Posts Tagged ‘history’


Capitalism has, from the very beginning, generated movements of masses of people, both within and between nations. On one hand, the development of capitalism has disrupted and in many cases destroyed other modes of production and ways of life, and forced workers to have the freedom to sell their ability to work elsewhere—sometimes within their home countries (e.g., by moving from the countryside into small towns and large cities), often in other countries (when, of course, it was possible to assemble the finances to make the journey). On the other hand, the emergence and growth of capitalist enterprises have created the means to hire a larger and larger labor force—a demand that has been met by a changing combination of native-born and immigrant workers. Capitalism, in this sense, has demonstrated its own laws of population, including national and international migration.

And, as people have moved, shouldering the costs of their migrations across regions and national boundaries has been as unevenly distributed as the actual wealth those workers eventually created. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that across the history of capitalism the resulting large-scale movements of people have erupted in intense debates and battles over their effects.

The United States, of course, is no exception to these movements and controversies. The development of capitalism within U.S. borders, as well as the transformations it has simultaneously induced in other territories and countries (within the Americas and across the globe), have had the effect of creating both a mass of people who have no alternative but to sell their ability to work to someone else and a much smaller group of employers who have the capacity and interest to hire them. The result has been an ever-changing demography within the United States—as people of different ethnicities, races, and nationalities have been induced to move between regions and from other countries—as well as sporadic but intense debates about the consequences and costs of that ever-changing “melting-pot.”

That debate has, once again, erupted in the United States, in the midst of the current presidential campaign. While the terms of the debate are often couched (and thus mishandled and manipulated) in other terms, Americans are once again attempting to come to grips with the effects of the history of capitalism’s laws of population, which first concentrated and then abandoned generations of migrant workers in some regions and cities (especially in the now-deindustrialized Midwest), while simultaneously creating the conditions for the immigration of masses of people to work on the industrial farms and increasingly across the economy, from construction to services (everywhere else, both North and South).

Since Americans are encouraged to overlook the actual causes of migration and, in addition, to treat the two—internal and external—migrations as separate, independent processes, they end up concentrating only on the consequences of immigration (and, even then, on only some of the consequences). And that’s exactly the focus of the new study, “The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration,” by the Panel on the Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Immigration of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

I plan to discuss the Panel’s major findings in a separate post tomorrow.

Map of the day

Posted: 6 September 2016 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , ,


Between 1964 and 1973, during its “secret war” in Laos, the United States [ht: ja] dropped more than two million tons of bombs—the heaviest aerial bombardment in history.

Most of the munitions dropped were cluster bombs, which splinter before impact, spreading hundreds of smaller bomblets — known locally as “bombies.”

To this day, less than 1% of the bombs have been removed, according to US-based NGO Legacies of War, which is spearheading the campaign to clear them.

“We were all but forgotten here,” says the Laos-born founder of Legacies of War, Channapha Khamvongsa.

But the people of Laos can’t forget, as the “secret war” is still claiming victims.

More than 20,000 people have been killed or maimed by the unexploded ordnance (UXOs) since the war ended, and currently, 50 people are maimed or killed every year.

Around 40% of those are children.

“(The bombies) are tennis ball sized weapons,” Khamvongsa says. “The children often mistake the bombs for toys, and pick them up and throw them around. This is often the cause of an explosion.”

Farmers are also among the worst affected, as the poorest are forced to toil the mine-laden fields to feed their families.

“Eighty percent of people rely on their land to grow food in Laos,” Khamvongsa says. “So they still use their land even at the risk of their own lives.”<

As Santi Suthiinithet (pdf) explains, the total of U.S. bombs dropped on Laos

is the equivalent to a planeload of bombs being unloaded every eight minutes, 24 hours a day, for nine years—nearly seven bombs for every man, woman and child living in Laos.

It is more than all the bombs dropped on Europe throughout World War II, leaving Laos, a country approximately the size of Utah, with the unfortunate distinction of being the most heavily bombed country in history.


Special mention

168475_600 117812_600

wealth shares

[modified from the original source (pdf)]

We’ve been learning a great deal about the conditions and consequences of the obscene levels of inequality in the United States—now, in the past, and it seems for the foreseeable future.

Right now, inequality is escalating within public higher education, especially in research universities that are chasing both tuition revenues and rankings. Thus, the editorial board of the Badger Herald, the student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin, found it necessary to criticize the lifting of the out-of-state student enrollment cap because it betrays the Wisconsin Idea and is making the university both “richer and whiter.”

