Category Archives: marxism

Book Review: “Corbynism, A Critical Approach” Part Two

Jeremy Corbyn has become the symbol for everything the British establishment loves to hate. The media mounts sustained attacks on him, the army uses his image for target practice, and Labour centrists smear his record with accusations of antisemitism. On the ideological front, academics Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts have recently produced a highly critical account of Corbyn and the Corbyn movement, in which their interpretation is sustained by an apparently “Marxist” logic.

Part Two: Socialists must “hold the centre”

The authors accuse Corbyn of ignoring the “messiness” of real politics, “the calculated compromises necessary to achieve something concrete in a contradictory world,” in favour of an abstract morality manifested in a history of protests. However, as party leader, Corbyn has had to engage in many calculated compromises, such as holding a free vote on military intervention in Syria to appease shadow cabinet ministers, for example, and has had to navigate a difficult political terrain when aiming to unify Brexit-supporting and remaining constituencies. He has succeeded in holding together different wings of the party with moderate but practical policies that aim to reverse some of the most egregious aspects of privatization and welfare austerity. When he advocates more radical political alternatives aimed at encouraging popular democracy and involvement, he prefers practical examples like Preston and the “people’s Uber” pioneered in Barcelona over ideological purity.

Corbyn’s strength lies in his ability to communicate his ethical socialist beliefs to the public in a way that connects them with the political fight against austerity. The inclusivity of his message enables him to make a human connection with crowds at rallies and events. He does not perform well in parliament, on the other hand, since its procedures rely on making facile debating points rather than engaging with substance, a form of discourse modelled on institutions of ruling class privilege like Oxford, Cambridge, and the independent public schools. His political room for manoeuvre in parliament is limited by the hostility of many centrist Labour MPs, and even if a Labour government were to be elected in the near future, many of them would probably keep their seats. But this does not make him a prisoner of the parliamentary party. For him, the cabinet’s collective responsibility means fighting for policies decided by party conference, although his opponents had no compunction about resigning from the shadow cabinet.

As party leader, he can leverage his support from the membership in a way that previous left leaders like Bevan and Benn could not. At the same time, Labour MPs all believe in a certain amount of redistribution of wealth to alleviate social problems, and that creates a political space for Corbyn to keep the PLP together, since British capitalism now subsists on extraction of rents (in the broad sense) from the population through privatised industries and the financial sector. So, while the reforms proposed in Labour’s 2017 manifesto may be modest, the threat of halting or even reversing this flow of wealth to the rich alarms the establishment, even more than Corbyn’s foreign policy which would end the enrichment of the arms industry from dictatorships throughout the world, especially Saudi Arabia.

Bolton and Pitts’ pessimistic prognosis is that socialists must “hold the centre” to resist the advance of fascism and national populism. Only through the “structures of formal democracy” can the labour movement carry out its traditional activities. What is missing from their entire analysis is any sense of labour as a combative force in struggle with capital and its representatives, a movement that fought and fights for democratic rights even when outlawed by the state. In the 2017 election campaign Corbyn was able to shift the centre ground of politics to the left, something the authors perversely attribute to the Brexit vote, and his radical democratic instincts impel him to turn the party away from the arcane procedures of parliament towards local communities from which, he says, all progress originates. The authors concede none of this: for them, the “abstract, intangible forms of capital” remove all agency from socialists, since fighting to make the super-rich pay their taxes would illegitimately persecute those who are only the personalizations of money, capital and commodities. Demands for accountability for those who made the decision to cut costs on the Grenfell Tower refurbishment so drastically that they made it a death trap would not be acceptable to them. Socialists can only be spectators of “the fateful objectification of human activity in a reality that increasingly enslaves us.” This is their “Marxist” justification for accepting the neoliberal argument that there is no alternative to accepting the domination of the financial markets.

Labour’s immediate challenge is to establish itself as a clear alternative to both a Tory Brexit and the disenfranchising of neglected communities, navigating divisive political pressures exerted on the leadership by the media and sections of the parliamentary party. This depends on the politically empowered and knowledgeable party membership being able to develop policy through their connections to social movements. As Corbyn told a rallyin 2019, “What’s different now about Labour is that the members are much more involved in their communities, and it’s those members that will write the manifesto for the future.” This prospect is deeply disturbing to most of the PLP, who want to preserve the division between the political arena and extra-parliamentary struggle that facilitates their domination of the party. It also frightens the ruling establishment, for whom any tactic is justified to prevent the election of a government that might reverse the transfer of wealth and power to the rich.

How could Corbyn achieve his platform in the face of such opposition from the establishment? The plain fact is that the dominant class has little inherent strength and depends on its control of the state and the grip of ideology to sustain its rule. Corbyn challenges this ideology by asserting the imperative of community solidarity, of inclusion rather than the division of Brexit and racism. Above all, he is able to channel popular dissent in a way that enables it to express itself in a creative struggle for policies of social change. This undermines the ruling elite’s historical strategy of using the elective legitimacy of parliament to contain and manage pressure from below, while strictly limiting popular influence on the actual conduct of government. Whatever limitations Corbyn may have as a politician, what is important is the fact that he has broken through the exclusion of the party membership from decision-making and released their energies in order to transform the relation of the party to the public and to the state.

Under a Tory government British society faces deepening austerity and a sharp growth in absolute poverty with its imposition of Universal Credit on benefit recipients, which can only be made worse by Brexit. The crisis it has induced threatens to break up the imperial British state, which has always depended on external advantage for its internal stability. However, social radicalisation has found an outlet and focus in a social democratic party that, for historical reasons, has provided the only practical conduit of organised political opposition to an austerity state. Rather than Bolton and Pitts’ faith in the institutions of “internationalist liberalism” to resolve the contradictions of a globalized economy, a Corbyn-led Labour government would be an inspiration for anti-austerity movements across Europe and the US, acting as an antidote to the rise of rightwing populist parties. Corbyn’s outreach to socialist tendencies battling the existing conservative leaderships of left parties and conservative Democrats in the US lays the foundation for democratizing international institutions like the IMF, the World Bank, and the EU itself.

The strengthening of a mass social movement in close connection with a Labour party transformed by its roots in the localities offers the possibility of undoing the effects of years of neoliberal governments. The party at the constituency level is becoming increasingly open to the concept of empowering ordinary citizens so they can restore the social values of equality, public service, and cooperative effort for the common good. This is the socialism Corbyn aspires towards.

Matt Bolton and Frederick Harry Pitts, Corbynism: A Critical Approach, Emerald Publishing, Bingley, 2018

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Filed under Brexit, Jeremy Corbyn, Labour Party, marxism, Neoliberalism, political analysis, political economy, populism, Uncategorized, We are the 99 percent

Book Review: Cliff Slaughter’s “Against Capital”

The book is subtitled: “Experiences of Class Struggle and Rethinking Revolutionary Agency,” and is a compilation of essays by a number of left activists, edited by former British Trotskyist leader Cliff Slaughter.

An interesting section is Terry Brotherstone’s report on discussions of the class significance of the votes, both “Yes” and “No,” in the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence. Labour voters defied the Labour party in the deindustrialized working-class centers of Glasgow, West Dunbartonshire, Dundee and North Lanarkshire to vote “Yes” for independence, and the referendum energized and politicized Scottish youth to an unprecedented extent. The discussion gives a sense of left thinkers and trade unionists coming to grips with the implications of a mass, broad-based movement adopting a vote for national independence as a way of resisting social injustice.

The accompanying essay on British politics and culture, apparently written before the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour party leader in September 2015, now appears somewhat dated; it calls for an analysis that will give the “hope of a new world,” something that Corbyn’s election seems to have channeled. It may be too soon to write off the Labour party as a vehicle for resistance to neoliberalism, since a large grassroots movement voted against the neoliberal Blairites.

Gabriel Levy writes a thoughtful piece on Ukraine that analyzes the use of war and military conflict as a new means of social control following the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the role of state actors in reinforcing separatism, and how this has a disastrous impact on social and labour movements. He gives evidence of a continuing struggle for the independence of the workers’ movement despite war-driven divisions between sections of the movement, when workers in Ukraine’s largest industrial centers now live in what amounts to a military occupation.

The other essays are uneven in character, as the editor admits. A long essay on the Middle East prefaces an account of the Iranian revolution with a comprehensive political-diplomatic history of the region. The revolution itself is analyzed from the standpoint of relations between the pro-Soviet Tudeh party and Fedayeen groups. But little is said about agency, in terms of the social movements leading to the revolution, or social changes in the Middle East.

Contributions from Robert Myers give eyewitness accounts of the internal political conflicts within the ANC that derailed an earlier victory over apartheid in South Africa, and of workers’ struggles in Bosnia; there are also short essays on protest struggles in Spain and strikes in Mexico.

The most disappointing part of the book is Slaughter’s introductory and concluding essays. While maintaining that the left cannot prescribe the form that resistance may take, he writes off the “turmoil” in the British Labour party just at the moment that a surge of support for Corbyn’s anti-austerity stance was building. His celebration of the Greek referendum against EC-imposed austerity also seems off-base in light of the capitulation of Syriza to the EC – the fact the government acted as though they had a strong hand when the game was always rigged in favor of the bankers can only have disillusioned and weakened the Greek public.

Although calling for engaging with all forms of resistance from below, Slaughter’s use of the term “revolutionary agency” introduces a certain ambiguity: while it could mean the way in which masses of people break from social constraints and act in history, it could also refer to the ideas or groups that played a part in attempting a revolutionary insurrection. In a number of essays, the latter interpretation prevails, primarily through criticism of the role of Stalinized Communist parties in heading off possible revolutions. But are all the setbacks of attempted revolutions in all parts of the world due to a failure of leadership rather than objective circumstances?

Unfortunately, Slaughter’s call for a “definitive break” from the idea of a vanguard leadership is not carried through to a critical re-examination of the Second International concepts on which it is based. The concept of the working class as a “structural antagonist” to capital, for example, objectifies it as an abstract global entity whose social composition and historical experience in each country is homogenized, calling into question its agency independent of a leadership party. Likewise, he makes no attempt to deal with the extensive recent literature on the nature of the state, remaining content with repeating the formula that it is “an organization for the oppression of one class by another.”

Slaughter devotes a section to discussing Lenin’s famous endorsement of Kautsky’s phrase about bringing revolutionary consciousness into the working class “from the outside” as part of his rationale for rejecting vanguardist parties. However, he treats it as a part of a purely theoretical debate without going deeper by addressing its social and political context or referring to other historical sources. There was a real social division between workers and intellectuals in the opposition to Tsarism that problematizes Lenin’s characterization of “economism.”  One of these “economist” groups, the “Workers’ Organization” of St. Petersburg, which published Rabochaya mysl, gave organizational expression to workers’ resentment of intellectuals’ social paternalism and elitism by barring intelligenty participation in leadership roles and confining them to the delivery of propaganda and literature. While Lenin’s theses in his pamphlet What is to be Done?, on the other hand, retained a privileged role for intellectuals within the underground movement, they also had an appeal to the more “advanced elements” of worker-intellectuals, especially among the engineers of St. Petersburg, who looked down on the less developed, “gray” workers of the textile mills and tobacco factories.

What distinguished Rabochaya mysl was the thrust of its organizing towards all sections of the working class – beyond the skilled and literate layers. This contrasted with Lenin’s Iskra group which emphasized organizing the “most advanced” elements. Lenin extrapolated from these political disagreements to characterize the economic consciousness of workers as “bourgeois,” since they were fighting for partial reforms, and the consciousness of the radical intelligentsia, who were focused on the overthrow of Tsarism, as “socialist.” But this legalistic definition bore little relation to the actual disposition of class forces: while Iskra adhered to a two-stage program, which gave the proletariat the role of first achieving a constitutional state and only then organizing for a socialist overturn, the economists were moving towards a conception that the political struggle would consist of the effort to overthrow simultaneously both autocracy and capitalism. (Trotsky was thus not original in formulating such a view.)

The question is, not how right or wrong Lenin was in 1902, but why did the autocratic form of leadership that What is to be Done? was used to justify find a social resonance in Britain in the 1960-80s? What was the social and political context of the rise and fall of the Workers Revolutionary Party? When Slaughter recounts the sectarian refusal of the party’s leader, G. Healy, “against all advice,” to let party members sell the rank-and-file newspaper The Miner, he doesn’t raise the question of how Healy was able to exert such arbitrary authority. It can’t be explained by referring to personalities or intimidation alone: he was bolstered by an ideology that rested on the ”Great Man” outlook of Trotskyism, which in turn had social roots in the relation between intellectuals and workers in the left movement. Even if party members had continued to sell The Miner, how would that have changed the balance of class forces in 1985 when the full might of the state was brought to bear on the miners, abandoned by most of the unions in the TUC?

It’s difficult to see how WRP members in the miners’ union could have become a force of “great value” to the strike struggle since their political perspective would have misled them: the significance of the international capitalist turn to financialization and neoliberalism in the 1970s was missed by the Trotskyist movement and the left in general. A new analysis of the historical period when the WRP disintegrated is sorely needed, together with tackling the question of why the WRP’s ideological grip was so powerful up until 1985. Its vanguard ideology had material roots independent of Slaughter’s own intellectual journey; it’s a shame he didn’t write more seriously about them.

Against Capital: Experiences of Class Struggle and Rethinking Revolutionary Agency, Zero Books, Winchester UK, 2015


Filed under Britain, Jeremy Corbyn, marxism, Neoliberalism, political analysis, Trotskyism, Uncategorized

Political Economy of Flexible Accumulation: Part Three – Finance Capital

The flexible accumulation strategies of companies like Amazon and Apple don’t solve the overall problem of capital accumulation – a superabundance of capital chasing opportunities for valorization. They are only a temporary fix to the reduction of the rate of profit in manufacturing, as technology reduces the socially-necessary labor time involved in the production of commodities.

The specific nature of these strategies is not an inevitable result of fundamental laws of capitalism, which could have taken many other forms of development, but depends on contingent historical and geopolitical factors that created the conditions for distributed production and accelerated consumption, together with the opening up of low wage areas of the world to capital. The end result, however, has been the consolidation of the centrality of finance capital in the circulation process.

From the end of the 1970s, writes Canadian Marxist Gary Teeple, the post-Fordist, computer based “new economy” “created the basis for a massive increase in productivity and consequently a relative decline in demand for labour. Increased productivity, in turn, lowered the cost or cheapened the world’s supply of goods and services and created an ever-greater impetus for global chains of production and distribution.” [Teeple and McBride, eds, Relations of Global Power: Neoliberal Order and Disorder, Toronto 2011:233]

The preconditions for corporations in the developed nations to outsource production to developing countries included technological and logistical advances like shipping containerization, control of inventory with barcoding, deskilling of labor processes, the proliferation of electronics component production in Japan, Korea and Taiwan, and the availability of a large disciplined semiskilled labor force in China. However the decisive factor was the ability of financial capital to freely cross borders, achieved by a sustained campaign by US capitalism to deregulate capital flows dating back to 1945, which consolidated its strategic role in world capitalism and restructured foreign companies to do business in dollars and along American lines.

“By the 1980s and 1990s the greater mobility of financial capital across sectors, space, and time … greatly intensified domestic and international competition at the same time as it brought a much greater degree of financial volatility. … The networks of transnational production as well as finance that characterized [globalization] more than ever linked other capitalist states and economies to American capitalism’s central place in global capitalism. This was seen in the extent to which other countries’ exports depended on access to the US consumer market, and in the increasingly integrated production networks that emanated from US [multinational corporations’] foreign direct investment, on the one hand, and the flow of global investment into the US itself on the other.” [Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, The Making of Global Empire: The Political Economy of American Empire, Verso 2012:20, 311]

Financial capital and the development of new financial instruments such as complex derivatives functioned in this scenario to smooth out and accelerate capital flows between the developing countries and metropolitan markets, eventually driving the integration of global economies. At the same time it made them vulnerable to possible interruptions of the flow of capital in the form of a crisis.

Panitch and Gindin comment: “The development of derivative markets provided risk insurance in a complex global economy without which the internationalization of capital via trade and FDI would otherwise have been significantly restricted. … By the 1980s and 1990s the greater mobility of financial capital across sectors, space, and time (especially via derivatives—that is, financial capital’s quality as general or ‘abstract’ capital) —greatly intensified domestic and international competition at the same time as it brought a much greater degree of financial volatility. … [This] was accepted because financial markets had become so crucial to the domestic and global expansion of capitalism in general.” [2012:14, 20]

Because of the centrality of finance to capitalist production and accumulation, financial capitalists are able to cream off and concentrate the surplus value generated by the system, shifting power away from production. Derivatives and bond funds soon became the target of hedge funds and venture capitalists seeking higher profits through the exponential expansion of debt. Their insistence on austerity to repay bond loans has collapsed the economies of Puerto Rico and Greece, and looks likely to soon bankrupt Europe.

These structural changes in capitalism are permanent: this is what the left has to grasp and confront. But the extension of global capitalism has also globalized resistance: in China, for example, strikes and worker protests have increased noticeably over the 1,400 strikes recorded in 2014. In the US, although unions face declining membership and hostile laws, strikes and battles over factory recognition continue.

Significantly, workers involved in the supply chain in shipping, transport and warehousing have begun to challenge the employment agencies that supply labor to large corporations like Walmart. Their essentiality to the process of realization of surplus value gives them more leverage than they realize. Moreover, struggles of the lowpaid are merging with the Black Lives Matter fight: the Fight for 15 campaign called for boycotts and protests against shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, but the largest demonstration targeting Black Friday shopping was in Chicago protesting the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. Many elite stores in the high-end North Michigan Avenue were shut down, including Nieman Marcus and the Apple Store.

The anti-Wall Street message of the Occupy movement continues to resonate in the 2016 US presidential elections, with the leading Democratic candidates calling for strengthening of regulations on the financial industry. While none of their measures will reverse the structural changes in capitalism that have led to the dominance of big finance, they anticipate the mobilization of the public against the monopolization and commodification of all human needs.

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Filed under Fight for 15, finance capital, marxism, political economy, Uncategorized

Tea Party to Obama and America: “This land is my land/ and I will fight you/ unless like me / you’re rich and white”

As the US government shutdown continues and the debt limit deadline approaches, business leaders and investors are seriously concerned that no agreement has been reached. The Republican party’s traditional backers on Wall Street and major corporations fear that a government debt default would be a major disaster, but do not have the same influence on its leadership that they once had because of the significant weight of Tea Party legislators who oppose any kind of political compromise.

The Republican congressional leadership knows that the party’s electoral base is contracting and in the longer term likely to vanish. So in the short term the Republicans need to assert the legitimacy they consider they gained in the 2010 elections in order to achieve the party’s goal of cutting state welfare spending. The leadership may not agree on the tea party tactic of shutting down the government, but it cannot end the shutdown without losing leverage on cuts.

Washington Post writer Greg Sargent comments: “The battle that spawned a government shutdown is also very much about preserving the GOP majority’s relevance in future policy debates. … Republicans are concerned that the refusal of President Obama and Senate Democrats to negotiate those issues with Republicans would establish a precedent making it impossible to haggle over future debt limit increases or to use them as leverage in other policy negotiations. … Republicans said capitulating to Obama would cede to Democrats the only institutional authority Republicans possess.”

Does the standoff – opposed by a clear majority of the American public – mean that the tea party is politically finished? E.J. Dionne writes: “The movement is suffering from extreme miscalculation … the tea party is primarily about postures aimed at undercutting sensible governance and premised on the delusion that Obama’s election victories were meaningless.” Dionne’s Washington-centric argument leads him to misinterpret the purpose of the tea party’s political theater. It’s not aimed at achieving a coherent government policy, but is directed at reinforcing resentment and prejudice among right-wing Republican voters, one predicated on the axes of class and ethnicity.

Backed by billionaire-supported political campaign groups, such as “Heritage Action,” and activists who are paid to put pressure on elected Republicans and mobilize the news media so as to dominate the political discourse, the Tea Party hooligans seek to subvert the ideal of equal opportunity and the shared prosperity of the nation in order to assert possessive individualism. It’s not, “This land is my land/ This land is your land … This land was made/ for you and me” but rather, “This land is my land/ and I will fight you/ unless like me / you’re rich and white.” Republican voters may indicate support for this notion, but are not active at the grassroots, so success or failure is not going to have a great effect on the Tea Party. The phenomenon won’t end until billionaires are no longer able to direct their wealth into manipulating elections.

A Democracy Corps report based on focus groups in red states found that “More than 4 in 10 Republicans identified with the tea party and were more apt than other Republicans to insist that their leaders hold firm in the standoff … right-wingers … believe they are fighting for political survival in an era where white-run America is vanishing and they’ve lost the culture war.”  While the Tea Party is increasingly unpopular with the general public, it has retained its support among Republican voters.

In 26 states where Republicans dominate, the legislatures have voted not to accept the extension of Medicaid, part of the Obamacare law. This posture is directed at keeping control of the dwindling Republican base, above all in the South, by preventing the extension of health care insurance from benefiting poor whites in these states which might make them more favorable to government programs and switch electoral support to Democrats. Both poor whites and poor blacks lose out in these states, leaving millions of them still uncovered. Texas, for example, has an estimated 22 percent of the population without health insurance. They will stay uninsured because its governor, Rick Perry, refused to set up a state insurance exchange and turned down billions in federal funds to expand Medicaid coverage.

Most Republican voters have little in common with the plutocrats who direct Republican talking points, nor with Southern elites that premise the region’s economy on a low-wage “right to work” labor force. However, the coded racism of the GOP’s southern strategy serves to reinforce the prejudices among poor whites that welfare benefits will go primarily to African-Americans.

UMass professor Nancy Folbre quotes a number of academic studies that show how “white political leaders from states with large numbers of African-Americans – especially but not exclusively in the South – have cast new federal protections in apocalyptic terms and mounted a powerful opposition. … Poor whites are promised protection against labor market competition or higher taxes in return for acquiescence with policies that restrict the social safety net.”

Tea Party politicians, while articulating an anti-government ideology developed over years by right-wing think tanks, at the same time have a particular appeal to insular rural or suburban communities who fear that national trends may lose them local privilege, as well as local business elites that need to bolster their competitive position by using state representation to negate federal regulation or taxes.

For example, a comment on a recent New York Times article on Steve King, the leader of the Congressional resistance to Obamacare, points out that King’s Iowa constituency “is largely populated by wealthy Dutch Calvinist farmers, who have recently dived headfirst into the hog and cattle confinement business.” MSN reports that in July 2012, King “sponsored an amendment to the House Farm Bill that would legalize previously banned practices such as tail-docking, putting arsenic in chicken feed, and keeping impregnated pigs in small crates. ‘My language wipes out everything they [animal rights activists] have done with pork and veal,’ King said of his amendment.”

In this vein, author Michael Lind argues that Congressional tea partiers are following an entirely rational strategy on behalf of their constituencies. The Tea Party’s social base, he says, “consists of what, in other countries, are called the ‘local notables’ – provincial elites whose power and privileges are threatened from above by a stronger central government they do not control and from below by the local poor and the local working class. … They are second-tier people on a national level but first-tier people in their states and counties and cities. … They would rather disenfranchise blacks and Latinos than compete for their votes. And they would rather dismantle the federal government than surrender their local power and privilege.” However, this brand of local sectionalism would not have had a chance at the national level if it had not connected with the narrative of the plutocracy to undermine the concept of the common good.

Richard Seymour gives Lind’s analysis a Marxist gloss, while stressing the importance of the ideological dimension of Ted Cruz’s speechifying. Obamacare, he writes, “is connotatively linked in a chain-of-equivalents to a whole series of issues from the bank bailouts to stimulus spending to unions etc.  These are all linked, somehow, to the threatened revival of a social coalition behind a moderate tax-and-spend liberalism which the Tea Partiers call, with perfect Hayekian inflection, ‘socialism’.” Seymour describes the social coalition behind moderate liberalism as “essentially a pact between the working class and the upper levels of the bourgeoisie.” But this is a mischaracterization of the social movement behind Obama’s reelection, which is what truly disturbed the provincial white elites, and tends to downplay the struggle at the political level by imposing a class schema on a complex social reality.

Obama’s election victories stemmed from a visceral rejection of the Bush years and bank bailouts from across society but in particular by the young and by growing numbers of minority voters who in a few years will make up a majority of the population. The mood of the country was expressed above all by the Occupy movement, whose rhetoric Obama appropriated in his electoral campaign: a rejection of the political and economic domination of the country by Wall Street and the billionaire one percent.

It remains to be seen if the stalemate in Washington is resolved by negotiations over cuts in social security and Medicare. This is a strategy pushed by the business class and bankers, as well as the billionaires who back the Tea Party. Republicans cannot capitulate to Obama without giving up their leverage, but Obama can’t contain the social movement that elected him if he is seen to abandon constitutional government and agree to swingeing fiscal austerity.

He senses that this movement’s demand for more government intervention to create jobs, a higher minimum wage, and an end to fiscal cuts has grown stronger and more determined. Americans of all ethnicities have realized that if we’re going to sing, “This land is my land / This land is your land” next Fourth of July, we’ve got to protect the 99 percent. Time for our legislators to do the same.

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Filed under debt limit impasse, Government shutdown, marxism, Obama, occupy wall street, political analysis, Republicans

Walmart Strikes Ignite Movements of Resistance in America and the World

Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers took to the streets earlier this week after the multi-story Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka burnt down, killing 112 people who were prevented from escaping by locked doors.  The factory made clothes for Walmart, along with other U.S. brands, but the company denied any responsibility. The protesters are demanding that they pay compensation.

According to Democracy Now, “Survivors said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work, and that when the fire alarm went off, their bosses ordered them to stay at their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits or fire escapes.”

Walmart’s role in this tragedy is that by ordering huge quantities of clothes on a just-in-time schedule while systematically reducing the prices they pay for them, it forces garment manufacturers to subcontract to sweatshops and cut corners on safety. Walmart’s drive to squeeze out labor costs from the supply chain makes it inevitable that subcontractors will abuse and endanger their workers.

But since this process takes place through contract negotiations with middlemen, Walmart can claim ignorance or non-responsibility, since they are distanced from the slave-like labor conditions by a series of financial exchanges – which, as Marx pointed out, conceal the embedded relations of exploitation. It is this hands-off property of capital that is important to the way Walmart operates.

The Bangladeshi government is dominated by garment manufacturers, part of a billion-dollar industry that has captured the state, which intimidates and murders union activists. Complicit in this arrangement are global brands that buy commodities from the country based on the rock-bottom cost of labor. In Alternet, Adele Stan pointed out: “the Western companies essentially sponsor a factory police state that exists to satisfy the insatiable appetite of Western consumers for new stuff at a low price. … Bangladeshi garment workers typically earn around $50 per month on average; the minimum wage [set by the government] is $37 per month.”

Worker rights activist Scott Nova told Democracy Now: “One of the purposes of the system of global outsourcing is to enable companies like Wal-Mart to distance themselves from responsibility for the wages and working conditions of the workers who make their clothing. … Both Wal-Mart and Gap, who are two of the biggest players in Bangladesh, have been urged for years to put in place meaningful fire safety protections in their supply chain after a similar fire in late 2010 that killed 30 workers in a factory producing primarily for Gap.”

Harold Meyerson elaborates in the Washington Post: “… the very essence of the Wal-Mart system is to employ thousands upon thousands of workers through contractors and subcontractors and sub-subcontractors, who are compelled by Wal-Mart’s market power and its demand for low prices to cut corners and skimp on safety. And because Wal-Mart isn’t the employer of record for these workers, the company can disavow responsibility for their conditions of work. This system isn’t reserved just for workers in faraway lands: Tens of thousands of American workers labor under similar arrangements.”

Such a pyramidal arrangement of subcontractors who hire the “temporary” workers to operate Walmart’s warehouses means that the company is legally absolved from the wage theft and other labor abuses that constantly take place in these cavernous distribution centers.

Walmart is focused on increasing the amount of absolute surplus value extracted from the movement of vast quantities of commodities through their stores, through increasing the proportion of unpaid labor worked by their employees. By contrast, Henry Ford increased his profits by increasing relative surplus value, using more advanced manufacturing technology and a more efficient organization of the production process. Walmart’s retail workers are disciplined by using the cult of the “Walmart family” to put psychological pressure on them, backed up by the threat of unemployment and management retaliation.

Ellen Israel Rosen draws the conclusion that “Wal-Mart cuts its labor costs by requiring excessive amounts of work, then making employees work off the clock if they cannot finish in time. … To secure their compliance, Wal-Mart culture is brought to bear. The culture is an effort to ‘educate’ employees to be loyal to the company, to identify with authority, and to accept the demands of an authoritarian regime, a form of management by intimidation. Getting workers to accept this authority makes it possible to manipulate work rules, with employees expected to feel it is legitimate to do the extra work.” [in Wal-Mart: The Face of Twenty-First-Century Capitalism, ed. Nelson Lichtenstein, New York, 2006:258]

Walmart has in fact wedded an agrarian and patriarchal form of labor management with modern business practices with the result of intensifying the rate of exploitation to extreme levels. Its aggressive anti-unionism is part of its ideological assult, designed to exert total control over a worker’s time and social interaction on the job. In the days before the Black Friday strikes last week, managers held meetings in every store where employees were told that the actions would hurt sales and cut into their bonuses, and strongly implied that anyone who took part would be disciplined or fired.

In The Nation, Josh Eidelson blogged: “Walmart’s tactics over the past week may have taken a toll: organizers said that 100 DC-area Walmart store workers struck this week, but maybe no more than a dozen on Black Friday itself (they chalked this up to workers’ desire to cause more disruption earlier in the week while products were still being unloaded).”

But the tide has turned. The lessons of Black Friday are that those courageous low-waged workers who successfully stood up to intimidation and threats from Walmart have encouraged a movement of  resistance throughout the company. It looks like many of Walmart’s workers were waiting to see what would happen before they themselves took a stand. In These Times reported: “Rosetta Brown, an OUR Walmart member at a suburban Chicago Sam’s Club, has been fighting Walmart for the 12 years she has worked for the company, and on Friday she was out on strike. Although she has organized at least 10 co-workers into OUR Walmart, she says most of the workers at her store said they were afraid to go out. But when she returned to work today, she was their hero. ‘I’ve been getting congratulations all day, even in front of the manager,’ says Brown. … ‘People have been high-fiving me. I wasn’t afraid of getting fired. Now I think a lot of workers in stores who were afraid would walk out.”

Walmart workers are joining a national movement of low-paid employees who are taking action against their conditions. Alternet reported that Thursday “hundreds of fast food restaurant workers are striking in high-traffic commercial centers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The strikes, which began at 6 am this morning and will continue throughout the day, will hit some of the world’s biggest fast food chains, including McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Dominos, Burger King, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Taco Bell, and carry an industry-shaking demand: the right to unionize and wage increases to $15 an hour. … thousands of low-wage airport workers in Los Angeles also went on strike last week , disrupting the busiest travel day of the year to protest the termination of their union contracts and the elimination of their family healthcare insurance.”

This in turn will align them with workers in China and Bangladesh who are fighting for the most elementary of rights against multinational capital.

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No to Mechanized Instruction instead of University Education: Occupy the Campuses!

Regular readers of Colonel Despard may be wondering why I have been paying so much attention to the events surrounding the forced resignation and eventual reinstatement of Teresa Sullivan, the president of the University of Virginia. In my opinion, the episode heralds  a major political battle over public higher education, about more than cuts in funding.

There are powerful political and economic interests devoted to plundering the human assets of higher education in a process David Harvey has described as “accumulation through dispossession.” With the collapse of the profitability of mortgage-backed securities, venture capitalists and hedge fund billionaires have an urgent need to find new sources of valorization for huge masses of capital they control. They are seizing on plans for online education as a vehicle for their speculative investment, aiming for rich rewards by driving millions more people into debt peonage.

The Washington Post attempted to portray the UVA events as a failed power play between two women who personified different sides in a debate over the university’s future. “In Sullivan, the Dragas camp — which included some powerful alumni and board members — saw a roadblock to the creation of the modern university. They believed that U-Va. needed to accelerate technological innovations and pay more attention to the fiscal bottom line. In Dragas, the Sullivan forces — deans, professors, and many alumni and students — saw nothing less than an assault on the public university’s role in society.”

Likewise, “Unrepentant Marxist” Louis Proyect considered that Sullivan was caught between “Mammon and God, known in the academic vocabulary as Business and Learning,” as he quoted from Upton Sinclair. “[W]hen you put together people like Dragas, Kington and Kiernan, the results are predictable. They will be focused on the university’s ‘bottom line’, and all the rest—from scholarship to teaching young people how to become good citizens—be damned.” Proyect depicts the events as simply an extension of the corporatization of every aspect of life; in my view he downplays the real struggle that involved most of the university campus.

As soon as Sullivan was reinstated, Virginia governor McDonnell made it clear that the whole point of engineering a unanimous vote was to keep rector Helen Dragas on the board of trustees. By reappointing Dragas, the main architect of the conspiracy to dump Sullivan, he sent a message to the campus and to Sullivan herself that his goal of cost-cutting and online education will remain on the agenda. He also reshaped the board with new appointments that included two conservative ideologues closely connected with the politics of educational “reform.” One is Bobbie Kilberg, a Republican fundraiser and enthusiastic supporter of McDonnell’s “Top Jobs” legislation, aimed at “reform-based investment” of higher education and “technology-enhanced instruction.” The other is Frank Atkinson who has close connections to the Koch brothers and is associated with conservative groups rewriting state education standards.

The UVA campus community’s fight against Sullivan’s sacking uncovered some important connections. A turning point in the buildup of resistance was the inadvertent release of an email from business school board chair and ex-Goldman Sachs partner Peter Kiernan that revealed his complicity in discussions with two “important alums” about Sullivan’s replacement, citing the need for “strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”

On the initiative of the student newspaper, the Daily Cavalier, other emails were released, including one from Dragas to vice-rector Kington with a link to a Wall Street Journal article written by Hoover Institute ideologists John Chubb and Terry Moe. Her subject line: “why we can’t afford to wait.” The article claims breathlessly: “Online education will lead to the substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) – as has happened in every other industry – making schools much more productive. … Institutions such as the University of Phoenix – and it is hardly alone – have embraced technology aggressively. By integrating online courses into their curricula and charging less-than-elite prices for them, for-profit institutions have doubled their share of the U.S. higher education market in the last decade, now topping 10%.”

State governors like Virginia’s McDonnell and conservative think-tanks are deeply embedded in a strategy to substitute this kind of subprime mechanized instruction for university education, in the process transferring the costs of creating a partly-skilled corporate workforce onto the public sector.

Venture capitalists see the rising costs of higher education as an opportunity to extract tribute from a vast market of people desperate for job qualifications. As another article which caught Dragas’ attention – she forwarded it with the comment: “good article” – concluded:  “The Stanford University professor Sebastian Thrun’s free course in artificial intelligence drew 160,000 students in more than 190 countries. No surprise, the venture capitalists have come a-calling, and they are backing educational startups like Udemy and Udacity.”

The plans of the plutocrats for higher education are spelled out in an ACTA letter that advocates turning public higher education into a mass-produced commodity by downgrading it to vocational instruction and turning faculty into teaching drones. The authors, a Harvard Business School professor and a Brigham Young University administrator, provide an ideological cover for monetizing education by arguing that all students should be admitted whether or not they have had the necessary groundwork from high school. “You’ll also have to push past arguments against admitting students who are doomed to fail, who ‘aren’t college material’. … Bet on your institution’s ability to harness those innovations, to serve students who couldn’t otherwise afford or hack a college education…”

If they can’t hack a college education, then what are they going to do online? The authors’ model, the University of Phoenix, has produced huge returns for its investors, but graduates only a small percentage of its students. It’s immaterial if students drop out or fail, because the company still charges them for the courses and is able to rake off a disproportionate amount of government Pell grants. All that counts is getting a greater and greater number of would-be students to sign up – exactly like the subprime mortgage scam.

When the fall semester begins, these issues will be raised acutely across America. Students and faculty will be engaged in battles over higher tuition fees and defending endangered curricula. These struggles will be different because of their experience of the Occupy movement, which has heightened consciousness of the politicians’ and banks’ role in creating poverty and holding society to ransom. The cynical political ploy to cash in on people’s failed dreams of a better life will meet with huge resistance; there could well be a resurgence of Occupy on the campuses.

