Working Class

1
Dec


 

October 2018:An exchange prompted by the essay 

The Precariat: Today’s Transformative Class? 


A headshot of Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher
Taking a long view of precariousness as an inherent feature of capitalism can shed light on the contemporary debate on “the precariat.”
 Read


A headshot of Nancy Folbre

Nancy Folbre
The focus on “the precariat” is useful but limited: the fight over distribution isn’t just between labor and capital.
 Read


A headshot of Azfar Khan

Azfar Khan
A universal basic income is key to delivering security and autonomy to people in a precarious world. 
Read


A headshot of Alexandra Köves

Alexandra Köves
Beyond policies like a universal basic income, a transition to a equitable and sustainable society requires the redefinition of well-being, needs, and work itself.
 Read


A headshot of George Liodakis

George Liodakis
There is no “precariat,” per se—the working class as-a-whole remains the necessary agent for transformation.
 Read


A headshot of Ronaldo Munck

Ronaldo Munck
Work in the Global South has always been precarious, but the resurgence of global labor organizing offers a way forward.
 Read


A headshot of William I. Robinson

William I. Robinson
The “precariat,” rather than a new class, is part of the global proletariat, on whose struggle with transnational capital our fate depends.
 Read


A headshot of Pritam Singh

Pritam Singh
A basic income alone is not transformative, but a feature of a broader ecosocialist vision of dismantling capitalism. 
Read


A headshot of Eva-Maria Swidler

Eva-Maria Swidler
Workers in the Global North have a lot to learn from the past struggles of workers in the Global South (as well as in their own countries). 
Read


A headshot of Evelyn AstorA headshot of Alison Tate

Alison Tate and Evelyn Astor
Labor unions must continue to play an important role in the fight for economic justice and against precariousness. 
Read



A headshot of Guy Standing

Author’s Response
Guy Standing addresses points raised by the contributors to this roundtable. Read
 

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Hegemony | Marxism | Organizing | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
25
Nov

By Guy Standing

October 2018

Since 1980, the global economy has undergone a dramatic transformation, with the globalization of the labor force, the rise of automation, and—above all—the growth of Big Finance, Big Pharma, and Big Tech. The social democratic consensus of the immediate postwar years has given way to a new phase of capitalism that is leaving workers further behind and reshaping the class structure. The precariat, a mass class defined by unstable labor arrangements, lack of identity, and erosion of rights, is emerging as today’s “dangerous class.” As its demands cannot be met within the current system, the precariat carries transformative potential. To realize that potential, however, the precariat must awaken to its status as a class and fight for a radically changed income distribution that reclaims the commons and guarantees a livable income for all. Without transformative action, a dark political era looms.

Introduction

We are living in a painful time of turbulent economic change. A global market system continues to take shape as the United States petulantly threatens the international order that it helped to create and from which it has gained disproportionately. This era, which began around 1980, has been dominated institutionally by American finance and ideologically by the economic orthodoxy of “neoliberalism.” A hallmark of this transformation has been the increasing redistribution of wealth upwards as rents to those owning property—physical, financial, and “intellectual.” As “rentier capitalism” has risen, working classes have foundered, as those relying on labor have been losing ground in both relative and absolute terms.

In brief, during the past forty years, the global economy has been shaped by neoliberal economics, which, accentuated by the digital revolution, has generated two linked phenomena: global rentier capitalism and a global class structure in which the precariat is the new mass class. Rentier capitalism is making the hardships borne by the precariat much worse.

Industrial capitalism produced a property-owning bourgeoisie and the proletariat; contemporary capitalism is roiling this class structure. Today, the mass class is the precariat, characterized by unstable labor, low and unpredictable incomes, and loss of citizenship rights. It is the new “dangerous class,” partly because its insecurities induce the bitterness, ill-health, and anger that can be the fodder of right-wing populism. But it is also dangerous in the progressive sense that many in it reject old center-left and center-right politics. They are looking for the root-and-branch change of a new “politics of paradise,” rather than a return to a “politics of laborism” that seeks amelioration within dominant institutions and power structures.

The precariat’s needs cannot be met by modest reforms to the existing social and economic system. It is the only transformative class because, intuitively, it wants to become strong enough to abolish the conditions that define its existence and, as such, abolish itself. All others want merely to improve their position in the social hierarchy. This emergent class is thus well-placed to become the agent of radical social transformation—if it can organize and become sufficiently united around a shared identity, alternative vision, and viable political agenda.

The key to understanding the precariat’s transformational position lies in the breakdown of the income distribution system of the mid-twentieth century. To succeed, a new progressive politics must offer a pathway to an ecologically sustainable system that reduces inequalities and insecurities in the context of an open, globalizing economy.

The Rise of Rentier Capitalism

Between 1945 and 1980, the dominant socioeconomic paradigm in industrialized countries outside the Communist Bloc was social democratic, defined by the creation of welfare states and labor-based entitlements. Although there were modest falls in inequality coupled with labor-based economic security, this was no “golden age,” as some historians label it. The period was stultifying and sexist. Putting as many people as possible (mainly men) in full-time jobs under the banner of Full Employment was hardly an emancipatory vision worthy of the Enlightenment values of EgalitéLiberté, and Solidarité.

As the social democratic era collapsed in the 1970s, an economic model emerged now known as “neoliberalism.” Its advocates preached “free markets,” strong private property rights, financial market liberalization, free trade, commodification, privatization, and the dismantling of all institutions and mechanisms of social solidarity, which, in their view, were “rigidities” holding back the market. While the neoliberals were largely successful in implementing their program, what transpired was very different from what they had promised.

The initial outcome was financial domination. The income generated by US finance, which equaled 100% the size of the US economy in 1975, grew to 350% in 2015. Similarly, in the UK, finance went from 100% to 300% of GDP. Both countries experienced rapid deindustrialization as the strength of finance led to an overvalued exchange rate that, by making exports uncompetitive and imports cheaper, destroyed high-productivity manufacturing jobs. Financial institutions, most notably Goldman Sachs, became masters of the universe, their executives slotted into top political positions in the US and around the world.1

Finance linked up with Big Pharma and Big Tech to forge a global architecture of institutions strengthening rentier capitalism, maximizing monopolistic income from intellectual property. The pivotal moment came in 1995 with implementation of the World Trade Organization (WTO)’s Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS), in which US multinational corporations helped secure the globalization of the US intellectual property rights system. This shift gave unprecedented rent-extracting capacity to multinationals and financial institutions.

Patents, copyright, protection of industrial designs, and trademarked brands have multiplied as sources of monopolistic profit. In 1994, fewer than one million patents were filed worldwide; in 2011, over two million were filed; in 2016, over three million. By then, twelve million were in force, and licensing income from patents had multiplied sevenfold. Growth was similar with other forms of intellectual property.

The rent-extracting system was enforced by over 3,000 trade and investment agreements, all entrenching property rights, topped by a mechanism (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) that empowers multinationals to sue governments for any policy changes that, in their view, negatively affect their future profits. This has had a chilling effect on policy reform efforts, notably those seeking to protect health and the environment.

Rentier capitalism has also been bolstered by subsidies, a financial system designed to increase private debt, privatization of public services, and a plunder of the commons. But it contains two possibly fatal flaws. First, the rentiers have been winning too much by rigging the system, raising questions about social and political sustainability. Second, the architects proved mistaken in thinking this framework would bolster the US economy, along with other advanced industrial economies to a lesser extent, at the expense of the rest of the world.

In particular, they underestimated China. When TRIPS was passed, China was inconsequential as a rentier economy. After it joined the WTO in 2001, it started to catch up fast. In 2011, China overtook the US in patent applications; by 2013, it accounted for nearly a third of global filings, well ahead of the US (22%). In 2016, it accounted for 98% of the increase over 2015, filing more than the US, Japan, the Republic of Korea, and the European Patent Office combined.

The main outcome of rentier capitalism, exacerbated by globalization and the digital revolution, is an inexorable erosion of the income distribution system of the twentieth century—the implicit sharing of income between capital and labor that emerged after the Second World War, epitomized by the 1950 pact between the United Auto Workers union and General Motors known as the Treaty of Detroit. Now, all over the world, the share of income going to capital has been rising; the share going to labor, falling. Within both, the share going to forms of rent has been rising.

The social democratic consensus was based on implicit rules. When productivity rose, so did wages. When profits rose, so did wages. When employment rose, so did wages. Today, productivity and employment are rising, but wages remain stagnant or falling.

One factor depressing wages has been the growth of the global labor force, which has expanded by two billion during the past three decades, many of whom have a living standard that is a tiny fraction of what OECD workers were obtaining. Downward pressure on real wages will continue, especially as productivity can rise faster in emerging market economies and the technological revolution makes relocation of production and employment so much easier. Meanwhile, the rentiers will be protected. Antitrust legislation will not be strengthened to cut monopolistic rent-seeking, since governments will continue to protect national corporate champions.

Without transformative changes, those relying on labor will continue to lose; no amount of tinkering will do. Average real wages in OECD countries will stagnate, and social income inequalities will grow. Progressives must stop deluding themselves. Unless globalization goes into reverse, which is unlikely, trying to remedy inequality by forcing up wages, however desirable, will not do much. Raising wages substantially would merely accelerate the displacement of labor by automation.

A Global Class Structure

Just as industrial capitalism ushered in a new class structure, so, too, has rentier capitalism. The emerging structure, superimposed on old structures, is topped by a plutocracy, made up of a small group of billionaires who wield corruptive power. Although mostly in the West, a growing proportion of plutocrats are in Asia and other emerging market economies. Under them is an elite, who serve the plutocracy’s interests while making substantial rental income themselves. Together, these comprise what is colloquially known as the 1%, but, in fact, is much smaller than that.

Below them in the income spectrum is a salariat, a shrinking number of people with labor-based security and robust benefits, from health care to stock ownership. In the post-1945 era, economists predicted that by the end of the twentieth century, the vast majority in rich countries would be in the salariat, with growing numbers in developing countries joining them. Instead, the salariat is shrinking. It will not disappear, but its members are increasingly detached from those below them in the class spectrum, largely because they too gain more in rentier incomes than in wages. Still, their politics may be shaped by what they see happening to their sons and daughters, as well as their grandchildren.

Alongside the salariat is a smaller group of proficians, freelance professionals, such as software engineers, stock traders, lawyers, and medical specialists operating independently. They earn high incomes selling themselves frenetically, but risk early burnout and moral corrosion through excessive opportunism. This group will grow and are influential beyond their number, conveying an image of autonomy. But for the health of this untethered, hard-driving group—and society’s—they need social structures to enforce moral codes.

Below them in income terms is the proletariat, the epitome of the “working class” in the European sense, the “middle class” in the American sense. In the twentieth century, welfare states, labor law, collective bargaining, trade unions, and labor and social democratic parties were built by and for this group. However, it is dwindling everywhere and has lost progressive energy and direction.

Those who pine for the proletariat should reflect on the downside of the proletarian life and what most had to do just to survive. There should be respect for what it achieved in its heyday, but nostalgia is delusional. In reality, many are falling into the emerging mass class, the precariat, which is also being fed by college graduates and dropouts, women, migrants, and others.

Understanding the Precariat

The precariat consists of millions of people in every advanced industrial country and in emerging market economies as well.2 It can be defined in three dimensions: distinctive relations of production (patterns of labor and work), distinctive relations of distribution (sources of social income), and distinctive relations to the state (loss of citizenship rights). It is still a “class-in-the-making” in that it is internally divided by different senses of relative deprivation and consciousness. But in Europe at least, it is becoming conscious of itself as a coherent group opposed to the dominant power structure (a “class-for-itself”).

The distinctive relations of production start with the fact that the precariat is being forced to accept, and is being habituated to, a life of unstable labor, through temporary work assignments (“casualization”), agency labor, “tasking” in Internet-based “platform capitalism,” flexible scheduling, on-call and zero-hour contracts, and so on. Even more important is that those in the precariat have no occupational narrative or identity, no sense of themselves as having a career trajectory. They also learn they must do a lot of work-for-labor, work-for-the-state, and work-for-reproduction of themselves.3 The need to adapt capabilities in a context of uncertainty leads to the precariatized mind, not knowing how best to allocate one’s time and thus being under almost constant stress.

The precariat is also the first mass class in history in which their typical level of education exceeds that required for the kind of labor they can expect to obtain. And it must work and labor outside fixed workplaces and standard labor hours as well as within them.

The precariat exists in most occupations and at most levels within corporations. For example, within the legal professions, there are elites, a squeezed salariat, and a precariat of paralegals. Similar fragmentation exists in the medical and teaching professions, with paramedics and “fractionals” (i.e., those remunerated for only a fraction of full-time). The precariat is even spreading into corporate management with a concept of “interim managers,” some of whom are well-paid proficians (depicted by George Clooney in Up in the Air), others of whom fall in the precariat.

Along with the rise of unstable labor, the second dimension is distinctive relations of distribution, or structures of social income.4 The precariat relies mainly on money wages, which have been stagnant or falling in real terms for three decades, and which are increasingly volatile. The precariat’s income security has fallen correspondingly. Also, as many must do much unpaid work, the wage rate is lower than it appears if only paid labor time is taken into account. This trend will only intensify with the spread of “tasking” through online platforms.

Further, the precariat has been losing non-wage forms of remuneration, while the salariat and elite have been gaining them, making the growth of social income inequality greater than it appears in conventional income statistics. The precariat rarely receives paid holidays, paid medical leave, subsidized transport or accommodation, paid maternity leave, and so on. And it lacks the occupational benefits that came with belonging to a professional or craft guild.

The precariat has also lost entitlement to rights-based state benefits (welfare). The international trend towards means-testing and behavior-testing has hit them hard and engulfed many in regimes of workfare. Means-testing creates poverty traps, since benefits are withdrawn when earned income rises. Going from low state benefits into low-wage jobs on offer thus involves very high marginal “tax” rates, often over 80%. The precariat also faces “precarity traps”: obtaining benefits takes time, so if you succeed in obtaining them, it would be financially irrational to leave for a low-paying short-term job alternative.

The precariat has also been losing access to family and community support, as well as to commons resources and amenities, all of which have been underestimated sources of income security for low-income groups throughout the ages. For the precariat, they are just not there. Instead, many are driven to food banks and charities.

Key to the precariat’s income insecurity is uncertainty. Uncertainty differs from contingency risks, such as unemployment, maternity, and sickness, which were core focuses of welfare states. For those, one can calculate the probability of such events and develop an insurance scheme. Uncertainty cannot be insured against; it is about “unknown unknowns.” The social security part of the distribution system has also broken down, and social democrats should stop pretending it could be restored.

The precariat also suffers from an above-average cost of living. They live on the edge of unsustainable debt, knowing that one illness, accident, or mistake could render them homeless. Needing loans and credit, they pay much higher interest rates than richer folk.

The third defining dimension consists of the precariat’s distinctive relations to the state. The proletariat went from having few rights to having a rising number—cultural, civil, social, political, and economic. By contrast, the precariat is losing such rights, often not realizing so until need for their protection arises. For instance, they usually lack cultural rights because they cannot belong to communities such as occupational guilds that would give them security and identity. They lack civil rights because of the erosion of due process and inability to afford adequate defense in court; they often lose entitlement to state benefits on the whim of unaccountable bureaucrats. They lose economic rights because they cannot work in occupations they are qualified to perform.

The loss of rights goes with the most defining feature of the class: the precariat consists of supplicants. The original Latin meaning of precarious was “to obtain by prayer.” That sums up what it is to be in the precariat: having to ask for favors, for help, for a break, for a discretionary judgment by some bureaucrat, agent, relative, or friend. This intensifies uncertainty. To be in the precariat, it has been said, is like running on sinking sand.

Experience of supplicant status leads to the precariat’s growing consciousness. Chronic insecurity induces anxiety, but as with all emerging classes, there are different forms of relative deprivation. The precariat is split into three factions, which has hindered its becoming a class-for-itself and is challenging for those wishing to develop and organize a progressive response.

The first faction is the Atavists. They have fallen out of the proletariat, or come from old working-class families or communities whose members once depended on full-time jobs. Some are young; many are older, looking back wistfully. Their deprivation is about a lost Past, whether real or imagined. Having relatively little schooling or education in civics, history, or culture, they tend to listen to the sirens of neo-fascist populism.

They have been voting for the likes of Trump, Putin, Orban, Marine Le Pen, Farage and other Brexiteers, and the Lega in Italy. It is not correct to call them the “left behind,” since they are expected to function inside a new labor market. But they are bitter, eager to blame others for their plight. Those they demonize comprise the second faction of the precariat, the Nostalgics. This group is composed of migrants and minorities, who feel deprived of a Present, with nowhere to call home. For the most part, they “keep their heads down,” doing whatever they can to survive and move forward.

The third faction is best described as the Progressives, more educated and mainly young, although not exclusively so. Their defining sense of deprivation is loss of a Future. They went to university or college, promised by their parents and teachers that this would lead to a defining career. They emerge without that, often with debt stretching into that future. Beyond their own future, more and more despair about the planet’s ecological future.

A challenge for aspiring politicians is to build a broad policy strategy for bringing all three factions together in common cause. That is beginning to happen, so it is unnecessarily pessimistic to think a new progressive politics cannot be forged for the precariat as a whole.

The Dangerous Class

The precariat is today’s “dangerous class,” because it is the part of the emerging class system that could carry forward social transformation. For Marxists, the term “dangerous class” is associated with the “lumpen-proletariat,” those cut off from society, reduced to crime and social illness, having no function in production other than to put fear into the proletariat. But the precariat is not a lumpen. It is wanted by global capitalism, encapsulating new norms of labor and work. continue

Category : Capitalism | Globalization | Strategy and Tactics | Theory | Working Class | Youth | Blog
13
Dec

David Harvey: ‘The Left Has to Rethink Its Theoretical and Tactical Apparatus.’

FROM ROAR MAGAZINE. David Harvey, one of the leading Marxist thinkers of our times, sits down with the activist collective AK Malabocas to discuss the transformations in the mode of capital accumulation, the centrality of the urban terrain in contemporary class struggles, and the implications of all this for anti-capitalist organizing.

AK Malabocas: In the last forty years, the mode of capital accumulation has changed globally. What do these changes mean for the struggle against capitalism?

David Harvey: From a macro-perspective, any mode of production tends to generate a very distinctive kind of opposition, which is a curious mirrored image of itself. If you look back to the 1960s or 1970s, when capital was organized in big corporatist, hierarchical forms, you had oppositional structures that were corporatist, unionist kinds of political apparatuses. In other words, a Fordist system generated a Fordist kind of opposition.

With the breakdown of this form of industrial organization, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries, you ended up with a much more decentralized configuration of capital: more fluid over space and time than previously thought. At the same time we saw the emergence of an opposition that is about networking and decentralization and that doesn’t like hierarchy and the previous Fordist forms of opposition.

So, in a funny sort of way, the leftists reorganize themselves in the same way capital accumulation is reorganized. If we understand that the left is a mirror image of what we are criticizing, then maybe what we should do is to break the mirror and get out of this symbiotic relationship with what we are criticizing.


In the Fordist era, the factory was the main site of resistance. Where can we find it now that capital has moved away from the factory floor towards the urban terrain?

First of all, the factory-form has not disappeared—you still find factories in Bangladesh or in China. What is interesting is how the mode of production in the core cities changed. For example, the logistics sector has undergone a huge expansion: UPS, DHL and all of these delivery workers are producing enormous values nowadays.

In the last decades, a huge shift has occurred in the service sector as well: the biggest employers of labor in the 1970s in the US were General Motors, Ford and US Steel. The biggest employers of labor today are McDonalds, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Walmart. Back then, the factory was the center of the working class, but today we find the working class mainly in the service sector. And why would we say that producing cars is more important than producing hamburgers?

Unfortunately the left is not comfortable with the idea of organizing fast-food workers. Its picture of the classical working class doesn’t fit with value production of the service workers, the delivery workers, the restaurant workers, the supermarket workers.

The proletariat did not disappear, but there is a new proletariat which has very different characteristics from the traditional one the left used to identify as the vanguard of the working class. In this sense, the McDonalds workers became the steel workers of the twenty-first century

If this is what the new proletariat is about, where are the places to organize resistance now?

It’s very difficult to organize in the workplaces. For example, delivery drivers are moving all over the place. So this population could maybe be better organized outside the working place, meaning in their neighborhood structures.

There is already an interesting phrase in Gramsci’s work from 1919 saying that organizing in the workplace and having workplace councils is all well, but we should have neighborhood councils, too. And the neighborhood councils, he said, have a better understanding of what the conditions of the whole working class are compared to the sectoral understanding of workplace organizing.

