Have An Opinion: The Great Upper-Class Swindle
It is a sign of the confidence — indeed, the audaciousness — of the current conservative movement that they are making real headway in an attempt to strangle the union movement, already gravely wounded, once and for all. It was Reagan who dealt the unions their first critical blow beginning with the PATCO strike, and Clinton who provided a incalculably damaging stab in the back with the passage of NAFTA. The efforts to behead capitalism’s bête noire stalled for a while, with the notable exception of the creation of the Department of Homeland Security, an immensely cynical move that allowed the government a virtually critic-proof work-around to employing unionized workers. Now, however, the boldness of an important election victory and the daring brought about by a new infusion of energy from the Tea Party movement has led a number of states to go after two of the last remaining bastions of unionism — public sector workers and teachers — with a sharpened dagger in their hands and a murderous look in their eyes. Wisconsin has succeeded in stripping these unions of vital collective bargaining rights, albeit after a prolonged and ugly public battle and a shabby end-run around the spirit of the law; Ohio did much the same with more stealth, and Illinois is preparing a similar assault.
This is unfortunate, but not exactly unexpected. The right has always loathed unionism for the sole reason that those followers of Adam Smith’s vile maxim cannot abide conditions under which the working class might secure for themselves some of the same comfort and certainty enjoyed by the masters of man, even on a much more modest scale. It is critical to the success of a pure market-capitalist ideology that everyone but those in charge must be forever off balance, eternally one paycheck away from ruin, constantly in a state of dread that they will be unable to pay for shelter, transportation, education, or good health. It is in this way that they can be kept placid, willing to accept low pay, no benefits, poor working conditions, and other privations that add to the bottom line of the men in charge. That it essentially lowers the mass of mankind to the level of slaves does not trouble their sleep, since they are only obeying the dictum of their self-invented philosophy. A vastly wealthy sliver of humanity in permanent control of an impoverished mass of the rest of us (without even the patrician noblesse oblige of a more structured class system) is their preferred definition of the state of nature, and it has no place for a middle class of people who can be thought of as comfortable and secure, if not rich. So there is nothing shocking about the attempt to knock out unions, whose entire existence is dedicated to creating and preserving such a class.
What is surprising is the rhetorical approach they have taken to the current war on labor, and the degree to which it has become successful, being aped not only by a bought-out press but by many members of the very working class it is intended to cripple. The erasure of history is now nearly complete; having succeeded in getting Americans to forget how they not too long ago sought to destroy the unions by literally murdering them, and having convinced many working people that “class warfare” refers not to the attempt of the rich to restore the poor to conditions of serfdom but to liberals pointing out that the wealthy do not wish to carry their share of fiscal responsibility for the country that allowed them to grow fat beyond the dreams of Croesus, the right is now attempting to further the false consciousness they’ve instilled in the common man by convincing them that this attempt to put working-class advocacy in its grave is a simple act of budgetary pragmatism. There is simply no money left, goes the argument advanced by many but most notably employed by Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. Tight budgets mean deep cuts and a plethora of pain, and that pain must be spread around; it must be shared, it is said, by the ‘parasites’ who have fattened themselves on pensions, salaries and health care sucked from the public tit. The time for equal sacrifice has come, and abusers of this new egalitarianism — beginning with teachers and government workers — must be made for us an example.
It is shocking the degree to which this pernicious balderdash has been accepted in every quarter. So complete is the belief that reducing the national debt is the paramount issue of the day that it is never even questioned in the most ‘liberal’ of media outlets; it is mentioned in public opinion polls as almost an article of faith, and is so ingrained in the national consciousness that it is a fool’s errand to inquire as to how it got so large in the first place, or how budgetary priorities might have worsened it along the line. But what is even more shocking is the widespread tolerance of the notion that we are simply out of money — that, rather than having relocated the wealth of the nation through a long and very deliberate process of concentrating it into an ever-shrinking number of pockets, we have simply pissed it all away on frivolities like union pensions, health care for the elderly, and $100 tennis shoes. Michael Moore, a man I do not normally think of as an especially inspiring speaker, nonetheless struck at the very heart of the truth of this issue in a speech he gave to public workers in Madison, Wisconsin recently; he quite correctly, and with a minimum of tiptoeing around the point, described the way that wealth has been transferred from government coffers and working peoples’ paychecks to the financial portfolios of the richest people in the country. He also noted with a courage frustratingly lacking in Democratic Party leaders that the media is complicit in the message control that allows this lie to be perpetuated, that permits the bosses and their toadies to spin the narrative that a massive monetary swindle is in fact a budget crisis.
