The topic we've chosen for this week is "whither labor"? Specifically, the implications for the national political and social contract we call the United States in the changes in the composition of our employment we've observed over the past 50 years. Even greater, the changes we've undergone since the turn of the last century.
1. If You White, You Right (well, sort of...)
The United States of 1791 was an overwhelmingly pastoral and agricultural nation; no surprise there - as the natural resource preserve of Great Britain the Brits had no interest in furthering American industry. Americans were, by and large, subsistence farmers, loggers, trappers and hunters. Our laboring and mercantile class was largely confined to a handful of coastal cities.
And this was just dandy with many of the Founders. The rural landowners of the Washington sort believed that republican virtues resided in themselves and the similar agricultural tenantry. The Rousseau admirers, Jefferson and his ilk, had a sort of mystical belief in the nobility of the soil. Even those of the Founders and Framers who saw commerce as the destiny of their nation - men like Hamilton - saw the nation as an overwhelmingly rural, agricultural polity.
And this entity was governed by a pretty narrow class. Women, of course, were ineligible for the franchise because having a vagina makes you stupid.
There's 50% of your adult citizens right there. Anyone else not eligible to decide the fate of the nation? Hmmm...well, slaves, native Americans, almost all dusky-hued people...forget it, guys. You're not a Real American. We all know who THAT means, right?
White guy - you're in like Flynn?
Well, no. Most states had a property requirement, and without some means you were just as much a non-citizen as a (shudder!) woman.
Add to that little tricks like legislative appointment of Senators and the rudimentary party systems and you have a government that works in the fashion of the people who designed it: fairly well-off, landed or wealthy white guys.
2. I Hear You Knockin'
So the big story for me, politically, of the U.S. between 1791 and 1892 is the tug-of-war between the original elites and the brash newcomers to the political scene, the farm laborer and the factory worker, the immigrant, the store clerk and the women. The blacks, after 1865.
The story of the U.S. between the Constitutional Convention and the arrival of the modern political era is the story of the populists against the elitists, with the elite slowly losing ground while managing to keep most of the goodies for itself. Every decade, beginning in the 1820s with Jacksonian democracy saw an increase in the enfranchisement of the poor and the working class. This didn't translate into the betterment of those classes - even then, the people who these newly enabled voters elected were typically the "better" citizens of their town, city, or county.
Between 1850-1865, of course, everything takes a back seat to slavery. But after the war the increase in industrialization creates a huge new "class" of people, a working class, a proletariat that is unmoored from the land and unenamored of the traditional triumvirate of gentleman farmer-banker-captain of industry. The slow and complex process of fighting for political power begins to include people who would have been complete outsiders fifty years before.
I would opine that all this comes to a head in 1896, with the Bryan-McKinley election.
3. Money Makes The World Go Around
Bryan with his "free silver" and his populism scares the shit out of the wealthy characters who have been comfortably running the country in the Gilded Age. They are truly afraid that the proles, the small farmers, laborers and assorted riff-raff will get their man into the White House. So McKinley turns to his man Mark Hanna, who, in turn, orchestrates the first public relations election. He soaks the wealthy for "campaign contributions" and pulls in the media for the first swiftboating, associating Bryan with the radicals and anarchists of Europe and the poor niggers and wogs of...well, anyplace not America.McKinley pulls the skilled tradesmen, the kulaks, and the German-Americans into his camp of the rich and the well-born. The GOP holds the White House and much of the legislature for the next 32 years.
The importance here is that most Americans, in particular the poorest and least powerful Americans, are shoved into one party. And that party sees no reason to make things any easier for its enemies - so much so that within half a decade conditions for the urban working poor are SO fucking bad that an entire reform movement (the Progressives") that had been diddling around in the hustings pimping labor, health and safety laws (that were never enforced) since the mid-1870's found themselves voted into national power.
But the Progressives were torpedoed by WW1, and when the nation got back to work nobody wanted to hear jack shit about poor people and workers' rights when there was money to be made. So we speculated and bought on margin and pumped us up a nice big bubble that burst in 1929.