Workplace organizers used to know very well what a steelworker was, but they didn’t understand what the proletariat was about as a whole. The neighborhood organization would then include for example the street cleaners, the house workers, the delivery drivers. Gramsci never really took this up and said: ‘come on, the Communist Party should organize neighborhood assemblies!’

Nevertheless, there are a few exceptions in the European context where Communist Parties did in fact organize neighborhood councils—because they couldn’t organize in the workplace, like in Spain for example. In the 1960s this was a very powerful form of organizing. Therefore—as I have argued for a very long time—we should look at the organization of neighborhoods as a form of class organization. Gramsci only mentioned it once in his writings and he never pursued it further.

In Britain in the 1980s, there were forms of organizing labor in city-wide platforms on the basis of trades councils, which were doing what Gramsci suggested. But within the union movement these trades councils were always regarded as inferior forms of organizing labor. They were never treated as being foundational to how the union movement should operate.

In fact, it turned out that the trades councils were often much more radical than the conventional trade unions and that was because they were rooted in the conditions of the whole working class, not only the often privileged sectors of the working-class. So, to the extent that they had a much broader definition of the working class, the trades councils tended to have much more radical politics. But this was never valorized by the trade union movement in general—it was always regarded as a space where the radicals could play.

The advantages of this form of organizing are obvious: it overcomes the split between sectoral organizing, it includes all kinds of “deterritorialized” labor, and it is very suitable to new forms of community and assembly-based organization, as Murray Bookchin was advocating, for example.

In the recent waves of protest—in Spain and Greece, for instance, or in the Occupy movement—you can find this idea of “localizing resistance.” It seems that these movements tend to organize around issues of everyday life, rather than the big ideological questions that the traditional left used to focus on.

Why would you say that organizing around everyday life is not one of the big questions? I think it is one of the big questions. More than half of the world’s population lives in cities, and everyday life in cities is what people are exposed to and have their difficulties in. These difficulties reside as much in the sphere of the realization of value as in the sphere of the production of value.

This is one of my very important theoretical arguments: everybody reads Volume I of Capital and nobody reads Volume II. Volume I is about the production of value, Volume II is about the realization of value. Focusing on Volume II, you clearly see that the conditions of realization are just as important as the conditions of production.

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Category : Capitalism | Marxism | Organizing | Solidarity Economy | Strategy and Tactics | Working Class | Blog
2
Jul

Students in Milan took to the streets to protest against Italian austerity, October, 4 2013. (Photo <a href=" http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-157092356/stock-photo-milan-italy-october-students-manifestation-held-in-milan-on-october-students-took-to.html?src=u2nHhdHoAhG8lP5MD37u6A-1-0" target="_blank"> via Shutterstock</a>)

Students in Milan took to the streets to protest against Italian austerity, October, 4 2013. (Photo via Shutterstock)

Reality always has this power to surprise. It surprises you with an answer that it gives to questions never asked – and which are most tempting. A great stimulus to life is there, in the capacity to divine possible unasked questions.

— Eduardo Galeano

By Henry Giroux

Truthout, July 2, 2014

Neoliberalism’s Assault on Democracy

Fred Jameson has argued that “that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.” He goes on to say that “We can now revise that and witness the attempt to imagine capitalism by way of imagining the end of the world” (Jameson 2003).

One way of understanding Jameson’s comment is that within the ideological and affective spaces in which the neoliberal subject is produced and market-driven ideologies are normalized, there are new waves of resistance, especially among young people, who are insisting that casino capitalism is driven by a kind of mad violence and form of self-sabotage, and that if it does not come to an end, what we will experience, in all probability, is the destruction of human life and the planet itself.

Certainly, more recent scientific reports on the threat of ecological disaster from researchers at the University of Washington, NASA, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reinforce this dystopian possibility. [1]

As the latest stage of predatory capitalism, neoliberalism is part of a broader economic and political project of restoring class power and consolidating the rapid concentration of capital, particularly financial capital (Giroux 2008; 2014). As a political project, it includes “the deregulation of finance, privatization of public services, elimination and curtailment of social welfare programs, open attacks on unions, and routine violations of labor laws” (Yates 2013). As an ideology, it casts all dimensions of life in terms of market rationality, construes profit-making as the arbiter and essence of democracy, consuming as the only operable form of citizenship, and upholds the irrational belief that the market can both solve all problems and serve as a model for structuring all social relations. As a mode of governance, it produces identities, subjects, and ways of life driven by a survival-of-the fittest ethic, grounded in the idea of the free, possessive individual, and committed to the right of ruling groups and institutions to exercise power removed from matters of ethics and social costs. As a policy and political project, it is wedded to the privatization of public services, the dismantling of the connection of private issues and public problems, the selling off of state functions, liberalization of trade in goods and capital investment, the eradication of government regulation of financial institutions and corporations, the destruction of the welfare state and unions, and the endless marketization and commodification of society.

Neoliberalism has put an enormous effort into creating a commanding cultural apparatus and public pedagogy in which individuals can only view themselves as consumers, embrace freedom as the right to participate in the market, and supplant issues of social responsibility for an unchecked embrace of individualism and the belief that all social relation be judged according to how they further one’s individual needs and self-interests. Matters of mutual caring, respect, and compassion for the other have given way to the limiting orbits of privatization and unrestrained self-interest, just as it has become increasingly difficult to translate private troubles into larger social, economic, and political considerations. As the democratic public spheres of civil society have atrophied under the onslaught of neoliberal regimes of austerity, the social contract has been either greatly weakened or replaced by savage forms of casino capitalism, a culture of fear, and the increasing use of state violence. One consequence is that it has become more difficult for people to debate and question neoliberal hegemony and the widespread misery it produces for young people, the poor, middle class, workers, and other segments of society — now considered disposable under neoliberal regimes which are governed by a survival-of-the fittest ethos, largely imposed by the ruling economic and political elite. That they are unable to make their voices heard and lack any viable representation in the process makes clear the degree to which young people and others are suffering under a democratic deficit, producing what Chantal Mouffe calls “a profound dissatisfaction with a number of existing societies” under the reign of neoliberal capitalism (Mouffe 2013:119). This is one reason why so many youth, along with workers, the unemployed, and students, have been taking to the streets in Greece, Mexico, Egypt, the United States, and England.

The Rise of Disposable Youth

What is particularly distinctive about the current historical conjuncture is the way in which young people, particularly low-income and poor minority youth across the globe, have been increasingly denied any place in an already weakened social order and the degree to which they are no longer seen as central to how a number of countries across the globe define their future.

The plight of youth as disposable populations is evident in the fact that millions of them in countries such as England, Greece, and the United States have been unemployed and denied long term benefits. The unemployment rate for young people in many countries such as Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Greece hovers between 40 and 50 per cent. To make matters worse, those with college degrees either cannot find work or are working at low-skill jobs that pay paltry wages. In the United States, young adjunct faculty constitute one of the fastest growing populations on food stamps. Suffering under huge debts, a jobs crisis, state violence, a growing surveillance state, and the prospect that they would inherit a standard of living far below that enjoyed by their parents, many young people have exhibited a rage that seems to deepen their resignation, despair, and withdrawal from the political arena.

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Category : Capitalism | Organizing | Working Class | Youth | Blog
28
May

Robin Small

Karl Marx: The Revolutionary as Educator

Springer, New York, 2013. 85pp., £44.99

Reviewed by Patrick Ainley

This book meets a need illustrated by a recent poster advertising a meeting for students at the London University Institute of Education that asked ‘Who was Karl Marx?’

Such is the repetitive diet of Foucauldianism, augmented by the latest academic fashion for Deleuze and Guattari, that even postgraduate students of education are unaware that Marx was, as this book begins by asserting, ‘an important educational thinker’.

Although Marx wrote before the modern state school system was established, Small states ‘He is the greatest theorist of the society that gave rise to schools as we know them – and this is the society we still live in’ (1). As he adds, Marx wrote for people who needed to find out what was wrong with the society they lived in, and how to change it for the better, and so he was also an educator. More importantly, ‘Marx is an educator for us. He challenges us to develop our capacity to think critically about our own society’ (2). This is the seminal Marx presented in this book.

Robin Small, a philosopher of education at Auckland University who has previously written Marx and Education (Ashgate, 2005), is well qualified to introduce new readers to Marx’s revolutionary education in the concise form intended by Springer’s series on ‘Key Thinkers in Education’, edited by Paul Gibbs, in which each chapter is separately downloadable, although the overall price – in virtual form or hard covers – is exorbitant. Hopefully, however, the book will make its way into libraries, because it is an introduction to Marx’s life as well as to his thought. So Small begins with Marx’s own education at the Trier Gymnasium, quoting Marx’s prize-winning essay `Thoughts of a Youth on Choosing a Vocation’, which insists ‘worth can be assured only by a profession in which we are not servile tools, but in which we act independently in our own sphere’ (5). Then, in Bonn and Berlin Universities, Small introduces the ideas of Bauer, Feuerbach and Stirner, which influenced Dr Marx before ‘the theoretical mind, once liberated in itself, turns into practical energy’ (quoted 9) in the form of ‘Marx as Journalist’.

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Category : Education | Intellectuals | Marxism | Working Class | Blog
19
Apr

 

 

 

Previous technological innovation has always delivered more long-run employment, not less. But things can change

The Economist, Jan 18th 2014

IN 1930, when the world was “suffering…from a bad attack of economic pessimism”, John Maynard Keynes wrote a broadly optimistic essay, “Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren”. It imagined a middle way between revolution and stagnation that would leave the said grandchildren a great deal richer than their grandparents. But the path was not without dangers.

One of the worries Keynes admitted was a “new disease”: “technological unemployment…due to our discovery of means of economising the use of labour outrunning the pace at which we can find new uses for labour.” His readers might not have heard of the problem, he suggested—but they were certain to hear a lot more about it in the years to come.

For the most part, they did not. Nowadays, the majority of economists confidently wave such worries away. By raising productivity, they argue, any automation which economises on the use of labour will increase incomes. That will generate demand for new products and services, which will in turn create new jobs for displaced workers. To think otherwise has meant being tarred a Luddite—the name taken by 19th-century textile workers who smashed the machines taking their jobs.

For much of the 20th century, those arguing that technology brought ever more jobs and prosperity looked to have the better of the debate. Real incomes in Britain scarcely doubled between the beginning of the common era and 1570. They then tripled from 1570 to 1875. And they more than tripled from 1875 to 1975. Industrialisation did not end up eliminating the need for human workers. On the contrary, it created employment opportunities sufficient to soak up the 20th century’s exploding population. Keynes’s vision of everyone in the 2030s being a lot richer is largely achieved. His belief they would work just 15 hours or so a week has not come to pass.

