by Barry Edelson


Divided and Conquered

The Powerful Stay That Way By Turning The Powerless Against Each Other

"You are kept apart that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings. You are made to hate each other because upon that hatred is rested the keystone of the arch of financial despotism which enslaves you both. You are deceived and blinded that you may not see how this race antagonism perpetuates a monetary system which beggars both."

Only the word "race" in the last sentence betrays the statement as referring not to contemporary events but to a past struggle. It is in fact a quote from a speech delivered in the early 1890s by a populist leader of the time, as quoted in Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. But it could easily apply to political and ideological divisions of the present day that prevent the working poor and middle class of all persuasions from joining forces to achieve the meaningful reforms that most of them say that want. The thesis of Zinn's book, if one can be permitted to distill a work of such breadth and ambition into a single idea, is that from the moment the first European explorers set foot on these shores, the history of America has been driven primarily by a relentless pursuit of wealth, and at the expense of anyone and everyone who stood in the way: indigenous Indians, black slaves, white indentured servants, farmers and laborers of all colors and creeds. This is why so much of the book, first published in 1980, resonates so strongly today, and why the depiction of the struggles of the working poor and middle classes in many different historical periods feels so eerily familiar. There is a sad similarity in the tactics employed by the "haves" in every era to preserve their power and property over the "have-nots": monopolization of resources, manipulation of supposedly free markets, exploitation of labor, command over the sources of news and communication, and the purchase of political influence in order to enshrine their gains in the law.

One of the great services to history that Zinn has made is to deconstruct the mythological, triumphalist America that is taught in the history books on which most of us were weaned in school. Most white Americans imagine they are descended from men and women who migrated of their own free will to this continent in pursuit of liberty and prosperity, but Zinn shows us that the majority of English settlers in the pre-Revolutionary period came to this country as indentured servants, most of them and their descendants ending up as tenant farmers or laborers, many barely rising among poverty even to this day. The origins of the labor movement are commonly attributed to socialist and communist ideas smuggled into America among the swarthy immigrant cargo on late 19th-century steamships, but Zinn shows how labor agitation against the abuses of factory owners began as early as the 1820s, decades before even the first waves of Irish and German immigrants arrived. The plantation system is thought to have been an exclusively Southern phenomenon, which kept the best land out of the hands not only of black farmers after emancipation, but white farmers from the very beginning of the colonial period. However, Zinn reminds us that there was a large-scale, often violent Anti-Renters movement in the 1840s against landowners in New York's Hudson Valley, where vast swathes of the region had been owned by a relative handful of wealthy families. Collective action against entrenched monied interests is generally believed to have been spawned among the teeming masses in the crowded tenements of Northern cities. But it was an alliance of hundreds of thousands of white farmers in Texas, which then spread across the entire south in the 1880s and 1890s, which led to the first national populist reform movement in America (from which the opening quote derives). There were hundreds, perhaps thousands, of violent uprisings from the colonial era through the early 20th century, ranging from takeovers of local farms or mills to armed insurrections against state governments. The relatively safe and healthy living and working conditions we enjoy today, the workplace rules, unemployment insurance, enviromental protections, not to mention the abolition of widespread abuses such as child labor, unequal pay for men and women and housing discrimination, were the result of centuries of struggle, not by urban leftists but ordinary farmers and laborers in many parts of the country.

To quell the tendency of a suffering population to act upon its discontent, corporate and political leaders in generation upon generation employ the same time-worn tactics: appealing to the people's sense of rugged individualism or patriotism, raising the fear of civil chaos, and, when all else fails, resorting to the force of law or armed militia. Among the most insidious of these methods is sowing divisions among and between races, religious and ethnic groups, and social classes. The everpresent specter of the dangerous "other" has been spectacularly successul as a means of keeping otherwise like-minded people from finding common ground in the struggle for higher pay, better working conditions, fairer business practices and more even-handed application of government power. From the crude, early use of racism as a means of preventing poor whites and blacks from joining forces against rapacious landowners, to the current ideological divisions that would have us believe that half the country hates and distrusts corporations as much as the other half hates and distrusts the government, we are effectively divided and conquered. Our ability to effect meaningful change is subsumed in a phony war between people who ought easily to find common ground in their mutual exploitation at the hands of both shady banking practices and government expansionism. And yet, we are so at odds with one another that we fail to notice that we are once again being shut out of the process of our own governance, even as we are flattered into voting for one self-described savior or another.

The mutual and growing disdain of conservative and liberal voters guarantees that corporations and banks will continue to dominate the country's economic life, and that their handmaidens in the Congress and the courts will continue to do their bidding. The Tea Party, like other American populist movements that have preceded them, is doomed to be disappointed, as its interests become inexorably mangled beyond recognition in the maw of Republican politics. Have we not seen already how an abiding concern about the Federal debt was shunted aside within weeks of the election by "conservative" senators who could not climb over one another's backs fast enough to cast a deficit-defying vote for the extension of the Bush tax cuts, even on the very wealthy? On the liberal side, the so-called "base" of the Democratic Party is wringing its hands over its supposed betrayal by Barack Obama, whom they foolishly imagined they helped to elect not as President of the United States and Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, but as the head of a revolutionary movement. These turns of events have been shadowed repeatedly in the history of populist reform. For example: when the incipient populist movement of the 1890s made common cause with the Democratic Party and backed William Jennings Bryan for the White House, in the naive belief that the movement's influence would alter the party and not the other way around, and that the Democrats would miraculously cease to be as devoted to the defense of capitalism as were the Republicans. For another example: when millions of ordinarily Republican voters, similarly incensed about the federal deficit as voters today, cast their ballots for Ross Perot in 1992 only to watch his vaunted Reform Party wither and die within a few years (notwithstanding the election of an ex-wrestler as governor of Minnesota, their sole electoral success) while the president they inadvertently helped to elect, Bill Clinton, undermined their one salient issue by generating a budget surplus by the time he left office. In all cases, the rest of the political system — the corporate influence, the slanders that pass as advertising, the group photo ops that pass as debates, the campaign promises made and as swiftly forgotten — remain as before. The whale always swallows the fish, not the other way around.

The challenge is not merely to overcome our differences, but to recognize that these differences are being stoked by our political leaders for their own cynical purposes. This is not so much a manifestation of class warfare, a conspiracy of the powerful against the powerless, rich against poor. It is the inevitable result of an overzealous belief in individualism on the one hand, and baseless faith in government on the other. Those who want the government to be the ultimate guarantor of personal liberty sparked a successful social revolution in the 1960s and 70s, much to the horror of conservatives, for the advancement of sexual, racial and gender freedoms. We then experienced a second revolution in defense of economic liberties beginning with the Reagan era, which commenced just as Zinn was publishing his People's History. This time, it was liberals who recoiled at the conservative anti-government, pro-corporate juggernaut. Both sides failed to recognize in the others' forward march where their interests intersected, and so both struggles continue on diverging paths to the present day. Reagan's infamous mantra, "A rising tide lifts all boats", is emblematic of this failure to find common ground. Since the early 1980s, the income disparity between CEO's and everyone else has grown dramatically, putting the lie to the Reaganite formula. The economy is not a tide, and people are not boats. One would have thought that "trickle-down" economics would have been permanently debunked as being contrary to the best interests of the vast majority of Americans, but by tying it to familiar nostrums of individualism and patriotism (once again) it has held as powerful a sway over the thinking of conservative voters, just as liberal politics continues unabated in the struggles for gay rights, legalized marijuana and other causes. What loyal Democratic voters acknowledge that the Great Society failed to eliminate either poverty or racial disparities, or that the 1970s was an unmitigated economic disaster for which they had no solution? What steadfast Republican voters admit that their daughters owe their opportunities in business and even the military to the passions of liberal activists, or that 30 years of tax-cutting has done little more than put more wealth into the hands of fewer people?

How many Americans on any part of the political spectrum today have faith in the financial system? How many think the economy is well on its way to a more balanced state, or that the real estate market has shaken off all of its woes? How many think the tax code makes sense as it is? How many truly believe that corporations and free markets are an unmitigated evil (including the manufacture of wind turbines?) and that government is universally wise and beneficent (including the disposal of radioactive waste?). Or vice versa? There is a large middle ground that could and should be occupied by the vast majority of the population, except that we are actively prevented from occupying that ground by the concerted efforts of politicians, businessmen and the media for whom our divisions from one another are distinctly in their own interests. Carefully exploited divisions can win hearts and minds, and they can win elections. What they don't often achieve is genuine progress, not of the kind that produces sustainable improvements in people's lives. Woe to Wall Street and Washington if all the people who are clamoring for liberty of various kinds ever stop to listen to one another, and figure out that they're talking essentially about the same thing.

December 22, 2010


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