Then and now.
The current economic crisis has been compared to the Great Depression of the 1930s. But there is one important difference between then and now. In the 1930s many working people banded together to organize an American labor movement that was powerful in the workplace and in national politics on until the 1980s. Today…?
Today people look to the government to create jobs, to create an economy that is more just. That is true even of those working people who have bought into the Tea Party line of smaller and smaller government. The tea party people are not proposing to abolish the government themselves. They are looking to Congress – one of the three parts of government – to abolish one of the other ones, the executive.
Yes, there are real parallels between then and now. But there also is this glaring difference. Then Americans were willing to roll up their shirt sleeves and build new organizations in order to protect working people. Today people are willing to blame, to point fingers, and to wait for somebody else to do the real work of change.
What does that tell us about ourselves? We still take credit for being a self determining, active nation. We still like to talk about pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps. But I don't see a lot of evidence for any of that. In discussions I have with people about social and political problems, the first suggestion is always: “the government should…” I very rarely hear anyone say: “we should organize ourselves…”
No doubt there are many different explanations for this change. In the 30s many working people were leftist immigrants from Eastern Europe, or children of leftist immigrants. Today's immigrants are very different. They win a lottery for a visa and come to the US in order to participate the competitive struggle for wealth. Few among them are inclined towards organizing themselves to improve their ability to resist the pressures by employers.
Since the 1930s we have had 80 years of powerful executive programs. We have become accustomed to letting our government take care of us and then complaining if we don't get the sort of care we are looking for.
Since the end of World War II – 60 years ago – we have developed an astonishing consumer culture. Buying new things has become our recipe for happiness, even though everyone is ready to say that “money does not buy happiness.” What makes consumer goods so attractive is that they make life easier. Think of the washing machine, the vacuum cleaner, the automatic coffeemaker, the remote control of whatever electronic device you may think of. You know longer need to get out of your chair to turn on your television. You just click a button. Comfort and minimal effort have become important values.
The dark side of that search for ease and comfort is, of course, that people have to work incredibly hard to be able to afford all this luxury. Possibilities of earning money are precarious. So you need to be careful and not get the reputation of being a troublemaker. Seeking ease, struggling to keep up with mounting bills, insecure in the ability to earn a living, – those and other pressures have turned us into passive citizens. When a depression, clearly orchestrated by large banks and other large businesses, puts our livelihood in danger we are no longer able to fight back.
Add to that the fact that the depression was brought about by very complicated maneuverings and manipulations. It is not obvious how Goldman Sachs and their other banking cronies managed to enrich themselves and impoverish the rest of us. It is difficult to fight against an evil that is not at all transparent.
So we do the only thing that seems left to us. We complain.