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April 10, 2001

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WHAT WENT WRONG?
PART IV

by Townsend Walker, Sr.

We are now at a critical point in this discursive examination of early working-class efforts to develop a protective strategy against the ruthless labor practices of the emergent capitalism practiced by the robber barons. We have seen fleeting moments of working class triumph, as in the successful 1885 strike against Jay Gouldís railroads, the high point of American labor power up to that time. And we have gotten intimations of enervating dissension and acrimony within the working class itself, as in the Knights of Labor where the rank and file often felt betrayed by its leaders.

We must turn now to the reaction of the captains of high finance, business and industry in that so-far, yet so-near long-ago of the 1890s and the fateful 1990. We may then begin to understand what went wrong at the beginning of the twentieth century that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, all humankind, rich and poor alike, find itself on a planet of rapidly vanishing resources, environmental destruction, and explosive populations run amuck -- a planet where all stand to be losers. And, if we allow our thought processes free rein to see where all this leads, it will surely occur to some among us that the species may indeed be looking at the end of history, not as a figure of speech but literally, in a move-over-dinosaurs sort of way. All this in the way that the nationís early capitalists set out to elevate the spirit of capitalism to a national virtue.

They would, to quote loosely their arch-Nemesis, Karl Marx, "resolve personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, set up that single, unconscionable, freedom -- Free trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it would substitute naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation...They would convert the physician, the lawyer, the priest, the poet, the man of science, into its paid labourers." But to succeed, Americaís capitalists would have to resort to a modified stratagem of the ancient Hebrewís scapegoat: unload their scrofulous intentions on innocent surrogate with the expectation their god would be stupid enough to count them innocent. What better goat for the sacrifice than Marx, the dreamer freshly dead and unlikely to return to defend his scathing thesis? Moreover, any later dreamer of a more humane society could be sent packing on a Marxian goat as a "socialist," to be banished from the company of the virtuous capitalist and grovelers at the capitalistís fee.

And so it was in the roaring "nineties" that the mandarins of Free Trade, the High Priests of the social order, and the Guardians of political clout sniffed the air, smelled the blood of their victims at places like Haymarket Squre, Homestead, and the roadbeds of Chicago, heard laborís cries of outrage and rebellious discontent and reasoned, wisely, that there must be a better approach to controlling their workers than head-to-head combat.

Until that momentous decision the general hostile attitude of industrialists in general toward labor unions was reflected in the philosophy that motivated the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM, organized in 1895): "A danger to the state and menace to civilization." The same attitude characterized the agenda of the General Managersí Association (GMA) during the Pullman strike: "the complete annihilation of the American Railway Union."

Wiser men of that era, however, came to see the "labor question as a phenomenon of normal and everyday social life" and that the mortal-combat tactics of the NAM and GMA would only escalate the tensions between labor and management. Memories of the 1848 revolution in Europe lingered, as did the rebellion of the Paris Commune in 1870. Better to promote "the betterment of labor [as] the betterment of the entire social structure" and Ďstriving to improve the condition of the working masses" -- lest the same disruptions disturb the domestic tranquility here, and the fabric of American society be torn in twain.

And so it was in December 1900 school teacher and publicist Ralph Montgomery Easley brought together a handful of wealthy and powerful men smart enough to understand the advantage of the carrot over the stick in gaining the upper hand over friend and foe alike. Their objective: to create an alternative to the club wielded by the National Association of Manufacturers against the American Federation of Labor, which they (the NAM) saw as "engaged in an open warfare against Jesus Christ." The violence of the club had failed. In that direction lay only strikes, mayhem, rebellion, and ultimately, the spectre of revolution.

Indeed, two years after the founding of the National Civic Foundation (NCF) as a counter-measure to the ill-considered NAM philosophy, President Roosevelt was "fairly haunted with the thought of the misery that would come to the poor people...and of the terrible convulsion that might be produced" in the wake of the prolonged anthracite coal strike at the time. He was convinced the country had been within thirty days "of the most awful riots which this country has ever seen, and of a winter which would have left a hideous stain upon our annals as a nation."

To restore confidence to Americaís thoroughly frightened business, industrial and professional classes, the first president of the NCF set out "to end wars between American labor and American capital." The universal tool to achieve this end was to be the trade agreement, giving recognition to organized labor as an integral part of the modern industrial system, assuring union recognition, stable wage rates, regular pay raises, and "unmistakable recognition of the mutual dependence of capital and labor." These assurance became a trap for American labor, subverting it and making it complicit in what went wrong.

Letís Not Let Them Lie To Us Anymore!

