Storm the Fort, Ye Knights of Labor
It’s Labor Day in America.
Celebrating what Adam Smith called “the first price, the original purchase that was paid for all things” has always been an iffy proposition in this most capitalist of countries. In fact, the very commemoration of Labor Day here in the U.S. was sped along by bloody clashes between bosses and workers; it is celebrated elsewhere on May 1, a day reserved here for the thankfully underobserved “Loyalty Day”.
That Labor Day, a day designed to commemorate the contribution of working people to our society — and what a strange thing, that such a day is deemed necessary, rather than as redundant as a day when we celebrate the contribution of oxygen to the continuation of human life — has been a cause of lost hope recently goes without saying. But now, for millions of people, myself included, who have been out of work for over a year and for the first time in their lives are contemplating the possibility of never working again, it is something more than that. Hope must be present to be lost, after all, but leave that aside: at other dreary economic times in the American Century, whether within my dimmest memories (like the bad run of the mid-1970s) or within those of my parents (like the Great Depression), there was at the very least a sense that one’s fellow Americans were pulling for you. Everyone you knew was in the same leaky boat, and even if help was slow to come, you could count on your friends and neighbors, if not for tangible contributions, at least for some conversation.
The world is different now. Both liberals and conservatives get a lot of mileage out of the term “class warfare”, but it’s hard to elevate something to the level of warfare when not only does one side win all the time, but they’re the only ones with weapons. What’s going on now is more like a class massacre. The middle class — the very embodiment of what was once held before the world as the American Dream — is the victim of something very like ethnic cleansing, and while the working class is too plentiful to ever fully disappear, it is being systematically sent back in time to a point when it could be taken for granted by the bosses. But what’s especially odd is that the propaganda of the upper class has so completely permeated its victims. It is difficult to envision the Jews of 1930s Germany being avid consumers of the work of Julius Streicher, but today, one finds among the working poor an astonishingly large audience for FOX News, the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal, the ravings of right-wing blogs, and the party platforms of movement conservatives. At a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is at a historical high, and class mobility is as stagnant as in most third-world countries, we hear ever more arguments that the rights of property are inviolate, that taxation of any kind is confiscation, that poverty is a punishment for sloth, and that the acceptance of — indeed, the existence of — government aid is a cancer on the face of society.
At times, it is difficult to even discern the point in all this shouting down of the deserving poor. One hears the argument voiced that the way out of poverty is universal entrepreneurialism; leaving aside the fact that this is like advising everyone in the country to become a professional football player, it betrays a misunderstanding of the very nature of capitalism, which demands a large pool of cheap labor to consume the goods made by a small fountain of employing producers. Likewise the bizarre railing against the very existence of government, more vehement than any random group of ’80s gutter punks: where is the Keynesian consensus that government and free enterprise must act in balance? These people who refer to themselves as slaves burdened by the cruel yoke of taxation — don’t they know that tax rates are at a historic low, or that no society in history has ever functioned without a working system for collecting government revenue? America in 2011 is a country where the rich shame Croesus, where corporations scoff at the power of government, and where the social safety net, already weak without compare among wealthy nations, is being reduced to a memory. And yet people at every point on the spectrum of wealth complain of their intolerable oppression by a government they refer to with a straight face as “socialist”. It’s like watching an obese man shovel down a dozen servings of Death By Chocolate and then complain that it all could have been more chocolatey. (And he doesn’t leave a tip.)
It is not only how polarized the discourse has become, or how the self-serving rhetoric of the rich has leeched into the worldview of those who will never be. It is not even how people of the working class have abandoned unionism where it still manages to survive the onslaughts of ideological attack; abandoning solidarity to take care of one’s own is nothing new, and while it is short-sighted and self-defeating, its temptations are easy to see and hard to resist for the desperate. And more people are desperate now. What is stunning is how permeated the culture has become with this message of contempt for the poor, the unlucky, the unemployed, the weak. It is frankly astonishing that the more people fall below the poverty line, the louder the voices who act as if ill fortune is a criminal offense become. The more people fall ill and cannot seek treatment because they can’t afford insurance, the more editorials one sees about how health care is a privilege and not a right. The worse our grade schools perform, and the more college graduates fail to capitalize on their degrees because they’re hobbled with crippling dept, the more TV talking heads discuss education as if it were an idle frippery. The more people struggle to make ends meet on their meager salaries while CEOs take home bonuses the size of a small nation’s GDP, the more bloggers sneer that the crooked unions are to blame. And the more people are forced by unemployment or underemployment to seek public aid, the more pundits insist that the problem is public aid and not unemployment. My uncle, who lives on the residue of a lifetime spent in the Army and is one Veteran’s Administration budget cut away from losing his house, rails against the tyranny of government spending. My father, whose union pensions kept him from death’s door during a critical illness, complains about the overpaid teacher’s unions. A friend on Facebook, who knows I am unemployed and only avoid homelessness because of the lifeline of unemployment insurance, complains about the moochers and leeches among us who force him to pay capital gains taxes.
