Sunday, August 21, 2016

Women Are From Venus; Trotskyists Are From Pluto

It's usually rude to comment on somebody's appearance. An unspoken rule among college professors is to never do that, especially to women and not even when it's complimentary. That's professional courtesy augmented by a dose of political correctness. The pretense is that appearances aren't important--it's what shows up in a person's soul that counts.

Of course the pretense is wrong. We are all physical beings, and our lives depend crucially on what we look like. My life's chances are significantly reduced because I'm not a 6'5" NFL football player. Similarly, most women aren't beautiful enough to be a movie star or a famous fashion model. Those are extreme examples, but tall, handsome men earn more money and have more beautiful wives and more successful children than us shorter, fatter fellows. Similarly, beautiful women are more likely to snag the tall, handsome, wealthy husband.

So when Trotskyists knock on doors politicking, they think it is only the issues that count: low wages, unemployment, evil cops, etc. But of course that's not true. Whenever two people meet, especially when they are of the same gender, there is a status competition. And who wins depends very much on appearance, whether Trotskyists realize that or not.

They obviously don't realize it, as illustrated by the cover article in this week's Militant. Entitled Socialist Workers Party: 'Defend Voter's Rights!'it's obviously intended to further working class politics. It tells the story of Comrade Ellen Brickley, who knocked on the door of Miss Renee,* identified as a hair stylist. They're shown in the picture, reproduced below. Zero points for guessing who Ms. Brickley is.

Of course it's risky to judge an interaction based on a still photo--that's a millisecond slice easily taken out of context. Yet The Militant's editors saw fit to publish this photo, so presumably it represents something they think is both typical and flattering.

The obvious irony is Ms. Brickley--who has likely not visited a hair stylist in years, if ever--is now soliciting one. It's not clear what she expects to accomplish. The Trotskyist view (explained by Evelyn Reed) is that women doll themselves up only to entertain men and for no other reason. Miss Renee, by this account, is totally in hock to the patriarchy, completely hypnotized by us evil guys.

Of course that's not true. While men are certainly part of the picture, fashion is as much a status competition among women as anything else. Beautiful women have every reason to flaunt it, and even less attractive women do their best. Most people call it self esteem.

So Miss Renee wins this status competition hands down. Not only is she naturally more attractive, but she obviously takes care of herself and looks as good as she can. She emphasizes her femininity to the point of provocation. Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, has just thrown in the towel.

So now it's easy to write a caption for this picture. Miss Renee (who as a hair stylist is only rarely the high-status female in the room) is definitely the top dog in this encounter. That's why she's enjoying it so much, smiling broadly as she looks down, patronizingly, at her visitor. She's doing her best to extend the encounter for as long as possible, which is why she feigns interest in Trotskyist politics.

Ms. Brickley, meanwhile, looks very uncomfortable, even angry. At some level she knows she's being had.

It is inconceivable to me that somebody like Miss Renee would ever join the SWP. At very least she'd have to shave her head and give up her career as a hair stylist. She'd have to voluntarily renounce whatever status she has and become an ugly bitch. Of course she's not going to do that! Ms. Brickley, apart from humiliating herself, has also wasted her time.

You think I'm kidding about the haircut? Ms. Brickley's coiffure is similar to the Trotskyist comrades of my youth. Women comrades tended to be homely, and accordingly disavowed any interest in beauty, as less attractive women are wont to do.

It holds true even today. This picture dates from 2013, and shows Margaret Trowe campaigning for Des Moines city council, visiting Miss Essie* sitting on her porch. Miss Essie is a retired hotel cleaner.

The status gap between the two women is not quite so obvious. Still, at least Miss Essie is recognizably female, which is more than one can say for Ms. Trowe (at least from the picture). Further, Miss Essie was likely quite attractive in her younger years. I'll hazard that she has children and grandchildren, unlike Ms. Trowe. So I'll count Miss Essie as the more successful, higher status woman. Ms. Trowe's subservient posture suggests as much.

Ms. Trowe has the same Trotskyist-style haircut as Ms. Brickley. She's obviously a low-status woman, and it's not clear to me why higher-status folks would want to join her organization. People want to move up in the world--not down.

*The Militant cites full names for Miss Renee and Miss Essie. I choose not to include those to save them any further embarrassment.

Further Reading:

Friday, August 5, 2016

Book Review: Hillbilly Elegy

Author J.D. Vance's older half-sister, Lindsay, has a successful life: stable marriage, three children, a house in the suburbs.

Hardly the stuff memoirs are made of. Mr. Vance has been more adventurous: after a stint in the Marine Corps he got a law degree from Yale University, though again that's not material for a best-seller.

Yet best-seller is precisely what Mr. Vance's autobiography, Hillbilly Elegy, has become. The tale is not in the outcome but rather how they got there. Mr. Vance (and his sister) endured the Childhood from Hell. Their mother was a drug-addict, and J.D.'s father--one of a long succession of men who passed through his life as one of Mom's boyfriends or husbands--was an alcoholic.

So normally this book wouldn't interest me. Count me hardhearted, but tales of troubled children are not generally on my reading list. Tearjerker memoirs don't rank high, either. But Mr. Vance's book is not that, or at least not just that. It is a serious effort to understand the hillbilly culture in which he grew up. That I found fascinating, besides which it is beautifully written.

Mr. Vance credits his grandparents--Mamaw and Papaw--for his success. They were born in Jackson, Breathitt County, Kentucky, even today known as one of the poorest counties in America. As young adults Mamaw and Papaw traveled north along the "hillbilly highway" to look for work in the industrial Midwest, settling in Middletown, Ohio, where Mr. Vance was born. He has fond childhood memories of trips back to Jackson to visit his great-grandmother, Mamaw Blanton, along with other relatives.

It's a matriarchal world. The men come and go, and the women get pregnant as teenagers. Mamaw (a heavy smoker) lived only into her mid-seventies, but survived long enough to supervise a whole passel of great-grandchildren.

"Hillbilly" (the word used freely by Mr. Vance) is a slightly pejorative synonym for Scots-Irish. If you believe Scott Alexander, that term is also misleading, as there's no Irish blood involved at all. Instead hillbillies descend from the Scottish Borders, that lowland part of Scotland that was fought over for a thousand years ending in the 18th Century. Every summer one army or another would pass through, doing, I suppose, what armies of that era did: looting, raping and pillaging.

So no wonder the Borders people were clannish, deeply suspicious of outsiders, exceedingly sensitive to insult, and prone to violence. In North America they initially settled as far from authority as they possibly could, in the mountain fastnesses of Pennsylvania, Western Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. In the 19th and 20th Centuries economic deprivation forced them to wander--to Arkansas, Oklahoma and California, and then to the industrial Midwest along the trail that Mamaw and Papaw followed.

From a demographic viewpoint they are a successful people. And no surprise since they possess positive character traits as well: loyalty, courage, self-reliance.

Now if you believe authors like Nicholas Wade and Gregory Clark, then the concept of gene/culture co-evolution comes as no surprise. That states that cultures select for certain genes, and/or genes favor particular cultural attributes. Either way, over time (and a thousand years is certainly long enough) cultural attributes become inscribed in the genome. Thus hillbillies are, in some sense, born that way, at least as predisposition.

Mr. Vance, born a hillbilly, definitely shows the personality traits of his tribe. He is fiercely loyal to his family (insulting his mother is the surest route to a fistfight), served as a combat Marine in Iraq, and (justly) takes great pride in his ability to pull himself up by his bootstraps. Reading between the lines, I infer he has a tendency toward alcoholism (he drinks throughout the book).

But in one very important way--not mentioned explicitly in the book--he is very different from most Scots-Irish. He is very smart.

He is smarter than I am. Despite my upper middle class upbringing, I could never have aspired to attend Yale Law School. Even if I survived the IQ cutoff, I simply don't have the ability to work 16 hour days. In this he differs, not just from most hillbillies, but even from most people.

So Mr. Vance did inherit something from his grandparents: a high IQ. It's pretty obvious from the book that Mamaw and Papaw, however uneducated, certainly were not dumb. Even Mom, helpless though she was, had some serious smarts about her. While his grandparents clearly rescued him from absolute disaster, his stunning success in life is less due to what they did, but more on what he inherited from them.

