“In Mondragon, I saw no signs of poverty. I saw no signs of extreme wealth. I saw people looking out for each other . . . It’s a caring form of capitalism.”
Barbara Peters quoted in “Spanish Town Without Poverty,” Newswise.com/articles/view/17012
Class Warfarin describes the insidious nature of our own decline but also thereby suggests an antidote which lies in a recognition that we must feed at a different trough, break the routine of transmission and reception that ties us to what serves few and leaves many in a desperate decline. We can then elect “real change,” that is, not to poison ourselves.
This sounds rosy enough to suit a cultural clime that invests supernatural power in personal choice and an individual’s power to will that choice into existence. The sort of class warfare we are in, whereby we willingly ingest what poisons our choices and deflects our will, makes us traitorous agents of our own transformation. It is this unreliability of a deceived chooser that makes any antidote grounded in choice, whether it be as a voter or consumer, an advocate or a dissident, not redemptive nor recuperative. This is what I mean when I say that the kind of class warfare we are in is of an insidious nature, perhaps especially insidious because the spirit of individual reclamation by assertion of individual will and choice is so very powerfully present in the American cultural imaginary. The mantras of “free to choice” and “the force of individual will” serve a market regime well but blind us to the present status of the Many as dupes and victims, useful idiots and cannon fodder of the Few.
Those who benefit by our delusions are making a bold charge against what remains of hard victories won by unions and collective bargaining, by an effective incremental income tax, by assertive government regulations, represented by the FCC Fairness doctrine, and by Glass-Steagall which separated investment and commercial banking. There is a no longer remembered America we have lost by the corporate evocation of the “equal protection” clause of the 14th Amendment, as well as by an entanglement of the “military/industrial” complex which resulted in a “privatizing” of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the profit of investors and the death and mutilation of those who invest their lives.
There is a no longer remembered America we have lost through trade agreements that prove ruinous to workers but advantageous to global investors, as well as by a dismantling of almost all of a social safety net and replacing it with an incentive to be “entrepreneurial.” I suppose if there was a memory of what this country was before its own cherished, Wild West economic system unraveled it, we would be clearly aware that right now, at this moment a depleted middle class and a deeply wounded working class are facing their last stand. After this we will all still be around – globally speaking -- but in the way native Americans are still around—nationally speaking.
The antidote we search for then is a defense, a defensive preparation for a sort of perverse storming of the Bastille, one led by a “populist” Tea Party – these strange sans-culottes imposters who are no more than a “grassroots” front for the corporate will -- but driven by a war waged by the self-proclaimed Winners against the Many they call Losers. We need to more closely examine our possible defensive strategies and hope to find an antidote to our illusions, especially those that deny we are in a battle at all.
Democracies privilege elections but history, say, from Reagan to the present, displays a poor record of any change in wealth distribution achieved through elections. Wages for three decades leading up to the crash of 2008 remained flat while the wealth of the richest 1 percent increased to one quarter of total national income. Barack Obama, elected to change something but not this, berated “sanctimonious” Liberals for opposing his bargain with Republicans not to let the Bush tax cuts end. Such a concession is a strategy for winning the 2012 presidential election. And while the bitterness of a monumental economic collapse in 2008 yet remained in the mouths of those who suffered most, these same sufferers in the 2010 elections voted in governors in Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio, and New Jersey who have now lead the assault against the Have Less Each Day and the Have Nots. No one was elected who would indict the reckless and criminal Wall Street financiers who looted the country in 2008. And so, elections are not our antidote.
