It’s hard not to notice the relentless “jobs” rhetoric tossed about by both parties in the current presidential race. From what I’ve gathered (for my own sanity I try to remain a casual observer), when it comes to sound bites regarding unemployment, some of the major differences between the two candidates seem to be as follows: on one hand we have Mitt Romney promising to “create” jobs by lowering corporate taxes and cutting government spending, while on the other hand President Obama promises to accomplish more or less the same objective by allowing the Bush-era tax cuts to expire and investing in things like infrastructure, education, and social services.
I will refrain from further comment on which one of these approaches makes more sense to me personally because I think the most interesting thing about the current campaign rhetoric when it comes to this issue is what isn’t being talked about. One phrase in particular—structural unemployment—is something I have yet to hear uttered or otherwise alluded to by either candidate. Surely both of the Harvard-educated men competing for our country’s highest office are familiar with the concept. Yet after reading Thomas A. Hirschl’s essay Structural Unemployment and the Qualitative Transformation of Capitalism, structural unemployment seems more and more like the proverbial elephant in the room. (Or at least any room in which the problem of American job loss is discussed).
Perhaps there is a very good reason for this silence. After all, in his essay, Hirschl seeks to take widespread unemployment to its next logical (and unfashionably radical) conclusion, namely, social revolution. He frames his argument as “an attempt to consider whether the ‘electronic revolution’ identified by Toffler (1990) and others … qualifies as a starting point for social revolution of the type Marx specified” (Davis, Hirschl & Stack 158). Since the electronic revolution will eventually replace human labor with technology, he argues, widespread structural unemployment will inevitably result. The interesting part about Hirschl’s logic, however, is how he differs from other theorists who almost too eagerly tout the rise of the so-called post-industrial “knowledge worker.” He boldly maintains structural unemployment will “afflict not simply laid-off manufacturing workers and secretarial assistants, but computer programmers and other knowledge workers as well” (160). In this way, post-industrial society “will be transformed into a ‘post-service’ society” (167).
Yet Hirschl has a curiously optimistic view of our jobless future. Granted, his outlook is perhaps a bit naïve and precisely the type of teleological or “grand narrative” brand of Marxism rejected by any postmodernist worth his or her salt, but I still couldn’t help being drawn in by his elegant vision for how labor would “at some stage … realize that its physical and cultural survival depends upon reforming the economic system to distribute on the basis of human need rather than for profit” (165). The caveat here, of course, resides in the phrase at some stage. Judging from the absence of any current campaign rhetoric (that I know of) even hinting at the need for a “qualitative transformation of capitalism,” I’d say we’re not quite there yet.
Instead, structural unemployment persists as an “instrument of class domination” (161), as part of a larger corporate strategy of “higher profits with fewer workers” (164), and, perhaps most disturbingly, as a factor necessitating “sharp increases in public expenditures for the penal system, the police, and electronic surveillance systems” (168). Is this the direction we want to be headed? Is this a “necessary evil” on the road toward an economy that “distributes on the basis of need” (163)? If so, how long is the road? As a nation, we certainly don’t seem to be as uncomfortable as we should be with, say, the fact that the United States is “the wealthiest in terms of per capita income, yet has the highest rate of child poverty” (170).
Clearly, capital has yet to become the “intolerable” power described by Marx and Engels in The German Ideology. The question remains—how close are we to realizing the type of social revolution envisioned by Hirschl? Is such a revolution even possible? A year ago I might have predicted the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement had the potential to bring us closer to that end, just as twenty years ago I might have seen some promise in the 1992 Los Angeles rebellion. Today, while Hirschl’s ideas are no less fascinating, I find myself less and less sure that structural unemployment—coupled with social polarization and technological progress—will be the “formula for revolution” he imagines it to be (172).