Wage Slavery

3,500 words

One of the objectives of this blog is to highlight the value-shift that occurs when we finally accept the fact that we live in a material universe. Fundamentally, that means eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm that remains embedded in our social structures and value judgments.

This post is the third in a series on work. It ventures into the realm occupied by economic systems, and by implication the political structures necessary to support them. If it seems radical, it’s only because of the great distance we have drifted from an acceptance of our nature as material organisms. It lays out principles of practice derived from the premises established in two posts of July of this year: “Work,” posted July 1st and “Work in a Material Universe,” posted July 14th. I hope you can read them as a whole.

I want to start by making series of propositions.

(1) The economic systems of all modern complex western societies are based on what is aptly called wage slavery.   Wage slavery is a version of the master slave relationship. Wage slavery is not a metaphor. It is slavery. People may no longer be owned as persons, but as workers they are not free. Their work is owned by someone else.

(2) All remunerated labor tends to be servile. Money paid for labor is most often equated to the purchase of non-human objects or products. Such use considers what is bought to be then owned by the buyer. The buyer in effect becomes “God” with the right to annihilate or abuse the object purchased as he sees fit. He artificially individualizes the worker by treating his labor as an object owned, extracting him from the natural survival community and its instinctive cooperative collaboration.

But human work cannot be owned by another. Labor cannot be alienated from its author and his community because it is the expression of the conatus the resident energy that imposes the obligation to continue to exist on the individual material organism in its social matrix. Work is and always remains the output of the worker’s personal survival drive in collaboration with his natural community.

Analogous to the deferential way professionals are treated in western society, an individual’s labor can only be compensated for. Payment (in money or kind) can only be the attempt to counterbalance the temporary (and voluntary) deflection of the worker’s own life energy to the survival interests of someone outside of his natural community. To claim that labor can be bought and owned by the employer is fiction; it is metaphysically impossible. To force it is enslavement; it will fatally distort the humanity and relationships of the people involved in the attempted transaction.

Notice that professionals are treated differently. They are also remunerated, but because of the high value placed on mental as opposed to physical activity in the Platonic worldview, no one considers that in paying a professional, like a doctor, that he becomes your employee and must obey your orders. You compensate him for his creative initiative on your behalf. That should be the paradigm for all labor output from all human beings.

(3) Wage slavery is culturally conditioned by two things: the mythic significance of money and the perennial existence of officially approved master-slave relationships in our western “Christian” societies.

Slavery

The fundamental division of labor is between masters and slaves. Slavery in western society originated in pre-Christian Mediterranean culture, which in turn inherited it from the earlier civilizations of the fertile crescent, Mesopotamia and Egypt. Modern wage slavery is grounded in the ownership of labor. It is the recapitulation in commercial, contractual terms of the slavery characteristic of the ancient world and its Christianized continuation in mediaeval serfdom, indentured servitude, penal and other forms of impressed service.

The oldest form of slavery was ethnic; it was maintained by the conquest and control of people identified as “alien” and, since one’s own tribe, culture and language was assumed to be the only fully human version of humanity, conquered aliens were necessarily considered less than human and therefore similar to the animals that humans used for work, sport or pleasure.

Ancient slavery shed its ethnic roots and was given a universal and specifically spiritual justification by Platonism as the care and guidance of the less-than-human. From the time of the ascendancy of Christianity in the Mediterranean world beginning in the third century, all cultural entities, including the institution of slavery, so essential to the ancient economies, came to be evaluated and universally justified under the aegis of Platonic categories which Christianity embraced, “baptized” and carried forward. It is important to realize that, like imperial autocratic power itself to which slavery is the categorical counterpart, slavery was never repudiated by Christianity in the ancient world.

The principal Platonic tenet that was used to justify slavery was also embraced by Christianity and placed at the center of its world-view, despite the fact that Jesus never endorsed it. It was the concept of the “spiritual soul,” defined as a rational mind, separable from the body, believed to be the person itself, naturally immortal, destined to be judged at death. The soul was an immaterial substance opposed to matter and the material body’s fundamental nature as “animal,” or “carnal” and mortal.

Body and soul, constructed of diametrically opposed “substances,” matter and spirit, were mutually inimical. The spiritual soul, and by extension “spiritual people” (whose lives were relatively free of bodily domination), were considered fully human. Professors, teachers, landowners, administrators, magistrates, senators, merchants and bankers, religious elite, military commanders, etc., people who lived by the work of others and confined their activity to labor of the mind, were in this class. Slaves who lived by the work of their hands and body were deemed less than fully human — their souls were crippled by bodies which were physically controlled by others when not dehumanized by their own animal urges and survival needs. Slaves required having a master to control them, guide their daily activities and determine what they should accomplish with their lives. Slaves, women and children were the first constituents of the primary division of labor: between master and slave. Platonism gave it philosophical form: it said the division was between the fully human and the sub-human — those that worked with their mind, and those that worked with their hands.

Platonism attributed a spiritual dimension to the male body and an excess of material density to the female which supposedly accounted for what men called “women’s erratic behavior.” Thus the domination of the husband over his wife — already well-established as a function of paternal ownership — was re-presented under Platonic Christianity as a replay of the need for the mind to control the body … for spirit to dominate the flesh.

The father/owner/slave master, far from being identified as oppressor in this view, was re-conceived as protector, and it was as protectors that Christianity imposed moral obligations on the slaveholders: they were not to mistreat their slaves. But at no point did Christianity condemn slavery as an institution, or insist on the parity of the partners in marriage, or defend the full humanity of slaves, or require that masters refrain from disciplining them in any way they saw fit. These norms and standards were also applied to the father’s control of his family.

This same thinking was used to justify mediaeval serfdom and the 16th century conquest and enslavement of primitive peoples in Africa, Asia and the Americas.   The supporters of slavery quoted Aristotle directly. It was all done under the aegis of a slavery-tolerant Christianity.  Christians have universally tolerated or justified slavery in one form or another in every epoch and in every place they gained ascendancy. There is evidence that even the monasteries used slave labor.

The paternal family in the west is an integral part of this picture and is both the source and the result of the Platonic-justified master-slave relationship. That an adult gives commands, and children obey, is a necessary and unavoidable practicality because adults are more knowledgeable than children. But that the right and obligation to command whether the authority has superior knowledge or not, and the moral duty to obey even though the subject knows more than the authority, claimed as justification for coercing obedience to the proprietary male from women, children and servants, deemed carnal, inferior and needing control, is an arbitrary cultural value choice, imposed for the internalization of the master-slave system. Fathers were owners of their wives and children, every bit as much as of their slaves. That convention has been justified by Platonic Christianity as a spiritual function since its birth in the ancient Mediterranean world.

