Category Archives: Labor

Nurses Are Leading Strike Efforts: Where Are the Physicians?

Nurses in New York City are pushing back against hospital systems that put profits over patients and threaten their efforts to strike for safer staffing ratios. While nurses are fighting, physicians, so far, have remained on the sidelines of this struggle.

The U.S. healthcare “system” is completely and utterly broken. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.S. system ranks 37th in the world, all while spending dramatically more on healthcare than other wealthy countries. Tens of millions remain without any health insurance coverage. For many, medical bills can mean economic ruin—some surveys show that up to 66.5% of all bankruptcies in the U.S. are a result of medical expenses. On the front lines of this system are nurses and physicians—individuals who, by and large, decided to go into the profession to help patients and communities—are becoming more frustrated by their inability to do just that, sometimes even causing providers to leave the profession. While many inside the U.S. medical industrial complex have had enough, nurses throughout New York City (NYC) are putting their collective foot down and showing us the way to fight for better outcomes for patients and better working conditions for providers.

In March, members of the New York State Nurses Association (NYSNA) at New York’s “big four” hospitals (Montefiore, Mount Sinai, New York Presbyterian-Columbia and Mount Sinai West/St. Luke’s) voted by an overwhelming 97% margin to authorize a strike. The nurses’ fight centers around conditions for patient care, including safer staffing ratios inside hospitals so that nurses can adequately care for each patient. Throughout NYC, nurses are forced to work long shifts and are chronically understaffed. The nurses who recently threatened to strike recognize that these working conditions are part of hospital executives’ push to squeeze greater and greater profits out of workers at the expense of patient health—and they have had enough. New York nurses are fighting just as teachers across the country did earlier this year—including the tens of thousands of Los Angeles teachers who struck last January for better conditions for in schools. They are discussing the strike option just as more than 8,000 Stop & Shop workers in New England recently authorized a strike against cuts to healthcare benefits and pensions and the CAMBA Legal Services workers voted to walk off the job if their demands are not met. The nurses are also taking up the example of healthcare workers around the world, including the 40,000 Irish nurses who recently struck. Nurses are recognizing they have the power to fight and win better patient care. But while nurses across New York are standing up for themselves and their patients, a big question remains: Where are the doctors and why are they not threatening to strike together with nurses?

Why Are The Physicians on the Sidelines?

Physicians see first hand every day how our dysfunctional healthcare system is simply not built to adequately address patient and community health. For many doctors, these frustrations manifest in burnout and dissatisfaction within a field they once loved. Today there is an epidemic of burnout among physicians, with some studies suggesting burnout affects up to half of all physicians. After training for years with the desire to help others, doctors come to experience medical system that values profit over all else and rarely gives them the tools to make a difference in the communities where they work. This can leave doctors feeling hopeless, and combined with other factors, can lead to depression or even suicide. Today physicians are committing suicide at two times the rate of the population as a whole. Yet, even at this moment of frustration and anger, they continue to keep their heads down, providing validity to this broken system. We see nowhere, among doctors, a resistance like that now being organized by nurses.

In order to analyze why doctors are not throwing down their stethoscopes and finally saying enough is enough, a review of the U.S. medical education process is in order. As longtime public educator John Taylor Gatto highlights in his book, The Underground History of American Education, the education system is built to create “tools for industry.” Gatto points out that this system conditions those who pass through it to take direction well and to not question authority. At the same time, education aim to instill the importance of profit and continually reinforces the legitimacy of the capitalist system. Health care education is not excluded from this. The fact that the medical industrial complex “serves” suffering human beings gives the system the guise of morally superiority, but both patient and community health remains secondary to profit maximization nonetheless.

Psychological Conditioning

Data has shown that physicians typically come from the upper classes in the US. It is not hard to see why. Medical school exams and applications alone can cost thousands of dollars and this doesn’t even account for the cost of exam preparation courses or materials. Overall, the admissions system selects for a particular type of upper middle-class to bourgeois candidate — some reports show the median family income for a matriculating medical student is around $100,000 per year. At a time when close to half the American people do not earn enough afford an unexpected $400 expense, the cost of becoming a physician is prohibitive for the vast majority. Students with families that can bear such costs tend to come from environments that have conditioned them from a young age to respect systems of authority and not question their legitimacy. After all, if the parents have benefited economically from doing so, why would their children act any differently? This rule is then reinforced throughout the experiences of undergraduate school, medical school — as I have written about in the past — and residency education. The young medical student or resident learns that getting close to and appealing to authority figures leads to better outcomes — whether that means higher test scores, letters of recommendation, or better employment opportunities. This makes the physician less and less likely to challenge, much less disrupt, the medical system he will soon be working within.

Within the hospital, doctors typically adopt an individualist mentality in which they consider only how they can personally make an impact on their patients’ health, while ignoring the need for systemic change. The direct work with individual patients can be personally rewarding, but this method of practice does little to impact the larger factors that lead a patient to become sick in the the first place. A physician sees a patient in a clinical setting, and treats him without ever actually discussing or addressing the social conditions which have caused his illness. They then send the patient directly back into the environment that is harming him. This method of practice ultimately helps to uphold the exact structures making patients ill, but no physician could accept this fact, so instead they tell themselves they are doing important work and making a positive impact. Over time, operating within the system of factory line health delivery — the norm in the U.S. — teaches the physician that change occurs on an individual basis.

If a physician ever thinks of organizing collectively to withhold her labor in order to demand better conditions for her patients, employers declare that doctors are “abandoning” those in need of care. The Hippocratic oath taken by physicians to “do no harm” is cited. This argument obviously disregards the fact that it is the employer and ownership class which is directly harming patients every day in pursuit of profit—denying care, pushing individuals into bankruptcy, pursuing unnecessary treatments, neglecting systemic causes of illness, etc. It also ignores the fact that by continuing to focus the treatment on narrow individualistic explanations for disease and illness, the physician helps to redirect the patient’s attention away from the larger issues that are truly causing his or her suffering.

It is clear why few physicians would think about striking after being psychologically conditioned in this way. Many simply believe the work they are doing is adequate and having a meaningful impact on patient and community health. Although many may work under a boss, doctors also often have more autonomy over their work than those in other professions. Their distinct petty bourgeois positions, which allows them the possibility of “being their own employers,” reinforces their individualist, conservative mentality though it is important to note, physician control is ever decreasing as healthcare becomes more corporatized.

The individualist mindset created through medical and residency education is completely antithetical to the consciousness necessary to take action against an employer — whether protesting, organizing work “slow downs,” or using the most powerful weapon, the strike. Those who organize collectively to strike, such as the New York nurses, believe that change comes from masses of individuals standing together against the status quo. This runs counter to the ideology continually drilled into the physician. Subtle psychological methods of coercion keep physicians in line and unknowingly supporting their own oppression and the continual harm of their patients. This is combined with strong material conditions of coercion which we will discussed in the next section.

The Material Conditions of Doctors

Physicians experience the truly sickening state of the U.S. medical system day after day. They see first hand how the profits of health insurance companies, hospitals, pharmaceutical companies, device manufacturers and other health care corporations are placed above patient health. For those who truly wish to help the patients they work with, this can be extremely frustrating and could even push the physician to want to resist these oppressive systems, even after undergoing the multiple levels of psychological conditioning. This is where material conditions of the physician comes into play: to ensure doctors stay in line.

In general, American physicians are more economically well off than the majority of the population. The exorbitantly high pay that physicians find themselves earning after residency serves to support the status quo for the healthcare industry. Physicians become comfortable with their lifestyle and their positions of power in hospitals. They begin to develop a stake in maintaining the system. Though the physician may see various ways the medical industrial complex damages patients, he will be reluctant to put his comfortable position at risk by questioning the current state of affairs. It is much easier for a physician to accept the lifestyle this system provides her than to accept she is being used as a cog inside of the medical industrial machine where the health of patients is only a secondary concern.

Even before graduating from residency training, the material conditioning of the physician begins. Becoming a physician is expensive. Physicians typically undergo a 4-year university education in addition to their four years of medical school. This can easily leave a new physician entering residency— a 3 to 8-year period of training after medical school — with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt. This debt, which is part of the over $1.5 trillion of overall student loan debt in the US, puts the physician in a precarious position in the workplace at the beginning of her career. Indebtedness makes the resident physician less likely to do anything to jeopardize her standing during residency — where she is often used as cheap labor for hospitals and clinics — since it could affect job opportunities later in her career.

The enormous debt facing a resident — a term coined from the days when they would literally live or “reside” in the hospital — then forces him to work exorbitant hours for little pay. His workweek can extend to upwards of 80 hours. When a residents’ pay is broken down to an hourly wage he often finds himself making just over $10/hour. It is now a fad for hospitals to pretend to care about physician wellness. One group tasked to structure residency programs, the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME), has attempted to improve resident wellness by putting work limits in place for residents. These have been set at 80 hours per week, averaged over four consecutive weeks, meaning that a resident could potentially work as many as 100 hours in a given week. In this scenario, overwork and exhaustion make physician organizing and resistance even less likely.

We Must Organize

Physicians are key actors in the medical industrial complex today. They serve as conduits for profit extraction from sick and injured people. Until physicians begin to put individual endeavors aside and begin to organize collectively, they will continue to see their patients harmed by the “healthcare” system. How can physicians advance their collective organization? They can start by pushing for unionization in all healthcare settings—even if that means going against anti-union contracts that hospitals and clinics often require doctors to sign. Change in this system will not come from hospital administrations, device manufacturers, health insurance companies, or medical academies like as the American Medical Association (AMA). All of these groups benefit from the existing system focused on endless profit maximization. Change will only come through collective action and resistance by healthcare workers.

Physicians around the world have organized and withheld their labor for better conditions around patient care in the past. In a system that continues to directly harm patients, strikes or various other forms of work stoppages or slowdowns, are an ethical imperative. Whether it is teachers in Virginia or nurses in New York, withholding one’s labor and threatening profit production is, by far, the greatest tool any worker has against an employer. These efforts by teachers have improved educational environments for children in schools. In hospitals, strikes have the potential to provide better staffing ratios, and ultimately better care, for patients. The nurses who give their time and efforts to organize — even while risking their own jobs — are showing what it means to truly care for patient and community health. Physicians have much to learn from the nurses’ example.

Welcome to Our World

Furloughed federal workers who are finding life tough because of the partial government shutdown are sacrificing and taking extreme measures to make ends meet and pay their bills. They are visiting pawn shops, asking for loan extensions, applying for SNAP (food stamps), using food pantries and visiting soup kitchens. They are taking any part-time temporary work they can find at whatever pay rate. They go to bed each night wondering how they will get through the next day, week, month. Sort of like a huge chunk of U.S. workers.

When the strike is over, they will get back pay, great benefits and continued security. Unlike a huge chunk of U.S. workers—like my paper doll ladies. And federal workers have a growing support network of people helping them with donations and work. My ladies aren’t so lucky. Oh, and these are only ladies because I suck at making paper dolls, and these came out decently. Make believe they are either men or women. Your choice, because they are pretty much being screwed equally.

Collage, “Paper Workers,” by Sheila Velazquez.

All of the government, academic and other studies I have looked at clearly show that government employees whose educations do not include advanced degrees earn roughly one third more than private-sector workers. In these economic times, they have a good gig.

Most workers in the actual “gig economy” live creatively. Two of my ladies have two jobs. One has three. None have benefits. All are temporary and part-time, as in they can be told without warning not to come in the next day. One with children can’t afford child care, and so trades with other moms in the same boat. Nobody gets enough sleep. Two of my dolls are slightly overweight, not because they thrive on unlimited organic food, but because two of every three meals are based on rice or pasta. At least they aren’t hungry—most of the time.

Their problems are hidden by the media, which never reports on the true state of American workers, driven as they are by a heavy Washington fist and powerful special interests, and by the federal government, which continually changes the rules of the game by fudging the way in which inflation is counted. For example, Americans’ food costs are used in calculating the cost of living (CPI/Cost of Living Index). The rub is that if we cannot afford better cuts of meat and have turned to ground beef, the CPI remains the same basing cost on cheap hamburger over steak, for example.

Every government statistic tells us happy days are here again. We have low unemployment (see my earlier article, “Working for Legumes“), to see how those numbers are manipulated. As I previously noted, the government gets its information by calling a limited number of people on their landlines. Landlines, hmm. Mostly older, comfortable, secure folks. Maybe federal workers. The people who are scurrying around looking for hours have given their mobile numbers to prospective employers so they don’t miss a call. And since many of these gig jobs provide income that goes unreported, no one is going to volunteer this info to the feds. Right? It has been estimated that roughly one third of workers are working in the gig economy. Look around at your friends and family. How many have one well-paying secure job—with benefits?

We have two issues here. Security and benefits and a livable minimum wage. I believe the former will never be adequately dealt with until we organize, dare I say unionize? I once belonged to a union, and I always felt that someone had my back. Instead of a job-specific union, we could organize as workers who demand a just and fair minimum wage for all. Of course, the media and special interests would yell “communists.” Just remember who has what to gain or lose.

The Labor Department changed the way in which inflation is calculated in 1980 and again in 1990. Elizabeth Warren told a Senate hearing in 2013 that if the inflation rate had kept up with worker productivity, the minimum wage would be $22. Add five years of inflation, and that number would be $24. Forget $15 an hour. Every candidate will offer us that. I say let’s go for $30, which is what minimum likely should be by the time the election rolls around. It’s time to give the paper dolls a break.

• First published at The Greylock Glass

Chicago: Mass Charter School Teacher Strike

Angering Wall Street and other millionaires and billionaires who promote charter schools, in early December 2018 hundreds of teachers at a corporate charter school chain in Chicago called Acero set a historic record and held the nation’s first mass charter school teachers’ strike.

The strike at Acero’s 15 charter schools, attended by mostly poor and low-income Latino students, was something wealthy private interests urgently wanted to avoid because it would bring too much attention to many problems that have been plaguing charter schools for years.

Smaller classes, more school personnel, better pay, and greater teacher voice were some of the many demands that 500 Acero teachers made. Out-of-touch Acero CEO, Richard Rodriguez, made many misleading statements about the striking teachers in order to discredit their struggle and rights. Like other charter school supporters, Rodriguez is eager to deprive people of their perception and consciousness, and desperately wants people to believe the opposite of what is happening and what is needed. He wants to operate with impunity while casting teachers as irresponsible for defending their rights and the rights of their students.

Extensive research easily obtained online shows that the charter school sector has been rife with fraud, corruption, racketeering, investigations, and arrests, as well as a lack of regulations, unions, teacher stability, accountability, or transparency for decades. These and other conditions common to charter schools nationwide have long produced a low level of teaching and learning, and a high level of stress, dissatisfaction, and frustration for everyone. It was only a matter of time before a large number of teachers at a corporate charter school chain joined together to defend their rights and protest long-standing horrible working conditions. Teachers’ working conditions, and therefore students’ learning conditions, in charter schools have been subpar for decades.

