About the Name of this blog

This blog's title refers to a Dani fable recounted by Robert Gardner. The Dani live in the highlands of New Guinea, and at the the time he studied them, they lived in one of the only remaining areas in the world un-colonized by Europeans.

The Dani, who Gardner identifies only as a "Mountain People," in the film "The Dead Birds," have a myth that states there was once a great race between a bird and a snake to determine the lives of human beings. The question that would be decided in this race was, "Should men shed their skins and live forever like snakes, or die like birds?" According to the mythology, the bird won the race, and therefore man must die.

In the spirit of ethnographic analysis, this blog will examine myth, society, culture and architecture, and hopefully examine issues that make us human. As with any ethnography, some of the analysis may be uncomfortable to read, some of it may challenge your preconceptions about the world, but hopefully, all of it will enlighten and inform.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Socialism Cuts Both Ways


In modern America, there is no organization more demonized than the Labor Union.  To hear people talk, Unions are the root of all evil, the unholy spawn of Satan, the demonic "Reason America is Failing."  They have even eclipsed the Free Masons as the most hated and feared organizations in the country.  The Right paints a picture that nothing good can ever grow from the poisoned seeds that are Unions.

No good, except perhaps: safe workplaces, the end of child labor, living wages, the 40 hour work week, the idea of weekends and vacations, sick leave, pensions, medical benefits, the blue collar middle class.  By extension of these ideas, they also brought us: home ownership, the house with the white picket fence, healthy grandparents, good school systems, civic pride, and most importantly, an America that was the world's largest and most powerful economy.

The Golden Age of Unions, which was the 1950's, was also the Golden Age of the United States economy.

And the reason was, there were two powerful but equal groups looking out for both the country and the individual.  Sure labor agreements never made either side happy, but also they never screwed either side.  Both sides knew that the other side was their equal partner.  If a company tried to screw the workers, they knew that there was the high probability of a damaging strike.  If the Union tried to burn the management, they faced a real chance of the factory being shuttered, and the employees laid off.  Both sides had to work together, because their survival and prosperity depended on a relationship, that if mismanaged, could easily end in mutually assured destruction.

In short, both sides needed each other.

And the beauty of it was that the delicate balance that they maintained was a purely free market solution.  Certainly, you needed labor laws to protect the worker as a last line of defense, and you also needed restrictions on Unions to keep them from the utterly unreasonable, but in all, the Management / Union balance was a product of pure Capitalism.  It was a shining example of the "Invisible Hand of the Free Market."

In the eighties, when the "Culture of Greed" took over the United States, this delicate dance began to break down: corporations began to value the profit margin more than the overall health of the company; and unions began to demand more and more extensive benefits as compensation for the wage increases that they were no longer getting.  And both sides failed to see the scathing critique of the movie "Wall Street," and instead wholeheartedly embraced Gordon Gekko's mantra "greed is good."

The highly theatrical union/management battles of the 1950's allowed both sides to go to their constituent groups and say we got the best deal we could, in the 70's and 80's the battles became real.  The cold war had become hot, and now one side or the other had to lose.  And given the ultimate power of moving overseas that exists on the side of the corporations, it is no surprise that unions lost the war.  Today, the only unions that still are strong are in those sectors of the economy that can't be outsourced, like service workers in the S.E.I.U., or won't, like teachers in the N.E.A.  And I should note, on-line teaching and charter schools may be the first step to breaking the teacher's union.

Outside of these parameters, unions are essentially toast, because the corporations will no longer hesitate to close down a factory and move it to China if the union demands what they consider to be too much.  Wal-mart goes even further by closing down any store that they think is even beginning to talk about unionizing.  To them, Unions are a contagion that must be contained at the first signs of an outbreak.

To make the situation worse, Republican led State Assemblies and even the U.S. Congress are passing laws to limit the power of Unions, and trying to wipe them out through legislation.  They paint Unions as the reason that America is no longer great, and that characterization helps them drive organized labor from the economic landscape.

And in doing so, they are actually turning the country Socialist.

The thing is, Socialism, as currently defined, does not necessarily protect the worker  Additionally, it is not automatically a downward distribution of wealth, and it is not by definition the gateway economic drug for communism.  Not that it ever was, but this is still how it is painted.  But now, Right Wing Socialism protects the corporations at the expense of average worker. 

Socialism, as defined in the modern era, merely involves government interference in the free market.  I would like to note that this is not the classical economic definition of socialism, which is defined as "the government controls the major means of production."  However, since the Right in this country has decided to expand the definition to include ANY government regulation of business, I will use their own definition of Socialism against them.

And this is how the Right is turning America Socialist, by their own definition of socialism.  Further, by any definition of Capitalism, these policies are absolutely anti-Capitalist.  Even if you don't accept my redefinition, you must accept the fact that Republican policies are not Capitalist in any way, shape or form.

To explain this type of Socialism, I am going to step off topic for a second, because this argument will be initially clearer in a different realm.  There are many free market advocates who oppose governmental regulation of the food industry.  They say that people will not buy products that are making people sick, which is true.  They also state that it is the consumer's responsibility to do the research to determine which products are safe and healthy; according to them, it is not the government's job to regulate food safety, it is up to the individual to make sure that they are buying safe food.

For a minute ignore just how many people have to die from salmonella and E. Coli before we find out that a food is contaminated, also, ignore how overwhelming that task would be given how many thousands of things we buy every year.  It is possible that consumers, if they had all of the information available to them, would drive unsafe products off of the market.  You can even see this in the number of people who refuse to buy certain foods after a safety scandal; my mom will likely never buy Rocky Ford Melons again because of their problems.  In all, this is a free market solution, even if it is fairly horrific in individual costs.

So, if you take as a given that we don't need regulation, just information, why are Republicans fighting against the dissemination of knowledge about consumer goods.  Not food, specifically, but in general they are trying to limit access to information about products, essentially crippling the ability of the individual to do the very due diligence that they claim is superior to regulations. 

A perfect example is an aspect of financial reform; the new consumer financial protection agency will publish bank complaints on-line, so that everyone has access to this information.  It is a free market solution in that it allows customers to select a bank based on how the bank handles and resolves complaints.  There is no direct governmental regulation on how banks have to resolve them, just information on how they did.  And yet, even though this is a perfect example of the market forces at work, Republicans have been trying desperately to keep the information from being published.

So by limiting the ability of the "Invisible Hand" to work, they are advocating a Socialist policy, at least as they have defined socialism.

So, to return to the original topic of this blog, Labor Unions are a capitalist counterbalance to the power of corporations.  They advocate for the employee against the far more powerful business interests, and by organizing them, give each person a much larger voice than they would have individually.  And all of this happens outside of governmental regulation, with the exception that law requires both sides to play fair.  Again, it is a Free Market solution.

And yet, Republicans are trying to break unions, not just in individual companies, but across the board.  They advocate laws banning collective bargaining, which is one of the primary reasons to belong to a union.  They also promote "Right to Work" laws, which are better termed "Right to Work for less" laws, because they eliminate the ability of unions to ask everyone in the company to belong.  Basically, this breaks the back of the union because only a small segment of the company belongs, and they can be easily fired.  You move from having to shut the entire business down to eliminate the union to just having to fire a few individuals.  And you can fire them on the grounds that they are disrupting the workplace.

So ultimately, by eliminating unions, you are advocating government interference in the Free Market.  You skew the playing field to favor corporations rather than individuals.  If regulation is bad when it hurts corporations, as they claim it does with food safety laws, then regulation must also be bad, even if it helps those same companies, like it does when you bust the unions.  You don't get to pick and choose what regulations you like when you claim all regulation is bad.

Of course, I should not expect anyone to be ideologically consistent, not even myself unfortunately.

Also, the Republican Corporate Socialism leads to a wonderful irony, it forces the government to adopt positions that are classically Socialist; minimum wage laws, anti-discrimination laws, worker's rights laws, Social Security and Medicare benefits.  Also, it increases participation in other "Socialist" programs that people have to sign up for when they can no longer make ends meet, such as Food Stamps, Medicaid and Welfare.  When the companies no longer have a check on their power in the form of Unions, the government has to step in to protect workers.

Unless we wish to actually return to a form of Industrial Feudalism, which would also not be a Capitalist economy, either the Unions or the Government must step in to protect the worker.  Because, in the end, employees who make a good living wage, with good benefits and good job security, are at the heart of a functioning Capitalist model. 

Despite lip service to the contrary, the Republicans show that they no longer believe this.  They live by the other side of the Socialist sword, and ultimately they will die by it as well.

No comments:

Post a Comment