The Politics of Unemployment and Automation
So what can we learn about the future of technologically-based unemployment based on the African-American experience? A lot, I think.
As the black employment situation deteriorated thanks to automation, the government attempted a number of ham-fisted responses to the problem that ultimately ended up making the situation worse, not better. It’s probably an overstatement to say that all of the political events in the latter-half of the twentieth century in America derive from those actions, but surveying the history, one is struck by how much this is the underlying factor in every major political development since the 1960s, when President Johnson was first warned of the situation.
Governments promoted “affirmative action” schemes–differential hiring policies–to give African-Americans an advantage in the job market, theoretically to make up for the disadvantages noted earlier. It favored the hiring of blacks for local government jobs which could not be shipped off to the suburbs. And it promoted minority scholarships to help blacks pay for higher education.
To cope with segregated schools, it began busing students from inner-cities to facilities throughout the city. The government funded housing “projects” to house the African-Americans unable to afford suburban homes of their own. These projects were based on utopian schemes promoted by European modernists after the war that the Europeans themselves had soundly rejected (Brutalist concrete towers devoid of green space surrounded by freeways).
The social-safety net, always statistically serving more white people than black people in absolute numbers, increasingly became relied upon by urban blacks who had their jobs eliminated due to suburbanization and automation and had nowhere else to turn as their jobs vanished. In such places, entire generations exist who have never known steady employment, leading to dysfunctional behavior patterns. Generations before, such people had worked in the factories which were now long gone.
What these policies ultimately did, however, was to drive a racial wedge between the population. Government became increasingly seen as serving “those people.” The narrative that government does nothing but steal hard-working (white) people’s money and give it to lazy (black) freeloaders became commonplace among the white population, fomented by a generously-funded right-wing media machine targeted to lower-income rural and suburban white voters. Conservative forces mined this racial resentment as a vehicle to dismantle the government which they had long despised due to it being a check on their power and limiting their wealth accumulation. Blacks were depicted as a parasitical “community” looking for handouts, whereas suburban whites were “rugged individualists” who earned their wealth by working hard in the “free market,” and taxes, although never popular, came to be seen as simply “theft.”
Busing became the match on the gasoline of suburbanization, as the last holdouts in the cities joined the mass exodus, leading to even more urban isolation and impoverishment. Affirmative action and minority scholarships fueled the racial resentment of lower-income whites, who had increasing difficulty finding jobs and funding expensive college educations for their own kids. Government and educational “quotas” became another reason for outrage directed at the Federal government. Housing projects promoted social stigma and exclusion, and ended up concentrating poverty, not alleviating it. The dense modernist flats looked more like cell blocks than homes, and were universally regarded as failures, with some even being torn down just decades after being built.
The Republican Party increasingly became the vehicle of white racial resentment and irrational hatred of government. Southern Whites, increasingly seeing the federal government as an agent of enforcing racial equality, flocked to the Republican banner. The Southern states had always resented the Federal Government going back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and this now intensified due to its support for the Civil Rights movement under Democratic presidents. The movement of population to the Sun Belt states (encouraged by air conditioning) gave the states in Dixie more and more political influence over the entire nation. The “Southern Strategy” pioneered by Richard Nixon recast the Republican Party as the maintainer of hierarchical racial order in the face of black assertiveness. The entirely of Dixie switched overnight from Democrats to Republicans, to the extent that The South and Sunbelt became effective one-party states under Republican rule.
But it wasn’t just the South–much of the country where blacks had migrated became “Dixiefied”–animated primarily by fanatical hatred and resentment of government at every level, and suspicion and disparagement of metropolitan areas (which nonetheless remained the major sources of economic activity and population growth).
In areas of the Northeast and Midwest that had seen a significant influx of black migrants who were now unemployed due to automation, racial resentment pushed working class whites into the arms of the Republican Party here too. The party transformed its identity from one that represented wealthy business interests and advocated limited government (The Rockefeller/Goldwater era), to one animated by downscale suburban and rural whites fueled by racial resentment and hatred (as well as religion). The Republicans cast themselves as the party of “law and order”– coded dog-whistle words for keeping minorities in their place. Democrats became seen as the party of minorities, and later “political correctness” in the eyes of rural and suburban white Americans. In other words, “the other team.”
This was cemented in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s first campaign stop was in Philadelphia Mississippi, the site of the murder of several civil-rights activists, calling for an assertion of “state’s rights.” (a common dog-whistle phrase opposing Civil Rights). Reagan touted the “Cadillac-driving welfare queen” (in reality a myth inspired by a single person), and “strapping young bucks buying T-bone steaks,” as a way to gain support for destroying the social welfare system, something conservatives in America had desired since the New Deal. Affirmative action polices and quotas were used to stoke white racial grievance against the federal government. Even today, with the safety net in tatters, Obama is touted as a “food-stamp president” handing out free cell phones to poor urban blacks in right-wing Republican circles. (In reality, the size of the debt and the federal government has expanded much more slowly under Obama than under Republican presidents, especially Reagan).
The 1990’s began a conservative counter-revolution with the construction of think-tanks (The Heritage Foundation, The American Enterprise Institute, etc.), lobbying groups (ALEC, the Chamber of Commerce), and a right-wing media machine with vast reach and unlimited funds (FOX news, talk radio, et. al). In 1981, famed Republican strategist Lee Atwater admitted:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
I Know Why Poor Whites Chant Trump, Trump, Trump (Stir)
Then came the drug war. It began under Nixon and ramped up under Reagan. Ostensibly to stamp out teenage “drug abuse,” it resulted in an incarceration boom unprecedented in all of human history except for perhaps under Stalinist dictatorships (somehow, white taxpayers had no problem footing the bill for this). The illegal drug trade became one of the few avenues of decent incomes and entrepreneurship available to African-Americans due to its underground nature. There is even some evidence that drug abuse was encouraged in black communities to provide justification for this state of affairs. Police forces increasingly became, in David Simon’s words, “An army of occupation.” “Three strikes” laws, “Zero-tolerance” polices, “broken windows” policing, and “stop and frisk,” were all theoretical justifications for cracking down on crime, but enforced disproportionately against urban black populations. Some places became notoriously predatory, as demonstrated by the Federal investigation of Ferguson, Missouri (a ghetto created by the loss of St. Louis’ manufacturing economy).
Today, there are more African Americans in the legal system than there were slaves in 1860. One in four of the world’s prisoners rots away in U.S jails (despite having less than five percent of the world’s population), often under conditions described by the U.N as “torture.”Many of these prisoners are coerced to work for giant corporations for pennies (slavery for convicted criminals is legal under the Constitution). The United States is the only country where more men are raped than women thanks to the brutal conditions in U.S. prisons. Inner-city schools spend more money on police than on counselors, and a school-to-prison pipeline has emerged for African-American youth. The average black teenager is statistically more likely to go to jail than attend college. the U.S. has more internal police and locks up more people than Stalinist Russia.
Everything worked out okay???
Much like white women today, black women adapted better overall to the new “caring and service-oriented” job market than did men. The few inner-city jobs left in the ghettos after suburban flight were typically minimum wage service jobs, especially in the fast-food industry, and government work. Men no longer had the wages to form a family, and predictably family formation went down. Single mothers became the norm, much to sneering derision of wealthy, conservative whites (“baby mommas”). Many black men rationally chose a shorter life and higher income potential in the dangerous black market drug trade to humiliating dead-end work at pitiful wages.
Men increasingly took out their lack of self-esteem on women, and a misogynistic culture emerged (“pimps and ho’s”). Gangsters became lionized as heroes. “Thug culture” became a thing. Women increasingly turned up their noses at the black men who faced such bleak prospects, choosing rather to go it alone than have a potentially dangerous man in the house who was dead weight. The lack of hope on the part of men became institutionalized, leading to destructive attitudes passed along from generation to generation. Generations grew up without knowing their fathers, which became the norm due to lack of job and career opportunities.
At the same time, a small segment of African Americans took advantage of the new opportunities and did very well, indeed. Many moved into the professional class in various capacities–lawyers, doctors, businessmen, etc. In the post-civil rights world, this segment enjoyed opportunities that their ancestors could have only dreamed of. A few even became multi-millionaires, especially in music, acting, entertainment and professional sports. And, of course, the nation elected a president of African descent in the 2008 election.
