The Right’s New Tough Love

The headlines read like an Onion spoof of the right’s anti-government, privatize everything mantra: “No pay, no spray: Firefighters let home burn.” If it weren’t for the fact that Gene Cranick and his wife lost their mobile home, three dogs and all of their possessions in that blaze, it might even be funny.

David Crocker, the mayor of South Fulton, which provides firefighting services to that area of rural Tennessee for a $75-a-year fee perfectly expressed the each-man-for-himself logic afoot here when he said, “It’s a service we offer. Either they accept it or they don’t.”

To punctuate this sentiment, the fire chief even refused Cranick’s on-site offer to pay the fee while his home burned, supposedly to teach the rest of that rural area a lesson. But what is the lesson? When government is run like a business—you get what you pay for—then we enter novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand’s objectivist ideal, a world where individualism reigns.

The right wing in this country loves that concept. From Tea Partiers like Glenn Beck to Libertarians like Ron Paul, individualism is touted as the great American ideal.

They cite as their mentor Ayn Rand, author of the classic 1957 novel, Atlas Shrugged—which is having a bit of a resurgence these days according to the Economist and my own perception of reading preferences among suits on the subway. Individualism, however, is the enemy of anyone who wants to live—excuse the hippie reference—in social harmony with others.

As I explained a few years back in “The Freedom to Starve”: There is a scene in Monty Python’s satire Life of Brian where Brian, not wanting to be the messiah, calls out to the crowd: “You are all individuals.” The crowd responds in unison: “We are all individuals.”

The right wing , using pseudo-iconoclastic logic, transforms this comical send-up of religious conformity into their own secular dogma in which we are all just atomized beings. “Only an individual has rights,” not groups such as workers, Blacks, gays, women, and minorities, they argue.

True, we are all individuals, but we didn’t just bump into one another. Human beings by nature are social beings who live in a collective, a society. Under capitalism, society is broken down into classes in which some individuals—bosses, for example—wield considerably more power than others—workers.

To advocate for society to be organized on the basis of strict individualism, as the right wing does, is to argue that everyone has the right to do whatever he or she wants. Sounds nice in the abstract, perhaps. But what happens when the desires of one individual infringe on the desires of another?

Libertarians like Paul are more blunt about the logical ramifications of their argument. “The dictatorial power of a majority” he argues ought to be replaced by the unencumbered power of individuals, in other words, the dictatorial power of a minority.

So if the chairman of Dow Chemical wants to flush his company’s toxic effluence into rivers and streams, so be it. If General Motors wants to pay its employees starvation wages, that’s their right too. Right-wingers often appear to not want to grapple with meddlesome things like economic and social power. As the bourgeois radical Abraham Lincoln observed of secessionist slaveowners, “The perfect liberty they seek is the liberty of making slaves of other people.”

And so Gene Cranick is now the latest victim of shrink government, praise individualism gone amuck. This is madness that must be challenged.

Trillions exist for wars and occupations, bank bailouts and corporate giveaways that the New York Times earlier this week detailed have led not to hiring workers but to further corporate speculation and profiteering. I wish we could challenge this by walking into a ballot box in November and pulling a lever, but all historical examples point to the need for a fightback among working people and the poor.

May I offer up the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) as a bold example of how we can begin to turn the tide? Just yesterday, the CTU—a union of 30,000, newly run by radicals, including open reds—announced a victory for teachers facing illegal firings. The new leadership earned its chops on the streets fighting school closures, privatization and the business model destroying America’s schools.

I’ll write more about the CTU in future posts. But suffice it to say that in a country where the right and the tepid Democrats who mimic their policies tell us we have no choice but to accept watching as our neighbors’ homes burn, there are alternatives to this new tough love.

Sherry Wolf  is a public speaker, writer and activist who is available to speak on Sexuality and Socialism, How Can We Unite and Fight the Right and other topics at your campus, community center or union hall for a moderate fee. Wolf is the associate editor of theInternational Socialist Review and author of Sexuality and Socialism: History, Politics and Theory of LGBT Liberation(Haymarket Books, named one of theProgressive’s “Favorite Books of 2009”). Contact Sherry at: sherrywolf2000 at or find her on Facebook. Check out the video of Sherry speaking with Cleve Jones and the cast of Hair at the National Equality March.


16 responses to “The Right’s New Tough Love

  1. “But suffice it to say that in a country where the right and the tepid Democrats who mimic their policies tell us we have no choice but to accept watching as our neighbors’ homes burn, there are alternatives to this new tough love.”

    This is a misleading comment, Mayor David Neil Crocker is a REPUBLICAN of South Fulton, Tennessee. Before assaulting another party, make sure that party is not your own. Although it does not really matter what party David Crocker belongs to, the fact is that this was a horrendous thing to do to a person to let their house and animals burn down over $75. Maybe, just maybe though if we had a Democrat as the mayor, not a Republican trying to turn his own County into an Oligarchy, then he would have shown more compassion towards this family.

