Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Scraping By, Economic Tyranny, and the American Dream

That very word freedom, in itself and of necessity, suggests freedom from some restraining power. In 1776 we sought freedom from the tyranny of a political autocracy-from the eighteenth-century royalists who held special privileges from the crown…Political tyranny was wiped out at Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. Since that struggle, however, man’s inventive genius released new forces in our land which reordered the lives of our people. The age of machinery, of railroads; of steam and electricity; the telegraph and the radio; mass production, mass distribution-all of these combined to bring forward a new civilization and with it a new problem for those who sought to remain free
-FDR, 1936 Democratic National Convention

In his book Scraping By, Seth Rockman identifies that the position held by contemporary Americans concerned with economic social justice is neither radical nor progressive. Rockman examines the history of the early Republic, in particular the City of Baltimore, thereby revealing the political-economic tension between those who controlled capital, those who contracted their labor or the labor of their slaves, and how said tension was mitigated. He exposes two widely-held myths perpetuated in the highly cultural and dominant American narrative: (1) that wage labor was merely a temporary condition in which one was compelled to engage a priori to eventual, inevitable financial independence; and (2) that the racial politics of the early Republic gave preferential consideration to white workers, at the expense of blacks, free or enslaved. Rockman provides analysis and the identification of the economic, political, and legal disenfranchisement of wage laborers in early Republic Baltimore. In his sixth chapter entitled, ‘The Hard Work of Being Poor’, he offers two sentences that describe the life of the American worker, both past and present. Rockman states, In Atlantic seaports from Boston to Baltimore, the cost of living far outstripped what a single worker could earn through the most diligent labor[1], and that finding a job did not secure men, women, and children from the pangs of hunger or the shivers of winter, though it might postpone the threat of real privation for a time[2]. Our purpose here is to examine how the dominant theoretical narrative of America, its way of life, is so diametrically opposed from the practical reality offered by Rockman. As stated previously, the two sentences offered in the sixth chapter is a reality that has echoed throughout the United States via the Occupy movement. In short, they were relevant during the lives of the Founders as they are in our contemporary time. Since its inception, the United States of America has held a truly bipolar national character. Indeed, over its 236 years, it has taken and refused to imbibe the medicines of moderation, parrhesia, and practical wisdom into its body politic and thus its policies. In order for the American Dream to be restored in the minds of the People, economic tyranny must be conquered. Economic tyranny can only be conquered through Aristotelian practical wisdom. This is our purpose here.

Privation, or its threat, provides the preconditions of the Hobbesian state of nature. It has long been held that Thomas Hobbes created a mere theoretical concept, envisioned to offer some explanation as to the necessity of a social contract between ruler and ruled. For the political philosophers who have taught of the mythical nature of this concept, life through the command of birth have belonged to the social class of ease, wealth, and abundant political power. All too often it is the political philosopher who has been leading the process of acculturation which links his worldview to the canon he has learned, mastered, and taught. Most Americans in an academic position to encounter Rockman’s two, sixth chapter sentences would most likely respond with the notions of individualism, free enterprise, liberty, self-reliance, and again hard work. They have not known privation, and even more likely have incapacitated themselves in engaging in self-critical inquiry. Economic tyranny for these individuals is a political-economic impossibility. It is only a lack of capital or other form of necessity in which one can purchase food, clothing, shelter which creates, and continues to create, a practical reality where life is short, brutish, nasty. Yet the American political philosopher has been acculturated to accept the theoretical concept of John Locke as truth. He idealizes his nation, stating that in the state of nature, a community of property owners, each and individually, saw the necessity of codified law in government-the social contract. Now there exist American political philosophers, historians, and other social scientists that have another perspective that challenges the dominant, American narrative. These individuals know that privation creates a climate that seemingly invalidates the very idea of a social contract.

These new voices speak of Rockman’s reality. They know the lengths men and women will extend, with an incredible and determined energy merely to earn enough money to reside in dilapidated, unsanitary housing. They know that human beings will work to feed themselves the worst, the cheapest, and/or most available food. They will seek solace in whiskey, beer, ale, and the human touch of those willing to offer a paid expression of love. Others will concern themselves with nothing save of acquiring the necessary capital to improve their conditions, and that of their descendants, by any means necessary. Men will travel from distant places and kill their unknown brothers in humanity in order to claim his lands as their own. They will travel over oceans to enslave other members of their human family, and then create myths of the savagery of the murdered and the innate inferiority of the slave. Women will encourage, indeed compel, their daughters to engage in the most tedious forms of work for the lowest rate of compensation. Children are hardened by life, learning that it is their needs that matter more than family or the Natural Laws of Morality. Rockman writes working households teetered on the brink of disaster when one prolonged illness, one spell of unemployment, one brush with the law, one encounter with a slave trader, one particularly cold week, one accidental fire could mean the difference between staying afloat and dissolution[3]. And yet, with this being stated, far too many of this new perspective class of American political philosopher have found the correct answer to the wrong question, which subsequently leads to a true miscarriage of economic and political justice. As if man’s enterprising, resource accumulative nature is a product of the Enlightenment and in a truly sophomoric fashion, those of us from the humblest of origins, advocate the destruction of capitalism as a means of operating a political economy. A trend has developed that is often hateful of the United States in its entirety, which is merely a reaction that exacerbates our National Sickness.

