Wages Dropped for Almost All American Workers in First Half of 2014

 


The last year has been a bad one for people who work for a living.

Think your money’s not going very far this year? It’s not your imagination. According to new research by the Economic Policy Institute, real hourly wages declined for almost everybody in the U.S. workforce in the first half of 2014. Thanks, so-called recovery.

Economist Elise Gould pored over data from the government’s Current Population Survey and determined that workers at the 20th, 30th, 40th, 50th, 60th, 70th, 80th, 90th, and 95th percentiles all saw declines in their real wages in the first half of 2014 compared with the same period last year. This was true whether you had no high school degree, a high school diploma, some college, a college degree, or an advanced degree. In fact, people with advanced degrees saw the biggest drop (2.7 percent).

EPI reveals this isn’t just a blip. Real wages dropped 4.9 percent for workers with a high school degree and 2.5 percent for workers with a college degree from the first half of 2007 to the first half of this year.

Gould explains in the report that “the last year has been a poor one for American workers’ wages.” She states that “on the whole, the broad wage trends by education level over the last decade and a half make clear that wage inequality cannot be readily explained by stories about educational credentials and technology; wage inequality has increased steadily, yet even those with a college diploma or advanced degree have experienced lackluster wage growth.”

Gould adds, “It’s an indication of the fact that no one — not even educated workers — is able to bargain for anything.” Employers have the power and they are using it to pay their workers less.

The only workers who saw real wages go up over the past year were workers at the10th percentile of income, but only two cents an hour, from $8.36 an hour to $8.38. Two pennies! Don’t spend it all in one place. That paltry increase happened because of minimum wage increases in 13 states. The lack of wage growth harms society and the economy in a whole host of ways. When workers don’t have enough money in their pockets to spend on goods and services, businesses can’t hire and they fail, which increases unemployment. Unable to keep up with the growing expenses of things like healthcare and college tuition, the middle class shrinks. For those less well off, life becomes a daily struggle for survival. The increasing gap between the very rich and everyone else produces a wide range of social ills, from mental illness to addiction to chronic diseases. The social fabric becomes unraveled.

Not a very promising reflection for Labor Day, is it?

Lynn Parramore is an AlterNet senior editor. She is cofounder of Recessionwire, founding editor of New Deal 2.0, and author of “Reading the Sphinx: Ancient Egypt in Nineteenth-Century Literary Culture.” She received her Ph.D. in English and cultural theory from NYU. She is the director of AlterNet’s New Economic Dialogue Project. Follow her on Twitter @LynnParramore.

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Temp labor at record levels in US

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By Andre Damon
2 September 2014

The Obama administration marked Labor Day 2014 with demagogic speeches by President Obama in Milwaukee and Vice President Joseph Biden in Detroit—speeches that were notable mainly for the brazenness of their dishonesty and cynicism.

Obama and Biden postured as partisans of what they referred to as the “middle class,” even as a number of reports emerged documenting the devastating decline in conditions for the working class under the current administration.

In his remarks, Obama portrayed the US economy as recovering at a rapid clip from the economic slump, with unemployment falling and hiring picking up. “By almost every measure, the American economy and American workers are better off than when I took office,” Obama declared.

He praised the run-up on the stock market and the record pace of corporate profits. “It’s a good thing that corporate profits are high,” he said. “I want American businesses to succeed. It’s a good thing that the stock market is booming.”

The fact that Obama hails the enrichment of the financial aristocracy in a Labor Day speech reflects the vast chasm separating the political and corporate establishment for which he speaks and the overwhelming majority of the American people.

Speaking at a Labor Day event in Detroit, Biden took a somewhat different tack. He presented himself as an opponent of corporate greed and cited statistics reflecting the growth of inequality and decline in the living standards of American workers.

“Why do CEOs now make 333 times more money than a line worker, when back when Reagan was president they made 25 times what the line worker made?” he asked. Speaking before an audience dominated by trade union bureaucrats and workers close to the union apparatus, he acted as though the grim picture of conditions for working people he outlined had nothing to do with himself personally or the government of which he is a part.

Both events were organized by the unions and had as their principal aim drumming up support for the Democratic Party in the upcoming midterm elections from a population that is increasingly alienated from the entire political establishment.

The disastrous economic conditions for working people, compounded by the policies of the Obama administration, were revealed in a series of reports published over the weekend.

The National Employment Law Project (NELP) reported that both the number of people working for labor contractors and the percentage of the workforce employed by such companies have hit record highs. According to figures from the American Staffing Agency, more than 12 million people, or ten percent of the labor force, worked for a temporary employment agency at some point in 2013.

The NELP report showed that, far from being confined to clerical work, temporary workers are increasingly being employed in industry and warehousing. A record 42 percent of temporary workers are now employed in such industries, up from 28 percent in 1990.

Workers employed by staffing agencies are subject to lower wages, making an average of $3.40 per hour less than traditional employees. They are more likely to be injured or killed on the job, according to a recent study published by the American Journal of Industrial Medicine.

The NELP report concluded: “Major corporations now use [temporary] staffing as a permanent feature of their business model,” adding that “Seventy-seven percent of Fortune 500 firms now use third-party logistics firms, who may then contract out to an army of smaller firms to move their goods.”

On Sunday, the New York Times carried a report documenting a series of high-profile lawsuits against major corporations that falsified workers’ time sheets, used accounting dodges to avoid paying overtime or withheld base pay owed to their employees.

The article noted that last week a California appeals court ruled that shipping company FedEx deliberately misclassified its delivery drivers as independent contractors, even though they were actually employees, in order to avoid paying them overtime and health and retirement benefits.

Schneider Logistics, which provides warehousing services for Walmart, recently paid $21 million to settle charges that it failed to pay workers legally required overtime. “Plaintiffs indicated they often logged 16-hour days every day of the week. Allegedly, they were not allowed mandatory breaks, not paid overtime and did not even receive minimum wage,” said California attorney Deborah Barron.

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su told the Times: “My agency has found more wages being stolen from workers in California than any time in history… This has spread to multiple industries across many sectors. It’s affected not just minimum-wage workers, but also middle-class workers.”

Workers’ wages, meanwhile, are stagnating or falling across the board. The Economic Policy Institute published a report showing that both low- and middle-income earners have seen their wages fall since 2007, while the wages of those with advanced degrees have remained essentially unchanged.

The capitalist crisis that erupted in 2008 has been used to drive down the conditions of life for working people. Decent-paying jobs have been wiped out and replaced with low-paying jobs. Full-time work has been replaced by part-time, temporary and contingency labor. Increasingly, corporations have resorted to illegal means to rob workers of wages and benefits.

They have been aided and abetted by the Obama administration. The multitrillion-dollar handout to the banks, the restructuring of the auto industry on the basis of 50 percent wage cuts for new-hires, the promotion of “insourcing” by slashing US labor costs are part of a social counterrevolution. These attacks are accompanied by an assault on pensions, employer-paid health coverage, public education and all that remains of the basic social programs enacted in the 1930s and 1960s such as Medicare and Social Security.

On this basis, and with the assistance of the trade unions, Obama has presided over an unprecedented redistribution of wealth from the working class to the corporate and financial aristocracy that runs the country and controls both political parties.

The Future of Robot Labor Is the Future of Capitalism

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Written by

Jordan Pearson

September 1, 2014 // 12:40 PM EST

You’ve seen the headlines by now: The robots are coming, and they’re going to take our jobs. The future really doesn’t look so great for the average, human working stiff, since 47 percent of the world’s jobs are set to be automated in the next two decades, according to a recent and much-publicised University of Oxford study.

Some see these developments in apocalyptic terms, with robot workers creating a new underclass of jobless humans, while others see it in a more hopeful light, claiming robots may instead lead us to a future where work isn’t necessary. But fretting over which jobs will be lost and which will be preserved doesn’t do much good.

The thing is, robots entering the workplace isn’t even really about robots. The coming age of robot workers chiefly reflects a tension that’s been around since the first common lands were enclosed by landowners who declared them private property: that between labour and the owners of capital. The future of labour in the robot age has everything to do with capitalism.

Image: Mixabest/Wikimedia

The best way to understand how this all works and where it will go is to refer to the writings of the person who understood capitalism best—Karl Marx. In particular, to a little-known journal fragment published in his manuscript The Grundrisse called “The Fragment on Machines.”

Whether you love him, hate him, or just avoid him completely, Marx dedicated his life to understanding how capitalism works. He was obsessed with it. In “The Fragment,” Marx grappled with what a fully automated capitalist society might mean for the worker in the future.

According to Marx, automation that displaces workers in favour of machines that can produce more goods in less time is part and parcel of how capitalism operates. By developing fixed capital (machines), bosses can do away with much of the variable capital (workers) that saps their bottom line with pesky things like wages and short work days. He writes:

The increase of the productive force of labour and the greatest possible negation of necessary labour is the necessary tendency of capital, as we have seen. The transformation of the means of labour into machinery is the realization of this tendency.

Seen through this lens, robot workers are the rational end point of automation as it develops in a capitalist economy. The question of what happens to workers displaced by automation is an especially interesting line of inquiry because it points to a serious contradiction in capitalism, according to Marx:

Capital itself is the moving contradiction, [in] that it presses to reduce labour time to a minimum, while it posits labour time, on the other side, as sole measure and source of wealth.

In Marxist theory, capitalists create profit by extracting what’s called surplus value from workers—paying them less than what their time is worth and gaining the difference as profit after the commodity has been sold at market price, arrived at by metrics abstracted from the act of labour itself. So what happens when humans aren’t the ones working anymore? Curiously, Marx finds himself among the contemporary robotic utopianists in this regard.

Once robots take over society’s productive forces, people will have more free time than ever before, which will “redound to the benefit of emancipated labour, and is the condition of its emancipation,” Marx wrote. Humans, once freed from the bonds of soul-crushing capitalist labour, will develop new means of social thought and cooperation outside of the wage relation that frames most of our interactions under capitalism. In short, Marx claimed that automation would bring about the end of capitalism.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns.

It’s a familiar sentiment that has gained new traction in recent years thanks to robots being in vogue, but we only have to look to the recent past to know that things didn’t exactly work out that way. Capitalism is very much alive and well, despite automation’s steady march towards ascendancy over the centuries. The reason is this: automation doesn’t disrupt capitalism. It’s an integral part of the system.

What we understand as “work” has morphed to accommodate its advancement. There is no reason to assume that this will change just because automation is ramping up to sci-fi speed.

To paraphrase John Tomlinson in his analysis of technology, speed, and capitalism in The Culture of Speed: The Coming of Immediacy, no idiom captures the spirit of capitalism better than “time is money”. If machines ostensibly create more free time for humans by doing more work, capitalists must create new forms of work to make that time productive in order to continue capturing surplus value for themselves. As Marx wrote (forgive my reprinting of his problematic language):

The most developed machinery thus forces the worker to work longer than the savage does, or than he himself did with the simplest, crudest tools [...] But the possessors of [the] surplus produce or capital… employ people upon something not directly and immediately productive, e.g. in the erection of machinery. So it goes on.

“Not immediately productive” is the key phrase here. Just think of all the forms of work that have popped up since automation began to really take hold during the Industrial Revolution: service sector work, online work, part-time and otherwise low-paid work. You’re not producing anything while working haphazard hours as a cashier at Walmart, but you are creating value by selling what has already been built, often by machines.

In the automated world, precarious labour reigns. Jobs that offer no stability, no satisfaction, no acceptable standard of living, and seem to take up all of our time by occupying so many scattered parcels of it are the norm. Franco “Bifo” Berardi, a philosopher of labour and technology, explained it thusly in his book Precarious Rhapsody, referring to the legions of over worked part-time or no-timers as the “precariat”:

The word ‘precariat’ generally stands for the area of work that is no longer definable by fixed rules relative to the labor relation, to salary and to the length of the working day [...] Capital no longer recruits people, but buys packets of time, separated from their interchangeable and occasional bearers [...] The time of work is fractalized, that is, reduced to minimal fragments that can be reassembled, and the fractalization makes it possible for capital to constantly find the conditions of minimum salary.

Online labour is especially applicable to this description of the new definition of work. For example, work that increasingly depends on emails, instant correspondence across time zones, and devices that otherwise bring work home from the office in any number of ways, creates a mental environment where time is no longer marked into firm blocks.

Indeed, the “work day” is all day, every day, and time is now a far more fluid concept than before. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform, on which low-income workers sell their time performing menial creative tasks for pennies per hour, is a particularly dystopic example of this.

A radically different form of work is that of providing personal data for profit. This online data work is particularly insidious for two main reasons. First, because it is often not recognized as work at all. You might not think that messaging a pal about your new pair of headphones is work, but labour theorists like Maurizio Lazzarato disagree. Second, because workers are completely cut out of the data profit loop, although that may be changing.

Image: ProducerMatthew/Wikimedia

These points, taken together, paint a pretty dismal picture of the future of humans living with robotic labour under capitalism. It’s likely that we’ll be working more, and at shitty jobs. The question is: what kind of work, and exactly how shitty?

In my opinion, being anti-robot or anti-technology is not a very helpful position to take. There’s no inherent reason that automation could not be harnessed to provide more social good than harm. No, a technologically-motivated movement is not what’s needed. Instead, a political one that aims to divest technological advancement from the motives of capitalism is in order.

Some people are already working toward this. The basic income movement, which calls for a minimum salary to be paid out to every living human regardless of employment status, is a good start, because it implies a significant departure from the purely economic language of austerity in political thought and argues for a basic income for the salient reason that we’re human and we deserve to live. However, if we really want to change the way things are headed, more will be needed.

At a time when so many of us are looking towards the future, one particular possibility is continually ignored: a future without capitalism. Work without capitalism, free time without capitalism, and, yes, even robots without capitalism. Perhaps only then could we build the foundations of a future world where technology works for all of us, and not just the privileged few.

http://motherboard.vice.com/read/the-future-of-robot-labour-has-everything-to-do-with-capitalism

The True Meaning of Labor Day

  Labor  

For America’s workers, it’s a reminder of the struggles we have won—and those that lie ahead.

Photo Credit: Nic Neufeld / Shutterstock.com

To many Americans, Labor Day has become an important way to send off the slower pace of summer and usher in the hustle and bustle of fall. To our nation’s working families, this Labor Day means so much more.

It is an important moment to reflect on the courage of the working people who brought us Labor Day and the many working benefits we enjoy today. It is also a pivotal time to take stock of where our families, our economy, and our democracy are heading.

Today, America finds itself in a position of incredible challenge. Half of all Americans now make less than $15 an hour. Of the 10 fastest-growing jobs in America, eight are service sector jobs that pay $15 an hour or less.

Service sector jobs are the heartbeat of our economy and our communities, from the folks who care for the elderly and our children, to those who cook and serve our food, to those who clean and secure our offices. Moving our economy forward must include making service jobs into good jobs with wages that you can raise a family on.

That’s why this Labor Day, the American people are sparking a new movement, joining together for an economy and democracy that works for everyone.

Fast food workers have joined together to fight for $15 an hour. They have been joined by home care workers who are calling for $15 an hour for all caregivers. Just last week 27,000 Minnesota home care workers joined together in union, determined to raise wages and fight for quality home care for our seniors.

Working people in Seattle fought for and won a $15 minimum wage for 100,000 people, and other cities are poised to do the same. Across our nation adjunct professors, airport workers, security officers, hospital workers, Wal-Mart workers and other service sector workers are standing up and sticking together.

All told, 6.7 million workers have achieved better pay since fast food workers began striking less than two years ago, either through states or cities moving to raise minimum wages or through collective bargaining. These brave workers are building the momentum to raise wages and get our economy roaring again.

Yet the prosperity of our nation and growth of our economy depend not just on economic justice. A vibrant economy cannot exist without vibrant American communities steeped in the fundamental American principles of liberty and justice for all.

The taking of Mike Brown’s life in Ferguson, Missouri only weeks ago reminds us that social and economic justice must go hand in hand for America to thrive. To solve these issues, we need opportunities for all Americans to fully participate in our economy and improve the quality of life for their families.

That’s why we must also fix our broken immigration system and uphold and protect civil rights and democratic participation for all Americans, not just the wealthy few.

We must remember that America is a nation founded on the dreams of immigrants. Today the opportunity to achieve the American dream is jeopardized by a broken immigration system and a Congress that refuses to fix it. The time has come for us to free those immigrants who exemplify the promise of America from the shadows and bring them into the light of our economy and society without fear.

When working people stick together, we have the strength to ensure that both our democracy and our economy continue to grow and progress. When America’s working families rise, America rises.

This Labor Day, we have so much more to celebrate than just the end of summer. So many brave Americans are uniting to raise wages, raise our communities and raise America. Their efforts and successes are shaping up to be the largest, boldest and most inclusive movement by and for working people that modern America has even seen.

I believe in a rising America, where together we can create an economy that works for everyone and a democracy where everyone has a voice.

Mary Kay Henry is the International President of the Service Employees International Union.

 

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Netanyahu indicates Gaza ceasefire paves way for wider war

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By Jean Shaoul
1 September 2014

Speaking on Israel’s Channel 2, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu offered his most expansive explanation thus far for agreeing an “indefinite ceasefire” in Gaza.

Netanyahu has faced sustained criticism from within his Likud party and his coalition government for calling off military action short of his declared intention of obliterating Hamas and without consulting his security cabinet.

He has also incurred the hostility of those Israelis who felt revulsion at the brutality of the military operations whose cost they will bear in the form of higher taxes and cuts in public services. On Sunday, Netanyah announced plans to slash government spending by 2 percent in order to finance the $2.5 billion Gaza assault. Education funding will be hardest hit.

Opposed by both sides of the political spectrum, the prime minister has seen his support in the opinion polls fall from 63 to 38 percent in just a few weeks.

Netanyahu’s remarks, formulated as a response to his right-wing critics, were a tacit admission that Israel is preparing to take its place in wider US-led war plans nominally targeting the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

In bellicose language Netanyahu said of Gaza, “I never removed the goal of toppling Hamas, and I am not doing that now… I cannot rule out the occupation of Gaza. I don’t know if we will get to that. I thought the best thing is to crush them.”

Cabinet members—Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch and Communications Minister Gilad Erdan—would have been secretly pleased that they did not have to vote on the issue, he added.

Turning to the regional situation, Netanyahu identified the scope of his military ambitions, declaring, “I am preparing for a reality in the Middle East that is very problematic.”

“I look around and see al-Qaida on the fence, ISIS moving toward Jordan and already in Lebanon, with Hezbollah there already, supported by Iran,” he elaborated.

He identified the possibility of new diplomatic and military alliances emerging. There were, he said, “not a small number of states who see the threats around us, as threats to them as well and as a result do not see Israel as an enemy, but as a potential partner.”

Netanyahu did not specify which states he was referring to, but events leading up to his about-face indicate that he acted under order from Washington and after receiving supportive assurances from Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States. Indeed his comments came after US Secretary of State John Kerry, in a piece for the New York Times, called for a “global coalition” against Islamic extremists who are “perilously close to Israel.”

The Obama administration’s preparations for a wider war in Iraq and Syria to protect its geo-strategic interests in the energy-rich region and contain and isolate Iran, Russia and China requires precisely such a diplomatic cover in the form of a new “coalition of the willing.”

For this reason, the US, which had initially backed the war, determined the 50-day war in Gaza had become a destabilising factor, having provoked a growing protest movement against Israeli brutality that made it impossible for the US to clothe its regional ambitions in the garb of humanitarianism.

Moreover, the Arab regimes could not be seen supporting a military campaign in Iraq and Syria at the same time as they left the Palestinians to Israel’s tender mercies.

Regionally, Israel’s war on Gaza relied above all on Egypt’s military dictator General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and his sponsors, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, who supported it in order to isolate and militarily weaken Hamas, which rules Gaza. Hamas is the Palestinian offshoot of Egypt’s now banned Muslim Brotherhood, which is anathema to most of the Arab bourgeoisie and the Gulf monarchs—with the exception of Qatar—because as a rival capitalist party it challenges their commercial interests and political domination.

The war on Hamas was also seen as a means of isolating Iran, which, despite its recent falling out with Hamas, was obliged to make a show of support.

The Egyptian regime patrolled the Sinai border to prevent militant groups launching attacks alongside Hamas. It sealed the Rafah crossing to prevent Palestinians fleeing the Israeli military or seeking treatment in hospitals in Egypt or medical delegations and aid convoys reaching Gaza.

Above all, al-Sisi provided a crucial cover for Israel’s air and ground assault by brokering a ceasefire proposal after discussion with Saudi Arabia, the Arab League and Washington that was initially rejected by Hamas. A key element of the proposal was the end of Hamas’ rule in Gaza and return of the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority (PA) to the territory after being expelled in 2007 following a coup by Hamas, the victor of elections in January 2006 in the West Bank and Gaza. Egypt insisted that it would not reopen the Rafah crossing until it was guarded by the PA, under the control of strongman Mohammed Dahlan, Israel’s preferred successor to PA President Mahmoud Abbas.

While demonstrations in support of the Palestinians took place around the world, they were outlawed and suppressed in the Arab countries, including the West Bank, fueling the antipathy of the Arab masses towards their rulers. Such conditions would have made it impossible to mount a military campaign to protect US and Sunni Arab interests in Iraq against the encroachment of ISIS. Initially supported and trained by the CIA, Turkey, Jordan and Israel as a proxy force to overthrow Assad, ISIS has now captured whole swathes of Iraq and Syria, threatening Baghdad as well as the Jordanian monarchy, another US client regime.

As a result, Israel came under sustained pressure from the US, with the backing of the Arab regimes, to call a halt to the war. Saudi Arabia sent a team of ministers to Qatar to try and end its support for Hamas, while Jordan’s King Abdullah brokered secret talks between Netanyahu and Abbas in Amman, their first meeting since September 2010.

Egypt again played a crucial role. Al-Sisi brokered a “peace deal” which is no different in its essentials from the July proposals, thereby sidelining Qatar and Turkey, the main sponsors of Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas’ acceptance of the terms of the deal meant opposing Khaled Mershaal, its political bureau chief in Qatar, jeopardising Qatar’s financial and diplomatic support. But, in the final analysis, Cairo was more important: Hamas’ very existence depended upon the lifeline provided by Egypt—the Rafah crossing.

Talks are to begin in one month’s time over the release of hundreds of Hamas prisoners rounded up in the West Bank following the killing of three Israeli settler youths in June, and the construction of a port and international airport in Gaza. But Netanyahu has demanded Gaza’s demilitarisation and said he will not accede to the Palestinians’ demands.

The US is to resume arms shipments to Israel, after the Obama administration had earlier called a halt to the delivery of new materiel to Israel without the explicit approval of the White House and State Department. This could be an occasion for the start of a massive increase in military aid for Israel from the US, in line with Netanyahu’s call in his interview for increases in the defence budget. Indeed the Israel Defence Force needs a massive one-off sum of 9 billion NIS ($2.5 billion) just to pay for the war, and an additional 11 billion NIS for its 2015 budget.

“GRAPES OF WRATH” AND THE AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

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In a Labor Day weekend mood, I watched “Grapes of Wrath” again this evening.  Labor Day is, after all, a celebration of the American labor movement and is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of workers.  “Grapes of Wrath” portrays familiar themes in the American worker experience:  be it displaced farmers from Oklahoma to baristas and Twitter people with degrees, there is a continual struggle between workers and those with wealth desiring cheap, easily manipulated, labor.

The wealthy pretty much got their way in the States until the Depression (rich people gambling to get richer) fueled the re- balancing of the worker/owner relationship — more in favor of the worker– under FDR, and his New Deal.  This balance, which was great for the overall health of the country, continued through LBJ and the Great Society.  Now things are going the other way, with the wealthy neoliberal controller classes producing a political and economic system that assures their success no matter which of the two political parties wins.  Reagan, Clinton, Bush and now Obama dismantled the Great Society, fought to break the worker unions, and deregulated banking and other entities once deemed “public trusts.”  The resultant series of economic crises and bursting bubbles destroyed the working and middle classes and threatens to remove whats left of the social safety nets.

Tom Joad’s famous final speech (excerpts below) to his Ma in the movie “Grapes of Wrath” powerfully expressed the thoughts and yearnings of the Depression-period worker and resonates with the increasingly disenfranchised workers of today.  The American revolutionary, Tom Joad, espousing collective action that creates change, is a familiar subplot in the American drama.  What distresses me about this speech is Tom’s dream to spread wealth more justly “…if all our folks got together and yelled…”.  In this 21st century people yell for a few months (Occupy) and the illusion and control by the owners returns.  In the age of the “meh generation” and Ayn Rand the notion of a collective soul is anathema.

 

Tom Joad: I been thinking about us, too, about our people living like pigs and good rich land layin’ fallow. Or maybe one guy with a million acres and a hundred thousand farmers starvin’. And I been wonderin’ if all our folks got together and yelled…

Ma Joad: Tommy, you’re not aimin’ to kill nobody.

Tom Joad: No, Ma, not that. That ain’t it. It’s just, well as long as I’m an outlaw anyways… maybe I can do somethin’… maybe I can just find out somethin’, just scrounge around and maybe find out what it is that’s wrong and see if they ain’t somethin’ that can be done about it. I ain’t thought it out all clear, Ma. I can’t. I don’t know enough.

Ma Joad: How am I gonna know about ya, Tommy? Why they could kill ya and I’d never know. They could hurt ya. How am I gonna know?

Tom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then…

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

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K Street Black Rock: Burning Man’s Billionaires Row

There was a certain point last night — when a six-foot-tall private-party planner in a bustier and feather headdress was clenching my shoulder and threatening me — that I wondered why I ever even wanted to follow along a tour of the fancy camps of Burning Man.

Burning Man is, after all, about building a city, which they call Black Rock. In that city, some people were building walled-off empires on its outer rings. Rich people do as rich people do.

But there is something about the way a new fleet of wealthy have descended on Burning Man that is inducing anxiety among Burners, a community that bans all money and branding (people tape over even small logos). The so-called “turnkey camps” — tight circles of trailers, or sometimes just large black-tarp walls that hide overstaffed luxury playpens — are distinctly different from the rest of Burning Man, a festival with a heavy emphasis on giving and work.

During a five-minute walk this morning, Burners in various camps offered me plums, coffee and homemade pita-and-cheese sandwiches. Campers constantly brag about how much work they put into their decor, erecting full bars or elaborate hammock-atop-hammock arrangements on site. Many of this year’s new camps are both private and prefab, and that is very difficult for some Burners to accept. It has been part of the conversation here all week.

Let it be said: All of Burning Man is a show of wealth. Tickets are $380, sure, but many of the art cars — immensely decorated buses and trucks — cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Not to mention the neon furs, the metallic leggings, the lights (there were side-of the-road hawkers at the gate who tried to sell me a rainbow stole for $80).

Standing near a party bus one night around midnight, Ryan Parks, a young entrepreneur covered in LEDs, explained the situation: “This is the height of excess,” he said, indicating the neon and fire-spewing art cars around us. “We go to the desert, where people die, to build shit we burn. The Maslow hierarchy of needs has been met by our ancestors — so we can make art cars.”

It’s not about tech money, because that’s nothing new. Annie Harrison — an early Burner and former writer for Wired magazine — told me, “I came out here in ’95 to cover the tech scene. It was tech-reporter catnip! Mostly stories about the lasers from Lawrence Livermore. I took a picture of a guy lighting a cigarette off a laser that my editor loved.”

But something new is happening at Burning Man: There’s now a rich neighborhood.

While some power players, like Bob Pittman, station their camps openly at the center of the fray, others have created a fascinating ring of power: K Street Black Rock.

K Street Black Rock is at the perimeter of the city, which is built in the form of concentric semicircles. A long, obscure stretch far from the center, no one bikes all the way out there unless they have to.

“We’ve put our hand out to the turnkey camps and asked them to live by the principles. We can’t force them. But we asked, and I think they understand,” said Burning Man co-founder Will Rogers, who sat in a folding chair by his RV, a tattered bandana around his head. “After the first dust storm, we’re all the same color.”

In my event calendar, I noticed something called “Turnkey Camp Invasion,” described as a parade to test the hospitality of the fanciest camps. When I arrived at the meeting spot, a funky bar in a quiet neighborhood along E street, the bartenders told me the organizer hadn’t been able to make it to Burning Man because he couldn’t take the time off from work.

But the group — a dentist, a Google employee, a lawyer, some eccentrics — still gathered. They figured that, no matter what, it was a nice night for a bike ride.

“Okay, we want to make sure we don’t get the people who fund the art, though,” said a blonde woman wearing a headscarf and a sash of fake ammo. “How can we tell which is turnkey and which isn’t?”

“Listen, we’re not burning down their RVs, for god’s sake,” said David Grosof, who wore glow sticks fashioned into glasses. “If we’re friendly, they’ll invite us in. It’ll be fun.”

I stood next to a Google employee named Greg: “”The nanosecond I heard about this turnkey tour, there was no way I wouldn’t do it.”

What if it’s Google co-founder Sergey Brin’s camp?

“That’d be awesome! We’d sip a martini and have some caviar, no doubt,” Greg said.

Grosof had a more philosophical take.

“We are so very careful, no one can sell a hot dog for money, but it’s okay to have a staff and bodyguards and cooks?” he said. “What is the difference between commodity product and commodity service?”

When we reached K Street, one of the “invaders” asked a man who was walking by whether he had seen these fancy camps. Oh yes, he had, he said. Many. They set up 20 matching RVs here or there, and there’s one just right up the street.

We got to the escarpment, a daunting wall of RVs. The entry was covered by gauzy drapes. As they billowed in the wind, we could see inside: A crystal chandelier, glass refrigerators full of champagne, a dining-room table to seat maybe 16, and half a dozen very beautiful women in lingerie, serving cocktails. One of them saw the group.

She stormed outside, furious. The invaders responded defensively, saying they had just wanted to see. Some wanted to debate. She wanted everyone to keep walking. The group milled outside, debating whether to try again, or give up and go to a normal camp for a drink.

One of the turnkey residents, red-haired and slightly overweight, came out in a white shirt and cargo shorts. The party planner quickly ran back inside, brought him a red-silk Chinese robe, and helped him put it on. He thought someone’s headlamp was a camera, and started to scream at them. The event planner saw me taking notes and a picture of the scene, and came at me. “I don’t like you,” she said loudly, grabbing my shoulder. Someone next to me told her that she didn’t need to be a bitch. The man in the silk robe started jumping up and down, ready to throw a punch.

A momentary flare-up of culture clash on the dark, wealthy outskirts of Burning Man.

And then, because no one really wanted a fight, and the whole scene was ridiculous, it calmed. The Googler hopped on his bike and sped off. The dentist shook his head and adjusted his EL-wire. And I went off with a friend to a fire-dancing camp run by some Santa Cruz Burners — I gave them the ginseng candies that I carry in my bag. We ordered vodka and orange juice, but they poured us Coke and Fireball.

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