  2. This is NOT a case of Government being run like a business. Businesses have to 1) care about their public image; and 2) WANT TO MAKE MONEY. You don’t do either by letting folks’ houses burn down, even after they offer to pay you.

    And the defense of the GOVERNMENT Firefighters? Well, the historical defense of Government Employees at least since 1945 (and earlier): “We were just following orders.”

    An INDIVIDUAL who was not acting as a mindless herd animal and Government Flunky would have said: “Damn the orders, we’re going to do the right thing.”

    Furthermore, were the firefighters fully competent (as they would have to be to be employed by a PRIVATE, FOR-PROFIT Fire Department, they would have considered the idea that it makes better sense to protect your customers’ homes by fighting the fire where it started, rather than by waiting until your customers’ property actually caught fire before taking action.

    It irks me when the Free Market gets the blame for the actions of Government. I don’t claim the Free Market is perfect–just both more moral and more effective than Government.

    • Where do I begin? The Earth is round, bosses fuck over workers, and the genius of the “free market” is what allows millions to remain homeless in a country with foreclosed and abandoned homes. Best of luck in your parallel universe.

      • Enjoy Every Sandwich

        You could begin by explaining what the free market has to do with this story. As far as I can see, it has nothing whatsoever to do with it. This was a GOVERNMENT fire department. The fee that was not paid was a GOVERNMENT fee (what some folks refer to as a “tax”). This fee was established in 1990; it’s not some recent individualist free-market invention.
        His neighbors paid the tax but he didn’t. I thought you guys didn’t like people who won’t pay their “fair share” (whatever that emotional claptrap means) of taxes?

  3. The US is NOT a Free Market–and hasn’t been for more than 160 years–that’s the problem. It is Government interference in the market, and their establishment of protections for Corporations (which are NOT Free Market entities) which FORCES millions to become and remain homeless.

    Were we dealing with a Free Market, I would love the opportunity to provide low-cost housing to the poor–and would relish the opportunity to raise funds via private charity to fund housing for those who can’t even afford the low cost themselves.

    However, the attempts to do so generally run afoul of the government–e.g. the attempt by Mother Theresa to provide housing for the homeless in NYC in the 80s which failed because she couldn’t afford to install a million dollar elevator in a 4 story building.

    I think we want the same things–I just don’t believe in initiating aggression to get them.

  4. Sherry, when the federal reserve (headed by a political appointee) drops interest rates to almost nothing, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac repackage mortgages with uncle sam’s implicit backing, and the feds prevent banks from opening new branches unless they provide “sufficient” home loans in their currently served areas, how exactly do you call the subsequent boom and inevitable bust in housing a problem of the free market?

    In regards to the current article, there’s no free market in fire protection in that county. It is “served” by 8 different tax-funded city departments. Served oh so well.

  5. Putting ‘Ayn Rand’ in your tags provides a virtual guarantee of wingnut attention. It’s like catnip for the already unhinged.

  6. Thanks for the timely piece, Sherry!
    All: I think the key distinction that leftists make and right-wingers do not is that bosses are bosses and workers are workers, regardless of who their employer may be.
    Capitalism also operates by the same rules, regardless of which institution we’re talking about. And forgive me for assuming, Sherry, but it’s probably safe to say Sherry is not advocating for the government, as if these fire fighters were bad apples or something.
    The argument to take away from this event is not that government workers are good or bad, that the private sector is good or bad, but that pursuing profits at the expense of human life is a problem we have because of capitalism itself.
    @Mike Ruff:

    Furthermore, were the firefighters fully competent (as they would have to be to be employed by a PRIVATE, FOR-PROFIT Fire Department, they would have considered the idea that it makes better sense to protect your customers’ homes by fighting the fire where it started…

    So we can infer, then, that private corporations have some sort of incentive to protect the interests of their customers? Why did BP, Exxon, Enron, Goldman Sachs, Blackwater, Coca Cola, Microsoft, etc., etc., do the things they did, or still do?
    For that matter, why do the RIAA, the US Military, the IRS, the MMS, the LAPD, the NYPD, etc., etc., do the messed-up stuff that they do?
    Well, heck, it’s ’cause they’re here to protect themselves or protect private property and private interests. Any corporation or gov’t institution will put forth the minimum amount of effort needed to avoid becoming a pariah, and thus to stay profitable.
    This firefighting disaster represents an utterly stupid and short-sighted extension of that motivation, but it’s not like private, for-profit firefighting departments have served us well before…
    is always a good example of that…

  7. @ Zac:

    With the exception of Coca-Cola and Microsoft (which I have yet to see the harm they inflict on their consumers, I am using Windows 7 right now, and as a diabetic, I like Diet Coke because it is a tasty drink that doesn’t raise my blood sugar), all of the corporations you mentioned have or had some relationship with the government.

