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Monday, November 30, 2020

Scorn for the 'Deplorables'

Hillbilly Elegies premiered November 24 on NETFLIX. I won’t be watching it.

Just as I refused to buy JD Vance’s New York Times best-selling book that the film is based upon, I refuse to support the arrogant defamation of the way of life and values of people living outside of the mansions and gated communities of privilege. Vance, growing up in a mill town in Ohio, no doubt knew some hardships and witnessed dysfunctionality. Who among us that grew up in working class neighborhoods in the Middle West didn’t see, and sometimes suffer, some hardship.

Vance’s book came out at a convenient time-- 2016-- when East and West Coast elites sought explanations for Donald Trump’s success in the Midwest. The corporate Democrats had long taken these Midwesterners for granted, Obama calling them gun-toting religious zealots and Hillary Clinton famously describing them as “deplorables.” It was left to a “survivor”-- JD Vance-- to expose the pathologies and missteps of these flawed creatures. Vance had-- himself-- found the grit to escape the working class ghetto of Middletown, Ohio and parlay an elite law school degree into the riches of high finance.

While he acknowledges the hardships, he congratulates himself and some others for what he sees as their ‘by-the-bootstraps’ success. Rather than seeing a quagmire too deep for all but the tallest boots to negotiate, Vance perceives character flaws-- a lack of self-discipline and ambition, as well as a propensity to make bad choices. Vance expects “people to hold themselves responsible for their own conduct and choices. ‘Those of us who weren’t given every advantage can make better choices, and those choices do have the power to affect our lives…’”

If this sounds eerily familiar, it’s probably because it echoes the smug, insensitive message often offered to Black people who are mired in poverty and neglect by the privileged.

I once wrote of Vance: “Feeding the stereotypes [of Midwestern workers], Vance exposes a dysfunctional childhood spared from ruin by an enlistment in the Marine Corps, a stint at Ohio State University, and a climb to the summit, Yale Law School. Looking down from the rarified air of Yale, he feels qualified to speak of ‘the anger and frustration of the white working class’ and the hunger to ‘have someone tell their story’.”

But the story he tells is one of blaming the victims for the violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, and suicide that followed in the wake of the historically unprecedented deindustrialization that swept the Midwest beginning in the late 1970s. Literally millions of decent industrial jobs were lost in this period as capital shifted from US production to expansion overseas. The fall of Eastern European socialism and the expanding Asian engagement with export production opened the spigots of low-wage labor, an attraction that capital could not and would not fail to exploit.

The effects of this shift devastated communities in the US, especially the Midwest.

Growing up in the Midwest before this demographic disaster, I lived on the edge of a small town bordering on corn and soybean fields. On my street and surrounding streets, every household depended on employment in a factory or mine. From the disabled miner on the corner that we called “Bootsaw” because of his unpronounceable Eastern European name, to the African American who lived on the street behind us who worked in the mines with my uncle who raised me, people knew each other by where they or their parents worked: the GM foundry, Hyster, Lauhoff, GE, and the mines. All of these could be and often were long term, if not lifelong, decent paying jobs with decent benefits. Children knew that if they were not struck with wanderlust, there would be a job available where their parent, relative, or friend worked.

All that changed.

Today, employment is limited to a penitentiary, a casino, retail chains, services, and a few small, specialty manufacturers. Where factories employing thousands dotted the landscape, tattoo parlors, massage parlors, and slot parlors are now ubiquitous. According to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, my hometown and its environs lost more population (percentage-wise) from 1990 to 2015 than any area in the US with over 50,000 population, except the Youngstown and Weirton/Steubenville areas (near where I live now).

Friends and relatives lament the rise in alcoholism, drug use, crime, and violence that were foreign to the area when we grew up. They search for explanations-- television, sex, poor parenting, etc.-- but seldom, if ever, blame the multi-national corporations that abandoned the Midwest for cheap labor elsewhere. Nor are there any local leaders making that connection.

Like the crack epidemic that struck Black neighborhoods in the same era and led to violence, criminalization, and mass incarceration, Midwestern towns and cities similarly suffered from the effects of what appear to be mysterious, insidious outside forces that destroyed whatever stability both groups formerly enjoyed. Politicians, pundits, and the powerful show no interest in probing those mysteries. They simply ignore them and continue to pay obeisance to their corporate supporters.

Rather than shedding light, JD Vance’s book (and the subsequent film) help to obfuscate and deflect from a catastrophe that shattered the lives of millions. Vance only serves to reinforce the class arrogance that forecloses solidarity with those suffering under the weight of capitalist oppression.

Likewise, Vance and his ilk are unhelpful in revealing the appeal of Trump in many of these former Democratic Party strongholds. They see no connection between the signs of desperation and hopelessness and the turn to an outlier, even an outlier as ridiculous as Donald Trump. Those harmed search in vain for a palliative within the empty two-party pantry. Even a snakeskin-oil salesman is appealing when no one else offers help.

Political operatives, the media, and think tanks absurdly assume that the casualties of deindustrialization, urban neglect, and austerity-- both Black and white-- have no other place to go, that they live with a vivid memory of and unshakeable loyalty to the Democratic Party of the New Deal and the Great Society. That’s not the Democratic Party of today. And that’s not a promising bet for the future.

If the celebration of Biden’s victory is founded upon a return to some mythical idea of normalcy, it will surely be short-lived. With nearly one in eight US citizens experiencing hunger over the Thanksgiving weekend, with jobless claims increasing and at levels unseen even in the 2007-2009 crisis, with 21% of small businesses closed, ‘normal’ is not in sight.

What is in sight is nearly six million people facing eviction in January and another 12 million renters in arrears (Census Bureau).

A pathetic, condescending rags-to-riches tale is of no solace to those betrayed by profit-obsessed capitalists.

Greg Godels

Friday, November 20, 2020

Tariff Follies

To its credit, the United Steelworkers union (USW) has lifted the living standards and working conditions of millions of workers. Birthed from the militant 1930s Steel Workers Organizing Committee and midwifed by hundreds of Communist and socialist organizers, the USW became a strong advocate of industrial unionism and one of the more progressive forces in US political life. 

But with the Cold War and the purging or repression of its most militant members, the USW abandoned the class-confrontation approach of its early years for a partnership with capital. In place of exercising the strength and power of a united membership, the union leadership chose a partnership approach, negotiating contracts based upon the notion that the worker and the boss had a common interest.

In the contest of the early Cold war, capital accepted some concessions to labor to guarantee US labor’s loyalty to US foreign policy objectives. In return for US labor leaders policing domestic radicalism in the workplace and for international collaboration in fighting Communism, the bosses tacitly agreed to accept wage and benefit growth commensurate with rising productivity. 

With the onset of the economic crisis in the 1970s and with the ruling class turning toward market fundamentalism, capital reneged on its part of the partnership, attacking labor with vengeance. The implicit partnership was dissolved by one side.

Unfortunately, the other side-- organized labor (in this case, the USW)-- clung to the partnership. Despite restructuring, downsizing, plant closures, and concession demands, the USW stood by the philosophy of cooperation, what their critics called “class collaboration.” 

Since we can remember, one expression of this affinity with corporate bosses has taken the form of seeking protection from foreign competitors. From inviting workers to sledgehammer Toyotas to advocating for steel tariffs, the USW leadership has maintained that what is good for steel corporations doing business in the USA is good for USW members

In recent years, the protectionist demand was at odds with the political mainstream, including the union’s putative ally, the Democratic Party. Since the rise of Thatcher/Carter/Reagan/Clintonism, unfettered free markets have been an ideological fixation of all the bourgeois parties and their policy makers, placing tariffs and other protectionist policies beyond the pale. 

But in 2016, the USW leadership found their savior. Donald Trump rudely arrived to occupy the White House. 

Moreover, he kept his promise in 2018 to impose restrictive tariffs on all the imported steel coming into the United States. Unfortunately for the USW and their bet on protectionism, the Trump tariffs failed to meet their expectations. As The Wall Street Journal reports: “With the expanded production, about 6,000 jobs were added to the U.S. steel industry’s workforce after tariffs started in 2018, according to the Census Bureau. By the end of 2019, though, those gains evaporated as steel demand and prices sank.” [my emphasis]

Authors Bob Tita and William Mauldin (Tariffs Didn’t Fuel Revival for American Steel, WSJ, 10-28-2020) add that: “Higher prices [initially] also made steel more expensive for manufacturers that buy it, leading to the loss of about 75,000 U.S. manufacturing jobs, according to a study released late last year by the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.”

In addition, foreign steel makers secured punitive export tariffs in retaliation, further hurting domestic US manufacturing.

The lack of growth in demand for steel in the USA has forced domestic producers to seek exports of steel to markets outside the USA in search of profits, the same strategy practiced by the "foreign" competition. 

A major component of Trump's 2016 victorious campaign message which helped him secure votes in the Rust Belt was his promise of major investment to rebuild infrastructure and create jobs. It never got off the ground because it was based on the false notion that capitalists will invest in the public good. Things like fixing public schools, hospitals, water systems, pollution control, and building mass transit systems simply don't offer returns to investors even though they will provide for the public good, boost steel production, and create tens of thousands of steelworker jobs. 

 Instead, Trump, true to his real, big-business agenda, pushed a major tax cut that actually reduced the revenue available for any public investment. Rather than drain the swamp, Trump drained the public coffers and offered the syrup of "public private partnerships" that were supposed to entice capitalists to invest. They never did. 

Not to be outdone, The Pittsburgh Post Gazette reports that the Republican-controlled legislature of Pennsylvania has now taken this phony concept to its practical conclusion which will result in the proposed tolling of many bridges in Pennsylvania as a way of making the "partnership" work to increase state revenues. Rather than tax the wealth of billionaires and corporations to obtain necessary revenues to rebuild in the public interest, we instead have tax cuts for the rich and privatization of necessary networks and services. 

Understandably, the US-based steel industry sought to garner greater market share through the tariff program. However, the USW leadership failed to acknowledge one of the more basic laws of capitalism: with tariff-induced prices soaring and foreign competition locked out, domestic capitalist enterprises were incentivized to engage in an orgy of expansion and production. As a result of this classic overproduction-induced crisis, prices collapsed and the industry withdrew, with layoffs and closed facilities. Prices for hot-rolled coiled sheet steel increased by nearly half to $920 a ton after the tariffs were imposed, but are now below their pre-tariff level. 

The advocates of tariffs as a remedy for layoffs and stagnant or declining wages and benefits forget that capitalism runs on profits and not sharing the wealth. The Communist, socialist, and other militant trade unionists who founded the union understood this truth. They sought a union that would fight the corporations for a greater portion of those profits for the workers. 

Today’s leadership of the USW mistakenly believes that workers will benefit if “our'' corporations are favored over “theirs.” They fantasize a world where foreigners are rapacious cheaters and US producers are inspired by the greater good. “Theirs” are driven by ruthless competition, while “ours” are committed to fairness and partnership. Lurking beneath the rhetoric is a not-too-subtle national chauvinism.

Surely, the experience with the Trump tariffs reveals that the protectionist approach not only slanders foreigners, but fails to protect domestic production, jobs, and compensation. Domestic producers, like their foreign counterparts, are ruled by the laws of motion of the capitalist system. Bust follows boom, whether it applies to a protected national market or a global unfettered market. 

The union's reliance on this cooperative approach with the steel corporations defangs it for the necessary independent political action program that could unite the membership and the general public in a fight for jobs and investment in decaying infrastructure. All research shows that this is a real path forward to create steel demand and union jobs. It's plain to see and many studies document that America's infrastructure is in horrible shape. Tariffs have not increased domestic demand for steel. The only way to increase domestic steel production is through a massive reinvestment program that not only rebuilds the decaying American infrastructure in the public interest but creates steelworker jobs.

Rather than casting their fate with their privately owned corporate rivals for the wealth created by the workers, unions should fight those rivals for a greater share. If they want to guarantee jobs, security, and compensation, they should struggle to eliminate the private corporations altogether. A real fighting union would be for public ownership of the steel industry.

Greg Godels

Ed Grystar

Wednesday, November 11, 2020

L’Affaire Greenwald

Alan: And you’re still working for Beaverbrook [Lord Beaverbrook, the most influential media owner of his time]?

Peter: Well, yes, I’m still working for the Beaver, if work’s the right word; don’t get me wrong, Alan-- I haven’t changed, working on the paper hasn’t really altered my outlook… Just because my name’s at the top of the column you mustn’t think that I had any connection with it… I’m working on the novel, you know. One day that novel’s going to come out and blast the lid off the whole filthy business-- name the names, show up Fleet Street [once the center of UK newspaper publishing] for what it really is… Of course if you are going to write a really accurate novel, you’ve got to join the people you are writing about… I am going through a sort of research period at the moment. There are about ten of us on the paper-- young, progressive liberal people who don’t believe a word of what we are writing… Alan Bennett, Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, Dudley Moore, Beyond the Fringe, 1961

By any measure, Glenn Greenwald is an important journalist. He has won numerous awards, published best sellers, and enjoys a large following, particularly for someone taking unconventional positions.

Greenwald is a classic, but anachronistic Bill of Rights liberal, of the kind that embraced the famous saying falsely attributed to Voltaire: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” While he embraces no particular ideology, partisan advocacy, or party affiliation, he has made a career as an attorney defending unpopular positions. That is, he is not afraid to swim against the tide.

He has been more than an annoyance to the government and powerful interests in the US, exposing the vast spying apparatus of the US security services, supporting whistleblowers, and pressing charges of hypocrisy against “liberal” pundits. Ironically, his call for fairness and consistency in journalistic practices has been met by hostility, even threats from many self-proclaimed liberals.

In more favorable times, Greenwald’s liberal idealism would be met with applause and support by his cohorts. His high school civics-like acclaim for freedom of the press, the right to free speech, and journalistic independence and fairness would earn him a warm embrace from one and all.

But these are not favorable times. The collapse of confidence in US institutions has produced a tidal wave of cynicism. The ascendency of opportunistic politicians, the ever-expanding influence of cash, and the consequent, persistent rightward drift of the political center has fostered dissatisfaction, bitterness, and anger.

The bankruptcy of the two-party system has further coarsened the political landscape, forcing choices between party hacks, corporate toadies and celebrity vulgarians. Thus, the debate over substance remains in a narrow range, while the hyperactive, sensationalist media inject rumor, hearsay, special pleading, conspiracy, and treachery into an already overheated electoral discourse.

Greenwald places his naive, but idealistic values of objective, independent, fair-minded journalism into this nasty cauldron of blind partisanship and hypocrisy.

So it comes as no surprise that his principles became entangled in this electoral season of back stabbing, baseless charge and hysterical countercharge, personal abuse, and fabulism.

Recent accounts-- notably first aired by the right-wing New York Post-- maintain that Hunter Biden, the son of Democratic candidate Joe Biden, was deeply involved in influence-peddling. The Post bases these allegations on e-mails from computers claimed to be left behind by Biden the younger. Claims that Hunter Biden traded on his dad’s position for personal gain and influence are not new. However, this revelation goes a step further, supposedly linking Hunter Biden’s corruption to his father.

Greenwald did not simply defend this story, though he went to some lengths poking holes in the weak defenses offered to the charges of corruption lodged against the Bidens. Instead, as he has done in the past, he scalded the media outlets that refused to cover this story-- investigate it, corroborate it, or disprove it. He charged self-censorship in support of Biden’s candidacy.

But the media outlet that he co-founded, The Intercept, refused to run Greenwald’s article about journalistic opportunism without editorial changes favorable to the Biden campaign. So, imbued with the spirit of Enlightenment liberalism, he again charged censorship and resigned from The Intercept.

Greenwald’s indignation, while admirable in many respects, betrays a substantial measure of credulity. One would think that his encounters with liberal fecklessness would, by now, temper his own self-righteousness.

Not so admirable has been the response of many of his colleagues, especially those on the “respectable, responsible” left.

Instead of rushing to his side in defense of free speech, freedom of the press, independence, etc., much of the soft-left-- those tied to the Democratic Party as the sole agent for change-- vociferously attacked Greenwald.

A new “antifascist” alliance, determined to defeat the bloviating, narcissistic creature birthed by the estrangement of the two parties from the people, has united everyone from the Bush-era torturers and war mongers, through the NSA spymasters, to the RussiaGaters and China-baiters. They, too, have aligned behind Biden at all costs, including at the expense of journalistic ethics and the truth.

Writers like Alan Macleod and Matt Taibbi have documented the shameful response of Greenwald’s former associates and allies.

As with Snowden, Assange, Manning, and other brave souls elevating truth above expediency, Greenwald risks official ostracization. But more tragically, the media warriors who brandish the Bill of Rights at every opportunity fail, again and again, to rise to its defense. They talk the game of fundamental human rights, but when their interests get in the way, they balk at their supposed universal application. That’s a nice way of saying that they are hypocrites.

If the right to a free press, the right to free speech is to mean anything, it must apply even when its content is controversial, even unpopular. That’s what “universal rights” mean. Without universality, “rights” are reduced to privileges, to be exercised when permitted. But the corporate monopoly of the press and other media have made the modern journalist a courtier for wealth and power. They remain silent when the many brave outliers like Phil Donohue, the Dixie Chicks, Seymour Hersh, or now Glenn Greenwald, are muzzled.

Greg Godels