Our Not-So-Great Depression

What shall we call this era marked by a jobs desert and a future of austerity as far as the eye can see? If the 1930s was the Great Depression, is this the Not-So-Great Depression? The Little Depression That Could?

I’m no economics guru and I’ve needed the aid of David Harvey’s online video school to help me through Marx’s Capital (which rocks, by the way), but it strikes me that we may not have hit bottom yet. In fact, after my weekend in Rochester, NY, speaking at a Revolutionary Ideas of Karl Marx conference I’m beginning to think that the Empire in decline may be worse than its ascendance.

Considering that on the way up the U.S. Empire spread racial segregation and nuked hundreds of thousands to assert it hegemony at the end of a global conflagration, admitting things could get worse is really saying something.

Rochester itself is a perfect laboratory of imperial descent. The state’s third-largest metropolitan area after NYC and Buffalo, with a population of nearly a quarter of a million, Rochester was once a boomtown.

It was also home to ex-slave, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. The airport has kindly given a nod to this historic significance by naming a terminal after the greatest American orator of the nineteenth century. Somehow leading 4 million chattel slaves to freedom ought to earn a man more than an unremarkable structure of seats and Dunkin’ Donuts along a tarmac, but there’s a certain imperial poetry to it, too.

Kodak, Xerox and Bausch and Lomb—titans of American technical know-how—are headquartered here and it seems somehow fitting that the company whose name is synonymous with copies built a singularly hideous skyscraper known to its employees as “Toner Tower.”

Aesthetics aside, because there really are some charming aspects to this town along Lake Ontario, its corporate fortunes, like the nation’s, are in terminal decline.

Kodak, which employed 60,000 people worldwide in 1982, today employs 20,000, about 7,400 in Rochester. The Association of Retired Xerox Employees, who were guaranteed lifetime health care benefits, are currently suing the company for stripping 25 percent of them of their promised health care supplemental coverage. Keep in mind that despite the company’s precipitous decline, it still takes in $15 billion a year, $1 billion of which are profits. The top suits—led by a Black woman, Ursula Burns—haul in $23 million annually in salary and benefits.

Burns’ hairdresser informed me at a party Saturday evening that the CEO personally makes $10 million a year, which is a slight brag according to the records. The nation’s only Fortune 500 Black female CEO actually makes only $9.9 million. I certainly don’t begrudge a Black woman of equal pay with the big white boys, but really does any executive on the planet work so much harder than their chemists and engineers that they deserve 150 times their skilled labor’s salaries?

One human indicator of a city in decline is always its crime rate, which young workers I met there discuss with an air of fascination and fear. Violent assaults and murder are anywhere from twice to three-and-a-half times the national average. One resident even took an old 1963 Rochester Gas & Electric film of municipal boosterism and made a lovely spoof of it showing the boarded up homes, crime and general scenes of urban decay.

But if there are signs of hope in this downward spiral, they are to be found among the workers of nearby Mott’s who recently waged a 121-day strike. As Brian Lenzo, a young socialist at the conference who walked the Mott’s picket line in solidarity put it, “All they wanted to do was make applesauce without getting a pay cut at a profitable company.” Workers did stop the proposed $1.50 an hour wage reduction and pension elimination, but despite the company’s healthy profits management still squeezed a pay freeze and other concessions out of their employees.

The turnouts at these socialist speaking events are growing among students and young workers, in particular, anxious to discuss how to build a fightback. And no wonder. One young woman who attended college, Chelsea, mentioned before my talk on Fighting the Right that after months of unemployment landing a Wal-Mart job for $8.20 an hour, 60 cents less than she was making before, seems like a relief, but a soul-sucking one.

Nobody who attends these gatherings has any illusions that things will bounce back. They don’t imagine themselves ever owning a home and most would be thrilled to just score a decent job with health benefits—though being able to move out of mom and dad’s place would be a great start.

This Not-So-Great Depression is a stage in what is likely to be a drawn-out process of decline, but its volatility is not just growing a batshit crazy right. It is starting to conjure a left into existence as well.

SHERRY WOLF is the author of Sexuality and Socialism. She blogs at Sherry Talks Back.