Look to U.S. executive suites, not Beijing, for why production is moved

The ongoing trade war between the United States and China, and the rhetoric surrounding it coming out of the White House, has served to reinforce the idea that China is “stealing” jobs from the United States. The reality, however, is that if we are seeking the responsible party, our attention should be directed toward U.S. corporate boardrooms.

The internal logic of capitalist development is driving the manic drive to move production to the locations with the most exploitable labor, not any single company, industry or country. For a long time, that location was China, although some production, particularly in textiles, is in the process of relocating to countries with still lower wages, such as Bangladesh, Cambodia and Vietnam. (The last of those is already a long-time source of highly exploited cheap labor for Nike.) It could be said that China is opportunistic in turning itself into the world’s sweatshop. And that it constitutes a colossal market is no small factor.

Beijing (photo by Picrazy2)

Low wages and the inability of Chinese workers to legally organize are crucial factors in the movement of production to China. The minimum wage in Shanghai is 2,420 renminbi per month, which equals US$349. Per month. And Shanghai’s minimum wage is the country’s highest rate and “roughly double the minimum wage in smaller cities” across China, reports the China Labour Bulletin. That does not translate into a living wage for Chinese workers. The Bulletin states:

“National government guidelines stipulate that the minimum wage should be at least 40 percent of the local average wage. In reality, the minimum wage is usually only between 20 and 35 percent of the average wage, barely enough to cover accommodation, transport and food costs. Workers on the minimum wage, including most production line workers, unskilled labourers, shop workers etc. have to rely on overtime, bonuses and subsidies in order to make a living wage. As a consequence, if the employer cancels or reduces overtime, bonuses and other benefits, low-paid workers will often demand immediate restoration.”

Even with such meager pay and the illegality of any unions other than the Communist Party-controlled and employer-friendly All-China Federation of Trade Unions, increasing numbers of employees are classified as “independent contractors,” making them even more precarious. Enforced overtime well in excess of the legal maximum, and employers demanding “flexible” working hours, are brutal on Chinese workers stuck in assembly jobs but lift corporate executives into ecstasy.

The leading culprit is headquartered in Arkansas

The single biggest culprit in the wholesale moving of jobs to China is to be found not in Beijing, but rather in Bentonville, Arkansas. Yep, Wal-Mart, the company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

Other major United States retailers began procuring clothing items from Asian subcontractors before Wal-Mart, but the relentless drive to pay its suppliers as little as possible forced an acceleration in the shift of production to countries with the most exploitable populations. If a manufacturer wants to continue to have contracts to supply Wal-Mart, then it has no choice but to ship its operations overseas because it has no other way to meet Wal-Mart’s demands for ever lower prices.

By 2012, 80 percent of Wal-Mart’s suppliers were located in China. And because the company is so much bigger than any other retailer, it can dictate its terms. Gary Gereffi, a professor at Duke University, said in an interview broadcast on the PBS show Frontline that “No company has had the kind of economic power that Wal-Mart does, to be able to source products from around the world. … Wal-Mart is able to transfer whole U.S. industries to overseas economies.”

Beijing Opera House (photo by Petr Kraumann)

Because of its size and its innovation in computerizing its inventory and tightly managing its suppliers, coupled with its willingness to squeeze its suppliers to the exclusion of all other factors, Wal-Mart holds life or death power over manufacturers, Professor Gereffi said:

“Wal-Mart is telling its American suppliers that they have to meet lower price standards that Wal-Mart wants to impose. The implication of that in many cases is if you’re going to be able to supply Wal-Mart at the prices Wal-Mart wants, you have to go to China or other offshore locations that would permit you to produce at lower cost. … Wal-Mart’s giving them the clear signal that you can’t be a Wal-Mart supplier if you can’t produce at substantially lower prices. … You can go to China, or, in many cases, many U.S. suppliers can’t make that move, and they just go out of business, because Wal-Mart is the dominant company for many U.S. suppliers. If they can’t go offshore, those suppliers end up going out of business.”

Wal-Mart alone cost U.S. workers more than 400,000 jobs between 2001 and 2013, according to the Economic Policy Institute. That is a sizable fraction of the 3.2 million jobs that were lost in the U.S. due to trade relations with China.

To the best of my knowledge, however, no Chinese party or government official has ever walked into the headquarters of a U.S. corporation, pointed a gun at the CEO and demanded production be moved across the Pacific Ocean. Chinese business executives sometimes demand technology be shared in exchange for access to Chinese markets (a different matter), but executives from the U.S. or elsewhere do have the option of saying “no.” Even if we were to concede that there is some coercion in regards to technology transfers, there isn’t when it comes to moving production. That is a choice, a choice routinely made in executive suites.

It’s not a deficit for Apple

Competitors that wish to stay in business can be compelled by capitalist competition to make that choice, matching the “innovation” of the company that first finds moving production a way to cut costs and thus boost profitability. This applies to all industries, and not only low-tech ones. Apple, for example, accrues massive profits by contracting out its manufacturing to subcontractors. A 2010 paper by Yuqing Xing and Neal Detert found that Chinese workers are paid so little that they accounted for only $6.50 of the $168 total manufacturing cost of an iPhone. Of course iPhones cost a lot more than $168 — an extraordinary profit is generated for Apple executives and shareholders on the backs of Chinese workers.

A 2011 study led by Kenneth L. Kraemer calculated that $334 out of each iPhone sold at $549 went to the U.S. with almost the entire remainder distributed among component suppliers. Only $10 went to China as labor costs. Thus, despite the export of iPhones contributing heavily to the official U.S. trade deficit, the study said “the primary benefits go to the U.S. economy as Apple continues to keep most of its product design, software development, product management, marketing and other high-wage functions in the U.S.”

