Stephen Williamson -- 06/16/96
In a private letter to me, my co-editor on AfterNoon, Bill Timberman, sees downsizing in political terms -- as a byproduct of the weakening ability of government everywhere, a weakening visible in the breakdown of its ability to tax those with political and economic power, and to regulate relations between capital and labor in multinational corporations.
I'm afraid that the future of corporations may well be war against the working class. As I said in that series of letters you asked me to excerpt some time ago, capital is now international, answerable to nobody (the stockholders are a joke), and in many cases more powerful than national governments. More powerful even than the U.S. government, I would say, as long as the people aren't inadvertently aroused. That's why I view the dilution of the Feds' power to tax with such alarm. It's no longer just a matter of being rendered ineffective as a humane redistributor of income -- I believe that soon it will lack even the resources necessary to keep tabs on what the corporations are doing. The situation is like the one you described years ago in your Nick Carter novel. The Fed's overseeing of a multinational is as much a contradiction in terms as the government of Sierra Leone overseeing what the CIA is doing in the countryside outside their capital.
This is bad news for labor, which is so easily divided. Organizing an international in the 21st century will be much more difficult than it was in Marx and Engels' time, and much more critical to the future of civilization.
This is bad news for labor, which is so easily divided. Organizing an international in the 21st century will be much more difficult than it was in Marx and Engels' time, and much more critical to the future of civilization.
I've been thinking about downsizing in another way -- in terms of "li" (a Confucian term which means "ritual" in a broad, deep sense of the word we don't have in English, but which can be roughly translated as "the social fabric" in this context) and in terms of the psychological and social adjustment which downsizing makes necessary. The attitude of denial and lack of adjustment by individuals and institutions (from unemployment insurance to school hours and schedules) when dealing with new or emerging facts is striking. President Clinton spoke a good deal about the implications of income disparity in the first year of his term, but with the failure of medical care reform, little has actually been done to help individuals during his presidency. This is very largely not his fault -- most of the blame lies in the anti-government feeling abroad in the electorate these days, and in the attitudes of the extreme Republicans who were elected as a result of it.
One remembers that when George Bush was at the height of his popularity after the Gulf War -- when his power to use the bully pulpit was at its highest, and it was time "to do something" with it -- he had nothing significant that he wanted to do. I think he mentioned a highway program, or something like that. The same thing occurred when he ran for a second term; he simply didn't have a focus for what he wanted to do next.
The issues around downsizing should be one focus of what President Clinton says he wants to do in his second term. He can talk about his economic successes in the first term, and still say it is this spectrum of problems that he wants to confront in the next. Fair or not, Whitewater setbacks suggest the need for a strong positive agenda. He should have something major on the table that needs to be done. The problems around downsizing and the job market (along with law enforcement) are areas of potential re-legitimation of the government, which in itself would be a plus.
The danger is that government, particularly national government, will become too weakened to deal with the major problems and crises that might arise. As of yet it's not so much losing the ability to do things, as the ability to do "anything interesting," and to take the initiative. Nothing the government currently does catches the imagination like the space program and the Peace Corps once did, and there is nothing on the horizon; government is doing nothing dramatic and exciting, large or small.
The decentralization advocated by extreme Republicans sounds good (except for a notable lack of emphasis on popular participation, it mimics the radical ideas of the sixties), but to give just one example, decentralization has had disastrous effects in New York City, particularly in the case of the Board of Education, where the public was not actively involved in the process. If the public is actively involved, decentralization can be a positive step.
In the case of the Republicans, the agenda isn't really one of decentralization. Republicans actually aim to shift power away from the national "liberal" elite to narrower, more parochial and conservative power holders and their lobbyists in the states -- not to the public as a whole. By restricting the Federal Government's power to tax, to set environmental standards and administer work safety regulations, they hope to dismantle social programs and set up a bidding war to replace them with fee-for-service offerings supplied by their friends in the private sector.
Power is not being shifted to an involved electorate; instead the federal government will be shifting vast sums of money to narrowly-based political power holders and their supporters (too often in any case), who haven't had the gumption to raise tax money themselves for necessary services, admittedly something terribly hard to do. How well money gets spent in such a situation is a question. A state government may or may not be "closer to the people," but it's not necessarily closer. A state government could reflect special interests and lobbies more than the federal government, and be without the balancing forces that come into play on the larger national scale. Size fairly often mitigates the influence of particular interests, because it includes so many more of them. Tobacco interests, for example, will never have the hold on the US that they have on Kentucky. In any case, what's being proposed is like giving state governments a vast amount of politically unearned "income." Some will handle it well, some won't, but it won't necessarily fix anything.
