The current global financial “crisis”* has many people for the first time seriously considering the basis of how our economic system is run and how our government works.  A partial rejection of the status quo may even be seen in the election of Barack Obama, based on his passionate message of “hope” and “change” (though many of us recognize Obama is very much a part of that very system and there are serious limitations of his vision of “change” and the “hope” it may bring- nonetheless, people who are undereducated about politics and economics and who therefore mistake Obama’s vision for the real change that is needed shouldn’t be blamed for their misunderstanding; they’ve been willfully mis-educated on the matter, to the benefit of the very system of which we speak- but that’s a matter for a different article).  However, the “mild reforms will save us” approach is doomed from the outset and those who preach such a course do so either because they are ignorant of the facts, fooling themselves, or they are selfishly prioritizing their personal gains today over the survival of our species.

We could look at any number of examples of how this is true; right now, I’m going to look at an example of one piece of proposed legislation and the forces for and against it.  If this legislation were to pass it would not be the radical change necessary to transform our global economy into a system which is beneficial to all (or even most) nor would it be the necessary move to a sustainable world order.  However, it would be a relative positive, in that it would give more people, here in the U.S., the opportunity to better their material living conditions (material life being the bottom rungs of our human hierarchy of needs and thus setting the stage for all subsequent health and fulfillment).  While this relative advance should be supported, as I said, the reformist approach is painfully flawed: and in looking at the system that will either pass or reject this particular Act we’ll see a bit of exactly why.  But in looking closer at this one proposed bill- this singular “mild reform”- we’ll stumble upon ample evidence that culturally, the whole system is broke, and that’s the real meat to the story.

The legislation I’m referring to is the Employee Free Choice Act.  For those who don’t know about it, the EFCA would allow worker’s to establish a union at their workplace if the required number of people were to sign union cards.  Under current law (enacted in 1935) worker’s who collect the necessary number of signatures in support of a union must then win through a secret ballot, which is held on a set date and at the workplace.  The biggest problem here is that these secret elections allow employers ample time and opportunity to intimidate, coerce, lie to, and just plain fire pro-union workers- every year 23,000 Americans are fired or disciplined for supporting union efforts.

In general terms, the EFCA is supported by unions and progressives.  It is opposed by business interests and conservatives.  EFCA supporters argue that the legislation would provide for necessarily easier union drives, which would allow worker’s representation on the job that could win better pay, benefit programs, safety standards, and a voice on matters which effect them on the job.  As I mentioned above, progressives favor expanded political protections for the lower rungs of society because these things allow for better material security, which in turn elevates the quality of one’s life socially and economically.  Freed from the shackles of mere subsistence living conditions, people more readily turn to emotional, intellectual, and political pursuits, and for it all of society is enriched.  Detractors of the legislation generally hold the conservative view that the success of business and industry are the domains of the bosses- the managers and bureaucrats and executives.  As their wealth is increased, we’re assured that crumbs will fall downwards.  Even more cynically, those at the bottom of this pyramid should take the individual impetus to “pull themselves up by their bootstraps” and work tirelessly, to sacrifice all other domains of their life in hopes of slowly being rewarded with advancement up the corporate ladder.

While the opposition’s view is one that I find abhorrent and antithetical to human nature, it’s nonetheless fair for me to note that these are my own conclusions and reasonable people may well disagree.  Having said enough- for now- about the supporters and detractors of the EFCA, lets look at the culture that capitalism finds morally acceptable: lets look at the means by which the differing sides of this issue go about pushing their agenda.  What we’ll find is that there pervades a culture of dishonesty, insincerity, and deception that is outright anti-social; pardon me for being abstractly optimistic of human nature for a moment: all but the most cynical and morally bankrupt would agree that lies and deceit are undesirable, generally immoral, and a mildly (at the least) pathological anti-social behavior.  Yet our economic (and subsequently our political) systems do not punish or even frown upon such behavior.  In fact, it is rewarded and encouraged.

Living in a country founded- at least in the abstract, at least as far as we’re told- on the principles of freedom and democracy, though we may not entirely understand these ideas or even have the wherewithal to demand them everywhere and always, we nonetheless have a general inclination to favor them over authority and dictatorship.  Somehow though, in the translation from theory to practice, capitalism has convinced us that such freedom and democracy are our enemies- they are good, noble, important things to be demanded throughout life in general, though specifically not for the workplace.  But there has always existed a movement of people who do not agree with this assessment of what the workplace should look like, and who have attempted- mostly through union organizing and activism- to make the workplace more democratic, more equal.  Knowing the degree that such an appeal can have on people in general (we like democracy and dislike dictatorship) the forces against organized labor- conservative interests that favor the workplace to be the aforementioned bastion of increased wealth and power for the top rung- have formed an organization, a “coalition” of hundreds of industry organizations and business associations (here in Vermont represented by the VT Hospitality Council, a “project” of the Chamber of Commerce) calling themselves the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace.

Given that the CDW is a literal who’s who of anti-union business interests and associations, one would have a hard time arguing what exactly it is that demonstrates their interest and commitment to “democracy” on the job site.  Which gives us lie number one: the Orwellian bull shit that has spread to be commonplace over the past couple of decades, where by conservative groups, organizations, movements, and legislation (think “No Child Left Behind”) take the tact of naming themselves something that under previous definitions would be considered the exact opposite.  For a democratic workplace, yet against union efforts or any other measure that places authority and decision making in the hands of anyone but management which is directly installed by the owner?  This is the opposite of “democratic”, yet this is the group’s name.  Their specific argument in relation to the EFCA is that worker’s have a “right” to the privacy of secret ballots- the card signing system of EFCA may make it easier for unions to be formed but it impedes on the worker’s right to secret ballots? Um, there wouldn’t be much of a need for secret ballot’s if these very same businesses weren’t openly firing or disciplining pro-union worker’s.  

The whole conundrum boggles the mind.  But it is the way the system works: there is no law, let alone cultural taboo, on outright lies and deception.  Though we are a social species, we are encouraged everywhere we turn to strike down our neighbors in order to benefit our own selves.

Unfortunately, the pro-EFCA side is only marginally better.  The institutionalized labor movement is a corporate bureaucracy much the same as the very thing in which it is pitted against.  The only material difference is the product produced by the labor movement is the enhancement of living conditions for unionized worker’s.  But here in lies the trap, and the betrayal: because it’s product is a social and political positive, those individuals draw to the work are enslaved to it by their bosses.  If the product of organized labor were something other, were something material (even a positive one), the very same notions that brought people to come to the work would have them aghast in horror: the labor movement sacrifices the lives of its employees for the company (in this case the “company” being the movement itself).

The purpose of the EFCA, and even more broadly, of the labor movement which hopes for it to become law, is the material- and therefore intellectual, social, and political- empowerment and enhancement of all, especially the working classes.  Yet the working conditions of those who are employed by unions is such that the same is lost to them- in fact, it is assumed that because they are doing “good work” (which, for certain, they are) that sacrifice in the personal and social realms is not only required but most certainly enforced.  Another mind-boggling conundrum.

The only reasonable conclusions it would seem possible to draw, given that by definition both sides to this issue (and countless other examples that could be paraded out and put on trial in this same way) is that the system itself- political, economic, social, cultural– in simply inhumane, unreasonable, and to be done away with.  When even a small relative-positive comes only in the context (the pretext) of some people’s forced sacrifice (OK, the choice to do the work of labor organizing may not be “forced”, but if you believe strongly in something- if a thing is your calling– you should be able to make a living off of it while not throwing away all other aspects of your being) than even the relative-positive becomes a negative and the whole of it is a lose-lose situation.  And that is exactly capitalism and the system of liberal democracy- a lose-lose.

So, mild reforms that make for a generally better society are there to be supported, and often I will do so, but the fact of the matter is that to be washed away in the illusion of their benefit is to lose track of the fact that the entirety of the system is broke, was in fact flawed and broken from its inception, and that the only path to health and fulfillment for us lowly humans rests with its absolute abolition.

 

 

*I will continue to refer to the current state of global capitalism- the “crisis”- in quotation marks, based on the fact that an economy predicated on literal exponential grow- forever- is illogical in a finite world, therefore making the so-called “crisis” of today not only predictable but inevitable; not only that, but because of the contradictions in reason found in this infinite growth from finite resources model, the current “crisis” will either continue to worsen or be followed by one far worse, with the only inevitability the eventual destruction of our species or the planet- until or unless the illogic of this economic model (capitalism) is rejected and replaced.

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