In Which I Explain Your Own Country to You on May Day
Today is May Day, celebrated by many as International Workers Day since the time of the Haymarket Riots.
Given my background, I have long confounded some people close to me, and often myself, with my ambivalence to the labor movement. You could be forgiven, I suppose, for assuming the opposite. My father was a Teamster; my mother was a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. For about six months, I myself was a dues paying member of a grocer’s union, a precondition for working in a supermarket that operated as a closed shop. Some of my earliest childhood memories involve strikes. When I was still riding a tricycle I joined my dad on a picket line. A few years later, I remember going to the union hall with my dad to pick up our Thanksgiving turkey (paid for with union dues) during another strike. My working class parents had great medical benefits. My father got time-and-a-half pay for overtime. Compared to what many Americans now face, it seems like a kind of Shangri-La. And yet…
I just came across a wonderful quote on the IWW website from a 19th century anarchist, written at a time when the American labor movement was being founded: “whether a man works eight hours a day or ten hours a day, he is still a slave.” My parents both loathed their existence. I don’t think I can recall a single day wherein both of them didn’t vocally curse the day they were born. Manufacturing work by its very nature is dehumanizing. It always seemed to me that the object ought to be to escape that kind of work entirely. Educate yourself, and get the fuck out! Where the trees are green and the birds are singing! That was always my motivational mantra. And that’s what I did.
“That’s great for you! But what if you can’t do that?” is the natural, inevitable reply. “What if you have no choice but to do this kind of work? Shouldn’t those who work in those kind of jobs do what they can to make their life a little better?” In truth, it seems inarguable. I can think of no rational argument against it. And yet, throughout most of my life, I have found myself resisting the notion of collective action with all the irrational exertion of a dog being dragged to a bath tub. Why? What is it?
I found myself asking these questions HARD recently, after seeing for the first time Barbara Kopple’s 1976 documentary Harlan County, U.S.A. In that film, the issues couldn’t be any clearer, any starker. Kentucky coal miners strike for better pay, and their bosses lie and use violence and intimidation to block them. The miners are so poor they seem to be living in some third world country, and it’s relatively modern times. And these are literally MY people…there’s no way I don’t have, say, 3rd or 4th or 5th or 6th cousins among those toothless, black-lunged miners, with their malnourished babies, living in cold water shacks. What is the prejudice against improving their lives? I really had to put this question to myself. I literally went for a walk and thought about it until I felt I had the key.
The answer I came up with is not some new thing; others (scholars, pundits) have undoubtedly identified it — although, in my many conversations with people about this subject, I can assure you that anecdotally, most people where I live don’t have any deep awareness of it. The answer is cultural, and most people where I live (New York City, the arts community) are from different cultures. They not only don’t share this aspect of my culture, but what they know of it when it comes to these matters, they dismiss out of hand, as some myth, or some idiotic, outdated holdover from other days. But I assure you that the idea lives, it is baked into the very substance of millions of Americans. Who would have a problem with negotiating an improved standard of living at a bargaining table?
I think the answer is that ultimately the resistance comes from Calvinism, from Puritanism. Max Weber’s “Protestant Work Ethic”. In other words, ideas with roots in the 16th century, brought to America by its Anglo-Saxon founders in the 17th century, and held by their millions of descendants, and much of the culture they built, to one degree or another, ever since. Much has been written about how these ideas have fueled America’s philosophy of being self-made, and of pursuing wealth by what might be called Workaholism. Perhaps less has been written about the flip side. I examined my own feelings about the matter, and this is what I came up with. Fortune smiles on the elect, and the elect are those who have earned their gains. But at the same time, there is an ingrained hatred of materialism. This is a seeming contradiction, but it is true. It is called the “Work Ethic”, not the “Wealth Ethic”. The wealth is the by-product, the reward. Within this culture, traditionally, the admiration is for the hard work. Somebody who inherits their houses, their boats, and their cars, don’t we usually dismiss them to a certain degree? (*Trumptistas erroneously believe their boy is “self-made”, an impression probably given by The Apprentice, rather than the heir to millions and rather bad businessman that he actually is).
Historically, there appeared to be a direct relationship between effort and gain. Poor Richard’s Almanac is full of maxims that attest to this widespread belief in financial dessert. And back then much more than today it was probably true. If you live in an agrarian economy, the industrious yeoman farmer is almost certain to do better than the lazy one. And this is true also of the independent craftsman, or the fur trapper, or anyone who is shifting for himself in the world. And also, the principle holds pretty well if you are already rich. If you start out with a large amount of capital, you can probably turn it into a lot more capital (unless you’re Donald Trump).
But what of the hireling? In a just world, he too would be gradually promoted for his industry and model habits. But since when has this been a just world? After the industrial revolution, millions of individuals were once again demoted to what most had been in ages past, something close to slaves or serfs. And their religion taught them that: A) you deserve what you get, and B) the material things of this world are vain and transitory. What truly matters are the rewards in heaven.
