In an era of insecurity, we all want security. We want a decent home to call our own, healthcare to heal us when we are sick or old, education to improve our minds and job prospects, healthy food and clean water to nourish us, income to provide for all our needs and even some affordable luxuries, a career to give us social status and a sense of self-worth, and a pension for our golden years.
These seemingly universal desires define the post-WWII American Dream, and are still the reference point for both left and right. The “Golden Age of American Capitalism” from the mid-1940s to the early 1970s is commonly seen as the triumph of the middle class, which saw the fruits of a robust capitalist economy extended to tens of millions.
But today, as we are trapped in the fault lines of a violent global economy, these dreams seem as archaic as waking up at dawn with the grandparents, children and cousins to milk cows, bake pies and plow the fields.
However outdated the American Dream, organized labor and liberals cling to it as they retreat from the right-wing and corporate blitzkreig. The battlefield in this war is social spending and the public sector, and the situation is desperate.
For Mother Jones, it’s an “Attack on the middle class. Jim Hightower describes it as “the corporate-GOP attack on the middle class.” According to 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, Gov. Scott Walker is trying to “deny the American Dream to the vast majority of Wisconsinites.” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says, “It is our job to channel this Midwest uprising, this populist outcry into the large-scale creation of good jobs that can resuscitate America’s middle class, America’s people and our economy.”
Really? The contention that the middle class is suddenly under attack – and by implication should be defended – is thoroughly flawed. For one, this trend goes back at least 30 years to the savaging of private-sector unionism and the social welfare state combined with deregulation, reloaded militarism and tax breaks for the rich. The current attack on public-sector unions and the remnants of welfare is just the latest stage.
Additionally, the attack on the public sector is by not an attack on the middle class as a whole. After all, the Tea Party movement, the right’s shock troops, is solidly middle class. Its ideals are captured in the saying “Equality of opportunity does not guarantee equality of outcome.” The right rejects public-sector jobs that guarantee incomes, benefits, tenure and pensions because they violate the market, the wellspring of freedom and liberty.
In their mind, we live in a meritocracy where everyone should be subject to the same chaotic, contingent and uncertain market forces.
No doubt this right-wing ideology is warmed-over Social Darwinism, hypocritical and would lead right back to the boom-and-bust capitalism of Dickensian England. (The Tea Party is quiet on the subject of the mortgage-interest deduction for homeowners that will cost an estimated $131 billion in 2012.) But tens of millions of Americans embrace individualism. This segment of the middle class – entrepreneurs, supervisors, managers and self-employed plumbers, carpenters, cooks, doctors, lawyers, accountants, financial planners and myriad other professions – is very real and it’s flexing its political power right now.
The post-World War II ideal makes liberals like Paul Krugman mush-brained. He writes in The Conscience of a Liberal: “The political and economic environment of my youth stands revealed as a paradise lost, an exceptional episode in our nation’s history.”
It’s only time and a decayed political vision that makes 1950s America seem like paradise. To be sure, the working class benefited from rising productivity with rising wages, incomes rose across the board, many African-Americans landed good-paying factory jobs and social welfare expanded under Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
Yet the 1960s youth and counterculture rebellions were in reaction to the banality of the middle class. The New Left critiqued a society where basic material needs seem to have been satisfied by American capitalism, European social democracy and the Soviet’s “bureaucratic collectivism,” but work was alienating, racism institutionalized, community nonexistent, sexual mores repressive, and daily life atomizing, meaningless and suffocating.
The revolt was also against the link between the middle-class lifestyle and the warfare state that spawned the terror of imminent nuclear war and U.S.-backed coups, vicious dictators, assassinations and wars in the developing world that kept commodities – copper from Chile, bananas from Guatemala, sugar from Cuba, oil from Iran, rubber from Indonesia and tin from Bolivia – inexpensive so as to subsidize American businesses and the middle class.
Liberals conveniently forget that middle-class labor was a full partner in the Cold War. It worked with the CIA through the AFL-CIO’s American Institute for Free Labor Development to destroy independent labor movements in the Third World.
Labor has mostly left behind this sordid past, though it did try to undermine Hugo Chavez’s government in Venezuela last decade. But it is reticent to confront the military-security state that consumes about $1 trillion in public spending even as public sector unions try to hang on to a few more pennies.
Perhaps U.S. labor leaders realize the Pentagon, with its thousand-odd overseas bases, still serves a useful role in ordering the world. After all, the middle class benefits as much as ever from depressed wages and commodity prices in the developing world that keep low-cost goods streaming from factory to port to big box to McMansion.
By the 1960s the promise of prosperity for all, which defenders of the middle class today harken back to, seemed within reach. Yet working-class consciousness was being sapped by consumption. No longer was the goal to transform social relations and bring forth the “New Man” (and Woman), it was to get a new Pontiac, an in-ground pool, a bigger house, the latest doodads. The middle-class lifestyle frayed the bonds of worker solidarity.
Ultimately, the concept of the middle class is inherently anti-political. It is defined by consumption: a mortgage, multiple cars, stylish clothes, furniture and electronics, and affordable luxuries. We can’t have a yacht, but we can go on an annual cruise. We can’t buy a villa in Tuscany, but we can holiday in one. We can’t afford a private chef, but we can visit Le Bernadin on a special occasion. Luxury goods makers from Prada and LVMH to Mercedes Benz and Tiffany have aggressively expanded their businesses by creating lines of downscale luxuries for the middle class.