About three million youth are currently enrolled in approximately 7,000 charter schools across the country. These privately operated, publicly funded schools are legal in 44 states, Washington, DC, Guam, and Puerto Rico. They are governed by individuals who are not publicly elected and who eagerly embrace the notion of education as a commodity subject to the chaos, anarchy, and violence of the so-called “free market.” Charter school supporters see the chaos, anarchy, and violence of the “free market” as a virtue. They are unable to see that such an arrangement is barbaric and outdated.

Roughly 92% of charter schools are not unionized. Charter school owners-operators are notorious for vicious union-suppression tactics. Ask any teacher at a charter school that has even thought about unionizing what usually happens to them. It’s ugly and desperate. Unions are to charter schools what the crucifix is to Dracula. But even when unions exist in charter schools, they are usually not as strong and powerful as unions in public schools. This is the same reason why more than 95% of charter schools are not started, controlled, or operated by teachers—not 30 years ago and not today.

It is no secret that teacher turnover in charter schools has always been very high across the board because working conditions are generally poor, especially compared to working conditions in public schools, which are constantly being defunded by charter schools. Teachers don’t leave charter schools because charter school operators are just so good at selecting and keeping amazing teachers while “weeding out” rotten teachers; they leave because they want to work somewhere else with better working conditions for teachers and learning conditions for students.

Charter school teachers, on average, have fewer college credentials than their public school counterparts, fewer years of teaching experience, work longer school days and years, make less money, and have fewer, if any, pension or retirement benefits. Over the years, numerous sources have documented these and many other destructive trends endemic to the entire charter school sector.

Both charter school teachers and public school teachers are fed up with backwards working conditions and realize that no one is going to defend their rights except themselves. Relying on politicians, “experts,” charter school operators, major owners of capital, or the media does not work. Status quo forces have no interest in opening the path of progress to society. On the contrary, such forces are working overtime to suppress the rights of teachers and other workers under the veneer of high ideals. Teachers must rely on themselves, on their own numbers, power, and organization to forge ahead and bring about changes consistent with modern demands and requirements. They and other workers should reject a capital-centered outlook and fight for arrangements, views, and definitions that favor the working class and the people.

Striking charter school teachers in Chicago may have broken a certain threshold, sending an empowering message to other teachers, especially charter school teachers, that they do not have to be passive in the face of attacks on their rights and the rights of students. Charter school owners-operators must be held accountable for the havoc they are wreaking in the sphere of education.

Millionaires and billionaires behind charter schools are hell-bent on trampling on public right and imposing on the public a most self-serving narrative about charter schools. This is why they are also upset and demoralized about 30,000 members of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA) flooding the streets of Los Angeles on January 14, 2019 to affirm their rights, especially by opposing charter schools. Thousands of parents, students, workers, and residents have turned out to support the teachers. The last such major walkout by LA teachers was in 1989. California authorized the first charter schools in 1992 and is now home to more than 1,100 charter schools, which is more than any other state.

LA teachers have specifically targeted charter schools as a major problem because these schools are directly harming every aspect of LA’s public school system.

Charter school disinformation is slowly losing its grip on social consciousness. More people are steadily coming to see the fraud that charter schools represent and that these schools cannot be prettified. Charter schools are a form of financial parasitism.

In the context of this intensifying fight, people should not be diverted by false dichotomies like “good” charter schools versus “bad” charter schools, nonprofit charter schools versus for-profit charter schools, regulated charter schools versus unregulated charter schools, mom-and-pop charter schools versus corporate charter schools, or high-performing charter schools versus low-performing charter schools. These categories are meaningless when considering that all charter schools, regardless of this or that consideration, are privatized, marketized, corporatized arrangements that have a net negative effect on the sphere of education, society, and the economy. Nor should anyone swallow hook, line, and sinker the nonsense about charter schools being about “choice” and “empowering parents.” Hundreds of charter schools close each year, often suddenly, leaving thousands of families abandoned, stressed, angry, and disillusioned. Charter schools violate and disempower parents, teachers, students, and principals all the time.

Realities and Challenges of Recuperated Workplaces in Argentina

Workers demonstrate in defense of Cerámica Zanon and other recuperated ceramics factories, in 2003 (Photo: Indymedia Argentina)

In this interview we talk to Andrés Ruggeri, anthropologist and researcher who directs the Facultad Abierta programme (Open School) of the University of Buenos Aires, dedicated to researching and supporting workplaces recuperated by their workers. Ruggeri tells us about the history of this movement, the challenges it faces, the relations with recent governments in Argentina, and much more.

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Ricardo Vaz:  Can you tell us a bit about this programme, Facultad Abierta?

Andres Ruggeri:  Facultad Abierta (Open School) is something that in Latin America is usually known as a University Extension, understood as the university function that is dedicated to the community. Usually these have to do with cultural aspects, courses, workshops, and this issue has also been commodified recently.

We started the programme in 2002. In the School of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires we set up a tiny extension unit to work with social movements, popular movements, that were flourishing at the time, among them the recuperated workplaces. We quickly turned to the subject of worker self-management, or workers’ control, on one hand doing research, and on the other taking part in the processes, trying to support the organizations that emerged.

RV: So it is not just a matter of doing research and documenting. What is, so to say, the contribution in the opposite direction? What do recuperated workplaces look for from Facultad Abierta?

AR: We never come with an attitude of telling the workers that “this is what needs to be done,” rather we look to work on a joint analysis of the issues, that will help with self-management. There are many aspects to it. One of them is actual participation: spreading information, supporting the occupations, collaboration in specific tasks, as well as articulating with other professionals. For example, we work with engineers, lawyers, accountants, people from the exact sciences, that may on occasion collaborate with a given company.

At the same time through the canvassing of recuperated workplaces, and the reports that are always discussed with the workers, we are generating a body of knowledge. I think at this point the work of Facultad Abierta is something that the movement has embraced as one of its tools. There is a documentation centre of recuperated workplaces that works out of a cooperative which is Imprenta Chilavert. There we document an endless number of things that have fuelled this relationship, as well as share the day-to-day life of this cooperative. At this point, it is sometimes hard to tell apart what is the movement and what is Facultad Abierta.

Facultad Abierta also edits the “Cuadernos para la autogestión,” (“Self-management notebooks”), produced at the Imprenta Chilavert.

RV: Does the movement also extend its reach beyond the Argentinian borders?

AR: Yes, another important development are the international meetings, called The Economy of the Workers. This was also an initiative of ours, in 2007, but it now extends far beyond Facultad Abierta.

These are meetings that bring together workers, activists, movements, and researchers. These international meetings were planned to be held once every two years, and later regional meetings started taking place in the intermediate years. Last year we had the sixth international meeting, with participants from over 30 countries, many different recuperated workplaces from around the world. It took place in Textiles Pigüé – a recuperated factory from the south of the province of Buenos Aires.

Billboard for the VI International Meeting Economy of the Workers, which took place in 2017 in Textiles Pigüé.

RV: The recuperated workplaces [note: we will often use the Spanish acronym ERT (Empresas Recuperadas por sus Trabajadores)] emerge strongly with the crisis in late 2001. Were they building on an existing tradition?

AR: Argentina is probably the Latin American country with the oldest history of cooperativism, dating back to the late XIX century. It is related to the history of migration and the emergence of the workers’ movement itself, just like in Europe. The workers’ movement, trade unions and cooperatives, emerge more or less in parallel, before diverging over time. But a certain tradition of cooperativism remained, even if generally separate from the question of production.

With the implementation of neoliberalism, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was a shift in the economic structure: the country starts getting de-industrialised, lots of production chains are destroyed, resulting in lots of unemployed workers. Some unions, very few, start to promote and form cooperatives in the companies that were being shuttered. They were mostly small metal workshops, print shops, these kinds of companies. And the unions were essentially of metalworkers from the south of Greater Buenos Aires, from Quilmes, and the Buenos Aires Graphics Federation. Then in some locations in the interior other cooperatives also sprung up, as means of resisting against this process.

RV: Is it fair to say that these are more cases of abandoned companies than of occupied ones?

AR: It is a bit of both. Actually the workers occupy companies that are being abandoned, it is a simultaneous process. When the bosses are looking to close doors, or when there is a fraudulent bankruptcy, that is the moment when the occupation takes place. In the 1990s, we estimate there were around 30 cases in which cooperatives were set up, because there were many others in which it was attempted but it was not possible.

What happens in 2001 is that this becomes a movement. This movement acquires an identity, calls itself “recuperated workplaces,” organizes, sets forward demands, and in some sense creates a strategy of “what to do” when a company is abandoned, in order to preserve jobs, which is to form cooperatives and fight for expropriation. The movement’s slogan, which is actually borrowed from the MST [Landless Workers Movement, from Brazil], sums it up: “Occupy, Resist, Produce.”

RV: Do new cases of ERT keep appearing after 2001?

AR: According to our estimation of currently existing recuperated workplaces, which is around 380 with some 16.000 workers, there have been more recuperated workplaces after 2001 than the ones that took place at the time. The thing is that in 2001 there was a tremendous concentration of occupations, with massive mobilisations, with lots of social and political impact.

RV: In terms of the relationship with the state, how was the relationship between the Kirchner governments and the ERT? What was their perspective?

Andrés Ruggeri being interviewed during the sixth international meeting (Youtube screenshot, video available here)

AR: Kirchnerismo was very contradictory in what concerns recuperated workplaces, just like they were with many other issues. Nevertheless, they were not hostile to recuperated workplaces, even if they did not particularly favour them. Within their neo-keynesian conception of development, workers’ control and all of this did not really fit. All of the state’s policies for economic recovery were geared towards – and with great success for the most part – recovering employment and production by focusing on the internal market, but with a national bourgeoisie leading the way.

Then as the economy recovered, all these expressions such as cooperatives, small companies, even social movements, would tend to disappear because people would go back to formal employment, thus strengthening the unions. This was the plan. In that sense, the Kirchner governments collaborated with the ERT, with some programmes of subsidies and support. But never with an economic policy, it was rather a social policy, of managing conflict, with the perspective of helping people that had lost their jobs and formed cooperatives. However, ideally these people would go back to work in the formal job market.

Naturally the entire policy of kirchnerismo had this idea as its base, but it morphed over time. At some point, especially with the international crisis in 2008-2009, we see that the economy is troubled and that it cannot meet this goal of full employment. Then state programmes for creating cooperatives appear, although these were “cooperatives” in which the state paid salaries and said what was to be done. In the end you had a kind of two-faced policy, in which the cooperatives seemingly did not fit but were fostered at the same time.

RV: We could say that support towards cooperatives and ERT was due to necessity…

AR: Precisely. And a significant debt of kirchnerismo towards the recuperated workplaces was that it did not contribute to solving the judicial problems that have lingered and are now a liability for many ERT, such as the Hotel Bauen.1 These are usually disputes surrounding property. Not necessarily with the former owners, but since these are often bankrupt companies, they are still involved in legal proceedings, there are still creditors, who want to collect debts with property. The property is in the hands of the workers, but not legally, and that creates many problems.

RV: How was this sector affected by the arrival of Macri?

AR: We produced a report midway through 2016, and subsequent events proved us right. The general economic policy of the Macri government affects cooperatives just like it affects all aspects of the productive economy destined towards the internal market, small and large companies alike. These are the common effects of neoliberal programs, especially in Latin America.

It is a policy dedicated to weakening the working class, to lowering salaries in favour of an economy designed for the exporting of raw materials and energy, and for the prevalence of financial capital. The results are massive layoffs, both in public and private sectors, a decrease in the purchasing power and the consumption capacity of the population. As a result, production goes down, demand goes down, cooperatives cannot fight against that, they need to accommodate. To this we must add the opening up to imports. There are very cheap products coming in especially from China, and national production, cooperative or otherwise, cannot compete.

Finally there is the tarifazo, which is something incredible that has multiplied utility costs in a way that completely breaks cooperatives. Many recuperated workplaces, for example, currently have gas bills that are higher than their revenue. This means they either not pay or try to stop their electricity from being cut off, but this does not stop debt from building up. The goal is somehow to buy time, waiting to see if there is a change in the political arena.

RV: Beyond its economic policy, does the government have an ideological position with regards to the ERT?

AR: Besides the economic choking there is a constant hostility and, when an opportunity arises, the government acts against the recuperated workplaces. The clearest case is the Hotel Bauen, which never saw its situation regularized, it was never expropriated. There was an attempt to do so in the last parliamentary session with the previous correlation of forces of kirchnerismo, it then went to the Senate when Macri was already in office, and Macri vetoed the law.

Rally in favour of the expropriation of Hotel Bauen (Photo: workerscontrol.net)

The same thing has happened to every expropriation bill coming out. The law of expropriations was a mechanism that we had managed to put in place as a way to legalise the ERT. Macri will always use some pretext, but ideologically he is clearly against everything that has to do with workers’ control. This in turn is reflected on the judges, who are ever less inclined to helping the workers.

RV: But the justice system, in principle, would not be a natural ally…

AR: Definitely not. Nevertheless, on labour matters there have often been more or less favourable rulings, as the judicial power is also influenced by mobilisations, by the political context. When the political context was a bit more favourable there were decisions that prioritized the continuity of production, the safeguarding of labour as opposed to the seizure of assets. The bankruptcy legislation was modified, in 2011, to offer a legal way out for bankrupt factories and companies so that they were taken over by workers’ cooperatives. But this always implies putting pressure on the judges.

All of this is now much more difficult. The judges that by nature are against the working class are now much more so. Another thing that macrismo is trying to do is to stop factories from being recuperated. The factory closes and the police is there to ensure that it does close, avoiding any occupation. They stay one step ahead to stop workers from trying to occupy.

RV: Can you describe the relation between trade unions and ERT? Because they operate with different logics.

AR: Trade unions, with the establishment of fordism and of the welfare state, have occupied a place that is generally understood, by the organisations themselves as well, within the framework of struggle, or negotiation, between capital and labour. But the traditional base of the wage-earning, formal worker, has been shrinking with the rise of precarious and informal work, and most of the unions retain a “classical” mindset, they have not found a way to represent these new kinds of workers.

In general it is hard for them to think about what happens to a worker after he loses his job. Some unions simply do not care because they can no longer extract anything from this worker, neither a union fee nor a social security contribution.2 But leaving the corrupt unions aside, the ones that take part in fraudulent closures of companies in exchange for something from the bosses, the traditional union will go as far as trying to stop the company from shutting down, to stop the workers from losing their jobs. However, once these jobs are lost, there is nothing left to do. This is the approach, more or less.

Then there are some unions that have asked themselves: if we do not manage to stop the closure, because there is a general policy, an economic context that leads to this, what do we do? That is where the support for eventual recuperated workplaces appears. Some unions have long understood this issue, and others are coming to grips now.

RV: Are these, for the most part, smaller unions?

AR: Yes, very small unions in general. It also has to do with the interests they have. Unions also work as corporations that negotiate. For the larger unions, especially the industrial ones, it is very hard for them to embrace such as strategy.

Smaller unions, or from specific crafts, are ever more interested in the subject, also because practically all of their companies are shutting down. For example, the union of marroquineros, leather workers, if it does not actively intervene to stop companies from shutting down or to recuperate them somehow, it is doomed to disappear because there will be no workers left. Because of this I see a growing support for this struggles from trade unions.

RV: Turning now to political parties, in Argentina we find this strong ERT movement without there being a strong “workers’” party. How do the leftist parties position themselves vis-a-vis the ERT? Is it a struggle that is common to all of them?

AR: No, leftist parties have not always been favourable to this question of recuperated workplaces. Some have, but here the left is a minority. Within peronismo we could say there is a left, and in general the left in peronismo is very favourable to the recuperated workplaces. I believe that in the large majority of ERT, the leaders identify themselves, despite all the contradictions, with this political position.

The non-peronista left, be it trotskyist or otherwise, also has a very classical conception of class struggle, where self-management in general does not fit. Some have even declared themselves against self-management because, from their perspective, it does not contribute to the path towards revolution. This discussion was very visible in 2001-2002. There were recuperated companies whose leaders identified with some of these parties from the trotskyist left who were against forming cooperatives. Their goal was nationalisation, or state ownership, with worker control.

This is a slogan that may be fine as an horizon, but which is unfeasible with a state that is not a revolutionary state, so to say. Therefore many of these cases ended up in dead ends. With each experience of a recuperated workplace, we can derive many things that question capitalism in its foundations: property, democracy in the workplace, the division of labour, horizontality, all of that. But that is not necessarily the goal of the recuperated workplace. The goal, first and foremost, is to safeguard jobs.

RV: More important than having the correct horizon is addressing the immediate needs of the workers…

AR: Exactly. If the proposal is maximalist and offers no way out to the specific situation, the workers will turn their backs on you. This is a problem of the left. While peronismo perhaps does not have this horizon of workers’ control, nor of the socialist revolution for that matter, nevertheless it understands these situations of workers fighting for their jobs. From the left, where we would expect this, these experiences are often rejected because they do not conform to the manual…

 

The incomprehension from sectors of the left is due to a lack of ideological flexibility, but also a lack of presence in the working class. Because if it had delegates, workers in each of these experiences, it would understand them much more clearly. Not having them, and coming from the outside, it ends up clashing.

To give an example, in 2001-2002 there were two cases that everyone was hearing about, both in Argentina and abroad, which were Zanon and Brukman,3 [3] which had ties to the PTS [Socialist Workers’ Party], a trotskyist party that is now part of FIT [Workers’ Left Front]. In Zanon the leaders were trotskyist militants and their vision was widely shared by the collective, but in the end Zanon ended up forming its cooperative, and walking the same path as all the others, although it is a very interesting and creative experience. In Brukman it was different. The workers did not even have a union, the militants arrived from outside looking to direct the struggle, but the direction was according to the manual. And with the manual they were doomed.

RV: In a 2006 article you talked about a “social innovation” component in the ERT. What is the importance of the ties to the community for these companies?

AR: Nowadays I think I would not talk about “social innovation” because it is a term that is also being used from the neoliberal side. But yes, clearly there are changes in the economic rationale of a recuperated workplace, which articulates with the political and social spheres. And that would be this question of ties to the community, which I believe are important.

 

Not all recuperated workplaces have this concern, or this strategy. For the most part, the opening up to the community is something that the workers see as positive, but also a strategy to build strong ties to the neighbourhood, to the people, articulating with organizations, etc. Because the ERT are often small or mid-size companies, and each on its own does not have the strength to implement self-management without these social networks of support, everything that mobilises around a recuperated workplace.

Workers’ assembly in Cerámica Zanon (Photo: La Izquierda Diario).

I think any time a company is recuperated there is a strong wave of mobilisation and support that is generated, reaching way beyond the strength of the workers themselves. Therefore the workers realise this and want to do right by it, to give something back for the support. But later, along these lines of innovation, or of changes in the production rationale, many ERT activities make no sense from a business standpoint. This, I should stress, has nothing to do with “corporate responsibility” or anything of the sort. It has no logic, it does not generate business…

RV: Nevertheless, the goal is also to overcome this separation between economic, social and political spheres…

AR: Of course. Since they transcend this logic, they break the concept that a company is a mere tool for the accumulation of capital. It is broken in two ways. For one, because the workers are not necessarily interested in accumulating capital. What they want is to keep their jobs, and they can possibly manage with much less than it would take for a capitalist to, within his rationale, keep the company running.

At the same time, there is a risk that a recuperated workplace will operate in a conservative fashion, doing the bare minimum to survive, with no growth or renovation. There are ERT that have been around for several years, and it is clear that when the workers retire, or die, the cooperative will disappear. But if on the other hand we take into account this opening up to the community, reaching into social and political spheres, that is another avenue of growth that does not necessarily have to do with accumulation.

RV:study of around 100 ERT suggested that around 20% of their economic activity is with other ERT or with the solidarity economy. Do you think this is progress in terms of creating a sub-system that is not 100% capitalist?

AR: Yes, but it is much harder than it sounds. The numbers, I believe, are not that high. We usually track this in our reports. But it is a necessary step, one which we are working on. Sometimes, precisely in the context of economic growth we had before, with a dynamic internal market, this was not seen as a priority because each company could survive on its own in the market.

Now that the situation has completely turned, there is a bigger concern that there is a need to build links, even create a sort of special market, with different rules, that will allow both for survival and for growth. This will also demonstrate that an alternative is possible. Nevertheless, it is much more complicated than it looks, even with the 400 recuperated workplaces by themselves. We need to extend to other cooperatives, other types of organisations.

In one case we are trying to articulate Textiles Pigüé, a very recent ERT that produces clothing for children, and another cooperative that produces fabric in the north of Argentina, and we are working on a common product. One of the ideas is also to place production in solidarity networks in Europe, not just for sale but also to bring these products to migrants and refugees.

I do not believe the challenge is just to build chains inside the same sector. Textile factories do not just require products from other textile factories, the same for metallurgical ones. Production can be integrated in other chains and inputs can come from other sectors. We need to create wider networks and also fight in terms of consumption. This means getting people to consume products from sectors where there is no exploitation of labour, or at least not to the same degree as in capitalist companies, and where environmental concerns are taken into account. There are a number of struggles ahead. But this one is a struggle against capitalism in its economic core.

RV: In your opinion, where does the state stand in all of this? Sometimes a very romantic vision is generated, of an ecosystem on the margins of capitalism, but is there not still a need to struggle for the state?

AR: Yes, I think this struggle for the state should not be abandoned. This romantic vision exists, of creating a ghetto where we, the good guys, stand, without capitalism or the state. But the state will still exist. Both the state and capital will not sit idly by while we build the economy of the future! In fact, the experiences of the recuperated workplaces have shown time and again that the struggle is always on 2 or 3 fronts at the same time, against the capitalist market, against the state, even when the state thinks it is helping.

Worker in Imprenta Chilavert. (Photo: Taringa).

Therefore, obviously all the state policy tools we can put to use to strengthen the movement need to be used. No matter how much we want to stay outside or want nothing to do with the state, the state still wants something to do with you. That is the question. And although the neoliberal state is weak in terms of allowing financial capital and large corporations to run rampant, it remains strong and repressive in what regards us, with no concern for legality whatsoever.

RV: Almost all the ERT form cooperatives. Is there a difference between these cooperatives and others which are not borne out of this struggle to preserve labour posts?

AR: Indeed. In general the discourse we find among the workers in recuperated workplaces is that they are cooperatives out of necessity. Because there is also a romantic vision of cooperatives like the one we were just discussing.

Even within this more traditional cooperative movement, for a long time the ERT were questioned because they were not true cooperatives, they were so only out of necessity, did not share the values, etc. And in truth this sector is reviving this old cooperativism, giving it a content that had been lost, of a cooperativism which is not just about companies coexisting with capitalism with no issues whatsoever. On the contrary, they are part of the same capitalist economy with almost no contradictions.

Of course, a cooperative is not the same as a corporation, a capitalist company with a boss, but in many cases it is hard to tell them apart. In general the juridical form is called work cooperative, in the case of the ERT these are cooperatives of the workers. This is not the same as a consumption cooperative, or a credit one, or a housing one, or one that provides services, and which in turn hires workers.

RV: This self-management/worker control component is missing…

AR: Precisely. Even the non-exploitation of labour is not a cooperative principle, for example. Cooperatives will often outsource work or exploit workers just like other companies. I believe the emergence of these cooperatives, the ERT, has generated an important contradiction inside this more traditional cooperativism. It is a breath of fresh air that is bringing back an old tool, which at its inception belonged to the workers.

RV: In their struggle to survive in a capitalist market, the ERT will also be tempted to sub-contract workers, or resort to other practices of capitalist companies. Are these contradictions that need to be confronted all the time?

AR: I believe so. The ERT emerge from different kinds of workers’ struggles. Therefore, at least at the beginning, they are more or less vaccinated against the exploitation of other people. Not necessarily against their own self-exploitation, which is an equally complicated matter. Now, as time passes, the market mechanisms also influence and condition self-managed companies that emerge within capitalism, because it is not a case of a movement that is fighting capitalism and building something else. Rather, these emerge as solutions to the very problems and the lack of options that labour faces in capitalism nowadays.

Therefore, within this context there can very well be processes of bureaucratisation, or of the leaders identifying with market values such as competitiveness, efficiency, etc., and starting to see that the economic viability of the company requires certain kinds of practices. The fact that one works in a context of self-management/workers’ control does not imply that one has the conscience that this is the economic system worth promoting. It is an ongoing struggle to learn from the self-management experience and to change how we envision labour.

********

• First published in MR on line

Andrés Ruggeri is an anthropologist and directs, since 2002, the Facultad Abierta programme in the School of Philosophy and Literature of the University of Buenos Aires, dedicated especially to the issue of workplaces recuperated by workers. He is the author or co-author of several works on this subject [in Spanish], including Qué Son Las Empresas Recuperadas (What are the recuperated workplaces) and Crisis y Autogestión en el Siglo XXI (Crisis and self-management in the XXI century). Ruggeri is also the director of the Autogestión magazine.

  1. The Hotel Bauen is symbolic as an ERT due to its central location in the city of Buenos Aires. It is also a space where popular movements gather. Andrés Ruggeri has written a book about the history of the Hotel Bauen.
  2. In Argentina a part of social security is managed by trade unions.

The Banality of Evil Creeps into those Who Believe They Are Good

I was at a city hall meeting in Beaverton, Oregon, the other day when a few questions I had for the presenters dropped jaws. We’ll get to that later, the jaw-dropping effect I and those of my ilk have when we end up in the controlled boardrooms and chambers of the controllers – bureaucrats, public-private clubs like Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and both political operatives and those who liken themselves as the great planners of the world moving communities and housing and public commons around a giant chessboard to make things better for and more efficient in spite of us.

Look, I am now a social worker who once was a print journalist who once was a part-time college instructor (freeway flyer adjunct teaching double the load of a tenured faculty) facilitating literature, writing, rhetoric classes, and others. The power of those “planners” and “institutional leadership wonks” and those Deanlets and Admin Class and HR pros and VPs and Provosts to swat down a radical but effective teacher/faculty/instructor/lecturer isn’t (or wasn’t then) so surprising. I was one of hundreds of thousands of faculty, adjunct,  hit with 11th Hour appointments, Just-in-Time gigs and called one-week-into-the-semester with offers to teach temporarily. Then, the next logical step of precarity was when a dean or department head or someone higher got wind of a disgruntled student, or helicopter (now drone) parent who didn’t like me teaching Sapphire or Chalmers Johnson or Earth Liberation Front or Ward Churchill in critical thinking classes, it was common to get only one or many times no classes the following semester. De facto fired. They fought and fought against unemployment benefits.

Here’s one paragraph that got me sanctioned while teaching in Spokane, at both Gonzaga and the community college:

As for those in the World Trade Center… Well, really, let’s get a grip here, shall we? True enough, they were civilians of a sort. But innocent? Gimme a break. They formed a technocratic corps at the very heart of America’s global financial empire—the “mighty engine of profit” to which the military dimension of U.S. policy has always been enslaved—and they did so both willingly and knowingly. Recourse to “ignorance”—a derivative, after all, of the word “ignore”—counts as less than an excuse among this relatively well-educated elite. To the extent that any of them were unaware of the costs and consequences to others of what they were involved in—and in many cases excelling at—it was because of their absolute refusal to see. More likely, it was because they were too busy braying, incessantly and self-importantly, into their cell phones, arranging power lunches and stock transactions, each of which translated, conveniently out of sight, mind and smelling distance, into the starved and rotting flesh of infants. If there was a better, more effective, or in fact any other way of visiting some penalty befitting their participation upon the little Eichmanns inhabiting the sterile sanctuary of the twin towers, I’d really be interested in hearing about it.

We are talking 17 years ago, Ward Churchill. The Little Eichmann reference goes back to the 1960s, and the root of it goes to Hannah Ardent looking at the trial of Adolf Eichmann, more or a less a middle man who helped get Jews into trains and eventually onto concentration camps and then marched into gas chambers. The banality of evil was her term from a 1963 book. So this Eichmann relied on propaganda against Jews and radicals and other undesirables rather than thinking for himself. Careerism at its ugliest, doing the bureaucratic work to advance a career and then at the Trial, displayed this “Common” personality that did not belie a psychopathic tendency. Of course, Ardent got raked over the coals for this observation and for her book, Eichmann in Jerusalem.

When I use the term, Little Eichmann, I broadly hinge it to the persons that live that more or less sacred American Mad Men lifestyle, with 401k’s, trips to Hawaii, cabins at the lake, who sometimes are the poverty pimps in the social services, but who indeed make daily decisions that negatively and drastically affect the lives of millions of people. In the case of tanned Vail skiers who work for Raytheon developing guidance systems and sophisticated satellite tethers and surveillance systems, who vote democrat and do triathlons, that Little Eichmann archetype also comes to mind. Evil, well, that is a tougher analysis  – mal, well, that succinctly means bad. I see evil or bad or maladaptive and malicious on a spectrum, like autism spectrum disorders.

Back to Beaverton City Hall: As I said, last week I was at this meeting about a “safe parking” policy, a pilot program for this city hooked to the Portland Metro area, where Intel is sited, and in one of the fastest growing counties in Oregon. Safe parking is all a jumbo in its implications: but for the city of Beaverton the program’s intent is to get three spaces, parking slots from each entity participating, for homeless people to set up their vehicles from which to live and dine and recreate. Old Taurus sedans, beat-up Dodge vans, maybe a 20-foot 1985 RV covered in black mold or Pacific Northwest moss. The City will put in $30,000 for a non-profit to manage these 15 or 20 spaces, and the city will put in a porta-potty and a small storage pod (in the fourth space) for belongings on each property.

