Long before one line of NAFTA was written, manufacturing in the United States was dying. Not just factory after factory was shuttered, but entire industries were shipped out of the country, until virtually noting remained. While it is not part of this discussion, as manufacturing left, the strength of unions bled out onto the broken foundations of the dead factory floors. By the 1970’s there was already the movement from an Industrial to Post Industrial society, and the burning question was ‘Could a society that produced nothing survive?’ (Something that is still a viable question) However, the question that was not raised until much later was ‘Can the middle class survive?’
Big business, meaning manufacturing at that point, saw cheaper labor outside the country and they picked up and moved. It was a move facilitated by Congress lowering import tariffs so that these same businesses did not lose their profits when bringing those self-same products back into the US for sale.
Manufacturing, and most particularly, the unions, created an environment of the ‘good job.’ Namely, a 40 hour work week with job security and benefits (sick leave, vacation, health insurance, and more). They were jobs that paid above, not just minimum wage, but ‘living wage.’ Workers in many factories were ‘blue collar’ workers, but they made middle class wages, and many of them were able to send their children to college. For them however, a high school education pretty much set them for life – and that education was free.
As manufacturing went, union membership dropped, and wages started dropping with them. Enter formal globalization with the passage of NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) that allowed the movement of goods and materials relatively freely between Canada, the United States, and Mexico. There were massive concerns about the loss of even more of manufacturing, and the relatively good paying jobs that it provided, being lost to Mexico (where labor was cheaper and environmental regulations almost nonexistent). While workers were promised new and better ‘good jobs’ that were ‘clean’, the promise never materialized.
As we moved through the end of the 1990s and into the new century, household income continued to drop and the big losers of the death of US manufacturing were white male workers who lost almost 25 cents on the dollar in wages. Further, as economic crises cracked down, big business took another bite out of the workforce by virtually eliminating ‘middle management’ – thereby dislocating hundreds of thousands of college educated workers with strong middle class resumes, most of whom were white males. Most never found equivalent ‘replacement jobs’ either. National insecurity was so high that almost everyone had at least one person in their intimate circle (family or close friends) who had lost their job.
Before I go forward, let me take a small digression. One might ask why the erosion of the middle class did not happen much sooner than the 1990s and beyond, given that both ‘good jobs’ and decent pay evaporated at an escalating rate. The answer is relatively easy – first women’s wages and then multiple jobs. The primary ‘winners’ of the manufacturing revolution, and of unionization, were white males. Except for select industries (clothing) most factories were white male dominated, as was mining (the major extractive sector). When one looked at ‘family wage,’ for much of the population, that wage was one person’s and that person was male. The poor, including the overwhelming majority of people of color, already had all hands on deck with all available workers working.
As men’s jobs eroded, disappeared, and replacement jobs were downgraded, women (particularly white women) entered the workforce. This additional money stabilized the fall of family income and allowed the maintenance of both the working and middle classes, and even the lower rungs of the upper class. Women’s jobs went from the infamous ‘pin money’ (that little bit extra for special occasions) to significantly important to the stability of family income. When the erasure of middle management hit, women’s contributions remained, but were woefully inadequate to keep most families in their class, and everyone began to slide. For the nerds among you, if you look at household income data in the U.S. prior to 1980, most family income was single income (male), and forward from 1980 increasingly family income was two wage earners.
As an aside within an aside, and because it has always pissed me off, the Christian conservatives have long harped on how wrong it was for women to work outside the home, and that women were somehow following their own selfish pursuits in leaving the home (though they did not shed wife and mother responsibilities in doing so). This argument of the ‘voluntary’ self-pursuit so dominated the narrative that many women felt tremendously guilty for working. Women were saving their families. When the middle management ax struck, women’s labor was all that saved many families, even if they slid in class.
What I am describing here is the constant erosion of the economic stability of the PEOPLE of the United States. However, it has pretty consistently been boom times for big business. As they ‘off-shored’ jobs, increasingly high skilled jobs (technology, medical, general office) as well as manufacturing, they argued that they needed to do so to be ‘economically competitive.’ They claimed that the American workforce was too expensive. Bull Shit! What changed was that their profit margins got larger and larger. Meanwhile, the minimum wage was largely stuck (and some states have no minimum wage) and people’s ability to survive on their pay eroded to the point that the so-called ‘safety net’ began to subsidize the low wage employers – like Wal-mart. At one point (and I imagine it is still true though employees have fought for and won some concessions) most Wal-mart employees were eligible for food stamps and medicaid. Yes, there are millions of people working full time in this country who are eligible (and desperately need) food, housing subsidies, and healthcare access. Think about that as the Republicons rush to cut all three.
