Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Let’s Make Class War More than the Buzz Word of the Moment

Class War, it’s nothing new.  In fact part of the power of the phrase comes because it conjures up images of bloody revolution.  Depending on which side you are on, you envision the Paris Mob dragging their betters to the guillotine and grim Bolshevik hoards or American militia attacking a camp of sleeping striking miners with machine guns.  My old outfit, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a product of those times, put it unflinchingly in their famous Preamble, “The working class and the employing class have nothing in common…”

But we haven’t heard much about Class War in America for the last several decades until fairly recently.  That’s because the Depression era reforms of the New Deal effectively called a truce.  American workers were granted certain protections—child labor laws, the 40 hour work week, the right to unionize, unemployment insurance, Social Security—in exchange for refraining from trying to carry the heads of Henry Ford, John D. Rockefeller, and assorted other malefactors of great wealth around the streets on pikes.

The bargain seemed to work out well for just about everyone concerned.  The reforms, combined with the industrial explosion fueled by World War II production, post-war technological innovation, and the unchallenged dominance of the American economy in the world lifted millions out of what Jack London had called The Abyss into the comfortable middle class.  The bosses made out pretty well, too.  Not only did they find an enormous new markets for their consumer goods and millions of new investors—via pension plans and individual enthusiasm—in their companies, but they could sleep soundly at night without a pistol under the pillow.

In the last decade or so the phrase has been making a comeback, however.  Not on the lips of the working class, mind you, but in the fevered visions of a resurgent right wing.  You started to hear it in Congress every time a Democrat stood up to propose a new program for the poor, or more recently, whenever one would challenge the latest attempts to repeal the New Deal.  Every time any hapless mope would suggest not dropping trousers on command for a good fucking by the rich, wails of “Class War! Class War!” would erupt.  

When the faux populists of the Tea Party, obediently carrying out the orders of the ultra-rich ideologues that funded them, arrived in Congress not only did they capture the Republican Party, but they ratchet up talk of Class War.

And not only in Congress.  A wave of Tea Party governors and state legislatures unencumbered with effective Democratic opposition, enacted wave upon wave of draconian assaults on working people in the name of  budgetary responsibility and “getting government off our backs.”  When the people of Wisconsin rose up en-mass for a sustained series of demonstrations, occupation of the state capital, and recall elections, panic on the right rose to new levels.  Class War! Class War! Class!

This weekend things came to a head on multiple fronts.  

It became apparent that President Barack Obama’s Jobs Bill, unveiled just two weeks ago, was going to be rejected out of hand by Republicans in Congress.  But instead of backing down and “recalculating” by offering yet more concessions, his repeated practice in the past, the President and Congressional Democrats stayed firm.  Much of it, of course, was just good politics.  Since they could not win passage of the plan they could take advantage of the situation to paint the Republicans for the heartless bastards they are and perhaps steal back the initiative in the coming election.  To emphasize his determination, the President stepped up to a microphone and demanded that Congress pass the package now as sent to them.  On Monday he even doubled down with a threat veto any Debt Reduction Panel (a.k.a. Super Congress) came up with that did not contain tax increases for the rich. 

The howls and chants of Class War reached a crescendo as Republican after Republican took the Sunday morning TV talk fests to scream it as loud as they could—Class War!  Class War! Class War!

The president said, “It’s not Class War, it’s math.”  Clever line, but wrong.  There is a Class War.  It is being wage ruthlessly and effectively—by the wealthy and the new class of their ideological political servants.

Just how far this vision of Class War has come from political maneuvering and posturing was pointed up in a speech to acolytes this weekend by right wing Blogger and hero Andrew Breitbard with the bloody scalp of Rep. Andrew Weiner dangling from his belt.  He called for real war—with guns blazing—on Liberals, the enemy in the Class War.  And he made it abundantly clear that he was not speaking metaphorically or in jest.  He meant every word of it, to wit:

I always think to myself, ‘Fire the first shot.’ Bring it on. Because I know who’s on our side. They can only win a rhetorical and propaganda war. They cannot win. We outnumber them in this country, and we have the guns. [audience laughter] I’m not kidding. They talk a mean game, but they will not cross that line because they know what they’re dealing with. And I have people who come up to me in the military, major named people in the military, who grab me and they go, ‘Thank you for what you’re doing, we’ve got your back.’
Now this kind of rhetoric has not been uncommon on the fringe of the fringe, those web sites where Tea Party crazies fade seamlessly into neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, skin heads, Klansmen, and militia types.  Michelle Bachmann has made hints in this direction by referring to possible “Second Amendment options” if electoral politics are not sufficient to create a revolution.  But this is the first time a big name on the right, one who is taken with deadly seriousness by the national media, has come out in advocacy of such violence. 

