Amazon Workers to Vote on Unionization: Bezos Says He Can’t Afford It

Readings for 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Job 7: 1-7; Psalm 147: 1-6; 1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23; Mark 1: 29-39.

Tomorrow, 6,000 Amazon warehouse workers in Alabama will vote on unionization. Of course, their decision will affect workers throughout Amazon’s mammoth enterprise – most of them non-white. The company employs 798,000 full-and part-time employees. In 2019, its net revenues were around $280.5 billion. Its CEO, Jeff Bezos, is himself worth about $184 billion. He’s the second richest man on the planet.

Work at Amazon

Despite company profits and the wealth of its chief, there’s good reason for the unionization drive including alienated labor resulting from:

  • Low pay: Recently, Amazon raised its wages to $15 per hour. It also extended to its workers a $2 per hour bonus for “heroic” service during the pandemic. However, the company has since removed that extra pay in the light of its claims that the pandemic’s severity has diminished. Amazon workers dispute that assertion, while maintaining that $15 per hour remains inadequate remuneration for their heavy workloads. And besides, Amazon workers’ unprecedentedly profitable production increases during the pandemic need due reward.
  • Intense surveillance of workers: Sophisticated AI technology tracks every move of each Amazon worker – to such an extent that those not meeting production goals can be threatened with imminent job termination by a robot without intervention from a human supervisor.
  • Union-busting: That same sort of technology makes sure that workers on break do not congregate for purposes of conversation related to union organizing. Those caught engaging in such exchanges have been summarily fired.
  • Wage theft: Last Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission fined Amazon $61.7 million for actually stealing tips from Amazon’s Flex drivers over a two and a half-year period. Flex drivers are hourly workers who receive no benefits and use their own cars to make deliveries.
  • Dangerous working conditions: Work at Amazon is three times as dangerous as employment across the private sector and twice as dangerous as warehouse work in general. 911 records show that on the job mental episodes and even suicides are common in the Amazon workplace.  
  • PR to the contrary: The Amazon website proclaims that it supports the Black Lives Matter movement. However, according to Amazon’s largely non-white workforce, the items just listed tell another story.

Today’s Readings

I bring all of this up, because this Sunday’s readings suggest themes of work, overwork, and low pay.  They implicitly compare the alienated work of “hirelings” and “slaves” to that of the self-chosen pro bono work done by Yeshua and Paul in service of the poor. Both types of work are exhausting. But one is human, the other not.

What I’m driving at is reflected in my translations of these thoughtful readings about work. Please check out the originals here:

 
 Job 7: 1-7:
 Joining Job
 On his stinking POS
 Wage workers know
 That life is hard
 When a plague requires
 Months of misery
 Sleepless nights
 Overtime work
 And hopeless days
 That drain their lives
 And have them wondering
 If they’ll ever
 Smile again.
  
 Psalm 147: 1-6:
 Brokenhearted,
 Some look to “God”
 And still find words
 Of prayer,
 Praise and thanks
 That transform 
 Even bricklayers’ 
 Tattered blueprints
 Into transcendent plans
 Of infinite intelligence,
 Power, and wisdom
 That one day will find
 Bosses humiliated
 And poor workers 
 Finally earning 
 Their just wage.
  
 1 Cor. 9: 16-19, 22-23:
 Paul’s proud labor
 Was teaching
 Which he too found 
 Underpaid and driven
 As he gave hope to
 Those too poor to pay
 Just as his Master had
 In order to help them
 Regain that grin.
  
 Mark 1: 29-39:
 Yes, Jesus too 
 Worked hard
 As a day-laborer
 Become faith healer
 First of his friend’s 
 Feverish in-law
 And then 
 Of the insane
 And those afflicted
 With unnamed infection
 Of every type.
 Sustained by prayer
 At early dawn,
 He too soon returned 
 To his tireless grind
 As a selfless
 Pro bono physician
 Without borders.

Alienated Labor or Not

Do you see what’s happening in those readings?

The first one from the Book of Job indirectly reveals reluctant wage labor (a la Amazon) to be like sitting on top of Job’s famous pile of excrement (Job 2: 8-13). It’s pure drudgery. It’s slavery. Its misery leads to sleepless nights, and a shortened life entirely deprived of happiness.

