The Clare Spark Blog

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 For a conservative response to the crypto-communism seen in this celebration, see 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 .

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.



September 11, 2010

Is Wall Street slaughtering “the Middle Class”?

 [updated 12-7-11] “Middle class” is the word of the week: Keynesians want workers to be consumers, for demand-stimulus is the only arrow in their quiver as preventive politicians and schemers. Just listen to POTUS. But who is in the “middle class” and why does nomenclature matter? Is class a “ladder” that one climbs, to be defined by income/consumption patterns; or is class position a particular relationship to the mode of production in historically specific societies, each of which must be analyzed on a case-by-case basis (Obama used the ladder metaphor in his 12/6/11 faux TR speech on the “New Nationalism”)?

Several Facebook comments lately have made this a pressing issue, for the term “middle-class” is a construction by progressive sociologists who were mystifying the more rigorous materialist definition of “class,” in particular “the working class.” These sociologists were probably deploying the older term referring to persons of “the middling sort” who had left England and the European countries to seek greener pastures in the New World. In other words, these were younger sons of aristocrats, artisans, small traders and merchants, and displaced peasants (small landholders). But what has come to be seen as the “Marxist” definition of the proletariat is another category altogether, and must not be confused with “the middling sort” –a group with options to seek a better deal in finding employment or starting a business, especially in a period with an expanding economy and a “virgin land.”

A proletarian is a person with no land or tools to fall back upon in times of economic contraction or transformation. Thus subsistence farming cannot be the fallback position in the face of industrialization and the onset of machine or automated production. As the materialists explained, such a person has nothing to sell on the open market but her or his labor power. Before the days of protective legislation, you could work or starve, so the labor market became a site of social unrest and potential disturbance as cheaper labor (of women and children) or chattel slavery offered higher returns to the new industrial entrepreneurs. From the days of antebellum working-class abolitionism to the first important stirrings of labor unionism after the Civil War, workers fought for the right to organize themselves to protect their jobs and improve their life chances. Presented with a specter of revolution both in Europe and America, American proto-progressives were frightened by Marx’s predictions and impressed by Bismarck’s social insurance, as they were by the reforms in Britain brought about by mid-19th century Christian Socialists (see . Over the next one hundred fifty years or so, the conservative reformers pre-empted the revolutionary temptation from below through a sumptuous banquet of “reforms” or “adjustments”: the legalization of “good” labor unions who would limit their demands to higher wages and better working conditions such as the eight-hour day; worker’s compensation; the 19th century offer of cheap land in the American West; later state-administered welfare programs; birth-control measures; Americanization programs; “free” public education;  immigration restriction; the encouragement of home ownership; high taxation to pay for statist redistribution measures; female suffrage, social security, and now state-initiated quotas in many institutions based on race or gender, and so on.

Moreover, progressives switched the Jeffersonian notion of a “negative state” (defending slavery and state’s rights) to that of a “Jeffersonian” or “Enlightenment” “positive state,” with all the statist collectivism in the purported interest of “social justice” that transformation entailed– as “individualism” became a personality disorder, not liberty to choose a life path and to work toward the goal of upward mobility and the creation of plenty and new, life-enhancing and  labor-saving  technologies that would in turn serve the creative development of individuals and communities. Or, as some New Deal progressives put it, “Hamiltonian principles” (an energetic government guided by American exceptionalism) would produce Jeffersonian results, i.e., “the people” against the “economic royalists”. Has this synthesis worked?

But above all, some progressives aimed to shape the imaginations of the labor force, using different tactics as the occasion demanded. One of their more questionable accomplishments was the introduction of the word “middle class” to describe, not themselves as “middle management” (i.e., as administrators, corruptible journalists, bureaucrats, mental health professionals, mediators, and curriculum developers instilling “moderation,” and “liberal internationalism”). Rather they fastened that “middle class” label on labor (including female labor in the home), the better to form an electorate that would think of itself as “the people” and not as members of a specific class or other group that conceivably looked to its own interests above those in competing groups. In a related move, faced by the opposition of business interests focused on meritocracy, competition in every facet of the economy,  and free markets, some [WASP] progressives deftly separated “industrial capital” from “finance capital, ” thus pitting “Main Street” against “Wall Street” a.k.a. “the money power,” understanding that “Wall Street” was the natural habitat of [Jewish] rampaging greed, theft, and social irresponsibility. See [Added 9-25: On 9-24, Matt Miller, the “moderate” moderator of “Left, Right, and Center,” a popular program originating in Los Angeles NPR station KCRW, made the exact same distinction as The Nation of 1919: Miller lamented the separation of Wall Street from Main Street when he proclaimed that the “finance engineers” were in charge [of  the national economic railroad] instead of adhering to their (?) role as “real engineers.”

Indeed, when President Barack Obama addresses factory workers and calls them “the middle class” has he unconsciously adopted the old Leftist belief that “the working class” has become “bourgeoisified”; i.e., jewified with lust for the golden calf? Or is he catering to their [illicit] desires for the consumer goods associated with middle class status, while simultaneously deflecting their resentments and fears toward the designated enemy in Woe Street and away from Leviathan?

Today is the ninth anniversary of the successful Islamist attack on the World Trade Center towers, and upon the Pentagon. Is it any wonder that a disturbingly large number of opinion makers, not just limited to leftist radicals, believe or imply that the hubristic materialistic, aggressive “Wall Street”-dominated U.S. brought this frightful assault upon itself? For a related blog see, that focuses on the faux leftism of Occupy Wall Street.

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