Home / General / The Class War Has a Name: Globalization

The Class War Has a Name: Globalization


Jonathan Martin has a pretty good piece at Politico about why the Democratic Party has gone AWOL in the class war. As the Republicans look to return us to the Gilded Age, both Democratic politicians and the grassroots seem unable or unwilling to respond. Occupy Wall Street was a moment of hope and I don’t take the lack of occupations of public space this spring to mean much of anything because we don’t know what people are doing behind the scenes, but it’s hardly revolutionizing the nation right now.

Fundamentally, Martin wonders what happened to economic populism within the Democratic Party. He highlights 4 broad reasons:

*The political infrastructure doesn’t exist. Class-based partisan appeals by Democrats in the early and mid-20th century were typically supported by a robust and well-organized labor movement. That doesn’t exist in any similar form these days.

*Even populist politicians need money. Conspiracy theorists who believe campaign contributions drive the agenda aren’t altogether wrong. It is virtually impossible to be a successful national Democrat without relying heavily on business interests, including the financial industry, for campaign funds.

*The president, a man comfortable in elite circles, is not temperamentally inclined for the kind of sustained, rough-edged partisan combat that true populist politics requires. So, while he is tempted by populist appeals on some days, he often turns ambivalent and changes his message the next.

*Most important of all, lots of Democrats simply do not support populism, on either ideological or stylistic grounds. Many upscale Democrats believe that Washington needs less combat, not more, and populist messages strike them as irrelevant at best, demagogic at worst. Even some working-class voters have their assets in the stock market, because of their 401(k)s and IRAs, making even the most traditional of Democrats believe their interests are more in line with Wall Street than opposed.

Smaller reasons Martin discusses include the fact that the remnants of our unionized workforce are mostly government bureaucrats who don’t elicit a lot of sympathy, the focus on cultural issues over economics for the Democratic base, too much of an emphasis on individualism on the left, and Obama’s comfort with expertise and surrounding himself with the economic elite.

On a broad level, I agree with all of these things to a greater or lesser extent. But the one thing Martin doesn’t do is ask why labor has declined. He emphasizes the decline of organized labor as the biggest issue behind the lack of left-populism–without the structure of organized labor, who directs this anger? Occupy Wall Street articulated the anger well, but eschewed directing other people toward change (in fact, I’d argue that the influence of anarchism upon young people is a small but important reason for the lack of an organized response to populism. I’ll leave that for the present though unless someone wants a further discussion).

Martin just sort of presents labor’s decline as a reality in the present. But there’s a history behind falling union numbers and it has nothing to do with corruption and very little to do with union complacency, even if both of those things might have been problems in the past. What we see today is the culmination of a half-century war on American unions that corporations concocted in the years after World War II to repeal the gains labor made during the 1930s and 1940s. It was a slow, steady, stealthy plan that has proven almost impossible to stop. It was largely bipartisan, couched in terms of trade that centrist and conservative Democrats like Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama love.

This war is called Globalization.

When did this war begin? We could start it at so many times (Taft-Hartley would be a good place) but it probably begins with the Border Industrialization Program in 1965, when the Mexican government discovered it could attract American businesses who wanted to escape labor (and increasingly environmental) obligations by building plants just across the border. President Johnson supported the BIP as a solution to the problems of the Bracero Program and American corporations began moving union jobs south. Union numbers had already begun to decline slightly through companies moving operations to right-to-work states in the South, but after 1965, the numbers plummet. Corporations began lobbying the U.S. government to expand these programs and create free trade deals that would allow for the massive exportation of American jobs, of which the most notorious was the North American Free Trade Agreement of 1994, also passed under a Democratic president over labor’s protests. NAFTA also served to create a huge labor force for Mexican factories. By undermining corn prices since agribusiness could dump cheap corn on the Mexican market, NAFTA drove farmers off the land and into the maquiladoras, creating a cheap, exploited labor force with few realistic options. Today, President Obama wants a huge free trade agreement with countries in east Asia; not that there’s too many industrial jobs left to export, but this policy certainly won’t bring those jobs back.

Now I’m not going to say that there is no benefit at all to globalization. But it is absolutely the biggest reason why unions aren’t there today to lead a populist fight against our plutocrats.

If we want to talk about the lack of economic populism, Martin is right that we need to tie it to labor’s decline. But to understand labor’s decline, we have to indict the system of globalization, something that most Democratic politicians don’t want to touch with a 10-foot pole.

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  • John

    Shouldn’t the economic troubles of the late 70’s play a role in this story? That period really feels like the point where the decline of labor becomes readily apparent to everyone. The split between organized labor and the New Left over Vietnam earlier in the decade probably also warrants mention.

    • I don’t think the split between the New Left and organized labor has much of anything to do with it. Not that it didn’t exist, but it didn’t have anything to do with sending American jobs overseas either. I suppose if we step back far enough we can make connections between Democratic policymakers who came up in the 60s like Bill Clinton not being particularly cozy with labor, but that’s a very minor reason in the larger picture.

      And the economic troubles of the late 70s, while real enough, were the first public sign of union’s decline–but what that actually means is the plan put into place by corporations 15 years or more earlier was already proving quite effective.

  • Dave

    You can call it ‘class war’ if you want, but why not just call it ‘history’? Folk shitting on other folk, it’s what they do. Many different movements have aspired to stop them, all have so far failed. I don’t particularly see why adopting the vocabulary of the one that has most spectacularly and recently failed is going to help, but presumably you do.

