Low-Wage Workers of the World, Unite!

June 29, 2014

On May 15, 2014, a worldwide strike of McDonald’s workers involved workers in at least 33 countries, both imperialist and oppressed.

While participation in the strike varied, and most workers who participated were out for only an hour or so, this was a historic event all the same. It points the way forward to a far more internationalist future for the workers’ movement. To understand why this is so, we have to examine long-term underlying economic changes making the low-wage movement both possible and necessary.

This post is part of a series that explores the evolution of imperialism and the world capitalist economy in the century that began with the events of August 1914—the start of World War I. Let’s go back, not a full century but rather half a century, to the year 1964. This is the mid-way point between 1914 and the present day.

In 1964, the postwar, post-Depression “Long Boom” (strictly speaking, a series of industrial cycles with strong booms and relatively mild recessions) was underway. Indeed, to all appearances the “boom” was gaining momentum. In 1964, the U.S. and world capitalist economy entered a cyclical boom following a period of stagnation—a pause in the long postwar expansion—that occurred in the wake of the global economic recession of 1957-58.

Over the next couple of years, the Long Boom picked up steam as it was fueled—in addition to purely cyclical forces—by U.S. federal government deficits created by the escalation of the Vietnam War (called the American war by our good friends in Vietnam), further increased by a huge regressive tax cut signed by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, backed up by the Federal Reserve Board’s then expansionary policies.

This was the heyday of Keynesian economics, and even many Marxists were inclined to see the Long Boom as the new norm of capitalism thanks to the increasing intervention in the economy of the capitalist state. The Johnson administration boasted that the U.S. economy was so strong that the government could follow policies that would provide both “guns and butter.”

Despite these “good times,” it was becoming obvious, even to bourgeois economists, that due to the growth of automation in industrial production, the rate of growth of traditional factory jobs, though still rising in absolute terms in both the imperialist and oppressed capitalist countries, would absorb only a small part of the coming generations of young workers. This was especially true in the United States and Britain, where long-term economic growth was much lower than in Western Europe and Japan. Many social scientists and other observers expressed fears that a permanent crisis of mass unemployment was inevitable.

With few exceptions, however, professional economists insisted there was no danger of a crisis of permanent mass unemployment caused by automation. What was really happening, they claimed, and had been claiming since concerns about the long-term effects of automation on employment first arose in the 1950s, was a shift from an industrial economy where most jobs were “blue collar” jobs in factories, mining, construction, and agriculture to a “post-industrial” economy where most jobs would be white-collar salaried office jobs.

Computerization and the automation linked to it, the economists insisted, was actually creating more jobs than it was destroying. As the role of computers grew dramatically in coming years, economists assured us, huge numbers of highly skilled white-collar workers would be needed to write the software programs that would run on all those computers.

As a result, the traditional blue-collar working class would fade away over the next few decades to be replaced by the highly paid “middle-class” white-collar workforce. Since salaried white-collar workers have little interest in unions, unions were becoming obsolete and had little future. These unfolding developments—along with the “boom” that many viewed as permanent due to government policies inspired by the work of British economist John Maynard Keynes—represented the final refutation of Marx, the economists explained to their university students.

Instead of Marx’s predictions of a society increasingly polarized between a relatively few, extremely rich capitalists, on one hand, and a great mass of low-wage blue-collar workers, on the other, the “free enterprise system” was allegedly evolving toward a society that would be made up overwhelmingly of a high-salaried “middle class” without the extremes of wealth and poverty that had marked the early days of capitalism.

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Is Russia Imperialist?

June 1, 2014

What started out as a small-scale demonstration in Kiev’s Maidan—Independence—Square against the government of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych in late 2013 has escalated into a crisis that in a worst-case scenario could develop into a full-scale shooting war between Russia and the U.S-EU-NATO world empire—“the Empire” for short. As more facts have came out, it has became clear that the demonstrations had a pro-imperialist, pro-Empire character from the beginning. In addition, it is now obvious that the U.S. government has been heavily involved since the beginning.

The one-sided U.S. media coverage of the “pro-Maidan movement,” as the pro-imperialist forces in Ukraine are called; the activities of U.S.-funded NGOs; and the U.S. role in the pro-imperialist “Orange Revolution” of 2004 all point in the same direction. In addition, as the crisis developed it was revealed on the Internet that U.S. diplomats favored right-wing neo-liberal banker Arseniy Yatsenyuk, or “Yats,” as the diplomats affectionately called him. Sure enough, right after the coup that overthrew Yanukovych, “Yats” was named prime minister of the new coup government in Kiev. But there is more.