The spectacular success of this small segment was held up as evidence that the blacks who had been left behind were simply not working hard enough, and were responsible for their own plight due to their bad behavior (rather than poor schools or a lack of jobs). Because the legalized, institutionalized racism had been removed, white America adopted a blame game where the African community simply refused to pull themselves up by their bootstraps.
This is why the “automation came along and everything worked out allright” attitude is, in my estimation, extremely racist. It dismisses the pain and suffering of an entire class of people as just somehow inevitable, or as their own fault due to their inherent nature. The social pathologies that resulted from the fallout are then pointed to as a cause of the devastation. Ask any inner-city activist the biggest problem facing their community and what will they tell you? Typically the same thing: “lack of jobs” (or perhaps substandard schools, which is just the flip side of the same coin).
The White Ghetto and Trumpism
In the 1990’s two new factors emerged in this situation. The 1960s and 1970s began the rise of automation and movement of good-paying factory jobs to the suburbs and overseas for some industries (notably textiles). But economic activity still assured plenty of jobs for whites with enough family wealth to move to the suburbs throughout the 1980’s and into the 1990’s.
In 2001, China joined the World trade Organization (WTO). With its bottomless supply of poor rural workers moving to cities, it could outcompete nearly the entire world on labor costs. Places like Shenzen and Pearl River Delta became the world’s factory floor, hollowing out manufacturing centers all across the United States and Europe. It was the death blow to these industrial economies (temporarily masked by real estate bubbles and banking fraud). China quickly became the world’s largest industrial economy in the span of only a few decades.
Several rounds of “free trade” deals swept across the world as economic Neoliberalism became the predominant economic philosophy of the global economy. Capital became fluid and mobile, even as labor remained tied to hollowed-out nation states. Billions of people joined the global labor pool, empowered by the Internet. The Democratic party in America abandoned its support for unions and the white working class (who had abandoned them in droves anyway), and fully embraced Neoliberalism, although tempered with a few nods toward the safety net (the programs that primarily benefited whites), and “politically correct” social inclusiveness rhetoric.
The movement of jobs overseas became an absolute deluge. The loss of factory jobs swelled, and the final shreds of industrial America were torn apart. Vast areas of the American “heartland” were hollowed out, leading to the rural landscape of shuttered factories, meth labs and boarded up storefronts along main streets we are familiar with today. Automation had finally come for rural and suburban white America. Cheap Chinese goods also enabled corporate behemoths such as Wal-Mart to undercut local businesses on price, destroying any vestige of a locally-owned economy and small businesses. McJobs replaced factory jobs as the base of the economy in most places.
As “more education” was touted as the lifeboat to get out of these communities, this, along with the aging of the the Baby Boomer population, caused an “eds and meds” economy to spring up. Education and health care became the only stable forms of employment in these remote places, ultimately sustained by government money (Medicare/Medicaid and student loans). These two industries quickly became predatory, leaving Americans wallowing in unpayable debts for their overpriced services. Campaign contributions ensured politicians looked the other way.
The job drain was slow enough and diffuse enough to prevent any sort of coordinated response on the part of unemployed workers. Instead they went as lambs to the slaughter, often voting for the very same people who had enabled it due to racial grievance and hot-button social issues of cultural affiliation (abortion, guns, NASCAR, etc.). Conservative media blamed “liberal permissiveness,” “entitlements,” and “Ivy-League elites” for the problems plaguing rural America, and stoked anger over imaginary issues such as “The war on Christmas.” Americans gleefully ate-up anti-union rhetoric promoted by the corporate-owned media.
Republicans, he said, use their support of gun rights as a cornerstone in their strategy to win elections by launching “an all-out, no-holds-barred assault on government”.
“The Republicans in some way, shape or form have become a neo-anarchist party, in that they don’t accept that there is much legitimacy at all to the existence of public functions,” he said.
“The second amendment has become sacred because it’s the best way for them to express how furious they are at government. They are willing to defend the right of individuals to take up arms against it. There’s no way to get farther right on anti-government rhetoric than that.”
Senator: gun control discussions won’t change ‘neo-anarchist’ Republican party (Guardian)
Note that this level of government hatred and gun fanaticism was decidedly fringe, even among white America, prior to the Civil Rights era. Now it drives what is arguably the nation’s most powerful political party.
