In the summer of 1936 the world was unstable: the fascist Nazi party in Germany prepared for the 1936 Olympic games; Mussolini, Italy’s dictator, pragmatically decided to become Germany’s ally; a heat wave plagued the depression ridden United States, which still suffered from Calvin Coolidge’s economic deregulation of the 1920’s; and the day after the Spanish Civil War began Dolores Ibárruri appealed to the hearts and minds of the Spanish working class with a radio address from the Ministry of the Interior:
To the cry of “Fascism shall not pass! The executioners of October shall not pass!” the workers and farmers of the various provinces of Spain are joining the fight against the enemies of the Republic declared in armed rebellion. Communists, Socialists, Anarchists, Republican democrats, the soldiers and services loyal to the Republic have inflicted the first defeats on the insurgents, who drag through the quagmire of Treason the military honour they have boasted about so much.
The whole country roils with fury at those savages who want to plunge democratic and the people’s Spain into a hell of terror and death.
¡No Pasarán!(Ibárruri, 1936)
The working class revolutionaries subsequently echoed back at their radios: “¡No Pasarán!” with their fists clenched in rage and hope. Thousands of middle-class Spaniards, who had given up on dialogue and diplomacy, were now ready to fight, to take arms- to stand up against the ruling and oppressing class. Their fight was not for money or power. Their struggle, their war and, eventually, their demise came from wanting a voice, a voice in politics, and a voice- so that their needs are heard and met. In short, they wanted political inclusion (Chomsky, 2013).
In the fall of 2011,thousands of disenfranchised men and women gathered their camping gear and took refuge on Wall Street in protest against the ruling and oppressing class. The practicalities of their grievances greatly differ from the post-industrial revolution factory workers of their Spanish predecessors, but the core of their protest remains the same: they want fair and just representation in government and a voice, or in short: political inclusion. Class struggle has been, and may always be, a perpetual hurdle in social experimentation and the 21st century has already shown evidence of this with varying degrees of success. The ethical perspective of the 21st century proletariat seems to be highly polarized against the backdrop of 20th century American ethics. When examining how the 21st century proletariat defines ideas of good, just, equal, et al. we exhibit what colors, metaphorically speaking, they use to paint their ethical landscape and we can see how that differs from the landscapes of their predecessors. Examining their ethical color palette, or their ethics a posteriori, will help illustrate to us what moral landscape they are trying to create- how they vision the world, society and government. In other words: how do they paint the future? Or, in short, what is the moral will of the 21st century proletariat? In pursuance of attempting to understand the 21st century proletariat and their moral identity, I conducted an interview with an active member of the Occupy Movement and for the remainder of this essay the word Occupier is referencing the thoughts and opinions of the interviewee.
The Declaration of Independence claims to grant us the right, or at least it infers to the spirit of the right, of Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness and from this we, as citizens, need to interpret what these words mean. The 21st century proletariat, or Occupier, believes that healthcare and education should not be a luxury or a privilege, but should be a fundamental human right and a right that he feels is encompassed under the spirit and idea of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. The classic American libertarian view on this is that the government is only supposed to serve two objectives: to preserve the rights and liberties of the people (liberty) and to protect the state from foreign attack and, more recently, domestic attack (life). Or in other words, the right to Life and Liberty is not a guarantee of healthcare and education.
If we ended the debate on that notion, with an agree-to-disagree mentality, we’d be left with two polarizing views on healthcare and education that will perpetually tout their perspective and a resolution would be bleak. This has been exhibited in the numerous constitutional challenges of the Affordable Care Act, (Florida, et al. V. Dept. of H&HS, et al., 2011) for example. It is not logical for us to have universal healthcare and education and non-universal healthcare and education at the same time. Therefore, it is not possible for these two perspectives to reconcile, without either side conceding. Additionally, because it is not possible to know the will of the founding fathers, neither side is right, or even has a fair claim to rightness under the context of intent.
If these views can’t be reconciled then let us dig further into the fundamental differences between these two views. The classic American Libertarian ethical view puts emphasis on the idea of personal freedom, or autonomy. We all have the freedom to work hard and pick ourselves up by our bootstraps and become as poor or as rich as we want, as long as we do not inhibit somebody else’s freedom in the process. If we want healthcare, then work for it. If we want higher education, then work for it. The government (taxpayers) is not a charitable institution. Conversely, a simple examination of the ethics of the Occupier would indicate that they subscribe to a utilitarian model, which indicates we need to measure what is gained in society with universal healthcare and education against what is lost and then, literally, do the math to assess the ethical permissibility. Trying to rationalize these ethics under the theory of utilitarianism is impossible- all values are subjective and we have no control group to test our values against. This subjectivity is evident in the fiscal arguments of the opposition – as the opposition puts high value on the monetary cost of healthcare and education, and does not see the gain outweighing the cost.
