Posts Tagged ‘United States’

Both the number of initial unemployment claims for unemployment compensation and the number of continued claims for unemployment compensation are once again on the rise, signaling a worsening of the Pandemic Depression.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Labor (pdf) reported that, during the week ending last Saturday, another 935 thousand American workers filed initial claims for unemployment compensation. While initial unemployment claims remain well below the peak of about seven million in March, they are far higher than pre-pandemic levels of about 200 thousand claims a week.

The number of continued claims for unemployment compensation, while also below its peak, rose from the previous week and was more than 20.6 million American workers—a figure that includes workers receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.* This means that, since the end of April, the number of continued claims has fallen below 20 million only once (and that to 19 million, toward the end of November).

To put this number into further perspective, consider the fact that the highest number of continued claims for unemployment compensation during the Second Great Depression was 6.6 million (at the end of May 2009), and in the week before the Pandemic Depression began there were only 1.6 million continued claims by American workers.

In the meantime, at least 1,074 new coronavirus deaths and 40,607 new cases were reported in the United States yesterday. As of this morning, more than 6.1 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 185.6 thousand have died—more than any other country in the world, which has received barely a mention from anyone in the Trump administration.

According to Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, “We are not moving in the right direction. With the looming expiration of benefits, it’s even more worrisome.”

In the meantime, at least 3,611 new coronavirus deaths and 245,033 new cases were reported in the United States yesterday—two morbid new records. As of this morning, more than 17 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 307,642 have died. That’s more than any other country in the world, a crisis continues to receive barely a mention from anyone in the Trump administration.**

The result will be new waves of business slowdowns and closures, which in turn will mean millions more U.S. workers furloughed and laid off. Widespread inoculations of the U.S. and world populations are still many months off. Therefore, in the absence of a radical change in economic policies and institutions, Americans can expect to see steady streams of both initial unemployment claims and continued claims in the weeks and months ahead.

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*This is the special program for business owners, the self-employed, independent contractors, and gig workers not receiving other unemployment insurance.

**The last time I posted a chart of unemployment claims, in early September, some 6.1 million Americans had been infected with the coronavirus and 185.6 thousand had died.

In this post, I continue the draft of sections of my forthcoming book, “Marxian Economics: An Introduction.” The first five posts (herehereherehere, and here) will serve as the basis for Chapter 1, Marxian Economics Today. The next six (hereherehereherehere, and here) are for Chapter 2, Marxian Economics Versus Mainstream Economics. This post (following on two previous ones, here and here) is for Chapter 3, Toward a Critique of Political Economy.

The necessary disclosure: these are merely drafts of sections of the book, some rougher or more preliminary than others. I expect them all to be extensively revised and rewritten when I prepare the final book manuscript.

Utopian Socialism

The third major influence on Marx’s critique of political economy (in addition to and combined with classical economics and Hegel’s philosophy) was utopian socialism.

During the early to mid-nineteenth century, socialist ideas were sweeping across Western Europe—starting in France and Britain—and traveling from there to many other parts of the world. They provoked extensive discussions and debates, a wide variety of plans to ameliorate the ravages of capitalism and to replace it with something better, and not a few attempts to create a radically different economic and social order.

The idea of utopia can be traced back to to the sixteenth century, to Thomas More’s famous text of that name. But socialist versions of utopia came much later, in response to the frustrated promises of the French Revolution. The crises of the Ancien RĂ©gime, caused by obscene levels of social and economic inequality, provoked a demand for liberty, equality, and fraternity. But for all the upheaval in France—the breaking-up of the feudal order (including the stripping-away of the privileges of nobility and the breakup of large Church-owned estates) and the creation of radically new social and political institutions (such as the institution of universal [male] suffrage and the abolition of slavery in the colonies)—the initial revolution and the subsequent restoration, which combined to enshrine individual rights and private property, served to clear the way for capitalism and thus new forms of inequality.

