Do you hear the people sing,
Singing a song of angry men?
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again!
(from the musical Les Misérables)
Not trying to be a downer here, but yes, you will still be slaves tomorrow.
I know; I know. That’s no way to hook people into reading the article. I should be asking you to listen to the song on repeat while you read this; instead, I’ve just taken a huge word-dump and I’m expecting you to like it. Sorry about that.
Lots of readers got stuck on the word “slaves” because, like, we ended slavery in 1865, right? Quite a few more are reading past that into the term “wage slavery” and are offended because I’m comparing today’s workers with dark-skinned human beings wearing mainly shackles and whip scars. Which I’m not, but… oh, hell; it’s complicated. (And having read that, everyone else just clicked the little X in the top right corner.)
Well, screw it. The truth isn’t simple. If it were, we’d all agree. We’d be on the same side, marching for all the good things, and nobody would have the gall to oppose us. There’d be universal health care, useful work for everyone to do, plenty of food and shelter and clean water, and nobody would be going postal six towns over after getting fired from their crumby minimum-wage job.
The simple fact of the matter isn’t simple, it’s not really fact, and it’s not what’s the matter anyway.
Look, let me give you an example so you have an idea what I’m ranting about: Back in the sixties, Nixon invented the “War On Drugs” in order to sell increased law enforcement to a polarized electorate. Right away everyone knew it couldn’t be won, but politicians kept throwing money and cops and honest-to-God soldiers at the problem. Today, we’ve got full-scale wars going on in the Golden Triangle, the Philippines, and all across Mexico between law enforcement and suppliers; there’s more people imprisoned in the U.S.A. than in any tinpot dictatorship anywhere, and profits on illicit drugs are higher than ever. The “War On Drugs” is over, and we lost.
But we can’t stop fighting it.
First and foremost, it’s politically impossible. Such a large percentage of the voting public was brought up with the myth that harsher laws deter drug distribution — as though street dealers didn’t face the death penalty every day just doing business — that talk of legalization is political suicide. Even legalizing marijuana, which is going on in the states without any regard to the obviously ineffective and outdated federal laws, is proving to be a hot-button issue.
Secondly, we don’t have an alternative — not one the public will accept. Sure, Portugal has demonstrated that addiction treatment working alone is more effective than enforcement, but not dramatically so. More to the point, there exists a vast subculture willing to sneer at the laws in order to use drugs and another overlapping group just as eager to make vast sums of money dealing. Nobody has invented a solution for that.
Thirdly (and tellingly), we can’t afford to. In the federal budget, more than $50 billion is spent annually on drug enforcement; at least as much goes into police forces, courts, and prisons to maintain the well over a million drug offenders in the system at any moment. But all that is only a tiny fraction of the money involved in the drug trade in this country alone. The so-called “Great Recession” of 2008 was triggered by removing around $2 trillion in equity from the domestic housing market; imagine removing $1 trillion not in static equity but instead in active income. “Catastrophic” doesn’t begin to describe the consequences.
So, lacking a viable alternative, we maintain the “War On Drugs”. Tomorrow, more than one percent of our population will still be imprisoned and nearly a third will remain in an economic pit inescapable apart from outlawry. In the century and a half since slavery, we’ve traded the shackle for the ankle monitor. Well done, America.
Of course, it’s not all America’s fault. Think France, 1832 — the setting of Les Misérables. (Incidentally, it was a book first. Victor Hugo, 1500 pages. Eat your heart out, Stephen King.)
Most of us aren’t terribly conversant with the history of nineteenth-century France, so I’ll give you the Cliff’s Notes version: After the French Revolution (1789), Napoleon came along and created a dictatorship. When that was finally conquered (twice), the monarchy returned, but was thrown out by popular revolt in 1830. It was replaced by… wait for it… the same monarchy, but with a different king. The Les Mis barricades went up in 1832 over famine, cholera, and the right to vote — and, in case you missed the ending (spoiler alert!) the People lost. It wasn’t until 1848 that the next big revolution toppled the monarchy and brought back (get this!) another Emperor Napoleon. After that, things get too depressing to chronicle.
And France was considered one of the most enlightened nations on Earth, a center of culture, learning, and democracy. Think about that for a while.
Today, much of the world operates under a form of democracy, ranging from constitutional monarchies and parliaments all the way to the American version of a representative republic. Half the globe has the vote, and that number is growing. Unfortunately, in most countries more than a year or two from their last revolution, there’s not much of a choice: Either you vote for the rich, the tyrant, or the mob. Worse, no matter which you pick, there’s not much difference in policy (if you’re lucky, that is. If you’re unlucky, they suspend Congress, change the flag, and annex the Sudetenland, and then it’s parades every day until the Liberation.)
There’s a plus side to all this, and a damn good thing too. (Otherwise, I’d dissolve into tears and never hit that Publish button, and wouldn’t that be tragic?)
In the 1700s, most people didn’t have the right to vote. The revolutions in the 1800s delivered power to the people, and even though the people hurriedly gave it back again, the social revolutions of the past century (less bloody than the ones in the 1800s) extended the personal franchise to the majority of the population throughout the industrialized world. Where the rebels of 1832 Paris were too uneducated to effectively deploy to take and hold power, the world’s population today is becoming literate and socially engaged. So far, so good.
We’re still looking at wealth and power concentrated in the hands of a small group. And we’re hearing the same call to arms we heard in Paris in the 1830s. So now’s as good a time as any for a reminder.
Tomorrow, the sun will rise, and we’ll still be in yesterday’s chains. Social change rarely comes from bloody revolution, and it never happens overnight no matter how much we want it to. Instead, it takes hard, brutal, often thankless work, and it arrives in tiny packages. The Equal Rights Act was one; the light bulb was another. What the next will be is anyone’s guess — but whatever it is, it won’t be brought to us by a riot or a march or a demonstration.
We can make a difference. We do that through talking with each other, exploring ideas, learning and researching and experimenting. Politically, we need our best and brightest, our wisest and most skilled people to volunteer and to run. Above all, we must not allow ourselves to lose sight of the big goals and get bogged down in petty differences; so often, when we don’t know who we ought to fight, we just fight each other.
Remember how this began: If the truth were simple, we’d all agree. And if we all agree, whatever it is, happens; that’s the beauty of a free society. That little piece we’re missing is the ever-elusive Truth; we need to find it, pin it down, and make it plain to everyone. Like, for instance, how to end the War On Drugs. So it’s complicated; so what? So was the light bulb. Let’s figure it out — together.
Will you join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free?