Tag: neoliberalism

Info-Tech Is Not the New Utopia

Is another (economic) world possible? When economists Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek helped invent the doctrine of neoliberalism in the 1930s and 1940s, they meant to say, decisively, “No!” Only the unregulated price system could assure the rational allocation of resources, economic growth, and stability over the long haul. That is why Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There is no alternative” to free market principles, and hence what you see is what you’ve got: The future can only be the same as our present, history has ended, and capitalism is permanent. We have lived with that dispiriting sense of closed horizons for some time now, but suddenly, over the past five years, a refreshing stream of new books has appeared with titles such as Does Capitalism Have a Future?, How Will Capitalism End?, and Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work. Similarly, the Nation recently devoted a special issue to the theme of getting “out from under capitalism.”[i]

Among all these, Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future, has gained a good deal of attention as an engaging, forceful argument that another world is not only possible but indeed in the offing.[ii]  Hidden in today’s information technology and “networked” knowledge, Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production surpassing the price system of bourgeois markets, a transition made absolutely imperative in our time by the coming, combined threats of climate disaster, aging populations, and the gargantuan growth-killing overhang of debt the world over. Let me say that I’m all for a democratic and egalitarian future beyond capitalism (though for reasons suggested below, I’d still prefer to call it “socialist”), and I welcome and embrace his argument for the necessity of such a future, especially in the face of the present and coming dangers he cites. Mason’s book, however, is less a sure guide to the future than a ghost of futures past. His presentation of “postcapitalism” as a dramatically new analysis of present conditions and future prospects actually evokes visions that are at least fifty or sixty years, maybe a century, old—visions that proved too facile and optimistic a long time ago. We need something more hard-headed—as Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci’s old slogan put it, a mind more pessimistic, combined with a forward-looking will—when we think about how we might get from where we are to where we want to be.

Hidden in today’s information technology . . ., Mason argues, lies the promise of a grand social transition toward a collaborative mode of production . . .

First, let me outline Mason’s perspective; then I will compare it with futures past. Mason mines the Marxian, socialist, and labor-movement traditions for insights into the dynamics of capitalism while tapping contemporary reportage on business, finance, and technology to diagnose the yet-unsurpassed crisis of  2007-2008  and  to  forecast  trends  eating away at the old mechanisms of market society. He does this all in the service of a view Mason considers post-Marxist and up-to-date. He unearths the long-wave theory of Soviet economist Nikolai Kondratieff to outline a history of industrial capitalism since the late eighteenth century in four major phases, culminating in an abortive fifth cycle commenced by the “neoliberal” masters of the 1990s. At previous junctures between one long wave of roughly fifty years’ duration and another (i.e., from the end of a long downturn to a new long boom), Mason explains,  a  combination  of  social  struggles, new technologies, and exogenous shocks led in each case to a reinvention of the capitalist mode: Those shift points led, in the late nineteenth century, toward the monopoly form and in the mid-twentieth century, toward the American-led “Fordist” system. Now, however, any comparable shift has stalled.

Despite the false dawn of the boom in globalized, dot.com capitalism during the late 1990s, he writes, the neoliberals’ unbridled free-trade, low-wage, and financialized order has proven not only crisis-ridden but also unable to build a viable growth engine on the basis of our time’s new technology (“info-tech”). He argues this is the case precisely because the networked, digital world cannot be assimilated to the cost-accounting methods and accumulation process of capitalism. Borrowing not a little from the “wired” technophilia of author and futurist Stewart Brand, Mason repeats Brand’s line, “information wants to be free”: that is, in principle, digitized, networked knowledge is so shareable and enduring that its “marginal cost” tends toward zero.[iii] Thus, the value of goods and services built by digital means steadily declines, except as they are propped up by the losing battle of new monopolists (Apple, etc.) to rigorously enforce intellectual property rights.

Given this trend—and here Mason is an orthodox Marxist—the declining rate of profit becomes virtually irreversible. The consequent lack of productive investment opportunities shunts growth into the financial sector, which despite its apparent profit engine mainly promises repeated bubbles and bloated debt. The presumptive motor of what would have been a new (fifth) capitalist long wave—”info-capitalism”—has  not,  and  indeed  cannot,  take  off, precisely because the technological resources, shareable and enduring as they are, tend to reduce value: That is, info-rich products become a sink for capital rather than a means of collecting new profits. (In years past, prior theorists made a similar point when they speculated about technology that is not only labor-saving but also capital-saving, or what happens when capitalism enters a “disaccumulationist” phase.) Thus, economic stagnation and more devastating financial crises await us, even as climate change, aging societies, and new massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision. Not info-capitalism but info-tech postcapitalism is the way of the future.

. . . [N]ew massive flows of migration from the impoverished world pose daunting, unavoidable demands for public investment and social provision.

Mason argues that at this very moment, the working class and the old labor movement as agents of change have been entirely fragmented or atomized by the employers’ offensive beginning in the 1970s. Workers proved unable to resist the wage-lowering, job-cutting program of “neo- liberal” financialized capitalism. Consequently, our times have lacked the labor resistance that at previous long-wave turning points compelled capitalists to shift gears, innovate technically and organizationally, and find ways of sustaining mass purchasing power. Here, Mason turns post- Marxist, doubting that the industrial working class ever represented a revolutionary, anticapitalist force. He stakes out a position as a post- “socialist” as well, since prior transformative models, notably the Stalinist command economy, proved calamitous.

In place of those agents now comes the productive force of info-tech, bearing within it not only potentially skyrocketing productivity and cost reductions that can make available an abundance of “free stuff,” as Mason often says, but also behavioral models of shared knowledge, collaborative creativity, and casual attitudes that “blur” the boundaries of work and leisure. The “networked” generation of the young who are accustomed to mobile connectivity, he writes, expects lots of “free stuff” (why should cost-free file-sharing of pop music be prohibited?), and they act productively for the sake of the work without pay (namely, the power of Wikipedia’s contributors, or the computer geeks who make modular improvements to “open source” software). New models of “peer-to-peer” exchanges and services outside the marketplace, cooperative workshops, and the collective provisioning that emerged in popular insurgent movements like the defense of Istanbul’s Gezi park: These forecast the future. Government and business will need to make way, as we embark on the postcapitalist “project,” for a long, gradual shift to a new mode that will increasingly displace the marketplace, private productive property, and compulsive profit-making.

This way forward, Mason insists, is not utopian: To begin with, it is imperative (in the face of climate catastrophe and the coming, radical devaluing of fossil-fuel industries if that is to be avoided) and practicable as economists work out means of a universal basic income—a key step toward recognizing the growing disjuncture between available work and income. This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist,” it seems, since it dispenses with old ideas of centralized state planning: consumer markets and entrepreneurship will persist (even as free, shareable goods and services gradually expand their sway) while government will need to undertake the key measures of providing basic income and nationalizing the finance system as well as the energy companies.

This postcapitalist future, in Mason’s view, is not “socialist” . . .

Any number of excellent points appear in this scenario: its sharp sense of the contemporary crisis, its critique of the price system and conventional economic (and neoliberal) dogma, the profoundly historical analysis of capitalist development, and, crucially, its attempt to bring the postcapitalist “transition problem” into serious and imaginative consideration. Yet much of the argument is also all too familiar, surprisingly vague, and weakly defended.

A “postcapitalist vision” of change, understood as something distinct from the struggle for socialism, actually flourished in the mid-twentieth century, dating back as far (in the United States) as journalist Walter Lippmann’s 1914 claim that “a silent revolution is in progress” as corporate combination “is sucking the life out of private property”—and that only determined intelligence was needed to acknowledge the actual “collectivism” of the time and combine it with democratic government. Later, invoking again a “silent revolution” in the con- text of post-World War II reconstruction, politician and author Anthony Crosland coined the term postcapitalist society for the “statist” order initiated by Britain’s Labor Party that, he said, steadily moved the productive order away from the absolutes of private property and profit toward social services; others at the time cited the postwar European “mixed-economy welfare state” as a “post-bourgeois society.”[iv]

This intellectual trend culminated in the original theory of a “post-industrial society,” especially in the United States, as a way of describing tendencies believed to lead away from market absolutes. In this view, very much as in Mason’s diagnosis, the transition from the hegemony of an “economizing” logic toward a “sociologizing” logic (those are sociologist Daniel Bell’s terms) stemmed from the growing, noncommodity form of knowledge as a social resource. Bell, the best- known exponent of “post-industrial” theory, was explicit: The emerging new society was “one in which the intellectual is predominant.” This was decidedly not a “new class” notion of an elite, technocratic intelligentsia. Rather, he argued that contemporary productivity stemmed from advances in “basic science” and its technological applications, rendering the research university as central an institution as the business corporation was to industrial society and injecting into the heart of development the inevitably public good of knowledge. Bell’s meaning was clear: The advancement of scientific knowledge demanded a kind of indicative planning in major social investments, and this crucial new resource was not a marketable commodity. It was not only science as such but also new “intellectual technologies,” by which he meant to highlight the computer-based modeling and planning tools of the sort now used in climate science, that shifted the ground away from the sole calculus of the marketplace.

A writer for the . . . League for Industrial Democracy . . . predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.

And Bell was far from the only figure to work in this vein. The historically coincident debate over “automation” (the term coined in the early 1950s to refer to computer-controlled continuous-flow production processes capable of displacing great amounts of living labor) arose in the early 1960s to make many of the same arguments that Mason and other “end-of- work” theorists offer today: The prospect of mass redundancy meant either a social disaster of mounting, permanent unemployment (and coercive means of controlling a superfluous underclass) or the radical reduction of the work week and a break between work and wage accomplished by publicly provided basic income. A writer for the sober-minded League for Industrial Democracy (LID) predicted a standard fifteen-hour work week by the end of the twentieth century.[v]

There too was a bit of fond optimism. That does not mean, however, that there is no genuine rational kernel within such speculation, and Mason rightly finds an origin to it in the pas- sage in Marx’s (1858) Grundrisse often cited as the “Fragment on Machines”: Here Marx wrote, the human laborer in the course of what we would later call automation “steps to the side of the production process” as “watchman and regulator,” and what matters is not the worker’s measured and exploited time on the job but rather the appropriation of his [the worker’s] general productive power, his understanding of nature and his mastery over it by virtue of his presence as a social   body—it is, in a word, the development of the social individual which appears as the great foundation- stone of production and of wealth. It is then, Marx wrote, that “the theft of alien labour time . . . appears a miserable foundation [of social wealth] in the face of this new one.”[vi]

Mason rightly expands on this: Marx recognized “general social knowledge” as a force of production, the role of “the general intellect” as the new key of human social capacity to meet the needs of social reproduction.[vii] And Mason’s argument that contemporary capitalism cannot maximize the contributions that knowledge-based productive forces can make to human welfare is a plausible translation of Marx’s point about the obsolescence of the wage and property relation under late capitalism. But it is not at all accurate to read Marx’s argument as offering “a knowledge- based route out of capitalism”[viii] or to suggest, as Mason does, that Marx’s “general intellect” is now present in the mobile internet. Marx’s point, rather, was that production would become so profoundly social in practice, manifested in the generally educated individual, that private appropriation and disposition of wealth was both injurious and rooted in an outmoded, baseless claim to property rights. What social force could break with that illusion and that practice was, for Marx, and for us too, another question. There’s the rub.

Contrary to the LID prediction of a fifteen-hour work week, no automatic mechanism of social reason was at work in the late twentieth century to meet productivity gains with scaling back labor and building new means of social provision. Despite the “post-industrial” confidence that knowledge resources could not be commodified, business, legislatures, and courts have managed to go rather far in that direction, even if Mason is correct that the intellectual property regime is in the long run a losing battle against the free flow of tech knowledge. In line with his view that “information wants to be free”—that “info-tech” is by nature the incubus of a new society—he tends to count on the modes of “spontaneous” collectivity and collaboration evident in the worldwide protests of 2010-2013 (from the Arab uprisings to the communal assemblies of Spain and Greece and to Occupy Wall Street) as the source of social energy: “The 99 percent are coming to the rescue,” he states simply in the book’s next to last line. “Postcapitalism will set you free,” is the last.[ix]

Would that it were so. But the key elements of the old socialist and labor movements that Mason leaves behind as putatively obsolete are precisely the things we need to think much harder about in imagining “transition”—and that is, what new forces of solidarity (agents who imagine collectivity as an alternative to illusory, marketized individualism) and organization (a base for persistent agitation) can be built in our time to put his kind of “postcapitalist project” into effect, in opposition to the terribly powerful forces we know are arrayed against that project. For it isn’t at all clear that the 99 percent or networked millennials “spontaneously” generate those forces; we need, in addition to forecasts like Mason’s, a hard-headed new politics of social movements and new strategies of mobilization for change.

Notes

[i] Immanuel Wallerstein, Randall Collins, Michael Mann, Georgi Derluguian, and Craig Calhoun, Does Capitalism Have a Future? (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); Wolfgang Streeck, How Will Capitalism End? Essays on a Failing System (London: Verso, 2016); Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (London: Verso, 2015); Sarah Leonard, “Zombie Ideology,” Nation 304: 16 (May 22/29, 2017), p. 3.
[ii] Paul Mason, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015).
[iii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 115.
[iv] Howard Brick, Transcending Capitalism: Visions of a New Society in Modern American Thought (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2006), 4-6, 50-53. See also Anthony Crosland, The Future of Socialism (London: Jonathan Cape, 1956) and George Lichtheim, The New Europe: Today, and Tomorrow (New York: Praeger, 1963).
[v] Brick, Transcending Capitalism, 189-200, 208.
[vi] Karl  Marx, Grundrisse:Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy, trans. Martin Nicolaus (New York: Vintage, 1973), 704-705.
[vii] Mason, Postcapitalism, 136.
[viii] Ibid., 137.
[ix] Ibid., 292.

Dr. Martin Luther King during Sanitation Strike Copyright Richard L. Copley

Rethinking the Problem of Alliance: Organized Labor and Black Political Life

The enduring problem of the relationship between leading political currents within organized labor, and those prevailing among African-Americans and black advocacy organizations, has once again become a central concern of the left.

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The AFL-CIO “On the Beach”

In the chilling 1959 cold war apocalyptic film, On the Beach, the entire northern hemisphere has succumbed to radiation sickness after a nuclear war. A few pockets of humanity remain in the southern hemisphere but, the characters in the film discover, their demise is inevitable as wind currents slowly move the nuclear fall- out toward them. Life goes on as usual, albeit at a more frenzied and desperate pace, as people await their doom while the radioactive cloud creeps toward them, silencing other outposts as it moves.

At the risk of being overly dramatic, it could be said that today’s AFL-CIO is “on the beach” and awaiting its own demise while attempting to carry on as if it still had a future. Formed in 1955 with a merger meant to end two decades of bitter infighting, the AFL-CIO’s primary purpose was to consolidate and administer the post-war collective bargaining regime. There was a reason why its new headquarters building overlooked the White House. The premise of that regime was that labor was a limited partner with capital in a relationship mediated by the federal government.

This arrangement made workers and their unions particularly vulnerable to the rise of neoliberal globalization. Moreover, a labor movement whose mission focused on collective bargaining with individual employers, and with many of the fundamental functions of working- class solidarity outlawed or constrained, left little scope for a national labor organization to mobilize and lead an organized working class in campaigns against capital.

Instead, we got a federation whose primary internal function was not to unite but to mediate between autonomous unions and whose exter- nal function was to intervene in a regulatory state and serve as a junior partner in a multi- class political party. (Until the end of the Cold War, the U.S. labor movement also performed the additional function of serving U.S. foreign policy interests.)

Today, labor’s influence has been reduced to a few diminishing private-sector outposts. Capital has long moved on, embracing a neoliberal world order with no place for unions or any restraints on its mobility or autonomy. The strange fruits of the November 2016 presidential election make a Friedrichs’-style open-shop public sector all but inevitable. The current Congress and Trump administration may well enact a national right-to-work regulation and do whatever else they can to undermine the right to organize and bargain.

The AFL-CIO has been grappling with this existential crisis since 1995 when, in the only contested election in the history of the AFL- CIO, the New Voices slate was elected with the promise to stop doing business as usual and implement an organizing-intensive program to revitalize the labor movement. The proximate cause of all of this ferment and change was the realization that the Democratic Party had also been captured by neoliberalism. This was driven home by the Clinton administration’s indifference to labor law reform, deference to the medical industrial complex, attacks on federal workers and abandonment of the New Deal/Great Society principles of a social safety net and its embrace of punitive models of social regulation.

Unfortunately, the New Voices leadership never addressed the need to break out of its entrapment within the neoliberal Democratic Party. They actively discouraged the significant union-sponsored effort to build an independent Labor Party that emerged in the late 1990s.[1]

Instead, they doubled down, giving more and more money and organizing resources to Democratic candidates and getting less and less in return. Each election was “the most important fight of our lifetime.” Each victory gave us nothing. Each defeat had disastrous consequences.

This political accommodationism meant that there would be no real improvements in the laws regulating workers’ rights to organize and bargain nor restrictions on plant closures and offshoring. The unrelenting decline in private- sector union density continued, creating a hollowed-out labor movement in all but a few northeastern and west coast states. Union density in Wisconsin in 2011 (the year of the pas- sage of the state’s anti-union public-sector legislation) was less than the union density in Mississippi in 1964.[2] First in Indiana and Wisconsin and then throughout much of the old industrial heartland, anti-union state governments began to aggressively dismantle public- and private-sector organizing and bargaining rights.

In 2005, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) led five national unions out of the AFL-CIO and launched the Change to Win Federation with a promise to shift resources from politics to organizing. Despite its sound and fury, Change to Win failed to reverse the forces leading to the broad decline of the institutional labor movement. They tripled down on accepting the two parties of neoliberalism as the eternal and unchanging reality of American politics and adopted an instrumental politics that would make an old school building trades local proud: we offer this support in exchange for an agreement to unionize these workers under these terms.

Live by the sword, die by the sword. As union density and political clout diminish, a new cadre of anti-union politicians has abrogated these “organizing” agreements as quickly and as easily as they were established by their predecessors. Today, Change to Win mostly exists on paper while the SEIU spends more on political candidates than does the AFL-CIO.[3]

The logical conclusion of the SEIU’s organizing strategy has been described by “new labor” superstar David Rolf, president of Seattle-based SEIU Local 775, as the “nurse log metaphor”[4]  (a nurse log is a fallen tree in the forest that provides nourishment for other plants). Under this scenario, the institutional labor movement’s primary function is to trans- fer resources from organized, dues-paying members to new initiatives like the Fight for $15 campaigns that can rapidly improve conditions for broad sections of the working class without the hassle and difficulty of building a permanent workplace organization. The problem with this, of course, is that it fails to leave behind the type of organic working-class insti- tutions that can nurture leadership and a sense of collective power. At best, the end result is hollowed-out structures like those unions created by administrative fiat to “represent” home health care and family daycare workers.[5]

One alternative to this approach is what journalist Rich Yeselson has called “fortress unionism”6: Defend the remaining bastions of high-density unionism, strengthen existing union locals, build coalitions with other social movements, and then, “Wait for workers to say they’ve had enough.” This is not unlike the characters in On the Beach who wanted to believe that the radioactive clouds would dissipate before they got to them. Defending collective bargaining where it is still viable is a necessary but not sufficient response to the crisis. “Fortress unionism” as a strategy would merely replicate on a much smaller scale the post-war labor movement’s acquiescence to a non-union South after the defeat of Operation Dixie in 1946-1947.

This is the paradox of the American labor movement trapped in a dying collective bar- gaining regime. On the one hand, its very existence is an affront to the neoliberal consensus that views any effort to intervene in the market as parasitic rent-seeking. Its very survival requires that it mobilize workers to confront massive political and economic power, and the threat of that mobilization is what focuses the organized power of capital against it. On the other hand, on a day-to-day basis, the labor movement must deal with the quotidian concerns of its dues-paying members. This is the world of compromise and contract enforcement, of shift schedules and work boot reimbursements, and of defending the guilty so the innocent will not be harassed. They used to call this stuff industrial democracy but now it just befuddles and bores those staffers and “leaders” who never worked in a union shop or experienced what it is like to be a shop steward coming into work in the morning and seeing ten coworkers waiting by the time clock.

The growth of alt-labor worker centers and similar organizations offers some hope as groups such as the New York City Taxi Workers Alliance evolve from foundation-funded “set- tlement house-style” centers that treat workers as clients to membership-driven organizations intent on building worker power. They may very well develop new models that embed worker organizations into workplaces without relying on the legal entailments and formalities

of the collective bargaining regime. But most workers are not willing to sign up for a lifetime of guerrilla warfare. They want security, respect, and enforceable rights and conditions. It certainly makes for great visuals when fifty immigrant construction workers take the day off and picket the boss’ house when they are robbed of their overtime pay, but, I can assure you, most would rather pay union dues so that they could file a grievance under an enforceable labor contract.

What does all this portend for the future of the AFL-CIO? The Federation is being riven by barely acknowledged ideological debates. The dispute over the Keystone and Dakota Access pipeline construction projects exposed the fault lines between those who saw labor’s future as linked to a partnership with capital in an expansionist and extractive economy model and those who saw the potential in a labor movement aligned with the advocates for a planned and regulated green economy. The 2016 Democratic primaries also heightened the contradictions between those who have accepted the neoliberal world order as inevitable versus those who want to build a new social democratic alternative to neoliberalism,  and  the  Trump  administration will certainly intensify these differences. So far, the AFL-CIO has not proven to be a good forum in which to hold these debates. It has taken a hands-off approach and tried to sweep the contradictions under the table. But these contradictions persist nonetheless. They show up in debates over who to support for DNC chair and in the growth of informal caucuses of the left, right, and center. The decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growth of these tendencies based on very different visions of the role of labor in the age of Trump can only accelerate the demise of a Federation model that was crafted in different times for different purposes.

In addition to the ideological pressures, the AFL-CIO is facing a huge financial crunch that will be made worse as the large public-sector unions reduce expenses in anticipation of the loss of agency fee revenue under a new Friedrichs decision. The Federation may soon no longer be able to afford its penthouse terrace overlooking the White House.

But there is something to be said for labor unity, especially in a time of crisis. Many of the central labor councils and state labor federa- tions play a vital role in bringing together the best and the brightest, supporting workers in struggle and engaging in ground-level political mobilization. Compared with the one-party states that characterize most unions, even many of the progressive ones, these structures allow leaders and activists to escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns. If there is to be a real debate about labor’s future, it has to be within structures like these.

If nothing else, this would ensure that the debate would take place within organic structures of leaders connected and accountable to real constituencies and capable of committing organizational resources to a common program. One of the temptations afflicting many in the nominal left is to substitute their own prescriptions for the kind of programmatic unity that can only emerge from such a process. There is no shortage of ideas, many of them quite good, about what the labor movement ought to be doing next. What is needed is not more good ideas but a unified left pole that can give life to a common plan for a revitalized labor movement. This can only happen if key national and local labor organizations are at the table from the beginning of the discussion and feel like they own the outcomes.

There will probably be an AFL-CIO until the radioactive clouds envelop the last outposts of unionism. But time is running short for those who would like to see the AFL-CIO as a catalyst for a revitalized labor movement. To move forward, the Federation must embrace the “spirit of 1995” and acknowledge that we are in deep crisis and need an open and wide-ranging debate about solutions. This must involve a recognition that a revitalized labor movement needs a new vision of politics and a commitment to shift resources toward transformational programs such as single-payer health care, green infrastructure development, and expanding the public sector to support collective bar- gaining goals while building new relationships with social movements and working-class constituencies. There are certainly leaders, staffers, and activists at all levels of the labor movement who recognize the urgency for change. As we deal with the fallout from the disastrous elections and prepare for the AFL-CIO’s upcoming quadrennial convention, this a good time to begin.

One more thing about On the Beach. At the very end, the camera scans the deserted streets of Melbourne, Australia and settles on a Salvation Army poster. “There is still time,” it says. . . .

Notes

1. See Mark Dudzic and Katherine Isaac, “Labor Party Time? Not Yet,” 2012, available at http://thelaborparty.org/d_lp_time.htm.

2. Source: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2015/02/23/385843576/50-years-of-shrinkingunion-membership-in-one-map.

3. Source: http://www.wsj.com/articles/big-laborunions-step-up-presidential-election-spending-1476783002.

4. Harold Meyerson, “The Seeds of a New LaborMovement,” American Prospect, October 30,2014, available at http://prospect.org/article/labor-crossroads-seeds-new-movement.

5. For further discussion of this tension, see Jane McAlevey, “Labor Wars: Put Workers Back at the Center of Organizing,” New Labor Forum 25, no. 3 (2016): 87-89.

6. Rich Yeselson, “Fortress Unionism,” Democracy,Summer, 2013, available at http://democracyjournal.org/magazine/29/fortress-unionism/.Response to Mark Dudzic’s”The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Author Biography

Mark Dudzic is a long-time union activist and former national organizer of the Labor Party. He currently serves as national coordinator of the Labor Campaign for Single Payer Healthcare.

Response to Mark Dudzic’s “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach'”

Julie Kushner with Kitty Weiss Krupat

There are progressive trade unionists (from the AFL-CIO down to the shop floor) who are engaged in debate about the future of the labor movement—a movement that is struggling to regain its power to defend the rights of workers against the overwhelming force of capital and corporate dominance. For over forty years, I have been part of those debates, as has Mark Dudzic. I began reading his article, “The AFL-CIO ‘On the Beach’” but almost stopped dead after his opening gambit, an apocalyptic vision from the film On the Beach as a metaphor for the AFL-CIO— all washed up and “awaiting its own demise . . .” But I read on and found myself in agreement with Dudzic on several points. That said, I think, in the main, his conclusions are unbalanced or unfair, dismissing too freely the complexities and contradictions inherent in any organization structured as a federation with voluntary membership.

His narrative begins in 1955, with another metaphor of sorts—the establishment of the AFL- CIO in a building overlooking the White House. What emerges is a picture of the AFL-CIO as a disembodied structure—an imposing marble building with a professional staff and a “marriage” of convenience with the Democratic Party. Largely absent from this picture are unions and the workers they represent. From this limited perspective, Dudzic places the burden of survival on the AFL-CIO, without fully considering the role of its affiliates or examining the policies, prac- tices, and actual campaigns carried out by individual unions and their members. I believe this is a common weakness in labor analysis.

Rightly, Dudzic warns against the danger of divisions within the AFL-CIO on ideological or political grounds, but he overlooks the impor- tant role the Federation plays in bringing unions together to support one another’s organizing or collective bargaining campaigns. He does not mention the enormous resources provided by the Federation, including statewide Leadership Institutes that bring union leaders together across jurisdictional lines to debate critical labor issues. He urges labor activists to “escape from their silos and engage with a broad range of working-class concerns” without reference to Working America, a community affiliate of the Federation that gives non-union workers opportunities to organize around such issues as health care, education, and housing.

We have to wait until the final paragraphs of “On the Beach” to learn something about the important work going on at state federations and central labor councils. Dudzic leaves the impres- sion that these labor bodies are somehow separate from the AFL-CIO. In fact, they are directly char- tered by the AFL-CIO, and many are financed by the Federation in the form of “Solidarity Grants.” These grants help to support the development of labor–community alliances around the country that have resulted in such campaigns as the Fight for $15. In his discussion of alt-labor groups, he points to the Taxi Workers Alliance as a prime example, failing to note that the Alliance is a char- tered member of the AFL-CIO, the first “non-tra- ditional” union of independent contractors in the Federation.

I share Dudzic’s desire for labor unity around a progressive social and political agenda, and I think his critique of the alliance between labor and government is a cogent one. But I also think it is unrealistic to suggest that we ignore the main- stream political arena. Dudzic carefully explains how the alliance has led labor into the neoliberal establishment, but he sidesteps the issue that immediate and constant pressure to save members’ jobs has often driven individual unions into the conservative camp on particular issues such as the environment or trade. I wish Dudzic had spent more time contemplating long-term solutions to that problem, rather than condemning unions for their failures to unite around a left political agenda. I also wish he had noted unions, such as the Utility Workers, who are committed to job creation through Blue-Green alliances and investments in infrastructure development as well as in education and training to help workers transition from old jobs to new ones. Dudzic’s failure to recognize the significant accomplishments of labor through the Working Families Party is also a serious omission.

I do not want to whitewash the weaknesses in labor’s political work. We have failed to convince union members to vote in their own interests, and that is a bottom line. Nevertheless, political action is a necessary part of our work, which can result in important benefits for workers. The 2016 Verizon strike is a good example. Because of its relation- ship to the Democratic Party, labor was able to call upon then Labor Secretary Thomas Perez to facilitate a settlement that added 1,300 new jobs and created the first contracts at several Verizon stores—all without concessions on job security and flexibility. The appointment of a pro-labor National Labor Relations Board during the Obama administration allowed university workers to regain rights to organize they had lost in the Bush era.

Dudzic suggests that low union density in Wisconsin and Indiana was the enabling factor in allowing state governments to dismantle organiz- ing and bargaining rights in the public sector. I do not think density can be isolated as the factor in that or any other labor struggle. We have to give the Koch brothers some credit. The AFL-CIO and its affiliates poured money and resources into the Wisconsin fight. Unions from around the country came together in the greatest show of labor soli- darity in recent memory. But the combined power of the national labor movement was no match for the power of accumulated capital in the hands of the Koch brothers.

Ultimately—and I am sure Mark Dudzic would agree—we need to encourage and stand with those of our members who are ready to persist and resist. More challenging and more difficult, we need to develop effective ways to engage with, and change the minds of, those members who allow race, gender, homophobia, and fear of difference to divide us. I certainly agree with him that wide-ranging debate is a necessary first step in that direction.

Author Biographies

Julie Kushner is the director of UAW-9A, a region that encompasses New England, parts of New York, and Puerto Rico. In this capacity, she is a member of the International UAW Executive Board.

Kitty Weiss Krupat, a union organizer and labor educator, recently retired as an associate director of the Murphy Institute. Her publications include Out at Work: Building a Gay-Labor Alliance, co-authored with Patrick McCreery.

 

Mark Dudzic Respondes

Julie Kushner rightfully stresses the many impor- tant things that individual unions are doing to “defend the rights of workers against the over- whelming force of capital.” However, the intent of my essay was to focus on the prospects for the future of the AFL-CIO in light of the continuing decline of the collective bargaining regime and the growing differences among the national unions that make up the federation (her reference to the Utility Workers’ excellent work in promot- ing a Blue-Green Alliance in contrast to more conservative approaches taken by other unions exposes one of those fault lines).

Kushner agrees that the AFL-CIO has diffi- culty functioning as a unified working-class voice because of its federation structure, mak- ing it ill-suited to lead at a time when the con- tradictions with capital have intensified. This structure holds the AFL-CIO hostage to the effective veto of any action by any one of its affiliates. These limitations have convinced union leaders like Larry Cohen, former presi- dent of the Communications Workers of America, that “Too often a particular union’s stance may reflect a private employer’s growth plans, not the general good for working people” and that we should “. . . not necessarily focus on [labor] unity about political strategy.”1

Recent layoffs and reductions in programs at the AFL-CIO are indicative of the precarious- ness of its financial situation and are probably just the beginning of a painful process of finan- cial retrenchment. This situation creates its own death spiral. Will the affiliates continue to prop up the AFL-CIO as it sheds programs and services and is increasingly unable to rise to the challenge of opposing a sustained and concerted attack on the foundational rights to organize and bargain?

Moreover, the Federation has been unable to resolve the tension that Kushner identifies between transactional and transformative politics. The relentless drive toward the lowest common denominator means that the long-term interests of the working class—precisely what a national labor organization should, in theory, be consti- tuted to promote—are often sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. At a time when right-wing populism poses an existential threat to the principles and values of an independent labor movement, these compromises can prove disastrous.

I agree with Kushner that perhaps the most important raison d’être of the AFL-CIO is the nur-turing of solidarity, discussion, and labor unity at the local and regional level. Like Kushner, I am not ready to give up on the promise of a unified and activist national labor movement and believe that the institutional labor movement continues to be the source of the resources, organizing capacity, and constituency without which any progressive change is inconceivable.

But time is truly running short. And we are not well served by any perspective that seeks to minimize the extent of the crisis or paper over the internal differences. We must begin by rigorous  self-examination  and  debate  led  by leaders and activists who actually have a stake in the outcome. In the end, a newly revitalized labor movement in the United States may look very different than today’s AFL-CIO.

Notes

1. David Moberg, “This Is What Progressives—Especially Labor—Can Learn from Bernie Sanders’ Campaign,” In These Times, July 27,2016, available at http://inthesetimes.com/working/entry/19330/this_is_what_progressives_especially_labor_can_learn_from_bernie_sanderss_c.

Europe on the Precipice: The Crisis of the Neoliberal Order and the Ascent of Right-Wing Populism

The current crisis of burgeoning right-wing populism in Europe is a multi-dimensional one comprising the decline of the political center made up of social democrats, Christian democrats, and liberals who have governed since the war. At the same time, the left and right poles of the spectrum are growing, though asymmetrically. While, in the elections held in the EU and Switzerland in 2015, 11 percent fell to the parties to the left of the social democrats and Greens,[1] the vote share of radical right parties reached 22 percent, and this trend is continuing in 2016 as seen in the elections held in four German states resulting in double-digit results for the right-wing populist party Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, AfD). So far, political scientists were convinced that the share of the vote right-wing parties can attain in Western Europe cannot exceed 30 percent. In contrast the leave-vote in the referendum in the UK shows that they can break through that ceiling, by capturing the political agenda and reaching out to constituencies which cannot be wholesale written off as right radicals.

The influence of right-wing radical parties in Western Europe

Surprisingly for many people, the recent successes of right-wing radical parties across Europe have put the working class back into the locus of wide-ranging analyses. The same working class that many political scientists until recently thought had exhausted its role is now being held responsible for the rise of the radical right.

At first sight, empirical research appears to confirm this new reality. Thus, according to analysis of Austria’s presidential election in May 2016, the share of working-class votes for the right-wing radical and nationalist Freedom Party of Austria (Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs,

FPÖ) candidate amounted to 86 percent. [2] Analyses of France’s December 2015 regional elections reveals similar data.

Indeed there is much evidence that right-wing radical parties have made significant advances among the traditionally social democratic working-class electorate. However, these findings remain one-sided as long as the published investigations do not also reflect the vote shares in other segments of the electorate. In Austria’s presidential elections, the results which the FPÖ candidate achieved in agricultural and tourist regions demonstrate that he succeeded in penetrating a traditionally Catholic conservative segment of society, and the conservative Viennese daily Die Presse reported growing support for the FPÖ by members of the national lobbying group, the Association of Austrian Industrialists.[3]

Author and political commentator Richard Seymour draws a similar picture for England in describing the UK Independence Party (UKIP) as a genuine cross-class party that, acting like a wedge, has shifted national politics to the right. For the 2014 elections Seymour finds a roughly equal distribution of the party’s influence over broad social segments, so that one-quarter of the party’s support is made up of blue collar workers, one-quarter small entrepreneurs, one-quarter high-level managers, and one-quarter large-scale entrepreneurs.[4]

The rise of right-wing radical parties has complex causes, which include numerous political and cultural factors: Alongside fiscal crisis, precarity, and the middle strata’s fear of downward social mobility, there is the decline of social democratic parties; and the disillusionment over this —when the left fails to offer a credible radical alternative—ends all too easily by delivering people to the mills of the radical right. In her work on the French National Front party, left-wing author Elisabeth Gauthier pointed out that its high vote share is statistically and politically the result of electoral abstention and demobilization of a left disillusioned by the politics of the Parti Socialiste  (Socialist Party in France) and unfortunately also of the Front de Gauche (Left Front in France).

Here we have a sense of déjà vu, recalling the Italian Marxist theorist Antonio Gramsci who described the political crisis of the 1920s in Europe as an interregnum in which “the great masses have become detached from their traditional ideologies and no longer believe what they used to believe. . . .”

The Recent Austrian Experience

In the May 2016 Austrian presidential elections, Norbert Hofer, the candidate of the right-wing  Freedom Party of Austria earned 49.6 percent of the vote and came within a hair of being elected.  Had Hofer won, Austria would have been the first western European country to have elected an openly radical rightist as head of state. In one important detail, the Austrian FPÖ differs from other nationalist parties in Europe: Its nationalism does not relate to its own nation. As a representative of the German-National tendency of the Austrian right, it considers German-speaking Austrians to be part and parcel of the German “ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community”[5] which in itself not only contradicts Austria’s constitutional law, but also is out of synch with Europe’s post-war order.

But German nationalism and the affinity to the political doctrine of the Nazi Party of Germany National Socialism, alone do not explain the FPÖ’s ongoing success, which began in 1986. Insight into the complex causes of this development can be gleaned from a post-election poll published right after Vienna’s City Council elections in fall 2015.

 

The statement ‘Vienna is very livable’ was shared by (per cent):[6]
SPÖ (Austrian Socialist Party) voters 89
ÖVP (Austrian People’s Party (Christian Democratic)) voters 71
Green voters 94
NEOS (The New Austria and Liberal Forum) voters 81
FPÖ voters 30

In this off-year election, Vienna showed it was split in two. Whereas the voters of all parties appeared to feel comfortable in their city, 70 percent of FPÖ voters were not happy with their quality of life in the city. Here we see a de-facto monopoly by a right-wing radical party in representing the discontented in times of rising unemployment, growing fear of downward social mobility, and the growing precarity of living conditions .

A Europe-Wide Trend

The spectrum of far-right parties is multifaceted. In political science an important distinction is drawn between right-wing extremism and right-wing radicalism. Right-wing extremism indicates parties and groups that position themselves on the margin of the political spectrum, use violence, and in most cases relate ostentatiously to the tradition of National Socialism, that is, take up that party’s symbolism and rhetoric. They include Greece’s nationalist party Golden Dawn, Hungary’s Jobbik party, and the British National Party. In contrast to them, there are parties we call right-wing radical or right-wing populist which rhetorically distance themselves from extremism and claim to operate in the framework of parliamentary democracy. Modernized far-right parties camouflage their racism by the theory of ‘cultural difference’ thus trying to present themselves as a part of the mainstream. However, the basic idea remains the rejection of any sort of blending or living together of people of different cultural backgrounds within one society. This group of parties comprises, for example, the UKIP, France’s National Front, Denmark’s People’s Party, Democrats of Sweden, the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV), Poland’s Law and Justice Party, the [True] Finns (of Finland), and the FPÖ.

The spectrum of the right-wing radical parties is fragmented. However, the common characteristics, which exist in different combinations in all cases, justify speaking of a family of parties. These characteristics are:[7]

  • a populist political style
  • an authoritarian conception of society;
  • ethnic nationalism (xenophobia, racism, and anti-Europeanism);
  • social chauvinism (the social state seen as exclusively for nationals)

How Populism Works

The question is: Can we call modernized right-wing radicalism fascism? I must confess that my answer is ambivalent. On the one hand, it makes no sense from a political point of view to address electorates making up nearly one-third of the population of certain countries as potential accomplices of mass murder, all the more so that the parties in question will tirelessly assert the opposite.

However, analyses of the 1920s and 1930s, in which Marxists such as Antonio Gramsci, Arthur Rosenberg, Walter Benjamin, and Otto Bauer tried to interpret what was then a new and paradoxical phenomenon of a ‘conservative rebellion’, reveals disturbing parallels with what contemporary political science terms right-wing ‘populism’.

Right-wing radical parties that are successful in deploying populist methods try to present themselves as rebellious outsiders. They discursively construct an antagonism between a corrupt elite and a betrayed people but exclude from their critique the actual connection of domination—consisting of the unequal distribution of property, income, and the resources of power. Instead, they present a criticism of existing conditions from the standpoint of the existing capitalist relations. The ‘anti-system’ rhetoric is not aimed against capitalism, which is taken as a given objective, but against the system of liberal representative democracy. What Walter Benjamin said of fascism from his Parisian exile in 1935 is true of today’s right-wing populism: it “attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves.”[8]

Quite contrary to the impression it tries to give, a populist discourse is not critical but exceedingly conformist. Its standard is not common sense, as it claims, but reactionary prejudice.

It aims at the maintenance and stabilization of socio-economic inequality by naturalizing it, offering, in periods of crisis and of political threat to rule, new authoritarian, repressive means and providing the appropriate ideology and the needed ruthless political personnel.

Thus, it makes sense that the first thing France’s National Front is demanding—under the heading ‘a constitutional reform for the re-establishment of democracy’—is to lengthen the term of office of the president whom the French system already provides with enormous powers.[9]

The ‘direct democracy’ of which they speak aims at producing a direct and exclusive relationship between the public and the charismatic leader, paving the way to a state which is governed according to the ‘Führer’ principle: He who is against the leader is against the people.’[10]

Competing Nationalism

Nationalists, whether they are French, Italian, or Hungarian, or other, see the world through the same eyes. They see their country as threatened by external forces and groups. Nationalism, or more accurately, nationalisms, represent a narrative that claims priority for the interests of one’s own country. In the case of major nations, the fulfillment of one’s own nationalism is seen as possible only at the cost of the nationalism of the others. Paradoxically, Europe’s radical right is divided through competing nationalisms at the same time as it is politically united by a strong anti-Europeanism.

Ever since the Treaty of Lisbon, the EU has not only represented an economic and currency union, but also a system of institutionalized political relations between states and nations resulting from both the Second World War and the victory of capitalism during the Cold War. According to the European treaties, all states of the EU are equal. In practice, the EU proved to be a hierarchical system, which in a capitalist context is not very surprising. The growth of nationalism in Europe is an indicator of a dramatic deterioration of national relations in Europe, between center and periphery, south and north, Germany and France, etc. Consequently, without ending austerity—or without initiating a broad pan-European movement against austerity—nationalism cannot be pushed back.

Within the European Parliament, the party family of the radical right has found homes under different roofs. Right-wing radical parties are members of three different groups:

  • ECR (European Conservatives and Reformists). Here under the same roof there are, among others, Britain’s Conservative Party, Poland’s Law and Justice party, the Alternative für Deutschland, the Danish People’s Party, the True Finns, and the New Flemish Alliance of Belgium.
  • EFDD (The Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy). This group was largely formed by the MEPS (Member of the European Parliament) of the UKIP (Great Britain) and Beppe Grillo’s Five-Star Movement (Italy).
  • ENF (Europe of Nations and Freedom). This group established in 2015 includes the National Front (France), the FPÖ (Austria), PVV (Netherlands), Lega Nord (Italy), and Vlaams Belang (Belgium)[11]

The composition of these groups is not the result of any recognizable overriding strategic calculation but rather reflects tactical considerations by the parties, often in relation to domestic politics and, in some cases, interpersonal competition at the European level and the personal aversions of leadership figures (for instance between Marine Le Pen of National Front and Nigel Farage of UKIP). These divisions however  simply do not weaken the radical right-wing phenomenon as a whole; instead, we see that their differentiation makes possible a diffusion of right-wing radical influence within a spectrum that reaches into the center of European politics—epitomized by the Hungarian civic Alliance (Fiatal Demokraták Szövetsége) FIDESZ, a right-wing radical party that has nevertheless found its place within the European People’s Party, alongside Christian Democrats.

The Fight for a “New Common Sense” 

While the struggle against right-wing extremism and neo-Nazism in most cases is a struggle at the margins of the political spectrum, the battle against right-wing radicalism by now has become a struggle for majorities at the center of society.

One experience of the inter-war years continues to have current relevance. The triumphal march of the radical right, specifically in Germany and Austria, was triggered by the mass unemployment and immiseration of the middle strata. This means that without a struggle against unemployment, and for the defense, expansion, and reconstruction of the welfare state, for adequate professional training and legally regulated work conditions, for the right to housing, and for the public services, right-wing radicalism cannot be defeated. However, doing so also requires a sustainable economic policy, control over the financial markets, a policy of industrial reconstruction, and a conversion to ecological sustainability conversion.

This kind of policy shift is not possible without a confrontation with the ruling parties and prevailing interests, as in the current struggle of France’s working class against the labor market reform introduced by the social democratic government. Although at the beginning of the year Marine Le Pen was leading the polls for the upcoming presidential elections, today a majority of the French view the General Secretary of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT)  as the ‘most important opponent of the government’. [12] Overnight the National Front is watching itself being pushed to the margins of politics. Militant trade unions and social movements are indispensable in the confrontation with the radical right, but the trade-union movement in Europe is not up to the challenge, especially in terms of  Europe-wide cross-border solidarity.

There is, however, also a gap that needs to be filled by renewed left political parties.

The power bid by right-wing radical parties is indeed a threat to liberal democracy that is perceived by many people irrespective of political party allegiances. Right-wing radicalism, however, is not the only danger that threatens democracy today. The authoritarian means with which austerity policy is being carried out in the EU, the arming of a security and surveillance apparatus under the pretext of fighting terrorism, the anti-Muslim racism amplified by the media, and borders closed off to immigrants—all not only creates a climate in which right-wing radicalism thrives, but also represents limitations on and threats to democracy and freedom.

In this context the left finds allies in civil society, churches, anti-fascist groups, and among political liberals. However those who advocate a refugee policy consistent with human rights, or LGBT rights, that is, those who are combatting racism and defending bourgeois freedoms, do not automatically fight for a redistribution of social wealth from the top to the bottom . Nor is the inverse necessarily true. A left that wants to successfully wage a battle against the radical right has to stand the test in both spheres, and only if it succeeds in combining the struggles into a common political project, establishing a ‘bottom-middle alliance’,[13] can it succeed in building a new left hegemony for a social transformation.

Finally, the crisis of European integration has opened up the decisive arena of confrontation between the left and the radical right. Europe is a political fait accompli and therefore an arena of the struggle for democracy. The EU can only be defended in the face of nationalism if it becomes a democracy with a full-fledged parliament.However, pan-Europeanism, cannot be the only perspective of the left on Europe, in which states and nations exist and will continue to do so; therefore the only European democracy that will be accepted by the populations is one that respects democracy in the Member States. The brute force with which a new Memorandum was forced on the Syriza government shows that this kind of respect is not the established policy. It is the state leaderships just as much as the European technocracy in Brussels which are responsible for this.

The struggle against the radical right will only be won if the prevailing regime in Europe is ended. Europe will either be democratic and social or it will founder on nationalism.

In the last analysis, there is another aspect to this European malaise. Europe’s societies as a whole are unprepared for the Great Transformation [14] which the world is currently undergoing. It must be understood that this prospect, broadcast into people’s living rooms through television and the Internet, is frightening for them, because there is not enough understanding of the underlying social processes.

This socio-economic transformation necessitates the fight for a ‘new common sense’ referred to by Gramsci, without which  the regression to primitiveness, which is the aim of far-right parties, cannot be prevented.

 

Notes

[1]This includes the above-average successes of left parties in Greece (Syriza, KKE, and Popular Unity: 44 per cent) and Spain (Podemos and IU: 24.4 per cent).

[2]See ‘Wer hat wen gewählt‘, Der Standard, 22 May 2016, <http://derstandard.at/2000037398941/Wer-wen-gewaehlt-hat>.

[3]See Die Presse, 2 May 2016,  <http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/economist/kordiconomy/ 4978742/ Hort-die-Signale-der-FPO? _vl_backlink=/home/index.do>.

[4] Richard Seymour, ‘UKIP and the Crisis of Britain’, Socialist Register 2016, London, p. 35.

[5]           Literally, in the FPÖ’s current programme: ‘Austria’s language, history, and culture are German. The overwhelming majority of Austrians are part of the German ethnic, linguistic, and cultural community’. Parteiprogramm der Freiheitlichen Partei (FPÖ) enacted at the Federal Party Congress 18 June 2011 in Graz’, <www.fpoe.at/fileadmin/Content/portal/PDFs/_dokumente/2011_graz_parteiprogramm_web.pdf>.

[6] ‘Wahltagsbefragung’, Source: ISA/SORA, 11 October 2015; quoted from orf-online: <https:/www.facebook.com/ZeitimBild/photos/a.381568636877.161891.182146851877/10153571900376878/?type=3&theater>.

[7] See Cas Mudde, ‘The Far Right and the European Elections’, Current History Magazine 03/2014.

[8]  Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, Walter Benjamin, Illuminations (ed. Hannah Arendt, transl. Harry Zohn), New York: Shocken, 1969.

[9] ‘Notre Projet’ – Programme Politique du Front National (2012), pp. 44 ff.

[10] Hans-Henning Scharsach, Rückwärts nach rechts – Europas Populisten, Vienna : Wirtschaftsverlag Ueberreuter, 2002, p. 213.

[11] The MEPs of the explicitly neo-fascist Golden Dawn (Greece) and Jobbik (Hungary) could not find a home in any of the three far-right groups and registered as non-attached members.

[12] <http://diepresse.com/home/wirtschaft/international/4999201/Frankreich_Streiks-eskalieren-vor-FussballEM>.

[13] Michael Brie (2010), ‘Einstiegsprojekte in eine solidarische Politik‘, <http://www.rosalux.eu/fileadmin/user_upload/brie_einstiegsprojekte.pdf>.

[14] Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. New York:Farrar & Rinehart ,1944.

 

Corporations Call for “Net Zero” Emissions: Do They Know How to Get There?

In the months leading to the December 2015 Paris Climate Conference, representatives of global institutional investors and multinational corporations made headlines after they demanded that world leaders adopt radical emissions reduction targets, among them “net zero” emissions by 2050. Examples include the Global Investor Statement on Climate Change, which was signed by 409 investors representing more than $24 trillion in assets, and the Prince of Wales’ Corporate Leaders Group (which includes the likes of Shell Global and Heathrow Airport Holdings Limited). Following the Statement’s adoption in Paris, a cluster of corporate heads led by Virgin Group’s Richard Branson (calling itself the “B Team”) demanded that all governments turn the Paris net zero emissions target into national-level laws.

What are we to make of this? The practical implications of the net zero target adopted in Paris—if it is seriously pursued—are nothing short of revolutionary, opening up a “system crunch” scenario when the forces of growth, profit, and accumulation that presently propel capitalism collide with the political imperatives required to reach virtually total “decarbonization” in little more than a generation.

Paradoxically, the corporate push to adopt net zero by 2050—a target that is unprecedented in terms of its ambition—merely draws attention to the fact that the corporate elite has no clear or convincing idea about how it might be achieved. The capitalist spirit is progressively willing, but the flesh grows all the time steadily weaker.

Thus, the Paris Agreement can be a clarifying moment for labor, the climate movement, and the broader left in that, more than ever before, it exposes the gulf between what needs to be done from a scientific standpoint and what the global corporate and political elite are actually able to deliver.

Elite Consensus

Corporate statements on climate change invariably attract media attention, but it is worth remembering that major institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, and the International Energy Agency (IEA)—all of them unswervingly loyal to the corporate neoliberal agenda—have for some years been sounding the alarm about climate change and have urged, in fact demanded, bold action. As a result, the Paris Agreement included the goal of net zero emissions by 2060-2070. This is more or less consistent with what is required to control global warming. With still more emissions projected in the years ahead, it is virtually certain that the world will approach and perhaps exceed dangerous temperature thresholds. The adoption of net zero therefore reflects a consensus held by the majority of the world’s business and political elite that the situation is serious; the science needs to be acknowledged, and determined action at the global level is required.

The Paris Contradiction

The problem, however, is not a lack of consensus on the need to dramatically reduce emissions; it is, rather, the inability to actually act on the consensus that has already been achieved. To illustrate this, we need look no further than the Paris Agreement itself. It acknowledges the need for global warming to stay “well below 2 degrees Celsius” and states that efforts should be made to limit warming to 1.5°C. However, the “intended nationally determined contributions” (INDCs) that lie at the heart of the agreement—even if they are fully achieved—will set the world on a pathway toward 2.7°C to 3.5°C of warming (and that assumes a comparable level of ambition after 2030). The 1.5°C threshold will therefore be breached long before the Agreement’s 2030 expiration date. Thus, the Agreement acknowledges the scientific reality and then institutionalizes “contributions” that are not even close to being consistent with that reality.

Instead of reducing emissions, the INDCs in the Paris Agreement will result in an increase in emissions—albeit at a slower rate than would be the case according to the “business-as-usual” scenario. The IEA notes, “There is no peak in sight for world energy-related CO2 emissions in the INDC Scenario: they are projected to be 8 percent higher than 2013 levels in 2030 while primary energy demand grows by around 20 percent.”1

The elite consensus around the net zero goal is solid enough, but when the discussion turns to considering how the target might be reached the consensus breaks down and differences emerge. Three perspectives can be distinguished. For convenience, these three can be labeled the “Gaia Capitalists,” the “Carbon Traders,” and the “Adaptationists.” Each of the three can tell us something different about the kind of responses that the system’s representatives are considering.

Go Gaia

The term Gaia Capitalism was apparently the creation of Richard Branson. Just prior to the Paris talks, the Branson-led B Team—adherents to “Plan B,” described as an ecologically focused alternative to “Plan A” profit-based ‘business as usual’—issued the call for net zero emissions by 2050. But the statements issued by the B Team and similar groups are largely devoid of details as to how this can be achieved. Branson’s group assures us that once governments turn the Paris commitment into national laws, it will, in Branson’s own words, “unleash new innovations, mobilize large-scale investment, and reshape consumer behavior, all of which will create new jobs and economic growth.”2

However, for the Gaia Capitalists, laws will not be enough. Reaching net zero will also require corporations to embrace a new ethic, one that combines ambition with altruism. The defining trait of the capitalist—making money—can be turned into a humanitarian act if CEOs can embrace a new set of values. The world needs a new form of capitalism—one that is not driven exclusively by concern for the bottom line.3 This new capitalism must recognize that the earth is one large living organism, and all life is connected. Before the Paris conference, the Plan B group issued an awkwardly phrased rallying cry to other corporate heads, one that urged them to embrace “people and planet . . . alongside profit.”

It is hard not to see this group as heirs to the paternalistic anti-union “welfare capitalists” of the early period of the twentieth century, among them John D. Rockefeller, George Pullman, and J. P. Morgan. As Naomi Klein reminds us, a decade ago Branson said he would commit $3 billion to green investments, of which less than 10 percent materialized (mostly in biofuels) and then dried up altogether.4 During the same period, Branson opened new airline companies and the aviation business is presently booming as a result of cheap oil.

Branson’s group attracts a level of media attention but, one or two exceptions aside, the companies identifying with this approach are not major players in the global economy. And in common with “green growthers” everywhere, the problem of decoupling economic growth from emissions is simply brushed aside.

Trader Woes

The most important camp of climate-concerned capitalists is the “Carbon Traders.” Carbon pricing lies at the heart of neoliberal climate policy—the “primary mitigation mechanism” according to the IMF and the World Bank, and think tanks like the Stern Commission.5

Carbon Traders (the Traders) represent a hard-nosed subset of investors and corporate CEOs, most of whom probably look at the narcissistic hubris of Branson’s “B team” with disdain and perhaps some embarrassment. For them, net zero is needed to preserve their assets and investments, but reaching the target will require governments to introduce a global price on carbon to drive and incentivize the low-carbon economy. Governments need to “take carbon out of competition.”

The Traders understand that capitalists primarily respond to the laws of capitalist competition. Singing from the Milton Friedman songbook, they take seriously the idea that the fiduciary responsibility of a corporation or bank is to provide a return on investment regardless of the social and ecological implications. As the Prince of Wales group candidly admitted, “The private sector invests trillions of dollars . . . but in most cases the goal of reducing Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions does not guide such spending.”6 Therefore, “a clear, transparent, and unambiguous price on carbon emissions” is needed.7 Similarly, in February 2015, British Petroleum’s chief economist Spencer Dale described how, over the next twenty years, the use of oil and gas would grow 25 percent and, therefore, climate goals could not be reached. “Policy makers may wish to impose additional policies,” principal among them being a “meaningful global price for carbon.”8

The problem for the Traders—a problem they have thus far refused to acknowledge—is that carbon pricing has failed to have an impact on emissions and is going nowhere. The World Bank’s detailed assessment of carbon markets reported that, in 2015, only 12 percent of global GHGs were covered by a price. “A global average carbon price,” the Bank reminds us, “of between US$80 and US$120—per ton of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e)— . . . would be consistent with the goal of limiting the global warming to 2 degrees Celsius.”9 The average carbon price is today around $10 per ton. So more than twenty years after the Kyoto Agreement established pricing carbon as the principal policy instrument for reducing emissions, still 88 percent of global GHGs are not covered by a price, and the price on the emissions that are covered is so low as to be completely useless. The World Bank cannot point to a single instance where carbon trading has had more than a barely measurable impact on emissions levels.

The prospects for carbon markets are poor. Corporations do not want to pay for their pollution because it cuts into the bottom line. Any anxieties with regard to the long-term viability of the system are almost invariably trumped by short-term competitiveness concerns of an individual company. Meanwhile, unloading the net zero responsibility on to governments allows corporations to continue more or less on a “business-as-usual” course. If the Traders were to face up the failure of carbon pricing, they would need to offer something different—the most obvious solution being decisive government interventions, ranging from heavy and restrictive regulations to all out social ownership of key economic sectors. But this would require an ideological shift away from neoliberal groupthink—and there are few signs that this is going to happen absent sustained pressure from social movements.

Adapting to the Future Normal

The “Adaptationists” resemble something of a secret society. And while few corporate heads will openly admit it, there is a growing belief that the net zero target will not be reached by 2060-2070. The INDCs submitted in Paris already reflect the distance between the scientific consensus and the declared intentions of governments, many of whom are mere mouthpieces for business interests. Net zero will require full decarbonization of the global economy in just four or five decades. At that point, any GHGs released—to generate electricity; make products; power cars, trucks, ships, and airplanes; heat and cool buildings; raise and slaughter billions of animals, and so forth— must somehow be offset or “neutralized.” In the case of CO2 , this can be done by enhancing photosynthesis through reforestation and expanding the amount of vegetation on the surface of the planet. However, at present, some forty-six to fifty-eight thousand square miles of forest are lost each year—equivalent to fortyeight football fields every minute.10 Currently, the global economy emits roughly fifty-seven billion tons of CO2 per year; almost twice the annual emissions levels of the mid-1990s.11 Emissions from fossil fuel use have risen a staggering 61 percent since 1990 and will continue to rise, albeit more slowly.12 Furthermore, the global economy is expected to be three times larger in 2050 than it is today.13

Aware of these realities, the Adaptationists have concluded that the chances of reaching net zero amounts to, well, practically zero. And rather than adopt a politically dangerous or untenable target that could become a lightening rod for discontented radicals, they are trying to shift the policy focus toward dealing with the effects of warming, and the need for building resiliency. This perspective is presently expressing itself via important pro-corporate think tanks—perhaps a clear sign that CEOs are also thinking in similar terms. According to the World Economic Forum,

Advocating for greater attention to be paid to adaptation is controversial in some quarters as it is interpreted as a tacit admission that mitigation efforts are no longer worth pursuing. However, the less effective mitigation efforts are, the more pronounced adaptation challenges will become.14

Using stronger language, in a 2013 report titled Too Late for Two Degrees? the pro-corporate PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) noted, “This year (2013) we estimated that the required improvement in global carbon intensity to meet a 2 degrees warming target has risen to 5.1 percent a year, (every year) from now to 2050.” Governments’ ambitions to limit warming to 2°C, it noted, therefore “appear highly unrealistic.” The PwC report concluded, “businesses, governments and communities across the world need to plan for a warming world—not just 2°C, but 4°C, or even 6°C.”15 Such levels of warming are, in the words of one of the world’s leading climate scientists, Kevin Anderson, “incompatible with an organized global community.”16

How we can actually plan for global chaos remains something of a mystery—but the key message of the Adaptationists is valid. PwC’s report makes this point: “The only way to avoid the pessimistic scenarios will be radical transformations in the ways the global economy currently functions.”17 Such radical transformations would threaten the system itself—which is a political “no-no.” Therefore, we need to suck it up and hope for the best.

Capital’s Conundrum and Climate Justice

These differences of approach among the global corporate elite are unlikely to lead to open conflict, at least not yet. But it is already clear that none of these perspectives warrant the support of labor and other social movements. The Paris Agreement expresses the distance between what the science says is needed and the “best we can do” reality offered by those who work within the ideological and systemic confines of competition and accumulation.

To get even close to net zero in the time agreed will require dramatic changes in the global political economy. The capitalist paradigm of extraction, accumulation, and consumption, wrapped up in the ideology of growth, is incompatible with true ecological sustainability or a stable climate.

For labor, climate justice, and other social movements, capital’s climate conundrum is an opportunity. We need to continue to develop our own proposals to pursue radical emissions reductions by way of deep restructuring of the global political economy; to reassert the need for extending democratic control, advancing “public goods” approaches to essential needs and services; and to implement a just transition based on mass popular participation in key economic decisions.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

Funding

The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.

 

Notes

  1. International Energy Agency (IEA), “World Energy Outlook 2015 Special Report on Energy and Climate Change” (Paris: International Energy Agency, 2015), available at http:// www.worldenergyoutlook.org. The IEA also reported that the Paris Agreement would see electricity generation from coal grow by 24 percent by 2040, available at http://www. worldcoal.org/signing-ceremony-paris-agreement-what%E2%80%99s-next.
  2. https://www.virgin.com/richard-branson/ climate-opportunity-paris.
  3. People and planet alongside profit available at http://bteam.org/the-b-team/watch-the-b-teamdeclaration/Branson in Guardian, http://www .theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/06/ paris-climate-change-summit-richard-branson? CMP=twt_a-environment_b-gdneco.
  4. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/ 2014/ sep/13/greenwashing-sticky-business-naomiklein.
  5. For example, see May 29, 2015, letter to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Secretariat and the COP21 Presidency, available at http://s08 .static-shell.com/content/dam/shell-new/local/ corporate/corporate/downloads/pdf/media/ speeches/2015/letter-to-unfccc.pdf.
  6. Carbon Price Communiqué (first issued 2012). Statement available at http://www.climatecommuniques.com/Carbon-Price.aspx.
  7. Ibid.
  8. 2015 BP Energy Outlook 2035 (published February 26, 2015). Presentation by BP Chief Economist Spencer Dale energy trends, available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fy PBww4o_Do.
  9. World Bank, State and Trends, page 23. How much more the price would need to be to limit warming to “well below 2°C” or even 1.5°C per the Paris Agreement has still to be calculated, but perhaps $150 per ton seems a fair estimate.
  10. https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/ deforestation.
  11. http://www.globalcarbonproject.org/carbonbudget/15/files/GCP_budget_2015_v1.02.pdf.
  12. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, “IPCC Fifth Assessment Synthesis Report,” available at https://www.ipcc.ch/pdf/assessment-report/ar5/syr/SYR_AR5_FINAL_full .pdf.
  13. http://www.pwc.com/gx/en/issues/the-economy/assets/world-in-2050-february-2015.pdf.
  14. http://reports.weforum.org/global-risks-2013/ risk-case-1/testing-economic-and-environmental -resilience/#view/fn-10.
  15. https://www.youtube.com/watch?feature =player_embedded&v=ct6cJc G5o1M.
  16. http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professorkevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyonddangerous.
  17. http://www.slideshare.net/DFID/professorkevin-anderson-climate-change-going-beyonddangerous.

Videos: Update on #Promesa: the Puerto Rico Debt Crisis

Video 1 and 2 from: BRAVE NEW FILMS

ABOUT BRAVE NEW FILMS
Robert Greenwald and Brave New Films are at the forefront of the fight to create a just America. Using new media and internet video campaigns, Brave New Films has created a quick-strike capability that informs the public, challenges corporate media with the truth, and motivates people to take action on social issues nationwide. Brave New Films’ investigative films have scrutinized the impact of U.S. drone strikes; the prosecution if whistleblowers; and Wal Mart’s corporate practices.

 

 

Video #3 from: The Laura Flanders Show

Organizing in a Brave New World

Austerity, growing inequality, and the economic and political domination of billionaires, bankers, hedge funds, and giant corporations make the current moment ripe for birthing a movement that can radically transform the country and the world. This is a time of great peril, but also of extraordinary opportunity and—yes—reasons for hope. The last four decades have been characterized by unrelenting attacks on the working class, the weakening of unions and the financialization of capitalism.

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The Black-Labor-Left Alliance in the Neoliberal Age

The report, A Future for Workers: A Contribution from Black Labor, brings together the perspectives and voices of significant black American trade union leadership to contribute to the important conversation concerning ways forward for labor and allied movements in these perilous times. The collective authors of the document, which was released in July 2015, bring a wealth of experience and standing in the trade union movement to ask: “What is it that workers need and want? How can this then become not the ‘special interests’ of an isolated labor movement, but a robust agenda that can rally the bottom 99 percent to collective action?” Their responses seek with mixed success to advance our strategic thinking with regard to building the broad movement necessary to “rally the bottom 99 percent.”

Those questions have occupied the labor-left for decades, at least since the systematic business attack on unions and social wage policies became visible in the 1980s. These issues drove the insurgent mood that grew out of the anti-concessions and NAFTA fights in the 1980s and early 1990s and the organizational expressions that emerged from the cauldron of those fights. The latter included the effort to build a politically independent Labor Party centered in the union movement, the more electoral, less specifically class-based approach of the New Party and then Working Families Party, the sometimes quasi-syndicalist styles of activist organizing and politics associated with the “new unionism,” and most of all the sea change in the AFL-CIO represented in the New Voices alliance embodied by John Sweeney, Richard Trumka, and Linda Chavez-Thompson—who were swept into the Federation’s leadership in 1995. Of course, many, if not most of the authors of A Future for Workers were involved in some or all of those currents, and the analyses and strategic thinking they present reflect that experience.

The document has three components–an assessment of the political situation that confronts us; an extensive list of policy and program recommendations in the areas of Jobs and Economic Development, the Environment, Criminal Justice, Distribution of Wealth, Education, Tolerance and Equity, and the Labor Movement; and a more general argument about the approach necessary to build a movement capable of winning those objectives. A Future for Workers underscores the massive increases in inequality that have occurred since the 1970s and that have intensified since the 2007/08 financial crash. The policy recommendations are, for the most part, initiatives that would make life demonstrably better for working people and the society as a whole and that could be readily adopted with only a change in government priorities and the prevailing terms of political debate. Most of those proposals are in the vein of general policy directions rather than nuts and bolts initiatives, and they are in line with the broad current of progressive policy proposals that have been circulating for some time now. Among labor activists, they would not be controversial.

The specific reform proposals are less significant than their source, however. Especially in light of the controversy sparked in the past year by Black Lives Matter activists concerning the relation between black and working-class political agendas, a statement from black American labor leaders articulating a perspective that connects racial injustice and broader economic inequalities suggests a programmatic and interpretive framework that could help bridge tensions and divisions that only benefit corporate power and the political right. A Future for Workers points to challenges we face in generating and sustaining the broad solidarities necessary to turn the political tide in a direction that makes the interests and basic concerns of working people the top priority. It likens black workers to the “canary in the mine” because they commonly are hit earliest and especially hard by economic crises and assaults; yet what happens to them as the most vulnerable workers will before long affect those somewhat less vulnerable, and so on until all workers and our living and working conditions are under full-scale attack.

In linking race and class inequalities, A Future for Workers follows in a tradition of black trade union activism that reaches back to A. Philip Randolph and the black-labor-left alliance that was a crucially important force in American politics through the first three decades after World War II. In its understanding of what those links are and what we can do about them, however, it also reflects the degree to which neoliberal notions of equality and social justice have in crucial and unhelpful ways compromised the terms of working-class resistance to injustice. For example, embrace of the presumptions of contemporary anti-racist politics leads the document’s authorsto contend that increasing diversity in the union movement is pivotal for reversing labor’s decline, even though both membership and leadership have become more diverse precisely in the period of steepest decline. Moreover, it is unclear even what a “genuine national dialogue on race and racism” could be, much less how it could proceed and what impact it could have on congealing a broadly based working-class movement.

Randolph and his Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led the original March on Washington Movement that pressured President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1941 to issue Executive Order 8802 barring discriminatory employment practices among defense contractors and federal agencies. The 1944 volume, What the Negro Wants, a collection of analyses by prominent leftist, centrist, and conservative black public figures edited by historian Rayford Logan, indicated a consensus among black racial advocates across the ideological spectrum that a strong industrial union movement and expansion of social wage policies were essential for black Americans’ continuing success in pursuit of racial justice and equality.[i] That alliance was crucial in winning the major victories of the civil rights movement–from the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It was pivotal, through Randolph’s Negro American Labor Council (NALC), in mobilization for the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs & Freedom, and in the struggle for state and federal Fair Employment Practices legislation. The alliance was also instrumental in the struggle for social wage policies such as Medicare and the War on Poverty.

In 1966 Randolph and the AFL-CIO’s new A. Philip Randolph Institute published A “Freedom Budget” for All Americans, anchored by the objectives of reducing unemployment to less than 3 percent by 1968 and poverty to no more than 1 or 2 percent by 1975.[ii] The Freedom Budgetcalled for: increase of the federal minimum wage to a level that would lift the working poor out of poverty, provision of guaranteed income above the poverty level for those unable to work, guaranteed access to affordable, good-quality housing for all, access to proper medical care for all, as well as educational opportunity for all “up to the limits of their abilities and ambitions, at costs within their means,” expansion of funding for the public sector to repair and improve physical infrastructure, maintainenance of adequate environmental standards, and expansion of public transportation.[iii]

Randolph had pointed out at the March on Washington that the “Civil Rights Revolution is not confined to the Negro; nor is it confined to civil rights, for our white allies know that they cannot be free while we are not, and we know that we have no future in a society in which six million black and white people are unemployed and millions more live in poverty…Yes, we want a Fair Employment Practices Act, but what good will it do if profit-geared automation destroys the jobs of millions of workers, black and white? We want integrated public schools, but that means we also want federal aid to education–all forms of education.”[iv] In publicly introducing the Freedom Budget he stressed that, although blacks would benefit disproportionately from its proposed interventions, the Budget should not be seen as a civil rights initiative. He noted that “while most Negroes live in poverty and desperation, it is not true that most of the poor are Negroes. We must not forget that 75 percent of the poor are white. No less than Negroes are they denied adequate income, decent housing, quality education, sufficient health care and security.”[v]

Arguably, that mid-1960s moment was the apogee of the social-democratic black-labor-left alliance as the social movement that Randolph and others had struggled for so long to build and sustain. The Freedom Budget can be seen, although only in retrospect, as a last-ditch effort to assert a politics based on commitment to full employment against an emerging Democratic liberalism that began moving away from that commitment in the Kennedy administration, when policymakers began to disconnect both poverty and racial inequality from the larger dynamics of American capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget initiative did not gain traction, and by the middle of the 1970s the germs of what would later become neoliberalism had begun to take shape. Our current political situation–including the dominant perspectives on the relation of race and class in American life and politics—has evolved from that shift, which solidified as a new regime based on the absolute priority of business- and investor-class interests under the Reagan and Clinton presidencies.