When the sleeper wakes

Yet some now fear that a new era of automation enabled by ever more powerful and capable computers could work out differently. They start from the observation that, across the rich world, all is far from well in the world of work. The essence of what they see as a work crisis is that in rich countries the wages of the typical worker, adjusted for cost of living, are stagnant. In America the real wage has hardly budged over the past four decades. Even in places like Britain and Germany, where employment is touching new highs, wages have been flat for a decade. Recent research suggests that this is because substituting capital for labour through automation is increasingly attractive; as a result owners of capital have captured ever more of the world’s income since the 1980s, while the share going to labour has fallen.

At the same time, even in relatively egalitarian places like Sweden, inequality among the employed has risen sharply, with the share going to the highest earners soaring. For those not in the elite, argues David Graeber, an anthropologist at the London School of Economics, much of modern labour consists of stultifying “bullshit jobs”—low- and mid-level screen-sitting that serves simply to occupy workers for whom the economy no longer has much use. Keeping them employed, Mr Graeber argues, is not an economic choice; it is something the ruling class does to keep control over the lives of others.

Be that as it may, drudgery may soon enough give way to frank unemployment. There is already a long-term trend towards lower levels of employment in some rich countries. The proportion of American adults participating in the labour force recently hit its lowest level since 1978, and although some of that is due to the effects of ageing, some is not. In a recent speech that was modelled in part on Keynes’s “Possibilities”, Larry Summers, a former American treasury secretary, looked at employment trends among American men between 25 and 54. In the 1960s only one in 20 of those men was not working. According to Mr Summers’s extrapolations, in ten years the number could be one in seven.

This is one indication, Mr Summers says, that technical change is increasingly taking the form of “capital that effectively substitutes for labour”. There may be a lot more for such capital to do in the near future. A 2013 paper by Carl Benedikt Frey and Michael Osborne, of the University of Oxford, argued that jobs are at high risk of being automated in 47% of the occupational categories into which work is customarily sorted. That includes accountancy, legal work, technical writing and a lot of other white-collar occupations.

Answering the question of whether such automation could lead to prolonged pain for workers means taking a close look at past experience, theory and technological trends. The picture suggested by this evidence is a complex one. It is also more worrying than many economists and politicians have been prepared to admit.

The lathe of heaven

Economists take the relationship between innovation and higher living standards for granted in part because they believe history justifies such a view. Industrialisation clearly led to enormous rises in incomes and living standards over the long run. Yet the road to riches was rockier than is often appreciated.

In 1500 an estimated 75% of the British labour force toiled in agriculture. By 1800 that figure had fallen to 35%. When the shift to manufacturing got under way during the 18th century it was overwhelmingly done at small scale, either within the home or in a small workshop; employment in a large factory was a rarity. By the end of the 19th century huge plants in massive industrial cities were the norm. The great shift was made possible by automation and steam engines.

Industrial firms combined human labour with big, expensive capital equipment. To maximise the output of that costly machinery, factory owners reorganised the processes of production. Workers were given one or a few repetitive tasks, often making components of finished products rather than whole pieces. Bosses imposed a tight schedule and strict worker discipline to keep up the productive pace. The Industrial Revolution was not simply a matter of replacing muscle with steam; it was a matter of reshaping jobs themselves into the sort of precisely defined components that steam-driven machinery needed—cogs in a factory system.

The way old jobs were done changed; new jobs were created. Joel Mokyr, an economic historian at Northwestern University in Illinois, argues that the more intricate machines, techniques and supply chains of the period all required careful tending. The workers who provided that care were well rewarded. As research by Lawrence Katz, of Harvard University, and Robert Margo, of Boston University, shows, employment in manufacturing “hollowed out”. As employment grew for highly skilled workers and unskilled workers, craft workers lost out. This was the loss to which the Luddites, understandably if not effectively, took exception.

With the low-skilled workers far more numerous, at least to begin with, the lot of the average worker during the early part of this great industrial and social upheaval was not a happy one. As Mr Mokyr notes, “life did not improve all that much between 1750 and 1850.” For 60 years, from 1770 to 1830, growth in British wages, adjusted for inflation, was imperceptible because productivity growth was restricted to a few industries. Not until the late 19th century, when the gains had spread across the whole economy, did wages at last perform in line with productivity (see chart 1).

Along with social reforms and new political movements that gave voice to the workers, this faster wage growth helped spread the benefits of industrialisation across wider segments of the population. New investments in education provided a supply of workers for the more skilled jobs that were by then being created in ever greater numbers. This shift continued into the 20th century as post-secondary education became increasingly common.

Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard University, and Mr Katz have written that workers were in a “race between education and technology” during this period, and for the most part they won. Even so, it was not until the “golden age” after the second world war that workers in the rich world secured real prosperity, and a large, property-owning middle class came to dominate politics. At the same time communism, a legacy of industrialisation’s harsh early era, kept hundreds of millions of people around the world in poverty, and the effects of the imperialism driven by European industrialisation continued to be felt by billions.

The impacts of technological change take their time appearing. They also vary hugely from industry to industry. Although in many simple economic models technology pairs neatly with capital and labour to produce output, in practice technological changes do not affect all workers the same way. Some find that their skills are complementary to new technologies. Others find themselves out of work.

Take computers. In the early 20th century a “computer” was a worker, or a room of workers, doing mathematical calculations by hand, often with the end point of one person’s work the starting point for the next. The development of mechanical and electronic computing rendered these arrangements obsolete. But in time it greatly increased the productivity of those who used the new computers in their work.

Many other technical innovations had similar effects. New machinery displaced handicraft producers across numerous industries, from textiles to metalworking. At the same time it enabled vastly more output per person than craft producers could ever manage.

Player piano

For a task to be replaced by a machine, it helps a great deal if, like the work of human computers, it is already highly routine. Hence the demise of production-line jobs and some sorts of book-keeping, lost to the robot and the spreadsheet. Meanwhile work less easily broken down into a series of stereotyped tasks—whether rewarding, as the management of other workers and the teaching of toddlers can be, or more of a grind, like tidying and cleaning messy work places—has grown as a share of total employment.

But the “race” aspect of technological change means that such workers cannot rest on their pay packets. Firms are constantly experimenting with new technologies and production processes. Experimentation with different techniques and business models requires flexibility, which is one critical advantage of a human worker. Yet over time, as best practices are worked out and then codified, it becomes easier to break production down into routine components, then automate those components as technology allows.

If, that is, automation makes sense. As David Autor, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), points out in a 2013 paper, the mere fact that a job can be automated does not mean that it will be; relative costs also matter. When Nissan produces cars in Japan, he notes, it relies heavily on robots. At plants in India, by contrast, the firm relies more heavily on cheap local labour.

Even when machine capabilities are rapidly improving, it can make sense instead to seek out ever cheaper supplies of increasingly skilled labour. Thus since the 1980s (a time when, in America, the trend towards post-secondary education levelled off) workers there and elsewhere have found themselves facing increased competition from both machines and cheap emerging-market workers.

Such processes have steadily and relentlessly squeezed labour out of the manufacturing sector in most rich economies. The share of American employment in manufacturing has declined sharply since the 1950s, from almost 30% to less than 10%. At the same time, jobs in services soared, from less than 50% of employment to almost 70% (see chart 2). It was inevitable, therefore, that firms would start to apply the same experimentation and reorganisation to service industries.

A new wave of technological progress may dramatically accelerate this automation of brain-work. Evidence is mounting that rapid technological progress, which accounted for the long era of rapid productivity growth from the 19th century to the 1970s, is back. The sort of advances that allow people to put in their pocket a computer that is not only more powerful than any in the world 20 years ago, but also has far better software and far greater access to useful data, as well as to other people and machines, have implications for all sorts of work.

The case for a highly disruptive period of economic growth is made by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, professors at MIT, in “The Second Machine Age”, a book to be published later this month. Like the first great era of industrialisation, they argue, it should deliver enormous benefits—but not without a period of disorienting and uncomfortable change. Their argument rests on an underappreciated aspect of the exponential growth in chip processing speed, memory capacity and other computer metrics: that the amount of progress computers will make in the next few years is always equal to the progress they have made since the very beginning. Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee reckon that the main bottleneck on innovation is the time it takes society to sort through the many combinations and permutations of new technologies and business models.

A startling progression of inventions seems to bear their thesis out. Ten years ago technologically minded economists pointed to driving cars in traffic as the sort of human accomplishment that computers were highly unlikely to master. Now Google cars are rolling round California driver-free no one doubts such mastery is possible, though the speed at which fully self-driving cars will come to market remains hard to guess.

Brave new world

Even after computers beat grandmasters at chess (once thought highly unlikely), nobody thought they could take on people at free-form games played in natural language. Then Watson, a pattern-recognising supercomputer developed by IBM, bested the best human competitors in America’s popular and syntactically tricksy general-knowledge quiz show “Jeopardy!” Versions of Watson are being marketed to firms across a range of industries to help with all sorts of pattern-recognition problems. Its acumen will grow, and its costs fall, as firms learn to harness its abilities.

The machines are not just cleverer, they also have access to far more data. The combination of big data and smart machines will take over some occupations wholesale; in others it will allow firms to do more with fewer workers. Text-mining programs will displace professional jobs in legal services. Biopsies will be analysed more efficiently by image-processing software than lab technicians. Accountants may follow travel agents and tellers into the unemployment line as tax software improves. Machines are already turning basic sports results and financial data into good-enough news stories.

Jobs that are not easily automated may still be transformed. New data-processing technology could break “cognitive” jobs down into smaller and smaller tasks. As well as opening the way to eventual automation this could reduce the satisfaction from such work, just as the satisfaction of making things was reduced by deskilling and interchangeable parts in the 19th century. If such jobs persist, they may engage Mr Graeber’s “bullshit” detector.

Being newly able to do brain work will not stop computers from doing ever more formerly manual labour; it will make them better at it. The designers of the latest generation of industrial robots talk about their creations as helping workers rather than replacing them; but there is little doubt that the technology will be able to do a bit of both—probably more than a bit. A taxi driver will be a rarity in many places by the 2030s or 2040s. That sounds like bad news for journalists who rely on that most reliable source of local knowledge and prejudice—but will there be many journalists left to care? Will there be airline pilots? Or traffic cops? Or soldiers?

