If neoliberalism is crumbling, what will follow?

The biggest problem with the future is that you can’t know what it will be. When Ronald Reagan was elected United States president in 1980, we did not at the time realize a new era of capitalism had begun; that the ascension of Reagan in the U.S. and Margaret Thatcher in Britain a year earlier definitively brought the end of the Keynesian period. Less than a decade earlier Richard Nixon had said, “We’re all Keynesians now.”

The very election of Reagan was a shock — I truly thought that United Statesians would at the last moment recoil at the thought of an extremist who endlessly spouted lies and nonsense getting into the White House. Perhaps I simply overestimated the general public but the 1970s did introduce considerable economic uncertainty, enough for people to vote for a bad actor who told them what they wanted to hear.

And so neoliberalism was born, although the term wasn’t yet in use; back then we usually referred to “Reaganism” and “Thatcherism.” Their policies didn’t go away when their terms in office were up. A new, more vicious era was firmly upon the world. I can’t help but think about the parallels with the past four years. A bad reality television host and con man told United Statesians what they wanted to hear and despite his obvious mendacity, enough bought it so that another candidate who I was sure couldn’t possibly be elected was elevated into the White House.

A garment factory (photo by Fahad Faisal)

One parallel perhaps begets another. The 1970s stagnation of Keynesianism brought something much worse, the neoliberal era of capitalism, alas a much more representative specimen of the global economic system — Keynesianism was an outlier and a product of intense activism that forced significant concessions out of capitalists. Let’s not romanticize the Keynesian era — the benefits to working people were confined to White men with steady jobs and in the U.S. there was plenty of political repression to go around. Not to mention that capitalist exploitation of working people continued unabated; there simply were some extra crumbs given out.

Back to today: Given the crumbing economy, with its low-paid, precarious jobs, unsustainable and onerous student and consumer debt and inability to tackle global warming as features of a global race to the bottom, the ability of industrialists and financiers to keep neoliberalism going is increasingly in question. So if the start of the 1980s was the dawn of a new economic era, will the start of the 2020s be the dawn of another new era? And, if so, of what?

What’s old becomes new again

Post-Industrial Revolution capitalism can be roughly divided into three eras. First, the era of laissez faire, which came under strong pressure in the Great Depression and was ultimately followed by the Keynesianism of the mid-20th century. Laissez faire is an ideology that opposes government interference in economic affairs beyond the minimum necessary for the maintenance of property rights. (That ideology lives on — neoliberal godfather Milton Friedman insisted that the only proper role of government is to enforce contracts and provide for military defense.) The onset of the Great Depression served to discredit laissez faire, opening the space for alternative theories.

Keynesianism, simply put, is the belief that capitalism is unstable and requires government intervention in the economy when private enterprise is unable or unwilling to spend enough to lift it out of a slump. Mid-20th century Keynesianism depended on an industrial base and market expansion. A repeat of history isn’t possible because the industrial base of the advanced capitalist countries has been hollowed out, transferred to low-wage developing countries, and there is almost no place remaining to which capitalism can expand. Because profits were high and there were many new markets to conquer — and because they were fearful of having their system swept away by the dramatic rise in social organizing — capitalists tolerated wage gains after World War II.

Ship-breaking in Chittagong, Bangladesh (photo by Naquib Hossain)

As Keynesianism broke down over the course of the 1970s — or more accurately, as capitalists no long tolerated paying better wages and conceding better working conditions in the face of declining profits in a world of more intensive competition on an international level — industrialists and financiers brought on the era of neoliberalism in an effort to boost profitability. There were no effective counter-forces: The movements of the 1960s had vanished. Reagan and Thatcher were products, not the causes, of the new era. It took time to understand that. And when “the end of history” was proclaimed upon the crumbling of the Soviet Union, the process of smashing working people’s ability to defend themselves was only accelerated.

And here we are today. With ever fewer jobs that provide a living wage, housing and education costs rising far faster than inflation or wages, the ability of capital to effortlessly move production to wherever wages and regulations are the lowest, and a political system wholly captured by the biggest industrialists and financiers, it is no surprise that anger is rising around the world. Neoliberalism has reached its logical conclusion.

So what follows neoliberalism? And how much longer can capitalism survive?

