Unemployment is a devastating experience, disrupting and, too often, destroying the lives of families and individuals. There are no reality television shows, no 4-part series on Public Television, and no in depth accounts in the major media of the pain of joblessness, despite the fact that it touches, in one way or another, a majority of US citizens. The harm of unemployment – lost homes, broken relationships, desperation, and fear of the future – counts for nothing with the corporate media. Those who have lost jobs that they have held for five, ten or more years are the forgotten victims of a callous capitalism that rewards the greediest, most self-centered of our fellow citizens. There are no Steinbecks, Guthries or Capras bringing their plight into public consciousness. They bear their pain and insecurity privately and anonymously behind a curtain of official indifference.
Thursday, June 24 will be remembered as an especially shameful day in US history. After a Senate roll call vote, 1.3 million unemployed US citizens were to lose their unemployment benefits the next day. Counting those already scheduled to exhaust their benefits, over two million will be denied benefits by July 10. Thursday evening, Senators left their posts to enjoy a pleasant evening with friends or families – some with the smug satisfaction that they had voted right, still others clinging to some “higher” principle that they were holding the deficit in rein. There was none of the histrionics associated with the brutal attack on September 11, 2001, though undoubtedly many more lives will be affected negatively by this cruel vote. Families will have to make dramatic decisions over the next few weeks: let the car go and pay the mortgage; drop the COBRA health care program, accept foreclosure on the house; cancel college for the kids; sell personal effects on e-bay; etc. etc.
Does any one care?
Certainly not the political class – the well coiffed legislators who speak to the corporate media in their uniforms: sober business suits replete with the mandatory US flag lapel pin as a symbol of their patriotic zeal. On both sides of the aisle, they have their lobbyist lackeys to assure them that they did all they could in the face of the well-known 60% threshold that dictates that a Senate majority is not really a majority. After all, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has tried three times to get a 60% vote on unemployment extension. What more could we ask of him? It’s really that renegade Democrat, Ben Nelson, who always spoils the party. Now it’s on to passing a bill to cut taxes on small businesses.
And there is no lack of shameless hacks and crude apologists who will spin the brutal vote as really deserving of high praise. According to The Wall Street Journal, economics Professor Bruce Meyer of the University of Chicago argues that “There’s a very large body of research that says that more generous benefits that last longer… encourage people to stay out of work longer.” No doubt the looming disaster facing two million US citizens will prove to be an incentive to seek a non-existent job. For the learned professor, firmly secured in his tenured perch, the fate of the two million is of little consequence.
Another calloused comment came from Representative John Linder of Georgia: “…reports are coming in now that individuals are purposely staying unemployed so that they can continue to be propped up by the American taxpayer as long as possible.” In a world responsibly governed, this unjustified slander on US citizens would be met with outrage and censure. Not so in this season of toadyism and illusory bi-partisanship.
The Republican Senators predictably voted against extending unemployment, hiding behind the now ubiquitous debt scare. Their hypocrisy shines through in the face of the enormous, growing debt we have inherited from the former Republican administration – a debt incurred by their advocacy of wars, tax cuts for the rich and corporate welfare.
The Democrats offer a different flavor of hypocrisy; they are the party of regret. They regret that they don’t have the votes to override a Republican filibuster threat; they regret that they cannot keep their legislators in line; and they regret that they cannot rally around any but the most modest efforts at reform or legislative action. For those who will lose their homes, cars, credit ratings, relationships and, in some cases, their lives in the months to come, these regrets will be little consolation. They may wonder why the Democrats don’t call the Republicans on their filibuster threat and take the issue to the public, mobilizing Party activists, holding press conferences, publicizing the plight of the unemployed and using the presidency to shape public sentiment. They may wonder why the Democratic Party pit bull, Rahm Emmanuel, doesn’t discipline the renegades like Ben Nelson, with threats of withholding funding, denying committee positions or running primary opposition. They may wonder if Democrats know the difference between a weak gesture and a determined fight.
But it’s not just the political class that bears the responsibility for this totally avoidable human tragedy. From organized labor to our small Marxist-Leninist movement, we have done far too little to ensure this essential element of the right to life; without unemployment benefits, the lives of hundreds of thousands will come crashing down. The Thursday vote came and went without militant protests and massive demonstrations. The malaise that has settled over the left and the labor movement for decades has disposed us to look for others – the Democratic Party, charities, social agencies, lawyers and judges – to do our work. Further, we know that our predecessors – the movements that emerged in the thirties and gave us unemployment insurance – did not shirk their duty to organize and agitate. They were not waiting for the workers to spontaneously rise, but organized demonstrations and other militant actions that shook the politicians in Washington into action.
Too much is at stake to waste time distributing blame. We all share the shame of the Thursday vote and its disastrous consequences. Will we act?