FOR WHAT IT'S WORTH (11-5-2012)
While partaking in
the occasional meme, I have thus far been disinclined to openly endorse
a candidate. Past political debacles
tend to keep me away from the general futility of online persuasion.
But something happened in 2010 which drives me to post something that all voters must consider on Tuesday. One of the most powerful abilities possessed by the President of the United States is the appointment of justices to the Supreme Court. These justices serve for decades beyond their appointment, and wield immense power over our rights as Americans.
In the 2010 case Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, a 5-4 majority decided that corporations have the same right of free speech as citizens. In effect, they extended the 1st amendment (and parts of the 14th amendment) to entities which do not eat food, breathe air, or have a predetermined average lifespan. In short, they handed the right to speak out on issues which affect living beings to creatures who will not be affected by those issues, or at least not in the same way that living beings will.
This disturbs me. Think it through logically, and it will disturb you, too.
It also disturbs me that the 5 justices who voted in favor of this redefinition of rights were nominated by Republican presidents, although I will give Justice John Paul Stevens (a Gerald Ford appointee) great credit for not only dissenting with the majority vote, but also reading that dissent forcefully from the bench. All Democratic presidential appointees (including the sole Obama nominee at the time, Justice Sotomayor) dissented.
Mitt Romney’s record, and even his words (“Corporations are people, my friends”) indicate that any Supreme Court appointments that may take place under his watch would further solidify the concept of non-humans dictating human affairs. We’ll hear some words from John Steinbeck about what that means in a moment.
But consider this: Four of the nine Supreme Court justices are over 70 years old. There is a very real possibility that whichever candidate wins on Tuesday will determine the shape of Supreme Court decisions for generations.
I offer this as the president’s central selling point for a very simple reason. The focus of this year’s campaign is on improving the economy and job creation. I am here to tell you that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney have much ability to do either.
This is not a personal criticism of either man, or even their leadership abilities. It is an acknowledgement that the forces charting the world’s current economic course are vast beyond any national leader’s control and have been at work for over a century, picking up steam in the year of my father’s birth, 1945.
Well before that, the mechanization of labor was recognized as the primary engine for economic and social change in the industrial world, which at that time was mostly Europe, America, and the client states of those entities. H.P. Lovecraft went so far as to dent his own conservatism by fretting out loud about what may befall the men put out of work by machines. In the 1930s, he wrote this:
“In surveying the effects of mechanis’d industry upon society, I have been led to a certain change of political views…With the universal use and improvement of machinery, all the needed labour of the world can be perform’d by a relatively few persons, leaving vast numbers permanently unemployable, depression or no depression.”
The labor movement was an early indicator as well. The robber barons knew even then that the work of many men could eventually be brought down to a small group of machines and a supervisor, and only fear brought them, briefly, to consider the human cost. It was a similar fear that brought about the New Deal, this spectre of too many idle hands with too little bread in their bellies. The march towards mechanization continued apace, though, from farms to factories and beyond.
This brought with it an even more alarming companion: The growth of the corporation as person.
John Steinbeck knew this in the 1930s:
The owners of the land came onto the land, or more often a spokesman for the owners came…Some of the owner men were kind because they hated what they had to do, and some of them were angry because they hated to be cruel, and some of them were cold because they had long ago found that one could not be an owner unless one were cold. And all of them were caught in something larger than themselves…If a bank or a finance company owned the land, the owner man said, The Bank-or the Company-needs-wants-insists-must have-as though the Bank or the Company were a monster, with thought and feeling, which had ensnared them. These last would take no responsibility for the banks or the companies because they were men and slaves, while the banks were machines and masters all at the same time. Some of the owner men were a little proud to be slaves to such cold and powerful masters. The owner men sat in the cars and explained.
“You know the land is poor. You’ve scrabbled at it long enough, God knows.”
The squatting tenant men nodded and wondered and drew figures in the dust, and yes,they knew, God knows. If the dust only wouldn’t fly. If the top would only stay on the soil, it might not be so bad.
The owner men went on leading to their point: “You know the land’s getting poorer. You know what cotton does to the land; robs it, sucks all the blood out of it.”
