Monday, February 19, 2018

Unions Can Organize and Win Strikes. But Not With the Present Leadership

"This is William.  I apologize, I’m so sorry for what this contract gave us.  I didn’t vote for it.  I didn’t like it.  I’ve said my piece.  But, uh, I guess a lot of people were broken down or whatever.I feel that the company won.  I feel that the union didn’t fight hard enough.  But I definitely voiced my opinion at the meeting.  So I guess I got to go with the flow.

But I apologize for anybody else who is going to have their contract coming up.  Thank you for the coffee. Thank you for the encouragement.  And thank you for being on my side.

Take care, Rich. "

This above is what a striker wrote to me after five months on the picket line in the 2004 grocery strike and after the vote to go back to work. I was on those picket lines every day during my lunchtime and after work. This strike was defeated due to the leadership of the UFCW and AFL-CIO that chose the employer over the worker. The comment below in bold the UFCW spokesperson Ron Lind made to the mass media in the midst of the strike when members were out of work losing money and sometimes their homes. Activists that ignore this role and don't challenge this collaboration and fight openly in our movement for the consciousness of the members and the working class and a different approach as a whole are derelict of duty. RM

“We want to make changes with a scalpel, not a chain saw.” *

by Richard Mellor

Afscme Local 444, retired

I have to bring this subject up again because it is such a glaring omission on the one hand and because the consequences of it disarm and in fact can demoralize, those rank and file union members who want to fight to change the present concessionary and pro-business policies of the AFL-CIO leadership. I am referring to this In These Times article on the subject of union organizing.  In These Times is a liberal/left newspaper directed mainly at academia and the liberal middle classes in or around the labor movement and often employed as staffers and advisors to the officialdom.

This article by Seth Kershner is about the retail industry.

Mr. kershner provides some useful information about the retail industry. He points out that retail has seen a 50% increase in employment to about $15 million workers since 1980 while real wages for these workers has fallen 11% over the same period. Mirroring the decline in union density over the past decades Retail had a union density rate of 15% in the 1970’s while grocery stores hit a peak of 31% in 1983. The source of Mr. Kirshner’s information is Peter Ikeler, a sociologist who has written books on the subject.

The professor blames de-unionization on the “hollowing out” of the NLRA (National Labor Relations Act) system through legal challenges by the employers and correctly stresses that it is “employer hostility” that is the most “important factor” in the decline of union membership in retail and by implication, organized labor as a whole. “The climate for labor organizing in retail is pretty explicitly negative” Ikeler argues. It wasn’t exactly positive in the 1880’s or 1920’s and 30’s either.

In what I assume is support of professor Ikeler’s book Hard Sell: Work and Resistance in Retail Chains, Mr. Kershner gives some examples of the hostility aimed at workers and unions. Kershner quotes examples of propaganda and lies that are part of workplace meetings along with what I describe as workplace terrorism; putting the fear of god in to workers if they even think or talk about unions. Another strategy is terminating workers found guilty of doing so to set an example.

In These Times and other similar journals are fond of quoting various “labor experts” about the conditions workers face on the job, the threats, intimidation, violations of safety and other rules. The heads of organized labor who reside in Washington DC also turn to academia and the experts to legitimize their roles as heads of the organizations and their claims that things are bad.  Workers are sources of information but not of power in this approach.

Both Professor Ikler and Mr. Kirshner it seems claim that “unions also share part of the blame”.  Now here is where I have to point out a glaring omission, certainly in Mr. Kershner’s article and possibly Professor Ikler’s book, and that is the absence of a union leadership. Ikler, Kirshner writes, “thinks that unions have done a lousy job of keeping workers engaged” and he goes on to give some examples which show that many workers are not aware that they’re in a union. As a retired utility worker and union activist for 30 odd years I can attest to that, many union members cannot name their union and certainly not the AFL-CIO.

Both Ikler and kershner avoid, or cover for the role of the union leadership by using the all-inclusive term, “the union” It appears that organized labor has members who pay the dues and work in the workplaces of the US and that’s it. Ikler according to Mr. Kershner and in agreement with him apparently, believes that “unions need to step up their organizing and get back to what union were in their early New Deal, Days”

In other words, that members don’t know they are in a union or that they belong to the AFL-CIO or anything much else about the movement, and what has been happening to us is simply a product of “the union”  (all of us) doing a “lousy job”. It’s purely an organizational issue.

Many union members never see their officials outside of election time or when there’s a Democrat running for office that the union hierarchy is supporting. I have been on picket lines through three or more retail industry strikes and, like all workers, they have suffered defeat after defeat. In the case of the 2004 grocery strike here in California the UFCW leadership were asking shoppers not to cross informational picket lines up North while UFCW members were stocking the shelves. The UFCW leadership and the entire labor movement refused to mobilize the power of the membership and violate anti-union laws, no strike clauses and win. Yes, members have a responsibility, but leadership is crucial.

In some cases union leadership takes workers out on strike simply to encourage the employer to talk to them nicer. In the Wisconsin events of a few years ago with a hundred thousand or more workers in the streets and occupying the State Capital Rotunda the only two demands that the union leadership made an issue of were dues check off which is where the employer collects the unions revenue through payroll, and collective bargaining rights which affect the leadership’s role as official bargaining representatives and a seat at the table. I am opposed to dues check off as it gives the bosses’ control of our funds and isolates more the rank and file member from the union as an organization.

Bargaining rights is important obviously but without this role the hierarchy has no job and overwhelmingly they have used their position to assist the employers and force concessions on their own members. In the case of Wisconsin, concessions were fine. The officialdom had the members out to defend their own jobs only.

In researching his book Ikler talked to workers at Target (Target used to be GEMCO and was unionized) who basically said they were afraid of losing their jobs if they supported unions. This is something every worker is well aware of. The question is where is the power to protect them when they do?  Target management claims that they solve issues with the help of “their team” meaning the workers, and that they “create an environment of mutual trust between Target and our team members.”

Talk to any worker that trusts you and they know damn well that they’re not on the same team. Yes, some conservative less class conscious workers might, but not many if they’re honest, because work teaches us otherwise.

Source Doug Henwood
These graphs on the left reveal the decline in strikes and workplace stoppages. This is the product of decades of cooperation with the employer's by the heads of the AFL-CIO and organized labor in general. It also reflects the fear that workers have after participating in or witnessing strikes that are not really aimed at stopping production but are merely 24 hour protests that end in defeat or being sent back to work after weeks on picket lines with no significant improvements.

In a previous piece on Labor and the SEIU I pointed to the massive propaganda campaign the AFL-CIO and SEIU waged to get employees of Kaiser Permanente, the huge HMO to get on board with the Team Concept. The AFL-CIO used its own version of fear and coercion to get those workers to vote against their gut instincts and place their faith not in our own power and mobilization of workers in and outside unions, but to allow their leadership to jump in bed with the health care executives. Its Industrial Union Department produced an expensive glossy fold out urging the rank and file of Kaiser’s unions to vote yes for a new “labor management partnership” There were implications of catastrophe if the workers didn’t do so.
In 2009, the Western State Council of the UFCW presented its Person of the Year Award to the Chairman of Save-Mart Bob Piccini. Not a steward, not a militant rank and file fighter. A worker doesn’t need a sociology degree or advice from a labor history expert degree to know what this is.

It is not an accident that some workers don’t know whether they’re in a union or not, the present heads of organized labor from the top down prefer it that way. It is a conscious strategy on their part. They use member power very cautiously just to blow off some steam, call people out here and there, have rally after rally, make a lot of noise. But stopping production, real strikes, mobilizing the power of workers on the job and in our communities in an offensive of our own against austerity, this is a terrifying thought for them. Will they be able to control the anger that might arise when a collective sense of our own power frees it?

They support the Team Concept because they see no alternative to the market, they worship the market and capitalism. So in the face of an employers offensive they scramble to help them out which means attacking their own members’ interests. To mobilize the potential power of their members can only lead to chaos from their world viewpoint.

This ignoring of labor’s leadership is a conscious thing. Many liberal academics work for or are connected to the labor officialdom in some way and are aware that it is not only non union employers like Target that push this labor management team nonsense, the unionized ones do too. The Team Concept, the philosophy that workers and bosses have the same interests is the dominant thinking among the labor hierarchy and the root cause of their class collaboration and betrayals.  To point to their role, which has meant cooperation and collaboration with employers and capital, would bring them in to a conflict with the hierarchy so they avoid it. But this more or less leads to blaming the members instead. 

I am not saying there aren’t academics or people that have been trained in certain fields that can provide huge benefits and assistance to the working class in our struggle against capital. Many have and many have made great sacrifices. But as Marx once said, the emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself. No force can do it for us.

Professor Ikler looks to the creation of worker centers where we can “ about work conditions and plan campaigns.”, and begin to build, "A strong occupational identity -- where workers are very committed to a craft, to an occupation -- this has often been a source of collective identity and resistance,"  I find this a bit of a confusing statement. Is he suggesting we return to the craft mentality?  He seems to think we don’t discuss work, we don’t discuss our type of work, we have no sense of working class unity. I realize it’s harder for someone at a university as these are capitalist institutions where their ideology is very strong; they are capitalist Think Tanks. But we talk a lot about work.

Workers talk about conditions all the time, after work, at the pub, at dinner and visiting friends. When talking of leadership they often blame criminal activity, corruption and obscene salaries as the reason for their leadership’s refusal to fight but these are secondary factors, the Team Concept philosophy is primary. Many an honest fighter has ended up on the other side; the road to hell is paved with good intentions as they say.

And it’s fine to plan a campaign but, again, Ikler runs away from the inevitable, any efforts at changing the present policies of concessions will bring these workers in to a conflict with the hierarchy and it can be fatal to ignore this. Many of the socialist left in the unions avoid openly challenging the present leadership also using building the “Vanguard Party” as an excuse or claiming the union leadership will never do anything no matter what. The present leadership has built a relationship with the bosses’ based on labor peace and they will not sit idly by when it appears a movement is arising that threatens that view. Even the organizing successes of unions like SEIU, is based on labor/management cooperation and making workers part of the team. It’s like a business, a road to increasing revenue.

For those of us developing strategies we must help prepare the rank and file for the reality of a struggle and help in it.

Ikler talks about unions getting back to the “…early New Deal Days.” but doesn’t really elaborate except calling them “worker based”. I have no idea what he means by that but getting back to what won in the thirties is exactly what we have to do. Millions of workers joined unions in this period. Workers occupied factories, youth occupied schools, roving pickets traveled from workplace to workplace, the great 44-day Flint occupation should be labor’s 4th of July. We had three general strikes in 1934 and the last general strike in Oakland in 1946, a huge year for strike days lost. There were unemployed movements like A.J Muste’s group that joined in the 1934 Toledo General Strike, and housing and renters movements based on direct action tactics.

We saw an attempt in the 1980’s to push back against the capitalist offensive after the defeat of Patco in 1980 when Reagan fired 11,000 strikers and banned them from working in their industry for life. The union leadership did nothing but voice a few platitudes and raised some money. Numerous major strikes followed; Two Greyhound strikes, Eastern Airlines, AT&T Hormel Meat Packing in Austen Mn. Detroit Teamsters. We had strikes at Stalely, that took on the name the “War Zone” and in the mines and International Paper. Public sector worker struck in Philadelphia and elsewhere. These strikes were defeated not because workers were unwilling to sacrifice but because the trade union leadership from the AFl-CIO down refused to bring the power of organized labor and our communities to the table and confront capital rather than defending it.

The rank and file of labor does have a responsibility and that is to build opposition caucuses in the workplaces, union halls where they can, and campaign openly against the policies of the present leadership. As a movement form below gains traction splits will occur in the present leadership and others will be replaced. Police brutality, environmental catastrophe, poison water, education and health care and the despair that leads people to right wing hate groups and the horrific school shooting are are witnessing are all union issues. If the left doesn’t fill the vacuum the right will. The silence of the present heads of organized labor on these issues is deafening.

We must return to what built the union in the first place. Rely on our own strength, challenge and build to a movement that can violate anti-union laws and demand what we need, not what the present officials and their friends in the Democratic Party tell us is realistic.

This is not a picnic------it never was.

* Ron Lind, UFCW spokesperson during the 2004 strike assuring the grocery bosses, through the mass media, that their profits would be safe.

Friday, February 16, 2018

A poem: When Labour's flag was Palest Pink

Readers in the UK especially may know the old song The Vicar of  Bray from the 18th century, about a vicar who kept changing his religious loyalties in line with the prevailing allegiances of successive monarchs. Roger Silverman in London has adapted this to suit the stance of Labour MPs today...

