“People whom fate and their sin-mistakes have placed in a certain position, however false that position may be, form a view of life in general which makes their position seem good and admissible. . . . This surprises us when the persons concerned are thieves bragging about their dexterity, prostitutes vaunting their depravity, or murders boasting of their cruelty. But it surprises us only because the circle, the atmosphere, in which these people live, is limited, and chiefly because we are outside it. Can we not observe the same phenomenon when the rich boast of their wealth-robbery, when commanders of armies pride themselves on their victories-murder, and when those in high places vaunt their power-violence? That we do not see the perversion in the views of life held by these people, is only because the circle formed by them is larger and we ourselves belong to it.” (Resurrection, Leo Tolstoy, trans. Louise Maude)

New Readers:

Please start reading with my first post "A Cup of Coffee". Originally posted on March 19, the archival date changed when I made corrections on May 13, which is the date under which you can find it now.

I'll learn to manage this all more smoothly someday, but at present I have at most only an hour online each day (that thanks to the San Francisco Public Library system, without which I would be lost).

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Socialist London

I was surprised to learn recently that Jack London, like me a native of Oakland, California and, unlike me, the first person ever to become a millionaire by writing (and a million in 1900 was a fortune indeed) was an outspoken and dedicated socialist and that his name is known around the world for his socialist writings.  I am not surprised that the American educational system has emasculated his literary reputation by teaching only his early works ("White Fang" and "Call of the Wild") and relegating him to the category of adventure writer.  [You gotta love this guy:  he is also responsible for introducing surfing to the U.S.]

In 1908 Jack London published "The Iron Heel," an odd little novel of the genre I would call Social-Science Fiction.  Like Bellamy's "Looking Backward", it purports to be a future history in which events in our future are recounted from the perspective of an even more distant future.  In London's book, the conceit is that an account of a socialist revolution begun in our time was written by one of the participants and that this account has come to light only in the 27th century.  Thus we have a first-person narrative of a revolution with commentary and footnotes provided by a scholar 700 years from now.

What astonished me most about the book is that it so accurately describes the major geopolitical and economic events of the 20th century even though it was written before any of them happened.  London seems to have foreseen the Stock Market Crash and ensuing Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, the labor unrest of that period, the strategy by which FDR co-opted the union movement and saved capitalism, the economic basis of the two World Wars, a U.S. foreign policy intent on keeping the country permanently at war, the development of the suburbs, the creation of NAFTA, and even the rise of the Christian Right as a political power.

What lends weight to the remarkable similarity between events that London imagined and events as they played out over 100 years is that London presents all of these developments as the inevitable result of observable facts about capitalism in the United States.  London does not argue for socialism on moral or political grounds:  he argues that an empirical observation of the society in which he lived would necessarily lead one to conclude logically that a nascent revolution of the working class would be crushed by a capitalist class that co-opted the political institutions of democracy to establish its own plutocracy.  London believed that the only possible outcome of conditions in his day would be that liberty and justice for the worker would be crushed under the Iron Heel of the oligarchy, and such is the story the novel tells.

The story revolves around a revolutionary leader who bears a striking resemblance to London himself.  Early in the novel, this working-class hero, Ernest Everhard, addresses a meeting of a secretive group of the most powerful capitalists and politicians in the country, something like the Bohemian Club of San Francisco.  Here is his indictment of capitalism:

"If modern man's producing power is a thousand times greater than that of the caveman, why then, in the United States today, are there fifteen million people who are not properly sheltered and not properly fed?  Why then, in the United States today, are there three million child laborers?  It is a true indictment.  The capitalist class has mismanaged.  . . . you have mismanaged, my masters, . . . you have selfishly and criminally mismanaged." 

Everhard goes on to say that eventually the oligarchy will be overthrown by the power of the working class:

"There is a greater strength than wealth, and it is greater because it cannot be taken away.  Our strength, the strength of the proletariat, is in our muscles, in our hands to cast ballots, in our fingers to pull triggers."

The working class revolution, London believed, would eventually establish a more just and peaceful social order.  But before that resolution can come, we must pass through a period of increasing domination and oppression.  The story describes the overwhelming power of the oligarchy, using as it does all the types of power available.  Police and military, universities and intellectuals, the news media, publishers, the churches and the clergy all cooperate with the oligarchy, reinforcing the self-justifying ideas and values it formulates.  Because the myths and propaganda of the oligarchy are so aggressively propagated, and the general population so relentlessly indoctrinated, only a prolonged suffering will awaken the proletariat to the true nature of the situation.

Simply put, The Establishment consisting of wealthy white males will not give up power easily.  The workers may have history and justice on their side, but the oligarchy has the military, the courts, the banks, the media, and the police to support and enforce its hold on power.  The oligarchy's dedication to the maintenance of its power is made clear when a member of the Capitalists' club answers the revolutionary hero thus:

"This, then, is our answer.  We have no words to waste on you.  When you reach out your vaunted strong hands for our palaces and our ease, we will show you what strength is.  In roar of shell and shrapnel and in whine of machine-guns will our answer be couched.  We will grind you revolutionists down under our heel, and we shall walk upon your faces."


