economics as if workers mattered
In a lengthy review of James Scott’s new book, Against the Grain (The Nation, Oct. 23, pp 27-32), Samuel Moyn makes a rather startling assertion (I do not call it an argument as he presents no evidence to support it, though he does repeat himself):
Both anarchists and neoliberals have combined in our time to obscure the fact that, to date, the state has been the most successful technology known to history for imagining and institutionalizing liberty and equality, even though it has often failed… (do tell) Scott only rarely mentions the forms of social justice that only modernity and its states have permitted and put into practice…
And he calls on us to recognize “the fact that modern states could strive not simply for civilizational splendor, but also for the freedom of equality of all.” He tempers (but I’m not sure he realizes that’s what he’s doing) this claim in the very next paragraph, where he asserts that “modern (and not only modern, jb) humans have attempted to make [the state] serve their emancipation rather than their oppression.”
And indeed they have, from the guillotine to the Marxists and their ilk who imagined a people’s state, to the Civil Rights Movement who demanded equal rights and an end to oppression, and now the Black Lives Matter movement which asks mainly that the state just stop killing them. But an unsuccessful history of trying to make the state serve as an instrument of emancipation is quite a different matter from establishing that the state is capable of, let alone ever has, serving to imagine and institutionalize liberty and equality.
I have not read Scott’s book, and so can not judge whether the criticisms raised against it are fair. But the reviewer clearly suffers from a very advanced stage of state worship – one that has progressed to the point where he is suffering visions of philosopher kings and benevolent dictatorships.
As I write, Spanish riot police are attacking Catalan firefighters as they attempt to protect voters from brutal assaults – hundreds have been seriously injured in a level of state violence against Spain’s citizens not seen since the death of the fascist dictator Francisco Franco. Across the planet, openly fascist and racist politicians are entering government, assaults on immigrants are becoming routine, and workers and their unions are under full-scale attack.
In the United States, armed fascists recently paraded in the streets of Charlottesville, chanting Nazi slogans, threatening Jewish worshippers in a synagogue, attacking African-American clergy, and murdering Heather Heyer, one of thousands who took to the streets to challenge the fascist hordes. In Portland, a fascist murdered two people who intervened when he began shouting racist and anti-Muslim insults at two young women riding a streetcar. In Seattle, on the same day that Trump took office, a fascist shot and nearly killed an IWW member trying to de-escalate a conflict that erupted when her husband began assaulting protesters with pepper spray after warning her not to start shooting until things escalated, so that they could claim self-defense. (Police released the shooter and her accomplice within hours, only bringing assault charges three months later.)
After 50 years of stagnating wages, speed-ups, unprecedented joblessness, and rising despair, people are understandably angry. But rather than focusing that anger on our exploiters and organizing to dump the bosses off our backs, too many are listening to demagogues who urge us to blame workers in other countries, women, and racial or religious minorities. In these dark times, bigots of all sorts are slithering into the open, spewing hatred and fomenting division and fear.
The labor movement has a pivotal role to play in this struggle. The bosses have always tried to divide us, to pit workers against each other to keep us weak. To their shame, some unions have fallen for this. But there is a long tradition of labor solidarity, as well. Before the Civil War, labor reform societies demanded emancipation and the right of all workers to organize. In the 1880s the Knights of Labor welcomed African-American members even in the former Confederacy, though it organized them into segregated assemblies. Even in Richmond, Virginia, the Knights supported African-American workers in their labor struggles. When the Knights held their national General Assembly there, many delegates refused to stay in segregated hotels and Knights officials reaffirmed their commitment to racial equality. (In the aftermath of the Assembly, local membership in the Knights plummeted, whether as a result of backlash against the integrated ceremonies, employer intimidation, or the widespread attack against unions in the wake of the 8-hour day movement and the attack on workers at Haymarket Square.)
Even radical unionists had mixed records. The American Railway Union, while open to workers of every craft, joined the Railroad Brotherhoods in barring membership to African-Americans. The United Mine Workers and the Industrial Workers of the World, however, actively organized African-American workers, recognizing that there could be no progress without industrial solidarity. On the West Coast, IWW organizers challenged longstanding discrimination against Chinese and Japanese workers. In Louisiana and Texas, the IWW-affiliated Brotherhood of Timber Workers organized integrated locals and defied Jim Crow legislation. In Philadelphia, the IWW organized the country’s first integrated longshore union, responding to the bosses’ long history of pitting workers against each other with integrated work gangs and direct action on the job. And when KKK vigilantes tried to break up IWW organizing in the Maine forests in 1924, 200 IWW members patrolled the streets of Greenville to prevent the Klan from carrying out its threats.