There are simple tests given to toddlers that measure an ability to defer gratification. The archetype is known as the marshmallow test. A child is offered one marshmallow now (placed on a plate in front of him while the tester leaves the room), but if he can wait 15 minutes then he will get two. There is a strong correlation between passing the marshmallow test and future success in life, e.g., SAT scores, time spent in jail, future earnings, etc. The marshmallow test also correlates with IQ.

So Mr. Vance clearly would've passed the marshmallow test, even as a child. But many in his family wouldn't have. His Mom would've failed. Maybe even Mamaw would've failed. The stereotype for hillbillies is precisely that they're impulsive and undisciplined. Which implies that on average they're not very smart (I don't know if that's true).

Mr. Vance and his family are obviously a huge exception.

Toward the end of the book Mr. Vance stops talking about "hillbillies," and begins to identify more with the "working class." These groups overlap, but they are far from being the same thing. "Hillbilly" refers to an ethnic group, while "working class" is an economic entity not defined by genes. "Working class" does not denote a cluster of personality traits.

Hillbillies, successful in many contexts, are dysfunctional in the modern, urban, service economy. Mr. Vance is right to be skeptical about various government programs to help them. But I don't think he's skeptical enough. For if you take the above arguments seriously, there is no way a bespoke pre-school program or some special third grade curriculum is going to magically give ornery hillbillies a personality transplant. A thousand years of gene/culture co-evolution can't be undone that easily.

The poor will always be with us

Further Reading:

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Principled Presidential Campaigns

Trotskyists put great store on principle. It shouldn't come as a surprise, therefore, that all of the grouplets I follow are principled in their attitudes toward the 2016 presidential election campaign. Despite the invective they'd likely throw at each other, all of them are loyal to the ideals of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) of my youth.

In 1936 the SWP took the French Turn, imitating a tactical innovation first used by comrades in France. This entailed joining the Socialist Party (SP), an organization that today has evolved into the Democratic Socialists of America, among other splinter groups. But in the 1930s the SP was the premier, non-Stalinist exponent of Marxism.

The SWP maintained this was a tactic to recruit cadre to revolutionary socialism, which is what I always believed as a comrade. Hence this claim comes as a surprise:
Although party leader Jim Cannon later hinted that the entry of the Trotskyists into the Socialist Party had been a contrived tactic aimed at stealing "confused young Left Socialists" for his own organization, it seems that at its inception, the entryist tactic was made in good faith.
Whatever the truth, The Militant suspended publication for a couple years until the Party reemerged as an independent organization in 1937, having doubled its membership.

In the interim my ancestral comrades must have supported and/or voted for Norman Thomas for President in 1936. Or at least not opposed him.

I recite this history because the modern analog to Norman Thomas is either Bernie Sanders or Jill Stein, or both. What is unprincipled is support for the candidate of a bourgeois party, e.g., the Democratic Party. But none of the grouplets advocate a vote for Hillary Clinton.

My friends in Solidarity are the most consistent in following the former SWP's lead. In a recent editorial they strongly endorse Jill Stein. The piece contains a stunningly clear statement of Trotskyist principles:
Looking not only toward November but also beyond, especially to Bernie Sanders’ supporters who reject the dead-end option of Hillary Clinton, we urge you to consider that you need more than a different candidate: you need a different party. Hillary Clinton, after all, did not “hijack” the Democratic Party. She represents exactly what the Democratic Party really is: Wall Street connections, militarism, and all. There was no way that Bernie Sanders was going to be the Democratic nominee.
A way to phrase this is that Solidarity is making a French Turn into the Green Party. There is certainly nothing unprincipled about this, nor is it inconsistent with Trotskyist history.

Solidarity was certain that Bernie would never be the nominee, and it turns out they were right. In their editorial they go out of their way to be as friendly to Bernie supporters as they can be, e.g., in the lede:
Bernie Sanders' campaign for a “political revolution” lit up the 2016 primary election season like a meteor across the sky. Contrary to conventional wisdom that he’d peak and fade early, Sanders’ challenge to the Democratic party machine lasted throughout the primaries. Surpassing all expectations, he won 23 primary and caucus contests, raised an astonishing $222 million almost exclusively in small donations, and gathered over 1800 pledged delegates.
Louis Proyect (not a grouplet, but a blogger of some renown) gives no credit to Mr. Sanders.
After it became clear that the Sanders Political Revolution was history, the pro-Clinton propagandists redirected their fire at Jill Stein. The contrast between Sanders and Stein could hardly be greater but that made little difference to those who not only favored the two-party system but the hegemonic role of ruling class politicians like the Bushes, the Clintons and Barack Obama within it. Even though Sanders never had any intention of making a breach with corporatist Democrats, he was considered a trouble-maker for pointing out the obvious, namely that the system was rigged in favor of Wall Street.
It's not clear to me what the programmatic differences were between Bernie and Jill--indeed, Jill even offered to give up her candidacy if Bernie would run on the Green Party ticket. Bernie's sin was never programmatic--instead it was his commitment to the Democratic Party.

