Political Economy of Flexible Accumulation: Part Two – The Case of Amazon.com


Fight for 15 protesters at Amazon’s fulfilment center in Baltimore. Photo: People’s World

The ideology of flexible accumulation is neoliberalism, which, David Harvey writes, “seeks to bring all human action into the domain of the market. This requires technologies of information creation and capacities to accumulate, store, transfer, analyse, and use massive databases to guide decisions in the global marketplace. … These technologies have compressed the rising density of market transactions in both space and time.” [Harvey, Brief History of Neoliberalism, Oxford 2007:3] Companies like Uber, Airbnb, and Amazon are in the forefront of accelerating the density of market transactions as well as the “creative destruction” of obstacles like state regulations and taxation.

Amazon aims to dominate consumer access to internet retail through its massive investment in servers and fulfilment centers around the world. Even though it makes a minimal profit on each transaction, the sheer volume of exchanges it hosts generates a surplus. It has been able to accelerate the density of market transactions precisely by using massive databases to store information about consumers. Analysts have noted that “Amazon’s enormous investments in infrastructure and logistics have begun to pay off. The company keeps capturing a larger slice of American and even international purchases. It keeps attracting more users to its Prime fast-shipping subscription program, and, albeit slowly, it is beginning to scratch out higher profits from shoppers. Now that Amazon has hit this point, it’s difficult to see how any other retailer could catch up anytime soon.”

Harvey’s prescient analysis did not extend to how a workforce that is capable of dealing with accelerated rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation would be created. But, since he wrote, neoliberal management doctrines, intended to make workers more agile and “self-regulating” through the breaking down of traditional divisions of labor, have resulted in the combination of low-waged labor employed part-time through subcontractors with the promise of fulltime jobs for a few, forcing them all to work ever harder. The flexible workforce marks a new pattern of labor usage, most visible in retail and leading to downsizing and retrenchment; flexible workers have no rights of seniority or fulltime permanence.

Amazon has succeeded in creating a highly flexible workforce; the work conditions in its warehouses are well-known, but it has also pioneered ways to accelerate technical and marketing innovation through internal competition among its white-collar professionals, monitoring their activities in the same way as its consumers. By coercing his employees to voluntarily extend their working day to 80 or 100 hours per week, Amazon chief Jeff Bezos has been able to extract the maximum effort from his marketers and software engineers.

Recently, the New York Times published an article detailing how “Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more. … Every aspect of the Amazon system amplifies the others to motivate and discipline the company’s marketers, engineers and finance specialists: the leadership principles; rigorous, continuing feedback on performance; and the competition among peers who fear missing a potential problem or improvement and race to answer an email before anyone else. … To prod employees, Amazon has a powerful lever: more data than any retail operation in history. Its perpetual flow of real-time, ultradetailed metrics allows the company to measure nearly everything its customers do … It can also tell when engineers are not building pages that load quickly enough, or when a vendor manager does not have enough gardening gloves in stock.”

Many who are deemed “inflexible” are fired in annual cullings of the staff. According to the Times, “ ‘Amazon is O.K. with moving through a lot of people to identify and retain superstars,’ said Vijay Ravindran, who worked at the retailer for seven years, the last two as the manager overseeing the checkout technology. ‘They keep the stars by offering a combination of incredible opportunities and incredible compensation. It’s like panning for gold’.”

Harvey notes that accelerated turnover time in production as a result of advances in technology requires a corresponding reduction of turnover time in consumption. To achieve this reduction in turnover time, Amazon directed its technical efforts into streamlining internet ordering and payment processing with features such as 1-click checkout, investing heavily in servers to handle heavy traffic. In addition to automated ordering, shorter delivery times help to increase the volume of commodities exchanged and create new needs for instant gratification.

The Times reported: “Last August, Stephenie Landry, an operations executive, joined in discussions about how to shorten delivery times and developed an idea for rushing goods to urban customers in an hour or less. … ‘A customer was able to get an Elsa doll that they could not find in all of New York City, and they had it delivered to their house in 23 minutes,’ said Ms. Landry … ‘We’re trying to create those moments for customers where we’re solving a really practical need,’ Ms. Landry said, ‘in this way that feels really futuristic and magical’.”

Shortening delivery times is key to Amazon’s strategy: in some metropolitan centers it offers same-day service. Locating and packing products is achieved through a grueling 24-hour operation in its vast warehouses: “Through the engineering of its fulfillment centers, Amazon has built the world’s most nimble infrastructure for the transfer of things … The packing stations are a whirl of activity where algorithms test human endurance. … Workers whip through the folding, packing, and sealing of boxes at a speed that could only come through days, months, and years of practice. The pace cannot slow if Amazon wants to meet the demand the company itself has stoked through the speed and reliability of its fulfillment operation.”

Amazon aims to both step up the pace of consumption and, like Apple, lock in a captive customer base. After the launch of 2-day shipping through Amazon Prime, the company’s sales growth took off. Time magazine notes: “Early on, Amazon discovered that Prime subscribers overwhelmingly made their online purchases via Amazon, and therefore they stopped shopping elsewhere. Naturally, a customer’s Amazon purchases skyrocket once he or she is signed up for Prime.”

