Sunday, February 20, 2011

When They Come For You

More than 65,000 rallied in Wisconsin today -- twice as many as the day before -- as Democratic state legislators stayed away from the state to prevent a vote on the Republican governor's union busting budget, and a small number of key Republican legislators were wavering.

Will it take hold elsewhere, as the Tunisian uprising is doing in the Middle East? Or will Americans continue in their apathy? Some of the demonstrators in Wisconsin are working class folk who agree with the governor, who just can't see that his attack on public sector unions is an attack on them, too. That it's an attack on all of us. That it's part of a long range plan to reduce our living standards -- that is, what the ruling class has to pay us to go to work every day and produce wealth for them -- to something more like the rest of the world suffers under, and that plan is called Neoliberalism.

And just what is Neoliberalism? I have referred to it before. In a way it's an unfortunate term, because it suggests Liberalism, so I also use the term Reaganomics, or Thatcherism.

Neoliberalism is more of an academic term. "Neo" means "after," and Liberalism, as the term is used in the academic, not the political, sense, is a term used to describe the thinking that predominated in the period of history from the Enlightenment up until Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher came to power.

Liberalism is a consensus that there should be democratically elected governments and recognition of universal human rights, and that while things would continue under a Capitalist economic system, which has inherent inequalities, Capitalism's more severe effects would be tempered by government programs, like public assistance programs -- welfare assistance, food stamps, unemployment insurance, workman's compensation, Medicare, Social Security.

In the late 1970s, that changed. The super wealthy decided things had gone too far. People had too much say in their governments, and government were getting in the way of Capitalist exploitation. The rich were no longer getting as large a slice of the pie as they were accustomed to, and they began a counterattack.

It was broad based and well thought out. Think tanks were funded, and chairs in universities were endowed, to come up with the sloganeering and appearance of a theoretical framework to justify reversing classic Liberalism. Politicians were groomed and recruited. It was during this time that an out of work B grade actor, Ronald Reagan, was recruited to run for governor of California by a small group of wealthy Orange County businessmen, including John Burch Society supporters Carl Karcher, ower of the Carl's Jr hamburger chain, and Walter Knott, owner of the Knott's Berry Farm conglomerate.

A good guide to how this was all done is a little book called "A Brief History Of Neoliberalism" by Columbia University professor David Harvey.

Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher in Britain, who Reagan considered his soul mate, were only the front men. Thatcher began the counterattack by picking a fight with the most powerful union in England, the miner's union. She beat that union. Reagan then picked a fight with the air traffic controllers in the US, and broke that union.

Emboldened, those two enacted one anti worker policy after another. In Europe, Social Democratic governments fell one after another. As in the US, tax laws favoring the wealthy left governments starved of resources, paving the way for cutbacks.

The breakup of the Soviet Union fueled the process. The existence of a Socialist alternative had worked as a check on the greed of the ruling class. To prevent the outbreak of Socialism in the US, and to prevent its further spread in Europe, employers had to give a little more of the proceeds of the worker's labor to the workers.

Another front on the attack was carried out by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, United Nations organizations originally designed to foster development in poor countries. It became the policies of those organizations to require, as a condition of development loans, that governments drastically reduce social spending and adopt a host of other anti worker policies. Government pension plans were to be privatized, as they have been in places like Chile. Everything that could be privatized would be privatized. Government owned industries would be sold off. The rhetoric behind this came to be referred to as "the Washington Consensus," a term you may have heard. It was all part of the scheme by the rich to get more wealth and power in their hands, to reverse the gains made by unions and by enlightened, classical Liberal thinking.

The popularity of government programs like Social Security, and their success, has made it harder to implement the draconian policies imposed by the IMF and World Bank on smaller countries in America itself, but the ruling class' Republican handmaidens have never stopped trying, and they are as close to doing away with programs like Social Security as they have ever been before. The attacks on public education, on public workers in Wisconsin and in many other states, are part of the same overall plan called Neoliberalism. The Republican policies adopted by and being pushed by our new, recently turned Republican governor here in New Mexico, Susana Martinez, are all part of the same thing, whether she is actually aware of it or not, and I doubt she is. I doubt many politicians are. Their depth of analysis seldom goes deeper than what you hear on talk radio.

They grow up in the same  country as we do, being fed the same propaganda, exposed to the same limited set of alternatives and possibilities. The word just needs to be gotten out on a wider scale. The internet offers a glimmer of hope, but remains in the control of the government, which has steadily been attempting to clamp down on its use by anyone who doesn't agree with its policies. The Net Neutrality movement has been fighting a solitary battle against this tendency, but the outcome doesn't really look that good at the moment. Now Joe Lieberman wants to pass a law that wold give the government an "internet kill switch," so that any uprising like is going on in the Middle East, where a lot of the communication and planning has been done through web sites like Facebook and Twitter, can't happen here.

Some people kind of get it. The national web site of the National Education Association, which, as the largest teachers union is at the forefront of the struggle in Wisconsin, has this paragraph, which brings together some of the elements of Neoliberalism people don't often connect.

Whether it’s the anti-educator governors and legislatures of Wisconsin, Idaho, Indiana, Tennessee and Ohio, so-called ed reformers such as Michelle Rhee and Students First, or the Koch brothers, billionaire, anti-union oil tycoons, educators and other workers are uniting to fight back for the middle class and for students.

This analysis doesn't go anywhere near far enough, of course, but at least when they mention the Koch Brothers, they open the window.

The Koch Brothers are multi billionaire brothers in the oil and gas business who are among the most active of the ruling class in the Neoliberal counterattack against the working class, who fund politicians and political action committees to the tune of millions and are heavily involved in strategy and implementation.

They, and people like them, are responsible for the Tea Party movement, for the proliferation of right wing talk radio and the freezing out in most markets of any kind of Liberal alternative, for the consolidation of the media into fewer and fewer hands, for getting elected the politicians leading the counterattack in government, who have given us our right wing Supreme Court which is now on a judicial activist binge, overturning precedent after precedent based in classical Liberal thinking, as it did in the Citizens United case opening up campaigns to unlimited donations by corporations.

The NEA, of course, is limited by political considerations in what it can say and do. Some of the comments by union members that follow their story are a little more enlightened, including these:

Lorenzo A. Canizares 
Posted February 18th, 2011 at 9:58 pm

The battle of Wisconsin is the battle for the soul of the nation. If the middle class and working class is defeated in Wisconsin, the next upheaval would come in a totally different fashion. The Greedy Rich that is running our financial world is willing to destroy the nation to keep workers on their knees.

Frank Friedman 
Posted February 19th, 2011 at 6:49 pm

The Tea Party and the Republicans and their ilk are leading the charge for the biggest decline this country has ever seen. One morning, they and the rest of us will awaken and wonder where our government services, police, good teachers, firemen, street repair,watch-dog agencies, etc have gone. They will wonder what happened to our educational system they are tearing apart. And they will wonder how come our graduates
don’t know anything and cannot do anything.

The terrorists will have had their greatest victory even though they may all be dead. We
will have destroyed America by ourselves. As was once said in Pogo — I have met the enemy. It is us.

update: Susana Martinez took $10,000 from the Koch Brothers during her 2010 campaign for New Mexico governor. Not one of her biggest contributors,  but the converted former Democrat, who has begun to be mentioned as possible vice presidential material as a way to put a Latina face on the otherwise anti-immigrant Republican party,  is on the Koch Brothers' radar screen.


Part II - Some historic background - if you are interested

It took centuries for even the most basic of Liberalism's ideals to be realized in even the more progressive and forward thinking "Western" countries. The United States was formed during this period and many of classical Liberalism's ideals are enshrined in its Constitution, but it also had slavery, and voting rights restricted to male property owners, both of which were eventually overturned.The French Revolution of 1789, with a declaration of universal human rights as part of its constitution, advanced things further. The Labor Movement, which grew up not long afterward in Europe and then the US, pushed things ahead even further.

Progress was not steady. There were periods of retrenchment when Capital regained what it had lost to workers. But even periods of progress left things very unequal, under Capitalism. One way of looking at the equality equation is to add up all the wealth of a country. Land, money, factories, distribution systems, banking, everything that is required to do business and make money -- i.e., the means of production. Some people might be surprised to learn that when everything is taken into account, a small minority at the top own the vast majority of this wealth. There are several ways to calculate this percentage, but even in this  rather conservative way of doing it, based on data put out by the Federal Reserve, the top 20 percent of Americans own 85 percent of America's wealth.

This historic inequality has always existed, from the time of Feudalism and all through the reign of Capitalism, and so the progress the bottom 80 percent, that is, we, the vast majority, can make will always be limited. Wealth equals power, as we can clearly see today, when the rich control government through campaign donations, control the airwaves and the media, control TV and the movies which means that all the knowledge we have, all the ideas we are exposed to, come from them, are approved and edited by them.

But what about ownership rights? What about hard work and initiative? Well, what about them? Where do ownership rights come from? God? No, they come from government. You don't own land, you have ownership rights, granted by a government that is controlled by those who already have ownership rights. When railroads were given huge swaths of land along proposed lines -- i.e., rights of way, consisting of millions and millions of acres -- was that owing to the hard work of the railroad barons? When wealth can pave the way for business expansion from everything from the granting of permits to trade policy, the only initiative being shown is the initiative to pull out your fat wallet and work the existing system to your advantage. And in the end, government's own census data show that there is no movement between socio-economic classes in the US. In all but a tiny, tiny fraction of aberrations to the rule, the class you are born in is the one you will die in.

This inequality can never be overcome. Progress by the working class depends in large part on the benevolence of the ruling class. This realization led to the rise in the late 1800s of Socialism, where workers own and control of the means of production themselves, and resulted eventually in the Russian and Chinese revolutions of the 1900s and the establishment of Socialist governments. Socialism was even gaining a foothold in the US at one time. Socialist political parties ran candidates for office in many towns and cities and got some of them elected. As late as the 1960s, the mayor of Milwaukee, WI, which is no small burg, was a Socialist. Hubert Humphrey, who would become vice president as a Democrat, began his political career as a Socialist.

Eugene V Debs, a Labor leader running for president as a Socialist, received almost a million votes for president in 1920, six percent of the vote at that time -- and this while he was in prison for speaking out against World War I. Socialists held positions in the administration of Franklin D Roosevelt, and Socialist ideas made their way into some of the government initiatives of the day, such as Social Security.

The standard of living of the US working class rose steadily during this time. Union density, that is, the percentage of the work force that is unionized, increased, partly because of the socialist influence -- organized Labor is an important aspect of Socialism -- but also because even non socialist workers, when faced with working conditions in many cases that amounted to little more than slavery, saw its benefits, and finally because, Roosevelt era laws removed many of the barriers to organizing that had been enacted on behalf of Capitalism before that.

Union density, now at 12.4 percent of the overall workforce (36.8 in the public sector, 7.6 in the private sector) had reached a high of 35 percent of the total workforce by 1945. This increased the standard of living for everyone, because non unionized work places had to compete with unionized workplaces in hiring, so had to offer better wages and benefits. This simple calculus is lost on many workers today, despite the fact that wages are on the decline, but you can't blame them for not being able to see it. They are fed a constant stream of anti union and anti Socialist propaganda, and the ruling class successfully uses the tactic of divide and conquer, and has workers blaming each other, and often its those of other backgrounds, for all their problems.

Harvey and others point to declining profits rates, which were the result of higher working class standards of living, as the big motivator behind the counterattack known as Neoliberalism, but the social upheavals during the 1960s and 1970s had also frightened the ruling class. Everything was being questioned, including the right of the ruling class to the wealth and power they expropriate from the working class.

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