According to Wikipedia, on April 18, 2014, Burisma Holdings, one of the leading oil and natural gas production companies in Ukraine, announced Hunter Biden’s appointment to its board of directors. “Burisma holds licenses covering the Dnieper-Donets Basin and the Carpathian and Azov-Kuban basins and has considerable reserves and production capability,” the on-line encyclopedia stated.

Hunter Biden, a lawyer, is the son of U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden. According to Wikipedia, Hunter Biden’s résumé includes multiple connections to the financial industry and government: “From 2001 to 2008, Biden was a founding partner of Oldaker, Biden, and Belair, LLP, a national law firm based in New York. He also served as a partner and board member of the mergers and acquisitions firm Eudora Global. Biden was chief executive officer, and later chairman, of the fund of hedge funds PARADIGM Global Advisors…. At MBNA, a major US bank, Biden was employed as a senior vice president.”

Wikipedia further reports: “In addition to holding directorships on the Boards of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, The Truman National Security Project and the Center for National Policy, he sits on the Chairman’s Advisory Board for the National Democratic Institute (NDI). The NDI is a project of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).” The NED is the organization that does what the CIA did covertly 25 years ago.

Read more …

Schedule Change Announcement

April 29, 2014

My next post will be published Sunday, June 1. This will be a delay of two weeks from my regular schedule to enable me to take a spring break. This post will take up the issue of the nature of Russia today, imperialist power or oppressed country.

Sam Williams

Money, wage-labor and Marx’s ‘Critique of the Gotha Program’

April 20, 2014

This August marks the 100-year anniversary of the start of World War I, which forever changed the world. This is the first in a series of posts that will center on the causes and consequences of World War I. The most important consequence was the conquest of political power by the working class of the former Russian Empire. Rosa Luxemburg, along with other Marxists of the time and since, saw that the catastrophe overtaking Europe in 1914 had deep economic roots.

At the beginning of this year—2014—I couldn’t help but wonder if a major new European war could break out on the 100th anniversary of the “Great War,” as it was called, that started in 1914. This seemed extremely unlikely, and indeed history rarely respects anniversaries in this manner. But in light of the crisis in Ukraine, a major new war that would mark the anniversary of the events of August 1914 doesn’t appear as unlikely as it did at the start of the year. Many of the ghosts of the last century seem to be rising from their graves once again.

In the coming months, I will explore the economic roots of the Great War in light of the ideas on crisis theory I have been exploring in this blog. Though the Great War itself was not a crisis of overproduction, it did break out during the 1913-14 global recession and was the greatest crisis by far that capitalist society had experienced up to that time. And we have already seen that the Great War played a crucial role in the development, starting in 1929, of what seemed to be an ordinary cyclical recession into first the super-crisis of 1929-33 and then the Great Depression of the 1930s.

The conquest of political power by the working class of the former Russian Empire began in Petrograd (aka St. Petersburg and Leningrad) with the insurrection of October 25 (old calender) or November 7 (new calender). Here I want to examine the fate of that first serious attempt to build a socialist society in light of Marx’s last—and as we will see perhaps least understood—work “Critique of the Gotha Program.”

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Capitalist Anarchy, Climatic Anarchy, Ukraine and New Threats of War and Fascism

March 23, 2014

The Keystone XL pipeline

President Obama appears to be nearing a decision on approving what is called the Keystone XL pipeline. This proposal by the TransCanada Corporation calls for a pipeline to be built that will, if Obama gives the green light, transport “heavy oil” produced from tar sands in the Canadian province of Alberta to refineries in the U.S. Midwest and along the Gulf Coast.

The U.S. president had indicated that his approval would depend on a State Department report on the proposed pipeline’s effects on the Earth’s climate. Opponents of the pipeline pointed out that the refining of heavy oil releases more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than the refining of “sweet oil” does.

