The Crisis is Capitalism

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Life under the Trump regime is, at times, almost surreal. Every day seems to bring a new Twitter tirade, White House squabble, or scandal. Never in my life can I recall reading in the newspaper that the secretary of state openly referred to the president as a “fucking moron.”

It is almost like something straight out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Consider this characteristically irrational exchange between Alice and the Cheshire Cat:

“But I don’t want to go among mad people,” Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat. “We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.

“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”

Many people have remarked that just keeping up with the daily news is both exhausting and depressing. The headline of the lead editorial in the October issue of Socialist Worker seems to sum up Trump’s brand of “shock and awe” politics, best: “Our resistance in the era of political whiplash.”

The SW editors write:

Think about it: In less than a month’s time, we witnessed the far-right carnival of hate in Charlottesville and a murderous attack on anti-racist demonstrators; the unnatural disasters of [hurricanes] Harvey and Irma confirming the destruction that capitalism has caused through climate change and greed; more nuclear saber-rattling by the world’s main super-bully in Washington; and the Trump administration ending DACA protections for undocumented youth now threatened with deportations to places most don’t remember.

This seemingly non-stop “political barrage,” they add, “is a central part of the right’s strategy: to stun opponents into inaction.”

We are, needless to say, living in radical times. And radical times call for radical politics.

Capitalism is currently in deep crisis. The elites no longer have any credibility. Where once the meritocratic Horatio Alger model of improving one’s living standards through hard work and educational achievement at least held some modicum of truth for working-class Americans, this ruling-class principle no longer holds any currency.

For the first time in decades, an entire generation of young adults will be worse off financially than their parents. And this is despite the fact that millennials are the most educated generation in history. (They are also the most debt-burdened from the ever-increasing costs of college education.)

These diminished economic prospects are compounded by a menacing plague of opioid addiction that, in 2016 alone, claimed an estimated 64,000 lives.

As a result, nearly half of millennials believe the so-called “American Dream,” is dead, according to a 2015 Harvard Institute of Politics survey. Where once the bourgeois elite could at least hold out the promise that if you work hard you too can join the middle-class—if not the rich—now the prospects for working-class people have been reduced to merely hoping a climate-change augmented hurricane or forest fire does not destroy your home and all your belongings.

Now, if that ain’t a reason to stand in patriotic reverence for our national anthem during commercialized spectator sports, well, you must just hate The Troops, you son of a bitch!

Wealth inequality is, in fact, far worse than most Americans realize. Of the $30 trillion in wealth the U.S. has gained since the end of the Great Recession of 2008, the 400 richest individuals received an average of $2,500,000,000 each. Those in the bottom 80 percent, meanwhile, got roughly $13,000 each.

And working-class wages remain stagnant. “Income for the working-age bottom 50%,” writes economist, Paul Buchheit, “has not improved since the late 1970s. The share of all income going to the poorest 50% has dropped from 20 to 12 percent. The share going to the richest 1% has risen from 12 to 20 percent.”

While it is not unusual for capitalism to periodically go into crisis (indeed, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels understood that the unplanned, unmanaged nature of capitalism makes it inherently prone to crisis), the scale of this particular economic crisis has not been seen since the Gilded Age of the 1920s.

Marxist economist, Richard Wolff suggests labeling this “new period” of capitalism “post-neoliberal,” “post-globalized,” or “neo-nationalist.” Whichever term one prefers, Wolff describes this era as one in which,

[T]he major corporations, the top 1% they enrich, and the top 10% of managers and professionals they employ will no longer provide the rest of us anywhere near the number of well-paid jobs and generous government policies of the post-1945 period. Given this reality for them, they could hypothetically reduce, more or less equally across the board, the jobs, incomes, and public services available to the bottom 90% of the US population. But at least in the short run, this is politically too dangerous.

Wolff continues:

The only other option they see is to divide the bottom 90% into two groups. For the favored one, jobs, incomes, and standards of living will be only marginally reduced or perhaps, if possible, marginally improved. For the other group, their economic situation will be savaged, reduced to conditions formerly associated with seriously underdeveloped parts of the planet. The time has thus arrived in the US for a major struggle—economically, politically, and ideologically—over just who will be in those two groups. The violence lurking in this struggle has surfaced so far most starkly and provocatively in the murder of [Heather Heyer] at Charlottesville. It reflects the stakes in the proliferating struggles.

And the crisis of capitalism is not relegated to the United States. Britain’s unexpected vote to leave the European Union (EU) last year (“Brexit”), along with the recent uprising in Catalonia for independence from Spain represent, for the power elite, dramatic threats to the neoliberal status quo. That neoliberal order is crumbling—and the bourgeois ruling class is scared to death.

