Civilized To the Edge of Uncivilization
Once the need for social change is realized, what must be done to ensure a movement will build and become strong enough to exact a change within society? If we are serious and willing to remove ourselves from isolation, and we are willing to commit to building a movement in whatever way we effectively can, while accepting the consequences of our actions, then maybe a social movement will have a chance of success. Paul Potter(1), who at the time, was the president of Students for a Democratic Society, made some remarkable statements in his speech on April 17, 1965 in front of the Washington Monument in Washington D.C. The most prevalent excerpt of his speech was his explanation of a social movement. He forces us to look at the realities involved in our lives once the path of social activism is chosen. It takes more than typing at a keyboard in our cozy, comfortable little cubicles. If we are serious about challenging a system we believe is not based on justice to all, then we must realize we are going to have to face the consequences. It takes more than petitions, letters, or posts in reform forums. We must face the reality, if we are serious, then we must change our lives accordingly. We can't expect to force the hogs away from the trough and not get muddy in the process. A hog lives for the trough. If we place ourselves between the swine and it's slop, we can expect there is a possibility we will be injured, because the desire to eat is the hog's most discernible attribute.
As Potter said that day in Washington;
"To build a movement rather than a protest or some series of protests, to break out of our insulations and accept the consequences of our decisions, in effect to change our lives, means that we can open ourselves to the reactions of a society that believes that it is moral and just, that we open ourselves to libeling and persecution, that we dare to be really seen as wrong in a society that doesn't tolerate fundamental challenges. It means that we desert the security of our riches and reach out to people who are tied to the mythology of American power and make them part of our movement. We must reach out to every organization and individual in the country and make them part of our movement."
To seriously take the challenge of changing society constitutes a change within all of us. We must be willing to change our lives in order to challenge the existing system. Comfort is a great thing! Are we willing to sacrifice our comfort level in order to bring justice and democratic principles to the workers within our society? Nelson Mandela once said; "Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us." Each of us can make a difference if we face the fear and take up the challenge. If we let our light shine, we unconsciously relay to others permission to do the same. A movement grows only if we take seriously the need for change. Whether we realize it or not, within each of us is the capacity to lead if only by setting an example for others to follow. Each of us must do what is necessary to assure the workers bring about justice, democracy, and accountability within society
It has been said, "If the system is corrupt; then first it must be named; it has to be described; it has to be analyzed; it must be understood; and lastly it must be changed!" Let us call the system "Social Injustice System". In an effort to describe "Social Injustice System" let us look at the minimum wage earner who has an annual income below the poverty level. And yet there is enough wealth in our society to assure workers a livable minimum wage, allowing them to pay for housing, food, and the means to survive. Over the course of the 1990s, corporate profits rose 108%, supporting an S&P 500 Index increase of 224%(2). Who gained? After nearly two decades of real wage declines, workers' pay has risen 28% in the 1990s (before adjusting for inflation). Meanwhile, CEO pay has risen 443%. If an average production worker pay had risen at the same rate as CEO pay between 1990 and 1998, worker pay would be $110,399 today, rather than the current $29,267. The minimum wage would be $22.08, rather than the current $5.15 per hour that hasn't been changed since 1996.
Once we add inflation into this equation of unequal displacement of wealth, we find a good economy will actually hurt low-wage earners. While median income has risen approximately 75% over the last 30 years, rental housing has increased by 400%. These inflated costs can make a middle-income family tighten their belts and squeeze by on a tight budget, but 45% of the workers in our society earning minimum wage would have to work over 100 hours a week to earn enough money to afford such prices for housing.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics state that current numbers show wage growth is at it's slowest since early 1995. Since July of 2001, the average wages have increased by only 1.3%. Employment in June/2002 was 2% lower than it was in February/2001. It stands to reason, the slow wage growth combined with fewer jobs indicates a widening of the gap between the rich and the poor. Lawrence Mishel(3), president of the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) in Washington, along with his colleagues distribute "The State of Working America" every two years. In the 2002 edition, Mishel states, "High and rising unemployment will generate wage stagnation, higher poverty rates, and rising inequality."
