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Archive for December, 2011

Early in George W Bush’s administration, he coined the term “ownership society” to describe his American economic vision. It was a vague term then, opportunistically so, and remains today. At the same time, a former conservative turned “enlightened” named Jeff Gates, wrote a similarly titled book to describe a similar utopia, at least incorporating working class participation in the form of advocacy for ESOP’s (employee stock ownership plans), that were darlings of enlightened Newt Gingrich and others.

It would be wonderful if by “ownership society” they meant the sense of responsibility implied in the “take responsibility for your life” social responsiblity and new age movement. Its a great utopia if you have net worth, not so great if you are of the now majority that have net debt.

In the late 90’s, I read “The End of Work”, by Jeremy Rifkin which affected me profoundly, and continues to.

His thesis was that at some stage, less and less work will be needed socially, that the vast majority of physical and institutional infrastructure will have been constructed, and there will be less need for employment, for work in general, and implied less need for productive investment, to meet human needs.

Its an enormous institutional quandry, that is manifesting in our declining economic vitality.

His thesis implied that the economy will shift to a maintenance economy.

That thesis was a reiteration of the similar Marxist thesis that improvements in productivity would lessen the amount of required work time to fulfill human needs.

The objection to the Marxist and Rifkin thesis was that human needs continue to increase, that minimum necessities continue to increase (walking to a car now as a minimum necessity, voice shifting to a phone, to now a smartphone as a minimum “necessity”).

One other objection to the thesis is that we only see what happens close to home. So, while the fulfillment of needs in the US may lessen, that is not true of the world. As China, India, all of the former third world improve their standards of living in real terms, work is performed to accomplish that.

The quandry is that in the current world, same as in the past, work is needed to survive. Families and social attitudes have not shifted. We are still expected to work, to provide for our families.

And, in the current world in which 9+% of adults can’t find work at all and many more work in jobs that do not utilize their intelligence and skills, in the current world in which salaries and wages are declining in all fields to the extent that MANY can’t afford the prevailing cost of living, the permanent relations of class are more prominent.

We distrust each other (we find MANY ways to, even those of us that preach trust), and we don’t form commonwealth’s, in which we prominently share the benefits of common ownership. We don’t commit to our families. We don’t commit to our close friends. We don’t commit to our neighbors. We don’t commit within our communities, region, nation.

In a society that needs less work to make it through, it makes sense to form socialist common ownership relationships, that are intimate enough that the obligation to contribute to society productively is retained, that allow for significant individual choice.

I personally consider one reason that the formation of local and regional social institutions happens so infrequently, is that there is competition from federal institutions. Its great that there is an insured confident safety net. Its horrible that it is administered so remotely, so anonymously, fostering dependence rather than inter-dependence.

In Franklin County, in Windham County, in Amherst now even, the local economy is in the doldrums. While policy makers go to cities to discern that the economy is stagnating, it is true and absurdly true locally, rurally.

We’ve not shifted to a commonwealth of God-given natural resources as the basis of our rural well-being. There are no community owned forests – not even private CSF’s (community supported forests). No community owned farms.

In and efficient social-owned economy, what level of work would be required to be contributed (equivalent to a military reserve obligation), 24 hours/week maybe? to provide all of the food needs, shelter needs, heating needs, transportation needs, education needs of the community for all its public purposes?

That social reality could be instituted by a 50% tax on income beyond living wage (maybe $12/hour) that provides minimum necessities for all. Improvements to the standard of God/nature given solar income accumulated over millenia, could be privately paid for by virtue of work beyond the 24 social hours.

It could be voluntary. How would we get a cooperative society moving along?

Drops of private agreements encouraged with open non-exclusive invitations to new participants, or voluntary or mandatory institutional?

I don’t care if this sounds like the meanderings of a 22 year-old.

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Naomi Szinai

My mother-in-law Naomi Szinai died this past Saturday, of complications from an obstructed colon and of heart failure, in the Royal Free Hospital in London. She was 87.

She lived a life, a journey that we need to remember.

Her family was descended from world-renowned Torah scholar rabbis on her mother’s side (I believe). Her father’s side was also descended from rabbis, and her father had received rabbinic ordination (smicha), but practiced his career as a doctor in a town about the size of Greenfield, MA (my home town), in rural Hungary.

For the first few years of her life, she was fairly well off, middle class. Her father was one of two doctors in the town, relied on by all in the town. She had a close family. There was some anti-semitism in Hungary in the 20’s and early 30’s, with a fascist government in power, but it was manageable.

When Hitler came to power first in 1933, and then later consolidated power and began instituting persecutions of the Jews in Germany and later Austria and Czechoslavakia, Hungary was one of the independent allies of nazi Germany. Still, Jews’ life did not change as significantly. There was more social permission to express anti-semitism, and suppressive laws were introduced, and enforced more vehemently. The Hungarians did not initiate the zeal of genocide that the nazis instituted. (In 1944 though, Eichmann remarked that the Hungarians were more enthusiastic to ship the Jews out to the camps than even the Germans or Poles). Even though her father was not legally permitted to practise as a physician, he still practiced under the table and for barter (one of two doctors in a town of 20,000. Somehow they thought that it was better to have only one doctor, than two doctors one of whom was a Jew). Jews were permitted to live in their homes and partially practice their professions and own some personal property. Noone was herded into ghettos like in Poland or elsewhere.

