Economic Update: Rebuilding a Labor and Left Movement

[S12 E05] New

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This week on Economic Update, Prof. Wolff presents a critique of US Megacorp merger (Microsoft and Activision Blizzard), China vs US on inflation and economic growth, and the collapse of Boris Johnson (like Trump's lost election). In the second half of the show, Wolff interviews author Aviva Chomsky on problems and prospects of US labor and left social movements.

Transcript has been 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, and those of our children. I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to begin today with a story. One of the greatest books ever to be written about the Russian Revolution of 1917 was written by an American reporter, John Reed, and it took the famous name “Ten Days That Shook the World.” That was the title of his book, and one of the most memorable moments in there was a description of the elegant coaches taking the richest people in Moscow from their elegant homes to the opera and back. And as they looked out of the windows of their elegant coaches, they noticed all the commotion of the soldiers, and the peasants marching around the streets that the coaches were sharing with them. They had no idea that they were watching the people who would put an end to all those fancy mansions, and all those coaches, in the days and weeks that came after.

Why do I tell you this story? Because it's the introduction to my describing something quite similar going on now. I wanted to begin today's program by telling you about a big deal that was just worked out in the world of mega-corporations. One of the ‘mega-ist’ of them all — Microsoft — made a purchase a few weeks ago of another huge corporation called Activision Blizzard. It wanted to buy that company to get a hold of the very popular games, computer games, that Activision Blizzard produces. Here was the asking price: 68.7 billion (with a b) dollars. A fantastic amount of money, but not so fantastic when you think that gaming is now a 200 billion dollar business, the fastest and most profitable segment of the entire entertainment industry in the United States. By buying Activision Blizzard, Microsoft will become the number three corporation in the gaming space. Who are numbers one and two that will be the great competition? Because this is going to be an effective monopoly of a handful of monster companies, which is what we see in most capitalist industries. Well, the number one company (and you're seeing part of what’s going on in the world when I tell you this) is a company called Tencent. It’s a Chinese company. It's the number one gaming corporation in the world. The number two company is called Sony. You know, that; that's a Japanese company. Microsoft is coming in a big fat third in this
game. How important is gaming? Well, in case you're not aware, 51 of U.S. gamers spend more than seven hours per week (that’s their own account) doing this, playing games on their smartphones, their computers, and so on. Who handled the deal for Microsoft? Goldman Sachs. This is like a who's who of corporate mega-corporations in America. T

They made a fortune, and they're going to make a bigger fortune, and I just want to let you know that, as they're doing it, we are a society that is achieving records in COVID deaths and illness. We are a society that can't get cars to be produced, because we have ‘supply chain disruptions,’ and other fancy excuses for an economy that isn’t working. We could have done all kinds of things with 68 billion dollars for COVID, for homelessness, for poverty. Think about a society with the kinds of problems we have spending 68 billion dollars, not to solve any of them, but simply to make one mega-corporation — Microsoft — become a mega-player in yet another industry that gets monopolized in that way. That’s a system that is not taking care of its problems, and is going to be overwhelmed by them. And that's why I opened with “The 10 Days That Shook the World” back then.

My second update is a comparison. I’ve been having to do that often, but I feel the need to correct the propagandistic, cold war rhetoric that describes the United States in relationship to China in ways that range from the outrageous to the simply silly. So I wanted to present to you with some information, in the hopes of correcting all of that. China had a problem with an inflation, a little bit, a while back, and they went to work to solve it. So that from December 2020 to December 2021, the period of time during which the inflation in the United States was 7 percent officially, the Chinese inflation over the exact same period was 1.5 percent. Let me let me do that again. 7 percent inflation here; 1.5 percent inflation there. In the United Kingdom over the same period, inflation was 5.5 percent. They're in trouble, too. Last year was also the best year China’s exports to the rest of the world have ever racked up. All that effort of the Trump administration to destroy, or to undermine or, in his language, “wage a winnable trade war,” had none of those effects, and did damage to the American economy. The Chinese are doing pretty well, all things considered, and in comparison.

My third economic update for today focuses again on the United Kingdom, and the disintegration of the government of Boris Johnson. There is an extraordinary video raging across the internet that has the peculiar name “Led By Donkeys.” If any of you are interested, this is extraordinarily good reporting and analytics, all about the collapse of Boris Johnson. His approval ratings are in the toilet. He got caught having parties with alcohol and large numbers of people, gathering at the same time that the country was supposed to be getting ready for the funeral of the Queen's husband, and had been prohibited from having more than three people get together to prevent COVID. The difference between the leaders doing what they want, and telling the mass of their followers how to behave, could not have been starker, and the “Led By Donkey’s” video could not lay that out more clearly.

I want to draw the lessons I think apply. The British people have been going through a very, very hard time for this entire 21st century, but particularly since the collapse of 2008 and 9, the so-called “Great Recession.” The decline in well-being of the British working class, the austerity programs imposed on them by the conservatives, the decline in real wages, the working class in Britain has taken it on the chin, very badly, even in comparison to other European countries. And in that situation they got angry, and they got upset, and they got desperate, and there Mr. Boris Johnson saw an opportunity. Come in there, Mr. Flimflam man, and tell them that the problems of their society were “the old leadership of the conservative party.” He was the new leadership, you see, and he had no brushes or combs at home, so his hair was extraordinary, and you could remember who he was, because nobody else has a haircut quite like that. And he came up with a great idea. The problem of Britain, you see, he explained, has nothing to do with Britain. Everything is fine in Britain. The conservatives, the capitalism with a handful of rich people dominant, all of that's fine. The problem of Britain, you see, is Europeans! What? Yes! The European Union is dictating policies to us, and lots of these European immigrants are coming to our country, and taking our jobs. So let's focus everybody's anger and upset on Europe and immigrants. And how do you do that? You vote for Brexit. You vote for Britain to leave the European Union, expel the immigrants, block more immigrants from coming, and get really angry. And if that isn’t enough, get really excited about Russia and China.

This all should strike my listeners as familiar, because Mr. Trump is exactly the same game. American working class suffers for 20 -30 years, losing its income, losing its good jobs, losing the unions to protect it, all of that, gets very upset, very angry, and in comes a Trump, like a Boris Johnson. Trump does better with his hair, because he doesn’t try to comb it in a special way. He puts that animal on top of his head that we have all admired over the time, but the rest of it is very, very similar, and Mr. Trump eventually gets into trouble.

Why? Why does he lose the election? Because all of what he does, changes and solves nothing. None of the problems of the British capitalist system were solved by Mr. Johnson. None of the problems of American capitalism — automating jobs, exporting jobs, destroying livelihoods, beating down wages, making the rich richer at the expense of everyone else — that kept right on going under Johnson in England. It kept right on going under Trump in the United States. So of course their support begins to erode, because they solve nothing, and after a while, the political theater that they engage in — the bombastic promises and statements, and lying left and right, making stuff up — Mr. Johnson does that in England, Mr. Trump does that here. Meanwhile, no problems get solved, no changes get made. It’s theater. It’s flim flam. It's an attempt to cash in on the justified upset and anger of a mass of people without dealing with the economic system. Capitalism: that's the problem. That’s the difficulty. That's the troubled area. That’s taboo. We can't even say that, let alone do anything about it, so the problems keep getting worse. Mr. Trump is eventually voted out. Mr. Johnson — well, at the time I’m telling you this, it's unclear whether he will survive or not. By the time you see this, maybe that's been resolved, but he's at the absolute bottom of his time in office, in terms of the toleration of the British people for what he is.

Please be aware though that this kind of politics that makes a virtue out of not questioning the capitalist system we’re living under, not questioning how it’s breaking down, how it doesn't work, constantly finding some foreign excuse, something else to be angry at — the Russians, the Chinese, the disrupted supply chain, the this, the that — it's a system that doesn't work, because all of these so-called external shocks are things we've had before. An effective system plans, and arranges for that. The Chinese economy, with all of its problems — and it has them — is doing really pretty well, compared to what the United States portrays about itself.

We’ve come to the end of the first part of today's show and, as always, I want to thank all of you whose support makes this show, and others we produce, possible. To learn more about the different ways you can support Democracy At Work and Economic Update, please go to Patreon.com, slash, Economic Update. Or visit our website — Democracy At Work, dot info. I also want to remind you of our recently released hardcover edition of “Understanding Marxism” is available now, with several other books at Democracy At Work, slash, books. I want to mention also that going to the YouTube channel and subscribing is a way for us, through their algorithms and so on, to reach an ever larger audience, costs nothing, and it's an enormous partnering with us. Please stay with us. We'll be right back with today's special guest, Aviva Chomsky.

DR. RICHARD WOLFF: Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today's Economic Update. I am very pleased to bring to our microphones and our cameras Professor Aviva Chomsky. She is a professor of History and Latin American Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts. She has also been an activist for many years in Latin American solidarity and immigrants rights movements. Her most recent books include “Central America's Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration,” “Organizing for Power: Building a 21st Century Labor Movement in Boston.” And the latter is an edited volume she co-edited with Steve Striffler. Her next book “Is Science Enough? 40 Critical Questions About Climate Justice” is due out later in this year. So, having gotten permission to refer to her as Avi, let me welcome Avi Chomsky to our program. Thank you so much for joining us.

AVIVA CHOMSKY: Thanks for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here.

WOLFF: Okay. I want to tap into your work, your history, your long engagement with the Left in America, with the union movement in America, and ask if you agree with the following comment, that “the Left in the United States — unions, social movements — is large, is broad, and is deep, but is not well organized,” to say this as kindly as I know how. Is this something you agree with? Disagree with? How do you see the position of the Left here in the United States, as a starting point for reflections of your own experience?

CHOMSKY: So you started out by suggesting “large, broad, and deep,”and I guess, and then you propose the counterpoint, “not well organized.” I guess, in addition to “large, broad, and deep,” I would also say “fragmented, and frequently at odds with itself.” That, and I guess that is perhaps connected to “not well organized,” but I think it also challenges the idea of “large, broad, and deep.” I think there's almost a conflict between “broad” and“deep” in the Left in the United States, and I think we see this in the union movement as well. That is, the union movement, compared to other elements of the Left, it's large. It's also, compared to union movements in other countries, it's small compared to what the union movement was in the United States a couple of generations ago. It’s small, and it's shrinking, and the relationship of the union movement with the Left in the United States is also fraught. There have been moments in U.S. history where I think the union movement has — There's always been a Left outside of the union movement, and the relationship of the union movement with the Left outside of the union movement has not has frequently been rocky and it continues to be rocky today. The union movement itself is broad, and encompasses unions that range from the Left to the Right, really.

DR. WOLFF: Yeah, let me let me pick up on that. When I read through your book “Organizing For Power,” I got the impression that your authors in that in that volume struggled with that last point you made. That is, there was the recognition that there ought to be, in some sense, an alliance, a coalition, between the social movement Left, on the one hand, and the labor movement on the other, but it isn't there. Or, if it is there, to use your word, it's “fraught.”Do you see signs that this is being understood, and/or addressed, on the Left in the United States?

CHOMSKY: I see signs, but I think we still have quite a ways to go. So one question for the union movement is like ‘bread and butter unionism’ versus ‘social movement unionism.’ That is, is the goal of the union to represent strictly the interests of already employed workers in a particular workplace, to have more power inside their workplace, or does the union have a larger vision of social transformation in the interests of the working class? And then there's also another part of that question, which is fraught in a country like the United States is, “So how do we define the working class?” Who's included, and who isn’t? Like immigrant workers? Gig workers? And the American, the U.S. union movement, has frequently had a fraught relationship with the issue of immigration. What about non-white workers? The union movement, the history of the union movement in the United States has traditionally been among euro-descended workers, and it’s frequently been quite exclusive and racist towards non-euro-descended workers, many of whom work, and also worked in, and continue to work ,in sectors of the economy that are not necessarily covered by the union movement. And then an even bigger level the union movement, although there are claims towards internationalism, is based in the United States and, in many cases, has kind of accepted the idea of a world order in which workers in the United States benefit from U.S. foreign policies that exploit workers, and working-class people, and poor people elsewhere in the world.

So these are all struggles I think within the union movement. And you know, when we talk about “So what is the union movement,” the American Federation of Labor, and later the AFL-CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations) the mainstream of the union movement, there also have always been unions, labor organizations, outside that. The Maine Labor Federation, organizations like the IWW, even the United Farm Workers, which was my introduction to union organizing in the United States, was really (although there's been moments when farmworkers have been supported by the AFL-CIO) there's also been moments where the AFL-CIO have been happy to exclude agricultural workers. And of course, you know in a globally integrated economy, and in a hegemonic power like the United States, you know the idea that something is going to be good for the U.S. economy, or for U.S. workers, doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be good for poor people in other countries. It often means it’s going to be bad for poor people in other countries.

