Prince Hall


Copy of speech by Prince Hall, founder of African-American Masonic Order, 1797



Let’s Blame the Worker!

David Brooks plays a game of Let’s Blame the Worker by attacking state workers’ pensions as the reason for state government insolvency.

This is of course absurd. One can point to many causes for problems within state governments–overflowing prison systems, poor lawmakers, the anti-tax mentality that has created budget shortfalls across the board.

Most of the problem revolves around tax revenues. And no one wants to talk about this. The general public knows that they are paying taxes and so pointing a finger at public employees makes a certain amount of sense. But of course, those who aren’t paying taxes are the wealthy, corporations, and other entities that have received tax breaks, writeoffs, incentives, and other corporate handouts that have impoverished states increasingly reliant upon sales and income taxes from a recession-plagued population that is working less, living in devalued homes, and spending less on consumer goods.

Of course, Brooks supports all of this. So, in the classic American conservative tradition, Brooks blames pubic sector workers. Lest we forget, public sector workers could almost universally make more money in the private sector. And they provide vital services that we need for a functioning society. A decent pension seems like a good pay-off for giving up so much income during the working years.

We all play Blame the Worker in discussions of school reform. Unfortunately, even Democratic politicians and writers (I’m looking at Yglesias here) play the game with teachers. Obviously, they say, the problem with public schools is teacher unions who don’t want test scores deciding their futures and who protect the worst teachers from being fired. Michelle Rhee’s resignation today as Schools Chancellor in Washington, D.C. is seen as a defeat for these reformers who want to cripple unions and force schools onto a business model.

I’m glad Rhee’s gone. As Richard Kahlenberg convincingly argues, teacher unions are leading reform efforts, not holding them back. They oppose testing partially because it takes away from the education (particularly for subjects like history) and because the reformers who want to tie testing to pay or employment completely ignore issues such as poverty, race, and educational background of parents in determining successful education. Rather, it’s a simple reliance on testing they want. And if tie employment to test schools, why would you choose to work in an impoverished inner-city school? To be unemployed in 2 years? That’s crazy. This just hurts kids’ education in the long run.

But of course, it’s always easier for Americans to blame the worker instead of fixing the structural problems plaguing our society. There’s little political cost to be paid, it rewards lazy thinking (thus attracting pundits), and doesn’t cost a lot.

Unfortunately, each time we blame the worker, we damage our institutions for the long-term, undermining public confidence in government, and telling young talented workers to avoid the public sector.

Howdy, as socialists say in Texas

Wanted to thank Sarah for asking me join this here deal. I’ll be posting here occasionally and hopefully more often than that. I’m an environmental and labor historian of the United States and will focus on these issues here, as well as ideas of activism more broadly. These days I’m particularly interested in the state of activism in America as we try to move forward from the 20 year long period of capitalist realism, between the fall of the Soviet Union and the economic collapse. Can we create a revived socialism to challenge capitalist domination over our hearts and minds? What can we learn from the past to help us organize in the presence, including from the failures of totalitarian socialism as well as extremist capitalism? I can’t guarantee any good answers, but hopefully I can throw a few thought-provoking points out there.

England’s social housing budget to be halved

Following on the heels of the education cuts, from the BBC

The social housing budget in England is to be cut by more than 50% in the Spending Review, the BBC understands.

Council houses “for life” will also end for new tenants, with their entitlement assessed at regular intervals.

Despite the cuts, ministers are likely to set a target of building 150,000 affordable homes, changing the way councils charge rent to finance them.

Tenants will be charged nearer the going market rate, to release cash for the building programme.

I love the use of key neo-liberal phrases like “greater flexibility” when what they mean is “more ways we can control you.”  This promises to be nothing short of a disaster for England’s poorest, funny how the kinder gentler Conservatives are basically just Thatcher 2.0.

Resentment and its alternatives

cross-posted from Questioning Transphobia

Jam, “School Competition” skit, Channel 4, UK, 2000.

[Warning]: This skit is not safe and is extremely disturbing.

What I’m also keenly aware of as we discuss the austerity measures is the keen sense of resentment that is allowed to drive public discussion and policy. But it’s resentment only of a certain licensed kind.

What I mean is, whether you’re talking about “dole bludgers” in Australia or “welfare cheats” or immigrants in the US or “lazy postal workers” or whatever in the UK, the resentment is levied at public programs. What are universal forms of human rights are instead refigured as selective drains on the public good in ways that the subsidised finanical sector is not.

