Economic Update: Working Class Radicalism

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On this week's show, Prof. Wolff presents updates on why the US record on Covid-19 so much worse than most others'; corporation buys Trump; US billionaires got much richer during pandemic while 42 million workers lost their jobs; sharp rise to 66,433 homeless in LA. The second part of the show features an interview with creative activist and journalist, Eleanor Goldfield on her new film "Hard Road of Hope" on working class radicalism.

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Welcome, friends, to another edition of Economic Update, a weekly program devoted to the economic dimensions of our lives: jobs, incomes, debts, our own, our children’s. And I’m your host, Richard Wolff.

I want to begin today with a recent article from Time magazine. It was prepared by two doctors and tells us in a very precise and concise way what we’re dealing with with the coronavirus, now that we’ve had several months of it. The two authors deserve to have their credentials read out. The first one is Gavin Yamey. He’s a physician and a professor of global health and public policy at Duke University. The second is Dean Jamison. He is likewise a professor. But he’s at the Institute for Global Health Sciences at the University of California in San Francisco. Yamey and Jamison together wrote the article for Time magazine. It begins with a statistic so sharp that in a way it takes your breath away. And let me share it with you: The COVID-19 death rate in the United States has now passed 340 persons per million residents in the United States. That is 100 times the rate of infection in the People’s Republic of China, hundred times more per person, per member of your society in one country than the other. It goes together with another statistic that the United States has 5% of the world’s people and 30% of the world’s deaths from the coronavirus. But Yamey and Jamison go on and point out: it’s not just China, it’s not even particularly China. Here are the other countries that have kept their death rates very low: Austria, Germany, and Greece—much lower than the U.S.—in the East Asia and Pacific area the countries with much, much lower include Australia, Hong Kong, Mongolia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand. They have been able to keep—all of those countries—their death rates below 7 per million versus in the U.S. 340 per million. And let’s remember, many of these countries have highly packed densely populated large cities or anything else, that the United States has, they have the equivalent or the comparable conditions. Vietnam, a country, governed by the Communist Party, with a population of 96 million—that’s just a little under a third of the United States—has suffered no reported deaths at all. It has had the virus, but no deaths from it. Okay. What’s going on here? Well, let’s remember: United States is one of the richest countries in the world, the United States has a well-developed medical care system—expensive, but well-developed. Well then, if you’re a rich country, you have a lot of resources. And if you have a well-developed medical system, how do you account for having 340 per million, when so many other countries in the in the world have done so much better in terms of containing the virus? And the answers offered by the two professors of medicine, the two doctors, in Time magazine is that it was a failure of the government in cooperation with the private industries that produce tests, and ventilators, and gloves, and masks—they didn’t adequately prepare for this virus as they could and should have, and they have not adequately managed it as they could and should have. The system is the problem, not the doctor, not the factory, but the combination of private profit-driven enterprises and a government that does what those folks say and not much more—there lies the problem and there is the killer even if it appears that it’s a virus.

My next update has to do with an example that is so grotesque that I couldn’t pass it up. Sometimes the buying of government politicians is so blatant, so obvious that in a way it’s refreshing to look at it, because it’s right there—there’s no subtlety, there’s no hiding, there’s no cosmetics to cover it up. So here’s the example. On June 11th, in an elegant home in Dallas, Texas, President Trump was on hand for a dinner. The dinner was hosted, there in Dallas, in his home, by Kelcy Warren. He is the CEO of something called Energy Transfer Partners. They’re one of the largest oil and gas pipeline companies in the United States. And they are famous or infamous, depending on your perspective, because they’re the company that built the Dakota Access Pipeline. And in order to get the Dakota Access Pipeline built, lots of hurdles had to be “overcome”: environmental rules, rules about Native American tribes—all kinds of things had to be “fixed”. And the Trump Administration “fixed” them all. And that’s why he’s a billionaire, and that’s why he’s hosting the dinner, and that’s why Mr. Trump was there. Today Mr. Warren has contributed to Mr. Trump over the last, at least, five or six years in excess of $700,000 dollars—just Mr. Warren, by his lonesome, has helped out. But this dinner—that’s a much bigger event. There were 25 couples that came to the dinner, at least that’s the report, so roughly 50 people. The price that each of them paid, which was an official price charged per couple, if you want to attend, here’s the price for a couple for dinner—ready?—five hundred and eighty thousand dollars and six hundred, $580,600 dollars per couple. Don’t ask me why it’s such a particular number. I have no idea. I’m suggesting their accountants probably could explain why that particular number. Therefore, the dinner, which, according to press reports, lasted one hour netted the Trump Administration just a little under $15 million dollars. Okay. Let me be clear: for one hour, fifty people, having dinner, with all the attending waiters, waitresses, PR people, and everybody else—I’m sure the room must have had 75 to a hundred people minimum—had the presence of the President for one hour. In one hour he couldn’t have shaken everybody’s hand, let alone had a conversation. Nothing happened here in the way of anything other than an exchange: the couples paid the money and the President put in an appearance, letting them know that it was money well-spent, which, of course, the host, Kelcy Warren, already knew, because he spent $700,000 and all the hurdles in the way of his becoming a billionaire were “fixed”. It’s how the government works. And it’s why proud Americans have long said, “We have the best government money can buy.”