There will still be jobs. Even Mr Frey and Mr Osborne, whose research speaks of 47% of job categories being open to automation within two decades, accept that some jobs—especially those currently associated with high levels of education and high wages—will survive (see table). Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University and a much-read blogger, writes in his most recent book, “Average is Over”, that rich economies seem to be bifurcating into a small group of workers with skills highly complementary with machine intelligence, for whom he has high hopes, and the rest, for whom not so much.

And although Mr Brynjolfsson and Mr McAfee rightly point out that developing the business models which make the best use of new technologies will involve trial and error and human flexibility, it is also the case that the second machine age will make such trial and error easier. It will be shockingly easy to launch a startup, bring a new product to market and sell to billions of global consumers (see article). Those who create or invest in blockbuster ideas may earn unprecedented returns as a result.

In a forthcoming book Thomas Piketty, an economist at the Paris School of Economics, argues along similar lines that America may be pioneering a hyper-unequal economic model in which a top 1% of capital-owners and “supermanagers” grab a growing share of national income and accumulate an increasing concentration of national wealth. The rise of the middle-class—a 20th-century innovation—was a hugely important political and social development across the world. The squeezing out of that class could generate a more antagonistic, unstable and potentially dangerous politics.

The potential for dramatic change is clear. A future of widespread technological unemployment is harder for many to accept. Every great period of innovation has produced its share of labour-market doomsayers, but technological progress has never previously failed to generate new employment opportunities.

The productivity gains from future automation will be real, even if they mostly accrue to the owners of the machines. Some will be spent on goods and services—golf instructors, household help and so on—and most of the rest invested in firms that are seeking to expand and presumably hire more labour. Though inequality could soar in such a world, unemployment would not necessarily spike. The current doldrum in wages may, like that of the early industrial era, be a temporary matter, with the good times about to roll (see chart 3).

These jobs may look distinctly different from those they replace. Just as past mechanisation freed, or forced, workers into jobs requiring more cognitive dexterity, leaps in machine intelligence could create space for people to specialise in more emotive occupations, as yet unsuited to machines: a world of artists and therapists, love counsellors and yoga instructors.

Such emotional and relational work could be as critical to the future as metal-bashing was in the past, even if it gets little respect at first. Cultural norms change slowly. Manufacturing jobs are still often treated as “better”—in some vague, non-pecuniary way—than paper-pushing is. To some 18th-century observers, working in the fields was inherently more noble than making gewgaws.

But though growth in areas of the economy that are not easily automated provides jobs, it does not necessarily help real wages. Mr Summers points out that prices of things-made-of-widgets have fallen remarkably in past decades; America’s Bureau of Labour Statistics reckons that today you could get the equivalent of an early 1980s television for a twentieth of its then price, were it not that no televisions that poor are still made. However, prices of things not made of widgets, most notably college education and health care, have shot up. If people lived on widgets alone— goods whose costs have fallen because of both globalisation and technology—there would have been no pause in the increase of real wages. It is the increase in the prices of stuff that isn’t mechanised (whose supply is often under the control of the state and perhaps subject to fundamental scarcity) that means a pay packet goes no further than it used to.

So technological progress squeezes some incomes in the short term before making everyone richer in the long term, and can drive up the costs of some things even more than it eventually increases earnings. As innovation continues, automation may bring down costs in some of those stubborn areas as well, though those dominated by scarcity—such as houses in desirable places—are likely to resist the trend, as may those where the state keeps market forces at bay. But if innovation does make health care or higher education cheaper, it will probably be at the cost of more jobs, and give rise to yet more concentration of income.

The machine stops

Even if the long-term outlook is rosy, with the potential for greater wealth and lots of new jobs, it does not mean that policymakers should simply sit on their hands in the mean time. Adaptation to past waves of progress rested on political and policy responses. The most obvious are the massive improvements in educational attainment brought on first by the institution of universal secondary education and then by the rise of university attendance. Policies aimed at similar gains would now seem to be in order. But as Mr Cowen has pointed out, the gains of the 19th and 20th centuries will be hard to duplicate.

Boosting the skills and earning power of the children of 19th-century farmers and labourers took little more than offering schools where they could learn to read, write and do algebra. Pushing a large proportion of college graduates to complete graduate work successfully will be harder and more expensive. Perhaps cheap and innovative online education will indeed make new attainment possible. But as Mr Cowen notes, such programmes may tend to deliver big gains only for the most conscientious students.

Another way in which previous adaptation is not necessarily a good guide to future employment is the existence of welfare. The alternative to joining the 19th-century industrial proletariat was malnourished deprivation. Today, because of measures introduced in response to, and to some extent on the proceeds of, industrialisation, people in the developed world are provided with unemployment benefits, disability allowances and other forms of welfare. They are also much more likely than a bygone peasant to have savings. This means that the “reservation wage”—the wage below which a worker will not accept a job—is now high in historical terms. If governments refuse to allow jobless workers to fall too far below the average standard of living, then this reservation wage will rise steadily, and ever more workers may find work unattractive. And the higher it rises, the greater the incentive to invest in capital that replaces labour.

Everyone should be able to benefit from productivity gains—in that, Keynes was united with his successors. His worry about technological unemployment was mainly a worry about a “temporary phase of maladjustment” as society and the economy adjusted to ever greater levels of productivity. So it could well prove. However, society may find itself sorely tested if, as seems possible, growth and innovation deliver handsome gains to the skilled, while the rest cling to dwindling employment opportunities at stagnant wages.

From the print edition: Briefing

Category : Capitalism | Keynes | Technology | Working Class | Blog
2
Apr

The economics of immiseration would be impossible without the politics of seduction, and capitalism’s appeal to our unconscious will to power and domination is not easily countered.

"The domain of seduction is the sacred horizon of appearances."
Jean Baudrillard, On Seduction

" ‘[I]mmiseration’ concerns not just the wages workers’ receive, but how long and how hard they have to work in order to get them."
Frances Wheen, Marx’s Das Kapital: A Biography

"[C]apitalism automatically generates arbitrary and unsustainable inequalities that radically undermine the meritocratic values on which democratic societies are based."
Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty-First Century

By Joseph Natoli

Truthout Cultural Analysis

March 31, 2014 – The genius of the internal combustion engine engineered by Etienne Lenoir in 1860 was to release the pressure of such combustion to pistons, rotation and movement. Explosion was controlled and detoured; ignition could be repeated and catastrophe avoided each time. Rising pressure and calibrated release equals relief. Psychology responds to this analogy, as does politics. Increased pressure on low-wage workers makes headlines: "The Walls Close In: Low Wage Workers Finding It’s Easier to Fall into Poverty, and Harder to Get Out." But all wage earners, underclass or middle class, are feeling the pressure. Thom Hartmann reports, "wages have gone down almost seven percent since the recession. And, that decline followed more than three decades of stagnant wages thanks to Reaganomics."

Mutual sharing and aid has no seductive power in our elemental level of being – but domination does.

Neoliberals, moderate or immoderate, pragmatic or crazed, attribute this sorry state of affairs to a number of variables that Liberals agree with, mostly referring to a transition from a low-tech society to a high-tech society, from a manufacturing base to a financial base, from a hunting, farming and manufacturing economy to an information economy. None of this has any drawing power. But the neoliberal steady refrain, from Reagan’s Welfare Queen to Romney’s 47 percent, has seductive power with that pivotal, crucial, voting middle class. The seductive spin is well-known: "The slow degeneration of working-class family life and the creation of a ‘moocher’ class too lazy and indulged to get a job results from ‘big government’ nurturing and coddling." There is a seductiveness also to other neoliberal reasons as to why immiseration is like the wolf now at every door but those of an elite few. Each "reason" touches a hot spot already fully charged within us. The collapse of a "nuclear family" is the collapse of a patriarchal order that is itself an order preserving male desire. The bureaucracy of public education is no more than the resistance of what is public, governmental and socialist to personal choice and individual freedom. The power of unions resides in a communist-like solidarity that obstructs the free and competitive play of business.

To read more articles by Joseph Natoli and other authors in the Public Intellectual Project, click here.

All of these briefs are seductive spins within the American cultural imaginary, not because they rest on uncontested fact and evidence, but because they rest on seductions and repressions already deeply embedded in that imaginary. In other words, the way we think now is so heavily layered in fantasies and illusions that the argument that wins the day does not appeal to rationality but rests on those fantasies and illusions. As I have suggested before, this imaginary and its accompanying fantasies and illusions are not partisan, there being no politics ruling imagination. But there is a political use of the imaginary, what I call the politics of seduction, and that arises from an economics of immiseration. There would be little need for the former if such an economics had not led, as it has, to immiseration for an increasing number and the anxieties that emerge from a fear of inevitable immiseration for many more. 

Every rule and restraint made on society’s behalf is never as real as our instinctual appetites and our personal will to power.

There are numerous varieties of seduction, from Eve’s in the garden to Baudrillard’s sense that we seduce by enacting a weakness that we see in ourselves as well as others. We all harbor a never-fulfilled appetite to eat the world whole, and we choose an individual freedom, a supremacy of self-interests and desires, that urges us, like Milton’s Satan, to rule in hell rather than serve in heaven. The fantasies of desire are Janus-faced – as are the illusions of power. They have their weaker side – an impotency of desire, a feckless command and a captured will. Romney’s 47 percent of the population would eat up the world if they could but are totally impotent and cannot do so. The totalizing power that the elite seek can never be blocked by the feckless command of unions. Big government is no more than a ridiculed domain of power, not our own, that presumes to rule us. The fantasy links to male desire and personal choice are too transparent to require exegesis.

Seductions work because the appeal is to what is in us, both the desires and the fears, and therefore connections are made and recognition ensures response. And while both appeal and recognition are felt, they are unthought and pre-discursive. We do not think what is unthinkable. We do not express what we fear to think. Nevertheless, power remains here. Eden’s garden is no more than a confinement we need to go beyond, explore what’s outside; God’s one law, call it regulation, blocks our libertine and liberty-seeking nature. We do not need to be tempted to bite the apple; as unthinkable as this may sound, we were made to bite it. And much more. We have an appetite to possess and not to share. All that we have never quells a desire to have yet more. Mutual sharing and aid has no seductive power in our elemental level of being – but domination does. All other species, according to Genesis, awaited Adam’s naming, their identity and place in the world forever held within the province of human need and desire. Global warming can be conquered just as we have conquered nature all along the way. Global ecology movements thus have little seductive attraction as the rational arguments, especially in regard to human-caused climate change, have not been able to deactivate the seductiveness of what is irrational.

