There’s an accelerational aspect to capitalism that – quite conveniently for capital – is invisible to people living within the system. It is as felt by the subjects of capital as it is unseen. It is destructive, yet unopposed.
The acceleration is not toward the future, not toward something better and more equal, not toward a system with less life-shortening drudgery. Capitalism’s acceleration is defined by its requirement to devour new parts of society with every passing day, month, year. To survive, the system – like a cancer – must spread. It takes over parts of our lives, piece by piece, until our every waking moment is in service to capital. You’re working two jobs. Now three. Now four. Every spare second is dedicated to forging another revenue stream that might pay the bills, or if you’re lucky, provide for a short vacation. There is no time to think of life, or what it means, or what it doesn't mean. There is no time to admire the stillness of that tree or the jarring innocence in your child’s eyes or the chirping of the bird overhead because money must be made, and made quickly, or you will die.
Capital’s everlasting expansion requires the plundering of the earth until the planet is no longer inhabitable. It requires the spilling of poison into the air and water every second of every day. It requires blowing off the tops of mountains. It requires killing a million species in exchange for condos with central air.
The life of every single person must be dedicated to capital’s perpetual expansion. It is the reason for your existence. Every moment of your childhood prepared you for life as a soldier sworn to expanding capital. You’re in the foxhole, progressing inch by inch in the name of capital, which must grow or die. And we’re told that if capital dies, we die too.
Capital’s acceleration has recently taken on a more brutal but predictable phase: It requires our children in order to continue this expansion, and Americans have largely obliged.
Where once we said no, you may not have our children – they are to learn and play, not work – today we offer them up as sacrifices at the altar of capital. Republican-led state legislatures have taken marching orders from far-right think tanks over the past 18 months to loosen or altogether undo child labor laws that had been in place since the glorious progressive advances of the New Deal. You see, capital needs more cheap labor, and it is our job to supply capital with these new, underpaid resources. Poor folks weren’t enough. Immigrants weren’t enough. Capital now needs the children. So vile politicians like Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee smile their idiot grins and sign legislation that will put the kids to work, maybe at a fast food joint, maybe at a factory, maybe at some unregulated business where children can and will be exploited in the most nightmarish ways.
Ten state legislatures, all led by Republican majorities, have introduced or passed legislation over the past year rolling back child labor regulations. Meanwhile, minors employed in violation of federal child labor laws have spiked by 37 percent since the start of 2022. Led by pro-business groups bent on exploiting cheap labor, these efforts are undoing the hard, bloody work of progressive activists and lawmakers of a century ago.
There was a time, not too long ago, when Americans agreed that kids should not labor, but rather learn and play and develop. They would spend their entire adult lives serving capital; let them have a while to be human beings.
Just as American adults no longer have time to be human, so too have children lost that luxury. The rolling back of child labor laws is the bleakest development in a nonstop series of bleak developments in this dystopian century. And like every other horrifying development, this one is dressed up in the legalese of state’s rights, from which all bad-faith politics spring.
Child Labor Is Bad. There’s No Alternative Opinion.
Traditional media outlets, whipped into submission by the American right wing over the past half century, are covering the repeal of child labor laws as a both-sides issue, just as they do with abortion rights and voting rights and myriad other issues that cannot and should not be debated in a real democracy with universal rights. Some people believe kids should rise and grind and work their asses off rather than seek an education, the media report. Others disagree. Now we go to Bob with the weather.
The left – or really, anyone interested in defending children from the enclosing fangs of the business world – should be apoplectic about the Republican push to get kids into the workplace. We should take notes from Supreme Court Justice Wendell Holmes, who was fucking furious when he issued his dissent against a 1918 Court ruling that struck down the federal government’s ability to regulate child labor. "But if there is any matter upon which civilized countries have agreed—it is the evil of premature and excessive child labor,” Holmes said, rejecting the legal notion that the federal government had no say in state governments running roughshod over the well being of American citizens.
Our collective lack of historical context has muted our fury over the right wing’s attack on children (rest assured, the right despises children; their whining about protecting kids from trans health care is purely performative and, as always, in bad faith). A century ago, left-wing activists and journalists worked like hell to expose the conditions under which American children were working. These kids, yanked from school at an early age, were the most exploited workers in the country before Congress and the courts were forced to take action and end the barbaric practice of child labor.