The New York Times reported: “Because Amazon is still expanding madly, its expenses remain enormous and its retail profits tiny. In its last quarter, its operating margin on the North American retail business was 3.5 percent, while Amazon Web Services’s margin was 25 percent.” But the growth in Prime subscriptions is the key to how Amazon intends to generate profits. “Analysts at Morgan Stanley reported recently that ‘retail gross profit dollars per customer’ — a fancy way of measuring how much Amazon makes from each shopper — has accelerated in each of the last four quarters, in part because of Prime. Amazon keeps winning ‘a larger share of customers’ wallets’.”

An ex-employee explains: “Amazon has boundless ambition. It wants to eat global retail. … Amazon has decided to continue to invest to arm itself for a much larger scale of business. … lowering its shipping costs and increasing the speed of shipping items to customers is like a shot of adrenaline to customer’s propensity to buy from them, and so it has doubled down on building more and more fulfillment centers around the world. … That is a gargantuan investment, billions of dollars worth, and it takes a significant bite out of Amazon’s free cash flow.”

Increasing the velocity of commodity capital turnover offsets Amazon’s lower margins, resulting in a relative advantage over competitors: as Bezos is reputed to have said, “your margin is my opportunity.” But faster delivery times depend on an increase of fixed capital tied up in warehouse facilities across the world, which soaks up the surplus. This makes the company more dependent on finance capital for expansion into new markets; according to analysts, the company is searching for “one or two winning bets to make it all worthwhile” – or rather, it is speculating on future gains in the unpredictable world of consumer tastes.

Amazon makes its profit from the redistribution of the surplus value realized from the exchange of large quantities of commodities, which means the labor involved in shipping and warehousing is essential for the process to be completed. This is the company’s weakness: it was able to beat back an attempt to unionize maintenance engineers in its Delaware warehouse, but as Wired.com noted: “… however sophisticated its ordering and distribution systems, Amazon still relies on a host of human hands to pull items off the shelves … And as demonstrated by several exposés on working conditions at Amazon’s warehouses, its algorithms can only be as efficient as the hands and feet executing their instructions. … Amazon can’t outsource its main business — online retail — to workers overseas. Getting more orders to more people more quickly depends on getting as geographically close to customers as possible. As a result, any conflicts and complaints involving the workers filling those orders will be more visible to American consumers, Amazon’s main customer base.”

Amazon’s eventual goal is to establish an absolute monopoly in internet-based exchange and distribution, so that value can be siphoned off by the retailer and enrich Jeff Bezos. However, its plans are built on the backs of a low-waged workforce, while workers have been moving to establish unions and push back against the intensity of algorithm-directed labor. In last Tuesday’s Fight for 15 day of action, hundreds of protesters picketed the Amazon Fulfillment Center in Baltimore, where most of the jobs are part time with no guarantee of full time employment.  Amazon cannot escape the movement of the low-paid for a living wage and decent benefits.

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The Political Economy of Flexible Accumulation: Part One

Writing in 1989, David Harvey proposed a concept of “flexible accumulation” to express the changes in the capitalist world since the 1970s, given the increasing circulation of capital across national boundaries while at the same time corporations were consolidating production of commodities in low-waged economies abroad (especially south-east Asia). [The Condition of Postmodernity: An Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change, Blackwell, 1989]

He connects this with the shift from Fordism – manufacturing centered in large, vertically-integrated factories – to a decentralized process involving assembly of components sourced from geographically dispersed suppliers, integrated by new financial instruments and markets. In the field of labor relations, this has been accompanied by a shift to short-term contracts and a low-wage economy, with a special role for a small cadre of elite workers.

The geographical dispersion of manufacturing is only possible with the extended reach of financial capital. Harvey points out that much of the geographical and temporal flexibility of capital accumulation has been achieved through “the rise of highly sophisticated systems of financial coordination on a global scale.” [1989:194]

Flexible accumulation “rests on flexibility with respect to labour processes, labour markets, products, and patterns of consumption,” writes Harvey. “It is characterized by the emergence of entirely new sectors of production, new ways of providing financial services, new markets, and, above all, greatly intensified rates of commercial, technological, and organizational innovation.” [1989:147]

The advantage of Harvey’s concept is that it focuses on the overall process of capital circulation, rather than manufacturing or the financial aspects of global exchange, making it more comprehensive than the concept of globalization. Attention can then be given to the enhanced importance of marketing and distribution that is necessary to complete the circuit of commodity exchange.

The changing structure of manufacturing, made possible by technological and logistical advances, has empowered retail capital to dominate markets and hence control the process of realizing surplus value, accumulating capital at a relatively higher rate. This is different from the classical pattern of capital accumulation, where the manufacturer is able to take the surplus value realized from the sale of commodities and reinvest in new means of production, even higher wages. Through a series of binding contracts, retailers are able to minimize the surplus value retained by the manufacturer.

A paper published by The Research Institute of the Finnish Economy in 2011 found that “value capture is increasingly detached from cross-border flows of physical goods. It is rather in-house and market services as well as various forms of intangible assets that com­mand the lion’s share of value added (and thus income and profits earned). Even if final as­sembly has largely moved offshore, the developed countries continue to capture most of the value added generated globally.”

