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Carrier: Workers as ‘Theatrical Props’

With the number of circus acts and sideshows associated with the incoming presidential administration, it’s easy for even significant events to slip through the cracks. But the Real Estate Tycoon’s silly spectacle  of cutting a corporate welfare deal with the Carrier company to relocate only 1000 jobs instead of 2000 has titillated the New York Times and also generated a slew of criticism (of varying levels of coherence) from free marketers. Bernie Sanders’s analysis is far more useful–he rightly points out that these kinds of deals incentivize bad behavior by corporations–but I’m even more interested in how the workers themselves are empowered or disempowered by bourgeois political posturing.

So it was refreshing to see the Institute for Public Accuracy digging deeper and finding critical voices speaking about the way workers are always used as props in the framing of these stunts and stories.

“Firms like Carrier in effect use jobs as a hostage to get a ransom payment from the government,” Morton Marcus, a retired Indiana University economist, told IPA. Marcus goes on to explain that this framework is what allows corporations to offer public goods to policymakers that can have negative long-term consequences.

It happens all the time. A firm says they’re interested in building a new factory, in expanding. They ask: what can you do for us? So, the local government gives them tax relief, gives them other incentives — building roads, sewers, water system for the firm. Governments used to ease the tax burden on their own citizens by taxing firms, but this tax ‘relief’ for firms is being done in the name of jobs. So, a firm leaves a polluting residue, contaminates the water supply, with the locals, decades from now, forced to deal with the consequences.

Tim Lewandowski of Workers’ Project, Inc. in Fort Wayne, Indiana, says workers are never actually involved in these discussions, guaranteeing that their interests (which correspond to most community members’ interests) are never truly represented.

Here in Indiana, Mike Pence made a living attacking workers. But doesn’t matter if it’s a big ‘trade deal’ or a local tax abatement — any kind of economic development involves a government entity and corporation, supposedly working to save jobs. That’s going on all the time. Yet, workers are always excluded from those discussions, at best they’re theatrical props. But if workers aren’t involved in really making the deal, it ends up being more show than go. A big part of the problem is that deals like this are all self-reporting — something Donald Trump is familiar with. They can say they’re going to have X number of jobs at such-and-such a wage, but who’s checking? We almost have a Soviet system, where it’s a handshake and a fantasy economy, simply for photo-ops.

In politically bargaining these particular jobs, both the corporations and the strongman-showman-president-elect are benefitting from the work the workers already did in winning the benefits associated with the jobs. Lewandowski explains: “The jobs Carrier has been threatening to move are good jobs and they’re good jobs because the workers bargained for those jobs for years and made them good. We’re actually drowning in jobs — if you want to work lousy hours, for lousy pay and be disrespected.”

Imagine a world where elected officials had to bargain with the workers themselves.

By the way, the Institute for Public Accuracy is amazing for the depth they open up in their press releases. Support them here–it’s tax-deductable.

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Oakland Passes Public Banking Resolution, Reaffirms Oakland As Sanctuary City

OAKLAND, CA – Tonight Oakland City Council unanimously passed Councilmember Kaplan’s Resolution calling for the City Administrator to look into the process of establishing a public bank for the City of Oakland.

Please click here to read the Resolution and accompanying Memo

The Resolution, co-sponsored by Councilmembers Kaplan, Kalb, and Guillen, directs the City Administrator to look into the scope and cost of conducting a feasibility study for public banking in Oakland and possibly the larger region. It also directs City Staff to solicit input from community stakeholders about the feasibility study, including suggestions of potential contractors and funding sources; and makes it clear that the study should cover the legality and feasibility of banking the cannabis industry.

The Resolution generated support from Councilmembers and community members alike. Matt Hummel, Chair of the Oakland Cannabis Regulatory Commission, reported that the commission fully supports the idea of a public bank for Oakland because of its potential benefits for the cannabis industry. Oakland activist Susan Harman said: “As Councilmember Kaplan recently returned from Standing Rock, it is important to note that Chase is one of the funders of the Dakota Access Pipeline. This is just another reason why Oakland should create a public bank – so the City can divest from its relationship with Chase.”

“I was thrilled to see the outpouring of support for public banking,” Councilmember Kaplan says. “Creating our own institutions is a beautiful example of how we can strengthen our community at the local level, and continue to build a more just and inclusive society, even in the face of troubling signs at the Federal level.”

The Oakland City Council also voted to reaffirm that Oakland will remain a Sanctuary City for immigrants, despite President-elect Donald Trump’s threat to cut federal funding to cities that do so. The Resolution prohibits the Oakland Police Department from enforcing Federal civil immigration laws and from using city monies, resources or personnel to investigate, question, detect or apprehend persons whose only violation is or may be a civil violation of immigration law.

The resolution also urges California to become a Sanctuary State.

“I am proud to be part of a City that stands up for justice for all,” Kaplan says, “especially now that the rights of so many are under attack.” Councilmember Kaplan also urged California Assemblymember Rob Bonta to take similar steps at the state level and ask California to identify itself as a Sanctuary State.

Kaplan added, “The most repeated teaching in the Bible is ‘Do not oppress the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt’ – we have a moral responsibility to protect everyone in our community, including those who are targeted for attack and discrimination.”

Source: Sheng Thao, Chief of Staff for Councilmember At-Large Kaplan

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Why Wells Fargo is about to s*** the bed on forced arbitration

by Matt Stannard

“What is the robbing of a bank,” Bertolt Brecht’s character Macheath asks in Threepenny Opera, compared “to the founding of a bank?” What harm can an individual bank robber do, compared to what a bank–particularly a large one–can do?

Banks can do more damage than other big institutions, because financial asymmetry is the core of private banking. Banking for profit makes no sense without it. And because financial asymmetry results in awful consequences for the weaker party, successful banking for profit requires legal asymmetry too. Boilerplate and adhesion contracts can be effective tools for securing that asymmetry.

But history tells us that asymmetry only gets you so far. That’s why, in spite of Wells Fargo having had some early initial success using an arbitration clause to defer the legal consequences of unambiguous fraud, I’m predicting that the ploy has run its course–that not only will courts stop buying it, but that its continued deployment, successful or not, will sink the bank’s effort to clean up its public image.

If you aren’t abreast of this: Wells Fargo was recently caught having opened 2 million fake accounts in their customers’ names. The bank was fined a paltry $185 million, fired 5,300 of its employees, and tossed $5 million back to its customers. Now the bank wants a federal court to dismiss a class-action lawsuit by customers so defrauded, and their motion argues that customers gave up the right to sue for anything when agreeing to the arbitration clause contained in the bank’s complex and dickish customer agreements. In other words, Wells Fargo argues that when customers signed up for their non-fraudulent accounts, they gave up the right to sue for things like having their signatures forged in the opening of fraudulent accounts. What’s more, that argument has already worked for the bank: Among other instances, last year Wells Fargo got Ninth Circuit Court Judge Vince Chhabria to buy it in September 2015, also in a case arising from the bank opening up additional accounts for customers without permission (after this year’s settlement over the 2 million fraudulent accounts, that case was reopened and joined with a similar suit being filed in that district).

Michael Hiltzik’s LA Times piece is the best reading on this absurd, semi-successful legal strategy. I like the article because Hiltzik is sensitive to both the ethics and optics of Wells Fargo’s incredibly condescending attitude towards its customers:.

