Neoliberalism Is A Cancer: Namaste: If Not Now, When? Chapter 24

Author’s Note: Each chapter of this book can be read as a stand-alone and it is not necessary that they be read in numerical order. All of the previous chapters are posted here and in my Diaries at Firedoglake/MyFDL.

(h/t to Crane-Station for the ideas to spice up my blog with video and music, in this case, Money by Pink Floyd)

I welcome comments and will respond as time allows. Thanks for reading.

Chapter 24

Neoliberalism Is A Cancer

The present-day term neoliberal refers back to the original liberals, the new merchant class and industrial capitalists in 18th century England who formed the Liberal Party. They had a lot of money, but no voice in Parliament, which was dominated by the land owning aristocracy. They were followers of Adam Smith who wrote their Bible, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776.

Neoliberals were the original capitalists. They believed in the free market, reasoning that the market would regulate itself with the invisible hand that Adam Smith described as follows:

As every individual, therefore, endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestick industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labours to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can. He generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it . By preferring the support of domestiek to that of foreign industry, he intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was no part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it. I have never known much good done by those who affected to trade for the publick good.

He expounded further on the invisible hand in his Dictum,

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker, that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities but of their advantages.

The invisible hand is self-interest, or greed, and faith in greed to benefit society has to be one of dumbest and most destructive ideas in history. Consider, for example, the slave trade during the 18th and 19th centuries, contemporary human trafficking and associated debt slavery, child labor, monopolies, and environmental pollution.

History has taught us that without strict government regulation and oversight, greedy, amoral, and ruthless financial predators will enrich themselves at the expense of others. They will create monopolies that eliminate competition through acquisitions, mergers, and predatory pricing schemes. They will exploit people and natural resources to maximize short-term profits. In short, they are a ravaging cancer that destroys everything it touches leaving behind a vast wasteland devastated by flash floods of tears.

Consider, for example, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911 in which 146 employees died and 71 were injured. The factory was located on the 8th, 9th, and 10th floors of the Asch Building. Max Blanck and Isaac Harris owned the business, which produced women’s blouses, or shirtwaists as they were called. They employed approximately 500 women, mostly young immigrants who worked 9-hour shifts weekdays and a 7-hour shift on Saturdays.

According to the Fire Marshal, the fire was caused by a smoldering cigarette butt in a clothing-scrap bin located beneath a table on the 8th floor. Unfortunately for the victims of the fire, the exits to interior stairwells and exterior fire-escapes were locked shut because the managers did not want any employees taking breaks or leaving early.

A few people were rescued by elevator operators, but the elevators ceased to function after only three trips to the 9th floor when the elevator rails buckled from the heat. Although firemen quickly arrived at the scene, they were unable to reach the women because their ladders only extended to the 6th floor.

William G. Shepherd, a UPI reporter who witnessed the fire phoned in details while watching the tragedy unfold. At the other end of the telephone, young Roy Howard telegraphed Shepherd’s story to the nation’s newspapers. Shepherd’s report was first published in the Milwaukee Journal, on March 27, 1911. Shepherd said,

I was walking through Washington Square when a puff of smoke issuing from the factory building caught my eye. I reached the building before the alarm was turned in. I saw every feature of the tragedy visible from outside the building. I learned a new sound–a more horrible sound than description can picture. It was the thud of a speeding, living body on a stone sidewalk.

Thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead, thud—dead. Sixty-two thud—deads. I call them that, because the sound and the thought of death came to me each time, at the same instant. There was plenty of chance to watch them as they came down. The height was eighty feet.

The first ten thud—deads shocked me. I looked up—saw that there were scores of girls at the windows. The flames from the floor below were beating in their faces. Somehow I knew that they, too, must come down, and something within me—something that I didn’t know was there—steeled me.

I even watched one girl falling. Waving her arms, trying to keep her body upright until the very instant she struck the sidewalk, she was trying to balance herself. Then came the thud–then a silent, unmoving pile of clothing and twisted, broken limbs.

As I reached the scene of the fire, a cloud of smoke hung over the building. . . . I looked up to the seventh floor. There was a living picture in each window—four screaming heads of girls waving their arms.

“Call the firemen,” they screamed—scores of them. “Get a ladder,” cried others. They were all as alive and whole and sound as were we who stood on the sidewalk. I couldn’t help thinking of that. We cried to them not to jump. We heard the siren of a fire engine in the distance. The other sirens sounded from several directions.

“Here they come,” we yelled. “Don’t jump; stay there.”

One girl climbed onto the window sash. Those behind her tried to hold her back. Then she dropped into space. I didn’t notice whether those above watched her drop because I had turned away. Then came that first thud. I looked up, another girl was climbing onto the window sill; others were crowding behind her. She dropped. I watched her fall, and again the dreadful sound. Two windows away two girls were climbing onto the sill; they were fighting each other and crowding for air. Behind them I saw many screaming heads. They fell almost together, but I heard two distinct thuds. Then the flames burst out through the windows on the floor below them, and curled up into their faces.