Say what you will about older power brokers of East -- George Bush's father being a classic example -- they had a broader vision of national interest than any local, more parochial, "oligarchy." The shift to states may work if the governor is good and legislators active and intelligent; otherwise it's a shift of power to the right, and to wealthy special interests. The countervailing forces Galbraith spoke of -- big government, big labor, and big business -- are pushed further out of balance.
It's hard to grieve for either big government or big labor, but we do know what has happened in the past when the system had a strong bias to the wealthy -- we know about the violence, revolution and social tension. We don't know what will happen this time -- there are many more "outs" than there used to be, and the whole system has grown wealthier and more complex. The consequences of policies are slower in emerging.
In the quote above, Bill Timberman uses the language of capital and the working class to emphasize the contradiction and conflict he thinks this process may revive. My own focus is different: what does downsizing do to the "li" of the society, the magical, noncoercive aspect of the social fabric based on reciprocity?
Consider the prospect of getting rid of older, more experienced workers and management from the point of view of its impact on the "li" involved.
Why haven't businesses always simply fired workers as they got older? If you put up lath or do carpentry, a 20 year old is better than a 50 year old. Why don't they fire auto workers when they turn fifty, or waitresses, or waiters? There has always been some of this. It's always been controversial, and sometimes produced a violent reaction. Unions have often been willing to shed blood over the issue of seniority, an issue which sometimes seems incomprehensible to outsiders.
What would happen if companies made a policy of getting rid of older workers? There are market effects to be sure, but the real reason such a policy hasn't been implemented is that it would lead to a radical breakdown of "li", the non-legal glue that holds society together. If such a thing were actually done, we can easily imagine the kind of revolt Bill mentions. Firing older workers is such a violation of the deep sense of reciprocity built into the social fabric that labor was able to legitimize its struggle with corporations (very much against the American grain), even when the practice wasn't consistent or widespread.
Reciprocity is fundamental to li, but it may or may not mean equality, and usually does not. I'm a good loyal worker, but you're not a good loyal employer. I have one kind of responsibility to you and you have a different kind to me, but it's still reciprocal. You can make more than I do and not violate the li, but you can't treat me as a disposable commodity. It's these older, pre-industrial forms (e.g. the concept of a "fair" price for something being different from the market price) which survive into modern times that are operative here. Neither the dynamics of labor conflict nor its consequences are strictly about economics, even though we're taught to view them that way.
There are now laws against age discrimination, in part because the li was breaking down around the edges. The li was protecting workers "generally", better than workers "individually." Companies could get rid of someone here and there, but not huge groups of workers.
What "holds" Japanese workers is not an economic bond, but a very ancient Japanese sense of li characterized by a fervent loyalty which sometimes seems odd to Westerners. There's a non-economically-rational self-sacrifice involved. Unfortunately, economists dominate the perception, the lensing, of this aspect of society, and they are enthralled with market theory. Market theory has much to recommend it in terms of its insight into the impact of economics on social relations, but in the case of Japanese society, it misses the most important fact: Japanese society is riding on a li that precedes industrialization, not on economic self interest; it's the self-sacrifice of individuals (which makes little rational sense for believers in enlightened self interest) which has, in the post-war years, led to a general prosperity.
Why don't Japanese CEO's take the kinds of huge salaries American CEO's do? It's because they will break the li, which entails "taking modestly" from the pot. If they got big showy portions for themselves then the "li of work" is broken. The li is that individuals take modestly from the whole pot -- not equally, but modestly and in proportion to their contribution.
From the left to the right, too much emphasis is being put on the economic underpinning of labor relations, and not enough on the process as a whole. This narrow focus threatens a radical breakdown of the li of work here in the US, of the sense of shared reciprocity.
Often executives are clearer and colder about the truth of this than workers are. A friend said to me, "When you fire dozens and dozens of people who have done a perfectly good job, you start wondering when it's going to be your turn, and you start looking for another job yourself." Another said to me, "My only reluctance in leaving (my company) is that I've brought so many people on board, but no one is ready to replace me yet. So I'd put them all in jeopardy if I left. My replacement might fire them. It's not like when my father worked. It's a different world."
