Shopping ’til we all drop at Wal-Mart

Wal-Mart is concentrated neoliberalism. From working to weaken government at the same time it gorges on government subsidies, to exploitation of its workforce, to moving production to the places with the lowest wages and weakest laws, to underpaying taxes, the workers who walked out on Black Friday have no shortage of targets.

Some of the latest findings in a just released report reveal that Wal-Mart dodges $1 billion a year in taxes and is the recipient of an estimated $6.2 billion a year in indirect subsidies through social-welfare programs such as food stamps. A separate report also just published documents the poverty of Wal-Mart workers, many of whom regularly skip meals because their pay is so low.

Four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are collectively worth $144 billion — each is one of the nine richest people in the United States. At the same time, Wal-Mart workers are organizing food drives so they can eat. Wal-Mart officials shamelessly praise the food drives as examples of its employees caring about their co-workers.

Too bad Wal-Mart executives care much less about their employees.

It’s not as if the company can’t afford to pay its workers — it earned $78.4 billion in profits for its last five fiscal years. In 2013 alone, Wal-Mart paid nearly $6.2 billion in dividends to its shareholders.* And who were the major recipients of this largesse, extracted from the backs of its employees? None other than the Walton family, who own about 50 percent of the company’s stock, according to The Wall Street Journal. Then there are the buybacks of its stock — a buyback is when a company pays a premium above the price to buy its stock from willing sellers, giving a windfall to the sellers and spreading the profits among fewer shareholders. In 2011, for example, Wal-Mart spent $11.3 billion on dividends and stock buybacks.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Who pays for this massive transfer of wealth? Let’s look at the other side of the equation. A report prepared by public-interest group Eat Drink Politics, “Walmart’s Hunger Games: How America’s Largest Employer and Richest Family Worsen the Hunger Crisis,” offers several stories of Wal-Mart employees who make too little money to eat properly. One employee, La’Randa Jackson of Cincinnati, Ohio, says:

“I skip a lot of meals. The most important thing is food for the babies, then my younger brothers. Then, if there’s enough, my mom and I eat.”

Full time work but under the poverty line

The Hunger Games report notes that Wal-Mart’s immense size drives down pay not only in retail but in other industries. The company’s wages are much less than it claims:

“Estimates of hourly Walmart wages vary, but one study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that Walmart cashiers average just $8.48/hour, while another industry report found the average pay to be $8.81 per hour. At this rate, an employee who works 34 hours per week, which is Walmart’s definition of full-time, is paid $15,500 per year, which is about $8,000 below the federal poverty line for a family of four.”

Not that all Wal-Mart employees are able to work even those 34 hours per week. The Hunger Games report said:

“As many as 600,000 Walmart workers currently work part-time, although many want to work full-time and are pushing for additional hours. The company intensified its hiring of temporary workers last year, while continuing to deny full-time hours to many employees who want them.”

The report on Wal-Mart’s tax evasion, “How Walmart is Dodging Billions in Taxes,” produced by the coalition Americans For Tax Fairness, found that the company exploits tax loopholes to pay about $1 billion per year less in taxes than it would otherwise — a total of $5.1 billion in the past five years.

Meanwhile, the company retains a fleet of 74 lobbyists, mostly former members of Congress both Republican and Democratic, spending $33 million on lobbying in the past five years. Among the goodies on Wal-Mart executives’ wish list are more tax breaks, including a drop in the statutory corporate tax rate to 25 percent from 35 percent (although it, like almost all corporations, pay much less than 35% already) and the elimination of taxes on revenue it claims to have earned outside the U.S. Americans For Tax Fairness estimates that the company would avoid another $720 million per year in taxes should its wishes be granted.

This report also finds that taxpayers already spend at estimated $6.2 billion per year subsidizing Wal-Mart’s low pay and paltry benefits. This was calculated by projecting the cost to Wisconsin of Wal-Mart as reported in a study prepared by the Democratic Party staff of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce to the company’s 1.4 million employees across the country. Programs included in the report’s estimate include school breakfast and lunch programs, Section 8 housing subsidies, the Earned Income Tax Credit, Medicaid, the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program and food stamps (the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).

It’s the system, not one company

Wal-Mart is not unique in the viciousness in how it deals with, and exploits, its employees. The internal logic of capitalist development is driving the manic drive to move production to the locations with the most exploitable labor, not any single company, industry or country. One company will inevitably become the most ruthless in implementing what companies in a variety of industries are forced to do under the rigor of capitalist competition. Wal-Mart so happens to be it.

Multi-national corporations that transfer production to low-wage countries  — and their suppliers who are forced to move production to them under compulsion, such as apparel manufacturers who knuckle under to the demands of Wal-Mart — profit from systems of global supply chains, and are the fiercest advocates of “free trade” agreements that make it easier for them to transfer and subcontract production.

If a supplier doesn’t transfer production to a low-wage company, it can’t meet Wal-Mart’s demand for lower prices and goes out of business because Wal-Mart is a dominant customer. Other suppliers, even those who service other chains, then have to do the same to match the competition.

Although an increasing amount of outsourced production is being shifted to Bangladesh and Vietnam, and the Chinese government is seeking to manufacture higher-end and more sophisticated products, the low wages and vast numbers of exploitable workers, often displaced from the countryside, that China offers represented an opportunity for Western and Japanese corporations.

“Market forces” are at work here. If markets can’t be expanded, cutting costs is the route to maintaining profit rates, no matter the human cost. The Wal-Mart workers and their allies who demonstrated, walked out and, in Los Angeles, staged a hunger strike on Black Friday are therefore not only going up against the company most responsible for the lowering of wages and movement of production overseas — one virulently opposed to any form of employee organizing and relentless in eliminating local competition — they are going up against the market forces of capitalism and the logic of neoliberalism.

The fight of Wal-Mart’s workers is our fight. Consider this passage from a Businessweek article:

“Walmart has been opposed to unions since Sam Walton opened his first store in Rogers, Ark., in 1962. These days, ‘we have human resources teams all over the country who are available to talk to associates, and we will get questions about joining a union,’ says David Tovar, a spokesman for the company. ‘We would say: Let us remind you of all that Walmart offers, and of what might go away. Quarterly bonuses might go away, vacation time might go away.’ ”

The Wal-Mart spokesman is merely saying out loud what many other corporate executives say in private. U.S. labor law, weak as it is, renders illegal intimidation tactics in regards to union organizing. Yet the company believes it can talk and act with impunity. So far, that is true.

Everyone who shops at Wal-Mart contributes to this problem. Those who do believe they are saving money by buying at low prices, but those low prices actually come at a high cost. The cost will become higher until we become willing to stop believing that begging for crumbs is the only way the world can be organized.

* My own calculation: Four quarterly dividend payments of 47 cents a share, multiplied by 3.28 billion outstanding shares.

You can have democracy as long as you vote for the boss

The idea that democracy and capitalism go together is a relatively recent phenomenon. The pairing don’t really go together: How much control do you have at your job? Over the development of your city? Over a political process responsive only to the greed of the one percent?

Early capitalists and their publicists believed political democracy was an outright impediment. Adam Smith and another influential classical economist, David Ricardo, among many others, opposed universal suffrage. Ricardo was prepared to extend suffrage only “to that part of them [the people] which cannot be supposed to have an interest in overturning the right to property.” Smith’s reluctance seemed to be rooted in his honest assessment of how few are able to enjoy that right to property: “For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, who are often driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”

Not long afterward, the influential British politician and writer Thomas Babington Macaulay said universal suffrage would be “the end of property and thus of all civilization.”  (“Property” refers to the means of production, not personal possessions.)

Along U.S. Highway 20/26/93, west of Arco, Idaho (Photo by Pete Dolack)

Along U.S. Highway 20/26/93, west of Arco, Idaho (Photo by Pete Dolack)

Because capitalism is an impersonal system, it does not require that members of the dominant capitalist class actually hold political posts, although frequently they do. It is enough that the political structure that is a byproduct of the ideologies of capitalists’ institutions, corporations, remain in place, and that capitalists exert decisive influence over a society’s other institutions.

The modern state itself is a creation of the rise of capitalism and the need of industrialists and financiers for a structure to provide protection for investments and to settle disputes among themselves. These features are wrapped tightly in nationalism, with continual references to a given nation’s mythologies, to bind working people tighter to the system. Capitalism also requires a literate, educated population, in contrast to earlier systems, and a literate, educated populace is more inclined and more able to agitate for its interests.

Self-interest in expanding the vote

There is more communication — this, too, is a necessity for the increased commerce of capitalism — and if the people of one nation wrest a gain from their rulers, people in other nations will know about it, and will struggle to get it for themselves as well. Further, in the early days of capitalism, its development was seldom in a straight line; sometimes there could be an incremental expansion of the voting franchise because one bloc of capitalists believed the new voters would vote for their party.

Once the vote is made available to more citizens, pressure builds from below to further extend the vote; moreover, the creation of a modern working class brings together masses of people, enabling the creation of mass movements that can organize struggles for more democratic rights. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool for democracy activists, although by itself it can’t substitute for real-world organizing and a physical presence at key locations.

Capitalists intended to establish democracy only for themselves, but the spaces and contradictions contained within the political systems created to stabilize the functioning of capitalism (including institutions to adjudicate conflicts among the capitalists and mechanisms for selecting political leadership in the absence of an absolute monarchy or the continued ascendency of a static landed aristocracy) enabled their workers to wrest some of that democracy for themselves. None of that came easy — untold lives were snuffed out and untold blood was shed, and even in cases when a struggle has been bloodless, many advances required decades of dedicated activism to accomplish. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.

Summing up an essay in New Left Review on the development of voting rights across the world, Göran Therborn wrote:

“Democracy developed neither out of the positive tendencies of capitalism, nor as a historical accident, but out of the contradictions of capitalism. Bourgeois democracy has been viable at all only because of the elasticity and expansive capacity of capitalism, which were grossly underestimated by classical liberals and Marxists alike.”

Not endlessly expansive, however. Hard-won political rights are not only circumscribed by the immense power concentrated in the hands of corporate institutions and the class that controls those institutions, but those rights end at the entrance to the place of work.

A democratic lack of control?

If one class of people has the ability to bend the political process to benefit itself; arrogates to itself an unlimited right to accumulate at the expense of everybody else and at the expense of future generations; has the right to dictate in the workplaces, controlling employees’ lives; and can call on the state to enforce all these privileges with force, if necessary, then how much freedom do the rest of us really have? If one developer has the right to chop down a forest to build a shopping center that the community does not need or the right to build high-rise luxury towers that force out others who already lived there because one individual can earn a profit, and the community has no recourse, is this state of affairs truly democratic?

If a capitalist decides it would be profitable to move the factory to a low-wage country and thousands are put out of work as a result, is it not capital that actually possesses freedom? If enterprises were collectively run and/or under community control, would people vote to send their jobs to a low-wage haven thousands of miles away?

If the political system is so dominated by corporate power — the concentrated power of industrialists and financiers — that a politician at the national level who might genuinely wish to give working people a better break can’t because that corporate power is decisive, or that a politician at the local level might want to make the local factory owner do a little more for the community or simply pay a fair amount of taxes can’t because to push the idea would lead to the factory owner closing the factory and sending many townspeople to the unemployment office, then can this system said to be democratic?

Men and women have the vote, and have constitutionally guaranteed rights — lives were sacrificed to gain these rights. But if there is such a concentration of power that most elementary decisions are taken by a small number of people — either big capitalists or politicians acting on their behalf or under their influence — then the rights enshrined in a constitution are mere shells. Democracy is formal, and cannot be more than formal without democracy extending to all spheres of life. That is impossible under capitalism because concentrated economic power is leveraged into power over the political, cultural, social and educational life of a nation, and that power, as wielded by capital, will be tightened at home and expanded abroad due to the impetus to expand.

Capitalism is an impersonal system, and the competition that drives it inevitably leads to this dynamic, regardless of which personality is where. The world has not reached its present state by accident, and although it does not guarantee any particular capitalist a permanent place at the top, it does guarantee extreme inequality and the immiseration of the many (working people) for the benefit of the few (industrialists and financiers). No reform can wish that away.

Forward to the past: Next stop, the 19th century

If capitalism is taking us back to feudalism, we’ll have to pass through the 19th century on our way. In terms of wealth inequality, we’re on course to return to the century of robber barons. Back then, the public-relations industry hadn’t developed, so at least they were called by an honest name, instead of “captains of industry” or “entrepreneurs” as they are today. Although “heir” would frequently be far more accurate than “entrepreneur.”

We’re not at the 19th century yet, but we have arrived at the 1920s on our trip to the past. The level of inequality of wealth in the United States today has not been seen since the decade that led to the Great Depression.

The top 0.1 percent — that is, the uppermost tenth of the 1% — have about as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent of United Statesians. To put it another way, approximately 320,000 people possess as much as do more than 280 million. It takes at least $20 million in assets to be among the top 0.1 percent, a total that is steadily rising.

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

Emmanuel Saez, an economics professor at the University of California, and Gabriel Zucman, a professor at the London School of Economics, examined income-tax data to reveal these numbers. They write that they combined that data with other sources to reach what they believe is the most accurate accounting of wealth distribution yet, one that shows inequality to be wider than previously imagined. The authors define wealth as “the current market value of all the assets owned by households net of all their debts,” including the values of retirement plans with the exception of unfunded defined-benefit pensions and Social Security. (The reason for that exclusion is that those moneys do not yet exist but are promises to be kept sometime in the future.)

The authors’ paper, “Wealth Equality in the United States since 1913: Evidence from Capitalized Income Data,” reports that, for the bottom 90 percent, there was no change in wealth from 1986 to 2012, while the wealth of the top 0.1 percent increased by more than five percent annually — the latter reaped half of total wealth accumulation.

The 22 percent of total wealth owned by the top 0.1 percent is almost equal to what that cohort owned at the peak of inequality in 1916 and 1929. Afterward, their total fell to as low as seven percent in 1978 but has been rising ever since. At the same time, the combined wealth of the bottom 90 percent rose from about 20 percent in the 1920s to a peak of 35 percent in the mid-1980s, but has been declining ever since. Although pension wealth has increased since then, Professors Saez and Zucman report, the increase in mortgage, consumer-credit and student debt has been greater.

Nonetheless, this might still be an underestimation — the authors write that they “still face limitations when measuring wealth inequality” because of the ability of the wealthy to hide assets off shore or park them in trusts and foundations.

Inequality on the rise

Although rising throughout the developing world, inequality is particularly acute in the United States. Among the nearly three dozen countries that make up the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, only three (Chile, Mexico and Turkey) have worse inequality than does the U.S., measured by the gini coefficient. The standard measure of inequality, the more unequal a country the closer it is to one on the gini scale of zero (everybody has the same) to one (one person has everything).

Of course, were we to measure inequality on a global scale, the results would be more revealing. Even the U.S. gini coefficient of 0.39 in 2012 pales in comparison to the global gini coefficient of 0.52 as calculated by the Conference Board of Canada. To put it another way, global inequality is comparable to the inequality within the world’s most unequal countries, such as South Africa or Uganda.

How to reverse this? Professors Saez and Zucman offer reforms that amount to a return to Keynesianism. They advocate “progressive wealth taxation,” [page 39] such as an estate tax; access to education; and “policies shifting bargaining power away from shareholders and management toward workers.” Such policies would surely be better than the austerity that has been on offer, but the authors’ wish that this can simply be willed into existence is quite divorced from capitalist reality.

Indeed, the authors go on to lament that one factor in stagnant incomes is that “many individuals … do not know how to invest optimally.” It is difficult to believe that these two learned economists are unaware of the relentless chicanery of the financial industry. How does one invest “optimally” in a rigged casino stacked against you?

The past is not the future

Fond wishes for the return of Keynesianism will not bring those days back. (And, of course, if you weren’t a white male those days weren’t necessarily golden anyway.) The Keynesian consensus of the mid-20th century was a product of a particular set of circumstances that no longer exist. Keynesianism then depended on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which to expand. Moreover, capitalists who are saved by Keynesian spending programs amass enough power to later impose their preferred neoliberal policies.

Capitalists tolerated such policies because profits could be maintained through expansion of markets and social peace bought. This equilibrium, however, could only be temporary because the new financial center of capitalism, the U.S., possessed a towering economic dominance following World War II that could not last. When markets can’t be expanded at a rate sufficiently robust to maintain or increase profit margins, capitalists cease tolerating paying increased wages.

And, not least, the massive social movements of the 1930s, when communists, socialists and militant unions scared capitalists into granting concessions and prompted the Roosevelt administration to bring forth the New Deal, were a fresh memory. But the movements then settled for reforms, and once capitalists no longer felt pressure from social movements and their profit rates were increasingly squeezed, the turn to neoliberalism was the response.

Nobody decreed “We shall now have neoliberalism” and nobody can decree “We shall now have Keynesianism.” Capitalist market forces — once again, simply the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers — that are the product of relentless competitive pressures have led the world to its present state and the massive inequality that goes with it.

Even if mass social movements build to a point where they could force the imposition of Keynesian reforms, the reforms would eventually be taken back just as the reforms of the 20th century have been taken back. The massive effort to build and sustain movements capable of pushing back significantly against the tsunami of neoliberal austerity would be better mobilized toward a different economic system, one based on human need rather than private profit.

Reforming what is ultimately unreformable is Sisyphean. Going back to the mid-20th century Keynesian era, even were it possible, would be no more than a detour on the way to the 19th century. Building a better world beats nostalgia.

Taking back the imagination

Of the many myths propping up capitalism few are more essential than the carefully tended concept of “imagination.” Capitalism supposedly unleashes the human imagination, enabling individuals to fulfill their potential and continually “disrupting” older systems to bring forth the new and improved. Shattering this mythology is one of the tasks of movements.

The ever active engineers of capitalist ideology, to be sure, possess the ability to shape human consciousness through the ability to exert decisive influence over of myriad of institutions. But to what end? Is the massive failure to meaningfully grapple with the myriad of crises not a failure of imagination?

It is imagination that is stifled under capitalism, argues Max Haiven in his engaging book Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons.* The crisis is capitalism, Professor Haiven argues: The fundamental amorality of the capitalist system itself is the cause of the world’s difficulties, not a lack of regulation nor the greed of individuals.

That message is present throughout the book. In the opening pages, Professor Haiven writes:

“[C]apitalism relies not only on the brutal repression of workers in factories and fields; it also relies on conscripting our imaginations. On a basic level, it relies on each of us imagining ourselves as essentially isolated, lonely, competitive economic agents. It relies on us imagining that the system is the natural expression of human nature, or that it is too powerful to be changed, or that no other system could ever be desirable. … While the system is ultimately held in place by the threat and exercise of very real violence and the concentration of very material wealth and power in the hands of the ruling class, its imaginary and imaginative dimensions cannot be ignored.” [pages 7-8]

Crises of ImaginationThe book is mostly a series of essays written for various publications that have been revised; this format is both strength and weakness. It is a strength because the author is able to present arguments on aspects of capitalist domination that receive less attention that they should, such as the neoliberal assault on education and the enclosures of the commons, not as a historical crime of the past but as an ongoing process happening today. It is something of a weakness because the various pieces of a full picture are not necessarily welded together, however much the cumulative effect of the author’s strands of thought do add up to a powerful argument.

One of these strands is a needed discussion of narrative — that is, the Right’s success at manipulating emotion versus the Left’s difficulties in gaining footholds in the popular imagination. There is not a level playing field here, of course. It is the very lack of content to Right-wing “values” that makes its rhetoric effective, Professor Haiven argues, because terms without content stand in for emotions, phobias and feelings. The Right uses emotion to get people to hate, whereas the Left is more “abstract, general and preachy.” Facts and statistics are important but insufficient by themselves. What is necessary are common values as the “bedrock” of revolutionary change.

Imagination as building block of social movements

Values should be flexible and negotiable, rather than fixed or dictated. Movement work and the creation of values should be a mutually reinforcing process. A central task, the author writes:

“is to imagine and build social formations that make the constant renegotiation of values central and operative. This is, for instance, the value of horizontal organizing and diversity in social movements: they force a constant questioning and recalibration of values not as hard, fixed and eternal ideals but as working models for collaboration.” [page 55]

Within capitalist logic, we are worthless and replaceable cogs, set at one another’s throats.

“[T]he Chinese teenager becomes a threat to my job because she can work for less and her company can attract the corporation that used to employ somebody like me. Meanwhile, it is my anonymous consumer appetites, driven by my dislocation from community and my need to survive in an austere world, that demands the conditions of that Chinese worker’s exploitation. And the unfortunate fact is that I’m effectively worthless in this equation too: I could choose to not buy the iPod, but someone else will. Everyone is utterly replaceable in this system.” [page 55]

And on their own. Financialization shifts risks to the individual, his or her retirement dependent on the mercy of stock markets far beyond his or her control; universities are reduced to neoliberal showpieces that convert students into individualized debtors with no mission beyond issuing a ticket for a future job; language is debased to co-opt the meaning of “creativity” to twist it into underpaid labor in a neoliberal workforce that does nothing more than hype mindless consumerism; and mass culture is reduced to the buying of corporate products.

The author produces compelling arguments detailing these and other outcomes of modern capitalist society. But the underlying economic processes and structures underlying neoliberal assaults on ever more aspects of public life are largely missing from Crises of Imagination. This is perhaps not an entirely fair criticism because the book is a philosophical work, not an economic one. The author himself concludes his introduction by humbly writing that “I cannot claim to have done anything particularly innovative” nor, he says, is the book an attempt at a systemic theory. Fair enough.

Professor Haiven is correct when he writes that confronting capitalist power today requires far more than cutting down the size of banks, that it is too simple to believe that finance is merely a force imposed on society from above, and that financialization imposes shifts in corporate behavior that lead to faster recourse to layoffs and moving production to low-wage havens. But it is puzzling to read that “the new paradigm subordinates capitalism itself to the increasingly short-term, ruthless and pathological imagination of ‘the market.’ ” [page 108]

I have no argument with that description of “the market,” but it obscures that such markets are indistinguishable from capitalism. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers, and can not be anything else. The very process of financialization — whereby financiers, acting as both whip and parasite, impose discipline on corporations to act ever more ruthlessly while simultaneously grabbing larger shares of the profits extracted from employees — is the product of the natural development of capitalism, not an intervention. Capitalism can not be separated from markets, much less “subordinated” to its own engine.

Taking back our imagination to overturn the concrete

But let us not go overboard with critiques. Crises of Imagination, while not necessarily, per its author, an innovative work, does formulate its arguments very well, with some original conceptions. For an example, in one of the book’s strongest chapters, on the “edu-factory,” Professor Haiven wittily draws an analogy between the subordination of the university to the interests of neoliberal capital accumulation and the show trials of the 1930s. He writes:

“The desperate self-privatization of the neoliberal university is the late-capitalist equivalent of the Stalinist show trial. The broken university, after years of secreted economic torture, is made to confess its own profligacy and lack of obedience to the austerity regime. Yet even this gaunt, emaciated, broken figure, which has betrayed all its once proud (perhaps vain) values, is not spared the cuts. The constant and unending attack on the university is a grim warning to all institutions and individuals from the oblique, unapologetic totalitarian power of global capital: ‘We do not care if we are wrong or if our policies are ineffective in their stated goals. We do not care if we have to kill you all and destroy the planet. We do not care if you know it. Money will rule.’ ” [page 139]

But we do not have to accept the permanent rule of industrialists and financiers. A radical rethinking of society can’t be accomplished without our taking back our imagination, although, the author cautions, current social relations are not simply ‘imaginary’ but are rooted in concrete power imbalances. But we can’t imagine or create a blueprint for the future because the future can’t be planned and any such blueprints would contain some of the poison of today’s world. As capitalism accelerates exploitation and dislocation, the possibilities for future forms of struggle also accelerate, although they will not automatically be liberatory.

The radical imagination emerges out of radical practice, but no single practice can be sufficient on its own, the author writes. Imagination is a process of collective doing; imagination creates reality and reality creates imagination. Professor Haiven concludes:

“A revolution is not made of good ideas, but rather by good ideas materialized in social spaces. Solidarity is not a matter of having the right political ideals and sympathies, but of building real, tangible relationships. … [I]magination as a shared capacity grows out of social cooperation, alternative-building and the establishment of a new commons.” [page 265]

The reader seeking an analysis of capitalist economics can find works more on point. But anybody wanting a sweeping polemic on the totalizing effects of capitalism — and polemic here is meant in the positive sense of the word, as a constructed argument logically built — will find a well-written, engaging weapon in their hands. A fine use of the imagination engaging with concrete reality.

* Max Haiven, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons. Zed Books, London and New York; Fernwood Publishing, Black Point, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Winnipeg, 2014]

The ‘medicine’ of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as bitter as ever

The Trans-Pacific Partnership is as dangerous as ever. Denying access to medicines, increased surveillance of Internet usage and mandatory patents at the behest of multi-national corporations are some of the corporate goodies stashed in the TPP’s intellectual property chapter, revealed by WikiLeaks this month. Journalism could even be criminalized.

The more we know about the TPP, the worse it gets, which is why the governments of the 12 countries involved, led by the Obama administration, continue to negotiate in unprecedented secrecy. The latest text of the TPP’s intellectual property chapter shows very little change from an earlier draft also published by WikiLeaks. In a press release accompanying this month’s publication of the revised text, WikiLeaks says:

“[T]here are significant industry-favouring additions within the areas of pharmaceuticals and patents. These additions are likely to affect access to important medicines such as cancer drugs and will also weaken the requirements needed to patent genes in plants, which will impact small farmers and boost the dominance of large agricultural corporations like Monsanto.”

An analysis by Public Citizen explains:

“A rule [would] require the patenting of plant-related inventions, such as the genes inserted into genetically modified plants, putting farmers in developing countries at the mercy of the agriculture industry, including seed manufacturers such as Monsanto, and threatening food security in these countries more broadly.”

The architecture of Melbourne

The architecture of Melbourne

Monsanto, already attempting to gain a stranglehold over the world’s food supply, is hardly in need of yet more favorable treatment. Proprietary seeds and genetically modified organisms are Monsanto’s routes to control what you eat and what farmers grow. Once under contract, farmers are required to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the Monsanto herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant.

Stealth ‘fast-track’ process needed to sneak TPP through Congress

Concomitant to the secrecy shrouding the TPP is the stealth needed to pass the “free trade” treaty. The Obama administration is seeking to be given “fast-track” authority by Congress. Under the fast-track process, Congress cedes its right to make any changes, limits its time to debate, and must schedule a straight yes-or-no vote (no amendments allowed) in a short period of time. Some of the worst “free trade” deals have been approved in this manner, and the importance of fast-track is shown in that the last U.S. trade pact approved, with South Korea, was approved in 2007 — literally one minute before fast-track authority expired!

A fast-track bill, known as Camp-Baucus for its two sponsors, was essentially dead on arrival early this year due to widespread opposition in Congress, mostly by Democrats but also some Republicans. That this arose was because of organized activist work by groups across the United States. But Democratic Senator Ron Wyden, last April, signaled his intention to introduce a new fast-track bill, which he rebranded “smart track.” U.S. activists widely speculate that either Senator Wyden’s thinly disguised “smart track” bill or a more openly fast-track bill, perhaps written by Republicans in the House of Representatives, will be introduced in Congress following the November election with the intention of ramming it through a lame-duck session.

U.S. activists for the past year and a half have focused on stopping fast-track in Congress because it will be virtually impossible to pass the TPP otherwise. Other countries have signaled their reluctance to agree to a final TPP text unless Congress grants the Obama administration fast-track authority. Without such authority, Congress would retain the right to make changes to an agreed-upon treaty, potentially unraveling any deal. The Canadian government, in late September, made this reluctance explicit.

Washington Trade Daily recently reported that the Canadian ambassador to the U.S., Gary Doer, said Canada and other negotiating countries won’t conclude negotiations until the Obama administration has the “political muscle” of trade-promotion authority (the formal name for fast-track). Thus, activists advocate no lessening of vigilance against new attempts to introduce fast-track legislation. A Week of Action Against Fast Track is being organized for November 8 to 14 in the U.S. In Australia, a series of rallies opposing the TPP are taking place this week in Sydney and Canberra.

These efforts come against a renewed push for a completed deal; negotiators are meeting this week, to be immediately followed on October 25 by a ministerial-level meeting in Sydney.

Criminalizing your right to know

There is much to oppose in the Trans-Pacific Partnership itself. A trade-secrets provision in the leaked intellectual property chapter is written in a way that makes it possible for reporting the contents of a future trade deal to be prosecuted. The article in question states:

“In the course of ensuring effective protection against unfair competition … each Party shall ensure that natural and legal persons have the legal means to prevent trade secrets lawfully in their control from being disclosed to, acquired by, or used by others (including state commercial enterprises) without their consent in a manner contrary to honest commercial practices.”

Criminal penalties would be mandatory for:

“the unauthorized, willful access to a trade secret held in a computer system; the unauthorized, willful misappropriation of a trade secret, including by means of a computer system; or the fraudulent (or unauthorized) disclosure of a trade secret, including by means of a computer system.”

WikiLeaks’ publication of this text would be a criminal matter under this provision. This provision would make it mandatory for signatory governments to enact strict laws protecting undefined “trade secrets.” The text of the TPP itself is classified as a secret! Legislators and the public are excluded from seeing the text. In the United States, the only people other than negotiators to have access to the text are 605 “advisers,” who are almost all executives of multi-national corporations or corporate lobbyists.

The Age newspaper of Melbourne summarizes the threat to journalism this way:

“The leaked treaty text shows that in an effort to deal with ‘unfair competition,’ largely from Chinese industrial espionage, the United States has pushed ahead with proposals to criminalise disclosure of trade secrets across the Pacific Rim. The draft text provides that TPP countries will introduce criminal penalties for unauthorised access to, misappropriation or disclosure of trade secrets, defined as information that has commercial value because it is secret, by any person using a computer system.  …

There are no public interest or free speech exemptions. Criminalisation of disclosure would apply to journalists working for commercial media organisations or wherever the leak was considered harmful to the ‘economic interests’ of any TPP country.”

Barriers to cheaper generic medications

Other rules in the TPP intellectual property text would raise barriers to generic medications becoming available and mandating that the terms of patents be extended on demand by patent holders. The United States and Japan even propose language that would require intellectual property enforcement to be elevated above any other legal consideration! The U.S. is also seeking the criminalization of copyright infringement, even in cases where there is no attempt to gain financially, such as a fan posting a work, and would also mandate that Internet service providers remove content upon a corporation’s demand to avoid legal penalties.

The linchpin to enforcement of draconian rules — the worst of which are put forth by the United States with Japan often seconding — is the “investor-state dispute mechanism.” That is a requirement that governments submit to binding arbitration in secret tribunals when an “investor” wants a law changed; the judges in these tribunals are corporate lawyers.

The dispute mechanism is not directly mentioned in the intellectual property chapter, but the one article that purports to uphold national sovereignty is contradicted by another article that mandates that multi-national corporations be given the same rights as national corporations. That clause, standard in “free trade” agreements, is a battering ram used by the secret tribunals to order the withdrawal of laws safeguarding environmental, safety, health or labor standards. These rulings, in turn, become precedents that are used to hand down future harsher decisions.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, however, is far from the only danger to working people. There is also the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership between the U.S. and the E.U.; the Trade In Services Agreement that would eliminate the ability of governments to regulate the financial industry (50 countries are in on this one); and the Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. Each of these are designed to elevate corporations to the level of a country, although in practice, because of tribunal precedents, they would elevate corporations above national governments.

“Free trade” agreements have little to do with trade, and much to do with imposing the domination of capital in as many spheres of life as possible. They are massive failures for working people in all countries. They offer, and can offer, nothing but a race to the bottom. Attempting to reform a race to the bottom is a fool’s errand. The TPP and its equally vile cousins must be defeated, and a complete re-conceptualization of trade and who should benefit from trade, substituted. That in turn requires directly challenging prevailing economic systems, otherwise we will be shoveling against the tide.

A bigger pie doesn’t mean you are getting a slice

The kerfuffle between executives and shareholders of The Coca-Cola Company seems to have been smoothed over, at least for now, but no matter how much the two sides wrangle over the pie, they do agree on one crucial detail: Employees deserve nothing.

Lest we dismiss the recent plan hatched by Coca-Cola’s management to transfer to itself at least US$13 billion as a fight in which we have no dog, it does provide a case study of the mindset of corporate and financial elites, and the power of Wall Street. This is a company accused of involvement in a string of human-rights violations in countries around the world and racial discrimination in the United States, and routinely lays off employees despite raking in billions of dollars per year in profits.

The $13 billion dispute is this: Coca-Cola management proposed earlier this year to issue hundreds of millions of stock and stock options to its higher-level executives. For 2014 alone, the stock grants would have been worth about $13 billion. Enter a money-management firm that owns a couple of million shares. Loudly complaining that those billions belonged to it and other shareholders, the money-management firm’s chief executive officer declared:

“In effect, the Board [of directors of Coca-Cola] is asking shareholders for approval to transfer approximately $13 billion from all of our pockets to the Company’s management over the next four years.”

Fire and ice on Colombia volcano Nevado del Huila (photo by Martin Roca)

Fire and ice on Colombia volcano Nevado del Huila (photo by Martin Roca)

Coca-Cola’s management blinked last week, but earlier defended its stock grant by saying that the stock grants “are within industry norms.” But we need not run out of tissues crying over this transfer of wealth away from needy financiers, because Coca-Cola announced that it is reducing its previous plan. Just what the company plans to give its executives is not clear from its October 1 press release, but it did have this to say:

“Consistent with our past practice, 100% of the proceeds from stock option exercises by employees will be used to repurchase shares, minimizing dilution. This is separate from, and in addition to, our normal share repurchase program.”

What that finance-speak means is that the profits of the company won’t be spread thinner because it will buy back stock in exchange for the stock it will issue its top executives. Wall Street won this round. Coca-Cola will be using some of its profits to buy back shares from existing shareholders. This is a common practice whereby a company offers to buy stock at a premium to the trading price, giving an extra payday to those who sell and leaving the profits to be divided by among a smaller group.

Money rains upon speculators

How much largesse is rained upon financiers? According to a report by Bloomberg, the companies of the S&P 500 Index will spend $914 billion on stock buybacks and dividends this year, or 95 percent of their earnings. (Those earnings are after the multimillion-dollar payouts executives pay themselves. Oops, sorry, after the payouts granted by their cronies on their hand-picked board of directors.) Bloomberg reports that S&P 500 companies are sitting on “$3.59 trillion in cash and marketable securities and they’ve raised almost $1.28 trillion in 2014 through bond sales.”

That represents quite a pile of profits. Coca-Cola has spent billions of dollars in recent years buying back its stock. The company has plenty of money, reporting almost $45 billion in net income during the past five years. A capitalist’s profits (including the large portion shared with financiers) are created through paying employees much less than the value of what they produce. So what did Coca-Cola’s employees get for producing this wealth enjoyed by executives and speculators? The back of the hand for the most part.

Having earned “only” $8.6 billion in net income for 2013, a slight drop from a year earlier, Coca-Cola announced it would cut its annual expenses by $1 billion by 2016. Undoubtedly, a savings of that size will have to include layoffs. Already, Italian workers struck last month over a plan to eliminate 12 percent of their jobs; workers at the company’s partially owned Australian affiliate have been handed a pay freeze for 2015 with new hires starting at 40 percent less; and 1,200 Spanish jobs were eliminated by closing four plants in defiance of a court order.

All this is before we get to the many human-rights abuses in which Coca-Cola is accused. In the past, the company made big profits operating in Nazi Germany and apartheid South Africa.

More recently, the company and its business affiliates have been repeatedly accused of using paramilitary death squads to kidnap, torture and assassinate union leaders. The company denies any involvement. But being an organizer in Colombia is dangerous work — of the 213 union leaders murdered worldwide in 2002, 184 died in Colombia. In the previous 15 years, almost 4,000 Colombian trade unionists were murdered.

Child labor, violence and smuggling are it

Workers seeking to join unions in Colombia are routinely fired and threats against union activists continue on a steady basis. The activist group Killer Coke has compiled a country-by-country list of outrages in various countries, including thousands of children, as young as eight-years-old, used as labor on El Salvador sugar-cane farms that supply the company; multiple kidnappings and murders of union officials at a bottling plant in Guatemala; and, in the Philippines, the use of outsourced labor to avoid paying benefits and accusations of “smuggling” sugar into the country to avoid taxes and undercut local sugar producers.

The $13 billion that the executives and the financiers were fighting over did not fall out of the sky.

The point here isn’t that Coca-Cola is a uniquely evil company. Its arch-rival PepsiCo Inc. is spending $8.7 billion this year alone in stock buybacks and dividend payouts to make financiers happy. In the past, it was a major investor in Burma during the military régime that routinely used its citizens, particularly from ethnic minorities, as slave laborers. Pepsi exchanged its income there for Burmese agricultural products that could be sold at a profit outside the country — products often produced on the military junta’s slave-labor farms that were taken by force.

Finance capital is both whip and parasite, applying relentless market pressure to force companies to squeeze ever higher profits and extracting more wealth for itself. This is what the holy grail of “efficiency” actually means. Industrialists and financiers fight over which gets the bigger piece of the pie, but they agree they deserve the whole pie. The rest of us can shut up and get back to work. Did you vote for this?

It’d be simpler if we just gave all our money to the nearest billionaire

In attempting to comprehend the staggering fortunes possessed by the world’s multi-billionaires, consider this: There are only six countries in the world with a gross domestic product bigger than the wealth possessed by 400 richest people in the United States. Could it really be that these titans produce more than the entire country of Brazil? Or Italy? Or Canada?

At the same time, more than 47 million people in the United States rely on government food assistance, and despite the federal food-stamps program (known formally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), there are 49 million United Statesians who go hungry at least some of the time.

These two sets of facts are not unrelated.

The corporate media breathlessly reported, once again, on Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 400 richest people in the U.S., just published. These 400, Fortune reports, have a collective net worth of $2.3 trillion — an increase of $270 billion from last year. While this top of pyramid saw their net worth rise 12% in just the past year, the net worth of the bottom 75 percent has declined by more than five percent since 2010.

SerfsThe top ten on the Fortune list are familiar. Bill Gates, thanks to leveraging the personal-computer operating-system monopoly his company was once handed, continues to rank first. The Koch brothers, David and Charles, are tied for fourth at $42 billion each and four members of the Walton family, recipients of the capital amassed by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., are each among the top ten and collectively worth $144 billion.

The best democracy you can buy

As you might imagine, those billions buy a lot of political power. The Walton and Gates families are two of the three families that are the biggest bankrollers of the effort to place education under corporate control through charter schools. The Waltons amassed their fortunes through ruthless exploitation of its workers and relentlessly pressuring its suppliers to move production to China and then Bangladesh in search of ever lower wages.

Wal-Mart also enjoys vast subsidies — the company has received more than $1 billion in government giveaways, and a study of the costs of those subsidies and the public-assistance programs that Wal-Mart employees must use due to their miserably low pay add up to nearly $1 million per store. The average pay of a Bangladeshi garment worker who makes Wal-Mart’s products is US$75 to $100 per month.

Like the Waltons, the Koch brothers inherited their company. Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. They are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in an effort to buy Congress and state legislatures in this election cycle alone; are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that literally writes legislation for its corporate membership; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

The struggle for tens of millions to eat

At the other end of the spectrum, the charity organization Hunger in America estimates that 49 million people in the U.S. are “food insecure” and that 20 percent of the country’s households with children are food insecure. But those figures are based on U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics that are considered likely to be conservative. For example, the Food Research and Action Center, in its most recent study (for 2012) reported that 18.2 percent of those surveyed in a poll conducted by Gallup answered yes when asked if they did not have enough to eat at least once in the past 12 months. That translates to 57 million people.

The more than 47 million people who relied on food stamps in the U.S. in 2013 is an all-time high and, by way of comparison, the $80 billion cost of the program is less than the net worth of brothers Charles and David Koch. That net worth keeps rising despite the money they pour into their political pressure groups; the two have more than doubled their fortune in just the past four years. The cost of food stamps is also comparable to the $78.4 billion in profits that Wal-Mart has racked up in its five most recent fiscal years.

Let us remember that profit comes from a capitalist paying employees less than the value of what they produce. As Karl Marx demonstrated, the value of a product would be the same if the workers sold the commodity themselves, thereby retaining the full value of what they produced rather than having much of it taken by the capitalist. The portion taken by the capitalist therefore is the source of the capitalist’s profit and not the circulation of the product.

There is a reason that we are enduring a decades-long race to the bottom. Although the corporate press would like you to believe the propaganda that vast fortunes result from the magical acumen of captains of industry, the reality is ruthless exploitation. Inequality does not fall out of the sky.