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Compromise and Coöptation

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I have been reading a recent extended email conversation among folks around America who are blue-collar or non-supervisory white-collar working people. Some rant, some b*tch about personal affronts, some make telling points and then heap trash on their own arguments by making ad hominem remarks or misstating facts and general knowledge. General knowledge about labor is decidedly scarce and when available subject to infinite interpretation, it seems. The world of Labor has voices, though, and these voices are generally moving away from centrist ideas and toward the left away from the Liberal Compromise of the 1950's and 1960's.

If there ever was a Liberal Compromise, it was a me'lange of forces in American public life that included the burgeoning middle classes, an educated elite drawn mostly from the middle and upper middle classes, educated persons from the moneyed classes, a very few captains of industry, and mostly working people and their spouses, the lower strata of society generally modestly educated, modestly housed, poorly insured against medical or other contingencies, many were naturalized immigrant citizens, people of all religions, but most of those who counted themselves as Jews, Catholics, and certain Protestant sects. The uniting factor was a belief that the existing American society did not have to be like the wild, omnivorous beast that caused the Great Depression and it did not have to be socialistic, but rather could be tamed by the federal government so that people could hope for a decent living and better opportunities for themselves and their off-spring over time.

The "compromise" of politics after WWII was a tacit agreement by Labor in the aftermath of major labor unrest, particularly among steel workers and miners, to not move more Leftward. Labor had threatened in decades prior to WWII to move wholesale into socialism, a position that fit poorly with the strident anti-Communism of the first decade of the Cold War. In fact, one should think of the it the other way around. Once there seemed to be movement in the recently joined AFL-CIO toward the political Center, the conservative corporatists built up their rhetoric about Communism and not-so-gently prodded the Left toward Center. If you were thinking that the McCarthy Era was about spies in the Department of State, think again, it was a phenomenon directly and intimately associated with the "Compromise."

The "compromise" of economics was the key. When it appeared that the majority of the electorate would not vote for wholesale nationalization of key industries ... or at least the politics of socialist radicals ... then the heat was off capitalism for a spell, and corporate leaders were only too ready to accommodate, to bring the upper echelons of workers into the fold with various concessions on wage and benefits agreements to insure that nationalization never occurred. The compromise turned out to be the beginning of a slow but steady process of coöpting labor and disengaging it from its historical roots and philosophies. In some ways the so-called American Dream was called into play, and it became commonplace for persons of the Left to see themselves evolving into persons of the Center or the Right as they scaled the economic ladder. They seemed not to notice that the ladder was missing some rungs near the top and that it was moved from time to time shaking loose the more precariously perched climbers.

It should be said that the agricultural South in those days was, except for some notable exceptions, a backwater region governed by rampant racism left over from Reconstruction and forming the outlines and filling in the body of local politics. So, the old Roosevelt coalition, that is, the Progressives in league with big Labor, adopted the middle and lower classes in the South for a separate compromise: the national party would move slowly (if at all) on race issues in exchange for which the South would vote Democratic on all other issues.

There is no question that the old Roosevelt coalition already had begun to founder in 1954 with the Supreme Court decision on Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS. Dixiecrats had been irritated at Truman for his integration of the Armed Forces and generally inhospitable view of Jim Crow and Lynch Law. They were now outraged and used the Congressional seniority system as a delaying action against their inevitable bolt from the Democratic Party. By the time the 1964 Civil Rights Act had been signed, Lyndon Johnson knew that the Roosevelt coalition was dead, but he underestimated the power of racism, and gambled that what Democrats lost on one side of the race equation, they would pick up among liberal Republicans, independents, and racial minorities on the other side in other regions. In some respects this Faustian bargain has been playing out ever since, with Republicans taking ugly advantage of disaffection in the deep South and among those in other regions with a knack for bigotry.

By the time the ill-fated war in Vietnam had wound to a close, the specter of the military industrial complex, that is, the total coöptation of labor and Democratic politics into the thrall of industrialism and corporate hegemony was all but complete. Had Nixon not been such a paranoid crook, the Republicans would have consolidated their corporate ideology even more solidly and things would be a lot different today in many of the same ways. We would be a somewhat kinder and gentler plutocracy, for the likes of Tom DeLay might never have emerged to press the corporate hegemony as strongly as he and his minions believe that it must.

Today labor barely understands that it has been coöpted and scarcely remembers from the old leaders in the IWW and European socialism that in a capitalistic society Labor is a commodity. Thanks to the perfidy of union leadership during this epoch the coöptation effectively decapitated Labor and left it swinging in the wind. Time and again we hear the agonies of workers whose pension plans have gone up in smoke either from the ineptitude and crookedness of union leaders or for the same reasons but by corporate pension administrators, whose only interest was to get pensions out of the unions ... not so much to actually pay off when workers retired. We hear their moans when jobs move off shore permanently leaving whole towns bereft of income, leaving whole populations wondering why they were loyal to these corporations. It never occurred to people moving up the social strata with blue collars that the old Liberal Compromise had become the ugly coöptation.

Did the Liberal Compromise ever work? In an ironic sense it worked very well during the 1950's and on into the 1960's for a while. It was a noble attempt to harness capitalism with the Liberal Ethic, our masthead principles of Individual Liberty, Humanity, Progress, Ethics, and the Rule of Law. Harnessing capitalism is a precariously hazardous mission, though. Corporate capitalism is fierce and powerful and able to buy nearly anything it wants. Certainly governments are bought and sold right before our bleary eyes and we are helpless in our poverty of imagination to do much about it. Now plutocracy has welded government to the interests of corporations so that "regulatory" agencies are nothing but promotion tools for the industries they are meant to supervise.

The current debate within Labor has not yet gotten into the Left Blogosphere in a significant way. The quasi-socialists (or let's call them Anti-Corporationists) have not yet mustered up the courage to envision a polity in which corporations are stripped down to the bare essentials. The demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, had it actually been the work of Ron Reagan, would be much less a burden to the Left imagination than it is for the real reasons for its demise. Soviet socialism, statist, centrally controlled, and terribly undercapitalized simply did not work and could not compete. There are lots of reasons it did not work, but authoritarianism is both a reason and not. The American Left has had to take into account the presumptive bankruptcy of ideology on the far left. Corporate media perpetuates this notion as strongly as it perpetuated the Red Scare of the early 1950's, including of course the collateral dogma about the godlessness of communism. Meanwhile, the Left now sees that it needs room to its Left so that it can maneuver without going into the Center and humiliating itself.

Ultimately the fortunes of Liberalism will be tied to an economic theory or dogma of one kind or another. If Liberalism is confined by energetic Capitalism it will decay from misuse and neglect of the Rule of Law and Ethical standards for neither of these are implicit in corporate Capitalism. Progress will be redefined by corporations. Humanitarian goals will recede toward tokenism, and (as we have already seen) Individual Liberties will erode under the jackboots of the corporate rank and file. As corporations own more and more of the government the political system will more and more closely resemble that form of state-assisted capitalism we call Fascism. America will become a select bundle of sticks representing the several key industrial groups of the nation bound together by the force of federal law into a formidable economic structure in which effective democracy disappears entirely.

If Liberalism is tied to Socialism it will fair much better, I am sure, but there will be distortions affecting Individual Liberties, especially relating to the public use of private property. Humanitarian goals will be the centerpiece of a Liberal Socialist regime, with progress in human affairs accellerated, but always subject to an inertia that critics will call "leveling" and apologists will correctly describe as "helping those who cannot help themselves." The Ethics of Socialism will be more congruent with Judeo-Christian principles, but detractors will claim the opposite, citing the abuses of bureaucracy. And, the Rule of Liberal Socialist Law will be difficult to achieve in an evolutionary timeframe. America does not have a strong tradition of cooperative enterprise ... notable exceptions in the agricultural sector, of course ... so much of the gelding of corporations will seem to be revolutionary, and the uproar from it will be disconcerting and perhaps destructive.

None of these or any intermediate positions that might be achieved takes place de novo or in vacuo, there are traditions and dogmas and aesthetics to consider and there is the world economy in which our efforts are embedded. Nevertheless, America is still (in some quarters) looked upon as a leading possibility for positive valence change. We must shed the crippling notion that deity prefers America for any purpose or goal, however, and with that conceit we must trash all of the acutrements of the "New Jerusalem," the "City on the Hill," the arrogance of militarism and industrialism. This does not mean, by the way, that we lay down our arms and let petty tyrants tread on us. It means that we reorganize the military, reënact universal conscription, and cast our lot with fair-minded and humanitarian peoples on every continent and in the United Nations.

If the George W. Bush regime has done nothing else positive, it has forced Labor and the "intellectuals" to brush themselves off and take stock of assumptions that evolved under and from the old Liberal Compromise. We have learned that you cannot ever trust corporations to act ethically or in any way responsible to the principles of Democracy and Liberty and Humanity. Accordingly, to paraphrase T.H.White in The Once and Future King, "Mordred must be slain!" We Socialists and Anti-Corporationists now have the burden of righting this ship and steering it onto a Progressive course. And, we are now free of our preconceptions and illusions. We know what the problem is and that is half the battle.

James Richard Brett
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James R. Brett, Ph.D. taught Russian History before (and during) a long stint as an academic administrator in faculty research administration. His academic interests are the modern period of Russian History since Peter the Great, Chinese (more...)

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