The Clare Spark Blog

August 29, 2014

LABOR DAY 2014

KOLsealLabor Day was a counter-revolutionary exercise in its very foundation during the administration of Grover Cleveland. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day. Revolutionary socialism was the last thing that the AFL or the less well-known and long defunct Knights of Labor desired.

This blog will focus on those aspects of our dominant sociology that seek to defang the labor movement. [For a blog that shows resistance to New Deal labor codes as dished out by the State by one black radical, see https://clarespark.com/2013/09/02/labor-day-2013/.%5D  But since I, unlike Sam Dorsey,  am not writing from the revolutionary Left (see https://clarespark.com/2014/05/10/why-i-left-the-left/), I will focus on those features that deter workers from acting in their own interest, for instance in their mindless capitulation to union bosses (a bureaucracy that is rarely mentioned these days).

  1. Populism versus revolutionary socialism. As I have written before, populism is a petit-bourgeois radical movement that seems to offer upward mobility to ambitious persons from humble backgrounds. Populism deploys such phrases as “the masses” or “the people” as if all but ruling elites formed a compact entity with identical economic and social interests. I don’t see why class analysis should be the monopoly of the Left. Clearly, small business and big business have different structures and problems; the same applies to male and female workers, especially with respect to child rearing and housework. (As to whether or not “class collaboration” between “business” and “labor” is a good thing or not, I leave to economists and other historians. The labor movement made its peace with capitalism during the 1930s and 1940s, and “big labor” has no revolutionary aspirations, to the disappointment of Leninists. The “labor movement” as it once existed, no longer exists in this “post-industrial” service-oriented economy.)

But even worse, populist politics, early on co-opted by “progressives” pervade popular culture, and are promiscuous in their antagonism toward “elites”. In its original form, populism was heavily antisemitic (i.e., bankers, like “Wall Street” were generically a Jewish cabal with ambitions to control the world), a fact brushed out by its New Left defenders. (See https://clarespark.com/2011/02/02/the-legitimate-aspirations-of-the-___-people/.)

I noted during the art world upheavals of the 1970s that protesters defined themselves as “populists”, not as “socialists,” for  the term “populism” however tainted by its initial anti-Semitism, was acceptable (for such intellectual celebrities as Hannah Arendt, “the people” was the opposite of a mob, implying that individuals believed in their particular individual rights; hence “the people’s” critique could apply to the supposed crimes of any elite suspected of taking away such rights, no matter how competent the elite’s members might be in their particular field). A particularly grotesque example is found in the Chomsky-ite attack on Walter Lippmann (again an antisemitic gesture) that spread the canard that Lippmann’s influential book Public Opinion (1922) called for the “manufacture of consent” in the newly developing mass media, in order to hornswoggle the gullible people-becoming-mobs. ( See https://clarespark.com/2009/08/19/noam-chomskys-misrepresentation-of-walter-lippmanns-chief-ideas-on-manufacturing-consent/.) A similar condemnation of mass culture can be found in Hannah Arendt’s “must-read” tome The Origins of Totalitarianism (1950, 1958). And yet Arendt is worshipped by many academic radicals, as are other “critical theorists.”

A similar outrage was found in the counter-culture that continues to delight in technophobia and representations of mad scientists (see https://clarespark.com/2014/06/25/penny-dreadfuls-sinister-significance/.)

Indeed, when I defended the Enlightenment on a Pacifica radio popular morning show in the 1990s, I was accused of being a CIA agent, hence the lowest form of animal life—this from listeners who believed themselves to be anticapitalist and pro-labor.

night-of-the-living-dead

 

Cultural pessimism. What could be more detrimental to working people than the current mood of doom and gloom? Is it any wonder that they seek refuge in sports and other forms of mass entertainment, that are predictably primitivist and (stylishly) loud?

Where does this doom and gloom originate? Surely not in the aspirations of the Founders, most of whom were avid followers of the various European enlightenments, and who were guardedly optimistic about the future of the republic. I locate the apocalyptic, technophobic, and anti-intellectual mood to the regnant populism and 1960s counter-culture that arguably never had the welfare of working people as their goal, but rather emancipation from their parents—stand-ins for the evil “jewified” bourgeoisie. Enter “youth culture” as revolt against “suburban sadness.”

Materialism and the working class. American reactionaries (among whom I count the populists and faux “liberals”) come out of German (philosophical) Idealism, which was always antidemocratic and protofascist. “Materialism” is now widely understood as an addiction to consumerism and similarly shallow values, whereas materialism used to signify a retreat from mysticism to the power of the individual to use her or his senses, to reason, and thus to defend her and his interests through making sense of the world and its institutions.  This older view of “materialism” is now blamed by culture warriors of the Right on “secular progressives”—meaning persons like me who praise cultural pluralism and stand up for education in the sciences, economics, and history, putting children ahead of teachers unions and their narrow interests.

