23 January, 2016

Now I get it

Good grief, Ken, a hockey blog followed by a political blog? The two topics that both your wife and one of your closest friends have said bore the breasts off them? Back to back? What the hell are you thinking?

Sorry. In my defence:

A) It's been a while since I have done anything political;
B) This one is important;
C) I'll try to inject some personality into it.

I'm indebted, as I often am, to John Michael Greer for clarifying my thinking.


How have things been for your family since your father was your age?

Your answer likely depends a great deal on something you might not consider: whether your grandfather earned a wage or a salary.

If Granddad earned a salary, there's a better-than-fair chance your dad is university educated and earns a salary himself. Which means you grew up reasonably privileged, and, while life may not be all sunshine and lollipops, you're probably fairly comfortable. If you married, you likely married someone with a similar background, since that often tends to be the case, and -- with or without kids -- you're doing at least okay.

If, however, Gramps earned a wage--all bets are off. Because over the past forty or so years, the "wage class" in North America has been nearly obliterated. Wage earners have seen their real income -- their purchasing power, in other words -- actually decline since 1970.

Before that date, it wasn't just common, it was NORMAL, for there to be one breadwinner per family. Usually the man, of course, but for the purposes of this discussion it really doesn't matter. Because that one breadwinner, who often was paid by the hour, could afford a mortgage, a car, and the expenses of raising two or three kids, with enough left over for a few luxuries here and there.

Try that today. On a wage. You can't: you and your family would be living out of your van. Assuming you could afford a van.

This is something I've brought up a few times in the history of this blog, and I get the feeling I'm talking into a stiff, stiff wind. It's a very uncomfortable truth, that what one person used to be able to do, two people often can't do together anymore. And the thing to do with uncomfortable truths is to overlook them, because maybe then they'll go away.

But they don't go away, not when your job is outsourced and you're thrown into crisis. And while this does happen to some salaried individuals, it overwhelmingly happens to those who earn a wage. My city, Canada's tech hotbed, has lost thousands upon thousands of well-paying -- wage-paying -- manufacturing jobs over the past two decades. Those jobs are gone, and they're not coming back.

Whose fault is this? We like to blame the uber-rich, the fabled 1%, and they are certainly complicit, but fault also lies in great part with that salaried class. As their lifestyle and position in society have been squeezed, they have simply moved the squeeze down on to the wage class, what's euphemistically called "the working class". There's overwhelming pressure to keep the toys cheap, to keep the clothes cheap, and above all, to keep the working class down.

I'm a member of that working class. I have never drawn a salary in my life. And I have seen firsthand how people in the salary class look down their noses at me and my friends, most of whom are like me. We don't have "real" jobs, they say, sneeringly ("real" meaning pushing numbers around computer screens and paper around desks instead of pallets around warehouses and forklifts around factories). Many of the (often unfounded) criticisms levelled at those on welfare also get thrown at us: we're stupid, lazy, and lack the ambition to better ourselves.  To which I say: stupid I may be, and I'm lazy as hell on my own time, but when I'm on a clock my work ethic is exemplary. I work my ass off most nights, and that's been the case for many years now. Moreover, most of the people I work with are the same way. As far as I'm concerned, I do more actual work than many of the (salaried) individuals who are putatively my bosses, and that holds true from job to job to job. There are, of course, exceptions: lazy workers and dynamo managers--but they're exceptions, not the rule, especially as the levels go up and the air gets rarer.

I still have no idea what a CEO actually does. As far as I'm concerned, whatever it is, it certainly isn't worth getting my annual income by lunchtime on the second of January (and it's only that late in the year because the first is a holiday).

Just look at the way society treats the working class, though. Really look at it. Here's a hot-button word to better focus your attention:


If you draw a salary, chances are you hate unions with a white hot passion. I'm not going to defend or indict unions in and of themselves here: I'd only ask you to notice the visceral reaction you may have had to that word, and remind you that whatever their faults -- they have many -- the purpose of unions was primarily to ensure wage earners could do what your wage-earning grandfather did. But they've been under attack for two generations now (and no, they haven't done themselves many favours)...with the end result that many formerly unionized factory jobs now pay minimum wage or as close to it as makes no matter.

You know what minimum wage is? Minimum wage is "we'd pay you less, you scum, but regrettably the fucking government says we can't."

And we're played off against each other, have you noticed that? The few unionized jobs left--the ones that pay a comfortable wage--are not held up as a shining example to those making less. No, it's ALWAYS "that asshole makes too much money". NEVER "I don't make enough".

The "American Dream" is often expressed as "any poor schmuck can become rich". This is demonstrably false, because being poor is self-limiting in a myriad of ways: if you have to spend most of your time and energy making sure you can eat and keep a roof over your head, there just isn't much time or energy left for bettering yourself. Not to mention money: tuition and ancillary education fees have increased by about 300% since 1990. You could get a loan...you could also tie a giant concrete block around your waist and hop into the nearest pool.

A better, more realistic expression of the "American Dream" is: any wage-earning schmuck can become a respectable, salaried individual". This is increasingly illusory, too: there just aren't that many salaried positions to go around, and they require that damned education that refuses to be affordable. The salaried people who run banks and universities are still out there hawking that dream for all it's worth, but let's face it: outside a very few tech fields for which the competition is insane, your chances of landing a job with even a Master's degree are...suboptimal. I'm not even going to mention a Bachelor's--they're glorified high school diplomas nowadays.

