Monday, April 29, 2013

Lessons from South Africa for U.S. Workers?

Today is the last day of my Monday discussion section for History 112: Modern South Africa.  The course ends in the immediate aftermath of apartheid, and this week we’ll be discussing Desmond Tutu’s book, No Future Without Forgiveness, which recounts his prominent role in the country’s national healing effort, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In the past couple of weeks we’ve been discussing the apartheid state, anti-apartheid movements, and the process by which that extraordinary system of inequality was dismantled.  Tellingly, some of the first cracks in its edifice appeared when the country’s captains of industry, beginning in the  1970s and continuing into the ‘80s made representations to the government, imploring them to relax its commitment to “Grand Apartheid” and relax labour laws.

Faced with inflation, a falling reserve, and a shortage of skilled labour (engineered by apartheid’s segregation of the workplace and refusal to train black South Africans for more than rudimentary tasks) in the nation’s changing economy, South African business became highly vulnerable to strike action.  Unions had been banned, but this did not stop a massive series of strikes which threw industries into a panic.  Absent anyone with whom to bargain, businesses realised that they needed to persuade the government to change course.

In the coming years, many of the laws which had been pillars of apartheid were taken down, a move which called the absolutist logic of the system with which many Afrikaners had grown up into doubt.  No sooner had the perverse system been “perfected”, than it began to be dismantled at the behest of the captains of industry because of the power black workers were able to leverage against them. 

What I find interesting about this (simplified) chain of events is that black workers were able to succeed not by negotiating with the apartheid government, but by circumventing it altogether and striking at a weak link in the economy, which threatened very powerful interests in the country.  The state would simply have met them with repression (and in many cases did, including at the behest of big business), but in the end, capital had too much to lose to fight to the bitter end in the way that Afrikaner nationalists would have liked.  The pragmatism of the business community, in the end, trumped the fanaticism of the country’s white rulers.

Of course, the struggle for the full dismantling of apartheid was a much longer and more painful process, and one which ultimately sacrificed the dream of economic equality for the sake of inter-community harmony. 

Nonetheless, there seem to be potential lessons for the United States in the South African experience.  Today, workers are increasingly being ground down in the work place by a range of new technologies, practises, and ideologies which subordinate their welfare utterly to the greed and profiteering of ever-larger and more powerful business interests. 

At the same time that these corporate interests—which by having the benefits of citizenship conferred upon them have managed to gain control of both political parties—are reaping record profits, workers are facing some increasingly grim times. 

Lobbying a political class which has sold itself quite shamelessly to these economic gangsters—think of the Obama administration’s criminal failure to go after people who broke the law in instigating our financial crisis and recession—doesn’t seem to work.  It would be a difficult task in a nation where those same gangsters have broken up most organised labour, but it seems to be the case that to restore a measure of equity in our country, workers need to bypass the formal political arena and strike at capital. 

This is an infinitely more complex ambition in an era when corporate interests have recourse to outsourcing, but it is quickly becoming a matter of survival for those of us who have not seen record profits in the past five years. 

Sunday, April 28, 2013

The New American Workplace

Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times produced a stunning series of stories about the changing American workplace, and the nature of workers’ experience in our era.  They are illuminating and sometimes moving pieces of journalism, and I think they are worth your time.  I’ve written out a few thoughts below, but the best thing you can do is to read through these stories:

The impression which emerges from this reporting is that there is a basic inhumanity re-entering the workplace and employer-employee relations.  Work is increasingly undervalued, and workers are increasingly seen as expendable.  Labour itself is ever-more casualised. 

A UC Santa Barbara academic who studies the workplace told the Times that “Fifty years ago, when you went to business school you were taught that you want a loyal, dedicated, skilled workforce.  Today, if you go to business school, they tell you don’t want a permanent workforce.  That’s considered new standard operating procedure.  It reflects a real shifts in power”.  The same article invokes the Costco-Walmart divide: the former’s focus on the well-being of employees has seen 900% growth since 1986; the latter’s exploitation of its workers has generated 2,500% growth.

We should then ask how much growth in profit is enough.  Is there any point, in the eyes of unreformed capitalists, at which their profits become too obscene and too exploitative to justify a correction which would make their profit more modest while simultaneously treating workers like human beings?

Part of this changing relationship, the Times’ reporting suggests, is driven by increasing costs of healthcare: costs which, make no mistake, are driven by the market-minded practises of the healthcare and insurance industries rather than our recent half-hearted efforts at reform. 

The Times also documented the shifts from defined benefit plans (“a traditional pension, in which companies promise a certain benefit depending on the employee’s age and salary”) to defined contribution plans (which “shift the risks to the employees: they put money worth a certain percentage of the employee’s salary into an account that is invested in the market, so the value could fall if the market falls”).