In late January, the State Department released its report, which claimed that the pipeline would have little if any adverse effect on the climate. The State Department reasoned that even if the pipeline was not built, the Alberta tar sands would be used for oil production anyway. The resulting heavy oil, according to the State Department, would in the absence of the XL pipeline be transported by rail. So, the State Department concluded, there would be little adverse effect from the proposed pipeline project. These conclusions put heavy pressure on Obama to approve the construction.

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Big Challenges Facing Janet Yellen

February 23, 2014

Yellen testifies

Janet Yellen gave her first report to the House Financial Services Committee since she became chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board in January. In the wake of the 2008 panic, her predecessor Ben Bernanke had indicated that “the Fed” would keep the federal funds rate—the interest rate commercial banks in the U.S. charge one another for overnight loans—at near zero until the unemployment rate, as calculated by the U.S. Labor Department, fell to 6.5 percent from over 10 percent near the bottom of the crisis in 2009.

However, the Labor Department’s unemployment rate has fallen much faster than most economists expected and is now at “only” 6.6 percent. With the U.S. Labor Department reporting almost monthly declines, it is quite possible that the official unemployment rate will fall to or below 6.5 percent as early as next month’s report.

But there is a catch that the Fed is well aware of. The unexpectedly rapid fall in the official unemployment rate reflects the fact that millions of workers have given up looking for jobs. In effect, what began as a cyclical crisis of short-term mass unemployment has grown into a much more serious crisis of long-term unemployment. As far as the U.S. Labor Department is concerned, when it comes to calculating the unemployment rate these millions might just as well have vanished from the face of the earth.

In reality, the economic recovery from the 2007-09 “Great Recession” has been far weaker than the vast majority of economists had expected. Indeed, a strong case can be made that both in the U.S. and on a world scale—including imperialist countries, developing countries and the ex-socialist countries of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, as well as oppressed countries still bearing the marks of their pre-capitalist past—the current recovery is the weakest in the history of capitalist industrial cycles.

The continued stagnation of the U.S. economy six and a half years since the outbreak of the last crisis has just been underlined by a series of weak reports on employment growth and industrial production. For example, according to the U.S. Federal Reserve Board, U.S. industrial production as a whole declined 0.3 percent in January, while manufacturing, the heart of industrial production, declined by 0.8 percent.

Yellen, as the serious-minded policymaker she undoubtedly is, is well aware of these facts. She told the House committee:”The unemployment rate is still well above levels that Federal Open Market Committee participants estimate is consistent with maximum sustainable employment. Those out of a job for more than six months continue to make up an unusually large fraction of the unemployed, and the number of people who are working part time but would prefer a full-time job remains very high.”

Over the last several months, the growth of employment, which serious economists consider far more meaningful than the the U.S. Labor Department’s “unemployment rate,” has been far below expectations.

Bad weather

Most Wall Street economists are sticking to the line that the recent string of weak figures on employment growth and industrial production reflect bad weather. The eastern U.S. has experienced extreme cold and frequent storms this winter, though the U.S. West has enjoyed unseasonable warmth and a lack of the usual Pacific storms, resulting in a serious drought in California. So it is possible that bad weather has put a kink in employment growth and industrial production.

But there is also concern—clearly shared by the new U.S. Fed chairperson, notwithstanding rosy capitalist optimism maintained by the cheerleaders that pass for economic writers of the Associated Press and Reuters—that the current global upswing in the industrial cycle has failed to gain anything like the momentum to be expected six years after the outbreak of the preceding crisis.

Two ruling-class approaches

This growing “secular stagnation”–lingering mass unemployment between recessions—has produced a growing split among capitalist economists and writers for the financial press. One school of thought is alarmed by continued high unemployment and underemployment. This school thinks that the government and Federal Reserve System—which, remember, functions not only as the central bank of the U.S. but also of the world under the current dollar-centered international monetary system—should continue to search for ways to improve the situation. Another school of thought, however, believes that all that has to be done is to declare the arrival of “full employment” and prosperity.

Read more …

The Fed Tapers as Yellen Prepares to Take Over, and the Unemployed Get Screwed Over

January 19, 2014

In what may be its last official action under Ben Bernanke’s leadership, the Federal Reserve announced in December that it would reduce its purchases of U.S. government bonds and mortgage-backed securities from $85 billion to $75 billion a month as of January 2014. This indicates that the Fed hopes to slow down the growth of the dollar monetary base during 2014 from the 39 percent that it grew in 2013.