This is how Portland’s tri-city locale plans to “solve” the homeless problem: live in your vehicles, with all manner of physical ailments (number one for Americans, bad backs) and all manner of mental health issues and all manner of work schedules. Cars, the new normal for housing in the world’s number one super power.

This is the band-aid on the sucking chest wound. This is a bizarre thing in a state with Nike as its brand, that Phil Knight throwing millions into a Republican gubernatorial candidate for governor’s coffers. Of course, the necessity of getting churches and large non-profits with a few empty parking spaces for houseless persons is based on more of the Little Eichmann syndrome – the city fathers and mothers, the business community, the cops, and all those elites and NIMBYs (not in my backyard) voted to make it illegal to sleep in your vehicle along the public right away, or, along streets and alleys. That’s the rub, the law was passed, and now it’s $300 fine, more upon second offense, and then, 30 days in jail for repeat offense: for sleeping off a 12-hour shift at Amazon warehouse or 14-hour shift as forklift operator for Safeway distribution center.

So these overpaid uniformed bureaucrats with SWAT armament and armored vehicles and $50 an hour overtime gigs and retirement accounts will be knocking on the fogged-over windows of our sisters/ brothers, aunties/uncles, cousins, moms/dads, grandparents, daughters/sons living the Life of Riley in their two-door Honda Accords.

Hmm, more than 12 million empty homes in the richest country in the world. Millions of other buildings empty. Plots of land by the gazillion. And, we have several million homeless, and tens of millions one layoff, one heart-attack, one arrest away from homelessness.

The first question was why we aren’t working on shutting down the illegal and inhumane law that even allows the police to harass people living in their cars? The next question was why parking spaces for cars? Certainly, all that overstock inventory in all those Pacific Northwest travel trailer and camper lots would be a source of a better living space moved to those vaunted few (20) parking spaces: or what about all those used trailers up for sale on Craig’s List? You think Nike Boy could help get his brethren to pony up a few million for trailers? What worse way to treat diabetic houseless people with cramped quarters? What fine way to treat a PTSD survivor with six windows in a Chevy with eight by four living space for two humans, a dog, and all their belongings and food.

The people at this meeting, well, I know most are empathetic, but even those have minds colonized by the cotton-ball-on-the-head wound solution thinking. All this energy, all the Power Points, all the meeting after meeting, all the solicitation and begging for 20 parking spaces and they hope for a shower source, too, as well as an internet link (for job hunting, etc.)  and maybe a place to cook a meal.

While housing vacancy has long been a problem in America, especially in economically distressed places, vacancies surged in the wake of the economic crisis of 2008. The number of unoccupied homes jumped by 26 percent—from 9.5 to 12 million between 2005 and 2010. Many people (and many urbanists) see vacancy and abandoned housing as problems of distressed cities, but small towns and rural communities have vacancy rates that are roughly double that of metropolitan areas, according to the study.

This is the insanity of these Little Eichmanns: The number of cities that have made homelessness a crime! Then, getting a few churches to open up parking slots for a few people to “try and get resources and wrap around services to end their homelessness.” Here are the facts — the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty states there are over 200 cities that have created these Little Eichmann (my terminology) municipal bans on camping or sleeping outside, increasing by more than 50 percent since 2011. Theses bans include various human survival and daily activities of living processes, from camping and sitting in particular outdoor places, to loitering and begging in public to sleeping in vehicles.

I am living hand to mouth, so to speak. I make $17 an hour with two master’s degrees and a shit load of experience and depth of both character and solutions-driven energy. This is the way of the world, brother, age 61, and living the dream in Hops-Blazers-Nike City, in the state of no return Nike/Oregon Ducks. Man oh man, those gridlock days commuting to and from work. Man, all those people outside my apartment building living in their vehicles (I live in Vancouver) and all those people who have to rotate where they live, while calling Ford minivan home, moving their stuff every week, so the Clark County Sheriff Department doesn’t ticket, bust and worse, impound.

I have gotten a few teeth – dentures — for some of these people. Finding funding to have a pretty rancid and nasty old guy in Portland measure, model and mold for a fitting. That’s, of course, if the people have their teeth already pulled out.

Abscesses and limps and back braces and walkers and nephritic livers and dying flesh and scabies and, hell, just plain old BO. Yet, these folk are working the FedEx conveyor belts, packaging those Harry and David apples, folding and stacking all those Black Friday flyers.

Living the high life. And, yet, these Little Eichmanns would attempt to say, or ask, “Why do they all have smart phones . . . they smoke and vape and some of them drink? Wasteful, no wonder they are homeless.”

So that line of thinking comes and goes, from the deplorables of the Trump species to the so-self vaunted elite. They drink after a hard day’s work, these houseless people. Yet, all those put-together Portlanders with two-income heads of household, double Prius driveways, all that REI gear ready for ski season, well, I bicycle those ‘hoods and see the recycle bins on trash day, filled to the brim with IPA bottles, affordable local wine bottles, and bottles from those enticing brews in the spirit world.

So self-medicating with $250K dual incomes, fancy home, hipster lifestyles, but they’d begrudge houseless amputees who have to work the cash register at a Plaid Pantry on 12 hour shifts?

I have been recriminated for not having tenure, for not being an editor, for not retired with a pension, for not having that Oprah Pick in bookstores, for not having a steady career, for working long-ass hours as a social worker. The recrimination is magnificent and goes around all corners of this flagging empire. Pre-Trump, Pre-Obama, Pre-Clinton, Pre-Bush. Oh, man, that Ray-gun:

He had a villain, who was not a real welfare cheat or emblamtic of people needing welfare assistance to live back then in a troubling world of Gilded Age haves and haves not. That was January 1976, when Reagan announced that this Welfare Queen was using ”80 names, 30 addresses, 15 telephone numbers to collect food stamps, Social Security, veterans benefits for four nonexistent, deceased veteran husbands, as well as welfare. Her tax-free cash income alone has been running $150,000 a year.”

Four decades later, we have the same dude in office, the aberration of neoliberalism and collective amnesia and incessant ignorance in what I deem now as Homo Consumopithecus and Homo Retailapithecus. Reagan had that crowd eating out of his hands as he used his B-Grade Thespian licks to stress the numbers – “one hundred and fifty thousand dollars.”

Poverty rose to the top of the public agenda in the 1960s, in part spurred by the publication of Michael Harrington’s The Other America: Poverty in the United States. Harrington’s 1962 book made a claim that shocked the nation at a time when it was experiencing a period of unprecedented affluence: based on the best available evidence, between 40 million and 50 million Americans—20 to 25 percent of the nation’s population—still lived in poverty, suffering from “inadequate housing, medicine, food, and opportunity.”

Shedding light on the lives of the poor from New York to Appalachia to the Deep South, Harrington’s book asked how it was possible that so much poverty existed in a land of such prosperity. It challenged the country to ask what it was prepared to do about it.

So, somehow, all those people reminding me that my job history has been all based on my passions, my avocations, my dreams, that I should be proud being able to work at poverty level incomes as a small town newspaper reporter, or that I was able to teach so many people in gang reduction programs, at universities and colleges, in alternative schools, in prisons and elsewhere, at poverty wages; or that I was able to get poems published here and stories published there and that I have a short story collection coming out in 2019 at zero profit, or that I am doing God’s work as a homeless veterans counselor, again, at those Trump-loving, Bezos-embracing poverty wages.

Oh, man, oh man, all those countries I visited and worked in, all those people whose lives I changed, and here I am, one motorcycle accident away from the poor house, except there is no poor house.

Daily, I see the results of military sexual trauma, of incessant physical abuse as active duty military, infinite anxiety and cognitive disorders, a truck load of amputated feet and legs, and unending COPD, congestive heart failure, and overall bodies of a 70-year-old hampering 30-year-old men and women veterans.

They get this old radical environmentalist, vegan, in-your-face teacher, and a huge case of heart and passion, and I challenge them to think hard about how they have been duped, but for the most part, none of the ex-soldiers have even heard of the (two-star) Major General who wrote the small tome, War is a Racket:

WAR is a racket. It always has been.

It is possibly the oldest, easily the most profitable, surely the most vicious. It is the only one international in scope. It is the only one in which the profits are reckoned in dollars and the losses in lives.

A racket is best described, I believe, as something that is not what it seems to the majority of the people. Only a small “inside” group knows what it is about. It is conducted for the benefit of the very few, at the expense of the very many. Out of war a few people make huge fortunes.

In the World War I a mere handful garnered the profits of the conflict. At least 21,000 new millionaires and billionaires were made in the United States during the World War. That many admitted their huge blood gains in their income tax returns. How many other war millionaires falsified their tax returns no one knows.

How many of these war millionaires shouldered a rifle? How many of them dug a trench? How many of them knew what it meant to go hungry in a rat-infested dug-out? How many of them spent sleepless, frightened nights, ducking shells and shrapnel and machine gun bullets? How many of them parried a bayonet thrust of an enemy?

How many of them were wounded or killed in battle?

Out of war nations acquire additional territory, if they are victorious.

They just take it. This newly acquired territory promptly is exploited by the few — the selfsame few who wrung dollars out of blood in the war. The general public shoulders the bill.

And what is this bill?

This bill renders a horrible accounting. Newly placed gravestones. Mangled bodies. Shattered minds. Broken hearts and homes. Economic instability. Depression and all its attendant miseries. Back-breaking taxation for generations and generations.

For a great many years, as a soldier, I had a suspicion that war was a racket; not until I retired to civil life did I fully realize it. Now that I see the international war clouds gathering, as they are today, I must face it and speak out.

More fitting now than ever, General Butler’s words. Structural violence is also the war of the billionaires and millionaires against the rest of us, marks and suckers born every nanosecond in their eyes. Disaster Capitalism is violence. Parasitic investing is war. Hostile takeovers are was. Hedge funds poisoning retirement funds and billions wasted/stolen to manage (sic) this dirty money are war. Forced arbitration is war. PayDay loans are war. Wells Fargo stealing homes is war. Lead in New Jersey cities’ pipes is war. Hog  excrement/toxins/blood/aborted fetuses pound scum sprayed onto land near poor communities is war. Fence lining polluting industries against poor and minority populations is war.

So is making it illegal to sit on a curb, hold a sign asking for a handout;  so is the fact there are millions of empty buildings collecting black mold and tax deferments. War is offshore accounts, and war is a society plugged into forced, perceived and planned obsolescence.

Some of us are battle weary, and others trudge on, soldiers against the machine, against the fascism of the market place, the fascism of the tools of the propagandists.

Some of us ask the tricky questions at meetings and conferences and confabs: When are you big wigs, honchos, going to give up a few hours a week pay for others to get in on the pay? When are you going to open up that old truck depot for homeless to build tiny homes?

When are you going to have the balls to get the heads of Boeing, Nike, Adidas, Intel, the lot of them, to come to our fogged-up station wagon windows in your safe parking zones to show them how some of their mainline workers and tangential workers who support their billions in profits really live?

How many millionaires are chain migrating from California or Texas, coming into the Portland arena who might have the heart to help fund 15 or 30 acres out there in Beavercreek (Clackamas, Oregon) to set up intentional communities for both veterans and non veterans, inter-generational population, with permaculture, therapy dog training, you name it, around a prayer circle, a sweat lodge, and community garden and commercial kitchen to sell those herbs and veggies to those two-income wonders who scoff at my bottle of cheap Vodka while they fly around and bike around on their wine tours and whiskey bar rounds? Micro homes and tiny homes.

My old man was in the Air Force for 12 years, which got the family to the Azores, Albuquerque, Maryland, and then he got an officer commission in the Army, for 20 years, which got the family to Germany, UK, Paris, Spain and other locales, and I know hands down he’d be spinning and turning in his grave if he was alive and here to witness not only the mistreatment of schmucks out of the military with horrendous ailments, but also the mistreatment of college students with $80K loans to be nurses or social workers. He’d be his own energy source spinning in his grave at Fort Huachuca if he was around, after being shot in Korea and twice in Vietnam, to witness social security on the chopping block, real wages at 1970 levels, old people begging on the streets, library hours waning, public education being privatized and dumb downed, and millions of acres of public sold to the “I don’t need no stinkin’ badge” big energy thugs.

I might be embarrassed if he was around, me at age 61, wasted three college degrees, living the dream of apartment life, no 401k or state retirement balloon payment on the horizon, no real estate or stocks and bonds stashed away, nothing, after all of this toil to actually have given to society, in all my communist, atheistic glory.

But there is no shame in that, in my bones, working my ass off until the last breath, and on my t-shirt, I’d have a stick figure, with a stack of free bus tickets, journalism awards, and housing vouchers all piled around me with the (thanks National Rifle Association) meme stenciled on my back:

You can have my social worker and teaching credentials and press passes when you pry them from my cold dead hands!

Housing Crisis, Mental Health Collective Breakdown, 9 am to 5 am Work!

The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.

― D.H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

He who does not travel, who does not read,
who does not listen to music,
who does not find grace in himself,
she who does not find grace in herself,
dies slowly.

— Brazilian poet Martha Medieros

I work at a homeless veterans (and their families, and some have their emotional support animals here) transitional housing facility in Oregon. We get our money from a huge non-profit religious organization and from the federal government in the form of VA per diem payouts.

The job is tough, rewarding, never with a dull moment, and a microcosm of the disaster that capitalism pushes into every fiber of the American fabric of false adoration of a class dividing and racially scaled society.

Mostly after two-and three-year hitches in the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force, these men and women are broken on many levels, but serve as emblematic examples of the masses of broken people this country’s top 19 or 20 percent make a killing on. The Point Zero Zero One Percent, the One Percenters and the 19 Percenters live off the 80 percent of us who have toiled for these masters of the capitalist universe and these Little Eichmanns and highly paid bureaucrats and middle managers and top brass in every industry possible (two-income earners making money in higher education, medicine, the law, pharmaceuticals, high tech, military industrial complex, judicial and criminal justice, and all the flimflam that is the retail and consumption class).

I have clients who never saw out-of-country battlefields, but these same veterans hands down have applied and sometimes have received service connected disability claims, from tinnitus to shin splits, bad discs in the back to Parkinson’s, from skin diseases to anxiety disorders, from PTSD to depression, and many, many more.

The problems abound, because these folk are virtually broken and spiritually disconnected, brainwashed by some mythological past, flooded with inertia, possibly never able to get their lives back. We can look at them in their section eight apartments, see them at the free meal joints for veterans, and we can listen to their complaints and then respond by throwing all our fury and recrimination onto them, admonishing them to get off their butts and work. Sounds good from a parasitic, penury capitalistic society of me-myself-and-I thinking, but in reality, these younger and older veterans are strafed with anxiety disorders, co-occurring mental health challenges, post-addiction disorders, and brains that have been calcified by many, many aspects of being in the military; then discharged, and then the entire landmine field of epigenetic realities anchored to what many of them call “broken and bloodied” family lives before hitching up.

