In Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (which I’m teaching this week in the labor section of the course on Commodities: The Making of Market Society), Jurgis manages to land a job at the South Works steel mill, after Juozapas, Teta Elzbieta’s crippled child, while looking for food in the local dump meets a woman whose fiancé happens to be a superintendent in the mill.
It was quite a story. Little Juozapas, who was near crazy with hunger these days, had gone out on the street to beg for himself. Juozapas had only one leg, having been run over by a wagon when a little child, but he had got himself a broomstick, which he put under his arm for a crutch. He had fallen in with some other children and found the way to Mike Scully’s dump, which lay three or four blocks away. To this place there came every day many hundreds of wagonloads of garbage and trash from the lake front, where the rich people lived; and in the heaps the children raked for food—there were hunks of bread and potato peelings and apple cores and meat bones, all of it half frozen and quite unspoiled. Little Juozapas gorged himself, and came home with a newspaper full, which he was feeding to Antanas when his mother came in. Elzbieta was horrified, for she did not believe that the food out of the dumps was fit to eat. The next day, however, when no harm came of it and Juozapas began to cry with hunger, she gave in and said that he might go again. And that afternoon he came home with a story of how while he had been digging away with a stick, a lady upon the street had called him. A real fine lady, the little boy explained, a beautiful lady; and she wanted to know all about him, and whether he got the garbage for chickens, and why he walked with a broomstick, and why Ona had died, and how Jurgis had come to go to jail, and what was the matter with Marija, and everything. In the end she had asked where he lived, and said that she was coming to see him, and bring him a new crutch to walk with. She had on a hat with a bird upon it, Juozapas added, and a long fur snake around her neck.
The problem is, the mill is too far for Jurgis to return to the boardinghouse in Back of the Yards during the week, so he travels home only on the weekends.
The steel-works were fifteen miles away, and as usual it was so contrived that one had to pay two fares to get there. Far and wide the sky was flaring with the red glare that leaped from rows of towering chimneys—for it was pitch dark when Jurgis arrived. The vast works, a city in themselves, were surrounded by a stockade; and already a full hundred men were waiting at the gate where new hands were taken on. Soon after daybreak whistles began to blow, and then suddenly thousands of men appeared, streaming from saloons and boardinghouses across the way, leaping from trolley cars that passed—it seemed as if they rose out of the ground, in the dim gray light. A river of them poured in through the gate—and then gradually ebbed away again, until there were only a few late ones running, and the watchman pacing up and down, and the hungry strangers stamping and shivering.
In a recent speech, Fed Chair Janet Yellen admitted that “the recovery still feels like a recession to many Americans, and it also looks that way in some economic statistics.”
Some of those statistics are contained in the just-released Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS). While there may have been 4.2 million new job postings in February, 300,000 more than in January, many of these are low-wage jobs (temp jobs in business services, food-service jobs, jobs in retail trade, and so on), many of them at or just above the minimum wage. And, even though they’re less-then-desirable jobs at less-than-desirable wages, there were still 2.5 unemployed workers for every job posting. So, given that reserve army of labor, employers have absolutely no reason to offer higher wages. Which is why the so-called quits rate—the number of job quits divided by total employment, a measure of the willingness of workers to leave their current jobs in search of new, better, higher-paying jobs—remained at 1.7, virtually unchanged over the last 4 years.
The economic statistics are thus clear: American workers have been jolted and they’re still waiting for their recovery.
The American Dream has been a prominent theme of our Tale of Two Depressions course this semester. We have had the opportunity to trace both the changing content and contours of that dream and the periods, as after 1929, when it quickly turned into a nightmare.
But, as we know, a new American Dream was invented in the postwar period, the so-called Golden Age of American capitalism, which—while unevenly distributed (for example, in the Jim Crow South and northern inner cities) and openly contested (for example, in the Port Huron Statement and the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom)—held sway at least in some pockets. Such as Detroit:
Decades ago, car workers lived the quintessential American Dream: they pursued stable, well-paying, union-backed jobs, often straight out of high school. They were able to build a middle-class life and provide the promise of something better to their children.
Now, once again, as the BBC [ht: ja] explains, that dream has turned into a nightmare:
Times have changed.
Now jobs are scarce, and people feel shame in being unprepared for the current labour market.
“Unemployed auto workers, factory workers, they have a lot of regrets about the past,” he said.
“A lot of workers are internalising, ‘You succeed on your own merits and your own abilities, and if you fail, you’re to blame’,” [Victor Tan] Chen says.
He isn’t alone in seeing this pattern.
Experts tell the BBC that job seekers in the US are now, more than ever, blaming themselves for being out of work, due in part to misconceptions about what it takes to succeed in America.
What reinforces such an American Nightmare is a self-help industry that is the modern secular version of our grounding myth—which, as Helaine Olen explains, is “the idea that diligent efforts and thrift demonstrated both godliness and virtue — and would result in worldly success.” Belief in self-help easily becomes self-blame. And, of course, an attempt to blame the victims of the Second Great Depression for their own plight.
Viewed through this prism, you can think of the constant simmering anger in our culture as the road rage of self-help culture. Fearing the humiliation of failure, we aggressively lash out at others who prove the self-help nostrums a lie.
This could be the reason that many, including Republican members of Congress, blame the long-term jobless for their own plight, and cut off their unemployment checks. We say those who fell prey to predatory lending weren’t misled, but were greedy.
According to the tenets of self-help, the victims of the American economic collapse need not a helping hand, but a kick in the pants.