When flipping through the cable TV channels, it’s not unusual to find a pride of African lions getting ready to feast on Cape buffalo. Sometimes we’ll see several lions take down a buffalo while the rest of the buffalo in the nearby herd appear to stand around like idiots. At other times, a second buffalo will come to the rescue of the downed and chewed up animal, followed by more and more members of the herd, until finally the lions are sent running for their very lives. Watching this behavior, we want to say, “What took you so long?” Let this scenario percolate.
Elsewhere on cable, the History Channel features a fascinating account of Caligula, an emperor of ancient Rome, who ruled for four years, committing some of the cruelest, deadliest, and most humiliating acts against members of the Roman senate one can imagine. On and on he goes, increasing the severity of each punishing deed, with contempt and utter disdain for the very existence of members of the ruling class in name only. Caligula put people to death arbitrarily and ravished the wives of senate members in their presence, even at one point declaring himself a God and demanding that he be worshiped.
In similar circumstances, murderous dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Muammar Gaddafi, Idi Amin, Pol Pot, and Saddam Hussein, all stayed in power surrounded by people afraid to challenge them, even when it was clear that it would doubtless cost some of them their lives.
Throughout history we can find horrid examples of groups of people being guarded by only a few individuals with weapons as they approach a place where others ahead in the same group are being executed in plain sight. Those remaining meekly allow themselves to be killed without resisting or fighting back, even though, with their numbers, they could easily overpower their guards.
The very essence of freedom is derived from working for oneself. In the 1800s working for wages was suspect, fraught with danger, and considered psychologically traumatic
Now, once you compare these examples and think it through, what jumps out at you is the reality that, compared to human beings, buffalo are more decisive and quick to act. There were attempts on Hitler’s life, and Caligula was eventually assassinated, but you have to wonder why, in the name of human courage and decency, it took so long.
I use these examples to examine the way we Americans relate to power, resist oppression, and react to threats. In The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, Steve Fraser shows how, over time, we slowly but surely have ceded our willingness to assert ourselves and resist oppression.
The ethos of American identity as being fiercely independent and self-reliant came into full bloom in the nineteenth century with the likes of Abraham Lincoln, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Herman Melville, and Henry David Thoreau. It was a time when the lifestyle expectations of individuals were markedly different from those of today. A person from that era would have difficulty communicating with someone now without both being shocked by the divergence of their worldviews.
The psychological and perceptual distance between then and now can best be understood through Abraham Lincoln’s opinion that people destined to work for wages without being able to extract themselves from such restricting circumstances would live in bondage—a new form of bondage that was similar to slavery but not as severe. Lincoln deemed labor a sacred virtue, and his idea of freedom included both the right to strike and the hope that individuals working for wages would eventually be able to free themselves from such subjugation.
Studying the troubled history of labor puts today’s economy in a new light. In the mid-nineteenth century, the vast majority of people lived and worked on farms and in small shops. Even in the worst of economic times, they were still able to scratch out a living. Only a very small percentage of the population worked in manufacturing.
Lincoln believed that it is only through labor that we get most of what we really need and that the very essence of freedom is derived from working for oneself. Leaving the farm and working for wages was suspect, fraught with danger, and considered psychologically traumatic. Lincoln thought labor should always trump capital in value, precisely the reverse of present-day economics. Industrialization had a devastating effect on the actual freedom of individuals.
Earning wages enabled people to buy things in a way they never had before, but in recent times, as 30-year home mortgages and myriad credit options became a part of everyday life, the loss of independence for individuals has become psychologically threatening. These days, being indentured to debt is accepted as normal, but with it comes a dramatic loss of independence. House payments and credit card debt make it very difficult to defy one’s boss, and the deeper in debt one goes, the more submissive one has to be. Goodbye herd, goodbye resistance, goodbye unions.
If working conditions are dangerous and one is deeply in debt, it is increasingly likely that risks will simply be accepted as part of the job. Drive by a subdivision of nice homes and well-manicured yards, and it’s philosophically worth noting that the occupants of these structures be disciplined but also obedient, often amounting to a blind deference to authority. The most important lessons from history suggest that equitable economics require constant negotiation, and if an imbalance of power moves too far in any direction, freedom for some will be diminished.
Today we witness a continuous public outcry about government overregulation in the workplace, and indeed some of the criticism is valid. But knowledge of the history of labor is critical for perspective. In the ninetieth and early twentieth centuries, thousands of workers died every year when industrialization began to overtake agriculture. As Fraser points out, between 1890 and 1917, 158,000 railroad employees were killed on the job. In one year, 20,000 were injured and 2,000 killed. In the transition to industry, millions of children began working for wages, including toddlers in some cases.
In the nineteenth century, convict labor for private profit was a growth enterprise. Working conditions were in many cases comparable historically to a Soviet prison gulag. Unions were created to give working people a voice. During the transition from an agrarian lifestyle to industrialization, there were numerous public uprisings and protests that turned violent. By comparison, these examples would make the recent Occupy Wall Street movement look like a children’s birthday party.
Group solidarity today, unfortunately, is fractured by diversity. The workforce is too distracted, too scattered, and membership is splintered into so many small factions that a consensus to mount an effective protest is often too hard to come by. Too many echo chambers drown out cries for help.
More importantly, today’s workers are unaware of any other ways to live. Working for wages or starting your own business and being indentured to debt is all they have ever known. The nineteenth-century lifestyle of a very real sense of independence is long forgotten.
We don’t have to go out on a limb to guess what Lincoln, Emerson, Thoreau, and Melville would have said about America’s most successful companies legally paying wages so low that their employees are eligible for food stamps. They would be appalled, just as we should be. They would likely have deemed it a form of feudalistic slavery. Moreover, they would have scoffed at the notion that this is an issue about market freedom. It’s legally contrived exploitation plain and simple.
Today’s labor concerns make a mockery of Emerson’s notion of self-reliance. When minimum wage jobs are all that’s available, and demand for goods and services are severely depressed, self-reliance defaults to a matter of survival in circumstances that make the notion of self-sufficiency subject to cynicism and sarcasm.
During America’s labor uprisings, the majority of citizens shared the same lifestyles, expectations, and aspirations about work and leisure. Today, we have echelons of economic classes with nothing, whatsoever, in common.
Making an effort to understand history is a good way to put our collective behavior in the kind of context that will garner more cooperation and make us more vigilant and assertive. It’s time to come together and stand up to those whose economic advantage has been legislated into existence as a privileged entitlement. It’s time for the herd to come together and act decisively.