Their fear is compounded here at home with the expectation-shattering election of Donald Trump.

Hillary Clinton was the ruling class’ preferred candidate. Her political experience and proven loyalty to corporate capitalism made her the logical successor to Barack Obama’s Wall Street-friendly policies. For the ruling class, Clinton represented not so much the “lesser evil” as liberals frequently describe the Democratic candidate, but, to use Black Agenda Report executive editor, Glen Ford’s phrase, the “more effective evil.”

But Trump is a wild card.

His erratic and unpredictable behavior makes him difficult for the bourgeois—as well as the elements of the so-called “Deep State” (the FBI, CIA, military-industrial complex, etc.)—to control. And much of Trump’s agenda concerning immigration and nationalism flies in the face of a global capitalist order that, for decades, has relied on cheap, under-paid and easily exploited immigrant labor.

Yet, Trump is merely a symptom of the larger disease of capitalism. While I am all for removing Trump from office (with the understanding that the homophobic, Christian evangelical, Mike Pence would take his place), the fact is life in pre-Trump America was hardly a paradise for working-class people.

Thus, the left’s goal cannot be to merely vote for Democrats in 2018, and Kamala Harris or Cory Booker in 2020–though this is precisely what many liberals advocate. The inconvenient truth is that the corporatist, neoliberal policies of Bill Clinton and Obama paved the way for President Trump. We cannot simply return to business as usual.

Instead, we must build on the renewed interest in socialism, particularly among young people, that Bernie Sanders helped spark. The International Socialist Organization (ISO), which I am a dues-paying member of, has seen record turnout at its weekly public meetings in branches throughout the country. And interest has only increased since the start of the fall 2017 college semester.

People are clearly hungry for a radical politics that both speaks to their lived conditions, and can help them fight back against the proto-fascist far-right. Now is the time to tap into that hunger, and build a viable working-class movement that can agitate for tangible reforms in the here in now, as well as point the way forward to a more just, egalitarian, and sustainable socialist future.

“[H]ere it becomes evident that the bourgeoisie is unfit any longer to be the ruling class in society, and to impose its conditions of existence upon society as an overriding law,” Marx and Engels wrote in The Communist Manifesto in 1848.

… The advance of industry, whose involuntary promoter is the bourgeoisie, replaces the isolation of the laborers, due to competition, by their revolutionary combination, due to association. The development of modern industry, therefore, cuts from under its feet the very foundation on which the bourgeoisie produces and appropriates products. What the bourgeoisie therefore produces, above all, are its own grave-diggers. Its fall and the victory of the proletariat are equally inevitable.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

 

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The Tyranny of Nine to Five

Homer at Work
The sign at Homer Simpson’s work-station at the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant, is meant to remind him that his job is a prison.

In Franz Kafka’s classic novella, The Metamorphosis, protagonist Gregor Samsa, a traveling salesman, awakes one “dreary” morning to find himself transformed into “a monstrous vermin.” Yet, in keeping with Kafka’s dark, absurdist style, Gregor is more concerned with the fact that he is going to be late for work.

“Oh God,” he thought, “what a grueling job I’ve picked!”

Kafka’s deliberately ambiguous story, published in 1915, taps into the profoundly dehumanizing effects of modern industrial capitalism. Gregor “was a tool of the boss,” Kafka writes, “without brains or backbone.”

Gregor’s transformation ultimately costs him his job, his relationship with his family, and leaves him a stranger in his own home. He becomes a quintessentially alienated person.

Kafka’s novella highlights perhaps the most glaring contradiction of America. We pride ourselves on our “freedom,” and “democracy,” yet we are forced to spend most of our waking lives in an institution utterly devoid of any such things: The workplace.

The capitalist workplace is essentially a benevolent dictatorship—at best. Employers prize obedience, conformity, and a perennially positive, outgoing personality in workers, above all else. One’s education and ability to competently do the job are almost an afterthought.

The workplace is best described by Bring It On!’s Torrance Shipman to her quarreling cheerleading squad: “This isn’t a democracy. It’s a cheer-ocracy.”

No wonder your job sucks.

None of the constitutional freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights apply to your job—a seemingly irreconcilable contradiction in the “world’s greatest democracy,” your high school Government teacher neglected to point out. The Constitution only delineates public law, whereas the workplace is governed as private property. As such the First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the press do not exist so long as you are clocked in at work.