When Labour's flag was Palest Pink

I marched on every May Day.
My seat stayed safe on that green bench
For every monthly pay day.
While cowards flinched and traitors sneered
I stood for moderation.
The red flag's fine for conference time
But God save Queen and nation.

And that's my stand for evermore.
Our leaders come and go, sir.
I'll still be MP come what may.
Divine right makes it so, sir.

In the good old days of Tony Blair
I swore faith in New Labour,
I chucked my socialism in the bin
In the hope of gaining favour.
Away with red flags, picket lines,
Clause Four and nationalisation,
I stood for NATO, PFI,
The war and privatisation.  

Yes, principles are always cheap.
Our leaders come and go, sir.
I'll still be MP come what may.
Divine right makes it so, sir.

We lost the next two elections,
Our party suffered a rout.
Where had all the voters gone?
We chucked two leaders out.
The unions said they need their say.
We said, we'll show who's trusted.
Let all and sundry pay three pounds.
They did - and we got busted.

Well, never mind. We're still in place.
Our leaders come and go, sir.
I'll still be MP come what may.
Divine right makes it so, sir.

We thought, we'll let some lefty stand
And crush those reds forever.
He won a half a million votes
And half a million members.
How dare they challenge us MPs?
We lined up to oppose him.
We splashed out all the party funds
But failed to depose him.

But so what? We've got mass support!
Our leaders come and go, sir.
I'll still be MP come what may
Divine right makes it so, sir.

We counted on Theresa May
To put him in his place.
Then Corbyn gained three million votes.
May all but lost the race.
So now we all say: right on, Jez!
We always said you'd score!
I'm in Momentum! Here's my card!
A lefty to the core!

So trust me! You can count on me!
Our leaders come and go, sir.
I'll still be MP come what may.
Divine right makes it so, sir.

So don't dare question my remit,
Or call for reselection.
I'm loyal to my voting mob,
At every new election.
I stand on sacred principles,
The rights of feudal kings:
A privilege and job for life,
And all that power brings.

You get it? That's democracy!
Our leaders come and go, sir.
I'll still be MP come what may.
Divine right makes it so, sir.

Roger Silverman

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Another School Shooting. Why is This Happening?

Why We’re Underestimating American Collapse

The Strange New Pathologies of the World’s First Rich Failed State

You might say, having read some of my recent essays, “Umair! Don’t worry! Everything will be fine! It’s not that bad!” I would look at you politely, and then say gently, “To tell you the truth, I don’t think we’re taking collapse nearly seriously enough.”

Why? When we take a hard look at US collapse, we see a number of social pathologies on the rise. Not just any kind. Not even troubling, worrying, and dangerous ones. But strange and bizarre ones. Unique ones. Singular and gruesomely weird ones I’ve never really seen before, and outside of a dystopia written by Dickens and Orwell, nor have you, and neither has history. They suggest that whatever “numbers” we use to represent decline — shrinking real incomes, inequality, and so on —we are in fact grossly underestimating what pundits call the “human toll”, but which sensible human beings like you and I should simply think of as the overwhelming despair, rage, and anxiety of living in a collapsing society.

Let me give you just five examples of what I’ll call the social pathologies of collapse — strange, weird, and gruesome new diseases, not just ones we don’t usually see in healthy societies, but ones that we have never really seen before in any modern society.

America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days. That’s one every other day, more or less. That statistic is alarming enough — but it is just a number. Perspective asks us for comparison. So let me put that another way. America has had 11 school shootings in the last 23 days, which is more than anywhere else in the world, even Afghanistan or Iraq. In fact, the phenomenon of regular school shootings appears to be a unique feature of American collapse — it just doesn’t happen in any other country — and that is what I mean by “social pathologies of collapse”: a new, bizarre, terrible disease striking society.

Why are American kids killing each other? Why doesn’t their society care enough to intervene? Well, probably because those kids have given up on life — and their elders have given up on them. Or maybe you’re right — and it’s not that simple. Still, what do the kids who aren’t killing each other do? Well, a lot of them are busy killing themselves.

So there is of course also an “opioid epidemic”. We use that phrase too casually, but it much more troubling than it appears on first glance. Here is what is really curious about it. In many countries in the world — most of Asia and Africa — one can buy all the opioids one wants from any local pharmacy, without a prescription. You might suppose then that opioid abuse as a mass epidemic would be a global phenomenon. Yet we don’t see opioid epidemics anywhere but America — especially not ones so vicious and widespread they shrink life expectancy. So the “opioid epidemic” — mass self-medication with the hardest of hard drugs — is again a social pathology of collapse: unique to American life. It is not quite captured in the numbers, but only through comparison — and when we see it in global perspective, we get a sense of just how singularly troubled American life really is.

Why would people abuse opioids en masse unlike anywhere else in the world? They must be living genuinely traumatic and desperate lives, in which there is little healthcare, so they have to self-medicate the terror away. But what is so desperate about them? Well, consider another example: the “nomadic retirees”. They live in their cars. They go from place to place, season after season, chasing whatever low-wage work they can find — spring, an Amazon warehouse, Christmas, Walmart.

Now, you might say — “well, poor people have always chased seasonal work!” But that is not really the point: absolute powerlessness and complete indignity is. In no other country I can see do retirees who should have been able to save up enough to live on now living in their cars in order to find work just to go on eating before they die — not even in desperately poor ones, where at least families live together, share resources, and care for one another. This is another pathology of collapse that is unique to America — utter powerlessness to live with dignity. Numbers don’t capture it — but comparisons paint a bleak picture.

How did America’s elderly end up cheated of dignity? After all, even desperately poor countries have “informal social support systems” — otherwise known as families and communities. But in America, there is the catastrophic collapse of social bonds. Extreme capitalism has blown apart American society so totally that people cannot even care for one another as much as they do in places like Pakistan and Nigeria. Social bonds, relationships themselves, have become unaffordable luxuries, more so than even in poor countries: this is yet another social pathology unique to American collapse.
Yet those once poor countries are making great strides. Costa Ricans now have higher life expectancy than Americans — because they have public healthcare. American life expectancy is falling, unlike nearly anywhere else in the world, save the UK — because it doesn’t.

And that is my last pathology: it is one of the soul, not one of the limbs, like the others above. American appear to be quite happy simply watching one another die, in all the ways above. They just don’t appear to be too disturbed, moved, or even affected by the four pathologies above: their kids killing each other, their social bonds collapsing, being powerless to live with dignity,or having to numb the pain of it all away.

If these pathologies happened in any other rich country — even in most poor ones — people would be aghast, shocked, and stunned, and certainly moved to make them not happen. But in America, they are, well, not even resigned. They are indifferent, mostly.

So my last pathology is a predatory society. A predatory society doesn’t just mean oligarchs ripping people off financially. In a truer way, it means people nodding and smiling and going about their everyday business as their neighbours, friends, and colleagues die early deaths in shallow graves. The predator in American society isn’t just its super-rich — but an invisible and insatiable force: the normalization of what in the rest of the world would be seen as shameful, historic, generational moral failures, if not crimes, becoming mere mundane everyday affairs not to be too worried by or troubled about.

Perhaps that sounds strong to you. Is it?

Now that I’ve given you a few examples — there are many more — of the social pathologies of collapse, let me share with you the three points that they raise for me.

These social pathologies are something like strange and gruesome new strains of disease infecting the body social. America has always been a pioneer — only today, it is host not just to problems not just rarely seen in healthy societies — it is pioneering novel social pathologies have never been seen in the modern world outside present-day America, period. What does that tell us?

American collapse is much more severe than we suppose it is. We are underestimating its magnitude, not overestimating it. American intellectuals, media, and thought doesn’t put any of its problems in global or historical perspective — but when they are seen that way, America’s problems are revealed to be not just the everyday nuisances of a declining nation, but something more like a body suddenly attacked by unimagined diseases.

Seen accurately. American collapse is a catastrophe of human possibility without modern parallel . And because the mess that America has made of itself, then, is so especially unique, so singular, so perversely special — the treatment will have to be novel, too. The uniqueness of these social pathologies tell us that American collapse is not like a reversion to any mean, or the downswing of a trend. It is something outside the norm. Something beyond the data. Past the statistics. It is like the meteor that hit the dinosaurs: an outlier beyond outliers, an event at the extreme of the extremes. That is why our narratives, frames, and theories cannot really capture it — much less explain it. We need a whole new language — and a new way of seeing — to even begin to make sense of it.

But that is America’s task, not the world’s. The world’s task is this. Should the world follow the American model — extreme capitalism, no public investment, cruelty as a way of life, the perversion of everyday virtue — then these new social pathologies will follow, too. They are new diseases of the body social that have emerged from the diet of junk food — junk media, junk science, junk culture, junk punditry, junk economics, people treating one another and their society like junk — that America has fed upon for too long.

January 2018

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

National Crisis as Shaun White Drags US Flag

Richard Mellor Afscme Local 444, retired

Additional note: Well, it shows how little I know about the Olympics or Shaun White. He's a millionaire I read now and became one before he was 20. This is thanks to all the corporate money he gets from the profits the apparel makers and others make from the workers their products. Probably Cambodians, Vietnamese, Bangladeshis etc. It shows how nothing is sacred in capitalist society, we can't even enjoy a healthy human cultural activity like competitive sport without capital making pimps out of the participants. Even so, White may be a spoiled and even arrogant asshole, and a harasser of women but the point of this post remains the same. This hullabaloo about the flag is nonsense.

Gasp! He's dragging the flag. He's dragging the flag
Jesus, people who never bat an eyelid when cops shoot unarmed teenagers ignore homelessness, poverty, lack of health care for others opportunity for youth (not for themselves of course) are upset over a cloth emblem. They're mad at Shaun White, the young Olympic snowboarder.  As excited as he was, he let the US flag drag on the ground after winning one of his gold medals at the Winter Games.It's my guess he was just overcome with emotion and had no intention of disrespecting anything, flags or people. *

The problem with flags is that one person's flag that they feel represents certain democratic freedoms, is another person's symbol of oppression, because they represent nations and there are imperialist nations and imperialized nations----the colonized and the colonizer. I have seen Native Americans with US flags I never quite understood that. The Irish Republicans referred to the Union Jack, that my father considered a symbol of freedom and democracy, as the "Butchers Apron" The Union Jack was a symbol of oppression for most people, victims of British colonial power. I'm sure the Cambodian, Laotian and Middle Eastern children who mistakenly think unexploded US cluster bombs are toys and get their arms blown off by them, don't consider the little US flag emblem on them a symbol of liberation other than liberating their arms from their elbows.

Within nations there are classes.  The object of the ruling class is to convince the working class that we are all “one” and have the same interests, that workers in other countries are our competitors not our allies-----a national flag is for this purpose. The auto-worker, the bus driver and Warren Buffet, two peas in a pod. I don’t think so.  Workers do have a flag though and that is the red flag, we even have an anthem, the International.  These symbols of class power and unity have been perverted somewhat by the rise and since demise of the Stalinist totalitarian state that was the Soviet Union but we need to not allow that monstrosity to tarnish our symbols as workers.

I have no idea what Shaun White’s politics are but I am aware that these young people work their asses off to compete in an Olympic event; they give up a lot. I personally don’t watch them, don’t enjoy the nationalist bent of them or the money and corporate control of these sports/business events. But my bet is the kid was overwhelmed that his efforts that consumed his life paid off like many others. Just getting there was a dream for most.

It’s incredible, and the product of a narrow world view and complete lack of class consciousness that some people can ignore the violence, oppression and misery this system wages on people, some more than others, and the violence their government commits on weaker ones, yet get upset over a piece of cloth.

Since posting this I have read a little more about Shaun White. I was not aware of the sexual harassment allegations against him. This issue doesn't change the nature of these comments but it does change my view about Shaun White not that I'd ever heard of him before now.

The underlying reasons for the Long Depression

by Michael Roberts

There are two new mainstream papers out that offer some interesting analysis on the reasons behind the Long Depression that the major economies (or at least, the US) have suffered since the end of the Great Recession in 2009 – in the growth of real GDP, productivity, investment and employment.
First, there is a paper by economists at the San Francisco Federal Reserve. 

The Disappointing Recovery in U.S. Output after 2009 by John Fernald, Robert E. Hall, James H. Stock, and Mark W. Watson.  They consider the well-known evidence that US real GDP growth has expanded only slowly since the recession trough in 2009, counter to normal expectations of a rapid cyclical recovery.  In the paper, they remove the “cyclical effects” of the Great Recession and find that there was already a sharply slowing trend in underlying growth before the global financial crash in 2008.  The Fed economists conclude that the slowing trend reflected two factors: slow growth of innovation and declining labour force participation.

Figure 1 shows business-sector output per person in recent decades. The green line shows that output per person fell sharply during the recession and remains below any reasonable linear trend line extending its pre-recession trajectory. The figure shows one such trend line (yellow line), based on a simple linear extrapolation from 2003 to 2007.
Figure 1

Output per capita: Deep recession plus a sharp slowing trend

The blue line in Figure 1 shows the resulting estimate of trend output per capita after removing the cyclical effects associated with the deep recession. As expected, the cyclical adjustment removes the sharp drop in actual output associated with the recession. But since then, the trajectory of the blue line is nowhere close to a straight line projection from the 2007 peak. Rather, cyclically adjusted output per person rose slowly after 2007 and then plateaued in recent years.

The Fed economists reckon that the slow growth has been due to a slowdown in the productivity of labour, which in turn has been caused by a reduction in investment in innovation and new technology.  In mainstream economics, this is measured by the residual of output per person left over after increases in employment (labor input) and means of production (capital input) are accounted for.  The residual is called total factor productivity (TFP), to designate the increased productivity per unit of total input.  TFP supposedly captures the productivity benefits from formal and informal research and development, improvements in management practices, reallocation of production toward high productivity firms, and other efficiency gains.

The Fed economists, using this factor accounting, find that TFP growth slowed significantly even before the Great Recession.  It picked up in the mid-1990s and slowed in the mid-2000s—before the recession—and then was flat or even falling going into the recession.
Figure 2

Pre-recession slowdown in quarterly TFP growth

The economists dismiss the arguments that it was the Great Recession that caused the productivity slowdown or that productivity growth from info tech is being mismeasured: “such mismeasurement has long been present and there’s no evidence it has worsened over time.” They also dismiss the idea common from right-wing neoclassical economists that “increased regulatory burdens have reduced the economy’s dynamism.”  They find no link between regulation changes and TFP growth.

The explanation they fall back on is the one presented by Robert J Gordon in many papers and books: that TFP growth is really just back to normal and what was abnormal was the burst in innovation in the 1990s with the hi-tech and boom.  That ended in 2000 and won’t be repeated.  “Every story in the late 1990s and early 2000s emphasized the transformative role of IT, often suggesting a sequence of one-off gains—reorganizing retailing, say. Plausibly, businesses plucked the low-hanging fruit; afterward, the exceptional growth rate came to an end.”

The other factor in the slowdown was the decline in employment growth of those of working age.  Yes, there is supposed to be near ‘full employment’ now in the US and the UK etc.  But participation in employment by working age adults has fallen sharply.  That’s because populations are getting older and the ‘baby boomers’ who started worked in the 1960s and 1970s are now retiring and not being replaced.

Figure 3
Sharp declines in labor force participation rate

What the Fed economists want to tell us is that the Long Depression is not just the leftover of the Great Recession but reflects some deep-seated underlying slowdown in the dynamism of the US economy that is not going to correct through the current small economic upturn.   The US economy is just growing more slowly over the long term.

What the Fed economists don’t explain is why the US economy has been slowing in productivity growth and innovation since 2000.  What is missing from the analysis is what drives the adoption of new techniques and labour-saving equipment.  Gordon and others just accept the current slowdown as a ‘return to normal’  from the exceptional 1990s.

What is missing is the driver of investment under capitalism: profitability. Marxian studies that concentrate on this aspect reveal that the profitability of US capital stock and new investment peaked around 1997 and then turned down.  It was this fall in profitability that eventually provoked the collapse in the bubble in 2000.  The subsequent recovery in profitability did not achieve anything better than 1997 and indeed profits growth was mainly confined to the financial sector and increasingly to a small sector of top companies.  Average profitability remained flat or even down and the growth in profit was mainly fictitious (‘capital gains’ from real estate, bond and stock markets) and fuelled by easy credit and low interest rates.  That house of cards collapsed in the Great Recession.

Profitability peaked in the late 1990s in the US (and elsewhere for that matter) because the counteracting factors to Marx’s law of the tendency of the rate of profit to fall (a rising rate of exploitation in the neoliberal period) and increased employment to boost total new value were no longer sufficient to overcome a rising organic composition of capital from the tech boom of the 1990s.

In contrast to this scenario, the Keynesians/post Keynesians have been pushing a different explanation for the fallback in productive investment since 2000 – it’s the growth of ‘monopoly power’.  There have been several studies arguing this in recent years.  Now a brand new paper by Keynesian economists at Brown University seeks to do the same. Gauti Eggertsson, Ella Getz Wold etc claim that the puzzle of the huge rise in profits for the top US companies alongside slowing investment in productive sectors can be explained by an increase in monopoly power and falling interest rates.

The Brown University economists argue that an increase in firms’ market power leads to an increase in monopoly rents; economic parlance for profits in excess of competitive market conditions-and thus an increase in the market value of stocks (which hold the rights to these rents). This leads to an increase in financial wealth and to what’s known as Tobin’s Q, the ratio of a firm’s financial value (market capitalization) to the value of its assets (book value).

With an increase in market power, the share of income consisting of pure rents increases, while the labour and capital shares both decrease. Finally, the greater monopoly power of firms leads them to restrict output. In restricting their output, firms decrease their investment in productive capital, even in spite of low interest rates.

Now I have dealt previously in detail with this argument that it is increased monopoly power that explains the gap between profits and investment in the US since 2000 or so.  It is really a modification of neoclassical theory.  Neoclassical theory argues that if there is perfect competition and free movement of capital, then there will be no profit at all; just interest on capital advanced and wages on labour’s productivity.  Profit can only be ‘rent’ caused by imperfections in markets.  The Brown professors, in effect, accept this theory.  They just consider that, currently, ‘monopoly power’ is distorting it.  This implies that if there was competition or monopolies were regulated’ all would be well.  That solution ignores the Marxist view that profits are not just ‘rents’ or ‘interest’ but surplus value from the exploitation of labour.

