Black Lives Matter more than CVS laundry detergent

Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015
Myself at the Freddie Gray solidarity march. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015

So I was honored to be interviewed at the San Diego march in solidarity with Baltimore and the fight against police violence (story with full video here). About 200 people came out to fill the streets and create urgency- black lives do matter, and justice for the living and the dead will come from ordinary people seizing the initiative and finding their own power.

My friend and colleague in Socialist Alternative, Bryan Kim, was also interviewed by Channel 8, and we complemented each other well. Local news incorporated a lot of voices in this event- black, brown, and white, both the organizers and regular marchers.

This one instance gave me the chance to collect my thoughts on Freddie Gray, the events in Baltimore, and the larger epidemic of police violence against unarmed people of color that has been steadily snowballing since last year. Unlike many others pouring their hearts and minds out on Twitter, Facebook, and to their friends and colleagues, I never created a long, detailed response.

Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.
Bryan Kim speaks at the Freddie Gray solidarity rally. City Heights, San Diego. April 29, 2015.

The one thought I’d like to throw out comes from my own background and belief in nonviolent struggle as the way to enact social and political change. Baltimore has presented a complicated picture for people with this set of views, and the media and institutional politics has tried to put people into what I’d dub “the nonviolent trap.”

Essentially, the media performed a litmus test on everyone who claimed to be nonviolent- either denounce the looting and conflict wholesale, or be called a hypocrite. My tiny soundbite was part of the counter- if we are to talk about violence in these protests, we need to include the violence put on communities by the police and the state. The trial was about one form of violence while ignoring the other, or at the very least requiring a clear denunciation before anything else can be discussed.

Looting a CVS and killing someone like Freddie Gray or Michael Brown are not the same kind of force. They have been made equivalent by some public figures, and often shown side-by-side as equal in media reports. Capital and humans are fundamentally different. The destruction of property through riot action or looting can cause real harm- often in urban unrest the businesses who end up taking damage are owned by people of color. But a damaged storefront can be rebuilt. In the case of something like a CVS, there is no intangible value to what was held within. People are not replaceable. I find looting to be a concern, though it is a product of structural injustice rather than simple greed. But as a nonviolent struggle advocate, I think we need to see conflict as a chain of events, and avoid the quick-take of what happened today. Denouncing only the people of color who have faced economic and social deterioration is a de facto censoring of the oppressed, and in the process helps the elites who have done so much harm.

The best speech you may never have heard by Martin Luther King Jr., entitled “Beyond Vietnam” and given in 1967, has a bit I really like that I used as my basis when I was interviewed. It think it strikes at the root.

I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin [applause], we must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered. (source)

The (forgotten) radical politics of liberal idols

Martin-Luther-King-August-28-1963

So another year, another day honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King is perhaps the single most warped figure in contemporary America, where his legacy is used to defend the entire spectrum of opinion- anything from social services to Gun Appreciation Day. What is clear each year when his life and work is celebrated is how much of King’s radical politics have been sanded off. Indeed, “there is a crucial fact of his life, activism and thought that no major commemoration has ever celebrated: that King was a strong and uncompromising opponent of American capitalism”. Here’s one of many relevant quotes by King on economic justice:

“There must be better distribution of wealth and maybe America must move toward a democratic socialism. Call it what you may, call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all of God’s children.” (source).

This phenomenon is entrenched to the point where it now has a term- “Santa Clausification“. This is the most public case of the sanitizing of important modern figures, but it’s far from the last. I’m here to argue that the most guilty party are liberals, in particular white liberals, who celebrate figures like King but omit the philosophy that make their dreams and ideas so powerful.

Let’s just stick with people who have won the Nobel Peace Prize like King. How about Nelson Mandela:

“Long live the Cuban Revolution. Long live comrade Fidel Castro … Cuban internationalists have done so much for African independence, freedom, and justice. We admire the sacrifices of the Cuban people in maintaining their independence and sovereignty in the face of a vicious imperialist campaign designed to destroy the advances of the Cuban revolution. We too want to control our destiny … There can be no surrender. It is a case of freedom or death. The Cuban revolution has been a source of inspiration to all freedom-loving people.” (source)

That was from a speech made in 1991.

