Posts Tagged ‘politics’

Men Waiting Outside Al Capone Soup Kitchen JNS.FoodGiveaway2

One of the courses I’m offering this semester is A Tale of Two Depressions, cotaught with one of my colleagues, Ben Giamo, from American Studies. It’s a comparison of the conditions and consequences of the two major crises of capitalism during the past hundred years, the 1930s and the period after the crash of 2007-08.*

It just so happens the Guardian is also right now revisiting the 1930s. Readers will find lots of interesting material, from some evocative street photography from the period (including bread lines, hunger marches, and various protests) to classics of political theater (from Bertolt Brecht and Federico García Lorca to John Dos Passos and Clifford Odets).

I’ve been writing about the Second Great Depression, in mostly economic terms, since 2010. For the Guardian, the idea is that the situation then, in the 1930s, offers lessons for us today—partly for economic reasons but, increasingly, given the victory of Donald Trump and the growth of other right-wing populist-nationalist movements in Europe, in political terms.

Larry Elliott focuses on the economics. Unfortunately, he makes the mistake many commit, by starting with the stock-market crash of 1929—which, as it turns out, was the trigger, but not the cause, of the First Great Depression. He does a much better job examining the different responses to the two precipitating crashes (yes, there were lessons were learned, especially in the United States, with the quick bailout of Wall Street), including identifying those who were left out of the post-2009 recovery.

Wage increases have been hard to come by, and the strong desire of governments to reduce budget deficits has resulted in unpopular austerity measures. Not all the lessons of the 1930s have been well learned , and the over-hasty tightening of fiscal policy has slowed growth and caused political alienation among those who feel they are being punished for a crisis they did not create, while the real villains get away scot-free . A familiar refrain in both the referendum on Brexit and the 2016 US presidential election was: there might be a recovery going on, but it’s not happening around here. . .

The winners from the liberal economic system that emerged at the end of the cold war have, like their forebears in the 20s, failed to look out for the losers. A rising tide has not lifted all boats, and those who do not consider themselves the beneficiaries of globalisation have grown weary of hearing how marvellous it is.

The 30s are proof that nothing in economics is inevitable. There was eventually a backlash against the economic orthodoxies and Skidelsky can see why there is another backlash happening today. “Globalisation enables capital to escape national and union control. I am much more sympathetic since the start of the crisis to the Marxist way of analysing things.

And then, of course, there’s the political backlash, the topic of the most recent piece in the series. Jonathan Freedland begins by noting the differences between the two periods: the fact that ultra-nationalist and fascist movements managed to seize power in Germany, Italy, and Spain in the 1930s, which has not (yet) happened in the more recent period. Trump, for example, has criticized the media but has not (yet) closed any sites down. Nor has he suggested Muslims wear identifying symbols.

These are crumbs of comfort; they are not intended to minimise the real danger Trump represents to the fundamental norms that underpin liberal democracy. Rather, the point is that we have not reached the 1930s yet. Those sounding the alarm are suggesting only that we may be travelling in that direction – which is bad enough.

There are other warning signs, which suggest closer parallels between the 1930s and today: the shattering of the faith in globalization’s ability to spread the wealth, the growing hostility to those deemed outsiders, and a growing impatience with the rule of law and with democracy. Then, as now, capitalism faces a profound crisis of legitimacy.

In the end, Freedland takes comfort in our having a memory of the 1930s: “We can learn the period’s lessons and avoid its mistakes.” What he fails to acknowledge, however, is that economic and political elites in the 1930s also had vivid memories—of the great crashes of 1873 and 1893 and, of course, the horrors of the “war to end all wars.” But those events were forgotten amidst more short-run memories, including their joining to put down workers’ actions, including the widespread attacks after the 1926 general strike led by the Trades Union Congress in England and the anti-union “American Plan” during the 1920s on the other side of the Atlantic.

The more or less inevitable result in both countries was growing inequality, as large corporations and a tiny group of wealthy individuals at the top managed to capture a larger and larger share of national income—thus creating a financial bubble that eventually crashed, in 1929 just as in 2007-08.

