Our Not-So-Great Depression

What shall we call this era marked by a jobs desert and a future of austerity as far as the eye can see? If the 1930s was the Great Depression, is this the Not-So-Great Depression? The Little Depression That Could?

I’m no economics guru and I’ve needed the aid of David Harvey’s online video school to help me through Marx’s Capital (which rocks, by the way), but it strikes me that we may not have hit bottom yet. In fact, after my weekend in Rochester, NY, speaking at a Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx conference I’m beginning to think that the Empire in decline may be worse than its ascendance.

Considering that on the way up the U.S. Empire spread racial segregation and nuked hundreds of thousands to assert it hegemony at the end of a global conflagration, admitting things could get worse is really saying something.

Rochester itself is a perfect laboratory of imperial descent. The state’s third-largest metropolitan area after NYC and Buffalo, with a population of nearly a quarter of a million, Rochester was once a boomtown.

It was also home to ex-slave, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. The airport has kindly given a nod to this historic significance by naming a terminal after the greatest American orator of the nineteenth century. Somehow leading 4 million chattel slaves to freedom ought to earn a man more than an unremarkable structure of seats and Dunkin’ Donuts along a tarmac, but there’s a certain imperial poetry to it, too.

Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb—titans of American technical know-how—are headquartered here and it seems somehow fitting that the company whose name is synonymous  with copies built a singularly hideous skyscraper known to its employees as “Toner Tower.”

Aesthetics aside, because there really are some charming aspects to this town along Lake Ontario, its corporate fortunes, like the nation’s, are in terminal decline.

Kodak, which employed 60,000 people worldwide in 1982, today employs 20,000, about 7,400 in Rochester. The Association of Retired Xerox Employees, who were guaranteed lifetime health care benefits, are currently suing the company for stripping 25 percent of them of their promised health care supplemental coverage. Keep in mind that despite the company’s precipitous decline, it still takes in $15 billion a year, $1 billion of which are profits. The top suits—led by a Black woman, Ursula Burns—haul in $23 million annually in salary and benefits.

Burns’ hairdresser informed me at a party Saturday evening that the CEO personally makes $10 million a year, which is a slight brag according to the records. The nation’s only Fortune 500 Black female CEO actually makes only $9.9 million. I certainly don’t begrudge a Black woman of equal pay with the big white boys, but really does any executive on the planet work so much harder than their chemists and engineers that they deserve 150 times their skilled labor’s salaries?

One human indicator of a city in decline is always its crime rate, which young workers I met there discuss with an air of fascination and fear. Violent assaults and murder are anywhere from twice to three-and-a-half times the national average.  One resident even took an old 1963 Rochester Gas & Electric film of municipal boosterism and made a lovely spoof of it showing the boarded up homes, crime and general scenes of urban decay. 

But if there are signs of hope in this downward spiral, they are to be found among the workers of nearby Mott’s who recently waged a 121-day strike. As Brian Lenzo, a young socialist at the conference who walked the Mott’s picket line in solidarity put it, “All they wanted to do was make applesauce without getting a pay cut at a profitable company.” Workers did stop the proposed $1.50 an hour wage reduction and pension elimination, but despite the company’s healthy profits management still squeezed a pay freeze and other concessions out of their employees.

The turnouts at these socialist speaking events are growing among students and young workers, in particular, anxious to discuss how to build a fightback. And no wonder. One young woman who attended college, Chelsea, mentioned before my talk on Fighting the Right that after months of unemployment landing a Wal-Mart job for $8.20 an hour, 60 cents less than she was making before, seems like a relief, but a soul-sucking one.

Nobody who attends these gatherings has any illusions that things will bounce back. They don’t imagine themselves ever owning a home and most would be thrilled to just score a decent job with health benefits—though being able to move out of mom and dad’s place would be a great start.

This Not-So-Great Depression is a stage in what is likely to be a drawn-out process of decline, but its volatility is not just growing a batshit crazy right. It is starting to conjure a left into existence as well.

5 responses to “Our Not-So-Great Depression

  1. Beautifully written, but it’s the truth that counts. If you read today’s blog, you’ll see that the “blue” administration is still screwing the people in favor of Wall St. and the banks. Which is why I called my blog “W-a-a-ay Outside the Box”; when I started it I was picturing a box containing an elephant and a donkey, now they’re just two characterless stripes.
    But you know, a revolution is a very unstable beast, and there are so many Americans who are less than economically and politically literate that they look at how things are, glance at the party in power and give them the credit or the blame. To prove my point, just look at the disillusion in the electorate because Obama couldn’t solve a problem that was thirty years in the making. And read the FB comments of the Dems who blame Bush! The chances are excellent for Congress to have a Rep majority in November. But the only things that will matter aren’t the economics, but the cultural things – the lgbt things, the prayer in schools things, the right to build places of worship anywhere no matter what the religion. Yes, these are important. But the disaster and panic I see will possibly name this present economic situation – the Depression that Broke the Empire. What emerges after a revolution is up for grabs.