The reporting describes how the increased use of surveillance in the workplace, in addition to generating stress (which generates costs of its own—“27% higher occurrence of pain in the shoulders and a 21% incidence in back pain” in one office setting), also breaks down the unity of employees by allowing employers to target or reward them based on fine-grained data about their behaviour and skills in a highly arbitrary manner.   

There is so much talk from the employers in question about the squeeze they are experiencing, and yet many of them work for incredibly profitable industries in which a great many people get stinking rich as a result of exploiting vulnerable people who are faced with a seemingly-impenetrable phalanx of industry interests more interested in obscene profiteering than human welfare. 

Some examples of the changing workplace: “Only 28% of U.S. companies offer long-term care insurance, down from 45% in 2008, according to a survey from the Society for Human Resource Management.  About 84% of companies offer life insurance, down from 92% in 2008; 33% offer a credit union, down from 42%.  Only 9% offer adoption assistance, down from 16%; 38% offer cross-training in skills not directly related to the job, down from 55%”.

One story offered examples of how a less humane workplace has impacts for people’s quality of life well beyond the day job.  An MIT management professor, Paul Osterman told the Times that “the ability of people to spend time at voluntary organizations, churches, youth groups—their social capital—goes down.  They can’t keep their homes, they can’t take care of their own health.  It’s all tied to the economic pressure people are under”.  Osterman’s findings suggest that the “family values” crowd that also champions unadulterated capitalism should be rethinking its social and economic platform: “parents spend a lot of time at work but can’t afford childcare, so kids grow up watching too much TV and don’t do their homework.  Economic stress leads to a high divorce rate.  In essence, parents who have jobs—but bad ones—don’t have the time to raise their children, who will grow up without a good education and also get tough jobs”.

It is fascinating to me that people worry so compulsively about state overreach in terms of things like regulating healthcare markets, pollutants, education policy, financial practises and the like.  Yet as this reporting shows, more far-reaching and serious regulation—which affects far more people in more profound ways in their day-to-day lives—is being laid out in the workplace.  Nearly all of this is designed to weaken the rights and power of workers with an aim to increasing the power and profits of employers. 

It is extraordinary to me that the basic narratives of capitalism in twenty-first century America—that a “free market”, effectively managed by industry interest is in everyone’s best interests; that corporate profits are a good measure of our moral, social, and economic health; that growth in those profits at all costs is beneficial to society; that this growth will eventually trickle down to the rest of us—retain the power to keep people in thrall to such an inhuman labour regime. 

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Israel's Campus Lobby

Most of us presumably remember when, back at the beginning of the year, Israel’s supporters in the United States went into paroxysm of rage when someone dug up an old video of then-Senator Chuck Hagel suggesting that the country had a lobby that sought to intimidate people.  It is clear that such a lobby exists.  It is less, clear, if the activities of this lobby are aboveboard and of a moral character, why its members and supporters should be so ashamed to own up to their existence as an interest group.

The very real existence of Israel’s lobby came roaring back into the faces of UC Berkeley’s campus community in the last couple of weeks, when after tense debate and, we now know, equally intensive lobbying, the student Senate passed a bill calling for divestment by the UC Regents from companies complicit in human rights abuses in Israel (the University is already forbidden from doing business with companies which might benefit many Palestinian groups complicit in attacks on Israel). 

That debate was followed by several uncertain days as the student body president weighed whether to or not to veto the bill.  He eventually acceded to itsnon-binding reality in a churlish statement which misrepresented the substance and the aim of the legislation in question—SB 160 (it later came to light that other ASUC senators might have been involved with Landgraf in some reprehensibly shady backroom negotiations). 

It is unsurprising that AIPAC and other pro-Israel lobbies weighed in on the campus debate.  That is their right, and they should certainly feel free to make their voice heard.  But there are several problems with the way in which this particular lobby conducts itself, both on campus and in our nation’s capital.  Overly dependent on telling lies, on defaming their opponents, and on veering into corrupt waters, organisations like AIPAC and Jewish Public Affairs practise a dangerous form of lobbying.

On the same day that Landgraf exercised commendable if bad-spirited and disingenuous restraint and allowed SB 160 to stand, the San Francisco Bay Guardian revealed that he had been the beneficiary of a free trip to Israel in 2012 from Project Interchange, a conflict of interest he did not mention during his deliberations and was unwilling to confirm to the Guardian, evidence to the contrary.  The high pressure lobbying didn’t end there: “AIPAC [also] flew out student senator and divestment opponent Mihir Deo to its annual policy conference in February”. 

