This article was written with help from Gretchen Van Dyck.
The founding mothers of the Women’s Liberation Movement were socialists. We were activists who came from committees against the war in Vietnam. We believed that since we were at the bottom of the wage scale, if we demanded an equal chance for all women, we would rise and bring everyone with us to create an America with full equality for all. Instead, we helped to create near equality for women within a system of ever greater class inequality.
A new kind of movement is clearly needed to re-energize our struggles for equality and for a society that values the happiness of all over the power or profits of a few.
I was inspired to write this article after some sensible young activists formed a renewed socialist party in New York City and then asked for my ideas about feminism. In the pages that follow, I will do my best to analyze why the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1960s and ’70s lost its vitality, to envision a path out of passivity and toward mass political engagement, and to sketch out what might be an appropriate feminist platform for 2011.
I did not conceive of this platform alone. After I wrote an initial version of my ideas, I sent them to a brilliant political friend with many years of political experience. My friend and I then consulted with Gretchen Van Dyck, a wise twenty-three-year-old feminist from the New York Socialist Party. Together we crafted the Platform for the Pursuit of Happiness that appears at the end of this article.
Why the Feminist Movement of the 1960s Lost Its Vitality
I became a feminist in 1968 when we began what we then called the Women’s Liberation Movement. The America of 1968 was starkly different from the one that young people now confront. Unemployment was about 3 percent. Job opportunities for white men were omnipresent. White men were paid a family wage whether they had a family or not. Jobs for women were available, albeit at lower wages and in fewer sectors. Men of all colors earned more than women did. Education guaranteed a job, even though a lesser one for women or people of color. The United States and the U.S. dollar were the kings of the world. In that prosperous America, women were paid fifty-nine cents of every dollar of men’s pay, even when women supported their families alone or worked side by side with men on the same job. That was the historical context of the feminist movement of 1968 to the late 1970s, which later lost its vitality through a combination of forces within itself and a transformation in the U.S. economy.
One of the women’s movement’s largest mistakes was its failure to maintain its original insistence on class justice as well as gender justice. Whatever class consciousness our movement had was usurped by successful organizing under the clever leadership of the CIA operative Gloria Steinem (for the most recent documentation of this, read Charles Trueheart’s Bloomberg article, “What Gloria Steinem and Henry Kissinger Have in Common: CIA Pay” and The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America by Hugh Wilford). Many were and still are shocked to learn of Steinem’s CIA connections. They have been kept from wide publication until recently and of course they were never reported on television. These facts were first unearthed in Ramparts magazine in March 1967, as part of a revelation of the CIA’s role in international youth festivals (“Who Paid the Piper”). They were followed by later revelations in The Village Voice in 1979, which exposed Steinem’s particular role within the CIA and the Women’s Liberation Movement (“Inside the CIA with Gloria Steinem” by Nancy Borman, May 21, 1979). Steinem’s voice was never the only voice in the feminist movement. However, her rich funding and expertise combined with our naïveté to blunt the impact of class awareness and power for the mass of U.S. women.
The mainstream feminist movement thus became a movement for gender equality within our current increasingly unequal America. It lost its mass base and class dimension. It devolved into separate issue projects of importance to the female gender, such as groups for abortion rights (for those who can pay for abortions), and legislation to help women, particularly those with education, to enter previously male professions. Three-quarters of working women, particularly uneducated women, still work in pink-collar jobs.
Larger women’s groups such as the National Organization for Women (NOW) worked to pass legislation protective of women. They lobbied for pro-female legislation within our highly unrepresentative two-capitalist-party system. The feminist movement became a series of projects working for equality with men. We achieved near equality for women within the American system of gross inequality. We lost our vision of a just, equitable society for all people.
We made another serious mistake. We understandably wanted to be included in the valued, rewarded, economically powerful areas of life from which we were excluded. We wanted jobs; careers; economic independence; and intellectual, social, and political power. We wanted to be in the sectors that are rewarded, recognized, and funded in American culture. Of course, those are worthy goals.
However, we shared society’s devaluation of the knowledge and wisdom learned from sustaining vulnerable lives, maintaining the conditions for life, and performing emotional labor, i.e., caring for people. Those powerful, life-affirming areas of knowledge were unspecified, unexplored, and largely devalued then, as they are today.
Emotional Labor: Undervalued and Undercompensated
The concept of emotional labor got its first mention in 1983 in Arlie Hochschild’s book, The Managed Heart. Even though it is crucial to the survival of infants and a basic component of humanity, it is still scarcely mentioned, much less explored outside of Hochschild’s work, my work, and the work of Pam Smith and her group from the UK, who explore emotional labor in the field of nursing. Smith is joined by Catherine Theodosius in the U.K., working in nursing. Their books are unavailable in the United States.
Emotional labor is the act of expressing sensitivity to another person’s needs and trying, in a given moment or situation or over time, to respond to those needs. It’s one of the primary ways that we express love and concern for a parent, child, lover, spouse, friend, or co-worker. On the street, emotional labor is the polite assistance we give to a stranger who’s seeking directions. Even though all human beings are often called upon to “be sensitive,” emotional labor has traditionally been associated with femininity and expected of women in their presumably “natural” roles as mothers, wives, keepers of the home, nurses, and caregivers. Historically, emotional labor was hardly conceived of or noticed, much less valued, because it was considered “women’s work.”
So what does emotional labor in action look like?
