United States

Disposable Children, Disposable Slaves

By Bonnie Weinstein

Many on the left criticize Marxists for predicting the economic collapse of capitalism. They say that Marxists have been predicting the “death struggle” of capitalism for years and it hasn’t happened yet. They say, capitalism has been able to placate and immobilize the working class. These thoughts are epitomized by the comments of Joaquin Bustelo, a contributor to the Marxism discussion list on the internet, who wrote on January 14, 2008:

“Thus quite often you can read on this list how wages have been going down for decades and so forth and so on. Yet every single material indicator of living standards in this country has been rising over the decades, the size of housing units, how they’re equipped, number of cars, radios and TV sets, energy consumed, etc. etc. etc. And whatever crisis of the moment is said to be sure to doom capitalism—the [Vietnam] War, the [1970s] energy crisis, stagflation, deindustrialization, the S&L crisis, low productivity growth, all the way down to the dot-com, stock markets and housing bubbles of the last decade—have thus far failed to produce the predicted effect.

“To me that says the left underestimates the real resources and strengths of U.S. capitalism, and above all how parasitic it is and how much wealth it siphons off from other countries. Which doesn’t mean that this ‘crisis’ won’t be ‘the’ crisis, but it does tend to make me rather skeptical.”

But Bustelo leaves out the fact that while workers can consume more stuff, the rate of exploitation of workers has increased sharply. Workers are working harder due to speed-up and the general rollback of working conditions across the board. In addition, due to technological production improvements, workers are producing a higher yield for the bosses for his or her labor time while earning a smaller portion of the extra value they now produce.

Bustelo also claims that the reason the antiwar movement has failed to produce youth activists like it did during the war in Vietnam was that there was a draft back then.

Our children live in a different world

What he and everyone seems to ignore is that there is a very different reality for youth today than that of their parents. The gutted organized-labor movement, including two- and three-tier contracts, has qualitatively changed reality for our young people.

To say there isn’t a draft is not quite true either, because there is an economic draft that leads young people to join the military if they have any hope of reaching the economic heights their parents were able to reach—to buy a house or even a new car—without plunging themselves into unmanageable debt or, indeed, being able to even qualify to get into debt. That the military is the only way out of this economic reality is certainly what the Department of Defense is trying to convince young people of. And it spends billions of dollars in advertising money to do so.

Their parents live there, too

Even once-comfortable parents are beginning to feel the pinch. They have to borrow to send their kids to college, and are unable to help them buy a house, something working-class parents in the ’60s and ’70s could afford to do for their coming-of-age kids.

Young adults are finding it much harder to leave the nest. When I was 18 years old, one lousy, unskilled weekly paycheck (in cash, by the way) could take care of my rent for a month and I had plenty left over to buy clothes and eat good food! Those days are gone!

When I struck out on my own, I wasn’t even a high school graduate and could barely type 20 words-per-minute. I hadn’t turned 18 yet and got my first job (as a waitress) in late July of 1963 at Schrafft’s restaurant on 34th Street in New York. My 18th birthday was August 10, 1963. I was working there on August 28, the day of the great March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Martin Luther King, and I was working there on November 22, when Kennedy got killed. Most of the waitresses were Irish and the whole restaurant came to a halt. People were crying all around me. I was fired soon after because, one, I was a lousy waitress and complained about my tips. And I also complained about hearing about Kennedy incessantly. It was driving me insane—you couldn’t escape it. But even still, as poor as my typing was, I gave it a try and was able to go out the next day and get a job in a little print shop in the Bowery that paid $72.00 a week—cash. Newly married, our rent was $75.00 a month and my husband, a union house painter, made much more than me, although his work was seasonal.

Now, young people need to be able to go into debt in order to qualify for a rental unit that will cost half their monthly income! They’d better be able to qualify for a credit card or a car loan and to withstand a credit check (which they will likely have to pay for themselves) when applying to rent an apartment! This leaves them either straitjacketed to credit before they are even out on their own, and, hence, to their low-paid multiple jobs, or out in the streets selling drugs to get the cash for what they need.

For black youth the depression is already here. Their communities are police-occupied and more go to prison than to college.

Kids, you’re on your own

Our youth have no unified voice. They must fend for themselves. Their parents can give them little help—except, perhaps, by babysitting their children. We mustn’t minimize this tremendous problem, because more than half of the children born today are born into single-parent families that have no one but the grandparents to look after them, while the parents do whatever they can to earn the money to feed them. If you have no family to help with the kids, there’s always your car in the parking lot at your jobsite: in other words, you’re on your own. Often your kids are on their own, with older siblings taking care of the younger ones.