A retailer, for example, will order large quantities of a commodity and attach stringent supply conditions. The low profit margin for the supplier necessitates volume production, which creates a dependency on its high-volume customers. In addition, the lead company can threaten to switch to a competitor if its price points are not met. Since the supplier has already heavily invested in fixed-capital machinery etc., such a threat has power because it would cut the manufacturer off from access to the circulation of capital and make it impossible to realize the value locked up in depreciating equipment.

“Capturing sizable shares of the actual consumer markets for products, large retailers gain commanding positions to structure and organize suppliers for the products they sell. Conventional thinking describes retailers as middlemen, the passive conduit between manufacturers and consumers. The retail revolution, however, has made retailers proactive agents in designing products, organizing suppliers, and even shaping consumers’ behavior. As brand-name merchandiser Apple Computers did for the iPod, retailers often create whole new markets – on both the consumer and the supplier side.” [The Market Makers: How Retailers are Reshaping the Global Economy, eds. Hamilton G.G., Petrovic M., Senauer B., Oxford 2011:10]

Apple uses its strong branding and loyal consumer base to sell commodities above their value, increasing its profit rate substantially. Even though it only produces 15 percent of all smartphones, it takes 94 percent of the entire industry’s profits. By selling iPhones at a premium price it achieves high margins on each unit: Samsung’s average selling price was $180 per phone using similar components (thus reflecting the socially necessary cost to produce), while Apple’s was $670. In addition, an annual update cycle accelerates turnover time in consumption through disposability.

At its US facilities the company develops a closely-connected strategy of product and software design, branding, and marketing, differentiating itself from competitors by an emphasis on elegant aesthetics combined with user-friendliness and seamless connectivity. However, its goal is to generate the greatest possible profit per commodity. It deals with stagnating sales of a product line by moving it upmarket into higher price brackets, rather than cutting prices in the hope of achieving a greater volume of sales.

After initiating a production cycle through expending capital on design, Apple is able to set in motion a workforce of up to 700,000 in SE Asia and China to manufacture components and carry out assembly. The component manufacturers bring together tooling and labor for large-scale production runs before final assembly at another location; shipping direct to the customer or store is coordinated through the internet-based Apple Store and international shipping by companies like FedEx. In this way fixed capital expenditure is outsourced to the supplier companies, while Apple disperses production of components so that foreign rivals cannot duplicate its design, and uses nonstandard components to make their commodities harder to imitate. The system of supply chain management is set up to minimize capital tied up in inventory and reduce production turnover time.

Apple didn’t invent this system, but took what others had pioneered and perfected it. However, despite its close control over production, Apple’s high level of capital accumulation (revenues in 2011 greater than the combined state budgets of Michigan, New Jersey and Massachusetts) is achieved through its appeal to consumers, giving it a commanding role in the conversion of its commodities into money – through the exclusivity and “coolness” of its brand, the physical and virtual Apple Stores, and through deals to distribute iPhones through wireless carriers. While competitors like Dell or Samsung are struggling with low profit margins, it has succeeded by achieving a monopoly in a particular market sector.

Harvey points out that “New technologies have empowered certain privileged layers, at the same time as alternative production and labour control systems open up the way to high remuneration of technical, managerial, and entrepreneurial skills. The trend, further exaggerated by the shift to services and the enlargement of ‘the cultural mass’, has been to increasing inequalities of income.” [1989:192] Despite its carefully cultivated image of a “humanistic” company, Apple’s contribution to increasing inequalities of income is shown in the fact that the average wage of an Apple Store employee in the US is around $15 per hour ($20 for an Apple genius), workers assembling iPhones in China earn less than $2 per hour, while CEO Tim Cook made $1.4 million in 2012.

In part two we will discuss the way the drive of retailers for monopoly control of markets is exemplified by the rise of Amazon.com.

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Filed under apple, capital circulation, david harvey, flexible accumulation, political economy, Uncategorized

Bold Expansion of Fight for $15 Campaign as it Challenges Presidential Hopefuls

Fight for 15 protesters outside the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday

Fight for 15 protesters outside the Republican primary debate in Milwaukee on Tuesday

The political process in America has become dominated by a clash between the power of big money in elections on one hand, and a deep-seated public hostility to the sway that corporations and the rich wield over government on the other, a clash intensified by the rampant growth of inequality while wages remain stagnant.

At the same time, the racial hierarchy is challenged by minority youth who are no longer prepared to accept being treated as second-class citizens by the authorities and the police. In the universities, the self-assertion of a new generation of students is an important reflection of this social change. African American students at the University of Missouri this week forced two top officials to resign over their lack of response to racist incidents on campus, and the dean of Claremont McKenna College in California also resigned amid similar protests. At Ithaca College in New York State, thousands of students, faculty and staff walked out demanding the sacking of the college president. The protesters accuse him of responding inadequately to racist incidents, including one where an African-American graduate was repeatedly called a “savage” by two white male alumni.