The Brown University professors reckon that average profitability was constant from 1980 onwards, so increased profits must have come from the gap between profitability and the fall in the cost of borrowing (interest rates). But actually, you can see from their graph that average profitability rose from about 10% in 1980 to a peak in the late 1990s of 14% – that’s a 40% rise and is entirely compatible with estimates by me and other Marxist economists.  Average profitability was then flat from 200 or so.

Indeed, average profitability fell in the non-financial productive sectors of the economy, which is probably the reason for the gap that developed between overall profitability including financial profits (which rocketed between 2002 and 2007) and net investment in productive sectors. 

The jump in corporate profits (yes, mainly concentrated in the banks and big tech companies) was increasingly fictitious, based on rising stock and bond market prices and low interest rates.  The rise of fictitious capital and profits seems to be the key factor after the end of boom and bust in 2000.

As I showed in a previous post
, these mainstream analyses use Tobin’s Q as the measure of accumulated profit to compare against investment.  But Tobin’s Q is the market value of a firm’s assets (typically measured by its equity price) divided by its accounting value or replacement costs.  This is really a measure of fictitious profits.  Given the credit-fuelled financial explosion of the 2000s, it is no wonder that net investment in productive assets looks lower when compared with Tobin Q profits.  This is not the right comparison.  Where the financial credit and stock market boom was much less, as in the Eurozone, profits and investment movements match.

It may well be right that, in the neo-liberal era, monopoly power of the new technology megalith companies drove up profit margins or markups.  The neo-liberal era saw a driving down of labour’s share through the ending of trade union power, deregulation and privatisation.  Also, labour’s share was held down by increased automation (and manufacturing employment plummeted) and by globalisation as industry and jobs shifted to so-called emerging economies with cheap labour.  And the rise of new technology companies that could dominate their markets and drive out competitors, increasing concentration of capital, is undoubtedly another factor.

But the recent fall back in profit share and the modest rise in labour share since 2014 also suggests that it is a fall in the overall profitability of US capital that is driving things rather than any change in monopoly ‘market power’.  Undoubtedly, much of the mega profits of the likes of Apple, Microsoft, Netflix, Amazon, Facebook are due to their control over patents, financial strength (cheap credit) and buying up potential competitors.  But the mainstream explanations go too far.  Technological innovations also explain the success of these big companies.

Moreover, by its very nature, capitalism, based on ‘many capitals’ in competition, cannot tolerate indefinitely any ‘eternal’ monopoly; a ‘permanent’ surplus profit deducted from the sum total of profits which is divided among the capitalist class as a whole.  The battle to increase profit and the share of the market means monopolies are continually under threat from new rivals, new technologies and international competitors.

The history of capitalism is one where the concentration and centralisation of capital increases, but competition continues to bring about the movement of surplus value between capitals (within a national economy and globally). The substitution of new products for old ones will in the long run reduce or eliminate monopoly advantage.  The monopolistic world of GE and the motor manufacturers in post-war US did not last once new technology bred new sectors for capital accumulation.  The world of Apple will not last forever.

‘Market power’ may have delivered ‘rental’ profits to some very large companies in the US over the last decade (and just that short period it seems), but Marx’s law of profitability still holds as the best explanation of the accumulation process.  Rents to the few are a deduction from the profits of the many. Monopolies redistribute profit to themselves in the form of ‘rent’, but do not create profit.

Profits are not the result of the degree of monopoly or rent seeking, as neo-classical and Keynesian/Kalecki theories argue, but the result of the exploitation of labour. The key to understanding the movement in productive investment remains in its underlying profitability, not the extraction of rents by a few market leaders.

The Long Depression is a product of low investment and low productivity growth, which in turn is a product of lower profitability of investment in productive sectors and a switch to unproductive financial speculation (and yes, partly a product of oligopolistic power boosting the big at the expense of the small).

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

African Slavery and the US Education System

Labor Creates all Wealth as the famous saying goes. It does indeed. It creates it for the individual who applies it in the form of clothes, food, shelter and other human needs. And it creates it for human society in those societies in which the social product was collectively owned. It is also the source of the capitalist's wealth.

When I was in Kracow Poland some time ago I visited the famous Wieliczka Salt Mine. The mine has existed since the 13th Century and is an amazing place. It has numerous chapels in it, lakes, monuments, and a few too many Virgin Mary statues. I read once that it provided a huge percentage of Western Europe’s salt consumption and that the wealth extracted from that mine by the humans that worked in it allowed for the building of the university in Kracow.

And who went to that university? Copernicus for one. So we have seven centuries of miners and their labor power to thank for providing the precious condiment that not only preserved food for the people of Europe and also enhanced its flavor, but the material wealth that produced Copernicus, that allowed him to make a not so small confirmation of Samos’ claim almost 1000 years before that the sun was the center of the universe not the Earth. The word salary comes from salt as the Romans paid their troops with it.

Of course, there may have been many previous civilizations and cultures that drew the same conclusion regarding the solar system but my point here is not to contest that. Slaves no doubt built the pyramids and Greek society, a slaveowners “democracy” in which the slaves were denied the right to vote had fabulous architecture and places of learning.

The point is to understand that wealth comes not from the idea but from labor and from the material world out of which the idea arises "It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness.", as Marx correctly pointed out.

In class societies, it is the class that governs that writes the history.  The capitalists in our society not only own the means of production, they own the means of producing the dominant ideas of society. And the spread of those ideas----their ideology-----is accomplished through their institutions, the universities and education system.

We must not forget that the laboring masses, like the miners of Wieliczka that section of society whose labor power is owned or bought by others, partially under feudalism, or in total as in slavery in the US, or as free labor under capitalism, have not historically had the luxury of education from the state, are not considered worthy of it.

What made me think once more about this is an article in the current on line issue of New York Review of Books. It points out after extensive searches of records that the, “…..first enslaved African in Massachusetts was the property of the schoolmaster of Harvard.” According to the article, records show that, “Yale funded its first graduate-level courses and its first scholarship with the rents from a small slave plantation it owned in Rhode Island….”,  named “Whitehall” believe it or not.  Apparently the first recipient of a scholarship there went on to found Dartmouth college. Another founded Princeton.

The founders of Georgetown University, the article points out, were forbidden by their religion to charge tuition and rather funded school operations with money from “….slave sales and plantation profits”  

The residents of Jamestown, the first European colony in the US were merchants and men of power and money. But along with them were some of Europe’s poor. The project was no doubt funded by English merchants but labor was not on their mind. Two distinct types of European came to the US., the “huddled masses” were seeking work. Those that wanted them here were seeking to enrich themselves on the backs of that labor.

