Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Louis Proyect's Pro-Poverty Alliance

Louis Proyect kindly posted video from the recent Left Forum meeting in New York. It's a nice summary of the travails of the modern Left.

As a leader of the North Star movement, he provides an introduction to its history and goals. "What we need," he maintains, "is a broad Left Party where people can work together based on a common program" that doesn't require close ideological agreement. Mr. Proyect goes back to Peter Camejo, Lenin, and even the Communist Manifesto for guidance. The latter sounds veritably reformist, calling for a "heavy, progressive, graduated income tax, equal liability of all to work, establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture."

Mr. Proyect claims that Lenin's conception of a Leninist Party was much closer to what North Star aspires to than something like the Socialist Workers Party. Socialist movements can't simply imitate ancient Russian history and expect success. Instead they must draw heavily from the heritage of their own time and country. Socialists need to stop waving hammers & sickles around, and end democratic centralism in it's current form.

Channeling Peter Camejo, Mr. Proyect cites as positive examples the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Movement (FNLM) in El Salvador, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front in Nicaragua. Marti and Sandinista were local heroes, not Russian ideologues. Likewise, North Star named itself after the (very obscure) newspaper published from 1847 to 1851 by (nearly as obscure) Frederick Douglass. Current role models include Greece's Syriza, and Spain's Podemos.

And here's the problem. Does Mr. Proyect really think that either the FNLM or the Sandinistas made their countries any richer? Both movements plunged their countries into decades-long civil wars that killed thousands of people. Yes, one can lay significant blame on the Contras and the Salvadoran army, and even the USA, but it takes two to tango. Both nations were left substantially poorer at the end of the Leftists' reign than they were at the beginning. Which is why the Left is no longer in power in either country.

If that's success, then I'd like to know what failure looks like.

Likewise Syriza, which by becoming the government has inherited a poisoned chalice. It can either succumb to the demands of the Troika, or it can take Greece out of the Euro. Contrary to the popular media, the Troika's demands are not unreasonable and will lead to long-term economic growth in Greece. But Syriza's constituency (government employees) will be hurt. Leaving the Euro, on the other hand, will drive the entire population into instant poverty. Please, Mr. Proyect--tell us how this is a positive outcome for the Left.

Two other speakers are worth noting. Kshama Sawant, the global proletariat's representative on the Seattle City Council, was asked to speak on the fly, without prepared remarks, and the result is slightly incoherent. She doesn't like corporations. She's very proud that her campaign received no corporate money from Starbucks. Count me happy--when I buy coffee I really don't want my purchase subsidizing socialist radicals.

But she really hates Starbucks. She didn't explain why, but I'll suppose it's because they pay low wages. In most of the country it's probably around $9/hour, albeit with some benefits. In Seattle they now pay $15 per hour. To Ms. Sawant (a talented software engineer) this sounds like chump change--the baristas are getting exploited.

So here is my question for Ms. Sawant: What salary would Starbucks have to pay before she'd like Starbucks? Obviously $15/hour is not enough.

Here are my reasons for liking Starbucks:

  • I like their coffee. It's better than 90% of the Ma & Pa places. Starbucks is good for consumers.
  • They employ 180,000 people, all of whom get a salary, some benefits and a possible career track.
  • They have greatly expanded the coffee market in the US, to the benefit of farmers in places like Nicaragua.
Ms. Sawant, judging from her language, thinks the world would be a better place if Starbucks went out of business. Needless to say, I don't think the 180,000 people who work there are going to sign on to that crusade.

The best talk was given by the 2014 Green Party candidate for Lieutenant Governor of New York, Brian Jones. He's a card carrying communist--a member of the International Socialist Organization. He's also a member of the teacher's union, NYSUT, an organization dedicated to ripping off the taxpayers in support of their members. Taxpayers like those who work at Starbucks, who pay New York's record high property taxes and sales taxes.

Mr. Jones channels Syriza, and as such epitomizes Mr. Proyect's project. Mr. Jones believes that government employees--and only government employees--are people of good will who have the public's interest at heart. Thus he sees no conflict between higher salaries for teachers and better outcomes for students, despite the fact that there's no empirical correlation.

We need government employees. We need cops, and prison guards, and road maintenance crews, and soldiers. These people are an expense necessary to correct for the failings of human nature.

But government workers don't make us richer--they simply preserve civilization. Wealth comes from people who produce things that consumers want to buy. Starbucks employees make me richer because I enjoy drinking their coffee. On the other hand, I hope I will never require the services of a prison guard. The goal of society is certainly to pay civil servants appropriately--even generously. But frankly, we need as few of them as possible.

Mr. Jones and Syriza have it backwards. Greece has hired way more people than it needs--the Troika wants a lot of them privatized (or fired). New York schools are famous for their rubber rooms--places where useless teachers can hang out because the union won't let us get rid of them. College professors (like me) use the taxpayer's dime to write books that literally nobody is going to read.

So there it is. Mr. Proyect is pro-poverty: he has supported hugely destructive civil wars; he thinks Starbucks employees should all be fired because it's an evil company; he believes that more teachers and more cops and more prison guards will make us richer.

Mr. Proyect is wrong on all counts.

Further Reading:


  1. ". . .Both nations were left substantially poorer at the end of the Leftists' reign than they were at the beginning. Which is why the Left is no longer in power in either country. . ." This is incorrect! The FSLN in Nicaragua and FMLN in El Salvador currently govern those countries.

    1. I stand sort of corrected. It is certainly true that Ortega is again president of Nicaragua, having effectively removed the two-term limitation. It is also true that he makes left-wing noises. But then there's this statement from Wikipedia:

      "According to the World Bank, Nicaragua ranked as the 123rd best economy for starting a business. Nicaragua's economy is "62.7% free" with high levels of fiscal, government, labor, investment, financial, and trade freedom. It ranks as the 61st freest economy, and 14th (of 29) in the Americas."

      Not wonderful, but hardly the track record of a committed socialist. So I think Ortega can no longer be considered as Left.

      I know nothing about El Salvador. The country has completely dropped out of the news.