A perplexed European asked me a question: Why, she asked, have there been no general strikes in America to end its aggression in the Middle East? Why, she asked, are Americans so unwilling to force their government do what must be done?
These are not new questions. Everyone with an inkling of history and a modest awareness of international news realizes that Americans, completely contrary to the foundation myth of the American Revolution, are incredibly docile. It stings, however, when someone from the outside points out an obvious weakness.
Citizens of other industrialized countries are able to organize national actions to achieve common goals. Americans at the university, labor, middle class and working class levels, however, seem to be utterly impotent and thoroughly disorganized in any long-term, coordinated endeavor that extends beyond electoral politics. We literally struggle to organize coordinated national events.
A general strike is one of the most powerful tools of non-violent civil disobedience. In a general strike all work stops, businesses shut down, consumers do not spend money, teachers and students stay away from school, employees call in sick, lawyers do not try cases, assembly line workers do not assemble, teamsters park their rigs, pilots do not fly, doctors practice only emergency medicine, and commerce grinds to a halt. General strikes are not violent, but they cause tremendous economic hurt. When properly coordinated and prepared, they are very persuasive. General strikes have toppled governments, such as in Argentina, and they have prevented the implementation of anti-labor legislation, most notably in France and in Italy.
Some argue that Americans are simply too economically comfortable to participate in any political action more strenuous that penciling an X on a ballot. That cannot be the answer. Indeed, the notion that Americans live better than everyone else is part of our national mythology. Although many Americans reside in spacious (and heavily mortgaged) houses and, by incurring massive debt, own lots of "stuff", citizens of several European industrialized nations live, on average, healthier, more secure lives and work far fewer hours than most Americans. Certain Asian countries are not far behind. Notwithstanding their better living conditions, Germans, French, Italians and Spaniards, for example, are still more willing to take concerted political action than are Americans.
There are several reasons for Americans' complacency and Europeans' engagement.
The Legacy of Slavery
Labor often takes the political lead in Europe, but not in the United States. The historical fact of American slavery has resulted in an easily manipulable working class, particularly one that is comprised of ethnically diverse peoples. By exploiting superficial racial phenotypes, big business interests have turned American workers one against the other.
In the nation's first hundred years, slavery was a mechanism for controlling "free labor". After emancipation, freed slaves (though hardly free in any real sense of the term) were used as a cheap labor reserve that both in the South and in the North was manipulated to hold back wages all across the industrial horizon, from Black to White. By inciting White workers to extreme racial animus against Black "competitors", business interests succeeded in preventing the creation of a unified labor front that could have benefited everyone
Subsequently, poor European immigrants, women and children have been exploited in the United States for the same reason and in the same way, just as were immigrant laborers imported from China and the Philippines during the industrial expansion of the late 19th Century. The entire American immigration policy of the 19th Century was an effort to control wages by bringing in cheap labor from overseas, much as "globalized" labor is used today.
In the 21st Century, migrant workers from Mexico, Haiti and Central America now serve the government sanctioned role of restraining wage growth among America's assembly line, service and agricultural working groups. Contrary to the more infamous immigrant xenophobes of the Republican Party, big business owners in the United States prefer a legalized "guest worker" system. That "guest worker" system would permit cheap labor to temporarily enter the United States while preserving the option of throwing that cheap labor away whenever it gets injured, old or demands fair wages or benefits. Furthermore, the neoliberal globalization of capital permits businesses to move rapidly around the globe pursuing the cheapest labor and the fewest regulations, thus adding to the wage-depressing effect. Although the best defense against such wage-depressing tactics would be to improve everyone's working conditions world wide, American labor has, instead, been led down the path of trying to protect its own turf by defending against both immigration and the outsourcing of jobs.
The net effect of these intentionally debilitating efforts has been the lack of pan-labor cohesion that characterizes the American working class. In a sense, American labor's class consciousness has been lobotomized. Labor in America tends to be parochial -- it has been trained, by centuries of racism seeded from above, to shun coordination with workers from different parts of the world. In sum, by taking the bait of racism, American workers have repeatedly manacled their own legs and ensured their own, and all other labor movements', feebleness as a political force.
