Saturday, November 17, 2012

SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES: THE POLITICAL ECONOMY OF CAPITALISM


Harry Targ

The War On Women has many dimensions—social, cultural, psychological—but in many ways women’s issues are class issues. That makes the war on women a class war, among other things. (Richard Eskow, Campaign for America’s Future Blog, November 16, 2012)
I was planning my latest blog entry when I saw an essay by Richard Eskow entitled “The War on Women is a Class War.” Coincidentally the subject of the political consequences of class, race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual preference was precisely the subject I wished to address.
Eskow presented compelling data to show that as income levels rise the percentage of women in the higher categories declines, cuts in anti-poverty programs disproportionately affect women, on a worldwide basis austerity measures disproportionately hurt women, cuts in Social Security and Medicare in the U.S. would punish women more than men, and finally reductions in taxes and growing inequality in wealth and income over the last decade have disproportionately benefited men over women.
As I was planning my essay I was thinking about the central features of the capitalist mode of production that has dominated most of the world since the sixteenth century and how, politically, it has made maximum use of differences to protect its fundamental features.
First, capitalism is a system based on the private ownership of the means of production. Workers are paid to come to work to produce goods that are sold by capitalists in the marketplace. The workers are paid a wage that is less than the value of the products that are sold in the market. The difference between the market price of the products and workers’ wages is where profits come from. Marx used the term “exploitation” to refer to that system of production in which the workers produced value based upon their time and energy and the capitalists sold the products of their labor above the cost of labor.
Second, capitalism is a system that exists in history. Over the years and centuries capitalist enterprises grew and grew. Small enterprises consolidated. Huge ones emerged. When demand for one kind of product declined others were produced. When markets in one geographic area declined, capitalists moved elsewhere. When the demand for goods declined, capitalists invested in services.
There has always been conflict over how much workers were to be paid and ultimately who would control the work process, the technology, and the profit. Marx called this “class struggle.” Because of unequal political power there was a tendency for wages to decline except when workers joined together and fought for the improvement of their lives. Creating divisions among male and female workers and workers of different races and ethnic backgrounds often weakened workers’ struggles to achieve economic justice.
Capitalism regularly endured crises as demand for products and places to invest profits declined and profits became so large that capitalists could not figure out how to invest them to gain more profit. In our own day, capitalists shifted dramatically from producing goods and services to financial speculation and promoted political institutions to serve the needs of financialization. And politics entered the picture when the largest capitalists more or less successfully shaped political institutions to maximize their interests.
Libraries of books describe the historical development of capitalism and debate about how the system works and who benefits from it. However, what remains basic to understanding capitalism as an economic system is that it creates workers who dig the coal, harvest the crops, clean the hotel rooms, teach the kids, and do everything else to keep the system going. In a capitalist system almost everybody is a worker and, as the system requires ever-expanding profits, the system strives to reduce the differences among the kinds of work that people do to basic units of physical and mental labor. Marx called this “proletarianization.”
A central feature of the “political” economy of capitalism is the drive to divide workers and to use the political process to reduce workers’ realization that they have fundamentally shared experiences; that is they all are in one way or another “exploited.” A signature feature of capitalist political systems is their effort to create and exacerbate differences; differences by race, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, and spiritual identities. The old slogan puts this best: “divide and conquer.”
So today as progressives reflect on the recent election and the future, it is important to get beyond narratives that in the main emphasize difference. Eskow’s essay concerning the class war on women serves as a useful reminder that what divides us could also unite us in a common struggle.
In the months ahead we should rediscover the ways in which we share experiences as workers in a capitalist system, at the same time as we recognize different experiences based on race, gender, sexual preference, and ethnicity.
One of the intriguing ideas embedded in the notion of  “21st century socialism,” is that in a capitalist system workers are exploited in different ways and suffer different degrees of pain but the process of exploitation has a common structure and purpose. And after long years of reflection and political practice, and many false starts, we can now integrate our awareness and respect for difference into our conceptualization of what in human experience unites us.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

ANOTHER ELECTION ASSESSMENT


Harry Targ
The commentaries on the 2012 presidential election are rolling in. Over the next several days and weeks progressives will be discussing the meaning of the 2012 elections for “Where do we go from here?” The desperate need is for us to resume rebuilding America and planting the seeds for a vision of “21st century Socialism.”
So for now here is a list of some of the issues progressives and radicals should begin to discuss all across the nation.
First, MSNBC commentator Chuck Todd emphasized from the outset of election night commentary that the demographic changes in American society are and will continue to transform politics and the prospects for change. By 2050, a National Journal report predicted “minorities”--that is Black and Brown people-- will constitute a majority of the population of the country. In the presidential election just completed 24 percent of the voters were African Americans and Latinos. Also youth as a proportion of these populations is growing. Finally, women are a segment of the voting age population that is growing and motivated in part by a rejection of political ideologies and theologies that prohibit their control of their own bodies.
Second, in addition to race and gender, the 2012 election results point out emphatically that class matters. There is no question that the labor movement, including public employees, and grassroots workers’ organizations revitalized after 2010 in the industrial heartland, was instrumental in facilitating a Democratic “ground game” in states like Ohio, Wisconsin, and even Indiana. Working people are fired up, angry, and possibly ready to become a “class for itself.” And, in those states where labor made a difference, activists readily articulated connections between workers’ interests and interests of women and people of color.
Third, big money gives enormous advantage to the one percent as they select and promote candidates and issues. Big money also facilitates voter suppression and it
pressures the mass media to give unwarranted attention to their claims about the society. All the mainstream media, including the more liberal MSNBC, exaggerated the Romney debate bounce, claims about changing momentum, the closeness of the elections, claims derived from multiple and endless polls, and a hyped cognitive airspace about an alleged appeal that Romney/Ryan had. While much of the election hype was driven by the competition for viewers, there is no doubt that the Koch brothers, the Bradley Foundation, and the millionaire super pacs were able to project their vision well beyond the proportion of those in the society who endorse it.
Even though the power of money should not be dismissed, this election shows once again, the power of the people. The unsung heroes and heroines were the millions of people who stood for hours to vote in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, Wisconsin, California, New York, New Jersey and all around the country despite the best efforts of state governments and Tea Party groups to discourage voting.
It would be a great mistake in the future to demean voting, even voting for one of the two major parties. It remains the symbolic hallmark of real democracy. As articulate spokespersons, such as Nina Turner, Ohio State Senator, and Georgia Congressman John Lewis eloquently expressed it, people put their bodies and lives on the line to secure the right to vote. That must never be ignored. What progressives need to work for is a society where that vote can be clearly cast for those who support the people’s interests.
Fourth, building a movement all around the country matters. In 2008, the Democratic Party crafted a 50-state strategy. Resources were channeled into campaigns in states and communities that heretofore had only small progressive movements. But in 2008 that changed and in unlikely places such as Tippecanoe County in North Central Indiana, an overwhelmingly red county, Barack Obama carried the area and Indiana went blue. The same experience occurred elsewhere in states like North Carolina. After 2008, such communities were written off because they were not communities in “swing states.”
Subsequent to 2008, activists in the industrial heartland, some of the western states, and the south were seen as beyond mobilization again. In some places, such as Central Indiana, Eastern North Carolina, and even Ohio, and Wisconsin, those who had mobilized in 2008 remained so despite being written off by the Democratic National Committee (and many progressive groups). The 50-state strategy had the potential for developing into a nationwide social movement. After 2008, the Democratic Party moved away from this approach and some of the Left returned to focusing on progressive politics on the coasts.  In the months ahead, progressive forces need to reexamine the history of social change in America, conceptualizing movement possibilities everywhere, while recognizing the particularities of history, culture, politics, and organizational potentials in different geographic locales.
Finally, progressives need to examine political outcomes in states and communities. Preliminary data indicate that while progressive constituencies rose up angry against reactionary candidates in various state and local races as well as national campaigns, the most rightwing sectors of the one percent control state governments in almost half of the 50 states ( where Republicans control both legislative assemblies). And it is these state governments since 2010 which have imposed right-to-work legislation, attacked collective bargaining for public employees, defunded Planned Parenthood, built private schools and voucher programs that will destroy public schools as we have known them, resolved to impose anti-science subject matter in school curricula, and have systematically ignored environmental hazards. The national government moved “blue” in 2012 while it remains blood “red” in many states.
Progressives need to address many, many more issues in the coming months: the “fiscal cliff,” military spending, drone warfare, climate change, and expanding the health care system for example. The key point is to begin to change now. As one wonderful graphic urged on Facebook election day” “Vote Today, Organize Tomorrow.”

 

Friday, November 2, 2012

THE MORAL DEGRADATION OF A POLITICAL SYSTEM


Harry Targ

We live in a country in which wealth and power is grotesquely unequal and getting more so. In such an historical context, the political system functions in two ways. First, and foremost, the political system is designed to create myths, rituals, ideologies, and routinized forms of behavior to reinforce and protect the inequalities that are deeply embedded in the society. This function is manifested in patriotic rituals, appeals to American exceptionalism, prioritizing attention to elections as the one expression of political choice, and the replication of a mythological history of the country’s past and current institutions. Most of us were educated to believe that the American experience has been a two hundred fifty year struggle to achieve perfection. And perfection is the trajectory of America.
But in a democracy, even a flawed one, the institutions of governance offer those who are victims of an unequal distribution of wealth and power an opportunity to change, if not transform, politics and economics. It is critical to realize that the electoral arena and the institutions of government constitute contested terrain. While the tools in the struggle for justice are as unequally distributed as the wealth and power, masses of people--workers, women, minorities, and others historically marginalized--have won victories through political struggle. The historical drive for social and economic justice, American history suggests, has involved mobilizations within the routinized political processes, particularly elections, and in communities, at workplaces, and in the streets. From this point of view all forms of struggle matter. The forms vary in times and places but they all matter nevertheless.
Looking at the electoral arena particularly in a country where the inequalities are so stark and the disenchantment growing, the morality of the discourse of candidates for public office--what they say about themselves and their adversaries--has declined dramatically. The 2012 election campaign began just after Barack Obama won the 2008 presidential election. Republican spokespersons declared that their priority project was to make Obama a one-term president. That was followed with four years of hate-filled, racist attacks on the President, peaking first in the Tea Party campaigns and victories in 2010. After 2010, the Republican presidential candidates shifted into high gear with lies, distortions, and clearly racist, sexist, and anti-worker sentiments as standard fare.
The presidential candidacy of Mitt Romney may be evidencing a new low in the history of electoral campaigns. What is a central feature of his 2012 strategy is the regular pattern of proclaiming positions that are tailored for the audiences the candidate is speaking before. Candidate Romney has been pro- and anti-choice, for peace in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf and for war against Syria and Iran, for the maintenance of medical insurance coverage for persons with preexisting conditions and against it, for bailing out the auto industry and against it, cutting the federal budget and increasing military spending, cutting taxes for the rich and not cutting taxes for the rich, and defunding FEMA and maintaining it.
This past week as Obama was acting “presidential” dealing with the tragedies of Hurricane Sandy, the Romney campaign was distributing television ads in Ohio declaring that a Jeep manufacturing plant in Toledo was shutting down with jobs shipped to China. This claim was so contrary to Chrysler (the parent company) policy that its CEO issued a rejoinder. Jeep was not shutting down its Ohio operations; if anything there would be increases in jobs at the manufacturing facility. It is unimaginable for those not in the local auto industry to fully grasp the sense of fear and despair that workers in the potentially affected plant might feel when hearing that they would lose their jobs. The lie in these ads was targeted at a particular audience to engender shifts in the intention of Ohio auto workers from voting for the President, whose actions saved the auto industry, to Romney who was denying the efficacy of the President’s policy.
Candidate Romney has been making claims on a whole range of subjects since he began running for president years ago. While the American style of democracy encourages lying as a tool of campaigning for public office, the Romney campaign has taken this tool to a new level. The candidate, and the Tea Party constituency who constitute his base, has embraced a tactic of “shifting lies.” Say one thing before audience A, another before audience B. When the usually docile media calls him on A or B claim, he moves on to claim C.
The level of discourse in the end has therefore sunk to a new low. American politics has become a verbal jousting match between candidates who now are rewarded for saying anything to anybody. Along with a radical transformation of the distribution of wealth and power, the American people need to develop a whole new way of talking about politics. Lying, particularly shifting lies, must be eliminated. Honesty, integrity, basic decency and respect for all remain values worth fighting for.