How Austerity Killed the Humanities

Not long ago, the Right fought viciously over the teaching of the humanities in American universities. Now conservatives are trying to eliminate them altogether.


Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

In the 1980s and 1990s, debates over the humanities were a major component of American political discourse. On the one side were conservative traditionalists who believed that all American college students should read the Western Canon—the greatest books of the Western mind since Aristotle—as a foundation for democratic living. On the other side were academic multiculturalists who believed that a humanities education should be more comprehensive and should thus include texts authored by minority, female, and non-western writers.

Those debates of the ‘80s and ‘90s were heated. Indeed, they were a major front in what came to be known as “culture wars” between merciless foes. Yet all sides in these culture wars believed a humanities education—history, literature, languages, philosophy—was inherently important in a democratic society. In short, the humanities were taken for granted. In our current age of austerity, this is no longer the case. Many Americans no longer think the humanities worthy of public support. This is especially true of conservatives, who in their quest to cut off state support to higher education have abandoned the humanities entirely.

Take the state of Wisconsin, for example. In early February, Governor and Republican presidential hopeful Scott Walker drafted a draconian state budget that proposed to decrease the state’s contribution to the University of Wisconsin system by over $300 million over the next two years. Beyond simply slashing spending, Walker was also attempting to alter the language that has guided the core mission of the University of Wisconsin over the last 100 years or more, known as the “Wisconsin Idea.” Apparently Walker’s ideal university would no longer “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campuses” and would thus cease its “search for truth” and its efforts to “improve the human condition,” as his proposed language changes scrapped these ideas entirely; the governor’s scaled-back objective was for the university to merely “meet the state’s workforce needs.”

When a draft of Walker’s proposed revisions to the Wisconsin Idea surfaced, outraged Wisconsinites (including some conservatives) compelled the governor to backtrack. Yet Walker’s actions are consistent with recent trends in conservative politics. Republicans today are on the warpath against education—particularly against the humanities, those academic disciplines where the quaint pursuit of knowledge about “the human condition” persists.

In 2012, Florida Governor Rick Scott proposed a law making it more expensive for students enrolled at Florida’s public universities to obtain degrees in the humanities. As Scott and his supporters argued, in austere times, they needed “to lash higher education to the realities and opportunities of the economy,” as Florida Republican and State Senate President Don Gaetz put it. In other words, a humanities degree, unlike a business degree, was a luxury good. Even President Obama joined this chorus when he half-joked recently that students with vocational training are bound to make more money than art history majors.

Such anti-intellectualism, a strong animus against the idea that learning about humanity is a worthy pursuit regardless of its lack of obvious labor market applicability, has deep roots in American history. President Theodore Roosevelt advised that “we of the United States must develop a system under which each individual citizen shall be trained so as to be effective individually as an economic unit, and fit to be organized with his fellows so that he and they can work in efficient fashion together.” Contemporary conservatives are thus merely following the crude utilitarian logic that has informed many politicians and educational reformers since the nation’s first common schools.

But it was not always thus. During the 1980s and 1990s, prominent conservatives like William Bennett, who served in the Reagan administration as chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities and then as Secretary of Education, argued that every American should have an education grounded in the humanities. This surprising recent history is largely forgotten, and not only because most conservatives now dismiss the value of the humanities. It is forgotten because the arguments forwarded by Bennett and his ilk came in the context of the traumatic culture wars, when left and right angrily battled over radically different visions of a humanities education.

Few people are nostalgic for those culture wars because they were a fight between implacable foes. But in retrospect, perhaps we would do well to remember a time when all sides of a national debate believed that a humanities-based education was crucial to the survival of a democracy.

As a leading conservative culture warrior, Bennett held a traditionalist vision of the humanities. He believed the Western canon—which he defined in the terms of Matthew Arnold as “the best that has been said, thought, written, and otherwise expressed about the human experience”—should be the philosophical bedrock of the nation’s higher education.

“Because our society is the product and we the inheritors of Western civilization,” Bennett matter-of-factly contended, “American students need an understanding of its origins and development, from its roots in antiquity to the present.”

Most academics in humanities disciplines like English and history, in contrast, took a more critical stance towards the Western canon. They believed it too Eurocentric and male-dominated to properly reflect modern American society and thus revised it by adding books authored by women and minorities. Toni Morrison was to sit alongside Shakespeare. As literary theorist Jane Tompkins told a reporter from The New York Times Magazine in 1988, the struggle to revise the canon was a battle “among contending factions for the right to be represented in the picture America draws of itself.”

Many college students agreed with the canon revisionists. In 1986, Bill King, president of the Stanford University Black Student Union, formally complained to the Stanford academic senate that the university’s required Western Civilization reading list was racist. “The Western culture program as it is presently structured around a core list and an outdated philosophy of the West being Greece, Europe, and Euro-America is wrong, and worse,” he contended, “it hurts people mentally and emotionally in ways that are not even recognized.” Stanford students opposed to the Western Civilization curriculum marched and chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” and the academic senate approved mild changes to the core reading list that they hoped would satisfy the understandable demands of their increasingly diverse student body.

A sensationalist media made Stanford’s revisions seem like a proxy for the death of the West. Newsweek titled a story on the topic “Say Goodbye Socrates.” University of Chicago philosopher Allan Bloom wrote a letter to the Wall Street Journal editor in 1989—two years after his book, The Closing of the American Mind, made a rigorous if eccentric case for a classic humanities education rooted in the Western canon—in which he argued the Stanford revisions were a travesty: “This total surrender to the present and abandonment of the quest for standards with which to judge it are the very definition of the closing of the American mind, and I could not hope for more stunning confirmation of my thesis.”

Bloom believed that a humanities education should provide students with “four years of freedom,” which he described as “a space between the intellectual wasteland he has left behind and the inevitable dreary professional training that awaits him after the baccalaureate.” Liberals and leftists might have been sympathetic to such an argument had Bloom not dismissed texts authored by women, minorities, and non-westerners as lacking merit compared to the great books authored by those like Socrates who composed the Western canon.

In retrospect, these culture wars over the humanities are rather remarkable artifacts of a history that feels increasingly distant. Whether Stanford University ought to assign John Locke or the anticolonial theorist Frantz Fanon, a debate that played out on The Wall Street Journal editorial page in 1988, would be nonsensical in today’s neoliberal climate marked by budget cuts and other austerity measures. Now Locke and Fanon find themselves for the first time on the same side—and it’s looking more and more like the losing one. On the winning side? Well, to take but one example, Winning, General Electric CEO Jack Welch’s breezy management book, which is widely read in American business schools. Sadly, even the almighty Western canon, revised or not, seems feeble up against Winning and the cult of business. Conservative defenders of the humanities are voices in the wilderness. The philistines are on the march.

The culture wars over the humanities that dominated discussion of higher education in the 1980s and 1990s had enduring historical significance. Shouting matches about academia reverberated beyond the ivory tower to lay bare a crisis of national faith. Was America a good nation? Could the nation be good—could its people be free—without foundations? Were such foundations best provided by a classic liberal education in the humanities, which Matthew Arnold described as “the best that has been thought and said”? Was the “best” philosophy and literature synonymous with the canon of Western Civilization? Or was the Western canon racist and sexist? Was the “best” even a valid category for thinking about texts? Debates over these abstract questions rocked the nation’s institutions of higher education, demonstrating that the culture wars did not boil down to any one specific issue or even a set of issues. Rather, the culture wars often hinged on a more epistemological question about national identity: How should Americans think?

But in our current age of austerity, Americans are not asked to think about such questions at all. Neoliberalism is fine with revised canons—with a more inclusive, multicultural vision of the humanities. But neoliberalism is not fine with public money supporting something so seemingly useless. American conservatives have abandoned their traditionalist defense of the Western canon in favor of no canon at all.


Andrew Hartman is associate professor of history at Illinois State University and author, most recently, of A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars.

When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Historian Michael Neiberg tells Salon about the perils of the postwar era & the limits of the what great men can do

When the world was reinvented: Harry Truman, Joseph Stalin & the end of World War II

Winston Churchill, Harry S.Truman, and Josef Stalin pose in Potsdam, Germany, July 23, 1945. (Credit: AP)

Up until the second decade of the 20th century, Europe had been home to magnificent feats of cultural brilliance, architecture splendor, and a central hub of cosmopolitan ideas. By May 1945, however, following the surrender of Nazi Germany, most of the continent lay in ruins. Food and fuel were extremely scarce. Britain was on the verge of bankruptcy. Germany, meanwhile, had been reduced to a giant pile of rubble.

Millions of refugees roamed the continent in search of a future that looked extremely bleak: They were often hungry, homeless, and stateless. For some, there wasn’t even a single relative left alive to try and pick up the pieces with. The greatest war mankind had ever witnessed threatened to wipe out western civilization, and replace it instead with a utopian barbarism that had no time for human empathy.

In July 1945, three of the world’s leading statesmen from the Allied side — Harry Truman, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin — all met up in a quiet Berlin suburb: The aim of the Potsdam Conference was to negotiate a lasting global peace to a conflict that had essentially begun in 1914. If Europe was to have any sort of lasting stability — economically, politically, and militarily — it needed an immediate solution. All the delegates arrived determined to learn from the mistakes their predecessors had made when the Treaty of Versailles was signed in Paris in 1919.

In Potsdam: The End of World War II and the Remaking of Europe,” the historian Michael Neiberg captures in a dramatic fashion the numerous twists and turns of what was to become the most historic and important diplomatic meeting in 20th century global geopolitics.

I caught up with Neiberg recently to ask him about the book. Over an hour long interview, we discussed the limits of “the great man theory” of history;  debated the pros and cons of the Pax Americana vision that emerged from the Bretton Woods Conference in 1944; we were both equally surprised that the Holocaust never even got a passing mention among the delegates of Potsdam. What follows is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of that conversation.

How much did the shadow of the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 loom over Potsdam in 1945? 

Well it was the First World War that had shaped all of these men. So at Potsdam they were trying to figure out what had gone wrong in Paris 26 years earlier. They were also asking what were the basic fundamental mistakes that those who had gone before them had made? And they did a pretty good job: they had reset the boarders of Europe so that the political/ social/ ethnic lines matched up pretty well. They had more or less fixed the problem about what to do with Germany, settling the reparations issue, albeit in a controversial way, by dividing the country up. But fundamentally, they understood this was a problem that stretched back not just to 1939, but to 1914.

This book argues for some limits to be called on the so called “great man” theory of history. And yet many powerful and important men appear in it. What do you mean by this? 

History is always a mixture of what the individual can do and what circumstances constrains them to do. For a historian, Potsdam is almost like a laboratory. Because the death of Franklin D. Roosevelt brought in Harry Truman. And the British election in the middle of the conference removed Winston Churchill and brought in Clement Attlee.

So you had people who, (a) never thought they were going to be in that position; and (b) lacked the kind of world presence/dominance that their predecessors had. And yet everyone who watched Attlee and Truman made the same observation: The change in personalities didn’t change the fundamental economic, geopolitical, and historical reality.

A New York Times reporter, Ann O’ Hare McCormick, wrote at the time that Berlin was like a graveyard. I would also add to that: The graveyard was setting the limits on what the undertakers could do. That’s not to say that individuals aren’t important in history — I think they are — but it’s important to understand the way that larger structural factors shape just what those individuals can do.

The Bretton Woods Conference of 1944 reflected many American post-war goals: namely global free trade and the creation of worldwide markets. Many on the left, especially today, would argue that Bretton Woods actually created a global economy where many vulnerable countries lost their autonomy and merely became slaves to a new world order — where global institutions like the World Bank and the IMF dictated their terms. Would you agree with this thesis? 

Well, there are two things going on here. Firstly, American officials at the time were drawing parallels of 1944 to 1919: When Woodrow Wilson went to Europe with a lot of ideals, but with very few instruments of power. And Bretton Woods is one way Americans wanted to fix that. Secondly, the United States had an awareness that it was the only county that had the economic resources to rebuild Europe in the post-war era. This is where the Marshall Plan essentially came from. There was obviously an enormous amount of self-interest here too.

Many economic historians argue that the reason Bretton Woods came apart a couple of decades later was because it had served its purpose. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was the only economy that was capable of doing something like the Marshall Plan, as well as building parts of China, and being able to offer money to the Soviet block, even though they turned it down.

The British economist John Maynard Keynes famously used the words “swindle” to talk about Bretton Woods. So everybody understood that it was going to benefit the United States tremendously. That said, Americans argued that it was the only way to avoid the economic crisis that had drastically occurred during the 1930s. And it was the memory of Versailles that was driving that.

How to deal with Germany was obviously a crucial aspect of  the Potsdam conference. Was there a general consensus among the Big Three?  

The real problem in 1945 regarding Germany was, (a) who is really to blame for this? Is it the German people? That is to say: If you devastate Germany are you in fact punishing the wrong people. And, (b) what is best way going forward to try and re-build a peaceful Europe?

Again you have to go back to Versailles in 1919, where the Allies devastated Germany. However, they also left Germany strong enough to do something about it. And that was a fundamental mistake. So what they did at the end of the Second World War was to apply hard power — they divided Germany, reduced the size of it, occupied it, and kept the army down.

But they also applied liberal solutions too: They tied western Germany into the international economy, and into a wider alliance like NATO, which allowed it to have a military force. But at the same time they didn’t allow Germany to operate that military force independently.

What was the reasoning behind this?

They thought that if you give Germany enough time, hopefully enough Germans can come to the fore who won’t believe [the Nazi ideology] that their parents and grandparents believed. And that worked. Germany may be the most dominant power in Europe today; but most Europeans — outside of Athens of course — aren’t particularly worried about Germany as they might have been in, say, the 1930s.

But presumably you have an interest as a historian in understanding why the Germans voted for the Nazi party in the first place? 

Well it’s a tough question to deal with because you are contrasting rationality with emotion. Did the Germans vote for the Nazis because the Germans are a wicked evil people? Or did they vote for the Nazis because the economic and political circumstances made Germany such a pariah that they really had no other choice?

And all of the leaders of Potsdam were wrestling with that question, and also asking: What is the best way to go forward?

There was something called The Morgenthau Plan [proposed by the Secretary of the Treasury, Henry Morgenthau, in 1944], which argued for making the central government of Germany almost powerless. It wanted to take away the industrial power and utterly devastate it. But there were others, mostly the British in fact, who said, no, what you want to do is to rebuild Germany, and by extension, they can then run the economy of Europe. Questions many asked at the end of both World Wars included: What is the fundamental problem? Is it German people? Is it their form of government? Or is it an economic problem?

Is this is a distinctly American way of looking at international relations, though, because they had a certain distance from the emotive elements of the war in the eastern front. And I guess the Russians didn’t, right?

Yes, I think so. Americans are more likely to say, look, this is the government’s fault, not the people’s. The Russians had a very different approach to that. When 20 million of your citizens have just been killed by a country that remains on your boarder, things are, naturally enough, going to look very different.

Why was the conversation about the Holocaust so carefully avoided in Potsdam? Was anti-semitism an issue and did this come from the Soviets?

Actually, it seems the anti-semitism was predominantly created in the American State Department, where there was a real desire to avoid talking about what happened to the Jews across Europe. It appears that each country had its own vested interest for not talking about what happened. For the Russians, Stalin was quite clear: He didn’t want the suffering of any Soviet citizen taking precedent over any other Soviet citizen. His view was that 20 million people died, therefore they were not going to be separating their suffering apart from the other deaths. There is a certain logic in that, I suppose. The British didn’t want to talk about it of course because of Palestine. They saw Palestine as a British issue, and they really wanted to avoid the United States and Russia at Potsdam advising them on what they ought to do.

Is there lessons of Versailles also coming into the equation once again here too?

Yes. In Paris in 1919 every country that had a grievance came to to lay it out for the Big Three. But at Potsdam in 1945 they decided that wasn’t going to happen. Their main priority was to deal with the issue of Germany and Poland. This surprised me enormously when I started doing the research for this book. I just automatically expected that they would have talked about the concentration camps, and about the barbarity of the thing they had just defeated. But they didn’t.

How important was the discussion of the Manhattan Project at Potsdam, in terms of how it would shape the paranoia and fear that would stoke Cold War politics for the coming decades? 

It appears Truman tried to present the subject of the atomic bomb very casually.

He was saying: We have this new weapon and we are going to use it on Japan. But it seems quite clear that the knowledge of the atomic bomb scared the Soviet leaders the most. They knew despite their victory, and all of their sacrifice, the atomic bomb could negate everything. It was the American use of two nuclear weapons, though, rather than anything that happened at Potsdam, that really reinforced Soviet paranoia about their own security. This began a cycle of real mistrust during the Cold War. And of course it forced Stalin to increase the speed and tempo of Soviet research also.

How important was the fate of the Russian casualties in World War II in accelerating the paranoia of Cold War politics? 

The talk of just how much the Russians actually suffered only got multiplied during the Cold War. And the Americans and the British tended to downplay what World War II did to Russia. The figure of 20 million people is almost impossible for a British person or an American to get their heads around.

The numbers are just mind boggling. Every time Poland was brought up, Stalin would slam his fists and say: Did your armies liberate Poland, Mr. Churchill? Basically what Stalin was getting at was this: It was our blood that made Poland possible, so don’t come in here and tell us what kind of Poland it’s going to be. The Americans and British didn’t like it. But they really had no choice but to accept it.

The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprising

By Steven Leyva On May 14, 2015

Post image for The Small Fires: reflections on the Baltimore uprisingFollowing the city’s uprising against oppressive poverty and racism, Baltimore poet Steven Leyva reflects on the experience in a heartfelt lyrical essay.

I remember every time I’ve been pulled over by the police. The litany of reasons reads like a child’s primer: tail light, move-over law, a suspicious swerve, no turn on red, should have turned, failure to control speed, failure to yield, failure to yield, failure…

Watching Freddie Gray’s arrest on an endless news media loop I am confronted by how he does not yield, but runs. Could I enact such agency? I’ve never had to, relying instead on my professional dress, my quick code-switch to non-threating “proper” speech—I teach composition and basic rhetoric to undergraduates—or just neutral silence. And after taking my license, and reading my name, taking my registration, and reading my name, the officer still asks, “Is this your car?”

Freddie did not have the comfort of a car. The questions of ownership are directed at his body. Failure to yield.

I remember watching a kid no older than fourteen throw one of the first rocks at the police line surrounding Mondawmin Mall and thinking, “Kids got an arm.” It didn’t register as violence somehow, and I am unsure why. He’ll probably never play baseball.

I remember driving down North Avenue, the panoply of boarded and vacant homes slipping in and out of the passenger side window frame like some desolate slideshow, and wondering if a riot is the last radical art left to the poor.

What if citizens approached a protest the way a viewer approaches abstract art, with a sense of openness about how the experience might change the viewer? Would the first rhetorical move made be one of honest curiosity instead of judgement? One of my grad school teachers, Kendra Kopelke, reminded me after a poetry reading that “art doesn’t need our judgement, it needs our attention”.

I remember a full ten minutes when my face will not unscrew itself from a grimace as a CNN Anchor attempts to act omniscient about race relations. He iscorrected cogently, with a question, “Are you suggesting broken windows are worse than broken spines?”

I remember a week where everyone’s pronouns are out of control. “They” becomes a rhetorical Leviathan. A student asks, “Why are they burning their own stores?” and I ask “Who is the they?” and he can’t look me in the face.

I remember rubbing my son’s cowlick down with one hand and attempting to sling my daughter’s hair into a ponytail with the other while the sound of dual helicopters—the real one outside our home and the one broadcast on WBAL—form an odd echo chamber. This is a moment when I must explain to both my children that though Momma is not black, they are.

I remember wishing I could unfriend anyone who quoted David Simon.

I remember one of my students saying that the mayor always looks like she’s about to fall asleep.

I remember the poet Jack Gilbert writing “Love is one of many great fires” as I watch a five-alarm blaze char what looks like a whole city block.

Earlier, that same afternoon, someone I thought I knew responded to the looting by posting on Facebook, “Don’t we use Napalm anymore?”

I remember the Orioles playing for an empty ballpark and thinking what a metaphor for “trickle down” economics.

I remember the gentle reminder that I am at my most arrogant when I attempt to tell an oppressed person the appropriate ways to respond to oppression.

I remember falling in love with Marylin Mosby for the fierce look she gave to a reporter who asked her the same question she’d just answered. I remember that she did not stutter when she read the charges for each officer.

I remember, I remember that remembering can be a radical act of healing.

Steven Leyva is a poet, teacher, and freelance writer living in Baltimore. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing & Publishing Arts from the University of Baltimore. He is the  author of the chapbook, Low Parish, and editor of Little Patuxent Review.

What will happen when the state collapses?

Opportunity in collapse: the horizon of the post-apocalyptic

By Joseph Todd On May 12, 2015

What will happen when the state collapses? Will society descend into lawlessness, or can we seize the opportunity to let our human potential flourish?


Image: a scene from the dystopian movie Children of Men (2006).

The American literary critic and Marxist political theorist Frederic Jameson famously remarked that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. But what we don’t often consider is how capitalism influences our end-worldview.

The horizon of the post-apocalyptic is usually bleak: isolated individuals trudging through the wilderness, surviving only through violence, cunning and mutual distrust. The human race, without the coercive machinations of the state, descending into a brutal barbarism where every relationship is pragmatic, rationally calculated and based on nothing but self-interest.

Our cultural output throbs with this notion of the “evil anarchic”. Take any post-apocalyptic or future dystopia film of the last few decades and you’ll be sure to find dialogue referencing the degeneration of the human spirit or a scene exemplifying the impossibility of co-operation.

The concentration camp in Children of Men is miserable and threatening. The market in Soylent Green is vicious. The Road, The Book of Eli, the Harlan Ellison novel A Boy and His Dog — all are predicated on the concurrent collapse of civilization and rise of the evil anarchic. On the idea that the state can only be abolished by an apocalyptic act, and that its absence necessarily gives way to nefarious gang rule and brutal violence.

When the state collapses

We must question whether this narrative is accurate. Does collapse necessarily lead to misery? Can the state only be abolished by an apocalyptic event? Is the choice between apocalypse and hierarchy a false one?

We must question because this end-worldview justifies our present social order. Capitalism in all its cruelty becomes an inevitable reflection of man’s barbarous nature. The state and its use of force are justified in that they tame us, impelling us to defy our selfish natures. Evil becomes the province of the unshackled individual, free of society and legal consequence.

Indeed, the horrors of ISIS are trumpeted so vehemently by the Western press precisely because they fit this narrative: that without law, order and the state we would run rampant. That capitalism, although unfair, is not as bad as things could be. That fear-induced conservatism is the only sensible political orientation.

However, if we venture a few hundred miles north of where ISIS are destroying treasured cultural artefacts and beheading foreign journalists and aid workers, we find ourselves in Rojava; the autonomous region of Northern Syria. Famed for their heroic mixed-gender defence of Kobane, the residents of Rojava, who are majority Kurdish but also include Christians, Arabs and Yazidis, have achieved what most would have thought impossible: a social revolution based on feminism, ecology and grassroots democracy in the heart of the Middle East.

In Rojava, at least, the withdrawal of state forces did not bring about brutality and lawlessness but instead opened up a space for a flourishing of human potential. The region is now run by a network of neighborhood assemblies which decide wherever they can by consensus. Workplaces have been turned into cooperatives. Academies have been established that aim to educate all in a broad and practical way, reversing the expertization of work by the Assad regime.

Women’s liberation is at the heart of the revolution, with a gender-balanced co-chairing system for every position of authority and all women’s assemblies that have veto power over issues affecting women. Even justice is meted out in a consensual, cooperative way, with community-based tribunals that bring together the victim, the accused and their families to agree on an appropriate means of conflict resolution.

All of this in a region that the Western media often portrays as brutal, barbarian and backwards. All possible because a retreating state opened the way for the Kurdish liberation movement to take over and, after decades of tireless grassroots organizing, start building democratic autonomy.

When the police retreat

A similar phenomenon in the West can be observed when the coercive forces we most often come into contact with — the police rather than the army — are in retreat. Instead of mobbing, robbing and looting, we actually see the very opposite. Just look to the recent New York police strike. In retaliation for Mayor De Blasio’s anti-police comments in the wake of the Eric Garner murder, rank-and-file officers enacted an unofficial enforcement slowdown, with arrest rates dropping to near zero for petty crime and by 55 percent overall.

Yet counter to the scare stories of chaos and lawlessness touted by the right-wing press, crime rates actually fell. Not only does this fatally undermine the “broken window” policing theory that heavily punishing petty crime will reduce more serious crime; it also runs absolutely counter to the idea that the only thing standing between the individual and evil is coercive force.

In a similar vein, we can observe a spatial (rather than temporal) retreat of the police in the Athenian district of Exarchia. An area mainly populated by anarchists, activists and students who have, after decades of violent struggle with the police, managed to establish what the anarchist geographer Antonis Vradis describes as a “spatial contract”, whereby the police implicitly agree not to invade the area in the hope that its anarchic character won’t spread to the rest of Athens. Despite a rise in drug dealing (largely due to a deliberate strategy by the state to herd addicts towards the district) it is nowhere close to the nadir of anomie that many would instinctively expect. In fact it is quite the opposite.

Not only is Exarchia a hotbed of solidarity and mutual aid with a flourishing scene of co-operatives, squatted social centers, volunteer-run medical facilities, reclaimed community parks and active neighborhood assemblies; it has even evolved into one of the safest areas in the Greek capital for women and immigrants to walk around alone at night. In the last few years, it has been deemed stable (and hip) enough for capital to start tentatively gentrifying the area, with cocktail bars and bourgeois restaurants appearing alongside the squatted cafés around the central square.

Examples such as these challenge the perceived role of the police. They hint at the fact that the police exist not to keep our evil natures in check but instead to defend inequality and private property. That they were created not to solve crime but instead to control crowds (i.e., protesters). That disorder is so often not a result of setting people free but instead of their systematic cultural and economic disenfranchisement from society. Or, as in the 2011 London riots and the recent riots in Baltimore, because of persecution by the police themselves.

When disaster strikes

Of course the wholesale breakdown of Western society still remains the preserve of fiction. But if we can view it in microcosm today, it must be when natural disasters decimate our cities, as Rebecca Solnit outlined in her book A Paradise Built in Hell. If we look to the events of Hurricane Katrina and Sandy we again uncover this belief in the evil anarchic and its disconnect from reality.

In the aftermath of Katrina, when state forces were largely absent from the streets of New Orleans, it was widely assumed by the media that lawlessness had broken out, with various outlets canvassing wall-to-wall reports of raping, looting and violence. However, aside from a few minor instances, the vast majority of these reports turned out to be untrue.

Slavoj Žižek rightly highlights the racist overtones of the reportage, with white middle-class journalists assuming the reports were true because they were supposed to be committed by poor blacks, knowing the stories would make good copy for their majority white readership.

Intertwined with this racism, however, is our notion of the “evil anarchic”: the idea that if human beings are unshackled from societal restraints they will necessarily descend into barbarism. A more indicative (and under-reported) instance of societal non-breakdown would be Hurricane Sandy, where local residents came together under the Occupy banner to house and feed those left adrift by the state. Here is where we find a meaningful example of our species in its natural state: kind, cooperative and generous in the face of adversity.

It thus turns out that our view of the apocalyptic is necessarily bound up with our pessimistic view of human nature and the world around us. Ever since Hobbes, civilization and the state have been our savior from a brutish, natural realm; a place we go for adventure, one of risk and daring that only those more unfortunate than us inhabit.

Yet this notion of a violent, competitive, dog-eat-dog natural world with which capitalism and the state justify themselves is in part a fallacy. In fact, nature teems with co-operation — both between animals, between species and within the ecosystem as a whole.

Recognizing our cooperative nature

Peter Kropotkin, the 19th-century Russian zoologist whose work proceeded much of the research on cooperation in evolution today, argued that natural life, although competitive, is also replete with examples of cooperation, noting how “sociability is as much a law of nature as mutual struggle.”

And indeed, we know this to be true. Because what is a pack of wolves, a school of fish, a pride of lions or a crash of rhinos if not an exercise in co-operation? Or a colony of ants, where female workers sacrifice their fertility to defend that of the queens? Or the incredibly synchronized movement of a flock of starlings, only possible if each individual bird is utterly reliant on its neighbor for direction?

And if we look to ourselves, we find we are not as selfish and calculated as the ideologists of late capitalism would have it. When we play with our children, make love to our partners, care for our elderly relatives or help out with local community projects, are we being greedy, selfish or individualistic? Are such actions rationally calculated exchanges where we constantly adhere to the principle of individual benefit?

Of course there are areas of life where we do act as such — at work or in business, for instance. But it is no coincidence that these arenas are both dominated by capital and constructed in a way that systematically rewards the uglier sides of our common human nature.

Although the elite and their ideologues, most notably Herbert Spencer and the Social Darwinists, have ignored this essentially co-operative side of both humans and nature, it has become a mainstay in modern evolutionary biology. We can count leading primatologist Frans De Waal, Jessica Flack, Lee Dugatkin and the evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers among its proponents. The latter’s work on reciprocal altruism actually formed the basis for much of Dawkins’ Selfish Gene, a book that the author himself claimed was as much about co-operation as it was about selfishness.

Seizing the opportunity

Asserting an optimistic, or at least malleable view of human nature is essential for the radical. Not only does it alleviate the instinctual nervousness towards change that many people feel, but it undermines the naturalization of capitalism — the notion that our current system is simply a pragmatic reflection of human nature and the way the world is.

We often forget that the vast majority of people know in their gut that the world is unfair; that a few have too much and most have too little. Their barrier to action is rarely lack of knowledge but instead lack of hope. The feeling that capitalism, inequality and injustice are inevitable. The idea that to struggle for a better world is naive, and that if the system were to collapse, a far worse tyranny would rear its head — that of the individual unleashed.

So here we must go further. Not only should we argue that human beings have the capacity for good and evil and that the natural world isn’t always cruel and vicious, but we must emphasize that the darker sides of our nature are often unleashed not when social order breaks down, but in precisely the opposite situation: when order and hierarchy are most rigorously maintained.

Consider the Nazi bureaucrats who pulled the levers in the gas chambers of Auschwitz, the test subjects at Yale who thought they were electrocuting an individual to death, the volunteers in the Stanford prison experiment who morphed into authoritarian prison guards, or indeed the soldiers who kill Pakistani children using unmanned drones and Xbox controllers. Evil, we find, is so often the result not of leaving individuals in a natural state for them to make decisions and take responsibility, but the exact opposite: when they are cogs in a machine, subjugated to authority and absolved of all personal responsibility.

This doesn’t mean, of course, that we should simply wait for the implosion of the capitalist state  and expect utopia to arise spontaneously from its ashes. We can only entrench the cooperative, compassionate and empathetic sides of our nature as dominant values in society if we struggle against those who aim to exploit and systemize our more cycnical capacities. The capitalists who would pit us against each other via the construct of the labor market. The religious ideologues who persuade us to behead, rape and kill in exchange for an easing of our existential angst. The imperialists who encourage the very same acts in service of an amorphous set of national values randomly attributed by birth. Or the fascists, who would see the abolition of the individual and the institutionalization of collective violence in aid of order, stability and unity.

There is opportunity in collapse. But if we look to the concurrent rise of ISIS and Rojava in the vacuum of the Syrian civil war, or that of the Greek social solidarity movement and the neo-Nazis of Golden Dawn during the collapse of the Greek welfare state, we see that there is no guarantee to whose benefit it will be. Which is why, whenever the opportunity arises, we must be prepared to seize it.

Joseph Todd is a writer and activist who has been published in The Baffler, Salon and CounterFire, among others. For more writings, visit his website.

Bernie Sanders to seek Democratic presidential nomination


By Patrick Martin
1 May 2015

US Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont confirmed Thursday that he was seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party. The announcement, made in an email statement sent out to supporters, followed by a brief press conference on the lawn of the US Capitol, marks a new stage in one of the longest-running political frauds in American history.

Since 1990, when he won the first of eight terms as Vermont’s sole member of the House of Representatives, and continuing with his election in 2006 to the US Senate, and reelection in 2012, Sanders has formally declared himself to be an independent. On occasion he goes further, calling himself a democratic socialist, suggesting that he represents some sort of opposition to Wall Street’s domination of American political and economic life.

Throughout this period, Sanders has caucused with the Democrats in the House and then the Senate, receiving the same treatment as any other Democrat in terms of committee assignments and promotions. This year his seniority allowed him to achieve the position of ranking minority member on the Budget Committee, making him responsible for preparing the budget offered by the Senate Democrats as an alternative to that drafted by the Republican majority.

Although he first won his House seat over Democratic opposition, Sanders has long since buried the hatchet. Leading Democratic senators like Wall Street favorite Charles Schumer of New York backed his election to the Senate in 2006, and President Obama traveled to Vermont in 2012 to campaign for his reelection.

In formally seeking the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party, Sanders is only admitting publicly what has always been a reality. His “independence” is as much of a sham as his “socialism.”

According to the rules set down by the Democratic National Committee, any candidate for the presidential nomination must be a “member in good standing.” The DNC issued a statement welcoming the Vermont senator into the race, indicating that the Obama White House, the Clinton campaign organization and the Democratic Party establishment as a whole will make no obstacles to his candidacy. Sanders will be included in the Democratic candidate debates and no special effort will be made to keep him off the ballot.

Press reports described Sanders as the standard-bearer for the liberal wing of the Democrats against the overwhelming favorite for the nomination, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. There was discussion of a “Warren-Sanders” wing of the Democratic Party, a reference to Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who has denied interest in a presidential race at this point, but could easily change course in the event Clinton proves vulnerable.

The Sanders candidacy follows in the footsteps of similar efforts to give a left cover to the increasingly right-wing policies of the Democratic Party. Al Sharpton and Congressman Dennis Kucinich played that role in the 2004 campaign, with Kucinich coming back for a re-run in 2008.

In media interviews Wednesday and Thursday and at his press conference, Sanders struck a pose as a critic of Wall Street and the domination of American politics by multi-millionaires and billionaires. He identified as his three main issues the growth of economic inequality, the political influence of big money, and the increasing danger from climate change.

Significantly, his only reference to foreign policy was a chauvinist denunciation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement with a dozen countries, including Japan, directed against China. Sanders said nothing about the growing danger of war, whether in the Middle East, Asia or Eastern Europe, and he never mentioned the Obama administration—a remarkable feat, since he was announcing his candidacy to succeed Obama in the White House.

Sanders declared that the American people faced “a more serious crisis than at any time since the Great Depression,” and referred to the fact that the 99 percent of all new income growth goes to the top 1 percent, and that the top 1 percent own as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. He called this staggering inequality “not just immoral but unsustainable.”

But he said nothing about what policies could reverse the growth of inequality and create “an economy that works for working people,” or how such policies could be enacted, given the intransigent defense of the financial elite by both Republican and Democratic politicians.

Perhaps unintentionally revealing was his explanation of why he chose to run in the Democratic presidential primaries. He could not run as a third-party candidate because he was not independently wealthy. “I am not a billionaire,” he told MSNBC. “To run outside of the two-party system would require enormous sums of money.” In other words, not being an independent billionaire, he had to join one of the two parties controlled by the billionaires.

Sanders has engaged longtime Democratic Party strategist Tad Devine, a veteran of presidential campaigns by Democrats Michael Dukakis, Al Gore and John Kerry, as his principal campaign operative. Devine told, “The one thing he’s determined not to do is to be another Ralph Nader. And the only way to avoid doing that is to avoid being a third-party candidate from the left in the general election.” This was to reassure the Democratic establishment, which vilified Nader for “stealing votes” from Gore in 2000, when the Democrats refused to fight the theft of the presidential election.

Even if Sanders does eventually choose to make a third-party run, as his supporters in groups like the Green Party and the International Socialist Organization are urging, he would still be a capitalist politician offering a capitalist program. This is demonstrated by his political record since entering Congress in 1990.

In 16 years in the House of Representatives, he voted with the Democrats 98 percent of the time, including support for President Bill Clinton’s war against Serbia in 1999. He voted for the Authorization for the Use of Military Force after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the legal basis for both the US invasion of Afghanistan and all subsequent actions in the so-called “war on terror,” including the campaign of drone missile assassination mounted by the Obama administration.

Sanders regularly votes for military appropriations for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is a fervent supporter of the state of Israel. More recently, he backed Obama’s use of sanctions against Russia in the crisis provoked by the US-backed fascist-led coup in Ukraine.

While conventionally liberal on domestic social policies and the environment, Sanders has embraced a strident chauvinism on trade and immigration, taking his cue from the AFL-CIO unions. In 2009, Sanders sponsored an anti-immigrant amendment to Obama’s economic stimulus bill, which the American Immigration Lawyers Association denounced as a “disturbing step backwards,” which “creates a climate of jingoistic divisiveness.”

In his most important policy role, as chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans Affairs during last year’s scandal over conditions at VA hospitals, Sanders worked with Republican John McCain to craft bipartisan legislation that opened the door for greatly increased privatization of VA care.

The press response to Sanders’ entry into the presidential race, while dismissing his chances of winning the nomination or the presidency, was largely respectful, even positive. Bloomberg View—the editorial arm of Bloomberg News, owned by the billionaire former mayor of New York—headlined its commentary, “Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign may be useful for Democrats.”

“Sanders can force Clinton to make and articulate choices on precisely the type of issues that she will be most eager to evade, including a host of knotty questions related to inequality,” Bloomberg argued. In other words, Clinton can better define herself by having a “left” straw man in the race.

Other press commentaries noted that Sanders has been reluctant to criticize either Clinton or Obama, a sign that he is himself conscious of the task he has been assigned, to give the Democrats a “left” face without challenging the Wall Street consensus or damaging the presumptive nominee. Even when directly questioned about the tens of millions of dollars in donations to the Clinton Foundation from companies with issues before the Clinton State Department, Sanders declined to engage.

Neoliberals are killing us

The TED talk, techno-utopian, Thomas Friedman-economy is a lie

Neoliberal fantasy world is filled with daring entrepreneurs competing in a meritocracy. Do you recognize that?

Neoliberals are killing us: The TED talk, techno-utopian, Thomas Friedman-economy is a lie

A turkey and Thomas Friedman (Credit: Reuters/Lucas Jackson/panbazil via Shutterstock/Salon)

Last week, 295,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Economists called it good news, as the number was less than 300,000; that’s the line they say separates good news from bad. But it isn’t much less, and other news seems very bad. In February, housing starts plunged 17 percent. Inventories are high. Demand is low. Job growth is anemic. Still, economists say things are going so well we can raise interest rates. They call that good news — though they don’t say for whom.

There’ll be more news this week: home prices, consumer confidence, new growth figures. In our casino economy we hang on these reports like blackjack players waiting for a dealer to turn the next card. Republicans and Democrats alike believe growth will cure all our ills. President Obama and Hillary Clinton call it their No. 1 economic priority. Despite all evidence to the contrary, they still believe a rising tide lifts all boats.

Some call Obama’s and Clinton’s economic worldview ‘neoliberal.’ Like ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ it’s an imprecise word meant to signify a cluster of opinions; among them that globalization is inevitable and benign and that the revolution in information technology is fast democratizing commerce and politics. Neoliberals love fiscal austerity and free trade and are suckers for privatization, deregulation and ‘education reform,’ which they say will keep us competitive.

Like the neoconservatives with whom they often ally on military matters, neoliberals seem to regard our present political and economic arrangements as civilization’s final flowering, as close to perfect as one can get in a fallen world. It’s the faith that made Bush think Iraqis would greet us as liberators–who wouldn’t want to be us– and why Obama bet his presidency on economic recovery rather than reform. It’s our establishment orthodoxy, the ‘bipartisan consensus’ we’re forever chasing. It’s killing us.

In the neoliberal narrative, geniuses reinvent the world in their garages; risk takers invest in innovation; technology and trade spawns endless opportunity. It’s a land without ideology; a true meritocracy where anyone with pluck and grit is sure to rise. (So long as they’re really, really smart.) Above all it’s an engine of prosperity, the only sure means by which to broaden and strengthen the middle class.

Real life is nothing like the neoliberal narrative. As PayPal’s Peter Thiel says, our overhyped innovations tend toward mere gadgetry and away from such vital areas as health and transportation. One reason: those stories about geniuses in garages and their angel investors are mostly made up. In 2014 venture capital funding hit $48.3 billion, but just $700 million of it went to ‘seed stage’ projects. Who really funds the little guys? The same folks who brought you the microchip, the Internet and GPS. Last year the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research Program alone lent or gave the real pioneers $2.4 billion; more than triple their take from ‘venture capitalists.’

If the story of our not-so-bold investors disappoints, it may matter less than you think, in that technology and trade never really lived up to their billing. In 2005, Tom Friedman, the Candide of globalization, said “the world is flat”; meaning technology was a great leveling force that would soon topple the old political and economic oligarchies and give everyone a chance to be an entrepreneur, or at least work in a call center. America has since grown more economically stratified and politically corrupt and has fewer jobs than it did eight years ago.

Early critics who said the new information technology would lay waste to labor were dismissed as Luddites. Twenty years on it still kills more jobs than it creates; even ‘serious people’ now say this could be the first new technology wave to result in a net job loss. As for trade, the tide let in by NAFTA sank more middle-class boats than it lifted, which accounts for the resistance to Obama’s fast track scheme.

In real life, we’re a nation of middle men and corporate toll collectors, where health insurers get 20 cents on the dollar for services done everywhere else for a nickel or less; where big banks shun small business while raking in merger fees and taking a cut of every purchase charged to a credit card; where Comcast’s pipeline is worth more than NBC’s oil; where Google gorges on ad revenues that once supported world-class journalism. We’re about cartels, not startups, not bound to the future but mortgaged to the past.

In real life, the middle class is in limbo. In the seven years since Wall Street’s crash, stocks, profits and CEO pay are at historic highs, but wages haven’t budged and we’re still years away from adding back all the jobs we lost. Millions of older Americans who lost their pensions and the equity in their homes will retire broke. Millions of younger Americans fear they’ll never have their parents’ opportunities. They all know it will take more than a bailout or a stimulus to get our economy, or their lives, back on track. You can’t prime a broken pump. We need real reform and everybody knows it; everybody, that is, except those in charge.*

The gap between elite and popular opinion on these issues is wide. Tension boiled over on the right long ago, but Democrats have mostly kept mum. It reflects their fear of Republicans, and the fact that Obama and Clinton are staunch neoliberals. Bill Clinton, more than anyone, made the consensus bipartisan. Hillary’s rhetoric has a more populist hue now, but changing her actual views won’t be easy for her.

The backlash against neoliberalism cuts across all political categories. If the Democrats resist debating it, progressives must force a debate. But they too may be reluctant, not because of any risk—there’s greater risk in silence—but because they don’t know what to say. Many progressive critics of neoliberalism are just like Republican critics of Obamacare; they hate it, but can offer no alternative.

It’s understandable. The very purpose of a political debate is to test our ideas. We progressives knock Democrats who duck debates but it’s been a while since we’ve had one of our own. I don’t mean the daily squabbles we all seem to enjoy, but a big debate that draws our whole community and eventually the nation in. We know we’d raise the minimum wage and tax the rich. But do we know our bottom line? We reject soulless, mindless globalization, but can we picture a more just and humane order? If so, we can start to frame policies to support it. I’ve only a few fragments of a vision, but hoping to extend the conversation, I’ll describe them.

Right now, before our eyes, a new economy struggles to be born. It’s more democratic than the one we have. It prizes smallness, permanence and community. It favors cooperatives and other collaborative forms of ownership and production. It reclaims the commons we own in trust for future generations. It’s local and sustainable. It both needs and fosters civic renewal. It’s growing now despite great resistance, but its final success or failure is up to us. I’ll offer some examples, first a less exotic one. It’s of an old familiar institution readapting to changing times.

I speak of independent bookstores. By 2009 the big chains had nearly wiped them out. They hit rock bottom: 1,651 stores. Then to everyone’s surprise, they revived. The number of stores has since grown to 2,094, a 25 percent increase in six years. Sales are up, and at a brisk 8 percent annual rate. It turns out that in the age of information overload, thoughtful curation means more, not less. The Internet that nearly killed them also provided a cheap way to advertise. And by expanding their activities, they built community and played to their great strength, their customers’ love of books and bookstores. To many the future of small-scaled enterprises looks bleak, but the independent booksellers’ story is one of many that suggests that in the new economy, small is beautiful.

The new economy favors forms of ownership and production that foster democracy and collaboration. You may recall George W. Bush’s blather about an ‘ownership society,’ a greedy scam to privatize Social Security and Medicare. For many years real reformers have been building a real ownership society. A familiar tool is the employee stock ownership plan. (ESOP) Often underestimated, today 11,000 ESOPs now employ nearly 11 million workers. Benefits range from higher job satisfaction and wages to improved productivity and in hard times, fewer layoffs.

ESOPs are most typically born via conversion of an established business on its owner’s retirement. Chris Mackin, a leader in the field, says coming retirements of so many baby boomers offer a chance for rapid growth. Mackin also urges use of other forms of employee ownership and seeks new government policies, including possible set asides for employee owned businesses. Having worked in the field for thirty years, he feels its best days are not only ahead of it, but imminent.

Some very innovative thinking concerns the public commons. The phrase has always meant y resource owned and used by the public but it applies in new ways to new things, from public lands to the internet and the airwaves. One goal is to preserve priceless public assets; another is to compensate the public for private use of its resources.

Peter Barnes, a journalist, activist and public spirited entrepreneur, has called for a dividend fund patterned after the Alaskan fund that distributes state oil revenue to all citizens on a pro rata basis. He’d first target companies that pollute the air and says the government could collect enough money from all sources to write every American a check every year for $5,000.

The commons may refer to peer to peer production, a process by which people collaborate as equals to produce things of value, often with little or no pay. It may sound arcane but examples include Linux, Mozilla Firefox, and Wikipedia. David Bollier, a brilliant strategist of the commons, says the challenge is to protect such work from rapacious monetization by corporate actors. Another challenge for all cooperatives is to preserve an ethos of public spiritedness as enterprises scale up.

In their different ways, independent booksellers, ESOP owner/ employees and open source programmers are helping to engineer our next economy our next new economy. The 11million who work in ESOPs enjoy good wages, benefits and job security. The booksellers are among the 14 million Americans who work for very small businesses. The programmers may be among the 6 million Americans who work from home or the 10 million who are independent contractors. For income and benefits, most of them are pretty much on their own.

All have these things in common: Their government doesn’t think much about them. They don’t think much of it. Their needs are ill-served by current economic policies or by having both major so closely tied to the old order. You can count them different ways and never with confidence, but it’s likely they comprise as much as 15 percent of the workforce — and they grow by the hour. They haven’t a sense of themselves as a political force but one party or the other soon will. When that happens, I hope they hold out for real answers.

Bill Curry was White House counselor to President Clinton and a two-time Democratic nominee for governor of Connecticut. He is at work on a book on President Obama and the politics of populism.


Turkey’s unions are dead, long live the cooperative?

By Joris Leverink On April 28, 2015

Post image for Turkey’s unions are dead, long live the cooperative?Accidents, killings, massacres: Turkish labor unions are helpless as thousands of workers die every year, while their bosses are shielded by the state.

Photo by Bülent Kılıç.

On May 13, 2014 an explosion occurred in a coal mine in Soma, a small town in western Turkey. The ensuing fire trapped hundreds of miners underground, eventually causing the death of 301 of them, while injuring 162 others. Almost one year later, on April 13, the trial against the director of Soma Holding – the company in charge of exploiting the mine – and 44 company employees and engineers has started, but few of the survivors and relatives of the deceased miners cherish any hopes that the ones responsible for the disaster will be brought to justice.

Whereas the individuals currently on trial have undoubtedly played an important role in what many have come to view as a massacre rather than a disaster, the government officials who failed to protect the workers’ rights at the national level are the ones bearing final responsibility for the senseless and preventable loss of so many lives.

“The Soma trial of mine company employees offers victims a chance to get some measure of justice,” stated Emma Sinclair-Webb in a highly critical Human Rights Watch report, “but the trial does not address the responsibility of state agents who failed in their duty to protect mine workers’ lives.”

The working conditions in the mine were dire. While the miners were pressured to maximize production and overseers structurally neglected health and safety standards the head of Soma Holding boasted in a 2012 interview that his company had brought down the costs of coal from $130 to $24 per ton. The reduction in production costs was paralleled by a similar reduction in safe working conditions. According to survivors’ accounts included in the HRW report “state authorities charged with oversight and inspection were fully aware of the situation but ignored it.”

Just two weeks before the disaster a proposal by opposition parties in parliament that called for an investigation into previous accidents at the mines in Soma was rejected by the AKP government. The director and employees of Soma Holding are now on trial, but the officials in charge of inspection of the mines remain shielded from prosecution by their political superiors. Demands are made by the public that the government takes responsibility for its failure to protect the miners.

Unfortunately, whereas the deaths of so many workers in a single disaster is a rare event, fatal workplace accidents are all too common. In the first three months of 2015 alone, a total of 351 workers died as a result of work-related accidents. Labor unions in Turkey – in the mid-20th century still a force to be reckoned with – have seen their influence decline significantly over the past three decades ever since the introduction of neoliberal policies in the early 1980s.

With the labor unions sidelined and the current government pursuing an aggressive strategy of privatization and weakening labor rights and freedoms, the time has come to explore alternative ways to organize labor and empower the workers.

The banned metal workers strike

In the years since the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power in 2002 Turkey underwent an economic boom. Over the same period that the country saw an average annual GDP growth of 5,2 percent between 2002 and 2011 its citizens saw their income grow by 43 percent. But while many Turkish citizens have profited from the country’s economic prosperity, many more have suffered from the severe repressions of labor rights that came with it.

During its time in power, the AKP has restricted worker’s rights to organize and strike, intensified neoliberal employment policies, encouraged the practice of subcontracting and part-time work agreements and allowed for the structural violation of worker rights.

Workers in Turkey were once again reminded of their precarious position when at the end of January 15,000 metal workers planned to go on strike. After failing to reach an agreement with the employer’s union about better wages and the length of collective bargaining periods the workers announced that in 22 factories in ten different cities across the country they would lay down their tools and walk off the job.

However, the next day the strike was “suspended” when the government issued a Cabinet Decree deeming it a “threat to national security”. The suspension of the strike is in fact a strike ban in action. In order to prevent the workers from walking off the job, the government recalled a controversial law – approved in the aftermath of the 1980 military coup – which was designed to curtail the powers of the influential labor unions at the time.

The suspension of the strike came as no surprise, as it was in fact the third time in the last twelve months the government had used this tactic to undermine the workers’ right to strike, which is protected by ILO conventions 87 and 98, both of which have been ratified by Turkey. “The right to strike no longer exists in Turkey,” states Kemal Özkan, IndustriALL Global Union Assistant General Secretary. “This fundamental right, guaranteed by the Constitution of the country and international norms ratified by the government, exists only on paper, not in reality.

The effective ban on all major strikes is exemplary of the limited means available to workers in Turkey to stand up for their rights and fight for better working conditions. The statistics speak for themselves regarding the urgent need for better safety regulations. Workers in Turkey are almost six times more likely to have a fatal accident at the workplace than their colleagues in the European Union. In 2014 alone, 1,886 people died in work-related accidents, bringing the total of worker deaths up to 15,396 since the AKP came to power.

Anti-union politics

Labor union membership– some would argue a worker’s most effective bulwark against exploitation – has enervated drastically in the past years. In the last decade union membership has fallen more in Turkey than in any other OECD country, with the latest statistics showing labor union density at 4,5 percent in 2012, down from 10,6 percent in 1999.

This decline in trade union membership follows a global trend of decreasing organized labor, but the active opposition to unionization by Turkish employers has significantly sped up the process. A range of tactics is deployed by employers to discourage their employees from joining a union on the one hand, and marginalize those who have done so already on the other. Union activists are often fired, demoted or simply denied promotions while employers are rarely punished for unjustly dismissing their workers for union activities.

“Dismissals during union organizing is everyday practice in Turkey,” explains Selcuk Goktas, General Secretary of Birleşik Metal-Iş, the trade union which called for the recent strike. “When an employer learns about organizing efforts at their workplace, their first response is to dismiss active union members and to hold meetings at the workplace in order to intimidate workers.”

Another obstacle Turkish workers face in organizing effectively is the widespread existence of so-called “yellow unions” – unions under the direct influence of employers. These yellow unions often undermine the bargaining power of independent unions by signing weak collective agreements that fall short of meeting worker demands. The agreement between the metal worker unions Turk Metal and Celik-Iş and the employers’ union MESS – while Birleşik Metal-Iş failed to reach an agreement and called for a strike – is a case in point which illustrates how yellow unions agree to terms that independent unions do not support.

After the Soma disaster many miners renounced their membership of the local union, which they believed had been collaborating with the mining company and had failed to protect the safety and rights of the workers. “Many miners call Maden-Iş a yellow union, but the problem is the officials, who are not chosen by the workers, but appointed from above,” one miner was quoted as saying after the disaster, adding that the union leaders are “in bed with the company”. By addressing the lack of democracy and the easy co-option of (yellow) union leaders by the employers and the political powers that protect them, the miner’s statement gets at the heart of the matter.

The lack of real democracy and bottom-up organization in many labor unions and the complicity of some union leaders with the exploitation of workers by their employers in combination with a pro-labor rights legislation which is in place but is structurally ignored, circumvented and overruled have led some workers to give up hope that any improvements in the current situation can be won in the same arena where they already have been defeated many times before.

Instead of demanding their rights, these workers have taken them; instead of hoping for the right leadership they have abolished hierarchy altogether; and instead of striking for better wages, they have occupied their workplace, recuperated the machines and started producing for themselves.

Textile workers taking over

When in January 2013 the 94 workers of the Kazova Textile factory in Istanbul’s central Sisli neighborhood were collectively fired under false pretenses after their bosses had neglected to pay their salaries for four consecutive months, a small group of workers decided to resist. They organized regular protest marches and set up of a tent in front of the factory to prevent their former bosses from stripping the factory of anything of value.

Emboldened by the nationwide Gezi protests which rocked the country in the summer that year, the Kazova workers prepared for the next step and occupied their former workplace.

What followed was almost two years of struggles in which the resisting workers were beaten by hired thugs, tear gassed by the police and were caught up in an exhausting legal case in an attempt to claim legal ownership over the textile machinery that would allow them to provide in their own livelihoods.

Inspired by the many solidarity visits they received and the stories of other worker struggles such as the National Movement of Recuperated Businesses in Argentina and the occupied Vio.Me factory in Greece the Kazova workers adopted the slogan of the Landless Movement in Brazil ‘Occupy, Resist, Produce!’ and started organizing themselves as a cooperative.

Currently the Free Kazova workers’ cooperative is in its third month of autonomous production. The cooperative is still faced with many hardships, but the boss-less life is something that fills the members of the cooperative with great satisfaction. Their only fear is that the state might eventually turn against them.

“The Turkish state is pro-bosses, it just wants them to make profit,” argues Aynur Aydemir, one of the members of the cooperative. “Therefore it would never agree upon a workers’ cooperative of production. They want slaves, new slaves, young slaves. That’s why they promote the women to sit at home and to have three, four, five children so that they will have new slaves for the bosses.”

The Free Kazova cooperative is but one single oasis in a very large desert, but nonetheless it has the power and the potential to guide and inspire others. The Kazova workers’ history of exploitation, repression and injustice is one that is all too familiar for the millions of workers caught up in a cycle of daily recurring struggles to make ends meet. However, where so many of these struggles only end to see the next one starting the Kazova workers have managed to break the cycle by taking matters into their own hands. As such, their story can fulfill the role of a beacon of hope that another way of organizing labor is possible.

Even if the state agents responsible for the life-threatening working conditions in the Soma mine will be brought to justice, and even if the metal workers strike is allowed to continue, any possible outcome will only serve to patch up an already broken system.

A government that does not adhere to its own laws will rarely listen to the demands of its subordinates. For workers the only option left to bring about real change is to take matters into their own hands. As the Free Kazova cooperative has shown, the path they’ve chosen might not be easy and success is far from guaranteed, but at the end of the day theirs might be the only true alternative.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance journalist, editor for ROAR Magazine and columnist for TeleSUR. This article was originally published atTeleSUR English.