Socialist ideas sprung up in response, inspired both by the utopian promises and by the failures in practice of the Revolution. They served as a counterpoint to the other utopia being offered at that time, that of the classical political economists, which celebrated the emergence of capitalism. The utopian socialists, in contrast, were critical of capitalism and its negative effects on workers and the wider society. The most interesting and influential of this latter group were, in France, Henri de Saint-Simon and Charles Fourier, and, in Britain, Robert Owen.

Saint-Simon claimed that the needs of the industrial class, which he also referred to as the working-class, needed to be recognized and fulfilled to have an effective society and an efficient economy.* He argued, in consequence, that the direction of society should be in the hands of scientists and engineers (not the “idling class,” who produce nothing but live off the labor of others), in order to allow for the rapid development of technology and industry (Industry, which appeared in 1816-17), and that religion “should guide the community toward the great aim of improving as quickly as possible the conditions of the poorest class” (The New Christianity, published in 1825).

Fourier, for his part, presented a more radical critique of the existing order and plan for creating a new kind of economic and social organization. Not only did he attack poverty as one of the principal disorders of society (which could be solved by raising wages and providing a basic income for those who could not work), he argued that labor itself (indeed, all creative endeavors) could be transformed into pleasurable activities (see especially Le nouveau monde industriel et sociĂ©taireou Invention du procĂ©dĂ© d’industrie attrayante et naturelle distribuĂ©e en sĂ©ries passionnĂ©es [“The New Industrial World”], originally published in 1829).** The primary mechanism for this would be the formation of “phalanxes” (based upon buildings called phalanstères or grand hotels) that would encourage the cooperation of different kinds of labor (based on jobs chosen according to the interests and desires of their members), which would both raise productivity and create social harmony.

In Britain, it was Robert Owen who became best known for attacking the deplorable conditions in which factory workers lived and labored—blaming the conditions, not on workers themselves, for their plight. He then sought to change those conditions: first, in the New Lanark Mills in Scotland, which he owned and managed and where he improved working conditions as well as providing youth education and child care; and then on a much larger scale, as an avowed socialist (A New View of Society: Or, Essays on the Formation of Human Character Preparatory to the Development of a Plan for Gradually Ameliorating the Condition of Mankind, published in 1816), Owen advocated radical social reform (such as the formation of trade unions and the provision of free education for children) and proposed a model for the organization of self-sufficient communities to serve as the basis for a “new moral world” (which was also the name of a newspaper he started in 1834, which carried the subtitle “A London Weekly Publication. Developing the Principles of the Rational System of Society”).

During the first half of the nineteenth century, when Marx was developing and then extending into new areas his “ruthless criticism of everything existing,” and beginning his lifelong collaboration with Engels, these were the socialist ideas that were “in the air,” discussed and debated by a wide variety of thinkers and activists (socialism also became, then as now, the pejorative epithet that was attributed to any criticisms and suggestions for economic and social change their opponents wanted to stop).

They weren’t just critical ideas and lofty plans. The utopian socialists and their followers also sought to go beyond writing books and giving speeches by creating communities based on those ideas. This was particularly true in the United States, where more than 30 Fourierist phalanxes were established in the 1840s (two of the most famous being Brook Farm, in Massachusetts, and the Wisconsin Phalanx, in Ceresco). Owen himself financed and founded the community of New Harmony, in Indiana, based on his principles (where the Working Men’s Institute, Indiana’s oldest continuously operating public library, still exists).***

Eventually, as we will see in a later chapter, Marx and Engels developed a critique of the ideas put forward by the utopian socialists. But they also expressed a great deal of admiration for these initial socialist thinkers, and were certainly influenced by them during their steps toward the development of a critique of both mainstream economic theory and capitalism.

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*To be clear, Saint-Simon’s definition of the working-class was not restricted to the contemporary meaning (according to which it consists of blue-collar workers or those without a college education), much less the Marxist notion (which will analyzed in detail in a later chapter), but included all people he considered to be engaged in productive work that contributed to society, such as industrialists, managers, scientists, and bankers, along with manual and skilled laborers.

