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Permanent Depression

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America’s Permanent Depression

Experts Baffled for Explanation – But New Millions Face
Unemployment and Disemployment – A Future of Hunger and Insecurity

(July 1930)

From Socialist Appeal, Vol. II No. 31, 30 July 1938, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Historians of some future age, unearthing the writings of our current sooth-sayers on the “New Deal” depression, will undoubtedly publish their findings in some journal devoted to the study of mental diseases. The average “expert”, when not blaming depressions on the misbehavior of sun-spots, usually attributes economic crises to the mental state of the business class.

If the bottom drops out of the stock market, or increasing millions of unemployed haunt the gates of silent factories, the pundits of the press bark, “Pessimism!”, and let the matter ride. Undoubtedly, pessimism has characterized the state of mind of the average business man for the past twelve months. The economic guess-alls have failed to show, however, whether this frame of mind is a cause or result of the present decline.

Third of Nation Distressed

In a similarly enlightening fashion, these economic gospel-pounders view the facts of chronic mass unemployment. America’s 15 million unemployed, who, with their dependents, represent one-third of our population, when not dismissed as “lazy bums who won’t work even if they had a job,” are considered at best merely temporarily unfortunate beings to whom some attention should be paid – after the real tragedy of declining profits has been properly remedied.

Between June 1935 and August 1937, dates which roughly mark the life span of the “New Deal Boomlet,” unemployment was regarded largely as an irritating, but not dangerous, skin blemish, which could be concealed under the powder and rouge of mounting production and profit figures. It could be soothed, whenever it itched, by a light application of W.P.A. jobs and starvation pensions for the helplessly aged.

Unemployed Census Revealing

It was with undoubted optimism that F.D.R. undertook the nation-wide census of unemployment in June 1937. Production was heading steadily for the pre-depression peak of 1929. Business men were staggering gaily from heady draughts of fresh-drawn profits. Everything was hunky-dory, if only the Budget were balanced, taxes reduced, and the “goddam relief racket cut out.”

When the figures of the census were revealed finally in November 1937, America was already hurtling down an economic land-slide at the most precipitous pace in its history. What use to bemoan the fact of 8½-11 million unemployed during the peak of a boom, when six months later at least five millions more had been piled on those figures – and profits were melting away, to boot?

Figures Give Vital Lesson

But the American workers dare not forget these figures. They reveal a fact that is truly ominous. The figures of mass unemployment registered at the peak of Roosevelt “prosperity” prove conclusively, that, despite temporary periods of comparative recovery, larger and larger sections of workers are condemned to permanent joblessness – disemployment. Increasing millions under capitalism are cut off forever from productive labor in normal economic pursuits.

This economically disenfranchised “nation within a nation” (larger, including dependents, than the entire populations of such countries as Spain, Canada or Mexico) is supplemented from time to time by new millions of jobless workers, who are periodically cast by each succeeding wave of depression upon the desolate shores of our economic system. While some workers are lucky enough as individuals to be drawn back into the economic currents by the receding waves, other millions are left permanently stranded, part of the rapidly accumulating wreckage of labor and talents, of human lives and aspirations which is mass disemployment in America.

Two Factors Reveal Depths

Two factors distinguish the 1929–? economic decline from all previous depressions. One is the increasing mass disemployment. The other is the increasing regularity of periodic lay-offs suffered by almost every worker regardless of his trade or industry. The unemployed of previous depressions were largely re-absorbed into industry during the following upturns. Each recovery period which succeeded former depressions surpassed previous booms in the volume of production and brought forth new industries. Indeed, certain industries formerly weathered the depression fairly well, and the workers in these industries considered themselves permanently secure. Until 1929, a railroad job was considered a guaranteed life-time security. But the present depression has made an exception of no industry. A million railroad workers, for example, have lost their regular occupations during the past nine years.

These burning facts must be seared into the consciousness of every American worker. Every worker, in all industries without exception, is from now on threatened by the ravages of periodic lay-offs; and increasing millions of unemployed face the dismal future of permanent disemployment.

Workers Pay Price of Crisis

The American working class is paying an incalculable price for these conditions in terms of physical suffering, disordered family life, mental break-down, disease and death. Compare the $2,500 yearly income estimated by the U.S. Children’s Bureau as necessary to provide the minimum comfort and decency level of living for a family of five with the $400–$700 per year which the average W.P.A. worker earns. Then remember that the W.P.A. workers, who represent less than 20 percent of the unemployed, are considered a relatively “privileged” group. We can well understand why certain authorities have claimed that the unemployed as a group suffer five times as much from sickness and disease as the rest of the population.

Millions of workers find that the few comforts and conveniences they manage to accumulate over years of hard work are snatched away during even a few months of unemployment. A couple of instalment payments missed, and automobiles, radios and washing machines are promptly taken away. Every day hundreds of homes, representing life-times of sacrifice and scrimping, are foreclosed. Thousands of families are evicted to join the homeless hordes that today aimlessly travel our highroads.

Class Strength Sapped

If we permit these conditions to continue for any length of time, the resistance of the American working class will be sapped. The unparalleled militancy displayed by the American workers during the past four years of bitter struggles will be dulled. Hunger and disease demoralize the workers and drain their fighting spirits.

It is this possible demoralization, rather than any immediate suffering, which is most to be feared by the workers. In both Germany and Italy, desperate and demoralized unemployed, susceptible to any demagogic appeal, and lacking powerful organizations knit firmly to the trade unions, helped form the storm-troop gangs of the fascists which utterly destroyed the labor movements in these countries. The American labor movement dares not permit our homegrown Hitlers so fruitful a field for exploitation. The dangers are too hideous to contemplate.

(This is the first of a series of articles on the nature of unemployment, its causes and how it can be remedied. The next article in the series will be The New Deal and the Unemployed, an analysis of how the Roosevelt administration has dealt with the unemployed and unemployment since 1935. – Ed.)

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