Samuel Kassow’s “Who Will Write Our History?”

By Clara Weiss
25 July 2015

Who Will Write Our History? Rediscovering a Hidden Archive from the Warsaw Ghetto, by Samuel Kassow, Indiana University Press 2009, 523 pages.

It is rather unusual for a book to be reviewed several years after its first appearance. However, Samuel Kassow’s Who Will Write Our History?, which first appeared in 2007, is a major work of historical scholarship that should be welcomed by readers of the WSWS. Kassow’s history of the Oyneg Shabes underground archive in the Warsaw Ghetto combines remarkable objectivity with a deep compassion for the tragic fate of Warsaw’s Jewry during World War II.

“Who will write our history”, © Indiana University Press

The Oyneg Shabes [Joyful Sabbath] was the largest underground archive in Nazi-occupied Poland. It was set up by a group of Jewish teachers, writers, rabbis and historians under the guidance of the Jewish-Polish historian Emanuel Ringelblum. Between the beginning of the war and the destruction of the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943, the Oyneg Shabes collected thousands of documents on the Nazi persecution of Polish Jewry. It gathered diaries and essays, conducted thousands of interviews with prisoners of the ghetto and collected several surveys about the composition of the ghetto population. Of the three hidden caches of the archive, only two could be found after the war.

Nevertheless, the 6,000 documents (comprising between 25,000 and 30,000 pieces of paper) to this day remain the single most important documentary basis for any historical study of the annihilation of Polish Jewry. As of yet, very little of it has been published, and most of it only in Hebrew, Polish or Yiddish.

Hersh and Bluma Wasser, surviving members of Oyneg Shabes, with a portion of the secret archive © The Ghetto Fighters Museum Israel

In Who Will Write Our History?, Samuel Kassow, professor of history at Trinity College, Connecticut, presents not only the history of the archive and some of its key documents, but also tries to outline the cultural climate and political convictions of the pre-war period that underlay the heroic efforts of the Oyneg Shabes during the war.

Ringelblum and the Left Poalei Tsiyon

Emanuel Ringelblum was born in 1900 to an impoverished Jewish family in the Galician town of Buchach, then part of the Habsburg Empire (today it forms part of Ukraine). Since Jews in Galicia, unlike in the Russian Empire, enjoyed access to higher education (they were restrained only by their financial means), Galicia was home to a relatively well-educated Jewish intelligentsia that was at the same time fervently nationalistic. After the foundation of the Second Polish Republic, Ringelblum left Galicia for the new Polish capital, Warsaw, to study history.

Emanuel Ringelblum

The Warsaw of the 1920s was a politically tumultuous city and home to Europe’s largest Jewish community. Here, Ringelblum emerged as an important figure of working class politics and historiography in inter-war Poland. In a detailed, objective and complex chapter, Kassow describes the left-wing Jewish politics that shaped Ringelblum’s outlook as a historian.

With its large Jewish population—which included not only the most oppressed layers of the working class, but also many different petty-bourgeois layers—Poland became the center of a variety of Jewish political organizations.

Next to the Bund, which split from both the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks in 1903, the most significant Jewish organization was the Poalei Tsiyon. The party was founded in the early 1900s. Its chief ideological influence was the Labor Zionist Ber Borochov. Attacking the Bolsheviks’ position on the Jewish question, Borochov argued that the Jewish proletariat needed its own nation-state in order both to conduct the class struggle against the bourgeoisie and to fight national oppression.

After the seizure of power by the working class in October 1917, the Bolshevik government for the first time granted full civil rights to a substantial part of Eastern European Jewry. (See also: Anti-Semitism and the Russian Revolution). In response to these developments, the Poalei Tsiyon split into a left and a right wing in 1920. (Borochov himself had turned against the revolution before his early death in December 1917.) The right wing opposed the Revolution and was oriented toward gathering support from British imperialism for the foundation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine. In Palestine, the Right Poalei Tsiyon became the basis for David Ben-Gurion’s Ahdut HaAvoda (Labor Unity), the predecessor of the Israeli Labor Party, which played a major role in the foundation of the state of Israel in 1948.

By contrast, the Left Poalei Tsiyon (LPZ), whose own members in Russia supported the Bolsheviks in the Civil War, defended the Soviet Union and advocated world revolution. The LPZ’s claim to admission to the Third International (Comintern) was rejected by Lenin, however, as the party refused to break with the ideology of Ber Borochov. The Left Poalei Tsiyon continued to support the foundation of a Jewish nation state in Palestine, albeit on a “socialist basis.” Central to the organization’s political and cultural work was its emphasis on the significance of Yiddish culture, based on the language of the impoverished Jewish masses of Eastern Europe.

Overall, the LPZ stood significantly to the left of the better known and larger Bund, which opposed the seizure of power by the working class in 1917 and continued to work within the Second International. Many members of the LPZ and its youth organization, Yugnt (Youth), defected to the Communist Party of Poland in the late 1920s and early 30s, and both organizations often worked together closely.

Given the extraordinary impoverishment of substantial sections of Jewish workers and intellectuals and the growing anti-Semitism under the regime of Józef Piłsudski in Poland, both left-wing organizations enjoyed significant support. The Bund and the LPZ oversaw impressive networks of newspapers, ran their own schools and were active in numerous self-help organizations and trade unions. As Kassow points out:

For a young person who lived in a cellar in Lodz’s impoverished Balut or Warsaw’s Smocza Street, groups like the Bund and the LPZ were far more than mere political parties. They represented a road to self-respect and human dignity, a way to strive for ‘something better.’ (p. 35)

However, the LPZ politically did not survive the rise of Stalinism in the Soviet Union. Kassow only hints at the impact of the changing nationality policies in the Soviet Union; the Moscow Trials; the murder by Moscow of the entire leadership and most of the membership of the Polish Communist Party, whom Stalin suspected of sympathizing with his main political opponent, Leon Trotsky; and then the dissolution of the Polish Communist Party by Stalin in 1938. One could add to this list the anti-Semitism that was used by the Stalinist bureaucracy in its struggle against the Left Opposition from the mid-1920s onward. Facing a deep political and financial crisis that began in the early 1930s, the LPZ rejoined the World Zionist Congress in 1937, on the eve of World War II.

Ringelblum became a member of the Poalei Tsiyon shortly before the party split, and then joined the left faction. He remained within the party until the end of his life. During the 1920s and 30s, Ringelblum played a leading role in the party’s youth organization, Yugnt, and focused much of his work on the education of poor Jewish youth in the LPZ’s Ovnt kursn far arbiter (Evening classes for workers).

As Warsaw was gradually replacing St. Petersburg as the center of Eastern European Jewish scholarship, Ringelblum, along with historians such as Isaac Schiper and Bela Mandelsberg, founded the Yunger Historiker Krayz (Young Historians’ Circle). Influenced by both Marxism and Zionism, these historians emphasized that historical research was a weapon in the national struggle for emancipation of the Jewish people and for combatting the growing anti-Semitism in inter-war Poland.

Emanuel Ringelblum with his son Uri in the 1930s, © Yad Vashem

Ringelblum stressed the significance of zamling (collecting material). In his opinion, the study of history had to be a collective project, engaging as many people as possible. In fact, the Jewish historians were so poor and politically isolated that they relied to a great extent on the Polish-Jewish community in order to continue their work. Ringelblum also worked as a community organizer in collaboration with the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish relief organization headquartered in the United States, trying to help impoverished Polish Jews who came under increasing political and economic pressure during the 1930s.

