What would Karl do? Part 2: Radicals reflect on the current incarnation of global capital
Part 2 of an extended conversation between broadcast journalist Angie Coro, members of Inkwell, and Sasha Lilley about Capital and Its Discontents:
As I read your book I kept seeing a picture in my mind of the United States caught in the middle of the political/economic winepress of Canada to our north and Mexico and South America to our south . . . these countries are finding new models that work for them and may well 'squeeze' us to accept some kind of socialism incorporated into our systems. Could you please speak to that; some of what is happening in the favelas in South America, particular Ecuador and Brazil and any impact Canada and Mexico (Zapatista movement e.g.) are having?
I know we aren't supposed to use the 'S' word here in America, but at some point we are going to have to wake up to our realities. The joke in grad school was that if you weren't a Marxist in your late teens you just weren't thinking and if you weren't a progressive rationalist by your mid-twenties you still weren't thinking. I suppose your book evoked my memories from my teens in that respect. I think a lot of my age group, the boomers, now coming into our so-called retirements, are going to become quite politically active again due to the harsh economic realities facing us over the next 30 years. I didn't get the impression we were being addressed in your book, it seemed to be a conversation among the young neo's. Am I wrong about that?
T, I wish it was more the case that the US was being squeezed by other economic models, but I'm not sure if that's how things are.
One of the main themes of my book is that what we've been seeing since the 1970s is the restructuring of capitalism to restore flagging profit rates—what is often referred to as neoliberalism. It was based on attacks on workers in the Global North—such as when Margaret Thatcher took on the miners union or when Reagan went on the offensive in this country—and on the populations of the Global South through institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, who were forced to restructure their economies to open them up to foreign capital, privatize their state industries, and dismantle social services. It involved the relocation of manufacturing to East Asia and the maquiladoras on the US-Mexico border, or within the US from traditionally unionized areas, like the Midwest, to non-union regions like the US South, as well as an increased role for finance in the economy. The imperial center of this system has been the US, but countries all over have been compelled or elected to follow suit, including Mexico and Canada. While Canada's welfare state before the advent of neoliberalism was more developed than that of the United States, it has been rolled back by neoliberal politicians over a number of years (and the Conservative Party just won a majority there).
Unfortunately, while there are some exceptions—insurgent social and labor movements in Mexico and Bolivia, the Chavez regime in Venezuela—neoliberalism has very successfully taken hold in Latin America. That may (or may not) be changing. But even countries like Brazil—where a radical former metal worker, Lula, came to power to head the Workers Party, to be succeeded by a former leftwing guerrilla (Dilma Rousseff)—are still following neoliberal policies. (Interestingly, though, the countries of Latin America have been doing relatively well during this economic crisis, because many of their economies are oriented to the Chinese economy, rather than the US economy.)
With this economic crisis, what we're seeing is not the end of the neoliberal era, but its intensification. The kinds of cuts to public welfare spending and attacks on workers that characterized that order is being ratcheted up, with the economic crisis being used to justify such austerity. Although most of the US public —and especially poor people and public sector workers—were not responsible for the chaos of this system, and hence were not bailed out when the banking system almost collapsed, they are now being asked to pay for that bailout.
I certainly hope that folks who were first radicalized in the Sixties will get active in opposing this austerity, since it will and is having a harsh impact (and let's not forget that it comes on the heels of three decades of neoliberalism, where wages in the US have been held down to 1970s levels, while the productivity of US workers continues to rise). My book is actually addressed to multiple generations, so I'm hoping that those of the generations of the Old Left, New Left, and younger activists will read it and benefit from it—and then take action.
So great to see you here, Sasha! Please remind our reads where and when we can hear you on the radio.
I find it so disheartening to see how the simple, succinct lies of the right kick the living shit out of the truth day after day. I look for ways to bring compassion and empathy back into the equation. I grew up on "Ask nto waht your country can do for you. . . " and watched in horror as "Are you better off than you were four years ago?" and "Winning isn't everything—it's the only thing" became the new watchwords. capital has no heart and no conscience.
