history, solidarity & contradiction (guest post)

by Steven S.

The crisis of austerity in the capitalist West demands an opening of the political imagination that can only be created by a Job Guarantee (JG).

I was talking with a new friend a few days ago about the relative weakness of worker organizing in the present day, compared to the pre-World War II era. Governors routinely called out the National Guard or state militia which would often fire on strikers with live ammunition. In the 1930s, labor organizers were often beaten or assassinated by company goons. A classmate of mine’s grandfather was a newspaper union organizer in Chicago at that time and he would send his newsboys into the street with saps (small lead clubs) in their pockets every day because they’d regularly get jumped by mob affiliated goons trying to break the union. So confident was Ford Motor Company in its power that at the Battle of the Overpass in 1930 it sent a security unit to beat up a group of demonstrators in broad daylight. The group included clergy and women, but Ford’s thugs didn’t care. Workplace organizing carried life-threatening risks.

It’s been years in the US since overt violence towards workplace organizing was the norm. Yes, people can lose their jobs for organizing, but that was true pre-WWII as well. The risks today are undoubtedly lower than in the past. It cannot be true that workplace organizing is in decline because the threats of retaliation are so severe. Compared to past years, they simply aren’t.

Part of the change is undoubtedly that the mechanisms of neoliberal propaganda are so strong. Yet I can’t help but feel that the other part, in fact, maybe the majority part, is that people in the US lack the kind of collective institutions that once defined us. We’re no longer a nation of people thrust from farm life into industrialization. Neither do most people experience the collectivity of extended family life. Furthermore, the last collective mass institution in American life, the military draft, is no longer operative. Certainly there was intense pro-oligarchy propaganda throughout the 19th century in the form of Horatio Alger novels, the New Thought Movement, and of course, large sections of organized Christianity. However, what weighed against those institutions were the collective experiences of millions of people, experiences they had in solidarity within extended families and agrarian folkways. I don’t think it’s a mistake either, that the last giant mobilization of heterodox activity in the United States arose from those of draftable status. Both the participation in organized military activity and the common subjectivity of literally being subject to a draft levy united people in ways that are alien to most today.

It seems to me that a Job Guarantee program is a way to revive the institution of mass solidarity in the United States, by providing people with direct experiences. The solidarity created by a Job Guarantee program can open the horizon of imagination that seems so closed off and tentative today.

I realize that the strongest critics of the JG are the anti-social left, because they believe that no one should ever be compelled to do anything “against their will,” and that work itself is exploitation, contra the free association of friendship and what some call “chosen family.” I question their understanding of solidarity. More specifically, and more fatally to those whose claim to prominence is their mastery of articulating the inner recesses of being, I question their understanding of the human experience. We all are made up of contesting emotions and feelings, and it is fully possible to both understand and wish to perform an obligation to another while at the same time finding the performance unpleasant. Anyone who has had to care for someone who cannot take care of themselves must have experienced this. Are parents exploited by their infants? Are those with whom we share friendship bonds exploiting us when they lose the ability to care for themselves and depend on us for sustenance and hygiene? Contradictory feelings are at the heart of the human experience and I question those who deny such contradictions.

The anti-social left often valorizes the pre-capitalist, pre-monetary relationships of hunter gatherer societies. Yet it is well known by those who have lived among such societies that often one is called to do things one dislikes so that the collective can survive a hard winter. In their unthinking consumption of pre-monetary social narratives, while eschewing the kind of solidarity that such societies necessarily entail, the anti-social left reveals itself as another child of neoliberalism — a child of neoliberalism that has yet to reach awareness of its own neoliberal subjectivity.

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