Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 12, 2019

Charles Post, Left Voice, and the question of a labor aristocracy

Filed under: Lenin,two-party system,workers — louisproyect @ 9:09 pm

Rodrigo Carrillo, a farmer in Hoja Blanca, Guatemala, says falling coffee prices mean he can no longer make a profit on the once-lucrative crop. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

On May 25th, Left Voice published an article by an Argentine Trotskyist named Matías Maiello on “Social Democracy and Imperialism: The Problem with Kautsky” that was the latest in a series of critiques of Eric Blanc, a DSA/Jacobin figure who has justified backing Democratic Party candidates on the basis of Karl Kautsky’s pre-1910 writings.

On June 5th, Charles Post responded to Maiello’s article in Left Voice, which to its credit has opened its pages to criticisms. Despite the magazine’s professions of Leninist orthodoxy, this is a departure from the norms of the American SWP that I belonged to from 1967 to 1978. Then again, the norms of the SWP might have been in violation of Bolshevik practice, given Iskra being published to further debate among socialists.

Like Maiello, Post is a critic of Jacobin’s neo-Kautskyism, even going so far as to refer to Eric Blanc as a “left reformist”. In the world occupied by Post and Maiello, the “left” that qualifies “reformist” might be regarded as damning with faint praise.

Most of Maiello’s article is an attempt to demonstrate the affinity of the German Social Democracy with the leftwing of the Democratic Party, personified by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In either case, you are dealing with self-described socialists adapting to imperialism. This is obviously manifested by the German socialist parliamentarians voting for war credits in 1914 and Sanders voting in favor of the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which called for removing “the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power.” I should note that Maiello cites my editor Jeff St. Clair of CounterPunch on Sanders’s voting record. I commend the Argentinian for his ability to keep on top of the truly radical press in the USA. This sets an example for the kind of proletarian internationalism so necessary in a “globalized” world (please excuse the tautology.)

After stating his agreement with the main thrust of the Left Voice article, Post parts company with Maiello for his alleged support for the theory of “labor aristocracy”:

We differ, however, in our analysis of the material roots of the bureaucratization of the workers movement. Maiello relies on Lenin’s notion of “labor aristocracy” to explain working-class reformism. According to Lenin, the export of productive capital from the Global North to the South since the late 19th century allowed large, “monopoly” capitalists to accrue “superprofits,” which were used to “bribe” a sector of the working class and create a labor officialdom. Thus, reformist bureaucrats defend their national imperialism in order to maintain the social basis for their relatively privileged position in the working class.

You’ll note that Post refers to Lenin’s “notion” but in the next paragraph refers to a “theory”: “Unfortunately, the theory of the labor aristocracy, in all its variants, is without factual-empirical basis and rests on questionable theoretical assumptions.” This is an important distinction and one that he neglects to clarify. In Lenin’s copious writings, there are not many references to the labor aristocracy. Probably the best known of them was his 1916 “Imperialism and the Split in Socialism”  that only refers to some letters by Engels that express his dismay over the state of the British working class: “…The English proletariat is actually becoming more and more bourgeois, so that this most bourgeois of all nations is apparently aiming ultimately at the possession of a bourgeois aristocracy and a bourgeois proletariat alongside the bourgeoisie. For a nation which exploits the whole world this is of course to a certain extent justifiable.” Not only did Engels write this letter prior to the mature imperialism examined in Lenin’s writings but as an off-the-cuff remark without much of a “theorizing” ambition.

Once he is finished quoting from Engels and Marx’s letters, Lenin adds his own thoughts that add up to a “notion” rather than a theory:

Formerly a “bourgeois labour party”, to use Engels’s remarkably profound expression, could arise only in one country, because it alone enjoyed a monopoly, but, on the other hand, it could exist for a long time. Now a “bourgeois labour party” is inevitable and typical in all imperialist countries; but in view of the desperate struggle they are waging for the division of spoils it is improbable that such a party can prevail for long in a number of countries. For the trusts, the financial oligarchy, high prices, etc., while enabling the bribery of a handful in the top layers, are increasingly oppressing, crushing, ruining and torturing the mass of the proletariat and the semi-proletariat.

Other than this article, the only other attempt by Lenin to present his own understanding of the labor aristocracy is in the preface to the French and German edition of “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” that only contains a couple of paragraphs similar to the one above. There are several other articles that offer up a line or two but are hardly worth mentioning. My advice is to consult the Marxist Internet Archives (MIA), an invaluable resource for researching such matters.

The MIA reveals that in the entire “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism”, as opposed to the preface, there is not a single reference to the term. There’s a good reason for that. That 1914 work was an attempt to explain the economic basis for WWI as a conflict between monopoly capitalist powers, using J.A. Hobson as a primary source. If you are looking for a class analysis of the trade union bureaucracy and its base of support among skilled tradesmen, you won’t find it in Lenin. You only can find “notions”, to use Post’s word, but that’s about it.

If you are looking for a fully developed theory, you can find it in a 1982 pamphlet by Max Elbaum and Robert Seltzer titled “The Labour Aristocracy The Material Basis for Opportunism in the Labour Movement” that tries to bridge the gap between Lenin’s theory of imperialism and his scattered and rather minimal references to the upper layers of the working class being bribed, etc.

Elbaum and Seltzer were members of Line of March, a Maoist sect that was founded by Irwin Silber, the film critic of the defunct but essential Guardian Newsweekly. Line of March was part of a significant Maoist current in the USA that existed from 1968 or so to the mid-80s. The Maoist press wrote about “white skin privilege” and Third World revolution swamping the imperialist strongholds after a protracted People’s War, etc.

For Elbaum and Seltzer, the aristocracy is not just the workers you’d expect to be singled out, like the white construction workers who beat up antiwar protesters in 1970. It is the entire American working class that benefits from imperial bribery:

Certainly relative to the masses in the colonies and semicolonies, the entire working class in the advanced capitalist countries possesses political, economic, and cultural advantages. Just as monopoly capital consolidated the split between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata of the proletariat, it accentuated the division between workers in imperialist countries and the masses in the oppressed nations. Indeed, this latter division has often served to moderate (and obscure) the tensions between the labour aristocracy and the lower strata in imperialist countries, as both have benefited somewhat from imperialist exploitation of workers in the colonies and neocolonies. Lenin observed this phenomenon and didn’t mince words about its meaning: “To a certain degree the workers of the oppressor nations are partners of their own bourgeoisie in plundering the workers (and the mass of the population) of the oppressed nations.”

Post does not refer to this pamphlet in his Left Voice article but in 2006, he wrote a two-part article in Solidarity on “The Myth of the Labor Aristocracy” that took aim at the Elbaum/Seltzer pamphlet as well as articles written by a member of the Democratic Socialist Party in Australia that endorsed their findings. What makes this linkage interesting is the Trotskyist heritage of the DSP, which despite the name had little to do with the DSA politically. For Post, it might have seemed odd for people with the same ideological background as his to be defending nominally Maoist beliefs but not so strange in light of what Leon Trotsky had written over the years. For example, in “Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay”, a 1940 sketch for an article that was never written due to his assassination, he wrote:

Hence flows the need of the trade unions – insofar as they remain on reformist positions, ie., on positions of adapting themselves to private property – to adapt themselves to the capitalist state and to contend for its cooperation. In the eyes of the bureaucracy of the trade union movement the chief task lies in “freeing” the state from the embrace of capitalism, in weakening its dependence on trusts, in pulling it over to their side. This position is in complete harmony with the social position of the labor aristocracy and the labor bureaucracy, who fight for a crumb in the share of superprofits of imperialist capitalism.

Part of the problem, of course, is the failure of Lenin or Trotsky to flesh out what they meant by a “labor aristocracy”. Is it the same as the labor bureaucracy? Evidently not, or else they wouldn’t have used two different terms.

Ironically, Post and Elbaum/Seltzer agree on the existence of a class-wide privileged layer in the imperialist heartland but draw different conclusions. Post writes:

Higher profits result in more investment across the board in the industrialized countries. More investment eventually brings a growing demand for labor (within limits set by investment in newer, more capital intensive technology), falling unemployment and rising wages for all workers in the industrialized capitalist countries.