But the legacy of slavery is not enough, by itself, to explain the docile American.
The Conspiracy Against The Working Class
In the late 19th and early to mid 20th Centuries certain active labor unions (like the West Coast Longshoremen led by Harry Bridges, the early Steel Workers, the early UAW, United Mineworkers and Cesar Chavez's United Farmworkers) were able to coordinate industry wide or regional strikes. The assertiveness and the successes of these activist unions scared the pants off the ownership class. As documented by Alex Carey in Taking the Risk Out of Democracy and by Australian university professor Sharon Beder in her books and articles about corporate and professional power relationships, business interests in the United States, such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), embarked on a long-term program, a true conspiracy to "educate" the American public about the benefits of capitalism and the evils of democracy, socialism and unionism. It was a well-oiled, well-financed campaign, and, in part, it was a counter-reformist reaction to the increasingly socialized community that was evolving in Europe after WWII. The decades-long propaganda (1) effort continues today through the efforts of NAM's sister organization for the services industries, the ISM (Institute for Supply Management). Joining the pro-capitalism propaganda campaign are many of America's best known reactionary "think tanks" like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Discovery Institute and various large and ostensibly benevolent "funding institutions" on whom so many non-profit organizations depend financially.
The concerted effort was highly successful in subverting the American school curriculum, the mass media and American popular culture. By the 1950s, a majority of Americans thought it proper for the federal government to intervene on behalf of big business to "break" national strikes. The most well known modern example of these types of manipulation was Ronald Reagan's mass firing of the air traffic controllers in the 1981 PATCO strike and his use of military air controllers and non-union controllers to destroy the union. Reagan's aggressive use of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act -- a thoroughly labor-hostile statute that persists even to the present day -- was actually applauded by the majority of Americans who, thanks to many years of cultural indoctrination, identified more with the interests of big business than with their own class interests.
Whereas many labor unions in Europe have socialist or communist affinities, contemporary American labor unions have been cowed by the well financed and ceaseless barrage of pro-capitalist propaganda. As a result, they avoid any political alliance more meaningful than the slightly less business-oriented Democratic Party.
Thus have the ownership class in America, through a concerted campaign of "education" and misinformation, succeeded in steering the American public away from the allure of European style union activism.
But the legacy of slavery and the conspiracy against workers alone cannot account for Americans' lack of political focus.
Religion as Antidote to Politics
Religion holds the greatest sway over the least politically thoughtful peoples. This is not an accident. The particular flavor of religion that dominates in the United States generally preaches doctrines of pacifism, obedience to authority and a focus on rewards in a life after death. It promotes a culture of minimal secular resistance and maximal secular resignation.
With a strong focus on otherworldliness, passivity and subservience, it is no mystery why American culture and class politics favor religious institutions. In absolute violation of 1st Amendment prohibitions, churches are granted tax concessions, they receiving federal funding through "faith based" initiatives and are otherwise supported as the main social structure of American society.
Curiously, notwithstanding its overt religiosity, American society is extremely violent in sports, sexual relationships, and crime. More curiously, beneath the religious veneer of submission, self-abnegation, sacrifice and spirituality lies a capitalist economic system that rewards violence, aggression, materialism, colonialism, self aggrandizement, selfishness and duplicity. The right wing "muscular" religious movements that have manifested themselves from time to time in United States history are amalgams of all of the social vices described above, plus racism wrapped in "patriotism", together with the traditional religious submission to secular authority. These "muscular" religious movements often work in silent partnership with ownership interests in the spheres of big business and politics, often to the disservice of the very people who make up the majority of these movements' lay membership.
Not all religious institutions are the same. Since the end of the anti-war movement of the Vietnam War era, the stamp of the moderately "liberal" religious wing has marked many of the "activist" movements in the United States. Although there is nothing wrong with polite protest, modest acts of very civil disobedience and cordial petitions to government authorities to do the right things, they have been, more often than not, ineffective. The mythology of meekly petitioning the government to seek redress comports well with the predominant American church mainstream and it has completely overshadowed the concept of the civil servant as the people's servant. In other words, the moderately liberal church-led form of civil protest prays for relief just like supplicants would pray for God's intercession -- on bended knee. They demand nothing and they would never dream of organizing a national general strike any more than they would threaten their ministers or God herself.
