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“Savage Capitalism”

[ 220 ] June 1, 2014 |

David Graeber has an interesting essay basically getting after Thomas Piketty from the left, saying that the now famous economist’s essential acceptance of capitalism is a problem because it ignores what actually tamed the income inequality that he bemoans: fear of revolution:

Back in the 90s, I used to get into arguments with Russian friends about capitalism. This was a time when most young eastern European intellectuals were avidly embracing everything associated with that particular economic system, even as the proletarian masses of their countries remained deeply suspicious. Whenever I’d remark on some criminal excess of the oligarchs and crooked politicians who were privatising their countries into their own pockets, they would simply shrug.

“If you look at America, there were all sorts of scams like that back in the 19th century with railroads and the like,” I remember one cheerful, bespectacled Russian twentysomething explaining to me. “We are still in the savage stage. It always takes a generation or two for capitalism to civilise itself.”

“And you actually think capitalism will do that all by itself?”

“Look at history! In America you had your robber barons, then – 50 years later – the New Deal. In Europe, you had the social welfare state … ”

“But, Sergei,” I protested (I forget his actual name), “that didn’t happen because capitalists just decided to be nice. That happened because they were all afraid of you.”

He seemed touched by my naivety.

At that time, there was a series of assumptions everybody had to accept in order even to be allowed to enter serious public debate. They were presented like a series of self-evident equations. “The market” was equivalent to capitalism. Capitalism meant exorbitant wealth at the top, but it also meant rapid technological progress and economic growth. Growth meant increased prosperity and the rise of a middle class. The rise of a prosperous middle class, in turn, would always ultimately equal stable democratic governance. A generation later, we have learned that not one of these assumptions can any longer be assumed to be correct.

Couple of thoughts here. First, Graeber is certainly right about the rhetorical and theoretical bankruptcy of the 90s, where if you didn’t accept the neoliberal agenda, you were effectively an overweight Ohioan factory worker with an out-of-fashion mustache who just couldn’t be one of the cool kids. Of course, all the promises capitalists told us about the future were complete lies as they sought to create a New Gilded Age without challenge from any kind of leftist movement. We are just awakening to this reality today. I increasingly see Occupy as a sort of unfocused wake up call where no one is quite sure what has gone wrong, but people realize, wait something is wrong! It reminds me of the 1870s and 1880, where you had a generation of workers who had believed the economic promises of business leaders and were shocked to find out that what had really happened was class warfare enacted from above upon the poor. It took 20 years and the importation of radical ideas with immigrants to bring a more focused challenge to the unrestrained capitalism of the Gilded Age to the U.S.

I will say that I’m not totally comfortable with Graeber’s construction of a kinder, gentler capitalism. There was fear of a leftist uprising, but it wasn’t from the corporations, who were happy to just murder organizers. It was from politicians and the middle class, who voted in the changes. And that happened not because of any real possibility of leftist revolt in the U.S., because that never really existed in a legitimate way like in Europe. It happened because workers organized to demand changes in the system that reduced income inequality. In some ways, they wanted the same things as Thomas Piketty–a fairer system rather than revolution.

UAW Effort in Alabama Collapsing

[ 66 ] June 1, 2014 |

This is a depressing story.

Pro-union forces in the Mercedes-Benz plant in Alabama are asking the United Auto Workers to stop organizing there because the UAW won’t bring the election up to a vote.

Garner and Jim Spitzley, another longtime employee, have been key spokesmen for pro-union employees, and they have worked closely with the UAW on the campaign.

But they have grown increasingly frustrated with the UAW’s failure to file for an election.

At one point, the men say, the campaign had enough union authorization cards to legally file for an election, as more than 30 percent of the plant’s hourly production and maintenance workers had signed one.

But the UAW was pushing for a much higher percentage, 65 percent, because it wanted a sure win, they said.

“It’s all about the image with the UAW, and it’s not about the workers,” Spitzley said.

But before you say that the UAW is wrong here, understand that it is not wrong. The UAW knows it can’t bring this before an election because it will go down to a resounding defeat. 65 percent is a pretty standard number in modern elections because a lot of those votes will be peeled away in the intimidation campaign to come from the company.

Yet the Alabama unionists distancing themselves from the UAW is a sign of just how low the prestige of the union has become since the Chattanooga loss. I have no idea what the Alabama workers are going to do to replace the UAW. Some want the Machinists to come in but that would violate AFL-CIO jurisdiction rules, which may not be the best thing in the world sometimes, but you really don’t want unions raiding each other either. So probably nothing, maybe some kind of independent union, but the problem is that they aren’t going to win a vote either way. Maybe the best thing is to start an employees’ group that acts like a union, recruit members over the next few years, and build up that way. But right now, this is just ugly for anyone who cares about American unionization.

Miss American Vampire, 1970

[ 46 ] May 31, 2014 |

After a vigorous day of book submission and navel-gazing, I think we could all use a serious topic for this Saturday night. Like this:



[ 33 ] May 31, 2014 |

So I am supposed to write something for this 10th anniversary deal. Not really sure what to say. It’s certainly nice to have an audience after blogging for eons in obscurity and I am very glad to help provide coverage of the labor movement and working class issues. When I started writing here in 2011, the blogosphere was pretty lacking in coverage of labor and poverty. Then Occupy happened and a lot more interest developed in these issues, which continues today. That’s great and I hope I am a useful part of that conversation. There are other issues too–climate change, historical films of cats boxing, chronicling the diabolical nature of the coal industry, Americans’ unfortunate tolerance of ketchup, dead horses in American history–that I like to think I add something to. But nothing as much as labor issues, both in the past and present, where I try to use this space not only to complain or think about how this will affect the next election cycle (although both of those things have value) but to begin to figure out ways out of the New Gilded Age. Not everyone thinks my ideas are good or practical (and in the short term, I’d agree on the latter), but you have to articulate this stuff to put together the intellectual and social movement framework that will eventually tame the capitalist beast.

Hopefully, my book does some of that work too, as I turn the completed manuscript draft in today (in about 1 hour actually–OMG!). It comes out of my work here so at least someone thinks this stuff is useful. Like SEK and others, writing here has directly advanced my career in amazing ways (even if it has threatened it at times as well) and I certainly never expected concrete gains to come out of my ranting and raving.

Now if there was just a way to clean up my Google search from the attacks from gun nuts and the Greenwald/DeBoer/various internet anarchists group over the 2012 election.

It’s also worth noting that on the 10th anniversary of LGM, we have again broken our monthly record for the most page views and with a good day could hit 1 million for May. In a period where liberal blogs have complained about declining readership numbers, I guess it means that we are doing something right around here. I’m glad you all like it enough to keep coming back.

So here’s to another 10 years of talking and working toward economic and social justice. And here’s something far more interesting than my navel-gazing. A man who, as I age, I model myself increasingly after: W.C. Fields.

Donations to this site will be used for me to get a prosthetic nose so I can look like W.C.

More Kristof

[ 63 ] May 30, 2014 |

It seems that Nic Kristof was more than a dupe of Somaly Mam’s lies. Sounds like he was complicit to a significant degree:

Many of her accolades, in turn, can be traced back to her friendship with New York Times columnist Nick Kristof. As of press time he still lists the Somaly Mam Foundation as a “partner” in Half the Sky Movement, his blatant attempt (along with wife Sheryl WuDunn) to brand and therefore profit from economic and physical violence against women and girls in the Global South. He also has yet to account for his inclusion of discredited statements by a Mam foundation “rescuee” in either the 2009 book or 2012 “documentary” “Half the Sky.” And Kristof’s live-tweeting of their brothel raid appears to violate the U.N. Conventions on the Rights of the Child, and his purchase of two “sex slaves” for media purposes is not condoned by Cambodian Human Trafficking Law.

Kristof may, eventually, claim to have been duped. I believe he’ll be lying (again), although other folks who are not Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters may be more sincere. The alleged falsehoods in Mam’s biography, debunked by eyewitnesses but upheld by her organization — which Marks deserves kudos for tracking, and which the mainstream press should be shamed for failing to pick up on earlier — are troubling: Her own childhood exploitation, accounts of her daughter’s kidnapping by pro-trafficking thugs, and young women’s stories of rape and abuse often go unverified or unchallenged in Cambodia, yet are so oft repeated abroad as to give the semblance of truth. Unfortunately, these are lies many have profited from, including right-wing Christian fundamentalist NGOs, which have used the mantle of human trafficking to promote agendas that are clearly unrelated, like abstinence education in U.S. schools and religious instruction in Buddhist or Muslim areas abroad.

He has a lot of explaining to do.

Sex Work

[ 147 ] May 30, 2014 |

Huh, it’s almost like criminalizing sex work just drives it underground instead of gets rid of it. Who knew.

Just Deport Him

[ 55 ] May 30, 2014 |

I don’t understand why China would force this guy to serve seven months in one of its prisons making Christmas lights for the American market. This is technically illegal since the U.S. has banned the import of prison labor-made goods ever since the Smoot-Hawley Tariff of 1930, but neither the American government or corporations have no real interest in enforcing this law and therefore the Chinese easily get around it by selling the goods to third-parties and the American stores don’t ask any questions.

But why not just deport the guy? Obviously if you make an American sociologist serve time in one of your prison, he’s going to write about the conditions upon release. Why bring the bad publicity on yourself?

Coal Company Lies

[ 61 ] May 30, 2014 |

Coal companies are openly cheating the system that monitor for coal dust that leads to black lung, misleading Mine Safety and Health Administration monitoring programs. There are so few good jobs in West Virginia and rural Kentucky that they can easily intimidate most employees into complaining since what else are you going to do that makes you $50,000 without a college degree. But the cost of this is workers dying in a truly horrible manner.

Dirty Energy’s War on Louisiana

[ 23 ] May 30, 2014 |

The energy industry continues its war upon the people and ecology of Louisiana:

Last summer, an independent government authority responsible for flood protection for the New Orleans area sued more than 90 oil and gas companies for damaging coastal marshes that protect the city.

The Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority East didn’t specify the damages it sought. But the cost of rebuilding and protecting the state’s coastal marshlands has been estimated at roughly $50 billion.

Now those industries and their political allies here in the state capital are trying to kill this legal challenge by passing a law that would restrict the authority’s power to sue over violations of state coastal permits. Proponents have said it would provide defendants with grounds to seek the lawsuit’s dismissal.

This isn’t the first effort to kill this lawsuit. More than a dozen bills have been introduced in the State Legislature since March to effectively do so. All but one has stalled. A final effort to restrict the authority’s power to sue these industries is expected to come Thursday before the State House of Representatives, where it has the support of the Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, and legislative allies of oil and gas. The bill has already passed the Senate. The House needs to defeat the bill.

Unfortunately, the Louisiana House did exactly what you’d expect, voting for the bill 59-39.

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

[ 25 ] May 29, 2014 |

I turn my book into my editor in 36 hours. I am delirious. The only thing keeping me going is The Gay Shoe Clerk.

Ankle. Hot.

Nic Kristof: A Man Impossible to Fool

[ 133 ] May 29, 2014 |

Simon Marks has a long expose demonstrating that Cambodian anti-sex trafficking activist Somaly Mam lied about her own life story and trained children to make up stories about their supposed experiences of sexual abuse in order to get rich westerners to give large donations.

In 2009, Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times about a girl named Long Pross, who had finally summoned the strength to tell her stunning story of sexual slavery. He reported that a woman had kidnapped Pross and sold her to a brothel, where she was beaten, tortured with electric wires, forced to endure two crude abortions and had an eye gouged out with a piece of metal by an angry pimp. Pross, Kristof said, was rescued by Mam and became part of her valiant group of former trafficking victims fighting for a world free of sexual slavery.

Pross also told her disturbing story on Oprah and appeared in the PBS documentary Half the Sky. “Believe it or not, when I returned home, my mother and father didn’t want me around. I wasn’t considered a good person,” she says in the documentary.

Equally hard to believe is the fact that Pross’s family, neighbors and medical records all tell a different story. Dr. Pok Thorn says he performed surgery on Pross when she was 13, after her parents brought her to a hospital with a nonmalignant tumor covering her right eye. Photographs in her medical records clearly show the young girl’s eye before and after the surgery.

So how did she come to be one of Somaly Mam’s girls? Te Sereybonn, director of Cambodia’s Takeo Eye Hospital back then, says his staff contacted AFESIP to see if they could admit Pross to one of their vocational training programs.

Another of Mam’s biggest “stars” was Meas Ratha, who as a teenager gave a chilling performance on French television in 1998, describing how she had been sold to a brothel and held against her will as a sex slave.

Late last year, Ratha finally confessed that her story was fabricated and carefully rehearsed for the cameras under Mam’s instruction, and only after she was chosen from a group of girls who had been put through an audition. Now in her early 30s and living a modest life on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, Ratha says she reluctantly allowed herself to be depicted as a child prostitute: “Somaly said that…if I want to help another woman I have to do [the interview] very well.”

She, like Pross, was never a victim of sex trafficking; she and a sister were sent to AFESIP in 1997 because their parents were unable to care for all seven of their children.

Wait, Nic Kristof? No! You mean, Mr. Helicopter Rich White Man Rescuer was ready to buy lurid, falsified stories hook, line, and sinker? Who could have guessed! Here’s a 2011 Kristof article lauding Mam and her story, in what has to be the most prototypical Kristof column. Here’s another, on Pross, entitled, “If This Isn’t Slavery, What Is?” Oh, I don’t know. Maybe something that actually happened.

Amanda Marcotte:

Sex trafficking of minors is absolutely a serious problem that needs to be dealt with. But that’s not exactly why it’s an issue that attracts so much attention and funding and glitzy celebrity hobnobbing. It’s because it’s one of those issues that is easy to moralize about without much fear of stepping into a major controversy. No one is for selling underage girls into prostitution. Even the pimps interviewed by the Urban Institute went out of their way to denounce sex slavery and trafficking of underage girls. Standing up for reproductive rights or pushing back against economic injustice means running the risk of powerful people, such as religious leaders or other wealthy people, fighting back.

For this reason, the focus on underage sex trafficking is all too often used as a feel-good feminism, eclipsing larger issues. Take, for instance, the campaign of male celebrities taking pictures of themselves holding up signs that say, “Real men don’t buy girls.” It’s hard not to wonder if the bar is being set awfully low here. It’s easy to take a stand against underage sex slavery. It’s harder to take a stand against the widespread objectification and marginalization of women in the entertainment community, forces that help shape a culture where men feel entitled to have sex and act indifferently to the humanity of women. Many of these men make a lot of money off marginalizing and objectifying women, and holding up a sign denouncing enslavement of underage girls is an easy way to establish themselves as good guys without changing any other behavior.

The history of prostitution reform in Progressive Era America tells a similar story. There were Kristof’s then too, freaking out about the white slavery traffic. They wanted to hear the most lurid stories possible and then publicize them to make points about the evils of prostitution. They didn’t bother fact-checking either. And time and time again, these stories about young women didn’t pan out. The impact of this movement was to make sex work illegal, making it far more dangerous, as it largely remains today.

The actions of women like Mam and useful idiots like Kristof just obscure the real problems of a lack of opportunity for women to have decent work and respectable lives in Cambodia and elsewhere, not to mention discrediting attempts to help solve real sex slavery. But then Kristof has never been interested in people helping themselves anyway. He prefers saving brown people from themselves.

Mam has now resigned from her foundation.

I, for one, look forward to Kristof’s response to Marks’ report.

….Read also Melissa Gira Grant.

The Broken Temp Worker System

[ 33 ] May 29, 2014 |

The explosion in temp work has happened because employers see it as a profitable way to exploit labor, getting rid of troublemakers, avoiding legal responsibility, and keeping wages and benefits to a minimum. This is an excellent story on temp workers in California lettuce fields–some of which having worked there for a mere 10 years:

Thanks to this arrangement the two-thirds of Taylor Farms’ 900 Tracy workers who work for subcontractors are considered temporary workers – even though some have worked at Taylor plants for 10 years. They can be fired at the drop of a foreman’s hat for questioning an instruction or calling in sick.

Taylor Farms’ reliance on temporary, low-wage workers is part of a management revolution that has radically changed the fundamental expectation that hard work will be rewarded with fair compensation. Whether this outsourcing trend continues will determine how unstable the national workplace becomes — and how difficult entry into the middle class will be for American workers.

Capital & Main learned that in addition to procuring workers for Taylor Farms, Mendoza, which also supplies temp field labor, sells its own $7 boxed lunches to its field hands and even rents cash-only apartments to its mostly undocumented workers. Teamster representatives say that Mendoza even supplied hecklers who tried to crash Roger Hernandez’s meeting with Taylor Farms workers.

“I would rate Abel Mendoza, SlingShot and Taylor Farms as the most abusive employers I’ve encountered in my 20 years of doing this work,” says Doug Bloch, the political director of Teamsters Joint Council 7, which has been leading an organizing effort in Tracy. “There’s always a need for temporary labor in any agricultural industry, but at Taylor Farms you have people who have been working five years or 10 years or longer as a ‘temp.’ There is nothing temporary about their employment whatsoever.”

A 2012 University of California, Berkeley Labor Center study concluded that temporary workers in California are twice as likely as non-temps to live in poverty, face lower wages and less job security. They are also twice as likely to receive food stamps and be on Medi-Cal as other employees. For temporary workers employed in manual occupations, particularly, it may also mean being subject to unsafe working conditions and other abuses as host companies and temp agencies each blame the other for health and safety violations.

“When somebody files a workers comp claim, nobody wants to take responsibility for it,” says the Teamsters’ Bloch. “The insurer gets bounced back and forth like a pinball between Taylor Farms and Abel Mendoza. The same thing happens when workers file claims with the Labor Commissioner. Everybody’s pointing their finger and saying, ‘I’m not the employer, it’s the other guy.’”

California Assemblyman Roger Hernandez has introduced a bill making companies responsible for what happens to workers when they use labor contractors. Such an idea needs to become central to labor activism worldwide and should be applied through the entirety of supply chains, making Wal-Mart legally responsible for what happens to workers in the sweatshop where they toil because the company demands huge shipments of product for very low prices.

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