Issue 3 - Fall 1995
The Electronic Revolution and the New Class of the Structurally Unemployed (page 1 of 2)
By Nelson Peery / National Organizing Committee

Speaking at this conference on high technology is no small accomplishment for a person who, in his youth, worked with a horse and a plow. But perhaps only a person who has done such work has seen enough changes in the economy to visualize what the current ongoing historic changes in this economy mean for our social future.

Along with that horse and plow of my youth, I had a grandfather who was full of pat country phrases. One of his favorites that I've learned to appreciate was, "A heap see and few know." As I watch the political sycophants of big business carrying out the charade that they call grappling with the social destruction around us, I often think of Grandpa. Why does a city decline? "The obvious reason is the growing lack of community pride." Teenage pregnancy? "The youth have lost their morality." Narcotics? "The criminal element is out of control." This pandering to the most backward section of society could work while people were stunned by the socioeconomic catastrophe around us and while they were believing the malarkey coming from those they thought were friends and protectors.

Perhaps history will record that Newt Gingrich was the best thing that ever happened to the poor of this country. When they get more of the same advice from those they know who are their enemy, then perhaps awakening is possible. In this sense, I would like to skip a description of the millions of homeless, the tens of millions of jobless, the acres of burned out neighborhoods, the slaughter of our youth, the in-your-face looting of the public treasury, the decline of education, and the threatening complete elimination of social services. The important thing is to understand why this is happening and what the political results are bound to be.

When and why did government grow big with their alphabet programs, and when and why did it suddenly need to shed itself of these programs? The major tasks of government is to create the social programs and policies that allow the economy to function. For example, when the government was the instrument of the farmers, that government did the things necessary to protect and expand the farm. The Indians were cleared from the fertile lands, slavery was protected and extended, shipping lanes for export were cleared and frontiers expanded.

As the farm gave way to industry, the government transformed itself into a committee to take care of the new needs of industry. At that point government began to grow. Industry needed literate workers, so the school system expanded under a Secretary of Education. The army needed healthy young men to fight wars brought on by industrial expansion, so a school lunch program was initiated. As industry got big, a Department of Housing and Urban Development provided order to the chaotic, burgeoning cities it created. As industry and the workers moved outward, a Department of Transportation brought order to the transportation chaos. In other words, government became big government in order to serve the needs of industry as it became big industry. The workers were kept relatively healthy and the unemployed were warehoused in such a manner as to keep them available for work with each industrial expansion.

Now the rub. New means of production changed the game. Not only are expanding sections of the working class superfluous to production, but the new mode of high-tech production no longer needs a reserve army of unemployed. Nor does it need healthy young men for an infantry war. As industry gave way to the new electronic means of production, it downsized. The government necessarily had to follow suit.

If we knew the consequences of our actions, we probably wouldn't get out of bed in the morning. The scientists pursuing their craft could hardly visualize what the engineers would do with the marvels they had created. The engineers as they applied the marvels of science to the workplace probably never understood the effects it would have on the capitalist system. Nor did the capitalists, in their scramble for the market and its profits, realize the effects they were having on history.

The Structurally Unemployed as a New Economic Category

As the applications of these new scientific marvels to the workplace expanded, a new economic category, the structurally unemployed, was created. Some 150 years ago, Marx and Engels coined the term "the reserve army of the unemployed." This was the industrial reserve to be thrown into the battle for production as the need arose. The structurally unemployed were something different. They were a new, growing, permanently unemployed sector created by the new emerging economic foundations.

Robotics entered industry at the lowest and simplest level. Its first victims were the unskilled and semi-skilled workers. For historic as well as racist reasons, the black workers were concentrated there. The widespread liquidation of the blacks in the industrial workforce was looked upon as another brutal act of American racism. It was difficult to see the effects of robotics on the white unskilled and semi-skilled workers. They were scattered throughout the general white population and especially in the suburbs. The African-Americans were concentrated in a relatively small urban area, and the percentage of black laborers to the total African-American population was higher than that of white laborers to the white population.

The consequent creation of the ghetto the black, permanently destitute, rotting inner core of the formerly central working class area of the city was accepted as simply the result of racist economic policies of capitalist industry. The economists, their inquiry tainted with racist ideology, unable to understand the difference between a reserve army of the unemployed created by industrial capitalism and the structural, permanent, joblessness created by robotics, came up with the term "underclass." This term actually was a derivative or perhaps a takeoff from the Marxist term "lumpen proletariat" or beneath the working class.

What are the origins of that term? Within the political shell but outside the economic relations of feudalism, new economic classes, the bourgeoisie and the modern working class, were created from the serfs. Some of these ex-serfs did not make it into either of the new classes. They formed what Marx referred to as a lumpen proletariat. This social flotsam, created at the beginnings of an industrial capitalism, existed as best it could on the periphery of society until the system finally absorbed them.

Those who coined the term "underclass" perhaps thought this was a group unable to keep up, and once falling behind and supported by welfare, consciously accepting an existence outside the capitalist relations of employer and employee. Perhaps they saw them as something akin to the lumpen proletariat of the beginnings of industrial capitalism.

Racism allowed for this term to be quickly and widely accepted. From the battlements once provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, from the oak paneled sanctuaries of the universities, it must have seemed that a sub-class of blacks reliant on welfare had lost the work ethic. Worse, they were creating a subculture of immorality and criminality in the midst of a great expansion of wealth and productivity. More >>


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