When we struggle for better wages and benefits and more social welfare, what is the goal? If it’s for a growing middle class, we’ve been there, done that and failed miserably. What do we say to the more than 2 billion Chinese and Indians who want a middle-class lifestyle? In a time of runaway global warming, fighting for the middle class is like fighting for global ecocide.
When liberals, labor leaders and even some leftists issue a call to the barricades to defend the middle class, they romanticize the postwar boom in other ways.
The social compact between labor and capital was premised on McCarthyism: purging communist, socialist and anarchists by the thousands from unions. This Faustain bargain increased wages and benefits for labor. But it sowed the seeds of its destruction. Without a mass-based anti-capitalist left, it became the junior partner to capital. Once the social compact outlived its usefulness by the 1970s, capital ditched it. Capital was then free to exploit the low wages in the Third World that the AFL-CIO had helped maintain.
Starting with the New Deal, the prevailing political order was corporatist – government brought together major stakeholders such as labor and business to help them strike mutually beneficial agreements. After World War II, as long as the Bretton Woods economic order prevailed (which put some limits on the flow of finance capital), U.S.
corporations were tied to the domestic market and other nation states could not compete with American business, organized labor had the power to extract concessions from corporations.
Yet corporatism was uncritically, and unconsciously, revived by gooey-eyed liberals and lefties who backed Obama in 2008. A “New” New Deal was based on the fallacy that we could re-create a national capitalism by spending trillions on green jobs and energy. Obama would bring together capital and labor to fund and build the factories that would manufacture electric cars, solar panels, green homes, wind farms, hi-speed rail and a nationwide smart electrical grid.
We would all drive a Prius into the sunrise of a new middle-class prosperity based on hi-tech manufacturing jobs, generous social welfare and strong unions.
The problem is that not just financial capital, but industrial and merchant capital have largely unmoored themselves from geography. Sure they need factories, roads, electricity, docks, airports and warehouses, but their ability to jump from one low-cost region to another means American unions, in their current form, have little leverage over capital.
The UAW fell into the corporatist trap after the government took over GM and Chrysler in 2009. With a White House proclaiming, “Fuck the UAW,” it hammered labor in the interest of capital. The result was a wage cut of 50 percent for many new hires and even some existing autoworkers, putting them on par with non-unionized workers in foreign auto plants in the United States. As for GM CEO Dan Akerson, Obama’s “pay czar” determined that his $9 million in compensation for 2011 was fair.
INFRASTRUCTURE OF DISSENT
Free-market ideology is a cover for the Republican and corporate goal of destroying unions so as to destroy the infrastructure of dissent. Yet labor leaders seem unable to grasp the implications of this.
For three decades, labor leaders have accepted market logic of givebacks: the pie is shrinking, we all have to share the pain, givebacks save jobs and help make American business more competitive. But concessions don’t save jobs they only increase profits. Unions have known this for decades, but are unable to offer an alternative. In 1989 one labor leader told the New York Times, “The whole history of wage concessions since 1979 pretty much proves that they don’t preserve jobs.” In a world with capital unbound, there is always a country with even lower wages, fewer benefits, less regulation and higher profits, meaning one round of givebacks leads inexorably to the next.
The same logic is now being applied to the public sector. Wisconsin labor leaders capitulated on all wage and benefit cuts, begging only to save collective bargaining that was then eliminated in short order. Unless unions pose a powerful idea to counter the logic of capital – such as “labor creates all wealth” – they will remain stuck in a downward spiral.
The protests from Cairo to Madison have been inspiring, even beautiful. In a revolutionary moment, we realize our desires to be better people, for an ideal community and for a just world. Our utopias take form in new social relations. In Tahrir Square, Egyptian women experienced themselves as human beings with full agency and free from sexual harassment. In Madison, protesters in the Capitol building lauded the camaraderie, peacefulness and collective labor involved in the occupation.
In Madison, however, the intoxicating talk of “general strike” has been replaced by recall elections to oust eight Republican state senators. A general strike requires months of education, debate, organizing, community outreach, producing media, building links to other sectors. Labor has the resources in terms of money, staff and infrastructure. There is no guarantee of victory, but it would be a glorious display of the chaos and creativity of democracy.
A recall election, on the other hand, is authoritarian politics run by self-selected consultants, pollsters, wealthy donors and Democratic Party honchos. They need labor, but only as a mindless automaton to gather signatures, do phone banking, get out the vote and spread messaging decreed from above.
This is symptomatic of labor’s deeper malaise in which it can’t see beyond the market, the middle class and electoral politics. By some estimates, in the last two election cycles, organized labor poured more than half-a-billion dollars into the Democratic Party with disastrous results.
What if organized labor had poured one or two hundred million dollars into organizing the unemployed? This could have created a mass popular force on the left, but its politics might have been more radical than middle-class conformism. That’s because we have entered the jobless future. The free market simply cannot provide for the 25-30 million Americans who are unemployed or underemployed. (Plus, the unemployed don’t pay dues, so how does that benefit labor leaders?)
Labor would have also had to confront the fact that it long ago abandoned the poor. This was a contradiction in how labor leaders frame the struggle in Wisconsin as being about collective bargaining for public servants – the path to the middle class – rather than trying to build a alliance of single mothers, the poor, immigrants and the wide range of other groups on the chopping block.
After decades of being battered, it’s tempting to take refuge in historical forces, to say our options are limited. Except the electrifying wave of revolutions and uprisings shows that we have agency. That means making thoughtful political choices, and a good place to start is by rejecting the middle-class ideal of consumption for the human ideal of liberation.