What Can the Unemployed Do? – Paul Mattick

Source: http://aaap.be/Pdf/International-Council-Correspondence/International-Council-Correspondence-4-02b.pdf

I.C.C., Volume 4 Number 1, February 1938

The previous issue of this magazine expressed the view that the return of what the satisfied in society call “normal unemployment” can no longer be expected, that large-scale unemployment and its accompanying misery is here to stay despite temporary reductions of the unemployed figures through public work measures and war. We rejected the popular slogans demanding work for the unemployed, since we cannot conceive of their fulfillment in ways other than through greater miseries as were previously experienced by the workers. Under the present conditions of a deepening depression, the misery of the unemployed will take on once more the appearance and proportions already witnessed at the low point of the years 1931-33. To keep from starving, unemployed were then pressed into all forms of action. If the trend is not excluded by an early outbreak of the coming war, which would change all perspectives made on the assumption that “peace” will endure somewhat longer, it is to be expected that once more will the unemployed be forced into actions of their own to safeguard their miserable existence.

Only once in American history before 1929 has the “interest” in unemployement been comparable to that existing since then; namely, in the depression period at the beginning of the world war. However, this “interest”, caused by the unrest and action of the unemployed was again forgotten in the long period of “prosperity” nourished by the World War. Before 1929 the unemployed had no possibility of altering the prevailing attitude in society, which, in the words of President Hoover, saw in the unemployment problem “a sporadic and irregular phenomenon which merited only a sporadic and irregular control”. Their minority situation reduced them to an object of christian charity. Under the pressure of the ever increasing scope of that phenomenon, that is, under the pressure of the unemployed, however, it soon became impossible to take the matter so lightly, and recourse was necessary to more than temporary relief measures. The economic stabilization which came about after the crisis had reached a certain level enabled and facilitated a “better regulation” of the social measures bound up with unemployment, and this process was still further promoted by the accelerated rate of advance in the centralization of economic power urged by political pressure.

Though because of this process situations have changed as regards the unemployment problem, it is to be expected that the force of tradition will induce the unemployed workers, despite the experiences of the past, to repeat their previous activities. And though this repetition of already familiar methods may have today and entirely different effect because of the changed conditions, the question remains open whether this effect will be more fruitful now than before, or be of even less significance. It must be asked further if those traditional measures are possible at all, and if not, what will or must be applied instead of them? In short, the questions of what the unemployed may do and what they can do have to be reinvestigated in recognition of the changed conditions.

Such an investigation is limited in many respects. However logical and correct our analysis may sound, still it cannot be regarded as more than a general outline, unable to serve for specific purposes at particular moments in the unemployed struggle within the different territories of the United States. Specific plans must unfortunately always be left to the moment of action and to the needs of the changing situations in the course of struggle. No one is able to know in advance all the possible occurrences within the struggle. Since no one can conceive the whole of society in which the struggle takes place, he cannot foresee all the deatils of which it consists. International, national and local implications, conscious and spontaneous actions of this, the other, or all groups, here, there, and everywhere, may change within the daily struggle any situation, although all this may alter nothing of the “long run” factors of history. But the unemployed struggle, a life and death question of today and tomorrow, cannot be based solely on “long run” factors in history. Decisions have to be changed at particular moments, and this calls for self-initiative, spontaneous shifts, and careful modifications of tactics and propaganda. However, though we recognize all this, still it remains true that the more realistic the conceivable general outline is, and the better the history of previous struggles is known, and the more eventualities of the near future are foreseen, however roughly, the better and more effective will be the activity in each particular situation that calls for spontaneous satisfaction of the momentary needs.

To answer the question as to what the unemployed can do, we therefore have to deal with the past, the present, and the future conditions related to this question. Such and answer cannot be given in one issue of this magazine. We are forced to break this article into sections appearing in different issues. Although each section has a certan independence, the inner connection of the series should not be overlooked.