So there is no corporate loyalty, but this manager still feels a personal responsibility to those he himself has hired; there is a sense of reciprocity here. He feels a loyalty to them and expects them to be loyal to him, though he might not say so. It's a good example of li -- there is nothing legally binding on him at all. But notice that it undercuts the corporation (it's not "corporation building"), in the same way clan or intense ethnic loyalties might undercut a state.
Executives understand that things have changed, that you can't count on loyalty or the unspoken li of mutual responsibility from a corporation, it's your contract that counts. Fortunately, executives are in a position to get contracts; the rest of the labor force is more vulnerable.
Top executives' salaries continue to rise as a result of market forces even when the salaries of workers and middle managers suffer a relative decline. They rise even when the company is doing badly. The connection between the fate of the company and its senior managers is broken -- they are often "hired guns," shifting from one company to another. In contrast to Japanese managers, they raise their own salaries while the company falters. Because they have been trained to think purely in economic terms, they are unaware of the damage they are doing, or of the fact that once the connection is lost at the top, the consequences will reverberate through the whole system in time. Downsizing is, of course, a world-wide phenomenon; even in Japan it is part of the arsenal which managers employ to defend themselves against the economic uncertainties of the global marketplace. Yet if it isn't counteracted by a concern for the individuals who are displaced, in time it will be as much a threat to the social fabric in Japan as it is now in the US. The surface li of Japanese society is different, but the underlying threat is the same.
Critics have complained that executive salaries are excessive, but have not asked the deeper question of what the acceleration of top salaries, while others remain stagnant, means in terms of its effects on the social fabric. It's going to have an impact far beyond the perception that CEO's are overpaid. That's the symptom, or a symptom, not the dis-ease.
How serious is the process we're seeing in its broadest long-term effects? Take something much less serious, like the US government spying on its own citizens in 60's and 70's, Watergate and so forth -- look how it reverberates through society, from the left then to right for decades! The conspiracy theories are just the tip of iceberg. Few who felt this illegitimate hand of government have ever felt the same about the government again. All this damage to the social fabric and the sense of trust on which it is based was done for what? What a tiny gain, if any, in security to do so much damage to the social fabric, the weave of li, which binds culture and society together.
Downsizing and the rest are going to have a radical and very long-term effect on the weave of our collective social fabric, on our sense of being in this country together, if they are not ameliorated by open, collective action to support individuals hurt by the changes. This action is best organized by government; the private sector doesn't see the need, or considers it a conflict of interest. Yet the truth remains: if a company has no loyalty to me, I'm inclined to have no loyalty to it. If society visibly cares nothing about me and those I care about, how much reciprocity will I feel I owe it? There are still the police, of course. Repression will work as well, and as poorly as it always has, but what we really need a society whose li is strong, whose social fabric is so well and fairly woven, that there is little need to use force. A society is not a family, but a society should have the virtues of a good family. That's the ideal, and that's the vision President Clinton should pursue.
It's not a simple matter however. A company can downsize to survive -- it has the "right" to do that. Yet even if its survival is at stake, it can still treat its employees as generously as possible. Imagine how it feels to be laid off just so the company can make more money and pay ever larger salaries to managers at the top. There will be consequences from this, and not just emotional ones. When it happens over and over again in different companies a fundamental perception changes, doubt about the system emerges. The response will be broken crockery further down the line -- immigrant bashing, support for punitive tariffs, etc.
When people complain about downsizing, and they aren't just complaining because it's happened to them personally, they're complaining about the violation of the li, the reciprocal loyalties of workers and managers. It isn't much comfort to be reminded by supporters of the status quo that this is a free enterprise system, that it makes economic sense to downsize, export jobs, whatever it is. The li is this: the workers will work well, the managers will manage well, the owners will "owner" well when the needs of all parties are recognized and attended to. Consider what happened in past when companies weren't generous...consider the names of the unions and radical movements, consider the broken heads, the pitched battles in the streets.
It was the companies' violation of the li that justified unionization and rebellion for many -- that made them doubt laissez-faire free enterprise either partially or entirely. A central virtue of the king (any leader) that we see praised from ancient times is generosity. Remember that the great disaster of Iliad happened because Agamemnon was greedy rather than generous, and chose to use his power as king rather than practicing the li of the Greek army. Achilles refused to fight, disaster followed. The complex struggle over the sharing of booty broadly parallels the struggle in American society today.
