You don’t gauge tyranny by the presence of government, but by the absence of democracy.
If you can manage it, forget for a second about the National Security Agency’s enormous domestic spying program, our government’s obsessive desire to monitor absolutely all of us, all the time. Forget about their cartoonishly psychotic reaction to the whole affair, the desperate manhunt as the Empire and their toadying media hop the globe in their efforts to deflect attention onto everything in the world besides themselves, and the fact that they’ve been exposed as sci-fi Stalinists. Put it out of your mind, for the time being, because it’s all too stiflingly despotic. If you focus too hard on it, you’re likely to be left feeling abject, helplessly ground under the heel of a totalitarian nightmare from which there is no escape. And that is not a useful feeling. So do your best to put it out of your mind.
Now, let’s talk about the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP is a NAFTA-like free trade agreement that the Obama administration is currently trying to fast-track through congress. It would eliminate trade barriers between the US and a number of nations in Asia and the Pacific, and encourage those nations to do business with the USA instead of with China, the gigantic economic powerhouse in their own backyard. Like NAFTA before it, the TPP is designed to make it easier for capital to move across international borders, to facilitate the free-wheeling whim of trans-national corporations to chase higher profits by skirting tariffs, destroying labor laws, and thumbing their noses at basic morality and human decency.
So, in case you were concerned about unemployment, about our domestic labor force weakening as US capitalists chase slave labor around the globe, well, the various governments and corporations in this part of the world are conspiring to make it easier for them to do just that.
But this trade agreement does more than that. If or when it is enacted, the TPP will establish tribunals of corporate lawyers empowered to force local and national governments to comply with the inexorable law of corporate profitability. That is to say, if any of us decide, democratically, that we want to enact things like environmental protections or fair labor standards, this agreement will allow a gang of monopoly lawyers to overturn those laws and punish us for daring to let our own needs stand in the way of corporate money-making.
Now that’s freedom. Forget about your right to keep a gun in your waist or marry someone with your same wrinkly bits, if you’re a billionaire transnational, this agreement allows you to do whatever the hell you please to make a buck, and gives you the power to boss the government around if they stand in your way.
As I said, Obama is trying to fast-track this agreement through congress, so that it will be the supreme law of the land before any of us lowly citizens has the chance to look at it. And we can expect it to pass, too, because even though the Democrats and Republicans make a big show of being viciously antagonistic to the point of intransigence when it comes to passing any legislation that might help any non-millionaire in America live a better life, there is effortless bipartisan agreement on questions of imperial expansion, free trade, and the corporate drive to profit at any cost.
Now that the big picture is out of the way, and we can clearly see our ruling class colluding to erase any pretense of popular governance, let me take a couple of paragraphs to whine about my job.
I work for a grocery store, a small, family-owned chain that started right here where I live, in Rochester, and has become a beloved institution in the upstate New York area. For the last several years, it has been consistently voted one of Fortune Magazine’s top five companies to work for. The company has a carefully manicured brand image that focuses on portraying the firm as a business that puts things like customer health, community involvement and worker satisfaction and well-being ahead of the bottom line.
The votes that allow them to claim the title of “top five company to work for,” year after year, are compiled from a questionnaire that, each year, the company allows hundreds of its most happy and productive employees to fill out. They aren’t likely to let someone as constitutionally disgruntled as I am to have a vote.
It is not my purpose to portray it as a horrible job, simply as an unexceptional job. Worker morale is maintained, not through a living wage and generous benefits, but through a benevolent hierarchy of layer after layer of stratified management constantly smiling in the rank-and-file workers face to remind him or her that, “we care.” Instead of a health care plan, I get five different bosses a day going out of their way to call me by my first name and ask me how I’m doing, to let me know that they’re my friends. Instead of democratic power in our workplace, workers are assailed with ubiquitous posters and constant sloganeering that seeks to create an atmosphere of insipid team spirit that pervades every aspect of the job.
The break room is often stocked with baked goods that would have otherwise been thrown out. The posters on the wall inform us that the recent store-wide increase in break times from ten to fifteen minutes came as a result of them taking heed to our suggestions.
But there’s the rub, ain’t it? We have the privilege to make suggestions, which management, after figuring out all the angles and profitability, may or may not be magnanimous enough to grant us. We don’t have the power to demand anything. So, late last week, when we all found letters in our mailboxes informing us that, in anticipation of the Obamacare provisions that will, two years from now, allow us to purchase health care exchanges, the Wegman’s company is no longer offering health insurance to workers who receive less than thirty hours a week. Of course, workers who work more than that are considered “full-time,” a position of relative privilege that is only granted after an extended vetting and review by one’s higher-ups. Full-time work comes with increased pressure and responsibilities, and most full-time employees perform semi-managerial functions. So the typical wage earner at Wegman’s stores is now cut off from even the possibility of health benefits, and has no recourse to demand better. We can stuff the store manager’s box with comment cards, but they knew what they were doing when they made this decision.
One of the many strata of managerial monitoring and control at our job is the office of the “Employee Advocate.” The Employee Advocate is a person hired by the company to listen to the problems of employees and to intercede with the management on their behalf. The advocates are paid a much higher salary than that of a typical worker. The store I work in employs two such advocates, as I imagine is the case in the other five-hundred or so stores across the northeast. So that’s at least a thousand people, all trained in the jujitsu of the affable smile, each collecting a decent middle-class salary and benefits, whose only job is to diffuse worker dissatisfaction. What does the company buy with all that money? What return do they get on that multi-million dollar investment? They get a compliant workforce that is nearly impossible to unionize.
Which begs the question, what are they afraid they would lose if we formed a union? If they, the owners, are willing to spend that much money to keep the union out, how much more do we, the workers, stand to gain by bringing democracy in?
And there’s the commonality between the Trans-Pacific Partnership and my own chintzy job in the dishroom. What they are afraid of, more than anything, is democracy. That’s why Obama wants to fast-track a plan through congress that will surrender our national sovereignty to a money-hungry cabal of suit-and-tie pirates. That’s why my employers are willing to shell out millions of dollars to keep us workers talking to management about our problems instead of talking to each other. Because, when it comes down to it, they don’t really think we’re as stupid as they treat us, they don’t think we’re as ignorant as they try to make us. Deep down, they know what we would be capable of if we ever got together. And it scares them to death.