Why are Leftists cheering the potential demise of Rojava’s socialist experiment?

Lost in the discussions of Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement of the withdrawal of United States troops from Rojava is the possible fate of the democratic and cooperative experiment of the Syrian Kurds. Threatened with annihilation at the hands of Turkish invaders, should we simply wipe our hands and think nothing of an interesting experiment in socialism being crushed on the orders of a far right de facto dictator?

The world of course is accustomed to the U.S. government using financial and military means to destroy nascent socialist societies around the world. But the bizarre and unprecedented case — even if accidental — of an alternative society partly reliant on a U.S. military presence seems to have confused much of the U.S. Left. Or is it simply a matter of indifference to a socialist experiment that puts the liberation of women at the center? Or is it because the dominant political inspiration comes more from anarchism than orthodox Marxism?

Most of the commentary I have seen from U.S. Leftists simply declares “we never support U.S. troops” and that’s the end of it; thus in this conception President Trump for once did something right. But is this issue really so simple? I will argue here that support of Rojava, and dismay at the abrupt withdrawal of troops on the direct demand of Turkish President and de facto dictator Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is not at all a matter of “support” of a U.S. military presence.

Kurds, Assyrians, and Arabs demonstrate against the Assad government in the city of Qamişlo (photo via KurdWatch.org)

Let’s think about World War II for a moment. Was supporting the war against Hitler and Mussolini’s fascist régimes simply a matter of “supporting” U.S. troops? The victory over fascism likely could not have been won without the herculean effort of the Soviet Union once it overcame the initial bungling of Josef Stalin and the second-rate commanders he had put in charge of the Red Army after purging most of the best generals. To say that the Soviet Union won World War II is no way is meant to denigrate or downplay the huge sacrifices borne by the Western allies. That Western effort was supported by communists and most other Leftists. The Communist Party of the United States of America (CPUSA) were staunch supporters of the U.S. war effort — party members well understood what was at stake.

In contrast, the main U.S. Trotskyist party, the Socialist Workers Party, dismissed the war as an inter-imperialist dispute. That may have been so, but was that the moment to make a fetish of pacifism or of an unwillingness to be involved in any way in a capitalist fight? We need only think of what would have happened had Hitler, Mussolini and Tojo triumphed in the war to answer that question. Backing the war effort was the only rational choice any Leftist not blinded by rigid ideology could have made. It is no contradiction to point out the CPUSA took the correct approach even for someone, like myself, who is generally strongly critical of the party.

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

To bring us back to the present controversy, we might ask: What do the Kurds want? The Syrian Kurds, surrounded by hostile forces waiting for the opportunity to crush their socialist experiment, made a realpolitik decision in accepting the presence of U.S. troops, and a limited number of French and British troops. The dominant party in Syrian Kurdistan, the Democratic Union Party (PYD), is strongly affiliated with the leading party of Turkey’s Kurds, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has been locked in a decades-long struggle with successive Turkish governments.

The preceding sentence is something of a euphemism. It would be more accurate to say that the Turkish government has waged an unrelenting war against the Kurdish people. Ankara has long denied the existence of the Kurdish people, banning their language, publications, holidays and cultural expressions, and pursuing a relentless campaign of forced resettlement intended to dilute their numbers in southeast Turkey. Uprisings have been met with arrests, torture, bombings, military assaults, the razing of villages and declarations of martial law. Hundreds of thousands have been arrested, tortured, forcibly displaced or killed. Turkish governments, including that of President Erdoğan, do not distinguish between “Kurd” and “terrorist.”

The PKK’s leader, Abdullah Öcalan, has been held in solitary confinement since his abduction in Kenya in 1999, an abduction assisted by the U.S. Successive U.S. governments have capitulated to Turkey by falsely labeling the PKK a “terrorist” organization and have actively assisted in the suppression of Turkish Kurds. Can it really be possible that Syrian Kurds are somehow unaware of all this? Obviously not.

YPJ fighter helping maintain a position against Islamic State (photo by BijiKurdistan)

Surrounded and blockaded by Turkey, an oppressive Syrian government, Islamic State terrorists and a corrupt Iraqi Kurdistan government in alliance with Turkey, the Syrian Kurds of Rojava have made a series of realpolitik choices, one of which is to accept a U.S. military presence in the territory to prevent Turkey from invading. That in the wake of the announced U.S. withdrawal Rojava authorities have asked the Syrian army to move into position to provide a new buffer against Turkey — despite the fact the Assad father and son régimes have been relentlessly repressive against them — is another difficult decision made by a people who are surrounded by enemies.

To ignore what the Kurdish people, in attempting to build a socialist, egalitarian society, have to say are acts of Western chauvinism. It is hardly reasonable to see the Syrian Kurds as “naïve” or “puppets” of the U.S. as if they are incapable of understanding their own experiences. And Turkey’s invasion of Rojava’s Afrin district, which was disconnected from the rest of Rojava, resulting in massive ethnic cleansing, should make clear the dangers of further Turkish invasions.

The Kurdistan National Congress, an alliance of Kurdish parties, civil society organizations and exile groups, issued a communiqué that said, as its first point, “The coalition forces must not leave North and East Syria/Rojava.” The news site Rudaw reports that Islamic State has gone on the offensive since President Trump acquiesced to President Erdoğan’s demand, and quotes a spokesperson for the Kurd-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces as saying that “More than four million are exposed to the danger of massive displacement, escaping from possible genocide,” noting the example of Turkey’s brutal invasion of Afrin.

Here’s what someone on the ground in Rojava has to say:

Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from Syria is not an ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ measure. It will not bring the conflict in Syria to an end. On the contrary, Trump is effectively giving Turkish President Tayyip Erdoğan the go-ahead to invade Rojava and carry out ethnic cleansing against the people who have done much of the fighting and dying to halt the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS). This is a deal between strongmen to exterminate the social experiment in Rojava and consolidate authoritarian nationalist politics from Washington, DC to Istanbul and Kobane. … There’s a lot of confusion about this, with supposed anti-war and ‘anti-imperialist’ activists like Medea Benjamin endorsing Donald Trump’s decision, blithely putting the stamp of ‘peace’ on an impending bloodbath and telling the victims that they should have known better. It makes no sense to blame people here in Rojava for depending on the United States when neither Medea Benjamin nor anyone like her has done anything to offer them any sort of alternative.”

None of this means we should forget for a moment the role of the United States in destroying attempts to build socialism, or mere attempts to challenge U.S. hegemony even where capitalist relations are not seriously threatened. Certainly there is no prospect of a U.S. government supporting socialism in Rojava; experiments in building societies considerably less radical than that of Rojava have been mercilessly crushed by the U.S. using every means at its disposal. That the project of Rojava, for now, has been helped by the presence of U.S. troops is an unintentional byproduct of the unsuccessful U.S. effort to overthrow Bashar al-Assad. At the same time of the expected pullout from Rojava, U.S. troops will remain in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they are unambiguously occupiers.

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

Even if the analysis is overly mechanical, cheering the withdrawal of troops is understandable, given the imperialist history of U.S. aggression. Less understandable is support for the bloodthirsty Assad regime. “The enemy of what I oppose is a friend” is a reductionist, and often futile, way of thinking. The Ba’ath regime of Hafez and Bashar Assad have a long history of murderous rampages against Syrians. The United Nations Human Rights Council reports “patterns of summary execution, arbitrary arrest, enforced disappearance, torture, including sexual violence, as well as violations of children’s rights.” Amnesty International reports that “As many as 13,000 prisoners from Saydnaya Military Prison were extrajudicially executed in night-time mass hangings between 2011 and 2015. The victims were overwhelmingly civilians perceived to oppose the government and were executed after being held in conditions amounting to enforced disappearance.”

