[Graphic by Alex Hoekstra]
In Gulliver’s Travels the tiny Lilliputians attacked the much larger Gulliver while he was sleeping and tied him to the ground with thousands of threads. In a similar way the ruling elite have tied the working class in bondage. Small in number but great in power, the elite have designed myriad mechanisms of control to hold the much larger working class down and force it to work for them. These include institutions such as mainstream politics, media, schools, labor unions, police, courts, military, and patriarchal gender roles. They also include emotionally laden concepts such as rugged individualism, a false image of socialism, and the very way we conceive of social class.
This last, the encultured view of ourselves, robs us of our class identity. Very few of us consider ourselves working class. The term has been made to seem a musty relic of the nineteenth century, synonymous with lower class, a disreputable band of losers who are to be feared and perhaps pitied, but certainly not to be identified with. Instead we are offered a hierarchy of many classes: upper, upper middle, middle, lower middle, and last and certainly least, the lumpen lower. Within these we are fragmented further by conflicting differences: ethnic, religious, gender, life style. We’re supposed to identify with our niche and our job and to strive to move up or at least not slip down in the hierarchy. But more and more of us are slipping down, losing the few securities we had. In our bewildered anger we find allies only within our isolated niche, so our struggles are ineffective.
Almost all of us are in fact working class. Everyone in the world who has to work for someone else for the essentials of living is working class. Only when we join together in solidarity will we succeed.
The elite have also fragmented us geographically. The most exploited are far away from the centers of power and thus invisible to us except for media images of illegal aliens storming our borders or insurgents attacking our soldiers. They live under the heel of authoritarian governments held in power by the rich nations and are forced to work under deplorable conditions. The wealth extracted from their labor has enabled the corporations to pay their employees in the home country better wages, thus minimizing discontent here and stimulating consumption of their products.
That economic arrangement is changing, however, as global competition intensifies. Selling in the world market has become more important than selling in the home country. Competing globally requires low prices, so corporations are slashing wages and benefits. The international working class is being leveled. Our task now is to unite and overthrow the elite that rules us all.
This elite is composed of many nationalities and has many internal conflicts. They even make war on each other when economics demands it. But they always recognize their overriding interests as a class, and they will do everything in their considerable power to defend those interests. We, the workers of the world, need to recognize and defend our own class interests with as much determination as our rulers.
They have designed a political system in the USA that ensures their power monopoly. The candidates of both major parties represent their interests. Through corporate financing, winner-take-all elections, ballot-access laws, and slanted media coverage, they effectively exclude alternatives.
To break free of their political control and build genuine democracy, we must delegitimize in particular the Democratic Party, which exists to channel potentially radical discontent into dead-end streets. The Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements, capturing people’s hopes for fundamental changes, then burying them. It produces only superficial reforms that strengthen capitalism.
Each of us should examine the parties and organizations on the left, find one that matches our orientation, and actively support it. Just being angry at the system isn’t enough. Unless we are organized and militant, a viable alternative to the capitalist parties won’t emerge. The best program I’ve found is the Freedom Socialist Party’s: www.socialism.com.
Labor unions, like the Democratic Party, have become merely reformist. They have been purged of any anti-capitalist leadership and now serve the same function on the economic front that the Democrats serve on the political front: to convince the working class to accept the dictates of capital. Union leadership collaborates with employers to worsen the conditions of their members. They have become functionaries of capitalism and are richly rewarded for it. Workers are going to have to reclaim their unions and throw out this bureaucracy or build an independent base of power that will militantly confront bosses worldwide.
The reformism pushed by the Democratic Party and the labor unions is reinforced by the liberal media. They foster the idea that the system is basically good but just has some problems that need to be fixed. This is appealing because it’s easy. Instead of revolution to replace the system, we just need to repair it.
Reforms have in the past improved a few conditions. Social Security helped stave off abject poverty in old age, and Medicare helped protect a family’s savings from catastrophic health costs. From the 1950s to the ’70s unions were able to force through higher wages and better working conditions in many industries. But these hard-fought reforms are being reversed now because of capitalism’s need to reduce prices to compete with emerging industrial powers such as China and India. The pressure of international competition is being shifted onto us, the workers, and the Democrats and unions are implementing that. In this new economic reality, reformism has become a coward’s dream, a way of avoiding the unpleasantness of protracted struggle. We need to abandon its delusion and prepare to fight for fundamental changes that will replace oligarchic capitalism with democratic socialism.
Another thread that binds us is the image of socialism that has been burned into our brains. We are continually persuaded that it means brutal dictatorship, concentration camps, no freedom, a slave state. To counter this, we need to criticize the regimes of the Soviet Union and China and point out that they weren’t socialist. The totalitarian tradition in their cultures and constant attack by the capitalist nations kept them from achieving anything close to real socialism. In many cases the government took over as the exploitative boss, and the workers had little power. Real socialism means economic democracy, where we decide together how our economic life will be organized. It puts the resources and productive capacity of the world in the hands of its people, who use them to meet human needs rather than to generate private profits for a few owners.
We are educated to serve the system: to be obedient, to respect authority, to fit into a hierarchy. We are channeled into learning skills the corporations need, and our labor has become just another commodity. Our deepest interests and talents often remain undeveloped, unrecognized even by ourselves. This won’t change until students, parents, teachers, and other workers come together and educate one another to take power.
The mass media exist to control the masses by shaping our perceptions of reality. The pap they feed us switches off our brains, so we can’t analyze society as a system. Instead of thought, we are offered a dazzling array of personal emotions and sensory stimulation to distract us from the bleak reality of our lives.