Put simply, money which should be made available for public use — for allowing the government the resources it needs to govern — has been systematically been made unavailable for that purpose. And anyone who thinks that this is not a deliberate action is sorely mistaken. It is the intended goal of generations of conservative ideologues who have taken various approaches — the ‘starve the beast’ attack of deliberately defunding social programs; the systematic draining of tax coffers through property tax freezes, restrictions on capital gains, corporate, and estate taxes, and endless upper-class tax cuts; and the use of ‘disaster capitalism’ to forsake a preventive approach to various catastrophes, from hurricanes to financial industry deregulation to the mortgage crisis, in order to necessitate massive taxpayer-funded bail-outs — to create an artificial monetary shortfall, a deliberately manufactured budget crisis. It is an intentional political goal that has been pursued with murderous deliberation since the 1980s, and its most fierce advocates — your Grover Norquists, your Richard Vigueries, your editorialists in the pages of the Wall Street Journal and Forbes — have been quite open about it. Books have been written about it, speeches have been given about it, courses have been taught about it: the notion of deliberate financial mismanagement as a means by which to bankrupt the government (and thus reduce the tax burden on the rich) is not only not new, it is practically a grand old religion.
The new development, then, is the strange pseudo-populist approach to this method of fattening the fat and starving the thin, and the degree to which that bogus populism has been embraced in even the lower quarters. Suddenly, middle-class Medicare recipients are turning up at rallies to denounce recipients of government aid; working-class Americans who struggle to get by are bristling with anger at people who are losing their houses; lifelong private-sector union members are demanding that teachers give up their pensions. Gripped with a fever for the possibility of upward mobility that becomes ever more distant the more they embrace it, they display a false consciousness beyond Karl Marx’s imagination. Stranger — and more frustrating — still, they ignore the most basic contradictions of their new-found corporate populism. Invoking the specter of lean times and demanding an attitude of shared sacrifice, they ask for concessions from the lowest rungs of the middle class, but never seem to ask why the richest of the rich are not pitching in to this new spirit of collective deprivation. The harsh demands of a new economic reality require the poor to give up even the most basic government assistance, at a time of crippling un- and under-employment; it does not require the rich to give up the lowest tax rate they have been asked to pay in generations. To pay off our debts, even those accumulated in bad faith, social programs to aid working families — which often constitute the sole lifeline keeping them afloat — are up for grabs; taxation of the richest percentile of the American rich — which always constitutes pure excess — is not even on the table.
Even more amazing than this — a pure triumph of the propagandist’s art — is the way the nature and origin of wealth has been redefined in order to reduce that of the working class and protect that of the bosses. Money in possession of the rich, even when it comes from all manner of financial chicanery, or from inheritance, or from sweetheart deals or government contracts, is defined as ‘earned’, and is protected by the sacred rights of property; to ask the ultra-rich to contribute to the financial health of the country that made them that way is considered socialistic highway robbery, one step removed from mugging at gunpoint, and cursed with the name of ‘confiscatory taxation’. Money in possession of the middle class, even when it is gained through sweat labor, or in the form of legally acquired pensions and benefits that are contract-consecrated and hard fought for through years of bargaining and negotiation, is defined as the product of parasitism or thuggery, and may be taken back at leisure. A law which states a guaranteed pension is part of one’s terms of employment may be revoked when a politician of the right stripe says so; a law which states the rich must pay a certain share of their income to the upkeep of the nation is considered an imposition — or worse, a joke, a law which can be easily circumvented by using some of that income to hire a clever lawyer or accountant.
Working Americans are quite able — and willing — to deal with the concept of sacrifice. Ask anyone who lived through the Civil War or the Great Depression. Ask anyone who took a beating, or a bullet, for their union, in hopes it would mean a better life for their children. Ask anyone who lost a family member, or simply held up under rationing, during the Second World War. Ask the people who proudly serve in our armed forces, even when they’re asked to fight a war for which there is no end and no justification. Ask any of the millions of working people who struggle to get by, but still donate their time, energy and money to churches, causes, and charities. Americans need no lecturing about the need for giving up a little comfort for the greater good; we have always been eager to do so when we felt the need was great and the cause was just. What we must not do, though, is go along with an unneeded sacrifice in order to allow others to avoid a needed one. What we must not do is allow ourselves to be told there is no money left, when the money has simply been transferred to someone else’s bank account. What we must not do is be duped into decades of deprivation, uncertainty and fear by a big lie; to give up the hard-won gains of a century to allow the richest among us to get even richer; to agree to take part in an entirely one-sided ‘sacrifice’ that will punish us for generations for the sake of further comforting the comfortable. The only thing worse than these attempts to swindle the working class in order to enrich the rich would be our knowing and willful participation in it.