The United States of (Capitalist) Misery

28 Feb

The more superficial reader of my posts might conclude, given how often I have the USA in my sights as the most dangerous as well as lawless nation on earth, that I am anti-American. Not a bit of it. I’m anti-capitalist is all. I can’t help that America’s capitalists – its ruling class – happen to be the planet’s most violent predators.

(Not that my own country is in any position to claim an inch of moral high ground on that count. Nor am I speaking simply of centuries past. The global north’s exploitation of the global south continues apace, in new and often more ruthless forms, with the USA its lead but by no stretch of the imagination its sole perpetrator.)

But the miseries America inflicts on tens of millions of its own citizens is very much of a piece with its grievous wrongs to the peoples of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Yemen and all those other nations whose leaders displeased Wall Street and Washington. (Though here too, were I patriot rather than socialist, I’d be poorly placed, as a European and Brit to boot, to point the accusing finger.) And of course it has the same drivers. As I will insist on saying over and over, capitalism means – non negotiably, though it may at times be reined in by temporary circumstance – the prioritisation of profits over everything sane people hold dear.


Cue for me to hand over. If you ever were tempted to think capitalism the worst possible system – except for all the others – here in nice round numbers are the figures to help you think again. Writing three days ago on the ICH Site, Rajon Menon considers:

How the USA Fails its Most Vulnerable

Economic crises shine a spotlight on a society’s inequities and hierarchies, as well as its commitment to support those who are most vulnerable in such grievous moments. The calamity created by Covid-19 is no exception. The economic fallout from that pandemic has tested the nation’s social safety net as never before.

Between February and May 2020, the number of unemployed workers soared more than threefold — from 6.2 million to 20.5 million. The jobless rate spiked in a similar fashion from 3.8% to 13.0%. In late March, weekly unemployment claims reached 6.9 million, obliterating the previous record of 695,000, set in October 1982. Within three months, the pandemic-produced slump proved far worse than the three-year Great Recession of 2007-2009.

Things have since improved. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) announced in December that unemployment had fallen to 6.7%. Yet, that same month, weekly unemployment filings still reached a staggering 853,000 and though they fell to just under 800,000 last month, even that far surpassed the 1982 number.

And keep in mind that grim statistics like these can obscure rather than illuminate the depths of our current misery. After all, they exclude the 6.2 million Americans whose work hours had been slashed in December or the 7.3 million who had simply stopped looking for jobs because they were demoralized, feared being infected by the virus, had schoolchildren at home, or some of the above and more. The BLS’s rationale for not counting them is that they are no longer part of what it terms the “active labor force.” If they had been included, that jobless rate would have spiraled to nearly 24% in April and 11.6% in December.

Degrees of Pain

To see just how unevenly the economic pain has been distributed in America, however, you have to dig far deeper. A recent analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve did just that by dividing workers into five separate quintiles based on their range of incomes and the occupations typically associated with each.

The first and lowest-paid group, including janitors, cooks, and housecleaners, made less than $35,000 annually; the second (construction workers, security guards, and clerks, among others) earned $35,000-$48,000; the third (including primary- and middle-school teachers, as well as retail and postal workers), $48,000-$60,000; the fourth (including nurses, paralegals, and computer technicians), $60,000-$83,000; while employees in the highest-paid quintile like doctors, lawyers, and financial managers earned a minimum of $84,000.

More than 33% of those in the lowest paid group lost their jobs during the pandemic, and a similar proportion were forced to work fewer hours. By contrast, in the top quintile 5.6% were out of work and 5.4% had their hours cut. For the next highest quintile, the corresponding figures were 11.4% and 11.7%.

Workers in the bottom 20% of national income distribution have been especially vulnerable for another reason. Their median liquid savings (readily available cash) averages less than $600 compared to $31,300 for those in the top 20%.

Twelve percent of working Americans can’t even handle a $400 emergency; 27% say they could, but only if they borrowed, used credit cards, or sold their personal possessions …

Read the full piece …

3 Replies to “The United States of (Capitalist) Misery

  1. Well, in the ultimate analysis a country is no more than its people. In contrast to the US, China has recently brought all of its population above the poverty line, so it has a reservoir of grateful, energised and potentially well educated people (including in Zingjiang), a modern transport network (including high-speed rail) and a system of local feedback to government.

    In contrast the US has colour discrimination, widespread poverty, lack of affordable health care, failing infrastructure, class warfare and blatant inequality (as detailed above), imperial arrogance based on past (often illusory) glories and out-of control military-industrial corruption.

    Who would you bet on?

    • … in the ultimate analysis a country is no more than its people …

      I’d put put it like this:

      … in the ultimate analysis a country is no more than its balance of class forces …

      That aside, I agree with all you say.

      • I stand corrected – or rather, I recognise your point as being valid and possibly taking precedence. But I would want to qualify my statement by adding ‘no more than the total psychological interaction, and the total psychic interaction of its population’ to ‘class forces’. I recognise that these are more intangible than class differences, but I posit that they are real and effective.

        I’m currently reading ‘Re-visioning the Earth’ by Paul Devereux, which embodies my interests in combining various disciplines (general science, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, neurology, etc.). and points out how in so many ways we have become detached from nature. Marx himself was aware of this, when he envisioned a future non capitalist society as enabling a person to be able to (I paraphrase because I don’t have the quote to hand) ‘dig in the morning, paint in the afternoon and sing in the evening’. (I recommend Paul Devereux’s books to anyone with any interest in alternative modes of consciousness and our interaction with nature).

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