By way of contrast, the second and third readings describe unalienated labor. In both the case of Paul and Yeshua, the work is completely exhausting and without monetary remuneration – but by their own choice. (The gospel reading’s description of a typical “day in the life” of Yeshua the Christ is actually quite detailed. It’s up in the early morning for prayer and then dealing with a constant stream of impoverished peasants seeking relief from diseases both mental and physical. Then it’s on to the next town for a round of the same – all without charge.)

Of course, the difference between the work Job’s text references and that of Yeshua and Paul is that the latter determined their own workload and pace of activity. They exhausted themselves because they freely chose to do so – not in the service of a distant wealthy slavedriver like Bezos, but in service to Life Itself.

Though union organizers don’t put it this way, that’s the ideal of the labor union movement – a humanized workplace, where workers have voice and some control over conditions in the place where they spend fully half of their waking hours.

As economists like Richard Wolff point out, an even more humanized workplace would be run entirely by workers. They’d determine for themselves every aspect of their workday – what to produce, where to produce it, the pace of work, and what to do with the profits. In such a cooperative there’d be no alienation, no intense surveillance, no dangerous working conditions, no underpayment or wage theft.

Conclusion

Naturally, all of us have to work. But exhausting labor too (like that of Yeshua and Paul) can bring a sense of joy and participation in creation of the universe like that described in today’s responsorial, Psalm 147.

Even work for Amazon could be dignified – absent the intense surveillance, constant race against the clock, low pay, and wage theft at the hands of one of the wealthiest companies in the world run by the globe’s second richest man. That sort of work can and does drive people over the edge even to the point of suicide.

The efforts by Alabama’s Amazon employees to unionize represent an attempt by wage earners to humanize all of that harshness. Within the capitalist system as we know it, unionization is the closest workers can get to escape slave-like conditions and completely alienated labor. The real humanization however would come from transforming the workplace into a cooperative where employees would be self-empowered.

As always, the call of today’s readings is to do what our faith tells us the Great Father-Mother God did: become human. In today’s instance that means humanizing the workplace. That means opposition to Amazon’s exploitation of workers. It implies support of unions everywhere. It suggests support of the co-op movement.

America’s “Les Miz” Moment: What’s Really Happening?

I’ve participated in two unrelated Zoom groups in the past couple of weeks where the same pair of probing questions were asked: What’s Really Happening? And What about looting?

One group was composed mostly of editorial board members of the online publication, OpEdNews (OEN). The other was a “Mindfulness Dialog” meeting in my local faith community, the Talmadge Hill Community Church here in Westport Connecticut.

Of course, the shared questions were prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic in conjunction with the general uprising throughout the country (and world) incited by the brutal police murder of yet another unarmed African American, George Floyd.

In the OEN meeting, the spirit behind the discussion searched for invisible powers (perhaps Deep State?) that have us all under house arrest and why? Who’s benefitting from all this was the underlying theme. Cui bono? And why the general rebellion on a scale that Americans haven’t seen since 1968?  

My church group took another tack. There, the questions became what is Life Itself teaching us by the whole process – the pandemic, the uprising, and the violence? What is the Great Inter-Being that some of us call “God” asking us to learn and transform?

As I see it, the framings of both meetings were inseparable. It’s true that Mother Inter-Being is teaching us something. But she’s also calling us to think critically and structurally precisely about what bell hooks has described as the “white supremacist capitalist imperialist patriarchy.” That whole interlocking system is firmly based on violence and looting on a gargantuan scale that makes burning buildings and flaming police vehicles insignificant by comparison.

Pandemic Evolution

Begin with the pandemic. As seen by my church group (and by senior OEN editor, Meryl Ann Butler) it’s a virus and accordingly represents an indispensable part of the evolutionary process directly related to life’s fundamental progressions.

This virus’ name is “corona,” the Latin word for crown. In metaphysical perspective, its message is therefore addressed to our minds where the crown of humanity currently lies so uneasily. “Corona” is also connected with the heart, as in the adjective “coronary.” In this perspective then, the message of the Great Cosmic Mother is addressed to both heart and mind.

And what might she be communicating at such profound levels? Could it be that the way of life we post-moderns have chosen remains at odds with those she has established? That wouldn’t be surprising, given that it’s consistent with the Natural World’s other insistent warnings that humans have chosen largely to ignore. These include human-induced climate chaos, droughts, floods, devastating forest conflagrations, rising sea levels, species extinctions, vanishing topsoil, waste disposal problems, atmospheric pollution, and the human suffering associated with each of those elements. Supported by climate scientists across the planet, desperate Cassandras of every stripe – from Pope Francis and the Dali Lama to Greta Thunberg – have foretold inevitable disaster.

Now it’s happening. The difference this time is that the coronavirus has secured the attention of the entire world all at the same time! Unmistakably, we’re all being told again that the dominant civilization is on the wrong evolutionary track.

Revolt vs. Neoliberalism

That consciousness had already sunk in across the world well before the advent of COVID-19. Remember, it was entirely in flames at the conclusion of 2019.

Recall the inferno of rebellion. Demonstrations and street riots had erupted in Hong Kong, Warsaw, Budapest, Istanbul and Moscow. Angry masses protested in Pakistan, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia and Lebanon. Similar phenomena surfaced in Venezuela, Ecuador, Mexico, and Bolivia. Then there were the Yellow Vests in France, and Brexit in Great Britain, and recurring protests in Greece. The list of hot spots also included Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, Haiti, Puerto Rico, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Now, with the murder of George Floyd, the worldwide rebellion has finally reached the shores of the United States. Like the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor in 2010, like the subway fare hike in Chile, the police murder of George Floyd put a torch to the tinder of discontent that’s long been lying around awaiting the first incendiary spark.

The kindling in question included the frustrations of a nation-wide lockdown that has subjected everyone to a strain of cabin fever even more contagious than the coronavirus itself. The lockdown in turn caused the greatest economic downturn since the onset of the Great Depression more than 85 years ago. The resulting unemployment surged towards 1933 levels of 25%, with twice that number unemployed in black and brown communities. Breadlines had sprung up everywhere, and people experienced food scarcity and hunger in a country where even before the lockdown 40 million Americans were described as food insecure.

Government response to the crisis proved even more frustrating. Even in the midst of a worldwide pandemic, it was constitutionally unable to reform its healthcare system. Instead it awarded generous bailouts to the already wealthy and crumbs (if anything) for the working classes. Jeff Bezos, the richest man on the planet, had his income rise by 20 to 30 billion in the first two months of the lockdown. Meanwhile, many workers saw their jobs disappear – some of them permanently.

Those paying attention knew it didn’t have to be that way. As economist Richard Wolff points out for instance, pre-crisis unemployment in Germany stood at 5%. Currently, the rate is 6%. That’s because (thanks to strong labor unions and powerful socialist parties) corporate bailouts there were conditioned on employers agreeing not to fire their workers. As part of the same package, the German government covered up to 80% of the workers’ income. It was similar in France. By contrast, here in the United States there were no such preconditions for the nation’s largest employers. Bezos and others were given carte blanche relief. Their income soared, while pink-slipped workers often wondered where their family’s next meal would come from.

The convergence of pandemic, lockdown, unemployment, poverty, hunger and government’s impotent malfeasance confined working people to a pressure cooker that was bound to explode. Even if protestors were unaware of all its elements, even if they thought it was all about George Floyd and police brutality, there was really much more at work to send the cooker’s gauge beyond the red danger zone. Put otherwise: the explosion we’re witnessing represents an uprising, a rebellion, not mere police riots.  

Les Misérables React

With all those pressures at work, it should not have surprised anyone if a small minority of protestors engaged in property destruction and looting. The reasons justifying (yes, justifying) the petty thievery, breaking of windows, burning of buildings, slashing of tires and throwing of stones should be obvious to everyone. Let me list just a few. They include the facts that:

