This started out as just another essay but evolved into an exercise of a polemic. I did not have any training in rhetoric or debate beyond a single semester of Speech & Debate in middle school; but while in college I had to debate and defend the positions I took in papers and in seminar. Debate may be too strong of a word when taking about seminar, it was never the melodramatic fight with cudgels that we think of when taking about debates today. It was more a discussion where different opinions could exist concurrently even if there was no consensus. Anyway I thought I would share it, friend of mine said it reminded him of things he has read in The Jacobin, which can be read as a compliment or an insult depending on who says it to whom but in this case it was certainly not the latter.
Serfdom is a form of slavery best known from Europe during the Middle Ages. It is differentiated from chattel slavery in that serfs had legal rights; he could own property and accumulate wealth, was entitled to protection and could not be dispossessed without cause. The landlord who owned the land was entitled to use the serfs labor and taxation in kind from his serfs; in exchange he had to provide protection for his serfs and was expected to keep them alive during hard times. When people think of serfs they typically imagine Russian Serfdom which persisted in various forms until 1861. The vision of dour Russians rooting around in their fields for potatoes while a well-dressed nobleman orders them about from horseback.
The system is a means of control; it inhibits change as serfs cannot freely move about. By entrenching political and economic with landowners it hampers internal threats to that power. But history has shown that such security has an expiration date. Russia faced a crisis in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as they had an agrarian society trying to buttress a Great Power in an industrial age. In France, the feudal Ancien Régime could not reconcile growing prosperity and thus power of the bourgeoisie, the increasingly dire situation of the peasantry and the entrenched power of the nobility and clergy. In the Antebellum United States, the Free North was industrializing and growing exponentially while the Unfree South was economically backwards and uncompetitive. Rather than attempt reform, the South opted to dig in and to go with the wrong side of history. In all three the result was violent cataclysm that irrevocably ended the old order and killed millions.
“I owe the public nothing” declared John Pierpont Morgan in 1901. Wealth and power left unchecked will concentrate and become inimical to democracy. We have seen this before; the Gilded Age is a blight upon American history. May 1 is a holiday around the world because of a protest in Chicago that ended with an explosion and policemen firing into a crowd. In Colorado between 1903-1904 the National Guard instituted military rule to put down striking miners on behalf of mine owners. All these pale in comparison in the efforts to suppress and terrorize African, Hispanic, Asian and Native Americans throughout American history and continues to this day. Something to remember is that the American Revolution was not a populist one; it was wealthy landowners and merchants rejecting the authority of Parliament. And the Founders did not believe in democracy, they set up an oligarchic republic designed to curtail and contain democratic will. They imagined a nation of yeomen farmers and merchants ruling over an agrarian republic; not a post-industrial superpower of 350 million people.
Ever since the 1970s there has been systemic, although most likely unconscious and unfocused, effort to undo the work and gains of the last century. Where poor whites had unions to protect them from the callous and capricious whims of big business, they now have nothing. Where African-Americans had nominal federal protections against disenfranchisement, they have been stripped. Hispanics and Muslims are publicly denounced as enemies of the state. Asians are lumped with the Communist Chinese as nefarious and conniving threats to our empire. South Asians, Middle Easterners and Muslims all of stripes are branded radical Islamic terrorists, regardless of their actual faith (i.e. Hindus, Sikhs, Christians, Buddhists, Jains, Atheists) and ignoring the fact that a tiny fraction of a minority are actual any threat at all. LGBT+ people are a canard for the alleged moral decay of Americans. All of these serve the same master: wealthy white men and the vast, oligopolistic companies that seek only to enrich their executives and shareholders no matter the cost.
The only class in America today that has what Marx called Class Consciousness, that is an understanding of where it sits in the social order and what its interests are, is the ultra-wealthy. Those who sit atop their hoards like dragons in Anglo-Saxon sagas; lord that over the rest of us. And such is the disconnect between them and their fellow citizens that they would slaughter tens of thousands of their fellow citizens all to ensure they pay not another farthing in tax. The most recent example is the tax break masquerading as a health care reform bill in the Senate. There is no price too high to pay to ensure that the wealthiest and the most comfortable do not suffer the indignity of having to provide for the nation that keeps their pink insignificances alive. JP Morgan’s declaration would find enthusiastic assent in many of the boardrooms, golf clubs and legislative offices today.
Healthcare is a good example of this creeping serfdom. Before the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the only viable way for an average American to get health insurance was through their employer (and have the good fortune of not being already sick). Thus employers lost one of their whips to keep their employees in line. Freed from having to rely upon the beneficence of their employers (but still shackled to the beneficence of for-profit insurance companies) workers could leave jobs they did not like and not face an immediate crisis over how to get insurance; for those living in civilized states they had a way to acquire healthcare despite not having a job. Now I think the ACA is a monstrous compromise, with a fatal flaw in that it still commodifies health and entrenches sanguinary insurance companies further in a system that requires radical reform. But best should not be the enemy of the good and Americans always do the right thing after they have exhausted every other option.
The unholy alliance of sententious religious fanatics and feckless plutocrats that is the GOP hates the ACA for many reasons; despite the fact it is exactly what they proposed as healthcare reform before 2008. One is simply racism, anything and everything Barack Obama said or did was rejected prima facie because he was a black man. Petty envy plays a part as it did with Bill Clinton; Republicans are terrible at actually following anything they preach that could be construed as beneficial or a good idea. The ACA is the healthcare reform advocated by the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think-tank and beta tested by Baron Mittford of the Michigan Romneyington in Massachusetts when he served as Governor. It was their plan but they forced Democrats to pass it and now defend it. Now they lie about the process of passing the bill, claiming it was rammed down their throats by secret committee; as if it was passed by a secret coven in a dark forest grove along the Potomac and not a bill that was debated for 13 months by both the House and the Senate like it was. Now they embark upon a profane crusade against their own reform. Because a black man proposed it and they have spent the past seven years campaigning against it; despite the fact it is generally popular and its repeal would kill tens of thousands of Americans.
The tinfoil hat ilk would find succor and comfort if this process was deliberate. That in 1967 a group of white men sat down in a room and decided that they needed to break the back of the plebs, proles and peons. But rare is there an actual conspiracy against the public. This is a process that is most likely unconscious and unfocused. The destruction of the unions was opportunistic, the unions were weak and cultural perceptions about them were negative. “Klotzen, night kleckern!” It was an open goal and the GOP kicked. The ACA is caught in the racism at the root of American conservatism; which overrides all other ideological concerns and even pragmatism. They built a narrative of Obama as illegitimate and corrupt. Logically then everything he did or said was illegitimate and corrupt, even when he did things exactly as they would have. Nothing else matters, hatred overrides reason.
They seek to shackle you in chains but they have no plan. Opportunities arise the reactionaries, oligarchs and fellow travelers make their move while centrists and moderates masquerading as our left wing stand idle negligent in their duty to stand. Serfdom comes not all at once, it is a process that slowly injects itself into a society. We face a choice, are we going to be culpable? Are we going to press down upon the brow of Americans this crown of thorns? Are we going to crucify mankind upon a cross of gold? I would find Bryan intolerable and wrong on many issues; but he was not incorrect in his speech in 1896. Will the Democratic Party stand upon “the side of the idle holders of idle capital or upon the side of the struggling masses?” Or will we tacit standby as fetters tightened around our limbs; and doom a future generation to the bloody revolution that will inevitably result from this system? They seek, unknowingly or not, to destroy the republic they nominally serve. We cannot allow this to pass or we shall brand ourselves with shame that will mark our time for all time.