Solidarity understood this, and may even have supported Mr. Sanders during the primary. However confident they were he would lose, had he won they would've dropped him like a hot potato. Fighting for socialism and supporting the Democratic Party are incompatible no matter what flavor of Trotskyism you subscribe to.

Socialist Viewpoint, very oddly, has almost nothing to say about the 2016 election. The only relevant article in the July/August issue is a very weird piece by Robert Meeropol, entitled Trumpophobia. He is completely convinced that Trump is the second coming of Hitler, but nevertheless he can't bring himself to support Hillary.
A willingness to vote for the status quo because Trump is worse is also a subtle form of cognitive dissonance. It is a refusal to acknowledge, or to act on the knowledge, that we are about to run out of time and so must make climate change the number one priority. Instead of confronting a longer-term, but qualitatively deadlier, environmental impact, some progressives propose we vote for Clinton, a candidate whose policies make that end result more likely, in order to avoid the more immediate sociopolitical threat of Trump. I admit this is not an easy choice, but choosing the latter over the former could be our worst mistake.
Fine. That is consistent with Trotskyism. But nowhere does he tell us who he will vote for--there is no endorsement of Jill Stein or anybody else. And while I have not read every article in the magazine, I detect nothing but abstentionism.

So if Solidarity and Louis Proyect advocate a French Turn into the Green Party, then Socialist Action (SA) and the SWP do not. Of course the French Turn decision is totally tactical--there are no principles at stake. So I accuse nobody of violating their historical consciences.

The SWP's strategy is perhaps a riff on the French Turn theme. They certainly are not supporting Donald Trump, but they are cozying up to his supporters. Their candidates, Alyson Kennedy and Osborne Hart, are specifically addressing the concerns of White, working-class Americans. For the Left this is a very unusual and risky strategy, but the potential payoff could be large. The risk is that they cross a line of principle, though I see no indication of that happening. At least they have a more accurate assessment of what the Trump campaign actually represents, unlike, say, Mr. Meeropol.

The SWP has an advantage in that it's the only grouplet to disown the climate crackpottery enthusiastically embraced by the other comrades. And further, they've rejected antisemitism, which is more than you can say for Jill Stein.

The silliest instantiation of Trotskyism (perhaps barring Mr. Meeropol) is the tactic followed by SA. They are running their own fearless leader as president. This is doubling down on being a really tiny, little, insignificant sect. No intelligence. No leverage. No outreach. It's a complete zero.

Further Reading:

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Oberlin, 2016

This is a tough post to write because there is almost nothing to write about. Still, it's important to comment on the Socialist Workers Party's (SWP) most important annual event.

Oberlin conferences, held on the eponymous campus annually since about 1970, have historically hosted the Party's biannual conventions, and in the alternate years a Marxist Summer School or Educational Conference. That pattern has changed recently--the Party's last convention was in 2014, and if there was an Oberlin Conference in 2015, it went unremarked on this blog.

This year's conclave was billed as an Active Workers Conference. (Given the Party's demographics, it might more accurately be called the Active Retirees Conference.) The program included classes on the Party's trade union work, on their call for unilateral nuclear disarmament, on Puerto Rican independence, on the Middle East (with emphasis on Iran), and on the importance of the Cuban revolution, among other topics. Attendees numbered 320--the same number as attended the 2014 convention--including foreign visitors.

