perplexed European asked me a question: Why, she asked, have there
been no general strikes in America to end its aggression in the Middle
East? Why, she asked, are Americans so unwilling to force their
government do what must be done?
These are not new questions. Everyone
with an inkling of history and a modest awareness of international
news realizes that Americans, completely contrary to the foundation
myth of the American Revolution, are incredibly docile. It stings,
however, when someone from the outside points out an obvious
Citizens of other industrialized countries are able to organize
national actions to achieve common goals. Americans at the university,
labor, middle class and working class levels, however, seem to be
utterly impotent and thoroughly disorganized in any long-term,
coordinated endeavor that extends beyond electoral politics. We
literally struggle to organize coordinated national events.
A general strike is one of the most powerful tools of non-violent
civil disobedience. In a general strike all work stops, businesses
shut down, consumers do not spend money, teachers and students stay
away from school, employees call in sick, lawyers do not try cases,
assembly line workers do not assemble, teamsters park their rigs,
pilots do not fly, doctors practice only emergency medicine, and
commerce grinds to a halt. General strikes are not violent, but they
cause tremendous economic hurt. When properly coordinated and
prepared, they are very persuasive. General strikes have toppled
governments, such as in Argentina, and they have prevented the
implementation of anti-labor legislation, most notably in France and
Some argue that Americans are simply too economically comfortable to
participate in any political action more strenuous that penciling an X
on a ballot. That cannot be the answer. Indeed, the notion that
Americans live better than everyone else is part of our national
mythology. Although many Americans reside in spacious (and heavily
mortgaged) houses and, by incurring massive debt, own lots of "stuff",
citizens of several European industrialized nations live, on average,
healthier, more secure lives and work far fewer hours than most
Americans. Certain Asian countries are not far behind. Notwithstanding
their better living conditions, Germans, French, Italians and
Spaniards, for example, are still more willing to take concerted
political action than are Americans.
There are several reasons for Americans' complacency and Europeans'
The Legacy of Slavery
Labor often takes the political lead in Europe, but not in the United
States. The historical fact of American slavery has resulted in an
easily manipulable working class, particularly one that is comprised
of ethnically diverse peoples. By exploiting superficial racial
phenotypes, big business interests have turned American workers one
against the other.
In the nation's first hundred years, slavery was a mechanism for
controlling "free labor". After emancipation, freed slaves (though
hardly free in any real sense of the term) were used as a cheap labor
reserve that both in the South and in the North was manipulated to
hold back wages all across the industrial horizon, from Black to
White. By inciting White workers to extreme racial animus against
Black "competitors", business interests succeeded in preventing the
creation of a unified labor front that could have benefited everyone
Subsequently, poor European immigrants, women and children have been
exploited in the United States for the same reason and in the same
way, just as were immigrant laborers imported from China and the
Philippines during the industrial expansion of the late 19th Century.
The entire American immigration policy of the 19th Century was an
effort to control wages by bringing in cheap labor from overseas, much
as "globalized" labor is used today.
In the 21st Century, migrant workers from Mexico, Haiti and Central
America now serve the government sanctioned role of restraining wage
growth among America's assembly line, service and agricultural working
groups. Contrary to the more infamous immigrant xenophobes of the
Republican Party, big business owners in the United States prefer a
legalized "guest worker" system. That "guest worker" system would
permit cheap labor to temporarily enter the United States while
preserving the option of throwing that cheap labor away whenever it
gets injured, old or demands fair wages or benefits. Furthermore, the
neoliberal globalization of capital permits businesses to move rapidly
around the globe pursuing the cheapest labor and the fewest
regulations, thus adding to the wage-depressing effect. Although the
best defense against such wage-depressing tactics would be to improve
everyone's working conditions world wide, American labor has, instead,
been led down the path of trying to protect its own turf by defending
against both immigration and the outsourcing of jobs.
The net effect of these intentionally debilitating efforts has been
the lack of pan-labor cohesion that characterizes the American working
class. In a sense, American labor's class consciousness has been
lobotomized. Labor in America tends to be parochial -- it has been
trained, by centuries of racism seeded from above, to shun
coordination with workers from different parts of the world. In sum,
by taking the bait of racism, American workers have repeatedly
manacled their own legs and ensured their own, and all other labor
movements', feebleness as a political force.
But the legacy of slavery is not enough, by itself, to explain the
The Conspiracy Against The Working Class
In the late 19th and early to mid 20th Centuries certain active labor
unions (like the West Coast Longshoremen led by Harry Bridges, the
early Steel Workers, the early UAW, United Mineworkers and Cesar
Chavez's United Farmworkers) were able to coordinate industry wide or
regional strikes. The assertiveness and the successes of these
activist unions scared the pants off the ownership class. As
documented by Alex Carey in
Taking the Risk Out of Democracy and by
Australian university professor
Sharon Beder in her books and articles about corporate and
professional power relationships, business interests in the United
States, such as the Business Roundtable and the National Association
of Manufacturers (NAM), embarked on a long-term program, a true
conspiracy to "educate" the American public about the benefits of
capitalism and the evils of democracy, socialism and unionism. It was
a well-oiled, well-financed campaign, and, in part, it was a
counter-reformist reaction to the increasingly socialized community
that was evolving in Europe after WWII. The decades-long propaganda
(1) effort continues today through the efforts of
NAM's sister organization for the services industries, the ISM
(Institute for Supply Management). Joining the pro-capitalism
propaganda campaign are many of America's best known reactionary
"think tanks" like the American Enterprise Institute, the Hoover
Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Discovery Institute and
various large and ostensibly benevolent "funding institutions" on whom
so many non-profit organizations depend financially.
The concerted effort was highly successful in subverting the American
school curriculum, the mass media and American popular culture. By the
1950s, a majority of Americans thought it proper for the federal
government to intervene on behalf of big business to "break" national
strikes. The most well known modern example of these types of
manipulation was Ronald Reagan's mass firing of the air traffic
controllers in the 1981 PATCO strike and his use of military air
controllers and non-union controllers to destroy the union. Reagan's
aggressive use of the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act -- a thoroughly
labor-hostile statute that persists even to the present day -- was
actually applauded by the majority of Americans who, thanks to many
years of cultural indoctrination, identified more with the interests
of big business than with their own class interests.
Whereas many labor unions in Europe have socialist or communist
affinities, contemporary American labor unions have been cowed by the
well financed and ceaseless barrage of pro-capitalist propaganda. As a
result, they avoid any political alliance more meaningful than the
slightly less business-oriented Democratic Party.
Thus have the ownership class in America, through a concerted campaign
of "education" and misinformation, succeeded in steering the American
public away from the allure of European style union activism.
But the legacy of slavery and the conspiracy against workers alone
cannot account for Americans' lack of political focus.
Religion as Antidote to Politics
Religion holds the greatest sway over the least politically thoughtful
peoples. This is not an accident. The particular flavor of religion
that dominates in the United States generally preaches doctrines of
pacifism, obedience to authority and a focus on rewards in a life
after death. It promotes a culture of minimal secular resistance and
maximal secular resignation.
With a strong focus on otherworldliness, passivity and subservience,
it is no mystery why American culture and class politics favor
religious institutions. In absolute violation of 1st Amendment
prohibitions, churches are granted tax concessions, they receiving
federal funding through "faith based" initiatives and are otherwise
supported as the main social structure of American society.
Curiously, notwithstanding its overt religiosity, American society is
extremely violent in sports, sexual relationships, and crime. More
curiously, beneath the religious veneer of submission,
self-abnegation, sacrifice and spirituality lies a capitalist economic
system that rewards violence, aggression, materialism,
colonialism, self aggrandizement, selfishness and duplicity. The right
wing "muscular" religious movements that have manifested themselves
from time to time in United States history are amalgams of all of the
social vices described above, plus racism wrapped in "patriotism",
together with the traditional religious submission to secular
authority. These "muscular" religious movements often work in silent
partnership with ownership interests in the spheres of big business
and politics, often to the disservice of the very people who make up
the majority of these movements' lay membership.
Not all religious institutions are the same. Since the end of the
anti-war movement of the Vietnam War era, the stamp of the moderately
"liberal" religious wing has marked many of the "activist" movements
in the United States. Although there is nothing wrong with polite
protest, modest acts of very civil disobedience and cordial petitions
to government authorities to do the right things, they have been, more
often than not, ineffective. The mythology of meekly petitioning the
government to seek redress comports well with the predominant American
church mainstream and it has completely overshadowed the concept of
the civil servant as the people's servant. In other words, the
moderately liberal church-led form of civil protest prays for relief
just like supplicants would pray for God's intercession -- on
bended knee. They demand nothing and they would never dream
of organizing a national general strike any more than they would
threaten their ministers or God herself.
Unfortunately, nations like the United States that have a strong
religious bias are also more oriented toward arguments of faith than
reason. If a people are brought up to accept miracles and mysteries at
face value, then they are also susceptible to believing the miracles
and mysteries of 9-11, the official (and oft changing) rationale for
America's Wars of Middle Eastern conquest, and political authority
generally. Rendering unto Caesar what is Caesar's is not a good
foundation for demanding a better material life for the here and now.
Faith in a higher authority also marches with faith in political
authority, faith in elections and the judicial system, and an
unwillingness to believe that leaders are anything less than wise and
well-meaning. Faith can lead one blindly to accept the mysteries of
religion and, when exalted to a level of jingoism, can cause one
blindly to accept the mysteries of foreign and domestic policy.
Thus religion, as currently practiced in the United States, no matter
how ennobling of the spirit, is frequently a brake on political
activity and not the slightest threat to established power. It tends
to dissipate resistance to authority while celebrating the
wholesomeness of non-confrontational and supplicating appeals to the
other side's rather dubious souls. Over time, the spiritual approach
to politics can leave people out of practice, exhausted and wholly
unused to more vigorous (but still non violent) resistance to
authority. Eventually, as they unavailingly beat their heads against
institutional walls, citizens' aspirations and organizational skills
may atrophy, they may lose their collective social memory, lose their
momentum and lose the self-confidence necessary to assert control of
their own destinies.
In many polite American street demonstrations, church groups are in
the forefront of organization. In every European general strike, by
contrast, churches rarely play a secondary role, if any at all.
The Fear of Unemployment
Although all of the preceding causes partially explain Americans'
political timidity, probably the single biggest reason why Americans
do not take more direct actions like a general strike is their
legitimate fear of losing their livelihoods.
In those European countries where the citizens are most politically
engaged, they also enjoy the strongest social safety nets. Whereas
Americans depend on their employers for their retirement pensions,
unemployment benefits and health insurance, Europeans are generally
guaranteed all of that as basic entitlements of citizenship. These
guarantees make Europeans freer than Americans to express their
opinions and demand redress from their governments and their
The European social safety nets -- socialized medicine, free or
heavily subsidized higher education, public transportation and rich
unemployment benefits, among others -- are paid for by compressing the
range of income between the working and the management classes, taxing
excess personal and corporate income, taxing the added value of
manufactured or processed goods sold in commerce (thus placing the
highest tax burden on those who consume the most), and by NOT spending
a lot of money on the military.
It is no coincidence that when American workers were the most strident
(during the early days of the union movement), they also had the worst
working conditions and the fewest employment benefits to lose if they
were fired. Currently, any American worker who participates in a
general strike stands to lose his or her job in an anemic economy
where many jobs are low-paying service positions that provide dismal
benefits. The American striker risks not only her job, but the loss of
retirement benefits and, most importantly, health insurance for the
worker and the worker's family. European workers simply do not have to
take that risk. Whether employed or not (and their job protections are
vastly stronger than in the United States), Europeans tend to have
extended unemployment and health care benefits that mitigate the fear
Indeed, we should ask: Why was the American health care system
designed as a system of private "insurance" in the first place? Why
should the American health care system be tied to work?
Insurance makes sense for allocating risk among people who choose to
participate in certain electives like driving a car or owning a house.
Insurance is also appropriate if, upon your own death, you wish to
provide money for your family. Insurance is not a requirement of life
because you can live without a car, you can live perfectly well
without life insurance and you can rent if you will not own property.
Health care, however, is different. No matter who you are, no matter
how you live, sooner or later you will become old, sick and need
medical help. When you need medical care you will be the least able to
afford it. Why should this be a matter of private insurance? And
why should this "insurance" be tied to your job? Why do
Americans always think of health care as a matter of employer provided
"insurance" when this is not the way it works elsewhere in the world?
The answer is precisely because it ties Americans' health care
to their jobs, and by that tie so are they are also tied up. Americans
are understandably afraid to do anything that might jeopardize their
employability because there is far more at stake than just a paycheck.
That fear rules out making too many demands on employers, it rules out
doing anything that risks the stigma of arrest or criminal prosecution
and it certainly rules out the possibility of a general strike.
Americans have been chained to their jobs by the fear of losing health
benefits for themselves and their families just as medieval peasants
were tied to the land that they were forced to work for others. The
system has been rigged, brilliantly so, to make sure that American
workers are forever serfs and forever politically hamstrung.
Polls show overwhelming public support for socialized medical care
(2) in the United States, yet politicians step
gingerly all around the subject. The most that the majority of
politicians are willing to do is to expand in tiny increments the
preexisting private insurance system. For that they expect applause,
but deserve none. Retaining the existing health care structure is not
just about preserving the profit gravy train for the insurance
industry. Most importantly, it is a well crafted political
system that was designed to keep American workers in thrall, in a
state of constant insecurity, tied to their paychecks and politically
blunted. For these very reasons, the American system undoubtedly
appeals to those in other parts of the world who also would like to
weaken or dismantle their own socialized health programs in order
make their citizens as tame as Americans are.
Big business will resist any wholesale abandonment of the current
American medical care system of employer-based private health
insurance unless, in so doing, it can slough off the cost of employer
provided medical insurance and put yet another financial handcuff on
its employees. For small and family-owned businesses, however,
socialized medicine is a necessary equalizer that gives them the
ability to compete in a business landscape that is otherwise heavily
weighted in favor of huge corporations.
The European model shows that socialized medicine is essential for a
democratic society. That model also shows that it is affordable in the
United States if, as in Europe, we more tightly compress the range of
compensation between the working and the management/ownership classes,
eliminate the frictional costs associated with the private
administration of health care (3), fairly and
appropriately tax individual and corporate income especially at the
highest ranges, impose a value added tax on consumer items, eliminate
hidden government subsidies for the likes of energy conglomerates,
agribusiness and Wall Street, and, most importantly,
drastically reduce military spending.
So long as their necessities of life remain tied to their jobs,
Americans will remain docile and there will never be an American
national general strike. So long as Americans are incapable of
organizing a national general strike, they will lack one of the most
useful non-violent democratic tools to bring their own government to
heel. For the very reason that the present system perpetuates the
status quo, those people and entities who profit the most from it will
fight tooth and nail to preserve it. But for that reason alone, in
order to begin the process of freeing the American people from a
culture of political servility, everyone else should fight tooth and
nail for socialized medicine and other basic needs that are totally
and unequivocally independent of employment.
Zbignew Zingh can be reached at:
article is CopyLeft, and free to distribute, reprint, repost, sing at
a recital, spray paint, scribble in a toilet stall, etc. to your
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www.ersarts.com. copyleft 2007.
(1) The word "propaganda" derives from
the Latin and is related to the verb "to propagate", or to multiply,
disseminate or breed. In the 17th Century, Pope Urban VIII instituted
a college of Propaganda constituted to educate mission priests around
the world. "Propaganda" was a more or less neutral term until the last
century when, as part of a pro-capitalist counter-propaganda campaign,
it was "negativized" and associated with communism or socialism.
(2) Socialized medicine in the United States is known as either
"universal" health care or "single-payer" health care. The words
"socialized" or "socialist" are strictly taboo in American politics
due, in large measure, to the success of the "educational" campaigns
of the ownership class described above and the antipathy of the
religious institutions to any coherent political creed that challenges
their own cultural hegemony.
(3) The notion that the "private sector" is always more efficient than
the public sector is another myth propagated by business interests.
Because the private sector requires that "owners" extract "profit"
from an enterprise, that profit must come from someplace. It usually
comes from reduced wages of workers, higher worker "productivity" at
the cost of employee layoffs, higher consumer prices, a reduction in
the quality of goods or services or, most usually, a combination of
all four. Privatized public utility companies with their history of
providing less service at higher prices are a good example of how the
reality of private enterprise rarely matches its hype. In the field of
private health insurance, William McGuire, the CEO of UnitedHealth
Group Inc., left office last year with a retirement package worth
about $1.1 billion. That represents a lot of health care premiums and
it is but one example of the private sector's diversion of assets from
the commonwealth to personal wealth.