Capitalism is not the great evil of the American society. It is the lack of the American Moral Economy, or as it is termed in our contemporary time, social democracy that lies at our societal ills. Rockman explores the methods within the early Republic that mitigated the tensions between capitalists and labor that are foreign to us today. For example, he states that it was the antithesis of Anglo-American culture for the market to set a ‘just price’ for necessities. It was the role of municipal governments to regulate the businesses that sold food, in particular that of bread.[4] Baltimore had a strictly regulated bread assize that ensured a fair profit to bakers, while ensuring that the poor would not be incapable of its purchase due to price. In another example, Rockman cites that in the harsh winter of 1805 wealthy citizens of Baltimore sent wagons into the countryside to be filled with wood, returned to the city, and distributed to the poor. Firewood was sold at the market price of five dollars per cord, yet due to it being one of the harshest winters; the wealthy understood it was their civic and religious duty to keep the less fortunate from freezing. The 21st century scholar could potentially view this as mere altruism or a veiled attempt at capitalists simply ensuring they’d have workers. Rockman dismisses these cynical ideas. He argues that a great many of wealthy citizens throughout the early Republic were concerned with the plight of those who could not realize the so-called American Dream. Men like Mathew Carey, Joseph Tuckerman, and others used philanthropic and religious rhetoric in a host of publications to highlight injustices created by the capitalist political economy of the United States of America, while simultaneously affecting the policy debate to ensure that the means to social uplift were available. There is a true lesson here.

For those concerned about economic social justice the realization that mankind has always sought to acquire wealth and power since the beginning of human civilization must be held as fact. In ancient times, three millennia before the birth of Christ, Plato wrote extensively about a great many of these issues in which we are compelled to grapple today. His Republic highlights issues of wealth and the access to political power it creates within a democratic system, regardless of its imperfections. Even within the democratic socialist republics of the recent Communist past, Milovan Djilas’ 1957 text The New Class and ideas espoused by Trotsky serve as evidence of socially-constructed inequality. Djilas and Trotsky realized that those with greater power and higher status within the Communist Party ate, lived, had their children educated at superior standards than their comrades who worked in the factories or farms of the nation. What those seeking economic social justice in the United States must comprehend is that critique is comparable to asking the wrong question, ripe with political cowardice, as to why; without the all more important and correct question being answered of what shall be done. Men are born equal, endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but almost instantaneously their positions on the social hierarchy of any and all nations make them either superior or inferior to others. Simply stated: men will forever remain unequal. What shall be done?

Rockman provides a method by which those of us concerned with economic social justice in an American political context can move closer to the goal of caring for the least of us, while protecting and ensuring the right of the most fortunate of us to acquire wealth within the capitalist political economy. The Moral Economy that is Social Democracy must be codified within the United States Constitution. The Conservative Christian must be reminded that he cannot serve two masters. He either prays to the alter of free market capitalism, while simultaneously creating myths that accuse his less fortunate brothers because they live on the brink of privation, or he truly embraces the politics of Jesus, takes the Gospel seriously[5], and creates a system by which social uplift becomes the responsibility of all Americans; the Christian, the Jew, the Muslim, and atheist alike. For any American to merely scrap by is a reality detrimental to our supposed cherished principles of Republican government. Rockman reveals that in spite of the horrible reality that existed for millions of people in Baltimore, there is a true, American ideal founded in the early Republic, which seeks to improve the lives of its citizens. It therefore cannot be called ‘socialism’, ‘foreign’, or ‘un-American’, but merely a forgotten principle for the nation to remain intact.

[1] Rockman, Seth: Scraping By, pg. 158
[2] Ibid. 159
[3] Ibid p. 172
[4] Ibid p. 175
[5] Excerpt from Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘Why I Oppose the War in Vietnam’, 1968 speech, Riverside Church.

written by Isma'il ibn Bilal

1 comment:

  1. Hello there, just became alert to your blog through Google, and found that it's really informative.
    I am going to watch out for brussels. I'll appreciate if you
    continue this in future. A lot of people
    will be benefited from your writing. Cheers!

    my web-site: ummah ()