The new book "Dark Money" by Jane Mayer reports in detail about the network established by the Koch brothers to take control of all levels of our government (municipal, state, and federal) and to control who is elected to all legislative and executive offices, from the small-town mayor to the President of the United States.  I know that many scoff at the idea that this country is being taken over by the extremely wealthy elite (just as many of the characters in London's novel refuse to believe the hero.)  Many will reject books such as "Dark Money", calling it alarmist and portraying its author as a "conspiracy theorist" who is not fully in touch with reality.  Many will think such things about me.  And they will say something to the effect that Jack London lived a long time ago and that things are surely much different now than they were then.

But before you dismiss all the talk of an oligarchy scheming to control our government at every level, consider what Jimmy Carter had to say in a speech he gave to a meeting of the Atlantik Bruecke ("Atlantic Bridge"), a non-profit that fosters better relations between Germans and Americans.  The former President said in his speech that "America does not at the moment have a functioning democracy."  Carter's remarks were not reported by a single mainstream news agency in the United States, but they were reported in Der Spiegel, the leading German news magazine.  (The report, by the way, did not appear in the English language version of Der Spiegel either, but only in the German one.)


In the final chapters of "The Iron Heel," the oligarchy does indeed bring its Iron Heel down on the people.  It walks on their faces.  And all that the revolutionary hero can do is to repeat the following again and again as bloody events swirl around the revolutionaries: 

"How many rifles have you got?  Do you know where you can get plenty of lead?  When it comes to powder, chemical mixtures are better than mechanical mixtures, you take my word."

Saturday, April 2, 2016


For the last six months or so of the two years that I drove nights, I often began my shift by driving Tito, who had been driving cab for more than thirty years, to his home in an apartment building on Bush at Stockton.  The beginning of my day and the end of his was a twenty minute conversation while driving downtown from the Luxor yard.  I asked him questions about the business, and he generously gave me some advice.  He also paid me $20 at the end of each ride, another bit of generosity, one that embarrassed me but which I could not afford to refuse.

Most often we spent the time talking about politics in the broadest sense, that is, about whatever affects the life of the polis.  We talked about the declining quality of life in San Francisco, the declining value of the dollar, the declining earnings of cabbies, and about the corruption rampant in the City's current administration.  I always talked too much, blabbing on with no editorial filters about the inhumanity of capitalism's drive for individual accumulation of wealth and about my longing for a shared sense that we are all in this together and must rely on one another.

As he got to know me, Tito asked the scheduler to assign me to his cab every night that I worked.  He appreciated the care I took to keep the cab clean and to monitor its performance in case it needed maintenance.  I think (or hope) that he appreciated other qualities in me, too.  I remember an off-hand comment he made one day:  "I like your politics, Howard."  As for me, I just plain liked Tito.

Tito suffers intense back pain constantly, a condition that has been aggravated (if not in fact caused) by the decades he spent sitting in a car for ten to twelve hours a day.  I have watched Tito take five minutes or more just unfolding himself from the driver's seat and trying to rise to his feet.  Still, he never complains, and even on days when I could see that the pain was cutting deep, Tito always had a smiling greeting for everyone he encountered.  He seemed to know everyone at Luxor and to have a bit of repartee ready for each.

I no longer drive nights.  I switched to driving what is called a "ramp van," a cab fitted with equipment allowing it to carry a person in a wheelchair.  I miss my conversations with Tito.  So I was excited when, a couple of weeks ago, Tito pulled up next to me as I was walking from the bus stop to the yard.  He offered to give me a ride the rest of the way.  He was ending his shift early just as I was beginning mine late.

I got in the cab and asked Tito how he was doing.  "Not too well," he said.  Then he told me why.
Tito is what's called a "medallion holder."  Any vehicle used to transport passengers for a fee (called a "commercial livery vehicle") used to have to display a medallion, which looks like a miniature license plate, on the dashboard of the car, making it visible from the front of the car through the windshield.  By limiting the number of medallions issued, the city was able to control the number of livery vehicles on the streets, to limit traffic congestion, and to enable the quick identification of any cab and its driver should the cab be involved in an accident or be the scene of a crime.

The medallion was a license to operate a transportation business and hence a license to make money.  They were valuable.  Every cabbie had to own one or rent one when its owner was not using it himself.  Cabbies put their names on the waiting list for medallions the minute they were hired and waited twenty years or more to get to the top of the list.  Then they were able to buy a medallion from the city for prices that eventually reached two hundred and fifty or three hundred thousand dollars.  The medallion system is still the law, and every day that I work, part of the gate fee I pay to use a particular cab goes to the person who owns its medallion.  So when I was driving nights using Tito's medallion, he received part of my gate fee.

When Tito gave me a lift to work that day he told me that he used to get a check for $2400 from Luxor each month for the use of his medallion by other drivers.  At some point last autumn, the check was cut to $1900.  Now it has been cut to $1000.

Tito has worked hard for thirty years and invested $300,000 in his medallion, expecting the income from it to provide for his retirement.  He played by the rules, paid with his health and his life savings for a position in the business that should have taken care of him in his old age.  His body is broken.  He has neither the youthful energy nor the time to start over.

This is what the Tech enthusiasts gleefully call "disruption."  I call it an injustice, and I curse the lives and the fortunes of those who have brought it about.  The lesson is clear:  you can take all that crap about playing by the rules, obeying the law, working hard, and being loyal and toss it all out the window.  None of it has any place in the new millennium.