Good Morning, Revolution

We have explored in-depth what socialism is and how it works, but it is equally important to consider how to bring it about.

Well, there is a word that has stirred in the U.S., and roared to life throughout history. The great poet and socialist Langston Hughes penned in 1932:

Good morning Revolution:
You are the best friend
I ever had.
We gonna pal around together from now on.
Say, listen, Revolution:
You know the boss where I used to work,
The guy that gimme the air to cut expenses,
He wrote a long letter to the papers about you:
Said you was a trouble maker, a alien-enemy,
In other words a son-of-a-bitch.
He called up the police
And told ’em to watch out for a guy
Named Revolution

You see,
The boss knows you are my friend.
He sees us hanging out together
He knows we’re hungry and ragged,
And ain’t got a damn thing in this world –
And are gonna to do something about it.

The boss got all his needs, certainly,
Eats swell,
Owns a lotta houses,
Goes vacationin’,
Breaks strikes,
Runs politics, bribes police
Pays off congress
And struts all over earth –

But me, I ain’t never had enough to eat.
Me, I ain’t never been warm in winter.
Me, I ain’t never known security –
All my life, been livin’ hand to mouth
Hand to mouth.

Listen, Revolution,
We’re buddies, see –
Together,
We can take everything:
Factories, arsenals, houses, ships,
Railroads, forests, fields, orchards,
Bus lines, telegraphs, radios,
(Jesus! Raise hell with radios!)
Steel mills, coal mines, oil wells, gas,
All the tools of production.
(Great day in the morning!)
Everything –
And turn ’em over to the people who work.
Rule and run ’em for us people who work.

Boy! Them radios!
Broadcasting that very first morning to USSR:
Another member of the International Soviet’s done come
Greetings to the Socialist Soviet Republics
Hey you  rising workers everywhere greetings –
And we’ll sign it: Germany
Sign it: China
Sign it: Africa
Sign it: Italy
Sign it: America
Sign it with my one name: Worker
On that day when no one will be hungry, cold oppressed,
Anywhere in the world again.

That’s our job!

I been starvin’ too long
Ain’t you?

Let’s go, Revolution![1]

People don’t realize their power. They feel helpless in the face of injustice and miseries, not understanding the simple truth, that they have the power to take whatever they want. By joining with others, the people—the workers—can radically transform society whenever they please.

There are many tools in the toolbox of social change, all valuable at creating a better society (despite what anti-reformist puritans may say) but varying in effectiveness. Educate others. Harass the powerful in business and politics through petitions, messages, and calls. Vote for and aid socialistic policies and candidates. Run yourself. Put your own initiatives on ballots. Boycott businesses. Protest and march outside workplaces and representatives’ offices. Go on strike, refusing to return to work until your demands are met. Engage in acts of civil disobedience: sit in and occupy your workplace or a political chamber, block streets as the powerful try to head to work, and other illegal acts, facing down the risk of arrest or violence by police or bystanders. Orwell said, “One has got to be actively a Socialist, not merely sympathetic to Socialism, or one plays into the hands of our always-active enemies.”[2] Malala Yousafzai declared, “I am convinced Socialism is the only answer and I urge all comrades to take this struggle to a victorious conclusion. Only this will free us from the chains of bigotry and exploitation.”[3] The more allies that join the more effective these tactics become, and they have done incalculable good in our own country and around the globe, weakening or defeating occupation, white supremacy, patriarchy, starvation wages, and countless other evils.[4] Progress comes on the backs of the troublemakers.

Though violent revolutions (also in the toolbox) have seen freer, more democratic societies and significant system changes grow out of bloodshed—in our own country and elsewhere—a revolution doesn’t require violence. It may in fact be an insult to the power of the people. Nonviolent mass action (often termed a “revolution” if it grows large enough, though some want the word reserved for violent upheavals) is growing increasingly successful. When political scientists Eric Chenoweth and Maria Stephan examined violent and nonviolent revolutions between 1900 and 2006 they found that nonviolent campaigns were twice as likely to be successful. Since the 1940s the success rate of nonviolent efforts has jumped about 30%, while the success rate for violent efforts has fallen about 30%. The latter are more likely to result in unstable, anti-democratic regimes or bloody civil wars. The researchers found that zero campaigns failed once 3.5% of the population was involved (many won with far less). But only nonviolent revolutions reached this threshold—more people are willing to join a nonviolent revolt and more are physically able to join (children, the sick, the elderly, persons with disabilities).[5] Perhaps no one embodied all this better than Gandhi, who wrote:

My socialism was natural to me and not adopted from any books. It came out of my unshakable belief in non-violence. No man could be actively non-violent and not rise against social injustice, no matter where it occurred…

This socialism is as pure as crystal. It, therefore, requires crystal-like means to achieve it. Impure means result in an impure end. Hence the prince and the peasant will not be equalized by cutting off the prince’s head, nor can the process of cutting off equalize the employer and the employed… Therefore, only truthful, non-violent and pure-hearted socialists will be able to establish a socialistic society in India and the world…[6]

What would a nonviolent revolution that could achieve socialism look like? In short, skip class and work. Spend the day marching through the streets instead—and do not leave until your demands are met. Helen Keller said, “All you need to do to bring about this stupendous revolution is to straighten up and fold your arms.”[7] 3.5% of the U.S. population is a mass strike of 11 million people—and victory could probably be accomplished with fewer. Imagine a million people bringing D.C. to a standstill, with others paralyzing cities across the U.S. When workers come together they can shut down a street, a city, a state, or an entire nation. That’s how you win. Oscar Wilde wrote in The Soul of Man Under Socialism, “Disobedience, in the eyes of anyone who has read history, is man’s original virtue. It is through disobedience that progress has been made, through disobedience and through rebellion.”[8] No violence is necessary; you simply stop producing and bring society to a halt until power yields. True, there is always the risk of being expelled, fired, or arrested, beaten, or killed by the police or army (though they cannot easily get rid of millions of protesters, especially in freer societies). There is no revolution without danger. But prior generations (especially those of color) faced even greater dangers, and with fewer numbers secured lasting victories against our darkest and most oppressive systems. There is truly nothing the people cannot do, if only they unite and refuse to cooperate with power, from the Montgomery, Alabama, boycott that ended local segregated busing in 1956 to the protests that drove out Tunisia’s dictator in 2011.[9] At the time of this writing, in 2018, tens of thousands of West Virginia teachers went on strike, forcing every public school in the state to close, winning higher pay in nine days.[10] Then Arizona teachers, after nine days, won a 20% raise; Oklahoma teachers won the largest pay raise in state history in the same amount of time.[11] The strikes continued to spread. It’s these same proven tactics that can eradicate capitalism, and it is right to use them. Mark Twain said, “I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolute.”[12] Langston Hughes wrote:

You could stop the
factory whistle blowing,
Stop the mine machinery
from going,
Stop the atom bombs
exploding,
Stop the battleships
from loading,
Stop the merchant
ships from sailing,
Stop the jail house keys
from turning
…You could
If you would[13]

Ordinary people are going to have to strike for direct democracy, universal healthcare, universal education, and guaranteed work or income. They are going to have to strike for worker ownership, occupying their workplaces and seats of political power. We will have to win a new legal right to equal ownership and power, to go alongside countless other workplace rights that have been won: minimum wage, workplace safety, anti-child labor, anti-discrimination in hiring, and more. This is the only freedom that disappears under socialism: the freedom to be a capitalist, exploiting and holding power over workers. More ethical rights often crush older ones. Kurt Vonnegut said capitalism was simply a set of “crimes against which no laws had been passed.”[14] The right of the worker to a minimum wage abolishes the right of the employer to pay him or her $1 per hour; the right of a person of color to be served at a restaurant ends the right of a white supremacist to deny him or her service; the right to be free crushes the right to own human beings. So will it be with the capitalist organization of the workplace. Victor Hugo warned the rich:

Tremble!…They who are hungry show their idle teeth… The shadow asks to become light. The damned discuss the elect. It is the people who are oncoming. I tell you it is Man who ascends. It is the end that is beginning. It is the red dawning on Catastrophe. Ah! This society is false. One day, a true society must come. Then there will be no more lords; there will be free, living men. There will be no more wealth, there will be an abundance for the poor. There will be no more masters, but there will be brothers. They that toil shall have. This is the future. No more prostration, no more abasement, no more ignorance, no more wealth, no more beasts of burden, no more courtiers—but LIGHT.[15]