Mandela held anti-imperialist ideas that had much in common with Castro and Guevara. While his long imprisonment and his role in ending apartheid is appreciated, the radical politics that led him to attack the racist system are ignored.

IndiaTv4300ad_dalai

What about the Dalai Lama? He speaks to packed crowds all over the world, and he’s very popular in my Unitarian Universalist church, and among American liberals and progressives. He’s more complicated than just the spiritual messages and peaceful ideology-

The Dalai Lama has a refreshing tendency to confound western caricatures. As a cuddly old monk, he could comfort fans by fuzzily connecting us to an imagined Shangri-La that contrasts favourably with our own material world. Only he won’t play the game, regularly making ethical, political, scientific and (ir)religious statements that rudely pop the projections laid on to him.

For decades, the Dalai Lama has spoken openly of his Marxist politics, once stating “The economic system of Marxism is founded on moral principles, while capitalism is concerned only with gain and profitability. Marxism is concerned with the distribution of wealth on an equal basis … as well as the fate of those who are underprivileged and in need, and [it] cares about the victims of minority-imposed exploitation. For those reasons, the system appeals to me, and it seems fair” (source).

And finally, the most recent Peace Prize winner, Malala Yousafzai. Malala has in her short lifetime been appropriated by Westerners, who use her near-death experience to justify military action against Muslim countries and paint places like Pakistan as impoverished, backward, and in desperate need of Western intervention. White man’s burden, version 2.0.

But Malala tries as much as possible to distance herself from the actions being taken in her name. She states that drone strikes are “fueling terrorism”, and sent a message to a socialist conference in Pakistan that reads in part:

I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation. (source)

So four Peace Prize winners, four political radicals, and four figures who are often softened or used selectively. This is disheartening, because their awards and legacy (living or dead) were meant to get the whole world to learn from their example. Even if you are not a socialist or have radical politics of any strain, to celebrate these people without those aspects is to see the world through a warped glass.

We talk so much about Dr. King’s dream, about what kind of society he wanted, with racial and social equality. But that dream, that society, is not a capitalist society. An illusion is that his dream is achievable with the current economic and social system in place, when it’s clear that the issues of imperialism and militarism he spoke of in the last three years of his life are still rampant, and connected to a lack of radical political solutions.

Besides a lack of depth, these four figures, all non-white and from three different continents, have been skewed by a media and consumer culture that mainly caters to white Westerners. The Dalai Lama is glued to a whole meditation and enlightenment industry that has popped up in America. But if he speaks of peace and love in the world, he is speaking of a world crafted by socialism. Often he is portrayed as an exotic wise man coming from the East to bring wisdom. I think some of his wisdom is being selectively ignored.

I don’t mean to demonize the modern American liberalism, nor say for a moment that integrating other cultures into your own religious practice is bad. Unitarian Universalism as a faith is all the more stronger for being open to incorporation. There is a danger, though, of placing radical and unorthodox world figures into a conventional mindset. Radicalism gives the ideas and aspirations of these four, and many others in a similar situation, weight and makes them something more attainable. King’s dream of a racially and socially equal country without true economic democracy is a fantasy. We can get filled up with the hope that these individuals espouse, but not stay around for the heavier course of methods and practice.

You don’t have to believe the radical politics, but you have to engage with them. Otherwise you’re wasting a great part of their characters, and leaving wisdom on the table.

The bullshit economy

Attendants at a Chinese conference in November, 2013.
Attendants at a Chinese conference in November, 2013.

I was introduced to anthropologist David Graeber’s 2013 magazine feature “On the Phenomenon of Bullshit Jobs” today. It’s an excellent example of academic writing cutting to the chase (philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt did a similar thing with his pamphlet “On Bullshit“), and gets at the core mystery of the post-industrial world. Wasn’t industrialization and automation supposed to make our lives easier, and give us more spare time? Graeber points out that a four-hour workday is totally feasible, but the reasons that so many administrative jobs have grown to replace manufacturing is social control.

