Revised NAFTA shows every sign of being another Trump scam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate giveaways on financial services, IP

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

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

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

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

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

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

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

Don’t hold your breath for clean air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the Canadian government allow itself to be bullied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No reason for optimism in Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why aren’t our wages increasing?

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

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

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

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

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

Imbalance in power forces down wages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inadequacy of gross domestic product

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

World Bank solution for lack of jobs: Cut worker protections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Graphic by Real-World Economics Review)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tax cuts as a route to cutting Social Security

Conservatives are fond of saying that if you give a man a fish you can feed him for a day, but if you teach him how to fish you can feed him for a lifetime. This is supposed to tell us that social benefits, such as government programs, are bad for people. A much better example of conservative thought would be to say if I put a fence at the entrance to the pier and don’t let anyone else have access to the water, I can have all the fish for myself.

Let those peasants starve! Such a privatization of fish isn’t distant from the actual mechanics of class warfare as it is practiced, unfortunately.

Take the latest salvo in ongoing class warfare, United States edition: The coming assault on Social Security. Curious as to why the Republican Party’s mania for balanced budgets suddenly vanished? I mean, besides the mind-boggling hypocrisy we can expect from the Right. The immediate cause was to placate their billionaire donors who issued marching orders last June. A “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and, as The Guardian reported, the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network. Donors decreed that Republicans must pass “tax reform” and reverse the Affordable Care Act (because health care is a socialist plot?) or their checkbooks would be shut.

That the Trump/Republican tax plan will be a bonanza for the wealthiest is well documented by this point, with the “Corker kickback” not only giving “dissident” Republican Senator Bob Corker a multimillion-dollar payday to ensure his vote but giving Donald Trump himself tens of millions of dollars thanks to the special rule benefiting real estate speculators. But lurking behind this devastating corporate offensive is the little matter of the extra $1.5 trillion to be added to the deficit. When Republicans (probably assisted by the more spineless among the Democrats) decide in the near future that deficits matter after all, social benefits will be in the cross hairs, with Social Security and Medicare likely to be the prime targets.

In advance of this, we will be treated to a rerun of horror stories designed to convince United Statesians that Social Security is unsustainable. The claim will once again be that either we’ll have to accept steep cuts to Social Security payments or privatize it, putting our retirements in the hands of Wall Street. This has been the wet dream of financiers for decades, and as an added bonus, Wall Street is another major beneficiary of the Trump tax cuts. “Heads I win, tails you lose” is always the way of Wall Street and here we have it again, pocketing untold millions from tax cuts and then taking away your Social Security when the ensuing deficit mounts.

One way of promoting privatization is to allege that there isn’t enough being paid into the system to cover future claims. It is true that in recent years Social Security has been paying out more than it is taking in, although it is far from broke. Concomitant with that argument is the claim that everybody takes out much more than they pay into it over their working lives. But that isn’t necessarily true — a Congressional Budget Office (CBO) report, issued in 2006, found that people earning near the median income get back about the same as they pay into the fund. Low-income earners do receive more than they pay, but conversely high earns get back less. But Social Security is supposed to be progressive. Indeed, the CBO’s report says, “The Social Security benefit formula is designed to provide beneficiaries who had lower life-time earnings with monthly benefits that are higher, as a percentage of their lifetime average earnings, than those received by higher-earning beneficiaries.”

The corporate interest in gutting Social Security

Those saddled with a lifetime of low or median earnings have spent a lifetime being exploited on the job, so whatever extras are received are pennies on the stacks of dollars extracted from them. Remember that profits come from the usually wide gap between what you are paid and the value of your work, and what financiers haul in is skimming off that pot collected by employers dealing in tangible services and products. There is a symbiotic relationship between financiers and industrialists and although there is much wrangling between them (which is why corporate press releases so often proclaim “enhancing shareholder value” as an important part of their mission), they have a mutual interest in exploiting employees.

That mutual interest extends to gutting Social Security, even if financiers have the more immediate interest. The challenge of funding Social Security isn’t a difficult one. An important reason why that is so is because Social Security taxes are only imposed on income up to $127,200. Anything above that is untouched. So why not raise the bar? Senator Bernie Sanders has introduced a bill that would apply this tax to all income above $250,000. This plan would eliminate 80 percent of the projected shortfall, according to an analysis from the Social Security office of the Chief Actuary. For whatever reason, Senator Sanders’ plan wouldn’t touch income in between. Taxing all income would raise still more money.

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Another method is suggested by Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research. He argues that a payroll tax increase of four percent would be sufficient to fully fund Social Security and Medicare for another 75 years. He acknowledges that such an increase would be difficult for many workers, but he estimates that the loss of income from decades of upward distribution of income to be 40 percent — a loss ten times greater. That figures comes from the gap between the rate of earnings increases for working people and the rate of increases in productivity. He explains:

“[U]pward redistribution over this period has reduced wage growth by more than 40 percentage points. In short, our children are 40 percent poorer than they would otherwise be because of the money going to people like Bill Gates and Steve Zuckerberg rather than ordinary workers.

So by very conservative estimates, a typical person in their twenties or thirties has seen their income reduced by more than 40 percent because of all the money redistributed to those at the top. However, the generational warriors want young people to be upset about the possibility that a bit more than one-tenth of this amount could be used to pay for their parents’ and their own Social Security and Medicare. (This upward redistribution is also responsible for about half of the projected shortfall in Social Security, as more income going to profits and high-income workers escapes the Social Security tax.)

It is also important to understand that government action was at the center of this upward redistribution. Without government-granted patent monopolies for Windows and other Microsoft software, Bill Gates would probably still be working for a living.”

A trillion dollars for Wall Street

Privatizing Social Security would additionally cut benefits because financiers would take hefty cuts. The administrative costs of the retirement portion of Social Security (the bulk of the program) is 0.4 percent. In contrast, Dr. Baker reports, “even relatively well-run privatized systems, like those in Chile or the United Kingdom, are 10–15 percent of benefits.”

Such ratios were Social Security privatized would cost nearly $1 trillion in a decade, he calculates — $1 trillion taken from Social Security benefits and diverted into Wall Street’s bottomless pockets. Consider that the standard payment for hedge-fund managers is to receive an annual fee of two percent of the value of the total assets under management and 20 percent of any profits. The fee gets paid even when the fund loses money. In 2014, the top 25 hedge-fund managers hauled in $11.6 billion despite collectively underperforming the stock market.

Fees for ordinary money managers are not this high, and a privatized Social Security wouldn’t pay fees as exorbitant as those charged by hedge funds. But it would still be huge sums of money. That is why Wall Street has long lusted to get its hands on it.

U.S. Treasury Department under new management (photo by takomabibelot)

Then there is the matter of returns. Would gambling Social Security funds on the stock market really result in better results? Not necessarily. In studying the stock market’s long-term returns for an article I wrote a decade ago, not long after the 1990s bubble had burst, I found that you would have to time your retirement to the peaks of bubbles. When adjusted for inflation, the Dow Jones Industrial Average — the ultimate index of stock-market health and which has its components continually adjusted so as to replace low-performing stocks with high-performing ones — was below its 1929 peak as late as 1991. Here are some long-term results:

  • The Dow peaked at 995 in February 1965. Adjusted for inflation, that was 42 percent more than it was worth at its previous bubble peak in 1929, not so impressive when it took 36 years to get there.
  • The ensuring crash bottomed out in December 1974. At this point, the Dow, adjusted for inflation, was worth only half of what it was worth in 1929 and little more than one-third of its 1965 peak.
  • The most recent crash bottomed out in March 2009, at which point the Dow was three percent below its 1965 peak, adjusted for inflation.

The stock market is edging into bubble territory as we begin 2018, and stocks are priced high by historical standards. The basic measure of stock-price sustainability is the price/earnings ratio of the S&P 500, representing the largest companies on U.S. stock markets. The ratio’s average, calculated back to 1872, is 14. Prior to the 1990s bubble, the S&P 500 P/E ratio rose above 20 four times; each time it subsequently fell below 10. A standard measurement of the P/E ratio today is 26. One way to understand that number is that an investor is essentially paying $26 for each dollar of corporate profit, which is considered too high. It is true that the P/E ratio has been almost continually above the historic average since the 1990s bubble, but nonetheless this more recent rise indicates that a stock collapse is looming.

Goodbye retirement, goodbye disability payments

There aren’t any free lunches. A Center on Budget and Policy Priorities study notes that Social Security is not only a retirement program, but also an insurance program that could not be duplicated if privatized:

“Social Security is not only a retirement program but also an insurance program. About one-third of payroll taxes go to fund Social Security disability insurance and survivors insurance. Comparable insurance products would be extremely expensive to buy in the private insurance market, if one could even find such products. Social Security also provides an inflation-indexed annuity: Social Security benefits are adjusted each year for inflation and are paid until death, regardless of how long a beneficiary lives. These features of Social Security provide a valuable form of insurance against the risks of inflation and of outliving one’s savings.”

Nor would sinking funds into stock markets necessarily be a wise gamble, the Congressional Budget Office has said:

“Government investment in private securities does not offer a free lunch: although it would increase the expected value of budgetary resources, it would do so at the cost of exposing the government, future taxpayers, and beneficiaries of federal programs to greater risk. If that risk was taken into account, the returns on private securities would be no greater than the returns on government securities. … Using risky investment portfolios to finance spending by government agencies could weaken budgetary control of federal financial resources.”

That last item, however, is a lure of Republicans and their corporate masters. Create a larger deficit, cut social spending, repeat. This reduces lifespans, reducing payouts through Social Security and corporate retirement plans, for those lucky enough to still have one. Earlier deaths has already been declared a “silver lining” by U.S. corporations.

And let us not forget the sometimes bipartisan nature of Social Security cuts — Barack Obama had proposed a change to the way inflation is calculated for the determination of cost-of-living increases that would have resulted in lower adjustments for inflation, effectively a small yearly reduction. He did so as a bargaining chip in an effort to force Republicans in Congress to agree to modest tax increases. Ultimately, a Democratic Party revolt, spurred by grassroots opposition, forced an end to this plan, but this episode does serve as a reminder that social movements, not hoping for political office holders to do good, is the key to being able to retire some day.

In Chile, in 1998, the government actually asked workers not to retire because of a sustained economic downturn. (The Chilean retirement system was forcibly privatized under Pinochet). Think it can’t happen elsewhere? Keep in mind these words by Stephen Moore of the far right groups Club for Growth and Cato Institute: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.”

You’ll work until you drop, but Wall Street will profit.

China maintains its capitalist course

The Western corporate media have been fixated on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s hold on power, speculating on if he will follow the Communist Party’s tradition of leaders stepping down after two five-year terms. The larger story, however, is that there appears there will be no change in course, at least for now, for China.

Perhaps the fixation on President Xi is due to the corporate media’s tendency to focus on personalities over issues, or perhaps because it could be presumed in advance that China would not become a poster child for the International Monetary Fund or World Bank. To be fair, Chinese institutions have strongly emphasized President Xi’s leadership, continually referring to him as the “core” of the party’s central committee and celebrating that “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era” has been enshrined in the party constitution.

The way in which “Xi Jinping Thought” has been enshrined, however, indicates that the party and state leader is stressing continuity with his predecessors. The resolution by the 19th Chinese Communist Party Congress adopting the report of the outgoing central committee said this in the first paragraph:

“The Congress holds high the banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics and is guided by Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, the Scientific Outlook on Development, and Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era.”

Forbidden City, Beijing (photo by Adamantios)

Looking past the ritualistic style, what is noteworthy about the above paragraph is that every Chinese leader is mentioned. The “Scientific Outlook on Development” is the product of President Xi’s predecessor, Hu Jintao, who declared that China must end its reliance on cheap labor and invest more in science and technology. The “Theory of Three Represents,” laid down by former President Hu’s predecessor, Jiang Jemin, declares that the party should represent the most advanced productive forces, the most advanced culture and the broadest layers of the people. That is an assertion that the interests of different classes are not in conflict and that the party can harmoniously represent all classes simultaneously.

On the surface, that lineup of leaders seems unremarkable, but it represents a change from four years ago, when the party did not formally mention the “Scientific Outlook on Development” and attached the adjective “important” to the “Three Represents.” Combined with the announcement four years ago that the party declared “the role of the market” in China to be “decisive,” a switch from “basic,” this was a strong indication that China would further its integration into the world capitalist system, albeit on its own terms.

A continuing commitment to the capitalist road

The lines laid down by presidents Jiang and Hu, following the turn toward capitalism by Deng Xiaoping, would seem quite contradictory to “Mao Zedong Thought” or, for that matter, Marxism-Leninism. What can be reasonably inferred here is that the party will continue to use Mao as one source of its authority. That all post-revolutionary rulers are included in the list of enshrined theories, with none elevated above any other, indicates that the party is stressing continuity.

If there are to be any significant changes, particularly to economic policy, they are unlikely to be revealed before next autumn, when the third plenum of the new central committee will likely be held. Third plenums, generally held about a year after a congress, are often the occasions for major announcements, as was the case in 2013, when the above switch to making the market “decisive” was announced. (A plenum is a meeting of the entire central committee, generally scheduled at precise intervals.)

Also noteworthy in the congress’ resolution of October 24 was an acknowledgment that the party has to give greater priority to consumer interests and the environment:

“[T]he Congress forms the major political judgments that socialism with Chinese characteristics has entered a new era and the principal contradiction in Chinese society has evolved into one between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life.”

The party, despite the heavy stress on “Xi Jinping Thought,” also sought to dampen hopes that the growth in living standards would be rapid:

“The Congress elaborates on the Party’s historic mission in the new era and establishes the historical position of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era. It sets forth the basic policy for upholding and developing socialism with Chinese characteristics in the new era, and establishes the goal of securing a decisive victory in building a moderately prosperous society in all respects and then embarking on a journey to fully build a modern socialist China.”

The resolution, which repeatedly referred to the goal of a “moderately prosperous society,” also stressed the party will firmly hold onto its leading role, uphold the unity of China and strengthen its military. As to the direction in which the party intends to lead, the list of goals in the resolution give a strong hint. Among the listed goals are “pursue supply-side structural reform as our main task” and “endeavor to develop an economy with more effective market mechanisms.”

Although “supply-side” in this context certainly is not meant in precisely the same way that “supply-side” was meant during the Reagan administration in the United States, it is not without content, either. The Chinese business magazine Caixin, in a commentary about the congress, had this to say:

“The report said that ‘in resource allocation, the market plays the decisive role and the government plays its role better.’ This line shows unwavering determination to move toward market reform. But we should remain vigilant about how, under China’s current system, in terms of specific administration, the government plays a decisive role, while the market is in a subordinate role. Supply-side reform needs to accomplish five tasks — cutting overcapacity, lowering inventory, deleveraging, lowering costs, and improving economic weak spots. ‘Government failure’ cannot be entirely absolved in causing these problems.”

Party acknowledges “unbalanced and inadequate development”

So, again, more capitalism for the Chinese Communist Party despite its insistence that “socialism” is its guiding ideology. A commentary by the official Chinese press agency, Xinhua, offered these passages:

“The genesis of China’s development miracle is socialism, not other ‘-isms.’ The country succeeds not by rigidly copying the original ideas of scientific socialism, but by adapting it to China’s reality. Xi Jinping’s thought will be China’s signature ideology and the new communism. … China is now strong enough, willing, and able to contribute more for mankind. The new world order cannot be just dominated by capitalism and the West, and the time will come for a change.”

The reality is that China is ever more integrated into the world capitalist system, and has built its economy on being the world’s sweatshop — rendering it highly dependent on exports, particularly to the West. The party would like to follow the path of Japan, which started out making cheap consumer products before moving up the value chain to become a producer of high-end electronics and other technological products. Traveling such a path is a necessity if the party is to fulfill its goal of raising Chinese living standards and making China an undisputed global power.

Shanghai (photo by dawvon)

The reference to the “principal contradiction” of China being “between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing needs for a better life” is an acknowledgment that China has made insufficient progress. A few numbers will illustrate that.

Household consumption in China remains far below the level of advanced capitalist countries. According to World Bank data, household consumption accounted for 37 percent of China’s gross domestic product in 2015, barely improved from 36 percent in 2007. (Household consumption is all the things that people buy for personal use from toothbrushes to automobiles.) To put that number in perspective, household consumption was as high as 71 percent during the Mao era and above 50 percent as recently as the early 1980s. In comparison, household consumption in advanced capitalist countries tends to be between 58 and 72 percent of GDP.

China’s rapid growth has been overly dependent on investment, and given the overcapacity of many Chinese basic industries and the rash of ghost cities constructed, the ability to continue driving growth through investment is questionable. Here again, data from 2015 is the latest available, when investment accounted for 45 percent of Chinese GDP, down only slightly from a high of 48 percent in 2011. To put that in perspective, the world average is 24 percent.

Wages rising but are still very low

Concurrent with the over-reliance on investment is an ongoing real estate bubble and increasing debt. For the period 2007 to 2014, only four countries saw their debt increase faster than China. A 2016 Financial Times report said that more than 60 percent of Chinese bank loans were directly or indirectly tied to real estate. That any downturn or stagnation remains well into the future is demonstrated in a sudden and pronounced drop in the Shanghai stock market in 2015, ending a stock bubble, not having much of a dampening effect on the economy. Nonetheless, a stock-market bubble is no panacea for low wages or a shredded social safety net.

And wages remain low in China, despite the gains of recent years. The minimum wage in Shanghai, the highest in China, more than doubled from 2010 to 2016, but was still the equivalent of US$327 per month. The minimum wage in most major cities is US$239 and in poorer provinces can be lower still. These increases, the product of labor struggle, may be coming to an end for the near future, however, reports the China Labour Bulletin:

“Current central government policy was clearly stated by Vice Minister for Human Relations and Social Security, Xin Changxing, in July 2016 when he said that because: ‘Our advantage in labour costs is no longer as clear-cut as before; we should ease the frequency and scale of wage increases so as to preserve our competitive advantage.’ ”

Garment manufacturers are relocating to Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam, where wages are even lower. The Bulletin reports that Chinese minimum wages (which are set locally) should be between 40 and 60 percent of the local average wage, but in most cities it is less than 30 percent. The gap between low-paid workers and those earning the average wage has been growing, nor are overtime rules enforced.

The Bulletin concludes its report on Chinese working conditions in sobering terms:

“A superficial look at China’s major cities seems to show a reasonably affluent society: young, hard-working middle class families, determined to make a better life for themselves. Look beneath the surface however and you soon realize that the goods, services and lifestyle products that these middle class families aspire to are all produced, marketed, and delivered to their homes by an army of over-worked and under-paid working class labourers.”

Socialism or sweatshops?

If socialism is defined as a system of political and economic democracy in which industry and agriculture are brought under popular control so that production is oriented toward human, community and social need rather than private accumulation of capital, and all human beings have a say in decisions that affect their lives and communities, integration into the world capitalist system on the basis of low-paid sweatshop labor allowing massive profits for foreign multi-national corporations is not socialism, whether or not with “Chinese characteristics.”

Western corporations, led by Wal-Mart, are responsible for production being moved to China. China did not “take” anybody’s job; it became the favored destination of the transfer of production by taking advantage of capital’s relentless desire to relocate to locations with the lowest wages and most permissive regulations. Japan and South Korea were able to move up the value chain, develop industry and become new members of the Global North. China’s intention is to do this, but it is by no means certain that there is room for it to do so.

China, because of its size, is able to extract concessions from foreign capital and assert more control than other developing countries, and thus is in the unique position of entering the capitalist system on its own terms. But the market has its own “logic,” one that no country is able to escape.

There is considerable speculation that Chinese leaders are playing a long game, using the capitalist system to develop with the intention of later nationalizing and moving again to a socialist system. A healthy skepticism toward such scenarios is more than warranted. Wealth is being accumulated. The power the concentration of capital inevitably builds, and the commonality of interests of capital across borders, are not something that can removed via a decree.

However much China’s leadership might believe it can control and harness the market, there are always interests at stake. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest industrialists and financiers, and, in the absence of sustained, organized resistance, those interests are decisive, with all the attendant exploitation.

The rapid minting of billionaires in China, the party’s welcoming of those with wealth, and the wealth acquired by those related to party officials, means that the material interests of the Chinese Communist Party is more capitalism.

Creating a participatory system of economic democracy in Rojava

Out of repression has emerged one of the world’s most interesting experiments in democracy. And by democracy, what is meant is not the formal capitalist variety of elections every few years in which consumption of consumer products is substituted for participation in societal decisions.

Surrounded on all sides by hostile forces intent on destroying them, in a part of the world that Western pundits claim can only be ruled by dictators, the Kurds of Syria are intent on creating a society more democratic than any found in North America or Europe. This is not simply a matter of creating institutions of direct and communal, as opposed to representative, democracy but, most importantly, democratizing the economy. In the words of the imprisoned Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, “In self-government, an alternative economic system is necessary, one that augments the resources of society rather than exploiting them, and in that way satisfies the society’s multitude of needs.”

The many sides of that equation are explored in detail in Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan,* a study of Rojava’s experiment in radical democracy by three activists who spent months in Rojava studying the society being constructed, and who themselves have been involved in Rojava in various capacities. One of the authors, Anja Flach, spent two years in the Kurdish women’s guerrilla army. Her co-authors are Ercan Ayboga, an environmental engineer, and Michael Knapp, a historian. Although the three authors make clear their sympathies for the Rojava revolution, their book is not hagiographic, but rather a serious analysis of a developing process.

The Kurdish people are split among four countries — Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey — and have long suffered persecution in each of them. Their persecution in Turkey is well known; successive Turkish governments have attempted to disrupt organizing, obliterate Kurdish culture and ban the Kurdish language through waves of lethal military crackdowns. Mr. Öcalan escaped Turkey after a military coup that led to hundreds of thousands of Kurds thrown into jail; he and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) he leads were granted asylum in Syria. In the late 1990s, under Turkish pressure, Syria expelled the PKK, and a year later, Mr. Öcalan was abducted from a Greek consulate (a kidnapping believed to be a CIA operation) and has been imprisoned in Turkey since.

But that the Syrian régime found the PKK a useful lever against Turkey for a time did nothing to ameliorate ruthless repression against the Kurds of northern Syria. The Ba’ath Party of the Assad family implemented a policy of “Arabization” against Kurds and the other minority groups of the areas now comprising Rojava. Kurds were routinely forcibly removed from their farm lands and other properties, with Arabs settled in their place. Bashar al-Assad, in contrast to the misplaced hopes that he might institute a thaw upon succeeding his father in 2000, instituted a harsh neoliberalism. Mass privatization, suppression of unions, the shredding of the social safety net and a channeling of investment capital into tourism and away from production had a particularly devastating impact on Rojava.

After the uprisings in Syria against the Ba’ath régime began in 2011, the struggle quickly became militarized. The Kurds avoided being overrun by the Syrian army or the various Islamist forces because of their own organization. Grassroots organizing had been done steadily since the 1990s, and when local government collapsed following the 2011 uprisings, that organizing, a nascent council system and the formation of militias enabled the carving out of an autonomous territory. People surrounded government buildings, demanding the surrender of all arms while guaranteeing the safe passage of all Syrian government officials. This tactic worked, quickly sweeping through all three “cantons” of Rojava. (A canton is a portion of a province, perhaps bigger than a U.S. county or French department but smaller than a U.S. state or a French region.)

The aim here was to create a democratic territory through peaceful means. This takeover was accomplished nearly without bloodshed, although Rojava’s militias have had to repeatedly repulse attacks from Islamic State, al-Qaeda and other hostile forces, as well as fend off the sometimes active hostility of the Turkish government, which has allowed Islamic State terrorists to freely cross the border and re-arm themselves. Sadly, Rojava has also been subjected to periodic blockades and political harassment from the two corrupt parties that control Iraqi Kurdistan, which borders Rojava to the east.

The system of democratic autonomy

The basic units of Rojava’s organization are councils and commissions. These constitute the building blocks of Rojava’s system of “democratic confederalism.” The authors of Revolution in Rojava explain this concept in this way:

“Democratic Confederalism aims at achieving the autonomy of society, that is, a society that administers itself through small, self-governing decentralized units. It entails a permanent social revolution, reflected in every aspect of social structure. All institutions are self-organized and self-administered.” [page 44]

Concurrent with that concept is “democratic autonomy,” which is defined as “the autonomy of the commune” in an “anti-centrist, bottom-up approach.” The commune is the basic unit of self-government, the base of the council system. A commune comprises the households of a few streets within a city or village, usually 30 to 400 households. Above the commune level are community people’s councils comprising a city neighborhood or a village. The next level up are the district councils, consisting of a city and surrounding villages. The top of the four levels is the People’s Council of West Kurdistan, which elects an executive body on which about three dozen people sit. (“West Kurdistan” is the portion of Kurdistan that lies within Syria.)

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

Taking with upmost seriousness the full liberation of women (also expressed in the all-women’s militias that fight on the front lines the same as men’s units), the women’s commissions are tasked, inter alia, with adjudicating cases of patriarchal violence and forced marriage. An umbrella women’s movement organizes women across Rojava, taking on activities including educational work, publishing a newspaper, pushing for legislation, and investigating and documenting domestic violence. This work has roots in the 1990s, when PKK women organized door to door. When organizing by men was heavily suppressed after 2004, women organized clandestinely, giving them experience.

Making women’s participation central is of course a glaring contrast with the Islamist groups and the so-called moderate groups of the Free Syrian Army. Every organization in Rojava must include at least 40 percent women. Asya Abdullah, co-chair of the Democratic Party of Kurdistan, Rojava’s largest party, said the revolution is conscious of not repeating the mistakes of the past, in which women’s liberation was often put on the back-burner. She said:

“We’re a still long way from achieving our goals. … But we’ve learned from the failed revolutions in the past. They always said, ‘Let’s carry the revolution to success, and then we’ll give women our rights.’ But after the revolution, of course, it didn’t happen. We’re not repeating that old story in our revolution.” [page 70]

Creating a new justice system

As with many governmental functions, the judicial system has had to be rebuilt from scratch. Peace committees seek consensus through dialogue at the commune and neighborhood levels. The goal is rehabilitation rather than punishment. Most cases are settled in peace committees, but felonies and those cases not adjudicated in the peace committees are assigned to district-level people’s courts. There are separate women’s peace committees that handle cases of male violence against women in which all-women panels hand down decisions.

Parallel to these systems of democratic self-activity is the Democratic-Autonomous Administration. This is essentially a dual government, created primarily for foreign governments. Because Rojava’s councils have been ignored elsewhere, the DAA was created so that world’s governments would have a government they could recognize. Each of three Rojava cantons has a DAA, which includes an elected parliament and ministries that are distributed among the various political parties so that each has at least one minister. These, however, rely on the earlier-established council system and work with the councils. The division of labor between the councils and the DAA has yet to be worked out, nor how to reconcile a dual-government structure.

Civil society associations also play large roles in Rojava. These groups perform educational work, organize grassroots activity and place representatives on the councils. Many of these associations are occupation groups. In contrast to what the Kurdish movement sees as the state existing as a means of extracting profits for favored social groups or classes and inculcating a fixation on authority, civil society is substituted for a state. The authors write:

“The Kurdish movement, in its anti-statism, thus draws on [Antonio] Gramsci’s concept of civil society in proposing to strengthen civil society for the purpose of overthrowing the state. In contrast to the abortive Bolshevist strategy of seizing state power, Öcalan posits, like Gramsci on the ideological, political struggle for civil society, a ‘war of position’ beyond military confrontation. Through empowerment, a civil society tries to free itself from the hands of the state and its religious, economic and administrative structures and so to build a counter-hegemony and to activate individual parts of the society to represent civil society in councils and communes.” [pages 122-123]

Economic development on a democratic basis

This democratic concept extends to the economy. Food and fuel prices are controlled, working conditions are negotiated among several interest groups, workers’ rights are defended and the pursuit of profit maximization is blocked to avoid the destructive tendencies of capitalism. The principals of the “communal economy” are described in this way by the Union of Civil Society Associations:

“The state system exploited the society’s labor power and trampled the rights of workers. Under Democratic Autonomy, civil society associations solve problems according to principles of moral politics and an ecological society. The unity of society is the foundation. These associations hold society together. They ensure the unity that is needed to satisfy everyday social needs. Of course, they do this as part of democratic, communal life. They are how society organizes itself.” [page 124]

Rojava, the authors write, was a “quasi-colony” under the Ba’ath régime. There was an enforced agricultural monoculture with no local production allowed. Oil, gas and agricultural products were shipped out, and canned food and finished products from elsewhere shipped in. Not even trees were allowed to be planted. So although there is much productive farmland, Rojava could not come close to self-sufficiency in food as all farmers were forced to raise wheat or cotton. Farming is now being re-oriented toward local needs so that a much higher percentage of food can be produced locally; this is partly a necessity as the area is often blockaded by neighbors.

The city of Qamishli in Syrian Kurdistan

The councils, already in existence, organized the economy to prevent a collapse after Rojava’s liberation. Price controls, measures against hoarding food and medicine, agricultural diversification, planting fruit trees, and building grain mills and industry were implemented and are ongoing projects. Rojava’s economic underdevelopment is seen locally as a disadvantage and an opportunity. It is the latter because, the authors write, it “allows the traditional social collectivism of the Kurdish people to be channeled positively to build a new, alternative economy.” [page 197]

Much of this new economy rests on cooperative enterprises. Cooperatives are required to be connected to the council system; independence is not allowed. Cooperatives work through the economics commissions to meet social needs. Much of this cooperative production is in agriculture or small shops but there are plans to create more industry to meet local needs. Thirty percent of all coop proceeds must be given to local self-government administrations. And this is seen as a route to eliminating unemployment. The authors write:

“The cooperative system is solving the problem of unemployment. ‘Through the communes and cooperatives and the needs-based economy,’ explains [Afrin University chair] Dr. [Ahmad] Yousef, ‘each person can participate in production in his own way, and there will be no unemployment. Where communes are established, it will become clear that unemployment is a result of the capitalist system itself.’ ” [page 206]

Such a system can’t work without an educated population:

“To ensure that society is able to make decisions about the use of water, soil, and energy, information about the society’s needs are taken out of the hands of the experts and socialized. Education is critical for this purpose. ‘We school the people in how cooperatives can form a social economy,’ says [Union of Kurdish Communities leader Cemil] Bayık. ‘We are establishing economics academies to advance this.’ ” [page 207]

Surrounded by a hostile world

All this is at odds not only with the existing institutions and state organizations surrounding them, but with the capitalist powers as well. How can Rojava’s experiment possibly survive in a such a hostile world? The authors of Revolution in Rojava strongly urge the building of Left support sufficiently strong to influence North American and European governments. The people of Rojava, the authors stress, are in need of material support from the West at the same time they are acutely aware of the dangers of a U.S. embrace.

The idea that Rojava’s acceptance of Western aid is a “betrayal” is called “naïve” by the authors, drawing parallels with Republican Spain of the 1930s. Describing Rojava as an “anti-fascist project,” they note that the capitalist West turned its back on the Spanish Revolution, allowing fascism to triumph.

The danger of U.S. material support, of course, can’t be underestimated, given that a communal economy oriented toward people’s needs rather than private profit is anathema to U.S. corporate and government power, which have teamed up to throttle many a revolution attempting to transcend capitalism or simply assert independent development. Moreover, the U.S. wrongly classifies the PKK, which seeks to implement the same system as their fellow Kurds in Syria, as “terrorists” and has long supported Ankara’s scorched-earth repression of Kurds.

In the short term, material support from the West is needed if Rojava is to successfully defend itself from Islamic militants and the Turkish government. Syrian (and Turkish) Kurds, who see their model as one that can be expanded across Syria and the entire Middle East, have their eyes open to the narrowness of the path that must be thread through these contradictions. Nor are their eyes closed to their unsolved problems of pollution, water, waste management, and the stop-gap use of diesel generators that is causing serious environmental problems.

The book ends on an optimistic note, readapting Rosa Luxemburg’s famous phrase to declare the future is “communalism or barbarism.” Although brief discussions of Thomas Jefferson, Luxemburg and Gramsci (who was no opponent of the Bolsheviks) are poorly argued and their views misstated, this is at most a minor irritant in a work ably presenting the first comprehensive study of Rojava’s inspiring experiment in mass-participation democracy. Revolution in Rojava is an excellent introduction to a revolution that is not yet well known but should be.

* Ercan Ayboga. Anja Flach and Michael Knapp (translated by Janet Biehl), Revolution in Rojava: Democratic Autonomy and Women’s Liberation in Syrian Kurdistan [Pluto Books, London 2016]

Wall Street bigger and badder than ever

Being a banker means never having to say sorry. Or worry where that next million is going to come from.

Financial results are in for 2016 for the biggest U.S. banks and — surprise! — profits continue to reach the stratosphere. And with Goldman Sachs in firmer control of the U.S. Treasury Department than ever before, the good times will continue to roll for Wall Street. For the rest of us, that’s another story.

No less than six “Government Sachs” executives have been nominated to high-level posts in the new Trump administration. As a candidate, Donald Trump attacked opponents for their ties to Goldman Sachs during the campaign, but the joke is on those who naïvely believed the real estate mogul was going to “drain the swamp.” Heading the list is the treasury secretary nominee, Steve Mnuchin, who spent years at Goldman Sachs before earning the title “foreclosure king” as chairman and chief executive officer of OneWest Bank.

Occupy Wall Street (photo by David Shankbone)

Occupy Wall Street (photo by David Shankbone)

Mr. Mnuchin, who bought distressed mortgages and evicted thousands of homeowners during the financial crisis, further demonstrated his humanitarian streak when he announced that, as treasury secretary, he would oversee “the largest tax change since Reagan” and said his “No 1 priority is tax reform.” More tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations. Hurray! How many more people would pay for this by losing their ability to keep their homes was not indicated.

The Guardian, however, did report that “Mnuchin went on to sell OneWest last year for more than double what he paid the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation for the assets in the teeth of the financial crisis.” The California Reinvestment Coalition has calculated that Mr. Mnuchin’s bank was responsible for more than 36,000 foreclosures in in that state alone, and reported he disproportionally foreclosed on seniors. It did so frequently using harassment and other aggressive tactics, even to the point of changing the locks on a senior’s home in a blizzard.

Vampire squid” indeed. Those are the sort of tactics that surely endeared Mr. Mnuchin to President Trump.

Citigroup hopes to replicate destruction of Detroit

No roundup of the year in banking, however, would be complete without the wit and wisdom of JPMorgan Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon. When we last checked in a year ago, Mr. Dimon insisted that declining incomes for working people was no big deal, because they are better off by virtue of possessing iPhones, while in 2014 he complained that — oh the humanity! — “banks are under assault.” As we look back at 2016, he has again provided us with comic relief.

Somehow keeping himself composed as he told Bloomberg News that “business [has] been beaten down as if we’re terrible people,” he upheld the work of banks in saving Detroit. You can’t make this up: He said, “Detroit is a perfect example where civil society, not-for-profits, government, business all work together to improve the lives of American citizens. If you can duplicate what they’ve done in Detroit around the country, you’re going to have a huge renaissance.” He finished by declaring “JPMorgan didn’t jeopardize the system. We did not cause the crisis. We have three times more capital than we had back then. We saved 30,000 jobs.”

Goldman Sachs headquarters (photo by Quantumquark)

Goldman Sachs headquarters (photo by Quantumquark)

We’ll pause here so you can enjoy a hearty laugh. There is no need to point out the tremendous damage major banks did to economies around the world, and the trillions of dollars of handouts given to them as a reward for their destructive behavior. There is little need to point out the damage done to Detroit, but as a reminder, complex and poorly understood derivatives were decisive in Detroit’s fiscal downfall.

These derivatives were sold to the city as a form of “insurance” against possible increases in interest rates, but when interest rates fell and Detroit’s credit rating was cut, hundreds of millions were siphoned from city coffers into Wall Street pockets, and the banks that sold the derivatives jumped to the head of the line of creditors. No money for pensions or government services, but plenty for financiers.

Mr. Dimon does seem to be rather well compensated for his difficulties, “earning” $27.6 million for 2015, tops among banking chief executive officers. Goldman Sachs’ Lloyd Blankfein didn’t do too badly himself, hauling in $23.4 million in compensation. Another nine topped $10 million.

Bigger and badder than ever

These bloated salaries did not, so to speak, break the banks. Once again, profits for the six biggest U.S. banks were massive — nearly $93 billion for 2016.

Here’s a breakdown of the six banks for 2016, three of which reported record profits.

  • JPMorgan Chase & Company reported net income of $24.7 billion on revenue of $99.1 billion, the bank’s highest-ever profit, beating out the record set just the year before. These massive profits led to a massive bonanza for speculators — JPMorgan handed out $15 billion in dividends and stock buybacks.
  • Bank of America Corporation racked up $17.9 billion in net income on revenue of $83.7 billion, both increases from a year ago, which, in turn had tripled 2014 earnings. Speculators did well here, too, as Bank of America ladled out $7.7 billion in dividends and stock buybacks, and plans on buying back another $4.3 billion of its stock in the first six months of 2017.
  • Citigroup Incorporated reported net income of $14.9 billion on revenues of $69.9 billion, both a little bit lower than a year earlier. But shed no tear for downtrodden speculators as Citigroup handed out $10.7 billion in dividends and stock buybacks. Five separate violations cost a total of $485 million in government penalties, but that seems to be no more than a minor speed bump.
  • Wells Fargo & Company had net income of $21.8 billion on revenue of $88.3 billion, a dip in profits from 2015 due to having to pay a penalty of $1.2 billion for shady mortgage lending practices and another $185 million in fines because of its illegal practices of opening fake accounts in the name of its depositors. Who says crime doesn’t pay? Speculators certainly won’t say that: Siphoning money from its account holders helped Wells Fargo be in a position to shovel $12.5 billion into financiers’ pockets through dividends and stock buybacks, almost equal to what it handed out a year earlier.
  • The Goldman Sachs Group Incorporated reported net income of $7.4 billion on revenue of $30.6 billion, a bigger profit and profit margin that a year earlier. The company did not break out its expenses for its purchases of the U.S. government in its latest financial report. Goldman Sachs spent $7 billion on buying back its stock and proudly declared itself first in the world in mergers and acquisitions, work that added billions to the investment bank’s bottom line while costing untold numbers of people their jobs. Profits would have been even bigger had it not been for a $5.1 billion fine for selling toxic mortgage securities to unsuspecting investors.
  • Morgan Stanley reported net income of $6.0 billion on revenue of $34.6 billion, a profit about two percent lower than that of 2015. Despite that slight dip in income, the bank somehow found the means to buy back $3.5 billion worth of its stock — a 67 percent increase from what it bought back a year ago. Morgan Stanley would have seen its profits increase for 2016 had it not had to pay $3.2 billion in penalties related to its role in the subprime-mortgage housing debacle.

Beyond the whip of Wall Street

The biggest banks not only extract more money from the rest of the economy than ever, but are bigger than ever — banks with more than $100 billion assets increased their market share from 17 percent in 1995 to 59 percent in 2014. This is the mad logic of capitalism — grow or die. Finance capital, despite being the whip enforcing trends that worsen inequality, is not immune from what it enforces on everyone else. One measure of the cancerous growth of financial products bearing little relationship with actual needs is this: In 11 business days financial speculators trade instruments and contracts valued at more than all the products and services produced by the entire world in one year.

Reducing banking and finance to a public utility would be the only way to break the grip of giant banks and financial institutions. One intermediate step that could be taken would be government banks that would fund public infrastructure projects and provide low-cost loans, and which would be the recipient of government revenue rather than commercial banks.

The Bank of North Dakota is an example of such an institution that already exists, with proposals for state banks being floated for Vermont, Washington state, Oregon and California. A New Jersey gubernatorial candidate, Phil Murphy, has made a public state bank the centerpiece of his campaign, arguing that students would benefit from low interest rates for college tuition, more loan capital would be made available and municipal governments would no longer have to pay high interest to Wall Street.

The Left Party of Germany has a detailed plan to bring banks under democratic control. Although the party’s proposal is specific to Germany, its basic ideas are transferable to any country. Any form of democratic control of an economy would be impossible without banking and finance being reduced to a public utility, and thus serving to benefit communities rather than existing as a parasite that exists to profit over every aspect of human activity, no matter the social cost.