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The Wedges of Hephaestus
Who are the brownshirts in Toledo? A few carloads of the Nazi white supremacists pulled into north Toledo, Ohio, on 10/15, maybe two dozen. Shortly thereafter, a vast, heterogeneous, and youthful crowd assembled and sent them packing. The police liked to take the credit. Credit? Folks naturally wondered who were the police policing, since after the brownshirts were shooed out of town, the police stuck around, the crowd believing that they were protecting the Nazis. The police declared curfew and arrested 114 people from a crowd between six hundred and one thousand. That was the Toledo affray.
Yet, those with ears could hear the wedges chaining Prometheus to the rock begin to rattle, and those with eyes might see him stir.
Prometheus became the patron saint of the proletariat. He was the son of Gaia, the earth goddess. All the arts and crafts the alphabet, numbers, ships, mining, therapy, intelligence, healing came from him. He was also a rebel, because he defied Zeus and the established order. Zeus punished him by chaining him to a rock with wedges forged by Hephaestus, the god of the forge. Finally, Prometheus is destined to rise.
There are two questions:
1) What do the youth want?
2) What is the business of the Nazis?
For young people career planning must involve competition for a few "jobs," or failing that, then perhaps soldiering in Iraq or some other American colony-to-be, but even then with the most careful adherence to protocols of these career routes, one must be prepared that one’s resourcefulness can at any moment become criminalized and thus a third option, prison, become realized. Not to mention a disaster, such as Katrina. Thus young people seem to have on offer four options in which violent death is, if not inevitable, then distinctly possible in each of them.
What young people saw after Katrina was not poor people in desperate straits but rich people in malign neglect. They saw a city submerged, a city sunk. And left to sink more. Even the competitive ethos, ‘sink or swim,’ gets you nowhere. Meanwhile the authorities appeal to the "nature gods" – the weather, the winds, the climate. But we saw fools, incompetents, sadists, shooters, who call themselves "government" and who would not, and will not, cast a rope to the drowning.
Educators, politicians, newshounds, corporate execs, &c. delude themselves if they think that young people do not know this. Journalists may complain the "mob" is drugged, drunk, or dangerous; property owners may wring their hands about their trampled front lawns; pastors and politicians may raise the hoary head of the "outside agitator," and all parties in their dizziness may attempt to find stability in an old, old wedge of Haphaestus, racism, and complain about "black gangs" or "white anarchists." And yet none of it is convincing at all. People gathered on 10/15 just a few blocks from the huge factory, DaimlerChrysler AG, in the conviction that the violent, genocidal and slave ridden history of the Nazi past is connected somehow to their future prospects. All evidence says their future is near to nugatory, negative, or nill.
So, like the impoverished agricultural laborers of the depressed districts of England during the 19th century, as reported by the Medical Officer of the Privy Council’s 7th Report on Public Health (1865) the youth of Toledo may as well say nihil habeo nihil curo, I have nothing, I care for nothing.
Condescension towards unemployed youth is matched by the delusions foisted upon those with jobs. They cling with the force of desperation to that constant submission to the demands of the ruling class for lower wages, longer hours, speed-up, and removal of health insurance that may save their "jobs" for another day until "economic development" resumes. Helping to secure this delusion are the apparent alternatives, i.e., war, prison, disaster.
That old figure of the IWW, Mr. Block, the completely normal idiot, is told, "Just look at the rioting young people!" "Look, an egg was thrown!" And everyone puts signs in their front yards or taped to their windows, "tax breaks for Jeep," or whatever. And Mr Block falls back into his LazyBoy in belligerent passivity exhausted by the effort.
But, jeepers Mr. Block, the people who own us, lock, stock, and barrel live in Stuttgart, company headquarters of DaimlerChrysler AG. They’re the ones who ruin our neighborhoods; poison earth, air, and water; make pretty "landscapes" where we used to live; obtain only the most advanced medical assistance; put their feet on the desk of the West Wing, and bank at the World Bank, after admitting to $963 million in profits so far this year, for, despite the tone of The Toledo Blade and a city-wide habit of narcissistic provincial self-pity, Toledo is a major point in the world automobile industry and the locus of vast amounts of profiteering/exploitation.