“If I deserve more, I will be paid more,” runs the belief. What sort of scoundrel ARGUES their way to a better salary? A loathsome kind of person, a deceitful, artful snake. Certainly a person with a very wrong set of values. (The deceitful, artful snake on the other side of the table doesn’t enter into this thought process. The boss is a pig; yes, that goes without saying. I hope he can live with himself. He is going to hell. Are you suggesting I should get down into the muck with the pig? He’s going to hell — not me. I am above this kind of money grubbing. On some level, I would sooner starve.)
NOW: as I say these are very old attitudes, centuries old. Circumstances changed rapidly; attitudes change slowly. It is certainly highly convenient for management to have a worker base that looks at life this way. It makes them easy pickings. In recent years, millions of working class whites have confounded certain other factions by flocking to the Republican party “against their own interests” as the appalled truism goes. How DARE they do something “against their own interests?,” certain people ask, “How stupid can they be?” This makes certain people tear their hair out. It makes them crazy. It has apparently never occurred to them that these people, much like themselves, are motivated by a philosophy. They are NOT “stupid”, they have made adult political choices based on what they happen to believe. Have they been misled? Lied to? Exploited? Yes. But they don’t need your elitist scorn and condescension, any more than they need being driven to the grave by slave-drivers.
The fact is that the left dropped the ball in this country, a long, long, LONG time ago. There is no inherent, natural divide between working class white Christians and the left. Starting in the 19th century, America’s progressive movement and Christianity were closely aligned. Abolitionism, Feminism, and Temperance (closely aligned with Feminism and other social reform movements) were all strongly associated with Christianity. In 1912, socialist Eugene V. Debs got 6% of the popular vote in the Presidential election. He would have gotten more if Teddy Roosevelt weren’t also running on another third party Progressive ticket, and if democrat Woodrow Wilson weren’t ALSO running on a progressive platform. My Alabama grandparents were STAUNCH New Deal democrats.
And then? The Cold War marginalized the left in the 40s and 50s. While the labor movement flourished in those years it also distanced itself from anything that smacked of “socialism” and itself became compromised by associations with organized crime and corruption. In the 60s, the left’s priorities became (rightly) Civil Rights and the peace movement. Largely driven by academia, the American left now became culturally divorced from millions of working Americans who formerly made up part of its core constituency. Racism and cultural prejudice became wedges at this stage no doubt — these divisions cut both ways. This cultural wedge was immediately exploited by the right. Successive waves of working class white voters have been siphoned off by Republicans in the years since, who have rewarded the loyalty of these new devotees by giving them what they seem to want: symbols, words and a leadership disinterested in their actual well being, one way or the other. This is politics, after all. It ain’t what you do, it’s what you say that anyone notices or appreciates.
This is one reason that I have been a little cynical about Sanders’ prospects in 2016. It’s not that I don’t embrace much of his platform. To my own shock (for I am much more of a philosophical anarchist than a socialist), I find that I do like what he promises. My skepticism is about how it can be delivered. The reason is that for political change to happen, there must be an overwhelming mandate. A movement. One that exists outside of college campuses and other elitist precincts. Evidence for such a mandate would be an actual Democratic Socialist PARTY, with many politicians in congress waving its banner…not one single Democratic Socialist politician, running on the Democratic Party’s ticket. And there would be organizers turning the Tea Partiers and misguided Trump followers into a born-again electorate committed to bringing about their own betterment (rather than that of a handful of CEOs) at the ballot box. There would be a substantial portion of Congress backing the same agenda.
The fact that these conditions don’t exist now, doesn’t mean that there can’t or won’t be. But it’s not about electing one guy. It seems to me that there’s ALWAYS this one guy. Ralph Nader. Howard Dean. How is this different? There needs to be a party, or at least a transformation of the Democratic Party. It’s creation would take an army of ambassadors who speak to these disaffected, alienated voters in their own language to persuade them, and it would take many decades, perhaps over two or three generations. Otherwise, you will not make this change, and if you make the change it will not stick.
This is precisely what the Republicans did, you realize. The right has been playing the Long Game. They have been working on this demographic since I was in diapers. Nixon. The Moral Majority. Reagan. Bush. The Contract with America. Bush II. The Tea Party. All built, at least in part, with the participation of former Democrats or the type of people who used to be Democrats in ages past. Are there a long list of non-economic issues, rooted in cultural conservatism, to be confronted in trying to engage these people? Yes. And this is why it will take a long time. And if your attitude (as seems to be the case with so many) is “fuck ’em”, well, fine. You just said “fuck ’em” to their votes. And yes, this demographic is going to matter less and less proportionally as we go forward, but it will be a long time indeed, perhaps never, before they don’t matter at all.
If you find the title of this post risible or offensive, good. It was meant to get your attention. I am clearly in favor of social and political change. But I think in order for it to happen, a much higher percentage of the American people have to be fully on board. But I also think that large numbers of people are there to be persuaded. A guy works at Wal-Mart, has no health care, and still doesn’t vote Democrat? Instead of writing him and several million other people off as idiots (the sort of thing I hear daily on social media), hadn’t you better try to figure him out?
This entry was posted on May 1, 2016 at 7:41 am and is filed under CULTURE & POLITICS, HOLIDAYS/ FESTIVALS/ MEMORIALS/ PARADES, ME, My Family History with tags Calvinism, labor, left wing, May Day, Protestants, socialism, unions, WASPs, working class. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.