June 30, 2008

Ida B. Wells-Barnett
























Ida: A Sword Among Lions
by Paula J. Giddings. New York: Amistad/HarperCollins, 2008. Hardback. 800 pages with photographs.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett was born into slavery in 1862 in Holly Springs, Mississippi. She died in Chicago in 1931. Her years were too short. This was a woman who led and internationalized the early struggle against lynching, helped build the early movement of women's clubs, wrote and organized against the rolling back of Reconstruction and worked at the difficult points of the intersecting of women's' and African-Americans' rights struggles and fought for both.

Besides Wells-Barnett's autobiography, there has been no objective and factual telling of her story until now. Paula J. Giddings brings to life not only Wells-Barnett's life, but she also correctly places this in the context of regional and national events which often escape our collective memory. The book moves from lynching to major civil rights case to struggle easily enough and gives a credible account of how Wells-Barnett instigated, agitated and responded to these events. The value of this book is in its ability to awaken memory and conscience and a feeling of regret over so many lost opportunities to set things right.

The book also serves to remind us of some of the features of the widespread and militant resistance to the rolling back of Reconstruction, how Black intellectuals moved from the passing of Victorian and Gilded Age America to the period of early mass industrialization and the complex role of the Republican party in those years. Paula J. Giddings provides us with what feels like an insider's view of the women's clubs and the various Black empowerment and religious organizations in their early and formative years. She is partisan in her opinions, but she is also capable of looking critically at her subject. Giddings does not say so, but her book begins to trace a winding, though unbroken, line of march from slavery to the modern civil rights movement. She weighs equally the theory and the practice of this work in the person of Ida B. Wells-Barnett. This is a popular history which makes civil rights theory and practice accessible to almost everyone.

The book has some critical weaknesses. The author and the subject both deserve a better-edited and less repetitive text. The left and Wells-Barnett's contact with it are hardly mentioned. We're left wondering why and how she remained in the center of Chicago Republican party politics for so long. Fascinating individuals and movements arise with uneven coverage: much is said about the temperance movement and Booker T. Washington and Frederick Douglass, but the early NAACP and Marcus Garvey and W.E.B. Du Bois do not get the detailed examination they deserve, for instance.

Wells-Barnett may well have died feeling that she had failed. She was frequently and easily isolated in the movements of her day and she played an active and factional role in a number of organizations which came quickly to forget her contributions and diminish her impressive achievements. Her political work often rested upon a number of shifting alliances and relationships. Still, Giddings demonstrates Wells-Barnett's amazing ability to summon her self-confidence and organizing skills and begin again after every defeat. This ability must be measured against the horrors of the riots and lynchings she responded to and the difficulties faced by a politicized African-American woman who set about organizing at a time when Reconstruction was being attacked and undermined and women did not yet have the vote. She carried this spirit forward to a time when women did win the right to vote and to Illinois, where a primary issue was organizing the Black vote free of self-serving white interference and the corrupt Black politicians serving those interests.

This is a book worth reading between now and November.

June 26, 2008

Pacific Northwest Takes Some Hits This Week

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that Exxon will be able to walk away with paying only an additional $500 million in fines from the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989. This reduces the penalty to about $15,000 per registered victim of the spill. This hits Alaskan indigenous people particularly hard and sticks the already-reeling commercial fishing industry with another barrier to recovery or gradual downsizing. It also affects the workers who went north for fishing and cannery work. The fines were a commonsense response to willful corporate destruction of the environment, but today that money also could help jumpstart needed economic activity in a region which looks less like the Pacific Rim economy and more like Appalachia every day.

We're seeing a rolling crisis in county and state services in Oregon due to the cessation of the county payments program, which was meant to offset the decline in state revenue from timber harvests. Granted that we can't depend on this forever, the practical end of the program came without alternative economic planning and has left the most disadvantaged counties and social service agencies stranded.

Some Oregon legislators, meanwhile, are doing exactly the wrong thing by talking about withholding or delaying some state funds intended to cover state worker salary increases and healthcare benefits or cut funding for state worker healthcare and use those funds to cover people in the Oregon Health Plan. Workers should not have to lose money or pay for bad policy, lack of planning or the effects of corporate competition and miscalculation. We have already paid through our labor and by having the wealth we created appropriated from us at work and through taxes and fees shifted on to us by the wealthy. Cutting state worker healthcare benefits is not the solution to the healthcare crisis and whatever savings might occur--and I doubt that there would be savings--would not adequately cover enough people to put a dent in that growing crisis.

Let's look at some of the leading news stories this week.

Nike 's profits are up, but since this money is made through overseas production and sales--and since wealth does not trickle down--we won't see any benefits here. The large corporate investors in Nike want more profits or a higher rate of profits, however, which means Nike either driving down wages or seeking lower-wage and lower-costs means of producing products, or both, and overproduction geared to new or expanding markets. The contradiction here is that they can't have both simultaneously for very long. Under-consumption--a real possibility for the market Nike is in--threatens profit-making and the debt companies and nations incur in order to raise and maintain production has to be paid back eventually. The international stability Nike needs isn't there.

Oregon's coastal fishermen are likely to get state aid later this week in addition to some federal money. This is a short-term fix that does not address the environmental problems and the lack of planning which caused the crisis in the first place. In fact, this may well mimic the problem with the now-missing timber payments eventually.

The new farm bill allows some farmers to get advance payments on wheat, oats, barley, canola and corn. This might help if the bill took care of small farmers, which it doesn't. In fact, the bill specifically cuts out small farms and small farmers. I do not believe that it factors in for inflation either, though I may be wrong. If I am correct, then farmers are taking a special risk with advance payments and will feel increased pressure to produce and sell for multi-national markets dominated by agribusiness and ethanol companies. After the floods in the Midwest, then, we can expect increased speculation in basic foodstuffs and higher food prices internationally as a result of this pressure--not because of flooding, but because of speculation.

These three stories illustrate so much of what is wrong with capitalism and why the system seems incapable of either policing itself or changing course.

June 24, 2008

And It's Only Tuesday...

If you have been paying attention this week, you heard on the news just a bit more reporting on the much-delayed story of Israel's simulated attack on Iran, the so-called "compromise" vote on FISA and telecommunications immunity as they take away more rights and a leading force in the McCain campaign saying essentially that a terrorist incident on American soil before the elections helps McCain win.

An Israeli bombing raid or other attack on Iran threatens our survival. Some Democrats are colluding with the Republicans to take away our rights to stop just such a war. A McCain policy guy has raised to the level of rational public discussion the unthinkable possibility of an "October surprise" in order to get their candidate a win in November.

Give Smith and Wyden a call and tell them no way. Here are the phone numbers: Gordon Smith is at 202-224-3753 and Ron Wyden is at 202-224-5244.

All of this and it's only Tuesday...

June 21, 2008

NPR Does (at least) Two Stupid Stories

On Thursday National Public Radio ran a story by Kathy Lohr on the 1968 Poor People's Campaign. You can read a basic introduction to the historic Campaign here. You can read or listen to the NPR show here.

The NPR story strikes a needlessly defeatist tone in saying that not much has changed for poor people in 40 years. We built a relatively powerful welfare rights movement in the intervening years, fought to put issues of the working poor on the national political agenda, won some measure of political power for African-Americans and workers and translated all of this into campaigns and pressure tactics so that no one can run for office or craft policy today without having to respond to the issues the left and the civil rights movement have pushed forward with.

Besides the lame defeatism of the NPR piece, the story suddenly turns inexplicably towards religion about half of the way through it. So not only does anti-poverty organizing have no history and no presence today, says NPR, but poverty is a Black thing and the problem with Black people is that they no longer attend mainstream churches and pray enough. The stupidity of the story makes a reasoned response almost impossible.

The reporter could have focused on the great history of anti-poverty organizing in the US, including the work done by the student left in the mid-sixties across the south and in some northern cities as well. It could have focused on how LBJ and Hubert Humphrey were forced to go way beyond their comfort zones in dealing with welfare and poverty issues or on how the welfare rights movement took Nixon on. It could have connected poverty to the loss of union jobs under Reagen or the ways in which the poor and the young were essentially criminalized under Clinton. It could have talked about the reinvigorated movements among the poor and their relationship to the Obama campaign. Instead we got racist stupidity.

This story was followed by a "reflection" by NPR's Scott Simon today. You can read or listen to that piece here. Simon attacks Obama for supposedly saying to a South Carolina audience that he wants out of federal election financing because the right-wing is launching racist attacks against him through Republican front groups known as 527s. Scott Simon denies that this is taking place and says that, even if it were taking place, everyone knows Obama is Black already and so racism can't be a factor in the right-wing's campaign against him. It's all about experience, he says.

"Experience" in this case does not mean the differing experiences of being white or Black in a racist society or the experience of doing community organizing versus the experience of living large with George Bush. No, "experience" in this case refers to the ability to scratch one's chin knowingly and tut-tut as you cut deals and commit troops to the next war.

Simon's "reflection"--more of an editorial or hit piece--is indeed racist. We have all heard the "jokes" about Obama being assassinated from leading Republicans (and a few Democrats), the stories that Obama is really a Muslim, the attacks on Obama and the Black church and the screeching Republican response to Michelle Obama's anger spoken as a Black woman. To ignore all of this or to miss the context of Obama's remarks on the 527s is to pretend that there is no racism at work here and to naively believe that all of this happens accidentally and without an organizing center. If that organizing center is not the Republican Party or the 527s, it consists of forces further to the right who are much more covert and dangerous. We wish that Obama would take these forces on directly and not wimp-out on key issues where this could be fought out, but the reality is that Black men and women cannot yet express their anger openly in this country.

Today's edition of The New York Times contradicts NPR's racist "reflection" with a front-page story detailing how forces on the right are ready to Swift-Boat Obama or make him look like the next Willie Horton. The funding may or may not be in place for these attacks now, but it will arrive if, or when, it's needed. The Times also has a story quoting New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as speaking out against a whispering or e-mail campaign saying that Obama is a Muslim. That campaign had to originate with someone and Bloomberg seems to have hinted that the campaign originated with the far-right. Note that no one is doubting Bloomberg's word here. Why can't NPR believe what Bloomberg apparently knows and why wasn't this part of Scott Simon's "reflection"?

Simon's piece ends with a comment that tries to place the Obama campaign on the same level as McCain's where racism is concerned. This equation is in itself racist.

NPR. Nationally Publicized Racism.

June 20, 2008

Palestinian non-violent resistance

The Palestinian West Bank village of Bil'in has been a center of non-violent resistance maintained jointly by Palestinians and Israelis. Organizing there has achieved some positive legal results. For background information, go to http://www.bilin-village.org/ and www.bilin-ffj.org.

Non-violent demonstrations go on regularly in Bil'in and Israeli forces regularly meet these non-violent protesters with violent military action. Israeli anarchists have been a strong force in the Bil’in resistance.

On June 13 Israeli soldiers opened fire on Ibrahim Bornat using live ammunition and hitting his right thigh. Ibrahim is son to Intessar and Wageeh and brother to Rani, who was himself shot by an Israeli sniper eight years ago at a demonstration in Ramallah. The shot left him paralyzed from the neck down.