The firemen began to raise a ladder. Others took out a life net and, while they were rushing to the sidewalk with it, two more girls shot down. The firemen held it under them; the bodies broke it; the grotesque simile of a dog jumping through a hoop struck me. Before they could move the net another girl’s body flashed through it. The thuds were just as loud, it seemed, as if there had been no net there. It seemed to me that the thuds were so loud that they might have been heard all over the city.

I had counted ten. Then my dulled senses began to work automatically. I noticed things that it had not occurred to me before to notice. Little details that the first shock had blinded me to. I looked up to see whether those above watched those who fell. I noticed that they did; they watched them every inch of the way down and probably heard the roaring thuds that we heard.

As I looked up I saw a love affair in the midst of all the horror. A young man helped a girl to the window sill. Then he held her out, deliberately away from the building and let her drop. He seemed cool and calculating. He held out a second girl the same way and let her drop. Then he held out a third girl who did not resist. I noticed that. They were as unresisting as if her were helping them onto a streetcar instead of into eternity. Undoubtedly he saw that a terrible death awaited them in the flames, and his was only a terrible chivalry.

Then came the love amid the flames. He brought another girl to the window. Those of us who were looking saw her put her arms about him and kiss him. Then he held her out into space and dropped her. But quick as a flash he was on the window sill himself. His coat fluttered upward—the air filled his trouser legs. I could see that he wore tan shoes and hose. His hat remained on his head.

Thud—dead, thud—dead—together they went into eternity. I saw his face before they covered it. You could see in it that he was a real man. He had done his best.

We found out later that, in the room in which he stood, many girls were being burned to death by the flames and were screaming in an inferno of flame and heat. He chose the easiest way and was brave enough to even help the girl he loved to a quicker death, after she had given him a goodbye kiss. He leaped with an energy as if to arrive first in that mysterious land of eternity, but her thud—dead came first.

The firemen raised the longest ladder. It reached only to the sixth floor. I saw the last girl jump at it and miss it. And then the faces disappeared from the window. But now the crowd was enormous, though all this had occurred in less than seven minutes, the start of the fire and the thuds and deaths.

I heard screams around the corner and hurried there. What I had seen before was not so terrible as what had followed. Up in the [ninth] floor girls were burning to death before our very eyes. They were jammed in the windows. No one was lucky enough to be able to jump, it seemed. But, one by one, the jams broke. Down came the bodies in a shower, burning, smoking—flaming bodies, with disheveled hair trailing upward. They had fought each other to die by jumping instead of by fire.

The whole, sound, unharmed girls who had jumped on the other side of the building had tried to fall feet down. But these fire torches, suffering ones, fell inertly, only intent that death should come to them on the sidewalk instead of in the furnace behind them.

On the sidewalk lay heaps of broken bodies. A policeman later went about with tags, which he fastened with wires to the wrists of the dead girls, numbering each with a lead pencil, and I saw him fasten tag no. 54 to the wrist of a girl who wore an engagement ring. A fireman who came downstairs from the building told me that there were at least fifty bodies in the big room on the seventh floor. Another fireman told me that more girls had jumped down an air shaft in the rear of the building. I went back there, into the narrow court, and saw a heap of dead girls. . . .

The floods of water from the firemen’s hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood. I looked upon the heap of dead bodies and I remembered these girls were the shirtwaist makers. I remembered their great strike of last year in which these same girls had demanded more sanitary conditions and more safety precautions in the shops. These dead bodies were the answer.

Shepherd was referring to the “Great Revolt,” a six-month strike by 60,000 women, members of the International Ladies’s Garment Workers Union in 1910, which followed an earlier strike by 20,000 union members in February of the same year against sweat shop conditions that was led by women who worked at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. Shepherd and many others suspected the owners caused the fire in retaliation for the Great Revolt.

The owners, Blanck and Harris, faced multiple criminal charges but were acquitted by a jury on all counts, but they were found liable by another jury in a subsequent civil trial in 1913. That jury awarded $75 per deceased victim. The insurance company paid the owners about $60,000 more than the reported losses, or about $400 per casualty.

In 1913, Blanck was once again arrested for locking the door in his factory during working hours. He was fined $20.

( (retrieved 11/29/2010).

As a result of tragic events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, we finally figured out as a society that unchecked greed promotes monopolies, market inefficiency, exploitation, and unequal distribution of wealth. Witness the infamous robber barons of the late 19th century who accumulated vast wealth at the expense of everyone else. Neoliberalism creates a need for revolution.

Nevertheless, bad ideas – especially the ones that enrich the few at the expense of the many – like zombies, refuse to die. Unfettered capitalism is toxic, of course, and the free market enthusiasts fell out of favor during the first half on the 20th century, but unfortunately, they are back stronger than ever.

Cross-Posted at Firedoglake/MyFDL and the Smirking Chimp.

Namaste: If Not Now, When? Is my intellectual property. I retain full rights to my own work. You may copy it and share it with others, but only if you credit me as the author. You may not sell or offer to sell it for any form of consideration. I retain full rights to publication.

My real name is Frederick Leatherman. I was a criminal-defense lawyer for 30 years specializing in death-penalty defense and forensics. I also was a law professor for three years.

Now I am a writer and I haul scrap for a living in this insane land.




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