Like the miners of Wieliczka, the European immigrants were not deemed worthy of education, their labor created the wealth, education was for the purchasers of labor power not the seller of it.

But the slave system was profitable beyond imagination as Africans brought here as slaves worked for 300 years without wages. It’s no wonder America go “so rich so fast” as Malcolm X pointed out. The small island containing the nations we know as the UK became a world power through it expansion and colonial ventures.

As the labor power of the miners of Wieliczka  contributed to the founding of the University of Kracow, it is clear that while denied education themselves, the free labor of the black population is the foundation for the education system that produced the intellectual wealth of the US. This is true of the white/European working masses who contributed also. They were denied education, could not vote, lived in poverty and despair. The one major difference, and it is a huge one, is that in order to sow division between the poor and oppressed masses as we know them---it is natural for the poor to hate the rich-----, the white ruling class offered to the white poor a deal---they could be part of their new creation the White Race.  This gave many of them opportunities denied the African population who were excluded from all aspects of society. As the native population were driven form the land through violence and starvation, white labor was offered opportunity to work it, live on it, build on it, slavery denied this and many other prospects for advancement to Africans.

No serious black worker denies the poverty and misery that European workers have experienced in the violent history of the development of capitalism on this continent. It is the denial of the role of African slavery that is the problem and more importantly that the conditions that are prevalent in the black and other communities of color today are a product of slavery and a violent racist tradition in the building of this nation state. To tell a black person to ”get over slavery” infuriates them not so much because it’s a personal insult that a person with white skin would say it, but because they can’t get over it.

I think anyone working class reader that follows this blog knows what we consider to be the solution to this problem so I don’t feel compelled to go in to that. But here is the first paragraph and a link to the NY Review of Books article. I only read half of it and will return to it but it is fascinating so far.


Slavery and the American University

According to the surviving records, the first enslaved African in Massachusetts was the property of the schoolmaster of Harvard. Yale funded its first graduate-level courses and its first scholarship with the rents from a small slave plantation it owned in Rhode Island (the estate, in a stroke of historical irony, was named Whitehall). The scholarship’s first recipient went on to found Dartmouth, and a later grantee co-founded the College of New Jersey, known today as Princeton. Georgetown’s founders, prohibited by the rules of their faith from charging students tuition, planned to underwrite school operations in large part with slave sales and plantation profits, to which there was apparently no ecclesiastical objection. Columbia, when it was still King’s College, subsidized slave traders with below-market loans. Before she gained fame as a preacher and abolitionist, Sojourner Truth was owned by the family of Rutgers’s first president.

From their very beginnings, the American university and American slavery have been intertwined, but only recently are we beginning to understand how deeply. In part, this can be attributed to an expansion of political will. Barely two decades ago, questions raised by a group of scholars and activists about Brown University’s historic connection to slavery were met with what its then-president, Ruth Simmons, saw as insufficient answers, and so she appointed the first major university investigation. Not long before that, one of the earliest scholars to independently look into his university’s ties to slavery, a law professor at the University of Alabama, began digging through the archives in part to dispel a local myth, he wrote, that “blacks were not present on the campus” before 1963, when “Vivian Malone and James Hood enrolled with the help of Nicholas Katzenbach and the National Guard.” He found, instead, that they preceded its earliest students, and one of the university’s first acts was the purchase of an enslaved man named Ben. In Virginia, a small consortium founded three years ago to share findings and methods has expanded to include nearly three dozen colleges and universities across North America and two in European port cities. Almost all of these projects trace their origins to protests or undergraduate classes, where a generation of students, faculty, archivists, activists, and librarians created forums for articulating their questions, and for finding one another.  Continue reading  New York Review of Books article

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Iranian Women's Struggles a Central Part of Iran Protests.

These are incredibly courageous acts  in a country in which  the hijab is compulsory,  and where women who do not wear their headscarves properly can be arrested,  assaulted, face fines, lashes and imprisonment. . . These acts of protest  are part of a broader wave of mass protests for social justice inside Iran today.

Vida Movahed, Courageously Challenges the Theocracy

Frieda Afary
On December 27, 2017,  just one day before a wave of nationwide working class protests against the Iranian regime,  a young Iranian woman,  Vida Movahed,  stood on a utility box in public on the busy Revolution Avenue in Tehran,  took off her headscarf and waved it on a stick for everyone to see.  This was an incredibly courageous act in a country in which  the hijab is compulsory,  and women who do not wear their headscarves properly can be arrested,  assaulted, face fines, lashes and imprisonment.

Since late December,  twenty nine  women throughout Iran have been arrested for the same defiant act.   In a few cases,  they have been joined by a  male friend.  Some have been released after posting heavy bails.  Others like Narges Hosseini in Kashan have refused to express remorse or could not afford to post the heavy bail,  and are still in prison.    Polls released by the government itself have  shown that most Iranians think the hijab should be a matter of individual choice.

It is not accidental that Vida Movahed’s challenge to the compulsory hijab in public occurred one day before the start of a series of nationwide  working-class protests against the Islamic Republic.  The wave of nationwide demonstrations which lasted for two weeks,  has  been preceded and followed by protests, strikes and sit-ins  of workers, teachers, nurses, students, retirees, political prisoners  and families of political prisoners.

Iranian women have borne the brunt of the repressive regime of the Islamic Republic.   They face discrimination and second-class  status as daughters, wives,  mothers, students, employees,  unemployed workers or part-timers,  and face even more discrimination if they are members of an oppressed national or religious minority.   However,  they also represent 60% of university students,  publish a wide variety of novels, express themselves in blogs and websites, hold study groups, forums, and publish translations of works by international feminists.   Hence the brave act of an individual woman who took off her scarf in public on a busy Tehran street on December 27,  represents something more than her as an individual.  It also expresses the collective consciousness of a new generation of Iranian women.

At this critical time,  some socialists are still wondering whether the protests of women against the compulsory hijab should be supported.  They  are concerned that it is too focused on liberalism and is not directly questioning capitalist injustice.   Let’s return to how this question was posed in 1979 in order to draw some lessons.

