This year marks the 200th anniversary of the end of the movement known as Luddism. In 1814, in Nottingham, England, the last of the violent protests by the workers calling themselves Luddites took place, with stockingers attacking manufacturers who were paying below customary wages, destroying their knitting-frames with large sledge-hammers.
In retaliation, the authorities of the city captured two members of an association they assumed to be Luddite, prosecuted and imprisoned them, and a few months later shot dead one of the Luddites trying to break some more frames in retaliation.
Luddism, the effort of the working- men of middle England to resist the machinery and manufacturers that were sweeping away their lives under the imperative of the Industrial Revolution, was effectively dead.
Two hundred years later, 2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the North American Free Trade Agreement, informally known as NAFTA, which was just celebrated by the three continental presidents in Mexico last week. It ushered in a score of years in which unemployment increased, the middle class decreased, manufacturing was decimated, the high-wage jobs for those of medium skills disappeared, and the promised high-tech jobs were a mirage. The America of middle-class prosperity that had been the norm since the end of World War II, swept away by the imperative of globalism, was effectively dead.
You may remember that in the Clinton era we were promised that it wouldn't matter that we would be shipping off manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico since high technology would more than make up for that. The "I.T. revolution" would automatically supply jobs for skilled workers in the U.S. since they possessed skills that the rest of the world had not yet developed.
Well, a few people were employed by the high tech industries, but not nearly enough to make up for the manufacturing jobs lost. Computer employment was around 3 million in 1994, increased to 3.5 million in 2000, and was about 4.1 million in 2013 - a gain of a little over a million. In the meantime, manufacturing lost nearly 4 million jobs, from 17 million in 1994 to 13.5 million projected for this year.
Remember Ross Perot talking about "that giant sucking noise" in 1992, meaning the manufacturing job loss to Mexico and China? He was mocked by the mainstream economists, but look at who was right. Apple, the model high tech firm, employs some 50,000 people in the U.S., though a great many of them have nothing to do with high technology except selling it, a figure that has gone up from 10,000 in 2002, according to Apple figures. At the same time it employs 700,000 people to manufacture its machines in China. A gain in 40,000 American jobs doesn't seem like much compared to that.
The impact of a diminishing middle class has been slow over the last 20 years, but it has become glaringly obvious at least since the Great Recession.
And finally, earlier this month The New York Times acknowledged that "the middle class is steadily eroding." It pointed out that "the effects of this phenomenon are now rippling through one sector after another in the American economy, from retailers and restaurants to hotels, casinos and even appliance makers."
The evidence is everywhere. High-end Las Vegas is booming, low-end Atlantic City stagnant. Sears and J.C. Penney are closing stores across the country and may not last long, while Nordstrom and Nieman Marcus are doing fine. Red Lobster and Olive Garden, middle-class stalwarts, have both lost customers steadily since 2005. The Times concluded, "The customer base for businesses that appeal to the middle class is shrinking as the top tier pulls even further away."
It's no news by now that, as the old song put it, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, though this was greatly exaggerated by the so-called "stimulus" to the financial giants and Wall Street, and the subsequent "quantitative easing" from 2007 to date. These government gifts effectively sealed the fate of the middle class for the enrichment of the financial world.
A recent study has found that the top 5 percent of earners in America in 1992 accounted for 27 percent of all domestic consumption, 31 percent in 2002, and 38 percent in 2012 - which is to say that today roughly 40 per cent of the economy is eaten up by a tiny minority at the top. Worse still, since 2009 the amount of their spending has increased by 17 percent - the rest of us, by 1 percent.
There is no doubt that the global economy has been good for some people in the last two decades, but not at all for the great majority. The promise that each country would be successful in doing what it did best, and that Americans would benefit from being able to buy cheaply from developing countries, has proved to be hollow.
Without a job, or with a job that pays poorly, you can't buy much stuff even if it's made in China. And it has now come about that 66 percent of the wage earners earn less than the national average wage of $41,000, so it's hard to think of them celebrating globalization.
It's now commonplace for politicians - it's a standard for President Barack Obama - to promise to do this and that for the middle class.
Don't bother, pols. There is no more middle class.
Kirkpatrick Sale, a resident of Mount Pleasant, is the author of a dozen books, including "Rebels Against the Future: The Luddites and Their War on the Industrial Revolution."
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