Time is a funny thing, especially how the same things seem to happen again and again.
In the early nineteenth century, the young United States of America was heading toward civil war. The practice of slavery had been accepted, but restrained from spreading further, by the Founding Fathers and the new American constitution. However, with the annexing of the new territories in Kansas and Nebraska, slavery was becoming a major fissure in the cultural landscape of the new nation. During the 1850s one of the presidential hopefuls, Henry Seward made a speech addressing the growing disparity between the wealthy slave owners in the South, and the emerging industrialized society in the north;
“There are two antagonistical elements of Society in America”, Seward proclaimed, “freedom and slavery. Freedom is in harmony with our system of government and with the spirit of the age, and is therefore passive and quiescent. Slavery is in conflict with that system, with justice and with humanity and is therefore organized, defensive, active, and perpetually aggressive. “Free labour” he said, “demands universal suffrage and widespread diffusion of knowledge. The slave based system, by contrast, ‘cherishes ignorance’ because it is the only security for oppression.”
The freedom that Seward referred to was the free, or non-slave, workers that toiled in the increasingly industrialized northern cities. What is striking about this passage is just how much the sentiments that Seward expressed resonate today.
Today we appear to be facing a parallel scenario to Seward’s, with a push from wealthy multi-national corporations and northern foreign-owned miners who want to spread their low-wage, low skill, high-profit form of business to every state on the planet.
This aggressive and well-funded movement born in American Capitalism now threatens Australian shores; Maurice Newman, chair of the Commission of Audit, attacks the Australian minimum wage, Tony Abbott dismisses of the importance of penalty rates, education reform is defunded and a ‘review’ is announced into the newly minted national curriculum, all nicely framed by ongoing disinformation from government ministers on the reasons for recent collapses in manufacturing in the southern states, all the while encouraging us to drink the trickle-down Kool Aid.
While these attacks on the backbone of a progressive society continue, it seems that there is little fight from either of the standing opposition parties, the ALP or the Greens.
Can we learn anything from the history of slavery and American capitalism? And in those lessons is there a blueprint for action that we can take now?
Suggesting that American Capitalism is rooted in the slave plantations of the past is not a new thing. Slave-grown and picked cotton was America’s most valuable export. Without which silver and gold from England and Europe would not have flowed so readily into U.S. Treasury coffers and the pockets of Northern factory owners, providing the much needed ‘capital’ for the growing nation. Modern management practices also can be traced back to slavers. Including time and motion studies, and calculating an employee’s worth against ‘unit labour costs’ to calculate productivity.
From this comes one of the central pillars of American capitalism; the practice of paying as little as possible for labour. With many corporations in America, most visibly WalMart and McDonalds, basing their entire business model on hiring unskilled workers that can be paid the absolute minimum.
The difficulty for the workers is that it is not enough. Recent debate in the USA has revealed that these corporations access billions of dollars in government welfare through their employees. Because they do not pay their workers a living wage, employees are forced onto welfare programs like food stamps. The fast-food industry alone rakes in a government subsidy of roughly $7 Billion per year, with McDonalds even having an employee advice line helping employees sign up to government welfare. These revelations have gone straight to the core of the argument over a living wage, workers rights and the real corporate welfare queens.
In light of this it can be seen that the only difference between Seward’s “two antagonistical elements” and our own is the deep hypocrisy in the arguments of wealthy ‘job creators’.
American, and Australian, elites insist on their quasi-religious, Ayn Rand infused utopian delusion that, instead of inheriting their wealth and profiting from the intelligence and work of generations of workers, they actually built their entire empires by themselves. This was perhaps best refuted by Bill Clinton when he responded to attacks on President Obama for his out of context “You didn’t build that”:
“The Republican narrative is that all of us who amount to anything are completely self-made . . . Bob Straus, used to say that every politician wants you to believe he was born in a log cabin he built himself. As Straus then admitted, it ain’t so.”
The economy and all the technological advances we enjoy today have been built by the skilled working and middle class that grew from the Industrial revolution in 19th century. The claim that higher wages hurt business is simply false. It was the massive movement of consumer funds from well paid industrial workers that created the base wealth upon which the post-WW2 industrialized economies have been built.
Without the capital drawn from taxes paid by thousands of workers the ports, rail, and roads built in the 1950s and 60s that transported goods would never have happened. Those same taxes paid for schools that trained up the next generations of skilled employees that businesses could then leverage into creating products and delivering services.
The profits that companies made in the last hundred years were not driven by a select elite purchasing high price items, but by millions of consumers and businesses buying and selling, working and living, increasing demand and driving growth and trade.