The absolute law of capitalist accumulation is this: the greater the social wealth, the greater the relative surplus population, because what develops the expansive power of capital also develops the labor power at its disposal. Karl Marx explained it this way.
all the means for the development of production undergo a dialectical inversion so that they become means of domination and exploitation of the producers; they distort the worker into a fragment of a man, they degrade him to the level of an appendage of a machine, they destroy the actual content of his labor by turning it into a torment; they alienate from him the intellectual potentialities of the labor process in the same proportion as science is incorporated in it as an independent power; they deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labor process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working-time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital. In proportion as capital accumulates, the situation of the worker, be his payment high or low, must grow worse. Finally, the law which always holds the relative surplus population or industrial reserve army in equilibrium with the extent and energy of accumulation rivets the worker to capital more firmly than the wedges of Hephaestus held Prometheus to the rock. It makes an accumulation of misery a necessary condition corresponding to the accumulation of wealth.
Apply this to Toledo as follows: On the one hand, increasing ignorance as schools close, more criminality as police and prisons expand, greater insecurity for children and dangers of violence at home, and prospects of war; then on the other hand, mandatory overtime in the plants, destruction of union contracts providing health benefits for the golden years, privatization by sub-contracting, insecurity by employing temporary workers, and speed-up driving some people to death. All this is called "lean production." This is the local "equilibrium," part of the state and the national, indeed, the global "equilibrium."
What about the business of the Nazis?
Though its headquarters is in Stuttgart, Germany, DaimlerChrysler AG is not a Nazi company, but the parent company, Daimler-Benz most certainly was a principle prop to the Nazi war regime of the Third Reich. They employed slave labor; they gave Adolf Hitler a free Mercedes every Christmas; the Swastika and Mercedes star embraced in pointed intimacy.
Ford Motor Company had a plant in Cologne; it employed slave labor from Rostov, no wages, little food, work till they drop. A U.S. Army investigator in 1945 concluded Ford served as "an arsenal of Nazism, at least for military vehicles." Henry Ford in 1938 accepted the highest medal Germany could bestow, the Grand Cross of the German Eagle. Everyone knows what an anti-Semite Henry Ford was. For his own Mein Kampf, Hitler plagiarized from Henry Ford’s The Dearborn Independent; Hitler had a portrait of Henry Ford in his office; Hitler proudly proclaimed, "I regard Henry Ford as my inspiration."
Alfred Sloan, the president of General Motors defended in March 1938 after the invasion of Czechoslovakia their German operations as "highly profitable." James Mooney, GM director of overseas operations, had discussions with Hitler two weeks after the invasion of Poland. GM manufactured the trucks that invaded Poland; the truck was called the Blitz. They re-tooled their Russelsheim plant to make the engines for the fighters of the Luftwaffe. French and Belgian prisoners comprised the labor force.
In this way it came about that when the Toledo Jeeps carried U.S. soldiers into Nazi Germany, they met German soldiers driving General Motor’s Opel. Whichever which way the war went the capitalist class was going to win.
The relative surplus population is a disposable population. The history of capitalism is also a history of planned morbidity, triage on a demographic scale, and racist genocide. Far from being exceptional, the Nazis brought these methods from the colonies, which all European empires employed, into Europe itself, with the regime of slave labor and death camps using the most modern "production" methods.
Hephaestus was the Greek god of the forge. He fashioned the wedges which sap our potential, dividing us between the relative surplus populations and the employed. In Roman mythology we know Hephaestus as Vulcan. Yes, Vulcan that club of neo-cons which have sent us to war. Yes, Vulcan who gave his name to vulcanization, the process of applying heat to rubber rendering it impervious to heat or cold, preserving its elasticity, and enabling it to resist solvents. Hence, tires. If this story bears similarity to the Greek tragedies of old, then the youth of north Toledo provides the chorus bearing witness.
