Thursday, September 21, 2017

Louis "Lyndon LaRouche" Proyect

In a comment (here), Louis Proyect takes me to task for writing obsessively about unimportant things (such as his blog). He urges me to "get a f***ing life."

So it comes as a surprise that Mr. Proyect has devoted four long posts (he promises a fifth) to the political career of that truly unimportant figure, Lyndon LaRouche. I confess I have read only the fourth in the series, which is more than enough. I'm ashamed to say that LaRouche was a comrade of ours (Proyect and me) in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), though he left well before my time.

In my opinion LaRouche is not a political figure at all. He made his mark raising money by fair means and foul--a boiler room telemarketing operation followed by credit card fraud, for which he spent five years in jail. I don't think he had (has) any political convictions at all beyond what he thought would raise him the most money and influence.

Yet for no reason that I can discern (at least from post #4) Mr. Proyect refers to him as a "fascist." This is a word I avoid because it no longer has any meaning--it's just an expletive. That, along with the word "racist," is precisely how Mr. Proyect uses the term. Anybody with any association with Mr. LaRouche (however tangential) gets tagged as "racist" and/or "fascist," with no other evidence necessary.

Mr. Proyect reports that "[a]t the peak of his powers when he was a presidential candidate, LaRouche used to buy an hour’s worth of time on network TV to present his rather convoluted mixture of leftish sounding attacks on the IMF and bizarre conspiracy theories about how Queen Elizabeth was a drug lord." Are those beliefs hallmarks of fascism? Or racism? Mr. Proyect doesn't say.

Mr. Proyect purports to document the extensive influence that LaRouche wielded during the Reagan administration. Upon even casual examination it collapses into hilarious rubble. He quotes journalist Dennis King as follows:
Its fund raisers brought in tens of millions of dollars while its candidates attracted over 4 million votes, including voting percentages above 10 percent in hundreds of contests. In at least 70 statewide, congressional, or state legislative races, LaRouche candidates polled over 20 percent of the vote. At least 25 appeared on the general election ballot as Democratic nominees, either by defeating a regular Democratic opponent or by running in the primary unopposed. Although none was actually elected to any public office higher than a local school board, hundreds won Democratic Party posts (mostly county committee seats) across the country.
That proves what money can buy, but upon closer examination it's not very dramatic. We're told that this happened over several elections from 1982 to 1988. That's four presidential and off-year cycles. Suppose 30 million people cast ballots each cycle, meaning that 120 million ballots were cast over the six years. But each ballot contains many contests--for president, congressman, city council, family court judge, etc. A reasonable estimate is that on each ballot a voter would have marked ten candidates for 10 different offices. That means 1.2 BILLION votes were cast, of which the LaRouchians got only 0.3% of the total.

Hardly a mass movement. Even the Green Party does better than that! And LaRouche looks even worse when one notes that for minor offices people often vote randomly.

Here's another example of LaRouche's supposed reach.
The Reagan White House and LaRouche saw eye-to-eye particularly on the need for Star Wars and pushing for nuclear power. They had even beaten Reagan to the punch. In the late 70s they were lining up rightwing atomic scientists like Edward Teller to support the goals of the Fusion Energy Foundation that promoted a Star Wars type anti-missile defense, fusion energy, and bigger and more powerful thermonuclear devices. While Teller considered them too weird to network with, a close friend of his and highly respected scientist named Robert Budwine from the Livermore Labs was drawn into their periphery.
Mr. Proyect uses this trick several times. First, LaRouche purports to agree with some commonly held opinion, in this case supporting nuclear power. Then LaRouche "lines up" Edward Teller, who we're supposed to believe wouldn't otherwise have championed nuclear power. Mr. Teller is smart enough to dismiss LaRouche as a crank, but somehow one of his colleagues (Teller had thousands of them), gratuitously dubbed "a close friend," falls into the periphery. This is the extent of LaRouche's influence in high places--it amounts to nothing.

Then there's this slander by (slight) association:
By providing a platform for softball interviews, the EIR [LaRouche's magazine--ed] cultivated ties to the Republican Party elite. Among the politicians whose views could be seen in this fascist journal were Agriculture Secretary John Block, Defense Under Secretary Richard DeLauer, Commerce Under Secretary Lionel Olmer, Treasury Under Secretary Norman Ture, Assistant Attorney General Lowell Jensen, Murray Weidenbaum, the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Senators Orrin Hatch and John Tower.
Mr. Proyect makes no claim that these people wrote anything for the EIR. They were simply fooled into contributing interview remarks, which hardly demonstrates any LaRouche influence on them whatsoever. Note the gratuitous expletive.

