Seven Things

Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24

First published on ZNet , July 10, 2014

“It’s a Little Private”

Sometimes the smallest news items speak volumes, if you let them.  Last April, for example, a 10-year-old girl named Charlotte Bell was at the White House for its annual “Take Your Daughter and Son to Work Day.”  During a ceremony in the White House East Room, Charlotte raised her hand to say something to Michelle Obama, who was taking questions from a raised platform.  Charlotte walked up to the First Lady and said that her dad had been out of work for three years and needed a job.  Charlotte handed Mrs. Obama an envelope containing her father’s resumẻ.

The First Lady was taken aback but recovered well. She said, “Oh my goodness” took the envelope and gave Charlotte a big hug.  Then Mrs. Obama sat down and delivered a coup de grace.  “It’s a little private,” she said, “but she’s trying to help her Dad.”  At the end of the ceremony, the First Lady started to leave without the envelope. Charlotte made her pick it up.

The First Lady had, I think, two reasons for privatizing (so to speak) the matter of Charlotte Bell’s father’s long-term unemployment.  The first was a matter of political calculation.  The latest US job growth numbers had been “disappointing” and the Republicans had used the data to accuse Barack Obama yet again of economic mismanagement (as if the US president single-handedly determined US employment levels from one month to the next). Polls showed that President Obama faced widespread disapproval of his performance in “handing the economy.”  In that context, Mrs. Obama hardly wished to give publicity to another US citizen – e pluribus unum (one of many) – having trouble finding decent work (or any work at all) in “the world’s richest nation.”

The second reason for Mrs. Obama to call father Bell’s long-term joblessness a “private” matter is less obvious but more important.  The First Lady, I strongly suspect, was expressing her internalization of the dominant bourgeois and national common sense holding that one’s poverty and/or lack of remunerative employment in the purported great US “land of opportunity” reflects one’s own personal failure and inadequacy. Joblessness is understood as a symptom of individual and even moral failure in the reigning US ideology.

Surplus People and the Rational Irrationality of Capitalism

Here’s a useful translation for Michelle Obama’s “It’s a little private” comment: “Oh my goodness, this poor little girl has a lousy daddy; she sure is a dear to try to help out her sad sack of a father out while we all keep quiet about the millions of Americans who have been turned into surplus people by contemporary US capitalism.”

Charlotte Bell’s father may or may not be lazy, dissolute, dishonest, and/or whatever terrible thing one might want to call him.  I doubt he is any of these things, but I do not claim to know anything substantive about his personal or employment history.

I do, however, know seven things beyond the shadow of a doubt.  I know first of all that capitalism – what Michelle’s husband like to calls “the free enterprise system” (making sure to remind us that this system has brought us “a prosperity that’s unmatched in human history”[1]) – generates mass structural unemployment by its very nature, irrespective of what the US president or Charlotte’s father (or anyone else) wants. As sociologists Charles and Derber and Yale Magrass noted two years ago:

“An economic neutron bomb is exploding in the nation…an explosive…that has the peculiar characteristic of killing people while preserving property…[since] money can be made without [US] workers…At the heart of this problem is the calculation by elites that they can make more profit by radically reducing reliance on US workers and US infrastructure, using instead foreign workers or replacing workers with robots or other new technology, while relying on infrastructures in other nations…In the end, this reflects something deeply irrational but central to US capitalism.  The core concern of corporate elites is profit, not jobs.  And if more profits can be made by shifting production abroad, elites will take that path….This reflects the way globalized corporate capitalism works today and shows that the very problems it creates cannot be fixed within capitalist boundaries.” [2]

The problem of surplus labor, hence “surplus people,” is nothing new in the history of capitalism. The profit system has been rendering workers redundant, de-skilling and displacing labor for centuries.  Capitalism has always generated and relied on what Karl Marx called a “reserve army of labor” – a significant mass of unemployed and under-employed people whose often desperate existence helps the employer class keep the “active [employed] army” of workers profitably disciplined through the threat of replacement and the fear of being thrown into to the vast miserable lumpen-proletariat. Capitalism is not a full-employment program – quite the opposite.

The End of (United States of) “American [Labor Market] Exceptionalism

The second thing I know for certain is that a deep sea change has taken place in the US labor market over the last four plus decades – a change that makes it absurd to blame US individuals for their joblessness or under-employment. What’s new in US workers’ job prospects during the ongoing Neoliberal era (1970s to the present) is a fundamental transformation in the relationship between the US labor supply and employers’ demand for workers in the United States. In the US from its origins through the 1960s, the majority white working class enjoyed – over the long run (and with all due respect for terrible depressions in the 1870s, 1890s, and 1930s) – a “remarkable run” (Richard Wolff) of remunerative employment and rising real wages.  The keys to this worker-favorable situation were the remarkable productivity and profitability of US capitalism (a reflection among other things of exceptional national advantages including abundant natural resources, vast scale, giant ocean borders, and a conducive climate) and a chronic shortage of labor relative to available land and employers’ needs (US Southern cotton growers solved their labor shortage with black slavery and [after the Civil War] neo-slavery).

This comparatively favorable situation for (white) working class Americans (rarely if ever mentioned in discussions of “American exceptionalism”) came undone in the 1970s and 1980s.  As real, high-productivity competitors to US capitalism revived in Europe and Japan, the demand for US workers fell thanks in part to the computerization and automation of work and the export of millions of formerly “American jobs” to countries where workers could paid far less. As the left US economist Richard Wolff notes, “The export of US manufacturing jobs took off… followed by the export of service-sector jobs – so-called outsourcing – a trend that has continued to the present” (with help from investor-rights “free trade” agreements).  Along with this came the entry of millions of women into the workforce and a giant new wave of immigration to the US, mainly from Latin America, primarily Mexico and Central America (where significantly US- and global capitalism-imposed misery drove millions to seek jobs in the north). Under these new labor market pressures, the “American Dream” of steady work and a constantly rising standard of living collapsed for the US working class majority – a twist of fate that the dominant neoliberal ideology has told working people to blame on themselves, personally and privately. [3]

The Job Gap

The third thing I know beyond doubt is that there are many more Americans seeking work than there are decent or even low-wage jobs job openings in the US today.  Conventional conservative and neoliberal US wisdom holds that people are unemployed or under-employed because they are too lazy and unmotivated to work, to move to where “good jobs” are, and/or to upgrade their skills in accord with employers’ needs.  The ideology blames the jobless themselves, considering  them too indolent, too slothful, too “welfare”-coddled, and/or just too plain stupid to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”  But where are all these good jobs in the US (home by the way to the stingiest welfare state amongst rich nations)? As former US State Department official Peter Van Buren, author of Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99 Percent, recently noted on

“Move to where to do what? Our country lost one-third of all decent factory jobs – almost six million of them – between 2000 and 2009, and wherever ‘there’ is supposed to be, piles of people are already in line. In addition, many who lost their jobs don’t have the means to move or a friend with a couch to sleep on when they get to Colorado. Some have lived for generations in the places where the jobs have disappeared. As for the jobs that are left, what do they pay? One out of four working Americans earn less than $10 per hour. At 25%, the U.S. has the highest percentage of low-wage workers in the developed world. (Canada and Great Britain have 20%, Japan under 15%, and France 11 %.)…One in six men, 10.4 million Americans aged 25 to 64, the prime working years, don’t have jobs at all, a portion of the male population that has almost tripled in the past four decades. They are neither all lazy nor all unskilled, and at present they await news of the uncharted places in the U.S. where those 10 million unfilled jobs are hidden.”

For many Americans, even finding low-paid retail work is next to impossible. Van Buren provides a chilling factoid from Washington DC – capital city of the US “land of opportunity” (“this magical place,” as Barack Obama once descried the US):

“How hard is it to land even a minimum-wage job? This year, the Ivy League college admissions acceptance rate was 8.9%. Last year, when Walmart opened its first store in Washington, D.C., there were more than 23,000 applications for 600 jobs, which resulted in an acceptance rate of 2.6%, making the big box store about twice as selective as Harvard and five times as choosy as Cornell….Telling unemployed people to get off their couches (or out of the cars they live in or the shelters where they sleep) and get a job makes as much sense as telling them to go study at Harvard.”[4]

Think about that: the unemployed of the nation’s capital are more likely to be admitted to Harvard than to be hired at Wal-Mart, a company that functions as a giant sales platform for multinational and “American” corporations that have systemically moved production jobs out of the US to lower-wage regions of the world capitalist system. There’s some shining context for Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz’s recent observation that “we have 20 million Americans who would like a full-time job and can’t get one.” [5]

Okay, former manufacturing workers and frustrated Wal-Mart applicants: go get some training and higher education to develop those high skills that employers are in such great need of, right? In the spring of 2014, Van Buren notes, the US graduated more than 1.6 million Americans with brand new bachelor’s degrees.  Many of those graduates (many of whom are carrying significant college tuition debt) are already working in low-wage, non-benefit jobs (Starbucks baristas, waiters/waitresses, bar-tenders, telemarketers, retail clerks, and so on), joining the vast army of savagely under-employed – a great mockery to the widespread notion that the main labor market problem facing the US economy is a “skills gap.”

Patching Up the Drunk Driver, Leaving the Guy He Hit Bleeding in the Street

The fourth thing I know for sure is that no tiny part of the current abysmal state of the US job market can be traced to the parasitic shenanigans of the nation’s grotesquely opulent financial elite. The nation’s financial overlords crashed the national and global economy, throwing millions out of work and destroying ordinary households’ savings and lives across the land, in 2007 and 2008.  They perpetrated this deed through the proliferation of reckless financial “weapons of mass destruction” that pumped billions of dollars into the already overstuffed coffers of the upper-reaches of “the 1%” as they generated a bubble whose inevitable bursting created an epic economic mess whose consequences live on today.

The fifth thing I know without a hint of uncertainty is that the federal government under the fake-progressive presidency of Barack Obama44 [5A] (a record-setting recipient of Wall Street election funding in 2008) has followed in the footsteps of George Bush43 by rescuing the reckless financial few who threw millions out of home and job while exacting no real penalty on those wildly irresponsible elites and offering the working class majority nothing (or close to itP to compensate them for their losses. Along the way, Bush and Obama have “given people everywhere” what William Greider called in the spring of 2009 “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.”  US citizens have “watched Washington run to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe.  They [have] learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it”[6] – and little for the rest, the so-called “99 percent,” left to ruefully ask, “where’s our bailout”?

Stiglitz prefers an at once legal and medical metaphor. Noting that the “too-big-to-fail” financial institutions were able to “pay back” the federal government the bailout money they got after the crash only because of a “shell game” whereby the US Federal Reserve lent them hundreds of billions of dollars at zero interest. As Stiglitz recently told Bill Moyers:

“What we did was analogous to we take the perpetrator, the guy who was the drunk driver to the hospital, but we leave the guy that has been hit on the street. And then we say, oh, by the way, you [leading financial institutions] don’t have to pay for any damage that you’ve done. So even after [the Wall Street firms] paid back the government the real question is who’s responsible for all the damage that’s been done to our economy? The people have lost their jobs…that lost their homes? The banks haven’t paid back a cent of that liability. And that’s a real corporate responsibility.”[7]

Ironically enough, Charlotte Bell’s dad worked on the Obama campaign in 2012 and had recently sought policy work in the corporatist, Wall Street-captive Obama White House.

No Shortage of Necessary Work

The sixth thing I know to be indisputably true is that there is no shortage of important tasks for the United States’ millions of “surplus people” to perform in return for decent wages in a time when humanity is faced with the urgent ecological necessity of drastically reducing Greenhouse gas emissions. Stanford engineering professor Mark Jacobson and University of California-Davis research scientist Mark Delucchi have shown that humanity could convert to a completely renewable-based energy system by 2030 if nations would rely on technologies vetted by scientists rather than promoted by industries. Jacobson and Delucchi’s plan to have 100% of the world’s energy supplied by wind, water, and solar (WWS) sources by 2030 calls for millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations. “The numbers are large,” they write, “but the scale is not an insurmountable hurdle: society has achieved massive transformations before. During World War II, the U.S. retooled its automobile factories to produce 300,000 aircraft, and other countries produced 486,000 more. In 1956, the U.S. began building the Interstate Highway System, which after 35 years extended for 47,000 miles, changing commerce and society.”[8]

Those who worry about the conflict between concern for jobs and concern for the environment in public opinion might want to reflect on the fact that many millions of workers would be employed in the socially and ecologically useful (indeed necessary) work of manufacturing, operating, and maintaining “millions of wind turbines, water machines, and solar installations,” along with numerous other tasks related to the environmental reconversion of the US and global economy that much of life  (including humanity) requires.

As Derber and Magrass note, “Surplus people…are ‘surplus’ only within a system that has made them so.  A more rational and sustainable economy, organized on the basis of human need and social rationality, could employ all Americans.”[9]

It’s More Than a Little Public

The seventh thing I know with supreme confidence is that it is completely dysfunctional to keep the question of how the profit system generates mass structural unemployment and under-employment “private” – removed from full and honest public conversation.  The joblessness and under-employment that capital imposes masses of people is a giant, fundamentally public issue with gigantic implications for the common good. It deserves broad public discussion on the path to saving livable ecology and providing socially useful, economically remunerative, and environmentally essential employment for millions who are ready and willing to work for themselves and others.

Along the way, such a public discussion would save a large number of US citizens from depression and suicide.  They have shamefully been made to feel individually responsible for what is actually a social problem rooted in economic change based on the anti-social imperatives of capital.

Paul Street is an independent Left political commentator, author and historian in Iowa City, IA.  His next book is They Rule: The 1%v Democracy (Paradigm Publishers, 2014)



1. Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream (New York: Crown, 2006), 149-150.

2. Charles Derber and Yale Magrass, The Surplus American: How the 1% is Making Us Redundant (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2012), 3-6.

3. Richard Wolff, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism (Chicago: Haymarket, 2012), 37-42.

4. Peter Van Buren, “A Rising Tide Lifts All Yachts,” (June 3, 2014),

5. “Stiglitz Calls for Fair Taxes,” Moyers & Company (May 30, 2014),

5A Paul Street, “The Pretender,” ZNet (June 8, 2014),

6.  William Greider, “Obama Told Us to Speak But is He Listening?” Washington Post, March 22, 2009,

7. “How Tax Reform Can Save the Middle Class,” Moyers & Company (June 6, 2014),

8. Mark Jacobson and Mark Delucchi, “A Plan for a Sustainable Future,” Scientific American (November 2009),

9.  Derber and Magrass. The Surplus American, 3.

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By | 2014-07-25T11:58:50+00:00 July 25th, 2014|Articles|