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The memory of the 1929 crash certainly didn’t prevent the most recent one, nor did it create a recovery that has benefited the majority of the population. In fact, it seems the only lesson learned was how it might be possible, in recent years, for those at the top to recovery more quickly than they managed to do after the First Great Depression what they had lost.

It’s that rush to return to business as usual, characterized by obscene levels of inequality, and not the lack of memory of the 1930s, that has created the conditions for the growth and strengthening of populist, right-wing movements in the United States and Europe.

 

*As is my custom, the syllabus is publicly available on the course web site. Readers might find the large collection of additional materials—music, charts, videos, and so on—of interest. They can be found by following the News link.

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It is extraordinary that the hegemonic economic theory in the world today—neoclassical economics—still lacks an adequate theory of the firm.

It beggars belief both because neoclassical economics is the predominant theory that is taught to hundreds of thousands of students every year and used to make sense of the world and formulate policy in countless think thanks and government agencies and because the firm (or enterprise or corporation) is one of the central institutions of capitalism. It’s where many (but of course not all) goods and services are produced, value and surplus-value are created, and profits generated for capitalists.

And yet the neoclassical notion of the firm, even when developed by Nobel Prize-winning economists (such as Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom), is not much more than an empty box—without any real history and, as it turns out, without any links to politics.

Daniel Carpenter, the Allie S. Freed Professor of Government in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Director of Social Sciences at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University, certainly thinks that’s a problem in terms of making sense of how firms came to be constituted historically and what their effects are on contemporary society.

Q: The neoclassical theory of the firm does not consider political engagement by corporations. How big an omission do you think this is?

 I think it’s an immense omission. For one, we can’t even talk about the historical origins of many firms without talking about corporate charters, limited liability arrangements, zoning, public contracts and grants, and so on. To view these processes as legal and not political is a significant mistake. I’m currently writing a lot on the history of petitioning in Europe and North America, and in areas ranging from railroads, to technology-heavy industries, to extractive industries, to banking, firms (or their investors) had to bring a case before the legislature, or an agency of government, or both. They usually used petitions to do so. 

 Beyond the past and into the present, there are a range of firm activities that we can’t understand without looking at politics. Industrial organization considers regulator-firm interactions, but does not theorize the fact that now most firms have regulatory affairs and compliance offices, or the fact that firms hire not just lobbyists but lawyers to do a lot of political work for them.

 And in the future, the profitability and survival prospects of many firms in the coming years will depend heavily, in a polarized environment, on the political skills of managers. The theory of the firm was developed in an era (1950s – 2000) when globalism was the rule. What might it look like if Trump and Brexit are the new norm?

Today, of course, many citizens are concerned about the corrupt links between the capitalist firms in which they work and the governments that are supposed to represent the people. In my view, that concern was one of the causes of the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory in the U.S. presidential election.

The problem is, neither the post-Brexit British government nor the Trump administration has given any indication they’re going to solve the problem of the firm. Quite the opposite. Both have tied themselves to the very same capitalist firms that have wreaked havoc on society for decades now.

Meanwhile, neoclassical economists continue to build their models based on a theory of the firm that bears no relationship to the way firms operate in the real world, manipulating market rules and political actors to their own ends.

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We all know that the recovery since the Great Recession has been highly skewed. But has it hurt whites more than blacks and Hispanics, thereby explaining Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election?

That’s the story being told by Eduardo Porter (here and here), relying on data from the Economic Cycle Research Institute (pdf). Their basic argument is that, of the millions of net new jobs created since the pre-recession highwater mark of November 2007, most of them went to black and Hispanic (and Asian) workers, not to white workers (who make up the majority of the workforce).

The numbers are correct—but their analysis is seriously incomplete.

