Monthly Archives: October 2011

Memo to the Occupiers

Occupy Wall Street has many on the left cheering.  That includes me, albeit with reservations.

As someone who devoted a good portion of his life to fighting  injustice—or as the late liberal icon and state legislator Robert Hagan was fond of saying “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable”—I have a natural affinity for the folks camped out in New York and other cities around the nation and the world.

On the other hand, as someone who has spent the past 24 years striving to affect change by working both inside and outside the “system” I listen to the white noise that’s emanating from the protesters and all I can say is: “Really?”

Really, you have managed to garner the attention of the media around the world and you can’t figure out what the hell it is you want?

Really, leaders of the protests—to the extent there actually are any—are offended that the media is even asking what the hell you want?

Really, the best answer you can give is this kind of mumbo jumbo as reported in the New York Times:

The General Assembly has already adopted a “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” which includes a list of grievances against corporations and a call for others to join the group in peaceful assembly. To many protesters, that general statement is enough, and the open democracy of Zuccotti Park is the point of the movement.

Really, if that’s the point, you guys should all pack up your stuff, grab a low fat, grande latte on your way out, and go home, because you’re wasting everybody’s time.  Worse yet, you’re actually helping the very comfortable miscreants you’re supposedly there to afflict.

Let’s be serious, anyone who thinks the traders and financiers walking around in $5,000 bespoke suits in the offices overlooking the protests gives a damn about marches, chants, signs, or the invective that’s hurled at them as they arrive and leave in their limos and Town Cars each day is, in a word, delusional.  I’ve dealt with people like them, they know they’re evil, they enjoy it, they revel in it, and believe me, they’re laughing at the protesters all day, every day, including on the weekends whether they’re at their Beach House in the Hamptons or flying off to the islands on their Gulfstream Vs.

In fact, when they hear words like these from the occupiers they literally laugh so hard that Dom Perignon flies out of their noses:

In Boston, Meghann Sheridan wrote on the group’s Facebook page, “The process is the message.” In Baltimore, Cullen Nawalkowsky, a protester, said by phone that the point was a “public sphere not moderated by commodities or mainstream political discourse.” An Occupy Cleveland participant, Harrison Kalodimos, is even writing a statement about why demands are not the answer.

Yup, I can see the boys at City Bank reading this stuff in the NYT and then saying: “OOOOOOOOOOOOOOOh we’re so scared of a public sphere not moderated by commodities” Give me a break.

Even someone as smart as Paul Krugman, whom I respect and with whom I usually agree, has been taken in by the “protest is enough” claptrap that, at least for the moment, defines OWS.

You see, until a few weeks ago it seemed as if Wall Street had effectively bribed and bullied our political system into forgetting about that whole drawing lavish paychecks while destroying the world economy thing. Then, all of a sudden, some people insisted on bringing the subject up again.

And their outrage has found resonance with millions of Americans. No wonder Wall Street is whining.

OK, Paul, Wall Street is whining, but guess what, they’re also winning.  That’s because they have bribed and bullied the political system, including the Obama Administration, into doing nothing either to punish them for the damage they’ve done to the economy or to stop them from doing it again.

While I’ll grant that the outrage being expressed does resonate with a vast majority of Americans, that outrage means nothing if it’s not converted into action that brings about real change.  That’s what turns a protest into a movement that fundamentally alters and improves the world we live in.

History provides many examples of how this works: Ghandi’s crusade to dismantle South Africa’s pass laws in the early 1900s; the labor movement’s battle to organize industrial workers in the ‘30s; Dr. King’s drive to secure passage of the Voting Rights Act and other civil rights statutes; the anti-Vietnam war movement that brought down LBJ.  Even this year’s protests in Ohio against SB 5.  All started as protests with clearly defined goals that turned into effective movements.

The same can be said for the Tea Party.  Derided as yahoos and know-nothings when they emerged to protest corporate bailouts and President Obama’s health care reform plan, they coalesced into a movement built on easily understandable demands: smaller government and lower taxes.  Their mantra was adopted by dozens of GOP Congressional candidates in 2010 and played a major role in ousting the Democratic majority.  Since taking power, the Tea Party members have been driving the legislative agenda in Congress—including killing virtually every initiative proposed by the President.

