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Category Archives: Wage Slavery
Posted: March 31, 2020 at 6:50 am
REVERB is a new documentary series fromCBSN Originals. Watch the latest episode, "Surviving an Unlivable Wage," in the video player above.
The act of tipping is said to have started in feudal Europe, when strict social hierarchies prevented any real kind of social mobility and it was a common practice among aristocrats to tip servants. It wasn't brought over to the U.S. until the 19th century, and was only popularized after the Civil War. But in this country, instead of being additional compensation on top of a regular wage, it functioned as an immediate and racist solution for employers who did not want to pay recently freed black slaves.
"After Emancipation, the restaurant lobby demanded the right to hire newly freed slaves, mostly black women, not pay them anything, and have them live entirely on this new idea that had just come from Europe called a tip," said Saru Jarayaman, director of the Food and Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley and co-founder of the nonprofit advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United.
Surprisingly, in those early years, many considered tipping undemocratic and therefore un-American because of its roots in the aristocracy. "Tipping, and the aristocratic idea it exemplifies, is what we left Europe to escape. It is a cancer in the breast of democracy," wrote William Scott in 1916. But the railway and restaurant industries fought for using tipping as their employees' full wages, to exploit their African American labor force, and they won.
This legacy of slavery was institutionalized with the New Deal-era Fair Labor and Standards Act of 1938, which introduced the country's first federal minimum wage of $0.25. The original legislation excluded hotel, restaurant and other service workers, but in 1966, significant amendments finally included them. At the same time, though, the amendments introduced a sub-minimum wage, allowing employers to pay tipped workers a base wage below the federal minimum so long as the tips and wages added up to the minimum wage.
While some states have set higher minimums, the federal "tipped minimum wage" has stagnated at $2.13 an hour since 1991 and inflation has steadily eroded its purchasing power.
"It's unconscionable. It's literally a slave wage," said Jaramayan. "I do think it's important to recognize that this is a 70% female workforce. And so I do think, in thinking about how has a wage stayed at $2.13, when you're looking at an industry that's majority female, you understand that basically the nation has valued these women at a $2 wage."
Despite federal law requiring restaurants to ensure tipped workers end up with the current federal minimum wage of $7.25 by making up the difference when tips fall short, violations are rampant. From 2010 to 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor found that of over 9,000 investigated restaurants, 84% violated wage and hour laws. The same report also found 1,200 tip credit violations.
In most European countries now, service charges are included in the bill and tipping isn't required or encouraged. But in the U.S., tipped workers continue to rely almost entirely on tips, and they are struggling. In 2014, one in six restaurant workers lived below the poverty line, which is 10 percentage points higher than the average in other industries, and more than 40% made less than the "twice-poverty" rate double the official poverty line, which economists often consider the minimum needed to make ends meet.
"Essentially, what the restaurant industry has argued therefore for the last 150 years is, 'We shouldn't have to pay our workers. You, the customers, should pay our workers' wages for us,' which is not how it's done anywhere else in the world and not what tipping was intended to be," said Jamarayan.
Cassie Redman is a restaurant server living in Kokomo, Indiana, with two kids and husband who has a salaried job. Indiana is one of 15 states that allows restaurants to pay their employees the federal tipped minimum wage of $2.13.
"You know, a lot of people will have like thousands of dollars in their savings because that's their life savings. Our life savings right now is about $400 and that's if an emergency happens," she said. "If a car breaks down and we need to tow it and that tow is going to be $100. That way we're not dipping into rent or gas or phone bill."
Redman and her family have to rely on garage sales and assistance to help them get by.
"Nowadays it's like you have to have four incomes in one household to just, like, be comfortably living. Like having cars that run, not having to go to food banks, not having to wake up early in the morning so you can go sit in a food bank for three hours to get enough food to last you a week," she said. "It's pretty sad."
Tipping has become a deeply ingrained tradition in the U.S., and though it's often portrayed as a way to ensure good service for customers, there is actually little evidence it has any effect on the quality of service. In recent years, some restaurants have decided to move away from tipping and pay their staff a living wage. Seven states have also shifted the burden to the employer, requiring them to pay the regular federal minimum wage with tips as additional compensation. Jaramayan said there is no reason why we shouldn't see this happen across the board.
"These are the jobs that are here to stay, number one. Number two, thousands, millions of these workers take great pride in their work," she said. "They consider themselves professionals. They love service and hospitality. It is not impossible for a restaurant to value these women, these workers, as the professionals that they are."
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Posted: at 6:50 am
People often talk about our own period as a second Gilded Age, and the assumption has been that it is a kind of repetition of the first Gilded Age. Thats true in terms of income and wealth inequality and so forth. But what always struck me was how different the response to that inequality and exploitation has been between the two gilded ages.
Throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, there was an enormous resistance to the capitalist transformation of the United States. There were the farmer and labor parties of the 1870s and 1880s, the Knights of Labor, the Populists, the Socialist Party, and the IWW. But it wasnt limited only to the working class. There was a broader sense that the idea of what America was supposed to be all about was being violated. There was the Social Gospel movement, where all kinds of Christian radicals decried the savage capitalism that was in development. There were critical writers like Theodore Dreiser, William Dean Howells, or Jack London, and you had all kinds of jurists and ordinary politicians talking about the sins and problem of what was commonly denounced as wage slavery. Who would dare call capitalism wage slavery today, except maybe the Democratic Socialists of America or somebody?
It was a common part of our vocabulary in the first Gilded Age, not just for the likes of Emma Goldman or Bill Haywood, but everyone appalled by the bloody birth of modern capitalism and how it was wiping out whole ways of living. These were farmers, homesteaders, artisans, various small-business people, peasants from Europe who had come here and found themselves treated like animals in this maelstrom of industrialization. What you had was not just material deprivation but also a kind of spiritual resistance to a new and terrible existence.
People at the time had experience with older ways of life, and whether they wanted to return to them or not, they knew that capitalism was not a natural fact because it was brand-new and gut-wrenching in so many ways. So you had this broad culture of opposition, not just the organized movements. And then that goes away in the years after the New Deal. A major part of the explanation for that is the very success of New Deal reforms and mass consumption capitalism. There was a period of what economic historians call the Great Compression, when there was a reduction of economic inequality, high corporate tax rates, and individual tax rates on the wealthy. There was deficit spending as a regular part of the medicine chest of solutions to unemployment and economic downturns.
These things worked, at least for a time, and there was a great explosion in mass consumption and the American standard of living. That standard of living attracted people long before the New Deal came around. But the New Deal and the years that followed made the labor question seem no longer relevant. The seductions of consumer capitalism also worked to privatize concerns once thought of as social dilemmas, and to dissolve many forms of social solidarity. Were all talking about social distancing in the midst of this pandemic, but consumer capitalism might be thought of as one of the first forms of social distancing. So matters of exploitation faded from view.
One of the key things that accounted for this acquiescence politically was the Democratic Partys abandonment of its New Deal heritage. This happened gradually but decisively by the mid-1980s, when Bill Clinton, for example, became the head of the Democratic Leadership Council and made his peace with neoliberal economics. At this point, it is not interested in the labor movement anymore except as a kind of ATM and vote-gathering machine. Before all that, there was the devasting impact of the Cold War, not only through the purging of the labor movement of its radical unions and activists, but also a more general purging of the vocabulary of everyday life, so that older notions of wage slavery or plutocracy or even racial justice were verboten. And then theres the enormous toll of deindustrialization which wiped out whole towns, fraternal societies, unions, and much of the tissue of social solidarity built up over generations.
I think the good news is that this period is over. It began to end with the financial collapse in 2008, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street, and the reemergence of very militant worker actions, often independent of the organized labor movement. And now, of course, with Bernie Sanders and the movement behind him.
Posted: at 6:50 am
Forced inside by the danger of coronavirus, where do we turn to for a sense of escape?
The answer, for many, is video games. Gaming statistics have skyrocketed in recent weeks in the US, Verizon reported an increase of 75 per cent since the quarantine began with people increasingly relying on their consoles and computers for diversion.
Even though a lot of people will be content to stick with old favourites such as Fifa, Fortnite or Grand Theft Auto while waiting for the lockdown to end, others may want something a little more off the beaten track.
Sharing the full story, not just the headlines
This is a list of games that are well worth checking out over the coming weeks, be they lesser-known independent gems such as Kentucky Route Zero or games with particular resonance during the time of self-isolation, like Death Stranding.
Here are 17 games to play while self-isolating...
There are few games more antidotal to the stress of the current global crisis than Animal Crossing. Suffused with good cheer, New Horizons provides you with the perfect(admittedly kid-focused) sense of community while youre stuck inside your house.
New Horizons uses a real-time calendar system to mimic seasonal weather patterns (Nintendo)
With everybody stuck inside, it can sometimes feel like society is on the brink of a breakdown. In Cities: Skylines, you can construct your own virus-free metropolitan utopia, with a terrific amount of customisation available.
Theres more than a whiff of The X Files to Remedy Entertainments acclaimed 2019 shooter Control. Playing as Jesse Faden, you must explore the Federal Bureau of Control and defeat a sinister force known as The Hiss. Remedy has always excelled at gunplay, and the action here is thrilling.
This immersive RPG(role-playing game) tells the story of a shambling, drug-addled detective in a sci-fi dystopia who investigates a lynching near a dockworkers union. Inspired by TV series such as The Wire and The Shield, as well as artists such asRembrandt, Disco Elysium is dense and compelling.
In Hideo Kojimas ambitious, spiritual epic Death Stranding, you control a post-apocalyptic deliveryman transporting cargo across treacherous but beautiful landscape. Death Stranding is a game about connection; it speaks so specifically to this age of self-isolation that some players have even started calling it prophecy.
Norman Reedus and La Seydoux in Hideo Kojimas sci-fi epic Death Stranding (Sony Interactive Entertainment)
Media Molecules Dreams is a brilliant-but-complicated game creation system; self-isolation might just give you the time you need to really get to grips with its impressively detailed workings or to play through the ever-expanding database of content made by others.
No doubt many of us are currently dreaming of escape and freedom; Inside is a game that holds this yearning to its core. Created by the team behind the indie hit Limbo, this puzzle-platform game is even weirder than its predecessor but no less enjoyable.
Spread across five acts, this contemplative, unendingly surprising point-and-click game is nothing short of a masterpiece. Developed and released over the span of a decade, Kentucky Route Zero explores weighty themes of addiction and wage slavery with the pithy postmodernism of a Don DeLillo novel.
Kentucky Route Zero tackles big themes with a solemn musical brilliance (Cardboard Computer)
OK, so nobody could argue that Naughty Dogs hugely successful post-apocalyptic thriller qualifies as a hidden gem. But theres never been a better time to revisit The Last of Us, with the sequel just months away and the world outside increasingly resembling Joel and Ellies desperate reality it might even be cathartic.
The classic block-building game has made its educational editions free to download while children worldwide are cooped up without school. But the original version of the game is still a great shout in times of trouble its sublimely peaceful and you can pour countless hours of your time into it.
Nioh took the tricky combat design of the Dark Souls franchise and smoothly transposed it to 17th-century Japan. This years prequel, Nioh 2, is even better: a hard, rewarding action RPG with a great setting and plenty of depth.
Nioh 2 colours its historical Japanese setting with dynamic action and great RPG elements (Sony Interactive Entertainment)
With a sweeping soundtrack and appealing characters, Ori and the Will of the Wisps sometimes feels like a Pixar film, in all the best ways. But this delightful platformer isnt just for kids as its formidable difficulty suggests.
Strategy game Plague Inc. was removed from the Chinese app store recently, seemingly on grounds of taste, but this virus simulator actually offers a genuine education on the ways viruses are disseminated through society. After a coronavirus-related sales boom, the games creators donated more than 200,000 to help fight the pandemic.
For those looking for something a bit different, Lucas Popes Return of the Obra Dinn is a fantastic puzzle game like no other. You play an insurance salesman investigating a ghost ship; the aim of the game is to identify all the Obra Dinns passengers and crew and determine how they died.
A ship is attacked by a beast from the deep in Lucas Popes retro-inspired Return of the Obra Dinn (3909 via MobyGames)
If you feel like you dont have much control over your own life at the moment, you can at least have total dominion over the lives of others, in this sensationally popular simulation game. And as anyone whos played it can attest, the hours fly by at triple speed when The Sims manages to get its hooks into you.
Stellarisputs you in command of a species who have just cracked the science of interstellar travel. If youre looking for a way to kill some serious time, you can hardly do better than this sprawling strategy game, which forces you to juggle diplomacy, exploration and warfare to build the ultimatespace empire.
While a game like Animal Crossing is a great reminder of the pleasures society can bring you, Untitled Goose Game is all about shaking that society up. As a havoc-wreaking goose, you dont know the meaning of the phrase social distancing you honk, peck and flap your way around a small English village, leaving a trail of frustrated farm folk in your wake.
Posted: at 6:50 am
It is difficult to believe that it has only been a few weeks since I left Duke for spring break with the (perhaps naive) assumption that I would return. In that short time, with the shift to online classes, student evacuation/evictions and stay-at-home orders, our lives have been upended in the wake of the coronavirus.
And yet, cutting through the chaos and confusion, a kind of clarity emerges. Coronavirus has laid bare the greatest cruelties of capitalism, white supremacy and the status quo. But it has also opened up a window into an alternative world.
Cities throughout the country are declaring eviction moratoriums while organizers push for rent freezes, exposing how landlords profit off gentrification, redlining and the hard-earned income of the working class. Although weve known for years that there are more empty homes than houseless people, only now are houseless people finally getting a roof over their heads.
But, when the virus is contained, will we go back to evicting people who cant afford rent or harassing houseless people who have nowhere to go? Or will COVID-19 make us realize that we should have never put a price on the human right to housing in the first place?
And for incarcerated people, who are disproportionately low-income Black and brown people, social distancing is an impossibility in prisons with inhumane living conditions, inadequate meals and abysmal medical care. My home state of New York is opportunistically capitalizing on this crisis to use prison labor, or modern-day slavery, to make hand sanitizer.
Many people are beginning to realize the inherent inhumanity of locking people up during a pandemic and are urging for the release of non-violent, low-risk prisoners. But the coronavirus should challenge us to act as prison abolitionists have for decades in challenging the existence of prisons themselvesand how they function in maintaining white supremacy, carceral violence, and punitive (in)justice.
For years, nationalized healthcare, student debt elimination and reparations were all dismissed as pipe dreams, impossible to fund, and yet the government magically materialized trillions of dollars out of thin air to pump into the stock market. The money was always there, but the American ruling class uses it not to help people but instead to perpetuate white supremacy, capitalism and imperialism. How can we change things so that our society actually serves its people?
A little closer to home, this is a moment when the foundations of the university can be dismantled and reimagined, lest we reproduce Duke exactly the same as it was before, just on Zoom this time.
My hope is that Dukes response to the coronavirus may serve as a wake-up call to what campus activists and organizers have been saying for years. For example, instead of stepping in like UNC or Emory by establishing funds to assist students financially during COVID-19, Duke and its 8.6 billion dollar endowment has, yet again, left it up to students to self-organize and assist one another.
The campus shutdown has exacerbated the precarity of contract workers at Duke, who are not considered employees of the university and frequently do not get paid the $15 minimum wage Duke pledged to in 2017, and workers have pressured the administration to make some commitments to pay them amid a global health crisis. So many unskilled workers such as grocery clerks, farmworkers, delivery drivers and sanitation workers, whose labor was constantly devalued and discounted are now considered essential workerswhen they have served as the backbone of society this entire time.
The same goes for these contract workers, without whom the university would not be able to function. But after COVID-19, will Dukes contract workers get the adequate pay and respect that they deserve?
As Duke transitions to S/U grading, this crisis should make it clear that the playing field has never been level, not even at Duke, and grades are less a measure of intelligence than access to resources. The question shouldnt be should I pass/fail my class or still get a letter grade, but why do we even have grades at all?
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Many people are waiting for this all to be over, yearning for stability and a return to normalcy. However, it is very likely that nothing will be the same in the post-coronavirus world. Moreover, the coronavirus has torn away the thin veil of capitalism, revealing the naked exploitation that underwrites our stability and normalcy. We cannot return to that world.
Capitalism is sick and decaying, but socialism will not rise from the ashes by default. We can allow the ruling class to implement enhanced techno-surveillance (heard of Zoom lately?), summon the military to prevent civil disturbances and bailout corporations once again. We can allow Duke to continue offloading labor onto student organizers and shortchanging workers. Or we fight for a new, better world.
So, what is to be done? In short, organize!
Mutual aid efforts have sprouted up across the country, as tangible steps towards building the infrastructure and relationships of trust and care necessary in a kinder, more just world. Tenants are building power together and organizing themselves in anticipation of rent strikes to come. Campaigns to abolish ICE and the prison-industrial complex are more urgent than ever. Every aspect of the status quo has been impacted by COVID-19, but every aspect of the status quo can also be changed. Now is the time to demand the impossible.
It feels like the coronavirus is something that we ordinary people cant do much to impact besides washing our hands diligently and staying home. Passing the days by in quarantine can make us feel like passive, if not powerless, observersor perhaps hostages. But we all have much more power than we might think. And in this moment, solidarity and collective care are our best medicine.
Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, planting seeds, runs on alternate Mondays.
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Posted: at 6:50 am
The following is a guest version of Unsanitized from Mehrsa Baradaran, a professor of law at UC Irvine School of Law, and author of How the Other Half Banks and The Color of Money. She is also a Prospect board member.
Experts studying climate change, growing inequality, wage stagnation, and unsustainable debt have for years been trying to warn the public that, even though life seems normal for many people, these issues signal a critical crisis and ongoing epidemics. Communities across the US are suffering an epidemic of drug addiction, an epidemic of deaths of despair arising from poverty, an epidemic of anxiety because of the student loan crisis. Wave after wave of famines, crop failures, and wildfire crises (and now, an ominous swarm of locusts) have their origins in climate change. Yet business went on as usual, as the crises and epidemics raged slowly in the background.
Now, a global pandemic threatens all of us at once. The coronavirus has generated a tragedy of epic proportions; many lives will be lost in a short amount of time. Yet still, the other less acute epidemics will continue to rage on, unless we take this long pause as an opportunity to consider whether we want to reemerge from this crisis back to the way we were, or whether we want to shape a new way forward.
There are a few connected realities that have emerged from this crisis, which can guide us as we try to deal with our previous, ongoing crises:
First, our actions affect other people even when we arent aware. What were all learning during this pandemic is that, as we go about our normal lives, we put other people in grave danger. So it has always been with climate changeeach time we overconsume, buy gas, and basically maintain our current state of economic growth, we contribute to a warming planet that is causing climate disasters all over the world. All of our individual and collective actions can cause dislocation, death, famine, and scarcity. Our lives and fates have always been linked, because the earths resources are not unlimited. Each one of us who takes more than our share of resources causes harm somewhere else.
Second, the imperatives of economic growth conflict with lives lost. Our president has signaled that he would not let the coronavirus cure be worse than the disease. Other commenters, many of whom are not fans of the president, have been echoing this line of thinking. They characterize it as a trade-off; social isolation is going to hammer the economy as it slows the spread of the virus. Others have put it more crudely: sacrificing a portion of the population to death might be better than watching the stock market tank.
But the tension between human well-being and market well-being has always existed. The current structure of our economy relies on perpetual GDP growth, which requires that we favor a return on capital rather than human flourishing or ecological health. Usually, some group of humans has to sacrifice their labor, their land, or their health for the sake of economic growth. The drive toward profits has led to slavery, labor exploitation, sweatshops, and our current winner-takes-all economy. Economic growth has always come at a cost, whether manifested in the famines and starvations of the colonized world or todays corporate exploitation of labor and resources. People continue to die prematurely and live brutal lives of poverty and endless work.
Third, we can stop the status quo if we need to. To watch the entire world grind to a halt has been jarring and scary and disorienting. To see rigid rules and institutions adapt has also been stunning. Schools have quickly gone online, in-person meetings have become webinars and conference calls, and travel has been cancelled. We adapted quickly. We can live another way. We can consume less, take fewer carbon-emitting trips, and relax our work lives. This sudden and dramatic adaptability will be necessary as we consider our carbon future and attempt to halt a growth-based economy.
Fourth, downturns hit the economically vulnerable the hardest, and those at the bottom of the economy happen to be its most essential parts. About 40% of Americans could not access $500 if they faced an unexpected expense. Many Americans who work full-time cannot afford food and shelter if they go without wages for a month or two. Many of these workers also happen to be the grocery store clerks, nurses, sanitation workers, and delivery men and women we are all relying on right now. A deep irony of our economy has been that the workers who work the most in the hardest jobs earn the lowest salaries. In our current market system, firms are by law and design focused exclusively on earning profits for their shareholders. By squeezing their companies for maximum profits, investors and managers have replaced well-paid employees with benefits with low-wage or temporary workers to lower their costs of production. Meanwhile, shareholders have engaged in stock buybacks, evaded taxes through offshore loopholes, and lobbied for more tax cuts and subsidies, increasing the holdings of their billionaire owners. As increased wealth has accumulated at the top, the financial lives of the majority of Americans have become more precarious. The growing wealth of the 1 percent has come at the expense of the involuntary sacrifice of their workers. These so-called low skilled employees are now the main essential workers in the economy.
We were always on an unsustainable path. We have always been inflicted by ongoing pandemics. Perhaps we can use this time to consider what kind of world we want to emerge into. This crisis is already a tragedy of unprecedented proportions, but it would be an even greater tragedy if we did not use it as a wake-up call to address our nations ongoing epidemics.
The numbers are getting grim. As of this morning, the New York Times shows 123,617 U.S. cases (102,636 yesterday) and 2,133 deaths (1,646). Johns Hopkins University shows 124,686 cases (104,860) and 2,191 deaths (1,711). The death toll has doubled in just two days, a terrible sign if it continues. The COVID-19 Tracker shows 121,468 cases (101,369) and 2.045 deaths (1,593), with better news on testing: 762,015 tests completed (645,669 yesterday). Over 220,000 tests have been completed in the past two days, which is great. But Bill McBride asks some good questions about putting the increased testing capacity to use: who will handle tracking, follow-ups, database management, etc., so we can actually implement a test-and-trace system that will allow most people to return to their lives?
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Posted: at 6:50 am
The United States is the wealthiest nation in the history of the world, yet millions of American families have had to set up crowdfunding sites to try to raise money for their loved ones medical bills. Millions more can buy unleaded gasoline for their car, but they cant get unleaded water in their homes. Almost half of Americas workerswhether in Appalachia or Alabama, California or Carolinawork for less than a living wage. And as school buildings in poor communities crumble for lack of investment, Americas billionaires are paying a lower tax rate than the poorest half of households.
With the coronavirus pandemic bringing our countrys equally urgent poverty crisis into stark relief, we cannot simply wait for change. It must come now.
This moral crisis is coming to a head as the coronavirus pandemic lays bare Americas deep injustices. While the virus itself does not discriminate, it is the poor and disenfranchised who will experience the most suffering and death. Theyre the ones who are least likely to have health care or paid sick leave, and the most likely to lose work hours. And though children appear less vulnerable to the virus than adults, Americas nearly forty million poor and low-income children are at serious risk of losing access to food, shelter, education, and housing in the economic fallout from the pandemic.
The underlying disease, in other words, is poverty, which was killing nearly 700 of us every day in the worlds wealthiest country, long before anyone had heard of COVID-19.
The moral crisis of poverty amid vast wealth is inseparable from the injustice of systemic racism, ecological devastation, and our militarized war economy. It is only a minority rule sustained by voter suppression and gerrymandering that subverts the will of the people. To redeem the soul of Americaand survive a pandemicwe must have a moral fusion movement that cuts across race, gender, class, and cultural divides.
The United States has always been a nation at odds with its professed aspirations of equality and justice for allfrom the genocide of original inhabitants to slavery to military aggression abroad. But there have been periods in our history when courageous social movements have made significant advances. We must learn from those whove gone before us as we strive to build a movement that can tackle todays injusticesand help all of us survive.
In the aftermath of the Civil War, African Americans who had just escaped slavery joined with white allies to form coalitions that won control of nearly every southern legislature. These Reconstruction-era political alliances enacted new constitutions that advanced moral agendas, including, for the first time, the right to public education.
During the Great Depression, farmers, workers, veterans, and others rose up to demand bold government action to ease the pain of the economic crisis on ordinary Americans. This led to New Deal policies, programs, and public works projects that we still benefit from today, such as Social Security and basic labor protections.
Pushed by these movements, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt even called in 1944 for an economic bill of rights, declaring: We cannot be content, no matter how high that general standard of living may be, if some fraction of our peoplewhether it be one-third or one-fifth or one-tenthis ill-fed, ill-clothed, ill-housed, and insecure.
During what I like to call the Second Reconstruction over the following decades, a coalition of blacks and progressive whites began dismantling the racist Jim Crow laws and won key legislative victories, including the Civil Rights Act, the Voting Rights Act, and the Fair Housing Act.
With each period of advancement has come a formidable backlash. This is how we find ourselves today, in the year 2020, with levels of economic inequality as severe as during the original Gilded Age a century ago. Since the Supreme Courts 2013 Shelby decision, Americans have had fewer voting rights protections than we did fifty-five years ago, while thanks to the earlier Citizens United ruling, corporations can invest unlimited sums of money to influence elections.
In response to fair tax reforms, the wealthy have used their economic clout to slash their IRS bills, cutting the top marginal income tax rate from more than 90 percent in the 1950s to 37 percent today. In response to the hard-fought wins of the labor movement, corporate lobbyists have rammed through one anti-worker law after another, slashing the share of U.S. workers protected by unions nearly in half, from 20.1 percent in 1983 to just 10.5 percent in 2018.
Decades after Depression-era reforms, Wall Street fought successfully to deregulate the financial system, paving the way for the 2008 financial crash that caused millions to lose their homes and livelihoods. And the ultra-rich and big corporations have also managed to dominate our campaign finance system, making it easier for them to buy off politicians who commit to rigging the rules against the poor and the environment, and to suppress voting rights, making it harder for the poor to fight back.
Our military budgets continue to rise, now grabbing more than fifty-three cents of every discretionary federal dollar to pay for wars abroad and pushing our ability to pay for health care for all, for a Green New Deal, for jobs and education, and infrastructure, further and further away.
In short, the official measure of poverty doesnt begin to touch the depth and breadth of economic hardship in the worlds wealthiest nation, where 40 percent of us cant afford a $400 emergency.
The wars that those military budgets fund continue to escalate. They dont make us safer, and theyve led to the deaths of thousands of poor people in Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, and beyond, as well as the displacement of millions of refugees, the destruction of water sources, and the contamination of the environments of whole countries.
The only ones who benefit are the millionaire CEOs of military companies, who are getting richer every year on the more than $350 billionhalf the military budgetthat goes directly to their corporations. In the meantime 23,000 low-ranking troops earn so little that they and their families qualify for food stamps.
Key to these rollbacks: controlling the narrative about who is poor in America and the world. It is in the interest of the greedy and the powerful to perpetuate myths of deservednessthat they deserve their wealth and power because they are smarter and work harder, while the poor deserve to be poor because they are lazy and intellectually inferior.
Its also in their interest to perpetuate the myth that the poverty problem has largely been solved and so we neednt worry about the rich getting richereven while our real social safety net is full of gaping holes. This myth has been reinforced by our deeply flawed official measurements of poverty and economic hardship.
The way the U.S. government counts who is poor and who is not, frankly, is a sixty-year-old mess that doesnt tell us what we need to know. Its an inflation-adjusted measure of the cost of a basket of food in 1955 relative to household income, adjusted for family sizeand its still the way we measure poverty today.
But this measure doesnt account for the costs of housing, child care, or health care, much less twenty-first-century needs like internet access or cell phone service. It doesnt even track the impacts of anti- poverty programs like Medicaid or the earned income tax credit, obscuring the role they play in reducing poverty.
In short, the official measure of poverty doesnt begin to touch the depth and breadth of economic hardship in the worlds wealthiest nation, where 40 percent of us cant afford a $400 emergency.
In a report with the Institute for Policy Studies, the Poor Peoples Campaign found that nearly 140 million Americans were poor or low-incomeincluding more than a third of white people, 40 percent of Asian people, approximately 60 percent each of indigenous people and black people, and 64 percent of Latinx people. LGBTQ people are also disproportionately affected.
Further, the very condition of being poor in the United States has been criminalized through a system of racial profiling, cash bail, the myth of the Reagan-era Welfare Queen, arrests for things such as laying ones head on a park bench, passing out food to unsheltered people, and extraordinary fines and fees for misdemeanors such as failing to use a turn signal, and simply walking while black or trans.
We are a nation crying out for security, equity, and justice. We need racial equity. We need good jobs. We need quality public education. We need a strong social safety net. We need health care to be understood as a human right for all of us. We need security for people living with disabilities. We need to be a nation that opens our hearts and neighborhoods to immigrants. We need safe and healthy environments where our children can thrive instead of struggling to survive.
With the coronavirus pandemic bringing our countrys equally urgent poverty crisis into stark relief, we cannot simply wait for change. It must come now.
America is an imperfect nation, but we have made important advancements against interconnected injustices in the past.
We can do it again, and we know how. Now is the time to fight for the heart and soul of this democracy.
Originally posted here:
Posted: at 6:50 am
Now the initial wave of panic and uncertainty has passed, many big businesses will be thinking about how to prepare for an uncertain future.
Redundancies are often the first thing considered, and are enacted to cut costs, protect profits and please shareholders.
But as a KiwiSaver manager and shareholder in many of NZ's largest companies, our message is clear: Redundancies should be the last option.
Here are five simplereasons why.
READ MORE:* Full coronavirus coverage*Hundreds call cops to dob on lockdown cheats*At the going down of the sun
1. It fuels the recession.
Layoffs are the surest way of exacerbating a recession. The redundant worker loses income, and so do the supermarkets, cinemas, sports clubs, cafes and bars they spent money at. And it provides a bad example for others to justify their redundancies, turning it into an unnecessary downward spiral.
It's usually bad economics. The cost of redundancies is typically 3-6 months of an employees salary. That means it's 3-6 months before a company starts saving money from the redundancy.
Sam Stubbs is calling on businesses not to fuel the recession by laying off staff.
Most layoffs occur at the end of recession, not the beginning, so the companies often pay for the redundancy and find themselves re-hiring quite soon thereafter. The finance industry is notorious for this.
Underperforming companies are always restructuring in the good times, and firing their people quickly in the bad times. By contrast, great companies like Honeywell go to the nth degree to keep staff through the economic cycle.
2.It's bad for a companys' future.
The average time for an economic recession is 12-18 months. Given that this crash is caused by a virus, the recession may be savage, but also over faster than feared right now. Who knows. But however it pans out, in tough times companies often can't see the recovery just round the corner. And if they fire staff, when the recovery comes (and it will) they will be understaffed, and spend time and money rebuilding teams they fired in a panic.
3. It's bad for mental health.
There is nothing as demoralising, and destructive, as laying off an employee in a bad job market. Every worker typically has others dependant on their income. It's a blow to self esteem, and down right terrifying for some.
If companies believe they have any social license, it's first and foremost owed to the employees who depend on them. A company's culture is defined by how it treats its employees, especially in the bad times.
4. The Government is helping, big time.
Subsidies and loan support for all companies in trouble is a clear signal that the Government wants businesses to retain jobs, and they'll spend billions making that happen.
New Zealand Parliament
Finance Minister Grant Robertson unveils $12.1b package to help protect the economy against the coronavirus fallout.
For Government that's a sensible strategy, they may as well pay subsidies for salaries rather than in the form of benefits, and there is a simple dignity in someone keeping their job. It's good for shareholders too, because being fully staffed for the recovery means most businesses will make profits again sooner, and be paying taxes too.
5. Great and enduring companies are ultimately a combination of three things- an idea,money and people.
Great ideas are everywhere, you'll find most of them on the web. And money for good ideas is increasingly available. KiwiSaver managers alone will invest $70 billion in New Zealand in the next ten years. But great people are always hard to find, and nothing signals 'employees don't really matter around here' more than team mates losing their jobs early on.
As a shareholder in many of New Zealand's biggest companies, our perspective is very clear. Great companies value their employees first and foremost. From that will flow motivated teams delivering very satisfied customers and enduring profits. But let great people go, and what makes your company great goes too. As Richard Branson says, employees come first.
And there's no such thing as a company with demotivated staff delivering sustainable long term profits. That ended with slavery.
My business hero, Stephen Tindall, once said that a great person with an average idea is far more likely to succeed than an average person with a great idea. So keeping quality people matters most.
So how does a company adapt for recession without cutting jobs? History has shown some winning ways.
First, the CEO's and directors need to take a meaningful and public pay cut.
That's a strong signal about priorities, and will help save some jobs until better times.
CEO's and directors are no more entitled to their salary and job security than anyone else.
As leaders, they should take any pain first. Is it any wonder that Rod Duke runs Briscoes so successfully? He just took a 100 per centpay cut until things improve. Bravo.
Rod Duke, the head of Briscoes Group, has taken a 100 per cent pay cut until the coronavirus crisis is over.
By contrast, some CEO's have taken no pay cut, or have agreed to take one only as large as everyone else. That is not great leadership, because great leaders eat last.
Next, discretionary spending needs to be pared back. There are always ways to save money without cutting jobs. It's different for each business, but each one should know how.
Talk to your accountants and get advice. If a CEO hasn't done this before, many others have.
Next is tough conversations with creditors.
Banks have a big role to play here.
They make over $5 billion a year from Kiwis, so have a social license to do the right thing in tough times.
The Reserve Bank has just relaxed their capital requirements so they can be more lenient with lending, and the Government is underwriting 80 per centof the risk of many new loans. The banks have effectively had their success through this crisis underwritten by the Reserve Bank and Government. Remind them of that when re-negotiating your loans.
And if all that doesn't work, employees should be involved in planning how everyone can take some pain to save jobs. It might be unpaid leave for all, a four day week, or everyone taking a small salary or wage cut.
Any wage cuts should hurt more at the top than at the bottom, and there will be some on minimum wage for which any wage cut might be too big a deal. But where there's a will, there's usually a way.
Teams that survive the tough times intact will thrive when things improve. And remember, the economy has improved after every recession. Every single time.
As a KiwiSaver manager, we have a very clear message to the CEO's and directors of New Zealand's biggest companies, many of which we are invested in.
Right now it's better to have lower profits, or no profits, in order to keep your team employed. Doing so dampens the recession, so we all recover faster. And it's the right thing to do for the long term. Short term profits simply don't matter right now, keeping your team intact does.
We are stronger together. Kia Kaha.
Posted: March 26, 2020 at 5:48 am
It is natural to think there is something deeply unfree about work in the contemporary United States. Describing her job in an Amazon warehouse, journalist Emily Guendelsberger writes, I walked up to sixteen miles a day to keep up with the rate at which I was supposed to pick orders. A GPS-enabled scanner tracked my movements and constantly informed me how many seconds I had left to complete my task. A man employed at a different facility said he found pervasive surveillance and inhuman speed so soul-sucking I found myself nearly crying in my car right before I was supposed to walk in.
That feeling is connected to a real material fact about the workplace: one of the defining features of the employment relationship in all capitalist countries is that the workers will is, by law, subordinate to the employers. The employer has the right, within broad bounds, to define the nature of the task, who performs it, and how. This shows up in all kinds of surveillance, control, and submission also known as maximizing productivity and extracting profit.
Just consider who controls one of the bodys most essential functions: going to the bathroom. Workers in the United States can be forced to urinate during employer-mandated drug testing; or forbidden from urinating if it isnt break time. In Amazon warehouses, workers, whose every move is tracked, forego trips to the restroom to avoid being disciplined or fired for too much time off task. In a poultry-packing plant, employees were forced to wear diapers to work because they said they knew they would be let go if they demanded the bathroom breaks their bosses denied them. Employers control or seek to control many other aspects of workers lives, from their Facebook posts and political speech to the wages they earn and the rates at which they work.
It is no surprise, then, that there is a long history of comparing capitalist wage labor to chattel slavery.
In 1873, Ira Steward, son of abolitionists and founder of the eight-hours movement, looked out over the United States industrial sweatshops, its fourteen-hour days for poverty wages, and wrote, Something of slavery still remains. His point was not that wage labor and slavery were the same, but that, for all the talk of emancipation, many aspects of the employment relationship smacked more of servitude than of freedom.
By the time Steward wrote those words, the critique of wage slavery was at least fifty years old. In 1828, Thomas Skidmore, avowed critic of slavery and founder of the New York Working Mens Party, wrote:
For he, in all countries is a slave, who must work more for another than that other must work for him. It does not matter how this state of things is brought about; whether the sword of victory hew down the liberty of the captive, and thus compel him to labor for his conqueror, or whether the sword of want extort our consent, as it were, to a voluntary slavery, through a denial to us of the materials of nature.
Fifteen years later, a Skidmore collaborator turned land reformer, George Henry Evans, found something of slavery in the poor, landless worker: he must ask leave to live ... he is liable to be driven away at the will of another. When arguing against propertylessness and for the redistribution of land to all workers, Evans said, The National Reform measures would not merely substitute one form of slavery for another, but would replace every form of slavery by entire freedom.
Not everyone decrying wage slavery did so on egalitarian grounds. In the early republic, some racist white workers invoked wage slavery not to argue against chattel slavery and wage labor together but, instead, to maintain that white workers should not be reduced to the condition of black people. Theophilus Fisk, for instance, worried in the 1830s about the white slaves of the North but denounced abolition. Freedom was, for racist figures like Fisk, a racial privilege rather than a universal end. It was possible, then, to object to wage slavery as white slavery and to use the term to divide people by race, rather than to unite them in class struggle. But that was generally the less common use of the term.
After the Civil War, the critique of wage slavery really took off. A group I have elsewhere called labor republicans drew on and extended the earlier views of people like Skidmore and Evans to argue that capitalist labor relations failed to live up to their promise.Labor republicanism formed the guiding ideology of the Knights of Labor. Founded in 1869, the Knights were the first national labor association to organize relatively unskilled black workers together with whites on a mass basis an effort not meaningfully duplicated in the United States for another fifty years. In 1886, their membership peaked at nearly 1 million workers, with everyone from predominantly white Northern shoemakers to Southern black cane-cutters carrying a Knights of Labor card.
In articles with titles like Wages Slavery and Chattel Slavery, the Knights argued that the whole process of civilization has been to emancipate human beings from the condition of slavery in which they have been held by their fellow men ... [however] civilization has not yet reached its highest point of development, nor can it develop much further without first having abolished wages slavery, for that form of slavery stands to-day as one of the greatest barriers to the progress of civilization.
This wage slavery, the Knights contended, first appeared in the dependence of propertyless workers on their employers. Lacking any reasonable alternative but to look for a job, workers were in a structurally subordinate role. This made the labor contract something less than fully free. As George E. McNeill, one of the Knights leading figures, put it, in a labor contract, the workers assent but they do not consent, they submit but they do not agree.
Once at work, submission was the order of the day. Is there a workshop where obedience is not demanded not to the difficulties or qualities of the labor to be performed but to the caprice of he who pays the wages of his servants? asked one Knight. Another Knight complained, Thus is sycophancy deified in our workshops ... thus is abject servility ennobled, as it were, by bosses and foreman.
They sought to abolish as rapidly as possible, the wage system, substituting co-operation therefore, by which they meant a national economy of interconnected worker-governed cooperatives and publicly owned utilities (such as railroads and schools). The vision appealed to everyone from Southern black agricultural workers to Anglo-American and immigrant workers in the North and the West, who joined under the Knights banner.
The Knights were not the only ones who thought something of slavery was to be found in so-called free labor. In 1865, former slaves who had appropriated land on Edisto Island wrote the Freedmens Bureau Commissioner: We were promised Homesteads by the government but the government was now in the process of returning all land to its previous owners their former masters. Abolition, however, was not emancipation.
The federal government, they insisted, now takes away from [us] all right to the soil [we] stand upon save such as [we] can get by again working for your late and [our] all time enemies. Being thrown into the labor market was not the condition of really freemen. To be truly free, they demanded land where we shall not be slaves nor compelled to work for those who would treat us as such.
Frederick Douglass, arguing for unity among black and white laborers in 1883, said that experience teaches us that there may be a slavery of wages only a little less galling and crushing in its effects than chattel slavery, and that this slavery of wages must go down with the other.
The critique of wage slavery was then taken up by anarchists, socialists, and labor radicals of various stripes, who railed against the capitalist labor market and organized for a multiracial struggle against the owners of capital. Lucy Parsons, born a slave and later a widely known anarchist, declared in one of her most famous speeches:
How many of the wage class, as a class, are there who can avoid obeying the commands of the master (employing) class, as a class? Not many, are there? Then are you not slaves to the money power as much as were the black slaves to the Southern slaveholders? Then we ask you again: What are you going to do about it? You had the ballot then. Could you have voted away black slavery? You know you could not because the slaveholders would not hear of such a thing for the same reason you cant vote yourselves out of wage-slavery.
We can find similar quotations from famous left-wing leaders like Emma Goldman, Eugene Debs, and Big Bill Haywood, and less famous figures, like Alexander Howat, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, and Hubert Harrison.
For all these thinkers, three thoughts tended to go together. First, wage labor was wage slavery not because it was the same as chattel slavery but because it was shot through with its own forms of subservience and subjection. The project of emancipation was therefore unfinished. Second, the solution was to replace wage labor with some form of democratically managed cooperative commonwealth. Third, the demand for liberty could unite workers across race and gender in a project to seize control of the economy and turn it to collective purposes.
This was the holy trinity of the Lefts emancipatory program one that guided millions in the nineteenth and twentieth century.
This week, the Daily Beast unearthed statements from when Bernie Sanders was chairman of a Vermont-based socialist party in the 1970s. They found Sanders saying things like Basically, today, Vermont workers remain slaves in many, many ways, because we end up with an entire state of people trained to wait on other people. They report Sanders as stating: We believe ultimately that companies like Vermont Marble should be owned by the workers themselves and that workers not a handful of owners should be determining policy. If a worker at Vermont Marble has no say about who owns the company he works for and that major changes can take place without his knowledge and consent, how far have we really advanced from the days of slavery, when black people were sold to different owners without their consent?
And, in another outrage, Sanders commented: If we are free people and not slaves, then the working people of this country, who constitute the vast majority of the population, should seize control of the economy rather than allow small groups, like mine owners, to decide their fate.
Somehow, the Daily Beast decided this was a sign that Sanders has a massive race problem as if the Vermont senator was saying the problems workers face today are the same as the evils of racial slavery. What the publication missed, out of ignorance or bad faith or a blind desire to boost clicks, was that Sanders was tapping into the aforementioned (and still valid) tradition of criticizing wage slavery.
It is obvious from his appeals to the majority, not to mention his identification of the employer class as the enemy, that Sanders was not part of that pernicious tradition of viewing freedom as a racial privilege. Rather, he was appealing to the idea that the daily oppression of the labor market is something that the vast majority of people have a shared interest in overcoming. His critique of wage slavery was a way of naming the problem that made it a potential source of multiracial unity.
Since the 1970s, one of the Lefts greatest challenges has been finding a language of common purpose, something to unify and orient a common mass struggle. Identifying and acknowledging differences in a movement is essential and important. But solidarity only fully emerges by rising above differences in the name of what everyone seeks together, what they can only win for themselves by winning it together: their freedom.
Leave it to the chattering classes to stoke racial divisions with fake controversies and absurd accusations. As Sanders says, its not just up to him, but to us, to develop and act on a language of freedom that unites the vast majority.
See more here:
Posted: at 5:48 am
a person who works for a wage, especially with total and immediate dependency on the income derived from such labor.
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First recorded in 188590
OTHER WORDS FROM wage slavewage slavery, noun
Dictionary.com UnabridgedBased on the Random House Unabridged Dictionary, Random House, Inc. 2020
I was as faithful a wage-slave as ever a capitalist exploited.
The wage-slave lives for the evening's liberty, the business man for his wealth, the preacher for his church.
She sat in another chair, very straight in her lavender dress, and joined with the flapper in her survey of the wage-slave.
Slave and slave-owner, serf and baron, wage-slave and capitalistso the classes have struggled.
The wage-slave, when he is out of work, must now starve or go into the workhouse and be made miserable, or commit suicide.
ironic a person dependent on a wage or salary
Collins English Dictionary - Complete & Unabridged 2012 Digital Edition William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1979, 1986 HarperCollins Publishers 1998, 2000, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2012
Posted: at 5:48 am
Capital and Ideology
Thomas Piketty, translated from the French by Arthur Goldhammer
Harvard University Press, pp. 1150, 31.95
The French economist, statistician and polymath Thomas Piketty sprang to fame in 2013 with a daunting tome, Capital in the Twenty- First Century. In it he documented a fundamental force of divergence in the capitalist system, which he represented by the equation r>g the tendency for returns to capital to grow faster than national income, and therefore for wealth to concentrate in fewer and fewer hands. This tendency was reversed between 1914 and 1980 by the impact of two world wars, the Great Depression, social democracy and the trade unions, but it has since reasserted itself, restoring levels of inequality last seen 100 years ago.
In his new blockbuster, Capital and Ideology, Piketty studies the transformation of inequality regimes from premodern trifunctional and slave societies to todays hyperglobalisation, concentrating on the capitalist or proprietarian period from 1800. The book culminates in a programme for social democratic renewal to overcome the distempers of hyperglobalisation. The whole trajectory of human history is compressed into this framework if compression is the right word to describe this sprawling production of more than 1,000 pages
Piketty has amassed a huge amount of learning in support of a single thesis: that inequality societies have been the historical norm but they are not inevitable. Rather, they depend on ideologies of justification, and much of the book is devoted to examining these ideologies, showing how they have always been contested and how they might be transcended, It is impossible not to admire the skill and perseverance with which he deploys his massive arsenal of data and arguments. Still, what caused this reviewer to rub his eyes was Pikettys audacious self-assurance. Despite much cosmetic homage to the daunting complexity of his subject matter, he really does believe that he has solved the riddle of history. The magic key is not Marxs class struggle but ideological conflict over property systems. Property ownership, Piketty writes, always involves workers sacrificing a substantial proportion of her [sic] wage to an owners profit or landlords rent ...That is why property relations are always conflictual. Each new property-ownership system creates contradictions which lead to its demise. Conflict ceases when private property ceases to be important. Thus Pikettys history too leads to the end of history.
In the light of this reading, his reform agenda seeks, logically enough, to rob property of its sting. He rejects public ownership of the means of production the communist fallacy. Rather, he seeks to modify the property system by supplanting sacralised private ownership with public, social and temporary ownership, realised by co-partnership and steeply progressive taxes on wealth and income. Political control over international capital would be secured by regional, and eventually global, federalist structures:
What I have just described is a cooperative and ideal (not to say idyllic) scenario that would lead, via concentric circles, to a vast transnational democracy, ultimately resulting in just common taxes, a universal right to education and a capital endowment, free circulation of people, and de facto abolition of borders.
Piketty repeatedly insists that his is the only progressive way of overcoming the social anger of our own times. Nineteenth- century European ownership societies conquered the world but failed to establish fully legitimate governments because the extreme concentration of wealth they produced generated social tensions which ultimately led European nations to self-destruct. The compression of inequality in the mid-20th century, made possible by social democratic ideas and labour and democratic mobilisation, eased social conflict, but didnt go far enough, allowing neo-proprietarianism to creep back. Today we again face a choice between progress and self-destruction.
Whatever we think of Pikettys remedies, we should not ignore his warning. Since the crash of 2008 there has been growing discontent with the hyper-globalist model of progress, in which financial capital is set free from national control, allowing it to accumulate without limit. Piketty argues that the justified anger of the least advantaged, now being mobilised by nativist and identitarian political movements (Piketty rightly rejects calling them populist), may well develop a destructive momentum unless it is harnessed to a renewed model of social progress. His giant historical tome is thus conceived as an antidote to both hyper-capitalism and the post-colonial identitarian trap. Social democracy is the only way to save the planet from disaster.
The obvious question is: has Piketty read the plot of history right? There are at least five reasons to doubt it.
First, Piketty is unable to explain the historic persistence of inequality of wealth and power. The so-called trifunctional systems of pre-modern times, in which society was divided into priests, warriors and cultivators, did not need to be justified ideologically: it was seen as part of the natural order of things. It was only when property lost its regalian (governing) functions to the centralised state in the 19th century that the legitimacy of unequal property holdings started to be politically questioned. This happened with capitalism. Capitalism, which emancipated property from social duties, was not natural, so a function had to be invented for it, which was to lift humanity out of poverty. Setting capital and labour free to be bought and sold in global markets would benefit all. Piketty is particularly good on the role of neoclassical economics in robbing capitalism of its taint of illegitimacy.
But what his account ignores is that conflict has always been as much about identity as about equality, and the first cannot be reduced to the second, as Piketty wants to do. The idea that property relations are real and national borders are artificial smacks of the old Marxist fallacy. It led Marxist parties to believe that workers had no country and would not rally to the national cause in 1914. The same blindspot leads Piketty to a partly wrong diagnosis of our present discontents. What he attributes to anger at rising inequality is just as importantly fear of loss of national identity. Borders define communities, as the Brexit vote showed. Identity, like nature, has a habit of turning on those who ignore it.
A second quibble is Pikettys overuse of counter-factual history. The transparent object of this strategy is to show that at no switch point in the past has an inequalitarian outcome been inevitable. The history of what might have been protects us from the error of determinism the belief that whatever is had to happen. The trap, though, into which Piketty often falls, is a failure to distinguish feasible alternative futures from fanciful ones.
The first world war might have been avoided had the balance of forces been modestly different, but Pikettys belief that the French Revolution represented a missed opportunity to establish a system of progressive taxation is fanciful: as he himself admits, it would have required a change of mentalities, which came only 100 years later. Piketty might have heeded Marx on this: Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please, but under circumstances given and transmitted from the past.
Third, Piketty fails, it seems to me, in his heroic attempt to generalise his theme by including the property trajectories of non-European societies. His basic idea is that the forced incorporation of overseas colonies into the European property system had the double effect of increasing the concentration of wealth in the metropoles and foisting highly unequal property regimes on the conquered countries, which stifled social transformation. Much of this is quite plausible. But on the way, Piketty uncritically embraces two highly disputable tenets of post-colonial history: that Europes industrial revolution was financed by the profits of slavery, and that Europes intrusion into the affairs of the great civilisations of India and China was an important cause of their economic retardation. A bit of counter-factual history would have been a useful counter to these arguments.
Fourth, Piketty fails to provide a convincing explanation for the collapse of the social democratic regime in the 1970s. The accepted view, that it ran into an inflationary crisis, seems to me to be broadly right. He gives much more weight to its failure to deliver on its promise of equal educational opportunities. The parties of the left increasingly attracted the support of university educated professionals,who were more concerned to maintain their improved position on the property ladder than to widen educational opportunities for the bottom 50 per cent. Thus the meritocratic promise was dimmed, weakening the appeal of the left to the left-behinds. There is again something in this. But the dates dont work out, and one is aware of Piketty laundering the facts to fit his theory.
My final quibble is that Piketty completely ignores the role of John Maynard Keynes in developing the social democratic alternative to both communism and fascism in the interwar years. Perhaps this is due to the French perception of Keynes as anti-French, dating back to his attack on the Treaty of Versailles. More charitably, Keynes cannot be slotted easily into Pikettys historical plot. Keynes wrote in 1936: The outstanding faults of the economic society in which we live are its failure to provide for full employment and its arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes.
Pikettys story of social democracy is told entirely in terms of its impact on inequality. He fails to mention its impact on employment. In general, he underplays the role of the Great Depression and indeed the historic specificity of the social democratic epoch, in which the problem of unemployment and social security was much more important than the question of equality. Since he fails to understand that full employment and progressive taxation formed a single social democratic package, it is not surprising that he ignores the employment consequences of the great financial collapse of 2008 in stirring present discontent, and has nothing to say about job security in his idyllic vision of the future.
In this flawed masterpiece there are, nevertheless, many thoughts and phrases which stay in the mind and can help organise thought about the past and future. I particularly appreciated Pikettys conceit that western politics is now split between a Brahmin Left and a Merchant Right, leaving the least advantaged out in the cold. Decent politics must find a way of re-engaging with them.
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