The next Donald Trump

We are now forty days from the 2016 election, and the result is still very much in doubt. The collision of two unpopular, ill-liked candidates has created something approaching competition. On the Wednesday after, talking heads will find their own way of saying “the losing party would have won if they had ran anyone else as their candidate.”

So perhaps we are heading into a Donald Trump presidency. The effects of this, domestically and internationally, are in the air. But one should expect regression and an increase in everyday hostility towards non-whites as a start.

This post is not about the 2016 election. It’s about the next Donald Trump-like candidate to gain a mass following in the United States. And the one after that, going forward into the indefinite future.

A common error in conventional thinking is to mix up structural and particular events. That is, is Trump emerging from a large, stable movement in society, or is he a man with a particular skill set that is not easily replicated? Sociologists like myself think the former explanation is better, while conventional Republicans would like to think the latter is true.

The debate about Trump harkens back to debates about the rise of populists and fascists in the modern world. That is, were Adolph Hitler, Idi Amin, or the Khmer Rogue a special type of evil that is so tied to their being? The unsettling reality, which explains why so many believe that, is that monstrous figures emerge from society. Any political leader or force that has existed can return in a similar form. That means that we, collectively, have the potential to both build and destroy.

Deindustrialization, outsourcing, stagnant wages, underemployment, falling unionization rates, rising healthcare and education costs. All of these, beginning around 1970 and continuing until now, are serious structural forces. They impact a wide swath of society, but for conservative populists, working class whites can be utilized to gain power. Much of the country is at least partly segregated, making racial appeals effective. A massive recession hit the bulk of society head on, and the recovery has only benefitted the rich elite. These days are the crucible of radical politics, which has reached a more complete form on the right, though the Sanders campaign and Jill Stein indicate movement towards the left as well.

Remember that Hitler attempted to seize power first in November 1923 with the Beer Haul Putsch. The Enabling Act, which gave the Nazis unchecked power, came a full decade later. But in that time, the Weimar Republic struggled with hyperinflation, economic stagnation, and political paralysis. The persistence of this particular structure is what made far-right politics possible. As long as crisis reigned, there was always another chance.

And that’s what we should expect going forward from the 2016 election. Structural issues will persist, and a Clinton presidency is not going to solve core economic problems (remember when her husband destroyed welfare and funded prisons instead?) or help communities of color to any meaningful degree. Deadlock in the Senate, demagogues in legislatures across the country. There can always be another Trump. When they come, we should not be surprised.

The practical constraints of “voting power”

A few weeks ago, I was at a union conference for shop stewards in Oakland, CA. As you might imagine, the union was 100% committed to the election season. The union had long since endorsed Hillary Clinton and the Democratic slate nationally and statewide. The “hype lady” (is there a formal term for this in fundraising?) led a chant that I found very troubling, given what else I know about this union. It goes something like this:

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER?”
“Worker POWER!”

“Who’s got the POWER?”
“We’ve got the POWER!”
“What kind of POWER? Voting POWER!”
“Voting POWER!”

Things trundle off into the weeds at the end. It feels strange to ask a room to lead in a chant about voting, given that a significant portion of the stewards (and a huge number of regular members) are not citizens and cannot vote. Some are undocumented or otherwise not on a path to citizenship. On UC San Diego campus, meetings of the union are conducted entirely in Spanish, because the custodial staff are overwhelmingly Latina immigrants.

It taps into a larger issue I’ve had with political communication this cycle in general. It presupposes citizenship. It makes voting an essential part of political participation. It’s a manifestation of privilege- non-citizens cannot vote, much like people of color cannot expect the protection of law enforcement. People like me were handed the vote at birth post-dated eighteen years.

This might seem a bit petty, but modern American unions overwhelmingly focus on electoral politics and lobbying. Non-citizens can still work campaigns, but there is an inherent two-tier system that develops. The speaker was right though- unions have worker power. What that is, and what it is used for, depends on the vision and direction of the particular union. Social justice campaigns that center participants in being a member of a community, rather than citizen or non-citizen, allow workers to use their power in a context of equality. The broader the political vision, the more inclusive it will ultimately be, and the better served its membership.