4. Bottom Rail On Top Now
Depression, and the resulting panic fear of Red Revolution, convinced the elites that ran the U.S. that a temporary loss of revenue and power were a fair trade to avoid the noose and the lamppost. Just as the Black Sox allowed Judge Landis to do to the Lords of Baseball what they never would have thought of allowing him to do before scandal threatened the foundation of their profit, the Crash allowed FDR to do to the Lords of Industry and Finance what they would never have allowed themselves to permit before, and have regretted ever since. WW2, making skilled labor at once a necessity and a limited commodity, and the Wagner Act, which finally gave the industrial worker a legal means to bargain with his or her employer for a position other than utter prostration, made the establishment of industrial laborers as a class of freeholders of a sort, no longer completely subject to the whims of employers and the vagaries of the market. Stakeholders, of a kind, in the companies they worked for and the country they lived in.
Not surprisingly, the unions then began ot behave as badly as the malefactors of great wealth they had been fighting. Featherbedding, ruinous contracts, shortsighted greed...by the Seventies and Eighties the union bosses had become like Orwell's pigs, looking and acting like the magnates they had been set up to oppose.
5. Back to the Future
And as luck would have it, the GOP finally found its way back from the political wilderness with a perfrect combination of panache in the form of a hack actor turned politician who had a folksy gift for telling people what they wanted to hear and a political imagination that began and ended with "cut taxes".
Since every idiot since Hobbes has wanted something for nothing, the American working class, that had finally begun to profit from things like universal sufferage, public-funded infrastructure from schools to freeways to airports, protective tariffs, labor and economic regulation, dove into this idiocy like microcephalic contestants on some sort of toxic reality TV show. They gleefully took down their own trousers and handed the paddle to their corporate and political masters. Free trade, deunionization, the wild tontine of easy credit and financial speculation...bring it on! Everything that the laboring classes had learned the hard way in the crashes of 1892 and 1929, in the Homestead Strike and the Haymarket "Riot" and the Taft-Hartley Act was forgotten.Why was this important? Why is it so much the worse now, that the ordinary American and ordinary worker is crammed down, is more "productive" and yet not better paid, is less willing and even less inclined to fight the wealthy and powerful that control his or her economic life?
6. Here's What I Think;
a. The original concept of the United States was a nation run by its wealthy, its landowners and its native aristocracy; the President was a mere functionary, the House was limited to the small elite defined by the franchise and the Senate was even more rarified, a playground of the powerful interests in each state in imitation of the Roman Senate.
The idea of the Framers was that this little group would exercise power in a thoughtful, deliberative way because of their very positions. The wealthy farmer and landowner, the rich merchant, the planter aristo - these people were beholden to nobody. They were truly "independent", and as such their vote, and their interest could, in theory, not be swayed but by their own rational self-interest and patriotic beliefs. The entire U.S. system rests on this; that the people making, enforcing, and interpreting the laws will be kept in check by other independent, cussed freeholders, in office and without, who have the time, the inclination and the means to do so. Most of the Framers were dead set against party or "faction" for the reason that it would cause their idealized American voters and leaders to conspire against each other - and, in theory, against the good of the nation - for personal political or economic gain.
b. Over time we have moved to a more egalitarian system. Now, as never before in U.S. history, what the individual American voter knows, thinks, says and does matters. Not, perhaps, individually, but in groups, as parts of parties and groups within parties. The "elites", now both personal and corporate, still have tremendous influence, with their control of the information and entertainment media and - especially now - their penetration of, corruption and cooption of the punditry. But at the moment the individual American has more potential influence than in about 95% of U.S. history.
