Marching on Monsanto and its government protectors

Controlling and knowing what we eat should be a fundamental human right beyond questioning. That it is not sent hundreds of thousands into the streets of cities around the world on May 23, the third annual March on Monsanto.

People on every continent save Antarctica participated in a March on Monsanto — demonstrations took place in 452 cites in 48 countries in opposition to Monsanto Company’s attempt to gain control over the world’s food. More than 200 U.S. cities, 47 Canadian cities, 22 French cities and 13 Argentine cities were among the places hosting organized marches.

One of the earliest rallies was in Sydney, where an organizer told the RT television network:

“This company has repeatedly committed, I would say, crimes against the Earth and what we are trying to show is accountability for corporations. Also we want to promote clean food. Food that’s free of pesticides, which our grandparents just called food.”

RT, in an online roundup of events around the world, also noted that protestors in Berlin, one of 10 German demonstrations, made connections among health concerns even though there is no commercial cultivation of food containing genetically engineered organisms in the country, and GMO bans exist in nine of Germany’s 16 states and in hundreds of municipalities. RT reported:

“Germany’s capital Berlin saw a big turnout even though Germany does not use Monsanto’s seeds. However, activists say local farmers still use Monsanto’s pesticides and herbicides, which end up leaving traces in breast milk of feeding mothers, the water supply and even urine of people who have not eaten GMO products.”

March Against Monsanto

March Against Monsanto

The struggle against dangerous pesticides received a boost earlier in the month in Germany when the country’s state consumer protection ministers called for a ban on glyphosate throughout the European Union. According to the online news publication EurActiv, E.U. approval of glyphosate expires at the end of 2015 and the E.U. bureaucratic arm, the European Commission, is conducting a safety review. Glyphosate is the active ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide, a business worth an estimated $10 billion to Monsanto. The company not only sells lots of the herbicide but also agricultural products (soybeans, corn, sugar beets and other crops) that are genetically engineered to be resistant to Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide.

Farmers growing these crops with Monsanto seeds can thus spray more herbicides on their crops. Unfortunately, as more pesticides are sprayed, weeds and insects become more resistant, inducing farmers to spray still more and thereby introduce more poisons into the environment. The use of  glyphosate on U.S. farms increased from 11 million pounds in 1987 to almost 300 million pounds in 2013.

What you don’t know might hurt you

There is plenty of reason for concern. Earlier this year, the World Health Organization released a study, published in The Lancet, that found glyphosate to be a “probable” carcinogen. Other studies, including a 2013 paper in Food and Chemical Toxicology, have also reported health concerns. Further, a 2011 Earth Open Source paper, titled “Roundup and birth defects: Is the public being kept in the dark?” says that the European Union and the German Federal Office for Consumer Protection and Food Safety cites “unpublished industry studies to back its claim that glyphosate was safe,” while ignoring or dismissing independent studies that indicate glyphosate causes endocrine disruption, damage to DNA, reproductive and developmental toxicity, cancer and birth defects.

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

March Against Monsanto in Marseille

Then there are the dangers of GMO foods, an area unfortunately quite under-studied. GMO labeling is required by 64 countries, including Australia, Japan and all 28 E.U. countries. Such laws are fiercely opposed by Monsanto and other multi-national agribusinesses, and they thus far have succeeded in keeping labeling laws from being enacted in the U.S. These corporate efforts to undermine food safety are part of the agenda behind the secret Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

Marchers against Monsanto took to calling the TPP and TTIP the “Global Monsanto Protection Acts.” One of the goals of those two so-called “free trade” deals is to eliminate the ability of governments to ban or even effectively regulate GMOs, and to ban any labeling of them. Monsanto and other agribusinesses repeatedly claim that GMOs are safe and healthy, but if that is so, why do they put so much effort into hiding them? Biotechnology companies spent $27 million lobbying for GMOs in the U.S. in just the first six months of 2014.

Should the TPP and TTIP come into force, nobody in the 40 countries that encompass these two agreements will be able to know what is in the food they eat or to have effective protection against food that may not be safe to eat.

Already we being used as laboratory experiments, and this will accelerate if Monsanto gets its way.

Water down laws, then dilute some more

“Free trade” agreements have very little to do with trade, and much to do with eliminating regulations, lowering standards and eliminating health, safety and environmental laws in favor of maximizing corporate profits. The “harmonization” that is promoted in these agreements has meant reducing standards to the lowest possible level. Thus, European regulations on GMOs and food labeling will be targeted as “barriers” to trade under the TTIP because those standards are higher than U.S. rules.

Pesticide Action Network Europe notes that the process of European harmonization has already watered down regulations. In its position paper on the TTIP negotiations, PAN Europe says:

“Health standards already now do not sufficiently protect people and the environment and costs are already externalised massively to society in terms of health care (pesticide residues in food/water, contamination of rural citizens), soil deterioration (fertilizers), biodiversity decline (monocultures, pesticides), climate change (fertilizers and deforestation for soy/palm cultivation) and subsidies (taxpayers’ money). … Let’s take the example of pesticide residue food standards. They were harmonised at European level already in 2009 and indeed the least strictest food standards anywhere in Europe were chosen for harmonisation. Soon it was shown that this was a wrong approach. … Cumulative effects of residues are not calculated and the unscientific single-exposure approach maintained.”

Already, an E.U. paper that could have led to the banning of as many as 31 pesticides was not acted on because of heavy pressure from chemical companies on both sides of the Atlantic. A delegation of U.S. chemical-industry lobbyists and U.S. trade officials insisted that the E.U. drop proposals to ban the use of the pesticides despite health concerns.

Just as it is asked why Monsanto and other agribusinesses don’t want you to know what is in your food, we must ask why they don’t want us to know what is in the “free trade” agreements being negotiated on their behalf.