A perceptive parent senses, in one instance, that her/his infant needs to be held, rocked, and cooed to; or, in another instance, the parent senses that the baby is over-stimulated and just needs to be held quietly, without interaction. Emotional labor can entail responding to a friend’s needs in an indirect way so that the person in need doesn’t feel like a burden. Here’s a challenging situation: A man comes home from work angry and upset but is trying to conceal his feelings. His partner senses that something is wrong and quickly comes up with a strategy for soothing him. He/she asks the children to give them some time alone so they can discuss each other’s day. Or he/she suggests that they take a walk together, or says “I’m so glad you’re here because I desperately need your advice about something” — which distracts the upset person and suddenly reminds him that, at home if nowhere else, he’s important and appreciated.
Like other kinds of work, emotional labor can be time-consuming, tiring, and even exhausting. Because we are social beings who need each other to survive and thrive, emotional labor is indispensable to sustaining the family life, social life, and public life of humans. Emotional labor must not be regarded, and thus devalued, as “women’s work.” Concern for other people, whether for the stranger who needs directions or for one’s family members, friends, and co-workers, is a necessary and admirable quality in all humans, regardless of gender.
People whose work is focused on emotional labor, such as U.S. day care workers, have some of the twenty-five worst-paid jobs in the United States. The worst-paid professions are social work, early childhood education, and nursing — largely female professions that provide emotional care for people, as well as assistance with other vital needs.
In the twenty-first century, people are beginning to realize there’s no excuse for two parents not to receive paid leave and paid “personal time,” or for day care workers trained to care for infants and toddlers not to command respect for their professional skills and be compensated fairly, or for our elected officials not to respond to U.S. parents’ desperate need for subsidized or free child care, preferably offered on-site in workplaces. But demands for emotional labor to be acknowledged as legitimate labor and properly compensated as such were not central to the Women’s Liberation Movement back in 1968, which focused more on equal pay within labor sectors historically dominated by men.
Because our traditional work was largely devalued, most of us back then did not understand its social impact and import. We therefore did not celebrate the areas in which women have had valuable unrecognized skill and wisdom. When women entered the workplace, we did not demand remuneration for our expertise in emotional labor and maintaining basic needs of life. We neither knew the value of our traditional work nor gave men an incentive to share women’s emotional or domestic labor. We did not teach men or ourselves the value of learning how to relate intimately and emotionally, or how to nurture children’s lives, or ours, or their own.
What Happened to Change U.S. Gender Roles?
U.S. feminists’ ideological shift away from concerns with class justice and failure to fight for the valuation of emotional labor were not the only reasons why the movement lost its vitality; drastic changes in the U.S. economy were also a contributing factor insofar as they transformed gender roles and the lived experience of women during the last three decades of the twentieth century.
The most dramatic economic change came when, in 1970, real wages flattened. They never recovered, a fact developed and documented by Richard D. Wolff in Capitalism Hits the Fan. Ever more sophisticated computer and international telecommunication systems enabled millions of jobs to be outsourced. Our weak union movement was used to cooperating with the Democratic Party to get a share of the profits their workers generated. They did not prevent outsourcing, unlike their militant socialist and communist European brothers and sisters, who succeeded in doing so. Our two-party system had no socialist or communist alternatives to militantly fight for basic job security for the mass of Americans. U.S. white men lost their job security and a good deal of the male hegemony that used to accompany their family wages and steady jobs.
Women, particularly mothers, entered the job force en masse in order to sustain their families and expand their lives. In 1970, fewer than 40 percent of U.S. mothers were in the labor force. U.S. women then worked mainly part-time. By 2008, fully 75 percent of U.S. mothers were in the labor force, mainly full-time.
In 2008, the current recession struck deep and hard. It hit men’s jobs hardest. Fully 75 percent of the jobs lost are jobs in predominantly male fields like construction, heavy machinery, finance, and aggressive, big-ticket sales, according to an April 3, 2009, Wall Street Journal article by Rex Nutting. Traits stereotypically associated with men, such as physical strength and aggression, are far less welcome in our changing labor force and in personal relationships as well. According to the Center for American Progress’s “Shriver Report,” only two of the fifteen most rapidly growing U.S. jobs are traditionally male jobs: janitor and computer engineer. All the rest of the growth is in jobs traditionally held by women — jobs in health care, child care, and food services. Nurturance and the ability to cooperate and connect socially are qualities associated with women and are required in America’s new service economy.
U.S. women adjusted to our changed role in the marketplace. Women now occupy half of the nation’s jobs, as well as most of the nation’s seats in higher education, according to “The End of Men” a 2010 article by Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic. Women also hold most of the nation’s managerial positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Unfortunately, women’s changed roles have not been matched by men’s participation in child care or home maintenance. The average unemployed man currently does less housework than his fully employed wife (a reality explored at more length by Stephen Resnick, Richard Wolff, and me in our chapter in Class Struggle on the Home Front). In addition, many men seek additional domestic and emotional services to compensate them for the emotional impact of losing their manly provider roles.
Women are working harder than ever and are no longer willing to do an overwhelming share of the domestic and emotional labor to sustain homes, children, and men. Women have responded to men’s financial incapacity, lack of emotional work, and refusal to share equally in housework and child care. It is now women who initiate most U.S. divorces. It is women who increasingly refuse to marry.
The United States has the highest divorce rate in the world. We also have the weakest family supports among wealthy industrial nations. Women can no longer stand the extra work in caring for men who cannot support them and do not substantially lighten women’s quadruple shifts in domestic labor, emotional labor, child care, and jobs outside the home. The state does not step in as it does in Europe. As I discussed in “American Depressions,” an article in the January/February 2010 issue of Tikkun, in the United States there are no massive quality subsidized day care centers, after-school programs, and child or elder care allowances. This work is still done primarily by individual women.