Instead of increasing enrollment by targeting low-income and underrepresented Wisconsin students, UW now joins the ranks of public institutions that are happy with increasing the — already substantial — socioeconomic divide on campus. Making UW a bougie playground for the greater Chicagoland area is not the way to keep Wisconsin a world-class institution.

The Wisconsin students are right.* As recent research by Ozan Jaquette, Bradley R. Curs, and Julie R. Posselt confirms, public research universities are increasingly relying on tuition increases to fund their activities.** Thus, they are admitting more nonresident students—both for their out-of-state tuition payments and to raise the universities’ academic profile—and, as a result, the proportion of historically underrepresented students and especially of low-income students is declining. Moreover,

The shift towards nonresident students suggests that public research universities have increased the value they place on students who pay high tuition and have high test scores. This shift is indicative of a deeper change in organizational values, away from the public good emphasis on access and towards the self-interested emphases of academic profile and revenue generation. As scholars, campus leaders, or policymakers, we must ask ourselves, whether these are the values we want our flagship public institutions to promote?

We also need to look at the way inequality played out in American history, and make the appropriate connections to the present and future. In a recent paper, Suresh Naidu and Noam Yuchtman examine the situation of labor markets during the first Gilded Age. Their argument, in a nutshell, is that labor markets in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are as close as we have seen in U.S. history to the unregulated labor market that is presumed and celebrated within neoclassical economics. But, the authors explain, those Gilded-Age labor markets were characterized by high levels of conflict—between labor movements and employer organizations (over wages and, when workers went on strike, replacement workers or scabs)—which, in turn, called on increased levels of judicial intervention as well as domestic policing and military intervention, generally on the side of the employers.***

And the implications for the United States, in the second Gilded Age:

Looking around today, it is obvious that inequality and conflict over the distribution of wealth and income remain salient a century after the first Gilded Age. History is never a perfect guide, but the late 19th century suggests that even as markets play a greater role in allocating labour, legal and political institutions will continue to shape bargaining power between firms and workers, and thus the division of rents within the firm. What remains to be determined – and battled over – is which institutions are empowered to act, and whose interests they will represent. Regardless, latent labour market conflict seems likely to be a prominent feature of our new Gilded Age.

Finally, what can we way about inequality looking forward? According to Robert Shiller, it “could become a nightmare in the decades ahead.”

The reason for this dire prognosis is that the structures that create high levels of inequality in the first place serve as barriers to policies that might actually lessen the amount of inequality. According to Angus Deaton, “Those who are doing well will organize to protect what they have, including in ways that benefit them at the expense of the majority.” Historically, the only exceptions in capitalist democracies emerge in times of war, “because war mobilization changed beliefs about tax fairness.”

And contra Robert Solow (“We are not good at large-scale redistribution of income”), capitalist societies have consistently shown to be very good at large-scale redistribution of income toward the top—just not particularly interested in moving in the opposite direction, in redistributing income to those at the bottom.

In fact, neither Shiller nor the nine other economists who contributed to a recent project on long-term forecasting “expressed optimism that inequality would be corrected in the future, and none of us ventured that any major economic policy was likely to counteract recent trends.”****

Shiller uses Satyajit Ray’s 1973 movie “Distant Thunder”—about the Bengal famine of 1942-43, when millions died, almost all from the lower classes—to illustrate our current dilemma. There was plenty of food in the Bengal Province of British India to keep everyone alive but “the food was not shared adequately.”*****

Systems of privilege and entitlement permitted hoarding of food by people of status whose lives went on much as usual, except that they had to brush off starving beggars and would occasionally see dead bodies on the street.

It’s clear that, today, there are plenty of goods—food, clothing, and shelter—to go around but they’re not being shared equally. Not by a long shot. The problem is, existing “systems of privilege and entitlement” permit the accumulation of wealth on one end and misery on the end—just as they did during the first Gilded Age and, unless things change, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Meanwhile, the lives of people of status go on much as usual, in their “bougie playground”—except they have to brush off the contemporary equivalent of starving beggars and occasionally see the analogy today of dead bodies on the street.


*It should perhaps come as no surprise that a prominent mainstream economist, Rebecca Blank, Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 2013, is the one who sought (and won) an end to the cap on out-of-state and international students.