Based on the value placed on mental as opposed to bodily energies in the Platonic system, the educational patterns in western society imitate and in turn reinforce the master-slave relationship by preparing students to accept the primacy of rational thought over any other human activity. Educational practices and goals are dominated by the values prioritized under the Platonic paradigm: respect for and obedience to the spiritual superior. Rationality, exemplified as mental operations ruled by logic and mathematics, was the standard of highest value set for the student. Feelings — internally experienced forces that have been traditionally ascribed to the body — were excluded as less-than-human; manual work, it goes without saying, was demeaned as subhuman; they were all to be eliminated, or at least suppressed and controlled. Historic movements of awakening — 12th century humanism, 15th century renaissance, 19th century romanticism, 20th century post-modernism — were all attempts to reassert the rights of the integral human organism against the tyranny of the Platonic exaltation of the mind over the body

Professionals in our culture are those who live by mental activity, not physical. Students are taught that professionals are a “higher” version of human being. Education prepares the educated to accept the “natural right” of mental over physical labor and therefore the control of the commanding manager who thinks, over the toiling worker who supposedly does not. In reality, it is a fiction that disguises the fundamental myths: the myths of the disembodied mind and its ownership of all things material, including “material” people..

In Plato’s world, the body does not think, only the soul thinks. The Platonic prejudice is so powerful that despite the fact that the ideal of pure rational cerebration is almost never realized, giving clear indication of the delusional nature of the belief, it has not mitigated in the least the supreme value placed on it in our dualist culture. It has justified the existence of a master class as superior thinking human beings. It encourages its devotees to denigrate and dismiss contributions to human discourse and decision-making that fall short of that ideal. It means that the uneducated, i.e., those who by definition have never been thoroughly indoctrinated in the cerebral illusion by certified “masters” during an extended period of mental submission, are pre-emptively excluded from the gatherings where directions are chosen and the means of achieving goals determined. It means the worker has no input. It divides society along educational-intellectual lines and consigns the uneducated to lives of obedient physical reflex, either entirely devoid of a rational dimension or where the rational element, which has already been determined by the educated elite, is to be applied without revision or deviation.

From this short description it should be clear that most “jobs” — what people mistakenly call work — fall into this category. Jobs, for the most part, are slave labor based on the Platonic scheme of values. From society’s perspective wage slavery is not only arbitrary and unnecessary but it is inefficient and wasteful of the creativity of those who are employed. Moreover, it risks generating sociopathic blowback for, from the worker’s perspective, it is dehumanizing.

Wage slavery tends to reduce “owned” labor to a mechanical reflex, and thus has encouraged the adoption of the “assembly-line” factory system, operational world-wide at this point in time, premised on the mind-numbing repetition of some minor procedure, as the ideal (most efficient) form of labor. But workers also think and can plan the desired outcome of community endeavors; such is their predisposition as living organisms. Their exclusion from that process is a profound injustice endorsed by the Platonic delusion. Money cannot compensate for the loss of participatory autonomy. Work is a survival function of the human organism; we are innately determined by it.

The key valence and infallible indicator of the presence of the master-slave relationship is absolute obedience on the part of the isolated individual worker whose instinct to collaborate creatively with companions in the work effort is totally frustrated. The worker is under orders to make no input of his own into the task at hand. For the successful completion of a project he is to relate to the employer alone, not to his work companions.

The ancient monks saw very clearly the power of obedience to stifle the self — in their case what they believed was a false self — and replace it with what they believed to be their “true self.” The slaveholder is equally intent on suppressing any self in the worker that would compete with his own goals. Hence he requires absolute obedience from individuals isolated from their natural community because he has bought and thinks he owns their labor. The monk used obedience as a tool to achieve his own chosen goals, one of which was the formation of a brotherhood. The isolated jobholder, however, knows very well that the only goals of his own or of his community that he will ever achieve through his job will be those he wrests from his employer by force.

Money

Money prevents workers from exercising control on two counts. The first is the myth that a private person can actually own (with the right of annihilation) the means of production of goods and services that are used and needed by the whole community. This is patently impossible.  At most the community may consign management to a private entity, but it cannot allow its survival to be held hostage to private concerns. It is a logical tautology because the “private” person survives only in and through the survival of the community.

The second myth is that employers can buy and therefore own the labor of their individual workers. Both myths are based on the more fundamental belief that money gives ownership with divine rights over what is owned.

The Latin language, which has been the source of so many helpful distinctions in our thinking, in this case does not distinguish between owner and master: the same word, dominus, is used for both. Similarly, ownership and political power have only one word: dominium.

Historians surmise that trade began with barter: the use of equivalent values for items that each trader needed. Then it seems likely that some highly desirable object became the standard of calculation. Precious metals lent themselves to being such a standard because of their association with the gods and immortality. In Egypt, gold, which was associated with the sun god, Ra, because of its yellow brilliance, was calculated at 12 times the value of silver which was thought to capture the pale light of the moon. To participate in such divine power was everyone’s desire.[1]

Money is believed to give ownership to the buyer. Even the customer momentarily becomes “master” over the corporate giant that sells the product in question because money has exchanged hands. The “customer is always right” is the acknowledgement of the supreme power that money is given in our culture.

Survival in a complex society requires money. When money is the exclusive form of compensation for every kind of labor, even the most meaningless (or dehumanizing) task can earn one his living. “Jobs” that are paid for with money pretend to own the energy immanent in the artificially individualized worker. Employment pretends to redirect that energy toward ends that may have nothing whatsoever to do with the survival needs of the worker and his community and claim that the deflection is fully justified by money.

There are no differences in the recognition provided by money except through quantity. Hence the volume of money alone becomes an index of value. This equation is so ironclad that even those who are aware of its falsifying potential are unable to extricate themselves from its illusions: everyone defers to those who have a lot of money. Many silently harbor beliefs that the rich are superior: smarter, more disciplined, more moral and “blessed” by God. The myth is reinforced by traditional religion that ascribes to divine providence the actual state of affairs in human society. If someone is wealthy, it’s because “God” willed it. The fact that this is obviously preposterous should be enough to put an end to these illusions. There is no such providence.

This blurring is especially damaging to the economic programming that these reflections are suggesting: that we can re-structure the division of labor and remuneration in such a way as to guarantee that each individual is included in the collaborative effort to survive and through that participation achieves survival and a place in society.

The first element in any analysis of how work and reward should be distributed is clarifying the distinction between survival work and other human endeavors that are directed toward the quest for life that transcends the moment, many of which are of dubious value. The second is to insure that the worker’s efforts are respected for their double significance: work achieves organismic survival in a community that acknowledges the human instinct to transcendence through social membership. The collaborative participation of the worker expresses the communitarian character that matter’s energy has used as a survival tool over and over again during the course of 14 billion years of evolutionary development. The natural human instinct is to work with known companions as part of a collaborative endeavor.

Worker Justice

From all that has been said it should clear that the exclusive focus on “bread and butter” issues (salaries, benefits and working conditions) when addressing the question of justice for working people, omits the most important: collaboration and worker control. It assumes that the worker is an isolated individual whose labor can be redirected by the master who owns it. In a material universe that is committed to eliminating the toxic residue of the Platonic paradigm, the primary injustice is identified as the isolation of the individual worker and his alienation from his work — the claim to own the labor of another human being. The fundamental injury is the institutionalized frustration of the need of the human organism, embedded in its community of survival, to express its intrinsic and constitutive existential bearing in its work. It is the refusal to permit the collaborative, intelligent, autonomous participation of socialized human organisms in the communal decisions and collective labor that determine not only what work will be done but also all the associated conditions that impact the project and the workers.