Of course, he is just living out the rich fantasy lives of many of his followers who cast themselves as the heroes of epic movies in their heads, dealing death and vengeance with righteousness.  These folks sometimes do not take a lot of prodding, or wink-and-nod approval to cross the line from fantasy to the headlines of the next “crazed lone gunman” story.

In the face off all of this rising spleen, working people, whose lives and incomes have come under tireless assault, have been strangely, until Wisconsin, silent.

The United States is not alone in the world facing economic crisis and austerity moves by governments.  In Europe from Greece to Portugal to Italy to Spain to Ireland even to Britain millions have taken to the street.  They have been influenced by earlier successful “peoples movements” which led to the down fall one after the other of the old Communist regimes of Eastern Europe and by the Arab Spring of this year.

But, aside from the minor skirmishes in Wisconsin and a few other states, where, people wondered, were the American People?

This weekend, maybe the first signs of stirrings began in New York City.  This Saturday Occupy Wall Street protests began.  Inspired by the use of social media in the Arab Spring movement that brought mass people power to the streets of Cairo and across North Africa and the Middle East, Facebook and Twitter were used to make calls for an ongoing demonstration go viral.  Encouraged by the response, organizer confidently predicted that up to 20,000 protestors might show up with tents and sleeping bags to confront the seat of American economic power.

On Saturday, far fewer actually showed up.  Crowd estimates varied from a low ball 500 to wildly inflated claims on some left websites of more than ten times that number.  My guess, from the distant vantage point of Illinois and reviewing available info is that the real numbers hovered around 1000 for all or part of that day.

The low turnout was an excuse for the national media to largely ignore the story entirely or dismiss it with the barest mention.  Many on the left were no less kind, charging that the whole experiment with people power was a failure.

But those who did show up did not leave.  The set up camp in a donated private park near Wall Street, and although largely blocked by police from access to the Street itself have kept up protests, now in day 4.  Their ranks also seem to be growing, at least for specific announced demonstrations if not for the whole camp out.

There have been minor confrontations with police and a scattering of arrests, but the protestors are both resolute and committed to non-violence.  The national media have finally been forced to notice.

The make-up of the protestors is interesting.  Conspicuously absent are the usual line-up of old and new left sects with their boiler plate rhetoric and rigid ideological visions of the “correct line.”  Nor are the masked anarchist street fighters, who have become an expected presence at international economic summits and other such gatherings, been much of a presence, although a couple of red and black flags have appeared.  That’s probably because of the insistence on a non-violent mass presence.  Many of those involved seem to have few deep roots in the traditional left at all.

They are resolutely democratic with a small “d.”  The hallmark of the movement is the sometimes seemingly endless General Assemblies where the protestors hash out both detailed demands, and daily tactics in the open.  All are guaranteed a right to speak and be heard.  Decisions are apparently made on the basis of modified consensus—votes are taken, but not action is taken without well over just-barely a majority.  While tedious to watch on streaming video available on the web, it is completely transparent and remarkably effective at quickly adapting to shifting conditions on the ground.

Some observers have noted that although there is a presence of veteran activists and some movement old timers—read graying ‘60’s era radical like myself—the vast majority of the demonstrators are young people in their 20’s.  The “missing generation” in so much protest over the last decade or so, seems finally to have shown up.  It’s largely because the social media circles that brewed the whole scheme are their natural environment.  Part of it is because they have time—lots of it.

These are the children of the failure to launch generation.  Many were obedient to the warnings of their elders and were compulsively high achievers in high school and college.  They studied hard, harder than they partied.  The trained for high paying careers.  A few years ago their futures looked endlessly bright.  But in the Great Depression: The Sequel  they graduated into a world with few jobs, fierce completion for the few that were available and lower compensation for the lucky winners of the job lotto.  Many have had to take menial work, mostly at entry level jobs in the service industry that once went to high school graduates or even dropouts.  Others have found no work at all.  Many are still in their childhood bedrooms, in makeshift rooms in their parents’ homes, tripled up in tiny apartments or even surviving by couch surfing.  As in Europe, these youth, deprived of hope, are the main engine of this protest.

While the final emergence of this generation is encouraging, the absence of older workers, who have taken such a beating for so long that they may have become demoralized, is a worry.  So is the almost total absence of Black, Hispanic, and other minority faces.  To really thrive this movement has to include these folks, too.
But as for me, I am glad for signs that our side of the Class War—here to fore the losing side—is beginning to fight back. 

Count me as one geezer ready to re-enlist.  Who’s with me?

1 comment:

  1. As a commenter from the immediate NYC area.

    An article has appeared in the NYTimes, on line or in print, daily since Saturday and it was carried on whatever TV station I watched at 6PM Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

    There is no network news on weekends where the network has sports.