That same paragraph goes on to say:
No matter how much Richard Spencer has praised Donald Trump, he never could have gotten through the front door to the equivalent of such pols today. That’s the big difference between LaRouche and the alt-right. He was far more interested in influencing public policy than doing half-assed imitations of a Nuremberg rally.
This is ridiculous. LaRouche got away with his antics only because there was no Google. He could reinvent himself with impunity and pretend to be an establishment figure whenever he wanted to. Richard Spencer can't do that--a single search will turn up his past. And to what end did LaRouche want to influence public policy? Mr. Proyect offers no clue. Did he really believe that Queen Elizabeth was a drug lord?

No. LaRouche's only goal was to raise money, and to shanghai these officials onto his cause helped him do that. Mr. Proyect completely overstates his significance.

He similarly grossly exaggerates LaRouche's interactions with the CIA. Apparently he had a few meetings with a couple third or fourth tier officials (stupid ones). And this is supposed to be consequential?

At the top of his piece Mr. Proyect links to the video produced as an infomercial by LaRouche's presidential campaign. It's 28 minutes long--I gave up after the first three. It's the most banal, tedious speech I've ever heard, delivered in an ultra-pretentious and faux-intellectual style. The content, such as it is, would be agreeable to Marxists and Conservatives alike--it's that anodyne.

I can't believe an intelligent man like Mr. Proyect sat through the whole thing. If so, he wasted his time. For that matter, I can't believe he has invested so much effort writing about an irrelevant con man.

Though I guess we can thank him for one thing. He's preserved the virtue of the British monarchy. At least now we know that the Queen isn't a drug lord.

Further Reading:

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Charlottesville

My Trotskyist friends have a lot to say about what happened in Charlottesville. They don't agree with each other.

For Louis Proyect it is mostly about Antifa. He reposts a piece by Leighton Woodhouse entitled The Ugly Side of Antifa. The lede paragraph reads:
Yesterday, at the anti-Alt-Right rally in Berkeley, I watched groups of masked Antifa members in Black Bloc formation swarm individuals who were apparently antagonizing them, and pummel them with their fists, feet, and flagpoles. When the victims tried to escape, they were run down, and in at least one case, cut off by the Antifa mob and beaten down some more. In the incidents I witnessed, about 5 or 6 Antifa members at a time participated in the attacks, while perhaps 100 others stood behind them, forming an impenetrable wall that blocked bystanders from intervening, or documenting the violence on camera. Those people would also help chase the victims when they fled.
Mr. Proyect files it under the label black bloc idiots.

In another piece of his own, Mr. Proyect puts Antifa in perspective.
With strikes being undermined for the past twenty years, a trade union resisting the bosses is something that the left should get behind. Maybe we should put punching fascists on the back burner for a while and spend more time punching a corporation like Time-Warner instead, the corporation that owns Spectrum Cable, the ever-so-progressive HBO, and CNN, the 24/7 enemy of Trumpism. After all it is capitalism that is the enemy, not just fascism.
The reference to the president reflects Mr. Proyect's objection to the media making everything about Trump. Indeed, Mr. Proyect is the only one of my correspondents who doesn't put Donald J. Trump on center stage. Though maybe Mr. Proyect goes too far with this--expecting the world to ignore Trump is not a likely outcome.

Socialist Action (SA), meanwhile, has Trump on the brain--the whole Charlottesville episode is nothing more than a window into his soul. And there one sees racists, Nazis, White supremacists, etc., though they do finally admit that "...Trump is not a fascist,..."

Though if you believe SA, his spokesmen are all fascists.
David Duke, apparently irritated by Trump’s mild rebuke, tweeted, “I would recommend you take a good look in the mirror & remember it was White Americans who put you in the presidency, not radical leftists.”
But other rightists took Trump’s statement as a victory. “Did Trump just denounce anti-fa?” tweeted Richard Spencer, using a term used to describe anti-fascist protesters. And the Nazi Daily Stormer wrote gleefully that Trump had “outright refused to disavow” the fascists. “He didn’t attack us. … When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good.”
The key graf is this indictment of Mr. Trump.
Trump has been silent about the large number of racist and anti-Semitic hate crimes that have taken place since he took office. In a rambling and barely-coherent statement following the clashes in Charlottesville, Trump neglected to mention the murder of Heather Heyer. He condemned the violence on “many sides” and refused to condemn the white supremacists and fascists specifically.
I hope SA provides us with a list of that "large number of racist and anti-Semitic hate crimes." Are there really more of them since Trump took office? And is Trump actually responsible even tangentially for any of them?

I think there was more racial animosity under the Obama administration than there is today.

