Fooled again? Trump trade policy elevates corporate power

Given the Trump administration’s all-out war on working people, a government by billionaires and for billionaires considerably more blatant in its class warfare than the ordinary White House, it has long puzzled me that some activists insist on giving it the benefit of the doubt when it comes to trade issues.

The Trump administration’s previously stated goals on what it seeks to achieve in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) negotiations should have been sufficient evidence. But with this month’s issuance of the “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers” it should be painfully obvious that the Trump régime’s intent is to extend the dominance of U.S.-based multinational corporations into every aspect of life in as many corners of the globe as possible.

Directly contrary to Donald Trump’s hollow promises on the campaign trail, his administration released in July 2017 its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” This 18-page paper was written with boilerplate language that reads as if it was lifted from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and some of the language appears to be repeated word for word. The intention is to strengthen corporate power, not promote the interests of working people.

Bárrás mountain, Norway (photo by Ville Miettinen)

As Friends of the Earth said at the time in its analysis of the Trump administration’s NAFTA objectives:

“Trump’s statement indicates he plans to step up his war on public health and the planet by modeling NAFTA’s provisions related to environmental regulation on the TPP. These objectives appear to set the stage for a stealth attack on strong regulation of food, agriculture, chemicals, and biotechnology.”

I was thus quite surprised recently when discussing NAFTA on the Eco-Logic environmental program on WBAI radio in New York when, summarizing the Trump NAFTA paper, I was quite rudely interrupted and addressed in a most condescending manner by another guest, the head of a Washington non-governmental organization (NGO) who purported to “correct” me by claiming that Trump’s trade advisers say they want to do away with the secret tribunals that corporations use to overturn government laws and regulations.

I was appearing on Eco-Logic as a representative of a grassroots organization I have worked with for several years, Trade Justice New York Metro, but even I as a lowly community organizer and not the head of a connected NGO know that campaign promises are meaningless. The Trump administration has put its intentions in print, and it would be folly to ignore what administration officials themselves say is their policy. There has been no attempt to do away with the private tribunals (the “investor-state dispute system”) in the NAFTA talks, only a push to eliminate panels that decide anti-dumping cases. This is simply because the White House wants to make it easier for U.S. companies to be able to sell excess production on the cheap across the border.

Trump administration takes aim at the world

In its National Trade Estimate Report (prepared by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, headed by nationalist Robert Lighthizer), the Trump administration takes direct aim at no less than 137 countries. And, for the few that were missed, the report’s introduction warns “As always, the omission of particular countries and barriers does not imply that they are not of concern to the United States.”

The report defines “trade barriers” in this way: “government laws, regulations, policies, or practices that either protect domestic goods and services from foreign competition, artificially stimulate exports of particular domestic goods and services, or fail to provide adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.”

You’ll note the absence of labor, safety, health or environmental standards, and the concern for “intellectual property rights” contrasts with the complete lack of regard for what other countries might see as their right to protect their own economy. This concern only with corporate profits, at the expense of all other human considerations, is hardly new of course. U.S. negotiators during the Obama administration consistently pushed for the most draconian rules for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, particularly on intellectual property. Any “investor” — defined as any person or entity that has “an expectation of gain or profit” in any form of participation in any enterprise, holds any financial instrument, possess any intellectual property right or has a “tangible or intangible” right in any “movable or immovable property — would have eligible to sue governments under the rules of the TPP.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

Health care, and government policies to make medicines more affordable, such as those of New Zealand, was at direct risk under TPP.

Nothing has changed. Any attempt by any government to place health or environmental concerns at least level with corporate prerogatives is what actually constitutes a “trade barrier” in the eyes of the Trump administration, true to its composition of a cabinet stuffed with billionaires and its managerial ranks with a fleet of Goldman Sachs alumni.

No country too small to be a target of U.S. capital

Let’s take the example of Norway. Not a socialist paradise as some U.S. liberals of the Bernie Sanders persuasion imagine, but nonetheless a country that does make efforts to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and certainly a much more civilized place than the United States. Norway has an interesting relationship with the European Union, formally outside but part of the EU common market. Thus it is required that Oslo implement EU law, which it dutifully does with the exception of a couple of areas, including fishery policy, where it maintains independence.

The U.S. enjoyed a small trade surplus with Norway in 2017. Given Norway’s small population of five million one might believe the White House has bigger targets at which to aim. But no country is too small to feel the wrath of U.S. multi-national capital. The National Trade Estimate Report complains that Norway expects food that it imports to be proven safe. The nerve! The report says:

“Norway has effectively banned the importation of agricultural biotechnology products by implementing extremely restrictive policies for crops derived from such technology. The restrictions include prohibiting farmers from cultivating biotech crops and using biotech feed for farm animals. The United States continues to press Norway to recognize the applicable science on the safety of such products and accordingly to open its market to U.S. exports of such products. … Norway applies regulations developed by the European Union that ban imports of beef from animals treated with hormones, despite the absence of scientific evidence demonstrating that this practice poses any risk to human health.” [page 347]

Scientists, and not only EU officials, would differ. Note that in the Trump régime’s conception it is not up to the producer of a new product to prove it is safe; it’s up to consumers, or agencies designed to protect consumers, to prove it’s not safe after the fact. This backward formulation, unfortunately, is consistent with U.S. regulatory practice regarding chemicals.

Consistent with its attitude toward Norway, the Trump administration alleges the European Union raises “a proliferation of technical barriers.” [page 155] By no means can the EU be said to be immune to corporate pressure. But the EU does not have a policy of favoring U.S. corporations and has limitations in how far it can lower regulatory standards due to grassroots mobilization despite its best efforts to insulate itself from public opinion.

European Union, Canada and Mexico aren’t forgotten

The Trump administration’s complaints about the European Union go on for 47 pages, covering a vast array of industrial and agricultural products. We get to the heart of the matter on page 157, where the trade report complains that “technical committees that draft the European standards generally exclude non-EU nationals” and thus “The opportunity for U.S. stakeholders to influence the technical content of EU legislation setting out essential requirements (i.e., technical regulations) is also limited.”

Yes, if only Brussels would allow U.S. corporations to dictate their standards. We can all imagine the shrieking that would be heard if Europeans were to demand they dictate regulatory practices to Washington. Nationalism, in the end, is always a one-way street.

Canada and Mexico, of late subject to U.S. demands in the NAFTA re-negotiations, are not spared in the trade report, either.

The U.S. enjoyed a trade surplus with Canada in 2017, contrary to the nonsense that President Trump routinely utters. As expected, the trade report dwells on Ottawa’s protective measures for its dairy farmers and does not fail to complain about aid to Québec’s Bombardier company while not mentioning the massive corporate welfare doled out to U.S. corporations at the federal, state and local levels. But we again get to the crux of the matter when we read the complaint that Canada dares to uphold food-safety standards.

The trade report complains that “Canada’s Seeds Act generally prohibits the sale or advertising for sale in Canada, or import into Canada, of any variety of seeds that is not registered with Canada’s Food Inspection Agency.” [page 80] This is alleged to be unfair because the Canadian agency “verify[s] claims made which contributes to a fair and accurate representation of varieties in the marketplace.” Quelle horreur! How dare those Canadian bureaucrats value the safety of food above corporate profits!

Despite U.S. corporations using Mexico as a low-wage haven with low environmental standards that can be ignored, several items that met the displeasure of the White House were listed, among them Mexico’s intention to set standards for energy efficiency, alcohol and plumbing fixtures. The trade report complains that Mexico requires licensing for companies that seek to export steel there, an irony considering the Trump administration’s imposition of steel tariffs.

Although the trade report goes on to complain about other countries enforcing health and safety standards, its authors, with a straight face, claim to be upholding higher standards, asserting that the report “highlights the increasingly critical nature of standards-related measures (including testing, labeling and certification requirements) and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures to U.S. trade policy.” Perhaps in an Orwellian sense. It would be more accurate to say that U.S. trade policy, as with foreign policy in general, is best defined as “he who has the gold gets to make the rules.”

Watch out, world: The Trump gang is coming for you. Trump trade policy is set by economic nationalists determined to deepen the dominance of U.S. corporate power at the expense of working people everywhere, U.S. working people not excepted. It is the height of naïveté to expect anything else.

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Reversing past oppression, Cooperation Jackson builds a better future

If thinking big were all it took to be a success, then Cooperation Jackson would be one of the biggest successes ever seen. It is far too early to know what the future will hold for what must be the most thorough-going experiment in economic democracy in the United States today, but no one can possibly accuse Cooperation Jackson of not having a clear vision nor of not being serious students of history.

The experiment in Jackson, Mississippi, is the intellectual product of many years of experience by seasoned activists and a mobilized community drawing lessons from centuries of enduring racism and state terror, and the communal traditions used to survive the slavery, feudalism and apartheid of the United States South, while at the same time integrating concepts from progressive thinkers across several continents. Cooperation Jackson faces long odds, not least because of the extreme hostility of Mississippi’s conservative state government and the forces of gentrification that are taking aim at their impoverished city, in particular the organization’s neighborhood base.

The history, intentions and current struggles of this most interesting project are laid out in detail in the book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi.* And although the untimely, sudden death of one of the project’s leaders, Chokwe Lumumba, was a significant blow, by no means has the project come to a halt. That is one of the consistent messages of Jackson Rising, which contains essays by several writers, both participants and sympathetic journalists. It also a project intended for replication elsewhere, for socialism in one city is not possible, of which Jackson’s cooperators are acutely aware.

This is a project rooted firmly in Black struggle. The concept of the People’s Assembly, a core institution of Cooperation Jackson, is drawn from prayer circles organized clandestinely by enslaved Africans and the “Negro Peoples Conventions” that convened during Reconstruction. Black communities struggling for community control and economic self-sufficiency were built during the early 20th century, although these fell victim to continual violence directed against them, and cooperatives were frequently used forms across the 19th and 20th centuries. Traditions of resistance were renewed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; peoples assemblies were a common form of organization during that time.

Other historical projects were simply organized to find paths out of deep rural poverty. Two cooperative farms in Mississippi were begun in the early 1970s; local Whites responded by poisoning the Black farmers’ water supply and killing their cows. In Alabama, Black farmers found a market in New York that would pay three times what they had been getting for their cucumbers. The growers’ cooperative rented a truck to deliver the produce, only to have state troopers pull the truck over and hold it for 72 hours; racist Governor George Wallace had declared he could impound any vehicle for 72 hours without explanation. When the farmers got their track back, the cucumbers had been ruined.

Repression is what the activists of an organization calling itself the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika faced. An agreement had been made to buy land from a Black farmer west of Jackson. As hundreds of people walked the road to their new land, they faced an armed phalanx of local police, state police, the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan, telling them they would not be celebrating that day, punctuating their threats with racial slurs. The crowd decided to go ahead anyway, and in a story often told by Mayor Lumumba, the roadblock “opened up just like the Red Sea.” Nonetheless, heavy government repression, including mass arrests, brought this effort to build an egalitarian community to an end.

Building community organizations

Years later, some of these organizers, including Mayor Lumumba, would return. In 2005, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) organized the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in subsequent years the coalition transformed into the Jackson People’s Assembly. The Assembly, according to one of the lead organizers, Kali Akuno, was “organized as expressions of participatory or direct democracy,” guided by committees organized by it but in a non-hierarchal arrangement [page 74]. Doing so was part of an “inside-outside” strategy in which the movement would be based on the widest possible grassroots and community participation while at the same time seeking to gain a foothold in local government. Mr. Akuno wrote:

“MXGM firmly believes that at this stage of the struggle for Black Liberation that the movement must be firmly committed to building and exercising what we have come to regard as ‘dual power’ — building autonomous power outside of the realm of the state (i.e. the government) in the form of People’s Assemblies and engaging electoral politics on a limited scale with the expressed intent of building radical voting blocs and electing candidates drawn from the ranks of the Assemblies themselves. … [W]e cannot afford to ignore the power of the state.” [page 75]

The goal of engaging in local elections is to lessen the repressive power of the state and contain the power of multi-national corporations:

“We also engage electoral politics as a means to create political openings that provide a broader platform for a restoration of the ‘commons,’ create more public goods utilities (for example, universal health care, public pension scheme, government financed childcare and comprehensive public transportation), and the democratic transformation of the economy. One strategy without the other is like mounting a defense without an offensive or vice versa. Both are critical to advancing authentic, transformative change.” [page 75]

The Jackson activists believe that assemblies should engage a minimum of 20 percent of the people of a given geographic area. This minimum level of participation ensures that there are sufficient numbers of people to have the capacity to implement decisions and achieve desired outcomes. There exist three different types of assemblies — united front or alliance-based in which the participants are mobilized members of organizations; constituent in the form of a representative body; and mass assemblies of direct participation by the widest number of people. Jackson’s assemblies tend to be the second (constituent) form but can act as mass bodies during periods of crisis [pages 87-89]. Mass assemblies (such as what was seen at Occupy Wall Street) require vast amounts of time and thus tend not to be sustainable.

Jackson activists have found sustained success with their more constituent model. Work centered in Ward 2, where MXGM and other activists did much of the organizing, although students also played a role and neighborhood churches provided meeting spaces and participants. The Ward 2 assembly began having a positive impact on city issues, and from this work participants decided they wanted an ally on the city council. Chokwe Lumumba was asked to run for the ward’s council seat. He won, and in turn the assembly deepened its inside and outside work. For the next election, he ran for mayor, and won that office in a landslide, replacing a three-term incumbent closely tied to regional business elites seen as unresponsive to community needs.

Organizing for a city government that will be responsive

Kamau Franklin, a veteran activist with MXGM, noted that electing Black officeholders in itself does not necessarily translate into community empowerment. He wrote:

“[T]he majority Black centers in the south are dominated by moderate Black Democratic Party careerists. The political void left by the retreat of the Black social movements in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was filled by ‘safe’ politicians who did not do much to upset the economic balance of power that favored white power brokers and embraced moderate Democratic Party rhetoric and positioning on governing. As a result, Jackson is in many ways like post apartheid South Africa, where Black electoral power never translated into actual political power, and in the main only supported the Black petty-bourgeois class happy to live off the scraps of the minority white capitalist class that really calls the shots.” [page 70]

Mayor Lumumba, upon taking office, did not forget who he was nor who put him in office. Not only did he pledge “the highest provision” of public services, including economic development, education and transportation, but he also declared a goal of building a “dynamic ‘new economy’ rooted in cooperative development and anchored by green jobs, living wages and strong worker protections. His administration’s policies would be rooted in human rights and driven by community groups that would have a say in city budgeting. [page 99]

The new administration faced serious challenges, including finding the money to rebuild a crumbling and out-of-date water system that was under a federal order to be fixed. The city’s infrastructure was sub-standard and the previous administration had sought to cut an already limited bus system; Mayor Lumumba worked with city residents to secure a one percent city sales tax to help raise necessary revenue. He also gave full city support for a conference at which the grassroots project Cooperation Jackson would be formally launched.

Jackson city center (photo by A W A)

These activities were part of an inside-outside strategy, taking advantage of opportunities, wrote educator and organizer Ajamu Nangwaya:

“More often than not, we are likely to experience betrayal, collaboration with the forces of domination by erstwhile progressives or a progressive political formation forgetting that its role should be to build or expand the capacity of the people to challenge the structures of exploitation and domination. I am of the opinion that an opportunity exists in Jackson to use the resources of the municipal state to build the capacity of civil society to promote labor self-management. … As revolutionaries, we are always seeking out opportunities to advance the struggle for social emancipation. We initiate actions, but we also react to events within the social environment. To not explore the movement-building potentiality of what is going on in this southern city would be a major political error and a demonstration of the poverty of imagination and vision.” [pages 110-111]

Tragically, Mayor Lumumba would die suddenly from heart problems less than a year into his term and on the eve of introducing more radical measures for city council approval. The establishment Democrats retook city government, withdrawing all support for the cooperation project and the conference. Nonetheless, the Jackson State University president supported the conference despite the new mayor’s hostility, and during it organizers formally announced Cooperation Jackson.

The vision of Cooperation Jackson

Cooperation Jackson is a product of the MXGM and New Afrikan People’s Organization, and is “specifically created to advance a key component of the Jackson-Kush Plan, namely the development of the solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, to advance the struggle for economic democracy as a prelude towards the democratic transition to eco-socialism” [page 3]. (“Kush” is a designation for 18 contiguous counties forming a Black-majority region along the Mississippi River and west of and adjacent to Jackson.) Organizers stress that all people are a part of this project, that the resources of society should be equally available to all residents, but as a Black majority region, that majority is entitled to a exercise a majority of political and social power [page 128]. Black residents comprise 85 percent of Jackson’s population but prior to Mayor Lumumba’s administration, Black businesses received only five percent of regional contracts.

Cooperation Jackson has four fundamental ends:

  • To place ownership and control over the primary means of production directly in the hands of the Black working class of Jackson.
  • To build and advance the development of ecologically regenerative forces of production in Jackson.
  • To democratically transform the political economy of Jackson, the state of Mississippi and the Southeast U.S.
  • To attain self-determination for people of African descent and the “radical, democratic transformation” of Mississippi as a prelude to a national transformation.

As Mr. Akuno wrote in outlining the program in Jackson Rising’s opening chapter:

“A population or people that does not have access to or control over those means [of production] and processes cannot be said to possess or exercise self-determination. The Black working class majority in Jackson does not have control or unquestionable ownership over any of these means or processes. Our mission is to aid the Black working class, and the working class overall, to attain them.” [page 5]

The project seeks to build productive forces, break the status quo of an economy based on resource extraction and commodity agriculture for export, and replace that failed economy with one that stimulates self-organization and is environmentally sustainable. Instead of capitalist development by and for elites, Cooperation Jackson instead seeks to enable communities to take the central role in development through autonomous organizations and control over local governments.

Jackson is envisioned as a “hub of community production,” anchored by 3-D print manufacturing for community consumption. There is no short cut in a process that has only begun and has a long way to go, Mr. Akuno writes:

“In the Jackson context, it is only through mass organization of the working class, the construction of a new democratic culture, and the development of a movement from below to transform the social structures that shape and define our relations, particularly the state (i.e. government), that we can conceive of serving as a counter-hegemonic force with the capacity to democratically transform the economy. …

We strive to build a democratic economy because it is the surest route to equity, equality, and ecological balance. Reproducing capitalism, either in its market oriented or state-dictated forms, will only replicate the inequities and inequalities that have plagued humanity since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. We believe that the participatory, bottom-up democratic route to economic democracy and eco-socialist transformation will be best secured through the anchor of worker self-organization, the guiding structures of cooperatives and systems of mutual aid and communal solidarity, and the democratic ownership, control, and deployment of the ecologically friendly and labor liberating technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.” [pages 6-7]

The core institutions of Cooperation Jackson

Four interconnected institutions form the base of Cooperation Jackson:

  • A federation of cooperative businesses and mutual-aid networks.
  • A cooperative incubator that will provide basic training and business plan development.
  • A cooperative school and training center to teach economic democracy.
  • A cooperative credit union and bank.

Vertical supply chains are planned to be created through these networks. As one example, a cooperative farm would supply a café and catering business, the waste from the café would be sent to a yard-care and composting cooperative, which would in turn supply the farm, socializing the production process.

Key to creating this federation of cooperatives is staving off gentrification. The neighborhood where Cooperation Jackson is based has large amounts of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, but because it is near downtown, real estate developers and the city capitalist elite are hungrily eyeing the area. The backers of Cooperation Jackson are buying land to create an “eco village” that is intended to include quality, “deeply affordable” cooperative housing, a grocery and the other coop projects, all powered by solar energy. The larger goal is for the city of Jackson to become self-sustaining through comprehensive recycling, composting, local food production, links to regional organic farms, a city solar-power system and zero-emission public transportation.

Fannie Lou Hamer statute

Integrated with this project is a community-production initiative that will feature education and training to use 3-D print manufacturing technology and other new technologies. Envisioned are development programs to create employment; commercial manufacturing to provide 3-D-printed products, specialty products and tools; and community production to directly fill local needs and further develop technology. None of this will be done in a political vacuum — also envisioned are union-cooperative initiatives to train the “future generation of working class militants”; the formation of a class-based union encompassing all trades; movements to boost worker rights; the unionization of existing businesses; and the building of democratic unions in the cooperatives, in Jackson and across Mississippi.

This can’t be a Jackson-only project in the long run. There cannot be “socialism in one city,” of which the Cooperation Jackson organizers are acutely aware. Organizers hope for this project to be replicated in other cities of the Southern U.S., and for strong links to be developed between urban centers and farms. “We do not believe that socialism, or economic democracy, can be built in isolation on a local level, as it is neither economically viable or ecologically sustainable,” Mr. Akuno noted [page 33]. Economic transformation is a necessity, founded on an explicit rejection of capitalist social relations.

To that end, cooperatives serve an additional function as training grounds for working people to manage without bosses. The relationship among cooperatives in turn must be based on building an integrated system, not competition. As Mr. Akuno and Dr. Nangwaya summarize in a separate article discussing the principals of economic democracy:

“Our character and psychological predisposition have been shaped under undemocratic, authoritarian relations and processes and our possession of the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude of self-management and participatory self-management is uneven. As a result, we tend to demonstrate behaviors that are not unlike our oppressors and exploiters. Critical education is essential to the process of exorcising the ghosts of conformity within the status quo from the psyche and behavior of the oppressed to enable the development of a cultural revolution. … [T]raining and development programs, the constant dissemination of critical information, and mass educational initiatives are central to the goal of preparing the people for self-management and self-determination.” [page 53]

Spaces in a “weak link” of capitalism but difficulties persist

Mississippi is the poorest state in the United States, with one-third of its children living below the poverty line, a line set very low. The state is at or near the bottom in a variety of economic indicators. Top-down economic development may have made a few capitalists rich, but it has done little for the working people of Jackson — almost one-third live in poverty and median household income is barely more than half the U.S. average, according to U.S. Census data.

Yet it is Mississippi’s status as a “weak link” in capitalism that provides the space for a project like Cooperation Jackson, organizers argue. Agricultural and industrial production are constrained by White elites who pursue a strategy of containment to fetter the Black population by curtailing its access to capital and living wages. The long memory of Black repression makes the population in the Black-majority “Kush” region willing to take actions to reverse their situation. A combination of favorable demographics, a mobilized population and elevated political consciousness make the area ripe for a project like Cooperation Jackson, organizers say [pages 229-230].

And although that organizing work primarily takes place at the grassroots level, there will remain the electoral component. Taking office with open eyes, Mayor Lumumba stated that with his election the movement would be engaging with, not wielding, state power. The electoral side of the movement has three components: mass education, preparatory battles (picking issues that can be framed in ways that resonate for multiple communities), and building “operational fronts” that are coalitions in differing combinations depending on circumstance. Thus electoral work is to support movement work, not the reverse. Through continued organizing, the movement was able to retake the mayor’s office in June 2017 when Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the former mayor, was elected handily.

But foothold in City Hall or not, Cooperation Jackson remains in its earliest stages. Progress has been slow — as of early 2017, the cooperative café has struggled to get its permits, legal problems have delayed the buying of a building for 3-D manufacturing, raising money has been difficult, and land for the urban farm is polluted and in need of cleaning [page 278]. And the state government remains hostile.

Jackson Rising provides an excellent tool for understanding this extraordinary program, providing several voices, mostly of those involved in the work, and although a work of optimism the book is frank in discussing the problems and obstacles Cooperation Jackson faces. The book suffers from insufficient editing at times; typos proliferate in some articles and that is an unnecessary distraction. But do not let that deter you. Readers wanting to gain a firm understanding of the project, and the breathtaking range of influences it blends, should read this book.

Yes, the odds are against its success. At one point, an organizer acknowledges that criticisms that the project might be “overreaching” might contain some truth. Yet what else can be done but to attempt the impossible? Everybody who believes a better world is possible should be rooting and providing support for Cooperation Jackson.

* Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya (editors), Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi [Daraja Press, Montréal 2017]

Imagine having so much money you can spend it on Instagram “influencers”

That so much money concentrates at the top that capitalists can’t find useful outlets for it, and that capitalism produces huge amounts of junk we don’t need or want, was reinforced for me upon reading a New York Times article on what apparently has become a war against Instagram bots.

You can’t make this up, can you? So much capital is thrown into marketing that huge sums of money are thrown at Internet “influencers” who apparently are “influencers” because they have large numbers of followers on Instagram. The problem here, from the marketers’ perspective, is that large numbers of those followers are fake. They’re bots created to inflate the size of followings.

Although I couldn’t read this business-section article without laughing at the absurdity of this, it did also nicely illustrate the tremendous amount of waste in capitalist production. You’ve got to have a lot of capital lying around to afford spending on buying posts on Instagram. There is good money in this, it seems, for those who succeed at positioning themselves as “brands” as opposed to, say, human beings.

Because every space is a canvas for advertising

In one example, the Times article quoted an “influencer” who “said that she charged about $1,200 for a branded post. She added that she knew people with two million followers who charge $40,000 per post.”

With a straight face, the Times article casually referred to companies that exist to “connect brands with influencers” and discussed other companies that exist to ferret out Instagram accounts with high numbers of bots among their followers. The article said: “The interest in such firms reflects how easy it is to fake popularity on platforms like Instagram, where bots seem to run unchecked even on accounts where people have not paid for them.”

Apparently, Instagram’s response to this “problem” is to reduce access to its data. That prompted this reaction from another “influencer” in the article: “It will be unfair until Instagram really just cleans out the bots and the lurkers.”

Altogether now: Awwwwww.

Your intrepid blogger does his best to maintain his revolutionary optimism, but reading articles like this does sometimes make me despair for the future. I know such people are a small slice of overall humanity, but, still, there are large numbers of such people who hopelessly swallow capitalist ideology. What if the vast sums of money thrown around in marketing campaigns instead went to more useful functions, such as affordable housing, clean water, environmental cleanups and repairs to our crumbling infrastructure, to point out only a few needs. The investment needed to modernize and maintain school facilities is estimated to be at least $270 billion, a fraction of what is spent on marketing.

We are talking about huge sums of money here: Estimates of the money spent on marketing in the United States per year range from $460 billion to $1.07 trillion. (The former estimate is from the book Marketing by Charles W. Lamb, Joseph F. Hair Jr., and Carl McDaniel and the latter estimate is from the Metrics 2.0: Business & Market Intelligence web site.)

Such numbers provide an expensive hint that too much stuff that don’t fill a need is produced. The size of the marketing and advertising industries wouldn’t be so gigantic otherwise. Production under capitalism is for private profit, not to meet human needs. To achieve those profits, vast efforts must be made to induce spending.

The latest Internet scandal, the harvesting of data from 50 million Facebook users by the secretive company Cambridge Analytica, can be seen in this light. The immediate scandal is that Cambridge Analytica, a company created by extreme Right hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer and former Trump consigliere Steve Bannon, sought to manipulate elections in furtherance of their fascistic ideology. But there are plenty of multi-national corporations who would dearly love to get their hands on such troves of data. Whose to say some haven’t already? We don’t know.

Perhaps enough of these episodes will induce some naïve technology fetishists to re-examine their thinking. Why should corporate spying be more tolerated than government spying? An ex-son-in-law of a friend, prompted by being asked what he does for a living, actually saw himself as providing a necessary service when he explained how he works for a technology company to tailor advertising to the profile of a user, complaining that non-tailored advertising “would be a waste” — for the recipient of the advertising!

Those who work to create a better world sure have a lot of work to do.

China can’t save capitalism from environmental destruction

A year ago at the World Economic Forum, China’s president, Xi Jinping, won plaudits from Davos elites for his commitment to open trade. Of course, because China’s economy is heavily dependent on exports, so-called “free trade” is in its interest, so President Xi’s stand was no surprise.

What has drawn less attention are President Xi’s statements on the environment, something the elites of capitalism find rather less convenient. This past October, at the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress, for example, he delivered this statement: “Man and nature form a community of life; we, as human beings, must respect nature, follow its ways, and protect it. Only by observing the laws of nature can mankind avoid costly blunders in its exploitation. Any harm we inflict on nature will eventually return to haunt us. This is a reality we have to face.” He set a goal of “restor[ing] the serenity, harmony, and beauty of nature” and elevated the environmental-protection agency to the level of a ministry.

Given China’s huge contribution to global warming and the heavy pollution it suffers from, such statements are welcome. But does this truly mean that China will now become a country that puts the environment first and, perhaps, save capitalism from its excesses? That is very unlikely, given Beijing’s integration into the world capitalist system and the dynamics of capitalism, in which all incentives are for more growth — a system that requires growth.

Air Pollution in Hong Kong (photo by Yym1997)

In addition to the basic laws of capitalism, an interesting paper by Richard Smith, an economic historian who frequently writes on the impossibility of “green capitalism,” argues that the nature of China’s system is a further barrier to any turn toward environmental primacy. In his paper, “China’s drivers and planetary ecological collapse,” Dr. Smith argues that despite the power that President Xi has seemingly gathered into his hands, changing the country’s economic incentives are far beyond his capability. Dr. Smith writes:

“Xi Jinping cannot lead the fight against global warming because he runs a political-economic system characterised by systemic growth drivers — the need to maximise growth beyond any market rationality, the need to maximise employment, and the need to maximise consumerism — which are, if anything, even more powerful and even more eco-suicidal than those of ‘normal’ capitalism in the West, but which Xi is powerless to alter. These drivers are responsible for China’s irrational ‘blind growth,’ ‘blind production’ and out-of-control pollution, what Xi himself describes as ‘meaningless development at the cost of the environment.’ ” [pages 4-5]

Three factors drive Chinese growth, Dr. Smith writes: import-substitution industrialization (the need to compete successfully as a national economy against the U.S. and other leading capitalist countries); employment generation (the main reason for Chinese authorities to not allow companies to go out of business); and consumerism. In his paper, he argues that, for all the market reforms introduced in recent decades, China’s state-owned enterprises don’t operate by the rules of the market. He writes:

“For all the market reforms since 1978, the government has not allowed a single major SOE to fail and go bankrupt, no matter how inefficient, no matter how indebted, because those industries serve a different purpose. They do not exist just to make money. They exist to fulfil the wishes of China’s Communist Party rulers, especially as they contribute to import substitution and national industrialisation.” [page 6]

Tens of millions laid off from state enterprises

Ensuring social stability is unarguably a goal of Chinese leaders, but Dr. Smith appears to under-estimate the extent of ordinary capitalist behavior of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs). A 2006 paper published by the China Labour Bulletin, “Swimming Against the Tide,” notes not only the continuing consolidation of SOEs, but the resulting mass loss of jobs resulting from those restructurings. The report says:

“In the late 1990s, however, the government massively intensified the restructuring of SOEs. This process disenfranchised and marginalized tens of millions of workers, while at the same time creating a new class of powerful capitalists with close and highly influential links to local government. Crucially, at this time, the central government seemed to abandon any thoughts of additional remedial measures and basically gave local government officials and SOE managers free rein to carve up the state’s assets between them.

From 1995 to 2002, SOEs cumulatively laid off as many as 30 million workers. … Meanwhile, SOE managers used their power and connections with local governments to work behind the scenes to secure enterprise assets at ridiculously low prices, elevating themselves from being mere managers to actual owners of the enterprise. According to one survey, over 20 percent of the private enterprises created in the first half of 2006 emerged from the restructuring of state-owned and collective enterprises.”

Beijing (photo by ahenobarbus)

Minqi Li, in his book, The Rise of China and the Demise of the Capitalist World Economy, in examining the development of the Chinese economy, pulled no punches in describing the lack of concern for working people:

“Throughout the 1990s, most of the state and collective-owned enterprises were privatized. Tens of millions of workers were laid off. The urban working class was deprived of their remaining socialist rights. Moreover, the dismantling of the rural collective economy and basic public services had forced hundreds of millions of peasants into the cities where they became ‘migrant workers,’ that is, an enormous, cheap labor force that would work for transnational corporations and Chinese capitalists for the lowest possible wages under the most demanding conditions. The massive influx of foreign capital contributed to a huge export boom.” [pages 64-65]

By July 2017, SOEs accounted for just 16 per cent of China’s jobs and less than a third of industrial output, according to an HSBC report.

Capitalist dynamics are firmly in place in China’s economy, a development that will only intensify, given the Communist Party leadership switching the role of the market from “basic” to “decisive” in 2013 at a key Central Committee plenum, and the continuity with this course that was laid down by the party at the October 2017 party congress, again stressing the “decisive role” of the market.

Waste, planned obsolescence add to consumerism

Nonetheless, Dr. Smith is correct is noting that there is more state guidance of the economy than in ordinary capitalist economies. China is by far the biggest consumer of industrial raw materials, a function of the country’s frenzied pace of investment. Wastefulness extends to consumer items as well, he writes. Planned obsolescence is out of control. Because of the incentives to produce beyond any rational demand, unnecessary infrastructure, to the point of “ghost cities,” is built; buildings are demolished after a couple of decades; and large appliances, such as refrigerators, are designed to break down within only a few years to spur more consumption.

He argues that the introduction of market reforms has amplified, instead of reducing, tendencies in the old bureaucratic economy toward redundant investment. Provincial and local officials seek to build their own industrial bases, which discourages cooperation and efficiency. Although the Communist Party can remove millions of people to clear the path for construction projects, it can’t enforce dictates on the environment or excess development. There are too many interests, according to Dr. Smith:

“[M]inisterial officials, provincial governors, local officials, and SOE bosses mostly need not worry. Why is that? How is it that a highly centralised neo-totalitarian police state cannot force its own subordinate officials to obey its own orders, laws, rules, and regulations? This is a most interesting question. The answer, I suggest, is to be found in the collective nature of China’s ruling class. Beijing can’t systematically enforce its writ against resistance from below because it can’t systematically fire subordinates for insubordination: they’re not just employees, as in capitalism. They’re Communist Party members, members of the same ruling class as the leaders in Beijing.

If you’re head of a ministry or an SOE, especially a big ‘national champion’ SOE that Beijing wants to forge into a world-beating industrial competitor, then Beijing is willing to overlook your pollution. … China’s coal and oil ministries and its giant SOEs are very powerful and profitable, with millions of party bureaucrats and employees. Heads of large SOEs have ministerial rank. Of the 120 SOEs directly managed by the central government, fully fifty-four heads of those firms enjoy ministerial rank. They like things the way they are and they intend to keep them that way.” [page 16]

China’s de-centralized administration leaves each province striving to achieve as high a measure of self-sufficiency as possible. This includes energy, meaning that energy is produced for local consumption, and not necessarily in an economically rational manner:

“In 2015, China spent a record $102 billion on wind, solar, geothermal, and other low- or no-carbon renewable energy. Yet in 2016 wind turbines produced just 4 percent of China’s electricity generation, and solar barely reached 1 percent. By comparison, the US invested just $44 billion in 2015 but in 2016 wind produced 6.9 percent of its electric generation — nearly double China’s production with less than half the investment. The reason China produces so little renewable energy despite all the investment is that so much of its renewable energy is ‘curtailed’ (wasted). Nationally, the government concedes that about 21 percent of wind energy is curtailed, as much as 40 percent in some provinces and even more than 60 percent in Xinjiang (ironically, the province with the most installed wind power).” [page 22]

Enough housing for half the world’s population

That investment will continue at a breakneck pace is exemplified by news that when all the plans for new housing are added up, there will be enough housing in China for 3.4 billion people by 2030, which an article reporting this in Shanghaist dryly notes “seems a tad excessive.” The source of this overdevelopment, Shanghaist reports, is “more than 3,500 county-level new urban areas planned by local governments.”

Just one project, the Xiongan New Area, will cover an area three times the size of New York City, The Guardian reports. This planned city, near Beijing, set off a real estate frenzy so intense that it was said to create gridlock on roads leading to the area, and land prices were reported to have doubled in hours after the government announced its plans. And of course Chinese investment is not limited to within its borders. People’s Daily Online estimates that as of 2016, approximately 30,000 Chinese companies had invested $1.2 trillion in China’s “One Belt, One Road” infrastructure initiative.

People’s Grand Hall in Chongqing (photo by Chen Hualin)

Private profit, and all the problems that revolve around that, has become the driving force of the Chinese economy. Timothy Kerswell and Jake Lin, in their recent Socialism and Democracy article, “Capitalism Denied with Chinese Characteristics,” noted that SOEs operate like like private firms and are controlled by “a handful of wealthy businessmen and executives, who mostly are the [party] princelings and their families.” By the early 21st century, they wrote:

“Urban China had gone from a highly protected ‘iron rice bowl’ system that guaranteed state workers’ permanent jobs, cradle-to-grave benefits — and a relatively high degree of equality — to a market-determined contract-based employment system at its core, and massive informal and unprotected sectors at its periphery.” [page 45]

Land speculation on the part of local governments is rapidly paving over farmlands, another contributor to global warming. Land sold to commercial interests can be 40 times higher than what is paid to farmers, Dr. Kerswell and Dr. Lin write:

“In many respects, urbanization in China can be understood as the process of local government driving farmers into buildings while grabbing their land. The pseudo-collective-ownership of rural land has also increasingly become a front for rural cadres’ rampant corruption and cronyism in pursuit of personal interest in the process of transferring use rights. From 2005, surveys have indicated a steady increase in the number of forced land requisitions, and about 4 million farmers were losing their land annually.” [page 39]

Incentives for more investment, more global warming

This is not a system that is going to give priority to the environment. And because so much of China’s sweatshop-based economy is built on assembling parts made elsewhere into final products — first the parts are shipped from around the world and then the final product is sent elsewhere as well — the transport inherent in these global production chains hugely contributes to pollution and global warming. So however much we might quibble with Dr. Smith’s characterization of SOEs, he is quite correct that all incentives are for China’s contribution to global warming to continue to increase and thus Beijing can not contribute to reversing global warming and future environmental collapse.

There is no substitute to consuming less. Dr. Smith concludes his paper with these lines:

“[T]he only way to effectively meet the climate emergency we face is with an emergency shutdown of useless, superfluous, unnecessary and harmful industrial production around the world, but most particularly in China and the United States, the biggest polluters. … If the Chinese don’t organise a rationally managed retrenchment and shutdown of unsustainable industries, Mother Nature is going to shut those industries down for them and in a much less pleasant manner. There’s no way around this very inconvenient truth: Making too much staff has to stop.” [page 27]

Not that Beijing should be asked to shoulder all blame. Western multi-national corporations willingly moved their production to China, greatly adding to global warming. Nor should Western capital’s role in facilitating Chinese projects be soft-pedaled. The World Bank provided loans for the Three Gorges Dam project that displaced 1.3 million people, and Canadian, French, German, Swiss, Swedish and Brazilian capital were also necessary to build the dam.

It’s hard to avoid the argument that the Western peoples were allowed to enjoy highly consumptive lifestyles, and it would be unfair to force lower living standards on those in the global East or South. That is a reasonable argument. But we only have one Earth, and humanity is consuming resources far beyond sustainability — at the rate of 1.6 Earths. If the entire world consumed at the rate that the U.S. does, we’d need four Earths. (Kuwait is tops in this category, with a ratio of 5.1 Earths, followed by Australia at 4.8.)

Such consumption is quite impossible in the long run. Those living in the advanced capitalist countries are going to have to consume much less. Yet that is impossible in a global economic system that requires growth, and will not provide jobs for those dependent on polluting industries. Industrializing the solar system, even if that proves possible, would only delay the inevitable. We can have a sustainable future with production geared toward human need, or we can continue to produce for private profit until we find out the hard way that you can’t eat money.

The Continuation of History: Future Societies in Fiction

As a long-time reader of Ursula K. Le Guin, I was saddened to hear of her passing. The following essay, originally written in 2001 for the literary magazine BigCityLit, examines Ms. Le Guin’s novel The Dispossessed in conjunction with Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy. The ideas expressed and implied in these works continue to be highly relevant for activists wishing to find a path toward a better world.

History has proven it hasn’t ended. The concept should have been too laughable to even been contemplated; the very fact that ever shriller cacophonies of propaganda are hurled at us ought to prove the point, if it needed to be proved at all.

No matter how many times Margaret Thatcher’s “There is no alternative” is pompously declared; no matter how many times Francis Fukuyama is invoked to declare the end of history — a quote sure to be one of the 21st century’s reliable laugh lines — much of the world persists in refusing its assigned role. Unless we’re paying close attention, most of this is yet under the radar, save for the occasional spectacle when the World Bank or International Monetary Fund or a hemispheric “free trade” conference convenes, and we are shown a backdrop of protesters while a befuddled television talking head scratches his head and says “I don’t get it.” If the talking head is planning on a nice career as a media personality, he’d better not get it.

There is a subset of the “no alternative” grouping. Well, yes, maybe capitalism isn’t all wonderful, but look at how socialism failed. Actually, “socialism” did not fail; one distorted version did. The story of how that distortion, solidifying the incredible twists and turns taken by one country weighed down by the horrors of its absolutist history and further bent out of recognition by a single-minded dictator, is fascinating for those with much patience. That country, if we care to be precise, was never close to achieving socialism. Nonetheless, that country, which also faced relentless pressures from the West, including an invasion by 14 countries as soon as they could stop fighting World War I, had its uses. Western anti-Marxists didn’t want people to think there could be an alternative to capitalism. They still don’t.

We’ve begun the 21st century. Stalinism is dead. It will remain dead. Still, the desire for a better life remains. But what? It’s too easy to say “we don’t know.” We don’t. But whatever is next, it’ll have to be built on top of present-day society. It’ll have to be built, at least in some part, on a critique of capitalist society. We already possess that critique, and so it is bound to be at least a starting point. It is therefore not surprising that when we cross from the real world into the world of fiction, those starting points come with us.

There are as many socialisms, or potential future societies if socialism is too scary a word, as our imagination will allow us. It would be natural for those fiction writers of the future, science fiction specialists, to explore many of these potential futures. Oddly, despite the countless dystopian novels out there, this is actually highly rare. Science fiction is actually a genre that, when we take an overall sampling, is parched for ideas. I say this as a regular reader of science fiction. So much of the genre consists of fetishized military engagements and thinly veiled technology manuals masquerading as stories. Even the dystopias usually consist of the author taking a single idea and seeing how far she can run with it.

The rare exceptions, then, tower above the field. Rarer still are those who attempt to create a truly different society based on recognizable characters. Two of these authors are Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson. Both winningly attempt to work out new worlds, but in very different ways. Ms. Le Guin is an anarchist who sketches out societies either in the far future or someplace far from Earth. Mr. Robinson, who writes from a Marxist perspective, sets his stories on Earth or elsewhere in the solar system and in the near future. Whether or not it is agreed that the societies sketched out are plausible, these stories are the works of authors realistically wrestling with the full range of human emotion and human interaction with huge, impersonal forces, forces that nonetheless are human created. Both do this with a variety of vivid characters and subtle interplay that make much of their body of work flow well outside of the usual confines of science fiction.

Contrary to orthodox Soviet myopia that shrilly proclaimed the creation of a “workers’ paradise,” real life comes fully equipped with contradictions. If it is not a full-blown contradiction it is certainly an irony that an anarchist, Ms. Le Guin, understands this basic Marxist assumption while Soviet political leaders were unable. Ms. Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, published in 1974, wears this right on the cover; the novel’s subtitle calls it an “ambiguous utopia.”

An “ambiguous utopia”

The ambiguous utopia is the world of Anarres, the marginally habitable moon of the Earth-like planet Urras. Although Urras is not Earth and is not inhabited by humans (although they are very much like humans), its political, social and economic systems are very recognizable to the humans of present-day Earth. This “coincidence,” however, is quite forgivable. Urras is dominated by two countries, one an United States-style capitalist state consumed by greed and the other a secretive Soviet Union-style state. Urras is a world with technology and environmental awareness far beyond Earth’s 20th century, political development at the level of Earth’s 20th century and a social system of the 18th or early 19th century rooted in profound sexism; it is an utterly male-dominated society.

Urras’ hounded anarchists of the past were allowed to leave Urras and settle on the moon Anarres, used as a mining colony. Life on Anarres is life on the margins. A dry world that is desert except for small areas of moderate rainfall, the anarchists continually are on the verge of disaster. Only by being a completely collective society, by cooperating with each other, can they survive. With resources so limited, a competitive capitalist society would fail quickly — U.S.-style inequities would not simply create poverty, they would create mass starvation and rapidly deplete the limited natural resources. Such a place would shortly descend into hopeless chaos and implode.

Anarres is far from perfect, being an “ambiguous utopia.” It is an anarchist society without government, yet it must ensure resources are used where they are needed, that men and women with the right skills are sent where they are needed and that the basic necessities of life are available for everyone. There are no jails or coercion, yet peer pressure must be sufficient to deter the potentially uncooperative. Freedom of decision and personal life choices are paramount, yet people must be sent to new locations when emergencies occur.

One of the largest contradictions is in how people are to serve this society, in normal times and during crises. This problem is embodied in the main character, Shevek, a brilliant physicist. Can Shevek best serve Anarres by continuing his research? He is so far beyond other scientists that no one on Anarres can fully understand his work. Only a handful of physicists on Urras can, and they are interested in exploiting him for their own (national) interests. Although it is assumed that Shevek’s esoteric work will have applications some day, it has no practical use now. Or, particularly during the crisis of a severe drought that leads to deprivation around Anarres, is it in the dry world’s interest that Shevek drop his research and perform practical work that will help Anarres marshal its meager resources for survival? Can he go back and forth depending on conditions?

It is the very fact that Anarres is a collective society that enables individuals to flourish in a difficult physical environment. Yet can those individuals do what they want, or must that individuality be set aside for the greater good? There is no easy answer, or even single answer, to this question. Neither Shevek nor his society can formulate a solution. Yet the struggle over this question on Anarres is vastly different than the contradictions inherent on Urras, where the two dominant countries still regularly fight proxy wars in other countries against each other and where the “free” United States-style nation proves to be much less free than it appears. The tenuous relationship between Anarres and Urras has its own set of contradictions.

The society of Anarres, based on cooperation without even the concept of money, is so different from the modern neoliberal state built on pitiless competition with power rooted in economics as to be seemingly an impossible transition. And, indeed, Anarres is not the transformation of any society, even if it was conceived on Urras. The Anarres anarchist society is constructed in a place that was empty, except for a couple of mining settlements where nobody lived permanently. It is created out of nothing, not out of a pre-existing society. On Urras, from where the original Anarres settlers escaped, the traditional nation-state forms still exist, intact, two centuries after new Anarres settlement is closed.

Can a radically new society, based on values far different from existing society, be created in the same country? Are pre-existing societal pressures too powerful to be overcome? Can a radically new society only be created on a blank slate? Is a radically new society needed to be created somewhere else before it can supplant the existing order? And if so, does the lag period have to be decades, even centuries? Now we’ve leaped from contradictions on a personal scale to contradictions on a national or even global scale. The Dispossessed does not purport to attempt an answer to these questions and for the most part does not even ask these questions. But it does stimulate thinking about these questions, and this alone raises it into very select company.

How to organize in the absence of a state?

If we dig down into Anarres society, it is, theoretically, a world of “pure” anarchism, although some Marxists would argue that such a society would be the end result of communist development. Anarres is a world of true common ownership — there is no state, not even a government, to own productive property in the name of the people. The only global organization is a bureau that links people with jobs that need to be filled.

The bureau has no coercive powers; any man or woman is free to accept or decline a posting. But in times of crisis, such as the long drought Anarres goes through, peer pressure is very strong to accept a post, even if it is in a remote location and it requires the acceptee to be away from his/her partner for a long period of time. Housing, cafeterias and other needs are always available, wherever a posting takes a person. This also makes Anarres a mobile society, as there is no private property to be left behind, freeing men and women to move around the moon as they like. It is also a society totally without hierarchy, class distinctions or gender roles. Puritanism is also erased; a full sexual freedom exists with the elimination of sexism and gender roles.

These liberating social conditions are inseparable from the economic freedom of Anarres. It is, again, a place with true common ownership, different from an anarcho-syndicalist economy, in which the members of small collectives would together own their workshop or production facility. It is also distinct from the concept of the state owning property in the name of society as developed in Soviet Union. But even this concept is, in theory, a stage of development in which the end result is a withering away of the state which, again in theory, might result in an economic design not much different than the concepts of the anarchist society of Anarres.

Anarres is able to maintain its society through isolation. There is no contact between it and Urras, except for freight ships that mostly transport minerals to Urras, but also carry other goods, even books, in both directions. Anarres is completely closed to Urras, with nobody from the freight ships allowed to leave the small port. It is unthinkable for any Anarres citizen to go to Urras. Governments on Urras ruthlessly suppress any groups that wish to implement Anarres ideas, but the countries of Urras make no attempt to interfere with Anarres itself; Anarres continues to ship minerals to Urras and, from the Urras point of view, remains a mining colony.

The people of Anarres, who deeply believe in their project, are allowed to continue to develop their society with no interference thanks to the hundreds of thousands of miles that separate it from the warring nation-states of Urras. But what if there was no such separation; what if the capitalists of Urras saw a threat in Anarres? Would Anarres have the freedom to develop its egalitarian society? Can a radically new and different society exist next to or nearby societies that continue to use traditional, hierarchal forms? These questions do get raised in The Dispossessed, and of course asking these questions brings us back to Earth.

In our solar system, Earth’s moon is not capable of sustaining life; alternative societies will need to take root here on Earth. But is it possible for a radical society — an egalitarian society that provides an adequate standard of living, materially and in all the other ways — that, by its very existence, provides a superior alternative to capitalist society, to have the time to create itself? Is it even possible for such a society to take root with more powerful neighbors ready to suppress it?

Revolution when there is the (physical) space for it

Ursula Le Guin, the creator of an “ambiguous anarchist utopia,” is not optimistic on these questions. Neither is Kim Stanley Robinson, the creator of a Marxist-inspired revolution on Mars that succeeds against great odds. Unlike the anarchists of Anarres, who have a world essentially handed to them — authorities on Urras apparently decided this would be a way of getting rid of their troublemakers — the Martians of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy (Red Mars, Green Mars and Blue Mars) have to overthrow oppressive colonial rule to create their better society.

But just as Anarres benefited from its distance from Urras, Mars’ distance from Earth is what gives the revolutionaries the space to create their new society. And the Martians, too, must compromise. Anarres must continue to supply Urras with minerals or face the possibility of an invasion; the revolutionary Martian government must continue to accept a continuous stream of colonists from Earth and maneuver its way around the colossal economic power of Earth’s biggest corporations and the puppet political institutions the corporations control.

In the years of the 21st and 22nd centuries, capitalism continues to develop; that is, economic power is concentrated into fewer and fewer hands. About 20 corporations have a stranglehold on the world’s economy and dominate Earth. The economies of all countries except the 11 comprising the G-11 grouping (expanded from the present-day G-7) are dwarfed by those 20 corporations; indeed, most countries of the world are directly controlled by one of the top corporations. The United Nations is the gendarme of this corporate domination. The UN organizes the colonization of Mars on behalf of its corporate masters; the intention is to exploit the resources of the Red Planet and to, over time, export some of Earth’s overpopulation.

Some colonists are willing to go along with this program; many others want to create a better world than what they left behind on Earth. This increasingly bitter divide is complicated by an environmental divide between “Reds” (those who wish to leave Mars as it is) and “Greens” (those who wish to terraform Mars into an Earth-like environment). The divide between willing colonists and independent-minded social builders does not coincide with the environmental divide; although there is wide support to break free of Earth’s grip and build a better society, there are more “Greens” than “Reds” on the environmental question. At any rate, during the colonial era, the decision is out of the Martians’ hands as the UN and the corporations behind it seek to create an Earth-like Mars. Terraforming begins with the first colonists and there is far too much economic muscle applied from Earth for the process to be slowed, much less stopped.

A further fracture in the developing Martian society, which ultimately adds to political tensions, is the huge social gap between the younger men and women who are born on Mars and the waves of colonists who continue to flood the planet. The intention of the independence-minded colonists is to create a better society, not only in terms of dispensing with the rapacious economic determinism of Earth, but in other realms as well. These colonists want to create a non-hierarchal society free not only of class distinctions but of ills such as sexism, racism, nationalism and cultural arrogance.

To the men and women who are born on Mars, this is not only natural, but easy to express because to them the hideous stratifications and exploitation of Earth are revolting and unimaginable. Counter-pressures come on economic and colonial questions from the colonists who see Mars as a natural colony of Earth and from the large number of colonists who come from more repressive cultures and seek to replicate the backwardness they left behind.

Creating the future when so much of the past is present

On this fictional Mars created by Mr. Robinson, we have something of a hybrid between a society trying to create itself next to existing, hostile societies and a society free to create itself out of nothing in isolation from hostile counter-pressures. Mars is of course barren of life before the arrival of the first trickle of colonists — the Martian population starts in the hundreds and rises to the tens of millions — so it has the potential to create itself out of nothing. But in reality, it is a colony controlled by Earth, regularly sent new colonists who don’t share the lofty ideals of the independence-minded or “native” Martians, and who act as forces to create a replication of Earth. Here we have a different contradiction, that between the huge distance between the planets that should provide the space for a new society to create itself and the very powerful forces that bind the new, and still developing, society to the old.

For a long time, those powerful forces overpower the native energy that seeks to create a new Martian society; a society that would be different and more advanced than what can currently exist on Mars. The Martians don’t have the option to isolate themselves — even if they could reach a consensus on that issue — because they aren’t strong enough to stop the UN from following whatever policies the UN wishes to follow. Gradually, repression is strengthened until the movement for independence is forced underground. During this time, underground resistors can create small hidden pockets where new societies can be created, but they are politically impotent.

Mars, still red (Image created by NASA via Hubble Space Telescope)

Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres, where there was freedom to create something entirely new in a political vacuum, the Mars of Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy has real pressures acting on it, external and internal. Far from political, social or environment unity, this Mars has wide ranges of opinion on all questions, and vastly different, even irreconcilable, cultural experiences. It has to find a way to juggle and allow expression to all these forces, assuming it can even find a way out of its colonial status.

None of the other issues can be tackled until the first issue of independence can be solved. Even then, Mars will not have full freedom of action. A well-timed revolution, launched just as Earth enters into a sudden global environmental crisis, enables the Martians to overthrow the direct rule of the UN and Earth’s corporations, but does not remove the power that still exists on Earth. There are those on Mars opposed to the revolution; they are politically neutered now but won’t necessarily remain so. There are socially backward elements who can only cling to what they left behind on Earth. Among the majority pro-revolution opinion, there are a variety of conflicting interests and differing political ideas. The environmental split between “Reds” and “Greens” still exists; the Reds are losing that battle and know it, but still seek to at least slow down or somehow halt progress on terraforming.

At the start of a revolutionary period, all things are possible. How will the possibilities be sorted? How can all reasonable opinions be represented? How and who can decide what a reasonable opinion is? During this period of tremendous change, which will eventually come to a close, how radical a break from the old society can there be? How fast and how far can the revolution go in building a new society? Can an accommodation be made with many conflicting areas of opinion while retaining the revolutionary impulse to create a new society? Can competing interests co-exist long enough to build lasting institutions, or must one group begin to dominate other groups? Can the unique circumstance of tens of millions of miles of space between the planets allow a radical break from the past that would not be possible on Earth?

Other than the last question, these questions apply to all revolutionary situations. The uniqueness of revolting on a separate planet does give the Martian revolutionaries the space to create lasting institutions locking in a radically new society; but even here, Earth’s need to deal with its environmental catastrophe keeps it occupied. Otherwise, any attempt at revolution likely would have been doomed. Indeed, a first attempt is mercilessly crushed by the UN.

Freedom from economic coercion at the base

The political institutions the new Martian government creates are not necessarily a vast departure from previous government styles; but it is different enough to allow radical changes in other spheres of life, especially social and economic. The government is nominally a multi-party parliamentary system on a global scale; but government exists only at the city and global levels. There are no countries or subdivisions. Economic freedom and equality is enshrined in the new Martian constitution; all workplaces are collectively owned by the people who work there. The new society is stripped of inequality and all hierarchy; with full equality among all citizens, a full and exuberant sexual freedom for all genders blossoms with the elimination of sexism. Anything less is incomprehensible to those born on Mars free of the horrors of Earth.

Perhaps all this happens rather too easily, but the buildup to the revolution and the pre-revolutionary work of creating a new world lasts several decades and involves three generations, so it by no means is a sudden change. Unlike the “ambiguous utopia” of Anarres — rather conveniently allowed to happen on an empty moon — Mr. Robinson’s Mars trilogy takes the realistic approach that old hierarchies can only be removed with considerable effort. Along the way, the characters struggle with the weight of history, and argue history’s lessons.

There is no doubt that further lessons need to be learned from history, and it is clear that both Ms. Le Guin and Mr. Robinson have not only studied, but learned, history. Their fictional worlds, and the very real and interesting characters who inhabit them, are all the richer for this. But can these worlds — the stateless anarchism of Anarres and the Marxist egalitarianism governed through parliamentary consensus of Mars — be brought into existence on Earth? Would we want to, or would a better world be different that these ideals? Can a truly egalitarian society, allowing a full scope of economic as well as other freedoms, come into being, or would hostile capital-dominated countries inevitably overwhelm it, as the 20th century’s socialist experiments were overwhelmed?

What the planets created in these fictions have in common is that the inhabitants have full freedom — starting with economic freedom, without which most other freedoms are illusions. (Unless your idea of democracy is choosing what cola you can drink.) Whatever the future has in store for humanity, it will certainly be different from the future societies sketched in this review. But the future will have to include a full range of freedoms similar to that enjoyed by the books’ characters. That won’t happen under capitalism — by definition, it can’t — and it won’t happen under a monolithic party that doesn’t understand its own doctrine. It won’t come under an ephemeral “third way” that is just capitalism with a thin veneer of sweetener layered on the top.

Humanity will have to find a way forward, somehow, or face catastrophe. I won’t pretend to have the answer. But it is nice to have stimulating fiction that works not only as a fine read, but allows us to think about the possibilities along the way.

Leaked Trump infrastructure plan is a plan for corporate subsidies

The Trump administration’s plans to rebuild infrastructure in the United States have been leaked, and it appears to be as bad as feared. At least three-quarters of intended funding will go toward corporate subsidies, not actual projects. It is possible that no funding will go directly toward projects.

There’s no real surprise here, given that President Donald Trump’s election promise to inject $1 trillion into infrastructure spending was a macabre joke. What is actually happening is that the Trump administration intends to push for more “public-private partnerships.” What these so-called partnerships actually are vehicles to shovel public money into private pockets. These have proven disastrous wherever they have been implemented, almost invariably making public services more expensive. Often, far more expensive. They are nothing more than a variation on straightforward schemes to sell off public assets below cost, with working people having to pay more for reduced quality of service.

That is no surprise, as corporations are only going to provide services or operate facilities if they can make a profit. And since public-private partnerships promise guaranteed big profits, at the expense of taxpayers, these are quite popular in corporate boardrooms. And when those promises don’t come true, it taxpayers who are on the hook for the failed privatization.

Panorama of Paris (photo by Benh Lieu Song)

The collapse earlier this month of Carillion PLC in Britain put 50,000 jobs at risk, both those directly employed and others working for subcontractors. The holder of a vast array of government contracts for construction, services and managing the operations of railways, hospitals, schools and much else, Carillion received contracts worth £5.7 billion just since 2011. Overall, an astonishing £120 billion was spent on outsourcing in Britain in 2015.

What did British taxpayers get for this corporate largesse? It certainly not was the promised savings. Parliament’s spending watchdog agency, the National Audit Office, found that privately financing public projects costs as much as 40 percent more than projects relying solely on government money. The office estimates that existing outsourcing contracts will cost taxpayers almost £200 billion for the next 25 years. (This report was issued before Carillion’s collapse.) In response, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “These corporations need to be shown the door. We need our public services provided by public employees with a public service ethos and a strong public oversight,” The Guardian reported.

Naturally, there was one group that did quite well from this privatization: Carillion’s shareholders, who reaped £500 billion in dividends in the past seven years. But it is the government that will have to pick up the tab if the company’s employees are to continue to be paid. On top of that, the company’s pension shortfall reached £900 billion, according to Reuters.

By no means is Carillion’s collapse the only privatization disaster in Britain. A bailout of the corporate-run East Coast rail system is expected to cost hundreds of millions of pounds. There are numerous other examples that have proven windfalls for corporate executives but expensive mistakes for the public.

Offer subsidies first, ask questions later

One of the many empty promises made by President Trump during the 2016 campaign was that his infrastructure plan would “leverage public-private partnerships, and private investments through tax incentives, to spur $1 trillion in infrastructure investment over ten years. It is revenue neutral.”

“Spur” investment, not actually spend on investment. This supposed plan originated with Wilbur Ross and Peter Navarro, a conservative economics professor. Ross, now Commerce secretary (although perhaps not for long if recent reports are to believed), was an investment banker who specialized in buying companies and then taking away pensions and medical benefits in order to quickly flip his companies for a big short-term profit. The two recommended the Trump administration allocate $137 billion in tax credits for private investors who underwrite infrastructure projects. The two claimed that over 10 years the credits could spur $1 trillion in investment.

So the new administration won’t actually spend $1 trillion to fix the country’s badly decaying infrastructure; it hopes to encourage private capital to do so through tax cuts.

That brings us to this week’s leak. The news site Axios published the Trump administration’s six-page outline for infrastructure investment on January 22. The document mentions no dollar figures. But what the document does do is to discuss where money will be sent. First up is “infrastructure incentives initiative,” which is to account for 50 percent of total appropriations. This category will provide grants to be used for “core infrastructure” projects and requires “Evidence supporting how applicant will secure and commit new, non-federal revenue to create sustainable long-term funding” and requires new sources of “revenue for operations, maintenance and operations.”

Netherlands highway (Daan Roosegaarde)

Although it is possible that local- or state-government funding could provide the required revenues, given the intentions of the Trump régime, what this means is that privatization is being counted on for these projects, with corporations taking over public facilities providing the required ongoing revenue streams.

A hint that this is intended is that the first item on a list of “Principles for Infrastructure Improvements” is an intention to make it easier for tolls to be placed on highways. That item is this: “Allow states flexibility to toll on interstates and reinvest toll revenues in infrastructure.” Again, it is possible that state governments might do this themselves. But the more likely scenario is the privatization of highways, with the corporations gaining control then installing toll booths to not only provide funds for maintenance but to hand themselves a perpetual profit. And if the profits don’t materialize, it won’t be private capital holding the bag. For example, nine privatized toll roads in Spain will cost taxpayers there €5 billion because the roads are being nationalized in the wake of the private operators’ failures.

A further hint is found buried in the section on water infrastructure, where we find this passage: “Remove the application of Federal requirements for de minimis Federal involvement.” This is likely intended to provide a green light to privatization of water systems. That has been done in France and Germany, with disastrous results. For example, water prices in Paris doubled over 25 years before the city took back its water system, saving €35 million in the first year and cutting rates. The German city of Bergkamen reduced costs by as much as 30 percent after returning its basic utilities to the public sector.

No details for a plan not based in reality

Another 25 percent of the total appropriations for the White House infrastructure investment plan is a “rural infrastructure program,” under which state governments are “incentivized to partner” with “private investment.” Various other programs constitute the remainder of the plan, none of which are clear as to who or what will be eligible.

The official unveiling of the plan will likely not be released until after the January 30 State of the Union address, according to a report in The Hill. A further sign of the lack of specifics is that the White House has had nothing substantial to say on the topic. The most recent statement on infrastructure that a search of the official White House web page could find was an August announcement that the president had signed an executive order making the “environmental and permitting processes more efficient.”

Channeling the president’s usual disregard for reality, the announcement claimed that “delays” in infrastructure projects cost “trillions” of dollars. The only actual projects mentioned are three pipelines, including the Keystone XL and Dakota Access lines, of which the announcement claims will “create over 42,000 jobs and $2 billion in earnings.” (Those figures appear directly copied from a widely discredited State Department environmental impact statement issued in 2014, when the Obama administration was supporting them.) In reality, a study by the Cornell Global Labor Institute found that, when all effects are calculated, there may be a net loss of jobs. Additional fuel costs in the Midwest, pipeline spills, pollution and the rising costs of climate change would contribute to job losses.

Of course, environmental damages are not considered in Trump administration projections, putting them even more in the realm of fantasy. Consider two World Health Organization studies that concluded polluted environments cause 1.7 million children age five or younger to die per year. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated a year ago that 230,000 lives would be saved and 120,000 emergency-room visits saved in 2020 if the Clean Air Act is left intact. Globally, air pollution could lead to nine million premature deaths and US$2.6 trillion in economic damage from the costs of sick days, medical bills and reduced agricultural output by 2060, according to an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development study.

This doesn’t come cheap, either — a study of energy subsidies estimates the totality of subsidies given to fossil fuels for 2015 was $5.6 trillion. Lest you think some “anti-oil” group made that calculation, that figure comes to us courtesy of the International Monetary Fund! The Trump administration will only add to this mind-boggling total as it has made clear its intentions to further subsidize gas, oil and especially coal, no matter the lack of rational economics. And the cost of global warming? Incalculable. What would be the future cost of hundreds of millions displaced from drowned cities? Or, in the long term, of destroying the Earth’s ability to maintain a stable environment?

Although Donald Trump is the worst yet of a long line of disastrous U.S. presidents, let’s forgo the easy idea that he alone is responsible for facilitating corporate plunder at the cost of all other human considerations. He is highly useful to the plutocrats who control the Republican Party, so much so that talk of a Trump impeachment should be relegated to the level of fantasy for the foreseeable future, barring an all-time wipeout in the 2018 midterms despite the Democratic Party’s uncanny ability to blow elections. The greater question is if sufficient numbers of Trump voters come to realize the degree they were hoodwinked for believing that a billionaire who built his fortune by screwing working people would somehow come to their rescue.

That’s the short term. For the longer term, humanity finding its way out of the dead end it is speeding toward depends on freeing itself from the grips of a system that repeatedly throws up Trumps, Bushes, Harpers, Thatchers and the like. The Trump administration is a symptom, not a cause, of morbid decay.

Tax cuts as a route to cutting Social Security

Conservatives are fond of saying that if you give a man a fish you can feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you can feed him for a lifetime. This is supposed to tell us that social benefits, such as government programs, are bad for people. A much better example of conservative thought would be to say if I put a fence at the entrance to the pier and don’t let anyone else have access to the water, I can have all the fish for myself.

Let those peasants starve! Such a privatization of fish isn’t distant from the actual mechanics of class warfare as it is practiced, unfortunately.

Take the latest salvo in ongoing class warfare, United States edition: The coming assault on Social Security. Curious as to why the Republican Party’s mania for balanced budgets suddenly vanished? I mean, besides the mind-boggling hypocrisy we can expect from the Right. The immediate cause was to placate their billionaire donors who issued marching orders last June. A “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and, as The Guardian reported, the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network. Donors decreed that Republicans must pass “tax reform” and reverse the Affordable Care Act (because health care is a socialist plot?) or their checkbooks would be shut.

That the Trump/Republican tax plan will be a bonanza for the wealthiest is well documented by this point, with the “Corker kickback” not only giving “dissident” Republican Senator Bob Corker a multimillion-dollar payday to ensure his vote but giving Donald Trump himself tens of millions of dollars thanks to the special rule benefiting real estate speculators. But lurking behind this devastating corporate offensive is the little matter of the extra $1.5 trillion to be added to the deficit. When Republicans (probably assisted by the more spineless among the Democrats) decide in the near future that deficits matter after all, social benefits will be in the cross hairs, with Social Security and Medicare likely to be the prime targets.

In advance of this, we will be treated to a rerun of horror stories designed to convince United Statesians that Social Security is unsustainable. The claim will once again be that either we’ll have to accept steep cuts to Social Security payments or privatize it, putting our retirements in the hands of Wall Street. This has been the wet dream of financiers for decades, and as an added bonus, Wall Street is another major beneficiary of the Trump tax cuts. “Heads I win, tails you lose” is always the way of Wall Street and here we have it again, pocketing untold millions from tax cuts and then taking away your Social Security when the ensuing deficit mounts.

One way of promoting privatization is to allege that there isn’t enough being paid into the system to cover future claims. It is true that in recent years Social Security has been paying out more than it is taking in, although it is far from broke. Concomitant with that argument is the claim that everybody takes out much more than they pay into it over their working lives. But that isn’t necessarily true — a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, issued in 2006, found that people earning near the median income get back about the same as they pay into the fund. Low-income earners do receive more than they pay, but conversely high earns get back less. But Social Security is supposed to be progressive. Indeed, the CBO’s report says, “The Social Security benefit formula is designed to provide beneficiaries who had lower life-time earnings with monthly benefits that are higher, as a percentage of their lifetime average earnings, than those received by higher-earning beneficiaries.”

The corporate interest in gutting Social Security

Those saddled with a lifetime of low or median earnings have spent a lifetime being exploited on the job, so whatever extras are received are pennies on the stacks of dollars extracted from them. Remember that profits come from the usually wide gap between what you are paid and the value of your work, and what financiers haul in is skimming off that pot collected by employers dealing in tangible services and products. There is a symbiotic relationship between financiers and industrialists and although there is much wrangling between them (which is why corporate press releases so often proclaim “enhancing shareholder value” as an important part of their mission), they have a mutual interest in exploiting employees.

That mutual interest extends to gutting Social Security, even if financiers have the more immediate interest. The challenge of funding Social Security isn’t a difficult one. An important reason why that is so is because Social Security taxes are only imposed on income up to $127,200. Anything above that is untouched. So why not raise the bar? Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would apply this tax to all income above $250,000. This plan would eliminate 80 percent of the projected shortfall, according to an analysis from the Social Security office of the Chief Actuary. For whatever reason, Senator Sanders’ plan wouldn’t touch income in between. Taxing all income would raise still more money.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Another method is suggested by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He argues that a payroll tax increase of four percent would be sufficient to fully fund Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years. He acknowledges that such an increase would be difficult for many workers, but he estimates that the loss of income from decades of upward distribution of income to be 40 percent — a loss ten times greater. That figures comes from the gap between the rate of earnings increases for working people and the rate of increases in productivity. He explains:

“[U]pward redistribution over this period has reduced wage growth by more than 40 percentage points. In short, our children are 40 percent poorer than they would otherwise be because of the money going to people like Bill Gates and Steve Zuckerberg rather than ordinary workers.

So by very conservative estimates, a typical person in their twenties or thirties has seen their income reduced by more than 40 percent because of all the money redistributed to those at the top. However, the generational warriors want young people to be upset about the possibility that a bit more than one-tenth of this amount could be used to pay for their parents’ and their own Social Security and Medicare. (This upward redistribution is also responsible for about half of the projected shortfall in Social Security, as more income going to profits and high-income workers escapes the Social Security tax.)

It is also important to understand that government action was at the center of this upward redistribution. Without government-granted patent monopolies for Windows and other Microsoft software, Bill Gates would probably still be working for a living.”

A trillion dollars for Wall Street

Privatizing Social Security would additionally cut benefits because financiers would take hefty cuts. The administrative costs of the retirement portion of Social Security (the bulk of the program) is 0.4 percent. In contrast, Dr. Baker reports, “even relatively well-run privatized systems, like those in Chile or the United Kingdom, are 10–15 percent of benefits.”

Such ratios were Social Security privatized would cost nearly $1 trillion in a decade, he calculates — $1 trillion taken from Social Security benefits and diverted into Wall Street’s bottomless pockets. Consider that the standard payment for hedge-fund managers is to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money. In 2014, the top 25 hedge-fund managers hauled in $11.6 billion despite collectively underperforming the stock market.

Fees for ordinary money managers are not this high, and a privatized Social Security wouldn’t pay fees as exorbitant as those charged by hedge funds. But it would still be huge sums of money. That is why Wall Street has long lusted to get its hands on it.

U.S. Treasury Department under new management (photo by takomabibelot)

Then there is the matter of returns. Would gambling Social Security funds on the stock market really result in better results? Not necessarily. In studying the stock market’s long-term returns for an article I wrote a decade ago, not long after the 1990s bubble had burst, I found that you would have to time your retirement to the peaks of bubbles. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — the ultimate index of stock-market health and which has its components continually adjusted so as to replace low-performing stocks with high-performing ones — was below its 1929 peak as late as 1991. Here are some long-term results:

  • The Dow peaked at 995 in February 1965. Adjusted for inflation, that was 42 percent more than it was worth at its previous bubble peak in 1929, not so impressive when it took 36 years to get there.
  • The ensuring crash bottomed out in December 1974. At this point, the Dow, adjusted for inflation, was worth only half of what it was worth in 1929 and little more than one-third of its 1965 peak.
  • The most recent crash bottomed out in March 2009, at which point the Dow was three percent below its 1965 peak, adjusted for inflation.

The stock market is edging into bubble territory as we begin 2018, and stocks are priced high by historical standards. The basic measure of stock-price sustainability is the price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500, representing the largest companies on U.S. stock markets. The ratio’s average, calculated back to 1872, is 14. Prior to the 1990s bubble, the S&P 500 P/E ratio rose above 20 four times; each time it subsequently fell below 10. A standard measurement of the P/E ratio today is 26. One way to understand that number is that an investor is essentially paying $26 for each dollar of corporate profit, which is considered too high. It is true that the P/E ratio has been almost continually above the historic average since the 1990s bubble, but nonetheless this more recent rise indicates that a stock collapse is looming.

Goodbye retirement, goodbye disability payments

There aren’t any free lunches. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study notes that Social Security is not only a retirement program, but also an insurance program that could not be duplicated if privatized:

“Social Security is not only a retirement program but also an insurance program. About one-third of payroll taxes go to fund Social Security disability insurance and survivors insurance. Comparable insurance products would be extremely expensive to buy in the private insurance market, if one could even find such products. Social Security also provides an inflation-indexed annuity: Social Security benefits are adjusted each year for inflation and are paid until death, regardless of how long a beneficiary lives. These features of Social Security provide a valuable form of insurance against the risks of inflation and of outliving one’s savings.”

Nor would sinking funds into stock markets necessarily be a wise gamble, the Congressional Budget Office has said:

“Government investment in private securities does not offer a free lunch: although it would increase the expected value of budgetary resources, it would do so at the cost of exposing the government, future taxpayers, and beneficiaries of federal programs to greater risk. If that risk was taken into account, the returns on private securities would be no greater than the returns on government securities. … Using risky investment portfolios to finance spending by government agencies could weaken budgetary control of federal financial resources.”

That last item, however, is a lure of Republicans and their corporate masters. Create a larger deficit, cut social spending, repeat. This reduces lifespans, reducing payouts through Social Security and corporate retirement plans, for those lucky enough to still have one. Earlier deaths has already been declared a “silver lining” by U.S. corporations.

And let us not forget the sometimes bipartisan nature of Social Security cuts — Barack Obama had proposed a change to the way inflation is calculated for the determination of cost-of-living increases that would have resulted in lower adjustments for inflation, effectively a small yearly reduction. He did so as a bargaining chip in an effort to force Republicans in Congress to agree to modest tax increases. Ultimately, a Democratic Party revolt, spurred by grassroots opposition, forced an end to this plan, but this episode does serve as a reminder that social movements, not hoping for political office holders to do good, is the key to being able to retire some day.

In Chile, in 1998, the government actually asked workers not to retire because of a sustained economic downturn. (The Chilean retirement system was forcibly privatized under Pinochet). Think it can’t happen elsewhere? Keep in mind these words by Stephen Moore of the far right groups Club for Growth and Cato Institute: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”

You’ll work until you drop, but Wall Street will profit.