On Being a Bachelor

My dad told me that I live like a bachelor. I’m not sure exactly what he meant by that. But I suspect he really wasn’t talking about my marital status or rather lack thereof.

Partly my lifestyle is different because I’ve spent around three quarters of my life severely depressed along with some cognitive deficits (e.g., learning disability). That relates to my having dropped out of college and now have a working class job, even though I’m smart enough to do a higher-skilled job. In thinking about the bachelor lifestyle, my dad might have been talking more about class. I’m fairly sure that, if I were either a rich bachelor or a poverty-stricken bachelor, I’d be living a far different lifestyle than I do as a working class bachelor with a unionized government job. Other than my inhabiting a small apartment, the way I live is probably more similar to the average working class married couple than to bachelors as a general category.

My parents grew up in working class communities. They spent their early years in smaller houses that weren’t up to middle class standards, which is to say a bit cluttered and not pristinely clean. As my parents moved up into the world, they both sought to escape the world they grew up in. I’m not sure what it is, maybe a slight sense of shame of where they came from. I know my mom was embarrassed to bring childhood friends home because of the condition of her family’s house.

I, on the other hand, grew up middle class. My childhood house, because of my mother, was always perfectly clean. And some of the family houses from my younger years were fairly nice, such as our South Carolina home (built for a judge) which was a stately two-story brick structure with a large front porch, balcony, and walled garden. My parents have gone to great effort to become not just middle class but upper middle class, and they’ve succeeded.

For whatever reason, I haven’t exactly inherited this upward mobile aspiration of good living and class respectability, although my brothers are more middle class in their sensibilities. I dress working class and my living space would look working class, if not for the walls being covered in shelves of scholarly and literary books. I have no desire to act or appear middle class. Despite raising me middle class, my mom instilled in me a working class attitude about life and apparently I took it to heart.

Class is such a strange thing. As my dad’s comment implied, class is often spoken of indirectly. More than anything, class is an attitude. If it was important to me, I could dress middle class, act middle class, and maintain a house to a middle class standard. I’m not poor and I’m intimately familiar with what it means to be middle class (proper manners, how to set a formal table, etc). I just don’t care to try, maybe simply because of depression or whatever. I’m content being working class, as it’s a simpler and more comfortable way of living. For example, I like my Carhartt clothing because it’s practical and, on a basic level, I’m all about practical (as my mom raised me). I didn’t grow up on a farm or in a factory town. I’ve never gone hunting, much less owned a gun, and I’ve never driven a pickup truck. I just look like that kind of person.

Here is where the issue of marriage vs bachelorhood fits in. It used to be that marriage was most closely identified with working class. But that has changed. Marriage rates are now higher with the middle class or what is left of the middle class. As the economy has gotten harder, there have been fewer advantages for the working class to get married and more stress driving working class marriages apart.

In the past, it was common for a man to have a good farm, factory, railroad, or mining job. This might even have included job security and good benefits. This often paid well enough that his wife didn’t have to work, instead her staying at home taking care of the house and kids. It was the traditional American family and, for generations, it was standard for the working class. But hard economic times, along with more opportunities, caused an entire generation of working class women to look for employment to help offset costs.

The traditional family came to have less value, as people had less time to spend with family and were less economically dependent on one another. Being married has increasingly become a luxury of class privilege. For the working poor, it can be cheaper for an individual to live alone or easier to get on welfare, especially in poor communities where most potential spouses are unemployed. The incentive structure at the bottom of the economic ladder doesn’t encourage marriage, as it once did.

So, bachelorhood and bachelorettehood, along with single parenting, has become more common among the lower classes. It’s a survival strategy or simply a hard fact of life. If you’re poor with a job, you have little reason to marry a poor person without a job. And if you are a poor person without a job, there is little reason for someone with a job to marry you. As for two unemployed poor people, even if they weren’t feeling desperate and with no future prospects, marriage would have little meaning or purpose, not even offering comfort in sharing misery with another. In communities with low employment rates, marriage has become rather pointless.

Being a lower class single person has a similar stigma to being lower class single parent, just without the kids. If I were rich and someone said I had a bachelor lifestyle, they’d mean I was living in a large empty mansion or upscale penthouse, living the high life involving vacations and traveling the world, parties and dating beautiful women who presumedly wanted me for my money, not to mention a maid to clean my house. But if I were a severely poor unemployed bachelor, my lifestyle would likely involve at best living in a single bedroom eating Ramen noodles and at worst living under a bridge drinking myself to an early grave. As I’m not either of those extremes, that isn’t what my dad meant when he brought up my bachelor status. But the implication was that my lifestyle was closer to the latter than to the former.

My aspiration is to one day live under a bridge. And with the economy going as it is, my dream may eventually come true. Maybe I’ll meet a nice homeless lady to shack up with and keep me warm at night. Oh, to dream…

On Rural America: Understanding Is The Problem

There is an article, On Rural America: Understanding Isn’t The Problem, that has been getting some attention. It’s written by someone calling himself Forsetti and co-written with his Justice. The tagline for the blog is, “this is Truth”. Well, I like truth. But that is where ends my agreement with the author.

The piece is too simplistic, narrow-minded, uninformed, and cynical. I sometimes think liberals like this are projecting a bit about their own limited groupthink. In the words of one comment I saw in a discussion, “So it’s a tumblr post saying religious people are dumb. OK.”

There is only one reason that this is worth responding to. The author does express a fairly typical view among liberals. I understand the attraction to righteous judgment and, in the past, I might have felt more sympathy toward the anger expressed. But I’m now growing impatient with this kind of attitude that is driving a wedge between Americans who should be seeking common cause.

The very basis of the argument is blatantly false. The world is more complex than is allowed for by an us vs them mentality.

As many have pointed out, there is nothing specifically Republican and conservative about rural areas and states. Many of these places were Democratic and strongly union in the past. Also, there used to be a strong movement of rural socialism, cooperatism, and communitarianism. Plus, mining states like West Virginia once were breeding grounds for radical left-wing politics like communism, Marxism, and syndicalism.

Quite a few states in flyover country, in particular the Upper Midwest, still are largely Democratic. In the 2008 primary, Hillary Clinton won many rural areas and rural states. And, after the nomination, many of those rural voters chose Obama and helped elect him to office. Obama didn’t just win all of New England, the Mid-Atlantic, and the West Coast. He also won the Midwestern states along with Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia. He almost exactly repeated these results in 2012, minus Indiana and North Carolina. The difference for 2016 is that Clinton lost almost the entire Midwest, a region of flyover country that has been key for Democrats.

In recent elections, Democratic candidates win the presidency when they win the Midwest and lose the presidency when they lose the Midwest. The only Democratic candidate in the past half century who didn’t follow this pattern was Jimmy Carter, a Southerner who won with the support of Southern states.

I would point out that we really don’t know how most Americans would have voted this past presidential election because nearly half of Americans didn’t vote. If you live in a state that you think you’re candidate can’t win, you likely won’t vote at all. That is the problem with our winner take all system, where the winner takes every state in its entirety. This leads to Democrats losing presidential elections all the time, despite supposedly winning the popular vote, although to be fair it is impossible to determine the popular vote when not voting at all is so popular.

Population density and lack thereof is important. A person’s vote is worth more in a low density state than in a high density state, because if you’re surrounded by a vast concentrated population your vote has less ability to influence who becomes the victor. But the high density states aren’t entirely where you’d think they’d be.

Both Texas and California aren’t in the top ten of high density states. Rather, along with Florida, all the top ten most population dense states are found in New England, Mid-Atlantic, and Midwest. In the top twenty, a quarter are found in the Midwest. Only Iowa and Minnesota are particularly low density for the Midwest.

Let me give some specific responses to the piece. Forsetti wrote that,

“The real problem isn’t east coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. The real problem is rural America doesn’t understand the causes of their own situations and fears and they have shown no interest in finding out. They don’t want to know why they feel the way they do or why they are struggling because the don’t want to admit it is in large part because of choices they’ve made and horrible things they’ve allowed themselves to believe.”

Well, it’s a fact that East Coast elites don’t understand or care about rural America. Or rather, it’s a fact that research has shown the elites are disconnected from most of the population in general. The political elites are disconnected even from their own constituents. This is true for political elites from the coasts and from flyover country, because political elites tend to associate with other political elites along with elites in general.

That is only problematic if you support democracy. But if you don’t care about democracy, then everything is working just fine. Rural America doesn’t have much influence on politics. Even in rural states, most of the voters are concentrated in urban areas. It’s the cities more than anything that determine which candidate wins any given state, rural or otherwise.

“I have also watched the town I grew up in go from a robust economy with well-kept homes and infrastructure turn into a struggling economy with shuttered businesses, dilapidated homes, and a broken down infrastructure over the past thirty years. The problem isn’t that I don’t understand these people. The problem is they don’t understand themselves, the reasons for their anger/frustrations, and don’t seem to care to know why.”

First off, not all rural states are the same. Many farm and natural resources states with strong economies were largely untouched by the Great Recession. The housing market here in Iowa never took as much of a hit. Unemployment and poverty rates also have remained fairly low here. Maybe that is why Iowa has tended to vote Democratic in recent decades. Neighboring Minnesota has only voted for Republican presidential candidates in three of the last twenty-one elections, the only state to never have gone to Reagan. Iowa and Minnesota are as rural as they come and, as I pointed out, the most low density states in the Midwest (respectively ranked 36 and 31 in the country).

This author probably comes from the South. The rural South isn’t like rural anywhere else in the country. It is related to why working class whites everywhere outside of the South have tended to vote for Democratic presidential candidates. It is also related to the fact that, even in rural states, most working class whites live in urban areas. Also, keep in mind that many places considered rural today were considered urban in the past, until so much of the population left. My dad grew up in a thriving small town with multiple factories, but it was out in a rural area surrounded by farmland. Many small towns like that used to exist. The people left behind didn’t necessarily choose to be rural. It’s just the economy around them collapsed, with small businesses being closed, small factories disappearing, small farms being bought up by big ag, and small town downtowns slowly dying.

Many of those people understand just fine. They purposely didn’t vote for Clinton because she was the neoliberal candidate and they voted for Trump because he was the anti-neoliberal candidate. Trump promised to stop neoliberal trade agreements and to build infrastructure. They may have low education rates, but they aren’t utterly stupid. They are able to put two and two together.

“In deep red, white America, the white Christian God is king, figuratively and literally. Religious fundamentalism is what has shaped most of their belief systems.”

That is more of a Southern thing. In Iowa, for example, rural areas are largely Catholic along with Lutheran and Methodist. You don’t find many Baptists and other Evangelicals around here. Religion is more of a private issue in much of the Midwest. There is no mass longing for theocracy or the Second Coming.

Look at religiosity rates. Most of the Midwest is average, about evenly split between those who are highly religious and not. Some Midwestern states rate lower than average. Minnesota, with the 15th lowest rate, is lower than California (#17). And Wisconsin, with the 6th lowest rate, is lower than New York (#9).

Besides Utah, none of the most highly religious states are found outside of the broad South. And many of those religious Southern states are coastal and have big cities. The coastal elite in the South are as clueless as the coast elite elsewhere.

“I’ve had hundreds of discussions with rural white Americans and whenever I present them any information that contradicts their entrenched beliefs, no matter how sound, how unquestionable, how obvious, they WILL NOT even entertain the possibility it might be true. Their refusal is a result of the nature of their fundamentalist belief system and the fact I’m the enemy because I’m an educated liberal.”

I’ve found the exact same thing with well educated liberals. It seems to be common to humans in general. It’s why I’ve given up on the Democratic Party. Self-questioning and looking at contrary info doesn’t seem to be a talent of partisan Democrats. Nor is it a talent of the liberal class in general, as the world they live in is rather insular.

“Another problem with rural, Christian, white Americans is they are racists. I’m not talking about white hood wearing, cross burning, lynching racists (though some are.) I’m talking about people who deep down in their heart of hearts truly believe they are superior because they are white.”

Are we to assume the Clintons and other Democrats don’t think they are superior white people when they use racist dog whistle politics, promote racist tough-on-crime policies and mass incarceration, and kill large numbers of brown people in other countries? Is racism fine, no matter how many are harmed, as long as it is unstated and veiled?

“For us “coastal elites” who understand evolution, genetics, science…nothing we say to those in fly-over country is going to be listened to because not only are we fighting against an anti-education belief system, we are arguing against God.”

Once again, that depends on what part of the country you’re talking about. Many rural Americans, especially Midwesterners, have been supportive of education. In high school graduate rankings, Wyoming gets 1st place, rural Iowa ties for 3rd place with rural Alaska, Montana is #7, and Utah ties Hawaii for #8, North Dakota is #11, South Dakota is #12, Nebraska and Wisconsin tie for #13, and Kansas ties Washington for #17.

Consider Minnesota again. They are ranked 2nd in the country for high school graduates, #10 for bachelor degrees, and #17 for advanced degrees. That is quite the accomplishment for rural flyover country. Minnesota is the home of Garrison Keillor, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”

Methinks the author living on the coast doesn’t understand much about the rest of the country.

“Their economic situation is largely the result of voting for supply-side economic policies that have been the largest redistribution of wealth from the bottom/middle to the top in U.S. history.”

There is no evidence that, outside of the South, that rural states were more supportive of supply-side economics than the rest of the country. And even in the South, voting for Republicans probably has more to do with social and cultural issues than economic issues. Besides, this past election, it was the Clinton New Democrats who represented and defended the Reagan Revolution of neoliberal corporatism.

“They get a tremendous amount of help from the government they complain does nothing for them. From the roads and utility grids they use to the farm subsidies, crop insurance, commodities protections…they benefit greatly from government assistance. The Farm Bill is one of the largest financial expenditures by the U.S. government. Without government assistance, their lives would be considerably worse.”

In the Midwest, you hear less of such complaints. Farm states are more nuanced in their opinions about government, both local and national. It isn’t a coincidence that most major farm states are in the Midwest. The South doesn’t have as much farming as it used. The agricultural sector in states like Kentucky has largely disappeared. When I traveled through Kentucky, there were many collapsing old barns and fields slowly turning back into forest with some housing and old shacks mixed in between.

The reason I was visiting Kentucky was to see where my mother’s family used to live generations ago. Many Southerners left rural states like Kentucky to head up to the industrial Midwest, as did my family. Or else to move into one of the nearby metropolises such as Lexington. For those who remained in rural Kentucky, I doubt the Farm Bill is helping many of them.

“When jobs dry up for whatever reasons, they refuse to relocate but lecture the poor in places like Flint for staying in towns that are failing.”

Actually, most of them have relocated. The rural areas are depleted of population.

Many of those remaining there are the old, disabled, under-educated, low IQ, mentally ill, and generally struggling; plus, family members who stayed back to take care of aging parents and other independents, along with families that simply didn’t have the resources to move. Anyone who was in a position to leave has already left. And few young people and young families have any desire to move back to those kinds of places. It’s been a slow rural drain for more than a century now. We are just finally experiencing the death throes of rural America, quite literally as much of the rural population further ages and dies off.

It is heartless to judge these people. If they had the ability and opportunities to leave, they would have long ago. But even many who left for urban areas have simply faced problems of poverty and unemployment in their new location. If you were in their position, you’d also likely be in a state of bitter despair, frustration, and outrage. These people have literally been left behind, abandoned to die in obscurity. Besides, that is their home, maybe the home of their family for generations. Family and community is even more important when you’re poor.

What it is hard to understand is that it is immensely harder to be poor in a rural area than in an urban area. There are few public services available for rural residents. They might have to travel hours (an entire day trip back and forth) to get to the nearest government office, public health center, mental health services, food bank, etc. That is assuming they even have a reliable working vehicle to travel anywhere. There is no public transportation out in rural areas. They are lucky to have a convenience store and bar nearby. And if they are really fortunate, there might be a Walmart within an hour’s distance.

When most of the population left, most of the money, community centers, schools, churches, and social capital disappeared. There isn’t even much sense of basic safety. You want to know why they cling to their guns. It’s a desperate place to live, surrounded by some of the most impoverished and hopeless people in the country. The most thriving economy is probably illegal drugs, prostitution, and stolen goods. The violence and homicide rates are higher in rural areas than even the big cities. And if you feel threatened or have an emergency, it could be too late by the time the county sheriff arrives.

