COVID-19: An end to the world (or to capitalism?)

There is a quote, which Capitalist Realism author Mark Fisher attributes to Fredric Jameson and Slavoj Žižek that “it is easier to imagine an end to the world than an end to capitalism.” I will say that this is likely not a recent insight among leftist thinkers. Acute crises like the First World War, which involved countries with high numbers of left-wing intellectuals and political parties, very well saw the imperialist carnage of European nation-states in apocalyptic terms. Though these crises can create a revolutionary situations (the February and October Revolutions in Russia came amidst a long period of defeats on the frontlines), they may also make it seem more likely that the world will end than a definitive end to the capitalist era. The subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic, coming at the tail end of the war, killed more people than the war.

Most people, outside of infectious disease experts, who worry about the end of human society as we know it, probably thought until a few months ago that the existential crisis was climate change. And indeed, it still is in the long-ish term. But COVID-19, which is ravaging countries with the most developed healthcare systems in the world, and is beginning to affect the Global South with very limited resources, has taken end-times thinking from about a decade out to week-by-week. Under one projection, even U.S states that have enacted shelter-in-place are looking at aggregate casualties in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, depending on how strictly these advisories are imposed and the amount of assistance supplied by a generally oblivious federal government.

Climate change and COVID-19 have several important similarities. They both expose a general lack of intra-national and international cooperation in issues that ignore borders. Likely, by the end of this, poor countries will be the most vulnerable and the least likely to gain access to treatments discovered in the next year or two. Both reveal a critical lack of attention paid to infrastructure and creating excess capacity. And both have shown in the U.S the power of special interests to siphon of needed money for bailouts that are in large-scale firms largely crises of their own design (i.e spending most of their profits on stock buybacks rather than keeping cash on hand). I think some countries will learn valuable lessons that they will apply to combating climate change, but also that some countries are so deeply dysfunctional that they have both a lack of short-term and long-term planning when it comes to existential threats.

Lenin once wrote “There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” COVID-19 has compressed decades of climate change damage into a couple of months. The end of feudalism occurred over several centuries, where the ancien regime of France fell in a couple of years. The question is whether the obstacles faced in confronting a pandemic will be used later on, or will we learn nothing from the tragedy.

The bullshit economy II: Bullshit-ish jobs and the coronavirus recession

BulllshitJObs

Years ago, I wrote a post entitled “The bullshit economy“, reflecting on David Graeber’s superb essay “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” that ended up being a runaway success. By the time his full-length book Bullshit Jobs (2018) came out, a poll had already been conducted that a substantial portion of people in developed countries believed their work had no societal value at all. And though bullshit jobs have in media discourse focused on the bureaucracy and public sector, many people from the private sector reported useless levels of middle management, creation of reports nobody actually reads, and people who exist to duct-tape together something that doesn’t work but could probably be fixed if that was the actual goal, rather than maintaining the status quo.

The spread of COVID-19, which has now enveloped many developed countries, who, with huge amounts of international air travel and centralized urban societies and health systems, were always going to be the first to be slammed by a pandemic. Italy is the post child of how bad things are now, with Spain currently outpacing them in terms of the rate of increase in death rate. The United States is in waves reaching and going beyond the saturation point of its gutted hospitals. According to World Bank data, the US has, per 1,000 people, about a third the hospital beds it had in the 1960s:

Screen Shot 2020-03-25 at 1.46.26 AM
Source: Trading Economics

The de-development of the US, wherein infrastructure is either destroyed deliberately (see, the auto industry buying and dismantling extensive and cheap electric streetcar systems in many cities) or through general neglect in the neoliberal era. The decrease in hospital beds, however, is astonishing not only for how much it digs into American Exceptionalism narratives, but also how it falls consistently even prior to the usual starting point of American neoliberalism in the Reagan era.

It is abundantly clear that the US will have the highest total deaths of any country, by an order of magnitude or more. The President wants to already roll back very inconsistent containment methods by Easter, in order to “restart the economy”. My state has still not adopted shelter-in-place, despite Boston being a major city with a large amount of imported cases and community transmission. It seems clear they will never receive federal assistance in going beyond current containment measures, let alone the medical supplies they need through the use of the Defense Production Act. The government, as most neoliberal governments in American and Western history, is basing their crisis response on handshake deals with large companies and promises of no-strings-attached bailout money.