The major purpose of the meeting, however, was to tout Jack Barnes' new book, entitled Are They Rich Because They're Smart?: Class Privilege Under Capitalism. From The Militant's review, I was disappointed to learn that the book is not original, but instead is an updated compilation of articles Mr. Barnes has written previously. I did inquire about getting an advance review copy--unsurprisingly they didn't reply--but I have since ordered the book from Amazon (temporarily out of stock). It only costs $10. I'll post a review as soon as I can. I don't believe an appraisal has appeared in any other publication.

Mr. Barnes delivered the keynote address entitled The Changing Face of US Politics. The brief description in The Militant isn't very informative, containing only predictable boilerplate about "the unprecedented and irresolvable worldwide crisis of capitalist production, trade and finances." I can't help but hope there was more substance in the actual talk, i.e., about Donald Trump, who really is a new face in American politics.

The upshot of all this are the two tasks for the coming period: the Alyson Kennedy for President and Osborne Hart for vice-president campaign, and the drive to sell 1750 copies of Mr. Barnes' new book. Given the "irresolvable worldwide crisis of capitalist production, trade and finances," this seems remarkably modest. But the book is selling like gangbusters (despite Amazon being out of stock): "Since June 25 teams campaigning in Utah have sold 76 copies of the book; in Vermont, 133 copies; and in Washington state, 16." This, of course, is accomplished by comrades going door-to-door.

So there are three levels of political thought and activity. At the top are core principles. Then comes some overarching strategy for accomplishing those principles. Finally, this leads to tactics that are an implementation of that strategy.

I have read nothing indicating that the Party has violated any core principles, which remain mostly unchanged since I was a comrade 40 years ago. On this they are without sin.

Their mission to run an election campaign and sell books is a perfectly good tactic (however small).

What is missing is a strategy. They have none, and haven't had one for many years now. That's why this article is so short and doesn't have much to say. I can't comment on a strategy that doesn't exist. They bounce around from one idea to the next: appeal to Trump supporters, lobby for education (not) reform, defend the Jewish right of return, plead for nuclear disarmament, etc.

It's a long list. But nothing inspires. Nothing carries through from one week to the next. It's all ad hoc.

Note: Blogging has been light recently, due partly to some time-consuming, personal issues, and also because Mrs. Trotsky and I celebrated our 30th wedding anniversary with a two-week holiday in Japan.

Further Reading:

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Old White Man Runs For President

Socialist Action (SA) must not have much of a bench.
  • Lead writer for their newspaper -- Jeff Mackler
  • National Secretary of the Party (or whatever the title is) -- Jeff Mackler
  • 2016 Presidential Candidate -- Jeff Mackler
And SA accuses the Socialist Workers Party of being a cult? At least Jack Barnes spreads the work around.

I'll happily acknowledge that Mr. Mackler is a good writer--this blog has spent far too many pixels on his articles for me to claim otherwise. And clearly he has some organizational smarts, what leading SA since its founding in 1983.

But as a presidential candidate? Frankly, the guy sucks. Consider this video (from July, 2010) as representative. Clearly there's a charisma deficit. He talks like a bad high school teacher.

Though I guess that's understandable. "A former teachers union leader, Mackler was the organizer and longtime elected officer of the AFT and CTA locals in Hayward, Calif." Hayward, we suppose, has whole high schools filled with time-serving, boring teachers, the most tedious of which are elected to fill union posts.

The Marxist terminology for people like Mr. Mackler is petty bourgeois. He represents a class of people who produce nothing useful, but instead live off tax dollars extorted from hard-working citizens. Though I can't be too hard on Mr. Mackler--I, too, belong to the same parasite class as a member in good standing of our own (AFT) professors' union.

It is obvious that Mr. Mackler has no understanding about how the economy works. In any economy (not just a capitalist one) people earn a living by trading goods and services with other people. In a pure free market trade is unrestricted--people get to choose which goods and services they want to buy. We aren't required to buy something we don't want (e.g., educational "services" from Mr. Mackler), nor are we prohibited from buying things we do want (e.g., marijuana).

But Mr. Mackler doesn't live in a free market--his income is extracted at the point of a gun from other people. And so no wonder his campaign platform demands more money for parasites like him.