    • I’m calling it what it is–the rich have declared class war on the rest of us.

      Until we realize what this is and stop being scared to use terminology that might shock respectable people, we lose.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        So what do you do about the fact that one party of the Class Warriors of the 1% is clearly less bad than the other party of the Class Warriors of the 1%? It does make a difference whether the sane billionaires or the insane billionaires win, but in supporting the sane billionaires, we are still working against the class interests of most Americans.

      • Incontinentia Buttocks

        The president, a man comfortable in elite circles….

        Who was the last President (or major party presidential candidate) for whom this wasn’t true (and, no, being mildly uncomfortable in Washington elite circles, but perfectly comfortable in other ones doesn’t count)? Can one get nominated or elected President if one isn’t?

        I’m just pointing out that this is not some accidental fact about our current President but rather reflects deeper facts about the structure of our politics.

        • Incontinentia Buttocks

          Whoops! That was supposed to be a stand-alone comment. Don’t know how it got threaded here….

          • One of the Blue

            I wwould point out that “free trade” was part of the Democratic Party platform from before the Civil War. In fact one of the issues FDR campaigned on in ’33 was demonization of the Smoot-Hawley tariff.

            After WW II the Truman administration made a decision to support the reindustrialization of Western Europe and Japan via allowing those countries to retain their trade barriers but to have unfettered access to the U.S. market. The red unions in the CIO opposed this citing concerns about U.S. jobs, but the CIO as a whole supported this as part of its suppport for both the Democratic Party agenda and the incipient Cold War. In fact when the CIO kicked the red unions out it cited these unions’ opposition to the Marshall Plan and similar measures as unpatriotic.

            Even though the free trade agenda since thenhas been driven in part by geopolitical concerns and by the traditional conservative love of “free trade” (a tariff ban even was in the Confederate constitution) dating from at least the Jackson administration, it stirkes me as at best ironic that the AFL and CIO in effect provided the shovel to dig their own graves because of their enthusiasm for the Cold War agenda and their over-trusting relationship at that time with the Democratic Party.

    • Malaclypse

      You can call it ‘class war’ if you want, but why not just call it ‘history’?

      Sounds right. As someone once wrote, “the history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class conflict.”

      • elm

        Hmm. I can’t quite put my finger on who said that. I’m debating between Milton Friedman, Thomas Friedman, and Ayn Rand. If the full quote attributes the nugget of wisdom to something a cabbie said, then it’s a slam dunk for Tommy, but otherwise, it could be any of them, really.

        (In all seriousness, I actually could imagine Rand saying something like that if the next sentence was a celebration of how the ‘producer-class’ managed to win those conflicts.)

      • DrDick

        He was absolutely correct as far as written history is concerned, since class conflict is at the heart of the state as an institution.

        On a related note, I have recently discovered that there is an actual modern example of syndicalist socialism and it is a booming success. It is also a repudiation of those who say we have to pay corporate executives exorbitant salaries for them to produce.

      • chris

        Was that the same guy who didn’t say “Workers of the local area, unite!”?

  • tt

    I’m somewhat skeptical of this explanation, because the most heavily unionized nations in the world are also some of the most globalized nations. If globalization poses a challenge to labor in the US to an extent that it does not for other countries, we should at least consider whether fighting globalization is in fact easier than fighting whatever factors prevent compatibility between strong labor and globalization.

    • This is possible, but in the United States, the connection between globalization and union-busting by moving factories is quite clear and well-documented. I can’t speak to the situation in a country like Germany, but for the U.S., this calculation is solid.

      • elm

        But if globalization has led to increased (or at least not decreased) labor power in countries A, B, and C, but has led to reduced labor power in countries D, E, and F, is it really correct to say that globalization is the problem?

        My answer to my own question is, it depends on why the latter countries are different from the former. If it’s something structural, like size of the country or level of development, then I’d be willing to say “Globalization is to blame for weakening labor in (say) large, developed countries but may strengthen labor in small or poor countries.” (This is a hypothetical, not what I think is actually true.)

        If, on the other hand, the reason is policy-oriented, then I think it makes more sense to blame the policy in countries D, E, and F that leads to globalization hurting labor rather than globalization itself.

        • Bill Murray

          But if globalization has led to increased (or at least not decreased) labor power in countries A, B, and C, but has led to reduced labor power in countries D, E, and F, is it really correct to say that globalization is the problem?

          The big difference is that in the US labor has never really had a seat at the table, so there concerns are left out of globalizing trade agreements and corporate decisions. Further, quite a bit (fairly recently 2005, IIRC, it was more than half) of global trade is intra-corporate trade for wage and tax arbitrage, having labor as part of the decision making process makes wage arbitrage less likely.

          • elm

            I think you might be right that the historical relationship between labor, capital, and the state has a lot to do with it. I’m also not sure how that fits into my structural/policy dichotomy.

            Certainly, labor’s lack of a seat at the table in the U.S. is the result of policy decisions, but those decisions have existed for so long they might be part of the structure of society. So, “globalization hurts labor in countries where labor is already politically marginalized and does not hurt labor in countries where labor is already politically strong.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds plausible.

      • tt

        The other challenge to this explanation is that the US isn’t actually a particularly globalized nation. Imports are ~15% GDP (low by world standards), a big chunk of that is energy, another big chunk comes from nations with higher unionization rates than ours (Canada). Imports from China is 3% GDP. If globalization is the problem, we might expect the US to have an easier time dealing with it than our peer nations; but that doesn’t seem to be the case. Why aren’t we more successful in unionizing service workers?

        I accept that globalization is part of the explanation, just not convinced its the main one.

      • I think the dichotomy problem here is that when you say “globalization” you really the exploitation of labor and natural resources in poorer countries and not, say, increasing integration between the economies of the United States and Western Europe.

        • elm

          And the latter (throwing in Japan and Canada) has accounted for the overwhelming majority of ‘globalization’ at least if you define the term as increased movement of goods, services, and investments across borders.

          • Bill Murray

            but since much of that is intra-corporation for wage and tax arbitrage, why count it at all?

            • elm

              Because corporations used to produce most things in one country and in the past few decades they’ve increasingly globalized production. Intra-corporate trade is somewhat different from inter-corporate trade, but it’s still trade and most of the effects are the same.

  • Corey

    Your original title was a lot better.

    You’re right that globalization ended the ability of labor unions to seek rents on corporate profits. Globalization has also raised (and continues to raise) living standards several orders of magnitude for the rest of the world.

    I agree with tt, above: fix the things that make robust labor movements and a globalized economy incompatible.

    • Malaclypse

      to seek rents on corporate profits

      Unsurprisingly, this phrase does not mean what I think you think it means.

      • Steve LaBonne

        He has no idea what it means, he just felt that it would sound suitably derogatory in that context.

        • Corey

          I don’t think the rent-seeking is (or was) a bad thing.

          • Steve LaBonne

            You don’t know whether the nonexistent thing given by you a name whose meaning you don’t understand at all was a bad thing. OK dude, whatever.

          • Malaclypse

            I don’t think the rent-seeking is (or was) a bad thing.

            As I said, you don’t understand the term. Thank you for illustrating that point nicely.

            • DrDick

              Words seldom do mean what he wants them to.

            • elm

              And if anyone knows rent-seeking, it’s Andrei Schleifer!

      • rea

        Jeez, I thought the thing about labor was, well, that it labored.

        • DrDick

          Dude does not understand the relationships of labor and capital to value.

    • DrDick

      You’re right that globalization ended dramatically increased the ability of labor unions management and capital to seek rents on corporate profits.

      Fixed that for accuracy.

      • tt

        Your “fix” seems compatible with the original–labor has lost rent-seeking power at the expense of owners.

        If a firm has market power, it can capture rents. If labor has market power in the industry, it can take a share of these rents. When labor loses its power, all rents accrue to management and capital.

        • DrDick

          Labor, by definition, cannot seek rents at their employment as they are the sole source of all value produced. Any and all profits are in fact rents.

          • tt

            “Labor, by definition, cannot seek rents at their employment as they are the sole source of all value produced.”

            That’s not correct. Rents come from market power, and labor can collect rents as long as labor has market power.

            Say you’re the sole provider of electricity to a region. You can use your monopoly powers to extract large rents from consumers, but it’s not just labor which allows you to do this, it’s also capital, i.e. the physical infrastructure. If your workers unionize and demand above-market wages, there’s no reduction in your market power on the selling end, so no reduction in price, so the same amount of rent is collected; some proportion however will go to your workers instead of you.

            Wages above market wage are a form of economic profit, so you have to add those to the profits going to the owners to get total rents collected by the firm. If you still don’t believe me, consider a worker-owned firm; this is essentially just the extreme unionization case where workers capture 100% of rents.

            • Bill Murray

              well that’s the neo-classical version, not the classical version, which is more or less in-line with DrDick’s statement. while Classical economics isn’t that great, it is much better than neo-classical economics

              • tt

                Can you explain? I really don’t understand how it makes sense to say that firm A which uses its monopoly power to produce profits for owners is a rent-collector while firm B which uses its monopoly power to produce the same profits for workers is not.

                • Bill Murray

                  sure, classically, economic rent is a fee paid for the use of a fixed (natural) resource. Thus, this is a payment that does not effect the supply of the resource. http://books.google.com/books?id=0hggJhQQQboC&pg=PA480&lpg=PA480&dq=%22economic+rent%22&hl=en#v=onepage&q=%22economic%20rent%22&f=false

                  Neo-classically, economic rent has been extended to cover non-resource factors.

                  Therefore, paying workers more is likely to effect their supply, while paying more to owners does not have to change the number of owners.

                • tt

                  If a firm has a certain number of workers, and then they unionize, and demand more pay, that won’t change the number (supply) of workers at the firm. It just changes the distribution of economic profits.

                • DrDick

                  The form of rents I am familiar with (which derives from Marx) extends beyond simply natural resources. It refers to unearned income derived from ownership of property rather than labor. In addition to land rents, it includes stock dividends and capital gains, royalties of any sort, etc. It thus covers most unearned income derived from capital.

                • DrDick

                  If a firm has a certain number of workers, and then they unionize, and demand more pay, that won’t change the number (supply) of workers at the firm. It just changes the distribution of economic profits.

                  In standard Marxist analysis, all profit is rents deriving from ownership of the means of production. If labor is paid full value of their labor (which is the actual value of what is produced), there are no profits. This is where the phrase “profit is theft” comes from.

                • tt

                  Dr. Dick, I admit I’m not familiar with Marxist analysis on rents. Your description of profit seems incomplete because the profits collected by owners will depend on both their buying power in the labor market and their selling power in whatever they produce. If a firm expands their power in the selling market (say, by purchasing a competitor) they can increase profits without changing wages at all. So rents collected by owners increase at the expense of consumers.

                  However, suppose that firm has a powerful union which demands that most of that extra wealth collected from consumers goes to the workers instead of the owners. So wealth produced by the firm through increased market power is transferred from consumers to workers. I think most economists would say that labor is capturing rents derived from the market power of the firm. Certainly it seems that something very similar to the first case is going on in the selling market, just with a different distribution of the proceeds. How would your Marxist analysis describe it?

                • DrDick

                  TT –

                  In Marxist theory (as in Adam Smith) all value is created by labor, so the true value of goods is the labor embodied in them. There are other, secondary forms of value including use value and exchange value, the latter of which is what you are referring to. Marx deals with the prioritization of exchange value under the concept commodity fetishization.

                  Regardless of whether the owner extracts profit from the workers by paying them less than the value of their work or from his customers by charging them more than the product is actually worth (and frequently by doing both), profit is still rent as it is income not derived from his own labor. Any price labor can extract for its services is what that labor is worth and by definition not rents. Rents are income not derived from labor but from ownership of property (land, a business, stocks, interest, etc.).

                • tt

                  So if owners extracts x from consumers using a firm’s monopoly power it’s rent, but if labor extracts x from consumers using a firm’s monopoly power it’s just what labor is worth? If a labor-controlled firm expands its market power by buying up the competition, thereby extracting more from consumers, then you want to say the labor has actually increased in value? That makes no sense. I think the classical explanation is better.

                • DrDick

                  So if owners extracts x from consumers using a firm’s monopoly power it’s rent, but if labor extracts x from consumers using a firm’s monopoly power it’s just what labor is worth?

                  This is a non sequitur, as labor does not have the power to extract anything from consumers under these conditions, as they do not set the prices, management does. When prices go up under the circumstances you cite, it is because management/capital is seeking to increase or maintain its current rents.

  • JL

    Occupy Wall Street was a moment of hope and I don’t take the lack of occupations of public space this spring to mean much of anything because we don’t know what people are doing behind the scenes, but it’s hardly revolutionizing the nation right now.

    I’m one of the people behind the scenes, so I’ll comment here.

    A lot of Occupations have been struggling without camps. And it takes a lot of resources to put a camp up, which are down the drain if the police immediately remove them. My Occupation was considered one of the best-organized in the country when it had a camp, and it has been floundering since then. Internal politics have gotten much worse and we’ve struggled to get turnouts. That said, we’ve had a few excellent local actions and campaigns (I know an insider claiming that an action was excellent doesn’t mean much, but we’ve had actions that I thought were total flame-outs as well). We had a ten-day occupation of the State House steps regarding public transit cuts.

    There are some definite bright spots. Occupy Chicago seems to be a bright spot. They’ve been occupying public mental health clinics to stop them being shut down, and they successfully helped factory workers occupy their factory to convince the owners to sell the factory to the workers rather than shutting it down and laying them all off. I’ve never heard anything bad about Occupy Memphis, and a lot good. I know of two Occupations (Austin and Buffalo) that have convinced their city governments to transfer city money from big banks to local banks and credit unions, and a third (Evanston) that appears to be on the verge of doing so. Occupy Our Homes Minnesota has been meeting with some success in fighting foreclosure evictions via eviction blockades and pressure on banks to negotiate with homeowners, and so, to a lesser extent, have other Occupations.

    Occupy people were a very large presence at the G8/NATO Summit protests in Chicago (somewhat surprising the non-Occupy radicals). The biggest action at the Summit protests had something like 10,000 people.

    The OWS Mayday actions got a solid turnout (ours didn’t, because people went to OWS instead).

    The mainstream media just doesn’t cover it anymore, though. It’s very frustrating. And when they do it’s always about how Occupy is dead. I was at a march a couple of weeks ago where a local TV news broadcaster stood in front of a big anti-austerity banner explaining that the real question was whether the Occupy movement was dead.

    If people have suggestions, I’m listening. Mobilization is really hard right now for some reason.

    • JL

      Also, can I say how sick I am of articles like the otherwise good one that Erik linked to blaming Occupy’s widely-misunderstood leaderless structure for it not achieving whatever the author thinks it hasn’t achieved? Gee, maybe the police repression, or the constant ignoring it and downplaying it from corporate media, had negative effects? Quite aside from the fact that people who say this almost invariably ignore Occupy successes.

    • The media is only going to cover an event if it is new or there’s the potential of violence. Martin Luther King learned this the hard way. The Albany campaign failed miserably because the sheriff refused to unleash violence. The media left and segregation remained. So King chose Birmingham next, precisely because he knew Bull Connor would show no such restraint and the violence would get on the evening news around the country.

      But you just aren’t going to get mainstream coverage outside of events like this. You got it in the fall because it was new and exciting and potentially dangerous. Now the narrative has changed and there’s not much you can do to change it back outside of provoking police violence against you or doing something shocking, neither of which anyone probably wants to see happen.

      • JL

        Hmm. Maybe we should be doing a lot of big events in NYC and Oakland then. Their police haven’t shown much restraint. The media didn’t give much coverage, though, to the enormous police violence in NYC on 3/17, and most of the coverage of the Oakland 1/28 events was focused on how a handful of protesters who escaped the illegal mass arrests at the YMCA vandalized Oakland City Hall. Did the G8/NATO Summit protests in Chicago get any useful coverage? I was too involved to be able to tell. I’m a medic, and I can attest that there was plenty of police violence there.

        I’m not trying to say that you’re wrong here; I think you’re right. But I think people got so jaded about what level police violence was normal. Remember last September, the national outrage at the video of the NYPD pepper-spraying a couple of female protesters in a kettling net? Stuff that is so much worse – medics’ heads smashed through windows, sexual assaults of protesters by police, mass beatings, hit-and-runs, people’s faces and necks stomped on in the streets – has happened in the last few months, and people just shrug and say “Yep, that’s the cops, what do you expect?” I’ve had to fight the urge to do it myself. At this point, I worry that what it would take to get widespread attention is for somebody to get killed. Which nearly happened in Chicago.

        I expect the first-anniversary-of-Occupy events in NYC in September to be quite big (and am hoping to go and medic that). Maybe that will jumpstart things. I just wish I could get my own Occupation back on track.

        • Yeah, I certainly don’t have any answers. It’s really, really hard, as you know.

          • JL

            It’s also hard because on one hand, I know that on some level dramatic police repression, including violent repression, ends up being a boon. On the other hand, I’m a medic, you know? I’m picking up the pieces when that whole violent repression thing happens (assuming I don’t get targeted and hurt badly enough to be put out of action myself – I’ve been lucky, but not everyone has). I’ve been having regular nightmares since the G8/NATO Summit protests, and I cried when I found the intersection where police attacked the CANG8/IVAW using Google Street View nearly a month later.

            You actually understand protest, and the tradeoffs involved here. But when liberals who have never been to a protest in their lives tell me that Occupiers should want and welcome dramatic, brutal, police violence, I want to hit them for being so blase about it from their armchairs.

    • ChristianPinko

      In a way it’s good that the media aren’t covering Occupy, because it gives you some privacy to get your act together. More than that, though, I hope that Occupy thinks long-term: instead of trying to effect change now, Occupy should be building a national community. Successful political movements are cultural as well as political, and the best thing Occupy can be doing now is simply to build up a community that has a distinct identity in opposition to the political/cultural mainstream.

    • Occupy is, not surprisingly, a very mixed bag, depending on what group you look at (and more often than not, the groups themselves are mixed). I think the focus on encampments was a big mistake, and the camps ended up becoming really bad towards the end (at least the two I have inside knowledge about).

      Now it’s splintered into numerous groups (well, more so), and there are a number that are doing interesting things. There’s also a number of former Occupiers that got burned out by OWS but have joined or started other groups.

      We’ll see what happens. My city had one of the larger encampments (and the only major one that was allowed to stay), yet Occupy has barely been active in politics here.

      • JL

        When our camp got raided, a bunch of people said “Oh, this is sad, but now we don’t have to focus on the camp anymore, so it will be a blessing in disguise!” Unfortunately, it didn’t play out that way for us. The camp kept internal tensions down by giving us all a space for face-to-face contact and discussion of problems. It gave the public a regular space to come talk to and interact with us – schools used to bring kids on field trips. It gave the media something to come and talk about. Skeptics would come down to see it for themselves and some of them would turn into dedicated Occupiers. It made it easy to get critical mass for a decent march. We didn’t realize just what we’d lost until it was gone.

        Our camp actually hit its worst point safety-wise in late October (I should note that we were the first, outside of OWS). By that time it had gotten big and taken on an air of being a long-term thing – and it had started to attract, for example, opiate addicts looking to rob it – but we hadn’t figured out the whole safety and security thing, how to implement it. It got kind of bad, and then we started figuring the safety and security thing out, and it started getting better. It was never perfect in that regard – however you slice it it’s a camp in the middle of a city, with some of the campers being, for example, young veterans with PTSD and anger management issues, or mentally ill people who couldn’t afford their medications – but oh man did it get better. And we were having more and bigger actions then than we do now.

  • shah8

    I really hate that word, populist. It’s a right-wing phenomenon, and usually reactionary. We keep using that word to mean something other than what it means, from a perspective derived from objectionable psycho-social constructs like whiteness. Erik Loomis at least modifies it with “economic”, and that works, but the linked work…ugh…

    Look, the linked article is an achievement in concern trolling. Politico is as politico does, and unlike Loomis’ story here, the article there is a mishmash of quotes, namedropping, and spurious history that isn’t narratively coherent. “Populist”, and the way people willfully misunderstands what that actually *means*, is what holds that ramshackle article together. It’s the great vague place-holder in pseudoliberal conversations where people can put their own notions of what would make sense to them, rather than better, more widely charged terms.

    The least big way thinking my way helps, for instance, is not allowing the bullies the ability to call it a fight with no victims and further legimate class war campaigns.

    • I should say that I don’t particularly like the term “populism” either, but I figured I would engage in the article in the terms it used.

    • What I really don’t get about the obsession with using the word “populist” is that the progressives were pretty much the populists without all of the right-wing social baggage.

      By and large, it seems to me that the most common calls for “populism” on the left come from people who want to be able to ignore those pointy headed technocrats when it doesn’t suit their ends (see David Mizner).

      • The Progressives had plenty of right-wing social baggage of their own. It was just more sophisticated and couched in scientific terminology.

        • Yeah, I regretted that phrasing as soon as I hit submit.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Which is why I prefer to call myself a left-liberal rather than a progressive.