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Category : Capitalism | Hegemony | Racism | Working Class | Blog
26
Dec

Eric J. Hobsbawm is a well-known UK-based Marxist academic historian. This article is an adaptation of a chapter that was originally published in his book Revolutionaries (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973).

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Cities and Insurrections

By Eric J. Hobsbawm

Whatever else a city may be, it is at the same time a place inhabited by a concentration of poor people and, in most cases, the locus of political power which affects their lives. Historically, one of the things city populations have done about this is to demonstrate, make riots or insurrections, or otherwise exert direct pressure on the authorities who happen to operate within their range. It does not much matter to the ordinary townsman that city power is sometimes only local, whereas at other times it may also be regional, national, or even global. However, it does affect the calculations both of the authorities and of political movements designed to overthrow governments, whether or not the cities are capitals (or what amounts to the same thing, independent city-states) or the headquarters of giant national or international corporations, for if they are, urban riots and insurrections can obviously have much wider implications than if the city authority is purely local.

The subject of this article is how the structure of cities has affected popular movements of this sort, and conversely, what effect the fear of such movements has had on urban structure. The first point is of much more general significance than the second. Popular riot, insurrection, or demonstration is an almost universal urban phenomenon, and as we now know, it occurs even today in the affluent megalopolis of the developed world. On the other hand the fear of such riot is intermittent. It may be taken for granted as a fact of urban existence, as in most pre-industrial cities, or as the kind of unrest which periodically flares up and subsides without producing any major effect on the structure of power. It may be underestimated, because there have not been any riots or insurrections for a long time, or because there are institutional alternatives to them, such as systems of local government by popular election. There are, after all, few continuously riotous cities. Even Palermo, which probably holds the European record with 12 insurrections between 1512 and 1866, has had very long periods when its populace was relatively quiet. On the other hand, once the authorities decide to alter the urban structure because of political nervousness, the results are likely to be substantial and lasting, like the boulevards of Paris.

The effectiveness of riot or insurrection depends on three aspects of urban structure: how easily the poor can be mobilized, how vulnerable the centers of authority are to them, and how easily they may be suppressed. These are determined partly by sociological, partly by urbanistic, partly by technological factors, though the three cannot always be kept apart. For instance, experience shows that among forms of urban transport, tramways, whether in Calcutta or Barcelona, are unusually convenient for rioters; partly because the raising of fares, which tends to affect all the poor simultaneously, is a very natural precipitant of trouble, partly because these large and track-bound vehicles, when burned or overturned, can block streets and disrupt traffic very easily. Buses do not seem to have played anything like as important a part in riots, underground railways appear to be entirely irrelevant to them (except for transporting rioters) and automobiles can at best be used as improvised road blocks or barricades, and, to judge by modern experience in Paris, not very effective ones. Here the difference is purely technological.

On the other hand, universities in the center of cities are evidently more dangerous centers of potential riot than universities on the outskirts of towns or behind some green belt, a fact which is well known to Latin American governments. Concentrations of the poor are more dangerous when they occur in or near city centers, like the 20th-century ethnic ghettos in many North American cities, than when they occur in some relatively remote suburb, as in 19th-century Vienna. Here the difference is urbanistic and depends on the size of the city and the pattern of functional specialization within it. However, a center of potential student unrest on the outskirts of town, like Nanterre in Paris, is nevertheless far more likely to create trouble in the central city than the Algerian shanty towns in the same suburb, because students are more mobile and their social universe is more metropolitan than immigrant laborers. Here the difference is primarily sociological.

Suppose, then, we construct the ideal city for riot and insurrection. What will it be like? It ought to be densely populated and not too large in area. Essentially it should still be possible to traverse it on foot, though greater experience of rioting in fully motorized societies might modify this judgment. It should perhaps not be divided by a large river, not only because bridges are easily held by the police, but also because it is a familiar fact of geography or social psychology that the two banks of a river look away from each other, as anyone living in south London or on the Paris left bank can verify.

Its poor ought to be relatively homogenous socially or racially, though of course we must remember that in pre-industrial cities or in the giant areas of under-employment in the developing world today, what at first sight looks like a very heterogeneous population may have a considerable unity, as witness such familiar terms in history as ‘the laboring poor’, ‘le menu peuple’, or ‘the mob’. It ought to be centripetal, that is to say, its various parts ought to be naturally oriented towards the central institutions of the city, the more centralized the better. The medieval city republic that was designed on a system of flows towards and away from the main assembly space, which might also be the main ritual center (cathedral), the main market, and the location of the government, was ideally suited to insurrection for this reason. The pattern of functional specialization and residential segregation ought to be fairly tight. Thus the pre-industrial pattern of suburbs, which was based on the exclusion from a sharply defined city of various undesirables — often necessary to city life — such as non-citizen immigrants, outcast occupations or groups, did not greatly disrupt the cohesion of the urban complex: Triana was entangled with Seville, as Shoreditch was with the City of London.

On the other hand the 19th-century pattern of suburbs, which surrounded an urban core with middle-class residential suburbs and industrial quarters, generally developing at opposite ends of town from one another, affects urban cohesion very substantially. ‘East End’ and ‘West End’ are both physically and spiritually remote from each other. Those who live west of the Concorde in Paris belong to a different world from those who live east of the Republique. To go a little farther out, the famous ‘red belt’ of working-class suburbs which surround Paris was politically significant, but had no discernible insurrectionary importance. It simply did not belong to Paris any longer, nor indeed did it form a whole, except for geographers.[1]

All these are considerations affecting the mobilization of the city poor, but not their political effectiveness. This naturally depends on the ease with which rioters and insurrectionaries can get close to the authorities, and how easily they can be dispersed. In the ideal insurrectionary city the authorities — the rich, the aristocracy, the government, or local administration — will therefore be as intermingled with the central concentration of the poor as possible. The French king will reside in the Palais Royal or Louvre and not at Versailles, the Austrian emperor in the Hofburg and not at Schoenbrunn. Preferably the authorities will be vulnerable. Rulers who brood over a hostile city from some isolated stronghold, like the fortress-prison of Montjuich over Barcelona, may intensify popular hostility, but are technically designed to withstand it. After all, the Bastille could almost certainly have held out if anyone in July 1789 had really thought that it would be attacked. Civic authorities are of course vulnerable almost by definition, since their political success depends on the belief that they represent the citizens and not some outside government or its agents. Hence perhaps the classical French tradition by which insurrectionaries make for the city hall rather than the royal or imperial palace and, as in 1848 and 1871, proclaim the provisional government there.

Local authorities therefore create relatively few problems for insurrectionaries (at least until they begin to practice urban planning). Of course, city development may shift the town hall from a central to a rather more remote location: nowadays it is a long way from the outer neighborhoods of Brooklyn to New York’s City Hall. On the other hand in capital cities the presence of governments, which tends to make riots effective, is offset by the special characteristics of towns in which princes or other self-important rulers are resident, and which have a built-in counter-insurgent bias. This arises both from the needs of state public relations and, perhaps to a lesser extent, of security.

Broadly speaking, in a civic town the role of the inhabitants in public activities is that of participants, in princely or government towns, of an admiring and applauding audience. The wide straight processional ways with their vistas of palace, cathedral, or government building, the vast square in front of the official facade, preferably with a suitable balcony from which the multitudes may be blessed or addressed, perhaps the parade ground or arena: these make up the ceremonial furniture of an imperial city. Since the Renaissance, major western capitals and residences have been constructed or modified accordingly. The greater the desire of the ruler to impress or the greater his folie de grandeur, the wider, straighter, more symmetrical his preferred layout. Few less suitable locations for spontaneous riot can be imagined than New Delhi, Washington, DC, Saint Petersburg, or for that matter, the Mall and Buckingham Palace in London. It is not merely the division between a popular east and middle-class and official west in Paris which has made the Champs Elysees the place where the official and military parade is held on July 14, whereas the unofficial mass demonstration belongs to the triangle Bastille-Republique-Nation.

Such ceremonial sites imply a certain separation between rulers and subjects, a confrontation between a remote and awful majesty and pomp on one side, and an applauding public on the other. It is the urban equivalent of the picture-frame stage; or better still, the opera, that characteristic invention of western absolute monarchy. Fortunately, for potential rioters, this is or was not the only relationship between rulers and subjects in capital cities. Often, indeed, it was the capital city itself which demonstrated the ruler’s greatness, while its inhabitants, including the poorest, enjoyed a modest share of the benefits of its majesty. Rulers and ruled lived in a sort of symbiosis. In such circumstances the great ceremonial routes led through the middle of the towns as in Edinburgh or Prague. Palaces had no need to cut themselves off from slums. The Vienna Hofburg, which presents a wide ceremonial space to the outside world, including the Viennese suburbs, has barely a yard or two of urban street or square between it and the older Inner City, to which it visibly belongs.

This kind of town, combining as it did the patterns of civic and princely cities, was a standing invitation to riot, for here palaces and town houses of great nobles, markets, cathedrals, public squares, and slums were intermingled, the rulers at the mercy of the mob. In time of trouble they could withdraw into their country residences, but that was all. Their only safeguard was to mobilize the respectable poor against the unrespectable after a successful insurrection, e.g. the artisans guilds against the ‘mob’, or the National Guard against the propertyless. Their one comfort was the knowledge that uncontrolled riot and insurrection rarely lasted long, and were even more rarely directed against the structure of established wealth and power. Still this was a substantial comfort. The King of Naples or the Duchess of Parma, not to mention the Pope, knew that if their subjects rioted, it was because they were unduly hungry and as a reminder to prince and nobility to do their duty, i.e. to provide enough food at fair prices on the market, enough jobs, handouts, and public entertainment for their excessively modest needs. Their loyalty and piety scarcely wavered, and indeed when they made genuine revolutions (as in Naples in 1799) they were more likely to be in defense of Church and King against foreigners and the godless middle classes.

Hence the crucial importance in the history of urban public order, of the French Revolution of 1789-99, which established the modern equation between insurrection and social revolution. Any government naturally prefers to avoid riot and insurrection, as it prefers to keep the murder rate down, but in the absence of genuine revolutionary danger the authorities are not likely to lose their cool about it. Eighteenth-century England was a notoriously riotous nation, with a notoriously sketchy apparatus for maintaining public order. Not only smaller cities like Liverpool and Newcastle, but large parts of London itself might be in the hands of the riotous populace for days on end. Since nothing was at stake in such disorders except a certain amount of property, which a wealthy country could well afford to replace, the general view among the upper classes was unconcerned, and even satisfied. Whig noblemen took pride in the state of liberty which deprived potential tyrants of the troops with which to suppress their subjects and the police with which to harry them. It was not until the French Revolution that a taste for multiplying barracks in towns developed, and not until the Radicals and Chartists of the first half of the 19th century that the virtues of a police force outweighed those of English freedom. (Since grass-roots democracy could not always be relied on, the Metropolitan Police was put directly under the Home Office in the national government, where it still remains.)