When a portion of the population cannot afford to live, then they cannot participate. When participation in the economy drops so does demand, with employment, trade and profits following soon after.
The rich will always maintain a degree of wealth and privilege. In many ways the elite still exist in a semi-feudal world where those on ‘their’ lands should be grateful for the opportunity to eke out a subsistence living. Thanks to their lofty position the wealthy are able enjoy their life regardless of economic conditions, as the businesses that service the wealthy operate in a very different space to the rest of the economy. They are often able to ride out recessions, and can simply transfer their wealth to another market or country if trade or economies collapse.
The working and middle class, on the other hand, are reliant on trade and education. The various accountants, tradesmen, managers, shop keepers, artisans, teachers, and lawyers require commerce and constant self-improvement to maintain their standard of living. Without trade the rich can still enjoy their lands and property without much impact on their life. However if trade declines or collapses, as seen in the Great Depression and recent Financial Crisis, the middle class and working classes are devastated.
One of the side effects of trade is exposure to new ideas. Trade also drives innovation and social progress, as both serve to create new markets and new consumers. All of this is a threat to any established elite, as social progress and greater knowledge builds further demand for equality. Not simply for equal rights for non-whites or non-heterosexuals, but for more equal representation in government, more equal access to opportunity, in short for a more democratic society. This evolution of more equality in representation is one of the things that the wealthy and political elite fear most. The American War of Independence and Civil War were fought over just these things.
The feudal world is a remnant that still hangs from our representative democracy. In many ways representative democracy is the half-way hybrid of feudalism and true democracy. We rely on a patrician class of political operators to work in our best interests, when in reality they are mainly working in their own self-interest and the special interests of their patrons. A more direct democracy would see be form of republicanism akin to ancient Athens where all citizens voted directly on bills or the young USA where the voice of the citizenry was a direction for action by their elected representatives. The attack on workers and education is an attempt to stave off this next logical step in social and political evolution to a more direct and effective democracy.
This is why religious conservatives and economic libertarians attack the means of sustaining a viable middle class. Poor education dramatically reduces opportunities for employment and advancement, and hamstrings innovations that may threaten the status quo. Cutting health care forces families to spend more of their income and time on caring for sick or elderly family members. Failing to invest in effective public transport creates a class divide between those who can afford a vehicle to access job opportunities and those who are trapped in a cycle of poverty due to lack of mobility.
Even now the decision not to build a national, equal-access broadband infrastructure is picking winners and losers. Those with fibre connections are already enjoying higher house valuations. Once again the inner cities will have the advantages, while the suburbs and regional cities – the tradition heartland of the working and middle classes – are relegated to second class citizens. How long until cuts to education, health, penalty rates and minimum wage see further collapse of employment options and standards of living in Australia?
For Seward and his contemporary Abraham Lincoln, the principal opposition party of the time was too weak to respond to the pro slavery Democratic Party and the loud threats and aggression from the southern states that demanded they be allowed to establish slave estates in the new territories ‘for the sake of the nation’.
Eventually there was a split, and many from the opposition Whig party joined with other more progressive groups to form the new Republican Party. Under this banner the nation set about a new path toward the equality promised in the American constitution. Civil war followed, but the USA emerged stronger and more vigorous than ever. What followed was over a hundred years of progress and growth that led the 20th century to be named the American Century.
In Australia the Liberal-National governments federally and in the states are filled with a similar aggression to their pro-slavery forebears, and are in a hurry to force their changes on our society before the sleepy masses awaken. A vocal opposition would do much to quicken this awakening and stifle the fuming vigour of the neo-libertarians.
Unfortunately, the Greens party seem too much interested in attacking the ALP to increase their market share. Meanwhile the corruption in the ALP Right and the union movement is currently hamstringing the pragmatic and progressive reform elements in the party, and the ALP is nowhere to be found except in lockstep with the right-wing unionists, vague statements on social media and irrelevant emails.
Now more than ever Australia needs a progressive political force that is unafraid to tackle the destructive policies and practices that are currently arrayed against Australia.
The ALP has split in the past; usually with right-wing elements peeling off to create new conservative parties, such as the United Australia Party; forerunner to the modern Liberal Party, and the Democratic Labor Party.
Perhaps now it is up to the progressive and Left in the ALP party to make a stand and plant a new banner that can be a rally point for the dozens of progressive micro-parties that sprang up at the last federal election, for environmentalists, for small businesses, for workers, for entrepreneurs. For everyone who wants better representation, not just in a leadership ballot but in building policy. For everyone who sees the threat arrayed against our nation and its future, and wants to do something about it.
Perhaps, once again, It’s Time.