          • DrDick

            I would point out that “liberal” does not now mean what it did in the 18th or early 19th centuries, so why would “progressive” have to mean the same as it did a century later? I embrace it because, as a socialist, I am not a liberal by any modern definition (at least in the US), but do share some common goals and objectives with them.

      • david mizner

        No, the most common calls for “populism” on the left come from people who are sick of a party that favors Wall Street and the rich.

        You’re half right, though: the tragedy is that “liberal” no longer implies populist. That there’s a distinction is the problem.

        • Liberal never implied populist.

          • This. To the extent that populism is anything concrete, it’s a reactionary phenomenon.

            • Oh, I don’t know about that. I guess it depends on how you define it, which we could spend all day arguing.

              • Linnaeus

                The impression that I gathered from my studies was that populism isn’t an ideology, but rather a style of politics.

                • Right–and it’s a style of politics that liberals, whatever that’s meant at various times, aren’t usually too comfortable with.

                • david mizner

                  “Liberals” aren’t comfortable with populism? That’s bullshit.

            • Lee

              Populism is reactionary in the sense that the farmers that advocated it harbored Jeffersonian romanticism about a nation of yeoman farmers. There ideas for preserving/going back to this tended towards the radical side.

            • bobbyp

              “Raise less corn, more hell.”

              The Populist Party in the late 19th century midwest fought the financial and industrial powers of their day…yup, definitely “reactionary”.

              • Well, many of the Populists also thought a bunch of Jews in New York controlled capital and were openly anti-Semitic.

                • Bill Murray

                  that belief wasn’t particularly reactionary for the time. Sure, it wasn’t true, but it was pretty widely held across all western society.

                • elm

                  They thought a bunch of Jews in New York were openly anti-semitic? Dang, those were some dumb populists!

                • LeeEsq

                  A lot of people who should have known better that that the Jews were responsible for the Boer War as well. It was an article of faith among left-leaning intellectuals in the UK at the time. This was the beginning of modern conspiratorial Jew-hatred.

          • david mizner

            Of course it did. If you were a liberal in the forties and fifties and sixties, you believed in what we now regard as populist. You didn’t need to call Hubert Humphrey a populist. You just called him a liberal. Populists of today are the liberal of back then.

            • This argument is ahistorical. The meanings of “populism” and “liberalism” are not static and meant different things then than now. Even if populists today are liberals of that era, which doesn’t really stand up to evidence, populism and liberalism were different things in 1946 and in 2012.

              • david mizner

                My point is that back then, to be liberal was to believe in what we now regard as populist (pro-labor, anti-corporate, pro-working class), so that today, with so many “liberals” being pro-rich, pro-Wall Street, it’s necessary to use the term populist or “labor liberal’ to distinguish.

                • 1940s liberals were not anti-corporate. They were pro-regulation perhaps but not anti-corporate by and large.

                • david mizner

                  Are you really going to argue that FDR wasn’t “populist” by today’s understanding of the term?

                • Today’s understanding of the term is irrelevant in evaluating FDR.

        • david mizner

          In other words–

          my friends, it is simply a question that we shall decide upon which side shall the Democratic Party fight. Upon the side of the idle holders of idle capital, or upon the side of the struggling masses? That is the question that the party must answer first; and then it must be answered by each individual hereafter. The sympathies of the Democratic Party, as described by the platform, are on the side of the struggling masses, who have ever been the foundation of the Democratic Party.

          There are two ideas of government. There are those who believe that if you just legislate to make the well-to-do prosperous, that their prosperity will leak through on those below. The Democratic idea has been that if you legislate to make the masses prosperous their prosperity will find its way up and through every class that rests upon it.

          Holds up pretty well, 116 years later.


  • There also doesn’t tend to be much high-level leadership on the left. A lot of people that want to talk, not so many that want to organize and do. When the Occupy movement started there were lots of people telling it what to do, not so many that were joining it, or doing anything on their own.

    The “net roots” hasn’t been particularly helpful. We hear more about how Mitt Romney is lying or Rick Perry is an idiot than about what we should be doing, how we should be organizing. It’s a shame, since bloggers have a big microphone. The just don’t tend to put it to much use.

    On the local level I’ve found a lot of good groups, though. There are definitely a lot of people that want change, that are trying to overcome their cynicism and make a difference. I’ve been working with some groups here on an effort for local campaign finance. It’s been a struggle, but we’ve been making a lot of progress.

    It would help if there was more engagement and less navel-gazing from people that have more of a national reach. It would also be nice if people spent at least as much time organizing as they do reading political blogs. But until then, the people on the ground level will have to make do with what they have.

    • Dave

      High-level leadership on the left really is a losing proposition – the bigger you get, the more people on your own side will decide that you’re a sell-out, a plant, or just 2mm too far in some obscure direction to suit their own version of purity.

      The people who make a career of appearing to be ‘big men’ on the left end up either embittered one-trick ponies, or egomaniacs – Nader, Chavez, perhaps even Chomsky; certainly more parochial figures such as, in the UK, George Galloway, Tommy Sheridan, Ken Livingstone [though he turning out the be a tax-dodging slimeball – which is another possible trjectory, of course, into graft, backhanders and pure facade].

      • Lee

        The problem isn’t really one about lacking high-level leadership anyway. A few presentable public speakers are enough. The main issue is that many on the Left seem more drawn to the flashiness of theatrical politics than the boring but necessary work of traditional electoral and political politics. The right seems to possess better discipline in this regard.

        Theatrical poltics are very important, its what gets you noticed and in the news. It gets people talking. Actualy changing things means passing laws and implementing policy. This means that elections need to be won and governing done. A lot of people on the Left seem allergic to this, probably for the same reason they find high-level leadership repulsive.

        • Lee –

          I actually agree with just about everything you said. The reason we are in such dire straights right now is because there’s almost no one working to stop these things. If even one-percent of the population was relatively active and organize, we’d see huge changes.

          Having said that, however, I do think that having high-level leadership could help a lot. I don’t mean someone who gives orders to the left, but someone with an audience who would say, well, exactly what you just said. I don’t see the use of blog #3476 telling us how Santorum is crazy or predicting what the Supreme Court will do. That’s not going to make a difference. Getting out there and hitting the pavement will. But I _never_ see this brought up. And that’s what I mean about lack of leadership.

          • Holden Pattern

            Getting out there and hitting the pavement will.

            On behalf of whom, exactly? And when have the left gotten any credit and more importantly, any actual power, for getting anyone elected?

        • Holden Pattern

          This is kinda bullshit. The reason that the wingtards have taken over the Republican party is that they have MONEY behind them. MONEY. MONEY.

          The left is fighting against the money in the Democratic Party, and there’s no money behind them (unlike the wingtards, who are well funded by crazy billionaires). So when they do the grunt work of getting people elected or trying to take over a state party, they get (a) zero credit for anything good that happens, but all the blame if something bad happens, and (b) attacked aggressively and shut out of power by the people who control the money.

          • LeeEsq

            If money is the problem than the first Progressive Era, New Deal, and Great Society should never have happened. The moneyed interests of the time thought against all three and largely failed. The liberal and leftist forces did not have any money during these periods and were able to accomplish a lot.

          • What’s your experience with that? Here, city-wide officials are getting elected with only 6% of the registered voters voting for them. 6%. If you had enough strength to just get 7% of the registered voters to vote for you, there’d be a lot of change. It’d probably take less than 1% of the population being at least quasi-active to do this.

            To say victory is impossible and surrender without fighting is just…well, THAT’S why we haven’t had any progress. As the commentator below said, people were able to make a difference before with much more stacked against them. But it took time, and it took work. The reason we can’t get things done now is that people are too lazy and impatient, and quit before they start. Well, some people. Others are working on things, and making a difference, but they have to carry a much larger load because there are a lot of people not showing up.

        • joe from Lowell

          High-level leadership on the left really is a losing proposition – the bigger you get, the more people on your own side will decide that you’re a sell-out, a plant, or just 2mm too far in some obscure direction to suit their own version of purity.

          People on the left don’t like to be lead. People on the right are perfectly comfortable strapping on their pads and marching in lock step according to the orders coming down from the top. People on the left, on the other hand, consider it very important to demonstrate to themselves and everyone else that they think for themselves.

          This isn’t even a criticism; it’s actually a perfectly admirable character trait – but you can see how it puts us at a disadvantage.

          • Dave

            But the line between “thinking for yourself” and “basking in the ideological purity of your minuscule circle of acolytes” is crossed too easily, and too often, for it to be a mere accident.

            Not to mention that the left used to be able to have mass-movements, but under conditions where the people they were trying to appeal to weren’t hyper-entitled narcissists.

  • Cody

    But Thomas Friedman told me globalization is fixing the world!

  • david mizner

    Paging Occam? Wall Street and other forms of corporate power dominate the Democratic Party. The takeover began in the seventies — when Democrats helped ship the manufacturing base overseas (sacrificing a main base of its support) and coalesced around pro-corporate Carter — and was secured in the 90s — when Robert Rubin persuaded Bill Clinton during the transition to embrace NAFTA. Its controlling stake in the party has only grown since then.

    A couple points on Martin’s lame piece:

    He conflates “partisan combat” and “populism.” Bill Clinton was both pro-Wall Street and a good partisan fighter.

    He says “lots of Democrats simply do not support populism.” Lots of establishment Dems maybe, but economic populism remains enormously popular not just with Democrats but with Americans. Progressive taxation, fair trade, regulation of Wall Street, cracking down on corporate tax shelters — all popular.

    • elm

      Progressive taxation, fair trade, regulation of Wall Street, cracking down on corporate tax shelters — all popular

      Can you provide links to the evidence for that? Not that I don’t believe, but because I’m interested in public opinion on things like trade and bank regulations and the like and hope you’ve seen some numbers I haven’t seen yet.

      • david mizner

        Here’s a post I wrote a while ago detailing the popularity of liberal positions (not just populist ones.) Links are there. Among the highlights:

        “Roughly three- quarters of the public (76%) believe there is too much power concentrated in the hands of a few big companies, a number which has varied very little over the past 20 years.”

        65 percent of the public, including 54 percent of Republicans, say corporate profits are too high.

        Americans overwhelmingly want the wealthy to carry more of the burden of putting the government’s fiscal house in order. Sixty-five percent say lawmakers should consider raising taxes on the rich back to where they were 10 years ago.

        About two-thirds of Americans support stricter regulations on the way banks and other financial institutions conduct their business, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.

        A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll shows that 69 percent of Americans believe free trade agreements with other countries have cost jobs in the United States, while just 18 percent believe they have created jobs. A 53 percent majority—up from 46 percent three years ago and 30 percent in 1999—believes that trade agreements have hurt the nation overall.