  2. What is your defintion of hitting bottom if it is worse than the history of legal slavery and segregation that existed (within the US) from 1619 to the 1970’s and the total war of the first half of the 20th century?

    If so, we cannot wait for bottom to be reached (fascist takeover in the US?, nuclear exchange?, 4-8 deg C of warming?, etc) if a socialist revolution is to be possible. Imperial collapse would destroy the landbase (ecosystems and natural resources), industrial means of production, and working class to such an extent to make a socialist transition impossible. The best we could hope for coming out of such a crisis would be a barracks society (albeit one with gradual improvement to standards of living if not political freedom) similar to Stalinist Russia from the period of the 12th party Congress up to WW2 or worse yet a semi-feudal society in which a majority of people would be engaged in subsistence agriculture just to survive.

    We cannot wait for capitalism and the American Empire to collapse over its own internal contradictions, we must organize and revolt while there are still intact enough ecosystems and means of production sufficient to allow the working class the means to acheive revolutionary conciousness and accomplish its own liberation.

  3. I put together a knol about this general issue here:
    “Beyond a Jobless Recovery: A heterodox perspective on 21st century economics”

    To summarize, a combination of robotics and other automation, better design, and voluntary social networks (like those who blog or comment on blogs 🙂 are decreasing the value of most paid human labor (through the law of supply and demand as excess labor drives down wages). At the same time, demand for stuff is limited for a variety of reasons (some classical, like the credit crunch or a concentration of wealth, and some novel like people finally getting too much stuff or developing an environmental consciouness). As a consequence, real hourly wages in the USA have been flat for thirty years for most people even as productivity has grown enormously — most humans have less and less bargaining power. In order to move past this, our society needs to emphasize a gift economy (like Wikipedia or Debian GNU/Linux), a basic income (social security for all regardless of age), democratic resource-based planning (with taxes, subsidies, investments, and regulation to reflect social values), and/or stronger local economies that can produce more of their own stuff (with organic gardens, solar panels, green homes, and 3D printers). There are some bad makework alternatives too that are best avoided, like endless war, endless schooling, endless bureaucracy, endless sickness, and endless prisons.

    Raising salaries (even by union action) is just going to accelerate the trend to replacing human labor with automation, better design, and voluntary social networks. We are seeing the death spiral of mainstream economis, and that whirlpool will continue to suck people into poverty until we transcend the current scarcity-based competetive socioeconomic paradigm. If unions are to act, they need to create broad social reforms (like a basic income), not try to carve out a private welfare state in a collapsing system.

    This transition to abundance through these four positive alternatives is happening, but it could be helped along with various forms of nonviolent social action. These might include actions by arts and humanities students to help people become aware of this situation and to understand that most of what mainstream economists are talking about is just an obsolete dogmatic fantasy — and that there are real solutions coming from these four directions (and heterodox etc. economists) that reflect important humane values (but hardly anyone is talking about all four alternatives in a coherent way, even as many people advocate one or another).

    These ideas connect with some of what Marx said (he was a great thinker for his time), but they go beyond it. For example, read “Listen, Marxist!” by Murray Bookchin, as a start about moving beyond “work” as the primary organizing principle of our economy (Bob Black says related things in “The Abolition of Work”). But these ideas go even beyond that when you consider the implications of AI and advanced robotics, and the irony of people turning the tools of abundance into weapons to fight over misperceived scarcity. We need to transition forward to a new 21st century paradigm, not backwards to an obsolescent 19th century one.

  4. Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, and it’s follow-up Parable of the Talents, are interesting meditations on the long, slow collapse of the American empire told through the intimate narrative of a young black woman cast from her middle-class gated community into the wilds of California. There are different ways of understanding our slide to barbarism, how there is no center to seize. The protagonist Lauren is also a prophet, who crafts a new religion that is remarkably similar to Marxism in deistic terms. “All that you touch, you change. All that you change, changes you. God is change.”

  5. Pingback: A city's fortunes in decline | tweet hot news

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