A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Coriolanus and the Bankrupt Airlines


My wife and I recently flew to Scotland for vacation on one of the many airlines currently facing bankruptcy. The amenities we had in not too distant years grown accustomed to – in-flight movies, palatable meals, free headsets, magazines and newspapers - had been reduced or abandoned. But the equally abandoned look in the eyes of the stewardesses and stewards cautioned against complaint.

Menenius Agrippa, a friend of the Roman general Coriolanus, spoke for the airline management when he addressed the citizens of Rome in Act I (patricians means aristocrats; dearth means famine):

"I tell you, friends, most charitable care
Have the patricians of you. For your wants,
Your suffering in this dearth, you may as well
Strike at the heaven with your staves as lift them
Against the Roman state….Alack,
You are transported by calamity
Thither where more attends you, and you slander
The helms o' the state, who care for you like fathers,"

Labor and management, governed and governors, masses and classes. The American vision denies these distinctions in principle, emphasizing the mobility that allows the members of the working class, through education and hard work, to enter and refresh the presumably not always as hard working upper class. It is preferable to the sort of eternal class consciousness my wife and I saw on our trip to Scotland.

But the system does depend on the failed members of the upper classes surrendering their seats to the more adaptive, rising members of the proletariat. A First Citizen answers Menenius in a way that could as easily refer to how Congress has recently tightened the rules for personal bankruptcy while leaving corporate bankruptcy rules loose:

"Care for us? True indeed! They ne'er cared for
us yet. Suffer us to famish, and their store-houses
crammed with grain; make edicts for usury to
support usurers; repeal daily any wholesome act
established against the rich; and provide more
piercing statutes daily to chain up and restrain
the poor."

A now well-known winding road has brought airline stewardesses and stewards to this insecure modern condition shared by the Roman rabble imagined by the Elizabethan-era Shakespeare. This road first followed the twists and turns of a prior prosperity that encouraged over-generous worker benefits, coercive and parasitic union demands and managerial inefficiency. The road then ran into a brief, sharp recession and the coup de grace of an airborne terror attack. It makes it hard to fix blame on whichever particular stewardess has forgotten your decaf refill.

And not only airlines but auto makers, led by the massive bankruptcy two weeks ago of parts maker Delphi and very possibly to be followed by GM itself, are peering into the crystal ball of bankruptcy to save not only their companies but their own managerial jobs. Time was when a bankrupt firm's management was turned out of the door; now with Chapter 11 they either stay in office or glide gracefully out the window with a golden parachute. Is this an abandonment by management? Here's Coriolanus in a speech where he abandons with contempt the people of his native Rome (plumes refers to a portion of their enemies' uniforms):

"…I banish you!
And here remain with your uncertainty!
Let every feeble rumor shake your hearts!
Your enemies, with nodding of their plumes,
Fan you into despair! Have the power still
To banish your defenders, till at length
Your ignorance…deliver you as most
Abated captives to some nation
That won you without blows!..."

Well, ok, I don't automatically assume these are the private thoughts of a stricken airline or auto executive. You'd need to take "Your ignorance" for the union's refusal to accept lower wages and benefits in order to avoid bankruptcy. And "some nation" would mean some foreign competitor who would offer the workers even less loyalty, if that's possible. To win you "without blows," of course, means getting to buy the bits and pieces of the bankrupt company at firesale prices.

Ultimately a treasonous Coriolanus takes up arms for the barbarian enemies of Rome. In a global economy, such treason probably equates less to aiding foreign competitors than to actions which lead to economic collapse for all. Mismanagement of a great company would qualify, but then so would worker intransigence in labor negotiation. And so too would government mismanagement of our trading position, fiscal policy and money supply. I'm sure when the time comes there'll be plenty of blame to go around.

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