Winning these demands is far from impossible. The seeds of American socialism have been long planted. Worker co-ops and direct democracy exist throughout the country. There are growing universal healthcare and tuition-abolition movements, rekindled by Bernie Sanders. One may be quite surprised to learn just how close the U.S. came to universal healthcare, universal early childhood education, UBI, and guaranteed work under Nixon and Carter, among others, after they felt some pressure from the people.[16] Elsewhere national direct democracy, free healthcare, and free college are taken for granted. UBI and the State as the employer of last resort have been tried and accomplished. Co-ops are more common, and workers in capitalist firms are gnawing at capitalist power from the inside—for example German unions fought for and won the right to have representatives on the boards of directors of large corporations.[17] Part of the reason why other countries are ahead of us in these respects is they have much stronger protest movements. In late 2016, India saw the largest strike in world history, with 150-180 million people participating.[18]

The thought of millions of Americans striking should not be inconceivable. Throughout its history the U.S. experienced strikes involving hundreds of thousands—even half a million—workers, many of which were victorious in the end.[19] Dr. King’s 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and the anti-Vietnam War protest of November 1969 each had 250,000 in attendance. And protests have only grown. March-May 2006 saw the largest series of demonstrations in U.S. history, as 3-5 million Latinos, immigrants, and allies protested in 160 cities against anti-immigrant legislation.[20] That May Day, the “Day Without Immigrants” saw 1.5 million people refuse to go to work or school.[21] In January 2017, in perhaps America’s largest protest, 4 million people participated in the Women’s March in 600 cities.[22] Cities on every continent joined in. Indeed, international solidarity and coordination are growing. Six to 11 million people around the world protested the planned U.S. invasion of Iraq on February 15, 2003, the world’s largest single-day protest.[23] In October 2011, millions of people in nearly 1,000 cities in over 80 countries rose up to protest economic inequality and the corporate corruption of democracy. 10,000 people marched in New York (Occupy Wall Street), but some half-million protested in Madrid and 400,000 in Barcelona. In September 2014, 400,000 people rose up in New York City, and tens of thousands more in 150 nations worldwide, to push for global environmental protections. There are many more examples.

Human beings are uniting for sanity and justice across the globe. We may yet achieve what Helen Keller envisioned: “Let the workers form one great world-wide union, and let there be a globe-encircling revolt to gain for the workers true liberty and happiness.”[24]

 

Notes

[1] Hughes, “Good Morning Revolution,” 1932

[2] Orwell, “Why I Joined the Independent Labour Party”

[3] http://www.marxist.com/historic-32nd-congress-of-pakistani-imt-1.htm

[4] http://time.com/3741458/influential-protests/; https://www.bustle.com/articles/195826-7-peaceful-protests-from-history-that-made-a-real-tangible-difference; http://www.upworthy.com/7-times-in-us-history-when-people-protested-and-things-changed; http://darlingmagazine.org/5-times-peaceful-protests-made-difference-history/; https://www.vox.com/2016/4/15/11439140/verizon-cwa-strike-2016

[5] Shermer, The Moral Arc, 87-89; https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2013/11/05/peaceful-protest-is-much-more-effective-than-violence-in-toppling-dictators/?utm_term=.28f6dfb17fe4

[6] Gandhi, India of My Dreams

[7] http://gos.sbc.edu/k/keller.html

[8] Wilde, The Soul of Man Under Socialism (1895)

[9] http://www.history.com/topics/black-history/montgomery-bus-boycott; http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/middle-east/tunisia-tunis-arab-spring-north-africa-revolution-uprising-president-ben-ali-a8158256.html

[10] https://www.cnn.com/2018/02/26/health/west-virginia-map-school-closings-trnd/index.html; https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/06/us/west-virginia-teachers-strike-deal.html

[11] https://www.cnn.com/2018/04/13/us/arizona-teachers-pay-raise-governor/index.html; http://abcnews.go.com/US/oklahoma-teachers-declare-victory-colorado-educators-walk-class/story?id=54499157

[12] Mark Twain, New York Tribune (April 15, 1906)

[13] Hughes, “If You Would”

[14] Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

[15] Hugo, “The Rich”

[16] https://www.vox.com/2014/8/13/5990657/basic-income-jobs-guarantee-child-care-flag-burning-btu-tax-balanced-budget; https://www.bostonglobe.com/opinion/2012/06/22/stockman/bvg57mguQxOVpZMmB1Mg2N/story.html

[17] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 223

[18] https://www.jacobinmag.com/2016/10/indian-workers-general-strike

[19] https://www.vox.com/2016/4/15/11439140/verizon-cwa-strike-2016

[20] https://socialistworker.org/2013/05/14/confronting-anti-immigrant-bigotry

[21] https://www.democracynow.org/2006/5/2/over_1_5_million_march_for

[22] http://www.vox.com/2017/1/22/14350808/womens-marches-largest-demonstration-us-history-map

[23] https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/what-happened-to-the-antiwar-movement_us_5a860940e4b00bc49f424ecb

[24] Keller, “Menace of the Militarist Program”

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TLJ

Thoughts on The Last Jedi:

 

  1. SAME OL’, SAME OL’

I confess I’m quite baffled some people think The Last Jedi somehow “subverted expectations” and took Star Wars in some bold new direction. Most of it was a lazy copy-paste from the original trilogy, much like The Force Awakens. I get that’s intentional; it’s still bad.

Much of TLJ is a retreading of scenes from The Empire Strikes Back (and Return of the Jedi). The Luke character seeks training from the hermit-like Yoda character; the Luke character goes to a dark creepy cave and hallucinates; the Yoda character tells the Luke character not to go try to help save people; the Luke character and Vader character ride up the elevator to the Emperor character, where the Vader character kills the Emperor character to save the Luke character, of course after the Emperor character shows the Luke character the Rebel fleet being destroyed outside the window; literally Yoda teaches Luke stuff; the main characters escape from their base planet in a ship at the beginning and are pursued by the Empire’s fleet for much of the film; the Rebels hole up in trenches on the Hoth planet and are attacked by Imperial walkers. Worst of all, even much of the dialogue is ripped straight from the originals (“I feel the conflict within you”).

Don’t get me wrong, there were new, fresh elements. The depressed, disillusioned Jedi; Leia showing a new Force power, survival and movement in space; mutiny among the Rebels; Luke’s Force projection; a casino planet; hyperspace kamikaze. These were great ideas, for the most part executed really well (minus the first one, see below, and the fact the Rebels opened a door to space to let Leia in without all dying). But new stuff is something we should expect in movie series, and indeed each Star Wars film has new stuff. Unique elements being present shouldn’t be groundbreaking.    

So why else do people think it subverted expectations? Because Rey’s parents weren’t famous Jedi? Wowwww. Because the Darth Vader character killed the Emperor character in movie two instead of three? Woahhhh. Because we didn’t get a Snoke backstory and Luke doesn’t care about his old lightsaber and rich people fund both sides of the war? Slow clap. Maybe if you expected a higher-quality movie your expectations were subverted.

Think instead about all the ways the film could have betrayed expectations but did not. If Luke hadn’t been redeemed nor helped the good guys in the end; if Rey had taken Kylo’s hand, to either join him in building a new world without the war, try to turn him, or try to kill him later; if Finn hadn’t been saved by Rose, sacrificing a main character. I’m not necessarily advocating these things (except the one about Rey, absolutely), but just making a point about what really would have flipped the script, surprised us, shocked us. But of course Luke will be redeemed, Rey will fulfill her good gal role, and Finn won’t die. How dull.

 

  1. LUKE’S INANE THEORY

The idea of a depressed, hopeless, bitter Luke going searching for the first Jedi Temple at the edge of the universe was great. He’d failed as a Jedi master, lost all his students, and hadn’t stopped Kylo, his own nephew, from going evil. Luke is crushed and ashamed, plus is seeking answers to how things could have gone so badly for him, so he disappears. But those answers in the film make little sense, and TLJ misses a huge opportunity that will haunt me forever.

Luke explains to Rey that the Jedi need to end because they always end up training pupils that turn to the dark side. It happened to Darth Vader and Kylo. That’s the argument, that’s it. This sounds like an 8th grader’s idea. Sure, what Luke is saying is true, but it ignores important realities. A) Don’t the Jedi also do a lot of good that won’t get done without them? Do these positives truly get outweighed? B) More importantly, plenty of other big Sith baddies arise who were not trained by the Jedi. So if you shut down the Jedi, that won’t end the Sith. It’ll just let them take over everything. Which was basically happening. Luke can be depressed, but he shouldn’t be an imbecile.

What irks me is that, despite this being middle school-level thinking, it is actually so close to genius. Imagine if Luke actually found true Enlightenment. What if he’d begun suspecting, feeling in his heart, that something was wrong with the Force. What if he’d read the ancient texts and found a long-lost secret. Namely, that the more the Force is used the easier it is for more people to access (it grows stronger), and because the Force always balances itself, the only way to finally defeat the darkness is to let go of the light. Thus, end the Jedi, shut yourself off from the Force, and so on, which would inevitably lead to Kylo’s death, Snoke’s death, a weakening of the Force and the start of a new era without it. (The era doesn’t have to last, Disney has more movies to make, but it’s an interesting story for this trilogy.)

(This would explain why Rey, and the random kid with the broom on the casino planet, are so powerful and use the Force easily, without any training — the dark side’s growing, so more people can more easily access the Force, and the “light rises to meet” the darkness.)

Rey could have come to see this wisdom. She would have resisted at first, but her arc throughout the movie could have been to end up thinking as Luke did, and thus would have taken Kylo’s hand in hopes of convincing him too. Episode 9 would have been that struggle, and eventually Kylo would either come to agree or have to be killed; either way the trilogy ends with Rey being selfless, giving up any idea of becoming a Jedi, letting go of the Force, and as a result helping end the dark side and the Sith. That would have been a bold new direction, unique. (But no, Episode 9 will probably be good v. evil, where good wins, per usual.)

Luke could have either gone against what he’d learned to save Leia and the others as TLJ envisioned, leaving Rey to clean up the mess and get things back on track, or stuck to his guns, his Enlightenment, perhaps by physically going to the salt planet to stall for time, save the Rebels, and sacrifice himself, but not using the Force.

 

  1. THROW AWAY CHARACTERS & PLOTS

Like a lot of action films too timid to kill main characters, TLJ creates a throwaway character to fulfill the needs of a plot with a cool hyperspace kamikaze attack in it. This is Holdo, who we meet in TLJ and never really have a reason to care about. Thus her sacrifice has no emotional impact, and neither does the scene. Imagine if it had been Leia, or Po, or R2-D2, or literally anyone we had a relationship with. Even Akbar would have been better (instead he’s simply blown out the window and forgotten about early on).

Snoke is likewise a throw away character, even in The Force Awakens. He really serves no purpose in either movie, and really should never have existed. The plot needed Kylo to go evil, and no one could think of any other way to bring this about other than whipping up an Emperor 2.0 (the fact Kylo is blood related to Darth Vader, and curious about him, wasn’t enough apparently). We don’t know anything about Snoke, other than the one-dimensional trait of him being a bad guy wanting to, yawn, rule the galaxy, and thus we don’t care about him. He’s promptly murdered to take care of this issue. He’s pointless, and I think the creators realized it.

Another one is Phasma (literally just had to look up her name), who we saw for about 5 minutes in The Force Awakens. The creators seem to think that’s enough build-up to a big Finn-Phasma rivalry, animosity, and duel. Phasma dies and it’s hard to care.

Here is an appropriate place to include stupid cameos in the film. This may seem like splitting hairs, but so be it. Maz Kanata’s shoehorned appearance I didn’t mind too much, even though it felt like fan service or just a reminder that she exists. But I thought it wasn’t realistic to this world, and a lame attempt at humor, that she took a holo-phone call during a battle, and had prefered her as just an old bartender rather than a hero Rebel warrior. But no matter. Yoda’s cameo was the painful one. He looked awful, for some reason had reverted to the crazy act he played for an hour with Luke in The Empire Strikes Back, and his presence, for me, was just another reminder than Luke should have reached Enlightenment in this film, should have gained, painfully, the wisdom that would change everything. He shouldn’t have needed Yoda. Instead, Luke needs to learn another lesson from him. The Empire Strikes Back Again.

Rose isn’t a throw away character necessarily, but only exists to join in a throwaway plot. The journey to the casino planet, a location I find cool, simply made a long movie longer. It’s pretty clear the creators just wanted to give the Rebels, stuck on a ship being pursued, more to do. Thus, some Rebels sneak away to the casino world to find a hacker, and other Rebels stage a mutiny on the ship. Having both was really unnecessary. Imagine if Finn and Rose had simply joined in with Poe on his mutiny, and the film focused deeper and longer on the causes, planning, execution, and consequences of the mutiny. That would have cut out a pointless third plot. Then more time could have been spent on Rey and Luke, too, the main event.

This being said, Rose is sort of a shapeshifting character. She’s basically whatever the plot needs her to be in the moment. When we first meet her, she goes from heartbroken sister to fangirl Finn worshipper to badass Rebel guard in seconds, enough to give whiplash. The plot wants some low-quality CGI horse creatures to trample a casino, but wants it to have some emotional weight and justification, so Rose exists. Her home planet, we learn, was robbed to feed fat cats like those at the casinos, and she broadcasts what’s about to happen (cringe) when she says “I’d put my first through this place if I could.” Then, like magic, it happens! What a coincidence. (Between the cheesiness, spoilers, and bad CGI, this felt more like prequels-level stuff, as did BB-8’s operating a walker toward the end.) And of course, when Finn tries to sacrifice himself to save all the Rebels in the mountain, Rose becomes his lover, crashing into him to save him — presumably dooming all the Rebels. She says they had to “Save who we love”…uh, that’s what Finn was doing (and what she was certainly not doing, if she had any love for the other good guys). Before this moment, Rose seemed like a decent person who cared about the Rebels. But Finn needed saving. Thus now she’s the embodiment of selfishness, willing to let them all die, for a guy she met yesterday. I get that her sister died in battle and she doesn’t want to lose someone else, but we got zero indication she was capable of this monstrously unethical act (which the creators pass over like it’s nothing and will probably not address in the next film).                  

 

  1. FAILURE OF THE THEME OF FAILURE

While I don’t really think TLJ was sophisticated enough for themes, it’s supposedly all about failure. That’s the theme. Yoda says it. Failure’s the best teacher. That is always an interesting motif, but it’s not wholly accurate here. There’s less teaching and more just…lucking out.

True, lots of things go wrong for our characters. But, as my brother Sam pointed out, there’s no consequence to any failure. Seriously. Finn and Rose fail to find the hacker; it’s OK, another one happens to be in the cell they’re locked in. What a happy coincidence. Rey fails to be properly trained by Luke; no problem, she is still able to lift a mountain of rocks and save everyone in the end. Poe fails to follow orders, and his mutiny fails; he learns a lesson, but he’s never really punished. The Rebels fail to disable the bad guys’ tracker; it’s fine, a throw away character saves them all. Finn fails to sacrifice himself; it’s good, all the Rebels make it out of the mountain anyway.

“Inconsequential failure.” Great theme.

 

  1. REY AND CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

I wish the creators had written better Rey-Luke dialogue and not left their relationship seeming so…underdeveloped. More broadly, Rey, our main character, doesn’t really have much of a character arc. That’s what makes stories interesting: when characters face struggles and change, for good or ill, because of them. Sure, Rey becomes more friendly with Kylo, which I liked (Reylo is absolutely how this trilogy should end; it would have been cooler in my version, where Kylo is convinced after much struggle to let go of the Force, but whatever). Sure, she gives up on getting Luke to come with her and goes to fight on her own. But are these quality arcs? Not really. Overall, she ends the movie where she began: a hero, fighting for righteousness, who is super strong with the Force despite no training. Her perceptions and beliefs and attitudes haven’t really changed. At least in The Force Awakens she lets go of staying behind on Jakku to await her family, accepting they are never coming back, freeing her to a life of adventure. That’s a big difference in her between the beginning and end of the film. Rey is our main character, our beloved hero. She needs an arc with substance.

Other characters get more. Luke is redeemed. Poe perhaps learns to not be such a hothead, to follow orders, because you may not have the full picture. Finn wants to run away and save himself at the start, then is willing to die for the Rebels in the end. Kylo has a slight arc, changing from someone who seeks Snoke’s approval and spars with Hux into a strongman who needs nor tolerates either. Not every character in a film needs a substantial arc, but the main one does. Rey is left out, and thus her story in TLJ isn’t as interesting as it might have been.

