Sunday, January 3, 2016

INDEPENDENCE, SELF-RELIANCE AND COMPETENCE (Part II)




(Sorry I took so long getting back to this.  I’ll continue quicker hereafter, I promise.)

Suppose that you were a proper British (or French, or Dutch) aristocrat, just after the American Revolution.  Of course you'd believe that the aristocracy were a superior "race" (or at least bloodline) – more intelligent, moral, beautiful, graceful, etc. than the "lower orders", and therefore naturally fit to rule them.  Of course you'd be appalled at this horrid vulgar "democracy", which allowed any coarse peasant to vote, to choose his leaders and laws, or even (horrors!) get rid of them if he so chose.  Oh, outrageous!  But those peasants and their "class traitor" generals had won the Revolution, and even written a Constitution and made it the supreme law of the land.  What could you do to restore the Proper Order of Things?

At first, you and your class of Proper People would simply ignore these upstart new laws by the time-honored process of suborning the agents of government.  The ink was barely dry on the Constitution when the new Congress passed the Alien and Sedition Acts – whose basic purpose was to prevent Irishmen from immigrating to the United States, gaining the vote, and voting for that original Traitor to His Class, Thomas Jefferson.

That didn't work.  First, that upstart new Supreme Court made it clear that no citizen was required to obey, nor any government agent required to enforce, an unconstitutional law.  The Alien and Sedition Acts were repealed, Irish refugees came to America anyway, and Thomas Jefferson got elected President.  One of the first things he did was to pass the Homesteading Act, which gave portions of federal land, free, to any peasant who would work it and claim it.  He also funded the Merriweather and Clark expedition to explore and map the unknown territories to the west, to provide more lands for individual settlement.  The War of 1812 ended not only with Britain failing to take back its old colonies, but with America owning more territory than before. The Mexican War ended much the same way.  One result of this was that the early 19th century saw an explosion of American small businesses – starting as small as the family farm, and growing from there.  At the beginning of the Civil War, the average American lived on a family farm and provided most of their necessities for themselves.  Even city-dwelling craftsmen and businessmen owned houses on plots of land big enough to provide a kitchen-garden and a small pen of livestock – poultry or rabbits, at least, and often a horse.  The average American citizen, even in the slave-states, was distressingly self-reliant and independent. 

By the end of the Civil War it was clear that direct opposition – openly trying to establish a de facto aristocracy – wouldn't work, and more subtle manipulations were necessary.  The obvious means was the manipulation of money, either by establishing large factories to sell products and make money and crowd out the small-fry competition, or by directly manipulating money through the burgeoning "financial industry".  The factory system led to the growth of labor unions (horrors!), but the financial manipulators suffered no worse than an occasional slap from various governments – and that happened only when the government was effectively petitioned by those pesky citizens.  By the turn of the 20th century it was clear that the only major obstacle to establishing the New Aristocracy was the competence and vigilance of the citizenry.  What could the would-be ruling class do about that?

Well, since 1852 there had been a growing movement toward public schools, and every private-interest group in the country had been trying to take them over.  The aristocracy was just one voice out of many, each trying to insist that the schools teach their agenda --   religious, economic, or political – but at least it could use money, by suborning state and local governments, to become a major voice.  This is why the public school system was originally designed along factory-model lines: to teach working-class children to become good, obedient, interchangeable factory-workers, while the private schools continued to teach the children of the better-off how to become good managers and rulers.  Besides teaching propaganda that was acceptable to the major factions, schools could also be used to divide the populace into classes according to skills – and keep each class from learning the skills of the others, on the excuse of "division of labor".  Thus evolved the difference between "blue-collar" and "white-collar" workers, with the "white-collar" workers assuming themselves better educated and of a higher class, even though the "blue-collar" workers might actually have more skills and earn more money. 

But working against this effort was the folk tradition of learning cross-class survival skills as "crafts"— which included gardening, livestock raising, hunting and fishing, even among the new industrial urban poor, and never mind the rural middle-class and poor.  Also, there were various social crusaders, often religious, who made a point of spreading literacy and survival skills among the "less fortunate".  By the turn of the century, every American had the means, or at least access to them, of self-reliance – therefore independence.  And of course, most of them could vote.

By the early 20th century, despite the wealth it had gained during the age of the Robber Barons, the aristocracy was embattled on several fronts.  The labor movement was growing, women were agitating for the vote, education and literacy were widespread, and the average citizen was still dangerously competent, self-reliant, and independent.  What to do?  How to reduce them to that dependence which ensures the rule of the aristocracy?

Well, first there was the growing influence – often mistaken for power – of the media.  William Randolph Hearst's newspapers covered the nation with his own attitudes, which had been influential enough to stampede his readers, and then the federal government, to waging the Spanish-American War.  It was lost on nobody that one way to power was to gain a monopoly on the public's source of information.  Thus began the trend, continuing today, of publishing companies buying each other up until only half a dozen giants are left.  This pattern was followed in turn by later-developing media: film, radio, and television.

The drift toward monopolies, which had begun in the 19th century and suffered only temporary setbacks with Teddy Roosevelt's Anti-Trust crusade, spread to other industries too.  Mining and manufacturing companies, which were in the front of the wars with the labor unions, ate up any of their weaker brethren who faltered.  Service industries were slower to follow, but managed to consolidate the medical business – especially after the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act – into the "closed shop" of the A.M.A. and the narrowing handful of big pharmaceutical, medical equipment, and hospital companies.  The financial industry made its greatest gain with the establishment of the Federal Reserve, which empowered a collection of banks to control America's money supply regardless of actual wealth created.  And on, and on.  The point was to concentrate ownership and control of what Marx called "the means of production" in as few hands as possible, leaving the rest of the citizens dependent on the "job creators" for their survival.