        • chris

          The problem is, lots of the people who like liberalism still hate liberals and won’t vote for them. Issue polling is meaningless without issue voting.

          • What’s your evidence for this?

            The bigger problem is that Democrats do not generally take strong stands on these popular issues.

    • I think Erik has a point about this process starting earlier, but the 70s were a huge turning point, not because of tension between unions and the New Left, but because of the ideological, unified business mobilization and the adoption of neoliberalism by the Democratic Party during later part of the Carter Admin. (Also the norms changing around the use of replacement workers, which had been allowed all along but only really takes off after cities went after public unions during the fiscal crisis in the late 70s and then began in earnest in the private sector after Reagan’s successful showdown with the air traffic controllers.)

      • Forgot to mention Paul Volker’s inflation fighting, which involved driving up interest rates to eliminate union demands and undermine manufacturing in the US.

      • david mizner

        And earlier, after Watergate, Dems became ‘reformers.’ It was Gary Hart, I believe, who said proudly,“We’re not a bunch of Hubert Humphreys.”

  • PWT

    It’s not only globalization, but modernization. As operations become more mechanized, there is less need for human labor and thus, fewer union members.

  • mpowell

    This is just a terrible explanation. Many of the reasons have already been listed. The success of unions in far more ‘globalized’ economies is really the killer here. Even if this story was part of a decent explanation, the right-to-work states are at least as much of a problem as globalization.

    Also, why are you choosing the post-war era as the turning point? I would really like to hear more about why that’s your choice, possibly backed up with actual data, when the late 70s are a far more common turning point to identify.

    I think the problem with labor in the US is that they never achieved actual codified and legal representation in corporate management as they did in Europe. As a result, unions were vulnerable to shifts in social and political preferences. And that loop has positive feedback in it so where what could have been a short-lived shift became one that has been going on 30 years. That loop (which is going to be damn hard to ever break now) is tied into all sorts of additional problems in US society which are related to income inequality and the power of money in politics. In many other developed economies, the ability of money to limit politics is vastly more limited and the (very reasonable) public consensus is that this is appropriate. The structural susceptability of the American state to influence by elites is probably a much better starting point than globalization for your explanation. This is something that transcends modern politics as it was really baked into the system, first with the original constitution and also with the evolution of the interpretation of the 1st amendment over a long period of time.

    • Holden Pattern

      But you know what? It’s the fault of “the left” for not trying harder. None of the things you mention are dispositive.

  • Heron

    Globalization includes more concepts in it than the off-shoring of jobs, though. In fact, the most successful opponents to these sorts of “neo-liberal”(neo-colonial more like) policies have been the massive, international social and economic justice movements. These may typically be referred to as the “anti-globalization movement”, but I fail to see how political and organizational alliances between US socialists, Brazilian sugar-cane farmers, French ranchers, German foodies, and various international political parties (the Greens, the Anarchists, the Pirates) are any less “globalized” in character than bilateral trade agreements and the IMF.

    In fact, I’d argue one of the major reasons why US labor has failed to halt these trends here is because of its consistent refusal since the Red Scare to work in tandem with and cultivate unions elsewhere. Why is it that we see German and French and Peruvian unionist protesting G-20 meetings, but rarely see US union-members doing the same? Perhaps they do and this simply gets ignored by the media, but the impression I have gotten is of US unions trying to cope with issues of global economy with essentially regional and even local methods.

    • “I’d argue one of the major reasons why US labor has failed to halt these trends here is because of its consistent refusal since the Red Scare to work in tandem with and cultivate unions elsewhere.”

      That isn’t exactly true, but the reality isn’t real great–the AFL-CIO was a tool of the CIA during the Cold War to promote anti-communist unions around the world, creating mistrust of American labor that lasts today.

    • bobbyp

      Globilization (or more and cheaper imports) would act to reduce the price of some goods, making us wealthier. On the other hand, politically we have chosen to expose the working class to overseas wage competition while acting to protect a wide swath of folks (doctors, lawyers, etc.) from that impact and also shifting income upward(tax policy, patent law, etc.).

  • foo

    It’s a bit funny to think of as “war”, what the 1.5 billion chinese think of as industrialization. And they will certainly set up factories and produce goods, for a much cheaper labor rate, because of lax env standards and much greater labor pool size.

    This will happen regardless of anything the USA does or does not do. The author does not seem to realize this simple fact.

  • bradp

    The “Class Warfare” narrative really doesn’t work so well these days. It implies a solidarity that doesn’t really exist for any class. There is intra-class warfare, so to speak, at all levels of income.

    The reason “class warfare” is applicable is because, while we have a battle of all versus all, more and more weapons are available for purchase.

    Therefore, the weapons of economic warfare are always turned at everyone of any class, but their distribution has shifted way up along lines of income and wealth.

    • DrDick

      You are partly correct, but there is far more solidarity in the upper classes than you give credit for. They certainly have differences, but they also act with greater cohesion than the other classes, probably because they are so much smaller and have more personal interaction. This is why the class wars have been so one sided, with the rich attacking the masses without much effective push back. All you need to do is look at what has actually been happening over the past 30+ years, which has benefited them at the expense of everyone else.

      • bradp

        You are partly correct, but there is far more solidarity in the upper classes than you give credit for.

        Perhaps. There is a certain shared self-righteousness that may lead to collaboration.

        But, to my viewpoint, most “solidarity” is a symptom of the centralized avenues by which the elite maintain their economic position, and an inability of lower classes to afford to access those channels.

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