Drive though America’s small towns and inner-ring suburbs, and what do you see? Good things? Everything just worked out okay? Really??? To dismiss the effects of automation, we have to pretend that all of this doesn’t exist. Does automation truly create more jobs than it destroys? Drive through the urban ghettos and abandoned small towns of the Rust Belt and say that.
To say that “nothing happened to them” is stunningly wrong. Over the past 35 years the working class has been devalued, the result of an economic version of the Hunger Games. It has pitted everyone against each other, regardless of where they started. Some contestants, such as business owners, were equipped with the fanciest weapons. The working class only had their hands. They lost and have been left to deal on their own.
The consequences can be seen in nearly every town and rural county and aren’t confined to the industrial north or the hills of Kentucky either. My home town in Florida, a small town built around two orange juice factories, lost its first factory in 1985 and its last in 2005.
In the South Buffalo neighborhood of Lackawanna, homes have yet to recover from the closing of an old steel mill that looms over them. The plant, once one of many, provided the community with jobs and stability. The parts that haven’t been torn down are now used mainly for storage.
In Utica, New York, a boarded-up GE plant that’s been closed for more than 20 years sits behind Mr Nostalgia’s, a boarded-up bar where workers once spent nights. Jobs moved out of state and out of the country. The new jobs don’t pay as well and don’t offer the same benefits, so folks now go to the casino outside of town to try to supplement their income.
When you go into these communities and leave the small bubbles of success –Manhattan, Los Angeles, northern Virginia, Cambridge – and listen to people who work with their hands, you hear a uniform frustration and a constant anxiety. In a country of such amazing wealth, a large percentage of people are trying not to sink.
In Blossburg, Pennsylvania, Arnie Knapp walks five miles into town every morning, trying to keep his body in shape and not succumb to the various injuries he suffered working the mills. He started working at 14 and once they closed, he worked a series of lower-paying jobs. Unlike the characters profiled in the National Review article, he isn’t looking for a handout: “I haven’t asked for anything but work from anyone. Problem is, there aren’t a lot of jobs around here any more.”
Mocked and forgotten: who will speak for the American white working class? (Guardian)
Now, it’s true that cheap Chinese labor and the invention of shipping containers temporarily eliminated the need for automation due to the oversupply of labor and ultra-low wages. But had the Chinese workers not been there, automation would have done the job anyway. In fact, manufacturing output in America continued to rise during this period, even as manufacturing employment declined. China just happened to provide a quicker, cheaper way to temporarily increase profits and lower labor costs during this period thanks to global wage arbitrage.
Here’s the problem: Whether or not those manufacturing jobs could have been saved, they aren’t coming back, at least not most of them. How do we know? Because in recent years, factories have been coming back, but the jobs haven’t. Because of rising wages in China, the need for shorter supply chains and other factors, a small but growing group of companies are shifting production back to the U.S. But the factories they build here are heavily automated, employing a small fraction of the workers they would have a generation ago.
Manufacturing Jobs Are Never Coming Back (FiveThirtyEight)
A significant number of Americans simply weren’t needed in the economic order anymore. They were useless as workers, and, as they became ever-poorer, as consumers. Companies increasingly preferred citizens of the Third World not only workers, but also as consumers, as their disposable incomes were rising even as American wages were falling. Poorer Americans had no choice but to buy cheap Chinese made-consumer goods because it was all they could afford, leading to a downward spiral of lower wage jobs, offshoring, and ever-cheaper and shoddier goods.
The second major factor was the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.
Third-party candidate Ross Perot warned of “A giant sucking sound” of jobs leaving the United States if it were signed into law, and he was right, despite losing the race. Not only did NAFTA allow jobs to migrate across the border, the dumping of heavily subsidized and mechanized U.S. corn on the Mexican market (see the cotton example in the previous entry), devastated the rural Mexican economy. The non-mechanized small farmers of rural Mexico couldn’t compete and threw in the towel.
