Monday, April 28, 2008

The Gilded Age

Steve Fraser's essay on The Gilded Ages of the late nineteenth and early twenty-first centuries ('The Two Gilded Ages',, April 22, 2008) is everywhere, just like power and um... er... what was that other thing? Oh yeah: resistance. In fact, the apparent absence of 'resistance' in the US to the depredations of contemporary capitalism is one of the marked contrasts between the two Gilded Ages that Fraser describes, the most recent of which he dates from Ronald Reagan's ascendancy to the US throne:

Reagan's America was gilded by design. In 1981, when the New Rich and the New Right paraded in their sumptuous threads in Washington to celebrate at the new president's inaugural ball, it was called a "bacchanalia of the haves." Diana Vreeland [1903--1989], style guru (as well as Nancy Reagan confidante), was stylishly blunt: "Everything is power and money and how to use them both… We mustn't be afraid of snobbism and luxury."

Er, right.

On the one hand, fear of "snobbism and luxury" is not something that 'style gurus' are exactly famous for possessing, especially those, such as Vreeland, born into wealth. As for the have-nots, Bless'ed are the meek, and a Tatum Frill Dress is available for only $159.95 (RRP).

On the other hand, in 1981, while Ronald, Nancy, Diana and other members of US elites were busy being rich, powerful and stylish, US-sponsored death squads in El Salvador were busy committing rape, torture and murder. For example, the Atlacatl Battalion: elite unit created, trained and equipped by the United States. It was formed in March 1981, when fifteen specialists in counterinsurgency were sent to El Salvador from the US Army School of Special Forces. From the start, the Battalion was engaged in mass murder. A US trainer described its soldiers as "particularly ferocious... We've always had a hard time getting [them] to take prisoners instead of ears."

In December 1981, the Battalion took part in an operation in which over a thousand civilians were killed in an orgy of murder, rape and burning. Later it was involved in the bombing of villages and murder of hundreds of civilians by shooting, drowning and other methods. The vast majority of victims were women, children and the elderly.

The Atlacatl Battalion was being trained by US Special Forces shortly before murdering the Jesuits [in November 1989]. This has been a pattern throughout the Battalion's existence -- some of its worst massacres have occurred when it was fresh from US training.

In the "fledgling democracy" that was El Salvador, teenagers as young as 13 were scooped up in sweeps of slums and refugee camps and forced to become soldiers. They were indoctrinated with rituals adopted from the Nazi SS, including brutalization and rape, to prepare them for killings that often have sexual and satanic overtones.

The nature of Salvadoran army training was described by a deserter who received political asylum in Texas in 1990, despite the State Department's request that he be sent back to El Salvador. (His name was withheld by the court to protect him from Salvadoran death squads.)

According to this deserter, draftees were made to kill dogs and vultures by biting their throats and twisting off their heads, and had to watch as soldiers tortured and killed suspected dissidents -- tearing out their fingernails, cutting off their heads, chopping their bodies to pieces and playing with the dismembered arms for fun.

In another case, an admitted member of a Salvadoran death squad associated with the Atlacatl Battalion, César Vielman Joya Martínez, detailed the involvement of US advisers and the Salvadoran government in death-squad activity. The Bush [Snr.] administration has made every effort to silence him and ship him back to probable death in El Salvador, despite the pleas of human rights organizations and requests from Congress that his testimony be heard. (The treatment of the main witness to the assassination of the Jesuits was similar.)

[On the Salvadoran government's attempts to extradite Martínez, see 'News From Americas Watch', August 14, 1991, available for download as a PDF.]

The results of Salvadoran military training are graphically described in the Jesuit journal America by Daniel Santiago, a Catholic priest working in El Salvador. He tells of a peasant woman who returned home one day to find her three children, her mother and her sister sitting around a table, each with its own decapitated head placed carefully on the table in front of the body, the hands arranged on top "as if each body was stroking its own head."

The assassins, from the Salvadoran National Guard, had found it hard to keep the head of an 18-month-old baby in place, so they nailed the hands onto it. A large plastic bowl filled with blood was tastefully displayed in the center of the table.

According to Rev. Santiago, macabre scenes of this kind aren't uncommon.