Meanwhile the Fight for $15 campaign is having an impact on the political dialog as it expresses growing discontent over low wages across the racial divide. Its under-reported day of action on Tuesday mobilized thousands of fast food workers who struck their jobs in 270 cities, joining many thousands more who marched on local city halls to demand that political candidates support an increase in the minimum wage if they want the workers’ votes.

Developments like this disconcert white Republicans, whose anger is driven by resentment at the loss of white privilege as well as distrust of government. But the rise of populism in the electorate coincides with skepticism that the leaders of either party can do anything to halt the slide in living standards or jobs. This is why the Republican rank and file is paradoxically supporting outlier candidates like Donald Trump and Ben Carson in the presidential primaries rather than the establishment contenders. Nobel prize-winner Joseph Stiglitz noted that “a sense of anger” at the decline of the American middle class is common to both Republicans and Democrats, but “the problem is that on the Republican side there’s anger, but it’s basically inchoate.”

Whether or not Trump continues to lead the polls, he has brought to the fore a major gulf between the Republican establishment’s policies and its ageing constituency. His slogans and demeanor resonate with voters like Steve Trivett, a newspaper editor in Florida. who told the Washington Post: “When America was great, our economy was strong. Our economy’s been shipped off to other countries. Can Donald Trump solve that? Hell, I don’t know. Somebody not as flamboyant or egomaniacal might be more effective, but I’m not sure anybody can bring us back. At least Trump gets things done.”

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich was surprised to find that many Tea Partiers and Republicans he met on a recent book tour of the Southern states agreed with his critique of capitalism. “Most condemned what they called ‘crony capitalism,’ by which they mean big corporations getting sweetheart deals from the government because of lobbying and campaign contributions,” he said. “They see Trump as someone who’ll stand up for them – a countervailing power against the perceived conspiracy of big corporations, Wall Street, and big government.” While conservative leaders want to cut Social Security and Medicare, a majority of Republican voters, along with the rest of the public, wants to keep them funded or even expanded.

Ironically, this is a major plank of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders’ platform, along with opposition to corporate control of the political process, but while he has succeeded in pushing Hillary Clinton into a more populist position, his message of defending middle class living standards is not reaching many African Americans and Latinos who in the main have historically been excluded from the middle class and instinctively turn to a stronger federal government for protection, which they identify with the Clinton dynasty.

In support of the Fight for 15 day of action, Sanders joined employees of federal contractors who gathered at the Capitol on Tuesday instead of reporting for work and then staged sit-ins at government building cafeterias. Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton tweeted that low-wage workers’ actions are “changing our country for the better.” Predictably, when Republican politicians were asked if they supported a higher minimum wage during Tuesday’s televised debate, they all replied no. But the fact the question was asked at all was due to the presence of hundreds of Fight for 15 protesters outside the Milwaukee venue. After the debate, the Fight for $15 sent out a text message to supporters: “BREAKING: Donald Trump just said: ‘Wages are too high.’ #Fightfor15 response: See you in Nov 2016.”

The core of the Fight for 15 movement is fast food workers who are overwhelmingly black and Latino, but on Tuesday they were joined by FedEx freight handlers, T-Mobile retail employees, Price Rite retail employees, auto part workers and farm workers, as well as employees of federal contractors, home-care and child-care workers and other low-wage workers.

Significantly, the campaign has expanded further into the anti-union deep South and has taken on board the police killing of African Americans and immigration rights. For the first time, protesters in Selma, Alabama and in Gainesville and Tallahassee, Florida, joined the walkouts, together with workers in Arkansas, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, North and South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia. Letisha Irby, who works at a factory making car seats for Hyundai in Selma, Alabama, drove 76 miles after her shift to join a protest in Tuscaloosa. She only makes $12 an hour after working at the plant for 10 years. Irby is a supporter of the United Auto Workers, who have been trying to organize her plant in Selma and have so far not succeeded.

In Chicago, Fight for 15 protesters marched to police headquarters calling for the firing of Dante Servin, the officer who shot and killed 22-year-old Rekia Boyd three years ago. And in Manhattan, Juan Sanchez reported that “leaders of the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements joined ranks in a united front with Fight for 15. Their placards proclaimed the new alliance’s slogan: ‘Economic Justice = Racial Justice = Immigrant Justice.’ ‘Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15 should be united because in both cases it’s largely about minority people,’ Shawnette Richardson, 43, said.” Gwen Carr, mother of Eric Garner, linked the campaign against police abuse to the Fight for 15, noting it was time to “make the politicians pay attention.”

The convergence of the campaign against low wages with the Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights movements has provoked a rethink of the relation between economic and political struggles. In These Times editor David Moberg commented: “Although SEIU, which has helped to finance the Fight for $15, has been a strong advocate of immigrant and black workers’ causes, it has also—like most unions—seen economic issues as a route to solidarity among workers of all racial or ethnic heritages. But the explosion of concern in black communities over police practices—from profiling to abuse of force—has produced pressure on a group like Fight for $15 to take on a broader agenda. It is also prompting SEIU to examine more deeply how to win white workers’ support for these hot-button issues for its black members, whether it’s crime in their neighborhoods or police misconduct.”