First, let me give a novel, though I think accurate, definition of ‘globalization.’ Globalization is the exploitation of both natural resources and human beings by primarily ‘white’ nations. This has been changing of late, but with the exception of China, the rewards of globalization still accrue to white nations and businesses even when nonwhites are the proximal hands of control.
Globalization is nothing new. It is just the form it takes that change over time – at least thus far. The primary purposes of agreements like NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of GATT (there is a long history on GATT that goes beyond the scope of this discussion) was to ‘liberalize’ the movement of goods (and then certain services and investment) across national boundaries. They were also meant to do something else that was very important – keep workforces in place. In other words, to block immigration – the relatively free movement of people across borders. Why?
If we look at early globalization, you had Western European nations launching out on voyages of exploration, exploitation, and conquest. Soon, flag planting and land claiming began, and a flow of colonizers followed. Indigenous populations were sometimes worked with (for a while), fought, or enslaved. Resources were exploited, goods produced, and returned to the homelands of the colonizers.
The next wave of globalization came when the colonizers brought immigrants into their stolen lands to provide additional labor as the colonizers could not breed quickly enough to produce the desired levels of profit. The U.S. was nicely positioned to pull a supplemental workforce back and forth across its southern border, and it did so – repeatedly.
The next wave of globalization held workforces in place, and sent the work to them. However, imported labor (immigrants) were still needed as a cheaper and more vulnerable workforce than the native workforce. In the United States, this meant a workforce that was cheaper than even the already highly underpaid African, Hispanic, and Native American workers (of both sexes).
Then the plan of largely holding workforces in place and having them bid each other into the sub-basement began to fall apart. At first, the huge inequality between exploited nations vis a vis exploiting nations drew waves of immigrants into the lands of the colonizers. Then the desire to control natural resources (and the populations surrounding them) created bloody conflict of all sorts. Bound together with environmental issues (such as extended drought or rising sea levels) immigration was not the real issue. The flow of people along the historic economic lines, was a flow of refugees – most who had nothing but the clothes on their backs and families in tow.
Here and Now
What we have seen happening in so called “Western societies” is the mobilizing of white nationalism that is vehemently against both immigrants and refugees. There seems to be a pro-business, but anti-globalization sentiment, but one can’t help but wonder if all of this is being scripted. Contemporary globalization became undermined by two basic forces. One was that people were ‘escaping’ their national containment and therefore ruining the workforce competition strategy. Second, was the “wall” that was hit with global financial markets and their interlinkage. Global finance created a ‘brave new world’ financially, and none of the old strategies for stabilizing (or even manipulating) national markets worked. A crash in a major market from Brazil’s crash during B. Clinton’s administration, to the US housing crash from ‘liberalizing’ finance (started under B. Clinton). Whatever lessons were not learned from the collapse of Brazil were quadrupled in the crash of 2007-2008.
The losses of this final blow knocked another huge segment of the population out of not just the middle class, but the working class. A workforce that had filled the white collar positions were suddenly surviving at the lower end of the labor pool – fast food and Wal-mart. They did (do) not care for the conditions, and there has been a resurgence of unionization and mobilization for better wages and conditions. They have had more success, but also gotten better press, than earlier inhabitants of those jobs. I believe because ignoring them would have had a real knock on their customer base.
A new form of entrepreneurship (still largely white) rents out part of one’s home to vacationing strangers (Air BnB), or using their own cars as cabs (Uber) has become yet another survival strategy – largely for the remainder of the middle class, and for those too old to compete in the labor market.
The white nationalist movements sweeping the Western European racial groups come with built in biases to remove the ‘constraints’ on business and finance. While promising that this will make great (again), the elite already know that they are structuring yet another economic coup against the citizens of their various nations. Cynically, they promote “law and order”; increasing police forces and the use of more extreme measures. “Others”, both foreign and domestic are scapegoated to direct hostility away from the elite. Realizing this may spill over into something larger, they also promote radically building up their militaries, always a lucrative venture.
The elite are attempting to do two things with their current strategies. One is a globalization ‘reboot’ by closing the borders and creating discrete, exploitable, competitive labor forces again. The second goal is to get a much stronger and direct grasp to control populations.
Welcome to the club, United States.