I will revisit the difference between “the economy” (the method by which people obtain goods and services, through work or a welfare state) and “the Economy” (a reified concept based on a few stock indexes and how well billionaires and their conglomerates are doing) at a later date. I will focus on this post in how much the economy has been stripped down. Finding out which jobs are “essential” (largely the supply chains for food and medical equipment, along with education, though they are full of administrative layers and do-nothing middlemen skimming money off the top) and which are not is instructive. This is a natural experiment to go beyond the Bullshit Jobs framework, which relied on above-mentioned pollinga few hundred people who emailed about the bullshit parts (or wholes) of their jobs, and Graeber’s mastery of theory creation from an anthropological lens.

Landlords? Pure parasites, who get others to pay their mortgages and expansion, avoiding providing services as much as possible, which could be done collectively by tenants anyways.

Office jobs? Bullshit-ish, at the very least, if not total bullshit. The mass movement to working from home and teleconferencing within a couple of weeks indicates what a useless, environmentally-destroying artifice the office is. The office is an instrument of social control, whereby the bosses use the magic of at-will employment to add unneeded stress on people who know how to do their jobs infinitely better than management. With a huge drop in commuting, Los Angeles has some of the cleanest air it has ever had in the automobile era. Millions of hours of commuting and busywork have been cut, and people are able to balance whatever workload they actually have with accomplishing creative pursuits or otherwise having more time in the day. Graeber perceptively points out that many jobs have huge amounts of busywork because some jobs (like system administrators) require people to be on-call for a certain number of hours, but may frequently have no urgent work to do. Management hates to pay people to do nothing of substance, so they use the artifice of the office as a social control mechanism to feel they are getting their money’s worth and justify their existence.

DilbertBullshitJobs

It is clear that many jobs have bullshit-ish aspects to them. Some aspects, like interminable face-to-face meetings that could be sorted out in a ten-minute Slack chat, still persist. The “essential”, who are generally treated like dirt when there isn’t a crisis, show how little match-up there is between pay and social usefulness. A grocery store truck driver has orders of magnitude more importance than his superiors, and they could collectively management the supply chain with their co-workers, having so many years of combined experience on how food goes from farms to shelves. Countries like Denmark are paying a majority of laid-off workers’ salaries, though it should be re-evaluated what these workers should be paid given the social value of their work. 75% of salary seems okay (not ideal, but better than the nothing coming from America), but 75% of what, exactly? Marx’s labor theory of value has come into acute relevance in the past month, as it becomes clear who actually creates value (workers), and who is expendable (administrators, corporate executives, and industries like cruises and shale oil that have no future in a decarbonized economy).

What does the future hold? The idea that the economy can be “restarted” while every hospital is flooded with sick and dying people, and people on the frontlines in healthcare and essential goods production get sick, is insane. There will be a recession, as long as the current range of workable proposals in Congress are where the imagination stops. The stock indexes, which were swollen from deregulation that made once-illegal stock buybacks driving share prices far beyond what assets and earnings a company actually has in meatspace. Bailout money without regulation will go to buybacks, which is just another version of bonuses given out by AIG and Goldman Sachs after the 2008 bailouts. But real-world growth, unemployment, etc. will spiral upwards. A contraction of over 20% of GDP is now being predicted this coming quarter, with Great Depression-levels of unemployment.

A select few elites will benefit, although largely being old men, they will be vulnerable to COVID-19 just like everyone else. A New England Journal of Medicine article on the inevitability of rationing PPE and medical care notes that wealth should not be a factor in testing and treatment, though it inevitably will be to some point. But nothing prevents the wealthy from having severe cases and dying, even if medical care was available. This is not Ebola, it is not confined to the developing (or “developing” but really gutted) countries. And the frontline employees who prepare your food and serve you don’t have paid sick leave and will transmit COVID-19 to others no matter what your bank account balance is.

Are We (Finally) in Late Neoliberalism?

The current wave of protests against austerity and imperialism indicate that we are at (another) crisis point in the roughly half-century since neoliberalism replaced Keynesian economics as the basis of contemporary capitalism.