Wages and benefits are not the be all and end all for working people that many labor organizations claim. In their haste to be part of the prevailing economic system and to avoid alternatives prejudicially labeled “socialist,” labor unions end up collaborating with management in the maintenance of the mindlessness and isolation of wage slavery. Worker collaboration, input and control is never part of any contract package, and it is not even part of labor unions’ declared mission statement. Workers who become union members do not join a brotherhood; each isolated individual worker performs only one collective action: he votes with other isolated individuals to hire a corporate lawyer who will defend his rights as an individual worker.

Justice for working people will never be secured until the issue of collaborative human participation is acknowledged as an essential part of any and all human endeavors, including the jobs protected by labor unions.   Human work must be the act of fully engaged human organisms, body and soul, mind and spirit. None of this can be “owned” by another.

Transition

The enormous gap between these principles of practice and the actual state of affairs in our economic system is so great that many will dismiss this vision as quixotic. But don’t be fooled. These proposals are not some new utopian innovation. They address a massive historical deformity that we have inherited from our dualist tradition: the human organism has been trapped in an ongoing cultural fiction that has destroyed its integrity in the service of exploitation by the master class. We have been living with wage slavery for more than two centuries. The consequences for working people have been catastrophic. It’s time we put an end to this mockery of the human being.

We fail to implement the reform of this system at our peril as humans. That doesn’t mean that society faces imminent collapse or that armed insurrection is inevitable. Things may very well go on just the way they are. But the human destruction to working class individuals and to community at the level of family and neighborhood will continue unabated and even intensified. It will continue the propagation of individual and social pathologies of genocidal proportions, an effect that we have been living with among the working class in our cities since the early 19th century. To change the situation a transition from the patterns that now dominate wage slavery will require a complete overhaul of the way work is planned from the very beginning.

Such a change would be a “revolution.”

[1] Norman O. Brown, Life Against Death, Wesleyan U. Press, 1959, p. 234 ff.

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The Limits of Knowledge (2)

the human being — time and death

Existence is time.[1] It’s not coincidental that time caused us to look at being-here separately from abstract “being” and ask what it otherwise would not have occurred to us to ask, why do I die, or “Why does being-here seem to end?”

My life is both temporal and temporary.  There’s a connection between the two.  It seems the very nature of the modulations of existence is to find better ways to be-here, to survive and extend survival.  The vitality displayed by matter’s energy is not a leisured aesthetic creativity, an unhurried pastime.  There is an urgency here that derives from a conatus, a drive to survive, that is integral to a developing universal entropy that results from the energy expenditure of any “thing,” whether it be the hydrogen fusing into helium in stars or the respiratory activity of the cells of the human brain.  Entropy is the exhaust from combustion — the smoke that is the sign of fire — the tendency for all matter and energy in the universe to move toward a state of uniform inertia through the expenditure of energy for the performance of work.  Work is energy applied in the endeavor to survive. The aggregation and integration forged by matter’s energy is part and parcel of the “downhill” flow of the existential cataract initiated at the big-bang that drives the Universe to produce its effects — like the eddies and vortices that spin off in a raging current.  These pyramidal vortices (one vortex cumulatively building on another and another) are an anti-en­tro­pic phenomenon — they struggle against dissolution, to survive — even though they add to universal entropy as a result.

My life is the inner force of existence because it is matter’s energy.  It is driven in the direction of perdurance in an obsession to continue the dance of presence.  Time is the effluence of my own presence.  As my existence perdures from moment to moment — as each “now” molts into the next — it emanates time as the sweat of its creative labors; the vapor trail of its endless explorations.  I embrace my being-here, and so I embrace time.

The transcendence over death, not only through evolutionary integration but also with other communitarian strategies like daily alimentation and organismic reproduction, harnesses even as it recapitulates the patterns and primordial energies let loose within the first second of the big bang.  The energy that drives my hunger for existence, is the energy of matter itself.

We live in a banquet of existence.  We are not self-sufficient.  We are dependent on the entire material matrix within which we evolved.  In our lifetime, each human organism consumes in sustenance probably 40 or 50 tons of the matter’s energy — in the form of carbon — of other living things who must die in order that we might live.  Add to that another 50 tons of oxygen continuously drawn in from the atmosphere and utilized together with carbon in the cellular combustion we call metabolism.  At death we return our “stuff” to be used as food by others as part of an endless cycle of interchange within the one organism produced and energized by the cascade of existence.  Matter’s energy is a totality.

At a certain magical moment, also, the very cells of my body, by utilizing another communitarian tactic, combine with another’s to create a new identity — my daughter, my son — which is automatically granted a full allotment of time, slipping under the entropic radar of death.  How was this miracle accomplished?  The living cells are mine, but their age and accumulated karma are erased.  Death is cheated, fooled, outwitted.  The new individual with my cells, my DNA, eludes the death they were otherwise destined to endure.  Do we share this adventure in survival with love and gratitude? … Only if we understand!

But if we mis-under­stand — if we originally mis-interpreted that moment of crisis, the perception of death, as the cessation of what’s really there, we are quite capable of turning this banquet of sharing into a selfish grab-bag where the desperate “eat drink and make merry” in a display of bitter disillusionment against a morrow of imagined nothingness.  It is precisely the fact that “I” am metaphysically insignificant except as an integra­ted function of matter’s energy that opens me to a new dimension.   I realize that what is really there and really important is the matrix, the universal “stuff” of which I am made, the homogeneous substrate of which all things are made, the single organism of which we are all the leaves and branches, and which will go on in other forms endlessly.  It was with those micro-threads of existence that I was woven.  The primacy here, as always, belongs to the stuff of existence, the matter-energy of the universe.  It is material energy “congealed” in me.  And in short order, the same existence will use “me” to do something else in a constant search for survival — existence.

So time is the expression of process; it is the measure of groping and the tracks of creativity.  It marks the work in progress of evolutionary development.

endless or “eternal”

The re-cycling is endless.  Isn’t that the same as “eternal,” and doesn’t it imply transcendent, necessary, absolute etc., all those abstract, essentialist characteristics derived from the “concept of being” that we rejected in chapter 1?

No.  Endless is not “eternal” because endless is open and empty.  “Eternal” is closed, fixed and finished, full and complete; “eternal” is the absence of time.  Endless, on the other hand, is time … time without end; it contemplates development without term, a presence that is forever thirsty.  “Eternal,” is synonymous with unchanging, impassible and immutable, Pure Act, pure stasis, without a shred of unfulfilled potential — perfect.  It’s a completely foreign concept to us, pure conceptual projection.  We’ve never experienced anything the least bit like it.  For us, being-here as we know it is an endless phenomenon that throbs always with unrealized potential, with an ever perceived emptiness seeking to be filled and asking for nothing but more time.  We have never encountered existence in any other form.  Its current modality is always in the process of becoming, apparently without limit, itself — existence.

