Thursday, August 30, 2007

Defending America from Rebecca Harding Davis

In French, it’s “C’est la vie.“ In the Bible, it’s “reap what you sow.” To Buddhists, the phrase is “Life is suffering.” and to grandma, it’s just “You get what you give.” All these phrases mean something similar- that life is hard and you’ll only get out what you put into it. This is why ideas like those in “Life in the Iron Mills” make me roll my eyes. Why is it that people still cling to the idea that somehow the system is set up to ensnare the poor to benefit the rich? It’s a ridiculous assertion no matter how many different ways it’s stated.
While crossing Forbes Ave after leaving our last class, I saw another of those ubiquitous “A revolution is possible in America!” signs put up by people that should be ashamed of themselves. Every time I see one, my red, white, and blue blood boils with rage. Particularly, this sign said something like “Society takes money from the masses and give it to a rich few.” I scratched out parts and changed it to “take money from willing consumers and give it to those who worked for it.”
“Life in the Iron Mills” shows how one can become enslaved. The workers are stuck in this hot, dirty mill doing a job for little pay over long hours. Somehow I’m supposed to feel sorry for these people? They’re not SLAVES, they’re doing a job! They’re producing something meaningful! If they don’t like it, they can quit or run away. Why don’t they? Ah yes, my point exactly…they need food and shelter! I suppose the authors of the sign on Forbes and of “Life in the Iron Mills” is arguing that someone should just give these people food for free, manna-from-heaven style.
I feel this claim could use elaboration. I need to eat. Therefore, I want food. To get food, I need to either gather it or make it. If I can’t, I need to trade for it. If I decide to trade you for your surplus, I need something to give you. Therefore, I need to MAKE THINGS to trade with. It doesn’t matter how you slice it, you need to WORK to get things like food. If no one works, there won’t be anything to eat.
The people in the mills are enslaved, I don’t argue that. What I take issue with is that the story tries to say they’re enslaved by other people. That not true at all, they’re a slave to their own hunger! Nature is the one that traps us. These mortal coils, as Shakespeare puts it, are the ones doing the trapping, not Mitchell and the other wealthy citizens. The story doesn’t convince me that life is unfair, it only convinces me that life sucks. All the proverbs listed above show that it’s a moot point.
Marcuse said “Free election of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”, implying that our bosses are our masters. In actuality, it’s nature and the physical world which master us. The “Plight of the working class” is a plight of being human. I have no idea how anyone in the 21st century can still think that socialism, aka “getting things I didn’t earn”, somehow overcomes the universal laws of “You can’t get something for nothing”. I feel it’s my job as an American citizen to take up the war path against the something-for-nothing ignorance that socialism, Marcuse, and Life in the Iron Mills profess. Thus the title of this blog.

Mike Kobily

P.S. As for "The Future Doesn't Need Us",


Liam said...

Have you ever heard the song "16 Tons?" The last line of the refrain - I owe my soul to the company store - references the practice that coal-barons adopted to keep their workforce perpetually indebted to them. Workers were frequently paid only in credit they could redeem in only one place, the general store owned by the same company they worked for. This is but one case in our own society where the wealth of one has come at the expense of many.

All societies are repressive in some form, because absolute freedom of choice does not exist. Saying we are all slaves to hunger is like saying we are all slaves to the sun, since it provides all the energy we use to stay alive. It proves nothing. The repression Marcuse and others discuss is social, not biological, and comes about because wealth in our society is treated as a measure of worth, one that is difficult to obtain if you do not already have it.

A single mother might work two jobs 70 hours a week and still live just at the poverty line. Escaping this cycle is nearly impossible without outside intervention, and the chief beneficiaries of her labour are the people who own the companies she works for.

We know that socialism on a mass scale doesn't work. What this argues for, in my mind, is alturism, which does not require state intervention or power, and would surely not threaten our "American way of life." But pretending that human-instilled inequity does not exist ignores our own rich history of enslaving others.

Also, you say at one point, "They're not SLAVES, they're doing a job!" then later say that "The people in the mills are enslaved, I don't argue that." Knowing which position you are actually taking would make it easier to comment :-)

Mike K said...

"Saying we are all slaves to hunger is like saying we are all slaves to the sun, since it provides all the energy we use to stay alive. It proves nothing."

It proves everything I'm trying to say. The only reason you can't quit your job if it's terrible is because you're a slave to the sun/hunger/thirst/whatever.

"A single mother might work two jobs 70 hours a week and still live just at the poverty line. Escaping this cycle is nearly impossible without outside intervention, and the chief beneficiaries of her labour are the people who own the companies she works for."

No argument here. If you wanted to rebut my statement, you'd need to prove that 1- her position is the company's fault and/or 2- they should care. They are the chief beneficiary of her work, yes, but she's the chief beneficiary of her paycheck. That was the tradeoff she agreed to when she accepted the job.

"What this argues for, in my mind, is alturism"

Sure. Nothing wrong w/ altruism. What I'm arguing against is the idea that the rich HAVE TO help the poor. There's nothing wrong w/ helping people when you want to, but demonizing corporations for not giving away their money the wrong idea.

Also, allow me to clarify my statements better: "They're not SLAVES (to the corp), they're doing a job!" and "The people in the mills are enslaved (to nature), I don't argue that."

Adam Johns said...

Let's start with what works well here. You finish off by genuinely engaging (or starting to engage) with Marcuse's text, by taking up his language of the master and the slave, and putting your own spin on it. Good move. This would have been a fantastic _beginning_ for an articulate response to him (or to Davis).

Beginning with an anecdote is a fine idea. The problem with your anecdote is that you don't clearly articulate what Davis' socialism (if we call it socialism; I did, but it's perhaps not completely obvious, especially since here is a _Christian_ socialism of a kind that we don't see much of these days) has to do with your anecdote. Look at an early sentence: "This is why ideas like those in 'Life in the Iron Mills' make me roll my eyes." What ideas are those, and where do they appear? Rather than looking at the text (even a little) you assume that Davis' ideas are identicaly with those which you presume some person who posts signs on Forbes avenue. You assume throughout that Davis is asking for some sort of government handouts for somebody (for who, exactly) - but on what basis do you do this? This is, in any case, a stereotype about socialism - not an analysis of a _particular_ socialism.

A connected curiosity is that Davis is writing the story during the Civil War; it is more literally about "defending America" and about masters and slaves than you give it credit for. Again - you aren't engaging with the text, but in a stereotyped response to a stereotyped socialism.

Later in the blog entry, of course, you begin to move beyond this stereotyping, when you begin to engage Marcuse on his own ground. Then you stop. One logical next step would have been to look for ways in which Davis or Joy acknowledge our "slavery to nature." They both do... It's worth noting that not everyone identifies capitalism with nature. You do, and that's fine -- there's a long and (I think) defensible tradition of doing so. But you should, ideally, be at least aware that you're doing that...