Legislators provide a backup plan

Perhaps as a backup in case the mounting public opposition to the TPP and TTIP succeeds in scuttling them, a Kansas Republican, Mike Pompeo, has cooked up a bill with the Orwellian name of “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015” (Bill H.R. 1599) in the House of Representatives. H.R. 1599 was introduced on March 25 and is a re-introduction of the previous Congress’ H.R. 4432, which failed to become law. The bill’s stated purpose is: “To amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act with respect to food produced from, containing, or consisting of a bioengineered organism, the labeling of natural foods, and for other purposes.” Well, yes, but in what way?

The devil is indeed in the details here. Activists at Food Democracy Now sound the alarm this way:

“This plan is so devious that it radically speeds up the approval process for new GMO crops, limits the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] and [Department of Agriculture]’s ability to extend premarket safety reviews, declares GMO foods ‘safe’ and redefines genetically engineered foods as ‘bioengineered’ in order to sanitize this deeply flawed technology to the American public.”

A Daily Kos analysis notes that the bill would create a federal law banning any state or locality from enacting a GMO labeling law. The bill would also prohibit organic natural foods from being marketed as safer or better than GMO counterparts. It would also make it nearly impossible for a farmer to achieve organic certification:

“But most sinister is what I will call the bill’s virtual protection racket. It works like this. As a small organic farmer, if I want to market my product as GMO-free, I must ensure that the entire path to market — from seed to harvest to processing to transportation to distribution — is certifiably GMO-free. If my product shares any infrastructure with known GMO foods, I cannot claim being a GMO-free. … The burden of proof therefore is prohibitively expensive for a typical small farmer, which is what Monsanto, Dow et al are counting on.”

Taking on Monsanto is already difficult. The Organic Seed Growers & Trade Association filed a suit against Monsanto, challenging the company’s patents on genetically engineered seeds, a suit that eventually represented 300,000 individuals and 4,500 farms. The organic plaintiffs sought a pre-emptive judgment against potentially being accused of patent infringement should their fields become contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed. Such suits are not unknown. Nonetheless, the courts ruled for Monsanto at the trial and appellate levels.

Sell first, ask questions later

A part of the problem is that, under the U.S. regulatory system — what it wishes to impose on Europe and elsewhere — new products are routinely put on the market with minimal testing (or the product’s manufacturer providing the only “research” and declaring it safe), and can’t be removed from sale until independent testing determines the product is unsafe. That can occur years after it began to be sold. But, charges Steven Druker in a new book, Altered Genes, Twisted Truth, not even scientific concerns necessarily stop approval in the U.S.:

“[T]he [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] had ushered these controversial products onto the market by evading standards of science, deliberately breaking the law, and seriously misrepresenting the facts — and that the American people were being regularly (and unknowingly) subjected to novel foods that were abnormally risky in the eyes of the agency’s own scientists.

This fraud has been the pivotal event in the commercialization of genetically engineered foods. Not only did it enable their marketing and acceptance in the United States, it set the stage for their sale in numerous other nations as well. If the FDA had not evaded the food safety laws, every GE food would have been required to undergo rigorous long-term testing; and if it had not covered up the concerns of its scientists and falsely reported the facts, the public would have been alerted to the risks. Consequently, the introduction of GE foods would at minimum have been delayed many years — and most likely would not have happened.”

Mr. Druker is a public-interest attorney who successfully sued to gain access to FDA files. So confident is he in his findings that he has publicly challenged Monsanto to refute anything in his book and said he will change anything that is proven to be incorrect. Speaking at the New York March on Monsanto, he reported that he had not received a response.

Monsanto is perhaps the corporation most determined to control the world’s food. The vast majority of U.S. soybean, cotton, corn and canola are now genetically engineered. Seeds containing genes patented by Monsanto, the world’s largest seed company, account for more than 90 percent of soybeans grown in the U.S. and 80 percent of U.S.-grown corn, according to Food & Watch Watch. Standard contracts with seed companies forbid farmers from saving seeds, requiring them to buy new genetically engineered seeds from the company every year and the herbicide to which the seed has been engineered to be resistant. Farmers have become hired hands on their own farms under the control of Monsanto.

We live under an economic system that reduces human interactions to nothing more than transactions, where an ever larger sphere of social decisions are made by “the market” and the quest for profits is promoted as the highest ideal. “The market” is not some neutral entity sitting high in the clouds, as pervasive propaganda would have us believe, but rather nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. A monopoly is the goal of capitalists, and the logical outcome of the relentless competition of capitalism. Just because food is among the most basic human necessities does not mean it is exempt. Don’t starve, organize!

Federal Reserve says your wages are too high

The Federal Reserve has declared that the reason for ongoing economic weakness is because wages have not fallen enough. Wages have been stagnant for four decades while productivity has soared, but nonetheless orthodox economists believe the collapse of 2008 has been a missed opportunity.

A paper prepared by two senior researchers with the San Francisco branch of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank attempts to explain the lack of wage growth experienced as unemployment has fallen over the past couple of years this way:

“One explanation for this pattern is the hesitancy of employers to reduce wages and the reluctance of workers to accept wage cuts, even during recessions, a behavior known as downward nominal wage rigidity.”

The two Federal Reserve researchers, Mary Daly and Bart Hobijn, based their argument on the standard ideology of orthodox economists, writing:

“Downward rigidities prevent businesses from reducing wages as much as they would like following a negative shock to the economy. This keeps wages from falling, but it also further reduces the demand for workers, contributing to the rise in unemployment. Accordingly, the higher wages come with more unemployment than would occur if wages were flexible and could be fully reduced.”

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn't work out during the Great Depression.

A food line in Toronto in 1931; falling wages didn’t work out during the Great Depression.

The “problem” of wages stubbornly refusing to drop as much as corporate executives and financiers would like is referred to as the “sticky wages” problem in orthodox economics. Simply put, this “problem” is one that orthodox economists, themselves not necessarily subject to the market forces they wish to impose on others, have long struggled to “solve.” You perhaps will not be surprised to hear that “government” is the problem. Consider this remarkable passage published on the web site of the Mises Institute, an advocate of the Austrian school of economics:

“Much of the alleged ‘stickiness’ of wages is due to government policies. … [T]he trouble stems from workers not being willing to take pay cuts. When the demand from employers drops, at the old wage rate there is now surplus labor — a.k.a. unemployment. Only when market wages drop to a lower level, so that demand once again matches supply, will equilibrium be restored in the labor market.”

Collapsing wages in the Great Depression didn’t help

According to this author, Robert P. Murphy, an “associated scholar” of the Mises Institute, failing to drive down wages is such a big mistake that it caused the Great Depression. He writes:

“After the 1929 crash, Herbert Hoover gathered the nation’s leading businessmen for a conference in Washington and urged them to allow profits and dividends to take the hit, but to spare workers’ paychecks. Rather than cut wages, businesses were supposed to implement spread-the-work schemes where workers would cut back their hours. The rationale for Hoover’s high-wage policy was that the worker supposedly needed to be paid ‘enough to buy back the product.’ … The idea was that wage cuts would just cause workers to cut their spending, which would in turn lead to another round of wage cuts in a vicious downward spiral.”

Herbert Hoover was not vicious enough! Although it was Hoover’s Treasury secretary, Andrew Mellon, who advocated the government “liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate” so as to “purge the rottenness out of the system,” and not Hoover himself, the president did take hard-line right-wing positions. Michael Parenti, in discussing Hoover in his book History as Mystery, wrote:

“Like so many conservatives then and now, Hoover preached the virtues of self-reliance, opposed the taxation of overseas corporate earnings, sought to reduce income taxes for the highest brackets, and was against a veterans’ bonus and aid to drought sufferers. He repeatedly warned that public assistance programs were the beginning of ‘state socialism.’ Toward business, however, he suffered from no such ‘inflexibility’ and could spend generously. He supported multimillion-dollar federal subsidies to shipping interests and agribusiness, and his Reconstruction Finance Corporation doled out about $2 billion to banks and corporations.” [page 261]

Hoover’s concern for working people was demonstrated when his troops fired on veterans demanding payments owed to them and burned their camps. His laissez-faire policies led to manufacturing wages falling 34 percent and unemployment rising to about 25 percent by 1933. That collapse in wages did not bring better times; only the massive government spending to wage World War II put an end to the Depression. Such wage declines, in the real world, actually make the economy worse, argues Keynesian economist Paul Krugman:

“[Y]ou could argue that a sufficiently large fall in wages could restore full employment now — but it would have to be a very large wage decline, and the positive effects would kick in only after deflation had first driven just about every debtor in the economy into bankruptcy.”

How many formulae can be written on the head of a pin?

Although orthodox economics is often nothing more than ideology in the service of capitalist elites, its practitioners like to believe themselves scientific because they base their theories on mathematical models. Unfortunately, these formulae are divorced from the real, physical world; the economy and the human behavior that animates it are not reducible to mathematics.

Robert Kuttner, a heterodox economist, explored these shortcomings in an article originally published in Atlantic Monthly. He wrote:

“The [prevailing] method of practicing economic science creates a professional ethic of studied myopia. Apprentice economists are relieved of the need to learn much about the complexities of human motivation, the messy universe of economic institutions, or the real dynamics of technological change. Those who have real empirical curiosity and insight about the workings of banks, corporations, production technologies, trade unions, economic history or individual behavior are dismissed as casual empiricists, literary historians or sociologists, and marginalized within the profession. In their place departments are graduating a generation of idiots savants, brilliant at esoteric mathematics yet innocent of  actual economic life.”

That was written in 1985; little if anything has changed since and arguably has gotten worse. Professor Kuttner points out that the very fact of persistent unemployment contradicts the basic theses of orthodox neoclassical economics. If the belief that markets automatically reach equilibrium were true, then wages would automatically fall until everybody had a job. Rather than acknowledge the real world, orthodox economists simply declare involuntary unemployment an “illusion,” or claim “government interference” with the market is the culprit. “Business cycles were around long before trade unions or big-spending governments were,” Professor Kuttner noted.

Wages are not as flexible as orthodox ideology suggests because within an enterprise preference is ordinarily given to existing workers to fill job openings, thereby buffering wages from external market forces, writes another heterodox economist, Herbert Gintis. In an essay originally appearing in Review of Radical Political Economics, he wrote:

“In particular, there is a tendency for the number of individuals qualified for a position to exceed the number of jobs available, in which case seniority and other administrative rules are used to determine promotion. Hardly do workers compete for the job by bidding down its wage.”

In almost all cases, employees do not even know what wages their co-workers are earning. This top-down secrecy facilitates the disparity in wages, whereby, for example, women earn less than men. If everybody earned what they were worth, there would no such wage disparity. The very fact of disparities between the genders or among races and ethnicities demonstrates the ideological basis of orthodox economics, which assumes that employees who do the work of production are in their jobs due to personal choice and wages are based only on individual achievement independent of race, gender and other differences.

You produce more but don’t earn more

Back in the real world, wages have significantly lagged productivity for four decades; thus, wages, examined against this benchmark, have significantly declined for those four decades. A study by the Economic Policy Institute, written by heterodox economist Elise Gould, reports:

“Between 1979 and 2013, productivity [in the U.S.] grew 64.9 percent, while hourly compensation of production and nonsupervisory workers, who comprise over 80 percent of the private-sector workforce, grew just 8.0 percent. Productivity thus grew eight times faster than typical worker compensation.” [page 4]

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

(Graphic by Economic Policy Institute)

Middle-class U.S. households earn $18,000 less than they would had wages kept pace with productivity, Dr. Gould calculates. Nor is that unique to the U.S.: Wages in Canada, Europe and Japan have also fallen well short of productivity gains. Canadian workers, for example, are paid at least $15,000 per year less than they would be had their wages kept pace.

To circle back to the San Francisco Federal Reserve paper that began this discussion, the authors claim that wage stagnation will persist until markets “return to normal.” They assert:

“[T]he accumulated stockpile of pent-up wage cuts remains and must be worked off to put the labor market back in balance. In response, businesses hold back wage increases and wait for inflation and productivity growth to bring wages closer to their desired level.”

But as we can plainly see, and as those of us living in the real world experience, wages cuts have been the norm for a long time. The caveat at the end of the paper that it does not necessarily reflect the views of the Fed board of governors should be noted, but the paper was issued as part of a regular series by the San Francisco Fed and the authors are senior members of it, so it is not likely to be at variance with opinions there. It certainly does reflect orthodox economic ideology. Similarly, the argument by the Austrian School’s Mises Institute, stripped of its academic-sounding veneer, is a call to eliminate the minimum wage.

Stagnation, declining wages and the ability of capitalists to shift production around the globe in a search for the lowest wages and lowest safety standards — completely ignored in the orthodox hunt for economic scapegoats — are the norm. Our need to sell our labor, the resulting reduction of human beings’ labor power to a commodity, and the endless competitive pressures on capitalists to boost profits underlie the present economic difficulties.

Collective bargaining through unions and the needs of capitalists to retain their employees can be brakes against the race to the bottom — what the orthodox economists at the Fed and elsewhere are arguing is that these remaining brakes be removed and wages driven down to starvation levels. That is what global capitalism has to offer.

Sure billionaires deserve their money: Killing jobs is hard work

More is never enough. A few examples of the wrath of speculators illustrate the “whip” of finance capital as the world’s corporations announced their results in recent weeks.

Among the words that do not go together are “shareholder activist.” Whether a sign of the debasement of language, or that the corporate media’s myopia has degenerated to the point where speculators trying to extract every possible dollar out of a corporation is what constitutes “activism” to them, as if this was some sort of selfless activity, these are the words often used to describe wolf packs that grow ever hungrier. Not even one of the world’s biggest corporations, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Company, is immune.

DuPont, a chemical multi-national that produces many products that dominate their market, has racked up about US$17.8 billion in profits over the past five years, including $3.6 billion in 2014. Its stock price increased by 20 percent last year, better than the benchmark S&P 500 Index. DuPont recently sold off its performance chemicals business, and will hand out $4 billion to shareholders from the proceeds of the sale. Surely enough you say? Nope.

A hedge-fund manager — yep, one those “shareholder activists” — has declared war on DuPont management. The hedge funder, Nelson Peltz, is demanding that DuPont be broken up into two companies, under the theory that more profit can be extracted, and he is demanding that four seats on the DuPont board be given to him. So far, at least, DuPont management is resisting the hedge funder, but did announce $1 billion in cuts in a bid to pacify Wall Street. That means that more employees will pay for heightened extraction of money with their jobs. Mr. Peltz’s hedge fund specializes in buying “undervalued stocks,” according to Bloomberg, which is code for corporate raiding. It must pay well, for he is worth $1.9 billion.

DuPont chemical plant on Houston Ship Channel (photo by Blair Pittman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

DuPont chemical plant on Houston Ship Channel (photo by Blair Pittman for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

One company that has given into speculators by selling off its best asset is Yahoo Inc. Although widely attacked in the business press for having no coherent plan for growth, Yahoo did report net income of $1.3 billion on revenue of $4.7 billion for 2013, a hefty profit margin, and remained profitable in 2014. Nonetheless, Yahoo said it will spin off into a separate company its most valuable asset, its stake in the Chinese online merchant Alibaba. This is being done so that more of the profits can distributed to speculators.

If Yahoo were to simply sell its stake, it would have to pay taxes. By spinning off its holding into a separate company, there will be no taxes paid, and thus more money will be stuffed into financiers’ pockets. “The decision,” The New York Times reported, “cheered shareholders because they will directly reap all the remaining profit from Yahoo’s prescient investment.” Yahoo will also lose its most valuable asset, making the company weaker (and presumably more likely to get rid of some of its workforce), but speculators will make a windfall. That is all that matters in these calculations.

Even an Internet darling, Google Inc., is losing its Wall Street halo. Grumbling was heard when Google’s revenue for the fourth quarter of 2014 was “only” 10 percent higher than the fourth quarter of a year earlier, a slower rate of growth than in the past. For the full year 2014, Google reported net income of $14.4 billion on revenue of $66 billion. Based on these results, it looks as if Google will remain a going concern. Nonetheless, Google stock is down 12 percent since September, a sign of financiers’ displeasure.

But perhaps happier days are on their way. The Associated Press reports that a “pep talk” by the company’s chief financial officer “left open the possibility that the company might funnel some of its $64 billion in cash back to shareholders, especially if a law is passed to allow money stashed in overseas accounts to be brought to the U.S. at lower tax rates.”

Ah, yes, all would be well if only multi-national corporations did not have to pay taxes. But despite the ceaseless demands by the world’s financiers for more governmental austerity, more cuts to jobs, wages and benefits, more punishment, the world can afford a raise. An Al Jazeera report by David Cay Johnston concludes that U.S.-based corporations held almost $7.9 trillion of liquid assets worldwide. That is more than double the yearly budget of the U.S. government.

The results are those familiar to all who are paying attention: Rising inequality and persistent economic stagnation as working people can no longer spend what they don’t have. Almost all of the gains in income are going to the top: From 2009 to 2012, 95 percent of all gains in income went to the top one percent. The “efficiency” that financiers demand is that ever larger cascades of money flow upward. How long will we allow this to go on?

Our world is awful, yes, but it isn’t fascism — yet

The term “fascism” gets tossed around much too casually. I am not speaking here of right-wing political illiterates who call a centrist like Barack Obama a “socialist” one day and a “fascist” the next. I am referring to people on the Left who ought to know better.

If we call anybody on the Right a “fascist” or use the word as an all-purpose pejorative, we fail to understand the real thing, and that is to our collective peril. Yes, economic conditions in the present era of global neoliberalism, of the corporate race to the bottom abetted at every turn by the world’s governments, of wars actual and threatened necessary to maintain the global capitalist system, are harsh. But a sham “formal democracy” and an outright fascist state are two very different things.

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 national differences 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.

Mural paintings in honor of  Jecar Neghme of Chile's MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

Mural paintings in honor of Jecar Neghme of Chile’s MIR in the place where he was killed by the Pinochet government. (Credit: Ciberprofe)

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 big businessmen 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. A few of this class will oppose the institution of a fascist dictatorship, some will be ambivalent and perhaps a few were squeamish about the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism.

It is only under certain conditions that business elites resort to fascism — some form of 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.”

Massive corporate subsidies and the funding of gigantic projects, such as military buildups and monumental buildings, are used to combat stagnating or declining profits. If the crisis is severe enough, the level of subsidies and projects required can be achieved only against the will of working people, for it is from them that the necessary money will come, in the form of reduced wages and benefits, increased working hours and the speeding-up and intensification of their work. Fascism overcomes resistance through force.

Exploiting middle class anxieties

But, no matter how powerful they are, numerically these big capitalists are a minuscule portion of the population. How to create popular support for a movement that would ban unions, turn working people into helpless cattle, regiment all spheres of life, destroy all freedom, mercilessly destroy several groups of society, reduce the standard of living of those who still had jobs and inevitably lead to war? This is not an appealing program.

The Nazis, for example, skillfully appealed to German middle class fears of economic dislocation, the increasing numbers of unemployed blue-collar workers, the threat of being swallowed by big business and political instability (although the Nazis were the most responsible for the last of those four), creating the social base needed by the economic elite to bring its movement to power. A movement that was as anathema to the middle class as it was to the lower economic ranks, although its middle class supporters were blind to that reality as the Nazis simultaneously appealed to its grudges against societal elites.

Leon Trotsky, the sharpest observer and analyst of fascism of his time, exposed at the time the false facade of the Nazis. The party’s full name was the National Socialist German Worker’s Party, a name intentionally chosen to fool the middle and lower classes. Capitalism was discredited in Germany, so the Nazi leadership let a populist socialist-sounding program be put forth, and Hitler himself thundered against bankers, albeit generally as part of his anti-Semitic rants.

Many storm troopers believed the party’s rhetoric, even as Hitler was saying very different things to his corporate benefactors and the storm troopers were being used to burn union offices and beat and kill the workers who presumably were the victims of the bankers the storm troopers’ leaders were fulminating against. In a vivid 1932 essay, Trotsky wrote:

“In National Socialism, everything is as contradictory and as chaotic as in a nightmare. Hitler’s party calls itself socialist, yet it leads a terroristic struggle against all socialist organizations. It calls itself a worker’s party, yet its ranks include all classes except the proletariat. It hurls lightning bolts at the heads of capitalists, yet is supported by them. … The whole world has collapsed inside the heads of the petit bourgeoisie, which has completely lost its equilibrium. This class is screaming so clamorously out of despair, fear and bitterness that it is itself deafened and loses sense of its words and gestures.”

A fascist régime can not take root without a social base. Although we are accustomed to seeing storm troopers or their equivalent as coming from the depths of society, the middle class largely supplies that base, as was the case in countries as different as 1930s Germany and 1970s Chile. The historian Isaac Deutscher, in the third volume of his Trotsky biography, The Prophet Outcast, captured the mood of German shopkeepers and other middle class people who came to ruin during the Weimar Republic:

“The Kleinbürger normally resented his social position: he looked up with envy and hatred at big business, to which he so often hopelessly succumbed in competition; and he looked down upon the workers, jealous of their capacity for political and trade union organization and for collective self-defense. … At big business the small man shook his fists as if he were a socialist; against the worker he shrilled his bourgeois respectability, his horror of class struggle, his rabid nationalist pride, and his detestation of Marxist internationalism. This political neurosis of impoverished millions gave [Nazism] its force and impetus.”

Great for profits, awful for workers

It is important to remember, however, that fascist dictators like Hitler and Mussolini were appointed to power, not elected. It is true that the Nazis came in first place in Germany’s July 1931 vote, although with just 37 percent of the vote. The Nazis’ showing in another vote three months later declined to 33 percent and totaled two million less than the combined vote for the Social Democrats and Communists. The traditional nationalist conservative parties decided to “use” Hitler in the belief that they could control him; that the Nazis were in such a position was due to the massive money they received from Germany’s bankers, industrialists and large landowners. A representative of those landowners, Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, was president and appointed Hitler chancellor. It took Hitler only three months to consolidate his power.

Mussolini, too, was appointed prime minister by King Vittorio Emmanuel and received heavy support from Italy’s capitalists. What did they — and capitalists in Spain, Chile and Argentina — receive for their investment in fascist movements?

  • In Germany, corporate profits more than doubled in five years, while from Hitler’s ascension to power on January 30, 1933, to the summer of 1935, wages dropped 25 to 40 percent. In 1935, a “labor passport” was instituted in which the employer wrote reports on the holder. The employer could confiscate the passport at will, without which employment could not be taken, effectively making it impossible to change jobs. In 1938, it was formally made illegal for a worker to change jobs.
  • In Italy, from 1926 to 1934, industrial wages were reduced at least 40 to 50 percent, while agricultural wages were reduced 50 to 70 percent. Unemployment meant the specter of starvation, and as a further whip to keep wages down, children were regularly used in agricultural and factory work as substitutes for fired adults. From 1935, many factory employees were placed under direct military discipline; missing more than five days of work was a penalty subject to nine years’ imprisonment. All workers had to carry a “labor passport.”
  • In Francisco Franco’s Spain, real wages in 1949 were 50 percent of those in 1936. Rationing lasted until 1952; the rations alone were insufficient to maintain human existence. The historian Paul Preston, author of two books that closely examine Franco and his regime, quoted Hitler aide Heinrich Himmler as calling the Franco regime “more brutal in its treatment of the Spanish working class than was the Third Reich in its dealings with German workers.”
  • In Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, the majority of workers earned less in 1989 than in 1973 (after adjusting for inflation). Labor’s share of the national income declined from 52 percent in 1970 to 31 percent in 1989. The minimum wage dropped almost by half during the 1980s, and by the end of that decade, Chile’s poverty rate reached 41 percent and the percentage of Chileans without adequate housing was 40 percent, up from 27 percent in 1972. One-third of the country’s workforce was unemployed by 1983.
  • In Argentina, the main union federation was abolished, strikes outlawed, prices raised, wages tightly controlled and social programs cut. As a result, real wages fell by 50 percent within a year. Tariffs were reduced deeply, leaving the country wide open to imports and foreign speculation, causing considerable local industry to shut. For the period 1978 to 1983, Argentina’s foreign debt increased to $43 billion from $8 billion, while the share of wages in national income fell to 22 percent from 43 percent.

It was not inevitable then, it is not inevitable today

Although there were differences among these régimes due to national characteristics, and the ratio of armed street gangs and storm troopers versus direct repression by the military varied considerably, organized extreme violence, up to and including massacres, is the common thread. This mass violence is what the world’s capitalists are prepared to do if their rule is threatened, or even if their profits are in serious jeopardy.

Violence is certainly not absent from the conduct of formally democratic capitalist governments but there is a large difference between that and what is meted out by fascist régimes, at least internally. We lose our understanding of what fascism would mean in everyday life, and erode our ability to combat the tendencies from which it derives, if we obliterate these differences.

The German Communist Party pretended not to know the difference in the early 1930s, preferring to concentrate its attacks on the Social Democrats rather than the Nazis under the inane idea that the Social Democratic-run Weimar Republic was already “objectively fascist” and that the Nazis would not make much difference. The Communists very swiftly found out otherwise, becoming the first to be rounded up. In the years after World War I, the Social Democrats helped the German military and traditional right-wing parties suppress not only Communists but workers’ revolts in general — not excepting their own social base — thereby paving the road for Hitler.

On top of those blunders, the Communists and Social Democrats had their own militias, which could have countered the Nazi storm troopers, but were never put into action. It was not ordained that Hitler would come to power, or that other fascist régimes would do so. Chile’s Left was highly organized, for example.

History does not repeat itself neatly, but the wide differences among the five examples cited underscore that the threat of fascism exists in any and all capitalist countries. That does not mean that fascism is inevitable, although if capitalist economies continue in a generally downward spiral, some capitalists will undoubtedly begin thinking of it as a last-ditch effort to maintain profits despite the bad ending such régimes invariably meet. It can’t be denied that some of the pieces of fascism are in existence — including militarized police forces and ubiquitous spying agencies.

A better world, one designed to fulfill human need rather than private profits, not only is necessary for human salvation, it is the only way to put an end to the risk of turns to the authoritarian Right, in nationalist, fascist or other forms. That can only arise from organized social movements, confident in themselves and linking hands across borders. May the new year accelerate the process.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-interest in expanding the vote

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

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

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

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

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

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

A democratic lack of control?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Money rains upon speculators

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

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

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

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

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

Child labor, violence and smuggling are it

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

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

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

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

The concrete roots of capitalism’s magical thinking

Most people don’t actually like capitalism. Dislike of the jobs we head to each day is quite the norm. Resentment of the power of the corporations we deal with in our daily lives crosses all social lines. Loathing of banks is nearly universal, across the political spectrum.

A sullen resignation to the continual unfairness of the world is pervasive. And yet, “there is no alternative.” Mercenary scribblers furiously tell us so. That this barrage of propaganda ceaselessly flows from the corporate media and other institutions speaks for itself as to the necessity of reinforcing this message; but it doesn’t in itself account for the widespread acceptance of “there is no alternative.”

There is the argument that if we simply ceased to cooperate, it would grind to a halt. Tempting though that argument is — and, in theory, it holds much truth — the puzzle of capitalism’s continued acceptance is a good deal more complicated.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

Advanced capitalism is intertwined with so many aspects of our lives, and the capitalists who effectively rule the world possess multiple levers of power and influence to keep themselves in the saddle. There is also the not inconsiderable problem of the livelihoods of millions being entangled in destructive production and exploitation. Nor should the power of modern ideologies, such as nationalism, to provide emotional underpinning be ignored.

Except for the hopelessly cynical, humans need something to believe in, something bigger than themselves of which to be a part. The nation is the object par excellence for this; nationalism to this point in human history has proven stronger than class solidarity or any other more general identification in a common humanity. It has also superseded tribal or other local-community loyalties. Nationalism is a unifying glue holding together what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” — human constructs that are mostly recent in origin.

Professor Anderson, in his classic book with that very name, Imagined Communities, offers this definition of a nation:

“It is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” [page 6]

Approaching the question from a different angle, a nation might be thought of as a group with a common ethnicity, cohesive culture and shared language occupying a particular area (diasporas excepted). Most commonly, nations are organized as countries, although some countries (such as the United Kingdom) can contain multiple nations and settler countries (such as the United States) can be organized on an idea rather than an ethnicity, although culture and language are unifying factors. Some nations are colonies of or minorities within a larger nation and some nations are split among adjoining countries.

Nationalism versus solidarity

Religious belief has obviously been, and remains, a powerful force — as Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., political Islam in the Middle East and Hindu chauvinism in India attest, to cite merely three examples. Religions offer answers to life-and-death questions that other systems of thought don’t, not to mention promises of eternal life. It’s hard to top that. But religious belief has declined in most of the advanced capitalist world as science has taken hold since the Enlightenment.

To return to Imagined Communities, Professor Anderson argues that something was necessary to fill the void left by the withering of religious belief, and nationalism became the substitute as it came into being out of preceding cultural systems. He writes:

“What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. … [F]ew things were (are) better suited to this end than an idea of nation. If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” [pages 11-12]

The erasure of boundaries (for capital) through “free trade” agreements or entities like the World Trade Organization is a function of capitalist expansion. Globalization advances as competition within a given industrial sector narrows from separate sets of local corporations dominating particular countries or regions to a handful of corporations operating around the world. Yet although the largest capitalists are today transcending national borders, the largest capitalists of the 19th century were an important force in creating unified nations. What is today Germany and Italy were once a myriad of small principalities; capitalist trade required the barriers that frequent borders represent be dismantled.

The rise of books and other printed materials, and the accompanying rise of literacy along with the construction of centralized states, bureaucracies and school systems, brought about standardized languages. Often the dialect in the capital became the standard language, and a common language became a crucial building block for national consciousness. Nationalism became a necessary prop to wage modern war with the need for mass conscription, without which imperialism and colonization are impossible. Few soldiers would fight for corporate profits, but will for “national honor.”

The abject failure of the Socialist International to have any effect on the outbreak and initial enthusiasm for World War I was due not only to nationalism being more powerful than international or class solidarity among social democracy’s constituents but that social democrat leaders themselves were nationalists.

In no sense can nationalism be said to have lost its potency. It remains a durable force to divide the world’s people and block international solidarity — a devastating development when the world’s biggest capitalists are trans-national, conscious of their common interests beyond borders and relentlessly organizing chains of production that span the globe.

Democracy as consumerism rather then participation

We can freely buy whatever we like from whatever corporate behemoth we wish (assuming we are fortunate enough to have a job that provides a living wage). Untold billions of dollars are pumped into advertising campaigns designed to induce us to buy particular products and, crucially, to define this choice as “freedom.” Democracy is reduced to the ability to buy a corporate product as opposed to being defined as the ability to meaningfully participate in the decision-making processes of your society.

That crabbed definition of democracy and the ability to freely vote in elections with little meaning or choice (although the ability to vote is being eroded in the U.S., particularly for People of Color) are promoted as the epitome of political development. But how much freedom do working people in capitalist countries actually have? We have no control over our lives when on the job, which consumes most of our waking hours, nor any control over the corporate behemoths that routinely run roughshod over communities, nor legal recourse against “market forces” that enable the relentless privatization of previously public spaces and services.

I can think of my experience at Occupy Wall Street, the encampment of which was close to my place of employment. Invariably, anytime I happened to mention that I was handing out fliers or engaging others near to where I was employed while on lunch hour or after the end of my workday, the response was always concern that I would lose my job or get in trouble should my employer discover my participation. I wasn’t discovered, but the commonality of such reactions speaks for itself on the topic of democracy.

Political control in a capitalist society is hidden in a way that it was not in a country like the former Soviet Union, and the contrast in the manner of social control in capitalist versus Soviet-style societies became an invaluable tool undergirding capitalist triumphalism. Because the power held by capitalists in a capitalist society is secure through a myriad of institutions upholding their ideologies and deferring to them, bolstered by the appearance of democratic assent provided by elections, there is far more elasticity to capitalist régimes than Soviet-style régimes (which should more properly be called “post-capitalist” than “socialist” as their form congealed far short of any socialist ideal.)

The illusion of democracy

The historian Isaac Deutscher, in a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967, outlined this difference. He said of freedom in a capitalist country:

“[I]n bourgeois society it can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. … Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … In a society like the Soviet, freedom of association and character cannot have so formal and illusory a character: either it is real, or it does not exist at all. The power of property having been destroyed, only the State, that is, the bureaucracy, dominates society; and its domination is based solely on the suppression of the people’s liberty to criticize and oppose.

Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power. In post-capitalist society no automatic economic mechanism keeps the masses in subjection; it is sheer political force that does it. … Capitalism has been able to battle against its class enemies from many economic, political and cultural lines of defence, with much scope for retreat and maneouvre. A post-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorship has far less scope: its first, its political line of defence, is its last. No wonder that it holds that line with all the tenacity it can muster.” [pages 106-7]

(“Property” in the above quote refers to large enterprises and other economic entities in private hands.) The Soviet bureaucracy could maintain its privileges only through undisguised direct political force. Capitalists, in contrast, maintain their rule by virtue of owning the means of production, able to maintain power through decisive influence over a range of social institutions and thus diffusing and mystifying the roots of power.

There is no dictator, no party in permanent power, and the ruling capitalists and their political servants have conflicting interests that are debated in public. Thus the illusion of democratic accountability can be maintained, on a separate track from the pervasive advertising that reduces democratic choice to consumer selection of corporate products.

There are more flavors of cola to choose from than ever before. What more could you want?

Show your individuality by buying the same product

Marketing has become so sophisticated that consumption of corporate products is equated with individual expression. Individualism must be continually stimulated to counter the development of social solidarity, without which change in the structure of any society is impossible, yet consumerism-dependent production requires the fostering of mass taste to facilitate mass production.

Consumers are encouraged to “rebel” by decorating their smartphone or buying a copy of the latest recording by a “transgressive” musical act, a work of intellectual property owned by a corporate behemoth and carefully calculated to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Today’s cultural rebellion is tomorrow’s marketing campaign. The use of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” in a Nike commercial is but one example; more recently, 1960s icon Bob Dylan starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler extolling U.S. patriotism.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

The word “revolution” has been reduced to a corporate slogan; the selling back to us of rebellion has attempted to shrivel the popular imagination to the point that the only change that can be imagined is an upgrade to a consumer product. This is no less true of the food we eat — as eating organic becomes more popular, large food corporations that have foisted on us unhealthy, over-processed foods are increasingly entering the organic field, both by creating new brands and taking over existing ones while being careful to not signal those corporate ownerships on the label.