This is the effect of multi-tiered pay-scales—whether you work for a union shop or not. All kinds of jobs have multi-tiered pay-scales, where far fewer employees fall into the higher pay-scale category. Young people today make about half what their parents made, adjusting for inflation, and are working even more hours, and fewer have any benefits at all.

Meanwhile, prices have risen. Rents and medical bills are through the roof. The higher costs of real food—fresh meats, produce and dairy products—makes the higher calorie content of fast foods the practical option for the working poor—unhealthy, but affordable. More bang for your buck.

In an interview with Michael Polan entitled, “The Cornification of Food,” broadcast December 4, 2007, by radio station KLCC in Portland, Oregon, he pointed out:

“You can get something like 1,200 calories for a dollar in the snack food aisle and only 250 in produce. You can get 875 calories of soda for $1 and only 170 calories of real fruit juice, of orange juice. So you see, our Darwinian inheritance is to get as much energy with as little expenditure as possible. This is what we’re programmed to do as a species. If you don’t have a lot of money, the way to do that is to eat badly.”

And what of the lives of little kids—today’s grandchildren? They can’t even go out and play. Their only socialization is in school, under restriction and supervision. They have no freedom. They are always being watched, and yet when they’re home from school they are completely ignored, often left alone and cooped up in their homes by parents who have to work long hours.

They live virtual lives in front of the TV or playing video games. They talk to or text-message their friends over the phones if have them. They don’t climb trees or play by the edge of a pond catching frogs, or even hang out in front of the ice cream parlor. Those things exist for them only in the virtual world. They virtually play over the telephone and on MySpace.

There’s an article in the March/April 2007 issue of Orion magazine, entitled “Leave No Child Inside,” about the reduction of attention deficit disorder (ADD) among kids who get to go out and play in nature with other kids. It turns out that letting kids have this opportunity for 30 minutes a day eliminates the need for any ADD drugs. Who’d’a thunk? But most kids rarely get this chance.

“Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience their neighborhoods and the natural world has changed radically. Even as children and teenagers become more aware of global threats to the environment, their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading. As one suburban fifth grader put it to me, in what has become the signature epigram of the children-and-nature movement: ‘I like to play indoors better ’cause that’s where all the electrical outlets are.’. . . In a typical week, only 6 percent of children ages nine to thirteen play outside on their own. Studies by the National Sporting Goods Association and by American Sports Data, a research firm, show a dramatic decline in the past decade in such outdoor activities as swimming and fishing. Even bike riding is down 31 percent since 1995. In San Diego, according to a survey by the nonprofit Aquatic Adventures, 90 percent of inner-city kids do not know how to swim; 34 percent have never been to the beach.... Studies at the University of Illinois show that time in natural settings significantly reduces symptoms of attention-deficit (hyperactivity) disorder in children as young as age five. The research also shows the experience helps reduce negative stress and protects psychological well-being, especially in children undergoing the most stressful life events.”

Our youth are cooped-up, criminalized, incarcerated, unemployed and underemployed, underpaid, undereducated, and neglected by parents who have to work two and three jobs just to pay the rent and bring home the Mickey D’s, and who must also neglect themselves, their health, and their well-being. Their children have become society’s disposable children! They have become disposable slaves.

They have no champions. They have no hope. To them, the world’s gone to hell in a hand-basket and their own parents haven’t been able to do a damn thing to stop it, let alone make it better even for themselves, or to show them a way to improve their lives.

According to an article that appeared in The New York Times of January 16, 2008, “Blue-Collar Jobs Disappear, Taking Families’ Way of Life Along,” by Erik Eckholm, about job loss in Jackson, Ohio,

“Throughout the state, the percentage of families living below the poverty line—just over $20,000 for a family of four last year—rose slightly from 14 percent in 2005 to 16 percent in 2007, one study found. But equally striking is the rise in younger working families struggling above that line. The numbers are more dismal in the southeastern Appalachian part of the state, where 32 percent of families lived below the poverty line in 2007, according to the study, and 56 percent lived with incomes less than $40,000 for a family of four.

“‘These younger workers should be the backbone of the economy,’ said Shiloh Turner, study director for the Health Foundation of Greater Cincinnati, which conducted the surveys. But in parts of Ohio, Ms. Turner said, half or more ‘are barely making ends meet.’ . . . ‘As $15-an-hour factory jobs are replaced by $7- or $8-an-hour retail jobs, more men in their 30s and 40s are moving in with their parents or grandparents,’ said Cheryl Thiessen, the director of Jackson/Vinton Community Action, which runs medical, fuel and other aid programs in Jackson and Vinton Counties.

