There are no Democratic or Green saviors: Get in the streets!

Regardless of the outcome of November’s U.S. elections, what will count most is what happens in the streets. As Frederick Douglass put it plainly a century and a half ago, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and never will.”

All the advances of the 20th century (most of which are being steadily eroded in these early years of the 21st century) came about through organized movements, forcing elected officials to react.

I know that what I’ve written above is something that most of you reading this already know. But it does seem that we need to remind ourselves of this as United Statesians ponder a choice of two of the most unpopular candidates in the history of U.S. presidential campaigns, a choice reflecting the growing crisis of capitalism. The technocratic corporate war monger versus the proudly ignorant misogynist egomaniac. But it doesn’t necessarily follow that a ready-made alternative exists on the November ballot, and not simply because either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be the next president.

Hermann Park in Houston, location of the 2016 Green Party convention (photo by Another Believer)

Hermann Park in Houston, location of the 2016 Green Party convention (photo by Another Believer)

Revolutions are made in the street, not in the election booth. Bernie Sanders can promise a “revolution” all he wants, but no matter how fervently some of his followers wish it, the Vermont senator offered no revolution. Significant reforms that would be welcome should they be realized, certainly. But Senator Sanders offered merely to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism, not transcend them. His example, Sweden, is not a socialist country, even if it is a county that is much more humane. The Swedish government didn’t keep its banks in public hands after nationalizing them during an early 1990s crisis; instead it re-privatized them.

Secretary Clinton supports every U.S. imperial adventure, while Senator Sanders supports only some of them. Moreover, Senator Sanders’ main complain about NATO isn’t its imperial mission but rather that Europeans don’t pay more. Why should I get worked up over this difference?

And that brings us to Jill Stein, about to receive the Green Party’s presidential nomination. Or, rather, to the Green Party itself. Those who see the Greens as an anti-capitalist alternative are, sad to say, destined for disappointment. Here I can speak from personal experience, having been highly active in the New York State Green Party more than a decade ago, and even serving as the editor of state party’s newspaper for two years. There are Greens who are sincerely socialists, and who would like to see the party be socialist, but these folks represent the left wing of the party, not the party as a whole.

Contradictory trends among Greens

The New York Green Party at the time I was active was filled with liberals and ex-Democrats; the latter joined when the Greens earned ballot status in New York because they had not risen in the Democratic Party and believed they could be big fish in a small pond. Many of these folks wished for nothing more than to tug the Democrats a bit to the left and to cross-endorse Democratic candidates deemed sufficiently progressive. But as Democrats thoroughly dominate state politics and have no need for Green support, such cross-endorsements were worth nothing and these dreams of influence proved empty. At the national level, shortly before I ceased active involvement, a bureaucratic structure calling itself Green Party US was created, further cutting off the party’s rank and file from decision-making.

The center and right wings of the party (more oriented toward electoral politics than activism) generally supported the creation of Green Party US; unfortunately they were supported by a minority of activism-oriented Greens, one of whom, a sincere life-long activist who should have known better, argued on the floor of a state party assembly against me that “the train is leaving the station and we have to be on board.” That the Green Party’s national committee this year approved an “ecological economics” plank that declares the party “anti-capitalist and in favor of a decentralized vision [of] socialism” does not magically turn a “big tent” party into a socialist one.

The party’s platform has stated that “Greens support small business, responsible stakeholder capitalism, and broad and diverse forms of economic cooperation.” The new language, to be formally approved at this week’s national convention, states that the party “seeks to build an alternative economic system based on ecology and decentralization of power” and seeks to instead “build an economy based on large-scale green public works, municipalization, and workplace and community democracy.” Further, the new language states that “Production is best for people and planet when democratically owned and operated by those who do the work and those most affected by production decisions. This model of worker and community empowerment will ensure that decisions that greatly affect our lives are made in the interests of our communities, not at the whim of centralized power structures of state administrators or of capitalist CEOs and distant boards of directors.”

Yes, a significant step forward from the thinly disguised “green capitalism” that the party previously had stood for. Green capitalism, the hope of liberals and social democrats that the same system that has brought the world to economic, political and environmental crisis will somehow solve these problems, is a fantasy, one best given no quarter. I certainly do not wish to discourage Greens, or anybody else, from moving beyond the chimera of “green capitalism.” But does an organization declaring itself “socialist” — or, in this case, “anti-capitalist” — make it so? A measure of caution is warranted.

The record of the Green Party is not particularly strong. In 2004, maneuvering by David Cobb’s supporters wrested the presidential nomination from Ralph Nader (although national-convention attendees I talked to told me that had Mr. Nader campaigned for the nomination rather than expecting it to be handed to him by right he would have been the nominee). Mr. Cobb ran a “safe states” campaign, whereby he would only ask for votes in states that were firmly in the hands of one of the major parties, unmistakably implying that voters in states that were up for grabs should vote for pro-war Democrat John Kerry. I should note that when I had a chance to ask him about this intellectually dishonest campaign, he, with a straight face, told me that he was running a 50-state campaign. But his slick “professional politician” personality told a different story.

Mistaking Bernie Sanders for a savior

That mistake hasn’t been repeated. But Dr. Stein committed a serious strategic error when she offered to cede the presidential nomination to Senator Sanders if only he would abandon the Democratic Party and instead become his vice presidential running mate. Why a person as serious as she is would indulge in such a fantasy I do not know. There was no possibility of Senator Sanders doing anything other than endorsing Secretary Clinton; he not only said so clearly from the start but political reality (i.e., his ability to retain any influence in the party) mandated that he do so. Complaining that he is a “sellout” for doing so is naïve.

Here, I would strongly disagree with the analysis of Chris Hedges that it was a mistake for him to have run as a Democrat instead of as an independent — his impact would have been minuscule had he done so. Whatever criticisms we have of Senator Sanders, he galvanized millions of people and put socialism into a national conversation, even if he wasn’t actually offering socialism. These are positive steps.

Dr. Stein does offer a more progressive vision than that of Senator Sanders. And let us note the new anti-capitalist plank in the Green platform. But there is a world of difference between an abstract idea and practical work to make that idea a reality. The history of social democracy, theoretically parties working toward a form of socialism, provides ample evidence.