Autopsy reports show that we are self-poisoned, that like the diabetic who yet hungers for the sugary sweets that will kill him and the obese who hunger for the Fatburgers that will kill them, we Americans are addicted to every policy and every refusal to write policy that will kill us. But the autopsy report shows that besides this disposition for self-slaughter, we are victims of our own political democracy which is run by our economic inequality. Free market free-play is the driving engine of an economy that is, in turn, the driving engine of our electoral democracy. A “free” market needs – according to the present reigning cultural imaginary -- government to “get out of the way” so that the sort of democracy our Founding Fathers envisioned can come into existence. Of course, that last sentence was never written by a Founding Father, thus the pressing need to sculpt Ronald Reagan’s head on Mt. Rushmore and thereby legitimize what Gore Vidal calls the United Corporation of America, or, what the documentary film maker Alex Gibney refers to as the United States of Money. (Casino Jack and the United States of Money, a documentary about Jack Abramoff)
The globalized technocapitalist engine has, unfortunately, driven us – or most of us – off the tracks, whether you think of these as egalitarian tracks, or environmental tracks, or peace tracks, or the “American Dream” tracks. What the controlling, driving force of unbridled free market free-play has done is seduce and/or anesthetize the electorate so that it remains either too bewildered, perhaps because too over-stimulated by the soma of cyber-technology, or too oblivious of matters outside personal “friending” and “unfriending” to see clearly what is poisoning them.
At the same time, extremes of wealth have translated into extremes of political power so that legislators represent that power first before they represent anything else, including the vast majority of the population. The face of American democracy becomes the face of the wealthiest. Everything is bought and sold, politically as well as economically. Elected representatives of the people assume the goals and ambitions of a broker or a lawyer on retainer, a market or advertising consultant, a political celebrity endorsing a product. Our democracy has been, in effect, “privatized for profit.” Our zombie lack of self-awareness is not shared globally, the cause, I believe, of our unwarranted dislike and distrust of “Old Europe,” coalitions, and, especially, the French.
Every branch of our democratic government has been increasingly filled since Reagan with those who pitch the brand of the wealthy, of those who have no incentive to change a situation that suits them well. And just as in the glory days of `90s stock market speculation when no broker had a difficult job in selling the “wonders of compound interest,” no legislator today has a difficult job in selling “preemptive”war, tax rebates to the wealthy, the “fairness” of a flat tax, the evils of labor unions and gays in the military and welfare recipients, the fraudulence of global warming, the inefficiency and ineptness of any public undertaking compared with private enterprise.
No legislator has a difficult job in turning an immigrant established country into an immigrant hostile country. And the least difficult now after thirty years of virulent anti-government attacks is to convince Americans that the 2008 financial crisis was “all the fault of government do-gooders, who used various levers – especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the government-sponsored loan-guarantee agencies – to promote loans to low-income borrowers. . . Wall Street . . . erred only to the extent that it got suckered into going along with this government-created bubble.” (Paul Krugman, “Wall Street Whitewash,” NYTimes December 17, 2010)
Though Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, as well as public education, seem now not to be brokered on the side of wealth and privilege, the electorate is already softened to recognize the need for “reform.” What the “innovative entrepreneurs” are waiting for in regard to public education is not Superman but privatization and profit. This is called education “reform.” Tax “reform,” whose need both President Obama and the Tea Party affirm, has already been etched in everyone’s brain pan as a “no tax” or “flat tax” reform. The notion that the Federal Government has no legitimate right to tax the winnings of the Haves is not laughable to the Have Nots because they have already consumed anti-Federal government and anti-tax attitudes. There is no reason now to believe that tax “reform” will do anything other than benefit the wealthy while further devastating the poor. There is no reason to believe that any future “reform” will be a hard blow to the profits of the wealthy. “Reform” comes to meaning within a “free” market free-play that has put the “Reformers” in a winning position in the same way that a roll of the dice places one gamer in Monopoly in the Winner’s spot. You can’t “reform” anything if the notion of “reform” you have digested preempts the “reform” you desperately need.
