The bootstraps are gone

[I apologize for republishing this one, but I discovered my connections to Facebook and LinkedIn had come undone, again.]

I remain deeply concerned about the rise of the new Gilded Age and the growing chasm between the 1% of the population who have corralled most of the world’s wealth and the rest of us who haven’t. I’m not so concerned for myself; I’ve had the privilege of an education and work in two professions that paid a little more than a living wage and weren’t off-shored. But many, many people, of all ages, are struggling to stay afloat, let alone pull themselves up by their bootstraps (as many Republicans including the horrid governor of Maine think they should do) on their way to achieving the American dream.

The challenges have been amply documented elsewhere, but it generally boils down to the exporting of decently paid American jobs and the lowering (relatively speaking) of wages paid for jobs that still exist in the U.S. I have written elsewhere on this blog about my understanding of how that happened and have also concluded that there is little hope of turning it around. Other, far better minds than mine have been reflecting on the state of things, as well.

Steve Fraser wanted to understand why there hasn’t been more protest from today’s Americans as they were reduced to serfdom. His new book is entitled, appropriately, The Age of Acquiescence. That suggests where he’s coming from, but it’s the subtitle that reveals the essence of his regret: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power. He recounts the rise of the American labor movement and the price workers paid, even before the Great Depression, to force corporations (the wealthy) to improve their working conditions, work hours, and pay. He also traces the steps corporate titans have taken since then to bust the unions and reduce many Americans to low-income status not so different from those ancestors in pre-union times, who worked long hours in the mines, steel mills, and textile factories, locked into a system created by the robber barons of their day.

The same issue of The Atlantic that reviewed Fraser’s frankly depressing book also reviewed labor attorney Thomas Geoghegan’s new book, Only One Thing Can Save Us: Why America Needs A New Kind of Labor Movement. The jist of Geoghegan’s thought is that American workers of all ilks (at least everybody who’s not a CEO or investment banker) need to rediscover the power of a joint effort in fighting back against the destructive divide and conquer tactics perpetrated against us by corporations. Reviewer Kim Phillips-Fein sums up Geoghegan’s advice this way: “[if the long since decayed edifice of the original organized labor movement were to fall away] people might be jolted into recognizing that they’ve forgotten how to insist on their rights and freedoms as workers. They would need to find ways–as people did a century ago–to speak about their aspirations in a political language that lays claim to democratic principles and counters the illusion that the world must be divided between a superelite and those whose mission is to serve it.”

Just reading that review raised my spirits a bit. But not for long, because I was also reading Naomi Klein’s 2000 book, No Logo, at the same time. And before I could begin to visualize workers uniting in ways that would force industry to share with them a larger part of the wealth their labor helped produce, I turned back to Chapter 9 (The Discarded Factory), in which Klein describes the shift in  American corporate thinking from production-centered to a branding/marketing philosophy (which sees creation of the product as secondary, maybe tertiary, to establishing brand loyalty that makes us want to wear their logo on our chests), led by the ever-popular Nike, which apparently never had a factory on U.S. soil at all. Klein laments the virtual slavery off-shore workers endure as they turn out cheap products for sale at high prices in the United States. But she also tallies the number of jobs shipped away from America’s once-great, thriving industrial cities.

See the problem? We can’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps because the bootstraps have been shipped to Bangladesh. If most of the good paying jobs are already gone (Klein wrote her book fifteen years ago), what would we organize for? I don’t mean to take anything away from the fast food workers and Walmart employees who have had some success lately in getting their companies to crack open the treasure chest and provide them with a little more pay (at least they’ll probably be able to shop where they work now–sort of like miners shopping at the company store back in the days before labor first got organized).

But I don’t see how things will really brighten up for the working/middle class unless American companies stop exporting jobs and bring back a lot of the jobs they shipped away a long time ago. The persistent greed with which those in the 1% continue to vacuum up every additional cent they can makes me wonder what astounding event could cause that kind of turnaround. I went looking for a plan, and I found it in the words of the former rail-splitter himself, Abe Lincoln. He was talking about how to reach those who remained committed to slavery in the United States, but I think his thoughts can easily be applied to the ridiculously wealthy Americans who have reinstituted a kind of indentured servitude in our era. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin tells us Lincoln avowed that “the sanctimonious reformer [with appeals to a higher law] could no more pierce the heart of the drinker or slaveowner than ‘penetrate the hard shell of a tortoise with a rye straw. Such is man, and so must he be understood by those who would lead him.’ In order to ‘win a man to your cause,’ Lincoln explained, ‘you must first reach his heart,’ the great high road to his reason. This he concluded, was the only road to victory–” I’m not sure how we go about that, considering that most of the people we need to reach live securely behind guarded gates and fly on private planes where they are in no danger of coming in contact with the common folk, but if Lincoln believed such an approach could change the hate-filled heart of a racist in his day, surely we can find a way into the greed-filled hearts of the wealthy in ours.

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