Adam Cornford on the fears of American workers.
Recent poll numbers make visible what most of us have known for some time—ordinary working Americans are a lot less scared of what foreign terrorists might do to them than of what daily life is already doing. Such fear, combined with what Daily Show host Jon Stewart calls a “visceral loathing” for the Bush regime, may reach the point at which it’s replaced by an (actually elected) Kerry Democratic administration. But this by itself will not change the underlying causes of the constant intimidation to which most Americans are subjected by the corporate elite and its allies and servants in government and the media.
The greatest single cause of fear in most people’s lives is the economy. America has lost over three million jobs in the last four years, mostly in manufacturing, and mostly above the median wage. We are facing the highest levels of unemployment since the engineered recession of the early Reagan era—the last time this kind of terror was deliberately applied. To be fair, some of the jobs are disappearing simply due to competition from locally owned firms in low-wage zones such as Mexico, China, and the Philippines. But many others are being exported to these same low-wage zones by U.S.-based corporations. The Bush administration has only accelerated the continuation of this process, already well under way during the Clinton era, as prosperity fueled by the stock market bubble masked some of the effects of this shift. And while John Kerry huffs and puffs about “Benedict Arnold” corporations export high-wage jobs, he has no real proposals for stopping the process, which is integral to the WTO-NAFTA-CAFTA version of globalization.
Meanwhile, the Federal government continues to put new terror weapons in the hands of corporations: importing engineers and other skilled technical workers from South Asia, and Bush’s Guest Worker bill that would “legalize” undocumented workers on temporary visas as virtual indentured slaves to their employers, are only two examples.
But again, the backdrop to this is the continual weakening, ever since 1948 and the Taft-Hartley Act and much intensified since 1980, of legal protections for workers, particularly of the right to organize, let alone the right to strike. At this point the NLRB is a stacked deck, even with—as during the Clinton years—a somewhat friendlier team in charge of the bureaucracy. The AFL-CIO and Congressional Democrats are pushing a bill that will replace the union election—which allows employers lots of time to intimidate, bribe, and divide their workforce to prevent a “yes” vote—with the much quicker “card check” as the primary means of gaining union recognition. While this would probably help, workers still need on-the-job leverage to force employers into a decent contract, and given that most jobs are now exportable, this is hard to do without much greater national and international coordination among workers in an industry.
It’s not only that an ever-increasing proportion of America’s workers face job insecurity: new jobs laid-off workers are likely to get will typically pay less and have inferior benefits and conditions. Meanwhile, even workers with relatively well-paid and secure jobs—the UFCW grocery clerks, for instance—are facing brutal employer pressure to cut their health benefits. (see also “A Strike By Any Other Name”) Corporations prefer a high level of unemployment because it enforces what economists like to call “market discipline;” that is, it scares workers into tolerating the intolerable. The kind of life described by Barbara Ehrenreich in Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America—working one-and-a-half or even two full-time jobs, neither of which pays much above a shriveled minimum wage, just to get by—is becoming the norm for the bottom third of the workforce. To chronic fear are added chronic stress, sleep deprivation, exhaustion, and, for an increasing number, malnutrition, caused less by a shortage of food than by a shortage of time to prepare anything wholesome for oneself and one’s family.
It seems likely that the rapid growth of obesity as a major cause of illness and death in the U.S., along with rising rates of infant mortality and declining average height (adjusted for ethnic background) are all symptomatic of this state of affairs. So, I suspect, are such cultural phenomena as the wholly irrational surge in popularity of gas-guzzling SUVs, which are less safe than smaller cars but make their owners feel safer, the bloating of portions in chain restaurants, the rise of evangelical “mega-churches,” and the general tendency to simple-minded escapism in entertainment. Even George W. Bush’s stubborn popularity with nearly half the voting population, in the face of ever-mounting evidence of corruption, fraud, and malevolent incompetence, is, I would argue, fundamentally about fear and the wish not to think and act for oneself. Bush’s crude division of the world into good and evil forces, his macho pretence of decisiveness and strength in the face of “our enemies,” are pacifiers in the mouths of people infantilized by chronic anxiety overlaid on authoritarian conditioning.