It would be easy enough to become resentful over these crowing crazies who scream at the working poor for suffering the effects of “problems” they themselves created. Conservatives ran up massive debt through government spending, and now complain endlessly abut the federal budget deficit. Conservatives sponsored financial deregulation that made it easy for poor people to buy houses, and now complain about the subsequent and extremely predictable crash of the housing market, blaming it on the poor and not on the lenders. Conservatives back the ceaseless production of cheap consumer goods overseas, and then blame poor people for buying them. Conservatives gave banks the ability to punish their smaller customers with monstrous interest rates and massive fees that can lead to a spiral of insurmountable debt, and then complain that people aren’t starting small businesses or spending money. Conservatives support a universal capitalism where everything costs money, and then acts shocked when it turns out not everyone can pay.
The purity and depth of these true believers is something to behold. Neither I nor anyone I know is a particular enemy of consumerism; the first thing I’ll do with my paycheck if I ever get a job again is buy an iPad. I’m too old to riot for the four-day work week, but I’d at the very least write an angry e-mail if someone takes away my Coca-Cola and replaces it with Resolutely Banish All Counter-Productive Pro-Thirst Elements brand Soviet Carbo-Beverage. I don’t know anyone who wants to abolish capitalism as such; indeed, the reason we want a better standard of living for the poor is that it means more people paying in to the system. More money means more consumers, and more consumers means more capitalism. Wanting to reform the system doesn’t mean wanting to destroy it. But there are millions of people in this country who think that providing health care to the destitute, or helping poor people avoid homelessness, is Step 1 to Stalinism. They seem to think that if they display a healthy contempt for the less fortunate their entire lives, the ghost of Ayn Rand will show up on their deathbeds and hand them a key to Capitalist Heaven.
How did we come so quickly to this pass? It was only 40 years ago that the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, Daniel Patrick Moynihan and George McGovern could advocate for a guaranteed basic income and not be considered Marxist lunatics whose next proposal would likely be to start machine-gunning kulaks. But though we didn’t know it at the time, those were the final days of the liberal consensus, the twilight of unionism, the last gasp of the American Dream. Within a half-decade, Ronald Reagan would be in the White House, and a new day of ultra-orthodox conservativism would dawn all over the globe. Nowadays people like Reagan and Margaret Thatcher would be considered, if anything, too soft, too liberal, too in love with the power of government; now the Democratic Party occupies a political position somewhere to the immediate right of Richard Nixon, the Republican Party caters to a constituency of Henry Clay Frick-a-likes and Dagny Taggart wannabees, and an unprecedented shafting of the poor is carried out under the guise of “austerity measures”, as the government turns out its empty pockets and the rich can barely walk for the weight in theirs.
But 40 years is a long time. It was only 40 years before that when Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the greatest president America ever had, put an end to generations of murder by announcing that his government no longer considered the working class the enemy, and that labor disputes would now be handled in the courts and not by sending Pinkertons, blacklegs, Legionnaires and National Guardsmen out to put strikers in the grave. Since the American Civil War, the relationship between capital and labor had been one of violent hatred, endless despair and degradation, intractable opposition. During the darkest economic storm in world history, FDR simply declared that the poor were Americans, and were going to be given the opportunity to live like Americans and share in the unparalleled advantages and opportunities enjoyed by Americans. He believed that it was a promise, not a platitude, that government exists to serve all its people, and he turned government into a machine that did just that. It is for this unthinkable crime against private privilege that the rich and their toadies can never forgive him; but try as they might, they can also never erase his titanic accomplishments from the pages of history. He saw America — all of America — through the bleakest financial crisis in its history, and he led America to victory in the costliest, most horrific war the world had ever seen. It was his policies that led to the most prosperous period in our nation’s history; it was his approach to governance that ushered the era of civil rights; and it was his leadership that gave birth to 40 years of consensus that everyone deserved a chance at the American Dream, and that capitalism could be something more than just an endless exploitation of the poor and an endless fattening of the rich.
What will the next 40 years look like? I’m not hopeful, personally or politically. Years of short-sighted policies have led to our being unprepared for tectonic shifts in the global market; even if we are spared the disruptions of climate change and new resource shortages, the economic future likely lies to the east. We have defined productivity downward so it now mostly refers to the conversion of one type of imaginary wealth into another type of imaginary wealth. Since we produce almost nothing of real value in traditional terms, we are more able than ever to realize such possibilities as guaranteed basic incomes, shorter work weeks, and maternity leaves. And yet people are working longer hours than ever, for less pay in terms of real income, and the very suggestion of such programs, in our polluted political discourse, would get you labeled a dangerous lunatic, or at least a fantast several miles to the left of Bob Avakian. The great hope of unionism has been reduced to a barnacle clinging to the ship of state, and populism is now so disassociated from leftism that it is more likely to evoke the name of Glenn Beck than that of Dennis Kucinich. People riot more over sports teams than over economic uncertainty, no swing to the right seems unthinkable anymore, and it’s hard to escape the conclusion that things will have to get terrifyingly worse before they get even a little better. But at least a little of the blood that ran through the veins of FDR runs through ours. What the poor have lost in organization they have gained in number. There are a frightening lot of us, and maybe someday we will remember our power. Maybe someday we will remind the people at the top that no one stays rich unless the poor allow them to stay that way, and that sometimes they must pay us what they owe for that indulgence.
Happy Labor Day.