Broken Contract

Fidel Castro was the embodiment of a great notion that has been crumbling for some time, the idea that the state should help the farmers, the regular people, the poor, should liberate and lift them, and protect them against the rich and powerful. It is hard to see now but once upon a time there was a sweetness and a soaring quality to that notion.

“He was a man of immense charisma,” said Richard Eder, a past foreign correspondent for the NY Times who spent three days with Fidel in the 1960s. The accompanying black and white images by a powerful photographer, Jack Manning, capture the essential humanity of the man and his devotion to the campesinos in the countryside.

Among them, said Eder, “There was absolute, unquestionable support.”

One of the little things that most would pass over, but the reporter did not, was that Castro always sat in the front seat with his driver. I understood that idea from my time in Denmark.

Catching a cab with a friend after a long night in downtown Copenhagen, she sat in the back and said I should sit in front, which was the custom in egalitarian Denmark. It made perfect sense to me.

The driver thus became your equal rather than your chauffeur.

Of course here it is weird to get in the front seat with the Uber driver unless there are a whole bunch of you trying to get a ride.

But those notions still prevail in Scandinavia. After the election, I had a phone conversation with the same friend. She found it extraordinary that the American people had elected a candidate who did not pay taxes, did not contribute to the common weal.

It would an automatic disqualifier in Denmark where the citizens largely believe they rise or fall together. I touched on the great and expanding level of inequality here, illustrated by extraordinary levels of pay in the corporate hierarchy.

With masters degrees in two disciplines tied to business development, she answered with firmness and simplicity that it would not happen in Denmark. “The government will do something about it.”

Underlying that discussion and many others deconstructing the election is the theory of a social contract. Very roughly, the theory says the individual gives up certain individual liberties in exchange for the protection of other liberties by the ruling authority. Propounded by Enlightenment philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau but tracing back into antiquity, the social contract is still being upheld in Denmark.

Not so much in the U.S.

The concept is much in the news lately because so many working class voters selected Donald Trump. For them, so the theory goes, the social contract is broken.

The government that was supposed to help them advance in life has instead left them behind. The “party of the working man” – that would be the Democrats – forgot about them in favor of globalism and the rise of those that “deserve it,” the meritocracy.

Giving life to the theory, I was a member of two unions when I was going to college, one when I worked in the woods in Washington and another when I worked on construction sites in Oregon. They were solid, well-paid jobs and the guys in the bus in the woods or in the shack on the construction site were confident and proud of their work. The company negotiated with the unions, and in essence the company managers could not shaft us.

Since then, the International Woodworkers of America has disappeared entirely. And since 2,000, the Laborers Union has lost 30,000 members, shrinking by almost 40%.

While that decimation took place, the distribution of wealth in our nation grew more and more grotesque, with almost all the new wealth bloating the top end while the middle and poor lost out. That is why people were mad this last election, and rightly so, and why they voted in essence to blow up the system.

Castro blew up the system in Cuba a long time ago and then for the rest of his life kept in place a very stern version of the social contract. In exchange for the loss of quite a few individual liberties, his people were assured the most basic protections, good health care, safe streets and homes, free education and, as an extra, good baseball.

You could do worse.

I read last month a nuanced piece in the NY Times by a censored author in Cuba, Wendy Guerra, who wrote, “When I learned of the comandante’s death, I realized that from now on we would have to fend for ourselves. We would have to learn to move through life as citizens of the world, not as the sheltered apprentices of a delirious master.”

Who is left with that sweet, soaring ideal of a society for all, advancement for the poor, help for the very salt of the earth, protection against predation by the rich and powerful, freedom from want, a lifting of the burden of misery.

Really, only the Pope is left.