The call to repeal what everyone now mockingly calls “Obama-care” is a call by those reaping great profits from the medical insurance and pharmaceutical industries to destroy what is set up to decrease their profits. We need to recognize that an extension of health care Obama/Pelosi/Reid accomplished was not accomplished by appealing to “American compassion.” That tactic, which was sufficient to mount the French nationalized health care, was quickly dropped in the States. The U.S. track record for “compassion” had descended to the lowest level in the matter of welfare, where we were casting the thinnest of “safety” nets of all industrialized nations because “compassion” had been successfully redefined as “tough love” and welfare checks and unemployment checks as “Moral Hazards.” That history not only unnerves any elected to office but points clearly to the fate of all efforts to cut into profit, of any proportion. The new governor of my state, Michigan, has been anxious to redefine “compassion” as “tough love” by reducing unemployment payments.
The Liberal idea of long standing rests on legislated regulation that assumes, as I do not, that these regulations will get through Congress with teeth and not as obstructions to real reform. In the face of very clear evidence that the planet is heating up because of stuff we do, stuff that can be either stopped or modified, we can’t regulate enough or at all. Because we have been for quite a while in a Wild West of quick returns, because we are playing on a “short term” free market game board, what future catastrophes environmental degradation may cause has little or no leverage. It’s all “after-we’ve- gotten-ours-and-gotten-out” sort of game.
Legislative supporters of the wealthy are now in sufficient numbers to roadblock attempts made by a diminishing number of Liberals. In the face of a wealth gap to which much of what we call our “decline” can be traced, some 60% of those polled favor a tax reduction for millionaires. And so a rising portion of the population have become brokers also to the wealthy, without remuneration but with progressively dire consequences to themselves. What then is the antidote, if any, that our class warfarin might offer?
Politics, we are always reminded, is the art of the possible; what it is possible to achieve must not be held hostage to what we ideally wish to achieve; we can’t ignore the possible in our search for the perfect. You get the idea. I believe that what is possible depends on the reality frame we are in, or, what I call the cultural imaginary within which we plot our lives, including our values and our conclusions as to what anything “means.” The American cultural imaginary is predominantly embedded in values, beliefs and meanings which steer politics for the few in a favorable direction while leaving the many on the shoals, beached. Albert Einstein in “Why Socialism?” tied what we believe to the power of capitalism: “[U]nder existing conditions, private capitalists inevitably control, directly or indirectly, the main sources of information (press, radio, education).” (Monthly Review) Cable TV and cyberspace has greatly expanded the venues of control.
A leaning toward a conservative ideology increased slightly after 2008, which means that after the casino logic of financial finagling which results from the unfettered “free” play that the conservative ideology upholds, loots the country, Americans move closer to it, rather like moving closer to the rattler that has already bit you.
It seems clear that we need to get outside the “realm of the possible.” We need to reconstruct the frame that creates the conditions within which anything is possible or impossible. To do that, we need to realize that the pragmatism that President Obama pursues measures its “workability” within a presently corrupt and unbalanced “realm of the possible.” Such has always been the Achilles heel of a pragmatic approach. To reconstruct the frame that creates the conditions within which anything is possible, we need to work on the foundation. We need to re-structure the foundation upon which our notions of what is possible and what is conceivable are changed to meet our requirements: re-shift wealth from the very few at the very top toward the underclass and the middle class and thus re-create that solid middle of prosperity and peace of mind, of hopes realized but re-oriented away from the personal and toward the social. “He who wishes to secure the good of others has already secured his own,” a bit of wisdom that we can borrow without fear from the Chinese. And at our foundation remains that surplus capital Marx spoke of, only now the surplus can no longer find its way to those on the payroll, those who work for wages, wages that are now taxed more deeply than wealth.
For those 80 percent of the population who are not the wealthy few nor the professional class, including legislators, who serve their interests, it is not regulation nor entitlement programs that will dissolve the wealth divide but co-operative ownership. Workers must co-operatively own the businesses which they previously were salaried employees of. Shareholders need to be the workers themselves and profits both distributed and re-invested by the workers themselves. In this fashion, the conduit through which profits have flowed into bonuses for executives and dividends for investors would be re-directed to the workers themselves.
