From the front page of NY Times, March 26, 1911, “Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.” A far more gruesome telling in “Stories of Survivors,” also appearing in the Times that same day, tells of young women who had fled to “windowsills... tearing their hair out in the handfuls and then they jumped.”
But the most telling testimony is provided in an interview years after the Triangle factory fire by Pauline Newman, who worked for The Triangle Shirtwaist Company as a child soon after arriving in the United States from Lithuania in 1901, and eventually became an labor organizer for the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union.
“We was, we had the corner on the floor. It resembled a kindergarten: we were all youngsters. And we were given little scissors to cut the threads off, like so. It wasn’t heavy work. It was monotonous 'cause you did that from 7: 30 till nine o’clock at night. You had one half hour for lunch and nothing for supper or anything like that. Before I left I was promoted to the cutting department. You’d cut the embroidery, which was inserted in the front of the shirtwaist in those days, and that was . . . They were the kind of employers who didn’t recognize anyone working for them as a human being. You were not allowed to sing. Operators would like to have sung, because they, too, had the same thing to do, and weren’t allowed to sing. You were not allowed to talk to each other. Oh, no! They would sneak up behind you, and if you were found talking to your next colleague you were admonished. If you’d keep on, you’d be fired. If you went to the toilet, and you were there more than the forelady or foreman thought you should be, you were threatened to be laid off for a half a day, and sent home, and that meant, of course, no pay, you know? You were not allowed to use the passenger elevator, only a freight elevator. And ah, you were watched every minute of the day by the foreman, forelady. Employers would sneak behind your back. And you were not allowed to have your lunch on the fire escape in the summertime. And that door was locked. And that was proved during the investigation of the fire. They were mean people. There were two partners, Rank and Harris, and one was worse than the other. People were afraid, actually. And finally, it took from the time I got there, October 1901 to November 1909, for the people to really rise and proclaim that they cannot work under such condition any longer. And we had 20,000 of them coming out here, and 15,000 in Philadelphia, you know? And that was the strike, Boston from November 1909 to the end of March 1910.”
“The work will have to be done from the ground up,” writes Kevin Baker who sounds the call for democratic political praxis in this month’s Harper’s, “and it will have to be done by us.” Indeed there are times when the collaborative solidarity of an active demos, expressed as a solidarity of demands made at brief but powerful moments in history, like during the Populist revolts of the 1890s, can be revolutionary. Looking backward, we can say that these moments are contrapuntal exercises voiced alongside more fragmentary strategies and ethics.
The problem however, which Baker does not seem to fully address is just how difficult – if at all even possible – that kind of solidarity has been made by American middle-class regimes. Baker correctly states “the people” are never asked or summoned to do anything, and so never can “the power of the people activated.” That the days of Know-Nothings, Mugwumps, and angry pitchforked farmers are surely behind us makes we question whether the very notion of a democratic movement – say, like something even akin to the Civil Rights era – is simply too anachronistic. Too many people are just too broken down into isolation, routine, and downright anxiety to go get those pitchforks. “Democrats,” more specifically, writes Baker
have been reduced to a state of psychological helplessness, one in which any political obstacles – ranging from the prevarications of stalking horses like Senators Joe Lieberman and Ben Nelson to the plaintive cries of the tea-baggers out in the streets, to the sterner demands of the Joint Chiefs of Staff or Big Pharma – are transformed into insurmountable organic obstacles.
We have learned to be helpless. And in this state of political depression, it no longer matters how many elections liberals win for the Democrats, or how much damage they do to the country or the world. There is simply no way to do anything differently.
Such hapless fatalism is, of course, in direct opposition to the every tenet of American liberalism, which is rooted in the idea that human agency is still possible in the modern world….
Actually, if to provide a slight corrective, I think it would be mistaken to associate “such hapless fatalism” with political, social, and economic stasis, and thus remain blind to the slow but steadily increasing declension of American life. It is not stasis we are living in, nor even some cyclical return of prior historical battles, but a rootless and nomadic vortex of filth, corruption, and servitude. Sure, there are points of uncertainty and fragility to this “system” but these vulnerabilities only seem to intensify the mechanisms of governance, control, and resignation even more.
Liberals and progressives have proven themselves incapable of mounting a challenge to, or even of taking advantage of, known crises, preferring to leave Change and Reform to politicians, technocrats, and policy wonks who always talk numbers, and demonstrate how best to mollify and relieve a broken system, or as Baker puts it, to “fluff up the generals, bankers, and politicians who not very long ago were in panicked disarray.” And so, the hastening of dispassionate fascism….and when you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you…
“Yes. It is called the ‘abuse syndrome.’ How do abusive pimps, spouses, bosses, corporations, and governments stay in control? They shove lies, emotional and physical abuses, and injustices in their victims' faces, and when victims are afraid to exit from these relationships, they get weaker. So the abuser then makes their victims eat even more lies, abuses, and injustices, resulting in victims even weaker as they remain in these relationships.”
Levine raises questions about the everyday political effects of living in a dispassionate fascist regime. And he is surely onto something: powerlessness prolonged over time becomes despair which, though anaesthetized now and then by consumptive binges and ego-driven implosions, implicates a “broken” system that is us! It’s not just some Baudrillardean indifference which has neutralized us but a deeper affliction even more disturbing. Because you know most discontent liberals and progressives – who have taken off their lapel pins and taken down their posters, and since gone silent – will probably come around anyway to crawl to the voting booths to vote Democratic anyway!
Though Levine doesn’t seem to consider what and where it is that does give people a hoot these days, he does suggest that too many of us are not simply powerless but also blindly complacent and hypocritical as well. Victims yes – but darkly complicit as well. Why aren’t there more protests and sit-ins in the streets? Why not more planning for future political action? That the best liberals can do these days is get miffed watching Jay Leno interview Sarah Palin, or smugly snark to themselves about Glenn Beck, speaks volumes. What is the real sickness here? Are we trying to act-out some post-political dream-world from the confines of our domestic barricades? Perhaps a perverted engagement as self-parody? Is that what the alternative route has come to? Will the revolution get on Facebook? Politics has indeed become too much of a spectator sport. It’s not just loud and banal but too time-consuming and hackneyed for any of us to give a shit anyway. It’s all show. And who wants to be a mere spectator – or worse, an informed and interested spectator???