October 2nd, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
Welcome to the October issue of the Washington Socialist, the free monthly email newsletter of Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America.
The local and national DSAs continue to operate on two tracks as the election approaches… activities that are intended to make sure Donald Trump doesn’t get within sniffling distance of the Oval Office, and work to broaden the left coalition locally in this time’s new window of possibility. This issue’s offerings, at least in part, illustrate that work.
As Bill Mosley asserts in this issue, critical local opportunities for the former (the Dumping of Trump) are largely in Virginia, where strategic voting choices like Jill Stein are not recommended (by him) at this point. In other locales like D.C. or Maryland, he suggests, “conscience” voting is more appropriate.
For the latter, the local is extending its reach and engagement more deeply with local labor and allied progressive groups in the Maryland suburbs. Carlos Jimenez, executive director of the DC labor council fashioned in progressivism by Jos Williams, spoke to the Socialist Salon in September. Kurt Stand has an account of that conversation, in which both DC DSA and labor in the person of Jimenez noted the need for mutual outreach to potential allies neither strictly socialist or strictly workplace-based. And DC’s labor council has jurisdiction in the near-in counties of Maryland, where we as Metro DC DSA in September also co-programmed a meeting of Sanders delegates with our Progressive Maryland allies. Stand has an account of that event as well.
Columnist Harold Meyerson spoke to Northern Virginia Sanders activists near the end of September (an account is in this issue) and noted that the Sanders campaign had failed in its promised goal to extend its refreshingly class-based policy proposals in a way that would attract voters of color — meaning Sanders never really got traction with those voting blocs. But Hal Ginsberg argues in this issue that the Sanders campaign’s broad antiracist reach is underappreciated.
Our local’s Antiracist Committee has been working with allied groups in the region – particularly SURJ, or Standing Up for Racial Justice – to bring our perspective to the efforts of white allies of the multipart politico-cultural movement of people of color that has grown out of, and in parallel with, Black Lives Matter.
The opening for socialism by name as a result of the Sanders campaign may or may not have brought big-time turnout for the socialist book group, but it has been teeming in what’s becoming “our” Sunday-afternoon corner at the Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery. The slender book The Future We Want has brought intense discussion – the group has agreed to have a third round of discussions on Leonard and Sunkara’s collection, after we take a break to read Tom Frank’s Listen, Liberal for an Oct. 16 conclave.
Book group member Mike Mirza has contributed in this issue a discussion of the essay “Imagining Socialist Education” from The Future We Want.
Cecilio Morales, a longtime specialist in employment and income issues, notes in this issue that buried under the latest cheery Census Bureau figures about household income and reduction of wage gaps, the word for the US working class’s fortunes is stagnant.
Andy Feeney’s book review in this issue explores a little-known target of colonial exploitation and racist globalist gangsterism stretching back to the days of Leopold II – natural rubber, a fiercely-contested commodity that brought misery in its time to Africa, Vietnam and South America.
If that’s not enough, there’s our usual bouquet of “Good Reads,” links to articles from a left perspective ranging from Jeremy Corbyn’s movement-building organization to feminist pamphleteer and author Juliet Mitchell.
So our local’s work continues apace. As socialists who have long worked toward perfecting an activism that keeps our vision of the future clear while working to significant effect within the debris of the political present, we have plenty to bring to the table and still plenty of lessons to learn. But the window for our perspective is, we feel, wider than it has been for decades because of the Sanders campaign. Inside and outside its latest iteration as Our Revolution, our task is becoming more sharply visible, though not necessarily less daunting.
DC DSA events this month:
Sunday, October 9: Metro DC Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) will host an intro session for anyone interested in learning more about just what we in DSA mean by democratic socialism. We’ll start with an accessible and lighthearted presentation about our history and our vision, and then open it up to a conversation. Share stories, ask questions, and meet like-minded people! Check our Meetup page to RSVP or keep updated.
Where: Silver Spring Library, 900 Wayne Ave. Silver Spring, MD 20910. Take elevator to third floor. Meeting room is left before you enter the library. When: Sunday, October 9, 2:00-3:30 pm
Getting there: Bus: Ride-On Bus: 15, 16, 17, 19, 20 ; Metrobus: F4. Metro: Red Line to Silver Spring Metro station. Walk northeast on Colesville toward Second Ave (0.1 mile). Turn right on Wayne Ave (0.3 mile). Library will be on the right. Free parking is available in Wayne Avenue Garage, 921 Wayne Ave. Questions? Email email@example.com
Sunday, October 16 the Socialist Book Group meets 3-5 p.m. to discuss Tom Franks’s new book Listen Liberal, Or What Ever Happened to the Party of the People? at the Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery, 8th and F Streets (Gallery Place Metro). More here.
Wednesday, October 26: the Socialist Salon on Wednesday, not Thursday: UPDATED 10/2/2016 History of the DC Left — from the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s to the Statehood Convention. An on-going oral history project of the 1960s left in Washington DC is helping keep the memory of activists and engagements of our recent past alive to better inform today’s activists. Speakers will be Howard Croft and Debby and John Hanrahan. 6:30 p.m.at the Hunan Dynasty, 215 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.
Other events of interest:
October 6: Stefanie Ehmsen on “Democratic Socialism on Both Sides of the Atlantic: A German Feminist Perspective.” On the Johns Hopkins University campus in Baltimore — Max Kade Center, Gilman 50, Marjorie Fisher Hall JHU Ehmson is director of the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung in NYC.
You can read these as well as past articles in the Washington Socialist on our website where they are archived, dsadc.org
Our readers are our best writers. Join that group and submit an article about activism you are doing or someone else is doing; reviews of important books you have read; think-pieces contributing to the left’s perennial search for a better way to explain our crisis to its victims. You are part of this conversation. Submit contributions to The Washington Socialist at a number of levels — send us nominee for “Good Reads” (they should be available online so send links); send news and notices of activism; submit articles. Send to firstname.lastname@example.org.
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Bill Mosley
President Obama, speaking at last summer’s Democratic National Convention, heard a chorus of boos when he mentioned the name of Donald Trump. “Don’t boo – vote!” he admonished the crowd.
What he should have said was, “Don’t boo, vote – if you live in a swing state. If you live somewhere else, send money.”
Most DSA members and others familiar with how our presidents get elected know that, despite what we are taught from the first grade, every vote does NOT count equally. Because of the United States’ peculiar system of presidential elections, in which a bare majority of votes in a state delivers all of that state’s basket of electoral votes (except in Maine and Nebraska where they are apportioned by congressional district), there is a small, finite number of states that, in any close election, will determine the outcome. If you live in one of those, your vote is critically important. If you live in a deep-red or deep-blue state, sure, go ahead and vote, but don’t bear any illusions that you will be making a difference.
Before I go on, I must make clear that I start from the belief that we must NOT allow Donald Trump to become president. He is toxic and a danger to the country and the world. A Trump presidency would legitimate racism, nativism, misogyny, and Islamophobia. He is a bully and a serial liar. His Supreme Court nominees would come directly off the Heritage Foundation’s wish list, which means we could look forward to further assaults on the Voting Rights Act, reproductive rights, LGBTQ rights, gun control, and more for decades to come. His election would bring about a coarsening of our political discourse that could last the rest of our lives.
I also start from the belief that Hillary Clinton is a seriously flawed candidate. She represents a continuation of the Democratic tradition of neoliberalism with a smiling face. She is a shill for Wall Street and the military establishment. On the issue that was perhaps the greatest test of judgment for a legislator over the past two decades, she failed – voting to authorize the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
And yet, with all her flaws, there is no question that Hillary Clinton must win in November. That she is not Trump is perhaps reason enough – but not the only reason. She will nominate decent (if probably not visionary) justices to the Supreme Court and lower courts. She will respect the rights of racial and religious minorities, women and the LGBTQ community. Unlike Trump, she believes climate change is real and will take action to mitigate it, if not as much as needed.