At the present moment, women are still paid only 75 to 77 percent of what men earn. We still suffer from gender issues such as extensive sexual harassment and rape. However, the collapse of the stable family; our society’s failure to support family life through basics like free quality child care, elder care, or health care; and the decimation of particularly male jobs combine to create an urgent need to define a feminist agenda that addresses not only wage equality and traditional gender issues, but also the broader social and economic conditions of our lives.
We are facing a huge capitalist recession. The United States is divided and largely passive as our jobs and homes are lost. In 1970 America was the most egalitarian nation in the Western industrialized world. Now we are the least egalitarian nation. We urgently need a unified movement to save a decent standard of living for all Americans. We need a movement that appeals to both men and women together and also inspires major transformation of male and female relationships. We need unity as a class-conscious nation aware that we who are in the middle and at the bottom must unite to save our quality of life.
When I sat down to write a feminist platform, I realized that a new feminist platform would need to incorporate the profound knowledge learned from sustaining life and nurturing people. It would need to extend to people of all gender identities and sexual orientations. It is for that reason that an intergenerational group of women created the following platform. It is a program for the pursuit of happiness, which is a forgotten part of the U.S. Declaration of Independence.
A Program for the Pursuit of Happiness
The founding documents of the United States of America contain several inspired and inspiring phrases, none more so than “the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence, which promises every citizen the right to seek fulfillment of their personal life’s dream. The “pursuit of happiness” — accompanied by other principles in our Constitution such as equality before the law and freedom of speech — forms the centerpiece of the traditional, nearly official narrative that paints our republic as the grandest nation on earth. Ours is a New World nation, the narrative goes, in which all are free to live where and as they choose, speak and worship as they choose, associate with whom they choose, and do the work of their choice. Moreover, we are all “created equal” to enjoy these freedoms, which were unknown in the socially, politically, and religiously stratified kingdoms of the Old World across the sea.
The founding of the United States was a major moment in the evolution of humanity, inspired, as the French Revolution of 1789 was, by the ideals and concepts of the Enlightenment. However, as we know from life experience the ideal and the real are rarely aligned. So has it been with the birth and historical trajectory of our complex New World nation.
From the very beginning, class and caste, poverty alongside wealth, injustice amid justice, and the bondage of some — even amid general freedom — have prevailed. The European settlers slaughtered most of North America’s Native peoples, seized their lands and, from the late 1600s through six-and-a-half decades of the 1800s, imported an estimated 15 million to 25 million Africans to live and die as slave laborers. When George Washington was elected president, only 6 percent of the total population — a small minority of white, propertied men — could vote into office the president and congressmen who would formulate and establish the laws of the land. Native people, women, white men without property, and Africans were prohibited from voting and thus had no say in our government. In 1870, passage of the Fifteenth Amendment ostensibly enfranchised the emancipated black male population, but poll taxes, literacy requirements, and violent intimidation kept most freedmen away from the polls. Fifty years elapsed before all women were enfranchised (in 1920), and not until 1965 was the Voting Rights Act passed, granting all adults the legal right to vote and barring discriminatory restrictions on that right. Yet even today, voter suppression tactics target various groups.
And today, something new has been added: the huge and insidious influence of lobbyists, who, bearing gifts for politicians’ election campaign coffers, subvert elected officials’ duty to serve the people’s will, driving them instead to help members of the nation’s powerful elite to increase their fortunes. Billion-dollar corporations fund candidates’ campaigns and are paid back after elections in laws and policies that enable their capture of more money. Which adds up to this: overtly and covertly, interference with the people’s right to be honestly represented by elected officials whose work bears directly on our quality-of-life prospects thwarts our “pursuit of happiness.”
Education is another area in which the real and ideal have diverged in our nation. In the colonial era, belief in the government’s obligation to fund schooling ran deep among the European settlers, as a matter of democratic principle. Therefore, in 1866, after the Civil War and the end of slavery, the Reconstruction Congress established a nationwide system of free, compulsory elementary and secondary education. When several states, including virtually the entire South, ignored that mandate, a federal Department of Education was created in 1867 to spur compliance. The following year saw the founding of the nation’s first public institution of higher education: the University of California in Berkeley.
By the turn of the twentieth century, as European immigrants poured through Ellis Island, public education had taken such root that a school principal, Julia Richmond, was inspired to create the nation’s first bilingual instruction program — Yiddish to English — to help speed assimilation of the immigrant children settling on New York’s Lower East Side. And by mid century, the pioneering state university systems of California and New York had been replicated in almost every state of the union, attracting admiration from the entire developed world.
Today? Steadily, Americans’ access to free, high-quality public education is evaporating. As our political system deteriorates, becoming less democratic, more corrupt, and generally dysfunctional; as extreme income disparity and rising poverty destabilize our society; as worldwide surveys of education place the United States embarrassingly low in their rankings at the same time that the life prospects of poor, middle-class, and working-class young people depend more than ever on high-quality public schools; as these problems mount, how is government responding? Instead of budgeting the refurbishment and upgrading of public grade schools, government is slashing budgets and even dismantling some schools! Numerous politicians, cheered on by Education Secretary Arne Duncan, are promoting privatization, such as charter schools (modeled after businesses), and extensive standardized testing as the prescriptions for “reform.” Moreover, today, while 80 percent of U.S. college students attend public institutions, the resources of those schools are being sliced to the bone.