**As Stephanie Saul reports,

According to the College Board, the average cost of attending a four-year public university, including room and board, increased from $11,655 in 2000 to $19,548 in 2015, in inflation-adjusted dollars. In the City University of New York system, tuition at four-year colleges is now $6,330, having increased by $300 each year since 2011, when it was $4,830. . .

“What Sanders figured out — it’s not the $65,000 cost of attendance at some of our pricier privates driving the debt bubble, but rather the disinvestment and privatization of public higher ed,” said Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

***This is one of the examples I use in my graduate-level course on the Political Economy of War and Peace—that the United States has its own history of intrastate wars (which, like many such wars in recent times, have been class wars) and that, as the authors explain, “military and law enforcement institutions of the United States, in particular the Army, the National Guard, and the FBI, can trace their origins to the federal troops, state militias, and private Pinkertons deployed in 19th century labor conflicts.”

****The key point Shiller does not address is the role mainstream economics has played both in creating the current levels of inequality and in creating barriers to imagining and enacting policies and strategies for doing away with the grotesque levels of inequality we are witnessing today.

*****Amartya Sen famously argued that democracy prevents famines. That may be true. But it doesn’t prevent hunger or the other economic and social catastrophes that stem from the high levels of inequality we’ve witnessed during the first and second Gilded Ages in the United States.


Toward the end of the Civil War, former black slaves were ordered to receive “40 acres and a mule.”* Then, a few months later, Andrew Johnson overturned General Sherman’s Order and most of the United States’ 3.9 million former slaves never received any of the promised wealth.

Now, a century and a half later, researchers at the Corporation for Enterprise Development and the Institute for Policy Studies (pdf) have calculated that it would take African-Americans another 228 years (just seventeen years shorter than the actual span of slavery in the United States) to accumulate the same amount of wealth whites had in 2013 if current policies remain in place. (For the average Latino family, it would take 84 years.)

Think about that!*

wealth divide

Over the past three decades, the average wealth of white families has grown by 84 percent, three times as fast as the rate for African-American families and 1.2 times the growth rate for Latino families. In dollar terms, if the past 30 years were to repeat, whites would see their wealth increase by about $18,000 a year on average, while Latino household wealth would increase an average $2,250 a year and wealth for African-Americans would grow by just $750 annually.


But the problem of wealth is not just a matter of ethnicity or race. Between 1983 and 2013, the top 20 percent of the wealthiest households took 99.4 percent of all wealth gains, with the top 1 percent taking the lion’s share of those gains (40 percent). Meanwhile, the bottom 80 percent of households—white, black, hispanic, and so on—were left with just 0.6 percent of total wealth gain.

And, of course, for the ultra-wealthy group that make up the Forbes 400, things have been even better. Since 1983, this elite group has seen their wealth increase by an average of 736 percent, from $700 million to $5.8 billion. As the authors explain,

the billionaires of the Forbes 400—which includes only two African-Americans and five Latinos—now own more wealth than the entire Black population and one-third of the Latino population, combined. That’s 400 wealthy individuals versus more than 60 million people.

tax benefits

The fact is, wealth-building policies in the United States have long favored the wealthy over typical wage earners, and many of the largest and most powerful of these programs flow through the U.S. tax code. An overwhelming amount of the spending done through the tax code goes to white households at every income level but especially for those (who themselves are overwhelmingly white) at the very top.

Perhaps it’s time then for a new redistributive Order, the contemporary equivalent of 40 acres and a mule for all working-class households in the United States.


*And it’s a conservative estimate, since the analysis is based on average, not median, levels of wealth.

02-native-american-long-house.w750.h560.2x dsc_0061

Back in May, in an interview with Grèce Hebdo, French philosopher Alain Badiou was asked about the source of his optimism concerning contemporary social movements, from Nuit Debout to Bernie Sanders, even when they face strategic setbacks:

So you’re continuing to look to communism as a horizon?

Yes, not only do I keep this horizon open but I think it is very important to do so. For if there is no strategic idea then movements undergoing setbacks or recuperation risk having devastating subjective effects. There you risk demobilisation, the thought that ‘well I was young then, I threw myself into this adventure and it didn’t work’. Our thinking has to be that while there are strategic setbacks we will maintain our course despite the sinuosities of History. History does not march in a straight line but in a very tortuous way, and we should not imagine any royal road leading to emancipation. There are reverses, negatives, and that is why we need to have a compass come what may. If we have no compass we end up old and disheartened.

I was thinking about the idea of communism as a horizon as I read (only because a reader [ht: ja] sent me the link) the latest from New York Times columnist David Brooks. He begins by noting that, in the eighteenth century, American Indians rejected colonial society (which “was richer and more advanced”) but many whites were moving the other way, choosing to live within Indian society (which was “more communal”).

Brooks then moves up to the present and notes that there seems to be a new desire for community, at least among Millenials.

Maybe we’re on the cusp of some great cracking. Instead of just paying lip service to community while living for autonomy, I get the sense a lot of people are actually about to make the break and immerse themselves in demanding local community movements. It wouldn’t surprise me if the big change in the coming decades were this: an end to the apotheosis of freedom; more people making the modern equivalent of the Native American leap.

While readers wrap their heads around the idea that Brooks might be a modern-day communist (or at least a communist sympathizer), consider what that means. In many Native American societies, the surplus was created by the direct producers and then managed not privately (as in capitalism), but by the commune (either directly or by a representative of the commune, such as an elder or religious figure). So, in historical communism (which some, especially in the Marxian tradition, refer to as “primitive communism”), there was no exploitation, no “ripping-off” of the producers by “autonomous” individuals who did not participate in creating the surplus.*

And, as it turns out, communism is more than just a horizon: it’s actually being practiced in a wide variety of economic and social settings. One such example are the refugee “squats” [ht: ja] in Greece, an alternative to the government-run camps. Best I can tell, all the work is being conducted collectively, as part of the commune:

There are cleaning teams, cooking teams, security teams, language lessons, art classes, children’s activities, beach outings, translators, Arabic lessons for volunteers and more.

Squats are run without government or major nongovernmental-organization influence and rely on donations and manpower from independent volunteers. Responsibility is divided among the residents. At Dakdouk’s original squat, a “local technical group” is the go-to for all maintenance and IT issues. There are plans to establish a bakery to produce bread en masse for residents and rooftop gardens to provide “for the soul and for the body,” says one group member.

I doubt anyone thought that was how communism would come to be established—among refugees, the most marginalized people in the world today. However, that may be exactly the communist horizon both Badiou and Brooks have in mind: noncapitalist communal activities that provide for both the soul and the body.


*Interested readers should consult the pioneering work of Jack Amariglio (e.g., “Subjectivity, Class, and Marx’s “Forms of the Commune’,” Rethinking Marxism, 22:3, 329-344) and Dean Saitta (e.g., “Marxism, Prehistory, and Primitive Communism,” Rethinking Marxism 1:1, 145-168).



Charles Wilbert White, “The Contribution of the Negro to Democracy in America” (1943)

Almost two centuries ago, European (especially French) elites were fearful of the democratic experiment taking place in North America. So, they dispatched Alexis de Toqueville (and Gustave de Beaumont) for a report, under the pretext of examining the U.S. penal system. The result was de Toqueville’s two-volume paean to the principle of equality and the “great democratic revolution [that] is going on among us.”

This year, the United States hosted another visitor, Maina Kiai, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. As Max Bearak [ht: ja] explains, Kiai’s trip “was spurred by growing concerns that despite a Constitution that guarantees broad inalienable rights, the world’s supposed beacon of freedom is often not living up to international standards of equality under law.”

At the end of his trip, Kiai also published his findings, which readers will see is a much more critical analysis of the current state of democracy in America.

Like de Toqueville, Kiai begins with some history:

The United States is an impressive, complex and imposing nation in which to undertake a mission such as this. It is an economic powerhouse, a military superpower, a global engine of technological development, and one of the oldest democracies in the world.

It is also an extremely diverse nation, a nation of indigenous peoples, slaves and immigrants. It is a nation of diverse opinions and views, sometimes so strongly held that it once slid into Civil War. And it is a nation of struggle and resilience, home of one of the 20th Century’s most inspiring moments encapsulated by the Civil Rights Movement.

The experiences with various forms of diversity and complexity have not always been smooth. The country was founded on land stolen from its indigenous Native Americans; its early economic strength was built on race-based slavery against people of African descent; and successive waves of immigrants have faced discrimination, harassment or worse.