Delphi is the GM parts manufacturer which declared bankruptcy at the beginning of the month. Like the oracle of the Greeks, at the temple of Delphi, the wealthiest shrine of the ancient Mediterranean, serving at the same time as the treasury to ancient Athens. this bankruptcy presages the future for the industry as a whole. The maker of steering systems and fuel injectors is demanding reduction of wages from $25 an hour to $9, plus the power to hire non-union temporary and contract workers. They can’t get this in collective bargaining, so they plan to get it in bankruptcy court.
Lean production drives some workers mad. Some are beginning to kill. First, there is the mechanical violence, or the violence of the machines, such as the robot in the new DaimlerChrysler AG Jeep plant which mangled Larry Fuetes to death on 17 May 2000. Second, is the grudge violence, such as that of Myles Meyers who during second shift lunchbreak on 26 January 2005 opened fire with his shotgun killing his supervisor, wounding two fellow workers, and then killing himself. Third, there is suicidal road violence, as when on 28 May 2005 Jad Jamra drove north on the southbound lane of I-75 colliding head-on with an eighteen wheel tractor-trailer. Fourth, there is gender violence as when Archie Cox, a worker on the Jeep assembly line, entered Barney’s convenience store in north Toledo on 17 June 2005, and with two semi-automatic handguns shot his estranged wife and her girl-friend, before shooting himself.
Get shot or become a shooter. Accumulation of wealth at one pole and accumulation of misery at the other pole, slavery, brutalization and moral degradation.
Besides the Greek, Karl Marx also refers to the Hindu mythology. The bosses "deform the conditions under which he works, subject him during the labor process to a despotism the more hateful for its meanness; they transform his life-time into working time, and drag his wife and child beneath the wheels of the juggernaut of capital."
The juggernaut is from India. It was a huge float on wheels, heavy and high, a vast machine, representing an avatar of Vishnu, "the preserver." In 1790 28 Hindus were crushed under its wheels. The British blamed the victims saying they hurled themselves in superstitious devotion. Postcolonial scholarship suggests otherwise. The juggernaut rolls down the roads; knocking over all in its way, mutilating wayfarers, squashing them flat, indifferent to their hollering. It rolls through the neighborhoods ready to flatten the relative surplus population. Roadkill. Marx does not claim that the man with the job sacrifices his wife and children. He says it is the despotism of capital. Thus the juggernaut is not a mythic idol of destruction, it is the actuality of ‘going postal,’ and sending wife and child under the wheels first. As unsafe as an SUV roll-over
There is a capitalist gender game: deny the wife any wage, money, or power; force her to an invisible 24-hour working day, responsible for the reproduction not only of the next generation but of her husband, licking the wounds he daily receives from the boss. And if she refuses? Then he turns on her, transferring to the weakest, the humiliations he cannot resist at the "job." By himself he sees only suicide, homicide, familycide: production and reproduction alike are his enemies. He obeyed, why cannot she?
Bang! slams the hammer of Hephaestus.
Rebecca Harding Davis told the story of the man at the furnace in Life in the Iron Mills (1861). She imagines gender violence as integral to industrial production. The iron worker driven to desperation, to crime, to suicide, had carved a statue of a weeping woman. How is it different now at DaimlerChrysler AG?
These men, going by with drunken faces and brains full of unawakened power, do not ask it of Society or God. Their lives ask it; their deaths ask it. There is no reply. I will tell you plainly that I have a great hope; and I bring it to you to be tested. It is this: that this terrible dumb question is its own reply; that it is not the sentence of death we think it, but, from the very extremity of its darkness, the most solemn prophecy which the world has known of the Hope to come.
The engines shriek and groan. The fiery pools of metal boil and surge. The furnaces break forth with fury. The story is wrenching, because this proletariat is used up, consumed, and discarded on the ash-heap. It too is unaware of the massive flight from the plantation by the African American. Thus Hope is a mystery, Hope is art. She describes the struggle and with it formulates the perspective of history from the bottom up while denouncing trickle down economics.
