People as cogs

I watched the movie Pride last night. It’s about a group of London gays and lesbians rallying on behalf of Welsh coal miners, who had been on strike for dozens of weeks to protest Margaret Thatcher’s policy of closing pits in favor of cheaper imports and alternative energy sources like gas and oil. Wikipedia extensively covers the national coal strike that affected mines across Great Britain. The ignominious end to the strike symbolized the withering influence of the National Union Miners’ (NUM) on politics and labor.

During a very poignant moment in the film, with the striking miners gathered with supporters in the union hall, a young woman stands then begins to sing Bread and Roses. She is joined by other women first, then eventually everyone in chorus. The song is based on a poem penned by James Oppenheim in 1911. Mimi Farina, younger sister of Joan Baez, wrote the music used in the movie. The song has become an anthem for workers around the globe, though union membership continues to decline.

That song, and listening to Paul Robeson’ rendition of Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes in particular, called to mind the eternal struggle between labor and capital, with labor forever being on the short end of the stick. The British coal miners lost their struggle in the face of Thatcher intransigence and an economic system that renders people mere cogs, easily substituted by ever cheaper labor, technology, or, as Joseph Schumpeter put it, “creative destruction.” The conservatives of 10 Downing Street were determined to end public subsidies for the coal industry and complete their push to privatize once-nationalized sectors.

The genuflection to unfettered markets disrupts, indeed, with men, women, and children the victims. They obviously don’t matter in the larger scheme, which is all about maximizing profits for the few.

I imagined as I watched the film an alternative scenario. Instead of sacrificing whole towns on the altar of economic efficiency, why not gradually phase out the state subsidies and help transform communities from, in this case, coal mining to whatever? Why destroy once-meaningful lives in a relative instant?

There must and should be another way, an economy “as if people mattered,” in E.F. Schumacher’s words.