All this is already in its beginning stages -- it progresses in "quantum jumps," which makes the process difficult to monitor, or to address effectively. In the long term, I'm not pessimistic. Many Americans are adjusting, even though the process causes strain and anxiety beyond its immediate effects.
Consider the automobile industry. In the sixties and seventies American workmanship in cars was shoddy, workers were no longer "good" workers -- no longer worked well just because of the li that they were supposed to. There were stories of auto workers yelling "This one is for Jim" when they assembled a car for one their fellow workers.
The superior finish of the Japanese car reflected a stronger li, not the better pay of the Japanese worker, and certainly not the natural advantages of the Japanese economy. The inherited vision of Confucius, with its focus on li, built mutual responsibility deeply into Japanese society.
In the end, American cars improved because American auto workers saw that their vehicles couldn't compete, that their jobs and industry were in danger. American auto companies took measures to break down the sense of alienation and lack of worker responsibility for their product. The American social fabric of work improved, even though salaries didn't go up. The conclusion: people want to be responsible, and have an intrinsic interest in doing good work for its own sake unless anger or depression blocks them. (Wanting to do good work is the rule, irresponsibility is the exception. Shoddy work is often an indication that a culture's li has been weakened.)
Why else does something as simple as management-worker productivity meetings yield so much? The impact of such meetings couldn't be predicted by economic modeling alone. How else would you explain the improved performance of companies bought out by their employees? When I was flying TWA, the change that came about when employees bought the company was clearly visible, even though the company remained in deep trouble, and is still in trouble today. Ultimately, success will require not only collective ownership, but a corporate structure and culture which encourages responsibility at all levels.
So while the President has spoken of the effects of downsizing -- layoffs, loss of medical coverage, etc., any attempt by the government to shift, to deal with situation -- with money for life-long education and training, universal health care, or whatever -- has been blocked, and sadly is likely to continue to be blocked even if this next election is a successful one for the Democrats. The problem is first of all one of political awareness and education. People have to face up to reality of what's happening -- it won't help to blame their troubles on immigrants and welfare recipients.
The people hit the worst are older workers who been on the job longest, and despite all the social changes of recent decades, these are still primarily men in their forties, fifties and early sixties, although an increasing number of women are facing similar displacement. Unfortunately, it's these men and women who often seem the most resistant to ideas that will help -- whether it's the need for job retraining, or for medical and unemployment benefit security.
The roots of their resistance lie, I believe, in the loss of their ability to affect things, to control their own destiny through work, factors which are crucial to any definition of self. There is great virtue in such independence, in taking care of oneself and family without turning first thing to outside help, but it also hinders the development of the kind of support most people are going to need to deal successfully with the shifting marketplace. Many people are simply going to need help whether they want to admit it or not. The frustration and anxiety involved is going to circulate directly into politics, fueling the angry tone we see already. In addition to the traditional unemployment insurance, there needs to be, at least conceptually, a "re-employment insurance" for the downsized.
What can be done politically? Like everyone else, I see the gender gap in the polls, and it's here I see an opportunity for the President. Generally, one aims advertising where the issue is in doubt. Clinton has little need to advertise in New York, little chance of helping himself much with advertising in, say, Alabama, but in Illinois it might help him a great deal. If I were running the Clinton campaign, I'd suggest an ad campaign (and personal appearances by himself and the First Lady) aimed at reaching women through daytime television, where Democratic Party ideas of "family security" -- what is happening to women's husbands, brothers, sisters and friends who have been in the work force the longest -- will have its greatest impact.
I think women will listen to the right sort of ads. I think women are accessible on these issues, particularly the minority who are not currently working full time, and are therefore freed from some of the blocks which might prevent them from seeing what danger their families are in. You can say to them, "look what downsizing can do to your family, see what it can do when the major supporters of the family see their income cut in half." You can show ads of women talking about the kinds of things that have happened to friends and family, and you can say basically that even if your husband or brother or sister or friend doesn't think they have a problem, it's clear that they might very well need a governmental policy to help them.
I think that with this, and with other issues, the women's vote can be held for Democrats for a time. More importantly we can change the "morphic knots", which underlie the ordinary surface of politics. e.g., the resentments which are manifested in the hatred aimed at the First Family. Because the First Family is identified with the new, and the new has "stolen" the familiar from many people, hatred has built up against them as "thieves," against liberals in general as "thieves. It's not rational of course, but it does function powerfully. Republicans have played on a sense of threat and insecurity exceptionally well in the past, but they have done so with a masculine spin that they don't realize they have.
