We don't usually post up straight political analysis on the this arts and culture site, even though we firmly believe in a close link between politics and culture, but we're making an exception today because of the exceptional events in the US. Also, Culture Matters has now moved into publishing poetry, and our first booklet is by the US poet Fred Voss, whose poetry we have already featured on the site and who writes prophetically about the political situation of the working class in the US. So one of his poems, and an article about our booklet, follows the piece about the Trump victory, which is by Dennis Broe, one of the leading radical film critics in the US.
Everyone, meaning mostly the neoliberal elite, is searching for answers at the moment for why the billionaire Trump beat the corporate candidate Clinton. Was it his xenophobic rhetoric which drew angry white Americans, his macho humiliation of women in the face of which his supporters had to hold their noses to vote for him, or was it the (Trumped-up) charges of “Crooked Hilary” aided and abetted by the FBI “October Surprise” of a new treasure trove of (probably mostly irrelevant) emails that are now being “investigated.”
A revealing article in Le Monde seems instead to contain the answer for why solidly union and industrial states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania would abandon the Democratic party and vote for Trump, who after all was not the choice of the Republican elite. For decades now, politicians have looked to the October economic, labor and jobs report, released last week, to boost their status just prior to the elections. And indeed, the report showed the creation of 161,000 new jobs and a slight decrease in unemployment of one-tenth of a percent for a total of 4.9 percent, figures that compare favorably to pre-2008 financial crisis statistics. So you would think the Democrats would argue that the economy is in good hands.
In fact the Clinton campaigners did not bring up the “optimistic” report because they felt to do so would be incendiary, that is throwing flames on the fire as Trump emphasized that the new jobs were extremely low paying and could not compensate for jobs lost under the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal regime whose Clinton variant featured the repeal of Glass-Stiegel which loosed the banks and financial capital and resulted in the 2008 crisis as well as the implementation of NAFTA, a jobs disaster for both the US and Mexico.
A further examination of the statistics reveals the pain behind this supposed rosy picture, a pain that voters expressed at the polls. This “dynamic” job creation is in the lowest paying sectors of the economy, the service sector, mainly bars and restaurants, where there is constant turnover, such that from 2007, 1.7 million new jobs have been created but at the same time 1.5 million lost their jobs in the industry.
A second “rosy” statistic in the report is that salaries rose 2.8 percent. Great, right. Well, hold on, this rise is in the context, as Thomas Piketty has demonstrated so thoroughly, of a dramatic shift of income as a whole upward to the wealthiest 10 percent and now to the wealthiest 1 percent. So, the increase in salaries went mainly to corporate executives who saw their pay increase 4.7 percent, while the bottom 83 percent of the workforce saw their pay increase only 2.1 percent, an increase that was mostly eaten up immediately by an inflation rate of 1.5 percent. So, the rise in pay was essentially meaningless and could have easily been felt as again simply a rewarding of the wealthiest.
But it is in the unemployment statistics themselves, or rather the concealing of the true nature of unemployment, where even more real pain and suffering, and perhaps the key to the Trump victory, emerges. Only 62.8 percent of Americans even have a job, the lowest in 40 years, and, in the 25 to 55 age category that constitutes the majority of the workforce, the percentage keeps falling so that it is now below both 2007, in the supposed boom years of the housing bubble, and below 2000, in the supposed boom years of the dot.com bubble. That is, employment following the constant booms and subsequent busts is no longer fully rebounding, but instead returning to lower levels. After these continual crises, things may get better but they do not fully recover and the recovery is less effective after each crisis, certainly giving rise to a feeling that even when things are apparently getting better they are in fact gradually getting worse.
The true tragedy though lies in a statistical sleight of hand perfected under the Clinton administration, of “retiring” workers from the labor statistics who have given up looking for work, that is, no longer listing them as unemployed. Today this accounts for 11.5 percent of Americans from 25 to 55, with 7 million having simply abandoned the search for work in areas where jobs no longer exist, such as the hollowed out former industrial zones of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. If you add these workers, who may not have jobs, but can still go to the polls, to the unemployed, we now have roughly 16 percent unemployment. These are workers who are now resorting to anti-depressants, and other over- and under-the-counter drugs to live with the pain of no prospect of jobs. To that, we might also add, the underemployed, that is, the 5.9 million workers who are working part time but who would very much like to work full time, approximately 4.6 percent of the working population. Add this to the over 16 percent and there is approximately 21 percent of the workforce either not working or working in low paying, part-time jobs with little reward.
Is it any wonder then the hardest hit in these areas went to the polls to express their grief, anger and despair at being left behind. Trump offered a largely delusional hope that someone was hearing their pain and responding. He will most likely betray that hope; that is the history of the far right. But a Democratic party that was so eager to run, in this year of the Brexit and of a generalized anger being expressed everywhere at corporate elites, a candidate who was the epitome of the corporate order, who took more money from corporate funds than any single candidate before her, must now stand chastised.