It’s fitting that Chile, beginning with mass evasion of increased subway fares, and continuing to general strikes and a complete shutdown of the national infrastructure, is part of this wave. Neoliberalism, in its doctrinaire form, began in the aftermath of the 1973 coup that overthrew Salvador Allende and installed Pinochet as a dictator. The uprising in Haiti also connects to a longer historical process, as the Haitian people have been subject to imperialist efforts by major European powers (France historically, the United States now) to make them economically subservient and to overthrow or frustrate any attempt to build a political movement that is against austerity and foreign interference.

From Late English to Late Neoliberalism

Years ago, I wrote a post on this site about the evolution of the English language, and how future linguists will define the current moment. The feeling I had is that since Old English and Middle English both have fairly set beginning and end dates, that whatever form of the language we’re speaking today (usually dubbed “Modern English“) will eventually be given some historical marker, for the contemporary must eventually become the historical. This will be especially interesting given how English has become a highly diverse, global language since the beginning of Modern English, with English in different countries evolving at different rates, in different directions.

This general concept of evolution and the resulting terminology we use applies to capitalism, and neoliberalism more specifically. The term “late capitalism” (The Atlantic wrote about the term in 2017) is now used frequently, though I don’t run into it in academic literature as I do in podcasts and social media. The term usually refers to absurd products and business practices that seem unsustainable, thus giving a general feeling that capitalism is beginning to hollow out and collapse on itself. The saga of WeWork, which was once valued at $47 billion USD, despite losing huge amounts of money and having an obviously untenable business plan, fits into this. At some point I will write a more detailed, economics-focused post on the various players in the contemporary capitalist landscape, as we are likely on the edge of another Great Recession. WeWork fits into this landscape in being a venture capitalist-backed mirage, somewhere between the juggernaut companies that have enough cash on hand to survive even a terrible economic collapse, and the companies engaging in the same speculation that caused the 2007-2008 crisis, who will either be bailed out with public money and no accountability, or perhaps face some kind of takeover and structural change, depending on who wins the 2020 election.

I’ll quote a Jacobin interview with David Harvey to talk about what neoliberalism has meant in the context of post-war history:

I’ve always treated neoliberalism as a political project carried out by the corporate capitalist class as they felt intensely threatened both politically and economically towards the end of the 1960s into the 1970s. They desperately wanted to launch a political project that would curb the power of labor.

In many respects the project was a counterrevolutionary project. It would nip in the bud what, at that time, were revolutionary movements in much of the developing world — Mozambique, Angola, China etc. — but also a rising tide of communist influences in countries like Italy and France and, to a lesser degree, the threat of a revival of that in Spain

. . .

There were very few crises between 1945 and 1973; there were some serious moments but no major crises. The turn to neoliberal politics occurred in the midst of a crisis in the 1970s, and the whole system has been a series of crises ever since. And of course crises produce the conditions of future crises.

In 1982–85 there was a debt crisis in Mexico, Brazil, Ecuador, and basically all the developing countries including Poland. In 1987–88 there was a big crisis in US savings and loan institutions. There was a wide crisis in Sweden in 1990, and all the banks had to be nationalized.

Then of course we have Indonesia and Southeast Asia in 1997–98, then the crisis moves to Russia, then to Brazil, and it hits Argentina in 2001–2.

And there were problems in the United States in 2001 which they got through by taking money out of the stock market and pouring it into the housing market. In 2007–8 the US housing market imploded, so you got a crisis here.

Neoliberalism is characterized by the hollowing out of the state, the mass privatization of state assets, and the commodification of all things such that everything that’s not in the market begins to look and act like it. If we concieve of society as existing in three parts- the state, the market, and a civil society that exists externally of both, like this:

shows-a-conventional-Venn-diagram-depiction-of-the-spheres-of-civil-society-interacting

 

In a neoliberalized society, the market expands at the expense of the other two sectors, and the state and civil society begin to have more market-influenced aspects. In civil society, we see the rise of the Non-Profit Industrial Complex, which combines market forces with state surveillance. In the government, we see the rise of business metrics and corporate jargon that define and shape state action.

Is There A “Late Neoliberalism”?

So as Harvey says, neoliberalism has led to a series of interlocked, perhaps escalating crises all over the world. In the era of managed, Keynesian capitalism, central banks and governments were paying keen attention to growth metrics and financial speculation, so matters could only get so out of hand before actions was taken- bubbles were popped early or prevented entirely through regulation of speculative investments, slowdowns were countered with state investment. Since the state has become irrelevant in terms of financial regulation- instead being the muscle of the market to force compliance- the neoliberal era is a set of austerity reforms, a crisis related to these reforms, and further reforms in response. The thing is, none of these reforms actually solve anything- they just create further chaos that can be exploited. As Tony Weis states in a 2004 paper about how neoliberal reforms have destroyed the Jamaican agriculture industry, neoliberal action is not logical action, though contemporary economists attempt to depict themselves as following rigorous mathematical and logical precepts.

The question is whether there can be a crisis, a revolutionary reaction, so large that it overwhelms the neoliberal state. There are several directions this can take. One is the rise of far-right populism in the United States and parts of Europe, which use the gutting of the welfare state by neoliberal reforms and places the blames on various Others, stating that removing the undesirable parts of society will allow an era of abundance as existed in a (perhaps mythical) past.

Another is electoral anti-austerity movements. This includes the Bernie Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020, the Corbyn era of the Labour party, political parties that grew out of anti-austerity protests like Unidos Podemos in Spain and Solidarity-People Before Profit in Ireland. With the recent coup in Bolivia, and the releasing of Lula in Brazil, in addition to mass movements in Chile and Ecuador, the electoral and non-electoral responses to austerity and far-right reactionaries in Latin America are mixed together. This is not new- social democratic and democratic socialist politicians and parties have used social movements to help press for redistributive policies while in power, and against austerity when out of power.

Is neoliberalism in crisis? Yes, it always is somewhere in the world, and that’s pretty much the point. Is the crisis deep enough to lead to a new society? Well, here’s a bunch of Chileans with a banner reading “Chile will be the tomb of neoliberalism”, so they definitely think so:

ChileNeoliberalism

The remnant of the state in places like Chile, which is an oversized military and police force with some other things of much less importance, has to contain mass protests and general strikes while having very little to offer people to placate them. This is not the era of the New Deal, where programs were created in large part to stave off radicals who were making inroads in the working class. The neoliberal state has nothing but the stick, or as Loïc Wacquant calls it, the “iron fist” of the penal state. This polarizes people and totalizes the conflict. If the security forces blink, then it can be over- like the Bulldozer Revolution in Serbia at the dawn of the millennium. When a nationwide protest rocked the capital, the police and military decided to stand aside. And with that, the people, not the US and its enormous military, overthrew Slobodan Milošević. The federal buildings were seized, and the dictatorship melted away.

Perhaps it is happening again.

BulldozerRevolution
Belgrade, 5 October 2000

 

 

 

Right-Wing Influence on the Unitarian Universalist Liberal-Left Disagreement (Part I)

One of the overarching points to this summer’s “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right” series is that right-wing language, tropes, and influence-peddling tend to make their ways into progressive circles. Part of this is due to my looking at Unitarian Universalist communities online, rather than in-person within parishes, where this infiltration of right-wing language is easiest. Another is that large money interests have created a spectrum of media outlets, think tanks, and front groups to inject topics (and in particular, a certain framing of a topic) into the mainstream. When things are “the mainstream”, they are picked up by establishment conservative and liberal voices. I’m not going to talk about that particular battle, because when talking about Unitarian Universalism, we’re not usually talking about old-style establishment conservatives, at least not in 2019. Instead, I’m going to visit a very old and vibrant disagreement within UU circles between “liberals” and “leftists”.

Now what is meant by “liberals” and “leftists” is difficult to nail down. Making my point for me, right-wing figures in Fox News were painting President Barack Obama, who represented a form of business-friendly, socially liberal centrism, as a socialist before he was even elected. Liberalism is maybe the most malleable word in the English political lexicon. Its meaning depends on whether it’s being used academically or politically, as a term for past or present people and movements, and whether it’s referring to American or European ideologies.

Here are some principles I’ll lay out, that are not definitive but I find to be helpful in a discussion like this:

Liberals and leftists are, historically and presently, distinct. The flourishing moment of modern liberalism were the 1848 Revolutions that took place all over Europe. Liberalism, mixed with a rising nationalism in many groups that were either fragmented across political states (like Italians), or one of many groups in large empires (like Hungarians in Austria), led to a series of revolutions characterized by an end of absolute monarchy and the promulgation of written constitutions with certain enshrined freedoms like the right to publish, worship, and petition.

1848 also saw the rise of a politically-distinct set of loosely-knit together ideologies: radicals, socialists, and anarchists. While 1848 was the year that the “Communist Manifesto” was published, mature Marxism was still years away. As Mike Duncan explains in his podcast Revolutions (season 7 deals with the many, many different uprisings in Europe), while liberals focused narrowly on “the political question” like constitutional liberties and free trade, leftists were interested in “the social question”, like wealth and social inequality, the existence and state protection of private property, and a political system that generally ignored anyone who wasn’t a man of a certain social class.

The failure of 1848 to lead to long-lasting change was in significant part due to disagreements between liberals and leftists on the scope of change and the tactics used to obtain it.

Liberals and leftists, oftentimes, have a rich exchange. There is overlap in the books, film, and other culture that liberals and leftists consume. Over the course of one’s lifetime, liberal individuals may migrate to more radical political positions, or may become more moderate and incrementalist in their politics.

Unitarian Universalism has considerable amounts of liberals and leftists today. Differences abound in how religious source material is interpreted (was Jesus a socialist? ; as Paul Rasor advocates in Faith Without Certainty, should UUs embrace liberation theology?), how commonly-held ideas like the Seven Principles are viewed (is Principle Five about a narrow or a holistic view of democracy?).

This spectrum of opinion is held together by religious liberalism, which is distinct, though often conflated, with political liberalism. I’ve been in multiple groups of UUs where a discussion on religious liberalism (or general non-creedal religious thinking) gets merged into political liberalism. “We as liberals” gets said a fair amount, but as someone who doesn’t identify as politically liberal, that term only carries meaning in certain context. The search for truth and meaning leads people to different views on how religion informs politics, and vice-versa.

Liberals and leftists have long-standing disagreements. These include where UUs should stand on the spectrum between incremental reform and revolutionary change. Some of this is informed by the waves of civil rights movements in the 20th and 21st centuries, which have had different goals and influences. If, how, and when to be confrontational with political conservatives and the alt-right is a current issue of debate, as Unitarian Universalism attempts to navigate a Trump presidency and the more open embracing of white supremacy.

That is it for Part I. In Part II, I will discuss how right-wing efforts attempt to take these disagreements and exacerbate them in ways that prevent constructive dialogue, and inject right-wing definitions and conceptions into the liberal-left debate.

Trump and the Luxury of Failure

As expected, even a small sliver of Donald Trump’s tax returns proved to be interesting and infuriating. The rise and fall and rise (and fall, and rise) of Trump serves as a primer on success and failure in America.

The business fortunes of Trump have oscillated from runaway success to total disaster multiple times. However, the situation gravitates towards money- his fortunes are rooted in the money and connections he inherited. Thus, even when his net worth was well below zero, he could act in a way that most broke Americans could never. Failure as a celebrity real estate mogul seems to resemble deferred success. And as his tax returns show, massive loss can be turned into gain. Never mind that most American carry around debt for years, if not their whole lives.

But the ability to fail is in itself a privilege. Many Americans fail once financially, and never return to a place where it could happen again. Hardship is not a short, confined phase in a larger journey, but rather becomes built into the structure of life.

Yet seeing the continuous wave of protests against police violence in cities, it becomes clear that whole population can never fail, for the system has not and will not let them succeed. There is no money for food, childcare, the same benefits that well-off children and their families have. The school system is dysfunctional and higher education is both remote and expensive. Deindustrialization, trade pacts, and outsourcing have stripped communities of decent work with benefits. Reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted a few weeks back, his case studies lacked the money to both pay rent and do anything else. Kids attended a dozen different schools, grew up more often in the streets than in the home. Hardship was passed down generation to generation.

In America, only the wealthy can succeed and fail like Donald Trump has.

 

Guest sermon text: “And in society at large.” (9/14/14)

I was asked to give a guest sermon at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Palo Alto when the parish minister was at the church summer retreat. There was no set topic, so I decided to write about Principle Five of the Seven Principles. Essentially, I ask what Principle Five really asks of us, and argues the need to promote economic democracy, socialism, worker control, whatever you’d like to call it. Given September 14, 2014.

“And in society at large.”
Andrew J. Mackay

Should you have time to do some real, intense, dedicated pondering, the Seven Principles of Unitarian Universalism is dynamite daydream material. They represent the foundation of a moral philosophy; ourselves, our church, our societies emerge from that foundation. This morning I’m going to take one principle and explore its meaning and potential.

Principle Five recognizes that the community supports “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” Those last five words- “and in society at large.” It is not a specific checklist. Rather, it urges us to evaluate the whole interdependent web of existence that we find ourselves a part of. That phrase compels us to dream big. Envision a world nourished by the roots of democratic freedom.

As a sociology student, the definition of society is important. To dive into Principle Five requires us to define our terms. Without clarity of language this journey would be like an astronomer trying to study the planet Saturn without knowing where it is or what it looks like. [pause] The word comes from the Latin socius, which can be translated as “companion” or “ally”. Society binds people together in friendship and trust. Hopefully, it should rest on our humanity and common feeling. Author Anat Shenker-Osorio wrote in 2010 “The belief that we are all competing with each other for scarce resources, that life is by nature a zero-sum game, ignores critical truths that rightly deserve the designation of ‘natural law’. Humans are a social species. We are pack animals; we like to be together lots of the time. Some of our greatest joys and oldest cultural practices involve sharing: our homes with a stranger, bread and wine with friends, material goods with our families.” The aspect of our lives where zero-sum thinking dominates, to the detriment of many, is the structure and culture of the economic system.

Large business pursues optimal profits, with much collateral damage. Chemicals spill into the West Virginia water supply, jobs are moved from Ohio and Illinois overseas, retail workers are not given enough hours to qualify for full-time benefits. We are a part of the economy, the reason it exists, yet often we feel helpless and swept up in something beyond our control. This economic power then influences our political democracy. UUs for years have been working against the influence of money on politics, so the danger is well-known. Politicians driven by business interest cash often ignore their constituents. According to an October 2013 poll, Americans held a higher opinion of the DMV, hemorrhoids, and cockroaches than Congress. I am 24 years old and gridlock, both in this state and in Washington, seems natural.

In society at large, everything is interrelated. If one aspect lacks accountability and popular control, it will harm the others. Without addressing core issues, attempts to build a better world will be undermined. There exist many proposed solutions for a more just economy, from the general public and UUs in particular.

Much of today’s activism is built around making large businesses yield to the popular will. Some of you may get email newsletters asking you to sign a petition against Wal-Mart, or Exxon-Mobil. Bad behavior! Environmental waste! Corruption! Send them a message! It is a demand, we want a say, this can’t continue. At this year’s General Assembly, a high-profile resolution was passed, moving to divest from fossil fuel conglomerates. Our UU community aims to use economic power to create a sustainable society. Divestment is often linked with boycotts and sanctions to make corporations and whole states change their ways. California was host to the Delano grape boycott in the 1960s, where popular will forced powerful agricultural interests to stop exploiting migrant farm workers. Worldwide action punished South Africa economically for its vile system of apartheid.

This all points to a desire for more democratic control in the American economic system, by workers of a particular business, and the general public who must deal with the fallout of business decisions. Both groups, employees and the communities they live in, must deal with the trauma of outsourcing, cuts to wages and benefits, and disregard for the environment. In a lifetime, the average American will spend 90,000 hours at work, but the typical worker has no say in how her company is run. Unions increase worker power, but their scope is limited, and less than 7% of private sector workers belong to one. The public company is run by a small board of directors and a small set of principal shareholders, who often are the same people. The UUA is part of an interfaith group that buys shares in companies to create pressure for reform. Such efforts can only go so far- corporate stock gives disproportionate power to holders of special types of shares. And the reality is that promoting economic justice may mean cutting profits and endangering stock price. Working within the system where profits are expected to increase indefinitely means calls for justice may go unheard.

The world of privately-held companies lack any internal accountability. In the US, the largest private companies have $1.8 trillion in annual revenue and employ 6.2 million people. Their work can be damaging to humans and the environment. The two largest private companies in the country are Cargill, which sells palm oil and soybeans from areas that used to be rainforest, and the petroleum multinational Koch Industries.

