Only Working People’s Power Can Save Our Democracy
August 27, 2018 by Jim Miller
The March of the Weavers-Käthe_Kollwitz, 1897. Image via Wikipedia
It shouldn’t be news to readers of the SD Free Press that life here under the perfect sun isn’t always so easy, particularly for working people. Indeed, as a Bloomberg report outlined last May, “The gap between the have and have-nots in San Diego was the ninth-highest out of 100 cities between 2011 to 2016.”
As usual, this report received not much more than a shrug in the place where happy happens as we were too busy spectacularly failing to address our shameful homelessness crisis yet again while the supply of high-end condos downtown and elsewhere continues to grow. So it goes.
It’s the same old story over and over again here–and everywhere else.
As Michael Hiltzik recently wrote in the Los Angeles Times, the most recent numbers from the World Inequality Database show that the runaway freight train of economic inequality in the United States just keeps gaining steam. While the global wealth gap is also troubling, the WID documents that America is leading the way, “The share of national income going to the top 1% in the U.S. has risen from just over 10% in 1980 to more than 20% in 2016. Meanwhile, the share collected by the bottom 50% has fallen from more than 20% to about 13%” (WID).
…what was once part of the American social contract and a pillar of the New Deal, is imploding only to be replaced with a heartless work-until-you-die Social Darwinist ethos.
The problem with this is not just that it is unfair, but that as the most recent WID report states, “If rising inequality is not properly monitored and addressed it can lead to various sorts of political, economic, and social catastrophes.” One of those social catastrophes is underlined in a New York Magazine piece entitled “American Capitalism Can No Longer Afford to Let Workers Retire in Dignity”:
New research shows that the rate of bankruptcy among Americans over 65 has tripled since 1991, while that among 55-to-65-year-olds has also risen sharply. According to this new study from the Consumer Bankruptcy Project, the bankruptcy rate among Americans over 65 was 3.6 per 1,000 between February 2013 and November 2016 — up from 1.2 per 1,000 in 1991. Meanwhile, Americans over 65 now account for 12.2 percent of all bankruptcy filers, up from 2.1 percent in the early 1990s — an increase that far outstrips the growth in our nation’s elderly population in the interim
As the study’s authors observe, this is the product of government and corporations offloading “’the risks associated with aging’ onto elderly individuals.” In sum, what was once part of the American social contract and a pillar of the New Deal, is imploding only to be replaced with a heartless work-until-you-die Social Darwinist ethos.
But don’t look for any new social programs to help shore up retirement security because in the Golden Age of inequality, that is too high a price to pay if we want to continue enriching the top 1% as we are at present. The fact is that the more private capital grows, the more public capital shrinks.
None of these things will come to pass, however, until we stop hoping the elite will have a change of heart and we instead start forcing a change.
Hiltzik again notes:
An oft-overlooked phenomenon that both reflects and contributes to rising inequality is the decline of public capital in the developed world, especially when compared to the growth of private capital. The trend hamstrings government efforts to address economic inequality by impoverishing programs that would give middle- and low-income citizens help climbing the economic ladder, such as public education . . .
. . . [T]he United States, where public capital has fallen to a negative figure. That’s because public capital is defined as public assets minus public debt. The U.S. has borrowed heavily for purposes that include funding tax cuts for the wealthy.
That’s effectively a transfer of wealth from the public to rich private individuals, and it’s likely to intensify in coming years, as the country borrows to fund the $1.5-trillion tax cut enacted in December to benefit corporations and the rich. Republicans in Congress already are talking about the need to cut back on programs that benefit the middle and working classes, such as Social Security and Medicare, because the nation “can’t afford” them. That would be a further draining of wealth from lower-income Americans to the 1%.
Of course, none of this is inevitable; it’s a choice. If in some alternative political universe, we instituted more progressive taxes, invested in education, infrastructure, healthcare, retirement, and the environment while allowing for strong unions, we could reverse the worst from happening. None of these things will come to pass, however, until we stop hoping the elite will have a change of heart and we instead start forcing a change.
As Joseph Stiglitz observes in his fine review of Anand Giridharadas’s Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, “Democracy and high levels of inequality of the kind that have come to characterize the United States are simply incompatible. Very rich people will always use money to maintain their political and economic power.”
Thus, it’s up to us–which is a daunting challenge. The editors of Jacobin put it succinctly in a recent New York Times Op-ed, “The average person in the United States has essentially zero power in society. That’s why millions have organized into unions over the years. But the slow decline of unionism in the United States should concern you even if you’re not in one.”
In a new Center for American Progress report, the authors clearly illustrate how unions “support strong economic growth” and “help working-class people—particularly those facing inequities in the workplace,” but that union membership has halved over the past 20 years as a result of “decades of anti-union attacks.”
Despite all of this, though, the labor movement both historically and at present represents the best tool that American workers have ever had to fight the entrenched power of the rich. That’s what led to the Janus decision that sought to weaken public sector unions and why millions of dollars of right-wing money is presently pounding away at labor to try to make unions a relic of the American past.
As we head into another Labor Day sure to be devoid of any real acknowledgment of the American labor movement, it would behoove us all to remember the folks who brought us the weekend and do what we can to sustain unions and grow the power of ordinary working people.
Amidst the din of the Trump circus, many folks have failed to notice that the age-old struggle between labor and management has increasingly become even more of a zero-sum game. In Garret Keizer’s current Harpers feature piece “Labor’s Last Stand,” he cites former Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen, who observes that the struggle between labor and management seems to have become less of a “wrestling match” and more of “a fight to the death” with two possible outcomes: “One is that labor, not by itself but in coalition with other groups, prevails to the extent of being able to restructure society in some basic ways. Or management, or whatever you want to call it—the One Percent—will destroy all unions and basically there will be masters and helots.”
Even in their weakened state, unions still represent the idea that powerless individuals can gain political and economic power through collective action. Whether in their traditional form or in some, yet-to-be-imagined transformed version of an all people’s social justice movement, unions are a threat to the unchecked power of the privileged. As we head into another Labor Day sure to be devoid of any real acknowledgment of the American labor movement, it would behoove us all to remember the folks who brought us the weekend and do what we can to sustain unions and grow the power of ordinary working people.
As Mother Jones said in the midst of the Colorado Coal Strike a little over a hundred years ago, “Now don’t get on your knees. We have got no Kings in America.” And that’s still true as long as we don’t give up the fight for a democracy that has a place for everyone, now more than ever.
Jim Miller, a professor at San Diego City College, is the co-author of Under the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See and Better to Reign in Hell, and author of the novels Drift and Flash. His most recent novel is Last Days in Ocean Beach.