Can the Occupy Movement Civilize the USA?

“What does labor want? We want more schoolhouses and less jails; more books and less arsenals; more learning and less vice; more leisure and less greed; more justice and less revenge; in fact, more of the opportunities to cultivate our better natures.”

–Samuel Gompers, President of the American Federation of Labor- 1915

I would love to live in a civilized country in a civilized world. Really. But  truth be told, we’re not there yet. Not even close. Some of us may live in places that have the trappings of civilization: modern plumbing, government, electricity, heating and cooling, houses, rapid transit, taxes, libraries, schools and the like. But don’t be fooled. Civilization is more than some of us flushing a toilet or visiting an art gallery.

Folks, it’s time to raise the bar on what the word civilized really means.

When I  walk along State Street in the Chicago Loop, I see the gravely wounded from America’s class war lining the sidewalks. They beg for chump change, styrofoam cups in hand, hoping to find a place to lay their heads at night without getting them bashed in by some knucklehead. Civilized society would never tolerate this kind of neglect.

If I cross the bridge over the Chicago River on Michigan Ave and walk north by the glittering consumer palaces of the Miracle Mile, I can see the gorgeous outfits that just scream power and money. Much of the labor that goes into them comes from 3rd World sweatshops where working conditions would gag a maggot. These objects of sartorial splendor may scream money and power, but they can’t even whisper the word civilization. Sweatshops would not exist in a civilized world. Period.

If you want to live in a civilized society, it takes a labor movement.

Today we have an inspiring new labor uprising  that is busy rejuvenating the traditional labor movement as it forges a path of its own. Occupy Wall Street and its many off shoots are the latest in a series of labor revolts that have been necessary steps toward a genuine American civilization. Hopefully Occupy will take us a closer to that goal. It is certainly in a fine American tradition.

In the days of the American Revolution sailors, mechanics, artisans and small farmers banded together to teach King George III a lesson in economics— that colonialism is a really…really bad investment if it takes red coats to manage it.  But the aspirations of this revolutionary working class were more than simply monetary gain.

Reading and sharing Tom Paine’s popular revolutionary pamphlets in taverns and public squares, the working class dove into advanced political philosophy, discovering that low and behold, they were smart enough to govern themselves. Goodbye to kings and queens, lords and ladies and the whole sorry lot. Brains and ability don’t necessarily travel down the inbred bloodlines of people weighed down by powdered wigs. Genuine civilization demanded much more than that.

“We have every opportunity and every encouragement before us, to form the noblest purest constitution on the face of the earth. We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

–Thomas Paine, American revolutionary

How on god’s green earth did the Founding fathers forget to include a Bill of Rights?

Despite the sacrifices made by America’s working class on the battlefields of the Revolution, the wealthy authors of 1787 Constitution then conveniently “forgot” to include a Bill of Rights. Our Founding Fathers wanted folks with calloused hands to stick  to their chores and stay away from political philosophy. Those with the calloused hands responded with a series of rude noisy protests.

The result was the first 10 amendments to the Constitution. Everyone would have saved a lot of time if they had been included in the first place, but oh well. The 1st Amendment contains some of the most hallowed ideas of civilization: freedom of religion, speech, the press and assembly. What could be more important to the advance of civilization than the right to create, share and discuss ideas?

Of course these sacred rights weren’t worth the parchment they were printed on if they weren’t respected. When workers  first organized labor unions, respect was not what they got. Instead it was mass firings, blacklisting, arrests, and uncomfortable days and nights in the slammer. Eventually it was the enthusiastic deployment of police truncheons, revolvers and rifles. The term “class war”  was not a metaphor back in the day.

Besides the obvious demand for higher wages, early unions demanded a reduction in work hours plus free public education and public libraries. How could anyone have a decent family life and enjoy cultural or intellectual activities without time and education? Was civilization only for the top hat and carriage crowd?

“Let oppression shrug her shoulders,
And a haughty tyrant frown,
And little upstart Ignorance,
In mockery look down.
Yet I value not the feeble threats
Of Tories in disguise,
While the flag of Independence
O’er our noble nation flies.”

— poem from  a Lowell Women Workers’ 1834 Petition

But how did the working class people who won us the Bill of Rights  forget to include the abolition of slavery?

Slavery was the most terrible abuse of labor in the Early Republic. The racism that accompanied it  was a deep stain on our nation and even penetrated the early labor movement which was often ambivalent or even hostile to abolitionists, fearing economic competition from freed black labor.

For the slaveowners, civilization meant a thin veneer of manners, a smile worthy of a Nile crocodile, whips, chains and a totalitarian hostility toward freedom that made the Bill of Rights a bad joke. Slaves could be severely punished for learning to read and write. So could anyone who taught them. A burning desire for education arose in the hearts of many who endured this labor nightmare.

“What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sound of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants brass fronted impudence; your shout of liberty and equality, hollow mockery…mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy.”

–Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist & former slave

A small despised minority throughout most of their existence, abolitionists stepped onto center stage during the Civil War when thousands of black people rose up against their masters, refusing to work the Confederate plantations in what became a massive general strike. This combined with former slaves taking up arms, turned a Civil War into a war of liberation and a Second American Revolution.

