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This Moment in American History

December 24th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

We tend to take the conditions of the world during our short life-spans for granted. Unless we live through some kind of earth-shattering, world-changing event, we fall into the trap of believing—if only subconsciously—that things were always more or less the same as they are now.

I love the end of the year, as it’s a time when writers and journalists take a step back and try to put the year in a broader historical context. This year there will undoubtedly be a lot of talk about Obama’s fall from grace, the worsening conditions of the middle class, and the triumph of corporations and financial institutions over the threat of increased regulation. To really understand the significance of these things, one must look back not merely to the beginning of the current administration or even the last decade, but all the way back to the start of the previous century.

I’m about half-way through Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States (which ought to be required reading for every high school student in America), and I’m struck by the parallels between the conditions of the working class at the turn of the 20th century and the direction things are heading in now. Back then, and indeed for the vast majority of American history, there was no ‘middle class’ to speak of. Everything was controlled by a handful of powerful business interests who had more wealth than the bottom 80% of Americans combined, and that bottom 80% worked for slave wages if they were lucky enough to even have a job.

The ‘middle class’ as we know it has really only existed for a brief shining moment following the New Deal and subsequent economic boom resulting from our making it through WWII without a scratch. Nearly everyone alive today has experienced what life in America was like with a relatively equitable distribution of wealth, and it seems unthinkable that the middle class could ever disappear. Our complacency is slowly allowing the same handful of powerful business interests who had a chokehold over the country for most of its history to regain their former position. The middle class is in its death pangs, and unless the people act it won’t be long before we slide back into what seems to be the natural state of affairs in a civilized society: a few enormously wealthy and powerful people at the top, a small class of moderately wealthy bankers, lawyers, and politicians who preserve the status quo, and the masses at the bottom suffering and toiling through their nasty, brutish and short lives.

But aside from the parallels between then and where we’re heading now, there are two important differences:

1- Things were much worse back then. We may think we have it bad now, but at least there is a minimum wage, an 8-hour workday with a 2-day weekend, strict safety regulations for dangerous occupations and legal recourse against negligent employers, and a social safety net for the unemployed (at least those who’ve been unemployed for fewer than 99 weeks). It’s horrifying to read about young women forced to work 16-hour days at a factory for bread-crumbs, only to be burned alive because the owner didn’t want to pay the cost of making the doors open outward. We may lose a handful of workers each year due to negligence (see Massey Energy, BP) but there was once a time when they were dying by the thousands. And while things like out-sourcing may drive our wages down now, at least most of us can still afford to buy things other than food and clothing.

Our taking such things for granted leads to the second major difference between then and now:

2- The people back then were willing to fight for better conditions. Every single major improvement in the lives of the lower classes had to be paid for with strikes, protests, and occasionally even blood. Factory owners didn’t agree to an 8-hour workday out of the goodness of their hearts. They didn’t start paying the extra cost to ensure their workers’ safety out of pure human compassion. Workers had to strike to get just a few of their demands met, and then strike again to get the rest. They had to join forces with workers of other industries and take to the streets to get the ruling class to treat them with basic human dignity. Most of the time, these protests were brutally suppressed and many brave men and women (as well as far too many children) paid the ultimate price for the cause. But gradually, the ruling class was forced to recognize that it could not get away with treating people like cattle, and small victory by small victory our ancestors transformed this country into the one we’ve always known.

It is this country—the country in which just about everyone has an equal shot at a good life, where hard work leads almost invariably to the rewards of a good home and healthy family, where the prosperity of the wealthy is shared with the workers who allow them to generate that wealth—that we were taught to be proud of as children. And it is something to be proud of. Our forefathers fought very hard for it, and many are still struggling to preserve it.

But we have to understand that this America did not always exist and there’s no guarantee that it always will. Things may not be nearly as bad as they were in the year 1900 but there’s nothing to stop us from returning to those conditions other than the sheer force of our combined will.

That means more than just going to the voting booth every 2-4 years. With the exception of FDR, not a single American president has ever used his position to truly fight the upper classes on behalf of the masses, and the current president has demonstrated that he won’t do so either. He is behaving like most presidents, attempting to balance the competing interests of the country’s various powers, his primary concern being the maintenance of the status quo.

Were things not trending so sharply downwards for the middle class, this would be perfectly acceptable. But we’re standing on the precipice of losing the ground that our forefathers fought so hard to gain, and maintaining course now is akin to class suicide.

I worry that current generations are too complacent, that we take our lives of relative comfort and luxury for granted, and that we therefore feel no compulsion to take to the streets the way our forefathers did. We circulate online petitions, call our representatives, make donations to political campaigns and so on, but all of these things are a poor substitute for genuine action.

To be fair, our ancestors did not have 24-hour cable news channels to compete with—entities that either serve to distract the American people from what’s most important, or (in the case of Fox News) actually hoodwink them into siding with the upper classes against their fellow citizens. But we still have the advantage of a free and open internet, at least for the time being.

Our ancestors also had the advantage of necessity. They had no choice—either take to the streets or starve. Demand more consideration from their employers or risk being burned alive.

We’ve heard of pre-emptive war. Can we have a pre-emptive revolution? Can we get enough Americans to recognize the danger of what might lie ahead for us to draw the proper lines in the sand and threaten to put the entire system in jeopardy unless pledges are made to preserve what our ancestors fought for? Hands off the minimum wage! Hands off Social Security! Hands off the inflation of financial bubbles! Hands off affordable housing! Hands off affordable education! Hands off patients’ rights! Hands off workers’ rights!

Perhaps we have to wait until we completely lose these things before the people stand up and fight for them again. Perhaps the pendulum needs to complete a full swing back in the other direction before it can start swinging back. We have the misfortune of living during the back-end of the swing. But we do have the power to stop it and drive it back the other way if we take a lesson from our ancestors and fight now before it’s too late. We have an obligation to them to preserve what they fought for. We have a responsibility to the next generations to prevent them from being worse off than we are.

I just hope we can recognize that before it’s too late.

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