Saw A Documentary Today

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Thursday, January 31, 2013           11:42 PM

I’ve been watching the History Channel documentary, “The Men Who Built America”. American History allows for many approaches, many different types of foci from which to weave a narrative—this one takes up the stories of the early ‘titans of industry’:  Cornelius Vanderbilt (the Railroad tycoon), J.D. Rockefeller (the Oil tycoon), Andrew Carnegie (the Steel tycoon), and J.P. Morgan (the Banking tycoon). Eventually, the story arrives at the period of Teddy Roosevelt’s ‘Trust-Busting’ reforms, and the tycoons that follow all have some aspect of their industry that builds on the edifice founded by these primary Robber Barons—and all have more oversight to answer to (in that those first titans operated without any restrictions other than those theorized by Darwin).

But I found it troubling in its pat-ness. The early efforts to unionize workers and mitigate the horrific burdens and dangers of the mills and factories were met with almost reflex violence. The management so thoughtlessly dumped harsh conditions upon the employees, simply in the pursuit of personal profits—but when these people objected, they were shot at, beaten, and harassed. The owners lowered wages and extended work hours until the steel mill workers were killing themselves on twelve-hour workdays and supporting their families on starvation wages. Then, when the management (a guy named Fisk) saw that the workers meant to unify in a strike, he hires Pinkerton ‘mercenaries’ and sends them to shoot into the strikers’ blockade line.

I just can’t get over the idea that, in those times, it was acceptable to treat the people who actually did all the work as underlings, not as equals, and to impose upon them the worst of both ends—long hours and low pay. As a ‘history lesson’ this documentary seemed to say, ‘Capitalism has always treated the hard-working employees as beasts—and we still do that very same thing in present-day business’. Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital ” was originally a piece of journalism more than a Communist Manifesto. Karl was simply pointing out the bare facts—that the rich and powerful took for granted the right to treat everyone else like dung to be scraped off their boots. And the only reason they got away with it was that workers were willing to accept the roles the bosses cast them in.

There is and has always been a bottom-line, survivalist ‘engine’ at the heart of civilization’s achievements—when I look at the Pyramids at Giza, I imagine generations of slaves being incentivized with club and lash; parts of the Great Wall of China were mortared with human bone and blood; the United States of America was the result of genocide of the natives and the buying and selling of ‘slaves’ kidnapped from another continent—and we don’t really have to talk about Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

Late-Nineteenth-Century America, having newly crossed the threshold of the Industrial Age, would make of itself a great nation—with railroads crisscrossing from coast to coast, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, steel production for bridges and skyscrapers, electric lights, and oil—first used for kerosene lamps, until supplanted by Edison’s light-bulbs—when oil became even more important as gasoline for the new ‘horseless’ carriages. The issue of whether this could have been accomplished less savagely is moot—the past is past.

But I think it’s a cop-out to present our historically-energized progress of those times as something we ought to admire these bastards for making happen. Their rivalries, their compulsions, and their presumption of superiority over the workers they persecuted—it wasn’t the only way to accomplish all those things. It was, in fact, about the most self-centered, vicious and destructive way to bring that modern infrastructure into being. Not to mention the pure, unashamed avarice they made no attempt to hide—the greed that was their only true goal. The eventual rise to greatness of 20th-Century America was, to some degree, an accidental by-product of the grasping, envious accumulation of wealth and power that consumed the lives of these ‘historical’ figures.

To top it all off, PBS had commentary-segments that allowed us to hear what today’s entrepreneurs had to say about these old-timey fat-cats—and there was real admiration on the faces of Donald Trump, Jerry Something-or-other (the big Hollywood producer), and a bunch of other shark-ish people who’d made a pile by ‘daring to be a-holes’ (my words, not theirs). Oddly, if you’d asked me what documentary film would benefit from these superficial money-grubbers’ thoughts, I’d have to think for quite a while—but bridging the gap between the Robber Barons of the past and today’s ‘Greed is good’ Masters of the Universe only drove the point home more painfully. Those early tycoons were interested in riches, power, and influence—and such people will always be with us.

With us, yes, but do we have no option other than to allow such people to be in charge of humanity’s destiny? In modern politics there is a tradition of admiring the take-charge types and playing dirty tricks against opponents and generally making that business one whom all sensible people avoid—the result is a political system wholly populated with people who seek power. We know that these people are the worst possible group to have governance over us—but no one with an ounce of integrity can bear to spend time among them, much less take part in their campaign rituals and power brokering.

