Saturday, January 26, 2008

Why all the silence? An initial attempt at weaving a narrative

For a long time I have been grappling with why Americans seem so damned complacent. Even though the US is riddled with human rights abuses at home and abroad, and the lot of most of us economically has deteriorated over the past couple decades, one finds nary a protest. I've been struggling to find a narrative that would help me make sense of the 1980s to the present, and think that my readings over the last few years are helping at long last to make what seems senseless sensible.

The key to the narrative is to grasp the change in economic policies since the Raygun years, an increasingly oppressive police state, and a return of social Darwinism. I was in my mid-teens when the Raygun regime decimated the air-traffic controllers' union in the midst of its workers' strike back in 1982 by doing what seemed unthinkable - firing the striking air-traffic controllers; I was in my late teens when the UK's Thatcher regime similarly declared war on the miners' union during its strike. By attacking strong unions representing crucial sectors of their respective economies, and doing so successfully, the message was sent to workers to shut up and take what was offered. That would prove crucial to our government's ability to increasingly outsource whole industries over the next couple decades. During the roaring 80s and 90s the economy might very well have "boomed", but only for a select few. The rest of us ended up working longer hours for lower wages and less job security than our predecessors, suffering in silence in the process.

At the same time there was a major push to roll back what few gains had been made by the various civil rights movements during the 1960s and 1970s. By the 1980s we witnessed a return of talk about "law and order", of the need for a "war on drugs", and so on. As that decade wore on, we witnessed the erosion of search and seizure protections, the push for a return to the death penalty in many states, mandatory minimum sentences, and "three strikes laws" that co-occurred with the removal of whatever social safety net had been in place since the 1930s. By the time the 1980s were winding to a close, the US was already just behind the Soviet Union and South Africa in per capita prison population. The US is now currently the leader in imprisoning its residents. Not only has the prison-industrial complex exploded, but so has the use of electronic surveillance (via cameras, tracking devices, data mining, etc.). Police brutality, is also back in vogue, with all manner of high-tech gadgets including those little torture devices known as Tasers. One will not read of US leftist leaders being "disappeared" as might be the case in other dictatorships, but the subtext has been well-absorbed by many: do as you are told or else. Instead it is merely sufficient to jail them (if trumped up charges are needed, so be it), deport them, or fire them. Think about the aftermath to the May protests of 2006: as our immigrant laborers made their presence felt and asserted their humanity, the US cracked down with ICE raids aimed not so much at catching so-called "illegals" as to intimidate those who might otherwise make troublesome demands for better wages and humane treatment. Those who've witnessed these ICE raids first-hand will note that brown-skinned people in the vicinity of these raids are indiscriminately harassed. One consequence? Last year's May rallies were more sparsely attended.

Social Darwinism also came back with a vengeance during the 1980s. Oliver James views the publication of Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene as providing some of the "scientific" justification to the kill or be killed mentality that neoliberals hold as self-evident. That book, along with others in the realm of economics would be the touchstones of contemporary discourse. We are conditioned to accept that those who are at the top of the economic heap are those who are "most fit" and that those at the bottom are "merely the result of poor breeding." That mindset is indoctrinated throughout our K-12 years, and reinforced through plenty of mass-media propaganda. Neoliberalism is hyper-individualistic at its core, and such hyper-individualism does not foster the sort of fellowship or solidarity needed to sustain any sort of leftist social movement.

These are the threads that I've been increasingly weaving into a narrative - one which makes sense of the silence of the American public at a time when we should be taking it to the streets. If anything, I expect even more silence for a while longer. Americans are simultaneously believing in the hype that anyone can succeed with enough hard work and that stepping outside of whatever boundaries are sanctioned by our elites will lead them to lose whatever small slice of the pie they might still possess - after all, they're being watched. As long as those illusions hold, expect the status quo.

I realize that seems rather pessimistic, and that would be a fair enough characterization. At the same time, I'd also suggest that illusions can be shattered, and that people can be awakened. The predatory capitalism that currently dominates can only succeed to the extent that it can find new frontiers and new sources of natural resources to exploit. As long as that happens, economies "grow." What happens when the economic system runs up against the very real limits imposed by Mother Nature? In the post peak-oil era we will likely find out - probably sooner rather than later. It is at that point where I see an opening for more human an sustainable forms of political and economic relations.

No comments:

Post a Comment