Let me share some figures, which come from Earthrights Institute(4):
- "The richest 1% of Americans possess greater wealth than the bottom 90%." (David Kotz, How Many Billionares Are Enough? New York Times, Oct. 19, 1986)
- The 1996 annual ranking of the 400 wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine (10/14/96) includes a record 135 billionaires, 41 more than last year. The Forbes ranking came as the Census Bureau just reported that the average earning power in the country increased last year for the first time in six years. The reason stated: Wages climbed faster than inflation. But while regular folks' salaries have inched up, the coffers of the rich have ballooned... For the first time, the average net worth of the Forbes 400 exceeds $1 billion. Longtime multimillionaires in businesses like finance, retail, oil and real estate remain on the list... (from the Associated Press)
- In the US the share of net worth held by the top .5% rose from 25.9% in 1962 to 31.4% in 1989; the share of income received by the top .5% rose from 5.7% in 1962 to 13.4% in 1989. (Edward Wolff, 1994)
- A just-released O.E.C.D. report states that the distribution of income is more unequal in the United States than in other developed countries.
- The growth in the federal government has brought a growth in federal benefits. Contrary to popular impression, the bulk of these benefits go to the well-to-do. Peter Peterson estimated an annual flow of $570.7 billion to the non-poor vs. $109.8 billion to the poor. The average benefit to household with income over $100,000 exceeds that to households with under $10,000. (Peterson, 1994)
- The incomes of the richest 20% of the world's people are approx. 140 times those of the poorest 20%
- The world now has more than 350 billionaires whose combined net worth equals the annual income of the poorest 45% of the world's population. (The Nation, July 15/22, 1996, The Limits of the Earth by David Korten.)
- "The most pressing cause of the abject poverty which millions of people in the world endure is that a mere 2.5% of landowners with more than 100 hectares control nearly three-quarters of all the land in the world, with the top 0.23% controlling over half. (Susan George, How the Other Half Dies, Penguin Books, 1976, p. 24.) What is the primary source of this concentration of wealth? Let's look at some bottom line (which is the earth) numbers:
- "At best, a generous interpretation would suggest that about 3% of the population owns 95% of the privately held land in the USA (Peter Meyer, Land Rush - A Survey of America's Land - Who Owns It, Who Controls It, How much is Left in Harpers Magazine, Jan. 1979).
- 568 companies control 22% of our private land, a land mass the size of Spain. Those same companies land interests worldwide comprise a total area larger than that of Europe - almost 2 billion acres. (from above)
- A United Nations study of 83 countries showed that less than 5% of rural landowners control three-quarters of the land.
- According to a 1985 government report, 2% of landowners hold 60% of the arable land in Brazil while close to 70% of rural households have little or none. Just 342 farm properties in Brazil cover 183,397 square miles - an area larger than California (Worldwatch, Oct. 1988)
In order to show that there was no need for land reform in Central America because our land in the USA is even more concentrated in ownership than Central America, Senator Jesse Helms read the following facts into the Congressional Record in 1981: In Florida, 1% owns 77% of the land. Other states where the top 1% own over two-thirds of the land are Maine, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, and Oregon.
In an article written for Tom Paine entitled Upstairs/Downstairs: Disturbing Disparities In Wealth And Privilege, Arianna Huffington writes:
"For the first time in eight years, the poverty rate rose," said Dick Gephardt on the floor of the House, but it fell upon the deaf ears of a public preoccupied with sniper attacks and rumors of war. But the statistics to come out of the report are staggering: The number of Americans living in poverty grew 1.3 million last year to 32.9 million, while the most affluent fifth of the population received half of all household income and the poorest fifth received only 3.5 percent.
Research from Branko Milanovic, published in the Economic Journal, shows a dramatic increase in global inequality. In a wide ranging study covering 85% of the world's population from 91 countries, Mr. Milanovic has found that the richest 1% of the world have income equivalent to the poorest 57%. Four fifths of the world's population lives below what countries in North America and Europe consider the poverty line. The poorest 10% of Americans are still better off than two-thirds of the world population.
Within our society now, it is fairly clear that the value of one person's hour of work is very different from another's. This is understandable to a certain degree. But when the process to determine these values favor the strong over the weak, then injustice and oppression can occur due to the unfair weights and measures utilized.
