“The left is amorphous. I despair over the left. Left parties may be small in number in Europe but they are a coherent organization that keeps going. Here, … we don’t have that. We have a few voices here, a magazine there, and that’s about it. It goes nowhere.”
–Sheldon S. Wolin, 2/4/09
For many decades now, the American experiment has been focused on convincing the working class that it no longer exists. People who rent themselves to capital for wages have been urged to see themselves as “middle class.” The Collins Essential English Dictionary defines that term thusly: “the social class between the working and upper classes. It consists of business and professional people.”
In the republic’s early years there was a (now forgotten) hostility to waged labor. Jefferson warned that such dependence on an employer, “begets subservience and venality, (and) suffocates the germ of virtue…” One wonders how the author of the Declaration of Independence, and proponent of public schooling would view the present national educational regime with its industrial processing, testing and grading rituals, and its mission of churning out “employable” units, individually capable of “getting a job.”
Prior to the Civil War, historian Eric Foner notes that working for wages had been “widely viewed as disreputable.” Many northerners who soldiered against the Confederacy saw the battle as opposing both chattel and wage slavery. Many poor southern whites fought to protect slavery out of fear that if the “peculiar institution” were abolished, they would soon be swept into a new, regimented labor pool. Slavery “elevated white labor and protected it from degrading competition with free Negroes.” Johnny Reb did not aspire to “menial tasks” and the uncertainties of the job “market.” (Battle Cry of Freedom, J.M. McPherson)
But time passes and people forget, in America anyway. The middle years of the twentieth century saw some broadening redistribution of wealth. Farmer/labor coalitions, mobilized politically and directly, dragged the bossocratic state toward civilization. That struggle was based on some limited understanding that the interests of the “lower” working or peasant classes were different and usually opposed to the interests of capital.
Yet despite their (now-eroding) economic gains, American workers were never able to achieve the kinds of economic and political rights that are common elsewhere in the so-called developed world. Here, there are few economic rights worth mentioning.
In civilized countries, where left parties still exist, people have collectively won universal rights to housing, public transport, healthcare, post-secondary education, free child-care, leisure time, and the other fruits of industrial life where machines do much of the work. Their well-being is no longer tied exclusively to employment.
Here, individuals have the “opportunity” to apply for one or more jobs, and then maybe purchase or negotiate for First World essentials with those above them in the pecking order. It’s a very inefficient and cruel system, and it’s currently coming notoriously apart amid moans and wimpers.
Since there’s much talk lately of liberal government response to the 30s-era depression, it’s perhaps worth looking back. As Alex Cockburn has repeatedly pointed out over the years, many of the New Deal work programs were modeled on Italian and German fascist examples. These regimes were at first seen as “moderate” by the US administration. They were relentlessly pro-business and represented what Mussolini called “the corporatization of the state.” Under such a mindset, there is dignity in stoop-labor and “service” to the boss and the state. It’s all about “job-creation.” That leads to make-work. It gets people off the street, but it puts them on a road gang.
Maine labor historian Charles Scontras recently recalled WPA programs in this state as “a powerful ‘stimulus’… in the troubled ‘30s.” Depression brought calls for “the ‘re-employment of children in industry’” as well as “efforts to permit convicts to work on highways.” In a world turned upside down, there were even “demands that paupers be given the right to vote.” Remember that, in
Maine, until the “excesses of the ‘60s” eliminated them, there were property requirements (poll taxes) for voting.
Interestingly, in its quest to utilize the working class further, the State Highway Commission declared that “’public interest may be served’ by using hand labor on state-aid road construction projects.”
In my hometown, such thinking actually became policy. The Biddeford Daily Journal of July 15, 1935, reported Mayor Arthur Remillard’s decision to use only hand labor in the creation of a three-runway airport, where well-timbered forest land had stood.
Answering his critics, Mayor Remillard stated that, “Work would have progressed more rapidly if we had acceded to the wishes of engineers who wanted a steam shovel to hasten the work so a plane could land here by the end of the summer, but as the cost of operating a steam shovel would have put out of employment about 40 men, their request was denied so that all the work at the airport is hand labor.”
The project involved the physical removal of $1,600 worth of timber, 1,000 cords of firewood, as well as stumping, stoning, and the manual spreading of tens of thousands of cubic yards of gravel. Anyone who has ever tried to yank even one tree stump with hand tools has some small idea of the sweat and toil involved in such a venture.
Through social and political mobilization, and the adoption of modern constitutional systems, majoritarian parties of the left have raised living standards in Europe and much of the world. There, the economic benefits of productivity-enhancing technological advances are shared broadly. As a Maine academic pointed out several years ago, in Europe, the average unemployed person lives better than many/most Americans with jobs.
Elsewhere, working class culture, based on struggle and solidarity, has led not to make-work, but to make-better. However, such examples apparently mean little to “middle class” people.
RICHARD RHAMES is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine.