It’s late, midnight at our oasis here at Below the Line, and we’re cranking on our accelerated, methamphetamine-like Awards-season production schedule. Thanksgiving looms—though you may have already consumed your pie slices and glasses of sauterne by the time you read this.But though we’re still pre-Pilgrim Day as these words are being written, we’re already thinking of Bethlehem. No, not the Christmas Bethlehem, but the town in poetry that the great rough beast is slouching toward, because, despite some hints of recent good news, things fall apart, and the center, by every reasonable extrapolation, will not hold.And while there is pleasant film-town buzz filling the office at this late hour—the new Harry Potter is good, so is Narnia, when can we see Kong?, etc.—there’s also falling-apart news coming across the wire: As you read this the House, in one of its infamous late night, arm-twisting sessions, has passed the Federal budget desired by the far right—the one that cuts childcare, food and medicine to the poor, sick, and elderly, all in favor of tax cuts for the rich and powerful. The Senate, this same night, shot down a proposal that would’ve established a windfall profit tax for oil companies.Because, of course, oil companies are really hurting, and those rascally poor starving folks have been ripping us off for billions.In the news this same week—if not this same midnight—are a couple of film biz items: In one, both California’s SAG-spawned governor and our nation’s oil-spawned president are both stumbling around China, asking our bankers—for indeed, so much of our staggering debt has been financed by the Chinese that it is entirely up to them whether to call in their markers and crash our economy—whether they’d consider easing up their film import quotas just a little, so that, you know, The Island could have a shot at a billion more tickets.Our bankers’ answer? No, thanks. They’re fine with their current “foreign” film quota, “foreign” also meaning “films from Taiwan,” in this case, a place over which our bankers and we might trade a few missiles, if we’re not careful.On the heels of that comes a report in the Los Angeles Times—they still report news when they’re not busy firing columnists like Robert Scheer, and otherwise downsizing—that studios are “unnerved” by what they see as mounting anger in both the WGA and SAG, and are preparing for a strike two years before the contracts run out.Part of this is the usual pre-contract pissing match, of course, kind of Hollywood’s version of Dick Nixon’s “madman” theory: Let the other side know you’ll do the unthinkable, and eventually, you’ll bring them to bay.The studios—which is to say, the entertainment divisions of companies like GE, Viacom and Sony—are responding to what they see as new “aggressive” leadership in those guilds, in the guise of new presidents Patric Verrone and Alan Rosenberg, respectively.But that this comes at the same time, for example, that giant auto parts company Delphi is fomenting a bankruptcy in order to squeeze out of union demands—the UAW’s in this case—and pension obligations (while airlines declare bankruptcy for the same reasons) is no accident.Our own Beijing-duck quaffing governor attempted to do his domestic masters’ bidding with his own anti-union ballot proposition on the California ballot, but to his surprise, that was defeated. Although pitched to only affect “public unions” (because, so far, government jobs can’t actually be exported), how effective do you think California union political organizing would be without the participation, of say, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME )?This comes at the same time, this fine midnight, that the Wall Street Journal, no less, is reporting an uptick in the number of strikes. As Kris Maher reports: “The number of work stoppages in the US, including strikes by unions and management-sponsored lockouts, is on the upswing as tensions rise between workers and companies that are seeking to cut wages and benefits.“The trend extends beyond the troubled auto and airline industries, as continuing strikes by telecom workers at Sprint and machinists at Boeing’s rocket division attest. Last week, graduate teaching assistants at New York University walked off the job and musicians at Radio City Music Hall remain locked out by Cablevision Systems Corp.”What all these signs point to—debt-holding nations shrugging off debtors, corporations gearing up for strikes two years before contracts expire, midnight votes punishing the poor and rewarding the mega-wealthy—is that there is no longer any “center,” any common ground, binding society, or labor and management, together, the way there was when times were flush.There is, in other words, less and less “center.” The pie is shrinking, and we don’t mean pumpkin: The currency is simultaneously debased, put in the hands of fewer and fewer people, and no longer domestically “owned.” And the availability of cheap energy that has undergirded the entire Western system of economics is at its end.Which is why both “sides” of traditional labor struggles are becoming more and more intransigent: It is “closing time,” to borrow a Joseph Heller title, for the economy as we have known it. And every assumption we have about “work,” “wages,” “prices,” “retirement,” etc.—all that will change in this century, in our lifetimes.The center, as we have known it, will not hold. But then again, nature also abhors a vacuum, and as the columnist Michael Ventura says in the Austin Chronicle, “the unexpected always happens.” So something will give, and take, and transform the labor/management/monetary system we have now.The only question, this fine holiday midnight, is what?
Written by Mark London Williams