As he concludes:

If someone had designed a work regime perfectly suited to maintaining the power of finance capital, it’s hard to see how they could have done a better job. Real, productive workers are relentlessly squeezed and exploited. The remainder are divided between a terrorised stratum of the – universally reviled – unemployed and a larger stratum who are basically paid to do nothing, in positions designed to make them identify with the perspectives and sensibilities of the ruling class (managers, administrators, etc) – and particularly its financial avatars – but, at the same time, foster a simmering resentment against anyone whose work has clear and undeniable social value.

His example of the London transit strike reminded me of the BART strikes in the San Francisco Bay Area in late 2013. People of all economic stratums despised the BART workers for striking, and some of that may have stemmed from a sense of powerlessness that some usual riders have. Many people commuting in the Bay have these administrative or service jobs, many non-unionized and without tangible function. BART workers can shut down a transit system, their labor has great power. An increasing portion of people don’t have that efficacy. The end result, as Graeber says, are the ‘bullshit jobs’ workers turning against the remaining non-bullshit jobs workers- sparing the elite the trouble. Divide and conquer. Historically racism was used to pit working-class populations against one another, now this split in job function is the newest flavor.

Soviet economy has always been lampooned for its inefficiency, but it’s clear that 21st century capitalism has much in common when it comes to redundancy and busywork. I would forward that because capitalism has created great inequality and is by its nature unfair, any society with time to have an honest audit of the economic system would ditch capitalism and replace it with something else. So though many people have been replaced by machines and there is not a value-added reason for many jobs, keeping people busy prevents organization, reform, and if needed, revolution. Bullshit jobs are a self-defense mechanism, because those that benefit from capitalism value above all the maintenance of the economic system.

 

Fast food poverty wages: a tax on everyone

In a few hours I’ll join in a series of protests, for December 4th will be the latest set of strikes by fast food workers. In around 150 cities at least some workers will walk off the job, joined with the low-wage workers in major international airports. The past 18 months has seen a dramatic change in the national discussion on wages. $15 an hour was viewed as a pipe dream. Yet with the election of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, running with $15 as her central policy goal, and an overwhelming majority of San Francisco voters voting in favor last month, things have changed. The debate in Washington about small, incremental increases that may not even keep pace with inflation has been overshadowed by the idea of radically higher wages that lift hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty.

These strikes will have the same conservative criticism, in particular that these companies cannot absorb higher prices, and your favorite items will see a sharp price increase.

I’ll break this down into the simplest form I know. Higher wages will increase item prices, but in a given industry that will hold true across the board. A hamburger costs an extra dollar, but all restaurants will face the same reality. This isn’t an issue for bottom-rung workers because they have more money to spend, and in fact their wages will usually increase by more than the prices do. Workers in Seattle will be going from about $9 to $15 plus inflation. Prices are not going up by two-thirds.

But won’t people just above the minimum wage have problems? No, because one of the fundamentals of the labor hierarchy is that wage hikes at the bottom echo throughout the system (PDF). If $10/hr workers go to $15, $14/hr workers in different jobs will go to $19, or something similar. Wage increases for the working poor are good for everyone.

The most crucial thing I want to get across is that we all pay for the current wage levels in fast food restaurants. Fast food workers received about $7 billion in government assistance because their wages fall below what is needed to survive. All taxpaying people in the United States subsidize these low wage policies. Unlike paying more for a burger after a higher wage law passes, this cost is not optional. We can choose not to eat at McDonalds (and really, why would you?) , but taxes are compulsory.

Almost all situations like this boil down to this: the economy is complicated. Groups like Heritage want to scare the public with the specter of high prices, but that ignores positive effects from higher wages, and current costs that we pay for low wages.