Then I encourage everybody to listen to Mr. Trump's initial speech about Charlottesville, which SA ludicrously describes as "barely coherent." There is nothing wrong with that talk; it is completely unremarkable. The most egregious thing is CNN's headline describing it: "Donald Trump's incredibly unpresidential statement on Charlottesville."

I suppose one could criticize him for not mentioning Heather Heyer. In his defense I'm not sure the murder motive was definitively established when he gave this speech. Even so, it hardly indicates that he supports murdering people.

And why should he even mention the neo-Nazis? They worked hard nationally to build a "Unite the Right" rally, and all they can muster are 500 people! These people (mostly pretty dysfunctional) are a sideshow. They don't deserve their 15 minutes of fame--they don't even deserve five seconds. They certainly shouldn't get a call-out from the President of the United States.

Finally, SA tells us who the counter-protesters were:
Without warning, Fields drove his car into a column of marchers, killing Heyer and injuring at least 19 others. Among the injured were members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and the IWW.
This is a list of the folks who benefit most from building up the neo-Nazis--you need fascists before a party of anti-fascists makes any sense. These groups are hardly more representative of Americans than the Rightists. Trump was quite right when he says there is blame on both sides.

The Militant (representing the Socialist Workers Party (SWP)) also thinks Charlottesville is mostly about Trump, but from a completely different perspective. In their view Trump is merely a passive bystander, or perhaps even a victim of the tumult.
At the same time, the liberal capitalist media, Democratic and some Republican party politicians, and the middle-class left used the ultrarightist actions and resulting deadly violence to blame President Donald Trump — and especially the workers who elected him — for what happened. They view everything in politics today through the lens of how to get Trump indicted or impeached.
They claimed that the white supremacists are Trump’s “base,” slandering the working class, particularly workers who are Caucasian, as backward, racist and reactionary.
The Militant provides an extended blow-by-blow of how the Charlottesville events transpired, which I found useful. That information is not readily available in the mainstream media. The article is worth reading just for that.

The main political message is that Trump is leading a working-class movement. That's not to say that Trump himself is pro-worker (he isn't), but only that his message has resonated with a broad slice of today's proletariat. They essentially echo Michael Moore's famous rant, here.

The SWP's goal, therefore, is to steer this legitimate working-class movement in a revolutionary direction before Trump manages to betray and demoralize it. That's likely a pipedream, but it at least enables them to be more or less truthful about Charlottesville.

Opponents of this strategy, which certainly includes Socialist Action, are in the uncomfortable position of writing off 40% of the American electorate as racist and fascist. The Militant quotes the Workers World Party.
“Media manipulation and financial maneuvering by a significant far-rightwing section of the billionaire class to get one of their own into the White House,” they said in a public statement, “has emboldened the most racist, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, anti-Semitic, misogynist, male supremacist, murderous scum of this decaying capitalist society.”
The Militant goes on to say (truthfully) that "it’s simply not true that there is a rise in racism or anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim sentiment among the working class in the U.S."

A revolutionary who writes off a major part of the working class in such terms has become, in The Militant's view, allied with the class enemy. Or at least a useful idiot.

So we have three very different points of view coming from the Trotskyist movement (broadly defined). 1) Trump is unimportant and should be ignored. Antifa is evil. 2) Trump is shilling for fascists and needs to be soundly defeated (albeit by different tactics than Antifa). Trump's followers are themselves either fascists or very stupid people. And 3) Trump is leading a working-class movement, and while he's a false prophet, the people supporting him have legitimate grievances and deserve to be protected (from Antifa and the mainstream media).

I don't fully agree with any of those options, but it is notable that there's more diversity of opinion among Trotskyists than there is in the mainstream media.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 25, 2017

Author's Note

Effective September 1st I will retire from SUNY New Paltz. That means I no longer need to worry about being fired for political incorrectness. Accordingly, I will henceforth blog under my real name, Daniel Jelski, Professor of Chemistry (emeritus), SUNY New Paltz.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Freedom Socialist Party Reads Marx

The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) certainly belongs on my Beat! They're professed Trotskyists, having split off from the Socialist Workers Party in 1966. That was before my time, and indeed, these folks come across as frozen in amber. Being early-birds to the web, they've cornered the handle socialism.com.

The FSP started in Seattle, where apparently the entire branch left the SWP. The reasons for the split are here, and don't make too much sense to a modern audience. They disagreed only on fine points related to the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the SWP's attitude toward (then) Maoist China. And typical of all splitters, they accused the SWP leadership of unprincipled, undemocratic behavior that forced the issue. Today these issues are mostly moot. 

