Private sector is “efficient” only at extracting money from public

There is nothing that capitalists won’t grab if they see a possibility to score a profit. Not even the most basic needs for human life, such as water, are exempt.

A favorite tactic for grabbing what had once been in the public domain and converting it into private profit is the “public-private partnership.” A tactic sadly abetted by the world’s governments, as the name implies.

Public-private partnerships (PPPs), a decades-long string of disasters for the public but often a bonanza for the private, have left behind a long trail of one-sided results in water systems, electricity distribution, sewers, highways, hospitals and other infrastructure. The latest report testifying to the damage wrought by PPPs comes to us courtesy of the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), a federation of 8 million public service workers from over 250 trade unions across Europe, and the European Network on Debt and Development (Eurodad), a network of 49 civil society organizations from 20 European countries “working for transformative yet specific changes to global and European policies, institutions, rules and structures.”

The Palace of Westminster (photo by Andrew Dunn)

The EPSU/Eurodad report, “Why public-private partnerships (PPPs) are still not delivering,” paints a damning picture. The report declares:

“PPP advocates claim they bring financing, efficiency and innovation. But real-life experience reveals a different picture. The following points outline eight reasons why PPPs are not working: 1. PPPs do not bring new money – they create hidden debt 2. Private finance costs more than government borrowing 3. Public authorities still bear the ultimate risk of project failure 4. PPPs don’t guarantee better value for money 5. Efficiency gains and design innovation can result in corner-cutting 6. PPPs do not guarantee projects being on time or on budget 7. PPP deals are opaque and can contribute to corruption 8. PPPs distort public policy priorities and force publicly run services to cut costs.”

The EPSU/Eurodad report defines PPPs as “long-term contractual arrangements where the private sector provides infrastructure assets and services that have traditionally been directly funded by government, such as hospitals, schools, prisons, roads, bridges, tunnels, railways, and water and sanitation plants, and where there is also some form of risk sharing between the public and the private sector.” There may be risk sharing on paper, but in reality even this definition is a little too generous toward PPPs — in almost all cases, contractual clauses put the risk squarely on the public, and when the private company that has taken over a previously public good proves unable to manage or goes out of business, it is the public that pays.

The paper drew on examples across Europe, with some of the worst examples coming in Britain. Privatizing public services leads to higher costs, reductions in the quality of service and lengthier periods in completing construction. All of these results, of course, are directly opposite of what incessant capitalist propaganda continually blares. Although the EPSU/Eurodad report didn’t speculate as to why these results occur, it takes little imagination to see the reasons: Corporations exist to make the biggest profit regardless of social cost while governments need only provide a reliable service without having to generate seven- and eight-figure salaries for executives and windfalls for stockholders and other speculators.

It’s not profits above all else, it’s nothing but profits

Consider the words of Milton Friedman, godfather of the Chicago School of economics whose words are widely followed in corporate boardrooms and in financial publications. He put it plainly in an interview with author Joel Bakan in the context of a former BP chief executive officer suggesting (however disingenuously) the company would make environmental concerns more important:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

That is the standard of the corporate world: Profits for speculators, period. No other considerations, no matter how flowery their public relations concoctions may be. There are no exceptions because a service or product is necessary for human life.

To return to the EPSU/Eurodad report, a much higher cost of financing was one cause of higher costs for the public to access previously public goods. Noting the hidden debt in these deals, the paper said, “In a PPP, instead of the public authority taking a loan to pay for a project, the private sector arranges the financing and builds the infrastructure, then the public sector pays a set fee over the lifetime of the PPP contract. In some cases, users also pay part or all of the fee directly to the private sector company (e.g. toll roads).” The United Kingdom National Audit Office “found that the effective interest rate of all private finance deals (7%-8%) was double that of all government borrowing (3%-4%).”

The Grand Palais in Paris (photo by Thesupermat)

An even larger differential was found in France: “A particularly vivid example was the Paris Courthouse PPP, signed in 2012, which featured an investment of €725.5 million and no less than €642.8 million in financing costs. The French Court of Auditors found that the interest rate for borrowing for the PPP was 6.4 per cent, while in 2012 the weighted average rate for government bond financing in the medium-long term was 1.86 per cent,” the report said, adding that operating costs were also higher. 

Another example is a Stockholm hospital that cost €2.4 billion instead of the projected €1.4 billion. The hospital was not only completed four years later than scheduled, but a “design competition” resulted in “operating theatres not being adapted for operations; the risk of medicines being destroyed because of medicine rooms being too warm; and physicians having to carry administrative material in backpacks because of the lack of space for administrative tasks.” One conclusion from this poor result is that “the high level of complexity, together with the private partner’s interest in cost-cutting as much as possible, can easily result in undesirable corner-cutting.”

The report concludes that “What decades of experience has shown is that PPPs come at a high cost and are not delivering the expected benefits.” 

If you can sell it, they will buy it

PPPs are particularly common in Britain, an unfortunate development that is not the cause of any one party. Britain’s version of public-private partnerships are called “private finance initiatives.” A scheme concocted by the Conservative Party and enthusiastically adopted by the New Labour of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the results are disastrous. A 2015 report in The Independent revealed that the British government owed more than £222 billion to banks and businesses as a result of private finance initiatives. Jonathan Owen reported:

“The startling figure – described by experts as a ‘financial disaster’ – has been calculated as part of an Independent on Sunday analysis of Treasury data on more than 720 PFIs. The analysis has been verified by the National Audit Office. The headline debt is based on ‘unitary charges’ which start this month and will continue for 35 years. They include fees for services rendered, such as maintenance and cleaning, as well as the repayment of loans underwritten by banks and investment companies. Responding to the findings, [British Trades Union Congress] General Secretary Frances O’Grady said: ‘Crippling PFI debts are exacerbating the funding crisis across our public services, most obviously in our National Health Service.’ ”

The Independent article reported that private firms can even flip their contracts for a faster payday. Four companies given 25-year contracts to build and maintain schools doubled their money by selling their shares in the schemes less than five years into the deals for a composite profit of £300 million. Clearly, these contracts were given at well below reasonable cost. Nor is health care exempt: A 2019 report by the Progressive Policy Think Tank found that there are English hospitals forced to divert one-sixth of their income to paying back private finance initiatives, with National Health Service trusts paying more than £2 billion on such repayments per year, “taking money away from vital patient services.” For just £13 billion of private investment, the NHS must pay back £80 billion! Quite a windfall for banks.

Naturally, such financial legerdemain is not limited to any particular country. Here is just a small sampling of outcomes:

  • During the course of a 25-year contract with Suez and Veolia, water rates in the city of Paris doubled after accounting for inflation. Thanks to a secret clause, the two companies received automatic price rises every three months. When the contract finished, Paris re-municipalized its water system. Despite the short-term expenses of doing so, the city saved about €35 million in the first year and was able to reduce rates by eight percent.
  • A privatization of the Buenos Aires water and sewer systems resulted in chronic failures to meet contractual obligations, repeated demands that the contract be renegotiated (granted by the neoliberal governments of the 1990s), failure to meet water-safety standards, worsening pollution of underground water sources, and price increases over the first decade of the contract 12 times that of inflation. The Argentine government then had to spend years raising legal challenges to take back the system even though the private company was in obvious default of its contractual obligations.
  • The German city of Bergkamen (population about 50,000) reversed its privatization of energy, water and other services. As a result of returning those to the public sector, the city began earning €3 million a year from the municipal companies set up to provide services, while reducing costs by as much as 30 percent.
  • A report by Food & Water Watch found that investor-owned utilities in the United States typically charge 59 percent more for water and 63 percent more for sewer service than local-government utilities. After privatization, water rates increase at about three times the rate of inflation, nearly tripling on average after 11 years of private control. Corporate profits, dividends and income taxes can add 20 to 30 percent to operation and maintenance costs.
  • A study by University of Toronto researchers of 28 Ontario public-private partnerships found they cost an average of 16 percent more than conventional contracts. Elsewhere in Canada, the Sea-to-Sky Highway in British Columbia will cost taxpayers C$220 million more than if it had been financed and operated publicly, and the cost of a project at the Université de Québec à Montréal was doubled to C$400 million.

Water as a commodity rather than a human right

That even water is a commodity is no surprise when corporate leaders consider it just another product that should have a price, most notoriously enunciated in 2014 when the chairman of Nestlé S.A., Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, issued a video in which he denounced as “extreme” the very idea of water being considered a human right. And not only water — various schemes exist to destroy the U.S. Postal Service in the interest of corporate profit.

There are even corporate executives who want to privatize the weather. No, that’s not in the realm of science fiction. The head of a private weather forecaster, AccuWeather, has repeatedly lobbied to prohibit the U.S. government’s National Weather Service from issuing forecasts! Under this scenario, the Weather Service would hand all of its data to private companies, who would then issue forecasts, while of course letting taxpayers foot the bill for the data. One of the U.S. Senate’s dimmest bulbs, fundamentalist Rick Santorum (thankfully no longer in office), once promoted a bill to do just that. And, incidentally, the National Weather Service issues forecasts more reliable than those of AccuWeather.