Much like African Americans half a century before, they too began a mass migration to “El Norte” to look for work. Millions of migrants, primarily from Northern Mexico, flooded into the United States in a very short time span to do the work Americans supposedly “didn’t want to do.” Rural economies, especially in the Southwest, had long depended upon migrant labor from Mexico, but now that model was expanded to all aspects of the unskilled labor market–building and construction, child-care, cooking, cleaning, gardening, landscaping, laundry, food-service, delivery, manual labor, and so forth. America became a bilingual society overnight, and the ability to speak Spanish increasingly became a job requirement for many positions.
Free trade: As U.S. corn flows south, Mexicans stop farming (McClatchy)
Unlike blacks who had been confined to the ghetto outside of Dixie, Mexicans went to all locations–rural, urban and suburban, forming a massive exploited proletariat willing to work for much, much less than native-born Americans. The third largest influx of foreign currency into the Mexican economy is remittances from Mexicans living abroad, mainly in the United States. The Mexican government no longer had to deal with poverty or unemployment within their own borders; they could export their poverty to the United States and watch the currency roll in. Despite handwringing, both major parties supported this trend, supported by campaign cash, even as they condemned it in public. Wages dropped and profits soared.
Immigration as a reverse election: our leaders get a new people (Fabius Maximus)
In the 1990-2000’s, competition from Chinese workers abroad and Mexican immigrants at home finally decisively broke the back of the white working class who had been able to escape the devastation wrought on black community due to automation in the 1960-1970s. At the same time, the costs of higher education soared into the stratosphere as college increasingly became the tollbooth to the few remaining middle-class jobs which had not been not offshored. Americans were required to mortgage their future and become indentured servants for even just a chance at acquiring jobs which paid more than minimum wage in the new “service economy” promoted by professional economists.
Older whites who were made redundant when factory jobs shut down used disability as a de-facto basic income guarantee scheme. Disability became the “white welfare,” even as whites continued to disparage black “welfare queens.” While welfare “reform” had shifted responsibility onto cash-strapped state and local governments, disability was still paid for by federal dollars. Just as with blacks, a lot of lip-service was paid to “worker retraining” for the nonexistent jobs supposedly created by automation. Social work, health care and government jobs became the only economic activity in vast swaths of middle America as the circle of prosperity receded. And, just like blacks, the whites were increasingly blamed for the reality of their own circumstances as the jobs disappeared.
Here’s Paul Krugman discussing the shift:
…there was a great deal of alarm over the troubles of the African-American community, where social disorder was on the rise even as explicit legal discrimination (although not de facto discrimination) was coming to an end…There were all kinds of theories, ranging from cultural hand-waving to claims that it was all because of welfare. But some people, notably William Julius Wilson, argued that the underlying cause was economic: good jobs, while still fairly plentiful in America as a whole, were disappearing from the urban centers where the A-A population was concentrated. And the social collapse, while real, followed from that underlying cause.
This story contained a clear prediction — namely, that if whites were to face a similar disappearance of opportunity, they would develop similar behavior patterns. And sure enough, with the hollowing out of the middle class, we saw (via Mark Thoma) what Kevin Williamson at National Review describes as
the welfare dependency, the drug and alcohol addiction, the family anarchy
And what is the lesson? Why, that poor whites are moral failures, and they should move to where there are opportunities (where?). It’s really extraordinary.
Oh, and lots of swipes at food stamps, welfare programs, disability insurance (which conservatives insist is riddled with fraud, despite lots of evidence to the contrary.)
It’s surely worth noting that other advanced countries, with much more generous welfare states, aren’t showing anything like the kind of social collapse we’re seeing in the U.S. heartland….the idea that somehow food stamps are why we’re breaking bad is utterly at odds with the evidence. (Just as an aside, since someone will bring it up: all of those other advanced economies are just as open to trade as we are — so whatever you think of free trade, it doesn’t necessarily cause social collapse.)
Return of the Undeserving Poor (Paul Krugman)
Why conservatives are talking about struggling white people the way they usually talk about black people (Slate)
The rise of Donald Trump comes as no surprise, then. Trump combines the white racial grievance and hatred wielded by the Republican party to win lower-income white votes with a critique of the vanishing jobs and hollowing out of the labor market for lower-income whites due to outsourcing and mass immigration from Mexico. Other Republicans, dependent upon funding from the donor class who benefited disproportionately from outsourcing and immigration, could not pursue this line of rhetoric. Trump, a real estate magnate self-funding his own campaign for vanity reasons, could say these things. Polls show that a majority of Trump voters see discrimination against whites as a major concern. White Americans who had seen their lives and communities decimated by decades of globalism finally had a champion who promised to bring their jobs back, while keeping blacks and Mexicans in line; in other words, to “Make America great again.”
