Category Archives: Privatization

“Living above our means”: Macri, the IMF, and Other Victims of Austerity

Argentinian president Mauricio Macri speaking on September 3rd, 2018 (Youtube screenshot).

After a hectic weekend with speculation aplenty, Argentina woke up on September 3rd waiting for the announcements of president Mauricio Macri. After accomplishing the feat of being late in delivering a recorded video, the message of more than 20 minutes was finally broadcast, with Macri announcing new austerity measures to try and get an earlier disbursement of the funds contemplated in the agreement with the IMF that was signed in May.

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Argentina’s current context is one of economic contraction, inflation, an increase in interest rates and a strong devaluation of the currency, which has lost 50% of its value with respect to the US dollar so far in 2018. For all these woes the Argentinian president found the solution in resorting to the IMF. But he did manage to find a multitude of parties responsible for the current situation: the rise of oil prices, drought, the commercial “war” between the United States and China, troubles in Turkey and Brazil, and above all the corruption and bad policies of previous governments.

But while the Argentinian president did his best to assign blame to his enemies, near and far, the explanation for the crisis – the failure of neoliberalism – was right in the middle of the screen, since nobody embodies noeliberalism better than Mauricio Macri himself.

Finance minister Nicolás Dujovne later presented more details of the measures that the government wishes to implement, before departing to meet the IMF in order to secure an early release of funds. These measures include a tax on exports and a promise to reduce the 2019 deficit to 0. In the agreement with the IMF the goal was 1.3%, so this reduction will hinge on bigger cuts to public spending and hikes in energy and transportation prices.

It should be stressed that these measures do not represent a shift, but rather a doubling-down on the policies that have been implemented since the Cambiemos coalition took power. The past two years have seen brutal increases in electricity and gas prices, a pension reform, massive layoffs in the public sector, major cuts in areas such as science, education or healthcare, attacks against labour rights, etc., with disastrous consequences for the population.

The Argentinian government, who was represented by Dujovne in the US, hopes that this latest round of sacrifices to the almighty markets will slow down the currency devaluation and secure the blessing of the high priests of the IMF and Wall Street. Nevertheless, prophecies about market uncertainties do have a tendency to self-fulfil. Not only that, the Argentinian executive, now slashed in less than half, is a team of businessmen that will know which interests to protect when push comes to shove.1

Macri and Dujovne meeting with IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde on March 16, 2018 (Photo: Casa Rosada)

Discursive platitudes

Macri’s speech was littered with elements that would have sounded extremely familiar to anyone who followed the austerity programmes that were implemented since 2010 in countries like Portugal or Greece. When the Argentinian president said that “we have been living above our means”, any Portuguese person could have recalled listening to their own president in 2011 – Cavaco Silva – say exactly the same thing.

Along the same lines, this was also the verdict reached by the Greek prime minister – Georgios Papandreou – who signed the first bailout agreement, and the all-powerful German finance minister – Wolfgang Schäuble – has always harped on this string to justify the austerity imposed on Greece. In truth the sanctimonious discourse of “living within our means” is no modern invention, but rather something that has always closely followed the neoliberal doctrine, even going back to Thatcher.

Another common element was the admission, with dishonest concern, that these measures will result in increased poverty. In 2011, the Portuguese prime minister went even further, saying that only by getting poorer would the crisis be overcome. In exchange, there is always a pledge that “the most vulnerable will be looked after”, and that those with more resources will be called upon to make bigger sacrifices, when it is well known that, almost by definition, the purpose is quite the opposite.

The cases of Greece and Portugal

Keeping in mind the distances between the examples we discuss, the similarities in the official discourse demand that we at least examine what took place in Greece and Portugal. In these cases the IMF was not the only creditor institution: it was joined by the European Central Bank and the European Union to form the fearsome “troika”. These were perhaps the most extreme cases of the austerity that was imposed throughout the continent in response to the crisis that broke out in 2008.

Greek GDP contracted by more than 40% since 2008. After the implementation of the memoranda of agreement with the troika, unemployment has consistently topped 20%, and youth unemployment has been around 40%. More than that, 4 out of 10 children are at risk of poverty. These are but a few indicators, among many others, that showcase the devastation that was unleashed upon the Greek people, while billions of euros of bailout money ended up directly in the hands of foreign banks.

As for the stated goal of the austerity packages, Greek public debt grew from 146% of GDP at the time of the first “structural reform” programme (2010) to 180% of GDP in 2018. Although officially Greece has exited the bailout programmes, the debt remains absolutely unpayable, and the idea that Greece can go on for decades balancing budgets under this weight is an illusion.

The Portuguese case is slightly less tragic. The 2015 elections resulted in a defeat for the right-wing coalition – which had implemented the deal signed with the troika in 2011 – and the emergence of a new government solution, which from afar might seem like it is on the left. The new government put an end to austerity and managed to revert the economic tendency and register economic growth once more.

The mere action of putting an end to austerity, while slowly reverting salaries and pensions to their 2011 levels, was a demonstration that the path of harsh budget cuts and tax increases was not the only choice. However, Portuguese public debt remains unpayable and an obstacle, among others, which will have to be confronted sooner or later.

Carlos Latuff depicts austerity in Greece

Where austerity leads to

This small transatlantic detour is useful to illustrate that, despite some declaring them as successful, the bailout plans did not manage to bring debt under control in Europe’s peripheral countries. But that goal, as well as the sacred budgetary targets, are simply argumentative artefacts.

Austerity packages, which are often more eloquently branded as “structural reforms”, are nothing but mechanisms to transfer wealth from labour to capital, with an underlying logic that profits are private and losses are socialised. When salaries and pensions are cut, when healthcare and education budgets are shrunk, when public services are dismantled, when thousands of workers are laid off, in order to pay back creditors, the people are being sacrificed to safeguard the interests of a handful of shareholders, be they national or foreign.

This transfer of wealth also occurs under the form of privatisations. These can be blatant or hidden under the pretext of the inefficiency of public management, but bailouts and structural adjustment plans have always been tremendous opportunities for capitalists. In the Greek case, important state assets, such as airports or the port of Piraeus, one of the biggest in the Mediterranean, ended up in private hands.

In truth, the Macri government has already made its position quite clear on the issue of privatizations; for example, in the energy sector, where the state is looking to sell its stake in several projects. In addition, the Argentinian company that produced satellites, ARSAT, was sold to an American company. The agreement with the IMF, and especially the version on steroids that will allow for an early release of funds, is sure to bring a new wave of privatisations, much to the delight of investors, and reviving ghosts of a not-so-distant past in Argentina.2

But it is not just through privatisation that room is opened up for private companies, especially multinational corporations, to flourish. The mere reduction of the reach of the state and public services leaves an open space to be filled by the whims of the market. In this context, the suppression of the health ministry, now reduced to a secretariat in the new ministry for health and social development, is quite symbolic. That this happened at a time when the implementation of the Universal Healthcare Coverage (CUS), a programme with a mercantile view of healthcare, is being discussed, is not a good omen for public healthcare in Argentina.

At this point we should go back to the issue of “living within our means”. The evolution of capitalism, even in times of crisis, has seen an ever growing concentration of wealth. It is estimated that 8 men own about as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet’s population. Therefore there are people living above what should be their means. But these are not pensioners, or public workers, or trade unionists, etc., as some would have us believe.

Resistance and repression

The Cambiemos government offensive, which will be intensified in the coming months, has been met with resistance from the Argentinian people in the streets. For example, a faculty strike in the university system, in protest against cutbacks in higher education and reforms in the pension system, was joined in August by a strong student mobilization in support, with several universities throughout the country temporarily occupied.

Trade unions, contradictions notwithstanding, also look to resist, and have called a general strike which is taking place on September 24-25. And perhaps there has been nothing more surprising and inspiring than the mobilisation of several hundred thousand people to defend the legalisation of abortion. Despite the goal not having been achieved for now, the awakening of consciences and the scale of the street mobilisations are building blocks for the upcoming struggles. The challenge is to turn all these struggles into attractor poles of a single, unified battle front.

Demonstration in Buenos Aires during a National Day of Protest, September 12 (Photo: Resumen Latinoamericano)

While it is fair to say that the rapid development of the crisis has caught the Argentinian government by surprise, the fact is that preparations to contain and repress any resistance to austerity had long been on the march. The decree which allows the armed forces to intervene in internal security matters, something which had not happened since end of the dictatorship, is particularly significant, not to mention the installation of US military bases in Argentinian territory.

The government and its talking heads have put forward a fallacious argument; namely, that with a tremendous sense of duty, those in charge are doing what needs to be done with no concern for upcoming elections. In reality what they are doing is ensuring that the interests of capitalists are shielded for decades, way beyond next year’s elections. It is the purest defence of class interests. Because at the end of the day power is not confined to the presidential palace or to legislative chambers.

An important difference with respect to cases such as Portugal or Greece is that in Argentina, thanks to the hegemony of media conglomerates such as the Clarín group, a scapegoat to which attention can be diverted has been put in place. This is the (alleged) corruption of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and members of her government, which is presented as the root of all evils that befall Argentina. Similarly to what has happened in cases such as Lula’s in Brazil, the goal is to have the trial in the media for short-term political gain.3

The cases of Portugal and Greece, alongside many other recent examples of “rescue plans”, give an idea of what is to come. Under the excuse of “having lived above our means”, different mechanisms to transfer wealth to capital, brazen or hidden, will be implemented. And faced with the difficulty of meeting unrealistic budgetary targets that are imposed from the outside there will be no solution other than imposing more and more sacrifices on the majority of the people.

After its failure and exhaustion as a political project, neoliberalism resurfaced in Latin America essentially leaning on the media and on the (politicisation of the) judicial system. It now looks to contain any alternative, in the case of Argentina, by mortgaging the country’s future and reactivating repression mechanisms. All of this places Argentina in the front line of a battle that is not just about next year’s presidential elections. The task ahead is to resist, every day and in every way, against this renewed offensive, and at the same time to construct a true, and radical, alternative.

• Thanks to Luciana Daffra for her comments and corrections.

• First published in Investig’Action

  1. On September 17 Dujovne presented the 2019 budget before the Argentinian Congress. It is, in his words, an “austere budget”, with a 7% cut on public spending, a prediction of economic contraction of 2.4%, and a zero deficit goal.
  2. It is worth recalling that this is no pure ideological matter for Macri, since the Macri Group is one of the largest business conglomerates in Argentina, with activities over a range of sectors, and having directly benefited from privatisation of state assets in the past.
  3. Our goal is not to vouch for anyone’s innocence, rather to point out the clear manipulation of justice for political ends and the double standards (or lack of standards) of the media. In Argentina, for example, a large circus has been set up surrounding the famous “notebooks” which detail the corruption of a former official during the Kirchner governments. The notebooks came from a remorseful driver, but up until now only photocopies of the smoking gun have been presented. In exchange, Macri featuring in the Panama Papers did not seem to merit the same level of scrutiny from the media, and the same can be said about the “fake contributions” and money laundering in the campaign of Maria Eugenia Vidal, governor of the province of Buenos Aires and one of the main figures of Cambiemos.

The Working Class Strikes Back

Reading the daily headlines, it’s easy to forget that the corollary of a civilization in precipitous decline is a world of creative ferment, a new world struggling to be born. If you could have a God’s-eye view of all the creative resistance rending the fabric of political oppression from the U.S. to Indonesia to Colombia, you would surely be persuaded that all hope is not lost. This conclusion is borne out in detail by a book published earlier this year, The Class Strikes Back: Self-Organised Workers’ Struggles in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Dario Azzellini and Michael G. Kraft. The chapters, each dedicated to a different case-study, survey inspiring democratic activism in thirteen countries across five continents. The reader is left with the impression that the global working class, while facing an uphill battle in its fight against imperialism, business and state repression, and conservative union bureaucracy, may yet triumph in the end, if only because of its remarkable perseverance generation after generation. Its overwhelming numerical strength, too, bodes well.

In their introduction, the editors concisely state the book’s purpose: “This volume aims to examine how new, anti-bureaucratic forms of syndicalist, neo-syndicalist and autonomous workers’ organisation emerge in response to changing work and production relations in the twenty-first century.” Traditional unions, which they observe have been “part of the institutional setting to maintain capitalism” (my italics), have deteriorated on a global scale. In their place have sprung up more radical and democratic forms of resistance, such as blockades, strikes, and workplace occupations and recuperations. Workers’ actions have even made decisive contributions to the toppling of governments, as in Egypt in 2011.

In this article I’ll summarize several of the most compelling case-studies. Unfortunately I’ll have to pass over many interesting chapters, including ones on the workers’ movement in Colombia, the solidarity economy and radical unionism in Indonesia, the sit-ins and ultimately the worker cooperative at a window factory in Chicago (about which I’ve written here), and the South African miners who were attacked by police and massacred in August 2012. The book is too rich to do justice to.