  • Charges of looting are highly suspect: Everyone knows that police and other official sources regularly employ agents provocateurs. As others have pointed out, it is virtually impossible to distinguish looters from officials masquerading as such for purposes of discrediting protestors in general.
  • Property destruction is the American way: From official statements of “leaders” like Barack Obama, Donald Trump and various police chiefs, you’d think all of them were committed followers of Jesus, King, and Gandhi. You’d think they were all pacifists. On the contrary, our government’s official response to almost any international problem you care to name is that “all options are on the table.” And “all” means bombing, droning, sending in troops, killing on a massive scale, and even threatening nuclear war. Of course, every one of those options includes destruction of lives and property on massive and (in the case of nuclear weapons) total scales. So, it’s quite amusing to see government officials wringing their hands over broken windows and burning police cars.
  • The rich have just looted our treasury: The CARES ACT’s immediate response to the coronavirus pandemic prioritized taxpayer-backed loans and tax breaks to the already rich. At the same time it neglected the pressing needs of the poorest among us (e.g. the homeless and undocumented)  while offering crumbs to the rest of us. Some have described the measures as those of a fire department entering your burning home, forgetting about the fire and stealing your most valued possessions. That’s looting.
  • In a context of lockdown, looting has been long expected: This is what I refer to as a “Les Miz Moment.” Recall that in Victor Hugo’s play, Jean Valjean is imprisoned, tortured, and hunted relentlessly for stealing a loaf of bread. Hungry desperate people do desperate things. Stealing food or a TV from behind a broken display window is less than nothing when compared with the stealing and looting that historically undergirds our country’s primitive wealth accumulation.
  • Historically, our country’s economy is based on looting: It all began with genocidal looting of an entire hemisphere from Native Americans. Remember, African Americans are here in the first place because of the looting of millions of their very lives beginning in 1619. Mexicans had huge parts of their country snatched from them in 1848. And afterwards prosperous Mexican farmers saw whites routinely attack, destroy, and loot their property and homes with impunity. In 1921, white mobs in Tulsa, Oklahoma killed hundreds of African Americans as they burnt down the city’s prosperous “Black Wall Street.” The list of such outrages is long and bloody.
  • It is a form of restitution: Looting represents a poor man’s largely unconscious reparation in a country that refuses to entertain the massive restoration that is systemically due our nation’s black and brown inhabitants.
  • Looting works:  The argument can be easily made that until windows are broken and property destroyed, no one pays attention to “peaceful protestors.” On this, please see the debate on the subject recently moderated by Glen Greenwald.

Conclusion

So, what’s going on?

The murder of George Floyd ignited tinder just waiting for some spark to set it aflame. Obviously, we’re witnessing a rebellion against police brutality particularly as aimed at poor black and brown citizens.

But OEN editors and contributors were also correct: the counter-rebellion involves nefarious forces associated with our government and its armed forces. It’s all part of a last-gasp defense of a quickly disintegrating neo-liberal economic system and the actual worldwide rebellion against its order.

Part of it too is a mostly unconscious, but nonetheless genuine cry for reparations for unaddressed longstanding grievances. And on an even larger (metaphysical) scale, the trouble in streets across the planet can be credibly seen as a desperate response to a message from that Great Interbeing some of us call “God.”

Regardless of what you might call it, we had all better listen and respond before it’s too late.

The Missing Faith Dimension of the Capitalism vs. Socialism Debate

Jesus Communist

Democracy Now recently reported surprising results from a new Gallup poll about evolving attitudes in this country about socialism. The poll concluded that by a 57-47% majority, U.S. Democrats currently view socialism more positively than capitalism.

Let me offer some reflections sparked by those poll results. I offer them in the light of some pushback I received over my related blog posting about the capitalism vs. socialism debate. These current reflections will emphasize the faith perspective that has not only shaped my own world vision, but that should mobilize Christians to be more sympathetic to socialist ideals.

To begin with, the Gallup poll results are themselves astounding in view of the fact that since after World War II all of us have been subjected to non-stop vilification of socialism. As economist and historian, Richard Wolff, continually observes Americans’ overcoming such programming is nothing less than breath-taking. It means that something new is afoot in our culture.

On the other hand, the Gallup results should not be that shocking. That’s because since 2016, we’ve become used to an avowed socialist, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, being the most popular politician in the country.

On top of that the recent 14-point victory of another socialist, Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, grabbed everyone’s attention. Recall that Ms. Cortez defeated 10-term congressional incumbent, Joe Crowley, in her NYC race for the Bronx and Queens seat in the House of Representatives.

Socialist candidates seem to be sprouting up everywhere. They advocate a $15 an hour minimum wage, Medicare for all, and tuition free college education.

Such promises seem to be somehow awakening Americans (at least subconsciously) to the reality that at least since WWII, similar socialist programs have become quite familiar. We’ve all experienced their efficacy since Roosevelt’s New Deal. We expect the government to intervene in the market to make our lives better.

In fact, since the second Great War, there have been no real capitalist or socialist economies anywhere in the world. Instead, all we’ve experienced are mixed economies with huge elements of socialism that we’ve all taken for granted.

Put otherwise, economies across the globe (however they’ve identified themselves) have all combined the three elements of capitalism: (1) private ownership of the means of production, (2) free and open markets, and (3) unlimited earnings, with the corresponding and opposite elements of socialism: (1) public ownership of the means of production, (2) controlled markets, and (3) limited earnings. The result has been what economists everywhere call “mixed economies”: (1) some private ownership and some public ownership of the means of production (exemplified in the post office and national parks), (2) some free markets and some controlled markets (e.g. laws governing alcohol, tobacco and fire arms), and (3) earnings typically limited by progressive income taxes.

What has distinguished e.g. the mixed economy of the United States from the mixed economy, e.g. in Cuba is that the former is mixed in favor of the rich (on some version of trickle-down theory), while the latter is mixed in favor of the poor to ensure that the latter have direct and immediate access to food, housing, education and healthcare.

My article also went on to argue that the socialist elements just mentioned have enjoyed huge successes in the mixed economies across the globe – yes, even in Russia, China and the United States.

“All of that may be true,” one of my readers asked “but how can you ignore the tremendous human rights abuses that have accompanied the “accomplishments” you enumerate in Russia and China? And why do you so consistently admire socialism over capitalism which has proven so successful here at home?”

Let me answer that second question first. Afterwards, I’ll try to clarify an important point made in my recent posting’s argument about the successes I alleged in Russia and China. That point was in no way to defend the horrendous human rights abuses there any more than those associated with the successes of the U.S. economy which are similarly horrific. But we’ll get to that shortly.

In the meantime, let me lead off with a that basic point about faith that I want to centralize here. Here my admission is that more than anything, I’m coming from a believer’s perspective.

That is, without trying to persuade anyone of its truth, I admit that my Judeo-Christian faith dictates that the earth belongs to everyone. So, boundaries and borders are fictions – not part of the divine order. Moreover, for some to consume obscenely while others have little or nothing is an abomination in the eyes of God. (See Jesus’ parable about the rich man and Lazarus (LK 16:19-31).

Even more to the point of the discussion at hand, it is evident that the idea of communism (or communalism) comes from the Bible itself. I’m thinking of two descriptions of life in the early Christian community that we find in the Acts of the Apostles. For instance,

Acts 2:44-45 says:

“All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

Acts 4:32–35 reads:

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Jesus’ identification with the poor and oppressed is also important for me. He said that whatever we do to the hungry, sick, ill-clad, thirsty, homeless, and imprisoned, we do to him. The words Matthew attributes to Jesus (in the only biblical description we have of the last judgment) are:

“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’ “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’ “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’ “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
There is much, much more to be said about this basic faith perspective. But for now, let that suffice.

Now for the second point about human rights:

• To repeat: no one can defend the obvious human rights abuses of Russia or China. They are clearly indefensible.
• In fact, they are as inexcusable as the similar abuses by the United States in countries which are or have been U.S. client states. I’m referring to Israel, Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Vietnam, and countries throughout Latin America and Africa. In all the latter, it has not been unusual for freedom of press to be violated, for elections to be rigged (think Honduras just recently), for summary executions to be common, for journalists to be assassinated in large numbers, and for dissenters to be routinely imprisoned and tortured. Christians advocating social justice have been persecuted without mercy. (Recall that infamous Salvadoran right-wing slogan, “Be a patriot; kill a priest.”)
• Moreover, while we have been relatively free from such outrages on U.S. soil, the events of 9/11/01 have been used to justify restrictions of freedoms we have historically enjoyed. Here the reference is to wiretappings, e-mail confiscations, neighbors spying on neighbors, and other unconstitutional invasions of privacy that seem to violate the 4th Amendment of the Constitution. It is now even permissible for the nation’s head of state to identify the press as “the enemy of the people.”
• 9/11 has also been used to justify the clearly illegal invasion of at least one sovereign country under false pretenses (Iraq) with the resultant deaths of well over a million people (mostly civilians). Other countries have also been illegally attacked, e.g. Libya, Yemen and Somalia without due congressional authorization. 9/11 has further “justified” the establishment of “black sites” throughout the world, the “rendition” of prisoners to third countries for purposes of torture, innumerable (literally) arrests without charges and imprisonments without trial. It has even led to extrajudicial killings of U.S. citizens.

Such observations make the general point that when countries perceive themselves to be under attack, they implement policies both domestically and abroad that defenders of human rights correctly identify as repressive, cruel, criminal and even homicidal. Russia, China, and Cuba have been guilty of such policies. But so has the United States in supporting friendly regimes throughout the world and by implementing increasingly repressive policies here at home.

Now consider the pressures that led Russia, for example, to implement its own indefensible repression:

• As the most backward country in Europe, its people had suffered enormously under an extremely repressive Czarist regime. [Czarism, in fact, was the model of government that most Russians (including criminals like Stalin) had internalized.]
• Following its revolution, Russia was invaded by a vast coalition of forces (including the United States). It was forced to fight not only the invaders, but Czarist sympathizers and anti-communists within its own population.
• The country had twice been invaded by Germany through Poland and saw itself as needing a buffer from its implacable enemies to the west.
• Its people had fought heroically against German invaders and though suffering 20 million deaths and incredible infrastructure destruction, it managed to defeat the German army and largely be responsible for winning World War II.
• During the Cold War, Russia found itself under constant threat from western powers and especially from the United States, its CIA, and from NATO – as well as from internal enemies allied with the latter.

My only point in making such observations was not to defend Russia’s indefensible violations of human rights (nor China’s, nor Cuba’s); it was, rather, to make my central point about the efficiency of economies mixed in favor of the poor vs. those mixed in favor of the rich.

As shown by Russia (and even more evidently by China), economies mixed in favor of the poor develop much more quickly and efficiently than economies mixed in favor of the rich. While both Russia and China became superpowers in a very short time, the former European and U.S. colonies in Latin America, Africa, and South Asia have remained mired in colonial underdevelopment. The latter’s organizing principle of “comparative advantage” has proven ineffective in enriching them, since it locks them into positions of mere suppliers of raw materials to industrialized countries. No country has ever reached “developed” status by following such principle. In other words, Global South countries are still waiting for that wealth to “trickle down.”

So, readers shouldn’t mistake the argument made by Wolff and others. It was not to defend the indefensible. (Even Khrushchev and Gorbachev recognized and denounced the crimes of Josef Stalin.) The relevant point is about capitalism vs. socialism. It was to indicate that the vilification of socialism overlooks the achievements of that system despite (not because of) restrictions on human rights that are common to both systems in egregious ways that no humanist or follower of Jesus should be able to countenance.

My conclusion remains, then, that it is up to people of conscience (and especially people of faith) to oppose such restrictions and violations wherever we encounter them – but especially in our own system where our voices can be much more powerful than denunciations of the crimes attributable to “those others.”

For Discussion: The Clearest Explanation of Marxism and Surplus Value I’ve Come Across

Whenever my adult children and I get together, we end up “discussing” current events such as the coming General Election, U.S. foreign policy, Black Lives Matter, or Cuba. And those discussions always lead to exchanges about alternatives to capitalism — especially socialism inspired by Karl Marx. On such occasions I end up defending those alternatives, and my dialog partners offer powerful counter-arguments.

I always come away from such events wishing I could be clearer in expressing my convictions. I’ve taught Marxism in the past. For a while, in a team-taught interdisciplinary course involving 15 Berea College faculty drawn from various disciplines (History, Philosophy, Physics, Biology, Economics . . .), I was asked to give the Karl Marx lecture to those colleagues and the entire B.C. sophomore class. The context was a course called “Religious and Historical Perspectives,” the best teaching (and learning) experience I’ve ever had.

There I wish I had been able to give something like the lecture I’ve pasted below. It’s given by Richard Wolff and it’s the clearest explanation of Marx’s theory of “surplus value” that I’ve come across.

Richard Wolff is emeritus professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts. He is a Marxist educated at Yale,Stanford and Harvard. He currently teaches at the New School in New York City. I am grateful to my good friend, John Capillo, who called him to my attention.

Please watch the video. If my children do, I know it will spark more enlightened conversation. I’m also hoping it will start discussion here among readers of this blog.

See what you think:

Democracy at Work and in Play: Capitalist Rams vs. Socialist Packers

On Tuesday , Stan Kroenke, the owner of the NFL Rams franchise decided to move operations from St. Louis to Los Angeles.

The decision brought sorrow and a bitter sense of betrayal fans in St. Louis who have supported “their” football team through thick and thin. For them the penny dropped: their Rams were not theirs at all.

The obvious injustice prompted them to chant “Kroenke Sucks!” when the move was announced during a St. Louis Blues –New Jersey Devils hockey game.

The chant showed that people intuitively recognize the problem. It’s the problem of capitalism: a single owner backed by a small group of similar wealthy stockholders can override the interests of an entire local community for one reason and one reason only — MONEY!

With capitalism, it happens all the time. A small board of directors (15-20 people) can decide to override the interests of entire communities — Detroit, Youngstown, Camden New Jersey — and move operations offshore to Mexico, China, Taiwan, and who knows where else? In doing so, the private owners devastate the abandoned communities. Yet they bear no responsibility for their actions.

They simply leave. They leave without reimbursing the community for roads built to service their facilities, for tax breaks granted, for plants constructed with community subsidies, for families destroyed by loss of employment.

And, once again, it’s done for one reason and for one reason only — MONEY! It’s the logic of capitalism.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

As economist Richard Wolff has indicated, there can actually be democracy at work. Democracy at work means that if workers shared ownership of their factories, they’d never vote to offshore their jobs.

Following Wolff’s logic, there can also be democracy in play — even in the NFL.

The case of the St. Louis Rams contrasted with that of the Green Bay Packers illustrates the possibility. Unlike the NFL Rams, Packers’ owners could never vote to move their franchise. That’s because the owners are the club’s fans themselves. So moving from Green Bay (pop. 104,000) even to Los Angeles (pop. 4.8 million) is out of the question.

More specifically, according to the Packers’ 1923 Articles of Incorporation, no single person can control more than 4% of the club’s stock. So these spiritual descendants of workers — the Green Bay Meatpackers’ Union — have no one like Kroenke to deal with.

Moreover, Incorporation Articles stipulate that profit from any (unimaginable) transfer of ownership must go not to individuals but to the Green Bay Packer Foundation which benefits community education, civic affairs, health and human services and youth programs.

There are lessons in all of this:

– Democracy at work and in play is possible.

– It is preferable to capitalism’s oligarchical tyranny.

– The traditional name for such democracy is “socialism.”

– Socialism can be successful. (The Packers have won more championships than any of their capitalist competitors).

– Maybe workers should be rooting for the Packers in Saturday’s matchup with the Arizona Cardinals.

– Bernie Sanders is a socialist. Hmm . . .

Encouraging Signs that Capitalism is on Its Last Legs

End of Capitalism

Last week President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline. His announcement caused huge celebration in the anti-fossil fuel resistance movement.  The victory made it clear that we’re living in revolutionary times. Powerful movements for social justice are springing up everywhere, not only on the climate change front, but more generally nationally and internationally.

Even more importantly, there is a red thread running through it all. The changes (and there are many as we’ll see) all represent the impending collapse of capitalism. We are likely standing on the brink of a transformation world-wide that parallels the fall of the Soviet Union a quarter century ago.

To begin with, think about what’s happening with the climate movement. Environmental activists are on a surprising roll in terms of their recent successes.

These include:

  • The September 2014 Great Climate March in New York City which brought out 400,000 people.
  • The subsequent rapid spread of the fossil fuel divestment movement.
  • The recent TransCanada Corporation’s decision to temporarily suspend the XL Pipeline project even before President’s Obama’s announcement.
  • The unexpected election of Justin Trudeau as Canadian Prime Minister on a platform highlighting commitment to Canada’s First Nations who are key players in the movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground.
  • Shell Oil’s abandonment of its arctic drilling plans.
  • The expose of ExxonMobil’s cover-up of its own 1980s research identifying fossil fuel combustion as a major cause of global warming. (Despite its findings the company spent millions over a 27 year period promoting climate change denial.)
  • The prospect of a lawsuit against ExxonMobil for adopting that “cigarette strategy.”
  • Widespread outrage following the release of the Transpacific Partnership text which accords multinational corporations the power to override local environmental protection standards because they might impede corporate profit.
  • The resultant promise of huge demonstrations and citizen lobbying efforts against the treaty.
  • Pope Francis’ eco-encyclical, Laudato Si’, legitimizing the positions of environmental activists previously called “extremists” for expressing the same ideas.
  • Next month’s Climate Conference in Paris which promises to yield further victories.

As Naomi Klein has pointed out, such changes – such widespread resistance throughout what she calls “Blockadia” – change everything. They signal a growing awareness that an economy based on fossil fuel consumption just cannot continue.

And that’s not all. Other mobilizations of people dissatisfied with the socio-economic status quo are sweeping our own nation and creating new socio-political configurations. Here I’m thinking of:

  • The success of the Occupy Movement in coining the “One Percent” watchword and making economic disparity a key political campaign issue.
  • The unexpected phenomenon of the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy. (After more than 50 years of subjecting Americans to the most intense anti-socialist propaganda, who would have thought that a self-identified socialist could gain such a following?)
  • The mobilization of the Black Lives Matter campaign as a 21st century resurrection of the Civil Rights Movement.
  • The spread of the movement to campuses like Yale and the University of Missouri where students of color forced the resignation of Mizzou’s president and chancellor.
  • The invasion of our country (and of Europe) with refugees from the U.S.-led and/or supported wars in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, and elsewhere. (In fact, refugees represent the most powerful and effective anti-war marchers in the history of our planet.)
  • The invasion of the U.S. with refugees from Mexico and Central America demonstrating the failure of the War on Drugs which has torn that country and region apart.
  • Ditto for immigrants manufactured by the disastrous North American Free Trade Agreement and its Central American counterpart (CAFTA).

Yes, the chickens of Orwellian wars and of neo-liberal economic policies are coming home to roost with a vengeance.  It is now possible to speak openly (as Pope Francis has done) about the failures of unfettered capitalism. It not only destroys the environment. It creates massive wealth disparities and unemployment especially in communities of color. Government cut-backs in public services (including police training) wreak havoc everywhere. As a result people are out in the streets. They’re stopping traffic. Students are walking out of class. Even the Mizzou football team and its coach went on strike.

Finally, think about what’s happening internationally:

  • On June 17 th 2014, 133 of the world’s 196 countries met and declared their intention to “destroy the New World Order” championed by Western Empire.
  • Russia has risen from the ashes and is confronting the Empire on all fronts.
  • Vladimir Putin has emerged as the world’s most effective international leader and practitioner of diplomacy aimed at and independence from U.S. Empire.
  • Russia and China are both returning to their socialist roots often advancing policies far more humane than their western counterparts.
  • Despite recent setbacks, Greece has threatened the neo-liberal order in the heart of the European Union. SYRIZA’s original anti-austerity message has spread to Italy, Spain, and France.
  • Latin America has broken free of the shackles of the Monroe Doctrine. Cuba, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil are all forging their own paths while cooperating with and supporting one another. All are moving closer to Russia and China.
  • The BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) representing at least half the planet’s population, are trading with each other in their own currencies now making themselves immune from western sanctions.
  • World-wide computer news sites have largely replaced a corporate-controlled mainstream media (MSM). People have awakened to the fact that the MSM can’t be trusted. In Latin America, Russia, China, and Iran, the new media are not even “alternative” any longer. Their mission is exposing the crimes of the West, its Empire and client states. Their message couldn’t be more straight-forward: No more war, torture, rape or genocide.

Economist, Richard Wolff, is fond of saying that when social change happens, it often comes quickly. He says that for decades it might seem that nothing happens. Then in a matter of days, decades happen. That’s the Soviet Union story of a little over 25 years ago.

We’re now in one of those periods where pent-up frustration and zeal for change is being released with hurricane force. It’s a good time to be alive – and to get on the band wagon.