Sunday, July 17, 2011


The unemployed in the US number 14 million. Lose your job, and it will take roughly nine months to find a new one.

''There used to be a sense that unemployment was rich soil for radicalisation and revolt,'' Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor of labour history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said. ''That was a motif in American history for a long time, but we don't seem to have that any more.''

The jobless are, politically speaking, more or less invisible. With apologies to Karl Marx, the workers of the world, particularly the unemployed, are also no longer uniting. Unemployment doesn't necessarily beget apathy. Even so, numerous studies have shown that unemployment leads to feelings of shame and a loss of self-worth. And that is not particularly conducive to political organising. As Heather Boushey, an economist at the Center for American Progress, puts it, rather bluntly: ''Nobody wants to join the Lame Club.''

In 2010, about 46 per cent of working Americans who were eligible to vote did so, compared with 35 per cent of the unemployed. It's partly because of the greater dispersion of the unemployed, and partly because of the weakening of the institutions that previously mobilised them.

''There's an illusion that grass-roots activity just begins spontaneously, that people get mad and suddenly say, 'I'm not going to take it anymore!''' says Michael Kazin, a historian at Georgetown University. ''But that's not how it happens.'' Intellectuals used to play a big role in organising labour. In the 1930s, Communists and Socialists were a major force. Later, labour unions stepped in. But today's unions are not set up to serve the unemployed; they generally organise around workplaces, after all. Today, many unions are fighting for their own survival. They no longer provide such support for non-members.

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