Saturday, August 6, 2011

When Populism Goes Feral


Having neglected this blog to a certain extent while attacking the last chapters of the novel that has been throttling my summer the way a terrier does a rat, I hope to catch you all up now.  It's time to elaborate on my earlier elaborations.  Run for the exits, now, before the second paragraph heaves into view!

It may be that I was a little bit on edge about being termed a "lefty."  This was partly because I'm not, but it was also partly because I have spent a fair amount of time drifting around in societies ostensibly organized around "socialist" principles.  Starting in the nineteen fifties I began to drop into, cultivate friendships inside, hitchhike through, and in general draw my own conclusions  about what were called at the time the "Iron Curtain" communities.  These came to include East Berlin, Poland, East Germany, Yugoslavia, Hungary, and -- this was after the Berlin Wall came down -- Moscow, which I was invited by several ex-KGB generals to visit as an intelligence journalist.

Very little I ran into persuaded me that pure socialism -- that is, communities in which, as Karl Marx put it, the government alone owned and operated the 'means of production,' (factories, mines, etc.) -- had much of a future, there or here.  What I kept encountering was unbelievable environmental degradation and pervasive thought control, police states with terrified and unproductive and increasingly restive populations.  "They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work" was one prevalent explanation for the pitiful standard of living.

A section of the novel I just finished takes place in Cuba, which gave me the first opportunity to think about this fossilized remnant of what was once an egalitarian dream since dealing with the forces behind JFK's botched invasion of the island in Bobby and J. Edgar.  To understand what day-to-day life in the Pearl of the Antilles is about take a look at Havana Real by Yoani Sanchez, an gutsy and penetrating stay-behind  in rotting Havana.  Before Castro, under Fulgencio Batista, as Ben Corbett has written, "Soldiers shot and killed humans as if they were rodents.  The dinner conversation revolved around which politicians should be assassinated."

Nether Cuba holds much of an attraction, at least for me.  Both demonstrate what happens when one interest group in the population, whether an entrenched bureaucracy or a coalition of dominant property-holders, assumes all power and rules a society exclusively to advance its perceived immediate interests.   Reality gets blocked out -- Hitler was Stalin's soulmate in 1940, and Tea Party candidates like Michele Bachmann characterize global warming as a "hoax."

Only genuine pluralism, whether economic or political, in which competing ideas and interests can keep the process engaged enough to permit at least a minimum of truth to leak into our media, can give our flagging democracy a chance at survival.  Right-Wing think tanks are pushing model legislation on dumbed-down state governments which would outlaw collective bargaining and install right-to-work laws in much of the country.  What is left of the American labor union movement -- the historic counterpart to the corporate lobbying Leviathan -- is already a remnant, beaten to its knees and acceding to "two-track" contracts that undermine its surviving membership.  Wherever outsourcing isn't practical, robots do the heavy lifting.  The chairman at General Motors was pleased to point out the other day that labor costs have fallen to10% from  25-30% of the cost of most completed vehicles.

Where is this taking us?  Where are the jobs and the consumers supposed to come from?  Where will the middle class have gone?

If you know, by all means let me hear.


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