Life in the Real World
By Bonnie Weinstein
In a September 4, 2005 Inter Press Service article that appeared in Common Dreams by Martin Schuijt entitled, “World Faces Prospect of Teeming Mega-Slums: A new report by the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT) warns that governments will have to take the lead in building some 96,150 housing units per day if the world hopes to avert a massive urban crisis in the near future.… Almost half of the world’s six billion people already live in cities. Of these, it is estimated that about a third live in slums.” Here, in the wealthiest nation in the world, the situation is no better for an increasing number of people.
In an episode of COPS (real film of police arrests made into a TV reality show), police were rooting out squatters from inside a freeway support beam. Spotting a small hole in a seemingly solid freeway structure, some ingenious homeless people reasoned that inside that beam had to be electricity for the freeway light posts and room enough inside for workers to have installed them. They hacked away at the tiny hole and inside they found a room-size cavern and soon hooked up lights, hot plates and a TV.
The system worked perfectly until the police got wind of it and determined to “clean up” the area. The cops waited until the homeless folks went out for the day, then threw all their belongings away and closed up the hole.
I don’t normally watch the show but I was sitting at my friend’s house having a cup of coffee and it was on. My friend, impressed by the ingenuity of these homeless people (thinking that indeed this showed they were capable people) pointed out in disgust that not only did the police destroy everything those people owned, but they made no attempt to find alternative housing for them or a way out of the poverty that condemns them to the streets. And so it goes in the inner cities of the wealthiest nation on the planet.
In an article in USA Today by Stephanie Armour, that was posted August 11. 2003 entitled, “Homelessness Grows as More Live Check-to-Check: Homelessness in major cities is escalating as more laid-off workers already living paycheck-to-paycheck wind up on the streets or in shelters.” More recently, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, after 25 years of relative economic expansion, “just 25 percent of Americans have jobs offering wages above $16 an hour with health and retirement benefits. For the vast majority, the fruits of the growing economy are nowhere to be seen.”
So where has all the money gone
in the wealthiest nation in the world?
According to an October 3, 2005 article that appeared in Common Dreams entitled, “Growing Gulf Between the Rich and the Rest of US,” by Holly Sklar, the “CIA World Fact Book says, ‘Since 1975, practically all the gains in household income have gone to the top 20 percent of households.’” And, in fact, “Since 2000, America’s billionaire club has gained 76 more members while the typical household has lost income and the poverty count has grown by more than 5 million people.”
The article continues, “Income and wealth in America are increasingly concentrated at the very top—the realm of the Forbes 400. You could have banked $1 million a day every day for the last two years and still have far to go to make the new Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans. It took a minimum of $900 million to get on the Forbes 400 this year. That’s up $150 million from 2004.”
A December 9, 2005 Editorial in the New York Times entitled, “Tax Cut Showdown,” illustrates how the rich are getting richer. Detailing the two major tax-cut bills passed by the House of Representatives that same week, the article states, “House passed yet another tax bill…that would drain the Treasury of $56 billion of additional revenue over the next five years. Of that total, $21 billion would be used to extend, through 2010, special low tax rates for investors’ dividends and capital gains. Those rates are set to expire at the end of 2008.
“The extension is both unaffordable and gratuitous. Most of the benefits would flow to taxpayers who make more than $1 million a year. That’s morally reprehensible at a time when the House and the Senate are moving toward an agreement to cut as much as $45 billion over five years from domestic programs like Medicaid, food stamps, student loans and child-support enforcement.”
As a concrete example of how such social service cuts impacts the poor, in a December 12, 2005 Times editorial entitled, “The Burden of Medicaid Cuts,” the editors point out that, “The House bill compounds the problem by allowing health care providers to turn away people who say they can’t make the payment...many studies have shown that even small increases in co-payments cause people who are barely scraping by to forgo medical care until they become so sick they end up in an emergency room anyway.” There is no care or concern expressed for those turned away who will get sicker. The article continues, “The savings that will be achieved through increased cost-sharing in Medicaid are not really savings in any meaningful sense. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that fully 80 percent would come from a decrease in the use of Medicaid services.” In other words, people just won’t be able to go to the doctor because they can’t pay, and that will save billions.