Yet many rural residents remember from their childhoods that these were great places to live with thriving communities and prosperous economies. They know full well what has been lost. And they are correct that coastal elites don’t care about them, even if they had the slightest understanding about their lives. They have every right to be angry. They’d have to either be crazy or saints to not be angry. Still, they probably don’t think much about it most of the time, as they’re too preoccupied with trying to get by.

“They complain about coastal liberals, but the taxes from California and New York are what covers their farm subsidies, helps maintain their highways, and keeps their hospitals in their sparsely populated areas open for business.”

That claim has little to do with reality. Most of the non-coastal states, even moreso in the Midwest (even Illinois with all of the “welfare queens”), give more in federal taxes than they receive in federal benefits. Also, many of the farm and natural resource states have large state GDPs that contribute immensely to the national GDP. Iowa gets ton of federal benefits but more than easily offsets that with federal taxes and general support to the economy.

The US economy was built on and has been largely maintained through farm and natural resource states. Even some of the natural resource states like Montana that receive more federal benefits than they pay in federal taxes only do so because the federal government funds projects there that benefit big biz. And so essentially it is a form of corporate subsidization that has little to do with the state itself as those are national and transnational corporations operating there. Sometimes the subsidies are more direct, such as the Koch brothers getting millions of state and federal dollars in Montana.

Ignoring the problem of corporate subsidies, the main economic divide of takers vs makers isn’t rural vs urban but South vs North. The South has a disproportionate part of the poor population in the country. And it is the single most populous region in the country.

“They make sure outsiders are not welcome, deny businesses permits to build, then complain about businesses, plants opening up in less rural areas.”

You can travel all over most of America and most often feel perfectly welcome. I’ve never felt unwelcome anywhere I’ve traveled, not even in the rural South. I’m surprised how many friendly people there are in the world when you act friendly to them.

About businesses, I have never seen such a pattern. The rural towns around here are more welcoming to businesses than this liberal city I live in. There is a crony capitalism and corporatism in this liberal town where local business owners tend to shut out anyone new from developing here. All major projects that are allowed by the City Council and given preferential treatment (e.g., TIFs) are those by local business owners. Otherwise, having a building permit denied isn’t unusual. And the liberals here aren’t shy about voicing their hatred of certain businesses, such as keeping a Walmart from being built in town.

I’ve never heard of any rural areas and small towns refusing to allow factories and businesses to be built. Most of them would be glad to see employment return. In the town my dad grew up in, the factories and stores didn’t disappear because local residents wanted them to disappear. The economy simply shifted elsewhere.

“Government has not done enough to help them in many cases but their local and state governments are almost completely Republican and so too are their Representatives and Senators. Instead of holding them accountable, they vote them in over and over and over again.”

Some rural state governments are Republican and some are Democratic. The pattern of party control seems to have more to do with regional culture, political traditions, and the kind of economy. Over time, though, there are changes in how rural state residents vote. Where the two parties tend to win has shifted vastly over the past century, including an entire political realignment. Just looking at the past 50 years doesn’t show a consistent pattern, except for in strong Blue states like Minnesota and the strong Red South.

“All the economic policies and ideas that could help rural America belong to the Democratic Party: raising the minimum wage, strengthening unions, infrastructure spending, reusable energy growth, slowing down the damage done by climate change, healthcare reform…all of these and more would really help a lot of rural Americans.”

The problem is many Democrats haven’t done those things. The Clinton New Democrats made the party into a wing of the neoliberal corporatist hegemony. Hillary Clinton was against raising the minimum wage before she said she was for it, but she no doubt was lying about changing her mind as she obviously doesn’t care about the working poor. The Democrats have done little for unions this past half century and betrayed them almost every chance they got.

Tell me again who campaigned on infrastructure spending… oh yeah, that was Donald Trump. Who has been one of the strongest supporters of dirty energy? That would be Hillary Clinton. And which president created a healthcare (insurance) ‘reform’ that was designed to primarily benefit healthcare insurance companies, even though the majority of Americans wanted either single payer or public option that the president refused to put on the table? Barack Obama, of course.

This self-identified ‘coastal elite’ is calling rural Americans stupid and self-destructive when it’s obvious he is as clueless, ignorant, and bigoted as they come. This kind of rant is the opposite of helpful. But it is a useful example of why the Democrats have lost so much support.

It’s the Working Class, Stupid

This election was mainly interesting for what it forced to the surface. Many people began paying attention. But the election itself wasn’t a fundamental change from trends and developments that have been happening for decades.

Politics after WWII was built on the growing middle class. And it was mostly a white middle class. The New Deal programs, the GI Bill, and such were designed to primarily help whites and to exclude minorities. Still, even many minorities were making economic gains at the time and increasingly joining the middle class. Not all boats were being floated, but more than ever before. And it was built with extremely high taxation on the rich. Creating a middle class doesn’t come cheap.

That subsidized and supported growing middle class made possible a new kind of politics. It took shape in the early Cold War, but only gained full force in the latter part of the 20th century. As much of the population became economically comfortable and complacent, they became ripe for the rhetoric of red-baiting, union-busting, culture wars, civil rights fights, and identity politics. Politicians had long stopped talking about the working class, about those aspiring to do better, and in its place came an emphasis on those who had already made it. The white middle class decided to pull up the ladder behind them and barricade the door.

Wages began to stagnate when I was born, back in 1976. Well, they stagnated for the average worker, which means they were dropping for the working poor. Buying power was decreasing, but people were able to maintain their lifestyles by working longer hours or multiple jobs. The economic problems were mostly felt across generations, as education costs increased and opportunities decreased, as job security disappeared and good benefits became rare. The unions made sure to protect older workers, which meant sacrificing younger workers. And the union leadership defended the political status quo in the hope of maintaining their increasingly precarious position. But the influence of unions was being felt by a decreasing number of Americans, especially among the working class and those falling out of the middle class.

Still, even going into the 21st century, there was still a large middle class. It was beginning to show signs of serious hurting, but the inertia of the economy kept the reversals from being noticed by the political and media elite. It was only at the bottom of society that it was obvious how bad it was getting, specifically among the young. That was true even in the 1980s and 1990s. GenXers were the only generation last century to experience a recession that only their generation experienced, and black GenXers were hurt the worst. That was true going back in the early life of GenXers with worsening child poverty rates. The vibrant middle class was poisoned in the cribs of GenX.

The talk of the middle class continued until this election. What had become clear this past decade or so, though, is that politicians and pundits in talking about the middle class were often actually talking about the working class. More people were falling out of the middle class, instead of entering it. In the past, simply aspiring to be middle class made you middle class, no matter if you were born working class and had a working class job. Middle class was primarily defined as an aspiration and the American Dream was about upward mobility. It was the sense that the whole country was moving up, all or most boats were being floated. But that has been changing for a long time.

This is the first election in my lifetime where the political and media elite finally had to admit that the US was defined by its working class, not its middle class. That is because in recent years this has become unavoidable. The US economic mobility had been falling behind other countries for a while, and fairly recently the US middle class lost its position as the most wealthy in the world. Trump won his nomination through inciting the fears and anxieties of a hurting middle class, as his earliest supporters weren’t the poor and working class, but he won the election because of those on the bottom of society, the working poor. Once Sanders was eliminated, Trump was the last candidate left standing who talked about economic populism and economic reform. As many have been reminding the Democratic establishment, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

It turns out that the mid-20th century middle class, along with the post-war economic boom that made it possible, was a historical anomaly. We are once again a working class country. And it isn’t a working class that is feeling all that hopeful at the moment. These Americans aren’t a temporarily down-on-their-luck middle class, much less temporarily embarrassed millionaires, nor are they even aspiring to much beyond not being left behind. Unless the entire economic and political system is reformed, this working class is here to stay. And if we continue on this path, it will become a permanent underclass.

End of Work as Endtimes

Work, a topic that comes up a lot. The US is a society obsessed with work as identity and as a way of life, not just as a means to an end. We idealize work ethic, the greatest praise being that an individual is hard-working and the harshest criticism being that someone is lazy.

