I have several times mentioned what I call The Commons. When I first brought it up about a year and a-half ago, I talked a bit about the history of the idea of some resource held in common by a community; traditionally, most often, it was common ground for farming or pasture and perhaps for fishing rights or the like. Eventually, that notion was shrunk by the economic interests of the powerful down to "the town common," often enough some small area of lawn in front of the courthouse - although Boston Common and Sheep Meadow in Central Park in Manhattan at least recall some larger significance.
But what I really was and am interested in is not so much a specifically economic commons of a shared resource but a philosophical Commons, a social Commons, of a shared societal space, the idea of a public sphere wherein all can participate, all have a stake, all have a part - and all have some responsibility. That space of socially shared and mutual duty, the space of what is or at least by rights should be equally available to all.
That idea of The Commons, the idea that there are common interests and mutual responsibilities between and among all citizens simply by virtue of being in the same society, and the related idea of a social contract between public and government, is under unrelenting and vicious attack by the right wing.
Now, it's true that this sense of The Commons has always been under attack from the elites of our society; indeed, that is likely true of the elites of any society. Such elites almost universally simply dislike the idea of all having a stake in, being a part of, that society and therefore deserving of sharing in its benefits - nor do they care for the idea of they themselves having responsibilities to others in that society other than those self-imposed ones of noblesse oblige, the true purpose of which is to demonstrate that elite's superiority.
Still, the intensity and range of the attack we are seeing now is for us here nearly if not totally unprecedented. Some years back, George "I'm what passes for an intellectual on the right" Will wrote in his syndicated column that - and this is an exact quote - "'Back to 1900' is a serviceable summation of the conservative goal." We seem to be well on our way to a time even before that.
And this is the point I want to emphasize. I know I have talked about this before, but it bears repeating from time to time. When we hear about this stupid law in one state or this other inane proposal in another or this absurd nonsense in Congress, we need to remember that these are not isolated incidents. It is not just innocent coincidence that so many things are being pushed so aggressively in so many places at so many levels. It is not a fluke. It is a conscious, coordinated, attack on the very idea that we are a society of interrelated, connected people, an attack on the very idea of "We, the People."
In fact, a report released the first of this month gives some sense of the scope and range of right-wing attack over the past two years on one area, that of workplace laws and workers' rights and protections.
The report was prepared by Gordon Lafer, a University of Oregon political economist who’s served as a policy adviser in the House of Representatives. The report, titled “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” covers how within just those two years:
- 15 states passed new laws restricting the ability of workers to unionize, limiting collective bargaining rights, and undermining existing unions;
- 16 states passed new restrictions and limitations on unemployment benefits;
- four states passed new restrictions on state minimum wage laws;
-two states restricted or repealed rights to sick leave; and
- four states reduced limitations on child labor, including a Wisconsin law ending limits on the number of hours 16-year-olds can work and an Idaho law letting 12-year-olds be hired for manual labor at their school for 10 hours a week, the latter with the avowed purpose of enabling schools to not hire adults who might want enough pay to live on.
Salon.com called those child labor laws "Newt's revenge" from the occasions he got cheers from audiences of slack-jawed yahoos by proposing that even children under 10 could be put to work.
And those weren't the only pre-1900 laws passed in that same two-year period:
- Michigan banned safety regulations covering repetitive motion injuries.
- Wisconsin banned compensatory and punitive damage suits over employment discrimination, which means that if they fired you illegally, even if you sued and even if you won, you couldn't even collect back pay.
- New Hampshire made it easier for companies to classify workers as “independent contractors” who lack the legal protections of employees, plus allowing those employers to contribute nothing to their Social Security or Medicare.
- Maine allowed employers to apply for employees to be considered disabled under a program that allows companies that hire the disabled to pay them less than minimum wage.
And those are just the ones that passed. Two states - Michigan and Indiana - passed so-called “right to work” laws, which are really "right to continue exploiting workers by blocking unions" laws, but attempts to do the same occurred in 17 more. A bill in Montana bill proposed to exclude tips from workers’ compensation calculations, meaning anyone injured on the job whose income partly came from tips would get less compensation. A proposal in Oklahoma would have required recipients of unemployment to do 20 hours a week of unpaid community service, which of course would also allow the state or local government to hire fewer people for actual jobs.
The one that got me the most, though, was a happily failed attempt in Florida to prohibit municipalities from passing any rules to address “wage theft.”
What's wage theft? It's when employers do not give workers the pay to which they are entitled. They don't pay for all the hours people have worked or they pay them less than minimum wage or they don't pay them overtime. There are numerous methods. They are all illegal - but employers aren't concerned since the chances of them getting caught are small and the chances of them facing serious consequences if they are, are minimal.
