"I am the people—the mob—the crowd—the mass," wrote the American poet Carl Sandburg in 1916. "Do you know that all the great work of the world is done through me?"
The robber barons of the 21st century — corporate executives and the wealthy shareholders who further enrich themselves from corporate profits — would not be fond of Carl Sandburg if they took the trouble to read him. The 1 percent are more likely to be fans of Ayn Rand, who portrayed working class people as whiny "parasites" in her novels.
The past three decades have been hard on American workers, especially for those who produce most of the goods and services. While executive compensation has skyrocketed, the minimum wage hasn't kept up with inflation, adding more and more people to the ranks of the working poor. For many of the most profitable companies, the lowest-paid workers earn so little that they qualify for food stamps, adding yet another dimension to the practice of corporate welfare.
The tide may be starting to turn. The strikes at Wal-Mart and fast food chains around the country are signs that more workers are beginning to ask themselves: Who are the real parasites? The people whose work produces actual goods and services? Or the executives and big investors, who produce nothing tangible, but enrich themselves at the expense of the lowest-paid workers?
The corporate response to these challenges is hard to fathom from the standpoint of basic humanity and fairness. In my city, the janitors who clean the corporate offices of Fortune 500 companies are preparing to go on strike. They've been working without a contract for nine months. The janitors don't earn enough to support their families, and have asked for a modest wage increase and more access to full-time hours so they can qualify for medical coverage.
In response, their employers have called for a two-year wage freeze, and have threatened to cut full-time hours. The message to the janitors is clear: you don't deserve to have a decent standard of living from the work you do.
How do corporate executives and investors sleep at night? How can they take home huge salaries and bonuses, and feel no moral qualms about the denying workers who produce their wealth a fair share of their companies' prosperity?
These people are not sociopaths in the ordinary sense. In most cases, they probably have genuine love and a sense of responsibility for the well-being of their families, friends, and colleagues.
Outside their inner circle is where any sense of empathy stops. Inside their circle, they have plenty of people to reassure them that they deserve all of the wealth that they're amassing. It's the low-level workers who are being lazy, greedy, and selfish.
I can only hope that the push-back from workers since last Labor Day — and the growing awareness that wealth inequality is a threat to the long-term sustainability of the U.S. economy — are signs that the era of reverence for the mythic "heroes" of Ayn Rand's writings is coming to an end.
"When I, the People, learn to remember, when I, the People, use the lessons of yesterday and no longer forget who robbed me last year, who played me for a fool—then there will be no speaker in all the world say the name: 'The People,' with any fleck of a sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision," Carl Sandburg wrote.
"The mob—the crowd—the mass—will arrive then."