The Oyneg Shabes in the Warsaw Ghetto

Ringelblum’s convictions as a politician and a historian underlay much of his work during the war, when Poland, with its Jewish population of over 3 million, became the main site of the annihilation of European Jewry.

In November 1940, the Nazis established the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of its kind in Eastern Europe. Over 400,000 people (around 30 percent of the city’s population) were crowded into just 1.3 square miles (2.4 percent of the city of Warsaw). The meager food rations (184 calories per day) forced the great majority of the population to starve. Typhus and other diseases spread under conditions of extreme overcrowding and a lack of hygienic facilities. An estimated 80 percent of the many children in the ghetto were poor. By July 1942, before the beginning of the Great Deportation, around 100,000 people had died of hunger and disease.

To ameliorate the deplorable conditions and poverty, numerous political and social activists founded the so-called Aleynhilf (Self-Help). The different political parties that supported the Aleynhilf set up their own soup kitchens, many of which became sites of the ghetto’s underground press. The Aleynhilfsoon also came to play a major role in the house committees that had initially been formed spontaneously. Ringelblum was a leading figure in the Aleynhilfand, under the cover of the self-help organization, established the Oyneg Shabes in early 1941. (The term Oyneg Shabes means Joyful Sabbath in old Hebrew; the name signifies that in the beginning, the staff always met on the Sabbath.)

The Oyneg Shabes consisted of some 60 members with very different professional, political and personal backgrounds. Kassow introduces some of the outstanding representatives of the Oyneg Shabes in brief biographical sketches. They included the important Yiddish writer Gustawa Jarecka (1908–1943); the teacher Abrahm Lewin (1893–1943), like Ringelblum a member of the LPZ; the businessman and Yiddishist Shmuel Winter (1891–1943); Yitzhak Giterman (1889–1943), a left-wing Zionist and head of the Joint Distribution Committee in Poland; the writer and journalist Peretz Opoczynski (d. 1942); as well as the economists Menakhem Linder (1911–1942) and Jerzy Winkler (d. 1942). Only three members of the Oyneg Shabes were to survive the war.

In late 1942, Ringelblum wrote about the staff of the Oyneg Shabes:

Each member of the Oyneg Shabes knew that his effort and pain, his hard work and toil, his taking constant risks with the dangerous work of moving material from one place to another—that this was done in the name of a high ideal.… The Oyneg Shabes was a brotherhood, an order of brothers who wrote on their flag: readiness to sacrifice, mutual loyalty, and service to [Jewish society]. (quoted, p. 145)

Abraham Lewin with his daughter Ora before the war. Both were murdered in early 1943, © Yad Vashem

The staff of the archive collected thousands of documents about the Nazi persecution of the Jews. Striving to present as complete a picture of Jewish society in the Ghetto as possible, they investigated, among other things, the role of smuggling for the economy of the ghetto and of Poland. They also organized essay contests to gather material about the destruction of shtetls (traditional small Jewish villages) by the Nazis and on Polish-Jewish relations during the war.

The economist Menakhem Mendel Kon (1881–1943), also a member of the archive, wrote:

I consider it a sacred duty for everyone, whether proficient or not, to write down everything he has seen or heard from others about what the Germans have done.… It must all be recorded without a single fact left out. And when the time comes—as it surely will—let the world read and know what the murderers have done. When the mourners write about this time, this will be their most important material. When those who will avenge us will come to settle accounts, they will be able to rely on [our writings]. (quoted, p. 154)

Another major motif for the work of the archive was to preserve documents of Jewish life and resistance, and the legacy of the Jewish intellectual elite. As Kassow notes:

Only twenty-five years separated the birth of modern secular school systems in Hebrew and Yiddish from the Nazi onslaught. Yet this short period had produced a new intelligentsia of East European Jewish writers, teachers, economists, and journalists—an intelligentsia cut down so quickly, exterminated so totally, that Ringelblum feared that it would be totally forgotten. (p. 366)

Basing himself on the work of the Oyneg Shabes, Kassow paints a complex picture of Ghetto society with its massive social inequality and different political tendencies. He analyzes different positions on the Judenrat (Jewish Councils), as well as the behavior of the Jewish policemen and the population’s attitude toward them.

Kassow also describes the different moods within the ghetto’s population by providing numerous quotations from diaries and other testimonies. Witnessing the stunning brutality and barbarity of the Nazis—whom Abraham Lewin aptly called “twentieth century Huns”—many inhabitants of the Ghetto became deeply demoralized and pessimistic. In light of this unprecedented break-down of civilization, they started questioning the viability of the values and convictions of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution.

Ringelblum, too, struggled not to succumb to despair. Like many, failing to understand the impact of Stalinism in the 1920s and 30s, he struggled to comprehend the total collapse of the German working class in the 1930s. However, despite relapses into despair, Ringelblum until the end retained faith in the world revolution and human progress. In a conversation with Hersh Wasser, one of the three survivors of the archive’s staff, Ringelblum stated:

I do not see our work as a separate project, as something that includes only Jews, that is only about Jews, and that will interest only Jews. My whole being rebels against that. I cannot agree with such an approach, as a Jew, as a socialist, or as a historian. Given the daunting complexity of social processes, where everything is interdependent, it would make no sense to see ourselves in isolation. Jewish suffering and Jewish liberation and redemption are part and parcel of the general calamity [umglik] and the universal drive to throw off the hated [Nazi] yoke. We have to regard ourselves as participants in a universal [almenshlekher] attempt to construct a solid structure of objective documentation that will work for the good of mankind. Let us hope that the bricks and cement of our experience and our understanding will be able to provide a foundation. (quoted p. 387)

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the Nazi regime escalated its anti-Jewish policies throughout Eastern Europe. In early 1942, the Nazis began deporting Jews from the Łódz Ghetto to the death facility Chełmno. Soon, major deportations started in Kraków. Shtetl after shtetl was wiped out and its population murdered. The scale of the Nazi murder of Jews was difficult to comprehend even for Ringelblum, who had access to much information from all across Europe.

On the basis of material forwarded to the Polish underground by the Oyneg Shabes, the BBC broadcasted in late May 1942 one of the first major news accounts of the evolving genocide. Soon thereafter, on July 22, 1942, the Great Deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began. Within months, most of the ghetto’s population was rounded up, brought to the notoriousUmschlagplatz and deported to Treblinka, where they were all gassed. The Oyneg Shabes analyzed the impact of the Great Deportation in a break-down of the ghetto’s population by sex and age from November 1942. It found that 99 percent of the children between the ages of one and nine and almost 88 percent of the population over 50 had been murdered. Before the deportation there had been 51,458 children. By November 1942 there were only 498. In total, an estimated 265,000 Warsaw Jews were murdered between July 22 and September 21, 1942.

Warsaw Jews at the Umschlagplatz during the Great Deportation, © Yad Vashem

The archival material hitherto collected was buried in three milk cans in the first weeks of the Great Deportation. Several staff members, including Abraham Lewin and Peretz Opoczynski, nevertheless continued writing their diaries, even as their own families were at least in part sent to their death in Treblinka.

After the deportations, the mood within the ghetto changed dramatically. With almost everyone having lost much of their family, there were not only marked signs of social disintegration but also an increasing determination to offer resistance to the Nazi murderers. Many of the Oyneg Shabes members were involved in the preparations of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April-May 1943. In its Polish and Yiddish bulletins (Wiadomości and Miteylungen) the Oyneg Shabes warned Polish Jewry about its impending annihilation, calling upon the Jews to fight against the occupiers.