Being-here in our world, is endless becoming.  It’s all we know.  Where, then, do we get the notion of a fixed and finished “eternal”?  I believe it’s another of our fantasies based on the requirements of the imaginary ancient “concept of being.”  Existence, matter’s energy, as found in the real world, however, is a function of power — potentia as Spinoza discerned insightfully — potential; it is focused on survival and constantly ready to change tactics in order to achieve it.  Matter’s creative power is the drive to exist (survive) by extruding new forms out of itself creating time.

“Eternal” is unthinkable.  Endless is not.  We can understand endless perfectly because it’s no different from time itself.  To conceptualize “endless” requires no more insight than imagining present moments, “nows” in an open-ended flow into the future.  In our very own awareness of ourselves-exist­ing, which is the unfolding of our personal presence in time, we actually experience this pheno­menon most intimately as our own sentient selves.  We experience ourselves in a temporal flow into a potentially endless future.  To experience temporal flow is to experience that part of “endless” which will always be here — the present moment, “now,” the only part of “endless” that ever … and always, exists.  To experience one’s own presence in the here and now is to experience, in a sense, everything, because it is to experience all that reality is, or ever was, or can ever be.

We are reminded that for the 14th century mystic Johannes Eckhart, “now” was the most sacred of all locations, the center of the universe.  It was precisely where “God,” he said, who exists in an Eternal “Now,” was actively sharing “being” with creation in an effluence of love and self-donation.  If you want to touch “God,” he said, you can only do it “now.” The fact that “now” — the present moment — is the only moment that really exists and that, at the same time, it goes almost universally unattended, may be a measure of exactly how alienated from existence we are.

Can we say that our conception corresponds to the emphasis on living in the present moment promoted by the Buddhist, Thich Nat Hanh?  The Bud­dhists insist their counsel is a discipline not a doctrine.  They don’t speak about metaphysics, “being” or existence, so we can’t say for sure.  But for the Buddhists, as for Meister Eckhart, the present moment is all there is.  We are-here only in the present moment.  To live in the present moment is to embrace the impermanence, the “emptiness” that drives reality always to the next moment, creating time.

[1] The similarity of this proposition to Heidegger’s thesis expounded in his Being and Time is only semantic. For H. time is the pulse and measure of Da-sein’s anguish of being-toward-death, which alone brings Da-sein’s authentic care to bear on the beings-in-the-world. In my conception, on the other hand, I make every effort to exclude the subjective factors. Time for me is foundationally a physical property exuded by the physical perdurance in existence of a physical entity — matter’s energy.

Eschaton

Interest in what Jesus was like and exactly what he said has grown in tandem with the awareness that Christian doctrine as we have it was not what he had in mind.  As scholars pursue their quest for the historical Jesus one of the principal currents that they have identified was his belief in the imminent end of time.  It was a focus prominent in the rest of the New Testament as well, and it differs markedly from ours.  For them the end and its judgment responded to political oppression and established a community of justice on earth; for us it is individual reward or punishment in another world.

It has been conjectured that Jesus’ belief reflected the influence of a contemporary separatist sect of Jews known as Essenes who, had withdrawn from society and set up a community in the desert around the Dead Sea east of Palestine.  The central belief of the Essenes was that there would be a final war, led by the messiah, that would definitively establish the dominion of Israel’s “God” and end forever the oppressive control of pagan conquerors who worshipped a multitude of false and unholy gods.  The Roman occupation was the obvious reference.  Some believe it was in anticipation of that impending “war” that preachers like John the baptizer, and Jesus who followed him, issued their call for repentance.  The Jewish War of liberation against the Romans in 70 c.e., less than a generation after Jesus’ death, seems to have been a  consequence of that belief.

Clear as that current is, the Christian communities responsible for producing the gospels remember Jesus’ preaching having a different center.  However indisputable it is that Jesus shared the belief that the end was not far off, and that it was the reason for his sense of mission, the gospel authors said he did not offer it as the incentive for his program.  His call was to love one another in imitation of a loving, forgiving “God.”  Even when Jesus made reference to judgment, it was always secondary to the main message: “I was hungry and you gave me to eat … I was homeless and you took me in … I was in prison and you visited me … blessed are those who hunger and thirst after justice.”  The surprise of his listeners confirms that they did not think of those things as “commandments” for which they would be judged.

During the early years of Christian expansion into the Greek-speaking world it seems the eschaton — the end — was expected shortly.  In preparation for that event some new converts, like those in Thessalonica, stopped working altogether and just waited; Paul reproved them for it: “if you won’t work, don’t expect to eat.”  One didn’t become a Christian just to get something.

When it became clear that Jesus was not coming any time soon, one of the principal motivations for joining the Christian community disappeared.  Desire to be on the “right side” at the end must have been central to the Christian appeal because it was immediately replaced by an emphasis on personal immortality and the individual’s judgment at death.  This shift, while it served to maintain intensity, represented the transfer of the “kingdom of God” from the political sphere to the solitary person and the “end of the world” to individual death.  This had the effect of changing the focus of the Christian program from building a community of justice and mutual love in imitation of our forgiving “father,” to an individual blamelessness pursued out of fear of punishment.

Restoration

The change did not go unnoticed and seems to have created a reaction.  I believe it was reflected in the writings of Origen of Alexandria who worked in the early 200’s.  It took the form of his theory of apokatastasis.  The term means “restoration” in Greek and had been used by the Stoic philosophers to refer to the return of all things to their original state, a moment in the eternal cycle of the rebirth of the universe.  Following Peter’s use of the word in Acts 3, Origen applied it to the Christian eschaton and for him it meant universal salvation, i.e., that no one, not even evil spirits, would remain eternally unreconciled.  There may be a “hell” but it was for the purposes of correction and it was temporary.  In the end all would return to the Source from which they came.  In this scenario without an eternal hell, being “blameless” lost its urgency.

Origen’s teaching continued on in the east for centuries.  Gregory of Nyssa was a vocal proponent of it, and even went further and claimed that both hell and heaven were not places but states of mind that result from the choices we make in the way we live.  It is significant that all official condemnations of apokatastasis came in Councils held after Constantine had given the Catholic hierarchy the theocratic responsibility of guaranteeing behavioral compliance in the Empire.  Apparently the bishops felt that fear of eternal punishment was a necessary tool for achieving that purpose.  Many still see that role and that tool as essential to the definition of the Church.

Origen’s doctrine preserves the spirit of Jesus’ message: the all-forgiving mercy of “God” and the communal nature of the coming kingdom.  Anything else should have been recognized as essentially antithetical to tradition.  The quid pro quo obedience-or-punishment that accompanied the new focus on the immortal individual soul and the “other world” was a sea-change in moral perspective.  It was the reversal of Paul’s entire thesis, clearly delineated in Romans and Galatians: that Christian life was not a matter of obeying “law;” there was no more law.  It was the free loving response of man to the free forgiving love of “God.”