Now we must try to analyze the cause of the inequalities and try to understand the dynamics of the situation society finds itself in. The liberalistic free enterprise, which we are all part of, requires the resources of the poor and dispossessed. In return, this system of free enterprise offers "civilization" as the poor's reward.With civilization, free enterprise gives them technology and brings them into modern times. How does this reward of technology benefit the workers who constantly worry about having enough money to buy groceries, or finding affordable housing? It appears as people become wealthier, they lose touch with the realities of the workers existence at the bottom, trying to scrape out a living from very few opportunities. The richer people become more concerned with their own prospects and less concerned about someone else's. In our fast paced lifestyles of today, people have a tendency, because of the intensity of their work, to begin operating from within a cocoon of sorts. People seem to be working longer hours, talking on their cell phones in their cars away from work, and limit their interaction with other people to those they work with. On top of this comes the desperate need to make time for spouses, children, and their friends, which leaves little or no time for anyone or anything else. Most of the people within our society, who are making a decent living, never stop to consider how the role of the surrounding ecostructure plays into their success. When in a cocoon, all you can see is the inside of the cocoon!
I am not saying these people within our society who have their eye on the prize (wealth) are bad people, but rather they are good people who are divided from their compassion by the institutional system that inherits us all. To quote Carl Oglesby;
"Generation in and out, we are put to use. People become instruments. Generals do not hear the screams of the bombed; sugar executives do not see the misery of the cane cutters: for to do so is to be that much less the general, that much less the executive."
The corporate system we are a part of is a gigantic organism in which we find ourselves. The system we have is composed of 5% of the world's people, who consume about half the world's goods. Again, from Oglesby;
"We take a richness that is in good part not our own, and we put it in our pockets, our garages, our split-levels, our bellies, and our futures. On the face of it, it is a crime that so few should have so much at the expense of so many. Where is the moral imagination so abused as to call this just? Perhaps many of us feel a bit uneasy in our sleep. We are not, after all, a cruel people. And perhaps we don't really need this super-dominance that deforms others. But what can we do? The investments are made. The financial ties are established. The plants abroad are built. Our system exists. One is swept up into it. How intolerable - to be born moral, but addicted to a stolen and maybe surplus luxury. Our goodness threatens to become counterfeit before our eyes - unless we change. But change threatens us with uncertainty - at least."
How can we make sense of this and reach some sort of understanding of why our society is the way it is? There is a crisis in Liberalism in that it is so difficult for our society to support the twin need for richness and righteousness! We possibly could focus on the atrocities abroad in Afghanistan or Iraq to divert our eyes from the atrocities taking place in our own society. By keeping the fight against national terrorism as a focal point, we may be able to ignore such trivial issues as the homeless and the poor, and the injustices endured by the workers which society seems to condone. If corporate liberalism continues to disguise and remove the focus on the real issues and problems our society faces, I'm afraid the working class does not have a chance. A question has to be asked; "Corporatism" or "Humanism"? Will you continue to apologize for the corporate state we indulge or will you help and try to change it? Not for an "ism", but simply in the name of decency and democracy?
The longer society avoids the social problems that exist within itself, the more the atrocities grow. Our country was born on revolution and with revolution comes fury! Likened to a volcano or an inevitable earthquake whose energies are pent up over the years; a society who must endure outrages will build up energy. The longer and the more brutal the outrages, the more explosive it's release!
If we are committed to human values and rights of the workers then we must continue to make statements which are built around truth! We must continue to try and interview the mighty giants who continually try to keep us down! We must continue to propose policy changes by use of the media, marches, forums, coalitions with support groups, or by any other means available to us! We must continue to bombard our representatives in government with petitions, signatures, e-mails, and any other means which will communicate the need for change! With our modern methods of communication, we have the means to motivate corporations or business unions, who have long since stopped listening to their members, to change their policies. We need to use the press whenever we find a media source willing to listen to the truth. Just one reporter and a publisher, who are supplied with the truth, can be convincing to a lot of people. One person with the truth and evidence, a web site, and a willingness to communicate, can do much the same thing. Yet the most important thing we must do is build a movement with relentless conviction!
(1) On April 17,1965, 25,000 people participated in A March on Washington to End the War in Vietnam organized by Students for a Democratic Society. After several hours of picketing the White House, the President of SDS, Paul Potter, spoke to the demonstrators in front of the Washington Monument. This speech is as relevant today as it was in 1965.
(2) A Decade of Executive Excess: The 1990s Sixth Annual Executive Compensation SurveySeptember 1, 1999 by Sarah Anderson, John Cavanagh and Ralph Estes of the Institute for Policy Studies and Chuck Collins and Chris Hartman of United for a Fair EconomyResearch Assistance: Scott Klinger, Aaron Lester
(4) The Earthrights Institute is dedicated to securing a culture of peace and justice by establishing dynamic worldwide networks of persons of goodwill and special skill, promoting policies and programs which further democratic rights to common heritage resources, and building ecological communities.