What do California's supermarket strike/lockout and the continued violence against U.S. occupying forces and their collaborators in Iraq have in common?
The answer is found in Newton's third law of motion: for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Applied to human affairs this translates into the idea of resistance.
Power creates its own resistance, equal and opposite. The French monarchy gives way to the mob, which gives way to Napoleon, who gives way to the coalition, which brings back a more benign monarch, who gives way to a more benign Napoleon, who gives way to democracy.
It follows that moderate power leads to moderate resistance. Mirabeau and Kerensky could have forestalled revolutionary violence in France and Russia had those monarchies been more enlightened. Britain, which had an enlightened monarchy, was spared a revolution, and its spasm of mid-17th century violence ended in the William and Mary compromise of 1689.
Had capitalism been less savage at its origins and capitalists less rapacious, there would have been no need for resistance in the form of labor unions. In Europe, working classes turned to Marxism, while in America, they turned to organized labor in such groups as the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor.
The U.S. labor movement cut its teeth in struggles against railroads and steel companies. Politically, resistance to the capitalist "trusts" came from progressives such as Theodore Roosevelt, Robert La Follette and Hiram Johnson.
A good example of Newton's law in human affairs was the Cold War. Here we had two polarized political systems providing each other with perfectly equilibrated resistance. Convinced of its virtue and the aggressiveness of the other, each side escalated or de-escalated the contest depending on the amount of resistance it found.
Elaborate rules of the game were established. Each side could do what it liked so long as it did not directly challenge the territory of the other. The Soviet invasion of Hungary and the U.S. invasion of South Vietnam were tolerated by the antagonist.
The Communist invasion of South Korea and the U.S. military advance on China during the Korean War were not tolerated. The wall cutting off East Berlin was tolerated. Soviet missiles in Cuba were not. The Middle East was unsettled territory, which is what made it so dangerous.
The balance of power prevailed until Communism imploded, destroyed by its own contradictions, ending a superpower equilibrium that had existed for nearly half a century.
Today, there is but one superpower, and that is the problem.
For all their flaws, Communism, and socialism, its cousin, were necessary counterweights to capitalism, both politically and economically.
Politically, there could have been no Bush administration "pre-emptive war strategy" 30 years ago, the strategy that led to President Bush's war in Iraq. "Pre-emptive self defense," as Bush calls it, in an age of nuclear parity would have led to a U.S. nuclear strike on Russia, attacking Soviet missiles before they could attack us.
A "pre-emptive" U.S. attack on Iraq, in the gray area, would have been impossible. The Cold War imposed mutual restraint that no longer exists.
Economically, businesses were not as rapacious 30 years ago, not as free to cut wages and overpay management, not as free to be corrupt.
In America, according to census figures, the share of national income going to the top 20 percent wage-earners rose from 44 percent to 50 percent from 1973 until present. The top 1 percent now earn 15 percent of all wages, the highest since measurements began.
In wealth, disparity in America is even greater, with the richest 1 percent controlling 38 percent of national wealth. The stock market is not the great leveler we believe: The richest 20 percent of Americans own 85 percent of stock wealth.
The labor movement is as important today as it was a century ago. In California, labor's fight against Wal-Mart – the root cause of the supermarket strike/lockout – comes against a company whose practices are as rapacious as anything ever tried by the trusts.
Wal-Mart, the world's biggest company, whose revenues equal 2 percent of U.S. GDP, pays American workers 40 percent less than union workers, offers marginal benefits and buys products from slave-wage, nonunion foreign producers. Meanwhile, four of the world's 10 richest people, according to Forbes, are named Walton.
Resistance is necessary against concentrated power. The Bush administration is astonished at the level of "terrorism" against U.S. forces in Iraq. No preparations had been made for this level of opposition because the administration believed Iraqis would welcome the invasion.
Bush's misconceptions show a poor understanding of nationalism and of human nature. These are not terrorists. They are inevitable resistance to an unjust and illegal war. Americans have a tendency to believe our wars are better than those of other nations. We find in Iraq, as we did in Vietnam, this belief is not universal.
© Copyright 2003 Union-Tribune Publishing Co.