In response to the uprising, which was spearheaded by 200 youths, the Nazis set the ghetto on fire and razed it to the ground. Ringelblum and his family managed to escape before the destruction of the ghetto and eventually found refuge in a bunker (Krysia), where a Polish professor Wolski hid them along with over 30 other Jews. In March of 1944, the hide-out was discovered by the Germans (presumably because Wolski’s girlfriend betrayed him). Wolski himself and several of his family members were shot. Ringelblum was most likely tortured by the Gestapo and then taken to the ruins of the Ghetto with his family and other prisoners. When offered a way out of Poland by the Yiddish writer Yekhiel Hirschhaut without his son and wife, he refused. A few days later, Ringelblum was shot together with his family, Hirschhaut and all other prisoners in the ruins of the Warsaw Ghetto.

A patrol of SS men during the uprising marching through the burning Ghetto

Even in the last months of his life, Ringelblum continued his work. Kassow highlights the enormous achievement of Ringelblum’s essay on Polish-Jewish relations. Although written under the most difficult circumstances imaginable, the essay is impressively objective—Ringelblum’s credo was to write “sine ira et studio” (without hate and zealousness)—and remains one of the most important works on this subject. It tackles questions such as the anti-Jewish pogroms by sections of the Polish population that were not to be raised by historians after 1945 for many decades.

Samuel Kassow deserves great credit for bringing the history of the Oyneg Shabes and several of its towering figures to the attention of a broader, international audience. Meticulously researched and consistently objective in its account, Who Will Write Our History? is an important scholarly achievement.

One of its chief merits consists in the detailed description of the political and intellectual culture in pre-war Poland that shaped Ringelblum’s concern for historical truth. In contrast to the embittered anti-Communism among historians of 20th century Poland in particular, Kassow takes a serious and objective approach toward the politics and ideology of the Left Poalei Tsiyon and its members. If anything, one might object that Kassow’s account puts too little emphasis on the devastating impact of Stalinism on the labor movement in Poland.

While Kassow himself clearly sees Ringelblum’s orientation toward Marxism to be his greatest weakness as a historian, this book shows that it was largely the impact of Marxism and the Russian Revolution that inspired the impressive objectivity, honesty and also the optimism which marked Ringelblum’s work.

That it took more than six decades for the first comprehensive history of the Oyneg Shabes to be written and published says a lot about the political and intellectual climate following the re-stabilization of capitalism after the defeat of the German Reich in 1945. (One might also mention that, to this day, little original research into the Holocaust in Poland has been put forward by non-Jewish German historians.) Emanuel Ringelblum, in particular, has gained far too little attention from scholars and among a broader readership, both in Poland and internationally.

Upon its publication in 2007, the book met with well-deserved critical acclaim. Indiana University Press and its main editor, Janet Rabinowitch, are to be credited with producing a meticulously edited work. By now, it has been translated into several languages, including German and French. Moreover, a film based on the book is currently being planned. The volume’s success shows that the subject matter and the manner of its presentation are striking a deep chord.

Who Will Write Our History? stands out all the more in an ideological climate where, under the impact of post-modernism, the rejection of historical truth and the study of history as a science are all too prevalent.

Asked about the main message of his work, Samuel Kassow stated in a radio interview from 2009:

I think the legacy [of the Oyneg Shabes and Ringelblum] is that in times of disaster one can resist not only with guns but also with paper and with pen. Ringelblum and many other Jews understood that if the Germans would win the war, they would determine how the Jews would be remembered, that they would control the sources, they would control the memory and the image. Jews in the Ghetto, historians in the Ghetto, even if they understood that they would probably not survive … still believed it was important to leave time capsules, to leave sources, so that posterity would remember Polish Jewry, its last chapter, on the basis of Jewish sources. The real message is that history is important. It’s important to conserve documents, it’s important to conserve a record. It’s not just for antiquarians, it’s not just for librarians, but it’s really about the future of an entire people. And on a more general level, it instills a healthy respect for preserving the sense of the past.

It speaks to the great legacy of the Oyneg Shabes that, on the basis of their work, Kassow was able to bring to life in his book political and intellectual traditions and figures that fascism sought to obliterate. On many levels, Who Will Write Our History? is one of the most significant history books of recent years and deserves the broadest possible readership.

An introduction into some of the material from Oyneg Shabes is provided online by Yad Vashem.

Works by Emanuel Ringelblum published in English:

Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, Ibooks 2006.
Polish-Jewish Relations During the Second World War, Northwestern University Press 1992.

The diary by the Oyneg Shabes member Abraham Lewin, covering the months April 1942 to January 1943, is also available in English:

A Cup of Tears. A Diary of the Warsaw Ghetto, ed. by Antony Polonsky, Basic Backwell 1989.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/25/kass-j25.html

 

10 Brutal Ways the American Safety Net Is Being Shredded

FDR’s New Deal is in trouble in 2015.

On the 80th anniversary of the Social Security Act of 1935, which established the social security system in the United States, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal is on life support as the American middle class continues to be squeezed and millions of Americans struggle with poverty.

The U.S. desperately needed a New Deal 3.0 after the crash of September 2008 and a program of aggressive reforms. Instead, most of the welfare that followed the Panic of 2008 has been corporate welfare rather than programs to help America’s embattled poor and middle class. Overall, the U.S. has been moving away from the New Deal when it should be reinvigorating it. Below are 10 ways in which the New Deal (and by extension, LBJ’s Great Society) continues to be under attack in the United States.

1. Income Inequality Is Going from Bad to Worse

FDR firmly believed that capitalism cannot function well without a strong middle class, and even auto magnate Henry Ford agreed with him: Ford famously said that American workers needed to be paid a decent wage in order to be able to afford his products. And during the post-FDR America of the 1950s and 1960s, having a robust middle class was great for a variety of businesses. But in 2015—with the gains of the New Deal having been imperiled by everything from union busting to the outsourcing of millions of American jobs—income inequality in the U.S. is a huge problem. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development recently released a report on income inequality among OECD members and found that the U.S. was among the worst offenders. The U.S., Mexico and Turkey had some of highest income inequality of OECD countries, while Denmark, the Czech Republic, Finland, Iceland and Belgium fared much better. OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría commented that “high inequality is bad for growth,” and he’s absolutely right.

2. Republicans Yearn for Social Security Privatization

Although President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a Republican, he supported elements of the New Deal and saw the need for a strong social safety net: in fact, Eisenhower expanded social security, and in 1954, he bluntly asserted that any oligarchs who would “attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance and eliminate labor law and farm programs” were “stupid.” But in the 21st century, Republicans have been going after social security with a vengeance. The privatization of social security was proposed by President George W. Bush in 2004, and far-right Republicans, the Tea Party and wingnut lobbying groups like the Club for Growth have been doubling down on the idea of privatizing social security. GOP presidential hopeful Jeb Bush called for social security privatization at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire in June, and he also favors raising the social security retirement age to 69 or 70, which would be especially bad for blue-collar workers who have spent decades in physically demanding jobs.

3. The 1% Continue to Dodge Taxes

FDR had no problem asking the ultra-wealthy to pay their fair share of taxes: the U.S.’ top marginal tax rate rose to 94% in the early 1940s, when the country entered World War II. Taxes for the ultra-rich didn’t go down much under Republican Eisenhower, who lowered the top tax rate to 91% in the 1950s—and after that rate decreased to 28% under President Reagan, it rose to 39.6% under President Clinton and decreased to 35% under President George W. Bush. Looking at the last 80 years of tax history, one sees a clear pattern: the American middle class does much better when the 1% pay their fair share of taxes. And even though the Tea Party tries to paint Barack Obama as a soak-the-rich president, their assertion is laughable because Obama extended the Bush tax cuts and hasn’t been nearly as forceful as FDR or Eisenhower when it comes to taxing the 1%.

