“I freed a thousand slaves,” Harriet Tubman famously said. “I could have freed a thousand more if only they knew they were slaves.”
With a black man occupying the White House, and the nation grappling with a wrenching recession, and celebrating the contributions of African Americans to this nation’s history, this seems an opportune moment to reconsider Tubman’s challenge and ask ourselves: Are we slaves?
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery In The New World, the historian David Brion Davis contends that ownership, historically, has not defined the relationship between master and slave. What defines the arrangement, he posits, is the vassal’s “perpetual condition of dishonor,” which provides the “master class with a resource for parasitic and psychological exploitation.” This, Davis argues, imposes on the slave a type of “social death” leaving him “wholly excommunicated from civic life,” not unlike livestock (the etymology for the word “chattel” is derived from the Latin word for both “capital” and “cattle”).
Davis quotes the Greek 6th-century reformer Solon, who explained his decision to abolish slavery: “All the common people,” Solon said, “are in debt to the rich.”
What Solon said in ancient times holds true today: All the common people are in debt to the rich, largely because they don’t have any money. Officially, one in ten Americans is out-of-work, but even that is the result of some accounting sleight-of-hand. If the unemployment rate were calculated with the methodology used in 1980, it would be 22 percent, or, about 3 percentage points less than at the peak of the Great Depression. And Americans lucky enough to have a job are working harder and producing more goods and services than ever, but nongovernmental employees have not had a pay raise, in real terms, since 1973.[i]
The main culprit is the vanishing labor movement. Research consistently shows that trade unions produce fatter paychecks, pensions and benefits packages for their members; most workers would join a labor union if they could. But Congress and the White House have failed to move on the Employee Free Choice Act, which, as originally written, would dramatically bolster private sector employee efforts to organize and bargain collectively. After losing 10 percent of its membership last year—the greatest decline in a quarter century—organized labor represents only one in 10 U.S. workers.
In Sweden, the ratio is eight in 10, and, as in most of Western Europe and the industrialized world, practically no worker—from low-wage clerks to well-off professionals—has to tolerate a decidedly un-democratic, mostly unregulated workplace that is the norm here. Labor laws in the United States do not mandate parental leave, sick time or even so much as a single day of vacation, and, recognizes as “at will” the vast majority of workers. Which means that they can be fired for practically any reason—say, for instance, failing to laugh at the boss’ jokes—save discrimination.
Following the collapse of Sweden’s real estate market in 1992, lawmakers in that country did not merely palm bankers’ bad gambits off on taxpayers. Rather, they extracted a pound of flesh from shareholders before effectively nationalizing the banks, because, quite simply, they understood that there would be consequences otherwise. When the ruling class in this country was faced with a similar choice more than 16 years later, they doled out taxpayer money to their cronies because they knew, conversely, that their constituents, isolated and unorganized, had little recourse.
Consider this: In 1946, the year before Congress overrode Truman’s veto of the Taft-Hartley Act sharply curbing labor union’s authority to organize and strike, (Truman called it a “slave-labor” bill) there were 5,000 work stoppages; In 2008, there were 15.
And how has the Obama administration answered the majority of Americans who favor overturning “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell?”
With ordinary people—black, white, brown—reduced to peonage and largely irrelevant to their own governance, the body politic has become some feudal antique, with commoners paying tributes to the modern-day pharaohs. Wall Street bankers have rendered the economy dysfunctional by redirecting money to unproductive uses—namely their own pockets—and forcing workers to compensate for declining wages through more and more borrowing. Yet both Democrats and Republicans refuse to write down consumer debt, slash usurious interest rates on mortgages, credit cards, or student loans, freeze the rising costs of health care, energy or utilities, or provide any meaningful subsidies to public transit, job creation or health care.
Worse, there is an unmistakable “let them eat cake” quality to the public discourse. During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama balked at providing substantive relief to homeowners who were swindled out of their homes for fear of inviting “moral hazard,” curiously, never raised when rewarding with taxpayer money the very banks who caused the financial meltdown. The administration considers inviolable Wall Street contracts calling for fat bonuses for bankers, while the auto industry’s contracts with its workers aren’t worth the paper they’re written on. New York Times columnist David Brooks urges the White House to hike taxes on the bottom 98 percent of income-earners, but calls to require Wall Street to pay even a modest tax on its transactions—similar to what most consumers pay on clothes, gasoline and food—are dismissed out of hand.
As ordinary Americans lose ground, we increasingly lose our liberty as well. The U.S. jails more of its citizens than any country in the world, and more, even, in absolute numbers, than China, with a population that is five times larger. The hoosegow is big business. Last year, two Pennsylvania judges plead guilty to taking kickbacks to send thousands of youths to a private, for-profit prison. State officials in Texas and Pennsylvania commit thousands more youths to mental hospitals—often against their will or that of their parents—as a result of protocols heavily influenced by multinational drug companies, which profit from the costly, untested psychotropic drugs that are administered to captive patients.
For many, the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to undo modest restraints on corporations’ ability to buy elections merely consolidated the ruling class’ power. Perhaps the greatest marker of average Americans’ social death is that for all the blustery rhetoric of hope and change, with an African-American major party nominee, and war and recession looming, more than 80 million eligible voters—40 percent of the American electorate—did not even bother to go to the polls in the 2008 presidential election.
What difference does it make to a slave who runs the plantation?
Jon Jeter is the author of Flat Broke in the Free Market: How Globalization Fleeced Working People (WW Norton) and, with Robert E. Pierre, the co-author of A Day Late and A Dollar Short: High Hopes and Deferred Dreams in Obama’s Post-Racial America (John Wiley and Sons) released last month.