When Erasmus of Rotterdam and Martin Luther debated the issue of free will in their exchange of essays in 1524-25, Luther accused Erasmus of Pelagianism precisely because Erasmus saw salvation as a product of human cooperation with “God’s” grace.  Erasmus had got the Catholic position right: Augustine’s more radical theory of grace and human impotence had never been fully embraced; the Catholic Church had always insisted that the individual was free to sin or not to sin.  Luther, following Augustine, rejected that.  But in order to make the case for the exclusive operation of “God” in salvation while simultaneously maintaining the threat of eternal punishment, Luther had to reassert Augustine’s claim of moral impotence, effectively denying free will.  He had to make all of universal history the inexorable unfolding of a divine plan — the saved were “elected” and the others were allowed to slide into perdition.  Humans were incapable of not sinning, and “God” had no obligation to save them from the damnation that inevitably ensued; if he forgave the elect, it was pure gratuity; it had nothing to do with human merit.  Luther’s call for those with faith to trust in the forgiveness of “God” was welcomed in practice for it took the burden of responsibility for “earning” salvation off the individual believer, but it did not change the source of moral energy: it was still “salvation” — the fear of hell and the desire for virtually any alternative.

Love, metaphysically

If we were to “theologize” Jesus’ message of love — and by “theologize” I mean think of it as a metaphysical reality not just a moral injunction — then, theologizing is what John was doing when he said “God is love.” “To love,” then, is to be like “God,” it is theosis, “divinization.”

John’s theology could have prevailed.  But it did not.  What prevailed was an image of “God” as judge and executioner that corresponded to the definition of the eschaton as individual judgment — reward or punishment — exactly what was required for the effective running of an empire.

But if John’s theology had prevailed, then all the words that have been traditionally used to refer to the ultimate Christian achievement — redemption, salvation, eternal happiness — would apply to love.  To learn to love would be “ultimate;” it would be to achieve all there is to achieve as a human being.  That means there is nowhere further to go; there is nothing more to get.  From this angle both Erasmus and Luther (and Augustine) are shown to be dead wrong.  “Salvation” as reward whether gained through one’s own efforts (Erasmus) or as a free gift of “God” (Luther), ran counter to the teaching of Jesus.  For to love is precisely not “to gain” or “to get” anything.  Love “seeks not its own.”  That is the ultimate human achievement.  Religion for Jesus was the pursuit of a new way of being human.  It’s what you give freely not what you get for your obedience.

The inverse would be true as well: to fail to love is to suffer an ultimate failure.  To put it in terms of this present discussion of the eschaton, it might also be said that to continue to think that the ultimate human fulfillment is something you get after your human life is done, is hell. It means you never understood life: who you are and what “God” is.  “God” is what “he” does, and you are what you do.  Jesus’ message is that in each case it is love.

All “ultimates” get translated into metaphors; the more ultimate the more eschatological the metaphor: judgment, reward, punishment, heaven, hell, etc., correspond to the ultimate values of western Christian culture.  For that is the way we humans deal with intangibles: we “personify” or “reify” them.  It’s a spontaneous human function that we even see at work in childhood.  We translate imponderables and uncertainties into imagery we can handle.  Children create rules for their games without being taught; all games have to have rules — structure — or they evaporate into chaos.  Life is intrinsically imponderable and uncertain, we have to impose structure and that structure is our culture from which our societies emerge.  Each culture runs by its own set of rules.

There is no problem with these structures unless we forget that they are our impositions and we begin to take them as reality … that we have a right to impose on other people.  In the case of the privatization of the Christian eschaton, learning to “seek not your own” — the point of Jesus’ message — got inverted into a selfish acquisitory attitude toward life that had repercussions in all areas, like the kind of social system that western Christians created.  A market-dominated society runs on rules that eliminate community survival and define value as the individual’s power to acquire and accumulate.  Penury entails isolation and death.  It’s the game of life as we have structured it.  It mirrors the Christian imagery of the personalized eschaton — a reward earned by an individual’s hard work and compliance with the commandments.  The “particular judgment” means there is no communal salvation available, and “eternal” punishment means isolation from LIFE.  There is no forgiveness for failure.

We are reminded again and again: in the West our religious impasse has been created by taking our metaphors as facts instead of poetry.  We have to learn to understand that our religion is an ancient ancestral guide, stitched together from the experience of untold generations of people, about how to live — what to do — and what poetry may help us in doing it.  Religion is a structure we impose on life.  It must be re-evaluated and reactivated in every generation.

The study of the historical Jesus has revealed attitudes embedded in his message that we in our times find remarkably appealing.  The fact that in this regard Jesus seems to have more in common with us than with the centuries and centuries of western Christian doctrine is a result of the spirit of our times and the “rules of the game” that we apply.  Jesus’ rules resonate with ours … they are moral rules, not metaphysical or scientific rules, and they are communitarian.

What comes after death, if anything, is a matter for physics to discover, not religion.  Do we have immortal souls?  That’s a factual question.  We either do or we don’t; it doesn’t matter how much we “believe,” our faith does not make it so if it is not … and vice versa.  Religion should have nothing to say about it and in fact shouldn’t really care, because its moral commitments — its counsels about what to do — are applicable no matter what the physical reality.  Once we realize that Jesus’ message is a moral invitation to imitate the benevolence of “God” our father, and not a hidden cosmology or game of thrones … and that the ultimates implied in this moral message may be given poetic ultimacy in imaginative metaphors about the end of time and judgment for life after death, we can separate the one from the other.  The need for humans to love is a moral imperative that remains true whether we live forever or not.  The Christian images of the eschaton, on the other hand, are not facts, but they may be taken as metaphors that evoke the ultimate nature of the human need to love.

To learn to love is not optional … our very destiny as human beings, individually and socially, depends on it.  Learning to love is not the means to get something else — something we really want.  To love is an end in itself.  If we are really going to learn to love, we have to learn that there is, ultimately, nothing else worth wanting.

And, despite all indications to the contrary, if life as we know it should happen to continue after death, it will not change that formula one iota.  Life after death will offer nothing but the opportunity to go on doing what we do here: loving one another.

Religion in a Material Universe

July 28, 2012

Willis, Virginia, USA

 ANNOUNCING:

the pre-publication of Religion in a Material Universe

Author, Tony Equale, 282 pages.

To order: see below

 Religion in a Material Universe

Existence (esse) is not a self-subsistent “idea” as Plato thought, it is a palpable, concrete, dyna­mic reality: material energy as modern science has discoveredWhat does that mean for reli­gion?  Because exis­tence is nothing but matter’s energy, we ourselves are made of it exclu­sive­ly; there is no imma­terial “thing” that exists alongside of, different from and opposed to matter anywhere.   Our love and thirst for existence is an organic function of our material bodies; it is the source of both our sense of the sacred and our abhor­rence of death, and therefore it is the proper object of religion.  Religion, in other words, is a spontaneous human pheno­me­non whose origin is in the body; it is com­pletely natural and virtually unavoidable.