Meanwhile, the lack of decent health insurance—or any at all—for more than 40 million Americans is another major source of economic terror. With little or no coverage for catastrophic hospital care, millions of Americans live in dread of serious or chronic illness. Workers accept ever-increasing premiums and co-pays imposed by employers because they’re afraid of ending up in a worse situation, possibly with no insurance at all. (Wal-Mart is but one model in the post-Reagan US economy. Let us pause here to spit on the Gipper’s grave; Alzheimer’s let him off too easily.) This warms the hearts of the insurers, just as the Bush administration’s new Medicare bill banning the cross-border sale of cheaper drugs from Canada, puts smiles on the faces of pharmaceutical executives. A steady flow of money from these interests into state and federal politics, as well as into media campaigns, keeps the idea of Western Europe- and Canadian-style tax-funded, universal, national health insurance beyond serious discussion. The Clintons’ disastrous, labyrinthine attempt at an impossible compromise between for-profit insurance and the need for universal coverage, which helped Newt Gingrich and Co. gain control of Congress in 1994, has ever since intimidated all but a few politicians out of any attempt to propose serious reform. Kerry’s current proposal is little better, though it does at least advance the notion that health care is a right, not a privilege.
If illness is scary, retirement is nerve-wracking. Countless workers have already lost much of their retirement money through irresponsible investing by their pension, 401(k), and mutual fund managers during the ’90s bubble. Meanwhile, although contrary to alarmist propaganda from right-wing pundits, Social Security is still solvent, the Bush strategy of starving the Federal government of funds via tax cuts and overspending is designed to force the system into privatization. This would release a huge flow of capital into the coffers of investment banks and insurance companies, but leave nearly all the rest of us vulnerable to market fluctuations in the assets upon which we will depend in our old age.
In fact, this effort to force the looting of Social Security is once again merely a continuation of the fundamental strategy of the corporate Right. This strategy was propagated during Reagan’s first term by the front group Americans for Tax Reform, and famously summarized by its current leader, Gingrich/Bush advisor, anti-tax ideologue, and Grateful Dead fan Grover Norquist: “…to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Of course, this faction, which dominates the Bush regime, does not really wish to eliminate government. On the contrary, there are parts of the government that it is expanding as rapidly as possible—notably the military, the intelligence services, and aggressive/repressive functions generally, and tax and legislative support for corporations. What these swine really mean by “government” is all the things it does to aid the poor, sick, elderly, and infirm, and to defend the interests of individuals and civil organizations such as unions and social welfare, environmental, and consumer groups as opposed to corporations. Once again, I am not suggesting that a Kerry administration would reverse all these trends anywhere near aggressively enough—only that it represents a more farsighted coalition of elite forces, which recognizes the dangers of runaway federal deficits, mass poverty, elimination of the stably employed working class, and global warming.
Americans are also experiencing higher social and familial anxiety, much of which can be directly traced to the defunding of public services over the last two decades (again, big props to the grinning ghost of Ronald Reagan for this one, as also to the withered specters of Howard Jarvis and Paul Gann, authors of California’s Prop 13). Most states now face severe deficits as a result of the Bush administration’s massive cuts in grants for health, welfare, education, and transportation on top of the steady erosion of their tax revenues caused by decades of pressure from corporations, real-estate interests, and upper-middle-class homeowners. In fact, all 50 states are at least technically bankrupt. This particularly pernicious general fiscal starvation of local and regional government has been renewed by the Christian-Right-led attack on programs dealing with HIV, drug issues, and sexuality and reproductive rights.
The results are visible everywhere: decaying public schools with demoralized, underpaid teachers; skyrocketing college tuition alongside mostly flat financial aid; mass transit that goes fewer places, less often, for higher fares; a public health system on the verge of collapse.
Working parents face a host of worries about their children: how they’ll get to school on time, how they’ll obtain a good education, and how safe they’ll be. (That said, recent parent surveys suggest a curiously schizoid, presumably denial-fueled attitude to public education, which boils down to: the schools in general are totally screwed up, but my kid’s school is OK.) How they’ll pay for college, assuming they can get into college on the test scores they’re able to generate after the patchy schooling they’ve had; how they’ll keep from abusing alcohol and drugs, contracting HIV, or getting pregnant1—and how they’ll get treatment or an abortion if they do!.. No wonder suicide is the second largest cause of death among teenagers after car accidents, no wonder divorce rates are so high, and no wonder the market for antidepressants and anti-anxiety drugs is booming.
In addition to these entirely realistic worries, there is a curious, semi-illusory dimension to the social terror campaign—the issue of crime. Throughout the last seven or eight years of the twentieth century and into this one, crime rates were actually dropping even as anxiety about crime was rising, fueled by media hysteria and right-wing ideologues. The Right attributed this drop to the ever-longer sentences, many of them mandatory, being handed down even for nonviolent felonies, such as the sale or possession of crack cocaine, and especially to the “three strikes” laws enacted in so many states during that period. Studies, however, have shown that the drop is not mainly attributable to tough sentences and tougher prisons; in fact, these sentences and prisons are creating an increasingly larger pool of recidivistic, violent sociopaths—and also prison mega-gangs, of which the Aryan Brotherhood is only the most brutal, that have not only spread, along with AIDS and TB, through the entire American gulag but are busy building criminal empires on the outside. The “justice” system is a self-replicating social terror machine.
