There is a road that winds, forks and detours through America, and along that road lie the discarded expectations and illusions of an age. It doesn’t so much connect destinations as define an experience, one that has been variously euphemized but now is most honestly understood as decline. A generation ago the road had a name, the Rust Belt, and the aged sootworks of its most familiar stretches—steel alleys like Lake Shore Road in Lackawanna, State Route 422 in Youngstown, Cline Avenue and its feeders from the south side of Chicago to Gary, Indiana—could trick one into believing that lost jobs, lost income, lost security, were geographic phenomena, pain being the inevitable condition of old cities and industries, while progress sprouted, extending its benefits, from other, fresher locales. Now the road cuts through those locales too, through the New South, which always was less new than newly exploitable, down to us 10 across the ravaged coast of the Gulf region and endlessly beyond, slashing the Heartland, zigzagging the West, reaching finally into suburbia’s imagined pastoral, where streets named Thorncliff or Sparrow Bush prove to be no barrier to lay-off, debt, diminished retirement, angst.
No major political party travels this road, and no political movement yet exists to articulate the pain of its addressees or to shape their effective rebellion. The ballyhooed midterm elections can have no bearing on its direction because both Democrats and Republicans accept its essential coordinates: employment as crapshoot, growing inequality a given, mass termination a reasonable profit-maximizing tactic, and life on the edge of ruin a fact for all but the richest or the already ruined. For nearly thirty years, only the details have been in political dispute (a marginal increase in the minimum wage, or not? Advance notice of a lay-off, or not? A transfer of wealth to the top that is grotesque or merely gross? Wal-Mart or K Mart?). Since the early 1980s, whether in supposed boom times or in slumps, an estimated 30 million Americans, from line workers to professionals, have been thrown out of full-time jobs as part of a business strategy. Three-quarters of them go on to lower-paying jobs or never work again. While the fortunes of the country’s luckiest 1 per cent have followed a pattern of billowing extravagance since 1980, average real wages have tumbled over the same period, so that by 2004, more than 55 per cent of available jobs paid no more than $13.25 an hour and nearly 30 per cent of the workforce earned $10 an hour or less.
As this summer’s brief charade of concern for toilers in the minimum-wage basement of the economy demonstrated, $13.25 (compared with the federal minimum of $5.15) would be a ‘good wage’ in the parlance of politicians and editorialists who will never have to live on it. Its annualized full-time value, $27,600, a squeak over poverty for a family of four, better indicates how bad ‘good’ has become. At 59 per cent of the household median, a measure of relative poverty by oecd standards, it is nevertheless a sum to which ‘living wage’ campaigners across the country dare not aspire lest they be accused of an extravagant unrealism. Meanwhile, the latest figures show median earnings down; share of workers with job-based health benefits down; number of people without health insurance up, to 46.6 million. Those who self-insure draw on savings, raid the food budget or borrow, a patch-patch-patch approach that translates into the popularity of McDonald’s Dollar Menus and, until Congress made it harder, personal bankruptcy: diabetes and debt.
The burden of household debt, which economists considered insupportable in the 1980s and unfathomable in the 1990s, now exceeds disposable income by 31 per cent, meaning that whether they are fleeced by payday lenders or by credit card companies, whether they borrow against their car at a storefront or refinance their home at a bank, people go deeper into debt just to maintain a declining standard of living. Everyone who hasn’t knows someone who has, just as almost everyone still holding a job long term knows someone who was similarly situated but got kicked to the curb. If all this were filed under national rather than individual security, some tabloid writer would call it terrorism.
Louis Uchitelle is a business writer for the New York Times, but across the years tracking the lived consequences of capital decisions as measured by work and work processes, industrial and communal landscapes, human mobility and altered states, his work is the closest, and possibly best, that mainstream American journalism offers in terms of labour reporting. (The Times’ assigned beat reporter, Steven Greenhouse, is so busy cosying up to union pork-choppers that, like them, he views labour strictly within the shrunken ambit of actual or potential unionization, a side in a contest between institutions rather than a shifting, multi-dimensional expression of class and capitalist organization.) It is, in fact, Uchitelle’s status within the liberal establishment that makes his book so significant now, when that establishment and segments of what passes for a left in America are in full swoon over an apparent Democratic electoral revival and, therefore, in advanced stages of denial about the party’s true record, especially the economic impact of Clintonism.
Uchitelle’s project here is a late history of us economic insecurity, and to tell it he follows the trend of mass permanent lay-off in its passage from shocking event to accepted fact of life over little more than a generation. As against that dismal trajectory, he engages in a bit of romanticism himself, projecting a prior period, from the 1890s to the 1970s, during which the general direction, even accounting for ‘lapses and backsliding’ along the way, was toward more security, not less; in which ‘we had decided as a people—managers, politicians and workers—that job security had value, and in pursuit of that value, we lifted ourselves out of insecurity.’
It would require little more than a volume or two from the vast library of modern us labour history (Louis Adamic, Harry Braverman) or a single essay by W. E. B. DuBois to demonstrate that it is not so much the fact as the face of insecurity that is different today, and that any evocation of American collective purpose must always be asterisked. There has yet to be a full accounting, for instance, of the cost and character of the security that was purchased with docility, not just by the trade unions, which Mike Davis extensively treated in Prisoners of the American Dream, but more broadly various strands of the middle class, which would now appear to have been hoaxed were it not for the substantial perks they expected, pressed for and received along the road to disillusion. But something profound has happened in the period to which Uchitelle devotes his admirable attentions, as sharply illustrated by a few recent events and one unlamented anniversary.