The US touts itself as the land of free, but it has
laws which are designed to crush criticisms of the state.
By John Stoehr
March 28, 2012 "Information
Clearing House" --- In 1893, a massive financial
panic sent demand for the Pullman Palace Car Company into a downward
spiral. The luxury rail car company reacted by slashing workers'
wages and increasing their work load. After negotiations with
ownership broke down the following year, the American Railway Union,
in solidarity with Pullman factory workers, launched a boycott that
eventually shut down railroads across the US. It was a full-scale
insurrection, as the late historian Howard Zinn put it, that soon "met
with the full force of the capitalist state".
The US Attorney General won a court order to stop the strike, but
the union and its leader, Eugene V Debs, refused to quit. President
Grover Cleveland, over the objections of Illinois' governor, ordered
federal troops to Chicago under the pretense of maintaining public
safety. Soldiers fired their bayoneted rifles into the crowd of
5,000, killing 13 strike sympathisers. Seven hundred, including
Debs, were arrested. Debs wasn't a socialist before the strike, but
he was after. The event radicalised him. "In the gleam of every
bayonet and the flash of every rifle," Debs said later on, "the
class struggle was revealed".
I imagine a similar revelation for the tens of thousands of
Americans who participated in last fall's Occupy Wall Street
protests. As you know, the movement began in New York City and
spread quickly, inspiring activists in the biggest cities and the
smallest hamlets. Outraged by the broken promise of the US and
inspired by democratic revolts of Egypt and Tunisia, they assembled
to protest economic injustice and corrupt corporate power in
Yet the harder they pushed, the harder they were pushed back -
with violence. Protesters met with police wearing body armour, face
shields, helmets and batons; police legally undermined Americans'
right to assemble freely with "non-lethal" weaponry like tear gas,
rubber bullets and sonic grenades. There was no need for the
president to call in the army. An army, as
Mayor Bloomberg quipped, was already there.
Before Occupy Wall Street, many protesters were middle- and
upper-middle class college graduates who could safely assume the
constitutional guarantee of their civil liberties. But afterward,
not so much.
Something like scales fell from their eyes, and when they arose
anew, they had been baptised by the fire of political violence.
Income inequality isn't just about justice; it's about freedom, too.
One view of freedom minimises the state's role in an individual's
life and maximises markets so that individuals are free to risk
whatever they want to risk to be whatever they want to be. Another
view sees the obligation of the state to hedge against the risk of
the marketplace so that individuals can feel secure enough to be
what they want to be.
Obviously, the libertarian view favours someone who can afford risk;
the socialist view favours someone who can't. One view has
confidence in the market while the other is skeptical. One view sees
income inequality as natural while the other sees it as politically
Emmanuel Saez, an economist from UC Berkeley, tried to quantify that
oppression. He found that during the first year of the recovery from
the 2008 crisis
93 per cent of incomes gains went to the 1 per cent. "Top 1 per
cent incomes grew by 11.6 per cent, while bottom 99 per cent incomes
grew only by 0.2 per cent," he said in an update of a previous
study. "... Such an uneven recovery can help explain the recent
public demonstrations against inequality."
Moreover, income for the 99 per cent grew by 20 per cent from
1993-2000, but during the Bush years, it grew by only 6.8 per cent.
It's worth saying again that this is not a natural occurrence of the
free and open marketplace. The upward redistribution of wealth is
the concrete result of politics and policy - one might even say
socialism for the rich, capitalism for everyone else.
Or should I say authoritarianism for everyone else. Since the
terrorist attacks of 2001, the US has spent about $635bn to
militarise the country's local police forces. It's ostensibly an
effort to better prepare communities in case of another attack. But,
Stephan Salisbury reportedrecently, there has been a cultural
transformation, too. "The truth is that virtually the entire
apparatus of government has been mobilised and militarised right
down to the university campus." When the state makes a fetish of
security, as the US has, it becomes hard to tell the difference
between acts of civil disobedience and terrorism.
So it's tempting to say two currents conspired to
increasingly limit the freedom of individuals in the land of the
free. One is the funnelling of wealth upward so that the top 10 per
cent owns and controls half the wealth. The other is the organising
of state violence to protect the oligarchy in case anyone gets wise
to what's happening. Perhaps there's a third: the executing of state
violence in the name of security.
These collided in an instant in November. New York City cops, under
the orders of a billionaire mayor to clear out Zuccotti Park,
suppressed the rights of thousands of Americans who had been
protesting the oligarchy's power over their lives. Later on, it was
revealed that the real estate firm that owned the park had
previously taken more than $174.5 million in tax-payer subsidies to
rebuild after September 11. Not only was the state reacting to the
threat of collective action; it was defrauding the public of its
contractual right to use the park after having paid for it.
Given all this, I sense the depth of Zinn's line about "the
full-force of the capitalist state". Occupy protesters aren't just
facing local police; they are facing an entire system bent on
breaking dissent and protecting the status quo. And I sense this is
why Eugene Debs became a radical after experiencing such political
violence. How can you play by the rules when the 1 per cent writes,
and keeps rewriting, the rules? The only way to fight back is to
fight back against the entire system.
In 1918, Debs visited three socialists in jail for dodging the World
War I draft. Afterward, he walked across the street to give an
impromptu speech that enraptured onlookers for hours. Because of
this speech, Debs was eventually found guilty of violating the
Espionage Act, a deeply un-American set of laws that are still in
effect (in fact, the Obama administration is using the laws against
Bradley Manning, who leaked secrets to WikiLeaks). These laws are
designed to crush criticism of the state. The irony of Debs' time
may be the irony of ours: "They tell us we live in this great free
republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free
and self-governing people," Debs said to his audience. "That is too
much, even for a joke."
is the editor of the New Haven Advocate and a lecturer at Yale.