Thanks so much, David. And thanks for the prompting: interested people can listen to Against the Grain, the program that I co-host with C.S. Soong, on KPFA Radio (94.1 FM or kpfa.org) Monday through Wednesday, noon to one. You can also sign up for podcasts at our website againstthegrain.org. We're currently in a fund drive, but regular programming resumes at the end of the month.
Yesterday, Kentucky Senator/ Tea Party hero Rand Paul said: "With regard to the idea of whether you have a right to health care, you have realize what that implies . . . It’s not an abstraction. I’m a physician. That means you have a right to come to my house and conscript me . . .It means you believe in slavery. It means that you’re going to enslave not only me, but the janitor at my hospital, the person who cleans my office, the assistants who work in my office, the nurses." Now that's just ridiculous and a lot of it seems to be to be the kind of song and dance that goes on to muddy the issues and distract people. Nonetheless, the majority of Americans support single payer healthcare. And a majority of people believe in collective bargaining rights for workers. As Chomsky points out, we should be aware that there is a gap between the discourse of the US political system, as well as the mainstream media, and the attitudes of Americans as a whole, who tend to be more leftward leaning. The question, returning to the issue Angie flagged, is how to get people to move beyond deep cynicism and try to change things.
I ran into a guy at our local post office awhile back. He was a stranger, evidently didn't know that Charlen=e the postmistress shuts up shop at 2 pm to eat lunch and take a constitutional. And when he discovered the door to the counter area locked, he kicked it and said, "Goddam Federal gummint." I told hin the Federal gummint didn't have anything to do with it, that she needed to eat lunch. He said that he bet she took two hours for lunch. I pointed out the window to where she was walking back across the town green and said, "Nope. Here she comes." But how much I wanted to say more!
Strange how these times have turned me into a defender of the federal gummint. Or at least of the idea of a federal gummint. I guess when we wanted to get rid of it, it was to replace it with love, which was really naive. But they want to replace it with greed. Better naivete than outright evil..
G, I think you've just touched on a very complex question, but an important one for radicals. In the interview in my book that I did with Noam Chomsky, who identifies as an anarcho-syndicalist, I asked him about his defense of those gains that are embodied in the state—and were fought for by social movements—such as Social Security and progressive taxation.
This was his response: "You have to ask what the alternatives are. Many anarchists just consider the state as the fundamental form of oppression. I think that’s a mistake. I mean of the various kinds of oppressive institutions that exist, the state is among the least of them. The state at least to the extent that society is democratic with various degrees and types—but to the extent that it’s democratic you have some influence on what happens in the state. You have no influence on what happens in a corporation. They’re really tyrannies and as long as society is largely dominated by private tyrannies, which is the worst form of oppression, people just need some form of self-defense. And the state provides some form of self-defense. And to say, let’s dismantle Social Security, means concretely let’s decide that that disabled widow across town will starve to death. I don’t agree with that."
Incidentally, as anarchists like to point out, the international postal system is an example of non-coercive social organization on a large scale, which we might draw some lessons from: all countries agree to deliver each other's mail, which they are not obligated to do, except that it works for the good of all (and is therefore an example of mutual aid).
I've got an anecdote to piggyback onto Gary's post. A few years ago I was standing in line to pay a parking ticket. Some guy was chatting up the woman clerk and hitting on her. I went up and complained that there is a long line and they were taking up everyone's time with their private interaction. Both the clerk and the guy were offended. We got into a raised voices conversation and the guy leveled what he thought was an insult at me: "You, you, . . . Liberal!"
My point is that in the past 2 or 3 decades the public has moved much more into an "individualist" stance without much concern for the welfare of the whole. My civic education since grade school has been that "we are all in this together" so I have a hard time with political policies and positions that seem to deliberately disregard this. In fact this position is now ridiculed like my encounter above.
Here then is my question Sasha. At what point does ideology reinforce behavior and how does behavior create ideology?
I think these questions of ideology and behavior are very hard to untangle from each other, as things can take on a momentum of their own. The system of free market capitalism, or neoliberalism, which emerged thirty years ago, was characterized not simply by its attacks on workers rights, clean air, clean water, etc, in search of profits. It has also been characterized by the ways that it has incorporated "ordinary Americans" into the circuits of finance, a point made in in my book by Leo Panitch, Sam Gindin, and Greg Albo. What that means is that over the last three decades, working class people, white collar workers, and even poor people have been integrated more deeply into the system through credit cards, mortgages (and remortgaging), pensions, even the stock market. Which has been very profitable for the financial industry. It undoubtedly shapes your behavior when you're being screwed over, yet you also have a stake in the system and don't want to see if come crashing down around you.
Let's not forget, though, that rather than people using this credit to live high off the hog—as the media implied when the housing market burst—people were borrowing money often to stay afloat. I've made this point earlier, but we need to remember that wages have been stagnant in the US since the 1970s and falling for those at the bottom end of the spectrum (such as people who have only a high school education). So borrowing for many folks was an individual response to a collective/ societal problem. And I think that's a lot of what has been very detrimental over these past years: people, rather than acting collectively, are trying to cope or get ahead as individuals.
Simultaneously, the neoliberal ideology, that the best outcomes for everyone come from individuals acting in their self-interest, has been very actively promoted since the 1970s. But keep in mind that it was in reaction to the successes of the collectivist, radical politics of the 1960s and 70s (which among other things was a period characterized by great worker militancy and wildcat strikes).
If I can quote again from my book, this time from the radical geographer David Harvey, elites have no problem acting collectively—for their own ends: "There was a concerted program that worked at a number of levels. To me, the beginning point was a memo that Lewis Powell, who became a Supreme Court justice shortly afterwards, sent to the American Chamber of Commerce in 1971. What he said, in effect, was that the anti-business climate in this country has gone too far, we need a collective effort to try to turn it around. After that we see the formation of a whole set of think tanks, the massing of money by various organizations to try to influence public policy and to do it through the media, do it through think tanks... They were very concerned to try to roll back that legislation which had emerged during the 1960s and early 1970s that set up things like the Environmental Protection Agency, OSHA, consumer protection, and all of those sorts of things. And of course they gained considerable influence in the press through the Wall Street Journal and business pages and business schools and the like, and through their think tanks they started to influence public opinion."
I am reading Peter Coyote's book Sleeping Where I Fall. He describes the mission of the San Francisco Mime Troup in the mid-'60s as arising from "the Troupe's expectation that America should live up to her promises and play by her stated rules—and we intended to provoke her until she did." At least in those days it seemed like there might be some hope of succeeding.
My academic training is in American History, especially 1865 to present.
To me, it looks like we're re-assembling the key ingredients of the Gilded Age:
- get rid of unions
- get rid of antitrust enforcement
- attack all health, safety, and environmental regulations
- keep cutting taxes on the rich
- do whatever you can to make sure that big money corrupts the political system (e.g. Citizens United)
Yes, there are some differences - the rhetoric and rationales have changed - but for the most part it's the same old wine in new bottles.
re: downward pressure on wages—The annual salary my husband made in 1992 is the same nearly twenty yers later as what he would be offered NOW.
Me too. I'm earning rates that are the same or less as I earned from 1988-1991.
I'm not entirely sure what happened to a post I wrote earlier, but in it I agreed entirely with Mark's point about the attempt right now to turn the clock back to the 19th century and erase all the things that were won since then by the labor movement, environmentalists, radicals, and others. I think he nailed it.
Lena and Sharon, what you've observed in your own lives is borne out by the national numbers. Income grew on average in the US between 1948 and 1982 by 1.7 percent, but by a measly 0.2 percent a year from 1982 to 2008. For America's richest people—those who had an average income of $9.1 million—incomes over the past twenty years grew at twenty times the rate of the bottom 90 percent. And as David indicates, African Americans have been particularly badly hit. In 2009, the average household income for African Americans fell to 60 percent that of white households, from a meagre peak of 65 percent in 2000. (Statistics courtesy of the wonderful economic journalist Doug Henwood, who is interviewed in my book.)