Indeed, three main administrative methods of countering riot and insurrection suggested themselves: systematic arrangements for deploying troops, the development of police forces (which barely existed in the modern form before the 19th century), and the rebuilding of cities in such ways as to minimize the chances of revolt. The first two of these had no major influence on the actual shape and structure of cities, though a study of the building and location of urban barracks in the 19th century might provide some interesting results, and so might a study of the distribution of police stations in urban neighborhoods. The third affected the townscape very fundamentally, as in Paris and Vienna, cities in which it is known that the needs of counterinsurgency influenced urban reconstruction after the 1848 revolutions. In Paris the main military aim of this reconstruction seems to have been to open wide and straight boulevards along which artillery could fire, and troops advance, while at the same time — presumably — breaking up the main concentrations of potential insurgents in the popular quarters. In Vienna the reconstruction took the form mainly of two wide concentric ring roads, the inner ring (broadened by a belt of open spaces, parks, and widely spaced public buildings) isolated the old city and palace from the (mainly middle-class) inner suburbs, the outer ring isolating both from the (increasingly working-class) outer suburbs.

Such reconstructions may or may not have made military sense. We do not know, since the kind of revolutions they were intended to dominate virtually died out in western Europe after 1848. (Still, it is a fact that the main centers of popular resistance and barricade fighting in the Paris Commune of 1871, Montmartre-northeast Paris and the Left Bank, were isolated from each other and the rest of the town.) However, they certainly affected the calculations of potential insurrectionaries. In the socialist discussions of the 1880s the consensus of the military experts among revolutionaries, led by Frederick Engels, was that the old type of uprising now stood little chance, though there was some argument among them about the value of new technological devices such as the then rapidly developing high explosives like dynamite. At all events, barricades which had dominated insurrectionary tactics from 1830 to 1871 (they had not been seriously used in the great French Revolution of 1789-99), were now less favored. Conversely, bombs of one kind or another became the favorite device of revolutionaries, though not marxist ones, and not for genuinely insurrectionary purposes.

Urban reconstruction, however, had another and probably unintended effect on potential rebellions, for the new and wide avenues provided an ideal location for what became an increasingly important aspect of popular movements, the mass demonstration, or rather procession. The more systematic these rings and cartwheels of boulevards, the more effectively isolated these were from the surrounding inhabited area, the easier it became to turn such assemblies into ritual marches rather than preliminaries to riot. London, which lacked them, has always had difficulty in avoiding incidental trouble during the concentration, or more usually the dispersal, of mass meetings held in Trafalgar Square. It is too near sensitive spots like Downing Street, or symbols of wealth and power like the Pall Mall clubs, whose windows the unemployed demonstrators smashed in the 1880s.

One can, of course, make too much of such primarily military factors in urban renewal. In any case they cannot be sharply distinguished from other changes in the 19th- and 20th-century city which sharply diminished its riot potential. Three of them are particularly relevant.

The first is sheer size, which reduces the city to an administrative abstraction, and a conglomerate of separate communities or districts. It became simply too big to riot as a unit. London, which until the 21st century still lacked so obvious a symbol of civic unity as the figure of a mayor, is an excellent example. It ceased to be a riotous city roughly between the time it grew from 1 million to 2 million inhabitants, i.e. in the first half of the 19th century. London Chartism, for instance, barely existed as a genuinely metropolitan phenomenon for more than a day or two on end. Its real strength lay in the ‘localities’ in which it was organized, i.e. in communities and neighborhoods like Lambeth, Woolwich, or Marylebone, whose relations with each other were at the most loosely federal. Similarly, the radicals and activists of the late 19th century were essentially locally based. Their most characteristic organization was the Metropolitan Radical Federation, essentially an alliance of working men’s clubs of purely local importance, in such neighborhoods as had a tradition of radicalism — Chelsea, Hackney, Clerkenwell, Woolwich. The familiar London tendency to build low, and therefore to sprawl, made distances between such centers of trouble too great for the spontaneous propagation of riots. How much contact would Battersea or Chelsea (then still a working-class area electing left-wing MPs) have with the turbulent East End of the 1889 dock striker? How much contact, for that matter, would there be between Whitechapel and Canning Town? In the nature of things the shapeless built-up areas which grew either out of the expansion of a big city or the merging of larger and smaller growing communities, and for which artificial names have had to be invented (‘conurbation’, ‘Greater’ London, Berlin, or Tokyo) were not towns in the old sense, even when administratively unified from time to time.

The second is the growing pattern of functional segregation in the 19th- and 20th-century city, that is to say, on the one hand, the development of specialized industrial, business, government, and other centers or open spaces, on the other, the geographical separation of classes. Here again London was the pioneer, being a combination of three separate units — the government center of Westminster, the merchant city of London, and the popular Southwark across the river. Up to a point the growth of this composite metropolis encouraged potential rioters. The northern and eastern edges of the City of London and Southwark where the merchant community bordered on districts of workers, artisans, and the port — all in their way equally disposed to riot, like the Spitalfield weavers or the Clerkenwell radicals — formed natural flash-points. These were the areas where several of the great 18th-century riots broke out. Westminster had its own population of artisans and miscellaneous poor, whom the proximity of king and Parliament and the accident of an unusually democratic franchise in this constituency, turned into a formidable pressure group for several decades of the late 18th and 19th centuries. The area between the City and Westminster, which was filled by an unusually dense accumulation of slums, inhabited by laborers, immigrants, and the socially marginal (Drury Lane, Covent Garden, St. Giles, Holborn), added to the ebullience of metropolitan public life.

However, as time went on the pattern simplified itself. The 19th-century City ceased to be residential, and became increasingly a pure business district, while the port moved downstream, the city middle and lower-middle classes into more or less remote suburbs, leaving the East End an increasingly homogeneous zone of the poor. The northern and western borders of Westminster became increasingly upper- and middle-class settlements largely designed as such by landowners and speculative builders, thus pressing the centers of artisans, laborers, and others inclined to radicalism and riot (Chelsea, Notting Hill, Paddington, Marylebone) on to a periphery increasingly remote from the rest of radical London. The slums between the two cities survived longest but by the early 20th century they had also been broken into small patches by the urban renewal which has given London some of its gloomiest thoroughfares (Shaftesbury Avenue, Roseberry Avenue) as well as some of its most pompous ones (Kingsway, Aldwych), and an impressive accumulation of barrack-like tenements purporting to increase the happiness of the Drury Lane and Saffron Hill proletariat. Covent Garden and Soho (which elected communist local councillors in 1945) are perhaps the last relic of old-fashioned metropolitan turbulence in the center of the town. By the late 19th century the potentially riotous London had already been broken up into peripheral segments of varying size (the huge and amorphous East End being the largest), surrounding a non-residential City and West End and a solid block of middle-class districts, and surrounded in turn by middle- and lower-middle-class outer suburbs.

Such patterns of segregation developed in most large and growing western cities from the early 19th century, though the parts of their historic centers which were not transformed into business or institutional districts, sometimes retained traces of their old structure, which may still be observed in the red-light quarters, as in Amsterdam. Twentieth-century working-class rehousing and planning for motor transport further disintegrated the city as a potential riot center. (The 19th-century planning for railways had, if anything, the opposite effect, often creating socially mixed and marginal quarters around the new terminals.) The recent tendency to shift major urban services such as central markets from the centers to the outskirts of cities will no doubt disintegrate it further.

Is the urban riot and insurrection therefore doomed to disappear? Evidently not, for we have in recent years seen a marked resurgence of this phenomenon in some of the most modern cities, though also a decline in some of the more traditional centers of such activities. The reasons are mainly social and political, but it may be worth looking briefly at the characteristics of modern urbanism which encourage it.

Modern mass transportation is one. Motor transport has so far contributed chiefly to the mobilization of that normally un-riotous group, the middle class, though such devices as the motorized demonstration (Frenchmen and Algerians still remember the massed horns of reaction hooting Al-ge-rie francaise) and that natural device of sabotage and passion, the traffic jam. However, cars have been used by activists in North American riots, and disrupt police action when on the move, while forming temporary barricades when stationary. Moreover, motor transport distributes the news of riots beyond the immediate area affected since both private cars and buses have to be extensively re-routed.

Public transport, and especially underground railways, which are once again being built in several big cities on a large scale, is more directly relevant. There is no better means of transport for moving large numbers of potential rioters rapidly over long distances than trains running at frequent intervals. This is one reason why the West Berlin students have been a rather effective body of rioters: the underground links the Free University set among the remote and spectacularly middle-class villas and gardens of Dahlem, with the town center.

More important than transport are two other factors: the increase in the number of buildings worth rioting against or occupying, and the development in their vicinity of accumulations of potential rioters. For while it is true that the headquarters of central and municipal government are increasingly remote from the riotous quarters, and the rich or noble rarely live in palaces in the town centers (apartments are both less vulnerable and more anonymous), sensitive institutions of other kinds have multiplied. There are the communications centers (telegraph, telephone, radio, television). The least experienced organizer of a military coup or insurrection knows all about their importance. There are the gigantic newspaper offices, fortunately so often concentrated in the older city centers, and providing admirable incidental material for barricades or cover against fire in the form of delivery trucks, newsprint, and packages of papers. They were used for street-fighting purposes as long ago as 1919 in Berlin, though not very much since. There are, as we all know now, the universities. Though the general tendency to move these out of city centers has diminished their riot potential somewhat, there are enough academic precincts left in the middle of big towns to satisfy the activists. Besides, the explosion of higher education has filled the average university to bursting point with thousands, or even tens of thousands, of marchers or fighters. There are, above all, the banks and large corporations, symbols and reality of the power structure, and increasingly concentrated in those massifs of plate glass and concrete by which the traveler recognizes the centers of a proper 21st-century city.