Put simply, this means that imperialist investment in the global South benefits all workers in the global North – both highly paid and poorly paid workers. Higher profits and increased investment mean not only more employment and rising wages for “aristocratic” steel, automobile, machine-making, trucking and construction workers, but also for lowly paid clerical, janitorial, garment and food processing workers. As Ernest Mandel put it, “the real ‘labor aristocracy’ is no longer constituted inside the proletariat of an imperialist country but rather by the proletariat of the imperialist countries as a whole.” That “real ‘labor aristocracy’” includes poorly paid immigrant janitors and garment workers, African-American and Latino poultry workers, as well as the multi-racial workforce in auto and trucking.

For Post, the “bribe” is distributed across the board almost like Social Security and as such it would refute the notion that it was only hard hats with their fishing boats and 6,000 square foot houses in Suffolk County that are “aristocrats”. It would also include the janitors and garment workers, et al. This is his way of discounting the viability of this theory. On the other hand, it might explain the willingness of African-Americans to vote for Joe Biden by 46 percent as opposed to Bernie Sander’s 10 percent approval rating in the Black community.

It is always necessary to remind ourselves that Lenin wrote articles and books in the heat of the moment. Within 5 years, he referred to “What is to Be Done” as a work that was obsolete. To regard “Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism” as a work that can explain today’s world is a useless exercise but often taken to dismiss the idea that imperialism exists since definitionally it was next to useless. Those committed to formal logic rather than Marxist dialectics were the loudest in questioning its applicability.

In Post’s Against the Current article, he scoffs at the idea that the imperialist nations were in any way reliant on superprofits extracted from the Third World:

Imperialist investment, particularly in the global South, represents a tiny portion of global capitalist investment. Foreign direct investment makes up only 5% of total world investment – that is to say, 95% of total capitalist investment takes place within the boundaries of each industrialized country.

Of that five percent of total global investment that is foreign direct investment, nearly three-quarters flow from one industrialized country – one part of the global North – to another. Thus only 1.25% of total world investment flows from the global North to the global South. It is not surprising that the global South accounts for only 20% of global manufacturing output, mostly in labor-intensive industries such as clothing, shoes, auto parts and simple electronics.

Data for profits earned by U.S. companies overseas do not distinguish between investments in the global North and global South. For purposes of approximation, we will assume that the 25% of U.S. foreign direct investment in labor-intensive manufacturing in Africa, Asia and Latin America produces profits above those earned on the 75% of U.S. foreign direct investment in more capital-intensive production in western Europe, Canada and Japan. It is unlikely, however, that more than half of the profits earned abroad by US companies are earned in the global South.

This, of course, is consistent with his dismissal of the idea that capitalism relied on slavery in its early stages. You have to understand that his aversion to theories tainted by the Monthly Review dependency theorists and other neo-Smithians was strongly influenced by Robert Brenner whose 1977 NLR article warned against theories that called attention to how imperialism was “squeezing dry the ‘third world’”. Instead of nonsense about the core versus periphery, the cities versus the countryside, etc. the answer was in the international proletariat allying itself with the oppressed people of all countries against the bourgeoisie. Who can be opposed to that? The idea of American workers organizing a general strike against Trump’s anti-immigrant racism is inspiring, even if it is a fantasy.

Part of the problem in reducing the core-periphery relationship to one of a bribery extracted from superprofits is that it does not account for the entire ensemble of economic relationships that condemn a country like Guatemala to the desperation that drives its citizens to risk drowning in the Rio Grande or dying of thirst in the Mexican desert.

Today’s Washington Post reports that “The migration problem is a coffee problem”. It seems that falling coffee prices have driven growers into dire poverty, even when they are the owners of their own land. Now, if the USA had not intervened in Central America in the 1970s and 80s, perhaps all of Central America could have been liberated from dependency and formed socialist cartels to support prices for coffee exports that advantaged the farmers rather than Fair Trade hustlers like Starbucks, et al. This might have meant that American workers, who were addicted to coffee like me because it was the only way to take a proper shit in the morning, might have to pay $6 for a cup of coffee rather than $2. When the global South became master of its own commodities, it would have forced the American working class to decide where their loyalties should be placed. It might be possible to enjoy a cup of coffee or a banana without going broke but only if that entailed reducing the funding for the American military until it reached Costa Rica’s, namely zero.

Based on Charles Post’s analysis immediately above, you might conclude that Guatemala’s problem is one of malign neglect since American FDI in Guatemala ($1.1 billion) is dwarfed by the capital poured into Canada ($392 billion). However, this does not take into account the American support for rightwing dictators in Guatemala that have been armed and supported by both the USA and Israel for the past 60 years at least. To see American imperialism exclusively in terms of where banks finance capitalist expansion is a narrow way of understanding class relationships. Although Brenner scoffs at the notion of Andre Gunder Frank’s “the development of underdevelopment”, that is exactly the malady Guatemala and most of Latin America suffers from. I should add that it is no accident that Argentine Trotskyists writing in Left Voice have a better handle on that than him.

Finally, on the question of the reformist tendencies of the working class, aristocrats or plebeians, this is a question that has been at the heart of American politics going back to Werner Sombart’s 1904 “Why There is No Socialism in the United States” that states: “For the average American being successful means first and foremost becoming rich.” I rather have my doubts about this but after 52 years advocating socialism, I tend to accept Marx’s verdict in “The German Ideology” that “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e. the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.”

I suspect that my take on the pace of revolutionary struggles in the USA are much more restrained than those of the Left Voice editorial board but am glad that it at least can draw clear class lines in a period when the entire capitalist press is solidly behind “democratic socialism”, whatever that is.

Most workers simply can’t be reached by revolutionary ideas today, even if their life is being torn apart by capitalist contradictions. Reaching the average worker will take something like the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000. I have vivid recollections of returning from a trip from seeing my girlfriend at the time, who was a graduate student in Albany. On the Amtrak, sitting on the opposite side of the train from me, were three UPS workers who spent the entire 2 hours discussing Nader’s ideas. Nader was not a socialist but he was a leftist who had the guts to run as a Green Party candidate. Was he a reformist? I guess by Left Voice’s standards, he was.

At some point in American history, someone like Ralph Nader will be a reformist block to socialist revolution but that will only be a result of UPS workers discussing Karl Marx rather than Ralph Nader. That might take decades to unfold but acting as if this was Russia in 1910 might be a serious error in tempo. I should add that even if it is a mistake, it is one that I would prefer to see people make, just as I made in 1970, then see them ringing doorbells for Democratic Party candidates.

March 12, 2019

The Boeing 737 Max 8: a case-study in uncreative destruction

Filed under: computers,disasters,economics,unemployment,workers — louisproyect @ 6:26 pm

Wreckage at the scene of an Ethiopian Airlines crash near Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, on Monday. (AP Photo/Mulugeta Ayene)

On October 29, 2018, a Boeing 737 Max 8 belonging to Lion Air in Indonesia crashed into the Java Sea 12 minutes after take-off. All 189 passengers and crew members were killed instantly. It is extremely unusual for planes to suffer such accidents in clear weather after having reached their cruising altitude. Flight experts concluded that the pilots were not adequately trained in the Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS), a robotics technology that lowers the nose of a plane to prevent a stall. Although there is no definitive judgement on exactly what happened, it appears to be a combination of inadequate training for the pilots and a malfunctioning MCAS.

On Sunday, another 737 Max 8 owned by Ethiopian Airlines had the same kind of accident resulting in the death of 157 passengers and crew members. In the aftermath of the tragedy, this has led to Australia, China, Germany, France, Indonesia, Ireland, Malaysia, Singapore, and the United Kingdom grounding the planes.

Looking at these two horrible tragedies that will make me think twice about getting on a plane again, I keep thinking of the title of Gabriel Garcia Márquez’s classic “Chronicle of a Death Foretold”. In essence, the use of MCAS is akin to an experimental, driverless car owned by Uber killing a pedestrian who was jaywalking on a dark road in Tempe, Arizona on May 18, 2018. The back-up driver, who was supposed to keep a sharp eye on the road to prevent such an accident, was watching reruns of the reality TV show “The Voice” at the time.

Despite such incidents (there have been 4 fatalities already), the bourgeoisie is determined to push ahead since the savings in labor costs will make up for the collateral damage of dead pedestrians. While I am skeptical that completely driverless cars will ever become the norm for Uber or Lyft, I can see people with little driving experience being paid minimum wage just to be a back-up to the computer system—as long as they don’t watch TV on the job. (Fat chance with such a boring job.)

This morning Donald Trump tweeted about the airline crash. “Airplanes are becoming far too complex to fly. Pilots are no longer needed, but rather computer scientists from MIT. I see it all the time in many products. Always seeking to go one unnecessary step further, when often old and simpler is far better. Split second decisions are….”

To begin with, the issue is not planes becoming too complex. It is rather that they are becoming too simple in terms of the amount of deskilling the airlines favor. As for the issue of replacing human labor with robots, he is all for it—reflecting the priorities of a ruling class bent on driving down wages.

In a US News and World Report article titled “The Race Is On After Feds Pave Way for Driverless Trucks”, we learn:

The most optimistic analysts project that trucks with empty cabs and a computer at the wheel will travel on U.S. highways in as little as two years with no escort or safety driver in sight now that the Trump administration has signaled its willingness to let tractor-trailers to become truly driverless.

The U.S. Department of Transportation this month announced that it will “no longer assume” that the driver of a commercial truck is human, and the agency will even “adapt the definitions of ‘driver’ and ‘operator’ to recognize that such terms do not refer exclusively to a human, but may in fact include an automated system.”

Already, automated truck developers such as Embark and TuSimple have made freight deliveries where the computer takes control on the highway, overseen by a human “safety driver.” Companies have also successfully tested “platooning,” where a truck with a human driver leads a convoy of as many as five computer-driven trucks following at close distance to reduce drag and save fuel.

The technologies promise big savings, with driverless trucks potentially slashing 40 percent from the cost of long-haul freight – much of it in saved labor expenses – and platooning cutting 10 to 15 percent in fuel costs.

If it is good for cars and trucks, why not airplanes?

Two years before the Indonesian 737 crash, the Guardian published an article titled “Crash: how computers are setting us up for disaster” that it clearly anticipated. Interestingly enough, it was not even a Boeing plane that was discussed in the article. It was an Airbus 330 that had the same kind of systems as the Boeing NCAS. With pilots much more used to relying on automation than manual control of the plane, they failed to override the system that was forcing the plane to plunge into the Atlantic Ocean on June 1, 2009 at about 125 miles an hour. Everyone on board, 228 passengers and crew, died instantly.

While pilots flying to major airports will continue to be highly paid, the wages of those working for regional airlines has fallen drastically. In 2010, the Guardian reported on “A pilot’s life: exhausting hours for meagre wages”. They lead a decidedly unglamorous life:

Many are forced to fly half way around the country before they even begin work. Others sleep in trailers at the back of Los Angeles airport, in airline lounges across the country or even on the floors of their own planes. Some co-pilots, who typically take home about $20,000 (£12,500) a year, hold down second jobs to make ends meet.

All that will change when airplanes go the route of driverless cars as the NY Times reported last July in an article titled “Are You Ready to Fly Without a Human Pilot?” In the same fashion that Trump backed driverless trucks, the move toward pilotless planes seems inexorable:

Regulators are already taking steps toward downsizing the role of humans on the flight deck. The bill to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration included language to provide funding to study single-pilot operations for cargo planes, a move that the Air Line Pilots Association opposed. Captain Canoll said that a single-pilot aircraft must be safe to fly without anyone at the controls in case the pilot takes a bathroom break or becomes incapacitated.

At the recently concluded World Economic Forum, there was a big focus on artificial intelligence and robotics. On the website, you can find breathless articles about “Meet Stan: the robot valet that parks your car at the airport” and “US companies created a record number of robot workers in 2018”. In a Washington Post article on the WEF, the title betrayed a certain unease about the replacement of human beings by robots: The aristocrats are out of touch’: Davos elites believe the answer to inequality is ‘upskilling’. It cited Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman about how to keep the masses docile: “The lack of education in those areas in digital is absolutely shocking. That has to be changed. That will very much lessen the inequalities that people have in terms of job opportunities.”

What world are these people living in? Schwarzman has a 32-room penthouse in 740 Park Avenue and spent $5 million for his birthday party in 2017. He just made a gift of $1 billion to MIT to launch a new school for Artificial Intelligence. Is that supposed to create jobs? Maybe for someone with an MIT degree who will go to work writing software to replace the people working for Jeff Bezos’s slave labor-like warehouses with machines but what is someone out of a job at an Amazon warehouse then supposed to do? Apply to MIT?

The handwriting is on the wall. The USA is moving into a two-tiered system. In places like NYC, Boston, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, you get people working in high-tech industries that in contrast to the Fordist model of the 1930s employ far fewer bodies. Meanwhile, in Detroit, Cleveland, and other places where Fordism once held sway, the jobs are there if you are willing to work at Walmarts, at local hospitals emptying bedpans or as guards in a jail or prison. Class divisions between those with advanced technology skills and those left out will only increase, leading to the kind of showdown taking place in France between the neoliberal state and the Yellow Vests.

You get a feel for the Two Americas reading a March 7th NY Times article titled “Thousands of New Millionaires Are About to Eat San Francisco Alive”:

In cities like Oakland and Berkeley and San Francisco, millennials obsess over Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Twitter and attend Democratic Socialists of America meetings. But the socialist passion doesn’t seem to have impacted the city’s zeal for I.P.O. parties, which the party planning community says are going to surpass past booms.

Jay Siegan, a former live music club owner who now curates private entertainment and music, is gearing up. He has worked on events for many of the I.P.O. hopefuls, including Uber, Airbnb, Slack, Postmates and Lyft.

“We see multiple parties per I.P.O. for the company that is I.P.O.ing, as well as firms that are associated to them,” Mr. Siegan said. Budgets for start-up parties, he said, can easily go above $10 million. “They’re wanting to bring in A-list celebrities to perform at the dinner tables for the executives. They want ballet performers.”

The only comment I would add to this tale of two cities is that it would not be surprising if some of these high-flying technology workers might also plan to vote for Bernie Sanders. They probably don’t feel happy about living in a city where their wealth has driven up the cost of housing to the point that homelessness is an epidemic. Whether President Sanders can do much about these class divisions is open to debate.

The replacement of human labor by machinery has been described as “creative destruction”. The assumption is that the temporary pain is worth it since there will always be the growth of new jobs. As my seventh grade social studies put it, the invention of the automobile put the blacksmith out of work but it created far more jobs in a Ford plant.

On May 12, 2010, the New York Times ran an article by economics editor Catherine Rampell titled The New Poor: In Job Market Shift, Some Workers Are Left Behind that focused on the largely middle-aged unemployed who will probably never work again. For example, 52 year old administrative assistant Cynthia Norton has been working part-time at Walmart while sending resumes everywhere but nobody gets back to her. She is part of a much bigger picture:

Ms. Norton is one of 1.7 million Americans who were employed in clerical and administrative positions when the recession began, but were no longer working in that occupation by the end of last year. There have also been outsize job losses in other occupation categories that seem unlikely to be revived during the economic recovery. The number of printing machine operators, for example, was nearly halved from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2009. The number of people employed as travel agents fell by 40 percent.

But Ms. Rampell finds the silver lining in this dark cloud:

This “creative destruction” in the job market can benefit the economy.

Pruning relatively less-efficient employees like clerks and travel agents, whose work can be done more cheaply by computers or workers abroad, makes American businesses more efficient. Year over year, productivity growth was at its highest level in over 50 years last quarter, pushing corporate profits to record highs and helping the economy grow.