Some of us know how to solve their homelessness problem, help with intensive healing, assist them in reintegrating into society: inter-generational communities, in micro-homes/tiny homes, with an intentional cooperative community housing set up with things to do . . . . Like growing food, working on construction projects, engaging in peer counseling, and coalescing around community engagement and co-op like business models.

How many plots of land exist in this PT Barnum Land? How many empty buildings are there in this Walmart Land? How many young and old would like to get off the hamster wheel and out of the machine to live a life worthy of spiritual and collective pacifism to grow a truly communitarian spirit.

Here we have this CryptoZionist VP Pence pledging to rebuild an Air Force base in Florida, Tyndall, for $1.5 billion and then spreading more hubris as we witness Pence and the Air Force brass (their felonious DNA locked into our corrupt military industrial complex) ask for more robbing of the tax till, when a hurricane we knew about weeks ahead of time, destroyed more than 17 Stealth aircraft worth (sic) $339 million each! No apologies, no public investigation, nothing!

You won’t hear on Democracy Now a strong case against building these jets in the first place, or a strong case for lopping off the heads of Generals and state senators, on down, for this Keystone Cop disaster. Up to $6 billion for these graft-ridden and spiritually empty examples (Stealth Baby and Old Man-Woman Killers) of America the Empire.

Daily, I struggle to get veterans accommodations for evictions or for property debts, as many have just failed to pay rents or mortgages because of the colluding forces of mental-physical-spiritual dysfunction created by what it is that makes broken people in general, but especially broken veterans who have some undeserved sense of entitlement. Daily, just attempting to get VA hospital treatment, or trying to have experts look at veterans’ amputated limbs and just getting appointments for prosthesis devices?

We are not in “new times” with a CryptoZionist brigade in office, or a filthy example of an individual as the leader of these follies. Nothing new in the New Gilded Age punishment caused by a small cabal of One Percenters who hold dominion over workers. Nothing new about the power of the media and entertainment game to brainwash compliant citizens. Nothing new about War Is a Racket principles (sic) driving our economy. Nothing new about white supremacy ruling Turtle Island. Nothing new about the Manifest Destiny Operating System ripping land, resources, people from indigenous homelands and other countries’ sovereignty. Nothing new in the great white hope tutoring other like-minded fellows in other countries on how to get one or two or a thousand “ups” on the powerless or disenfranchised peoples of their own countries.

Life for Third World (sic) peoples was bad under all the criminals we have voted into POTUS office for the past 250 years! Longer.

The big difference seems to be the passed on and learned helplessness, fear, bulwarking that has been seeded from generation to generation. The fact there are hyper Christians who support the hyper hedonistic, superficial, irreligious, criminally-minded, sexist, racist, loud mouth, intellectually challenged Trump may seem illogical. Oh, so much illogical braying in the world before the Trump seed spilled on this land. Imagine, Jews supporting white supremacists, anti-Semites. Imagine, Native Americans wrapping themselves in the US red-white-blue, and signing up for war-military in higher numbers than any other demographic group. No need to go apoplectic over women supporting Trump as if he is their daddy or Sugar Daddy. How many times in this country’s history have we had Women for Reagan, Women for Bush, Women for Clinton, Women for the Vietnam War?

Susan Sontag said it pretty clearly:

Of course, it’s hard to assess life on this planet from a genuinely world-historical perspective; the effort induces vertigo and seems like an invitation to suicide. But from a world-historical perspective, that local history that some young people are repudiating (with their fondness for dirty words, their peyote, their macrobiotic rice, their Dadaist art, etc.) looks a good deal less pleasing and less self-evidently worthy of perpetuation. The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, Balanchine ballets, et al., don’t redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone — its ideologies and inventions — which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself. What the Mongol hordes threaten is far less frightening than the damage that western ‘Faustian’ man, with his idealism, his magnificent art, his sense of intellectual adventure, his world-devouring energies for conquest, has already done, and further threatens to do.

To be honest, the insanity of the white race is also what I am concerned with in Sontag’s (RIP) polemic. That pejorative “crazy” seems apropos for the white race, if one were to look at the way this country’s leaders and movers and shakers play the game and push their destructiveness on the rest of the world. They are all white!

Crazy watching the Kavanaugh hearings. Crazy reading the World Socialist Web Site hit after hit on any woman fighting the scourge of sexual harassment, sexual assault, rape!

This David Walsh gets it all wrong, deploying simplistic “blame the victim” mentality, and then using “witch hunts” accusations to buttress his absurd essay’s thesis. This article is an example of low level white writer crazy:

The ostensible aim of this ongoing movement is to combat sexual harassment and assault, i.e., to bring about some measure of social progress. However, the repressive, regressive means resorted to—including unsubstantiated and often anonymous denunciations and sustained attacks on the presumption of innocence and due process—give the lie to the campaign’s “progressive” claims. Such methods are the hallmark of an anti-democratic, authoritarian movement, and one, moreover, that deliberately seeks to divert attention from social inequality, attacks on the working class, the threat of war and the other great social and political issues of the day.

Instead of bringing about an improvement in conditions, in fact, the #MeToo movement has helped undermine democratic rights, created an atmosphere of intimidation and fear and destroyed the reputations and careers of a significant number of artists and others. It has taken its appropriate place in the Democratic Party strategy of opposing the Trump administration and the Republicans on a right-wing footing.

The sexual hysteria has centered in Hollywood and the media, areas not coincidentally where subjectivism, intense self-absorption and the craving to be in the limelight abound.

Comments back at the author’s “hysteria” analysis are not worthy of recrimination, for sure, but if you scroll down in the WSWS comments section for this piece, have at it: the continued craziness of white thought, white attitudes and white actions. It’s a long essay, and this man’s conclusions are all over the place, indicting anyone who aligns himself or herself with the #MeToo movement. Blames #MeToo (using current polls) for aiding and abetting an upsurge in misogynistic thinking, where these vaunted white man’s polls say more Americans one year later after #MeToo are skeptical in larger numbers about allegations of sexual harassment coming from anyone. Blame #MeToo, so-called socialist David.  Polls, oh those pollsters, oh Mr. Walsh states that #MeToo activists should be involved in other things, like the plight of working class men and women, or stopping the apocalyptic brinkmanship played out by Trump with toy nuclear weapons. Etc., etc.

It makes sense that we have silos in the social justice, criminal injustice, environmental-economic-equity movements. So much easier to tackle one bad bill or vote or crazy politician in your neck of the woods than to grasp the totality of how broken, mean, murderous, monstrous this country’s policies are! And, reality check – the white race is crazy. You see it in Nazi German, in Europe today, in Israel, in the USA, in Canada, in Australia.

Yet the broken systems, the insanity of even considering a series of social nets being frayed, chopped and burned by the One Percent’s minions in political office and finance – how insane is it that social security is on the chopping block, that there is no single payer health plan, that there is no public transportation, that the commons are being razed, raped and contaminated? How insane is it to “let” lead flow in public water system pipes (Flint, Portland, et al); or that pesticides rule the micro-world of future generations, where brain stems are permanently damaged; or how insane is it to allow a good chunk of young people to come into the world with diabetes, or riddled with on-the-spectrum diseases . . . or full of ticks and physical ailments in the name of Big Ag/Big Energy/Big Chem/Big Med/Big Tech ruling the land?

Insanity is a race that hawks chemicals of death, that inculcates punishments and fines and levies and taxes and penalties and surcharges and charges and fees and tolls and taxes and tickets and defaults and foreclosures and balloon rates and eminent domain decisions and impoundments and confiscations and seizures on their own people?

Daily, Portland (three counties, and then just north, Clark County, WA) is an example of this white insanity — unchecked growth, unchecked rent hikes, unchecked cost of living busting more and more people, unchecked home costs rising, unchecked traffic and bureaucratic gridlock, constant punishment for the downtrodden, homeless, poor. How insane is it to have students of nursing programs living in their cars while attending classes (Portland Community College, et al)? How insane is it that the Portland police bureau can charge non-profits thousands of dollars for public records, our own records?

The system is rigged, and it’s a white system of lawsuit after lawsuit! Death by a thousand fines and spiritual-mental-physical cuts!

Until the system is so broken you have millions of social workers like myself attempting to figure out how to save one life at a time, all broken lives products of the insane white culture, their own insane (crazy) leaders, family members, bosses and communities?

Can President-elect Lopez Obrador pull Mexico out of slumber?

After decades of stagnation, corruption and deadly dependency on the United States, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador is considered by many ordinary people, as well as by intellectuals, to be the last chance for Mexico.

His only hope is Obrador

Two important news developments are circulating all over North America: US President Donald Trump will not attend the inauguration of the Mexican left-wing President elect Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO). And, yes, despite all tensions and disagreements, the new deal to replace NAFTA has been reached. It is called the USMCA – the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement.

Paradoxically, if Obrador is to fulfill at least half of his electoral promises, it would inevitably lead to a clash between Mexico and both the United States and Canada. The US absorbs around 80 percent of Mexican exports. Various Mexican intellectuals believe that their country was, until now, nothing more than a colony of their ‘big brother’ in the north. Canadian mining companies are brutally exploiting Mexico’s natural resources, and united with local politicians and paramilitaries, are tormenting almost defenseless native people.

National Folcloric Ballet of Mexico marching, joining revolution

After decades of inertia and decay, Mexico is ready for dramatic, essential change which, many argue, will this time not arrive directly under red banners and through revolutionary songs, but with the carefully calculated, precise moves of a chess player.

Only a genius can break, without terrible casualties, the deadly embrace of the United States. And many believe that President-elect Obrador is precisely such leader.

‘Not a poker player, but a chess player’

Mexico is in a ‘bad mood’, despite the victory of a left-wing leader. Hope is in the air, but it is fragile hope, some even say ‘angry hope’. Decades of stagnation, corruption and deadly dependency on the US, have had an extremely negative impact on the nation.

John Ackerman, US-born, Mexican naturalized legendary academic at UNAM (Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico) explained during our encounter in Coyoacan:

This has been a long time coming. Throughout Latin America there has been great transformation, except in Mexico. Mexico has been the same since 1946 since PRI was created… Education, healthcare, serious commitment to social system, infrastructure; he promises to improve all this… in terms of working-class population, he expresses great interest in the union democracy, which could be a true vehicle of revolution … unions could be used to create democratic participation in the country.

We both agree that Obrador is not Fidel, or Chavez. He is pragmatic and he knows how dangerous the proximity of Mexico to the US is. Governments get overthrown from the north, and entire socialist systems get derailed, or liquidated.

Professor Ackerman points out:

Obrador is not a poker player, like Trump; Obrador is a chess player.

He is extremely well informed; on his own and through his wife, an accomplished Mexican academic from a prominent left-wing family, Irma Sandoval-Ballesteros. She will soon become Minister of Public Administration in the Obrador administration, which means she will fight against endemic Mexican corruption.  This will be, no doubt, one of the toughest jobs in the country.

The author and Irma Sandoval-Ballesteros

Among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member countries Mexico has the second highest degree of economic disparity between the extremely poor and extremely rich. According to the government, about 53.4 million of Mexico’s 122 million people were poor in 2016.

Crime is out of control, and so is corruption. According to Seguridad Justicia y Paz, a citizen watch dog NGO in Mexico, five out of ten cities with the highest homicide rates in the world are located in Mexico: Los Cabos (1), Acapulco (3), Tijuana (5), La Paz (6), and Ciudad Victoria (8).

Gang land, Tijuana

Some 460,000 children have been recruited by the drug rings in Mexico, according to the incoming Minister of Public Security of the Obrador government. As bodies are piling up and insecurity grows (recently, at least 100 dead bodies have been found in the state of Jalisco), the Mexican police continues to be hopelessly corrupt and inefficient. But it is now everywhere, ‘true reason for astronomic crime rate’, say many.

Misery everywhere

It is all elegance and style at one of an old hacienda, lost in time in the middle of jungle, in the State of Yucatan. Some twenty years ago I used to live very near this place, working on my novel, in self-imposed-exile. Even then, Yucatan was poor, conservative, and traditional. But there was pride and dignity even in the poorest of the villages.

Things changed dramatically, and not for the better. Now naked misery is everywhere. Just two kilometers from the hacienda Temozon, traditional rural houses have holes in the roofs, and many dwellings have already been abandoned. People are not starving; not yet, but that is mainly due to the fact that in Yucatan, there is still a great sense of community and solidarity.

Don Alfredo Lopez Cham and Dona Consuelo

Don Alfredo Lopez Cham lives in a village of Sihunchen. Half of the roof of his house is missing. He is blind in one eye. He is dirt poor. I asked him how things have been here, since I left. He just nodded his head, in despair:

You just saw my house, there… You can imagine how it is…I cannot fix anything. For years I did not have any work. And now I am old.

Senora Consuelo Rodriguez, his neighbor, jumps in. She is an outspoken, tough but good-hearted matron, always surrounded by a flock of chickens:

Look, he has really nothing! Here, we are trying to help those in need, but ourselves we have close to nothing. Few years ago, the government sent some people to help to fix our houses, but they never came back again.

In theory, Mexico has free education and health care, but in practice, it is just for those who hold government or good private jobs. President-elect AMLO  is promising to fix all that, but people all over the country are skeptical, including Senora Consuela.

If we get sick, we have to pay, unless we have insurance from our work. And most of us, here, don’t have any steady job.

Do people here have faith in the new government? She shrugs her shoulders:

We will see.

This is what I hear everywhere, from coast to coast of this enormous and potentially rich country, which is the 15th largest economy in the world. There is very little enthusiasm: the majority of people adopted a ‘wait and see strategy’.

Don Rudy Alvarez who has worked for more than 20 years at one of the luxury hotels in Yucatan, is only cautiously optimistic about the future.

Even we who have permanent jobs at the multi-national establishments, cannot dream very big. I can feed my family well, and I can send one son to study law at the university. But no bigger dreams. My family would never be able to afford a car or any other luxury. We hope that Obrador (AMLO) will change things. Here, many people feel that Yucatan has been sold to tourists as the ‘Mayan Disneyland’, with very little respect for our culture.

Mexico is the second most visited country in the Western hemisphere, right after the United States. But income from tourism very rarely brings a better life for local people.

Crime and drug wars are far from being the only concerns. In the center of the indigenous and historic city of Oaxaca, the armed forces are blocking the entrance to the Governor’s Palace. Why? The graffiti protesting against disappearances and extrajudicial killings of the activists, as well as forced evictions of indigenous people by the multinational companies.

Ms. Lisetta, who lives with many others, as a protest, in a tent right in front of the palace, explained:

For 9 years we have no home. Paramilitaries and the government forces came and threw us out of our dwellings, in San Juan Copala. Some people were killed, women raped, many disappeared. We are here to demand justice.