Ibrahim, a regular participant in the Bil'in demonstrations for the past three years, had already been injured numerous times, but this is the most serious one yet. He was operated on for several hours. During the operation Ibrahim was given numerous blood transfusions that saved his life, but he is still in constant need of AB+ blood transfusions at large quantities and have already received 11 counts. An international appeal for help has been issued.

Here is a video of Ibrahim's shooting:

June 17, 2008

(Gay) Marriage

Marriage has existed primarily as a means of control—of women, certainly, but also of the young generally, and of groups as well. Whether they were marriages based on grand political and economic alliances or a need for increasing home labor and production among the middle classes and the poor, the point seems to have been more about social control and cooperation and much less about love as we think of it today.

In some sense we have capitalism to thank for most of the concepts of love we hold on to today. Early societies had no property relations based on contracts and commodity production and so marriage itself generally existed as cohabitation. As property and commodity relations arose as distinct forms of social relations, marriage came to exist in its contractual form. As we then passed from contracts created and carried out under unmediated compulsion to the “free” contracts under capitalism, concepts of love developed which replaced, or served to replace, coercion. And since the capitalist revolutions which put commodity production in place as a distinct social relationship were led by men, our dominant ideas of love today are largely also male-shaped. Love, as we understand it, has only existed for the few hard-fought centuries which also saw the rise of so-called “voluntary” labor.

We have also seen in living memory a fundamental change in family life and structure. My grandfather was born into a peasant society, essentially pre-capitalist, in which his family functioned as a cooperative producing unit. When he emigrated and became a coal miner he remained within an extended family that was still essentially cooperastive, although they no longer owned or controlled their means of production. My parents did not live their adult lives in a cooperative extended family organized for production, although they helped one another to do their separate jobs. My cousin's families seem to exist primarily as cooperative consuming units, each person aiding and abetting another's separate consuming habits through gift-giving, shared shopping trips and occasional shared vacations. The shift from collective producing to individualized consuming brings with it different roles and expectations for everyone, but particularly for women and the young.

Today the majority of women will marry, but couples tend increasingly to marry later in life and to spend more time unmarried after divorces or the death of a spouse. A contradiction arises: as people become increasingly isolated from workmates and neighbors we draw closer to our spouses for ever-shorter periods in our lives. Our social ties diminish as a primary relationship assumes more importance for a shorter period of time. Both our social ties and our primary relationships suffer under this contradiction. Society has developed a largely unmet and defensive need to help people, especially women, live independent lives and to develop relatively healthy intimate relationships. In a capitalist society this need springs from the needs to produce and reproduce labor power continually and to increase consumption as production also increases—and all without planning.

Intimacy, freed gradually from the coercion of the past, assumes a new role under capitalism and new possibilities emerge. Marriages based on the model of the “free” labor contract are declining, people search for new ways to experience intimacy, relationships shift in importance and duration and expectations shift. It is inevitable that almost everyone in a capitalist society will want to join in and benefit from this because we learn to prize pleasure and self-interest just as we hit the wall of personal alienation. Today this happens under particular circumstances: dominant modes of production in the US are breaking down, wages for men have fallen since 2001, productivity is where it was at before the Internet took off and consumption is down. An ascendant section of capital has found a new market by “freeing” gay labor to be fully productive as they also discover gays as consumers. This capitalist “liberation” of gay labor and consumption finds part of its institutionalization in gay marriage, just as heterosexual marriage arose and was codified under early capitalism. In both cases the institutionalization of modern contracted marriage also fulfills certain demands for the extension of democratic and revolutionary rights which must be defended.

The most reactionary capitalist forces oppose gay marriage and all of the relationship choices modern capitalism presents us with, even though capitalism continues to define the playing field and men remain in control. The attack by these forces on “activist judges” for ruling on behalf of gay marriage is an attack on the existence of an independent judiciary. These forces have a world view which seeks to move society backward to the time of the trusts and corporate control.

As communists we want to go forward. The logical conclusion to the contradictions we’re faced with---the hangover of coercion in “voluntary” relationships, the need for intimacy in a society which atomizes individuals as they engage in social production and consumption, the oppression of women and gays in the face of capital’s need for “free” labor and increasing consumption, increases in population at a time when labor and labor power are being increasingly being made redundant---are to extend intimacy and care-giving beyond the isolated nuclear families we know today, establish revolutionary-egalitarian forms of companionship and provide social support for people to choose from a healthy spectrum of possible relationships and celibacies.

June 15, 2008

Portland Gay Pride

Members of Willamette Reds and the Communist Party joined thousands--it seemed like tens of thousands--of marchers and partyers in Portland's Gay pride event today. People turned out early to hold downtown curbside streets to watch the parade and encourage marchers and Portland's Waterfront Park quickly filled with people who came to listen to music and speakers and generally have a festive time. We marched with the SEIU 503 members and staff who had a truck, a union banner and a number of chants calling attenton to the union and the need to organize. We also had a leaflet for the occasion which provided a brief class analysis and a call to working class unity as a way to end gay oppression. We were the only group making such a statement. SEIU Local 503 was the only union contingent. It was good to share the streets with so many others who are insisting on human rights and dignity and to get such a warm response from so many people. Along the parade route we met many supportive union members. More unions need to mobilize in support of the Pride events.

It was especially good to see so many people of color, working class people and Obama supporters at today's event. The large numbers of religious people participating, especially Catholics, shows us that demands for social change are reaching into institutions and areas of people's lives in ways which highlight the contradictions of the present political moment in America. Among the marchers we noted a strong emphasis on expressing politics in positive ways. This is the spirit of "Si,se puede!" taking over the streets.

