The Last Four-Letter Word
“Now look, baby, ‘union’ is spelled with five letters. It is not a four-letter-word.” (Dorothy Parker)
For anyone who believes in progress, equality, or the idea that America’s greatness expresses itself in ways other than the accumulation of wealth and power by the bosses, last night’s recall vote in Wisconsin was pretty hard to take. If the voters in one of the last bastions of working-class social culture can’t be persuaded to oust a governor whose attitude towards organized labor resembles that of an exterminator’s to a termite, then the union movement, on life support for the last 30 years, is about to have its plug pulled. “One for all and all for one” can finally be scrubbed out of the national consciousness, and we can chisel in “I got mine, now you’ll get yours” as the new slogan under which the massed millions can march. The Liberal Consensus had a solid 40-year run, but it’s time for The Gilded Age to go into reruns.
The post-mortems across various media were pretty depressing. Centrist apologists for wealth took a predictable approach, blaming the unions themselves for being too corrupt, self-centered and greedy — a familiar attack especially from those who find those qualities in businesses unworthy of comment. Many chose to focus on the fact that the recall was unpopular and many voters felt that Scott Walker had done nothing worthy of losing his office, a notion that really isn’t that surprising give that Americans reacted with a bored shrug to the theft of the presidential election in 2000 — something that would, and has, triggered spontaneous popular uprisings in less politically sophisticated lands. Others pointed to the role of money in politics, which is unlikely to change thanks to the role of money in politics; the way President Obama has held labor at arm’s length, taking its money but failing to stand behind it at critical moments; the weakness of the opposition candidate and the gutlessness of the DNC; and the general political polarization of the American electorate, which is at lunatic-asylum-level highs. What everyone agrees on is that public-sector unions — teachers, firemen, police, and government workers, who essentially represent the last gasp of the labor movement — just got their backs broken in a very public way, and the Republican Party feels like celebrating.
Now isn’t the time to remember the way another U.S. president (coincidentally, I am sure, the most popular one in American history) behaved when labor was in crisis, record millions were unemployed, poverty and despair were peaking from coast to coast, and an intransigent class of plutocrats sat on their hands and dared the government to do anything about it. That will only earn us a lecture from the ‘realists’ about how times have changed, and the art of the possible, and the perfect being the enemy of the good; and then someone will invoke the word “triangulation” and I’ll just have to shoot myself. No, now is the time to let the (blue) dogs have their day! After a mere entirety of human history in which the rich got to call the shots and their toadies got to hope that a coating of bootblack made table scraps taste better, the bosses had to endure an agonizing forty years of pretending they cared about the people who shoveled their shit. That’s all over now! They’ve won! We’re heading to comfy, cozy Third World social status, and they’re going to strut like Tony Manero if he had John Travolta’s money.
It’ll be lots of fun at first. They’ll get to make up all kinds of crazy laws as the Democrats settle into their role as the new conservatives and Republicans assume the mantle of the new radicals. Ronald Reagan, or at least the version of Ronald Reagan the right-wingers believe in, will finally be sainted, his Presbyterianism notwithstanding, and you won’t be able to take a shit without soiling the Reagan Memorial Something-or-Other. Clowny-ass nonsense like this will be the order of the day, and what little public money that remains after paying for stealth destroyers and Congressional health care will be spent on glorious “realistic” monuments to our great victory in Iraq, the Grover Norquist Federal Drowning Pool, and, at last, a memorial statue to the victims of union thuggery. The ivory back-scratcher industry will make a comeback, and the poor will be returned to their natural and rightful state of stabbing one another in the eyeball for the right to flip burgers for a minimum wage dictated by the market, as God intended. Matters of class will no longer be touchy, confusing or changeable; we will return at last to a simple binary of the rich and the poor, the common and the corrupt, the sugar and the shit — as simple and beautiful in its own way as that of a Soviet client state. The government will talk only to the banks, and the banks will talk only to God. The fact that rich people make the laws will be thought of as a feature, not a bug — and then only when the law cannot be dispensed with entirely, and society governed by Vanderbiltian practicality. There might be some hiccups along the way, such as who will buy all the trinkets that generate the income that keeps those backscratchers polished if no one has any money to pay for things; but that’s why our beloved masters had the foresight to redefine the middle class in China and India.
Oh, sure, there’ll be some tough times. The now-fat ranks of anti-unionists in both parties will have to tug at their collars as it becomes painfully clear how many of the comforts and freedoms they will no longer be enjoying came from the labor movement. The conservative lower class will get to take their pleasures in collaboration, while the liberals will get to re-acquaint their asses with constant hard kicking and wish they hadn’t laughed so hard when those stupid college kids and the Mexican help used the word “solidarity”. Maybe things will get really bad for the have-nots; they always have before. Maybe they’ll get so bad that everyday people will stop snickering at their neighbors who swim in shit long enough to notice that they’re themselves up to the gills in mud. Maybe they’ll even get so bad that people will figure out some way to band together and make them better, because sometimes, when things are that bad, you figure it’s better to die fighting than to live beaten. It might take a lot of blood before the pendulum swings the other way.
Then again, maybe it’ll never swing back. Apocalyptic predictions are tempting at times like this, and even those who aren’t ready to peal the Doom Bell are starting to wonder if, just like every other great empire, America hasn’t just played out its string. The always pithy and perspicacious Roy Edroso got to wondering that just this morning: “The Almighty has pulled the U.S. out of a lot of jams in the past 236 years,” he observed, “and no lucky streak lasts forever.” (As for me, if I believed in a God, I’d believe in one who looks at folks like Rich DeVos, Charles Koch and Karl Rove and tells them they better fix their business right, but that’s clearly not the guy who’s in charge around here.) Maybe the ride is really over, or maybe by the time America reverses its descent into neo-feudalist hell, it won’t be America anymore. I have no idea, any more than I know what the hell I could do about it if I did know.
But one of the pantheon of troublesome Jews (including Karl Marx, Saul Alinsky, Betty Friedan, and George Soros) that conservatives like to blame all the world’s troubles on had an idea. Ol’ Sigmund is out of fashion now, even amongst liberals — you know, just like unionism — but it still might benefit us a wee bit to listen to what the man had to say every once in a while:
If we turn to those restrictions that only apply to certain classes of society, we encounter a state of things which is glaringly obvious and has always been recognized. It is to be expected that the neglected classes will grudge the favored ones their privileges, and that they will do everything in their power to rid themselves of their own surplus of privation. Where this is not possible, a lasting measure of discontent will obtain within this culture, and this may lead to dangerous outbreaks. But if a culture has not got beyond the stage in which the satisfaction of one group of its members necessarily involves the suppression of another (perhaps the majority) — and this is the case in all modern cultures — it is intelligible that these suppressed classes should develop an intense hostility to the culture: a culture whose existence they make possible by their labor but in whose resources they have too small a share. In such conditions one must not expect to find an internalization of the cultural prohibitions among the suppressed classes; indeed, they are not even prepared to acknowledge these prohibitions, intent as they are on the destruction of the culture itself and perhaps even of the assumptions on which it rests. It need not be said that a culture which leaves unsatisfied and drives to rebelliousness so large a number of its members neither has a prospect of continued existence, nor deserves it.
When he said that, he was talking about religion, not politics, but America’s learned the hard way that those subjects have always been as one. He said it in a book called The Future of an Illusion, but America’s about to learn the hard way about the illusion of a future.