Such a project marks a major expansion of the campaign’s horizons. It could form the nucleus of a new political movement that transcends existing racial and cultural divisions.

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Filed under Black Lives Matter, donald trump, Fight for 15, republican primaries, seiu

Corbyn’s Energized Supporters Counter Blairite Rhetoric

The British Labour party is today divided into two camps. There is the newly-enlarged membership that overwhelmingly elected Jeremy Corbyn as party leader; then there is the parliamentary Labour party that is mortified by having Corbyn as leader.

They are oriented to different demographics. Corbyn’s campaign energized party members who had been excluded from decision-making, together with young people who had no previous party affiliation but who are closely connected with the real life problems of housing, jobs and benefits, as Corbyn was able to articulate in his questions to Cameron in parliament.

A grassroots network formed from Corbyn’s leadership campaign organization, Momentum, seeks to extend Labour’s support by launching a mass voter registration drive aimed at reaching people currently not politically active. The phasing out of household voter registration and redrawing of constituency boundaries bids to further gerrymander the archaic electoral system that disenfranchised many of the voters in the last election. Momentum organizer Emma Rees said Corbyn’s campaign promised “a politics that engaged with those shut out from the political system.”

His election victory has also energized a significant slice of the public outside the Labour party – membership of the anti-nuclear movement CND has soared, for example. Corbyn himself is a longstanding opponent of nuclear weapons, much to the discomfort of many Labour MPs, including the shadow defence secretary, Maria Eagle.

Most of the parliamentary party is oriented to the political “middle ground” beloved of New Labour and so did not anticipate Corbyn’s grassroots support. The political middle ground is code for an “aspirational” middle class that may express its concern about the problems of the poor or of refugees but is more concerned about its own lifestyle. It was comparatively easy therefore for David Cameron to appropriate Blairite rhetoric in his speech to the Tory party conference, since he was targeting the same demographic. Early in his address he spoke of how “social justice, equality for gay people, tackling climate change, and helping the world’s poorest” were now “at the centre of the Conservative Party’s mission.”

Despite the speech’s blatant contradiction with the government’s actions, and its Flashman-like bullying attack on Corbyn, the Blairite Martin Kettle was taken in by its rhetorical similarities. He commented: “both the 2010 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition and perhaps even the 2015 Tory government … have also been concerned about fairness and social justice, which Thatcherism always disdained. So it might be more useful to think of the Cameron governments … more as alternative successors to new Labour rather than to Thatcher.”

His ideological orientation to the theoretical political centre is shared by most Labour MPs and has led to a destabilizing tension within the parliamentary party. So far, 20 of them have rebelled by ignoring the party whip and refusing to vote against Tory austerity plans. In addition, 50 threatened to vote in favour of bombing Syria in defiance of popular sentiment, joining with Tory MPs in an all-parliamentary group devoted to pushing for military action.

While the British may still believe in “fair play”, the belief in symbols of imperial ascendancy lives on – at least in the minds of the political class. There is a self-deceptive shouldering of British responsibility to police the moral conduct of the rest of the world, which by sheer chance coincides with supporting US foreign policy, requiring military intervention abroad to make sure unrest there does not interfere with the business of making money at home. So, predictably, in their search for an “ethical” solution to the civil war in Syria that does not rule out bombing, Labour MP Jo Cox joined with Tory MP Andrew Mitchell to call for “a military component that protects civilians as a necessary prerequisite to any future UN or internationally provided safe havens.”

The ongoing civil war between Assad and increasingly radicalized fundamentalist fighters is rhetorically solved in this formulation by the creation of imaginary “safe havens” for refugees. Since no troops are going to make sure these areas of the map remain safe, they remain a political fiction for the purpose of justifying a symbolic bombing of Syrian targets, at the same time appeasing the conscience of the liberal elite and avoiding the need to abandon its occupation of the moral high ground.

Middle East expert Juan Cole, who in contrast to the politicians actually knows something about Syria, objects to Hillary Clinton’s use of the same empty rhetoric. He points out: “these ‘safe zones’ would attract rebels who would use them as bases from which to attack the regime, inviting regime attacks. They would only remain safe zones if some military force guarded their perimeters. But which military force would undertake that task?” He describes the pretence that there is a big group of “moderates” with which the West could ally as a “frankly dishonest discourse.”

If the experts on dishonest discourse in the British parliament take the issue to a vote (after signally failing in 2013), and enough Labour MPs vote against the popular mood, they will dig the party’s grave in England as they did in Scotland. With more members campaigning on the doorsteps and engaging with issues like housing and benefit cuts, MPs’ indifference would increase the momentum for the restoration of the right of constituency organizations to select their own candidates without interference from the party establishment.

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Brain Transplant for Blairites: The Labour Party Conference and Jeremy Corbyn

The British Labour party conference, held in Brighton this week, demonstrated the close affinity of newly elected leader Jeremy Corbyn with the party’s rank and file. The Guardian’s Seumas Milne remarked: “Corbyn brought delegates to their feet with his appeal to popular decency and solidarity, his rejection of illegal warmaking and Trident renewal, and his unqualified opposition to the new benefit and tax credit cuts about to be imposed on millions across Britain.”

