Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 21, 2020

The Life of a Worker

Filed under: pakistan,workers — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

In 2017, I reviewed a documentary titled “Machines” made by Rahul Jain that took you inside an Indian textile mill, showing workers making the fabrics that end up in markets everywhere. Not only does the work leave the men barely capable of enjoying anything after work except smoking a cigarette and listening to a radio; the starvation wages would not allow anything much more than that. The film makes the term wage slavery hit home. In my review, I stated:

Dark and satanic are words that immediately come to mind when “Machines” begins. For the first 15 minutes of the film, you see nothing but men operating machinery. The plant looks fairly ancient with poor lighting and no air conditioning. Except for the modern machines, they are housed in a building not that different from late 18th century England at the dawn of the industrial revolution that Engels described in “The Conditions of the Working Class in England”: “The atmosphere of the factories is, as a rule, at once damp and warm, usually warmer than is necessary, and, when the ventilation is not very good, impure, heavy, deficient in oxygen, filled with dust and the smell of the machine oil, which almost everywhere smears the floor, sinks into it, and becomes rancid.”

You can now see “Machines” on YouTube for $2.99. It will help you understand why India remains a hotbed of revolutionary zeal, even as Modi tries to tamp it down through Islamophobic nationalism.

Incredibly, the workers in “Machines” have it a lot better than the textile workers in Multan, Pakistan. Two days ago, I received an invitation to spread the word about a documentary made by the comrades in the Internationalist Marxist Tendency (IMT), where they have developed a working-class base. While I am averse to vulgar Marxism, I have always believed that it is poverty and super-exploitation that will make workers revolutionary-minded.

Titled “The Life of a Worker”, the 19-minute film consists of an interview with a power loom operator in Multan who describes his humble beginnings, his marriage and family living in poverty, the lethal conditions inside his factory where the textile fibers make asthma an epidemic, and his hopes for a different way of life.

The film is in Urdu but you can select English subtitles as an option. Have a little patience since the actual documentary begins about 2 and ½ minutes into “The Life of a Worker”. While you might not be surprised by the brutal conditions faced by a textile worker in Pakistan today, it is entirely possible that the good days of living in the advanced capitalist countries might be ending soon. An article in today’s NY Times titled “Coronavirus and Poverty: A Mother Skips Meals So Her Children Can Eat” dramatizes the depths to which American workers are falling:

Ms. Mossbarger hardly mentioned it, but she was starving. “I honestly wasn’t going to eat, but Jordan was like, ‘You got to eat something,’” she said.

The next morning, she again skipped breakfast and was sipping a Monster Energy drink. She was tired and her head hurt.

“I feel it,” she said.

“The Life of a Worker” ends with the strains of “The International”. We used to sing it at conventions of the Socialist Workers Party years ago, but it was mainly an exercise in nostalgia. Today, it is the capitalist system that is rapidly turning into a relic of the past, the sooner the better.

We toilers from all fields united
Join hand in hand with all who work;
The earth belongs to us, the workers,
No room here for the shirk.
How many on our flesh have fattened!
But if the norsome birds of prey
Shall vanish from the sky some morning
The blessed sunlight then will stay.

January 22, 2020

We the Workers; American Factory

Filed under: China,trade unions,workers — louisproyect @ 8:41 pm

Now available from Ovid, the Netflix for radicals, “We the Workers” is a 174-minute cinema vérité study of labor organizers in China. Despite its economy of means, is an impressive and inspiring take on one of the  most significant class struggles taking place in the world today. Directed by Huang Wenhai, it is shot mostly indoors without much fanfare and consists almost entirely of strategy discussions by men working for the Panyu Migrant Workers Center between themselves and with the workers they serve.

Additionally, as you might expect from a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the cinema vérité genre, you see them coping with daily life—trying to strike a balance between the duress of standing up to an all-powerful state and living a normal life. Often, the scale is tipped toward the duress side. This was the case with an organizer named Peng Jiayong confessing that his wife broke up with him because she couldn’t share the burdens of being married to someone with such a single-minded devotion to changing a seemingly unchangeable system.

As the film begins, we see Peng Jiayong being dressed down by his colleagues for losing his temper with the cops. Joining a protest of 11 women being denied rights guaranteed by the Chinese constitution, Peng refuses to leave the headquarters of the government-backed trade union where the women have gathered to lodge their complaint. When the cops arrive, they sensibly leave. He stays behind and demands to be arrested, even though such defiance will only weaken his efforts on their behalf.

Next we see a meeting between other members of the Panyu staff and some workers who are being conned by the state labor bureau into resigning from their jobs and thus losing benefits accrued over 20 years. Panyu’s lawyer Duan Yi advises them to go as a group to the boss’s office the next day and insist on their legally guaranteed rights, making sure to capture the entire discussion with their smartphones. As becomes obvious throughout the film, the Panyu organizers and the workers they represent are as dependent on the Internet as CIO organizers in the 1930s were reliant on mimeograph machines.

When I saw this scene, I was reminded of a debate in the Boston branch of the Socialist Workers Party in 1971 between Peter Camejo and a minority that viewed support for the Shea bill as reformist. H. James Shea Jr. was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives who drafted a bill challenging its constitutionality of the Vietnam War, thus enabling Massachusetts residents to ignore the draft. The minority denounced the bill as reformist since it was based on bourgeois legality. Peter replied that Lenin used to stay up late at night poring through the Czarist law codes looking for loopholes that would allow workers to go out on strike with legal cover. That’s essentially the strategy of the labor organizers trying to strengthen collective bargaining in China today.

Later in the film we meet up again with Peng Jiayong, who was beaten badly by the cops without him giving them any kind of excuse. As he lies in the hospital bed, his only interest is in figuring out how his injuries might be exploited to further the workers struggle.

Lin Dong, Peng’s comrade-in-arms who wisely left with the 11 women before the cops came, has spent time in prison for his organizing efforts. We see him on a street handing out a labor law handbook that can be used by workers to understand their rights. One worker probably spoke for most when he told him that “laws are useless in China.” In many ways, the struggle for working class power in China faces the same obstacles as in the USA. Workers feel weak and vulnerable in the face of Republican open hostility and the Democratic Party’s reorientation to urban, middle-class voters. Throughout the film, we see Panyu organizers hammering away at the idea that a united working class can win victories.

Toward the end of the film, we see a group of workers celebrating such a victory. The mostly female staff of Lide Shoe Factory are at a banquet organized by Panyu, where they get up one by one to express gratitude for its support. In 2015, the China Labor Bulletin wrote about their struggle:

After two strikes and three rounds of bargaining, Taiwanese-owned Lide agreed on 17 December to pay social insurance contributions dating back to 1995 and to a one-off compensation package of between 2,000 yuan and 12,000 yuan, depending on employees’ years of service. The company was also forced to disclose any future relocation plans and continue the dialogue with the workers’ representatives. Management further agreed in writing that it would not retaliate against those representatives.

I first came across the China Labor Bulletin not long after I started the Marxism mailing list in 1998. One of its editors began sending me newsletters about the work of labor organizers such as shown in “We the Workers”. In many ways, the newsletters were analogous to Labor Notes in the USA but documenting much sharper battles. In China, there is a deeper awareness about being exploited than there is in the USA, especially since independent labor action is virtually seen as a crime. In the USA, trade unions are legal but hamstrung by open-shop legislation, the threat of runaway shops, and a general feeling that unions can’t deliver the goods.

Last July, Max Blumenthal and Ben Norton published an attack on a conference co-sponsored by the DSA, Jacobin, and the disbanded ISO. As a supporter of “anti-imperialist” governments like the one led by Xi Jinping, it singled out China Labor Bulletin and other such groups as tools of the CIA and other groups bent on overturning what they regard as Chinese socialism. Ajit Singh, a Grayzone regular, wrote an article for Telesur claiming that “While capitalists exist in China today, unlike in capitalist societies, they are isolated and not organized in pursuit of their collective interests. Instead, they exist under the rule of the socialist state to aid national economic development.”

If aiding national economic development—a term utterly devoid of class criteria—means cheating workers out of benefits and beating up labor organizers who defend them, then what’s the difference between Chinese socialism and capitalist rule? Nothing would make Grayzone happier than to see China Labor Bulletin shut down. They write that “China Labour Bulletin (CLB) is actually based in Hong Kong, and it is funded by the US government.” As proof positive of its “regime change” intentions, they revealed that CLB’s founder Han Dongfang was a leader of the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests as if army tanks were defending socialism against fanatics inspired by Ludwig von Mises. They also attack Han for using Radio Free Asia to push “anti-communist” propaganda. If communism involves cheating workers out of back pay and beating up men who fight on their behalf, then I guess I am anti-communist myself.

At the banquet for the Lide workers, Xiaomei, a female Panyu organizer, addresses her sisters: “The liberation of workers’ rights can only come through workers. Only when workers have power will the government and companies make concessions and society show its support. But how do workers get power? Through unity. There’s only one way. Unity. Coming together.”

Given the repressive nature of Chinese society, one can understand why there is no footage inside a Chinese factory where you might have seen workers confronting the boss. Ironically, the best way to see how such clashes unfold is to see “American Factory” on Netflix. This film was released last August as part of a five-film deal between Netflix and the Obamas. I avoided press screenings since I assumed that anything produced by the Obamas had to be tainted.

After seeing it for the first time this week, I can happily report that it makes an ideal accompaniment to “We the Workers”. It shows auto workers in Moraine, Ohio dealing with Fuyao, a Chinese firm that had purchased the recently closed GM plant that turned glass into automobile windows. The film was co-directed by Julia Reichert and Steven Bognar, who have collaborated on a number of films since 1990. On her own, Reichert has directed “Union Maids” and “Seeing Red: Stories of American Communists”, two of my favorite documentaries.

Like most workers, those who had been working for GM enjoyed excellent pay and benefits. When GM shut down, they became like the people Michael Moore spoke to in “Roger and Me”. Hopeless and broke. One woman in her fifties, a former forklift operator, has had her house foreclosed. We meet her living in the basement of a relative with nothing but a bed to sleep on and her belongings spread about in boxes on the floor.

When she and other workers in her position find out that Fuyao has bought the plant and begun recruiting from the pool of laid-off GM workers, they feel rejuvenated. Things start out with a bang. Fuyao founder and CEO Cao Dewang shows up in Moraine to give the marching orders to the Chinese managers who will be working side by side with their American counterparts. In a strategy meeting with just the Chinese managers and the workers who have relocated from China, Cao warns them that Americans are not as motivated as them.

Once production begins at the resuscitated factory, things come to a head rapidly. To begin with, safety has been sacrificed in order to meet new, much more ambitious, production quotas. An American supervisor who is fluent in Chinese meets with his Chinese counterpart to discuss the failure to meet the new quotas. The American is told that his countrymen in the factory talk to each other and joke around too much, which sounds like most factories in the USA. The American says that duct tape is the answer. The Chinese supervisor looks at him with a puzzled expression as if the duct tape was supposed to be used on machines. No, the American explains, we tape their mouths.

An African-American worker in his fifties says that throughout the decades he worked for GM, there was never a single accident at the factory. Now, under Chinese ownership, there have already been 11 in the first year.

One of the more telling scenes in the film involves the forklift operator who has been able to move out of her relative’s basement. She frets that the forklift operators at Fuyao are being asked to move around heavy loads of glass that the machinery could not handle safely. She turned out to be right. A year after Reichert and Bognar filmed this scene, her worries were confirmed:

Fuyao Glass America Inc. forklift operator Ricky Patterson was discovered early Tuesday morning nearly five minutes after more than 2,000 pounds of glass fell on him, trapping the 57-year-old Dayton man against his vehicle, according to Moraine Police Division documents.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the events that led to Patterson’s death. Fuyao, Moraine’s largest employer with about 2,000 workers, was fined $100,000 by OSHA last year for “serious” safety violations. Employees have repeatedly expressed concern about workplace safety.

It was not only accidents that began to stir the American former-GM workers to take action. It was also encroachments on their rights as human beings. For example, the on-premises lunchroom was converted into a production unit, thus leaving them without a place to have a meal in comfort. Even more crucially, they were not getting the kind of wage they used to earn. Starting pay was $14 per hour, about the same as you might make at McDonald’s or Walmart. One worker speaks at a UAW hall, where plans are being made to organize the plant. He points out that his daughter polishes nails out of her apartment and she made $17,000 more than him last year.

Like in other auto factories, especially in the south, getting a UAW local off the ground is very difficult as Volkswagen employees found out in Tennessee. The bosses use heavy-duty indoctrination against union organizers and the threat of permanent replacements or relocation outside of the USA to pressure workers into voting against a union shop. This is what happens in Moraine as well.

While most of the film is devoted to the events transpiring in Ohio, we also see how Fuyao runs its operations in China. You learn that management exploits the legacy of the Maoist revolution to keep workers in line. We see large posters of the Chinese presidents starting with Mao and ending with Xi Jinping lined up in a reception area with a Fuyao trade union official explaining that factories, the Communist Party, and the state-backed unions working like interlocking gears. As it happens, the trade union official is the brother-in-law of the plant manager.

In a review of “American Factory” for Jacobin, Joe Allen complains that “American Factory Stops Short of Class Conflict”. In his view, “the film leaves the door open to anti-Chinese xenophobia.” This conclusion is drawn not on the basis of anything in the film itself but because of an interview the Obamas gave. In keeping with their cluelessness about the problems facing working people, they said, “If you know someone, if you’ve talked to them face-to-face, if you know what their story is, you can forge a connection. You may not agree with them on everything, but there’s some common ground to be found and you can move forward together.” There’s little connection between what they said and what Reichert and Bognar wanted to say in this film.

My strongest recommendation to those trying to understand problems the labor movement is facing both here and in China is to see the two films in tandem. As I have said on multiple occasions, Ovid is the go-to place for leading edge cinema. If you are not yet a subscriber, I urge you to start now (https://ovid.tv/). It will be the only place to see “We the Workers”, a film that prefigures major class battles that have the potential to shake up the world’s second wealthiest nation in the world, one that is communist in name only. With workers determined to win the rights that the American trade union movement once enjoyed, both here and in China, the stakes are enormous. Just before his assassination, Trotsky was preparing an article on the trade unions that including the following observation. It is as true today as it was back in 1940:

From what has been said it follows quite clearly that, in spite of the progressive degeneration of trade unions and their growing together with the imperialist state, the work within the trade unions not only does not lose any of its importance but remains as before and becomes in a certain sense even more important work than ever for every revolutionary party. The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class. Every organization, every party, every faction which permits itself an ultimatistic position in relation to the trade union, i.e., in essence turns its back upon the working class, merely because of displeasure with its organizations, every such organization is destined to perish. And it must be said it deserves to perish.

August 14, 2019

Hong Kong…a Colored Revolution?

Filed under: Hong Kong,housing,workers — louisproyect @ 6:06 pm

As predictable as the Sun rising in the East, the same people who have defended Assad and Putin are now supporting Xi Jinping’s attempt to crush the protest movement in Hong Kong. Just check Max Blumenthal or Ben Norton’s Twitter accounts and you will find dark warnings about Trump using the protests as a way to undermine Chinese influence globally. Does it matter that Trump refers to these protests as “riots”? Probably not, since Grayzone is effectively a Fact-Free Zone.

Trump Says It’s Up to China to Deal With Hong Kong ‘Riots’

By Reuters

Aug. 2, 2019

HONG KONG — U.S. President Donald Trump has described protests in Hong Kong as “riots” that China will have to deal with itself, signalling a hands-off approach to the biggest political crisis gripping the former British colony in decades.

Ever since the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 that protested what was seen as a rigged election allowing Yanukovych to become President, massive protests against government the USA opposes are labelled “color revolutions”. The same villains keep surfacing in the “anti-imperialist” narrative: the CIA, the NED, George Soros, Gene Sharp, Human Rights Watch, Doctors without Borders, etc. This narrative has a certain amount of credibility since American imperialism always seeks its own goals by maneuvering in troubled waters. As it happened, the CIA reached out to Fidel Castro at the very moment it was committed to Batista. Like Goldman-Sachs donating to both Trump and Clinton’s campaigns in 2016, it hedges its bets.

While technically not a “colored revolution”, the 2014 Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong conformed to the established pattern. The movement sought to eliminate a 1,200 member Election Committee that would be the arbiter of who would be able to run for elected office, just as the much smaller 12-member Guardian Council in Iran makes such decisions. The goal of the protesters was to eliminate the Election Committee and open up the elections to all comers. It was dubbed the umbrella revolution because umbrellas were used to defend protesters against the pepper spray used by cops.

Writing for Near Eastern Outlook in 2014, F. William Engdahl put forward the typical arguments:

The Hong Kong wunderkind of the Color Revolution Washington destabilization, 17-year-old student, Joshua Wong, founded a Facebook site called Scholarism when he was 15 with support from Washington’s neo-conservative National Endowment for Democracy via its left branch, National Democratic Institute and NDI’s NDItech project. And another Occupy Central leading figure, Audrey Eu Yuet recently met with Vice President Joe Biden. Hmmmm.

In one of Max Blumenthal’s latest Tweets on Hong Kong, he cites this Engdahl who has quite a history. Long associated with Lyndon Larouche’s movement, he believes that the Pentagon orchestrated the Egyptian overthrow of Mubarak and that the entire Arab Spring was a conspiracy plotted by the Bush administration in 2003.

Writing for CounterPunch in 2014, Andre Vltchek used quite the unhinged invective to denounce the protesters after paying lip-service to their motives:

Protesters may have some legitimate grievances. They want direct elections of the chief executive, and there is, in theory, nothing wrong with such a demand. They want to tackle corruption, and to curb the role of local tycoons. That is fine, too.

This sort of thing was heard in 2011 as well when Syrians rose up against Assad. Yes, he was a plutocrat and a dictator but he is the country’s best defense against Al Qaeda. In Hong Kong, the outside agitators weren’t Muslim fanatics but a cabal of CIA agents seeking to turn yuppies against socialist China:

The Hong Kong protest movement reeks of upper middle class bourgeois consciousness, including its cloying cheap sentimentality and unexamined worshipping of Western “heroes”, like Churchill.

Oh, did I mention that Vltchek doesn’t write for CounterPunch any more?

On March 31 this year, the movement re-emerged but without the umbrellas. When a bill was proposed to the Hong Kong parliament that would allow China to extradite criminals, a massive movement broke out that was much more militant than the one five years ago. While the extradition bill was the spark, the explosion could only have occurred with a number of very inflammatory elements that had angered ordinary working people and students in Hong Kong for a number of years. While the desire for a genuine democracy persisted, the fuel that drove people to shut down the airport, invade the parliament building and confront the police had a class basis. Hong Kong was one the most unequal states in the world.

On July 22nd, an article titled “Tiny Apartments and Punishing Work Hours: The Economic Roots of Hong Kong’s Protests” made very clear that the same thing that drove Syrians to rise up against Assad explained the Hong Kong protests: inequality. In an similarly titled article of mine, “The Economic Roots of the Syrian Revolution”, I focused on rural misery caused by drought and government indifference to the plight of the peasantry. In Hong Kong, there was urban misery instead:

“We thought maybe if you get a better education, you can have a better income,” said Kenneth Leung, a 55-year-old college-educated protester. “But in Hong Kong, over the last two decades, people may be able to get a college education, but they are not making more money.”

