Loss of a Way of Life Creates Desperation


Cliven Bundy, I believe, is a thief. I know this in the most immediate possible way. Bundy thinks he can graze his cattle free on federal land while my cattle graze on deeded acres, land which the county and school district are not shy about assessing for financial support. This violates a central tenet of capitalism — that the “game” must be fair — as well as the US federal code. And Bundy is not a petty thief. He marshaled a group of armed accomplices, which makes it armed robbery. For most of us, and especially if our skin is black or brown, this would mean a considerable stint in the federal penitentiary. Those armed accomplices turned their weapons on the federal agents. Again, for most of us, the penalty for armed defiance of the state police power is the opportunity to lie in the street, bodies bloody and broken. Yet Bundy walks free and unhurt.

I know there are high sounding arguments in favor of what he did. Those arguments are bunkum. I am as full of libertarian tendencies as the next fellow, much of it coming from the accurate perception that the government does nothing to enforce any economic justice for small and midsized farmers. But if Bundy really does not believe in the federal government and its right to charge him for grazing his cattle on taxpayer land, the proper approach is the one used by war draft and war tax protesters for many years and that is to present himself to be arrested for his refusal to pay and prepare to do his time in the Federal pen. Instead, he brandishes firearms, encourages others to do likewise and talks about Second Amendment solutions. He needs to eat his supper, and many more following, behind bars.

But what of the people that so easily show up waving guns around in defense of an obvious crook? Who are they? Well, they are mostly white and mostly male. These facts lead to much theorizing about the coming demise of the white patriarchy and the crazy responses caused by that fact. But this is well-mined territory and needs to be left to those inclined to pop psychology and trendy answers to current social turmoil. Far more interesting and instructive is the insight that “forty acres and a mule,” the cry of the freed slaves in the 1880s, lost out for lack of justice enforcement by the government not just because the beneficiaries of the idea were black, but also because they were small.

“Smallness” is a minor working class virtue, necessarily so because workers are pretty much never wealthy enough to be “large” in any manner. Small farmers aren’t either. It joins other words like thrift, quality, care, neighborliness and duty and integrity in support of the major working class virtue, “work.” The most important fact about Bundy’s posse of dangerous men may well be not that they are male or white, but that they are all working class in origin. There is no need to puzzle over the meaning of working class; anyone who works or has worked for a living is working class and any whose money works for their living are owners. About 80 or 85 percent of the population of all colors are working class. Maybe more, depending upon how you count savings accounts bearing less than 1% interest.

The idea of work as a useful way of life has been destroyed in my lifetime. Hear it already in the1960s: “Willard got nice clean work after college, he’s inside and wears a suit.” It was possible yet in those times for a farm kid to go to a rural high school and achieve acceptable standing on the basis that he could get physical work done at home on the farm. Not so for my son 25 years later and even less so for my grandsons today. Psychically, they are on their own.

Fear of physical work has been built in us farmers for several generations now as an advertising ploy. It sells machines. This has changed us, perhaps to the point where we like the rest of the country can accept Democrats officially opposing work. Clinton pushed the job loss accelerator to the floor with NAFTA already two decades ago. Our country loses jobs the way a stuck hog does blood. And always the jobs are replaced, if they are, with those less desirable and lower in pay. Now Obama is bent on signing two more of those despicable trade agreements with the Pacific Rim countries. More jobs gone. These things are nothing but market protection for the rich and powerful, like the drug companies with their patent monopolies. And always, one of the protections desired by the owner class is plentiful cheap labor. And yet income from investment (money) is taxed at one half the rate of income from work. Some government referee!

Working people have no voice. The Democrats have abandoned them and the Republicans never did speak up on their behalf. Both parties are wholly owned Wall Street toadies today, with very few individuals excepted. Sure, Obama will get his trade agreements through Congress. Wall Street wants them. With the loss of industrial jobs, union power with its support for decent wages and benefits has shrunk to nothing. The various “public” unions, teachers and state employees are largely people who were never completely on board with unionism anyhow and are pretty easily pushed around. Control of what is left of organized labor will not involve anything so serious as selling out the industrial base of the country, which of course has already been done.

We can now see Nixon-era Agriculture Secretary Earl Butz’s vicious formula for dealing with displaced farmers expanded and made to fit the entire working population. “Seek retraining,” the jobless are told, “and get into another line of work.” But joblessness does not equal stupidity. Most can see that the new job will pay less and feature more power for the boss than the old one did. And kids are beginning to catch on to the college scam and see that there is little hope in accruing a large debt to acquire what is increasingly called job training for jobs that are mostly not there. Congress calls the poor and working class shiftless moochers. But how many of the men playing with guns at the Bundy standoff had parents whose jobs afforded them a house and regular vacations? And how many find themselves in that kind of situation today?

Dispossession is a dangerous thing. Especially is this so when it happens quickly enough that the children can see that what their parents had is being taken away from them.

It is this pressure that brings about events like the Bundy standoff. That violent behavior cannot be generalized to the working class, but it is in fact coming out of the working class and it is imperative we see it for what it is. It is men (and women) who see no other avenue coupled with a government that cannot bring them under control due to its own lack of moral authority.

We are ripe for real trouble. It is difficult not to feel that an Adolf waits in the wings.

Jim Van Der Pol farms near Kerkhoven, Minn. A collection of his columns, Conversations with the Land, was published by No Bull Press (nobullpressonline.com).

From The Progressive Populist, September 15, 2014


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