His popular support meant that anti-Corbyn MPs could not challenge him on austerity and the economy. But his opponents, including some in the shadow cabinet, loudly voiced their hostility to Corbyn’s aim of scrapping the Trident nuclear weapons system, whose usefulness is a myth furiously propagated by the Tories, the military high command, the armaments industry, and some rightwing union leaders.

As Milne noted: “the gap between the party’s leader, elected by hundreds of thousands, and the majority of its MPs, who didn’t vote for him, is stark.” British politics is highly ideological, and so is all about using and manipulating symbols of state legitimacy. For example, the press and BBC have attacked Corbyn on whether he would authorize a nuclear strike, his willingness to sing the national anthem, and possibly not wearing a red poppy on Armistice Day.

Corbyn’s conference speech, which so resonated with the party membership, countered these attacks with an alternative symbol, the unifying ideal of “shared majority British values” such as “fair play for all,” defined against the selfish individualism of hedge fund-backed Tory leaders. He said he was elected on the idea of “a kinder politics and a more caring society. … We are going to put these values back into the heart of politics in this country,” the subtext being that these values had been abandoned by the Blairite leadership in its quest for electability.

Gary Younge commented: “The speech was clear. It had purpose. It anchored a party that has for too long been adrift by reminding it of its core principles and core mission. Corbyn spoke in unequivocal terms about his support for the weak against the strong and fairness against inequality. He voiced support for refugees, trade unions, council housing, peace, international law and human rights. Amazingly, for a Labour party leader, this already made it an exception.”

Corbyn does not stand so much for a new politics as for rolling back the tide of neoliberalism. Despite the descriptions of him as having a far left agenda, he didn’t call for a change in society’s structure, but only for an end to the diversion of resources to financiers that has defunded social services for the working and middle class, and the privatization of public assets. Through his rhetoric of common values, he gave direction to party members to reground the party’s policies.

His speech implied that building a movement was more important than electoral success, troubling Labour MPs and their house journal, the New Statesman, which noted “how little he had to say about the importance of winning elections and of returning to government.” This is what his opponents call realism. But the reality for most people in Britain is that they are experiencing decline in just about every aspect of life: housing, jobs, wages, health, benefits, road and railway commutes, issues which are driving the movement against austerity, and which the Blairites failed to challenge.

This poses a conceptual problem for the British left. Socialist Workers Party supporters object that, since the Labour party is aligned to achieving a parliamentary majority, “How would Corbyn actually implement his moderate programme of social reform and end austerity?” Like the New Statesman they are asking how he would achieve change through parliament. This indicates they see the movement that elected him as being incorporated into the traditional Labour left, and not changing anything in the political climate. But they are missing how the Labour party is being transformed by an anti-austerity movement that has grown both inside and outside of it.

The real struggle now is between Labour’s newly-enlarged membership and the party establishment. While Corbyn proposed that its values would drive party policy, Rafael Behr commented: “the question of what policy is adopted is really a subset of the battle for control of the party machine. That tussle, well under way, is conducted mostly behind closed doors. It focuses on appointments, nominations and votes for positions on the key committees … what we used to call the ‘old Labour right’ (tribal centrists who mostly backed Yvette Cooper for the leadership) is doing its best to defend the machine from infiltration and control by the hard left.”

But Corbyn’s values have in fact reverberated within Labour’s membership and a significant slice of British society. So the stage is set for a clash in the constituencies as the membership begin to assert their sovereignty over policy. Labour activists want democracy within the party as a precondition of achieving democratic support in the country.

Public opinion in Britain is constructed with a monolithic barrage of propaganda from the press and media. So far, Corbyn has succeeded in neutralizing much of it by giving a voice to ordinary people. In doing this, he becomes part of a European-wide trend to reassert the politics of the local against the interests of the globalized banking system, the “enemies of democracy” in Thomas Piketty’s words. When the New Statesman argues that Corbyn wants to live in a “perfect world” and is reluctant to deal with real problems like intervening in Syria or hard choices about public spending, it is tone-deaf to these new political forces, manifested in Scotland, Greece and Catalonia.

It contrasted the “admirable idealist” Abraham Lincoln’s “cold-eyed realism” in hedging and compromising his way towards abolition with what it sees as Corbyn’s reluctance to deal with real issues of government. But Lincoln’s adoption of abolition depended on the campaigning of radical abolitionists to change the discourse of the country before the Civil War. As Lincoln’s foremost biographer, Eric Foner, explains: “They pioneered the use of the media of that time — the steam press, the telegraph, the petitions, the traveling speakers — to change public discourse. If you want to learn something from the abolitionists, that’s what you learn.”

Corbyn’s anti-austerity campaigners have a great opportunity now to change the political discourse in Britain – not in parliament or the media, but on the doorsteps of the country. But first they have to deal with the supporters of the status quo within the Labour party itself.

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Filed under British Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, Neoliberalism, tony blair

Britain’s Anti-Austerity Revolt: Labour Gives Overwhelming Victory to Jeremy Corbyn

Jeremy Corbyn’s stunning victory in the election for Labour party leader in Britain represented a spontaneous upsurge from both inside and outside the party, despite the open hostility of most Labour MPs. It restored political agency to Labour supporters who had been disenfranchised by the Blairite leadership and who fused with an anti-austerity movement that had been building outside the party for some years.

The party’s membership soared to over 400,000 as enthusiasm for the leadership election grew, making it the largest political party in Britain. Significantly, the members include a huge influx of a new generation of activists, alienated up until now from the political system and radicalized by the gutting of British society by a Tory government attuned only to the needs of the City. Many ex-party members and left activists rejoined in order to support Corbyn’s campaign.

For example, Rebecca Prentice, a doctor from Crouch End in North London, told reporters she joined the Labour party immediately after this year’s general election “because she was so angry at the result and because she was seeing every day what Tory policy was doing to the NHS.” When Corbyn was nominated, for the first time in her life “someone was up there saying what I believed in.” Laura Parker, who leads a children’s charity, said she had “lost faith” in Labour years ago, but was inspired by Corbyn to rejoin. “This is a man who is absolutely principled, who is interested in debate about ideas and who doesn’t care what color tie you wear,” she said.

A groundswell of enthusiasm built from Corbyn’s last-minute nomination, as people began to volunteer for his campaign. According to The Guardian, he attracted over 16,000 volunteers in three months. Seumas Milne commented: “By any reckoning, Corbyn’s election and the movement that delivered it represent a political eruption of historic proportions. Whatever now happens, such a fundamental shift cannot simply be reversed. Eight years after economic crisis took hold of the western world, the anti-austerity revolt has found its voice in Britain in an entirely unexpected way.”

Corbyn has given this revolt a focus and direction, challenging Tory austerity ideology when Labour’s official response was to abstain on welfare cuts. Gary Younge pointed out: “For the past couple of decades the Labour leadership has looked upon the various nascent social movements that have emerged – against war, austerity, tuition fees, racism and inequality – with at best indifference and at times contempt. They saw its participants, many of whom were or had been committed Labour voters, not as potential allies but constant irritants.” These movements included a massive anti-austerity protest earlier this year that mobilized tens of thousands in major cities.

Corbyn’s opposition to the dominant political narrative appears to reiterate ideas from the 1970s. But in today’s context, where the political class has shifted to the far right, his commitment to public investment has a popular appeal. Renationalization of the railways has overwhelming public support from rail passengers who now pay the highest fares in Europe to travel on services that are all too often unreliable and overcrowded. Scrapping tuition fees, resetting rent controls on landlords, increasing the top tax rate and a mandatory living wage all have general support; even scrapping the Trident nuclear system is favored by 64 percent of the public.

The newly-elected leader also pledged to end cuts and privatization of the cash strapped National Health Service. Its dire situation is reflected by an organization representing doctors in general practice which recently reported that, despite their efforts to meet rising demand, “unprecedented rises in patient demand” means that “the saturation point has been hit even by the most competently working practices in London” as doctors attempt to deal with the knock-on effect from cuts to hospital services.

Corbyn’s rhetoric in his victory speech mixed biblical imagery with a collectivist sentiment that resonates with the ethical sensibility of Labour voters: “I want us, as a movement, to be proud, strong and able to stand up and say, ‘We want to live in a society where we don’t pass by on the other side of those people rejected by an unfair welfare system; instead, we reach out to end the scourge of homelessness and desperation that so many people face in our society’.”

At his first opportunity to question Tory Prime Minister David Cameron, Corbyn noted that many people he had spoken to wanted above all for their voices to be heard in parliament. So he began with a question from Marie in Putney, who asked about the UK’s housing crisis after Corbyn had appealed for ideas from the public. According to the Independent, she joined the Labour party after his campaign caught her eye. “All around where I live we are surrounded by buildings going up … completely surrounded by massive new flat developments … those are flats for rich people. No ordinary working person on an average wage could even begin to contemplate buying one of those, and social housing itself is being completely demolished by this completely stupid policy of selling off the housing stock.”

But Corbyn’s performance in parliament is hardly crucial, notwithstanding the parliamentary fetishism of many journalists. The rejection of his leadership campaign by so many Blairite MPs has exposed their hand and his overwhelming majority weakens their ability to undermine his authority. Gary Younge pointed to “an elemental clash between MPs, many of whom made it to Westminster courtesy of a centralised vetting operation, and a vastly expanded membership who want to take control of their own party.”

Corbyn has encouraged a movement that continues to grow, transforming the Labour party in the process. Left commentator Richard Seymour argues: “Corbyn has said that his campaign is about turning the Labour Party into a social movement. That’s the only chance he and his supporters have.” But this is something that has already happened. A grassroots movement against austerity has flooded into the Labour party. As these members assert sovereignty over their constituencies, they will clash with the centralized party bureaucracy in Transport House over policy and selection (or possibly deselection) of parliamentary candidates.

The Guardian, interviewing Labour voters about their reaction to Corbyn’s win, noted their sense of relief that the parliamentary party can no longer ignore the views of its membership. “Finally I feel I have a choice,” said Sam Brazier. “We, the people, have given the party a very clear mandate. They are there to represent us, not dictate how we should think, feel or vote.”