Mr. Leung joined the protests over Hong Kong’s plan to allow extraditions of criminal suspects to mainland China, where the Communist Party controls the courts and forced confessions are common. But he is also angry about his own situation: He works 12 hours a day, six days a week as a security guard, making $5.75 an hour.

College-educated? A security guard making $5.75 an hour? That hardly sounds like Vltchek’s “upper middle class” ne’er-do-wells. With that kind of income, Leung is forced to live in one of Hong Kong’s many subdivided apartments, his space equaling 100 square feet about twice the size of the average prison cell in the USA.

Like Manhattan, Hong Kong is an island and space is at a premium. Given the shortage of housing, it naturally galled people like Leung that the rich were determined to maintain their privileges.

Critics say government policies that favor property developers make it even worse. The government makes money off sales of land to property developers, so it paces sales to maximize revenue and favors luxury developments over affordable housing, they say.

They cite the time last year when activists asked city officials to consider turning a golf course into public housing. The 54-hole course, the anchor for a 2,600 member golf club nestled amid Hong Kong’s landscape of concrete dominoes, could have housed apartments for 37,000 people. In the end the government chose to set aside less than one-fifth of the land.

Carrie Lam has been the Chief Executive of Hong Kong since July 2017. Her election campaign was closely tied to both the island’s big bourgeoisie and the Chinese government as Wikipedia reports. Her first election rally was attended by many pro-Beijing figures and tycoons from both the Henry Tang and Leung Chun-ying corporate empires. Zhang Xiaoming, who was simultaneously head of the Communist Party’s Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs, and Sun Chunlan, head of the party’s United Front Work Department, met with major corporate members of the aforementioned Election Committee. Zhang told the electors that the Politburo of the Communist Party had decided to support Carrie Lam in the election.

For all of the vitriol directed against the protesters, it is worth mentioning that one of the politicians identified with their movement hardly qualifies as an agent of Western imperialist interests. I am referring to Albert Ho, a lawyer and former chairman of the Democratic Party in Hong Kong that emerged out of support to the Tiananmen protests of 1989 and its call for the end of one-party rule in China. For these stands, the party was seen as “treasonous” by Beijing.

Not paying much attention to Max Blumenthal or Andre Vltchek, Edward Snowden hired Albert Ho to represent him in Hong Kong before he fled to Russia. As someone familiar with the naked power of authoritarian governments, Albert Ho was just the kind of attorney who could help him ward off the assaults of the Obama administration whose concern for constitutional rights were about the same as the current White House resident.

Yesterday, the NY Times reported on how “Protests Put Hong Kong on Collision Course With China’s Communist Party”. The final section of the article, which is titled “Fears of A ‘Color Revolution’”, refers to Zhang Xiaoming, who is mentioned just above:

Inside a ballroom at the Wuzhou Guest House in southern China last week, Zhang Xiaoming, Beijing’s top official for Hong Kong, told an audience of 500 politicians and business executives from Hong Kong that the protests “have the clear characteristics of a color revolution,” a reference to uprisings in the former Soviet bloc that Chinese officials believe drew inspiration from the United States.

That’s really ironic, warning business executives about a “color revolution”. There was a time when such movements were regarded as imperialist plots against the sort of sclerotic socialism found in Ukraine, Byelorussia or Georgia. Now, it refers to an uprising made up of security guards making $5.75 per hour living in a subsection of an apartment about twice the size of a prison cell. How we ended up with a left that includes Max Blumenthal and Andre Vletchek that can’t tell the difference between a member of the bourgeoisie and the working class is beyond me. But as long as there are young people defending socialism, even if not in Marxist terms, and more importantly willing to act on behalf of the Kenneth Leung’s of the world, that’s all that matters.

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.

Continue reading

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

battle_strike_1934

Open battle between striking teamsters armed with pipes and the police in the streets of Minneapolis, June 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.

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