Homeless and Unemployed in an Economy We’re Supposed to Think Is Liberating

BOOKS

In Ilana Gershon’s new book “Down and Out in the New Economy,” the employer power dynamic is called into question.

Beggar and a rich young woman with shopping bags
Photo Credit: Lisa S.

The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017):

Chris, an independent contractor in his midfifties, knows a lot about what it means to deal with an unstable job market, especially during those moments when you are between gigs and don’t know when you are going to get the next one. There was a period in 2012 where he hadn’t had a contracting job for a while, and he had no idea how he was going to pay his rent. He realized he might be able to make his rent for another month, but if he didn’t get a job soon, he might be homeless. He decided that he needed to get his body ready for this very likely possibility. “I started to sleep on the floor a few hours each night, as long as I could take it, so I could get used to sleeping on a sidewalk or on the dirt. That’s how bad it looked. It just seemed hopeless,” Chris said. Out of the blue, a staffing agency based in India contacted him and offered him a contract in the Midwest, giving him enough money to make it through this bad patch. But this stark moment, in which he saw homelessness around the corner, is part and parcel of the downside of careers made up of temporary jobs. Chris responded to this possibility in the way that you are supposed to if you are constantly enhancing yourself. He began to train his body for living on the streets, realizing that he needed to learn how to sleep without a bed. He was determined to be flexible and to adapt to potential new circumstances. Seeing the self as a bundle of skills, in practice, means that for some people enhancing your skills involves training yourself to survive being homeless. This too is a logical outcome of our contemporary employment model.

I have studied how people are responding to this new way of thinking about work and what it means to be a worker. In the United States, people are moving away from thinking that when they enter into an employment contract, they are metaphorically renting their capacities to an employer for a bounded period of time. Many people are no longer using a notion of the self-as-rented-property as an underlying metaphor and are starting to think of themselves as though they are a business, although not everyone likes this new metaphor or accepts all its implications. When you switch to thinking about the employment contract as a business-to-business relationship, much changes—how you present yourself as a desirable employee, what it means to be a good employer, what your relationships with your coworkers should be like, the relationship between a job and a career, and how you prepare yourself for the future.

The self-as-business metaphor makes a virtue of flexibility as well as the practical ways people might respond in their daily lives to conditions of instability and insecurity. As Gina Neff points out in Venture Labor, the model encourages people to embrace risk as a positive, even sought-out, element of how they individually should craft a career. Each time you switch jobs, you risk. You don’t know the amount of time you will have at a job before having to find a new one, and you risk how lucky you will be at getting that job and the next job. And with every job transition, you risk the salary that you might make. If there is a gap between jobs, then some people will find that they no longer experience a reliable, steady, upward trajectory in their salaries as they navigate the contemporary job market. Yet this is what you are now supposed to embrace as liberating.

Chris’s experiences cycling between employment and increasing periods of unemployment was a familiar story for me. I interviewed so many people in their late forties to early sixties who had a few permanent jobs early in their careers. But as companies increasingly focused on having a more transient workforce, these white-collar workers found their career trajectories veering from what they first thought their working life would look like. They thought that they might climb the organizational ladder in one or maybe even three companies over the course of their lifetime. Instead, they found that at some point in their mid to late forties, they started having shorter and shorter stints at different companies. The jobs, some would say, would last as long as a project. And as they grew older, the gaps between permanent jobs could start growing longer and longer. They struggled to make do, often using up their savings or selling their homes as they hoped to get the next job. Some started to find consulting jobs in order to make ends meet before landing the hoped-for permanent job, and then found themselves trapped on the consulting track—living only in the gig economy. True, not everyone felt like contracting was plan B, the option they had to take because of bad luck. In their book about contractors, Steve Barley and Gideon Kunda talk about the people they interviewed who actively chose this life. I met these people too, but they weren’t the majority of the job seekers I interviewed. Because I was studying people looking for a wide range of types of jobs, instead of studying people who already had good relationships with staffing agencies that provided consultants, I tended to meet people who felt their bad luck had backed them into becoming permanent freelancers. These were people who encountered the self-as-business metaphor as a relatively new model, one they felt they actively had to learn in order to survive in today’s workplace, as opposed to the younger people I interviewed, many of whom had grown up with the self-as-business model as their primary way to understand employment.

When you think of the employment contract in a new way, you often have to revisit what counts as moral behavior, since older frameworks offer substantively different answers to questions of moral business practice. People have to decide what it means for a company to behave well under this new framework. Consider the self-as-business model. What does a good company do to help its workers enhance themselves as allied businesses? What are the limits in what a company should do? What counts as exploitation under this new model? Can businesses do things that count as exploitation or bad practices now that might not have been considered problems earlier, or not considered problems for the same reasons (and thus are regulated or resolved differently)? Businesses are certainly deeply concerned that workers’ actions both at work and outside of work could threaten the company’s brand, a new worry—but this is the tip of the iceberg. And the moral behavior of companies isn’t the only issue. Can workers exploit the companies they align with now or behave badly toward them in new ways?