I believe the ethical perspective of the Occupier, or 21st century proletariat, can’t be defined in the terms of utilitarianism, as it is too analytical and un-humanistic. Social value should not come down to simple subjective calculus. When all value (even social value) becomes subjective, then everything becomes dependent on the entity (or institution) that sets value, this is inclusive of virtues, viz. equality and justice. Can a fair and just society be built on a system that has subjective ideas of fairness and justice? The Occupier, I would contest to argue, would reject judging ethics from this perspective, as it would perceive it as disingenuous to the idea of society: the state, as a whole, should be seen as an organic entity and we the people are components of this entity. The state, as perceived as an organic entity, shall also have it is own ethical perspective. From this I would assert that the Occupier would argue that the state should adhere to a system of virtue ethics, or virtue macro-ethics. And these virtues could consist of equality, justice, education, healthcare, and others such as, prudence, fortitude, temperance et al, and this is not mutually exclusive to the idea of the state also protecting civil liberties and promoting security. If the state adhered to these virtues, the results in practice may not always guarantee the same virtues to each individual citizen- as it is fallacious to assume that qualities of the whole will become qualities of it’s parts. Conversely, it is also fallacious to assume qualities of the parts will become qualities of the whole (libertarianism). For example, somebody who is wealthy and able to afford their own healthcare will purchase their own healthcare, but a lower (or middle)-class person who can’t afford healthcare may get healthcare provided by the state, at no cost. In this micro assessment this does not seem equal or just to the individual. But, the Occupier would argue that we are trying to create a fair and just society, not 300 million fair and just autonomous agents that share a national identity. This theory illustrates that the core differences between these two polarizing views run deeper than arguing over the meaning of the constitution, but this is more of an argument that hinges on the question: What is the purpose of society?
Comparatively speaking it’s reasonable to assert that our society is more fair and more just than 1930’s Germany and Italy, and perhaps even 1930’s Spain. But since the 1930’s Germany, Italy and Spain have all gone back to the drawing board and used various samples from history to help construct their current societies. It is reasonable to assert that the vision of society that is envisioned by the Occupier is not necessarily the vision that was shared by the founding fathers- but does that matter? Karl Popper proposes that the path to world peace resides in creating societies (and a world) that are free of dogma and ideology and when that notion is coupled with Popper’s theories on epistemology (Popper, 1999), the following theory could be proposed: Dogmatically accepting the constitution and the words of the founding fathers as truth is dangerous and does not lead to a peaceful society, as accepting the constitution as (absolute) truth is acting from ideological dogma. From Popper’s theories it would be reasonable to claim that the founding fathers created a hypothesis for a fair and just society and for the last 238 years we have been testing this hypothesis. If there is evidence to suggest that we have not created a fair and just society, then it is reasonable to argue that the hypothesis is falsified and the next course of action would be to refine our hypothesis based on the results of our previous trial. As I postulated that the Occupier would see society as an organic entity, it is fair to argue that they would also see this organic entity as something that can evolve and change- adapting to new environments and conditions. However, this change may be dependent on our willingness to falsify our moral and political hypotheses. The Occupier does not suggest that we deconstruct society and rebuild it, or that we resort to violence and a revolution, but rather we create conditions that allow the Occupier and the 21st century proletariats to have a political voice that is openly and respectfully heard, ergo: political inclusion.
The moral will of the 21st century proletariat I am postulating has a fundamentally different view of society, a view that still allows for the government to protect liberties and the security of the state, but also a view that allows the state to adhere to it’s own macro-ethical system, a system of virtue that values knowledge and health (and perhaps other virtues) and from these values it promotes universal healthcare and universal education (including higher education); and this is a quality of the state and not the state attempting to legislate morality (virtue). This postulation could be seen as reconciliation between a laissez faire capitalist society and socialism, as it is attempting to detach education and healthcare from being a product of capitalism- as the Occupier would consider it to be unethical to profit from the pursuance of education and the pursuance of being healthy; but, conversely, it does not grant the right to education and the right to healthcare as a constitutionally protected liberty, therefore, it is not an entitlement.
The aforementioned postulation could be perceived as flawed, as there is no reason to assert that society, as a whole, would be warmly accepting of the government intervening to satisfy a virtuous agenda, as that could be seen, pro tanto, as dictating; Is a virtuous dictator, still a dictator? This argument is reasonable, as I can’t contest the validity of truth in the constitution as a premise for my argument and then subsequently suggest the government dictate the virtues of education and healthcare, as a fundamental and absolute true human right- a fortiori, nor should politicians or the Occupier. However, as I stated earlier the Occupier is not trying to break down the walls of society or start a revolution, or even instate some theoretical system of virtue macro-ethics. They merely want a forum to objectively discuss the shortcomings of society and have a voice in shaping and evolving our nation to the shared vision of a fair and just society. Is this too much to ask? And, what is the alternative?
“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” – Warren Buffet (Stein, 2006)
And “[w]hen the rich wage war it’s the poor who die” (Sartre, 1960).
“…a more perfect union[?]” (U.S. Const., Preamble)
One day, I hope.
- Chomsky, N. (2013). On Anarchism. New York: New Press.
- Florida, et al. V. Dept. of H&HS, et al., 565 U.S. (2011)
- Ibárruri, D. “They shall not pass! Call pronounced by the Pasionaria in the name of the Communist Party before the microphones of the Ministry of Interior”, (1936) Lorenzo Peña. España Roja.
- Popper, K. R. (1999). All life is problem solving. London: Routledge.
- Sartre, J. (1960). The Devil & the Good Lord, and two other plays Kean, based on the play. New York: Knopf.
- Stein, B. (2006, November 26). In Class Warfare, Guess Which Class Is Winning. The New York Times.
- U.S. Constitution, Preamble
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