Finally, Americans face direct and indirect political intimidation. In the years since 9/11, it has been difficult to voice any serious criticism of the Bush administration for fear of being labeled a traitor. From the very day of the Al Qaeda atrocities, a concerted government and media campaign set out to exploit them for political purposes. (The curious unconcern of Bush and his top aides on the day of the attacks, as well as such mysteries as the failure of the Air Force to scramble together assault aircraft once the airliners were known to be missing, is finally, with the huge success of Fahrenheit 911, getting more attention.) The ensuing PATRIOT Act of 2001 has authorized a host of repressive measures, including the virtual suspension of privacy rights, and allows the Attorney General to define “terrorist” and “terrorist support” organizations more or less at will.
One of the more stunning bits of chutzpah on the part of the Bush regime has been its appointment to high-level posts of several indicted or convicted “Iran-Contra” felons. Among these, former Reagan National Security advisor Adm. John Poindexter stands out not only for his role as primary architect of the Iran-Contra scheme but for his directorship of the post-2001 Office of Information Awareness (OIA). OIA’s goal is nothing less than to create a vast Internet and telecom surveillance system, originally named Total Information Awareness and halted by Congress in 2003, but now being stealthily pursued piecemeal. TIA would allow not only a sophisticated computer analysis of the immensely widening wiretapping authorized by PATRIOT, but would also facilitate mining of internet traffic and of the immense virtual database created by the linkage of transaction records and other personal information via an individual’s driver’s license and Social Security number. All this, of course, in the name of combating terrorism. If you’re not terrorized by this deep invasion of privacy, you should be.
As dissent beyond the timidly ineffectual is increasingly tarred with the “terrorist” brush, so protest is treated with much greater brutality by the police, as seen in the violence dealt out last year to antiwar protesters and longshore workers in Oakland and to global justice demonstrators in Miami. In this climate, it has been much easier for the Republican leadership to continue its campaign of gerrymandering (as in Texas), vote-rigging (as in Florida), and demagoguery (as in the California Governor recall).
Isolation versus Solidarity
The corporate elite is able to impose this regime of fear not only because a mere 13 percent of the U.S. workforce (mostly in the public sector, at that) belongs to any kind of union and the already biased framework of labor law is consistently enforced against organizing efforts, but for another, deeper reason.
Until the middle of the last century, workers for a given enterprise or industry, such as the New York garment district, tended to live close together and close to the workplace, in tenements or row houses. They had strong social networks and practiced mutual aid out of necessity. Union organizing, despite an even more hostile legal situation, was easier because workers knew and supported each other outside of work.
But today’s employees seldom live near each other or their extended families, and forfeit hours of their unpaid, “free” time commuting to work from scattered suburban homes. Despite the phone and the Internet, this makes the logistics of organizing much harder. More profoundly, it creates isolation, rendering us (and I do mean us, as in you and me, dear reader of this sophisticated publication, not just “them”—do you really think you’re immune?) vulnerable to the dizzying stream of pro-business, pro-privatization propaganda pouring from our radios and TV sets. It reinforces the constant theme in American culture, propagated relentlessly for the last quarter-century by right-wing foundations and think tanks, that we are all entrepreneurs competing in the great marketplace, pitching our skills and personalities as merchandise to the highest bidder. If we find ourselves poor, broke, sick, or unemployed, it’s nobody’s fault but our own. Life is a race, and we’re the losers—end of story. (Still don’t like the “we”? When was the last time you called someone a “loser”? Aren’t you engaged in this competition in some way?)
The first step in overcoming fear, then, is overcoming the shame we feel at what seem our own failures. Of course we may have made mistakes, but the economic and social conditions that have been imposed on us make the consequences of otherwise minor errors potentially deadly. It’s as if the force of gravity has been doubled, so that even a small fall breaks bones.
Once we recognize that millions of other people, including some of our neighbors, face the same terrifying conditions we face, we can take the next step, moving to overcome isolation. If we’re lucky enough to belong to a decent union—one that actually, unlike many unions, does provide real collective as well as individual defense for its members—that’s obviously the first stop. But other grassroots groups, from patients’ rights and tenants’ organizations to neighborhood groups, can also provide short-term support. Some-times it’s just our friends who save us. But the first thing is to get past trying to face it alone.