The squatters nodded-they knew, God knew…
Well, it’s too late. And the owner men explained the workings and the thinkings of the monster that was stronger than they were. “A man can hold land if he can just eat and pay taxes; he can do that.”
“Yes, he can do that until his crops fail one day and he has to borrow money from the bank.”
“But-you see, a bank or a company can’t do that, because those creatures don’t breathe air, don’t eat side-meat. They breathe profits; they eat the interest on money. If they don’t get it, they die the way you die without air, without side-meat. It is a sad thing, but it is so. It is just so.” …The bank-the monster has to have profits all the time. It can’t wait. It’ll die. No, taxes go on. When the monster stops growing, it dies. It can’t stay one size.”
The squatting men looked down again. “What do you want us to do? We can’t take less share of the crop-we’re half starved now. The kids are hungry all the time. We got no clothes, torn an’ ragged. If all the neighbors weren’t the same, we’d he ashamed to go to meeting.”
And at last the owner men came to the point. “The tenant system won’t work, any more. One man on a tractor can take the place of twelve or fourteen families. Pay him a wage and take all the crop. We have to do it. We don’t like to do it. But the monster’s sick. Something’s happened to the monster.”…
The tenant men looked up alarmed. “But what’ll happen to us? How’ll we eat?”…
“We know that-all that. It’s not us, it’s the bank. A bank isn’t like a man. Or an owner with fifty thousand acres, he isn’t like a man either. That’s the monster.”…
“Sure,” cried the tenant men, “but it’s our land. We measured it and broke it up. We were born on it, and we got killed on it, died on it. Even if it’s no good, it’s still ours. That’s what makes it ours-being born on it, working it, dying on it. That makes ownership, not a paper with numbers on it.”
We’re sorry. It’s not us. It’s the monster. The bank isn’t like a man.
Yes, but the bank is only made of men.
No, you’re wrong there–quite wrong there. The bank is something else than men. It happens that every man in a bank hates what the bank does, and yet the bank does it. The bank is something more than men, I tell you. It’s the monster. Men made it, but they can’t control it.
In fact, taking that Steinbeck quote and placing it next to Lovecraft’s, you don’t even really need me to tell you what ended up happening. But I will.
The pivot upon which the 20th century turned was World War II (although arguably it was an unresolved WWI, but I digress). Specifically the year 1945. By the end of that year, the United States of America owned fully half of the world’s wealth. There was a clear reason for this: The rest of the industrialized world lay in great heaping piles of rubble. Add to that the ready availability of domestic oil and the geographic isolation of the world’s largest economy, and the stage was set for a whole new standard of expectations for “normal life.”
In the absence of any meaningful economic competition (not military, as the Soviets were bankrupting themselves to out-arm us), the two generations preceding mine were offered a wide-open vista of opportunity (particularly for the white male, but again with the digression). Feeding off the fat of the land, they built a house that was expected to keep adding new wings for many years to come.
It was at this point that President Eisenhower gave his famous farewell address, warning us of the military-industrial complex. We did not listen, and this has hastened our economic decline.
The crucial consideration, however, eluded us: The rest of the world was, inevitably, going to recover from World War II. By 1973, the U.S. share of the world’s wealth had gone down noticeably, and our lack of control over energy availability was laid bare in the gas shortages of the late ‘70s.
Now, the story goes that along came Reagan and the good times came back. But this is simply not so, not in the strict sense. The good times were, instead, put on a credit card, to be paid back at some undetermined time in the future when the good times would come back for real. This policy continued undiminished through the Clinton administration and into the Bush II years.
I have done it myself. Jobs change, income gets wobbly, and instead of taking a lifestyle hit, you throw a bit more onto the card. Kick the can down the road. And this is not a partisan problem. It is a paradigm shift that neither party wants to recognize head-on, at least not in the halls of the legislative and executive branches. The good old days will come back. They have to. We have no plans if they don’t.
So when it came to the last test, the Supreme Court of the United States, it was decided. These beings who are like men but are not men, who can’t eat side-meat, who will live long after their component pieces are rotting in the ground, they are our new citizens. They are the ones who will shape the future, for only they will still be around to see it. They and their lucky retinue of arms and legs who call themselves humans, who work for the company and yet are not the company.
In 2008, western culture experienced a brief moment of clarity. The bill was due. I saw it from my window at the bank, composing damage control for lawyers. But we were too big to fail. As Jon Stewart noted, if someone owes you a billion dollars, they’ve got a problem. If someone owes you a trillion dollars, YOU’VE got a problem.
But the east has no better idea of how to forge a better future than the west does. Their new expectations for “normal life” are just as unsustainable as ours were/are, and built on even more slippery ground, i.e. the continued expectation that for every product, there is a buyer.
The skills for self-preservation have been lost in a few short generations. My grandparents grew up on a farm, knew when to plant, when to harvest, how to preserve and replant. The skills I and my age cohort developed were suited to a world where machines did that work for us, and our minds were turned to the coming age of “brain jobs,” the service sector which is being siphoned off to lower bidders in newly-developed countries at a faster rate even than manufacturing.
The so-called Greatest Generation, the survivors of the Depression and WWII, only forgot one thing: Nothing lasts forever. Their children have been forced to learn it late in life, the lesson stinging home as dwindling retirement funds are now being plundered to maintain the clearly unsustainable lifestyles now considered the low baseline for happiness.
In accordance with this trend, the mechanization of labor has now begat the mechanization of opinion. In the words of Reuben Blades, we risk becoming the most well-informed society ever to die of ignorance. Our newest citizens, who are people too, my friend, offer both the signal (access) and the noise (framing), and humans, choosing as we always do the path of least resistance, are lost in the racket.
It is not Barack Obama who is losing us jobs. It was not George W. Bush who lost us jobs (though funneling trillions in tax dollars to Iraq significantly reduced our recovery options). It was John Henry, who couldn’t keep up with that damned steam machine. It was Xerox, who replaced a thousand typing pools with a single toner cartridge. It was the internet, which lays off a thousand postal workers with a single email marketing blast. It is musicians like me, who buy home studios instead of employing professional engineers.
I am not a Luddite. The wonders brought forth by technology have made things possible in my pursuit of creativity and artistic expression that would never have happened without them. But I know, deep in my heart, that this wealth of choice is on loan. The bill is due. It is past due. It is so far past due that the creditors are afraid even to bring it up, for fear they will realize that those who owe them can take them down by dint of their very insolvency in the face of collection.
Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney can fix this. But among all this speculative doom-saying, there is a clear fact: The Supreme Court voted 5-4 in the Citizens United case, enshrining the helplessness of humans at the hands of man-made machines into actual law.
Within the next 4 years, one of these two candidates will select the replacements for at least two, possibly four, of these justices. Cases have been overturned before, often in short order after a court shake-up. Would the addition of two Democratic-nominated justices undo the ravages of mechanization and corporatization that stalk the world, in the words of Edmund Blackadder, “like two giant…stalking things”? We don’t know. We have no plan.
But we do know that Republican nominees will hasten our drop into the abyss of corporate control, as they have before. It is their presidential candidate’s stated aim. He speaks of Big Government, a spectre that pales in comparison to Big Corporate, which has no borders, no nationality, no allegiance to anything but itself.
If there were no other ideological differences between the two men, this would be enough to draw my vote towards the incumbent. There are many more, which of course shift with the weather, the two candidates being politicians at heart. The legislative records of both are out there for those who care to see them.
Thus, I’m not asking you to vote for President Obama because he will save our economy. What I am saying is that, in the face of historical forces which threaten to transform humans into disposable servants of corporations, this president is the only one on offer at present whose Supreme Court appointees are even remotely likely to stave off that undesirable future.
We don’t know what awaits us, regardless of which candidate wins. The only thing we can work with is probability. If you think that Mitt Romney’s record indicates the probability that human needs will be placed over those increasingly (and legally) possessed by corporations, then there’s really nothing I can say to you that will change your mind. But I hope you will think about it. For yourself, and not with the help of our newest, immortal species of citizen.