I will end this Labor Day blog by observing that teachers are petit-bourgeois and definitely NOT working class, despite their enthusiasm for their “unions” in which they ape the organization of real laborers. When I trained to be a science teacher in the 1950s, we were constantly asked “is teaching a profession? And if so, should they strike for higher wages?” It is our teachers who are preparing their students for real life as mature adults. The least they could do is not succumb to those administrators who joyfully participate in the Democratic Party urban machines and the collectivist ideologies that these mobsters dispense to kids and their parents who could and should know better.

Postscript: I got this comment from a Facebook friend Stuart Creque this morning after I asked what was interesting about Labor Day: “ My dad was a trade unionist, which is funny because he was a high school teacher, not a laborer. Teachers unionizing is rather like Hollywood writers unionizing: it has nothing to do with collective bargaining power and everything to do with self-image as “working men and women.”

But what really fascinates me about labor today is the death of solidarity. My dad exposed me to what labor solidarity was. And the interesting thing is that nowadays it seems almost nonexistent. Each union seems out for its own interests, and more likely to focus on poaching from other unions than coordinating with them or even honoring their picket lines.

In the Writers Guild of America strike a few years ago, the union actually counseled its members to write and earn as much as possible in the days leading up to the strike deadline. They had no concept that they were giving management inventory to work on during the strike, reducing pressure for a settlement. They had no concept of collecting a strike fund over time and then ordering a work-to-rule slowdown leading into the strike. They also had no stomach to hold out for synchronizing contract deadlines with other Hollywood guilds and unions.” I can only add to Stuart Creque’s comment that writers are competing with each other and thus have little motivation for solidarity in protecting the quality of their work. They form a guild, not a union.

MightisRight 

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September 2, 2013

Labor Day 2013

Alison Saar sculpture palma y palmara

Alison Saar sculpture palma y palmara

On the history of this holiday see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Labor_Day. For a conservative response to the crypto-communism seen in this celebration, see http://www.nationalreview.com/article/357369/red-monday-kevin-d-williamson. President Grover Cleveland made the first Monday in September a holiday to avoid May Day associations with the Haymarket Massacre, the latter an event that has taken religious tones for some Leftists.  Since the Knights of Labor were involved in Grover Cleveland’s decision, I suspect that the initial modern labor movement was nostalgic for medieval guilds that excluded tyros and enforced standards of craftsmanship that are now gone with the wind. In the early days of the American Republic, it was customary for the various occupations to mount parades celebrating their contributions. Such parades are lovingly resuscitated and honored by academic historians of the labor movement; such scholars are generally devoted to “the new labor history” that confines itself mostly to the “culture” of the industrial working class as opposed to its internal politics and hierarchies. Nestled in academe, with tenure and necessarily silenced and dependent students, these academics can be regarded as aristocratic radicals, blue jeans and work shirts notwithstanding.

I know a bit about the decorative arts and modernism in general, and American craftsmen, once ignored as too severe or kitschy, are now admired as “folk artists, a.k.a. primitivists.  But this blog is not about the collecting habits of New England WASPS, or the ways some modern artists had adapted old forms for political purposes in such redoubts as the East Village of NYC in the name of a reinvigorated “spirituality” (opposed to bourgeois “materialism”).

The academic left is assiduous in documenting the spectacular strikes of industrial workers in the 19th C, the Pinkerton operatives who mowed the strikers down like rabbits , the popularity of Eugene V. Debs, the ferocity of A. Mitchell Palmer and his confederates in destroying the IWW, and the sit-down strikes of the 1930s. Indeed, John Dos Passos’s trilogy USA is surely one of the great American novels, though the reputation of Dos Passos has taken a hit after he exposed the criminal infiltration of big labor in his novel Mid-Century (1961).  No one on the Left will forgive his defection, a process that began with his break with Hemingway during the Spanish Civil War over Hemingway’s indifference to the fate of the murdered Jose Robles (Dos’s translator). But USA readers should have noticed that he was always hard on Communist organizers.

