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The Unemployed Fight Back: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven

The post was originally featured at Organizing Upgrade. Reposted with permission.

By Marc Kagan

On April 23th, 2020, some 26.5 million Americans were unemployed, and the St. Louis Fed has estimated that 47 million people may be unemployed by the end of June, with unemployment reaching 32%. The Congressional Budget Office expects at least a 9% unemployment rate through 2021 and perhaps beyond. Tens of millions more will have exhausted their savings, facing mounting debt, evictions, foreclosures. All this on top of the existing problems of neoliberalism’s economy of precarity. As is usual, the crisis will hit the working poor, people of color, and youth the hardest.

What strategies and tactics can organizers and working people more broadly draw on today, in order to build social and political power in this crisis? Historically, the unemployed have organized themselves into networks of mutual aid in moments of crisis, but also to make transformative political demands, often with direct action as a central tool. Marc Kagan talked to Frances Fox Piven, author of Poor People’s Movements, about past efforts, and current possibilities. Fox Piven is a prolific writer, a long-time practitioner of the unruly, disruptive behavior she so often advocates, and even an effective lobbyist—she is credited with playing a central role in the 1993 “Motor Voter” Act. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.  

Marc Kagan: Tell me about previous efforts of the unemployed and their advocates during economic crises? Are there commonalities that we should be looking to now?

Frances Fox Piven: Of course there are. When large numbers of people are unemployed they become desperate. Just the fact of unemployment and need and starvation is not exactly what drives people to protest, but if they also think that they have some rights that are being violated in this time of disaster, they are very likely to protest. Continue reading The Unemployed Fight Back: An Interview with Frances Fox Piven

Stephanie Luce: The Coronavirus Crisis Exposes How Fragile Capitalism Already Was

With various states moving to “re-open” the economy and bring things “back to normal,” it benefits us to look at what we might return to — and how the conditions we’ve come to accept as “normal” played such a significant role in getting us to the current crisis.

In Labor Notes last month, SLU professor Stephanie Luce outlined how we define the economy — and how the illusion of a strong economy has helped produce our current dysfunction:

Capitalism is ideologically based on the principles of individualism and competition, but it becomes completely clear in a pandemic that what’s needed is solidarity: collective solutions that help everyone.

For example, if we assume profit should guide health care decisions, millions of people won’t be able to afford treatment, or even testing, and the virus will just continue to spread. The market solution would let rich people buy ventilators for themselves, just in case, while hospitals need them. So far, the U.S. has made no promises that a vaccine will be free or affordable. Continue reading Stephanie Luce: The Coronavirus Crisis Exposes How Fragile Capitalism Already Was

Stephanie Luce: Essential Work

This article was original featured at Organizing Upgrade.

By Stephanie Luce

IS SEEKING OUT in Prospect Park Brooklyn. So in a few days it’s my birthday and I’m mega depressed enough as it is already spending isolation alone. Now I’ll have to spend my bday alone too. Can anyone help me get stuff to make Mac and cheese and a small cake for myself. I’m just trying to do anything from going into full blown depression mode. – Anna

In the midst of the COVID-19 quarantine, Anna* wrote to a neighborhood facebook page, asking for help. Within hours, dozens of people had responded offering to buy groceries, donate cash to pay for a birthday dinner, bake a cake, host an online birthday party, take a socially-distant walk in the park, or just to talk.

This wasn’t unusual. During this pandemic lots of people need help and have turned to neighbors (usually strangers). Even more people have stepped up to offer assistance.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise. Many writers have told stories of how people step in quickly to assist in times of disaster. Rebecca Solnit observed this in the 1989 earthquake in San Francisco and in post-Katrina New Orleans in 2005; she learned of similar responses in earlier disasters like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. After Hurricane Sandy hit New York City in 2012, activists from Occupy Wall Street quickly mobilized into “Occupy Sandy” to get food and medical care to residents in hard-hit neighborhoods. Continue reading Stephanie Luce: Essential Work

Prof. Stephanie Luce in Labor Notes: “It Didn’t Have to Be Like This”

Here we are: the economy has been shut down, resulting in massive job loss to some and unsafe working conditions for others. This, writes SLU professor Stephanie Luce in Labor Notes, was the result of a horrible decision — lock ourselves down, or put tens of millions of people at risk.

But, she writes, “It didn’t have to be like this.”