According to the numbers that serve as the basis of ECRI analysis (and which are represented in the chart above), about 5.5 million more workers are employed now compared to nine years ago (the purple line)—including 4.9 million more Hispanic (green line) and 2.3 million more African American (blue line) workers but 722 thousand fewer white (red line) workers.*

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It comes as no surprise that those different job trajectories are reflected in the different trajectories of the employment-population ratio. Whereas the overall ratio and the ratio for whites have barely changed (at 59 and 60 percent, respectively) since the recession ended, the other ratios have in fact changed—rising for both Hispanics (from 59.3 to 62.2) and blacks (from 52.9 to 56.6).

So, there are differences in job growth, a large part of which can be accounted for by different regional growth patterns (large cities vs. small towns and rural areas), sectoral shifts (services vs. industrial production), and demographic profiles (both the proportion of the working-age population and retirement rates).

However, in every other way, the different groups within the American working-class have moved in tandem.

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For example, the labor-force-participation rate has declined over the past nine years—in general and for each subgroup, white, black, and Hispanic—and remains now just above record lows.

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Unemployment rates have also moved in the same direction—first rising dramatically after the crash and then falling during the recovery (but still remaining above what they were before the crash).

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Meanwhile, workers’ wages have barely budged—overall and for whites, blacks, and Hispanics—between the fourth quarter of 2007 and the third quarter of 2016.

The folks at the Center for Economic and Policy Research get it:

Porter is right in seeing support for Trump as being to a substantial extent a response to bad economic prospects. But the economic prospects of working class whites in the last decade were not notably worse than the prospects of working class blacks.

And, I would add, all the other groups that make up the American working-class.

The fact is, all members of the working-class—white, black, and Hispanic—have been victimized during the Second Great Depression. As I have shown elsewhere (e.g., here and here), as a class, they’ve fallen further and further behind the tiny group of employers and wealthy individuals at the top. That’s the real skewed nature of the economic recovery.

As I see it, the difference in their political allegiances and voting patterns cannot then be explained by white workers losing out to black and Hispanic workers. It’s due, instead, to the fact that one group that has been left behind (working-class whites) threw in their lot with one candidate (right-wing,  white-nationalist Trump)—while other members of the working-class (blacks and Hispanics), who have been equally left behind, simply could not.

And, soon, all of them will discover Trump’s promises were no more than dog-whistle politics and his economic program will leave them even further behind.

 

*The numbers don’t sum correctly (even without including Asian workers) because white Hispanics may be double-counted as both white and Hispanic, and black Hispanics may be double-counted as both black and Hispanic.

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There are two sides to the recent China Shock literature created by David Autor and David Dorn and surveyed by Noah Smith.

On one hand, Autor and Dorn (with a variety of coauthors) have challenged the free-trade nostrums of mainstream economists and economic elites—that everyone benefits from free international trade. Using China as an example, they show that increased trade hurt American workers, increased political polarization, and decreased U.S. corporate innovation.

The case for free international trade now lies in tatters, which of course played an important role in the Brexit vote as well as in the U.S. presidential campaign.

On the other hand, invoking the China Shock has tended to reinforce economic nationalism—treating China as an unitary entity, a country has shaken up world trade patterns, and disregarding the conditions and consequences of increased trade with other countries, including the United States.

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Why has there been an increasing U.S. trade deficit with China in recent decades? As James Chan explained, in response to an August 2016 article in the Wall Street Journal,

Our so-called China problem isn’t really with the Chinese but rather our own multinational companies.

As I see it, U.S. corporations have made a variety of decisions—to subcontract the production of parts and components with enterprises in China (which are then used in products that are later imported into the United States), to purchase goods produced in China to sell in the United States (which then show up in U.S. stores), to outsource their own production of goods (to sell in China and to export to the United States), and so on. The consequences of those corporate decisions (and not just with respect to China) include disrupting jobs and communities in the United States (through outsourcing and import competition) and decreasing innovation (since existing technologies can be used both to produce goods in China and sell in the expanding Chinese consumer market), thereby increasing political polarization in the United States.