They also believed the SWP underestimated the importance of the women's movement, and this looks to be the primary distinguishing aspect of the FSP today. The Party briefly became an all-woman organization, but has since charitably admitted men. "Party men today are engaged feminists."

That left the feminist impulse unsatisfied, and so a sisterly organization was established: Radical Women (RW), which does exclude men. I'm not sure how the goals or responsibilities of RW differ from the FSP.

The Party had it's share of scandal. The leading lady of the movement was Clara Fraser (1923-1998). At the founding she was joined by her husband, Richard, who then soon filed for divorce. The spat was very public and led to a split in the Party, likely accentuating its feminist flavor.

In 1984 a disgruntled ex-comrade sued for a refund of contributions he'd made to the Party toward rebuilding their headquarters. The Party was then located at Freeway Hall--today it's at New Freeway Hall. The dispute was again very public and drawn out, with Leonard Boudin serving as the FSP's lawyer. Eventually the Party was vindicated, but not until 1992.

By 1976 the Party had branches in Seattle, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Portland, which is where they are still located. These are the "billionaire cities"--between them they're probably home to three quarters of the country's billionaires. Of course Seattle wasn't like that in 1970--then it was a decaying rust belt town, famous for the billboard: "Will the last person to leave Seattle please turn out the lights." But then a young man named Bill Gates decided to come home to live closer to his parents.

It is ironic that a supposedly vanguard, working-class Party, even today, can only exist in the richest places on earth.

I'm turned on to the Freedom Socialists by an article in North Star written by an FSP member, Susan Williams, entitled Marx's Capital for the 21st century. It's an intriguing title and could be a good article, but it isn't. Instead it's a poorly written piece composed by somebody who knows nothing about economics. But the author can't be stupid--she identifies as a medical doctor and "doctor's union organizer." So we can forgive her economic ignorance. If I'm ever in Seattle (if that's where she lives) and not feeling very well, I'll look her up and engage her in topics she undoubtedly knows more about.

I'm not going to make fun of Dr. Williams, which would be too easy and not much sport. I will also confess I haven't read Capital, nor do I intend to. In my old age I no longer have the patience for bad writing. So I will assume that Dr. Williams' description of Marx is accurate, at least for the topic I wish to consider. She inadvertently points out a place where the world really has changed, and while Marx may have been correct in the 1850s, he is certainly wrong now.

Dr. Williams writes:
Capital begins with the individual cell of the capitalist organism: the commodity (an object made to be sold). Marx explains step by step the process by which human labor-power adds economic value to commodities above and beyond the owner’s costs. And he shows how this process inherently steals from the worker. If you know in your gut that you are being robbed at work even though you get a paycheck, Marx demonstrates logically why you are absolutely correct.
Marx laid out how capitalist economy would unavoidably suffer periodic crises worsening over time while the general rate of profit would slow.
Marx may have used the word commodity in just the way she describes, namely as a product to be sold. Today, however, the term is used in a much narrower sense. Sometimes it refers to raw materials, i.e., the stuff that comes from mines, oceans, or farms. Thus oil, copper, and pork bellies are all commodities, and are commonly traded on commodity exchanges.

In Marx's time, commodities in that sense did make up the major portion of the economy. Today they are a much smaller percentage.

There's another definition of commodity that I think is more useful: A commodity is a product where competition is entirely on price. Gasoline is a commodity--when I shop around I only compare prices, and only secondarily service, cleanliness, quality of the gasoline, etc. Economy class airline seats are a commodity. Tourists look for the cheapest fares, and beyond that they don't care which airline they fly. Business and first-class travel, on the other hand, does not compete on price. They are not commodities, and Singapore Airlines has established a prominent brand name.

Marx may also have used commodities in this sense. He lived during the industrial revolution, when the major industrial output was textiles. They were certainly commodities in the sense that manufacturers competed mainly on price.

And if competition is only on price, then of course profit margins will get squeezed. Marx's conclusion of a declining rate of profit (as a fraction of operating costs) will certainly be true, and is true today for commodities. Gas stations run on very thin margins, as do airlines, and stores like Walmart.

But unlike in Marx's day, most things we buy are not commodities. Let's use a more general term: consumer products are things that consumers buy. I like to include the qualifier consumer because what the consumer can buy will determine his or her standard of living. The more consumer products, the better we shall live.

In today's world, few consumers purchase raw iron ore, raw textiles not yet cut or sewn into clothes, unroasted coffee beans, bushels of wheat straight off the farm, or crude oil. Those are commodities, but today they aren't consumer products. In Marx's time, however, many more of them might have been consumer products. Families, for example, purchased yards of cloth, and then it was up to the women or the servants to fashion that into clothes. We don't do it that way anymore--we're richer than that.

Even if she's not from Seattle, Dr. Williams has likely heard of Starbucks. Starbucks buys two commodities in bulk: coffee and sugar. These get fashioned into elaborate concoctions, prepared using custom equipment by specially trained personnel, and served in bespoke locations designed specifically for that purpose.

Of course all that comes at a price: Starbucks is not cheap. Starbucks is not selling a commodity, but rather a branded product that consumers choose to spend money on. Indeed, it's a good rule of thumb: branded products are not commodities. Instead they're sold because they add some extra value for the consumer that elevates them above the price war. There are lots of branded products: iPhones, Cadillacs, Cheerios, Harvard University, Singapore Airlines, etc. They're a ubiquitous part of our lives, and none of them are commodities.

The declining rate of profit does not apply to non-commodities. Starbucks charges a premium for the benefits of it's brand, which are quite substantial.

Marx did not live in our world. He may never have encountered a consumer product like what we have today. In his world all one could buy were commodities, and it was up to the household to make something more out of them. He lived in a world of commodities; we live in a world of consumer products.

The rules are different. Marx was right. Now he's wrong.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Is the SWP Moving Right?

Commenter JohnB (a much appreciated, loyal reader of this blog) maintains that the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) has become a right-wing organization. I disagree, and we've debated the point in comments to the Oberlin, 2017, post. I think the topic is really important, and I choose to elevate it out of the comments section here.

First, a caveat: the Party's positions are at some level incoherent. Therefore I think it is impossible to resolve this question with finality. For example, I have no clue why the Party is now supporting the Oregon ranchers who stood up to the federal government in a land dispute. That seems inconsistent no matter what side of the aisle you put them on. So I doubt even Jack Barnes knows the answer to our question for sure.

JohnB, in his most recent comment, teases The Militant, calling them "a Socialist Newsweekly published in the interests of President Trump." He then quotes from Seth Galinsky's article in the August 21st Militant.
Despite wishful thinking by liberals that support for the president “is collapsing,” Trump has called out supporters in the face of this witch hunt in big rallies in working-class cities like Youngstown, Ohio, and Huntington, West Virginia. 
“Are there any Russians here tonight?” Trump asked to laughter from a crowd of thousands Aug. 3 in Huntington, in the heart of coal country. “We don’t’ need advice from the Washington swamp,” he said to cheers. “We need to drain the swamp.” 
“The reason the Democrats only talk about the totally made up Russia story is because they have no message, no agenda and no vision,” the president said. Under his leadership, Trump promised, “American workers will build the future and American energy and American clean coal will power this future.”
Or, as JohnB puts it, "Now that could run in Breitbart without any editing."

Of course he's right. And with minor editing it could also run in the New York Times. This is because it's true, and even Trotskyists are occasionally forced to utter true statements once in a while. Making a true statement does not mean the SWP is moving Right.

Indeed, elsewhere in his article Mr. Galinsky is quite explicit.
[Liberals'] gripe isn’t really that Trump’s policies are so different. He’s a billionaire who shares the goals of Democrats and Republicans alike to defend the interests of U.S. capital at home and abroad.
The Militant is supporting bits of Trump's message, without in any way supporting Trump. For example, they adamantly oppose Trump's immigration ban, e.g., from February of this year. In March, 2017, the published an article condemning attacks on immigrants by racists (presumably white). In July, 2017, The Militant issued a thundering editorial demanding "US Hands Off Venezuela!", condemning Trump for threatening "strong and swift economic actions." Finally, as recently as May, The Militant came out again in support of the "Democratic Peoples' Republic of Korea."

None of this (and much more) could have appeared in either Breitbart or the New York Times.

So what bits of Trump's agenda does the SWP support?

First, they agree with his assessment of the state of the working class as described in his inauguration speech. It's a very dark, pessimistic view, painting working class Americans as losers in both economic and political terms. I think my other Trotskyist friends also mostly agree with this speech, even though they won't own up to it.

So while Trump remains the class enemy and will eventually betray his blue collar friends, in The Militant's view he is raising their class consciousness. The objective effect will be to radicalize them.

I (a true right-winger) disagree with Trump's speech, and thus also the Trotskyist interpretation of reality. But I can understand why they are enthusiastic about Trump's movement, and want to be around to pick up the pieces when he collapses like a house of cards. This does not make them right-wing.