There won’t be any return to Keynesianism, even if it were possible for that to be the cure to what ails the world. The specific circumstances of the mid-20th century no longer exist. We do not have to stretch our imaginations to know what the world’s corporate masters would be willing to do to keep themselves in power and money. Suspending constitutions and implementing outright fascism is possible if industrialists and financiers see no other alternative to keep their party going if conditions deteriorate to the point that large numbers of people begin to withdraw their consent to the formal-democratic version of corporate rule.

The future is unwritten

But even that would a temporary fix. You can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, nor can you destroy the environment without limit. A collapse in civilization induced by unchecked capitalism is very unlikely to happen suddenly; without a global mass movement intervening, modern industrial civilization is likely to slowly fall apart over decades and thus capitalism, in this scenario, would also linger for decades. Whatever follows in the rubble left behind would not likely be pleasant; much would depend on the ability of our descendants to organize a cooperative economy in an era of scarcity and defeat the inevitable attempts at imposing dictatorial regimes that would offer simplistic solutions to complicated problems.

Technology is not likely to solve all our future problems for ourselves. The Star Trek universe, where decades of nuclear war is followed by the era of plenty for all (how else could Earth and the Federation afford all those starships?) isn’t realistic. Months, never mind decades, of nuclear war would be enough to reduce humanity to a primitive state, assuming humans even survived the wars. And the uses of technology are based on the relations of power. Technology today could be used to reduce the workday and reduce drudge work, for example, but instead it is used to intensify work and surveil employees. Because we live in a drastically unequal society, technology is a tool of those who possess power and capital instead of a being the liberating tool it could be in a better world.

Although we can’t know what the expiration date of capitalism will be, it is likely to be sometime in the current century. If we are in the beginning stages of the end of neoliberalism, that does not mean we are in the beginning stages of the end of capitalism. Given capitalism’s ability to absorb dissent and its elasticity, it is quite conceivable that some new form of capitalism could replace neoliberalism. Given a powerful enough movement coordinating on an international basis, a new version of capitalism could be something better, temporarily. Such a movement aiming at reforms within capitalism would eventually be disappointed — once movements stand down, the hard-won reforms begin to be taken away. An international movement for a better world has no choice but to work toward abolishing capitalism and instituting a system of economic democracy.

The rise of right-wing authoritarians with aspirations to become fascist dictators — people such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and Viktor Orbán — does not have to be a harbinger of the future as were Reagan and Thatcher. With enough people around the world organizing, it won’t be.

The world was once run by monarchs who sat on thrones due to divine will — God selected one family to rule in perpetuity. Most of the world’s people once believed that. Today, it would be laughable to promote such an idea. Not long ago in human history, millions of people were held in slavery — a human being could be owned by another human being and have no rights whatsoever. People believed that not only were certain people inferior and properly enslaved but that the economy would collapse without slavery. Today, not even the most vulgar racist would suggest such a thing in public.

Capitalism is not the end of history. It is nothing more than one more system of repression, one more system of organization. It is no more permanent than slavery, feudalism, absolute monarchy or any other system of the past. If this were not so, there would not be so much frenetic activity put into convincing us that “there is no alternative.” We’ll be deciding the next system in the coming years. If we don’t, it’ll be decided for us.

Claims that the ‘NAFTA 2’ agreement is better is a macabre joke

Democratic Party House representatives have voted by a wide margin to approve version 2 of the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Even Rose DeLauro of Connecticut, in the past a strong leader within Congress in the fight against so-called “free trade” agreements, is on board with this one.

Representative DeLauro and other congressional Democrats claim they forced the Trump administration to strengthen the agreement by compelling the insertion of language that allegedly creates “effective and meaningful labor standards and protect[s] worker rights”; supports environmental standards; and “protect[s] access to affordable medicine.” Can this really be true? Or have congressional Democrats reverted to normal form, rolling in the dirt at the feet of Republicans yet again?

Although Democrats and public pressure forced through some improvements, the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), or NAFTA 2, isn’t substantially different and remains a document of corporate domination. It would appear that appearances, not substance, drove Democrats in the House of Representatives to approve the deal. That was signaled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who said she wanted to show United Statesians that her party can get things done and is not simply opposing President Donald Trump for the sake of opposing him. That was understood to be a gesture to buttress the re-election chances of Democrats who won seats in districts previously held by Republicans.

Factory farms won’t be going away under the USMCA (photo by Mercy for Animals)

So Democrats went along to get along, much as they did in approving the massive $738 billion Pentagon budget. In other words, they once again demonstrated that cringing and cowering is their default position. One can imagine the discussion behind closed doors: Yes, that will show Donald Trump we mean business — we’ll support his most desired policy initiative.

Unfortunately, the Mexican and Canadian governments have not shown much more resistance. Mexico President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, despite being elected on a Left wave and promising significant change, has so far tended to give in to President Trump’s demands. That tendency was underscored by the almost unanimous approval given the USMCA by the Mexican Senate. Meanwhile, Canada Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has been a willing participant in bringing NAFTA 2 to fruition, even going so far as to be a voice for retaining the ability of corporations to use unaccountable tribunals to sue governments, including his own and despite Canada’s regulations being the most frequent target.

What the document says isn’t what it means

So what is really in the USMCA text? Interpretation is what really matters here, as the text, like all “free trade” agreements, is written in dry, technical language that appears to be neutral at first glance. But what the words mean in practice, and how they will be interpreted by tribunals, is not necessarily the same as what the words might appear to say.

A key portion of the document is Chapter 14, the chapter on investment. The chapter’s first page, Article 14.1, defines an “investment” with the standard broad brush — not only is any capital outlay covered but so are all forms of financial speculation, including derivatives. Intellectual property rights and intangible property are explicitly named as well. So the expectation of a profit across the spectrum of business activities is well covered here, and of course the expectation of a profit — in actual practice, the demand for the biggest possible profit regardless of cost to others — is what the owners of capital expect these agreements to help deliver. The secret tribunals used to adjudicate disputes, frequently presided over by corporate lawyers who in their day job specialize in representing the corporations who sue in the tribunals, consistently interpret the language of “free trade” agreements to mean corporations are guaranteed maximum profits above all other considerations.

So is the language of Chapter 14 substantially different? Asking that question is important because Article 14.3 states that in the event of any inconsistency between Article 14 and any any other chapter, Article 14 prevails. The one exception is financial services, covered by Chapter 17, to which we will return. Article 14.4 begins with this passage: “Each Party shall accord to investors of another Party treatment no less favorable than that it accords, in like circumstances, to its own investors with respect to the establishment, acquisition, expansion, management, conduct, operation, and sale or other disposition of investments in its territory.”

That dry language may sound neutral, but it is the exact language that is standard in “free trade” agreements. This is the language that is invoked by multi-national corporations to demand “damages” anytime any law or regulation that upholds health, safety, worker or environmental standards prevents them from extracting the biggest possible profit. This is the language invoked in the secret tribunals that adjudicate these cases to rule in favor of corporate plunder and against regulations.

When you hear “customary international law,” be afraid

That is followed up by Article 14.6, which states “Each Party shall accord to covered investments treatment in accordance with customary international law, including fair and equitable treatment and full protection and security.” On the surface, that passage seems neutral, even innocuous. But what is “customary international law”? It is whatever the tribunals that have adjudicated disputes between multi-national corporations and governments say it is. In practice, the many outrageous decisions overturning reasonable health, safety, worker or environmental standards and making corporate profit paramount establishes precedent and thus constitutes “customary” law.

The article goes on to state: “The concepts of ‘fair and equitable treatment’ and ‘full protection and security’ do not require treatment in addition to or beyond that which is required by that standard, and do not create additional substantive rights.” Again, what sounds neutral has to been read in context. What need for “additional rights” would be needed when the profits of multi-national corporations are elevated above all other considerations?

The vote in the Canadian Parliament will likely be the last chance to stop the USMCA (photo by Saffron Blaze)

We then come to Article 14.8, which states: “No Party shall expropriate or nationalize a covered investment either directly or indirectly through measures equivalent to expropriation or nationalization (expropriation).” The word “indirectly” is crucial here. Not a reference to a nationalization, which would be a verboten act, an “indirect expropriation” can be any government act that, regardless of intention or general applicability, has the effect of preventing a multi-national corporation from extracting the biggest possible profit. An environmental regulation or a regulation imposing standards protecting human health are two examples of “indirect expropriation,” and under the rules established here would mean that the government being sued would be obligated to strike such regulations from its law and pay “compensation” to the corporation. The article explicitly states that “compensation shall be paid without delay.” (A “Party” is a government that is a signatory to the agreement.)

And what of requiring corporations to act in a socially responsible manner? Here’s Article 14.17 in full: “The Parties reaffirm the importance of each Party encouraging enterprises operating within its territory or subject to its jurisdiction to voluntarily incorporate into their internal policies those internationally recognized standards, guidelines, and principles of corporate social responsibility that have been endorsed or are supported by that Party, which may include the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. These standards, guidelines, and principles may address areas such as labor, environment, gender equality, human rights, indigenous and aboriginal peoples’ rights, and corruption” (emphasis added).

Note the provisional language, quite unlike the many articles addressing what governments must do for multi-national corporations. In the standard 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.” The USMCA is no different. It’s the same sleight of hand.

Regulations on banks and Internet giants? Forget about it

Chapter 17, covering financial services, contains the same standard language requiring “treatment no less favorable than that it accords to its own financial institutions … with respect to the establishment, acquisition, expansion, management, conduct, operation, and sale or other disposition of financial institutions and investments.” Again, what appears to be bland language actually means something stronger: In this case, a prohibition against restrictions on predatory banks. Article 17.5 explicitly bans any limitations on the activities of financial institutions and Article 17.6 prohibits any restrictions on taking capital out of a country.

Among other rules, Article 19.11 prohibits any restrictions on “cross-border transfer of information,” which effectively means, for example, that neither Canada or Mexico can protect personal information from U.S. internet companies, a cohort not known for responsible use of personal information. Similar language can be found in Chapter 15, covering cross-border trade in services. This section appears to be modeled on the Trade In Services Agreement (TISA), a notorious “free trade” agreement negotiated in secret among 50 countries, among them all three NAFTA countries, the European Union, Australia, New Zealand and Japan, and purporting to liberalize professional services.

The cover story for why TISA is being negotiated is that it would uphold the right to hire the accountant or engineer of your choice, but in reality is intended to enable the financial industry and Internet companies to run roughshod over countries around the world. The text of TISA expanded the definition of “services” to encompass manufacturing and could potentially encompass technology companies like Google and Facebook as providers of “communications services.” The text of USMCA’s Chapter 15 may not necessarily be stretched as far it is in TISA, but a reasonable reading is that this chapter will provide another weapon that predatory banks can leverage to take over financial systems and halt attempts at bringing them under meaningful regulatory control. Citigroup, Microsoft and Google are among the many corporate entities celebrating the USMCA.

Another area of concern is Chapter 11, covering “technical barriers to trade.” This chapter adopts numerous articles from the World Trade Organization’s Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade, and makes WTO standards obligatory. There is also a clause in Article 11.7 that requires equal participation by citizens of other countries when technical regulations or standards are developed. Might this be an invitation for executives and lobbyists for multi-national corporations to demand the ability to shape new regulations? What might be ruled an “unnecessary technical barrier to trade”? Such “barriers” are intended to be eliminated as stated in Article 11.9.

Ending secret tribunals appears to be an empty promise

In “free trade” lingo, when a corporation sues a government, the dispute is to be adjudicated in a mechanism known as an “investor-state dispute settlement.” That bland-sounding bureaucratic phrase means that a tribunal decides the issue. Under NAFTA, and many other “free trade” agreements, the tribunal is the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes (ICSID), an arm of the World Bank. One of President Trump’s empty promises was to put an end to the use of these tribunals. Surprise! It’s ain’t so. OK, it’s not a surprise that he lied.

In disputes between the U.S. and Mexico, Article 14.D.3 states that disputes will be settled in the ICSID, but the two sides can agree to have it heard in another forum. Given the one-sided rulings ICSID hands down, suing corporations have little incentive to use another forum. More generally, Chapter 31 sets the rules for settling disputes. There we find Article 31.3, which states, “If a dispute regarding a matter arises under this Agreement and under another international trade agreement to which the disputing Parties are party, including the WTO Agreement, the complaining Party may select the forum in which to settle the dispute.” Can a corporation suing a government dragoon the government into the ICSID or one of the other two similarly one-sided secret tribunals? The text later in the chapter is ambiguous on that, but does not preclude use of those fora.

Finance capital will be one of the winners from the USMCA (photo by Elisa Rolle)

Later in the chapter, the text speaks of “panels” without specifying a forum and also mandates, in Article 31.8, that a “roster of up to 30 individuals who are willing to serve as panelists” be created. The panelists are to “have expertise or experience in international law, international trade, other matters covered by this Agreement, or the resolution of disputes arising under international trade agreements.” The exact same “expertise” required under NAFTA and virtually all other “free trade” agreements! In other words, corporate lawyers who specialize in representing corporations in these kinds of disputes are those who have the “expertise” and “experience” to sit in judgment. The same hat-switching will be in force.

So even if ICSID, or the other two secret tribunals, are not used and instead a new panel specific to the USMCA becomes the new forum, the same conditions and same cast of characters, using the same precedents, will be in force. There is no reason to expect any effective difference from NAFTA.

Some better language but that is not necessarily meaningful

As to what potential improvements from NAFTA exist, there are three. One is that hearings will be conducted in public (Article 14.D.8) (although there does not appear to be a requirement that a public notice be made). The second is that a side agreement in force only between Mexico and the U.S. that purports to uphold workers’ rights by prohibiting denial of free association or the right to collective bargaining to the extent that doing so impacts the other country (Annex 31-A). A panel is supposed to adjudicate this issue should it arise, and apply International Labor Organization standards. The U.S. government can sue to enforce this annex, but can anybody imagine the Trump or any other Republican administration suing to enforce the right of workers? For that matter, would a Democratic administration seek to enforce collective-bargaining standards or the right to form a union if a Mexican government, acting on behalf of its industrialists, discourages it from filing?

Democratic supporters of USCMA are taking this provision on faith, but it remains to be seen if there will be any use of this annex or if it can be meaningfully enforced even if a future administration does seek to apply it.

The third improvement is that there is language on the environment that is stronger than in past agreements. Article 24.2 declares that “The Parties recognize that a healthy environment is an integral element of sustainable development” and are encouraged to “promote high levels of environmental protection and effective enforcement of environmental laws.” There are several articles in Chapter 24 discussing various specific environmental concerns. But seemingly pro-environment language has not been absent from existing “free trade” agreements and that language has proved to be meaningless window dressing.

Further, Article 24.2 also says “The Parties further recognize that it is inappropriate to establish or use their environmental laws or other measures in a manner which would constitute a disguised restriction on trade or investment between the Parties.” Here we find a potential giant loophole. Might environmental laws be interpreted to be such a restriction? Unfortunately, there is ample precedent here. A series of rulings culminated in the World Trade Organization ruling that U.S. dolphin-safe labeling is an unfair “technical barrier to trade,” even though the U.S. had weakened its laws in response to the earlier WTO rulings.

Among rulings handed down under NAFTA — rulings that are considered precedents when similar cases are heard — Canada had to reverse its ban on a gasoline additive known as MMT, a chemical long believed to be dangerous to health, because the tribunal ruled the ban a violation of the principal of “equal treatment” even though, had a Canadian producer of MMT existed, it would have had the same standard applied. Canada was also successfully sued over its ban on the transportation of PCBs that conformed with both a Canada-United States and a multi-lateral environmental treaty. The tribunal ruled that, when formulating an environmental rule, a government “is obliged to adopt the alternative that is most consistent with open trade.”

Not only are these types of rulings precedents, but recall, as noted above, that Article 14, which elevates expectations of profits above any conflicting consideration, supersedes all other articles. And to repeat a point made earlier, WTO standards are obligatory. “Technical barriers” to trade as the WTO defines them won’t be exceptions.

A billionaires’ club masquerading as a government

So what can we really expect if the USMCA goes into effect? Given not only the history of “free trade” agreements and the mendacity of the Trump administration, probably the same as experienced under NAFTA. Consider the evidence the Trump administration has offered. Its April 2018 “National Trade Estimate Report on Foreign Trade Barriers,” a document laying out its trade goals, no less than 137 countries were cited for raising alleged “trade barriers” to be attacked, barriers that include items like laws requiring food imported to be safe.

In July 2017, the Trump administration quietly published its “Summary of Objectives for the NAFTA Renegotiation,” which features boilerplate language that in some cases appears to be lifted word for word from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And, not least, is the Trump gang’s infrastructure plan, a macabre joke that mostly consists of massive corporate subsidies and intends the creation of “public-private partnerships,” which are scams under which services are privatized for guaranteed corporate profit while becoming more expensive and less subject to public accountability.

We’re supposed to trust this government? NAFTA has been a “lose-lose-lose” proposition for working people and farmers in Canada, Mexico and the United States. That formula won’t be changing. The Council of Canadians has issued a strong warning about what can be expected:

“Regulatory cooperation in the new NAFTA takes away our ability to set standards and regulations to protect our health, safety and well-being. … [R]egulations cannot be prescribed for ethical or social reasons. The emphasis is on the regulator to prove that a regulation is backed by science, and not on the corporation to prove that their product does no harm. … Regulators have to vigorously defend proposed regulations and are even required to suggest alternatives that don’t involve regulating. They have to provide extensive analysis, including cost-benefits to industry. The new NAFTA encourages the three countries to harmonize, or have similar regulations. This is not about raising standards, but bringing standards down to the lowest common denominator.”

The National Family Farm Coalition, representing organizations in more than 40 U.S. states, said the USMCA “offers little” for family farmers. Coalition President Jim Goodman, a retired Wisconsin dairy farmer, said:

“Climate change is not mentioned and the new treaty does nothing to curb the environmental damage that was part of the original NAFTA. [Coalition] dairy producers do not support dumping excess US milk on the Canadian or Mexican markets, as that will force family dairy farmers out of business in those countries.”

The Sierra Club, League of Conservation Voters and National Resources Defense Council also recommended against the agreement being approved:

“The deal that the Trump administration produced … would encourage further outsourcing of pollution and jobs, offer handouts to notorious corporate polluters, and prolong Trump’s polluting legacy for years. The deal not only fails to mention, acknowledge, or address the climate crisis, but would actually contribute to it.”

The Institute for Agriculture & Trade Policy similarly gave a thumbs-down to the deal:

“[The USMCA] locks in a system of agribusiness exploitation of farmers and workers in the three participating nations, while worsening the climate crisis. … Nothing in the New NAFTA addresses urgent issues plaguing our farm economy: low prices, rising debt and increased bankruptcy. … Measures in New NAFTA that open Canada’s dairy market to increased exports from the U.S. will not significantly reduce the vast oversupply of U.S. milk or raise prices paid to U.S. dairy farmers. Instead, the opening will weaken Canada’s successful supply management program, which has achieved market-based prosperity for its farmers. Added regulatory-focused sections will delay and impede the development, enactment and enforcement of protections for consumers, workers and the environment.”

Sadly, the main union federation in the U.S., the AFL-CIO, has chosen to endorse the USMCA despite its fatal flaws. The largest Canadian federation, the Canadian Labour Congress, does not seem to have taken a position, although it did issue an ambiguous statement in October 2018 saying the deal had “some points of progress.” The Congress specifically cited the eliminating of NAFTA’s notorious Chapter 11 that elevated “investor rights” above all other considerations, but that optimism proved erroneous as it is now clear that provision remains in less direct language.

The governments of Canada, Mexico and the United States have once again put a gun to their own heads. “Free trade” agreements continue to have little to do with trade and much to do with imposing a corporate dictatorship, a lesson once again being imposed.

Capitalism’s triumph: Labor rights violated in every country on Earth

In what country are labor rights fully respected? The sad answer is: none.

Labor rights are routinely violated around the world, and the trend is only getting worse. The International Trade Union Confederation has again issued its annual Global Rights Index and the result is no better than in past years. It’s worse. For example, the number of countries that exclude workers from the right to establish or join a union increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019. Even in Europe, the region with the (relatively) best conditions for working people, half the countries exclude at least some groups of workers from freely associating by allowing “non-standard” forms of work such as zero-hour contracts, temp work or misclassifying people working through online platforms as “self-employed.”

Corporations ever on the lookout for ways to extract more from their workforce and, with government complicity, continue to press down. The Confederation, in its report, said:

Worldwide, new technology has allowed employers to use various mechanisms to avoid paying minimum entitlements and exclude workers from labour laws. Recent technological leaps in the ways that work can be allocated and accessed has resulted in increased incidences of workers being denied rights under the guise of flexibility and as platform workers. Decent work is being affected and rights are being denied by companies avoiding rules and regulations. … More and more governments are complicit in facilitating labour exploitation or allowing the rule of law to be avoided because workers are forced to work in the informal sector of the economy.”

Rapid advances in technology, because they are controlled by corporations and repressive governments, are enabling continuing deterioration in working conditions. Not only does technology enable production to be moved to locations with ever lower wages and regulations, but it enables the weakening labor protections in new “high tech” wrapping.

In its report, the International Trade Union Confederation ranks countries from one to five, with one the least repressive and five the most. Only 12 countries — Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden and Uruguay — are ranked as one. These are countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. So there are no countries on Earth that do not violate labor rights. (There are several countries not given a rating, shown in gray in the map below.)

The International Trade Union Confederation labor rights rankings

Interestingly, the two countries most prone to wagging fingers at the rest of the world, Britain and the United States, once again fared poorly. Britain was ranked as a three, representing a country that has “regular violations of rights.” The U.S. was rated as a four, among countries determined to condone “systematic violations of rights.” There is nothing new here; the U.S. has consistently been scored as a four in these reports over the years. As recently as 2017, Britain was also ranked as a four.

In a country rated as a four, “The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under threat.”

So much for the so-called land of freedom.

The report’s rankings are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries as noted above (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 24 countries including France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Australia, Canada and Spain (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 39 countries including Argentina, Chile and Mexico (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 34 countries including Brazil, China, Greece and India (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 331 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. “The methodology is grounded in standards of fundamental rights at work, in particular the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike,” the Confederation wrote in its report.

During the six years that the Confederation has issued its yearly reports, conditions have steadily deteriorated. Since the initial report in 2014, every region of the world has seen scores worsen. Summarizing this trend, the report says:

“In 2019, strikes have been severely restricted or banned in 123 out of 145 countries. In a significant number of these countries, industrial actions were brutally repressed by the authorities and workers exercising their right to strike often faced criminal prosecution and summary dismissals. Three regions — Africa, the Americas and [Middle East/North Africa] — all had an increase in the number of countries that violated the right to strike from last year.”

And thus it is no surprise that inequality is rising around the world, unemployment is endemic and far higher than official government statistics would have us believe and corporate tax dodging facilitated by government policies is widespread. The world’s working people continue to be on the losing side of one of the most one-sided wars in human history.

Big corporations pay no income tax, unlike you

Telling you that Donald Trump lied, or that the one percent continue to succeed in their incessant class warfare, ranks in the astonishment department with being told the Sun rose in the east this morning. Do we really need more evidence?

Necessary or not, more evidence continues to be delivered. The latest delivery comes courtesy of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, which has found that 60 of the largest corporations in the United States paid no income taxes for 2018 despite earning a composite $79 billion in net income. Worse, these companies actually received $4.3 billion in tax rebates.

Had these companies paid taxes at the newly reduced corporate tax rate of 21 percent, these companies would have paid $16.4 billion in taxes. So we have a difference of more than $20 billion — quite a nice return on their lobbying expenses and donations to the Trump campaign.

Heading the list is none other than Amazon. Run by the world’s richest person and recently extracting billions of dollars in subsidies in a sweepstakes in which cities across the United States competed to give away the most money, Amazon racked up $11 billion in profits last year and not only paid no taxes but received a rebate of $129 million. A total of 26 companies, including Chevron, Delta Air Lines, Duke Energy, General Motors, Molson Coors and Prudential Financial, reported net income of more than $1 billion while paying no taxes.

Occupy Seattle rally at Westlake Park (photo by Joe Mabel)

President Trump claimed that his massive tax cuts for corporations would directly result in the average United States household getting an annual increase of $4,000 in wages. That magical figure came from his own Council of Economic Advisers, which further claimed that the $4,000 was a “conservative” estimate. The Council went on to claim that the average U.S. household might see a raise of $9,000.

The web site FactCheck.org, noting that the Council never said how it arrived at these magical figures, used old-fashioned math to reveal the lack of reality here. The site’s analysis of the purported $9,000 raise concluded: “That would amount to a $1.1 trillion annual income gain from simply reducing a corporate tax burden that is currently only $297 billion.”

Still waiting for that extra $4,000 in your paycheck, aren’t you?

Don’t hold your breath

Wages actually fell two percent, adjusted for inflation, from December 2017 to December 2018, reports the Economic Policy Institute. But it would have been fruitless to wait for the promised largesse. The Communications Workers of America made a gallant effort to get commitments for corporations to pass on the tax savings to their workers, to no avail, the Center For Public Integrity reports:

“Corporations balked at saying tax cuts would lead to higher wages because they didn’t want to be bound to a promise to increase pay, a lobbyist for the companies said. When the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers predicted hat a 20 percent corporate rate would hike average annual household income by $4,000, the Communications Workers of America, a 700,000-member union, asked eight major corporations to pledge to hike worker wages by $4,000 if they got the tax cut. The companies didn’t respond. That ‘shows you the difficulty they have, and not only in messaging but also why people don’t like them,’ said one lobbyist who asked to remain anonymous so as to be able to speak freely.”

This sort of class warfare is not new — wages around the world have fallen far below productivity gains over the past three decades, pay inequality has reached gigantic proportions and corporations have showered speculators with so much money that in some recent years the total of money paid to them in dividends and stock buybacks exceeded net income.

The Trump administration, however, has intensified these trends. Worldwide, financiers pocketed an astounding US$1.37 trillion in dividends for 2018, a total that has nearly doubled in less than a decade, and is predicted to be even bigger in 2019. Stock buybacks in the U.S. alone accounted for another $1.1 trillion last year. Putting their chief executive officer colleagues to shame, the top 25 “earners” among hedge-fund managers paid themselves a composite $15.4 billion in 2017, with four of them raking in more than $1 billion each.

In contrast, six percent of the tax cuts given to corporations went to employees in increased wages and in bonuses, while more than half went directly to stock holders.

The costs of poverty

This ever-mounting inequality has real costs. For example, almost 13 million children in the United States (20 percent of the country’s children) live in poverty. The Children’s Defense Fund pulls no punches in assessing the cost of that poverty:

“When we let millions of children grow up poor without basic necessities like food, housing and health care, we deny them equal opportunities to succeed in life and rob our nation of their future contributions. Poverty decreases a child’s chances of graduating from high school and increases her chances of becoming a poor adult. It makes her more likely to suffer illnesses and get caught in the criminal justice system. Beyond its human costs, child poverty has huge economic costs. Our nation loses about $700 billion a year due to lost productivity and increased health and crime costs stemming from child poverty.”

Don’t hold your breath waiting for the Trump administration to address any of these problems. Far from the magic fountains of money pouring into your paycheck and reductions to the federal budget deficit, the country’s accumulated debt is rising fast. The Congressional Budget Office estimates an additional $1.9 trillion will be added to the U.S. government’s budget deficit over the next 10 years thanks to a drastic decrease in corporate tax payments. For the first six months of fiscal year 2019 (which began with October 2018), corporate tax payments to the federal government declined $11 billion (a fall of 13 percent) compared to a year earlier, according to the Center For Public Integrity.

Bonuses as a share of compensation (graphic by the Economic Policy Institute)

How will this be paid for? Naturally, in cuts to the safety net. The Trump administration’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 calls for $845 billion in cuts to Medicare, $1.5 trillion in cuts to Medicaid and $84 billion in cuts to Social Security disability benefits. President Trump, you’ll recall, promised during his election campaign that he would make no cuts to those programs. Then again, what would we expect from a serial liar whose total of false statements since taking office has surpassed 10,000 — and who has a long history of failing to pay contractors who did work for his casinos and other businesses.

As historically weak as the so-called “recovery” from the 2008 economic collapse has been, all history points to the fact that we are now overdue for the next recession. Nor is the little bit of sugar high the U.S. economy received from the Trump tax cuts (in reality, a bump for the owners of capital but not those who work for a living) going to last.

In a CounterPunch commentary, economist Jack Rasmus explains that the rise in U.S. gross domestic product for the first quarter of 2018 was due to corporations building inventories to get ahead of the Trump tariffs and a temporary decline in imports (thus providing an artificial boost to the import-export ratio) stemming from the administration’s trade wars. Household consumption, the driver of the U.S. economy, is actually decreasing, Professor Rasmus said, which does not bode well for the future.

We are losing one of the most one-sided wars in human history.

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!

“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.

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.