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Sunday, November 29, 2009

No Rich, No Poor

Charles Andrews' book, No Rich, No Poor, occupies a special place among the many books on socialism and radical social theory. Though it is a bold argument for moving beyond capitalism towards a “new commonwealth”, the book is refreshingly free of cant, straightforward, and laudably clear and direct in its statement. There is no fat in Andrews’ presentation, but he spices his account with many pertinent and engaging facts and examples.

Andrews argues that capitalism has failed “common people”, especially in the last 35 years. He marshals ample evidence to demonstrate this truth, emphasizing mostly the explosive growth of income and wealth inequality.

The locus of this failure, Andrews finds in the mutation of the industrial process from labor intensive to labor saving. For Andrews, technological change has shaped the division of labor, leaving human labor unneeded, simple, or substantially cheapened in value:

Automated new machines and processes based on the sciences crowd out industrial labor. Capitalist corporations cannot make money on millions of people whose developed skill is human work, broadly based in a high level of culture, education, and social understanding – all requiring broadly decided allocation of resources directly for human development. Such resources would be at the expense of profits that were invested in equipment and facilities. People cannot be owned like a machine. Except in small supplemental amounts, corporations cannot “invest in people,” neither directly nor through toleration of taxes on their revenues and profits. The very phrase “invest in people” and its partner “human capital” express the contradiction that is the problem.

In short, modern industrial capital doesn’t need educated, creative, skilled workers and the way of life – what many today call “middle class” – that would sustain these attributes; it needs mules. While this is far from a complete or, I believe, flawless account of capitalism’s failings, it is a compelling story, a story that would resonate with many working people.

Andrews is less clear on why this trend in what he calls “industrial labor” is not sustainable. Nor does he develop a complete theory of change – what Marxists would call “class struggle”. Instead, he offers a program and a narrative, an approach in the fine old tradition of Edward Bellamy, William Morris, and H.G. Wells. This tradition, often crudely dismissed as “utopian”, offers a speculative account of how socialism, in Andrews case “the New Commonwealth”, will be achieved. Andrews’ program hinges on three principles:

• Eliminate rich and poor.
• Establish the inalienable right to a job.
• Change corporations into “institutions of genuine economic service”.

He readily concedes that his programmatic goals require a new political order, a radical transformation of our political institutions—a democratization of the state in the most profound sense. He offers three conditions sufficient for this to be achieved: the extreme distance between existing rulers and the ruled, wide spread consent for change, and an organization committed to change and agreeing on a worthy program. He sees these conditions maturing in an – dare I say – inevitable manner. He resorts to the fashionable and seductive, but fundamentally circular, term “tipping point” to cement this inevitability. I think it’s fair to say that Andrews views the crash of 2008 as one such tipping point.

While I might quibble over aspects of Andrews’ presentation – for example his account of “the major turning points of history” or his labor-process account of capitalism’s fundamental contradiction – I think this would miss the point of the book. No Rich, No Poor is a popular polemic aimed at bringing the idea of socialism to a mass audience long accustomed to heaping scorn on the word.

What separates Andrews’ book from other appeals for socialism is his calculated avoidance of the language associated in the past with the struggle for socialism. There are few references to Marx, Marxism, Communism, class, or even socialism. Instead, he couches his argument in a language less likely to generate the knee-jerk negative sentiments that have been so fervently grinded into working class consciousness by a self-serving capitalist class. I believe it is apparent that Andrews has a good understanding of and respect for the Marxist tradition, but chooses this route to sidestep the deeply ingrained prejudices that blind people to their own best interests.

Now some may see Andrews’ approach as opportunistic, sugar-coating truths that should be presented baldly and forcefully. My colleagues and I at Marxism-Leninism Today forego the sugar and offer the bitter truth as we see it. Nonetheless, I think there is a commendable place for a general introduction to these ideas that remains faithful to the spirit and partisanship of working class empowerment.

No Rich, No Poor is a visionary account and not a deeply theoretical tome. At a time when too much of the Communist movement, especially in Western Europe and the US, is mired in self-examination and defensive retreat, it is a refreshingly clear and welcome statement of the ideal of socialism. As William Morris writes at the conclusion of News from Nowhere: “Yes, surely! And if others can see it as I have seen it, then it may be called a vision rather than a dream.”

I will be ordering several copies as holiday gifts for friends who have had their fill of empty Democratic Party promises and labor movement accommodation. No Rich, No Poor is available at

Zoltan Zigedy

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Exorcising Demons and Scoundrels

Thank God it has come and gone. The anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall threatens to become a regular ritual celebrating the triumph of capitalism and the bankruptcy of socialism. The ruling ideology needs landmarks and symbols to reassure that capitalism is both good and enduring to those barred by an invisible wall from entering the elite club of wealth and power. The 1989 opening of the barrier between East and West Berlin serves as such a symbol and, accordingly, is celebrated with much acclaim by the elites and their media lapdogs. They are confident that the louder and more extravagantly they celebrate, the more the rest of us will buy the old Cold War myths of socialist slavery and capitalist freedom. Tragically, many buy it.

But thank God there are some out there who expose the myths, though they lack the megaphone to pierce the bleating of the corporate media. I cannot praise enough the recent, brilliant postings by Stephen Gowans. The first (1) corrects the history and tallies the accomplishments of the departed German Democratic Republic. And the second (2) uses recent polling results to reveal the views that count the most: the folks who actually lived, worked, raised families and experienced the realities of Eastern European socialism. Their views are scorned and dismissed by our public pontificators in favor of the “dissidents” – most of whom weigh their own privileged opportunities that would be bestowed in a capitalist society over any consideration of the common good. The citizens' concerns are belittled as insignificant before the higher values of unlimited travel, intellectual license, and shallow “success” as defined by Western vulgarians.

Significantly, the citizens of former socialist countries value security, health care, employment, education, cultural engagement and the other basics that socialism guaranteed over the abstract right to travel unrestrained from Kharkov to Paris, especially when they see no prospects of ever attaining the means to exercise that right. The Ivy League graduates in business suits that populate urban condos and suburban mansions scoff at their concerns, ridiculing them as unsophisticated and trivial. Of course they’re trivial to those privileged by wealth and power to have no need for them!

It is shameful to see the political elites scurry to Berlin, along with the media pack, to toast the demise of a system that delivered more social good with more justice and humanity than the system that replaced it. It is just my opinion, of course, but the Pew and GlobeScan polls cited by Gowans, show that many, if not most, of the citizens of Eastern Europe – armed with the experience of both systems – agree with me.

Hypocrisy abounds, especially in the US. Our fearless media has earned a deserved reputation of finding some credibility in every pronouncement emanating from a corporate or government source. Conversely, they have succeeded in burying their heads deeply in the sand to avoid any inconvenient truth like the sentiments of Eastern Europeans. After all, what do they know about the relative merits of capitalism and socialism when compared with Merkel, Brown or Obama? Class-based journalism reigns.

Today’s news brings the revelation that 49 million US citizens experienced hunger – what the Bureau of Euphemism calls “food insecurity” - in 2008, a rise of 13% over 2007. With one out four children knowing hunger last year, it might be worthy of note that even the poorest socialist country succeeded in eliminating hunger within a decade. But what is the fate of millions of the hungry or unemployed when compared to the complaints of a poet in Cuba, a feudal lord in Tibet, or a businessman in Venezuela? The former remain voiceless while the latter command the big media stage.

But it’s not just the media that carries the water for a system that leaves bodies strewn across the landscape from hunger, war, lack of health care and neglect; there are also those in the lofty reaches of academe who willingly embrace the task of legitimizing capitalism, its culture, and its history. They are not merely anticommunist professors, but professors of anticommunism. To excel at this task, one has to be willing to not only condemn Communism, but to swear that there was actually nothing – not the tiniest value or virtue- in the movement or its instantiation in power.

Arguably, the dean of this “discipline” was the late Sir Isaiah Berlin, an academic who earned knighthood for his services to the capitalist state. While his philosophical work was both meager and slight, his dogged disparaging of Communism attained for him fame and veneration.

Since his demise, others have scrambled for his mantle. A strong contender for this dubious distinction is the current Professor of European Studies and Isaiah Berlin Professorial Fellow at St. Antony’s College, Oxford and Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institute, Timothy Garton Ash. From his early career roaming around Eastern Europe, to his later career as a journalist, to his current academic station, Ash has unswervingly served the cause of capitalism (he would, of course, recoil from this description, preferring “liberal democracy”) and demonized socialism. In this regard, he is a worthy successor to Berlin, but apparently not yet worthy of knighthood since he has only earned a lesser chivalric title, CMG (Companion, The Most Distinguished order of St. Michael’s and St. George). This title is generally awarded to members of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (James Bond got one!) and poses an interesting juxtaposition with his academic stature.

Ash has peddled anticommunism for many, many years, often choosing the equally rabid anticommunist The New York Review of Books as his soapbox. In the December 3, 2009 addition, he offers a curious argument for establishing the so-called Velvet Revolution in 1989 Czechoslovakia as the historic template for future social change: “The hypothesis is that 1989 established a new model of nonviolent revolution that now often supplants, or at least competes with, the older, violent model we associate with 1789”. Thus, VR, as he calls the new model, explains the many “color” revolutions that have befallen Eastern European and Middle Eastern countries, social movements that coincide almost perfectly with foreign policy goals of the US and Western European powers. To deflect anyone suspicious of this coincidence, he stretches to include South Africa, Chile, and Portugal in this model, an inclusion that those familiar with these prolonged, militant, and left-led “old school” revolutions will find laughable.

With equal elasticity, Ash struggles to find some other content (other than serving imperial interests!) to these new breed “revolutions”, conceding and quoting Francois Furet that the 1989 changes in Eastern Europe stirred “not a single new idea.” Rather, they were a “turning of the wheel back to a real or imaginary better past”. Certainly most practitioners of Ash’s discipline would call this wheel-turning to the past “counter-revolution”, a word that Ash assiduously avoids. And in the end, he relents that “[the] “new idea” is the form of revolutionary change itself, not the content of its ideological aspirations”.

But if they have no content to inspire action, what drives these social movements? Many of us who have studied the heralded protests in Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Central and South America (these go unmentioned by Ash – perhaps, because they were so transparently coups posing as popular risings) have concluded that they had a social base of privileged elites with decisive help from external agents. Herds of innocuous sounding NGOs have been manufactured to do the work formerly exclusive to foreign intelligence agencies. One cannot help noting the presence of abundant resources – technological, material, and agitational – in the media accounts of the demonstrations and rallies in these otherwise economically poorer countries. Ample evidence exists demonstrating the elaborate training and preparation offered by well-funded NGOs.

Dutifully, Ash scoffs at this explanation: “These are not Western plots, as authoritarian rulers from Russia to China to Iran now claim – supported in their paranoia by a few conspiracy-minded Western observers”. One wonders if Ash had his fingers crossed when he wrote this!

But he goes on: “To be sure, there is often Western involvement, some of it public, some covert, but in no single case can one possibly claim that it has been decisive” [my italics]. And several column inches later, in chiding the Indian government for remaining neutral in regard to turmoil in neighboring countries, Ash argues a different conclusion: “Or will non-Western democracies in time warm to the … enterprise of helping people in less free countries to help themselves? The answer they give may be decisive for the future of VR” [my italics]. Now those of us without Ash’s impressive credentials my find this to be contradictory; on one hand, external intervention has never been decisive, on the other, it may well be the decisive factor in future uprisings. Are we to believe that Western powers, with far more resources and a history of imperial intervention, showed great restraint in Ash’s Velvet-like revolutions, offering non-decisive aid when Western foreign policy goals were clearly within reach? Are we to believe, on the other hand, that the Indian government, less inclined to intervention and less well endowed, is to be faulted by not playing a decisive role in toppling governments not favored by Ash?

When you’ve abandoned any pretense of respecting self-determination, it’s easy to have it both ways.

Ash and the media lapdogs undermine not only their own credibility, but the credibility of their respective professions that pretend to be scholarly and unbiased. Their fawning submission to power and wealth stands in sharp contrast to the work of independent, but avowedly partisan writers like Stephen Gowans.


Zoltan Zigedy

Monday, November 9, 2009

Exploitation Soars, Unemployment Jumps!

This sure is some recovery! The first week in November brought remarkable results for an economy widely held to be on the mend. Earnings of corporations are on the rise, the stock market is perking up, and the Administration is claiming credit for pulling the economy back from the brink and setting it well on the course to health.

But in the other world, the world outside of Wall Street, gated communities, and the political elite, the news is catastrophic, pushing the misery index dramatically higher.


The rate of exploitation, as measured by output per hour of labor has increased by 9.6% in the third quarter of this year, more than four times its average growth over the last 25 years. This increase comes on the heels of a 6.9% rise in the second quarter. Put simply, these numbers mean that for every worker engaged in some form of productive activity, on average, he or she produced almost 10% more in the third quarter of this year over the same quarter last year. Intuitively, this means that the capitalist system has squeezed another dollar in value from workers who produced ten dollars in value last year. Or, put another way, for every hour of labor, workers were forced to do 10% more productive work.

Some might respond that it doesn’t follow that workers necessarily worked harder for these productivity gains. That may well be true in some cases, but we have other Labor Department data that bear on this matter. We also know that total employment is on the decline (see below). In addition, the Labor Department reports that the hours worked were down again for the ninth straight quarter. Combine that fact with a 4% rise in output, and it’s pretty clear that workers were squeezed harder.

Capitalist apologists would be quick to point out - and they always do – that other factors may contribute to productivity increases besides worker effort such as technological innovations and investment in more efficient equipment and techniques. This response evaporates in the face of the dramatic decline in investment brought on by the broad economic crisis.

Of course it would be possible that workers worked harder because they wanted to make more money, producing more because they wanted to earn a commensurately larger compensation. This, however, is belied by the fact that unit labor costs were down 5.2% in the third quarter: every unit of value produced earned the workers 5.2% less than it did in the third quarter of 2008.

We have then a stubborn fact: workers worked a lot harder most of this year than they did last year with a smaller share of the value produced.

This stubborn fact goes unacknowledged and unexplained. It will not be discussed on the Sunday morning talk shows. The media – from The New York Times to the organs of the labor movement – will pass over this fact, often hailing it as a harbinger of recovery. Academic and working economists assign it no special place, no event of great consequence.

It is only in the Marxist tradition that this fact occupies a central role and is properly explained. In fact, it is the fundamental notion in the political economy of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, exposing the primary mechanism of profit generation in the capitalist mode of production. In the end, they argued, increases in the rate of profit come from workers getting a smaller portion of the product of their labor. They labeled this measure the rate of exploitation. From the Marxist perspective, the capitalist class intensifies exploitation – raises its rate – to restore or increase the rate of profit. Indeed, this is axiomatic in the Marxist system.

While mainstream economists strain to explain the rise in profits and the stock market in the face of climbing unemployment and slack consumption, they refuse to attend to the role of labor exploitation in this development.

In our time, this sharp increase in labor exploitation signals two disturbing truths:

1. The relative strength and privilege of capital. Monopoly capital wields sufficient power, unrestrained by the organs of popular sovereignty – the government, to extract dramatically more effort from the working class.

2. The relative weakness of labor. The labor movement lacks sufficient strength, determination, or government influence to at the very least retain a proportionate share of the product of its efforts.

Thus, the burden of the capitalist recovery – profits and stock equity values – is borne squarely by the working class.


It is not just that workers are working harder; fewer are also working. The October official unemployment rate rose to 10.2%, the highest rate since 1983 and only the second time since records have been kept (1948) that the unemployment rate topped 10%! When workers without full-time work or those discouraged from working are counted, the actual rate is 17.5%, a rate nearly equal to or greater than all but the four peak years of the Great Depression. Where the Roosevelt Administration resorted to public jobs programs to restore employment after 1934, the current Administration, guided by its dogmatic neo-liberal economic team, has largely relied upon restoring the health of the private sector with generous bailouts and massive loan guarantees, furthering shifting the burden of recovery onto the future tax obligations of the working class.

The impact upon families of working people – saddled with escalating health care and education costs, massive debt, and uncertainty – is devastating. With nearly one out of five US citizens without a secure, sustainable job, the economic crisis is far from over for the overwhelming majority.

As Doug Henwood has pointed out (Left Business Observer, #122), even with women entering the work force in very great numbers, the percentage of people in the work force (employment/population) has fallen to within striking distance of the level when the Government first kept statistics (1948).

For the unemployed, the prospect of getting a job has diminished to unprecedented levels: the median length of unemployment now stretches to nearly five months. Therefore, the average worker, out of desperation, will likely consider employment at a wage and benefit level well below their former rate. This downward pressure on wages contributes to the willingness of those with employment to accept increased exploitation in order to retain a job. With the unemployed willing to work for less, it is likely that those with jobs will fear for the loss of theirs.


The numbers, the reports from the Government’s Labor Department, are stark, yet they fail to convey the pain, the misery, the desperation that underlies increasing exploitation and expanding unemployment. Their impact will appear later in poverty figures, suicides, broken families, crime statistics, child malnutrition, avoidable illnesses and deaths, and other measures of neglect and human suffering.

It is irresponsible and dishonest not to locate their cause in policy decisions. It doesn’t have to be this way.

The decisions taken by the new Administration, decisions taken to address a profound economic crisis, did not have to place the burden upon the vast majority of our fellow citizens. History shows other responses: Roosevelt’s second term – also hailed as an endorsement of transformational change and a rebuke of past approaches – strove to place many of the resources of government directly for the benefit of those most harmed by economic catastrophe. But this is not the approach that this Administration chose. Instead it hewed to the corrupted line that extending a helping hand to corporate USA – the perpetrators of the crisis – would pull everyone up, a bankrupt return to the cynical approach of the Reagan gang.

Looking forward, this approach will only encourage more corporate irresponsibility and more pain for the vast majority. We, on the left, cannot continue to shirk our duty to speak loudly for a new policy that will put the future of working people at the top of the agenda. It is time to return to a vigorous oppositional stance and cast aside the misplaced, naïve trust in the Democratic Administration. The season of childish fantasy is over.

Zoltan Zigedy

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Support the Ford Workers!

Confronting corporate power directly constitutes the sharpest, most challenging, and most politically advanced form of political struggle, of class struggle. At a time of compromise, half-steps, modest aspirations, and low expectations, these moments are unfortunately rare. One such moment occurred with the determined, courageous efforts of the single-payer advocates in their effort to retire profit-driven insurance corporations from the field of health care provision. In the face of the predictable demonology of “socialism” and “government involvement”, they have fought a relentless struggle – including civil disobedience – to put patients before profits. Single-payer, in its HR676 incarnation, attacks corporate dominance by financing health care from taxes on the rich as well as kicking out the private insurance companies. Where the compromised public option feeds the rapacious insurance industry and burdens the working class, single-payer is a direct assault on the interests of the ownership class, an assault benefiting the vast majority of US citizens. While victory is hardly assured, their efforts will continue to gather momentum long after any tepid, corporate-friendly legislation is passed by the Congress.

Now we have the stirrings of another – long overdue, but heartily welcome – counterattack in the war against corporate dominance. The union workers at Ford Motor Company have voted overwhelmingly to reject a concessionary proposal offered by Ford and urged by the United Autoworkers leadership.

Nationwide, over 70% of the Ford UAW membership voted against contract concessions that were demanded by the auto giant. The UAW top leadership which has negotiated and urged ratification of decades of concessions met a fierce resistance from the rank-and-file and local leaders. The head of the UAW’s Ford division was booed and heckled at local meetings in Michigan and President Ron Gettelfinger’s former local rejected the proposal by over 80% despite his personnel appearance and appeal. The happy message of “win-win” class collaboration fell on deaf ears this time. By rejecting these concessions, workers chose a different path – the path of class struggle.

Knowing full well of the relative advantages it enjoys, Ford argued that it deserved the same deal that the UAW accepted for its bankrupt competitors, GM and Chrysler. The US government granted each of the other two domestic auto makers a bailout in return for a promise to close plants, layoff employees, and shed brands and dealerships. The UAW sweetened the deal further by granting further concessions on its 2007 contract with GM and Chrysler. In fact, the UAW had accepted two sets of concessions to Ford since the 2007 contract, and this third group of demands spurred the membership’s overwhelming rejection. This is in stark contrast to the French auto bailouts that required the domestic producers to retain jobs in order to receive government aid. In the case of France, a rabid conservative President Sarkozy was faced down by a militant labor movement and popular support. In the case of the US, a corporate-coddling government and a collaborationist union leadership kicked autoworkers in the teeth.

Cynically, Ford and the UAW International leaders agreed to schedule the concession ratification before the declaration of Ford’s third quarter earnings so they could best make the case for “making Ford competitive” against the crippled competition. Nonetheless, the UAW members soundly rejected the contract concessions even before Ford announced net third quarter earning of over a billion dollars, the most since 2006.

Nothing shows the bankruptcy of the business union model better than this crass fealty to the corporate interests of The Ford Motor Company. Nothing shows an awakening rank-and-file militancy better than the overwhelming rejection of this offensive proposal.

After years of urging concessions that have stripped benefits and hourly wages, the UAW top leadership is now faced with a membership in open rebellion against its no-struggle policies. The membership recognizes, far better than the top officials, that it is now time to stop the retreat and use the power of working people to improve their future. For too long the union’s top leaders have acted as a kind of third party linking the position of the workers to the continued prosperity of the corporations and “selling” that bankrupt notion to the members. The union belongs to the members and this vote demonstrates that they want it back. This is a banner moment for working class consciousness and anti-corporate action. The top leadership of the union should heed this or step aside.

For the left, this is a re-affirmation of the centrality of the labor movement in its confrontation with wealth and power. The action of tens of thousands of autoworkers rocks the corporate agenda far more than high-sounding electoral rhetoric or parliamentary horse-trading. As these early sprouts of emerging labor independence mature, the left must help nurture this movement into a powerful social force, a force worthy of the UAW’s legacy. For some on the left, this requires shedding the illusions and comfortable ties with the top leadership of the labor movement. The reality is that the contradiction between the needs of working people and a complacent, corporate-accommodating leadership will grow ever more apparent.

Zoltan Zigedy