Friday, August 8, 2014

Left Labor's Lost Cause

My friends at Solidarity have published a heart-felt, honest, gut-wrenching document about how socialists should work within the labor movement. It offers a very pessimistic view about the state of today's class struggle, noting that "the neoliberal ruling class offensive is devastating the working class." They struggle to find some silver linings around which to organize for socialism.

The piece is an update on a much longer pamphlet by Kim Moody, a labor historian now based in Britain. Written in 2000, Mr. Moody's work defines the rank and file strategy for Left labor. That essay--already pessimistic--is veritably rosy compared to Solidarity's latest document.

The rank and file strategy is centered on the following ideas:
  • To support and help build fight-back efforts to reform and radicalize the union movement. "We build these rank and file groups, acts of resistance, and movements on their own terms, but offer an analysis of the roots of the problem and a bigger vision of how to address them when appropriate." This effort is referred to as unionism.
  • Build cross-union alliances, i.e., class-wide collaboration and solidarity.
  • Ally with community organizations, especially those designed to fight racism and sexism.
  • Build an independent labor party not beholden to the Democrats.
  • Build the socialist movement. Mr. Moody doesn't mention "vanguard Party," but that's sort of what he means.
Today's document acknowledges the value of the rank and file strategy, but claims it is no longer a practical enterprise. The unions have simply gotten too small for it to work. Only in the public sector is union "density" high enough that it is possible to build a movement entirely within the unions.

As an alternative, the proposal is to reverse the priority of Mr. Moody's list, and to begin organizing community organizations. Then (with luck), the efforts will redound back into the union movement, leading eventually to its rejuvenation. So where Mr. Moody hailed the efforts of the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), today's Solidarity is more concerned with Occupy and Moral Mondays (which I've never heard of).

The collaboration with the unions should always be from the bottom up. That means the goal is to find rank & file union members who want to participate in these community struggles, rather than forming formal alliances through the leadership. Solidarity is thus friendly to what has become known as alt-Labor, though they'd probably not have it organized officially by the unions.

It won't work, of course. The plan depends on a completely mistaken view of how the economy works, and therefore how politics works. The proletariat as it existed in Marx's day, or even as it was in the last half of the 20th Century is simply not there today. We are all petty bourgeois now, and a political strategy that assumes otherwise is doomed to fail.

The chink in the armor is revealed by how Mr. Moody and Solidarity throw around the word neoliberalism. That expletive is supposed to explain everything--it's all a big plot by the evil capitalists to impoverish the working class. Solidarity describes the rap sheet concisely:
We are witnessing a sustained and historic assault on collective bargaining, the social safety net, pensions, health care, public education, indeed all of the mechanisms that protect workers from the raw discipline of capitalist labor markets. Governments at every level have joined the employer assault by implementing austerity policies that affect the broad working-class.
Mr. Moody actually brings some statistics to the argument:
Put simply this means that workers produce more value or wealth than they make in the wages and benefits that make up their standard of living. So, for example, in 1995 manufacturing companies made $5.39 of value added an hour for each $1.00 in hourly wages they paid production workers. ... 
So for each dollar capital paid to workers in the U.S., capital skimmed $2.47 in 1947, $3.23 in 1967, $3.73 in 1977, $4.64 in 1987, and $5.39 in 1995. This rip-off ratio grows in spite of the fact that hourly wages also rise. The reason the ratio rises is that productivity increases.
He cites no reference for this data, but I think he is calculating (total revenue)/($ paid to US production workers). This, of course, has almost nothing to do with profit--it's not a statistic that you'll hear about on CNBC. The reason for Mr. Moody's trend is very simple--the number of production workers has declined dramatically, and thus also the dollars paid to them. Google, for example, has no production workers, and therefore that ratio would be infinite.

Much of the decline in production workers is due to automation. Some of it is because production has been moved off-shore to China (and elsewhere). Accordingly, 400 million Chinese have been pulled out of poverty. Indeed, while (by some measures) income inequality has gone up in the US, it is sharply lower on a global scale. Neither of our articles mentions that fact.

If you believe Mr. Moody or Solidarity, you would think that everybody is substantially poorer than they were twenty years ago. But there is no evidence for that. There's been no decline in life expectancy. There's been no huge increase in hunger or homelessness. Today we have cheap cell phones, broadband Internet, and dramatically better healthcare. Food has gotten more expensive (as you would expect if you have 400 million new Chinese consumers), but restaurants have gotten much cheaper--and much better. Cars last for 15 or 20 years--no more planned obsolescence--and they're much safer.

There is just no way you can claim that we're all radically poorer than we were 20 or 40 years ago. Some people are poorer--government employees in Greece, for example--but in general the part of the world population connected to the global marketplace is richer than we've ever been.

So the premise is just all wrong. Austerity, cutbacks, recession, and this problem or that, have not had any material effect on our standard of living. No wonder there's no demand to "fight back." Fight back against what?

All the socialists have are some losers. They coalesced for a few months as the misbegotten Occupy Movement, an incoherent, drug-addled, apolitical effort that accomplished precisely nothing. And then they're all excited about the Chicago Teachers' strike. The teachers went on strike at just the right time--a few months before the 2012 election, forcing Obama's political machine to cave. It had nothing to do with organizing or struggling--it was a once-off anomaly.

The Chicago public schools have lost 17% of their enrollment since 2000. Some of that is demographic decline, but much is the trend toward charter schools. It's not the evil capitalists who are driving charter schools--it's parents from poor and minority communities who want more control over their children's education.

As Glenn Reynolds keeps saying, "sending your children to a public school is a form of child abuse." That's over the top, but the fact is that the public school system has failed. That may or may not be the union's fault, but they certainly haven't helped.

The union movement is dead. Full credit to Solidarity for recognizing that. But their effort to build an alt-Left Labor movement is doomed.

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