Unemployment and the Labor Movement in American History

Unemployment has accompanied the entire American industrial development, and to only a somewhat lesser degree in the days of pioneer activity. It is true that the scourge was frequently somewhat mitigated by the westward procession, but the participants in that movement came mostly from the farms; in spite of poor living conditions, it was only in rare cases that the industrial workers accepted Horace Greely’s advice. In old chronicles and forgotten literature, there are frequent references to urban unemployment. Thus for example Nile’s Register of August 1819 writes: “There are 20,000 persons daily seeking work in Philadelphia, in New York 10,000 able-bodied men are wandering the streets, in Baltimore there may be about 10,000 persons in unsteady employment, etc.” The improvement of the situation after the depression year of 1819 was soon followed by new waves of distress. The labor market waxed and waned with the business cycles. “Thousands of industrious mechanics who never before solicited alms”, wrote the New York Times in 1829, “were brought to the humiliating conditions of applying for assistance, and with tears on their manly cheeks confessed their inability to provide food or clothing for their families”. Similar reports, often accompanied by unemployed figures which range in the hundreds of thousands, are found in innumerable accounts of the various years of depression in American economic history. The deeper and the more persistent the depression, the greater the prominence of the unemployment problem.

Unemployment was immense in the years from 1857 to 1863, and it was precisely because of its magnitude that the conditions of economic crisis around 1884 impressed upon the class struggles of that time the pronounced character which found its culmination in the Haymarket Riot. Ten years later the growing importance of the unemployment question was brought home to the workers and capitalists alike by the great unempoyed demonstrations, which took place in many parts of the country, and by the dramatic march of “Coxey’s army” upon Washington.

The belated and, for that reason more rapid, development of American capitalism, together with its peculiarities – such as pioneer activity, the great variety of means of livelihood, and other structural differences – distinguished the development of the American labor movement to a large extent from that of Europe. A conciously organized labor movement with a socialistic ideology, as was known in pre-fascist Europe, existed in America always and even today only in embryonic form. Nevertheless, at times labor organizations occasionally took on important proportions; movements developed spontaneously only to disappear again as fast as they had risen. But up to the middle of the nineteenth century, because American industry was still backward in comparison with that of Europe, the labor movement in America was of a guild character, operating on a local basis, and combining their craft interests with the interests and aspirations of the farmers. After the Civil War trade union development accompanied that of capitalism. After 1870 this trade union movement grew more rapidly with the growth and the changing character of the class struggles. The big strike waves following the crisis of 1873 and reaching their greatest strength in 1877 radicalized the workers to a large extent. The “Knights of Labor”, the most important labor organization, could count in 1885 on 100,000 members, which by way of a few successful strikes in the boom period could be raised to 750,000. But with the end of the boom the Knights of Labor declined as fast as they had grown up. During all this time, the political movement of the workers, existing in various socialist language groups, was almost without significance. The American Federation of Labor, developing out of the ruins of the Knights of Labor, grew as an expression of the growing importance of skills and crafts in the capitalist industrialization process, and fostered by immigration and job control, led to a division of the workers into the so-called aristocracy and the great masses of unorganized. Attempts on the part of the I.W.W. to break this situation by industrial organizations had only temporary successes; the development of labor groups with specific interests within the proletariat hampered the development of socialist ideologies and, with this, the growth of socialist movements. Attempts on the part of the unions to safeguard their jobs against the newcomers supported the isolation and atomising tendencies among the working class that were alread fostered by capitalism in opposition to the actual unification and socialization of labor and the laborers through the development of large industry. The absence of important socialist movements and the attitude of the trade unions led to an almost complete neglect of the unemployment problems and excluded support of their struggles through workers’ solidarity. Only in times of utter despair spontaneous unemployment movements arose, unrecognized in their significance by the existing labor organizations, and unable to asset themselves with more than a mere demonstration of their misery, and disappearing without result again into the night.