This means workers have no say over the duration of their work, the conditions under which they labor, their schedules, or their pay. Certain “unskilled” jobs in retail and restaurants place restrictions on how workers may dress, their personal appearance, when they can take a break, and even when they can use the bathroom.

(A report by Oxfam America last year found that many poultry workers throughout the U.S. are forced to wear diapers during their shifts because they are “routinely denied breaks to use the bathroom.” And while it seems like extreme conditions like this should be patently illegal, the unfortunate truth is worker protection laws in this country are weak and rarely enforced.)

Additionally, workers can be monitored at work, surveilled on videotape, forbidden from discussing certain topics (politics, especially), and, when they are not being denied the opportunity to use the bathroom, they can be forced to urinate for drug tests.

Speaking of drug-tests, workers here in Maine can still be fired for using recreational marijuana outside of work, despite the fact that pot is now legal here. (Seven other states and the District of Columbia, have similar laws legalizing recreational marijuana.)

And such terminable offenses are not limited to smoking weed. Workers can be terminated for a host of activities they engage in when they are not at work–in their own personal time. These activities can include such seemingly innocuous “offenses” as cross-dressing, refusing to reveal computer passwords, and calling the boss a “cheapskate” in a letter to an acquaintance.

Certain employers prohibit workers from engaging in activism or political activity of any kind outside of work. Some bosses outright threaten their employees with termination if they do not vote a certain way or for a particular candidate.

And at least one in 17 workers is (illegally) fired or suspended for joining a union—even though it is completely legal to do so. (Again, the worker protection laws in the U.S. are a joke.)

In fact, under “at-will” work laws, employers have broad discretion to fire employees at any time, for any reason–or no reason at all–and with little notice. This is true whether they work in the public or private sector, for the government or at a “non-profit.”

And those who work independently, work from home, or operate their own business have not escaped the dictatorship of the capitalist workplace, as is commonly believed. They have merely reproduced the rigid, anti-democratic structures of the workplace in their own home or business.

“The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth,” writes Marxist economist, Richard Wolff in his book, Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism.

“Workers have no say over decisions affecting them,” Wolff writes. “If workers sat on the board of directors of democratically operated, self-managed enterprises, they wouldn’t vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many.”

Working-class people, who have nothing to sell but their labor-power, have no choice but to submit themselves to the tyranny of the workplace. Contrary to the dictates of libertarianism, work-or-starve is not a choice. It is coercion.

Libertarians and right-wing Market worshippers argue that workers are “free” to quit their job and simply get another one, if they do not “like their boss.” But swapping one capitalist job for another does nothing to alter the inherent power-imbalance between the employer and the worker.

Karl Marx understood this artificial power-imbalance was unique to the development of capitalism. Noting that workers, because they do not own the means of production, must sell their labor-power (or their ability to work) to those who do, Marx wrote in Volume 1 of his three-part economic treatise, Capital:

Nature does not produce on the one side owners of money or commodities, and on the other men possessing nothing but their own labour-power. This relation has no natural basis, neither is its social basis one that is common to all historical periods. It is clearly the result of a past historical development, the product of many economic revolutions, of the extinction of a whole series of older forms of social production.

This is why union representation is so critical. Unions can help ameliorate (though, of course, never truly abolish) the power-imbalance between bosses and workers and give workers a voice where they would otherwise have none.

But the ruling class has successfully waged a 40-year campaign to crush unions. Union membership is at its lowest point in decades–down to a measly 10.7 percent in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many corporate employers even subject new hires to anti-union propaganda videos as part of their “training.” The goal of these videos–most of which are poorly acted and produced–is basically to intimidate new employees from even considering trying to unionize.

Under socialism, workers would own the factories, offices, and restaurants they toil in day after day. They would control their own economic, social, and political destinies–not just at the workplace, but in all avenues of life. Rather than spending most our waking hours toiling away at jobs we hate, workers’ lives would be governed by the old labor motto: “Eight hours for work. Eight hours for rest. Eight hours for whatever you please.”

Marx, addressing the struggle over the limits of the work-day in 19th century England, wrote of the “antimony” between labor and capital:

The capitalist maintains his right as a purchaser when he tries to make the working day as long as possible, and, where possible, to make two working days out of one. On the other hand, the peculiar nature of the commodity sold [the worker’s labor-power] implies a limit to its consumption by the purchaser, and the worker maintains his right as a seller when he wishes to reduce the working day to a particular normal length. There is here therefore an antimony, of right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchange. Between equal rights, force decides. Hence, in the history of capitalist production, the establishment of a norm for the working day presents itself as a struggle over the limits of that day, a struggle between … the class of capitalists, and … the working class.

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!