One difference is that today it is no longer true that the poor are 75 percent white. The waves of immigration initially made possible by the Act of 1965 have changed the racial make-up of the American population, with the result that in addition to the over 18 million white and the over 11 million black poor, around 5 million Latinos and 2 million Asians and Pacific Islanders are living in poverty.  Which makes it even more urgent that we recognize the need to galvanize a broad political alliance capable of shifting the center of gravity in American politics to give priority to the interests, needs, and concerns of working people and their families—who are the substantial majority of the American population–of all races, genders, sexual orientations, ages, and every immigration status. Randolph and the black labor-left of his time proceeded from a political understanding that racial inequality is most consequentially rooted in the workings of capitalist political economy. The Freedom Budget advanced that view, for example, through an argument concerning the disparate impacts of increases in unemployment, which, it notes, tend to be concentrated among the most vulnerable populations.

These would be the older workers; the young people seeking to enter the labor force for the first time; the semi-skilled and relatively unskilled; the nonwhites rather than the whites, and the women rather than the men, insofar as discrimination against nonwhites and women remained, or because discrimination during the past century and longer has prevented nonwhites and women on the average from having the degree of training and education which others have. But to say that this would be the reason why they became unemployed would be like saying that, if half of the people in a lifeboat died from exposure because they were not as strong as the others in the boat, the cause was the condition of their health, not the shipwreck. Likewise if there were too few lifeboats, and the strong kept the weak out….

To state all this in a different way, the fact that Negroes tend to be the first fired and the last hired when jobs are insufficient should not prevent us from recognizing that this phenomenon, so central to the racial problem, would not exist if there were jobs for all. This, of course, does not deny the need for anti-discrimination efforts; excessive unemployment is no excuse for discrimination in the imposition of the evil.[vi]

A very different perspective on pursuit of racial justice has arisen since the 1990s. As with any ideology, one element of neoliberalism’s triumph, its broad internalization as unreflected-upon common sense, has been its success in reinterpreting the past in ways that read its worldview back and forth across historical eras as the deepest truth of social life. That is one mechansim through which the infamous TINA–There Is No Alternative –dictum is implanted and reproduced. In light of that dynamic, it is significant that the dominant interpretive tendency in both scholarship and commentary concerning black American politicsstresses celebration of black “agency” and reduces black political history to either inspirational stories of individual triumph over obstacles,accounts of “resistance” to an essentially unchanging, transhistorical racism or white supremacy or pursuit of fundamentally quietistic goals such as “autonomy,” “community,” and “family.” This perspective severs black politics from its historical and social contexts and to that extent fits comfortably with and reinforces–in line with Margaret Thatcher’s quip that “There is no such thing [as society]! There are individual men and women andthere are families”[vii]–the neoliberal denial of historical specificity, the significance of political institutions, and, most of all, class dynamics.

In particular, a revisionist understanding of the heroic period of postwar black political struggle airbrushes out its class character and reinvents both the civil rights insurgency and the Jim Crow social order without their political-economic foundations. The reinvention projects instead a purely moralistic conflict between racism and its victims, a narrative of generic black suffering and occasionally overcoming, sprinkled with encomia to the accomplishments and magnetism of larger than life, great black individuals.[viii] That could not be more fundamentally at odds with the vision articulated by Randolph and the black labor-left. Yet it is perfectly compatible with neoliberalism’s market-based moral order of a world made up of good people and bad people and in which the social collectivity is replaced by voluntarism and self-reliance led by exemplary individuals.

In the same vein, during the last decade or so an antiracist politics that stresses exposing and challenging apparent racial disparities has risen to the fore in public discourse as mediated through the corporate mass information industry, including the blogosphere. This politics, as exemplified most recently in the current associated with the Black Lives Matter slogan, rests on a racial expressivism that is at least evocative of the race-first Black Power nationalism that emerged from the defeat of the black labor-left alliance in the late 1960s. And, like Black Power, it is more performative than strategic. It also insists, perhaps even more emphatically than Black Power radicalism, that all apparent injustices experienced by black Americans must be understood to stem most fundamentally from reified notions of racism or white supremacy–ideas stripped from historical context and treated as forces capable of acting to produce outcomes in the world.

But the black political insurgency of the 1950s and 1960s did not battle an abstraction like racism. It certainly congealed around a commitment to improving black Americans’ circumstances.  However, the objectives that mobilized and sustained that insurgent politics as a movement were concrete and historically specific: from challenging segregation of public transit in Montgomery and in public accommodations generally in Greensboro and elsewhere, to the ongoing fight for legislative and judicial prohibition of codified racial discrimination in employment, education, housing (including state enforcement of nominally private discrimination, as in restrictive real estate covenants that depended on legal sanction of housing discrimination and the federal government’s subsidy of the real estate industry’s racialized system of valuation and mortgage brokers’ racialized system of financing) and other areas, as well as for federal civil rights and voting rights legislation.  As Randolph and others made clear, the movement’s objectives were not reducible only to specifically racial issues because most black Americans are working class, and therefore anything that advances the interests of the working class is pertinent for them.

As Randolph observed, a focus on disparities without simultaneous attention to the larger structures of inequality and dispossession is self-defeating. That criticism should have more force now than it had then because overall inequality has intensified exponentially, and challenging disparities does not address that intensifying inequality.[ix] Instead, contemporary anti-racist politics proceeds from a notion of justice based on the premise that social and economic costs and benefits should be distributed on a principle of racial parity, which is consistent with the liberal anti-racist ideal of genuine equality of opportunity. That view sidesteps the class-based political vision articulated by the black labor-left, and in some cases actively rejects it as a racially inauthentic, “white” or “brocialist” expression of white supremacist privilege, and thus a discourse of oppression. As I have pointed out elsewhere, according to that anti-racist perspective, the society could be just if one percent of the population controlled 90 percent of the resources so long as 12 percent of the one percent were black, half were female, and so on. That is the quintessence of what we might call the left-neoliberal ideal of social justice–sharp and intensifying inequality combined with (more or less sincere and enthusiastic) commitment to diversity. [x]

Randolph, his and Martin Luther King, Jr.’s associate Bayard Rustin and others also understood that attacking the larger dynamics of capitalist inequality requires a broadly- based social and political movement anchored to a social-democratic agenda. That sort of movement can be built only on the basis of solidarities grounded and cultivated on perception of shared social position, experience, and objectives, and that perception can take hold only in the context of common struggle for shared goals. However, a politics that elevates challenging disparities over fighting for broad social wage policy and redistribution along social-democratic lines is incompatible with the project of building those solidarities. And that incompatibility stems ultimately from the fact that anti-disparitarian anti-racism is not an alternative to a class politics; it is a class politics. It is just not a working-class politics.[xi]

In reasserting the project of that historic black labor-left politics, A Future for Workers can encourage us to consider carefully the nature of the system and regime we are up against, how the structures of intensifying inequality are reproduced, and in particular, how it makes sense to think about the relation between racial and class inequalities and how race and class dynamics–including how we think about race and class dynamics– can affect our sense of the political options available to us and the directions we should pursue.

 

Notes

[i] Rayford Logan, ed., What the Negro Wants (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1944).

[ii] For a  very good discussion of the Freedom Budget, its genesis and the politics around it, and the defeat of the campaign for it, see Paul Le Blanc and Michael D. Yates, A Freedom Budget For All Americans (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2013).

[iii] A. Philip Randolph Institute, A “Freedom Budget” For All Americans: Budgeting Our Resources 1965-1975 to Achieve “Freedom From Want,” (New York: A. Philip Randolph Institute, 1966), 2-3.

[iv] “Address of A. Philip Randolph at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” in For Jobs and Freedom: Selected Speeches and Writings of A. Philip Randolph (Amherst & Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2014), 261-262.

[v]For Jobs and Freedom, 286-287.

[vi]Freedom Budget, 29-30.

[vii]Margaret Thatcher interview, Woman’s Own, September 23, 1987, p. 18, at http://www.margaretthatcher.org/document/106689  .

[viii] I do not intend to suggest that the dynamic generating this cultural hegemony is orchestrated, though it sometimes is advanced through self-conscious propaganda, as in films like the pro-charter school documentary, Waiting for Superman and its fictional counterpart Won’t Back Down. Perhaps more meaningfully, though, the ideology travels through more naïve repetition of common sense narratives. I have discussed the role of widely disseminated black-themed popular culture in illustrating and propagating neoiberal common sense dressed up as racial pride and authenticity in several essays in recent years. See Adolph Reed, Jr.: “Three Tremes,” nonsite.org, July 4, 2011; “Django Unchained, or, The Help: How ‘Cultural Politics’ Is Worse Than No Politics at All, and Why,” nonsite.org, February 25, 2013; “The Real Problem with Selma: It Doesn’t Help Us Understand the Civil Rights Movement, the Regime It Challenged, or even the Significance of the Voting Rights Act,” nonsite.org, January 26, 2015 and “The Strange Career of the Voting Rights Act: Selma in Fact and Fiction,” New Labor Forum 24 (Spring 2015): 32-41 and “The James Brown Theory of Black Liberation,” Jacobin # 18 (Summer 2015).

[ix] The late historian, Michael B. Katz provides a useful and accessible account of the evolution of urban and metropolitan racial and economic inequality since World War II that decomposes the historical and political-economic processes driving it in Why Don’t American Cities Burn? (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

[x] Adolph Reed, Jr., “Marx, Race, and Neoliberalism,” New Labor Forum 22 (Winter 2013): 53-54. Also see Walter Benn Michaels, The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2007).

[xi]See, e.g.,  editorials on “Reparations and Other Right-Wing Fantasies,” at nonsite.org, February 11, 2016.

 

Author Biography

Adolph Reed Jr. Reed is aprofessor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He is completing a book on the decline and transformation of the U.S. Left since World War II, and recently co-authored, with Mark Dudzic, “The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States” in the Socialist Register.

 

Queers for Economic Justice

Queer Precarity and the Myth of Gay Affluence

The LGBT movement’s laser-focus on marriage equality propagates the myth of gay and lesbian affluence as political strategy, leaving aside any analysis of class or economic inequality or poverty—much less an analysis of capitalism. LGBT people are typically depicted as affluent consumers with high disposable incomes, yet this is hardly the norm. The majority of LGBT/Q people are poor or working class, female, and people of color, who struggle to get a job or hold onto one, to pay their rent and care for themselves and the people they love.

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