In 1795, the justices of Berkshire established a scale of relief for the poor and underemployed in England. This revolutionary departure from the draconian, punitive English Poor laws established a base line of survival or minimum standard of living to be guaranteed to those whom circumstances placed below this level. Known as the Speenhamland system, this approach soon prevailed throughout England. As Karl Polanyi pointed out in his essential book, The Great Transformation, Speenhamland effectively established, for the first time, a “right to live.” It was abolished in 1834. Polanyi remarked, “Indeed, nothing could be more obvious than that the wage system imperatively demanded the withdrawal of the ‘right to live’ as proclaimed in Speenhamland – under the new regime of the economic man, nobody would work for a wage if he could make a living by doing nothing.” In other words, the logic of capitalism is inimical with a “right to live”.
This truth was borne out two centuries later when our elected officials under Bill Clinton again wrenched the “right to live” out of the welfare system and enforced the imperatives of the labor market. The timing was fortuitous. Decades of vulgar media accounts of welfare laziness and indolence had wormed its way into the popular imagination and employment was relatively high. Few saw this as a scheme to relieve a tight labor market and pressure wages downward – the same logic that drove the abolishment of Speenhamland.
Now, a decade and a half later, the labor market is non-existent and there is no “right to live”. Hopefully, history will settle the score with those responsible for the destruction of our welfare system, but, in the meantime, millions face a bleak future in the face of a teetering economy and mass unemployment.
Eighty years ago –July 4, 1930 – 1,320 delegates assembled to form the National Unemployed Council, an organization that grew to 800,000 members by 1938. This founding meeting came on the heels of demonstrations nationwide engaging nearly a million and a half unemployed in March of 1930. Both the demonstrations and the National Unemployed Councils were organized by the Communist Party and the Trade Union Unity League. These actions led to the later enactment of Social Security, Unemployment Insurance and other vital, life-affirming social programs.
No such organization exists today, though one is urgently needed to fight for the needs of the millions who have been thrown off the unemployment relief roles – the gutting of Unemployment Insurance. The size of the civilian labor force has shrunk dramatically from May to June, indicating unemployed workers losing their benefits or discouraged from looking for work. Their numbers will explode to at least three million by the end of July if unemployment benefits are not restored. To add perspective, one must count, in most cases, spouses, children and other dependents to fully appreciate the brutal effects of these lost benefits.
At the same time, those lucky enough to have jobs are experiencing greater hardships. In June, average hours of work dropped, as did average hourly wages. Jesse Rothstein, chief economist for the Labor Department, quoted in The Wall Street Journal, said: “It’s hard to overstate how deep the hole is….” Many “don’t seem to be appreciating the gravity of the situation.” That would include our politicians and the media. They seem to share more with Richard Hastings, macro and consumer strategist at Global Hunter Securities, who wrote about the unsuccessful vote on extending unemployment benefits: “The vote’s message was probably healthy: move in with your parents and learn to take care of something other than your next tweet.” Surely, there is a special place in hell for Hastings and his ilk.
Polling by the Pew Research Center gives a snap shot of the effects of the downturn on those still clinging to a job: 28% have had their work hours reduced, 23% have suffered cuts in pay, 12% were forced to take unpaid leave, and 11% were made part-time. These drastic changes in the work place have generated equally drastic changes in personal habits, from spending less on expensive items to deferring marriage and children. Mainstream economists will focus – correctly – upon the potential loss of buying power, while conveniently ignoring the accompanying intensification of the labor of those holding jobs and the resultant increase in the rate of exploitation for the sake of profits.
In this desperate accounting, a distinction is lost. All would agree that in one sense the devastation befalling working people is a result of the economic crisis. But, more importantly, the pain of unemployment, impoverishment and hyper-exploitation is the result of both corporate and political policy decisions; people in power have decreed with their decisions that most people will suffer. This understanding cuts through the fatalism and despair that grip so many. There are other policies that would not saddle the majority of us with such a bleak future.