World War One provided a marvelous new tool to the aristocracy, in the form of the federal government's bureaucracy.  The mass regimentation necessary for raising, arming, training, transporting, and supplying the biggest military America had yet seen required a similarly huge bureaucracy which the aristocracy could easily influence and use.  This is where the now-famed Military-Industrial Complex got its start.  The tendency toward growing bureaucracy and monopoly was only encouraged by World War Two, which followed just over twenty years later.

Unfortunately for the aristocracy, the skills learned during WWI also assisted the "peasants" in forming labor unions.  The "labor wars" of the '20s-to-'50s were real shooting wars, in which the aristocracy hired private guards and government troops, but the "blue collar" workers outnumbered and often outshot them.  Eventually the aristocracy realized that some concessions – and a more subtle attack – were necessary.  The National Labor Relations Board was formed not just at the request of the working class for legal protections but also at the urging of the aristocracy, who managed to work in some legal restraints on unions as well, and followed with a few more – as note the Taft-Hartley Act.  The last shooting labor-battles happened in the 1960s, in the coal-fields of Harlan County, Kentucky, and by then most of the aristocracy had already changed tactics.

Since most unions were clustered in the “blue collar” jobs – primarily mining and manufacturing – the aristocracy did its best to take the jobs away, moving them overseas to countries where the peasants had never heard of the concept of unions.  The fact that such labor was lamentably unskilled was beside the point;  cheap, if shoddy, goods would always sell among the poor at home.

Alas, the tactic wasn’t entirely successful.  Some industries – such as construction, medical treatment, firefighting, police work, teaching, and weapons construction (for obvious security reasons) couldn’t be moved, and those industries found themselves unionized in short order.  It was no coincidence that the era of greatest union membership in America also happened to be its period of greatest prosperity;  a rising tide lifts all boats.  But this isn’t what the aristocracy intended.

What to do, what to do?  Well, first, try corrupting those unions.  It’s easier to corrupt a poor man than a rich one, because it’s cheaper;  wave $10,000 at a rich man, and he’ll sneer and hold out for $100,000 – but wave $10,000 at a poor man, and he’ll think of all the necessities (like paying off the mortgage on his house, or buying decent health-insurance, or paying for his kids’ college) he could buy with that money, and his knees will shake and his morals will quake.  From the 1950s on, a distressing number of union officials were corrupted by big money – which was dutifully exposed and gleefully moralized about in the mainstream media, giving the impression that unions were all corrupt. 

Second, playing on that phenomenon, launch a long and thorough and subtle propaganda campaign to discredit the very idea of unions among most of the population.  And, of course, every time a business raises prices or closes a mine or factory, blame it on the cost of union demands.  It’s cheaper to dig minerals or make goods overseas, anyway.  As we’ve seen recently, blame the cost and inefficiency of government on government-workers’ unions – teachers, police, firefighters, garbage-collectors, and all.

Third, mechanize whenever possible.  No workers = no unions, and never mind what this does to your product quality or the overall economy.  There’s an old tale of Henry Ford taking John L. Lewis on a tour of his newest, most thoroughly automated factory, and then bragging: “How are these machines going to join your union, John?”  John L. replied: “How are they going to buy your cars, Henry?”  There is no record of what Henry Ford replied, or if anyone learned from that exchange.

In any case, today – 60 years later – union membership is down to less than 10% of the American work-force, and our economy is in wretched shape.  It seems that a falling tide lowers all boats, too – except for the aristocracy, now labeled “the 1%”, who own more than half the physical wealth in the country.


                                                              (To be continued)

4 comments:

Aya Katz said...

Leslie, are you following what is happening in Oregon, with the standoff by ranchers at a wildlife preserve against the Federal government? The Bureau of Land Management has taken over grazing lands in the West, slowly killing off all the independent ranchers, and a scant 100 of them are fighting back.

I am not sure any of this has to do with an aristocracy. I do agree that the country used to belong to independent farmers, ranchers, shopkeepers, and craftsmen, and that has been largely done away with. Now most people are employees of large corporations, whether they are union or not, shop or management. The CEOs do not own their companies, and that is the problem. They are looting because looting is the only thing that pays.

But most ordinary people own so little that when they hear that somebody owns a working dairy farm or ranch, they think of that person as aristocracy or the one percent, and they feel no need to join the fray to defend his rights. This to me is the crux of the problem. Most people can't imagine owning the business they work for.

I had this discussion with one woman about why people should be able to avoid inheritance taxes so they can pass down the family farm. She said the current cap protected all the people she cares about -- those who are not "rich". So I showed her how much a working dairy farm is valued at, and she said that was too much for one person or family to inherit. She said: Not when there are poor people starving.

Well, where is all the milk going to come from, then? Obviously, factory farms.

Ori Pomerantz said...

For another perspective on the history, see http://paulgraham.com/re.html .

Leslie Fish said...

Hi, Aya. Actually, there are a lot of people lusting for the chance to start their own companies rather than slave for a boss. There seems to be a distinct cultural difference between them and that sort who thinks a small business is "too much". I'll be getting into that in the next installment.

Hi, Ori. Methinks Graham is overlooking the fragmentation that existed before the '50s, back when "class war" was a commonly understood and accepted phrase. Hmmm, in fact, "class war" didn't become a taboo subject until the '50s, when the Cold War socially outlawed any use of a phrase that the commies had also used.

Paradoctor said...

#ALMOND: all lives matter or none do.