Here is Socialist Action's 10 point program (with my editorial comments on the side):

  • Rapid conversion to 100% renewable energy to stop fossil-fuel-induced climate change [Impossible]
  • For a just transition: Guaranteed jobs at top union wages for all workers displaced in the conversion to renewable energy [Make-work jobs doing imaginary things does not make people richer]
  • Quality, universal government-paid health care and education [Of course Mr. Mackler demands more money for teachers!]
  • Abolition of all racist, sexist, and homophobic laws and practices. [Are we gonna arrest people for thought crimes?]
  • Affordable housing and jobs for all at top union wages [Aren't union wages enough to afford housing?]
  • For $15 and a union now, as a short first step toward a minimum wage high enough to sustain quality living standards [Didn't they already say this?]
  • Abolition of the U.S. war machine [Civil rights for terrorists now!]
  • Amnesty, legalization, and equal rights for all immigrants [Presumably they also get top union wages, even if like everybody else they're prohibited from doing useful work]
  • For a Labor Party based on a revitalized, democratic, and expanded labor movement that is allied with the oppressed and exploited [Hard to see the point of a labor party when everybody is getting top union wages for doing no useful work]
  • For a workers’ government! Abolish capitalism! For socialism! [Welcome to North Korea!]
Mr. Mackler's running mate is a lady named Karen Shraufnagel, who lives up to her Germanic name.
Karen Schraufnagel is a member of Socialist Action’s National Committee and organizer of its Twin Cities branch. She is a founder of Minnesotans Against Islamophobia, and is active in the anti-Zionist Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions [BDS - ed] movement and the animal rights, antiwar, and environmental movements.
The woman is a full-fledged, card-carrying antisemite. Yes, I know there is a distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, but BDS is unequivocally antisemitic. As is Hamas, which SA unconditionally supports. Further, many of the Islamophobia-phobic groups are similarly so inspired.

According to Ms. Schraufnagel apparently animal rights are more important than the human rights of Jews.

But what's the point? Mr. Mackler's program is practically identical to that of Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, antisemitism included. Why is he running a separate campaign? Mr. Mackler's answer is likely that the Greens are "petty bourgeois," while SA isn't. But I think I've just demonstrated that's not true.

Jeff Mackler is just as much a petty bourgeois, pro-poverty campaigner as any other socialist.

Down with antisemitism!
Down with poverty!
Down with Jeff Mackler's presidential campaign!!

Further Reading:

Tuesday, June 21, 2016


Vincent Kelley writes a useful article entitled Class: Its Core Dimensions and Relationships to Levels of Organization, published in The North Star. It's a superior exercise in Marxist theory as it tries to actually describe reality instead of just rehashing ancient texts. Plus Mr. Kelley is a good writer.

In the end, it fails, and mostly because Mr. Kelley begins with a severely truncated toolkit.

Economists usually begin such discussions with the so-called factors of production. Often three ingredients are required: access to natural resources, labor, and capital. But the resource factor is usually subsumed into the other two, so most economic argument starts with how to allocate labor and capital in order to maximize production. This is enshrined in the well-known Cobb-Douglas production function,

Y=AL^{\beta }K^{\alpha }

Here Y is total output (to be maximized), L is the amount of labor used, and K is the capital invested. The other terms are empirical parameters. In particular, alpha and beta represent the relative importance of capital and labor, respectively.

So a cab driver has to buy a car ($30K in capital investment), and then spend hours driving (a labor investment). The result, he hopes, is a good living. And if the driver does not himself buy the car, then somebody else has to lay out the money, and accordingly will want some return on investment, aka profit.

But Mr. Kelley does not acknowledge capital as a factor of production. For him it is unnecessary for a cab driver to have a car--he could just simply start driving anyway. Or equally absurd, the person (even the driver) who purchases the car is willing to lend it out for free, just as a favor. Mr. Kelley says that there is only one factor of production--only labor counts, and nobody should be reimbursed for capital.

His ideal world, where capital is abolished, is one where there will be no taxis, no factories, no roads and no airplanes. I can't imagine what such a better world might look like--it'd be rather like a world without gravity.

Yet the article has some merits. First, he acknowledges that class is a malleable quality--it depends on the class struggle. Or putting it in my own words, class exists only insofar as the people involved recognize that they're in different classes. Or, in Mr. Kelley's language, 
Because class is created through historical class struggle, classes are made and remade over time. For the same reason, they can also be altered and destroyed. Class ideologies can be even more dynamic than classes in economic and political terms since ideology encompasses not only what is but also what was and what could be.
I think this is true, though it doesn't sound very materialist, and therefore odd coming from a Marxist.

And then he makes some odd distinctions:
...the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs in the last several decades has pushed many long-term production workers into the service sector, in which they sell their services to clients as opposed to selling their labor-power to capitalists. This shift of many workers from the occupational proletariat to the occupational petite bourgeoisie has formed a large segment of the U.S. petite bourgeoisie whose material conditions are comparable to or even below the proletariat, even though this segment is not in direct contradiction with industrial capital as it used to be. We call members of this lower strata of the petite bourgeoisie fundamental laborers...
So our taxi driver (even if he just works for the cab owner) is nevertheless not a member of the proletariat. Instead he is a fundamental laborer (aka, service worker) who is "occupationally" a member of the petite bourgeoisie. The distinction is that the cabbie works for passengers more than for the car owner, and is thus not an employee in the way a true proletarian would be.

In Mr. Kelley's view fundamental laborers, while they might be allied with the proletariat, lack the power to shut the mother down in the way that actual production workers can. They're rather like Russian peasants--in Lenin's view useful allies but ultimately irrelevant.

Mr. Kelley could mention that 80% of the American labor force are in service occupations, and only 12% are in traditional manufacturing. The actual proletariat then is already rather small, and is still shrinking fast. Mr. Kelley blames this on foreign outsourcing, when in fact the biggest culprit by far is automation. The day is not far off when only 1 or 2% of the population is involved in manufacturing, similar to the fraction now working in agriculture.

Further, that 12% in manufacturing are not the interchangeable proletarians of yore, but instead are increasingly highly skilled and well-paid workers. These are not people who have any interest in "shutting the mother down."

Beyond this, I'd take issue with his distinction between service workers and proletarians. We'll all agree that the UAW guy at the River Rouge plant is a worker. But what about the salesman at the local dealership? The salesman is the crucial link in the chain--without him the worker's labor is wasted, as is Henry Ford's capital investment. If the cars don't sell, there's no point in building them. So if anybody has his finger on the pulse of the economy, it's the salesman. I don't think Mr. Kelley understands that.

And then: Are McDonald's employees fundamental laborers trained to respond to customers? Or are they instead workers in a hamburger manufacturing plant? Mr. Kelley needs to answer such questions before he makes such dramatic distinctions.

There are bits of Mr. Kelley's article that I agree with. He writes,
To return to our examples, the Afro-American petite bourgeoisie is a largely reactionary sub-class segment because of its attachment not only to what it has but also to what it could have. Hence we observe the fallacious political line of uplifting all Afro-Americans through the development of an Afro-American (mis)leadership class of race leaders who advocate an individualized politics bolstered by explicit or implicit cultural nationalism. This cultural nationalism has most recently expressed itself through the petite bourgeois leadership of Black Lives Matter, which has co-opted the militant struggle of urban poor and working class Afro-Americans into the cultural nationalist paradigm of Afro-Americans “coming together across class.” Similarly, the racist sub-class elements of the American proletariat establish themselves as a reactionary segment of the working class when they support capitalist politicians like Donald Trump in exchange for a promised populism for whites only.
I think this is mostly correct, though (as a Trump supporter myself) I'd be a bit more generous to the Trump people.

The latter position is a result of the petite bourgeoisie’s tendency to fetishize its own, very real, domination under capitalism and equate this domination with a proletarian class location. This line leads to a disproportionate attention on unionized public sector service workers, such as teachers, postal workers, and graduate students as opposed to the largely non-unionized private sector production workers who most urgently must be organized if the workers’ movement as a whole has any chance of challenging, defeating, and finally destroying capital at its origin.
He implies (and I'd agree) that public sector workers are not very useful people (I've used the less polite term parasite). And very few people are more useless than graduate students (a total waste of time and money).

So Mr. Kelley's goal is to overthrow capital. I have no clue what that means. But I enjoyed reading about how we're supposed to get there.

Further Reading:

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Verizon's Horizons

Bill Onasch is both a good writer and very knowledgeable about the US labor movement. His articles are well worth reading. Indeed, his latest piece on the Verizon strike is the most informative that I've so far read anywhere.

We'll get back to the Verizon strike in a minute.

