So, yes, Mr. Serwer, the French did take the Bastille in 4 hours—that is, in fact, true—and when they finally decided to overthrow the Old Regime, they managed to do it fairly quickly. And one of the reasons they were able to do it so quickly is that there was a locus of symbolic power in France, and an imperfectly yet steadily centralizing state apparatus, that provided them with the levers and instruments to achieve that transformation.
In the United States, activists have often wanted but seldom had those levers and instruments. Not for lack of trying: as I’ve argued elsewhere, the entire history of American social movements has been about trying to bring the power of a—often sadly non-existent—centralized state apparatus to bear on private regimes of power (on the plantation, in the family, and in the workplace), to use a decentralized, federated national state to break the back of private autocracies. In the process, these activists have managed, on occasion, to centralize the national state, but only rarely and often imperfectly.
The overwhelming trend has been one of resistance to those attempts. And the reason that trend has been so successful is that the American state is not nearly as unified or centralized—not by accident or because of the vagaries of history but by constitutional design—as other states. This kind of programmatic decentralization gives local elites, with all their ideological legitimacy, economic power, and coercive power, an automatic and tremendous advantage. And even when local or state-level activists manage by some small miracle to achieve victory, they are immediately confronted by a sea of hostile forces around them, in nearby states and the federal court system—not to mention federal armies—that often overturn their victories.
So if we simply imagine some of the labor wars in copper country of Colorado, or in West Virginia’s coal country, we see a level of violence and Jacobin ferocity that certainly parallels that of the revolutionary street fighting in Paris. But what we don’t see is the demonstration effect that revolutionary Paris had throughout the French countryside. Nor do we see, except rarely, a national state that would be able to take those local victories (more often defeats) and turn them into national achievements.
The African Blood Brotherhood was a short-lived but highly influential Black Liberation organization in the US, formed during the infamous “red summer” of 1919. That year saw murderous pogroms against African-Americans from Chicago to St. Louis, yet it also was a year of rising militant resistance to racist oppression. The African Blood Brotherhood was formed in part to organize physical resistance to pogroms, but also to organize for socialist revolution against white supremacy. Many members of the African Blood Brotherhood eventually joined the nascent Communist Party and helped to shape their policy on Black Liberation through the 1920’s and 30’s. Notable African Blood Brotherhood comrades included queer communist poet Claude McKay, whose 1919 poem “If We Must Die” epitomized the African Blood Brotherhood’s spirit of militant struggle.
A big part of American history that few people even know (let alone know accurately).
Keep in mind that this article is from Forbes, a business magazine. You hardly need to be leftist or social justice oriented to see the nature of this problem.
Finally, some statistics to prove the stereotypes right. According to a recent survey from Millennial Branding and Payscale, Millenials really are most likely to be employed in service industry jobs. So, all those jokes about post-graduation latte pouring and t-shirt folding haven’t been in vain. And while it might be comforting to think of these jobs as necessary way stations on the path to an upwardly mobile future – especially if you’re someone who holds one – there’s mounting evidence that the American labor market may never return to its pre-recession composition. The future is already here and it brings with it low-wage temporary or contract work as a way of life.
According to the Economic Policy Institute, almost 30% of American workers are expected to hold low-wage jobs – defined as earnings at or below the poverty line to support a family of four – in 2020. This number will remain virtually unchanged from 2010. Given that roughly 50% of recent college grads are unemployed or underemployed and those who do work are much more likely to hold these types of jobs, this is a particular grim prospect for young workers hoping to leave these positions behind for greener career pastures.And even if Millennial workers do manage to move from retail to the corporate world, there’s no guarantee that their office job will be on the career track. The number of temporary or contract positions was up 6% over last year’s numbers in the first quarter of 2012 according to the American Staffing Association. In fact, the number of temporary or contract jobs added to the economy has been increasing for nine consecutive quarters since the recession officially ended. Over 40% more people hold temp jobs now than in 2009. This growth starts to become something to worry about when temp jobs aren’t being converted to permanent ones and when contract work replaces full-time positions. As ASA CEO Richard Wahlquist put it when discussing the numbers:
“Employers remain hesitant to add permanent employees due to uncertainty about the current strength of the economy and future economic conditions, including impending tax increases and spending cuts expected to take effect in January 2013. In times like these, businesses are being much more strategic in sourcing additional talent and maintaining work force flexibility.”
And this cautious approach to staffing and reliance on a disposable workforce may continue for years. While there are certainly highly-skilled and in-demand professionals who are able to parlay their hired-gun status into big paydays or renaissance workers who are mashing up day jobs and dream jobs, those who benefit financially from the gig economy are in the minority. With low-wage occupations set to keep growing – even in economic hotspots such as Silicon Valley – most young workers may be destined to either cycle through a number of temporary positions in search of better wages and working conditions or resign themselves to juggling multiple low-wage jobs in order to support themselves if they aren’t able to find an entry point to the career track before they age out of their recent grad status.
While scaring up sympathy for Gen Y is often yeoman’s work, the prospect of a generation of workers who are facing job insecurity and uncertain career growth has broader social consequences that can’t be written off as the inconvenience of a coddled few. That economic mobility we prize as a hallmark of the American Dream? Well, just like the 30-year career with a single employer, its days may be over, too. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts:
“Americans raised at the top and bottom of the income ladder are likely to remain there themselves as adults. Forty-three percent of those who start in the bottom are stuck there as adults, and 70 percent remain below the middle quintile. Only 4 percent of adults raised in the bottom make it all the way to the top, showing that the “rags-to-riches” story is more often found in Hollywood than in reality.”
Try not to think about this when you clock in for your next shift at the mall.
Belated Happy May Day, one of the world’s few global commemorations, as these pictures attest. See more pictures and information here, courtesy of Foreign Policy.
As labor groups take to the streets around the world to protest high unemployment and harsh austerity measures, who has the most to complain about?
Recognized as a national holiday by more than 80 countries, May 1, or May Day, has become firmly identified with International Workers’ Day. The event originally commemorated the bloody 1886Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, when police opened fire on demonstrating workers, killing dozens. Over the years it has become a day for labor unions to rally around the globe. This year, with unemployment soaring and governments cutting back to reign in budgets, we take a tour of the protests.