The late nineteenth century through the early twentieth century was also the period when thousands of European immigrant men, women, and children labored in the factories of a raging industrial revolution under hazardous and abusive conditions. At the same time, Chinese immigrants were building our cross-country railroad system, sometimes being blown to bits by the dynamite used to tunnel through the Rocky Mountains, while coal and copper miners plied perhaps the most death-plagued trade of all. Determined to achieve safe, fair working conditions and recognition of their human dignity on the job, male and female workers fought difficult struggles to organize themselves into unions — which were the most effective means by which they could confront business owners and managers. Even in the Deep South, white and black farm workers joined forces in clandestine, union-building meetings. Whites who participated risked being beaten and ostracized; blacks risked being lynched.
The people who agitated and died bringing justice to the workplace gave our whole society quality-of-life improvements such as collective bargaining rights for private and public employees, higher wages, the eight-hour day, sick time, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, pensions, Social Security and Medicare, and the overall empowerment of U.S. working people on every level. Union strength peaked in the 1950s, when 35 percent of U.S. workers carried union cards. Sadly, during the same decade McCarthyism struck: the extreme right-wing purges orchestrated by Republican Senator Joseph R. McCarthy of Wisconsin drove out most of trade unionism’s most talented and committed leaders, leaving a malaise from which the movement has yet to recover.
Today, only 12 percent of public sector workers remain unionized, as do a mere 7 percent in the private sector. The situation is worsened by the failure of unions to organize new worker populations. Add the transnational corporations’ unchecked outsourcing of jobs to low-wage countries in the global economy, along with their co-option and corruption of some union executives, and we’re left with a seriously disempowered working class. Consequently, all of the gains won by the sweat, blood, and courage of our forbearers — Social Security, Medicare, even trade unionism per se — are under fierce attack by those who would turn the clock back to a time when the majority of Americans had few rights the super-rich at the top of society were bound to respect.
Faced today with a greatly diminished ability to secure the wages and benefits necessary for the attainment of a decent life, hardworking Americans find enormous boulders blocking the road to happiness and fulfillment of their legitimate aspirations.
We, the People, Are the Solution
The narrative of U.S. exceptionalism is very powerful. Most of us have internalized that narrative to one extent or another, even those of us whose ancestors experienced slavery, immigrant discrimination (yesterday or today), or other challenging aspects of life in the United States. The harsh realities confronting us today — widespread joblessness; home foreclosures; outrageously wasteful spending on wars; and misguided under-spending on education, libraries, and social services — such realities, when held up to the light of our national narrative, can be disorienting. We might ask ourselves: Could these awful things really be happening in “the world’s greatest nation”? And happening to me? Self-doubt, desperation, and hopelessness may kick in. Many of us may ask, “What’s wrong with me that I’ve lost my job and could lose my home and my whole lifestyle?” In the face of unexpected problems and sudden hardship, it’s difficult for anyone — whatever their country of residence — to immediately summon the presence of mind to step back, look at the big picture, and prepare a response. For Americans it may be even harder, given the potency of our national mythology.
The fact is, however, that the big picture is worth a hard look because it reveals a lot. Something fundamental changed in the United States, beginning in about 1970. From as far back as 1820 up until 1970, every generation of U.S. white male workers saw their wages increase. It was a given that children would make more money and have a better life than their parents. Even during the Great Depression of the 1930s, rising prices still lagged behind the continued climb in most white male wages, which meant that the profits generated by labor were still sufficient to sustain a steady rise in the living standards of the employed. For 150 years, mainly white male Americans experienced a reality in which individual effort, combined with training (often on-the-job) and steady work, could improve their lives significantly.
Then, in about 1970, that steady rise in living standards ended abruptly. Wages flattened out. Advanced communications technology enabled transnational corporations to bypass homeland labor for overseas, low-wage workforces. As a result, corporate profits skyrocketed, followed by an explosion of unprecedented executive salaries and bonuses. Wealth in the billions has been piling up at the top of our society ever since, as working people and the middle class lose ground. Indeed, the United States, once the developed world’s most egalitarian nation, is today its least egalitarian.
These circumstances have caused a marked change in people’s lives. Credit card debt is a fixture on the landscape. And social withdrawal has become the norm: participation in activities such as sharing dinner with friends, joining bowling leagues, engaging in civic work like Red Cross blood drives and PTAs, or engaging with grassroots politics and social issues has fallen off sharply.
At a time when we, the people, need to join together and make our collective power felt by those forces that have tightened the screws on us, some of us are expressing our outrage and taking action, but millions more of us are feeling so ignored, alone, helpless, confused, and fearful that we are de-energized, as if the wind has gone out of our sails. Stunned that our dream of steady jobs, comfortable homes, and bright futures for our children are dissolving into dust, we’re retreating into the privacy of our troubled thoughts. Great numbers of us are standing at the edge of an abyss of self-negation and inertia and finding it hard to step back from that abyss.
Overcoming Passivity, Denial, and Abuse
As you read this, thousands of public workers are battling government efforts to revoke their collective bargaining rights, lower their wages, and hollow out their hard-earned pension accounts. Apart from the obvious noteworthiness of these workers’ determination to prevail and the support they’ve attracted from around the country and around the world, their actions mark the first mass response to the injustices visited upon Americans by the global financial crisis and its recessionary fallout — which were caused not by us, the middle- and working-class people of the United States, but by obscenely rich bankers and brokers playing fraudulent games on Wall Street. Many months ago, France’s six trade union federations put 3.5 million strikers in the streets under the slogan, “Do not permit governments to make the mass of people pay for the failures of capitalism.” Greeks, Germans, and other Europeans turned out in huge numbers to challenge their governments’ policies of indulgence for the rich and belt-tightening for the majority of people. At the time, one could only wonder why there was hardly a peep coming from Americans.
Indeed, by comparison to our counterparts abroad — and notwithstanding the admirable resistance that’s finally rearing its head in various parts of our nation — U.S. working people have responded to these hard times in ways that are largely personal. Or, to put it another way, we have reacted in primarily individualistic, rather than collective, ways. Some prior experiences of success with the personal approach may account, in part, for that tendency. But we think this response may also reflect the influence of our national mythology, which champions “rugged individualism” and “taking personal responsibility” as the most appropriate reactions to adverse circumstances (even when the adversity has been caused far less — or not at all — by our personal failings than by the interplay of economic, class, and political forces in our society). Also in the mix is the mental deflation and emotional anxiety brought on by the rug of dreams and economic security having been yanked out from under us.
Here’s an example of the “personal” or “individualistic” response: beginning roughly in 1970, millions of couples with children caucused in the privacy of their homes and decided the wives should join the labor force for the long haul — unlike in the past, when wives sought jobs temporarily in response to divorce or a husband’s sudden unemployment, disability, or death. Today, the vast majority of U.S. women work outside the home permanently to supplement their partners’ depressed wages. This strategy has helped families, but it has also incurred new costs: the obvious costs of work clothes and transportation, the cost of domestic help to take on some of the tasks previously handled by Mom, as well as the costs of day care and/or afterschool programs, which can be hugely expensive. Then there’s takeout food and restaurant dining, which cost a lot more than the home-cooked meals that are so much harder to prepare with both parents working. And of course, getting the laundry washed is more expensive when it has to be dropped off at a laundromat, and mending costs more if done by a commercial tailor instead of at home.
The great post-1970 societal shift triggered some family and social relationship costs, as well:
- A majority of women complain that they must work a “second shift” at home after the first shift at their outside jobs. As a result, millions of working women are both exhausted and resentful that their male partners are failing to assist with domestic chores. Many men, feeling deflated by the loss of status that society attached to their previous role of exclusive breadwinner, often make even more, rather than fewer, demands on the women in their families. (The perception of domestic work as the “natural” province of women, and wage-discrimination against women, persist and must continue to be challenged.)
- Marriage, under heavy pressure, is crumbling. Today, a majority of U.S. women are single, 65 percent of divorces are initiated by women, and the U.S. divorce rate is the highest in the world. At the same time, our marriage rate is the highest, as both men and women seek, in committed relationships, solace from the depressive psychological and emotional effects of vanishing economic security.
- In response to the current recession, U.S. working people and the dwindling middle class use their leisure time quite differently than in the past. As mentioned earlier, social withdrawal has become the norm. Overeating has soared, causing one out of three adults to be obese. The number of hours spent watching television has climbed: the average U.S. man watches seven hours of TV a day; the average woman, four to five hours.
- Americans have turned to drugs — legal and illegal — to ease their psychic pain. The United States, where 5 percent of the world’s population resides, consumes 66 percent of the world’s supply of psycho-pharmaceutical drugs. In general, these expensive products (the economy’s bestsellers) are minimally effective, and the positive effects experienced by 25 percent of the medicated population disappear if they stop taking the drugs. As one might expect, difficult economic conditions correlate with depression, precarious mental health, overeating, drug dependency, and excessive TV-watching.
These changes in social behavior and mental health suggest that the U.S. population suffers from the abuse syndrome. Here’s what we mean: abusers lie, make false promises, threaten abandonment, and demand — and yet betray — trust, breaking down the victims’ resolve to push back. Unable to face how humiliated and powerless they have become, victims often can’t bring themselves to admit that the people they trusted don’t really give a damn about them.
So consider this: employers and governments can also be adept at abusing the people they should respect, care about, and treat fairly. Examples:
- A corporation, instead of giving a worker prior notice of dismissal, fires employees on the spot and gives them only minutes to collect their possessions; then a security guard escorts them out, as former co-workers watch.
- A for-profit “career school” rips off young people by falsely claiming (in ubiquitous subway, bus, and TV ads) that its training courses give nearly all of its graduates access to available, high-paying jobs. More often than not, the young folks who drink the Kool-Aid end up deeply in debt with useless certificates.
- A low-income family signs up for a city’s subsidized housing program and waits for a year before learning that the city shut the program down without notifying its thousands of applicants.
- A private health insurance company refuses to cover the cost of a kidney transplant, resulting in the patient’s most likely preventable death.
- A wholesale sports gear company pays reasonable salaries to its staff of sneaker designers, but doesn’t pay for the overtime hours the sneaker staff has to work almost daily.
- Deceitful mortgage lenders lure homebuyers into adjustable-rate contracts the buyers can barely afford and can’t sustain, disappear the mortgages into a labyrinth of derivative sales, and pocket millions while the clients eventually lose their homes to foreclosure.
We could go on. The point is these are all cases of abuse that leave real scars on those seeking to put together viable lives in the nation they call home. And just as the victims of domestic and sexual abuse often know they should walk away but can’t, millions of American victims of employer, governmental, and institutional abuse know they should join with others, fight back, and demand their rights. The problem is we can feel so beaten down, tired, and fearful that we find it nearly impossible to take that step.
What must we do to stop being passive and become active, to overcome denial and face reality, to refuse abuse, resist, and fight back? What must we do to make of ourselves a force so powerful that we cannot be ignored?
An Environment for Political Growth and Empowerment
I discovered through some research that in this time of social withdrawal, tension, and emotional strain, twelve-step programs are attracting more and more participants. In cities and towns across the country, the most famous, original twelve-step program, Alcoholics Anonymous, has created a place for numerous offspring: Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous, and others, including the newest and most important development, which is Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families. Anonymous twelve-step programs like these are drawing millions of Americans who had previously resorted to self-medication with alcohol, drugs, and/or food — efforts, people have discovered, that were making their problems worse. Instead, by joining others in small, admission-free twelve-step groups, people are able to share and examine their pain and suffering with a supportive, nonjudgmental collective. Participants choose one or more of their peers to lead the group, and each person selects a “sponsor” who helps him or her stay with the program. The twelve-step Adult Children/Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families program works with all people who are traumatized by their families, which means practically everyone. Why does the twelve-step model work?
1) It enables members to acknowledge that they have a problem — thus, the well-known line, “My name is X and I am an alcoholic.”
2) It elicits from members the admission that they haven’t been able to solve their problems alone. Having realized that they need a group’s assistance, they quickly discover that however much they may have felt alone, they are not alone. Their concerns and problems are not unique.
3) The twelve-step model recognizes and incorporates the importance of family. The group functions as a second family that members can rely on for understanding and nonjudgmental support. This is especially important for people whose relations with their biological relatives have had an abusive or otherwise destructive dynamic, or who live far away from their families and can’t easily be in touch with them.
4) Members listen to, validate, and honor one another’s personal stories, which enables the whole group to “own” the wisdom, insight, and thoughtfulness that energize its discussions and engender solidarity.
Given the popularity of twelve-step programs, I began thinking… why not adapt this model to help people overcome the passivity and denial brought on by these tough times, so they can participate in and contribute to building a project of political development and empowerment?
Americans’ attraction to twelve-step programs indicates that millions of us yearn to connect with others and share our experiences of anxiety, anger, and uncertainty, which mark this era of crisis. Wouldn’t the holistic environment of a twelve-step program — in which an individual is listened to, supported, comforted, and encouraged — be empowering and conducive to raising her/his political consciousness? A popular axiom of the 1960s was “the personal is political,” and that’s true for all seasons. Why not connect and trace, together, the origin of the multiple threats to our common pursuit of happiness? Constructing, with friends and neighbors, ways to repel those threats sounds to us like time better spent than struggling in isolation.
To illustrate our adaptation process, I checked out The Little Red Book, a popular piece of recovery literature designed for Alcoholics Anonymous. I borrowed its format but changed the content of its twelve steps to reflect the chosen goal of political growth and empowerment. Below, I present each Alcoholics Anonymous step from The Little Red Book alongside our alternative step:
Alcoholics Anonymous (AA): We admitted that we were powerless over alcohol– that our lives had become unmanageable.
Our Alternative: We understand that one person cannot alone solve the chronic societal problems that are making our public and private lives very difficult to manage.
AA: We came to believe that only a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
Alternative: We have come to believe that only a collective, which is a power greater than our individual selves, can help move our nation forward to a healthier, more just and democratic place.
AA: We made the decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
Alternative: We decided to commit some of our time, energy, will, and belief in the future to work with each other for change.
AA: We made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
Alternative: We took a serious and thorough moral measure of ourselves, noting the ways we collude with societal forces in our own exploitation, and noting our embrace of practices and beliefs about ourselves and others that make us vulnerable to being manipulated and exploited. This is an important step: we need to be aware that we are not just victims, we are also collaborators. We are not helpless, we can also act… for better or worse. What we need to do now is unite around basic principles and create programs to achieve goals for the benefit of all.
AA: We admitted to God and to ourselves and to other human beings the nature of our wrongs.
Alternative: We have admitted to ourselves, and out loud to others, the ways we have collaborated in our own victimization.
AA: We are ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
Alternative: We are working to move beyond certain dysfunctional behaviors by taking action to better our own and others’ lives. Some members of our collective also take support from their religious or spiritual beliefs, as a private matter. Everyone’s contributions enrich our group’s development and efforts. All of us join in the spirit of hope and connection that the group shares.
AA: We humbly ask Him to remove our shortcomings.
Alternative: We ask for, and are ready to give, the much-needed support that will help us unlearn collusion and internalize the new knowledge and wisdom that comes to us through our efforts, and which is so necessary for our growth. We also ask for, and will give, support to help us rebound from the disappointments likely to occur among our triumphs.
AA: We will make a list of all persons we have harmed and become willing to make amends to them all.
Alternative: We will draw up a list of all persons we have harmed and make amends directly to them wherever possible, except if to do so would injure them or others. We continue to take a moral measure of ourselves, and when we are wrong we admit it.
AA: We make direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
Alternative: We’re studying to fill the gaps in our knowledge of U.S. history so as to better grasp both the similar and different realities lived by the diverse peoples who’ve populated our nation from the very beginning. We’re studying the systemic arrangements: economic, political, social; the terrains of class and color, poverty and wealth, privilege and persecution, the marvelous and shameful, the horrible and the beautiful. We do this to inform our thoughts about the dignity of life as we create change and build the future.
AA: We continue to take personal inventory and when we are wrong, we promptly admit it.
Alternative: We work to promote fair and just domestic policies that support Americans’ efforts to live healthy and productive lives, and to demand their implementation by our federal, state, and local governments. We also work to promote and demand humane and nonexploitative foreign policies that encourage peaceful relations among nations and the well-being of all humanity and planet Earth.
AA: We seek through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understand him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out.
Alternative: We seek — through experience, study, meditation, imagination, discussion, and listening to each other — greater understanding, knowledge, and consciousness of the human condition and all life, the better to connect with others in developing a well-functioning, life-affirming, hopeful, democratic society.
AA: Having had a spiritual awakening as a result of these steps, we try to carry this message to alcoholics and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Alternative: Having come to realize, by taking these twelve steps, that certain structural characteristics of U.S. society hinder Americans’ pursuit of happiness, and having also realized the ways in which some of our own actions reinforce those hindrances, we have experienced an invigorating moral, ethical, and political awakening. Feeling the changes within ourselves, we are motivated to reach out and engage sympathetically and supportively with whomever we can. We ask each other here to do the same. Our collective plants hope and cultivates action. Our collective is powerful. We will reap a sustainable future.
Prioritizing the Pursuit of Happiness
Variations of the policies I propose below on health care, the workplace, support for families, and education have been in effect for years in France, Belgium, Germany, the United Kingdom, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark), South Africa, Australia, Japan, and Spain, of the developed countries. Many of the developing nations, and even some of the poorest ones, also have these policies. Understandably, you may ask where the money would come from to fund the services we believe our government should provide. According to the National Priorities Project, the U.S. government has spent at least $815 billion of our tax money since fiscal year 2003 destroying the nation of Iraq. For that amount the government could have provided:
- Health care for 417.7 million low-income children for one year or
- 12.5 million elementary school teachers for one year or
- 14.3 million firefighters for one year or
- 107.2 million Head Start slots for children for one year or
- Renewable electricity — solar photovoltaic — for 184.6 million households for one year or
- Renewable electricity — wind power — for 492.1 million households for one year or
- VA medical care for 104.5 million military veterans for one year or
- Health care for 167.6 million low-income adults for one year or
- 12.3 million police or sheriff’s patrol officers for one year or
- 103.4 million scholarships for university students for one year or
- 146.8 million Pell Grants of $5,550 for college and university students.
Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz estimates that we spend approximately $16 billion in Afghanistan in just one month; this is roughly equivalent to the amount it would cost to employ 262,500 teachers, provide 1,995,000 children with day care, and cover the annual health care costs for 5 million people. When elected officials tell us our nation is bankrupt, we should tell them to bring our dollars home. (For more information about the costs of war and the “bring our dollars home” campaign, go to www.nationalpriorities.org .)
If the government taxed corporations and the wealthiest individuals more, it could maintain high spending without having to incur huge deficits. One recent calculation showed that if corporations and individuals earning over $1,000,000 per year paid the same rate of taxes today as they paid in 1961, the U.S. Treasury would collect an addition $716 billion per year. That would cut the 2011 deficit by half and likewise cut the associated interest costs. Second, consider who lends to the U.S. government. Major creditors include the People’s Republic of China, Japan, and large corporations and wealthy individuals in the United States and abroad. The greater our deficits, the more of everyone’s taxes go to pay interest to those creditors. Third, consider the basic injustice of deficits: Washington taxes corporations and the rich far less than it used to in, say, the 1960s; Washington therefore runs a deficit; and the U.S. Treasury then borrows from corporations and the rich the money that the government allowed them not to pay in taxes.
In the 1960s the wealthiest Americans were required to pay 91 percent of their income in income taxes. That amount was agreed upon by Democratic presidents like Truman and Republicans like General Eisenhower. We had prosperity and were the most equal society in the Western industrialized world. This year, according to the IRS, the richest individuals will pay 16.67 percent in income taxes. In addition many of our richest corporations, such as GE and Bank of America, will pay no taxes. That could be corrected. If we returned to our 1960 corporate tax level and cracked down on the tax cheating of the wealthiest Americans we could easily pay for the programs above. The United States levies taxes on property in cars and homes. If we extended those taxes to what they call intangible property in stocks, bonds, hedge fund investments, etc., we would enjoy equality of opportunity.
A Platform for Retrieving the American Dream
1. Universal Single-Payer Health Care: We agree with the majority of humanity and most governments, that health care is a human right, not a privilege of the affluent. Thus, we regard the profit-based “managed care” system brought to us by the Clinton administration (and continued in the plan initiated by the Obama administration) as inherently discriminatory as well as irrational, in that its structural dependence on the private delivery of care disallows cost-efficiency. It is widely known that we spend more than any nation on care that falls short of being universal in its coverage and is very uneven in quality. It’s urgent that we convert to a practical, public model that can provide high-quality care for all. The advent of universal, high-quality health care would remove a huge burden of anxiety and economic insecurity from American shoulders.
2. Maternity and Paternity Leave: In the developed world, paid maternity and paternity leave is the third- or fourth-generation leave granted by both public sector and private workplaces for the birth of a child. In Norway, paternity leave is mandatory, to prevent employers from offering fathers a salary bonus as an incentive for them to forego their leave, the point being to encourage father-child bonding. It is time for the United States to follow suit.
3. Paid Leave for Family Care: We favor the provision of paid leave to workers to care for a sick child or other relative. The Scandinavian version ranges from thirty days to eighteen months. This saves people from having to choose between attending to emergency family needs and losing their jobs.