 

  1. DIALOGUE

Don’t let the brevity or position of this last point fool you: dialogue is a massive problem in this movie. Most lines are very poorly written, making them difficult to deliver even for decent actors, like when Luke explains why the Jedi have to end because they train future Sith. There are moments when characters literally sound as if they are reading off cue cards, offering a bland, stale, I-am-acting delivery, notably during one scene when Rey is asking for Luke’s help (for the third or fourth time) by Luke’s meditation rock. Many lines are cheesy, such as when Finn and Rose express their delight that they just destroyed the casino, and everything sounds like a cartoon. In action-adventure films like this, a little bit of cheesiness can make for some funny moments, but The Last Jedi, sadly, shows the peril of overdoing it.

The Declining Value of Art

What gives art value? That is, inherent value, not mere monetary value. Perhaps it is actually quite similar for artist and spectator. The artist may impart value on her work based upon how much joy and fulfillment the process of its creation gave her, how satisfied she is with the final product if it matched or came close to her vision, how much pleasure others experience when viewing (or listening to) it, or how much attention, respect, and fame (and wealth) is directed her way because of it. Likewise, the spectator may see value in the work because he knows, perceives, or assumes the joy and satisfaction it might give the artist, he’s interested in and enjoys experiencing it, or because he respects a successful, famous individual.

There are various forces that impart value, but a significant one must be effort required. This is, after all, what is meant by the ever-present “My kid could do that” muttered before canvases splattered with paint or adorned with a single monochrome square in art museums across the world — pieces sometimes worth huge sums. People see less value in a work of art that takes (on average between human beings) less effort, less skill. Likewise, most artists would likely be less crushed were a fire to consume a piece they’d spent a day to complete versus one they’d spent a year to complete. To most people, effort imparts value.

I’d be remiss, and haunted, if I didn’t mention here that this demonstrates how most people think in Marxian ways about value. (If you thought, dear reader, that in an article on art you’d find respite from socialist theory, you were wrong.) Marx wrote that “the value of a commodity is determined by the quantity of labour” needed to create it (Value, Price, and Profit). Again, not mere monetary value. This doesn’t mean “the lazier a man, or the clumsier a man, the more valuable his commodity, because the greater the time of labour required for finishing the commodity.” Rather, Marx was speaking about the average labor needed to create something: “social average conditions of production, with a given social average intensity, and average skill of the labour employed.” Labor, effort, imparts value on all human creations, whether it’s art, whether it’s for sale, and so forth. Doesn’t it follow, then, that what takes less effort has less inherent value?

This train of thought — how the effort put into paintings, drawings, writings, photographs, sculptures, music, etc. affects their value — arose during an interesting conversation on how much respect should be awarded to each of these forms. Respect was based on effort-value. In other words, does a “good” photograph deserve the same respect as a “good” painting? Does a “great” piece of writing, like a book, deserve the same admiration — does it have the same value — as a “great” sculpture? One may feel at first that they shouldn’t be compared. But all forms have value because they require effort, and thus if we can determine how much effort, on average between human beings, is required for two compared art forms and then decide one takes more effort we will have also found a difference in value. (One need not worry about “great” being subjective, because we are only talking about how each individual personally views the value of different art forms; perceived effort will also be subjective, which is the whole point, as it determines one’s view on value.)

If it helps make this clearer, we might start with a comparison within a single form. Which takes more effort on average: to record a single or an album? Cartooning or hyperrealist drawing? Most people would say the latter finished products have more value because of the greater effort typically required (work may be a breeze for some hyperrealist artists, as easy as cartooning for cartoonists, but remember we are speaking of averages).

Now what about the average effort to create a “good” photograph versus, say, a “good” (let’s say realist) painting? It seems like it would certainly take more effort to make a good painting! The technology of photography always advances, making tasks easier and more accessible, and thus grows more widespread. After film yielded to digitalization and computerization, it became much easier to take a nice photograph — it’s easier to do and easier to do well. Exposure, shutter speed, aperture, ISO sensitivity, focus, white balance, metering, flash, and so on can now be manipulated faster and with greater ease, or automatically, requiring no effort at all. Recently it’s become possible to edit photographs after the fact, fixing and improving them. You just need a program and know how to use it. Because the form has never existed without technology, the average effort to create a great photograph has probably never rivaled the average effort to create a great painting, but the gap was smaller in the past. Today anyone with the right technology can produce a great photo; true, it requires know-how, but surely the journey from knowing nothing to mastery is shorter and easier than the same journey for realist painting. (Film — now digital video — production is a similar story.) Because the effort needed for the same result — a good photo — has declined over time, the value of the form overall has also decreased. (This does not mean some photographers aren’t more creative, skilled, or knowledgeable than others, nor that there doesn’t remain more value in the work of hardline traditionalists who refuse to use this or that new technology.) But painting — the technology of painting — hasn’t really changed much through the ages; it still requires about the same effort to produce the same quality work, therefore its value holds steady. If “painters” start having robots paint incredible works for them, or aid them, there would obviously be a reduction of value. No one is as impressed by robot paintings or machine-assisted paintings.

Music is facing a smaller-scale attack on the value of the form with digitally created instrumentals, autotune, and so forth. Perhaps the value of writing declined slightly as we shifted from penmanship to typewriting to computer-based writing (with backspace and spell-check!). It will decline again as voice transcription programs are perfected and grow in popularity.

Sculpting, painting, and drawing — the forms least infected by technology — still essentially require the same effort to do, and same effort to do well, as they have throughout human history. The tools and equipment have changed some, yes, but not nearly as much as those of other forms. Their value will remain the same as long as this state of affairs persists. If music, writing, film, and photography continually grow easier to do well, their value, by this metric, will decrease, slowed only by those who valiantly resist the technological changes. This does not mean a splatter painting automatically has more value than a beautiful photo — remember we’re each personally comparing the value of what we subjectively see as “good” paintings versus “good” photographs; you may not see a splatter painting as good. Rather, it may simply mean that what you see as a good painting takes more effort on average to create, and thus has more value, than what you see as a good photo. Perhaps also more than a good book, song, or video, depending on the size and scope of the projects being compared (it may surpass a good video but not a good film, or a good short book but not a good tome; up to you).

It could be that effort required is somewhat rule-based, too, rather than just technology-based. Music, writing, film, and photography rely on more rules. That’s probably why technology is encroaching quicker on such forms. In music, keys, pitches, quarter-notes, half-notes and so forth are rules. Build a program that knows and follows them and you don’t need human players or singers anymore at all. Writing has spelling, grammar, and punctuation rules. So spell-check and A.I. can help you or do it all for you. Film has frames per second, photography f-stops, and together a thousand other rules. Devices can handle them. Artists break the rules all the time, but that doesn’t mean their form doesn’t rely more heavily on them than other forms.

Sculpting marble or clay into something recognizable, adorning a canvas with life, or sketching a convincing face perhaps are not activities that rely as much on rules. This does not mean there are none; for instance there are drawing guidelines to make a face proportional and grids to help you transfer reality to the paper. Again, the rules may or may not be followed. And this does not mean an A.I. couldn’t do such activities, because it could. It’s just hard to define what rule you’d use to draw something so perfectly it looks like a photograph; but you know you have to hit certain notes to sing something perfectly. You have to be talented to do either — but maybe one has more foundational rules to get you there.

I’ve sometimes wondered if closing the “effort gap” or “talent gap” between novices and incredible artists is easier in some art forms than others. Meaning, is the gulf between an inexperienced writer and an incredible writer smaller than the gulf between an inexperienced painter and an incredible painter? What about the gap between a new photographer and masterful one compared to the gap between a new sculptor and a highly advanced one? On average, that is. I would suppose the art forms that in any given era take more effort would have the largest chasm to cross. So it would be harder to become a master painter than a master photographer. Perhaps harder, also, than becoming a master cinematographer, writer, singer, or even musician. (I think this view explains why I personally respect and admire the best works of sculpting, painting, and drawing more than the best works of other forms, though music is high up there too. And that’s coming from a writer.)

