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A LETTER TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE OF AMERICA
Dear young people of my native country,
I have been following from abroad what has been happening in the United States and it made me want to write to you, as someone who was once where you are now and who still believes in the necessity for social change. I've seen things change over time, not always in the direction I had hoped. I correspond with a friend who teaches in one of your colleges, I hear about what the younger generation of my family are going through. I would like to try and see if I can say something useful.
Back in the spring of 1970 I took part in a faculty sit-in protesting the presence of police on campus. The administration had called the police, over the objections of the faculty, during a time of student demonstrations. To be honest, my reason for joining the sit-in was not really the police on campus. I was discontented in general. Ever since my arrival at the university I'd been feeling oppressed by an atmosphere of cynicism, a sense that the revolutionary hopes of the '60's had fizzled out and things were getting back to business as usual, nobody was thinking about anything except their careers, and the university was increasingly dominated by the administration. The sit-in was a chance to blow off steam and meet other people who were discontented. But only a few wanted to talk about the underlying issues, the things that were really bothering us. After getting arrested and spending a couple of hours in jail, we hired a conservative lawyer to keep us from doing any serious jail time. And then, on that campus as elsewhere in the country, things got back to "normal."
Except that "normal" did not mean things staying the same. When I was an undergraduate at a state university, early in the '60's, tuition was $150 per semester, and you could cover part of your expenses by paid work during the summer. Almost everyone on the faculty made a decent salary; most were on "tenure track." Administrators did not pay themselves like CEOs, students did not accumulate debt that would burden them for years. No one had heard the words "intern" (in the sense of a student who works for nothing over the summer just to get "experience"), "adjunct professor," or, for that matter, "working poor." Most jobs paid enough to support a family. Most clothes worn in the United States were made in USA by workers who struck when they didn't get paid enough. Despite various kinds of discrimination, I think most people were better off then than now. What has taken place over the decades since I came of age has been a terrible expropriation of the people by global capitalism.
There have been protests, there have been movements for change, and I don't mean to discount what they have achieved for disadvantaged groups and for the environment. But sometimes it seems to me as though even the achievements have served to mask a massive process of expropriation, to distract attention from it.
Back in the 90's there was a folk singer named Susan Urban – I haven't been able to find her on the Internet, except that someone still has a copy of her tape "Chords of Love" for sale. On that tape – I just put the batteries back into my old tape recorder and played it -- there's a song called "The Under Thirty Thousand Dollar Concentration Camp," which says among other things:
It's not your ethnic background or the color of your skin
It's the money that you make that shows us whether you fit in.
I gather that the current protests are about racism, and I'm not writing to you to say racism doesn't exist. I know it does. I'm writing to urge you not to let racism or any other issue distract you or divide you or keep you from understanding and dealing with your biggest enemy.
Or perhaps I should say your biggest problem, because I'd like to avoid thinking in terms of villains in top hats or gray flannel suits and think more in terms of an economic process that needs to be tamed, if we can. Without being a student of Marx and Engels, I've gathered that their basic insight is that the means of production determines the structure of society. Also, economists generally agree that the value of something is based on the demand for it. Early on in The Wealth of Nations (an 18th century capitalist classic in which I didn't get very far), Adam Smith discusses the mass production of pins. If a single worker makes a pin, the worker goes through a number of steps, which takes time and skill. Now if you divide the process of pin-making into steps, and assign each step to a different worker, then a lot of pins can be made in a short time, and the pins will sell more cheaply than those made by a single worker. Of course, the worker loses the pride in the creation of a whole a product that bears the stamp of their craftsmanship, and becomes just a cog in a machine. Shortly after Smith's time, I would imagine, someone invented a machine that performed all the steps in pin-making, and then no one could get a job making pins at all. The replication of this process across all the fields of production is what is known as the Industrial Revolution. As a result, labor became very cheap, so it became hard to earn enough to live on unless you happened to be a machine owner. So workers were herded into factories and mines where conditions were often a dress rehearsal for the concentration camps of the twentieth century. Indeed, the concentration camps were modeled on the factory system.
I trust you remember that song "John Henry," about a worker who tried to compete with a machine: "Before I let that steam drill beat me down, gonna die with a hammer in my hand." That song captures the tragedy of human beings pitted against the machine that is gradually taking over human functions – a process that in recent years has been accelerating with the development of the computer. After the artisans and manual laborers came the clerical workers and telephone operators, and in the foreseeable future it could be truck drivers, doctors, and lawyers. Who knows, maybe the computers will learn to design and program themselves and dispense with us altogether. The machine is simply grinding us all up.
Another consequence of the development of the machine is the de-localization of production and hence the dissolution of community. For as machines become more and more complex and the materials that go into them become more sophisticated, it becomes less and less likely that an item will be manufactured and distributed in one locality. Materials have to be brought from the east, north, west, and south, and sales representatives have to be sent south, west, east, and north to get rid of the finished product. And among all these compass points, means of transportation must be devised. The result is the formation of the corporation, a non-local entity which brings people together not in community but in pursuit of just one thing – profit. Inorganic society.
Not everybody can thrive in this inorganic society. It tends to select people whose main trait is ruthless efficiency. If you have too much of a conscience, if you're "too sensitive," it can't use you. I submit to you that this is one of the most virulent and toxic forms of discrimination which people face today.
But the CEOs, the "organization men," the ladies and gentlemen in "gray flannel suits" (many of whom, by the way, suffer from anxiety and depression and are on pills) are not the only human products of "corporate culture." Another product is the consumer.
For the mass production of goods draws after it a commercial propaganda designed to create a mass of people with standardized tastes who will buy the stuff, even when they don't need it. To sell its goods, the machine has to shape human character, which means eliminating to the extent possible any tendencies to thrift, humility, loyalty, tolerance of delayed gratification, and tendency to think, all of which are involved in what used to be known as sales resistance. The electronic media have delivered the messages that wear down sales resistance with escalating intensity. It took a few generations, but now we have action movies that pulverize the mind, music that celebrates cruelty and inflicts hearing loss, food that feeds an epidemic of obesity, clothes made in China under conditions we prefer not to think about. And through the media we have gotten used to being lied to 24/7.
These influences people are subjected to, make it hard for any meaningful resistance to get going. Without humility, loyalty, impulse control, and thoughtfulness, it is difficult to maintain relationships among people, let alone create solidarity and take thought to devise genuine solutions. So the people take out their rage on one another, in public and in private, while the machine grinds on.
Between the "dark Satanic mills" of the 19th century factory where people were worked to death, and the present economic and cultural mayhem, there was an interlude where progress seemed to be taking place on the social as well as the material level – where there were protests that seemed to work, reforms that led to a more even distribution of wealth and opportunity, in at least some parts of the world. It's worth going back to see what it was that brought us that interlude of hope.
I think part of the answer is: the persistence of religion and other traditions which affirmed values other than market values. Marx called religion the opiate of the people, and religion has certainly been responsible for its share of human suffering, with inquisitions and witch trials and religious wars and so forth. On the other hand, if you believe that all humans were made in God's image, then you hate to see them ground down. If you believe that God commanded us not to work on the seventh day, then you think people are entitled to a break now and then. If you believe God favors the just and humble, then you don't value people only according to their net financial worth. Also, it took time to destabilize the family and community and dumb down people's minds with brain-damaging "entertainment." So in the 19th and early 20th centuries there was enough social cohesion, enough moral energy, to regulate the banks, pass the progressive income tax, give workers the right to strike, and so on. (I hope I'm not getting into "conservative" territory here. "Conservatives" talk about family and religion, but they don't seem to suggest, for instance, that banks should be re-regulated and made to pay as well as charge interest, the way it used to be.)
Over time I've seen that when people demonstrate, agitate, protest without a clear idea of what is hurting them, they don't always get what is good for them. In the best case scenario, the present protests may result in reforms that will curb racism and brutality on the part of the police. But they won't pay off your student loan or find you a decent job or fix whatever damage you have suffered, directly or indirectly, from the media's prolonged assault on the human mind and heart and soul. And if the police are defunded as some are demanding, it will hurt everyone except gangsters and those who can afford to hire bodyguards.
So what I want to say to you, as one who has seen several generations of protests, is: Point your justified anger in the right direction. Fight smarter. Understand what they're trying to do to you, and don't let them. Notice when and how you are being manipulated. (Did you ever read Vance Packard's The Hidden Persuaders? A 50's classic that has lost none of its relevance.) Check your tastes in entertainment, and try to avoid supporting what is harmful.
Try to rebuild some social structure, by forming lasting relationships. Don't treat one another as disposable -- be loyal. Form little groups to think about the problems of society and support one another. Develop, with your friends, a library of books that have helped you understand the world.
If you have a head for the law, try to understand the way the law works in your society. It's a major factor. I went through law school once, and the main thing it taught me was that the law works mostly for those who have the money. (Just one example: if a local franchise holder sues the head corporation, the lawsuit is tried in the corporation's home state.) Moreover, laws don't always do what they say they are going to do. A law may state in its preamble that its purpose is A, but the impact of its actual provisions may be to produce the opposite result Z. The devil is in the details. If you can form a work group on the law, try to contact lawyers in different areas of the law, and ask them what specific changes in the law might give the people a little more power and the corporations a little less.
Keep track of your perceptions and findings, so they'll add up. The Internet may help you if you use it wisely. Maybe you need a new social media platform, one that will not encourage the exchange of chitchat and selfies but the exchange of information for the common benefit. If you get a job with Microsoft, you might think about this in your spare time.
Think in terms of getting technology to work for humans, instead of vice versa. In the 19th century the thinker and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, "Things are in the saddle/ And ride mankind." Try to think of how we might get humanity back in the saddle.
And don't be afraid to dream. Oddly enough I keep thinking of that oldest story about work – the story about the expulsion from the Garden of Eden. As I hope you remember, Adam and Eve originally lived in the Garden of Eden, where all their needs were met. They were just told not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge. But they did so anyway, and as a result God expelled them from the garden with a few curses, one of which was that Adam would have to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow. In our time work, instead of being one of the burdensome givens of life, has become something hard to obtain, because machines can do so much of it.
But this could mean that humankind no longer needs to work! We could just devote our lives to playing, taking care of our souls, beautifying our surroundings, and making one another happy! We just have to find a way to keep the fruits of the Tree of Knowledge from being cornered by a greedy few. And then we'd have to adjust ourselves to the new reality. We'd have to find something for each and every person to do, so they would feel they were contributing and not get bored.
The nineteenth-century socialists had a slogan: "From each according to their ability, to each according to their need." This was never really applied. There was never an attempt to find out and sort out what each one needed and what each one could give. But maybe computers could help us with that. There are already programs that help people with common interests find each other – for dating purposes, but they could have other uses as well. Computers, paradoxically, could help us rebuild the organic society.
In short – don't just be angry. Don't just protest. Take back your minds. Be creative. Get together. And think in terms not just of righting wrongs, but of how to get ourselves – as Joni Mitchell once put it – back to the garden.
Hoping to hear good things