Women have a different visceral sense of what constitutes security than men do, one which fits our present situation and dangers somewhat better than men's generally does. Look at the Republican desire for more defense spending, in the face of a huge decline in enemies. They are now beginning a new campaign for Star Wars. How much defense spending would it actually take make them feel safe?
Men have had built into their bones for millennia a certain sense about physical security based on (armed) strength, reinforced personally when they are attacked when young by bullies and older boys, or see others attacked, and learn that being "good" or nonprovocative doesn't necessarily exempt them from a beating.
We have all seen what happens to the weak, what still does happen to anyone who doesn't have power. I'm not trying to deny that power matters, but I am saying that the US has no major enemy now. Often a psychological lack of security is misperceived, very genuinely, as a physical lack of security. Having larger and larger guns to protect us from fewer and fewer enemies is almost a joke. Nevertheless, the ridicule of the left has not broken this perception/feeling, because the psychological insecurity which underlies it is real. It's the change in the psychological/social world which makes people feel endangered. Almost all of us have experienced this, even the "normal folks" (if indeed there are any left.) We need a more balanced perception of what constitutes security.
Extreme Republicans -- Newt and the rest -- have become unpopular with extraordinary quickness. How can this be understood? Why did calling them "extreme" have such a powerful effect? Not because it was clever, not even because it was true and accurate. (Note that this labeling had to be phrased very carefully -- avoiding the term "extremist," for example, which through overuse had lost its political energy.) The real reason was that Republicans has arrogantly violated the li of "containing partisanship." By shutting down the government, they had threatened the cooperation that is essential to democratic processes, and the gesture was understood as such by a broad cross-section of the voting public, not just by their Democratic opponents.
Many people, possibly more women than men, other things being equal, don't like the extreme tone of the Republican right -- its anger and narrowness make many people feel less secure rather than more secure. That's one reason for the depth of the public's reaction. Most people don't like working for or with those who are angry all the time. Individuals who are extreme, narrow, and dogmatic run counter to the li of good leadership. Such behavior is instinctively distrusted in a leader, as much or more so than weakness is.
On the other hand, the anger and unreasonableness attracts the disenchanted and frustrated, especially when it's rationalized and sugar coated for them. They like the feeling that anger is overriding the facts; they enjoy that feeling of choosing to be unreasonable -- it causes a tremendous reduction of anxiety, as effective as drugs or booze. But when these same people see what these extreme, narrow, and dogmatic officials whom they elected actually do once they are in power, they become concerned, insecure themselves with such a style of leadership, which so obviously violates the ancient sense of what a good leader is.
I think that women like the idea of putting more police on the street, but they aren't likely to support unrestricted gun ownership. Shown pictures of cops and assault weapons, the choice of which to put on the street will not be based just on ideology. I think ads on daytime TV can coalesce and "fix" those opinions. In very conservative areas, "Let's put another hundred thousand cops on the street" can be a powerful campaign issue, if framed correctly by conservative, but reasonable Democrats.
The Republican Party strategists seem always to have understood the sort of "morphic knots," underlying security better than Democrats. They have known how to push the hot buttons, and Democrats have seemed ineffectual in response. Still, despite all their sophisticated demographic research, the buttons the Republicans have been pushing are based more on gender perceptions than they realize. I think you can even make a good case that men's views on security have also begun a subtle shift.
In any event, women probably hold the key to shifting the ground on issues, like security, that have been always formulated with a masculine spin. It could happen in this election. If the idea of security could be refocused and redefined in a more gender-balanced way, it might open up the possibility of a broader-based policy shift toward the center during President Clinton's second term.
One needs to look at areas where the President is not blocked. For example, even though his ability to initiate legislation is severely restricted by a Republican Congress, the use of bully pulpit is still open to him. Ironies abound too -- the President is certainly not blocked when it comes to positioning the party for the "election after this one." Republicans will focus on winning the upcoming election, and of course to a greater or lesser extent the administration must do so too. Yet when all is said and done, the President will probably not be faulted by the electorate for attempting something broader and more idealistic, such as using this campaign as an educational tool to set the stage for his next term. He may win, or he may lose, but to have a memorable Presidency, he has to take some chances during the campaign.