"People are not just killed by death squads in El Salvador -- they are decapitated and then their heads are placed on pikes and used to dot the landscape. Men are not just disemboweled by the Salvadoran Treasury Police; their severed genitalia are stuffed into their mouths. Salvadoran women are not just raped by the National Guard; their wombs are cut from their bodies and used to cover their faces. It is not enough to kill children; they are dragged over barbed wire until the flesh falls from their bones, while parents are forced to watch."

Rev. Santiago goes on to point out that violence of this sort greatly increased when the Church began forming peasant associations and self-help groups in an attempt to organize the poor.

By and large, our approach in El Salvador has been successful. The popular organizations have been decimated, just as Archbishop Romero [1917--1980] predicted. Tens of thousands have been slaughtered and more than a million have become refugees. This is one of the most sordid episodes in US history -- and it's got a lot of competition.

When Reagan finally died a long overdue death in June 2004, John HoWARd described him as the greatest post-WWII US President; Malcolm Fraser commented that "He gave America back her pride after the end of the Vietnam War"; Bob Hawke, on a visit to Reagan in 1988, prattled on at length about the achievements of this (other) Great Man of History:

The fact that today, as I said to the Congress, we have more than at any other stage in the postwar period reason to look with optimism to a future where the world can live more constructively at peace is in very large measure, as I told the President, due to his ideas, to his persistence, to his strength, to his determination to shape the agenda and the context of the discussions between the two superpowers. He has ensured properly that when he has come to speak, he has spoken both from a position of strength and from a position where he knows that he has consulted and has the support of his allies and friends. He has insisted that in those discussions that the vital question of human rights shall be a central part of the agenda. And the results have shown not merely in the negotiation for the first of an agreement which has eliminated a particular class of nuclear weapons but also in the area of human rights, the significant advances that have been made in the attitudes and practices of the Soviet Union, that his determination in the shaping of the agenda has been right and that it has borne fruit. And I repeat that we are this day able to look with a greater degree of confidence to a world in which the resources of mankind may be able, with a greater degree of confidence, to be channeled in the constructive uses is significantly a result, as I told you, of the time of your presidency. And we are indebted to you for that...

(On Hawke's legacy, see Peter Fairbrother, Stuart Svensen and Julian Teicher, 'The ascendancy of neo-liberalism in Australia', Capital & Class, Autumn 1997.) The neoliberal policies ushered in by the Hawke-Keating regime (1983--1996) did much to lay the groundwork for HoWARd's (1996--2007), which in some ways was merely the icing on the corporate cake. As for the United States and its initial Gilded Age, Fraser writes:

Legions of small businessmen, trade unionists, urban consumers, and local politicians raged against monopoly and "the trusts." Armed workers' militias paraded in the streets of many American cities. Business and political elites built massive urban fortresses, public armories equipped with Gatling guns (the machine guns of their day), preparing to crush the insurrections they saw headed their way.

Even today the names of Haymarket (the square in Chicago where, in 1886, a bombing at a rally of rebellious workers led to the legal lynching of anarchist leaders at the most infamous trial of the nineteenth century), Homestead (where, in 1892, the Monongahela River ran red with the blood of Pinkerton thugs sent by Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick to crush the strike of their steelmaking employees), and Pullman (the company town in Illinois where, in 1894, President Grover Cleveland ordered Federal troops to put down the strike of the American Railway Union against the Pullman Palace Car Company) evoke memories of a whole society living on the edge...

Everyone was seeking a way out, something wholly new to replace the rancor and incipient violence of Gilded Age capitalism. The Knights of Labor, the Populist Party, the anti-trust movement, the cooperative movements of town and country, the nation-wide Eight-Hour Day uprisings of 1886 which culminated in the infamy of the Haymarket hangings, all expressed a deep yearning to abolish the prevailing industrial order.

Such groups weren't just angry; they weren't merely resentful -- although they were that, too. They were disturbed enough, naïve enough, desperate enough, inventive enough, desiring enough, deluded enough -- some still drawing cultural nourishment from the fading homesteads and workshops of pre-industrial America -- to believe that out of all this could come a new way of life, a cooperative commonwealth. No one really knew what exactly that might be. Still, the great expectation of a future no longer subservient to the calculus of the marketplace and the capitalist workshop lent the first Gilded Age its special fission, its high (tragic) drama.