If so, perhaps rules have something to do with it. We know that practice makes perfect. Some are born with unique gifts, no question, but others go from zero to hero through practice. Might more rules make it easier? Do human beings learn better, faster, with those defined rules? If you stripped away the aforementioned technology of singing, music, and writing (it’s impossible to do this with photography and film), would the rules of the forms alone make these things easier to master than art forms with fewer rules? It’s interesting to consider.

Conservatives Are More Likely to be Racist

One early morning at Salem State University in Massachusetts, students stumbled upon vandalism of benches and a fence at the baseball fields. Spray paint had been used to write “DIE NIGGERS,” “Whites Only USA,” and “Whites #1.”

What are your first thoughts concerning who did this? You’re a reasonable person, so you know this might be a hoax. That happens from time to time. But if this was done in earnest — by someone who sincerely wanted to degrade and threaten black people and extoll the white race — who seems most likely? It seems likely the culprit was white. Gun to your head, it was probably a man, or more than one, just a couple buddies out having some “fun.” Perhaps someone younger, a student; this is a school, after all. Now, was this person more likely liberal or conservative? Who would be more likely to write “Whites Only” or “DIE NIGGERS”? Left or Right, quick.

If this was no hoax, and if we were all to be honest with ourselves, the probabilities might increase as we move along the political spectrum. In other words, the far Left seems least likely (recall we’re focused on content here, not the act of vandalism itself, which some on the far Left do happily partake in), the mainstream Left still unlikely, the center perhaps somewhat likely, the mainstream Right more likely, and the far Right most likely. At no spot on the spectrum is the act impossible, but such a probability scale shouldn’t be all that controversial for anyone with a handle on reality.

In this particular case, we needn’t wonder long, as the vandals included “Trump #1” in their graffiti. This was part of the hate crimes that swept the U.S. after Trump’s election, as Trump supporters gleefully attacked, verbally and physically, Hispanics, Muslims, blacks, Jews, gays, and women — weeks of terror.

But, one protests, the answer to the theoretical was biased and the anecdotal is weak argument. True enough. Conservatives and liberals always dig up examples, point at each other, and insist the other ideology is more prone to racism. (Here we mean against people of color; conservative whites who think anti-white hate from liberals is a bigger problem will have to educate themselves elsewhere). How can we know who is right?

One way is to simply ask people their views.

In 2014, Nate Silver and Allison McCann looked at Americans’ answers regarding race in the General Social Survey, which has been issued for decades. Self-described Republicans were, from 1990-2012, 5-10% more likely to object to a close relative marrying a black person, 5-20% more likely to believe blacks “lacked the motivation” to get out of poverty, and 2-10% more likely to say blacks are more lazy than hardworking. 2-5% more Republicans thought blacks were more unintelligent than intelligent, until things evened out between liberals and conservatives in 2009.

Things have been about even regarding comfort with living in a diverse neighborhood, with only occasional spikes in conservative opposition, and even concerning voting for a black president, except between 1994 and 2007, when in fact white Democrats expressed stronger opposition.

The good news is that for both groups racist views are in general declining. Majorities today do not have (admit) explicitly racist views; this article is not intended to posit all conservatives are racist. The bad news is that for both groups today over 20% dislike the idea of living in a neighborhood that isn’t majority-white, over 20% oppose interracial marriage in their family, over 30% think blacks are lazy, over 40% that they lack motivation, and 15% that they are unintelligent. And that’s just the Americans that will admit to extreme (conscious) racism, as this is a survey. So while this article is indeed intended to settle a recurring debate, it is also a condemnation of (and call for reflection from) us whites on the Left. Our scores, while better, are hardly anything to celebrate.

The aggregate of all responses looked like this:

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The 2012 American National Election Studies survey revealed similar answers. 18% more white Republicans saw black people as lazy than white Democrats, with an 8% lead concerning belief in lack of intelligence and an 18% lead in thinking blacks had too much influence in politics (at the time, there was a black president, one black Supreme Court justice, and no black senators; the country had seen a single black president, six black senators, and two Supreme Court justices since 1776). Nearly 35% more white Republicans thought blacks would be just as well off as whites if they’d try harder — a belief requiring a racist premise about black laziness.

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But the data from these two surveys, and others, can be a bit misleading — and not in a way that will comfort the Right. By lumping together Democrats of all sorts (centrist, Left, far Left), and doing the same with Republicans, the data reflects more timid differences in ideological views of race. As we move further to the right, views grow increasingly racist; as we move further to the left, views become decidedly less racist:

Among strong Democrats and strong Republicans, the numbers [concerning who thinks blacks are lazy] become even more stark, 20 percent compared with 46 percent. Furthermore, 41 percent of whites who say they are extremely conservative believe black people are lazy, compared with 14 percent of whites who say they are extremely liberal. On the question of whether black people are unintelligent, it’s 30 percent for extremely conservative whites versus 11 percent for extremely liberal whites. This clearly suggests that racial animus is more prevalent among conservatives and Republicans.

That is significant. It also mimics the probability scale envisioned above.

A 2016 YouGov survey asked white people if they thought black people typically “give more to society” or “take more.” For a large majority of conservative respondents, no amount of good black people do for society — teaching students, creating art, running a business, waving hello, nothing — could outweigh the racist laziness myth.

Screen Shot 2018-03-16 at 3.21.41 PM

In an article called Trump Did So Well Because Many Conservatives Are Just Like Him, I collected surveys and studies to show how a significant portion of Trump supporters (though not all) hold extremely bigoted views. But the article didn’t dive into how much worse these views were compared to Clinton supporters. A 2016 Reuters/Ipsos poll of 16,000 Americans found that

In nearly every case, Trump supporters were more likely to rate whites higher than blacks [concerning positive traits] when their responses were compared with responses from Clinton supporters.

For example, 32 percent of Trump supporters placed whites closer to the top level of “intelligence” than they did blacks, compared with 22 percent of Clinton supporters who did the same.

About 40 percent of Trump supporters placed whites higher on the “hardworking” scale than blacks, while 25 percent of Clinton supporters did the same. And 44 percent of Trump supporters placed whites as more “well mannered” than blacks, compared with 30 percent of Clinton supporters.

Trump fans were also more likely to dislike minorities compared to other, more sane, Republican voters.

There is a wealth of other surveys that show comparable results to the four included here; they are not difficult to find.

Moving on from surveys, there are also scientific studies that indicate conservatism is deeper in the racist mud than liberalism. Research shows that dislike of government services and spending, especially welfare, increases as racial animosity does. A 2014 study from Northwestern University showed that whites with no political affiliation more strongly favored conservative policies when distressed over increasing racial diversity in the U.S. In fact, even those with a political affiliation — any — who became distressed moved to the right. A 2012 study of the U.K. showed social conservatism is linked with greater prejudice. Conservatives were less likely to agree with statements such as “I wouldn’t mind working with people from other races.” Other studies link antiracism and social liberalism. A 2013 study found that American conservatives had less favorable views of black people than liberals, unless black people had conservative values and attitudes (liberals also favored persons of color who thought like them). As with Trump, greater anti-black attitudes among citizens more strongly predict votes for the Republican candidate, even when he’s not running against a black man, for example with Bush. Areas of the South with histories of strong Klan activity correlate with stronger Republican loyalty. And so on.

No, not every survey nor study will fit into this pattern, but most do. That consistency across sources deserves serious consideration.

All this makes sense in light of what “conservative” and “liberal” actually mean at the conscious and subconscious levels — and how their adherents opposed or supported the civil rights movement, and other social movements, based on those meanings (see Which Broadened Freedom For the Oppressed? Liberalism or Conservatism? and Why Liberals and Conservatives Think Differently, From Someone Who’s Been Both), regardless of ideological changes within America’s parties, a topic conservatives who insist “Liberals are more racist because the Democratic Party supported slavery and the KKK” desperately need to study (see Republicans Used to be Liberal, Democrats Conservative). While not all conservatives are racist by any means, the evidence suggests that, while both sides have work to do to master true racial tolerance, more conservatives lag behind.

The Case For Direct Democracy

Ultimately, “socialism” is the idea that power, not merely wealth, should be made “social”—spread out among the people. That is to say, socialism simply means more democracy. We have seen how worker cooperatives are more democratic structures than capitalist businesses, relying on representative democracy (elected, removable managers and executives) or direct democracy (all decisions made by all workers on a one-person one-vote basis), sometimes called pure democracy. On a similar note, the solution to our troubled political system is a more democratic structure. Under such a system, the people control their own destiny.

Jack London wrote that socialism’s

…logical foundation is economic; its moral foundation, “All men are born free and equal,” and its ultimate aim is pure democracy. By “all men are born free and equal” it means born free and with equal opportunities to earn by honest labor—mental or physical—a livelihood. By a pure democracy is meant a form of government in which the supreme power rests with and is exercised directly by the people instead of the present form, which is a republican form of democracy, in which the supreme power rests with the people, but is indirectly exercised by them, through representatives. Representatives may be corrupted, but how could the whole people be bribed?[1]

Imagine having a direct say in public policy: the ability, like Congress has now, to vote yes or no on proposed laws. Imagine heading to your voting place not every two or four years, but instead many times each year. Your vote would decide national policy. There is more than one reason for America’s abysmal voter turnout, but a large part of it is that people do not believe their vote will affect anything, will bring about meaningful change.[2] With politicians mostly representing the interests of the rich individuals and corporations that fund them, this attitude is understandable. Imagine how this could change if the people had real power, living in a society where the citizens controlled the State rather than the reverse? As London pointed out, it would be very difficult for special interests to influence policy. Citizens are not running for office. They cannot be bribed with campaign contributions, probably won’t be involved in secret meetings or backroom deals. Corruption on a scale that would be effective and remain secret would be impossible. This does not mean there wouldn’t be challenges—when a popular vote takes place the key for special interests is to attack information itself, misleading the public into voting a certain way. But there is no question that giving all voters lawmaking power would decimate corruption.

How would this work? Citizens would need direct initiative rights. Such rights allow people to place a proposed law on an upcoming ballot for people to vote on. Passionate individuals work together to draft legislation, file it with local officials, and gather the required number of signatures to put it on the ballot (no, this is not something a couple of jokers can do in an afternoon; it has to have a reasonable, serious level of support). After the vote takes place, and if the measure passes, government departments enact and enforce the measure as they do today after a legislature passes a law. “Imagine everybody governing!” exclaimed Victor Hugo, who had socialist leanings even if he never adopted the label. “Can you imagine a city governed by the men who built it? They are the team, not the coachman.”[3] And not just one’s city, of course, but one’s state and nation—people’s legislation and the people’s say at every level.

This is a radical change. Socialism would take decision-making power away from city councils, state legislatures, and the U.S. Congress and give it to constituents, ending these institutions as we know them. Rather than electing people to vote on issues for us, we could elect or approve people to enact and enforce the decisions we make: the heads of government departments. Today the president selects a secretary of education, homeland security, transportation, and so on, as well as the heads of the CIA, FBI, and other agencies, and Congress approves them. Then they take congressional legislation and make it a reality. Tomorrow the people will either elect candidates to these positions or take over the traditional role of Congress and approve or disapprove the president’s selections. Those directly responsible for carrying out the people’s will should be answerable to the people, just as presidents and representatives are today. (In contrast to today, candidates, from multiple parties with equal ballot and debate access, will either enjoy publicly financed elections or rely on small donations from individuals—co-ops and organizations should not be able to give, to avoid quid pro quo politics. A $100 cap for each adult leaves $25 billion for candidates to compete for.)

Such a proposal may cause consternation. Arguments about tradition will sound: the U.S. was founded as a representative democracy so we mustn’t change it. Well, systems, laws, and practices can always be improved, and typically are. The U.S. scrapped its first constitution, the Articles of Confederation, after seven years because its designed structure was flawed and ineffective. The 12th Amendment got rid of a system where the losing opponent in presidential races became vice president. In 1913, we finally let the American people directly elect senators. The 22nd Amendment created presidential term limits. Socialists are interested in positive change, not tradition. Which helps explain why American socialists were at the forefront of every major justice campaign—abolition and civil rights, women’s rights, labor rights, the anti-war movements, etc.[4] The U.S. has a rich socialist history, from socialists writing the “Pledge of Allegiance” to founding the Republican Party![5]

One major objection is that it’s a bad idea to give the people so much power, as they could vote for awful things, with a mere 51% majority ruling over and oppressing the minority (“mob rule,” “tyranny of the majority”). That’s what the founding fathers knew, so best to trust them. It’s true that most of the founders detested democracy, in fact because they saw it as a threat to their riches and power.[6] (The same sentiments were expressed by the powerful later on, such as in the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 Crisis of Democracy report.[7]) So they made sure ordinary voters could not elect justices (we still do not), nor directly elect the president (we still do not, as the Electoral College persists), nor directly elect senators. The people only directly elected members of the House, yet only (white, male) property owners were allowed to vote, further disenfranchising the poor and keeping power in the hands of the better off. Only in 1856 did the last state, North Carolina, do away with property requirements to vote.[8] Yet somehow people who gripe about majority rule don’t realize that’s how it works right now. While sometimes the bar is higher, a simple majority decides the fate of most bills in Congress. As little as 51% of congresspersons rule from issue to issue. A majority carries the day in city councils, state legislatures, Congress, and every election except the presidential election from time to time. Direct democracy simply alters which majority makes decisions, giving ordinary people a direct say in the decisions that affect them. “Fear of the mob is a superstitious fear,” George Orwell wrote. “It is based on the idea that there is some mysterious, fundamental difference between rich and poor… The average millionaire is only the average dishwasher dressed in a new suit.”[9] Yes, the majority has the power to make awful decisions—in the precise same way Congress and other bodies do now. But you nevertheless had a say in the matter, whether trying to stop a bad idea or joining others in making a mistake. As with worker cooperatives, it is better that the many fail together by their own hand than be destroyed by the few from above.

Additionally, there are limits to the awful things that a popular will could enact. Yes, mistakes will be made. That’s democracy, whether direct or representative; it’s messy. But remember, checks and balances still exist under this system. It’s true, there is one fewer; today a bill must pass both House and Senate to see the light of day, while direct democracy replaces them with one chamber, the people. (There are countries, such as Denmark, Luxemburg, Sweden, Finland, Israel, and New Zealand, which only have one house, a unicameral congress.[10]) But there would still be a president to veto legislation. There would remain a Supreme Court to declare laws unconstitutional. Only a supermajority of the people could change the Constitution, as it is with Congress today (state legislatures holding a constitutional convention would not be possible, as state legislatures would be replaced by a state’s populace). Fears about the prejudiced majority oppressing smaller groups of people can be put aside. It’s possible, but no more likely than it is now, because checks and balances will be preserved. And it goes without saying that direct democracy gives the people power to end injustices too. As Arthur Miller, best known for Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, said, “Socialism was reason.”[11]

The most sensible concern is how direct democracy can be structured to run well. Much legislation today is very long and highly complex. Bills are introduced by politicians and go through committees, where representatives of different political views research, discuss, and modify them. They go to the House or Senate floor for debate and more changes and amendments before the vote. With direct democracy, aren’t we sacrificing a crucially important vetting and compromise process? Are ordinary people who use initiative rights really smart enough and experienced enough to create laws? Won’t some laws have to be so complex, and so full of unintelligible legislative jargon, that a typical American voter would be unable to make an educated decision on it? With many bills being hundreds of pages or over a thousand, will not the length alone dissuade people from voting or encourage voting without reading through the details?

While a “vetting and compromise process” is valuable in theory, in practice all it means is total gridlock and the death of the bill. Only 1-5% of all the many thousands of bills introduced under each Congress become law.[12] Almost all of them die in committee, never making it to the debate floor.[13] This is not because they are all bad bills, but because the parties don’t agree on anything. Americans are tired of such inaction, and direct democracy is the cure. Some may say why not keep Congress, let it craft laws, and require a popular vote to pass (a referendum democracy). While this, whether or not combined with initiative rights, would be far better than a representative system, it would nevertheless 1) still allow special interests to infect legislation, which the populace would likely remain unaware of when voting and 2) would require committees and compromise to be at all meaningful (otherwise it’s just groups of similar thinkers putting what laws they like before the people, i.e. the initiative process), resulting in the usual gridlock. But direct democracy in fact has its own vetting mechanisms. If an initiative petition cannot garner enough support, it dies. If the question makes it to the ballot and is not quite what most people want, it will fail. Vetting lies in the discussion and debate surrounding proposed legislation before the vote, as citizens of different opinions study it, weigh it, and try to convince others to vote this way or that.

The rest of the questions, concerning the competencies of the people getting questions on the ballot and the complexities of legislation, are not major concerns when we study deeper how the initiative process actually functions. Because filing the legal paperwork, gathering enough petition signatures, and getting out the vote is not an easy task, it is usually undertaken by serious organizations: political advocacy groups, grassroots organizations, non-profits, and so on, which are typically made up of or are well-connected to lawyers and the politically experienced—people who are just as capable of designing legislation as politicians in Washington. Next, the question that goes before voters is not usually the full text of proposed legislation, but rather a summary in plain language created by public officials.[14] The full text is of course publicly available, online and elsewhere (caps on legislation length is in the realm of the possible too). While it is true that many voters will not read the full bill, the summary must accurately describe it. This functions just fine in the real world.

The United States already uses initiative rights and direct democracy to pass or reject legislation, at the city and state levels. It is legal in twenty-four states and Washington, D.C.[15] (Some, however, use indirect initiatives, which force a legislature to vote on citizen-crafted bills.) In the November 2016 election, 150 measures were on ballots throughout these states. California, Nevada, and Massachusetts voters legalized recreational marijuana use; Arizona, Colorado, Maine, and Washington raised their minimum wages; Nebraska restored the death penalty and Oklahoma made it harder to get rid of; Colorado legalized medically assisted suicide; California, Washington, and Nevada tightened gun laws. Voters in Arizona rejected recreational marijuana legalization; Maine shot down stricter gun control; California declined to abolish its death penalty; Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Missouri, and North Dakota rejected tax increases.[16] You won’t always get what you want. That’s democracy. But you will, no matter your beliefs, have a voice. Things will get done. No politicians gridlocked in committee. No representatives on the voting floor following the whims of their biggest donors. Just ordinary people creating real change for themselves, no representatives needed. “I’m a socialist,” one of H.G. Wells’ characters from In the Days of the Comet said. “I don’t think this world was made for a small minority to dance on the faces of every one else.”[17] The Canadian province of British Columbia and all German states also enjoy initiative rights.[18]

All this demonstrates, you’ll notice, that direct democracy works on a large scale. California is the most populous state in the nation, with nearly 40 million people in 2017. Florida, with nearly 21 million people, is up toward the top too. State direct democracy works well, and has since 1898, when South Dakota became the first state to adopt the initiative process.[19] A wide range of U.S. cities use it as well, and have since the town halls of colonial times. Direct democracy has existed in local government throughout human history, from the city-state of Athens, Greece, in the 5th century B.C. to Porto Alegre, Brazil, today.[20] Interestingly, since 1989, Porto Alegre, a city of over 1.5 million people, has allowed participatory budgeting. Citizens participate in the design of the annual city budget, and everyone has the right to vote to approve or strike down the finished product. Since this democratic idea, pushed forward by socialists, was enacted, funds have shifted dramatically to poorer, high-need areas of the city. The process is marked by transparency and lack of corruption.[21]

There are in fact countries that use pure democracy. Switzerland, a nation of eight million people, has had an initiative process at the federal level since 1891. Since then twenty-two initiatives have won out of over 200 proposals. The country also has a parliament that passes laws; it’s therefore called a semi-direct democracy (the people, however, can veto legislation parliament passes through the referendum process). Popular votes take place up to four times annually. In 2016, the populace rejected a law to give each citizen a guaranteed income. Changes to their constitution require majority support from the people and majority support from the cantons (states).[22] While the Swiss majority has at times passed prejudiced, oppressive laws, the Human Freedom Index, published by conservative and libertarian institutes, nevertheless ranks it as the freest nation in the world.[23] The Philippines and the European Union likewise have initiative rights.[24] There is no reason direct democracy cannot work at the national level. (If we were to consider the referendum process, in which legislatures craft laws and once every blue moon the people vote on them, we would have a very long list of participating nations, including some of the most populous in the world, such as Brazil, with 209 million people, and Bangladesh, with 165 million.[25])

Pure democracy is not a perfect system. Yet it gives the many the ability to address the problems we’ve explored elsewhere: to give workers ownership, to protect the planet, to reject war, to guarantee the rights and services people need, and so on. As Mark Twain once asked, “Why is it right that there is not a fairer division of the spoil all around? Because laws and constitutions have ordered otherwise. Then it follows that laws and constitutions should change around and say there shall be a more nearly equal division.”[26] This does not mean they will (the majority may vote for capitalism!), but the mechanisms make it possible. Changing hearts and minds so the system can be used to create a fully socialist society will be just as important.

The idea of broadening democracy raises an important question: how far should we go? If “power to the people” is the goal, what about electing Supreme Court justices and federal judges? Should we abolish the Electoral College and elect a president by popular vote? Give the people recall rights, which allow a supermajority to remove officials, from sheriffs to the president, from office? The answers will depend on how much we can empower the common person while maintaining effective checks and balances. The country’s hundreds of top judges and the nine justices today serve for life. Perhaps the people rather than representatives could approve them; perhaps they could be elected—but certainly not more than once, as we do not want them thinking about their next election when making rulings, and probably not for a short term, as there is value in having one branch, one check, that doesn’t change with the winds. The Electoral College is a vestige of slavery, and there is no explanation as to why the president should not be elected by popular vote (like every other elected official in the nation) that doesn’t collapse under the slightest weight of critical thinking.[27] Recall rights would be a fine way to keep public officials in line, but should perhaps only apply to some (department and agency heads, sheriffs) but not others (the president, justices). There are many ideas to explore and solutions to craft as we build socialism.

 

Notes

[1] London, “What Socialism Is”

[2] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2016/11/7/13536198/election-day-americans-vote; http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/04/half-of-those-who-arent-learning-about-the-election-feel-their-vote-doesnt-matter/

[3] Hugo, “Letter to the Poor”

[4] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/09/25/a-brief-history-of-american-socialism/

[5] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/09/25/a-brief-history-of-american-socialism/

[6] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/30/how-the-founding-fathers-protecting-their-riches-and-power/

[7] https://archive.org/stream/TheCrisisOfDemocracy-TrilateralCommission-1975/crisis_of_democracy_djvu.txt. Indeed, the Trilateral Commission’s 1975 Crisis of Democracy report warned that “some of the problems of governance in the United States today stem from an excess of democracy… Needed, instead, is a greater degree of moderation in democracy.” “Expertise, seniority, experience, and special talents,” the authors feel, should “override the claims of democracy” in many situations, claims that were growing louder during “the surge of the 1960s”; the “arenas where democratic procedures are appropriate are…limited,” so it would be unwise to, for example, have “a university where teaching appointments are subject to approval by students,” and presumably the same for citizen approval of national policy. Further, “apathy and noninvolvement” among some groups has “enabled democracy to function effectively,” as when “marginal social groups, as in the case of the blacks…[become] full participants” there is a “danger of overloading the political system with demands which extend its functions and undermine its authority…” Indeed, “Democracy is more of a threat to itself in the United States than it is in either Europe or Japan where there still exist residual inheritances of traditional and aristocratic values.” In sum, full and actual participation by the people leads to claims and demands, whether civil rights or universal healthcare, that can override the authority of the Establishment, the privileged and powerful. Democracy should therefore be checked.

[8] https://books.google.com/books?id=JHawgM-WnlUC&pg=PA218&lpg=PA218&dq=1856+north+carolina+last+state+to+remove+property+ownership&source=bl&ots=sgfKjGzhet&sig=y8ALKjDhkAr2LNvcO6cACsvzRaQ&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwi9_-rC3KXXAhUBYCYKHTxxBiEQ6AEIUzAI#v=onepage&q=1856%20north%20carolina%20last%20state%20to%20remove%20property%20ownership&f=false; https://gsgriffin.com/2017/06/30/how-the-founding-fathers-protecting-their-riches-and-power/

[9] Orwell, “Down and Out in Paris and London”

[10] https://www.britannica.com/topic/constitutional-law/Unicameral-and-bicameral-legislatures#ref384652

[11] Arthur Miller, Timebends: A Life, 1987

[12] https://www.govtrack.us/congress/bills/statistics

[13] https://sunlightfoundation.com/2014/01/16/congress-in-2013/#gplus

[14] The process varies by state. See Missouri’s process as an example: https://www.sos.mo.gov/CMSImages/Elections/Petitions/MakeYourVoiceHeard2018Cycle.pdf

[15] https://ballotpedia.org/States_with_initiative_or_referendum

[16] https://www.pbs.org/newshour/politics/ballot-initiatives-passed-marijuana-minimum-wage

[17] H.G. Wells, In the Days of the Comet (1906)

[18] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative

[19] http://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/initiative-referendum-and-recall-overview.aspx

[20] https://www.ancient.eu/Athenian_Democracy/

[21] Wright, Envisioning Real Utopias, 155-160

[22] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/switzerland-direct-democracy-explained/

[23] http://nationalinterest.org/feature/switzerland-the-ultimate-democracy-11219?page=2; https://object.cato.org/sites/cato.org/files/human-freedom-index-files/2017-human-freedom-index-2.pdf;

[24] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Initiative

[25] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Referendums_by_country#United_States

[26] https://fair.org/media-beat-column/the-twain-that-most-americans-never-meet/

[27] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/09/the-electoral-college-how-racist-white-slave-owners-made-your-vote-worthless/; https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/09/ending-the-electoral-college-wont-lead-to-city-rule-or-dictatorship/

Guaranteed Income vs. Guaranteed Work

Living in a socialist society would mean awakening each workday and heading to your worker cooperative, while regularly visiting your voting place to help decide local and national policies. But it is more than that—and has to be. The State has a few important services to provide if the socialist dream of prosperity and dignity for all people is to be achieved.