**Fourier also criticized the repressive family structure, in which men treated their spouses as if they owned them and worked only for them and children had little freedom to express their deepest sentiments. He believed that humans should create more equitable relationships between the sexes and that equality could exist only if people were freed from the constraints of marriage. He thus advocated free love and the collective raising of children within the community.

***Hundreds of other “intentional communities,” many of them short-lived, proliferated during this time, especially in the United States (but also as far flung as Australia, where Herrnhut was founded in 1855). Only some of them were directly inspired by utopian socialism. The others often looked to religious leaders and principles of community for inspiration. In fact, the longest-lasting experiment with communism in the modern age was not as is generally presumed the Soviet Union (which lasted from 1922 to 1991), but the Shakers (from its first settlement at Watervliet, New York in 1774 to when the leaders of the United Society of Believers in Canterbury Shaker Village voted to close the Shaker Covenant in 1957).

U.S. billionaires have recouped all of their wealth—and more—during the Pandemic Depression. Meanwhile, since May, the number of poor Americans has grown by about 8 million. And the number of American workers applying for and receiving unemployment benefits continues at record levels.

According to Forbes,

Pandemic be damned: America’s 400 richest are worth a record $3.2 trillion, up $240 billion from a year ago, aided by a stock market that has defied the virus. 

When the Covid-19 pandemic began to sweep the world earlier this year, the wealth of U.S. billionaires plummeted in lockstep with the stock market. Yet, just six months after the market bottomed out—with hundreds of thousands Americans dead and the coronavirus still to be contained—the wealthiest Americans are doing better than ever. In other words, the pain, at least for the ultra-rich, was remarkably short lived.

Meanwhile, more and more American workers, who have lost their jobs or been furloughed, are attempting to survive on meager unemployment benefits. And many of them and their families—especially Black people and children—are now falling below the poverty line.

Part of the reason for this obscene growth in poverty is the expiration of the CARES Act’s $600 per week unemployment supplement. The other reason is that the number of American workers who are applying for unemployment benefits continues at elevated levels.

This morning, the U.S. Department of Labor (pdf) reported that, during the week ending last Saturday, another 898 thousand American workers filed initial claims for unemployment compensation. While initial unemployment claims remain well below the peak of about seven million in March, they are far higher than pre-pandemic levels of about 200 thousand claims a week.

The number of continued claims for unemployment compensation, while also below its peak, was still more than 25 million workers—a figure that includes workers receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.*

To put this number in perspective, consider the fact that the highest number of continued claims for unemployment compensation during the Second Great Depression was 6.6 million (at the end of May 2009), and in the week before the Pandemic Depression began there were only 1.6 million continued claims.

In the meantime, at least 1,011 new coronavirus deaths and 59,751 new cases were reported in the United States yesterday. As of this afternoon, more than 7.9 million Americans have been infected with the coronavirus and at least 217.1 thousand have died—more than any other country in the world, grotesque outcomes that continue to receive barely a mention from Trump or anyone (aside from Dr. Anthony Fauci) in his administration.

Meanwhile, many colleges and universities that have attempted to reopen with students in residence are reporting hundreds of (and, in some cases, more than a thousand) novel coronavirus infections.

The result will be new waves of business slowdowns and closures, which in turn will mean millions more U.S. workers furloughed and laid off. Unless there is a radical change in economic policies and institutions, Americans can expect to see steady streams of new COVID-19 infections and deaths, initial and continued unemployment claims, and growing poverty in the weeks and months ahead.

As for those at the top: during the first six months of the pandemic, the United States added more than 29 more billionaires, increasing from 614 to 643. The Pandemic Depression has been a boon to their fortunes.

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*This is the special program for business owners, the self-employed, independent contractors, and gig workers not receiving other unemployment insurance.