By Vijay Prashad
Hope and Change
The jobless men stood
Looking out the windows
At the machines dying
Like living things out there.
— Charles Bukowski, “We Ain’t Got No Money, Honey, But We Got Rain” (1990)
Abstractions are important, but when too far detached from the mulch of things they become ludicrous. If the abstractions are firmly rooted in Tradition, it becomes harder both to question them and to show that, belonging to a different age, they make little sense in our time.
US President Barack Obama’s speeches are glorious. They are a joy to listen to, to read later. He is able to dig deep into the rich rhetorical tradition of the Christian world and of the US Founding Fathers, and to articulate a powerful wake-up call. But how far is it from our world, from our time? There is an anachronistic edge not only in the cadence, but also in the logic – nothing here about the desertion of populations by the government, the presumption of a few to dominate the wealth produced by the many, and the turn to violence when other means wither in the quiver. Ethical systems cannot be built without any consideration of social transformations. It is not language alone that we must attend to, but even more so to the social context of the language.
Celebrations of “American character” and of the “God-given promise that all are equal” are emotive, powerful symbols of an age that is no longer with us. Ours is the age of the jobless economy, where character and equality divorced from their structural requisites are cruel sentiments. Rather than a message of uplift, these phrases are a rebuke. Failure to live the American Dream is easily attributed to lack of character and a rejection of God’s promise. It is easy to turn the most venerable elements of the American ideology from hope to despair.
In 1976, the Nobel Prize in Economics went to the University of Chicago’s Milton Friedman for, among other things, his pioneering work on the “natural rate of unemployment.”1 Friedman argued that if the economy neared full employment, prices would rise and create the inflationary condition for social disaster. For which reason, he argued, it is a good thing for the government to manipulate monetary policy to maintain a certain section of the population outside the workforce. This is just what US monetary policy is all about, keeping a substantial section of the population away from the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment numbers. Around the time when Friedman’s ribbon was pinned to his tuxedo lapel, the US workforce underwent a dramatic shift: developments in communication and transportation, as well as new regimes of trade policy, allowed firms to disarticulate production to various points of the planet, taking advantage of lower wage costs to increase their profits.2 Rather than invest in the aging US industrial sector, capital fled to the US-Mexico border, to East Asia and other places, building factories in “export processing zones” that took advantage of under-organized (mainly female) migrant workers. The US economy entered the phase of jobless growth, where the Gross Domestic Product grew as a result of the dramatic increase in the financial sector (a sparse employer), and the demise of industrial production produced mass joblessness at a scale not known for decades.
In 1976, only half the high school graduates went to college, and for those who did not, the job situation was bleak. It would continue to be abysmal for their lifetimes, as full-time union-wage jobs declined and the minimum wage stagnated below 1973 levels. Because of this, the tragedy of the civil rights struggle was that it won just when privatization, the demise of social welfare, and globalization eviscerated the chance for people of color to enjoy the statutory equality they had been granted. It was in this period that the Urban League ruefully reported, “More blacks have lost jobs through industrial decline than through job discrimination.”3
The harsh impact of the new social conditions hit hardest in communities of color. The general coordinates of this tsunami of economic woes – higher rates of unemployment, indebtedness and homelessness – are well documented. Petty criminality and urban despair drew thick lines across the landscape of this America. They would provide fodder for racist explanations – drawing from the well of old racism (Blacks as criminals and as feckless). These symptoms (petty criminality, social despair) would stand in for their causes (chronic joblessness, social atomization). Rather than go after the causes, the US elite went after the symptoms, with more police and more jails – deepening racism in the process. The forces of repression assumed with greater ferocity that the criminal had to be Black and Latino, with the police holding the baton as the legislators wrote laws that tied the hands of justice. Mandatory sentencing came alongside mandatory roughness at the point of arrest. Keeping up with the Dow Joneses, as I wrote in 2003, meant more debt, more prisons, and less social welfare.4 A toxic brew.
Globalization and free trade laws hurt these millions of Americans in ways that have not been fully appreciated by the intellectual elites. For those left out, abstractions of “American character” and the “God-given promise of equality” are insufficient. When the politically crafted economy is wedded to joblessness and the “natural rate of unemployment,” the promise of equality is cruel beyond measure. Anachronistic abstractions drawn from the Founding Fathers do not conform to the needs of the people, or to the people’s common sense. Worse, these abstractions do nothing to confront the revival of old racist ideas as new social-scientific concepts – the bell curve, suggesting low levels of intelligence among people of color, and low levels of moral fiber among Black men.5 Exhortations of American values are powerless before the cunning of racism.
A new set of civic virtues consonant with our reality would need to acknowledge that our current politically-defined economy has created disposable people – those who are in the criminal justice system (7.2 million), those who live in the abandoned “inner city” slums, those who have been unemployed for so long that they have forsaken the system entirely. Children among the disposable class who are not incredibly self-driven are cast off into proto-jails (with metal detectors and standardized tests, forms of surveillance that prepare them for prison and the low-end service sector). The “common good” that binds the citizenry together has been broken, with the peoples of the gated community and those of the slums driven asunder to the point where their reconciliation is near impossible. The elites revel in talk of character and noble ideas, while the poor are told that they must take “personal responsibility” for their ills – that they must throw away the cold Popeye’s Chicken and turn off the television to move their children from the ranks of the dispossessed. But, meanwhile, the Food and Culture industries are granted dispensations from taxation and from regulations to pollute society with the very things that the elect warn the population against. Here again is cruel illusion, as the disposable are told that the only things that give them comfort are bad for them. Nothing else is on offer: no hope of structural reform. There is no new ethic in what the elites have to offer, no new civic religion that confronts the constraints of our time. There is hope, because without the promise of hope reality would be unbearable. Reagan, Clinton, Obama – these are the preachers of hope. They have reaffirmed its necessity, but as yet there is no new covenant. If that does not come, then bewilderment.
Where jobs die
In the old days, a zombie was a figure whose life and work had been captured by magical means. Old zombies were expected to work around the clock with no relief. The new zombie cannot expect work of any kind—the new zombie just waits around to die.
— Junot Diaz, Apocalypse.6
The economic danse macabre picks up when the Bureau of Labor Statistics releases its periodic reports on jobs. The unemployment rate – which measures active job-seekers who cannot find a job – hovers around 7 per cent, but the jobless rate – which includes also those who are involuntarily working only part-time – is strikingly high for men, namely around 18 per cent. Then there are the “discouraged workers” who no longer care to seek a job, who have dropped off the radar of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. For them, the numbers have been gloomy. No salvation is at hand.
The traders on Wall Street react as they often do with a bad jobs report: the Dow Jones average ticks upwards. Gold prices and the value of “blue chip” stocks gain. Champagne corks pop in some buildings around Manhattan, while a million US households begin to rearrange their belongings in anticipation of a foreclosure notice on their homes.
Alternative policies to those of the two ruling parties are not available. Both have pledged themselves to a minimal tax regime, with tax cuts now assumed to be a good thing by a large plurality of the population even when these benefit only a very narrow slice of the elite. The Bush tax cuts lost the US treasury $1.7 trillion (from 2003 to 2008) and pushed income inequality to an obscene level (the top 1% of income earners make eighty times more than the bottom 20%). With reduced revenues, the choices of the elites for what money remains in the treasury say a great deal about their moral imperatives – money goes to wars and to the prison-industrial complex.