Photo by Marlon Felippe

Public-private partnerships are one of the surest ways of shoveling money into the gaping maws of corporate wallets. The result has been disastrous — public services and infrastructure maintenance is consistently more expensive after privatization. Cuts to wages for workers who remain on the job and increased use of low-wage subcontractors are additional features of these privatizations. Less services and fewer employees means more profit for the contractor, and because the contractor is a private enterprise there’s no longer public accountability.

The rationale for these partnerships is, similar to other neoliberal prescriptions, ideological — the private sector is supposedly always more efficient than government. A private company’s profit incentive will supposedly see to it that costs are kept under control, thereby saving money for taxpayers and transferring risk to the contractor. In the real world, however, this works much differently. A government signs a long-term contract with a private enterprise to build and/or maintain infrastructure, under which the costs are borne by the contractor but the revenue goes to the contractor as well.

Public-private partnerships 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. Capitalism in action.

The threat of fascism rears its head in Washington

Let’s not mince words: Wednesday’s storming of the United States Capitol building was the work of fascism. That it didn’t and couldn’t succeed, and that Donald Trump is days from being out of the White House, should not blind us to the reality of larger social forces at work.

The Orange Menace possibly finished off his personal political prospects with his pathetic attempt at a putsch — although I suspect the shameless toadying of Republicans seeking to capture his base for future elections will continue — but, as I have already written, Trump’s base isn’t going anywhere. Neither are Trump’s fans among the police.

By midnight Wednesday, police had arrested a total of 52 people, counting from Tuesday afternoon. Contrast that to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when at least 430 people were arrested.

Consider the difference. White people storm an important seat of government, terrorize those inside and stage the equivalent of an armed insurrection, yet it takes hours for police reinforcements to arrive and those who don’t leave are allowed to mill around for hours past a curfew. Police claim they were surprised by the size of the crowd even though Trumpites had announced their intention days ahead of time, the Orange Menace himself told his followers to go to the Capitol that morning and Trump consigliere Rudy Giuliani called for “trial by combat.” 

In contrast, peaceful protestors motivated by the injustices of police brutality and indifference to Black lives walked down streets and are met with massive force and indiscriminate arrests. Multiple federal and local law enforcement agencies brought in tanks and other vehicles and built an eight-foot-tall fence surrounding Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. And that show of force was hardly limited to Washington. By June 4, less than two weeks after George Floyd’s murder by police, more than 10,000 people had been arrested across the U.S., according to an Associated Press tally. Here’s what The Associated Press had to say that day:

“As cities were engulfed in unrest last week, politicians claimed that the majority of the protesters were outside agitators, including a contention by Minnesota’s governor that 80 percent of the participants in the demonstrations were from out of state. The arrests in Minneapolis during a frenzied weekend tell a different story. In a nearly 24-hour period from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon, 41 of the 52 people cited with protest-related arrests had Minnesota driver’s licenses, according to the Hennepin County sheriff. In the nation’s capital, 86 percent of the more than 400 people arrested as of Wednesday afternoon were from Washington, D.C., Maryland and Virginia.”

Those “outside agitators” must have had sophisticated teleporting equipment to have been in so many cities at once. What a pity they haven’t shared it with us.

Police show their preferences

During Trump’s inaugural, more than 200 protestors were arrested, including journalists. Earlier this year, tear gas and force were used to disperse peaceful demonstrators just so Trump could wave a bible in front of a church. So we have a pattern here.

The skin complexion of the demonstrators has much to do with these different approaches on the part of law enforcement. We can all imagine the body count that would have resulted had a Black group decided to storm the Capitol. But political affiliation is not absent. It’s no secret that police heavily favor Trump and are well to the right of the populations they supposedly serve, and police unions across the country took a few minutes off from screaming for officers to be entirely beyond accountability to endorse Trump.

Pictures of police posing for selfies with the invaders inside the Capitol began circulating by Wednesday evenings, and videos circulated showing officers allowing the mob through a gate, facilitating the invaders’ ability to get inside the building. Anybody who was watching the television coverage as the events unfolded, as I did, could see that the Capitol invaders were handled with kid gloves. Police were seen walking with the invaders down the steps of the Capitol and only hours later slowly pushed the mob away with periodic advances, taking care to give the mob plenty of time to move back.

Nor was the storming of the Capitol a spontaneous event. As housing and feminist activist Fran Luck noted, there was the appearance of preparation:

“While watching coverage of the terrorist incursion into Congress today, when I saw the group of burly men effortlessly scale a 20+-foot wall surrounding the Capitol, it occurred to me that they must have had military training to do this — it’s not easy to climb straight up vertically without much to hold on to — but it is what they teach you to do in army basic training. I also noticed they were dressed similarly, with flag handkerchiefs hanging out of their back right-hand back pockets. In my opinion, this was a staged action — probably rehearsed by a ‘militia’ and consciously created for future propaganda for the purpose of attracting new recruits This might also apply to the photo they released of the man wearing a MAGA hat and holding a rifle while sitting at Nancy Pelosi’s computer; it could be used to convey the message: ‘Look how far we got this time — next time we’ll be ready to go all the way!’ ” 

Again, a most sharp contrast to Black Lives Matter protests, repeatedly violently attacked by police. And police violence at demonstrations for Left causes is routine. Again, it is impossible not to notice the bias in policing. Recall the 2016 standoff in an Oregon national wildlife refuge, when a pack of White far right militia members took over the refuge’s headquarters, seeking to spark a national uprising, yet were allowed to come and go as they pleased and to destroy Native American artifacts.

White privilege was fully on display during Wednesday’s Capitol invasion, in addition to police demonstrating plainly their political preferences.

Aspiring fascist leaders need violent mobs

“What else is new” shouldn’t be our response. The conclusion to be drawn from Wednesday’s events is that we are almost certainly at the beginning of a fascist upsurge. There is no other conclusion to be drawn. Trump doesn’t have the intelligence or sufficient ruling-class backing to be a fascist dictator, and we can only hope he’ll be seeing the inside of a courtroom soon and then the inside of a prison. But it is quite possible another demagogue will arise, and the next one might not be such a buffoon. 

That is only part of the equation — there can be no fascist movement without street thugs and followers willing to use violence. The shock troops were on display Wednesday. Not nearly enough to pose an immediate threat and certainly too few to actually take over the Capitol even with police assistance. But with millions believing Trump’s lies and ready to move on his word, a latent threat exists. And, perhaps, those shock troops might transfer their loyalties to another wanna-be dictator, one perhaps with more ability.

Nor can we take solace in the fact that formal democracy remains the preferred method of governing; with most United Statesians still willing to believe they can better their circumstances through electoral politics, there is no need for U.S. industrialists and financiers to impose an outright dictatorship, especially as they continue to have an iron grip on the country’s government, mass media and institutions, and exert decisive influence over both major political parties.

The threat of fascism always looms in the background as long as capitalism exists. If a capitalist ruling class comes to a consensus that dictatorship is the only way to maintain their profits and power, then they are willing to unleash fascism, as happened in Italy, Germany, Spain, Chile, Argentina and other countries across the 20th century. The imposition of fascism arrives with shock troops — street thugs — augmented by police and the military, although sometimes, as was the case in Chile and Argentina, the street thugs augment the police and military. 

The street thugs following Trump have now shown their willingness to spring into action. Are the rest of us willing to step up and out-organize them?

Never let a crisis go to waste: The pandemic brings more inequality

Heeding that time-honored advice to never let a crisis go to waste, the world’s industrialists and financiers have taken full advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to accumulate more wealth. And although you already know that large numbers of people have been thrown out of work and/or are at risk of losing their home, you might not have realized how obscene the increase in inequality has become.

Not surprisingly, given that capitalism is a system with a stranglehold on almost every place on Earth, the rise in inequality is a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, capitalists have usually understood their class interests better than do the world’s working people.

When we discuss the increase in wealth the world’s richest are enjoying, we are talking literally about trillions of dollars. 

We’ll start our survey with a report issued by one of the world’s biggest banks, UBS, and Big Four accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers. The authors of the report, “Riding the storm: Market turbulence accelerates diverging fortunes,” can hardly contain their enthusiasm at how successful their clients have been during the pandemic. UBS and PwC “have unique insights into” billionaires’ “changing fortunes and needs” and in the report breathlessly extol “a time of exceptional, Schumpeterian creative destruction” by “billionaires [who] live in turbulent but trailblazing times.” As you can already surmise by the tone-deaf writing, the report is intended as a celebration of vast wealth inequality and is written in a style that comes as close to that of Hollywood celebrity publicists as you are likely to find produced by bankers and accountants.

(Artwork by Susana Anaya)

The report says “Some 209 billionaires have publicly committed a total of USD 7.2 billion” in donations, written within a passage told in solemn tones intended to make us gasp in awe at the selflessness of the international bourgeoisie. Yet we soon enough read that the wealth of the world’s billionaires totaled US$10.2 trillion in July 2020. For those of you scoring at home, that $7.2 billion in proposed donations represents 0.07 percent of their wealth. The average working person donates a significantly bigger portion of their income.

In just three months, from April to July 2020, the world’s billionaires added $2.2 trillion to their wealth! Technology billionaires did particularly well during the pandemic, the UBS/PwC report says, due in large part to the surge in technology stock prices. During the first seven months of 2020 alone, technology and health industry billionaires saw their wealth increase by about $150 billion. Yes, never let a crisis go to waste.

The number of the world’s billionaires, the report tells us, is 2,189. To put these numbers in some kind of perspective, there are exactly two countries in the world (the United States and China) that have a bigger gross domestic product than the wealth of those 2,189 billionaires. Or, to put it another way, their wealth is greater than the economic output of Japan, Germany and Britain, the countries with the world’s third, fourth and fifth largest GDPs and which have a combined population of 277 million.

Is there really no money for social programs?

As might be expected, billionaires in the center of the world capitalist system are no laggards among those accumulating wealth at the expense of everyone else. An Institute for Policy Studies study, “U.S. Billionaire Wealth Surges Past $1 Trillion Since Beginning of Pandemic — Total Grows to $4 Trillion,” reports the collective wealth of the 651 billionaires in the United States has increased by over $1 trillion “since roughly the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic to a total of $4 trillion at market close on Monday, December 7, 2020. Combined, just the top 10 billionaires are now worth more than $1 trillion.” Those gains are more than the $900 billion pandemic relief package that passed Congress this week, a package held up for months by Republicans fretting over the cost. 

Wall Street has been amply taken care of in the current economic crisis, as it was in the wake of the 2008 collapse, and industrialists also have had massive amounts of subsidies and tax cuts thrown their way. For working people, crumbs. The Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, committed US$5.3 trillion to corporations on its own initiative in the first weeks of the pandemic, and most of the $2.5 trillion offered in last spring’s two congressional stimulus packages (the CARES Act of March 27 and the supplement of April 24) went to big business. (There was nothing unique about that as Britain, the European Union and Canada pushed through similar programs.)

The Institute for Policy Studies report notes that the $1 trillion gain by U.S. billionaires since mid-March is: 

  • More than it would cost to send a stimulus check of $3,000 to every one of the roughly 330 million people in the United States. A family of four would receive $12,000.
  • Double the two-year estimated budget gap of all state and local governments, which is forecast to be at least $500 billion. By June, state and local governments had already laid off 1.5 million workers and public services—especially education—faced steep budget cuts.
  • Only slightly less than total federal spending on Medicare ($644 billion in 2019) and Medicaid ($389 billion in fiscal year 2019), which together serve 120 million Americans.
  • Nearly four times the $267 billion total in stimulus payments made to 159 million people earlier in 2020.

During the same period, about 70 million lost employment, 12 million workers lost their health insurance due to losing their jobs, 26 million did not have enough food to eat just during a two-week period in November and 98,000 businesses closed. The Economic Policy Institute predicts that if federal aid is not forthcoming, as many as 5.3 million public-sector jobs—including those of teachers, public safety employees and health care workers—will be lost by the end of 2021.

An excuse to ramp up privatization in Canada

The pandemic is being used as an opportunity in Canada to advance corporate goals of privatization. Health care workers in Alberta walked off their jobs in a wildcat strike in November to protest Alberta Health Services’ announcement that it would be laying off 11,000 public positions so those jobs could be filled by private contractors. The Canadian news site Rabble reports:

“Alberta leads Canadian provinces and territories in its pursuit of privatization, and its October announcement that it was laying off up to 11,000 hospital workers has led to worker resistance and criticism from the province’s doctors. (One Calgary physician even set up a grassroots political organization against health-care privatization). Affected workers include those working in housekeeping, food services, laundry and laboratories. The Alberta government claims that these roles are not being eliminated, but instead transferred from public positions to ones filled by private contractors. … This past summer, Alberta Bill 30 was also criticized as opening the door to further privatization of health care. The Health Statutes Amendment Act was an omnibus bill that passed at the end of July.”

Alberta legislators also pushed through a bill that weakens rules and requirements for charter schools to operate and allowed for home schooling to go on unsupervised by public school boards. (Charter schools are designed to weaken teachers’ unions and hand schools to corporations for profit, while the supposed improvements in student outcome are mostly mythological.) Not to be outdone, Manitoba’s provincial government seeks to privatize child care, long-term care homes and liquor sales, and intends to cut public service jobs by 25 percent, Rabble reported.

Jobs losses and insecurity around the world

A University College London report, “Financial inequalities widen due to Covid-19,” called by the authors the “UK’s largest study into how adults are feeling about the lockdown,” found that more than two-thirds of Britons surveyed have suffered deteriorating finances. The report said, “Almost half (47%) of those who were finding things ‘very difficult’ financially before lockdown are now reporting things are ‘much worse’, with a further 23% saying things are ‘worse’. This figure has increased significantly from July, when 57% of the same group reported being financially worse off than before the pandemic.” The report quoted an educational leader, Cheryl Lloyd, as summarizing the situation as follows: “This report shows that the financial impact of the Covid-19 crisis is not being felt equally across the UK. This threatens to further widen existing inequalities as the pandemic continues.”

Conditions are no better across the Channel in the European Union, with disparate impacts on jobs widening inequality on the continent. The Brussels think tank Bruegel reports that, across the EU, “8% of workers educated to lower secondary level or below lost their jobs between the last quarter of 2019 and the second quarter of 2020. Over the same period, the number of jobs for workers with university degrees increased by 3%. Jobs for employees with middle-level qualifications declined by 5%. This picture of differences between low-educated and tertiary-educated workers can be seen in all EU countries and the United Kingdom.”

Those at more risk of losing their jobs are also at more risk of contracting Covid-19. “Sectors more exposed to the pandemic, including restaurants, travel, entertainment and personal services have unsurprisingly suffered more,” Bruegel reports. “But the ability to telework has greatly influenced labour market outcomes. About 70% of those who completed university studies are able to work from home, compared to about 15% of those who have not completed secondary school. Two-thirds of professionals and 85% of managers can work from home, in contrast to close to zero for workers in transportation, installation, construction and agriculture.”

And, as would be expected, conditions in the developing world are still worse. India has experienced a 26 percent decline in industrial employment, according to an India Today report. The broadcaster said:

“Ever since India went under a strict lockdown on March 25, millions of the country’s poorest workers were immediately rendered jobless and left without any income. An unresolved migrant crisis is the biggest example of the plight India’s poor are facing at the moment. Even the country’s vast middle class population encountered a sharp loss of income during the pandemic due to a wave of job losses and pay cuts. … A recent report by the Centre For Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) indicates that [21 million] salaried jobs were lost in the first five months of the pandemic, indicating that income levels among middle class households have fallen sharply.”

At the same time Indians across the country were undergoing difficulties, Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest persons, saw his wealth increase by $30.5 billion. Another Indian billionaire, Cyrus Poonawala, added $5.6 billion to his wealth this year, India Today reported.

Even capitalists’ spokespeople profess concern

Inequality has become so extreme that even some of the staunchest upholders of the capitalism that creates this inequality profess to be concerned. (Or perhaps they are worried about people rising up to do something about it and thus advocate a little softening, at least for now.) In November, the Brookings Institution was moved to issue a report, “Windfall profits and deadly risks: How the biggest retail companies are compensating essential workers during the Covid-19 pandemic,” that discussed the big increases in profits enjoyed by giant retailers while their workforce sees only crumbs. Brookings reported:

“We find that while top retail companies’ profits have soared during the pandemic, pay for their frontline workers—in most cases—has not. In total, the top retail companies in our analysis earned on average an extra $16.9 billion in profit this year compared to last—a stunning 39% increase—while stock prices are up an average of 33%. And with few exceptions, frontline retail workers have seen little of this windfall. The 13 companies we studied raised pay for their frontline workers by an average of just $1.11 per hour since the pandemic began—a 10% increase on top of wages that are often too low to meet a family’s basic needs. On average, it has been 133 days since the retail workers in our analysis last received any hazard pay.”

For top executives and speculators who hold large numbers of shares, however, the year of the pandemic has been a bonanza. The Brookings report further stated:

“Many of the least generous companies were the most financially successful, posting huge profits. Amazon and Walmart combined earned an extra $10.9 billion in profit compared to last year, an increase of 53% and 45%, respectively. Their workers, on the other hand, have received below-average COVID-19-related compensation: an extra $1,369 ($0.95 per hour) and $900 ($0.63 per hour), respectively, over the eight-plus months of the pandemic—representing just 6% pay bumps for full-time workers that earn starting wages. Meanwhile, Amazon and Walmart’s stock prices are up 65% and 41% since the start of the pandemic, adding more than $70 billion to the wealth of Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, and $45 billion to the Walton family—the country’s richest family, who own more than half of Walmart’s shares.”

Wal-Mart spent $500 million on new stock buybacks during the third quarter of 2020 while offering no new hazard pay bonuses for its employees, the Brookings report said. Another big chain, Kroger, announced $1.2 billion in new stock buybacks, causing the stock price to rise (which is the intention), at the same time its grocery workers were given no hazard pay for six months while earning an average wage of $10 per hour. Kroger’s profits during the first six months of the pandemic, meanwhile, totaled $2 billion.

Wal-Mart is a company that pays its employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes. Meanwhile, the Walton family collects billions of dollars every year from dividends just for being born in the right family.

Amazon is notorious for the brutal inhuman conditions in its distribution centers and for not paying taxes. Amazon’s owner, Jeff Bezos, is one of the world’s richest people yet he organized a nationwide sweepstakes to see what cities or states would give him the biggest subsidies when he announced Amazon would create a second headquarters.

