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Hugo Oehler

Civil Works and the NRA

(January 1934)

From The Militant, Vol. VII No. 1, 4 January 1934, p. 1.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Throughout the crisis mass unemployment has been one of the most complex problems of capitalism. As the crisis passed from months into years the ruling class followed every phase of the problem of the unemployed and endeavored to check this rising tide from finding an outlet into the class struggle.

At first they denied its existence. Then the exploiters claimed it was a temporary phenomenon. Next they denied its magnitude. Only after a long period of many months, with resistance every inch of the way, did the capitalists admit that charity and local and state relief must be replaced by a national policy to cope with the “emergency”. They continue to fight against considering unemployment as a social problem and oppose social insurance. Many far-sighted exploiters, it is true, now realize that unemployment is a permanent problem. The majority, however – and they dominate the government policy – continue to try every form of emergency relief possible in order to avoid facing the issue of unemployment insurance.

Title Two of the Recovery Act provided for a public works program and the expenditure of over three billion dollars. The method of handling the problem of unemployment under the NRA was coordinated into a two-fold policy. On the one hand the public works program was to take millions off the relief lists. The reduction of hours was to put more millions back to work at reduced real wages. The government had to admit at a very early date that the public works program failed to accomplish this purpose. It did, as we stated before, enable a goodly number of exploiters to get in on the pork barrel. All but a half a billion of the fund has been allotted and it has failed as a factor to cause re-employment.

When this phase of the NRA cracked wide open the administration inaugurated the Civil Works Program designed to give jobs, in place of relief to four million. Stripped of its high-sounding pretensions and its publicity tricks the Civil Works Program was an emergency stop-gap – a scheme for winter, which is the worst period for the unemployed, to give them just a sufficient amount to keep them from starving to death, until spring. Four billion dollars four million workers, deducting the regular American graft along the way, leaves less than fifty dollars for the winter for the “bread winner” of an average family of four. The Civil Works Program was a necessary supplementary measure to prop up the breakdown of the NRA.

The Civil Works Program, like all other government measures dealing with the problem of unemployment, is so organized that the relief and work given is spread over the nation through a process of selecting the most menacing sections of the problems and taking off their sharp edges. The object is, first, to protect private property from individual acts of robbery and, last but not least, to protect capitalist property from the threat of expropriation by the working class. This Is attempted by singling out for attention the most difficult family cases as well as by a consideration of all other social factors in the given local situation.

The record for 1933 shows March to be the peak month with four and a half million receiving public aid. Over five million families were placed on a fifty cents per day average last winter; at the present time with all the new measures taken for their “benefit”, they are doing good if they get sixty cents a day. In addition to this large number on the relief list, there exists that growing army of destitute individuals below this level who sleep under viaducts and on doorsteps by night and roam the streets looking for a handout by day. Above the multitude on relief list there is a still larger number of families, with the bread earners out of work, which exists precariously one way or another – some families are broken up and dispersed in the homes of relatives or friend’s; some used up their treasured rainy dry savings: others have become houseworkers and janitors in exchange for the necessities of life.

The government adopts those measures for the problem of unemployment which benefit the ruling class. But they twist the question upside down so that it looks as though they are trying to solve the problem for labor’s benefit. The majority of the unemployed as well as the employed are not yet disillusioned and accept the inverted bourgeois explanation as correct. The workers must be taught that bourgeois charity and relief, which take from the super-abundant supply and overproduction only a sufficient amount of food and necessities to keep the wage slaves from starving to death, are not really designed] to help them. The object in reality is to prevent individual and, later, social expropriation of capitalist property and, at the same time, to insure the capitalists an abundant supply of cheap labor power. This is the dominating motive of all unemployment measures of the capitalists.

The Civil Works Program will face its death crisis in the spring as the public works program of the NRA confronted it in the fall. The ruling exploiters look forward to warm weather and the hoped-for revival. If the revival does not take place they will drive through another “emergency measure”.

The extension of the original Public Works Program to the Civil Works Program has solved nothing fundamentally. It has only postponed the showdown. It has, in a negative way, further educated the unemployed as to what kind of a government and what kind of a crazy economic system we have.

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