Meet Charles Sullivan, social activist, writer, and photographer from the hinterland of West Virginia, whose ongoing battle against capitalism and its inherent evils is a shining inspiration to all of us who are fighting for the very existence of humankind and the betterment of our world.
Angie: Over the past year your voice has become one of the most passionate and consistent in the fight against capitalism and its accompanying evils. What prompted you to rail against the "status quo"?
Charles: Even as a child growing up in typical small town America, the things that I was taught about America, things that are widely accepted because they are repeated so often, did not make sense to me. For example, we are always told that America is a Democracy, and nearly everyone believes that. How many people even ponder the question or think critically about it? From cradle to grave we are told that America is the greatest Democracy in the history of civilization. The statement is accepted at face value; it is repeated over and over, despite all evidence to the contrary; and it becomes ingrained in the public mind as a great enduring truth. But what is the evidence for that view?
What never made sense to me was the fact that the original inhabitants of Turtle Island (North America) were eradicated by the newly established federal government -- this so called Democracy. Today we might call it ethnic cleansing. Then there was the issue of chattel slavery, and the fact that women could not vote or hold office in government.
When I was young and went to the movies with my sisters, black people were segregated from the white. Black people sat in the balcony, which was the worst seats in the house; and the whites always got the best seats. Public schools were segregated too -- the blacks always getting the worst of it.
None of this made sense to me within the construct of a Democracy. So it occurred to me that it must be something else. As I matured and began to explore American history on my own, things never quite added up for me. I was always suspicious of authority, and rarely, if ever, gave my allegiance to it. That is called critical thinking, and it is fast becoming a lost art in my country.
Many years later I came upon historian, Howard Zinn, who presented American history from an entirely different perspective -- that of the Indians, the slaves, workers, women, and other oppressed people. Zinn's, "A People's History of the United States" is a wonderful narrative that contradicts the 'official' version of events, which I have since discovered was based on some kind of self-serving mythology. The beauty and genius of Zinn's book is that it is in the people's own voices, and from their unique perspectives. It told a very different story than the one I was taught in school. It got me interested in labor history, which is a topic that is dear to my heart; and which I continue to pursue to this day. Now I understand that there are many reasons for the 'official' authors of history to suppress or distort the facts and to deny all contrarian views.
It is about controlling people's perceptions not only about their government but of themselves as a people. The critical discoveries that came out of my explorations of history are that we live in a society divided by socio-economic class, race and sex; and that the upper class have always preyed upon the lower classes and exploited them for selfish purposes; and they still do. So I learned that we live in a Plutocracy rather than a Democracy. I have always sympathized with the oppressed and despised the oppressor. Of course, my views have never enamored me with the status quo; and that is fine with me. If they did, I would think I was doing something wrong.
Angie: You have written on more than one occasion about the plight of American workers, their fight for benefits, decent wages, and unionized work places. What is the labour situation like in the United States today vis a vis even ten years ago? What effect is outsourcing and cheap labour having on the working class, and how effective are the unions in protecting their workers?
Charles: Union membership has continued to decline during the past decade as part of a longer trend. Some of that decline is the fault of the unions, themselves. Many unions are soft and capitulate to business; in other words, they are in bed with business, and fail to fight for the workers. Some of them are probably on the take. Unions, like individuals, need to be strong and uncompromising in things that matter.
In the old days we had revolutionary unions that did not compromise worker's rights, and railed against the class divisions that have always characterized America. Not only did they fight for the workers, they sought to remake America in the image of the working people rather than the Plutocratic elite. Those unions sought to bring Democracy to America and all of them were met with violent opposition. Early on workers risked their lives to form unions and to win many of the freedoms we take for granted today.
Those unions were militant and the corporations feared them. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is a good example of that kind of unionism. The IWW not only fought for the working class, they sought to put the economic engines of production into the hands of the workers and to end the private ownership of industrial production. They understood that if an individual or a corporate entity controls another's ability to earn a living, that person is, in essence, the property of her/his employer - a slave. That is a lesson that has been forgotten today as unions have sought to curry favor with business.
Though no longer what it once was, the IWW still exists and is one of the few unions that continues to grow membership.
A worker could change jobs a hundred times, but the situation would always be the same; and it still is. That is why the IWW correctly labeled the capital system "Industrial Slavery" or "Wage Slavery", and sought to abolish it by any means. The idea was to form One Big Union the world over, and I still think that is the way to go. This was visionary thinking, in my view, and it was revolutionary in that it sought to remake society.
Fight-back unions recognize that the system - in our case capitalism - is the root of the problem. Workers will control their own destiny only by doing away with capitalism and replacing it with a more equitable and just system. That is why unions must be revolutionary in nature if they are going to be an effective tool for the workers.
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"No one is more effectively enslaved than those who think they are free". Charles Sullivan
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