The flip side of the story is the accumulation of capital in China. Until the development of the conditions for the development of capitalism existed in China, none of those corporate decisions were possible—not by U.S. corporations nor by multinational enterprises from other countries, all of whom were eager to take advantage of the growth of capitalism in China. Which of course they then contributed to, thus spurring the widening and deepening of capital accumulation within China.

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It should come as no surprise, then, that there’s been an upsurge of strike activity by workers in the fast-growing centers of manufacturing and construction within China—especially in the provinces of Guandong, Shandong, Henan, Sichuan, and Hebei.

According to Hudson Lockett, China this year

saw a total of 1,456 strikes and protests as of end-June, up 19 per cent from the first half of 2015

The problem with the China Shock literature, which has served to challenge the celebration of free-trade by mainstream economists and economic elites in the West, is that it hides from view both the decisions by U.S. corporations that have increased the U.S. trade deficit with China (with the attendant negative consequences “at home”) and the activity by Chinese workers to contest the conditions under which they have been forced to have the freedom to labor (which we can expect to continue for years to come).

It’s our responsibility to keep those decisions and events in view. Otherwise, we risk the economic and political equivalent of the China Syndrome.

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The working-class—at least the white working-class—has become the main theme of the post-election narrative in the United States. That’s not surprising since, as Jim Tankersley explained:

Whites without a college degree — men and women — made up a third of the 2016 electorate. Trump won them by 39 percentage points, according to exit polls, far surpassing 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney’s 25 percent margin. They were the foundation of his victories across the Rust Belt, including a blowout win in Ohio and stunning upsets in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.

The last time around, these voters comprised more than one-third of the Americans who voted for Barack Obama—and Hilly Clinton failed to duplicate that success, especially in any state that mattered in the final electoral-college tally.

Clinton’s supporters want to blame their campaign debacle on racism (in addition to sexism and nativism) and, in recent days, have expressed their fear that responding to Trump’s victory by reaching out to the white working-class will lead to people of color being marginalized. It seems they’re returning to and rehashing the old, tired debate of class versus identity politics.

The first thing to keep in mind is that Bernie Sanders managed, however maladroitly, to put together a message of economic populism that challenged mainstream Democratic identity politics. He reiterated that view after the election:

Let’s rebuild our crumbling infrastructure and create millions of well-paying jobs. Let’s raise the minimum wage to a living wage, help students afford to go to college, provide paid family and medical leave and expand Social Security. Let’s reform an economic system that enables billionaires like Mr. Trump not to pay a nickel in federal income taxes. And most important, let’s end the ability of wealthy campaign contributors to buy elections.

In the coming days, I will also provide a series of reforms to reinvigorate the Democratic Party. I believe strongly that the party must break loose from its corporate establishment ties and, once again, become a grass-roots party of working people, the elderly and the poor. We must open the doors of the party to welcome in the idealism and energy of young people and all Americans who are fighting for economic, social, racial and environmental justice. We must have the courage to take on the greed and power of Wall Street, the drug companies, the insurance companies and the fossil fuel industry.

Second, as Ben Casselman has pointed out, it’s far from clear Donald Trump will be able to keep his promises to the white working-class.

Trump, if he sticks to his campaign pledges (a big “if”), will probably do little either to help the working class or to hurt the elites, at least economically. What’s more, this simple dichotomy completely leaves out the people who stand to lose the most, based on what little we know about Trump’s plans: poor and low-income families in urban and suburban areas.

Third, and perhaps most important, there’s no necessary contradiction between identity and class politics. The Democratic establishment and American liberals presume such a contradiction is hardwired into the U.S. polity and electoral politics. But, in order to move forward, we need some fresh thinking about the possibility of a real working-class politics.

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We need to keep in mind that, historically, political movements around identity were also informed by and infused with working-class politics. Consider, for example, International Women’s Day, which was originally called International Working Women’s Day—the earliest observance of which was held in 1909, organized by the Socialist Party of America, in remembrance of the 1908 strike of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union. Or the Civil Rights Movement, which in 1963 organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, one of the largest political rallies for human rights in U.S. history. One of the March’s key demands was “a massive federal program to train and place all unemployed workers—Negro and white—on meaningful and dignified jobs at decent wages.” In both cases, movements for new identity-related rights were based on working-class organizations and class-defined forms of grievance and redress.

We also need to understand, as Chris Dillow has pointed out, “the very notion of a ‘white’ working class plays the ruling class’s game of divide and rule.”

This isn’t just because it pits class politics against identity politics, but also because it imputes a racism to workers which is perhaps just as prevalent – and more damaging – among the boss class. It downgrades the many other genuine problems workers have, such as stagnant wages, insecurity and workplace tyranny. And it has the absurd implication that ethnic minorities aren’t part of the working class too.

The flip side is that the interests of the working-class are—or at least can be, with the appropriate discourses, identities, and forms of political organization—the interests of most people. As I argued in Sydney, the working-class can “challenge the pretensions of capital to become a universal class, by posing its own universal aspirations—not for everyone to become a laborer but to abolish the wages system itself.”

As Dillow succinctly put it,

the working class is not a problem in politics. It’s the solution.

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Yes, the late Richard Rorty got it spot on:

Members of labor unions, and unorganized unskilled workers, will sooner or later realize that their government is not even trying to prevent wages from sinking or to prevent jobs from being exported. Around the same time, they will realize that suburban white-collar workers—themselves desperately afraid of being downsized—are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else.

At that point, something will crack. The nonsuburban electorate will decide that the system has failed and start looking around for a strongman to vote for—someone willing to assure them that, once he is elected, the smug bureaucrats, tricky lawyers, overpaid bond salesmen, and postmodernist professors will no longer be calling the shots. . .

One thing that is very likely to happen is that the gains made in the past forty years by black and brown Americans, and by homosexuals, will be wiped out. Jocular contempt for women will come back into fashion. The words “nigger” and “kike” will once again be heard in the workplace.

That’s from Rorty’s Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America, originally published in 1998. And Edward Helmore [ht: ja] is right to cite Rorty and to note that passages from the book have gone viral in the wake of the election.*

But that’s about all Helmore gets correct. Maybe I’m getting old. Or journalists like Helmore need to spend more time talking with actual leftists. Or probably a combination of the two.

Let me explain. First, I find it hard to believe that Rorty is “obscure” now. Maybe he is. But he certainly wasn’t in 1998, when Scott Stossel referred to him as “one of the most famous living philosophers in the United States.” Me, I’d just change that to one of the most famous previously living philosophers in the United States. Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature was a monumental achievement—a riposte to the long post-enlightenment tradition of reducing the problem of knowledge to one of representation.

And while some on the Left (especially those in the Rethinking Marxism tradition, who have long been critical of all forms of essentialism, in both epistemology and methodology) have benefitted from reading Rorty, many other left-wing thinkers, especially those who remained wedded to realism, rejected much of what came to be called the postmodern critique of representation.

As for Rorty himself, he wasn’t a leftist. He did write about the Left (both Old and New, modern and postmodern) but he was by his own admission a Cold War (anti-communist) liberal.** He believed fervently in liberal democracy and argued for strengthening it. His own politics harkened back to a quite different tradition, the pragmatism of John Dewey.

That doesn’t mean Rorty was wrong or that his work, both philosophical and political, doesn’t still have a great deal to offer the contemporary Left.

Me, I think Rorty should remain on our reading lists, if only because postmodernism has been blamed (by, among others, Peter Pomerantsev) for a wide range of recent disasters, from 9/11 to Donald Trump.***

This equaling out of truth and falsehood is both informed by and takes advantage of an all-permeating late post-modernism and relativism, which has trickled down over the past thirty years from academia to the media and then everywhere else. This school of thought has taken Nietzsche’s maxim, there are no facts, only interpretations, to mean that every version of events is just another narrative, where lies can be excused as ‘an alternative point of view’ or ‘an opinion’, because ‘it’s all relative’ and ‘everyone has their own truth’ (and on the internet they really do).