We could not have prevented the virus itself, nor the resulting loss of life altogether. But imagine if:

    • Instead of cutting public health budgets and access to health care for decades, we had expanded it by enacting a single-payer health care system—an improved Medicare for All.
    • We had community health centers that did low-cost preventive care, giving people the education and resources to stay healthy to begin with and making a much smaller share of the population at risk for dangerous disease.
    • We had paid sick days for all workers so they didn’t have to come to work when they had symptoms.
    • We had strong unions, high minimum wages, and good benefits, so very few people were poor. Workers would not feel so desperate to work even when sick or in danger, and they could afford basic necessities to keep them healthier year-round.
    • We had a public health philosophy of “an injury to one is an injury to all.” Governments would be ready to step in with testing programs, resources for people in quarantine, and fair access for all to treatment and vaccines.
    • We taxed the rich and corporations and used that money for the public good and building a strong economy. Our economy would be better equipped to sustain shocks.
    • We valued science and scientists, and invested in their research on issues for the public good.
    • We valued international connections and relationships, encouraging cooperation and collaboration on research, education, and treatment across borders, rather than demonizing or punishing entire nations.

Prof. Luce goes on to describe the ways in which, by moving away from the logic of privatization and crony capitalism, we can imagine a different pathway forward. And she starts with history:

Countries have often been forced to implement bold policies during a crisis, whether the Great Depression of the 1930s, wartime, or coming out of war. It was after World War II that many other countries established their national health care systems and their generous safety net programs, on the understanding that any society is only as strong as its weakest member and that collective programs are good for the economy.

The federal government has the ability to take on public debt to pay for big programs. This happened in 2008 when the government came up with $891 billion to bail out the financial system, with almost no strings attached. This is basically an investment in the future: borrowing money from the future to pay for necessary steps now. The economist JW Mason makes a strong case for funding the Green New Deal this way.

According to Luce, there’s yet more we could do via taxes and reduced military spending, all in service of “an economy centered on human need rather than corporate profit.”

Read the full piece at Labor Notes.

New Labor Forum Highlights: January 22nd, 2019

The New Labor Forum has a bi-weekly newsletter on current topics in labor, curated by the some of the most insightful scholars and activists in the labor world today. Check out some highlights from the latest edition below.

Original insights into the workings of an ever-evolving capitalism are rare occurrences. We are proud to be publishing one in the winter 2019 print issue of New Labor Forum.  The article, by Shoshana Zuboff, offered in today’s installment of our newsletter, presents a theory of surveillance capitalism. It’s an essay length summation of her book, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power, published to much acclaim and rave reviews.  Zuboff argues that surveillance capitalism opens up a whole new era in capital accumulation. It relies on a process of primitive accumulation, which has always been characteristic of capitalism, but extends capital’s reach beyond nature and human labor into the interior, intimate life of human beings, by tracking, manipulating, and trading in human behavior. She calls the new system the “Big Other” and ponders what new forms of collective resistance might need to emerge to challenge the dominion of surveillance capitalism.
Table of Contents: 
  1. Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action/ Shoshana Zuboff, New Labor Forum
  2. How Tech Companies Manipulate Our Personal Data/ Jacob Silverman, New York Times

Continue reading New Labor Forum Highlights: January 22nd, 2019

New Labor Forum Highlights, Labor Day Edition

The New Labor Forum has a bi-weekly newsletter on current topics in labor, curated by the some of the most insightful scholars and activists in the labor world today. Check out some highlights from the latest edition below.

New Labor Forum’s September 2018 print issue is rolling off the press now. It contains as good a reason as there is to subscribe now:  thoughtful analysis and lucid writing on a wide range of issues vital to anyone who cares about the prospects of workers and working-class communities in the U.S. and throughout the world. Articles in the new issue: assess the options available to blue collar women and female care workers seeking to combat sexual harassment; ask if there is a deep state and what interests it serves; argue that the labor of Palestinians in building the Israeli nation magnifies their claim for full citizenship rights; and trace the remarkable rise of Jeremy Corbyn, once a marginal figure, held in contempt by UK Labour Party elites, now leader of the party and with a chance to lead the country.

On this Labor Day, we highlight two proposals to organized labor. In the first, Larry Cohen argues for a new national system of collective bargaining, modeled on the sectoral bargaining that sets industry-wide wages and working conditions for workers from Norway to South Africa. Moshe Marvit and Shaun Richman make the case for new “Right to Your Job” legislation that would end our “at will” employment regime and force employers to prove that terminations are related to work-performance. Because this legislation stands a fair chance of passing in a number of municipal and state legislatures, Marvit and Richman insists it should become a policy priority for organized labor and its allies.

And we announce that the CUNY Board of Trustees has voted to establish the Murphy Institute, publisher of New Labor Forum, as the new CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies. The School’s inaugural round of fall public programming, begins with a public forum on September 14th, entitled A Failing Marriage: Democracy & Capitalism.


Table of Contents

  1. The Time Has Come for Sectoral Bargaining/ Larry Cohen, New Labor Forum
  2. The Case for “A Right to Your Job” Campaign/ Moshe Marvit and Shaun Richman, New Labor Forum
  3. Save the Date-Is A Democratic Capitalism Possible?/ Murphy Institute, CUNY School of Labor and Urban Studies

Photo by Garry Knight via flickr