and as such this struggle has to be supported by the entire class." (International Review 14)

If we look to the struggles of the unemployed in the United States in the 1930s, we can see that the unemployed can struggle on a mass basis to fight the state for their interests as part of the working class, even in the darkest periods of counter-revolution. In the first years of the Great Depression, unemployed councils were organized in the neighborhoods of Harlem and the Lower East Side of New York City, which occupied relief offices en masse, stormed City Hall, engaged in demonstrations, and opposed evictions and other attacks with the force of numbers and resolute class violence. Before long, similar loose organizations of the unemployed sprang up all over the country.

The tactics used were in the beginning very effective and entirely on a class terrain. One of the most dramatic ways the unemployed resisted attacks was during evictions. Someone in the neighborhood would hear of a neighbor being evicted for not paying rent and would run down to where the unemployed council met to get everyone to rush to the evictee's apartment. Along the way they would meet others and explain the situation and by the time they would arrive at the apartment, there could be one or two hundred unemployed workers standing outside, opposed to maybe ten police marshals who were moving the furniture out. The crowd would surround them and either fight them to prevent them moving the furniture, or would simply begin putting the furniture back in the home.

Unemployed workers would also storm charities and relief offices with large crowds demanding funds and financial help to pay for rent, groceries, etc., refusing to leave until these payments were made. Francis Fox Piven and Richard Cloward's book Poor People's Movements: Why they Succeed and How they Fail describes these tactics of disruption and direct class violence in more detail and demonstrates that they often yielded results. Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais' Labor's Untold Story for example, claims that strongarm tactics against evictions restored 77,000 evicted families to their homes in New York City alone. Despite being cut off from the point of production, unemployed workers were still able to force the bourgeoisie to back off.

However, the political climate of the 1930s was very disorientating. The Communist Parties everywhere promoted the reactionary idea of "Socialism in one country" with reference to Russia, and, with the Popular Front in Europe and support for the New Deal in the US, showed their support for the national capital everywhere. This led to great confusion even among genuinely revolutionary elements, as the Communist Parties became more and more actively counter-revolutionary.

Most of the unemployed councils in the US had a core of Communist Party members but were not really permanent organs for reform. They were small groups of workers who were able to draw others into sporadic defensive struggles as they erupted. Yet most of the Stalinized Communists were not happy with this. They wanted a permanent, mass, reform organization for the unemployed, and began to form an organization for more "disciplined" and "systematic" campaigns for electoral "pressure" to win things for the unemployed. Portraying the New Deal as a great working-class reform, they directed their energies toward building a voting bloc, lobbying "progressive" Democrats in government. This is how the Communist Party sabotaged the movement. Local initiative vanished, the disruptive tactics were suppressed in order to be diverted into electoral politics, and many of the Communist Party members were eventually recruited into working for the new social welfare programs the state undertook - directly administering the state's austerity in the vain hopes that they could do this "for the unemployed."

Additionally, the general attitude of the working class in the 1930s around the world was profoundly marked by the defeat of the revolutionary attempts of 1917-1923. After the defeat of its most important struggles - and the murder, disintegration, or betrayal of the most influential revolutionaries and militant workers - the working class was profoundly disoriented around the world. Seeing no possibility of another revolutionary offensive against the bourgeois order, the working class was dragooned into the arms of the state.

The US government was able to isolate and compartmentalize the working class by treating the unemployed, those employed by the new Works Progress Administration, and those in regular employment as separate categories. The state also related to workers as individuals through the new administrations set up in the New Deal, thus fragmenting the class into a mass of separate citizens, each relating to the state as only one person asking for assistance, rather than as a class confronting the state with demands. The state was able to pass itself off as the guarantor of social solidarity and savior of the needy with unemployment insurance programs, social security, public works programs, and other measures. All these were, of course, financed with taxes levied from those members of the working class still receiving an income at work. These measures didn't show the generosity of the ruling class. On the contrary the bourgeoisie was able to divide the workers still at work from the unemployed, demanding sacrifices from the former in the name of the latter.

