So our proud nation sings, and so we believe, but is this really true? We proudly assert that we have removed the shackles of feudalism and racism from our society and are the most liberated, free-thinking, free-acting people in history, but is that really the case?
A distinguished Atlanta minister and social activist recently told me about a trip he took to a town in rural Georgia which had experienced sickness and ill-health largely attributed to pollution from a local power plant. He talked to people in the community about protesting, about pressuring the utility to improve conditions, but he could not get anyone to engage because they were afraid the utility would withdraw from their community and take the jobs with them. I have heard too many stories like this where people are unwilling to stand up for the long-term health of their families and their communities for fear of personally losing their job, for fear in a larger sense of losing jobs in the community. I have also heard too many stories of employees being required to work antisocial hours, to forsake holidays and personal times, and to sacrifice their family life for the sake of jobs that give them a miserable quality of life.
And it is so common an occurrence for a major corporation to be responsible for an environmental or ecological horror that we no longer pay attention. BP’s gulf disaster caught the public imagination, but there is a major oil spill somewhere in the world that we never hear about at least every month, and multiple in the US every year; toxic runoff that poisons our rivers is a routine part of our industrial practices and we stopped paying attention years ago; so long as we don’t see it we generally accept disastrous business practices such mountaintop removal mining. And even when these things are happening in our back yards so that we can’t avoid them, we are slow to protest but rather accept them as a cost of the corporate jobs in their community.
Many people, many communities seem to look not to themselves and their neighbors for sustenance and livelihood, but to national government to drive economic growth; to local government to create investment opportunities; and to large corporations to build infrastructure and create jobs. In the popular conversation we no longer care what drives economic growth or what it represents; nor is our eye really on the real consequences of local investment beyond jobs growth. We turn a blind eye to so much: to whether jobs provide a level of income sufficient to support a family or are minimum-wage Walmart or MacDonald’s; to the business practices of the employer in the US or overseas; to whether the company poisons our local community land and waterways with potentially horrible health consequences for our children. There are occasional public stirs, like the uproar over Apple’s Chinese manufacturing practices, but these represent a diminishingly tiny minority of unhealthy corporate practices that we seem to simply accept in our competitive desire for someone to come into our town and create jobs. This is not just economic slavery, but it is self-imposed economic slavery, often with considerable adverse health and environmental consequences.
Our self-imposed subordination – even subjugation – to the large corporate world is exacerbated by the culture of consumerism and debt: our society spends extravagantly on cars and the visible accoutrements of class; we have popularized home ownership; and we encourage our young to obtain the expensive college credentials our employers value. We can afford none of these out of cash-flow so borrow ever more to perpetuate our lifestyle and live paycheck to paycheck, willingly submitting ourselves to the control of the economic powers that employ us. This class of economic slaves is not just the very poor, but includes many doctors and lawyers who would have to declare bancruptcy if their paycheck ran dry.
Like the obstacle of privilege which I’ve spoken about before (most recently in Open to Wisdom), our submission to economic slavery is really hard to see from the inside: further, in resolving the cognitive dissonance between the freedom and opportunity we think we have created in our lives and our complete dependence on the faceless corporations that keep our cash-flow going, it is overwhelmingly natural to come down on the side of favoring the status quo. It is hard not to be close our eyes to the extent of impoverishment and lack of opportunity for those we believe to have been liberated from slavery and economic subjugation, such as southern African Americans, Latinos and the rural poor. Our blindness to slavery in our society goes beyond our own economic slavery in otherways: for example privatized prisons are able to essentially rent out the labor of a completely captive and controlled workforce without offering compensation.
Maybe I have a broad definition of slavery; maybe I have a liberal and soft-hearted view of the world; and I’m confident there are facts and factors which I have not addressed and which I am simply missing in my own internal assessment. All this may be true, but I am confident when I state that there are very important ways in which our society is not as free as we think; in which our culture of debt and possessions impoverishes us and leaves us beholden to powers we do not see; in which by our passive acceptance of the consumer- and growth-driven culture of America we both rob ourselves of our freedom and lose our ability to see that this is what we are doing.
I want to challenge you this week: look closely at how and where you give up your power; at how our society asks others to give up their power. Look at whether we are creating a world in which our children are the new slaves. And look for places we can each take action to help ourselves and help others reclaim power. When you see them, please comment on this blog so we can engage in conversation and all help each other.
I am very excited about “A New Business Mindset,” a project that is growing out of my writing. If you’d like to learn more about this project, please visit the Start Here! page of my website and consider subscribing to my regular writings.