The International Monetary Fund likely isn’t having second thoughts or feeling remorse about its decades of imposing harsh austerity on developing countries, but has weighed in on the rise of inequality — whether from genuine concern or, much more likely, as a public relations gesture. (IMF papers purporting to reconsider neoliberalism are always much less than they appear.) Because lower-income people are less likely to be able to work from home during the pandemic, and thus more likely to have lost their job, the IMF said “the estimated effect from COVID-19 on the income distribution is much larger than that of past pandemics.”

Loss of work and specter of hunger hit developing world hard

Whatever the motivations of the world’s capitalist think tanks and financial institutions may be in discussing global inequality in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic, there is no question that working people everywhere are suffering. As early as late April, the International Labour Organization issued a report, “As job losses escalate, nearly half of global workforce at risk of losing livelihoods,” predicting that half of the world’s working people are in danger of disaster. The ILO said:

“The continued sharp decline in working hours globally due to the Covid-19 outbreak means that 1.6 billion workers in the informal economy — that is nearly half of the global workforce — stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed. … The first month of the crisis is estimated to have resulted in a drop of 60 per cent in the income of informal workers globally. This translates into a drop of 81 per cent in Africa and the Americas, 21.6 per cent in Asia and the Pacific, and 70 per cent in Europe and Central Asia. Without alternative income sources, these workers and their families will have no means to survive.”

Large numbers of the world’s peoples were already in a highly precarious condition. An estimate by John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney is that there are 2.4 billion people in their prime working ages (25-54) who are unemployed, vulnerably employed or economically inactive, compared to 1.4 billion actively employed. In other words, there are far more people in the “reserve army of labor” who are precariously or not at all employed than those with jobs, and far from all those 1.4 billion who are employed have secure work. 

Striking fast food workers were joined by university workers, students, janitors, retail workers and airport workers in an April 2018 action in Minneapolis. (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

And with loss of livelihood comes the specter of hunger. The United Nations World Food Programme, also in late April, predicted that the pandemic “will double number of people facing food crises unless swift action is taken.” The agency said, “The number of people facing acute food insecurity stands to rise to 265 million in 2020, up by 130 million from the 135 million in 2019, as a result of the economic impact of COVID-19.”

Nor does the developing world have the health care infrastructure necessary to handle the number of people falling sick from Covid-19. The United Nations Development Programme noted that developed countries have 55 hospital beds, more than 30 doctors and 81 nurses for every 10,000 people, but for the same number of people in a less developed country there are seven beds, 2.5 doctors and six nurses.

Pandemic widens education disparities

The lack of infrastructure to provide education is also acute. Because of school closures and the divide in distance learning, an estimated “86 per cent of primary school-age children in low human development countries are currently not getting an education, compared to just 20 per cent in countries with very high human development,” according to the UN Development Programme. “With schools closed, UNDP estimates that effective out of school rates could regress to levels not seen since the 1980s — the largest reversal ever … and threatening the hard work and progress of the past 30 years.”

Similar conclusions were reported by the Institute for Policy Studies’ Inequalilty.org project. In a September report, the project found that just 6 percent of children in eastern and southern Africa have access to the Internet. In Kenya, schools have been closed for six months. And that has further consequences. “One likely impact of Covid-19 is a rise in teen pregnancies, as adolescent girls are left without the safety net that schools provided,” the report said. “This gendered menace deprives young girls of the opportunity to further their education and attain their career goals. It also exposes them and their children to major health risks. According to the World Health Organization, ‘pregnancy and childbirth complications are the leading cause of death among girls aged 15–19 years globally.’ ”

The pandemic has also widened inequality in education in the developed world. VoxEU, which calls itself a provider of commentary by “leading economists,” reports that the disruption to higher education caused by the switch to online classes is much larger for lower-income students because “lower-income students were more likely to have been financially impacted by COVID-19 and were more worried about the direct health risks from the virus.” VoxEU found that “Lower-income students are 50% more likely than their more affluent peers to expect a delayed graduation due to COVID-19, a gap which disappears once accounting for the differential financial burdens or health risks imposed by COVID-19.”

Pandemic places greater burden on women 

Concomitant with the various inequality aggravations, it’s no surprise that women are being hit harder than men.

Alison Andrew, a senior research economist at the Institute for Fiscal Studies in London, said: “Mothers are more likely than fathers to have moved out of paid work since the start of lockdown. They have reduced their working hours more than fathers even if they are still working and they experience more interruptions while they work from home than fathers, particularly due to caring for children. Together these factors mean that mothers now are only doing a third of the uninterrupted paid-work hours that fathers are. A risk is that the lockdown leads to a further increase in the gender wage gap.”

The Institute, in its report on British fallout from the pandemic, “Parents, especially mothers, paying heavy price for lockdown,” found the following:

  • Mothers are 23% more likely than fathers to have lost their jobs (temporarily or permanently) during the current crisis. Of those who were in paid work prior to the lockdown, mothers are 47% more likely than fathers to have permanently lost their job or quit, and they are 14% more likely to have been furloughed. In all, among those working in February 2020, mothers are now 9 percentage points less likely to still be in paid work than fathers.
  • Mothers who are still doing paid work have reduced their paid working hours substantially and by more than fathers. Prior to the crisis, working mothers did paid work in 6.3 hours of a weekday on average; this has fallen by over one-fifth to 4.9 hours. Working fathers’ hours have also fallen, but by proportionally less, from 8.6 hours before the crisis to 7.2 hours now. 
  • Mothers are also far more likely to be interrupted during paid working hours than fathers. Almost half (47%) of mothers’ hours spent doing paid work are split between that and other activities such as childcare, compared to 30% of fathers’ paid working hours. Where focused work time is important for performance, gender differences in interruptions and multitasking risk further increasing the gender wage gap among parents.
  • In families where the father has lost his job while the mother kept hers, men and women still split housework and childcare responsibilities fairly equally. In all other types of households, mothers spend substantially more time on domestic responsibilities.

Such disparate impact means women are again falling further behind men in earnings. “Analysis of those that did produce data suggests it will take almost 200 years to close the gap,” says Dr. Wanda Wyporska, the executive director of the Equality Trust. “Undoubtedly women are bearing the brunt of this, as they did in austerity when 86% of cuts fell on women. There is a cumulative effect which consistently pushes progress back.” The general secretary of the British Trades Union Council, Frances O’Grady, said, “[O]nly one in 10 lower earners are able to work from home, and 69% of low earners are women; it is not a panacea. …Working women have led the fight against coronavirus, but millions of them are stuck in low paid and insecure jobs. We need a reckoning on how we value and reward women’s work.”

Women’s March of January 21, 2017, in Chicago (photo by Jonathan Eyler-Werve)

Then there is the specter of violence from male partners. María Noel Vaeza, United Nations Women Regional Director for the Americas and the Caribbean, in a November report, said:

“While lockdowns and stay-at-home orders may be crucial in limiting and preventing the spread of COVID-19, they also have a devastating impact on women and girls living with the risk of gender-based violence, as many of the factors that trigger or perpetuate violence against women and girls are compounded by preventive confinement measures. Emerging global data has shown an increase in calls to [violence against women and girls] helplines. … Stay-at-home measures are compounding perpetrators’ use of mechanisms of power and control to isolate victims of [violence]. Unemployment, economic instability and stress may lead offenders to feel a loss of that power, which in turn may exacerbate the frequency and severity of their abusive behaviour. At the same time, the crisis is generating additional barriers for women and girls’ access to essential life-saving services such as counselling and justice resources, and legal advice; sexual health and other crucial medical assistance; and the provision of refuge.”

Racial disparities widened by pandemic

No roundup of Covid-19 inequalities would be complete without discussion of racial disparities. The impact of the pandemic’s effect on the economy, because it impacts lower-income working people most severely, has fallen heavily on People of Color. A Center for American Progress report authored by Dania Francis and Christian E. Weller demonstrates the severity of the disparities:

“African Americans have experienced particularly large job losses in a labor market characterized by persistent racism and inequality. … Estimates based on census data show that 54.8 percent of Black workers said that they had lost incomes due to a job loss or cut in hours from late April to early June, compared with 45.8 percent of white workers. The labor market pain has created housing instability for Black families to a much larger degree than was the case for white families. Estimates based on census data show that more than one-third of African Americans who experienced job-related income losses said that they either didn’t pay their mortgage or deferred their mortgage, compared with only 16.9 percent for white families with earnings losses. Among renters, 38.3 percent of Black families with income losses didn’t pay or deferred their rent, compared with 23.1 percent of white families in a similar situation.”

Compounding this financial distress is that, with schools going to remote learning, a lack of resources impacts the education of African-American children. The Center for American Progress report said:

“The lack of reliable internet or an electronic device for remote learning also correlates with fewer hours per week of teaching time. … Unreliable internet access and a lack of consistent access to electronic devices reduces families’ time teaching children by two to three hours among Black families but only by one to two hours among white families. … While the short- and long-term impacts of coronavirus-related school closures and job losses on children’s educational outcomes cannot be measured yet, it is already clear that there are differential effects by race on access to educational resources as a result of the pandemic. In particular, the persistent and large Black-white wealth gap directly and immediately feeds into persistent educational gaps.”