This same understanding should awaken people to the cynical, dishonest offensive against Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid now being mounted by our political elites. Wildly exaggerated claims about the insolvency of these programs have circulated for decades, mostly as cover for the financial sector’s rapacious hunger for the assets held by or flowing through them. For a brief moment, attention turned away, thanks to the implosion of the financial sector and the embarrassing disappearance of massive wealth to banking irresponsibility. With the financial sector now alive and well, due to an obscenely generous transfusion of public funds, attention has returned to stripping these programs – this time under the ruse of “deficit reduction.” One can only marvel at the slavish creation by our corporate media of the new fear of “unsustainable” sovereign public debt. In a short time, opinion makers, politicians, and academic economists have joined hands to manufacture a fictitious monster threatening the very foundations of our way of life, a way of life that is merely a fleeting memory for most. With nearly two-thirds of the US population believing that this apparition is our greatest threat, the attack on the last remaining elements of a people’s economy is swiftly moving forward.
Whether one believes in apparitions or not, the debt-scare could be answered in many ways that would not disable these popular programs: taxes could be raised on corporations and the wealthy; revenues could be generated in myriad ways; from taxes on risky speculative ventures in the financial sector, foreign military aggression could be ended; the military budget could be dramatically slashed; the CIA could be eliminated; single-payer health care could be enacted; the costly criminal justice system could be dramatically reduced by replacing punitive judicial measures with treatment and rehabilitation; etc.
But it is abundantly clear that policy makers have their sights on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. They have drawn conclusions from the recent European experience of debt hysteria provoking austerity - austerity exacting the huge loss of jobs, income and benefits in the public sector, as well as radical surgery on the social safety net.
The Obama Administration sought to begin this process by encouraging the Congress to establish a committee to address “fiscal responsibility,” with entitlement programs clearly the target. With the forthcoming November elections in mind, Congress balked. Determined to move forward, the Administration established a National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and extracted a promise from Congressional leaders that their findings would receive an up-or-down vote after the November elections, shielding the potential damage from a popular backlash against Congress as a result of the vote.
The Commission is loaded with debt-scolds sharing a history of advocacy of privatization, market friendliness, and public-sector austerity. President Obama has set a tone of cost cutting by declaring that “All of us should be worried about the fact that we have been running the credit card in the name of future generations. We’ve got to get our debt and our deficits under control…especially on big-ticket items… That’s going to be our project for the next couple of years.” He made no mention of extracting revenues from the multi-millionaires and billionaires who have profited hugely from generating and managing that debt.
The members of the Commission, most vocally its co-chairs, have been transparent about its goals of cost cutting and focusing on entitlement programs. Alan Simpson, one of the co-chairs of the Commission, “reassured” that no one over 58 needs to worry about Social Security benefits. The not-so-hidden implication is that everyone else should be worried!
Just as in 1834, we are now confronted with a massive, determined effort to destroy the “right to live” in the face of a deepening crisis of capitalism rapidly eroding jobs and benefits for the majority of US citizens. They are caught in a vise of collapsing living standards on one side and draconian policy decisions on the other. It is not a moment to contemplate electoral prospects or renew our vows with hope, but a time to act. Desperate times are not served well by pragmatism and maneuvers to subtly shift the balance of forces. Instead we need to project new and not-so-new, but bold policies that challenge the dominant trends in US politics. We can debate the political nuances of these dominant trends – whether they are spawned by the strength of the ultra-right, the spinelessness of Democrats, or the consensus obsessions of the President – but it is more important that we move on to organizing and leading a fight back.
We must organize and build movements to stop the aggressive wars of our military and our imperialist allies.
We must fight for a federal jobs program of the boldness of the New Deal that puts swift job creation above contractor profits. Such a program must have strong affirmative action constraints.
We must demand unlimited unemployment insurance until employment returns to historically stable levels.
We must demand a shorter workweek with the same pay for private sector jobs, a move that will stimulate new hiring in this sector.
We must demand the broadening and strengthening of welfare for those who have fallen away from the job market.
We must make every effort to derail the ruling class plans to eviscerate the popular entitlement programs of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.
These are life-or-death immediate demands that cannot wait for the formalities of the November election.