Monday, August 31, 2009

Proletarier aller Länder, vereinigt euch!

Haymarket Flier, 1886
Deckelkrug from c1880, Württenberg State, Germany (with title slogan).

I would like take FDChief up on his suggestion to "present conditions of, prospects for, and place in the 21st Century United States (or the setting of their choice) of "labor"; the artisan, laborer and manual worker."

In terms of introduction for this post, I would only point out the history behind the labor movement in the US. Chief mentions May Day and implies of course the Eight Hour Day Movement of the 1880s . . . Haymarket and the rest. Haymarket 1886 is a fascinating subject, but I assume a basic understanding of Haymarket and the significance of the entire movement, and the necessary role of German-Americans in carrying it forward.

I would also add that one of the innocent activists hanged was a Confederate war veteran married to an African-American woman - Lucy Parsons - who went on to become one of the symbols of the movement . . . her husband one of the five (I include Lingg) hanged by the Yan . . . I mean state of Illinois. ;-)>

So assuming an understanding of the basic US history of the labor movement up to circa 1890, consider how exactly we would translate the above Deckelkrug slogan. If we translate it simply as "workers of the world unite!" we make is pretty simple and very ambiguous, open to many interpretations and manipulations . . . Translating it as "proletarian class organize yourselves!" would create a completely different meaning. Essentially the American proletarian class (led by a political elite?) would organize themselves . . . Or it could refer to following a universal communist party (supposedly making the call). Or it could simply refer to local unions. One starts to get an idea of the complex nature of the workers movement and why it led in so many different directions . . . In all I don't think that anyone would argue that people should be expected to work 16 hour shifts or seven day weeks. At the same time, like all such belief systems it has been a source of much confusion, waste and suffering.

But why would we want to even bother with such a verbal task? Allow me to let you in on one of the dirty little secrets of the 19th-20th Century . . . the workers movement, and especially communism/Marxism/"Marxian thought"/whatever, were all the spiritual children of modern capitalism, and especially its crimes and inequalities. Prior to that Christianity had served this purpose in the West . . . the equality of all men (before God). Where Christianity fell short was of course that it was only a promise of a supposed eternal future, whereas - lets call it simply "socialism" - was a guarantee of a materialist and earthly future, something its practitioners might experience without dying. The various heads of organized religion did not improve their appeal to the people by openly siding in most cases with the established power.

What mattered from a Marxist perspective was the level of class conflict. The interests of the seemingly oppositional classes were irreconcilable and once the workers had been kicked around enough . . . The victory of the working class promised the end of class conflict and thus heaven on earth. It was only a matter of time, like the turning of the earth.

A bit more objective, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote:

Whenever a nation does not completely disinherit its workers, it has been able to count upon their loyalty. The loyalty has been little more hesitant than that of the middle classes; but it has been, on the whole, more generous than the nation deserved, when the real motives of its material enterprises are considered. The pretensions of nations, which only the most penetrating intellectcs among the intellectuals are able to discount, are discounted among the workers only by those who have had the bitterest experiences of national greed and brutality. Lenin's uncompromising antipatriotism, during the World War, found an echo in the hearts of the Russian proletariat, because there the workers were completely and obviously disinherited; and the machinery of state was so manifestly inept and corrupt that it could not claim the usual reverence which even disillusioned workers give a government which manages to maintain its functions. In Europe, on the other hand, the patriotic fervor of the workers was dampened without being destroyed. . . . The modern worker sacrifices his patriotism in almost exact proportion to the measure of social injustice from which he suffers. He disavows the nation only if it has thrust him out of its system of cultural inheritances and economic benefits in the most obvious terms. . .

Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932, p 101.

So you know where I'm coming from . . . a little "c" capitialist/small town Southern conservative, former churchgoer, anti-communist, profitting from and living under what one would normally call "socialist" programs run by various European states, now and in the past. Voted for Obama in 2008. Used to talk about this stuff with (East) German commies back during the bad ole days.

As to how I see the future of labor in the US - since I'm not really sure what I'm going to say - I´ll add that at the end of this post. . . All comments welcome!


  1. I fear it's going to take some sort of cataclysm to reinvigorate any kind of worker's movement in the USA. The Right seems to have succeeded in convincing a majority of the working class that the idea of organized labor is evil. Why, if we just work hard enough we can all be CEO's! That union talk is nothing but "socialism", which is pure, unadulterated anti-American EVIL!

    It's so crazy. I've had unemployed, bearded, long-haired biker types on medicare spouting this nonsense. Somehow, the idea of all Americans being guaranteed health care is the worst symbol of Obama's embrace of Marxist ideology, and by God they sure don't want to pay any union dues.

    For myself, there is no way I'd want to work in a hospital without a nurses union. Bad enough the way it is.

    I'm rambling in the wee hours. Enough.. you get the drift. Goodnight.

  2. Rick98C-

    Agree, I heard much the same on my recent trip back home, and coming from some of my own kinfolk.

    Consider that Niebuhr's book was meant for the general US reading public of 1932, which would have included large numbers of "working class" people (who didn't imagine themselves as "middle class") and were very aware of their economic and material interests. They would have also been very wary of anything coming from corporate channels which were easily identified. Any talk of "the magic of the market" would have been seen as part of a "suckers' game".

    So comparing the attitude in 1932 with today we can get an idea of what has happened in the interim and which direction we are going . . . I would only point out how organized "Christianity", perhaps better described as "Corporate Jesusism", has been corrupted to support both market and radical political interests . . . assisted by a narrow and functions-based education system . . .

