The Transformer: One Man's Confrontation with Capitalism and WarWilliam T. Hathaway I Social Economics I Commentary I March 27th, 2014
A friend of mine works as a janitor. After graduating from college he worked as a market researcher and an advertising salesperson, but both jobs soured him on the corporate world. He hated being a junior suit, and the thought of becoming a senior suit was even worse.
He finds being a janitor a much better job. He's left alone, it's low pressure, and what he does improves the world rather than worsens it. The pay's lousy but that's standard these days. He loves music, so he loads up his MP3 and grooves to the sounds. Although the work is routine, it's brightened by occasional bits of human interest: used condoms in executive wastebaskets, marijuana butts in the emergency stairwell, a twenty-dollar bill under a desk. His shift is from 6 p.m. to 2 a.m., and afterwards he hits the late-night clubs, where he can enjoy the scene with the advantage of being sober. He works for a janitorial service company, and one of their clients is a defense contractor - not secret weapons, just ordinary supplies.
The man is a pacifist. Originally, he felt that rallies, petitions, marches, and picketing would help turn public opinion against the war, and when the majority of Americans opposed it, our political representatives would vote to stop it. That's what democracy means. The first part turned out to be true. Polls showed a clear majority of Americans wanted the war ended and our troops brought home. In 2006, they elected Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, all of whom ran on a promise of doing this. But rather than bringing the soldiers home, "our" representatives voted more money for the war so more soldiers could be sent to Iraq, a surge of troops for another attempt to crush the resistance there. Several months later, they voted additional billions for a US troop surge to Afghanistan.
In 2008, the people elected Barack Obama on a pledge to bring peace. But the war still continues with thousands dying, despite the will of the voters to end it.
My friend began to realize the politicians aren't representing us but what he calls the corpses, short for corporations. The majority of those want the war to continue. It's the corporate majority that rules, not the citizens. That's the democracy we have. When business leaders turn against the war, then it will end.
What would make them turn against it? When they stop making a profit from it, he concluded.
Finally feeling glad to be part of the corporate world, he decided to stage a surge for peace. He bought a 10-amp step-up transformer at an electronics flea market, the kind used to increase voltage from 110 to 220. The next time he was scheduled to work at the defense contractor and the weatherman predicted a thunder storm, he brought the transformer along in his dinner box. At the first flash of lightning, he took it to the data processing center. First, he unplugged all the computers and auxiliaries from the surge protectors and zapped them with 220. Then, he plugged them back in and zapped the surge protectors. A clear case of surge-protector failure: the damned things must've let the surge through before they shut down.
The stench of sizzled electronics gave him a headache, but other than that he felt fine. He figured the lost work and ruined equipment put a hefty dent in profits. The company will try to pass those costs on to the government, but with budget deficits and taxes already cripplingly high, congress will finally have to admit they don't have enough money to conquer Iraq and Afghanistan.
The lost work also cuts into the military supply line. If supplies are reduced, war operations have to be reduced. Soldiers can't fight without logistics. Both economically and tactically, destroying war supplies helps to end war.
He's aware that direct action like this is unpopular. Many people are afraid of government repression that will make their already difficult situation even more unpleasant. But he's convinced that their difficult situation - working long hours for low pay, living in a deteriorating society, raising children amid fear and hostility - is caused by the same forces that drove us to war. Capitalism manifests now as invasion in Iraq and Afghanistan, as privatization and impoverishment in Latin America, and as the destruction of the working class in the industrial nations. It's the same system operating in different environments.
Rather than sheepishly obeying in hopes of avoiding more punishment, he feels we must actively rebel and seize the power that has been usurped from us. This struggle won't be comfortable, but it will be meaningful. By taking charge of our history, we'll earn the gratitude of future generations. Otherwise, our and their lives will be continually constricted by the rule of capital. He's convinced the time is ripe for change, and it needs to be fundamental, not superficial.
He grew up in a small town where his family owned the local hardware store. When he was in high school, Wal-Mart moved to town. Their family store couldn't compete with Wal-Mart and went broke. His father became a clerk in the Wal-Mart hardware department at a wage less than what he had paid his lowest employee. Soon he was joined there by the former owners of the local clothing, appliance, sporting goods, and toy stores, all of whom had gone broke. Despite their expertise, none was hired as a department manager - all clerks - because they might harbor resentment. The managers were long-term, Wal-Mart employees brought in from outside.
But it wasn't just Wal-Mart that used economics of scale to destroy home-grown businesses. Many farmers in the area had to sell out to corporate agriculture. Local restaurants were replaced by cheaper chains. The real estate office was driven out by a discount franchise. And all the workers were making much less than before. The whole town, except for a few big new houses, became bleak.
His parents had enough money saved so he could go to college with the help of student loans and part-time jobs. But his younger brother and sister couldn't. The brother went into the navy, where he wouldn't have to actually fight, and the sister worked at Wal-Mart.
What's happening to small businesses in the USA is happening to small countries overseas. Their economies are getting taken over, sucked into the maw of transnational corporations. The World Bank and International Monetary Fund are economic weapons in this conquest. Countries that resist face other weapons, from CIA subversion to outright invasion. Feudalism has been revived and globalized; except, this time around, the nobility are the corporate rulers, the yeomen are their declining ranks of employees, and the serfs are the rest of us worldwide - the huge majority.
He's certain that we're not going to change this system without a fight, and we'd better start now while we still have some freedoms. Hoping to make basic changes through liberal reform is a delusion. We cling to that hope because we've been raised with the comforting myth that we live in a democracy. But behind the "we, the people" rhetoric lies entrenched power determined to maintain itself. The rulers are willing to change only in ways that make more profit, such as expanding the labor pool to include women and formerly-ostracized "minorities", thus enabling them to reduce wages.
The "have a nice life" days are over in the USA. Conditions are getting inexorably worse. Americans are beginning to get the same treatment as people in the client states. As protest to this grows, the power elite will try to crush it. They'll scapegoat the radicals, blaming them for the problems, trying to make them the target of rising populist anger. But dissidents aren't causing these conditions, they're resisting them. The conditions are caused by the predatory nature of capitalism.
In opposing this process, he's a pacifist but not a passivist. He fights, but only in ways that don't injure living creatures. Currently, his transformer is stowed away, awaiting the next weather report when he can transform more war computers into peaceful scrap.
About the Author
William T. Hathaway's new book, Wellsprings, concerns the environmental crisis. He is an adjunct professor of American studies at the University of Oldenburg in Germany and a member of the Freedom Socialist Party. A selection of his writing is available at www.peacewriter.org.