The term “creative destruction” might ring a bell. It was coined by Werner Sombart in his 1913 book “War and Capitalism”. When he was young, Sombart considered himself a Marxist. His notion of creative destruction was obviously drawn from Karl Marx, who, according to some, saw capitalism in terms of the business cycle. With busts following booms, like night follows day, a new round of capital accumulation can begin. This interpretation is particularly associated with Volume Two of Capital that examines this process in great detail. Looking at this material, some Marxists like Eduard Bernstein drew the conclusion that capitalism is an infinitely self-sustaining system.

By 1913, Sombart had dumped the Marxist commitment to social revolution but still retained the idea that there was a basis in Karl Marx for upholding the need for “creative destruction”, a view buttressed by an overly positive interpretation of this passage in the Communist Manifesto:

The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society. Conservation of the old modes of production in unaltered form, was, on the contrary, the first condition of existence for all earlier industrial classes. Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones.

By the 1930s, Sombart had adapted himself fairly well to the Nazi system although he was not gung-ho like Martin Heidegger or Carl Schmitt. The wiki on Sombart notes:

In 1934 he published Deutscher Sozialismus where he claimed a “new spirit” was beginning to “rule mankind”. The age of capitalism and proletarian socialism was over and with “German socialism” (National-Socialism) taking over.

But despite this, he remained critical. In 1938 he wrote an anthropology text that found fault with the Nazi system and many of his Jewish students remained fond of him.

I suspect, however, that Rampell is familiar with Joseph Schumpeter’s use of the term rather than Sombart since Schumpeter was an economist, her chosen discipline. In 1942, he wrote a book titled Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy that, like Sombart, retained much of Karl Marx’s methodology but without the political imperative to destroy the system that utilized “creative destruction”. He wrote:

The opening up of new markets, foreign or domestic, and the organizational development from the craft shop and factory to such concerns as U.S. Steel illustrate the same process of industrial mutation–if I may use that biological term–that incessantly revolutionizes the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating a new one. This process of Creative Destruction is the essential fact about capitalism. It is what capitalism consists in and what every capitalist concern has got to live in. . . .

The wiki on Schumpeter claims that this theory is wedded to Nikolai Kondratiev’s “long wave” hypothesis that rests on the idea that there are 50 year cycles in which capitalism grows, decays and enters a crisis until a new round of capital accumulation opens up. Not only was the idea attractive to Schumpeter, it was a key part of Ernest Mandel’s economic theories. Unlike Schumpeter, Mandel was on the lookout for social agencies that could break the cycle and put development on a new footing, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Returning to Rampell’s article, there is one dimension entirely missing. She assumes that “creative destruction” will operate once again in order to foster a new upswing in the capitalist business cycle. But how exactly will that manifest itself? All the signs point to a general decline in business activity unless there is some kind of technological breakthrough equivalent to the computer revolution that fueled growth for decades. Does anybody believe that “green manufacturing” will play the same role? I don’t myself.

One thing does occur to me. Sombart’s book was written in 1913, one year before WWI and was even titled eerily enough “War and Capitalism”. One wonders if the Great War would be seen as part and parcel of “creative destruction”. War, after all, does have a knack for clearing the playing field with even more finality than layoffs. Schumpeter wrote his book in 1942, one year into WWII. My guess is that he did not theorize war as the ultimate (and necessary?) instrument of creative destruction but history will record that WWII did introduce a whole rafter of new technology, including aluminum, radar, nuclear power, etc., while bombing old modes of production into oblivion. What a great opportunity it was for capitalism to rebuild Japan, especially after firebombing and atomic bombs did their lovely work.

In my view, there’s something disgusting about this “creative destruction” business especially when it is articulated by a young, pro-capitalist Princeton graduate like Catherine Rampell who wrote for Slate, the Village Voice and other such b-list publications before crawling her way up into an editorial job at the NYT. She clearly has learned how to cater her reporting to the ideological needs of the newspaper of record, growing more and more reactionary as the crisis of capitalism deepens.

December 21, 2018

Can the Working Class Change the World?

Filed under: Counterpunch,revolutionary organizing,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 3:17 pm

The cover for Michael Yates’s “Can the Working Class Change the World?” was a stroke of genius. Ralph Fasanella’s “The Great Strike (IWW Textile Strike, 1912)” sets the tone for a book that has deep roots in working-class struggles in the USA and that shares the artist’s solidarity with the people who take part in them. Fasanella’s father delivered ice to people in his Bronx neighborhood and his mother worked in a neighborhood dress shop drilling holes into buttons. In her spare time, she was an anti-fascist activist. The family’s experience informed his art just as Michael Yates’s working class roots and long career as a labor activist and educator shapes his latest book.

Many years ago when I was a Trotskyist activist, the party was consumed with how to reach working people. To be frank, we would have learned more from Michael’s books than reading Leon Trotsky especially given the life experience outlined in the opening paragraph of the preface:

BY ANY IMAGINABLE DEFINITION of the working class, I was born into it. Almost every member of my extended family—parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—were wage laborers. They mined coal, hauled steel, made plate glass, labored on construction sites and as office secretaries, served the wealthy as domestic workers, clerked in company stores, cleaned offices and homes, took in laundry, cooked on tugboats, even unloaded trucks laden with dynamite. I joined the labor force at twelve and have been in it ever since, delivering newspapers, serving as a night watchman at a state park, doing clerical work in a factory, grading papers for a professor, selling life insurance, teaching in colleges and universities, arbitrating labor disputes, consulting for attorneys, desk clerking at a hotel, editing a magazine and books.

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September 28, 2018

Hard Crackers

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 8:25 pm

The latest issue of Hard Crackers is out, a magazine that is a continuation of “Race Traitor” and the embodiment of editor Noel Ignatiev’s sensibility. Around 25 years ago I bought a copy of his “How the Irish Became White” that now sits on my bookshelf next to Ted Allen’s “The Invention of the White Race” and David Roediger’s “The Wages of Whiteness”. When, to my surprise, I discovered that such books had been written, they became part of my permanent library since they resonated with the observation made by Leon Trotsky in 1933 during his exile in Prinkipo: “But today the white workers in relation to the Negroes are the oppressors, scoundrels, who persecute the black and the yellow, hold them in contempt and lynch them.”

This always struck me as more in tune with American realities than some of the workerist “Black and White, unite and fight” rhetoric that could be heard from those in the CPUSA’s orbit or from the ultra-sectarian Trotskyist groups that split from the SWP over its “adaptation” to Black nationalism. When I was a senior at Bard, I heard Malcolm X speak at a Militant Labor Forum and sympathized with his every word, even if at the time I was a conventional liberal on every other question.

“Hard Crackers” is not your typical leftist magazine (thank god). Instead of writing abstract treatises on racism, it is grounded in the everyday stories of ordinary Americans. On the back cover of each issue and in the “about” page on the magazine’s website, you can read about its orientation:

Hard Crackers focuses on people like the ones Mitchell profiled. It does not seek to compete with publications that analyze world developments, nor with groups formed on the basis of things their members oppose and advocate; still less does it consider itself a substitute for political activity. It is guided by one principle: that in the ordinary people of this country (and the world) there resides the capacity to escape from the mess we are in, and a commitment to documenting and examining their strivings to do so.

The Mitchell referred to above was Joseph Mitchell who profiled different people in The New Yorker during the 40s and 50s. Although I’ve never read Mitchell, he seems to have something in common with Harvey Pekar, who when he wasn’t writing about his own mundane life in “American Splendor”, gravitated to the same sort of eccentrics Mitchell wrote about. Before I lost contact with Harvey before he became sick with the lymphoma that would kill him, he told me that his dream was to carry on in the tradition of Studs Terkel who was to Chicago that Mitchell was to New York and Harvey was to Cleveland. You might say that “Hard Crackers” covers the same beat but what makes it must-reading in this period is that it puts a spotlight on the red state boondocks whose long-suffering working class will be the first to struggle uncompromisingly just as they did when they voted for Eugene V. Debs a century or so ago.

In the latest issue, there are three stories that stand out as examples of such reporting. Richard Dixon reports from rural Oklahoma in “Winding Stair Mountain” during bow hunting season. Dixon writes, “You want to find individuals with eccentric bents or outlaws, come down here, this area spawning both Belle Starr and Pretty Boy Floyd”.

Next there is “Heartland Reunion” by Lowell May who describes himself as an Iowa farmhand and 60s radical. May grew up in Hampton, Iowa that is now 30 percent Latino and the epicenter of the debate over “illegal aliens”. Divisions over the new residents were the topic of a NY Times article dated August 12, 2017 but needless to say a home-town boy who is a member of the IWW brings something to the table that the NY Times can’t. He discovers that many of the immigrants are working in CAFO’s, the Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations owned by agribusinesses that have devastated the Carolinas. For the immigrants, the foul-smelling and slave-like conditions are tolerable for the simple reason that the jobs pay enough to keep a family together.

Economic necessity also motivated many Crow Indians to vote for Trump in 2016 as reported by Cloee Cooper in “A Coal Miner’s Musings from Crow Nation”. Since the Crow reservation is a major source of coal and gas, the only way the Crows can enjoy a bare-minimum existence is by keeping the coal mines going. So they voted for Trump but were first to arrive at Standing Rock to provide material and spiritual aid to the native peoples protesting there.

Such contradictions exist throughout the USA today and Hard Crackers is indispensable for unraveling them. It cost $6 per issue and is worth far more. I try to keep with left print publications and will only say that as a subscriber to Jacobin and Hard Crackers from the very first issue, it is only the latter that I read from cover to cover each time it arrives. I strongly recommend taking out a sub to Hard Crackers since it will give you insights into the American malaise, for which only the revolutionary struggles of the marginal peoples chronicled in its pages is capable of ending.

 

April 1, 2018

Support the revolutionary left in the Georgian Republic

Filed under: workers — louisproyect @ 4:10 pm

I urge friends and comrades to support this initiative.

I know the people who are behind it and they are revolutionary socialists. Every effort should be bent to help the leftwing grow in places like Georgia, Ukraine and Russia as a counterweight to the nationalist right.

https://www.patreon.com/solnet

March 30, 2018

Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, & Class Conflicts in the American West

Filed under: Counterpunch,workers — louisproyect @ 4:02 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, March 30, 2018

While not a school in the same exact way as the NHC, the historians grouped around the Labor and Working Class History Association(LAWCHA) website have set themselves to the task of promoting “public and scholarly awareness of labor and working-class history through research, writing, and organizing.” Among its members is Chad Pearson, whose “Reform or Repression: Organizing America’s Anti-Union Movement” helps us understand the threat posed by Janus today even if the period covered in the book is over a century ago.

Pearson’s LAWCHA colleague Mark A. Lause, a civil war era historian just like the NHC’ers, has just come out with a new book titled “The Great Cowboy Strike: Bullets, Ballots, & Class Conflicts in the American West” that should be of keen interest to CounterPunch readers. Since American society is guided by notions of “rugged individualism” embodied in the old West, it is high time for that mythology to be put to rest. Reading Lause’s magisterial account will leave you with only one conclusion: Billy the Kid had more in common with Occupy Wall Street than he did with faux cowboys like Ronald Reagan chopping wood and George W. Bush clearing bush in their respective ranches. In fact, he was more likely to put a bullet in their counterparts way back then.

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December 5, 2017

Can socialism be advanced by running in Democratic Party primaries? A reply to Eric Blanc

Filed under: third parties,workers — louisproyect @ 9:10 pm

Under the command of Farmer-Labor Party Governor Floyd Olson, the Minnesota National Guard holds back workers as it raids headquarters of Local 574 of the Teamsters Union in 1934

Yesterday Eric Blanc stepped outside of his “April Theses was not a break from Old Bolshevism” comfort zone and wrote an article for Jacobin titled “The Ballot and the Break”. The title of the article evoked Malcolm X’s 1964 double-barrel blast at the two-party system titled “The Ballot or the Bullet” but that speech was in marked contrast to Blanc’s argument that socialists can run in Democratic Party primaries to their own advantage, something he calls a “dirty break”. By contrast, Malcolm X and many Marxist dinosaurs like me call for a “clean break” from the two-party system.

The article is a stroll through the history of the Nonpartisan League (NPL) in Minnesota that used to run candidates in both the Democratic and Republican Party primaries and eventually became the Farmer-Labor Party, which shunned such practices until it fused with the dreadful Hubert Humphrey’s Democratic Party in 1944. Blanc makes the case for such a pragmatic approach here:

The organization spread like a prairie fire, first in North Dakota, then across the Midwest, and even into Canada. Individuals joined by paying dues, which went towards financing farmer political candidates. And on an electoral level, the NPL took a novel approach: instead of building a new third party or allying with a “progressive” wing within the existing parties, the organization ran its own independent candidates within Democratic and Republican primaries. Since Republicans were dominant in Minnesota, the main battles took place within that party’s primaries, which were open to all voters.

Arguing that both parties were equally in the pay of big business, the NPL insisted on political and organizational independence from the leaderships of each. Nonpartisan League candidates pledged to uphold the group’s platform and were financially as well as organizationally dependent on the NPL during and after elections. Perhaps most importantly, when an NPL candidate lost the primary election, the organization nevertheless refused to support the party’s nominee in the general election.

Although the DSA is not mentioned once in the article, this excursion into American history from a century ago might be understood as giving its blessing to the group running candidates on the Democratic Party ballot line. Blanc’s article takes exception to both the old guard DSA’ers who identify politically with Michael Harrington and to sectarians like me who oppose voting for the Democrats on principle. I gather that he is leaning toward the sophisticated “inside-outside” orientation of the Jacobin wing of the DSA. I should add that during the euphoria of the Sanders campaign, Jacobin’s Bhaskar Sunkara spoke much more as a Harrington disciple in making the case that the Democratic Party could be transformed into a winning party if it moved left and “embraced a platform that speaks to the real needs, fears, and aspirations of working people.” Good luck with that.

For Blanc and Sunkara, work inside the Democratic Party is a tactical question rather than one of principle. Blanc’s research into the NPL’s history is obviously designed to reinforce the notion that such a tactic can be useful since it led to the formation of the Farmer-Labor Party that “captured the highest levels of state office in the 1930s, both enabling the passage of important socioeconomic reforms and helping to consolidate a powerful independent workers’ movement”. He does confess that relations between the party and militant workers were rocky–to say the least–during the Trotskyist-led 1934 Teamster rebellion.

I should mention that this not the first time I have run into people steeped in Leninist orthodoxy who advocate such an opportunist electoral approach. Seven years ago when the Kasama Project was still around, I made the case that Lenin was opposed to voting for bourgeois candidates as a matter of principle. Mike Ely, who founded Kasama, remonstrated with me: “Actually there were situations in the Duma elections where the Bolsheviks would support Cadets against the Black Hundreds.” So if Lenin gave his benediction to this, why shouldn’t we back candidates like Jesse Jackson or Bernie Sanders? Or for that matter, run DSA’ers on the DP ticket? You can read my reply to Ely here if you are interested. It shows that I can dig as deep into the bowels of Bolshevik history as well as any other Marxo-Talmudic scholar, or even deeper.

Turning back to Blanc’s findings, there is one important thing that has to be stressed over and over. When NPL’ers ran as Republicans, this was not the party of Donald Trump–to say the least. In the days of Theodore Roosevelt, both parties had rebellious elements that had goals that sounded as if they were lifted from Green Party campaign literature. As the name implies, the Nonpartisan League sought to advance a program that spoke in the name of farmers, many of whom were Republicans angry about their plight. In many ways, they were the counterpart of Tom Watson’s Populists.

Arthur Townley, the founder of the NPL, wanted to make it as easy as possible for them to vote for one of his candidates:

Inasmuch as the lack of respect for farmer rights could be laid to neither the Republican party nor the Democratic party exclusively, we hit upon the idea of using a no-party or nonpartisan organization. It was to be an organization which both Democrats and Republicans who believed in certain principles could join without having to go all the way from one party to the other. To make the route of farmer union for political action easier we called the organization a League rather than a party.