Americans fear a life of ‘dead-end crap jobs with crap wages’ (CNN Money)
There was no Universal Basic Income for blacks left jobless by automation. There was no wealth redistribution. There was no compensating the “losers”. There was no “sharing the fruits of the technology.” Rather, there was scapegoating, dehumanizing, divide and conquer, blame, hatred, discrimination, resentment and abuse from the hard-working “winners” against the lazy, growing pile of “losers.” In the past that was mainly along color lines. Now, it’s increasingly along class lines.
What makes you think the new effects from ongoing automation will be any different? Does anyone think we will come to our senses and realize that there simply aren’t enough jobs to go around? Or will we continue to insist on individual solutions for what are ultimately societal problems? While education may be fine to help one’s individual standing, it has never, in and of itself, produced jobs where there are none to be had.
Education is not a solution to automation (Fabius Maximus)
What does the African-American experience portend about our future in the age of automation?
– The poor majority will become trapped in ghettos, homeless encampments, and “slumburbs,” as America Balkanizes along income lines. Your fate will be increasingly tied to the accident of where you were born. Already, social mobility is primarily determined by your ZIP code and what your parents’ income is. Libertarian economists are already predicting a future where 80-90 percent of us are “zero-marginal product” workers living in internet-enabled shantytowns with minimal public services and dining on canned beans, while 10-15 percent of Americans live “like today’s millionaires.”
– Rather than invest in methods to create new jobs, we will instead opt for a massive police state, prisons, guard labor, and mass incarceration. Already we see the police routinely using weapons that we would normally associate with war zones. Increasingly, keeping other Americans in line will become a major source of employment, and building prisons and exploiting prisoners will become a major profit center for corporate America, instead of selling new and innovative products, which most Americans will be too poor to buy anyway (aside from a few electronic toys).
– Education will continue to be touted as the “salvation” for people even as the amount of jobs declines and the educational and experience requirements keep going up for even the most basic jobs. People who are not able to acquire this lengthy and expensive education, for whatever reason, will be blamed for their own plight. Already employers are charging workers just to apply for jobs.
The social maladies caused by a disappearance of family supporting jobs and hope for the future will increasingly be pointed to as the cause of the dysfunction. Drug abuse is now causing devastation in the white community just as thoroughly as it has in the black community.
Charles Murray, an intellectual for conservative think-tanks, wrote a book called The Bell Curve in the 1990’s arguing that African-Americans’ inferior IQ’s were at the root of their plight. Now he’s saying similar things about poor whites left unemployed by automation. His new book Coming Apart argues that poor whites’ inferior moral behavior is the ultimate cause of the ongoing destruction of their communities. If they would just get married and hit the books, he claims, there would be no problem. Expect to see a lot more of this line of thinking coming out of right-wing think tanks and promoted in the corporate media as jobs continue to disappear.
Bill Black: AEI Pushes Government Propaganda Telling Women to Marry Schlubs (Naked Capitalism)
“Marriage promotion” is a destructive cargo cult (Interfluidity)
– You also have a recrudescence of Social Darwinist philosophy. Those who can’t hack it in the “free market” deserve to die “for the good of the species,” according to a small but powerful segment of the business community enthralled by a crude combination of Ayn Rand’s writings mixed with a bastardization of Charles Darwin. (e.g. the “Dark Enlightenment” philosophy popular in Silicon Valley).
Mouthbreathing Machiavellis Dream of a Silicon Reich (The Baffler)
Even as certain quarters tout education as the way out, funding for education is being slashed at every level, particularly by Republicans. In his book, The Falling Rate of Learning and the Neoliberal Endgame, David J. Blacker points out that as corporate America needs less and less people, they simply don’t see a need to invest in mass education anymore; hence it is being dismantled. The people who already have dynastic wealth and resources will be fine; everyone else will not. The ladder to the middle class is being pulled up. With perennially too few jobs for workers, employees will just have to compete for the few remaining slots using whatever resources they have at their disposal in a winner-take-all, musical-chairs game. As for the rest, as Blacker points out, the precedent here is the eliminationist literature of the German Holocaust–what is the best way for authorities to deal with the excess “undesirables” in society?