If I had the President's ear, I'd agree that he needs to focus his advertising on getting elected, but I would also suggest using a portion of it to make a case for the initiatives he needs support for in his second term. He should try to reach women in particular with as much advertising (and personal appearances by Mrs. Clinton) as possible on the issues of downsizing and dealing with social change. He should project a new, "gender-balanced" sense of what constitutes "family security," and he should have a plan for achieving it. Republican strategists will attempt to counter the administration's narrower intention (getting reelected) but in doing so, they may neglect to counter the broader educational aspect of the advertising, which could serve to amplify exactly those issues that work well for Democrats.
The President needs to go into the election with a vision of what needs to be done, of an America that has the virtues of a good family. His support among his core constituents, his most fervent and influential supporters, is ebbing as the move to right shifts the center of the political argument. How much of an effect this shift will have I don't know -- the numbers are small, but the individuals involved are charged, active and influential, and clearly some still support him only because they are genuinely frightened about what extreme Republicans would do if they controlled both the legislative and executive branches of the Federal Government. A positive vision could help broaden his political base, and do much to counter the waning support among those who have moved toward the Republicans on the basis of the social issues -- abortion, crime, immigration, etc.
When all is said and done, there is a difference between being popular and having the power to influence the future development of your society. Saddam Hussein can manufacture a cult of the personality in his own country, but none of his supposed popularity, or its fruits in public policy, are likely to outlive him. Similarly, much of what the President has done is seen as smart politics, and respected in a limited way, but he has yet to make his mark on the country. He's being forgiven among his supporters because of the sight of the extreme Republicans just over the hill, but if he wants his Presidency to count, he has to take a risk; he must use the power of the "bully pulpit" now to do things as well as to exhort people. Otherwise his campaign may well be seen as little more than the usual soothing talk we've come to expect from incumbent presidents.
William Timberman -- 10/27/96
Citing Marx in the 90's is, I admit, a quixotic enterprise. The language of Marxism isn't heard much these days; with the most determined of our Marxist adversaries now defunct, the last of the grand ideological "isms" with which our century began has finally passed into silence. To be honest, I don't think that either will be greatly missed. Ideological systems have proven too rigid, too self-contained, to explain the human condition as we actually experience it, and the armed bureaucracies of their self-proclaimed interpreters have proven too self-centered, too cruel to endure. If we know anything at all at the end of the twentieth century, it is that our survival will depend on an understanding of ourselves more subtle -- and more flexible -- than ideology alone can provide.
For the moment, though, we find ourselves in the hands of Philistines. As Steve rightly points out, the present custodians of our society -- the people who boast about meeting payrolls and paying ever-increasing dividends to their shareholders -- focus more often on the short-term needs of their business enterprises than on the long-term needs of human civilization. Human nature being what it is, even among corporate CEO's, they also tend to favor their own comfort -- and that of their friends and acquaintances -- to the nurture of widows and orphans. This isn't a new phenomenon per se; what's new about it is that the institutions which used to embody and defend alternate values -- the church, the family, and the body politic -- have been undone by the conditions of modernity.
In my view, the catch-phrases of the moment, "downsizing," "outsourcing," and "global competitiveness" add up to little more than the old notion that what's good for General Motors is good for the USA. I wonder if our business leaders really have any idea what it will mean to change careers 6 or 7 times in the course of our lives, to finance our own continuing education, our own medical care and retirement. Do they have any idea of the social cost of uprooting families every couple of years and moving them to Atlanta, to Krakow, to Singapore? Do they really intend for their workers to foot the entire bill?
I wonder if this isn't really what's at the root of the present split in the Republican Party. The "family values" of the party's right wing aren't likely to flourish in families where both parents spend their entire working lives navigating the precarious no-man's land between the headhunter and the pink slip. Childless careerists with a passion for capital accumulation and a penchant for living out of suitcases will love Newt Gingrich's version of "American civilization;" the families defended by William Bennett and Pat Buchanan are likely to find it both alien and hostile.
Steve is certainly right when he asserts that many of our most deeply-held values predate so-called "corporate cultures." He may also be right in believing that these values will eventually reassert themselves; that the pendulum will again begin to swing away from the latter-day social Darwinism espoused by Newt Gingrich, et al.