The profits flow to Apple headquarters (photo by Joe Ravi via license CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Chinese workers today likely account for somewhat more of the manufacturing cost as wages have risen in China over the past decade, but remain minuscule compared to wages in advanced capitalist countries. And the work endured is no vacation, as John Bellamy Foster and Robert W. McChesney noted in the February 2012 edition of Monthly Review:

“The eighty hour plus work weeks, the extreme pace of production, poor food and living conditions, etc., constitute working conditions and a level of compensation that cannot keep labor alive if continued for many years—it is therefore carried out by young workers who fall back on the land where they have use rights, the most important remaining legacy of the Chinese Revolution for the majority of the population. Yet, the sharp divergences between urban and rural incomes, the inability of most families to prosper simply by working the land, and the lack of sufficient commercial employment possibilities in the countryside all contribute to the constancy of the floating population, with the continual outflow of new migrants.”

The working conditions of China are not a secret; business-press commentaries can come close to celebrating such conditions. A 2018 commentary in Investopedia, for example, goes so far as to claim that manufacturing in the U.S. is “economically unfeasible” and then says this about Chinese conditions:

“Manufacturers in the West are expected to comply with certain basic guidelines with regards to child labor, involuntary labor, health and safety norms, wage and hour laws, and protection of the environment. Chinese factories are known for not following most of these laws and guidelines, even in a permissive regulatory environment. Chinese factories employ child labor, have long shift hours and the workers are not provided with compensation insurance. Some factories even have policies where the workers are paid once a year, a strategy to keep them from quitting before the year is out. Environmental protection laws are routinely ignored, thus Chinese factories cut down on waste management costs. According to a World Bank report in 2013, sixteen of the world’s top twenty most polluted cities are in China.”

The overall U.S.-China economic picture is more balanced

The components of the iPhone are sourced from several countries and are assembled in China. Because the final product is exported from China, Apple contributes to trade deficits, as conventionally calculated. But the lion’s share of the massive profits from this global supply chain are taken by Apple, a U.S.-based corporation. The profits from the actual assembly, outsourced to Foxconn, are accrued in Taiwan, Foxconn’s home. Apple’s arrangement is far from unique; the list of U.S. companies that manufacture in China is very long. If trade balances were calculated on the basis of where the profits are retained, the U.S. deficit with China would not be nearly so imposing.

As a commentary in the Financial Times points out, U.S. corporations sell far more goods and services in China than do Chinese companies in the U.S., but those sales are not counted toward trade balances. The commentary said:

In 2015, the last year for which official US statistics were available, US multinational subsidiaries based in China made a total of $221.9bn in sales to domestic consumers. The goods and services sold were produced by an army of 1.7m people employed by US subsidiaries in the country. By contrast, China’s corporate presence in the US remains small. Official figures on Chinese companies’ US subsidiary sales to American consumers do not exist, but analysts estimate they are hardly material when compared with China’s exports to the US. Thus, the US-China ‘aggregate economic relationship’ appears a lot more balanced than the trade deficit makes it look.”

A separate report, by VoxChina (which calls itself an independent, nonpartisan platform initiated by economists), calculates that although the official U.S. trade deficit with China for 2015 was $243 billion, when foreign direct investment (FDI) and sales by both countries’ companies in the other are included, the deficit was only $30 billion, and a U.S. surplus was forecast for following years. The U.S., incidentally, remains the world’s second-biggest exporter according to the latest World Trade Organization statistics.

The Trump administration continues to make a big show of blaming China for jobs being moved across the Pacific and for trade deficits, but although China is opportunistic, those vanishing jobs (and resulting deficits) are squarely the responsibility of the corporate executives who make the decision to shut down domestic operations. This dynamic is part of the larger trend toward so-called “free trade” — as technology and faster transportation make moving production around the world more feasible, the corporations taking advantage of these trends seek to eliminate any barriers to cross-border commerce.

And as the race to the bottom continues —  as relentless competition induces a never-ending search to find locations with ever lower wages and ever lower health, safety, labor and environmental standards — what regulations remain are targets to be eliminated. Thus we have the specter of “free trade” agreements that have little to do with trade and much to do with eliminating the ability of governments to regulate. And as the whip of financial markets demand ever bigger profits at any cost, no corporation, not even Wal-Mart, can go far enough.

Despite being a leader in cutting wages, ruthless behavior toward its employees and massive profitability, when Wal-Mart bowed to public pressure in 2015 and announced it would raise its minimum pay to $9 an hour, Wall Street financiers angrily drove down the stock price by a third. Wal-Mart reported net income of $61 billion over the past five years, so it does appear the retailer will remain a going concern. Apple reported net income of $246 billion over the past five years, so outsourcing production to China seems to have worked out for it as well.

The Trump administration’s trade wars are so much huffing and puffing. Empty public rhetoric aside, Trump administration policy on trade, consistent with its all-out war on working people, is to elevate corporate power. Nationalism is a convenient cover to obscure the most extreme anti-worker U.S. administration yet seen. Class war rages on, in the usual one-sided manner.

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Sorting through the lies about Venezuela

Challenging United States hegemony is never an easy course. A county need not be socialist — it is enough to either voice aspirations toward socialism, or merely demonstrate a pattern of not doing as Washington dictates.

So here we go again, this time with Venezuela. Ironically for a country that the corporate media insistently claims has been ruled by two “dictators” (remember that Hugo Chávez was routinely denounced in the same ways that Nicolás Maduro is today) it would be difficult to find a country with more opportunities for grassroots democracy and for everyday people to participate in the decisions that affect their lives and neighborhoods. There has been backtracking on some of this, and there are legitimate complaints about the top-down manner in which the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) is run. The U.S. government is in no position to point fingers, however, given its history in Latin America and the widespread voter suppression that is a regular feature of U.S. elections.

Supporters of the Venezuelan government demonstrate in 2017 (photo by Rachael Boothroyd Rojas/Venezuelanalysis)

It is also preposterous to assert that “socialism has failed” in Venezuela, when 70 percent of the country’s economy is in private hands, the country is completely integrated into the world capitalist system and it is (overly) dependent on a commodity with a price that wildly fluctuates on capitalist markets. Venezuela is a capitalist country that does far more than most to ameliorate the conditions of capitalism and in which socialism remains an aspiration. If something has “failed,” it is capitalism. Leaving much of the economy in the hands of capitalists leaves them with the ability to sabotage an economy, a lesson learned in painful fashion during the 1980s in Sandinista Nicaragua.

Before delving into the significant problems of Venezuela, largely due to the economic war being waged against it by the U.S. government and the economic sabotage within by Venezuela’s industrialists and other business interests, it is worthwhile to briefly examine some of the democratic institutions that have been created since the Bolivarian Revolution took root in 1998.

Communal councils organize at neighborhood level

The base of the Venezuelan political system are the communal councils. Various political structures designed to organize people at the grassroots level have evolved into a system of communal councils, organized on a neighborhood level, which in turn build up to communes and communal cities. These are direct-democracy bodies that identify and solve the problems and deficiencies of their local areas with the direct support and funding of the national government. After decades of neglect by previous governments, there were no shortage of problems to tackle.

Like many institutions of the Bolivarian Revolution, these have roots in grassroots organizing that pre-date Hugo Chávez’s first election.

The Barrio Assembly of Caracas emerged in 1991 as something of a general assembly representing local groups, coming into being after demonstrations marking the first and second anniversaries of the “Caracazo” uprising were dispersed by soldiers firing on them from rooftops. (The “Caracazo” uprising was a massive revolt sparked by popular resistance to an austerity package dictated by the International Monetary Fund.)  Later versions of these assemblies organized on the eve of the 2002 coup attempting to overthrow President Chávez; among these assemblies’ accomplishments were distributing 100,000 fliers calling for a march on the presidential palace to defend the government.

The Bosque de el Valle in Mérida state (photo by Jorge Paparoni)

The communal councils are the base of an alternative government structure, one intended to bypass municipal and other local governments and to eventually replace them. This was an attempt to provide a concrete form to the concept of “constituent power,” the idea that people should be direct participants in the decisions to affect their lives and communities. Legislation passed in 2006 formally recognized the communal councils and the form quickly gained popularity — there were an estimated 30,000 in existence by 2009. These councils are formed in compact urban areas containing 200 to 400 households in cities and 20 or so in rural areas. All residents of the territory are eligible to participate. In turn, communal councils organize into larger communes, and communes into communal cities, to coordinate projects too large for a neighborhood or to organize projects necessarily on a larger scale, such as improving municipal services.

Communal councils are required to propose three projects that will contribute to development in the community; funding for approved projects will usually come from national-government bodies. An interesting development is that many (in the case of councils studied by researchers, a majority) who have taken active roles in the communal councils were not politically active before the 2002 failed coup. Generally, women outnumber men among the active participants, and it is often older women taking the lead. The culture of participation that the councils encourage and that the Bolivarian government is paying vastly more attention to solving social problems and the needs of the poor than prior governments has facilitated the organizing of women, and the new activity of women in turn is breaking down traditional macho attitudes. That pensions are now much stronger, proving material security, also enables participation. Health committees tackling problems of illness, access to contraception and motherhood are often where participation begins. Once involved, women sign up for training programs, with more women then men taking advantage of these.

Communes often organize enterprises to provide employment for local residents and to help supply needed basic goods. One example is the El Panal 2012 Commune in Caracas. El Panal operates several enterprises and a communal bank. One of the enterprises is a sugar-packaging plant, and there are also bakeries. El Panal activists are also creating links with neighboring communes in Caracas and in other parts of the country. Links are also being created with the countryside — a “Pueblo a Pueblo” initiative brings together urban communities and farmers to distribute food directly, eliminating intermediaries and speculators. El Panal also regularly organizes food fairs at which meats, vegetables and other basic foods can be bought at discounts, well below market prices.

Tackling social problems through missions

There are also the social programs known as “missions” that are based on the direct participation of the beneficiaries. Begun in 2003, there are more than two dozen missions that seek to solve a wide array of social problems. Given the corruption and inertia of the state bureaucracy, and the unwillingness of many professionals to provide services to poor neighborhoods, the missions were established to provide services directly while enabling participants to shape the programs. Much government money was poured into these programs, thanks to the then high price of oil, which in turn enabled the Chávez government to fund them.

Among the approximately two dozen missions are Alimentación, which incorporates the Mercal network that provides food at subsidized prices and a distribution system; Cultura, which seeks the decentralization and democratization of culture to ensure that all have access to it and stimulate community participation; Guaicaipuro, intended to guarantee the rights of Indigenous peoples as specified in the constitution; Madres del Barrio, designed to provide support to housewives in dire poverty and help their families overcome their poverty; Negra Hipólita, which assists children, adolescents and adults who are homeless; Piar, which seeks to help mining communities through dignifying living conditions and establishing environmental practices; and Zamora, intended to reorganize land, especially idle land that could be used for agriculture, in accordance with the constitution.

Venezuelan political scientist and historian Margarita López Maya summarized the breadth of the missions in a Socialist Register article:

“Missions (programs bypassing uncooperative or ineffective state agencies), such as Barrio Adentro (free 24 hours a day primary health care and disease prevention for low income groups), Mercal (state distribution of food at subsidized prices), Robinson 1 and 2 (literacy and primary education for adults), Ribas and Sucre (secondary and university education for those who had missed or not finished these), Vuelvan Caras (training for employment), and the Bolivarian schools, where a full day schedule has been restored, with two free meals and two snacks a day, plus free uniforms and textbooks: all these undoubtedly had a positive political impact. The government has also invested in the social economy, as in the “ruedas de negocios,” in which the creation of cooperatives is encouraged in order to supply goods and services to the state sector. The government has also created a system of micro-financing with the Women’s Bank, the Sovereign People’s Bank, and so on, which make small loans to lower income borrowers.”

Struggles for economic democracy

In the workplaces, there are experiments with co-management, cooperatives, socialist production units and workers’ councils. These forms have been contested — an ongoing multiple-sided struggle over what constitutes “workers’ control” of industry and what forms such control should take continues. Cooperative enterprises are enshrined in the constitution, and a 2001 law mandates that all members be included in decision-making and that an assembly of all members has final decision-making power over all topics. Temporary workers can be hired for a maximum of six months, after which they must be accepted as members. A state ministry was created to provide assistance to cooperatives and small businesses, including the facilitation of securing contracts from state companies.

There are difficulties here. One significant problem were instances of cooperatives being formed only in order to acquire the start-up capital provided by the government, or were small companies that converted to being cooperatives only on paper to take advantage of preferential priority for state contracts or to obtain subsidies. In response to these irregularities, the government began to require coops obtain a “certificate of fulfillment of responsibilities,” which includes financial audits and demonstration of work within their local community. Nonetheless, there are many examples of successful cooperative enterprises.

There are also socialist production units. These are nonprofit, state-owned enterprises that are managed democratically by a combination of their workers, local communal councils and the national government. These enterprises are intended to provide local services, such as transportation and distribution of cooking gas, and the creation of production. Although workers are directly involved in decision-making at these enterprises, the state also has a role, which can sometimes lead to tensions. The goods produced are most often distributed through the Mercal state-owned chain of supermarkets that provides food at subsidized prices, and PDVAL, a state-run food-distribution network. These are often operated at a loss, as they are intended to provide needed goods and services to communities at steep discounts.

A continuing area of contestation are state-owned enterprises. Some argue for state ownership with employee participation, others argue for full autonomy of enterprises and the workers in them, and there are gradations in between. There are managements that don’t wish to cede decision-making authority to their workforce, and there are government officials, despite being part of the Bolivarian movement, who oppose workers’ control, sometimes because they believe in top-down control by the state. There are examples of state-owned companies in which management structures have changed multiple times as different factions temporarily gain control.

The push and pull of competing interests and tendencies is exemplified in the case of the state-owned aluminum smelter Alcasa, which had a well-functioning system of workers’ control under co-management that reversed its debt problems; then had a new director appointed who ignored the co-management structure, with an accompanying fall in productivity and return of corruption; and then a return to co-management when President Chávez named a new company president selected by the workers. Workers’ control was reinstated with new structures, and because of the precarious financial situation caused by the corruption of the middle period, workers began designing parts to be produced internally instead of buying them from suppliers as previously done. More difficulties arose when a dissident union aligned with the local state governor attempted to stop production, and although unsuccessful, caused a significant disruption. Yet another change in management by Chávez led to a renewed deterioration in co-management, and struggles at Alcasa continued.

Economic warfare at home and abroad

Shifting from a traditional capitalist economy toward a participatory economic democracy can’t be expected to be smooth sailing, especially when this attempt is being done in a country with subaltern status in the world capitalist system. President Chávez had to withstand three successive attempts to remove him — the 2002 coup, 2002-03 bosses’ lockout and the 2004 recall referendum. Five times he was elected president, never with less than 55 percent of the vote, and overall he won 16 of 17 elections and referendums in which his movement participated. The election system put in place by the Chávez government was declared by former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s Carter Center to be “the best in the world.” None of this prevented the late president from being furiously denounced as a “dictator.”

Once he died, however, the attacks were stepped up by the revolution’s opponents, apparently believing that the loss of the leader would make the revolution vulnerable. In reality, the Bolivarian Revolution has always been a movement propelled by millions who will not readily give up the many gains they have achieved and which pushed the late president to go further. Venezuela has a long tradition of strong, organized movements, which predate the Bolivarian Revolution. Despite the difficulties of recent years and increasing popular disapproval of President Maduro, those movements do not want their gains to be reversed. During the Chávez years, unemployment and poverty were drastically reduced and people were able to participate in the political process for the first time.

So how much of Venezuela’s serious economic problems are the fault of the current president? Some of the blame can be laid at his doorstep, but mostly for his inability to act in timely fashion and allowing problems caused by outside forces to deepen. A serious mistake that has ran through the past 20 years is that no progress was made on reducing Venezuela’s heavy reliance on oil exports. When oil prices were high, the government was content to let the money flow and use it to fund social programs and finance a wide variety of projects. But the later crash in oil prices left the government vulnerable. By not diversifying the economy, much less is earned when the inevitable falls in price arrive and it becomes difficult to maintain consumption because so many consumer products must be imported.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

The over-reliance on a single export commodity would be difficult to overcome by itself. But greatly compounding Venezuela’s problems are U.S. sanctions, a currency that became drastically overvalued, and an inflationary spiral resulting from that overvaluation that incentivized black markets and smuggling. Poor management on the part of the government of President Maduro has intensified the damage done by those factors. Although the Venezuelan government set an official exchange rate for its currency, the bolívar, the effective exchange rate was determined by international currency speculators and thus the value of the bolívar is not in the control of Caracas.

Speculators caused the value of the bolívar to be reduced by 97 percent in 2017, and further drastic reductions in the currency’s value continued well into 2018. The value or output of the Venezuelan economy hardly declined by anything remotely comparable, so there are other factors at work for such a drastic reduction in exchange value. But because the Maduro government did not adjust the official exchange rate when the bolívar came under attack, the spread between the official rate and the de facto rate widened to the point that vast opportunities for smuggling and black-market operations were created. That in turn caused shortages and hyperinflation.

These developments were a consequence of Venezuela’s integration into the world capitalist system and the country’s heavy reliance on imports. Food and consumer goods intended to be sold at discounts in state stores were diverted to the black market, where profiteers sold them at prices several times higher or smuggled them into Colombia for huge profits. Government officials have repeatedly discovered vast quantities of consumer goods hidden in warehouses by local capitalists who are artificially causing shortages.

Hardening financial sanctions

United States government sanctions on Venezuela prohibit any U.S. persons or banks from providing financing or purchasing any debt issued by the Venezuelan government or the state oil company PDVSA, the purpose of which is to make it more difficult for the government to raise funds internationally or to restructure debt.

These sanctions are effectively extra-territorial. A non-U.S. bank that seeks to handle a transaction in U.S. dollars (the currency most often used in international transactions) has to do so by clearing the transaction through a U.S. bank; a U.S. bank that cleared such a transaction would be in violation of the sanctions. The Obama administration intensified the U.S. financial war on Venezuela by absurdly declaring the latter a “national security threat” and the Trump administration has issued a succession of decrees tightening the screws.

The latest, issued on January 28, freezes all property and interests of PDVSA subject to U.S. jurisdiction — in other words, blocking Venezuela from any access to the profits generated by PDVSA’s U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, or any PDVSA activities in the United States. The Trump administration expects Venezuela to lose US$11 billion this year, The New York Times reports. That move is in addition to repeated calls by the Trump administration for an overthrow of the Venezuelan government, threats by President Trump to invade, and the Trump administration “recognizing” the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as president although Guaidó has never run for the position and is largely unknown to the Venezuelan public. An added insult is the appointment of death-squad cheerleader Elliot Abrams to “oversee” a “return to democracy,” an idea that would draw laughs if Abrams’ history in Latin America during the Reagan administration weren’t so deadly.

Successive U.S. administrations have subsidized opposition groups — an estimated US$100 million has been poured into Venezuela in an effort to subvert the elected government.

Alan MacLeod, a specialist in media studies, summarized the extra-territorial effect of U.S. sanctions:

“[T]he sanctions strongly discourage other countries from lending money to the country for fear of reprisal and also discourage any businesses from doing business there too. A study from the 2018 opposition Presidential candidate’s economics czar suggested the sanctions were responsible for a 50% drop in oil production. Furthermore, Trump’s sanctions prevent profits from Venezuela-owned CITGO from being sent back to Venezuela. Trump has also threatened banks with 30 years in jail if they co-operate with Caracas and has intimidated others into going along with them.”

President Maduro is repeatedly called a “dictator,” an epithet endless repeated across the corporate media. But when a portion of the opposition boycotts, can it be a surprise that the incumbent wins? The opposition actually asked the United Nations to not send observers, a sure sign that they expected to lose a fair election despite their claims that the election would be rigged. Nonetheless, a coalition of Canadian unions, church leaders and other officials declared the election to be “a transparent, secure, democratic and orderly electoral and voting process.”

Unfortunately, there is every reason to be concerned, given the hostility of U.S. governments and capitalists to any intent to become independent of the U.S. or to direct economic activity to benefit local people rather than maximizing the profits of U.S. multinational corporations. The United States has militarily invaded Latin American and Caribbean countries 96 times, including 48 times in the 20th century. That total constitutes only direct interventions and doesn’t include coups fomented by the U.S., such as Guatemala in 1954 and Chile in 1973. Guatemala was attempting nothing more “radical” than a land reform that would have forced United Fruit to sell idle land at United Fruit’s own under-valuation of the land (a self-assessment made by United Fruit to avoid paying a fair share of taxes). The U.S. overthrew the government and instituted what would become a 40-year nightmare of state-organized mass murder that ultimately cost 200,000 lives. The Chilean effort to build a humane economy was ended with the overthrow of Salvador Allende and the installation of Augusto Pinochet and his murderous regime that immiserated Chileans.

Dissimilar results can hardly be expected if the U.S. were to succeed in overthrowing the Venezuelan government and installing a right-wing government that would reverse the many gains of the past 20 years. Hands off Venezuela!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shouldn’t we listen to the Kurds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Assad brutality in the service of neoliberalism

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building political democracy through communes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a cooperative economy based on human need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Winners” in Amazon sweepstakes sure to be the losers

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

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

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

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

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

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

Writing in New York magazine, Mr. Barro wrote:

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

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

A dictated outcome that will facilitate gentrification

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The biggest but far from the first Amazon subsidies

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

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

Although it is skilled at the art of taking public money for its private profit, Amazon is far from unique, One good example is Wal-Mart, which greedily gobbles up subsidies while racking up gigantic profits. Wal-Mart is a company that pays it employees so little that they skip meals and organize food drives; receives so many government subsidies that the public pays about $1 million per store in the United States; and is estimated to avoid $1 billion per year in U.S. taxes through its use of tax loopholes.

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

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

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

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

Revised NAFTA shows every sign of being another Trump scam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corporate giveaways on financial services, IP

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

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

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

New York Stock Exchange (photo by Elisa Rolle)

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

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

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

Don’t hold your breath for clean air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will the Canadian government allow itself to be bullied?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No reason for optimism in Mexico

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why aren’t our wages increasing?

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

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

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

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

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

Imbalance in power forces down wages

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inadequacy of gross domestic product

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reversing past oppression, Cooperation Jackson builds a better future

If thinking big were all it took to be a success, then Cooperation Jackson would be one of the biggest successes ever seen. It is far too early to know what the future will hold for what must be the most thorough-going experiment in economic democracy in the United States today, but no one can possibly accuse Cooperation Jackson of not having a clear vision nor of not being serious students of history.

The experiment in Jackson, Mississippi, is the intellectual product of many years of experience by seasoned activists and a mobilized community drawing lessons from centuries of enduring racism and state terror, and the communal traditions used to survive the slavery, feudalism and apartheid of the United States South, while at the same time integrating concepts from progressive thinkers across several continents. Cooperation Jackson faces long odds, not least because of the extreme hostility of Mississippi’s conservative state government and the forces of gentrification that are taking aim at their impoverished city, in particular the organization’s neighborhood base.

The history, intentions and current struggles of this most interesting project are laid out in detail in the book Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi.* And although the untimely, sudden death of one of the project’s leaders, Chokwe Lumumba, was a significant blow, by no means has the project come to a halt. That is one of the consistent messages of Jackson Rising, which contains essays by several writers, both participants and sympathetic journalists. It also a project intended for replication elsewhere, for socialism in one city is not possible, of which Jackson’s cooperators are acutely aware.

This is a project rooted firmly in Black struggle. The concept of the People’s Assembly, a core institution of Cooperation Jackson, is drawn from prayer circles organized clandestinely by enslaved Africans and the “Negro Peoples Conventions” that convened during Reconstruction. Black communities struggling for community control and economic self-sufficiency were built during the early 20th century, although these fell victim to continual violence directed against them, and cooperatives were frequently used forms across the 19th and 20th centuries. Traditions of resistance were renewed during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s; peoples assemblies were a common form of organization during that time.

Other historical projects were simply organized to find paths out of deep rural poverty. Two cooperative farms in Mississippi were begun in the early 1970s; local Whites responded by poisoning the Black farmers’ water supply and killing their cows. In Alabama, Black farmers found a market in New York that would pay three times what they had been getting for their cucumbers. The growers’ cooperative rented a truck to deliver the produce, only to have state troopers pull the truck over and hold it for 72 hours; racist Governor George Wallace had declared he could impound any vehicle for 72 hours without explanation. When the farmers got their track back, the cucumbers had been ruined.

Repression is what the activists of an organization calling itself the Provisional Government of the Republic of New Afrika faced. An agreement had been made to buy land from a Black farmer west of Jackson. As hundreds of people walked the road to their new land, they faced an armed phalanx of local police, state police, the FBI and the Ku Klux Klan, telling them they would not be celebrating that day, punctuating their threats with racial slurs. The crowd decided to go ahead anyway, and in a story often told by Mayor Lumumba, the roadblock “opened up just like the Red Sea.” Nonetheless, heavy government repression, including mass arrests, brought this effort to build an egalitarian community to an end.

Building community organizations

Years later, some of these organizers, including Mayor Lumumba, would return. In 2005, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (MXGM) organized the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and in subsequent years the coalition transformed into the Jackson People’s Assembly. The Assembly, according to one of the lead organizers, Kali Akuno, was “organized as expressions of participatory or direct democracy,” guided by committees organized by it but in a non-hierarchal arrangement [page 74]. Doing so was part of an “inside-outside” strategy in which the movement would be based on the widest possible grassroots and community participation while at the same time seeking to gain a foothold in local government. Mr. Akuno wrote:

“MXGM firmly believes that at this stage of the struggle for Black Liberation that the movement must be firmly committed to building and exercising what we have come to regard as ‘dual power’ — building autonomous power outside of the realm of the state (i.e. the government) in the form of People’s Assemblies and engaging electoral politics on a limited scale with the expressed intent of building radical voting blocs and electing candidates drawn from the ranks of the Assemblies themselves. … [W]e cannot afford to ignore the power of the state.” [page 75]

The goal of engaging in local elections is to lessen the repressive power of the state and contain the power of multi-national corporations:

“We also engage electoral politics as a means to create political openings that provide a broader platform for a restoration of the ‘commons,’ create more public goods utilities (for example, universal health care, public pension scheme, government financed childcare and comprehensive public transportation), and the democratic transformation of the economy. One strategy without the other is like mounting a defense without an offensive or vice versa. Both are critical to advancing authentic, transformative change.” [page 75]

The Jackson activists believe that assemblies should engage a minimum of 20 percent of the people of a given geographic area. This minimum level of participation ensures that there are sufficient numbers of people to have the capacity to implement decisions and achieve desired outcomes. There exist three different types of assemblies — united front or alliance-based in which the participants are mobilized members of organizations; constituent in the form of a representative body; and mass assemblies of direct participation by the widest number of people. Jackson’s assemblies tend to be the second (constituent) form but can act as mass bodies during periods of crisis [pages 87-89]. Mass assemblies (such as what was seen at Occupy Wall Street) require vast amounts of time and thus tend not to be sustainable.

Jackson activists have found sustained success with their more constituent model. Work centered in Ward 2, where MXGM and other activists did much of the organizing, although students also played a role and neighborhood churches provided meeting spaces and participants. The Ward 2 assembly began having a positive impact on city issues, and from this work participants decided they wanted an ally on the city council. Chokwe Lumumba was asked to run for the ward’s council seat. He won, and in turn the assembly deepened its inside and outside work. For the next election, he ran for mayor, and won that office in a landslide, replacing a three-term incumbent closely tied to regional business elites seen as unresponsive to community needs.

Organizing for a city government that will be responsive

Kamau Franklin, a veteran activist with MXGM, noted that electing Black officeholders in itself does not necessarily translate into community empowerment. He wrote:

“[T]he majority Black centers in the south are dominated by moderate Black Democratic Party careerists. The political void left by the retreat of the Black social movements in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s was filled by ‘safe’ politicians who did not do much to upset the economic balance of power that favored white power brokers and embraced moderate Democratic Party rhetoric and positioning on governing. As a result, Jackson is in many ways like post apartheid South Africa, where Black electoral power never translated into actual political power, and in the main only supported the Black petty-bourgeois class happy to live off the scraps of the minority white capitalist class that really calls the shots.” [page 70]

Mayor Lumumba, upon taking office, did not forget who he was nor who put him in office. Not only did he pledge “the highest provision” of public services, including economic development, education and transportation, but he also declared a goal of building a “dynamic ‘new economy’ rooted in cooperative development and anchored by green jobs, living wages and strong worker protections. His administration’s policies would be rooted in human rights and driven by community groups that would have a say in city budgeting. [page 99]

The new administration faced serious challenges, including finding the money to rebuild a crumbling and out-of-date water system that was under a federal order to be fixed. The city’s infrastructure was sub-standard and the previous administration had sought to cut an already limited bus system; Mayor Lumumba worked with city residents to secure a one percent city sales tax to help raise necessary revenue. He also gave full city support for a conference at which the grassroots project Cooperation Jackson would be formally launched.

Jackson city center (photo by A W A)

These activities were part of an inside-outside strategy, taking advantage of opportunities, wrote educator and organizer Ajamu Nangwaya:

“More often than not, we are likely to experience betrayal, collaboration with the forces of domination by erstwhile progressives or a progressive political formation forgetting that its role should be to build or expand the capacity of the people to challenge the structures of exploitation and domination. I am of the opinion that an opportunity exists in Jackson to use the resources of the municipal state to build the capacity of civil society to promote labor self-management. … As revolutionaries, we are always seeking out opportunities to advance the struggle for social emancipation. We initiate actions, but we also react to events within the social environment. To not explore the movement-building potentiality of what is going on in this southern city would be a major political error and a demonstration of the poverty of imagination and vision.” [pages 110-111]

Tragically, Mayor Lumumba would die suddenly from heart problems less than a year into his term and on the eve of introducing more radical measures for city council approval. The establishment Democrats retook city government, withdrawing all support for the cooperation project and the conference. Nonetheless, the Jackson State University president supported the conference despite the new mayor’s hostility, and during it organizers formally announced Cooperation Jackson.

The vision of Cooperation Jackson

Cooperation Jackson is a product of the MXGM and New Afrikan People’s Organization, and is “specifically created to advance a key component of the Jackson-Kush Plan, namely the development of the solidarity economy in Jackson, Mississippi, to advance the struggle for economic democracy as a prelude towards the democratic transition to eco-socialism” [page 3]. (“Kush” is a designation for 18 contiguous counties forming a Black-majority region along the Mississippi River and west of and adjacent to Jackson.) Organizers stress that all people are a part of this project, that the resources of society should be equally available to all residents, but as a Black majority region, that majority is entitled to a exercise a majority of political and social power [page 128]. Black residents comprise 85 percent of Jackson’s population but prior to Mayor Lumumba’s administration, Black businesses received only five percent of regional contracts.

Cooperation Jackson has four fundamental ends:

  • To place ownership and control over the primary means of production directly in the hands of the Black working class of Jackson.
  • To build and advance the development of ecologically regenerative forces of production in Jackson.
  • To democratically transform the political economy of Jackson, the state of Mississippi and the Southeast U.S.
  • To attain self-determination for people of African descent and the “radical, democratic transformation” of Mississippi as a prelude to a national transformation.

As Mr. Akuno wrote in outlining the program in Jackson Rising’s opening chapter:

“A population or people that does not have access to or control over those means [of production] and processes cannot be said to possess or exercise self-determination. The Black working class majority in Jackson does not have control or unquestionable ownership over any of these means or processes. Our mission is to aid the Black working class, and the working class overall, to attain them.” [page 5]

The project seeks to build productive forces, break the status quo of an economy based on resource extraction and commodity agriculture for export, and replace that failed economy with one that stimulates self-organization and is environmentally sustainable. Instead of capitalist development by and for elites, Cooperation Jackson instead seeks to enable communities to take the central role in development through autonomous organizations and control over local governments.

Jackson is envisioned as a “hub of community production,” anchored by 3-D print manufacturing for community consumption. There is no short cut in a process that has only begun and has a long way to go, Mr. Akuno writes:

“In the Jackson context, it is only through mass organization of the working class, the construction of a new democratic culture, and the development of a movement from below to transform the social structures that shape and define our relations, particularly the state (i.e. government), that we can conceive of serving as a counter-hegemonic force with the capacity to democratically transform the economy. …

We strive to build a democratic economy because it is the surest route to equity, equality, and ecological balance. Reproducing capitalism, either in its market oriented or state-dictated forms, will only replicate the inequities and inequalities that have plagued humanity since the dawn of the agricultural revolution. We believe that the participatory, bottom-up democratic route to economic democracy and eco-socialist transformation will be best secured through the anchor of worker self-organization, the guiding structures of cooperatives and systems of mutual aid and communal solidarity, and the democratic ownership, control, and deployment of the ecologically friendly and labor liberating technologies of the fourth industrial revolution.” [pages 6-7]

The core institutions of Cooperation Jackson

Four interconnected institutions form the base of Cooperation Jackson:

  • A federation of cooperative businesses and mutual-aid networks.
  • A cooperative incubator that will provide basic training and business plan development.
  • A cooperative school and training center to teach economic democracy.
  • A cooperative credit union and bank.