Germany’s former Social Democratic chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, pushed through his “Agenda 2010” legislation in 2003 that imposed austerity. The so-called “German miracle” has been so only for German multi-national capital. The “secret” to Germany’s economic dominance within the European Union is cuts to German wages. Germany has undercut other countries that use the euro as their currency by suppressing wages, while the common currency has the effect of making German exports cheaper.

In France, the “Socialist” government of Francois Hollande has resorted to bypassing parliament to impose rules speeding up layoffs and cutting wages. And then there is Tony Blair in Britain, Jean Chrétien in Canada and so on.

German Greens invert definition of imperialism

The Greens are not the Social Democrats. But does that make them genuinely different? Recall that when the German Greens attained power, joining a Social Democratic government as a junior partner, they found themselves administrating Germany’s nuclear power plants despite their anti-nuclear stance, and eagerly joined in the bombing of Yugoslavia, a particularly unfortunate place for Germany to intervene militarily given the history of World War II in the Balkans. This was the handiwork of Joschka Fischer and his wing of the German Green Party, who liked to call themselves “realos” (realists) while dismissing those who sought to uphold the party’s ideals as “fundis” (fundamentalists).

The “realos” did not engage in Germany’s first post-World War II imperial adventure unwillingly. I was one of a small group of New York Greens who sent a letter to the German Green leadership asking them to honor party principle and not participate in the U.S.-led bombing of Yugoslavia. We received a response calling us arrogant and imperialists for daring to discuss their policies. Separately, a letter sent from The Greens/Green Party USA, the more progressive of the then two U.S. national organizations, asked the German Greens to “set an example” by opposing the bombing of Yugoslavia or participating in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. German Green leadership responded by dismissing the request as “a terrific exercise in ‘green imperialist’ thinking,” as “sectarian propaganda from afar” and as an “attempt to lecture and bully other parties.”

A U.S. sister organization asks for support of its opposition to U.S. war-mongering waged to open new lands for U.S. multi-national corporations to exploit and for this they are called imperialists and bullies!

Expecting socialism from such a party is futile. Remember, that swatted-away criticism wasn’t from U.S. Greens as a whole, but rather from the party’s left wing. The Greens are not a revolutionary grouping, and are and will be moved in the directions that social democratic parties are moved. That Dr. Stein in effect declared that a Democratic candidate who is in favor of many imperialist adventures and who supported the stationing of air force bombers against the will of his constituents is the savior of the United States amply demonstrates that the party has not shaken itself free of capitalism or properly analyzed the nature of imperialism.

One of the underlying reasons for that is its lack of strongly defined principles. The “10 Key Values” on which the party bases itself are vague, a lowest common denominator representing what could be agreed upon. Much of the party is led by middle class people who tend to vacillate. For now, the campaign of Senator Sanders has helped put socialism in a national conversation, so the switch to anti-capitalism in the party’s program can be interpreted more as a weather vane than a sudden move leftward. If the wind shifts, it can not be excluded that the platform will as well.

Expediency over principle

Senator Sanders simply fails to make the connection between austerity at home and imperialism abroad, and that is a serious error reflecting his lingering nationalistic thinking and an inability to make a proper critique of capitalism. Dr. Stein, I believe, does not share these deficiencies, but that she was willing to indulge them for the sake of an ill-fated, chimeric short-term expediency reflects an organization that is groping toward some version of a kinder and gentler capitalism, not one working toward socialism no matter what its platform states. And thus not a party that genuinely offers an alternative to the detested two-party system, one deeply rooted in the winner-take-all, single-seat district U.S. electoral structure.

And what choice is there between those two parties? On the surface, it would appear that there are drastic differences between the two. The demagogue Donald Trump offers a dark vision of turning back to the 19th century, when everybody not a White male possessing wealth knew their place. The technocrat Hillary Clinton, and other speakers at the Democratic Party national convention, offered soaring visions of a coming world of equality and hope, a kinder and gentler capitalism that will bring prosperity to all. President Barack Obama, in particular, gave a bravura performance. As I watched some of this, I couldn’t help but think “If only they meant it.”

However outstanding the oratory, the dismal results speak for themselves. Bill Clinton was the most effective Republican president the U.S. ever had, putting into law policies that Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush could only dream of doing. The Obama administration organized repression against Occupy Wall Street, unilaterally kills people with drones and protects Wall Street. Given her record as a senator, her pathetic foot-dragging on same-sex marriage until it was absolutely safe to be in favor, her role as the leading hawk of the Obama administration and her support of the Trans-Pacific Partnership as the “gold standard” of trade agreements until political pressure forced her into carefully worded opposition that leaves her maneuvering room, can it be reasonable to believe her administration will be substantially different?

The only route to a better world is through mass movements articulating clear goals. But instead of settling for reforms, the only way out of our present crises is to push beyond what is possible in the world’s present political systems. There are only two reasons for voting for Secretary Clinton instead of Mr. Trump — one, that voting for the latter is a vote for open racism, misogyny and immigrant-bashing embodied in a candidacy that carries with it the seeds of a potential fascist movement and, two, that it would be better to be on the offensive than the defensive. A Trump presidency would necessitate a multi-pronged movement against an all-around assault on civil rights just to maintain the crumbs left to us. Although a Clinton presidency is hardly destined to be a golden age, mass movements would be better able to go on the offensive as she will have to give lip service to the campaign promises she has been forced, through gritted teeth, to make to fend off Senator Sanders’ primary challenge.

Either way, what we do in the streets, what pressure movements bring to bear, will be decisive. Vote for a lesser evil if your conscience dictates (although I can’t bring myself to do so), but then get in the streets to push hard that lesser evil. There are no saviors on the ballot, not Bernie Sanders, not the Green Party. Some day we will have candidates we can vote for rather than against, but there is much work to do before we arrive at that day. That work is up to us.

Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178

They throw us out of our homes but we get ice cream

If there were any doubt that gentrification has come to my corner of Brooklyn, that was put to rest last weekend with the appearance of an ice cream truck. An ice cream truck painted with the logo and red color of The Economist. Yes, it was just as this reads. Free scoops of ice cream were being given out as a young woman with a clipboard was attempting to get people to sign up for subscriptions to The Economist.

Not that there had been any reason to harbor illusions about gentrification — the glass-walled, high-priced high rises sprouting like mushrooms after a rainstorm are merely the most obvious of multiple signs. The neighborhood where I live, Greenpoint, is notable as a Polish enclave, although a sliver along the East River was mainly populated by Puerto Ricans, Dominicans and artists two decades ago. In short, a place for people needing a (relatively) cheap (by New York City standards) place to live and which still possessed a working waterfront.

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

A march for Alex Nieto in San Francisco (photo via Justice for Alex Nieto website)

Not really the sort of folks who might be expected to read one of the two main flagships of the British finance industry. To watch, or participate in, an art parade, sure. That is the sort of procession one used to see. Or Mr. Softee, a local franchise with ice cream trucks (of the traditional sort) that played a jingle, over and over again, that had a way of getting inside your head, although not necessarily in a good way. One summer a Mr. Softee truck seemed permanently stationed on my block, leading me to write a poem on the uses of Mr. Softee’s ice cream other than eating and even as a talisman against an invasion of space aliens. As I said, the jingle has a way of getting inside your head.

But no matter how bizarre the sight of an Economist ice cream truck, there is nothing actually funny about gentrification. Not even a Financial Times ice cream truck in pink (although perhaps a little too close to the color of Pepto-Bismol for comfort there) would be funny. Systematic evictions, the wholescale removal of peoples, the wiping out of alternative cultures and the imposition of the soul-deadening dullness of consumerist corporate monoculture has become a global phenomenon.

Rent laws don’t help if your home can be torn down

This has accelerated to where not simply buildings are being emptied out, but entire complexes. In Silicon Valley, a San Jose apartment complex with 216 units is being demolished to make way for a luxury high-rise. The hundreds of residents there are protected from higher rents by local rent-control laws. But that law has a rather big loophole — the rent-controlled buildings can be torn down, and the residents kicked into the street with no recourse and no right to a replacement apartment. The San Francisco Bay Area as a whole lost more than 50 percent of its affordable housing between 2000 and 2013.

Gentrification literally kills — symbolized by the tragic death of Alex Nieto in San Francisco’s Mission District. A story brought to a wider audience in an essay by Rebecca Solnit, Mr. Nieto was a long-time resident of the Mission who was shot by police for being Latino in a local park — targeted because gentrifying techies, new to the neighborhood, decided Mr. Nieto was a threat and called the police, a tragic ending that was set in motion when a techie thought it amusing that his dog was menacing Mr. Nieto as he ate on a bench.

The Mission, as is well known, has long been a Latin American enclave. What is happening there, and in so many other neighborhoods in so many other cities, is no accident. Gentrification is a deliberate process. Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store mangers who wish to cater to the newcomers.

Gentrification is part of the process whereby people are expected, and socialized, to become passive consumers. Instead of community spaces, indoors and outdoors, where we can explore our own creativity, breath new life into traditional cultural forms, create new cultural traditions and build social scenes unmediated by money and commercial interests, a mass culture is substituted, a corporate-created and -controlled commercial product spoon-fed to consumers carefully designed to avoid challenging the dominant ideas imposed by corporate elites.

Dictatorships of favored industries

There are interests at work here. The technology industry has a stranglehold on San Francisco, for example, its techies with their frat-boy culture rapidly bidding up housing prices and making the city unaffordable for those who made it the culturally distinct place it has long been. New York City is a dictatorship of the real estate and financial industries; the process of gentrification there has progressed through a mayor who snarls and can’t be bothered to hide his hatred for most of the people who live there (Rudy Giuliani), a mayor who covered himself with a technocratic veneer (Michael Bloomberg) and a mayor fond of empty talk but who is the Barack Obama of New York (Bill de Blasio). They follow in the footsteps of Ed Koch, who showed his humanitarian streak when he declared, “If you can’t afford New York, move!”

Despite the reasoning of a federal judge who two years ago overturned a San Francisco ordinance designed to slow down speculation in housing that accelerates exorbitant rises in rents, those rents do not rise without human intervention. Not a single county in the U.S. has enough affordable housing for all its low-income residents, according to a report issued by the Urban Institute, which also reports that only 28 adequate and affordable units are available for every 100 renter households in the U.S. with incomes at or below 30 percent of their local median income.

The trend of rents taking up a bigger portion of income, although accelerating in recent years, is a long-term trend — one study found that rents have risen close to double the rate of inflation since 1938, and the prices of new houses at an even higher rate. Gentrification and the rising rents that accompany it are found around the world, from Vancouver to London to Berlin to Istanbul to Melbourne.

Just as markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the biggest industrialists and financiers, allowing the “market” to determine housing policies means that the richest developers will decide who gets to live where. The vision of former New York City Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg (enforced through policies kept in place by Mayor de Blasio) is of Manhattan and adjoining areas of Brooklyn becoming a gated city for the wealthy, with the rest of us allowed in to work and then leave. The most profitable projects for developers are luxury housing for millionaires and billionaires — interests coincide. Even when a local government makes a tepid attempt, under public pressure, to ameliorate the harshness of housing conditions, such as with San Francisco, it is swamped by the tidal pull of market forces.

This global phenomenon derives from a top-down global system, capitalism, under which housing is a commodity for private profit instead of a basic human right. A free scoop of ice cream really doesn’t compensate losing the ability to keep a roof over your head.

CETA’s specter of corporate dictatorship still haunts Canada, EU

The most tepid of blows for democracy was struck this week when the president of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, reversed himself and declared that the parliaments of the EU member states will vote on the “free trade” deal with Canada after all. Only a week earlier, President Juncker had dismissed the idea of any democratic input, insisting that the deal would be unilaterally approved by EU ministers.

The earlier intended diktat was no aberration, and the hasty reversal is much more a cosmetic exercise in public relations than a new-found respect for public opinion. The public has been excluded from the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) between Canada and the European Union from the start. There are reasons for that, centering on CETA being indistinguishable from the various “free trade” deals under way and, like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one that goes beyond even the North American Free Trade Agreement.

President Juncker first said on June 28 that there was no need for ratification by European parliaments — although he graciously conceded that EU governments  could “scrutinize” the CETA text. The problem, he said, was that “allowing national parliaments to have a say in the agreement will paralyze the process and put the bloc’s credibility at stake,” reported Deutsche Welle. Well, we can’t have messy democracy get in the way of corporate wish lists, can we?

Ottawa from the McKenzie Bridge (photo by Siqbal)

Ottawa from the McKenzie Bridge (photo by Siqbal)

Deutsche Welle reported on July 5 that Germany and France had insisted parliamentary votes be taken, with the German economy minister, Sigmar Gabriel, saying publicly that President Juncker’s comment was “incredibly stupid” and “would stoke opposition to other free trade deals.” No opposition to CETA here; merely discomfort that the lack of democracy had become too blatant. So it would be unrealistic to expect the Bundestag or any other parliamentary body to vote in the interest of their citizens without much more popular pressure being applied.

On the other side of the Atlantic, the Canadian government is putting a happy face on what will be a longer process than expected, saying the European reversal was “expected.” International Trade Minister Chrystia Freeland has has gone so far as to declare CETA a “gold-plated trade deal.” The government of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has followed a path very similar to that of U.S. President Barack Obama, quickly making a couple of easy gestures, such as installing a gender-equal cabinet, but allowing almost all of Stephen Harper’s draconian laws to stay in place. Pushing for CETA’s passage, despite its being negotiated in secret by the Harper régime, is consistent with that path.

Consultation process is window-dressing

The European Commission’s antipathy to democracy is also par for the course. The EU trade office, the European Commission Directorate General for Trade, set up a process of public consultation, but seems to have not paid any attention to it. A spokesman for the watchdog group Corporate Europe Observatory said of this window-dressing “consultation”:

“The Commission is not really serious about its own consultation. It’s more about image than substance. … I think those who chose to respond to the Commission’s consultation are being ridiculed.”

The “consultation” that counted during negotiations was that of multi-national corporations. As is standard with “free trade” agreements, laws and regulations that protect health, workplace standards and the environment will be considered barriers to trade, and ordered removed by secret tribunals with no accountability. Here again we have a farce. Following the conclusion of CETA negotiations, the German and French governments wanted changes made to the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism that enables corporations to challenge governments (but not the other way around).

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Grand Place, Brussels (photo by Wouter Hagens)

Did Berlin and Paris suddenly decide that ceding their sovereignty to secret tribunals, in which corporate lawyers who specialize in representing multi-national corporations sit in judgment, was maybe a bad idea? Not really. This was, like the entire process, a public relations problem. So instead of the traditional three-member tribunal picked from a roster created by an established corporate-aligned arbitration body, as is the case with complaints filed under NAFTA rules, CETA would have its own 15-member permanent tribunal. And, as an added bonus, there will even be an appeals tribunal. But who will sit on these two bodies? None other than the same corporate lawyers who would otherwise hear such cases.

Here’s the relevant passage, buried deep in the CETA text, at Article 8.26:

“The Members of the Tribunal … shall have demonstrated expertise in public international law. It is desirable that they have expertise in particular, in international investment law, in international trade law and the resolution of disputes arising under international investment or international trade agreements.”

Building on NAFTA’s anti-democratic principles

No different from the qualifications deemed necessary in existing “free trade” agreements or those proposed in the Trans-Pacific and Transatlantic partnerships. The wording guarantees that corporate lawyers or academics who specialize in existing tribunals and who have adopted the mindsets of their clients will adjudicate these decisions — in other words, a steady stream of decisions elevating the right of a corporation to make the maximum possible profit above all other human considerations. This dynamic has to led to NAFTA becoming a lose-lose-lose proposition for working people in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico, and CETA will accelerate this trend.

A report on the ramifications of CETA, prepared by Maude Barlow, says:

“With CETA and TTIP, for the first time, subnational governments (municipalities, provinces and states) will be subject to local procurement commitments that bar them from favouring local companies and local economic development. According to an analysis from the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, this will substantially restrict the vast majority of local governments in North America and Europe from using public spending as a catalyst for achieving other societal goals — from creating good jobs, to supporting local farmers, to addressing the climate crisis.”

Regulations would be “harmonized,” meaning reduced to the lowest level of protection that can be found, and likely lower than that. Ms. Barlow writes:

“CETA commits to a process whereby any differences in regulations between Europe and Canada, be they labour rights, environmental protection standards, food safety rules or tax laws, could be considered an obstacle to trade and suppressed. Both parties agree to share information of contemplated or proposed future regulations with one another even before they share them with their own elected parliaments in order to ensure they are not trade distorting. That means the other party could make changes to a piece of legislation before it has been seen by its own elected officials or the public.”

Pressure will be brought to bear to privatize water systems and other public utilities, and pharmaceutical prices for Canadians will rise significantly — costing as much as C$1.6 billion per year. As is customary with “free trade” agreements, there are no limitations on who or what constitutes an “investor.” The rights of corporations are delineated over hundreds of pages, but the chapters that deal with labor, health, safety and environmental standards use the usual provisional language. For example, in Chapter 21.7, “The Parties endeavour to cooperate and to share information on a voluntary basis in the area of non-food product safety.” When it comes to corporate demands, however, “must” and “shall” are the words used.

CETA, like its cousins TTP and TTIP, would cement into place the right of multi-national corporations to dictate to governments without any democratic input. This would be irreversible. Worse, the approval of CETA would provide fresh momentum for TPP and TTIP. We have no time to waste.

Brexit will only count if everybody leaves the EU

Britain can leave the European Union, but it would remain just as tied to capitalist markets as before. The decision to leave the EU is not a decision to leave the world capitalist system, or even disengage from Europe, and thus is not a decision that will lead to any additional “independence” or “sovereignty” outside of proponents’ imaginations.

What has been unleashed is the nationalism and xenophobia of right-wing “populism” — those on the Left celebrating a blow against elites might pause for thought. Yes, voting in defiance of what elites told them to do played its part in favor of a British exit from the EU, but nationalism, scapegoating of immigrants, and convincing people at the mercy of corporate power that less regulation is in their interest were dominant.

It is the far Right that been given a shot in the arm from Brexit — from the National Front in France and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the hard right within the Conservative Party. The Labour Party’s Blairites have also been emboldened, as the parliamentary coup against Jeremy Corbyn illustrates.

Sunset near Tromsø, Norway (photo by Moyan Brenn)

Sunset near Tromsø, Norway (photo by Moyan Brenn)

By no means is the above survey meant as any defense of the EU. It is a neoliberal project from top to bottom, an anti-democratic exercise in raw corporate power to strip Europeans of the gains and protections hard won over two generations. The EU has a similar function to the North American Free Trade Agreement on the other side of the Atlantic. European capitalists desire the ability to challenge the United States for economic supremacy, but cannot do so without the combined clout of a united continent. This wish underlies the anti-democratic push to steadily tighten the EU, including mandatory national budget benchmarks that require cutting social safety nets and forcing policies designed to break down solidarity among wage earners across borders by imposing harsher competition through imposed austerity.

So we should be celebrating anything that weakens the EU, yes? Perhaps. If this were the first blow to a visibly crumbling edifice, then surely yes. If there were a continental Left with a clear alternative vision to corporate globalization, then emphatically yes. But neither of these conditions are in force, so a more cautious response is called for. What is really needed is the destruction of the EU, for all countries to leave it, not only one.

Britain leaving by itself will lead to far less of a change than Brexit proponents hope, and not necessarily for the better. This is so because the conditions of capitalist competition will remain untouched.

Norway and Switzerland are out but are really in

Brexit proponents point to Norway and Switzerland as models of countries outside the EU but which retain trading access. But what those countries have is the responsibilities of EU membership without having any say.

Norway has the closer relationship of the two. Norway (along with Iceland and the micro-state of Lichtenstein) is part of the European Economic Area, essentially an agreement tightly binding those three countries to the EU. The EEA has been described as a “transmission belt” whereby the EU ensures that the EEA countries adopt EU laws as the price for being a part of the “free trade” area of the EU. That is a one-way transmission. Norway has no say in the creation of any EU laws and regulations.

The EEA treaty calls for Norwegian consultation, but Norway is not represented in any EU body. The agreement allows Norway to “suspend” any EU law that is disliked, but Norway has done so only once. By contrast, Norway’s parliament has approved EU legislation 287 times, most of them unanimously. This loss of sovereignty does not seem to be an issue for Norway’s political leaders. A 2012 Norwegian review of EEA membership concludes:

“This raises democratic problems. Norway is not represented in decision-making processes that have direct consequences for Norway, and neither do we have any significant influence on them. … [O]ur form of association with the EU dampens political engagement and debate in Norway and makes it difficult to monitor the government and hold it accountable for its European policy.”

The chair of the review committee noted that “There is no upside for Norwegian politicians to engage in European policy. … Because politicians are not interested in European policies, the media are not interested, and lack of media interest reinforces the lack of politicians’ interest.”

The minister of European Affairs in the current Conservative Party-led Norwegian government, Elisabeth Aspaker, confirms government ease with adaptation to EU law. Norway, in fact, has committed to voluntarily contribute €2.8 billion in aid to poorer EU countries for the period 2014 to 2021. In an interview with EurActiv, Minister Aspaker said:

“[W]e believe this is in our interest to improve social and economic cohesion in Europe. If Europe is doing well, Norway will also be doing well. If Europe is doing poorly or is destabilised, this will have a negative impact on Norway and the Norwegian economy. So this is why we believe we should involve ourselves beyond what is required under the EEA agreement.”

Switzerland has a separate agreement with the EU that is essentially a “free trade” agreement. Switzerland has a little bit of room to not adopt EU laws, but some of its goods are blocked from export to EU countries as a result. Switzerland, however, is under pressure to do as the EU dictates, and not only does Berne not have representation, it lacks even the toothless consultation that Oslo has.

Britain will still pay but have no say

Will Britain really be free of transfers to Brussels as the “Leave” campaign, dominated by the Tory right and UKIP, loudly claimed before the referendum? Their immediate back-tracking on that, and on their implied promise of significantly reduced immigration, provides an important clue. The Centre for European Reform, a neoliberal think tank that declares itself in favor of European integration, in a nonetheless sober analysis declares that Britain would pay a substantial amount to retain its access to European markets. In its report, “Outsiders on the inside: Swiss and Norwegian lessons for the UK,” the Centre writes:

“Britain would also have to pay a financial price, as well as a political price, for retaining access to the single market. As a relatively rich country, it would presumably be expected to pay special contributions to EU cohesion and aid programmes on a similar basis [as] the Norwegians and Swiss do. Currently, Norway contributes €340m a year to the EU. If multiplied by 12 for Britain’s much larger population, that rate would imply a contribution for the UK of just over €4 billion, or nearly half its current net contribution to the EU budget as a full member. That is a lot to pay for associate status of the club.”

It is possible to grumble that the foregoing is a product of a pro-EU perspective, but doing so would ignore that Britain’s firm place in the world capitalist system, geographical location and trading patterns dictate that it retain its commercial access to Europe. A post-Brexit Britain’s remittances to Brussels might be larger than even that postulated by the Centre for European Reform. An Open Europe analysis calculates that Norway’s net contribution to the EU works out to €107 per person, while Britain’s current contribution is €139 per person. It may not be realistic to expect a future British contribution to be substantially less than Norway’s.

Sea defenses on the South Coast near Winchelsea, England (photo by Atelier Joly)

Sea defenses on the South Coast near Winchelsea, England (photo by Atelier Joly)

Furthermore, the Open Europe analysis notes that gross immigration to Britain is significantly less than that of Norway, Switzerland and Iceland. Those countries each must accept the free flow of people (along with goods, services and capital) the same as any EU member. The scare tactics of UKIP and the Tory right were simply that, tactics. And the promise by Brexit proponents of the return of an golden age and the scare tactics of Brexit opponents that financial armeggedon would be at hand? A separate Open Europe report finds the most likely range of change to British GDP would be within minus 0.8 percent to plus 0.6 percent by 2030.

Not much of a change. The high end of that modest range assumes that Britain adopts “unilateral liberalisation” with all its major trading partners because “free trade” offers the “greatest benefit,” the Open Europe report asserts. But studies purporting to demonstrate the benefits of “free trade” agreements tend to wildly overstate their case through specious assumptions. These often start with models that assume liberalization can not cause or worsen employment, capital flight or trade imbalances, and that capital and labor will smoothly shift to new productive uses under seamless market forces.

Thus groups like the Peterson Institute invariably come up with rosy projections for “free trade” agreements, including fantasy figures for the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership that ignore the reality of job losses and resulting downward drag on wages. So it is perhaps not a surprise that the rosiest prediction here is for Britain to throw itself wide open to world markets, as if Britain wasn’t already one of the most de-regulated countries in the global North.

There are lies and then there are damned lies

A different sort of lack of realism pervaded the Brexit campaign, and their avowed desire to remain in the European single market surely has something to do with their rapid backtracking. Boris Johnson, a leading spokesperson for Brexit, certainly was far more cautious in his post-vote June 26 column in The Telegraph than during the campaign. He claimed, in the face of all evidence, that immigration fears were not a campaign factor, that the British economy is “outstandingly strong” and “nothing changes” except for a goodbye to European bureaucracy. Seldom do we see so much undisguised lying in a single article.

The response from the other side of the English Channel is illuminating. A commentary in Der Spiegel, undoubtedly reflecting official thinking in Germany, concludes by declaring, “The British have chosen out, and now they must face the consequences,” given with a favorable reference to hard-line Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble. The Guardian, quoting an assortment of European diplomats, provided this report:

“ ‘It is a pipe dream,’ said [one] EU diplomat. ‘You cannot have full access to the single market and not accept its rules. If we gave that kind of deal to the UK, then why not to Australia or New Zealand. It would be a free-for-all.’

A second EU diplomat said: ‘There are no preferences, there are principles and the principle is no pick and choose.’

The diplomat stressed that participating in the single market meant accepting EU rules, including the jurisdiction of the European court of justice, monitoring by the European commission and accepting the primacy of EU law over national law — conditions that will be anathema to leave advocates who campaigned on the mantra ‘take back control.’ ”

No wonder no Tory seems eager to start negotiations. Perhaps “more of the same but with less say” will not meet the expectations of those who voted for a British exit from the EU. Certainly, corporate ideology has done its job well of convincing some that corporations abandoning communities isn’t the fault of the corporations leaving nor the capitalism that rewards those abandonments. Consider this passage in The New York Times on June 28, quoting a blue-collar worker in an English city that voted heavily to leave:

“ ‘All the industries, everything, has gone,’ said Michael Wake, 55, forklift operator, gesturing toward Roker Beach, once black from the soot of the shipyards. ‘We were powerful, strong. But Brussels and the government, they’ve taken it all away.’ ”

Of course, the ceaseless competitive pressure of capitalism, ever ready to move to the place with the lowest wages and weakest regulations, is responsible for the hollowing out of Sunderland, England, and so many industrial cities like it. Britain adhering to EU rules on unrestricted mobility of capital as the price of retaining its European trade links will have exactly zero effect on that dynamic, and British entry into “free trade” agreements like the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership or similar deals will accelerate it. Governments sign such agreements, true, but they are acting under compulsion of powerful industrialists and financiers within and without their borders, conceding ever more sovereignty to multi-national capital as the price of remaining “competitive.”

The EU is a bonanza for multi-national corporations and an autocratic disaster for working people across Europe. But one country leaving and agreeing to the same terms as an “outsider” will effect no change whatsoever. An exit from capitalism is what the world needs, not from this or that capitalist treaty.

Killing ourselves with technology

What do we do when technology spirals out of our control? Or, to put it more bluntly, when does humanity’s ability to build ever more dangerous weapons become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that he didn’t know what weapons the third world war would be fought with, but the fourth would be waged with sticks and rocks. Even that classic of science fiction optimism, Star Trek, had humanity surviving a third world war. (Spock recounted the tolls of Earth’s three world wars in one episode.)

But we wouldn’t, would we? Or we might wish we didn’t. One story that has long lingered in my mind is an early Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety,” published in 1953, a time when the cold war was looking decidedly hot. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic France, in a world in which nuclear bombs and other equally nightmarish weapons have reduced most of North America and Europe to gray ash, with only a stubby tree trunk or a blasted wall dotting barren, depopulated landscapes.

NagasakiThe West’s governments have retreated to a bunker somewhere on the Moon, with scattered groups of soldiers huddled in hidden underground bunkers on Earth trying to “win” the world war. The land is uninhabitable because of a super-weapon developed by the U.S. — autonomous machines that hone in on any living being and rip it to shreds with whirring metal blades that make short work of whatever they encounter. The Western soldiers are protected by a belt that forces the death machines to back off. This is the weapon that turns the tide of the war into a U.S. advantage after years of “losing” the war against the Soviet Union.

But what is there to “win”? Much of the world is uninhabitable, not only because of the total destruction and residual radiation from countless bombs but from the new weapon. There is no alternative but to huddle in underground bunkers. As Dick’s story unfolds, the nightmare gets progressively worse — the weapons are not only autonomous, they are self-replicating and continually inventing newer and more deadly varieties of themselves. The last pockets of U.S. and Soviet soldiers in this slice of the French countryside are systematically killed as the machines learn to build robots difficult to distinguish from humans; robots allowed into bunkers as refugees, only to suddenly become unstoppable killing machines, and which don’t distinguish one side from the other.

Although shuddering at the mere thought of their deadliness, more than once a soldier tries to justify these ultimate weapons by saying “If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.”

If we didn’t shoot first, bomb first, destroy first, they would have. Whatever we do is justified. No culture has a monopoly on such thoughts. But such thoughts combined with the technological progress of the present day, rising nationalism and budget-busting military budgets leave the possible end of the human race a concrete possibility rather than merely a science fiction allegory.

Philip D. Dick was no prophet — no one is — but the nightmare world he created is chillingly tangible. What would happen if a technology of war was given autonomy? Such a weapon would be purposefully designed to kill swiftly and without mercy. The Pentagon has already begun a program designed to create autonomous weapons systems.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

But what if an artificial intelligence decided humans were in the way? Isaac Asimov famously had his robots programmed with three laws that blocked them from doing any harm to any human. The other side of this equation was explored in another Star Trek episode, when the Enterprise encountered a planet populated by advanced robots. The robots had killed their creators so far back in time that the robots couldn’t remember when, but had done so because their creators “had begun to fear us and started to turn us off.”

Technology need not be feared nor is it necessarily fated to escape all control. There are no von Neumann machines swarming everywhere (at least in this part of the galaxy!), and I am inclined to agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there is no evil technology, only evil applications of technology. Yet we live in a world where there are plenty of opportunities for technology to be used for evil purposes. We see some of this all around us as workplaces become sites of tightening surveillance and control, from computers that report on us to bosses, to the endless treadmill of work speedups. Technology is today a tool of capitalists, to extract ever more work out of us, to outsource work on scales never before possible and to facilitate ever faster and more numerous speculation in dubious financial instruments.

Technology in these hands also makes waging war easier — a drone operator can sit in a control room thousands of miles from the targets, safe from the carnage rained down on far-away peoples. If autonomous weaponry ever is unleashed, how could it be controlled? It couldn’t. Humanity won’t survive a third world war.

When we think of existential threats to our descendants’ world, we tend to focus on global warming, environmental degradation and the looming collapse of capitalist industrialism, of the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. That is properly so, and these do seem to be the gravest challenges that will face us across the 21st century. But technology applied to perfecting military killing machines is within the human imagination. Dick conjured this at the midpoint of the 20th century and he is far from the only one.

Yes, a warning and not a prophesy. But in a world of vast inequality, of an industrial and financial elite willing to do anything, even put the planet’s health at risk, for the sake of acquiring more wealth, the potential for evil applications of technology are ever present.

One more reason, if we didn’t already have enough, to bring into being a better world, one built for human need and environmental harmony rather than private profit. We then wouldn’t need to endure a mad pursuit of fetishized technological advancement; instead we could harness technology for the greater good as necessary. Barbarism remains the likely alternative.

Working collectively beats working for a boss

Cooperative enterprises are more stable than conventional capitalist enterprises, are more productive and create jobs that are more sustainable. And although the temptation to see coops as a magical solution to the ills of capitalism should be resisted, that they are better for workers than top-down enterprises shouldn’t be any surprise.

The better performance of cooperative enterprises, and the better results for workers, than that of traditionally run capitalist enterprises was recently summarized by the organization Co-operatives UK in its report, “What do we really know about worker co-operatives?” Written by Virginie Pérotin, the report analyzed international data on worker-owned and -run businesses in Europe, the U.S. and Latin America and compared the results with conventional businesses.

Moreover, the report said, conventional enterprises have something to learn from cooperatives: “in several industries, conventional companies would produce more with their current levels of employment and capital if they behaved like employee-owned firms.” Setting aside the unlikelihood of capitalists suddenly deciding to cede control and/or share profits, the preceding quote only makes sense. Why wouldn’t we be more productive if we were working for ourselves and had a say in the running of the business rather than toiling within the traditional concept of having to accept orders from above by people who have no interest other than squeezing as much out of you as possible?

Les Mees Cereal Food Cooperative PAD in France (photo by JPS68)

Les Mees Cereal Food Cooperative PAD in France (photo by JPS68)

The Co-operatives UK report defined a worker co-operative as an enterprise in which all or most of the capital is owned by employees (members) whether individually and/or collectively; all categories of employees can become members; most employees are members; in accordance with international co-operative principles, members each have one vote, regardless of the amount of capital they have invested in the business; and members vote on strategic issues in annual general meetings and elect the chief executive officer. Law firms were excluded because only some lawyers can be partners nor can any support staff.

The main findings of the report are:

  • Worker co-operatives are larger than conventional businesses and not necessarily less capital-intensive.
  • Worker co-operatives survive at least as long as other businesses and have more stable employment.
  • Worker cooperatives are more productive than conventional businesses, with staff working “better and smarter” and production organized more efficiently.
  • Worker co-operatives retain a larger share of their profits than other business models.
  • Executive and non-executive pay differentials are much narrower in worker co-operatives than in other firms.

More productive and more stable

There are benefits not only for the workers of the cooperative, but also for the local community:

“Labour-managed firms are probably more productive and may preserve jobs better in recessions than conventional firms, creating more sustainable jobs. Promoting worker co-operatives could therefore improve local communities’ employment, and therefore health and social expenditure and tax revenue. …

Employee control is thought to increase productivity, and in a labour-managed firm adjusting pay to preserve jobs makes sense for the employee-owners. Worker-members make the decision to adjust pay and they get the future profits (whereas it is more difficult for a conventional firm to elicit employees’ agreement for pay cuts in exchange for job preservation, since the firm’s owners have an incentive not to increase pay when business recovers).”

And certainly no cooperative is going to vote to ship itself thousands of miles away to a low-wage haven!

Interestingly, perhaps because the example of the factory takeovers in Argentina come readily to mind, cooperatives are more commonly formed from scratch, rather than as rescues of failing enterprises. In France, for example, 84 percent of worker cooperatives started from scratch with only seven percent a rescue of a failing conventional firm during the years 1997 to 2001, whereas in the same period, 64 percent of all firms started from scratch and 20 percent as a rescue of a failing conventional firm.

A significant reason for that is undoubtedly government support. The French and Italian governments provide support for cooperatives and this accounts for the relatively higher number of coops in those two countries. The Co-operatives UK report estimates Italy has at least 25,000 coops, France has 2,600 and Spain has 17,000, compared to only 500 to 600 in Britain.

Government support for coops in France and Italy

During the last years of the 2000s, about 200 new enterprises joined France’s national federation of cooperatives (Société coopérative et participative, or SCOP) annually, and the numbers continue to grow. According to Co-operative News, three-quarters of French coops remain in business after three years, while only two-thirds of French businesses overall last that long. The French government directly provides assistance:

“[W]orker co-operatives receive tax benefits from the French government. SCOPs do not have to pay the professional tax, which is 1.5% to 2.5% of revenues and income on worker shares is exempt from income taxes. There are also financial mechanisms for workers to use redundancy payments as part of wider financing package to buy-out and provide cash-flow for the business once they take it over.”