More specifically, letís not let them lie to us anymore about health care in Canada, or what needs to be done about health care in the U.S. The lying started in the 1910s when the insurance and medical industries rose up in opposition to the American Association of Labor Legislationís crusade for "compulsory health insurance." It has persisted until now when, as any informed person knows, the United States is a laughing stock among advanced nations for the inefficiencies and unapologetic commodification of its health delivery system. In recent years, the U.S. health care industry, alarmed at Canadaís success with its publicly funded "single payer" system of universal health care, has begun using the strategy of the big lie against our northern neighbor. This, in spite of the horror the typical Canadian sees in the U.S. profit-motivated system, and the pride they take in their own as a "defining national characteristic."

We need not go through the litany of lies thrust on us in the early years of the Clinton administration by Harry and Louise and other inventions of the sociopathic minds of the mercenaries of the health care establishment. We remember all too painfully the scare tactics used to poison the American psyche against Canadaís universal system of health care, and the money for which venal politicians became the mercenariesí accomplices.

We smart too much from the trauma of having been betrayed in our struggle for universal health care -- first, by a political party and a president who used the issue of health care reform to get out votes, and then by the very institutions that should have been leading us in the struggle for health care as a human and democratic right. We vomit at the thought of those boastful, unctuous charlatans who grew fat in the service of insurance-peddling organizations only pretending to serve the elderly, the disadvantaged, the soldiers home from the wars. We blush at our own silence before these self-aggrandizers when we might have thrown down the gauntlet and turned those organizations on their heads. But we didnít. We let the lies stand, and our present state is seven times worse than seven years ago.

So please, letís not let them lie to us anymore. Letís begin the revolution for truth and human decency within those structures of contemporary society without which it will be increasingly difficult to change direction on increasingly troubled seas. There is nothing new in this suggestion. In the year I was born, philosopher-educator and revolutionary-at-heart John Dewey was writing a book in which he asked, "How then can we get leverage for changing institutions?...Shall we not have to depend in the future as in the past upon upheaval and accident to dislocate customs so as to release impulses to serve as points of departure for new habits?" Let us not pass over these questions lightly, but strain to milk them of the last vestige of their revolutionary intent. Why? Because in them "are possibilities which have never been taken advantage of...[for changing] nationalistic and economic regimes."

There is no credible excuse today for allowing the lies about Canadaís health care system to go unchallenged. Our fears or cupidity or culpability or other ignominies of the soul may explain our silence, but do not excuse it. Mr. John Sweeney of labor, for example, cannot plead ignorance for cooperating with insurance, hospital and other corporate executives in rejecting a Canadian-type single payer system of health care a decade ago. We will not speculate further as to his motivation for continuing a widespread labor tradition of resisting governmentally mandated and publicly funded universal health care. We must opine with all due respect, however, that given the so easily accessible contrasting facts about the Canadian and U.S. systems, Mr. Sweeney owes working people everywhere an explanation for not choosing to support universal care. We say "working people everywhere," whether unionized or not, for the simple reason that without organized labor in the forefront universal health care will remain a figment of our imagination.

We have no desire to be unkind to an organization so vital to our common well being and potentially so filled with promises as the AFL-CIO, on whose elephantine rump we are of no more consequence than a gnat. Nor do we intend any disrespect of Americaís working class to which we were born and with which we identify to this very day. Indeed, were it not for the potential power residing in the votes of the working class, and our certainty that only the unleashing of that power in the voting booth can bring universal health care as a symbol of democracy, any hope for the latter is without substance and void. The institutional revolution that Dewey posited as the absolute minimal prerequisite for the democratization of American society must begin with the working class, for the irrefutable reason that we are so many. Given the circumstances of the time, it is equally clear that the first fruit of the revolution of the people of the workplace must be the recognition of health care as an "inalienable right," for the simple reason that soundness of body and mind is indispensable for experiencing life nobly and in the full.

Therefore, the axe of the workersí revolution must be laid to the root obstacle to that healing of body and mind so essential to maximizing human worth. When the big lie is the obstacle, the lie must be extirpated, along with its propagators. And the sad truth today is that among the most influential bearers of the Harry-and-Louise type lie are a few prominent leaders of the working class who have allowed themselves, for whatever reason, to be co-opted by the monetizers of health care. They have consciously, or as victims of the most profound ignorance, joined hands with those egotistical money hounds who have transformed the Hippocratic ideal into an instrument of "naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation."

Like it or not, we must sift the grain from the chaff and educate ourselves to recognize the difference between the two. We must not let them lie to us anymore.


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