Lessons from 1979 

Almost forty years ago,  in 1979, soon after the overthrow of the repressive Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi,   tens of thousands of Iranian women protested and marched for five consecutive days in various cities around the country to oppose Ayatollah Khomeini’s order which made the hijab compulsory and abolished the limited rights which the family protection law under the previous regime gave women.   Women chanted,  “We didn’t make a revolution to go backward.” At that time,  the majority of the population still strongly believed in Ayatollah Khomeini’s claim to bring about “the rule of the oppressed”  and social justice  against the monarchical system and against Western imperialism. Khomeini had also used patriarchy and chauvinism to appeal to large sectors of men and many traditional women.

Most Iranian socialists who had been strongly influenced by Stalinism and Maoism,  did not challenge Khomeini’s  reactionary, capitalist, chauvinistic and misogynist views during the struggle against the repressive Shah(king)  and in the period immediately after the revolution.    Instead,  they subsumed all struggles to a very narrow “anti-imperialism.”  Hence most socialists did not support the protests of women against the compulsory hijab.  Those who did support them,  called on women to end their protests after the fifth day in order to not divert from the “anti-imperialist” struggle.

In contrast,  some international left wing feminists like Kate Millett and  socialist feminists like Claudine Moullard, Leila Sebbatt, Simone DeBeauvoir,  and Raya Dunayevskaya   reached out to Iranian women with statements of support, articles, or in the case of Millett and De Beauvoir’s colleagues,  actual fact-finding trips to Iran to meet and march with Iranian women.  Existentialist philosopher,  De Beauvoir wrote the following in her statement  from Paris on March 19:  “It is important to have a demonstration  — on the part of a very large number of women,  French women, Italian women and others – of solidarity with the struggles of Iranian women.” (  Afary and Anderson, p. 114). 

Marxist Feminist philosopher,  Raya Dunayevskaya’s statement  from Detroit, “poured scorn on those Leftists inside and outside Iran who placed anti-imperialism in the forefront in such a way as to excuse the oppression of an ascendant mullacracy that was hemming in the rights of women, workers and national minorities.” ( Afary and Anderson, p. 116) She ended her statement  by recalling the Chinese socialist feminist,  Ding Ling’s “Thoughts on March 8” and  Ling’s opposition to both Stalin and Mao which led to her being purged and exiled.

It is important to draw lessons from this experience for today.  Had the majority of Iranian socialists supported the women’s protests against Khomeini’s orders and had they viewed the struggle against patriarchy as an integral part of the struggle against capitalism and imperialism,  the 1979 revolution might have moved in a progressive direction instead of the counter-revolutionary direction that led to retrogression as well as the execution of many leftists.

Lessons from Today

Forty years later,  how do Iranian socialists fare on women’s struggles for liberation?
On the one hand,  Iranian socialist women have been actively involved in the new women’s movement and in writing articles and  translating books on feminist theory.   On the other hand, in the words of a young Iranian socialist feminist, “No much has changed.  There are leftist activists who have chosen to be quiet about the compulsory hijab because they think it is secondary to  poverty and high prices . . .Leftist feminism in Iran suffers from a great deal of discrimination in both the thought and the history of the left.  It is ignored, underestimated or pushed to the back or seen as secondary to other higher priorities.  For us leftist women,  this discrimination is the symbol of what we have experienced in the family and in society as a whole:  gender discrimination and systematic sexual repression. . . If the left does not make gender discrimination its own issue, there will be no hope for transforming our oppressive history.”

A young Kurdish socialist feminist writes:  “We are not the infantry of the Masih Alinejad campaign (an Iranian reporter for Voice of America who started a campaign called “my stealthy freedom”).  Although it cannot be denied that her campaign has had a role in encouraging and singling out the struggle against the compulsory hijab,  we have to recognize that the flags which women have raised with their hijabs,  are in practice much more radical than the Alinejad campaign.”

In the words of a seasoned Iranian socialist feminist who participated in the March 8, 1979 International Women’s Day protests against Khomeini:  “Today  Iranian women need freedom from headscarves, full veils or any cover.  They need the civil rights that they have been denied.  Once the expansion of the demonstrations lead to the realization of these freedoms . . . the struggle can go beyond them and become the beginning of  women’s struggle against the reification of social relations.    The generation that was born in the 1990s feels so imprisoned by the hijab,  that its rage and need to break these bonds has created a strong catalyst that can be effective for a fundamental transformation.  Whether this catalyst moves in the direction of a human alternative or a bourgeois alternative depends on the outcome of forces, the dominant mentality and the real possibility of organizing the deepest layers of society in the direction of forward movement.  Socialists who are  in search of a  fundamental transformation for human development,  will only play their role in the popular protests when they understand the significance and effect of this catalyst and openly support it.”

What the above cited statements, facts and historical lessons tell us is that the current protests against the compulsory hijab must be strongly supported by socialist feminists around the world.  Not only are they not a diversion from the struggle against capitalism, they are a step forward in the struggle for human emancipation and part of the broader wave of mass protests for social justice inside Iran today.

Frieda Afary
February 10, 2018

Afary, Janet and Kevin B. Anderson.  Foucault and the Iranian Revolution:  Gender & The Seductions of Islamism.  University of Chicago Press,  2005.
Dunayevskaya, Raya.  Women’s Liberation and the Dialectics of RevolutionReaching for the Future.  Humanities Press, 1985.
Millett, Kate.  Going to Iran.  Coward, McCann and Geoghegan, 1982.
Siamdoust, Nahid. ‘Hanging Up Their Scarves.”  New York Times.  February 5, 2018.
روشنایی،  نسیم.  آیا جنبش دختران خیابان انقلاب اهمیت دارد؟  گفتگویی با فعالین حقوق زنان زمانه،  14 بهمن 1396
زمانه.  دختر خیابان انقلاب اظهار ندامت نکرد.  17 بهمن 1396
دوستدار،  نعیمه.  آیا اکنون زمان همراهی فمینیستی نیست؟  زمانه، 12 بهمن 1396
ققنوس کمون.  ما ابزار نیستیم.  انسانیم:  کیفرخواست دختران خیابان انقلاب: ناقوس مرگ بنیادگرایی در منطقه
مالجو،  محمد.  ایرانیان کجا ایستاده اند؟  له یا علیه دختران خیابان انقلاب؟  نقد اقتصاد سیاسی.  3 فوریه 2018