Basque co-operative groups comprise the Mondragon Corporation which is one of the largest Spanish companies in terms of asset turnover. The United States Federation of Worker Cooperatives , following similar guiding principles as Mondragon, began in 2004. The U.S. and Canadian steelworkers began in 2009 to establish some collaboration with Mondragon, one of the very few intelligent responses to the Great Recession of 2008. The National Center for Employee Ownership (NCEO) website www.nceo.org provides information on the one hundred largest employee owned businesses in the U.S. as well as information on employee stock ownership.
Co-operative economics has been around in various forms since Owen, Proudhon and Kropotkin but it is at this moment that there is a pressing need to create a system that is both free enterprise and co-operative sharing so that profits reach workers not solely through wages. Wages have not proven effective in allowing workers to share in surplus profits gleaned from the increased productivity of the workers themselves. Globalization has led to a unstoppable outsourcing which has weakened the power of national unions to bargain effectively for increased wages. The movement of wages, in fact, has gone the other way as American workers give up both salary and benefits in order to remain globally competitive.
Such a state of affairs – capitalism’s gravitation to low wages – is an axiomatic product of the play of globalized capitalism. “Fame requires every kind of excess” Don Delillo writes in Great Jones Street, and I would extend that to wealth. It is as axiomatic in human nature to get the whole world on one’s plate and eat it as it is for capitalism to get as much productivity out of a worker and pay him or her as little as possible. Call these our foundational axioms, the ones stored in the basement where the Warfarin is laid out.
Class Warfarin doesn’t set itself in opposition to this capitalist foundation; it’s not old time, “true” class warfare. We need to rebuild from the inside, recognizing that forces that play out axiomatically – whether in capitalism or human nature itself – are rudimentary and not concluding, precursors of a greater and more evenhanded evolution. No consumer minds if the products and services available are offered by the workers who produce and deliver them. Those consumers, in fact, may form their own co-operatives which not only price at wholesale and not retail levels for their members but may own the wholesale operations themselves.
None of this would keep Mark Zuckerberg off the cover of Time magazine as “Man of the Year.” None of this would prevent the 26 year old Zuckerberg from owning his multiple billions. But if we could, alongside this “Winner Take All” enterprise, create a co-operative economics that does not abolish individual initiative and reward, nor private ownership nor interrupt in any way the special relationship Americans have with “individual freedom,” we could achieve a solidarity beyond class warfare and an egalitarian spirit working against the enrichment of the Few at the expense of the Many.
This is not a new antidote but an old one, an old bottle on the shelf – one marked “ANTIDOTE” – but we are unfortunately without history now and anxious, as the new “No Label” party is, not to attach ourselves to any ideology. I say unfortunately because our class divide and the fight to identify it is a fight we are currently programmed not to have. Class warfare is going on and the Many have consumed the beliefs and values of their poisoners but we are still far from such realizations. We are still far from interrogating the illusion that only we control the diet upon which our mind is fed, although protests against union busting by newly elected Republican governors urge us to think that we can rush a national public square and force corporate politics to relent. We must first do the hard work of rushing the public square of our own minds and recognize how corporate politics is renting space there. We don’t mind laying out the Warfarin that the rat will greedily consume, only to later hemorrhage and die, but every part of our fierce independence objects to the suggestion that we share the same greed and the same plight.
Perhaps we cannot label the war we are in as a war nor label our own thoughts as fabricated by those who profit by such control because we cannot face the illusions of self-empowerment and self-bequeathed autonomy. You might say that in the end this is a war with ourselves but as long as we refuse to admit that we are not self-creating nor free to choose to be free to choose, it will be a war we will not recognize, a war without a label. And as long as both the poison and the antidote remain without labels, the wealth of the few will increase as will the distress of the many.
Joseph Natoli has a website www.josephnatoli.com where links to his onliine writing can be found as well as his offline writing, aka books.