Many Republican-controlled states are freaking out about the working class. Business owners, particularly of restaurants, are complaining they can’t find anyone to fill job openings, and conservative legislatures are leaping into action. At time of writing, Alabama, Arkansas, Idaho, Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota, South Carolina, Tennessee, Wyoming, and Utah have announced they will begin refusing the federal $300 supplement to unemployment benefits in the next few weeks, and more may follow. Utah has to “roll those back, to get more people into the workforce to get those jobs, to get back to employment,” said Governor Spencer Cox.
It is amusing to consider this development in light of the ongoing conservative panic attack over President Biden’s supposed “American Marxism” agenda, in the words of prominent right-wing radio host Mark Levin. Ironically, what Republicans are doing to the unemployed actually is explained by classic Marxism.
Let me explain. In his magnum opus Capital, Marx argued that a capitalist system will more-or-less automatically produce a population of surplus workers. Businesses become more productive through greater capital investment, which will require more workers in some areas but far fewer in others, and hence this process will always tend to to create an “industrial reserve army” of surplus labor — that is, the unemployed.
This reserve army is very important for classical capitalism. It “becomes … the lever of capitalistic accumulation, nay, a condition of existence of the capitalist mode of production.” The reason is that businesses are constantly changing the way they operate, and so always need a large supply of idle workers to fling into new projects on a moment’s notice:
The mass of social wealth, overflowing with the advance of accumulation, and transformable into additional capital, thrusts itself frantically into old branches of production, whose market suddenly expands, or into newly formed branches, such as railways, &c., the need for which grows out of the development of the old ones. In all such cases, there must be the possibility of throwing great masses of men suddenly on the decisive points without injury to the scale of production in other spheres. [Capital]
This industrial reserve army also allows capitalists to better exploit the people they do employ, because it exerts a “competition” that forces workers “to submit to overwork and to subjugation under the dictates of capital.”
All this fits exactly with how these Republican legislatures are behaving. Thanks to the pandemic (which is still far from over), there are numerous disruptions in the labor market. Some parents are staying at home because they can’t find day care, or they are simply enjoying raising their kids instead. Other workers have gotten enough money through the pandemic rescue packages to reconsider their careers, and are trying to get out of sectors with exploitative, low-paying jobs — like retail and restaurant work, as numerous people told reporter Eoin Higgins.
Indeed, as Matt Bruenig details at the People’s Policy Project, there is no sign that unemployment benefits are actually interfering with labor supply. In the April jobs report, lots of people moved into employment, while only a handful moved onto unemployment. A large number of women, however, dropped out of the labor force entirely (rendering them ineligible for unemployment benefits), suggesting the child care issue is likely the real bottleneck here.
But instead of calling for better wages, or setting up child care systems, or anything else, Republicans are trying to fix the problem by starving out people on unemployment — taking their money so they will have no choice but to immediately look for work, and capitalists will once again have the industrial reserve army at their beck and call. It’s like conservatives have been reading Marx not to learn why they should overthrow the bourgeoisie, but as a sort of manual for how best to exploit the working class.
Now, Marx did not say this capitalist “law of population” was unalterable. Like all such laws, it is “historically valid within its limits and only in so far as man has not interfered with them.” Sure enough, in many European countries, the labor market does not look anything like the above description. In the Nordic countries, for instance, not only are there far more generous unemployment benefits than in conservative American states (in Finland there is a job-seeker allowance that pays out indefinitely), there are also numerous government programs to help train unemployed folks and slot them into jobs.
Instead of relying on the threat of destitution to force people to take any job they can find, the Nordic labor system entices people into jobs with good pay and benefits, and direct help for those who are still struggling. Not only does this mean that Nordic workers have far more equal pay and incomprehensible amounts of leisure time — if Americans worked as much as Danes we would have about 10 more weeks of vacation — this system actually works better at keeping people in the labor force. The share of Americans aged between 25-64 either employed or looking for work in 2019 was 78.2 percent. That number was 5.2 points higher in Denmark, 5.3 points higher in Finland and Norway, and 10.9 points higher in Sweden.
It turns out raw coercion is a blunt and clumsy instrument. Rather than shoving all people into jobs, America’s brutal labor system creates a great deal of pure waste. It is demonstrably far more efficient to directly manage the labor system so that people don’t get discouraged and give up looking for work. Not that conservatives care about that, of course — Republicans’ Marxist jobs agenda isn’t constructed for efficiency at all; it’s meant to protect the power of capitalists over their workers. As Marx wrote in 1847, “capital not only lives upon labour. Like a master, at once distinguished and barbarous, it drags with it into its grave the corpses of its slaves, whole hecatombs of workers, who perish in the crises.”
Perhaps someone aside from capitalist lapdogs should be in charge of unemployment benefits.