But in Finance and Industry, the set-up is even more macabre—people inevitably nickname their business leaders as sharks, cut-throats, “take-no prisoners”, head-hunters, corporate raiders, swindlers, muggers, con artists, treacherous, lecherous coyotes and hyenas, embezzlers, and ‘masters of the universe’. That last I find spectacularly perverse, implying as it does both the ability to pilfer society, and the idea that doing so is the most important part of existence. The corporate owners and bosses don’t stop at misinformation, corruption, and sneakiness—no, for an honorable person to become part of this group, a willingness to accept bullying, crime, and violence—and to join in—is required.

Politics and business are old, old institutions—their cold-blooded predations against we common families and our mores were already ancient, long before the Americas were a glint in Columbus’s eye. The difference with America’s Industrial Era was, and is, that it gave the Rich-and-Powerful unstoppable power while also making the Earth a place where no one could go completely native, wandering away from civilization into terra incognita. The powers-that-be became unassailable and inescapable almost simultaneously.

So I think enough time has passed—we can reflect on the centuries gone by—we can see that they were savage and inhumane. And capitalism has had a great run—in conjunction with war, it has leavened civilization, lifting up our abilities and our technology. But these things have long ago outstripped the humanity that is our higher selves, our hoped-for goals as a global society. It is time to find a way to live that rises above commercial competition and the 1% controlling the other 99%–we need to get science-fiction-ey about this. Why not? Science Fiction, or what we imagined was science fiction when I was a young man, has sprinted past our reality and now finds us in a world that only the well-educated and tech-savvy can comprehend.

Yet amongst all this futuristic electronics, space travel, and Hi-Res 3-D we still act as if we are playing capture the flag, never being secure in our lives due to the constant competition. Competition is great, alright? It builds character and all that whoop-dee-do. But a global civilization like ours would be best served by individuals who see cooperation as their highest priority. Cooperation, not competition, is the key to surviving our own instincts, our violence, our greed, and our lust for power over each other. Pluralism and inclusion are the only answer if we ever hope to get past our divisiveness and bigotry. Religious tolerance is the only way to wrest power away from the zealots and reactionaries.

And we can never control our waste and pollution if we don’t stop competing for cash and consumables, real estate and natural resources. Great damage has been done to a fragile globe—but no one involved in its being laid waste can stop—others would simply step in and continue the waste in one’s place.

The United Nations seems to be a busted institution—what we need is a confederacy of nations that has the right and the power to do what we wish the UN could do—act as a leveler and a mediator, enforce justice without borders, and husband what is left of our Earthly legacy—our ecological balance and our evaporating non-renewable resources. We need a ‘super’ UN. And we need to call time on the game of ‘business’—even it if wasn’t a path to our self-destruction, it is too fragile a structure to be the bedrock of our existence. The Markets swing up and down with no discernible logic—and it doesn’t help that many traders and investors are just gamblers at heart; making risky bets that threaten even the most solid corporation.

We support people when they’re old or poor or disabled—we should be looking to government to support everybody and coordinate individuals’ efforts to meet needs, not market pressures. Impossible—yes, yes—I know. But it’s like Sherlock Holmes always says: “Once you have eliminated all other options, whatever remains, however improbable, must be true.” If we look at our present and think of our future (if any) it is the only way. Our love of liberty and freedom is all very well—but to confine it within only one or two nations’ borders makes a sham of the whole thing. We live well while other nations starve and suffer—while even some of our fellow citizens do the same.

What is the point of civilization, if it isn’t moving ever closer to a civil society? “The one who dies with the most toys wins”? Is that how it really has to be? Seems stupid—but what do I know? Seven billion people is a pretty big group for a ‘free-for-all’—without any intelligent plan to it, it’s just a bunch of animals overrunning the planet. Or am I missing something?

4 responses to “Saw A Documentary Today

    • yes, it all got a little squishy at the end–but I’m not gonna write anymore about the world being broken–it’s counter-productive and BOY does it bum me out to write this sort of stuff…
      Next time, a nice story I think–hey, do youse guys in Afrika get “Downton Abbey” on cable? I never watched “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Brideshead Whatever”–either I’m getting older or the shows are being made better, ’cause I’m stuck to this new one like glue.

      • Don’t have TV.. watch a bit of sport at my kids place but tired of the crap that we get .. re runs and all and probably 3 years behind the USA…

      • One alternative is Ken Follett’s latest “Fall of Giants” and “Winter of the World”–the first has a very similar tone to the Downton Abbey TV show–England before and after WWI–the second one (I’ve been told, still on my to-be-read- list) covers these plotlines through the Second World War–so, it ain’t Downton Abbey. But I’ve always been a big Follett fan–he gives good thriller…

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