Enforced monoculture agriculture was imposed on the Kurdish regions of Syria by the Ba’ath régime, with no economic development allowed. These areas were intentionally kept undeveloped under a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Nor should the Assad family rule be seen in as any way as progressive. Neoliberal policies and increasingly anti-labor policies have been imposed. The spark that ignited the civil war was the drought that struck Syria beginning in 2006, a disaster deepened by poor water management and corruption.

Political scientists Raymond Hinnebusch and Tina Zinti, in the introduction to Syria from Reform to Revolt, Volume 1: Political Economy and International Relations, provide a concise summary of Assad neoliberalism. (The following two paragraphs are summarized from their introduction.)

Hafez al-Assad became dictator, eliminating Ba’athist rivals, in 1970. He “constructed a presidential system above party and army” staffed with relatives, close associates and others from his Alawite minority, according to professors Hinnebusch and Zinti. “[T]he party turned from an ideological movement into institutionalized clientalism” with corruption that undermined development. In turn, Alawite domination bred resentment on the part of the Sunni majority, and a network of secret police and elite military units, allowed to be above the law, kept the regime secure. Over the course of the 1990s, widespread privatization drastically shrank the state sector, which earned Assad the support of Syria’s bourgeoisie.

Upon Assad’s death in 2000, his son Bashar was installed as president. Bashar al-Assad sought to continue opening Syria’s economy to foreign capital. In order to accomplish that, he needed to sideline his father’s old guard and consolidate his power. He did, but by doing so he weakened the régime and its connections to its base. He also altered the régime’s social base, basing his rule on technocrats and businessmen who supported his economic reforms and concomitant disciplining of the working class. Syria’s public sector was run down, social services reduced, an already weak labor law further weakened and taxation became regressive, enabling new private banks and businesses to reap big incomes.

Not exactly friends of the working class, and a strong contrast to the system of “democratic confederalism” as the Rojava economic and political system is known.

Building political democracy through communes

Clandestine organizing had been conducted among Syrian Kurds since a 2004 massacre of Kurds by the Assad régime; much of this organizing was done by women because they could move more openly then men under the close watch of the régime. Kurds were supportive of the rebels when the civil war began, but withdrew from cooperation as the opposition became increasingly Islamized and unresponsive to Kurd demands for cultural recognition. Meanwhile, as the uprising began, Kurdish self-protection militias were formed in secret with clandestine stocks of weapons. The drive for freedom from Assad’s terror began on the night of July 18, 2012, when the People’s Protection Unit (YPG) took control of the roads leading into Kobani and, inside the city, people began to take over government buildings.

What the Syrian Kurds have created in the territory known as Rojava is a political system based on neighborhood communes and an economic system based on cooperatives. (“Rojava” is the Kurdish word for “west,” denoting that the Syrian portion of their traditional lands is “West Kurdistan.”) The inspiration for their system is Murray Bookchin’s concept of a federation of independent communities known as “libertarian municipalism” or “communalism.” But democratic confederalism is a syncretic philosophy, influenced by theorists such as Immanuel Wallerstein, Benedict Anderson and Antonio Gramsci in addition to Mr. Bookchin but rooted in Kurdish history and culture.

Political organization in Rojava consists of two parallel structures. The older and more established is the system of communes and councils, which are direct-participation bodies. The other structure, resembling a traditional government, is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration, which is more of a representative body, although one that includes seats for all parties and multiple social organizations.

The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. The top level theoretically coordinates decisions for all of Rojava.

Integrated within the four-level council system are seven commissions — defense, economics, politics, civil society, free society, justice and ideology — and a women’s council. These committees and women’s councils exist at all four levels. In turn commissions at local levels coordinate their work with commissions in adjacent areas. There is also an additional commission, health, responsible for coordinating access to health care (regardless of ability to pay) and maintaining hospitals, in which medical professionals fully participate. Except for the women’s councils, all bodies have male and female co-leaders.

At least 40 percent of the attendees must be women in order for a commune decision to be binding. That quota reflects that women’s liberation is central to the Rojava project on the basis that the oppression of women at the hands of men has to be completely eliminated for any egalitarian society to be born. Manifestations of sexism, including male violence against women, have not magically disappeared. These may now be socially unacceptable, and more likely to be kept behind closed doors, but the system of women’s councils attached to the communes, and councils at higher levels, and the self-organization of women, has at a minimum put an end to the isolation that enabled the toleration of sexist behavior and allowed other social problems to fester.

A system of women’s houses provides spaces for women to discuss their issues. These centers also offer courses on computers, language, sewing, first aid, culture and art, as well as providing assistance against social sexism. As with peace committees that seek to find a solution rather than mete out punishments in adjudicating conflicts, the first approach when dealing with violence or other issues of sexism is to effect a change in behavior. One manifestation of putting these beliefs into action is the creation of women’s militias, which have played leading roles in battlefield victories over Islamic State.

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

The basis of Rojava’s economy are cooperatives. The long-term goal is to establish an economy based on human need, environmentalism and equality, distinctly different from capitalism. Such an economy can hardly be established overnight, so although assistance is provided to cooperatives, which are rapidly increasing in number, private capital and markets still exist. Nor has any attempt to expropriate large private landholdings been attempted or contemplated.

Given the intentional under-development of the region under the Assad family régime, the resulting lack of industry and the civil-war inability to import machinery or much else, and the necessity of becoming as food self-sufficient as possible due to the blockade, Rojava’s cooperatives are primarily in the agricultural sector. There is also the necessity of reducing unemployment, and the organization of communes is seen as the speediest route to that social goal as well.

The practitioners of democratic confederalism say they reject both capitalism and the Soviet model of state ownership. They say they represent a third way, embodied in the idea that self-management in the workplace goes with self-management in politics and administration. Since their liberation from the highly repressive Assad régime, Rojava agriculture has become far more diversified, and price controls were imposed.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan (photo by Arab Salsa)

Cooperative enterprises are not intended to be competitive against one another. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social need and in many cases their leadership is elected by the communes. The intention is to form cooperatives in all sectors of the economy. But basic necessities such as water, land and energy are intended to be fully socialized, with some arguing that these should be made available free of charge. Because the economy will retain some capitalist elements for some time, safeguards are seen as necessary to ensure that cooperatives don’t become too large and begin to behave like private enterprises.

We need not indulge in hagiography. There are, naturally, problems and contradictions. Private ownership of the means of production is enshrined in documents espousing socialism and equality, and large private landholdings, with attendant social relations, will be untouched. It is hardly reasonable to expect that a brand new economy can be established overnight, much less in a region forced to divert resources to military defense. Nonetheless, capitalists expect as much profit as can be squeezed out of their operations, an expectation decidedly at odds with goals of “equality and environmental sustainability.” In essence, what is being created is a mixed economy, and the history of mixed economies is fraught with difficulties. Another issue is that Rojava’s authorities, connected with the dominant Democratic Union Party (PYD), can be heavy-handed, including the closing of the offices of the opposition Kurdish National Council on questionable legal grounds.

Nonetheless, what is being created in northern Syria is a remarkable experiment in economic and political democracy — not only Kurds but other minority groups and Arabs consciously working toward socialism. Why shouldn’t this be supported? The authors of the book Revolution in Rojava, supporters of the project and one of whom fought in the women’s militia, argue that the idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is “naïve,” drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

In the forward to the same book, David Graeber, careful to differentiate the targets of his critique from those who oppose the global dominance of North American militarism, argues:

“What I am speaking of here instead is the feeling that foiling imperial designs — or avoiding any appearance of even appearing to be on the ‘same side’ as an imperialist in any context — should always take priority over anything else. This attitude only makes sense if you’ve secretly decided that real revolutions are impossible. Because surely, if one actually felt that a genuine popular revolution was occurring, say, in the [Rojava] city of Kobanî and that its success could be a beacon and example to the world, one would also not hold that it is better for those revolutionaries to be massacred by genocidal fascists than for a bunch of white intellectuals to sully the purity of their reputations by suggesting that US imperial forces already conducting airstrikes in the region might wish to direct their attention to the fascists’ tanks. Yet, astoundingly, this was the position that a very large number of self-professed ‘radicals’ actually did take.”

It does seem quite reasonable to hope for a socialist experiment to avoid being destroyed by Islamic State fascism, Turkish ultra-nationalism or Syrian absolutism rather than clinging to dogmatism.

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World’s governments indulge in symbolism, not action, at COP24

The good news from the annual climate summit just concluded in Katowice, Poland, is that the world’s governments agreed on a “rulebook” intended to implement the Paris Accord, the 2015 agreement to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. The bad news is that the world is no closer to actually tackling global warming than before and the rulebook has little binding effect.

Because these annual meetings are more about symbolism than action, it is symbolic indeed that the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), or COP 24, took place in Katowice, in Poland’s coal country. For added irony, the far-right Polish government announced the opening of a new coal mine days before COP24 opened, and Poland’s pavilion featured displays of everyday items such as walls and soap made out of coal.

Admittedly the bar is awfully low, but COP24 was an improvement over last year’s COP23 gathering in Bonn, Germany, when the world’s governments talked and concluded by announcing that they would talk some more. But there were some glowing press releases issued, in which participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk. The official COP23 web site declared that “we have done the job we came here to do, which is to advance the implementation guidelines of the Paris Agreement.” Evidently, talking about those guidelines was considered sufficient to “advance” the Paris Accord agreements.

3 maja street in Katowice (photo by Przykuta)

COP24’s contribution to advancing the Paris Accord was to agree to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. In other words, the world’s governments had previously agreed to set goals for reducing their productions of greenhouse gases but to do so on a voluntary basis with no enforcement mechanism, and now those agreements will have guidelines as to how those goals will be reported that also have no enforcement mechanism. And governments will be allowed to use their own methodologies to calculate their progress, a gaping loophole sure to be used to cook the books.

If you feel underwhelmed by all this, you shouldn’t feel bad.

It is understandable that participants would like to put a positive spin on the gathering, but COP24 president Michał Kurtyka was arguably crossing into the territory of unreality with his summation:

“[I]s impact on the world will be positive. Thanks to it, we have taken a big step towards achieving the ambitions set in the Paris Agreement. Ambitions thanks to which our children will look back at some point and consider that their parents made the right decisions in an important historical moment.”

A rise of 1.5 degrees is not as bad as 2, but still bad

More likely, our descendants will curse us for doing essentially nothing to combat global warming as they evacuate from flooded coastal cities and struggle to minimize large-scale agricultural disruptions. Each year that nothing concrete is done, the likelihood of catastrophic environmental damage increases. And there are not many years left before worst-case scenarios become inevitable. Just two months ago, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) issued a report on the effects of global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and that of 2 degrees warming. There is a significant difference between the expected results of 1.5 and 2 degrees, but the effects at 1.5 are nonetheless serious. The Earth has already warmed by 1 degree, and the IPCC report states that, if current patterns continue, 1.5-degree warming will be reached between 2030 and 2052.

Thus, catastrophic changes well beyond what we are already experiencing could begin to occur in as few as 12 years.

With a “high confidence,” the IPCC report states, “Some impacts may be long-lasting or irreversible, such as the loss of some ecosystems” if global warming is stabilized at 1.5 degrees in 2100. But the damage at 2 degrees will be significantly worse than if global warming is capped at 1.5 degrees. For example, “6% of insects, 8% of plants and 4% of vertebrates are projected to lose over half of their climatically determined geographic range for global warming of 1°C, compared with 18% of insects, 16% of plants and 8% of vertebrates for global warming of 2°C.” Further, global warming of 1.5 degrees is “expected to drive the loss of coastal resources and reduce the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture” but such losses will be more severe at 2 degrees.

Mass species die-offs will be in our future, the report says:

“The level of ocean acidification due to increasing CO2 concentrations associated with global warming of 1.5°C is projected to amplify the adverse effects of warming, and even further at 2°C, impacting the growth, development, calcification, survival, and thus abundance of a broad range of species, for example, from algae to fish (high confidence).”

None of this is new; there have been ample studies of what runaway global warming will look like in coming decades. Reports in the past few years have found that Earth is crossing multiple points of no return and thus driving the planet “into a much less hospitable state”; that the contribution of melting ice sheets to global warming has been under-estimated, meaning that coastal flooding could happen sooner than expected; and that current and near-future global warming may be enough to cause a rise in sea levels of at least six meters.

As a reminder, the world’s governments agreed in Paris, at COP21, to set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees instead of the previously agreed 2 degrees. But should all the pledges made at the Paris Summit actually be met, the increase in global temperatures will be about 2.7 degrees, according to Climate Action Tracker. The group calculates that fulfillment of the national pledges would result in an increase in the global temperature of 2.2 to 3.4 degrees C. (with a median of 2.7) by 2100, with further increases beyond that. In other words, global warming would advance at a slower pace than it would have otherwise should all commitments be fulfilled. But there are no enforcement mechanisms to force compliance with these goals; peer pressure is expected to be sufficient.

Governments will have to report their emissions, eventually

So what was accomplished at COP24? All countries will be required to report their emissions — and progress in cutting them — every two years starting in 2024. The climate science web site CarbonBrief reported that the same benchmark (the latest IPCC emissions accounting guidance) “shall” be used by all governments when reporting progress toward meeting pledges, but the governments who negotiated this agreement left themselves a large loophole. Joeri Rogelj, a lecturer in climate change, told CarbonBrief:

“Under the Paris Agreement, emissions and proposed emissions reductions will be regularly compared, added up, and assessed in light of their adequacy for limiting warming well below 2C and 1.5C. This requires common rules for emissions reporting. But instead of requiring countries to adhere to scientifically robust methods, the final Katowice text now allows countries to use ‘nationally appropriate methodologies’, which, in all likelihood, will only be used to do some creative reporting and portray emissions of specific countries in a better light than they are. This is particularly an issue in the land-use sector.”

Regardless of future accuracy in reporting progress, an upgrading of the national commitments made at Paris was not forthcoming. As DeSmog noted, “In the final text agreed at Katowice, countries are not specifically asked to increase their ambitions but simply ‘invited’ to consider enhancing their pledges by 2020. The Paris Agreement will kick in that year, and countries are set to re-submit or update their climate pledges.”

National governments will be expected to boost their Paris Accord pledges in future years, but the first assessment of progress toward meeting those goals won’t be for another five years, reports Bob Henson of Weather Underground:

“Each country is being encouraged to ratchet up its Paris Agreement pledges every five years: in 2020, 2025, and beyond. Three years after each round of pledge revisions, starting in 2023, there will be a “global stocktake” session, where progress is juxtaposed against the latest science and the goal of achieving equity. This year’s meeting was a pre-stocktake of sorts, intended to hammer out the rules of how the pledges (or nationally determined contributions) will be verified and updated.”

There was at least some comic relief at COP24, predictably supplied by the Trump administration. Wells Griffith, Donald Trump’s adviser on energy and climate change, gave a presentation promoting increased use of fossil fuels, including coal, drawing animated protests and derisive laughter. Mr. Griffith quite literally ran, for a reported quarter-mile, from Democracy Now reporter Amy Goodman as she attempted to question him, at one point claiming he was being “harassed” because he was being asked questions.

Such antics are not likely to be found amusing by our descendants should they have to live through the predicted scenarios. The changes that will be necessary to reverse global warming and stabilize the global climate will come at large expense, and require that those whose jobs depend on greenhouse-gas producing industries such as oil, gas and coal be provided with new jobs. Those in the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less, which could be accomplished in significant part through ending planned obsolescence and making products last two or three times longer. But business as usual is simply unsustainable.

As difficult as the cost that must be borne will be, the cost of doing nothing, as the world’s governments, beholden to corporate interests, are currently doing, is much greater.

“Winners” in Amazon sweepstakes sure to be the losers

Jeff Bezos, the world’s richest person, wouldn’t seem to need the money. Nonetheless, huge sums of money will be diverted from social needs to line his pockets — a cost that won’t stop there, as gentrification will be accelerated still more in New York City and the Washington area.

In all, Mr. Bezos scooped up nearly US$3.7 billion worth of subsidies this week. Does someone worth $112 billion and owner of a company that has racked up $7 billion in profits for the first nine months of 2018 really need such largesse? Corporate subsides are hardly unique to Amazon, but this to all appearances represents the most blatant example yet seen.

Incredibly, these astronomical sums of money don’t represent the biggest giveaway offers, even in the “winning” areas’ metropolitan areas. The state of New Jersey, then under the governorship of Chris Christie, offered $7 billion to Amazon to build its second headquarters in Newark, and the state of Maryland offered $8.5 billion to Amazon to build in Montgomery County, which borders Washington on the opposite side of the Potomac River from Arlington, Virginia.

The waterfront location for Amazon’s campus in New York City’s Long Island City neighborhood is just to the north (or to the left) of these high-rise buildings. (photo by Jim Henderson)

Many other locations across the United States offered gigantic subsidies, as Amazon did all it could to initiate a bidding war. But as the two locations chosen (splitting in two the original proposal to create a single “second headquarters”) were picked because of the available workforces and city amenities, were these gargantuan subsidies necessary? It would seem not, making them all the more hideous. One strong clue is that Google is rapidly expanding its presence in New York City without, as far as the public knows, any subsidies.

New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, justifies Amazon’s subsidies by claiming that “It costs us nothing,” going so far as to assert that the city and state will get back nine dollars every dollar given away in subsidies. This sounds dubious, to be put it mildly, given that once all the state and city incentives are added up, the cost will be approximately $100,000 per job — a total amounting to all the state and city income taxes that will be paid by all the Amazon employees for the 10-year period of the subsidies, according to an analysis by Josh Barro, a former fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute.

Writing in New York magazine, Mr. Barro wrote:

“The problem with [Governor Cuomo’s] analysis is it assumes all the economic activity we’re buying with the subsidy package wouldn’t happen without the subsidy package. And that’s not true. Google’s impending expansion in Manhattan — where it will develop a campus nearly as large as the one Amazon plans — shows a mega-tech firm might locate here even if you don’t give it billions of dollars.

Plus, when we do bring Amazon in, it will tend to crowd out other businesses and especially other people that might have located where Amazon is going. New York is crowded — there’s more demand for housing than supply, and the number of top development sites is limited — so the case that subsidized economic development means more net economic activity is much weaker here than it might be in, say, Cleveland.”

A dictated outcome that will facilitate gentrification

A city councilman, Brad Lander, was still more direct in his criticism. At a demonstration the day after Amazon’s announcement, Councilman Lander said, “This is not only an assault on Long Island City [the neighborhood where Amazon will build]. It’s not only an assault on housing affordability. It’s not only an assault on transit capacity. This is an assault on our democracy.” The reason behind that last statement is that the plan to throw $3 billion at the world’s richest man was hatched and negotiated in secret, and will be forced through via a state agency so that local officials will have no say whatsoever.

The exception to that is Mayor Bill de Blasio, who is kicking in $900 million in city tax credits plus allowing Amazon to apply for a program that would enable it receive property tax abatements for up to 25 years. Mayor de Blasio, the Barack Obama of New York City who is far from a progressive although he plays one on television, continues to do his his part to facilitate gentrification as he continues the legacy of his billionaire neoliberal predecessor, financial-industry titan Michael Bloomberg.

The waterfront area where Amazon’s new campus will be built is not virgin land. It is an area of warehouses and other businesses with blue-collar jobs but is located adjacent to a waterfront area that was once industrial but is now full of high-rise luxury housing, most of which has been built in the past decade. Although it is true that manufacturing has long been in decline in waterfront neighborhoods such as Long Island City, it is also inescapable that city policy under snarling Rudy Giuliani, technocrat Michael Bloomberg and duplicitous Bill de Blasio has centered on accelerating gentrification by using zoning changes and developer incentives to force out industrial operations and replace them with million-dollar high-rise condos. Long Island City, and the nearby neighborhoods of Astoria, Greenpoint and Williamsburg (particularly the latter two), are rapidly changing under the tremendous pressures of uncontrolled real estate speculation.

A view of Alexandria, Virginia. (photo by David Fuchs)

Jobs at the existing businesses will be lost in the redevelopment to benefit Amazon, and still more pressure will be placed on the already dwindling stock of affordable housing, adding to the pressure from the mushrooming upscale housing. There will also be more strain on an infrastructure (including a decaying, underfunded subway system) already unable to handle the number of people living and working in these areas. Gentrification doesn’t just happen — it is a process assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

To provide a working definition, gentrification is a process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. Make no mistake, Amazon’s arrival will not only accelerate gentrification in Long Island City and the nearby waterfront neighborhoods of Greenpoint and Williamsburg, but kickstart gentrification in Queens neighborhoods further from the East River. This will displace not only people but local businesses as New York City becomes ever more a homogenized corporate shopping mall.

Alexandria, Virginia, will surely not escape this fate, either, as the Washington area undergoes it owns process of gentrification. The state government of Virginia and the city of Alexandria are handing out $573 million in subsidies, equivalent to $22,000 per job. That doesn’t include another $223 million in promised transit improvements. Amazon will also be receiving $102 million in subsidies for a new operations center that is projected to employ 5,000 people in Nashville, Tennessee.

The biggest but far from the first Amazon subsidies

Subsidies, unfortunately, are nothing new for Amazon, although never before has it received giveaways of this scale. According to Good Jobs First, Amazon had already received $1.6 billion in subsidies for its warehouses, data centers, film productions and its WholeFoods supermarkets from 146 separate programs. Just in 2018 alone, a total of 17 subsidies from governments in 13 states gave the company at least $237 million.

Amazon’s profits are rapidly rising — not to mention making Mr. Bezos the richest person in the world. The company reported net income of $5.4 billion for 2016 and 2017 before racking up $7 billion in the first three quarters of 2018. As an owner of 80 million shares in Amazon, Mr. Bezos is in no danger of losing his fortune. The harshness of working conditions at Amazon, well documented in numerous reports, means that he gets rich off the sweat of his workers, not only through the massive subsidies showed upon him.

Although it is skilled at the art of taking public money for its private profit, Amazon is far from unique, One good example is Wal-Mart, which greedily gobbles up subsidies while racking up gigantic profits. Wal-Mart is a company that pays it 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.

Protesting Amazon in Long Island City (photo via Local 338 RWDSU/UFCW)

Wal-Mart is a company that has reported net income of $70 billion over the previous five years, and in which three heirs of founder Sam Walton are each among the world’s sixteen richest people, worth a combined $139 billion. The Walton family owns about half of Wal-Mart’s stock, and last year “earned” from collecting dividends alone about $3 billion just for being born. They need not ever lift a finger to haul in these fantastic sums. The Donald Trump/Republican Party tax scam of 2018 that provided windfalls for U.S. corporations has showered still more money on Wal-Mart, which like most of its corporate peers, used the largesse to fatten profits and shower more money on its stockholders. Wal-Mart announced that in its last fiscal year it handed out $14.4 billion to shareholders in dividends and stock repurchases.

None of these appalling results are unique to Wal-Mart or to Amazon. The University of California Berkeley Labor Center calculates that low wages costs United States taxpayers $153 billion per year in public support for working families. Nearly three-quarters of United Statesians receiving public support are members of working families, the Labor Center reports, adding that more than half of combined state and federal spending on public assistance goes to working families.

So much has been written about inequality, stagnant or falling wages, corporate tax dodging and good old-fashioned capitalist class war what new can be said? Capitalism, alas, is working as it is supposed to.

Why do Yemen’s dead not merit the attention of Jamal Khashoggi?

The apparent murder of Saudi Arabian dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi is a shocking crime that merits the international attention it has received, but nonetheless it is impossible not to wonder why the death of a single person receives vastly more coverage than ongoing Saudi atrocities in Yemen.

Is it that a dramatic story involving a single personality is easier to grasp than a war fought over complex political and ethnic issues, or does the differing levels of attention signal that Mr. Khashoggi has achieved the status of an honorary westerner while the tens of thousands dead in Yemen represent a distant “other”? Some combination of both of these are likely at work, and that he is a fellow journalist makes his fate all the more compelling for reporters and editors. Geopolitical considerations are certainly at play here, with the towering hypocrisy of the Trump administration on full display, a hypocrisy that stands out even in the dismal history of U.S. government policies toward Saudi Arabia.

President Donald Trump’s transparent attempts to exonerate Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, by “speculating” that “rogue agents” might be behind Mr. Khashoggi’s demise inside the consulate is beyond laughable, or would be if the issue weren’t so serious. Billions of dollars of arms sales are at stake (not to mention a reliable supply of oil), so minor trifles like human rights or cold-blooded murder can be swept aside. Whatever evidence the Turkish government possesses has not been made public, and it would seem the most likely reason is because Ankara has bugged the Saudi consulate. If so, a sensitive matter that the Turkish government would rather evade.

The thuggish behavior of the crown prince has to be laid partially at the doorstep of the White House because President Trump has heartedly embraced him, giving the green light to Saudi Arabia’s bottomless contempt for human rights. We might even speculate that President Trump wishes he could do away with opponents as firmly as the crown prince. And never mind the atrocities the United States (along with Britain and France) facilitate in its all-out support of Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen — what is human life (especially the lives of “others”) when profits are at stake?

A blind child carries a dove at a protest against the attack on the al-Nour Center for the Blind in Sana’a, Yemen, on January 10, 2016. Students say neither the school, nor themselves, have taken any side in the war. (photo by Almigdad Mojalli/VOA)

By any standard, the conduct of the war in Yemen is inhumane. Nobody knows how many people have died as a result of the fighting, although the independent group Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) estimates that almost 50,000 people were killed from January 2016 to July 2018. Implying a much higher total, Save the Children estimates that at least 50,000 children died in 2017 alone, or about 130 per day. The charity further estimated that almost 400,000 children will need treatment for severe acute malnutrition.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs offers this sobering assessment:

“An alarming 22.2 million people in Yemen need some kind of humanitarian or protection assistance, an estimated 17.8 million are food insecure — 8.4 million people are severely food insecure and at risk of starvation — 16 million lack access to safe water and sanitation, and 16.4 million lack access to adequate healthcare. Needs across the country have increased steadily, with 11.3 million who are in acute need — an increase of more than one million people in acute need of humanitarian assistance to survive.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council reports that Saudi-led “coalition air strikes have caused most direct civilian casualties. The airstrikes have hit residential areas, markets, funerals, weddings, detention facilities, civilian boats and even medical facilities.” Both sides are reported by the council to forcibly conscript children between the ages of 11 and 17 to fight.

A study written for the World Peace Foundation, The Strategies of the Coalition in the Yemen War: Aerial bombardment and food war, by Martha Mundy reports that “From August 2015 there appears a shift from military and governmental to civilian and economic targets, including water and transport infrastructure, food production and distribution, roads and transport, schools, cultural monuments, clinics and hospitals, and houses, fields and flocks.”

To what end are these atrocities committed? Professor Mundy writes:

“While the US and UK back their Coalition allies unfailingly in their wider political and strategic objectives, the two major Arab actors in the Coalition, Saudi Arabia and the [United Arab] Emirates, have different economic priorities in the war. That of Saudi Arabia is oil wealth, including preventing a united Yemen’s use of its own oil revenues, and developing a new pipeline through Yemen to the Indian Ocean; that of the Emirates is control over seaports, for trade, tourism and fish wealth. The attack on al-Hudayda [a major port] explicitly aims to complete the economic war militarily. That the immense suffering of Yemen’s people has still not brought surrender by those in Sanʾa [the Yemeni capital] does not give credibility to the tactic of further hunger and disease. Yet for the Coalition, as a senior Saʿudi diplomat responded (off the record) to a question about threatened starvation: ‘Once we control them, we will feed them.’ ”

Yemen is highly dependent on food imports, and the blockades of its ports have put Yemenis at risk of famine. Professor Mundy draws this conclusion:

“If one places the damage to the resources of food producers (farmers, herders, and fishers) alongside the targeting of food processing, storage and transport in urban areas and the wider economic war, there is strong evidence that Coalition strategy has aimed to destroy food production and distribution in the areas under the control of Sanʾa. … [F]rom the autumn of 2016, economic war has compounded physical destruction to create a mass failure in basic livelihoods. Deliberate destruction of family farming and artisanal fishing is a war crime.”

There is little coverage of this ongoing humanitarian disaster in the corporate media. Why are millions of lives almost an afterthought while one privileged life merits such intense attention? Again, the fate of Mr. Khashoggi and the spotlight it shines on Saudi practices merit the widespread commendation it has attracted. But why such indifference to millions of others? Where is our humanity?

Revised NAFTA shows every sign of being another Trump scam

If the renegotiated North American Free Trade Agreement were good for working people, its content wouldn’t be hidden. Just what the Trump administration and the Mexican government of Enrique Peña Nieto have cooked up we do not know, but given the proclivities of both it is not likely to be good.

That the hurried-up deal appears to be intended to force Canada, which has the strongest regulations among the three NAFTA countries, into signing on disadvantageous terms, provides all the more reason to be skeptical. And, finally, a study of the United States Office of the Trade Representative’s “fact sheet” leaves no doubt that any new NAFTA will be a windfall for multi-national corporations, at our expense.

Let’s back up for a moment and remind ourselves that we should judge actions, not words. The contrast between Donald Trump’s empty campaign lies and his administration’s actual policies and actions are glaring, such as, for example, in infrastructure, where his plan is little more than a package of subsidies to connected corporations under the guise of “public-private partnerships,” which are scams to funnel public money into corporate pockets. So it is with so-called “free trade” agreements, especially NAFTA.

Jardin de la Conchita, Mexico City (photo by Percisco)

In July 2017, the Trump administration quietly published its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation.” The 18-page document contained almost nothing concrete but did feature boilerplate language that in some cases appears to be lifted word for word from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The document purports to adopt standards for labor and for the environment, but the language used is very similar to the language proposed for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and in use in other “free trade” agreements. There is little at all in these stated goals that differs from the stated goals that Obama administration put forth for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. They are meaningless window dressing.

Lest we believe those objectives were some sort of aberration, the Trump administration followed up in April 2018 with its “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers,” in which it took direct aim at no less than 137 countries. In this document, “trade barriers” are defined as “government laws, regulations, policies, or practices that either protect domestic goods and services from foreign competition, artificially stimulate exports of particular domestic goods and services, or fail to provide adequate and effective protection of intellectual property rights.” Note the absence of labor, safety, health or environmental standards. Among the hundreds of pages of complaints, to provide one example, was that Norway expects food that it imports to be proven safe.

Quite clearly, the Trump administration, headed by a billionaire grifter who built his fortune on stiffing working people and stuffed with corporate raiders and Goldman Sachs executives, is wholly dedicated to furthering corporate plunder, as its tax “reform” amply demonstrates.

Corporate giveaways on financial services, IP

Although only corporate lobbyists have had access to the revised NAFTA text, the U.S. Office of the Trade Representative did provide some highlights of the agreement in its public “fact sheet.” These are not promising.

It appears that corporate wish lists for intellectual property, financial services and other areas were largely granted. New IP rules, if this agreement is passed into law, include stepped-up enforcement against “camcording of movies” and “cable signal theft,” as well as “Broad protection against trade secret theft.”

The IP rules would extend copyrights to 75 years, long a U.S. demand (and one opposed by the Canadian government); increase pressure on Internet service providers to take works alleged to infringe copyrights (in actuality a tool for censorship); and provide for “strong protection for pharmaceutical and agricultural innovators,” which can be presumed to be code for enabling further medicine price-gouging and crimping accessibility to generic and cheaper alternatives. The last of these was a prominent U.S. goal for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, inter alia, sought to eliminate the New Zealand government’s program to provide medicines in bulk at discounted prices at the behest of U.S. pharmaceutical companies. Related to this is a measure to include 10 years’ protection for biologic drugs and an expansion of products eligible for “protection.”

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Noting that the U.S. runs a surplus in financial services, the new NAFTA agreement would force Mexico wide open to U.S. financial companies. The agreement explicitly prohibits any regulations restricting foreign financial-services companies. This would be done under the guise of “national treatment,” and the Trade Office fact sheet flatly states that it is intended “to ensure that a Party does not discriminate against United States financial service suppliers.” That language is “trade speak” for allowing any predatory U.S. bank to run roughshod over other countries with no restrictions. And, as an added bonus, the IP rules also prohibit regulations against cross-border transfers of data. (Here U.S. negotiators likely have European Union privacy rules in their sights as this is a contentious point in the Transatlantic Trade and Partnership talks.)

There do appear, on paper, to be token gains for labor and the environment. But that assumes any such gains would be enforceable, which can not be taken for granted. A revised labor chapter calls on Mexico to commit to strengthening Mexican workers’ ability to collectively bargain, but this strongly clashes with the Trump administration’s unrelenting hostility to U.S. unions. In conjunction with raising the minimum North American content of automobiles, at least 40 percent of auto content must be made by workers earning at least US$16 per hour.

On the environment, the Trade Office claims there would be new protections for marine species including whales and sea turtles; “prohibitions on some of the most harmful fisheries subsidies”; and “articles to improve air quality.”

Don’t hold your breath for clean air

Unfortunately, such sentiments run 180 degrees opposite to the actual policies of the Trump administration. Nor is global warming even mentioned. Furthermore, it is necessary to pay close attention to the actual words used in various places of “free trade” agreements and, crucially, how those passages will be interpreted in the secret corporate tribunals that adjudicate disputes between governments and corporations. Those tribunals are held in secret, have no appeal process and hand down decisions by judges whose day jobs are as corporate lawyers for the corporations that bring these suits.

The U.S, Trade Office “fact sheet” makes no mention of the Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) provision. Inside US Trade reports that ISDS will remain intact for the oil and gas, infrastructure, energy generation and telecommunications industries, while for other industries, ISDS “will be limited to expropriation or failure to give national treatment or most-favored nation treatment.” Because suits by corporations against national governments seeking to eliminate regulations are almost always raised on just those issues, this “limitation” will likely prove to be of no consequence.

Spent shale from a Shale oil extraction process (photo by U.S. Argonne National Laboratory)

The announced tepid advances in labor and environmental rules aren’t likely to be enforceable. In the language of trade agreements, rules benefiting capital and erasing the ability of governments to regulate are implemented in trade-agreement texts with words like “shall” and “must” while the few rules that purport to protect labor, health, safety and environmental standards use words like “may” and “can.” It remains to be seen if there will be any change to that language, but it would be best not hold one’s breath. Promised breakthroughs in past “free trade” deals have consistently proven to be empty platitudes.

A Sierra Club analysis of the revised NAFTA text warns that environmental rules will be weakened. The analysis said:

“NAFTA negotiators have explicitly stated that they intend for NAFTA 2.0 to lock in the recent deregulation of oil and gas in Mexico, which has encouraged increased offshore drilling, fracking, and other fossil fuel extraction. A future Mexican government may want to restrict such activities to reduce climate, air, and water pollution. However, NAFTA 2.0 could bar such changes with a ‘standstill’ rule that requires the current oil and gas deregulation to persist indefinitely, even as the climate crisis worsens and demands for climate action crescendo.

NAFTA 2.0 includes expansive rules concerning ‘regulatory cooperation’ that could require Canada, the U.S., and Mexico to use burdensome and industry-dominated procedures for forming new regulations, which could delay, weaken, or halt new climate policies. These rules also could be used to pressure Canada and Mexico to adopt climate standards weakened by the Trump administration, making it harder to resume climate progress in the post-Trump era.”

Will the Canadian government allow itself to be bullied?

The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, calling the rushed deal between Mexico and the U.S. a “transparent bullying tactic” intended to force Canada into a deal with unfavorable terms, also said that the deal would hurt family farmers in all three countries. The Institute said:

“Given the Trump administration’s lack of adherence to existing international agreements, a handshake deal can hardly be seen as credible. What little has been released on agriculture makes the dubious assertion that U.S. farmers have benefited from NAFTA and, even worse, promises new rules to lock in the spread of agricultural biotechnology, which would favor agribusiness interests over those of family farmers in each of the three countries.”

Food and Water Watch also threw cold water on the idea of an improved NAFTA, saying it had “no confidence” that the Trump administration would address NAFTA’s flaws. The group’s executive director, Wenonah Hauter, wrote:

“The devil resides in the details of these corporate-driven free trade deals, and we expect that the fine print will include the kind of pro-polluter, pro-fossil fuel industry, pro-Wall Street deregulation that has been a hallmark of Trump’s domestic agenda. These rumored trade provisions would codify the administration’s savage attacks on environmental protection, food safety and consumer rights into trade deals that enshrine and globalize deregulation, making it harder to restore U.S. environmental and consumer protections once this administration is shown the White House door.”

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

The Canadian government has joined the NAFTA talks, although it is difficult to see how Canada can do other than concede, given that U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has said that Canada has until August 31 — four days after the Mexico-U.S. agreement was announced — to come to terms or the White House will move to replace NAFTA with a Mexico-U.S. bilateral deal. On the other hand, President Trump does not have the authority to do that without congressional approval, and opinions expressed in the U.S. Senate have opposed a deal without Canada. And despite the many concessions made by Mexico, tariffs imposed on Mexico will remain in force until and unless further negotiations eliminate them.

The Council of Canadians, long a NAFTA critic, fears Canada will show weakness. The group’s honorary chair, Maude Barlow, wrote:

“Trump is threatening to push Canada out of the agreement, or making it a junior partner to the U.S. and Mexico. Our government must not give in to these tactics and hold the line on our public interest. When NAFTA was signed 30 years ago, we worried that Canada would be at the mercy of the U.S, and we were right. Now, Canada is going to have its auto workers and farmers pitted against each other.”

No reason for optimism in Mexico

There is no reason for optimism to the south, either. Mexican activist Manuel Pérez-Rocha, noting that it is “not surprising” that the NAFTA text is hidden from the public, wrote:

“Unfortunately, the public doesn’t have an idea of what the exact decisions on energy are, labor organizations have been kept completely aside from the negotiations and in terms of the settlement of disputes these mechanisms will only handcuff [President-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s] government when it starts office on Dec. 1.”

Without question, NAFTA has been a disaster for working people in all three countries — a lose-lose-lose proposition that has gone on for more than two decades. Despite President Trump’s rhetoric, Mexican farmers have perhaps been hurt the most. Is an administration that is overturning every environmental regulation it can, that denies global warming, that puts industry executives in charge of regulatory agencies, that features cabinet officers such as Wilbur Ross, an investment banker who buys companies and then takes away pensions and medical benefits so he can flip his companies for a big short-term profit, really going to help working people?

Given the massive power imbalances of today, the policies of capitalist governments reflect the interests of the largest industrialists and financiers. The Trump administration is actually composed of large industrialists and financiers, to a degree perhaps unprecedented in modern times, so all the more are those interests promoted.

“Free trade” agreements are part of this process, which is why they have little to do with trade and much to do with bringing to life corporate wish lists. These agreements are an inevitable result of production being moved to places with the lowest wages and weakest regulation — with products assembled across oceans with parts delivered from yet more places, the multi-national corporations that benefit from these global production chains require ever more “free trade” deals to keep their cross-border profits coming and to maintain their sweatshop empires.

There remains no alternative to working people uniting across borders, in a broad movement, to reversing corporate agendas that accelerate races to the bottom. Opposing “free trade” deals on nationalist grounds is playing into the hands of corporate plunderers.

If the economy is so good, why are wages flat?

We are supposedly seven years into a “recovery” from the global economic collapse that commenced in 2008. The latest evidence offered to promote this oft-peddled mantra is that U.S. gross domestic product showed a strong uptick for the second quarter of 2018, an annualized rate of 4.1 percent, nearly double that of the first quarter.

Coupled with the ongoing decline in unemployment (although standard unemployment rates greatly underestimate the true rate of employment), orthodox economists, conservative propagandists and apologists for the Trump administration would have us believe happy days are here again.

So why aren’t our wages increasing?

In part, it is because the true unemployment rate is not nearly so low as the “official” unemployment rate used by governments around the world, and thus the ranks of unemployed and underemployed are sufficiently large that there is no upward pressure on wages. Orthodox economists, dedicated as they are to ignoring any evidence that doesn’t match their models designed to “prove” that all manners of capitalist excess are as natural as the tides of the ocean — and thus in practice the professional wing of conservative propagandists — have various excuses for stagnant wages and ever increasing inequality. A favorite among these is an alleged “skills mismatch” — too many unskilled workers and a shortage of skilled workers for the high-tech jobs of today.

Striking fast food workers were joined by university workers, students, janitors, retail workers and airport workers in an April 15 action in Minneapolis. (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The data tells a different story, however. A 2014 report by the National Employment Law Project found that low-wage jobs were created at a faster pace than higher-paid jobs were lost in the first years to that point. The Project reported this breakdown:

  • Lower-wage industries ($9.48 per hour to $13.33) constituted 22 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 44 percent of jobs gained since then.
  • Mid-wage industries ($13.73 to $20.00) constituted 37 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 26 percent of jobs gained since then.
  • Higher-wage industries ($20.03 to $32.62) constituted 41 percent of the 2008-2010 losses, but 30 percent of jobs gained since then.

Moreover, an Economic Policy Institute study at the time found that those among the two categories of “some college” and holders of four-year college degrees showed the highest increases in long-term unemployment.

Imbalance in power forces down wages

The situation has not changed significantly since. A July 2018 commentary by the Economic Policy Institute, written by Heidi Shierholz and Elise Gould, notes that wages remain stagnant even though more recently middle- and high-wage jobs are being added at strong proportions than low-wage jobs. This development means that there is now upward pressure on wages, they write.

Yet wages clearly are not rising. How to account for this disparity? Dr. Shierholz and Dr. Gould argue that the increasing power of employers over employees is counteracting that upward pressure to instead depresses wages:

“What is most likely happening is that worker leverage and bargaining power have been so decimated by policy choices—policy choices that have, for example, led to the erosion of union coverage and labor standards like the minimum wage—that for tight labor markets to spark upward wage pressure the economy requires a much lower unemployment rate now than it did in the past.”

If there really were a shortage of skilled workers, the two economists wrote in a separate commentary, there would be faster wage growth because employers would need to offer higher wages to attract the limited pool of candidates. Therefore,

“Since we continue to see anemic average wage growth, not just slow wage growth for select groups of workers, it’s clear that there is not a widespread shortage of the types of workers (i.e., those with the right skills) that employers need.”

Compounding this situation is that the ongoing merger mania means that fewer corporations control the labor market. In other words, there are more industries in which a small number of companies have “monopsony power.” (A single or very limited number of sellers possess a monopoly; a single or very limited number of buyers constitutes a monopsony.) Dr. Shierholz and Dr. Gould explain that monopsony employers are able to pay less. They wrote:

“When firms have monopsony power, they are able to pay workers less than what their work is ‘worth,’ i.e. less than their marginal product. But a key dynamic of monopsony power is that even though monopsonists would like to hire more workers, the low wages they offer mean they can’t attract more workers unless they pay more. That is, it is a normal state of affairs for a firm with monopsony power to wish they could hire more workers at the wages they are offering, but to be unable to attract additional workers because their wages are too low. So when a firm with the power to set wages below a workers’ marginal product complains about not being able to find workers at the wages they are offering, it’s useful to remember that they are choosing to keep wages low in order to increase profits—which remain high as a share of corporate sector income—and could get more workers by simply raising wages. And importantly, when firms with monopsony power complain about not being able to find workers, it is not adequate evidence of a skills shortage.”

The inadequacy of gross domestic product

A look at numbers beyond gross domestic product reveal the true state of the economy. GDP, defined as “the sum of private consumption and investment and government spending (with account taken for foreign trade),” is increasingly seen as an inadequate measure. Even one of the leading voices of British finance capital, The Economist, criticizes GDP as a relic designed to measure economic output during World War II, terming it “A measure created when survival was at stake [that] took little notice of things such as depreciation of assets, or pollution of the environment, let alone finer human accomplishments.”

Similar criticisms have been offered by the International Monetary Fund, certainly no friend of working people. An IMF commentary admitted:

“The limit of GDP as a measure of economic welfare is that it records, largely, monetary transactions at their market prices. This measure does not include, for example, environmental externalities such as pollution or damage to species, since nobody pays a price for them. Nor does it incorporate changes in the value of assets, such as the depletion of resources or loss of biodiversity: GDP does not net these off the flow of transactions during the period it covers.”

Left unsaid by these standard-bearers of the establishment is that GDP pays no attention to inequality. If there is more wealth, but all that wealth is concentrated in a small number of hands while all others suffer declining living standards, then GDP will rise even though working people are worse off. And, as alluded to by The Economist and the IMF, a degradation in the environment could cause a spike in GDP because some corporation will make money from a government contract to clean up the mess (paid for by taxpayers) at the same time that the corporation that caused the mess can offload that cost onto society, and thus enhance its profitability.

