Thursday, September 25, 2014

Red-Baiting the Climate

When I was a Trotskyist, the words "red-baiting" ended any argument. The term stems from the 1950s when Communists (the Stalinist ones in the CPUSA) were surreptitiously infiltrating themselves into government agencies where they then aided and abetted the Soviets.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union we now know for a fact that that happened, though probably neither to the extent nor with the consequences they desired.

But that term never applied very well to Trotskyists. We viewed the bourgeois state as the mortal enemy, and far from trying to infiltrate it we avoided it like the plague. Our criticism of the CPUSA was that they were class-collaborationists, i.e., they participated with bourgeois governments in oppressing the working class. We condemned them for their very infiltration.

But we did infiltrate, if not the bourgeois state, then various "working class" social movements and institutions. In the 1930s Trotskyists played a key role in the development of the Teamsters Union. From the 1950s through the 1980s we made continuous efforts to form "fractions" in the unions, i.e., groups of "worker-Bolsheviks" who could advance a revolutionary socialist agenda.

So when addressed to Trotskyists the term takes on a slightly different meaning. It implies that a given organization is a front-group, nominally independent but in reality controlled by the Party. Today new names have evolved to describe such organizations: "astroturf", or "sockpuppets." The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) certainly had its share of front groups. Almost all defense committees were such, most famously the one that pursued the COINTELPRO lawsuit. The Mark Curtis Defense Committee is another example. While these went around seeking endorsements, they never had much of a footprint outside of the Party.

The National Student Coalition Against Racism was another such front group. In this case the Party wanted it to become a mass organization, but failed.

On the other hand, there were a few organizations led by Trotskyists that really did have a mass following. The Student Mobilization Committee is the most important one--it organized the 800,000 strong antiwar marches on April 24th, 1971. Comrades were clearly in the leadership of this group, but with 800,000 adherents it's really hard to think of it as a front group. Instead, it's probably the closest the American communist movement has ever come to having an actual success.

So now we come to the Sept. 21st Climate March. The big demonstration--300,000 people--happened in New York. Reason TV has a perfectly good report here, and while the communists get a mention, most of the audience is goodhearted if fuzzy-thinking people. They're not Trotskyist wannabes. Indeed, I think this march was organized by legitimate climate activists--Bill McKibben gave a talk on my campus to build attendance. The Trotskyists are a sideshow.

So now comes the blogger Zombie, reporting on the climate march in Oakland, CA. This was much smaller (he doesn't give a number), perhaps only a thousand people or so. He red-baits the march as a commie event. And he certainly has some good evidence. All of this blog's friends make an appearance: Socialist Action gets top billing. Solidarity is present. Even Socialist Viewpoint makes a cameo appearance (holding a sign promoting "system change not climate change"). The SWP had a very large booth.

The CPUSA was there, as were the International Socialists, the Freedom Socialist Party, and Socialist Alternative. Bob Avakian's fan club made an appearance, with t-shirts advertising "BA Speaks." And Mr. Zombie makes a point to include the card table lit display from the (I kid you not) Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism.

Further, the keynote speaker was an avowed revolutionary socialist. I don't know who she was or what organization she represented. She advised the assembled to get involved by talking to any of the people in the booths, i.e., all the Trotskyists and commies.

But it can't be entirely true. For all their similarities, these grouplets are all at each other's throats. My former comrades in the SWP wouldn't give the Bob Avakian fan club the time of day (nor do I blame them). There is no love lost between Socialist Action and Socialist Viewpoint, however much you'd think they have in common.

Further, the SWP regards environmentalism as a petty-bourgeois phenomenon, and is not fully on board with the enterprise. The fact that they had a lit booth up says nothing about their support for the march, which at best would be tepid.

So the march was organized by the People's Climate Committee (PCC). Are they a front group for one of these Trotskyist sects? I doubt it, though perhaps Socialist Action played a disproportionate role. But like the SMC of yore, this effort really does tap into the fervent feeling of many people. The New York march was big enough to drown out the Trotskyists, but that wasn't true in Oakland. Rather than being a front group, instead the PCC's march was hijacked by assorted communists.

So what do all of these commie groups have in common?

  • They are old. There are remarkably few people under 40 behind the lit tables. Most of them look to be nearing 60.
  • They are ugly. We all get less attractive as we age. Most of us make some efforts to hide that fact, but apparently not the communists.
  • They're angry. They all look like they've got a big chip on their shoulder. The picture of the two Socialist Viewpoint ladies makes the case.
  • They're miserable. None of them are having any fun. Far from being a party atmosphere, this is a chore. These folks put the Puritans to shame--it's against the rules to smile.
At least that's how they come across in the photos. Maybe Mr. Zombie has selectively published unflattering photos. That's probably part of it. I doubt the event was quite as miserable as he's made it look. Still, his imagery conforms to my recollection of antiwar demonstrations. We were all young back then, but apart from the age difference I don't think much has changed. I never enjoyed attending those. I was tasked with selling The Militant, and the experience was both boring and stressful.

If this represents the flower of the revolutionary movement, then I am pleased to say that the bourgeoisie have nothing to fear.

PS: Mr. Zombie previously posted a very amusing account of a Slutwalks march, here.

Further Reading:

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Robots of the World, Unite!

