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A Labor Day Tale Of Three Cities: Pittsburgh, Birmingham and New Orleans

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Message Phil Rockstroh
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As Hurricane Irene made her way up the Eastern Seaboard, my wife and I packed a few changes of clothes and trundled westward out of her path to spend the storm's duration in Pittsburgh, PA.

The excursion did us some good, in particular, leaving insular Manhattan, and facing the faded, crumbling Industrial Age grandeur of Pittsburgh. Walking, once again, among the plaintive rasps of the ghosts of the devastated laboring class (the social setting of our youth) provided us with a humanizing contrast to our present day circumstances stranded amid the manic chattering of the preening demons of banal self-regard possessing Manhattan careerists.

Nowadays, the island of Manhattan is tediously bright and shiny -- a sterile, oligarchic controlled dystopia. Accordingly, any sign of redemptive decay and hint of shabby ass human glory has been banished by official caveat and collective collusion.

In contrast, while in Pittsburgh, because I was born in a steel and coal town, Birmingham, Alabama, I shuffled among familiar shades. Deep in my being, I know the social setup -- once manifested in forged steel, living flesh and human longing -- now lost to the ravages of time (more accurately, the consequences of neo-liberal economic doctrine).

In Birmingham, under the statue of the Roman god of the forge, Vulcan, his mortared gaze lording over the city from atop Red Mountain, I witnessed men, hardened by years of grinding labor and demagogic political manipulation, sacrifice their bodies to (Pittsburgh plutocrat-owned) mines, foundries and smelting plants for subsistence pay.

In childhood, when I watched local men labor in the city's metal foundries, their sweat-lacquered faces, reflecting the fiery glow of smelted steel, seemed to glisten with rage, as angry blue sparks showered the heat-seared air around them.

These were hard-drinking, short-tempered men who were calloused of hand and possessed of humiliation-hardened hearts"rendered so, by a life of the strenuous labor, mandated by an exploitive economic system that bequeathed to them little but a hard scrabble existence--and the promise of a future bearing more of the same.

Little wonder, they swore into the soot-choked air, brawled among themselves, and clutched (self-defeating but politically useful to the ruling elite) racial animus, as their vitality was harnessed to build the structure and infrastructure of the industrial state and increase the wealth, privilege and political power of steel and coal plutocrats up in Pittsburgh (the absentee owners of the area's coal and iron mines, smelts, and processing plants) -- but, in so doing, we locals further diminished the steerage of the course of our lives.

I learned early the girding lie that sustains the oligarchic state i.e., the illusory promise: Work hard and you will set yourself free. In fact, as was the rigged economic setup of the Birmingham of my youth, the harder one works within the inverted totalitarian structure of the corporate state, the more one increases the wealth, hence the political power of the ruling elite"by enabling the parasitic class to consolidate yet more power. Therefore, by working harder and longer for their benefit, one further diminishes one's control over the trajectory of one's fate.

(Caveat: This is not to be confused with hard work and diligent effort -- a million acts of responsibility create freedom. The distinction being"be aware of who benefits from your efforts and mindfully choose where to apply your labors.)

At present, in cities such as Birmingham and Pittsburgh, the structures, built in the mechanized fury of the Industrial Age, stand idle"decaying around legions of the unemployed and the woefully underpaid and under-compensated. In the oxidized scream of rust, one can almost hear the wails of rage of those souls who surrendered their life force to erect and work the now abandoned factories, mills and foundries of the nation.

Outsourcing, downsizing, work speed-ups, i.e., the most recent mechanisms of capitalism's death cult of dehumanizing efficiency goes all but unchallenged in the official narrative of the corporate state. By means of intimidation and the proffering of small bribes, the work force is induced to transmute their body's vitality and soul's pothos into the profits of an advantaged, ruthless few. In this way, one's pothos (Greek: yearning plus libido) is rendered into the convenient pathos (alienation, paranoia, displaced rage, consumer addiction) of the corporate age.

Why do so many in the U.S. accept this pernicious, self-defeating setup? Perhaps, because they have been convinced by constant saturation by the commercial propaganda of the consumer state that capitalism will bestow to those who abide by its (rigged) rules and (gamed) economic arrangements everything one could possibly need and desire.

Accordingly, all an individual needs to know and experience is at his impulsive, electronic mass media-happy fingertips. He can click from virtual reality enactments of explicit porn to obscene interpretations of Christian prophecy (e.g., the present field of Republican presidential hopefuls) thus, in an instant, transmigrating from fake sin to phony salvation ... What more, in the whole of boundless creation, could one possibly want?

Yet, where does a veritable (as opposed to virtual) sense of place exist in social and economic arrangements such as these?

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Phil Rockstroh is a poet, lyricist and philosopher bard living in New York City. He may be contacted at Facebook:

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