While we’re on billionaires, let me take the next step. People have asked me, because there have been some press reports, “How have the billionaires been doing while the rest of us go through the COVID-19 pandemic and the worst bout of unemployment, literally, in a century?” Last count: 42 million people have been thrown out of, et cetera, et cetera. How did the U.S. billionaires do? Here’s the report: between March 18th—these are the dates that I have for—March 18th and May 19th, so exactly there are two key months of this pandemic so far, the total net worth of the 600+ billionaires that we have in the United States rose—ready?—from, here we go, $2.948 trillion to $3.382 trillion. I did the difficult math of comparing the two numbers, so I’m here to tell you, and I’m sure you’ll be as proud as I am, that the 600+ billionaires in America saw their wealth in those two months of pandemic, plus record-breaking unemployment, go up by $434 billion dollars. That’s right. While you were worrying how to live with your child in two-and-a-half rooms, while you were worried to death about your job whether it would be there when you went back to it—all of that—they sat on an increase in their wealth of $434 billion dollars. In fact, by the end in May, there were 614 billionaires at the beginning and by the end, there were 630. So there were newcomers. And one of them—I’m mentioning only because you might be interested—was Kanye West who came in at $1.3 billion. He was a billionaire at the end of the pandemic, just not at the beginning. And of course, he was one of the most modest billionaires—there are those who have much, much more than he does. 42 million people unemployed and 630 billionaires becoming much, much richer. If those people had to pay a tax on how they gained during the national emergency we’re living through, they would still be the 600 richest people in this country, but we would have half a trillion dollars to use for the testing, for the space creating, the safe distancing—all the rest that we need as a nation. But we don’t have what we need, the vast majority, so 600 billionaires could become even richer than they already were.

And then there’s Los Angeles. Sort of the other side of the pendulum of what is going on in our country. Last Friday Los Angeles released its annual homeless count. So here are the results: as of last Friday in Los Angeles County the total number of people living on the streets, in shelters, and in vehicles was—get ready—66,433. That’s up 12.7% from 2019. 600 billionaires became much, much wealthier. 66,000 people live on the streets, in a shelter or in their cars. What kind of a society does this, makes the already unbelievably rich richer, while condemning—in one city alone—66,000 people without a home, in enormous danger, unable, of course, if you’re homeless, to wash your hands many times a day, to keep safe distancing, to protect yourself from dying, which homeless people can do, even though the money increase in wealth of the wealthiest could easily house every one of them? If ever you needed me to summarize a program by saying, “We can do better than capitalism,” this list of statistics should have done it.

We’ve come to the end of today’s first part of our program. Please remember to subscribe to our YouTube channel. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Check out our website democracyatwork.info to learn more about Democracy at Work shows, our union co-op store and the two books we’ve published: “Understanding Marxism” and “Understanding Socialism”. And lastly, a special thanks to our Patreon community whose invaluable supports makes all these shows possible. Stay with us. We’ll be right back with a guest, Eleanor Goldfield.

Welcome back, friends, to the second half of today’s Economic Update. It is with real pleasure that I welcome back, for the second time, to our microphones and our camera Eleanor Goldfield. At this time, she’s here to talk about a new film that she has just completed, that, I think, will interest everybody and that is an important comment more so now, perhaps, than even when she produced it. Eleanor is a creative activist and artist, and a journalist. Her work has appeared on Free Speech TV, ROAR Magazine, Popular Resistance, RT, and many more outlets. She is the host of the podcast “Act Out!” and she’s the co-host of the podcast “Common Censored” along with Lee Camp who has also been on our program in the past. Besides touring, performing, and media work, Eleanor assists in front-line action organizing and also in activist trainings. The name of her new film is “Hard Road of Hope”.

WOLFF: Welcome, Eleanor. Glad that you’re here with us.

GOLDFIELD: Thank you so much for having me.

WOLFF: Well, good. Tell us, to start, a little bit about your film: what it is, what you have in mind, what you hope it will accomplish.

GOLDFIELD: Yeah so “Hard Word of Hope” is the story of West Virginia’s radical past and the folks that are working very hard in the present to build a radical future. And it really speaks to the power both in terms of the power of burying a radical past, which is something that’s done not just in West Virginia, of course, but across the United States with regards to our radical history in terms of labor rights and racial justice. And it also really speaks to how West Virginia is treated like a throwaway state with throwaway people; when in reality, West Virginia is not only a microcosm of the issues that the entire country faces in terms of corporate malfeasance and destruction at the hands of industry oppression at the hands of the corporate state, but also this sort of history and present of resilience that’s based on, you know, many decades of radical organizing in particular with regards to labor movements and how that is being used again in this moment whether that be the West Virginia teachers going on strike or, indeed, the fight against coal and fracking in the state.

WOLFF: Tell us what the film, you know, a little bit very brief to give people a feeling for what you do, what the film says or does in the minutes that you have.

GOLDFIELD: Right. So I think the main goal of the film is to highlight the importance of recognizing our history. But it also speaks to the importance of not looking at a state or a people like they’re a throwaway, like they can be easily discarded. And I think, you know, I grew up partially in North Carolina and West Virginia was kind of the butt end of jokes there. And if you’re the butt end of jokes in North Carolina, then something has really gone awry. But the truth of the matter is that West Virginia is the third poorest state in the nation, it’s the second most rural state, and the people there are very isolated both geographically, but also isolated in terms of the extreme propagandization, the extreme brainwashing that they’re dealing with, and, you know, that’s these are some of the reasons why West Virginia also leads the nation in opioids, in the opioid crisis and opioid deaths. And what I wanted to show here was I really wanted to show the importance of being of organizing with these people. You know, I think that a lot of times, particularly in white organizing circles, people look at places like West Virginia, which is predominantly white and, obviously, very poor, as a throwaway that it can be discarded as something that’s already a foregone conclusion to the far-right wing extremism. But in reality, even if we look at something like the term “redneck”, which has been propagandized and twisted to mean something different in today’s world, actually comes from a labor rights background. The term “redneck” was started by white and black mine workers who tied on red bandanas and marched together for basic workers’ rights, and actually, one basic workers’ rights during the mine wars at the beginning of the 20th century. So it’s really important to bring back this radical history and let it guide as we build and organize into in our present day.

WOLFF: All right, good. Let me push you a little bit to go into some of the implications, if you like, of a film like this. One question that comes up often on this program is that given today’s horrendous level of unemployment in the United States that we can expect, given the way capitalism usually works, that employers are going to take advantage of the unemployment to cut wages, cut benefits, force workers to accept much worse conditions on the job for fear of losing the job since it’s so easy for an employer to pull people out of unemployment: Did you get a sense either when you were producing this film or now that you think back on it, are we in for harder times everywhere? Is the rest of the countries working class in a way about to experience what may have already been the reality in West Virginia?

GOLDFIELD: Yes. And I think you made a great point there. The idea of West Virginia being that microcosm and the importance of recognizing that labor rights organizing is the antidote and the answer to the coming issues that we’re going to face—absolutely. And the thing that they’ve done in coal country and now in fracking country as well is really hold that over people’s heads like, “Well, you have to have these coal mines, you have to have these pipelines, and these well pads, and things like that, because what are you going to do without jobs?” But in reality, as you’ve noted too, you could give people jobs doing anything. The idea that you’d have to give people jobs destroying the planet and their own bodies is really absurd. And it really just speaks to the oppressive nature of the capitalist system that places profit above people at every turn. And I think that West Virginia is that kind of that sign on the road that says, “This is what’s up ahead for the rest of the nation,” in a lot of ways. And that really speaks to why it’s so important that folks are organizing in places like West Virginia and beyond with everything from, you know, becoming organizing around the general strike to really recognize that the workers are the ones who have the power. And this sort of pride and oppression that oftentimes happens in industrial towns like we see in West Virginia, or Ohio, or Kentucky, or Pennsylvania, it really is a problem of propagandization. And we as organizers have a job to do in terms of breaking down that propagandization, and recognizing, and asserting the power of the workers.

WOLFF: Yeah, I’m reminded by what you just said of the fact that we did a program here while back on the West Virginia teachers’ strike. And it was really remarkable: the solidarity, the organization. And it kind of goes to your point that there had to be a history behind that. Even though they said, “You know, we haven’t done this before,” somewhere in the DNA or in the past of those people is no doubt a kind of history that sits there waiting to be renewed and reborn. Alright, let me turn to another question that I know is on many of our viewers and listeners minds: What is the feeling, what did you get from the West Virginia folks that you dealt with in terms of their attitude towards conventional politics, towards Mr. Trump and the GOP, on the one hand, and now Biden and the Democrat; how does all of the reality of their hard lives with the hope you tell us they have, how does that shape what they think about these political alternatives?

GOLDFIELD: I think something that I noticed in West Virginia is something that I know of, I’ve also noticed in North Carolina, in Louisiana, in Alabama in various parts of the South that are, you know, known nationally or even internationally as “the red states”, “the very hardcore red states”. And people say kind of the same thing. One is that, “We don’t trust the government,” and, you know, “the Democrats always try to sugarcoat things and Republicans just say it like it is,” and the other thing that they say is that they listen to someone like Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and they say, “Hey, yeah, actually I do think that I should have health care.” But of course, we know that the Democrats work incredibly hard to sideline Bernie Sanders both in 2016 and this year. And so, you know, hard workers in these places like West Virginia who think that, you know, Sanders has some good ideas will then say, “Well, you know, what I just don’t trust someone like Biden. And, you know, I don’t necessarily trust Trump, but I guess he’s different,” which, of course, is silly—he’s not. He’s a member, a proud member, of the billionaire class. But it’s this sort of idea that Trump is somehow on the outside looking in and this sort of dynastic feeling that they get from the Democrats, they just absolutely mistrust.

WOLFF: Well, I mean I know no one can predict it, I don’t want to put you out on a limb here. But is your guess then that Mr. Trump will hold a significant number of those people based on what you just told us?

GOLDFIELD: I do think so, unfortunately, and this speaks to. And one of the former coal miners that I spoke to in West Virginia said that you know they had been primed for Trump, that Trump was a perfect example of the deep propagandization that’s happened in that state. You know, he said that his grandfather if you said the word “scab” would have had a fit. But now the idea of a “scab” that meaning, you know, somebody who goes to work when the actual union workers are on strike, that doesn’t mean anything. Now folks look at unions like there’s some sort of like liberal, you know, step towards anarchy, or communism, or something like that. So the propagandization really runs deep here. And I think that because of that and because a lot of leftist organizers have not focused on these poor and rural and predominantly white communities that this propagandization will bolster Trump.

WOLFF: All right. Well, that brings me to my last question in terms of the time that we have: Based on all your experience, not just in West Virginia, but particularly with your hard work on this film, what do you think it would take to revive, to bring to the present situation a kind of culmination or a fulfillment of the radical past you see there and the radical traditions you find? What has to happen to re-engage in a political fight that radical rout of West Virginia and by extension of the whole country’s working class?

GOLDFIELD: There’s a saying in movement spaces that I really like which is: Meet people where they’re at, not where you want them to be. And I think that that has to be something that we really focus on as organizers in these communities. Even if people don’t have the privilege of an education that means they know what something like, you know, Democratic confederalism means, everyone knows what oppression feels like. So we have to be willing to meet these folks where they’re at, understand the decades of oppression that they’ve lived under, and how they have had to make the difficult choice between working in a coal mine, for instance, and watching their family starve; understanding this oppression and not trying to demonize people who work in these situations, but understanding and empathizing with that situation, and having that as a starting point in terms of our organizing, and, you know, recognizing that it is grassroots activism connecting people with their radical history and taking pride in this sort of in the organizing that saw black mine workers and white mine workers marching together, and understanding that this is where we build that solidarity. You know, and in the film, I say, “At this intersection on the hard road of hope with this shared oppression is where we have to build that future.” And so I think combining that history with the present like the West Virginia teachers’ strike is where we build that power and we see it happening. And I think there’s a lot of inspiration to be pulled from West Virginia in that as well.

WOLFF: Well, I couldn’t imagine scripting a better way to end. Thank you very much, Eleanor. Her film, for all of you watching and listening: “Hard Road of Hope”, Eleanor Goldfield. This is a film we need to spread everywhere in this country because of the message it carries: the renewal of that radical tradition, the recognition that that tradition is there to be built on. So thank you for your film, thank you for joining us. And for all of those who have the good luck of having this interview, I look forward to speaking with you again next week.



Transcript by Aleh Haiko
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