The 1930s are frequently lauded as a decade of amelioration for the working class under the guidance of New Deal legislation, but see this letter from Emmet (“Sam”) Dorsey, Ralph Bunche’s colleague at Howard University (not dated, but 1933):

[Dorsey to Bunche:] “This town is in an uproar. Labor is raising hell. There are thousands in Union Square every night denouncing the N.R.A. and “Yankee imperialism in Cuba.” An epidemic of strikes are breaking out all over. The government is being driven to the position of opposing all strikes. If this policy of the (gov.) continues labour will be just out of the picture. It’s an anomalous situation. Roosevelt is begging labor to organize! He wants labor to police his codes. Labor is incapable of organizing because of its reactionary and unwieldy craft structure. And Bill Green is pitiable. One of the best and also most tragic stories is the one concerning Swope and Green. Swope asked Green to organize his industry! Such an organization would be an industrial union. Green said that he couldn’t do it because he would have to interfere with the autonomy of the several unions in his (Swope’s) industry. The test has come and the structure, tactics, and ideology of the A.F. of L. [are] found to be terribly outmoded and inept. Only the radical unions are able to move. But they because of the strangle hold the A.F. of L. has upon the Amer. labor movement can’t do the job. If labor were intelligently organized now it could really bargain but as things now stand all that it can do is to call shop and plant strikes which have no national labor support and therefore are treated by the government as attempts to sabotage its program. If labor doesn’t get itself together and seemingly it can’t what can the result be but complete monopolized control from above? Well, it’s their U.S.A. Let them mess it up.” (Swope was a progressive and President of General Electric. Enter the CIO, industrial unionism, and sordid affiliations with gangsters.)

I quoted Dorsey’s  letter, because Bunche (during his radical period in the 1930s) was enraged by the power that union bosses had over the rank and file. Such analysis is missing today by labor historians, who have plumped for “the labor movement” (along with the anti-globalization movement), but have not dwelt upon its abandonment of its original noble goals: to ensure the health and safety of its members, to improve their material condition, and to guard the consumer from faulty, even dangerous, merchandise/products. Indeed, government unions are not criticized for internal corruption or for their very existence. Nor has the academic left worried its head over the decline of public education (surely the bedrock of longstanding worker demands). Rather, it has stigmatized the “white working class” as nativist while supporting teachers unions against charter schools or vouchers.

Thos. Hart Benton: The Twist

Thos. Hart Benton: The Twist

In a short blog, I cannot dwell upon the absence of women’s work in the home as only a recent concern of labor historians (e.g. Alice Kessler-Harris), but it is worth pointing out that technology has made the old glorification of “the dignity of labor” obsolete, for many men, but not for mothers whose exhausting tasks in rearing children go largely unrecognized except on token holidays such as Mother’s Day.

Indeed, it was a communist claim that science and technology had created a revolution in productivity that the social relations of capitalism could not handle, hence the drive to obscene waste and war by profiteers. But the record of the Soviet Union, that bastion of “socialism,” discredited its claims that the future worked.  Today, the industrial working class has largely disappeared, thanks to automation (though sweat shops in Los Angeles exist, along with farm labor and food preparation in Southern and agricultural red states). Bureaucrats in civil service, or low-wage service employees, domestic labor and/or janitors are now targets of lefty organizing, while our populist POTUS wants to make everyone “middle class,” even if there is no money to pay for the innovations of the New Deal and the Great Society.  The old industrial working class is no more, and it is hard to see how communist agitation directed toward the overthrow of “exploitative finance capital” can deliver the leisure and higher culture that such communists as R. Palme Dutt promised in 1934. We seem hardly to know what to do with the leisure we do have.

On a personal note: though my European ancestors were apparently not proletarian or engaged in farming, but seem all to have been rabbis or small craftsmen, I have always identified with those toward the bottom of the totem pole: labor, whether these be enlisted men in the armed services, construction workers, plumbers, garment makers , domestics, or mothers/ housewives whose work is never completed. One of my father’s cousins died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Triangle_Shirtwaist_Factory_fire) .

Today I look around and see a shocking disengagement from politics, economics, and the future of our country in favor of apocalyptic cultural pessimism, meaningless chatter/kvetching in social media as in most social gatherings, and few ideas about what should constitute informed and effective political action. Sex (including S-M), fashion, celebrity-worship, raucous popular music, and the culture wars have replaced the once vibrant and contentious political culture that characterized the US from the Revolution onward.  Political correctness countered by religious and political fundamentalism and conspiracy theories substitute for a detailed, accurate knowledge of the flawed social movements that brought us to this sorry pass.

Are we not cannibalizing the bones of our ancestors?  A cause for national atonement, I dare say.

quote-a-truly-american-sentiment-recognizes-the-dignity-of-labor-and-the-fact-that-honor-lies-in-honest-grover-cleveland-38560

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