As IWW organizer Ben Fletcher noted, writing in The Messenger in 1923,
“the employing class are the beneficiaries of these policies of Negro Labor exclusion and segregation… No genuine attempt by Organized Labor to wrest and worthwhile and lasting concessions from the Employing Class can succeed as long as Organized Labor for the most part is indifferent and in opposition to the fate of Negro Labor.
“Organized Labor can bring about a different situation – one that will speed the dawn of Industrial Freedom. First by excising their Race exclusion clauses. Second, by enrolling ALL workers in their Industrial or Craft jurisdictions… Collective dealing with the Employing Class is the only way by which Labor can procure any concessions from them… It is the only way in which to establish industrial stability … and finally Industrial freedom.”
The Congress of Industrial Organizations heeded this lesson, actively confronting bigotry as it organized workers across ethnic and racial lines, including in the South where Jim Crow laws still prevailed. Despite continuing discrimination in some unions, labor unions offered substantial support to the Civil Rights movement, and to struggles by African-American workers for better conditions. When AFSCME-organized sanitation workers struck in Memphis in 1968, the city hired white scabs in an attempt to break the strike. But local and national unions came to the workers’ defense, as did civil rights activists including Martin Luther King Jr., who was assassinated while in Memphis to support the striking workers. The strike was settled after a silent march of 42,000 through the streets of Memphis, though shorter strikes were needed to force the city to honor its agreement.
Today the American labor movement is in crisis. Laws restrict unions from engaging in solidarity actions, employing direct action to enforce decent conditions, or even from representing their members at all. Immigration agents seize workers who dare to complain about unpaid wages, and judges allow employers to fire workers for the “disloyalty” of disseminating information about the conditions under which they work. When workers strike, police serve as scabherders – often receiving bonus pay from the employers for their service. Police allow armed fascists to march in the streets, but herd workers into protest pens far removed from the facilities they are picketing.
Many workers are fighting back. In August ILWU Local 10 voted to strike to join protests against a planned San Francisco fascist rally, prompting the fascists to scurry for cover. Following the deportation of a 26-year Teamster member (a Guatemalan refugee arrested during his annual check-in with immigration officials), New York City-based 120,000-member Teamsters Joint Council 16 declared itself a “sanctuary union.” Several unions joined May Day demonstrations across the country in solidarity with their immigrant members, and many unions are providing legal and other assistance to immigrant members.
These are important steps to building a culture of solidarity, and toward acting in our collective self-defense against these attacks not only on our economic well-being, but against our very survival. Bigots, fascists and union-busters have been emboldened by recent events; only our solidarity and our determination can turn them back.
ASR 71-72 is on the press. This is a double issue, with special sections on labor’s fight against fascism and labor-community struggles in South Africa, as well as articles on the history of the term Libertarian (and of anarchist opposition to sexism), Anarchism and Play, and Eco-Anarchism.
2. ASR & the Challenges Facing the Syndicalist Movement
3. Wobbles: Loyalty to the Bosses, Refusing Deportations, Booting La Migra, Golden Age for Workers? …
5. International Labor News Compiled by Mike Hargis
6. Wildcat in Vietnam… Labor Shorts by John Kalwaic
8. ARTICLES: Fascist Attack in Charlottesville
8. Unions Against Fascism by Shane Burley
10. Flying Squads & Self Defense Now by Jeff Shantz
12. Anarchists Against Hitler from the Kate Sharpley Library
13. Fighting Fascism: Lessons from Italy by Iain McKay
16. 160 Years of Libertarian by Iain McKay
24. On the Male & Female Human-Being by Joseph Déjacque
28. SPECIAL SECTION: People’s Power, Workers’ Control & Grassroots Politics in South Africa: Rethinking Practices of Self-Organization & Anti-Apartheid Resistance in the 1980s
28. S African ‘Workerism’ in the 1980s by Lucien van der Walt
32. Lessons from the 1984-85 Vaal Uprising by Jonathan Payn
37. Self-Organization in South Africa by Daria Zelenova
41. The Playful Anarchist by Brian Martin
45. REVIEWS: Eco-Socialism, Eco-Anarchism & the Anthropocene Review essay by Wayne Price
47. Debt: Anarchist Economics Review by Chad Anderson
50. Graeber on bureaucracy Review by Jeff Stein
51. Fighting the Spanish Revolution Review by Jeff Stein
52. Kropotkin’s Activist Anarchism Review by Iain McKay
53. This Fight is Our Fight? Saving America’s Middle Class Review by Wayne Price
56. Transnational Anarchism Review by Martin Comack
57. Economics of Labor Repression Review by Jon Bekken
58. Radical Press Review Review by Mike Hargis
59. LETTERS: Fighting CEO Pay, Reviving the Cold War…
A golden age for workers?
The front page of the Sept. 20 New York Times Business Day section has headlines suggesting workers are doing well, but when you read the stories things look quite different.
Eduardo Porter’s column headline trumpets “Labor Shortage Gives Workers an Edge.” It takes him until the fourth graf to tell us that average hourly pay for production and nonsupervisory workers has almost reached 1973 levels (after adjusting for inflation). Less, of course, after 44 years of speed-up, but close. Of course, that doesn’t take account of lost benefits. We’re paying a lot more out of pocket for our health care. Time off is harder to get. Pension plans are but a distant memory. And right next door, “Cost of Employer-Based Plans Remains Stable, a Study Finds.”
Good news, right? Well, it’s good news for the bosses. Average premiums for family coverage are up 3 percent, to $18,764 a year. The cost is rising faster than wages, and far fewer small employers are offering health benefits at all. Out-of-pocket costs are higher, as employers switch to insurance companies that restrict access to doctors and hospitals. But “deductibles rose only slightly this year.” Why? “Companies are recognizing that they have reached the limits of what they can ask their workers to pay, said Michael Thompson, the chief executive of the National alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, which represents employers. ‘We’re running out of runway to keep cosh-shifting to employees,’ he said.”
But at least we’re seeing the promise of new jobs? Same page’s “A Manufacturing Model Tough to Export” notes that FoxConn, which is promising 13,000 new jobs in Wisconsin, has a history of breaking such promises once it gets its government hand-outs.
In Brazil, FoxConn promised nearly 100,000 jobs in exchange for billions in subsidies. Six years later, the plant site sits empty – only 2,800 jobs ever materialized. In Pennsylvania, FoxConn promised to hire 500 workers in a $30 million plant it has yet to break ground on.
Wisconsin officials have promised $3 billion in tax breaks and other subsidies. If FoxConn hires all the workers it promises, it would take until 2042 before the state could hope to recoup its money. (Of course, the deal would have run out by then, and so FoxConn would have long since demanded more payments.)
Back to the looming labor shortage. Employers profess to be worried that they’re going to run out of workers (though there are tens of millions of folks frozen out of the labor market – far more than the jobs employers say they can’t fill). The Times quote “experts” who suggest slashing disability benefits, expanding government assistance for workers paid so little they can’t afford childcare or rent, and holding down the minimum wage because higher wages “could price some workers out of jobs” even in the face of the “looming labor shortage” the column is fretting about.
Over in Arts, the same issue reviews a book, Nomadland, about tens of thousands of older workers forced to trade in their homes for vans and old school buses, traveling from part-time job to part-time job – sometimes working for little more than a place to park their vehicles. Their ranks include “retired” teachers and aged-out software engineers. Amazon hires lots of these desperate workers, getting federal tax credits for 25 to 40 percent of the paltry wages it pays them for working in dangerous sweatshops where the company distributes free painkills to keep them working as long, and as fast, as possible.
A member of the IWW was nearly killed in Seattle Jan. 20 by neo-fascist Elizabeth Hokoana, after she and her husband Marc infiltrated anti-inauguration and Milo Yiannopoulos protests at the University of Washington’s Red Square.
Video of the protests show Mark Hokoana warning his wife “don’t shoot anyone,” “they have to start it.” He then attacked protesters with pepper spray, sparking a confrontation which ended in the shooting of Industrial Workers of the World activist Joshua Dukes, who was trying to de-escalate the situation. The Wobbly, shot in the stomach, was hospitalized for a month, underwent emergency surgeries to save his life, and is now in physical therapy.
The day before the shooting, Marc Hokoana messaged a friend on Facebook, stating, “I’m going to wade through their ranks and start cracking skulls.”
Remarkably, police released the couple without charges just hours after they surrendered. They claimed to be investigating the shooting, searching Marc Hoakana’s cell phone in February. Media reports say he erased its memory before turning it over to police. “I would describe [Marc and Elizabeth] as being very polite and cooperative,” said University of Washington Police Department Major Steve Rittereiser.
One need not speculate as to how the Wobbly would have been treated had he shot one of the neo-fascists. Scores of protestors arrested the same day for demonstrating without a permit or allegedly breaking windows were held for days and are now facing felony charges.
Yet the “investigation” dragged on for more than three months before prosecutors filed assault charges against the Hokoanas April 24. They offered no explanation of why they were not bringing attempted murder charges. During the investigation, Seattle authorities – including “socialist” city councilor Kshama Sawant, a member of a Trotskyist party – kept mum, taking no action to defend the rights of Wobblies and other activists to assemble without being assaulted or killed.
Indeed, the shooting has been followed by a series of threats against University of Washington campus activists. A self-identified white supremacist told a graduate student instructor he was going to shoot her and her class; campus authorities refused to take action even after her car windows were smashed a few days later. She subsequently quit the graduate program, explaining that, “a PhD isn’t worth getting shot for.” On Feb. 15, the theater where a Shakespeare play was being performed by leading actors who were people of color was glued over with posters proclaiming, “Yellow, Black and Brown. Look out! The Nazis have come to town!”
Neo-fascists are openly organizing armed groups to carry out such attacks. In Portland, Oregon, the head of the local Republican Party called for such a force in the wake of the murder of two people who tried to stop a neo-Nazi draped in an American flag from harassing Muslim women.
In Berkeley, Kyle Chapman, charged with assault with a deadly weapon against local activists March 4, has joined other neo-fascists to organize the “Fraternal Order of the Alt-Knights.” “Our emphasis will be on street activism, preparation, defense and confrontation,” Chapman told The Root.
Too many still look to “national liberation” struggles (as if some unitary “nation” exists, rather than exploiters and exploited, oppressors and oppressed) or reforms within the system. In South Africa we can see every day the folly of trusting those who would act in our behalf, or who seek to accommodate our urgent needs to the constraints of the system.
“The struggle of the black working class majority of Freedom Park, South Africa, is not just for land on which to build housing – although that is obviously a central issue and key demand; nor is it just against the accompanying political and police violence and intimidation. It is a struggle against the injustice, violence and corruption of a system that puts the power, privileges and profits of a few before the lives and wellbeing of the majority.” (click on the link below for the full report)
A short (24-minute) film chronicling the solidarity of farmers along the French-Italian border who are assisting refugees despite the persecution of the state. https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2017/apr/28/the-valley-rebels-the-french-farmer-helping-refugees-cross-europe-video
May 1 is International Workers’ Day, probably the most widely celebrated holiday in the world. It’s a day to remember workers’ struggles, to commemorate our martyrs, and to rededicate ourselves to building a world free of bosses and exploiters. It’s hard to imagine a more appropriate – a more urgent – time for this than today.
This year there will be many events across Philadelphia, including a large downtown rally focusing on immigrant workers rights and an evening rally in West Philadelphia. The Caucus of Working Educators (a reform caucus in the teachers’ union) is urging supporters of public schools and their workers (now almost 4 years without a contract or pay raise) to strike on May Day and join a day of protests demanding workers’ rights and support for our children and their schools.
These are the events that I know about:
7:30-8:30 am: Pickets at schools with staff, parents & community in solidarity
- Unite Here is organizing a rally at the Philadelphia International Airport in solidarity with airport workers fighting to receive what the city has designated as the minimum wage that can be paid to workers employed by government agencies and their contractors. 8:30 AM: gather at the UNITE HERE office (1415 N. Broad) to board the WE ARE HUMAN bus.
- 9:30 am: Speak Out and Press Conference at PHL International Arrivals Hall, Terminal A West. At 10:30 am they will join Juntos at Dickinson Square Park at 4th and Tasker for an immigrant justice March to City Hall.
10 am: Coalition of Working Educators demonstration, rally & press conference at 440 North Broad (School Reform Commission headquarters), followed by a March to City Hall, where CWE members will be meeting with City Council members and the mayor to demand action on education
- 2 pm: Unite Here will send a delegation at LSG Skychefs, 8401 Escort Ave., demanding that they pay the city minimum wage.
- 4 pm: Picket at the Hilton Penn’s Landing in solidarity with Hilton workers
4 pm: Philadelphia Federation of Teachers Educator Exit Rally Lea Elementary, 4700 Locust St (West Philly)
March to Clark Park
5 pm: May Day Rally at Clark Park, 43rd and Baltimore. Speakers, Poets, Drill Teams, Live Music, BBQ, Recognition Awards, Kids Activities and More. Sponsored by PhilaPOSH and the PA Labor History Society, and supported by over 55 area Labor and Allied Organizations.
Years ago, Charlie King wrote a song by that title. The Feb. 6 Business Week has a chart illustrating just how little sense it makes to think of products having nationalities in this age of corporate globalism.
Consider the humble automatic seat-control unit installed in car seats made (in Texas, Ontario Canada, and elsewhere) for an unidentified auto maker. It starts with a capacitator imported from Asian plants (and which of course has its own long backstory), which is bought by a contractor in Centennial, Colorado. The contractor ships the capacitors to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, where it is incorporated into a circuit board (along with other parts from around the world). The circuit board is then shipped across the border to a warehouse in neighboring El Paso, Texas; according to Business Week for the purpose of avoiding paying Mexico’s value-added tax. It’s then shipped to Matamoros, Mexico, where workers at a Norwegian-owned factory assemble the circuit board (along with other parts from around the world) into a seat actuator, the electrical device that adjusts the seat with the press of a button. The finished control unit is then shipped to seat assembly plants in Arlington, Texas, Mississauga, Ontario, and elsewhere, to be incorporated into car seats, which will then be installed in cars incorporating countless other parts that have been engaged in their own journeys around the world.
The whole process is enormously wasteful, of course. Workers’ time and natural resources are exhausted moving billions of items in an endless circuit of the world, for one or two minor processes before they are shipped somewhere else. It’s done to seek out the cheapest labor, to avoid taxes and pesky environmental regulations, and to weaken the power of unions.
The New York Times’ resident liberal economics columnist, Paul Krugman, illustrated in his Monday column why the Democrats have little hope of persuading the Trump voters – and, more importantly, the tens of millions who refused to vote for either candidate – that they have any understanding of the lives of working people, let alone any ideas of how to improve them.
Krugman takes understandable exception to the Trumpster’s long litany of lies, about the empty stands at his inauguration, the epidemic of crime allegedly sweeping our country (Trump is of course not referring to his refusal to pay his workers, his fraudulent University, and the like), etc. Then Krugman gets to the point:
Listening to Mr. Trump, you might have thought America was in the midst of a full-scale depression, with ‘rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation.’ Manufacturing employment is indeed down since 2000, but overall employment is way up, and the unemployment rate is low…
And it’s not just one number that looks pretty good. Rising wages and the growing number of Americans confident enough to quit their jobs suggest an economy close to full employment…
And perhaps they do, to an economist so mired in mainstream thinking that he can not look out the window at the real lives of working people.
The unemployment rate is indeed down (officially 4.7%, which economists – who draw healthy pay checks opining about such things – consider full employment, even though it means tens of millions are deprived of access to the necessities of life); but primarily because the job market is so dismal that huge numbers of people have given up looking for work. This is particularly the case in industrial and mining regions, where finding work often means scrambling for part-time hours in a minimum wage job that won’t bring in enough to put food on the table (not that these workers can afford a table, or a house to put it in).
Employers claim they’re having trouble finding “qualified” workers. This is partly a reflection of computer screening programs that reject people with too much experience, but also those with not enough; if a resume’s language doesn’t exactly match the criteria some coder who never worked the job put in, into the discard pile it goes. And of course anyone accustomed to earning a living wage with benefits won’t get a second look. But it also reflects a fundamental shift in how employers hire. A few decades ago, they figured they’d hold onto workers for several years, and so were willing to invest a few days or a few weeks training them to do the work. But now, workers are disposable; hired by the gig, or the shift, or the week. So the bosses want them to be ready to be 100% productive the instant they step on the shop floor (and, of course, to squeeze extra productivity out of them by making them work off the clock, do the work of 3 or 4 people, etc.)
If there were jobs on offer at which it was possible to earn a living, there are millions and millions of workers who would jump at them. Ironically, offering such jobs would cause the unemployment rate to skyrocket. More people would have jobs, of course, but this hint of prosperity would encourage others to look for work, like the former student I bumped in today who graduated college eight months ago but figures there’s no point looking for work – in part because he (not incorrectly) believes there’s no good jobs out there, and in part because he’s trying to get a criminal conviction off his record so that he has a shot of getting past the application screening to an interview.
Krugman says things are likely to get worse – much worse – before they get better, and absent a lot of organization and struggle he’s probably right. But things are plenty bad already, and when these liberal pundits try and sell their Pollyanna stories about how great things are they only remind people how out of touch those at the top really are.
Things are going well for those at the top. Not only the infamous 1 percenters. The 5 percenters are doing pretty well too. But half the population is struggling to hold on to the standard of living they “enjoyed” back in the mid-1970s (it wasn’t that enjoyable; there were lots of strikes by workers demanding to be treated like human beings), and a fairly large number of our fellow workers are substantially worse off than they were five decades ago. Telling them that things have never been better (for those at the top) just won’t cut it.