Eleven days ago Patch Editor Keli Sipperly asked whether morale was at an all-time low. Although Pasco County Schools were the touchstone of this question, she extended it to workplaces everywhere. I think she has a point, and I wonder whether the Western World’s evil ways haven’t caught up with it. Signs of what troubles us are everywhere today, but the seeds were planted long ago, and our scribes and bards have been warning us for decades now, if not centuries.
British novelist Charles Dickens painted a bleak picture of Victorian London in the mid-19th century, exposing its deprivation, perversity and inhumane working conditions. Later, American novelist Upton Sinclair hoped to spark a massive wave of reform with The Jungle, which exposed Chicago’s oppressed immigrants and its filthy slaughterhouses. The nation took him up on food safety, but ignored the plight of the workers. When unions arose to protect the interests of workers, they ran smack into Frederick Winslow Taylor’s scientific management ideas and the motion studies of the Gilbreths, and for every dollar and bathroom break management grudgingly gave to workers, faster production was demanded in return.
As bad as squeezing every worker for the last drop of production was, just after World War II first-time novelist Kurt Vonnegut wrote Player Piano, which envisioned an America where the craftsman’s skill had been digitized and devalued, and where the engineers and managers were catching a glimpse of the more sophisticated machines that would do the same to them. In the novel, those whose dignified jobs had been replaced found themselves filling potholes for the Reconstruction and Reclamation Corps, Vonnegut’s early concept of the McJob. Vonnegut couldn’t think of everything, and so there was no mention of offshoring.
Today the factories that were the future in Player Piano have long been achieved at places like Sauder Woodworking, and industry continues to march toward “lights out manufacturing” in which, as Warren Bennis said, each factory “will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog. The dog will be there to keep the man from touching the equipment.” And where human labor is still at a premium, it is increasingly done in places like China. Apple Computer’s largest supplier, Foxconn, has re-created Dickensian working conditions there, and as a result has had to string nets between its dormitories to stop its demoralized employees from jumping out of the windows to their deaths.
Readers who were horrified by last week’s Batman premiere massacre in Aurora, Colorado should know that the expression “Going Postal” is nearing its thirtieth anniversary. The mass shootings seem to be coming faster and faster and while some authors link them to increasing use of antidepressants, another author compares them to slaves going berserk in the Old South because of the hopelessness of their conditions. Of course, what is depression if not hopelessness? Both camps may be pointing toward the same root cause.
The ugly truth that few understand intellectually but everyone feels viscerally is that real wages have been stagnating since 1971. The cause of that stagnation was then-president Richard Nixon’s decision to close the “gold window” and end the Bretton Woods system that had required our money to be sound. It was a short-term fix that has resulted in a long-term instability in the global financial scheme. Nixon, himself a hopeless thrall of organized crime, introduced a cancerous mendacity to American life that has ever since caused the public as much angst and confusion as that felt by the characters in Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The burglary that sparked the Watergate Scandal has now been shown to have been a desperate effort on his part to avoid having the JFK Assassination laid at his feet by a memo provided by Fidel Castro to the Democratic Party. Although Nixon himself fell from power and from grace, the evils he set in motion continued forward under their own momentum. We owe to his presidency everything from the vicious rise of the HMO to the policies of Earl Butz (which enthroned corn in the American diet and decimated family farms), to the opening to China that has so crushed American manufacturing and hollowed out our economy.
These pangs are not just American, and they are felt across the world in different ways that all point back to those having wealth, power and influence increasingly misusing what they already have in their efforts to get more of it. Whether the suffering is caused by unsafe nuclear plants that have polluted the landscape, wars for profit, or financial scams (including manipulating the benchmark interest rate for the entire world) people worldwide are feeling an increasing sense that the one percent are now and forever their masters and that The American Dream, which was once shared even outside our borders, is now extinct. Except in tiny, rebellious Iceland (where global banksters are having to put the best face on repeated drubbings delivered by people and politicians determined not to accept the nostrums proffered by the IMF), the beatings will continue until morale improves. As I finish up this article, the stock market is down almost 200 points. I don’t think there’s any question that morale is at an all time low.