Thursday, August 4, 2011

Smurfs or Serfs?

The digital electronic age seems to have reduced interactions and conversations either to cute quips or punchy invective. As a result, human beings seem less connected and more isolated, not to mention more misanthropic, as the days wear on. It is more the rule than the exception to see parents and children, at restaurants and other public places, interacting with video games or text messaging, rather than with one another. Small gangs of youth roam the streets, seemingly as social packs, but they are all glued to their individual gizmos. One wonders what holds such groups together. Professional people go to meetings, but rather than pay attention to the facilitators, they do a lap dance with their cell phones, texting jokes and nasty comments; everyone is committed to being a comedian. Studies have been done that show people to be spending less time than ever doing actual work, all because they allow themselves to be distracted by internet shopping, gaming, social media and the like.

It is a wonder the world still goes round.

Is it possible that all this distraction figures into the monumental dysfunction we seem to be treated to at the highest levels of government? Well, personally, I think that there have been too many mini-scandals involving men in public office, cell phone photos and Twitter. It is a wonder that any business gets done in the House and Senate, not to mention in state and local government. Certainly, we see less action to inform or shape or protect “We the people” than to effect stalemates, whereby no progress can be made in any direction, unless it serves big business.

The preamble to the U.S. Constitution reads:

We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Which of the important words in that preamble have been adhered to and supported in during the recent US debt ceiling crisis? Easier to list the words that do not correspond in regard to recent decisions:  Union, Justice, Tranquility, Welfare, Blessings, Liberty, Posterity do not figure into most of the decisions made recently, but maybe in little ways for as long as the 50 years since Eisenhower’s speech about the Military Industrial Complex.

No Union: our states are color-coded and many now do not welcome outsiders. Some states even take pride in their prejudices and racism. People bicker about so many little things that no one has time or energy left to have real discourse about the big issues. Much energy is placed in obfuscating the truth about issues and in vilifying people who are seeking the truth, but less energy is placed in thinking and action that leads to improving everyday living for all people.

No Justice: particularly if you are a person of color, have gender issues, or are a woman of child bearing years or a child or are an elderly person of any identity whatsoever and unless you have money to pay for high-powered attorneys, unless you can spend hours doing the rounds of the circuitous phone systems at government offices or their privatized fee and penalty collection agencies, at banks, credit card, health care and insurance companies, you are likely to be cheated many times in your life by people and institutions that believe themselves to have no responsibility and no accountability to the public.

No Tranquility: There is a war going on at home, and you can actually see it and hear it happening all day long in most communities. Impotent anger rages in the streets among the disenfranchised, disadvantaged, disillusioned, disjointed, jobless, and yes, also among the most average, even law abiding of us. Fear is taught from the highest levels of government to the lowest villager. Fear makes people uneasy, disinclined to share, likely to guard an “us against them” attitude. Big Business teaches that cheating and chiseling are the best and most ready ways to achieve success, and so it is really no wonder that our jails are full and that we cannot fully trust our neighbors as we might like. We are given so many choices that are non-choices, it is a wonder we can make any decisions at all. Electronics were supposed to make life easier, but because they all have proprietary systems and cords and software to negotiate, we lose hours in frustration and troubleshooting. Cellular phones are a mixed blessing: the lag time of voices has us yelling “what?” to one another, if we try to talk at a normal pace; coverage is not always available; messages get lost in black holes, only to appear in the voicemail box weeks later. Add to these complaints the constant hum of electronic devices, the blaring and thumping of music from cars and pumped into restaurants, loud and unguarded cell phone conversations, the angry chorus of leaf blowers on any given day of the week, and the sum is a complete absence of tranquility. Is it any wonder that we retreat to the solace of mindless television, iPod earbuds and comfort foods guaranteed to lead to auto-immune diseases, adult onset diabetes or morbid obesity?

No Welfare: We are constantly told that we must fend for ourselves, that we’re on our own, and that we don’t deserve to benefit from government programs, especially not if we have paid into them for years. Our public schoolteachers are styled by lobbyists and lawmakers as being gold diggers. Our unionized workers are vilified for asking for decent wages and benefits. Basic healthcare is described as being too expensive for a national health program to sustain. The liberal arts programs are being dismantled from our universities—being replaced by Research and Development that benefits companies, not people; graduate students provide cheap or free labor to corporations that will make billions of dollars from their hard work. Museums, music programs, elder care, family planning, jobs training, national parks, all of these and more are threatened because we are told that they are too expensive. The beast of government is being starved “for our own good” so that we will be more freed than ever to spend money we don’t have, and no one is minding the store to see that transactions are legal or fair.

Fewer Blessings: It becomes more and more difficult to count the blessings realized as a result of our Constitution and harder to see a National practice of humanist personhood.

Strange Liberty:  Women are not free from discrimination or free to decide their own sexual health, and they do not get paid at the same level as males. Partnered gays, lesbians and transgender people are mostly not allowed marriage (although this is slowly changing for the better) and other rights that married heterosexual couples share. Consumers are not free to dodge taxes and regulations like corporations can and do. The public has license to spend liberally, but with no guarantee that the products they purchase have been fully tested and are safe to use. Racial and religious and other bases of discrimination are practiced everyday in this country, even though it is against the law—this is apparently a liberty. The banks are free to interpret what truth in lending means. Insurance companies are free to deny coverage. There is a lot of free information available on the internet, but fees must be paid for the most reliable information. Public employees and officials feel free to act like complete doofuses and dolts, with impunity.