Yet while these two metaphors—the self-as-property and the self-as-business—encourage people to think about employment in different ways, there are still similarities in how the metaphors ask people to think about getting hired. In both cases, the metaphors are focusing on market choices and asking people to operate by a market logic. Deciding whether to rent your capacities is a slightly different question than deciding whether to enter into a business alliance with someone, but in both instances you are expected to make a decision based on the costs and benefits involved in the decision. In addition, both metaphorical contracts presume that people enter into these contracts as equals, and yet this equality doesn’t last in practice once you are hired. In most jobs, the moment you are hired, you are in a hierarchical relationship; you are taking orders from a boss. Some aspects of working have changed because of this shift in frameworks, but many aspects have stayed the same.

Avoiding Corporate Nostalgia

I talked to people who were thoughtfully ambivalent about this transition in the metaphors underlying employment. They didn’t like their current insecurity, but they pointed out that earlier workplaces weren’t ideal either. Before, people often felt trapped in jobs they disliked and confronted with office politics that were alienating and demoralizing. Like many people today, they dealt with companies in which they were constantly encountering sexism and racism. Not everyone had equal opportunities to move into the jobs they wanted or to be promoted or acknowledged for the work that they did well.

However, as anthropologist Karen Ho points out, when you have a corporate ladder that excludes certain groups of people, you also have a structure that you can potentially reform so that these groups will in the future have equal opportunities. When you have no corporate ladder—when all you have is the uncertainty of moving between companies or between freelance jobs—you no longer have a clear structure to target if you want to make a workplace a fairer environment. If there is more gender equality in the US workplace these days than there was thirty years ago, it is in part because corporate structures were stable enough and reformers stayed at companies long enough that specific business practices could be effectively targeted and reformed. Part of what has changed about workplaces today is that there has been a transformation in the kinds of solutions available to solve workplace problems.

I see what people said to me about their preference for the kinds of guarantees and rights people used to have at work as a form of critique, not a form of nostalgia. People didn’t necessarily want to return to the way things used to be. When people talked to me nostalgically about how workplaces used to function, it was often because they valued the protections they used to be able to rely on and a system they knew well enough to be able to imagine how to change it for the better.

Many people I spoke to were very unhappy with the contemporary workplace’s increasing instability. They worried a great deal about making it financially through the longer and longer dry spells of unemployment between jobs. I talked to a man who was doing reasonably well that year as a consultant, and he began reflecting on what the future would hold for his children. He didn’t want them to follow in his footsteps and become a computer programmer, because too many people like him were contingent workers. He wanted them to have their own families and reasoned: “If everybody thinks they can be laid-off in two weeks, how would they feel confident enough to be a parent and know that they’ve got twenty-one years of consistent investment?”

It is not that the people I spoke to necessarily wanted older forms of work. What many wanted was stability. No matter how many times people are told to embrace being flexible, to embrace risk, in practice many of the people I spoke to did not actually want to live with the downsides of this riskier life. The United States does not have enough safety nets in place to protect you during the moments when life doesn’t work out. Because you are supposed to be looking for a new job regularly over the course of a lifetime, the opportunities when you might become dramatically downwardly mobile increase. There are more possible moments in which you have to enhance your skills at surviving on much less money or even living rough.

Changing Notions of What Counts as a Good Employment Relationship

When people are thought of as businesses, significant aspects of the employment relationship change. The genre repertoire you use to get a job alters to reflect this understanding as you use resumes, interview answers, and other genres to represent yourself as a bundle of business solutions that can address the hiring company’s market-specific temporary needs. Networking has changed—what it means to manage your social relationships so that you can stay employed has shifted. Some people I met are now arguing that you treat the companies you are considering joining in the same way you would treat any other business investment: in terms of the financial and career risk involved in being allied with this company.

It is not just that you evaluate jobs differently when you know that your job is temporary—deciding you can put up with some kinds of inconveniences but not others. Instead, you see the job as a short-term investment of time and labor, and the job had better pay off—perhaps by providing you with new skills, new networks, or a new way of framing your work experiences that makes you potentially more desirable for the next job. What if this new framework allows workers to have new expectations of their employers, or can safeguard workers’ interests in new ways? If you have this perspective, what are the new kinds of demands that employees could potentially make of employers?