“Superna­tural religions” belie this.  They insist that there is another world of immaterial things which grounds and explains our sense of the sacred and our desire for endless life.  Our world is not sacred, they say, it is in fact corrupt and needs to be made sacred by that other world that is located in another place altogether — a place of immaterial spirit, where our “souls” really belong and will live forever.  Thus these religions are hostile to existence as it really is and so distort and under­mine our relation­ship to it.  By locating the sacred somewhere other than this material universe, they separate it and us from our world, and that means they make us strangers to our own bodies, to our brothers, to ourselves. 

Assessing the significance of this disconnect, which turns out to be a simultaneous defense and condemna­tion of “religion,” is the burden of Religion in a Material Universe

A further step — an issue at the present time — is that the hierarchs, the “holy rulers” of these supernatural religions, are representatives of society’s ruling elite who have arroga­ted to themselves exclusive control over knowledge of that other world and access to it.   Catholicism is the best but not the only example of this.  On top of the alienation embed­ded in dualist “dogmas,” these overseers deified themselves, neutralized the natural power of human com­munity and replaced it with discon­nected individuals seeking “salvation.”  They intensi­fied our alienation exponentially.   Today, the aggressive reassertion of this ancient expro­pri­ation by the Catholic hierarchy is playing a role in the efforts of the ruling caste to shred the funda­mental rights and the common good of our secular society.  We should not be surprised.  The prototype they are working from, after all, is the Roman Empire.

It must be recognized that any internal reform that these religions might carry out to rectify this situation will have to address the more fundamental problems created by erroneous doctrine and a false view of reality.  Those doctrines exploit our natural sense of the sacred and our fear of death; they justify and are the instruments of the hierarchy’s power over the minds of men.  The pathos and polemics that surround the Catholic failure to stay committed to the path laid out for it by Vatican II, has to acknowledge the deeper doctrinal layers that underpin and explain it.  Vatican II did not challenge doc­trine and dogma. Our bitter experience of the recrudescence of all the worst features of mediaeval authoritarianism and dog­matic atavism was, in hind­sight, almost inevitable.  You cannot have a reform of Catholi­cism without a prior reformu­lation of Catholic doctrine.  And you cannot accomplish doctrinal re­struc­­turing using the same philoso­phi­cal tools and obsolete scientific worldview that were forged by the very doc­trin­al complex it justifies.  These circularities are vicious and must be broken before any pro­gress can be made.

Religion in a Material Universe is an attempt to make a serious contribution toward this founda­tional reform — the re-smelting of the ring of power, beating the swords of Roman Imperial Dogma into the plough­shares of Jesus’ simple Jewish message: to imitate our “loving father” from whose being we come and whose existence we share.

 TO ORDER:  This book is being published by IED press, Pamplin, VA .  However, that process will likely take some months and those copies will be sold at higher prices due to the publisher’s “take” and booksellers like Amazon.  There are a limited number of pilot copies available now directly from me for $20 (shipping included).  Everything is the same except for the absence of an ISBN and bar code. The cover may also change.  You can order by responding to this e-mail at aequale@swva.net or writing to 414 Riggins Rd NW, Willis, VA 24380.  You can also call: (540) 789-7098.  Please leave your name, an address where you can receive packages and your phone number or e-mail where you can be reached.  Pre-payment would be appreciated, but is not required. 

Tony Equale

The Family of Man

The Family of Man … The Family of “God”

The only true community … what defines us … is the family of man.  All others are derivatives.  It comes with our bodies.   The family of man is what material energy has evolved out of its own substance, therefore it is “God’s” community.  Every other derives its meaning from there.  Humankind’s justice requirements take precedence over every other social reality created by the mind and choices of men — union, church, party, nation, race, even biological kinship and clan. 

 Any human institution, entity or agency, and most pointedly the Church, is of value only to the degree that it plays an ancillary, subordinate role in promoting and protecting the family of man.  It does this by displaying the human community’s essential characteristics in microcosm.  In traditional terms, the Church strives to become the “sacrament” of humanity, recapitula­ting in itself the social structures and interpersonal dynamics that serve to bring out human­kind’s potential.   “Serve” is the appropriate term.  The church (and any other community) exists to serve humanity, not the other way around.  It  betrays us and fatally corrupts itself, losing any justification for its existence, when it tries to usurp the place of humankind and declare itself “God’s” only true community … or allows itself to be defined by the individualist commercial ideology promoted by our current version of the capitalist economic system.

 Capitalist Individualism 

Capitalism as it currently functions, stands in direct contradiction to our communitarian human reality.  It is based on the false and impossible premise that human beings are not related — that they are unconnected isolates.   In this system solitary individuals subsist, survive, and achieve happiness on their own by “distinguishing” them­selves through their accomplish­ments from every other individual.   The sign of this accom­plish­ment is remunerated recognition; the measure of “dis­tinc­tion” is given in mone­tary terms — the power to earn and to buy.  For the deluded and ignorant, it is a Disneyland fantasy to which they cling even when it evaporates before their eyes; for the willful purveyors of the consumerism that drives this system, it is a calculated deliberate venal lie.  Human survival and well-being including the accu­m­u­la­tion of wealth is a community achievement.   Individuals can do nothing.  Even the human “self” — name, personality, language, religion, charac­ter, values, social role — is itself an inherited and carefully cultured social artifact, the product of a community: family, clan and class. 

 Those who love their families and work to sustain them know perfectly well that individu­al­ism is an empty lie or the family disintegrates.  They don’t need me to tell them.  But the fiction is sustained by the constant drumbeat of corporate advertising which is constitutively invested in main­tain­ing  a labor pool of unorga­nized solitary individ­uals pro­grammed to consume what the corporations sell.  The power of advertising  over the human mind is proven by the fact that results in sales and votes correla­te directly  to the amount of money spent.  Advertising works all the time.  This is not speech.  It is brain­washing.   The claim that it is protected by the constitution shows how malleable are words in the hands of the ruling elites.

 There is only one important event in this system: the commercial trans­ac­tion; and there is only one significant relation­ship, the power relationship:  buyer and seller, patron and client, boss and employee, master and slave.  People are defined as disconnected, unrelated economic units, characterized only by their relative power to control the outcome of a an exchange of goods and services, which includes their labor.

 Genesis

The original Jewish account of “beginnings” was an allegory of life on this earth.  The authors never had any intention of saying , nor were their readers ever tempted to think, that there was another world before this one from which our ancestors were expelled.  The sermon the Genesis authors were preaching with their allegory was that this world, this world, IS a paradise, and it is we who we ruin it for ourselves when we think we can deny our dependent origins and become “gods” — solitary unrelated divine individ­uals  — self-made, self-subsistent, independent , self-involved, owning “knowledge” and living forever.  Eating the fruit of the “tree of life” was an allegory for the denial of death.  But it is death that saves us from our delusions of grandeur;  for it cements, with its undeniability, the dependent connectedness created by our extrusion from the sacred matter of which all things are made.  This matter is the same every­where, and in it everything “lives and moves and has its being.”  It is what we are.   Our very bodies proclaim our eternal and universal related­ness.  We are family; that is our true definition.   That reality is there now as it has always been there, waiting to be activa­ted any time we want.  Is this something that needs to be proven?  I don’t think so.  Everybody knows it … everybody.  Living as family would make this world a paradise.