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Filed under Anti-austerity, British Labour party, british parliament, Jeremy Corbyn, tony blair

Fire in the Belly: The Hunger Strike in Chicago’s Bronzeville Revitalizes Struggle for Social and Economic Justice

Despite a last-minute decision by the Emanuel administration in Chicago to reopen a neighborhood high school as a privately run arts-themed school, a community based group of public school parents, grandmothers and education activists are continuing a hunger strike to have it reopen as a public global leadership and green technology school.

Members of the Coalition to Revitalize Dyett have been fighting for five years to keep the Dyett High School open and for a comprehensive plan for education in the historically black Bronzeville neighborhood. However, the group was rebuffed by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials who closed the school last year, intending to close it permanently as a public school. The group began their hunger strike when the CPS asked for privatization proposals without considering the community’s plan, then changed the date of a hearing in order to exclude local activists.

School closings rubberstamped by the CPS board, whose members are not elected but appointed by mayor Rahm Emanuel, have disproportionately affected African American and Latino American neighborhoods. In Bronzeville alone, 19 public schools were closed between 2001 and 2012, often replaced by charter and selective-enrollment schools that admit students from anywhere in the city, further displacing neighborhood students.

According to Jitu Brown, one of the coalition’s leaders, after extensive community consultation the group is calling for the high school to become “the hub for what we call a sustainable community school village. And that means we want feeder schools vertically aligned with Dyett Global Leadership and Green Technology High School. We want the curriculum to be vertically aligned. We want parents and Local School Council members to train together. We want to create a network of schools, so that we have not only relevance and we have rigor, but we have relationships. This is a visionary plan. The president of the American Educational Research Association, Jeannie Oakes, said it was a wonderful plan. The president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, said it was the best academic plan she’s seen in 30 years of teaching.”

But, according to the Chicago Tribune, “By directing CPS to announce a plan for Dyett on Thursday, Emanuel tried to alter the narrative of what’s been a weeks-long pressure point … the proposal allows Emanuel to point to a specific solution in the face of what had become a relentless stream of criticism from protesters. … Twice this week, the activists disrupted Emanuel at public budget hearings, on Wednesday forcing the mayor to leave the stage and end a session prematurely. On Thursday, the organizers staged yet another City Hall sit-in that led to 16 people being ticketed for blocking elevators.”

The campaigners immediately rejected the CPS compromise, which hands the school over to a private operator. However, African American politicians sided with the administration in attempting to defuse the community’s struggle, showing their support for the mayor at a press conference on Thursday. The Chicago Sun-Times reported Congressman Bobby Rush said: “ ‘Eighty percent of that — which I am aware of — they were seeking, they have won’ … Pointing to his own history of activism, Rush said activists sometimes are blinded by their enthusiasm, and ‘we don’t really realize when we have won’.” Bronzeville alderman William Burns, who has routinely rubber-stamped Emanuel’s privatization schemes and school closings, called the compromise “a great day for Bronzeville,” as did state representative Christian Mitchell, who voted for the mayor’s plan to cut state workers’ pensions.

Jitu Brown responded: “Just because it’s a neighborhood school doesn’t mean a lot of people who were on that stage won’t get rich off our children. Why should black people always have to accept less? When do the voices of the people directly impacted matter?”

He told Democracy Now: “At the press conference yesterday with the mayor, there were people—they locked out the people who fought, so they negotiated the deal with them. And there were these African-American individuals, posing as leaders, who stood there and said that they will work on Dyett High School. Now, one of the people was also one of the ministers who led paid protesters into the Dyett hearings in 2012 to close the school, where he went in front of the liquor store and the halfway house and got those of us that were most vulnerable, gave them $25 apiece and told them to—and they held up prefabricated signs saying, ‘You can’t support failure. Close Dyett High School’.”

As Cornel West has pointed out, these leaders are trading on the achievements of the Civil Rights movement that today has been incorporated into the corporately-dominated political system. Their ethnicity enables them to play a particular role in assuaging liberal-political groups and the black working class, while at the same time segregation and racism is reproduced by state policy, economic disintegration, ignorance and disparity of wealth.

In Chicago, African American legislators have been coopted into the Democratic patronage monolith headed by Emanuel. However, following the successful teachers’ strike, new leaderships are emerging from the grassroots to challenge his dominance. Latino Americans, traditionally politically conservative and, according to Latino studies professor Jaime Dominguez, in Chicago more focused on delivering services than political organizing, are being drawn into the same struggle for quality public education and to stop the school board’s push for privatized charter schools. Latino Americans are the fastest-growing ethnic group in Chicago, and many voted for progressive Jesús “Chuy” Garcia’s in this year’s mayoral contest, forcing an unprecedented run-off election with Emanuel.

Although the complex intersections between race and class make appeals for working class unity in America problematic, there is a convergence between community struggles on housing and school closures, the struggle for immigrant rights, against police violence, and for the $15 minimum wage. This is contributing to a growing opposition to the corporatist Wall Street wing in the Democratic party establishment – like former Obama chief of staff and now Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel.

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Filed under African Americans, charter schools, chicago schools, chicago teachers, latino americans, privatization