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Fighting the New Gilded Age


I haven’t been posting much, just as I haven’t been doing most of the normal things in my life, because of an overwhelming teaching load that has reached critical mass now that midterms and papers are stacking up. Being a slow grader does not help. So I just have to power through this, even if it means being absent from here more or less for awhile. No doubt the cold I am contracting is going to help.

On top of this, I have book promotion duties, which is great, but time-consuming. Speaking of that, I did an interview for Vice about the book, which ended up revolving quite a bit about the horrible times in which we find ourselves.

Q: When reading this, it occurred to me that if you take the sum total of American history, we are not a very labor-friendly country. How do we compare to the rest of the planet?

In the 1880s, you saw France and England beginning to merge labor politics into the national political realm. Employers were more accepting of unions. Unions would begin to play a larger part in the political establishment. And at the very same time, employers in the US are discovering new ways to crush labor, combining new trusts and things of this nature, and seeking to simply destroy unions entirely.

A big part of the reason is American mythology about individualism. The sort of “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps!” mentality is actually quite insidious, and it helps undermine any kind of class identity in America. It also gives cover for anti-labor policies. And so you have, today, the Scott Walkers of the world—he’ll basically say that unions are un-American. This idea that collective action is un-American comes out of this individualistic ideology.

Q: So, to the Scott Walkers of the world who say—implicitly or explicitly—that unions are un-American, what do you say?

That it’s just an absurdity. The idea that America and fundamentalist free-market capitalism are the exact same thing is a myth. But it’s something I’ve run into more than once in my life when giving talks to people: that criticizing capitalism as it exists is criticizing America. And that’s not even in a talk calling for socialism. As I say to people: There are many, many forms of capitalism, and in the US, especially with the incredibly pernicious influence of people like Ayn Rand on American intellectual life, today’s ideas of free-market capitalism are an inherently fundamentalist ideology, an extremist ideology of capitalism that brokers no regulation, and no basic social safety net. Which is, of course, where the Republican Party is trying to push us.

We just have to break down this idea that somehow capitalism and America are the same thing. America is many different things. America may be capitalism, in part. But America is also the Civil Rights Movement. America is also a strong socialist tradition. America is also people standing up over 200 years to fight for justice.

Q: You kick off the book with an anecdote about a Chicago teacher strike in 2016, and you write they wanted to “work and live with human dignity.” How do you define working and living with human dignity?”

Ideally, what worker power really means is being able to live a life based around the terms that you define. Your life has a certain level of comfort and your work has a certain level of comfort. So if you’re a teacher and your classroom is falling apart, and it’s 98 degrees in September, and nobody can learn, there’s no dignity that’s in there for anyone. The same [goes for] if you can’t make enough money to make ends meet. We’ve seen these teacher strikes in the last year in West Virginia and Oklahoma and in other places where teachers are talking about how they have to work two or three jobs. That’s not a dignified life—that’s a life of struggle. That’s a life where you’re just barely holding on.

While dignity is in the eye of the beholder, I think it is a world where workers can articulate the world that they want and have a reasonable chance of achieving that. And if they have the power to at least partially achieve that world, then I think they are probably living a life of relative dignity. And if they don’t, if they feel hopeless, then we have the sign of a sick society.

The thing about doing this kind of interview is that I always sound kind of awkward reading what I speak, but at least I get to the point quickly.

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