    Since you’re so handy with the Wikipedia there (I love Wikipedia also!) you can easily look up all the corporations you just mentioned? A campaign contribution here, a tax break or subsidy there.

    Also, your example of a single non-government fire brigade from a thousand years ago is fascinating. It does seem like Crassus was more interested in getting paid than putting out fires. But there’s something you’ve overlooked. In free-market capitalism (not crony capitalism) you have competition, so which brigade would you call on if your home caught fire, the one that puts out the fire first and argues over price later, or Crassus’ scheme? Sounds like Crassus had quite a monopoly there. Why no competition if he treats his clients so poorly? Might have something to do with the fact the Marcus Crassus was a very powerful Roman Senator and his brigade was the only one sanctioned by Rome.

  8. @Zac:

    I just looked up Coca-Cola on Wikipedia. I was not aware of their funding of Nazi war camps and hiring mercenaries to have people killed. It makes me reconsider whether I should continue to buy Coca Cola products in the future.

    But in considering switching to another brand of soft drink, it got me to thinking: if I don’t agree with Coca-Cola’s past or business practices, I can always choose to not support the company financially. If my government does something I don’t agree with, I don’t have the freedom to not support the government financially. In fact, it’s called tax evasion, an offense punishable by imprisonment. Nobody has arrested me yet for not buying Pepsi products.

  9. Exploiting this incident to attack the Right wing, Republicans, or anyone other than those directly involved is the essence of a cheap shot, and intellectually dishonest besides. No candidate advocates making firefighting services private, or denies that this is a core government function. This wasn’t a political story, it was an ethics abomination. Misrepresenting it as anything else is irresponsible, and just more of the same bile we can find on MSNBC or Fox news.

    • From yours and others’ comments it’s clear that a certain percentage of this country exists in a parallel universe where the wealthy don’t exploit the rest of us, politicians aren’t money-grubbing, warmongering and self-absorbed and all who dissent are delusional.

  10. Dear Sherry: Well, THAT’s certainly a non-response. From that comment, it is clear that you are not interested in facts or truth or even relevance, but merely perpetrating gross generalizations and stereotypes that have no illuminating value whatsoever. What does the South Fulton fire department have to do with “the wealthy” whoever you think “they” are? What does it have to do with “warmongering”? This kind of rhetorical bias-mongering is a staple of both the Right and the Left…it isn’t helpful, it isn’t smart, and it isn’t right. It just makes like-minded, closed minded partisans more smug than they already are.

  11. I didn’t answer you because you and your ilk are not interested in answers. You read my socialist analysis of what happened and argued there’s nothing political about it. Here’s my answer:

    Get rid of the profit motive and classes, have all decisions made democratically by elected bodies of working people who are paid no more than the average person and who actually understand what needs to be produced and how and equally distribute goods and services to all. Wealth and property should be made the collective purview of a society without borders, which operates according to the maxim:”from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” In other words, check out a copy of the Communist Manifesto, that’s what I believe. Not some Stalinoid or Maoist or Kim il Sungist twisted opposite of Marxism, but the real deal.

  12. @Daniel: for starters, it would be a better world if one could boycott one’s own government at less personal risk. I would like to do the same; just sayin’.
    Secondly, you bring up an important point – this common theme, in which most or all of the corporations I mentioned have ties to the government? I would consider it a huge problem within capitalism (not an aberration, though; a systemic issue) that over time successful private enterprises become government contractors or otherwise willfully entangle themselves in gov’t to secure a firmer foothold in the marketplace.
    The privatization of prisons is an example in which the feedback loop therein becomes frightening: company A builds prisons, supports tougher drug enforcement laws, wins government contract to build more prisons, profit. Even if one believes the free market is a good thing, I think we can agree that this is an enormous problem with scary implications for civil liberties.
    Thirdly, yes, my Roman firefighting example was weaksauce. I admit it. But, given the example of prison privatization, it’s clear that any private fire brigade would, over time, seek to eliminate competition altogether by gaining a government-sanctioned monopoly. Whatever one thinks of the process of competition, indisputably a given corporation would benefit financially from removing itself from competition altogether. There’s no incentive to stick around and compete if one can transcend that (and be better for it). I absolutely agree that the process of competition has gotten us some tremendous advances in technological capability; no argument there. But if the profit motive is the carrot, there are of course plenty of things that are socially useless that are nonetheless more profitable, at least in the short term.
    And, if they are profitable enough, the proceeds will shield a private enterprise from reprisal, be it in the form of falling sales or gov’t inquiry or what-have-you. Goldman Sachs is an excellent example of this – by becoming a conjoined twin of the upper echelons of our government, they are simultaneously financially successful AND using their man-on-the-inside status to shield themselves from the full brunt of governmental ire, should there be any to deflect. Given how the bank bailouts unfolded, I think it’s pretty clear that the gov’t is in favor of gladhanding private industry at the expense of “free competition” or wisely-spent tax dollars.

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