13 January 2009

All hope abandon, ye who enter here

I admit that your existing situation is not a very promising one. Your proletariat is unemployed. That means the breakdown of your capitalist system, because, as any political scientist will tell you, the whole justification of the system of privately appropriated capital and land on which you have been working, is a guarantee, elaborately reasoned out on paper by the capitalist economists, that although one result of it must be the creation of a small but enormously rich propertied class which is also an idle class, living at the expense of the propertyless masses who are only getting a bare living, nevertheless that bare living is always secured for them. There must always be employment available; and they will always be able to obtain a subsistence wage for that labor.

When that promise is broken (and never for one moment has it been kept right up to the hilt), when your unemployed are not only the negligible five per cent. of this, eight per cent. of that trade, two per cent. of the other trade, but millions of unemployed, then the capitalist system has broken down; and your most pressing job is to find a better one.
Thus spoke George Bernard Shaw in an address to the Academy of Political Science in New York in 1933.

The Very Understanding Girlfriend arrived home shortly before Christmas last year with an amazing present for me, a 1933 edition of "The Political Madhouse In America and Nearer Home" by Shaw. Delivered originally as a lecture in New York by the then 77-year old during the darkest days of the Depression, mere weeks after the inauguration of FDR and well before the birth of the New Deal, it is one of those cyclical works that can be read with as much meaning today as in its original context.

As we prepare for the Inauguration of Barack Obama next week, the parallels between our current situation and that of 1933 are obvious and everywhere, with Obama openly calling for a new New Deal, in defiance of every Republican politician since the latter days of the Nixon administration who have worked ceaselessly to dismantle the last one. Although an Obama administration will still be flawed, and a disappointment to countless numbers, it signals the defeat of the neo-liberal agenda.

Even if this defeat is temporary, it is still a singular moment that I will remember throughout my life, and thus in celebration of my 36th birthday The Very Understanding Girlfriend and I will be traveling to DC to witness this event in person, with my copy of Shaw's "Political Madhouse" firmly grasped in my hands.

I happen to live in the shadow of Shaw's birthplace, and it is a long shadow that he casts indeed.
"America is always talking about its Constitution; but as it is also always amending its Constitution, it looks as if that Constitution were not quite so perfect as you seem to suppose"...

...And what does it amount to? A great protest against the tyranny of law and order. A final manifesto from the centuries of revolutionary Anarchism in which the struggle went on against governments as such, against government by feudal barons, by autocratic Kings, by the Pope and his cardinals, by the parliaments which have gradually ousted all these authorities, each of them in turn being used to disable the others in the glorified cause of what people call Liberty, until, having destroyed the king, the barons, the Church, and finally all effective parliamentary governing power, you found yourself hopelessly under the thumbs of your private racketeers, from the humble gunman to the great financial magnate, each playing for his own hand without status, without national authority or responsibility, without legal restraint and without any sense of public government. You have perfected a Constitution of negatives to defend liberty, liberty, liberty- life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness- against the only checks on anarchy that could secure them, and fortified it by a Supreme Court which dealt out nothing but prohibitions, and a political party machinery of legislatures and senates, which was so wonderfully devised that when you sent in one body of men to govern the country, you sent in another body of men along with them to prevent them doing it. In your dread of dictators you established a state of society in which every ward boss is a dictator, every financier a dictator, every private employer a dictator, all with the livelihood of the workers at their mercy, and no public responsibility.

And to symbolize this state of things, this defeat of all government, you have set up in New York Harbour a monstrous idol which you call Liberty. The only thing that remains to complete this monument is to put on its pedestal the inscription written by Dante on the gate of Hell "All hope abandon, ye who enter here."

-"The Political Madhouse In America And Nearer Home", Bernard Shaw, 1933, p17-19

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