Recently, police came, broke my cell phone, and then injured my arm…

She showed me her bruises.

At night, live bands are playing old ballads, all over the city center. People are dancing, drinking and promenading. But displaced men, women and children living in the tents are brutal reminder of real Mexico, of true suffering of many poor and almost all native people.

Sra. Lorena Merina Martinez, Spokesperson of the Displaced Persons from the Autonomous Community of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca State.

I found Sra. Lorena Merina Martinez, Spokesperson of the Displaced Persons from the Autonomous Community of San Juan Copala, Oaxaca State. She spoke to me bravely, coherently and with passion:

In 2007, San Juan Copala declared autonomy and became autonomous municipality.  There was much peace and tranquility in our community. Then in 2009 the PRI-led government of Oaxaca started making noise as San Juan Copala is the ‘head’ of 32 communities of Trique District. The PRI-government did not want autonomy of San Juan Copala, thus unilaterally finished it in 2009. From 2010 we resisted for 10 months so that we could bring food to our children. They had blocked our roads. We didn’t have anything to eat anymore. They were killing our colleagues, but also children. Women were raped as they went looking for food and brought it back to their children. They cut off their hair as well. I am talking about the rape of a 65-year-old community member, for instance.  Another woman was gravely injured. The attackers and rapists all escaped.

For ten months we resisted with no water, no food, no electricity as the PRI-government had cut us off from everything. The date of 16 September 2010 was when PRI-backed paramilitaries entered our community, first to the municipality building, and used big microphone to tell us to leave our houses. We were not given any time at all to leave. Because they saw smoke come from houses, which was basically because we were cooking, they were shooting at our houses and us. We just had to escape with nothing and were forced to find a way to survive with our children, with nothing at all, not even our id cards. We needed to make sure to escape with our children because we were warned that if we didn’t, then they would burn alive our children. By 18 September 2010, PRI-backed paramilitaries started entering our houses, burning and destroying them.  We fled as by then they had killed another community member who had been resisting forced displacement. This is when a group of women started demanding the State Government to intervene in our community. The State nor Federal Government ever intervened.  We demanded that something is done, so that we could safely return to our community. Since September 2010, we have been here.  But they have never done anything to let us return, nor to get rid of those who displaced us because they were the accomplice of those paramilitaries who made us forcibly displaced.

I asked her why it happened? Were multi-national companies involved?

Yes, there are mineral resources. The government wants to take charge of this community. We have very futile lands. Lots of water, vegetables, fruits. The government wants to suck everything from our community.

I recalled massacres in Chiapas, that I covered some two decades ago and later described, under different name in my revolutionary political novel Point of No Return  (Point of No Return – ebook).

At the Center of Photography Manuel Alvarez Bravoin Oaxaca, Mr. Leo (who only gave his first name), confirmed:

It is terrible what happened to those people. Imagine that you are at home, and suddenly someone comes, with armed forces, and kicks you out. But in Mexico it’s normal, and not only in this area. Multinational companies, particularly Canadian ones, are controlling around 80 percent of the mining in this country. People, particularly indigenous ones, are treated brutally. Mexico suffered terribly from the Spanish colonialism, but it often feels that things didn’t change much. We are not in full control of our country!

And the new administration of Obrador? Leo and his colleagues are only moderately optimistic.

We are not sure he would dare to touch essential problems: the dependency of this country on the North, and the horrendous disparities between the rich and poor, between the descendants of the Europeans and the majority, which consists of the indigenous people. Until now you can see it everywhere: Westerners and their companies come and do what they want, while the native people are left with nothing.

But many others remain hopeful. AMLO’s left-wing Moreno Party will soon govern in a coalition with PT (Partido del Trabajo) and the conservative Social Encounter Party. Again, it is unlikely that Mexico will follow the path of Cuba or Venezuela, but the Bolivian model is very likely. It could be a silent revolution, a change based on an extremely progressive and truly socialist constitution of the country, remarkably dating back to 1916.

A Mexican academic, Dr. Ignacio Castuera who teaches at Claremont University in California, explains:

I believe Obrador has to bring several factions together to implement some of what he wants to achieve. No individual alone can solve the problems of a nation. I hope many rally around him, if that happens then significant changes can be brought about. The long shadow of the US policies and corporations will continue to exert major influence.

*****

Construction of US-Mexico wall

In Tijuana I witness absolute misery. I visit multinational maquiladoras that pay only an equivalent of $55 USD per week to their workers. I manage to enter gangland, and I see how the US is building a depressing wall between two countries.

Sra. Leticia facing the wall

I spend hours listening to stories of Sra. Leticia, who lives just one meter away from the wall.

They are cutting across our land, and it harms many creatures who live here. It also prevents water from circulating freely.

All this used to be Mexico. North Americans had stolen several states from us. Now they are building this wall. I visited their country on several occasions. And let me tell you: despite all our problems, I like where I am, at this side!

Then, late at night, I listen to a man who knows his country from north to south, from east to west. We are sitting in a small café; sirens are howling nearby, another murder has just taken place. He faces me squarely and speaks slowly:

Mexico has its back against the wall. This situation cannot continue. This is our last chance – Andrés Manuel López Obrador. We will rally behind him, we will help him. If he delivers what he promises, great; then Mexico will change and prosper. If not, I am afraid that our people will have no other choice but to take up arms.

From the revolutionary days

• Photos by Andre Vltchek

• This is extended version. Essay was originally published by RT.

What Is the Left in Canada?

A claim to righteousness in international affairs is fundamental to Canadian exceptionalism, the idea that this country is morally superior to other nations.

— Yves Engler1

In early August of this year, the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted for Saudi Arabia to release human rights activists. This greatly angered the Sauds who issued a series of sanctions that included selling off Saudi assets in Canada, ceasing purchases of Canadian wheat and barley, expelling Canada’s ambassador, suspending all Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to and from Toronto, and ordering Saudi students to leave Canadian schools.

So far Canadian government officials have not responded other than to state Canada will continue to speak out on human rights abuses. That Canada speaks about human rights abuses comes across as rank hypocrisy to some Canadians. Given that Canada exists through a genocide against its Original Peoples; given that Canada is a partner in US imperialist wars; given that Canadian corporations, especially mining corporations, have been exploiting the third world whereby do Canadian officials living in their government greenhouse deign to cast rocks at other houses?

Canada touts itself as a multicultural land that embraces diversity. Canada tends to align itself more so with the Scandinavian welfare-state model rather than the rugged individualism of its neighboring United States. And Canada has a politically represented Left, or what purports to be a Left, in the New Democratic Party (NDP) — even a Communist Party and Marxist-Leninist Party, although neither are electorally successful.

Yves Engler has written Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada (Black Rose Books, 2018) which examines the Left in Canada. I tend to use the term progressivism because it refers to a grouping “that encompasses a wide spectrum of social movements that include environmentalism, labor, agrarianism, anti-poverty, peace, anti-racism, civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights, social justice and political ideologies such as anarchism, communism, socialism, social democracy, and liberalism.” The term the Left points to a bipolar split rather than a spectrum. Nonetheless, progressivism and the Left are referring toward a similar orientation.

In Left, Right Engler examines the NDP (and its earlier incarceration as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or CCF), the labor movement, leftist institutions, and leftist personalities (and other actors) for just how leftist or left-leaning they actually are. If one self-identifies as Left, then its seems perfectly reasonable that one should adhere to leftist principles. Actions will define a social/political orientation with greater clarity than words (which are also important). To belong to a party deemed leftist which then pursues right-wing policies presents a contradiction — and in the worst case, exposes one to criticism for hypocrisy.

Engler critiques the CCF/NDP for its militarist support, lack of compassion for foreign workers, and moral corruption of its leaders. For instance, NDP stalwart “Stephen Lewis was stridently anti-Palestinian,” writes Engler. (p 31) Ex-federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair was a front-and-center Zionist. Engler notes that another ex-federal NDP leader Jack Layton was passionate about the role of Canada’s military in Afghanistan. (p 35)

Engler asks,

Has the desire of some in the NDP to replace the Liberals as the slightly leftist alternative to the Conservatives caused the party to move so far to the right that it agrees with Canada being a partner in enforcing imperialism? If so, what sort of home does it offer to those who oppose US Empire and all forms of imperialism? (p 48)

This reviewer does not consider any major Canadian party to be Left. The Conservatives are staunchly neoliberal. Ditto for the Liberals (just a bite less to the Right than the Conservatives). The NDP also are a Right of Center party. Their lack of internationalism, support for militarism, racism among leaders, etc locate them at a great distance from leftist principles. At best the NDP are faux-Left.

The labor movement has also seen jingoism, militarism, racism among labor leaders, anti-communism, and a lack of solidarity (a sine qua non for the dignity of labor).

Engler writes that the Right has caught the ear of many labor leaders. (p 86-94)

Even “left-wing” think tanks bend to the Right, as do “leftist” critics. Engler notes that the Rideau Institute’s support for “peace-keeping” plays into mythologizing Canada as a peaceful kingdom while aligning with military objectives. (p 99)

As far as I can tell, major Canadian peacekeeping missions have always received support from Washington. Ignoring the power politics often driving peacekeeping missions has resulted in (unwitting) support for western imperialism. (p 100)

The author dispels the obfuscation of corporate/state media and its purveyors to cut through disinformation that has captured some of the “leftist” imagination. Engler shreds the role of a good Canada historically and more contemporaneously, among others, in supporting Zionism, the US-France-Canada orchestrated coup in Haiti, as well as the lauded (nauseatingly by corporate/state media) Canadian general Roméo Dallaire who twisted the genocide in Rwanda. Dallaire is a strong proponent of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a cover for western imperialism. (p 176)

Even among Original Peoples — traditionally considered, in at least a societal sense as leftist2 — have seen their “leaders” support militarism, colonialism, imperialism, corporate plunder, and environmental degradation. Engler says an online search will reveal the Assembly of First Nations insouciance about how Canadian policy impacts on rest of the world. (p 179) The Assembly of First Nations is, however, problematic insofar being viewed as a legitimate representative of Original Peoples. (p 192)3

The Left treads a slippery slope when it agrees with or takes up right-wing causes such as militarism, acquiescing when environmental destruction is at stake, and failure to support solidarity networks outside Canada. Engler broaches the antidote which is genius in its simplicity and obviousness: the Do No Harm principle backed by the Golden Rule.

Yet contrariwise Engler opines, “Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: World War II.” (p 52) No explanation is proffered by the author for this opinion. One wonders how the Do No Harm principle was satisfied by Canadians fighting overseas? Also Engler’s contention of a morally justifiable4 war is challengeable, and it is challenged by history professor Jacques Pauwels in his book The Myth of the Good War.5

Engler writes in a very readable style, and his work is solidly backed by sourcing. Most saliently, his work has a moral core. Left, Right is important and valuable in that it does not only illustrate and lament the corruption of leftist principles, but it also provides solutions about how leftist principles can be upheld; pushing the Left leftwards.

Read Left, Right and find out about how the NDP can be made relevant on the Left, about how to increase public awareness, and about how to grow the leftist movement.

  1. Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada (Black Rose Books, 2018): 151.
  2. This was anathema for colonialism and its capitalist ideology. “The communal–they [colonialists who decided that “the Indians were to be individualized and completely Americanized” (p 3)] called them ‘communistic’–patterns of the Indians were an affront to their sensibilities. Unless the Indian could be trained to be selfish, they felt there was little hope of civilizing and assimilating them.” In Francis Paul Prucha (ed), Americanizing the American Indians (Harvard University Press, 1973): 8.
  3. Something pointed out by Indigenous warrior Splitting the Sky: “The Assembly of First Nations is a neo-colonial elected system and their Chiefs are dependent on federal funds, therefore they are considered as collaborators of a foreign power.” In Splitting the Sky with She Keeps the Door, From Attica to Gustafsen Lake (Chase, BC: John Boncore Hill, 2001): 84. Review.
  4. The language is slippery here because Engler does not state that WWII was morally justified, just indicating that moral justifications could be made. But is that not true for almost any war? And do not the war-initiating nations invariably purport some sort of moral rationale to justify aggression?
  5. E.g., US motivations during WWII were based on corporate interests: “… the US power elite is motivated first and foremost by economic interests, by business interests… (p 240; see also p 29-41); not on fighting fascism as GIs “first became acquainted with fascist (or at least quasi-fascist) practices, in the form of petty mistreatments and humiliations…. The American soldiers had not wanted this war, and they did not fight for the beautiful ideas of freedom, justice, and democracy; they fought to survive, to win the war in order to end it, in order to be able to leave the army, in order to be able to go home.” (p 22) In Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015).

A Shameful Legacy: “Race” and the Railroad Industry in the United States

“Race” has always, historically speaking, been the Achilles Heel of the labor movement in the United States, the number one tool of the bosses and big capital to divide, contain, and crush working-class struggles.

In the history of the worker’s movement in the US there are few things as shameful as the legacy – decade-after-decade – of blatant in-your-face segregationist practices, codified discrimination, and race-hatred against African-American  railroaders. The latter story— the oppression and the resistance —is told in Eric Arnesen’s Brotherhoods of Color: Black Railroad Workers and the Struggle for Equality. Among African American rail workers who have experienced and studied this rich history, Arnesen’s book is considered the authoritative reference, the Bible really, of an important, if often overlooked, history in the overall struggle for Black and worker’s rights in the US. (In addition to Brotherhoods of Color, I would recommend Philip Foner’s classic history Organized Labor and the Black Worker 1619-1973 an extraordinarily rich and comprehensive general history that takes up these issues and much more.)

The Railway Labor Act

The passage of the Federal Railway Labor Act of 1924 (RLA) registered important advances for railroad workers in that it was the first federal legal recognition of trade unions by craft. The RLA set up collective bargaining mechanisms that facilitated legally binding contract settlements and the adjudication of grievances, in exchange for rail labor organizations submitting to drawn-out federally “supervised” procedures that in practice gave up the right to strike.

Nevertheless, these concessions to rail labor reined in somewhat the unbridled prerogatives of the rail bosses over decades of on-again, off-again class war on the US rails from the great labor uprisings of 1877 through the struggles of the American Railway Union under the leadership of the legendary Eugene V. Debs.

The American Railway Union fought for the unification of all railroad workers – regardless of craft, race or ethnicity – into one big union. It won a big victory in the 1894 Great Northern strike but fell apart after the massive defeat in the Pullman strike later that year.

Those decades saw regular combat been rail capital and rail labor over worker’s rights, decent wages and living standards, working conditions and safety, the length of the working day, health and vacation benefits, and so on. The RLA, as it became institutionalized, also reined in the violence the rail bosses and their thugs and goons, backed by state and federal cops, National Guard, and armed forces, that was periodically unleashed against rail labor.