Second, a key tenet of Trotskyism is hatred of the Democratic Party. While I'm not as confident as many that Trump really hates the Democrats (I won't be surprised if he runs for reelection as one), there is no doubt that he vigorously rejects upper middle class sensibilities. Witness his dismissal of the whole climate-change bullshit, along with his opposition to political correctness. It's driving the professoriat (for example) batshit crazy, and I heartily share the SWP's enjoyment of the spectacle.

In this the Party stands in opposition to other Trotskyist grouplets, all of whom are into climate change and PC sensibilities. Solidarity has gone furthest with this, even sucking up to the Dems. Socialist Action has raised the ecosocialist banner as its own. But I think this makes them right wing rather than the SWP. So JohnB has it rather backwards.

Third, there's the whole vanguard party thing. You can't be much of a vanguard party if all you do is recycle conventional wisdom, a la the other grouplets. Why, for example, is Socialist Action more vanguard than, say, the International Socialists? They share nearly identical politics. The SWP really wants to be a vanguard, and so it is staking out positions that distinguish it from the larger Left.

One can disagree with the Party that Trump, however dishonestly, is leading a working class movement. The point is arguable. But their choice doesn't make them right-wing.

I think JohnB addresses many of these points quite eloquently. He writes,
All I can come up with is, having banked on a mass radicalization of the US working class for all these many years and, since said radicalization hasn't occurred, they're settling on Trumpism, rather desperately, as the channel within which it will occur. The thing is, since the election masses of people really are awakening politically and breaking at least partially with the Democratic Party, but they're doing this in opposition to Trumpism, not within it. I will say that The Militant's use of Trumpian language like "Deplorables" and "Carnage" is weird and downright pathetic.
Change a few words and I think he's got it. The SWP did bank on a mass radicalization, and their position is that it's happening now, catalyzed by the improbable figure of Donald Trump. He's right that it's a desperate move--given their demographics they only have a few years to turn the ship around. I don't find the words "deplorables" or "carnage" to be pathetic--it makes perfect sense given what else they've said.

I do think the SWP is wrong. The American economy is not in a state of "carnage." Workers are not being radicalized--they are instead being flattered and entertained. And Trump (unfortunately) does not represent a decisive break with the Democrats.

But "wrong" and "right-wing" are two different things. The Party is not moving to the Right.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 11, 2017

Labor's Legitimacy Crisis

My title is borrowed from an article by Barry Eidlin, posted by Solidarity, entitled Labor's Legitimacy Crisis Under Trump. It is a quality, well-written summary of issues currently faced by the US labor movement.

Mr. Eidlin, who is a professor of sociology at McGill University, is typical of his class: sociology faculty's political opinions range from the Far Left to the Ultraleft. There is no diversity of thought in that discipline, and accordingly Professor Eidlin's conclusions are totally predictable. Indeed, for a self-described radical it is amazing how much he simply echoes what we read every day in the mainstream media.

For all that, he's a good writer and his piece is well worth reading.

The lede paragraph includes the usual throw-away insults aimed at Trump. He represents "nativist right-wing populism," similar to France's Front National (FN). Though unlike FN, which has even stooped to holocaust denial, there is no trace of antisemitism in Trump's ideology. Further, FN strongly supports dirigisme, i.e., the direct control of the French economy by the state. Trump is just the opposite--he is doing the best he can to deregulate the American economy, to give individuals and entrepreneurs as much freedom as possible to earn a living.

Trump is not right-wing. He's not even a Republican. In his heart of hearts he's a conservative Democrat--a species that in eras past has been termed a "blue dog Democrat", a "Reagan Democrat," a "Scoop Jackson Democrat," or (with reference to the more important Andrew), simply a "Jacksonian Democrat." All those labels fit. Extreme right wing does not.

Professor Eidlin maintains that workers have been bamboozled by The Donald.
The early months of the Trump administration have been chaotic, but one thing remains clear: despite Trump’s rhetorical appeals to the working class, actual workers and unions have reason to be worried. His public pronouncements about bringing back coal and manufacturing jobs are based on pure sophistry, while his less public moves to gut labor regulations and workers’ rights will hurt workers. Labor’s dire situation predates Trump by decades, but it is likely that his accession to the Oval Office will further embolden labor’s foes, much as Ronald Reagan’s election did in the 1980s.
So why do workers--union members no less--vote for a man so manifestly anti-proletarian?

Professor Eidlin never answers that very obvious question. He doesn't even ask it, likely because the answer is too discouraging. He probably thinks his fellow proletarians are too stupid, lacking the class consciousness of sociology professors. They've been duped--not just once (by Trump), and not just twice (Reagan), but multiple times (Coolidge? Cleveland?). We Republicans are just too smart for them--they fall for our tricks every time.

He's wrong. The blue collar workforce in America understands at some level that their well-being depends on the strength of the economy. Unless businesses have the freedom to maximize revenue and profit, workers won't get paid. Workers (real ones, not fake ones like sociology profs) realize that welfare makes us all poorer. They want jobs, not handouts. They're not interested in the featherbedded, inefficient, make-work projects that Hillary Clinton promised during her campaign.
In the 2016 election, despite unions spending millions of dollars and deploying major voter mobilization programs to support Democrats, Trump won 43 percent of union households, and 37 percent of union members. In some of the decisive Rust Belt states, Trump won outright majorities of union households.
Trump won precisely because of his supposedly "anti-worker cabinet." Trump's goal is to let people earn a living. You can't get paid if you don't have a job, and regulating and constraining the economy is the fastest way to unemployment. Workers get that. The union movement's fight for the working man against the entrepreneur makes sense only if the entrepreneur is making a profit. Failing that they both go down. Our sociologist friend doesn't appear to comprehend that.

That actually explains why union density in the US has been on the decline. Given thin margins and (because of globalization) a very competitive environment, there's very little left over for labor and management to fight over. It's all anybody can do to stay in business, meet the payroll, and keep the lights on. The notion that salaries can arbitrarily double (as the Fight for $15 movement demands) is obvious poppycock. Unions never could deliver on their promises, but now that's obvious.

Professor Eidlin states this idea in a different way. Talking about strikes and shop floor actions, he writes,
For the most part though, strikes and shop floor organization are things of the past. Not only are strike rates are near an all-time low in the United States, but evidence suggests that they are no longer as effective as they used to be. Meanwhile, corporate consolidation, financialization, and restructuring means that power and authority have moved not just further up the organizational chart, but have disappeared into a hazy thicket of investment funds, shell companies, and merged mega-corporations.
His thinking has disappeared into a hazy thicket of meaningless terminology. He's got the trend precisely wrong--power has not moved up into the cloud, but rather from the corporate boardroom down to the shop floor.

What does that mean? It means that the profit center of any workplace is just that workplace. If a particular manufacturing plant can't earn it's keep, it gets closed or sold off and the capital is reinvested somewhere more lucrative. That is, if workers go on strike they're basically striking against themselves. No factory can earn a profit if the employees stop working or maliciously slow down production by some shop floor action. There are no cross-subsidies anymore. The money you earn is the money you keep. If you don't earn, you lose your job.

Example: read (e.g., in Sam Walton's autobiography) how Walmart store managers are treated. They're never more than one bad decision away from being fired. The store has to meet revenue and profit targets every single day. If the store can't keep up it's closed. Walmart is a low-capital business--the physical stores and parking lots are a very small part of their total expense. They can walk away very easily, as they did in Jonquiere, Quebec. A union will destroy Walmart's business, forcing them to close the whole enterprise. Their employees understand that, and store managers definitely understand that.

In his own way Professor Eidlin also sees this.
In this new environment, many argue, workplace organizing can only have limited effects. Unions’ leverage must be exerted elsewhere, either in politics or capital markets. Almost by definition, that means that unions’ primary activities must happen at the staff level, in the strategic research and legislative action departments — not in the workplace. Unsurprisingly, unions that subscribe to this analysis, most notably SEIU, have transformed themselves in ways that make their workplace presence even more remote.
This paragraph shows up unions for what they really are: an extortion racket. I know they don't intend to be that--I am certain that people like Professor Eidlin act with the best of intentions. But the fact is that a union needs to put itself between a company's employees and it's customers to extract money. Some of that money is shared with the employees, but much of it goes to paying the union bureaucracy. The result is that either the customers pay higher prices, or the employees receive lower salaries, or some combination of both. Nobody really gets any richer except maybe a few union bureaucrats.

Further Reading:

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Tourism in Cuba

A Militant article by Andrea Morell describes the US visit of Cuban union leader Víctor Lemagne Sánchez. He is the secretary-general of Cuba's Hotel & Tourism union, and spoke in Berkeley, CA, on June 29th.

He paints a remarkably honest and unflattering picture of his country.

Mr. Lemagne hails from the Cuban city of Trinidad, "a popular tourist destination." I checked out Wikipedia, and here are two photos from Trinidad:


(Wikipedia: Dieter Mueller, 2003)


(Wikipedia: Jplavoie, 2006)

The first picture surely demonstrates why it's a tourist attraction. But the second makes it look like it's in a war zone! What's with all the ruined houses?

Of course we know. Cubans are guaranteed "free housing," but when it comes to housing you get what you pay for. Nobody maintains it, nobody has any money to maintain it, and every storm ruins yet more buildings.

Apparently storm cleanup in Cuba can't even clear away the rubble.

