Ford’s in His Flivver, All’s Well with the World

Keith Olbermann once ridiculed a Republican politician who, in a video clip from a “townhall meeting,” told a woman with a paralyzed husband and no health insurance that the proper first line of defense was neighbors helping each other.

Now, admittedly, that politician was exactly the kind of right-wing shill who uses Norman Rockwell imagery as window dressing for his vision of an America remodeled into a banana republic, on the same basic pattern that Tom Delay and Jack Abramoff created in the Marianas Islands.  But for Olbermann, anyone suggesting the possibility of such a voluntary welfare state, based on self-organization and mutual aid, is by definition a right-wing shill.

Olbermann went on, in rather heated language, to dismiss such neighborly help as a relic of the same age as the barn-raising and the shucking bee.  In modern, progressive societies, people turn to “their” governments as a matter of course for the relief of sickness and poverty.

Olbermann forgets, or ignores, the respectable left-wing credentials of working class self-organization, chronicled in loving detail by the recently departed Colin Ward, by Pyotr Kropotkin and E.P. Thompson.  Sick benefit societies, fraternal lodges’ relief for the unemployed, and the like, were objects of active suspicion by both the employing classes and the state, precisely because they were such effective weapons of class struggle.  Mutual unemployment relief could easily become indistinguishable from the strike fund, and self-organized mechanisms for pooling risk and cost across a large number of households were of enormous benefit to the bargaining power of labor.

But I suspect there’s a component of willful ignorance in Olbermann’s dismissal of such things, rooted in the nature of his ideology.  Arguably conventional liberals, with their thought system originating as it did as the ideology of the managers and engineers who ran the corporations, government agencies, and other giant organizations of the late 19th and early 20th century, have played the same role for the corporate-state nexus that the politiques did for the absolute states of the early modern period.

Given the apologetic requirements of their ideology, liberals are practically forced to assume that, before the rise of the total state, there was nothing.  Before the Bismarckian/Fabian/Progressive regulatory and welfare state, the whole world was just one big Hooterville.  “Formerly all was madness.  We have invented happiness,” says the Last Man and blinks.

Conventional liberals are in the habit of reacting viscerally and negatively, and on principle, to anything not being done by “qualified professionals” or “the proper authorities.” This is reflected in a common thread running through writers like Andrew Keene, Jaron Lanier, and Hedges, as well as documentary producers like Michael Moore.  They share a nostalgia for the “consensus capitalism” of the early postwar period, in which the gatekeepers of the Big Three broadcast networks controlled what we were allowed to see, and it was just fine for GM to own the whole damned economy—just so long as everyone had a lifetime employment guarantee and a UAW contract.

Olbermann routinely mocks exhortations to charity and self-help, reflexively reaching for shitkicking hayseed imagery from Walnut Grove for want of any other comparison that will sufficiently get across just how backward and ridiculous that kind of thing really is.

Helping your neighbor out directly, or participating in voluntary self-organized efforts to spread risk and cushion against sickness and unemployment, is all right in its own way, if nothing else is available.  But it carries the inescapable taint of the provincial and picayune, almost as if such efforts were administered by men in rimless spectacles and sleeve garters—very much, incidentally, like the stigma attached to homemade bread and home-grown veggies in the corporate advertising offensives of the early twentieth century.

People who help each other out, or organize voluntarily to pool risks and costs, are to be praised—grudgingly and with a hint of condescension—for doing the best they can in an era of relentlessly downscaled social services.  But that people are forced to resort to such expedients, rather than meeting all their social safety net needs through one-stop shopping at the Ministry of Central Services office in a giant monumental building with an imposing statue of winged victory in the lobby, a la “Brazil,” is a damning indictment of any civilized society.  The progressive society is a society of comfortable and well-adjusted citizens, competently managed by properly credentialed authorities, happily milling about like ants in the shadows of miles-high buildings that look like they were designed by Albert Speer.  And that kind of H.G. Wells utopia simply has no room for the barn-raiser or the sick benefit society.

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