In the previous issue of Socialist Action is a fascinating article by Danny Haiphong, entitled Capitalist Automation in the 21st Century. The interesting thing is that Mr. Haiphong gets the facts mostly right, but his interpretation of them is mistaken. It's worth trying to take it apart. The article is short and hard to excerpt, so you may want to read the whole thing.

Mr. Haiphong reports on a hero of the workers' cause with whom I was previously unacquainted. "James Boggs was a revolutionary Black autoworker in the Post World War II era, a period where technology boomed from the vast expansion of “war-time” industries. He broke from the racist leadership of the United Auto Workers (UAW) to help organize the League of Revolutionary Black Workers in the early ’60s."

In 1968, Mr. Boggs pretty clearly laid out the rap sheet against automation that Marxists make to this very day. In Mr. Haiphong's words:
In The American Revolution: Pages from a Negro Workers Notebook, Boggs examines the impact of capitalist automation. During the industrial period of U.S. capitalism, advanced technology was implemented to speed-up, or automate productive factories. This development grinded away at traditional labor union structures, displacing “skilled” workers and pressuring labor unions to bargain for defensive protections of “bread and butter” gains instead of offensive campaigns for workplace power. Boggs asserted that the only effective counter offensive to automation’s assault on labor would be for workers to make “politics” instead of ”things.” Automation paved the way for deindustrialization and precipitated a decline in conditions for all workers that could not be remedied under the U.S. capitalist system.
That's pretty prescient! Only the last sentence seems wrong. There is no way that conditions for all workers are declining. By any measure our standard of living has gone up--and not just for rich people. Even poor people are vastly better off than they were fifty years ago.

Indeed, it is rather perverse to say that automation is an "assault" on labor. Is labor better off digging ditches with a pick and shovel rather than using a backhoe? Were women really happier working at the deadly tedious job of telephone operator, instead of relying on automatic switches? The over-the-road truck driver may be a romantic job, but it is a grindingly enervating occupation. Driverless trucks (coming soon) will render that job mostly obsolete. Surely, machines are better at boringly endless jobs than people are.

As if channeling Mr. Boggs, Seth Galinsky pens an article in this week's Militant about union efforts to organize fast workers. He quotes a Burger King employee:
“Conditions are bad,” Luz Meza, who works at Burger King, said at the Houston rally. “The equipment doesn’t work and the ventilation is no good. I got burned and the boss said to put mustard on it. One worker got cut and there were no Band-Aids. There’s no sick, vacation or holiday pay.”
Why would anybody want a job like that? Fortunately, such jobs may not exist much longer.
Momentum Machines of San Francisco has invented a fully-automated contraption that can grind meat, slice tomatoes, grill patties, wrap fully cooked burgers and do pretty much anything else human fast-food workers can do. The machine is capable of cranking out 360 burgers per hour, ...
So the Burger King of the (near) future will have three employees per shift--one to greet customers and hand them their food at the counter, another to do likewise at the drive-thru window, and a third responsible for cleaning and minor maintenance. (This assumes that ordering and payment are done by mobile phone and voice-recognition software.) That's ten or more people who won't be doing meaningless, smelly, dangerous jobs at Burger King. What's there not to like?

The unions won't like it. With only three employees there's nothing left to organize at fast food. (And in a pinch the store could function even without those three.) That looks to be Mr. Haiphong's objection to automation. It grinds away at "labor union structures," rendering them irrelevant. The SEIU is half-heartedly trying to organize fast food workers because they see photogenic victims of capitalist plunder. If they succeed (which they won't--and they know it) then automation comes down all that much faster. There's no way that any food service job earns $15/hour when up against the machine.

It's a Marxist truism that automation "hurts" the working class, but Mr. Haiphong goes beyond this analysis.
Automation has produced a decline in the total rate of profit alongside heightened insecurity for workers. Capitalist profit derives from the amount of labor time unpaid, or simply put, from capitalists paying workers less than their output produced over time. This is the basis of labor exploitation. Technology creates a decrease in the total rate of profit because it is a past product of labor exploitation. Thus, technology is a cost for capitalist enterprises. And under capitalism, costs to profits means consequences for workers.
This perceptive paragraph is unusual in the Marxist press, and it's not entirely untrue. But I'm going to quibble with Mr. Haiphong's phrase "decrease in the total rate of profit." In his usage the concept is undefined and meaningless. But if he means that prices go down as a result of automation, he's absolutely correct. The capitalist cannot charge for the labor of employees that don't work there anymore. And in the long run, once the capital expense has been amortized, the cost declines to the price of raw materials and electricity to run the machine. Mr. Haiphong is correct--this is bad for capitalists as it reduces everything to a commodity.

But he never gets to the next step. Prices go down, and therefore consumers get richer. And that explains the paradox that Mr. Haiphong apparently can't get his head around. How is it that workers can be so seriously mistreated, but at the same time society is getting richer and richer and richer? The answer is that even as wages decline, prices are going down even faster. Our standard of living goes up.

Or put another way, higher productivity is a good thing. 360 hamburgers per hour with no labor expense is vastly better than putting people through hell working in a Burger King joint. Mr. Haiphong calls it speed-up, but it is precisely not that. It is radically changing the way we work and making us infinitely richer in the process.

Further Reading: