It’s not that you have nothing to offer, but that you have no money to offer

One of the most aggravating facets of unemployment, particularly long term unemployment, is a sense that no one wants you for anything you have to offer. They just want money. And U.S. culture ferociously stigmatizes the unemployed, as when, according to Howard Zinn,

Henry Ford, in March 1931, said the crisis [the Great Depression] was here because “the average man won’t really do a day’s work unless he is caught and cannot get out of it. There is plenty of work to do if people would do it.” A few weeks later he laid of 75,000 workers.

There were millions of tons of food around, but it was not profitable to transport it, to sell it. Warehouses were full of clothing, but people could not afford it. There were lots of houses, but they stayed empty because people couldn’t pay the rent, had been evicted, and now lived in shacks in quickly formed “Hoovervilles” built on garbage dumps.

The difficulty with any system of exchange is that it inherently privileges those who are most able to say no, those who are most able to decline a deal. It serves to widen the gap between rich and poor. And money accelerates the process.

When you’re unemployed, it isn’t that you have nothing to offer. It’s that you have no money to offer. But when money is the only economic value, that distinction is unimportant. And even when you’re employed, you may be brutalized as the rich make themselves richer by undervaluing everybody else.

In the Great Depression, people formed barter systems and self-help organizations. But the scale of the problem soon overwhelmed these efforts. Money is evil, but the more fundamental problem lies in a notion that each person works for him or herself. A system of competition accepts as inevitable that there will be “winners” and “losers.” And while the rest of us may be losing as cogs in the corporate wheel, or having been evicted therefrom, Charles Reich observed in The Greening of America that we will be pacified with illusions of wealth on television.

But that can’t go on forever when, as a Wall Street Journal article suggests, “jobless recoveries” are “the new normal”:

“With the third jobless recovery, you have to say we shouldn’t have expected companies to behave as they did in the 1960s or the 1970s,” said St. Louis Fed President James Bullard. “We should expect this as the normal state of affairs.”

If the elite in this country, who seem well protected from unemployment, are not going to take concrete action on unemployment, if as Obama so callously put it, “There are limits to what government can and should do, even during such difficult times,” then we must recognize that those who have money will never allow the rest of us to have any. And if we are to survive, we shall have to introduce a new way of fulfilling our needs.

My idea is that social media makes possible what was not possible during the Great Depression. We can work towards the greater good. We can do it by cooperating rather than competing. We can do it by valuing every person. I have the barest beginning of an idea how. But I’m going to need help to do it.

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