Revolution From Above


The first thing that announced the 1980s to me was the air traffic controllers strike. They wanted more pay, fewer hours, and better working conditions. President Reagan denied they had a right to strike, and after giving them 48 hours to return to work, fired the vast majority. The head of the agency in charge of the controllers at the time was later quoted as saying that the firing served as an example to many employers, and probably had a large effect on the economic recovery that followed. Many employers disliked unions, and made use of the example.
The next thing I recall was hearing about leveraged buyouts. These were one company buying another, draining all its assets, and leaving its workers without employment, the sort of thing I would imagine a vampire doing. The excuse was to make companies leaner, and this became the rationale for another fashion, which followed: downsizing. In this case, a CEO would fire many employees, often middle management persons who knew how the company did business. Those replacing them (I gather they usually got replaced) had the virtue of not commanding the high salaries of previous employees, but they often didn’t know what they were doing.
Industries had begun to be relocated in the 1960s and 70s. Steel mills vanished from Pittsburgh, Youngstown and Cleveland, Ohio (the general area where I grew up). Rubber plants vanished from Akron. In the case of the steel mills, cities benefited by being less polluted, but they didn’t benefit economically. By the 1990s industries were moving (or so it appeared) en masse to Mexico, China, and southeast Asia. Some blame these phenomena on greed, and that no doubt had something to do with it, but it seems to me that resentment was also part of the story. Where did the resentment come from?
Others are alienated too, but they are usually unsuccessful people with little money and many frustrations. From the time the industial revolution began to dominate the country corporate employers began to treat employees as opponents rather than collaborators. It was apparent in the 19th century and early 20th, when strikers were often met with brute force because they asked for better pay and working conditions. It wasn’t unusual for employers to respond by maiming and killing the strikers, or trying to replace them with people even more desperate, who would sometimes work for even less. Why they responded in such a primal way is unclear to me. In many cases employers had been made very rich by the people working for them (I remember seeing a large number of mansions in Shaker Heights, Ohio, which were probably built with such profits), but they deeply resented anyone questioning how they ran their businesses. Employers may not have been as overtly aggressive in the most recent thirty or so years, but they have seemed uninterested in paying employees a cent more than they could help, and very interested in driving down pay. If you measure the success of these strategies by the number of homeless children, it’s VERY successful. This means ordinary Americans are a potential market which corporations aren’t interested in serving. It seems like the picture of the future described by Karl Marx.
One somewhat plausible explanation was that the large industries knew they had only a limited time to extract profits before ecological catastrophe hit. That’s not impossible, but I’m not sure I believe the industrialists were that rational. Some of their behavior may have been planned coldly, but some seems visceral and ideologically driven.
A Facebook post says, You can tell who is unhappy with their lives because they like to make everyone else miserable too. Applying this proposition to such financial behavior suggests that wealth doesn’t make people happy, though many people devoutly believe it does. Government by bribery has been going on a long time, but the imbalance of wealth makes it even more ubiquitous, and wealthy people reveal themselves as resenting that poor people should get any government benefits at all, like Medicare or Social Security. Considering that wealthy people and corporations (who are now defined as people, by act of the Supreme Court) arrange for themselves to get subsidies, tax breaks, and to craft regulations to suit themselves, their feeling that poor people shouldn’t get ANYTHING from the government seems to come down to their being mean and ideological. Is it impossible for people and organizations who are financially secure to have any generosity at all? Or is their behavior the result of some overwhelming fear?
It’s the kind of behavior that inspired Marx and Engels to begin Communism. Granted that Communism didn’t turn out to be a great idea, but the defensiveness with which capitalists responded to strikes, unions, and eventually to the version of socialism/Communism that took over in Russia and elsewhere, speaks of some bad consciences, as well as the desire to not only make people suffer, but to utterly control their lives. It seems like a sort of sadism flowing down the hierarchies to the lower bureaucrats, managers, and police.
And what is the source of sadism but fear? Is it not striking out at what one fears before one can be attacked? That speaks again of a bad conscience, as does the ideological narrative of people being poor because they’re lazy. It also speaks of proving one has power by exercising it: mistreating people because one can, and hoping the power thus displayed will protect one from any number of undefined catastrophes.
It’s also like the policy that Joseph Stalin referred to as revolution from above. He used that phrase to justify the forced collectivization of farmers which led to a mass starvation that killed millions. The profit from the forced collectivization was used to invest in modern weapons, which came in handy later, when Russia was invaded by the Germans. In the case of the United States, weapons have been heavily invested in since World War II. In our case, the investment has been into tax breaks.
There are things it’s rational to fear. Poor or ethnic people might reject the scapegoat status they’ve been assigned and mount some kind of attack on the status quo. That becomes increasingly likely the longer the gulf between rich and poor increases. That ecological collapse might arrive in spite of all denial. That financial collapse might lead to social collapse. Wars for resources. Drought and famine. Monumental pollution of water and air. All these are rational to fear, and irrational not to try to prevent.
But politics frequently appeals to the irrational. Rather than try to repair or prevent problems, we deny them and block efforts to deal with them. It’s more important to divide and maintain control, which is why various political, economic, and religious groups demonize each other. Whether calculated that way or not, the wars set off by 9/11 have aroused fear of Muslims and increased willingness to commit crimes against them, turning moderate Muslims against Americans.
This may benefit some people, but not ordinary Americans. Ordinary Americans are the ones that have to be soldiers, and become homeless after their service because their war traumas don’t allow them to fit back into society without extensive help, for which funds are not forthcoming. They’re also the ones who lose jobs that get exported, the jobs that get cut to make companies more “competitive”. They were the ones looking for jobs in their forties and fifties who weren’t getting hired because they were “overqualified”. They’re now the people who have to live with their parents because they can’t afford to get places of their own, who have college degrees but can’t find jobs in their specialty areas and can’t repay their college loans.
In other words, they’re not the ones that government serves.
No wonder they’re angry, often to the point of being irrational. I think they often misinterpret who is to blame for their problems, and what the solution is, but I certainly can’t blame them for their anger. Maybe part of their situation is a culture that encourages wrong behavior, but when heroin use becomes common I see it as not merely irresponsible or depravity, but a sign of despair. Is despair unjustified? We believe that having enough money is necessary, and then see opportunity contract. Some can see entrepenurial opportunity, but many don’t have the talent or resources to make use of opportunity if they recognized it. Are they to be jettisoned for being less than perfect?
That’s what predators practice. Unregulated capitalism is the predator’s playground. Actually, what is practiced in this country, and much of the rest of the world, is regulated, but regulated in favor of the wealthy, who already have wealth in their favor. They shouldn’t have to have the legal system biased in their favor too.
This election cycle may turn out to be a referendum on the way things are organized, but little will change unless a lot of people are willing to work very hard for a very long time to change them. A biased financial system is far from being our only problem, though it’s a serious one. Our whole society, in my opinion, is organized on a wrong basis, and needs to be changed. Unless we too change, any changes will most likely be superficial. I wish I were more optimistic.


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