We broaden it as an entire cultural ethos, the supposed Protestant work ethic, even though Catholic Americans seem just as obsessed with work. The traditionally Catholic Hispanics used to be stereotyped as lazy, but I doubt that was ever true. The stereotype is now changing and Hispanics are perceived as hard-working, which is their ticket into mainstream American society and their pathway to assimilation not just as Americans but also into potential whiteness.

Black Americans, of course, aren’t given the opportunity to assimilate into whiteness, no matter their real or perceived work ethic. It has been assumed by centuries of whites that blacks are inherently lazy, a justification for slavery and then later forms of prejudice and oppression, including the reinstatement of slavery through chain gangs. The reality, however, is that the whites who complain the most about others being lazy are probably projecting. This country was built with the labor of minorities, along with poor (often ethnic) whites, both supposedly being without the proper work ethic of upper class WASPs. I imagine many of those upper class WASPs wouldn’t know real work if they ever saw it.

There is endless weirdness, besides bigotry, around American notions of work and all that goes with it. In recent years, some have begun to worry about the end of work. It is through work that we have defined our society. The end of work sounds like the end of the world as we know it, which I suppose is true. If machines took over most human work, then what would we do? The fear is the lazy masses, without anyone forcing them to work for survival, would just laze about and do nothing productive at all. We better build work camps to keep the masses occupied or else they might start thinking about creating a free, democratic society.

Even many left-wingers can’t seem to imagine anything genuinely different. Labor has been the pillar of left-wing politics for long before Marx was born. We talking about the lower class as the working class. That is what they are. They are what they do, work. They have no inherent value beyond that. Organizing the masses inevitably means labor organizing or so it has meant in generations past.

I get the sense that there is something odd about all this. It’s not just the obsession with work, as identity and ethic. It’s one of those issues that seems to be about something else entirely. Most of the time when people talk about work I don’t think they’re actually talking about work. It’s maybe a symbolic conflation, like abortion, pointing toward something else. That something else has to do with the social order and social control.

To give this some contrast, consider hunter-gatherers. They don’t worry about work. In fact, they do as little as possible for survival and they probably never think of it as work. Almost everything hunter-gatherers do is a social activity. It’s the social part, not the work part, that defines who they are. Hunter-gatherers don’t have specialization, as everyone does a little bit of everything. Besides, most of their time is spent doing social things, as the most important part of being human in a tribal society is the fact that you belong to a tribe. That is who you are. Work is only important for what it accomplishes for the tribe and one’s place in the tribe, not as an end in and of itself.

What if modern society ends up back where we all started? Hunter-gatherers don’t work that much in order to maintain their lifestyles. What if in the future we too won’t work much to maintain our lifestyles? Would that be such a horrible thing, that like hunter-gatherers we spent more time with our families, friends, neighbors, and communities?

The hyper-focus on work is one of the most bizarre aspects of modern society. If you can’t imagine life beyond work, the problem is in your mind not in the world. Just because cars will eventually start driving themselves, civilization isn’t going to collapse nor will the moral fiber of humanity be rent asunder. Calm down. I’m sure humanity will somehow survive the end of work.

Americans will probably find other ways to work endlessly, such as mowing their lawns more often. That is the future of the US, Americans mowing their lawns everyday because robots took over their jobs. Sure, those future Americans could buy one of the new fancy robot mowers, but then they’d lose all meaning to their existence. To preoccupy themselves, Americans will have mowing contests to prove their human worth and to prove their being part of respectable society.

“They join the army because they want to be like you.”

Below is David Graeber explaining the political right (“Army of Altruists” from Revolutions in Reverse). The view is similar to that of Joe Bageant.

It’s not that they have gone mad. Don’t callously dismiss them, as stupid. No, they aren’t voting against their own interests. It’s that the world they live in offers them few, if any, good choices. They are responding to a society that no longer values justice and no longer honors the agreed upon social contract, at least what many Americans thought was agreed upon.

This is why I argue that the Democratic Party, in refusing to offer genuine reforms that help the lower classes, have made this situation inevitable. The policies of the Clinton New Democrats are Republican lite: tough-on-crime policies, cutbacks on welfare, neoliberal attacks on the working class, war hawk mentality that is willing to sacrifice the lives of the poor for wars that defend corporate interests, bloated corporatist government that no longer serves the public good, etc.

Democrats have refused to offer an alternative that matters. Instead, they’ve offered policies that make miserable the lives of so many Americans, both whites and minorities. Yes, so have the Republicans, but no one expects right-wingers to fight for social justice and political reform. The desperate and disenfranchised have often turned to Republicans because they at least seem honest in what they are offering. Even for poor whites, telling tem that their lives are slightly less shitty than that of poor minorities is no comfort.

For the down-and-out American, facing poverty and unemployment isn’t an inspiring situation. Even finding work at McDonald’s or Walmart is not much of a sign of success and a hope for the future. An aspiring individual can make more selling drugs or prostituting themselves. It’s not like the good ol’ days when some poor, uneducated schmuck could start their own successful business or get a high paying entry-level factory job working his way up into management. These days, a working class job is a dead end and a mark of shame, not an opportunity to better oneself and one’s children.

It is unsurprising that large numbers of people in poverty turn to military service. The military offers these people discarded by society a vision of greatness and pride. They can be part of the most powerful military in the world. For too many Americans, this is the only realistic path of mobility left.

This is why conservatives praise the military and put it at the center of their political narrative. The good liberals of the Democratic Party, on the other hand, offer the poor jack shit.

Here is the passage from Graeber’s essay:

“America, of course, continues to see itself as a land of opportunity, and certainly from the perspective of an immigrant from Haiti or Bangladesh it is. But America has always been a country built on the promise of unlimited upward mobility. The working-class condition has been traditionally seen as a way station, as something one’s family passes through on the road to something else. Abraham Lincoln used to stress that what made American democracy possible was the absence of a class of permanent wage laborers. In Lincoln’s day, the ideal was that wage laborers would eventually save up enough money to build a better life: if nothing else, to buy some land and become a homesteader on the frontier.

“The point is not how accurate this ideal was; the point is that most Americans have found the image plausible. Every time the road is perceived to be clogged, profound unrest ensues. The closing of the frontier led to bitter labor struggles, and over the course of the twentieth century, the steady and rapid expansion of the American university system could be seen as a kind of substitute. Particularly after World War II, huge resources were poured into expanding the higher education system, which grew extremely rapidly, and all this growth was promoted quite explicitly as a means of social mobility. This served during the Cold War as almost an implied social contract, not just offering a comfortable life to the working classes but holding out the chance that their children would not be working class themselves. The problem, of course, is that a higher education system cannot be expanded forever. At a certain point one ends up with a significant portion of the population unable to find work even remotely in line with their qualifications, who have every reason to be angry about their situation, and who also have access to the entire history of radical thought. By the late Sixties and early Seventies, the very point when the expansion of the university system hit a dead end, campuses were, predictably, exploding.

“What followed could be seen as a kind of settlement. Campus radicals were reabsorbed into the university but set to work largely at training children of the elite. As the cost of education has skyrocketed, financial aid has been cut back, and the prospect of social mobility through education–above all liberal arts education–has been rapidly diminished. The number of working-class students in major universities, which steadily grew until the Seventies, has now been declining for decades. […]

“Why do working-class Bush voters tend to resent intellectuals more than they do the rich? It seems to me that the answer is simple. They can imagine a scenario in which they might become rich but cannot possibly imagine one in which they, or any of their children, would become members of the intelligentsia. If you think about it, this is not an unreasonable assessment. A mechanic from Nebraska knows it is highly unlikely that his son or daughter will ever become an Enron executive. But it is possible. There is virtually no chance, however, that his child, no matter how talented, will ever become an international human-rights lawyer or a drama critic for the New York Times. Here we need to remember not just the changes in higher education but also the role of unpaid, or effectively unpaid, internships. It has become a fact of life in the United States that if one chooses a career for any reason other than the salary, for the first year or two one will not be paid. This is certainly true if one wishes to be involved in altruistic pursuits: say, to join the world of charities, or NGOs, or to become a political activist. But it is equally true if one wants to pursue values like Beauty or Truth: to become part of the world of books, or the art world, or an investigative reporter. The custom effectively seals off such a career for any poor student who actually does attain a liberal arts education. Such structures of exclusion had always existed, of course, especially at the top, but in recent decades fences have become fortresses.