The grotesque Jam segment I’ve posted above (recently posted on Nina Power’s blog) shows the ways in which Baby Boomers who benefited from free education programs have a false sense of scarcity and an overwhelming sense of resentment that fuels their behaviour and their politics. Only I deserve what I have earned, and in order to safeguard it I will do whatever I can to destroy the lives of those others I resent. In contrast to me, they have not earned it and thus I must exert my efforts not in making more opportunities for everyone but in preventing the illegitimate from accessing the ever-diminishing options.

The quite obvious example of this is the response of the Tea Party in the US, who as this recent Rolling Stone article showed, ignore those forms of government support they receive whilst whole-heartedly resenting those they do not. Needless to say, this is hypocritical, base politics at its worst.

But there’s other forms of resentment that we should make politically viable. I resent that the people who had free educations now expect me to have a debt, and that this is ever-increasing, I resent that financial markets fail and receive golden parachutes while poor people get squeezed even harder, I resent that corporations are not held accountable for wrecking the earth and that governments are more afraid of regulating them than hurting the people they are supposed to serve. I resent how trans people are almost always not protected by law, society or business. The invisible hand of the market will not protect us, it allows more discrimination and legitimates our oppression. I resent the politics of resentment, the people who will leave systemic institutional inequity aside in order to get their own small slice of the pie, no matter the cost to others.

Those are legitimate resentments in my opinion, and they can and should fuel political solidarity and social change. As the amazing Sarah Jaffe said recently at Global Comment:

The U.S. right now, of course, talks about socialism a lot. But most of the people talking about it know very little of what it really means. Socialism is a catch-all term for “big government,” which lately seems to mean any government program that helps people of color–even if that program also helps white people. Tim Wise notes that when social services began to be seen as programs that helped nonwhite people, rather than, as the New Deal had, explicitly privileging white folks, they began to be much less popular.

Socialism now, then, is used as an epithet by people who hate one another–or perhaps fear one another would be more accurate. The Tea Parties are full of hateful language, from Sarah Palin’s “reload” to the chants of “Take our country back.”

Sarah articulates a hopeful alternative to the politics of resentment. Resentment can be useful in channeling political anger, but it must be supplemented with more, with alternatives to the world-as-it-is – a world that can and should be better. Defeating pessimism is its own self-fulfilling prophecy, and leads us into the ever-diminishing returns of the neo-liberal state. Sarah says that:

I want a world in which people are doing things they love because they love them. Imagine what people could accomplish if instead of bosses who make us feel like shit in order to get away with paying us less, we could spend that time truly doing what we love and getting good at it. Rather than wondering what happens if we don’t have money as an incentive, why don’t we think about the things we could do if we didn’t have to worry about money?

I don’t want Stalinism or Castroism. But I do take inspiration from the democratic shifts in Latin America, from countries moving without violence toward a better society for all. Despite the anger and the attempts to reinstitute a hierarchy–through violence, of course–Latin America perseveres with its experiment.

Global capitalism is crumbling and people are angry. They’re taking to the streets around the world, and they’re looking for a solution. Isn’t it the time now to think about real, long-term changes? About not “taking the country back,” but taking the country–the world–forward?

I know humanism was discarded for some good reasons and some extremely bad, but perhaps it is time to more strongly use a language of human rights, which are universal. Because it seems to me that the problem is articulating things as compelling outside of a capitalist framework wholly determined by current or future moneymaking capability (something I slipped into even in the post). We must have spaces that are not wholly commodified, that are not wholly determined by exchange, power and violence.

We have an inherent, universal right to not only survive but flourish, a universal right to learning (education), to be in as little pain as possible (health), to safe roads and jobs and fulfilling vocations, a universal right to imagination and creativity, to literature and thought and art and life and love.

These things are not always measurable by money, but sometimes that means they are more valuable for that very reason.

Liberation for all

Welcome to the new blog.  The idea of this blog came from Sarah Jaffe, who suggested that I needed a blog to collate my writings about economics in a place that wasn’t Questioning Transphobia. Several minutes later, this blog was born.

The idea of this blog is simple: as an accumulator of the work of those people interested in social justice in its many forms (feminism, womanism, GLBTQIA, disability, anti-war, anti-racist, indigenous rights, immigrant rights, Muslim rights, Judaism, and so on) and a broader focus on the ways in which capitalism creates the conditions for those oppressions.  The so-called Leftist turn of “identity politics” has often put the economy off the table in all but the most aspirational, liberal ways, but we will to foreground it while remembering that some of us suffer much more than others because of capitalism.   We’re interested in how gender, race, disability, sexuality etc interact with capitalism, how our oppression occurs through the economic and the political, and how we change this.

We propose that there are juster, fairer better ways to organize human society than the one we have, and it is high time we started building broad coalitions to do so.

Liberation for all, oppression for none.