A central complaint of those opposed to the divestment bills is that they are one-sided, a claim Landgraf invoked in his statement.  While SB 160 is actually a remarkably even-handed and carefully-worded bill, giving the lie to the claim, it is nonetheless significant that the same opposition has no problem with the one-sided propaganda indoctrination they fund.  Project Interchange, for example (the organisation which sent Landgraf to Israel gratis) “brings opinion leaders and policy makers to Israel for a week of intensive travel and learning.  Participants experience Israeli society, connect with their Israeli counterparts and learn about Israel’s extensive contributions in their fields”.  The organisation’s central mission is to promote “understanding of Israel”.

The organisation’s ambitions are expansive, and are aimed at a wide swath of “opinion leaders” in the United States.  There are seminars geared towards U.S. energy experts; University Presidents; civil rights leaders; senior counterterrorism officials; Indian-American media and foreign policy leaders; city, county and state elected officials; Latino leaders; campus media; and California student leaders; all of these geared, it would appear, towards enforcing a particular narrative on individuals and bodies placed at strategic points within U.S. society and government, the better to ensure that Israel’s whitewashing of its colonial policy is permitted to persist. 

Direct “treatment” of student leaders by the lobby was not the only tactic deployed.  In what Landgraf described as “one of the worst [weeks] of his life”, he would also have received messagesfrom the anti-divestment public coordinated by the Israeli Action Network andthe Jewish Federations of North America on the subject of what they called a “one-sided and harmful bill”, a description which suggests that those who created the petition are either illiterate or dishonest.  Signatories were urged to tell Landgraf that the bill “is alienating and hateful”, and were cautioned from using “incendiary or offensive language that may detract from this important cause”. 

The petition itself described the bill as “one sided and biased”, and aimed at “delegitimize[ing] the state of Israel”, seeking to cast opponents of divestment as the real supporters of human rights, ending: “It is clear that this bill is using the guise of human rights to unfairly assign blame and tarnish the reputation of Israel, a world-leader in technology and innovation”.  At the risk of repeating myself, the bill itself was surprisingly even-handed, non-judgmental, and did not assign blame to either Israelis or Palestinians. 

Finally, once the bill had passed, the smears came rolling in, testimony towards the extent to which the lobby had managed to brainwash many of its knee-jerk supporters about the actual substance and character of the bill in question.  Commentary on news sites reporting the bill’s passage and Landgraf’s decision not to exercise his veto were greeted with claims of anti-Semitism, bigotry, racism, and invocations of Nazism.  The bill was said to propagate race- and religious-hatred.  Lacking a logical leg on which to stand, or any actual grievance, opponents of divestment launched ferocious, defamatory, and ill-informed attacks on the University, student leaders, and supporters of divestment.

It’s worth noting that SB 160 represented UC Berkeley’s second attempt at modest divestment.  In 2010, a similar bill was veoted by then-ASUC president Will Smelko, who came under pressure from the Israeli consul in San Francisco. 

That bill had passed, was vetoed, but stood in danger of being re-passed over the student president’s veto.  Josh Nathan-Kazis described the intensive lobbying that took place in the days leading up to the debate on the veto.  The campaign reported included Hillel, the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the Jewish Community Relations Council, J Street, and members of the community.  Senators—some of whom changed their votes—complained of “undertones of intimidation”.  According to Nathan-Kazis, pamphlets which circulated instructed opponents of the bill, “Don’t try to deconstruct the bill.  Instead, focus on how it is an attack on the Jewish community”.  In translation: Don’t engage with the substance; instead, lie. 

It is worth quoting at some length from Nathan-Kazis’ illuminating article:

“In the weeks between the first vote and the attempt to overturn the veto, discussions about how to challenge Berkeley student senate support for the bill were held as faraway as Washington, D.C.  At an AIPAC conference in Washington in late March, AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler said that his organization would ‘make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote’, as recorded in a video taken at the conference by the JTA.  ‘This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s Capitol.  This is how AIPAC must operate in our nation’s campuses’, he said”.
 I was shocked to see such open statements about tactics that involve deliberate misrepresentation, and “taking over” democratic bodies through legal though corrupt lobbying and the liberal use of smears and defamation.  Perhaps I’m naive, but I would have hoped that lobbies on campuses and elsewhere would conduct themselves in accordance with a higher moral standard and with a greater respect for the truth.

It is a sign of how sensitive to its wrongdoing the Israeli state and its supporters are that even a modest threat like a non-binding bill on limited divestment, couched in non-threatening and even-handed language, is greeted with a full-throated campaign based on deplorable tactics and premises, which are as offensive as the system of colonialism practised by that state and excused by our own government.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Call the Police!

As you may have read in the news, a host of dignitaries, including all of our surviving Presidents, descended on University Park, Texas earlier this week for the dedication of George W Bush’s Presidential Library.  Sort of like a mob get-together.