“If that mechanic’s daughter wishes to pursue something higher, more noble, for a career, what options does she really have? Likely just two: She can seek employment at her local church, which is hard to get. Or she can join the army.

“This is, of course, the secret of nobility. To be noble is to be generous, high-minded, altruistic, to pursue higher forms of value. But it is also to be able to do so because one does not really have to think too much about money. This is precisely what our soldiers are doing when they give free dental examinations to villagers: they are being paid (modestly, but adequately) to do good in the world. Seen in this light, it is also easier to see what really happened at universities in the wake of the 1960s–the “settlement” I mentioned above. Campus radicals set out to create a new society that destroyed the distinction between egoism and altruism, value and values. It did not work out, but they were, effectively, offered a kind of compensation: the privilege to use the university system to create lives that did so, in their own little way, to be supported in one’s material needs while pursuing virtue, truth, and beauty, and, above all, to pass that privilege on to their own children. One cannot blame them for accepting the offer. But neither can one blame the rest of the country for hating them for it. Not because they reject the project: as I say, this is what America is all about. As I always tell activists engaged in the peace movement and counter-recruitment campaigns: why do working-class kids join the army anyway? Because, like any teenager, they want to escape the world of tedious work and meaningless consumerism, to live a life of adventure and camaraderie in which they believe they are doing something genuinely noble. They join the army because they want to be like you.”

An Upper Working Class British History of the Industrial Revolution

I was at the local public library for no particular reason. It just so happened that I was passing through downtown and stopped in for a brief perusal. When I have the opportunity, I like to check out the new arrivals shelf.

There are always books of interest I can find. On this visit, I grabbed several books, mostly to do with history. The one that I was most interested in was a book by Emma Griffin, Liberty’s Dawn: A People’s History of the Industrial Revolution. I’m not familiar with the author and I’ve never heard of the title before, but it sounded promising.

Griffin’s focus is on the “working class” and her sources were mostly personal writings. I started reading it last night. I speed read it and finished it today. On top of that, I thoroughly searched the index and I used the search function on Amazon to look for other terms. One could spend more time with it and maybe get more out of it. The book is more than two hundred pages and it is interesting, but not as interesting as I hoped it would be.

The main limitation of the work is that it is surprisingly narrow in focus. The topics considered are mostly mainstream and the interpretation is mostly conventional. I read a lot of alternative histories, what some call revisionist, and this Griffin’s historical account didn’t bring up anything I wasn’t already aware of.

The narrow focus is caused by the source material. As far as I can tell, she entirely relies on British writings. The title was misleading. Her viewpoint was rather parochial, in both senses of the word. She limited herself to a local area of interest, leaving out larger contexts. And, besides personal writings, she relied to a great extent on parish records.

She acknowledged to some degree the limitations of her sources. They were mostly male adults, although I didn’t notice her discuss that the writings she was relying upon probably came from those of the upper working class, those who were successful enough to have the time, money, and opportunity to write. She did turn to other records to try to get at the experiences of women and children, but she never dug down into the experience of the poorest of the poor, the most oppressed of the downtrodden. I know that during early industrialization there were massive numbers of people dying of starvation, malnutrition, and disease in the big cities such as London.

This book wasn’t broadly “A People’s History”. Rather, it was a particular people’s history, the British people. And it was constrained mostly to a particular demographic of that people.

The larger context she ignores includes a wide variety of factors — for example: imperialism, colonialism, slavery, genocide, resource exploitation, native populations, ethnic/racial minorities, the commons and the rights of commoners, enclosure movement, privatization, incarceration, etc.

She doesn’t discuss the English Civil War origins of the religious dissenting tradition. She doesn’t discuss the Levellers and only briefly mentions Quakers a few times. Of course, the influential foreign religious movements such as the German Pietists and the French Huguenots aren’t even referenced, nor do the American Shakers and Harmonists come up. All of these influenced the British experience, in particular for the religious dissenters. It would have been interesting if she had mentioned such things as Abraham Lincoln’s letter to the Manchester mill workers, when the Civil War interrupted trade. What was so interesting about industrialization is that it arose alongside an increasingly globalized and multicultural world.

Also, she only mentions once in passing the terms ‘Luddites’ and ‘Owenite’, but never offers any info about them. Anarchism gets no mention at all while feminism, socialism, communitarianism, and Marxism each get a single mention; plus, one person gets referred to as ‘indentured’; but none of these are given any space for discussion. Democracy and republicanism, the great ideals of the early modern revolutions, don’t even get acknowledged. None of the revolutions are brought up, including the Irish bid for independence. The Irish Potato famine and the London food riots never make an appearance. The Populist movement of the late 1800s doesn’t come up either.

Marx’s compatriot, Engels, does get some attention, although just in the beginning of the text. Some other things that do come up a bit is the co-operative movement and the reform movement. She does go a bit into radicalism, but mostly just to dismiss it from her analysis. It is made clear that her focus is elsewhere.

Her preferred focus is more on the personal realm of experience, of how people lived their lives and the work they did.

As one reviewer explained (S. J. Snyder):

It’s true that the working class’s lot may have risen compared to its past. But, Griffin dodges a couple of issues.

First, directly related to that, she doesn’t address whether or not income inequality rose during the IR, if so, how much, and whether we shouldn’t weigh that in the balance against the reported benefits.

Second, per stereotypes of dirty London and its coal-driven smog, she ignores environmental issues related to the IR, and how much more those affected the working class than the upper class. As part of that failure, she doesn’t address life expectancy issues. (My bits of Googling tell me that child mortality in Britain declined throughout the 1700s, but adult mortality remained unchanged. I can’t find any breakouts by economic class, at least with a brief search.)

The lack of data issue cuts other ways, too. Griffin indicates that the IR seemed to give the working class more money. But, again, we’re not given any data. I don’t know how much is available, but there has to be some.

In other words, it’s a good anecdotal people’s history. But, it’s not more than that.

This isn’t to say she didn’t cover other important topics. She goes into a fair amount of detail about all kinds of things that did interest me: child labour of various sorts, sexual violence and prostitution, single mothers and illegitimate children, courtship and marriage, underemployment and unemployment, rural and urban differences, education opportunities for children and adults, etc.

If you’re fine with the limited scope, it is a useful history for what includes.  The meat of the text probably could be condensed into a short essay. The majority of the book is filled with lots of concrete examples, which is good for those who want more detail. So, for anyone who shares the author’s focus, there might not be any other book that cover the same territory using this particular set of material. It would be a great book for doing research.

As a good source of information, I might go as high as four stars. As an engaging and accessible read, I’d give it an average rating of three stars. But I must detract a bit for all that was left out. It could have been so much more interesting of a book, if it had lived up to its title. Over all, from the perspective of someone with a casual interest in the topic, I’ll give it a solid three stars. It is good for what it is, not great but still a worthy read.

Then they came for the trade unionists…

Here is something that has been quoted many times before, but it deserves being quoted many times more.

First They came… – Pastor Martin Niemöller

Timbre Allemagne 1992 Martin Niemoller obl.jpgFirst they came for the communists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist.

Then they came for the trade unionists,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews,

and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew.

Then they came for me

and there was no one left to speak out for me.

– – –

If only people understood those words, we wouldn’t have all these problems that continue to plague us.

People look around the world and think other people’s problems aren’t their problems. Who cares about the poor who are exploited and oppressed in other countries? Who cares about the working class and the unions? Most people see those who are different as the enemy. To business owners, the workers are the enemy. To non-union workers, union workers are the enemy. To well off whites, poor minorities are the enemy. To poor Americans, immigrants are the enemy. To fundamentalists, social gospel Christians are the enemy. Et Cetera. And history just keeps on repeating.

I was reminded of what Niemhöller wrote because of the recent attacks on unions by Republicans and corporations. Unions have been greatly disempowered since the Taft-Hartley Act and since the Reagan administration, but still even in weakened form they are the only defense the working and middle classes have left in fighting against the ever growing corporatism in America. Of the top 10 campaign contributors, all are corporate PACs besides 3 which are unions. With the unjust elimination of ACORN, the poor and working class need the unions more than ever. Organizations like unions and the former ACORN help inform the public about important issues and help to encourage the poor get to the voting booths.