So, here’s some advice for the occupiers wherever you are.  Learn from history.  If you want Wall Street and the new Robber Barons to stop laughing at you, figure out the things they fear and hate the most, then make those things happen.

That’s a principle Tom Friedman of the New York Times grasped in a recent column.  He suggested that OWS demand that four reforms be imposed on the financial services industry.  Nice try, Tom.  Unfortunately, as you point out in the very same column, Wall Street owns Congress, having purchased it with $3.2 billion in campaign contributions over the past 20 years.  As long as that’s the case, it will be a very cold day in Zucotti Park and the other places the OWSers are congregating before the change they’re seeking occurs.

So what should the protesters demand or do?  Here’s two suggestions for starters.  First, fight for real campaign finance reform that reverses the Citizens United decision and takes the “For Sale” sign off the Capitol and the White House.  Renew the push for publicly financed campaigns started a couple of decades ago by folks like Fred Wertheimer.  Look, it’s a proven fact that politicians respond to the people who write the checks that finance their campaigns. So it’s logical to believe that if those checks come from Main Street rather than Wall Street the people with the power to reform the financial system might actually do it.  Now that’s something the fat cats will really hate.

Second, the protestors should head to Massachusetts and do whatever it takes to make Dr. Elizabeth Warren Senator Warren in January of 2013.  There’s no one Wall Street hates more, which should be motivation enough to support her campaign.  There’s also a practical reason: her willingness to fight for working families.  Elect her to the Senate where she can team up with a principled colleague like Bernie Sanders of Vermont and they can use the body’s arcane rules to grind business to halt—either to force passage of reform legislation or block bills that favor Wall Street.

Accomplish these two goals and the OWS will have taken a huge stride in going from “Really?” to really making a difference.

Leo Jennings

Empathizing with Capitalists

Once upon a time, in the 1970s, there probably was, as political conservatives and the business class claimed, a capital shortage.  Union power, rising wages, and a tax-and-spend “liberal consensus” had increased household incomes for three decades at the expense of profit rates, and this left businesses without sufficient capital to invest in all the profit-making opportunities provided by expansive consumer spending power.  This, so the story goes, was the root cause of the virulent 1970s inflation.  In the famous Keynesian formula for macroeconomic demand, there was too much spending power in the hands of consumers and government, and too little in the hands of investors.  Capitalists were short of cash, and the solution was clear: get them more, a lot more.

Short term this was accomplished through President Reagan’s tax cuts for the rich in the early 1980s.  But long term it required “breaking the back of the American standard of living,” as I remember Business Week bluntly arguing at the time.  This required limiting, eroding, and chipping away at a whole set of institutional structures built up since the 1940s around labor unions and government.

That mission has now been accomplished – and accomplished all too well.  We now have exactly the opposite problem: too little spending power in the hands of consumers and too much in the hands of investors.  Capitalists are said to be anxious as they sit on some $2 trillion in cash reserves, while real wages and household incomes decline.  There simply is not enough consumer demand to provide profit-making opportunities for capitalists, just the opposite of the 1970s.  The solution is again clear: get more money in the hands of consumers.  In the long run that means we need higher wages, much higher wages, but tax changes and stimulus programs can do a lot of good in the short term, and they are a good way to get started.

Just as in the 1970s the solution was to redistribute spending power from consumers to investors, we now need  redistribution in the other direction, from investors to consumers – not for the purpose of achieving a more equitable distribution of income (as desirable as that is) but, as in the ‘70s, to get the economy growing strongly again.  Raising taxes on top earners to fund job creation and raising wages for low earners is not just about “fair shares” (though it is very much about that, too).  It is necessary to reinvigorate our fat and weary form of capitalism.

The historical symmetry of these opposing problems and solutions is important because current Republican rhetoric about “job killers” and “job creators” assumes that there is always a capital shortage and, if that were true, throwing money at rich people might be part of the solution.  It’s important to realize that this idea once had a legitimate intellectual provenance, disputed to be sure but with a factual basis. That factual basis is gone and has been for quite a while.  With $2 trillion in corporate cash still sitting on the sidelines, it’s hard to argue that we need to overcome a capital shortage!

President Obama’s American Jobs Act implicitly recognized, at least on a temporary basis, that strong economic growth going forward depends on redistributing spending power from capital to labor, from investors to consumers.  For example, it included payroll tax cuts, extended unemployment compensation, and direct federal spending to reemploy teachers, cops, firefighters and construction workers – all paid for by taxing millionaires.  If it had passed, the Act would have increased economic growth by channeling spending power to workers and consumers who very much need it and would, therefore, spend most of it quickly, thereby stimulating other economic activity, leading to more jobs, more income, more consumer spending, and so on.

This is not an aberration.  Much of Obama’s program from the very beginning – the initial stimulus package, semi-universal health care, the Making Work Pay tax credit – has been redistributive in the right direction.   What is lacking is a clear Presidential explanation of the underlying problem – the long-term structural imbalance between investment capital and consumer spending.  Indeed, the President will not admit, even when badgered by Bill O’Reilly earlier this year, that he favors any redistribution of wealth.

Our President denies being a socialist, and I believe him.  For all I know, he may actually be philosophically opposed to the redistribution of income and wealth, seeing his own various redistributive programs as merely temporary expedients.  But someone in his administration understands that the U.S. economy needs more income in the hands of workers and consumers.  Even Business Week and the National Federation of Independent Businesses are beginning to understand it.  So do thousands of Americans occupying Wall Street and other public spaces around the country.  Explaining that – and pounding away at the need for increasing incomes in any way we can think of, as conservatives did with “the capital shortage” back in the day – might actually be more valuable than passing legislation.  Plus, such arguments increase the chances of passing the necessary legislation.

A stronger and more insistent focus on growing incomes in order to grow the economy, coming from the White House and Congressional Democrats, would draw attention to and bolster movements already underway to combat wage theft, pass living wage legislation, and help workers organize unions and other forms of workplace collective action.  All this not just to help poor unfortunate workers, but also to give our capitalists the boost they need.  Greatly increasing consumer demand is the only thing that can provide the myriad of investment opportunities that will save them from their current malaise.

Thus, far from “punishing” the rich and multinational corporations, reducing their cash hordes by increasing wages and average incomes is really for their own good.  I like this paternalistic empathy – especially in contrast to demonizing a whole class of people that I have almost no direct experience of – but I would not indulge that feel-good feeling if it weren’t also so clearly true and urgent.  The best way to give our capitalists a hand up and not a handout is to increase wages and average households’ incomes.

Jack Metzgar, Chicago Committee for Working-Class Studies

The Creative Class Joins the Working-Class

How is the so-called creative class faring in the ongoing economic crisis?  In three books published in the first decade of this century, Richard Florida argued that America’s future lay in metropolitan regions with a high density of “sexually diverse,” cultural, professional, and high-tech workers whose creativity would attract capital and spur future economic development. Recently, in articles in magazines like Salon.com and The Atlantic, critics have been debating whether the creative class is undergoing the same economic transformations as the working class.

 Undaunted by the economic crisis and the subsequent, continuing jobless recovery, Florida continues to suggest that the answer to post-industrialization lies in the continued migration of the so-called creative class to a few cosmopolitan urban areas. The transformation in economic geography would produce winners and losers both individually and regionally based on the ability of communities to develop and attract human capital. His Martin Prosperity Institute has contributed to a report ranking nations on the basis of their investment in innovation and technology.  Of course, all of this reflects Florida’s neo-liberal view that such changes are part of the “natural economic order,” and he has consistently attempted to normalize the new emerging economic order.

But despite Florida’s claims, the creative class is not necessarily winning in the current economy.  Like industrial workers before them, they are being affected by the past 30 years of neo-liberal economic reforms characterized by deregulation, marketization, and liberal trade policy that yielded significant corporate profits from the subcontracting, outsourcing, and the casualization of work in unskilled and semi-skilled industries. As the past decade has made clear, corporations and governments have used those same strategies to make employment for skilled workers, including those in the “knowledge industries,” increasingly precarious.

This has been aided by a different model and language of work, drawn from the so-called “creative industries” — those areas where employees, often in the arts and more recently higher education, were willing to give up stable employment in hierarchical organizations and embraced – or at least accepted – contingent employment involving self-directed, entrepreneurial, and cognitive labor. Florida provided much of the language and rationale for that shift, and his ideas had an significant impact on public discussions of economic development and urban renewal. Further, his view had great currency with the growing ranks of mobile, privileged, educated workers who were willing to embrace the high-risk/high reward employment/worker model.

But Florida had relatively little to say about the real working lives of members of the creative class and the changing organization of work produced by the changes he predicted. In fact, as Scott Timberg argues in Salon.com, the new creative class now shares the same working conditions as many on the other end of the labor market, especially those in the service sector that makes up the majority of today’s working class.  These conditions include uncertainty, temporary or intermittent employment, working in multiple jobs, and accepting jobs for which they are overqualified.  Creative workers, like many in the working class, are isolated from protective legal employment laws and are less likely to have benefits such health insurance, retirement plans, or paid sick leave. Put differently, young educated people, so popularly identified with the creative class, are suffering the same conditions as working and middle class families and could become what Business Week reporter Peter Coy has called a Lost Generation.

As work has eroded and become more episodic, not only does the creative class share the economic conditions of the working class, that group also now shares the working-class’s sense of alienation from American politics and antagonism toward the economic elite who have gained so much ground over the last decade. You need to look no further than the growth of the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.  On the streets of New York and in cities around the country, you see highly educated  young adults joining with displaced working- and middle-class people who believe the American Dream has become nightmare. They have been joined by public and private union members including 300 airline pilots marching in full dress uniform. All are rallying around their shared position as part of the 99% of Americans – a loose coalition much larger and more diverse than any single class.

What brings them together is a politics of resentment that is fueled by growing understanding and anger over the increasing economic inequality in the U.S.  While OWS has focused on Wall Street and government plutocrats, it is expanding and multiplying like an amoeba, in different directions politically and geographically. The issues driving people to occupy not only Wall Street but Public Square in Cleveland and a public park in Kansas City and a dozen other locations are not identical.  Each local group works independently, and they are focusing on issues ranging from the economy and war to agricultural and environmental policy,

As Kathy Newman said in Working-Class Perspectives last week, one of the great things about the OWS movement is its inclusivity. This should not be unexpected. Like the many middle class Americans, the creative class now shares the employment and economic conditions of working people and has shed their sense of difference and superiority over the working class. They now understand that despite the façade of self-direction and creativity, their economic position is every bit as uncertain and unfair as that of many retail, food service, and health care workers.  Just where this new amoeboid politics of resentment goes is anybody’s guess. But we can hope that it will become even more directed at those who are responsible for shaping the current national and global economic conditions that has now engaged and enraged so many people.

John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies

Upsetting the Apple Cart

Last week, a few days before Steve Jobs died of pancreatic cancer, a friend posted a critique of the Occupy Wall Street protesters on her facebook page, in which she basically slammed the protesters for preaching the gospel of anti-corporatism all the while plunking out tweets and status updates from their Apple computers.  My friend was irritated by the irony:  “If you want to change the system,” she wrote, “analyze first the way you live within it.”

I could see her point, but I found myself defending the protesters because they were making me happy.  I loved seeing the creative signs (You Know Things Are Messed Up When Librarians Start Marching), reading about the Human Microphone, and watching as the mainstream media seemed forced against its will to cover the movement.

Then, last Wednesday, October 5th, two startling things happened.  First, New York unions joined the protesters and swelled their numbers into the many thousands.  Hundreds of new organizations around the world covered the actions and thousands of news articles about the protests appeared on radio, television, newspapers, and online.  On the same day it was announced that legendary Apple co-founder Steve Jobs had died, and Apple devotees around the country mourned his passing on facebook and Twitter and by leaving flowers at the door of Apple stores.  Tweets from Occupy Wall Streeters supporters around the globe were mix of “RIP Steve Jobs” and “Occupy Together.”

How can we make sense of these outpourings of spontaneous action, in protesting and in mourning, that have gripped Americans over the last week?

Occupy Wall Street seems to have the most obvious political significance of the two, though the media are struggling to explain it.  The media messages about the protests can be boiled down into three basic narratives:

1)  The movement has no message.  This is a fascinating claim because in the age of instant communication I am not sure that any movement has been able to get its message out more quickly or more clearly.  The message is that 99% of Americans have far too little of the nation’s wealth.  (see Annie Lowrey, here, from Slate, examining the truth behind this claim).  The message is Make Jobs, Not War on Middle, Working Class and Poor.  The message is If I Had a Job I Would Not Be Here.  The message is A Better World is Possible.  True, the movement does not have a list of answerable demands.  But then again, while many have criticized the movement for not having any clear objectives, others have praised it for staying open and flexible.

2)  The movement is the left wing answer to the Tea Party.  I find this narrative somewhat more plausible.  There is something spontaneous, angry, funny, and absurd about the protests that bears some similarities to Tea Party protests (there are even some misspellings in the hand made signs—though not as many).  On the other hand, there is little evidence (so far) that big money is bankrolling the occupiers, as the Koch brothers and other have bankrolled the Tea Party.  In addition, the Occupy Wall Street movement is targeted at the financial system and not the government.  The message, in fact, is that the financial system has largely taken control of the government.

3)  The movement is the beginning of a new, legitimate movement on the left.  This is the narrative by which I am the most persuaded.  While I liked the movement immediately, I liked it even more when union activists started supporting the New York protesters with blankets and food.  My admiration increased again when union activists and members started marching with the protestors last Wednesday.

One of the best things about the movement so far is its inclusivity.  While political scientists, economists, and Marxist theorists debate who is or who is not working class (I am partial to Michael Zweig’s definition which finds about 66% of us to be working class), I feel included in the OWS protests even though I am an English professor at a prestigious university married to another white collar professional.  Because even though my husband and I make a better living than most, we are still solidly in the 99%.

As a result, Occupy Wall Street taps into the rage and frustration that I feel because the Pittsburgh school budget was cut and my son’s bus stop was moved to one of the most dangerous intersections in my neighborhood.  It taps into the rage and frustration that I feel when the students that I teach at Carnegie Mellon University can’t find jobs after they graduate while they are tens of thousand of dollars in debt.  It taps into the rage and frustration I feel when my friends in the labor movement cannot (yet) post information about basic workers rights on bulletin boards in the workplace.  It taps into the rage and frustration I feel when wages, rights, and benefits of union members in Wisconsin, Ohio, and dozens of other states are attacked. It taps into the rage and frustration that I feel knowing how many immigrant families in Alabama are struggling to stay together since the repressive anti-immigrant laws recently passed are now being enforced.

So what does all of this have to do with Steve Jobs?  Whose side would he be on?  Since his death many have written about his company’s dreadful labor practices, his relative lack of philanthropy, and his autocratic personality.  Nonetheless, when I heard the news last week that he had died I felt like I had lost someone who had meant something to me.  I even wondered if Apple products and advertising keywords, like “Think Different” and “Magical” and “Revolutionary” had inspired my activism and critical analyses over the years.  I used an Apple computer to make flyers for rallies and strikes when I was a graduate student/union activist.  I used an Apple computer to write my dissertation.  I used an Apple computer to store and share pictures of my children.  I am using an Apple computer to write this post.

If nothing else, we can acknowledge that Jobs helped provide powerful new tools, and for many a new sense of empowerment, for activism.  Thanks to Steve Jobs and thousands of ordinary people—all 99% of us across the country and around the globe—maybe the revolution won’t be televised.  But it will be tweeted.

Kathy M. Newman

Chavs and the Working Class

A great new book has appeared recently about the working class in the UK. Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class, by Owen Jones, has received a lot of well-deserved attention. For those unfamiliar with the term, ‘chav’ has become a catch-all term of abuse for either the working class or elements of the working class. The term itself is not especially new and has a variety of roots. Whatever its origins, the label is one that is now used interchangeably with prole, feral underclass, scum, hooligan, the poor, or those who live in public housing. It captures dress codes, social and moral attitudes, child rearing practices, and even the way people stand on the sidewalk. What links all of these caricatures is that this is a way of talking about the white working class. Indeed many critical commentators, Owen included, have argued that the whiteness of those labelled chav is central to its use and therefore represents the last form of acceptable discrimination allowed in ‘polite’ society. The denigration of the white working class can be seen in a variety of cultural texts, from newspaper opinion pieces through publications such as The Little Book of Chavs and television comedies to a host of truly vicious websites that incite hate against the working class. Type in ‘chav’ to a search engine of your choice, but be prepared!

This breadth of coverage is important in understanding why this label has become so widespread and pernicious for debates about the working class. The heavily classed term chav is — rather ironically — inextricably linked to the rhetorical rise of the idea of classlessness, the notion that we are all middle class now. Essentially the term serves several roles.   It has become shorthand for the new underclass while simultaneously placing the respectable working class somewhere in the middle of society alongside the bulk of ‘us’ or ‘we’. At the same time it allows those who use the phrase to demonize those in the underclass simply for being there. Chav, therefore becomes an ideological and moral way of categorizing the poor – portraying them as unfit parents, workshy and generally feckless. Jones quotes a stream of right wing pundits who are horrified at this new working clas,s such as Carole Malone, who wrote in a piece about council estate (local authority housing) dwellers: “People who’d never had jobs, never wanted one, people who expected the state to fund every illegitimate child they had-not to mention their drink, drugs and smoking habits … [Their] houses looked like pigsties-dog crap on the floor (trust me, I’ve seen it), putrid carpets, piles of clothes and unwashed dishes everywhere.”

The second related function of the term is that it encourages people not to identify themselves as working class. This has obvious parallels with what Jack Metzgar calls the “class vernacular” of the US, which assumes that the great bulk of the population occupy an imaginary middle class that stretches from multimillionaires down to those struggling to get by.

Jones’s book and a wider and growing critical commentary are beginning to call out this class hatred and discrimination for what it really is. In the process, we are seeing a growing willingness to explore the undoubtedly profound changes in working-class life and culture over the last thirty years. One of the most telling points Jones makes is that the working class has gone from being respected –and at times even feared — for the political and economic clout it once possessed to a position where they are derided and at times feared as almost representing a different species.

At the heart of this shift have been the changes in the economy over the decades, especially the collapse of many industries that once supplied jobs to both the skilled and unskilled working class. Worklessness, or more properly precarious employment, is at the root of this problem. Access to good steady jobs acts as a wedge dividing working-class people and their communities. The rhetoric of chavs widens this divide by pushing some to identify with the ‘nice’ middle rather than the ‘rough’ working class. To work, ironically, takes you out of the working class!

Of course this development is not entirely new.  The divide between the ‘rough’ and ‘respectable’ (hard living and steady living) working class is as old as industrialization – indeed some historians have seen those labels as more insightful that working and middle class categories. What is new is that this contemporary manifestation of working-class division occurs at a time of massive and growing economic inequality where the super rich are enjoying unprecedented increases in their wealth, and London has become the most unequal city anywhere in the developed world. The label chav helps to hide growing inequality within society by focusing attention – and blame — on those at the bottom. Labelling some of the weakest and most vulnerable in society in this way portrays economic inequality as a question of individual morality responsibility rather than as a wider question that society at large needs to address.

The hope in all this is that books like Jones’s provide a powerful and growing counter narrative to the unthinking use of terms like chav. What is striking is the way those of us interested in working-class issues are collectively drawing on and contributing to debates that show the real nature of economic and social inequality that is too often ignored by politicians and tabloid opinion formers. It shows us that to fully understand class we have to see how it operates on economic, social, and cultural levels. In doing this kind of work, we can perhaps start to recognize the shared humanity and value in working-class community and in turn challenge powerful myths about class more generally.

Tim Strangleman

Strangleman is a Sociologist at the University of Kent and co-author of the  textbook, Work and Society: Sociological Approaches, Themes and Methods