How big is wage theft? Lafer's report says that
[f]ully 64 percent of low-wage workers have some amount of pay stolen out of their paychecks by their employers every week.... In total, the average low-wage worker loses a stunning $2,634 per year in unpaid wages, representing 15 percent of their earned income.Put another way: Total losses from gas station, convenience store, and bank robberies combined in 2009 was just under $57 million. Total value of wages stolen in 2008 is estimated at well over $185 million - over 3 times more.
But to the right wing in Florida, for an employer to steal wages from their employees is no crime. Again, happily that bill wasn't passed - but that doesn't mean it wasn't part of the overall landscape of the attack. And it doesn't mean it doesn't reflect the overall attitude that is driving the attack.
And in case you're still wondering about that, in case you're still thinking that this is coincidence, that it's not coordinated, not planned, in an interview with Salon.com Lafer noted the "cookie-cutter" nature of the bills pushed in various places, the echo-chamber nature of the arguments, the repetetive phrasing of the claims; that is, how the same arguments are pushed, the same claims made, for the same proposals no matter the differences in local conditions.
For one example, 11 states passed similar reactionary so-called "reforms" to public education, generally involving measures benefitting private, profit-oriented schools, cutting public education funding, and attacking teachers' unions, even though in the performance of their public schools, the ranking of those states among the others ranged from 4th to 41st.
“Basically,” Lafer said in that interview,
the most powerful lobbies in the country are in a concerted attack across the country, and also across a wide range of issues, acting in such a way that is going to make it harder for people in the country to make a decent living.Which I've been saying for over a year and a-half, but it's nice to have some backup.
But I don't want to stop there because, again, all this is just one aspect of the attack. As another example, we have heard much about "the war on women." I have one objection to that, only one; in fact you probably should call it a quibble. It's this: the failure to recognize that the war on women does not exist in a vacuum; it is another aspect, another front, in the overall attack on The Commons, the overall attack on the concept of "We, the People."
A particular facet of this, of course, is the on-going assault on the right to an abortion, on the right to choose. This year has been no exception.
During the first six months of 2013, states adopted 43 provisions to ban abortion, impose medically unnecessary restrictions on providers or otherwise regulate the procedure into nonexistence.But it's more than that, as some are coming to realize: The attack is not only on the right to an abortion, it's an attack on the right of a woman to retain her independent personhood the instant she becomes pregnant. It becomes an attack not just on the right of a woman to decide to end her pregnancy but on the right of a woman to make any decisions during her pregnancy.
According to the group National Advocates for Pregnant Women, since 2005 there have been 200 documented cases in which a woman’s pregnancy was a necessary factor in criminal charges brought against her. A majority of these involved women who were accused of using drugs during their pregnancies and so charged with "child endangerment" by frothing prosecutors claiming that any reference to "child" in a child endangerment statute must by definition include fertilized eggs, embryos, and fetuses.
I'm going to interject something here. These prosecutors and their frozen-smile defenders will say "We are doing this to protect the unborn child," a claim made starkly clear by the fact that many of these women have found themselves in court with no attorney - but with a court-appointed attorney to "protect the interests" of the fetus.
So let me say this: There is no such thing as an unborn child. Period. If it's not born, it's not a child. When you start routinely calling a tadpole an "unborn frog," a caterpillar an "unborn butterfly," and an acorn an "unborn oak tree," then you can call a fetus an "unborn child." And not before.
But getting back to the issue, I said a "majority" of cases involved women forcibly confined or criminally charged based on being suspected of using drugs, a practice, by the way, condemned by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, and the American Psychiatric Association. But "majority" is by no means all.
Women also have been criminally charged because of miscarriages and stillbirths. In one example case from Iowa, a pregnant woman fell down a flight of stairs, called paramedics to check on the health of her fetus, and then expressed uncertainty about whether she should carry the pregnancy to term. She was charged with attempted homicide of the fetus. In Utah, a woman was charged with homicide based on a claim that her decision to delay having a C-section was the cause of one of her twins to be stillborn.
I'm going to cut myself off here both for time and because we're at a point where someone might say "In the one case, the economy, the move is for less government but in the other, the personal, it's for more government. How can these be parts of the same attack?"
The answer is simple in that in both cases the goal is the same: power. Domination. Control. The essence of which, ultimately, is "I have no duty to you but you have duties to me. So economically, you're on your own and I have no responsibility for your welfare. Socially, I will tell you how to behave." Just like the lord of the manor and his serfs.
"Back to 1900?" Hell, they're thinking "Back to 1600."