4. Paid Vacation Time and Paid Personal Time: By law in France, both public and private employers must grant their workers five weeks of paid vacation leave. Paid personal time is also a feature of some workplaces in several developed nations. We favor establishment of both requirements in the United States.
5. Single-Mother Subsidies: 40 percent of U.S. children are born outside of marriage, and single mothers and their children are the poorest of all Americans. To meet basic human needs — food, housing, health, and education — government assistance should be available for these families.
6. Recognition of Emotional Labor with Appropriate Compensation: The time is overdue for our society to acknowledge the value and indispensability of emotional labor, which is the active expression of sensitivity to another person’s needs and the effort, in a given moment or over time, to respond to those needs. Traditionally, emotional labor (for example, early childhood care, infant/toddler day care, social work, guidance counseling in schools, addiction counseling, executive assistance/secretarial, nursing, hospital attendance (by orderlies), and physical therapy) has been presumptively “women’s work.” As a result it is hardly noticed, even less valued, and low-paid. In the twenty-first century, emotional labor professionals deserve recognition, respect, and higher pay for the essential services they provide.
7. Gender Equality in Workplaces and Households: In the United States, mothers are disproportionately the targets of discrimination against women. Our mothers currently earn 73 percent of what American males earn, whether or not the males are fathers, while childless women earn 98 percent of what men earn. Indeed, having a child in the United States is a predictor of poverty. In no other wealthy nation are mothers as underprivileged in comparison to childless women or as flat-out poor as American mothers. Privileged upper-middle- and upper-class mothers avoid the worst of gender bias by having the funds to leave their children in the care of other women — most frequently poorly paid immigrants — and to supervise their children’s care without directly providing it. Given society’s stake in having both mothers and fathers as available as possible to deliver a new generation of well-raised, hopeful people, public programs supportive of mothers and gender equality in wages are both sorely needed.
8. Democracy in the Workplace: Democratic principles should not disappear at the door to our jobs. Adult workers are qualified and competent to participate in decisions on salary scales; on the volume of production; and on the percentage of profits to be paid out in wages, allocated to consultants, reinvested in the business. Such workplace arrangements exist not only in foreign locations such as Mondragon, Spain, but also in the United States. For example, in the 1990s, computer programmers fled rigidly structured corporate bureaucracies like IBM and established small, nonhierarchical start-ups that became the most creative businesses of their time. Their regular, inclusive meetings, held to address all levels of operation, also inspired and incubated new internet product ideas. This is not surprising: dynamic work environments that empower all workers by giving everyone a say, thus engendering mutual respect among workers of different education levels and skill sets, bring forth hard work and a commitment to excellence.
9. Subsidized Cleaning and Laundry Services for Two-Working-Parent Families: Many New York condo buildings offer their affluent residents the option of housecleaning and laundry services. Providing those subsidized services to all would lighten American women’s load and provide employment for thousands.
10. Free High-Quality Public Education from Day Care through College: Cities or states should subsidize highly trained day care personnel for children from birth to four years, for all families above the poverty line. For poor families, the service should be free. Subsidized/free afterschool and summer programs in the arts, science, and sports should be provided for families with children age four and up.
11. Reproductive Education: In the early grades, children could study plant reproduction (as in Sweden) as the first components of a comprehensive reproduction curriculum that continues in an age-appropriate way up through the grades. Pre-teens would learn about human anatomy, human reproduction, and gender and sexual orientation differences. Teens could learn about personal relationships, sexual responsibility, and family planning/birth control. Teens should also learn that the morning-after pill and abortion are reasonable, available options when birth control has failed, but that these options are not intended for use as alternatives to contraception. Such a comprehensive curriculum empowers young people to exercise control over their lives and behave responsibly.
12. Relationship Education: Free courses should be available, beginning in the teen years and throughout life, to individuals wishing to develop skills for relating constructively, responsibly, and empathically to partners, their children, friends, coworkers, and others. Such courses help facilitate people’s healthy connectivity to one another at home and in society, as well as raise consciousness about the harmful effects of sex and gender discrimination.
13. Whole-Family Counseling: Community-based and otherwise accessible counseling centers should be available free of charge to the poor and at low cost to others. Family members would visit these centers to address problems, seek solutions, develop self-awareness, and learn or improve social skills with the guidance of a trained professional.
14. Addiction Counseling: Fortunately, addiction counseling programs already exist in our society (although long waiting lists indicate many more are needed), and as noted earlier, they are quite successful. Twelve-step programs are free and widely available. We do suggest that twelve-step participants be asked to consider what covert role authoritarian-type families and profit-driven industries — for example, the highly advertised liquor, diet supplement, fashion, pharmaceutical, pornography, and junk food industries — might play in encouraging various addictions. These are considerations that Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families already allows.
In conclusion, I believe that the vision of Adult Children of Alcoholic and Dysfunctional Families (ACA) may be a path toward reaching depressed, confused, and demobilized Americans who are blaming themselves for their lost promise. Progressive groups can learn from Alcoholics Anonymous and even more from ACA’s insistence on listening to people without judgment. We can learn from listening to personal experiences of defeat and shame. Sharing those very experiences of lost hope may transform us. We can learn from our power to connect. Group realization may lead to joint action to change the conditions of despair. Members of Alcoholics Anonymous and ACA choose a sponsor who helps them navigate the way the group works. We all need help to fit in and learn how to learn from each other. We need a vibrant new movement building on the unspoken wisdom that comes from maintaining the conditions of human life, whether those are physical or emotional.
We may save ourselves, each other, and our planet in an inclusive and soulful movement.