What has liberalism to promise the population? Not much. In 2008, Robert Kuttner of the liberal magazine American Prospect provided the main lines of serious liberal reform: “restore taxes on corporations and the wealthiest Americans, reduce spending on foreign wars, incur temporary larger deficits, and use the proceeds for very substantial social investments.”7 Kuttner hoped that Obama would govern with this program. It was not to be. The most that Obama did was to push a stimulus program – the money went toward shoring up the teetering banks and the inefficient mega-corporations. Promises of job-preservation went to naught, as the banks and firms hemorrhaged their workforce without embarrassment. “Millions of jobs depend on it,” Obama said, with reference to the government bailout, but not long after, GM cut 27,000 jobs and closed down half its car dealerships.8
The American Dream, like the Titanic, was blind to the iceberg of the 2007-09 Recession. When Ronald Reagan declared “morning in America,” fulfillment of the dream seemed inevitable. Parents told their children to work hard and enjoy a living standard that exceeded the expectations of previous generations. An unshakable faith in laissez-faire capitalism and the American spirit buoyed politicians and economists to shrug off reality in favor of their faith in boundless growth. That this growth was premised on debt of all kinds (housing, credit card, personal) was of no consequence. When the Cassandras warned of the disaster to come, they were scoffed at.9 There have always been the poor in the US, but the general theory of the establishment was that they are only poor because they do not have the right skills, do not try hard enough, or have some disability that prevents their advancement. What is needed is more education, more incentive or, for the infirm, a modest social safety net. There was little effort to come to terms with the massive shifts in global production, with firms now leaving the former industrial heartlands of the Midwest for the Pacific Rim and the Caribbean islands. Jobless growth is the order of the day in the United States, with large numbers of people, even before the 2007 recession, already slipping into the limbo of chronic joblessness.
After 2007, many more would enter this limbo. Almost 44 million Americans (14.3% of the population) now live under the poverty line.10 The line is set at $10,830 for a single adult, or $22,050 for a family of four. Not many people can survive on such a modest income. If the poverty line were properly calculated (at perhaps double this amount), more than a fifth of the population would be seen as poor. As it is, a quarter of African Americans and a quarter of Latinos live in poverty. Columbia University’s National Center for Children in Poverty shows that 14 million children (19% of all children) live in families with income below the federal poverty level, whereas an income of about twice that level is needed to cover basic expenses.11 By this logic, 41% of children in the US live in poor families. In late 2009, the Department of Agriculture revealed that 49 million Americans lack consistent access to food. The Department considers them in a condition of “food insecurity.” They won’t use the word “hunger,” banned by the government since the Reagan administration. This did not stop the president. Not long after the report came out, Obama said, “Hunger rose significantly this year.” His agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, noted, “These numbers are a wake-up call for the country.” No one has woken up. Least of all the Right, whose representative Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation denied the social conditions of our time. “Very few of these people are hungry. When they lose jobs, they constrain the kinds of food they buy. That is regrettable, but it’s a far cry from a hunger crisis.”12
The leaders of both parties resemble frogs, sitting on their own lily-pads, flicking their tongues at the occasional fly, but unable to say anything of solace as the water level drops on the pond.
Imprisonment has become the response of first resort to far too many of the social problems that burden people who are ensconced in poverty. These problems often are veiled by being conveniently grouped together under the category ‘crime’ and by the automatic attribution of criminal behavior to people of color. Homelessness, unemployment, drug addiction, mental illness, and illiteracy are only a few of the problems that disappear from public view when the human beings contending with them are relegated to cages.
— Angela Davis, Masked Racism.13
Given the social consequences of neoliberalism, it is far more effective and logical to build a security apparatus, to cage people in devastated cities or to hold them in congested high-security prisons. There is nothing irrational about the prison-industrial complex. From a neoliberal perspective, it is perfectly reasonable. Neoliberalism was always purchased with the iron fist, rarely with the velvet glove.
In 1970, Congress allowed Nixon to appropriate $296.5 million toward law enforcement, which by 1973 mushroomed to $850.5 million. The funds increased astronomically after that, regardless of the crime rate or of the efficacy of the well-funded, highly visible strategy to deal with criminality. The federal government maintained a heavy hand in the arena of criminal justice not only by its direct expansion of federal police (including the FBI, the political police), but also by funding states and municipalities to expand their repressive arms. From President Johnson’s Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act of 1968 to President Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, money flowed from the federal government to the localities, which, being strapped for cash, took it and all its harsh provisions (including the requirement of tough sentencing).
There are currently two million Americans behind bars, while another five million are under the supervision of the US criminal justice system. These numbers are extraordinary. Not only does the US now incarcerate the most people in real numbers and per capita, but only four decades ago, the jails held one-eighth of that number. The expansion defies belief. There are more African American youths in jail than in colleges, and women register the largest rate of increase of inmates. Half of those in jail had been unemployed when they were arrested, and the rest reported annual incomes of under $10,000 (far below what it takes to survive).14
Many of these people, who can find no work in the US, enter the relatively lucrative drug economy. Three quarters of those who entered jail in the past two decades came for non-violent drug offences. The scandal of US jail expansion is this: that prisons have become the holding pens for the chronically unemployed population.