 Tony Equale

 

Reflections on the Wisconsin recall

Unions are not unions

I have at times been a labor activist, but I am not a professional and I generally don’t offer commentary on the strategies and policies adopted by unions.   However, the significance of the defeat in Wisconsin impelled me to try to understand what happened there, and what that calls for going forward.   The following are my reflections.

I start with what I read.  Economics Professor Emeritus Richard Wolff’s short article in Truthout titled Lost Elections’ Strategic Lessons[1] acknowledges that one of the principle reasons for the failure of the Wisconsin recall was that working people are not particu­larly sympathe­tic to unions.  His point caught my attention because it referred to some­thing that all my working life — and I am 73 — I felt was missing from the American Labor movement: in my terms, a sense of community. The historic workers’ word for commun­ity is union.  To put it tersely, I believe the reason why working people do not perceive the be­ne­­fits of labor unions, is that they are not unions … and they have not been for 75 years.

The sense of community

 Dr Wolff claims that in the ‘30’s, the socialist and communist parties, wedded to the CIO-type industrial unions, provided the sense of community that the unions did not:

 Unions are less vulnerable to criticism as narrowly caring only for their own members when they are continuously and clearly allied with organizations struggling for a better society for everyone. Socialists and communists built the community contacts and consciousness that undermined and defeated pro-business arguments against the CIO union drives and against the programs Roosevelt developed.

He seems to feel that the “Occupy” movement could offer the same service today.  History, he says, teaches us that success for workers …

 … requires building a robust alliance between labor unions and movements or political parties (or both) seriously committed to an anti-capitalist agenda for social change. The historic significance of the Occupy Wall Street movement lies in its taking a big first step toward rebuilding such an alliance.

Without disputing his historical claims, his analysis raises two questions, which are really the same question: exactly why were the unions not capable of providing a sense of community on their own in the “30’s? … and, what prevents them from providing it now?  What is it about unions that explains why they can’t seem to do this?

I believe Wolff’s theory and solution needs further elaboration.  But at least he has identified the area where the problem lies: the absence of the sense of community, “labor unions narrow­ly care for their own mem­bers.”  That in itself, in my opinion, would be enough to explain the debacle in Wisconsin.  People in general, the majority of whom are people with jobs — working people — are not sympa­thetic to unions. They don’t see them as on their side.

 Other observers concur.  In a June 15th discussion sponsored by the Nation magazine evaluating the Wisconsin recall failure, a number of the participants voiced similar feelings.  Here’s Doug Henwood:

 … unions aren’t all that popular with the broad public.  In my original piece [6/6][2] I cited a number of Gallup polls showing that people thought that unions had too much power, were too interested in themselves and not the broader public and ranked toward the bottom of the list (rivaling banks and HMOs) in Gallup’s annual survey on confidence in major institutions.

But the astonishing thing is that the Wisconsin vote showed that the unpopularity exten­ded even to union members.  25% of union members and a whopping 38% of union households suppor­ted Scott Walker.  What explains that?  I am convinced the “narrowness” identified by Dr. Wolff runs deeper than he seems to discern.  I think that labor unions have not only failed to connect with the broad public, they have failed their own people because they are not unions at all they are  law firms.  They are corporate entities that repre­sent workers; they are not them­selves a “brother­hood,” an organization of working people, even when the organizers and union reps they hire used to be working people.  Even unions’ “narrow interest in their own members” somehow misses the very thing that their people are are most in need of … the thing that will guarantee everyone’s security and well-being:  people power — real human community — true union.

 The american dream

 Let’s look at this phenomenon in perspective.  Take a few steps back.  Politicians loudly pro­claim that the American people are enamored of something called “The American Dream.”  The “dream” is that in America, not just some, but every hard working individual can achieve “hap­pi­­ness” in the form of a secure and adequate living.  “Dream,” in my opinion, is the proper word for it; for I believe it is an individualist fairy tale.  Individuals can do nothing.  Human survival and well-being is a community achievement.  If the “dream” seems convincing it’s only because people have let themselves be convinced by those invested in keeping the indi­vi­­­­du­al­ist myth afloat. 

The American Dream originated with European immigrants fleeing traditional ethnic and national tyrannies in the 18th and 19th centuries.  Today it is propagated by a com­mer­cial over-class that lives on the exploi­ta­tion of individual consumerism.  When America was an 85% rural nation, freedom and independence meant “owning your own land” or small business.  When capitalist industrialization made America 85% urban, it came to be applied to whoever holds down a “job” and thus can “buy” the items of happiness provided by the ruling corporations.  “Free­dom” evolved to mean the power of the individual to earn … and buy.

American Labor Unions bought into that individualist fantasy and used it to promote their project.  They decided the road to success for the “union” was to “go with the flow.”  The stan­ding contradic­tion to the very meaning of “union” didn’t occur to them or was ignored.  So instead of provi­ding the only alter­native to a dysfunc­tional economic system built on the fan­tasy that financial inde­pen­dence was available to the isolated jobholder, they claimed to be the one secure route to the “American Dream.”  They called it “sticking to the bread and butter issues.”  It meant “forget uniting with others to change the system, and take care of the dues-paying members in a contract-protected shop.”  They re-defined “union” and in so doing re-inforced the individual­ism, the isolation and the power­less­­ness of wage-earning workers. People found that when they did join a labor Union (or were forced to by contract) they didn’t get a “union,” a brotherhood, a mutual assis­tance commu­nity, but rather a firm of well-paid para-legal semi-profes­sionals who would de­fend the indivi­dual jobholder’s rights to the full extent that an anemic law and a dilute contract would allow, so long as the job­holder worked under that contract.

So?  Unions are being realistic.  What’s wrong with that?

Besides the impotence of the law and the deficiency of the contract, it’s not communirty, it’s not UNION.  The power of a community to identify and defend itself, and from there to provide the social supports that went beyond the narrow confines of legal protection for the isolated individual became a supererogatory activity that the Union was unlikely to engage in.  I’m talking about things like help for the un­em­ployed with job training and employment search … help with housing, … avoiding foreclosures, … securing day-care, medical, food, clothing and education needs … helping to organize the unorganized … taking on issues in the community where the union was located.  As Fletcher and MacAlevey say in the same Nation discussion:

 There are plenty of important structural issues that the rank and file could be engaging, including the on-going housing, credit, climate, public transportation, and child care crises. And there’s the matter of bringing the worker’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from unwinnable wars of aggression.

The Union was not grounded in people, but in the contract.  There was no “membership” for those who did not hold a job under contract.  And most cer­tainly there was no concern for those people and those “industries” that were unorganized.  Shops, workplaces, industries were strategically targeted for organizing drives because of the benefits that would accrue in dues and clout to the union corporation.  People are not blind.  They saw what was happening.  Unions had turned themselves into a “service-for-sale” industry and reduced the services they sold to the bare minimum necessary.  People’s apathy and antipathy grew in pro­portion.