With the twentieth century, America presents a full-fledged capitalism. All other classes are subordinated to the interests of the big capitalist concerns. The proletariat is the largest class in society. The “special characteristics” of American capitalism disappeared; they now play a part only in phraseology. But the rapid rate of capital accumulation occuring now in America for reasons which we cannot go into here, prevented to a larger extent than ever the growth of socialist ideas. The “American Dream” clothed itself in dollars and cents costumes, in bonds and stocks, in get-rich-quick schemes, in fairy tales of the newsboy and the millionaire. The capitalization of the labor movement proceeded even faster than the general capitalization of ideologies and social activities. The prosperity period before 1929 was accompanied by such and organizational and ideological decline of the labor movement that it was hardly possible to speak of such a movement at all. Although the “prosperity” was only a reality for the labor-aristocracy in comparison with European labor conditions and wages, and remained a dream for the large majority of the American workers, just the same the “spirit” created by the prosperity nourished the hope that sooner or later all would participate in eating from the especially wellfilled flesh pots of American capitalism, in which lay the formula for eternal happiness.

When the period of prosperity was over, the ideia prevailed that the depression was only an accident and would be soon and forever overcome. “The jobless, the near-jobless, the countless victims of the market and bank failures”, wrote A. R. Wylie in the New York Times (4/26/31), “are bearing their personal change of fortune with a gallantry and good humor.” But soon after that the situation changed. Hope was replaced by despair in the unending crisis. The rapidity of the decline once more radicalized the American working class in a previously inconceivable way. The “gallantry” and the “good humor” of the first depression years made room for a general unrest and a special activity of the unemployed.

Welfare and the Unemployed

As long as unemployment could still be regarded as a local and temporary affair, the general tendency was to leave the resulting distress to the care of the local and private welfare agencies. “The recipients of unemployment relief”, wrote the Chicago Tribune (11/9/32), “are objects of charity. Money has been given them not because the victims have a right to it, but because the community has a heart.” The American poor laws, an adaptation of the English ones dating from the 16th century, contrasted with these latter in being of local, not national, origin.

American poor relief since the 17th century has assumed various forms. The most general one consisted in the establishment of poorhouses and workhouses. Wherever possible, ablebodied children and adults were let out to farmers and industrial employers, who in exchange for the duty of supporting them received the right to their unlimited exploitation. A further form of “poor relief” was public auctions of the helpless to the highest bidder; and, finally, though only in rare cases, those whose wretched situation could be regarded as transitory were the recipients of “out-door relief” in the form of food doles.

This poor relief, organized and administered according to cities and counties, always had as one of its aims to impress upon the needy the stigma of disgrace. The Pennsylvania General Settlement Act, for instance, enumerates strict requirements for legal settlement based on continued residence and occupation, specifying rates of assessment for relief of the poor, and making provisions for discouraging applications for relief. To this end the state required all persons receiving aid, even children, to wear on the right sleeve a large letter “P”, signifying pauper, with the first letter of the district’s name worn underneath. The still existing pauper oath for the relief recipients and the general treatment of relief applicants by welfare institutions and their agents are still based on the principle of stigmatizing and scaring away the relief seeker. This attitude is in line wth the exploitative needs of the existing society. If it was more pronounced at the beginning of the capitalist development and if its changes form at the end of this development, that is owing to the fact that the thirst for pofits is relatively greater and the appeasement of that thirst relatively smaller in these periods than in the heyday of capitalism. The miserable conditions of the working class make it necessary to resort to barbarous treatment of the non-working and poverty stricken elements of the population in order to spur the former to greater exertions.

In the course of the capitalist development the practice of poor relief underwent a gradual modification in which it became adapted to the ever-changing conditions, though the poor laws, which were almost medieval in their origin, were not thereby affected in principle. The poorhouses and workhouses, as the most important institutions of poor relief, lost some of their importance and in many states were converted into homes for the aged or into prisons. More attention was devoted to the distinction of types among the needy, and there was an increasing tendency to concentrate upon out-door relief. In the various states of the union the poor laws were revised at longer or shorter intervals. In the execution of the laws there was developed a certain uniformity in the industrial states and another uniformity in the farming states. Welfare work came more and more to be taken out of the hands of justices of the peace and directors of the poor and turned over to trained social workers. With the setting in of the crisis in 1929, the inefficiency of the local relief services was exposed everywhere.