The federation also provides financing for capital needs through its own financial institution. Financing is also available for cooperatives in Italy.

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The taken-over Zanón ceramics factory, now known as FaSinPat, or Factory Without a Boss (photo by Guglielmo Celata)

The formation and sustainability of cooperatives in Italy are facilitated by the country’s Marcora Law. One aspect of this law is that laid-off workers can elect to have their unemployment paid in a lump sum to be used toward the formation of a cooperative, in conjunction with a minimum number of similarly situated workers. Cooperative members have technical assistance and financing available to them through a mutual fund run by cooperatives, to which all coops in turn contribute 3 percent of their net income. There are also banks that specialize in servicing cooperatives on advantageous terms.

The stability of coops in turn provides stability to the communities in which they operate, notes Co-operative News in a report on Italy’s Marcora Law:

“But beyond the economic and employment policies, the social dimension should not be underestimated: co-operation, by nature, is inextricably linked to geographical territory and, therefore, the re-launch of a business is almost always the re-launch of an important contribution to the economic regeneration of the area in which the enterprise operates; the assets of the business continues to be indivisible and inter-generational, which helps link the co-operative with its social reality.”

Continued survival in Uruguay

In Uruguay, mutual aid cooperatives have a long history — housing cooperatives began to be formed in 1966, with a rapid increase in them after the passage of the National Housing Act in 1968. These were suppressed during the years of military dictatorship in the 1970s and 1980s.

Worker-run cooperative enterprises constitute a tiny percentage of the economy in Uruguay. There was, however, a significant expansion in their numbers following a deep economic downturn there in 2002 and they have since gained some government support from the Frente Amplio government. These are often successful. A study finds that cooperatives have survival rates one-third above other enterprises. The study’s author, Gabriel Burdín, writes:

“[S]urvey evidence … in Uruguay indicates that [worker-managed firms] employ less supervisors compared with [conventional firms], rely more on mutual monitoring among co-workers and are more likely to introduce organizational innovations such as team work, quality groups, job rotation and consultation mechanisms.”

In Argentina, workers’ cooperatives were formed as acts of survival.

An organizer at the Zanón factory that is often seen as an exemplary model, Raúl Godoy, speaking at a Left Forum panel organized by Left Voice, told the audience of the long years of organizing necessary to have made the takeover possible. Even after the fall of Argentina’s military dictatorship, blacklists were maintained by employers during the era of formal democracy, and the Zanón factory had a “very harsh regime” for workers. Mr. Godoy reported that organizing had to be done “in almost conspiratorial fashion” outside the factory.

The Zanón activists built relationships with workers fighting in other places; sought to defend the rights of workers; built relationships with “picateros” (organized unemployed people who frequently use direct-action tactics), Mapuches, women and other workers; and did “important militant work that involved building confidence.” Thus when the factory was to be closed and the workers had to occupy it, and physically defend themselves from expulsion, they were able to be cohesive and to count on the assistance of the surrounding community.

The limits of the possible in Argentina

Although forming a cooperative was not necessarily their desired outcome, it represented what was possible at the time. Mr. Godoy told the Left Voice panel:

“There is no individual escape from the capitalist situation. We did not have the power to go beyond the cooperative form. It was the way we could maintain what we had accomplished.”

Argentine authorities have never been supportive of the recovered factories, and the new neoliberal government of Mauricio Macri has quickly slowed itself openly hostile to them. Thus Argentina’s cooperatives face a challenging future. “There is no solution within the capitalist system,” Mr. Godoy said.

Co-op symbolNonetheless, Argentine cooperatives have provided a demonstration of worker-run enterprises forging strong links with their communities, with mutual benefit to the enterprise and the community that supports the enterprise. The employees doing so first had to overcome their own doubts about themselves, but were able to draw on the experience of those who went first and created national organizations to represent the cooperatives and enable coordination among them.

It is no so simple matter for working people to acquire the confidence to run businesses themselves; pervasive capitalist ideology insists the businesses can only be run by a small elite, who are therefore entitled to collect hundreds or even thousands of times more in compensation than their employees. Yet how could any business function without the know-how and cooperation of its workforce?

That the working conditions within cooperatives are superior to traditional top-down enterprises is simply common sense. But cooperatives are small islands in a vast sea of capitalism, and can’t escape the pull of capitalist markets, no matter how humane an internal culture might be. Cooperatives in themselves don’t necessarily herald a coming socialist dawn; they are quite compatible with capitalism.

Cooperating with cooperatives

Even if cooperatives were to become the dominant enterprise model, that by itself would not eliminate competition. To create a truly new, better system, in an economy based on cooperatives, the cooperatives would have to cooperate with each other in a system with democratic accountability. (This does not preclude that certain key industries, such as banking, would be in state hands under democratic control.)

An alternative to capitalist markets would have to be devised — such an alternative would have to be based on local input with all interested parties involved. Such an alternative would have to be able to determine demand, ensure sufficient supply, allow for fair pricing throughout the supply chain, and be flexible enough to enable changes in the conditions of any factor, or multiple factors, to be accounted for in a reasonably timely and appropriate fashion.

For now, however, cooperatives must compete with capitalist enterprises with all the rigors of capitalist markets. Not even the world’s most successful cooperative, Mondragon, is exempt from this. That cooperatives tend to cut wages rather or dip into reserves rather than lay off workers, with an eye toward future better times in which pay cuts can be made up, may be more humane, but it also reflects that a cooperative enterprise that must compete is eventually forced to treat its own wages as a commodity.

If an economy is based on cooperatives, but those cooperatives compete against each other, the cooperative members will become their own capitalists and be forced to cut their wages to survive competition.

The intention here isn’t to pour cold water on the idea of cooperatives — they have tremendous value in demonstrating that working people don’t need bosses and that it is not necessary to work long hours for little pay so that a few people at the top can amass fortunes. The profits divided between industrialists and financiers derive from the difference in the value of what you produce from what you are paid.

Shouldn’t the people who do the work earn the benefits? Shouldn’t communities have stability instead of being subjected to the whims of far-off corporate bosses? In a better world, they would be.