There is one very important thing to note from the Niemöller quote. The Nazis didn’t go after Jews right from the start. No, they first went after the Communists and unions. The Nazis had to first eliminate the groups that represent average people, the groups that are the pillars of grassroots democracy. Once they are eliminated, any other group can be freely attacked without the possibility of organized resistance. Just look at Wisconsin right now. Besides unions, there is no other group that could organize average Americans to such an extent. Unions are the very last defense. Unions don’t just defend their own workers. Unions, in defending the working class, defend the rights of all.

I was recently reminded of a fact most people don’t know. Check out these maps:

Party Affiliation (2009)From ’08 to ’10

State of States Political Party Affiliation, 2008

State of the States Political Party Advantage Map, 2010

Many states (such as in the South) that people think of as solidly Republican in reality aren’t that solid at all. In conservative states, a divide exists that doesn’t isn’t found in liberal states. Poor people in conservative states tend to vote Democratic whereas the rich tend to vote Republican (however, both the poor and the rich in liberal states tend to vote Democratic). So, how do Republicans maintain control of states that have populations mixed between the two parties? It’s rather simple. The rich Republicans control the politics, control the media, control the corporate contributions. The organizations that represent the poor are few and getting fewer.

Here is an article about 2006 voting data and a map of unionization:

Want to know why Democrats won the election? Because union members and their families voted for them.

Here’s the breakdown – non union members split evenly according to the CNN exit polls 49% to each party. Union members went 64% Democratic, and 34% Republican.

This actually underestimates the case, because unions are more than half of the Democratic ground game. It’s not just that union members vote Democratic – it’s that union members work for Democratic candidates and against Republican ones. They knock on doors, they organize, they phone pool. Any decent union has a hardened corps of organizers from their day to day work, and around election time those guys fan out. They are tough, experienced, don’t fear rejection and are mostly solidly working class.

If you look at a map of the US by union membership, like the one above, what you’ll see is that it looks awfully familiar – where unions are strong, Dems win. Where they aren’t, they lose or struggle.

The South, in particular, has a long history of disenfranchising the poor and the minorities (both of whom vote Democratic, of course). Most Americans don’t vote because most Americans feel disenfranchised from the entire political process. This perception is partly true and partly false, but the corporate media wants people to believe it because the continued dominance of the rich is dependent on this perception. If this perception of disenfranchisement falters even for a moment, protests and revolutions (or, at least, political upsets) can happen.

I’ve often heard conservatives (including democratically elected politicians) criticize democracy calling it mobocracy (two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner). Let me break down this criticism. So, who is this ‘mob’? It’s the masses, the general public, the average American, the majority of adults who feel so disenfranchised that they don’t vote. Conservatives are afraid of the majority because they know the majority doesn’t support their views and policies (see: ). Conservatives are afraid of grassroots democracy like unions because they know grassroots democracy won’t benefit corporations.

One argument conservatives give is that unions have already served their purpose. Conservatives will initially try to deny what unions have accomplished, but when that fails they’ll argue that there is nothing left for unions to accomplish. However, from my liberal perspective, unions are the only thing stopping our society from returning to 19th century capitalism. So, what exactly was 19th century capitalism like? There are some positive examples like the Shakers (which is a socialist model of capitalism that conservatives don’t like) and there are many negative examples like the following (from my post ):

Each mining camp was a feudal dominion, with the company acting as lord and master. Every camp had a marshal, a law enforcement officer paid by the company. The ‘laws’ were the company’s rules. Curfews were imposed, ‘suspicious’ strangers were not allowed to visit the homes, the company store had a monopoly on goods sold in the camp.
The doctor was a company doctor, the schoolteachers hired by the company . . . Political power in Colorado rested in the hands of those who held economic power. This meant that the authority of Colorado Fuel & Iron and other mine operators was virtually supreme . . . Company officials were appointed as election judges. Company-dominated coroners and judges prevented injured employees from collecting damages.
[The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-14, pp. 9-11]

I personally don’t want to return to a society where such capitalist systems existed. I’m fairly sure most Americans wouldn’t want to return to this either. And it’s good to keep in mind that this kind of capitalism (or similar variations) still exists in other parts of the world where unions don’t exist or don’t have as much political influence. So, I think it would be unwise to dismiss the role unions play in our society. Our grandparents and great grandparents fought and died for the rights we take for granted.

– – –

– – –

Ignoring history (which is never a wise thing to do), what can we say about unions in our present society? For example, does allowing teachers unions to have collective bargaining lead to negative impact on the public education system?

– – –

Anyway, how much power do unions actually have? A picture is worth a thousand words. Totals by Sector from OpenSecrets.org:

lobbying expenditures vs. campaign contributions

If money talks, politicians are listening to louder voices than unions.

Even so, unions are more likely to get heard by Democrats.

Top Democratic and Republican Donors in 2010

Top Overall Donors to Republicans:

Elliott Management (a Hedge fund company)
Koch Industries (note: the billioaire who is the main financier of the Teabaggers)
Every Republican is Crucial PAC
Associated Builders & Contractors
(so-called) “Freedom” Project (a Republican PAC)

NOTES: Top Republican supporters are billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds…and keep in mind this applies to the Teabagger movement as well. They are supported by the same billionaires, contractors, and hedge funds.

Top Overall Donors to Democrats:

ActBlue (composite of many, many small, grassroots donations)
Intl Brotherhood of Electrical Workers
Laborers Union
Machinists/Aerospace Workers Union
EMILY’s List (composite of many, many small grassroots donations)
Plumbers/Pipefitters Union
National Assn of Letter Carriers
Ironworkers Union
United Auto Workers
United Transportation Union
American Postal Workers Union
UNITE HERE
AmeriPAC: The Fund for a Greater America

NOTES: Top Democratic supporters are unions and grassroots donors.

Seems to me the contrast is really quite sharp: Billionaires vs. working and middle class.

Where unions are strong, do they make a society better or worse? Here is from a post I wrote comparing the US and Germany:

In this video, there was one particular point about Germany that stood out. Germany is 1/5 the size of the US and yet has the second highest trade surplus in the world (after China). They’ve accomplished this while having higher rate of unionization and higher pay. Interestingly, the US economy was also doing better when unionization and pay was higher in the US.

Unions in the US are considered socialists even though they represent the working class. In Germany, it’s required for worker representation to be half of board members of companies. In Germany, the industrial and financial sectors are highly regulated keeping jobs from being outsourced and ensuring main street benefits rather than just wall street. According to conservative ideology, this kind of socialist practices and union power should destroy the economy and destroy innovation and yet the complete opposite is the result.

This seems to support Noam Chomsky’s arguments. Chomsky thinks the world would be a better place if workers had more power to influence the companies they work for and influence the economy they are a part of. As a socialist liberal, Chomsky genuinely believes it’s good to empower the average person. It would appear Germany has done exactly this and has become immensely successful by doing so.

A major factor I discussed in that US and Germany post was about income inequality. Here is a graph showing both the data of union coverage and inequality:

Union coverage decreases inequality chart

For what it’s worth, here is a study about unions in three comparable countries:

In particular, unions tend to systematically reduce wage inequality among men, but have little impact on wage inequality for women. We conclude that unionization helps explain a sizable share of cross-country differences in male wage inequality among the three countries. We also conclude that de-unionization explains a substantial part of the growth in male wage inequality in the U.K. and the U.S. since the early 1980s.

– – –

I just responded to some comments from one of my previous blog posts () which touch upon a central issue in American politics. Here are my two responses:

I agree with you about the misleading notions of American “conservatives”. It would make life easier if they used a different term to label themselves. Looking at the history of Western conservatism, American conservatives don’t seem all that conservative. In Britain, the conservatives are the Tories. In early America, Tories defended Britain against the radical revolutionaries. I find it odd that American conservatives worship the founders who were radicals. Thomas Paine inspired the entire revolution and his writings were as liberal as they get.

I was reading Henry Fairlie’s view on Toryism. I realized that traditional conservatism more closely describes Democrats than Republicans. Democrats are the ones interested in conserving our present system. On the other hand, Republicans attack our present system. And, as you note, their fantasies about the past are actually radical visions that would entirely remake American society. They don’t want to conserve anything. If American conservatives actually wanted to conserve the past, they’d first have to read something other than revisionist history.

