Saturday, February 27, 2010

BAGEL CAPITALISM

The Theory of Capitalist Development

A long time ago Karl Marx theorized that in capitalist societies the class of people that own and control the means of production-the machines, the factories, the workers-constituted an economic ruling class. The only thing that workers owned was their ability to do work. The workers would sell their ability to do work for a wage. The capitalists would hire workers, work them hard, and sell the goods and services produced. The capitalists would sell the products and/or services for more than the workers would get paid. They would keep the difference and that is where profit came from.

Over time, Marx said, the number of capitalists would get smaller and smaller and what they owned and controlled would get bigger and bigger. Marx’s predictions pretty much have come to pass with a few hundred corporations and banks controlling about one-third of all that is produced on the face of the globe.

The Political Economy of the Bagel

Now I am one of those people who think Marx had a pretty good analysis of how capitalism works but even I recognize that his theory did not adequately come to grips with the political economy of the bagel. The bagel originally was a round roll with a hole in the middle that began to get hard as soon as it came out of the oven. Water bagels, the authentic bagels, were plain, hard, and flat when cut so that cream cheese could be spread evenly or in chunks over their surface. Also, bagels could just as easily be used to throw at targets during a popular uprising as it could be used to stifle hunger.

Bagels used to be produced in small Jewish bakeries that dotted neighborhoods in Eastern and Midwestern cities. Along with the generic food/weapon, the plain bagel, more adventurous Jewish bakers began to experiment with the production of garlic bagels, onion bagels, and poppy seed bagels. Bagel bakers were highly skilled craft workers, probably descendents of the powerful medieval bagel guilds of Central Europe.

In sum, the introduction of the bagel in Jewish communities provided for the nutritional needs of the community, a means of defense and deterrence against aggression from outside the community, and over time a source of cultural identity. As Jews migrated throughout the United States, they maintained an identification-even if not articulated-with the bagel.

The Rise of Monopoly Capitalism and the Production of the Bagel

Although followers of Marx have carefully analyzed the accumulation of capital on a national and global scale and have linked the concentration of economic power with control of the modern state, hardly ever did they notice the transformation that was going on right under their noses concerning the political economy of the bagel.

The small bagel bakeries of old were closing their doors. Many people rejecting their heritage began to eat croissants and muffins for breakfast instead of bagels. And as the traditional consumers of bagels left the working class and joined the bourgeoisie, they no longer wished to stockpile old bagels as weapons in the class struggle.

These events led some to predict the demise of the bagel as we had known it. But then the economic ruling class, suffering from declining rates of profit, discovered the bagel and began to reconstitute the global capitalist system. First, some food processing companies started selling packages of frozen bagels-small, tasteless, harmless little bagels. Then, new bagel bakeries/sandwich shops began to open in urban centers. These spread like wildfire around the country. Pretty soon the word “bagel” was on everyone’s lips.

Then newer bakery shops, part of global conglomerates, would come to town, under price their product, and force out their competitors-both bakeries and coffee and sandwich restaurants. The bagels they produced and sold were big, puffy, and mushy inside, and had bizarre flavors such as chocolate, cinnamon, or basil. Everybody was ordering a bagel with a “schmear” (heretofore a technical term). Perhaps most importantly these bagels would be as powerful a weapon as a pillow.

The process of production of bagels had changed as well. No longer were the bagel bakers craftsmen and women who carefully crafted their products with pride. Now bagels were partially assembled in huge bagel factories and shipped, uncooked, to the hundreds of thousands of stores in the chain to be baked and sold to the untutored and the young.

Today the bagel industry is a multi-billion dollar a year industry, dominated by a handful of bagel monopolies. Even the traditional doughnut conglomerates are selling their own bagels in thousands of stores.

When Marx wrote Das Kapital in the 1860s, he could not have predicted the rise of bagel capitalism. He would not have guessed that the bagel trust would increasingly control global capitalism transforming the bagel from a working class nutrient to a yuppy affectation and from a weapon of potential mass destruction to a coffee table adornment. In fact, if he had eaten a chocolate bagel, he might have thrown up.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

HOW DOES THE RULING CLASS RULE?

Harry Targ

The Substructure

In an effort to teach and reflect more systematically about class rule in the United States, I have used an interesting book by Robert Perrucci and Earl Wysong, The New Class Society. It describes the transformation of the class system over the last thirty years from one in which there was a small ruling class, a significantly-sized “middle class,” and a lesser population of the poor and working classes.

According to these sociologists the diamond-shaped distribution of wealth, income, and power that existed during the “golden years” of U.S. capitalist hegemony after World War II began to change in the 1970s. Today, in the “new class society” the top one percent of income, wealth, and power holders, in conjunction with the remainder of the top twenty percent of managers, professionals and support staff of the super class, dominate at the expense of the bottom eighty percent of the population.

Using older language, ownership and control of the means of production and the relationships that exist between the owners and those who work constitute the “substructure” of the capitalist system. But what remains a puzzle is “how does the ruling class rule?”

The Superstructure

Perrucci and Wysong suggest some answers that can serve as a basis for others to analyze and refine. They suggest four critical institutions, what I might call the “superstructure,” which ensure the maintenance of class rule. These are the political system, the education industry, the information industry, and the culture industry. Each in its own way is designed to shape the consciousness the new working class, the bottom eighty percent, has of itself and its place in the world of economics, politics, and society.

The political system constitutes the public arena where choices get made about public policy. It remains relevant to all actors in the society, from those who are at the top of the class system to the vast majority of the population constituting the new working class. However, since wealth most often can be translated into power, political institutions in usual times are used to serve the interests of the ruling class. Wealth is used to maintain power through financing elections, lobbying decision-makers, and funding so-called “think tanks” to give “expert” advice to the rulers.

Sometimes combined efforts of trade associations and corporations martial national campaigns to pressure government to shift the direction of public policy away from the popular classes to the rulers.

In an enlightening book by Elizabeth Fones-Wolff, Selling Free Enterprise, the author describes a continuing struggle in the 1940s and 1950s by the National Association of Manufacturers, the Chamber of Commerce, and like minded groups to convince the American people that individualism, private enterprise, and union-busting were more in their interests than expanding government programs, communities assuming more responsibility for social well-being, and building workers associations as sources of strength and protection from corporate elites.

In sum, political institutions are portrayed as the venue by which “the people decide,” when in fact usually their interests are not adequately represented.

The education industry, that is K through 12, college and university, and professional school education provides the tools for credentialing some young people and not others. Usually the highest educational achievement is earned by those who come from privileged class families. Systems of “tracking,” which are supposed to shape education to the talents and needs of individual students are used to promote and encourage those who come from the wealthy and to channel in other directions the children of the working class. “Streaming” policies are designed to encourage the creativity and interests of the children of wealth. In sum, the education system, which does enlighten, inform and train, also serves as a gatekeeper to reward and encourage those from the privileged classes and sustain and reproduce the new working class.

Perhaps the most vital function the education system serves is to “socialize” the young to their proper political roles in adulthood. Curricula promote the idea among children of the wealthy that they are creative, they can and should serve the public, and that their obligation is to be engaged citizens. Children of the new working class are taught to be obedient, respect authority and expertise, and participate in politics only as a voter.

The information industry provides our lens on the world. As communications theorists have long suggested, most of people’s information and experience of the world is indirect and mediated by electronic and print media.

The information we consume is packaged in “media frames.” Since most of the information we receive comes from fewer than ten mega-media corporations, they are shaping the understanding of the world of the new working class. Why making war is necessary, how the United States must continue to support Wall Street during this economic crisis, and the diabolical reasons why some countries, such as Cuba or Venezuela, criticize the United States are examples of most people’s experience of these issues. Media framing includes what stories are left out as well as how the ones communicated are covered.

Finally, the culture industry provides entertainment or activity for the non-working hours of most people. Television, movies, music, sporting activities are presented to people by the same handful of mega-corporations that dominate the information industry. Increasingly the products of these two industries merge so that “news” and “entertainment” become one. This is true for sex, violence, and mayhem reported as news and the fake news as reported by the comedians.

Perhaps most important to the culture industry is its portrait of presumed human experience. This experience highlights the super-natural, the futuristic, or the “reality” of swallowing insects and brutally competing with others for prize money or attractive sexual objects. When the culture industry addresses contemporary experience, for example in situation comedies and crime shows, there are no workers present, African-Americans are hoodlums or victims, women are helpless, and authority figures such as the police are the friends of the people rather than employees of the state. Perrucci and Wysong refer to the primary role of the culture industry as “pacification.”

The points raised in this essay do not break any new theoretical ground. But, in my view, clearly identifying critical elements of the “substructure” and the “superstructure,” can provide a roadmap for progressives to plan their future political agendas. Of course, a fundamental change in the mode of production, capitalism, is basic. But in the interim, organizing around the political system, and the education, information, and culture industries makes sense.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

FRAMING EVAN BAYH

Harry Targ

On February 15, 2010, the sky began to fall, at least according to media pundits. Incumbent Senator Evan Bayh announced that he was not running for a third term as senator from Indiana.

The press scurried to construct a frame on the story that would be compatible with corporate spin. The Democratic Party is doomed. No alternative candidate could possibly surface in this red state to maintain the Democratic Party edge in the Senate. The Bayh announcement, the stories said, followed on a flood of other announcements by Democrats. Bayh was just the latest of the entire class of incumbent Democrats who were fleeing the sinking ship.

Why did the Senator from Indiana choose to retire even though he had at least a ten-point lead on any possible Republican opponent and a multi-million dollar war chest for his campaign? Well, Bayh said he had had enough of partisanship, polarization, and the broken system called Congress. And he, the good centrist, had been unable to lead the ne’er do well partisans to the compromise table.

And, the media suggested, the sainted Democrat resigned out of frustration because the “left” in the Democratic Party could not be tamed. The sub-text in the news suggested that once again the system is coming crashing down because of those dogmatic politicians who support real health care reform, a jobs bill that would create jobs, finance reform with teeth, and a substantial reduction in wasteful spending justified by reckless war. When will they ever learn.

The real story might be a bit different.

Democrats in the state of Indiana now will have a chance to select a candidate who can represent the interests of the people rather than the healthcare industry. The source of the Congressional gridlock has been the Republicans who have opposed every piece of legislation and every nominee to fill an administrative position recommended by the Democrats and the White House. And, the efforts to stifle governance by the Republicans have been aided and abetted by a handful of centrist Democrats such as Evan Bayh who oppose real health care reform and labor rights.

Bayh’s voting record earned him an Americans for Democratic Action rating of 70, which is fairly liberal (his fellow Hoosier Senator Richard Lugar has a rating of 25). But Bayh’s senatorial career is marked by extreme fluctuations from one congressional session to another. As Ezra Klein reported last April:

“In the 109th Congress, Bayh's voting pattern suddenly develops an uncharacteristic liberalism. He becomes the 19th most conservative member, with a record more liberal than, among others, Joe Biden. As context, these were also the years when Bayh was preparing for the presidential run that he eventually aborted.

In the 110th Congress, however, that flash of liberalism gives way to a career-high conservatism: He actually displaces Nelson as the Caucus's most conservative member.”

In addition to being an on-again off-again liberal and a reigning centrist today, Senator Bayh served as chairman of the Democratic Leadership Council from 2001 to 2005, and a member of the Senate Centrist Coalition and other centrist sounding legislative bodies. He was also a member of the Board of Directors of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Perhaps most important, his wife, Susan Bayh, has earned over $250,000 in stock options for serving on the board of the giant health insurance company Wellpoint. Though the Senator has denied being influenced by his wife’s corporate ties, he has expressed his preference for maintaining the primacy of the marketplace for health care.

“My own preference would be — and you may have found common ground here this morning on Easter, which is appropriate — deal with the inefficiencies, figure out a way to make the private marketplace accomplish our public good, only have the government role as a backstop, as a last resort, if the private sector has just failed to meet the challenge.” (Evan Bayh on Fox, Sunday, April 12, 2009)

Hoosier Democrats need to do what all progressive Democrats need do over the next election period. Identify progressive candidates who will address and commit themselves to the 2008 Obama campaign agenda (whether Obama supports it or not). That means meaningful health care reform, support for the Employee Free Choice Act, real climate change legislation, and a jobs package that will put millions of Americans back to work. In Indiana a candidate standing on that record would be a significant improvement over Evan Bayh.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

HOW DO WE MAKE CLASS ANALYSIS RELEVANT TO OUR ORGANIZING?

Harry Targ

I am using a text by Robert Perrucci and Earl Wysong called The New Class Society: Goodbye American Dream? (Rowman and Littlefield, 2008) in a course called “The Politics of Capital and Labor.” The authors review and synthesize a variety of definitions of class from political theory and sociology. Their answer to the question of what is class draws upon Marxian notions of relations of production, Max Weber’s ideas about persons in various organizational positions, and the more conventional view of class as relating to the distribution of income, wealth, and power.

Using data reflecting their synthetic definition of class, the authors conclude that the portrait of a U.S. class system consisting of a small ruling class, a large “middle class,” and a small percentage of economically and politically marginalized people is no longer an accurate way to describe society. The class system of the days of relative prosperity from the 1940s until the late 1960s, which looked like a diamond with a broad middle, has become like a class system looking like a “double diamond.”

In this new class society, the first diamond, the top one, consists of the “privileged class” composed of a “super-class,” “credentialed class managers,” and “professionals.” All together these representatives of privilege constitute about twenty percent of the population. All the others constitute a “new working class,” some living in relative comfort but most engaged in wage labor, modest self-employment, or part-time work. This is the second diamond representing eighty percent of the population.

Students in my course have been debating some of the formulations but certain elements of the text have been uniformly accepted by them. First, everyone seems to accept the double-diamond metaphor as a way of conceptualizing the distribution of wealth, income, and power. Those in the top diamond representing privilege are relatively assured that their sources of income and wealth are permanent. Their sustenance and family stability are assured while the other eighty percent, the model suggests, live economically marginal existences and in conditions of precariousness.

My students raise no objections about what Perrucci and Wysong regard as broadly accepted features of this new class system.

First, since the 1970s, there has been increasing class polarization. Gaps in distributions of wealth and income have grown. Real wages of workers have stagnated since the 1970s. In addition, workplace benefits have declined, including pensions. Permanent jobs have been replaced by contingent labor. The percentage of unionization of the work force has declined by two-thirds. The authors cite a recent study that estimates that only one-fourth of jobs today are “good jobs”, paying at least $16 an hour. And, on the other hand, the share of income and wealth accumulated by the top one-percent or ten percent or twenty percent, the entire privileged class, has risen. The rich have gotten richer while the poor poorer.

Second, since the 1980s, workers and their families have experienced downward mobility, that is their social and economic position has declined. This has occurred because stable, well paying jobs have disappeared due to outsourcing, capital flight, and deindustrialization. By any number of measures, the “American Dream” of helping one’s children to move up the status ladder has been reversed.

Third, the increasing accumulation of wealth and power through tax cuts, deregulation of financialization, and declining government support for public services have encouraged the privileged to embark on class secession. Increasingly, the authors suggest, the privileged class withdraws its support for public institutions as it funds its own private schools, libraries, recreational facilities, and additional social services. The rich build gated communities, electrify their fences, hire private guards to protect themselves and create private institutions to replace public ones.

The authors refer to Robert Reich’s “secession of the successful” which they say “combines traditional forms of physical and social separation and increasing numbers of privately provided services with the ideology of neoliberalism, an idea system of free market fundamentalism that encourages and legitimates hostility to public institutions.” They conclude that “class secession today involves both a separatist social identity and a conscious secessionistic mentality.”

The findings reported in The New Class Society about class in America are profound. Long-term trends in the United States since the 1970s have led to growing wealth and power at one pole and increasing immiseration at the other pole. The idea of a broad middle class is further away from reality than ever. For the vast majority of Americans economic security is declining. And, most importantly, the privileged class, which has built its wealth and power on the growing immiseration of the new working class is physically, financially, and ideologically seceding from the system that historically claimed to provide at least some institutional support for enrichment of the citizenry at large. The authors also present data to show how the brutality of the new class society particularly impacts on people of color, women, immigrants, and other traditionally marginalized people.

While the task of my course is to study the underlying fundamental features of American society, particularly those bearing on political economy, the implications of this analysis for practical political work seem obvious. First, progressives need to “make class analysis relevant to our organizing.” This includes educating ourselves and those we work with about the ways in which society is divided into classes based upon how people are related to the workplace, the status and power of workers in different organizational positions, the distribution of wealth and income in society and the history of class in America. Our educational work must show how class relates to race, gender and the environment. In the end we must construct a compelling vision for the abolition of our class divided society.

Second, progressives must articulate in every political setting those experiences of class that vast majorities of the people share. Years ago Harry Braverman, in Labor and Monopoly Capital demonstrated that work was being transformed by the capitalist system; that patterns of control of the minds and actions of workers were being increasingly controlled by a deepening division of labor, and that the work process, whether white collar or blue collar, service or manufacturing, was being homogenized. He and others called this process of work transformation, “proletarianization.” This historic development argues for a political strategy that prioritizes education about the growing commonality of work experience of those in the bottom eighty percent of the work force.

Third, progressives must articulate programs of education and action that seek to deepen understanding of barriers to solidarity resulting from race, gender, and even political ideology. Progressives must be more mindful of the different experiences of class in America, such as the historic role of slavery and immigrant labor, super-exploitation of African Americans and women, and ethnic discrimination. The articulation of the different experiences of class through race and gender should be used to broaden understanding of how those differences were used to increase class exploitation of all those in the majority.

Fourth, progressives should began to analyze the ways in which many of the new right wing “tea party” activists share a common experience of class. Education and advocacy must more clearly be based upon an understanding of the common interests privileged class Republicans and Democrats share and the reality of interests shared by the new working class majority.

In the end there is no substitute for building what activists used to call “class consciousness.” The realities of class exploitation, as Perrucci and Wysong suggest, seem more obvious than ever. They just need to become a central element of our political discourse.