E. P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class relates the story of a Manchester silk weaver who, in 1835, complained of being subjugated to the urgent demands of the market. This skilled artisan observed how capitalists determined the pace at which they worked, while workers faced externally imposed timelines. “Labour,” the weaver lamented, “is always carried to market by those who have nothing else to keep or to sell, and who, therefore, must part with it immediately.” Rejecting any comparison of workers and capitalists, he stated, “if I, in an imitation of the capitalist” refused to sell what I have “because an inadequate price is offered me for it, can I bottle it? Can I lay it up in salt?” No, he bitterly answered, “labour cannot by any possibility be stored, but must be every instant sold or every instant lost.”
It did not take Marx’s later dictum that workers are free in a “double sense”—to work or to starve—to explain the distinction between income and wealth to the silk weaver. Wealth is an asset, providing a buffer against unexpected shocks in the short term and economic security in the long run. On the other hand, labor (the means to one’s income) expires as soon as it stops. There is no way to store labor—to “bottle it” or “lay it up in salt”—thus working people navigate a series of urgent demands on their time and well-being.
It is this unequal capacity to secure a future, design reliable plans, and make credible promises that defines our era, not merely the inequality of income and wealth. Working people are confined in an interminable present, unable to escape the short-term demands of rent, debt, and food; illiquidity looms large and overshadows daily life. In stark contrast, corporations and the rich are able to contend with the threat of illiquidity, relying on past savings and expected future income to ensure their survival. We have long recognized that the working class is spatially confined and cruelly underpaid; we must also emphasize that they simultaneously struggle under timelines they do not choose.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of this reality, as U.S. corporations securely projected their futures in ways workers could not. In the first half of 2020 major corporations raised more than $1 trillion in cash to ride out the COVID-19 shock. These “war chests” of liquidity stand in contrast to the short timelines and punitive costs inflicted on citizens facing similar crises. Government policies allowed some corporations to leverage their market power and acquire the liquidity necessary to weather the storm. In many cases this corporate funding came with no immediate demands for repayment, as corporate bonds are often “bullet” coupons with the principle paid only at the end (rather than accruing over the course of the debt). Working people—many of whom were fired by the same companies receiving government assistance—were granted no such option. The credit card debt or payday loans that they might use for rent or basic goods after losing work quickly surpassed what little savings they might have had. Meanwhile wealthy people—able to work from home but prohibited from taking vacations—saw substantial rises in their savings, as spending declined and income remained more or less stable.
Working people around the world remain imprisoned on short-term horizons, unable to plan and organize along reliable timeframes available to those better off. In imagining and building a more just economy, we must think beyond merely raising wages and improving job security. A just economy necessitates the redistribution of assets and credibility, so working people can craft timelines on which they are equipped to make productive investments. Working people must have the means to choose and create their own futures. Without this, it will be impossible to build healthy communities and humane economies.
In the contemporary U.S. economy, a host of public policies—from retirement planning to credit subsidies—unequally dictate Americans’ futures. For example, consider how the tax code has historically subsidized college savings: it promotes the future well-being of the relatively comfortable (the families who expect their children to go to college and can afford to put money away for it), while doing little for the families who cannot set money aside for college plans. For those who must borrow money to pay college tuition, the monthly schedule of student debt disciplines and controls near-term horizons. In a recent study of student debt among middle-class families, Caitlin Zaloom details how the necessity of families to borrow against expected earnings erodes “the right to the future”—the autonomy to direct one’s life in a way that is not restricted by the “inequities and errors of the past.” Indeed, student debt disproportionately circumscribes futures for minoritized people in the United States, as it often overlaps with other forms of deprivation.