Friday, October 29, 2010

On Dualism and Politics

An aspect of living with the bodhisattva vow while involved in this world is looking for opportunities, in ones own daily life, to promote healing. This is not "promote" in the sense of waving a sign and scolding people, but by practicing faithfully and then walking the walk. Bringing "how can I help you?" into the marketplace and not being stingy with that sentiment. (While also not being a pushover.)

The last two posts have concerned the effort to organize fast food workers at ten Jimmy Johns stores in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and we have addressed the situation of workers in that industry. Hopefully, readers interested in other things, like Zen and meditation, haven't been too disappointed about all this pro-union talk.

Alas, political struggle is part of our reality in this human realm. While we are here, we fight over stuff. Not just toys and luxuries, but over basic necessities and services. Food. Water. Medical attention. A few people live in tremendous privilege while the vast majority of people on this earth struggle to survive; and, much as the way hostages sometimes begin to identify with their captors, human beings rationalize this order of things to make it seem right. The disparity continues to grow in our country and similarly all over the world.

Capitalism is not a neutral economic system. It creates a powerful social order and an ongoing political struggle among human beings, who all want the same basic things: food, water, access to medical care, dignified work, and fun. (Remember, those are just the basics.)

The struggle organizes itself as a class war, consciously or not. On one side, labor is viewed as an expense, something to be kept as cheap as possible. This means keeping wages down and reducing other expenses (like workplace safety features). This means getting more work out of that resource, by extending hours or speedups. Labor is viewed as a column in a spreadsheet, bereft of human identification. On this side of the battlefield, unions are a nuisance, which is why employers go to such lengths to defeat them. In some parts of our world, you can still have your life threatened for organizing a union; in our country, just a century ago, violence against organizing workers was common and open; the state, through its police and even its military, sometimes participated.

The work of Michael D. Yates has taught me much about the history and the workings of unions, and yet here is the single sentence from his Why Unions Matter that has never left me: "A union should view the contract as a temporary truce in a never-ending class war."

A union's vigilance must continue, once the agreement is reached and the contract is ratified. The contract itself must be upheld on both sides and renegotiated later, because contracts expire and conditions change. For example, actors and screenwriters saw their industry change dramatically in a short period of time over the last decade or so, as the internet became a major media resource. When actors and writers asked for fair compensation for internet broadcast of their work, producers balked at sharing those profits. It led to a writers strike a few years ago.

Historically we see an ongoing political struggle of have and have not, organizing itself around those who own and those who work for the owners. The two sides view each other as a problem. Labor is an expense that must be kept under thumb; "the bosses" are an oppressive force, a rock that must be moved uphill before it rolls right over us.

It seems to be an intractable dualism. If the union is an army in a perpetual war, then "solidarity" cannot ever be extended to include the owners. There are employers who view their workers as human beings and take an interest in their welfare, and yet there are societal pressures on them to negotiate against "labor." After all, a corporation is not, by its very charter, in the business of being generous to its employees; by law, it is in the business of maximizing profits for its shareholders. So the walls are built in the structure of the economy itself, in the laws that are concerned more with property than human development.

So, in a sense, the very streets we walk on are built on the division and struggle between human beings.

Small wonder people walk away from this. Seung Sahn's motivation to become a Buddhist monk was the political struggle in Korea during his youth. Just after becoming its own country again, freeing itself from foreign occupation, he suddenly saw Koreans fighting and killing one another, left versus right. "Bullshit," he thought, and shaved his head.

For me, the iron ball is in my throat. My practice is here and there is no fleeing to the mountaintop.

Indeed, my son has just woken up, which means I must leave this ramble for now. I apologize for its lack of revision and clarity.

This news article has some interesting reflections by a social work professor, for your interest. I'll have to come back and finish this up later.


Anonymous said...

Like the Korean who had enough of the inequality of his society, I have come up with a new idea. Well it is not completely new, but it might be time to renew it.
Instead of creating unions to deal with the unfair tactics of management, drop out. I mean quit being a US citizen. How you might ask.... by finding a few friends of like mind, getting a place together, and form a 501-d. Take a vow of poverty, work just enough to supply the small community with essentials and stay below the poverty line. Give up all you personal property ( the hallmark of capitalism ) and live free of the ever increasing gap between the rich and poor. Form your own Sangha...just like the Buddha did. Stop putting up with the rat race of money making and bickering.
Well its' just an idea....i was just thinking of it yesterday...:)

Petteri Sulonen said...

Power relations are a bitch, because they're asymmetrical. It'd be a lot easier for a business owner/boss to run his business in solidarity with his employees, and thereby have the employees reciprocate, than for an employee who's a nameless cipher in some accountant's spreadsheet to attempt the same.

Oh, and, I like these political posts. Keep 'em rolling, Comrade!