Beyond the immediate crisis, the key to rolling back the everyday terror we face is solidarity. Solidarity is based on trust, a trust built face-to-face, in small groups, out of dialogue and shared experience. Each time our trust is rewarded, we grow stronger as individuals and as a group. We begin to believe that if we stumble, others will help us to our feet again, as we will help them. At the same time, we are reinforced in our understanding that the source of our worst problems and most excruciating fears is the existing political, social, and economic system—a system designed to benefit the few at the expense of the many and to terrorize the many into passively accepting it.
Survival as Terror
This is the crucial point. All rhetoric of freedom and opportunity to the contrary, capitalism has always been based on fear. Yes, ambition, for one’s children if not for oneself, has been an important motivator, too, in keeping countless people working at mind-numbing, soul-killing, often body-breaking jobs year in, year out, until they die or are “retired.” But ultimately, for most people most of the time, it boils down to what John Winthrop, first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, told his people: “He that does not work, neither shall he eat.” This has always been the first law of capitalism for the worker. During the long postwar boom of (roughly) 1948-1972, it was possible to live without much economic fear in the “developed” countries because jobs that paid enough to live on were so plentiful, and beneath them was the social safety net developed since the end of the Depression. The result by the late ’60s was a wholesale “revolt against work” not only by the so-called hippies but by millions of working-class youth. And this revolt, even when expressed individually, as it was more often than not, was part of a collective culture of refusal, expressed in various more visible social movements—the peace movement, the black and Chicano movements, the women’s and gay rights movements. An essential aspect of the economic crisis of the later ’70s was the reimposition of labor market terror on younger workers via inflation and recession combined. This reimposition has continued ever since.
The worst of it is this. When John Winthrop made his pronouncement, the productivity of labor was so low and the social group so small that it was indeed a necessity. But even by the late nineteenth century, productivity had been so multiplied by technology that Paul Lafargue, in his pamphlet The Right to Be Lazy, could contemplate the possibility of a four-hour workday. More than a century later, most work in developed countries is now of two kinds, neither of which would be needed in a system built on people’s needs for enjoyment, creativity, and freedom. One kind of work is making sure capital circulates—marketing and selling merchandise; collecting, routing, storing, and tracking the money the sales generate; and so forth. The other is providing other workers with the services they can no longer perform for themselves and each other because of the time they must to sacrifice to job, commute, and, increasingly, the “work” of shopping in warehouse stores—fast food, home and auto maintenance and repair, most “entertainment.” In other words, all this constant stress and fear and exhaustion, and the meaninglessness of most work, are both utterly unnecessary. Except that the lie-soaked, violence-backed power of the existing order forces each of us, individually, to reproduce it by what we do every day.
From Solidarity to Freedom
This understanding is itself terrifying because of the scale of the task with which it confronts us. It’s also exhilarating, because the glowing, toxic clouds of pro-business propaganda and private-individualist ideology begin to clear and we can see where we are. But solidarity also shows us something more. Over and over again during the last century and a half, workers collectively resisting the system that exploits and terrorizes them have come to understand that solidarity is not just a means, but an end in itself—the basis for a new and better kind of society. Rapidly expanding grassroots communication, face-to-face direct decision-making, ad hoc organization of mutual aid in forms like emergency food distribution centers, strike kitchens and clinics, and in some cases actual takeover of workplaces and transport systems—all these aspects of large-scale solidarity begin, in the words of the Wobblies, “building the new society within the shell of the old.” Quite simply, people begin producing the goods and services they decide together are needed, and those that need them get them. The founding principle of such a society is that the freedom of each one of us, far from being limited by our material and psychological interdependence, actually grows out of it, as blades of grass grow from the root-web just under the soil. To care for each other, then, is to care for ourselves. A truism, like much else I’ve said here, but no less true for that.
It’s a cliché that love conquers fear. Solidarity does not mean love—though, as veterans of labor, civil rights, and women’s struggles can tell you, it often leads to love. But it does mean acting as if we loved and were loved by the people we fight alongside, for justice, for pleasure, for creativity and imagination applied directly to the conditions of life—for a life in which we really can, as we yearn to, “breathe free.”
1. Rates of teen pregnancy declined through the ’90s, probably because of better sex education funded by the Federal government via such groups as Planned Parenthood. With the return to “abstinence-only” sex “education” under Bush, we can expect them to rise again.