Theoretically these should be individually as much the object of attack by rioters as city halls or capitols, for IBM, Shell, or General Motors carry at least as much weight as most governments. Banks have long been aware of their vulnerability, and in some Latin countries — Spain is a good example — their combination of symbolic architectural opulence and heavy fortification provides the nearest thing to those town-citadels in which feudal and feuding noblemen barricaded themselves in the middle ages. To see them under heavy police guard in times of tension is an instructive experience, though, in fact, the only champions of direct action who have been systematically attracted by them are unpolitical robbers and revolutionary ‘expropriators’. But if we except such politically and economically negligible symbols of the American way of life as Hilton hotels, and the occasional object of specialized hostility such as Dow Chemical, riots have rarely aimed directly at any of the buildings of large corporations. Nor are they very vulnerable. It would take more than a few broken plate-glass windows or even the occupation of a few acres of office space, to disrupt the smooth operations of a modern oil company.

On the other hand, collectively ‘downtown’ is vulnerable. The disruption of traffic, the closing of banks, the office staffs who cannot or will not turn up for work, the businessmen marooned in hotels with overloaded switchboards, or who cannot reach their destinations: all these can interfere very seriously with the activities of a city. Indeed, this came close to happening during the 1967 riots in Detroit. What is more, in cities developing on the North American pattern it is not unlikely to happen, sooner or later. For it is well known that the central areas of town, and their immediate surroundings, are being filled with the minority poor as the comfortable whites move out. The ghettos lap round the city centers like dark and turbulent seas. It is this concentration of the most discontented and turbulent in the neighborhood of a relatively few unusually sensitive urban centers which gives the militants of a smallish minority the political importance which black riots would certainly not have if the 10 or 15% of the US population who are African-Americans were more evenly distributed throughout the whole of that vast and complex country.

Still, even this revival of rioting in western cities is comparatively modest. An intelligent and cynical police chief would probably regard all the troubles in western cities during recent years as minor disturbances, magnified by the hesitation or incompetence of the authorities and the effect of excessive publicity. With the exception of the Latin Quarter riots of May 1968 in Paris, none of them looked as though they could, or were intended to, shake governments. Anyone who wishes to judge what a genuine old-style insurrection of the urban poor, or a serious armed rising, is and can achieve, must still go to the cities of the developing world: to Naples which rose against the Germans in 1943, to the Algerian Casbah in 1956 (excellent movies have been made about both these insurrections), to Bogota in 1948, perhaps to Caracas, certainly to Santo Domingo in 1965.

The effectiveness of recent western city riots is due not so much to the actual activities of the rioters, as to their political context. In the ghettos of the United States they have demonstrated that black people are no longer prepared to accept their fate passively, and in doing so they have doubtless accelerated the development of black political consciousness and white fear; but they have never looked like a serious immediate threat to even the local power structure. In Paris they demonstrated the instability of an apparently firm and monolithic regime. (The actual fighting capacity of the insurrectionaries was never in fact tested, though their heroism is not in question: no more than two or three people were killed, and those almost certainly by accident.) Elsewhere the demonstrations and riots of students, though very effective inside the universities, have been little more than a routine police problem outside them.

But this, of course may be true of all urban riots, which is why the study of their relation to different types of towns is a comparatively unimportant exercise. Georgian Dublin does not lend itself easily to insurrection, and its population, which does, has not shown a great inclination to initiate or even to participate in uprisings. The Easter Rising took place there because it was a capital city, where the major national decisions are supposed to be made, and though it failed fairly quickly, it played an important part in the winning of Irish independence, because the nature of the Irish situation in 1917-21 allowed it to. Saint Petersburg, built from scratch on a gigantic and geometrical plan, is singularly ill-suited to barricades or street fighting, but the Russian revolution began and succeeded there. Conversely, the proverbial turbulence of Barcelona, the older parts of which are almost ideally suited to riot, rarely even looked like producing revolution. Catalan anarchism, with all its bomb throwers, pistoleros, and enthusiasm for direct action, was until 1936 never more than a normal problem of public order to the authorities, so modest that the historian is amazed to find how few policemen were actually supposed (rather inefficiently) to ensure its protection.

Revolutions arise out of political situations, not because some cities are structurally suited to insurrection. Still, an urban riot or spontaneous uprising may be the starter which sets the engine of revolution going. That starter is more likely to function in cities which encourage or facilitate insurrection. A friend of mine, who happened to have commanded the 1944 insurrection against the Germans in the Latin Quarter of Paris, walked through the area on the morning after the Night of the Barricades in 1968, touched and moved to see that young adults who had not been born in 1944 had built several of their barricades in the same places as then. Or, the historian might add, the same places that had seen barricades in 1830, 1848, and 1871. It is not every city that lends itself so naturally to this exercise, or where, consequently, each generation of rebels remembers or rediscovers the battlefields of its predecessors. Thus in May 1968 the most serious confrontation occurred across the barricades of the Rue Gay Lussac and behind the Rue Soufflot. Almost a century earlier, in the Commune of 1871, the heroic Raoul Rigault who commanded the barricades in that very area, was taken — in the same month of May — and killed by the Versaillais. Not every city is like Paris. Its peculiarity may no longer be enough to revolutionize France, but the tradition and the environment are still strong enough to precipitate the nearest thing to a revolution in a developed western country.
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NOTES
[1] How far such working-class suburbs can be separated from the central city area and still remain a direct factor in insurrections is an interesting question. Sans in Barcelona, the great bastion of anarchism, played no important part in the revolution of 1936, while Floridsdorf in Vienna, an equally solid bastion of socialism, could do little more than hold out in isolation

Category : Strategy and Tactics | Terror and Violence | Working Class | Blog
6
Oct

30 Statistics About Americans Under The Age Of 30 That Will Blow Your Mind

Young People - Photo by Jefferson liffey

By Michael Synder

Progressive America Rising via EconomicCollapseBlog.com

Oct 3, 2013 – Why are young people in America so frustrated these days?  You are about to find out.  Most young adults started out having faith in the system.  They worked hard, they got good grades, they stayed out of trouble and many of them went on to college.  But when their educations where over, they discovered that the good jobs that they had been promised were not waiting for them at the end of the rainbow.  Even in the midst of this so-called "economic recovery", the full-time employment rate for Americans under the age of 30 continues to fall.  And incomes for that age group continue to fall as well.  At the same time, young adults are dealing with record levels of student loan debt.  As a result, more young Americans than ever are putting off getting married and having families, and more of them than ever are moving back in with their parents.

It can be absolutely soul crushing when you discover that the "bright future" that the system had been promising you for so many years turns out to be a lie.  A lot of young people ultimately give up on the system and many of them end up just kind of drifting aimlessly through life.  The following is an example from a recent Wall Street Journal article

James Roy, 26, has spent the past six years paying off $14,000 in student loans for two years of college by skating from job to job. Now working as a supervisor for a coffee shop in the Chicago suburb of St. Charles, Ill., Mr. Roy describes his outlook as "kind of grim."

"It seems to me that if you went to college and took on student debt, there used to be greater assurance that you could pay it off with a good job," said the Colorado native, who majored in English before dropping out. "But now, for people living in this economy and in our age group, it’s a rough deal."

Young adults as a group have been experiencing a tremendous amount of economic pain in recent years.  The following are 30 statistics about Americans under the age of 30 that will blow your mind…

#1 The labor force participation rate for men in the 18 to 24 year old age bracket is at an all-time low.

#2 The ratio of what men in the 18 to 29 year old age bracket are earning compared to the general population is at an all-time low.

#3 Only about a third of all adults in their early 20s are working a full-time job.

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Category : Capitalism | Education | Working Class | Youth | Blog
26
Sep

 

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Inventing the Egghead: the Battle over Brainpower in American Culture

Author: Aaron Lecklider
University of Pennsylvania Press

Reviewed by Todd Gitlin

Aaron Lecklider, who teaches American studies at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, proposes to stand the last century of American intellectual life on its head, or at least on its side. In keeping with Antonio Gramsci’s project of looking beyond the world views of traditional intellectuals – the ones who get paid to write and talk – he wants to resurrect the working class’s organic intellectuals, the non-professionals who exercise ‘brainpower’ even if they’re not credited for it by snobbish conservateurs who carve out exclusive domains where cultural capital confers privilege upon the best and the brightest. Popular culture, Lecklider writes, has been for the last century ‘a critical site in shaping American ideas about brainpower’ (p. 225).

Intelligence, he argues, is contested domain. The town has as much of it as the gown. This is a clever idea, and Lecklider, frequently original, carries it a considerable distance—sometimes farther than the evidence warrants. His starting – and finishing – point is that the charge of ‘anti-intellectualism’ famously and exhaustively leveled by Richard Hofstadter against American culture is actually self-fulfilling, for Hofstadter and his allies, failing to acknowledge that intellectual life could be conducted by non-professionals, ‘opened historians to attack by ordinary women and men for attempting to preserve an elitist category, creating a cycle of misunderstanding that continues to manifest in contemporary American life’ (p. 222). Hofstadter, from this point of view, ‘bracketed off intellect from the brainpower of ordinary women and men and divorced intelligence from working-class cultural politics’ (p. 222). By implication, it’s no wonder the left has been crammed into the margins of history. But Lecklider has prepared a clever flanking movement. The conflict over who is entitled to be regarded as intelligent may even culminate in a happy ending:

    Reclaiming the history of an organic intellectual tradition in American culture represents a starting point for envisioning intelligence as a shared commodity across social classes; wrested from the hands of the intellectuals, there’s no telling what the brainpower of the people has the potential to accomplish (p. 228).

Lecklider begins his counter-history in the early decades of the 20th century.

Even as managers downgraded ordinary workers, adopting Taylorist methods to ‘transform’ themselves into ‘scientists’ (p. 26), vast numbers of working-class Americans refused to believe that managers and their hired hands held a monopoly on brains and intellectual interests. Institutions including amusement parks, comic books, public lectures, and summer schools cultivated the sort of intelligence that did not need – indeed, might actively resist – the sort of formal education on offer in the decades before 1920, when fewer than one 18–24-year-old in 20 was enrolled in college. Brainpower, Lecklider insists, was the subject of class struggle. Contra Hofstadter – who looms in the shadows as Lecklider’s foil throughout, emerging as an explicit bête noire in the epilogue—America as a whole was not ‘anti-intellectual.’ Rather, at least at the turn of the 20th century, ‘anti-intellectualism coexisted with representations of an intellectually gifted working class’ (p. 8). The history of intelligence in American culture, he argues, is ‘tortuous’, ‘considerably more complicated’ than the straightforward declinist narrative embraced by scholars such as Hofstadter, Lasch, Lewis Coser, C. Wright Mills, Herbert Marcuse and – odd company on this list – Reinhold Niebuhr (p. 224).

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Category : Education | Intellectuals | Technology | Working Class | Blog