Higher poverty rates also increases the mortality rate from Covid-19. Writing in City Limits, Bijan Kimiagar and Jack Mullan report:

“The pandemic has entrenched extreme inequalities in New York City. Insecurities surrounding employment, health, education and basic safety are affecting many New Yorkers today, but they are disproportionately experienced in communities with the lowest incomes. The sheer rate of COVID-related deaths is more than two times higher in zip codes with very high poverty rates (where 272 out of every 100,000 residents have died) than in zip codes with low poverty rates (125 out of 100,000). New Yorkers with the lowest incomes are feeling the impact of the pandemic on all sides—living in fear of eviction, struggling to put food on the table, and having trouble getting devices to support remote learning for their children.”

For industrialists, financiers and their publicists, the year 2020 might be a time of “exceptional creative destruction,” but for the overwhelming majority of humanity who do the actual work that is converted into the fabulous wealth of those at the top, it’s just plain old destruction. Capitalism as usual.

Far from a change, RCEP agreement is more capitalism as usual

The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership is being called a new model of trade agreements. Such paeans appear to be premature, and we might better hold off on uncorking the champagne.

It is best to remember that so-called “free trade” agreements are products of neoliberal assaults on any and all efforts to protect people and the environment from the rapacious effort of corporations to profit to the maximum extent and without regard to external cost. “Free trade” agreements are not the cause of neoliberalism; they are a product of neoliberalism.

It is true that the RCEP is less draconian than recent trade deals, and less one-sided in advancing corporate profiteering above all other human concerns than the Trans-Pacific Partnership was when the United States was involved and pushing for the harshest rules. But is that the standard we wish to uphold? “It’s not as bad as the worst agreements out there” really shouldn’t be a cause for celebration.

Much of the same language commonly found in “free trade” agreements is in the RCEP, and what appears to be the most promising development, the lack of the usual “investor-state dispute settlement” process that uses corporate-dominated tribunals that consistently overturn health, safety and environmental regulations, is much less than it appears once we look into the details. And there are no labor or environmental provisions. What we have here is more capitalism as usual, including a dispute process still weighted toward corporate interests.

Tokyo at night (photo by Basile Morin)

For readers not familiar with the RCEP, it is a trade deal reached by 15 countries across East Asia and Oceania. Although some commentators believe that China has been the impetus behind the RCEP, in fact it is the 10 countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) that were the driving force. Australia, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea join China and the ASEAN countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — in a deal that encompasses nearly one-third of the world’s economy. India was originally a negotiating country, but dropped out, expressing concerns that the RCEP would be dominated by China.

As would be expected, mainstream economists, who as a group act as cheerleaders for capitalism rather than seriously analyze capitalist economies, are cheering the agreement. The Financial Times, for example, breathlessly reported that the RCEP “could add almost $200bn annually to the global economy by 2030,” a number repeated by signatory governments. That despite the fact that Australia, China, New Zealand, Japan and South Korea each already has a trade agreement in place with ASEAN.

Signatory countries were also enthusiastic. China’s prime minister, Li Keqiang, said the agreement is “a victory of multilateralism and free trade.” The New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, “The agreement will help ensure New Zealand is in the best possible position to recover from the impacts of COVID-19 and seize new opportunities for exports and investment.” The Australia Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said, “Australian farmers and businesses are set to benefit from better export opportunities.”

Unions fear working people face a race to the bottom

Once we turn our attention to those not highly placed, a rather different picture emerges. A bloc of seven trade union federations strongly condemned the RCEP after its signing. Those federations, covering workers in construction, manufacturing, agriculture, transportation, services and education, said, “Instead of furthering a free trade project, countries should be collaborating on reviving their economies and expanding public goods. … RCEP and other trade agreements that protect intellectual property rights threaten the ability to secure a globally accessible [Covid-19] vaccine. … [W]hile [corporate executives] traveling for business will benefit from facilitation of procedures for entry and temporary stay, workers face deteriorating working conditions in a race to the bottom under heightened competition in which migrant workers are facing the worse consequences. Regional cooperation based on a collective intent to promote decent work, quality public services and sustainable and inclusive development are a better solution.”

The seven trade union federations also pointed out that RCEP was shrouded in secrecy throughout its eight years of negotiations, with the text released to the public only after the agreement was signed. (All 15 countries must still formally ratify it.) The intellectual property chapter was leaked in 2015, prompting the Electronic Frontier Foundation to characterize the IP text as “a carbon copy” of the Trans-Pacific Partnership then also in negotiation. “South Korea is channeling the [U.S. trade representative] at its worst here,” the Foundation said in its commentary, speculating that Seoul was pushing draconian IP rules because accepting unfavorable rules in its bilateral trade agreement with the U.S. would put it at a disadvantage otherwise. We’ll return to the intellectual property text, always a key chapter in any trade pact, below.

There are also fears that trade deficits for less developed countries will increase and pressures for privatizations will increase.

The skyline of Bangkok (photo by kallerna)

A senior economist with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, Rashmi Banga, expects that, assuming tariffs are removed on all products trading among RCEP countries, most ASEAN countries will see their imports rise faster than their exports, believing that those countries won’t be able to compete with China.

Kate Lappin, the Asia Pacific regional secretary of Public Services International, a federation of more than 700 trade unions representing 30 million workers in 154 countries, said “free trade” deals such as RCEP “also increase the pressure on governments to privatise, as public services need to be traded and compete on the market. This will have negative impacts on equality, including corrosive impacts on gender equality.” Noting that some measures governments are taking to combat the Covid-19 pandemic would be in violation of the RCEP or other trade agreements, Ms. Lappin said “RCEP will bind the hands of governments in taking measures in the public interest in crises to come, be it health or environmental.” 

There could also be problems for manufacturers in small countries because “rules of origin” rules mandate that parts from any signatory country must be treated the same as domestic production.

Bad news for farmers, good news for agricultural multi-nationals

The ability of farmers to maintain control of their seeds is in peril, according to GRAIN, which describes itself as an “international non-profit organisation that works to support small farmers and social movements in their struggles for community-controlled and biodiversity-based food systems.” GRAIN, in analyzing a separate leak of RCEP chapters, said the agreement was in danger of requiring all signatory governments to adopt a seed law designed to provide private property rights over new crop varieties, giving corporations like Monsanto or Syngenta a legal monopoly over seeds, including farm-saved seeds, for at least 20 years; require adherence to the Budapest Treaty, which enforces patents on microorganisms; and make violations of these corporate-friendly rules criminal violations. Australia, Japan and South Korea were described as the “hard-line camp” on these issues.

Those fears remain in place. Article 11.9 of the final text indeed mandates that RCEP governments not already signed onto the Budapest Treaty do so. Adherence to several other international treaties are also mandated. Language concerning adoption of the seed law described in the preceding paragraph (the Act of International Convention for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants, amended in Geneva in 1991) is at Article 11.9, but the language is ambiguous, encouraging governments to sign the Convention and “cooperate” with other signatory governments “to support its ratification.” Also worrisome is Article 11.36, which mandates patents on plants: “[E]ach Party shall provide for the protection of plant varieties either by patents or by an effective sui generis system or by any combination thereof.”

There is also concern about the availability of medicines. A key goal of the United States when it was negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership was to undermine government procurement of medicines that reduced the cost of health care and to extend patents and data exclusivity periods for brand-name drugs, impede trade in generic medicines, and place new limits on how drug prices are set or regulated, all in the service of pharmaceutical company profits.

Canberra at night (photo by Ryan Wick)

Croakey Health Media, an Australian “not-for-profit public interest journalism organisation,” in a commentary on the RCEP’s potential impact on medicines, feared some of those goals could find their way into the final text. “Early in the negotiations, leaked texts indicated that Japan and South Korea had proposed rules for the RCEP intellectual property chapter that would extend and expand monopolies on new medicines in countries like Cambodia, Indonesia and Thailand,” Croakey said. “These types of rules can delay the availability of generic medicines.”

It appears there is at least some backing off of the worst provisions that had been under discussion. Article 11.8 of the final RCEP text says “The Parties reaffirm the Doha Declaration on the TRIPS Agreement and Public Health” adopted in 2001. The Doha Declaration is an ambiguous document that “affirms” intellectual property rights but also “should not prevent members from taking measures to protect public health.” How the text will be interpreted will likely determine how far it will be possible to go in attacking government health care systems.

It should be stressed that grassroots organizations had no chance to affect any aspect of the RCEP text as the negotiations were secret throughout.

Lots of language customarily found in trade agreements

The text of “free trade” agreements is always dry and technical, even neutral-sounding. It is in the interpretation, and what certain phrases actually mean, that determine their outcome. So let’s take a very brief look at some of the text, and what it might mean.

Chapter 10, covering investments, is crucial to understanding the similarities to existing deals. Article 10.1 on “covered investments” contains the standard list of what is covered typically found in “free trade” agreements, including “claims to money or to any contractual performance related to a business and having financial value” and “intellectual property rights and goodwill.” There is an important exception, however — the chapter does not apply to government procurement, “subsidies or grants provided by a Party” or “services supplied in the exercise of governmental authority.” What that means is that the RCEP theoretically reduces the ability to attack or force privatization of government-owned enterprises, a consistent goal of U.S. trade negotiators in agreements the U.S. is involved in, and a goal generally shared by multi-national corporations seeking new markets. But this clause could potentially be negated by the heavier market pressures that could lead to privatizations, as discussed above, and once a government enterprise is privatized, the clause is no longer relevant.

The investment chapter contains the standard clause that “Each Party shall accord to investors of another Party treatment no less favourable than that it accords, in like circumstances, to investors of any other Party or non-Party.” Article 10.5 follows up with language that is also typical: “Each Party shall accord to covered investments fair and equitable treatment and full protection and security, in accordance with the customary international law minimum standard of treatment of aliens.” Although these passages are bland, neutral-sounding phrases, this language has often been used as key points of attack for multi-national corporations seeking to eliminate government health, safety, labor or environmental regulations. As always, “customary international law” has been established by a series of rulings by the corporate-dominated secret tribunals that hand down unappealable decisions, decisions that are used as precedent for further such decisions. The expectation of profits by a corporation as a “right” superseding health and environmental regulations has been repeatedly handed down.

The skyline of Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Further language routinely found in “free trade” agreements stipulate that capital controls are prohibited, and, in Article 10.13 of the RCEP, “No Party shall expropriate or nationalise a covered investment either directly or through measures equivalent to expropriation or nationalisation.” What will constitute an illegal “expropriation”? How this clause will be interpreted is crucial. In existing “free trade” agreements, government regulations protecting health or the environment are frequently overturned because complying with such regulations would reduce profits, and thus constitute “expropriation” because corporate profits are presumed to be an entitlement by the tribunals sitting in judgment. Will the repeated examples of such rulings in, inter alia, the North American Free Trade Agreement, be replicated here?

In Chapter 11, covering intellectual property rights, there is no mandatory schedule for when those rights expire; this constitutes a small victory. The chapter also states that signatory governments “may establish appropriate measures to protect genetic resources, traditional knowledge, and folklore,” a right not ordinarily granted in “free trade” agreements.

But in the Financial Services Annex of Chapter 8, language similar to that found in other trade pacts requires that foreign financial services firms be given free reign to operate, even to take over a country’s banking system. Specifically, “Each host Party shall endeavour to permit financial institutions of another Party established in the territory of the host Party to supply a new financial service in the territory of the host Party that the host Party would permit its own financial institutions, in like circumstances.” Again, what seems neutral-sounding on the surface has specific meanings when interpreted by a tribunal in the context of “customary international law.”

Corporations will continue to be elevated above governments

And that brings us to Chapter 19, covering dispute settlement. Article 19.4 leaves us little doubt, reiterating that “This Agreement shall be interpreted in accordance with the customary rules of interpretation of public international law” and that adjudicators “shall also consider relevant interpretations in reports of WTO [World Trade Organization] panels and the WTO Appellate Body, adopted by the WTO Dispute Settlement Body.” No specific tribunal for the settlement of disputes is mandated, and the intent appears to be to have ad hoc panels rather than panels seated by one of the tribunals ordinarily used in trade disputes in existing trade agreements. Nonetheless, Article 19.5 gives right of forum selection to the complaining party — i.e., the corporations that will be suing governments — so the use of the tribunals can’t necessarily be ruled out. When seating an ad hoc panel, the complaining corporation and the respondent government are supposed to mutually agree on the three members of a panel but if they can’t agree, the WTO director-general will complete the panel — given the role of the WTO in imposing draconian pro-corporate rules, this clause can hardly be considered neutral.

And so who will sit on the panel and adjudicate the case? Article 19.11 designates those who “have expertise or experience in law, international trade, other matters covered by this Agreement, or the resolution of disputes arising under international trade agreements.” In other words, the same corporate lawyers who sit as judges on the tribunals that adjudicate cases brought under existing “free trade” agreements. If the WTO director-general seats panelists, those must not only meet the requirements stated above but additionally “be a well-qualified governmental or non-governmental individual including an individual who has served on a WTO panel or the WTO Appellate Body or in the WTO Secretariat, taught or published on international trade law or policy, or served as a senior trade policy official of a WTO Member.”

Under most existing “free trade” agreements, one of three tribunals is used, most commonly the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arm of the World Bank. ICSID is the forum that was used in NAFTA and is used to adjudicate disputes under dozens of bilateral trade agreements, and is responsible for a long list of outrages declaring environmental and health regulations illegal. Conflicts of interest are blatant in these tribunals — corporate lawyers who specialize in defending multinational corporations in trade disputes alternate between appearing as counsel for corporations and as judges handing down the decisions.

This process is summed up well on a Bilaterals.org page answering “frequently asked questions”:

“In effect, ISDS creates a parallel business-friendly judicial system exclusively for transnational corporations. The power rests upon for-profit arbitrators who come from the corporate sector and face unverifiable conflicts of interest. They have no sovereign legitimacy and are not accountable to the public. The decisions they make can be inconsistent between one another and cannot be appealed. Plus, the arbitrators effectively serve as judge and party, because the same appointed arbitrators who plead the case for the parties make the decision. Imagine a football match where the referee plays for one of the teams! With ISDS, this becomes a possible scenario. So much for justice.”

RCEP rules not mandating ICSID or one of the other tribunals is a cosmetic change. Governments continue to tie themselves to rules and precedents that elevate multi-national corporations above national governments, and thus elevate corporate profiteering above all other human considerations. There will still be panels seated to adjudicate disputes, but instead of using ICSID or another permanent forum, there will be ad hoc panels, which will, as noted above, have the exact same criteria for seating judges. The Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union pioneered this cosmetic change, intended to make the one-sidedness of ISDS appear somewhat less blatant, and will also be used in some disputes covered by NAFTA 2, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada agreement.

Thus the “investor-state dispute settlement” (ISDS) process is very much in place in the RCEP. That should not come as a surprise. “Free trade” agreements arise because multi-national corporations scour the globe searching for the places with the lowest wages and least regulations in order to maximize their profits over all other considerations. As capitalist competition intensifies, corporations must match the moves their competitors make in order to remain in business, and adopt still more harsh policies to stay ahead. Once production is moved overseas, and supply chains are spread into ever more locales, tariffs and rules protecting domestic production are barriers to be removed. Trade deals at first mainly dealt with technical issues or tariffs, but as the relentless grasping for profits becomes ever more intense, regulations safeguarding health, labor, the environment or safety are seen as barriers to profit-making, and corporations seek to sweep them away, too.

Later trade agreements had much more to do with erasing regulations than with actual trade rules, which was reflected in the draconian rules the U.S., often assisted by Japan, sought to impose in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. That the RCEP has less draconian rules is not a cause for celebration — the rules are still plenty tilted in favor of multi-national capital and will inevitably be wielded as a cudgel by those beneficiaries. A rational trading system requires a rational, democratic economic system, not the dictatorship of capital.

Don’t let up: Fascism isn’t dead yet

Even if Joe Biden had won the U.S. presidency by the expected landslide, the threat of fascism would remain. And not simply because Trumpites are not going away anytime soon.

Donald Trump doesn’t have the intelligence or sufficient ruling-class backing to actually become a fascist dictator. His desire to be one, however, has been more than sufficient to necessitate the widest possible movement against him and the social forces he represents, and there is no doubt his authoritarian impulses would have become still worse had he won a second term. What little democracy is left in the United States’ capitalist formal democracy would have been further reduced.

It might be better to understand Trump as the Republican Party’s frankenstein — the culmination of the Republican “Southern Strategy.” Richard Nixon was an open racist who developed the strategy of sending dog whistles to White racists; Ronald Reagan promoted “states’ rights,” well understood code words for supporting racially biased policies; George H.W. Bush exploited racial stereotypes with his Willie Horton campaign ads; George W. Bush’s presidency will be remembered for his callous ignoring of New Orleans and its African-American population in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the roster of Republicans hostile to civil rights is too long to list. Moreover, the Republican Party, with very few exceptions, has been an eager promoter and enabler of Trump’s virulent pro-big business policies with most not even bothering to pretend to challenge Trump’s racism and misogyny.

It was no surprise that a billionaire con man whose business plan has long been to screw his real estate empire’s working-class contractors and use every trick imaginable to not pay taxes or his creditors was going to stick it to working people. 

Protesters in Portland, Oregon, on the Morrison Bridge on June 3, 2020 (photo by Henryodell)

The Trump administration has been the worst U.S. presidency in history with an extraordinarily fierce approach to class warfare. But let us consider what fascism is: At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

Despite varying national characteristics that result in major differences in the appearances of fascism, the class nature is consistent. Big business is invariably the supporter of fascism, no matter what a fascist movement’s rhetoric contains, and is invariably the beneficiary. We often think of fascism in the classical 1930s form, of Nazis goose-stepping or the street violence of Benito Mussolini’s followers. But it took somewhat different forms later in the 20th century, being instituted through military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Any fascism that might arise in the U.S. would be wrapped in right-wing populism and, given the particular social constructs there, that populism would include demands to “return to the Constitution” and “secure the borders.”

Formal democracy vs. fascism

United Statesians have indeed suffered through four years of militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, the imposition of “constitutionalist” judges and demands to “secure” borders, complete with open racism and misogyny. But the Trump administration and its followers constitute a movement with the potential to bring about a fascist dictatorship, not actual fascism. Should the U.S. ruling class — industrialists and financiers — decide they would no longer tolerate the country’s limited, corporate-constrained variety of “democracy,” the militias and assorted far right street gangs that “stand by” on Trump’s command would be unleashed without constraint. And they would be openly joined by police and security agencies in fomenting violence rather than being tacitly supported as they are at present.

Nonetheless, fascism is the last resort of any capitalist ruling class. Instituting a fascist dictatorship is no easy decision even for the biggest industrialists, bankers and landowners who might salivate over the potential profits. For even if it is intended to benefit them, these business elites are giving up some of their own freedom since they will not directly control the dictatorship; it is a dictatorship for them, not by them. It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of formal democratic government, under which citizens “consent” to the ruling structure, is the preferred form and much easier to maintain. Working people beginning to withdraw their consent — beginning to seriously challenge the economic status quo — is one “crisis” that can bring on fascism. An inability to maintain or expand profits, as can occur during a steep decline in the “business cycle,” or a structural crisis, is another such “crisis.”

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, 2016, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

Industrialists and financiers have an iron grip on U.S. politics (witness the dreadful choice the two corporate parties have just offered), and the overdue economic downturn triggered by the pandemic has not hurt profits for most big corporations, with bailouts provided for those who have taken a hit to their bottom lines. Financiers and speculators are doing quite well, and because Wall Street values stability, financiers likely were more behind Joe Biden than Trump. As the Democratic Party favors financiers (while the Republicans favor industrialists), Wall Street will have no problem at all with a Biden administration. Some industrialists likely have tired of Trump’s antics, or calculate that they have gotten all the services they can reasonably expect from him; some among this grouping probably don’t mind a change. And given Joe Biden’s decades of loyal service to corporate interests, in particular the banking industry, little gnashing of teeth is likely to be found in corporate boardrooms.

There was no need for U.S. capitalists to institute a fascist dictatorship during the Trump administration and there won’t be any need in the near future. So, to circle back to the opening of this article, why should it be said that the threat of fascism is undiminished with the ouster of Trump? That is because as long as capitalism exists, the threat of fascism exists.

The rule of capital

The system is called capitalism for a reason — it is the rule of capital. The owners of capital. Those who have capital generally divide into two camps, industrialists and financiers, as alluded to above. Industrialists own or are the top managers of enterprises that produce tangible goods and services, while financiers trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity. The two compete fiercely for the bigger half of the profits and thus have sometimes conflicting interests, but there is considerable overlap between the two sectors of capitalists. Crucially, their class interests are completely aligned. 

Employees are paid far less than the value of what they produce; this is the source of corporate profit. The bloated salaries and profits generated by exploitation of employees is far greater than can be thrown into spending on luxuries or used for business investment, so these massive piles of money are diverted into financial speculation, swelling an already bloated financial sector, which grabs large amounts of this speculative money for itself. Top managers of industrial firms in turn are paid largely in stock so that their interests are “aligned” with that of finance capital, to use Wall Street lingo.

This is the ordinary and routine working of capitalism. As long as people consent to this arrangement — and thus consent to their ongoing exploitation — all is well for industrialists and financiers. But what if consent begins to be withdrawn? What if an economic downturn is so severe and sustained that it becomes difficult to extract profits? This is when capitalists begin to think about putting an end to formal democracy and instituting authoritarian rule. At the most extreme, this authoritarian rule can slide into fascism. Such a scenario is always a possibility because capitalism is inherently unstable. Twenty years into the 21st century, we’re already living through a third economic downturn, each worse than the previous one.

United Statesians, for now, have pushed back against a potential slide toward fascism by ousting Trump. But the recent global trend is unmistakable: Far right authoritarian ideologues remain in office in countries around the world, among them Brazil, the Philippines, Hungary and Poland, and the U.S. has a history stretching back to the 19th century of installing right-wing dictators and overthrowing democratically elected governments. Capitalists have a variety of economic tools at their disposal to maintain their rule, the armed force of governments to enforce their rule, and a variety of institutions and control of the mass media to reinforce ideologies upholding their rule. Elections in capitalist countries decide who gets to govern, not who gets to rule.

Formal democracy is the preferred method of ruling, but if violence, ranging all the way to fascism, is the only way to maintain their power, that is what industrialists and financiers will insist their governments impose. Fascism can’t arise or be raised to power without a social base, a badly confused bloc that supplies support and the shock troops. This social base has to be maleducated enough to believe the obvious lies spewed by the leader and be enthused by the permission granted to openly display their hatreds, be those racism, misogyny, nativism, homophobia or anti-Semitism, permission wrapped in virulent nationalism. The millions of fanatical Trump followers are a monument to the lack of education in the U.S., a pervasive propaganda system and the product of decades of relentless Republican Party ideology. There can be no potential fascist movement without such a social base.

Given this fanatical support of Trump despite the massive failures and undisguised class warfare of his administration, both the followers and the shock troops remain even when Trump leaves the White House. Will they be called on in the future? If you don’t want the threat of fascism to hover in the background, you’ll have to get rid of capitalism.

We can do better than capitalist formal “democracy”

An article I read shortly after Jacinda Ardern’s re-election in New Zealand noted, with a touch of weariness, that Labour’s victory came after a campaign measured in “weeks.” Folks there ought to count themselves lucky — the United States has endured years of campaigning in what has proved, to the surprise of no one, its nastiest presidential contest in memory.

Not to mention that the sclerotic U.S. political system has yet again thrown up two dismal choices, sadly reiterating that the two major parties offer a choice of extreme right (Republican) and center-right (Democrats). And although a common lament is that a third party is needed, one that might actually represent the interests of the majority of United Statesians, very few seriously considering pulling the lever for an alternative party, and the number of those who actually do are likely to be less than usual, given the understandably fervent desire to push Donald Trump out of the White House.

Millions will hold their noses while voting for Joe Biden. The lesser evil is still evil, especially given former Vice President Biden’s dismal record of war mongering, acting as an errand boy for big banks and turbo-charging the prison-industrial complex. So why does the U.S. not only offer such abysmal choices, but seemingly worse ones every four years?

Ultimately, the stranglehold of capital on all aspects of U.S. institutions, the ability of industrialists and financiers to buy Republican and Democratic politicians and their ownership of the news media makes the idea of “democracy” a farce. But the U.S. is a formal democracy, not yet a fascist dictatorship (despite the wishes of Trump), so theoretically it is possible for a popular movement to elevate a candidate pursuing progressive goals.

Cherry Blossoms in Washington during March (photo by Sarah H.)

Not so easy, of course, as the Democratic Party leadership, obeying the wishes of its corporate benefactors, did all it could to oppose the rise of Bernie Sanders — and Senator Sanders is merely an FDR-style liberal, not actually a socialist (despite what he calls himself). That a platform emulating the time that the party enjoyed its biggest congressional majorities is now beyond the pale speaks volumes. Even if Senator Sanders had been able to win the presidential nomination, corporate Democrats would undoubtedly have undermined his candidacy; party leaders like Hillary Clinton made it clear they would have rather seen Trump win re-election than see Senator Sanders win. Just as we saw in Britain, where Labour potentates, and far from only Blairites, clearly preferred to lose to the Conservatives rather than win with Jeremy Corbyn.

But beyond the sad spectacle of Democratic fealty to Wall Street and Republican worship of industrialists, the U.S. system, as currently constructed, is as foolproof a system of maintaining elite power as exists in any capitalist formal democracy. It’s only partly due to the U.S. being saddled with an anachronistic Constitution hopelessly out of date, a document that cements this corporate lockbox. Not that the Constitution should be overlooked; the U.S. Senate is the world’s most undemocratic legislative body (Wyoming, with 570,000 people, and California, with 39 million, both have two members) and the Electoral College allows a minority of voters to elect a candidate with a minority of votes (a presidential vote in Wyoming counts three times more than a vote in New York).

A president who received nearly 3 million votes less than his opponent in 2016 is enabled by a Senate in which the controlling party received a cumulative 20 million votes less than their opponents and is able to pack a Supreme Court with extremists out of step with majority opinion (an unelected Supreme Court that is a political super-legislature with powers far beyond those possessed by other countries’ high courts).

Choice is an illusion in a two-party system

The foregoing are certainly serious contributors to the backward U.S. political system, easily the worst among all advanced capitalist countries and worse than plenty of others elsewhere in the world. And we haven’t even touched on the pathetic unwillingness of Democrats to stand up for whatever it is they believe in and the party’s bizarre tendency to “stand up” to its base, products of the intellectual dead end of liberalism. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason for the two-party system is the U.S. system of single-seat, winner-take-all representation.

Until some form of proportional representation is enacted, United Statesians will be stuck with their deadening two-party system.

A representative body based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. With two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no room for a third party to emerge. Campaigns for elections to these bodies can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

The Hague (photo by Alphaomega)

The advantage of the two-party system (for its beneficiaries) is that it offers the illusion of choice, in contrast to one-party systems. This “choice” is illusory because capitalists, through the concentrated power amassed in their corporations and the ability of those capitalists to suffuse their ideologies into other institutions, restrict the scope of debate within boundaries acceptable to them — ideas that question their dominance are far outside those boundaries. Still, there is much more scope for the contesting of ideas and for serious acknowledgement of problems and devising solutions than in a one-party system. Individual political figures can be voted out of office, unlike in a one-party system, and although changing personalities does not in itself change the system in any way, it does provide a safety valve.

