Liberalism’s Long Goodbye

Former Senator and 1972 Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern‘s recent commentary on labor “The End of ‘More'” (Los Angeles Times, 22 May 2006), albeit apologetically, confirms that liberal orthodoxy is on the side of telling U.S. workers and working-class communities to quit struggling against the tide of “a new competitive reality.”  But whose reality is it?  Telling workers that they are asking for too much without a corresponding analysis of the increasing inequity of wealth division in this country further debunks the myth that the United States doesn’t have a class system.

As someone who in 1972 co-chaired a state labor committee for McGovern’s presidential candidacy (while the AFL-CIO’s George Meany withheld support) and in the late 1970s called on him in his Senate office to affirm support for key labor and social issues, I can think of many public figures more in need of criticism than George McGovern, but the distorted conclusion of his commentary leave little choice.

It’s too bad that a man of McGovern’s acknowledged compassion, history of dissent against reckless imperialism, and championship of worker rights feels obligated to help hoist American liberalism’s flag of surrender to global capital.  It has become the typical response of liberal Democrats and most U.S. labor leaders, when they come up against corporate America’s definition of “reality,” not to challenge it but to adjust to it. 

Victims of today’s relentless corporate assault, such as Delphi workers, will find it hard to forgive the former Senator for his misrepresentation of the historical definition of “more.”  That call for “more” — actually issued by AFL President Samuel Gompers, not John L. Lewis to whom McGovern attributes it — not only spoke to “more” wages, but also “more” education, healthcare, access to leisure and culture.  It was about the quality of life for workers, what today’s robber barons clearly view as a removable obstacle on their path to unfettered wealth accumulation. 

For workers, the dog-eat-dog, race-to-the-bottom economic model now being touted as the “new competitive reality” has all the social validity of a epidemic for which only the elite have access to a vaccine.  The shakeouts in the domestic auto industry are only the latest in a continuous pattern of corporate restructuring — i.e. ongoing, neo-liberal attacks on workers — which now features refashioned bankruptcy laws to eliminate gains won through collective bargaining.  Indeed, reckless corporate bankruptcy filings have been turned into Damoclesian Swords over workers and communities.

For a generation now, workers have been asked to make sacrifices to gain security in a better future that never comes.  Corporations on the other hand have gotten pretty much everything they’ve asked.  Isn’t it about time that we have a national discussion on the amazing disconnect between the remarkable economic success of the American economy we hear so much about and the argument — reiterated by McGovern in his op-ed — that workers must lower their expectations?  The corporations have gotten what they asked for and haven’t delivered.  Isn’t it their credibility that we should be focusing on, rather than criticizing workers for trying to hang on to what they have?  What is it about our society — about how power is allocated and priorities set in it — that has made technology a threat to our wellbeing instead of a liberating force?

Liberals have long since abandoned their supposed “core principle” of justice and equality as they continue to ignore rising economic injustice and inequality.  Guided by what Wall Street wants, not the very real needs of a majority of working Americans, they are left to shill for the companies and the system that enriches them by appealing to workers to be “more realistic.”

The new “realism” leaves out the fact that “US companies have increased their share of the economic pie at a faster rate over the past five years than at any time since the Second World War.  Recent government figures show that profits from current production as a share of national income have risen from 7 per cent in mid-2001 to 12.2 per cent at the start of this year.  This rate of growth is unprecedented since collection of these figures began in 1947” (Financial Times, 4 June 2006).  To the millions of workers being asked to sacrifice to accommodate this new “realism,” it seems that compassionate conservatism and conservative liberalism are increasingly offering the same fake medicine.

While the former Senator restates his support for a universal health care plan, he offers it as a “supplement to income” that may help bring down the wages of workers he has already characterized as too high, more as “a way of relieving hard-pressed businesses” than as a way of lifting the catastrophic burden on the millions of uninsured and underinsured in and out of U.S. workplaces.

McGovrn labels the union leaders who openly accept the conclusion of his commentary “progressive.”  But the opinion that carries the most weight on the conduct and effectiveness of politically insulated national union leaders belongs to the dues-paying members of their unions.  By a wide margin, workers faced with incessant concession demands want a labor movement that aggregates its power to repel attacks on their hard-won gains and fights for greater social distribution of those gains.  Labor leaders calling for partnership with a corporate elite presiding over a new era of “wealth accumulation by dispossession” are regarded by those workers not as progressives but as accomplices.

Ironically, the former Senator bemoans “union leaders who still see American businesses as the enemy,” but it’s the workers, not union leaders, who have come to see businesses as the enemy . . . and with good cause.  Workers also see the evidence of corporate control of government, which expropriates their rights under the joint domination of the corporate and political elites, supported by both national political parties, including the liberal wing of the Democrats.

Equally ironic is the gentle defense that Wal Mart-ism, if not the company itself, gets in McGovern’s plea for worker realism and consignment to “less.”  Essentially, McGovern is telling us that the Democratic Party, on their best day, has nothing to offer.

Despite what the corporate and political elites, and much of the labor leadership, are telling us about the need to accept the “new competitive reality,” acceptance of its legitimacy, for the U.S. working class, is acceptance of a downward economic spiral from which there is no recovery.  What workers — union and non-union, immigrant and native-born alike — really need, instead, is resistance and the renewal of those collective institutions delegated by history to outfit the struggle for social and economic justice — a class struggle-based labor movement and a political party representing the interests of workers, not the interest of the bosses.

To any extent McGovern is right, his logic suggests a quite different conclusion than asking for “less.”  If this is the best American capitalism has to offer, maybe it’s the system, not workers’ expectations, that has to be changed?

Jerry Tucker is a former Intl UAW Executive Board Member and is an Initiating Co-convenor of the new national Center for Labor Renewal.