As the social wage felt the axe in the high point of globalization, the widespread distress in the country was translated into petty criminality, or worse. Rather than go to the core of the social problems, the neoliberal state sought to treat the symptom with the baton. As more people go to jail each year, it becomes the storehouse of the redundant working population as well as its soup kitchen. The state prefers to provide social services to the unemployed if they submit themselves to total surveillance: the jail is the ultimate place for such debasement. In 1993, the state spent more on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) than on corrections, but by 1996 the priority was reversed. The government added more than $8 billion to corrections in this period, while it slashed AFDC by almost $2 billion. Gregory Winter, who works at the Hamilton Family Center in San Francisco, notes, “When funds are siphoned away from social programs to prisons, communities are drawn inexorably toward incarceration.” Furthermore if incarceration trumps social security at the same pace, “the criminal justice system will become the government’s primary interface with poor communities, particularly those of color. Prisons will replace public entitlements, subsidized housing, and perhaps even the schools as the principal place where poor people converge.”15
It is a chilling thought that the “government’s primary interface with poor communities, particular those of color” is through the prison system. But that is where we are now. It is not illogical, but an eminently reasonable consequence of a politically created system that drives joblessness.
General, your tank is a strong vehicle.
It breaks down a forest and crushes a hundred people.
But it has one fault: it needs a driver.
— Bertolt Brecht, A German War Primer
On July 4, 1965, Martin Luther King, Jr., mounted the pulpit of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia to say, “My dream has often turned into a nightmare.” Into the streets of America, King found, the forsaken walked pitilessly in search of non-existent jobs and impossible dignity. They see life, he said, “as a long and desolate corridor with no exit signs.” Behind King lay a series of monumental victories, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and around him, ready for action, stood a movement inspired by the vast stirrings of human freedom. The Civil Rights Movement’s masses did not rest on the laurels of their victories. Around King, they pivoted: one task had been attained, but others lay before them. It was time to build on their civil victories toward economic justice. Anyone who threatens the foundations of Property faces the wrath of Order. King was killed in 1968 for his transgressions.
The Civil Rights movement was the last great mass movement of the working-poor. Matters have deteriorated for that class since 1968. No major political movement has since emerged to challenge the social conditions of deprivation. Politics is aplenty, however, with small-scale community groups alongside self-defense squads – remnants of the welfare rights movement and the Black Panther dynamics. Anti-foreclosure groups have excited the landscape, and with union support they have been able to defend this or that neighborhood. But they have had a hard time beating back against the edge of political futility.
Sniffs of a potential emerge in places such as Newark, New Jersey. When Ken Gibson, the first Black mayor of Newark, took office in 1970, he announced that it “may be the most decayed and financially crippled city in the nation,” largely because of the steady tide of deindustrialization. The riots of 1967 warned the country, as other riots of that time did, of the bleak conditions of life despite the promises of the new legal equality. Gibson’s agenda could not be fulfilled as Newark slipped from the promise of the New Ark to the neoliberal city of today – joblessness alongside low-wage employment, poor social services and poor education opportunities.16 When Cory Booker took Gibson’s seat in 2006, thirty-six years later, the social conditions had deteriorated beyond belief. Booker’s liberalism never stood a chance. Booker’s attempts to undo the image of Newark were not matched by any project to actually change the conditions of life in the city. There was the failed attempt to get private firms to hire ex-offenders, and the attempt to get the police on every corner to prevent the large number of murders; there was Booker’s own example, a big brother to three teenage boys. “I mean, hell, this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” Booker told journalist Gwen Ifill for her book The Breakthrough.17 It is plain that Booker was not corrupt during this tenure as mayor, which is itself an achievement in today’s municipal politics, and it is clear that he was sincere in his objectives. But what is also clear is the impoverishment of the liberal agenda for reform of US cities, particularly in this financial climate.
In 2014, Booker’s place was taken by long-time artist and politician Ras Baraka, heir to an immense legacy of politics and art from his mother Amina Baraka (who co-founded the African Free School, the Black Women’s United Front, Community for a New Newark, among others) and his father Amiri Baraka (who was co-founder of the Black Arts movement and much more). Ras Baraka – “when I become Mayor, you become Mayor,” was his slogan – began his innings with an important and grand gesture, to allow the City to buy homes with underwater mortgages, refinance the homes and therefore protect the over a thousand homeowners who would have been evicted.18 These are genuine alternatives that have been driven by the anti-foreclosure movement and, if picked up by politicians like Baraka, could be the basis for an alternative horizon to galvanize more people, in different places, into political action.
But more is needed. Baraka’s administration could use the same laws of eminent domain to seize whatever abandoned property is in the city limits; use funds from the city budget, from the stimulus bill and elsewhere to hire people from the neighborhoods to refurbish these buildings into community centers, daycare centers, local schools, indoor farmers’ markets and petty workshops; turn the empty lots into gardens to grow edible crops and flowers, which can be sold. Put the unions and community organizations into the mix here, using their organizational capacity and experience as well as their budgets to reconstruct their urban landscape. Dramatic use of the people’s energies would help break the apathy and helplessness that leads to criminality, drug-use, and poor nutrition. Obama and others have joined with Bill Cosby to attack the decline of inner-city Black life, but what they don’t address is that these symptoms (crime, fast food) stem from a larger disease, which is the failure of finance capital to integrate human society. What such grand gestures would allow is for the long-term interests of people to overshadow the short-term interest of profits.
Such an agenda refracts the abstractions of “another world is possible” into concrete alternatives that are available to the people’s emissaries. There is no point preaching hope alone, for hope can sour if it does not come with either the concrete capacity of a popular movement or a concrete recognition of possible public policies. As the writer Lemony Snicket put it, “A story about people inside impressive buildings ignoring or even taunting people standing outside shouting at them turns out to be a story with an unhappy ending.”19 It is necessary to consider better endings, which are themselves new beginnings – considerations of the needs of the people who have no wish to live lives of desperation and incarceration.
1. Milton Friedman, “The Role of Monetary Policy,” American Economic Review, vol. 58, no. 1, March 1968.
2. Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide. Possibilities for Prosperity, New York: Basic Books, 1986.
3. The State of Black America 1988, ed. Janet Dewart, Washington, DC: National Urban League, 1988, 155.
4. Vijay Prashad, Keeping Up with the Dow Joneses: Stocks, Jail, Welfare, Boston: South End Press, 2003.
5. Charles Murray and Richard Herrenstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life, New York: The Free Press, 1994 and Glenn C. Loury, “Who Speaks for American Blacks,” Commentary, January 1987.
6. Junot Diaz, “Apocalypse,” Boston Review, May/June 2011.
7. Robert Kuttner, Obama’s Challenge: America’s Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency, White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2008, 27.
8. David Welch, “Obama to Detroit: Government won’t walk away,” Business Week, February 24, 2009.
9. “Remarks by Raghuram Rajan, Economic Counselor and Director of the Research Department, IMF,” Australasian Finance and Banking Conference, Sydney, Australia, December 15, 2004.
10. All data are from the US Census Bureau, such as “Survey of Income and Program Participation” and “Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates.”
11. “Child Poverty,” New York: National Center for Children in Poverty,
12. Jason DeParle, “Hunger in US at a 14-Year High,” New York Times, November 16, 2009.
13. Angela Y. Davis, “Masked Racism: Reflections on the Prison Industrial Complex,” ColorLines, September 10, 1998.
14. Marc Mauer, Race to Incarcerate, New York: The New Press, 2006.
15. Gregory Winter, “Trading Places,” ColorLines, September 10, 1998.
16. Kevin J. Mumford, Newark: A History of Race, Rights and Riots in America, New York: NYU Press, 2007.
17. Gwen Ifill, The Breakthrough: Politics and Race in the Age of Obama, New York: Random House, 2009.
19. Dale Russakoff, “Ras Baraka’s Newark Victory,” New Yorker, May 14, 2014; Jelani Cobb, “Cory Booker Never Spoke For Newark Like Amiri Baraka Did,” New Republic, January 21, 2014.