For of all sad words of tongue or pen/The saddest are these: "It might have been!" -- John Greenleaf Whittier
The 19th-century dream of a workers’ vanguard leading to a better world was both betrayed and realized, and in each case, labor was undercut. The betrayal occurred when tyrants, in advancing the cause of “the people,” actually advanced themselves. The “dictatorship of the proletariat” turned out to be mere dictatorship. Yet the discrediting of the vision of Karl Marx by the 20th-century communisms that claimed him does not vitiate the original vision. Echoing what Mahatma Gandhi once said of Christianity, Marxism has yet to be really tried.
The realization of the workers’ dream occurred, across the same decades of the 20th century, when regulated capitalism made its adjustments, and a vast population of working people was able to lay solid claim to the middle class. But affluence had an inherently co-opting effect, as was powerfully displayed during the American civil rights movement, when the labor virtue of solidarity was trumped by racism, and union members mostly found themselves on the wrong side of history. The curious phenomenon of “Reagan Democrats” saw workers recruited into a reactionary political movement that undercuts their own interests.
What would have happened at the end of the Cold War, when the expected “peace dividend” might have rescued education or rebuilt the nation’s infrastructure, if union leaders, backed by the grass-roots labor movement, had demanded an end to the Pentagon boondoggle? The conversion of a military-based economy, serving no real purpose beyond its own enrichment, to an economy of authentic productivity would have transformed foreign policy in the nick of time (no war in Iraq), and provided resources for homefront infrastructure (no failed dikes in New Orleans, or collapsed bridges in Minneapolis).
It did not happen, for a lot of reasons - one of which is the hollowed out commitment of a movement that should have known better. What this nation needs is a revitalized reason to celebrate Labor Day.
Monday, September 03, 2007
The title, Labor’s Failure, says it all, really. But I'll give you a couple of excerpts here and then ask you to go read the whole article. It's short: