[S10 E13] New
This program focuses on how the capitalist economic system plays crucial roles in the #MeToo examples of Weinstein and Cosby and also in the failed response to the Corona virus crisis. The organization of capitalist enterprises - power and wealth concentrated at the top in a tiny minority - invites and enables sexual harassment and abuse by people positioned like Weinstein and Cosby. A profit-driven medical-industrial complex did not invest in preparing for the virus and a profit-subservient gov't failed to mobilize private and public resources to test for, contain, and overcome the disease.
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This transcript was edited for clarity.
Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, debts, incomes, our own, our children’s. I’m your host, Richard Wolff.
Before starting today’s program, I wanted to let you know that our normal location for producing and broadcasting this program has been closed as have several of the backup locations we keep ready in the event of just this situation. Of course, I’m speaking about the consequences to the coronavirus and the programs now finally being put into place to cope with it. Those arrangements, those conditions, those responses in the United States were grotesquely too little and too late. But everyone is making do as best they can with the incompetence of a government and medical industrial apparatus that we have. We know you’re suffering as well as we. We’re committed to producing this program. We ask your understanding as we do it under these ad hoc conditions.
Okay. Today’s program is divided into two parts: one—analyzing the Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo movement situation, and the other one—the response to the coronavirus, which is on everyone’s mind. So here let’s do the first half devoted to the Weinstein case and all that it brings up. I want to begin with the key point. We have a systemic problem. Weinstein is just one example, one case. Dramatic? Yes. Headline-grabbing? For sure. But it is important to understand the underlying systemic problem that was exposed by the Weinstein case by the #MeToo movement surrounding that case. And it’s that I want to talk to you about.
Sexism, a kind of systemic rendering of the female part of our population in a subordinate secondary position, is very old. And the sexual harassment of women that follows from that subordination is also very old. It is rooted in long lasting cultures, in long lasting religion. You all know that somewhere. But let me review briefly. In slavery, masters didn’t just oppress slaves. They also sexually abused them. In feudalism, lords not only oppressed serfs, they also sexually abused them. If you’re not familiar with it in European feudalism, for centuries, there existed and was widely respected something called “the law of the first night”. Here’s what it meant. When a serf got married, the husband and the wife had to give to the lord of the manor or the village where they lived the right to sleep with the wife for the first night after they were married. Then husband and wife could sleep together without the lord. Think about that. This was done in many parts of Europe. It was done over centuries. It was sanctioned by the church. You get the picture. That’s a deep-seated system of subordination and sexual harassment. Kings were notable for their oppression of and their sexual harassment of their subjects. Even into modern times, institutions that are left over from the earlier, particularly religious institutions, have demonstrated to us in the last dozen or more years that if you have a kinglike position for a cleric that he can very well end up abusing, including sexually, all kinds of people within that religious institution.
So now we come to capitalism. Now capitalism came into the world promising liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy. That’s what the American and French Revolutions claimed they were for. Yes, they wanted to get rid of feudalism, which they did, and replace it with capitalism, which they did. But they said that along with that would come liberty, equality, fraternity, and democracy. The problem is it didn’t. What capitalism did is replace the top–down hierarchical inequalities of slavery, and feudalism, and monarchy with a new one, namely the hierarchy of employer and employee. That’s the crucial systemic problem.
Now let’s turn to how it affects Weinstein and the #MeToo movement. Harvey Weinstein and people like him—Bill Cosby, you know them, as well as I do—they clearly had severe personal psychological sexual problems. They needed professional help—no question. And they were horrible practices waiting to happen as they went about acting out their issues, their problems. But it was capitalism that put them in a position to enable a vast oppression and a vast sexual harassment story up, into, and including rape. We know that now from the trials and from the attention Cosby, Weinstein, and the entire #MeToo movement has brought to the fore. What do I mean? An employer has extraordinary power over an employee. First and foremost, and perhaps most fundamental, the employer can deprive the employee of the job, of the work, of the income you get—the wage, the salary—when you work. And just as important the self-esteem of having a job, making a contribution, being a part of the community that can afford a home, a car, an education for the children, the employers—a small minority—have the power of the employees—a huge majority. This situation is a made-to-order circumstance, really remarkably like master-over-slave, landlord-, feudal lord-over-surf, king-over-subject, and so on. If you think about it, the employer has a second extraordinary power—the power to determine not only whether or not you have the job, but whether you are promoted; are you rewarded for the work, the quality of the work you do, the intensity with which you do it, the commitment which you show or not? Will you rise up and have more responsibility and a higher income, and be able to expand, and enhance your living over time by dint of hard work? Or will that be taken away from you?
And the employer has yet another extraordinary power over the employee. If the employer abuses the employee, if the employer sexually assaults, rapes or terrorizes an employee, and gets caught, the employer can—and normally does—use the profits gotten from those workers labor to offer them a bribe called a nondisclosure agreement, an NDA, to buy off their suffering. So that they aren’t exposed, so that they can go on to the next person and do it all again. Why? Well, you know the answer. It’s part of our culture. In the film industry it’s called “the casting couch”. What’s the idea of film person’s actor and actress or even others, hoping to make a career in that business, has to service sexually the employer to get the job, to get the part, to get the promotion. And if they’re caught and if you’re exposed, which is rare, then they can use the money they make from this business to shut up the person with the courage to go public with it all. It’s an extraordinary situation. What enabled Cosby and Weinstein to achieve the dubious distinction that they oppressed a hundred or more people that have come forward—and we won’t even think about all those who chose not to come forward, because of all the humiliation, and embarrassment, and consequences that flow from it—what enabled them to, literally, sexually harass huge numbers of people wasn’t their problem, but a structure, a system that allowed their problem to become the devastating problem for so many.
What’s the bottom line here? It’s how we organize something as fundamental as the job, the workplace. We allow a tiny number of people to have extraordinary power and wealth at their best, under their control. Can they use it against their employees? Of course, they can. We know that. Can they do it in a sexually humiliating and rapists kind of way? Yes. We know that. And the problem is if we don’t do something about that inequality, we haven’t really dealt with problem. We may have gotten rid of the worst offenders who got caught. But we know that the system, enabling countless other people to do countlessly equivalent acts, going on as I speak, hasn’t been dealt with.
So imagine with me a different organization of the workplace and how it might work. Suppose at the workplace all basic decisions including hiring and firing, including promotion, and including the use of the profits—that everybody helped to produce—suppose those decisions were all made democratically, by everybody in the workplace having one vote equal to everybody else. Then you wouldn’t see some people whose lives, incomes, jobs are in the hands of other people. There wouldn’t be the employer–employee division allowing, and enabling, and inviting employers with severe psychological and sexual problems to use their situation to do the damage Weinstein and Cosby did. You would have changed the system. Everybody would have to agree who gets hired and fired. Everybody would have to vote on the promotions. And everybody could look at how the profits are being used and could raise the alarm if some of it was going to individuals in non-disclosure agreements and would it be able to ask questions. Would this solve every aspect of the problem that the #MeToo movement raises of sexual harassment? No. It wouldn’t solve them all. But it would be a giant step in getting beyond this condition. But let me put it even more bluntly. If we don’t change the system, we will have failed to use the opportunity that the #MeToo movement has produced in our society, that the exposure of Cosby and Weinstein and all the others that have gotten caught, gives us to change the system that is the problem, and not just the symptom of that system’s problems, which is what Weinstein and Cosby represent.
We’ve come to the end of the first half of today’s program. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It really is more important right now than it has ever been. Be sure to visit democracyatwork.info, our website, to learn more about other Democracy at Work shows, our unionized co-op store, and our two books that we’ve published: “Understanding Socialism” is one, “Understanding Marxism”—the other. And lastly, of course, a special thanks to our Patreon community, whose invaluable support helps make this show possible. We’ll be right back with today’s second half.
Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today’s Economic Update.
I want to talk about the coronavirus story. But I want particularly to ask and answer the following question. Why was the United States so remarkably late to address this problem in a systematic way? Why does it represent such a failure that we knew as a nation and our leading authority Center for Disease Control knew already early in January what the results of the spread of this virus were in China, knew about it, publicly released press releases about it early in January? But it wasn’t until the middle of March that anything remotely like a mobilization—and it’s only partial in the middle of March itself—to deal with this problem. And then, by that time, we had already seen not only in China, and South Korea, and Japan, but in Europe, particularly in Italy, in the Middle East, particularly in Iran, the devastation that this virus was capable of wreaking, including deaths of thousands of people. And my answer to you, which you come as no great surprise, to those of you familiar with this program, is that it has to do very fundamentally with our—yup—capitalist system. It’s another lesson for those open-minded enough to learn it that we are overdue for system change in the United States.
So let me make the argument with you. Viruses are as old as the human race—let me correct that—much older. Viruses are a part of life. Viruses affect us, probably every year that we live, one way or another. In recent years we have been reminded, repeatedly, about the damage that viruses can do. Even though we’ve known it for a hundred years. Early in the 20th century, something called the Spanish flu was a virus that killed over 600,000 people. We know this story. And I’m talking about the United States as well as the rest of the world. In recent years, we had the SARS virus, we had the MERS virus, Ebola. And I could make the list longer. We know that viruses are there. We know that they can be extremely dangerous. And we knew in early January that we had one of the most dangerous—the coronavirus COVID-19. Many practices in countries teach in their schools and in the general understanding of their medical professions and beyond that a society needs to be prepared for the virus. Just like we understand we need to be prepared for periods of drought, prepared for high tides. We do what we think is necessary to cope. And what is necessary to cope with a virus like the coronavirus, this new coronavirus, is to take steps to be prepared to identify viruses in your laboratory, to test your population to see who has it and who doesn’t, to take the necessary steps to prevent those who have it from transmitting it to those who don’t, and then to find a cure. Those are the steps well known. So the real question for me and for you and me together today is what happened and why?
Well, we know what happened. The United States as of the middle of March, when the virus began racking up huge death counts in the United States, was we hadn’t tested hardly anybody, the mechanism of testing hadn’t been developed, the tests themselves were not generally available, they were in short supply, even though they weren’t that way in many other parts of the world, we didn’t have the mechanisms to facilitate the end of the spread of the disease. Yes, in the middle of March we suddenly told people to stay at home. But nobody had worked out, “Wait a minute. If you stay at home and you have a job, you lose your income. What happens then?” If the schools get closed, which they have, what happens to the single mothers and every other kind of parent that doesn’t have child care in effect during the day? What’s going to happen if you require quarantine of people? Are they going to be denied their income, because they have to stay in a quarantined location? These are the problems you have to work out. You don’t have to work out when the virus hits. You have to work it out before. And that’s what didn’t happen.
So why didn’t it happen? This has to do with the medical businesses. Our medical system in the United States is a capitalist business. People go into the business hoping to earn a profit. Doctors in their practices want to make more money than it costs to operate the practice—that’s profit. Hospitals want to earn more money than it costs to maintain their institution—profit. The companies that make drugs or medical devices like test kits—they want to make a profit. And the insurance companies that give you a policy to cover your medical needs want to make a profit. It’s a profit-making enterprise. And for them, the government is a danger. Why? Because the mass of people with our right to vote are likely to want to have a government that does these things for us and charges us less, because it doesn’t have to make a profit. That’s the difference. The private enterprise is a profit-driven business. And the government is a public service-driven business. At least that was always the idea. So the private sector, fearing government competition—and you know why they fear government competition?—because the government doesn’t have to charge prices high enough to earn a profit whereas private business does.
That’s the root of it. Private business, however can’t say that, it can’t go to the public and say, “Hey, we don’t want the government to take care of our medical needs to provide the drugs, to ensure us in case we get sick or have an injury.” They can’t say, “We don’t want that because they can do it at a lower price than we do, because they don’t have to make a profit.” Because if the private enterprises said that, we all would draw the conclusion they fear most, “Well, then let’s have the government do it. Let’s have the government do it.”
So instead, the private medical sector demonizes the government, “The government is inefficient. The government is venal. The government is full of political crooks.” You know the story. You grow up in it. I grew up in it. It’s the air we breathe. And so the government can’t, the government is hobbled. The business community and the medical business is right up there with them, support politicians who mouths all that stuff, “Let’s keep our private medical system. Let’s not have socialized medicine. If we had the government do it, it would be socialism.” I won’t bore you by reminding you that virtually every other advanced industrial country has chosen and kept their nationalized health system both insurance and medical practices, more or less. We, the United States, are the odd one, not the rest of the world. And unless you believe that everybody else—in Britain, in France, in Germany, in Italy, in Scandinavia, in Japan, in South Korea, in China, in Russia—all stupid compared to us, who really know our works, unless you believe that sort of nonsense, you’d have to wonder. And the power of the medical industrial complex here…
Well, here’s the simplest statistic to understand it. We pay more for medical care—doctors, hospitals, drugs, devices, and medical insurance—than any other country on earth, a lot more, because the prices are higher here than anywhere. That’s why Americans go to Canada for their drugs. That’s why increasing number of Americans go abroad for their surgeries. They make a fortune by being a monopoly we have to pay for for our health. And that’s why they don’t want competition from a government that could do it cheaper, the way they do in all those other countries. So we don’t have a government that is powerful. And we don’t have one that’s powerful over our medical conditions. And that’s why we failed with the coronavirus. Because what the coronavirus needed was the mobilization of all of our resources—the Army, the Navy, every working man and woman in this country—could have been, should have been, and might have been mobilized long ago to deal with this. The model, by the way, is what happened in China. And if you don’t like that example—South Korea. They mobilize their people in a massive program of testing, of lockdown, of quarantine, of limiting the spread. And they succeeded. That’s why their numbers already by mid-March were much better than the numbers exploding in the countries that didn’t do this. You needed a mass mobilization. We don’t allow our government to manipulate and control private enterprise. We make believe that’s efficient. Really?
Let me tell you something. If the government of the United States or, for that matter, if the private medical complex—doctors, hospitals, drug makers, and insurers—had taken these steps necessary to prepare for and manage the coronavirus, it would have cost a lot less money than waiting until the middle of March. So that the stock market would collapse, that the businesses of America would shut down, that millions of people would lose their job. This is capitalist inefficiency gone mad. And I’m not even talking about the ultimate inefficiency when a system’s incapacity to prepare for and cope with a disaster like this is killing large numbers of people. Wow. Wow.
Suppose we had an economic system that was different. That didn’t work like this. That didn’t have as its goal—private profit. Why did we ever let the private profit mentality, the private profit economic system, which has a name “capitalism”, get involved in managing our health? Private companies have no incentive to produce test kits and store him in a warehouse for years before there’s a crisis. It’s not profitable. It costs a lot and they don’t make any money. So they’re not going to do it. That’s how capitalism works. A government could buy all them and store it. But a government that is infected by the profit mentality, controlled by the profit citizens, it doesn’t want the government to get involved like that. Wow. How interesting. So we didn’t. And so we didn’t have the test kits. And we didn’t have the ventilators. And we didn’t have the extra hospital beds. We didn’t do it. And we didn’t set up the mechanisms to mobilize doing it quickly when we needed it either. Capitalism is stumbling all over itself. It’s proving that it isn’t good for the mass of people. It’s made a mess of this. And we can get as angry at Donald Trump as we want—he’s just the system. He’s the presider over a system that isn’t working. He’s not the only failure here. In a way, it’s like in the first half of the program: sure, get angry at Harvey Weinstein, at Bill Cosby. You have plenty of reason to get angry at Mr. Trump. But unless you change this system that puts profit as the bottom line for the people in charge of what keeps us healthy, you’re not going to solve the exposed failure of capitalism to prepare for or cope with a coronavirus.
Thanks all for your attention. And even in these difficult times, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.
Transcript by Aleh Haiko
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