The relief measures in the first years of the depression were insufficient and chaotic. After three years of economic crisis not a single serious attempt had been made to adapt the relief institutions to the demands of the great amount of unemployment. The jobless masses were thrown exclusively upon the mercies of the inadequate local and private welfare institutions. All that happened at first was that the already existing institutions were expanded, coordinated, and frequently completely merged with each other. The constantly mounting financial requirements were met, in so far as possible, by way of increased collections and larger bequests, private and public loans and higher local and state taxes. For a long time this extension of welfare activity was looked upon as transitory measures, to be abandoned in the expected upturn in business.

The united or cooperating welfare institutions of the counties and cities restricted their activity mainly to the doling out of food to needy families. In the early depression years it was only in rare cases that the unmarried man out of a job managed to obtain relief. Almost all relief was conducted on a noncash basis. Rentals were paid only in rare cases and in many cities not at all. Evictions of unemployed have accompanied the distress during all the years of depression since 1929. Even light, gas and water were also long refused in many communities. The relief recipient had to be literally without resources and without the means of obtaining them. A gauntlet of investigations had to be run, and the unemployed had to fight incessantly against cuts and procrastination. All kinds of difficulties were systematically promoted. In many cities and counties the pressure of “public opinion” was invoked as justification for compelling the unemployed, in return for the miserable relief accorded, to labor on public works.

In some localities the system of cash relief was adopted at a quite early date, in others not until the end of 1935[1]. But this policy was also not a consistent one. The ideia of paying out cash relief was not taken up by a number of states until it became possible in this way to bridge over difficulties which arose from sharp cuts in the relief rates. The Chicago Daily News (5/11/35) reported that Mrs. Page, in a conference of state relief officials said: “that the reaction of clients to the relief cut at St. Louis was much calmer than had been expected, due to the fact that clients were gratified at having money in their own hands.” After such successful operations, there followed in many cases a return to the old methods: foodstuffs or tickets with which to draw them were again handed out.

The relief given amounted in money terms on the average to about $21 per month for each family or about $4.60 per month for each person. This was at the rate of fifteen cents a day per person. On the basis of the Chicago relief budget, for example, the monthly relief figure during the year 1932-33 for a family of five amounted to $28.79, while the necessary minimum for existence for the same family at the same time, without including rent, was computed by the Chicago Council of Social Agencies to be $105.00. The difference between the two figures illustrates the inadequacy of the relief rates, an inadequacy rendered still more glaring when it is borne in mind that the Chicago rates were among the highest in the whole country.

“Self-Help” – the American Way

Out of the economic and psychologic situation preceding the depression, including the described status of the American labor movement, and the status of the welfare institutions, the course taken by the unemployed’s reaction to their new situation is understandable. The first response to the depression and their own condition was expressed in the spontaneous self-help movement of the years 1932-33. The absence of militant labor organizations of any significance, the disinterestedness of the trade unions towards the unemployed, and the general ideological backwardness of the masses burdened with a set of romantic traditions dating to the times of the frontiers, saw in these self-help organizations the practical American answer to the unemployment problem. At first these new organizations were conceived only as temporary institutions to help overcome extraordinary situations. Most of these organizations were nationalistic and petty-bourgeois in their outlook. Although they were spontaneously created by the unemployed themselves, they soon found the approval and the help of all kinds of reformist groups and humanitarian institutions, such as churches and business associations. They also secured endorsement by many trade unions and by the Socialist Party. Many city administrations supported those new expressions of a true “Americanism”, and later the Federal Emergency Relief Administration saw fit to support the more promising units of self-help organizations. Upton Sinclair, who never lets a chance pass by, also incorporated this new ideia into his utopian EPIC scheme.

