Post by Category : Labor

The 1619 Project

Mt. Calvary William H. Johnson

If you grew up thinking you are “white”, the New York Times “1619 Project” is a must read.

Slavery was undeniably a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not in all the other far-flung parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s unflinching willingness to use violence on nonwhite people and to exert its will on seemingly endless supplies of land and labor. Given the choice between modernity and barbarism, prosperity and poverty, lawfulness and cruelty, democracy and totalitarianism, America chose all of the above.

The 1619 Project

More Flotsam

#45 image courtesy of LJ Whitsitt

#45

We have come to see that the gaudy marketplace and our comfortable way of life is built upon the backs of the “essential” and the perennially poor. (Hedge fund managers are not “essential” workers.) It has also dawned upon us that the “world’s greatest economy” is a house of cards. “Supply chains” get sick. The human links in these chains lose their jobs and the flywheel of consumer spending slows down.

Another revelation for the middle class: the “social safety net” does not really exist! This uncomfortable truth has has long been a knee on the neck of the 20% of the American public that has no household net worth. For this economic demographic, the quaint notion that the government “has your back” actually went out the door forty years ago along with Ronald Reagan’s wits.

However, we have seen what a uniformed representative of government can do; casually kill George Floyd with one hand in his pocket.

Business as usual.

Flotsam

The “commodity fetish” in capitalism is the tendency to see the value of a commodity as an inherent property. The value of a widget is related only to the value of other kinds of widgets in the marketplace. We are blinded by the panoply of glittering widgets. The complex of interpersonal relations that go into producing widgets is ignored.

The pandemic has lifted the curtain and exposed (in Marx’s terms) the “relations of production” usually masked by “market” metaphors. “Supply chains”, it turns out, are people. “Supply chains” get sick.

Workers we took for granted and did not notice are now “essential” to our way of life. Why are these workers “essential” today? Why weren’t they “essential” on January 15? They are “essential” today because what they do is suddenly visible and cannot be taken for granted. “Supply chains” are working people whose labor keeps the groceries stores stocked so Americans never have to be without retail choice.

What do these “essential” workers have in common? They are poorly paid and their employers consider employee safety an afterthought.

If you work in a meatpacking plant, by order of President Trump, you are officially considered less essential than the steak you’re cutting up.

Eugene Robinson

Business as usual.

Flood Debris

Since February, we …comfortable white people…have come to see that even America … our insular City on the Hill …can be attacked by an invisible and inexorable enemy. We have been forced to look mortality in the face.

It became apparent that our government would not help us.

By the time of George Floyd’s murder, we had come to see that our only pandemic defense was our collective willingness to sacrifice the immediate gratifications of easy sociability and retail therapy. We came to see that our individual health depended upon community action. We sheltered in place and experienced oppressive uncertainty. Will we survive? Will our family members survive? Will our incomes survive? Will the “American way of life” survive?

Regardless of our ethnicity, we have all been imprisoned in a radically uncertain future.

The Great Flood

The paragraph that read me:

In “The Jesting of Arlington Stringham,” a story by Saki (H.H. Munro), the eponymous politician in a debate on the Foreign Office in the House of Commons remarks that “the people of Crete unfortunately make more history than they can consume locally.” The United States is experiencing the same excess. More outrage is being perpetrated and felt than can be contained within the existing frame of institutions and discourses. The image of things bubbling over, of energies and emotions that can no longer be enclosed, is physically manifest on the streets, as those who have been privately confined for so many weeks spill out into the public realm. But what there is too much of is not just present injustice. There is a superabundance of the unresolved past.

Fintan O’Toole

I have started several posts since the dawn of COVID 19 and finished none. I was flooded. Even during the best of times, my vicious internal editor only allows me to measure out my thoughts in coffee spoons. I have to thank O’Toole for naming the flood as a shared condition and freeing me somewhat. I can offer up bits of the the flotsam and jetsam the flood has dislodged for me .

To start, I grew up during the worst of the Civil Rights protests. I would watch African American children being spit upon in Alabama and then attend a school where most of my friends were African American. It was this experience that drove the first wedge into the complacent Republican edifice of my upbringing. I have been in and around the labor movement and distrusted capitalism my whole adult life. But so what? Where the f**k have I really been for the last 50 years? I was living my daily life (being a good consumer) in the comfortable cocoon of white privilege; intellectually dozing.

“White silence has been violence”. Yes. That is a weight I will consciously bear in the hopes that discomfort will keep me more alert to present injustice.





Sic transit gloria mundi

Laplanche Afterwardness
Image courtesy of L.J. Whitsitt

John Lanchester essays are always worth reading.

In a world facing floods, droughts, storms, heatwaves, unprecedented winters, and mass migration on a never before seen scale, will people be content with the current winner takes all version of capitalism? Will we be fine with the rich taking a bigger and bigger share of total income, until the end of time, as the world drowns and burns and starves? Will we succumb to what’s now being called ‘climate apartheid’, with the rich world cutting itself off from the poor and entrenching itself behind barriers and walls, and letting the poor world die? On current form, you would have to say that is not an unlikely version of future events.

LRB 18 July 2019

‘Nuff said.

Rapacity

In advance of Ubers IPO, from the Washington Post on 5/7/19:

Drivers in at least eight U.S. cities — including Washington, New York, Los Angeles — are planning to strike Wednesday, according to the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The protests come as ride-hailing companies face increasing scrutiny over the sustainability of their businesses, which experience massive losses while relying on the work of millions of drivers who are not employees.

Massive losses? Increased traffic congestion? Immiserated workers? Cool! Let’s double down!

“Wall Street investors are telling Uber and Lyft to cut down on driver income, stop incentives, and go faster to Driverless Cars,” Bhairavi Desai, executive director of the taxi alliance, said in a news release. “With the IPO, Uber’s corporate owners are set to make billions, all while drivers are left in poverty and go bankrupt.”

It is “just business” for a few sociopaths who have no regard for the exploitation of others or the social impacts of their enterprise to become billionaires.

Making America great again, one IPO at a time.

The Strongman in our Future

Image Courtesy of  ljwhitsitt.com

Image Courtesy of ljwhitsitt.com

I took Philosphy 101 from Richard Rorty in 1968. I was a semi-literate 18 year old; I didn’t yet know what I didn’t know. All I remember of the experience was Rorty’s patrician elocution and that he first introduced me to the term “qua”. A few college courses later I began to glimpse the outlines of my ignorance and my interest in philosophy was launched. However it was decades later before I returned to Rorty. My learned friend J.M. recommended “Contingency, Irony and Solidarity” which spurred me on to the rest of Rorty’s work.

Later in his career Rorty left the strict confines of academic philosophy. His book on American politics “Achieving our Country” was based on lectures he gave almost 20 years ago. I am going to exercise crude editorial license and provide a long extract.

America is now proletarianizing its bourgeoisie and this process is likely to culminate in a bottom-up populist revolt…Since 1973, the assumption that all hardworking American married couples would be able to afford a home and the wife could then, if she chose, stay home and raise the kids has begun to seem absurd…Globalization is producing a world economy in which an attempt by one country to prevent the immiseration of its workers may result only in depriving them of employment. The world economy will soon be owned by a cosmopolitan upper class which has no more sense of community with any workers that the great American capitalists of the year 1900 had with the immigrants who manned their enterprises…in 1979 the kids from the top socioeconomic quarter of American families were 4 times more likely to get a college degree than those from the bottom quarter: now they are 10 times more likely…The old industrialized democracies are headed into a Weimar-like period, one in which populist movements are likely to overturn constitutional governments..(in America)…members of labor unions and unorganized unskilled workers will sooner or later recognize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time they will realize that…white collar workers themselves afraid…are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point something will crack….the electorate…will decide that the system has failed and look for a strongman to vote for – someone who will assure them that the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen and post-modern professors will no longer be calling the shots…One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans and homosexuals will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion.