My mother-in-law and her two younger siblings went to school, oriented to science more than religion or anything else.

In 1944, Germany grew impatient with Hungary, that their fascist government wasn’t suppressive enough, and invaded.

It appeared that they did so mostly to complete their genocide of Jews and Gypsies.

The very young, old, ill, dissident, “deviants”, were shipped to Auschwitz and other death camps. The young were put to work.

My mother-in-law and family worked in slave camps (I don’t know the details). In late 1944, when it became obvious that the Germans would lose the war, they expedited their genocidal efforts, and organized “forced marches” of the former slave labor to the death camps. My mother-in-law had gotten separated from her father and brother, but her mother and sisters were with her. During the march to the death camp, my mother-in-law organized a small escape, and slipped away, arranged false papers, shelter, and food for her family.

My simple worrying mother-in-law. Survived.

The area where she was was liberated by the Russians, but the Russians basically abandoned the people they had liberated, and she was able to get her family to the US sponsored displaced persons camp.

Following the war, she tried to return to her former town and home, but the home was occupied. Even though rented, the new residents refused to give back any of the stolen belongings (clothes, furniture, animals) and the returning refugees were chased from their towns, some killed.

In the big city of Budapest, they could find a way to survive. There was a large Jewish community, somewhat of an economy, and Jews were again permitted to attend university.

She studied (I don’t have a clue how she financed it), and earned a degree. She met her husband (who died before I married my wife) in Budapest at university.

In that time, Hungary adopted communism (in a corrupt process). A large number of the communist officials were Jewish. Still, practicing Jewish rituals and religion was prohibited.

My mother-in-law arranged for members of her family to travel overland to Italy, and after Israel achieved independence, traveled to Israel and was one of the pioneering youth.

Her father served in the Israeli public health service. Her husband received a PHD from the Hebrew University in chemistry, and they lived in a garage on an army base, I think near Jaffa. They were poor, food was rationed. Even with their relatively prominent positions, they lived in some deprivation. The time was heady, inspiring, motivating.

But, there was terror, and overt war. My wife’s father was some combination of haunted, ambitious, impatient, authoritative, and after serving in the 56 war, arranged a position with a pharmaceutical firm in England. The family moved there (with my wife, then 1 year old).

My mother-in-law was a housewife and mother for a few years, but later took professional positions in government and public health where they resided.

The family moved frequently due to her husband accepting research and then professorship positions in pharmaceutical chemistry in different parts of England, then Gainesville, Florida.

I don’t think my mother-in-law liked moving so frequently, particularly to Florida. (My wife didn’t.) After her husband died from either a freak accident or questionable cause of death (noone knows exactly), she moved to London to a predominately Jewish upper middle class neighborhood where she lived for the last thirty years.

In London, she was home. There were many Hungarian speaking neighbors and friends, little crime, good local shopping and public services nearby.

Over time, illnesses first restricted her movement. (She suffered a hip breakage in her 70’s, then a two botched hip replacements.) She had heart problems. Then the most unpleasant malady over an extended period was severe intestinal problems over a few years.

When I last saw her in 2009, she was gaunt, grey, weak, old. A very different woman, outwardly, than I knew from visiting previously (only a few times sadly).

Speaking to her on the phone when she grew weaker and weaker upset me. I knew she was dying.

Although Naomi and I did not get to spend much time together physically, I felt sincerely very close to her. We talked often on the phone. I was often a mediator between my wife and her. I loved that we would call each other just to speak with each other, not to speak to my wife, not about some family drama, not about my kids, just us. I considered Naomi as one of my closest friends, honest, unpretentious.

Knowing a little of my mother-in-laws experience, my son inquired into the history of the holocaust at around 18. He visited Israel and Yad Vashem, and it affected him severely emotionally, reading the names in the MANY volumes there. (I’ve never been to Yad Vashem.)

When he returned from Israel, he moped around a bit, talking often about nagmama (Hungarian for grandmother) and in despondent tones. I told him that the most important part of her life, was that following her traumas, she LIVED. She didn’t respond with despondency, but with care and vitality.

She did not adopt hatred in response to her experience. Even though Hungarian neighbors cheered as her family was driven to the camps, she doesn’t think of Hungarians as evil, complicit. Partially because she was saved by brave Hungarian families that sheltered them after her escape.

Similarly, she did not adopt a hatred of Arabs, even though she experienced wars and animosity.

In the few days of sitting Shiva that I was able to attend, a few family members and others that knew her in Hungary and Israel came by. I heard different, but similarly chilling and inspiring life stories. Her brother Imre. Cousins whose names I don’t remember, one of which is a hasid from a different sect from my son. A few neighbors.

Not a movie script story. A life story.

Thank you for living. Thank you for being a close friend. Thank you for birthing and parenting my wife. Thank you for your financial help at times. Thank you for appreciating and helping my children.

Good-bye. Rest in peace.

 

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