To recap: we have a large number of wage-earners and former wage earners now on welfare who are despairing, disillusioned, and justifiably pissed off.

Behold: three people whose appeal I never understood until just now: Rob Ford. Stephen Harper. And of course, Mr. Donald Trump.

These three individuals have a lot in common besides their odious politics. They are all moneyed (some of them more than others). They are all clever, clever people who thrive on being portrayed as stupid by the "smart" ones.

Oh, it's fashionable to say all three are stupid, the same way it was fashionable to say Dubya was stupid. Anybody you disagree with is stupid now, right?

Except they're not stupid at all, none of them. All three have, or had, a remarkable political instinct and an amazing ability to exploit their underdog status. Did anybody think Stephen Harper would be the sixth-longest serving PM in the history of Canada? Did anyone imagine Rob Ford could poll so high as the sideshow around him went supernova? And would you look at Trump down there in the States? Everything the man says is an outrage, and his polling numbers keep going up and up.

It's calculated, all of it. Look at the supporters of all three people and you'll notice they're almost all wage earners, or former wage earners now on welfare, often through no fault of their own.  Harper characterized himself as the Tim Horton's PM, always at war with the (salaried) intellectual elites who went to Starbucks. (I went to Starbucks for the first time in many years a couple of days ago. A small hot chocolate -- I refuse to drink the road tar they call 'coffee' -- cost almost FOUR BUCKS. How do you people afford that? Seriously!) I always wondered how a poor person could even think of voting Conservative, since that party is so transparently for the rich, but now I get it: identify with the wage earners, the people just trying to make a go of it, and you've won half the battle.

Rob Ford was also at war with "eggheads" and "leftist snobs", most of whom probably haven't been paid by the hour since high school. His very crassness seemed like something out of a factory or a dock. He was just so very...just so very...wage.

And Trump? Trump, uh, trumps 'em all for the way he's been able to tap into the wellspring of wage worker wrath. Notice his pet issue: immigration. I personally favour immigration by whatever means necessary -- our birthrate in Canada is below replacement and declining, so if you actually want to be taken care of in your old age, you best take up with me -- but let's be honest, immigration from Third World countries is another thing that has driven wages down. Offshore the jobs so there's fewer of them to go around, then boost the competition for them so people will take whatever scraps they can get.

In comes Trump promising to stop Muslim immigration completely. We've all, me included, focused on how incredibly RACIST AND BIGOTED that is, and how many of us noticed it's actually CLASSIST? Most Muslims--even the white-collar ones--end up blue-collar on this continent. The system is rigged that way. (Rigged by who? I leave that as an exercise for the student.)  What Trump is really saying -- and don't think his core constituency doesn't get it -- is that he's got your back against the guy competing for your job. The fact that guy is brown is irrelevant.

Now Trump is promising to address the other half, the offshoring of jobs. Is it any wonder the man is drawing support like crazy? He's cast himself as a the workingman's friend, the guy who tells it like it is and doesn't cave to the "smart" people. And he's not just hitting all the right buttons, he's hammering on them. Every single time the media gasps and says "he didn't just say that!", the people who plan on voting for him cheer "oh yes, he did!"

Now I get it.

Bernie Sanders is doing some of the same thing on the left, and for that I applaud him. I'm extremely glad to see that the anointing of Hillary Clinton has run off the rails. I have long wanted to see a woman president, but with all due respect I don't want to see Herself in the White House ever again. She has always struck me as insincere, and even more so as a preserver of the status quo. The same way Dubya was. The same way, for all of his talk about hope and change, Obama is.

The status quo is not an option, or it won't be for much longer. Because those wage earners...there are a lot of them, and their anger is only growing as time goes on. Trump and Sanders are game-changers. My politics being what they are, I'm siding with Sanders...but at least now I understand that he and Trump are actually two sides of the same coin. I can respect a Trump supporter who has thought his position out, even if I could never bring myself to vote for Trump.

Now I get it.

If their candidate is defeated, especially if it's done by deceit...well, there's no telling who the next candidate of the wage class--the trumpenproletariat, you might say--is going to be. Certain infamous dictators were first revered by the working class as heroes who restored dignity and prosperity. America is lacking both right now, whatever the salaried people on Wall Street might believe.

Hang on, folks, the next years and decades are going to prove mighty interesting. Even if...perhaps especially if...you detest politics.


karen said...

I didn't used to detest politics, but I am feeling really not very good about the state o the Republican Party. I'm far too freaked out to find any optimism.
And I'm not sure i agree with you that any of those three men are smart. I think they are greedy and manipulative. I think they have an innate talent for getting their very selfish ends met, but I don't know that that is the same thing as smart, is it? In their pursuit of whatever the hell they want, they are either incapable of imagining larger consequences, don't care to imagine such consequences, or can, do, and enjoy those consequences. I think the first and second speak of stupidity and the last of psychopathy. I suppose there is probably evidence that some psychopaths are extremely intelligent, but listening to the three of them, I don't hear intelligence.

Ken Breadner said...

I think the word is "clever", as opposed to "smart", and yes, you're right. There are politicians who really do have altruistic ends -- Layton comes to mind -- but many of them are in it for the power. When you turn what intelligence you have to the ends of procuring power for its own sake, it's scary how far it can take you.