While I hate to admit it (because I don’t share many of his views, especially those expressed in recent years, nor his general attitude of arrogant disdain), Stanley Fish does offer the appropriate response:

postmodernism has no causal relationship to either the spread of terrorist ideology or the primary triumphs of Trump.

What postmodernism says is that while the material world certainly exists and is prior to our descriptions of it, we only have access to it through those descriptions. That is, we do not know the world directly, as a matter of simple and unmediated perception; rather we know it as the vocabularies at our disposal deliver it to us. The philosopher Richard Rorty put it this way: “The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not.”

The world does not come equipped with its own language, its own directions for stating the truth about it; if it did, we could just speak that language and be confident that what we said was objectively true.

But in the absence of such a language (called by the historian of science Thomas Kuhn a “neutral observation language”), we must make do with the vocabularies that are developed in the course of our attempts to make sense of things: the vocabularies of science, philosophy, political theory, anthropology, sociology, law, aesthetics. Merely to list those vocabularies (and there are of course more than I have instanced) is to realise that in every discipline – every laboratory of description – there is more than one; there are many and those many are in competition with one another, vying for the right to wear the labels correct and true.

If different vocabularies deliver different worlds and different measures of true and false, does that amount (in Pomerantsev’s words) to the “equaling out of truth and falsehood”? Only in reference to a measure of true and false attached to no vocabulary at all, a measure proceeding directly from an unmediated, perfectly seen world. Were there such a measure, all assertions would equal out because they would be equally (though differently) far from the truth as seen from a God’s-eye point of view.

Without such a measure, what we have is a contest of discourses—each of which, of course, has different effects.

What that means is, if we can’t rule out Trump (or any other economic or political disaster) in the name of some kind of “reality” or capital-T truth (and I don’t think we can), we still have two formidable weapons: critical thinking and political organizing. And, while liberals continue to deny it, the Left is still the best place to find and develop those weapons.

 

*According to Jennifer Senior, Rorty’s book has now sold out and “Harvard University Press is reprinting the book for the first time since 2010.”

**See, for example, his conversation with Derek Nystrom and Kent Puckett (pdf).

***Both Max de Haldevang and Victor Davis Hanson have also referred to Trump as a “postmodern candidate.”

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Class issues became central to the 2016 presidential campaign in ways that I can’t recall for any other election in my lifetime. And even now, during the post-election debate, the references to class remain widespread.

It’s not that the discussion of class in relation to the election has been particularly interesting or revealing. Americans, especially political pundits, still fumble around with what class means and how it can or should be defined. And one would be hard-pressed to find anything even close to or informed by a particularly Marxian notion of class in the many books, articles, and columns that have appeared in recent years.

So, while I move ahead with my own analysis of the class conditions leading up to Trump’s victory and the class implications of Trumponomics, I thought it would be useful for readers to list in one place references (in chronological order, from oldest to newest) to some of the pieces I’ve written (pertaining only to the United States) over the course of the past couple of years.

Class wars

“There are more—many, many times more—working-class Americans than there are folks at the top of the income pyramid”

Health and class

Race and class

A coming class war?

Class and children

Class and the Goldilocks principle

Class warfare—Democratic and Republican style

Trump and trade

What’s class got to do with it?

Middle-class nation?

Generation screwed—and working-class

Vicious cycle of class inequality and segregation

“Capitalism is the legitimate racket of the ruling class”

Class politics

Middle-class cities?

Class myths

Higher education for the working-class

Flat or falling

Class struggles in America

What about the white working-class?

Condition of the working-class in the United States

Institutions and inequality

Feminism and class politics

Blame globalization?

Mainstream economists, globalization, and Trump

To be clear (as I’ve written many times before), I don’t think one can or should reduce the election to class—to attempt to explain its conditions and consequences only or even primarily in terms of class. That would be a serious mistake. But it would be equally mistaken to ignore or overlook class in attempting to make sense of what is going on right now in the United States.