What is this “old mole,” and how can a mole root down a mountain? We can trace the figure of the “old mole” back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In the first act, the ghost of Hamlet’s father speaks from beneath the ground (or beneath the stage), following and echoing Hamlet’s demand that his comrades keep secret what they’ve seen. In reaction to the ghost’s pursuit and speech, Hamlet says, Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast? / A worthy pioneer!”
The phrase was taken up by Hegel, in his lectures on the history of philosophy, where he substitutes the spirit of the times –or Spirit, with a capital S—for the spirit of the ghost. He says Spirit is “inwardly working ever forward (as when Hamlet says of the ghost of his father, “Well said, old mole! canst work i' the ground so fast?”) until grown strong in itself it bursts asunder the crust of earth which divided it from the sun, its Notion, so that the earth crumbles away.”
Karl Marx, of course, cared more for the earth than for its crumbling, and famously inverts Hegel’s idealism. In an afterword to the first volume of Capital, discussing “the mystification which dialectic suffers in Hegel’s hands,” Marx observes that “With him it is standing on its head. It must be turned right side up again, if you would discover the rational kernel within the mystical shell.”
So Marx’s old mole is not the Spirit that speaks, but the Revolution that grubs, burrows, digs, undermines, or agitates. In an 1856 speech in honor of the anniversary of the Chartist People’s Paper, Marx said, “In the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy, and the poor prophets of regression, we do recognize our brave friend, Robin Goodfellow, the old mole that can work in the earth so fast, that worthy pioneer — the Revolution.”But what has a mole in common with a pioneer? Both, as it turns out, are terms drawn from mining. A mole is a person who works underground or a machine used for tunneling, and a pioneer is an old word for a miner.Miners have been in the news recently, among the latest victims of the transfer of resources from workers to capital. Pierre Tristam on Commondreams.org, notes that
In its crudest but truest terms, the West Virginia mining tragedy . . . is an example of corporate dividends at the expense of workers’ safety. . . . the mine in Sago, W.Va., was a documented disaster zone of safety infractions. . . . But [few make that connection] between the cost of true safety in day-to-day, working America — in the workplace anywhere, in the mines, in the meat-packing plants, in the rail yards — and the cost of corporate corner-cutting in the name of shareholder demands. In all, 5,703 people were killed in job-related accidents in 2004 [the last year for which figures are available from the Bureau of Labor Statistics] [and (58 of [those died] in West Virginia). It takes money to pay for government inspectors of workplaces. It takes money and commitment to make the federal government’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) be more than a wrist-slapper. But the Bush administration despises regulatory agencies like OSHA and sister agencies like the Mine Safety and Health Administration (to say nothing of the Environmental Protection Agency). It starves them of money and authority, enabling companies working under them to snub their noses at them. In 2004 eight workers at the Sago mine in West Virginia were injured badly enough to be kept off the job for at least a year. The entire year, the company sustained $9,515 in fines. . . . They call that safety regulation. . . . The bottom line isn’t safety. It isn’t keeping Americans secure in their job. It isn’t doing what it takes to hold employers accountable for workplace safety. The bottom line is the bottom line. . . . the West Virginia mining tragedy is a parable of Homeland Security America.That transfer of resources form poor to rich has been going on a long time, but it’s been accelerated in recent years. The Institute for Policy Studies and United for a Fair Economy recently found that in 2004 the ratio of C.E.O. pay to worker pay at large companies has grown to 431 to 1. If the minimum wage had advanced at the same rate as CEO compensation since 1990, it would be $23.03 an hour instead of $5.15. According to Citizens for Tax Justice, of Bush's $1.7 trillion in tax cuts, $578 billion or 33% went to the top 1% of income earners, while the top 20% of income earners received 71% of all tax cuts. Henry Giroux, in a recent essay on dissidentvoice.org, puts these economic developments in a broader context. He traces a series of authoritarian developments, including market fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, attacks on critical education, and rising militarism. Giroux writes,
Recent revelations in the New York Times about the Bush administration’s decision to allow the National Security Agency to spy on Americans without first obtaining warrants, the Washington Post disclosure of the chain of secret CIA torture prisons around the world, and the ongoing stories about widespread abuse and torture in Iraq and Afghanistan are just some of the elements in the popular press that point to a growing authoritarianism in American life. The government, as many . . . critics . . . have pointed out, is now in the hands of extremists who have shredded civil liberties, lied to the American public to legitimate sending young American troops to Iraq, alienated most of the international community with a blatant exercise of arrogant power, tarnished the highest offices of government with unsavory corporate alliances, used political power to unabashedly pursue legislative polices that favor the rich and punish the poor, and disabled those public spheres not governed by the logic of the market. Closer to home, a silent war is being waged against poor young people and people of color who are either being warehoused in substandard schools or incarcerated at alarming rates. Academic freedom is increasingly under attack, homophobia has become the poster-ideology of the Republican Party, war and warriors have become the most endearing models of national greatness, and a full-fledged assault on women’s reproductive rights is being championed by Bush’s evangelical supporters -- most evident in Bush’s recent Supreme Court appointment and nominee. While people of color, the poor, youth, the middle class, the elderly, gays, and women are being attacked, the current administration is supporting a campaign to collapse the boundaries between the church and state.Giroux argues for the importance of critical education in responding to the authoritarian challenges to bourgeois democracy: “Education is the terrain where consciousness is shaped . . . and the capacity for self-reflection and social change is nurtured and produced. . . .” He acknowledges that “Changing consciousness is not the same as altering the institutional basis of oppression,” but stresses that “at the same time institutional reform cannot take place without a change in consciousness capable of recognizing the very need for such reform or the need to reinvent the conditions and practices that make it possible. . . . Fortunately, power is never completely on the side of domination, religious fanaticism, or political corruption.”
If the Sago miners are the latest in the flock of canaries in the coal mine of capitalism, we need to educate ourselves and each other to interpret the “the signs that bewilder the middle class, the aristocracy, and the poor prophets of regression.”Here’s one last bit of mole trivia for the day: a group of moles is known as not a flock or a pride but a labour. The labor of moles on the Old Mole Variety Hour is doing our part to read the bewildering signs of the day, to discover our usable history, and to root down the mountain of capitalism that threatens to bury us all.