The working class comes in for criticism, much of it justified. It is, for one thing, arrogant in its ignorance. Dont take my word for it. Go into any working-class bar, order a beer and spend a little time listening. After a while you will want to scream that there are libraries, for Gods sake, and they are free and public. It is excruciating for anyone in the working class who, like me, was raised to believe that we are all born ignorant but that it is up to each of us to do something about it. It is as if we think that we are entitled to have learned nothing of the world around us or our own history, and yet somehow live like kings.
It is militarist. Partly this comes from the fact that it is the working class that fights the nations wars, wars that are caused mostly by other people, those with religious or financial irons in the fire. Adding to this is the fact that increasingly, the military provides the only opportunity for a decent living for any without extensive education and/or connections in the business world. The working class is by any measure, the most overtly patriotic segment of society, which could be thought of as an attempt to make lemonade out of lemons. Certainly it is not difficult to detect in working class patriotic pride the undercurrent of resentment engendered by the feeling that the rest of society owes us for our sacrifices of time, health and sometimes life itself in the nations wars.
It has trouble recognizing itself. It was the working class that sat on rooftops in New Orleans waiting mostly in vain to be rescued. But since that was the black version of it, the white working class was free to indulge itself in its usual fantasies about welfare cheats and freeloaders. It is difficult to estimate how much stronger the working class might be, or how much more effective organized labor if it were not for this tendency of ours to be led around by our racial hatred and fear.
These traits did not just happen. They have been built in reaction to found circumstances over the course of many centuries. Labor or working class as understandable constructs developed out of the peasant class as a necessary support for market capitalism and industrialism over the course of several centuries 500 plus years ago. This development appears to have been aided by the Church, which, in order to stave off further deterioration in its dominant position in society, cut a deal with the developing economic elites giving industry more or less complete control over the people in all things economic, in return for their regular attendance at services and the possibility of a few coins for the collection. Thus began the segmentation of the human spirit. The Church today still views itself in this way, speaking to every aspect of human life but the economic, with the exception of the Anabaptist sects and the Quakers.
Capitalism succeeded in part by segmenting the human even further, this time mainly into the worker/producer and the consumer. Henry Ford held these two aspects in an uneasy balance when he talked about the need for his workers to be well-enough paid to be able to afford to buy his cars. Labor since then is expected to show up, work hard for 8-12 hours a day for stagnant wages and then spend like a drunken sailor on weekends, while doing a decent job of raising the kids that will be the next docile cogs in the industrial wheel. But industry has since tipped that balance by use of the idea of global commerce, which enables it to exploit one group as workers (Mexicans, Chinese) while it uses another (Americans) as consumers. It has not figured out yet how to keep non-working Americans wealthy enough to buy or overworking Chinese docile enough to keep the machinery running.
Now industry is busy preaching the sermon that all reality is economic, that humans are merely economic animals, with no recourse to any other emotional or spiritual foundation. Not content with merely segmenting us to improve our usefulness, we have now been reduced. The Church, as usual, is mostly silent.
This economic edifice has been built upon the destruction of the human spirit. This is why the arrogant ignorance. Folks are reacting to the despair which tells them that nothing they can do will improve their situation, and in particular, that they cannot improve their situation by trying to improve their understanding of it. Huge forces beyond their power to control are in charge and helplessness is the order of the day. The reaction is empty boasting and the endless feeding of a false and desperate arrogance.
This is why the love of the military, because when one has given up on the idea of having any other impact on life, the power and violence associated with the military has appeal. It enables one to be part of a huge force which puts others under control, even if that control does not involve any particular benefit to those doing the nasty work of imposing it.
And this is why we hate so well and so reflexively. We hate anyone who we perceive as getting any kind of advantage over us because we have learned well over the past centuries that anyones advantage is always our disadvantage. Separate from each other, even our own families, separate from creation itself, separate from the production of our own hands, we live in an individualist hell. No wonder so many of us are violent. And no wonder the suicide rate is so high.
I am a member of what is properly known as the peasant class. The fact that my family has always farmed and that I have spent my life doing so affords me a little protection from the abrasiveness and destructiveness of the spirit that life as a worker in a society that does not value work entails. It also gives me the opportunity to be involved in what can only be called the new agriculture.
Some of the fundamentals of this approach to farming and food can be seen as a direct rejection of the straightjacket all of us less than wealthy humans have been wearing for centuries. Take for instance, the linking of farm production with marketing. It is born of an insistence upon control of production and the determination to make the income return to the work of production. Not accidentally, it also makes necessary a cooperation between at least two people, as good producers are rarely good marketers.
Considerable thought is being expended upon making sure this new relationship does not deteriorate into a situation where one group owns the production of the other. We have had five centuries worth of that. It is time for a new thought.
Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn.
From The Progressive Populist, October 15, 2010
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