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Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Class Solidarity: The Road to Unity

Some see the description “Marxist” as an anachronism. Certainly much has changed in the world since the times of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels. Indeed, capitalism – the object of their study – has evolved strickingly from the socio-economic order they sought to understand in the nineteenth century. Yet we are constantly reminded of the fruitfulness of their key analytical tools: class, exploitation and profits.

We find these tools useful in some of the most unlikely places, as demonstrated by a recent article in The Wall Street Journal. Writing on the Journal’s refreshingly eccentric sports page, author Matthew Futterman tackles the political economy of the National Football League (The NFL’s $1 Billion Game of Chicken (2-17-11). Futterman states: “The League has run out of new ways new ways to make another quick $1 billion, so its turning its focus to the biggest piggy bank of all: its own players.” Within the next two weeks, the player contract expires and NFL management will likely lock out – call a management strike on – the players and their union.

Futterman adds that behind this threatened lockout is “a notion that’s familiar to investors, but that represents a radical notion in professional sports: the idea that a sports league, like a giant company, must show steady growth over time. And more radically, a slowdown in the rate of growth, even without actual losses, is sufficient grounds to ask labor to make concessions.” In other words, professional football is a giant monopoly business with its own unique expressions of class, labor exploitation and profit accumulation.

Of course this backdrop of social confrontation and the drive for greater profits is not readily apparent to the average fan. Professional football occupies a special place in US culture. On one hand, it postures as a “pure” sport with great athletes – athletes bred, trained and motivated for most of their young lives – competing in a brutally violent game. On the other hand, it is presented as capturing the US ethos: overwhelming power, domination, confident cockiness, as well as respect for authority and unquestioning patriotism. Unmistakably, this representation is a profoundly conservative ethos.

But as Futterman’s candor shows, the NFL is far more than this popular image. From tickets to television, from media noise to gear, from advertising to fantasy football, the NFL both occupies a huge chunk of US cultural life and stands as a profit-generating behemoth.

It is this last aspect that draws little attention. Even less attention is given to the conflict between owners and workers, especially the players.

Between 2000 and the 2010 season, revenues have grown from about $4 billion to $9 billon. While every NFL team is highly profitable, owners view their protected franchises – their teams – as their major source of wealth. Just as stock market investors have come to place equity value over dividend return, team owners are most interested in seeing their team’s worth grow. For example, the NY Jets were purchased in 2000 for $635 million. Ten years later, another comparable franchise - the Miami Dolphins - sold for $1.1 billion.

The explosion of revenue in the NFL has come from several inter-connected sources. From 1993 to 2005 NFL owners extorted massive public funding for new stadiums. By threatening to move franchises, team owners and compliant city and regional officials have contrived a massive public welfare program for the benefit of the wealthy owners; the WSJ estimates that public subsidies averaged $500 million per year over the 13-year span.

Thanks to brand new stadiums with not-too-subtle class divisions (end-zone seats vs. luxury sky boxes), ticket revenues exploded, doubling between 1997 and 2007. Today, the average ticket costs $76 per game. It’s an unspoken truth that most season ticket holders are far removed from the working class who largely follow their team from in front of their television sets.

But competing media conglomerates have been the most kind to the NFL owners. Media rights to NFL broadcasts and properties have jumped from $2.6 billion annually in 2005 to $3.8 billion in 2010.

One might think that the NFL team owners would be quite satisfied with their lofty financial achievements, but like all capitalists they have an unquenchable thirst to accumulate. But as Futterman cogently puts it, they are looking for new ways to “make a quick $1 billion…” With new stadiums built and steadfast resistance to further subsidies on the part of the public, the team owners have turned away from the public troughs. With ticket prices sky high, they are afraid of squeezing fans further. And media contracts will increase only modestly over the next three years.

Therefore, owners are turning to the tried-and-true, centuries-old capitalist tactic: increase labor productivity by reducing wages and increasing the workload. They hope to add two more games per season to increase revenue. Thus, players will work 1/8th more for the same salaries. Standing in the way of this intensification of the owners’ exploitation of the players is their union’s resistance. Consequently, the lockout threatens to cancel the next season and pressure the players’ ability to earn a living.

As much as fans admire NFL players, they show little sympathy for their economic plight. Attention to the mega-salaries of superstars blinds them to the facts of an NFL career. The average median salary of an NFL player in 2009 was $770,000. But the average career lasts only 3 years, giving the average player a lifetime earning of $2 million plus from the NFL. Most players come from modest backgrounds and, unlike autoworkers or plumbers, have devoted fully 10 previous years of intense, competitive training without compensation beyond athletic scholarships. Thus, a 24-year-old average NFL retiree has earned well under $200,000 a year over his career, leaving his job often with debilitating injuries and little skill for any later opportunities. The media-hyped splendor of the super-star masks the far less glamorous status of the NFL’s ordinary player. Clearly, a lost season for players who only average three productive years is a powerful economic blow.

So, yes, players are workers, though unusually well paid for a brief time, and workers with their own unique advantages and difficulties. Players, like most fans, have drunk the cultural kool-aid that elevates all NFL players to elite status. The players don’t want to be seen as workers, but neither do many other well paid professionals or craftsmen for that matter.

For those of us who are consumers of the players’ product – fans – we need to take sides in a struggle between admittedly well-off players and the handful of mega-rich owners who seek to get more for less from their employees. In the end, that is the central question of Marxist and scientific socialist theory: exploitation. Exploitation defines class position as well as the distribution of the surplus, in this case NFL earnings. Unfortunately, the market determines the consumer’s place in this arguably decadent and politically numbing exercise in primitivism and violence – we lose a bit of our souls every Sunday in the fall. And our dollars combine to generate the $9 billion that the owners are so greedily striving to stuff into their pockets. But behind our shared football mania is an exploitative socio-economic system, just as ancient slavery stood behind the entertainments of the Roman circuses and the encounters of gladiators.

The lesson here is not that we should drop all activities to organize huge rallies in support of the small number of NFL professionals who are exploited by their employees, though there is much that we can easily do to show our solidarity with them. We certainly have more urgent priorities in supporting the public employees in the class war now raging in Wisconsin and breaking out in numerous other states. The living standards of all government employees –federal, state and local – as well as their union rights are under assault from many quarters, an assault that presages further attacks upon all workers. Instead, we must recognize that the Marxist notion of class – employees versus employers – trumps all other notions that divide workers by strata, job description, race, gender or nationality. It is “class,” as Marxists understand it, which serves as a basis for unity, and not some bogus unity forged from artificial ties with fickle friends in bourgeois politics or opportunistic, tenuous common interests. Those loose ties maybe be useful and even tactically desirable, but not at the expense of class partisanship.

A healthy sign of this class solidarity is the recent open letter from several current and former members of the Green Bay Packers professional football team urging support for Wisconsin’s embattled public workers. Is it an accident that they played for the only publicly owned team in the National Football League?

Zoltan Zigedy

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Vulgar Burlesque and High Drama

The last week in January proved to be eventful. First, President Obama gave a State of the Union address on Tuesday that set a new standard of empty rhetoric and low customer satisfaction. Most notably, for skirting any important issues of the day, the address left both left and right uncomfortably disturbed by its lack of red meat. Perhaps in looking for a signal of surrender to the right, Conservative pundit, Peggy Noonan, called it “unserious,” “mushy,” and “barely relevant.” These non-ideological descriptions could equally serve the left.

Of course that was the point of the speech; the image crafters around Barack Obama are now engaged in a re-election campaign and that is exactly the porridge that best serves a sitting President.

For those on the right, it would be naïve to believe that Obama would come over to their side publicly, antagonizing the traditional Democratic base. Otherwise, there would be no political space for the AFL-CIO head, Richard Trumka, to praise Obama as “heading in the right direction.” Obama will appease his potential corporate contributors with deeds and not words.

For those on the left who remain expectant that Obama will break away from his corporate tether, call for a renewed commitment to progressivism, and propose even a weak anti-corporate, pro-people program, one can only prescribe new medication and a history lesson.

Many in our left – level-headed folks with an understanding of the two-party charade – expected to see an exposure of Obama’s perfidy in embracing debt hysteria and chopping essential public services. But eight years of Bill Clinton slipperiness should have taught that a clever elected official never shows his hand in public statements. And Barack Obama is certainly clever.

Putting aside naïve expectations, the real Obama message is that elections are serious business. Far too serious to engage in the posturing that feeds the punditry. Instead, a far-off election in 2012 calls exactly for a speech like the one Obama gave on Tuesday night, a speech that reaches the clouds in airy rhetoric referencing common sacrifice, noble goals and moving anecdotes. Its genius lies in placing seduction over substance.

Beyond the noise of the media gasbags, beyond the shallow electoral rhetoric, a different message has been delivered. Knowing corporate Republicans have gotten it.

The dry conservative wit Ben Stein spoke on CBS news (1-23-11) with only a touch of frivolity:

But wait a minute! Isn't there someone out there who is Obama's equal in oratory, charisma, and ability to draw votes who COULD run as a Republican?
Why, yes there is: Barack Obama, his own self.


Think about it: Since the election of 2010, he is clearly moving in the direction of the Republican Party. He has completely signed on to the Republican position on tax cuts and kicking the deficit can down the road.

In a more serious vein, the retired University of Chicago colleague of conservative icon Milton Friedman, Robert Z. Aliber, opined in a interview (1-28-11):

Not only is Obama serious about reducing our trade deficit with China, but he is also reviewing onerous business regulations. He hired big, bad banker Bill Daley as his chief of staff; he put cost-cutting General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE - News) Chief Executive Jeffrey Immelt in charge of a "jobs committee;" and he even invited Goldman Sachs Group Inc. (NYSE: GS - News) Chief Executive Lloyd Blankfein, Wall Street's prince of darkness, to the White House when Chinese President Hu Jintao was in town.

"There's no need for the Republicans to put up a candidate in 2012," Aliber added. "The Republican candidate is President Obama."

Of course these reliable conservative voices are not advocating that Obama run for the Republican endorsement. Instead, they are affirming that corporate power is perfectly happy with an Obama second term. They are signaling that behind the curtain of tea-bagger histrionics, media antics, and poll-driven faux populism, core corporate Republicans would live happily with Obama at the executive helm. Having passed the test of corporate fealty, the President presents a more reliable, focused option over the theatrics of Palin and the other Republicans of dubious distinction and unproven corporate worthiness.

For Republicans, the 2012 Presidential campaign presents a problem: With a growing strength in Congress, they risk a setback comparable to the Barry Goldwater debacle - a quixotic campaign dominated by the crackpot right - if they sign on with Sarah Palin or her ilk.

Expect the corporate coffers to flow generously and overwhelmingly to Obama with only token support for the Republican outliers. If the Republican primaries produce a more centrist Republican, a more dedicated corporate type, he or she will likely fare poorly against a well funded incumbent. But the conservative Republican establishment seems pretty comfortable with such an outcome.

Of even more potential importance, the uprisings in the Middle East may well usher in changes that seriously challenge the stability of US imperialism. In the post-war period, the US has sought to establish a gendarmerie in the Middle East from friendly client states. In place of the traditional imperialist colonial structures, US policy shifted to establishing reliable and militarily powerful overseer states that would guarantee US economic domination while concealing the deep structure of neo-colonialism. For decades, Israel and Iran, under the Shah, performed this function in return for massive US aid, largely in the form of the most sophisticated US military weaponry.

For Israel, the deal guaranteed military advantage over any other Middle Eastern country. For the Shah, the compact funded a massive security apparatus against domestic opposition as well.

With the deposing of the Shah, the US lost its reliable partner, replacing it with Egypt. Now the second largest recipient of US aid in the Middle East, Egypt is responsible for containing Arab outrage with Israel and guaranteeing safe oil shipment through the Suez Canal and the Sumed pipeline.

But the successful uprising against the corrupt, reactionary government of Tunisia has inspired the Egyptian masses to rise as well against the brutal government of Mubarak. As this is written, his regime hangs by a thread. While events are confusing and fast moving, several points are apparent:

●The uprising seems to be popular, secular, broad-based and fueled by poverty, increasing food prices, and unemployment. Opposition seems to cut across classes.

●Mubarak has demonstrated no reliable base of support beyond his security services. Despite warm, close relations with its US counterparts, the military has yet to take strong action against the activists, even, in some reported cases, showing rank-and-file sympathy for the demonstrators.

●Slogans appear largely limited to the removal of Mubarak, often identifying him with the US and Israel, but with little to suggest a conscious program or unified leadership. Theocratic themes have been noticeably absent.

●The best gauge of the character of the revolt remains the US reaction: Confusion seems to have seized the US government caught between preserving a “democratic,” “human rights” image and defending its interests in Egypt and the guarantee of stability that Mubarak brought. Press Secretary Gibbs suggested that the US might withdraw aid; Secretary of State Clinton stated that there was no threat to do so. Government Officials call for “reform,” “change” and “peace,” but Clinton has assured the press that they have not sought Mubarak’s departure. Obama spoke to Mubarak, but only adding to the impression of diplomatic confusion.

●The US contingency plan in case of Mubarak’s departure seems to be based on the quick ascendancy of Mohamed El Baradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency. While reviled by the Bush administration for his opposition to the Iraq invasion, he has apparently developed warm relations with the Obama Administration, according to The Wall Street Journal. That same WSJ (11-29/30-11) issue notes that he has little connection to the uprising and even less credibility with the Egyptian masses. Nevertheless, El Baradei has returned to Egypt and insinuated himself into the role of opposition spokesperson - doing so with a remarkable speed, strongly suggestive of the assistance of US and possibly Egyptian security services. Counter-factually, the capitalist press has sought to portray the Johnny-come-lately ElBaradei and the previously stand-offish Muslim Brotherhood as the leadership of the movement.

Given the panic occupying US officials, the hitherto manageable stability of the Middle East seems to be in jeopardy. The outcome is far from decided, but certainly the risings are threatening to imperial domination of the region and promising for the national democratic processes that were far from completed in the region after the Second World War. Time will tell if the US and its allies will be able to quell the risings or turn them to their own advantage, but the rising masses in the region deserve our solidarity.

An eventful week, indeed.

Zoltan Zigedy