Last month, in a post entitled “Dude, where’s my $30K?,” I tried to shed some light on the magnitude of income inequality here in “the land of the free” by pointing out that our country’s per-capita spending on bank bailouts and our military apparatus, plus corporate profits, comes to $30,000 per person. Yes, that’s $120 thou for a a family of four. And they say we don’t have money for unemployment benefits, a national health care system, or social security. Go figure!
That money, all $7.5 trillion of it, is not coming out of our tax dollars, at least not yet. Mostly, it’s being created out of thin air by “quantitative easing” and/or being borrowed from the Chinese and the Saudis. It’s not being created by the classic route of taking raw materials, conceiving a use for them, modifying them, and selling a product at a “profit”–profit being both the difference between what workers are paid and the true value of their work, and what we keep for ourselves instead of repairing (if possible) the damage to the environment that our extraction of raw materials has caused. That paradigm as a road to wealth is obsolete, although it’s obviously what we are going to need to relearn how to do, minus the profit and plus the environmental repair–just to get by, as international trade implodes under the weight of the end of cheap fuel and other raw materials.
I was raised to believe in the virtue of the labor movement. My early heroes were the IWW martyrs and all those who fought for the poor in the class war that runs through the history of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These were epic struggles for justice. Workers fought for fair treatment by their employers, and, for a time, prevailed. The result was the blossoming of the American middle class in the thirty years between the end of World War II and the mid-seventies, which we are starting to realize was America’s “golden age.”
But several things were wrong with that superficially happy picture .
The most obvious, and widely commented on, was the spiritual emptiness of our material paradise, noted by commentators as disparate as Jack Kerouac (who, I hope, needs no introduction!) and Sayyid Qutb, one of the leading lights of the Muslim Brotherhood and, along with the CIA, a major inspiration to the founders of Al Qaeda. But that’s a whole other story. Back to “work,” as it were.
Another thing that is wrong with the struggle of the American labor movement is that, after the marginalization of the IWW and the Socialist Party, the labor movement never questioned capitalism as an economic arrangement. That has been the subject of much commentary and analysis, and certainly has a great deal to do with how the ruling class has been able to dump the American working class and its unions into that famous, even cliched, “dustbin of history.”
But there’s something else the labor movement never questioned, something that has rarely even been noted: the labor movement, even the Socialists and “radical” anarchists of the IWW, never questioned whether the work they were doing was, in the long run, worth doing. The forests of America were clearcut, Appalachia was despoiled, and General Motors destroyed America’s interurban railroad system so it could sell more cars–and all the unions wanted was a bigger piece of the pie. Nobody in the labor movement questioned the wisdom of these moves.
That last one, GM’s dismantling of mass transit in America, is especially worth examining, because shifting from mass transit to personal motorized vehicles has had such a massive, destructive, and likely unintended effect on not only America, but the world.
Because individual automobile ownership has become the norm in this country, our population dispersed over a far wider area than would have been the case had we remained dependent on mass transit. Suburbia became possible. Urban sprawl sucked up millions of acres of woodland and farmland adjacent to cities, undermining local self-sufficiency. In the name of boosting automobile and gasoline sales, our country’s intercity highway system was improved. Thus subsidized, trucking and automobile travel undermined the country’s long-distance railroad system, once the best in the world. Now, like the much of the rest of the country’s infrastructure, our railroads are struggling not to fall into third world status. The net result of this is that now, as petroleum production slips into decline, we are tied to the most petroleum-dependent and inefficient methods of transport–road and air, and our automobile-addicted population is too scattered to be served by mass transit, even if we had the money left to build it.
Wait, there’s more!
The psychological effects of America’s transition to individual automobile transportation are likewise manifold. Travelers no longer need to deal with railway schedules; we can leave whenever we want to, travel by any route we choose, stop where we feel like stopping, and we don’t have to share our space with anybody else and negotiate whatever compromises that might entail. We do not sit on benches in train stations waiting for connections. The primacy of individual preference has been enshrined, from our individual psyches to our lifestyle expectations to our national foreign policy. It’s all me, all all the time, all splendid isolation, from our far-flung suburban homes to our daily commutes…oops, fewer and fewer of us have a job or the resulting daily commute.
And that is where it all starts falling apart. I have commented before on the fascistic nature of American society–how our government increasingly exists solely to promote corporate interests. It’s not just about health care or the right of corporations to spread GMOs for fun and profit. Full participation in American society, if you live outside a few urban areas, requires that automobile ownership. For most people, that means an investment of twenty to forty thousand dollars or more–hundreds of dollars in monthly payments to a private corporation for an object that, ironically, does nothing but lose value from the moment you drive it off the lot.
Think about how much money is tied up in automobiles. Five relatively new vehicles are easily worth a hundred thousand dollars. How many cars do you encounter on a typical drive around town? Five hundred? ten million dollars. Five thousand? A hundred million dollars worth of automobiles, all stuck in rush hour traffic.
But, as I said, fewer and fewer of us are stuck in rush hour traffic, because fewer and fewer of us have jobs, nor are we going to have “jobs,” at ;east not in the traditional meaning of that term. As I pointed out last month, it would take 630 businesses with 35,000 employees each just to absorb people who are currently “unemployed,” let alone create cubicles for all those who are, as they say, “just entering the labor market.” There are no buyers in the labor market, not in America.
But that’s not the same as there being nothing to do. On the contrary, there is everything to do. Somewhere along the line in its drive to monetize everything, the official economy of America has largely ceased to do the things that really matter to people. There is food to grow for people who want something besides sugar, starch, fat, and salt. There are young people, old people, and sick or handicapped people who need care that is truly caring rather than being motivated by the promise of a paycheck. Increasingly, there will be a need to manufacture and use basic tools, a need and the skills to sift through America’s trash middens and waste stream to find what can be reused or repurposed.
Our profit-crazed, out-of-touch formal economy now places a higher value on putting people out of their homes than it does on keeping them in those homes. There are currently eighteen million unoccupied houses in this country, many of them foreclosures, and about 700,000 homeless people. Do the math. Many of the unoccupied houses have been stripped of wiring and copper pipes and anything else that could be recycled. Many homes, unoccupied or occupied, are poorly insulated and inefficiently heated, These are all jobs screaming out for someone to do them, but there is no money to be had, because housing the poor is of no value to the rich.
Soon enough, it won’t matter. Our system has stoutly resisted reform, which means that the only alternative left is collapse, and a rebuild from the ground up. The web of car payments, college loans, and credit card debts that keeps so many ensnared in a world a few removes from reality, running on a paycheck treadmill, will melt away like a bad dream, and we will find ourselves in a different world altogether. All together, indeed. That will be the only way to succeed at surviving. And there will be plenty of work for everyone.
music: Burning Times, “The Only Green World”