  3. Seyslitz - Hope you enjoyed the trip home. Although we could have used you here for the "Kings of Battle post back a week or two ago.

  4. Re. Rick's "corporate jesusism": I hope everyone's seen Al Franken's brilliant Supply Side Jesus.

    More comments after some thought (I hope).

  5. Seydlitz, you old Commie, you....

    Is it just me or has the American blue collar working person, AKA "salt of the earth," etc., etc., been revealed as being perhaps the lamest and most ignorant person on the planet?

    Every Joe the Plumber makes me think less of the people who used to be in unions. Rick tells it like it is. Yes, the plutocrats wanted the demise of the unions, but they wouldn't have gotten too far without the eager cooperation of those very people who should have been fighting them tooth and nail.

    Only in America will you find the chicken opening the door to the henhouse and then sending the wolf an engraved invitation to dinner.

  6. There is so much to say on the status (diminution) of the middle class.

    Rick is right about the assist of the "narrow and functions-based education system." The Bush Bros. NCLB has helped us on the way toward an obedient, non-analytical electorate. Amazingly, any effort to counter this by Obama is seen as the devils work itself by the very people it is meant to help. People do seem to embrace their ignorance fiercely.

    There also seem to be a recrudescence of Rand's Objectivism -- all for one, and none for all. Even though former Fed Chair and former acolyte Alan Greenspan admits there is a glitch there (after the financial fiasco.)

    Despite the seeming necessity to our democracy of a vibrant middle class, economic theorists like Richard Florida still argue for a grand shift to a largely highly technologically-based society, with others serving to provide the "cafe street culture" that these highly educated people will demand.

    I am interested to know where that leaves the traditional middle class. Is it possible we will approach a saturation point in demand for these highly technological workers? We can only consume so many electronics, right?

  7. I'm not certain but I think Florida is mostly thinking of Internet content providers rather than electrical engineers.

    I'm not altogerher happy about Florida's "Creative Class" theories. I agree with Lisa that his base of creative thinkers (which he correctly argues are the engine of the economy) is too narrow.

    You can't have a balanced society that is composed of creative thinkers and other people who adore the creative thinkers. You need technicians, reasonably well-paid factory workers, an agriculture system that isn't all about gambling, and other people to keep it running. In other words, a diversified well-educated, reasonably knowledgable middle class.

  8. As promised I'll now provide my view of the future of the labor movement in the US.

    The labor movement is a child of capitalism. Capitalism itself also has a belief behind it which supplies the "market view" of society. That is the notion that economic society is governed by automatic mechanisms which if left alone from government tampering will achieve and maintain a pre-determined social stability with material progress as a result. Since everyone has an interest in maintaining this magical apparatus, justice, progress and social harmony will result. As you can see "trickle down" was not something new, but just the same old notion with a newer label.

    Recall that I have mentioned in the past that liberal democracy boils down to essentially the act of creating a mechanism for the selection of political candidates with little thought given to the actual political process behind this electorial mechanism.

    The same basic fallacy holds true for this notion of capitalism (which surprisingly along with the "rational consumer" provides the basic assumptions behind most modern economic theory. This common fallacy being that the process (in both the market and politics) can be ignored once the mechanism is in place.

    Contrary to the notion of the mechanism of the market, economic interests can't resist augmenting their economic power with political power, since purchasing political influence is about the best investment around. In the US today we have reached the point where the financial interests pretty much call the shots as far as government economic and even much of our foreign (including war making) and domestic policies go, to the detriment of the country as a whole. That is the government no longer represents the interests of the citizenry, nor even the interests of the state, but those of a shadow oligarchy/kleptocracy.

    No mention of the future of the labor movement yet, but I'm getting there. To ensure that our elite will maintain their monopoly of power, they see it necessary to expand the scope of their control. The media has been employed to maintain the perceived (lack of) options and the established power relationships. Ideally the goal is an atomized mass of de-politicized consumers who can be exploited permanently and who essentially police themselves, or act as unpaid "Black and Tans" to police their "unruly" fellow citizens. The character of the overall system/movement is taking on an increasingly totalitarian aspect (following Hannah Arendt's model).

    To be continued . . .

  9. FDChief has described on his thread the decline of the US labor movement, but what is still unclear is what Publius mentioned in his comment. How is it that the working people can not even identify their own basic interests? In 1932 this was obviously not the case, so what happened?

    The Cold War was part of it, a "functions-based" education system for our young (teaching to test), along with clever propaganda tarring the unions as more corrupt than they in fact were, and the notion of a mass middle class which was based on those same hard-won benefits that many of this same middle class were turning their backs on. Religion too played a part, with a new version of Christianity, which I referred to above as "Corporate Jesusism" displacing much of traditional Christianity. The values of this new version were in most cases the very opposite of the meek, humble, poor emphasis of the Gospels. It was as if Jesus had rethought the whole thing and saved the rich man instead of the prostitute. In all religion reduced to window dressing for the market.

    The last characteristic I would like to point out concerning what the mechanism of the market has become in America is the creation of a permanent economic sub-class based on discrimination and alienation: the illegal immigrants who do much of the heavy lifting in our economy. This allows for maintenance of low consumer prices, but at a heavy social cost. This grossly unfair labor system is part of the massive dysfunctional "doublethink" which encompasses many of the blatant injustices that go on in America today.

    So, a US workers movement will rise again when the current system is in crisis, when most of the assumptions the mass of Americans believe today are shown to be what they are: elements of a blatant swindle.

    Obviously we haven't reached that point yet, but when we do . . .