By setting up a significant government bureaucracy to oversee the adjudication of contract settlements and grievances, Washington and the rail carriers accomplished a major political goal of buying “labor peace” in the vast national rail industry at a time the United States was rising as a world power following World War I.

Another concession in the interests of rail labor was that the RLA also established the first federally protected pension system for any category of US workers, eleven years before the passage of the Social Security Act. The Railroad Retirement Board still exists to this day parallel to the Social Security Administration (and from which I personally draw my pension as a retired locomotive engineer).

The Institutionalization of Segregation

Perhaps the most pernicious consequences of the RLA was that it froze into place existing, narrow craft categories of workers, and, within that, a system of racist discrimination and the exclusion of non-“white” workers from the legally recognized craft unions, the so-called “Brotherhoods.”

It took decades of struggle in the yards, in the streets, in state and Federal legislatures, and continually in the courts, before the system began to weaken in the 1940s, under the impact of World War II labor shortages and the entry of masses of African American workers into the labor force and the massively expanding war industries. Further pressure mounted in the 1950s, as the Civil Rights Movement began to mobilize and fight, until the whole rotten structure collapsed in ignominy after the passage of the 1964 Federal Civil Rights Act. Over the next few years, Blacks finally began to get jobs, and union membership, as locomotive engineers, firemen, conductors, brakemen and switchmen, electricians and machinists, office personnel, and other crafts beyond “their” craft as sleeping car porters, cooks, and dining car attendants. Women began to enter the operating crafts and other skilled rail jobs in relatively larger numbers in the 1980s and 1990s.

Massive Union Growth in the US

The great labor battles of the 1930s in the United States are downplayed in history textbooks and public education. In fact, this period was marked by a huge working-class and trade union upsurge across the US. The nadir of US labor organization was in the depths of the 1931-32 Great Depression. Union membership had been reduced to 1-2% of the employed workforce. Most of that pitiful number was within the semi-moribund, very conservative AFL craft unions. By 1937-38 the number of organized workers has risen to a full 35% of the US workforce, following a few years of explosive strikes and organizing campaigns under the banner of the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) movement with successful drives to organize the steel, auto, trucking, and countless other industries. Nowhere has there been recorded such a massive growth in trade-union membership in such a short period as in the United States at that time.

Unfortunately, this mass organization of the US working class in the 1930s bypassed almost completely the railroad industry and the “whites only” craft-union structure of the “Brotherhoods” that had been codified under the RLA a decade earlier. The craft structure was reinforced, with its segregationist core intact.

The CIO

The CIO did not exclude African-American workers and actively recruited them. In the course of the decade’s great labor battles, such as the Flint Sit-Down strikes of 1936-1937, the battle to organize US Steel and the entire steel industry, and much more, Black and Caucasian workers often organized, mobilized, and fought together and even politically radicalized, to an extent, together. Caucasian workers had to adjust their perspectives and outlooks and confront their prejudices to a degree as they faced the reality that African-American workers had already become a mass presence in US industry. Their numbers and concentration, as well as their evident and obvious capacity for industrial work and a fierce determination to struggle for decent-paying union jobs in the face of race prejudice and segregationist practice was becoming politically unstoppable. Race-baiting was an ever-present political tool of the bosses who fought tooth and nail against trade union advances. Many workers became conscious of these divide-and-conquer tactics and began to rethink their world outlooks.

The Women’s Emergency Brigade organized during the Flint Sit Down Strike of 1937.

Roots of the Civil Rights Movement

Brotherhoods of Color shows that the source and ultimate responsibility for the racist practices and policies that confronted Black workers throughout the 20th Century lay with the private rail carriers and the federal and state governments that catered to their needs and profits. Nevertheless, it must also be said that often these industry and state authorities used the racist and mean-spirited attitudes of the rail unions, the so-called “Brotherhoods” as a cover for inaction or hostile action against Black workers, who were fighting a permanent defensive war to preserve the relatively skilled jobs they had managed to secure.

These AFL-affiliated craft unions, legally recognized under the RLA, contained bylaws and “covenants” that openly excluded Black workers, making them essentially “white job trusts.” The “Brotherhoods” were, at times, even more racist and reactionary than the formal policies of the carriers and government bodies and agencies who regularly came under enough political and legal pressure from Black workers and their allies among labor radicals and civil rights and worker’s rights lawyers, to occasionally give lip service (and usually little else) to fair labor practices.

Brotherhoods of Color meticulously documents the legal battles doggedly fought by civil rights and worker’s rights attorneys in the generally hostile territory of the criminal justice system that predominated at that time. That system, as a whole, acted to uphold and defend – decade after decade – the prevailing system of de jure or de facto segregation and keep Black workers and their attorneys in an endless legal labyrinth. Nevertheless, working through the rigged “legal system,” trying to wring any concessions possible was the main approach of the more conservative Black and liberal organizations like the NAACP.

They took advantage of every contradiction between the fine words of US law and its sordid reality and snail’s pace when it came to race and sex discrimination. Even favorable court rulings here and there were rarely, if ever, implemented in practice. Slick government, carrier, or “Brotherhood” lawyers always managed to drag things out.

This legalistic road was nowhere a sufficient basis for change. It was rather more of a marker and registration for the ebb and flow of the grass-roots struggle against job discrimination and segregation which became unstoppable by the 1960s. Arnesen writes:

Just as proponents of educational desegregation learned in the 1950s, court-imposed solutions were costly, time-consuming, and imperfect. Employment discrimination cases slowly wound their way through the judicial system in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, addressing local variations as well as other obstacles that the ‘white’ craft unions threw in the way of African-American railroaders. Without a doubt, these cases established important principles that undermined the legitimacy of racist practices. In effect, though, they eroded only at a glacial pace both existing and new practices designed to thwart the job rights of black fireman and brakemen.

The struggles documented in Brotherhoods of Color became one of the mightiest rivers flowing into the ocean of the mass Civil Rights Movement emerging in the Deep South in the 1950s and 1960s. The political culmination was the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which gave the legal death knell to the segregationist practices that were institutionalized at the time of the Railway Labor Act. After the 1964 legislation the resistance of the craft unions collapsed virtually overnight and a period, sometimes fraught with tension but with steady gains, saw the beginnings of genuine job opportunities, union membership, and advances for African American workers in the freight and passenger rail industry.

Even in the period when Black workers were largely confined to crafts of sleeping car porters, cooks, and dining attendants, Black-led unions representing these workers on the job were organized. The strongest was the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters (BSCP) which became, under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, a powerful, prestigious organization in Black communities across the United States. The BSCP received a charter from the AFL in 1925 and, for years, unsuccessfully petitioned for the desegregation of the racist “Brotherhoods.” The BSCP was in the forefront of Black rights struggles across the US.

For example, it is not well known that the central organizer of the Montgomery Bus Boycott was E.D. Nixon, President of the Montgomery, Alabama chapter of the BSCP and the NAACP who convinced a courageous 26-year-old Martin Luther King (older prominent local preachers were reluctant to step forward) to take public leadership of what became the turning-point action that became the major spark of the mass movement across the South that soon materialized. The legendary Rosa Parks, whose conscious, well-organized decision to refuse to sit at the back of the bus set off the boycott, was a secretary at the NAACP office employed by BSCP worker and organizer E.D. Nixon.

Randolph had the courage to threaten a mass March on Washington in early 1941 demanding an end to segregation in the armed forces as well as that the massively expanding war industries hire and promote without discrimination Black workers. President Franklin Roosevelt was not happy but issued Executive Order 8802 prohibiting discrimination in war industries under federal contracts. This succeeded in get the March on Washington called off. Randolph later became the honorary chairperson for the famous 1963 March on Washington.

But the real heroes in Brotherhoods of Color are the rank-and-file workers, themselves, fighting to preserve their jobs against the carriers, the state governments, and the racist “Brotherhoods.” Arnesen gives them their voice and records their efforts, their many defeats and some victories which, when all is said and done, contributed mightily to the historic breakthroughs of the 1960s.

The overall history documented comprehensively by Arnesen does reveal clearly that all advances, small and larger, won were a byproduct of independent mass action or the threat of it from below.

Crucially, it should be emphasized that the space to do this was increased materially in the first half of the 20th Century in the World War I era, and, even more in the buildup to US entry into World War II. The centrality of the rail industry, the conversion to massive war production on the eve of World War II translated to a hunger for labor power on the railroads in particular and US industry in general. Black workers, already a massive layer of the working class in the worst, and worst-paying, jobs, and their representatives and advocates, saw the opening to fight for decent jobs, paying union-scale, in the rapidly expanding war industries. For example, during World War I thousands of Blacks were hired as construction and maintenance laborers on northern rail lines. In fact, Black GIs returning from World War II and the Korean War, and the African American nationality as a whole in these post-war periods, were in no mood for settling into the old segregationist and humiliating status quo.

Stop the Whitewashing of Our History

In my 30-year railroad career, working as a brakeman-switchman, hostler, and locomotive engineer in Chicago, Washington, DC, and New York, for first the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad and then for Amtrak, I saw a transformation in the number of African-American and then women in the operating crafts. I remember being in the cab of the locomotive in the middle of some godforsaken stretch of Illinois countryside, or pulling a 150-car coal train from Chicago’s giant Proviso Yard to the gates of a northern Indiana power plant, listening to the stories of some of the first Black engineers that the carriers were forced to hire – and the craft unions gave up trying to exclude. These brothers related to me the bullshit they had to put up with initially, even as things began to get better and prejudices began to break down.

It would be very educational and useful if our unions today would confront this blot on our history and dignity as organizations of labor. This is long overdue. And not only for moral reasons.

I maintain that we need to know the history of our unions if we are going to transform them into instruments of struggle for the coming battles facing the working class in the United States today, in this new gilded age of obscene social inequality and squalid oligarchy in the United States.

This whitewashing of history really slapped me across the face when I received in the mail in 2013 a booklet celebrating the 150th Anniversary of my union, the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET), which is now a division of the Teamsters Union, and its predecessors the Brotherhood of the Footboard (founded in 1863) and the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. There was not a single word in that small book about the segregationist, “whites only” bylaws and “covenants” that prevailed for 100 years!

I had once personally confronted BLET President Dennis Pierce about this, in a friendly way, when he attended a retirement party thrown by our Division 11 in New York City. Brother Pierce told me he was “appalled” at what he saw in the archives, including “whites only” covenants, but when I asked him why the history booklet sent to each member, glorifying the history of our union, there was not a single word on the decades-long blatant racism he fell back on the lame and cowardly rationalization that to include it in the 150th anniversary booklet and literature would be “divisive”! As if the real “division” were not the racist practices themselves.

Old Lessons, Current Realities

While the legacy of racist discrimination in the railroad industry – and in US social relations in general – have been dealt heavy blows in the past several decades, race hatred and demagogy remain a reference point for ultra-rightist forces and their allies (who are invariably anti-union) and a cutting-edge component in the current social and political polarization in US politics. These voices are trying to get a hearing for their reactionary viewpoints in the working class and our greatly weakened trade-union movement.

Since the financial crisis and so-called Great Recession of 2007-08 there were subsequent devastating attacks on the value of labor, employment, wages, and living standards under both Democratic and Republican White Houses and Congresses. The relative and slight uptick in GDP numbers today (famously manipulated and manipulatable), the balloon of the stock market, and slight increases in industrial production and manufacturing have been typically hyped by President Donald Trump – “this is the greatest economy in the history of America.” The actual economic figures (which are always “readjusted”) are significant and interesting mainly around the question of their sustainability. One key question: What will be the unintended consequences of the unfolding clashes over trade and tariffs between the United States, China, and the European Union? What will be the spillover effects, economically and politically, in Asia, Canada, Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa?

Another curious fact that stands out for now is that wages for working people continue to stagnate and trend downward, with minor exceptions, despite the official low unemployment figures. Labor shortages in fast-food and other large-scale wholesale and retail operations such as Amazon, Walmart, and so on, along with militant drives by unorganized workers to fight for $15 an hour, have forced these outfits to grant some wage concessions.

Similarly, rank-and-file teachers, almost independent of their weak unions, forced state house to grant some wage relief (that is raises) with no strings attached in West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona.

Brotherhoods of Color is well-written and comprehensive. I recommend it not only for its rich evocation of the past but because it contains many lessons for rail and other US workers of whatever “race” or skin tone, for the present and future. Workers, who are being drawn into today’s struggles and will by the millions be drawn into the giant, inevitable class battles that lay ahead in the USA.

On “Bullshit Jobs”

Referring to cultural Marxism, especially the Frankfurt School, Noam Chomsky once said, “I don’t find that kind of work very illuminating… The ideas that seem useful also seem pretty simple, and I don’t understand what all the verbiage is for.” While I think there’s much of value in the so-called Western Marxist tradition—for instance, I’m partial to Georg Lukács (more so than to Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School)—I have to admit I strongly sympathize with Chomsky. But his criticism generalizes, and is even truer in other areas: since well before the mid-twentieth century, a large amount of work in the humanities has been prone to unnecessary and sometimes incomprehensible verbiage. Later this tendency came to be associated with postmodernism, for it was most pronounced in the writings of such luminaries as Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Deleuze, and Foucault, as well as their hordes of epigones. By the end of the twentieth century, a vast field of “Theory” had reached maturity, encompassing much of philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary, film, and cultural studies.

As an anthropologist, David Graeber works in this broadly conceived “interpretive” tradition (I call it that because it consists essentially of endless cultural and social “interpretations” or “theories,” often playful and highly verbose conceptual exercises). He has an advantage over many of his peers in that, while not a particularly great writer, he can at least write clearly and informally enough to be widely read. Presumably this lucidity helps account for his fame—as do, more importantly, his heterodox ideas, his ability to capture a cultural mood even in the titles of his books (Debt, The Utopia of Rules, Bullshit Jobs), and his impressive productivity. Perhaps he’s too productive: while reading his latest book, I couldn’t help thinking it would have packed a greater punch if he had shortened it by a third. It meanders and meanders, repeats and repeats, and, well, I didn’t understand what all the verbiage was for.

But that’s the intellectual game, after all. Unless they’re unusually disciplined and conscious of avoiding self-indulgence, intellectuals are prone to spewing “bullshit” without end, showing off their verbosity because that’s how the game is played. Graeber is at least more disciplined and serious than most of them, especially (most of) his fellow “theorists” in the humanities.

The full title of his book is Bullshit Jobs: A Theory. I wasn’t able to find the “theory,” unless it be that bullshit jobs do in fact exist. And Graeber marshals abundant evidence to test and confirm that theory. The most entertaining, and probably the most valuable, parts of the book are the many testimonies he presents from poor souls who spend their lives in a bullshit job, which is to say a job they think shouldn’t exist because it contributes nothing to the world. The numbers of people who believe this are incredibly high. One poll in the United Kingdom found that only 50 percent of people with full-time jobs were sure their job made a meaningful contribution to the world, while 37 percent were sure theirs didn’t. A poll in Holland put the latter number at 40 percent. Even jobs that aren’t bullshit, like nurses and professors, are being increasingly bullshitized, as paperwork, meetings, and other administrative duties crowd out more meaningful tasks like taking care of patients and teaching. (Nurses reported to Graeber that as much as 80 percent of their time is now taken up with meetings, filling out forms, and the like.) Considering these facts, as well as the existence of many second-order bullshit jobs (jobs done in support of those directly engaged in bullshit), Graeber estimates that well over half of all work being done in society could be eliminated without making any real difference.