A one-time boost to GDP, such as the United States reported for the second quarter of 2018, doesn’t necessarily signify anything. That boost is likely the product of factors that won’t repeat, some observers have already said. A July 27 commentary published by the online financial news service MarketWatch had no trouble debunking the nonsense spewed by Trump administration advisers Kevin Hassett and Larry Kudlow. For example, in countering the claim that the U.S. trade deficit has narrowed because Trump is “standing up for America,” the MarketWatch commentary noted:

“Exports of agricultural products like soybeans shot higher because farmers were racing to beat the imposition of Chinese tariffs. They already fell in June. There’s absolutely no evidence the U.S. is now trading on better terms than previously.”

It’s not only your wages that aren’t keeping up

If a better measure of economic well-being is wages, then there has been no improvement. Adjusted for inflation, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the country’s average weekly wage was $930.81 for June 2018, a grand total of 47 cents better than June 2017. Considering that the rate of inflation was higher than the microscopic increase in wages over the past year, adjusted for inflation U.S. workers actually saw a slight decline over the past year. So happy days really aren’t here after all. It’s not only you.

This is a continuation of a decades-long pattern. Wages have been stagnant since the 1970s despite strong increases in worker productivity — the average U.S. household earns hundreds of dollars less than it would had wages kept pace with productivity. The same is true for Canadian households.

When adjusted for inflation, Statistics Canada reports that real wage growth for Canadian workers increased less than one percent per year from 2005 to 2015. That’s nothing new. “While Canada has undergone important economic, social and technological changes since the 1970s, the minimum wage and the average hourly wage are essentially unchanged,” Statistics Canada reports. Accounting for inflation, the Canadian minimum wage peaked in 1976 and average hourly earnings peaked in 1977. That is despite a consistent increase in Canadians earning degrees. So a “skills mismatch” would not seem to be a reality there, either.

The gap between labor productivity and median real hourly wages growth, 1986-2013 (percentage points per year)

Those trends are not limited to North America. British wages actually contracted between 2007 and 2015 despite a growing economy. Britain’s GDP is almost 10 percent higher now than at the bottom of the 2008 economic crash, yet wages have declined. Wages have not kept up with productivity across Europe, and in some countries haven’t kept up with inflation, meaning workers have seen de facto wage cuts. The most recent study on this topic, studying the balance between wages and productivity in 11 advanced-capitalist countries from 1986 to 2013, found that wages did not keep pace in eight of them, with the widest lag found in the United States. Germany was second.

Unfortunately these reports, although doing a fine job of quantifying how screwed we are, tend to conclude with pleas for better government policies. Surely there should be. But although positive reforms would be welcome, the problem is that reforms can, and are, taken away when mobilizations fade. The hyper-competitive nature of capitalism, under which our labor is a commodity, can’t be altered; at best through massive effort reforms can be achieved until the next wave of attacks commences. As long we continue to fail to question the world economic system, our conditions will only worsen.

World Bank solution for lack of jobs: Cut worker protections

The World Bank is in the process of completing its “World Development Report 2019: The Changing Nature of Work” and, surprisingly, the latest draft version opens with quotes from Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes. Has the World Bank suddenly lost sight of its purpose and will now take up the cause of working people?

Well, you already know the answer to that question, didn’t you?

Only a few paragraphs down we begin to see where this paper is heading. After a bit of perfunctory hand-wringing over disruptions caused by robotics, we read the problem is “domestic bias towards state-owned or politically connected firms, the slow pace of technology adoption, or stifling regulation.” And although some jobs are disappearing, fear not because “the rise in the manufacturing sector in China has more than compensated for this loss.”

Oh, so we should all move to China to get new jobs.

Never mind that the highest minimum wage for Chinese workers, that mandated in Shanghai, is $382 per month. In some places the minimum wage is half that, if workers are fortunate enough to be paid regularly. And that millions of rural Chinese are being driven into cities to become sweatshop workers, so for now there won’t be enough work for the rest of the world. Then again, letting bosses have the upper hand is what the World Bank has in mind. No, its economists haven’t forgotten what the institution’s purpose is nor why it exists.

A Chinese-owned factory in Lesotho (photo by K. Kendall)

So what to do? The World Bank report does suggest not allowing corporations to dodge taxes to the degree that they do. Very well, but even if taxes were collected at the statutory rates, that would still leave corporations vastly under-taxed. No suggestion by the bank, of course, that corporations actually pay a fair tax rate. Corporations currently account for a paltry nine percent of U.S. tax receipts; in the 1950s, they accounted for 30 percent or more. Similarly, in Canada personal income taxes account for three and a half times more revenue than do corporate income taxes; these were equal in 1952.

There is much discussion of “investing in human capital,” a particularly favored mantra of the World Bank. What does that mean? Capitalists are likely to interpret such talk — rather common in NGO circles these days — to mean demanding more skills or degrees from prospective workers, but in the United States graduates with doctorate degrees are being forced to take jobs in academia as part-time adjuncts, and plenty of folks in other fields are “over-educated” already for the jobs they hold. This concept comes from the idea that the problem is that there aren’t enough skilled people for all those wonderful jobs that are out there, just over the rainbow. But in the real world, as opposed to Right-wing think tanks, that is not so.

A 2014 report issued by the National Employment Law Project found that higher-wage jobs were created at a much lower rate during the “recovery” from the 2007-08 economic collapse than had been lost; conversely, low-wage jobs (paying less than $13.33 per hour) were created twice as fast as they had been lost. In separate studies, the Economic Policy Institute found that long-term unemployment is elevated for workers at every education level (and was increasing at a somewhat higher rate for those with some college or a four-year college degree than the average), and that the so-called “skills mismatch” is a myth.

So we come to the real “solution” in the minds of World Bank officials: Cut worker-protection laws.

Aw, you really aren’t surprised, are you?

(Graphic by Real-World Economics Review)

Here’s a key passage in the report: “Rapid changes to the nature of work put a premium on flexibility for firms to adjust their workforce, but also for those workers who benefit from more dynamic labor markets.”

Dynamic for who? What we have here are code words meaning make it easier to fire people. And that’s the real takeaway message, no matter the lofty rhetoric about governments creating a new social contract. “Creating jobs” and “investing early in human capital” are two elements of the World Bank paper’s suggested new social contract. Unfortunately, there are no thoughts on how new jobs might be created when capitalists are in a frenzy of eliminating jobs to maintain their profit rates and survive relentless market competition. More schooling, which is what “investing early in human capital” amounts to, is fine by capitalists, as long as they don’t have to bear any of the costs. It’s up to students to take on more debt to create this new “human capital.”

Contrast this happy talk with the reality of the capitalist workplace. A report just issued by Democratic U.S. Representative Keith Ellison found the average ratio of CEO-to-median-worker pay is 339-to-1. That ratio among the 500 biggest U.S. corporations is as high as almost 5,000-to-1. Nope, I don’t think the boss works thousands of times harder than you do. At McDonalds, for example, the CEO’s annual salary could be used to pay the yearly wages of 3,101 workers making the chain’s median pay.

The sort of societal priorities and imbalances of power that enable such appalling inequality might be summed up by the uses to which money is put. In Los Angeles, a new football stadium is being built and the estimated cost of it is now estimated at $4.9 billion. That figure has risen considerably and likely will again. Given all the homelessness in Los Angeles, and all the other social problems, what could have been done with $4.9 billion?

The number of homeless people in California is estimated at 130,000. Doing something about that might be one way to “invest” in human development, and doing so might even save money. A Rand Corporation study carried out for Los Angeles County found that homeless people who are provided stable shelter make fewer trips to the emergency room and are arrested less frequently, to the extent that the cost of the housing is more than offset.

Oops, but that’s not profitable for the well-connected as throwing money at stadium boondoggles or cutting jobs. But if you earn enough degrees, perhaps you’ll fulfill the World Bank’s prophesy by landing a job at a Chinese sweatshop.