Providing low-cost banking by saving the post office

The struggle to save the United States Postal Service is emblematic of the larger struggle against corporate plundering of public resources. Reversing the intentional bankrupting of the post office requires not only a movement of allies that a new union leadership has begun to assemble, it potentially also merges with creating a public banking option.

What does banking have to do with delivering the mail? Nothing, today. But in the future? A Postal Service bank — a model that is successful in several countries around the world — would not only provide the post office with a reliable source of income, it would provide badly needed basic, inexpensive banking services for under-served populations.

Such an idea is not necessarily controversial. Despite the management of the U.S. Postal Service supporting privatization measures for many years, its office of the inspector general quietly issued a paper a year ago in which it said offering financial services could provide almost US$9 billion per year in new revenue while providing badly needed services to tens of millions of under-served people who are currently at the mercy of predatory “pay-day lenders” and other high-interest usurers.

The basis for this estimate is that “people trying to make it paycheck to paycheck” spend an estimated $89 billion per year on interest and fees on alternative financial services; the paper’s revenue estimate is based on the Postal Service, by offering low-cost services, capturing 10 percent of what is currently spent on those businesses. But the Postal Service inspector general’s office went out of its way not to upset bankers, watering down its proposal to a “partner[ship] with banks and other [mainstream] financial institutions” to “create a ‘win-win’ situation.”

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

Lupin field, New Zealand (photo by Michael Button)

If big commercial banks are winning, the rest of us will be losing. Rather than floating fantasies of swimming with ever-hungry financial sharks who are never satiated, thereby disemboweling your own idea, why not set up an independent postal bank? Doing so is precisely what the new president of the American Postal Workers Union, Mark Dimondstein, proposes. He says:

“Services such as basic, non-profit banking would be a great and real benefit to the people of this country, and a good answer to what I call ‘the Wall Street Banksters,’ who devastated the economy and with it the lives of millions of people.”

More than one-third of U.S. post offices are located in ZIP codes where no bank is located; another 20 percent are located in areas with only one bank. Providing low-cost services would help tens of millions struggling to survive financially avoid the trap of “pay-day lenders” who charge an effective annual interest rate of 391 percent, according to the inspector general paper. A typical “pay-day” loan of $395 costs the borrower an average of $520 in interest and fees on top of the principal.

Postal banking already a success

Countries as varied as Germany, Japan and New Zealand have successful postal banking services. The Japan Post Bank is the country’s largest holder of personal savings.

For more than a century, what is now known as the Japan Post Bank accepted deposits but did not lend, instead handing deposits to the Ministry of Finance, which used the funds to finance public-works projects. In 2001, the bank began direct lending instead of sending its deposits to the ministry. But this was accompanied by a privatization scheme. That scheme was halted in 2009, and has not been re-instituted despite the return of the conservative Liberal Democratic Party that originally pushed for the privatization. The bank would be a huge prize for private bankers, as it reported net income of ¥355 billion (US$3.0 billion) for its fiscal year 2014.

Germany’s Postbank is also highly profitable, reporting fiscal-year 2014 earnings of €431 million (US$473 million). The bank specializes in providing “simple, low-cost products for day-to-day needs,” and says it has 14 million clients, including more than 300,000 small and mid-sized companies.

New Zealand’s Kiwibank was founded in 2002. Big Australian banks had controlled 80 percent of New Zealand’s retail banking, and those multi-nationals were quick to close less profitable branches. To provide financial services to underserved communities, and keep capital at home for local investment, the New Zealand government established Kiwibank as a subsidiary of New Zealand Post, putting its branches in post offices. The results were swift, reports public-banking advocate Ellen Brown:

“Suddenly, New Zealanders had a choice in banking. In an early ‘move your money’ campaign, they voted with their feet. In an island nation of only 4 million people, in its first five years Kiwibank attracted 500,000 customers away from the big banks. It consistently earns the nation’s highest customer satisfaction ratings, forcing the Australia-owned banks to improve their service in order to compete.”

Kiwibank reported net income of NZ$100 million (US$76 million) for its fiscal year 2014. The bank reports it now has 860,000 customers.

The Republican assault on the U.S. post office

Although offering basic banking services would boost revenue for the U.S. Postal Service, it would currently be on stable financial foundations were it not for a Republican plan signed into law in 2006 requiring the Postal Service to pre-fund its pension costs for the next 75 years in only 10 years. No private business could or would do such a thing. The results are what would be expected: In the last four years before the pre-funding requirement (2003 to 2006), the Postal Service had a composite profit of US$9.3 billion; it has had massive losses ever since.

It is true that the volume handled by the post office has declined in recent years with the rise of the Internet. Setting up a postal banking system would offset the resulting fall in revenue. But rather than expand services to provide a sounder foundation, corporate ideology, promoted by those with a vested interest, is instead causing a push for the dismantling of the Postal Service and the privatization of its delivery services.

For example, a study by a “think tank” calling itself the National Academy of Public Administration prepared a report that called for a near total privatization of the post office. Two of the four authors had direct interests in privatization and a third has worked for a series of Right-wing extremist “think tanks” that consistently demand the privatization of everything in the public domain. The major funder of the study was Pitney Bowes Inc., which stands to directly benefit; it already earns billions of dollars from its mail-processing facilities and would be in a good position to grab much of the Postal Service’s business.

FedEx Corp. and United Parcel Service Inc., the two largest U.S. private delivery services, also stand to benefit from the destruction of the Postal Service. Both companies employ large fleets of lobbyists and are heavy donors to members of Congress.

Heavy pressure to close post offices and mail-sorting facilities is part of the privatization drive. But the limited research done on closings indicates that closings actually cost more than the savings generated. A study conducted by University of Wisconsin students examined what would happen if one of the seven post offices in a rural Wisconsin county were closed. The study found that the Postal Service would save $560,000 over seven years by closing a post office but the added costs from residents forced to drive further to access a post office would be $1.3 million over seven years. Thus, the overall cost to the community would be more than $700,000.

Another example of the costs to small communities can be found in the small community of Prairie City, South Dakota. Closing the post office there saved $19,000. The nearest hospital and pharmacy is 40 miles away, and when medicine was needed in Prairie City, the pharmacist 40 miles away would hand it to the mail carrier for same-day delivery. Now medicine deliveries take two to three days, an article in Naked Capitalism reports. What is the price of a life that might be compromised because of this delay?

Vowing a new militancy

A slate of local officials pledged to mount much more militant tactics swept into the leadership of the American Postal Workers Union last fall, winning seven of nine contested seats. Union President Dimondstein, elected with this group, said he seeks a “cultural shift” to an organizing model of unionism from a service model. In an interview with Socialist Worker, he said:

“People are disengaged not because they don’t care but because they see their union dues as a premium to an insurance company or as lawyer’s fees. We need to retool, to retrain people to see the union as themselves. We need to encourage workers to take their grievances directly to the boss, in groups, not just file paperwork and wait for union officials to service them. We need more of a movement, a sense of connection to the larger community which will give postal workers hope and confidence.”

That postal workers are in a position to negotiate is because they defied their union leadership in 1970 to engage in an illegal strike that spread across the country to more than 30 major cities — an example praised by the new American Postal Workers Union leadership. The union, one of four that represent postal workers, began talks on a new contract in February, vowing to end a disastrous three-tiered contact negotiated by previous union leaders. That contract calls for reduced pay for new hires and allows people working only 30 hours a week to be considered “full time.”

At the opening session of the contract talks, the American Postal Workers Union leadership was joined by the president of the National Association of Letter Carriers, Fredic Rolando, in a signal that the postal workers won’t be divided by job description. (The APWU represents clerks, drivers and maintenance workers.) The APWU said it would not only negotiate better pay, but “will be putting forth proposals for maintaining overnight delivery standards, halting plant closings, expanding hours of service and staffing for the customers, and providing financial services such as postal banking.”

To back their new militancy, postal unions have formed an alliance with several dozen labor and advocacy groups called A Grand Alliance to Save Our Public Postal Service. The alliance vows that “The public good must not be sacrificed for the sake of private investment and profit.”

No one group or organization can turn the tide against neoliberalism, but an organized fightback must begin somewhere by someone. If there is going to be serious follow-through on all these initiatives, a dramatic departure from the methodologies of U.S. unions of recent decades would be a welcome start — although this can’t be effective without broad popular support and activity capable of solidarity work and overturning anti-union laws such as Taft-Hartley.

Reforms, however welcome, can only achieve so much and are always temporary. Struggles for reform will be fought again and again, becoming more difficult to sustain, as long as economic systems stress private profit rather than public good.

Reversing global warming will take far more than asking polluters to stop

Four hundred thousand took the streets of New York City on September 21, and, regardless of our critiques of the event and the groups organizing it, that is a memorable feat. But: What will it mean?

With no disrespect to the logistical work, the hardship of travel and all the rest of the organizing work carried on over several months, a demonstration is the easy part of a movement. The hard part is sustaining the many layers of strategic work necessary to prevail against vastly more powerful entities and having the courage to directly challenge the system.

A march of protestors literally miles long can’t help but earn attention, but without much follow-up work, it will mean little, exhilarating as it was to be among so many. The next day’s “Flood Wall Street” civil disobedience, in which hundreds of people blocked a major Financial District street for several hours, is a hopeful step. If the energy unleashed in Monday’s flood is replicated in all the places from which people traveled to the September 21 demonstrations that took place around the world, then perhaps that could be the day we some day look back to as the start of a successful struggle to save the planet.

People's Climate March, New York (photo by South Bend Voice)

People’s Climate March, New York (photo by South Bend Voice)

South Africans struggling to dismantle apartheid through long decades and the civil rights activists of the 1960s in the Southern U.S. literally put their bodies and lives on the line. And yet, as inhumane as the local elites were in protecting their privileges, the global order was not targeted. Tackling global warming seriously directly challenges business as usual around the world.

Reversing global warming and living in harmony with our environment and all the living beings who share the planet with us humans means nothing less than putting an end to capitalism. The industrialists and financiers who dominate the world, and the governments that serve them, show no indication they will do anything other than throw all the violence they can summon to keep their system in place and themselves at the top of the pyramid.

Demonstrations, in themselves, change nothing: They don’t touch the system and threaten no one in power. Demonstrations do signal popular anger, activate people by showing others that there are millions who think similarly (no, you are not crazy because you don’t believe the lies the corporate media feeds you), and serve as an invaluable organizing tool. An unused tool does nothing. A tool used properly multiplies force.

Will we use the tool — will we go back to our communities and construct the organizations that will find a path to a better world? That possibility is why we all had to march, despite the critiques put forth by thoughtful activists beforehand.

They say cringe, we say fight back

These critiques bring to mind the debates over the anti-war marches on the eve of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s invasion of Iraq, when activists in the U.S. were frustrated by United For Peace and Justice’s watered-down demands and transparent attempts to steer the anti-war movement into the Democratic Party and ultimately into the presidential campaign of pro-war candidate John Kerry. The counter-argument then was for Left activists to show up anyway and raise more radical demands and bring forth more fundamental analyses.

Similar critiques were heard about September 21’s People’s Climate March, which was so watered down that it had no demands. For example, a detailed critique by Global Justice for Animals and the Environment reported that grassroots organizers were “shot down” in planning meetings when they tried to link global warming with economic issues:

“The point of the meeting, they were told, was to focus on how to bring people to the march, not to set an agenda for it. Grassroots organizers were thus being called upon to do work for an event controlled by others. This raised alarm bells for me from the outset. It’s an all too common problem for NGO staff to treat grassroots organizers as their unpaid employees. Coming in and telling us ‘we set the [nonexistent] agenda; you should do the legwork’ is insulting and disrespectful of our time, priorities, and insights.”

At some point, an undifferentiated “big tent” devolves into a marketing opportunity for those most responsible for global warming. The Global Justice critique concludes:

“Another world IS possible, but we will not find it on a literal and metaphorical march to nowhere with fossil fuel burning energy companies, cynical greenwash fronts for big food multinationals, and green Apartheid apologists.”

I had no reason to disagree with that assessment. Nonetheless, why stay home? Better to show up, ignore the organizers and make far more serious critiques and raise far more serious demands at the march. (Which the authors of that critique indeed did do.) It’s not every day that one can see hundreds, perhaps thousands, of signs denouncing capitalism. And although even the route of the march came under criticism, it snaked through heavily trafficked areas of Midtown Manhattan. Going past Times Square alone, untold thousands of tourists — including people from across the United States, who most need that message put in front of them — saw it.

The corporate media won’t do our work for us

A sign that the march was too big for the corporate media to ignore was that the local newspapers actually ran articles about it. But New York City’s tabloids in particular were true to form, with the Daily News headlining its story “Thousands of protesters, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, join People’s Climate March.” Alas, the article mostly consisted of breathless celebrity sitings, with only one actual activist quoted.

That was one more activist than could be found in The New York Post’s content-free article. The Post’s headline also referred to “thousands” and its article consisted entirely of celebrity mentions. But lest we think Rupert Murdoch’s minions are losing their extremist edge by uncharacteristically deigning to cover (however superficially) a demonstration not organized by the tea party, it ran an accompanying story headlined “Climate change skeptics call out marchers’ ‘hypocrisies.’ ” We’ll pause here while you enjoy a laugh.

Given the dearth of television coverage, the organizers’ goal of attracting media attention didn’t materialize in any meaningful way. And if there had been a flurry of television coverage, the corporate media would have moved on after one day with no follow-up. Organizing a march simply to generate media attention is a dead end strategy.

So despite the march-organizing NGOs’ faith in the Democratic Party and wish to avoid offending their corporate donors, there is not going to be a faction of the establishment suddenly open to confronting the issue of global warming. “Green capitalism” is an illusion — a system based on infinite growth on a finite planet, that grants a few vast rewards while shifting the costs to everyone else, is the problem and not the solution.

Organizing and struggle is the route to reversing global warming, not asking those who profit from destruction to please stop doing so.

Labor rights respected nowhere on Earth

If labor rights were a test, the entire world would flunk. Basic labor rights are under sustained assault, but just how badly is quantified in a just released report by the International Trade Union Confederation in which every country scored below 50 percent.

To better summarize these results, the ITUC grouped the world’s countries into five rankings, with a ranking of one signifying the countries with the (relatively) best conditions for working people and a ranking of five signifying those with the most repressive conditions. Most of those countries with a ranking of one were in the European Union, but this group also included Togo and Uruguay. Those with a ranking of five include some of the world’s most repressive countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, but also Greece, Turkey and South Korea. The United States has a ranking of four. So much for the home of the free.

The ITUC describes itself as “a confederation of national trade union centres” that includes 325 affiliated organizations in 161 countries and territories. Its Global Rights Index summarizes data on the abuse of trade union rights around the world. The report’s introduction states:

“The increase in precarious employment relationships has further deepened the vulnerability of workers to discrimination at the workplace. Governments in the vast majority of countries have been convinced to alter their labour legislation to encourage various forms of precarious work. In virtually all countries, temporary work, agency work, subcontracting and other types of informal work are expanding rapidly. Given their unstable employment situation and the high risk of dismissal, precarious workers are discouraged from joining unions and being covered by collective bargaining. This means that workers in precarious forms of employment do not have the necessary support to improve their work situation.”

The report collects information on each country for 97 indicators derived from International Labour Organization standards. These indicators relate to one of five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. It assigns a simple yes or no to each of the 97 questions rather than a more gradated system to eliminate any potential bias and because each is a “universally binding obligation” that all countries should respect.

Therefore, 97 is the highest possible score for any country. The highest score attained, however, was 43. The lowest was zero. Therefore, the study grouped the world’s countries into the five rankings, with each ranking containing roughly one-fifth of the total. The ITUC’s map of workers’ rights is below, with the brightest yellow those countries with a ranking of one (those with the most respect for rights) and the deepest orange and red those with a ranking of five (those with the least respect for rights).

ITUC map of workers' rights

ITUC map of workers’ rights

Countries with a ranking of four, such as the United States, Honduras, Indonesia and Kuwait, “have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.” Only somewhat better are those with a ranking of three, such as Australia, Canada, Singapore and the United Kingdom, where “Government and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of these rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.”

Those conditions are reflected in the dwindling number of strikes. During the 1970s, an average of During the 1970s, an average of 289 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers took place annually in the United States. In 2009, there were no more than five. Lockouts, in which management bars employees from working, have become more common, reaching record levels this decade.

That is a worldwide phenomenon, of course, in no way limited to any one country, including the one imposes its will on the rest of the world through a misguided ideology of “exceptionalism.” The ITUC notes in its report:

“[W]orkers are struggling everywhere for their right to collective representation and decent work deficits exist in varying degrees in most countries. Abuses of rights are getting worse not better and too many countries take no responsibility for protecting workers rights in a national context or through corporate supply chains. Based on reports from affiliates, workers in at least 53 countries have either been dismissed or suspended from their jobs for attempting to negotiate better working conditions. In the vast majority of these cases the national legislation offered either no protection or did not provide dissuasive sanctions in order to hold abusive employers accountable. Indeed, employers and governments are complicit in silencing workers’ voices against exploitation.”

A continuing race to the bottom is all that is on offer. Capitalists are well organized, across borders. Working people had better do the same.

Finding the roots of addiction in the instability of ‘free markets’

Addiction is big business and obscuring its roots is its ideological handmaiden. Despite the incessant chanting that everything that happens to you is solely your fault, social ills do have social roots.

We need not lay this “personal responsibility” mantra solely at the feet of neoliberal ideologues, for such beliefs pervade capitalist society, even among those who are critical of capitalism’s excesses. New age philosophy, for example, routinely blames the individual for all manner of personal misfortunes and overemphasizes personalities at the expense of collective effort.

An episode of Oprah that featured Nelson Mandela saw Oprah Winfrey repeatedly tell the former president that he had accomplished so much by himself; she was oblivious to his protestations that he could not have brought an end to apartheid except as part of the collective movement of which he was a part. On the personal level, a friend still angrily recounts an incident many years ago when she was mugged, went into a nearby New Age establishment to seek some help and instead was asked, “What did you do to draw in that negative energy?”

Reducing everything to personal activity obliterates that movements animated by organized groups accomplish social change (not the solo efforts of charismatic leaders), and by conveniently laying all fault for social ills at the feet of the marginal such reductions obscure larger social conditions.

AlcoholThe common responses to alcohol and drug addiction very much fall within this pattern. It is true that different personalities have differing susceptibilities to addictive behavior; nonetheless, this can’t be and isn’t anything close to a full picture. Solutions to addiction based on correcting individual behavior are hopeless without analyzing the role of dislocation in capitalist society, argues Bruce K. Alexander in his paper The Roots of Addiction in a Free Market Society. Published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the paper demonstrates that free markets, and the massive dislocation that results from them, are the ultimate causes of addictive behaviors.

Failure to focus on root causes will lead to failure

Writing in the context of a new policy put forth by the city of Vancouver a decade ago that sought to treat addiction through a focus on “four pillars” — treatment, prevention, law enforcement and harm reduction — Dr. Alexander argues that, although an improvement on traditional initiatives that focus on policing, such a focus is woefully short of tackling the root causes. He writes:

“[D]islocation is the necessary precursor of addiction. … [F]ree markets inevitably produce widespread dislocation among the poor and the rich. As free market globalization speeds up, so does the spread of dislocation and addiction.

In order for ‘free markets’ to be ‘free,’ the exchange of labour, land, currency, and consumer goods must not be encumbered by elements of psychosocial integration such as clan loyalties, village responsibilities, guild or union rights, charity, family obligations, social roles, or religious values. Cultural traditions ‘distort’ the free play of the laws of supply and demand, and thus must be suppressed. In free market economies, for example, people are expected to move to where jobs can be found, and to adjust their work lives and cultural tastes to the demands of a global market.” [page 1]

Ignoring these larger forces, argues Dr. Alexander, who has more than four decades of experience researching addiction, is responsible for the ineffectiveness of efforts to contain addiction.

“Attempts to treat or prevent addiction that ignore the connection between free markets, dislocation, and addiction have proven to be little better than band-aids. Addressing the problem of addiction will require fundamental political and economic changes. … [S]ociety, as well as individuals, must change. It requires moves towards good government and away from policies that undermine our ability to care for one another and build sustainable, healthy communities.” [page 2]

Dr. Alexander defines addiction more expansively than is ordinary, arguing that a compulsion for money, power, work, food or material goods are as dangerous and resistant to treatment as is addiction to illegal drugs. These addictions are a “desperate substitute” in the wake of dislocation from intimate ties between people and groups. This pattern is repeated in disparate societies around the world; no corner has been spared penetration by global capitalism during the past two centuries. Continual reinforcement is needed to maintain the consumption that is the engine of free markets.

“[E]stablished ‘free’ market societies require the continuing presence of powerful control systems. Carefully engineered management, advertising, taxation, and mass media techniques keep people buying, selling, working, borrowing, lending, and consuming at optimal rates, deliberately undermining the countervailing influences of new social structures that spontaneously arise in modern families, offices, factories, etc. Thus, opportunities to re-establish new forms of psychosocial integration are suppressed.” [page 9]

A pattern found across societies and times

The high rates of poverty, economic disparity, divorce, children diagnosed with “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” and many other indicators of dislocation within U.S. society are well known, but Dr. Alexander draws on the disparate examples of the Indigenous peoples of Pacific Canada, Scottish peasants and British subjects who lived in the Canadian North in the employ of the Hudson’s Bay Company to illustrate his thesis.

Photo of Vancouver by Andrew Raun

Photo of Vancouver by Andrew Raun

Force was frequently applied to dislocate Indigenous populations. The founding of Vancouver as a port and railroad terminal required the uprooting of almost 100 First Nations villages and systematic destruction of Indigenous culture. Dr. Alexander writes:

“The natives’ lands, which had for centuries been sites for food gathering, communal houses, huge wood carvings, ancestral burial grounds, and invisible spirits became the basis of a free market in real estate almost overnight. Many of their complex cultural practices were outlawed or mocked out of existence. Their famous ‘potlatches,’ elaborate ceremonies in which rich natives gave enormous amounts of food and goods to others according to complex traditional, clan, and personal obligations were the antitheses of free markets. They were prohibited by law from 1884 until 1951.” [page 6]

Even in cases where there was relatively little direct violence or enslavement, military force and other sources of violence were waiting in the wings.

“Of course British authorities always had the lash, the gallows, and the artillery of the royal navy close at hand, and these were called into service at the slightest indication of organized resistance.” [page 25, note 50]

This was true for resistance on the British Islands as well. England’s establishment of a free market society by the early 19th century was achieved through mass displacement and, in the case of Scotland, destruction of cultural institutions that, although far from ideal, did provide social safety nets for the poorest and helped keep starvation at bay during periods of crop failures. Independent peasants were forced off the land so that elites could convert farming from supplying local consumption to producing products for export. This required

“a massive, forced eviction of the rural poor from their farms, commons, and villages and the absorption of some of them into urban slums and a brutal, export-oriented manufacturing system. Those who resisted these new realities too strenuously were further dislocated from their families and communities, by forced apprenticeship of their children, destruction of their unions and other associations of working people, elimination of local charity to the ‘undeserving poor,’ and by confinement in ‘houses of correction’ where they were encouraged to accept their new responsibilities with whips and branding irons.” [pages 9-10]

Those who refused to pull down their houses and leave had their homes burned down by the local sheriff after clan chiefs, induced to join English society, or English landlords bought their formerly inalienable land in the “free market.”

Racial ‘explanations’ for addiction are nonsense

Although it can not be said that there were no social problems among Canadian First Nations peoples before European contact, Dr. Alexander reports in his paper that he has found no mention by anthropologists of any behavior that could be termed addictive, which he attributes to the high level of “psychosocial integration” in societies that had high levels of communality and shared resources. He writes that the popular explanation for widespread alcoholism among Canadian natives (this would also apply to native peoples in the United States) — a racial “inability” to control themselves — is refuted by the lack of addiction before the European drive to wipe out their cultures and languages.

“It was only during assimilation that alcoholism emerged as a pervasive, crippling problem for native people, along with suicide, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and so forth. … ‘Civilization,’ as it came to [eastern Canadian] natives, was administered by militant Jesuits in a century of fanatical religious zeal. This meant destruction of the robust Huron religion and, hence, Huron culture itself, with dislocation as the consequence. Eventually every tribal culture in Canada was engulfed by the overpowering European culture, and every tribe succumbed to the ravages of dislocation, including epidemic alcoholism. Massive dislocation produced massive addiction.” [page 15]

The same pattern was found among dislocated Europeans. Dr. Alexander cites the example of Hudson’s Bay Company employees from Scotland’s Orkney Islands, valued by the company because they were used to far Northern conditions and life at sea, and known for their sobriety. They nonetheless succumbed to widespread alcoholism in the Canadian north, a problem the company could not stamp out no matter how many prohibitions it issued.

Prohibition has not worked in modern times, either — the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s served as fodder to intensify the “war on drugs.” Pervasive propaganda at the time that crack is “instantaneously” addictive is a “fabrication,” Dr. Alexander writes, noting this was falsely claimed for alcohol, heroin and marijuana at various times in the 19th and early 20th centuries. He argues that dislocation, not crack itself, is the cause of crack addiction and that, similar to other substances, most use it without falling into addiction.

Stable communities as the solution to addiction

The solution to reversing addiction, Dr. Alexander writes, is to reverse dislocation and stabilize communities. Doing so, however, requires considerable pushback against pervasive messages that spotlight individuals rather than social causes.

“Changing the terms of this debate is a huge task, since the current manner of speaking of addiction as an individual drug-using disease is maintained by an media army that has been launching this message for decades. People endure this barrage of disinformation partly because it complements a deeply-rooted North American ‘temperance mentality,’ which makes it seem natural to blame social problems on drugs and alcohol and partly because it profits many institutions and professions that treat, police, prevent, and ‘harm reduce’ the putative disease. Those who launch the public information barrage prosper because the ‘War on Drugs,’ which has drawn its justification from it, serves vital commercial and geopolitical purposes for vested interests with very deep pockets.” [pages 19-20]

The “war on drugs” is, for example, a useful tool for the U.S. government to justify continual interference in Latin America, punishing governments that do not fully yield to U.S. dictates, and it also suppresses competition to legal drugs peddled by the highly profitable pharmaceutical industry.

People need to belong to their society, “not just trade in its markets,” Dr. Alexander argues. Imposing fair labor standards and preventing multi-national corporations from pressuring local governments to rescind labor, health, safety and environmental standards would be a better solution than mass migration, as would rebuilding a proper social safety net. He concludes:

“On a global level, substantially reducing the addiction problem requires nothing less than exercising sensible, humane controls over markets, corporations, environments, public institutions, and international agencies to reduce dislocation. This cannot be achieved without conflict, because it will inevitably impede the pursuit of ever-increasing wealth and ever-freer markets. Of course it would be naive to hope for a return to any real or imagined golden age. However, it is at least as naive to suppose that society can continue to hurtle forward, ideologically blinded to the crushing problems that free markets create.” [page 22]

In a rational society designed to meet human need rather than private profit at any cost, this conclusion would be obvious. That it seems a fantastic goal is a morbid manifestation of the cancer that is our economic system.

Does Occupy Wall Street have a future?

Will Occupy Wall Street have more birthday celebrations? The movement marked its second anniversary with a daylong series of events in its New York City birthplace, but with smaller numbers than it has drawn for past events.

Having spent September 17 at series of rallies and marches, I have no interest in surmising the end of a movement into which so many have placed great hopes. But two years on from the electric beginnings of Occupy in Zuccotti Park and its rapid spread to hundreds of cities, it must be asked: What is the future for Occupy? Or has it accomplished its mission, to be supplanted by as yet unformed movements to carry forward the work of building a better world?

Photo by Mark Dunlea, via www.popularresistance.org

Photo by Mark Dunlea, via http://www.popularresistance.org

The Occupiers and allies ranged from a couple hundred to several hundred at the various rallies and marches — noticeably smaller than 2012’s first anniversary. A credible showing considering the breadth of events that included a march on the New York Stock Exchange, assemblies at Zuccotti Park, a rally in Washington Square Park focused on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, street theater in Times Square, a rally for a “Robin Hood” financial-industry tax near the United Nations and marches connecting some of these. And all this on a work day.

Nonetheless, such crowds do not constitute a mass movement. The organizing wasn’t helped by fissiparous tendencies; a painstaking effort to reach consensus was undermined by one organizer deciding to do his own thing with his own Occupy group. (An organizer involved in the anniversary preparations told me this was the most difficult organizing he had been involved with in his many years of movement work.)

Despite the “leaderless” ideal of Occupy, there are leaders within the remnants of Occupy and they are not necessarily working harmoniously. There is nothing unique happening here: There is no social movement or large organization where these problems do not arise. But they do not help an organization already on the wane. That Occupy is a dwindling movement is a development with multiple roots, not least of which is the violent repression of it soon after its exhilarating birth.

Speaking truth to power makes those in power angry

There is no mystery as to why that repression was unleashed — Occupy unambiguously critiqued the corporate dominance of our world, the gross inequality that is worsening, the lack of accountability on the part of the financial industry and — perhaps the highest crime — encouraging people to see social divisions in terms of class. Not by explicitly referring to class or using class terminology, but by popularizing the concept with the “1% vs. the 99%” narrative. There is considerable room for debate on the size of the elite that dominates capitalist society (there are those who argue for higher and lower figures than 1%), but that such an elite is recognizable is demonstrated in how quickly the concept spread.

The Department of Homeland Security coordinated the crackdown on Occupy across the United States and the FBI had its hand in the repression as well, branding Occupiers as “terrorists” and plotting to disrupt its events. Both agencies worked closely with not only local police departments but even with the country’s banks. Police eagerly attacked Occupy encampments and actions, such as Oakland, California, police firing tear-gas canisters at point-blank range. The New York City police destroying the Occupy Wall Street library certainly was emblematic.

The anger that fueled Occupy has not dissipated, nor have the issues that animate the movement. We should never underestimate the importance of naming the problem, of clearly opposing what is wrong. No matter the future, Occupy will always be the movement that provided the service of changing the conversation. Overnight, we went from wondering why there was no organized response from the Left, leaving a vacuum filled by the corporate-created Tea Party, to a new orientation in which the actual agents of economic collapse were placed in a metaphorical bulls-eye rather than the traditional scapegoats of minorities, immigrants and government.

The real problem is the system that enables the bankers, not the personalities of the bankers themselves, but even with its emphasis on banker greed Occupy was, and is, traveling on the right track. The same institutions sit atop the economic pyramid; there has been no accountability for those who brought on the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Governments around the world continue to be under the dominance of these same institutions and people. Discouragement that the energy created by Occupy has not led to any change is one factor in the movement’s decline. Even more so, the discouragement engendered by the violent response to Occupy, a resignation induced in many that nothing can change, is a factor — the very purpose of that violence.

Even leaderless groups have leaders

While acknowledging the considerable force of the factors in the preceding paragraph, we nonetheless should examine the structure of Occupy itself. The desire to not replicate past top-down patterns and integrate horizontal decision-making is admirable, but the idea that there should be no leaders doesn’t pass the test of the real world. Occupy has leaders, the same as any other organization, but when they are not acknowledged, accountability is eroded. Decentralization, ironically, opens opportunities for ambitious leaders to promote themselves.

Such leaders may be acting on what they perceive to be the organization’s best interest, or they may be acting in ways to undermine the organization. There is suspicion by some people involved in Occupy organizing that others who they viewed as acting in destructive ways may have been Democratic Party operatives seeking to disrupt the movement. I am in no position to know if that is true, but there is more than ample evidence that the consensus painstakingly created was subject to being disregarded despite the sanctity of consensus within Occupy Wall Street. Having competing events at the same time is one way to shrink crowds.

There is also no doubt that Democrats have variously sought to co-opt it or tried to destroy Occupy. Let us not forget who the occupant of the White House was when the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI unleashed coordinated violence upon it across the country. Such tactics, traditionally visited upon any U.S. movement that makes a direct critique on the system instead of acting for small reforms, are always supplemented with more subtle machinations.

Circling back to the structure of Occupy itself, a discussion of its tactics can’t be avoided. Occupy was reasonably clear about what it is against — but it is never enough to be against something. We also have to be for something.

Refusing to make demands became something of a fetish, even allowing for the slow process of building consensus at long assemblies and the diversity of opinions and backgrounds. Understanding the problem and naming the sources of the problem are the first concrete steps, without which progress is impossible. Concrete ideas and models should follow — goals to work toward.

Unwinding the disastrous policies that have brought the world to its present state won’t happen on its own or by moral persuasion, but through organized work that will have to clear giant roadblocks and face the hostility of the institutions and people who benefit from the current system and the governments they dominate through their wealth and power. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.

Perhaps Occupy is not the organizational model to create a sustained movement. Perhaps newer groups will have to continue the work of Occupy, in conjunction with groups already at work. Whatever its future, Occupy has been an indispensable part of the work to create a better world. We can only hope that it will continue to be there.

See also:

Attacks on critical thinking vs. cheers for scapegoating

The long arc of mass movements

‘End-game’ conspiracy or business as usual?

The so-called “end-game” memo authored by Timothy Geithner and recently brought to light by investigative journalist Greg Palast certainly is interesting, but does not “prove” that a secret cabal set up the world for a financial collapse. The present-day neoliberal misery has far deeper roots than a handful of officials, no matter how odious.

Photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Last week, a memo written by former U.S. Treasury Secretary Geithner in 1997, when he was assistant secretary for international affairs in the U.S. Treasury Department, was published by Mr. Palast. The memo asked Lawrence Summers to directly call the chief executive officers of five key players in the financial industry — Bank of America, Citibank, Chase Manhattan, Goldman Sachs and Merrill Lynch — to discuss “the end-game of [World Trade Organization] financial services regulations.”

In his accompanying story, Mr. Palast gets a little hyperbolic:

“When a little birdie dropped the End Game memo through my window, its content was so explosive, so sick and plain evil, I just couldn’t believe it. The Memo confirmed every conspiracy freak’s fantasy: that in the late 1990s, the top US Treasury officials secretly conspired with a small cabal of banker big-shots to rip apart financial regulation across the planet.”

It isn’t a secret that the finance ministries of governments in the world’s advanced capitalist countries are captives of the global finance industry, nor that the U.S. Treasury Department is Wall Street’s personal branch of government. It’s no secret that industrialists and financiers hold decisive influence over governments. The system is called capitalism. Mr. Palast has done excellent investigative work for years and he has once again provided a valuable service with his publication of the Geithner memo. But interesting as the memo is for its confirmation of the close collaboration between financiers and government, it would be a mistake to place too much emphasis on personalities.

Mr. Palast himself seems to realize this, writing:

“Does all this evil and pain flow from a single memo? Of course not: the evil was The Game itself, as played by the banker clique. The memo only revealed their game-plan for checkmate.”

But then we are back to personalities:

“And the memo reveals a lot about Summers and Obama. While billions of sorry souls are still hurting from worldwide banker-made disaster, [Robert] Rubin and Summers didn’t do too badly. Rubin’s deregulation of banks had permitted the creation of a financial monstrosity called ‘Citigroup.’ Within weeks of leaving office, Rubin was named director, then Chairman of Citigroup — which went bankrupt while managing to pay Rubin a total of $126 million.”

Personal interest, yes, but ideology looms large

I’ve no argument against the accusation that Secretaries Summers and Rubin have personally enriched themselves to the tune of many millions of dollars. The facts speak for themselves. I am not suggesting that there is no personal interest at stake here; but the larger issue is that these Wall Street consiglieres are acting for ideological reasons. The logic of an entire economic structure led to deregulation and the disastrous consequences that flowed from it. The steps that culminated in the 2008 collapse that we continue to live with go back decades, before the careers of any of today’s capitalist mandarins.

The capitalist system has evolved into the present-day situation under its own inexorable demands. Our unholy Democratic triumvirate are merely the human material that fulfilled the necessary roles.

The problem isn’t greedy bankers, the problem is the system that enables the greedy bankers.

If those three hadn’t been there, someone else would have been and done the same. Has the switching between Democratic/Republican, or Liberal/Conservative, or Labour/Conservative, or Social Democratic/Christian Democratic, or Socialist/Union for a Popular Movement, made any difference in economic matters? The same dynamic that governs all enterprises under the capitalist system — expand or die — applies to the financial industry.

Enterprises that produce tangible goods and services compete for market share, swallowing each other as a natural strategy to become bigger. Ultimately, only a handful of corporations will dominate an industry, creating an effective monopoly that puts an end to competition and grants the executives and institutional shareholders who control them extraordinary wealth and power. The financial industry is no different, and deregulation is critically important to financiers’ ability to increase the size of their banks and hedge funds.

Relentless competition goads them (not reluctantly, of course) into demanding more deregulation, more privatization (to gain control of public wealth) and the opening of borders to capital. If a capitalist enterprise does not do this, its competitors will and put it out of business. As more wealth is amassed, the more power enterprises have to bend laws and rules more in their favor. The wealthier and more powerful the executives and financiers who control these enterprises become, the harsher the conditions they can impose on their employees.

A ventriloquist has to learn his lines

To put the “end-game” memo in perspective, Secretary Geithner was seeking to ensure that the U.S. government’s negotiating position was fully in alignment with the country’s largest financiers. His memo speaks for itself on this:

“Industry’s assessment of the prospects for success in December [1997] can be characterized as cautiously optimistic. … I believe the securities industry is broadly satisfied with the outlines of the deal.”

Secretary Geithner evidently believed that Secretary Summers would be the best person to discuss final negotiations with the pirates of Wall Street. Indeed, the latter speaks as a ventriloquist for the financial industry. I had low expectations for Barack Obama following his election, but when Secretary Summers’ selection as lead financial adviser was one of the president-elect’s first moves, I realized the Obama administration was going to be worse than I thought.

The World Trade Organization’s financial services regulations were implemented. The WTO announced in February 1999 that the regulations would go into effect because governments that accounted for more than 90 per cent of the global financial services market ratified the agreement. WTO rules forbid governments from limiting the size of financial firms; forbid “firewalls” that would separate commercial banking from risky speculation; and limits government oversight by subjecting domestic regulations to WTO review.

At that time, the WTO, as a global organization to which nearly all countries belong, was the primary treaty vehicle for imposing control over the world’s economies. The “Battle in Seattle” in late 1999, and subsequent global resistance, brought the process of using the WTO to further tighten control to a halt. As a result, there is now more stress on trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. The European Union also exists to impose corporate dictatorship through erosion of national sovereignties and imposition of market “discipline,” which is nothing more than imposing the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers.

The ideas of the world’s industrialists and financiers have become the dominant ideas of the world — these are continually disseminated through endless repetition through mass media, schools and a plethora of other institutions. Promoted political leaders will be be drawn from among those who positions replicate the dominant ideas and they can’t take office without dependence on the money of industrialists and financiers. The “end-game” memo opens a window into this process, but we shouldn’t mistake the window for the edifice.

Power concedes nothing without a demand

We struggle because there is no alternative. We need to struggle because none of us can know when the spark will come. To not struggle is to give up.

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

Photo by Patrick Prémartin

I couldn’t help thinking about this subject again while helping out at an Occupy Wall Street information table last Sunday. As usual, there were many perspectives contending, but there was a distinct undercurrent of despair. Some articulated that as frustration that more people can’t be reached faster, but another subset was rooted in the idea that all is already lost, that we are already running out of time. From the latter it is a short journey toward giving up.

The process of organized resistance to injustice is called “struggle” for a reason — it is never easy. Frederick Douglass said it as well as it can said be a century and a half ago in words that will always bear repeating:

“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

During this process, success always lies over the horizon. Sometimes we struggle for something we won’t see in our lifetimes; history is replete with such examples. Sometimes we know we won’t see it in our lifetimes, but the call of a greater good animates us. Sometimes we do taste victory. But when? We can never know ahead of time.

One strike among many

Take Russia’s February Revolution of 1917, when the tsar was overthrown. People persevered for decades in conditions far worse than anybody in an advanced capitalist country faces. The movement waxed and waned; strikes and even peaceful marches were drowned in blood. St. Petersburg, then the capital, was racked by waves of strikes in the first weeks of 1917 amidst shortages of all kinds.

Put aside for the moment your opinion about the eventual course of Russian history; the people struggling to survive at this time shouldn’t be held responsible for the wrong turns the October Revolution later took. On one particular day, tens of thousands of women textile workers walked out, then went to the metal factories and asked the men working there to join them. They did, the strike spread and within two days a general strike took hold. In another five days, the tsarist régime was finished — one of the world’s most brutal dictatorships brought to an end.

Why that one day? Why that one strike among hundreds of actions? We can never know. The most we can say is that on that particular day, Russians had finally had enough. This amazing feat, overthrowing an autocratic régime that had endured for centuries, occurred as most of the leaderships of the various political parties and organizations were in Siberian exile, in foreign exile or in jail.

Yet there was no spontaneity at work. Russia’s socialists had tirelessly laid the groundwork, and although the tsar’s secret police had decimated their ranks and so many had paid with exile, banishment, hard labor, jail and execution, the ideas could not be stamped out. The talks of the socialist agitators, the words of the socialist newspapers, pamphlets and fliers, resonated with the experiences of Russians — not only in the cities, but in the countryside and in the army and navy. It was this practical work, carried out over many years, that provided the people of Russia with the tools necessary to understand, and then change, their conditions.

They changed their conditions even though most were so under-educated that they were illiterate; even though a omnipresent propaganda insisted that the tsar ruled as a direct representative of God and there could be no change; even though police, militaries, death squads and secret police promised swift retribution against anyone questioning the natural order, the only order that could be.

Dignity in the face of inhumanity

Take a more recent example, South Africa. The apartheid régime seemed impervious. Disdainful of world opinion, determined to hold power at any cost, murdering or shipping to island prisons its opponents with impunity, consigning the Black majority to grinding poverty and daily humiliation — how could optimism that a better day would come be sustained? Yet is was.

I remember vividly the day Nelson Mandela made his first speech after his release. The only picture we had of him had been that of a young man with a fierce expression. Now here he was, an older man with gray hair. I was startled by his appearance before remembering we were seeing him three decades older, all at once. I couldn’t quote to you a single word of what he said that day, but it was perhaps the most memorable speech I have ever witnessed. What I do remember is the dignity of Nelson Mandela. Dignity. He was not broken after 27 years in prison, not at all. But beyond that, the African National Congress leader was fully human.

He would not allow his humanity to be taken away, no matter how cruel his oppressors. Nelson Mandela made that speech because he was part of a movement. Only an organized movement could have brought that day. A movement willing to engage in struggle. Another African National Congress leader, Steven Biko, summarized a most important lesson in these words:

“The most potent weapon of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Throwing up your hands in despair, declaring that nothing can be done so nothing should be started: You are oppressing yourself more effectively than any dictatorship, any sham democracy, any rule of financiers. To say “they” are too strong or too vicious, whomever “they” are, is to give up on living. Such an attitude is the surest route to your material conditions getting worse, to the next generation living under harsher conditions.

Everything of human creation is temporary. Everything of human creation will come to an end. Whether the next system will be better or worse, whether we or our descendants will be more or less free, is up to us.