A fourth of July picnic doth not a union make.  Many people are disappointed with the “nar­row­ness” of the Unions, but many others go even further and see them as just another “business” dedicated to its own success and profits, leaving working people defense­less as always, isolated and powerless in an inhuman system.  After the Union enters the picture, there is no more human community — no more collective muscle and no more brotherhood — than before.

The labor corporation

The big labor corporation selling the “American Dream” is fully integrated into the American Capi­ta­l­­ist system.  It exploits the “individual-happiness-through-consumption” mentality so neces­sary for the current economic machinery to work.  They call it “bread and butter.”  Any sugges­tion that “happiness” can only be found in true human community — that the super­fluous consump­tion urged by corporate advertizing is a scam and a rip-off — has the door slammed in its face as new age woo-woo.   The ability of the individual to earn and consume has been identified as “the American Dream.”  “Independence” has been redefined by the corpora­tions.

Besides, the big Union is itself a corporate enterprise with a service to sell and thus part of the com­mer­cial ruling elite.  Workers “shop” among labor Unions the way any individual client shops for a lawyer or an insurance company, and for the same reasons.  The big Union may actually do its job quite well, but there is no community … there is no human union, no power for people.  There is a corporate commercial enter­prise with a product to sell, and there are individual consu­mers who are forced by law to do their shopping with others from the same work­place.  But there is no neces­sary connec­tion among them.  “Union certifica­tion” is no differ­ent from any other commercial transaction except for the fact that the individual consu­mers must do their buying together.  But they buy as individ­uals, for their individ­u­al benefit, and only for the duration of this indivi­dual “job,” with this indiv­idual company, under this particular contract.  Should they get laid off, or change employ­ment even in the same field, their connection to the “union” dis­solves, because the basis of the connection was the individual workplace contract, not the commu­nity of the workers.  The “labor corpora­tion” does not exist to increase human social depth and empow­er­ment.  It exists to provide its individual dues payers with the minimum services neces­sary to maintain worker willingness to not “de-certify” … i.e., to keep on paying dues. 

It’s a question of who you think you are, i.e., how you define yourself.  Once you identify yourself as a commercial enterprise, all kinds of things tend to occur.  Consider … the greatest obstacle to the Union’s comfortable uninterrupted dues collection (usually witheld by the Company on payday) would be a hostile uncooperative attitude on the part of management.  The Union does not want that.  But neither does the Company.  It’s to the advantage of management to maintain good relations with the Union; it means they can shunt shop-floor grievances to the friendly Union rep and leave wage questions until contract time.  The arrangement has all the potential of a “sweetheart deal” between the Union and the Company.   And that is exactly what has happened in many cases.  As long as the union does not make life uncom­fortable for man­age­ment, management cooperates with the Union as much as it can.  And as long as the workers are quiet, the Union has no reason to demand higher wages, more bene­fits or greater job security and safety.  Given the nature of the relation­ships invol­ved it is not in the interest of the Union to press for im­prove­ments, despite the wide­spread belief that it does.  It’s a myth.  Think about it.   The reality is that under the current self-defini­tion of Union as provider of profes­sion­al services, the Union tends to  move only when the workers push it.  Worker-manage­ment co­op­er­ation was the explicit intention of American Labor law, set in stone by the big Unions’ acquiescence in the 1940’s, and we should not be surprised that that’s what we got.

Here’s a concrete example that I am familiar with.  A recent high profile drive for certification at a Southern pork plant was embar­rassed by the glaring presence of a nearby chicken processing facility — repre­sented by the very same Union — where wages were barely above the legal minimum.  “Why should we want the union,” asked the pork plant workers, “what did it get those people”?  Workers soon learn: if they want their “Union” to work for them, they have to make noise … the kind of adver­sar­­ial noise we all used to think was reserved for man­age­ment alone.  That doesn’t sound like union to me.  After the victory at the pork plant, wages re­mained what they were.  What the workers got was job security, including protection against arbitrary firing and harassment by line supervisors, a grievance procedure and better reponse to injury claims … not unimportant achievements to be sure, but there was no “up to 30% increase” in wages as touted during the organi­zing campaign.  I am not saying the Union negoti­a­tors who agreed to that contract should have or even could have done better under the cir­cum­stances; I am just pointing out the way things are.  The pork plant workers have a union, but they are still extremely poor disconnected people.

 Moreover, the fact that in this particular case the “victory” was achieved primarily through a “corpor­ate cam­paign”[3] and not through sustained shop-floor agitation, meant that the wor­kers didn’t “bring in” the union, the boss did.   The Big Union’s corporate campaign had persua­ded management that it was better to have a contract than suffer the kind of damage at the corporate level that another big corporation can inflict.  The boss permitted elec­tions to proceed unim­pe­ded.  Earlier attempts during the previous 15 years based on employee organi­zing alone had failed under the intimidating tactics of a management known to resort to violence in its interests. There was no “true union” among the 5,000 workers of this immense plant (and the surrounding community) strong enough to withstand the company’s onslaught and override the negative impact of a toothless labor law.  The cohesion need­ed for a shop-floor victory had not been achieved.  The “corpo­rate campaign” resulted in an agree­ment between big corporations ratified by an election, but it did not result in a human union — a community that had tasted and appropriated its own power. 

 As this is being written, ongoing organizing and worker education by a commit­ted local plant union committee may succeed in creating a “true union” that did not exist at the time of certi­fication.  Will the Big Union help them do it?  Or will it advise them to “stick to the bread and butter issues,” cooperate with management, and reject any thought of expan­ding the reach of the union beyond the the plant and contract to empower the lives of the workers and the community in which they live?  It remains to be seen.

 Anti-union?

 This essay was an attempt to understand what happened in Wiscon­sin on the 5th of June, but it was done in the interest of a much wider analysis.  Unions are perceived as selfish and spoiled.  If I point this out and try to fathom why, am I anti-union?  Not on your life!  What I am against is that unions, like so many of us, have bought into this economic system built on the corporate exploita­tion of the isolated indi­vidual both for labor and super­fluous consump­tion.  The Ameri­can individualist Dream is a con-game.  It’s purpose is to rip us off.  The obesity epi­dem­ic is symbo­lic.  The commercial propa­ganda that has us eating things we don’t need comes from the same sources that convince us that the key to the American Dream is to keep working as isolated pawns of the corporations.  It’s a Kafka-esque formula for suicide that the big Unions’ “bread and butter” goals do not challenge.   When was the last time you heard a Union thunder­­­ing against superfluous consumption and its advertizing?

It’s one thing to be forced to function within a retrograde system, it’s another thing to join it, run with it and seek to succeed in it on its own terms.  What I am against is the distortion of unionism that bought into the culture of individualism and individual consumption — the so-called American Dream — that is now suffo­ca­ting us.  It encourages union members to think narrowly about themselves and not about their brother and sister workers who share their destiny nor about the community where they live.  There is only one antidote to that toxic combination, and that is TRUE UNIONS.  We need unions that stand proudly for what they are and what they have to offer: the power of human com­mu­nity — a power that can change the world.   

 Union is not just a tool or a tactic, it is the answer to life.  Human community is the real American Dream.

Tony Equale