September 13, 2012 —
Ah, Labor Day. A day for barbeques and beach trips, one last huzzah for the carefree times of summer before settling back into the dull routines of school, leaf-raking and, oh yes, work.
It’s an interesting irony: the coincidence of the start of school with Labor Day means that an important teaching opportunity is frequently lost. Labor Day should be a time to teach about, and reflect upon, the tumultuous history of the working class in America, the difficult struggles that have led to whatever comforts and protections workers now enjoy and the enormous challenges facing labor in the future.
(Did you know, by the way, that 2012 marks the centennial of the 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, the Massachusetts movement that gave us the phrase “Bread and Roses?”)
There is One Great Commandment in present-day capitalism, what we might label the Corporate Imperative: “Maximize profit for shareholders.” To the relentless, remorseless and heartless logic of this rule, everything becomes fodder, and nothing is sacrosanct—raw materials, ecosystems, communities, relationships, public health and human lives. “The market knows no mercy,” as the saying goes, “and capital does not care.”
In a healthy, well-balanced society, there are three counterweights to this imperative: government regulation, organized labor and informed consumer action. Ideally, conscience would be one of those too, but discarding conscience seems to be a prerequisite for true business success these days. In the last generation or so, however, we have seen sustained and successful assaults on all three, as the power and influence of Big Business, Big Money and wealthy individuals have grown disproportionately, throwing the system out of whack.
How has this come to pass? Why have things gotten so skewed? I think I’ve spotted one of the key root causes. Check out the report, “The wedges between productivity and median compensation growth” (www.epi.org/publication/ib330-productivity-vs-compensation/ ), particularly the first chart in that report. (I’ll post it to my blog at skipmendler.wordpress.com as well.) The chart shows how, from the post-WWII years up till the 1970s, wages rose at a rate in keeping with increases in per-worker productivity. After that point, however, productivity continues to increase, but wages remain practically the same. The difference is pure profit.
The result is obvious: upward concentration of wealth, and therefore power. There’s another chart you should look at, this one in the Pew Research Center report called “The Lost Decade of the Middle Class” (http://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/08/22/the-lost-decade-of-the-middle-... ), which shows that in 1970, middle-income families accounted for 62 percent of all income, and the upper-income for 29 percent, and now those figures are 45 and 46 percent respectively. That’s right, the rich as a whole now collect more income than the middle class as a whole for the first time. And every indication is that this gap will grow larger and larger as well.
The benefits of increases of productivity have not been equitably shared. Unemployment rises as the remaining workers are forced to do more with fewer resources (see “Nasrudin’s Donkey,” April 2011) as corporate profits approach record levels.
I think the solution is obvious: workers must reduce their productivity.
Meet Joe Schweik. Schweik, like Ayn Rand’s John Galt, is a fictional construct. I base him on Josef Svejk, the title character from the novel “The Good Soldier Svejk,” by Czech author Jaroslav Hasek, who drew on his own experiences as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian Army in WWI. In the novel, Svejk frustrates the attempts of his Austrian superiors to control him, not by overt resistance, but a combination of apparent cooperation and sheer imbecility. I’ll put it this way: Yossarian, Gomer Pyle, Beetle Bailey and Hawkeye Pierce all owe a little something to Josef Svejk. Let’s say that our “Joe Schweik” is Josef’s great-grandson, an “ordinary Joe,” if you will, just trying to make a living here in 21st-century America.
The name “Schweikism” has come to be applied to a certain kind of passive resistance, wherein one appears to cooperate on the surface, but actually hinders the operation of an oppressive system in a thousand tiny ways. It’s related to “work-to-rule” slowdowns, but is not as blatant. It requires its practitioners to be both creative and subtle—“innocent as doves, but clever as serpents” (to quote a well-known first-century community organizer from Palestine). Ideally, it is not even noticeable until, at some point, the leaders of the society realize that nothing has worked out quite the way they planned.
It seems to me that a concerted but thoroughly under-the-radar campaign of Schweikism might start to close the gap that the rich have opened up between themselves and the rest of us. Or as Joe Schweik says: “Work softer.”