The future that Marx forecasted is unemployment. And this historical tendency has brought the whole story of development into question. [Our] recent economic “recovery” is the weakest since they started to keep track of the numbers. The fact that we’ve failed to recover the majority of the jobs lost during the recession is part of a wider historical change: the decline of the dynamism on which capitalism built its reputation. In the past few years, the famous “creative destruction” that should have been incessantly generating new technologies, new markets, and new modes of life, has been missing in action. The delusions of the dot-com bubble made it look like capitalism could be dynamic again, but as Henwood puts it, “Our most recent bubble built a lot of subdivisions in exurban Las Vegas, with no payoff either in the productive or phantasmic realms.”
The fact that technology has rendered so much labor superfluous hasn’t pointed towards a society liberated from work, but instead high unemployment next to long hours, with everyone in debt. And the traditional apparatuses of the worker’s movement, which were supposed to form a nascent counter-power, ended up doing the bosses’ job before practically disappearing.
Today the attempt to revive these mediations of class struggle fails to respond to real shifts in the composition of the working class. As Chris Maisano has brilliantly demonstrated, the trouble with American unions isn’t just a dwindling membership. It’s the concentration of unionization in the public sector, and the conversion of “what should have been universalized social goods” – like “health insurance, pensions, vacations” – into private privileges for a unionized elite. It’s easy enough for capital to use this as a powerful instrument of division, blocking a collective proletarian struggle by setting private sector workers against the “labor aristocracy” of teachers and social workers, while everyone’s real wages decline. The unemployed end up excluded from any concept of the political. [read more]