G, aside from the many goods that have become necessities of sorts, like computers and cellphones, so much personal spending (and borrowing) has gone to health care, the price of which continues to soar. And while the US has one of the most expensive health care systems in the developed world, Americans score very poorly in by various health measurements, so it doesn't appear to be working very well either.
Let's do talk about labor and workers, then. Upstream you mentioned Wisconsin (which I, too, took heart from), Sasha.
Let's delve into your interview with labor studies professor Ursula Huws, and draw too from your catalog of other interviews: what are the challenges and opportunities this crisis of capitalism present for labor?
Huws' reflections on how fragmented we've become as a society is of particular relevance here. That, combined with an eroding belief in the value of the commons, and with an educational system that leaves students ignorant of labor history, makes heavy slogging for union organizers.
Ursula Huws, for those who'd like to check out her work and thoughts: <http://ursulahuws.wordpress.com/author/ursulahuws/>
I particularly appreciated her chapter in your book, Sasha.
These are undoubtedly hard times for labor, Angie, as the state is clearly trying to "resolve" the economic crisis, and the debts incurred from massive bailouts, by cutting back or laying off public sector workers. Periods of high unemployment are often difficult times for labor to organize, since the pool of people who might take your job if you strike is significantly enlarged. And as you say, lack of information about labor history and a lack of awareness of the value of the commons add to these challenges, especially for workers in the public sector.
But if one thinks back to the 1930s, crises can also be times when the labor movement can reinvent itself (as it did then, creating new forms of labor organizing and new strategies like the sit down strike).
One hopes that this may ultimately happen during this crisis, since the labor movement is in such sorry shape: union density is at the lowest levels in almost 100 years in this country and the old model of trade unionism—often dubbed "business unionism"—has not strengthened labor's collective power. Unions have focused too much on helping just the workers within their union, rather than workers in other unions or the majority of workers who are not unionized. And many unions have been happy to make deals with management and channel workers' dues towards Democratic Party candidates, which have left them largely unwilling to mount militant campaigns, unlikely to be involved in direct action, and isolated them from the wider community that might support them.
Wisconsin has been very interesting in so many ways. It was sparked by rank and file graduate student workers, who had no compunction about taking direct action and occupying the Capitol building. And then teachers used another radical tactic—a wildcat strike, by collectively calling in sick. All of these things were outside of mainstream organized labor's playbook. The kinds of support they inspired from the wider community was stunning.
But unfortunately at the end of the day, the old ways of doing things won out. The leadership of the unions called off the direct action, told people to leave the Capitol building, and put their energies yet again into electoral politics, in this case re-call campaigns, rather than seriously considering a general strike, which even the head of the Madison firefighters union endorsed. (Interestingly, the national firefighters union shortly thereafter announced that they would no longer give money to candidates in federal elections, because the Democrats weren't fighting for union workers.)
Angie, I'm so glad you've brought up the ideas of Ursula Huws, who is one of the most interesting thinkers on the left in my opinion. She talks about the inherent drive within capitalism to constantly create more commodities, often out of activities that were previously done outside of the market. So for example, unwaged food preparation in the home becomes a service one pays for—restaurants and catering—and then leads to a tangible commodity: the packaged meal.
What Huws argues is that there can be political consequences to this trajectory, that the transition from people performing for each other, to going to the movie theatre, to watching DVDs in one's own home, has reinforced our isolation from one another. This is coupled with the erosion of public spaces, which disappear in the drive to privatize and sell off everything, or semi-public spaces (like bookstores or public transport).
Huws suggests that if we don't encounter each other, we can't share our experiences, think of our experiences as collective ones, and perhaps decide to take action together. (Technology like the internet, however, seems to play a dual role: it both isolates people from each other and brings some people together who would otherwise not encounter each other.)