Anger Is Missing Ingredient in Making Unions Strong Again

We Have Lost Ability To Be Incensed About Injustice

Fight the Power: Where is the emotion that once carried social movements forward?
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Fight the Power: Where is the emotion that once carried social movements forward?

By Leonard Fein

Published May 11, 2013, issue of May 31, 2013.
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The AFL-CIO posts the following question on it Web site: “The sustained war on workers from the right has left unions trying to prevent rights from being weakened rather than setting the agenda. Where are the opportunities to play some offense?”

The answers are all over the lot; no coherent agenda is evident. But that does not mean that a coherent agenda cannot be imagined.

The first and essential element of such an agenda is anger. During the heyday of the union movement, the more so in its early years, anger was manifest, directed at “the bosses.” But the anger was and is constricted by four contextual conditions: First, the system developed a brilliant capacity for diverting attention from issues that might have provoked anger by offering, instead, bread and circuses — bread and circuses, football and baseball and basketball [pace, ice hockey and soccer fans] and a lottery culture.

The rich and super-rich were less reviled than they were regarded as lucky. The life styles of the rich and famous were seductions; intended to or not, they channeled what might have developed into anger into more pacific responses. Not lust but envy was the principal response.

Second: To propose anger is to invite attention to class, and class is a taboo concept (save for the middle class) in America. We take pride in our classnessness, or did, and to introduce class into the conversation is to be accused or promoting class warfare.

Third: The union movement is not what it was. The system not all that long ago offered suitable villains. But wonder of wonders, the war against unions — think, for example, Wisconsin — even a naked assault on unions, and especially on unions representing public workers, proceeds with only minor bumps along the way.

Fourth, the standard paradigm “back then” was employers vs. employees. In an economy heavily rooted in production, that was an easy and readily available call. But the economy has changed. In the place of producers, we now have money managers. It is harder, much harder, to penetrate the arcane and in many ways abstract world of finance than it was to know the factory on the other side of town. (As a child, I toured the great Ford factory in Dearborn, Michigan, watched as cars were built from scratch. What is there to see in the world of finance? Computer screens.)

Comes the perennial question: Can there be anger that is amorphous, anger not directed at an identifiable opponent but as a habit of mind and heart? The very thought of that, let alone its practice, is exhausting. And what, in any case, would be the point of it? A fraternity for the disaffected, the resentful, the aggrieved?

The Occupy movement gave us an appetizer, a tiny taste of what confrontation would feel like. By and large, it was allowed to happen, but in the end it was more reminiscent of Woodstock then of the march on the Pentagon as immortalized by Norman Mailer. America is dazzlingly talented at absorbing such anger as is — rarely — expressed against its policies and practices, featuring it on the cover of Time magazine and then going stoically about its business. George W. Bush nominates Samuel Alito to take the place of Sandra Day O’Connor on the Supreme Court, thereby changing American history, and a largely pro forma fight over Alito’s confirmation only scratches the nominee.

Well, surely the voters will punish the obstreperous Tea Party members of the House of Representatives, no?

A weak, very weak, “maybe.” For before the general election there is the primary, and the primary is where the Tea Party shines, offering fool’s gold to those in search of glitter.

No, I fear that anger — or, to use a better word, “indignation” — is not, at least not these days, a resource on which we can easily draw. The most telling example may well be our growing reliance on drones, superficially impersonal engines of death, detonation from thousands of miles away, death at a distance. It is altogether too easy to ignore the damage they do in our name. Or, for that matter, to make peace with it, since we can pretend that we have no relationship to this new form of targeted assassination (along with its inevitable “collateral” damage). Once, it was possible to pray that lightning would strike our enemies; now, we need not await nature’s intervention: We can and do ourselves manufacture the lightning.

If our use of drones can proceed, as it does, with minimal scrutiny and with minimal debate, let alone with minimal anger, then perhaps that is the new archetype for our time. (I am reminded of Jung’s definition of archetype: “A primitive mental image inherited from the earliest human ancestors, ever present in our collective unconscious.”)

Am I alone in seeing irony here — a spectacular technological achievement that draws on our inherited primitive collective unconscious?

Anger? Why bother? Why infuse the dramatically impersonal with the baggage of anger, so personal a stance? We are, for worse, innocents at anger. And everything we experience reinforces that innocence.

Contact Leonard Fein at feedback@forward.com


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