DR. WOLFF: Tell me, I know that you have focused much of your thinking, and research, and teaching on Latin America. Is there, are there lessons from the left and the labor movements in those countries that you would like to see learned, or brought to the attention of the American Left, and the American labor movement? I mean, are there things we need to learn from the folks down there, and what might they be?

CHOMSKY: Well, one really unifying trend, I think, among the Left and in the union movement in Latin America is anti-imperialism. That is one of the things that has created, I think, a more coherent Left in Latin America. Of course, there's a great diversity in the union movement in Latin America as well. And the unions are frequently affiliated with political parties, and those political parties cover a kind of a spectrum. So it's not that there are no unions that are more closer to the right, or the center, than they are to the Left, but I think anti-imperialism has been a topic that's been really difficult for the Left in the United States to comprehend and to rally around. And and this comes back to what I was saying before about the orientation of unions toward bread and butter issues, like ‘we want things to be better for the workers that we represent,’ but in a finite planet and “better” has often been described in terms of increasing consumption, increasing access to goods and services. And in a finite planet, increasing consumption in the country that is already the largest consumer in the world means that we are not only destroying the planet for all of us, but also taking resources and destroying resources in the Third World. And industrialization in the United States, and in Europe, and the industrialized countries has always been part of a global system in which workers in the industrializing countries — no matter how exploited they have been — have been part of a global system that is exploiting enslaved people, people of color, people in the third world — even more in complementary ways. And without thinking about those struggles as as part of a larger struggle that has to include anti-imperialism at its center, I think that's something that's much more visible to Latin American workers and unions, than it is to U.S. workers in unions.

DR. WOLFF: Let me again ask you to think about this problem. There are those who say that the labor movements in many other countries — Europe, Latin America, and so on — have a kind of ongoing (not without its problems) but an ongoing relationship to a political party, a Socialist party, a Communist party, a Labour party, whatever it’s called. And that therefore, a certain kind of division of labor, let’s say, emerges in which the unions push on the workplace etcetera, but they're allied to a political party that might take an anti-imperialist position. We don't have that in this country, in the sense that we don't have a significant. How important is that, in your mind?

CHOMSKY: Well, in working with the union movement in Colombia, sometimes we joke that, like here in the United States, I would say we basically don't have political parties at all. I mean, the Democratic and Republican parties are more like a joke, than they are like actual political parties, but Colombia has a very strong political party system, and sometimes we joke that the only thing worse than not having political parties, is having political parties, because the very deep-rooted, and strong, and highly politicized political party system in places like Colombia, Chile, pretty much almost everywhere in Latin America, also leads to its own kind of infighting, and fragmentation, and divisions among the Left. But I think it also can lead to alliances, and a more coherent vision, a larger vision of social change than unions in this country have have tended to have. And certainly then political parties in this country have, so it's not just that the unions aren't allied with political parties. I mean, the unions are pretty much allied with the Democratic Party. It’s that we don't have parties at all. That is the Democratic Party is not a party with a coherent vision for social transformation. There is no such party in the United States.

DR. WOLFF: All right. We're running out of time, so let me let me press you a little bit. Can you point us, because we need it these days, to something that's happened recently in the labor movement that you find hopeful?

CHOMSKY: I guess what I find most hopeful is a really strong recognition among many sectors of the labor movement that the only hope for a reinvigorated labor movement is social movement unionism, and organizing for the common good. That is not a really radical vision for social transformation, but it is a step back towards the idea that unions must represent the interests of the working class, and that means the public good, public education, a social welfare state.

DR. WOLFF: All right. This has been wonderful. Thank you so much, Aviva Chomsky. I wish, as always, that we had more time, but your perspective is one that we want to bring on the program increasingly and particularly, you’re having sort of one foot in the American Left, and one foot in the Latino or Latin American Left. That's the kind of cross-fertilization of thinking that we want. Thank you very much again, and to all my listeners, I hope you got as much out of this as we did, and that I look forward, as always, to speaking with you again next week.


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About our guest: Aviva Chomsky is Professor of History and coordinator of Latin American Studies at Salem State University in Massachusetts.  She has published widely on labor history, immigration and undocumentedness, Central America, Cuba, and Colombia.  Her most recent books include Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration and Organizing for Power: Building a Twenty-First Century Labor Movement in Boston, the latter co-edited with Steve Striffler. Her next book, “Is Science Enough?  Forty Critical Questions about Climate Justice” is due out in 2022.  She has been active in Latin America solidarity and immigrants’ rights movements for several decades.


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