Poor Blacks and non-white Americans hit hardest
In an article entitled “Racial Poverty Gaps in US Amount to Human Rights Violation, says UN Expert,” the official statistics released in report to the U.N. by Dr. Sengupta, “show that over 12 percent of the United States population—or about 37 million people—lived in poverty in 2004, with nearly 16 percent—or about 46 million—having no health insurance.” The report indicates that, “more than 38 million people, including 14 million children, are threatened by lack of food.” The report also shows that, “ethnic minorities are suffering more from extreme poverty than white Americans. Compared to one in ten Whites, nearly one in four Blacks and more than one out of every five Latinos are extremely poor in the United States.” In San Francisco’s Bayview/Hunters Point district which is predominantly Black, the unemployment rate is over 50 percent.
Yet, in the face of these devastating statistics there is a seemingly acquiescent mass of workers that are somehow absorbing these cutbacks without a fight. It seems that defeat after defeat has bolstered workers’ feelings of helplessness and lack of faith either in their political leaders or in their labor representatives, resulting in a turn toward acting in their own self-interest instead of in the interests of the whole of their class. For many there is seemingly no way out of the economic squeeze and only an empty hope of “hanging on to what you got.”
Many are very pessimistic about their future and the future for their children and grandchildren. They fear they will have to depend on their children when they age. Instead of retiring with a nice “nest egg,” American workers today feel they are lucky to get any pension at all. In a little over 50 years the average American worker went from expecting one job to last until retirement age then to live happily ever after in their single family, two-car-garage home and spend summers in their little cabin by the lake, to facing possible homelessness, depending on the wherewithal of their children and the existence or continuance of their pension.
How did it get like this?
An article in the December 9, 2005 Times by Micheline Maynard entitled, “Car Plants as Chips in Big-Stakes Game,” describes how threatened plant closings are used like chips in a poker game to win the best gains for employers. The article aptly describes how employers place each plant in direct competition with similar plants operated by workers just as desperate to hang on to their jobs—illustrating how divide and conquer works in favor of the boss:
“WIXOM, Mich.—A high-stakes game of poker is under way in the automobile industry, and Chuck Buchanan is one of the chips. Ford’s big luxury-car plant here, where Mr. Buchanan has worked for 32 years, is rumored to be on a list of plants that Ford may close under its second restructuring plan in the last four years.
“Michigan officials have vowed to fight to keep the Wixom plant open. But first they have to elbow their way to a table already crowded with officials from cities and states around the country making offers to Ford, General Motors and parts suppliers like Visteon and Delphi, with all of them planning to close factories in coming months and years.
“From St. Paul to suburban St. Louis, and towns outside Atlanta and Detroit, mayors, governors, civic leaders and officials of the United Automobile Workers union all hope they have the cards to walk away the winners. At stake are factories that have been a part of their communities for decades, contributed millions to tax bases, created thousands of jobs and led to comfortable lives for their employees.
“For workers, ‘it’s troublesome,’ said Mr. Buchanan, 56, a plant engineer who maintains machinery inside the Wixom plant.
“But for state officials, the competition has become critical to keeping big investments. ‘In a perfect world, government wouldn’t be in the job of offering incentives and partnerships,’ said Brian McClung, a spokesman for Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota. ‘But in the world we live in, we recognize that businesses are going to make their decisions based on the bottom line.’ Speculation over Ford’s plan comes just two weeks after G.M. said it would cut a total of 30,000 jobs and shut all or part of 12 factories, including assembly plants in Oklahoma City; Spring Hill, Tenn.; Lansing, Mich.; and Doraville, Ga., near Atlanta.
“Now, a report in The Detroit News on Wednesday said Ford might close up to 10 assembly and parts plants and eliminate up to 30,000 jobs, when it announces an overhaul plan on Jan. 23 that it is calling Way Forward. Factories said to be on Ford’s list for a possible shutdown include ones in St. Paul; in Hazelwood, Mo., outside St. Louis; and in Hapeville, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta.”
The fairness of this game is about as reliable as the games in Vegas. The “boss” is the big winner. This pretty well describes the situation most workers find themselves in today—sacrificial chips in the grand game of big business profit taking—and the boss has plenty of expendable chips.
But what has organized labor done to fight back?
In an article in the December 9, 2005 Times by Steven Greenhouse entitled, “Labor to Press for Workers’ Right to Join Unions,” the author reports that the A.F.L.-C.I.O. has organized 100 demonstrations nationwide asserting that the right of American workers to form unions is being systematically violated. The article goes on to state, “The A.F.L.-C.I.O. has undertaken this effort during International Human Rights Week at a time when the percentage of American private sector workers in unions has fallen to 7.9 percent, the lowest rate in a century and down from 35 percent in the 1950’s.”
Finally, the labor aristocracy acknowledges this reality. What they have yet to acknowledge is, first, their own responsibility and complicity with the bosses in this attack against American workers, and secondly, that along with the steep decline in organized labor ranks, comes a steep decline in working conditions and living standards surely destined to stir these same workers into motion.
The reality is, the 40-hour workweek, employer-funded health benefits, job safety and security have all but been eliminated while the sell-out practice of the labor lieutenants has rendered labors fight-back all but impotent. It has resulted in massive givebacks and take-backs over the years as one-by-one these contracts came up for negotiation.
What has become increasingly clear to everyone trying to hold on to their jobs is, that in order to increase profits, the employer has to squeeze workers harder. And, in order to succeed at that, the will to fight must be extinguished within each worker. The most efficient way they do that is to pit one worker against the other using every trick in the book from plant closings to racism, sexism, physical appearance, immigration status, age, health practices or status—anything they can use to divide and conquer.
How the few rule over the many
This game has been played out by capitalism since its inception throughout the world. To be at the top of the heap like the U.S., it helps, of course, to have a massive military force at your command as well. One that is so powerful that it is able to bully the world with the most powerful weapons of mass destruction ever devised.
The system forces our youth into poverty then offers them a chance (if they survive) of a way out by turning their lives over to military rule—capitalist military rule. And the military itself is used to further the divide and conquer policy of capitalism throughout the world, and at the behest of the U.S. capitalist elite. They go where U.S. big business needs them. And it’s the children of workers that are their cannon fodder.
But American workers are beginning to see through this game as evidenced by the growing opposition to the war; the decreasing rate of enlistments; and by such things like the passage of a recent policy statement by over 59 percent of San Francisco voters this past November that called for an end to military recruitment in our public schools.
Who rules the U.S. and its military?
For those who question for whom the government and the military are run and operated, just take a look at where our tax dollars go—follow the money. According to the renowned “War Resisters League Income Tax Pie Chart of The United States Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2006,” found at their web site (warresistersleague.org) out of the total federal funds outlays of $2,130 billion, $1,408 billion goes to the military, war, homeland security and other war and military related items including NASA, military research and development, leaving a mere $722 billion to pay for education, health and human services, HUD, food/nutrition programs, the labor department and the social security administration.
To illustrate how much money the military has to play with, in an article that appeared in the December 8, 2005 edition of the Times by Stuart Elliott entitled, “Army Hires McCann Erickson as Agency for Recruitment Ads,” “…the Army plans to spend $1.35 billion alone within the next five years on ads to recruit for both active duty and the Reserve…” And, as of the writing of this article the cost of the war in Iraq is more than $225,760,078,023, according to the web site costofwar.com, which keeps a running count.
The big business, government and military triad of rule
is showing its ugly head
Working people can’t ignore how the U.S. military is being used in the world, by and for whom. If you follow the money, the cooperative relationship between big business, government and the military and the need for this triad to exist in order to enforce capitalist rule, is exposed.
Fortunately, the only thing that keeps this triad in power and operating is the lack of consciousness among workers themselves—that their tax dollars should support their communal interests—not a government that acts in the interests of big business.
Thankfully, people’s consciousness can and will change as their real-life experiences teaches them lessons—the most important lesson being that if workers act communally and in solidarity with one another they have the power to topple this triad since their numbers overwhelm them. The wealthy represent only one percent of the population.
The good news is there is a deep working-class grumbling just barely becoming audible. The massive opposition to the war shows that instinctively working people know that their livelihoods are paying for the war—not only their livelihood—but also their very blood.
The defeats workers have experienced are beginning to be critically re-examined by them. The impact of the war itself—pre-emptive, based on lies, the use of torture against innocent people being exposed as routine operation in all U.S.-run prisons, images punctuated in their minds now with tails of windfall oil profits and sweet government contracts—are festering in their consciousness. Connections are being made between the horrendous costs of war and the steadily degrading schools, hospitals, roads and general infrastructure. They have had to cope with the steadily increasing costs of the things they consume and use, mostly food, clothing, housing, medical care, etc. Working people are experiencing these increased costs at every turn.
A new picture emerging
The quagmire of the war and the complete failure of the U.S. government to come to the aid of the victims of natural disasters from Indonesia to New Orleans have shown to the American people that the government’s priorities are based on the needs of business, not on the needs of people.