Prospects for the future

These social spending programs were relatively new at the time, and therefore much more suited to disorienting a defeated working class. Today, in contrast, we are witnessing the unraveling of all the so-called "welfare state," public debts that would have been unthinkable to the engineers of the New Deal. More importantly, today the working class is willing to struggle and has not had a revolutionary attempt crushed for generations.

The state is exploiting notions of a kind of solidarity to push through austerity attacks (such as the recent healthcare reform), and there are still many illusions in the power of the state to resolve the crisis. However, given the massive nature of unemployment and the more and more obvious impasse of capitalism, the bourgeois state has great difficulties in selling the ideological campaign against the unemployed as being ‘lazy' and has not succeeded in dividing the class between employed and unemployed.

Of greatest importance is the growing force of the class struggle, both internationally and in the US. In recent years we have seen the massive struggle of students and workers against the CPE law in France in 2006. In the time since the crash kicked in there have been the struggles in December 2008 in Greece, and their continuing echo in 2010. There were the solidarity struggles in Britain in the winter and summer of 2009, and this winter the nation-wide struggle of the Tekel tobacco workers in Turkey, and closer to home the massive mobilization of students (predominantly working class) in California against the state's austerity measures. All these have shown that workers are not going to bow their heads and allow themselves to be sacrificed to pay for capitalism's crisis.

The struggles have shown  a strong tendency for inter-generational solidarity (something that workers unleashing struggles in the 60s and 70s often lacked), and, most recently, in Vigo, Spain we have seen a joint struggle of the unemployed and the employed in the shipyards.[5]

Laid-off workers in Vigo demonstrated outside the factory gates of the Bolsa shipyards against the deplorable conditions that foreign workers were living in and the shameful tactic of exploiting immigrant labor in particularly bad conditions in order to lay off workers whose salaries were deemed too costly for the company. Those laid-off made it clear that they were not against foreign workers or immigrant labor being used, but against the terrible conditions these workers lived in and that they were not hired under the previous agreement that had governed the living standards of workers in that industry. They brought a megaphone and invited the workers outside for a mass assembly calling on them to join in their struggle and a majority came out and marched with them all through the shipyards stopping work at all the major factories. These workers have shown the power that the working class has when it refuses to let itself be divided into the unemployed and the employed, or into foreign and native workers. With the solidarity of their unemployed comrades, the employed workers had the courage and strength to stop work and demand that the previous agreement be kept to, and the unemployed, rather than resigning themselves to their fate, were able to call on those at the point of production to further their struggle!

Unemployed workers can resist and fight back in their position as unemployed workers even without the strike weapon. But when they enlist the active solidarity of workers still at work, when they convince them to enter the struggle, they not only gain the advantage of disturbing the production process, but the very regroupment of workers as a class, both employed and unemployed, already implicitly poses a number of political questions about the bourgeois order, and terrifies the ruling class.

Capitalism uses unemployment and the threat of unemployment to blackmail, pacify, and discourage the working class from struggling. Everywhere the ruling class tries to tie the unemployed as individuals to the state and prevent their struggles from linking up with the rest of the working class, and tells the rest of the workers to "keep your head down, or it'll be you on the chopping block next."

Despite the traps of demoralization, the class struggle is strongest when the unemployed and the employed unite their struggles and overcome the obstacles the bourgeoisie puts in their way. Unemployed workers see that they have allies still at work and workers on the job know that they have allies in the streets that aren't tied to one particular workplace. The impulses of solidarity can help generalize the struggle throughout the whole working class, give it a political direction, and create a force that can take on the ruling class. Unemployment starts as a problem for the working class but can become a factor in the process that makes the working class a threat to capitalism.

Soyonstout 9/4/10

[1].- Bureau of Labor Statistics. "Table A-15. Alternative Measures of Labor Underutilization."

[2].- John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development. "The Anguish of Unemployment." September 2009.

[3].-  Michael A. Fletcher and Dana Hedgpeth "Are unemployment benefits no longer temporary?" Washington Post. March 9, 2010.

[4].- This report is available on several financial blogs, including ZeroHedge and the ShiftCTRL Group blog.

[5].-  See the ICC's article online at for more details of this struggle


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