Finally, I want to speak out about the civil war among labor in this country. Many people look down at fast food workers. I understand that. But what happens to them will affect you- especially those in the lower echelons of the labor hierarchy. Strikes are inconvenient (oh lord, the BART transit strike in the Bay Area got tech workers into a frenzy), but there will never be an empowered working class unless the bottom has strength.

Principle Five: An invitation for radical economic democracy

I’ll be out of the state for 2 1/2 weeks starting Sunday, so full posts will be rare or non-existent. Since I’ll be headed to a scenic part of the world, I’ll take nice pictures and write as much poetry as I can.

I’ll be giving the guest sermon at my local Unitarian Universalist congregation in mid-September. Part of it is already written, there is still quite a bit of research to be done, primarily religious history reading. There are a lot of parts to tie together, which is encouraging. Ideas are not a problem, it’s just a matter of number and order.

At its core, this is a meditation on the fifth principle of Unitarian Universalism, where we triumph “The right of conscience and the use of the democratic process within our congregations and in society at large.” In particular, the last five words, “in society at large” are of deep interest to me.

That is an incredibly radical statement, far more than is acknowledged. If UUs are to promote democracy in society at large, it goes far beyond traditional electoral government. In terms of time invested over a lifetime, the economic system is far more present than all the campaigns, referendums, and voting days combined. There is no way to deny that the American economic system, capitalism of a vast size and scale, is a critical part of society. In 2014, it is also undemocratic. Large firms are highly resistant to public opinion, and voting power is decided by investment- which scales with wealth. If you own stock, you have a stake in a publicly-traded company. If we are honest, everyone has a different kind of stake in the actions of these companies. Their pollution, their political donations, their treatment of workers and communities. We are socially taxed with representation.

As written, principle five is calling out for economic democracy. Meaning a system where the workers and the decision-makers were the same people. Such a shift would go beyond reform, it would ditch the economic structure and start from scratch. Not that this is unheard of- America like many other countries has a tradition of co-ops and collectives, just not on the national and international scale. The nice things about UUism is the built-in radical instinct.

The UU congregations and fellowships are aggressive with their external pressures, as divestment from fossil fuels was passed at the General Assembly this year. Boycotts have been used in the past and should continue against anti-LGBT and anti-union organizations. Social change often requires economic change- in the case of the Civil Rights Movement desegregation applied not only to public schools, but the private enterprise of Southern society.

The core structure of a traditional enterprise is oligarchical, where the board that regulates the executive often share members. I’m trying to dig down into the religious history of opposing economic elites and keeping certain things beyond the reach of money. Driving the money changers out of the Temple and driving the insurance companies away from healthcare are moving on the same axis. Part of true democracy is keeping the political, electoral democracy strong and robust.

So it’s interesting working through the whole issue. What is the democratic process? Different countries have different methods of voting and different political cultures. What is society at large? What does that exclude? Individual conscience and collective will are often in conflict, that is another dicey subject.

This is the beauty and the madness of the seven principles. Each covers a vast swath of belief and conviction. The madness is the vagueness, but the beauty is that you can get lost in each one and test the limits of your mind and soul. When I give my sermon in two months there will be those that accept my definitions and implications, and those that don’t. Our parish minister has to deal with that with every sermon she makes.

Never before have such a project been put before me. Public speaking is one matter, a matter I’m comfortable with. Context is important, though. This is like a final project presentation, but instead of competing for points I’m searching for engagement and understanding. I’m excited, and hope it will be a chance for personal growth and contribute to the growth of the congregation at large.

A world to win

Nathan Schneider, one of the first journalists to cover the Occupy Wall Street movement, has written a feature for Al Jazeera entitled “From occupation to reconstruction“. Anyone who has experience in Occupy knows the reaction from other people since the major encampments were dispersed. What happened to Occupy? It seems to have been a total failure.

Spanish indignados protest, Madrid.