Rorty is certainly not alone in espying the lineaments of fascism within liberal democracies; Antonio Gramsci, Edward Luttwak and Tony Judt also come to mind. But the last two sentences of Rorty’s quotation convey a particulary painful and American prescience.

Part the Final-The Shallow freedoms of Neoliberalism

Image by L.J. Whitsitt

Image by L.J. Whitsitt

Driving home from work during the Republican convention, I heard an NPR interview with a Young Republican who was asked how she would explain the basic Republican philosophy to other young people in a way that they would understand. She replied immediately that a smart phone is the ideal metaphor: it is the product of entrepreneurs and it empowers each person to make choices and connect with the world. Hers was a very “normal” American take on reality: the small “freedoms” of the marketplace are wedded to the American veneration of a self-seeking individualism.

In his seminal 1958 essay, Isiah Berlin contrasts the small “freedoms” I have been talking about with another kind of “Freedom” which is more generative. A capital “F” freedom is not just freedom from an external constraint, but the liberty to affect the context of one’s choices and in so doing exercise positive control over your own life. Having the “Freedom” to achieve ones own ends has both an internal, personal aspect and an external, collective dimension.

Personally, I must have the “Freedom” to contend with my own self…my fears, my passions and the state of my education… in order realize my own potential and get where I want to go. In the social and political sphere, I may need to become an actor upon the world rather than just a passive consumer. If so, I will need the larger “Freedom” to participate in collective decision making. Do I have the “Freedom” to help generate a social or political context that is more favorable to my self-realization? Am I “Free” to start my own political party? Can I join a union and improve my workplace? Or, are these larger “Freedoms” foreclosed to me? Am I, or are my fellow citizens, hindered in our efforts to realize our individual potential because of the color of our skins? the crushing weight of student debt? the dearth of middle class jobs where we live?

A key difference between the two “freedoms” is that one requires a longer attention span than the other. Going with the smart phone metaphor, it requires little expenditure of attention to log on to a cell and compare college web sites. You have the “Freedom” to acquire an education and the “freedom” to become an indentured servant as a result. Though you are also “Free” to campaign for affordable education, that entails politics; the messy and time consuming practice of bumping into other people with different ideas of what “F(f)reedom” should look like.

We now live in a new kind of market-created culture that fights to capture every shift of our attention; however fleeting. A new bright and shiny object is always available to bait our attention because there is a market creating that bait and tailoring that bait ever more precisely to each user’s tastes. I am a grandfather who earned a degree in Anthropology 35 years ago. A recent ad on my Facebook page offered me a t-shirt that reads “Always trust a Grandpa with an Anthropology degree”. What you will look at tomorrow on the Internet has already been predicted and sold.

At one level, all of these bright shiny objects are the same, they are all potential clicks. Most of us know (at some level of consciousness) that Donald Trump is where he is today because he is clickbait. He knows how to be clickbait. He didn’t need Jeb Bush’s advertising war chest because he knew how to propagate exabytes of self-exposure for free. Thoughtfully considered and detailed public policy plans are not bright and shiny objects. A click on Trump, Kardashian or U.S. trade policy are all the same to the click-market. Content or the meaning of the content does not matter; merely the number of clicks. The algorithms didn’t judge Donald Trump, they merely propelled him to our attention. The more attention Trump got, the more of him we were offered; a feed back loop that had the result of giving him an illusory dimensionality.

I am hardly the first person to notice that Donald Trump is particularly suited to be where he is today. Trump doesn’t need multi-dimensional policy statements because there is really only one bright and shiny ornament on his policy tree; America is no longer great. It matters little that blaming trade agreements and immigration is simplistic and panders to ignorance and racism. The fear and dissatisfaction he is tapping into is very real.

The “free market” has failed to deliver. It has failed in rural America where economic opportunity is decreasing and opioid use is increasing. The “free market” has failed the Rust Belt where the human dislocation from 30 years of globalization and technological change has been allowed to fester. The “free market” has kept real wage growth stagnant for decades. The gloom of living paycheck to paycheck is pervasive in America.

But this is our brave new neoliberal world. The ephemeral can be monetized-“That’s only natural!” . We need not bother our pretty little heads thinking about “Freedom”- “Let the market sort it out!”. But when the free market’s outcomes are shitty, where do we turn? To a bright and shiny strongman who will let us keep our shallow freedoms (our smart phones, our guns, our Social Security). He will tell us what to do thereby relieving us of the fundamental Freedom to think for ourselves and shape our own political and social destinies.

Neoliberalism, Part 3, I’m gonna buy me a Mercedes Benz!

As Americans we are awash in the ‘freedom’ to choose; retail opportunities abound. We can select from a teeming cornucopia of entertainment options. We find it difficult to imagine life without the shallow but narcotic ‘liberty’ of channel surfing. We revel in the niche markets created for us because we have the ‘liberty’ to adopt the styles (of life, of clothes, of self expression) that we use to individuate ourselves; to create our personal brand. Thanks to an innovative, entrepreneurial ‘free’ enterprise system, we are deluged with what I will gloss as lower case ‘freedom’ (I will get to ‘Freedom’ later). As long as there are no barriers, we have ‘freedom’. We are free to buy cigarettes (if we are older than 18) and we are free to smoke them (in someplaces and not in others).

Because we have come more and more to define ourselves in terms of these narrow (and primarily commercial) ‘freedoms’, Americans are wont to object strenuously when we encounter any abridgement of our liberty. This very second, some Americans somewhere are outraged about a liberty denied or circumscribed: that they are required to purchase health insurance or can’t smoke in bars or can’t buy pot legally or can’t graze their cattle for free on public land or can’t take their AR-15 to the supermarket. Any political decision abridging a ‘freedom’ can be seen as an embarkation down the slippery slope to statism and slavery.*

The rhetoric of neoliberalism equates the freedom of shopping choice with political freedom; capitalism is talked about as economic democracy. Even a brief look at recent history and the world around us should disabuse of this naive view. The Bush administration and its avatar Paul Bremer were dumbfounded that the laissez faire “free enterprise zone” they created in Iraq failed to unleash Iraqi entrepreneurialism and provide the backbone for Iraqi democracy. A “free” market does not a polity make. The Chinese now have many of the economic ‘freedoms’ that Americans enjoy. No one is stopping the Chinese from buying a Biagio bag or a Mercedes Benz. But the Chinese people do not live in a democracy and do not have a soupcon of the political liberties that Americans or most Europeans enjoy. Capitalism does not a democracy make.

While I am “free” to buy a Meredes Benz, this freedom exists in a particular social, political and economic context. All Americans are ‘free’ to travel around the world; but how many Americans can afford this ‘freedom”? Much of the support that Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump and the Brexiters mustered, comes from the dawning recognition that the government does not care that most of us live from paycheck to paycheck. Of what value is ‘freedom’ if your society has not fostered the kinds of social and economic conditions that allow “freedom” to be meaningful. If you are a poor American you are ‘free’ to stay that way and so are your children:

If you are born into a middle-class family in the United States, you have a roughly even chance of moving up or down the ladder by the time you are an adult. But the story for low-income Americans is quite different; going from rags to riches in a generation is rare. Instead, if you are born poor, you are likely to stay that way. Only 35 percent of children in a family in the bottom fifth of the income scale will achieve middle-class status or better by the time they are adults; in contrast, 76 percent of children from the top fifth will be middle-class or higher as adults.

To borrow a trope from Yeats, surely there is a greater “Freedom” at hand?

*This is a long lived American political meme that Richard Hofstadter dubbed the “paranoid style” of American politics and my Dad used to call “fluoride libertarianism”.