Reform is born of need, not pity. No vital movement of the people’s has worked down, for good or evil; fermented, instead, carried up the heaving, cloggy mass. Think back through history, and you will know it. What will this lowest depth thieves, Magdalens, negroes do with the light filtered through ponderous Church creeds, Baconian theories, Goethe schemes?
Well nothing. At least nothing directly from those creeds, theories, and schemes.
DaimlerChrysler AG is the multinational that has squatted on frog city, a huge German toad whose innards breathe foul stink and whose outwards seems all profit, dividend, and progress. It is propped up by fawning, sychophantic municipal lilliputians, stumbling over each other in the rush to offer more tax breaks, make more sacrifices, take out more music from schools, take out schools, to be replaced with jail, prison, and a futureless tomorrow. Each hammers away at a little nail.
And the rising generation? What awaits them? Nothing. The plants, or prison, or Iraq. Give ‘em a couple years and some other war. Well, at last that relative surplus population arose last weekend. It said No! to silly white Nazi boys, knowing very well that the Nazi you could see was nothing compared to those you can’t. At Katrina the point was not that "we" could see the poor; we could see the Rich. We could see the deliberate urbanocide. Behind Daimler is the Nazi past. Ford himself inspired Hitler. Give credit where credit is due.
"The condemnation of one part of the working class to enforced idleness by the over-work of the other part, and vice versa, becomes a means of enriching the individual capitalists."
Setting aside the great tyrants of the 20th century, Hitler and Stalin, those with the most influence in that century were the great tinkerer, Henry Ford, and the great thinker, W.E.B. DuBois. Ford found new ways to make people work the assembly line, and DuBois stated how the worker was divided against himself, the color line. Ford wielded the hammer of Hapaestus, DuBois showed the weakness in the wedges. We can explain it this way. The iron molders started a strike in America in 1859. W.E.B. DuBois quoted them in "The White Worker," the second chapter of Black Reconstruction (1935)
Wealth is power, and practical experience teaches us that it is a power but too often used to oppress and degrade the daily laborer. Year after year the capital of the country becomes more and more concentrated in the hands of a few, and, in proportion as the wealth of the country becomes centralized, its power increases, and the laboring classes are impoverished. It therefore becomes us, as men who have to battle with the stern realities of life, to look this matter fair in the face; there is no dodging the question; let every man give it a fair, full and candid consideration, and then act according to his honest convictions. What position are we, the mechanics of America, to hold in Society?
Ah yes, to be sure, let us look the matter "fair in the face." The white worker does not say a word about slavery, not a word about the greatest labor revolution the U.S. ever saw, the civil war. No wonder he can’t get anywhere. This is a mighty wedge of Hephaestus.
You hear them hammering away, the politicians, the pulpit, the police, union bureaucrats, hammering the wedges of Hephaestus. Black youth: tap! tap! Lean production: tap! tap! White anarchists: tap! tap! Afghanistan, Iraq: tap! tap!
The wedges are: racism, "job" pride, oppression of women, drugs for children, the patriot game, religious bigotry, and "praying" without acting.
The "black youth" on the rampage, the "white anarchists" stirring things up. These are the old, old tropes, or figures of speech, wedges of Haphaestus nailing us to the rock of misery. Let the police chief "take exception" to this and that, let the mayor observe, "I did the right thing," and the mayor’s opponent, say "pull yourself up by your own bootstraps." "We have no money!" they plead at community meetings. Yes, the huge surplus value created in Toledo is realized elsewhere. Those holding the strings know what they’re doing in Toledo just as surely as they know how to make constitutions appear Iraqi in Iraq. Stuttgart is the headquarters of Toledo; the decisions made there determine our fate the mayor, the police chief, the workers, the town just as surely as the decisions in Washington D.C. determine what happens in Fallujah or Khandahar.
PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rebecca Harding Davis, Life in the Iron Mills (1861)
W.E.B. DuBois, Black Reconstruction (1935)
Daniel Guérin, Fascism and Big Business (1973)
Karl Marx, Capital, volume one (1867)
The Toledo Blade, October 2005
George Thomson, Aeschylus and Athens (1941)
The Washington Post, 30 November 1998
The Wall Street Journal, October 2005