Lewis Hine, a muckraker photographer in the 1920s and 1930s, documented the lives of child laborers, particularly in the South. He did so despite threats against his life by bosses and labor union officials who desperately did not want the public to know about the kids toiling until they passed out from exhaustion or, in some cases, lost limbs in factories.
Over and over, Hine saw children working sixty and seventy-hour weeks, by day and by night, often under hazardous conditions. He saw children caught in a cycle of poverty, with parents often so ill-paid that they could not support a family on their earnings alone, and had to rely on their children's earnings as a supplement for the family's survival. He saw children growing up stunted mentally (illiterate or barely able to read because their jobs kept them out of school) and physically (from lack of fresh air, exercise, and time to relax and play). He saw countless children who had been injured and permanently disabled on the job; he knew that, in the cotton mills for example, children had accident rates three times those of adults.
Frances Perkins, the first woman cabinet member and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s secretary of labor, worked tirelessly to limit and eventually stop the immoral practice of child labor before her rise to prominence and, importantly, once she was in a position of power. As an activist, Perkins successfully lobbied New York’s state lawmakers to limit the workweek for kids and women to 54 hours. That might not seem like a win to our modern eyes, but it most definitely was a victory for workers across the state.
Perkins bemoaned the lives of children working 12 or 14 hours a day, sometimes in factories where they could see grown men playing golf while they wasted their youth in a dirty, dangerous workplace. When FDR asked Perkins to join his cabinet, she would agree only on the condition that she could work to establish a forty-hour workweek, a minimum wage, worker’s compensation, unemployment compensation, direct federal aid for unemployment relief, Social Security, a revitalized public employment service, and, of course, a federal law banning child labor – one that could not be usurped by bad actors at the state level.
And in 1938, under the statutes of the Fair Labor Standards Act, child labor was abolished in the United States. Perkins and her allies had won a resounding victory against big business, and on a larger scale, the creep of capitalism. Generations of American kids got to be kids rather than workers thanks to the left-wing, anti-capitalist campaign to end child labor. It’s easy to understand history when there are clear good guys and bad guys. Folks on the right just happen to always play the latter.
Today, as the vast right-wing project to dismantle the gains of the 20th century enters a new phase, we have American politicians pining for the days when children would be “free” to toil for little or no money instead of attending school or, I don’t know, playing with their friends. We have Republican governors and congressional lawmakers well-actuallying child labor laws. In a functional democratic republic responsive to the populace, they would not dare take such a stance. In our gerrymandered nightmare political system, they can say whatever they want with zero political price, even something as deeply immoral as, “Maybe Dickensian England wasn’t so bad.”
You might point out that child labor law violations never really stopped. And that’s true: Just this week, the U.S. Labor Department penalized 17 Sonic locations in Kansas for employing underage workers. The department, usually under Democratic administrations, has repeatedly slapped businesses on the wrist for hiring people under 18 to work long hours, usually for minimum wage. In April, a New York Times investigation showed the Biden administration had ignored thousands of child labor workplace violations as businesses employed migrants pouring into the country (the one Biden administration official who raised concerns about migrant kids being released to caretakers who would put them to work was quickly railroaded).
Migrant children had been found working with industrial equipment or caustic chemicals with little or no training. They were working early mornings and late nights. One migrant child told NYT that his sponsor refused to enroll him in school and said he would have to work in order to eat. The Times’ report is a horror show without equal.
Instead of condemning the illegal employment of these kids, Republican legislators in states across the country have instead made it legal for businesses to exploit them. They saw kids working and said, yes, that’s good – that should happen more often. That the repeal of child labor laws is in line with the interests of corporate masters who fund Republican campaigns is no coincidence. This, like every conservative attack on a dignified life in the United States, is well coordinated, well funded, and nearly impossible to stop unless well-meaning people in power wield said power against these devious plans. Children have to be defended against capital. They stand no chance otherwise.
The left can’t engage with anyone who would dare make an argument that children should be put to work. You can’t shame the shameless, and you shouldn’t try. The pushback against child labor laws can’t stand. It must be rejected wholesale and we should be as honest as possible about the following: The American right hates children – theirs, yours, mine, all of them.
Follow Denny Carter on Twitter at @CDCarter13.