Greece

The crisis in Greece that followed the economic crash of 2008 and 2009 saw a savage regime of austerity imposed on the population, which resulted in a “diffuse precariousness” across the labor force. Conventional unionism and national collective bargaining have been among the victims of this neoliberal regime. And yet the general strikes that the trade union bureaucracy was compelled to declare early on, particularly between 2010 and 2012, were the most massive and combative of the past forty years. “Long battles with the police, crowds which refused to dissolve and regrouped again and again, the besieging for hours of the house of parliament, self-organisation and solidarity in order to cope with tear gas and take care of the wounded—all have become part of the normal image of demonstrations during strikes, replacing the nerveless parades of the past.”

Outside the framework of conventional unionism there have arisen exciting new forms of struggle. Since early 2013, the Vio.Me factory has operated under worker self-management, after its initial owners abandoned the site. Aside from the lack of hierarchy, the job rotations, and the directly democratic structure of the business, one innovative practice has been to run the factory in cooperation with the local community and, indeed, the whole society. After taking over the factory the workers consulted their community about what they should produce; they were asked to stop making poisonous building chemicals and instead to manufacture biological, eco-friendly cleaning products. A “wide network of militants and local assemblies” around the country has supported the effort from the start, which has enabled even the distribution of the firm’s products to be done in a completely new way, “through an informal network of social spaces, solidarity structures, markets without intermediaries and cooperative groceries.”

In general, labor struggles in Greece have become more intertwined with social movements. Early in the crisis, structures of mutual aid sprang up everywhere:

Throughout the country collectives have established community kitchens and peer-to-peer solidarity initiatives for the distribution of food, reconnected electricity that was cut down to low-income households, organised “without middlemen” the distribution of agricultural produce, established self-organised pharmacies, healthcare clinics and tutoring programmes and organised networks of direct action against house foreclosures.

Later on, grassroots initiatives became more political, in an effort to create institutions that would be long-lasting and relatively independent of capital and the government. The Greek squares movement of 2011 spread to almost every city and village in the country, leaving behind a legacy of local assemblies and social centers. It also “unleashed social forces which boosted the social and solidarity economy and the movements for the defence and the promotion of the commons.”

All this flowering of alternative institutions has not occurred without significant problems and defeats. There has been little success in establishing solid organizations of the unemployed, and grassroots labor struggles have failed to form durable structures that can challenge institutionalized unionism. Certain victories, nevertheless, have been impressive. Social movements were able to prevent the government’s privatization of public water corporations in 2014. Even more remarkably, after the government closed down the influential public broadcaster ERT in 2013, ERT employees, together with citizens and activists, took over the production of television and radio programs by occupying premises and infrastructure. For almost two years the self-managed ERT transmitted thousands of hours of broadcasting on the anti-austerity struggle, serving as an important resource for the resistance. When Syriza came to power in 2015, it reestablished the public broadcaster.

Worker and consumer cooperatives exist all over the country. Cooperative coffee shops and bookshops, for example, exist in most neighborhoods of Athens and Salonica, functioning “as the cells of the horizontal movements in urban space and the carriers of alternative values and culture.” Broadly speaking, labor identities are becoming more socialized, “because more embedded in local communities and grassroots struggles.”

The Greek experience is of particular interest in that other Western countries, including the U.S., are likely to replicate important features of it in the coming years and decades, as economic crisis intensifies. We ought to study how Greek workers and communities have adapted and resisted, to learn from their failures and successes.

Egypt

The mass movement that felled Mubarak’s regime in 2011 received sympathetic coverage from the establishment media in the West, but the key role of workers’ collective action was, predictably, effaced. Strike waves after 2006 not only destabilized the regime but also gave rise to the April 6th Movement in 2008, which would go on to catalyze the 2011 rebellions. Even after the fall of Mubarak, the flood of labor actions didn’t let up.

As everywhere around the world, neoliberalism meant decades of pent-up grievances against working conditions, privatizations, low wages, and economic insecurity. Finally in December 2006, 24,000 textile workers went on strike at Misr Spinning. Within a few weeks, “similar strikes were spreading between public and private sector textile producers, and from there to civil servants, teachers, municipal refuse workers and transport workers.” In the next couple of years, many more strikes occurred, frequently taking the form of mass occupations of workplaces.

Workers even managed to form the first independent unions in more than fifty years, beginning with the Real Estate Tax Authority Union (RETAU), established in December 2008. The conservative and bureaucratic Egyptian Trade Union Federation was unable to cope with all the sit-ins, strikes, and waves of democratic organizing, and saw its influence over the labor movement wane. RETAU’s consolidation “accelerated the development of other independent unions and proto-union networks among teachers, public transport workers, postal workers and health technicians,” raising their expectations of what could be achieved through collective action.

After the steadily rising wave of worker and popular resistance crested with the resignation of Mubarak in early February 2011, labor actions didn’t cease. In fact, Mubarak’s fall was followed by “a new tidal wave of strikes and workplace occupations, with nearly 500 separate episodes of collective action by workers recorded in the month of February 2011 alone.” Strike waves ebbed and flowed over the following two years, and did much to undermine the military and Islamist governments that succeeded each other before the crisis of the summer of 2013, when, after Mohammed Morsi fell, a successful counterrevolutionary offensive was launched by the Armed Forces, the Ministry of the Interior, the judiciary, and the media.

After the fall of Mubarak, a ferment of self-organization resulted in the founding of many new independent unions, which often engaged in intense battles for tathir, or the “cleansing” from management positions of the ruling party’s cronies. This was especially the case in public institutions. Public hospitals in Cairo, for example, “were the scene of attempts to assert workers’ control over management to a much greater degree than had been possible before the revolution.” These experiments weren’t always successful, but in a number of cases they did at least force the resignation of old directors and were able to establish, temporarily, democratic councils to oversee work.

In the end, the workers’ movement was unable to impose its demands on the agenda of national politics. Its leaders “did not score victories at that level on the question of raising the national minimum wage, or forcing a lasting retreat from privatization, or even of securing full legal recognition for the independent unions themselves.” Still, the authors comment that the nationwide revival of self-organization was an astonishing feat. “Factory and office workers created thousands of workplace organisations, despite conditions of acute repression and the lack of material resources. There have been few examples on this scale of a revival of popular organisation in the Arab world for decades.” Memories of these uprisings will not be erased easily, and will inspire the next generation of activists.

Venezuela

Venezuela differs from the other cases in that its Bolivarian revolution has entailed a commitment to elevating the position and the power of workers. So how successful has this process been? In recent years, of course, Venezuela’s severe economic crisis has undermined the Bolivarian process, with increases in poverty and less money going to social programs. But the achievements have not all been destroyed. The account in the book goes up to early 2016, well into the crisis years.

Until 2006, the Chavez government focused on promoting cooperatives (in addition to nationalizing the oil industry and expropriating large landowners). In nationalized medium-sized companies, for example, workers became co-owners with the state. Whereas Venezuela had had only 800 registered cooperatives in 1998, by mid-2010 it had 274,000, though only about a third were determined to be “operative.” It had been hoped that these businesses would produce for the satisfaction of social needs rather than profit-maximization, but the mixed-ownership model, according to which the state and private entrepreneurs could be co-owners with workers, vitiated these hopes.

By 2006 a new model was spreading, which was more communally based. Its political context was that “communal councils” began to be recognized as a fundamental structure of local self-government: in urban areas they encompassed 150 to 400 families, while in rural areas they included a minimum of 20 families. “The councils constitute a non-representational structure of direct participation, which exists alongside the elected representative bodies of constituted power. Several communal councils can come together to form a commune. By the end of 2015, over 40,000 communal councils and more than 1,200 communes existed.” Councils and communes can receive state funding for their projects, which now began to include community-controlled companies instead of cooperatives. “In these new communal companies, the workers come from the local communities; these communities are the ones who, through the structures of self-government…decide on what kind of companies are needed, what organisational form they will have and who should work in them.”

In 2008 a new model for these companies emerged, the Communal Social Property Company (EPSC). “While different kinds of EPSCs can be found in the communities today, their principal areas of activity correspond with the most pressing needs of the barrios and rural communities: the production of food and construction materials, and the provision of transport services. Textile and agricultural production companies, bakeries and shoemakers, are also common.” Under the initiative of workers, even some state enterprises are partly under community control, at least regarding their distribution networks.

Despite Chavez’s commitment to workers’ control, it has not been easy to shift the orientation of a state and a private sector deeply hostile to workers. Workers’ councils and struggles for worker participation can be found in almost all state enterprises and many private ones—and workers have taken over hundreds of private businesses, sometimes after the state’s expropriation of the original owners—but even in the chavista state bureaucrats were apt to undermine the Bolivarian process. Whether through corruption, mismanagement, obstruction of financing to state companies with worker-presidents, or other means, ministerial bureaucracies and even corrupt unions impede workers’ control. In many state enterprises the situation is ambiguous: workers don’t control the company or even participate in management, but “they control parts of the production process, they decide on their own to whom they will give access to the plant, [and] they are in a full-scale conflict with the management.”

Despite all the advances made under Chavez, the fact is that the economy’s social relations of production have not really changed and capitalist exploitation remains the norm. Private interests are still too powerful and have too much influence over the government, promoting mismanagement and corruption. It is still a rentier economy. But a revolutionary process has begun and is being carried forward by communities and workers across the country. The transformation of a society from authoritarian to democratic does not happen overnight.

Bosnia-Herzegovina

Like the rest of the post-Soviet world, Bosnia-Herzegovina has suffered terribly from the privatizations, asset-stripping, marketization, and rampant corruption that have attended its transition to capitalism since the mid-1990s. Unemployment and economic insecurity are at epidemic proportions. In 2014, workers in Tuzla, Bosnia’s third largest city, organized a massive mobilization against their deteriorating conditions, the first since the 1992–95 conflict. While the movement didn’t last, its legacy may inspire further mobilizations in the future.

The 2014 demonstrations were a response to the wretched situation of workers in a laundry detergent factory, DITA, which at one time had provided 1,400 jobs. After its privatization in 2005, things started to go downhill. The company paid them minimal wages, issued meal vouchers only in bonds rather than cash, and eventually stopped paying them pension funds and health insurance. In 2011 they began a long strike, but in December 2012 the firm closed, having ignored all their demands.

Picketing the factory and filing lawsuits didn’t secure justice for the workers, so in February 2014 they teamed up with their counterparts from four other nearby factories to stage demonstrations in front of Tuzla’s canton court. All five work forces had similar demands: investigation of the questionable privatization processes that had destroyed their livelihoods; compensation for unpaid wages, health insurance, and pensions; and the restarting of production. Their demands didn’t get a very sympathetic hearing: during one of the demonstrations, riot police secured the entrance of the canton building and fired teargas and rubber bullets. This brutality only further inflamed the workers, who kept up their resistance the following couple of days. The number of demonstrators rose to 10,000 as students and other citizens joined the protests, finally setting the government buildings on fire.

Chiara Milan’s summary of the ensuing events is worth quoting:

The action [of burning government buildings] resonated throughout the country. Within days, rallies in solidarity with Tuzla’s workers took place across Bosnia-Herzegovina. Increasing discontent among the social groups suffering under government policies led tens of thousands to join in the main cities of BiH [i.e., Bosnia-Herzegovina]. Like a domino effect, the rage spread and the revolt escalated. On 7 February the government buildings of the cities of Mostar, Sarajevo, and Zenica were set ablaze by seething protesters. While politicians tried to hide the plummeting economic conditions of the country by constantly playing the ethnic card, the workers of Tuzla triggered wider social protests, arguing that rage and hunger do not recognise ethnic differences. The protests spawned a mass movement of solidarity that overcame the ethno-national divisions inside the country, travelling across the post-Yugoslav space. Rallies in support of the workers were reported in nearby Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Macedonia…

Soon, directly democratic assemblies called plenums were set up across the country. “The citizens gathered in leaderless, consensus-based assemblies where everybody had the right to one vote and nobody could speak on behalf of other people.” Each plenum had working groups addressing such issues as media, education and culture, and social problems. “Demands that arose during the plenums were collected and delivered to [these] working groups, in charge of reformulating them in a coherent way. Once reformulated, the demands typically returned to the plenum for a final vote [after which they were submitted to the cantonal government]. All the plenums were coordinated through an organisational body called interplenum…”

A new labor union was also formed in the wake of the protests, called Solidarnost, which quickly reached 4,000 members from dozens of companies. It was intended as an alternative to the conventional unions that had so signally failed to protect the interests of their rank and file. While it didn’t succeed in winning the battle for the workers, it did keep fighting for years afterwards, as by staging weekly protests in front of the canton court.

The moment of collective outrage slowly faded away, especially after the flood that hit the country in May 2014 turned into a national emergency. The workers at the DITA factory, however, still did not give up: in March 2015 they occupied the factory and restarted the production of cleaning products, publicly appealing for international support. Shops and retail chains decided to sell the “recuperated factory’s” products, and groups of activists volunteered to help the workers optimize production.

In general, Milan comments, the uprisings left a legacy of solidarity and activist networks, which challenge “the dominant rhetoric of ethnic hatred” and may be drawn on in future struggles.

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The path forward for the working class in an age of neoliberal crisis is tortuous and uncertain. Given the near-collapse of mainstream trade unionism and many left-wing political parties, it’s necessary for people the world over to forge their own institutions, their own networks, to fight back against the rampaging elite and construct a new, more equitable society. The stories collected in The Class Strikes Back are an encouraging sign that workers everywhere are already waging the war, that democratic institutions can germinate in even the most crisis-ridden of societies, and that the ruling class’s hold on power is, in fact, ultimately, rather tenuous.  The next generation of activism is sure to bring major changes to a morally corrupt civilization.