Not to despair. The world of today has never been inevitable. There is a place for the democratic process in the economy. Some existing businesses show a different way of doing business. There are cooperatives all around us, where workers and consumers get a say. Credit unions in America serve 44% of the economically-active population. They are community not-for-profit organizations, where account holders are the owners and elect their leadership. To have a say in a large banking chain, you need to purchase quite a lot of stock. You are not a part-owner of Wells Fargo or Bank of America just because you opened up a checking account. You are not consulted on their business decisions. Credit unions and other cooperatives are owned and run by the community, and their decisions by nature factor in the human element. The Manhattan board of a large bank doesn’t have to consider the effect of foreclosures or high interest loans on a small community. A local credit union does; the leadership and ownership live in the community, and must personally deal with the fallout of destructive policy.

In the past year I’ve learned of an idea created by credit unions that shows the value of a democratic, community-run mindset. Several states now allow a contest called save-to-win. Most states have a lottery, with big prizes and lots of advertising. Lotteries are played by the poorest Americans, and few ever win. It is in some sense a poverty tax, where people are exploited by their hope for a better life. Save-to-win is simple: for every $25 put into a savings account, you get a raffle ticket for a drawing at the end of the week, or month, or year. It has created the excitement of a regular lottery, while increasing the savings of poor Americans. People are excited and motivated to save for their future. Credit unions have created a lottery where you can’t lose. This is a part of a society of companions and allies. There is more than the zero-sum, everyone can win and thrive.

Cooperatives go beyond the local credit union or organic food mart. The Mondragon Corporation in the Basque region of Spain is a diverse organization with many cooperatives, divided into finance, industry, retail, and knowledge. They employ 74,000 people, and by company rule, no person can make more than 8 1/2 times the lowest-paid worker. In a country still devastated by the credit bubble, Mondragon has stayed strong.

The economist Richard Wolff, who you may have spotted on Moyers and Company or Charlie Rose, has crafted an initiative called “Democracy at Work”, where businesses can be created that are self-directed by workers. A few years ago I saw him speak in Berkeley, and his words were invigorating. The framework for democracy in the economy, that largest component of “society at large” exists. There are realistic solutions. It is a matter of will.

If companies were run by the workers, would their jobs and factories would have all been moved overseas? Or would they have taken initiative, and made the enterprise work here, whatever it took? Would a worker-run factory pollute the groundwater, when the leadership would have to come home and drink it? When we send petitions, or move our money, or boycott a company, we are demanding accountability. The best way to make the economy accountable to the people is to make the people accountable for the economy.

In Matthew 21:12-13, Jesus finds the Temple of Jerusalem filled with money-changers and vendors. The money-changers were turning the currency of poor pilgrims into a special temple scrip, at a large markup. This system still haunts us today, though instead of temple cash it is called Disney Dollars, and the pilgrims have been replaced with sunburned tourists. Jesus is furious of this exploitation. He flips the tables over and drives the lot out with a lash. As they leave, he shouts “It is written . .  ‘My house will be called a house of prayer . . . but you are making it ‘a den of robbers.’ It is rare that we see Christ in such a fiery temper. Something about the operation of the Temple made him livid. He did not admonish the money-changers, and he certainly did not simply forgive their misdeeds. He flipped a table. A popular meme three years ago had a painting of the scene with the caption “The First Occupy Wall Street.”

The scene shows the importance of sacred places and sacred institutions. The Temple is the holiest place for the Jewish people, and it was being sullied by profiteering. Perhaps some things should be above profit. Our political democracy today is built upon profit, as special interest cash creates a skewed set of priorities for elected officials. We have our own secular temples, that we cherish and treat with special care, and perhaps the moneyed interests need to be driven from those places too. The best way to achieve democracy, a deep and encompassing democracy, is to change the way money is spent and businesses are run.

The 17th of September will mark the third anniversary of Occupy Wall Street. If nothing else, the movement sought to link the economic power of the 1% with its political power and influence. The question of why Congress is less popular than cockroaches has a complicated answer, but money has certainly steered it to this point. When myself and fellow members of Occupy San Jose handed out flyers on how to join a credit union, and picketed banks, and along with local non-profits encouraged churches and small businesses to divest from large banks who were foreclosing on houses in their community, we had an idea that there may exist a better way of doing things. Perhaps there is a place for democracy in society at large.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.