Jump Out of the Pot!

“I’m getting hot,” croaked the frog as he floated in a pot of water from which steam was beginning to rise.

“Me too,” croaked the other frog as she paddled listlessly. “This water used to be warm. Now it’s too hot.”

“Oh well…nothing we can do about it. Maybe it’ll get better.”

“Let’s enjoy what we can,” she croaked. “We’ll listen to the music and watch the pictures on the ceiling that keep changing. They’re pretty.”

“OK…I’m feeling dreamy.”

As the water simmered, the frogs slipped into a stupor; they were unconscious as they began to boil.

Like the frogs, we are provided with pictures, music, and other pleasures to distract us from the worsening conditions of our lives and render us incapable of changing them. These entertainments lull us with subjective emotions that offer solace and escape from our objective reality. They range from the crude to the refined, but all are characterized by glorifying the inner life of the supposedly sovereign individual. This esthetic trend, part of the romantic movement, began with the ascendency of capitalism and expressed the self-oriented mentality of the rising bourgeoisie. The new rulers supported institutions and art that reflected their personalities: extreme individuality that rejected all fetters and pursued its desires regardless of the consequences for others. In exalting the superior autonomous spirit over the mediocre masses, it served to isolate the growing socialist movement. By the mid 19th century this had trickled down to become a widespread mentality of the educated population, cutting them off from the working class. Marx summed it up: “The ruling ideology is always the ideology of the rulers.”

As the crises of capitalism deepened in the 20th century, the emphasis on subjectivity increased, especially in the realms of art and philosophy. The inner world, the joys and pains of our private emotions, was portrayed as the highest and most authentic topic for art. The artist became the new priest, guiding us to sublime planes of existence. This prevailing esthetic encouraged us to leave the crass social reality behind and become an aristocrat of the spirit. It reinforced passivity and turned the personal life into a refuge from, and a substitute for, the public life. This trend has now reached its effete endstage in postmodernism with its deconstruction of reality into conceptual narratives which have only subjective meanings.

We are saturated with art and entertainment that tell us to shun the social deterioration surrounding us and focus instead on romance, violence, and the shimmers of our interior zones, while outside the heat is gradually turned up and the conditions of our lives degraded. Our eyes are captivated by images on electronic screens and our minds captivated by hyper-stimulated feelings flooding our mental screen. We are losing the capacity for clear thinking and objective analysis, so effective action is slipping from our grasp. We’re on our way to becoming frog soup.

We are in desperate need of an esthetic that will enable us to recognize our calamitous situation, identify the causes of it, and act to change it. Once we can understand how destructive capitalism really is, the necessity of socialism will be obvious.

Some works of art do criticize the system, protest it, and urge reforms, but very few challenge it fundamentally. Instead they seek to improve it. But this gradual ameliorative approach has been tried for over a century now and has yielded only superficial changes. Capitalism can’t be fixed from the inside; it is inherently savage and must be replaced.

The qualities of a radical esthetic are described by David Walsh, arts editor of the World Socialist Web Site:

True art in the modern world necessarily must be revolutionary. It is impossible to produce a significant work of art without taking a rejection of the injustice and irrationality of modern life as a starting point. Further, this rejection must be informed by a revolutionary political perspective if it is not to lapse into hopelessly idealistic clichés.

It is time to move beyond criticism, protest, and reform and instead build a mass movement that can eventually overthrow the government and the corporations it serves. This impulse inspired my new novel, Lila, the Revolutionary, a fable for adults about an eight-year-old girl — smart, charming, and tough as can be — who sparks a world revolution for social justice. She not only jumps out of the pot but shows everyone else how to do it. No one ever told her she couldn’t end poverty and inequality, so she doesn’t doubt that she can Just Do It! Starting with the Nike shoe factory where she works. Like the boy in “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” Lila can see the reality that adults are blind to. And she’s not shy about pointing it out. The book is a call to action: If Lila can do it, so can we. Her story convinces us that Yes, a better world is possible, and we’re the ones to create it.

After her family are evicted from their land and have to take subsistence jobs in the city, Lila inspires her fellow workers to a strike that forces the factory owners to negotiate. A selection:

*****

The negotiating room in the city hall was high ceilinged with gold chandeliers and big windows. On one wall were pictures of the men who had been mayors of the city, the new ones photos and the old one paintings going back hundreds of years. On the other wall was an aerial photo-mural of the city showing all the skyscrapers but none of the poverty.

The worker reps sat on the photo-mural side of the long, polished-wood table and the owner reps on the pictures-of-mayors side. The owners looked like the mayors, men in dark suits. A woman in a white uniform brought glasses of orange juice (too sour, Lila thought) and cookies (not sweet enough). On Lila’s chair was a cushion that helped her not to feel so little. Her feet dangled in the air, but she was used to that. She was wearing the special blouse her mother had made and embroidered for her birthday, and her dark hair was pulled away from her face with a red barrette.

The owners’ reps smiled condescendingly at her, and everyone introduced themselves. Lila said, “I’m Lila. I work in the shoe factory.”

The rep of the shoe factory, plump and balding, said with an indulgent grin, “I’ve heard very good reports about your academic performance at our school and also about your diligence during the business practicum.”

“I lace shoes and put them in boxes.”

“Yes, and you do it very well. I’m sure you’re learning a lot.” He leaned back in his chair and smiled.

“Are you the owner of the factory?” she asked.

“No, Lila. There are a lot of misconceptions about this idea of owners. There is no one owner. Our factory…and I think I can speak for the other factories too” — he glanced around at his colleagues, who nodded — “is owned by thousands of stockholders. They each own shares in it. A share is a little part of the company, and that’s what they own, not the company itself. And it’s democratic because everyone who owns a share can vote at the meetings.”

“Do you own shares?”

“Yes, but I work there too. I’m a worker like you.”

“How many shares do you own?”

He glanced away, then back at her and spoke with an index finger raised in gentle admonishment. “That’s my private concern, Lila. We’re not here to discuss private matters. We’re here to discuss how we can make your life better. Let’s talk about that.”

He turned away from Lila and said to the socialist woman, “If you get the people back to work, we’re prepared to give them a five percent raise. Plus if they’re injured on the job, we’ll pay half their wages until our doctor says they can go back to work. As you can see, this is a very generous offer, and we’re not open to a lot of haggling about it.”

With that, the haggling began. The socialist woman became the main negotiator for the workers, demanding a ten percent raise, time-and-a-half for overtime, full wages when injured, better ventilation and fire safety, and a retirement plan. The shoe factory manager did most of the arguing for the owners, explaining why such demands were economically impossible given the global competitive environment.

The lady in the white uniform brought tea and coffee and milk for Lila. “We used to have a cow,” she told the lady. “I could milk it. But these men took it away from us. Now they give me a glass of milk back. And the cookies aren’t very good.” The lady walked quickly away.

After two hours the owners had agreed to six percent higher wages. They showed a PowerPoint about how higher labor costs would force them to close the factories here and move to another country. “There are lots of people in the world who would love to work for what you’re getting paid,” the leader stated sternly.

“Why are we talking about pay?” Lila asked. “I like what you said about shares. The company is divided up into shares, and people own those. How many shares are there?”

“Well, Lila,” the leader replied, “it varies from company to company, but usually very many shares.”

“OK, we take all the shares and divide them up among all the people who work there, same for everybody. Then the money the company makes gets divided up the same way. You don’t have to pay us anything. We’re all in it together.”

“But, Lila, those shares already belong to someone else,” the leader explained patiently. “You can’t just take them away.”

“Who do they belong to?”

“They belong to people all over the world.”

“If they’re all over the world, how can they work in the factory?”

“They don’t work in the factory. They buy the shares. The company needs money, so people give the company money and get the shares in return.”

“So they own part of the company but they don’t work,” Lila said.

“Well, some of them also work in the company,” the leader explained.

“You said you work and you own shares.”

“Yes.”

“Then that’s how it’s going to be for all of us. We all work and we all own shares. You wouldn’t tell me how many you own, but from now on everybody has the same.”

He drummed his fingers lightly on the table, patience waning. “I already told you many shares are owned by people all over the world. You can’t just take them away. They’re not going to give them to you.”

“Doesn’t matter. We don’t need them. We cancel all those shares and make new ones. Only people who work own the company.”

“How old are you, Lila?”

“I’m eight.”

“Well, Lila, even an eight-year-old should know you can’t just cancel their shares. That would be stealing. You can’t steal from people.”

“Well, even an adult should know that it’s not stealing. It’s just taking back what they took from us. Our work makes the shoes and the clothes worth a lot of money, but we get only a little of that. Most of it goes to the owners. They stole it, they stole the money we made. Now we take their shares. We’re the owners, so we divide it up equally.”

The leader leaned towards her with a sneer. “We’ll see about that, little lady.” He turned to the socialist woman. “Now I see why you brought this child with you. It’s a clever tactic, I must say. You’re having her throw up an ideological smokescreen to distract us from the issues at hand. If you want a settlement, you better call her off and get down to the business of negotiating. We’re all busy people, and we don’t have time for these games.”

“OK, brass tacks,” the socialist said. “Six percent is not enough. There has to be overtime pay. We accept the medical insurance, and we’ll wait on the pension plan until next year. But we want worker representation on the board of directors.”

He sighed with relief. “Your demands are outrageous, but they’re not insane like the girl’s. We can talk about that.” He turned to the lady in the white uniform: “Take Lila out and let her choose any movie in town she wants to see.” He gave Lila a forced smile. “Any movie you want. And ice cream…whatever you want to eat.”

“We’ll do that later,” Lila said. “We’ll all have a party. I have some good ideas. But now we need to get the factories.”

He stared up at the high ceiling with his mouth open. “I can’t stand it.”

The socialist said to Lila, “You can stay, but you need to be quiet for a while so we can get a good deal.”

Lila nodded in sullen consent.

After an hour of hammer and tongs, the two sides reached a tentative agreement. Exhausted, they took a break and the lady in white brought drinks and doughnuts. Lila had kept her word and stayed quiet even though there were lots of things she wanted to say.

“I think this is as good as we can get,” the socialist told her as people were wandering around the room in a daze of fatigue. “We got eight percent more pay, time-and-a-quarter for overtime, ventilation and fire safety, and one worker rep on each board of directors. Your father will be on the board at the shoe factory and you mother at the sewing factory. They’ll get more money for being on the board, and they can bring up problems of the workers. They’ll have a voice in the company. And you’ll have a better life.

“The owners’ rep and I will work together to deal with labor problems for the whole city. The money I’ll get from that will be a big help for the party. We’ve won!”

“Won what? Do we own the factories?” Lila asked.

The socialist paused. “No…but — ”

“How many shares does everyone get?”

“Well, we don’t get shares this year. We’ll have to wait on that.”

Lila shook her head.

The owners’ rep — jacket off, tie loosened, sleeves rolled up — tapped his spoon against his cup and said, “Let’s reconvene, vote, wrap this up, and go home.” When everyone was seating again, he said to Lila with an attempt at a smile, “So the settlement has been explained to you. We all agree this is a fair deal. It gives people excellent benefits and lets them get back to work and get on with their lives. Now we’re going to vote and make it final.”

“We don’t want eight percent,” Lila said. “We want the shares.”

“Speak for yourself, young lady,” he said sternly. “All the other workers’ representatives agree this gives them a fair share of the profits of the company.”

“They should have asked me. I would have told them. The only fair share is an equal share for everybody. We need to take all the shares and divide them up equally.”

“We’ve been through this before,” he said, despair creeping into his voice.

“Yes, but you didn’t get it.”

“No, Lila, you didn’t get it! What you’re demanding is totally unreasonable.”

“What’s ‘unreasonable’ mean?”

“You can’t think logically, you’re irrational. That’s not your fault. You’re just too young. So you want things that are impossible. You don’t listen to reason.”

“I know the reasons. The reason we’re poor is you own the company and you’re stealing our money. The reason I won’t do what you want is that would keep us poor. As long as you own it, we’re going to be poor. That’s how you get your money. And that’s the reason we’re taking the shares and dividing them up.”

“I work there too!” he insisted.

“You work, we work, but you end up rich and we end up poor. No more. Now you get an equal share like everyone else.”

The socialist, looking distressed, spoke to Lila. “We can’t do everything at once. We have to go step by step. This is something we can bring up next year.”

“If they don’t give us the shares this year, why should they give them next year?”

“We can threaten to go on strike again,” the socialist said.

One of the other worker reps spoke up. “Realistically, people aren’t going to want to do this again next year. I know I don’t. It’s too hard. What we’re going to get, we should get now while we have the momentum.”

Another worker rep said, “I’m beginning to think Lila’s right in going for the whole thing now. That gradual, step-by-step approach sounds good, but it hasn’t gotten us anywhere. I’ve been on the job 25 years. Every few years there’s been a strike, and they give us a little bit here or there, but when things settle down, they take it away from somewhere else. Overall, things haven’t gotten better. Like she says, why should they next year? Giving in now is just a way of avoiding a fight. Maybe we should dig in for the battle and stop putting it off.”

The owners’ rep broke in and said, “Look, if you want shares, we’ll give each worker five shares a year. You’ll own part of the company. You’ll get dividends for those shares, and you can vote in the annual meeting — one vote per share. That gives each worker a voice in policy.”

“I have a voice now: No!” Lila said. “It’s our company. Equal shares.”

Red faced and trembling, the owners’ rep burst out, “Enough! This is madness. We’re done negotiating. We vote now. If you reject it, you’re cutting your throats. I promise you you’ll never get a deal like this again. We will close these factories and relocate. You think things are bad now, just wait. There won’t be any jobs in this city.” He pointed his finger at the socialist. “And I’ll make sure everyone knows it’s your fault!

“Call the question. How many of the worker reps vote for the proposal?”

The socialist and two others raised their hand. The owners’ rep glared and ground his teeth. “How many vote against it?” The other four raised their hand. “So be it,” he said quietly. “You’ll be sorry.” He pointed to the socialist and said, “I’ll never negotiate with you again. You put this little monster up to this. I know you did. You wanted to make a deal impossible, and you voted for it just to cover your tracks. Well, it’s not going to work. We’re going to crush this communist movement once and for all.” Face twitching, one side of his mouth lifted away from his teeth, he packed his pocket calculator and stalked out.

William T. Hathaway's first novel, A World of Hurt, won a Rinehart Foundation Award, and his new one, Wellsprings: A Fable of Consciousness, deals with the environmental crisis as an old woman and a young man battle the corporations controlling our shrinking water supplies. He and his wife, Daniela, direct the Transcendental Meditation Center in Oldenburg, Germany. Read other articles by William.