First They Take Our Money

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Colorado GOP threatens to  throw teachers in jail for going on strike (shareblue.com)
Want to Be a ‘Volunteer Adjunct’? Southern Illinois U. is Hiring (Chronicle of Higher Education)

One of the most annoying and nonsensical arguments that some conservatives make is that left-wingers shouldn’t use anything that they’re opposed to in efforts to further their own ends. These bloviations usually go along the lines of, “Oh, you say you don’t like big corporations? Well, your smartphone was made by a corporation, dur hur hur. If you were a real leftist, you’d do all your communication and organization by carrier pigeon, dur hur hur hur. Checkmate, [slur deleted]!” (I wish I could say that this was in any way an exaggeration of this type of argument, either in substance or in tone, but it isn’t.)

Above and beyond the naked audacity of deigning to mandate how other people define themselves, the people who make these arguments are waving their privilege around and smacking everyone in the face with it. One of the defining qualities of a repressed minority is that members of that group are essentially forced to act within structures (economic, political, social and otherwise) that legitimate their repression. While it may be technically possible to carve out some kind of existence outside of those structures, that existence is usually bare-bones at best, and always places the person so far outside the mainstream of society that they have to surrender whatever small measure of power they may have had to effect changes in the systems they’re opposed to, as well as many (if not all) of the meager benefits they may be granted as a repressed member of that society.

In America, everyone is essentially forced into capitalism. To fit even the most generous definition of “living outside capitalism” in this country, someone would have to be heavily reliant on charity at the very least (which is part of the reason why conservatives are making it more difficult for people to help the less fortunate), and would likely have to turn to stealing and other criminal acts in order to eke out basic conditions necessary for human life. Such an existence would provide next to nothing in the way of safety and stability, and would stress other basic human needs like familial bonding. Living in the United States of America without partaking in capitalism, at least on some levels, is all but a practical impossibility, which is why conservatives who insist that any American who’s critical of capitalism should live outside of capitalism (to “prove” they’re really liberal or what have you) needs to be told to perform the old physical impossibility.

We can, and most certainly should, debate what economic and political structures are best for us as a people, but those debates do nothing to alleviate the struggles of the immediate moment we’re living in. Whether we like it or not, money is power in America right now, and even for those of us looking to totally eliminate money from some parts of our society, we all still need some amount of money so we can supply ourselves (and our loved ones) with food and shelter and other necessities. Without those basic concerns, not only is minute-to-minute life unbearably difficult, but it also nearly eliminates the possibility of participation in the spheres of American life that influence how the structures we live in are set up.

When conservatives attack the laws and regulations that provide basic support for Americans — minimum wage laws, the right to unionize, the right for unions to get a modicum of money from their members for the services they provide, unemployment insurance, and so on — it’s common to contextualize the damage these attacks can do in terms of money, and that’s probably the most persuasive way to argue against that damage, at least for a general audience. How this loss of money disempowers the people who suffer from it, however, also needs to be discussed, particularly as decades of these attacks are now culminating in one of the most brazen attempts to virtually enslave a large portion of the American public.

Teachers have long been a favourite target of right-wingers, not only because their simplistic lies about teachers (how we all “get off work at three” every day and “get summers off” and all that nonsense) continue to hold sway, but because effective teachers are the best defence our country has against that kind of political misinformation campaign. When the profession of teaching hasn’t been directly attacked in those ways, it’s still suffered from other conservative programmes like austerity economics, to the point where some Oklahoma schools switched to a four-day week earlier this year so teachers could work a second job in order to make ends meet. That is the kind of news story that should, in any sane and civilized country, grind everything to a halt as its citizens figure out just how in the hell things could get to such an absurd point, but with the chaos machine in Washington continuing to make life miserable in so many ways for so many people, the stories coming out of Oklahoma barely made national news.

Now that teacher walkouts and strikes have spread across multiple states, more attention is being paid to them, but even as more people become aware of how horrendously underpaid many teachers are these days, conservatives continue to cast these strikes as “greedy” teachers trying to extract more tax money for their “cushy” jobs at the expense of others. Never mind that West Virginia teachers refused a pay increase unless other public workers got the same raise, and never mind that Arizona teachers are insisting on more money to spend on their students; the caricature of the underworked and overpaid teacher remains central to the right-wing narrative that’s being blasted across all their media outlets to try to keep teachers distressed, disempowered and disrespected.

The fact that Republican legislators are now trying to criminalize non-violent dissent by striking teachers would be chilling enough on its own, but particularly in this age of creeping authoritarianism, where many conservatives are refusing to brook any criticism of themselves (see this past weekend’s cultural dust-ups), it is nothing short of terrifying. That an academic administrator could even dare to suggest that teachers should work for free should be laughable, but after all the right-wing attacks on education these past few decades, and the blindingly-fast dismantling of our country’s basic support structures these past fifteen months, forcing teachers to work for free not only seems like a logical extension of the conservative war on academia, but it also feels like it may ultimately succeed.

Without money, teachers would become even more powerless than they are now, which would make them even easier to scapegoat, harass and exploit. Taking away the wealth of a group’s members as a step towards future condemnation may be on everyone’s minds because of a recent hit Hulu show, but that fiction is based on the most chilling of historical facts, and we ignore the similarities there at great peril to not just ourselves as individuals and a country, but as a species as well.

Too many teachers, myself included, have had to fight and claw and scratch to create the most basic existence for ourselves for far too long, and our profession as a whole has continued to lose ground year after year, thanks in large part to the relentless attacks of conservatives and lack of support from others in similar circumstances who are too busy defending their own livelihoods. This simply cannot continue. At this moment in our history, we all need to band together and use every legal means at our disposal to stop the erosion of what power we still have, expose the conservative attacks on education for what they really are, and then fight to regain our power and end our exploitation once and for all. America has already slid too far down the slide of humanity’s worst tendencies, and if we don’t stop that sliding soon, then we will surely perish when we get to the bottom.

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