What sorts of jobs are we talking about? Not most lower-tier jobs: not street cleaners, bus drivers, repairmen, restaurant workers, store clerks, gardeners, construction workers, etc. These people make a contribution to the world. Graeber suggests a rough five-fold classification of bullshit jobs. First are flunkies: jobs that exist “only or primarily to make someone else look or feel important.” This includes doormen, many receptionists (those who have hardly anything to do and find the job oppressively dull), some HR assistants, and the like. Second are “goons,” jobs that have an aggressive element but “exist only because other people employ them.” For instance, most lobbyists, PR specialists, telemarketers, corporate lawyers (“I contribute nothing to the world and am utterly miserable all of the time,” one said), and national armed forces, which exist only because other countries have armies. “If no one had an army, armies would not be needed.” As for PR specialists, one of them probably spoke for many when he opined that every person who works in or for the entire advertising industry simply “manufactur[es] demand and then exaggerat[es] the usefulness of the products sold to fix it.” He concluded, “If we’re at the point where in order to sell products, you have to first of all trick people into thinking they need them, then I think you’d be hard-pressed to argue that these jobs aren’t bullshit.”

Third is the category of “duct tapers,” people whose jobs exist only because of a glitch in the organization, “who are there to solve a problem that ought not to exist.” Often this includes underlings who have to fix mistakes made by incompetent superiors. Or do nothing but deal with customers irate because something went wrong. Fourth are “box tickers,” who allow an organization to be able to claim it’s doing something it actually isn’t doing. One testimony is from a guy who was Senior Quality and Performance Officer in a local council in the United Kingdom; most of what he did involved ticking boxes, “pretending things are great to senior managers, and generally ‘feeding the beast’ with meaningless numbers that give the illusion of control. None of which helps the citizens of that council in the slightest.”

The fifth category is taskmasters, people who do nothing but assign work to others, create bullshit tasks for others to do, or supervise bullshit. Middle management frequently falls under this category, as when managers oversee workers who could perform just as well, or sometimes better, without oversight. “I just got promoted to this job,” one manager says, “and I spend a lot of my time looking around and wondering what I’m supposed to be doing.” That’s a common complaint: being forced to supervise people who don’t need supervision. (Readers of Harry Braverman’s classic Labor and Monopoly Capital won’t find this complaint surprising at all.) Frequently positions with the word ‘strategic’ in their names—Strategic Dean, Vice President of Strategic Development, Strategic Officer—are bullshit. “All I could do,” one such person said, “was come up with a new strategy that was in effect a re-spin of already agreed-upon strategies.” But these people are given their own staff, which they have to try to find work for.

Graeber’s classification system is somewhat interesting, though, as he acknowledges, it leaves out a lot. One huge area of bullshit it leaves out he doesn’t mention at all: bullshit academic research. Surely the large majority of academic research makes essentially no contribution to the world, except to pad CVs and advance careers. Endless conferences, “calls for papers” sent out for yet another conference, thousands upon thousands of scholarly articles published every year most of which are read by hardly anyone (more often simply glanced over). Much of the writing isn’t only irrelevant and uninteresting, superficial and unchallenging, but even perverse: again, one thinks of postmodernist obscurantism, relativism, and idealism. In the case of postmodernism and, more generally, the idealism (and centrism) of bourgeois scholarship and journalism, the bullshit serves an obvious purpose for the establishment: it distracts from structures of class and power, obscures understanding of how society works, and does nothing to advance left-wing dissent. (I discuss these matters in depth here, and also on my website.)

Graeber devotes a couple of chapters to what it’s like to work in a bullshit job and why people so often report themselves miserable. According to bourgeois psychological theories, after all, it might seem that some of these jobs are great. You hardly have to work, you have barely any real responsibilities, you can spend hours playing computer games or surfing the web. You can (in many cases) be almost as lazy as, supposedly, you want to be just by virtue of being human. But of course humans are not, in fact, lazy by nature, creatures who have to be driven to work, as bourgeois ideologies proclaim. They want to work, but on creative and enjoyable tasks. Their fundamental desire is not to slack off but to have a meaningful life, full of purpose, creativity, exploration, and love, a life of contributions to the world. To work in an utterly pointless job, therefore, day in and day out, month after month, can be maddening, soul-killing torture. It seems that the respect and prestige these people might be accorded can make it even worse, heightening their sense of being frauds or parasites.

Many of the testimonies Graeber has compiled are both sad and hilarious. Most are too long to quote here, but I’ll quote one, from a security guard:

I worked as a museum guard for a major global security company in a museum where one exhibition room was left unused more or less permanently. My job was to guard that empty room, ensuring no museum guests touched the…well, nothing in the room, and ensure nobody set any fires. To keep my mind sharp and attention undivided, I was forbidden any form of mental stimulation, like books, phones, etc.

Since nobody was ever there, in practice I sat still and twiddled my thumbs for seven and a half hours, waiting for the fire alarm to sound. If it did, I was to calmly stand up and walk out. That was it.

One might think of this guard’s job as a literal realization of the metaphorical meaning of thousands of positions filled by tens of millions of people. The colossal waste of human potential is beyond comprehension.

The natural question, aside from how to change this terrible collective situation, is how all these worthless jobs started proliferating in the first place. Why aren’t we all working fifteen-hour weeks? If we got rid of the pointless jobs and the pointless aspects of the real jobs, the resulting work could easily be taken care of by our working fifteen- or twenty-hour weeks. In fact, back in 1930 John Maynard Keynes predicted that in a hundred years the problem of scarcity would have been solved, and the major problem of the age would be to find ways to prevent ourselves from going insane with boredom. So what happened?

This is a complicated historical question that gets to the heart of how capitalism has evolved over the last century, so it isn’t to Graeber’s discredit that he doesn’t fully answer it. He first dispatches two answers conservatives give: that the world has become so complicated we need all these jobs, and they aren’t really as pointless as they seem; and that even if there are bullshit jobs, it’s only because government regulations have led to a growing number of useless bureaucrats. These answers are on the intellectual level of most conservatism, and Graeber refutes them with ease. With one piece of evidence. He points out that between 1985 and 2005 the proportion of administrators and their staff in American universities shot up even though the number of teachers per students remained largely constant. Teaching and writing certainly haven’t become so complicated they suddenly need far more administrators and staffers—so why the bullshitization of universities? It isn’t because of the big bad government either, since the number of administrators at private institutions has increased at more than twice the rate it did at public ones. So there goes the “libertarian” notion of government wastefulness. “In fact,” Graeber comments, “the only reasonable interpretation of these numbers is precisely the opposite: public universities are ultimately answerable to the public, and hence, under constant political pressure to cut costs and not engage in wasteful expenditures.”

Graeber’s own answer is that capitalism has changed its character since the days when it somewhat approximated conditions of perfect competition. When capitalism was mainly about producing things competitively, the argument that free-market enthusiasts give against the notion that corporations would ever hire unnecessary workers to do bullshit jobs made sense: maximizing profits meant paying the least number of workers the least amount possible. To hire a large number of redundant workers would be absurd. But, as Graeber argues, the logic of the economy has changed in the last forty years, with the rise of financial capitalism and the FIRE sector (including insurance and real estate). The main object now is not to produce goods competitively but to distribute large sums of money, to distribute the proceeds from enormous amounts of debt, to create money (by giving loans) and then move it around in very complex ways while extracting fees with every transaction. “The results often leave bank employees feeling that the entire enterprise is…pointless.”

So, “when a profit-seeking enterprise is in the business of distributing a very large sum of money, the most profitable thing for it to do is to be as inefficient as possible.” It can then find pretexts to take more cuts, even acting against the interests of its clients, and using its profits to hire more people and grow bigger. There seems, indeed, to be a tendency inherent in large bureaucracies, whether corporate or political, to expand, to suck up more resources as an end in itself. Graeber gives a name to the “new” dynamic that has emerged in capitalism: managerial feudalism. It’s supposed to be analogous to the creation of hierarchies of nobles and officials in medieval Europe through a process of devolution called “sub-infeudation,” in which a king would grant land to a duke, who would use the resources from that land to support a huge retinue of courtiers and vassals, many of whom would be granted their own plots of land that could support their own retinues, and so on down to local knights and lords of the manor.

“The rise of managerial feudalism has produced a similar infatuation with hierarchy for its own sake.” Managers manage other managers, each with their own staff; various levels of managers market things to one another, especially in “creative industries” like publishing, the visual arts, and film and television. It’s particularly bad in the latter industry, where there are untold numbers of producers, sub-producers, executive producers, consultants, etc., “all in constant search for something, anything, to actually do.” But even in more traditional manufacturing industries, white-collar workers are hired seemingly for the sake of having more white-collar workers. Graeber uses the example of the Elephant Tea factory outside Marseilles, France. Years ago it was bought up by Unilever, which pretty much left its old organizational structure intact. Meanwhile the workers, on their own initiative, managed to speed up production by more than 50 percent, markedly increasing profits. So what did Unilever do? Rather than hiring more workers or buying new machinery to expand operations, it hired a bunch of white-collar bureaucrats to wander around trying to think of something to do. “They’d be walking up and down the catwalks every day,” an older worker said, “staring at us, scribbling notes while we worked. Then they’d have meetings and discuss it and write reports. But they still couldn’t figure out any real excuse for their existence.” Finally they just suggested that the company shut down the whole plant and move operations to Poland—whereupon the workers took over the factory and kicked their employers out.

Even when corporate executives are presented with ways to automate tasks that white-collar employees are doing by hand, they often resist. One testimony was from a guy who was hired by a large bank to do risk management, which meant he was able to have a panoramic view of the bank’s internal processes and suggest fixes for incoherencies, vulnerabilities, and redundancies. He concluded that, conservatively, 80 percent of the bank’s 60,000 employees were unnecessary, because their jobs either could be performed by a program or were in support of “some bullshit process” to begin with. But when he presented executives with programs that would solve inefficiencies, he always faced severe hostility. Not a single one of his recommendations was ever adopted. “Because in every case,” he said, “fixing these problems would have resulted in people losing their jobs, as those jobs served no purpose other than giving the executive they reported to a sense of power.” In case after case that Graeber reports, it was clear that the higher-ups prided themselves on their bloated staffs.

The notion of managerial feudalism is evocative, and Graeber is clearly onto something with his suggestion that “there seems to be an intrinsic connection between the financialization of the economy, the blossoming of information industries, and the proliferation of bullshit jobs.” What exactly that connection is, though, is hard to tease out. The precise mechanisms are hard to tease out. His “iron law of liberalism,” formulated in Utopia of Rules, is also apropos: “any market reform, any government initiative intended to reduce red tape and promote market forces will have the ultimate effect of increasing the total number of regulations, the total amount of paperwork, and the total number of bureaucrats the government employs.” Such reforms have been abundant in the neoliberal era, and they have certainly contributed to the explosion of bureaucracy, in both the private and public sectors.

But Graeber neglects to mention the more deep-rooted forces that have made bullshitization a steadily growing phenomenon since at least the time of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Ever since management began to take control of production away from workers, to centralize knowledge in its own ranks and reduce the worker to mere appendage of the machine—but an appendage that has to be closely monitored and supervised—whole layers of unnecessary bureaucracy have existed. Much of the bureaucracy has existed only to control and monitor the direct producers, to strip power from them and keep it in the hands of capitalists or their agents. In other words, its purpose has been largely political, not directly economic or “efficiency”-related.

At the same time, it became ever more necessary to control markets and the public mind, through political and advertising propaganda. Hence the rise of the public relations industry from around the time of World War I. And hence whole new layers of massive bureaucracy, which have continued to expand for a hundred years. Meanwhile, government bureaucracies expanded exponentially in order to improve society’s “legibility” to the state and administer it for the benefit of capital. Corporate capital and the state constantly strengthened their ties, effectively intertwining, collecting practically infinite amounts of data on the population for the usual purposes of surveillance, control, and profit-making; and the processing of such data inevitably was used to justify further growth of bureaucracies, even beyond what was strictly necessary. All this was happening long before the neoliberal era, though it attained new heights of wastefulness under the impact of “deregulation,” privatization, financialization, globalization, and the information economy.

It’s significant, too, that the proliferation of bullshit jobs is itself a form of population control, of keeping people subordinate in hierarchical structures, socialized into submission, atomized and alienated from one another. African-American men are kept under control by being locked up in prisons, while whites are funneled into pointless jobs where they can be supervised and indoctrinated. The system hasn’t been consciously designed for this purpose, but the reason it’s able to expand is that it serves the interests of power-structures.

So is there any way out of our bullshit society? Can it be reformed so that half the work being done is no longer pointless? Graeber doesn’t focus on this question, since his book is supposed to be about diagnosing the problem rather than proposing solutions, but he does suggest that Universal Basic Income would help. Unlike many reforms that social movements are proposing, UBI would likely reduce the size and intrusiveness of government, not increase it. If everyone automatically received, say, $25,000 or more a year, huge and intrusive sections of government could simply be shut down (even if social welfare programs continued or expanded). Millions of bureaucrats would lose their jobs, but they would also receive an annual income allowing them to pursue other projects that interested them.

“A full Basic Income would eliminate the compulsion to work, by offering a reasonable standard of living to all, and then either leaving it up to each individual to decide whether they wished to pursue further wealth, by doing a paying job or selling something, or whether they wished to do something else with their time.” Bosses might start treating their employees better, since it would be a less frightening prospect for them to quit, and conditions in crappy low-paying jobs would have to improve in order to attract workers. Many pointless jobs would cease to exist, since few people would want them. The social changes would be so radical and far-reaching it’s impossible to fully anticipate them.

Graeber doesn’t delve into the technicalities of UBI, but he’s right it’s a proposal worth seriously thinking about. It could be a step on the road to even more radical changes.

All in all, Bullshit Jobs is a good book that’s worth reading, despite its irritating prolixity and meandering structure. It usefully highlights and names a major social malady that afflicts tens of millions but that few people talk about, except in informal conversations among their fellow sufferers. We should all be talking about the meaningless-jobs crisis and proposing solutions that will end the rampant spiritual misery it has caused. UBI, if designed well, could be a huge step in the right direction. But ultimately, I don’t see any thoroughgoing cure except an end to capitalism itself, which is to say a (necessarily protracted) revolution that finally establishes the old socialist ideal of economic democracy. Democracy is the only real cure for all of humanity’s current ailments.