Clinton stole the California primary and the nomination from Bernie Sanders, a candidate who was speaking to this generalized and largely warranted anger and channeling it in more positive directions and so instead of a battle for the heart and soul of the American black and white working class, we had a name-calling campaign in which the message of the supposedly more rationale candidate was, “under me things will only gradually get worse.” This is what passes for hope at the dawning of the end of the neoliberal age and voters, who felt the pain inflicted on them by a greedy corporate elite which could no longer be concealed in phony statistics, choose outright delusion over gradual hypocrisy.
The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand
by Fred Voss
“Another day in paradise,”
a machinist says to me as he drops his time card into the time clock and the sun
over the San Gabriel mountains
and we laugh
it’s a pretty good job we have
considering how tough it is out there in so many other factories
in this era of the busted union and the beaten-down worker
and we walk away toward our machines ready for another 10 hours inside tin walls
as outside perfect blue waves roll onto black sand Hawaiian beaches
and billionaires raise martini glasses
sailing their yachts to Cancun
but I can’t help thinking
why not paradise
why not a job
where I feel like I did when I was 4
out in my father’s garage
joyously shaving a block of wood in his vise with his plane
as a pile of sweet-smelling wood shavings rose at my feet
and my father smiled down at me and we held
the earth and the stars in the palm of our hand
why not a job
joyous as one of these poems I write
a job where each turn of a wrench
each ring of a hammer makes my soul sing out glad for each drop of sweat
rolling down my back because the world has woken up and stopped worshiping money
and power and fame
and because presidents and kings and professors and popes and Buddhas and mystics
and watch repairmen and astrophysicists and waitresses and undertakers know
there is nothing more important than the strong grip and will of men
like I do
nothing more important than Jorge muscling a drill through steel plate so he can send money
to his mother and sister living under a sacred mountain in Honduras
nothing more noble
than bread on the table and a steel cutter’s grandson
reaching for the moon and men
dropping time cards into time clocks and stepping up to their machines
like the sun
“I want to change the world, I want to strike the spark or kick the pebble that will start the fire or the avalanche that will change the world a little.”
Thus US poet Fred Voss, who yearns for that transformation because of the dire situation of the working class in the US, where real wages have stagnated or declined for decades and huge inequalities between rich and poor are spiralling. The top 1 per cent of the US population own 35 per cent of the wealth and bonuses for bankers on Wall Street are more than double the total annual pay of all Americans on the federal minimum wage. Against a background of deindustrialisation and the loss of jobs overseas, there is mass incarceration of males, police violence on black youth and attacks on trade unions and on the social safety net.
The outrageous consequence of this divisive class war by rich elites is that mortality rates amongst white working-class Americans are getting worse. Workers are dying early from obesity, drugs, drink, violence and suicide. It’s happening because the powerful ruling class in the US, running the richest and most powerful country in world history, needs a workforce less than ever before. Many workers are either on the economic scrapheap or on their way there. There are simply not enough jobs for them and the few jobs around are increasingly badly paid.
The US is not a democracy, it is a plutocracy, and most Americans are struggling to cope with the legalised robbery of their labour and their health, wealth and happiness. And many of them are expressing their desperation through support for the racist and sexist politics of Donald Trump.
To help the cultural struggle against similar trends here the website Culture Matters, supported by Unite the Union — the main representative of metalworkers in Britain and Ireland — is jointly publishing Voss’s new booklet of poems The Earth and the Stars in the Palm of Our Hand with Manifesto Press.
Voss has worked in machine shops for over 30 years. He writes about being hired like a commodity by overbearing bosses and about alienation in workplaces dominated by fear, macho posturing and competition. But there is a vision in the poems of how different things could be. Gradually, the potential for human solidarity emerges, for combining the practical muscle and skill of working men with the political and emotional strength and determination of women like Rosa Parks.
Like William Blake, Voss combines the precision and realism born of years of skilled craftworking with a sweeping, lyrical imagination. And, like Blake, his poetic vision springs from years of reflection on work and the working class and on the oppressive — but alterable — realities of the world around him.
“Britain, Ireland and many other capitalist countries in Europe are becoming more like the US,” Unite general secretary Len McCluskey says in the foreword to the collection in which he explains why the union is backing its publication:
Everyone can see the growing inequality, the precarious and low-paid nature of employment, the housing crisis across the country, the divisions and inequalities between social classes, the health problems and the sheer everyday struggle to pay the bills for many working people. In this situation, Voss is akin to a prophet. He warns us of the consequences of the way we live, tells truth to power and inspires us with a positive vision of a possible — and desirable — socialist future.
Professor Dennis Broe teaches Film and Television at the Sorbonne. He is the author of: Film Noir, American Workers and Postwar Hollywood; Class, Crime and International Film Noir: Globalizing America's Dark Art; and Maverick or How the West Was Lost. His segment "Bro on the World Film Beat" appears on Arts Express on the Pacifica Radio Network and is also available at The James Agee Cinema Circle.