4. The Minimum Wage Is Much Too Low

One of the important elements of the New Deal was FDR’s strong belief in a national minimum wage. FDR began to push for a federal minimum wage after taking office in January 1933, saying, “By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level. I mean the wages of a decent living.” And Congress enacted one in 1938, when the U.S.’ first federal minimum wage was set at 25 cents per hour. But in recent years, the federal minimum wage (which was raised to $7.25 an hour in 2009) has not kept up with inflation. Economist Robert Reich has proposed raising the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, which he sees as a crucial part of economic recovery. And in some cities, including Los Angeles and Seattle, city councils have raised their local minimum wages to that amount. But at the federal level, an increase to even $10.10 an hour (President Obama’s proposal) is a steep uphill climb when both houses of Congress are dominated by far-right Republicans who hate the poor with a passion.

5. Infrastructure Continues to Deteriorate

The New Deal was great for the U.S.’ infrastructure thanks to programs that built or strengthened everything from roads to water and electric systems to municipal power plants. But in recent years, the American infrastructure has been seriously decaying—and a major wake-up call came on May 12, when an Amtrak train derailed in Philadelphia and eight passengers were killed. But the nation’s railways are only one of the ways in which the U.S.’ infrastructure has deteriorated. According to Ray LaHood (former secretary of transportation for the Obama Administration), 70,000 bridges in the U.S. are now structurally deficient. That is in addition to all the roads that are in desperate need of repair. And when it comes to high-speed rail travel, the U.S. lags way behind Europe (where one can get from London to Brussels in just under two hours or from Madrid to Barcelona in less than three hours).

6. Union Representation Has Reached Historic Lows 

One of the most important pieces of New Deal-era legislation was the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, a.k.a. the Wagner Act, which did a lot to advance labor unions in the U.S.: by the mid-1950s, around 35% of America’s labor force was unionized. But according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), a mere 11.1% of salaried U.S. workers (factoring in both the public and private sectors) were union members in 2014. Among private-sector workers, the number was a paltry 6.6%. And the decline of unions has been encouraged bad working conditions: according to the Economic Policy Institute, executives at large companies earned, on average, 296 times as much as their average workers in 2013 compared to only 20 times as much in 1965. But as much as labor unions have declined in the U.S., Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (a GOP presidential hopeful for 2016) and his fellow Republicans would like to see them decline even more. Walker recently set a disturbing precedent in that state when he supported anti-union legislation that prohibits private-sector unions from requiring members to pay union dues; Walker has, in essence, made Wisconsin a northern “right to work” state. And it’s safe to say that Walker, based on his actions in Wisconsin, would be among the most anti-union presidents in U.S. history.

7. “Too Big to Fail” Is Bigger Than Ever

Unlike many of today’s extreme-right Republicans and neoliberal corporatist Democrats, FDR was not afraid of offending the banking sector. FDR said of the banksters of the 1930s, “They are unanimous in their hate for me, and I welcome their hatred.” One of the New Deal achievements that banksters detested was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, which mandated a strict separation of commercial and investment banking and was designed to prevent another major Wall Street calamity like the crash of 1929. Glass-Steagall served the U.S. well for many years: although there were some tough recessions in the mid-1970s, early 1980s and early 1990s, none of them cut as deep as the Great Depression. But the repeal of Glass-Steagall in 1999 was a major blow to the New Deal and paved the way for the crash of September 2008, clearly the most devastating financial event in the U.S. since 1929. Unfortunately, there was no real banking reform after the 2008 calamity, and as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders points out, JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo are now “80% larger” than they were in 2007. Critics of the banking sector propose bringing back Glass-Steagall, including Reich (who warns that another major Wall Street crash “is not unlikely”) and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren. And Sanders has proposed New Deal-like legislation that would break up the U.S.’ largest banks.

8. Medicare, An Expansion of the New Deal, Is a Major GOP Target

Medicare, which established a single-payer health care system for Americans 65 and older, was not part of the New Deal per se: Medicare came into being in 1965 as part of Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society (which was very much an extension of the New Deal). And the program proved to be so popular that even Republican President Richard Nixon (who was considered an arch-conservative in his day) expanded Medicare in both 1969 and 1972. But these days, far-right GOP wingnuts in the House of Representatives—especially Rep. Paul Ryan, chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee—have repeatedly called for drastic Medicare cuts and for replacing traditional Medicare with a privatized voucher program. In June, a variety of pro-Medicare groups (including the Alliance for Retired Americans and the Medicare Rights Center) sent a joint letter to the House criticizing representatives who wanted to cut $700 million from the Medicare program.

9. Home Ownership Is Becoming Increasingly Difficult for Many Americans, and the Rent Is Too Damn High

Before the New Deal, five-year or 10-year mortgages were the norm in the U.S., and were unaffordable for most Americans. But FDR saw home ownership as a crucial part of building a strong middle class: between the Federal Housing Administration, the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation and the introduction of 30-year fixed-rate mortgages—all of which came about under FDR—home ownership in the U.S. gradually increased. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, home ownership in the U.S. went from 45% in 1920 and 47% in 1930 to 55% in 1950, 61% in 1960 and 62% in 1970. But the Crash of 2008 has been terrible for American homeowners, resulting in countless foreclosures, and banksters have been allowed to acquire and rent out many foreclosed homes. The private equity firm Blackstone Group had, as of late 2013, bought almost 40,000 homes in the U.S. in order to rent them. To make matters worse, all those post-2008 foreclosures have caused rents to skyrocket all over the country. And the more one pays in rent, the harder it is to save for a down payment on a home. To quote Jimmy McMillan, the rent is too damn high.

10. Wingnut Attacks on Food Stamps Never End

The American food stamps program started on a pilot basis under FDR’s secretary of agriculture, Henry A. Wallace, in 1939 but became permanent when LBJ signed the Food Stamp Act of 1964 into law as part of his Great Society. In recent years, the U.S.’ economic decline has been so painful that, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of Americans poor enough to quality for food stamps was 46.2 million in 2014 compared to only 17 million in 2000. Food stamps, as envisioned under the New Deal and the Great Society, are designed to be a stepping stone for the poor—and the benefits (which presently average $127.91 per month per person, according to USDA figures) are hardly lavish. But that has not prevented Republicans in Congress from repeatedly proposing dramatic food stamp cuts during the Great Recession. And in Wisconsin, Gov. Scott Walker has been trying to punish and shame food stamp recipients by subjecting them to drug-testing.

Alex Henderson’s work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

http://www.alternet.org/economy/10-brutal-ways-american-safety-net-being-shredded?akid=13331.265072.iZeSe-&rd=1&src=newsletter1039872&t=1

How to make $7 billion in 45 minutes

Jeff Bezos, CEO and founder of Amazon, at the introduction of the new Amazon Kindle Fire HD and Kindle Paperwhite personal devices, in Santa Monica, Calif., Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)

25 July 2015

On Thursday, Amazon, the online retail giant, announced that, contrary to analysts’ predictions and after months of financial losses, it had turned a profit in the second quarter.

The stock market responded with euphoria. Amazon’s share price surged by 18 percent in a single day, adding $40 billion to the company’s market capitalization. With 154,000 employees, Amazon overnight became the world’s largest retailer by market capitalization, surpassing Wal-Mart, with 2.2 million employees.

The market response was conditioned by the fact that stocks have been registering significant losses in the US in the past week, with earnings reports of major companies falling short of expectations amidst growing signs of slump in the United States and internationally.

These include a continuing sharp fall in the prices of commodities such as oil and iron ore, along with declining growth rates in China and a number of emerging markets, and ongoing stagnation in Europe. The International Monetary Fund earlier this month predicted the worst year for global growth since 2009, and last week the US Federal Reserve Board, in its semiannual Monetary Policy Report, painted a grim picture of the state of the US economy.

The signs are mounting—the stock panic in China, extreme volatility on US markets—that the disconnect between a stagnant real economy and a booming stock market, which has prevailed in the US since the beginning of the stock market recovery in the spring of 2009, may well be setting the stage for a new financial meltdown even greater than that of 2008.

In the meantime, multibillionaires such as Amazon CEO Jeffrey Bezos continue to milk the economy. For Bezos, Thursday’s trading was, to put it mildly, lucrative. He made $7 billion in 45 minutes.

Now the seventh-richest man in the world, Bezos saw his wealth surge to $43 billion. For all the hype surrounding the company he founded 20 years ago, Bezos got his billions by sweating his workers, monopolizing the market and capitalizing on a decades-long financial bubble.

Employees in Amazon’s fulfillment centers are paid $11-12 per hour. They are subject to grueling and humiliating conditions. They are regularly searched and foremen record how many times they use the restroom.

A 2011 report in a Pennsylvania newspaper noted that the company would not open the doors to ventilate one of its warehouses even when temperatures reached 110 degrees, for fear of theft. When workers started passing out, the company stationed ambulances outside for them.

Amazon now accounts for a bigger share of online sales than the next dozen competitors. It has used its enormous market power to strong-arm small publishers and authors, recently announcing unilaterally that it will start paying authors of e-books by the page view, instead of by the download, resulting in sharply reduced commissions. Bezos purchased the Washington Post with $250 million of his personal funds in 2013.

It is worth making some comparisons. The amount of money Bezos made Thursday is:

* Equivalent to what 300,000 US workers earning the median income earn in an entire year.

* Forty-seven times larger than the annual budget for the National Endowment for the Arts.

* Three hundred and eighteen times the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s deficit, which is being addressed by shutting off water to tens of thousands of households.

* More than two-thirds of the annual funding of America’s free and reduced-price school lunch program.

* Enough to provide every one of America’s 15.8 million hungry children $450 per year in food assistance.

The accumulation of such personal wealth amid the vast social misery that prevails in the United States can only be called obscene. But such an assessment would be news to the US media, which salutes every milestone hit by the Dow or NASDAQ with rapture and depicts the members of America’s billionaire oligarchy as geniuses and innovators.

There is something deeply dysfunctional about an economic system in which the announcement of a $92 million profit—the first-ever quarterly profit reported by Amazon—triggers $40 billion in share purchases in a matter of minutes.

The continual diversion of vast amounts of money into the stock market is a symptom of an underlying economic crisis of immense proportions. Every dollar that goes into speculating on a stock like Amazon, with a price-to-earnings ratio of nearly 1,000, is a dollar not used for productive investment.

While the real economy in the US has grown by only 13 percent since the depth of the recession in 2009, all three major American stock indexes have more than tripled. This year, NASDAQ for the first time surpassed the heights it reached just before the collapse of the dot.com bubble in 2000.

Meanwhile, the US economy shrank at an annual rate of 0.2 percent in the first quarter of this year. The falloff in economic activity was led by a collapse in business fixed investment, which fell by 2 percent. Investment in nonresidential structures fell by 18 percent.

The sharp fall in investment came despite the fact that US corporations are hoarding some $1.4 trillion in cash and similar assets, the largest such figure on record, amassed as a result of years of record profits amid falling wages and an influx of cheap money from the world’s central banks.

Instead of using this cash to hire workers and build factories, corporations are diverting it to raise dividends, buy back shares, hike executive pay and carry out mergers and acquisitions, all at record levels. Earlier this year, the Wall Street Journal reported that major US corporations in 2013 spent 36 percent of their operating cash to buy back their own shares, more than double the rate a decade before.

This speculative frenzy has been driven by six years of near-zero interest rates and money printing by the Federal Reserve, whose policies underlie the enormous overvaluation of companies such as Amazon.

The performance of the US stock market has decoupled from economic growth to such an extent that any indication of genuine recovery in the real economy generally prompts a market sell-off, while signs of economic slump tend to send the markets higher.

This state of affairs is an expression of the crisis and decline of American capitalism, which has for nearly four decades responded to declining profit margins in manufacturing by turning ever more decisively to financial parasitism.

The US ruling class and the capitalist system over which it presides have no answers to the social crisis in America. For every problem, they have the same solution: impoverish workers and use the money to gamble on the stock market. If workers don’t like it, there are always the police to keep them in line.

Andre Damon

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/25/pers-j25.html

The PAH: defending the right to housing in Spain

By Timothy Ginty On July 23, 2015

Post image for The PAH: defending the right to housing in SpainIn Spain, where the government bails out banks, the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages (PAH) bails out families and defends their right to housing.

In February 2009, after the Spanish government had shown itself incapable of enforcing Article 47 of the Spanish Constitution — declaring that “all Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing” — a citizens’ assembly was held in Barcelona to establish the Platform for People Affected by Mortgages, or the PAH (Spanish: Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca), a social movement which would wait for neither government action nor market corrections for this right to be enforced.

The PAH’s immediate aims are simple — the prevention of the systematic eviction of tens of thousands of debtors across Spain — but its larger dream is bolder: the achievement of the socio-economic conditions in which the human right to housing may be secure.

It is the ceaseless energy of this grassroots platform, its repertoire of organizing tactics, and its ability to bring disaffected and disadvantaged people together that has made it so popular amongst Spain’s mass of indignados and so feared by its minority class of bankers, developers and investors whose interests are secured by the casta suits of the governing PP and the opposition PSOE — or the PPSOE, as one PAH organizer put it.

It is this movement of people which we in the international left should look to for both inspiration and instruction in the fight against austerity. And it is for this reason that this article has been written: to paint us a portrait of the PAH and to give us a glimpse at how it operates — how it feels, how it looks, how it speaks — in its oldest branch of Barcelona.

No one left behind

Most people’s first encounter with the PAH will be through its weekly welcome assemblies held in Barcelona’s tightly-knit barrio of Hostafrancs, where upon entry you’ll be greeted with a friendly smile and, if you’re a first-timer to the meetings, you’ll be given a paper rose made with a Catalan flag tied to its stem. As you adjust to the sweaty heat generated from the  80 or so people squashed into the PAH headquarters, all waving their hand-held fans to keep the heat at bay, you might notice that a good deal of the participants and a large majority of the organizers are women.

On a letter printed and placed onto the doors of the assembly hall, a PAH participant thanks her new friends for providing the warmth and love that only a mother knows, for helping her to help herself and then to help others, for bringing dignity and hope back into her life. These are the elements — dignity, respect, mutual-aid — which define a welcoming assembly, and are seen by the PAH to be absolutely integral to the participants’ struggle to reclaim their right to housing.

Tears are not uncommon in these assemblies, especially when the veterans are invited to stand up to tell the newer participants of a recent victory they’ve had: their stories are always moving, the responses always touching, and you see that the PAH really is a family, a place where the pain and gain of one is felt by all.

For those most in need of emotional support there is a smaller closed assembly where people may come to tell their story in an open environment of mutual respect and listening, where people may come to see that others are experiencing and feeling the very same as they do, where they can see that the guilt is not theirs, that they can still hold their heads high.

If the heart of the PAH is the welcoming assembly, then the head must be its actions and coordinating assembly, which meets once a week to keep the gears of the movement oiled. But before this assembly even begins to discuss the host of actions the movement has in gestation, it must decide on the day-to-day responsibilities of the attendees. Everyone present is asked to contribute to one small but essential part of the PAH — one pair to help out with cleaning, another to update the calendar, someone else to record minutes, another to keep track of time while someone else moderates — and all are rotated every week.

For anyone schooled in more bureaucratic forms of social and political groups, this process — which is as true of the more routine tasks as those duties with more responsibility — may seem tedious and unimportant, but it is of course the process which matters here; the process of participation, of mutual support and of self-organization which define the PAH as an organization where everyone has a role to play, where everybody leads and none are left behind.

Tom Joad’s inheritors

Once into gear the assembly can cover much ground, and within a couple of hours of one particular meeting the group had already discussed three major campaigns. First was the Citizens’ Legislative Initiative, or the ILP, a major joint campaign between the Barcelona PAH, the Alliance Against Energy Poverty and the Observatory for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which has gathered around 140,000 signatures in Catalonia calling for emergency measures to combat the social crisis created by mortgage evictions and utilities cut-offs.

The ILP draws on a mechanism allowing citizens’ proposals to be voted on by Catalan parliament, requiring 50,000 signatures to be effective, meaning that the Barcelona ILP has nearly tripled the required amount of petitioners. The ILP, which will be voted on today, July 23, proposed five measures which could stem the flow of around 50 families per day from their houses to the streets or to precarious housing. They demand that any remaining debt of the evictees be liquidated, allowing them a second chance to rebuild their lives.

They furthermore demand that empty apartments held by banks be used as emergency housing for evictees, while for those facing eviction they demand the right to a ‘social rent’, which means that indebted homeowners may pay only what they can pay, and that cut-offs of water, gas and electricity must end immediately, with the state stepping in to assure access if the companies cannot respect the rights of their customers. If the ILP passes parliament this July, the PAH and its social partners will have scored a truly enormous victory for thousands and thousands of families across Catalonia.

It will be an important victory because the PAH knows that their fight is one which must also confront the myriad of factors that compound Spain’s housing crisis, including the squeeze of rising energy bills arriving in the mail from private utility companies (‘monstrous’ organizations, as one PAH organizer described them) and the cuts in healthcare and education that have accompanied previous cuts in wages and benefits. Meanwhile, the explosion of ‘flexible’ contracts means that credit is impossible to get by for many, endangering people’s ability to pay their monthly rents or mortgage payments on time.

What’s more, this crisis exists in a global context where international investment and financial companies like Blackstone (see the video #BlackstoneEvicts) and Goldman Sachs buy up tens of thousands of empty apartments at heavily discounted prices from banks. One of the largest deals secured by Blackstone involved some 40,000 apartments in Catalonia alone, with a real value somewhere near 6.4 billion euros, which were purchased for the sum of 3.6 billion euros: if the banks can give Blackstone a discount, the PAH asks, then why can’t they give the people one?

This is why the PAH has begun organizing alliances with similar movements in the UK, the US and soon perhaps in Brazil, where the Movement of Workers without Roofs is facing the same investment banking foes as its counterparts in Spain. The fight being fought from Barcelona’s barrios, from London’s New Era Estate, from the US boroughs, from anywhere where “there’s a fight so hungry people can eat,” Tom Joad’s inheritors will be there.

The PAH’s Obra Social

But far away from the negotiations with the banks, from the political labyrinth of the Catalan parliament, from the long hard work of building national and international alliances, the bread and butter of the PAH remains the prevention of eviction and homelessness.

When all efforts of the debtor fail, when all negotiations and offers are rejected, after lies are told and myths are spread to scare people into making strangling payments (that, for example, the debt may be paid by the children; that, for instance, a migrant might be forced to return to their home country for a failed mortgage), then the PAH’s Obra Social (Social Work) will step in to ensure that the family will not end up on the street — sleeping, perhaps like so many thousands of others in Barcelona, in the ATM vestibules of the very banks that evicted them.

The Obra Social is the body which — when the bank is not prepared to find alternative housing for the tenant, when there is no room at anyone’s inn — will help the evicted family occupy one of the thousands of empty apartments owned by the banks. But to say that the banks actually ‘own’ these empty flats is, as one PAH organizer put it, entirely misleading, for it was the Spanish people who bailed out these banks during the crisis, and it is therefore the Spanish people who own these properties.

The PAH has a simple slogan: the government bails out banks, our platform bails out people. Here the shibboleth of private property becomes particularly naked and grotesque when, as in Spain, you have one of Europe’s greatest number of empty apartments and its greatest rate of evictions. Can we still imagine a world where this does not occur, where human rights finally come to trump contractual rights? The members of the PAH certainly can.

Timothy Ginty is a freelance writer completing a master’s degree in World History at the University of Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona. You can read his blog, Lives and Times, here.

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To learn more about the PAH, the documentary Seven Days with the PAH (Siete Días en la PAH), is available (with English subtitles) here, and you can download the book Vidas Hipotecadas (in Spanish) here.

 

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/pah-human-right-housing-spain/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Donald Trump: The ugly face of capitalist politics

trump-hair

By Patrick Martin
24 July 2015

The rise of billionaire Donald Trump to a leading position in the Republican presidential race is proof that scum floats to the top of the pool. But Trump is not an aberration, or a distraction, or a “disgrace,” as some media commentators have claimed—except in the sense that American capitalist politics as a whole is a disgrace.

The Des Moines Register lambasted Trump in an editorial calling for his withdrawal from the presidential race, calling him “a feckless blowhard who can generate headlines, name recognition and polling numbers not by provoking thought, but by provoking outrage.” An appropriate description, but one that applies to all the other capitalist politicians in the race for president, to a greater or lesser degree. Not one of them, Trump included, tells the truth to working people or has any genuine mass following.

Trump personifies the backwardness and decay of the American political system and the American financial aristocracy. He first came to prominence in the real estate boom that followed the near-bankruptcy of New York City in 1975. After the city was bailed out through massive concessions by the unions, including the looting of workers’ pension funds to fuel speculative investment, the conditions were created for the transformation of parts of Manhattan into gated communities for the extremely rich.

The scion of a real estate family of middling wealth, Trump cashed in through investments in luxury apartments for ultra-high-net-worth individuals, as in his eponymous Trump Tower. A 91-page financial report filed with the Federal Election Commission this week confirms that the self-styled “master builder” is mainly engaged in servicing the vices of the super-rich, specializing in casinos, golf courses and luxury resorts. He is a parasite on the parasites. There is virtually no productive activity associated with the 515 enterprises in which he is involved, including 391 bearing his name.

In the past two decades, Trump has built his wealth by promoting himself through a variety of media ventures, beginning with “The Apprentice.” The dubious character of his claim to a $10 billion fortune is demonstrated by his valuation of his “brand” alone at $3.2 billion. But such valuations are not out of place in the Wall Street of 2015, where financial speculation and skullduggery are preparing an even greater crash than in 2008.

Trump’s egomania is coupled with broad, undifferentiated ignorance of politics and issues of state. He recently told an interviewer, explaining his reluctance to read books, “One of the problems with foreign policy is that it changes on a daily basis.”

That said, Trump has a sharp eye for the main chance and a ruthless grasp of the nature of his opponents, both Republican and Democratic. His public announcement of the cellphone number of Senator Lindsey Graham was not just a publicity stunt, but a demonstration that he has taken the measure of the South Carolina Republican. Graham denounced Trump this week as a “jackass,” but was rather more conciliatory when he called the billionaire a few years ago pleading for a campaign contribution and assistance in getting back in the good graces of Fox News.

Trump was equally cutting (and accurate) in his assessment of the likely Democratic nominee, noting Hillary Clinton’s maneuvers in response to the challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “Hillary is going way left, and I sort of laugh because I know Hillary very well,” he told the Hill. “The interesting part about Hillary is that her donors are all the hedge fund guys and the business guys and the real estate guys. And they’re all saying, ‘Do you think she means it?’ And I say, ‘Of course she doesn’t mean it — you know her.’”

The combination of Trump’s celebrity and his presumed wealth, as well as the crudeness of his bigoted and right-wing pronouncements, have propelled him, at least for now, into the leadership of the Republican presidential field, with 24 percent support, compared to 13 percent and 12 percent respectively for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. His standing is a measure of the insignificance of his opponents and the lack of popular enthusiasm for the array of reactionaries and political hucksters who make up the Republican field.

The demographics of his support, as reported in recent polls, show Trump’s likely voters as generally younger, lower income and less ideologically conservative than the Tea Party faction that has dominated Republican Party primaries in recent years. By fomenting anti-immigrant bigotry, Trump is seeking to make an appeal to the latter ultra-right layer as well.

There is no reason to think that Trump believes anything he says about any political issue. He has been for and against universal health care, abortion, expanding Social Security benefits, and tax increases on the rich. He contributed to the political campaigns of Hillary Clinton and at one point pronounced himself a Democrat before shifting to the Republicans in the past decade.

Trump is thus no different than the typical American capitalist politician or CEO, albeit more cartoonish. But he can hardly be said to be the most disgusting political figure in a country whose president publicly boasts of his assassinations, listing the men he has killed with evident relish, and whose rivals include the aforementioned Lindsey Graham, who recently threatened that he would authorize drone missile strikes on any American who even thinks of joining ISIS.

As for the faux media outrage over Trump—from newspapers and networks that have happily profited from the billionaire’s enterprises—what do they offer as a counterpoint? New York Times columnist Frank Bruni is a case in point: presenting the self-confessed Vietnam War mass murderer, former Senator Robert Kerrey, as the voice of moral condemnation.

One study showed that the media itself is the main generator of Trump’s political rise. Before his announcement of candidacy, the billionaire was mentioned in only 4 percent of articles covering the Republican campaign. From the day he entered the race, this figure shot up to 30 percent and has remained at 20 to 30 percent ever since.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/24/trum-j24.html

The problem with center-left critiques of neoliberalism

By Martijn Konings On July 22, 2015

Post image for The problem with center-left critiques of neoliberalismThe Polanyian preoccupation with the social limits to the expansion of the market is really just a distraction from our own investment in the status quo.

Image shows Steve Lambert’s art installation Capitalism works for me!

It is now sometimes hard to remember — and for the generation that is now in college and wasn’t necessarily reading the opinion pages at the time, it may seem nothing short of perverse — but there was a period following the onset of the crisis when progressive commentary on economic and financial life was pervaded by intense optimism about the future. As overleveraged financial structures crumbled, progressive intelligentsia rang the death knell for the neoliberal principles that were so obviously responsible for the problems.

At the height of the crisis in September 2008, the excitement about the ‘return of the state’ was palpable. That the bailouts had some morally problematic aspects did of course not go unnoticed, but those were nonetheless seen as secondary in importance to the basic lesson they taught: that the capitalist economy does not regulate itself and needs the state. The future seemed to belong to public regulation and Keynesian intervention.

In the social sciences, such reasoning has become closely associated with the revival of the work of Karl Polanyi. The key concept here is that of the ‘double movement,’ which sees history as evolving in cycles: periodic ‘disembedding’ movements, when the speculative and individualizing logic of the market becomes unmoored from its social and political foundations, will be followed by ‘re-embedding’ movements, when society regroups and once again subordinates markets to the public good.

This model sees financial crises as powerful reminders of the inability of markets to regulate themselves, and accordingly takes them as political turning-points. The influence of this model of capitalist development has been significant throughout the neoliberal era, but has grown dramatically since the financial crisis, with some of the most prominent public intellectuals embracing it. Indeed, anyone who has misgivings about the role of markets and financial institutions in contemporary life and consults the social science literature for some deeper insight will soon encounter the name of Karl Polanyi.

The schema of the double movement has turned out to be just about the poorest guide to the post-crisis development of capitalism that we could have had.

Neoliberalism recharged

Instead of a break with the politics of financial expansion and hands-off regulation, what we got was a neoliberalism recharged. Not only have left-wing progressive reform agendas faltered almost everywhere, the past years have in fact seen a dramatic turn to austerity. In order to make sense of this state of affairs, progressive intellectuals have turned to the idea of regulatory or cognitive capture: it is the iron-fisted hold of financial elites on regulatory institutions and the mindsets of policymakers that has prevented the re-embedding movement from materializing.

But of course the disproportionate influence of elites on public policy is hardly a new phenomenon and is in many ways more symptom than cause. What needs explaining is precisely how the privileges of the financial sector have survived amidst widespread concerns about its legitimacy and intense hostility towards bankers. We are currently seeing the bizarre emergence of an academic growth sector devoted to explaining the failure of social reality to conform itself to social scientists’ fantasies of a re-embedding movement — a curious imitation of the financial sector’s own ability to profit from failure.

These kinds of post-crisis debates have been unable to come to terms with the considerable popular appeal and democratic legitimacy of neoliberalism. This has been most visible in the United States, where the Tea Party movement played a crucial role in bringing austerity to the top of the political agenda.

The movement originated in the widespread concern that the American government had become heavily involved in the picking of economic winners, and its central aim is to restore an America founded on republican values, where the undeserving were not pampered with bailouts. This phenomenon of ‘neoliberal populism’ manifests something that progressive commentators have profound difficulty relating to: the moral force of the orthodox image of the market and the ethical appeal of austerity as a means of purifying capitalist institutions.

The disembedding metaphor underlines this disconnect: it sets far too much store by the claims of the ‘dismal science’ as a guide to actually existing capitalism and places far too much emphasis on the morally corrosive aspects of the market.

Organizing our own oppression

The issue here isn’t just of academic interest: the growing stature of Polanyi’s work among social scientists reflects the more general tendency among progressive intellectuals to adopt as serious explanation what is little more than journalistic opinionating and left-of-center moralizing. In keeping with this style of political commentary, progressive commentators have gone out of their way to downplay the significance of neoliberal populism, dismissing it as irrational sentiment manufactured and manipulated by conservative elites.

More generally, to the extent that progressive intellectuals have engaged with the ethical charge of neoliberal capitalism, they have tended to focus on its paradoxical alliance with (neo)conservatism and the religious right. In this interpretation, private enrichment has been legitimated through appeals to conservative values, and large sections of the American public have been curiously unable to see through this hypocrisy. At the limit, this gives rise to the kind of despair at the people’s irrationality that is expressed in the title of Thomas Frank’s book What’s the Matter with Kansas?

To understand the attachment to neoliberalism as a kind of cognitive impairment is hardly a promising starting point for engaging it in a serious way. As a result, the left’s debate on austerity has remained superficial, revolving around the notion that it represents nothing but an ideological program imposed on populations from above and remaining largely silent on the question of how austerity discourses have been able to gain such traction in democratic polities.

The democratic character of our political systems is of course compromised in myriad ways, but — at least in a Western context — neoliberalism does not operate in a way that is primarily authoritarian. Its distinctive strength is its ability to lure us into organizing our own oppression.

Framed in psychological terms, progressive perspectives on austerity ‘externalize’ the problem, attributing problems to the nefarious machinations of scheming elites in order to disavow our own connection to it. The result is a critique of austerity that is moralistic, depicting it as a wrong policy or cognitive mistake without meaningful social or psychological roots.

That the capture concept is a neoliberal invention — it was pioneered by George Stigler, a founding member of the Mont Pelerin society — should alert us to a blind spot in the progressive critique of neoliberal capitalism. The neoliberal project is itself already fundamentally a critique of the ways in which public institutions have been captured by special interests. It looks to austerity as a means to restore an authentic republican ethos, a self-reliance that is not cynically utilitarian but responsible and accountable, capable of serving as the backbone of political community.

And here it is precisely the progressive-liberal character that is seen as the principal obstacle: it features as the embodiment of moral corruption, as elitist, condescending do-goodery that facilitates lazy, hedonistic dependency. The progressive critique of neoliberalism, then, operates somewhat unreflexively in the slipstream of the neoliberal assault on progressivism.

The power of austerity

Of course, the neoliberal management of austerity has often been a highly technocratic and depoliticized affair. But what needs explaining is precisely how democratic publics have come to embrace such self-limitation. Similarly, it is true that only the US has experienced a full-fledged movement of neoliberal populism. But the turn to austerity policies in the post-crisis Eurozone could never have been effective had it not been for the remarkable speed with which the focus of at least Western European public opinion was redirected from almost visceral disgust with financial elites to a general acceptance of key tenets of austerity policy — that budgets need balancing and debts need to be paid.

Explaining the power of austerity therefore requires an ability to critically penetrate an economic imaginary that enjoys considerable ethical appeal and democratic traction. The Polanyian preoccupation with the idea that there exist inherent social and political limits to the expansion of market logics, and its reliance on conspiratorial explanations for why those limits are not being enforced, are really just distractions from the real question of why we are so invested in the logic of neoliberal capitalism.

It is reflective of the malaise of present-day progressivism that it can only understand formulations such as the latter as encouraging a retreat from political action. In practice, it is of course precisely the advocacy of policy change that is associated with a dismissive attitude towards the spate of critical energies that have flourished since the crisis, counseling cautious accommodation to austerity politics no matter how minute and short-lived the discounts on offer.

That ethos serves to demobilize rather than energize resistance, and a meaningful critical engagement of neoliberal capitalism is premised on a break with a distinctly progressive-liberal way of thinking about economic life that is epitomized by the prominence of Polanyi’s ideas.

Martijn Konings teaches at the University of Sydney and is the author of The Emotional Logic of Capitalism: What Progressives Have Missed (2015).

 

 

http://roarmag.org/2015/07/polanyi-progressive-critique-neoliberalism-crisis/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+roarmag+%28ROAR+Magazine%29

Kids Count report: 22 percent of US children live in poverty

kidspic

By Tom Hall
22 July 2015

Twenty-two percent of all children in the United States live below the federal poverty line, significantly higher than during the height of the 2008-2009 economic crisis, according to a report issued Thursday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The latest edition of the Kids Count Data Book found that the number of children living in poverty rose by almost 3 million between 2008 and 2013, the latest year included in the data: from 13.2 million to 16.1 million. The US child poverty rate remains four percentage points higher than it was in 2008, when it stood at 18 percent.

“Especially worrying” to the authors is the fact that the percentage of children in high poverty neighborhoods has risen from 11 percent in 2006-2010 to 14 percent in 2013, the highest level since 1990. The report notes that children living in high-poverty areas are more likely to drop out of school or develop behavioral or emotional problems.

The percentage of children in high-poverty neighborhoods is significantly higher in former industrial centers such as Detroit, where 81 percent of children live in poor neighborhoods. This figure is also higher for African-American, Native American and Latino children, at 32, 30 and 24 percent respectively.

The report reflects the fact that Obama’s economic “recovery,” which has seen a massive increase in stock values and profits of major corporations, has been a catastrophe for the American working class, who have seen their living standards and those of their children decline precipitously during this period.

“Although we are several years past the end of the recession, millions of families still have not benefited from the economic recovery,” said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey Foundation. “While we’ve seen an increase in employment in recent years, many of these jobs are low-wage and cannot support even basic family expenses.”

“Only the most highly educated and highly paid workers have seen their wages grow, while inflation-adjusted wages for the lowest-income workers have slowly but gradually fallen,” the report states. This shift toward unskilled, low-paid professions since the “recovery” has led to an additional 1.7 million children living in “low-income working families” between 2008 and 2013.

It is widely acknowledged among researchers that “at a minimum, families need an income of at least twice the federal poverty level to cover basic expenses,” the report states. A total of 45 percent of all US children lived beneath this threshold in 2013.

The bleak job situation facing the US population “remains one of the primary obstacles to further reducing economic hardship among children and families,” according to the report. In addition to low wages, the number of jobs created after the 2008 financial crisis has not been sufficient to keep pace with the natural growth of the labor force. Thirty-one percent of children in 2013 had parents that lacked access to secure employment, defined as having a full time, year-round job. This is an increase from 27 percent in 2008, or 2.7 million additional children.

Income levels for US workers remain far below what they were prior to the recession. Median household income fell by 8 percent between 2007 and 2013, according to figures from the Federal Reserve.

Even industries which were once associated with a decent standard of living, especially those in manufacturing, have now been opened up as low-wage platforms. In a move spearheaded by the Obama administration’s auto restructuring, auto makers have institutionalized a “second tier” of employees who now make less, in real terms, than autoworkers a century ago. Wages have been lowered to the point where manufacturers are now “insourcing” some production back into the United States, eager to exploit the emerging and highly profitable low-wage economy.

The difficult economic conditions faced by American children are among the worst of any country in the industrialized world. A report by UNICEF last year found that the United States has one of the highest rates of child poverty in the developed world, as measured by the percentage of children beneath the median national income. The United States has the sixth-highest child poverty rate out of the 41 countries in the study, lower only than countries such as Mexico and Greece.

The social crisis has hit major urban centers particularly hard. An earlier reportalso released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that child poverty had risen in 35 of the 50 largest cities in the United States since 2005. In six American cities: Detroit, Cleveland, Miami, Milwaukee, Fresno and Memphis, the child poverty rate was higher than UNICEF’s figures for Greece, with Detroit and Cleveland topping 50 percent.

Even as the incomes of US workers have plunged, the profits of major corporations and the value of the stock market have soared. Major US stock indices have tripled since 2009, despite the fact that the real economy is still mired in slump, with the US economy barely growing over the first half of the year.

The wealth of the super-rich, meanwhile, continues to grow. A recent Forbesreport found that the wealth of the world’s billionaires, 536 of whom live in the United States, surged past $7 trillion earlier this year for the first time.

Even as millions of people have slid into poverty, the White House and Congress have slashed funding for social programs year after year. Total cuts to food stamps implemented over the past two years alone have added up to $13.7 billion. Meanwhile, federal extended unemployment benefits have been continually slashed, resulting in a smaller share of the unemployed receiving jobless benefits that at any point in the history of the program.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/07/22/kids-j22.html