Kiai then observes, “America seems to be at a moment where it is struggling to live up to its ideals on a number of important issues, the most critical being racial, social and economic inequality, which are often intertwined.” He is particularly concerned with an issue that de Toqueville himself thought was vital to the practice of American democracy: the freedom of association. “But it is impossible to discuss these rights,” Kiani notes, “without issues of racism pervading the discussions. Racism and the exclusion, persecution and marginalization that come with it, affect the enabling environment for the exercise of association and assembly rights.”

This issue is particularly grave in the African-American community, and understanding its context means looking back at 400 years of slavery. It also means looking at the emergence of the Jim Crow laws that destroyed the achievements of the Reconstruction Era, which emerged at the end of slavery in 1865, and enforced segregation and marginalized the African-American community to a life of misery, poverty and persecution.

It means looking at what happened after Jim Crow laws were dismantled, when old philosophies of exclusion and discrimination were reborn, cloaked in new and euphemistic terms. These may have not been race-based on their face, but they have, intentionally or not, disproportionately targeted African-Americans and other minorities.

The so-called “War on Drugs” is a perfect example. From it, one out of every 15 black men is in currently jail. One out of every 13 African-Americans, meanwhile, has lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction. An aggressive emphasis on street-level “law and order” (or “broken windows” approach) policing combined with wide police discretion means that African-Americans are subjected to systematic police harassment – and sometimes much worse – often for doing nothing more than walking down the street or gathering in a group. Convictions and incarcerations dramatically increased once the “War on Drugs” was set in motion, without a corresponding increase in drug use.

Similarly the crime laws passed under the Bill Clinton administration (1993-2001), including the federal “three strikes” law, implemented aggressively against people of color have contributed to the huge rises in incarceration and exclusion of the black community further fueling discontent and anger.

The effects can often snowball: A minor criminal offense – or even an arrest without substantiated charges – can show up on a background check, making it difficult to find a job, secure a student loan or find a place to live. This marginalization in turn makes it more likely that a person will turn to crime, for lack of any other option, and the vicious cycle continues.

These discriminatory laws and practices need to be seen in the larger context. Wall Street bankers looted billions of dollars through crooked schemes, devastating the finances of millions of Americans and saddling taxpayers with a massive bailout bill. Yet during my mission I did not hear any suggestions of a “War on Wall Street theft.” Instead, criminal justice resources go towards enforcing a different type of law and order, targeting primarily African-Americans and other minorities.

There is justifiable and palpable anger in the black community over these injustices. It needs to be expressed. This is the context that gave birth to the non-violent Black Lives Matter protest movement and the context in which it must be understood.

In discussions with activists, it is clear that “Black Lives Matter” does not mean that other lives—green, purple, blue, white or other color—do not matter. The Black Lives Matter movement is simply a reaffirmation that black lives do in fact matter, in the face of a structure that systematically devalues and destroys them, stretching back hundreds of years. It is not about granting African-Americans special status or privilege. It is about a historically and continuously targeted community seeking to elevate itself to the same level that everyone else enjoys.

But, he explains, “racial inequality is not the only inequality inhibiting the enabling environment for association and assembly rights.”

 Although the United States engineered an admirable recovery following the financial crisis of 2007-08, this rising tide did not lift all boats. Productivity and economic output has grown, but the benefits of these have gone primarily to the wealthiest, as the wages of average people have stagnated. This has exacerbated the problem of inequality across all demographic groups, created more resentment, and more tension; providing more reasons for people to become politically engaged – including by exercising their assembly and association rights.

This inequality has been accelerated by declining union membership in a context of laws and practices which make it difficult for workers to organize, increasing corporate power, and a free market fundamentalist culture that actively discourages unionization. A dysfunctional, polarized Congress that has seemingly lost its tradition of compromise has made things worse.

In short, people have good reason to be angry and frustrated at the moment. And it is at times like these when robust promotion of assembly and association rights are needed most. These rights give people a peaceful avenue to speak out, engage in dialogue with their fellow citizens and authorities, air their grievances and hopefully settle them. They are also a key vehicle for public participation for marginalized groups whose ability to participate in democracy may be otherwise limited by dint of being felons or migrants.

Consider, then, the difference in perspective 185 years have created: The French aristocrat thought American democracy, whose only threat was a tyranny of the majority, promoted general equality among its citizens. Today, however, the U.N. official finds that growing inequality—racial, social, and economic—in America is undermining the practice of democracy, precisely when it is most required for the majority of its “angry and frustrated” citizens.