In his online novel Manna, Marshall Brain imagines large amounts of people made jobless due to automation herded into vast open-air prisons and living as wards of the state. He’s overly optimistic. We already have such prisons today, and they are nowhere near as pleasant. Benign neglect is the best-case scenario. The worst is the work camps of the Holocaust. “Work makes us free.” American prisoners are already a major source of labor for corporations.
Philadelphia Closes 23 Schools, Lays Off Thousands, Builds Huge Prison (Gawker)
Forget Basic Income schemes. As the jobs disappeared over the past few decades, support for the safety net did not increase, in fact, just the opposite! The poorer people get, the stronger the desire to cast them as lazy freeloaders and shred what little remains of the social safety net, not expand it. In the 1990’s, Clinton promised to “end welfare as we know it.” Even as jobs disappear, more stringent requirements for working and finding a job are foisted upon the poor. As the percentage of “minorities” in America increases to become the majority (a contradiction, I know), it becomes easier to attribute the lack of jobs on people just “not wanting to work” to conservative suburban whites who still have jobs, even as their numbers shrink. Consider:
Nearly all the states with the highest percentage of minimum wage workers — full-time jobholders making $290 a week, before taxes — are in the South. These are also the same states that refuse to expand Medicaid to allow the working poor to get health care. And it’s in the same cradle of the old Confederacy where discriminatory bills are rising. Don’t blame the cities; from Birmingham to Charlotte, people are trying to open doors to higher wages and tolerance of gays, only to be rebuffed at the state level.
A Mason-Dixon Line of Progress (New York Times)
Hundreds of thousands of people could soon lose food stamps as states reimpose time limits and work requirements that were suspended in recent years because of high unemployment, state officials and advocates for the poor said Friday.
Hundreds of thousands could lose food stamps as states restore limits (Miami Herald)
Alabama Republicans say they want a new bill to drastically limit state welfare programs so that recipients will get jobs — but the bill eliminates the most common means of transportation to and from work…The bill, created by Republican Sen. Arthur Orr, cuts the time frame for assistance from five years to three. It also creates a new layer of bureaucracy for poor people seeking help, including the requirement that they sign a contract vowing to adhere to the program’s rules. It also disqualifies people from getting food stamps or financial assistance for families with children if the recipients own cars, according to the Montgomery Advertiser.
Alabama Republican wants to stop people on food stamps from owning cars — but expects them to get jobs (Raw Story)
The End of Welfare as We Know It (The Atlantic)
Automation has already made a huge portion of the workforce irrelevant. We just pretend that it didn’t happen. And the jobs intended to replace them, the ones “we couldn’t even imagine” turned out not to exist (so no surprise we couldn’t imagine them, then). This has been going on since the 1960’s, we just dumped it one specific group of people until very recently, people that we could treat as nonhumans thanks to our attitudes about race. Now it coming for all of us outside of a tiny slice of hereditary wealthy and well-connected elites. As Jeremy Rifkin writes:
Not surprisingly, the first community to be devastated by the cybernetic revolution was black America. With the introduction of automated machines, it was possible to substitute less costly, inanimate forms of labor for millions of African-Americans who had long toiled at the bottom of the economic pyramid, first as plantation slaves, then as sharecroppers, and finally as unskilled labor in northern factories and foundries.
For the first time in American history, the African American was no longer needed in the economic system. Sidney Willhelm summed up the historical significance of what had taken place in his book Who Needs the Negro? “With the onset of automation the Negro moves out of his historical state of oppression into one of uselessness. Increasingly, he is not so much economically exploited as he is irrelevant…The dominant whites no longer need to exploit the black minority: as automation proceeds, it will be easier for the former to disregard the latter. In short, White America, by a more prefect application of mechanization and a vigorous reliance upon automation, disposes of the Negro; consequently, the Negro transforms from an exploited labor force into an outcast.”
Now we’re seeing white people join that same outcast community. And we’re seeing the exact same techniques used to write them (us) off as nonpersons.
Welcome to the future.
Next: The automation of the workforce has already occurred.