Unfortunately, nations like the United States that have a strong religious bias are also more oriented toward arguments of faith than reason. If a people are brought up to accept miracles and mysteries at face value, then they are also susceptible to believing the miracles and mysteries of 9-11, the official (and oft changing) rationale for America's Wars of Middle Eastern conquest, and political authority generally. Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's is not a good foundation for demanding a better material life for the here and now. Faith in a higher authority also marches with faith in political authority, faith in elections and the judicial system, and an unwillingness to believe that leaders are anything less than wise and well-meaning. Faith can lead one blindly to accept the mysteries of religion and, when exalted to a level of jingoism, can cause one blindly to accept the mysteries of foreign and domestic policy.
Thus religion, as currently practiced in the United States, no matter how ennobling of the spirit, is frequently a brake on political activity and not the slightest threat to established power. It tends to dissipate resistance to authority while celebrating the wholesomeness of non-confrontational and supplicating appeals to the other side's rather dubious souls. Over time, the spiritual approach to politics can leave people out of practice, exhausted and wholly unused to more vigorous (but still non violent) resistance to authority. Eventually, as they unavailingly beat their heads against institutional walls, citizens' aspirations and organizational skills may atrophy, they may lose their collective social memory, lose their momentum and lose the self-confidence necessary to assert control of their own destinies.
In many polite American street demonstrations, church groups are in the forefront of organization. In every European general strike, by contrast, churches rarely play a secondary role, if any at all.
The Fear of Unemployment
Although all of the preceding causes partially explain Americans' political timidity, probably the single biggest reason why Americans do not take more direct actions like a general strike is their legitimate fear of losing their livelihoods.
In those European countries where the citizens are most politically engaged, they also enjoy the strongest social safety nets. Whereas Americans depend on their employers for their retirement pensions, unemployment benefits and health insurance, Europeans are generally guaranteed all of that as basic entitlements of citizenship. These guarantees make Europeans freer than Americans to express their opinions and demand redress from their governments and their employers.
The European social safety nets -- socialized medicine, free or heavily subsidized higher education, public transportation and rich unemployment benefits, among others -- are paid for by compressing the range of income between the working and the management classes, taxing excess personal and corporate income, taxing the added value of manufactured or processed goods sold in commerce (thus placing the highest tax burden on those who consume the most), and by NOT spending a lot of money on the military.
It is no coincidence that when American workers were the most strident (during the early days of the union movement), they also had the worst working conditions and the fewest employment benefits to lose if they were fired. Currently, any American worker who participates in a general strike stands to lose his or her job in an anemic economy where many jobs are low-paying service positions that provide dismal benefits. The American striker risks not only her job, but the loss of retirement benefits and, most importantly, health insurance for the worker and the worker's family. European workers simply do not have to take that risk. Whether employed or not (and their job protections are vastly stronger than in the United States), Europeans tend to have extended unemployment and health care benefits that mitigate the fear of unemployment.
Indeed, we should ask: Why was the American health care system designed as a system of private "insurance" in the first place? Why should the American health care system be tied to work?
Insurance makes sense for allocating risk among people who choose to participate in certain electives like driving a car or owning a house. Insurance is also appropriate if, upon your own death, you wish to provide money for your family. Insurance is not a requirement of life because you can live without a car, you can live perfectly well without life insurance and you can rent if you will not own property. Health care, however, is different. No matter who you are, no matter how you live, sooner or later you will become old, sick and need medical help. When you need medical care you will be the least able to afford it. Why should this be a matter of private insurance? And why should this "insurance" be tied to your job? Why do Americans always think of health care as a matter of employer provided "insurance" when this is not the way it works elsewhere in the world?
The answer is precisely because it ties Americans' health care to their jobs, and by that tie so are they are also tied up. Americans are understandably afraid to do anything that might jeopardize their employability because there is far more at stake than just a paycheck. That fear rules out making too many demands on employers, it rules out doing anything that risks the stigma of arrest or criminal prosecution and it certainly rules out the possibility of a general strike. Americans have been chained to their jobs by the fear of losing health benefits for themselves and their families just as medieval peasants were tied to the land that they were forced to work for others. The system has been rigged, brilliantly so, to make sure that American workers are forever serfs and forever politically hamstrung.
