Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The quash heard round the world

The Economist:

Or perhaps, the yakuza—Japan’s organised-crime groups that date from the 17th century—are getting squeezed. For most of the post-war period they operated openly: tolerated by the public, used by politicians and protected by police. Crime will happen anyway, went the argument, so better to know whom to call when it crosses the line. In the 1950s ministers and industrialists relied on the mobsters and nationalist groups to quash unions and socialists. The gangs upheld classic Japanese virtues of manliness and loyalty—and paid for mistakes by slicing off one of their fingers in atonement.

Quashing unions and socialists seems to be a favored pastime in much of modern history. When the Nazis first took power, they quashed unions and socialists. This earned Hitler the reputation of a "moderate," at least around the US Department of State: he kept the unions and socialists, and their fellow travelers, in line. After Hitler was defeated, partly with the help of unions and socialists, the first order of business for the US was to beat them back -- notably, with the assistance of former Nazi officers, who knew a thing or two on the subject. This carried into civil war in Greece, and was exported to Latin America, where government sponsored violence against labor organizations continues to this day. McCarthyism was our domestic contribution to this trend.

In fact, quashing unions and socialists is a necessary part of every healthy industrial oligarchy. When the Bolsheviks first took power, they quashed unions and socialists. This is particularly ironic in view of the fact that the Russian communists did this in the name of "socialism": The Party which took control of the Russian government claimed to "speak on behalf" of the Russian working class; therefore, to oppose government policy was to oppose the workers -- even if it was the workers who comprised the opposition. Quash!

So even in Japan, the preference at the top is for organized crime over organized labor. Perhaps this reveals something about the history of American unions as well.

I submit there is something very basic and universal about the threat posed by ordinary people who presume to organize their work lives in ways that suit them, not their bosses, best.

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