“Every culture lives within its dream,” wrote Lewis Mumford in 1934:
“It is reality – while the sleep lasts. But, like the sleeper, a culture lives within an objective world that…sometimes breaks into the dream, like a noise, to modify it or to make further sleep impossible.”
This Labor Day it’s conventional wisdom to say the American dream is broken. For those who ever dreamed it, that dream featured all that typically fills the fantasies of capitalist cultures: if not heaven, then at least happiness here on earth, built from stuff and standing acquired through human sweat and toil; Americans sold themselves (and others) another fancy too, a fair shake, in a “city upon a hill” nation replete with opportunity. (The facts of slavery, land theft and genocide notwithstanding.)
For many who were sleeping soundly previously, the noise that’s broken in is that of millions of Americans living without enough to eat (46 million, including one in five of all children); the racket of rampant ill-health, the half-of-all jobs that barely lift families out of poverty ($34,000 or less) and the kicker: less social mobility than exists in most of Old World Europe.
The trade union dream is in trouble too. That’s the one in which organized workers mass enough muscle together to extract what’s due labor from the bosses. Union membership in the private sector in the United States today has fallen to levels not seen since the 1930s. Public sector unions are holding steady (where unions are allowed) but they’re under constant attack from Republican governors, propagandist media and the profiteers that underwrite both of those.
Globalization, mechanization and the fast switch from muscle to money-markets as the primary means of amassing wealth have not just modified labor’s dream, they’ve made further sleep impossible.
Talk to labor leaders and “hard times” doesn’t come close to expressing it. As labor organizer and Nation writer Jane McAlevey, put it in this interview:
“There’s been a fifty-to-sixty-year campaign in this country to destroy the reputation of unions. We don’t have a labor page; we have a business page in every newspaper. We get a one-way view from the American capitalist media every day, and it drums into people these horrible lessons. There is a total lack of understanding of what the real purpose of a union in this country really is and what it does.”