In a meeting we held after the great event, a Communist Party member who is active in the struggle for gay rights raised the issue of whether or not the Pride event has been coopted. The corporate presence at the Waterfront Plaza and the corporate-backed contingents participating in the parade--a parade, mind you, and not a march--took away from the grassroots nature of the event and works to obscure questions of class and race with the LGBT communities and in the nation overall. She asked if the event has lost its political nature or not. Portland's LGBT community is debating these questions.

Our comrade said, "It's better than having people spit on you on the street, which is what happened during the first few marches. It's where we need to be now." She said that the arguments around the questions relating to class and the Gay Pride event are very undeveloped at this point. "We need to focus on bringing down capitalism, but we can't go back in the closet," she said. Another Communist Party comrade added, "We need to continually assert a gay rights agenda" and not be swayed by corporate sponsorship and capitalist intervention in the movement.

June 12, 2008

Jobs (not) in Oregon

The Oregon Fair Trade Campaign held a great assembly in Salem's public library this evening. A good crowd turned out to listen to stories of the loss and devastation created by NAFTA, the WTO and related or similar trade agreements and treaties in Oregon. Job loss here due to these agreements sometimes seems staggering.

Leo Vallejo (PCUN) spoke first and told his story as an immigrant worker and how his story came to be part of the Pictsweet mushroom workers' stories. Salem's Pictsweet workers organized, struck and lost against their out-of-state-based employer. A few of the workers got trade readjustment act funding help, but they encountered many struggles along the way as they needed glasses after working in the dark for so many years and higher levels of English proficiency than many workers had. Even with this help, many workers had an especially hard time and slipped through the cracks.

Mike Swaim, Salem's former good-guy mayor, talked mainly about Sumco. Sumco opened in Salem in an enterprise zone and got a number of lucrative tax breaks on demand. In return the company employed a large number of people and contributed to local non-profits and gave out some grants.

Sumco functioned as part of Mitsubishi and the company brought in some high wage earners and executives. Their positive impact on our community may have been overstated because of their imbalanced salary schedule and their "imported" high-salary employees. In fact, since they balked at paying taxes and customary fees, since their equipment and space rapidly depreciated in value and since they drew more people to our area than they could reasonably be expected to hire as well as these high-salary folks, the overall effect of having Sumco here now looks rather negative. The company closed its Salem operations in 2003 and 512 jobs went down the drain.

Swaim also told the Pictsweet story. He was sympathetic to the workers as mayor and he tried unsuccessfully to sway the company to do better by the workers. He saw the issue in terms of human rights and progress. Neither Sumco nor Pictsweet kept their profits here, of course. Swaim's alternative development and jobs plan is to invest in local or home-grown small business. We all wish that he wa still mayor.

Bill Kluting (Carpenters' union) and Jim Gourley (Steelworkers' union) also spoke. Kluting came out of a plywood plant in Dallas, OR. that closed in 2000. He had 39 years in the plant. Like some other workers, he had skills to fall back on, but everyone in that plant lost something in the end. Kluting then became a more politicized union activist and has done great work helping workers win and use trade readjustment act money and training benefits. He also assisted in the Pictsweet struggle.

Kluting brought up the strong point that figures on job loss due to NAFTA, WTO and other similar agreements may be misleading and understated because of layoffs. He contrasted Oregon's relatively union-friendly environment with Idaho's union-unfriendly environment and attacked McCain on jobs and trade policy.

Gourley is a Steelworkers' union leader and also the former mayor of Sweet Home. He worked at Pope & Talbot. When Pope & Talbot closed, Sweet Home was stuck. It has survived largely as a bedroom community for Albany, Corvallis and Eugene. Retraining funds were largely spent on training for jobs which did not materialize. Since the company filed for bankruptcy, Pope & Talbot workers stand to lose not only their jobs but money and benefits owed to them as well. The company seems determined to go non-union if, or when, it reopens. Like Kluting, Gourley cited age discrimination as a strong factor in how workers here experience job loss.

During the question-and-answer period we had a good discussion on eminent domain and what alternatives to eminent domain may be. We also heard about how job loss means a loss in union density and power. People understood that job loss here is due to capital flight and capital's search for low-wage and long-hour union-free places where environmental laws are weak or non-existent. Support for Obama was strong in the room.

Unfortunately, we also heard too much China bashing and criticism of environmentalists. Many of our friends are stuck at that point and unable or unwilling to go further for now in understanding how capitalism works and why, in the end, it just doesn't work at all. Still, many people present did name capitalists as the problem and almost everyone spoke from union and workplace experience.

Capitalism doesn't work--#5. Wage Inequality.

I wrote earlier about what wages are---the price the capitalists pay for producing and reproducing our ability to work---and how our ability to work is itself a commodity.

Most of the time the price of a thing directly reflects the unpaid labour stolen from workers by a capitalist and then distributed by various means among the capitalists: profit, rent, investment and dividends and so on. It all has its origins in someone working and not getting paid the full value of what they produce and someone else not working but taking what has been produced and selling it, leasing it, investing it or disposing of it in some other way for a profit. The difference between what the worker makes in wages and the value of what they produce usually becomes profit for the capitalist. Prices, for the most part, reflect the peculiar relationship between workers and capitalists and the level and rate of profits the capitalists want. Along the way, of course, the capitalist has to pay bankers and financiers, taxes and various fees and has to continually reinvest in research and development and new equipment in order to get the most for his money. The workers end up paying the final bill for all of this in one way or another--either through taxes and fees ourselves or through ever-lower wages or longer working hours. Over time, more and more people have to get pulled into producing and consuming and new markets have to be found or created in order to insure the system's progress. But the new people coming in don't have job security or highly-developed skills because the capitalist is already thinking about how to produce more with less.

When workers form unions and go on strike and win the capitalists have a few options. They can raise prices, of course, but they can also take less profit, or a lower rate of profit, and they can put more effort into research and development so that they can maintain a competitive edge. The capitalist's choice of what to do is fundamentally a political choice: society can regulate profits and profit-making or can adopt and adapt tax laws or can create social safety nets or can let capitalists have their own way. For this reason unions need to be politically active in defense of social standards.

We know that union workers make about $830 weekly on average in the US and that non-union workers make about $642 weekly on average. Women, African-American, and Latino union members generally make below the $830 figure while Asian-American union members book in slightly above that figure. Latino union members, for instance, average about $686 weekly.

To put a finer point on it, Latino workers who are not union members average about $469 weekly, non-union African-American workers make about $520 weekly and non-union women workers make about $579 weekly.

Union workers get about 4 days more of vacation during a year than non-union workers. Most union workers have some form of employer-provided health insurance while most non-union workers do not. Most union workers have a defined-benefit pension plan while very few non-union workers do.

This inequality of wages exists in some part because workers have been able to assert themselves by organizing unions and demanding and getting more of what is stolen from all of us. Employers who own companies with union contracts have been forced to take lower rates of profit, or lower profits, and have put more effort into improving production and distribution. At least this was the case until the 1970s, when capitalists began throwing union contracts overboard. We now live in a more confrontational or competitive environment and this is our choice as workers: confront the capitalists or compete with one another. Which path gets us more?

Wage inequality also exists because there is a division of labor and the human cost of producing steel, for instance, is greater than the human cost of producing toys. Producing and reproducing the necessary labor for one costs more than producing and reproducing the labor needed to do the other. The division of labor--the breaking down of production and labor into separate processes and then "reassociating" labor across national and international boundaries in order to produce unique commodities for various modern markets--does not have to result in super-profits stolen by a capitalist, but the specific division of labor that we experience under capitalism always does this. Unions have not yet learned how to challenge this nationally or globally and in ways which benefit all of society.

One of the primary tasks of unions needs to be closing the wage gaps which exist between union members. As unions organize more service industries, this gap will appear to widen, but so will the gap between union and non-union service workers. Unions should be all about raising wages and pressuring capitalists and governments not to take their losses out on the working class generally, but unions also need to be about integrating the highest-paid industries and using affirmative action to insure that everyone gets a crack at the best-paying jobs. The capitalists will never do this on their own and nothing in the capitalist system, in the long run, successfully prods the capitalist to pay higher wages or provide equal opportunities for all workers' advancement.

June 10, 2008

Oregon workers sucker-punched: if your boss doesn't like you, you might be toast.

On Monday the U.S. Supreme Court used an Oregon case to further define labor law. Seven years ago a worker lost her job at Oregon's Department of Agriculture. Oregon's courts then ruled she was dismissed unfairly---her boss just didn't like her.

The Supreme Court ruled that government can fire a worker for such an arbitrary reason like that.

The court decided that the only time a public employee can sue over a lost job is if there is discrimination on the basis of race, gender, religion or another federally protected class or category involved. Besides the real stupidity of the ruling, this kind of ruling works to set workers against one another. It also comes at a time when elections may put in place a more pro-worker legislature and Attorney General in Oregon.

Public employees are the fastest growing sector in the economy and, in Oregon at least, have high rates of unionization and particular awareness of their rights. This often generates grievances, arbitratiuon cases and lawsuits. State government often seems unconcerned about these cases because the Department of Justice attorneys defend state agencies and damages are paid out of insurance funds. The Supreme Court, on the other hand, has consistently limited the rights of public employees.

For more information, go here.

June 7, 2008

Oregon Democrats Select Delegates--The Scene At CD 5

Several hundred Democrats attended their 5th Congressional District Convention in Salem's Leslie Middle School today. The convention was called to elect delegates to the state and national party conventions. For most of the people present, it was probably their first time at such an event. Three times the number of people attended this year as attended in 2004 and six times the number of people attended today as attended in 2000. Several tens of thousands of people have registered as Democrats statewide with the excitement of the Obama campaign and May's historic Obama rallies in Portland and Pendleton. Winning a firm majority in Oregon's House and Senate is within reach for the Democrats given Oregon's voter upsurge. Party officials and standard bearers seem set on covering the needed seats with conservative Democrats running traditional campaigns while the new party participants seem likely to push for more activist-based and inclusive campaigns. They do not seem much impressed by the old guard.

The Democrats are leading with healthcare, jobs, protecting Oregon's land-use system, education and increasing the state's corporate minimum income tax as their issues. Corporations used to pay about 18 per-cent of the state's taxes but now pay about 4 per-cent, leaving us to pay the rest or live with cutbacks in services. Key campaigns based on these issues will be run by Kate Brown (Secretary of State), John Kroger (Attorney General), Brad Avakian (Labor Commissioner), Margaret Carter (Senate, 22), Laurie Monnes Anderson (Senate, 25), Sara Gelser (House, 16), Brian Clem (House, 21), Brad Witt (House, 31) and others. Many of the Democrats running in key races are trying to reach out to the new people coming into the party by appearing to be more progressive than they probably are. A few of the old guard waited until almost the last minute to endorse Obama and a few who have worked for Clinton are now calling for unity. These are signs that our "leaders" are really following a movement for change and that they do not know where this movement is headed. They are being pulled into the future and few of them seem likely to make it.

Several of the speakers at the convention appealed for union support or flashed union credentials. Only AFSCME seems to have worked for turnout. Union members were present from AFSCME, SEIU, UFCW, CWA, AFT and the Letter Carriers. The union presence at the convention was able to affect the outcome of delegate selection, but it was not decisive in the end.

Selected from the male Obama list were Walter Dawson as delegate and Jeff Anderson as alternate. Dawson is a student associated with Senator Wyden and Oregonians for Health Security. He drew impressive support from seniors and from some African-Americans present. Anderson is most notably associated with UFCW and the Obama campaign at its grassroots.

Selected from the female Obama list were Shirley Woods and Diane Wagner as delegates. Woods is a working-class African-American woman from Chicago with the kind of background and politics that gives her a special relationship to the Obama campaign. She seems to reflect the best and the most contradictory trends present in that campaign at the grassroots. Wagner provided a short resume which emphasized her travels, her work with NARAL and her work with the Democrats in Wilsonville.

Delegate selection on the Obama side was contentious and it took two ballots to elect the Obama delegates and the alternate position.

None of us attended the Clinton delegate's meeting. In comparison to the elected Obama delegates, the Clinton people who were elected appeared noticeably older, more tired and more wary of change.

The body also voted for 56 delegates to the upcoming state Democratic convention. We left before that count was finished. Results will be posted on Monday on the party's website. People running for these slots included a large number of union members, women, young people and African-Americans. People running for slots tended to campaign on the basis of family or friendship ties, union affiliations or their often-stated desire to attend a convention. Despite this, there were some strong and noticeable differences between many of the candidates and there stands a good chance that the state convention will be dominated by progressives and by people new to the process and from the grassroots.

June 6, 2008

James Bond Is Dead


Ian Fleming based his fictional character James Bond on the very real Sidney Reilly. Reilly was a mysterious fellow who was implicated in a plot to kill Lenin. He was most likely killed in the USSR in the 1920s by Soviet intelligence.

Had Fleming lived, he would be one hundred years old this year. It seems difficult to sidestep the media blitz remembering Fleming and pushing forward Bond merchandise. The new Bond thriller, Devil May Care, is hardly getting good reviews, but that isn't stopping the Bond/Fleming industry from pushing their wares and propaganda.

By all accounts, Fleming was a misogynist. He made a lifestyle out of abusing women. It's good news that so many reviewers have picked up on Fleming's misogyny and how this hatred of women shaped his James Bond character. What is not good news is that so few of the reviewers seem to care or factor this into their reviews of Fleming's work as a negative. Fleming's other prejudices--his apparent anti-semitism and racism, for instance--get almost no coverage at all. His idolization of Reilly seems to have escaped the attention of all reviewers.

Lenin was a revolutionary head of state when the attempted assassination took place. The attempt came as part of a wave of terrorism directed against the still-young Soviet state. That wave of terror continued for many years and was clearly organized by British, American and other interests. It was answered by strong, and perhaps over-reaching, measures by the USSR.

I have enjoyed contrasting Fleming and Bond, on the one hand, with John le Carre and his character George Smiley. Fleming probably drank himself to death after a dissolute life while le Carre remains with us. Fleming and Bond demonstrate mysogyny while le Carre's books show moral and ethical complexities. George Smiley depends upon women, lives a monastic existence and struggles through problems in his relationship with his wife. Fleming wrote of a fictional and glamorous British empire and pandered to American tastes while le Carre writes more realistically about the darker sides and downturns of imperialism. His 2003 criticism of George Bush and his effort to understand and defend Islam against attack have not won him many friends in the US political and intellectual establishments. Although Bond and Smiley are products of overlapping times and circumstances, it is Smiley who struggles with the Kim Philby affair and its aftermath. Fleming and Bond use excessive violence against their enemies while le Carre and Smiley use enticement and blackmail because Soviet spies are multi-dimensional people with strong ideological committments in their world.

Philby, now almost forgotten, was a ranking British intelligence officer with ties to the CIA. In 1963 the USSR granted him asylum. It is likely that he had been working for Soviet intelligence since the 1930s. His upper-class background and the failure--really, the inability--of British ruling circles to believe that "one of their own" might be working on behalf of the USSR afforded him the protection he needed to make a good job of it. A true telling of the Philby story would make a great film. In the right hands such a film could be made as exciting as any James Bond thriller and still be truthful. For that matter, Lenin's life, or the life of almost any Soviet hero, could be made into a great and action-packed drama. The practical inability of imperialism to admit defeat and account truthfully for it have so far prevented such projects.

Why this fascination with Fleming and Bond now?

We have radical and revolutionary heads of state in Latin America now and we are living in a time of crisis and decline for imperialism internationally. The CIA and FBI have been unable to stifle public demands for transparency and accountability or to completely hide their network of secret prisons and the gross violations of human rights they are engaging in with other intelligence agencies. We have an African-American candidate for President who is running on a peace platform and an almost-won woman candidate as well.

The fascination with Fleming and Bond is a reaction to all of this. It repeats to some extent what British and American fans of Fleming and Bond felt in the 1950s and 1960s, even if the American empire was then ascendent and seemed to be the greater partner in Anglo-American colonial and political misadventures. This fascination also forms part of an irrational fantasy which the more insecure people amongst us need to hold on to as the empire declines and as we begin again to seriously confront race and gender oppression as a society. Special danger is attached to this fantasy now because it comes forward at a time of decline and crisis. Some rightwing lunatic somewhere will take this Bond nonsense seriously and will take the political and economic losses of imperialism and the demand that he share power with women and people of color personally and act out.

But James Bond is dead. He died in a Russian forest in the 1920s.

June 5, 2008

Capitalism doesn't work---#4 Manufacturing imperialism.

Welden Bello has a great article in the June 2, 2008 issue of The Nation. Mexico, Bello reminds us, was the homeland of corn. Now Mexico is experiencing a tortilla crisis. What happened?

Mexico went into debt to international commercial banks and had to go to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank for help. They bailed Mexico out, but insisted on Mexico dropping its barriers to foreign economic intervention. The government then had to devote more of its revenues to paying its debts and less of its revenues to the Mexican social safety net and support for agriculture. NAFTA came in 1994. By the end of the '90s, US corn had flooded into Mexican markets and trans- or multi-national corporations were monopolizing the distribution markets. When American farmers began aggressively giving more acreage over to corn grown for biofuels, the corn prices shot up internationally but monopoly control limited what trickled down to small producers. Easily more than one million Mexicans were thrown out of work and many of these people are now our neighbors.

Bello goes on in his article to show how similar crises have occured in the Philippines, Asia and Africa. All were once able to feed themselves or to balance imports and exports of necessary items relatively well.

Expressed another way, what happened was that the dominant countries--the US chief amongst them--have colonized most of the world and have run out of colonies and markets. What's left for them to do is to fight over the Third World and, more recently, Eastern Europe. Capital--that is, money and wealth and the kinds of relations which create money and wealth--has been structured into economic and political monopolies which have then exported capital to the Third World and Eastern Europe. Land and natural resources are then stolen, leased or purchased; production of goods and services is then undertaken at low or relatively low wages; new markets for production and distribution are created and brought into competition with one another and rates of profit in the dominant countries climb. New classes and new class relationships are created as old ones are decimated and as the world itself groans under ramped up exploitation. Since all of this takes place under international monopolies and cartels, workers in both the fully developed and undeveloped or under-developed nations have a much harder time of it. We also have the opportunity under these conditions to find common ground in our deteriorating conditions and to develop international solidarity; this is an unfinished task of the last 150 years.

This is the essence of imperialism. It cannot be separated from capitalism. You can see from this that its an easy matter for wars to start when dominant countries fight "cold wars" over colonies and markets, when former colonies are forced to surrender their independence to banks and world financial institutions and when governments are forced to choose between debt repayment and feeding and caring for people.

So, capitalism isn't working if Mexico, the Philippines, Asia, Eastern Europe and Africa can't feed themselves and if North American and western European workers are working harder and longer hours at relatively less pay to feed themselves as well.

June 4, 2008

Capitalism doesn't work---#3. Housing in Oregon.

According to the Oregon Housing Alliance, it takes an annual income of $20,800 to afford a one-bedroom apartment in Marion County and $24,880 annually to afford a two-bedroom apartment. The median sale price for a home in Marion County is $194,900. Wages for most of us do not allow us to purchase a home or rent a nice place easily.

We said in a previous post that labor or labor-power is a commodity under capitalism and that the price of that commodity is our wage. At the end of the day, wages represent only the cost of maintaining and reproducing our labor or labor power. The capitalist makes his profits by appropriating some per-centage of what we produce and selling all of it in a market while also trying to either drive down wage rates or reduce the amount of time and effort we have to put into producing a particular product or rendering a particular service. He's doing great if he can drive down wage rates and reduce the time and effort needed to produce a particular product or perform a particular service at the same time. His reduction of our needed time and effort doesn't shorten our work day or lower prices over the long haul; it only means that he is driven to produce and sell ever more in an increasingly competitive market. It's up to us to push for higher wages, shorter hours and better working conditions.

So, if part of the cost of maintaining and reproducing our ability to work--decent housing--is set so high that we can barely reach it, something is either wrong with our theory or with the bigger picture. Shouldn't housing prices be more affordable in order to make the maintaining and reproducing of our ability to work more rational?

Workers normally produce a surplus. It's this surplus that capitalists appropriate--or steal--and sell on the market in order to make a profit. Those profits are then used to invest in and purchase things, land and property among them. The capitalist then sells, leases or rents this land and property at a profit. Remember that the origins of this selling, leasing and renting are in what we produce and what is then taken from us and sold. It sometimes happens that the capitalists who make their money primarily by selling, leasing and renting land and property develop different interests than those who own the means of producing goods and services or selling and distributing them. And in a capitalist society there is little coordination between these different kinds of economic activity, and when there it usually works against us.

More to the point, there is always an effort to get as much out of us as they can. Wages or wage rates get cut, hours of work increase so that more can be produced and sold, the total numbers of people working decrease, government services get cut but taxes remain essentially the same or increase and basic costs like housing, transport and food either move at least slightly out of our reach or take a higher per-centage of our incomes. It has to be viewed as a totality, as one system complete within itself, in order to be understood. Each event impacts another so that production increases while workers produce more with flat or decreasing wages. The more we spend on housing, gas and food the harder and longer we will work in producing goods and services--or so the capitalist will bet. The weaker the social safety net and the greater the tax and fee burdens that the capitalists can place on or transfer to workers the more money there is for the capitalist to keep and to reinvest for profit.

Our instinct is to insist that housing and healthcare are basic rights. We claim fairness in an unfair system.

In fact, human rights are always abstract in a capitalist society. They rest on what one part of society is able to wrest from another so they change over time. It is impossible, or at least quite contradictory, to create and maintain equal standards or equal judgement or equal applications of the laws when one class (workers) depends on another class (capitalists) for employment, housing and healthcare. Our best efforts in winning higher wages, better healthcare and more affordable housing under capitalism--necessary as these efforts are--results in a better (for us) means of maintaining and reproducing our labor or labor power so that we can go to work under different terms of exploitation. The exploitation remains.

The basic rights we instinctively seek, and the inherent sense of fairness we share as workers, can only really find expression in a society based on the principles that an injury to any one person is an injury experienced by all of society, that work be organized through the free and voluntary association of fully socialized producers and that production and distribution of all that is good and necessary should flow between these freely-associated producers based on the creative matching of abilities and needs. This is communism.

June 3, 2008

Capitalism doesn't work---#2

We believe that the value of a commodity in a capitalist society--including human labor--is equal to the quantity of socially necessary labor time needed for its production or reproduction. Whatever accounting tricks, mysticism or temporary aberrations capitalism seems to add to the mix, this is true. Profit is not a matter of a capitalist slapping an extra fee onto a commodity or simply calculating and charging a price above wages and costs for a commodity. Instead, profit is a matter of a capitalist measuring socially necessary labor time and what it costs to maintain and reproduce that necessary labor power, working tirelessly to lower labor costs and to increase production, appropriating a lion's share of what workers produce and selling what he has appropriated for money. The genius of capitalism, which we take for granted, is that the capitalist brings the labor or labor power of one person into relation with that of another person and a series of exchanges then takes place.

Money holds and mediates the value of all that is produced. It is no longer a particularly reliable means of holding and mediating value because it is often backed more by the political and military strength of a nation than by anything else. In a globalized economy it increasingly adds to the chaos created by competing capitalists based in different countries, expanding and contracting markets and the so-rapid development of technology which often outpaces political and economic structures. Still, on the most simplistic level, it serves to somewhat equalize a transaction between a person who produces or owns, say, fifty shirts and another person who owns or produces a ton of steel.

United States Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson is in Abu Dhabi today trying to reassure businessmen from the United Arab Emirates about the strength of the dollar. He is quoted as saying, "The U.S. dollar has been the world's reserve currency since World War Two and there is a good reason for that." In other words, the American government is nervous about the perception that the decline of the dollar is the reason for rising oil prices and the possibility that other governments and capitalists are forgetting who is boss and what really backs up that power.

But Paulson is also in Abu Dhabi to beg. In Paulson's world, the U.S. needs foreign investment in order to give the dollar new life and greater value in a more competitive world economy than existed at the end of World War Two. National barriers have to come down to some great extent, Paulson believes, in order to hold off an even greater looming economic crisis. The stick can only be used to a limited extent and the carrot--mutually profitable international trade and stable profiteering without government interference or regulation--has to be dangled more humbly before the gathering.

Here is another concrete example of how capitalism fails us. In order to regulate and safeguard a system of exploitation--capitalists stealing the wealth produced by workers and selling it at a profit--we depend on money, which is now backed chiefly by the military might and the political power of competing governments and capitalists. We depend upon a relatively small number of people to cut the deals and use the carrots and sticks. When they fail, or when one group succeeds and another group fails, we have wars and crises. You can see how this is built into the system if you step back and think about how irrational the system is.

If all of the talk in Abu Dhabi and at similar forums the world over turns sour we are stuck with higher oil prices, having to produce more here at lower wages and with higher inflation or a war or all of that possibly taking place within a compressed period of time. If the discussions in Abu Dhabi don't turn sour we are stuck with over-production, a more rapidly disappearing social safety net, capital flight and a deepening of world economic and political divisions. Both scenarios involve increasing ecological destruction. Either way we lose.

June 2, 2008

Capitalism doesn't work--#1 (A short series examing why and how capitalism fails us.)

Capitalism distorts human relationships.

Last Sunday's New York Times carried an article about wealthy people--people with net worths ranging from $5 million to $1 billion--going to divorce lawyers and counsellors because their net worth is slipping and they expect their spouses to desert them. These are preemptive moves by wealthy people who are also trying to cut spending and are increasing their borrowing in order to maintain their places in their hierarchy and class. We're told that many of them are becoming nervous eaters.

Several things are wrong here. First, there is an admission, tacitly or overtly, that the wealthy form relationships and make marriages on the basis of cash and wealth. Where this is so a kind of prostitution is flourishing.

Second, we should wonder about the concept of net worth applied to human beings and internalized by human beings. Capitalism creates a kind of calculation, first, that we are worth what we are able to produce, or what we do produce, minus the cost of maintaining us, and then extends this calculation to include what we possess as well. It is a kind of madness that takes hold of society and tears it apart.

Third, we can question The Times' good judgement in calling this news. The wealthy now have a purpose in society beyond holding wealth and power and directing society's affairs: they now become part of an unnatural spectacle that we take part in and their lives and doings become a backdrop to real events that matter so that their viewpoints and problems come to form a kind of ideology that matter more than our own. The world is seen and experienced through their eyes only in the media. A capitalist way of knowing takes center stage in a capitalist society, warring very much against our commonsense and our natural solidarity with one another.

In an earlier day capitalism helped to break down relationships which were based on brute force, various forms of coercion, local and regional prejudices and superstition. It did this by pushing out of its way, by any means necessary or possible, all of the old forms of power, labor, ownership and commerce and replacing these with mass production industries run for profit, national and international markets and democracies which gave power to the industrialists and their representatives. Every relationship between people has changed, and continues to change, as a result of this constant and on-going social reordering because everything and everyone now has a price and exists in a market of one kind or another.

Capitalism has freed us from the past to the full extent that it could, or can. What seems left are new forms of domination and coercion--oppression, if you will--and the periodic and expected crises that one can expect in a world where production for profit subordinates all other forms of human interaction to itself.

Capitalism distorts human relationships.