Sunday, April 6, 2008

Getting screwed in America

From the Marx and Coca-Cola blog.

It’s not often you hear a politician in America talk about class, especially about the working class. So I was surprised to learn that senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) had asked his constituents to send him their stories about being caught in the "middle-class squeeze". He received over 360 responses, which is pretty good for a tiny state like Vermont. For those of you who don’t know much about Bernie, he was elected to the senate in 2006 after a about 10 years in the House. He describes himself as a democratic socialist (he has a picture of Eugene Debs in his office, he never combs his hair, loves Scandinavia, etc.). Despite (Because of?) his "European" politics he does quite well in the electoral arena (he beat the riches man in Vermont by 33% the last election). He’s probably the only politician who would actually care if anyone is having trouble making ends meet.

Before I post some of these stories I should say a few words about the term "middle class". There is no such thing. What we think of as the "middle class" is actually a section of the working class that has either attained a high level of education, or income, or both. So professionals, paper pushers, managers, as well as some union and skilled jobs are considered "middle class". These jobs are thought of as secure from the economic turmoils that affects the working class. But as these people testify that is not actually the case:

"My family has been hit so hard by this economy, we are barely staying afloat.
We have remortgaged the house 4 times in the last three years to pay credit card debt. Now we are trying to tap into our annuity to pay more credit card debt. The debts on the credit cards are all for bills. Mostly grocery, oil and the mere cost of living.

My husband is a union carpenter who works outside the state of Vermont and they just changed our fantastic insurance plan to a terrible one with barely any coverage. I have none of my doctors on it and I suffer from a painful burning nerve damage, due to a hysterectomy that I had four years ago. I am not eligible for social security disability and I am unable to work.

We had a dream to live in Vermont (we are originally from Long Island) and to own our own home, that dream came true seven years ago. I am afraid our dream is slipping through our fingers and it wont be long before we lose our home, the way things are going."

Most of the stories mention either the increase in either oil or food prices.

"As a couple with one child, earning about $55000/year, we have been able to eat out a bit, buy groceries and health insurance, contribute to our retirement funds and live a relatively comfortable life financially. We’ve never accumulated a lot of savings, but our bills were always paid on time and never any interest on our credit card. Over the last year, even though we’ve tightened our belts (not eating out much, watching purchases at the grocery store, not buying "extras" like a new TV, repairing the washer instead of buying a new one...), we find ourselves with over $7000 of credit card debt and trying to figure out how to pay for braces for our son! I work 50 hours per week to help earn extra money to catch up, but that also takes a toll on the family life--not spending those 10 hours at home with my husband and son makes a big difference for all of us. My husband hasn’t had a raise in 3 years, and his employer is looking to cut out any extra benefits they can to lower their expenses, which will increase ours!"

"I cannot afford the middle class. I live on Social Security Disability Income and live in subsidized housing.

Between the cuts in Medicare, increased prescription costs and escalating food prices, I have cut my expenses to the bare bone. Not even my food stamp allotment is enough. By the way, whenever a Food stamp recipient turns 65 as I did in February, we are no longer eligible for food stamps. Instead, we receive a cash allotment through our EBT cards.

When I grocery shop, I buy generic brands and whenever possible, I buy in bulk, thereby saving more than I would shopping either White Market of Price Chopper.

I know people who are choosing between buying gas so they can get to work; paying for medical care/prescriptions; and/or buying food. Too often they can no longer afford child care.

Thank you, Bernie, for caring about us."

"Wife of 50 years and I retired after 50 years of work. We had what we believed was enough to let us live frugally but ok. The last 3 years have been tough. We live on $1593.00 a month plus a income of $2200. a month from rental of our spare rooms. Our mortgage alone is $3300.00 a month This is our fault some what due to the ease of borrowing money. We have stopped paying all cards and bills. The first of June we will be forced to file a petition of Bankruptcy.

We will lose our home we built out of a old barn. And has been our home for 30+ years. We do not know what to do next.We have attempted to consolidate our bills.We have been turned down by even those who loaned us money originally. We do not want to loose our home. What can we do? If a bank or other institution will only listen. I believe we could weather this period."

You can read the rest of them here. I recommend you do, it’s not often you here the experiences of regular people. And feel free to leave your own in my comment section.


What is the public's opinion? (2008)

From the April 2008 issue of the Socialist Standard
In the vicious world of capitalist competition, opinion polling finds a vital and profitable niche not for the laudable purpose of discerning or complying with the public interest but with the manipulation of public opinion in the interest of profit.
As in all previous stages of human social development, today wealth is produced and can only be produced by the application of human labour power to the resources of nature. Capitalism complicates the process of wealth production by the separation of these two productive essentials; a relatively small minority of human beings claim a right to the ownership of nature’s resources, which are effectively the means of life of the whole of humanity, while the great majority are obliged to sell their physical and mental abilities to these owners. The wealth that results from this combination of resources and labour power becomes the property of the owners who give those who have expended their labour power tokens which are called wages with which they can purchase the part of the vast aggregation of wealth they have created.

That is the basic nature of capitalism. However, in effect it is much more convoluted and wasteful than this might suggest. In today’s world all the goods and services needed by people are produced mainly in the form of commodities against the background of their real or imagined use value. But the shareholders who own the enterprises that produce these goods and services and the usually richly-rewarded directors who organise the enterprises are not philanthropists concerned with the public good.

Their interest is not primarily the use value of the commodities they produce; it is the exchange value of those commodities; the price for which they are bought and which contains, in normal circumstances, that surplus beyond the cost of production (including the cost of sale) which enriches the shareholders and allows for continued economic viability.

So the kernel of this complex and extremely wasteful exercise is profit which is yielded only when purchasers are persuaded to buy specific goods or services from among the competing suppliers. It is important for capitalist enterprises to ascertain public attitudes either to adopt their products or prices to prevailing modes or to influence change in those attitudes by product design, price or advertising.

Politics and public opinion
In the last British General Election, the Labour and Tory parties spent some £18 million each and the Liberal Democrats spent £4.3 million. These large sums were additional to what might be called their ’constant capital’ in the form of existing organisation, publicly-funded offices, salaries and equipment; vast sums that must surely conflict with the notion of ‘free’ elections.

These amounts are being dwarfed by the massive sums currently being invested in the US primaries, where the two candidates for the role of capitalism’s political office manager are being selected. In contradistinction to the nonsense about ‘spreading democracy’ in areas deemed of consequence to US interests, the American variety of that system reveals a monumentally expensive and cynical exercise between two politically indistinguishable groups concerned with sculpting politics in the general interests of capital. As in Britain and the rest of the developed world, other aspiring politicians, denied real public exposure by a pensioned media, will be permitted to enter the hustings to make up the numbers and reinforce the fiction that the public are offered a fair and informed choice.

Obviously Public Opinion in both politics and commerce is of considerable importance; but it is politically innocuous in that it never questions the fundamental way in which the needs and requirements of the human family are organised. Politicians, the business fraternity, clerics and journalists may criticise some aspect or aspects of the system: show a preference for making some adjustment in planning or administration or suggest a different political or economic strategy but always within the framework of the existing social system.

Such people may display courage, energy and enthusiasm in campaigning for a cause but always they do so on the assumption that there is no alternative to the present order of things; that the old political and economic fundamentals of capitalism are as inevitable as the seasons; that they have always existed and that there is no other way of running society.

Dominant ideas
Karl Marx made the obvious point that the ideas that dominate in society are those of its ruling class. It doesn’t follow that in our present society the majority of people like capitalism. On the contrary, the mere want or dire poverty of capitalism, the frightening destruction of the biosphere, the increasing disparity of wealth between rich and poor, the permanent threat of war, violence and crime, these things are too pronounced, too close to the lives of the people to escape being the daily staples of news and public concern.

The point was well made by a contributor to the World Socialist Movement’s website ( who quoted a University of Michigan opinion poll showing that some two-thirds of Americans believe government is being “run by big interests looking out for themselves”.

We do not need an opinion poll to confirm this finding; ask those you work with or the people in the pub or in the club. It is no secret that a small minority of people are millionaires and billionaires or that such people do not actively participate in producing goods and services. Unfortunately, despite claiming that they live in a democratic society, most people’s reaction to their own condemnation of the system is likely to be something like. “Yes, it’s true but, unfortunately, there’s not much we can do about it!”

In the past
Capitalism’s great historic mission has been to make the production of wealth social; socialists want to make the distribution of wealth social. To achiever its purpose the bourgeoisie overthrew feudal society and its aristocracy by means of violent revolution. To do that, to get the political control of that combination of labour power and the resources of nature, they had to contest and overcome the prevailing public opinion.

A stalwart of the, then, prevailing public opinion was the church. It proclaimed that the power of kings to rule was ordained by God. In turn this ordinance of Divine Right was reciprocated by loyalty from king to church. Power under the monarch was organised by patents of vast estates to men who were favoured by the monarch for service to the crown and who paid tribute and pledged loyalty to the crown. This aristocracy of lords and titled personages in turn granted servitude to the poor and dispossessed serfs who, in return for working their landlords estates and being available for military service, were afforded the privilege of a portion of land on which to provide habitation and subsistence for themselves and their families.

As the medieval merchants, the burghers of the towns, grew more affluent and nascent technological developments created the basis of greater productive unit’s for the employment of labour the middle class, the bourgeoisie, challenged the aristocracy for political power in order that it could legislate political conditions conducive to its interests. The public opinion that underpinned feudalism had to be changed including the theological dictums of the church which upheld the power base of the king and the aristocracy and condemned such practices as usury, as banking was an important function in the new fledgling capitalism.

So Europe saw the birth of Protestantism and ‘religious’ wars that concealed the profane interests of the opposing owning classes. The victory of capitalism over its archaic rival was assured; it represented a progressive social development, in fact an idea whose time had come and it was ultimately irresistible.

Public opinion today
Today capitalism reigns supreme throughout the world not because the majority support it but simply because the majority accept it and they accept it because they know of no alternative to it. Socialists offer a clear, practical and rational alternative but as yet the socialist movement is small and unfortunately the broad Left, whatever its intentions, has not only created massive confusion among our class but in claiming state capitalism as its goal, these ersatz socialists have created a mass consciousness of the cure being worse than the disease.

This notion of the immutability of capitalism is the bulwark that defends that system and the ruling class and their political hirelings are not slow to use lies and scare tactics in defence of their system. The millionaires and billionaires do not invest their millions and billions in the electronic and print media to inform the working class about the cause of their problems; these are valuable instruments in fashioning contemporary public opinion. The media will find space for acres of nonsense: a man who bites a dog, a Prince, of whose mother, the Head of the Anglican Church, advised him to go killing in Afghanistan, the lunacies of celebrities. . . Effectively, what we call ‘news’ is part of the conditioning process of capitalism.

The fare served up by political journalists is simply the current vicissitudes of capitalism; the vices and virtues, as they or their masters see them, of the inevitabilities of the system. Rarely are they equipped with a knowledge of the socialist alternative and even if they were and wished to advise the public it is unlikely that their material would pass muster with the concealed editors – the shareholders.

Socialism is not a palliative for the ills of capitalism; those ills are endemic to the system and they have defied the best plans and the best intentions of the wise and the well-intentioned right across the political spectrum. Uniquely socialists do not suggest that they have the answer to either the system or any the system’s problems; in fact we argue that they are not problems, they are inevitable aspects of capitalism; that instead of voting to change the politicians who run the system we should be voting for representatives mandated to abolish capitalism and establish socialism.

Still, whether they like what is happening or not, the media must deal with what are deemed newsworthy situations They must report the presence of 200,000 people demonstrating in Trafalgar Square about the war in Iraq. The case for socialism, too, will become ‘news’ when 200,000 people are demonstrating not against a particular war but against the system that causes wars and the multiplicity of social evils of which the Left make separate causes.

The socialist objective
The public opinion that socialists want to promote is one that encourages the public to consider the case for socialism and ultimately to use the limping democracy afforded by capitalism to abolish that system and establish socialism.

Socialism will mean that all the instruments of production and distribution will be taken into the common ownership of society as a whole and will be used solely to produce the goods and services needed by the human family. The axiom: “From each according to their ability; to each according to their need” will become the general principle underpinning the production and distribution of wealth. The wages and money system, so wantonly wasteful of most human activity today, will become redundant; people will no longer be stratified by class divisions; the nexus between property and crime will be broken and the vested interests that promote armaments and wars and a frightening threat to the entire biosphere will cease to exist.

The nature of the socialist case determines the means by which it will be achieved. Socialism from its inception will need the voluntary co-operation of its citizens. The mass of people will no longer be anonymous wage slaves. Those who opt for socialism must know the life-changing benefits to be derived from the new system; equally, they must be clearly aware of their individual obligations to that system.

That is what socialism is about; it is not a quick-fix; it involves clarifying the meaning of socialism and shattering the belief that there is no alternative to capitalism and that cannot be done by claims that we can patch-up the system with piece-meal reforms.

That is something we would ask out fellow-workers on the Left to consider.
Richard Montague
Further articles by Richard Montague can be found here.