Epigraph: “We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable; so did the divine right of kings.” – Ursula K. Le Guin
By: Swarthmore YDSA Coordinators
In the early summer of 2021, a hysterical carousel of pundits rotated around a media circus wailing about how unemployment benefits were removing the incentives to work. It didn’t take long for Republicans and some Democrats to start applying pressure on the Biden administration to cut unemployment benefits. On May 10, Biden echoed the Reaganite “welfare queen” mythology as he declared that workers who refused a “suitable” job would not receive unemployment benefits, and soon some Republicans declared that they would end unemployment benefits at the state level. This alleged causal relationship was dubious at best. Not only does research show that the 25 states which cut unemployment benefits are seeing employment recovery roughly at the same rate as states which retained it, but an overwhelming number of people who are not working have exited the labor force and hence do not even receive unemployment benefits. On Sept. 6, 35 million Americans lost unemployment benefits, and there is not much to show for it.
Suppose that there is at least some partial truth to the narrative that unemployment benefits play some role in lessening people’s inclination to work and removal of the benefits did increase labor supply by a bit, as suggested by some studies. That would mean people receive less benefit from giving their labor to an employer than from receiving the measly unemployment benefits (which are not nearly enough to cover living expenses in most parts of the country and are roughly equivalent to or worse than starvation wages). The idea that people’s terrible material conditions should be worsened until they are coerced back into a dangerous, poorly compensated job is reprehensible. This notion treats workers like disposable tools rather than living, breathing, feeling people who desire and deserve to be treated with dignity and proper pay for their labor. When Laura Ingraham said on Fox (before quickly clarifying she didn’t mean it physically) that “Hunger is a pretty powerful thing,” she unmasked corporate media’s longtime dogwhistle: the belief that people must choose between a greater likelihood of starving, accruing crippling medical debt, succumbing to illness, dying, and working multiple shitty jobs until they die.
So what exactly is a labor shortage? As any Introduction to Economics student will tell you, it is when the labor demanded exceeds the labor supplied. And what do you do about it? Just like any other commodity, the buyer (in this case, the company) offers to pay more so that the supplier (the workers) supplies more labor. Those are the rules of capitalist market enterprise, but even under capitalism, the ruling class cannot tolerate the fact that the workers may have the leverage to affect the price. Therefore, they are making people’s lives hellish to force people back into work and take away that little leverage. This reveals a nefarious truth about our capitalist system: the plutocrats will take away the minimal support that people have in order to ensure they have the power to set the price of labor. The individual worker then loses their power and is faced with a tragic choice: work or die.
But together, the workers do have leverage; in solidarity they can withhold their labor and demand that they be compensated with living wages, a safe work environment, and the ability to have their voices heard in the workplace. In a stunning rebuke to the narrative that fewer people are returning to work because of unemployment benefits, worker strikes are sending shockwaves across the country. They are showing us that not only are people sick and tired of being treated like disposable objects at their workplace, but they are also tired of seeing others go through the same abuse. Nurses in Worcester, Massachusetts refused to agree to a contract that did not guarantee continued employment for nurses that went on strike, and Kellogg’s workers’ demands include that workers not be blocked from future increases in wages and benefits in a tiered system. Whether we look at the taxi drivers who went on a hunger strike for 15 days in New York for debt relief (and won), the thousands of striking workers at John Deere, miners in Alabama who strike even though it has been ruled criminal, or even college students at Columbia who attempted to hold a tuition strike earlier this year, we see true solidarity budding around us.
This recent revitalization of the labor movement is a step towards a more-just economic framework. It is a glimpse into a future in which the workers who created this world have a say in how they are treated; that is a true democracy. We moved from monarchy to democracy because we recognized that society should not be governed by the arbitrary and autocratic power of kings, but rather the people who live in it. After roughly 200 years of capitalism, however, we have found ourselves in a society governed by self-appointed kings who established their power not solely with an army, but also with the subtler yet potent powers of inherited wealth, wage-theft, political gifts and corruption, media manipulation, and the deceptive, smiling sheen of benevolent expertise and technocratic rule.
We are now looking closer to a new form of feudalism, one in which the vast majority of people are bound to dehumanizing labor by their need to survive. Meanwhile, the world’s second-richest man goes on a joyride to space and has the gall to thank his underpaid workers for making that possible. It is hard to imagine that even after 40 years of rapid technological development, we are still not living in a society that (as Keynes once said) allows us to enjoy lives of dignity with less work and more creative exploration. Instead, it is harder for anyone to afford a home and live without the knife of financial destitution pressing against their throats. This contradiction, that such advancement in automation and technology alongside people still being forced to work more, has developed under the governance of self-appointed capitalist kings and is something we can no longer ignore.
It is time to have a new direction for our world, and who can decide that better than the people of it? Democratic socialism is a political philosophy that believes in democracy as both a means and an end. Improving people’s material conditions not only distributes power more equally, but it also ensures that a few cannot autocratically rule society. With the power of persuasion that is fundamental to democracy, democratic socialists hope to bring about a society where it isn’t the kings, but rather the people, who govern. The spark in our labor movement is a sign of hope towards democratic workplaces and democratic structures in society. If we truly believe ourselves to be acting for the public good, we must ground our study and ethos in the interest of the working people of the world and not that of the forces that created Swarthmore — a bastion of wealth and power which invests in morally reprehensible institutions and plays a role in molding the next set of the modern “best and brightest” technocrats who often fail upwards just to eventually reinforce this institution’s concentration of power.
The Swarthmore College Young Democratic Socialists of America aims to participate in concrete actions which improve people’s material conditions and transfer power from the ruling class to the people. We plan to collaborate with Philly DSA and DelCo DSA to work on electoral organizing, movements to remove the Covanta incinerator (a textbook example of environmental racism), labor and tenant organizing, and anything else that members are interested in and is widely felt. The issues facing our planet right now — imminent climate disaster and all forms of oppression (such as those forced to the margins of society simply based on their gender, race, sexuality and more) — must be recognized and dealt with. We have faith in the dignity of each and every person and believe that creating a more democratically and economically just society is necessary to address these challenges. There is a reason that the people in power want you to believe there is nothing we can do and that the world is simply broken (or, in some cases, doing just great), because believing in a better world is a direct threat to the status quo that benefits them. Join us on Nov. 18th at 6:30 p.m. in Science Center L26 to plan and implement actionable steps that improve the material conditions of people and create that better world. All students, faculty, and staff are welcome. Our interest form is here. Email any inquiries to email@example.com, and follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.