For Tom, this new vision of self-as-business was definitely guiding how he was judging the ways companies treated him and what was appropriate behavior. I first contacted Tom because I heard through the grapevine that he refused to use LinkedIn. I was curious, as I had been doing research for seven months by that point and only came across one other person who was not using LinkedIn (and has since rejoined). We talked about his refusal, and he explained to me that LinkedIn didn’t seem to offer enough in return for his data. He clearly saw himself in an exchange relationship with LinkedIn, providing data for it to use and in return having access to the platform. Fair enough, I thought: as far as I can tell, the data scientists at LinkedIn and Facebook whom I have met see the exchange relationship in similar ways. Yet Tom decided that what LinkedIn offered wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t worth providing the company with his personal data. So I asked him about various other sites that he might use in which the exchange might be more equitable, and he lit up talking about these other sites. For Tom, because he saw himself as a business, and viewed his data as part of his assets, he was ready to see LinkedIn as offering a bad business arrangement, one he didn’t want to accept. The self-as-business framework allowed him to see the use of certain platforms as instances of participating in business alliances. Some alliances he was willing to enter into, but not all.

This wasn’t his only encounter with a potentially exploitative business arrangement. He typically worked as an independent contractor, and a company asked him to come in for a job interview. When he got there, his interviewer explained that the position was a sweat equity job—Tom wouldn’t get a salary, but rather he would get equity in the company in exchange for his labor. “Okay” he replied. “So what is your business model?” His interviewer was surprised and discomforted to be asked this. He refused to answer; employees don’t need to know the details of the company’s business model, he said. Tom felt that this was wrong; because he was being asked to be an investor in the company—admittedly with his labor instead of with money—he felt should be given the same financial details that any other investor in a company would expect before signing on. It sounded to me like Tom’s interviewer was caught between two models: wanting the possible labor arrangements now available but unwilling to adjust whom he told what. The interviewer was not willing to follow through on the implications of this new model of employment, and as a result, Tom wasn’t willing to take the job. This is one way in which the self-as-business model offers a new way to talk about what counts as exploitation and as inappropriate behavior—behavior that might not have been an issue decades ago, or would have been a problem for different reasons (perhaps because a couple of decades ago, few people found sweat equity an acceptable arrangement).

But this new model also opens up the possibility that companies can have obligations to their employees that they did not have in the same way before. Since companies often don’t offer stable employment, they now provide a temporary venue for people to express their passion and to enhance themselves. Can this look like an obligation that businesses have to their workers? Perhaps—businesses could take seriously what it means to provide workers with the opportunities to enhance themselves. Michael Feher argues that if people are now supposed to see themselves as human capital, there should be a renewed focus on what good investment in people looks like—regardless of whether workers stay at a single company.

Should companies now help provide training for an employee’s next job? Throughout the twentieth century, companies understood that they had to provide their workers training in order for them to do their job at the company to their best of their ability. Internal training made sense both for the company’s immediate interests and for the company’s ability to retain a supply of properly trained workers over the life of the company. Now that jobs are so temporary, who is responsible for training workers is a bit more up in the air. Yet some companies are beginning to offer support for workers to train, not for the benefit of the company, but so that workers can pursue their passion, should they discover that working at that company is not their passion. Amazon, for example, in 2012 began to provide training for employees who potentially want radically different jobs. Jeff Bezos explained in his 2014 letter to shareholders: “We pre-pay 95% of tuition for our employees to take courses for in-demand fields, such as airplane mechanic or nursing, regardless of whether the skills are relevant to a career at Amazon. The goal is to enable choice.” It makes sense for a company to support its workers learning skills for a completely different career only under the contemporary perspective that people are businesses following their passions in temporary alliances with companies.

This model of self-as-business might give workers some new language to protest business practices that keep them from enhancing themselves or entering into as many business alliances as they would like. For example, just-in-time scheduling in practice is currently preventing retail workers from getting enough hours so that they can earn as much as they would like to in a week. This type of scheduling means that workers only find out that week how many hours they are working and when. They can’t expect to have certain hours reliably free, and they need to be available whenever their employer would like them to work. Marc Doussard has found that good workers are rewarded with more hours at work. While white-collar workers might get better pay in end-of-the-year bonuses for seeming passionate, retail workers get more hours in the week. If workers make special requests to have certain hours, Doussard discovered, their managers will often punish them in response, by either giving them fewer hours to work or only assigning them to shifts they find undesirable. In practice, this means that workers have trouble holding two jobs or taking classes to improve themselves, as unpredictable shifts will inevitably conflict with each other or class times. Predictable work hours, in short, are essential for being able to plan for the future—either to make sure you are working enough hours in the week to support yourself or to educate yourself for other types of jobs. Since companies are now insisting that people imagine themselves as businesses, what would happen if workers protested when companies don’t allow them to “invest” in themselves or when they are thwarted from having as many business partnerships (that is, jobs) as possible? Perhaps employees should now be able to criticize and change employers’ practices when they are prevented from being the best businesses they can be because of their employers’ workplace strategies.

This has been an adapted excerpt from the new book Down and Out in the New Economy: How People Find (or Don’t Find) Work Today by Ilana Gershon (University of Chicago Press, April 2017).

Months After Calling the Prospect ‘Crazy,’ Facebook Brags About Its Ability to Swing Elections

Posted on Mar 4, 2017

Facebook, whose founder Mark Zuckerberg called arguments that the tech giant helped swing the presidential election toward Donald Trump “crazy” and “extremely unlikely,” is now boasting of its ability to influence elections for pay.

Adam Peck reports at ThinkProgress:

Facebook’s marketing department has a web page set up to document success stories. Most of them are examples of businesses that leveraged Facebook’s advertising network into higher sales, larger audiences, and better customer reviews. But nestled somewhere between the pages for Panera Bread and Cheetos are pages for politicians like Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and former Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson.

On each page, Facebook’s business team breaks down some metrics about how these political campaigns leveraged the platform to boost donations and turnout on election day. On Johnson’s page, Facebook boasts of a 6.8-point bump in the candidate’s favorability numbers among moderate voters.

But it is wording on Sen. Toomey’s “success story” that has struck a troubling chord. After noting that Toomey was facing a tough re-election in 2016, Facebook touted it’s ability to “significantly shift voter intent and increase favorability,” and that the campaign’s “made-for-Facebook creative strategy was an essential component to Senator Pat Toomey’s re-election, as the senator won by less than 100,000 votes (of nearly 6 million votes cast).”

The Philadelphia Business Journal noted that Toomey’s campaign outspent Democratic rival Katie McGinty by more than a two to one margin on digital content, most of that directed towards Facebook. In return, the campaign was able to create more content specifically tailored to Facebook’s platform rather than recycling things like television ads.

Read more here.

Opposition to Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban mounts on eve of court deadline

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By Patrick Martin
7 February 2017

A three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, will hear oral arguments Tuesday on the travel ban on visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries imposed by the Trump administration January 27 by executive order.

The hearing was announced Monday evening, shortly after the administration filed legal briefs with the appeals court seeking to overturn the decision by Judge James Robart, a federal district judge in Seattle, who issued a temporary restraining order blocking enforcement of the Muslim ban.

The three judges include William Canby Jr., appointed by Jimmy Carter; Richard Clifton, appointed by George W. Bush; and Michelle T. Friedland, appointed by Barack Obama.

The hour-long hearing, with 30 minutes for each side, will take place at 6 pm Tuesday, Eastern Time, or 3 pm Pacific Time, with a recording of the hearing released to the public after the conclusion of the arguments.

The states of Washington and Minnesota brought the suit charging that the executive order issued by Trump is unconstitutional because of its brazenly religious character. They also argued that it damages the interests of citizens of those states as well as institutions such as universities and corporations whose students and employees are affected by the ban.

Fifteen more states, with a combined population of more than 100 million people, filed an amicus brief Monday supporting the position of Washington and Minnesota. The brief was drafted by attorneys for California, New York, Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.

Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Iowa, Maine, Maryland, New Mexico, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia and the District of Columbia joined in supporting the brief. The state of Hawaii filed a separate motion in support of Washington and Minnesota.  Nearly all these states are governed by Democrats.

The 15-state brief detailed the impact of the ban on the educational and health care systems in many of the states. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said that medical school programs would “risk being without a sufficient number of medical residents to meet staffing needs,” and that more than 2,000 students set to enroll in the state’s college and university system would be affected.

The main argument presented by the Trump administration was the claim that the states have no legal standing to challenge the executive order, and that the president’s power to control immigration is conferred both by the Constitution and federal law and is absolute and unreviewable by any court.

“Judicial second-guessing of the president’s national security determination in itself imposes substantial harm on the federal government and the nation at large,” Justice Department lawyers wrote in legal papers defending the executive order.

At the court hearing last Friday, Washington state Solicitor-General Noah Purcell responded by saying, “They’re basically saying that you can’t review anything about what the president does or says, as long as he says it’s for national security reasons. And that just can’t be the law.’’

Aside from the obviously authoritarian character of the administration’s claim, this is the diametric opposite of the position taken by Republican state attorneys general in 2015 when they argued—successfully—before the Fifth Circuit Court (based in New Orleans) that they had standing to challenge President Obama’s executive order exempting several million long-settled undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The Trump brief also urged the Ninth Circuit to reject out of hand any arguments based on religious discrimination, since the text of the executive order does not explicitly call for a ban on Muslims. Trump’s numerous statements declaring that he wished to impose a Muslim ban, and his seeking advice on how to word such a ban so that it would pass legal muster, could not be considered by the court, the brief argued, because this would involve investigating the motives of the executive branch, and would thus breach the separation of powers. The contrast between this argument and Trump’s own conduct, tweeting imprecations against Judge James Robart and all but branding him a terrorist sympathizer, is stark.

The brief filed by Washington and Minnesota replied that “courts have both the right and the duty to examine defendants’ true motives,” and cited precedents linked to previous Supreme Court decisions in relation to discrimination against gays and other disfavored minorities.

The states’ brief pointed out that the claims of urgent national security dangers were undermined by the sheer breadth of the order: “For several months it bans all travelers from the listed countries and all refugees, whether they be infants, schoolchildren or grandparents. And though it cites the attacks of September 11, 2001 as a rationale, it imposes no restrictions on people from the countries whose nationals carried out those attacks. It is at once too narrow and too broad… and cannot withstand any level of scrutiny.”

The issues of imperialist foreign policy underlying the legal recriminations were spelled out in an affidavit filed Monday by ten former top figures in the national security establishment, mostly from Democratic administrations. The document was signed by two former secretaries of state, John Kerry and Madeleine Albright, former defense secretary and CIA director Leon Panetta, former national security adviser Susan Rice, her former deputy Lisa Monaco, former homeland security secretary Janet Napolitano, and four former CIA directors or deputy directors: Michael Hayden, Michael Morrell, John McLaughlin and Avril Haines.

Noting that four of these officials “were current on active intelligence regarding all credible terrorist threat streams directed against the US” as late as January 20, 2017, the statement declared: “We all are nevertheless unaware of any specific threat that would justify the travel ban established by the Executive Order issued on January 27, 2017.”

Trump’s executive order will “disrupt key counterterrorism, foreign policy and national security partnerships that are critical to our obtaining” intelligence necessary to combat terrorist groups like the Islamic State, the statement declared. It went on to warn that individuals in the seven targeted countries who cooperated with US intelligence and military operations would now be endangered.

Newly installed Pentagon chief James Mattis reportedly ordered emergency measures for the protection of Iraqis who collaborated with the US military occupation by acting as translators or providing intelligence. The entry of these Iraqis into the United States under a special visa program was halted by the Trump order.

A separate amicus brief was filed by 97 giant corporations, including a who’s who of Silicon Valley: Facebook, Microsoft, Intel, Uber, eBay, Apple, Google, Twitter, Airbnb and Snap. The corporations argued that the order “inflicts significant harm on American business, innovation, and growth,” and by disrupting the movement of employees and potential customers “is inflicting substantial harm on US companies.”

Legal commentators expect the Ninth Circuit, which is the most liberal of the circuit courts in the US, to endorse Robart’s decision in some fashion, followed by an appeal by the Trump administration to the Supreme Court. In the event of a 4-4 split, which was the result of the previous immigration enforcement lawsuit by Republican-controlled states in 2015, the circuit court’s decision would stand.

Whatever the long-term result of the legal conflict, however, the temporary restraining order remains in effect this week, with as many as 100,000 people holding visas for entry into the United States from the seven countries targeted by the White House.

Meanwhile, more evidence has emerged of the racist and bigoted character of both the executive order itself and its enforcement by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. A report in Newsweek quoted Los Angeles immigration lawyer Stacy Tolchin, who describes how ICE agents separated Muslims from non-Muslims during detention proceedings at the airports in the period before the court order halting the travel ban was issued.

“They are segregating Muslims from the non-Muslims when they’re being detained, holding them in separate rooms,” Tolchin told Newsweek. “I think it shows what the real intent of the travel ban is.” The magazine reported that several other lawyers “corroborated Tolchin’s account, saying those who identified themselves as Christian or Jewish did not seem subject to the same treatment at the border.”

Eight billionaires control as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population

Oxfam issues report on eve of Davos conference

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17 January 2016

Eight billionaires, six of them from the United States, own as much combined wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population, some 3.6 billion people, according to the latest report on global inequality from the British-based advocacy group Oxfam.

The report was released Monday, on the eve of the annual World Economic Forum in the mountain resort of Davos, Switzerland, at which many of the ultra-rich will converge this week. The Oxfam document contains a range of figures that highlight the staggering growth of social inequality, showing that the income and wealth gap between a tiny financial elite and the rest of the world’s people is widening at an accelerating rate.

New data made available to Oxfam reveals that wealth is even more concentrated than the organization had previously believed. Last year, Oxfam reported that 62 people controlled as much wealth as the bottom half of humanity. In its latest report, the charity notes that “had this new data been available last year, it would have shown that nine billionaires owned the same wealth as the poorest half of the planet.”

Oxfam writes that since 2015, the richest 1 percent of the world’s population has owned more than the rest of the world put together, and that over the past quarter century, the top 1 percent has gained more income than the bottom 50 percent combined.

“Far from trickling down, income and wealth are being sucked upwards at an alarming rate,” the report states. It notes that the 1,810 dollar billionaires on the Forbes 2016 rich list own $6.5 trillion, “as much wealth as the bottom 70 percent of humanity.”

Over the next 20 years, some 500 people will hand over to their heirs more than $2.1 trillion, an amount larger than the gross domestic product of India, a country of 1.3 billion people.

Oxfam cites recent research by the economist Thomas Piketty and others showing that in the United States, over the past 30 years the growth in incomes of the bottom 50 percent has been zero, while the incomes of the top 1 percent have risen by 300 percent.

The same process is taking place in the world’s poorest countries. Oxfam notes that Vietnam’s richest man earns more in a day than the country’s poorest person earns in 10 years.

The report points to the systematic character of the siphoning of global wealth to the heights of society. The business sector is focused on delivering “ever higher returns to wealthy owners and top executives,” with companies “structured to dodge taxes, drive down workers’ wages and squeeze producers.”

This involves the most barbaric and criminal practices. Oxfam cites a report by the International Labour Organisation estimating that 21 million people are forced labourers, generating $150 billion in profits every year. The world’s largest garment companies all have links to cotton-spinning mills in India that routinely use the forced labour of girls.

Small farmers are also being driven into poverty: in the 1980s, cocoa farmers received 18 percent of the value of a chocolate bar, compared to just 6 percent today.

The extent of corporate power is highlighted in a number of telling statistics. In terms of revenue, 69 of the world’s largest economic entities are now corporations, not countries. The world’s 10 largest companies, including firms such as Wal-Mart, Shell and Apple, have combined revenue greater than the total government revenue of 180 countries.

Although the authors avoid any condemnation of the profit system per se, the information provided in their report amounts to a stunning verdict on the capitalist system. It highlights in facts and figures two central processes delineated by Karl Marx, the founder of modern socialism.

In Capital, Marx explains that the objective logic of the capitalist system, based on the drive for profit, is to produce ever greater wealth at one pole and poverty, misery and degradation at the other. In the Communist Manifesto, he explains that all governments are but the executive committee for managing the affairs of the capitalist class.

This is exemplified in the tax policies and other “business-friendly” measures undertaken by governments around the world. The Oxfam report notes that technology giant Apple is alleged to have paid a tax of just 0.005 percent on its European profits.

Developing countries lose around $100 billion a year as a result of outright tax dodging and the exemptions granted to companies. In Kenya, $1.1 billion is lost to government revenue every year because of exemptions, an amount nearly twice the country’s annual health budget.

Government tax policies work hand in hand with tax dodging and criminality. The report cites economist Gabriel Zucman’s estimate that $7.6 trillion of global wealth is hidden in offshore tax havens. Africa alone loses $14 billion in annual revenues because of the use of tax havens: enough to pay for health care that would save the lives of four million children and employ enough teachers to ensure that every African child went to school.

There is one significant omission from Oxfam’s discussion of accelerating inequality. It makes no mention of the critical role of the policies of the world’s major governments and central banks in handing over trillions of dollars to the banks, major corporations and financial elites through bank bailouts and the policies of “quantitative easing” since the eruption of the global financial crisis in 2008.

A discussion of these facts would raise uncomfortable political issues. The report opens by favourably citing remarks by US President Barack Obama to the UN General Assembly in 2016 that a world in which 1 percent of the population owns as much as the other 99 percent can never be stable.

But the very policies of the Obama administration have played a key role in creating this world. After rescuing the financial oligarchs from the results of their own criminal actions with massive bank bailouts, the Obama administration and the US central bank ensured their further enrichment by providing a supply of ultra-cheap money that boosted the value of their assets.

Under Obama, the decades-long growth of inequality accelerated, along with the descent of the ruling class into parasitism and criminality. He paved the way for the financial oligarchy to directly seize the reins of power, embodied in the imminent presidency of casino and real estate billionaire Donald Trump, to whom Obama will hand over the keys to the White House on Friday.

The overriding motivation behind the Oxfam report is fear of the political consequences of ever-rising inequality and a desire to deflect mounting anger over its consequences into harmless channels. It advances the perspective of a “human economy,” but maintains that this can be achieved on the basis of the capitalist market, provided corporations and governments change their mindsets.

The absurdity of this perspective, based on the long-discredited outlook of British Fabianism, which has dominated the thinking of the English middle classes for well over a century, can be seen from the fact that the report is directed to the global financial elites gathered at the Davos summit this week, with a call for them to change their ways.

The bankruptcy of this outlook is demonstrated not only by present-day facts and figures, but by historical experience. A quarter century ago, following the liquidation of the Soviet Union, the air was filled with capitalist triumphalism. Freed from the encumbrance of the USSR, and able to dominate the globe, liberal capitalist democracy was going to show humanity what it could do.

And it certainly has, creating a world marked by ever-rising inequality, the accumulation of wealth to truly obscene levels, oppression and anti-democratic forms of rule, criminality at the very heights of society, and the increasingly ominous prospect of a third world war.

This history brings into focus another anniversary: the centenary of the Russian Revolution. Despite its subsequent betrayal at the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy, the Russian Revolution demonstrated imperishably, and for all time, that a world beyond capitalism and all its social ills and malignancies is both possible and necessary. Its lessons must inform the guiding perspective for the immense social struggles that are going to erupt out of the social conditions detailed in the Oxfam report.

Nick Beams

WSWS 

The Chicago kidnapping isn’t about Black Lives Matter. It’s about the violence faced by people with disabilities

Mindless violence and hideous cruelty against the disabled has to be condemned by all Americans whenever it occurs

Don’t let racists fool you: The Chicago kidnapping isn’t about Black Lives Matter. It’s about the violence faced by people with disabilities
(Credit: Mila May via Shutterstock/Salon)

A brutal crime in Chicago shocked the nation earlier this week after four teenagers kidnapped an 18-year-old student and tormented him over Facebook Live — punching him, kicking him, and tearing off his clothing while he screamed for help. What made the crime a front page story, however, isn’t that it was live-streamed over social media: The perpetrators — Jordan Hill, Tesfaye Cooper, Brittany Covington, and Tanishia Covington — invoked the name of the president-elect during the attack. “F**k Trump!” the assailants yelled. “F**k white people!”

Since video of the attack went viral, racists have used the footage as evidence of the scourge of black-on-white crime, a phenomenon white nationalist leaders say the media ignored.

Richard Spencer, an alt-right leader infamously referred to as the “dapper white nationalist” in a Mother Jones story published earlier this year, used the incident as a marketing tool in a series of tweets published Wednesday. “This isn’t even the first instance of terrorism against whites by anti-Trump #blacklivesmatter supporters in Chicago,” Spencer wrote, adding later in the day:

“Remember the #BLMKidnapping every time some journalist lies about my white advocacy organization and calls it a hate group.”

In the latter tweet, Spencer refers to a hashtag that trended after the attack, one that attempted to pin the violence on Black Lives Matter, the national network of advocates for racial equality. Deray McKesson, a Baltimore-based activist who has become one of the faces of the BLM movement, tweeted: “It goes without saying that the actions being branded by the far-right as the ‘BLM Kidnapping’ have nothing to do w/ the movement.”

While white nationalists use the incident to stoke fears of black people targeting innocent whites, the truth is that hate crimes against white people are relatively rare. 2012 statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigations show that of the 3,467 hate crimes reported to police that year, 66.2 percent were motivated by racial animus against black people. This is despite the fact that African-Americans make up just 13.3 percent of the U.S. population, according to 2015 statistics from the Census Bureau. Meanwhile, just 22 percent of bias attacks were anti-white.

Instead, this incident is a reminder of the violence that people with disabilities experience in everyday life. The young student, whose name has not been published in the press to protect the privacy of his family, has an intellectual disability, which means that his brain processes information differently than the rest of ours. He was a classmate of Jordan Hill, who invited him over for a “slumber party.”

People with disabilities aren’t often the targets of hate crimes. FBI data shows that just over one percent of people who suffer a bias attack have a mental or physical impairment. Instead this population, which totals over 63 million Americans, is more likely to be the victim of other types of crimes — including rape.

According to the Washington Coalition of Sexual Assault Programs, 80 percent of women with a disability report being assaulted by a friend, family member, or a stranger. That also includes 30 percent of disabled men. Many of these crimes take place in their youth. The WCSAP claims that male adolescents with a hearing impairment are five times more likely than their peers to be a rape survivor. Young girls who are deaf or otherwise hard of hearing are twice as likely to be sexually assaulted as girls who aren’t hearing impaired.

When dealing with police, those with disabilities often face a lot of the same struggles that non-white people do, subject to extraordinary, disproportionate harm. A 2016 report from the  Ruderman Family Foundation showed that differently abled persons make up between a third to one half of all people killed by law enforcement every year.

Robert Ethan Saylor, a 26-year-old with Down syndrome, was called “Ethan” by his family. He went to see the Kathryn Bigelow film “Zero Dark Thirty,” which details the hunt and capture of Osama Bin Laden, with his caretaker on Jan. 12, 2013. After seeing the movie, Saylor decided he wanted to watch it again and went back into the theater, despite the fact that he hadn’t purchased a ticket. Although his caretaker warned police, who were called to the scene to remove him from the theater, that Saylor would “freak out” if touched, he was dragged out of the facility as he yelled for help.

“Mommy!” the young man screamed. “It hurt! Call my mom.”

Saylor, whose mother was just five minutes away from the scene of the accident, would die of asphyxiation in the struggle with police. As the young man was thrown to the floor and handcuffed, the cartilage in his throat fractured. His siblings remember Saylor as someone who looked up to law enforcement officials as role models, collecting cop badges and other police paraphernalia.

Saylor’s case, which might remind you of Eric Garner, the man suffocated by police officers as he protested that he couldn’t breathe, is one of many.

There’s Antonio Love, a deaf man who was pepper sprayed and tasered by police in the bathroom of a Dollar General in 2009 because he couldn’t hear the command by police to come of the facility. Ernest Griglen, who is diabetic, was brutally beaten by police in 2008 who thought he was driving drunk. At the time of his beating, Griglen was experiencing insulin shock. Six years later, Natasha McKenna, who was schizophrenic, was stripped naked and tasered four times in her cell because she wouldn’t come out of her cell. As she died, she protested, “You promised you wouldn’t kill me.”

In fact, many of the cases of police brutality you’ve heard about in the media intersect with disability in crucial ways. Sandra Bland, who was removed from her vehicle and tossed to the ground following a routine traffic stop in 2015, had a history of depression. The 28-year-old was later found hanged in her jail cell. Laquan McDonald, a Chicago teen whose death made national headlines after being gunned down by a white cop in 2014, had a learning disability, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.

These aspects of police violence are rarely reported on, but these details are crucial and often make the difference between life and death. Garner, a Staten Island man who was selling cigarettes on the street when he was assaulted by police, was asthmatic.

As The Daily Beast’s Elizabeth Heideman reports, police do receive training on how to respond to people with disabilities, but that education is limited. Law enforcement officials are instructed to issue simple, clear commands in order to prevent difficult situations from escalating further, like “Get on the ground!” and “Drop that!” But those instructions wouldn’t have helped Love, because he wouldn’t have been able to understand them. This training needs to be expanded in a way that recognizes the unique challenges the community faces and how to handle them.

This attack isn’t about what people like Spencer want you to believe it is. White supremacists hope to use this incident to stoke the flames of racial hate, but it’s about a society that lacks compassion for people with disabilities and a nation that still doesn’t know how to address it. Too many differently abled people are assaulted, hurt, and killed every year, and their stories rarely become trending topics. It’s time to start telling them.

 

SALON

Noam Chomsky: Randomly Surfing the Web Is No Way to Educate Yourself

MEDIA

Internet Is a ‘Cult Generator’

A fact here, a fact there, and “all of a sudden you have some crazed picture.”

Photo Credit: Talks at Google/YouTube

Fake news has been around long before Facebook, but it was the tech company’s goal to appear like a newspaper that eventually misled its users far more than ever before.

“Technology is basically neutral,” author Noam Chomsky explained. “It’s kinda like a hammer…the hammer doesn’t care whether you use it to build a house or a torturer uses it to crush somebody’s skull… same with modern technology [like] the internet. The internet is extremely valuable if you know what you’re looking for.”

Unfortunately, that’s almost the antithesis of Facebook. And while Paper, the ad-free Facebook news feed app ultimately failed, the social media network had by then successfully developed tools like Smart Publishing. The latter tool for publishers aimed to boost stories on Facebook that were popular with the user’s own network, amplifying the performance of fake news in a scandal-obsessed hyperpartisan era. But until five weeks after the election, there was little distinction on the platform between “news” published by conspiracy theorists and actual trusted news sources.

“If you don’t have [an idea what you’re looking for], exploring the internet is just picking out random factoids that don’t mean anything,” Chomsky stated. Without a specific strategy, he believes the internet is far more likely to be harmful than helpful.

“Random exploration through the internet turns out to be a cult generator,” Chomsky concluded. “Pick up the factoid here, a factoid there, somebody else reinforces it, and all of a sudden you have some crazed picture which has some factual basis, but nothing to do with the world. You have to know how to evaluate, interpret and understand.”

Despite having initially denied that hoaxes on Facebook influenced the presidential election, Facebook did begin flagging articles users identified as fake news in mid-December.

Facebook isn’t the only tech company faced with the onslaught of fake news; Google’s top stories are often totally illegitimate.

Chomsky doesn’t like Facebook for many reasons; however, he does use the internet for research.

Then there’s Donald Trump, who in May, after sharing a fake video to claim a protester’s non-existent ties to ISIS, said, “All I know is what’s on the internet.”

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