Considering that before the 1970s the historical growth rates in the monetary base were 2 to 3 percent, and from the 1970s until the mid-2000s they were around 7 percent, a 39 percent rate of growth in the dollar monetary base is viewed by the Fed as unsustainable in the long run.

The bond market reacted to the announcement in the textbook way, with interest rates on the U.S. 10-year government bonds rising to around 3 percent. The last time interest rates on 10-year bonds were this high was just before the Fed put the U.S. housing market on “life support” in 2011.

It seems likely that the latest move was made to smooth the transition from the Bernanke Fed to the Yellen Fed. Janet Yellen, the newly appointed, and confirmed, chair of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, is considered a “dove.” That is, she is inclined to follow more expansionary monetary policies than Bernanke in order to push the economy in the direction of “full employment.” As defined by bourgeois economists, this is the optimal level of unemployment from the viewpoint of the capitalists – not unemployed workers. With this move, the money capitalists are “assured” that the Fed will be slowing the rate of growth of the U.S. monetary base despite the new Fed chief’s “dovish” views, while relieving Yellen of having to make a “tightening move” as soon as she takes office.

The gold market, as would be expected, dropped back towards the lows of June 2013, falling below $1,200 an ounce at times, while the yield on the 10-year bond rose to cross the 3 percent level on some days. This reflects increased expectations on the part of money capitalists that the rate of growth in the U.S. dollar monetary base will be slowing from now until the end of the current industrial cycle.

Though the prospect of a slowing growth rate in the monetary base and rising long-term interest rates is bearish for the stock market, all things remaining equal, stocks reacted bullishly to the Fed announcement. The stock market was relieved that a stronger tightening move was not announced. The Fed combined its announcement of a reduction in its purchasing of bond and mortgage-backed securities with assurances that it would keep short-term interest rates near zero for several more years, raising hopes on Wall Street that the current extremely weak recovery will finally be able to gain momentum. As a result, the stock market is still looking forward to the expected cyclical boom.

Long-term unemployed get screwed over

On December 26, Congress approved a measure, incorporated into the U.S. budget, that ended unemployment extensions beyond the six months that unemployment benefits usually last in the U.S., which added to Wall Street’s holiday cheer. During recessions, Congress and the U.S. government generally agree to extended unemployment benefits but end the extension when economic recovery takes hold. It has been six years since the recession began – 60 percent of a normal industrial cycle – and the Republicans and the bosses agreed that it was high time to end the unemployment extensions.

Some Democrats dependent on workers’ votes have said that they are for a further extension of emergency unemployment benefits. President Obama claims to oppose the end of the extended benefits but signed the budget agreement all the same. The budget agreement as it stands basically says to the unemployed, it is now time to take any job at any wage you can find. If you still can’t find a job, tough luck.

Read more …

Change of Guard at the Fed, the Specter of ‘Secular Stagnation,’ and Some Questions of Monetary Theory

December 22, 2013

Ben Bernanke will not seek a third term as chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors – “the Fed.” President Obama has nominated, and the U.S. Senate is expected to formally approve, economist Janet Yellen as his successor. The Federal Reserve Board is a government body that controls the operation of the U.S Federal Reserve System.

“The Fed” lies at the heart of the U.S. central banking system, which under the dollar standard is in effect the central bank of the entire world.

A professional central banker

Janet Yellen is currently vice-chairperson of the Federal Reserve Board. She has also served as an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic advisers. She headed the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco from 2004 to 2010, one of the 12 Federal Reserve Banks within the Federal Reserve System. If there is such a thing as a professional central banker, Yellen is it.

Yellen will be the first woman to serve as head of the Federal Reserve Board and will hold the most powerful position within the U.S. government ever held by a woman. Yellen’s appointment therefore reflects gains for women’s equality that have been made since the modern women’s liberation movement began around 1969.

Like other social movements that emerged out of the 1960s radicalization, the modern women’s liberation movement began on the radical left. The very name of the movement was inspired by the name of the main resistance organization fighting U.S. imperialism in Vietnam – the National Liberation Front. However, as a veteran bourgeois economist and a long-time major policymaker in the U.S. government, Yellen would not be expected to have much sympathy for the 20th-century revolutions and movements that made her appointment even a remote possibility.