Posterity: Living for the moment seems all the rage. The reason to preserve such things as resources, education, national parks, cultural heritage, historical buildings and institutions that provide services, food, jobs, hard and soft goods and joy would be so that these could be available for future generations to enjoy. Our government tells us that it costs too much to preserve a quality of and dignity to life even for a single day, but that we should instead spend any amount of money for instruments and soldiers of death, these to be used against other people in other countries, people who should have rights, just as we should have rights, in the name of freedom. Where is the posterity in that?

This brings us to the one that was not listed…

Defense: Not for the mother, the child, the elder, the weak, the infirm, the destitute, the disabled, the naked, the friendless, the isolated, the ill or the hungry, but for the right of unaccountable capitalist enterprise to take advantage of all of these, everywhere in the world. The slaughter of innocents by means of carpet bombing and attack drones, mainly in the support of rapacious corporate greed is bad enough, but death by indifference is even more egregious—especially against our own nationals, on our own soil.


The little blue Smurfs are back! The movie is in theaters now. I am sure that, being a mother of two children, I will have to see it.

Most people don’t remember too much about the Smurfs’ history or their way of life, within their cartoon villages, populated with mushroom-shaped houses. The Smurf way is defined by sharing and cooperation, and place. By place, I mean that every individual has a valid contribution to make toward the maintenance of Smurf lifestyle, and service is rewarded not with money, but with the necessities of life, as well as a certain assurance of dignity.

This, of course, sounds highly political, not to say utopian, and smacks of the ugly term communism—but, of course, there has never, ever been any communist government in any country on the face of the earth, not ever. Neither communism nor socialism has never existed. What historically has actually existed, erroneously labeled as communism or socialism, is something called authoritarian socialism, which is to say military dictatorship, which is to say anti-humanist slavery.

The Belgian creator of the Smurfs, the cartoonist Peyo, was by all accounts apolitical.

Smurf rhymes with Serf!  How funny! What would Smurfdom have in common with Serfdom? Well, the answer is, of course, nothing.

Feudalism has been dead for a long time, now, hasn’t it?

The wealthiest in our country do not pay taxes and their funds are sheltered in banks offshore. Our government refuses to make taxation equitable for the average wage earner, or to protect average wager earners from being taken advantage of in the marketplace. A case in point is the bank bailout, putting money from the U.S. Treasury into the pockets of the very individuals who contributed to crashing the world economy by means of unethical lending and investing practices. Banks do not charge fees of people or businesses that maintain large accounts, but they nickel and dime the people who have the smallest accounts and, therefore, the most to lose. The U.S. government, in essence, paid the banking industry for perpetrating fraudulent and illegal business practices, some as unfair fees, to the tune of billions of dollars annually, paid by serfs like you and like me. The dubious business practices continue.

In Das Kapital, Marx observed that the “dissolution” of serfdom in England actually meant that the serfs were cut lose from their feudal relationship so that they could “be free” to sell their farms and work anywhere as a wage slave “divorcing the producer from the means of production”.

From Das Kapital, Vol. 1, Chapter 26:

The industrial capitalists, these new potentates, had on their part not only to displace the guild masters of handicrafts, but also the feudal lords, the possessors of the sources of wealth. In this respect, their conquest of social power appears as the fruit of a victorious struggle both against feudal lordship and its revolting prerogatives, and against the guilds and the fetters they laid on the free development of production and the free exploitation of man by man.

Now, remember: this is not something Marx created; this is what he observed about capitalism. This actually (and frighteningly) closely resembles the actions of modern corporations, large and small, that layoff workers and hire, instead private contractors. This improves the bottom line in many ways, the primary of which is that the corporation need not be responsible to the worker by providing health, pension or other benefits. Marx observed that labor dues levied to the feudal lords did not go away; these dues were replaced by state taxes.

Serfs may have been “freed”, but they were taxed and charged fees, sometimes to the point of losing their property. Then, as in Marx’s case study, and now, more and more legislation controls more and more average people, big money interests less and less, to the extent of allowing monopolies to occur, even though they are theoretically illegal.

Fees, in the benign form of local parcel taxes and building permits, are added to the average person’s burden. Yes, we have to vote for a lot of these these, but sometimes our local officials just decide to add things without asking. A friend of mine told me that if you have to pay for a permit to replace a dishwasher in her town. In my town, the city has decided to underground all power wires, charging each property owner $5,000.00 to do so, whether this undergrounding is desired or not. No one voted to be protected from dishwashers or to unsightly wires.

Could this ultimately describe a sort of modern expropriation, where we are charged fees until there ain’t no more in the old bank account? Could all of us “freelancers” and “consultants” be mere serfs, having to provide our own supplies and maintain our own equipment and pay for our own health insurance in order to work for large companies that have no respect or loyalty for workers?

This is unthinkable.

But, once again, I ask you to think on it. This question should be pondered, long and hard, by all workers, everywhere.

Am I a serf?

I’ll tell you what: looking at the disparity, sometimes I think I would rather be a Smurf.


Marx, Karl. Das Kapital, Vol. 1, Chapt. 26.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this blog post, Elisabeth. I pasted your blog to my fb wall with a suggestion to read and consider. FYI - My younger son brought it to my attention this a.m.