My suspicion is that the idiosyncrasy of American conservatism makes a bit more sense when taking into consideration the psychological research done on ideologies. Brain scans show that conservatives tend to have a larger part of the brain that deals with fear. Other research shows that conservatives have a stronger disgust response toward anything unusual or improper (such as rotting fruit).

America is unusual in that the status quo of our society isn’t the power of a particular church or of a royal lineage or of a specific ethnicity. The only status quo we have in this country is that of change. Ever since the first Europeans came here, it has been endless change. At a fundamental level, conservatives hate change and so American conservatives hate the status quo of the society they were raised in. They would like to create a status quo that never changes which, oddly, would require radically changing the present status quo. Conservatives seem like hypocrites because they are conflicted by their own psychological predispositions. In the US, they can’t win for losing. The country was founded on a radical liberal vision and has continued to radically change ever since. To be an American conservative is to hate the founding status quo of America.

(note: I admit ‘hate’ is a strong word. Let us just say conservatives are strongly conflicted by the founding status quo of America.)

I’ve just started a book titled Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye. It’s very fascinating. It’s odd that I don’t recall having learned much about Paine in my public education or even in various documentaries I’ve watched about early America.

There seems to be a love/hate relationship with Paine. His writings were what inspired the American Revolution and probably what kept it from failing, but his vision was so radically democratic that he fell out of favor with many of the others in the founding generation who just wanted to create a new ruling elite (which essentially is what they did).

It’s very interesting that this radical vision is at the heart of what defines America. Paine wanted to end slavery, wanted Native Americans to keep their land, wanted women, blacks, and the poor to have as much power as rich white men. He wanted America to become an example of genuine freedom that would inspire revolution all over the world. Paine was a bad ass. His vision is radical even by today’s standards.

America would not exist without Paine’s far left democratic vision. He inspired the revolution, inspired people to keep fighting, inspired people to support the fight for independence in all ways. The American people, especially the lower classes, were fighting for Paine’s vision of America. Paine dedicated his whole life to the cause of liberty. He never made any profit from any of his writings. He risked his life many times and even fought hand-to-hand combat. He was a hardcore revolutionary. He didn’t grow up with privilege. Unlike the most of the Founding Fathers, he was born working class and was an immigrant. Paine believed in the American Dream before there was a country called America.

Paine is the reason conservatives are endlessly outraged in America. Like many in the founding generation, conservatives are scared shitless about the vision that Paine proposed and that vision still exists as a seed waiting to sprout. Paine failed because the rich white males of the time were too afraid to embrace a truly free society. The Populists in the late 19th century attempted again to achieve that vision, but once again the ruling elite coopted the revolutionary energy for the purposes of the corporate elite. Now, we once again face the potential of Paine’s vision. People once again begin to remember what inspired the founding of this country in the first place. Those in power and those on the right will do everything they can to squash democracy. Everyone understands that democracy is the most dangerous vision that any human has ever conceived.

Maybe you’re right about liberals tending to focus on freedom from. When considering radical freedom, we can only know the past from which we are trying to free ourselves from. We can’t know where radical freedom will lead. It’s an experiment. Paine explicitly thought of America as an experiment. If you want safety and security, then you can’t have freedom. That is the hypocrisy of what America has become. Paine realized that even the ruling elite could only have as much freedom as everyone was allowed. Paine knew that the only way to have democracy was to have an educated public and the ruling elite knew the only way to control the masses was to keep them ignorant. But control can never lead to freedom.

Even the data proves this. In societies with high economic inequality, there are more social problems (see: ). The rich may be relatively better off than the poor in such a society, but the rich in such a society are relatively worse off than the rich in a society that has more equality. The rich people in an unequal society have, for example, more health problems (probably from the stress of living surrounded by poverty, crime, and social conflict).

Paine understood this centuries ago. The ruling elite at the time dismissed his radical vision. And the ruling elite today continue to dismiss his radical vision. Yet his radical vision remains. The potential of America continues to be wasted because of those who have power don’t have vision and those who have vision don’t have power. Paine began the revolution and the revolution is still happening. The reason America has never stopped changing is because a large segment of American society has always refused to give up on the vision Paine first described.

Many might consider Paine to have been naive for actually believing in freedom. But dammit I wish there were more idealists. The only thing that makes ideals unrealistic is the cynical ruling elite that always stands in the way. Why is democracy considered naive? Why is freedom seen as a threat?

To this day, the conservatives still fear the masses of the poor and minorities. If you look at the demographics of the Southern states, they actually aren’t solidly Republican by a long stretch. If all the poor and minorities voted, Democrats would win by a landslide in the South and all across the coutnry. Conservatives know this and that is why they do what they can to destroy organizations like Acorn and unions that represent the poor and disenfranchised. Most Americans don’t vote because the entire history of America has been about the ruling elite disenfranchising the masses. Even when they do vote, their votes might simply not be counted as happened in Florida. It’s fucked up.

If Paine was here, he’d start a new revolution. Paine was a Marxist revolutionary before there was a Marx. He realized that the fundamental issue is always class war. It was so when immigrants first came to America, many of whom were political dissidents, oppressed poor people, and indentured servants. And it’s still true.

– – –

Let me finish by pointing out a couple of things related to those comments.

First, here is a passage from the book I mentioned above (Thomas Paine and the Promise of America by Harvey J. Kaye, Kindle location 1129):

“in all countries where the freedom of the poor has been taken away, in whole or in part, that the freedom of the rich lost its defence,” he insisted that “freedom must have all or none, and she must have them equally.” Paine was not naïve. He knew freedom could be dangerous, but he pointed out that “if dangerous in the hands of the poor from ignorance, it is at least equally dangerous in the hands of the rich from influence.” Dismissing neither possibility, he suggested ways of addressing them. To prevent ignorance he recommended education. And to prevent political corruption he again demanded democracy: “numerous electors, composed as they naturally will be, of men of all conditions, from rich to poor.”

When people fear mobocracy, what exactly do they fear? Is it fear of the possibility of radical freedom that democracy envisions? Or is it fear that one’s vested interests would be undermined if everyone had equal education and equal opportunity? It’s true that ignorant masses are easier control, but a society can’t simultaneously serve both the realpolitik of control and the ideal of freedom. More importantly, Paine understood that to try to control others meant endangering one’s own freedom. A person can only have what they are willing to offer to others.

Second, the comments above (right before the quote from Kaye’s book) are from a blog post of mine () that touches upon this same issue of fear and mistrust of democracy. My point in that post is that this conservative response is based on an attitude of not having faith in the average American and not having faith in the strength of democracy. As such, conservatives don’t have faith in the fundamental vision of the American experiment. Here is how I ended that post (and with it I’ll also end this post):

The unions did manage to win in certain ways, but the liberal vision of the working class was integrated into the Federal government. Eventually, the Democrats became the party for unions and for the poor. This altered the dynamic causing the class wars to be less clear, especially as class has been mixed up with race and culture. The Democratic party has done some good things for the working class and so that is why the poor working class is loyal to the Democrats to this very day. The vision of Democrats is that the average person can actually be served by his representatives in Washington. The vision of liberalism is that democracy is strong and not easily destroyed.

Conservatives are less confident. They see democracy as constantly threatened and that is why they are much more partisan in their support of big government. It’s also why conservatives support big military despite claiming to be against big government. Conservatives live in fear of democracy being destroyed. Enemies are everywhere. The enemy threatens both from outside (Russia, Islamic terrorists) and from within (Communist witchhunts, social programs, gun rights). Conservatives don’t trust any governments. They only trust our own state government to the extent it might protect us from foreign state governments, but idealy they’d love to live in a world where state governments didn’t exist at all or else had very little power which means they wish they lived in early America.

My above commentary was inspired by this comment:

http://blog.beliefnet.com/crunchycon/2009/09/i-was-wrong-about-5000-year-le_comments.html

John-in-Exile wrote:

It is fascinating to me to have “The Naked Communist” resurface, even as a second work of fiction by a newly rediscovered author. When I was in high school (1960 to 1963) I listened to a series of radio lectures by (apparently) W. Cleon Skousen which culminated in a pitch for his book, The Naked Communist, which was going to expose the evil plans of the terrifying international communist conspiracy. I bought the book and read it and found myself nagged by one question that stayed with me for years. The core presumption of Soviet communism was that people would work hard for the well-being of the state, even with no personal payoff. That always seemed unlikely to me–in fact so unlikely that I always believed that Soviet communism was destined to fall of its own weight. The communist conspiracies were inconsequential because the system was certain to fail. I was then struck by the odd perception that the people most paranoid about the rise of this doomed ideology were the conservatives who should have been the most confident of the ultimate success of the American economic experiment. They were instead the least confident and the most fearful of being overwhelmed by the Soviet system.

When communism fell at last I was not surprised because it seemed to me always destined to fall. Why was my liberal mind more confident of our system than the conservatives that constantly pronounced us doomed to fall to the evil Soviets?

– – –

Conservatives don’t seem to have much faith in the American people or the American experiment. I understand having doubts and I even understand being pessimistic. But, faith or not, do conservatives care more about their ideology or about real people? I know many conservatives do actually care. So, why do they keep voting for Republican politicians who again and again implement policies that hurt average Americans? What is to be gained by attacking unions that protect the working class, social services that help the needy, and public schools that educate the next generation?

– – –


Middle Class vs Working Class

I’ve noticed something strange about how politicians and pundits use ‘working class’ and ‘middle class’. I don’t hear the working class referred to much in the media, especially not by conservatives. Being working class has become considered a bad thing. Everyone wants to be middle class.

What bothers me about this is that the middle class is shrinking even as the poor increasingly become the target of those on the right. For instance, the Tea Party protesters are mostly older whites of the upper middle class and above (i.e., not the average American). These old white conservatives grew up during a time when there was much more opportunity of upward mobility. But since the beginning of Reaganomics, the wealth disparity has been increasing and so the numbers of the poor have been increasing.

One recent survey showed that most white Tea Party supporters don’t believe minorities are intelligent, hardworking or trustworthy. This is a new class war. As the middle class shrinks, the upper middle class sides with the rich and sees the poor as the enemy.

I don’t know if this will start to reverse again, but I don’t think these affluent conservatives want it to reverse because it was conservative policies that were a major contributing factor towards this concentration of power and wealth. Of course, they’d love to blame it on the liberals (such as how Hannity tried to interpret the documentary Generation Zero). The problem isn’t the evil government and even the Tea Party supporters don’t actually blame the government. Most of them are on Medicare and of course they support Medicare even though it’s one of the biggest government expenditures. Studies show that conservatives love big government when Republicans are in power. Even Tea Party protesters fondly remember George W. Bush and yet offer little support to Ron Paul who is a real small government fiscal conservative.

What the Tea Party protesters don’t want is a government headed by a Democrat president. The reason they give is ‘socialism’ which is simply a codeword for helping the poor and needy. It’s class war, pure and simple. It was funny when Glenn Beck came to realize the working class was the socialist enemy while listening carefully for the first time Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA”. Interestingly, the only voice the working class has in the mainstream right now is Michael Moore who is a radical leftwing social justice Christian (or ‘commie’ for short).

It’s very odd because the Republican party used to side with the working class (the Reagan campaign even tried to usurp Bruce Springsteen’s message despite Springsteen himself being an ardent liberal). However, now that the working class has become a part of the growing poor, the affluent conservatives are trying to distance themselves from the working class even as they try to portray the Tea Party as working class populism. This means the real working class doesn’t have any direct political voice… which might be why, despite the conservative propaganda, the poorest of the working class tends to vote Democrat. So, the Tea Party is pretending to be working class which it isn’t while simultaneously pretending not to be Republican which it is.

I wish there was a real working class populist movement that would shake up politics. Even real libertarians can’t get a movement started without it being taken over by Republican operatives.

The worst part is that the mainstream media (especially Fox News) creates such a distorted picture of reality that the average person has a hard time telling which way is up. The poorest of the poor who lean towards Democrat are also the demographic that feels the most disenfranchised from the whole process and so rarely votes. For this reason, it’s in the interest of affluent conservatives to keep the poor disenfranchised. I saw a news report recently which was about a corporate memo stating in blatant terms that democracy of civic participation wasn’t beneficial to their profits. When Wall Street gives billions of dollars to all politicians on both sides, how can there be even the slightest hope for a real democracy that represents the average person much less those below the average.

The Tea Party protests the loudest, but it’s not the Tea Party supporters who have been hit the worse by the economic downturn. The hardest hit are the minorities, the poor, and the blue collar workers. Once upon a time, the working class fought hard to have a collective say in our society. It was from the battles with the wealthy elite that workers unions formed, but the conservative movement fought back and destroyed the power unions used to hold. Conservatives have the audacity to blame unions for helping to destroy the economy when it’s blue collar workers who are the ones who have lost their jobs more than anyone. Their jobs got sent overseas. but somehow the poor working class trying to feed their families is seen as the enemy of the affluent rightwingers.

I just don’t get it. The world would be a better place if the upper middle class whites combined their forces with the poor instead of sucking up to the wealthy elite hoping to get some scraps from the table. Since the middle class is shrinking and the economy is so uncertain, wouldn’t it make sense to make nice with the poor. Many poor working class people once thought of themselves as middle class as well, but times have changed. I remember hearing an interview of a woman who recently became unemployed. She said that she always thought the unemployed were just lazy, but she admitted that she had failed to understand how hard it can be when your job is taken away.

It’s a sad state of affairs. The poor are blamed for being poor. The unemployed are blamed for being unemployed. But oddly the conservatives blame all of the problems of Wall Street on the government which means blaming it on Obama and the Democrats. Why is it in the conservative mind everyone is to blame for their own misfortune accept wealthy capitalists? Why does the Tea Party criticize everyone from ‘socialists’ to immigrants and yet they’ve never protested Wall Street? Why?

 – – –

Note (5/27/10) – I just wanted to add one further observation that fits in with the concluding paragraph.

Why does a so-called “Libertarian” such as Rand Paul immediately defend BP even thought the irresponsible actions of BP will destroy many small businesses? I understand that Rand Paul is a rich white doctor and so doesn’t necessarily have much in common with the working class that comprise many family-owned fishing businesses, but I don’t understand why he would jump so quickly to defend BP when the average American has a very negative view of such mega-corporations.

Even though Libertarians like to portray themselves as representing the average American, it is obvious that many (most?) Libertarians and Libertarian think tanks don’t represent the average American. Certainly, Rupert Murdoch who is a self-identified Libertarian doesn’t represent the average American or average anything else for that matter. When push comes to shove, the Libertarians will side with big business… because often they own or work for big business.

Affluent Working Class Votes for Wall Street (in Massachusetts)

In Massachusets, people who voted for Brown were primarily affluent working class (slightly more white than black) who had been hit the economic downturn. The poor, however, were more likely to continue to vote Democrat or else not vote at all. The poor are used to being unemplyed and underemployed. The poor understand that the economic downturn started well before Obama, but it took longer for the economic downturn to have a major impact on the affluent working class.

The results of this are interesting. The affluent working class blamed Obama for the economic downturn that began years before with Bush. They apparently thought Democrat politicians in Washington were to blame. Even more interesting is that they didn’t understand the connection to Wall Street. Brown received massive money from Wall Street in the last weeks of campaigning and this money was used to convince the affluent working class to vote for Brown.

That is democracy for ya!

Political Jiu Jitsu

I liked the last point made in the video below.

Various corporations, media & political groups are constantly trying to control the narrative. The narrative that would be most financially beneficial to powerful corporations is that of voter apathy & disenfranchisement. Riling people up & then misdirecting them away from real problems inevitably leads to a sense of helplessness. If this is repeated enough, the entire lower class develops an attitude of learned helplessness where they just give up entirely.

Combine this with the slow destruction of the middle class then you a combination punch. In the US, the middle class always aspired to be part of the upper class. This aspiration has caused many Americans to identify with the wealthy class. We like to watch rich people live their lives on tv and the middle class will fight for tax cuts for the rich (even though it personally harms their own class). Instead, middle class anger gets directed at the working class (i.e., worker unions), the working class anger gets directed at the poor, and the poor class anger gets directed at everyone who is at the very bottom (welfare receipients, homelesss, immigrants, etc).