Brexit: more hate crimes, and the same austerity

The spike in hate crimes following the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom is not surprising. It also shows how democratic structures can be used to propel intolerance. Psychologically, the 52%-48% vote for leaving the European Union is giving people the feeling that their actions are sanctioned and justified. This is an issue with majoritarianism- there are too many Remain voters for their camp to treat the referendum as the final say. But the majority requirement allows a radical policy shift despite many key parts of the country rejecting Leave- often by a larger margin than the overall vote.

A halal butcher firebombed by a white arsonist after the UK’s Brexit vote. 

Since the late-90s Labour administration, the UK has become an increasingly federal system. The devolved parliaments and self-government creates a serious legitimacy crisis. In concrete terms, I think a vote that fundamentally changes the domestic and foreign policy of the whole country should have to win a majority in each of the components of the UK- Wales, England, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Only the first two voted Leave; Scotland has the biggest gap of the four- Remain won by 24 points. To use an American example, a constitutional amendment (per Article V of the Constitution) requires 2/3 of the national legislature, followed by 3/4ths of the states to ratify. States are given equal weight in this case, so even though California has almost one hundred times the people of Wyoming, the interest of the latter matter just as much.

 

Austerity cuts
Credit: Chappatte in “NZZ am Sonntag” (Zurich)

It says something that despite immense conflict and terrible austerity, Greece never left the Eurozone, let alone the EU. They saw the worst that the EU has to offer- its stern demand for failed economic models, and the great financial power it has on struggling member states. The United Kingdom had the privilege of high status, with major benefits of membership. Such perks are now becoming clear in their likely absence going forward. Leave could have been motivated by a good reason- austerity. Instead the campaign was more about those gosh-darned immigrants and their problems.

The bizarre thing is that the vote is actually a vote against austerity in disguise. The core of working-class areas voting Leave is a result of deindustrialization and unending Tory cuts to services and housing. The one force that has actually been in favor of real solutions is Jeremy Corbyn. His reward is a coup against his leadership- despite Labour voters supporting Remain more than the Conservative party that called for the vote. It’s a convenient excuse, and it remains to be seen whether short of ballot-stuffing the right wing can actually win a leadership election. That’s because grassroots activists and regular working people see in Corbyn what they actually want- not the bullshit about the UK’s standing in the EU.

Much like after the general election, I see nothing but meaningless word salad from the mainstream opposition. Any person with the slightest insight could see that Labour lost in 2015 just like it did this week- it failed to provide an alternative to austerity. It says something about neoliberalism (which even the IMF is now admitting doesn’t work as advertised), that a party based on working people didn’t think to talk about schools, housing, food, legal aid, investment, job training, etc. To the casual voter, Labour’s plans have devolved to a semantic difference while talking about everything the Conservatives want to talk about- debt, spending, and the deficit. The first rule of politics is offer voters something they want. That the party leader who wants to do that is voted out by his colleagues after a year is absurd. A genuine component of the SNP’s pitch for an independent Scotland is that an inept, corporate Labour is never going to defeat Tory rule. Their anti-austerity chops, though not amazing, are enough that they may very well get something the party wants- independence- by offering voters all the obvious things regular working people want.

And that’s a hell of a better strategy to win a referendum than whatever happened this week.

The new activists

At 6am Thursday morning I joined about a hundred others in downtown San Diego in a protest and picket around a McDonald’s, supporting fast food workers who walked off the job in their fight for union rights and a $15 an hour minimum wage.

Protestors march through downtown San Diego in remembrance of Eric Garner.
Protestors march through downtown San Diego in remembrance of Eric Garner.

Friday evening I joined a couple hundred others in a march protesting the killing of Mike Brown and Eric Garner by police.

Two things linked these two actions. One was that in the middle of various chants about justice and wages (“Que quemos?” “Quince!” “Cuando?” “Ahora!”), people joined in the now-legendary “Hands up, don’t shoot!” chant.

The second, and more substantial similarity, was the presence of many first-time activists. Fast food workers are usually underrepresented in labor actions, as those with disposable income and flexible schedules can be the most involved in justice movements. But thousands have participated in strikes and walkouts, despite corporate pressure. At the police march there were many people of color that had experienced discrimination and intimidation, but had been involved formally. And in both marches- children, some a third my age.

Three members of Socialist Alternative at the December 4, 2014 protest for $15/hr minimum wage. UnspokenPolitics author is on right.
Three members of Socialist Alternative at the December 4, 2014 protest for $15/hr minimum wage.
UnspokenPolitics author is on right.

I am not a professional hellraiser, but I do go to meetings and participate in actions. There is a core of activists, and we all know each other. However, justice will never be found by that small group. Regular workers need to liberate themselves. So to see new activists joining the fight is encouraging. Political protest is stale in the United States- we are not in the 60s radicalism or the all-but-in-name wars between unions and the government. Fresh faces will bring about real change.

Occupy also had an injection of new activists. The homeless, establishment Democrats, political but apathetic college students. This continues, and over time they become effective members of a movement.

As a member of the Socialist Alternative branch in San Diego said, many of us are new to radical politics. Many have no real grasp of what socialism is, or how to organize a labor action. These times are where we cut our teeth and learn how to succeed. There is no substitute for experience, and as people attend meetings, go to marches, and read the news and literature, they become smarter and stronger. We need all the help we can in this unjust world.

A goal for 2014: economic democracy

Democracy is a word of immense prestige and power. In the modern context it shapes the actions of even the most hardened autocrats. The Nazis held elections, as did the Soviets, and as do the North Koreans. Even those with complete contempt for popular rule see the rituals of democracy as important and helpful.

However, democracy presently has a very narrow scope in many countries. Voting every year or two is the tiny tip of a much large apparatus, most of which is controlled by individuals or powerful groups. Think about the things that depend on your regular vote. Then think of all the things that you do not influence in any way.

Political democracy seems absurd without economic democracy. Professor Richard Wolff in recent years has pushed for workers’ self-directed enterprises, stating the obvious fact that people spend more time at work than any other aspect of their lives. Voting for a senator is all well and good, but the most relevant decisions in people’s lives are made by bosses and executives.

So the goal should be for greater worker influence- going beyond collective bargaining and into collective management. Even well-organized sectors are being attacked by employers- with threats to move to another country, to lay off vast numbers of people. People’s jobs should not be used as a weapon in an economic war. The workers have a vested interest in successful business, and successful in their own communities.

A vast majority of people feel alienated because of the breadth and scale of manipulation and control that powerful people and groups have. It makes even the political rights that exist now feel meaningless, as politics is in a sea of rich people’s money. The more aspects of life where the common person’s voice is important and matters, the better. And the workplace is where the greatest change will come from.

The crimes against labor in Bangladesh

The tragedy of Rana Plaza

The crimes against labor in Bangladesh

A large industrial complex collapsed in Bangladesh on Thursday, with hundreds dead or stuck under the rubble. This was preceded in November by a massive garment factory fire that killed over a hundred workers. The fire started on the ground floor and spread upwards, leading several women to die after jumping from the roof, reminiscent of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a disaster in 1911 New York that was a catalyst for many modern labor reforms.

Worker outrage has led to direct action, something that is now common due to these disasters, as well as poor treatment and unpaid wages. These are irregular and difficult to control because of the issues creating organized unions.

The collapse highlights how union rights are essential in developing economies. Not just to counteract insulting wages (less than $40/month to start), but because collective power is needed to improve safety. Workers in Rana Plaza had seen cracks and damage to the complex, but they were not in the position to force management to address the problems.John Sifton of Human Rights Watch says:

the disaster highlights concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh. “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning, and thus save their lives,”

Bangladesh is the rock-bottom labor market, for companies that think China and Malaysia have grown too costly. As with many export-driven countries, the government has given manufacturers incredible deals on land and created long tax holidays. In addition, there is lax oversight and a strong independence of companies conduct business on their own terms. Local labor activists are walking a lonely road, in which the powers that be are set against them; they have been beaten, arrested, and even murdered for their efforts.

Until labor organizations can exist free from corporate or government action, there will be another Rana Plaza. Even as I write this there are buildings cracked and creaking, full of flammable dust and lint, with the fire doors barred and filled with people working an insane amount for hardly any money at all. People who believe in labor justice should help support local workers create, expand, and use their collective power. Some organizations like the International Labor Rights Forum and the AFL-CIO are supporting and documenting the movement.

If Americans and Europeans do not see themselves in these tragedies, it is only because our generations have not paid the price. The bloody actions against miners, railroad workers, and the same garment workers who leapt from their burning factory in 1911 mirror what Bangladesh is experiencing. This is not just chaos in the developing world. It is a chance to see the horrors that activists fought and died for to end.