The truth is more complex. Schneider, more than any other journalist I’ve seen, catalogs the evolution from 2011 to today. This is both internationally and in America, as Occupy was not the original spark. There were student strikes in Chile, an ongoing radical revolution in Spain, the crisis in Greece. Some protestors I met were led to believe that this was unique and special, it’s important when charting a global movement to avoid chauvinism.

Occupy was not shattered, it flowed into the thousand crucial issues that its participants cared about. Anyone who visited an encampment or went on a march knew that Occupy was big-tent in the extreme. Through the large actions, formerly unacquainted people met, formed workgroups, and it went from there. All the national media coverage about a $15/hr minimum wage comes in large part from the energy of Occupy. Before Kshama Sawant was a member of the Seattle City Council, she was a an Occupy organizer. What $15/hr is, fundamentally, is the working class playing offense. It’s putting the American economic system on the table. Beyond a system where the employer and the corporate politician says what they will allow, the last year has seen a shift towards workers saying what they need. Occupy was a key part in translating a key phrase bandied about- when something is “bad for the economy” it’s often just bad for people in power. The economy is a lot more than a few billionaires. Or at least it should be.

For a year or more I had an Occupy hangover. I missed the mass turnout, the radical direct democracy, the egalitarian nature of an encampment. There are new developments, evolutions of what started in September 2011, and they’re something to get excited about. It’s the real deal. And each tangible victory in 2014 makes every word chanted in 2011 mean something more.

 

Reading Piketty, but seeking systemic change

The not-so-little book that’s electrified the developed world.

I’m late to the party with Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the Twenty-First CenturyWhat can I say, I don’t read that quickly. The work is formidable in length and impressive in its breadth of research. If nothing else, every page is a shining example of social science that puts data first and doesn’t draw any broad, satisfying, unsubstantiated conclusions.

Since the English publication was released in April, Piketty has become a sort of academic rock star- it seems every publication I follow on Facebook has devoted at least a few stories to his conclusions, and the impact his analysis of inequality. It’s reached the point that some are just marveling at the media attention, in some sort of feedback loop that you often see with faux media controversies on an increasingly information-starved CNN.

There is a clear division between Piketty the social scientist and Piketty the public policy advocate. The conclusion establishes that these two selves should be linked- pure critique isn’t enough. If the research supports a conclusion, it should be advocated with conviction. His devotion to social science research methods is admirable; as a sociology student his example is a good one to follow. Waves have been made regarding his data and graphs, but even critics have dismissed potential errors as insubstantial. His decades of work on inequality shine. In 2013 I took a semester of economic history, focusing on the United States. From that, I have seen how the topic can be written in a dreadfully murky and technical manner. Piketty writes with confident clarity, and his use of French and British novels to illustrate the pre-industrial political economy is a welcome break from data-driven analysis.

That last quarter is the issue though. Some points Piketty makes are beyond dispute. Absolutely, countries need to share banking data to keep the rich from hiding their assets. But the global tax on capital raises the question: is that a systemic solution? His view of the 20th century is that the world wars radically changed the views on government and led to a more rigorous tax system. That’s self-evident. Yet much has been undone, in the United States the shift has been obvious. Taxing the rich by a few extra percent has paralyzed the federal government for most of Obama’s presidency, and those attempted increases are less than half of what it was in the 1940s and 50s.

Yes, a global tax on capital would solve serious economic issues. It could dig developed countries out of a ludicrous and unnecessary sovereign debt crisis, and reassert the social state that has done amazing things for hundreds of millions of people. But what’s to stop it from being undone by international conglomerates, especially in a system of otherwise free trade? And can the masses be mobilized once again for the same kind of solution?

Richard Wolff, a Marxist economist I mention from time to time, has a strong leftist critique of Capital in the Twenty-First Century. His monthly economics lecture in New York is available on YouTube, and he devotes quite a bit of time on Piketty (here’s the video, marked where he begins to talk about the book). Perhaps taxation and regulation are not the ultimate solution. The issue with modern capitalism isn’t its 21st century flavor of widespread inequality, the issue is with capitalism, period. Without a change in the class system today, inequalities of capital will always exist, and likely get worse immediately after policies are enacted to address that. A serious omission is the mass movement needed to get such changes implemented- without such discussion, the global tax on capital and movements against tax havens are simply commonsense, good ideas. They are not achievable ones simply by making sense.