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

Personalities over substance

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated. These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are the views that are going to be heard. And if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together (since they control all political institutions) so that both have “safe” seats, or if one party is much more willing to employ bare-knuckles tactics than the other, it draws the lines to benefit itself.

The two parties nonetheless compete fiercely to win elections. They represent different groupings within the capitalist class — Republicans favor industrialists and Democrats favor financiers. This is a closed competition: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out. These are the underlying reasons for the stability of a two-party system — replacing it with a multiple-party system would require fundamentally changing political structures.

Most any other system would be more democratic. Not altogether democratic as long as capitalism exists (the built-in inequalities and power imbalances can’t be wished away but must be eliminated through the construction of a better world), but at least an improvement.

One system increasingly being experimented with is ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff. In this system, a voter ranks as many candidates as she or he likes. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices of ballots choosing the eliminated candidate are then added to the remaining candidates; this can be done multiple times until someone has a majority. In this system, a voter can vote for who they really wish to see take office and rank the “lesser evil” second to keep the “greater evil” out. Australia uses this system but because its House of Representatives uses a winner-take-all, single-seat districts, there is an effective two-party system there (the Liberal/National coalition and Labor), although 14 of the 151 seats are held by minor parties or independents.

This system is an improvement, but it’s not the panacea its promoters promote it as. Using it for single-seat, winner-take-all districts leaves the system of two dominant corporate parties intact, continues to allow them to draw district boundaries to their benefit and only very marginally increases the long odds of a third party winning. At best, this is tinkering with a fatally flawed system.

If you want more choices, you need proportional representation

Multi-party systems can only exist where there is proportional representation, no matter the content of a constitution, even if a constitution never mentions parties.

Some parliamentary systems use a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats. Germany, New Zealand and Scotland use this system.

There can be two dominant parties in this system (as is the case in Germany and New Zealand), but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup. The rules can be set to make it difficult for any party to achieve a majority, as New Zealand and Scotland do, and thus encourage coalition governments. (Labour’s victory this month in New Zealand marked the first time a party won a majority on its own since this system was adopted.)

The city of Wellington (photo by John Ted Daganato)

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats. However, if the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party. Thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. The most common thresholds are three or five percent of the vote, but cutoffs can be lower. In the Netherlands, a party need only win 0.67 percent — the country is a single constituency with 150 seats. Thirteen parties currently have seats in the Dutch parliament.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to geography?

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several members of a parliament, can still be subjected to legal oppression. The threshold to win a seat in the Israeli Parliament has been set as low as one percent, and no party has ever won a majority, but that hasn’t prevented the consolidation of an apartheid state that renders Palestinians third-class citizens. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland seats three to five members of the Dáil from each constituency, and additionally uses a form of ranked-choice voting known as “single-transferable vote” in which a voter can rank as many or as few of the candidates in his or her constituency as wished. All but four of the 39 Irish constituencies seated at least three parties.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats. More than one party is then guaranteed to win representation. There is such a stipulation in the District of Columbia — two of 13 seats are reserved for candidates not affiliated with the dominant Democratic Party. But that is not a guarantee that small parties will be represented. Both non-Democratic seats are currently held by independents, one of whom was previously a failed Democratic candidate. Members of the DC Statehood Party, however, have held seats in the past.

Of course we need not limit ourselves to traditional parliaments. Councils representing workplaces or other non-geographic constituencies were organized in revolutionary situations across the 20th century. Yugoslavia had a Chamber of Producers, elected from workers’ councils, one of two chambers in the federal parliament, from 1953 to 1963. For the next several years, Yugoslavia seated a five-chamber legislature! One chamber was the Council of Nationalities (10 members from each of six republic and five from the two autonomous provinces, a setup designed to dampen ethnic rivalries); the other four chambers included representatives from citizens by their economic or social-political function (economy, education and culture, welfare and health and organizational-political chamber). Unfortunately, the five-chamber federal legislature was not fully democratic because its members were delegated by members of lower bodies; there were direct elections only at the local level.

The human imagination can surely conceive of still more representative bodies. But future designers of political structures will need to eliminate single-seat, U.S.-style electoral districts — and overturn capitalism — if we are to ever have legislatures that are responsive to non-manipulated popular will.

Class warfare intensifies as labor rights violated around the world

As bad as conditions have traditionally been for labor worldwide, 2020 has seen conditions deteriorate even more. As in past years, there is not a single country on Earth that fully protects workers’ rights. And although every country continues to violate labor rights, the extent of those violations grows, continuing a sad pattern of class warfare.

The International Trade Union Confederation has issued its annual Global Rights Index, and only 12 countries managed to be listed in the Index’s top ranking, the countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. But those countries are hardly paradises (this is capitalism, after all). One of those dozen, the Netherlands, had no less than seven of its corporations listed among companies violating workers’ rights. Those were not necessarily isolated instances. The report said, “In the Netherlands, unions observed an increasing trend to shift from sectoral agreements to company agreements with the intent of minimising labour costs in return for employability. Companies often used the competitiveness and employability argument with their employees to incite them to accept lower conditions of work at the enterprise level. In addition, companies, including Ryanair, Transavia, Jumbo Supermarkets, Gall & Gall, Action and Lidl supermarkets, tended to circumvent collective bargaining with representative unions.”

If that represents the “best” of conditions for working people, the world is a mighty unfair place. Which it obviously is, given the ever more intense pressure bearing down on working people as the neoliberal era continues to make capitalism ever more miserable for those whose work produces the profits swelling the pockets of industrialists and financiers.

As in past years, the Global Rights Index report divides the world’s countries into five categories with increasing levels of rights violations. They are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries including Germany, Ireland, Norway and Uruguay (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Canada, France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 24 countries including Argentina, Australia, Britain and South Africa (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 41 countries including Chile, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 32 countries including Brazil, China, Colombia and Turkey (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

Hypocritical finger-wagging

Consistent with past years of the Global Rights Index, the United States, which loves to hold itself up as an exemplar of democracy and civil rights, is among the lowest-ranking countries — the U.S. has consistently had a ranking of 4 for “systemic” violations. The International Trade Union Confederation, in supplemental materials discussing U.S. violations, noted that the National Labor Relations Board has made a series of anti-union rulings, including allowing retaliation against striking Wal-Mart workers, while U.S. law permits anti-union discrimination, restricts workers’ rights to form unions of their own choosing, and places severe barriers against union organizing. 

The United Kingdom, second only to the U.S. in regular scolding of other countries, is ranked in the middle of the pack, same as a year ago. The report’s discussion of Britain reported “the number of people employed on a stand-by basis, ‘zero-hour contracts,’ at between 200,000 to 250,000 which demonstrates the prevalence of underemployment in the UK. Under these contracts employees have to be available for work but are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours. These contracts create income insecurity for workers and also undermine family life.” Additionally, the report noted multiple barriers to British union organizing.

Canada, although ranked higher than Britain or the U.S., is no paradise despite the image its governments like to project. The report noted that in Canada there are many categories of workers, ranging from domestics to professionals, barred from organizing, and there are severe legal restrictions limiting the right to strike.

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

Globally, the report states that violations of workers’ rights are at a seven-year high. Direct attacks on unions highlight the degradation:

“The trends by governments and employers to restrict the rights of workers through violations of collective bargaining and the right to strike, and excluding workers from unions, have been made worse in 2020 by an increase in the number of countries which impede the registration of unions — denying workers both representation and rights. … A new trend identified in 2020 shows a number of scandals over government surveillance of trade union leaders, in an attempt to instil fear and put pressure on independent unions and their members.”

The global pandemic has only made conditions worse:

“These threats to workers, our economies and democracy were endemic in workplaces and countries before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted lives and livelihoods. In many countries, the existing repression of unions and the refusal of governments to respect rights and engage in social dialogue has exposed workers to illness and death and left countries unable to fight the pandemic effectively.”

Class warfare goes on and on and on

Some of the sobering statistics gathered by the International Trade Union Confederation tell a grim story:

  • 85 percent of countries violated the right to strike.
  • 80 percent of countries violated the right to collectively bargain.
  • Workers were arrested and detained in 61 countries.
  • Workers experienced violence in 51 countries.

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 332 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. Those 97 standards pertain to civil liberties, the right to establish or join unions, trade union activities, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.

The Confederation’s report is one more illustration of the race to the bottom. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 470 million people worldwide were unemployed, underemployed or “marginally attached to the workforce” in a report issued in January 2020, with 2 billion people (61 percent of the global workforce!) informally employed. That report was issued just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, triggering a dramatic economic crash that had been overdue, thanks to the instability of capitalism that regularly causes downturns. Inequality and lower pay are endemic around the world, and the costs of housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, rises far faster than incomes. The continual imposition of austerity on working people contrasts dramatically with the trillions of dollars thrown at financiers and industrialists since the pandemic began.

Capitalism promises nothing but more one-sided class warfare. We’re long past due to try something different.