Now seven years into the great recession of 2008, there is no respite in sight for the American working class. Yet while much of the economy and people are afflicted by the contraction of austerity in the capitalism of the 21st century, some areas have never done better. In order to understand the duality of 21st-century capitalism, we need to look at the forces of power benefiting from it.
While it has always been understood by anyone with a basic critical analysis of capitalism that the working class is inherently exploited and subjugated in the selling of its labor, the silver lining described since its onset has been the ever-growing standard of living resulting from the expansion of capitalism. While alienating workers from their labor, capitalists were able to provide some semblance of dignity to the workers spending most of the day producing their surplus value.
As economist Richard D. Wolff often reminds us, in the United States this game was kept in place for a remarkably long time: since the start of industrialization through about a century and a half afterwards, living standards improved as wages periodically increased and workers gained benefits such as pensions, insurance and compensation (although most of this came about following hard fought battles in the streets and factories). Even after the great depression, Keynesian Economics was able to put the trajectory of capitalist course relatively back on course. However, capitalism would inevitable succumb to its inherent flaw and paradoxes.
The 1970s brought about new dynamics to American capitalism as many Marxists began to point at what they believed was the unraveling of capitalism from its core. By this time capitalism had spread to every corner of the globe and what it needed in order to survive, the opening of new markets for resources and selling of products was not readily available. Yet all this did not produce the gravediggers of capitalism itself.
Back home the influx of women into the workforce also increased the labor pool while technology drove production costs down. Profits were siphoned to the top tiers of society instead of to the masses. With new profits, major banks along with other private entities began to lend out money both domestically and internationally which would later contribute to the financial crisis in the 1980s known as the “lost decade.” The macro and micro debts incurred during this period through predatory lending and other nefarious practices were used as a pretext for the modern age of austerity in which we find ourselves in. The pompous nature of the bourgeois class was reflected in the acronym Margret Thatcher coined, TINA (there is no alternative) in reference to liberal economics. What some western historians would come to call the ‘end of history,’ neoliberalism has kept capitalism afloat on a folly of new standards.
The death of American labor, as renowned sociologist Stanley Aronowitz chronicles in his latest book The Death and Life of American Labor, has given way to the new capitalist entrepreneur who is continuing the evisceration of the last remnants of the American working class. Between new startup app companies, tech firms, outsourcing and the deeper austerity measures in older industries, labor has never looked so different in the global North. Precarity has become the new normal of 21st century capitalism.
Service jobs have exploded while austerity measures have cut many of the social benefits gained over the past century. Workers have no option but to settle for insecure and temporary positions in this new age of startups, which more often than not offer no health insurance, bonuses or stability.
With the balance of power so heavily favoring the bosses, many employees in freelance fields are beginning to realize that worker unity is the only way to combat this new normal. Unionization is regaining steam in certain sectors – recently, journalists have been organizing in places such as VICE and Salon and in Seattle Uber drivers won the right to unionize after mounting a campaign to push back against the precarious nature of the job.
Many of these startups promise flexibility, independence and higher than average income yet they depend on many external factors while withholding any sort of benefit or financial stability for its workforce. This not only affects workers in the companies but in many fields it indirectly affects the consumers and society as a whole.
In the education field, which is increasingly proliferated with temporary substitute positions, Teach for America assignments and adjuncts in universities, students have had to settle for stressed and underpaid teachers pulled in various directions from other students and higher ups. This contributes to lower school performances, which serve as the reason for further budget cuts and the introduction of private education and charter schools.
Despite the precarious state of labor and society in the 21st century, certain sectors and industries of labor and economy remain strong. While superficially this may seem like a paradox, looking beyond the surface we find the pillars ofcapitalism being reinforced.
One profession that has unsurprisingly been immune to the contractions perpetuated by austerity is policing.
All across the country we find police departments with shiny new toys that are periodically showcased when people decide to collectively rise up in outbursts of dissent and in rejection to the reality of life in the ghetto, barrios or reservations.
Hiding behind powerful unions, Police department budgets are scarcely even questioned as their funding increases from both public and private monies while they continue to carry out wonton murder people of color, trans people, those struggling with mental health issues and other marginalized people.
Along the lines of systemic violence, the military has also expanded during the past few decades even after the end of the Cold War was expected to bring down the military expenditures.
The reinforcement of these institutions should come as no surprise because they are the buffer between the working class and the bourgeois. Policing as an institution has been the impasse for having grievances properly addressed. Those in power would much rather fortify the violent barriers than address the socio-economic problems placating poor communities predominantly of color but also increasingly white.
It is becoming clearer that those in power will not willingly give up the comforts they have acquired at the expense of the majority. Twenty-first-century capitalism, as with early forms of capitalism, will never provide the workers with the rights and dignity needed to emancipate itself from the alienation of the nine-to-five.
We cannot reform this ill-fated capitalism by injecting it with the stimulants suggested by Thomas Piketty in the manner of some contemporary Keynesian economics or even some sort of social-democratic revolution (whatever that means) led by the new poster boy of American liberalism, Bernie Sanders.
The accumulation of capital will bypass any regulation, overcome any reform and reverse any progress put in place toalleviate its injustices. Jobs will only continue to become more precarious as the dynamics of this new economy shifts labor forces faster than the American worker can keep up. Twenty-first-century capitalism pushes us two steps back, and even if our clamors for reform are granted, we will only be moving one step forward. While we cannot abandon the struggle to take over the means of production, we must also fight for our own autonomy in the way of reclaiming our spaces and creating new solidarity economies as we begin to build the world we know is possible.