Wolff joins other critiques (Jacobin did at least a half dozen pieces over the past two months) in pointing out a key issue, namely the power of the elite to block or roll back legislation that reduces their wealth and influence. Piketty points out that a robust democracy is needed, but ignores the many roadblocks that exist in the modern world. And even if democracy can elect a better government, it still needs to avoid the corrosive influence of money, and its own newfound power. As Bakunin said, “men do not make positions,;positions . . . make men.” To create change, the political system needs to go through a radical change, alongside capitalism. The huge success of what Thomas Piketty has to say indicates that people understand things are profoundly broken, but may be hesitant to speak of a deeper cause than modern policy changes.

Occupy sign. December, 2011.

Whatever your takeaway from the Occupy movement was (and is), the enduring legacy goes beyond the branding of 1% vs. 99%. It got people, many with no prior background in activism, talking about capitalism. Outside of universities, real discussions about capitalism are rare in the United States. I was born into a capitalist system, but that doesn’t mean it’s above critique. We emerge from old traditions constantly, casting aside religious and social customs constantly. If developed countries can ditch organized religion, they can ditch capitalism too. In the times of Roman Catholic supremacy, the idea that religion was an option, and not an obligation, merited execution. Now that view is accepted and even normal in some regions.

All and all, I am glad I overcame my slow reading and finished the book. One of his conclusion at the very end is dead on, that economics needs to realize it has more in common with sociology and political science than physics and mathematics. That being said, I think the leftist critique is valuable. Not to say everything I’ve read from that angle is correct, but that it puts the impetus on Piketty and his supporters to flesh out the policy side of the research. How does democracy save us, and what forms will it need to take? On what ground do the working and middle classes fight the elite for control of economic policy? Can these policy ideas form a systemic solution to inequality?

I don’t know the answers, and Piketty isn’t so sure either. That’s okay, and he often does state his research and conclusions have clear limits. But for his ideas to be picked up and carried to fruition through toil and struggle, they need to work in the long-term. There are a finite number of difficult paths regular people can go in order to create change. Money is scarce, so is time and will. To see inequality spike back up a few decades down the road would be devastating. And if the 99% gives up hope, the world is truly lost.

 

Business is always personal.

Oil derrick at sunset. Photo by xtriky

There was a great interview with Tim DeChristopher published this week. DeChristopher, who spent time in jail for interrupting the usual function of an oil lease auction, talks about many important issues here. Baby Boomers have failed to slow climate change, and thus have forced their kids and grandkids to suffer and pay for their disinterest. The justice system is being used to deny activists a chance to justify why they decided to break the law. Occupy is not dead, and the relationships formed by its meaningful dialogue continue to impact the world today.

All of this is important, and DeChristopher has a fire that sets him apart from the Unitarian Universalists I know and interact with. It was a small snippet, though, that captured my attention:

Talking about the corporate climate that pervaded in these auctions, where public land was sold for exploitation, he said:

That’s something that has always bothered me in the discourse around climate change; those who are choosing their own profits over people’s lives say, “Well, it’s just business.” They make it cold and calculating.

It’s only “just business” for the people making profits. For a young person looking at climate change, it is personal. It is an older generation trading our lives for their own short-term interests, whether that’s fossil fuel executives trading our lives for profit or whether that’s baby boomer liberals trading our lives for their own comfort and convenience because they don’t want to take the risk of fighting back.

That’s the thing. American capitalism triumphs over the moral aspects of life. Pollution is just the side effect of Americans keeping the economy going. Job loss is about supply and demand. Foreclosures are an important market adjustment. Any attempt to help the actual people that are affected is viewed as meddling. Unemployment benefits and food stamps are distorting labor incentives. Environmental regulation threatens industry and competitive American exports.

So there is this big business machine churning through all aspects of American life. Anything that gets in its way is bad, because the economic system itself has not been assigned a moral value. If this supercharged capitalism is a moral good, than attempts to interfere with it would indeed be meddling. But it’s more likely that social movements standing in its way are trying to stop something that is out of control and dangerous.

“It’s only business” reminds me of a generic action movie. A contract killer dressed in black, with slicked-back hair and a meditative look, pursues one of the good guys through the dark streets. He corners the mark in a dead-end, then raises a gun. “It’s not personal” he says, just before he pulls the trigger.

Maybe it wasn’t personal for the killer. He was just doing a job for the money, just like large petroleum and chemical companies. But his actions have personal consequences. The person he shot had kids, a spouse, a community. These people grieve and it doesn’t matter whether or not the person who killed had a personal motivation or an impersonal one.

Even if Bank of America has just a business motive when they reject a loan modification and foreclose on someone, they are responsible for personal turmoil and tragedy. Job loss, foreclosure, and cuts to services all push people to their limits. If a bank’s decision leads to a family falling apart, is what they did “just business”? No. There are consequences that go beyond spreadsheets.

DeChristopher is right- the personal cost of economic action is understated. It stems from assuming that business is somehow a virtue in and of itself. The truth is that what we do, for money, for love, for the common good- should be scrutinized. We can’t say that something is good or bad without having taken the fallout into full account.

Despite defeat, need for powerful and democratic American organized labor

Union membership versus middle class income.
http://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2012/06/who-killed-american-unions/258239/

So the vote is back from the Volkswagen plant in Tennessee, and the workers there have rejected joining United Auto Workers by a few percentage points. Not surprisingly, union groups have condemned the election as rife with conservative interference. The South has long been the most hostile to any form of organized labor; a victory at a foreign-owned plant would have set a precedent to work off of.

Rich Yeselson, writing for the leftist magazine Jacobin, found the result predictable. Going over the various factors that contributed to the result:

Anybody can take the litany of factors I mention above and pick out the ones they think were most salient. Yes, the opposition of political elites was potent. Yes, the UAW neutralized VW, but, by turning it into a corporate pussycat, could barely provide a rationale for workers joining the union at all. Nor did it convey to the workers that it had the leverage to fight the company when necessary on their behalf, rather than accede to it as it had done with GM, Ford, and Chrysler.  Yes, it’s the mostly white South, and it was a likely largely evangelical workforce, to boot.

In an environment naturally hostile to unions, the advocates for change need to produce compelling reasons and tangible benefits. They were playing to an area where unions are viewed as part of a cast of evil- a worker grouped them in with Planned Parenthood, gun control, and the Democratic Party. Workers are stronger together than they are isolated and apart, but the most progress must be made in the most inhospitable places- not only in terms of perception, but the labor laws created in the past few decades.

What happened in Chattanooga is a bit of proof that unions like the UAW can’t get the key victories needed to reshape 21st century labor relations. It is not proof that there is no need for organized labor- but that the push should come from smaller and more unorthodox groups that can give the struggle the militancy and urgency it requires.

Can’t drink the water, can’t breathe the air

Credit Reuters/Stringer
Rush hour in Daqing, China, October 21st.
Credit Reuters/Stringer

An unusually toxic smog descended on cities in the far northeast of China, near the border with Russia. Harbin, a city of about 11 million people, was virtually shut down, as were smaller cities in the region like Daqing and Shenyang.

Such destructive air pollution events are common in industrial China, and there are no wide-scale efforts to combat them. In late 1952, a killer smog in London caused thousands of deaths and led to radical environmental legislation.

Smog in Harbin, China. October 21st
Smog in Harbin, China. October 21st

It seems sensible that if China is to become the cultural and economic center of the world, it must address these environmental concerns. At some point, economic growth is hindered by the damage done to the land and the people who live on it. Also grand landmarks like the San Sophia church pictured will always have fewer tourists if the backdrop is so grim.