Some of the largest multi-national corporations that spend millions of dollars to defeat genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling initiatives own some of the best-known organic brands. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream may claim it is an “autonomous subsidiary” of its owner, multi-national conglomerate Unilever, but the profits it earns go to Unilever headquarters. Those profits fund a corporate parent that opposes GMO labeling, has been cited for making false health claims, has used its market power in tea to bully tea farmers in India, and promotes the World Trade Organization. Slick marketing keeps people buying the ice cream and obfuscating where the profits are going.

Yet even if a particular company stays true to a particular value, consumerism is an individualist gesture incapable of effecting change. All the more reason for it to be equated with “democracy.” In the 1970s, a frequently run public service announcement (PSA) featured a Native American man shedding a tear when a bag of garbage is thrown out of a car and lands at his feet, ending with the tag line that “People start pollution. People can stop it.” In a discussion of this PSA in his article “On the emotional terrain of neoliberalism,” Tim Jensen writes:

“Funded by beverage bottling corporations, the campaign was intended to lessen political pressure on manufacturers to stop producing non-refillable bottles and more generally be held accountable for creating the products that create litter. By placing the onus on the individual consumer, who is positioned as the cause of the problem and thus the solution’s origin, too, these corporate interests successfully deflected growing concern about pollution away from themselves. …

The PSA performs an emotional orientation focused on guilt, an emotion that is critical to our current landscape. What makes its rhetorical strategy effective is not simply the evocation of guilt in the consumer, but a specific form of guilt that is coupled with a pathway that channels the desire for atonement—one that does not put profit at risk. Asking why harmful bottles are being made in the first place and to what degree their manufacturer should be held accountable is trumped by a framework of consumer culpability, individualized responsibility, and ineffectual chores. It marshals the potential forces of transformative collective action and individuates them in an atonement strategy.”

If it is our own fault, then the system that actually compels such waste is blameless, beyond questioning.

Blow up that mountain or be out of work

Even when we are cognizant of the waste and destructiveness of capitalist production, it is not a simple matter to de-couple. Millions of jobs, and the communities where those jobs are located, are dependent on environmental destruction and unsustainable resource extraction. Faced with dismal, or no, prospects for alternative employment, the workers in such industries naturally oppose efforts to reduce the damage done — a market economy doesn’t offer new jobs for those put out of work.

The relentless competition of capitalism mandates that costs be steadily cut, so jobs are steadily lost anyway. Individualist ideology comes into play here as well: Something must be wrong with you for losing your job. And when that fails, there is always the strategy of finding scapegoats.

Scapegoating is not unique to any system, locale or time. But when a small elite commands the mass media and possesses decisive influence over educational, military, religious and other institutions, it possesses the means of shaping public opinion. The very fact of private ownership of the mass media contributes significantly to the effectiveness of the media in shaping public opinion. If several different media outlets report more or less the same thing, then those reports tend to be widely accepted.

It is surely true that the corporate owners of various publications and electronic news sources did not consult with one another, and in a capitalist formal democracy no government official tells you what to report. But the corporate plutocrats who own the mass media have a common interest in promoting a system that benefits them and thus narratives that reinforce those interests.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass-media decision-makers are quite likely to be men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered.

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

No collusion is needed. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries. The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped.

Nor does the structure of corporate-dominated mass media exclude sometimes vigorous debate — as long as the positions being debated fall within the range of “acceptable” ideas that don’t challenge corporate orthodoxy. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology than the media of a closed society. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

A network of institutional reinforcement

A web of institutions are necessary to maintain belief in a system, or to block to the extent possible, opposing narratives to the dominant belief system.

Educational institutions have been reduced to job-training facilities. University presidents and board members are increasingly prominent business leaders who seek to make educational institutions more “business-like” — pursuit of knowledge for personal intellectual enrichment is almost an after-thought. Educational initiatives at all levels are increasingly funded directly by corporate elites — instead of education being funded by the public through accountable institutions managed by education professionals, it is instead adapted to the needs of corporate-elite donors who seek to produce students grounded in technical skills without exposure to the types of courses that encourage creative or independent thinking.

Militaries in capitalist countries frequently function as enforcers of corporate prerogatives in weaker countries; militaries also underwrite corporate and university research and development, and are heavy buyers of corporate products. Politics cannot be anything but a significant corporate transmission belt because corporations provide campaign donations and give jobs to office holders when they leave office — those with money are those who get access, and thus provide the perspectives that will be heard.

The modern corporation also employs an army of lobbyists to influence politicians’ thinking. Corporate executives additionally create a network of auxiliary institutions — research centers and “think tanks” that can leverage lavish funding to disseminate class ideology through various channels. Bankrolling right-wing street movements, such as the Tea Party in the U.S. or outright fascist fronts in Europe, is another methodology for creating the appearance of popular support for anti-social tendencies.

Corporate institutions are competitors with sometimes sharply different interests — in terms of antagonisms between suppliers and buyers of raw materials and component parts; in divergence of the optimum conditions sought by different industries; and the ever present fierce fight over the sharing of profits between industrialists and financiers — yet these conflicts and antagonisms are contained within the perpetuation of the system within which they operate. As this collective power grows, it will steadily be wielded in harder forms in the absence of serious countervailing pressures in the form of mass movements.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

“Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth.

Ongoing belief in capitalism, despite the widespread disapproval of its concrete results, rests on multiple pillars, none on their own decisive. The perceived lack of an alternative, however, is a linchpin. Cooperatives and other social forms of enterprise management, successful in significant numbers, would provide such an alternative — if people see examples of something better, “there is no alternative” would lose its force. But much organizing will be necessary to bring forward that day, for the massive force that capitalist society can bring down on alternatives hasn’t been, and won’t, be held back.