“‘Other unemployed or low-wage workers, some with families, find themselves staying with one relative after another,’ Ms. Thiessen said, ‘serially wearing out their welcome.’

“‘A lot of major employers have left, and the town is drying up,’ Ms. Thiessen said of Jackson. ‘We’re starting to lose small shops, too—Hallmark, the jewelry and shoe stores, the movie theater and most of the grocery stores.’

“Shari Joos, 45, a married mother of four boys in nearby Wellston, said, ‘If you don’t work at Wal-Mart, the only job you can get around here is in fast food.’

“Between her husband’s factory job and her intermittent work, they made $30,000 a year in the best of times, Mrs. Joos said. Since last fall, when her husband was laid off by the Merillat cabinet factory, which downsized to one shift a day from three, keeping anywhere near that income required Mrs. Joos to take a second job. She works at a school cafeteria each weekday from 9:30 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. and then drives to Wal-Mart, where she relaxes in her car before starting her 2:00-to-10:00 p.m. shift at the deli counter.

“Her 20-year-old son went to college for two years, earning an associate degree in information science, but cannot find any jobs nearby. He still works at McDonald’s and lives at home as he ponders whether to move to a distant city, as most local college graduates must. Her 22-year-old son works at Burger King and lives with his grandparents—‘That was his way of moving out,’ Mrs. Joos said.”

Our youth are a giant tinderbox waiting to explode. They have very few opportunities left to them—no home loans, no credit cards, nor decent jobs that pay more than the streets. Many of our children are living in fight-or-flight mode all the time, looking for whatever they can to bolt themselves out of this bleak reality.

Those who are addicted to drugs and/or have criminal records are 75 percent likely to be unemployable. And those numbers are increasing at a phenomenal rate. Prisons are a booming business and education and rehabilitation are becoming more and more expensive and, in fact, unavailable to those who need it the most. Drastic cuts have been and still are being made to drug-rehab clinics that cater to the poor and uninsured.

The working class throughout the world is being pushed further and further toward the brink as the newer generations come of age. That’s what it means when they say the gap between the rich and poor is widening.

Will a kinder and gentler capitalism be able to save the day?

The capitalists and their puppet politicians are not even claiming that. The candidates—all of them—are saying how the American people have had it too good. That we all have to learn to tighten our belts. It’s just that none of this applies to those who have all the money. And everyone in the world knows that. It’s flaunted all over the mass media, on the movie screens, and on the TV—the wealthy draped in their diamonds and designer gowns coyly sporting $30,000 purses; the Forbes 500 moving into the billion-dollar range; the CEOs and their billion-dollar bonuses. Everyone knows about these things, even if they’re selling drugs to their friends in the streets or chatting behind bars in jail.

The question is, what politics will capture the imagination, hope, and hearts of our youth? What politics will offer them a way out of this miserable future? What politics will offer them the strength to change the world for the better for everyone? What politics will make it crystal clear to them that such change is in their own self-interest as well as in the interests of everyone and the planet itself, if they take that power into their own hands and out of the hands of the capitalist class?

Socialism—a world socialist revolution to abolish capitalism and establish a planned economy that serves human needs rather than private profit—is the answer that will secure the gift of a thriving future for all.

Everything has changed for the lives of our children except the one, most fundamental reality: capitalism and its inexorable road back to barbarism. Modern capitalism will pull itself out of the impending worldwide economic crisis of the falling rate of profit—enough to appease the working class—or it won’t. The thing is, to our young people, it sure looks like it won’t. In fact, to our youth it looks like there will be no future.

There is a way out of capitalism’s greed, chaos and inevitable degeneration to barbarism. It is clearly outlined and spelled out in the rich legacy of Marxist literature. These words by Leon Trotsky from his book, The Revolution Betrayed, illustrate the human sentiment behind the transformation of society from a for-private-profit mode of production to production for the satisfaction of the needs and wants of all. Trotsky said :

“The hypocrisy of prevailing opinion develops everywhere and always as the square, or cube, of the social conditions. Such approximately is the historic law of ideology translated into the language of mathematics. Socialism, if it is worthy of the name, means human relations without greed, friendship without envy and intrigue, love without base calculation.”

Socialism will be the evolutionary leap in human social relations that will end human slavery in every form because it is based on human solidarity and love. A worldwide socialist revolution is the gift that we, the world’s working class, can open for our children and grandchildren and the future of humankind. We have only our chains to lose and a world to gain!