Whose lives matter? The limitations of Bernie Sanders

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  • February 7, 2016

Our only hope for a radical internationalist movement lies in the self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

As the next US presidential election creeps closer, a significant segment of the American left — including the Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Alternative, and the socialist publication Jacobin — has thrown its support behind the presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. While perhaps predictable, these stances are symptoms of an American left that is both devoid of a practical strategy for radical change and ethically bankrupt with regard to the principles of solidarity.

The principles at stake are not fringe concerns. If anything, they are basic litmus tests of any individual’s commitment to socialism and human dignity. The fact that Sanders fails these tests raises an important question: Why is a large swathe of the left promoting a candidate who is neither anti-imperialist, nor anti-border, nor even socialist?

REASONS TO REMAIN SKEPTICAL

In terms of his actual policy proposals, Bernie Sanders is a milquetoast social democrat at best. He is not an anti-capitalist; he believes in the private ownership of the means of production and production for profit. In a socialist system, the means of production are owned and controlled by the working class. Sanders more-or-less explicitly rejects this vision, arguing instead for a US version of Scandinavian social democracy: a single-payer healthcare system, free higher education, a decent minimum wage, and Keynesian economic stimulus to support employment.

These policy issues are the basic positive proposals put forth by the Sanders campaign, and they have earned him the support of many US socialists. There are good reasons to remain extremely skeptical of Sanders’ candidacy, however.

First, Sanders is an imperialist whose foreign policy is more akin to that of Barack Obama than any anti-interventionist leftist. In his platform-defining speech, Sanders calls for a new “organization like NATO to confront the security threats of the 21st century.” In Congress, Sanders has been a vocal supporter of the appallingly wasteful F-35 program, opting to designate even more funding for the US military despite an ostensible commitment to cut defense spending.

Sanders is also a long-time supporter of Israel, even going so far as to approve of Israel’s unprovoked 2014 assault on Gaza, which killed over 1,600 Palestinian civilians. In October, the Sanders campaign ejected a group of activists from a campaign event for holding up a vague pro-Palestinian sign. If this were not enough, Sanders clearly states that he approves of and would continue Obama’s drone targeted assassination program, which has killed over 3,300 people in Pakistan alone since 2004.

Even beyond the question of imperialism, Sanders demonstrates an almost complete lack of internationalist principle. Sanders described open borders as “a Koch brothers proposal …which says essentially there is no United States,” contending that open borders would flood the country with immigrants who would wreck the job market and take ‘American’ jobs. This sort of rhetoric should be familiar to any leftist — it is exactly the same as that used by right-wing nativists to justify violence and discrimination against migrants.

The fact that Sanders buys into such nativist fantasies is particularly appalling. In doing so, he lends credence to a narrative that displaces working class anger from capitalism, which is actually responsible for poverty and unemployment, onto working people from other countries. In effect, Sanders implies that he would be more than happy to continue the disastrous immigration policies of the Obama administration, which has broken previous records by deporting over two million people.

A WIDER POLITICAL SHIFT

More than anything, Sanders’ success is symptomatic of an ongoing political shift in the United States. Popular support for “Third Way” neoliberal politics, as exemplified by the Clintons, is crumbling. The Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements have begun to reintroduce radical thought into the American political consciousness. In particular, young people are starting to recognize that capitalism is a deeply flawed system, and they are looking for alternatives.

Now is the time to articulate a coherent vision for radical change and organize in working-class communities so that we stand a chance of actualizing that vision. Organizing for Sanders, however, is not a realistic way to build a radical movement in the United States.

The arguments in support of the Sanders campaign remain remarkably unconvincing. In a recent Jacobin article, Nivedita Majumdar argues that the Sanders campaign can be used as a tool for organizing around the idea of socialism. She chides Bernie’s critics on the left for being “insular” and “apolitical,” seemingly more concerned with the social pressures of work within small activist groups than becoming politically relevant. However, as Lance Selfa points out, the strategy of organizing within the Democratic Party in hopes of building a larger movement has never been successful, despite repeated attempts by left reformists to that end.

Majumdar’s stance is based on an analysis of the American left that presumes an almost crippling weakness. She argues that revolutionary transformation is simply “not on the table,” which leads her to endorse Sanders despite his many flaws. The problem with this analysis is that it accepts defeat before the struggle has even begun. If the American left is so weak that we must be content with supporting any left-liberal candidate, how exactly do we plan to build support for the radical changes we actually need? We cannot build support for a socialist future by misleading the public about what socialism is. We cannot hope to win if we accept the premise that revolutionary change is impossible.

The American socialist left seems to be aware of many of Sanders’ limitations: his lack of genuine socialist politics, his imperialism, and his unjustifiable stances on immigration. The question, then, is why so many socialists choose to support his campaign anyway. If one’s stance on the means of production, NATO, the Israeli occupation, drone strikes and border controls are all negotiable, what positions are non-negotiable?

It is hard to believe that these shortcomings should be ignored simply because Sanders has social democratic convictions. By choosing to support Sanders, the reformist left suggests that it is acceptable to advocate for policies that seriously harm people of color, from undocumented migrants in the United States to innocent civilians in the Middle East.

A QUESTION OF LEFT STRATEGY

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change. It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society. We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress. More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory. Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people. It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

 

Ben Reynolds is a writer and activist based in New York. His commentary has appeared in CounterPunch and other forums.

 

https://roarmag.org/essays/whose-lives-matter-bernie-sanders/

Sanders and the left feint in capitalist politics

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. gestures during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Jan. 16, 2015, to discuss Republican efforts to cut Social Security and Medicare and other programs that have an impact on working families. Sanders, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, became the ranking minority member on the Senate Budget Committee when the new GOP-controlled Congress began. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

6 February 2016

Four days before the first presidential primary election, self-styled “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders holds a double-digit lead in New Hampshire over the presumed frontrunner for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The first national poll taken in the wake of Sanders’s virtual tie with Clinton in the Iowa caucuses showed that the senator from Vermont had surged nationally, trailing Clinton by only a narrow margin, 44 percent to 42 percent. If confirmed in subsequent polling, this would signal a remarkable shift in political sentiment compared to three months ago, when Clinton led Sanders by 61 percent to 30 percent.

The growing support for Sanders signals a dramatic change in the political environment in the United States, and hence, the world. It is all the more remarkable in a country where socialist ideas have been suppressed and excluded from official political discourse for three-quarters of a century.

The past three decades, in particular, have seen an extraordinary lowering of political culture, even by the standards of American politics. The political environment has been utterly stagnant, dominated by a relentless glorification of wealth and the exclusion of anything that smacks of genuine opposition. Every State of the Union address, including President Obama’s last month, has carried the obligatory assurance of how good things are in America.

The corporate media have perfected the art of creating a synthetic public opinion that bears no relation to the real sentiments of the vast bulk of the population, and then using that supposed public consensus to justify the reactionary policies of the ruling class. The broad support for Sanders and the crisis of the supposedly unbeatable Clinton campaign, which have taken the entire political and media establishment by surprise, have exposed the fraudulent character of what has passed for public opinion.

Particularly noteworthy is the radicalization among young people, who sided with Sanders over Clinton in the Iowa caucuses by 84 percent to 14 percent. Sanders leads Clinton by similar margins among likely Democratic primary voters 30 and under in New Hampshire, according to the most recent polls.

As Washington Post columnist Catherine Rampell grudgingly admitted in the Friday edition of the newspaper, the current generation of youth, to which she belongs, “love Sanders not despite his socialism, but because of it… Many of us also entered the job market just as unbridled capitalism appeared to blow up the world economy. Perhaps for this reason, millennials actually seem to prefer socialism to capitalism.”

The support for Sanders is inextricably linked to his professions of intransigent hostility to the financial aristocracy that dominates American society. In Thursday night’s debate in New Hampshire, Sanders declared again that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud,” while reiterating his criticisms of Clinton for accepting millions in campaign contributions and speaker’s fees from Goldman Sachs and other major financial institutions. The entire first hour of the debate was devoted to a discussion of the pernicious role of big business and whether the major banks should be broken up to prevent a recurrence of the 2008 Wall Street crash.

The rise of Sanders is a response to decades of war and reaction, culminating in the financial collapse of 2008, with its devastating impact on social conditions in the United States. As the consequences of the global crisis of capitalism have unfolded—the destruction of decent-paying jobs, the austerity policies of capitalist governments throughout the world, the buildup of the forces of a police state to suppress working class opposition, and the unending series of wars by American imperialism—tens of millions of workers and youth have begun to draw increasingly radical conclusions.

There are signs of panic setting in within the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party establishment as a whole. This is not because they view Sanders himself as a threat to capitalism or the political domination of the corporate-financial elite. The ruling class has a long experience with the “independent socialist” from Vermont. For decades, first in the House of Representatives and then in the Senate, he has caucused with the Democratic Party and supported every Democratic presidential candidate and every Democratic administration.

Always treated respectfully, he has been seen as a valuable political asset, providing a left cover for the Democratic Party and promoting the illusion that this right-wing capitalist party is somehow a progressive party of the people.

However, the popular credibility of the Democrats has been massively undermined by seven years of the Obama administration. In this situation, the grave danger confronting the American capitalist class is the emergence of a political movement outside the two-party system that challenges the domination of the super-rich over every aspect of US society. Bernie Sanders is not the herald of such a movement, but a false prophet who is neither genuinely socialist nor genuinely independent.

The Socialist Equality Party evaluates the significance of the Sanders campaign not by its campaign promises, or the illusions of those who now support him, but on the basis of a Marxist analysis of objective class relations and a historically grounded international perspective.

The rise of the Vermont “socialist” is not purely an American phenomenon, but the American expression of an international process. In country after country, under the impact of the global economic crisis of capitalism, the ruling class has brought forward “left” bourgeois parties to divert mass opposition into harmless channels. This is the role of figures like Jeremy Corbyn, the newly elected leader of the Labour Party in Britain, and Podemos in Spain, now maneuvering to form a coalition government with the discredited social democrats. In the most extreme cases, as in Greece, the “left” has been brought directly into power, in the form of the Syriza government, and charged with the responsibility of imposing capitalist austerity policies on the masses.

Leon Trotsky, the co-leader of the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, explained how the ruling class manipulates the political system within the framework of bourgeois democracy. “The capitalist bourgeois calculates,” he wrote, “’At the right moment I will bring into existence opposition parties, which will disappear tomorrow, but which today accomplish their mission by affording the possibility of the lower middle class expressing their indignation without hurt therefrom for capitalism’” (Terrorism and Communism, p. 58).

If the American financial aristocracy thought Sanders represented a genuine threat to its interests, it would not be putting him on national television to deliver his jeremiads before a mass audience. The ruling elite has more than a century of experience in the use of such figures to manipulate mass sentiment and safeguard the profit system from challenges from below. These include third-party efforts like the Populist Party of the 1890s, the Progressive movement of the early 20th century, the Farmer-Labor Party of Robert La Follette in Wisconsin in the 1920s (and related groups in Minnesota and the Dakotas) and the Progressive Party of Henry Wallace in 1948. All these campaigns dissolved, sooner or later, back into the Democratic Party.

In the past half-century, the ruling elite has sought to avoid any significant “left” third-party efforts, using the Democratic Party itself as the principal vehicle for containing and dissipating mass popular opposition to the US ruling elite, whether over the Vietnam War, the violent attacks on labor struggles in the 1980s, or the endless wars in the Middle East and the staggering growth of social inequality. Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy in 1968 and George McGovern in 1972 were followed by Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Howard Dean in 2004, and now Bernie Sanders.

Considered in this historical framework, what is remarkable about Sanders is how vacuous his supposed radicalism really is. He is far less radical in his domestic policy than the Populists, the anti-Wall Street presidential campaigns of William Jennings Bryan, and the Farmer-Laborites. In the crucial area of foreign policy, he is virtually indistinguishable from Obama and Hillary Clinton, even attacking them from the right on issues like trade with China. When asked directly last year about his attitude to US military intervention abroad, he declared he was for “drones, all that and more.”

If Sanders goes on to win the Democratic nomination and the presidency, he will betray the aspirations of his supporters flagrantly and with extraordinary speed. A thousand excuses will be brought forward to explain why the wars must continue abroad and nothing can be done to rein in Wall Street at home.

Sanders is not the representative of a working class movement. He is rather the temporary beneficiary of a rising tide of popular opposition that is passing through only its initial stages of social and class differentiation.

The Socialist Equality Party welcomes every sign of a leftward movement and radicalization among workers and youth. The objective conditions of capitalist crisis and imperialist war are the driving forces of a profound leftward shift in the consciousness of tens of millions. But there is nothing more contemptible than to patronize and adapt to the illusions that characterize the present, initial stage in the development of class consciousness and popular opposition. That is the specialty of the various pseudo-left appendages of the ruling class and the Democratic Party.

It is legitimate for genuine socialists to adopt a sympathetic and patient attitude to the growth of popular opposition, but it is politically impermissible to politically adapt to the movement’s prevailing level of understanding. It is necessary to expose the contradiction between Sanders’ social demagogy and his bourgeois program, without suggesting that he can be pushed to the left by popular pressure from below.

The task taken up by the Socialist Equality Party is to open up a new path for the movement of the working class and lay the foundations for a broadening and deepening of the radicalization, breaking irrevocably from the Democratic Party and all forms of bourgeois politics and establishing the political independence of the working class. This is the essential basis for transforming the growing opposition into a conscious political and revolutionary movement for international socialism. The prerequisite for this task is to tell the working class the truth.

Patrick Martin

 

https://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/06/pers-f06.html

White America’s ‘Broken Heart’

On Sunday, at the Corinthian Baptist Church in Des Moines, former President Bill Clinton, looking frail and sounding faint, stumped for his wife, working through her qualifications with a husband’s devotion and a Svengali’s facility.

But one thing he said stood out to me for its clear rhetorical framing.

He attributed much of the anger that’s present in the electorate to anxiety over a changing demographic profile of the country, but then said: We are going to share the future. The only question is: What will be the terms of the sharing?

This idea of negotiating the terms of sharing the future is an expansive one, on both ends of the ideological spectrum, but it also seems to me to be an internal debate white America is having with itself.

Much of the energy on both the left and the right this cycle is coming from white Americans who are rejecting the direction of America and its institutions. There is a profound disappointment. On one hand, it’s about fear of dislocation of supremacy, and the surrendering of power and the security it provides. On the other hand, it’s about disillusionment that the game is rigged and the turf is tilted. It is about defining who created this country’s bounty and who has most benefited from it.

White America is wrestling with itself, torn between two increasingly distant visions and philosophies, trying to figure out if the country should retreat from its present course or be remade.

The results from the Iowa caucuses revealed that Republican caucusgoers gave roughly even support to the top three finishers — Ted Cruz, a much-loathed anti-institutional who has shown a pyromaniac’s predilection for wanting to torch Washington rather than make it work; the real estate developer spouting nativist and even fascist policies with the fervor of a prosperity preacher; and Marco Rubio, a too-slick-to-be-trusted stripling who oozes ambition with every obviously rehearsed response.

On the left, the white vote was nearly evenly split in Iowa between Hillary Clinton, a pragmatist who believes that the system can be fixed, and Bernie Sanders, a revolutionary who believes that system must be dismantled. At least on the Democratic side, age, income and liberalism seemed to be the fault lines — older, wealthier, more moderate people preferred Clinton and younger, less wealthy and “very liberal” people preferred Sanders.

Clinton won the support of nonwhites in Iowa 58 percent to Sanders’s 34 percent. This gap also exists — and has remained stubbornly persistent — in national polls, and in some polls is even wider. For instance, according to a January Monmouth University Poll, nationwide black and Latino support for Clinton was 71 percent as opposed to 21 percent for Sanders. At this point, this is a settled issue for nonwhite voters, and those voters are likely to be Democratic primary king- or queen-makers.

During Bill Clinton’s speech on Sunday, he brought up the recent report about the rising death rate among some white people in America.

As Gina Kolata reported in November in The New York Times:

“Something startling is happening to middle-aged white Americans. Unlike every other age group, unlike every other racial and ethnic group, unlike their counterparts in other rich countries, death rates in this group have been rising, not falling.”

He rattled off the reasons for this rise — suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses — and then concluded that these white Americans were dying of “a broken heart.”

It was, again, an interesting framing: that these people dying of sadness and vice were simply the leading edge of a tragic, morbid expression of a disappointment and fear shadowing much of white America.

America has a gauzy, romanticized version of its history that is largely fiction. According to that mythology, America rose to greatness by sheer ruggedness, ingenuity and hard work. It ignores or sidelines the tremendous human suffering of African slaves that fueled that financial growth, and the blood spilled and dubious treaties signed with Native Americans that fueled its geographic growth. It ignores that the prosperity of some Americans always hinged on the oppression of other Americans.

Much of America’s past is the story of white people benefiting from a system that white people designed and maintained, which increased their chances of success as it suppressed those same chances in other groups. Those systems persist to this day in some disturbing ways, but the current, vociferous naming and challenging of those systems, the placing of the lamp of truth near the seesaw of privilege and oppression, has provoked a profound sense of discomfort and even anger.

In Sanders’s speech following the Iowa caucuses, he veered from his position that this country “in many ways was created” on “racist principles,” and instead said: “What the American people understand is this country was based and is based on fairness.” Nonwhite people in this country understand that as a matter of history and heritage this simply isn’t true, but it is a hallowed ideal for white America and one that centers the America ethos.

Indeed, the current urgency about inequality as an issue is really about how some white Americans are coming to live an experience that many minorities in this country have long lived — structural inequity has leapt the racial barrier — and that the legacy to which they fully assumed they were heirs is increasingly beyond their grasp.

Inequality has been a feature of the African-American condition in this country since the first black feet touched this ground.

Last month, the MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes tweeted: “This campaign is starting to feel more and more like a long, national nervous breakdown.” For white America, I believe this is true.

http://www.nytimes.com/2016/02/04/opinion/white-americas-broken-heart.html?smid=tw-share&_r=1

American capitalism has failed us

We’re overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before

Denmark, Norway and Sweden are all thriving under democratic socialism. Why is it so difficult for us to embrace?

American capitalism has failed us: We're overworked, underemployed and more powerless than ever before
(Credit: Kim Seidl via Shutterstock/samdiesel via iStock/Salon)

[This is a joint TomDispatch/Nation article and appears in print in slightly shortened form in the new issue of the Nation magazine.]

Some years ago, I faced up to the futility of reporting true things about America’s disastrous wars and so I left Afghanistan for another remote mountainous country far away. It was the polar opposite of Afghanistan: a peaceful, prosperous land where nearly everybody seemed to enjoy a good life, on the job and in the family.

It’s true that they didn’t work much, not by American standards anyway. In the U.S., full-time salaried workers supposedly laboring 40 hours a week actually average 49, with almost 20% clocking more than 60. These people, on the other hand, workedonly about 37 hours a week, when they weren’t away on long paid vacations. At the end of the work day, about four in the afternoon (perhaps three in the summer), they had time to enjoy a hike in the forest or a swim with the kids or a beer with friends — which helps explain why, unlike so many Americans, they are pleased with their jobs.

Often I was invited to go along. I found it refreshing to hike and ski in a country with no land mines, and to hang out in cafés unlikely to be bombed. Gradually, I lost my warzone jitters and settled into the slow, calm, pleasantly uneventful stream of life there.

Four years on, thinking I should settle down, I returned to the United States. It felt quite a lot like stepping back into that other violent, impoverished world, where anxiety runs high and people are quarrelsome. I had, in fact, come back to the flip side of Afghanistan and Iraq: to what America’s wars have done to America. Where I live now, in the Homeland, there are not enough shelters for the homeless. Most people are either overworked or hurting for jobs; housing is overpriced; hospitals, crowded and understaffed; schools, largely segregated and not so good. Opioid or heroin overdose is a popular form of death; and men in the street threaten women wearing hijab. Did the American soldiers I covered in Afghanistan know they were fighting for this?

Ducking the Subject

One night I tuned in to the Democrats’ presidential debate to see if they had any plans to restore the America I used to know. To my amazement, I heard the name of my peaceful mountain hideaway: Norway. Bernie Sanders was denouncing America’s crooked version of “casino capitalism” that floats the already rich ever higher and flushes the working class. He said that we ought to “look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.”

He believes, he added, in “a society where all people do well. Not just a handful of billionaires.” That certainly sounds like Norway. For ages they’ve worked at producing things for the use of everyone — not the profit of a few — so I was all ears, waiting for Sanders to spell it out for Americans.

But Hillary Clinton quickly countered, “We are not Denmark.” Smiling, she said, “I love Denmark,” and then delivered a patriotic punch line: “We are the United States of America.” Well, there’s no denying that. She praised capitalism and “all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” She didn’t seem to know that Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians do that, too, and with much higher rates of success.

The truth is that almost a quarter of American startups are not founded on brilliant new ideas, but on the desperation of men or women who can’t get a decent job. The majority of all American enterprises are solo ventures having zero payrolls, employing no one but the entrepreneur, and often quickly wasting away. Sanders said that he was all for small business, too, but that meant nothing “if all of the new income and wealth is going to the top 1 percent.” (As George Carlin said, “The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”)

In that debate, no more was heard of Denmark, Sweden, or Norway. The audience was left in the dark. Later, in a speech at Georgetown University, Sanders tried to clarify his identity as a Democratic socialist. He said he’s not the kind of Socialist (with a capital S) who favors state ownership of anything like the means of production. The Norwegian government, on the other hand, owns the means of producing lots of public assets and is the major stockholder in many a vital private enterprise.

I was dumbfounded. Norway, Denmark, and Sweden practice variations of a system that works much better than ours, yet even the Democratic presidential candidates, who say they love or want to learn from those countries, don’t seem to know how they actually work.

Why We’re Not Denmark

Proof that they do work is delivered every year in data-rich evaluations by the U.N. and other international bodies. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s annual report on international well-being, for example, measures 11 factors, ranging from material conditions like affordable housing and employment to quality of life matters like education, health, life expectancy, voter participation, and overall citizen satisfaction. Year after year, all the Nordic countries cluster at the top, while the United States lags far behind. In addition, Norway ranked first on the U.N. Development Program’s Human Development Index for 12 of the last 15 years, and it consistently tops international comparisons of such matters as democracy, civil and political rights, and freedom of expression and the press.

What is it, though, that makes the Scandinavians so different?  Since the Democrats can’t tell you and the Republicans wouldn’t want you to know, let me offer you a quick introduction. What Scandinavians call the Nordic Model is a smart and simple system that starts with a deep commitment to equality and democracy. That’s two concepts combined in a single goal because, as far as they are concerned, you can’t have one without the other.

Right there they part company with capitalist America, now the most unequal of all the developed nations, and consequently a democracy no more. Political scientists say it has become an oligarchy — a country run at the expense of its citizenry by and for the super rich. Perhaps you noticed that.

In the last century, Scandinavians, aiming for their egalitarian goal, refused to settle solely for any of the ideologies competing for power — not capitalism or fascism, not Marxist socialism or communism. Geographically stuck between powerful nations waging hot and cold wars for such doctrines, Scandinavians set out to find a path in between. That path was contested — by socialist-inspired workers on the one hand and capitalist owners and their elite cronies on the other — but it led in the end to a mixed economy. Thanks largely to the solidarity and savvy of organized labor and the political parties it backed, the long struggle produced a system that makes capitalism more or less cooperative, and then redistributes equitably the wealth it helps to produce. Struggles like this took place around the world in the twentieth century, but the Scandinavians alone managed to combine the best ideas of both camps, while chucking out the worst.

In 1936, the popular U.S. journalist Marquis Childs first described the result to Americans in the book Sweden: The Middle Way. Since then, all the Scandinavian countries and their Nordic neighbors Finland and Iceland have been improving upon that hybrid system. Today in Norway, negotiations between the Confederation of Trade Unions and the Confederation of Norwegian Enterprise determine the wages and working conditions of most capitalist enterprises, public and private, that create wealth, while high but fair progressive income taxes fund the state’s universal welfare system, benefitting everyone. In addition, those confederations work together to minimize the disparity between high-wage and lower-wage jobs. As a result, Norway ranks with Sweden, Denmark, and Finland among the most income-equal countries in the world, and its standard of living tops the charts.

So here’s the big difference: in Norway, capitalism serves the people. The government, elected by the people, sees to that. All eight of the parties that won parliamentary seats in the last national election, including the conservative Høyre party now leading the government, are committed to maintaining the welfare state. In the U.S., however, neoliberal politics put the foxes in charge of the henhouse, and capitalists have used the wealth generated by their enterprises (as well as financial and political manipulations) to capture the state and pluck the chickens. They’ve done a masterful job of chewing up organized labor. Today, only 11% of American workers belong to a union. In Norway, that number is 52%; in Denmark, 67%; in Sweden, 70%.

In the U.S., oligarchs maximize their wealth and keep it, using the “democratically elected” government to shape policies and laws favorable to the interests of their foxy class. They bamboozle the people by insisting, as Hillary Clinton did at that debate, that all of us have the “freedom” to create a business in the “free” marketplace, which implies that being hard up is our own fault.

In the Nordic countries, on the other hand, democratically elected governments give their populations freedom from the market by using capitalism as a tool to benefit everyone. That liberates their people from the tyranny of the mighty profit motive that warps so many American lives, leaving them freer to follow their own dreams — to become poets or philosophers, bartenders or business owners, as they please.

Family Matters

Maybe our politicians don’t want to talk about the Nordic Model because it shows so clearly that capitalism can be put to work for the many, not just the few.

Consider the Norwegian welfare state. It’s universal. In other words, aid to the sick or the elderly is not charity, grudgingly donated by elites to those in need. It is the right of every individual citizen. That includes every woman, whether or not she is somebody’s wife, and every child, no matter its parentage. Treating every person as a citizen affirms the individuality of each and the equality of all. It frees every person from being legally possessed by another — a husband, for example, or a tyrannical father.

Which brings us to the heart of Scandinavian democracy: the equality of women and men. In the 1970s, Norwegian feminists marched into politics and picked up the pace of democratic change. Norway needed a larger labor force, and women were the answer. Housewives moved into paid work on an equal footing with men, nearly doubling the tax base. That has, in fact, meant more to Norwegian prosperity than the coincidental discovery of North Atlantic oil reserves. The Ministry of Finance recently calculated that those additional working mothers add to Norway’s net national wealth a value equivalent to the country’s “total petroleum wealth” — currently held in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund, worth more than $873 billion. By 1981, women were sitting in parliament, in the prime minister’s chair, and in her cabinet.

American feminists also marched for such goals in the 1970s, but the Big Boys, busy with their own White House intrigues, initiated a war on women that set the country back and still rages today in brutal attacks on women’s basic civil rights, health care, and reproductive freedom. In 1971, thanks to the hard work of organized feminists, Congress passed the bipartisanComprehensive Child Development Bill to establish a multi-billion dollar national day care system for the children of working parents. In 1972, President Richard Nixon vetoed it, and that was that. In 1972, Congress also passed a bill (first proposed in 1923) to amend the Constitution to grant equal rights of citizenship to women.  Ratified by only 35 states, three short of the required 38, that Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was declared dead in 1982, leaving American women in legal limbo.

In 1996, President Bill Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, obliterating six decades of federal social welfare policy “as we know it,” ending federal cash payments to the nation’s poor, and consigning millions of female heads of household and their children to poverty, where many still dwell 20 years later. Today, nearly half a century after Nixon trashed national child care, even privileged women, torn between their underpaid work and their kids, are overwhelmed.

Things happened very differently in Norway.  There, feminists and sociologists pushed hard against the biggest obstacle still standing in the path to full democracy: the nuclear family. In the 1950s, the world-famous American sociologist Talcott Parsons had pronounced that arrangement — with hubby at work and the little wife at home — the ideal setup in which to socialize children. But in the 1970s, the Norwegian state began to deconstruct that undemocratic ideal by taking upon itself the traditional unpaid household duties of women.  Caring for the children, the elderly, the sick, and the disabled became the basic responsibilities of the universal welfare state, freeing women in the workforce to enjoy both their jobs and their families. That’s another thing American politicians — still, boringly, mostly odiously boastful men — surely don’t want you to think about: that patriarchy can be demolished and everyone be the better for it.

Paradoxically, setting women free made family life more genuine. Many in Norway say it has made both men and women more themselves and more alike: more understanding and happier. It also helped kids slip from the shadow of helicopter parents. In Norway, mother and father in turn take paid parental leave from work to see a newborn through its first year or more. At age one, however, children start attending a neighborhood barnehage (kindergarten) for schooling spent largelyoutdoors. By the time kids enter free primary school at age six, they are remarkably self-sufficient, confident, and good-natured. They know their way around town, and if caught in a snowstorm in the forest, how to build a fire and find the makings of a meal.  (One kindergarten teacher explained, “We teach them early to use an axe so they understand it’s a tool, not a weapon.”)

To Americans, the notion of a school “taking away” your child to make her an axe wielder is monstrous.  In fact, Norwegian kids, who are well acquainted in early childhood with many different adults and children, know how to get along with grown ups and look after one another.  More to the point, though it’s hard to measure, it’s likely that Scandinavian children spend more quality time with their work-isn’t-everything parents than does a typical middle-class American child being driven by a stressed-out mother from music lessons to karate practice.  For all these reasons and more, the international organization Save the Children cites Norway as the best country on Earth in which to raise kids, while the U.S. finishes far down the list in 33rd place.

Don’t Take My Word For It

This little summary just scratches the surface of Scandinavia, so I urge curious readers to Google away.  But be forewarned. You’ll find much criticism of all the Nordic Model countries. The structural matters I’ve described — of governance and family — are not the sort of things visible to tourists or visiting journalists, so their comments are often obtuse. Take the American tourist/blogger who complained that he hadn’t been shown the “slums” of Oslo. (There are none.) Or the British journalist who wrote that Norwegian petrol is too expensive. (Though not for Norwegians, who are, in any case, leading the world in switching to electric cars.)

Neoliberal pundits, especially the Brits, are always beating up on the Scandinavians in books, magazines, newspapers, and blogs, predicting the imminent demise of their social democracies and bullying them to forsake the best political economy on the planet. Self-styled experts still in thrall to Margaret Thatcher tell Norwegians they must liberalize their economy and privatize everything short of the royal palace. Mostly, the Norwegian government does the opposite, or nothing at all, and social democracy keeps on ticking.

It’s not perfect, of course. It has always been a carefully considered work in progress. Governance by consensus takes time and effort.  You might think of it as slow democracy.  But it’s light years ahead of us.

Ann Jones has a new book published today: They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars — the Untold Story, a Dispatch Books project in cooperation with Haymarket Books. Andrew Bacevich has already had this to say about it: “Read this unsparing, scathingly direct, and gut-wrenching account — the war Washington doesn’t want you to see. Then see if you still believe that Americans ‘support the troops.’” Jones, who has reported from Afghanistan since 2002, is also the author of two books about the impact of war on civilians: Kabul in Winter and War Is Not Over When It’s Over.

The Sanders vote in Iowa

bernie-sanders

3 February 2016

Iowa Democratic Party officials declared Hillary Clinton the winner of the Iowa Democratic caucuses Tuesday afternoon by the narrowest of margins. The former secretary of state edged Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders by 699 to 695 in delegates to the state convention, with two state delegate equivalents still to be determined.

More significant was the announcement of the total turnout of 171,109, divided nearly equally between the two candidates. Approximately 85,000 people—a third of them young people under 30—cast votes for Sanders, a candidate who identifies himself as a “democratic socialist.” This is 30,000 more than the number of people who voted for Senator Ted Cruz, the ultra-right winner of the Republican caucuses, and nearly double the vote for the massively hyped campaign of billionaire Donald Trump.

Sanders rolled up a huge margin among younger voters: those 17-29 supported him over Clinton by 86 percent to 11 percent; Democratic voters in the 30-44 age bracket also gave him a majority. Lower-income voters, those making under $30,000 a year, backed Sanders heavily, as did those in the $30,000-$50,000 a year range. Clinton’s support was concentrated among upper-income and older voters, particularly those over the age of 65, who turned out in large numbers.

Entrance/exit polls found that the Vermont senator’s claim to be a socialist was one of the main attractions of his candidacy, as far as his supporters were concerned. Sixty-eight percent of Democratic caucus-goers regarded having a socialist president as a good idea, with 31 percent strongly in favor.

The mass support for Sanders explodes the myth, peddled endlessly by the American media, that the American people are unalterably wedded to capitalism. In his speech to campaign aides and volunteers Monday night in Des Moines, Sanders reiterated the condemnations of economic inequality, the criminality of Wall Street and the corruption of the US political system by big money that have been the basis of his campaign.

Hillary Clinton sought, however awkwardly, to strike a populist pose as well, telling her supporters Monday night that she too was a “progressive” who shared her opponent’s goals of universal healthcare, good jobs and rising wages, only differing on the best methods to achieve them.

The broad support for Sanders’ campaign has taken the corporate-controlled media by complete surprise, an expression of the vast chasm that separates the entire establishment and the mass of the American people. Now the commentators and pundits express bemusement over the hatred of Wall Street and the corporate elite—expressed in a left-wing form in the Sanders campaign and in a right-wing form in the campaign of billionaire real estate mogul Donald Trump—when, according to the media, American society is doing well, particularly compared to its European and Asian rivals.

This bewilderment is combined with fear. Longtime political adviser to presidents of both parties and virtually omnipresent media pundit David Gergen told the New York Times after the Iowa vote: “It’s striking that the winner of the Republican side represents the far right and the moral winner for the Democrats comes from the far left. It’s a clear vote of no confidence in the economic order.”

The WSWS has made clear its political differences with Sanders in many commentaries published since the presidential campaign began last year. His “democratic socialism” is far less radical than the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt, and it is combined with open support for the militarist foreign policy of American imperialism.

Nonetheless, the large vote for a self-proclaimed socialist candidate has enormous historical significance, particularly in the United States, where socialist ideas have been virtually criminalized for more than 60 years. Socialists were driven out of the unions and victimized in Hollywood in the course of the witch hunts of the 1950s McCarthy era, and public discussion of any alternative to the capitalist system has been effectively banned in official politics and the corporate-controlled media ever since.

For nearly half a century, basic class issues have been suppressed in America through a combination of virulent political reaction and militarism and an obsessive focus on issues of race, gender and sexual orientation on the official “left.” This has coincided with an ever-greater shift to the right by both major parties, a relentless assault on the social conditions and living standards of the working class, and the suppression of strikes and workers’ struggles by trade unions that have been transformed into corporatist adjuncts of the corporations and the government.

This period is coming to an end. The indignation of the working class has steadily mounted, especially since Wall Street threw the US and world economy into the abyss in 2008 and then used the crisis to further enrich itself at the expense of the working population. The bitter experience of the Obama administration, which came to power by promising progressive “change” and instead has overseen a further and unprecedented transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top, along with an expansion of militarism and war, has only intensified the anger and combativeness of working people and youth.

Sanders has evoked a powerful response because he has raised social issues that transcend race, ethnicity, gender, etc. The Iowa vote has highlighted the fact that it is class issues of economic security and equality that animate the broad masses, not the narrow and exclusivist concerns of identity politics, which reflect the preoccupations of privileged layers of the middle class.

There are growing signs of a revival of the class struggle, including the mass opposition of autoworkers to the sellout contracts imposed by the United Auto Workers union last year, the eruption of mass protests and sickouts by Detroit teachers carried out independently of the unions, and ongoing protests against the poisoning of the water supply in nearby Flint, Michigan.

At the same time, the two-party system through which the American ruling class has monopolized political power for more than a century-and-a-half is facing an unprecedented crisis of political legitimacy. It is losing its grip on a population that is profoundly alienated from the entire political system.

The mass vote in Iowa for the Sanders campaign is an expression of deep social discontent that is bringing the working class into political conflict with the capitalist system. The candidate himself may conceive of “political revolution” as merely a larger turnout at the polls and an effort to increase support for the Democratic Party, one of the two parties of big business. However, there is little doubt that many in his audience have something more ambitious in mind.

The reality is that world capitalism is plunging deeper into economic slump and there are harbingers of a new round of financial shocks on a scale that could well surpass those of 2007-2008. The Sanders phenomenon must be placed in this global context. There are increasing signs of the working class all over the world seeking to break with its old, outlived organizations—trade unions, labor parties, social-democratic parties—that have become nothing more than instruments of the capitalist ruling elite to suppress and sabotage workers’ struggles.

The initial stages of this process involve the emergence of pseudo-left elements like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain and Jeremy Corbyn in the British Labour Party, which appeal to this leftward movement of the working class in order to divert it back into new forms of accommodation with the crisis-ridden capitalist system. Sanders is an American counterpart to such tendencies, deliberately working to corral growing working-class opposition within the confines of the Democratic Party, one of the oldest capitalist parties in the world.

The movement of the working class to the left will inevitably go well beyond the bounds envisioned by Sanders. The objective logic of its struggles will propel it into a conflict with both parties of big business and the capitalist system that they defend.

Patrick Martin

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/03/pers-f03.html

Uber cuts protested by New York City drivers

By Steve Light and Isaac Finn
2 February 2016

In response to a 15 percent fare cut announced by the company over the weekend, hundreds of Uber and other taxi drivers protested Monday at the Uber headquarters near Queens Plaza in New York City. They expressed anger that their already meager incomes would be reduced even further by the company’s action, forcing them to work even longer hours.

Uber driver rally against rate cuts

Uber is an international “ride share” service, whose drivers are treated as independent contractors rather than as employees. As of last summer, the company was valued at $17 billion. The rate cut was reportedly undertaken to increase the company’s market share, in competition with Lyft, another ride-share service, as well as regular taxis and car services.

The super-exploitation of Uber and other taxi workers is just one aspect of the ever-widening economic inequality in the city that is the financial capital of the world. With astronomically high living expenses, millions of low-wage workers are barely eking by in a city where are workers, according to a recent report, need to earn an hourly wage of least $38.80, roughly four times the current minimum wage, in order to afford the city’s 2015 median asking rent of $2,690.

A significant proportion of the rally was composed of drivers from countries such as Nepal, China, Russia, and the Caucasus region, reflecting the super-exploitation of immigrant workers. Signs expressed anger at wage cuts by billionaire owners. Trucks, cars, and taxis rolling by the rally blew their horns in support and were met with cheers from the drivers.

Many Uber drivers are part-timers, and net an average $300 per week for 25 hours worked, from which they still have to pay for gasoline, insurance, vehicle expenses, and self-employment taxes. Recent reports show drivers making $2.89 an hour, less than half the official minimum wage.

The development of Internet-based service using cell phone apps has greatly intensified competition, forcing drivers to work longer hours to try make sufficient income and pay off their investments for cars. The technology-based changes in the taxi industry have led to protests against Uber in at least nine countries in Latin America, Europe, Canada and the Far East.

Uber and other drivers at the rally spoke to reporters from the WSWS .

Victor, an immigrant from Russiam with two years experience, stated, “Even before they dropped the price we were working with very low margins. We already have to pay for inspections and insurance. We are always risking getting a ticket, and if we do we have to pay it.

“One of the guys did the math, and if you work about 57 hours, under the new rate, after expenses you are making about $9.50 an hour. Why not work in a warehouse, if they are only going to pay that much?

The protest at Uber headquarters

“When I joined Uber two years ago, I knew the rates and then the company changed the rules. I have already bought the car, the dealer doesn’t change the cost because of this, and my insurance is the same. I know in other states things are different and a lot of the drivers just work part-time, but we already paid out thousands of dollars for these cars.

“They say we are ‘partners’ but they didn’t ask us anything before making these changes. I think a lot of people will leave Uber, and then there will be less drivers. We might be really busy, but eventually the market will adjust and this will hit us hard.”

Pemba Sherpa, an immigrant from Nepal, who has worked for Uber for five months, decried the rate cuts, “They are trying to kill us. We have to pay rent, plus the cost of a car, which is between $60,000 and $65,000, and they are asking us to work for just over $4 an hour.

“When I started working for Uber, I asked them, ‘should I get the black car?’ and they told me to get it. Then they told me I had to pick up UberX clients for less money, or do pulls, which means I have to pick up multiple clients at the same time. If you are doing pulls, I could be picking up six people and they are all paying $2 each that is less than a subway ride. It is like I am a bus driver, but I did not sign up to be a bus driver.

“We are entrapped because we already bought the cars, and they just keep changing the rules. They send us our times and conditions every night, and we have to accept them or we won’t be able to work.”

Another Uber driver, added, “They want us to work for $4.89 an hour, and you can’t take care of your family for that. We will be working longer hours for the same amount of money, and that is an insult.

“We already have to pay for the cars, for insurance. We have to pay for dry cleaning for our shirts, and we are getting less money than if we worked at McDonalds.”

Parminder Singh, an Uber driver and former taxi driver, explained “Uber just keeps adding cars, and making things worse for us. New York taxi companies can’t add more cars, because that increases congestion on the roads and makes things worse.

“We just want to raise our kids, but you can’t do that on this much money. I work from noon until 1 or 2AM. My son is nine years old, and I never see him. He wants to see me, but I can’t because I am at work.”

Asked about the political issues raised by his working conditions, Singh added, “The city should be responsible for taking care of the people that live here. When I was in Yellow Cab we had protested in front of the Governor’s office, to make things better for all the drivers, but the politicians still have not done anything.

“My feeling is that the city should be providing jobs to people with qualifications. We should not have people becoming drivers, when they are trained for something else.”

“Uber is 1,500 drivers, and they will make us homeless” Bahkyti Yori asserted. “What happens when we cannot cover our insurance, financial costs? We will lose our cars, everything.”

Pasand Sherpa told the WSWS, “Uber lowered the rate 15 percent but Uber takes a high percentage, 30 to 35 percent, but there is no percentage increase for us. It was $8 at the start for riders but now it is $7. Every trip they charge us 35 percent. They discount from the customer’s side but not from the driver’s side. Wages are going down but we are working harder. It was better but now we would have to drive 500 miles. We don’t have a union. The Taxi Workers Alliance organized this.”

Medallion (yellow cab) taxi drivers joined the rally in support of the Uber drivers. Iqbal Singh, a yellow cab driver for 25 years, was there in support of the Uber drivers. “We came out to fight with them. Uber made $62 billion. If they are cutting back the fare, so they make less, then yellow cabs also make less money. They can then cut the fare again and make it even worse. We want Uber to have a set price.”

An Uber driver for two years, Shamsu Uddin said, “The jobs came online before for $3 per mile, then $2.15, and now again forty cents less. We can’t even make $100 to $150 an hour. How can we make the mortgage payments or pay for the new car or take care of our family. I drive twelve hours a day. Everything goes up in price, every bill, but not us. We built the billionaire boss. There are many competing companies–Yellow, Green, LYFT, Uber, Gate, Bayer, and now Juno is coming in April. [Mayor] De Blasio said it is not good for the driver but he set this up.”

Tenzin Wangyal assessed the situation, “I think there is a decent amount that can be made by drivers but the company takes 30 percent and the driver is left not making much. They structure the system to get people to fight against each other. It needs to be structured to bring people together. This should not only be including taxi but all people should support this fight. It is about fairness and justice. People just keep talking. No one is doing anything. That is why we are here, for our voice to be heard. They make the same speech, but it is the same old reality. It is time to act now and do the right thing. It is for democracy and justice.”

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/02/02/uber-f02.html

Cheap cab ride? You must have missed Uber’s true cost

When tech giants such as Google and Uber hide their wealth from taxation, they make it harder for us to use technology to improve services

A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris.
A striking French taxi driver protests against Uber in Paris. Photograph: Charles Platiau/Reuters

To understand why we see so few genuine alternatives to US technology giants, it’s instructive to compare the fate of a company like Uber – valued at more than $62.5bn (£44bn) – and that of Kutsuplus, an innovative Finnish startup forced to shut down late last year.

Kutsuplus’s aspiration was to be the Uber of public transport: it operated a network of minibuses that would pick up and drop passengers anywhere in Helsinki, with smartphones, algorithms and the cloud deployed to maximise efficiency, cut costs and provide a slick public service. Being a spinoff of a local university that operated on a shoestring budget, Kutsuplus did not have rich venture capitalists behind it. This, perhaps, is what contributed to its demise: the local transport authority found it too expensive, despite impressive year-on-year growth of 60%.

On the other hand, “expensive” is everything that Uber is not. While you might be tempted to ascribe the low costs of the service to its ingenuity and global scale – is it the Walmart of transport? – its affordability has a more banal provenance: sitting on tons of investor cash, Uber can afford to burn billions in order to knock out any competitors, be they old-school taxi companies or startups like Kutsuplus.

A recent article in The Information, a tech news site, suggests that during the first three quarters of 2015 Uber lost $1.7bn while booking $1.2bn in revenue. The company has so much money that, in at least some North American locations, it has been offering rides at rates so low that they didn’t even cover the combined cost of fuel and vehicle depreciation.

Uber’s game plan is simple: it wants to drive the rates so low as to increase demand – by luring some of the customers who would otherwise have used their own car or public transport. And to do that, it is willing to burn a lot of cash, while rapidly expanding into adjacent industries, from food to package delivery.

An obvious but rarely asked question is: whose cash is Uber burning? With investors like Google, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Goldman Sachs behind it, Uber is a perfect example of a company whose global expansion has been facilitated by the inability of governments to tax profits made by hi-tech and financial giants.

To put it bluntly: the reason why Uber has so much cash is because, well, governments no longer do. Instead, this money is parked in the offshore accounts of Silicon Valley and Wall Street firms. Look at Apple, which has recently announced that it sits on $200bn of potentially taxable overseas cash, or Facebook, which has just posted record profits of $3.69bn for 2015.

Some of these firms do choose to share their largesse with governments – both Apple and Google have agreed to pay tax bills far smaller than what they owe, in Italy and the UK respectively – but such moves aim at legitimising the questionable tax arrangements they have been using rather than paying their fair share.

Compare this with the dire state of affairs in which most governments and city administrations find themselves today. Starved of tax revenue, they often make things worse by committing themselves to the worst of austerity politics, shrinking the budgets dedicated to infrastructure, innovation, or creating alternatives to the rapacious “platform capitalism” of Silicon Valley.

Under these conditions, it’s no wonder that promising services like Kutsuplus have to shut down: cut from the seemingly endless cash supply of Google and Goldman Sachs, Uber would have gone under as well. It is, perhaps, no coincidence that Finland is one of the more religious advocates of austerity in Europe; having let Nokia go under, the country has now missed another chance.

Let us not be naive: Wall Street and Silicon Valley won’t subsidise transport for ever. While the prospect of using advertising to underwrite the costs of an Uber trip is still very remote, the only way for these firms to recoup their investments is by squeezing even more cash or productivity out of Uber drivers or by eventually – once all their competitors are out – raising the costs of the trip.

Both of these options spell trouble. Uber is already taking higher percentages from its drivers’ fares (this number is reported to have gone up from 20% to 30%), while also trying to pass on more costs related to background checks and safety education directly to its drivers (through the so-called safe rides fee).

The only choice here is between more precarity for drivers and more precarity for passengers, who will have to accept higher rates, with or without controversial practices like surge pricing (prices go up when demand is high).

Moreover, the company is actively trying to solidify its status as a default platform for transport. During the recent squabbles in France – where taxi drivers have been rioting to get the government to notice their plight – Uber has offered to open up its platforms to any professional taxi drivers who would like a second job.

Needless to say, such platforms – with properly administered and transparent payment, reputation and pricing systems – ought to have been established by cities a long time ago. This, along with the encouragement and support of startups like Kutsuplus, would have been the right regulatory response to Uber.

Unfortunately, there’s very little policy innovation in this space and the main response to Uber so far has come from other Uber-like companies unhappy with its dominance. Thus, India’s Ola, China’s Didi Kuaidi, US-based Lyft and Malaysia’s GrabTaxi have formed an alliance, allowing customers to book cabs from each other’s apps in countries where they operate. This falls short of creating a viable support system where innovators like Kutsuplus can flourish; replacing Uber with Lyft won’t solve the problem, as it pursues the same aggressive model.

The broader lesson here is that a country’s technology policy is directly dependent on its economic policy; one cannot flourish without the active support of the other. Decades of a rather lax attitude on taxation combined with strict adherence to the austerity agenda have eaten up the public resources available for experimenting with different modes of providing services like transport.

This has left tax-shrinking companies and venture capitalists – who view everyday life as an ideal playing ground for predatory entrepreneurship – as the only viable sources of support for such projects. Not surprisingly, so many of them start like Kutsuplus only to end up like Uber: such are the structural constraints of working with investors who expect exorbitant returns on their investments.

Finding and funding projects that would not have such constraints would not in itself be so hard; what will be hard, especially given the current economic climate, is finding the cash to invest in them.

Taxation seems the only way forward – alas, many governments do not have the courage to ask what is due to them; the compromise between Google and HM Treasury is a case in point.

 

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/jan/31/cheap-cab-ride-uber-true-cost-google-wealth-taxation?CMP=fb_gu