Nothing demonstrates that more than the bank’s insistence on forcing the victims of its vast fake-account scam into binding arbitration, a system in which customers are at an overwhelming disadvantage . . . the San Francisco-based bank has succeeded in getting several judges to toss fraud lawsuits over the bogus accounts by asserting that, even though the accounts are fake, they stem from legitimate accounts the victims opened, in which they agreed to submit any future disputes with the bank to an arbitrator . . . [to get] a flavor of just how abusive the Wells Fargo arbitration strategy is . . . [California resident Shahriar] Jabbari had opened savings and checking accounts with the bank in 2011, but within two years discovered that he had seven more that he hadn’t authorized. Soon enough, he was getting dunning notices from collection agencies for unpaid fees on those accounts, some of which had been opened with manifestly forged signatures or even no signatures at all. [Kaylee] Heffelfinger’s experience was similar. She opened a checking and a savings account with Wells Fargo in March 2012, the lawsuit says. Wells employees started opening bogus accounts in her name even before that, starting in January. She ended up with seven accounts, some opened with forged signatures and fake Social Security numbers. Wells Fargo demanded in its defense that the case go to arbitration, noting that its arbitration clause was exceedingly broad: Anyone who became a Wells Fargo customer was agreeing to boilerplate in their customer agreements that covered any dispute with the bank whatsoever, including “claims based on broken promises or contracts, torts, or other wrongful actions.”

Wells Fargo’s legal argument isolates the singular decision to open an initial account (which requires agreeing to arbitration) and goes on to argue that the fraudulent opening of an additional account is covered by the same arbitration clause. It’s pretty outrageous that any court anywhere has allowed this to happen, deferring to a membrane of an argument that carries such awful policy implications and whose outcome can only be inequity to any individual plaintiff. The continued use of the already abusive tactic of forced arbitration to dodge fraudulent behavior threatens to unravel the entire shaky regime of forced arbitration altogether, either via regulatory changes or a quick dip in its litigatory success rate. Even if such regulations spark lengthy court battles of their own, that’s money the banks have to spend on legal fees while their public ethos sinks to lower lows. 

That’s why I think Zane Christensen, the Utah attorney representing plaintiffs in the class action at federal court in Utah, is correct in asserting that the tactic has run its course and that courts will soon see the horrendous implications of allowing it. If judges have gone along with it thus far, they’ve done so for two reasons: (1) a desire for “judicial economy” that often overrides concerns for justice, and (2) the classism of many judges, their unwillingness or inability to see the asymmetry between big banks and ordinary people as a question of equity under law. Irrespective of that, I think the jig is up.

I could be wrong. It may be that nothing can truly convince these particular business entities to behave. After all, banks still racially redline certain areas (Wells Fargo has to pay $2.5 million to 1000 African-American and Latino residents in Baltimore for doing so in 2012), making mortgages and automobile loans inaccessible or abusively expensive to people of color. One bank has even been caught reverse redlining–disproportionately giving people of color increased access to their s***ty deals in order to charge them higher interest rates and fees. Perhaps, like the President-Elect, big private banks will just keep running around doing really repugnant, often racist, always classist things, everybody gets outraged, but nobody’s able to stop them.

But I think I’m right. There’s a lot of political anger floating freely about these days–residual frustration from the elections and a growing sense that materially powerful entities truly can get away with anything–and I wouldn’t want to be a big bank right now. With sufficient financial clout, cities can even step in where the feds refuse to go. Los Angeles just dumped Wells Fargo over consumer abuse. The L.A. city council also asked “the city attorney’s office to draft an ordinance that would amend the city’s responsible banking ordinance to include more protections for whistle-blowers who report suspected illegal bank activity to authorities.” That’s a big deal because, although Santa Cruz County’s decision last year to dump five criminal banks carried a lot of symbolic value, L.A. carries considerably more financial weight. It’s even more important because if enough cities and counties got together, they really could disempower big banks–culminating, as Saqib Bhatti of the Roosevelt Institute hopes, in the creation of municipal public banks, providing even further incentive for private financial institutions to actually change their terms and practices.

If I’m wrong, and Wells Fargo continues to prevail by arguing that fraud is covered by a boilerplate arbitration clause, I promise to open an account there in your name.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and previously served on the Public Banking Institute’s board of directors.

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The 2016 Elections: 6 Takeaways for the Economic Cooperation Movement

by Matt Stannard

1. Because capitalism. The election of America’s most prominently parasitic and malicious real estate capitalist to Chief Executive says “this is what happens, Larry.” An economic system based on predatory finance, making money through exploitation of labor, extraction of the planet, and the financial leverage of money itself, gets us mass immiseration, deep cultural divisions, irrationality-as-ideology, fake populism, incipient fascism. The 2016 election was an indictment of extract-and-exploit capitalism, not a vindication of it. Breathe deeply knowing that. Keep talking about it. More and more people will want to talk about it.

2. These Herberts won’t solve anything. The new (deeply incompetent and crony-driven) administration will push poorly-planned, graft-heavy infrastructure and other mega projects. It will continue to promise to bring back coal jobs and manufacturing jobs. All of the administration’s economic initiatives will likely be ecologically indefensible and not truly beneficial to the local economies they’ll purport to target. We have to keep emphasizing public and community finance, local protection of the commons, and the economic viability of cooperative communities.

3. Local politics matters now more than ever. We already know how fossil fuel giants manifest their politics via controlling state legislatures, and pro-carbon state-level politicians came out ahead in the 2016 elections. ALEC-like entities will continue to influence state and local governments. But this is also where we have the greatest chance of resisting bad policies and carving out exceptional, even revolutionary, communities. We must run for local offices and support legal efforts to increase municipal autonomy.

4. We are transpartisan. Democrats are demoralized, but many are eager to build a tycoon-proof society. Some Republicans are bright enough to see the reality of what they have created, ready to reject hate politics, and amenable to the localist component of our vision. Greens, Socialists, and others are still struggling for national relevance but have always had valuable knowledge of and commitment to cooperative economics (and those groups have run some great local campaigns that align with our values). A hell of a lot of people are unaffiliated and/or didn’t vote. Economic cooperation must be politically ecumenical in precisely the ways that bourgeois, corporate media-driven politics can never be.

5. Materiality intersects. We need to work on class, race, gender, sexuality, disability, indigenous rights, and other oppression points in our unique way: emphasizing the material components of identity-based oppression where activists inhabiting the conventional political economy cannot. While others are arguing about whether poor whites are more white than poor or more poor than white, let us create spaces where economic insecurity no longer sparks, exacerbates, or obfuscates identity-based prejudices. There will still be bigotry, but we can make it easier to fight it.

6. We are building the alternative. We have to keep building, building, building. Keep creating and converting worker-owned cooperatives. Keep creating and strengthening eco-villages, income-sharing communities, and community land trusts. Keep reminding cities and states that public banks offer independence from a federal government owned by Wall Street. Keep fighting every attempt to privatize the commons. Keep building cooperative culture, local currencies and time exchanges, strong social service networks and resource-sharing programs. Every time we demonstrate that cooperation works, the forces that gave us President-elect Trump lose. A cooperative economy is a material base against exploitation and fascism. Whatever the importance of other activism, this is the importance of ours.

Image: Union Cab workers in Portland, Oregon. Photo credit: NW Labor Press

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North Dakota’s Public Bank Is Funding Police Repression at Standing Rock

by Matt Stannard

The brutal repression of indigenous and allied protesters at Standing Rock has shocked the conscience of fair-minded Americans, particularly those advocating economic and ecological reform. Although the protesters had in some cases been encroaching on “company land,” they had done so peacefully, and their chief modes of political action have been prayer and nonviolent civil disobedience. The crackdowns of the last few weeks have seen attack dogs and rubber bullets causing bloody injuries to protesters, detention and malicious prosecutions, and other dehumanizing behavior from the cops and soldiers deployed there by North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple.

For those of us in the public banking movement, used to holding up the Bank of North Dakota (the nation’s only public bank) as an example of how promising public banks are, the recent news that Dalrymple and an emergency spending panel voted to add $4 million in additional credit onto a $10 million line from BND, to fund law enforcement expenses at Standing Rock, is troubling. It means BND is using its heralded public power over fractional reserve banking to pay for those rubber bullets and a host of logistical expenses involved in arresting and evicting protesters the federal government has refused to evict, citing free speech concerns.