To this day people made homeless by hurricane Andrew that hit Florida on August 14, 1992 are still homeless! And in a December 11, 2005 Editorial in the Times entitled, “Death of an American City,” it says we must tell the people of New Orleans, “we spent our rainy-day fund on a costly stalemate in Iraq, that we gave it away in tax cuts for wealthy families and shareholders. We must tell them America is too broke and too weak to rebuild one of its great cities.”
These stories may not always be in the headlines anymore. But the bankruptcy of this government to act to rebuild the lives of those that were displaced by natural disaster—to save an entire city—will remain an indelible mark of its fatal weakness to act in the interest of people when it conflicts with the interests of big business. The war, as well, is leaving its brutal mark as the body bags and the horribly wounded keep coming home.
There is no redemption for capitalism
In the case of New Orleans, some city officials viewed the destruction of public housing as an “act of God” ridding the city government of the cost of public housing subsidies—something they couldn’t accomplish ordinarily. Not a tear was shed for those rendered homeless and destitute. Instead these victims were criminalized and ridiculed for not having the wherewithal to evacuate on their own. The government went as far as to say anyone left in certain areas would be considered looters and, in fact, sent the Police, National Guard and Army Reserves to enforce the evacuation order—with the threat of arrest and/or being shot—against stranded citizens while refusing to help them evacuate.
The front page photos exposing the discrepancy between the coverage of White and Black victims of the hurricanes taking food and other necessary items for survival from abandoned stores—the White woman “found” these items and the Black man “looted” the items—this will forever be burned into the minds of all who saw it and all those who experience the racist handling by the state agencies and the federal government first hand.
Clearly these experiences—the war, the hurricanes, plant closings, steep cuts in living standards—are starting to take their toll on the confidence American workers have in their current “leaders” and the ability of this system to alleviate these problems. Sooner or later they will come to the conclusion that the solution is up to them—that they can’t depend on their current labor or political leadership—the so-called “friends of labor”—to resolve these disputes in their favor. They are beginning to see that their future is, indeed, in their hands and that there are billions of allies in workers all over the world who have the very same interests—interests that are diametrically opposed to the interests of the wealthy elite—the capitalist class.
As many of the articles in this issue of Socialist Viewpoint indicate, the American working class is beginning to come to new and more powerful conclusions giving them more confidence in their ability to collectively turn things around. The war and the huge expense of keeping it going will force more concessions from those least able to make them. This will, in turn, inspire reliance on world working class solidarity as the only effective resistance to these assaults.
That is why it is so important to expose the contradiction of supporting capitalism and/or capitalist politicians in an effort to make economic or other social gains. There is no such thing as a kinder and gentler capitalism in today’s world. Those days are long gone and never really existed for most of humanity. This is the truth that will set the workers of the world free to organize in their own defense and on their own behalf and finally rid the world of capitalist minority rule.
It is getting easier to show that not only are the capitalists involved in the wanton plunder of the world through war and occupation but also through the rape and theft of natural resources the world over—resources that should belong to all.
Everywhere on the planet the only people experiencing an increase in their living standards are the capitalists themselves. And they are constantly looking for ways to cut workers’ livelihoods to increase their rate of profit and accumulate even more.
The organized American antiwar movement can play a huge role in empowering workers to act in their own interests and begin to organize in their own defense. But it can’t do that if it supports candidates that claim to speak for workers and capitalists both. You can’t be for the capitalist system—even for a “kinder and gentler” capitalist system—and be for workers too.
There is no such thing as a kind and gentle war on the poor. And that’s what capitalism is—a constant state of war against the poor in order to maintain the wealth and power of this tiny and most bloodthirsty ruling class the world has ever seen.
The antiwar movement must remain independent of this class and, in fact, demand that all candidates who claim they are against the war join the antiwar movement and use their power to carry out the demand for the immediate withdrawal of troops.
If these candidates are on our side they must prove it by voting against the war and divorcing themselves from the capitalist system and, instead, call for its demise—not by continually voting for budgets that fund it and keep it in power.
And the goal of anyone who calls themselves revolutionary socialists is to concretely show at every opportunity that the interests of capitalism is fundamentally and profoundly opposed to the interests of working people and the whole planet and, in fact, is the source of all the injustice that exists in the world today.
Working class politics is powerful only when it stands in unity and solidarity in defense of the very weakest and most vulnerable workers amongst them—and firmly in opposition to the capitalist system itself.