KARL MARX USED to say that unemployed people were capitalism’s reserve army. Though he didn’t invent the term, he meant that capitalism drew its strength from this army, standing at the ready to take a worker’s job if the current one didn’t like it. If unemployment levels are high enough, bosses can pay lower wages and treat workers poorly. If one of them quits, there are plenty more in reserve. But if the reserve army is depleted — if the economy is at full employment, and everybody who wants a job has one — then bosses can’t treat workers as disposable, and they can’t indulge their racism and sexism in the same way.
A boss who treats women or people of color poorly, or refuses to hire them, is at a supreme disadvantage if there’s no reserve army.
Think back to World War II, when unemployment evaporated in order to meet the demands of the war effort. Rosie the Riveter didn’t get her job as the result of a social movement on behalf of gender equity on the factory floor. She got it because factories needed bodies and had less ability to indulge their sexism. Full employment takes power out of the hands of bosses who use it to discriminate and gives power to workers to make demands — and if those demands aren’t met, they have the freedom to work elsewhere.
That theory about unemployment in a capitalist economy is relevant to how analysts are pulling apart the two-day collapse of the stock market that began Friday, and its subsequent wild swings. Market watchers have said flat-out that the crash was triggered by a new jobs report released Friday that showed that wages, nearly a decade into the recovery, might finally be starting to rise.
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