This financing is part of one of BND’s core functions: providing emergency loans. A more positive deployment of that function happened in 1997, when BND provided emergency loans for the Grand Forks flood, at a time when communities desperately needed loans before receiving slow-moving FEMA reimbursements. Unlike the need to abuse peaceful protesters, the flood was a real public emergency–the flooding caused structure fires and destroyed dozens of buildings via fire or water. Property losses in Grand Forks topped $3.5 billion. There were 50,000 evacuees. BND provided over $70 million in funds for relief.

The Bank of North Dakota was conceived a century ago in the molding of distinctly American, agrarian-socialist populism. North Dakota farmers were in trouble, getting cheated by the big banks and big grain companies headquartered in Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Those entities knew they had farmers at their mercy, and so all the interest rates were double-digit, all the loan terms were unfavorable (and less favorable to those who relied on them the most), and as the grain companies operated every grain elevator along the railroad route; those companies offered farmers destructively low prices, often cheating on tonnage because the farmers had nowhere else to go.

In 1915, led by a struggling farmer named A.C. Townley, a group of North Dakotans formed the Nonpartisan League to push back against those powerful grain and banking interests. The NPL ended up taking political power in the state, creating both the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Mill and Elevator. Today, those two public utilities are the only institutions of their kind under any state government in the U.S. They’ve long outlived the NPL, whose inexperienced political leaders were subject to constant attacks and red-baiting from big business interests, exacerbating NPL infighting and corruption, culminating in the recall of Governor Lynn Frazier, alongside whom the state legislature had created one of the most progressive state agendas in American history.

Since then, for understandable reasons, BND has been militantly apolitical. BND President and CEO Eric Hardmeyer has explicitly repudiated arguments that the BND ought to be a model, despite his effective touting of its successes. The Bank exists to help the state and its businesses function well and to maintain liquidity and economic stability. BND created the infrastructure for North Dakota’s oil boom, and if the state were to commit to a truly proactive transition to renewable and clean energy (it has taken baby steps), the BND would make it happen financially–with an efficiency that would put the rest of the country to shame.

But in the present political reality, cops and soldiers are brutally cracking down on Standing Rock protesters, and BND is funding it, and that makes BND not truly apolitical, but a facilitator of injustice. Public banks are tools, not sources of virtue in themselves. In the hands of bad policymakers, they can prop up bad policies.

So what do we do with this unfortunate knowledge, besides continuing to support the Standing Rock protesters, calling the governor regularly (if you do, please mention that using BND to finance repression is shameful), and pushing for a just and sustainable transition to clean energy (including economic support for energy sector workers and their families)? What do these unfortunate events teach us about our movement?

First, the awful actions in North Dakota don’t undermine the idea of public banking. If anything, they’re more evidence against private ownership and shareholding in both fossil fuels and the financial sector. In financing those rubber bullets and smoke bombs, BND is paying the security costs of private corporations, subsidizing the worst of big oil capitalism. But as my colleague, Ira Dember, pointed out to me yesterday, North Dakota is rich in wind and is building wind farms. That four million dollars could have been better lent to develop additional wind resources and technology, and to train workers to transition from oil fields to wind farms and more. That depends on a larger movement, which I’ll talk more about below.

Second, the actions illustrate the folly of pushing for state and local control without accompanying universal human and environmental rights. Economic and environmental justice advocates have long promoted local autonomy as a bulwark against big corporations and their puppets in national and state government. But local governments (often pushed by state legislators and governors) can do violence to indigenous communities just as they have enforced segregation and lynchings in the South. Human rights and environmental protection must be encoded in national and international norms and these norms need to have a complimentary and non-oppressive relationship with local communities. That makes our coalition-building and policy-making tasks bigger and more challenging. It makes allies and communication more important, and demands clarity about various movements’ and organizations’ ethical frameworks.

Third, you can’t keep people you disagree with ideologically out of single-issue movements. Sometimes this can be frustrating: There are all sorts of people in the public banking movement, including a few supporters who aren’t committed to ending fossil fuel consumption, and even weirder and more disturbing, a tiny handful of extremists who want to take down big private banks because they associate banking with Jews. Thankfully, those toxic forces don’t show up in any significant numbers (and the Public Banking Institute has explicitly repudiated them). While the movement is primarily white and bourgeois, there are powerful non-white, non-bourgeois voices in it, and its alignment with the New Economy Coalition and other economic justice coalitions helps considerably. It matters who you do your activist business with.

Finally, whatever your own organization’s commitment to justice, the policies and institution your movement creates, if it is lucky enough to create them, will only be as socially positive and ethically correct as the people working inside of them, and the communities overseeing them. Public banks can fund a post-carbon, sustainable energy transition–but only if people successfully demand a post-carbon, sustainable energy transition. Public banks can create safe and prosperous communities for all, but only if that’s what communities are already committed to.

Public banking advocates, in particular, ought to emphasize the ways public control of state and municipal finance can fund new structures of work and production that neither exploit nor extract. That has always been the most powerful argument for public banks: that they can produce justice because as community-controlled entities, we can make them just.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and was formerly on the Public Banking Institute’s board of directors, but the views expressed in this post are entirely personal.

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Interpersonal Political Violence and its Half-Apologists

by Matt Stannard

Between the end of the primaries and last week, we hadn’t heard much more about physical assaults at the Real Estate Tycoon’s political rallies. But then at one event, video captured a man grabbing a male protester and slapping a female one; at another, police have charged a man with assaulting a 69 year-old woman. Video at another event shows a private security guard working for team Tycoon yelling an obscenity straight into a man’s face, while a video released just prior to these events shows a montage of racist and sexist emotives throughout several events. I’m guessing there are many similar events not captured on video.

As a former legal and resource advocate for domestic violence victims, and a survivor of abuse, these events viscerally disturb me. Even thinking about these things happening to people fills me with a philosophical disgust. Those triggery feelings don’t come from the rough physical contact itself; in sporting or other contexts hard contact doesn’t bother me. It’s that the acts are violative, filled with invasive claims to power, non-consensual and micro-politically oppressive (like the Tycoon’s politics). I’m not trying to describe those feelings as theoretical categories, either. The acts are trauma-inducing to their victims and to hypersensitive observers like me. I also understand that they are utilized as media spectacle, of which I’ll say a little more below.

I’ve felt frustrated trying to articulate these feelings publicly, both because they draw attention to my hypersensitivity over abuse and because this horrified rejection of the Tycoon (and an accompanying concern with stopping the movement he represents) doesn’t lead me to the Democratic Party or compel me to vote for its presidential candidate. That inevitably awkward discussion aside, I’m not comfortable placing my trauma-stress near any of the three dominant political orientations towards the Republican nominee and his followers’ fits of violence.

Those three categories of response are: 1. Republican critics of the Tycoon. They see the violence as an unfortunate and tangential distraction. 2. Democrats. They see the violence as indicative of a temperament unfit to lead. 3. Lefty “half-apologists” for the Tycoon. They see the violence as an inconsequential spectacle and a manifestation of the systemic violence propped up by both parties.  

Intellectually, I am closest to #3, but only with the second of its two holdings. That is, the media may make a spectacle of people getting punched in the face, but it’s not inconsequential and it’s real to its victims and those around it. The problem with proponents of #3 (and they’re a solid presence on the left blogosphere) is that they seem to understand violence systemically but not interpersonally, leading to poor rhetorical interaction with good people who are sincerely and unapologetically voting to stop it; people for whom the horror of bloody masculinist violence perpetrated by a wealthy white male narcissist (and alleged rapist) is indeed enough to compel them to vote for the candidate they deem most likely to defeat him.

I can’t bring myself to blame anyone for making that calculation, and this is a very good illustration of making one decision while not faulting people for making a different one. The substantially lower risk of having someone beat the hell out of you at a Democratic event than a Republican event is real, and there are political reasons for that difference that add to an egalitarian critique of systemic violence. Dismissing a priori the fear of brutality, or simply telling the people who are afraid to toughen up, is to put theory over person and practice. Genuine transformative thinking requires that we understand why, in this unstable and unhinged world, when mechanisms of emancipation are so elusive and inconvenient, many people will vote on which candidate seems less like an abusive predator.