Significantly, Yellen was appointed only after Lawrence Summers, considered like Yellen a major (bourgeois) economist and said to be the favorite of the Obama administration to succeed Bernanke, announced his withdrawal from contention. Summers became notorious when as president of Harvard University he expressed the opinion that women are not well represented in engineering and the sciences because of mental limitations rooted in biology.

Summers was obliged to resign as president of Harvard, and his anti-woman remarks undoubtedly played a role in his failure to win enough support to be appointed Fed chairman. In addition, Summers attacked the African American Professor Cornell West for his work on Black culture and his alleged “grade inflation,” causing West to leave Harvard. This hardly made Summers popular in the African American community. His nomination would therefore have produced serious strains in the Democratic Coalition, so Summers was obliged to withdraw.

Ben Bernanke like Yellen is considered a distinguished (bourgeois) economist. He had devoted his professional life to exploring the causes of the Great Depression, much like Yellen has. Essentially, Bernanke attempted to prove that the Depression was caused by faulty policies of the Federal Reserve System and the government, and not by contradictions inherent in capitalist production – such as, for example, periodic crises of overproduction. Bernanke denied that overproduction was the cause of the Depression.

Like Milton Friedman, Bernanke blamed the Depression on the failure of the Federal Reserve System to prevent a contraction of money and credit. Bernanke put the emphasis on credit, while Friedman put the emphasis on the money supply. Blaming crises on currency and credit, according to Marx, is the most shallow and superficial crisis theory of all.

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Some Observations on ‘Obamacare’ and the NSA Spying Scandal

November 24, 2013

Two events have dominated the news over the past few months. One has been the “Obamacare” reform in the United States. The Republican Party, which controls the U.S. House of Representatives, threatened to default on the debts of the federal government unless Obamacare was repealed.

The other big story has been the continuing revelations of Edward Snowden about the widespread spying by the U.S. National Security Agency. Snowden’s revelations have lifted a corner of the curtain that hides the extent of U.S. spying on its European NATO “allies”—both the governments and the peoples of Europe.

This spying included the NSA’s tapping of German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s personal cell phone. More important has been the revelation that hundreds of millions of phone calls of people in Europe have been monitored by the NSA. As a result, Washington’s recent campaign against spying by the Chinese government on users of the Internet in that country has fallen flat. The world’s biggest “computer cracker”—someone who breaks into computers or computer networks with malicious intent—turns out be Uncle Sam himself.

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Capitalism and ‘High Tech’

October 27, 2013

A reader has asked why many of the examples I have given are from the “high-tech” industry. Actually, there are good reasons to use examples from high tech to illustrate the laws that govern the capitalist economy.

Capitalist production develops unevenly, not only from country to country but from industry to industry. Marx makes clear in “Capital” that not all industries made the transition from handcraft to manufacture and from manufacture proper to “machinofacture” at the same time.

In the 19th century, what Marx and Engels called “modern industry” meant the industries that had adopted steam as their main source of motive power. By this definition, the textile industry, both spinning and weaving, was during the first three-quarters of the 19th century the most modern of modern industries. Consequently, in the early and middle 19th century—the time of Marx—the textile industry was the industry where the laws of motion of capitalism showed themselves most clearly. Understanding the development of the textile industry was (and is) crucial to understanding the politics of the 19th century.

The main center of textile production was in Britain, centered on the industrial city of of Manchester. Frederick Engels, Marx’s co-worker, worked there for many years managing his family’s textile factory. The main raw material for the 19th-century textile industry—cotton—was produced in the United States, not by wage labor but by the labor of African slaves.

During the 19th century, the U.S. was developing its own textile industry, based in the New England states, then the center of U.S. industry. Like the British textile industry, the U.S. textile industry was dependent on cotton produced by slave labor in the southern states of the U.S.

At the time of the American war of independence of 1775-1783, which represents the first phase of the U.S. bourgeois-democratic revolution, slavery, which existed in both southern and northern states, appeared to be dying out. But the invention of the cotton gin, combined with the dramatic rise of the steam-powered textile industry in both Britain and New England, gave a new lease on life to slavery in the southern states of the U.S.

The issue of whether the U.S. would be dominated by the free labor—wage labor—system or chattel slavery moved to the center of U.S. and even world politics, where it was to remain until it was finally resolved by force in the U.S. Civil War of 1861-1865 and then the post-Civil War Reconstruction that ended in 1876.

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