This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
On the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, this country is once again focused 24/7 on a single disaster that tore up one field in Pennsylvania, destroyed part of the Pentagon, and took down three giant buildings in New York City. Almost three thousand people died in the process and the American economy took a temporary hit.
Bells will ring, names will be solemnly read off, moments of silence will be observed, a memorial will be opened and consecrated, and casualties of every sort will be remembered and honored. For the disasters that have occurred since September 11, 2001, the ones that are so much a part of our post-9/11 world, there will, however, be no bells, no lists of names, no moments of silence, few memories (in our world at least), and no museums or memorials.
That applies to the hundreds of thousands of dead in Iraq and Afghanistan, the millions sent into exile, and the resulting stunted and ravaged lives. It applies no less to those casualties of the Great Meltdown of 2008, which the same administration that drove us into the Afghan and Iraq disasters had such a hand in causing. As I write this, the unemployment rate officially stands at 9.1% (and if you include those too discouraged to look for work and those who are working part-time when they want full-time jobs, heading for 17%.) Last month saw zero job growth and no expert seems to think that there is anything better in store for this country in 2012.
Yet another Labor Day holiday has passed, little noted except for its traffic jams, even though, for growing numbers of Americans, every day is (un)Labor Day and it's no vacation. Think of this, in fact, as our country's economic 9/11 -- the people taken down by the crew that hijacked our economy and ran it into the nearest set of buildings. In this case, however, tower after tower has already collapsed, and more are shuddering, while millions of previously employed Americans are now the equivalent of desperate internal exiles in their own country. It's a slo-mo catastrophe for which, startlingly, the first responders have not yet arrived and show no signs of ever doing so.
As TomDispatch regulars Steve Fraser and Josh Freeman point out, the most surprising aspect of all of this, given our past history, is how little upset it's caused. Tom
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% got a government unemployment check and that check, on average, represented only 35% of their weekly wages.
Meanwhile, there are now two million "99ers" -- those who have maxed out their supplemental unemployment benefits because they have been out of work for more than 99 weeks. Think of them as a full division in "the reserve army of labor." That "army," in turn, accounts for 17% 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."
However, long before leftists began referring to the unemployed as a reserve army, that redolent metaphor was regularly wielded by anxious or angry nineteenth century journalists, government officials, town fathers, governors, churchmen, and other concerned citizens. Something new was happening, they were sure, even if they weren't entirely clear on what to make of it.