Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Zinn, Chapter 15

This is one of a multi-part blog series in Howard Zinn's groundbreaking and controversial book, "A People's History of the United States."

Chapter 15

The war was over, but still the stirkes continued.

In response to a particularly disruptive strike in Seattle, the city's major wrote: "The so-called sympathetic Seattle strike was an attempted revolution. That there was no violence does not alter the fact. .. . The intent, openly and covertly announced, was for the overthrow of the industrial system; here first, then everywhere. .. . True, there were no flashing guns, no bombs, no killings. Revolution, I repeat, doesn't need violence. The general strike, as practiced in Seattle, is of itself the weapon of revolution, all the more dangerous because quiet. To succeed, it must suspend everything; stop the entire life stream of a community. . .. That is to say, it puts the government out of operation. And that is all there is to revolt-no matter how achieved."

A writer in the periodical The Nation wrote later that same year, "The common man .. . losing faith in the old leadership, has experienced a new access of self- confidence, or at least a new recklessness, a readiness to take chances on his own account . .. authority cannot any longer be imposed from above; it comes automatically from below."

This isn't a difference between Democrat and Republican, conservative and liberal - both options in this false polarity point to a pyramid scheme of perverted capitalism.

As he wrote in previous chapters, Zinn describes in Chapter 15 how the establishment relied on racism and xenophobia to stop strikes, pitting one ethnic group against the other to distract them from the struggle between the working class and the ownership class. Of course, it probably didn't help the ruling class that there was an influx of immigrants who sought to improve their stations in life by finding horrible conditions in their home countries. This probably made it easier for companies to find cheap, plentiful labor. Socialism dwindled as the KKK was revived and expanded.

On one hand, "There was some truth to the standard picture of the twenties as a time of prosperity and fun-the Jazz Age, the Roaring Twenties. Unemployment was down, from 4,270,000 in 1921 to a little over 2 million in 1927. The general level of wages for workers rose. Some farmers made a lot of money. The 40 percent of all families who made over $2,000 a year could buy new gadgets: autos, radios, refrigerators. Millions of people were not doing badly-and they could be shut out of the picture the others-the tenant farmers, black and white, the immigrant families in the big cities either without work or not making enough to get the basic necessities."

"But," Zinn continues, "prosperity was concentrated at the top. While from 1922 to 1929 real wages in manufacturing went up per capita 1.4 percent a year, the holders of common stocks gained 16.4 percent a year. Six million families (42 percent of the total) made less than $1,000 a year. One-tenth of 1 percent of the families at the top received as much income as 42 percent of the families at the bottom, according to a report of the Brookings Institution. Every year in the 1920s, about 25,000 workers were killed on the job and 100,000 permanently disabled. Two million people in New York City lived in tenements condemned as rattraps."

Enter the Fourth Estate: "It was, in fact, only the upper ten percent of the population that enjoyed a marked increase in real income. But the protests which such facts normally have evoked could not make themselves widely or effectively felt. This was in part the result of the grand strategy of the major political parties. In part it was the result of the fact that almost all the chief avenues to mass opinion were now controlled by large-scale publishing industries," wrote historian Merle Curti about the 1920s.

Amidst these strikes and income disparity came "The stock market crash of 1929, which marked the beginning of the Great Depression of the United States[. It] came directly from wild speculation which collapsed and brought the whole economy down with it. But, as John Galbraith says in his study of that event (The Great Crash), behind that speculation was the fact that "the economy was fundamentally unsound." He points to very unhealthy corporate and banking structures, an unsound foreign trade, much economic misinformation, and the "bad distribution of income" (the highest 5 percent of the population received about one-third of all personal income)."

The depression brought fates worse than the strikes as the poor lost their jobs, their homes, their means of providing for their families. Zinn's chapter provides countless snippets of inviduals' sad stories. When these individuals realized that the government would not help them or would not help them up, many took matters into their own hands. Some forcibly borrowed/stole groceries with which to feed their families. Others developed elaborate systems and communities of trade.

Among those still working, strikes continued and got "worse" (to the companies) and more creative. Workers didn't have to rely on their union leaders to organize sit-down strikes, in which people chose collectively to stop working at their stations. One advantage was that they didn't free up the positions for strikebreakers to come through and take up. Corporations didn't like this, and even some bigger and increasingly organized union leaders didn't like it either, so more laws and more deals with unions were passed. Zinn interprets it thusly: "Thus, two sophisticated ways of controlling direct labor action developed in the mid-thirties. First, the National Labor Relations Board would give unions legal status, listen to them, settling certain of their grievances. Thus it could moderate labor rebellion by channeling energy into elections-just as the constitutional system channeled possibly troublesome energy into voting. The NLRB would set limits in economic conflict as voting did in political conflict. And second, the workers' organization itself, the union, even a militant and aggressive union like the CIO, would channel the workers' insurrectionary energy into contracts, negotiations, union meetings, and try to minimize strikes, in order to build large, influential, even respectable organizations."

As this book (that I've added to my to-read list) puts it, "Factory workers had their greatest influence, and were able to exact their most substantial concessions from government, during the Great Depression, in the years before they were organized into unions. Their power during the Depression was not rooted in organization, but in disruption." I believe in the power of organization but not when it (the organization) becomes its own justification for being.

I can't say this better, even as I read more to learn about its nuances and question its veracity: "The coming of World War II weakened the old labor militancy of the thirties because the war economy created millions of new jobs at higher wages. The New Deal had succeeded only in reducing unemployment from 13 million to 9 million. It was the war that put almost everyone to work, and the war did something else: patriotism, the push for unity of all classes against enemies overseas, made it harder to mobilize anger against the corporations. During the war, the CIO and AFL pledged to call no strikes."

Also "Still, the grievances of workers were such-wartime "controls" meant their wages were being controlled better than prices-that they felt impelled to engage in many wildcat strikes: there were more strikes in 1944 than in any previous year in American history, says Jeremy Brecher." and "The thirties and forties showed more clearly than before the dilemma of working people in the United States. The system responded to workers' rebellions by finding new forms of control-internal control by their own organizations as well as outside control by law and force. But along with the new controls came new concessions. These concessions didn't solve basic problems; for many people they solved nothing. But they helped enough people to create an atmosphere of progress and improvement, to restore some faith in the system," which I cite again as I'm borrowing large chunks directly from Zinn himself.

Zinn also summarizes the merits and dissapointments of the New Deal, acknowledging what it did well but making it clear that he thought it didn't do enough.

What's interesting to me is to read the accounts of individuals struggling, suffering. Even the most hard-nosed conservatives today, when met with such injustice, respond with compassion. Many of them (us/me) feel impotent when faced with such systemic issues of injustice. Some, like author Daniel Quinn, try to seek the deeper roots of injustice. Others, like so-called "eco-terrorist" and author Derrick Jensen, become angry and lash back at the system itself, proposing at times that we take out more than just the specific offenders in order to fix the system from its roots. He believes that even when people are faced with the sad facts, they refuse to act because they are greedy and self-serving. I'm not quite that hopeless. Right now I'll stick with feelings of compassion and sometimes righteous anger. And I'll try to help educate myself and others through reading, talking, advocating, marching, volunteering, and (often insufficiently) blogging.

Next: WWII

No comments: