Thursday, July 21, 2016

21st Century Mythology

One of the highlights of the current Republican Convention was the accusation that Melania Trump’s speech plagiarized Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic Convention.  One part of the Melania Trump’s speech that was exactly the same as Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech were the words: “you work hard for what you want in life.”  Who hasn’t listened to these or similar words many times during the course of our lives?

Clearly, there are people who work hard and are able to attain some of the things what we want in life.  However, in order to look at this issue, I believe we also need to look at the question of: How is wealth created today?

Money and the creation of wealth

We can begin by stating clearly that money is only a means of exchange to be used to purchase commodities.  Therefore, commodities are the things that have value.  Armed with this knowledge, we can say that workers are the ones who produce commodities that represent the real wealth of the world.  So, garment workers, autoworkers, construction workers, farm workers, transport workers etc. are the ones who produce the wealth of the world.

Now comes the part that the media doesn’t like to talk about.  The facts are that working people work very hard, so a tiny minority of the population can have obscene amounts of wealth.  This tiny minority of the population didn’t gain their enormous wealth because they worked hard.  No, in most cases, they attained their wealth by sitting in a lawyer’s office and listening to the reading of a will.

Both Donald Trump and Hillary Rodham Clinton had fathers that were affluent businessmen.  In other words, the fathers of Clinton and Trump made a living by profiting off of the labor of others.  Both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Donald Trump had advantages in life because their parents profited off of the labor of workers.  None of this happened because the Rodhams or the Trumps worked hard.

How have workers improved our standard of living?

There was a time when working people routinely lived in one-room cold-water flats.  A common working day at that time might have been between eleven and fourteen hours per day.  Child labor was common.  Health care and an advanced education were things unknown to many workers.  Clearly working people in those days felt they deserved a better life.

From the year 1877 to the year 1934 there were numerous strikes by the labor movement, but most ended in defeat.  Then, in 1934 labor battles against employers began to win real victories and millions joined unions.  After the Second World War working people began to understand that they needed to go to war again.  This time it would be against their employers.  These strike waves forced employers to make real concessions to workers and this was the root cause of the improved standard of living in this country.

However, up until the 1960s Black people were denied basic citizenship rights because of the Jim Crow laws.  So, after the labor battles of the 1950s Black people organized because they felt they also deserved to be treated with dignity.

However, after the government adopted the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, Black people still faced institutionalized discrimination as well as police brutality.  This state of affairs sparked rebellions in hundreds of cities and towns across the United States.  These actions effectively forced corporations to implement affirmative action programs that gave many Black people opportunities they never had before.

We can also look at the conquests of the Cuban Revolution.  Before that revolution Cuba had a standard of living that most nations in Africa, Asia, and Latin America have today.  500,000 sugar cane workers only had work for about three months of the year.  Because of these conditions many women resorted to prostitution.  Education and health care were not a part of many Cuban’s lives.  The United States corporations made sure that Cuba remained dependent on foreign investments.

After the revolution the Cuban government nationalized about $800,000,000 of U.S. investments on the island.  Child nutrition became a right for every child.  Today Cuba has one of the best educational and health care systems in the world.  So, the standard of living improved in Cuba, not just because of working hard, but by making an anti-capitalist anti-imperialist revolution.

What do we want in life?

Michelle Obama and Melania Trump also raised the question: What do we want in life?  Before I attempt to answer this question, perhaps it might be useful to look at some of the things we have.  These might include increasing poverty, war, discrimination, destruction of the environment, as well as alienation.  Perhaps we can agree that these are not things we want.

However, when we look at the vast resources and the capacity of working people, we can think about a completely different vision.  We might think about eliminating poverty, and doing our best to work in harmony with the environment.  When we think of the work that actually needs to be done, we might imagine a world where we work fewer hours and have more leisure time.  In fact, we might have a government that has a goal of making work less alienating.

People who have power argue that this kind of world would be a utopia and totally unrealistic.  However, the economic crisis of 2008 exposed the enormous crisis capitalism is in today.  So, I repeat the question: What do we want?  Personally speaking, I want a government that represents in interests of workers and farmers and makes human needs an absolute priority over profits.   

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The Serena Williams story the media isn’t interested in

Serena Williams, perhaps the best woman to ever play the game of tennis has just won her seventh Wimbledon title.  If you read or listen to the commentaries on Serena’s victory, they have focused on this being her twenty-second major tournament win.  This ties her with Steffi Graf who also had twenty-two major championships.  Margaret Court had twenty-four major victories, but that was at a time when women’s tennis was much less competitive.

While winning the singles championships at all the major tournaments is an outstanding accomplishment, we might consider that Serena and her sister Venus also won the Wimbledon doubles championship this year.  In fact, Serena and Venus won fourteen major doubles championships to Steffi Graf’s one doubles championship.

While these have been extraordinary accomplishments, for me, this is not the most interesting story concerning Serena Williams’ career.  In order to appreciate this story, we need to look at an important part of the history of this country. 

Raised as a Black child during Jim Crow segregation

Initially, most of the income of the United States came from slave labor.  After the so-called outlawing of slavery, Black people worked at the worst jobs that were essential to industrial development.  So, when we think of the enormous wealth that exists in this country, that wealth has its roots in the labor of Black women and men.

The grandmother of Serena and Venus Williams was Julia Metcalf Williams.  Julia Williams barely made a living picking cotton and cleaning laundry in Shreveport, Louisiana.  In order to give birth to her son Richard she needed to ride a wagon pulled by a mule in a rainstorm.  She could only be treated at the one hospital in Shreveport that cared for people who had a dark skin color.

Growing up was not easy for Richard.  He learned to run fast so he could escape racist mobs.  Three of his friends were murdered or lynched because of the racist atmosphere of those days.  All of this was documented in Richard Williams’ autobiography: Black and White – The way I see it, that he co-wrote with Bart Davis.  This is a link to my review of that book.

Richard Williams was well aware of the discrimination he faced in Shreveport.  This is how he explained it.  In his later life Williams was asked how it felt to be a millionaire.  Williams answered that he was a millionaire when he was sixteen.  He said, “Hell, I made more than a million.  I know this because I worked for white people who kept buying big plantation homes, big fields, big cars.  Matter of fact, they bought the whole damn city.  Sure, I made millions.  They just kept my share.”

After leaving Shreveport, Williams faced discrimination and police abuse.  He eventually started his own business.  However, he had a hunger to achieve what had been denied him because of the racial discrimination in this country.

The idea of raising champions

One day, Richard Williams was watching television and he accidentally viewed a woman winning a tennis tournament and receiving an award of $40,000.  Immediately he started thinking about the possibilities of professional tennis for young women.  Before Venus and Serena were born, at a time when Richard knew little about tennis, he wrote a 78 page proposal arguing that he would raise two daughters to become tennis champions.

Thinking about this idea, I believe Williams thought about the example of his mother.  She needed to have tremendous physical strength as well as tenacity in order to do the work employers expected of her.  He thought about how his mother managed to raise him in the atmosphere of Jim Crow segregation, where he needed to think creatively to survive.  With this in mind he decided to raise his daughters in an atmosphere where they would have the confidence to do anything.

Richard Williams needed to battle street gangs in Compton, California for two years just so his daughters could play tennis on the local courts.  Williams likened these battles to the battles he waged with the segregationists in Shreveport.  However, in Compton he established a live and let live attitude with gang members.  He never was able to establish this kind of attitude with the segregationists.     

So, when we look at the accomplishments of the Williams sisters and their background, we are looking at the history of this country.  This is the story of how people managed to persevere in spite of unimaginable hardships.  This is the story of how, when given a chance, humanity is capable of achieving real excellence in spite of seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Clearly everyone isn’t going to be a professional tennis champion.  However, in today’s world employers require working people to generate profits for the super wealthy.  When working people relieve ourselves of this burden, there will be no limit to our potential.  This is the story the news media isn’t interested in today.           


Thursday, July 7, 2016

Are they rich because they’re smart? – Class privilege and learning under capitalism

By Jack Barnes
Pathfinder Press, 2016

A review

Jack Barnes’ new book, Are they rich because they’re smart – Class, privilege, and learning under capitalism, gives a refreshing way of looking at politics.  From the time we were young, our parents and teachers drummed a central idea into our heads.  Stay in school.  Work hard to get good grades.  This is the basic formula for success in life. 

Before I look at Barnes’ book, I want to cite some observations from Ferdinand Lundberg’s 1968 book, The Rich and the Super Rich – Who really owns America? How do they keep their wealth and power?  In this book Lundberg reported on dozen’s of the individuals who own the lion’s share of wealth in this country.  Jack Barnes reports that today the people who own this vast amount of wealth numbers in the hundreds, not thousands.

Lundberg argued that only a tiny percentage of these people gained their wealth because of real scientific innovation.  Many gained their wealth through one form of speculation or another.  In other words, one of the main ways to gain enormous wealth comes from old-fashioned luck.  Another necessary aspect to the path to wealth has to do with a willingness to profit off of the workers who provide the goods and services we all need and want.
However, Lundberg argues that this was not the way most of the super rich gained their fortunes.  He argued that the most important way to gain obscene amounts of wealth has to do with sitting in a lawyer’s office and listening to the reading of a will.  Little has changed in this regard from Lundberg’s 1968 book.

The Bell Curve

Jack Barnes begins his book Are they rich because they’re smart? by looking at a book by Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein titled The Bell Curve.  Murray and Herrnstein argued that there is only a small percentage of the population that has very high scores on IQ tests.  They use this information to imply that funding for education doesn’t need to be a priority because the majority of the population, in their opinion, just isn’t very smart. 

Many Black people have labeled The Bell Curve racist because it attempts to justify the discriminatory funding of schools that Black children attend.  However, Barnes points out that Murray and Herrnstein aren’t just talking about Black people.  The Bell Curve argues that most people, Black as well as Caucasian, just aren’t very smart.

When we look at the conclusions of Lundberg’s The Rich and the Super Rich, it becomes clear that in most cases studying hard and having a high IQ has very little to do with becoming obscenely wealthy.

The so-called meritocracy

Then, Barnes wrote about a section of the middle class that considers itself to be a meritocracy.  These people would include: university professors, attorneys, politicians, managers, media editors, as well as those who work in the so-called think tanks.  These people might number in the millions in this country.

This self-designated meritocracy believes that the work they do actually benefits all of society.  Although many in this class receive obscene salaries, there are others who work in the so-called non-profit or non-government organizations.  Many of those who work at these jobs argue that they don’t take the higher paid corporate jobs because they want to be of service to humanity.

Barnes and Steve Clark, who wrote the introduction, argue that there is no classless we.  The two primary classes in the capitalist world are the working class and the capitalist class.  These classes have interests that are antagonistic.  This explains why corporate funded non-profit organizations never contribute to unions when the workers go on strike.  These strikes are aimed at advancing the interests of workers at the expense of the owners of corporations.

Barnes argues that this so-called meritocracy overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for President.  Many in this class also felt that President William Clinton was the first Black President.  The basis for this argument had nothing to do with advancing the interests of Black people in this country. 

Clinton signed a so-called crime bill that vastly increased the number of Black people who live in prison.  The basis for this absurd argument is that Clinton had to do with the fact that his administration gave numerous jobs to Black people.  So, the so-called meritocracy has no problem with some Black people becoming a part of their class.

One of President Obama’s closest advisors is Valerie Jarrett.  Both Obama and Jarrett lived in other countries in their youth and have similar attitudes towards politics.  Barnes wrote about how this so-called meritocracy identifies with individuals of their class in other countries.  Clearly they have a stronger attachment to those individuals than to the working class of this country.

In the old days, government officials bathed themselves in patriotism and missed no opportunity profess their loyalty to this country.  This change in attitude reflects a change in the capitalist system.  However, this attitude in no way means that politicians are becoming smarter.

The United States used to be the industrial center of the world.  This development sparked workers to demand a better standard of living and unions grew accordingly.  Then, Black people demanded their rights in the civil rights movement and in rebellions in hundreds of the cities throughout this country.

Because of the nature of the capitalist system, corporate officers are routinely driven to cut costs.  So, when working people in this country improved their standard of living, corporations invested huge amounts of money into moving their factories, to nations where workers are paid about two dollars per day.  When the government outlawed the legal discrimination against Black people, known as Jim Crow segregation, corporations advanced a course of legal discrimination against immigrant workers.

We can see how this change has effected industrial workers who continue to produce the commodities we all need and want.  We might think about the farm workers who pick fruits and vegetables in the hot sun.  Or the garment workers who make our clothes under horrendous conditions for miserable pay.  Or the autoworkers who work as fast as they can under deteriorating conditions. 

Members of the so-called meritocracy argue that these workers should be thankful to corporations for offering them jobs.  What they fail to grasp is that corporations would have virtually no assets without the labor of workers from all over the world. 

So, what does it mean when this so-called meritocracy argues that it’s members are smart?  The answer to this question has to do with the fact that this class is efficient at advancing a course that is repressive to workers and farmers all over the world.

Jack Barnes has a chart in his book that measured the increase in worker productivity.  The chart compared this to the buying power of the minimum wage, minus inflation, from 1970 to today.  This chart showed that if workers received wage increases that were commensurate with our increase in productivity, the minimum wage would be $18.42 per hour.  The reality is that while productivity has greatly increased, when we account for inflation, the minimum wage has effectively decreased during these same years.

However, President Obama argues that: “Anybody who says that we are not absolutely better off today than when we were just seven years ago, they’re just not leveling with you.”  What universe is Obama talking about when he makes this statement?

President Obama argues that unemployment has gone down during his presidency.  Barnes gives the facts showing how this statement is a bold-faced lie.  Obama defines unemployment by the number of people who are collecting unemployment compensation.  Barnes shows how the percentage of unemployed workers who are not receiving benefits has increased from 15% in 2009 to 28% today.  This explains why the “labor force participation rate” has dropped from 67% in 2000 to 63% today.  This statistic measures the percentage of workers who are working.

One statistic Barnes didn’t mention is the number of jobs that have been eliminated since the 1970’s.  This number is difficult to find, but it may be in the range of hundreds of millions of eliminated jobs.  Up until 2008 corporations have replaced these jobs with other jobs.  However, most replacement jobs have effectively lower wages and fewer benefits.  When we look at this picture it is clear that the standard of living for all workers has been deteriorating for decades.     

Another of the arguments of this so-called meritocracy has to do with their misguided idea that they are trying to improve education.  We can see the fallacy of this argument in Dale Russakoff’s book The Prize – Who’s in charge of America’s schools?

Russakoff was a so-called journalist for the Washington Post for many years and has the basic perspective of the so-called meritocracy.  However, in spite of this limitation, her book gives facts showing how education will not be improved in the capitalist system.

The Prize & the State of Black America

The Prize was a so-called award of $100 million to improve the Newark, New Jersey schools system.  Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was the one who gave the money.  Russakoff gave the facts as to how this massive contribution did nothing to improve education in Newark.

However, this contribution did have an effect.  The Newark teachers union fought for many gains for teachers over the years.  Of the $100 million, $30 million went to the teachers to sign what is known as a sweetheart contract.  The teachers received a lump sum payment reflecting the raises they had been denied over two years.  Then, the teachers discovered to their dismay that this contract also required them to work an additional two hours every day at a wage of little more than ten dollars per hour.  Russakoff quoted Zuckerberg in arguing that his contribution was also about weakening the teachers union.

The Urban League issues an annual report on, The State of Black America.  Newark is a largely Black city and the title of the Urban League’s 2016 report demonstrates that things are not getting better for Black people in this country.  The title of that report is: Locked Out of Education, Jobs, and Justice.

Jack Barnes cited statistics that underscore the Urban League’s argument.  Household family income for Blacks is, on average, 60% of the income of Caucasian families.  When we look at the accumulated wealth of Black vs. Caucasian families, Black family accumulated wealth in a mere 6% of that amount for Caucasians.

This state of affairs explains why millions of workers want a change from the status quo.  We see this sentiment expressed in the large turnouts to listen to the Presidential candidates Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.   

Today, Donald Trump appears to be the Republican nominee for President of the United States.  Trump openly argues that he wants to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of this country and to deport the twelve million immigrants without papers who live here.  He wants to place all Muslims living in this country under surveillance in clear violation of the First Amendment to the Constitution.  He feels that these policies will, “Make America great again.”

People who are opposed to the institutionalized discrimination in this country see these comments by Trump to be repugnant and reprehensible.  However, the facts are that President Obama has already made Donald Trump’s arguments into his routine policies.
·      Muslims as well as many working people are already under surveillance.  President Obama has ordered the military to murder thousands of Muslims in his wars against the people of Afghanistan, Iraq, and in his support of the Israeli government’s routine genocide against Palestinians.

·      President Obama has already built a wall between the U.S. and Mexico.  He has deported more immigrants than any other President in history.  These deportations have totaled over 1,000 every day.  Many of these deportations were of parents who have children born in this country.  When these parents are deported the children are sent to foster homes where there is no attempt to reunite them with their parents.

The one criticism I would make of Jack Barnes book is his criticism of W.E.B. DuBois.  Although DuBois admired people who were communists in his day, he never developed a communist perspective.  However, he clearly was one of the most important leaders of working people in his day.
DuBois argued that there was a “talented tenth” of the Black community that would provide leadership.  Barnes argued that this view is similar to the view of the so-called meritocracy.  When we look at this statement be DuBois, I believe we should also look at the context in which it was made.
DuBois was arguing against the politics of Booker T. Washington.  Washington ran the Andrew Carnegie funded Tuskegee Institute.  He argued that Black people needed to learn skills in the manual trades because those were the jobs open to Black people at that time.  DuBois countered that Black people deserved all the rights everyone had in this country.  This would include and education in whatever field they might choose.
I can recall two statements by DuBois that I believe Barnes would agree with.  He argued that: Education is not about teaching men to become carpenters, but to teach carpenters to become men.
He also argued that: The idea that Black people can pull themselves up by their bootstraps, without dealing with the question of discrimination, is the cruelest hoax.
I will conclude with a quotation from Jack Barnes.  Learning as a lifetime experience—what better reason to make a socialist revolution? .  .  . Explaining that is part of preparing the working class for the battle to throw off the self-image the rulers teach us, and to recognize we’re capable of taking power and reorganizing society.