Home > economics, political-economy, politics, shorter work time > Six reasons why Marxists and progressives need to oppose unemployment compensation

Six reasons why Marxists and progressives need to oppose unemployment compensation

December 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I received this response to my post, What help for the 99ers? (Part four: It’s not personal), yesterday on GonzoTimes:

Turn your soul off. Turn your humanity off. Turn your brain off. And voila, you’ve turned into a Republican “pro-lifer” who says “screw the poor”. Genius!

The comment was a bit cryptic to me. Is the writer saying I have become a Republican pro-lifer who hates the poor? I could not be sure so I responded with this gem in a moment of anger:

If your cryptic comment is directed at me, I take offense — not with your remark, but with the phony humanitarianism hidden behind it. Giving the unemployed $300 a week does nothing to address the causes of unemployment, which is Washington itself. If you are moved by the plight of the 99ers, as I am, I suggest you link up and find ways to support them on an authentic basis, rather than mailing your support in via your taxes. But, more important, I hope you will be moved to fight to reduce hours of work to abolish unemployment and the system that creates it permanently.

You might also consider Badiou’s critique of phony humanitarianism in his book, Ethics.

I am not satisfied with this response. It was driven as much by defensiveness as by any positive statement on the situation of the 99ers. It, therefore, does nothing to convince those who really support the cause of the 99ers to take another look at their assumptions.

Am I a renegade? The question asked, of course, demands a complete response — not first to the commenter, but to myself. Am I on some slippery slope to the renegacy decried by Badiou? Definitely time for an attitude check, and a deep examination to make sure my humanity was still in working order.

I come away from this moment of self-reflection even more sure of my position and a more fervent opponent of unemployment compensation than before. I do not think my view is one of a renegade or heartless conservative, but one who remains committed to the aims I have stood for since I was a teenager and first encountered the idea of communism. I put forth below six reasons why I think it is the classical communist position to oppose unemployment compensation:

The question I asked myself is this: Would Marx have supported unemployment compensation in his day? And, my answer to that was, “Yes.” Without a doubt he would have advocated for it, and considered it a demand consistent with the aim of communism — a measure designed to protect the working class from the vagaries and misery of the business cycle. So, why am I advocating against it? This is not Marx’s day. In his day periodic crises were common enough and no more than temporary lulls between periods of expansion during which the productive capacity of society was being augmented by capital. The scale of production was being increased, and the numbers of laborers moving from agriculture into industry was, however subject to fluctuations and sudden fits and stops, progressively converting the labor process from that of solitary farmers into massive engines of immediately social production. The process was not pretty, by any stretch of the imagination, but it was moving society generally in the direction of the abolition of labor.

Today it is otherwise. Society is drowning in its own productive capacity and we face a State that, for its own purposes, seeks to drive us under altogether. This requires we rethink all our assumptions. So here are my thoughts:

First. Today’s crises are not the mere interruption of an otherwise revolutionary reconstitution and enhancement of the productive power of labor. They are  failures of State measures to facilitate the constant expansion of completely superfluous labor. Supporting unemployment compensation today, when unemployment is no longer a temporary condition but a permanent feature of an economy drowning in a surplus population of able-bodied workers, and when the only effective policy to reduce this surplus population is to reduce hours of labor, is a travesty.

Second. Just as this crisis is not a momentary cessation between periods of expansion of capital, so it is not an accident, defect, or aberration. It has been established by economists that we are facing a long-term secular decline in Washington’s capacity to force the creation of new jobs. Washington’s tools of fiscal and monetary policy are gradually becoming ineffective in stimulating superfluous economic activity. It is also requiring more aggressive measures to produce the same effect — much like in the case of a junkie requiring larger doses of his preferred substance to achieve the same high. Washington is now creating massive amounts of new debt each month in a desperate attempt to keep this ugly Ponzi scheme right side up. The declining effectiveness of job creating measures stems not from lack of serious effort on Washington’s part, but on the very goal of the effort itself: to create work where there is no need for work.

Third. The strategy adopted by Washington to create unnecessary work was predicted to fail by many economists during the housing bubble; and at least as early as 1993, Hyman Minsky predicted a financial disaster was unfolding before our eyes. He warned of just the kinds of Ponzi schemes that Washington was facilitating in its deregulation of financial activities in its desperation to lengthen the working day by encouraging working families to accumulate unprecedentedly large personal debts. Despite these warnings, Washington, under the Clinton administration, and again under the Bush II administration, facilitated this accumulating family debt and even put in place measures to prevent working families from declaring bankruptcy to relieve themselves of it. Fully two thirds of all job creation during that period resulted from such debt accumulation.

Fourth. Beyond this, Marx and many other writers warned that a collapse of capital was inevitable. The growing output of industry resulting from improvements in productivity of social labor, Marx explained, was running into declining demand for productive employment of labor resulting from this improvement. In its drive to accumulate surplus, capital was making the ever increasing employment of superfluous labor into the necessary condition for the employment of productive labor. In time it would, he argued, become a matter of life or death for capital to find some means to increase the absolute waste of human labor in order to support profitable investment. That time arrived during the Great Depression when every industrialized nation suffered a catastrophic economic failure, and the State stepped in as the ultimate consumer of commodities and labor power rendered superfluous by overly long hours of work. Efforts by many to reduce hours of work during that period were defeated in Washington, which went on to erase the possibility of less work time from political-economic conversation.

Fifth. Despite all of the above, an argument could be made that we are nevertheless forced to support unemployment compensation because we have no power to change the situation in the short run. I think this argument is specious and even misleading: Unemployment compensation is exactly the wrong measure to pursue at present because it asks people to identify with the very cause of their unemployment. It is the political equivalent of asking people to lobby Bill Gates and Warren Buffett for handouts to ease their poverty. This “progressive” solution to the problem of the ever lengthening work day, which is the entire basis for the present unemployment, is to ask the very institution in society responsible for unemployment to ease the impact of the problem it created in the first place. We have to wake up to the fact that Washington is not a neutral actor in this play: it is the largest single consumer of surplus value in the society — and in human history; beside it, every other consumer — all “the rich” taken in their entirety — run a poor second. Washington not only knows the consequences of its policies, it fucking intends to create those consequences! The whole of its policies are designed to press the consumption of the mass of society to the lowest possible level in order that it may feed on the resultant surplus.

Sixth. We should be completely offended by the very concept of State aid for unemployment in any case. The entire argument for it, as offered by progressives and Marxists, rests on the image of the unemployed as helpless victims who must be protected from the vagaries of economic forces. As Badiou might argue, this image is completely isolated from its social context. The image of the suffering victim does not ask us how this pathetic creature came to be in her circumstance, nor does it seek to identify who caused her suffering. We are left with the need to do something — anything — to end the suffering. But, what? It is all too easy to write your congressperson or senator demanding an end to the suffering, and then sit comfortably at home watching the progress of the bill on the Rachel Maddow Show — self-satisfied that you did your part, and outraged at those who didn’t.

I am sorry, but I do demand you do something — something real, something authentic! I demand you go out of your house and find 99ers, create a network of support among folks in your community to support all 99ers. Make their plight your own in voluntary association with others. And, demand Washington cease to exist.

  1. December 22, 2010 at 10:27 pm

    Well, Jehu, you’re not going to win any popularity contests with people who refuse to question their superficial assumptions. My take on the issue is a bit more “aesopian” (as Gramsci would term it).


    • December 25, 2010 at 12:45 pm

      But, they will begin to question them, despite their protests to the contrary.

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