Saturday, April 16, 2016

The Necessity Of Civic Virtue

Chris Hedges sees a bleak future for the United States. The ruins of post industrial America are all around. He describes what has happened in places like Elizabeth, New Jersey:

Elizabeth was devastated by the 1982 closure of its Singer plant, which had been built in 1873 and at one time had 10,000 workers. The 1,000 or so African-Americans at the plant worked mostly in a foundry that made cast-iron parts for the sewing machines. The work was poorly paid and dangerous. White workers, many of them German, Italian, Irish, Jewish, Polish or Lithuanian immigrants, dominated the safer and better-paid factory floor. The city was built around the sprawling plant. Generations of residents organized their lives and their families on the basis of Singer jobs or income that the facility indirectly produced. And then, after a long decline, the factory was gone. 

And what happened in Elizabeth has happened throughout the United States:

The year Singer closed its flagship factory in Elizabeth there were 2,696 plant shutdowns across the United States, resulting in 1,287,000 job losses. Singer workers in Elizabeth under the age of 55 lost all retirement benefits, even if they had worked for the company for decades. Small businesses in the city that depended on the plant went bankrupt.

In postindustrial cities across America it is now clear, after the passage of years, that the good jobs and stability once provided by factories such as the Singer plant have been lost forever. The pent-up anger and frustration among the white working class have given birth to dark pathologies of hate. The hate is directed against those of different skin color or ethnicity who somehow seem to have heralded the changes that destroyed families and communities. 

Those dark pathologies of hate are what is driving the Trump campaign. And they won't go away, even if Donald Trump does:

This sentiment, on display at Donald Trump rallies, will outlive the Trump campaign even should the candidate be, as I expect, deposed by the party elites. It is a very dangerous force. It presages violence against all who appear to have been empowered at the expense of the white working class—African-Americans, Muslims, undocumented workers, homosexuals, feminists, artists and intellectuals—and will feed the rise of a Christianized fascism.  

That's a strange phrase, "Chritianized fascism." But it's nothing new -- just as fascism is nothing new. It arises when a culture or civilization has reached the end of the road. And many societies have reached the end of the road:

We are no more immune to the forces of decay and death than were ancient Athens, ancient Egypt, ancient Rome, the Mayans, the Aztecs, Easter Island, Europe’s feudal society of lords and serfs, and the monarchal empires in early 20th-century Europe. Human nature has not changed. We will react as those before us reacted when they faced collapse. We will be increasingly consumed by illusion. We will seek to stop time, to prevent change, to embrace magical thinking in a desperate effort to return to an idealized past. Many will suffer. 

But what is deeply disturbing is that Hedges believes what is happening in the U.S. will eventually engulf us all:

This time, collapse will be planetwide. There will be no new lands to conquer, no new peoples to subjugate, no new natural resources to plunder and exploit. Climate change will teach us a brutal lessen about hubris.

Not a very uplifting message on this new Spring Day. But, Hedges writes, such a future awaits -- unless we recover what Plato called our civic virtue.



The Mound of Sound said...

American historian and political economist, Gar Alperovitz, offers a way out of Hedges' dilemma in his book, "What Then Must We Do?" a title borrowed from Tolstoy.

One intriguing idea he promotes is for workers to displace the rentier class as owners of means of production. Workers' co-ops buy marginally profitable businesses, usually factories, from disinterested absentee owners and turn them around. It works because the employees often have better ideas of how to improve the business, are more willing to see where critical investment is needed, and are able to engage other resources of the community including credit unions, churches, etc. whose own future depends on the health of the neighbourhood. He cites several examples of failing businesses, a window factory for example, that had been on the verge of closing. The workers got together and with the support of other local businesses, churches and their credit union, got the money to buy out the owner at a very modest price. Then they set to rebuilding the company, deferring profit-taking while they invested in fixing what needed repair and updating, and then paid off their borrowings with their jobs secured, with a participatory share of the profits, and with security for retirement.

This can work because the incompetent, indifferent ownership/management is removed and replaced with much better ownership/management - the workers themselves who become happy little capitalists on one hand and productive community members on the other. Everyone local benefits - the bakery, the hardware store, the credit union, the churches.

Alperovitz has a great web post, "What then can I do? Ten ways to democratize the economy." It's worth a read.

Owen Gray said...

Thanks for the link, Mound. Who says that workers can't be good managers? And, after all, it was the "managers" who got us into this mess.

Steve said...

Mound speaks of an advanced mittlestand, the economic engine of Germany. Its a sociatal choice.

Owen Gray said...

Exactly, Steve. The basic flaw in neo-liberalism is that it holds -- along with Margaret Thatcher -- that "there is no such thing as society." That dogma, of course, is self evident hogwash.