Self-help organizations sprang up as early as 1930, and were in vogue during 1932. Some of them kept themselves independent, others united with kindred organizations. Unsuccessful attempts were made to coordinate them into nationwide Federations. All were engaged in two principal types of activities: organized begging, and the barter of labor and comodities. The exchange regulations apparatus, membership dues, due bills, goods certificates, credit transfers, vouchers, exchange checks, and what not. Most of them were engaged in agricultural pursuits, since most of them functioned in agricultural states. Land and implements for production were solicited, offered, rented, lent by individuals, authorities and societies. The strong religious sectarianism, one of the American peculiarities, lent impetus to such organizations. Most of the organizations abstained from competing with private enterprises; most of them also excluded all money-dealings. Even where such possibilities were open, only occasionally was advantage taken thereof. But as soon as the principle “Not for Profit” was broken, the sharpest protest arose from the small business men’s organizations and from the trade unions. Many socialists entering these self-help organizations developed an enthusiasm expressed in the wildest hopes of the socialistic future of such enterprises, which seemed non-capitalist islands in the ocean of capitalism. P. R. Haffner wrote, for instance, in the American Guardian of Nov. 25, 1932:

“Never before was there such a possibility to build up cooperatives. The small enterprises can not longer compete, the larger ones will not dare to fight against us. Hunger is like dynamite, no one likes to play with it. Experiences show that self-help is possible; in Tacoma alone we have already gattered means of production to the tune of 45,000 dollars, we built houses, employed workers, we have started an industrious community in which there will be no unemployment and no exploitation.”

However, this optimism fell to pieces when reality did not conform to it. At the end of 1933 most of the self-help organizations had again disappeared. They collapsed because of the deepening of the crisis, as they did later because of the improvement of business conditions. In the field of begging, competition with the Salvation Army led also to diminishing returns. Corruption destroyed the organizations from the inside; the pressure of the growing misery from the outside. The proud “I Will” spirit could not withstand the complete devaluation of labor power. Labor power, which heretofore was only an undesired commodity, would not now be accepted even as a gift. The central ideia of the self-help movement as celebrated, for example, by the “Conference for Progressive Labor Action”, an organization which later merged with the Trotskyites into the American Workers Party, which again merged, etc., etc., the ideia of “production for use”, which this party believed was absolutely realizable because the ideia would find the hearty support of the taxpayers, as it would lighten their lot – this central ideia turned out to be a central illusion of both the self-help organizations and its supporters in the labor movement. Soon this organization, together with similar bodies and the trade unions found itself forced to protest against a self-help movement which went too far. The exchange of foodstuffs for work was now recognized as only one form of scabbing, of bringing pressure upon the wage rates. The self-helpers advertised themselves in newspapers, offering their labor for literally a piece of buttered bread. Unwilling to attack the self-helpers, for no one could tell how they might be used, the politicians made a compromise solution by insisting that barter should be practiced only among the unemployed themselves. But as long as the unemployed had nothing else to exchange with each other but their misery, this “compromise” was only a phrase to bridge the shift from self-help to relief demands.

The self-help movement, based on a primitive barter system and barbarous self-sufficiency, was unable to live up to its principles. It was supported by the government since it saved it some relief money. With the financial aid of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration some of them could continue to exist to this day, although the majority of them had passed out by 1934. But those extant have ceased to be regarded as an expression of the self-help movement as it sprang into existence during the years 1930-33. They belong to the series of governmental experimentations in “long-range planning” to allow sufficient exercise to the many adminsitrators who have to prove somehow that they are busy with the task of saving society. Or they have to be regarded as belonging to the many half-utopian agricultural colonies existing in America, as objects of a curiosity, just as the American Indians are to high school boys spending their vacations studiously.

(To be continued in the next issue).

[1] The change in the relief situation, initiated in 1933 by the Roosevelt Relief Program, will be dealt with in another chapter in the next issue.

All transcriptions were done by Felipe Andrade. Did you find any mistakes? Suggestions? Send e-mail to:
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