Polls show overwhelming public support for socialized medical care (2) in the United States, yet politicians step gingerly all around the subject. The most that the majority of politicians are willing to do is to expand in tiny increments the preexisting private insurance system. For that they expect applause, but deserve none. Retaining the existing health care structure is not just about preserving the profit gravy train for the insurance industry. Most importantly, it is a well crafted political system that was designed to keep American workers in thrall, in a state of constant insecurity, tied to their paychecks and politically blunted. For these very reasons, the American system undoubtedly appeals to those in other parts of the world who also would like to weaken or dismantle their own socialized health programs in order make their citizens as tame as Americans are.
Big business will resist any wholesale abandonment of the current American medical care system of employer-based private health insurance unless, in so doing, it can slough off the cost of employer provided medical insurance and put yet another financial handcuff on its employees. For small and family-owned businesses, however, socialized medicine is a necessary equalizer that gives them the ability to compete in a business landscape that is otherwise heavily weighted in favor of huge corporations.
The European model shows that socialized medicine is essential for a democratic society. That model also shows that it is affordable in the United States if, as in Europe, we more tightly compress the range of compensation between the working and the management/ownership classes, eliminate the frictional costs associated with the private administration of health care (3), fairly and appropriately tax individual and corporate income especially at the highest ranges, impose a value added tax on consumer items, eliminate hidden government subsidies for the likes of energy conglomerates, agribusiness and Wall Street, and, most importantly, drastically reduce military spending.
So long as their necessities of life remain tied to their jobs, Americans will remain docile and there will never be an American national general strike. So long as Americans are incapable of organizing a national general strike, they will lack one of the most useful non-violent democratic tools to bring their own government to heel. For the very reason that the present system perpetuates the status quo, those people and entities who profit the most from it will fight tooth and nail to preserve it. But for that reason alone, in order to begin the process of freeing the American people from a culture of political servility, everyone else should fight tooth and nail for socialized medicine and other basic needs that are totally and unequivocally independent of employment.
Zbignew Zingh can be reached at: Zbig@ersarts.com. This article is CopyLeft, and free to distribute, reprint, repost, sing at a recital, spray paint, scribble in a toilet stall, etc. to your heart's content, with proper author citation. Find out more about Copyleft and read other great articles at: www.ersarts.com. copyleft 2007.
(1) The word "propaganda" derives from the Latin and is related to the verb "to propagate", or to multiply, disseminate or breed. In the 17th Century, Pope Urban VIII instituted a college of Propaganda constituted to educate mission priests around the world. "Propaganda" was a more or less neutral term until the last century when, as part of a pro-capitalist counter-propaganda campaign, it was "negativized" and associated with communism or socialism.
(2) Socialized medicine in the United States is known as either "universal" health care or "single-payer" health care. The words "socialized" or "socialist" are strictly taboo in American politics due, in large measure, to the success of the "educational" campaigns of the ownership class described above and the antipathy of the religious institutions to any coherent political creed that challenges their own cultural hegemony.
(3) The notion that the "private sector" is always more efficient than the public sector is another myth propagated by business interests. Because the private sector requires that "owners" extract "profit" from an enterprise, that profit must come from someplace. It usually comes from reduced wages of workers, higher worker "productivity" at the cost of employee layoffs, higher consumer prices, a reduction in the quality of goods or services or, most usually, a combination of all four. Privatized public utility companies with their history of providing less service at higher prices are a good example of how the reality of private enterprise rarely matches its hype. In the field of private health insurance, William McGuire, the CEO of UnitedHealth Group Inc., left office last year with a retirement package worth about $1.1 billion. That represents a lot of health care premiums and it is but one example of the private sector's diversion of assets from the commonwealth to personal wealth.
"IN TIMES OF UNIVERSAL DECEIT, TELLING THE TRUTH WILL BE A REVOLUTIONARY ACT." - George Orwell