Fast-forward to our second Gilded Age and the stage seems bare indeed. No great fears, no great expectations, no looming social apocalypses, no utopias or dystopias -- just a kind of flat-line sense of the end of history. Where are all the roiling insurgencies, the break-away political parties, the waves of strikes and boycotts, the infectious communal upheavals, the chronic sense of enough is enough? Where are the earnest efforts to invoke a new order which, no matter how sketchy and full of unanswered questions, now seem as minutely detailed as the blueprints for a Boeing 747 compared to "yes we can"?

What's left of mainstream populism exists on life-support in some attic of the Democratic Party. Even the language of our second Gilded Age is hollowed out. In a society saturated in Christian sanctimony, would anyone today describe "mankind crucified on a cross of gold" as William Jennings Bryan once did, or let loose against "Mammon worship," condemn aristocratic "parasites," or excommunicate "vampire speculators" and the "devilfish" of Wall Street? If nineteenth century evangelical preachers once pronounced anathema on capitalist greed, twenty-first century televangelists deify it. Tempers have cooled, leaving God, like many Americans, with only part-time employment.

The reference to the Haymarket martyrs -- the anarchist labour 'agitators' George Engel, Adolph Fischer, Louis Lingg, Albert Parsons and August Spies -- is apt given that May Day (May 1) is only a few days away. In Australia, as in the United States, May Day was once celebrated by workers; today, May Day is largely ignored -- especially by the labour movement -- while in the United States it's been re-christened as 'Loyalty Day', in an explicit attempt to quash the memories of the Gilded Age's dead rebels. In 2007, George II declared "All citizens can express their loyalty to the United States by flying the flag, participating in our democracy, and learning more about our country's grand story of courage and simple dream of dignity."

Well, with rather obvious exceptions.

In Los Angeles, following last year's debacle/police riot, the 'LAPD prepares for May Day protest': "As some in the mock crowd threw bottles and acted the part of agitators, officers assigned to undercover "extraction units" quickly and quietly isolated the rabble-rousers and hauled them away" (Joel Rubin and Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times, April 27, 2008).

In boring old Melbourne, this year as in previous years, the 'May Day Committee' have organised a funeral procession for the labour movement, to take place on Sunday, May 4 (noon, Lygon Street, outside Trades Hall). On a positive note, the Committee is no longer comparing anarchists to al-Qaeda, and has even begun to acknowledge the fact that the Haymarket Martyrs were anarchists. (The November 2001 meeting of the Committee passed a resolution, reproduced in its December newsletter, condemning the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington as "anarchist or individualist"!) Next thing you know, they'll be acknowledging the formation of the Melbourne Anarchist Club on May 1, 1886: the first formal anarchist organisation to be formed in Australia.

See also : The Incomplete, True, Authentic and Wonderful History of MAY DAY (Midnight Notes, May Day, 1986), from which the following rather jaunty little poem is taken, penned by a former Buick auto-maker from Detroit, one "Mr. Toad":

The eight hour day is not enough;
We are thinking of more and better stuff.
So here is our prayer and here is our plan,
We want what we want and we'll take what we can.

Down with wars both small and large,
Except for the ones where we're in charge:
Those are the wars of class against class,
Where we get a chance to kick some ass.

For air to breathe and water to drink,
And no more poison from the kitchen sink.
For land that's green and life that's saved
And less and less of the earth that's paved.

No more women who are less than free,
Or men who cannot learn to see
Their power steals their humanity
And makes us all less than we can be.

For teachers who learn and students who teach
And schools that are kept beyond the reach
Of provosts and deans and chancellors and such
And Xerox and Kodak and Shell, Royal Dutch.

An end to shops that are dark and dingy,
An end to Bosses whether good or stingy,
An end to work that produces junk,
An end to junk that produces work,
And an end to all in charge - the jerks.

For all who dance and sing, loud cheers,
To the prophets of doom we send some jeers,
To our friends and lovers we give free beers,
And to all who are here, a day without fears.

So, on this first of May we all should say
That we will either make it or break it.
Or, to put this thought another way,
Let's take it easy, but let's take it.