For seldom can there have been such an extraordinary concentration of criminals in one place to celebrate the achievements of one of their number!  George W Bush was joined by his father and President Obama.  Also in attendance were Dick Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair, Jose Maria Aznar, Silvio Berlusconi (corrupt many times over), Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton. 

I caught only a glimpse of the proceedings on the news, and hoped that someone would attempt a citizen’s arrest, although they would have been spoilt for a choice of targets.  I even momentarily considered calling the C.I.A. to tip them off before remembering that they are themselves complicit in the crimes of these men and women: inciting violence; waging aggressive war; authorizing torture; commissioning murders; enabling abductions, disappearances, and extraordinary rendition; lying to the public; misrepresenting intelligence; holding international law in contempt; and eroding the rights of our citizens.

In embracing a “war on terror”, these individuals and institutions have embraced horrific methods of terror and barbarism in the name of the public.  We, as voters and citizens, should be ashamed for tacitly condoning their actions and allowing them to bask in the sun instead of holding them accountable for their actions.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lindsey Graham: Ultimately an Idiot

There is an old adage which goes, “if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all”.  Those who know me will understand that I have trouble not saying anything at all, and so because as far as I can tell Republican Senator Lindsey Graham is an utterly contemptible specimen without so much as a single redeeming feature, I will say some unkind things about the invertebrate from South Carolina.

Let me preface those remarks by saying that they should in no way be interpreted as excusing the Obama administration for its complicity, along with a Congress egged on by nihilist neocons, in imperilling the interests of our citizens through its prosecution of aggressive war, its embrace of methods of terror and barbarism, and its assault on the human rights and liberties of people at home and abroad.

The problem with Graham, aside from his general self-interested opportunism and willingness to abuse his position of power to mislead the public, is that he has a knack, together with his addled mentor John McCain, for seizing on precisely the wrong problem and worrying it, thereby creating a distraction from a serious problem.

Often Graham operates by snarky innuendo, but in this case he came right out and held the Obama administration responsible for the bombings in Boston.  When the U.S. at last begins to feel the consequences of climate change in a more obvious way, I have no doubt whatsoever that Graham, a master hypocrite and liar, will manage to pin the blame for the damage that does to our country and the globe on the Obama administration.

The way Graham assigned blame is telling.  “I have no idea who bears the blame.  I just know the system is broken.  The ultimate blame I think is with the administration”. 

At the risk of sounding slow, those two sentences do not make sense next to one another.  The context is that Graham is saying that he wouldn’t be satisfied with blaming just one person (Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano), and that he’d rather just smear blame all around.  But the fact remains that he does not in fact know where the problem lies, but that he is comfortable scoring cheap political points by throwing around accusations.

Graham went on to say, “The FBI and the CIA are, they have great people but you know we’re going backwards in national security.  Benghazi and Boston to me are examples of us going backward”.  It’s interesting that Graham won’t actually countenance blaming our intelligence agencies (it’s bad politics, after all), although it is almost certainly within or between their own bureaucratic structures that the communication breakdown took place.  Or because fighting “terror” is not a science.  Counter-terrorism as embraced by the U.S. and Graham is, after all, just a question of fighting terror with terror.

I guess the idea is, why do your job and read intelligence reports and try to work out why the chain of command within and between intelligence agencies failed when instead you can get on tv and defame the President and his cabinet (goodness knows these people can be defamed for any number of reasons—and Graham would be guilty on all the same counts given his cosiness with the fanatical neocons)?

Like many of his blowhard colleagues, Graham’s existence is a sanguinary one, and he has hundreds of thousands of lives on his hands.  I wonder why Graham sees an intelligence sharing mistake that allowed one attack to take place as such a catastrophic step backwards and does not feel the same about any of his own mistakes.

Why, for example, would the response to 9/11 not count as a giant step backwards?  Or his decision to back Israeli colonialism with weapons and money and moral support?  Or his decision to authorise the murderous war of aggression in Iraq which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people?  Or his support for the escalation of the war of terror in Afghanistan and Pakistan?  Or the constant drumbeat for war with Iran and Syria that he has kept up for years from his vulturine perch in the Senate?

As if this record isn’t enough, this despicable man is now calling for the sweeping transformation of our legal system to deny U.S. citizens access to representation, and to apply the rules of war at home in the United States.  This creeping logic would suggest that ultimately, the methods of terror adopted abroad—abduction, torture, disappearance, murder, and rendition—could apply here. 

Our nation has a lot of serious problems.  Many of those are in the misconduct of our international relations, and to a varying degree, Lindsey Graham and the worldview he represents are responsible for many of those.  It’s truly pitiful that the best he can come up with by way of addressing these problems is a pathetic, whiny attempt to pin responsibility for the Boston bombings on our President.