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Filed under austerity measures, Hedge Fund managers, marxism, Neoliberalism, occupy wall street, political analysis, public higher education, University of Virginia

The Black Bloc Cyclops: Enabling, not fighting, Government Psyops Against Occupy

An article by Chris Hedges in Alternet criticizing the black bloc as “the cancer in Occupy” has created a stir among anarchist sympathizers.

Susie Cagle replies that anarchists are inspired by struggles in places like Greece. Their critics, she says, portray property destruction “by perceived black bloc ‘hooligans’ as a discrediting force in the movement, even while they understand the role of focused property destruction at, say, the Boston Tea Party, or in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s struggle against EGT in Longview, Washington.”

To conflate property destruction by individuals with a mass movement of protest in Greece or anywhere else is a remarkable piece of historical confusion. Anarchists believe that by recreating the image of other struggles across the world, they can create a movement in America. However, this only satisfies their own egos and alienates potential supporters of the Occupy Movement.

Ms. Cagle writes approvingly that “On November 2, an autonomously organized anti-capitalist black bloc marched through Oakland, destroying windows and other property at banks and, allegedly, strike-busting businesses such as Whole Foods. … That march resulted in the Oakland police calling in mutual aid, but it did not result in a discrediting of the national movement; tens of thousands still marched on the Port of Oakland hours later.”

What she omits from this story is that the black bloc members were a small minority of the marchers on that day, and that after the success of the thousands who marched on the Port of Oakland – despite the black bloc, not because of it – the occupation of an abandoned building by a small group led to a violent confrontation which overshadowed the day’s action. At the time, Colonel Despard quoted a critical letter from a non-black bloc anarchist, “Thousands of citizens took to the streets and shut down the 5th largest port in America. You burned some garbage and broke some glass. Thousands of people took to the streets and marched on banks to shut them down. You painted some walls. Thousands of people made headlines by organizing successfully a massive general strike that drew attention from the entire world. You made headlines by throwing rocks at the police, who incidentally didn’t show any use of force, who were in fact not even a significant presence, until your actions.”

Ms. Cagle herself makes the best argument against individualistic black bloc tactics: “A full plastic water bottle lobbed at police in full riot gear, whether it hits one of them or not, is enough to legally warrant the shooting of less lethal, rubber-coated steel bullets at a crowd. Occupiers, of course, threw more than just water bottles on January 28 – glass bottles, bricks, lawn chairs – but police, according to their own statements, sustained no injuries beyond two small cuts and one bruise. …”

In other words, throwing objects at the police is completely ineffectual and only serves to give them legal justification for firing their rubber bullets. But anarchists turn up their noses at legality; they don’t want to fight a political battle, using the provisions of the First Amendment, to win over millions of Americans to their cause. Chris Hedges is right to point out the absolutist arrogance of anarchists on this point. “The Black Bloc movement bears the rigidity and dogmatism of all absolutism sects. Its adherents alone possess the truth. They alone understand. They alone arrogate the right, because they are enlightened and we are not, to dismiss and ignore competing points of view as infantile and irrelevant.”

They are motivated by ideological purity, not by any kind of concrete evaluation of the situation the Occupy movement is in. Another anarchist supporter, Kevin Carson writes in self-justification: “The state is simply a group of human beings cooperating for common purposes — purposes frequently at odds with those of other groups of people, like the majority of people in the same society. … The state is nothing but an association for armed violence on the part of those who make money at the expense of other people. … The state is by far the greatest concentration of organized violence, and it almost always employs such violence for evil purposes — whether at Tahrir Square, Hama, or Oakland.”

Are not Social Security and Medicare also functions of the state? Shouldn’t we fight to defend Social Security and Medicare? Carson’s simplistic nineteenth-century definition of the state excludes organs of mass persuasion like TV and the press, or the creators of ideology in universities and think tanks, and assumes the impossibility of political pressure placing limits on state intervention. If the state were such a monolithic entity in support of capitalism, why is it that the super-rich have spent literally billions of dollars to push for legislation in their favor at the federal and state level? It’s clearly important for them to reverse state-imposed limits by agencies like the EPA and the IRS.

Carson quotes Andy Robinson, a professor at Cambridge University, who critiques news coverage of the Occupy movement. “There’s no mention of the fact that police have repeatedly, violently attacked Occupy protests which consisted simply of sit-downs and camp-outs. … The fact that police use violence routinely and with impunity is not mentioned.  In fact, police violence as such (as opposed to excessive brutality) is treated as uncontroversial.” Official lies by politicians and cops, Robinson argues, are a “psyop designed to conceal their own repeated use of violence.”

There is a psyops war going on, but the anarchists don’t want to fight this war. Otherwise they would recognize that black bloc activities assist the state’s psyop campaign to isolate and destroy the Occupy movement. We do have democracy in America, not a police state, and governments claim legitimacy for their actions by reference to the popular vote. Treating the state as always and everywhere engaged in violence against the people is an ideological justification for abstaining from using legal methods of struggle aimed at winning over the American people, who are the basis of popular sovereignty.


Filed under anarchism, austerity measures, black bloc, black block, marxism, Occupy Oakland, occupy wall street, police raid, political analysis, We are the 99 percent