Friday, December 30, 2005

Oppressive Thoughts

As I begin this tome, I want to make something clear. I am not a socialists. And I'm not a capitalist. My belief is the optimum economic model for our country is a seamless blending of the two. Capitalism is important in providing incentive and innovation. Socialism offers fairness and equal opportunity. Since the Depression, the United States has done a relatively fine job of blending the two, creating the first world-wide middle class in history, and affluence beyond anyone's wildest dreams.


The past decade or so of politics has been particularly fasinating for me. As a total political junkie, I've watched the unfolding events with great interest. Through it all, one question has kept popping up in my mind (over and over and over):
How can voters support Republican policies, and specifically George Bush? The case against Bush is so incredibly crystal clear, I'm continually confounded by his supporters. Why?

On Perps and Tribes

Two of my favorite bloggers, Digby and Arthur Silber, have through various posts addressed this question. I'm going to briefly summarize my understanding of their positions here. Please go read them. (Note: Silber may be closing his blog down so links may be termporary). My clumsy summaries will do no serious justice to their thoughts which are spot on.

Arthur Silber has written a series of posts which he is fortunately recreating on his new site. One of them is here, containing many links to his others posts. In short, Arthur examines the Bush policies and support for those policies through the prism of childhood abuse. He contends (and I certainly agree) that the brutality of our society and current leadership is rooted in the integration of, and acceptance as normal of the pain, dissociation, and disillusionment of abused children who have grown into adulthood. His perspective is certainly one I've personally confirmed in the sphere of individuals, families and small organizations.

Digby has (through various posts like this one) discussed the unreasonable adherence to self-defeating politicians in terms of tribalism. In short Digby discusses how the need to affiliate with individuals who share common values leads to the ability to rationalize policy positions consistent with the tribe. He shows how the old south (geographically and emotionally) is one such large tribal unit, and how current politics is a continuation of the fight over the original sin of the United States slavery.

I'd like to take a look at this voter behavior from a very similar, but slightly different perspective.

The Economics of Oppression

I've been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin's book, A Team of Rivals . On pg. 133 she quotes from a speech given by William Henry Seward in 1850:
"There are two antagonistical elements of society in America", Seward had proclaimed, "freedom and slavery. Freedom is in harmony with our system of government and with the spirit of the age, and is therefore passive and quiescent. Slavery is in conflict with that system, with justice, and with humanity, and is therefore organized, defensive, active, and perpetually aggressive". Free labor, he said, demands universal suffrage and the widespread "diffusion of knowledge". The slave-based system, by contrast, "cherishes ignorance because it is the only security for oppression". [emphasis added] Sectional conflict, Seward warned, would inevitably arise from these two intrinsically different economic systems, which were producing dangerously divergent cultures, values, and assumptions.
Seward lays out an economic principle that stands today despite the civil war, civil rights movement, labor movement, and various Constitutional amendments. He also identifies an underlying principle for the current ideology war between Democrats and Republicans.

A portion of the United States was built on the economics of oppression ... slavery as free labor to build wealth in the south. The only way for slave holders to rationalize owning slaves is to internalize the value of seeing slaves as "unequal", or to take a "the end justifies the means" attitude towards their own economic well-being. In contrast, a portion of the United States was built on the idea of freedom/equality, with workers seen as citizens who are paid for their works. Citizens of this portion of the country/economy internalized the values of equality and freedom into their daily work lives, and into their culture.

The underlying premise of each approach to the split regional economics revolves around the acceptablity of oppression for economic gain. Beginning with the founding father's constitutional compromises, the idea of oppression as an acceptable economic principle has been ingrained in a portion of the United States psych since inception, nevermind the hypocrisy associated with these same Americans roundly hating to be oppressed themselves.

Before I continue, allow a disclaimer. I have no illusions about the quality of life for the 1850's working man in the north. There were abusive conditions, indentured servants, lousy wages and all manner of attempt to maximize the use of human capital. Still, the underlying premise of the worker was different. It's one thing to abuse a worker, it's another to own a worker. And progressives have led the fight ever since to improve the workers rights and condition throughout the United States.

Despite the issue of slavery technically being settled with the civil war, the underlying competing views of human capital continues today. And throughout our history and the many compromises to try and reconcile these two views, none has held and we continue to fight over it to this day. But ironically, the political parties that represent each side have switched 180 degrees since then. In 1850, it was the Democratic party representing the slaveholders, rural interests, and monied (the oppressors). The Whigs, later the Republicans, were the party of abolition, the growing industrial interests, and the north (freedom/equality).

A Tale of Two Towns

I want to tell you a brief story to illustrate the differences in northern vs. southern values. A book came out a year or so ago, "The King of California". This book alone could justify and series of blog posts, but I want to focus on just one aspect brought out by the authors.

In a nutshell, "The King of California is about the Boswell family. The Boswell family relocated from Georgia in the early 1900's to the small, and thriving, community of Corcoran California. The Boswell's brought with them the technology for growing cotton, and the penchant for using oppressive labor, political and cultural techniques to build the largest farm business in the world. Long story very short, the Boswell family has significanlty influenced U.S. and California politics while dominating Kings County and the town of Corcoran ever since, essentially making it a company town. The modern day legacy is a virtual ghost town of few merchants, few businesses, a few mega rich who occasionally visit, and many poor farm workers. The residents are surrounded by over 100,000 (yes thousand) acres of cotton which is grown in a former lakebed, now desert, that is irrigated with water brought from the Sierra Nevada (incidently, brought at tax payer expense). The Boswell company is still privately held and is one of the largest, most influencial political forces you've never heard of. Again, the story of the development of the Boswell empire is fasinating and worth the read. As a side note for your southern Californians, it's estimated that Boswell can, and likely will, ultimately sell it's water rights to southern California for over $3 Billion (with a B).

In contrast, the town of Reedley California is located approximately 50 miles from Corcoran. It, too, is a small farming community with a long history. It derives it's water and labor from the same sources. However in Reedley, no single family, crop, or cultural entity has ever gained a dominating foothold. Instead, the area is riddled with a number of competitive family farms or small farming businesses. No farm labor is luxuriously paid, but laborers have many more options in Reedley. The result of a more diverse, and free labor oriented environment is a thriving downtown community with many competing small businesses, a growing population, an attractive community, and a middle class.

So What About George?

George Bush won the election of 2004 by cobbling together a voting block anchored by the wealthy, the white upper middle-class, the religious right, and corporate interests. Bush's campaign was well funded and strongly supported with grassroots action by true believers. What is it that all these groups share? And why would those of less economic means, the oppressed themselves, blithely support Bush?

Belief in oppression. And this includes an ingrained belief that being oppressed is the normal state of affairs. Silber would call it the perpetrators abusing without cognizance, and the traumatized accepting their lot (trauma-bond). Digby would call it the members of the tribe who share common experiences and beliefs, hanging together (literally). Whether it's the affluent "I've got mine" attitude, the corporate "what's good for corporations is good for America" or the pious "we're right" religious right. All are based on the oppression of others and the denial of their perpetration.

Take the religious right. They don't want co-existence with other dissparate groups. They want it their way because it for "your own good".

Sounds like a slave holder to me.

How about Wal-Mart's terrible working conditions, poor pay, and poor benefits that are really little more than indentured servants in communities where workers have few choices. And Republican legislation? Let's see, the Patriot Act, tax cuts, deficit spending, energy policies, Terry Schiavo, NSA spying, and on and on. At the root of the legislative agenda is to oppress others in a paternalistic way for personal economic gain among the powerful.

Take a look at Democratic policies. Whether it's health insurance, social security, government budgets, labor laws (to name a few), the legislative agenda is different. Democratic policies are, in general, about trying to help the greater number lift themselves economically rather than be oppressed. Indeed, the modern Democratic party born during the New Deal was all about creating a middle class in a country made up of haves, and have nots.

And as far as business? Well all know that there are dramatic differences in treatment depending on your employer. Contrast the WalMart employee with the Costco employee. Costco is a company that delivers a capitalist dream of massive amounts of goods across the nation at very competitive prices while still paying it's employees well, including a benefits package that's the envy of many workers, nevermind the envy of retail workers.


Arthur Silber points out the importance of confronting our abusive society as a way toward progressivism. Digby notes that appealing to our tribal instincts is important in messaging and organizing our politics. I would like to add another element to these astute observations.

I contend that the United States has reverted since the Reagan years to the domination of oppressive values that were common in the pre-civil war, and pre-depression periods. In both instances, it took economic abuses at unprecedented levels by those in power to energize populist uprisings. Progressives need to re-energize any and all movements that strengthen the economic rights and positions of our population. We need to message these movements in a way that point out our positive heritage of freedom, individuality, and equality .... the patriotism of individual freedom vs. oppression. The general population needs to be disabused of the well-sold messages of "trickle-down" economics and "what's good for (fill in the corporate blank) is good for America". And most importantly, we need to dispute the other well-sold GOP idea that government is the problem, not the solution.

One particular instrument that needs focus is the renewal of the labor movement. Unionize those businesses that refuse to act responsibly with their employer responsibilities while crafting/supporting legislation that continues to advance workers rights.

Finally, the left also needs images that convey the corruption of oppression, and virtue of freedom. For example, how about the patriotic portrayal of James Stewart in the 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington , a dramatic and patriotic story in which a naive local is appointed to the Senate where he finds corruption, even by his mentor. Throughout the movie, Stewart, a heroic Mr. Smith, repeatedly hammers home the virtues of being in support of real American ideals and fighting against the corruption of power. Compare this to the common scenes in the recently popular television show, "24", in which the hero routinely uses an "end justifies the means" approach to problem solving, including torture, to rescue the free world from the scrouges of terrorists. Where are our media portrayals of hero's who fight against corruption such as that epitomized by the Bush administration? All The Presidents Men is the last such portrayal that comes to mind (ironically).

I hope we don't require a civil war or economic collapse to energize the average person to move away from the domination of that half of our economic roots that was allowed to survive by the founding fathers. I think history has shown not only that economic oppression is wrong, but that it also does not work as a successful political/economic model. I believe that in the long run, it's doomed to fail. I simply hope that too much damage isn't done before getting there.


At 2:04 PM, Blogger Lynne said...

Sadly, there doesn't seem to be a vehicle for promoting change. The church used to champion the cause of the disadvantaged, but much of organized religion seems to goosestep to the tune of the powerful.
I do have hope that things are changing in this regard, mainly due to the activities of groups like Sojourners

On other fronts I see hope in groups like Veterans for Peace and the activities of Cindy Sheehan.

We will get there. Never in mankind's history has an oppresive government lasted. Rome fell. Nazi Germany fell. Imperialist Japan fell. The oppressive regimes in the Middle East are under fire. America is probably in for a hard time, but I believe the tide will turn and the people will take back this country.

At 5:24 AM, Blogger Debra said...

Thanks for clearing that up for me. My authority issues are so intense that I thought it was just me that perceived the lemmingeffect.
I hadn't really thought about the slavery issue, but that really put things into perspective for me.

Thank you.


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