My fear is that it won't be soon enough. The problem -- as always -- is power. Power in the modern age is economic and technological to a degree unprecedented in history; the instrumentalities of power, for those who can afford to wield them, are terrifying in their scale and finality. I'm not talking here about military power, but about the kind of power which closes a plant in Ohio and walks away from the people who worked in it, which cuts down all the trees in Oregon to make disposable chopsticks for the Asian market, or blackmails a state legislature into building plants and eliminating taxes for its fugitive corporations. I'm talking about companies which mandate drug and lie-detector tests for their workers, make non-smoking a condition of employment, require "family counseling" with a company psychologist for employees with marital problems.
It's no secret, surely, that the Bill of Rights is valid only outside an American's place of employment. On the job, the employer makes the rules. If a company decides that the social behavior, appearance, or medical history of its employees affects its bottom line, it is generally free under the law to exclude or discipline those who don't meet its standards.
It is often argued by economic conservatives that employees who don't like these conditions can look for other jobs, or start their own businesses. Technically this is true, but in a mature post-industrial economy it is likely to be cold comfort. Except for the favored few whose technical skills make them widely employable, the economic dominance of large corporations may well force workers to accept even more oppressive conditions of employment, and make access to the capital and experience necessary to start successful businesses even more problematic than it is today.
There is another alternative, of course. In democratic countries, the power of the ballot can redefine the social contract between capital and labor -- can protect people who work for a living from being forced to place their lives entirely at the disposal of those who don't. In the post-World War II era, it seemed for a time that such a redefinition was in fact taking place. The rise of social democracies in Europe, the institutionalization of fair labor codes, social security and other legacies of the New Deal in the United States, made it appear that an equitable balance between capital and labor could be peacefully worked out.
Unfortunately, that balance is gone, and worse still, it may never be restored. The reasons are complex; the existence of a global market for labor, with huge wage differentials between countries, the ease of electronic capital transfers from market to market, the decline in influence of institutions based on non-economic value systems -- it's a long and depressing list.
Like it or not, we are now embarking on a "New World Order" more complex and problematic than any George Bush seems capable of imagining, with consequences for all of human civilization which at this point are difficult to foresee. At the moment, international capital, with a coherency of motivation and an economic power unmatched even by national governments, seems likely to have its way. If the tax structure or environmental legislation or wage rates in the United States and Europe are not to its liking, it will move its operations to Sri Lanka, or Azerbaijan, or Guatemala. If there are political repercussions, it will hire lobbyists, buy advertising on national cable networks, increase its contributions to elected officials.
The rest of us will sit in our living rooms, watching TV, and wonder when someone will come along and describe the world we live in, offer us a way to cope with developments which our leaders seem unwilling, or unable to understand. We know that something must be done, but we don't know how to begin.
It seems to me that we should begin this way: we should agree that even though religions and "isms" have failed us, it doesn't follow automatically that we should reject any value which cannot be measured in dollars. We should also recognize that whatever we come up with will have to be valid across cultural and national boundaries, provide as much comfort to the poverty-stricken of the third world as it does to us. We should be willing to make common cause with anyone who believes that a lasting balance between freedom and responsibility cannot be achieved by force.
We cannot depend on our current leaders to do this for us; they are far too busy congratulating themselves. With the last of Marx's ugly children finally deposed, and their "ism" discredited, our captains of industry now inhabit a world made entirely safe for their economic adventures. For the first time in decades, they are free to imagine themselves in glass-walled corner offices on the upper floors of this or that corporate headquarters, their way clear as far as the eye can see. They will command the future, while the rest of us, far below, will content ourselves with coming to work on time and doing what we're told -- what their economic enterprises demand of us. The sad fact is that unless we call it into question on a global scale, they now have the power to enforce this tragically shallow vision of our common future.
As I said in the letter which Steve quotes from at the beginning of this thread, I'm not sanguine about our chances. Working people live their lives in relative isolation from one another; their concerns are necessarily familial, local. This is as true now as it was when Marx and his associates founded the first International more than a hundred years ago.
Nevertheless, no power can be exercised successfully in the long term unless it is founded on principles which are meaningful to the majority. If power per se cannot be challenged, its legitimacy can at least be questioned. What we need is many "internationals" -- informal, extra-governmental systems of communication which can articulate human values free from the usual grinding of nationalist and economic axes. Perhaps the Internet will turn out to be one of the instruments of our defense; certainly it seems to have that potential. In any event, the time to begin is now. If we are to avoid being reduced to "human resources," we'll have to turn off the TV and get busy. I wish all of us the best of luck.