There are always two ways to interpret economic data--is it a demand issue or a supply issue? Usually there is no way to distinguish between those two possibilities.

Take, for example, the recent BLS employment report, tallying a meager 38,000 new jobs in May. Most pundits argue that it is a demand issue: consumers are holding back, nobody is buying anything, there is too much inventory, and we're on the verge of a recession. This view might be correct.

The alternative interpretation is that it is a supply issue: the economy has run out of qualified workers to employ. That unemployment is now down to 4.7% suggests the economy is going full-tilt, actually over-heating. Far from a recession, we're more likely to see wage inflation, and then inflation more generally. It looks like the Fed subscribes more toward this point of view.

I have no idea what the truth is, and what's more, I don't think anybody else knows either. Most likely it's some complicated mix of demand and supply factors. But Mr. Onasch's article lends credence to the supply-side explanation.
First of all, they [Verizon workers] remembered what the company tried to ignore—the boss had been paying them because they needed their work. The landlines can’t be moved to Mexico and there aren’t enough qualified white shirts to keep up with installations, repairs, or even the call centers for long. And efforts to employ “temporary replacements” fell far short of expectations.
Fixing telephones is a skilled job, not one they teach in college. There are not that many people who can do the work--you can't just hire somebody off the street. The "white shirts" may have their own value, but when it comes to climbing poles they're fairly useless.

Mr. Onasch claims--probably correctly--that the company had no other source of labor. They had to settle with the union. Even robots can't help them--it'll be a long time before a robot can look at a telephone circuit, figure out what's wrong with it, isolate the individual pole, climb it and then fix the problem.

In short, Verizon ran out of skilled labor--a classic, supply-side constraint. This gave the union a lot of bargaining power, which they used to the max.

To keep a more flexible workforce, Verizon wanted to contract out some of the repair work to non-union shops. But given the supply constraints, the contractors aren't going to be able to hire workers at a lower wage than Verizon. The company is better off putting the people on the payroll. Thus the union "won" a 25% increase in the number of pole jobs in New York City.

Beyond that, what did the union use it's bargaining power to accomplish? According to Mr. Onasch,

  • 1300 new call center jobs will be added.
    This is good for the union, but not for the skilled workers. The latter have bargaining power even without the union, but the union itself earns money only by extracting union dues from contracted employees. Adding 1300 call center jobs to Verizon's payroll will augment union dues, without much improving the lives of the call center workers (who are eminently replaceable).
  • Annual 1% increases in defined-benefit pensions.
    This only works if the pension plan is fully funded. If not, then it's a big lie--just ask unionized mine workers about that.
  • A modest number of retail store workers and technicians in the wireless division will be included in the contract.Again, this is good for the union, but potentially terrible for the employees. The retail workers are both dispensable and low-paid, and will now have to contribute to support the pensions of the skilled workforce.
  • An immediate 3% raise, along with three 2.5% raises over the life of the contract.
    Yeah, when there's a labor shortage salaries get bid up.
Mr. Onasch is cautious about using the strike tool.
Major industrial corporations today have alternative sources of production to reduce a strike’s impact on their “bottom line.” These formidable challenges have succeeded in reducing the numbers and length of strikes in the United States over the last few decades—and especially during this century. 
But some modest or partial strike victories in recent years—Temple University Hospital nurses, Chicago teachers, oil workers national agreement, Kohler—have inspired a few unions to continue this tactic even as all the pundits tell them that their shrinking unions are now irrelevant and strikes are futile.
He shows he implicitly understands the supply/demand distinction made above. Firms that have run up against labor supply constraints are easier to bargain with than others. That surely is true for the oil workers and the Kohler employees--both drawn from a skilled workforce. So contrary to Marxist assumptions, strikes are more common and more successful when the economy is strong rather than when it is weak.

The teachers, on the other hand, are public employees, and nurses are so heavily regulated that they might as well be public employees. These workers are in a different category altogether. Their success depends on how good they are at lobbying politicians for bennies. This is a form of corruption, and has little to do with any supply/demand issues. Personally, I think the future for public employee unions is grim.

But for workers in skilled trades that can't be automated--their future is bright. Mr. Onasch explains why with more clarity than perhaps he is aware of.

Further Reading: