The True Meaning of Labor Day


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

Photo Credit: Nic Neufeld /

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.



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.

Princeton Study: U.S. No Longer An Actual Democracy


AP Photo / Patrick Semansky

Asking “[w]ho really rules?” researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page argue that over the past few decades America’s political system has slowly transformed from a democracy into an oligarchy, where wealthy elites wield most power.

Using data drawn from over 1,800 different policy initiatives from 1981 to 2002, the two conclude that rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.

TPM Interview: Scholar Behind Viral ‘Oligarchy’ Study Tells You What It Means

“The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” they write, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.”

As one illustration, Gilens and Page compare the political preferences of Americans at the 50th income percentile to preferences of Americans at the 90th percentile as well as major lobbying or business groups. They find that the government—whether Republican or Democratic—more often follows the preferences of the latter group rather than the first.

The researches note that this is not a new development caused by, say, recent Supreme Court decisions allowing more money in politics, such as Citizens United or this month’s ruling on McCutcheon v. FEC. As the data stretching back to the 1980s suggests, this has been a long term trend, and is therefore harder for most people to perceive, let alone reverse.

“Ordinary citizens,” they write, “might often be observed to ‘win’ (that is, to get their preferred policy outcomes) even if they had no independent effect whatsoever on policy making, if elites (with whom they often agree) actually prevail.”

What happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson

by Jerome Roos on August 24, 2014

Post image for What happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson

For African Americans, the state of emergency has long been a permanent one. Now, under neoliberalism, it is fast becoming generalized across the globe.

Last week, the Governor of Missouri declared a state of emergency and deployed the National Guard to the St Louis suburb of Ferguson to quell a fortnight of civil unrest following the police murder of the unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. It was the first time since the Los Angeles riots of 1992, after the severe police beating of another black man, Rodney King, and the Battle of Seattle during the WTO trade negotiations seven years later, that the army had been called in to restore public order within US borders.

But while images of phalanxes of militarized riot police firing teargas and rubber bullets at mostly peaceful protesters have captured the attention of the world, the media circus surrounding the “riot” actually risks obscuring a largely unseen everyday reality that simmers just beneath the surface. For African Americans, the real racist violence resides not in the spectacle but in the mundane; not in the headlines but in between. As Walter Benjamin so pointedly observed at the height of the persecution in Nazi Germany, “the tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of exception’ in which we live is the rule.”

It should be clear by now that the Ferguson riots do not appear in a political vacuum. The militarization of police, the institutionalization of racism, the criminalization of the poor, the systematic marginalization of African Americans and other minorities, the rampant intensification of historical patterns of inequality, the spatial segregation along the lines of class and color, the impunity with which the forces of the law kill, maim and humiliate the dispossessed — these are all symptoms of a series of political and economic trends, some long-term and historical, others more recent.

Clearly, then, what happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson — and the state of emergency declared by Governor Nixon merely serves to highlight a social emergency that has been quietly brewing for decades. Faced with a long, grinding history of racist oppression on the one hand, going back to the days of slavery and segregation, and a more recent pattern in police militarization and economic marginalization on the other, Ferguson has as much to do with long-established patterns of white supremacism and racist policing as it has with the consequences of state power and the neoliberal imaginary run amok.

A Global and Permanent State of Exception

It is precisely in this confluence of temporalities that the state of emergency reveals its true colors. Walter Benjamin, before meeting his tragic end as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany, insisted repeatedly upon the centrality of the Ausnahmezustand, or ‘state of exception’, to sovereign power. Today, the most influential theorist of the concept is the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben, who — building on the adage by the Nazi thinker Carl Schmitt: “sovereign is he who decides upon the state of exception” — has crafted a refined analysis and a dystopian vision of the myriad ways in which the state of exception has become not just a technique of government, but its very logic.

“Faced with the unstoppable progression of what has been called a ‘global civil war’,” Agamben writes, “the state of exception tends increasingly to appear as the dominant paradigm of government in contemporary politics [and] has today reached its maximum worldwide deployment.” From Fallujah to Ferguson, the similarities run deeper than the military attire or the heavy weaponry of the troops on the ground. Both places appear at a threshold of indistinction between law and lawlessness, order and disorder — a space of anomie in which human life exists largely at the mercy of the soldiers and policemen who effectively act as a sovereign power upon it.

Here, in this permanent and globalized state of exception, the classical division between public and private increasingly begins to blur. In Fallujah, private contractors were brought in to keep public order, while the US military — at the expense of the public debt — made sure to protect private interests around the clock. In Ferguson, private property is protected from looting while the public is shot at even while standing on their private porches. America wastes public money waging foreign wars for private gain, while at the same time allowing private interests to directly fund local police departments — now armed with the surplus weaponry of these same wars — to maintain public order at home. Security becomes the overarching concern of government, even as government almost always defers to private interests in slashing security when it is social.

Between Democracy and Absolutism

One of the key features of neoliberal governmentality, then, is that it insists on combining a politics of absolute liberalism in world markets with an increasingly authoritarian paradigm in national government. Even as capital flows freely across borders, rivers of migrants and refugees are either blocked and diverted or dammed and detained. Even as the barriers to global commerce are smashed with a religious zealotry reminiscent of the early crusaders, new walls are erected everywhere to keep out the dark-skinned and the poor. Even as liberal “visionaries” press for universal integration, the global reality remains one of systematic exclusion. Where wealth concentrates in ever fewer hands, where gated communities mushroom amidst the squalor of a planet of slums, the vaunted “democracy” of the global marketplace finally meets the totalitarian ambitions of the nation state. “The state of exception,” Agamben writes, “appears as the threshold of indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism.”

Given this growing indeterminacy between democracy and absolutism, war and peace, order and disorder, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the events in Ferguson have resonated so strongly in a faraway occupied warzone like Gaza, where the absolutism of Israeli sovereignty is brutally brought down on life — to the point where Israel has even determined the exact allowed calorie intake for the strip’s 1.6 million inhabitants: 2.279 per day, to be precise. Of course, Ferguson is not Gaza (at least not yet), but there is an undeniable resonance between the two struggles, and it is not limited to Palestinian solidarity tweets for Ferguson protesters or practical advise on how to deal with tear gas and advancing police lines.

Much more than this, Palestinian/African American solidarity is the explicit subaltern expression of a recognition that not only the struggle but also the enemy is common. From the brand of tear gas to the assault tactics of the riot squads, Gaza and Ferguson are closer than many would feel comfortable to admit. Investigations have revealed that US law enforcement maintains close ties with its Israeli counterparts, and two of the four police forces deployed to Ferguson received their training in crowd control in Israel. Running an occupation is serious business, and US police departments have much to learn from their Israeli counterparts if they are to maintain America’s internal spaces of segregation in an era of deepening inequalities and growing racial tensions.

The Ghetto as an Open-Air Prison Camp

For Agamben, the state of exception finds its topological expression in the camp, which “delimits a space in which the normal order is de facto suspended and in which whether or not atrocities are committed depends not on law but on the civility and ethical sense of the police who temporarily act as sovereign.” For those on the wrong side of the war on terror, the camps are called Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay. For African Americans, the camp is prison — or, increasingly often, the labor camp. If current incarceration trends continue, one in three black males born today can expect to spend at least part of their lives behind bars. While only 12 percent of the US population is black, African American males make up 40 percent of the total 2.1 million prison population. More black men are in prison today than were enslaved before the Civil War in 1850.

As the state of exception becomes generalized, however, the boundaries between inside and outside begin to blur and the two gradually blend into one another. Bit by bit, the logic of the camp spills over into society at large. Gaza, which has been described even by UK Prime Minister David Cameron as an open-air prison camp, is perhaps the clearest contemporary expression of this phenomenon. But similar (though much less extreme) processes are afoot in the US and elsewhere, as spatial segregation becomes the hallmark of the neoliberal urban geography. Today, the ghettos of Detroit and the outer neighborhoods of St Louis, like the townships of Johannesburg and the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, increasingly take on the form of open-air prison camps, in which the police permanently act as temporary sovereign, and in which poor blacks — and male youths in particular — are simply considered free game for the racist fantasies of white officers.

Patterns of Neoliberal Segregation

The contemporary nature of the ghetto and the slum as open-air prison camps is closely connected to deepening patterns of racial inequality and spatial segregation. Far from abolished, in many respects segregation — cultural and material alike — has only deepened as a result of the neoliberal restructuring of the economy. Not coincidentally, the state of Missouri, the city of St Louis and especially its restive suburb of Ferguson are among the clearest examples of these patterns of neoliberal apartheid in the US today. In 1970, only 1 percent of Ferguson’s inhabitants was black. By 2010, that share had risen to nearly 70 percent. The transformation of the town’s racial composition can be ascribed to a white exodus — partly the result of a collapse of the working class as a result of de-industrialization, with white workers moving away from the Midwest “Rustbelt”; and partly the result of an influx of cheap credit drawing a seemingly upwardly mobile white middle class out towards the suburbs.

As housing prices fell, black residents moved into the neighborhood, and pre-established local inequalities (between rental homes and self-owned properties, for instance) were only further accentuated. Meanwhile, the taxable base of local government eroded, leading to reduced budgets for public services and law enforcement. The Ferguson police department, of course, remained almost exclusively white, with obvious consequences for the black newcomers in the neighborhood: according to FBI data, 92 percent of people arrested in Ferguson on charges of “disorderly conduct” are black, while African Americans account for 86 percent of all vehicle stops. Far from protecting the peace, undertrained and overarmed police officers now consider it their job to keep a marginalized population in check through continuous harassment and accusations of petty crime. These are all mechanisms of social control.

In neoliberal America, questions of race and class have thus become nearly impossible to disentangle, and it is precisely at the intersection of the two that the neoliberal counterrevolution has struck African American families extra hard. Economic data shows that the gap in household income between blacks and whites has not been reduced since the end of de jure segregation in the 1950s and 1960s, while wealth disparities have only been deepened by the housing crisis of 2007-’08 and the subsequent recession, which affected African American households particularly badly (not least as a result of the racial profiling in Wall Street’s predatory lending practices). Today, 45 percent of black children grow up in areas of concentrated poverty, and the schools they attend are more segregated than they were in 1980. As class disparities are accentuated, so are the deeply intermeshed racial inequalities.

The Destituent Power of a Political Riot

For African Americans, therefore, the state of emergency has always been a permanent one — it did not start with the shooting of Michael Brown and it certainly will not end with Governor Nixon withdrawing the National Guard from Ferguson. What is different this time around is that the people rose up in defiance of the police murder of yet another young black man, and chose to answer the legal violence of the subsequent police crackdown with an extra-legal violence of their own. Suddenly, their mundane acts of everyday resistance coalesced into a collective act of refusal, giving rise to a political riot. And it is precisely this combination of broad-based peaceful protest with a refusal to respect the violence of the law that has instilled such fear in the halls of power.

The reason the authorities fear Ferguson is, first and foremost, the risk of “contamination” (or what we would call resonance). As the Rodney King riots of 1992 showed, a single spark can quickly set ablaze the dessicated prairies of America’s supposedly post-racial urban constellation. But there is a deeper reason why the authorities fear Ferguson, which is that sovereign power — which stands at once within and without the legal framework, capable of both enforcing and suspending the rule of law — cannot tolerate the existence of a pure form of violence outside the law. As Walter Benjamin noted in his Critique of Violence, “the existence of violence outside the law, as pure immediate violence, furnishes proof that revolutionary violence, the highest manifestation of unalloyed violence by man, is possible.” The fear, then, is that this local uprising could reveal a latent revolutionary potential in the very belly of the beast.

But even if this revolutionary potential is never fully realized, the movement towards it does appear to embody what Agamben would call a form of destituent power — a power that stands completely outside the law and that, by acting to dismantle sovereign power rather than to reform it, has the capacity to diminish the ability of the state to resort to violence and, in the final analysis, to abolish the cycle of law-making and law-preserving violence altogether. “On the breaking of this cycle maintained by mythical forms of law,” Water Benjamin once wrote, still full of hope, “on the suspension of law with all the forces on which it depends as they depend on it, finally therefore in the abolition of state power, a new historical epoch is founded.”

If we are to follow this line of analysis, the supposed “violence” of the Ferguson protests — which absolutely pales in comparison to the violence of finance capital and the state — may yet prove to be highly productive. And while the idea of a “pure” violence outside the law may sound ominous to some, we should remember that the urban riot, for all its seemingly irrational destruction and spectacular evanescence, has historically been a great force for progress. What we now call democracy would not have been possible without it. Indeed, in times of great injustice and institutional deadlock, when the violence of the law drowns out the voice of the oppressed, few things could be more welcome than the destituent power of a political riot to help recalibrate the scales of justice. This, at least, is how it starts. What happens in Ferguson does not stay in Ferguson.

Jerome Roos is a PhD researcher in International Political Economy at the European University Institute, and founding editor of ROAR Magazine. This article was written as part of his weekly column for TeleSUR English.

Ferguson: breaking out of post-racial hypnosis


by George Ciccariello-Maher on August 19, 2014

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The Ferguson uprising shows that we are breaking out of the post-racial hypnosis of the Obama presidency to enter into a greater willingness to resist.

Editor’s note: This interview with George Ciccariello-Maher (GCM) by Anna Curcio and Lenora Hanson was originally published on CommonWare (CW).


CW: Our first question has to do with the way that Ferguson exploded after Michael Brown’s murder and the police response. What are the social dynamics that led to and preceded these intense riots? What led to the uprising of the black community and how can you explain the violence of the police response there?

GCM: To get into the broad historical context, especially for those not in the US, it is important to say that police violence here is not an abstract or universal phenomenon. It is a phenomenon that has focused on certain peoples and certain “problem” populations, specifically although not solely on African-American and black Americans. When we look at Ferguson and the fact that it is a suburb of St. Louis, this in historical and racial terms is already in many ways a point of conflict and racial tension.

Ferguson itself was almost entirely white until the 1970s, but has become a city that is in its large majority black, around 70-65%, and yet the police force is almost universally white. And when we look at some of the recent FBI data has come out we find that, for example, 92% of those arrested in Ferguson for disorderly conduct are black, which gives a good insight into the way that people are systematically harassed. People in Ferguson are harassed by police and petty charges like disorderly conduct are used by the police as a social control over this population. And again what we have is not an abstract problem but a manifestation and repetition of historical, white, supremacist police violence in which black lives are worth nothing and black death is almost always legitimized.

This is continuing to play out with the media narrative that follows, as if coherence were completely irrelevant, the 3-4 police explanations that serve to legitimize this violence against this young man to the public. They say Michael Brown was maybe involved in a robbery, which the police claim was earlier that day although he seems to be wearing different clothes if that’s him in the videos they released; maybe he was jaywalking, which again needs to be understood in a context where the police are harassing people for minor crimes. And, of course, this makes it very clear to the white populations nearby that this is a question of black or white, just as when the police released images of the so-called “looters” in Ferguson, which they did to remind everyone that police were out there protecting property against the so-called violence of others.

CW: You referenced “white flight” in the Midwest above. Can you talk about its relationship to de-industrialization, which has important class implications, and how that “white flight” has produced class and racial tensions in Ferguson?

GCM: We’re talking about the geography of race, and race is always a phenomenon that manifests geographically. The way that it manifests in the US more often than not has been the flight of whites into the suburbs, which began as a process a long time ago but especially in the periods of de-industrialization in the 1970s when it accelerated. So you have large cities in the Midwest and elsewhere, such as where I live in Philadelphia, where what you find in this so-called post-racial era is that race is more likely to be coded geographically than it is to be coded openly in racial terms.

So whether it is through a coded language of school districts or dangerous areas or moving to the suburbs to give your kids opportunities, what we’re talking about are the ways that segregation is actually an increasing phenomenon in the U.S. Ferguson is clearly one example of those places that once was exclusively white and has now become a predominately black town; so you know, we’re talking about another example of this geographic manifestation where the police are there not just to police the population but also the borders. The function of the police is to keep people in line and in their zone or in their lane as it were, and Ferguson, a city that went from being a white city to a black city, is a city where the population has to be terrorized by police, but where the police also have to keep the population away from whiter suburbs in that area.

CW: Because you were just talking about the police and the black community, can you suggest what the people in Ferguson are bringing to the streets, or what kinds of experiences and feelings they are bringing there?

GCM: This is one thing that many white observers but also liberal observers just don’t grasp about the police killing of blacks in the States, which is that it is always embedded in this long historical trajectory that is not even a long memory. I mean, we are even talking about the highly publicized murders of at least five black men in the last month by police in this country, so this is a constant trajectory of police murder. And the off-the-cuff expressions of people in Ferguson attest to that when they say that this is about everything from Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin to the present, that is a long trajectory, and the failure to recognize it is a failure to grasp the depth of rage in these moments.

That rage is in many ways a product of feeling slightly helpless about the constant repetition of this violence, but is also the dedication and the insistence that something must be done, and that in the absence of legal reform accomplishing anything, in the absence of electing officials and congressman accomplishing anything, maybe these rebellions and riots will work. Which, historically speaking, is actually not a terribly inaccurate judgment if you look at cases throughout U.S. history. Riots and rebellions have played a huge role in, if not directly, then at least indirectly in transforming the political sphere and political action and leading to concrete results. If we look at Ferguson we see the withdrawal of the St Louis county sheriff from policing the situation as a direct result of this intervention in the streets and the conflicts with this heavily militarized police force.

CW: Can we follow up on your point about liberal whites and how they deal with situations of violence or the question of violence in protests? It seems that within the past days there has been a latching on to images of police officers marching with protesters and a preference for vigils and peaceful actions over what appeared in the beginning to be not only riots but also looting and protests in the streets. What does such privileging of “peacefulness” over “violence” do to obscure the history of racism in the U.S. but also to misunderstand what it might take to respond to that history?

GCM: Absolutely. We should be perfectly clear. There’s a headline now from when the state highway patrol went to the protests the other day, and the headline was “Police Join Protests.” We should be perfectly clear: the police were not joining the protests. This is counter-insurgency, this is a historic strategy of counter-insurgency that involves backing away from the heavy-handed, iron fist of military response, which is what the police force brought initially, and a turning to the velvet glove or soft strategy to disarm protest. This doesn’t change the fact that the goal is to disarm the protest and weaken the mobilization of the people to do so through cooptation, and that should be understood as a starting point. It is not a good thing that the police went to the protests, although it is a less brutal phenomenon.

And this gets to the second part, which is that what is going on in Ferguson is not about the militarization of police. That militarization is a huge phenomenon that has occurred over the past decade, especially since September 11, through which police departments acquired military grade technology through the Department of Defense, through grants and counter-terrorism funding. But if the terrorist threat never existed, or if it dissipates, this military hardware is there and asking to be used. The old saying goes that if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This is exactly what we’re seeing in the streets with these county sheriffs deploying armored personnel carriers. If you’re sitting on the top of one of these personnel carriers looking through a scope of a sniper rifle, then everything looks like an insurgent. Everything looks like an enemy combatant. And that’s crucial but its not at the essence of what is going on; because if we look at the essence of what is going on with the militarization of police we neglect the fact that the police of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s were not militarized but were still racist, brutal occupiers of black communities.

And so we need to keep both these threads in our analysis, while avoiding the easy recourse to simply saying that we need to reform the police or take away their tanks. Again, Ferguson police are almost entirely white and policing a black community, doing so brutally and terroristically. Taking away their heavy weaponry won’t solve that. We need to understand this within the long-term history of white supremacy, which is one of continuity rather than change. And we can pair that up with the transformation of policing, which has indeed been a progressive process of militarization.

CW: To your point of continuity of race relations and violence in the US, we could propose two poles that could be mapped onto Ferguson and Katrina. So on the one hand we have Katrina, which to a large extent was a matter of mass, systemic abandonment, and Ferguson, which seems to be an instance of direct violence applied to a population. How might these two instances point to an important historical relation in the U.S. that suggest that when there’s not direct violence, there is always a consistent environment of abandonment?

GCM: This question of abandonment versus direct violence is actually more of a spectrum. I’ve never been to Ferguson, but my guess is that it’s somewhere in between in the sense that in the course of becoming a heavily black city that it was increasingly abandoned. And yet this was not simply a city that was sealed off and allowed to govern itself. It was structured according to this systematic police violence as many black cities are. And so the two really work hand in hand. Understood in the context we’re talking about, firstly, in the most recent history, this process of de-industrialization, as a process that renders huge numbers of the U.S. population irrelevant to the process of production, and these populations are almost entirely black; in other words these become surplus populations. And the response of the state is to incarcerate them on a massive level or to essentially warehouse them in facilities and maybe then extract some surplus through forced labor. But the point is really about warehousing and abandonment on a certain level.

Seen in the broader context this is also a shift in the historical tension, especially in the 20th century, which has to do with the process of formal abolition and the anxiety that results immediately upon abolition, which is namely what do we do with these former slaves. And here again, continuity is a huge part of the aftermath of slavery, which was an aftermath of sharecropping and also the immediate turn to convict leasing in which prisoners could be could be legitimately enslaved thanks to the 13th amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This entire process of developing police institutions begins directly with that continuity of slavery. The police are a part of this process, because they emerge as an institution in response to the threat posed by free black labor, the mobility of free black labor after abolition. And so this is really one long historical complex that we see playing out.

CW: To pick up on this point about incarceration we might think about the popularity of Michelle Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow”, which has been important in the US for demonstrating that continuity between the end of slavery and the advent of mass incarceration. But much of the response to that book has been to advocate for reforming the law around incarceration. How does Ferguson demonstrate the failure of something like legal reform to address the history of race in the U.S.?

GCM: On the one hand the question of reform is the constant temptation in these moments and it goes hand-in-hand with the question of pacification and of essentially shutting up and silencing the people who are in the streets in Ferguson, who are after all some of the most silenced people already. And you have this really unfortunate tendency of liberal commentators to engage in this double silencing, when they say, “yes maybe it’s legitimate to resist and protest, but we would really like to police and dictate the terms of that protest.” They make certain claims about understanding how social change occurs, when actually those claims are almost entirely wrong. The way that social change occurs is often through these moments of mass eruption and spontaneous riots and the way change often unfolds is through this attempt by reformists to co-opt them.

So on the one hand I think we definitely need to be hesitant and resistant and critical to these reformist temptations. We also need to recognize that they are inevitably going to surface and that’s actually more likely how change is going to occur. But the danger, especially in this situation, is the question of what kind of reforms are we talking about? Are we talking about reforms to police training, about sensitivity-training for police, are we talking about some kind of quotas to change the demographic nature of the Ferguson police department? The reality is that the function of the police will remain the same. You can have a police department that is entirely black and the function of that police department will still be white supremacist, not only because they protect property but because of the relationship between property and whiteness in the U.S. police protect whiteness as well, they uphold the color line by dictating which populations are subject to violence and which are not, and which populations need to be contained and which do not.

So the reforms won’t really solve these questions and this again brings us to the question of so-called post-racial America, in which the election of a president allegedly tells us a great deal about the nature of society when in reality in can be understood in dialectical terms as the opposite, it can be the latest in a new strategy to counteract popular resistance to white supremacy and to obscure that fact. So we have Obama going on television saying things that are correct about the police in regards to the protest, but also saying that there’s never any excuse for violence against the police. Which even just on the face of it, even though people were eating it up, was a nonsensical statement, because it doesn’t say anything about the Civil Rights struggles in which the police were violently abusing black Americans. Even Obama himself would have to recognize the legitimacy of self-defense in these things.

So reformism also doesn’t tell us much about how to respond in the present to those very same phenomena. The danger of reformism is easy to see in the request to the FBI to handle investigations; the FBI, I mean, come on, this is not a serious suggestion. And yet, many so-called civil rights organizations are going in for that as opposed to going in for claims about more substantive community control over police, which themselves often are too reformist. These community oversight boards are often toothless institutions that don’t have any potential to fire violence and abusive police officers.

CW: I’m not really sure if this idea could work, but I would like to ask it. With these murders of blacks by the police on the street, can we think about these as a strategy to control of the black community that works together with the mass incarceration as a mode of control in the black community? Can we think about something like that? Maybe not as a new strategy but since it is increasing, it could work together with incarceration as another form of control?

GCM: Absolutely. And I think mass incarceration is not just about prisons, it is the police and prisons as a complex. It is a process of terrorizing communities and gathering nearly at random certain members of those communities to put them in prison — we say nearly at random but again 92% of those arrested in Ferguson for disorderly conduct are black. It doesn’t even need to be said that the statistics show that white people don’t get charged with disorderly conduct because it’s the kind of bullshit charge that you throw at someone who is either talking back to you, or as Michael Brown allegedly was, jaywalking in the street.

If you’ve ever been near a police officer in the States, and I’m guessing many other places, all you have to do is question their authority to really see the fury that they are prepared to unleash. This is because what the system requires is that they have not only the legal force that they’re granted, but also a discretion on the street which is really a sovereign discretion to decide who is going to jail and who is not, who is subject to including legal violence and who is not subject to that violence. I myself walking down the street am not judged to be subject to that violence for the most part, but any black youth is always already potentially a legitimate target for violence.

And so policing is part of this mass incarceration system that inflicts terror on these communities, that destroys communities and tears families apart just as slavery did for the most part, and it is really an attempt to contain through submission these communities. It is not simply to take away a large percentage of their numbers, which it does, but it is also to terrorize and force the others into submission. You have had, as I said, young black men killed several times in the past month but what stands out about Ferguson is not the killing but the resistance, and the really truly heroic nature of the resistance. This is not a resistance of thousands of people, but a resistance of small numbers in a small town who regardless of all of the force and all the attention and attempts at co-optation are in the streets every single night, who are responding in many ways to the police attempts at co-optation which were touted in the media yesterday, by again rebelling last night and saying we’re not going to buy this line about police being on our side and so yes.

CW: In response to what you said above about the resistance of small numbers of people we could talk about the importance of subjectivization, or in other words how the black community in Ferguson was able to transform a fear of police control into a will to take to the street. Sometimes this transformation happens but not always, so what could account for this change? And has the preceding event of the murder of Trayvon Martin contributed to that capacity?

GCM: That’s right. We’re in a historical moment that needs to be understood as very specific and the same time, which is part of a long historical trajectory. This means that the emotional response to another killing in your community of a young black man is the cause for anger but also the cause for desperation and a sort of helplessness, as I said before, that maybe nothing will happen to change this, that this is constant and not a new thing or an exception. It’s a constant reality but at the same time the very same course of helplessness gives rise to sense that there’s not a great deal to be lost by resisting.

If you’re talking about putting yourself in the shoes of a young black man, who merely as a result of being a young black man has a 30% chance of spending a good portion of their lives in prison, there the stakes of continuing the status quo are almost as high as the stakes of going out and resisting, even if you’re not guaranteed any kind of transformation. So you have to combine that underlying situation with the sense that we are breaking out of the post-racial hypnosis that reached a peak around 2008 with the election of Obama. Ever since then the morning of January 1 in 2009, just before Obama took office, Oscar Grant was murdered by a police officer in Oakland, sparking a series of riots in which I was involved in, and giving rise to a major transformation of the political situation in Oakland and in CA. Not long thereafter Trayvon Martin brought to the national stage a very similar debate and discussion.

And so you do see people gradually realizing that the idea of post-racial is a sick brutal joke and moving out of the comfort zone of the Obama presidency to enter into a greater willingness to resist. I think that is a huge step in historical terms, and despite everything it was important for Obama to be elected because it was very important for people to come to this realization that he was not going to save us. Now that we’ve passed through this and we have a black president who is willing to turn a blind eye to this kind of racialized violence, to make such ridiculous statements about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, to continue to fund the Israeli government when it continues to bombard Gaza, and now that we have a potential candidate in Hillary Clinton who is willing to do much worse, then it gets much easier for people to come to a clear conception of the reality of the situation and to act accordingly.

CW: One other historical precedence to ask about is that of the Occupy movement and the national connections that it established, which we see quickly emerging between Ferguson and other cities in the U.S. Can we think about Occupy as a key moment that activated the level of collective resistance we see today?

GCM: The answer as with the answer to any question about Occupy is yes and no. Yes, because Occupy is an important touchstone for recent political phenomena in the U.S. it certainly influenced a whole generation of radicals and militants nationwide, and it has galvanized the willingness to act and it has forged and reinforced certain modes of action like assemblies, popular democracy, street protests. No, in the sense that we need to understand Occupy itself as part of a historical trajectory. In the Bay Area, Occupy had its radical, militant nature in large part because of the organizing around Oscar Grant’s death in 2009. That organizing provided an understanding of the reality of police and a willingness to engage in street action and recognition that that action could bring very real transformation and benefits. These were all lessons that were brought into Occupy.

And even beyond that local reality, if we’re talking about Occupy on a global scale then we’re talking about the Arab-North African Spring, we’re talking about the indignados in Spain, the waves of rebellions across the world that have become a defining element of the last ten or twenty years. And so Occupy itself is part of this broader trajectory that allowed it to press forward in certain ways and that has drawn from existing understandings and connections. And part of the reason we can’t center on Occupy is that then we run the risk, again, of failing into civil libertarianism or falling into neglect of the historical realities of what policing means in the U.S.

So you have, for instance, Anonymous, which for all the criticisms you can have of them has played a very important role in many political advances and in the events of Ferguson, and has done more for the events of Ferguson than all of the other liberals out there on Twitter. But even Anonymous is calling for limited reforms in regard to police oversight and militarization, because if you abstract away from the history of police and white supremacy, you can understand what’s going on in Ferguson as a question of the technical apparatus that the police carry as opposed to the structural function that the police play. And that’s where we need to keep both these things together. That relates in many ways to Occupy, which itself was torn and divided over this question of are we simply reforming US democracy in a way that brings us closer to the U.S. constitution or are we radicalizing U.S. democracy in a way that understands the white supremacist history that Constitution is a part of?

CW: A last question could be again about the black community in Ferguson, because we have seen some images of black males in the mainstream media that were talking against violence, but without producing a distinction between police violence. Instead everything became violence. And so our question is, do you think this could be a sign of a fracture in the black community, both in Ferguson and outside, that runs around class issues?

GCM: Yes, but understanding and bearing in mind that class is not manifesting strictly as an economic phenomenon, but as a political one, in the sense that to be middle class is very much a mindset and very much an identity regardless of one’s income. So I think you do have this fracture, and the phrase often used in the U.S. has to do with what is called respectability politics, in other words demonstrating that how well-behaved you can be, in the hopes that behaving well will actually transform social relations, when we know in reality that that’s not the case. And so the constant argument that is made is that if young black men would dress a little better and pull their pants up, if they would talk better, then maybe their situation would change. But we know from a structural reality that that’s not the case, that there are not jobs out there waiting for people who behave better and that the situation is a far more structural one.

Still you do see the same thing manifesting and you see it even in some of the ore radical spokespeople, you see it in Al Sharpton coming out and grabbing the family of Michael Brown and putting them behind him and trying to urge people to calm down. And you have a whole number of liberal commentators doing the same thing and emphasizing the question of violence of the protests, which is really an amazing an inverse perversion of the reality of protests that are protests against violence. It almost doesn’t need to be said, but the protestors in Ferguson haven’t killed a single human being, which cannot be said for the police in the streets. So if we’re talking about anything other than the violence of the police then we’re really already in enemy territory.

But it goes beyond that, because even those who emphasize the violence of the police, who say well, this is about the militarization of the police or about how the police responded in a brutal way, they do so in a way that excises and cuts off the actual cause of the protest—namely, the violence against Michael Brown. And so that needs to be the starting point. People did not go to the streets to protest against the police response to protest, they went to the streets to protest against white supremacist murder of Michael Brown. That needs to be kept in focus and there will be a number of voices calling for a more non-violent response, but if we understand violence as violence against human beings, there really hasn’t been much if any violence in these protests. The violence has been in the violence against Michael Brown and the violence of the police against protesters and we shouldn’t go in for this rhetoric although it will be very dangerous.

I think the protestors themselves in their response last night sent a very clear message about those self appointed mediators that they don’t speak for them, that they don’t speak for the people in the streets who, I argue, have a better understanding of social change than these liberal spokespeople who insist that the best way to change U.S. society is to go through the established channels, to elect representatives, to elect a Democrat. I think that all of U.S. history and arguably the history of the world shows that that is quite simply not true, that the Civil Rights movement succeeded as a result of the threat of the Black Power movement, that political institutions in Oakland when Oscar Grant was murdered only began to move when people rioted and rebelled. And the same exact thing is happening in Ferguson today. We can simply point to the fact that the county sheriff has been withdrawn from the streets to say that these protests have already begun to work.

George Ciccariello-Maher is a writer, radical political theorist and Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

The Carnage of Capitalism

Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Photo Credit: JoeBakal/

Capitalism is expanding like a tumor in the body of American society, spreading further into vital areas of human need like health and education.

Milton Friedman said in 1980: “The free market system distributes the fruits of economic progress among all people.” The father of the modern neoliberal movementcouldn’t have been more wrong. Inequality has been growing for 35 years, worsening since the 2008 recession, as a few well-positioned Americans have made millions while the rest of us have gained almost nothing. Now, our college students and medicine-dependent seniors have become the source of new riches for the profitseeking free-marketers.

Higher Education: Administrators Get Most of the Money

College grads took a 19 percent pay cut in the two years after the recession. By 2013 over half of employed black recent college graduates were working in occupations that typically do not require a four-year college degree. For those still in school, tuition has risen much faster than any other living expense, and the average student loan balance has risen 91 percent over the past ten years.

At the other extreme is the winner-take-all free-market version of education, with a steady flow of compensation towards the top. Remarkably, and not coincidentally, as inequality has surged since the 1980s, the number of administrators at private universities has doubled. Administrators now outnumber faculty on every campusacross the country.

These administrators are taking the big money. As detailed by Lawrence Wittner, the 25 highest-paid presidents increased their salaries by a third between 2009 and 2012, to nearly a million dollars each. For every million-dollar public university president in 2011, there were fourteen such presidents at private universities, and dozens of lower-level administrators aspiring to be paid like their bosses. At Purdue, for example, the 2012 administrative ranks included a $313,000-a-year acting provost, a $198,000 chief diversity officer, a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief.

All this money at the top has to come from somewhere, and that means from faculty and students. Adjunct and student teachers, who made up about 22 percent of instructional staff in 1969, now make up an estimated 76 percent of instructional staff in higher education, with a median wage in 2010 of about $2,700 per course. More administrative money comes from tuition, which has increased by over 1,000 percent since 1978.

At the for-profit colleges, according to a Senate report on 2009 expenses, education companies spent about 23 percent of all revenue on marketing and advertising, and almost 20 percent of revenue on pre-tax profits for their shareholders. They spent just 17.2 percent of their revenue on instruction.

Medicine: A 10,000 Percent Profit for Corporations

As with education, the extremes forced upon us by free-market health care are nearly beyond belief. First, at the human end, 43 percent of sick Americans skipped doctor’s visits and/or medication purchases in 2011 because of excessive costs. It’s estimatedthat over 40,000 Americans die every year because they can’t afford health insurance.

At the corporate end, drugmakers are at times getting up to $100 for every $1 spent. That’s true at Gilead Sciences, the manufacturer of the drug Sovaldi, which charges about $10 a pill to its customers in Egypt, then comes home to charge $1,000 a pill to its American customers. The 10,000 percent profit is also true with the increasingly lucrative, government-funded Human Genome Project, which is estimated to potentially return about $140 for every $1 spent. Big business is quickly making its move. Celera GenomicsAbbott LabsMerckRocheBristol-Myers Squibb, andPfizer are all starting to cash in.

The extremes of capitalist greed are evident in the corporate lobbying of Congress to keep Medicare from negotiating better drug prices for the American consumer. Americans are cheated further when corporations pay off generic drug manufacturers to delay entry of their products into the market, thereby ensuring inflated profits for the big firms for the durations of their shady deals.

Global Greed

Lives are being ravaged by unregulated, free-market capitalism, in the U.S. and around the world. According to the Global Forum for Health Research, less than 10 percent of the global health research budget is spent on the conditions responsible for 90 percent of human disease.

And the greed is getting worse. Perhaps it’s our irrational fear of socialism, peaking in the years after World War 2, that has inspired our winner-take-all culture. In the Reagan era we listened to Margaret Thatcher proclaim that “There is no such thing as society.”

In a more socially-conscious time, in 1955, after Dr. Jonas Salk had developed the polio vaccine, he was asked by reporter Edward R. Murrow: “Who owns the patent on this vaccine?” Responded Salk, “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?”

A free-market capitalist might remind us that a skillful hedge fund manager can make as much as a thousand Jonas Salks.


Paul Buchheit teaches economic inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of the Web sites, and, and the editor and main author of “American Wars: Illusions and Realities” (Clarity Press). He can be reached at