Vertical supply chains are planned to be created through these networks. As one example, a cooperative farm would supply a café and catering business, the waste from the café would be sent to a yard-care and composting cooperative, which would in turn supply the farm, socializing the production process.

Key to creating this federation of cooperatives is staving off gentrification. The neighborhood where Cooperation Jackson is based has large amounts of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, but because it is near downtown, real estate developers and the city capitalist elite are hungrily eyeing the area. The backers of Cooperation Jackson are buying land to create an “eco village” that is intended to include quality, “deeply affordable” cooperative housing, a grocery and the other coop projects, all powered by solar energy. The larger goal is for the city of Jackson to become self-sustaining through comprehensive recycling, composting, local food production, links to regional organic farms, a city solar-power system and zero-emission public transportation.

Fannie Lou Hamer statute

Integrated with this project is a community-production initiative that will feature education and training to use 3-D print manufacturing technology and other new technologies. Envisioned are development programs to create employment; commercial manufacturing to provide 3-D-printed products, specialty products and tools; and community production to directly fill local needs and further develop technology. None of this will be done in a political vacuum — also envisioned are union-cooperative initiatives to train the “future generation of working class militants”; the formation of a class-based union encompassing all trades; movements to boost worker rights; the unionization of existing businesses; and the building of democratic unions in the cooperatives, in Jackson and across Mississippi.

This can’t be a Jackson-only project in the long run. There cannot be “socialism in one city,” of which the Cooperation Jackson organizers are acutely aware. Organizers hope for this project to be replicated in other cities of the Southern U.S., and for strong links to be developed between urban centers and farms. “We do not believe that socialism, or economic democracy, can be built in isolation on a local level, as it is neither economically viable or ecologically sustainable,” Mr. Akuno noted [page 33]. Economic transformation is a necessity, founded on an explicit rejection of capitalist social relations.

To that end, cooperatives serve an additional function as training grounds for working people to manage without bosses. The relationship among cooperatives in turn must be based on building an integrated system, not competition. As Mr. Akuno and Dr. Nangwaya summarize in a separate article discussing the principals of economic democracy:

“Our character and psychological predisposition have been shaped under undemocratic, authoritarian relations and processes and our possession of the requisite knowledge, skills and attitude of self-management and participatory self-management is uneven. As a result, we tend to demonstrate behaviors that are not unlike our oppressors and exploiters. Critical education is essential to the process of exorcising the ghosts of conformity within the status quo from the psyche and behavior of the oppressed to enable the development of a cultural revolution. … [T]raining and development programs, the constant dissemination of critical information, and mass educational initiatives are central to the goal of preparing the people for self-management and self-determination.” [page 53]

Spaces in a “weak link” of capitalism but difficulties persist

Mississippi is the poorest state in the United States, with one-third of its children living below the poverty line, a line set very low. The state is at or near the bottom in a variety of economic indicators. Top-down economic development may have made a few capitalists rich, but it has done little for the working people of Jackson — almost one-third live in poverty and median household income is barely more than half the U.S. average, according to U.S. Census data.

Yet it is Mississippi’s status as a “weak link” in capitalism that provides the space for a project like Cooperation Jackson, organizers argue. Agricultural and industrial production are constrained by White elites who pursue a strategy of containment to fetter the Black population by curtailing its access to capital and living wages. The long memory of Black repression makes the population in the Black-majority “Kush” region willing to take actions to reverse their situation. A combination of favorable demographics, a mobilized population and elevated political consciousness make the area ripe for a project like Cooperation Jackson, organizers say [pages 229-230].

And although that organizing work primarily takes place at the grassroots level, there will remain the electoral component. Taking office with open eyes, Mayor Lumumba stated that with his election the movement would be engaging with, not wielding, state power. The electoral side of the movement has three components: mass education, preparatory battles (picking issues that can be framed in ways that resonate for multiple communities), and building “operational fronts” that are coalitions in differing combinations depending on circumstance. Thus electoral work is to support movement work, not the reverse. Through continued organizing, the movement was able to retake the mayor’s office in June 2017 when Chokwe Antar Lumumba, son of the former mayor, was elected handily.

But foothold in City Hall or not, Cooperation Jackson remains in its earliest stages. Progress has been slow — as of early 2017, the cooperative café has struggled to get its permits, legal problems have delayed the buying of a building for 3-D manufacturing, raising money has been difficult, and land for the urban farm is polluted and in need of cleaning [page 278]. And the state government remains hostile.

Jackson Rising provides an excellent tool for understanding this extraordinary program, providing several voices, mostly of those involved in the work, and although a work of optimism the book is frank in discussing the problems and obstacles Cooperation Jackson faces. The book suffers from insufficient editing at times; typos proliferate in some articles and that is an unnecessary distraction. But do not let that deter you. Readers wanting to gain a firm understanding of the project, and the breathtaking range of influences it blends, should read this book.

Yes, the odds are against its success. At one point, an organizer acknowledges that criticisms that the project might be “overreaching” might contain some truth. Yet what else can be done but to attempt the impossible? Everybody who believes a better world is possible should be rooting and providing support for Cooperation Jackson.

* Kali Akuno and Ajamu Nangwaya (editors), Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi [Daraja Press, Montréal 2017]