By MANIFESTO JOE
In 1962, American journalist Eugene Lyons, author of the 1937 nonfiction classic Assignment in Utopia, gave a lecture about what turned him from a pro-Leninist radical in 1928, when he took a news job in the Soviet Union, into the conservative, fiercely anti-communist Reader's Digest editor he became years later.
"It was ... the appalling contempt for human life which I found to be the hallmark of communism in practice. For I found myself in a world where such age-old concepts as justice, conscience, human dignity, the values that set man apart from the beasts, were despised as a species of treason. ...
"Do men and women have an intrinsic worth, or are they merely the raw stuff for building some dehumanized state structure? Is the human being the final measure of all things, or merely a statistic?"
Two generations have passed since Lyons gave that talk, and the Soviet empire has been, as conservatives say, "on the ashheap of history," for going on two decades.
A great irony is how true this sounds for 2006 if one substitutes "global capitalism" for "communism" and "corporate structure" for "state structure." Communism is all but dead; yet, in our new world economy, dehumanization seems very much alive and on the march. The biggest difference is that the perpetrators' flag isn't red.
Lyons died in 1985, so he didn't even see glasnost, let alone the self-destruction of Marxism-Leninism. It would be interesting if he could ask the former employees of Enron how they have enjoyed becoming destitute statistics, or former call-center staffers how much human dignity they were afforded when their jobs were offshored.
True, we don't have gulags. There are no party purges, at least none in which anybody dies very soon. People don't vanish in the middle of the night (although their jobs often disappear in the middle of the day). But there are slow, subtle ways of killing people. Michael Moore has vividly illustrated, in his examinations of the effects of General Motors' style of capitalism on his hometown of Flint, Michigan, that when a corporation discards much of its workforce for the sake of profits: "Crime goes up, suicide goes up, drug abuse, alcoholism, spousal abuse, divorce, everything bad spirals up."
Stalinism and Maoism kill the body. Global corporatism is destroying our spirits -- and our bodies often follow.
This isn't just happening in the West. China is still nominally pseudo-communist, having retained their police state while instituting "free-market reforms" and turning a blind eye to sweatshops.
And there, an interesting thing is happening to migrant laborers who work at construction sites. Quite often, they're not paid. At all. Zilch. Nada. After weeks, even months, on a job, being furnished a bare subsistence of rice and bunks, the contractor says he didn't get paid, so he can't pay them. If the workers threaten to go to the authorities, the contractor laughs and says he's not afraid. The practice is reported to have become rampant.
You see, where global capitalism goes, plutocracy and official corruption tend to follow. When maximizing profits becomes the paramount motive, it's not hard to buy off the powers that be, even if they happen to be Party members.
According to statistics, a certain number of these cheated, broke, discarded workers are being systematically killed, as surely as if they had been shipped to a Siberian gulag to toil their way to the miserable death of slave laborers.
We ought to know from the experience of the 20th century that, with sufficient regulation, trust-busting, rights of collective bargaining, and (gasp!) social welfare programs, an economic system can be primarily capitalist and yet relatively humane and, even with a few semi-socialist restraints, prosperous. To wit: the Scandinavian nations.
But this seems to depend on a vigilant progressive movement. Pure, unbridled capitalism has a sad tendency to revert to its 19th-century Dickensian outrages. Now, with 21st-century technology at its disposal, that is far a more dangerous tendency. A strong progressive movement is needed to remind capitalists that they should be morally accountable to all human beings, not just to the board and a faceless mass of stockholders.
Of course, capitalists will never be sincere about that -- but when they are faced with enough populist political will, that isn't necessary. They can move, and they have moved, many jobs to Mexico, etc. But when they find out what schools and roads are like in such a low-tax economy, their tune can change quickly, at least for some of their employees. The going is tough right now, but there are ways to fight back. And, in the long run, we must.
In 1962, at the height of the Cold War, the battle lines seemed clearly drawn to people like Eugene Lyons, who never understood that "capitalism versus socialism" doesn't have to be an either/or proposition. As it has turned out, right-wing renegades like Lyons, who moved from one extreme to the other, helped usher in the unchallenged corporate monolith that now confronts us.
A new battle is under way -- and humanity can't afford to lose it.
MANIFESTO JOE IS AN UNDERGROUND WRITER LIVING IN TEXAS.