Cuba used to get money from the Soviet Union for it's role as an unsinkable aircraft carrier. That financing disappeared in 1991, leading to the "Special Period" of starvation and hardship.

Then along came Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who traded oil for medical services, leading to a shortage of doctors in Cuba. That pipeline is now also drying up: either Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro will be overthrown, and/or the entire oil industry will collapse. No more money there, either.

So Cuba is reduced to entertaining tourists for a living. The Obama-era regs allowed more Americans to visit, making them the second largest tourist group after Canadians. Other visitors come from Europe (esp. Spain), Mexico, and South America.

A few tourists are there to support the "revolution." That includes our Trotskyist friends, who will travel to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Che Guevara's death in October. I don't think Cuba especially encourages those visitors--they're much more likely to walk around, ask questions, and learn how people really live. That won't end well.

A second group are "commie tourists," i.e., visitors who want to see communism in its native state and experience what it's like to live under a totalitarian regime. For them it's "one and done"--a single trip to the island is all they will ever need. They may also wander around asking questions, but they're not opinion leaders like my former comrades. Though the government certainly wouldn't have admitted "commie tourist" Michael Totten had they recognized him as a journalist. His 2014 article, The Last Communist City, is a must read.

Finally, by far the largest group are just plain tourists--they want nice beaches, good hotels, excellent food, shopping opportunities, scenic & historical sights, and alcoholic beverages. Of course some other requirements are just taken for granted--available on every other Caribbean isle--fast internet access, good cell phone service, and liquid access to the local currency.

Cuba can't deliver on that list. Most tourists will never make a second trip to Cuba. Why go there when it's such a hassle?

Mr. Lemagne doesn't seem to understand much of this. As a union leader, he sees his job as protecting tourist workers from their customers.
Lemagne began with a slide show that documents the damage done to the Cuban people by Washington’s economic embargo. “Every attack against our revolution by the Empire is destined to fail,” he said. “Our response is to continue with the economic development of our country, our revolutionary process.” Workers in Cuba’s tourism industry see themselves as on the front lines of the struggle, Lemagne said.
Tourists are, first and foremost, an attack on the "revolutionary process." As indeed they are, possessing wealth unimaginable to the average Cuban. Nevertheless, reality does intrude. One has to earn a living somehow.
The industry has expanded rapidly, including a growing sector of self-employed nonstate workers. In 2012, he said, his union had only 345 members outside the state sector. Today they have 27,000.
He reports that Cuba last year had 3.52 million visitors. By comparison, New York City (similar population size) hosted 12.3 million international visitors in 2015, netting $42 billion in revenue, or nearly half of Cuba's entire 2015 GDP.

The "revolution" faces an irresolvable contradiction. On the one hand they need tourists in order to earn a living. On the other, they lack the domestic capital and skill set by which to attract them. Thus they are forced into joint projects with private foreign companies.
Many of the larger hotels are joint ventures, 51 percent owned by Cuba and 49 percent by foreign companies. Managers from abroad have to abide by Cuban labor law, he said, or they’re removed.
As tourism has mushroomed, with union membership rising alongside it, the union has fought to reduce workers’ workload to protect their bodies, he said. They work to limit the number of rooms cleaners in the hotels have to work per shift, to keep hours down, and for members to monitor safety on the job.
No wonder visitors often complain about surly service! After all, with the union doing all it can to prevent hard work, how can it be otherwise.

And protecting worker's bodies is a little rich coming from Mr. Lemagne. Surely he is aware of the rampant prostitution in Cuba. Indeed, cheap sex tourism is a major driver of the entire industry, what with Cuba not able to compete in any other way with other Caribbean islands. Odd that he doesn't mention that explicitly as an attack on the "revolution."

Mr. Totten reports that the average Cuban paycheck is only $20 per month. Yes, they supposedly get all sorts of "free" stuff: housing, food, transport, medical care, etc., though much on that list is of very poor quality or not available at all. Mr. Totten describes the cash pay as "a child's allowance." Seems right to me--like children Cubans allegedly have all their basic needs accounted for. And then they get a few extra pennies on the side just because they're cute.

But I think Mr. Totten's essay is out of date. He writes, in 2014,
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich” compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying privileges—enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while—that ordinary Cubans can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly, the maids get about $1 per day for each room.
Mr. Lemagne sets us straight on how it works today.
He also said with pride that Cuban tourism workers donate whatever tips they get to cancer research and treatment, a total of $23 million to date.
Sorry scumbags. $20 per month is all you get!

If I ever visit Cuba under those rules, remind me never to leave a tip.

Further Reading: