On Feb. 18, Joe Stack, a 53-year-old computer engineer, crashed his small plane into a building in Austin, Texas, hitting an IRS office, committing suicide, killing one other person and injuring others.
Stack left an anti-government manifesto explaining his actions. The story begins when he was a teenager living on a pittance in Harrisburg, Pa., near the heart of what was once a great industrial center.
His neighbor, in her ’80s and surviving on cat food, was the “widowed wife of a retired steel worker. Her husband had worked all his life in the steel mills of central Pennsylvania with promises from big business and the union that, for his 30 years of service, he would have a pension and medical care to look forward to in his retirement.
“Instead he was one of the thousands who got nothing because the incompetent mill management and corrupt union (not to mention the government) raided their pension funds and stole their retirement. All she had was Social Security to live on.”
He could have added that the super-rich and their political allies continue to try to take away Social Security, too.
Stack decided that he couldn’t trust big business and would strike out on his own, only to discover that he also couldn’t trust a government that cared nothing about people like him but only about the rich and privileged; or a legal system in which “there are two ‘interpretations’ for every law, one for the very rich, and one for the rest of us.”
The government leaves us with “the joke we call the American medical system, including the drug and insurance companies (that) are murdering tens of thousands of people a year,” with care rationed largely by wealth, not need.
Stack traces these ills to a social order in which “a handful of thugs and plunderers can commit unthinkable atrocities – and when it’s time for their gravy train to crash under the weight of their gluttony and overwhelming stupidity, the force of the full federal government has no difficulty coming to their aid within days if not hours.”
Stack’s manifesto ends with two evocative sentences: “The communist creed: from each according to his ability, to each according to his need. The capitalist creed: from each according to his gullibility, to each according to his greed.”
Poignant studies of the U.S. rustbelt reveal comparable outrage among individuals who have been cast aside as state-corporate programs close plants and destroy families and communities.
An acute sense of betrayal comes readily to people who believed they had fulfilled their duty to society in a moral compact with business and government, only to discover they had been only instruments of profit and power.
Striking similarities exist in China, the world’s second largest economy, investigated by UCLA scholar Ching Kwan Lee.
Lee has compared working-class outrage and desperation in the discarded industrial sectors of the U.S. and in what she calls China’s rustbelt – the state socialist industrial center in the Northeast, now abandoned for state capitalist development of the southeast sunbelt.
In both regions Lee found massive labor protests, but different in character. In the rustbelt, workers express the same sense of betrayal as their U.S. counterparts – in their case, the betrayal of the Maoist principles of solidarity and dedication to development of the society that they thought had been a moral compact, only to discover that whatever it was, it is now bitter fraud.
Around the country, scores of millions of workers dropped from work units “are plagued by a profound sense of insecurity,” arousing “rage and desperation,” Lee writes.
Lee’s work and studies of the U.S. rustbelt make clear that we should not underestimate the depth of moral indignation that lies behind the furious, often self-destructive bitterness about government and business power.
In the U.S., the Tea Party movement – and even more so the broader circles it reaches – reflect the spirit of disenchantment. The Tea Party’s anti-tax extremism is not as immediately suicidal as Joe Stack’s protest, but it is suicidal nonetheless.
California today is a dramatic illustration. The world’s greatest public system of higher education is being dismantled.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger says he’ll have to eliminate state health and welfare programs unless the federal government forks over some $7 billion. Other governors are joining in.
Meanwhile a newly powerful states’ rights movement is demanding that the federal government not intrude into our affairs – a nice illustration of what Orwell called “doublethink”: the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in mind while believing both of them, practically a motto for our times.
California’s plight results in large part from anti-tax fanaticism. It’s much the same elsewhere, even in affluent suburbs.
Encouraging anti-tax sentiment has long been a staple of business propaganda. People must be indoctrinated to hate and fear the government, for good reasons: Of the existing power systems, the government is the one that in principle, and sometimes in fact, answers to the public and can constrain the depredations of private power.
However, anti-government propaganda must be nuanced. Business of course favors a powerful state that works for multinationals and financial institutions – and even bails them out when they destroy the economy.
But in a brilliant exercise in doublethink, people are led to hate and fear the deficit. That way, business’s cohorts in Washington may agree to cut benefits and entitlements like Social Security (but not bailouts).
At the same time, people should not oppose what is largely creating the deficit – the growing military budget and the hopelessly inefficient privatized healthcare system.
It is easy to ridicule how Joe Stack and others like him articulate their concerns, but it’s far more appropriate to understand what lies behind their perceptions and actions at a time when people with real grievances are being mobilized in ways that pose no slight danger to themselves and to others.