Trump, Trade Wars, and the Class Struggle

All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and [humans are] at last compelled to face with sober senses [our] real conditions of life, and [our] relations with [our] kind.

— Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto

An unfolding trade war pitting the United States simultaneously against China, the European Union, Canada, and Mexico has begun. The economic and political consequences – intended and unintended – are now unfolding.  How this trade war develops and “ends” is a political question that cannot be predicted concretely. But the framework to foresee what is coming down the road is coming into focus.

There is no letup in the continued erosion and breakdown of the post-World War II, post-“Cold War” eras characterized at their core by the predominance of US capital in the institutions of world capitalism and in world politics.

China

On June 15, 2018 the Donald Trump Administration announced it will be adding a 25% tariff-tax on some $50 billion worth of Chinese goods imported into the United States. On June 18 Trump then threatened another 10% tariff-tax on $200 billion worth of additional Chinese commodities, raised to $500 billion on July 5, affecting virtually every Chinese product throughout the US-China production-to-exchange chain.

The first-round of tariffs, $34 billion worth, took effect on July 6, applying to 818 commodities and products. The second round, $16 billion on an additional 284 items, await “reviews,” that is vetting by the major industrial and financial oligopolies whose profits may be more or less directly affected. They are lobbying Trump and his enforcers for exemptions, waivers, and dilutions individually and collectively.

Trump’s threats to escalate were presented as being contingent on any Chinese government and state counter-tariffs on US goods and services. These, of course, were bound to happen; there could be no other political choice for the Xi Jinping government. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce immediately announced counter-measures “of the same scale and the same strength.” The statement further announced as “invalid” the recently reported “progress” on a deal that would have led to an additional $70 billion in US imports to China, based on a negotiated reduction of Chinese tariffs and other legal barriers to selected US commodities and services, including energy, agricultural, and high-tech products. Agricultural commodities were an initial focus of Chinese counter-tariffs, since China is a major market for US agricultural products, especially soy beans.

Trump’s announcement was rolled out with provocative and jingoistic rationalizations. Uncle Sam as bumbling sucker, the victim of nefarious Chinese practices. They are stealing our technology. They carry out “state subsidies” of industries and dump surplus production stealing the jobs of American workers. And so on…as if the entire system of world capitalist production, finance, and exchange were not lubricated and dependent as a whole on such practices. Practices by which the most advanced capitalist states and industrialized economies – the United States, the former colonial powers of western Europe, and Japan – are the historic masters and mentors.

At a July 5 campaign rally in Montana which drew thousands, Trump thundered:

We are bringing back our wealth from foreign countries that have been ripping us off for years…For too long we watched and we waited and we saw as other countries stole our jobs, cheated our workers, and gutted our industry.

With his trademark national chauvinism and demagogy, Trump continued:

The United States of America was the piggy bank that everybody else was robbing. Our allies in many cases were worse than our enemies. We opened our country to their goods, but they put up massive barriers to keep our products and our goods the hell out of their country because they didn’t want that competition.

Trump is upending the decades-long, highly profitable arrangements between the US capitalist class, its various governments in Washington, and the Chinese state. US capital would invest in commodity production inside China for sales to the US and other developed capitalist markets. It has been an arrangement that has been crucial in the formation and accumulation of state and private capital in China by Chinese business owners and government officials.

While it is very difficult to calculate precisely balance-of-trade surpluses and deficits of nation-states within globalized production chains, as well as calculating so-called “services” onto the balance sheets, China’s trade “surplus” in finished goods with the United States has been in the low-to-mid 100s of billions of dollars range for many years. A good slice of which is recycled and parked in US Treasuries. This greatly cushions the impact for US debt markets, making it easier for US federal and private banking institutions to obscure, dilute, and hide dollar-denominated debt. It also helps the US Federal Reserve suppress higher interest rates, and keeps low or non-existent tax rates and outlays for billionaires, millionaires, and US-style oligarchs.

China today owns nearly $2 trillion in US Treasury securities, which makes it the largest US “foreign creditor” and the second largest owner of US bonds, after the Federal Reserve itself. No one can know for sure what the impact of the unfolding trade war will be on Chinese purchases of US Treasuries, insofar as the US-China balance of trade numbers and those of China’s purchases of US government debt have become the intertwined sine qua non of the entire economic and financial relationship. China’s vast holdings register both leverage and vulnerable dependency. China’s decades-long massive economic expansion and growth (high single-digit to low double-digit GDP rises every year since 1991!) has been strongly predicated on maintaining China’s access to US markets for the wholesale and retail sales of these commodities.

Over the decades US-China economic ties and exchange led to the massive expansion of Chinese factory manufacturing and industrial development, as well as huge profits for US capitalists and their Chinese state and private partners.

This process also contributed mightily to the large expansion of the Chinese industrial proletariat, including a super-exploited sector of migrant workers, and urban petty bourgeoisie, with the concurrent reduction in the size of China’s peasant population. All of this has led to the massive production and reproduction of surplus value in the country based on the application of labor power to produce commodities to be exchanged, that is, sold in the US and world markets.

This massive production and reproduction of real value, real social wealth, and real capital was certainly siphoned off disproportionately and corruptly by Chinese bureaucrats and capitalists. But it has also been massively invested in infrastructure and urban development projects, led by high-speed rail production and construction.

Two giant Chinese initiatives in the past period highlight these historical developments. First, the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative which promotes regional “connectivity” through infrastructure and other economic projects, and second, the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) which finances infrastructure and other economic projects in the Asian-Pacific region. AIIB is headquartered in Shanghai and has 86 members, including a number of US NATO “allies.”  Washington, from Barack Obama to Trump, has so far declined to be any part of it. Moreover, China has publicly issued its Made in China 2025 plan to be world leaders in future industrial applications in artificial intelligence, robotics, and chip manufacturing, which is viewed with hostility in Washington.

Looming Recession?

Washington – and this is a largely bipartisan cry – gets particularly worked up over so-called state aid and subsidies to Chinese industries and companies that are themselves state or quasi-state-owned or nominally private. China also attempts to get around efforts led by Washington to pressure companies to restrict Chinese access to some technologies by making such access a condition for sales and commercial exchanges in the vast Chinese markets themselves.

A June 29 column in the Financial Times (“Bond markets send signals of a looming recession”) by University of Chicago “Professor of Finance” Raghuram Rajan states:

[E]conomic metric estimates of the effects of one or two rounds of tariff rises are small. But the models do not capture the intertwined nature of global supply chains. Moreover, the effect on business sentiment, as well as the pall of uncertainty cast over investment will be considerable, A trade war will be costly.

Rajan points to the political difficulties for any governments and national leaderships today “to be seen [as] giving in to threats, making trade conflicts more likely.” He then continues with:

… a final reason for concern. China is cleaning up its financial system, an immensely complicated task given the debt that has built up. Growth has slowed, the cost of riskier loans has been rising, as have defaults. The Chinese authorities are working to spread losses across the system, but this needs to be managed carefully to avoid panic. If China is caught in a trade war while it is still restructuring its financial system, its difficulties could spread abroad.

If the dynamic of a large-scale US-China trade war is unleashed, then it will have critical economic and commercial – and therefore political — consequences for the trade and diplomatic regime that has been built up and stabilized over many decades between Beijing and Washington – and Wall Street and China.1

The EU, Canada, and Mexico

The tariffs on China set in motion by Trump and his Executive Branch team of Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, White House National Trade Council Director Peter Navarro, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin came on top of tariffs on steel and aluminum exports carried out against Canada, the European Union, and Mexico, announced with great hoopla, earlier in the June month. These ostensibly aim at boosting US domestic steel and aluminum production, but also led to immediate retaliatory measures of equal reach and value by all. So far, every dollar-value of US tariff-taxes have been met with an equal value in counter-tariffs. Can that be sustained?

On June 29, 2018 Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freedland defiantly announced Canada’s response to the Trump tariffs on steel and aluminum. “We will not escalate — and we will not back down,” said Freeland. (Before her current gig as Foreign Minister for the Justin Trudeau government, Freedland was a leading editor of the Financial Times, the quintessential organ of British and world capital.)

She unveiled counter-tariffs on US goods entering Canada, including whiskey, toilet paper, washing machines, and motorboats. Altogether, Canada will tax $12.6 billion worth of American goods, which matched the value of the US tariffs on Canadian steel and aluminum.

“I cannot emphasize enough the regret with which we take these countermeasures,” Freedland added. She emphasized that the only way Canada might reverse them would be if the Trump White House rescinded first. There are always political dangers when many faces need saving at once.

Trump’s Executive Orders were invoked under the cover of “national security.” This provoked umbrage from Canadian, EU, and other US post-World War II era NATO “allies.” They pointed to the various imperialist wars they fought over the years hand-in-glove with Washington.

The current framework and regime for the regulation of tariffs and the resolution of trade disputes is the World Trade Organization (WTO). The US tariffs are already being contested in WTO bodies in a likely bruising battle. The WTO as an “objective” arbiter and judge, is clearly in danger of losing authority and fraying under great pressure. Trump’s back-to-back measures are bound to accelerate a breaking down of world capitalist trading norms and stability.

Allies and Competitors

The EU bloc, most of its individual nation-state components, and Canada are military allies of Washington — still by far the predominant military power with the most firepower and global reach on Earth – through the NATO alliance. But, at the same time, all are home bases for some of the fiercest competitors of US based multinationals and other capitalist firms in world markets. In a time of intensifying, cutthroat global competition, with financial volatility and turbulent waters ahead, the “competitors” side is being more sharply expressed and rising to the fore. The political fallout from policy choices and decisions on trade, tariffs, currency manipulations, debt and capital flows are, at the very least, posed more sharply in today’s world. Old trading blocs and ties come under pressure and weaken, rebooting political policies and alliances.

Consequences, Intended and Unintended

While Trump’s public utterances – “Trade wars are good and easy to win” – exude typical flippant political confidence on his part, these policies are highly contentious within the broader US capitalist class. Within these circles there is growing anxiety and dread that Washington will not be able to drive things through without serious political consequences in the world arena.

The shift that Trump looks to realize registers the political erosion internationally of the “neoliberal globalization” regime which greatly benefited many US-based giant corporations, banks, and businesses – and the mounds of capital behind their brands – as they set up shop in China, Mexico, and elsewhere with greatly increased profit rates. The major benefit of this inside the United States for US capitalists was the lowering of the value of labor and the evisceration of industrial jobs and industrial unions. The decisive factor involved is relatively cheaper (usually very much so) labor costs, which outweigh other disadvantages and extra costs for US-based capital in production outside the US, such as in transport costs, management training, and so on.

Of course, US capitalists couldn’t care less about the social devastation in working-class communities in the US.2

US Capital is Divided

Opposition to Trump’s measures is strongest among business groups and elected officials from both the Republican and Democratic parties who have been identified with the general “free trade” neoliberal policies worldwide that have dominated trade pacts and mainstream bourgeois economics for decades. These anti-working-class policies have increased in unpopularity since the so-called Great Recession and financial crisis of 2007-08 and are now widely discredited and hated in the US and around the world, especially among working people. But the opposition to them takes varied “populist” forms – left and right — that have done and can do little to effectively counter them or provide any program and perspective of mobilization and independent working-class political action and power. In the face of popular hostility and battered credibility, almost by inertia, the “neoliberal model” limps on.

What will be the impact on world economic developments of Trump’s tariffs? Does it give a push to the next – inevitable – financial jolts and economic downturn-recession? Will the EU, Canada, and Mexico have the political will and strength to counter them? Is there space for increasing domestic US assembly and manufacture of commodities, finished products, and capital goods (machinery, etc.) that have been “farmed out” for decades now that US labor value and costs has been driven down in recent decades? Can increased US domestic manufacturing (up 36,000 in June 2018 according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics) sustain sales volume and profit rates?

Diminished US Political Power

There are wide layers in top US business, financial, and social circles who do worry that Trump is accelerating and deepening the deterioration in US political influence worldwide. They are anxious that Trump’s course, rather that restoring the post-World War II full-spectrum dominance of US capital – capsulized in his campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” – will do the opposite and actually accelerate US decline.

There is considerable substance to this anxiety. Under Trump there has been a striking US political isolation in world political forums on one major international political question after another: Washington’s withdrawal from the (fairly toothless, in any case) Paris climate change accords; Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear production and activity, an agreement which was ratified by China, France, Germany, Russia, the UK, and the EU as a body; Washington’s humiliating isolation every year in the UN over its criminal and hated blockade of revolutionary Cuba; and issues around Israel and Palestine that might ameliorate Palestinian conditions and advance a two-state solution.

Korea is Hardly a Trump Triumph

Trump’s escalating moves on US trade and exchange with China were announced when the ink was hardly dry on the document issued, amid great world attention and hoopla, after the June 12 Summit between Donald Trump and the Kim Jong-un government in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).

While the Trump White House has been eager to spin the Summit results as a feather in its cap, his ability to do so was necessarily predicated on the US suspension of “war games” and other joint US-South Korean military maneuvers off the North Korean coasts. Maintaining Washington’s “right” and political will to do so became politically untenable following the Kim government’s ending of missile launches, atmospheric and underground tests, and even the verified destruction of one nuclear site while at the same time the two Korean governments deepened relations through friendly encounters amid popular enthusiasm. No one can seriously doubt that the Moon Jae-in government in South Korea favored and pushed for the US suspension of the “joint” war games.

It seems apparent that China and South Korea forcefully intervened behind the scenes to keep the US-DPRK talks on track. In reality, Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (with National Security Advisor John Bolton kept in the shadows) found themselves in an isolated diplomatic and political corner and risked a politically unwinnable confrontation with both China, South Korea and the United Nations large majority. This became even more dangerous politically for Washington on the heels of the US withdrawal from JCPOA treaty with Iran.

As this article was being finished, the US-DPRK negotiations had a negative public eruption after US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with top North Korean authorities in Pyongyang. The DPRK Foreign Ministry issued a detailed statement on July 7, calling the meetings “regretful” and Pompeo’s apparent sole focus on unilateral DPRK denuclearization “gangster-like.” The DPRK statement promoted, “in the spirit of” the Singapore Summit and its written statement signed by Trump and Kim, an interconnected focus on issues like a formal peace treaty replacing the “Armistice” ending military combat in 1953; improved US-DPRK bilateral relations; and building a “peace regime on the Korean Peninsula,” that is, building on the momentum of improving relations between the two Korean governments and states. Pompeo and Trump have both downplayed the DPRK statement, with Trump on July 9 spinning that China “may be exerting pressure on a deal because of our posture on Chinese Trade – Hope Not!”

Of course, as the DPRK statement said, “suspension of one action called exercises is a highly reversible step which can be resumed at any time or any moment as all of its military force remains intact in its previously held positions without scraping even a rifle.” Nevertheless, for the Trump Administration to revert to a “maximum pressure” policy while demanding North Korean capitulation and permanently subordinating all other political issues, starting with formal and actual bilateral and multilateral peace, is not politically tenable, starting with South Korea and China and, overwhelmingly, world public opinion.

Mexico

The July 1 landslide election in Mexico of left-wing “populist”Andres Manuel Lopez Abrador (AMLO) is also setting Washington’s nerves on edge. It is not Lopez Obrador’s political orientation and program, per se, that is setting off (mostly muted) alarms. While he is solidly progressive with anti-imperialist instincts flowing from Mexican and Latin American historical experience, AMLO has sent out clear signals that he is loath to directly promote anti-capitalist measures and policies. His campaign focused on the corruption of private capital and the Mexican capitalist state and the intertwined, massive violence and death associated with the illegal capitalist drug cartels.3

What is worrying for the US (and Mexican) ruling classes is the tremendous enthusiasm and mobilizations around AMLO’s campaign, which points to the rising expectations among Mexican working people and youth who want action and who are saying Enough is Enough! Rather than channel mass political combativity into harmless electoralism and parliamentary wrangling, it is more likely that any significant progressive measures promoted by the Lopez Obrador government and its clear majority in both houses of Mexico’s legislature, will spur on the class struggle. This is particularly worrisome for the guardians of US imperialism, given the remarkable history of gratuitous, patronizing insults and anti-Mexican demagogy employed by Donald Trump since the beginning of his campaign for US president. And his reactionary and brutal anti-migrant policies once in office.

In any case, a window into the arrogance of the US ruling rich came with a short editorial in the July 3 Wall Street Journal, titled “The Peso Federales.” Acknowledging Lopez Obrador’s “landslide” and “mandate,” the Journal’s editors warn of the pressure coming from a “different sort of election – the one that takes place daily in financial markets.” Pointing to a 1% drop in the Mexican peso (that “recovered” the next day) following the election, the editorial continued “the president-elect now has to worry what the markets think if he wants to improve the lives of Mexicans.”

One of the biggest concerns for the academic, journalist, and big-business monitors of world economic developments today, prior to the next sharp economic crisis and recession-depression, is that there has been a significant and growing outflow of capital from so-called “emerging” countries into the capital markets of the most advanced capitalist economies, especially the US. This is reversing a mild trend otherwise in recent years.

Sharp turns down for the Argentine peso is the starkest expression of this tendency. In June 2018 the IMF came up with a $50 billion “loan,” a bail out for austerity package, that has already provoked the biggest labor mobilizations in that country for over a decade.

The Class Struggle Will Ratchet Up

When you enter a period like the current one, within the transition from one era-epoch to another, old truisms become stale, alliances and allies can and do change, traditional state-to-state relations become strained and even boil over. No one can doubt that class struggle, social polarization, and political volatility is likely to be ratcheted up considerably in the context of the coming global economic downturn. This will happen everywhere and anywhere. In the United States itself we can expect more massive working class and popular eruptions – seemingly coming out of nowhere – like the wave of solid, disciplined, and victorious teacher’s strikes in the US states of West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona in early 2018.

The unfolding trade wars unleashed by Donald Trump are now facts on the ground. To cite the great socialist pioneer Frederick Engels:

Those who unleash controlled forces, also unleash uncontrolled forces.

  1. The origins of the contemporary US-China relationship and the deeply intertwined  economic ties between both came during the final period of the Vietnam War. US President Richard Nixon and his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger carried out a secret diplomacy with the Mao Zedong-Zhou Enlai Chinese government in the early 1970s to establish mutually beneficial ties. The context was the sharp crisis and looming defeat of the US war effort in Vietnam and Indochina. Nixon and Kissinger were under tremendous pressure to end all US military operations and withdraw US troops from Vietnam and Southeast Asia. They were keen to preserve the “South” Vietnamese neo-colonial state and hoped to manipulate China (and China’s fierce political antagonist, the Soviet Union) to pressure the Vietnamese revolutionaries – who they both gave crucial military aid to — to make concessions to Nixon. This failed and Washington went down to final military defeat in 1975. Nevertheless a de facto political alliance and the foundations for the massive expansion of economic exchange between the United States and China was consolidated over four decades under both Republican and Democratic White Houses and Congresses.
  2. Before retiring in 2016, I was a Locomotive Engineer for Amtrak and member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and the teamsters Union. I operated the high-speed Acela and other passenger trains between New York city and Washington, DC. For some 25 years, I would see, along the main line tracks from the locomotive cab, on the Northeast Corridor tracks, especially along the stretches between Wilmington, Delaware and Philadelphia towards Trenton, New Jersey, mile after mile of rotted out and abandoned industrial facilities, factories, plants, mills, metal shop, giant behemoths and myriad smaller ones in what were once, in the world War 2 era and subsequent decades, I imagined thriving working-class communities employing many tens and hundreds of thousands of workers. Today they really look like documentary films from the Battle of Stalingrad on the World War 2 Eastern Front. The authorities, decade after decade, never even bothered to tear them down. I would joke to younger workers in my cab qualifying on the physical characteristics of the territory – track speeds, interlocking rules, industrial sidings, and so on – when we would pass these areas, that the state should put a giant bubble over it all and open up “The Museum of American Industrial Glory.”
  3. The stunning failure of Mexico’s “war on drugs” has left hundreds of thousands dead and mutilated without making a dent in the production, consumption, or the profits of the cartels, and the corrupt wealth of officials up and down the supply chain. The production, marketing, and commercial exchange of cannabis, cocaine, methamphetamine, cocaine, opium, and heroin is a major component of the Mexican capitalist economy as a whole, counting for perhaps up to 10% of GDP, as well as propping up Mexican banking.

Agrarian Crisis and Climate Catastrophe: Forged in India, Made in Washington

India is under siege from international capital. It is on course not only to be permanently beholden to US state-corporate interests but is heading towards environmental catastrophe much faster than many may think.

According to the World Bank’s lending report, based on data compiled up to 2015, India was easily the largest recipient of its loans in the history of the institution. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the World Bank exerts a certain hold over India. In the 1990s, the IMF and World Bank wanted India to shift hundreds of millions out of agriculture. In return for up to £90 billion in loans, India was directed to dismantle its state-owned seed supply system, reduce subsidies, run down public agriculture institutions and offer incentives for the growing of cash crops to earn foreign exchange.

The plan for India involves the mass displacement of people to restructure agriculture for the benefit of powerful corporations. This involves shifting at least 400 million from the countryside into cities. A 2016 UN report said that by 2030, Delhi’s population will be 37 million.

Quoted in The Guardian, one of the report’s principal authors, Felix Creutzig, says:

The emerging mega-cities will rely increasingly on industrial-scale agricultural and supermarket chains, crowding out local food chains.

The drive is to entrench industrial farming, commercialise the countryside and to replace small-scale farming, the backbone of food production in India. It could mean hundreds of millions of former rural dwellers without any work given that India is heading (or has already reached) ‘jobless growth’. Given the trajectory the country seems to be on, it does not take much to imagine a countryside with vast swathes of chemically-drenched monocrop fields containing genetically modified plants or soils rapidly turning into a chemical cocktail of proprietary biocides, dirt and dust.

The WTO and the US-India Knowledge Initiative on Agriculture are facilitating the process. To push the plan along, there is a deliberate strategy to make agriculture financially non-viable for India’s small farms and to get most farmers out of farming. As Felix Creutig suggests, the aim is to replace current structures with a system of industrial (GM) agriculture suited to the needs of Western agribusiness, food processing and retail concerns.

Hundreds of thousands of farmers in India have taken their lives since 1997 and many more are experiencing economic distress or have left farming as a result of debt, a shift to (GM) cash crops and economic liberalisation. The number of cultivators in India declined from 166 million to 146 million between 2004 and 2011. Some 6,700 left farming each day. Between 2015 and 2022 the number of cultivators is likely to decrease to around 127 million.

For all the discussion in India about loan waivers for farmers and raising income levels, this does not address the core of the problem affecting agriculture: the running down of the sector for decades, spiralling input costs, lack of government assistance and the impacts of cheap, subsidised imports which depress farmers’ incomes.

Take the cultivation of pulses, for instance. According to a report in the Indian Express (September 2017), pulses production increased by 40% during the previous 12 months (a year of record production). At the same time, however, imports also rose resulting in black gram selling at 4,000 rupees per quintal (much less than during the previous 12 months). This has effectively driven down prices thereby reducing farmers already meagre incomes. We have already witnessed a running down of the indigenous edible oils sector thanks to Indonesian palm oil imports on the back of World Bank pressure to reduce tariffs (India was virtually self-sufficient in edible oils in the 1990s but now faces increasing import costs).

On the one hand, there is talk of India becoming food secure and self-sufficient; on the other, there is pressure from the richer nations for the Indian government to further reduce support given to farmers and open up to imports and ‘free’ trade. But this is based on hypocrisy.

Writing on the ‘Down to Earth’ website in late 2017, Sachin Kumar Jain states some 3.2 million people were engaged in agriculture in the US in 2015. The US govt provided them each with a subsidy of $7,860 on average. Japan provides a subsidy of $14,136 and New Zealand $2,623 to its farmers. In 2015, a British farmer earned $2,800 and $37,000 was added through subsidies. The Indian government provides on average a subsidy of $873 to farmers. However, between 2012 and 2014, India reduced the subsidy on agriculture and food security by $3 billion.

According to policy analyst Devinder Sharma subsidies provided to US wheat and rice farmers are more than the market worth of these two crops. He also notes that, per day, each cow in Europe receives subsidy worth more than an Indian farmer’s daily income.

How can the Indian farmer compete with an influx of artificially cheap imports? The simple answer is that s/he cannot and is not meant to.

The opening up of India to foreign capital is supported by rhetoric about increasing agricultural productivity, creating jobs and boosting GDP growth. But India is already self-sufficient in key staples and even where productivity is among the best in the world, farmers still face massive financial distress. Given that jobs are being destroyed, relatively few are being created and that as a measure of development GDP growth is unsustainable and has actually come at the expense of deliberately impoverished farmers in India (low food prices), what we are hearing is mere rhetoric to try to convince the public that an increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of a relative few corporations – via deregulations, privatisations and lower labour and environmental protection standards – constitutes progress.

We can already see the outcome of these policies across the world: the increasing power of unaccountable financial institutions, record profits and massive increases in wealth for elite interests and, for the rest, disempowerment, mass surveillance, austerity, job losses, the erosion of rights, weak unions, cuts to public services, environmental degradation, spiraling national debt and opaque, corrupt trade deals, such as TTIP, CETA, RCEP (affecting India) and TPA.

Making India ‘business friendly’

PM Modi is on record as saying that India is now one of the most business-friendly countries in the world. The code for being ‘business friendly’ translates into a willingness by the government to facilitate much of the above, while reducing taxes and tariffs and allowing the acquisition of public assets via privatisation as well as instituting policy frameworks that work to the advantage of foreign corporations.

When the World Bank rates countries on their level of ‘ease of doing business’, it means national states facilitating policies that force working people to take part in a race to the bottom based on free market fundamentalism. The more ‘compliant’ national governments make their populations and regulations, the more ‘business friendly’ a country is.

In the realm of agriculture, the World Bank’s ‘Enabling the Business of Agriculture’ entails opening up markets to Western agribusiness and their fertilisers, pesticides, weedicides and patented seeds. Rather than work to eradicate corruption, improve poor management, build storage facilities and deal with inept bureaucracies and deficiencies in food logistics, the mantra is to let ‘the market’ intervene: a euphemism for letting powerful corporations take control; the very transnational corporations that receive massive taxpayer subsidies, manipulate markets, write trade agreements and institute a regime of intellectual property rights thereby indicating that the ‘free’ market only exists in the warped delusions of those who churn out clichés about letting the market decide.

According to the neoliberal ideologues, foreign investment is good for jobs and good for business. But just how many actually get created is another matter – as is the amount of jobs destroyed in the first place to pave the way for the entry of foreign corporations. For example, Cargill sets up a food or seed processing plant that employs a few hundred people; but what about the agricultural jobs that were deliberately eradicated in the first place or the village-level processors who were cynically put out of business via bogus health and safety measures so Cargill could gain a financially lucrative foothold?

The process resembles what Michel Chossudovsky notes in his 1997 book about the ‘structural adjustment’ of African countries. In The Globalization of Poverty, he says that economies are:

opened up through the concurrent displacement of a pre-existing productive system. Small and medium-sized enterprises are pushed into bankruptcy or obliged to produce for a global distributor, state enterprises are privatised or closed down, independent agricultural producers are impoverished. (p.16)

If people are inclined to think farmers would be better off as foreign firms enter the supply chain, we need only look at the plight of farmers in India who were tied into contracts with Pepsico. Farmers were pushed into debt, reliance on one company and were paid a pittance

India is looking to US corporations to ‘develop’ its food and agriculture sector. With regard to what this could mean for India, we only have to look at how the industrialised US system of food and agriculture relies on massive taxpayer subsidies and has destroyed farmers’ livelihoods. The fact that US agriculture now employs a tiny fraction of the population serves as a stark reminder for what is in store for Indian farmers. Agribusiness companies (whose business model in the US is based on overproduction and dependent on taxpayer subsidies) rake in huge returns, while depressed farmer incomes and massive profits for food retailers is the norm.

The long-term plan is for an overwhelmingly urbanised India with a fraction of the population left in farming working on contracts for large suppliers and Walmart-type supermarkets that offer a largely monoculture diet of highly processed, denutrified, genetically altered food based on crops soaked with chemicals and grown in increasingly degraded soils according to an unsustainable model of agriculture that is less climate/drought resistant, less diverse and unable to achieve food security.

The alternative would be to protect indigenous agriculture from rigged global trade and trade deals and to implement a shift to sustainable, localised agriculture which grows a diverse range of crops and offers a healthy diet to the public.

Instead, we see the push for bogus ‘solutions’ like GMOs and an adherence to neoliberal ideology that ultimately privileges profit and control of the food supply by powerful private interests, which have no concern whatsoever for the health of the public.

Taxpayer-subsidised agriculture in the US ultimately promotes obesity and disease by supporting the health damaging practices of the food industry. Is this what Indians want to see happen in India to their food and health?

Unfortunately, the process is already well on track as ‘Western diseases’ take hold in the country’s urban centres. For instance, there are massive spikes in the rates of obesity and diabetes. Although around 40 per cent of the nation’s under-5s are underweight, the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world; at the same time, the country is fast becoming the diabetes and heart disease capital of the world.

Devinder Sharma has highlighted where Indian policy makers’ priorities lie when he says that agriculture has been systematically killed over the last few decades. He adds that 60% of the population lives in the villages or in the rural areas and is involved in agriculture but less than two percent of the annual budget goes to agriculture: when you are not investing in agriculture, you are not wanting it to perform.

Support given to agriculture is portrayed as a drain on the economy and is reduced and farmers suffer yet it still manages to deliver bumper harvests year after year. On the other hand, corporate-industrial India has failed to deliver in terms of boosting exports or creating jobs, despite the hand outs and tax exemptions given to it.

The number of jobs created in India between 2005 and 2010 was 2.7 million (the years of high GDP growth). According to International Business Times, 15 million enter the workforce every year. And data released by the Labour Bureau shows that in 2015, jobless ‘growth’ had finally arrived in India.

So where are the jobs going to come from to cater for hundreds of millions of agricultural workers who are to be displaced from the land or those whose livelihoods will be destroyed as transnational corporations move in and seek to capitalise small-scale village-level industries that currently employ tens of millions?

Development used to be about breaking with colonial exploitation and radically redefining power structures. Now we have dogma masquerading as economic theory that compels developing countries to adopt neo-liberal policies. The notion of ‘development’ has become hijacked by rich corporations and the concept of poverty depoliticised and separated from structurally embedded power relations, not least US-driven neoliberal globalisation policies resulting in the deregulation of international capital that ensures giant transnational conglomerates have too often been able to ride roughshod over national sovereignty.

Across the world we are seeing treaties and agreements over breeders’ rights and intellectual property have been enacted to prevent peasant farmers from freely improving, sharing or replanting their traditional seeds. Large corporations with their proprietary seeds and synthetic chemical inputs have eradicated traditional systems of seed exchange. They have effectively hijacked seeds, pirated germ plasm that farmers developed over millennia and have ‘rented’ the seeds back to farmers. As a result, genetic diversity among food crops has been drastically reduced, and we have bad food and diets, degraded soils, water pollution and scarcity and spiralling rates of poor health.

Corporate-dominated agriculture is not only an attack on the integrity of ‘the commons’, soil, water, food, diets and health but is also an attack on the integrity of international institutions, governments and officials which have too often been corrupted by powerful transnational entities.

Whereas some want to bring about a fairer, more equitable system of production and distribution to improve people’s quality of lives (particularly pertinent in India with its unimaginable inequalities which have spiraled since India adopted neoliberal policies), Washington regards ‘development’ as a way to further US interests globally.

As economics professor Michael Hudson said during a 2014 interview (published on prosper.org under the title ‘Think Tank Times’):

American foreign policy has almost always been based on agricultural exports, not on industrial exports as people might think. It’s by agriculture and control of the food supply that American diplomacy has been able to control most of the Third World. The World Bank’s geopolitical lending strategy has been to turn countries into food deficit areas by convincing them to grow cash crops – plantation export crops – not to feed themselves with their own food crops.

Of course, many others such as Walden Bello, Raj Patel and Eric Holtz-Gimenez have written on how a geopolitical ‘stuffed and starved’ strategy has fuelled this process over the decades.

Capitalism and environmental catastrophe joined at the hip

In India, an industrialised chemical-intensive model of agriculture is being facilitated that brings with it the numerous now well-documented externalised social, environmental and health costs. We need look no further than the current situation in South India and the drying up of the Cauvery river in places to see the impact that this model has contributed to: an ecological crisis fuelled by environmental devastation due to mining, deforestation and unsustainable agriculture based on big dams, water-intensive crops and Green Revolution ideology imported from the West.

But we have known for a long time now that India faces major environmental problems rooted in agriculture. For example, in an open letter written to officials in 2006, the late campaigner and farmer Bhaskar Save noted that India, next to South America, receives the highest rainfall in the world. Where thick vegetation covers the ground, and the soil is alive and porous, at least half of this rain is soaked and stored in the soil and sub-soil strata. A good amount then percolates deeper to recharge aquifers, or ‘groundwater tables’. Save argued that the living soil and its underlying aquifers thus serve as gigantic, ready-made reservoirs gifted free by nature.

Half a century ago, most parts of India had enough fresh water all year round, long after the rains had stopped and gone. But clear the forests, and the capacity of the earth to soak the rain, drops drastically. Streams and wells run dry.

Save went on to note that while the recharge of groundwater has greatly reduced, its extraction has been mounting. India is presently mining over 20 times more groundwater each day than it did in 1950. Much of this is mindless wastage by a minority. But most of India’s people – living on hand-drawn or hand-pumped water in villages and practising only rain-fed farming – continue to use the same amount of ground water per person, as they did generations ago.

According to Save, more than 80% of India’s water consumption is for irrigation, with the largest share hogged by chemically cultivated cash crops. Maharashtra, for example, has the maximum number of big and medium dams in the country. But sugarcane alone, grown on barely 3-4% of its cultivable land, guzzles about 70% of its irrigation waters.

One acre of chemically grown sugarcane requires as much water as would suffice 25 acres of jowar, bajra or maize. The sugar factories too consume huge quantities. From cultivation to processing, each kilo of refined sugar needs two to three tonnes of water. This could be used to grow, by the traditional, organic way, about 150 to 200 kg of nutritious jowar or bajra (native millets).

While rice is suitable for rain-fed farming, its extensive multiple cropping with irrigation in winter and summer as well is similarly hogging water resources and depleting aquifers. As with sugarcane, it is also irreversibly ruining the land through salinization.

Save argued that soil salinization is the greatest scourge of irrigation-intensive agriculture, as a progressively thicker crust of salts is formed on the land. Many million hectares of cropland have been ruined by it. The most serious problems are caused where water-guzzling crops like sugarcane or basmati rice are grown round the year, abandoning the traditional mixed-cropping and rotation systems of the past, which required minimal or no watering.

Salinization aside, looking at the issue of soil more generally, Stuart Newton, a researcher and botanist living in India, says that India must restore and nurture its depleted, abused soils and not harm them any further with chemical overload. Through his analyses of Indian soils, he has offered detailed insights into their mineral compositions and links their depletion to the Green Revolution. In turn, these depleted soils in the long-term cannot help but lead to mass malnourishment. This is quite revealing given that proponents of the Green Revolution claim it helped reduced malnutrition.

Various high-level official reports, not least the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge and Science for Development Report, state that smallholder, traditional farming can deliver food security in low-income countries through sustainable agroecological systems. Moreover, given India’s huge range of biodiversity (India is one of Nikolai Vavilov’s strategically globally important centres of plant diversity) that has been developed over millennia to cope with diverse soil and climate conditions, the country should on its own be more than capable of addressing challenges that lie ahead due to climate change.

Instead, policy makers continue to look towards the likes of Monsanto-Bayer for ‘solutions’. Such companies merely seed to break farmers’ environmental learning ‘pathways’ based on centuries of indigenous knowledge, learning and practices with the aim of getting farmers hooked on chemical treadmills for corporate profit (see Glenn Stone and Andrew Flach’s 2017 paper in the Journal of Peasant Studies, ‘The ox fall down: path-breaking and technology treadmills in Indian cotton agriculture’).

Wrong-headed policies in agriculture have already resulted in drought, expensive dam-building projects, population displacement and degraded soils. The rivers are drying, farmers are dying and the cities are creaking as a result of the unbridled push towards urbanisation.

In terms of managing water resources, regenerating soils, and cultivating climate resilient crops, agroecology as a solution is there for all to see. Andhra Pradesh is now making a concerted effort to roll-out zero budget agroecological agriculture across the state. However, in the absence of this elsewhere across India, agroecological approaches will be marginalised.

India faces huge problems in terms of securing access to water. As Bhaskar Save noted, the shift to Green Revolution thinking and practices (underpinned by geopolitical and commercial interests: World Bank loans; export-oriented monocropping, commodity crop trade and dependency on the US dollar; seed sovereignty issues and costly proprietary inputs, etc) has placed enormous strain on water resources.

From glacial melt in the Himalayas that will contribute to the drying up of important rivers to the effects of temperature rises across the Indo Gangetic plain, which will adversely impact wheat productivity, India has more than its fair share of problems. But despite this, high-level policy makers are pushing for a certain model of ‘development’ that will only exacerbate the problems.

This model is being driven by some of the world’s largest corporate players: a model that by its very nature leads to environment catastrophe:

… our economic system demands ever-increasing levels of extraction, production and consumption. Our politicians tell us that we need to keep the global economy growing at more than 3% each year – the minimum necessary for large firms to make aggregate profits. That means every 20 years we need to double the size of the global economy – double the cars, double the fishing, double the mining, double the McFlurries and double the iPads. And then double them again over the next 20 years from their already doubled state.1

Politicians and bureaucrats in Delhi might be facilitating this model and the system of agriculture it is tied to, but it is ultimately stamped with the logo ‘made in Washington’.

  1. Jason Hickel, writing in The Guardian (July 2016.

Urban Madness: Inequality and the Right to the City

The weekend edition of the Financial Times dated April 7/8 featured a story in the House and Home section under the title ‘Barcelona hits the Brakes.’ The story describes the negative effect of last October’s Catalan independence referendum on Barcelona’s real estate market. The Times cites data from the Spanish property website Idealista. During the summer of 2017 (Q3 2017) properties in the city gained an impressive 018 percent compared to the previous year. In Q4 2017, in the midst of uncertainty stemming from the referendum, the prices fell 1.2 percent, with the sharpest drop taking place in the priciest neighborhoods.

The most interesting nugget of the story reads like this:

Foreign buyers’ sensitivity to Catalonia’s uncertainty political situation bode ill for the city’s property market in the mid-term since they form an increasing share of the market. Years of steady appreciation has meant that much of the city’s stock has become too expensive for locals. Salaries have been stagnant says Encinar (founder of Idealista). ‘Today, when you ask local agents about business, they talk to you about ‘investors’ rather than ‘clients.’

Meanwhile in February the British Columbia Finance Minister Carole James announced measures targeting foreign buyers and speculators. Foreigners now have to pay a 20 percent tax on top of the listing value (up from 15 percent), and a levy on property speculators will be introduced later this year. Starting this fall foreign and domestic investors who don’t pay income tax in the province where the property is will pay a speculator tax of 0.5 percent of the property’s assessed value in 2018 and 2 percent thereafter. The government also vowed to crack down on the condo pre-sale market and beneficial ownership to ensure that property flippers, offshore trusts and hidden investors are paying taxes on gains.

The flashpoint for the legislation is Vancouver where foreign, particularly wealthy Chinese capital, has been driving double digit gains in property value. Media accounts report that Vancouver casinos and real estate have in recent years become vehicles for laundering proceeds for Asian high rollers and drug dealers with ties to the fentanyl trade. There were also two seasons of the very corny reality TV show Ultra Rich Asian Girls which followed the exploits of daughters of wealthy Chinese families as they shopped and partied around the city. With Chinese capital flowing housing prices in Vancouver have skyrocketed-in 2016 CBC reported that price of a single family home shot up 30 percent in one year to an average of $1.4 million even as the city claims that over the past decade the housing stock has grown by 12 percent and the population by only 9 percent. Toronto and Montreal appear to be on the cusp of similar transformations.

This kind of thing is happening in cities all over the world. In Lisbon a flood of foreign investment and financial deregulation has in the city center up 30 percent over the past two years. Yet the average monthly wage in Lisbon is about €850. Over in London research conducted for mayor Sadiq Khan revealed foreign investors are buying up thousands of homes suitable for first-time buyers. Of the 28,000 new homes built between 2014 and 2016 3600 were scooped up by foreign buyers with the majority from Singapore and Hong Kong followed by Malaysia and China. Last year it was revealed that an entire new 81 unit complex in Southwark (on the site of the former Heygate council estate) was bought by foreign investors while the same was true for 87 percent of Baltimore Wharf, a development on the Isle of Dogs where apartments started at £400,000. Accounts of Russian oligarchs living the high life have filled the press, at one point in 2016 campaigners connected to Russia’s opposition leader Alexei Navalny organized London’s first ever ‘kleptocracy’ tour. Charles Moore, a former editor of the Telegraph, said a few years ago that London’s property market has become ‘a form of legalized international money laundering.’

In New York, early numbers from the latest Census Bureau’s Housing and Vacancy survey show unoccupied apartments ballooned by 35 percent in the three years since the last survey. Over 100,000 units are occupied temporarily or seasonally (74,945), basically meaning investments and vacation pads for the wealthy, or for unexplained reasons (27,000), no doubt a good number of the latter fit the former description.

According to data compiled by the firm PropertyShark, cited in the June 2014 New York magazine article titled ‘Stash Pad’, since 2008 about 30 percent of condo sales in large-scale Manhattan developments have been to purchasers who either listed an overseas address or bought through limited-liability corporations (a method favored by wealthy international buyers). The marketing firm Corcoran Sunshine, which specializes in luxury buildings, estimates that 35 percent of its sales since 2013 have been to international buyers, half from Asia, with the remainder about evenly split among the rest of the world. Data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey revealed 57 percent of apartments in the three block stretch from East 56th Street to East 59th Street, between Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue, are vacant at least ten months a year. From East 59th Street to East 63rd Street the vacancy rate is almost 50 percent.  Stretching it out further the Bureau estimates that 30 percent of all apartments in the entire quadrant from East 49th to East 70th Streets are vacant at least ten months a year. This coincides with New York’s homeless population reaching an all-time high.

It is difficult to conceive a more absurd reflection of global inequality than the building of cities specifically for elite investors at a time when urban homelessness is spiraling. Indeed global inequality has reached absurd levels. According to Oxfam’s report An Economy for the 99%, since 2015 the world’s 1 percent has owned more wealth than the rest of the planet. The richest eight men own the same amount as the poorest half and over the next 20 years 500 people will hand to their heirs over $2.1 trillion- a sum larger than the GDP of India. While global development is slowly narrowing inequality between countries, inequality is rising within countries everywhere. The World Inequality Report 2018 reports the share of income going to the top 10 percent has increased somewhat in Europe, remained high in Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East and has exploded in the United States, Russia, and Asia.

The city-as-investment dynamic is also a logical consequence of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, defined as an economic system of liberated markets, free trade, deregulation, privatization, and the withdrawal of the state, emerged from the economic stagnation of the early 1970s. Neoliberalism hasn’t been good at producing productive profits as the rate of profit has remained low. U.S. productivity growth is at its lowest level since the 1800s.However, if production is producing profits at a reduced rate where are capitalists to go to increase wealth? Get the state to cut your taxes. Break unions and freeze wages. Invent and expand creative financial assets. Buy back your company’s stocks. Build and invest in urban properties.

Since the mid-1980s corporations have become by far the most important buyers of their own stock. The dirty fact is that money cannot be made as fast by actually investing in production, meaning new plants, equipment, workers, etc., as it can by pumping up stock prices. The price-earnings (P/E ratio) measures a company’s current share (i.e. stock) price relative to its per share earnings. Since the mid-1930s the median P/E ratio for the Standard & Poor 500 stock index is 17. It currently stands at about 25. Another metric is the CAPE index, ‘cyclically adjusted price-earnings’. It measures real earnings per share over a 10 year period and corrects for inflation. The historic median is 16. Currently it is at just almost 33.

For the U.S. this has caused inequality to explode. The World Inequality Report 2018 breaks down American income growth by selected percentile from 1980-2014. Income for the bottom 20 percent of the population grew by a mere 4 percent over that period. The bottom 50 percent grew at only 21 percent, less than 1 percent a year. The top 10 percent grew 113 percent, the top 1 percent grew 194 percent, the top .001 by 423 percent, the top .0001 by 616 percent.

As the planet grows more unequal it grows more urban. For the first time in history the world’s urban population outnumbers the rural population. Cities have absorbed about two-thirds of global population growth since 1950. In 1950 there were 86 cities in the world with more than one million inhabitants. As of 2016 there were 512 such cities, by 2030 there will be an estimated 662. Urbanization spans a vast gulf from the very wealthy neighborhoods of ‘International’ cities such as Shanghai, London, and New York to teeming slums all over the global South. Around one billion people, or roughly 1 in 8 people worldwide, live in slums. In this period cities have emerged as a key part of capital accumulation, absorbing surplus capital and labor. Gentrification has transformed from a local process, even an exception to urban disinvestment, to the pillar of global urban planning.

This inevitably makes the Right to the City movement of paramount importance to the International Left. The struggle against gentrification in London and San Francisco is easily linked to the struggle against displacement, and for basic human needs, in the pueblo jovens of Lima and favelas of Rio de Janairo. At bottom is the right for people to exist in space and time. This goes far beyond just an individual right to the resources a city contains. Since the process of urban change is a collective one, thus is the right to the city. Geographer David Harvey was surely correct when he wrote that ‘the question of what kind of city we want cannot be divorced from the question of what kind of people we want to be, what kinds of social relations we seek, what relations to nature we cherish, what style of daily life we desire, what kinds of technologies we deem appropriate, what aesthetic values we hold.’

This never will be easy.  As inequality deepens and urbanization expands, state militarization grows with it. Stephen Graham, in his important book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Humanism, shows boomerang effect of the War on Terror on policing in Western cities. Drones are now involved in crime patrol. Security Zones, based on efforts to build Green Zones in Baghdad, are prominent in big cities. Temporary Security Zones are set up around sports events and political conventions. Since the 1990s over $5 billion worth of surplus military equipment has been transferred to police departments across the country.  During the Obama years, before limits were put in place which have since been rescinded by the Trump administration, police departments received tens of thousands of machine guns, thousands of pieces of camouflage and night-vision equipment, along with hundreds of silencers, armored cars and aircraft. The number of SWAT teams has skyrocketed since the 1980s. Originally established to deal with hostage situations and heavily armed criminals, SWAT teams are now deployed tens of thousands of times a year, mainly for drug searches (well glamorized by the CBS show S.W.A.T.). There was a glimpse of these possible confrontations with social movements during the protests against police brutality in Ferguson in 2014. There is no reason to expect these trends will cease and every reason to think they will expand.

Such is the specter that justice movements may have to confront in the future. Still, future social revolutions will be in cities or nowhere.

Charter Schools: Backpack Full of Cash

QUESTION: If a school is educating a child, whether it’s a private school or a charter school, doesn’t it deserve public dollars?

RESPONSE: Public and private mean the opposite of each other. Public and private are antonyms.

Public refers to the common good, everyone, the whole society. Public means inclusive and for all; non-rivalrous. Public also means not narrow or sectarian. Synonyms for public include: open and transparent. Private, on the other hand, refers to some, a few. Private means exclusive, not for everyone, not inclusive, not shared. Synonyms for private include: restrictive, secret, closed, not transparent.

Public and private are not synonymous in any way. Mixing them up produces conceptual confusion and harmful policies, practices, and arrangements all the time. There is a reason that public schools and private schools operate differently and have different profiles and features.

Charter by definition means contract. Charter schools are contract schools. Contract is the quintessential market category. Contracts make markets possible. Significantly, contract law is private law, which deals with relations between private citizens, whereas public law deals with relations between the state and individuals. These points cannot be overstated. It is because of these legal realities that charter schools are inherently privatized, marketized, corporatized arrangements. It is precisely why charter schools lack most of the public features of public schools and the public sphere. It is for this reason that a charter school cannot be something other than a charter school, regardless of whether it is if for-profit or nonprofit, “good” verses “bad,” operated by “mom-and-pop” or a corporation. There is a reason that charter schools are deregulated, deunionized, practice selective enrollment, have high teacher and student turnover rates, are plagued by corruption, lack accountability, and enrich a handful of individuals. If an individual with “good intentions” thinks they are going to make “their” charter school great and different from all the other rotten ones—think again. Such an idea is based on no thinking and no analysis. It is based on wishful thinking alone.

Public funds, assets, buildings, facilities, resources, and authority belong only to the public and no one else. They are produced by the public and must be controlled by the public at all times, not someone else. This is why the fate of public funds, assets, and buildings must be decided upon by the public alone and are to be used strictly for public purposes. Public funds for public schools must not go to private interests.

Private and sectarian interests have no claim to public funds, assets, and buildings. Public wealth must never be handed over to the private sector, let alone in the name of “efficiency,” “choice,” “competition,” “innovation,” “accountability,” or “results.” These buzzwords have provided cover for much of the neoliberal destruction that has unfolded over the past 40 years. Privatization in its many forms ultimately harms the economy and the national interest.

Privatization Is Killing Us: Dispatches from the War on Society

As the capitalist elite continues to pour ever more resources into its crusade to dismantle society, it’s important to keep a tally of the damage done—if only to direct popular attention to where it’s needed most, and to where the Left’s own resources are needed most. High on the list of capitalist priorities, and thus of priorities for left-wing resistance, is the goal to privatize everything from education to nature to policing and soldiering. With that in mind, here’s a list of some recent “negative externalities” of privatization that I’ve culled from news sources.

Children, teachers, and rat feces

Let’s start with Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, jewel of neoliberalism. In February 2014, the Chicago Public Schools decided to outsource management of custodians to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The rationale for privatization is supposed to be that it cuts costs and improves “efficiency” or effectiveness. Left unsaid is the means by which costs are cut: primarily from the fact that private companies have a freer hand than government in treating employees viciously. It’s easier for corporations to lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, degrade working conditions, and destroy unions than it is for governments to do so, since corporations are totalitarian institutions. Whether the overall deal is a net financial gain for government is a difficult question, to which studies have given conflicting answers. Some have found that it actually ends up costing more money in the long run, while others have concluded privatization may in some cases yield savings of about 10 percent. But these reports don’t factor in all the extra costs, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, deal with the inevitable lawsuits, etc.

And then there are the costs to the public, which, of course, don’t count.

Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer behind CPS’s decision to outsource custodial management, claimed it would indirectly improve “family and community engagement”—which in a sense it did, since parents have felt compelled to volunteer to clean up bathrooms and classrooms. Because of cutbacks in the number (and the pay) of janitors, it has been left to parents and teachers to clean up pools of urine in bathrooms, feces smeared on walls (in preschools), clogged toilet bowls, enormous amounts of trash, rat droppings, and the like. Toilet paper and soap supplies have repeatedly run out in many schools, forcing teachers to buy supplies themselves. (In some schools, students have been asked to bring in their own toilet paper, tissues, soap, and paper towels.) Leaky ceilings, cockroach infestations, rotting floors, outbreaks of bed bugs, exposed asbestos, the presence of dust and grime aggravating respiratory illnesses, and rotting garbage do not exactly “result in an enhanced learning environment,” despite Cawley’s assurances.

“It’s gross and disgusting and my health is being affected,” one teacher says. “I want to be outside the minute I’m in here. It smells. Everything smells and I can’t focus. If I can’t focus to teach, how can kids focus to learn?”

While these conditions have been known about for years, only a recent exposé by the Chicago Sun-Times has finally persuaded CPS to act—by hiring an extra 200 janitors this summer, of whom 100 will remain in the fall. The janitors’ union had asked for 500 more permanent hires.

There is good news on the legislative front, though: on April 10, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee voted favorably on a bill that would allow members of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain over non-salary issues such as crowded classes and filthy schools. (This is a right denied only to Chicago teachers.) The bill now heads to the House.

Barbarism, Inc.

Few business models can be as morally putrid as private prisons. The government pays the company a per diem rate per prisoner, so shareholders make more money the more people are incarcerated. Which gives them an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as they have done effectively in recent decades. The company also has an incentive to keep conditions as bad as possible for both prisoners and employees, since, of course, cost-cutting is good for profit-making. Study after study has revealed the obvious and outrageous moral hazards of the private prison industry.

But with a creature in the White House who supports the expansion of this sociopathic industry, it’s useful to be reminded of just how horrible it is. A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in which gang members have been allowed to beat other prisoners (for extended periods of time), a mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, and inmates have to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons because there aren’t enough guards to maintain order. And the ones who are there aren’t well-trained. One prisoner was charged by a man with a knife and a long section of pipe while he was being escorted to his jail cell; the two guards escorting him just ran away, and he was stabbed and hit for several minutes before other guards arrived. “They laughed and told [the assailant] not to do it again,” the victim recalled. The medical staff did effectively nothing for his wounds.

Meanwhile, the recent “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants has meant a bonanza for the profits of certain corporations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private prison company called CoreCivic, Inc. that runs the Steward Detention Center in Georgia has been making money off people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scheme is to force immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the detention center, which would otherwise have to be maintained by actual employees. Those who refuse to work are “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states to challenge these sorts of work practices.

For-profit Medicaid hindrance

Under the perpetual pretext of cutting costs and increasing efficiency, a number of states, including (among others) Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have in recent years partly or wholly privatized Medicaid. The “efficiency” pretext, incidentally, is ironic, given the likely truth of David Graeber’s “Iron Law of Liberalism,” that “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.” The explosion of bureaucracy in the market-obsessed neoliberal era bears out this law.

What have been the consequences of these privatizations? Iowa is an illustrative case. According to a series of editorials for which Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, the results have not been pretty. Since April 2016, three for-profit insurers have taken over management of health care for more than 500,000 Iowans, many of whom have, as a result, now lost access to services, equipment (such as wheelchairs), and even nutritional supplements. Against the advice of medical professionals, the insurers simply refuse to pay for needed care.

Healthcare providers have been underpaid or not paid at all. A nursing home was forced to borrow $150,000 while waiting for reimbursements; a mental health facility was owed $300,000; a family planning clinic had to close. To take only three examples. The state has had to bail out the insurers and assume financial risk—which is ironic, since the supposed point of privatization was to provide state budget predictability in Medicaid spending. Before the privatization debacle, Iowa’s Medicaid had lower per-person spending than many other states and provided reliable reimbursements to providers and consistency in coverage for vulnerable people.

Because of problems similar to Iowa’s, Connecticut in 2012 fired the insurance companies managing its Medicaid programs and transitioned back to the traditional “fee for service” model, according to which the state reimburses providers directly. The results were what you’d expect: the monthly cost of care per patient dropped $718 in 2012 to $670 in 2015; the number of doctors willing to accept Medicaid patients increased; and administrative costs dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Turns out market forces aren’t so “efficient” after all.

Nature for sale

Already in his short tenure in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown he can privatize with the best of them. There isn’t space here to list all the creative ways he’s trying to destroy the natural environment or restrict its enjoyment to a select few, but we can consider a few examples.

In December 2017, on Zinke’s recommendation and at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, Trump announced he was going to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent. Legal challenges to these orders are currently winding through the courts.

Zinke has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales of public lands every 90 days, in addition to “eliminating burdensome regulations” related to oil and natural gas development. He has started the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling, and is pushing for an expedited timeline of leasing land by 2019. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make drilling less safe by reversing safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2018 Zinke proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas lease sales. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off-limits. (Zinke said he’d exempt Florida from the plan, as a favor to his friend Governor Rick Scott, but it appears that this exemption wasn’t a formal action and that Florida is, in fact, being considered for offshore drilling.) Zinke’s draft plan also proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history.

Selling land to corporations is one method of privatization; another is to restrict enjoyment of public parks to those who can afford to pay. Zinke is pursuing this second path as well. In 2016 the National Park Service offered 16 free-admission days at national parks; in 2017 the number was down to 10; this year it’s down to four. The Interior Department had also planned to massively increase entrance fees at the country’s most popular parks—from $25 to $70—but scrapped the plan due to public backlash. Instead, the department will enact a more limited increase at all parks that charge an entrance fee.

With the Trump administration’s term less than half over, we can expect a slew of similar predatory plans in the coming years.

Business as usual

None of these trends is at all surprising, since they emerge from tendencies fundamental to capitalism for centuries. These tendencies have simply been unshackled from prior restraints in the neoliberal era. The destructive, antisocial essence of capitalism has been given free rein, like a raging bull that has broken free of its yoke, such that society is approaching the literal realization of capitalism’s misanthropic telos.

In the long run, two outcomes seem possible. Either humanity will find itself in the Hobbesian state of nature—which is the inner logic and meaning of capitalism—or the crises into which we are fast plunging ourselves will call forth such massive global resistance that a revolutionary social transformation will, at length, come to pass. What it will look like can’t be foreseen (though informed speculations can be useful). All that can be predicted with certainty is that unless the generations now living devote their very existence to the Resistance, humanity won’t have much of a future.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Privatization Is Killing Us: Dispatches from the War on Society

As the capitalist elite continues to pour ever more resources into its crusade to dismantle society, it’s important to keep a tally of the damage done—if only to direct popular attention to where it’s needed most, and to where the Left’s own resources are needed most. High on the list of capitalist priorities, and thus of priorities for left-wing resistance, is the goal to privatize everything from education to nature to policing and soldiering. With that in mind, here’s a list of some recent “negative externalities” of privatization that I’ve culled from news sources.

Children, teachers, and rat feces

Let’s start with Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, jewel of neoliberalism. In February 2014, the Chicago Public Schools decided to outsource management of custodians to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The rationale for privatization is supposed to be that it cuts costs and improves “efficiency” or effectiveness. Left unsaid is the means by which costs are cut: primarily from the fact that private companies have a freer hand than government in treating employees viciously. It’s easier for corporations to lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, degrade working conditions, and destroy unions than it is for governments to do so, since corporations are totalitarian institutions. Whether the overall deal is a net financial gain for government is a difficult question, to which studies have given conflicting answers. Some have found that it actually ends up costing more money in the long run, while others have concluded privatization may in some cases yield savings of about 10 percent. But these reports don’t factor in all the extra costs, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, deal with the inevitable lawsuits, etc.

And then there are the costs to the public, which, of course, don’t count.

Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer behind CPS’s decision to outsource custodial management, claimed it would indirectly improve “family and community engagement”—which in a sense it did, since parents have felt compelled to volunteer to clean up bathrooms and classrooms. Because of cutbacks in the number (and the pay) of janitors, it has been left to parents and teachers to clean up pools of urine in bathrooms, feces smeared on walls (in preschools), clogged toilet bowls, enormous amounts of trash, rat droppings, and the like. Toilet paper and soap supplies have repeatedly run out in many schools, forcing teachers to buy supplies themselves. (In some schools, students have been asked to bring in their own toilet paper, tissues, soap, and paper towels.) Leaky ceilings, cockroach infestations, rotting floors, outbreaks of bed bugs, exposed asbestos, the presence of dust and grime aggravating respiratory illnesses, and rotting garbage do not exactly “result in an enhanced learning environment,” despite Cawley’s assurances.

“It’s gross and disgusting and my health is being affected,” one teacher says. “I want to be outside the minute I’m in here. It smells. Everything smells and I can’t focus. If I can’t focus to teach, how can kids focus to learn?”

While these conditions have been known about for years, only a recent exposé by the Chicago Sun-Times has finally persuaded CPS to act—by hiring an extra 200 janitors this summer, of whom 100 will remain in the fall. The janitors’ union had asked for 500 more permanent hires.

There is good news on the legislative front, though: on April 10, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee voted favorably on a bill that would allow members of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain over non-salary issues such as crowded classes and filthy schools. (This is a right denied only to Chicago teachers.) The bill now heads to the House.

Barbarism, Inc.

Few business models can be as morally putrid as private prisons. The government pays the company a per diem rate per prisoner, so shareholders make more money the more people are incarcerated. Which gives them an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as they have done effectively in recent decades. The company also has an incentive to keep conditions as bad as possible for both prisoners and employees, since, of course, cost-cutting is good for profit-making. Study after study has revealed the obvious and outrageous moral hazards of the private prison industry.

But with a creature in the White House who supports the expansion of this sociopathic industry, it’s useful to be reminded of just how horrible it is. A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in which gang members have been allowed to beat other prisoners (for extended periods of time), a mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, and inmates have to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons because there aren’t enough guards to maintain order. And the ones who are there aren’t well-trained. One prisoner was charged by a man with a knife and a long section of pipe while he was being escorted to his jail cell; the two guards escorting him just ran away, and he was stabbed and hit for several minutes before other guards arrived. “They laughed and told [the assailant] not to do it again,” the victim recalled. The medical staff did effectively nothing for his wounds.

Meanwhile, the recent “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants has meant a bonanza for the profits of certain corporations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private prison company called CoreCivic, Inc. that runs the Steward Detention Center in Georgia has been making money off people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scheme is to force immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the detention center, which would otherwise have to be maintained by actual employees. Those who refuse to work are “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states to challenge these sorts of work practices.

For-profit Medicaid hindrance

Under the perpetual pretext of cutting costs and increasing efficiency, a number of states, including (among others) Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have in recent years partly or wholly privatized Medicaid. The “efficiency” pretext, incidentally, is ironic, given the likely truth of David Graeber’s “Iron Law of Liberalism,” that “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.” The explosion of bureaucracy in the market-obsessed neoliberal era bears out this law.

What have been the consequences of these privatizations? Iowa is an illustrative case. According to a series of editorials for which Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, the results have not been pretty. Since April 2016, three for-profit insurers have taken over management of health care for more than 500,000 Iowans, many of whom have, as a result, now lost access to services, equipment (such as wheelchairs), and even nutritional supplements. Against the advice of medical professionals, the insurers simply refuse to pay for needed care.

Healthcare providers have been underpaid or not paid at all. A nursing home was forced to borrow $150,000 while waiting for reimbursements; a mental health facility was owed $300,000; a family planning clinic had to close. To take only three examples. The state has had to bail out the insurers and assume financial risk—which is ironic, since the supposed point of privatization was to provide state budget predictability in Medicaid spending. Before the privatization debacle, Iowa’s Medicaid had lower per-person spending than many other states and provided reliable reimbursements to providers and consistency in coverage for vulnerable people.

Because of problems similar to Iowa’s, Connecticut in 2012 fired the insurance companies managing its Medicaid programs and transitioned back to the traditional “fee for service” model, according to which the state reimburses providers directly. The results were what you’d expect: the monthly cost of care per patient dropped $718 in 2012 to $670 in 2015; the number of doctors willing to accept Medicaid patients increased; and administrative costs dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Turns out market forces aren’t so “efficient” after all.

Nature for sale

Already in his short tenure in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown he can privatize with the best of them. There isn’t space here to list all the creative ways he’s trying to destroy the natural environment or restrict its enjoyment to a select few, but we can consider a few examples.

In December 2017, on Zinke’s recommendation and at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, Trump announced he was going to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent. Legal challenges to these orders are currently winding through the courts.

Zinke has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales of public lands every 90 days, in addition to “eliminating burdensome regulations” related to oil and natural gas development. He has started the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling, and is pushing for an expedited timeline of leasing land by 2019. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make drilling less safe by reversing safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2018 Zinke proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas lease sales. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off-limits. (Zinke said he’d exempt Florida from the plan, as a favor to his friend Governor Rick Scott, but it appears that this exemption wasn’t a formal action and that Florida is, in fact, being considered for offshore drilling.) Zinke’s draft plan also proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history.

Selling land to corporations is one method of privatization; another is to restrict enjoyment of public parks to those who can afford to pay. Zinke is pursuing this second path as well. In 2016 the National Park Service offered 16 free-admission days at national parks; in 2017 the number was down to 10; this year it’s down to four. The Interior Department had also planned to massively increase entrance fees at the country’s most popular parks—from $25 to $70—but scrapped the plan due to public backlash. Instead, the department will enact a more limited increase at all parks that charge an entrance fee.

With the Trump administration’s term less than half over, we can expect a slew of similar predatory plans in the coming years.

Business as usual

None of these trends is at all surprising, since they emerge from tendencies fundamental to capitalism for centuries. These tendencies have simply been unshackled from prior restraints in the neoliberal era. The destructive, antisocial essence of capitalism has been given free rein, like a raging bull that has broken free of its yoke, such that society is approaching the literal realization of capitalism’s misanthropic telos.

In the long run, two outcomes seem possible. Either humanity will find itself in the Hobbesian state of nature—which is the inner logic and meaning of capitalism—or the crises into which we are fast plunging ourselves will call forth such massive global resistance that a revolutionary social transformation will, at length, come to pass. What it will look like can’t be foreseen (though informed speculations can be useful). All that can be predicted with certainty is that unless the generations now living devote their very existence to the Resistance, humanity won’t have much of a future.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Privatization Is Killing Us: Dispatches from the War on Society

As the capitalist elite continues to pour ever more resources into its crusade to dismantle society, it’s important to keep a tally of the damage done—if only to direct popular attention to where it’s needed most, and to where the Left’s own resources are needed most. High on the list of capitalist priorities, and thus of priorities for left-wing resistance, is the goal to privatize everything from education to nature to policing and soldiering. With that in mind, here’s a list of some recent “negative externalities” of privatization that I’ve culled from news sources.

Children, teachers, and rat feces

Let’s start with Rahm Emanuel’s Chicago, jewel of neoliberalism. In February 2014, the Chicago Public Schools decided to outsource management of custodians to Aramark and SodexoMAGIC. The rationale for privatization is supposed to be that it cuts costs and improves “efficiency” or effectiveness. Left unsaid is the means by which costs are cut: primarily from the fact that private companies have a freer hand than government in treating employees viciously. It’s easier for corporations to lay off employees, reduce wages and benefits, degrade working conditions, and destroy unions than it is for governments to do so, since corporations are totalitarian institutions. Whether the overall deal is a net financial gain for government is a difficult question, to which studies have given conflicting answers. Some have found that it actually ends up costing more money in the long run, while others have concluded privatization may in some cases yield savings of about 10 percent. But these reports don’t factor in all the extra costs, such as the time and money it takes to review proposals by companies, negotiate contracts, review contract terms, deal with the inevitable lawsuits, etc.

And then there are the costs to the public, which, of course, don’t count.

Tim Cawley, the chief administrative officer behind CPS’s decision to outsource custodial management, claimed it would indirectly improve “family and community engagement”—which in a sense it did, since parents have felt compelled to volunteer to clean up bathrooms and classrooms. Because of cutbacks in the number (and the pay) of janitors, it has been left to parents and teachers to clean up pools of urine in bathrooms, feces smeared on walls (in preschools), clogged toilet bowls, enormous amounts of trash, rat droppings, and the like. Toilet paper and soap supplies have repeatedly run out in many schools, forcing teachers to buy supplies themselves. (In some schools, students have been asked to bring in their own toilet paper, tissues, soap, and paper towels.) Leaky ceilings, cockroach infestations, rotting floors, outbreaks of bed bugs, exposed asbestos, the presence of dust and grime aggravating respiratory illnesses, and rotting garbage do not exactly “result in an enhanced learning environment,” despite Cawley’s assurances.

“It’s gross and disgusting and my health is being affected,” one teacher says. “I want to be outside the minute I’m in here. It smells. Everything smells and I can’t focus. If I can’t focus to teach, how can kids focus to learn?”

While these conditions have been known about for years, only a recent exposé by the Chicago Sun-Times has finally persuaded CPS to act—by hiring an extra 200 janitors this summer, of whom 100 will remain in the fall. The janitors’ union had asked for 500 more permanent hires.

There is good news on the legislative front, though: on April 10, the Illinois House Labor and Commerce Committee voted favorably on a bill that would allow members of the Chicago Teachers Union to bargain over non-salary issues such as crowded classes and filthy schools. (This is a right denied only to Chicago teachers.) The bill now heads to the House.

Barbarism, Inc.

Few business models can be as morally putrid as private prisons. The government pays the company a per diem rate per prisoner, so shareholders make more money the more people are incarcerated. Which gives them an incentive to lobby for harsh laws, as they have done effectively in recent decades. The company also has an incentive to keep conditions as bad as possible for both prisoners and employees, since, of course, cost-cutting is good for profit-making. Study after study has revealed the obvious and outrageous moral hazards of the private prison industry.

But with a creature in the White House who supports the expansion of this sociopathic industry, it’s useful to be reminded of just how horrible it is. A few weeks ago the New York Times published an article on the East Mississippi Correctional Facility, a privately run prison in which gang members have been allowed to beat other prisoners (for extended periods of time), a mentally ill man on suicide watch hanged himself, and inmates have to protect themselves with crudely made knives and other weapons because there aren’t enough guards to maintain order. And the ones who are there aren’t well-trained. One prisoner was charged by a man with a knife and a long section of pipe while he was being escorted to his jail cell; the two guards escorting him just ran away, and he was stabbed and hit for several minutes before other guards arrived. “They laughed and told [the assailant] not to do it again,” the victim recalled. The medical staff did effectively nothing for his wounds.

Meanwhile, the recent “crackdown” on undocumented immigrants has meant a bonanza for the profits of certain corporations. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, a private prison company called CoreCivic, Inc. that runs the Steward Detention Center in Georgia has been making money off people detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The scheme is to force immigrants to work for as little as $1 a day cleaning, cooking, and maintaining the detention center, which would otherwise have to be maintained by actual employees. Those who refuse to work are “threatened with solitary confinement and the loss of access to basic necessities, like food, clothing, products for personal hygiene, and phone calls to loved ones, in violation of federal anti-trafficking laws.” Lawsuits have been filed in several states to challenge these sorts of work practices.

For-profit Medicaid hindrance

Under the perpetual pretext of cutting costs and increasing efficiency, a number of states, including (among others) Illinois, Iowa, North Carolina, Florida, Mississippi, Oklahoma, and Kansas, have in recent years partly or wholly privatized Medicaid. The “efficiency” pretext, incidentally, is ironic, given the likely truth of David Graeber’s “Iron Law of Liberalism,” that “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.” The explosion of bureaucracy in the market-obsessed neoliberal era bears out this law.

What have been the consequences of these privatizations? Iowa is an illustrative case. According to a series of editorials for which Andie Dominick of the Des Moines Register won a 2018 Pulitzer Prize, the results have not been pretty. Since April 2016, three for-profit insurers have taken over management of health care for more than 500,000 Iowans, many of whom have, as a result, now lost access to services, equipment (such as wheelchairs), and even nutritional supplements. Against the advice of medical professionals, the insurers simply refuse to pay for needed care.

Healthcare providers have been underpaid or not paid at all. A nursing home was forced to borrow $150,000 while waiting for reimbursements; a mental health facility was owed $300,000; a family planning clinic had to close. To take only three examples. The state has had to bail out the insurers and assume financial risk—which is ironic, since the supposed point of privatization was to provide state budget predictability in Medicaid spending. Before the privatization debacle, Iowa’s Medicaid had lower per-person spending than many other states and provided reliable reimbursements to providers and consistency in coverage for vulnerable people.

Because of problems similar to Iowa’s, Connecticut in 2012 fired the insurance companies managing its Medicaid programs and transitioned back to the traditional “fee for service” model, according to which the state reimburses providers directly. The results were what you’d expect: the monthly cost of care per patient dropped $718 in 2012 to $670 in 2015; the number of doctors willing to accept Medicaid patients increased; and administrative costs dropped from 12 percent to 5 percent.

Turns out market forces aren’t so “efficient” after all.

Nature for sale

Already in his short tenure in office, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has shown he can privatize with the best of them. There isn’t space here to list all the creative ways he’s trying to destroy the natural environment or restrict its enjoyment to a select few, but we can consider a few examples.

In December 2017, on Zinke’s recommendation and at the behest of the fossil fuel industry, Trump announced he was going to reduce Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument by 50 percent. Legal challenges to these orders are currently winding through the courts.

Zinke has ordered the Bureau of Land Management to hold oil and gas lease sales of public lands every 90 days, in addition to “eliminating burdensome regulations” related to oil and natural gas development. He has started the process of opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and natural gas drilling, and is pushing for an expedited timeline of leasing land by 2019. Meanwhile, he’s trying to make drilling less safe by reversing safety regulations that were put in place after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster.

In January 2018 Zinke proposed an offshore drilling plan that would open 90 percent of the U.S. Outer Continental Shelf for oil and gas lease sales. By comparison, the current program puts 94 percent of the OCS off-limits. (Zinke said he’d exempt Florida from the plan, as a favor to his friend Governor Rick Scott, but it appears that this exemption wasn’t a formal action and that Florida is, in fact, being considered for offshore drilling.) Zinke’s draft plan also proposes the largest number of lease sales in U.S. history.

Selling land to corporations is one method of privatization; another is to restrict enjoyment of public parks to those who can afford to pay. Zinke is pursuing this second path as well. In 2016 the National Park Service offered 16 free-admission days at national parks; in 2017 the number was down to 10; this year it’s down to four. The Interior Department had also planned to massively increase entrance fees at the country’s most popular parks—from $25 to $70—but scrapped the plan due to public backlash. Instead, the department will enact a more limited increase at all parks that charge an entrance fee.

With the Trump administration’s term less than half over, we can expect a slew of similar predatory plans in the coming years.

Business as usual

None of these trends is at all surprising, since they emerge from tendencies fundamental to capitalism for centuries. These tendencies have simply been unshackled from prior restraints in the neoliberal era. The destructive, antisocial essence of capitalism has been given free rein, like a raging bull that has broken free of its yoke, such that society is approaching the literal realization of capitalism’s misanthropic telos.

In the long run, two outcomes seem possible. Either humanity will find itself in the Hobbesian state of nature—which is the inner logic and meaning of capitalism—or the crises into which we are fast plunging ourselves will call forth such massive global resistance that a revolutionary social transformation will, at length, come to pass. What it will look like can’t be foreseen (though informed speculations can be useful). All that can be predicted with certainty is that unless the generations now living devote their very existence to the Resistance, humanity won’t have much of a future.

Business as usual is no longer an option.

Pakistan: 11 Coal Miners killed in Spate of Deadly Accidents

A series of deadly accidents has claimed the lives of 11 coal miners in Pakistan since late March. The tragic deaths of the miners once again demonstrates the dismal state of worker safety in the country. The accidents also highlight the deeply exploitative character of the mining industry, which after years of privatization is now dominated by private corporations.

The most recent accident occurred on the night of April 4, when 6 workers were suffocated by poisonous gas at a coal mine in the Sikandarabad area of Kalat in Balochistan, Pakistan’s poorest province. According to reports, the miners were digging deep inside the mine where a lethal amount of methane gas had accumulated, causing them to lose consciousness. Workers outside the mine tried desperately to rescue their friends and colleagues, but to no avail. They had all perished by the time rescue teams arrived. The mine was operating illegally, without the requisite government license, according to the Mines and Minerals Development Department of Balochistan’s provincial government.

A few days earlier, on April 1, 4 coal miners were killed at Ali Mines in the Jhelum district of Punjab. They were among 6 workers trapped under debris when an explosion caused a roof to collapse. Those killed included, Rehmatullah, Sabir Rehman and pair of brothers, Naseebzadah and Naseebullah, all of whom hailed from the Shangla district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

According to the Pakistan Central Mines Labour Federation, another coal miner, Faiz Ullah, was killed in an accident at the Sharigh Coal Mine in Balochistan on March 27.

Poverty-stricken Pakistan has a long history of industrial accidents, which have claimed the lives of countless workers across various industries. According to sources familiar with Pakistan’s coal industry, at least 275 coal miners have been killed in accidents since January 2010. While mining is a dangerous job anywhere, it is especially perilous in Pakistan, where working conditions are deplorable and miners are made to follow outdated procedures. In addition to the threat of lethal accidents, miners are also exposed to toxic chemicals and dust that take a toll on their health. They are forced to endure these conditions while earning a pittance.

The country’s coal mining industry is unregulated. It is also plagued by the illegal ownership and operation of mines, lack of implementation of existing safety and health laws and a severely overburdened mining inspectorate. Mine owners routinely flout the existing regulations, fully cognizant of the fact they won’t suffer any consequences.

Pakistan’s coal miners are also insufficiently organized, with many lacking union representation. The existing unions, meanwhile, tend to limit their activities to appeals directed at the country’s crooked politicians and various domestic and international NGOs.

Last month, IndustriALL Global Union, an international federation of unions, launched a campaign to improve worker safety in Pakistan’s mines. The campaign was launched in partnership with its 10 Pakistani affiliates. IndustriALL has called on the government of Pakistan to immediately ratify the International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 176 on safety and health in mines. First adopted in 1995, ILO Convention 176 establishes a framework for countries to create safer mining conditions and provides miners with increased rights. Most significantly, it recognizes the right of workers to participate in workplace safety through independent representation and acknowledges the right of workers to refuse to perform dangerous tasks. While the ratification and implementation of ILO Convention 176 would significantly improve worker safety in mines, only 32 countries have ratified it over the past 23 years.

If history is any guide, the call by IndustriALL to ratify ILO Convention 176 will fall on deaf ears. Successive governments in Pakistan have proven that the country’s elite is utterly impervious to the plight of the working class. Indeed, the response of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (N) and the opposition parties to the recent accidents has been one and the same—silence.

The exploitative mine and factory owners will continue to take advantage of this state of affairs until workers unite across industries to fight for safe and humane working conditions.