I agree that the order propped up by Clintonian neoliberalism contains (both possesses and hides) equivalent interpersonal violence. I understand the ways liberal politics both depends on and masks systemic and specific violence. And I think it’s possible to understand that, and commit to fight against it, and reject lesser-evilism and vote for the candidates you want to vote for, all while acknowledging the unique horror of the Real Estate Tycoon’s incipient fascist politics. I think it’s possible to say “I share your concern and fear, and it leads me to a different response.” All it takes is some sensitivity, respect for nuance, and willingness to sit out pointless social media arguments that you probably should have avoided in the first place. Stop blaming Democratic voters for being really, really afraid, and start building the alternative we keep insisting must be built. Those actions will build the movement. Acting insensitive and throwing macho bullshit around won’t.

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Sept. 9 Inmate Protesters “in this struggle for the long haul”

An update, and interviews with some inmates, on tomorrow’s prison protest events. 

Tomorrow, September 9, inmates in prisons from California to Alabama will rise in protest and civil disobedience against the inhumane conditions, underpaid labor, and socioeconomic oppression of the American prison system. Activists in states from Washington to New York, Michigan to Texas, will gather in solidarity with those prisoners. As I wrote in an article published yesterday at Occupy.com, this is a strike against American corporate capitalism itself, because the prison is the “ideological muscularity” of economic injustice. Punitive incarceration (as opposed to the detention of unstable and dangerous individuals) is a policy farce, which even intelligent conservative legal theorists are hesitant to defend. But what happens in American prisons is even worse–American policymakers have accepted the inevitability of micro-violence, an entire paradigm of inmates’ loss of agency over their bodies, behind prison walls. Even most of the international human rights community reluctantly accepts the inevitability of compulsory labor as part of imprisonment. But radical egalitarian thinking does not, and the politics of 2015-2016 have brought egalitarianism onto a bigger stage.

The events have been in planning and promotion stages for several weeks now, but apart from a fine article in The Nation that also ran yesterday, national media coverage has been lacking. The protest at Standing Rock — a stand by Native Americans and allies against the economic interests that run over indigenous land — have also overshadowed other activist news, and it’s worth noting that the protests there are connected with prison resistance at the deepest levels. The extraction-exploitation economy uses the cheapest human labor it can find, and fights to dig energy out from all land, no matter how sacred to those connected to that land. Dig stuff up, throw people in prison, keep planet and people in a state of dependence and desperation.

The authenticity of the prison fight, and the discomforting intimacy of its demands, make it easy to pass over in our daily quest for a smooth ride from dawn to dark. But that doesn’t fully explain the pervasive public indifference to the inhumane conditions of our prisons, or to the hollowing out and economic disenfranchisement of the incarcerated, effects that, even if they were ethically defensible, would still be pragmatically counterproductive.

That indifference was on my mind as I wrote both of my Occupy.com articles on the September 9 events, and activist Ben Turk provided his perspectives on public indifference for yesterday’s article. “The state has done a good job of convincing us to reduce prisoners to whatever crime they were convicted of,” he said, “regardless of all the circumstances and unreliability of the criminal legal system.”

Someone forwarded the same questions I asked Ben Turk to two incarcerated people with deep involvement in prison demonstrations and, last night, through an intermediary, I received answers  best presented in their entirety.

From the Ohio State Penitentiary, I heard from Siddique Abdullah Hasan, a prison Imam and organizer on death row, a sentence related to the death of a police officer in the 1993 uprising at Southern Ohio Correctional Facility.

Matt Stannard: I think it’s a fair question to ask: What is it about prisoner resistance that causes such dissonance and reactance in the public? Many people I know have friends or family members that have been in prison. But, despite the numbers, prisoners are really at the bottom of the heap for the political priorities of even “progressive-minded” people. What are your thoughts on that?

Imam Siddique Abdullah Hasan: There are several factors contributing to this “dissonance and reactance.” One of them being the overexposure of violence, crimes and wars by the national media. It is an undeniable reality that a large percentage of what the public internalizes emanates from the national media who routinely portrays prisoners, their rights, and their ongoing resistance against mass incarceration, prison slavery, and super economic exploitation, in a negative light. When one actually analyzes the colossal negative exposure that are given to prisoners by the national media, it is amazing that prisoners’ rights and their resistance stand even on the bottom of the heap when it comes to the political priorities of “progressive-minded” people.
My personal observation has confirmed that the media, especially mainstream media, devotes a considerable amount of time demonizing prisoners and characterizing them as uncaring, unsympathetic, and incorrigible monsters that deserve to be in prison for the crimes they are suspected of committing against society as well as their fellow citizens. No coverage at all is given to those innocent souls lingering in prison, and very little coverage is given to those whom were wrongfully imprisoned and whom are catching hell trying to put their nightmarish experiences behind them. I submit that if the media were to give some fair coverage as to what causes most people to commit crimes and violence in the first place, then more people would become sympathetic toward prisoners’ rights and resistance. I also submit that if society were to remove the causes to crimes–unemployment, poverty, illiteracy, drug, alcohol, and unlimited access to guns–then there would be no mass effects, viz., robbery, rape, murder, burglary, assault, property crimes, to name a few. According to the Prison Policy Initiative, robbery, rape, murder, burglary, and violence are the most often committed crimes in the United States, and this writer is certain that many of your friends and their families have been either the victims or the secondary victims of these crimes. As a result, the overwhelming majority of the people in society have become detached and desensitized toward prisoners’ rights, their resistance, and their struggles. This detachment and desensitization will only change when the people in society come into the realization that prisoners’ struggles and their struggles are actually one and the same, and that the same government that is oppressing and economically exploiting those in prison is the same government that is oppressing and economically exploiting those in society. Therefore, we should not allow our common enemy to divide and conquer us, nor to pit one group against another.

MS: How would you characterize the significance/importance of the September 9th events? Like, at the risk of sounding shallow, what would be a “win” for the cause in the context of these events?

ISAH: Events on September 9th will be extremely significant in pushing our fight to revolutionize the prison-industrial complex, and to put their corporate friends on notice that we will no longer passively accept their super economic exploitation of either us or our hardworking families. Our objective is to level the playing field by creating both the circumstances and conditions where the prisoncrats will have to compensate us for our labor and afford us the same benefits and protections as traditional workers. Moreover, our objective is to ultimately eliminate prison slavery. We are American citizens, not her slaves, and we are rising up as one and refusing to be treated as such. We will go forward in the spirit of our ancestors, as well as their allies, who fought too hard and too long in this country for their descendants to still be treated as slaves in the 21st Century.
I’ve learned early in life that nothing beats a failure, or a loser, but a person who doesn’t try. We emphatically understand that this movement to eliminate prison slavery is going to be a protracted struggle; therefore, an initial “win” will be to simply stand up to this oppressive government. But, the ultimate “win” will come when we succeed in abolishing prison slavery and mass incarceration. We will accept nothing less. These two issues are nonnegotiable. So come what may and let the wind blow wherever, for we are in this struggle for the long haul. And, that’s real talk!

I also received a message from Greg Curry, also on death row over the deaths in the ’93 Ohio uprising (as the Ohio ACLU points out, Hasan, Curry and others continue to declare their innocence and are denied face-to-face contact with media in retaliation for their argumentativeness). Curry’s message was obviously conveyed via text message, and I’ll post it that way.

I think society, in general, feel if your in prison u get what treatment u get and rumor is we have cable TV !!!microwaves etc. society also feel if we innocent the system will straighten it all out!!! so basically no one wants to see the sausage made. also every oppressed community know A GUY that BELONGS in prison, so each of us viewed through that lens, help explain why its such a disconnect . one other key point is ACTIVIST, MOSTLY, don’t take the time to get to know the prisoner they aim to help. if r children had play dates, or we married, or got matching tattoo s !(smile) then ur working from awhole other sphere! ALSO PERHAPS its time to call out the AS CALLED PROGRESSIVE, the NAACP, etc. the sameway we would call out TRUMP at a local fish fry. all should b held accountable. people and places raise funds off their so called help to prisoners. . no one should b afraid to .MEASURE THE MOVEMENT. in regards to that, by this being a .multi state prisoner driven effort it has already been successful!! the fruit of the labor may not of been tasted as of yet but this is the start of endless possibilities!!!! FREEDOm FIRST, GREG. p.s. evidence on .y case is at GREG CURRY.ORG. … one other thing for .matt… you ask what the win would look like, I should mention what the LOSE look like.. that is to say more of the same abuses, free labor forced compliance, and hopelessness amongst prisoners. that losing has a foul smell to it ,in a losers eyes there is a absence of LIFE. we NEED some VICTORY!!! GREG

If protest involves a “rhetoric of confrontation” by the powerless, which forces us to examine both our own privilege and the massive excavation of planet and living beings necessary to maintain even higher levels of privilege, and does so at the risk of great discomfort, the prison uprisings are exemplary to this. They will make many of us uncomfortable.

With great reverence and respect for those who are risking their necks behind prison walls, I conclude this by urging everyone reading to do something, confronting your discomfort and awkwardness, if you have it, and help these actions and these incarcerated human beings tomorrow.  The Prisoner Resistance list provides the following possibile actions, most of which are explicitly for non-prisoners:

1. IWOC hotline: prisoners facing retaliation for strike activities can call the IWOC hotline collect anytime of the day or night at 816-866-3808. Send that number to your inside contacts, or call it yourself if you hear from someone needing help. You can also email IWOC at iwoc@riseup.net.
2. The National Lawyer’s Guild has offered to file an individual “notice of claim” on behalf of each prisoner against abusive and retaliatory prisons and guards. Filing a notice of claim tells the prison that a suit could be filed and puts them on notice that abuse has happened. *It is not the actual suit*, but it gives violated prisoners time to find local lawyers. Please send details to newjersey@nlg.org and to massdef@nlg.org. Prisoners can also reach out directly to: NLG Mass Defense, 132 Nassau Street, Rm. 922, New York, NY 10038
3. Constant pressure! IWOC has set up a phone zap system to make it easy to make all the needed anti-repression and support phone calls, and to get reminders. Please commit to spending 30 minutes every couple of days to making calls. Visit https://goo.gl/forms/v3kTjt00s6ybO2Of1 to get started.
4. Donate! Support all the great work IWOC is doing, and make sure that Sep 9 is just the beginning of a new chapter of ongoing prisoner struggles by chipping in here: https://rally.org/endprisonslavery
5. Solidarity Actions! Join the over 50 actions across the country! March, rally, organize a mass call in or letter writing campaign, drop a banner, plan support, get inspired by all the amazing plans compiled by ItsGoingDown.org here: https://itsgoingdown.org/spreading-strike-solidarity-actio…/
6. Educate! Learn more about the strike, and tell others, share it on social media through #EndPrisonSlavery, #PrisonStrike, and prisonstrike.com. Find tons of articles and information at SupportPrisonerResistance.net, where people can also endorse the strike, join this mailing list, and find organizer contacts in your area.
7. Volunteer! There are dozens of easy, but time-consuming tasks involved in maintaining this support infrastructure. If you have any interest in helping out with checking emails, maintaining websites, transcribing letters, handling media people, answering calls or mail, please please please reply to this email prisonerresistance@gmail.com and we’ll plug you in. Thank you.

Everyone reading this can at least do one of these things. Do it and see how it feels–that stretching of yourself into solidarity.

 

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA.

 

Stop-Neoliberalism

Public Banks as the Antithesis of Neoliberalism

I’m for public banks because people have a right to share in sustainable abundance, such abundance is relatively easy to achieve structurally and democratically, and neoliberalism’s reliance on the private sector to get us there is foolish.

by Matt Stannard

The Commission on Social Development is a sub-body of the United Nations Economic and Social Council. In 1995 the Commission hosted a Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen, which the United States attended—sending a contingent led by then-Vice President Al Gore. All participating nations at the Summit signed its set of conclusions, the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development. The Declaration held that the Commission’s task was “to address both [the] underlying and structural causes” of poverty, unemployment, and social exclusion, and “their distressing consequences in order to reduce uncertainty and insecurity in the life of people.” The agreement wasn’t law, it wasn’t enforceable even by the limited standards of international law, but it established a public and agreed-upon moral framework among its participants, good enough to at least inform a conversation on economic policy in these troubling and rapidly-changing times.

The Declaration was riddled with the contradictions of bourgeois political economy—contradictions that have heightened a lot in the 20 years since the Summit. Although the document argued that economic and environmental insecurity were intimately related, it clung to “economic growth” as a prerequisite to “social justice,” albeit in the context of sustainable development. Classical models of productivity ran through the rhetoric, from lamenting the “ineffectiveness in the functioning of markets” to utilizing the language of “opportunity” – complete with availability of credit as a model solution. “Productive employment and work” was similarly unreflective. The “liberalization of trade and investment” were assumed to be necessary for “sustained economic growth and the creation of employment.”

Today we know that there is plenty of work, but much of it no longer fits (if it ever did) into Fordist models of structural employment. In the developed world in particular, we know that the elites don’t even want everyone to be employed, that artificial scarcity is necessary to justify the continuation of whole categories of financial practices, and that traditional employment is vanishing while working people’s financial obligations are not. However imperfect, the 1995 Declaration contained seeds of hope that, when planted in the soil of a New Economy, could produce far better fruit than the bitter trees of neoliberalism. It insisted that people “are entitled to a healthy and productive life in harmony with the environment.” And it recommended social expenditures for the poor in language that didn’t suggest “workfare” or other exploitative shams.

Vice President Gore’s statement at the Summit, on behalf of the United States, showed much more concern for environmental reform (which Gore has always filtered through the lens of corporate capitalism) than economic reform. Restructuring was necessary for environmental solvency, Gore’s rhetoric seemed to imply, but he framed poverty along very neoliberal lines. His articulation of the foundational poverty question of the Summit was: “What can be done to lift the poorest of our citizens into productive lives?” And he viewed humans, from healthy and productive to sick and uneducated, as “unrealized economic and social potential.” Potential for what? The answer would come in his administration’s NAFTA push, and something even worse. In his statement, Gore said:

We [the Clinton administration] are working now to create a more vital relationship between the government and the people. We cannot succeed if we treat the poor solely as passive recipients of assistance — whether for welfare, food stamps or medical care. We are instead designing an approach that empowers people to be active partners in the management of their own fates. We have to find new links to our own people — with a government that works better and costs less, and focuses on results.

The new “approach” Gore was talking about was the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act, a devastatingly awful piece of legislation that bought into the twin false narratives of economic scarcity and poverty-as-personal failure and outflanked the Republicans by driving millions of people into material desperation. In a 2012 article, Jason DeParle articulated the devastation:

. . . much as overlooked critics of the restrictions once warned, a program that built its reputation when times were good offered little help when jobs disappeared. Despite the worst economy in decades, the cash welfare rolls have barely budged . . . Even as it turned away the needy, Arizona spent most of its federal welfare dollars on other programs, using permissive rules to plug state budget gaps. The poor people who were dropped from cash assistance here, mostly single mothers, talk with surprising openness about the desperate, and sometimes illegal, ways they make ends meet. They have sold food stamps, sold blood, skipped meals, shoplifted, doubled up with friends, scavenged trash bins for bottles and cans and returned to relationships with violent partners — all with children in tow.

. . . Poor families can turn to other programs, like food stamps or Medicaid, or rely on family and charity. But the absence of a steady source of cash, however modest, can bring new instability to troubled lives.

. . . if the rise in employment was larger than predicted, it was also less transformative than it may have seemed. Researchers found that most families that escaped poverty remained “near poor.” And despite widespread hopes that working mothers might serve as role models, studies found few social or educational benefits for their children. (They measured things like children’s aspirations, self-esteem, grades, drug use and arrests.) Nonmarital births continued to rise. . . . the number of very poor families appears to be growing.

The United States’ participation in the Copenhagen Summit, and its signature on the nonbinding Declaration, raises the question of what governments are supposed to do to domestically enact the soft norms they’ve officially and ceremonially agreed are important. At least two United Nations experts have weighed in on the role of income distribution and poverty in the enactment of international human rights norms. José Bengoa, Special Rapporteur to the Sub-Committee on Prevention of Discrimination and Protection of Minorities wrote in 1997 that it was reasonable for human rights monitors to note

when situations are occurring where the high concentration of wealth in a few hands is producing devastating social effects with consequences so serious as to threaten the ‘social integration’ of the society in question, or at the international level, the balance of a given region . . . From a human rights perspective, it is generally felt that [extreme inequality and wealth concentration] would entail violation of the economic, social, and cultural rights of the population, incurring permanent discrimination and violation of the fundamental rights of individuals . . . Poor income distribution constitutes a specific type of discrimination that very often aggregates with other discrimination . . . and has as a consequence the new forms of poverty that are the scourge of the world today.

And, scholar A.M. Lizen, an expert on the Commission on Human Rights, explained in 1999 that the most appropriate domestic implementation of socioeconomic rights is structural, listing “infrastructure targeted for low-income communities,” “access to basic social services for all,” and “sustainable livelihoods for the poor, including access to productive assets such as credit.”

Talking about a human right to economic security, by the way, isn’t outlandish or hyperbolic. It’s far less incendiary than what the current pontiff is saying:

Referring to businesses that hire employees on part-time contracts so they don’t have to provide health and pension benefits, Francis said Thursday (May 19) that was akin to sucking the blood from their workers’ veins, leaving them “to eat air.” “Those who do that are true leeches, and they live by spilling the blood of the people who they make slaves of labor” . . . “We thought that slaves don’t exist anymore — they exist,” the pope said. “True, people don’t go and get them from Africa to sell them in America anymore, no. But they exist in our cities. And there are traffickers, those who use people through work without justice.”

That moral posturing, combined with the recognition that material deprivation is a form of discrimination and constitutes a violation of human rights, is historically appropriate. Put together, Lizen and Bengoa’s analysis suggests that there is a human right to economic security, in the absence of which people suffer acute discrimination; and that the best way to execute that right is through structural reforms aimed at material accessibility.

Which brings us to public banking—everything from large-scale infrastructure and business lending (if we actually want to make market economies work for everyone, or if we want to experiment with alternatives, public banks to finance those alternatives), to postal or other banks to lend credit and even facilitate direct cash transfers or basic income as it becomes increasingly clear that old models of business and productivity do not account for new economic realities, from labor-saving innovations to the ecologically necessary transition away from extraction and exploitation.

Public banks work. They fund public goods, they can be engineered to facilitate sustainable economies, they can be made 100% transparent and democratically accountable, and they have no institutional incentive to gamble on misfortune and misery. Utilizing them would shatter the illusion that there is some kind of fiscal scarcity that functions in the same way as the scarcity of natural resources. The very existence of public banks capable of democratizing the creation of money refutes false scarcity and clarifies what we don’t have enough of (and must therefore manage) and what we have an abundance of (and must therefore share).

One can and should read the literature for and against public banking, the variety of methods to implement it, and the experiences of those groups around the United States who have been pushing for several years now to get public banking bills out of committee and onto legislative floors. One should observe how vociferously and vacuously opponents of public banking—so very often supported by big private financial interests—churn out bad arguments against it. But if you don’t have time to study all of that, the foundational justification for public finance is simple: Although material resources are scarce, money is a social construct. That doesn’t mean we ought to create money carelessly, but it does mean we create money. So the only questions are who ought to control that process, and how to prioritize the applications of its power. The people should be in control, and private interests making money from money is socially destructive.

The Clinton administration didn’t understand this in the 1990s. The Bush administration that followed didn’t even understand that it didn’t understand it, and the Obama administration, in continuing a weak approach to Wall Street regulations, while pushing “managed” private health care and neoliberal trade agreements, and demanding energy transitions with only half-measures of economic security for energy workers, has been disappointing. Both parties have thoroughly bought into monetarism and neoliberalism, allowed Wall Street to steal hundreds of billions of dollars from municipalities, and maintained a narrative (albeit occasionally standing on distinct sides of it) that assumes people only deserve economic security through hard labor that adheres to a capitalist business model and that the transition to ecological sustainability, like the transition to universal health coverage, must be filtered through the demands of big capital. The idea that a corporate-bred thuggish “strongman” in the executive office can somehow solve all of this is also frustratingly hilarious.

But do we need the federal government to implement this particular iteration of socioeconomic rights and economic democracy? Maybe not. States and municipalities are great sites for public banks, because they are where the most effective resource management decisions can be implemented, and they are where human needs and cooperative economic solutions are most readily apparent. Consider the damage done by irresponsible financial marketization of city budgets, underfunding and deindustrialization of major cities, and the gentrification that occurs when cities begin to thrive.

Public banks can help municipalities create and fund work-spaces for nontraditional work reflective of the new economy. They could do so if they took their money out of Wall Street banks and created their own North Dakota- or German-style public banks. Some communities are already experimenting with cooperative and sustainable economies that reward, rather than punish, residents who only want to (or can) work part time. There are housing alternatives that would fit more small-scale and sustainable models. The case for funding all of this rather than relying on neoliberalism’s repackaged trickle-down economics is strong.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and a member of the board of the Public Banking Institute, and a longtime economic justice advocate. A version of this post appeared today at the Public Banking Institute blog

MattBrickWall

What I’d Say at the Vatican’s Economic Conference (if I were Bernie Sanders)

by Matt Stannard

Bernie Sanders will speak at an April 15-16 conference at the Vatican: “Centesimus Annus 25 Years Later.” It’s rather important that a primary presidential candidate who began as an insurgent and who has no overt religious political agenda would be speaking at such an event, but before assessing this, it’s important to understand the significance of the conference: It’s a soft repudiation and re-thinking of the Catholic Church’s institutional anticommunism.

Pope John Paul II, a staunch anti-communist, wrote Centesimus Annus in 1991, against the backdrop of the collapse of Stalinism in the USSR and Eastern Europe. It strongly defends private property rights but also defends labor unions. It equates socialism with capitalist consumerism, in that both deny the dignity of the human person. It basically calls for welfare capitalism. It blames atheism for class struggle, but also admits that free markets don’t satisfy many human needs. Importantly, it points out that there may be other economic models besides capitalism and socialism.

But the encyclical conflates socialism with Stalinism, and its condescending attribution of class struggle to nonbelief and misdirected indignation seem historically and morally obsolete after (a) seeing the human costs of the former Soviet states’ transitions to market economies, and (b) ignores the actual history of “socialism” as a multifaceted movement that both precedes and, in some people’s opinions, pre-empts bolshevism (at least, there is a conversation to be had there, and John Paul II was reactionary on these questions).

The April 15-16 conference acknowledges that much has changed since 1991, and hints without coming out and saying that John Paul II’s perspective may have been limited by its historical context.

. . . it is eminently appropriate for the Pontifical Academy of Social Science to organize a symposium on the 25th anniversary of Centesimus annus. Remaining faithful both to St. John Paul’s own intellectual preparations for the document and to the Academy’s own charter, this gathering will not be a commemorative event but a serious academic discussion. Papers and the conversations they generate are not intended to be confessional or fideistic or simply celebratory of past insight in either tone or content. The symposium will focus on two major questions. The first concerns the changes in the world situation – economically, politically, and culturally – over the past 25 years. The second will investigate how Catholic social teaching has engaged the world in order to ask how best the Church can do so in the coming years and decades.

And, of course, the conference is self-conscious of the role of Pope Francis in promoting a far more egalitarian, anti-capitalist religious treatment of the economy than Catholics or other major Christian churches have put forward in recent memory. And the Pope, says the conference web site, is intimately involved with the planning of this conference.

Sanders is in a position to articulate a uniquely American, secular moral vision of economic justice. Indeed, the moral, value-laden essence of Sanders’s stump speeches and various media artifacts eclipses public consciousness of his actual policy positions (although it is silly to suggest, as some have, that Sanders doesn’t understand economic and finance policy or is making only vague promises–see this and this and this).

For those of us in the economic justice movement, the Sanders campaign has simultaneously been an exciting and frustrating test case for whether conventional American politics can give so-called “democratic socialism” a seat at the table which it arguably hasn’t had since Michael Harrington visited the White House. It’s been exciting because, after the last 24 years–8 years of right-wing Democratic Party neoliberalism, then 8 years of all that was George W. Bush, and 8 more years of Democratic Party neoliberalism–even a social democrat getting a hearing on the American stage, and a moral conversation about economic inequality and insecurity, have tremendous promise for energizing the ongoing, multifaceted economic justice and sustainability movements.

It’s been frustrating because we aren’t discussing some of Sanders’s most powerful ideas and allies. Sanders calls for postal banking, has sponsored legislation on enabling worker-owned enterprises, wants more transparency (and presumably is open to a reconceptualization of) the Federal Reserve, and when asked about the Bank of North Dakota, described it near-perfectly and said he loved it. But little of that has come out in his campaign, not just because the mainstream media is ignoring it, but because Sanders is ignoring most of it. He came on strong on postal banking, but while he’s continuing his messages about breaking up big banks and tax equity, his earlier “new economy” proposals just aren’t part of his campaign formula.

I’m not naive about the constructed political reality of elections, but with thousands of policy initiatives, cooperatives, intentional communities, grassroots economic initiatives, defining the real landscape of economic activism today, I know what I would say at the conference at the Vatican next week, even from the perspective of being Bernie Sanders. I’m sure whatever Sanders says next week will be decent (my utralefty friends, I apologize), but this is what I would say if I were him–emphasizing the parts of his own policy and organizing history I wish Sanders would fearlessly emphasize now.

1. Economic justice requires restructuring, not only redistribution

It’s easy to see why redistribution is the dominant paradigm among establishment leaders concerned with economic justice. But the politics of redistribution, like the politics of philanthropy, ultimately depend on, and maintain, the hierarchy between the haves and have-nots that is the foundation of economic and ecological injustice. Tens of thousands of groups worldwide are engaged in building a new economy based on cooperative economics and non-hierarchical modes of production and distribution. This is the foundation of true, sustainable economics.

2. Markets are not necessary to manage essential resources, are tools at best, and work better when tightly regulated, not fetishized

The work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, and countless historical and living examples, shows that neither markets nor central governments are necessary to manage common resources. Although many in the sustainability movement call for “parallel” economies, markets alongside common management, history shows that markets tend to consume the commons rather than exist in symbiotic relationship with them. Proponents of market distribution have a seat at the table, but should have to answer critical questions about externalities and inequality if they want a voice in building a just and sustainable economy. They shouldn’t enjoy special presumption.

3. Privatization of the Commons must be resisted

Privatiztaion has mostly been a disaster for communities around the world–not just because privatization privileges financial shareholders over material stakeholders, but because the vision of privatization alienates us from our universal stake in the heritage of our Commons. Whether conceived of as the stock of a divine creator, or the fountain of all living beings, economic justice begins by recognizing the source of all value in the Commons.

4. Climate egalitarianism is essential to human survival

We must stop the artificial heating and destruction of our planet, and must do so in an economically just framework. To ignore the plight of working people in a panic-stricken rush to deal with the causes and impacts of climate change is both unnecessary and counterproductive. Likewise (and this is another problem with single-minded redistributive strategies), to eliminate poverty by standardizing and subsidizing ecologically unsustainable practices is incredibly dangerous. Both half-strategies ignore the principle that exploitation the planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants are an interrelated whole.

I realize I’m pushing the envelope in relation to the Bernie Sanders of the presidential campaign, but Sanders has fellow-traveled with grassroots economic justice, even if he hasn’t always led with it. He gets why worker cooperatives are more successful and moral than traditional capitalist enterprises. He gets why people embrace socialism (however precise its definitional parameters) even though it’s . . . complicated. Although he’s a mess and to the right of the Pontiff on foreign policy, they have more in common than not on economics, particularly concerning an imperative of solidarity.

Of course, this was just a thought experiment. I’ll be contemplating and sharing my four arguments above this weekend at the “Materializing Empathy” webinar, which in conclusion I’ll shamelessly plug.

Matt Stannard is Policy Director at Commonomics USA and a member of the Board of the Public Banking Institute.

clintonbrechtsandersarendt

Clinton, Classism, and Arendt’s Zinc Box Error

The errors and toxicity of anti-class politics

by Matt Stannard

The case for Hillary Clinton to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee and likely the next President includes the argument, explicit or not, that the interests of multinational finance capital and those of people making less than $100,000, $50,000, or $20,000 a year, and the interests of this planet’s ecology, are all compatible. Systemically speaking, there is no evidence to support that assumption, nor any evidence favoring either Clinton’s “let’s work with ‘em, regulate ‘em a little but on good terms” or, for that matter, Bernie Sanders’s “let’s beat the hell out of ‘em” approaches. Both are based on a philosophy of contingent redistribution and regulation, which, along with reliance on philanthropy, is insufficient for economic and ecological justice, and in the present condition may even delay it.

Sanders, however, brings to the table the promise of immediate, focused relief for the poor, unemployed, and the economically insecure–the latter a category that includes half of the country, along with an aggressive environmental policy—and it’s critical that a synthesis of environmental and economic justice become the new policy norm. But Sanders brings an additional, more systemic message: Because multinational corporations and finance capital have colonized our political system, pushing back against that needs to be our highest priority–again, not through any material revolution, but by limiting, through judicial and legislative fiat, the power such corporations and wealthy individuals have on our political process. If the rich have the power to stop anything good from happening, we need to check that power first.

Although they are unlikely to succeed, Sanders’s proposals and arguments enrage moderates and liberals who believe either in the Clintonian compatibility assumption or have resigned themselves to accepting the dominance of money in politics. They appear to bother Hillary Clinton herself, who has gone so far as to level an explicit critique against them—one that sounds like a simplified academic debate argument against Marxism. Her rhetoric is striking in its explicit repudiation of class politics, as well as its straw-person characterization of socioeconomic concerns as reductionism:

“Not everything is about an economic theory, right?” Clinton said, kicking off a long, interactive riff with the crowd at a union hall this afternoon.

“If we broke up the big banks tomorrow—and I will if they deserve it, if they pose a systemic risk, I will—would that end racism?”

“No!” the audience yelled back.

Clinton continued to list scenarios, asking: “Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

It’s interesting that Clinton said “overnight.” Why would she need to say that? Because some part of her is aware that the long-term effect of increased economic security and material cooperation really is a more welcoming society—a more gentle, empathetic, and progressive society where the marginalized and disempowered are welcomed into community. But she dare not dwell on that thought too long. Instead, she reverts to the straw person—that anyone, least of all Sanders, is arguing that breaking up big banks would magically end identity oppression.

Of course, on the other side of the mainstream political aisle is a fascistic thug, and since a part of 1930s Germany seems to have beamed into 2016, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the universe guided me, in researching my introductory essay to my new book of poetry based on the work of Bertolt Brecht, to a fascinating artifact, a 1948 review by Hannah Arendt of a book of Brecht’s poetry. Arendt has much to praise in Brecht, particularly for his prioritization of social over personal diagnosis. She also seems to enjoy his eclectic poetic style–really a free roaming across styles. Arendt’s discomfort with Brecht’s poetry increases in proportion to the growing blatancy of his socialism.

Specifically, Brecht wrote a poem in 1936 called “Burial of the Agitator in a Zinc Coffin.” The agitator is clearly a socialist or a communist, and the Nazis buried dissenters they killed in zinc coffins to send a message to families and citizens that they could be next.

Here in this zinc box
lies a dead person
or his legs and his head
or even less of him
or nothing, for he was
a trouble-maker.

He was recognised as the root of all evil.
Dig him in. It will be best
if his wife goes alone to the knacker’s yard with him
because anyone else going
would be a marked man.

What is in that zinc box
has been egging you on to all sorts of things:
Getting enough to eat
And having somewhere dry to live
And feeding one’s children
And insisting on one’s exact wages
And solidarity with all
who are oppressed like yourselves. And
thinking.

What is in that zinc box said
that another system of production was needed
and that you, the masses of labour in your millions
must take over.
Until then things won’t get better for you.

And because what is in the zinc box said that
it was put into the zinc box and must be dug in
as a trouble-maker who egged you on.
And whoever now talks of getting enough to eat
And whoever of you wants somewhere dry to live
And whoever of you insists on his exact wages
And whoever of you wants to feed his children
And whoever thinks, and proclaims his solidarity
with all who are oppressed –
from now on throughout eternity
he will be put into a zinc box like this one
as a trouble-maker and dug in.

 

Irritated more than critical, Arendt accuses Brecht of ignorance, of letting his Marxism run wild, ignoring the true nature of Nazi oppression, political repression.  Brecht, Arendt writes,

deals with this subject as though it were simply the case of an agitator who “has agitated in favor of many things: for eating-your-fill, for a-roof-over-your head, for feeding-your-children,” etc. The point is, that an agitator with such slogans would have been so ridiculous in 1936 that nobody would have needed to put him out of the way.

This criticism is factually shaky and extremely unfair to the poet and playwright, himself a victim of Nazism. As John Simkin points out, there were still one million people unemployed in Germany as of 1937, and those in the working class who were employed were miserable–not merely as politically repressed subjects of Nazism, but uniquely as workers. The Nazis controlled trade unions and severely punished independent union activity. Wages were very low and did not increase with productivity.

So there was much for a socialist or communist agitator to fight against in Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. There was Nazism itself, which the far left did a much better job of both explaining and pushing back against than the centrists ever did. But there was also widespread exploitation of labor—from the slave labor that began to build the war machine to the conditions of the working class itself, conditions which, regardless of what the materially privileged Arendt thought, were pretty awful. If you were anti-capitalist and anti-Nazi, you were doubly marked, and it seems foolish in retrospect to suggest that agitation against poor wages and working conditions, and the unemployment of a million people, on top of the triumph of fascism, would have seemed ridiculous or that no such materialist agitators would be put out of the way. Tens of thousands of leftist political prisoners were put out of the way between 1933 and the end of the war. Arendt’s denial of this is criminal. She’s better than that.

Brecht figures strongly into a philosophical discussion of the way some liberals save their nastiest derision for socialists, and one needn’t be a Marxist or even a socialist to examine this. In Threepenny Opera, Brecht writes: “Food is the first thing, morals follow on.” Stripped of an understanding of class, identity politics often drifts into a morality-based critique of power, and while values are undeniably important (perhaps more important than orthodox Marxists admit), Ioan Davies’s interpretation of Brecht’s line in Threepenny expresses the hazard of morals that ignore materiality:

The struggle to be “good” is frequently stressed, but it is a fatuous struggle if it is not linked with the struggle to live . . . No matter how much individuals aim to be just, justice and morality are only possible if the social conditions are just. In fact the attempt is only worthwhile under such conditions: otherwise it becomes blind to the injustice of others.

I think that most of the public discussion about Clinton, Sanders, identity politics, class politics, sexism and emancipation conflates optics and policy. Clinton apologists also conspicuously erase the mainstream Democratic Party’s (and their candidate’s) synthesis of political liberalism and economic neoliberalism. It’s a dangerous thing, thinking that legal protections and moral inclusiveness are enough to check the abuses of the inegalitarian economy. It’s at least as dangerous as what Clinton apologists accuse the left of doing, assuming economic egalitarianism can, by itself, adequately address illiberal, racist, sexist, and other exclusionary cultures.

Clinton apologists are right: socialism alone, by itself, can whitewash identity oppression. But they stop there. One longtime friend recently described to me their excitement in hearing Clinton call for a society where more women and people of color inhabited positions at the top of corporate, academic, and political hierarchies. This friend dismissed my question about the injustices of the hierarchies themselves as “unrealistic” and “unpragmatic,” the latest form of classism and red-baiting that has been hurled at Sanders (who’s really not very red at all) by Democrats and Republicans alike.

In Germany in the 1930s, liberals who shied away from socialism were absolutely helpless to fight against Nazism. I fear that the current centrism of the Democratic Party establishment shares this inability. Because the standard-bearers of the Party support military intervention, tolerate coups in Central America, and support neoliberal free trade agreements that allow multinational corporations to supersede public interest and environmental laws, it has become very easy for Donald Trump to outflank his likely Democratic opponent and be a true populist—just like the Nazis did. Fascists always flirt with isolationism, criticize big corporations, and promise a few economically egalitarian policies. I already hear naïve Greens and others on the independent left cautiously praising Trump for attacking Clinton on her Iraq war vote. I hear them shrugging their shoulders and pointing out that his economic nationalism isn’t that far from Sanders’s, and that Trump is a more credible opponent of bad trade deals than Clinton.

Of course, Donald Trump isn’t a credible anything. He’s an incipient fascist and a narcissist with the tone of a domestic abuser, forging a politics of interpersonal violence that, regardless of his lies otherwise, will be scaled up to brutal militarism when, as President, he realizes he can’t verbally abuse other nations into submission. He’ll crush free speech, and labor, and anything in his way—just as he already has. In order to beat Trump, Clinton will need to go left. In order to beat Trumpism, we all will, and that means recognizing the standing of economic domination and the necessity of an ecologically sustainable economic justice. Economic justice, not liberalism-in-cooperation-with-multinational-corporations, is the antithesis of fascism. Nothing I have seen in the optics or policy universe of the Democrats indicates they can do this.

In this election cycle, I’ve stayed away from telling people how to vote. I’m chiefly concerned about the outcome of the Democratic primary race because of what it says about America’s attitude towards the economically disadvantaged, our propensity towards building sustainable economic justice, and our resistance to the colonization of the public sphere–and all life–by profit-driven corporations and the forces of finance capital. I believe we do, in fact, have to fix that “first,” although not necessarily temporally first. If corporate money can block all good ideas, this means it will block all of your candidate’s good ideas. This is a pretty devastating admission because it means you can’t leverage the power of any of your candidate’s good ideas back over it. It reduces your candidate’s policy positions to those that can co-exist with the needs of multibillion dollar corporations and extremely wealthy individuals. Number one on their agenda is stopping real progress on carbon-induced climate change, the long-term impacts of which are apocalyptic. Many of the injustices we are rightly concerned about across the entire array of identity-based oppression happen to a large percentage of the population every day simply because they are poor.

Pointing this out is dangerous—maybe not as dangerous as it was in 1930s Germany, but if a thinker as sharp and astute as Hannah Arendt had a blind spot on classism then, it certainly explains the active and passive red-baiting going on among otherwise progressive people in 2016 America.

Matt Stannard is policy director at Commonomics USA and director of the Materialized Empathy project. He provides research and communications assistance to the Public Banking Institute, speaks and writes on economic justice, and is the author of Love and Production and The American Commons, both of which will be published in 2016.