So does this mean everyone must vote for Clinton to slay the specter of Trump? Not necessarily. Now, this argument probably won’t reach the voters who, for instance, rush to the polls in DC only for presidential elections, and spit on DC mayoral and council races where their votes really might make a difference. Every four years lines wrap around the block, as if the Democratic candidate’s winning 93 percent of the vote is not enough and the voters must push the total to 94 to make absolutely sure the blue party wraps up the District’s all-important three electoral votes.
But in reality, the outcome in most states is pre-ordained, and only in the “purple” states do the candidates invest time and resources. The identities of these states shift a bit from cycle to cycle, and Trump’s unorthodox campaign had seemed to put states in play for the Democrats that are usually solidly Republican red, at least until Clinton’s late-summer swoon. Politico, using data from a variety of polls taken in August and September, identifies the 2016 swing states as Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. An early September poll by the Washington Post listed the tossup states as Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, North Carolina, Texas and Wisconsin, with Virginia leaning Democratic in this analysis. Toni Monkovic of the New York Times suggests the election could come down to who wins Pennsylvania. Which states are “purple” can vary over time and according to who’s conducting the poll.
What does this mean? That unless you live in one of those dozen or so states, whether you vote for Clinton, Trump, Jill Stein or Gary Johnson doesn’t mean a whit; one of the major candidates already considers your vote as being in their pocket. Now, if a candidate takes a supposedly safe state for granted, it can suddenly become competitive, because blue or red states can turn purple, and once in a blue moon, if the election is lopsided enough, blue can turn red and vice versa. The inclusion of once deep-red Texas in some lists of swing states is a case in point. In our area, as recently as 1988 Maryland swung to the Republicans, backing George H.W. Bush against the stumbling Mike Dukakis. Likewise, if the “vote your conscience” argument took serious hold, safe states could quickly become unsafe. But most voters look at presidential elections through a national lens – they don’t consider that a vote for Clinton in California is not the same as one in Florida – so this isn’t likely to come to pass.
By the end of October we’ll be pretty sure what the roster of swing states will be. DC, the most Democratic jurisdiction in the country, won’t be on it. We can be pretty sure Maryland will be listed as deep-blue as well – or it not, it means Trump wins the election in a landslide. If Clinton can’t win Maryland she can’t win much of anything.
So if you live in Maryland or the District and your aim is to stop Trump, to do nothing but vote is to do nothing. In fact, you might as well vote for Stein or write in Bernie Sanders for all the good it will do. To make a difference, it would be more effective to send a donation to Clinton or down-ballot Democratic candidates, to volunteer for a national phone bank, or campaign in a swing state. Such as Virginia.
Yes, once again Virginia is the battleground of our metro region. Politico, which is regularly revising its projections, disagrees with the Post that Virginia is in the bag for Clinton; on Sept. 22 it reported that her 9-point August cushion in the Old Dominion had declined to 6 percent. For Virginians, stopping Trump does necessitate voting for Clinton, whatever else one might do. Even with a Virginian like Tim Kaine on the ticket, the state cannot be taken for granted. Virginians bear the burden of the ballot.
Even if living in blue states frees District and Maryland residents to vote their consciences, that doesn’t absolve them from seeking other avenues to defeat Trump. Send a donation, spend some time working in a swing state, join a phone bank, stuff envelopes. When it comes to stopping Trump, all DSA members have a role to play.
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Kurt Stand
Though Bernie Sanders is not a ballot choice this November, the perspectives he articulated during his presidential campaign continue to inform working-class and progressive politics because they touched upon the sense of common need and urgency for a new direction felt by many. That combination was at the heart of a presentation by Carlos Jimenez, Executive Director, Metro Washington Council, AFL-CIO at Metro DSA’s Socialist Salon on September 22. Throughout his talk, he stressed the connection between sustaining local labor’s current strength, organizing new members and affirmatively acting on behalf of working people’s needs beyond those defined by collective bargaining.
Jimenez is part of a new leadership team at the Council, working with Jackie Jeter who was elected Council President (she also serves as Amalgamated Transit Union Local 689 president), taking charge of a body that has 200 local union affiliates representing over 150,000 members in DC and suburban Maryland. This is a new structure, dividing responsibilities held by longtime Council President Joslyn Williams prior to his retirement. Williams had overseen the Council’s growth not only numerically but also its scope — providing services, support and solidarity for organized and unorganized workers alike in DC and suburban Maryland. The need to have an Executive Director alongside an elected president speaks to the complexity that accompanies growth. It also speaks to the need for on-going revitalization in the face of union contraction for locally as across the country the percentage of unionized workers is in decline. The changing nature of work and employment means that several thousand new union members have to be organized in our Metropolitan region each year just to maintain existing union density. A near impossible task given the state of labor law and the expansion of part-time, precarious work unless the political environment is changed.
It is a decline that, if not halted, will lead to an existential crisis at some point in the future. How to confront and overcome that potential collapse was at the heart of Jimenez’ talk, in which he stressed the need to address the political and social dimensions of the assault on working people as intrinsic to defense of workers wages, benefits and rights on the job. In furtherance of those goals, the Labor Council has been in the leadership in the fight for a $15 minimum wage, in the fight for paid sick/family leave, for improved Metro safety, increased public school funding and greater access to health care.
A participatory discussion following the formal presentation centered on various views of what a broad labor/social agenda might look like. Concerns that were raised included climate change, war abroad and military spending, student debt, policing and mass incarceration, education, discrimination and inequality, transportation, gentrification and housing. All of these, as Jimenez noted, are issues of direct concern of union members, citing, for example, housing costs and rising rents, for such have reached levels that force union members with good jobs to go into debt or move.
To confront this array of problem requires action based on a level of analysis that looks beyond surface issues — workers need jobs, yet in a capitalist society jobs are dependent on a irrational imperative to growth which is destroying our environment (and which can lead to conflicts within labor as is taking place now over pipeline construction). A critical aspect of engaging working people in substantive discussions that looks beyond the surface lies in confronting business control over the media which not only distorts the news, but also limits the frame of what is seen or known. Thus in response to a question of the extent to which unions engage in social activity, Jimenez pointed out that union members frequently hold picnics and social events, and engage in volunteer activity — such as craft workers volunteering their time to help repair dilapidated housing — but slices of life and commitment like these never make it to the Washington Post, to local television or commercial radio.
Moreover union members, activists and leaders alike need to have a clear understanding of who really has power in our region. This entails doing a local power structure analysis in order to see which corporate forces behind the scenes are driving policies adopted by Mayor Bowser and the City Council (and those of the Prince George’s and Montgomery County Executives). Jimenez explained the importance of doing so by reference to a recent 9-4 vote to table a “Just Hours” measure that would have given low-wage workers predictability in their schedule and inhibit employers increase of part-time work in order to avoid paying health, family leave and other legally mandated benefits to their employees. Several “progressives” on the Council who had promised to support the legislation failed to do so at the least moment, most likely due to pressure from big box stores.
That problem ties to another: the need to prioritize resisting labor’s direct enemies, while also challenging those who ask for (and receive) union support. This is precisely the message of Sanders since the close of his campaign — we must defeat Trump and we must be prepared, the day after the election, to organize and press Hillary Clinton to carry out the progressive proposals incorporated in the Democratic Party platform.
Or, in other words, build the basis to move from transactional (deal-making) to transformative politics. Jimenez cited an example from his native Los Angeles where the local labor movement supported Antonio Villaraigosa when he ran for Mayor in 2001 and (successfully) in 2005 against an incumbent fellow Democrat — posing the usefulness of working with an office holder to whom unions could talk against the principled value of supporting someone who spoke to a Latino population which until then had no meaningful voice in the city’s politics. There is returned us to the importance of combining particular trade union goals and interests within the general framework of organizing on behalf of working-class needs and interests as a whole within our communities and society at large. In that there is a broad congruence of perspective between DSA and the Labor Council, and the talk ended with the desire to continue joint discussions and action. The latter, Jimenez concluded, can begin with a planned demonstration against all that Trump represents, which is being planned for the opening of his downtown hotel.
Jimenez’ remarks at the Salon recalled those he gave at the “Democracy Awakening” rally and civil disobedience actions in front of the Capitol Building this past April:
“Democracy, by its very nature, will require that we embrace each other. Everywhere you go you see labor’s struggle … I need this planet, I need to be able to breathe, I need to be able to eat, I need to be able to be myself, whoever that may be. I need to live. All of us who promote social justice, defend self-determination, and share a commitment to a collective responsibility for creating a more just world have got to come together to preserve democracy …”
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Kurt Stand
Revolution in any form is never a single act; rather, it is a process. So too with the “political revolution” launched within the framework of Bernie Sanders’s presidential bid. If the challenge to the 1% is to be sustained, if the inequality corroding all aspects of public life is to be reversed, and if political democracy is to be revitalized, then the movement will have to grow deep roots in local politics. On Wednesday September 14, Progressive Maryland and Metro DC DSA held a joint meeting at UFCW Local 400 offices in Landover to discuss how to do just that with the shared goal – as Progressive Maryland Executive Director Larry Stafford put it: “of bringing the Political Revolution to Maryland by 2018” when state-wide elections are held.
The meeting began with presentations by two of the elected Sanders delegates from Prince George’s County giving their evaluation of what took place at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia and their sense of the way forward. Jimmy Tarlau, elected to the Maryland House of Delegates in 2014, began by commenting that the Sanders campaign taught us a lesson about being bold, for the popular response to his primary run was far greater than most people could have imagined. And the campaign was particularly noteworthy because it foregrounded issues that would have otherwise been ignored or de-emphasized, including demands to ban fracking, to stop the TPP “free” trade deal, to adopt a $15 federal minimum wage, end mass incarceration and to stop war.
The convention, he added, was a challenge for Sanders supporters, as they continually sought to get their voices heard and principles articulated without thereby becoming divisive. At the end of the day, the platform adopted at the convention was progressive. Tarlau, however, emphasized that won’t mean anything unless Trump is defeated and Clinton is elected. And it won’t mean anything unless there is continued mass pressure after November. It is only through organizing and activism that progressive reforms will be possible, he concluded, recalling the history of Franklin Roosevelt’s administration — which initially followed a cautious and conservative policy until public pressure pushed him into advocating and implementing policies favorable to working people. The point throughout was that Sanders’s campaign serves as a reminder of the importance of boldness. The open use of the word socialism and the small donor base of the campaign were also ground-breaking.
This was noted too by Suchitra Balachandran, also a Sanders delegate from Prince George’s, though it led her to slightly different conclusions about the Convention and possible next steps. A research astrophysicist and co-director of Community Research (a nonprofit focused on environmental and public health issues, sustainability and open government), Balachandran began by remarking that, since arriving in the US from India, she has been struck by the extent to which Americans vote against their interest. This is in part because there has been no alternative, no party that represents the broad public. She has been a long-term supporter of Sanders because he has been an advocate for that alternative.
Because of her sense that political independence is a fundamental necessity, Balachandran was less concerned than Tarlau about appearing divisive during the Convention, expressing instead the wish that the Maryland delegation had been more demonstrative in Philadelphia like those from Oregon and Washington state. As an example, she felt it was correct to boo former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during his speech, the importance of voicing anti-war sentiment outweighing the danger of creating the appearance of disunity among Democrats.
Flowing from this, Balachandran believes that it is critical to elect independents to office that speak to progressive interests and noted the importance of the example of Kshama Sawant’s election as an open socialist on the Seattle City Council. Balachandran’s stress on the need for open government also was expressed in her support for term limits and opposition to the (local Prince George’s) ballot initiative to create two new at-large Council seats as a step to further limit citizen influence on government.
These two perspectives — not in conflict with each other but rather reflecting differing points of emphasis — informed the lively discussion amongst the 15 participants in the meeting. These can be defined very roughly as follows:
- a focus on direct economic and social concerns that people have (jobs, housing, education, inequality) or a focus on how to increase democratic rights and participations (right to vote, public financing of elections, term limits, inclusive debates, breaking the hold of the two-party system).
- a focus on mobilizing around issues with the logic that popular participation and pressure is key to winning reforms, or on electing committed individuals who are progressive and not tied to machine or business-oriented politics.
- a focus on organizing around concrete winnable issues rooted in local needs or a focus on fundamental issues which encapsulate the kind of society we want.
Posing these in this fashion is not to suggest an either-or debate. There was a lot of overlap in comments made and a desire by everybody in the room to find the means to work together with others in the future. A list of issues –specific and general – that participants felt should be at the core of next steps is indicative of where unity lies:
$15 Minimum Wage ● Just hours ● Paid sick leave ● Jobs at a living wage
Public financing of elections ● Same day voting and an end to voting restrictions ● Opening up the debates and democratizing elections
Education equity ● Opposing further charter schools
Ending mass incarceration
Supporting progressive taxation
Fair Housing to resist gentrification
Sanders’s campaign was successful because, unlike politics as usual within the two-party system, it put forward a comprehensive political program that addressed substantive needs. This was the importance of his running as a socialist. It therefore is critical that we find a way to keep those ideas and policies he advocated in the public eye in order to prevent slipping back into electoral campaigns without substance. He was as successful as he was because neither party represents working people’s real interests, which leads many to fall under the sway of supposed “values” while many others opt out and don’t vote. Trump represents a danger to all the progress that has been made, but a retreat into the narrow interest politics of the past will only create more space for him or some other racist demagogue in the future.
The meeting was one of many initial steps in our region and across the country to build the foundations to create a genuine political alternative in our society. For Progressive Maryland this means working to build up its grassroots strength and coalition partnerships with the goal of building toward a “political revolution” in Maryland in 2018. Progressive Maryland wants to bring people onto its executive board, strengthen its ongoing work in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties, and expand its presence elsewhere in the state, particularly in Howard County and Baltimore.
Progressive Maryland sees its organizing as part of a broader process. Thus it took part in the People’s Summit held in Chicago over the summer and continues to build local alliances with all other groups in the state looking to root alternative politics in everyday political engagement.
Metro DC DSA is seeking to use the responsiveness of many to the Sanders campaign to similarly root democratic socialism back into the political life of our communities and country. By linking a structural challenge to the capitalist system to a program of economic justice and democratic participation we can reduce the distance between goals near and far in our political engagement.
With a focus on labor struggles, racial justice and feminism, DSA also looks upon this moment as one of contributing to the solidarity of movements too often divided between themselves. To this extent, DSA seeks to participate in any effort in suburban Maryland, Northern Virginia and DC that builds upon the critique of the 1% and of inequality and that reaffirms the notion that an alternative is possible.
Flowing from this shared logic, future meetings will be more inclusive of the various organizations that had supported Sanders, of those that have emerged since his campaign, of progressive local and state elected officials as well as others — such as from racial justice, peace and women’s communities — that were not as central to his primary effort.
To borrow phrases from movements past: We need to “keep hope alive” as “we march through the institutions,” knowing that we are in the midst of a “long revolution.”
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Woody Woodruff
Harold Meyerson, political reporter and columnist and DSA stalwart, observed to a progressive Northern Virginia audience Sept. 24 that Bernie Sanders’s failure to beat Hillary Clinton past the post in the Democratic primary race indicated he had not broadened his class-based appeal sufficiently to bring in voters of color – a possibility Meyerson had suggested back in March before a Metro DC DSA audience, when the race was still quite undecided.
Local DSA members last formally heard from Meyerson, an acute analyst of political events from the socialist left, at a March “Continuing the Poiitical Revolution” one-day conference our local co-sponsored. Then, the Sanders campaign was making major inroads into Hillary Clinton’s presumed lock on the nomination and Meyerson told the members and allies gathered to discuss “Continuing the political revolution” that the appetite for left-flavored change had been overwhelmingly more widespread than even the fondest dreams of a long-beleaguered political tendency.
Saturday, September 24, Meyerson spoke* at Arlington’s Central Library to fifty-plus members of Northern Virginians for Bernie – who had recently (but tentatively) renamed themselves part of “Our Revolution,” the post-Bernie brand of left continuity. Since the columnist’s March discussion, Sanders had won huge swatches of delegates but short of a majority, Clinton had been nominated at the Democratic Convention with his endorsement, and the increasingly tense struggle with GOP nominee Donald Trump was less than six weeks from its conclusion.
In March, the April Washington Socialist then reported, “In an extended, productive question period Meyerson suggested that Sanders, as a candidate, was pinned down by his own emphasis on class politics, a ‘class-oriented mindset’ – more so than would be true of many members of DSA – and that has limited his ability to appeal to identity-based tendencies like Black Lives Matter or more generally the intersectional issues of race and inequality.”
In Arlington, Meyerson reiterated the problem, not only of the campaign but of the broad left. Sanders didn’t lose to Clinton because the DNC supposedly “rigged” the race, Meyerson emphasized – he lost because of a failure to appeal to African American voters who recalled the last Clinton presidency as a good era. Sanders was “wiped out in the Southern states” because of that, Meyerson observed, a deficit he could not win back among the Northern and Midwestern working-class voters who leaned in his direction.
Sanders is now campaigning to get his voters – especially millennials, missing in action in the Clinton coalition compared to the Obama campaign – out for the Democratic ticket, from Clinton to insurgent House candidates like New York’s Zephyr Teachout, trying to unseat GOP incumbents. He is, Meyerson said pithily, in a “half-way house” situation trying to assure election of an administration within which significant policy changes can be struggled for, while promoting the next-steps iteration of his campaign called “Our Revolution.”
Much of Meyerson’s discussion before a group that included self-described “Bernie die-hards” circled around the question of strategic voting versus voting “conscience” or “heart.” Many in attendance indicated ambivalence about voting for Clinton and being attracted to the Green Party message of Jill Stein. In a recent column in the American Prospect, where he is executive editor, Meyerson noted that Clinton shows much more damage from voters in swing states going for third-party candidates than does Trump.
Despite the overall demographic trends in swing states that favor Democrats in the near future, Clinton’s future is nearer still and she needs to recapture the voters leaning toward Stein or the “tabula rasa” Gary Johnson of the Libertarian Party. Johnson’s “appeal [because] of a non-interventionist foreign policy” attracts especially millennials, but they appear largely unaware – yet – of his lack of policies on climate change, student debt and educational affordability.
Likewise, Latino and other quasi-immigrant demographic sectors are likely to lean Democratic but they need to be motivated to vote. “Democrats today who worry about the low voter participation rates of Latino and Asians, then, need to grasp the lesson that Tammany and the CIO should teach us: Demography may be destiny, but it always needs a push….”, Meyerson said in another recent article in the American Prospect. In Arlington, Meyerson warned that much GOP money had – at least until very recently – been diverted to down-ballot Republican candidates in Congressional and state legislative races.
On the current topic of “next steps” to sustain a left movement, Meyerson suggested there were two challenges. First, the perennial fissures in the left might mean that progressives “gratuitously ghettoize ourselves” by not reaching out to those who are clearly allies “on our side.” Nevertheless, he said to questions after his talk, forcing premature unity within the left “might be bloodier than we anticipate.” Better to find issues that attract common work, he said, and cited opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership trade pact as a principal example. Update Oct. 1 — Meyerson promised more details in a forthcoming article in the American Prospect, and it is here.
Second challenge, he suggested, is the “perils of success” – the significant victories won in the Democratic platform and movement of Secy. Clinton’s stance left on trade, student debt/college affordability and other front-Berner issues. The peril? “Younger people may not see how much progress has been made.”
“Bernie unleashed energies we didn’t know were there,” Meyerson said in an echo to his March discussion. One was the re-establishment of class as a political category, begun by the Occupy Wall Street movement, which “had no second act, but a helluva first act.” He noted that despite its odd fit in typical US political discourse, OWS “always polled well,” indicating class was ripe to be elevated back into the discourse. Like many commentators, Meyerson pointed out that Trump was making perverse (for an alleged billionaire) use of class as a stimulus. “Now we need to steer it into Bernie channels, not Trump channels. “
*Full disclosure: Your correspondent, making an unaccustomed foray into Northern Virginia via Metrorail, managed to be late and missed the early portion of Meyerson’s talk.
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Hal Ginsberg
1. a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human racial groups determine cultural or individual achievement, usually involving the idea that one’s own race is superior and has the right to dominate others or that a particular racial group is inferior to the others.
2. a policy, system of government, etc., based upon or fostering such a doctrine; discrimination.
It has become clear that Hillary Clinton’s victory in the Democratic primaries depended on the overwhelming support she received from African American voters. Former Black Lives Matter activist and current New York Daily News opinion writer Shaun King is reconciled to Clinton’s win over King’s preferred candidate Bernie Sanders even though, King says, “everything wasn’t fair and square” because “Hillary crushed Bernie in the Deep South.” A sizable majority of Democratic voters in the South are black.
Clinton’s success in winning over 75% of the African-American vote may seem counterintuitive given her record. In a recent Medium piece, organizer Neilini Stamp wrote that Clinton supported “policies that destroyed the Black community.” So why did black voters hand the nomination to Hillary?
Quoting the Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith, Caleb Lewis at Vox explains that while “neither Democrat ran on a truly anti-racist platform,” for Hillary Clinton this shortcoming was masked by her and her husband’s “long history of cultivating relationships within black communities.” By contrast, Lewis argues, “Sanders had no such privilege.” Lewis exhorts Sanders to reach out to African-Americans with more explicitly race-focused solutions so that they will feel welcome in the emerging progressive movement Bernie’s campaign helped spark and which he hopes to shepherd over the next few years.
King agrees in part with Lewis’s explanation for the results of the Democratic primaries. Perplexed and disappointed by Southern voters, King notes that Clinton’s “ties there paid off and the Sanders campaign struggled to figure out how to resonate in meaningful ways in most of those states.” But he surely disagrees with Lewis’s contention that Sanders did not run on an anti-racist platform since he campaigned for Sanders and writes that “Bernie has none of Hillary’s weaknesses.” Stamp is even more emphatic in her insistence that Sanders did run as an anti-racist. She analogizes his campaign directly to Shirley Chisholm’s in 1972.
So who’s right? Smith and Lewis, who say Sanders did not run on an anti-racist platform, or King and Stamp. While Lewis praises Sanders’ relentless focus on economic inequality, the Vox writer contends that this message worked well with whites who are angry that their economic prospects are worse than their fathers and grandfathers were. But, says Lewis, blacks were non-plussed since Sanders “wouldn’t acknowledge that [white working-class] wealth was tied to the exploitation of people of color.”
Providing support for Lewis’s argument, Ta-Nehisi Coates voted for Sanders in his state’s primary but did not explicitly endorse him. Coates spelled out that he supported Sanders call for class-based remedies to economic injustice but that such remedies were insufficient to end racism since past injustices provided whites with advantages over blacks that could only be resolved through direct reparations to African-Americans.
The debate centers on the question of whether there is an organic conflict between the economic interests of working class whites and African-Americans. Simply put, is the economic well-being of non-affluent whites inversely correlated to that of blacks? If the answer is yes, then Smith and Lewis are correct. Sanders did not run as an anti-racist. He opposed Coates’s plan for race-based reparations and he does not tie white working-class prosperity in the ‘50s and ‘60s to the exploitation of blacks. Instead, Sanders insists that trade policy, strong unions, and a highly progressive tax code were responsible for the more equitable wealth distribution mid-20th century Americans experienced.
The idea that the economic interests of blacks conflict with those of poor, working, and middle-class whites is not new – it has been argued by virulent racists since before the Civil War. In 1848, South Carolina Senator John Calhoun defended slavery on the grounds that the subjugation of blacks meant all whites “belong to the upper class,” even those toiling in the fields next to slaves.
In his memoirs, President Ulysses S. Grant took the opposite position.
The great bulk of the legal voters of the South were men who owned no slaves; their homes were generally in the hills and poor country; their facilities for educating their children, even up to the point of reading and writing, were very limited; their interest in the contest was very meagre–what there was, if they had been capable of seeing it, was with the North; they too needed emancipation. Under the old regime they were looked down upon by those who controlled all the affairs in the interest of slave-owners, as poor white trash who were allowed the ballot so long as they cast it according to direction.
A century after the Civil War, Alabama’s white supremacist Governor George Wallace infamously declared “Segregation now, segregation forever” in his 1963 inaugural address. Less famously, Wallace promised Alabamians to “fulfill my duty toward honesty and economy in our State government so that no man shall have a part of his livelihood cheated and no child shall have a bit of his future stolen away.” Like the Nation’s Mychal Denzel Smith and Vox’s Caleb Lewis, Wallace was connecting white economic prosperity directly to Jim Crow and a racist economy.
Influential working-class labor leaders in the 20th century saw things very differently. While Wallace was pandering to the worst racists, United Auto Workers President Walter Reuther was marching with Dr. King on Washington. Labor historian Thomas Sugrue described “large industrial labor unions” as “critical allies of the African American freedom struggle.” Their leaders, Sugrue told NPR in 2013, “believed that black workers and their fate was intertwined with that of white workers; that questions of economic security and anti-discrimination were joined at the hip.”
History vindicates the positions of President Grant and the 1960s labor leaders. There is a positive, as opposed to an inverse, relationship between the economic well-being of blacks and less affluent whites. During the Jim Crow era, poor whites in the South and blacks were far worse off than their brothers and sisters in the far less segregated North. In the 1890s, then-populist Georgia politician Tom Watson told mixed crowds “you are separated (by race) so that you may be separately fleeced of your earnings.” In this century, University of Georgia historian F.N. Boney has confirmed Watson’s view, writing in 2004 about the World War I era that “Southern and Georgia whites had less money, less education, and poorer health than white Americans in general. Only southern blacks had more handicaps.” This situation only “grew worse” in the 1920s, according to Boney, due to boll weevil infestations.
The American economic boom that began with the end of the Depression and continued until the late 1960s – early 1970s led to much improved economic conditions for blacks and whites. Throughout the civil rights era, when the war on poverty was going full-bore, labor unions were strong, top marginal tax rates were high, and tariffs were imposed to protect American manufacturing jobs, poverty rates for whites and blacks were dropping sharply with the percentage of impoverished blacks falling faster and the wealth and income gap likewise narrowing.
Many of the nation’s poorest and most disaffected whites lived in the South – both during slave times and the Jim Crow era. Virulent racism and ruthless suppression of blacks did not enrich or empower the majority of Southern whites. By contrast, race-neutral redistributive economic policies designed to improve the condition of working-class Americans coupled with civil rights legislation led to better living conditions for non-affluent whites and blacks with a reduction in wealth and income disparities.
This record fully supports the position of Shaun King and Neilini Stamp. Bernie Sanders’ class-based anti-poverty programs, which look to the American economic environment of the post-war era for inspiration, will benefit blacks and non-affluent whites alike. The evidence refutes Smith and Lewis’s contention that post-war white working-class affluence depended on racism.
The justness of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ criticism against Sanders for refusing to endorse race-based, in addition to or in lieu of income-based, wealth transfers is likewise open to dispute. In February, University of Pennsylvania political science Professor Adolph Reed defended Sanders against Coates as follows:
You can go down Sanders’s platform issue by issue and ask, “so how is this not a black issue?” How is a $15 minimum wage not a black issue. How is massive public works employment not a black issue. How is free public college higher education not a black issue. The criminal justice stuff and all the rest of it. So one head scratching aspect of this is what do people like Coates imagine is to be gained by calling the redistribution program racial and calling it “reparations”?
Bernie Sanders ran as an anti-racist. His economic policy proposals, to the extent they are implemented, will benefit blacks and non-affluent whites with African-Americans likely to benefit as much or more than any other ethnic or racial group. It is past time for a multi-racial, multi-ethnic coalition of poor, working, and middle-class Americans to join together with Bernie Sanders to bring about a truly progressive and inclusive America.
Hal Ginsberg lives in Montgomery County and blogs at Halginsberg, where this first appeared.
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Michael Mirza
In her essay “Imagining Socialist Education,” (in The Future We Want) Megan Erickson lays out an important critique of the current state of public education in America. She contrasts the humanist education reserved for the elite with the dystopian system that “educational reform” is creating.
Reforms inspired by the 1983 study, “A Nation at Risk,” have sidelined efforts to equalize resources in the schools with policies to maximize measurable outputs (student test scores). She correctly connects social conditions outside the schools with the problems going on in them. She asserts that “visions for education that do not involve a socialist capture of the state apparatus to ameliorate the vast material inequalities of our society will be only that: a simulation of socialist education.”
Erickson favors critiquing the system, taking it over, and rebuilding it. She refers to the “freedom schools” of the civil rights era as a starting point. She ends the essay asserting that socialist education will be humanistic education, and not the filtering system of competitive, high stakes testing designed by corporate managers.
The problem of capitalist education is indeed a complex one, and probably cannot be fully addressed in just one short essay. If a second chapter of the essay were written, I think it should delve into the effects of declining capitalism on the prospects for our youth and on the politics of social disintegration.
In the book’s introduction, Sarah Leonard remarks that the “unemployment rate for black people who have not graduated high school is 82.5%.” This is a staggering figure. Unlike the golden age of capitalism, during which the civil rights movement took place, we are in an era of declining capitalism, or at least a capitalism that has less of a need for unskilled labor. As manufacturing becomes more efficient or is outsourced, the American urban working class is becoming as obsolete as small farmers of the Populist era. Perhaps most kids who do graduate will find their way to the jobs of the future (whether they be drab dead-end jobs or something somewhat better), but a substantial portion of today’s working class kids will necessarily find their way into crime and gangs, because that is all that our society is willing to offer them. Of course, the capitalist answer to the chaos is the prison system.
The ensuing social disintegration is real, and in her essay, it is not clear how seriously Erickson takes it. In one passage, while rightly condemning the squalor of poor schools, she puts “disruptive students” in quotation marks, as if to doubt that there are disruptive students in inner city schools. She complains that metal detectors make average kids feel like criminals and divert scarce resources. But is the fault with school administrators for spending money on security, or is it rather with the capitalist system as a whole for creating conditions that require metal detectors? In one sense, we are creating an inhumane and irrational system, but in the narrower sense, we are only doing what is necessary to cope with life under late capitalism.
The attempts of middle class families to move out of the neighborhood or to get their kids into private schools are not purely the result of abstract class or racial prejudice, but are the actions of any family that cares about their childrens’ safety, education, and future. If the boat is sinking, people abandon ship. This situation creates a political split between those who are able to get on the lifeboats and those who sink with the ship. As with so many other issues, splits like this create a conservative constituency, and make the new, worse situation politically acceptable and stable. As progressives, we should try to figure out how to mend this split if we hope to change anything.
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Cecilio Morales
The Census used to take reporters to its headquarters in the Maryland hinterlands for its annual income and poverty rate unveiling. You gathered at the National Press Building and climbed in a little bus with a number of folks, many of whom had drawn short straws for the trip.
This year, on Sept. 13, it was all on the web.
Census folk, I believe they are a species all their own, effectively recited the release, as always, a few actually managing something close to Shakespearean inflection. Then came questions, mainly from twinkies; these are broadcast critters who wouldn’t know a poverty rate if it came to shake its hand.
You’ve heard the headline news: it was good. Household median income up 5.2 in 2015 compared with 2014; official poverty rate down from 14.8 percent in 2014 to 13.5 percent in 2015 (it was a little over 11 percent after the “failed” War on Poverty, down from 19 percent before, but never mind).
Here’s a key fact the statisticians tried hard to get across: income inequality didn’t budge.
The Gini index, a statistical measure of income inequality ranging from 0 to 1, posted as 0.479 for 2015 (it had been 0.480 in 2014). Trudi Renwick, assistant division chief for economic characteristics in the Census Bureau’s Social, Economic and Housing Statistics Division, called that “flat.”
Did you read “flat” in newspaper headlines or on the TV nooze? I bet you didn’t.
Let’s put it in other terms. Only 6.1 percent of households had earnings of $200,000; 11.5 percent took in less than $15,000. Moreover, the big income boost was actually the first since 2007. Thank you very much for flat household income for seven years! In addition, it still was 1.6 percent lower than in 2007, the year before the Great Recession—actually, a depression, but that’s another discussion.
So we’re celebrating like it’s the 2008 we should have had … eight years later.
Then there’s the red herring of poverty rate measurement. Don’t fall for it.
The conservative or “neoliberal” argument is that we should measure consumption, not income, particularly since there is that mass of lazy people who get some kind of public assistance. I have actually read Heritage Foundation papers claiming that anyone who has air-conditioning or power steering in their cars should not be deemed poor.
The liberal—read: centrist—take (adopted by the National Academy of Sciences in 1995) is: Okay, we’ll add the dollar value of noncash housing subsidies and food aid, but take off taxes, work expenses and medical costs.
End result: by the “supplemental poverty measure” the poverty rate in 2015 was 14.3 percent. It moved down just about as much as the official measure. Thomas Aquinas, not a Marxist philosopher by any means, would have called it “a distinction without a difference.”
One need not claim the Census jimmied the numbers to make things look good for President Obama, which I believe is false, to conclude that a lot of the economic news presented to the public is absurdly misleading.
The real news wasn’t that good. Don’t believe me, believe the Federal Reserve, which passed on raising interest rates this month; even though Fed Vice Chairman Stanley Fischer came out of the Jackson Hole, Wyo., powwow on Sept. 30 claiming the labor market “is very close to full employment.”
Why didn’t they raise rates? Obviously, they see we’re in no danger of galloping inflation. Of course not; with earnings of most people stuck at pre-depression levels there is no demand pressure for goods.
Cecilio Morales is executive editor of Employment & Training Reporter
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
By Andy Feeney
Book Review of John Tully, The Devil’s Milk: A Social History of Rubber (New York, 2011), Monthly Review Press, paperback, 480 pp.
When many of us living in the Metro area commute to work or attend restaurants, movies, clubs and private parties in the evening, we travel in vehicles rolling forward on inflated rubber tires– via cars, buses, and bicycles. Those of us who travel by subway do so along electrified lines fed by wires with rubber insulation.
When we switch on lights in our homes and offices, when we use magnetic cards to trigger electrical locks to commercial or residential buildings, when we charge the batteries to computers and smart phones, we are reliant again, indirectly, on rubber insulation to keep the electricity involved from shorting out or starting fires. We make use of rubber yet again whenever we use latex condoms, wear elastic-fortified underwear, are treated by physicians wearing latex gloves, celebrate children’s birthdays with rubber balloons, wear rubber-soled shoes, water lawns and gardens using rubber hoses, or buy food that has been carried to market in semi trucks mounted on oversized tires.
Rubber since the early 1800s has become a key material for industrial capitalism, although we almost never give it the attention that American society devotes to oil, or even coffee. In The Devil’s Milk, Australian labor historian John Tully, who worked as a young man as an industrial rigger at a rubber processing plant in Melbourne, seeks to provide a lay audience with an easy-to-read social and environmental history of the rubber industry.
Citing Marx’s comment in Capital about the mystifying effects of commodity fetishism, Tully acknowledges that rubber seems a “banal commodity,” but adds that beneath our surface impressions of this particular commodity “is a whole buried world of social relations.”
Some of these social relations – but hardly all – have become familiar to literate leftists in recent years. Readers old enough to remember the Vietnam War, for example, are probably aware of the major role that colonial rubber plantations played in the economic and political life of French-ruled Southeast Asia, British-ruled Malaya, and the Dutch East Indies before World War II.
Socialists interested in the history of Belgian imperialism in Africa may also be familiar with Adam Hochshild’s grisly history King Leopold’s Ghost, concerning the near-genocidal exploitation of the peoples of the Congo by white business interests eager to profit from the country’s wild rubber vines during the late 1800s and early 1900s. Environmentalists concerned about the protection of Amazon rainforests are likely to have heard of the radical rubber tapper or seringuiero Chico Mendes, who won plaudits for his efforts to protect the forests before he was gunned down by thugs in the pay of local ranching interests in 1988.
What many of us probably less familiar with, however, is the technological history of the rubber industry itself. Ditto for the problematic saga of labor organizing in Akron, Ohio, once the rubber manufacturing capital of the world, in the decades leading up to World War II.
Tully’s book explores Akron’s labor history at some length, and outlines how the failure of an IWW-assisted strike in 1913 left the town’s largely white, Appalachian work force under an open-shop regime for the next twenty years. As Tully reports, the Ku Klux Klan played a significant part in keeping Akron anti-union during this period, to the extreme detriment of black workers and women who also were employed – at the lowest levels — in the rubber factories.
Yet when the worst of the 1930s Depression had passed, and when the Roosevelt administration signaled its support for the labor movement, Akron quickly grew into what Tully terms a “bastion” of union power, with former Klansmen in some cases taking important roles in the dozens of sit-down strikes that eventually forced the Akron rubber companies to come to the negotiating table.
Organizers for the United Rubbers Workers union (URW) at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber plant in Gadsden, Ala., on the other hand, were subjected to violent opposition, including beatings by company goons, until they finally won a ratification campaign in 1943 following a Supreme Court ruling against the company’s union-busting tactics.
Even so, rank discrimination against women workers at Gadsden continued for decades longer. Lilly Ledbetter, who worked as a supervisor at Gadsden for twenty years at pay rates consistently lower than those of her male colleagues, in 2007 lost a Supreme Court case demanding back pay from Goodyear for past sexual discrimination. It was only following Barack Obama’s election to the White House that in January 2009, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act made it possible for other women to sue for back pay under similar circumstances, although Ledbetter herself cannot benefit from the law.
Three added aspects of the rubber industry’s social and political industry are likely to be news to many readers. One is the story of the abuse of rubber gatherers in Papua, New Guinea by Australian rubber interests over the years, a history that Tully relates in some detail. Another is the horrifying record of rubber extraction activities along the Putumayo River, a minor tributary of the Amazon, under the direction of the Peruvian entrepreneur Julio Cesar Arana between roughly 1899 and 1914.
Arana’s rubber empire on the Putumayo undoubtedly did not cost as many human lives as King Leopold II’s rule over the Congo Free State did. Exact population figures are impossible to obtain, but some recent researchers conclude that between 1880 and 1920, a period that bracketed Leopold’s rule, the population of the Congo was likely cut in half, from an estimated 20 million to an estimated 10 million people.
Along the Putumayo River in Peru, the number of Huitoto Indians and other tribal peoples was far less than the original population of the Congo had been. But Tully concludes that “genocide” is a term that can legitimately be used to describe Arana’s exploitation of the region’s Indians in the interests of maximum rubber output.
The Anglo-Irish aristocrat Roger Casement, who had previously helped expose rubber industry abuses in the Congo, concluded in 1912 that slavery was common along the Putumayo, with women and children as well as men being forced into rubber collection activities at starvation wages, under the threat of beatings, torture and the occasional murder. Tribal women and children were sold “retail and wholesale” into slavery in the river town of Iquitos, with some of the women being forced into unpaid prostitution, Tully notes. Indians who were too old or too weakened by illness, malnutrition and overwork to contribute adequately to Arana’s profits were killed. In some cases they were apparently tortured for sport, by Arana’s sadistic overseers.
Thanks to Casement’s investigation and those of two other observers of Arana’s empire, a young U.S.-born railroad engineer, Walt Hardenburg, and a courageous Marxist journalist in Peru, Benjamin Saldaña Racca, the genocide on the Putumayo eventually came to the world’s attention, in part due to the assistance of the Anti-Slavery Society and the British Foreign Office, and Arana’s activities came to an end. But in his 1912 report, Casement estimated that out of 50,000 Indians living along the stretch of the river Arana controlled, some 32,000 had been killed over a 12-year period.
Casement accused British and U.S. commercial interests of profiting from Arana’s abuses, or at any rate tolerating them: several wealthy British directors served on the board of Arana’s Peruvian Amazon Rubber Company, PACO, and the company maintained an office in London, where the bulk of its rubber was sold.
U.S. diplomatic officials were doing nothing about Arana’s abuses and arguably were protecting him, Casement suggested, adding that “If the United States cannot let light into the dark places of South America, then she must stand aside or be swept aside … The Monroe Doctrine is a stumbling block in the path of humanity. Instead of being the cornerstone of American independence it is the block on which these criminals behead their victims.”
Casement’s efforts to expose King Leopold’s abuses in the Congo and his identification of British and U.S. involvement in Arana’s venture may account for the fact that although born to the aristocracy, he was increasingly moving in an anti-imperialist direction. A few years after Casement submitted his report, his anti-imperialism and his Irish nationalism inspired him to support the failed Easter Rebellion in Dublin, Tully reports. But ironically, it was the rapid development of rubber plantation agriculture under the British, French and Dutch empires in Southeast Asia that helped bring an end to the genocidal style of wild rubber extraction that was practiced in the Congo and along the Putumayo in late Victorian times.
In a major section of his text, Tully explores the strange world of the European rubber planters in Southeast Asia in the early 1900s and the harsh labor conditions facing imported coolie laborers who worked for them. He also explores the role of Communist Party labor organizers in mobilizing coolies to fight for better conditions – and eventually, of course, to fight for an end to colonialism, too.
A grimmer history surrounds a separate effort that Western consumers of raw rubber, particularly the Germans during the 1920s and 1930s, made to perfect synthetic chemical substitutes for natural rubber. Very early on, Hitler recognized the essential part that rubber plays in the equipping of modern military forces, and almost immediately after taking office in 1933 he began pressing chemical researchers with the massive German chemical cartel IG Farben to accelerate their work on synthetic rubber production – for eventual use in war.
The Nazi effort to develop and manufacture acceptable forms of synthetic rubber on an industrial scale culminated in an attempt by the Third Reich to construct a major new mining and manufacturing complex at a place called Monowitz, in Poland, close to the town of Auschwitz. There engineers and chemists from IG Farben, along with helpful S.S. officers, strove in the 1940s to build a large synthetic rubber manufacturing facility. To this end they employed enslaved Jewish workers from the Auschwitz concentration camp, with the prisoners’ daily workloads and diets scientifically calibrated to guarantee that most would be worked to death in matter of months.
Labor conditions at U.S. synthetic rubber plants during World War II were not good, but they were not designed to kill the rubber workers, whose work under difficult circumstances was probably critical to U.S. success in the war.
The U.S. effort to substitute synthetic rubber made from coal and oil constituents for imported plantation rubber from Japanese-occupied Southeast Asia was a belated one, Tully writes. This was largely due to delays caused by the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey stubbornly holding onto patents for the Buna variety of synthetic rubber under one of its licenses from IG Farben in Germany.
As late as September 1942, when U.S. synthetic rubber output was minimal, a Rubber Survey Committee headed by financier Bernard Baruch informed the Roosevelt White House that “Of all critical and strategic materials, rubber is the one which presents the greatest threat to the safety of our Nation and the success of the Allied cause.”
Defying conservative critics who deemed it “socialism,” the Roosevelt administration responded by setting up a government-operated program that increased national synthetic rubber production from just 40,000 tons in 1942 to some 900,000 tons by late 1943, and to some 1.2 million tons in 1945.
The added production occurred in 51 new government-built factories, Tully writes, and he quotes an expert to the effect that along with U.S. stockpiling of natural rubber before the Japanese took control over the plantations of the East Indies, the rapid expansion of synthetic rubber production in U.S. government factories in 1945 “saved the country from military paralysis in the last year of the war.”
Synthetic rubber produced in the plants “was used for tens of thousands of military and industrial purposes,” including in the tires of military trucks and artillery guns, in the manufacturing of aircraft tires, in ammunition belts for machine guns, in rubber gas masks, in rubberized life vests and pontoon boats, and in some 45 million pairs of rubber boots and shoes that U.S. military personnel used up in just the war years 1943 and 1944.
The private companies dominating the U.S. rubber industry, “which operated in factories paid for by the U.S. government,” made huge profits during the war, Tully notes. Then after the war ended, to head off the threat of publicly financed industrial production that might amount to “socialism,” the government began selling off to private corporations the synthetic rubber factories it had just built with the taxpayers’ money.
The rubber workers of Akron gained thousands of new jobs thanks to the war effort, and for individuals and families that had been struggling during the Depression, this change must have been welcome. There is good reason to believe that many or most of the rubber workers also were happy to contribute to the war effort, and the left-leaning leadership of the URW strove to enforce a “no strike pledge” during the fighting in order to defeat fascism.
Yet there were losses for the Akron workers as well as gains, for rents and prices in Akron rose faster than wages. Also, after earlier instituting a six-hour day in the factories in hopes of containing labor militancy, the rubber companies went back to the eight-hour day in order to maximize production. In 1943, over the protests of union activists, the Ohio legislature and the governor enacted a law allowing for increased working hours for adult workers as well as teenagers.
Women workers gained new jobs in the industry during the war, yet “there were widespread claims that [Akron’s] women faced discrimination in the factories’ hiring practices.” The first contract that Goodyear signed with the URW in 1941 established a minimum wage rate for men of 85 cents an hour, but a rate for women of only 65 cents. At the war’s end, as suggested in the movie Rosie the Riveter, women in the rubber factories were laid off in huge numbers, just as they were in many other U.S. industries. Black workers in Akron meanwhile faced severe discrimination during the war years, were assigned to the lowest-paid and worst jobs, and were the first workers to suffer layoffs.
Today, Tully notes in the conclusion to Devil’s Milk, there is virtually no rubber production occurring in Akron; the big factories have almost all closed, and the once-mighty United Rubber Workers Union has been absorbed by the United Steelworkers. The genocidal work regime that IG Farben and the Nazis established in the 1940s at Monowitz (which currently bears the Polish name of Monovice), is now only a memory. However, the synthetic rubber facility that IG Farben built there is still an active chemical manufacturing plant, with a monument to the slave laborers who worked and died there.
The world’s largest single rubber plantation today, Tully notes, is the massive operation that U.S. entrepreneur Harvey Firestone established in Liberia in the 1920s. The Firestone plantation, now under the control of the Japanese company Bridgestone, fairly recently employed some 10,000 people at its Harbel estate property alone, at an average wage of $3.00 a day. According to a Guardian article in 2006, most plantation workers at Harbel were then living in crowded mud huts with tin roofs, no indoor plumbing and no running water or electricity.
A federal class action suit brought by two U.S.-based nongovernmental organizations against Bridgestone-Firestone in 2005 accused the company of promoting “misery” in Liberia, although the company retorted that it was the only major foreign corporation not to have abandoned Liberia during the country’s 14-year civil war. At any rate, there is some chance that labor conditions for Firestone plantation workers in Liberia may change. In 2007, after a favorable ruling from Liberia’s Supreme Court, as well as a series of strikes that received some help from the United Steel Workers, Firestone at last agreed to negotiate with an insurgent committee of militant workers who had won control over the tame company union on the plantation.
In rubber manufacturing plants in the long-industrialized counties, Tully notes, working conditions and health protections are significantly better than they were in the early 1900s. However, “Dickensian” working conditions still exist in rubber factories in the newly industrializing countries and in China, where a large fraction of global rubber manufacturing occurs.
In Guangzhou at the time Devil’s Milk was being written, Tully indicates, workers in the rubber industry and other export industries were enduring “low pay and long hours, forced overtime, dangerous machinery and toxic chemicals in the workplace,” while housing conditions were bad and free trade unions were illegal.
Thanks in large part to capitalist economic laws and trends in business development that Marx identified more than a century ago, rubber is an essential material for our society and one whose beneficial uses are many and important, yet it is also a substance that brings immense harm to human societies.
In addition to have complicated social and political consequences, the global production and consumption of rubber have big environmental impacts. For example, the bloody methods of Victorian rubber companies in King Leopold’s Congo helped ensure that Congolese villagers who were being threatened with beatings, rape and mutilation for not harvesting enough wild rubber vines were feverish in their efforts to harvest as many vines as possible in the quickest possible time. The result was that they devastated the population of wild rubber vines, making the industry unsustainable.
In Malaya, the East Indies and other parts of Southeast Asia between the late 1850s and approximately 1900, the once-significant gutta percha industry suffered a similar biological fate, although not for exactly the same reasons. Gutta percha, a close chemical relative of natural rubber – in fact, it is a stereoisomer of isoprene rubber – has physical properties that make it even better than rubber as an electrical insulator, especially when exposed to corrosive agents found in salt water.
The Victorians found many attractive uses for gutta percha, which is still used in some kinds of dental and orthodontic work. However, by far the most important was as a protective material for intercontinental oceanic cables carrying telegraph messages between imperialistic European nations such as Britain and France and their colonies. As the world’s undersea cable network grew by leaps and bounds in the late Victorian age, global demand for gutta percha burgeoned, and indigenous harvesters of the stuff in Southeast Asia responded to this demand as they had traditionally responded – by felling the large taban trees that were the most important source of the resin and quickly extracting rather small amounts of sap from the trunks.
It was an inefficient process that had traditionally done no harm, but under the pressure of accelerating global demand it led to the devastation of taban tree populations, at least for many years. The craze for gutta percha production, along with other pressures on local forests, also brought about massive deforestation in parts of the Malay Peninsula.
The processing of natural rubber into the hardened, vulcanized material that is most used by modern industrial society also exposes rubber workers and the natural environment to a number of noxious chemicals, Tully notes.
These can include hydrogen sulfide, the poisonous gas that accounts for the awful smell of rotten eggs; sulfur dioxide, which when mixed with water produces sulfuric acid; the aromatic ring compounds benzene, xylene and toluene, which can cause leukemia and other cancers as well as genetic damage; and carbon bisulfide, a gas that can give rubber workers and other chemical workers terrible headaches, as well as the symptoms of severe drunkenness. In Akron when the industry was in its heyday, Tully writes, lead also was “widely used” in rubber factories, threatening workers with permanent damage to their central nervous systems.
Yet perhaps the biggest environmental problem with the global rubber industry, in Tully’s view, comes from its role in tire production, and hence with the functioning of gasoline-burning automobiles whose CO2 emissions contribute to global climate change.
A less obvious environmental risk is the possibility that a South American blight affecting Hevea brasiliensis trees, the most important source of natural rubber, could spread to other continents and decimate the plantations of Asia. Natural rubber is still superior to synthetic rubber for most uses, Tully writes. And if modern jet airplane travel inadvertently leads to the relatively fragile spores of the fungus that causes Hevea blight to migrate to the plantations of Asia, this could have a disastrous effect on natural rubber production worldwide.
To Tully, the history of the rubber industry since the 1800s therefore not only illustrates what Marx wrote about simple commodity production often concealing from us the often unjust networks of social relations in which we are embedded; it also illustrates a famous remark Engels made in his essay The Dialectics of Nature. As Engels wrote:
“Let us not … flatter ourselves overmuch on account of our human victories over nature. For each such victory takes its revenge upon us. Each victory, it is true, in the first place brings about the results we expected, but in the second and third places it has quite different, unforeseen effects which only too often cancel out the first.”
The challenge for human society, Tully concludes, is for us to recognize that we ourselves are part of nature and must find ways to live in harmony with its laws. But the laws of capitalist development conflict with this need, even as they have historically motivated capitalists in the rubber industry to act with appalling brutality towards other human beings, ultimately in the service of capital accumulation and personal greed. In The Devil’s Milk, Tully fails to offer any simple recipes for how to correct capitalism’s destructive tendencies. But in laying out how they have played themselves out in the global rubber business, this book lays a foundation upon which a search for solutions can be based.
September 30th, 2016 / Author: woodlanham
The Washington Socialist <> October 2016
A collation of left(ish) articles you may have missed…
DSA vice chair and local member Christine Riddiough wrote about feminist pamphleteer and author Juliet Mitchell in the most recent issue of Democratic Left (and it was aggregated in Portside): http://www.dsausa.org/women_the_longest_revolution
Adolph Reed argues that the antiracism gospel as it is generally deployed is a naturalizing of capitalist arrangements as long as they are equally and proportionally shared across identity boundaries. “In insisting that for all intents and purposes police violence must be seen as mainly, if not exclusively, a black thing, we cut ourselves off from the only basis for forging a political alliance that could effectively challenge it.” Recommended by our non-DSA comrade in Houston, Bob Buzzanco… http://nonsite.org/editorial/how-racial-disparity-does-not-help-make-sense-of-patterns-of-police-violence
Maria Svart recommended (on Facebook) this roundtable on the white working class; Stan Greenberg, Ruy Teixiera, Harold Meyerson, Joel Rogers, Michael Kazin, Lane Kenworthy and others are in the discussion and much wonky detail available here. http://thedemocraticstrategist-roundtables.com/?page_id=214
A member of Physicians for a National Healthcare Program argues in CommonDreams that the public option originally left out of the Affordable Care Act under pressure from the right – and now promised by the Democratic platform – deserves only limited cheers. http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/09/19/public-option-back-our-enthusiasm-should-be-tempered
Louis Cooper submits this ”for possible inclusion in ‘good reads’: A review of Emirbayer & Desmond The Racial Order and Brubaker, Grounds for Difference, in the current issue of The Hedgehog Review. First couple of graphs available at link below, rest of review is paywalled.” You can read the first bits and decide if you want to shell out.
Corey Robin (on Facebook) recommends this on the Hillary-Millennials conundrum (and, conveniently, it purports to link to all the theories thereon): http://www.newsweek.com/hillary-clinton-millennial-voters-502298
From Dollars and Sense via Portside, Jeremy Brecher of the locally-based Labor Network for Sustainability updates events and potential for positive job creation coupled with renewable energy source development, making sure not to leave workers behind in the rush to innovate. It includes a state-by-state survey of programs and regulatory efforts. http://dollarsandsense.org/archives/2016/0916brecher.html
Via Portside, part of In These Times’s round robin on “The Lesser Evil.” Tom Geohagen has three points to make about why a Clinton victory is important, including the importance of a Democratic administration. http://inthesetimes.com/features/3_reasons_to_vote_for_hillary_clinton.html
Jeremy Corbyn’s growing strength within a British Labour Party that is riddled with center-left Corbyn opponents is being fueled by the Momentum organization, according to a somewhat bemused New York Times article. The movement’s leader is Jackie Walker , here interviewed by the New Statesman: http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2016/09/interview-momentum-s-vice-chair-jackie-walker-unity-antisemitism-and