c. But, at the same time, the U.S. voter has become LESS independent, less likely to have the time, the inclination and the means to take up an argument with his corporate, social, or economic master. That master, whether it is employer, lender, health insurance vendor, government agency, has an overwhelming advantage over him or her. Labor laws have been weakened, employment relations changed (and here we meet the pathetic "independent contractor" and "temporary worker" - only as "independent" as his or her corporate puppeteer is willing to pull on his paycheck string and a temporary as a thought) and economic pressures tightened (between cramdowns, offshoring, loosening of trade and tariff regulations and the race to the bottom of labor and environmental standards) to the point where the average American "workers" don't have time, education, willingness or ability to understand most of the issues put before them, let along make an informed decision.
d. Add to this that the entire composition of the U.S. economy has fallen off the table. There is not even a pretense of balance between the more self-reliant types that the Jeffersonians imagined would run the country; the farmer, the artisan, the mechanic, and the "sturdy yeoman" - hell, there's hardly a fucking yeo left in the country! - and the service industry types, from CEO to cube-rat, copy-shredder and mail sorter.Together the two make up barely a quarter of the electorate. The rest of us depend for our corn pone on the largesse of someone else; a boss, a consumer, a contractor. And we depend, to a great degree, for our opinions on someone else, too: an anchorman, a blogger, a Sunday morning political show.
Being in the "service sector" puts us in a particularly weak position. Even if we do everything "right", factors beyond our control can ruin us. This puts us in the position of the small farmer or unskilled laborer of the 19th Century - completely vulnerable and, as such, deeply fearful, suspicious and conservative. When you may teeter and fall at any moment, the inclination to take chances, to open the way for political, social or economic change, is highly circumscribed. We are, instead of the intelligent decision-makers envisioned by the Framers increasingly a nation of the Led, too worried about paying the mortgage, keeping our job and not getting sick than with where the country is going...
e. ...and a LOT of this has to do with the actions taken - principally by the GOP - to tilt the balance of power back to the employer, industrialist and financier. This has gone a long way to returning the U.S. to the pre-1932 status quo, where the government is a wholly-owned subsidiary of its wealthiest and more powerful "constituents". We have become, in all important aspects of the word, an oligarchy.
7. What Can We Do About This?
a. Not much, I think.
b. Historically the trend for oligarchies is, initially, stasis, and subsequently, desuetude. Once the collapse begins there are two typical opportunities: revolution, on the one hand, and tyranny, on the other.
c. Revolution, despite our mythic past, seems to me the least likely. Revolution comes from two motives: despair and hope. Despair, because at some point even the worst horrors of revolution aren't worse than the existing reality, and hope, because there comes a moment that the dreamer, the malcontent and the reformer look around and shrug - why wait? If not now, when?
The enemy of both despair and hope is cynicism. If there is anything that distinguishes our 21st Century U.S. today it is the plethora of cynics. We have been lied to and spun so often and so boldly that we believe in almost nothing. I believe that the most pernicious legacy of the purile gang of idiots that ran this country for the eight years after the turn of the century will be that they shat their stupidity-stool in everything all the time to the point where you can't look at chocolate cake anymore without wondering whether it's really Dick Cheney's used food.
We are too cynical to be good revolutionaries anymore. Besides, it'd require a whole bunch of us to live outdoors and eat infrequently. Can't have that.
d. Tyranny, though, if it was packaged and puffed right?
In a heartbeat.
Remember, we're now the country that is trained to ask not "Who shall imprison this torturer" but "Did the torture work?". That has been schooled to accept ID checks, background checks, taking our shoes off to board an airplane, the notion of soldiers in fatigues driving around off-post...OK, I'm kidding about the last one, but still - we're hardly a nation of cussed individuals. If properly wrapped in a flag, carrying a cross and promising safety, security, free Internet...could we refuse - more, could we even argue against it?
a. Economically, We the People are increasingly dependent on others for our livings.
b. Economic independence was considered by the Framers to be an essential criterion of political independence.
c. Ergo, if trends continue, and we are increasingly dependent on consumer debt, foreign manufacture and service jobs, I find it difficult to believe that we can continue to maintain even the limited self-government we retain. Eventually we will become what we were under Great Britain; subjects, hopefully of beneficent oligarchs and corporate rulers, but subjects nonetheless.