Donald Trump and the Unmaking of the American Worker

In a world of lies, it’s sometimes best to seek truth from Devil. It’s true, he’s the Prince of Lies, but the best principle for lying is to occasionally tell the truth; it keeps the opposition off balance. So it was that I found in a Wall Street Journal article a confession of rare candor the other day: “Never before have American companies tried so hard to employ so few people.”

The article went on to describe the well-known phenomenon of CTV, the outsourcing of the day-to-day functions of the modern corporation to contract labor, temporary workers, and outside vendors, leaving only a skeleton crew of management and a few key brain workers as the actual staff. Silicon Valley companies, valued in the billions but with little more than a Friday night poker club on the core payroll, are the paradigm of such worker-free businesses, but the model has spread, and the future is clear: not simply a world of atomized temp labor, on call around the world and around the clock, but the robot, who guides you through most business calls you make and, in the friendly voice of Alexa, most decisions you take as well.

The jobless world is here. The problem is what to do with humans.
That’s where Donald Trump came in. Politics is where the mess of every society winds up.

The Democratic Party hitched its star to the American worker in the Great Depression. Automation had already made inroads into labor on the assembly line, but the war-stimulated economy of the 1940s—an economy whose product was death and its delivery systems—put a temporary if illusory end to the problem of unemployment. What emerged, in the afterglow of atomic victory, was something in America called (with no apologies to Rousseau) the social contract. The idea was that union-organized workers and corporate management would cut a deal, exchanging labor peace in return for long-term employment at wages and benefits sufficient to offer entry into that pipe-dream of sociologists, the middle class. Government would play the honest broker in this arrangement, mediating disputes and backstopping economic downturns. The military-industrial complex would also make it the consumer of last resort, piling up generations of bombs and missiles whose object was nonutility.

This arrangement, full of suspended bad faith on all sides, lasted for the generation in which the American economy dominated the world market. By the 1970s, that halcyon era had gone. The famous falling rate of profit had returned, and the squeeze was put on workers. Their unions, grown lazy and corrupt, could no longer protect them, and they quickly vanished. The Democratic Party quietly disowned them, while the Republican Party of Nixon and Reagan opportunistically channeled their discontent into symbolic social causes and, in the rise of megachurches, mainlined that classic opiate of the people, religion. When these did not suffice to contain populist anger, real drugs were mainlined, with Richard Nixon’s “war on drugs” serving as the best advertising campaign the Colombia and Mexican cartels ever had, and George W. Bush’s invasion of Afghanistan opening up the poppy pipeline.

Still, all this was absent what the situation obviously called for: a genuine villain. That was introduced in the bogeyman of Big Government, a.k.a. the Welfare State, which for some bizarre reason had begun privileging the lazy, the idle, and of course the black, against the hardworking Anglo-Saxon working class. It is a well-known principle of sociology, and one that happens to contain an actual kernel of truth, that class resentment tends to focus downward rather than upward, and that fear of the guy on the rung just below you generates far more psychic investment than anger toward the lordly billionaires in their unimaginable splendor at the top.

The Democratic Party, meanwhile, completed its suicide mission by electing an African-American president. This had the result of creating one of the tensest racial environments in the country since the Civil War and Reconstruction.

By the early years of the new century, however, the Republican narrative had begun to go threadbare, and with the double calamity of two failed wars and the biggest financial crash since the Great Depression, a fresh approach was needed. This came in the form of the Tea Party, ostensibly a bottoms-up repudiation of the fake nostrums peddled by both major political parties, but, as we now know, a carefully orchestrated campaign of pseudo-populism bankrolled by the likes of the Koch brothers. Its success was an important political tipping-point. It marked the supersession of both political parties (long since ideologically blended as one) except as figurehead entities. No politician was to be trusted, since government itself had now been defined as the enemy of the people. A savior could only come from the outside.

Enter Donald Trump, the businessman as hero. The road to Trump was paved by thirty years of Reaganite mythologizing. Good jobs, employment security, and guaranteed pensions vanishing? Big government was to blame, stifling the entrepreneurial genius of the “job-creators” in a mass of regulation and sucking up capital in high taxes to feed the Washington swamp and succor Welfare Queens. Bill Clinton dismantled welfare and cut the cord that enabled banks and investment houses to indulge in the orgy of greed that brought us the Crash of 2008; good jobs did not return. The at least temporary solution was obvious: a crash program to repair and modernize the transportation and telecommunications infrastructure put in place by the New Deal, and to replace the fossil fuels devastating the environment with green energy. But such capital-intensive (and profit-deferred) projects required government investment, and government, remember, had been successfully defined as the enemy. So the Obama years passed, with nothing done, hash-slinging replacing once-unionized factory jobs, and the federal minimum—forget about living—wage stuck exactly where it had been, at $7.25 an hour.

Trump offered empathy for the unemployed blue collar workers of the Rustbelt, and a promise to restore its former prosperity. He jawboned a few corporations into not killing a few jobs here and there slated for export, at least temporarily and with tax abatements that would make the transaction profitable. This provided a brief reprieve for a few thousand workers in a labor market of tens of millions stuck at historically low participation rates, where an uptick in monthly hiring brought an increase in the unemployment rate. At the same time, he stocked his cabinet with billionaires infamous for job export and job-killing, home foreclosures, and schemes to privatize the commons on behalf of Wall Street fly-by-nighters.

Trump also promised to help farmers, whom government subsidization has not prevented from going the way of the auk as giant agribusinesses monopolize American food production. Here the villain in question was undocumented immigrant labor, and the solution was to deport eleven million such aliens—or perhaps two or three?—and so clear jobs for Americans. Of course, Americans won’t work such jobs even for much higher wages than migrants, and they have long since abandoned this market. The only consequence of Trump’s immigration policies, apart from uprooted families and devastated communities, will be unpicked produce and much higher food prices. This is not to say, of course, that the exploitation of migrant labor is justifiable; importing such labor, like exporting factory jobs to foreign sweatshops, is just another way of reducing worker wages to subsistence level or below: precisely the consequence of unregulated markets described a century and a half ago by Karl Marx.

Trump, we may hope (but should not expect), is a nadir, and those beguiled by him will learn, painfully enough, how they’ve been hoaxed. That won’t do away with the underlying absence of a jobs policy in either major political party, the complexities of a global economy with staggering levels of capital concentration and income inequality, or the more long-range but no less pressing questions of what “work” will be in a technologized world, and what kinds of activity (and compensation, both social and financial) will ultimately replace what has traditionally been defined as remunerative labor. These are issues some other countries, for example Finland, have begun to address, but which our own current system almost forbids us to think about. What certainly isn’t going away anytime soon is the crisis of contemporary capitalism that continues to exploit such labor as is necessary as ruthlessly and efficiently as possible, and to leave those abandoned in its wake to their fates—and to the phony promises of politicians, or, in Trump’s case, a sleazy tycoon who regards public office as a glorified profit center and a stage for his dictatorial fantasies.

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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