And when peace finally came, what was one of the first things that freed slaves asked for? Teachers. Teachers and books. The more the better. Freed slaves wanted to do their part in bringing civilization to a nation that so desperately needed it.

The abolition of child labor, the women’s equality movement, the Native American movement to reclaim their lands and the civil rights movement all further extended and deepened the ideals of civilization.

What chance did a young child working in a damp dark coal mine or a dusty dangerous textile mill have to enjoy the pleasure of reading or the joy of  creating art or music?

How many women were worn down with toil or trapped in loveless even brutal marriages, imprisoned by custom or law and unable to let their imaginations wander free?

How many Native American young people have been lost to unemployment, poverty and to the constant insults to their traditions, traditions that offer the wisdom of thousands of years of experience on this continent?

When Dr. King gave his famous “I have a Dream” speech, it was at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom initiated by A. Philip Randolph, the president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO.

The civil rights movement was also a labor movement, a movement to open up economic opportunities on an equal basis, to end the terrible racial divisions that were tearing America’s working class apart and to unshackle minds from the mental chains left behind by racism and oppression.

A labor movement is about much more than just wages, hours and work rules.

A labor movement is  fundamentally part of the civilizing process itself, which in the USA, is still in its infancy. It is freeing working class minds so that people may achieve their authentic human potential. It’s like what that old rascal Karl Marx said, ”The traditions of the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living.”

Just look around at our evolution deniers, our climate change deniers, our racism deniers, our gender equality deniers, our poverty deniers, our labor haters, our war makers and our surreal TV reality shows? Ask yourself, “Why are so many minds chained to such folly?”

And who exactly benefits from this willful and militant ignorance? Good thing I’m not a conspiracy theorist or else I’d start thinking this was deliberate— an attempt to keep us just trained enough to turn a profit for some soulless global corporation, but not smart enough to ask why.

Why does our society put so many obstacles in front of people trying to educate themselves? We know that poverty is the single biggest obstacle to education. So why does our society make its poverty even worse? Why does our society demand a new indentured servitude of student debt for our college students? Is society trying limit the talent pool of smart creative people to the affluent and well born? Didn’t we have an American Revolution to deep six that kind of “thinking?”

Our 1%, with their vast financial resources and finely tailored Brooks Brothers/Ann Taylor sartorial splendor, could help us remove that dead weight from our minds and from our culture. But they prefer to sit on their piles of cash, play Wall Street casino or buy up entire governments as their hobby. From them we can expect little help and much opposition. Draw your own conclusions.

But a new labor movement with a new vocabulary has emerged.

This starling and unexpected labor movement  comes from what is now called the 99%. The Occupy Movement has drawn support from the plumbers who keep our toilets flushing to the art students who passionately want to reshape our culture as media workers. Enduring bad weather, bad media coverage,  mass arrests, rubber bullets and tear gas, they seek to fix our broken economy through  national discussion and national civil disobedience such as this nation has not seen in generations–and at such a speed, thanks to the Internet. It is labor carrying out its  civilizing mission in our best American tradition. Occupy is now part of a global labor movement, necessary in today’s  faster-than-light-speed globalized economy.

It would be a mistake to think that the Occupy Movement can be reduced down to a set of bullet points or “demands” that its enemies can chew over. It is an exploration of possibilities and the creation of the new. The new will always have rough edges and mistakes, both large and small. Any scientist will tell you that most experiments fail, but that those failures help illuminate the road to eventual success.

It is also a movement propelled by the young: noisy, boisterous, exuberant and exceedingly rude at times. The young apprentices who gathered in the streets of Boston and Philadephia before the American Revolution would recognize them. So would a young Frederick Douglass or Harriet Tubman. The young Susan B. Anthony or Alice Paul would too, as would the young radical sit-down strikers of the 1930’s labor uprising.

The idealistic college students who populated the freedom rides, sit-ins, voter registration drives and anti-war protests of the Sixties would know them too. With their gray hair and bi-focals, some of these same people now sit-in next to kids young enough to be their grandchildren. I saw this with my own eyes in late October in Grant Park in Chicago and more recently in the middle of the intersection of Van Buren and Clark near the Chicago Federal Building in early November.

The Occupy Movement is trying to be the voice of a diverse working class which has divisions that stretch back to before there was a United States of America. It is a labor movement trying to take another step toward a society worthy of being called civilized. The Occupy Movement knows from its brief existence that this will be not be an easy road. A labor organizer by the name of Eugene Debs said this in the early 20th century:

“Ten thousand times has the labor movement stumbled and bruised itself. We have been enjoined by the courts, assaulted by thugs, charged by the militia, traduced by the press, frowned upon in public opinion, and deceived by politicians. But notwithstanding all this and all these, labor is today the most vital and potential power this planet has ever known, and its historic mission is as certain of ultimate realization as is the setting of the sun.”

All I can say in the 21st century is, “Keep on keepin’ on.”

Bob Simpson with his partner Estelle Carol make up Carol Simpson CartoonWork. They have been contributing cartoons to the labor movement for over 25 years.