Their entertainment and news fixate us on physical violence, so we don’t perceive the structural violence that causes it. We get lurid, fear-arousing accounts of violence committed by ghetto youths and Muslim guerrillas accompanied with commentaries calling for tough measures to combat these vicious berserkers. We get no accounts of the structural violence of poverty and oppression that capitalism and imperialism have created there. It’s this built-in structural violence that generates the physical violence.
The corporate media exist also to stimulate greed and consumption. Capitalism divides us from one another, and the isolation imposed by this false separation generates insecurity and a sense of incompleteness. It creates hollow personalities craving to fill an inner emptiness, then it comes to the rescue by promising satisfaction through consumption. First it causes the void, then convinces us to fill it with things — beautiful, fascinating, sexy things. Lots of them. And so much the better that they never really fill our needs, because then we need more of them.
Alternative publications such as Cyrano’s Journal are awaking people from the stupor induced by this mainstream propaganda. They deserve our support.
To escape from the mental manipulation, we must strive for inner self sufficiency so we won’t need all that garbage the media is selling us. This self sufficiency has its basis in our shared humanity, and if we tune in to that, the superficial substitutes of commercial products and entertainment will lose their appeal. A good way to combat such conditioning is a consumer strike. Buy as little as possible. Turn off the television. By overcoming our need for entertainment, we can develop our own authentic creativity. When we’re not consuming as much, the planet will breathe a sigh of relief. Instead of hiding behind fashion, jewelry, and cosmetics, let’s face the world as we are and let the beauty of our defiance show.
The media create images and myths that reinforce the existing ideologies. Rugged individualism, for example, validates the “every man for himself” ethos of capitalism. The belief that we are isolated beings striving for our own gratification is an axiom of our society. Men are particularly enamored of it, taught to identify with the mountain man, the lone wolf, the entrepreneur.
The separations between people are easy to see: each of us inhabit a different body. Our connections are much more fundamental, but they are invisible, so a shallow culture like ours doesn’t perceive them. We can overcome this by centered ourselves in our connectedness and acting from it. In our lives and in our art we can demonstrate the deeper commonality that underlies our surface separations. Our genuine individuality can be best developed within this context.
Reinforcing traditional masculinity is one of the chief ways in which the elite seek to keep the working class on its side. They exploit the fact that many men cling to maleness as the last power left to them. Working-class men have almost no say over their work lives; machismo has become their only realm of agency. This is exploited by elements of the media, who portray leftists as intent on rendering traditional males extinct. Admittedly, there’s a grain of truth in this. We need to resisted traditions of dominance and aggression, whether practiced by men or women. The real attack on working class men, though, is coming not from leftists but from economic forces that are increasingly constricting their lives and limiting their possibilities down to low paying, exhausting jobs. The rage this generates in them is deflected by the media towards leftists, feminists, and minorities, who are actually the core opposition to those economic forces.
We need to show traditional men that socialism will give them economic security and power in the work place. When they have that, they won’t need to dominate their wives and children. If they persist in doing so, society has to prevent them from that. The dominator mentality is a pathology we must overcome.
Gender politics by itself won’t build socialism. In fact in many cases it ends up serving capitalism. But gender studies can help break the patriarchal mold that keeps producing the same authoritarian personality type. It opens up new possibilities and fosters psychological diversity. By showing that our categories of feminine and masculine aren’t natural but cultural, it calls into question the naturalness of other institutions. It helps us see that capitalism also is not an inherent necessity but rather a product of social forces open to change. Gender subversion can lead to political subversion.
The enforcement mechanisms of society — military, police, and courts — are the bottom line of oppression. All three are licensed to kill and do so regularly. The military are the spear carriers of capitalism. Their job is to defend and expand the empire, and they slaughter millions for that goal. The police live up to their motto, To Protect and To Serve, but they are primarily protecting and serving an oppressive social structure, defending property and its owners against attacks by the deprived. The courts are run by judges who are for the most part members of the elite. They are the final arbiters of punishment, locking up anyone who threatens the system, primarily poor minorities. They have created an American gulag, an egregious, ever-growing prison-industrial complex that crushes those who dare defy its rules.
We need to show the soldiers and police they are workers too. We all have the same basic interests and the same common enemy: their employer. If we win enough of them to our side, they will stand with us rather than against us when a revolutionary situation develops. Winning the judges to our side is unlikely. Most of them are ruling class. We’ll probably just have to find some socially useful work for them, like sweeping the sidewalks.
Our rulers (yes, we really do have rulers) try to convince us that there’s no solution to humanity’s problems, no alternative to the way things are now. This is human nature. Get used to it.
Fortunately the international working class is refusing to get used to it. It is resisting this new wave of impoverishment the corporations and their governments are trying to force onto it. Our bound Gulliver is starting to awaken. It knows now it is fettered and is testing its strength against these bonds. In some places it has already broken a few. The rule of the Lilliputians is coming to an end. This won’t happen quickly, though. A long struggle lies ahead of us. But the tide has changed and is now running in our favor.
The uprising began in the Muslim world because they are under the most direct imperialist attack. It has spread to the NATO countries, the chief instigators of the attacks, because their populations are having to pay the bills for this war through social cutbacks and lower wages. As the uprising spreads globally, the elite will do everything they can to crush it. They will try to divide us and make us fight one another. They will offer tempting reforms and compromises that will allow them to maintain ownership. They will bribe some of our opportunistic leaders with promises of token power if they cooperate. They will jail us. They will even kill some of us. But if we persist, holding to a militant rather than a reformist course, we will eventually free ourselves of them and build a system that emphasizes the humane in humanity. This is our time, an historic battle for liberation.
William T. Hathaway is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany. His new book, Wellsprings, concerns the environmental crisis: www.cosmicegg-books.com/books/wellsprings. A selection of his work is available at www.peacewriter.org.