To repeat, unlike today’s Republican Party, the Progressivism of Theodore Roosevelt was suffused through the ranks of the GOP so much so that the most radical presidential campaign of the 20th century outside of  Henry Wallace’s was mounted by Robert La Follette who was the Republican governor of Wisconsin from 1901 to 1906.

La Follette was the standard-bearer of the Progressive Party in 1924. The Socialist Party formally endorsed him at their own convention on July 7. Intellectuals such as W.E.B. DuBois, Theodore Dreiser, Franz Boas, Thorstein Veblen, Margaret Sanger all endorsed him as well. Unions supplied most of the organizational muscle for the campaign. Besides the rail unions, various Central Trades Councils threw themselves into the work. Charles Kutz, a machinists union official, became director of the La Follette campaign in Pennsylvania. NAACP support for La Follette was based on his opposition to “discrimination between races” and disavowal of the Ku Klux Klan that had been making inroads in the Democratic Party recently. His stance prompted the Grand Wizard of the KKK to declare La Follette as “the arch enemy of the nation.”

There is little question that the Farmer-Labor Party in Minnesota and La Follette’s campaign were giant steps forward for the left but were both eclipsed by FDR’s presidency that relied on the CP for both ideological justification and organizational muscle. No matter how many times Bernie Sanders or Bhaskar Sunkara use the word socialism, there is no doubt that their goal is to resurrect the New Deal. One only wonders what investment Eric Blanc has in all this.

Returning to the history of the NPL, it has to be emphasized that the tactic of running in bourgeois party primaries was short-lived. The NPL was formed in 1915 and was forced to abandon the tactic in 1921 when the Republican Party banned such “entryism”. That year, NPL’ers were forced to make a choice. Would they dissolve into the Republican Party or would they form a third party?

The farmer dominated NPL decided to team up with the Democrats in 1922 but the Working People’s Nonpartisan League (WPNPL) that was inspired by it but took the road of class independence. The WPNPL had been formed by Minnesota’s Socialist Party in 1919, dissolving itself afterward. With a larger working-class composition and ideology inherited from the founders, the party had much more of a class struggle orientation even if it “eschewed talk of violent revolution and dropped explicit Marxist rhetoric”, as Blanc puts it.

In 1922, the WPNPL gave birth to the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party just as the SP had given birth to it. From the start, it was very successful. It elected Governors, Senators, and House Representatives as well as many municipal officials. It is easy to understand why it would fuse with the Democratic Party in 1944 since there was very little difference between the two programmatically. The main difference was over its institutional base, which like the British Labour Party, rested in the trade unions.

For revolutionaries, the attitude toward such a party must be grounded in dialectics. It is doubtful that any Labor Party that will emerge in the USA will come perfectly formed like Athena out of Zeus’s forehead. If you keep in mind that Lenin recommended that Communists support British Labour like a rope supports a hanged man, what are the justifications for forming one in the 1920s or today for that matter?

Although the Farmer-Labor Party rested on a trade union base, the elected officials tended to be middle-class professionals backed by trade union bureaucrats who sought to rule on behalf of all classes in Minnesota rather than working stiffs.

The small-town lawyer Thomas Latimer became the Farmer-Labor mayor of Minneapolis in 1935. He was once the Socialist Party candidate for governor, an indication that it was a party that welcomed middle-class progressives. Whether Latimer was much of a progressive when he became mayor is open to question. When the workers at Flour City Iron Works went on strike, he marched with the chief of police to escort scabs into the plant. Later that day, the cops tear-gassed and shot pickets, killing two bystanders. Some years later, Latimer was invited to join the Committee for the Defense of Leon Trotsky led by John Dewey, a mistake in my view.

He was cut from the same cloth as Floyd Olson, who Warren Creel, formerly the Secretary of the Educational Bureau of the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Association, described as “a capable, courageous and spectacular politician” in the Fourth International magazine in 1946 as part of an autopsy on Farmer-Labor. Olson, a lawyer who had run as a Democrat in the past, accepted the nomination of the Farmer-Labor Party in 1930 with the proviso that he be allowed to establish “Olson All-Party Committees” that would be free to include Republicans and Democrats, who naturally would be lured by the prospect of landing a state job through patronage.

Olson and his supporters vowed to run a campaign that would “slur over contradictions and differences” and “unite people of different views and tendencies, and subordinate clarification of their differences to succeed.” Hope and Change, 1930 style, in other words.

On July 17, 1934, the coal yard bosses refused to abide by the agreement they worked out with Local 574 a few weeks earlier. This meant that the strike was on again. Three days later, “Bloody Sunday” took place. Over a hundred cops fired on a mass gathering of workers that left two pickets, John Belor and Henry Ness, dead as well as wounding over 65 others, many of whom were shot in the back. The Minneapolis Labor Review reported a crowd of 100,000 people in attendance at Henry Ness’s funeral.

Olson then ordered 4,000 National Guard troops to enforce martial law in Minneapolis. He also banned picketing, which allowed scab-driven trucks that were issued military permits to begin moving again. On the night of July 31, the National Guard surrounded and then raided Teamster headquarters, arresting many strike leaders. The next day, after 40,000 strikers and their supporters marched on the stockade where they were being held, the leaders were released and union headquarters were returned to the workers. It was workers power that finally led to a victory in Minneapolis, not the “progressivism” of the state’s governor or the mayor.

Despite all this, Leon Trotsky recommended to SWP leaders that they support the Farmer-Labor Party or any other Labor Party that came into existence in a discussion that took place in 1938. Listening patiently to their criticisms of such formations, Trotsky replied:

Now we must not reckon by our prognosis of yesterday but by the situation of today. American capitalism is very strong but its contradictions are stronger than capitalism itself. The speed of decline came at American speed and this created a new situation for the new trade unions, the CIO even more than the AFL. In this situation it is worse for the CIO than the AFL because the AFL is more capable of resistance due to its aristocratic base. We must change our program because the objective situation is totally different from our former prognosis.

What does this signify? That we are sure the working class, the trade unions, will adhere to the slogan of the labor party? No, we are not sure that the workers will adhere to the slogan of the labor party. When we begin the fight we cannot be sure of being victorious. We can only say that our slogan corresponds to the objective situation and the best elements will understand and the most backward elements who don’t understand will be compromised.

In Minneapolis we cannot say to the trade unions you should adhere to the Socialist Workers Party. It would be a joke even in Minneapolis. Why? Because the decline of capitalism develops ten – a hundred times faster than the speed of our party. It is a new discrepancy. The necessity of a political party for the workers is given by the objective conditions, but our party is too small, with too little authority in order to organize the workers into its own ranks. That is why we must say to the workers, the masses, you must have a party. But we cannot say immediately to these masses, you must join our party.

It is our fate today that at the very best, we don’t even have a reformist workers party to join. One was stillborn in 1996, for reasons put forward by its leader Mark Dudzic in an interview with Derek Seidman in Jacobin from 2015 that concludes:

In many ways it would appear that this is the perfect time for a labor party movement to revive. We are years into the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, working-class wages have stagnated for over a generation, inequality is at unprecedented extremes, and both major political parties are wedded to neoliberal and austerity politics. Working people are desperate for real solutions.

Yet there is not a single national union that would commit the resources and organizing focus to a labor party movement in the way that several unions did in the mid-1990s. The failure of the labor party movement is bound up with the crisis and decline of the organized labor movement. The labor party model remains the only plausible way to launch and sustain an effort for independent working-class politics. While the challenges are even greater today than they were twenty years ago, the need is also greater.

There are no shortcuts. The movement to build a labor party is inextricably linked to the project of transforming and revitalizing the entire US labor movement. It is inconceivable to envision almost any progressive initiative succeeding without the support and participation of a vigorous and engaged labor movement.

Today, such a movement’s very survival is at stake. As we work to rebuild it, we have an opportunity to correct the policies and strategies that contributed to its failure and to work to assure that a focus on independent working-class politics is part of its core identity.

I would agree with this and even more for the call for a revolutionary party that avoids the sectarian mistakes made by Leon Trotsky’s followers. The time to start work on this is yesterday.

January 29, 2017

Divided We Fall

Filed under: Film,financial crisis,trade unions,ultraright,Wisconsin,workers — louisproyect @ 9:03 pm

If victorious strikes by teamsters in Minneapolis in 1934, by San Francisco dockworkers the same year and auto workers three years later in Flint define the rise of the American working class as a powerful force to be reckoned with, three confrontations between labor and capital in our lifetime mark its retreat.

In 1981 Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 airline controllers who had gone out on strike as a signal that the partnership between labor and capital was a thing of the past. Four years later, the meatpacking workers organized as P-9 struck Hormel in an effort to maintain the good-paying jobs with generous benefits that were seen as essential for a decent middle-class existence. With the defeat of P-9, jobs at Hormel and other meatpacking jobs became non-union, low-paying and dangerous with a predominantly immigrant workforce made up in large part of vulnerable undocumented workers.

While not a strike as such, the union-led struggle in Madison, Wisconsin of 2011 was launched to prevent teachers and other public service employees from being “Hormelized”. When Governor Scott Walker introduced a bill in January of that year that would cut wages, benefits and eliminate dues checkoff—a mechanism that is essential to keeping a union functioning in a closed shop environment—over 100,000 people took part in a “kill the bill” movement that adopted many of the tactics of the Occupy Wall Street movement that erupted a couple of months later.

For those not old enough to have bitter memories of the P-9 strike, I recommend tracking down Barbara Kopple’s 1990 film “American Dream” that unfortunately is nowhere to be seen on VOD but that can be borrowed as a DVD from better libraries, such as Columbia University’s. Kopple is also the director of “Harlan County, USA”, another documentary about labor struggles, in that case a 1973 strike by coal miners in the legendary pro-union county that voted 8-1 for Donald Trump in November.

Kopple has declined in recent years, stooping so low as to make a documentary about Woody Allen in 1997 and following up with a docudrama about the Hamptons in 2002 that was a Yankee version of British soap operas like Upstairs/Downstairs or Downton Abbey.

Fortunately for us, a new Barbara Kopple has emerged, namely Katherine M. Acosta, the sociologist and obviously politically advanced director of “Divided We Fall”, a film about the Wisconsin labor struggle that I had the good fortune to watch yesterday. For now, the film has not found a distributor and hopefully this review will inspire some enterprising party to invest in this film that is equal to Kopple at her best and moreover a story that demands the attention of everybody trying to understand how we have ended up with an orange-haired baboon in the White House determined to throw us back to the 1880s. Essentially, the defeat of the public workers struggle in Wisconsin involved all of the players and all of the contradictions that led to the defeat of Hillary Clinton and the nightmare we are now living with.

Even if you’ve read every article about the Wisconsin struggle as it was unfolding in 2011, nothing comes close to seeing exactly how young people and workers rallied to the capitol building to put their bodies on the line to oppose Scott Walker’s anti-labor assault that was as calculated a bid to destroy organized labor that year as Reagan’s firing of the airline controllers was in 1985.

Acosta draws from a wide variety of interviewees, from relatively lowly teaching assistants at the U. of Wisconsin, including FB friend Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, who is a brilliant Marxist analyst in her own right, to sociology professor Rahul Mahajan, who I first ran into in the mid-90s as a graduate student on the list that would evolve into Marxmail. Rahul is witty, wise and as informed in class analysis as Wrigley-Field. So, with people like that in the front ranks of the occupation of the capitol building and in strategy meetings, what could have gone wrong? The title of the film says it all. The movement was divided and as such bound to fail.

There were basically three blocs involved within the workers’ camp but each with its own priorities. Those closest to the student movement like Wrigley-Field and Mahajan were revolutionaries, to put it bluntly. They saw the fight against Scott Walker in exactly the same way that Farrell Dobbs saw the fight to organize truck drivers in 1934, as the first step in building a new (in this instance, renewed) labor movement that could fight effectively for the interests of workers in general and lead ultimately to a transformation of American society.

In the middle were union officials at the local level who had to stand up for the rights of their membership, those people who would be forced to pay more for health insurance and face wage stagnation. Like the average member, the officials had a class status just one step above precarity. Losing a job as a clerical worker in an AFSCME union could plunge some into penury and worse. The officials often came directly out of that social layer and knew what was at stake.

The head of AFSCME, who was led off in handcuffs toward the end of the film, was Marty Beil. Beil, who died two years ago, was a bear of a man with Michael Moore’s physique (or lack thereof) who understood the importance of AFSCME better than the top officials in Washington. Formed in Wisconsin in 1932, AFSCME was the first and foremost organizer of predominantly white collar clerical government jobs even though it grew to include firefighters. It is of some interest that Beil’s first job was as a probation and parole officer, not exactly the sort of position that you would associate with labor militancy. As the film makes clear, the police presence at the capitol building was initially drawn from campus and local cops who were much more sympathetic to the struggle, even to the point of marching in support. Such contradictions might vex those addicted to Marxist schemas but one that the film skillfully engages with especially as these cops were replaced by state troopers who had no use for workers at all.

Another powerful presence from the local labor movement was John Matthews, the president of the city’s public schoolteacher’s union who combines a soft-spoken Midwest speaking style with a willingness to openly confront the national leadership of his union. These big shots parachuted into Madison and stayed at a luxury hotel, where they mapped out a strategy to settle the strike on terms favorable to Scott Walker.

For reasons probably having something to do with being reluctant to defend their role in in Acosta’s film, they are not heard from. But you don’t need to hear from AFSCME president Gerald McEntee to know what agenda he would follow in Madison. In 2009, McEntee was being paid $480,000 per year. When you make that kind of money, plus fringe benefits such as staying at Madison’s best hotel on the membership’s dime, you tend to lose track of the sort of class antagonisms that drove the average worker to rise up.

Another problem was the reliance on Democratic Party “friends of labor” who were just as eager as McEntee to deescalate the struggle in Madison and get things back to normal, even as they were giving speeches in support of the unions and in working to undermine Republican attempts to steamroll through Walker’s legislation.

If the film consisted of nothing but talking heads, it would still be worth watching, particularly to hear from Wrigley-Field, Mahajan and other radical students and professors at the U. of Wisconsin. But beyond that, Acosta was present throughout the occupation directing her film crew to capture the Occupy Wall Street type drama of those sitting in. That footage combined with the commentary by people involved with the struggle make up for an unforgettable movie experience that screams out for nationwide distribution.

The film makes clear that occupy type tactics could only go so far. The Republicans had a majority in the state legislative bodies and would ultimately prevail. Of course, the real question is why a shit-hook like Scott Walker could ever become governor of a progressive state like Wisconsin.

Once the occupation ran out of steam (helped along by “kettling” tactics by the state troopers), the trade union officials and Democrats thought that the answer was to replace Walker. Instead of considering ways to block the legislation by either a general strike (probably an over-projection by some leftists) or guerrilla tactics in the workplace like “sick-outs” or working by the rule, all the energy went into the recall campaign.

But the recall was to no avail. Walker was reelected. Why?

He was reelected because he was to Donald Trump as his Democratic Party opponent Tom Barrett was to Hillary Clinton. Walker had defeated Barrett in 2010 and by even more votes in the 2012 recall election. This has to do with Barrett running exactly the same kind of campaign as Clinton, one geared to the “swing voter” and careful to avoid any association with trade unions, sit-ins and the like.

But looking past the Wisconsin context, which the film understandably did not try to address, I would suggest that there was an important element that militated against success. As the film’s title implies, there were problems of being divided—but not just within the labor movement but in the Wisconsin population as a whole. Seen as benefiting from Democratic Party largesse, the taxpayers felt that these unions were a privileged layer. If Wisconsin was facing a fiscal crisis, why shouldn’t teachers et al not have to “chip in” to bail out the state?

The fiscal crisis, of course, was rooted in a system that included “starving the beast”. State budgets were in the red because taxes kept being cut. If the Democratic Party had stood up to the rich, returned tax rates to what they were under Eisenhower, pushed through single-payer health insurance and stood up for the rights of homeowners who had been devastated by the subprime meltdown of 2008, maybe the voters would have been more motivated to back the Democrats. This would have required a total transformation of the labor movement that might yet be in the offing as we sail into the stormy seas facing us over the next four years. As Harriet Rowan, one of the politically astute graduate students interviewed in the film, put it toward the end of the film, we can’t wait for the leadership to catch up with the people.

 

 

January 22, 2017

Wilbur Ross: the dubious savior of the steel industry

Filed under: Donald Trump,economics,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 11:29 pm

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Wilbur Ross

When it comes to Trumponomics, most of the left’s attention has been riveted on the new Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for obvious reasons. As CEO of OneWest, he pushed mercilessly to foreclose on homeowners whose mortgages he held, making the banker played by Lionel Barrymore in Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” look like a member of the Catholic Workers by comparison. Politico reported:

Two years ago, OneWest filed foreclosure papers on the Lakeland, Florida, home of Ossie Lofton, who had taken a reverse mortgage, a loan that supplies cash to elderly homeowners and doesn’t require monthly payments.

After confusion over insurance coverage, a OneWest subsidiary sent Lofton a bill for $423.30. She sent a check for $423. The bank sent another bill, for 30 cents. Lofton, 90, sent a check for 3 cents. In November 2014, the bank foreclosed.

So, this is a guy that is supposed to stop “the carnage”?

Much less attention has been paid to Wilbur Ross, the 79-year old “King of Bankruptcy” that is the new Secretary of Commerce, a department that is charged with promoting economic growth. Ross would seem to be a perfect fit for Trump’s “America First” outlook since he is credited with saving thousands of jobs in the Rust Belt, particularly in steel. His approach is to buy distressed companies and make them profitable again, saving jobs in the process. Part of his strategy is to lobby for tariffs that would protect companies like LTV (Ling-Temco-Vought) that he bought at fire sale prices in 2002. His strategy mimicked that of Steve Mnuchin who bought IndyMac in 2012 at a bargain basement price and turned it into OneWest.

As the ostensible savior of American steel, Ross earned plaudits from Leo Gerard, the USW president. NPR, a public radio station with a liberal slant a bit to the left of PBS, put Ross in the best possible light:

“With Wilbur it’s been almost 15 years now, and those mills are [still] running and some of them are the most productive in North America,” Gerard says.

By that time, ISG had become the largest steel company in America by buying up failing steel companies including Bethlehem Steel, LTV Steel and Acme Steel. Gerard says the jobs Ross saved were at the mills themselves and at the companies in supply chain.

If Trump and Ross are hoping to replicate policies that are supposed to be a radical departure from neoliberal “carnage”, it is useful to remember that George W. Bush was a major supporter of protectionism for the steel mills that Ross owned.

With Bush anxious to win over the kinds of voters that helped Trump win the presidency, he announced on Feb. 27, 2002 that tariffs would be imposed on steel imports for three years and a day. That was the same day when Ross announced a deal to take over LTV. Perfect timing, I’d say.

What NPR did not mention is the downside of the deal. After taking over LTV, he fired half the workers. His “rescue” was the same kind as Trump’s of Carrier, which also sustained a heavy loss of jobs to stay in the USA. Since Ross bought LTV in bankruptcy court, he was able to shed $7.5 billion in pension funds to the government.

In 2006 Frontline, a PBS documentary show, reported on the fate of LTV retirees, including a man named Chuck Kurilko. This was his story:

After 38 years in the mill (most of it working night shifts so he could be with his kids after school), Chuck had retired from LTV in late 2001 with a lifetime pension and guaranteed health coverage for himself and Carolyn. “It was looking great,” recalled Chuck. “The first retirement check I got was $2,700 a month. And that’s a nice pension.” Health insurance, he said, was running about $200 a month.

But the Kurilko’s retirement security didn’t last long. Through bankruptcy, LTV had sold off its productive assets and jettisoned its unwanted and underfunded liabilities, like pension and health benefits. LTV’s pensions were taken over by the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (the PBGC), the federal corporation that insures private pensions. PBGC uses a reduced payout formula for retirees under 65, and retirees like Chuck were among the hardest hit. He saw his monthly pension checks slashed by $1,000, and his monthly health insurance payment skyrocket to $1,300. The bankruptcy proceedings that “saved” LTV cost the Kurilkos about $25,000 a year, a devastating turnabout in fortunes. By the time I arrived, the Kurilkos’ savings were down to about $13,000. Every month was a struggle to keep from digging the financial hole deeper.

I expected anger and dismay. What I found was more troubling. Good people that had been justifiably proud of what they’d accomplished through a lifetime of hard work — in the mill, in their community and at home — had lost control of their financial future, and with that their dignity. “We just shouldn’t have to live like this,” Carolyn kept saying, shaking her head as if it was all just a bad dream.

A couple months later, Carolyn’s nightmare got worse. She called me in early April to tell me that Chuck had died from a massive heart attack. We talked about Chuck and about his funeral, and after we talked, I began to think about how Chuck’s passing had come to represent the passing of an era when a lifetime of hard work, at most big companies, was rewarded with retirement security and with dignity. I also thought about Carolyn and the financial predicament she suddenly faced alone. But it wasn’t until later that I came to understand that Carolyn too represents a troubling national trend — the growing number of women facing severe financial difficulty in retirement.

One huge problem in retirement for women like Carolyn Kurilko is longevity. On average, women live longer than men, and nearly a third of all women who reach 65 will live to at least 90. “Chances are the husband will die and the wife will live on and on and on, and she will be the poorest she’s ever been in her whole life,” explains Notre Dame labor economist Teresa Ghilarducci.

The story of LTV and Wilbur Ross is a microcosm of the American class struggle—or the lack thereof. You have labor bureaucrats like Leo Gerard making common cause with a scumbag like Ross in the same way that UAW president Dennis Williams has gone along with deals that led to a two-tiered pay system and reduced benefits so as to “save jobs”. If there was a labor movement instead of what we have now, both Obama and Trump would have been put on the defensive.

The problem, of course, is that the bosses can exercise leverage on the workers by threatening to pick up and move to another country. The threat of runaway shops is what helped Trump get elected even if his solution a la Ross is to make an offer that workers can’t refuse.

Global competition puts pressures on workers everywhere to accept less. This is what “globalization” has accomplished. It cheapens the price of labor and commodities simultaneously. Indian steel mills supply commodities at a price far below those of their competitors in more advanced capitalist countries. Ross cashed in on globalization in 2005 himself: He sold his steel company to an Indian company Lakshmi Mittal for $4.5 billion in 2005, making 12 ½ times on his initial investment.

Mittal is now the far largest steel producer in the world. A lot of Trump’s animosity toward China has to do with its ability to produce steel even more cheaply than Mittal. Like Ross, Mittal screws workers out of their pensions and fires them when they no longer serve the bottom line.

What is happening now is a race to the bottom. Trump is incapable of reversing this trend since it is not susceptible to policy solutions. It is tantamount to King Canute commanding the tide to stop. We are in the throes of capitalism’s decay. I think Trotsky was misguided in the way he went about building a Fourth International but each time I return to his writings, I remained impressed by his ability to size up the political conditions of his epoch in a work like the Transitional Program:

All talk to the effect that historical conditions have not yet “ripened” for socialism is the product of ignorance or conscious deception. The objective prerequisites for the proletarian revolution have not only “ripened”; they have begun to get somewhat rotten. Without a socialist revolution, in the next historical period at that, a catastrophe threatens the whole culture of mankind. The turn is now to the proletariat, i.e., chiefly to its revolutionary vanguard. The historical crisis of mankind is reduced to the crisis of the revolutionary leadership.

We are not in any position today to construct such a revolutionary leadership but if there is one thing that is clear, it is the need to break with the two-party system that entrusts people like Wilbur Ross, Leo Gerard, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton to get us out of a deathtrap they created in the first place.

December 3, 2016

Gus Hall surrenders

Filed under: trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 10:13 pm

NY Times, June 1, 1937

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