What if, for instance, you cannot find a job? Just because all workplaces are democratic and share profits does not mean there will always be enough jobs when and where you need one. There is no room in a socialist nation for unemployment, poverty, homelessness, and so on, and thus some mechanism is needed to guarantee that we only see these horrors in history books. Every person, regardless of who you are or what work you do, should make enough to have a comfortable life—which requires a high minimum wage (required by law but inherent in worker ownership) and guaranteed access to an income. There are two paths forward to eradicating the horrors, stated succinctly by Dr. King: “We must create full employment, or we must create incomes.”[1] Guaranteed work or a guaranteed income. Either would be adequate, but there are positives and negatives of each to weigh.

Let’s first consider a guaranteed income, or universal basic income (UBI). All UBI entails is using tax revenue to send a regular check to each citizen, a simple redistribution of wealth to eradicate poverty and provide security during times of unemployment or underemployment. Its simplicity is a major advantage over guaranteed work.

UBI has been around for a while in various forms. Alaska has given $1,000-$2,000 a year to every resident without condition since 1982.[2] Hawaii may follow suit soon.[3] The Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation launched its own UBI in 1996, and today gives $10,000 a year to each of its members, which has helped reduce behavioral problems and crime.[4] Iran from 2010 to 2016 had the world’s first national UBI, giving each family the equivalent of $16,300 a year.[5] For one year, 2011, Kuwait gave $3,500 to each citizen.[6] In 2017, Macau, a region of China, began giving over $1,100 a year to each permanent resident.[7]

Trials in some of India’s villages that began in 2011 show huge success in improving children’s education, access to food and healthcare, and the total number of new business startups.[8] Other past small-scale experiments were conducted in the U.S., Canada, Brazil, Namibia, and elsewhere. Models range from everyone getting the same amount to poorer recipients getting more while richer ones less (which even some conservatives support in the form of the Earned Income Tax Credit or even a negative income tax[9]). Studies indicate that when people have this financial security they spend more time taking care of family, more time focusing on education, and are able to win higher raises at work because they have a more serious option to leave, leverage they did not have before.[10] Contrary to myth, giving poor people cash tends to have no impact on or reduce alcohol and tobacco consumption, likely because paying for healthcare, education, and so forth is suddenly an option and people want to direct their resources there.[11] In 2017, experiments with UBI launched or were preparing to launch in various places in Finland, Canada, Kenya, Uganda, the Netherlands, Scotland, Spain, and the U.S.[12]

“A guaranteed annual income could be done for about twenty billion dollars a year,” Dr. King estimated in 1967. “If our nation can spend thirty-five billion dollars a year to fight an unjust, evil war in Vietnam, and twenty billion dollars to put a man on the moon, it can spend billions of dollars to put God’s children on their own two feet right here on earth.”[13] The question of priorities in spending is as relevant as ever. The cost of American UBI would depend on similar factors: how much would be guaranteed, if everyone would receive it (if the rich do not then it’s not technically UBI, but no matter), and so on. $10,000 a year for all 240 million U.S. adults is $2.4 trillion, $15,000 a year for the poorest 50 million people is $750 billion, etc. Of course, the net cost would be lower, as giving tens of millions or hundreds of millions of people greater purchasing power would put the economy into overdrive—that money would be spent, enriching co-ops and thus increasing State tax revenues (this is also why economic research overwhelming shows higher minimum wages do not lead to higher unemployment or prices; extra money is spent at businesses, boosting their profits, balancing the system out[14]). “People must be made consumers by one method or the other,” King said when discussing guaranteed income or work.[15] One study estimated giving each American adult $1,000 a month would grow the economy 12-13% over eight years, or by $2.5 trillion, if employment remained steady.[16] It is important to keep the cyclical nature of this system in mind while considering costs. UBI is expensive, but it also increases tax revenue.

Now, major concern exists that UBI will cause people to stop working, hurting the economy and leaving the worker-owners stuck supporting the easy lifestyle of the lazy. As we have seen, at some point in the human future automation will essentially make labor a thing of the past, highlighting the need for both collective ownership of the machines and State-provided incomes. So it seems obvious that at some point we will have to give up our agitation over people who do not work (rather, poor or middle income people who do not work; critics seem less concerned about the wealthy types who enjoy work-free lives). We won’t be able to absurdly base people’s value on how many hours they work or what sort of work they do. Everyone will spend their days as they see fit, some choosing to design skyscrapers (even though machines could do it for them) because they enjoy it, others doing nothing all day because they enjoy that more. But until machines can serve our every need, the point is a valid one, as some people will indeed prefer not to have a job, while supported by the labor of others. (On the positive side, there would be decreased competition for jobs for those seeking them.) This wouldn’t bother all worker-owners, but it would be reality. In five experiments on guaranteed income done in the U.S. and Canada, the decrease in the labor participation rate ranged from zero to 30%.[17] However, most studies show no effect or only a small decline.[18] Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney ran UBI experiments in a few cities for President Nixon, and found work rates remained steady.[19] A study of Alaska found employment levels weren’t affected. A study of Iran’s UBI revealed some people worked a bit less, but some actually worked more.[20] India’s basic income grants led to more labor, as did Uganda’s.[21] Namibia saw no negative effects on labor participation.[22] Naturally, the decline depends on how much is received, but it is predictable that UBI will mean some people will choose not to work. Importantly, with so much to do to rebuild and maintain our society, is UBI yet wholly practical? Will enough citizens volunteer to participate in all the unpleasant tasks that make a society function, such as repaving roads or waste disposal, if a high income is guaranteed? Would necessary tasks remain undone because Americans would want to pursue other things? These nagging questions will spur some to throw out the whole idea, insist the monthly amount must be low enough to force people to get jobs, or propose a higher UBI for people willing to do unpleasant work. All told, UBI would have to be implemented strategically, perhaps beginning at a level that eradicates poverty and slowly increasing as humanity approaches the point where machines can take care of all undesirable duties.

Guaranteed work is a more complex system, but avoids the concerns associated with lower labor participation. In fact, there would be a job for all. “If Government in our present clumsy fashion must go on,” Ralph Waldo Emerson said in 1843, “could it not assume the charge of providing each citizen, on his coming of age, with a pair of acres, to enable him to get his bread honestly?”[23] In a society offering guaranteed work, federal tax revenue could be transferred to municipalities to create salaries for unemployed or underemployed people. City governments would use the funds to launch public work projects to improve their communities (what projects would be a local democratic decision, of course). So if a city has 50,000 people looking for work at the start of the year, it might receive $2 billion, to offer a $40,000 salary to each person. If the U.S. had 8 million unemployed, it would cost $320 billion to employ them—half our modern military budget. Prioritization is easy enough. Dr. King said, “If America does not use her vast resources of wealth to end poverty and make it possible for all of God’s children to have the basic necessities of life, she too will go to hell.”[24] As with UBI, however, broadening purchasing power will reduce the net cost through increased tax revenues.

Workers can be hired to rebuild our crumbling inner cities, install solar panels on homes, plant trees, tutor struggling students, spend time with neglected seniors—literally any task that betters society in some way. Because not all positive tasks require physical labor, the program would be inclusive of many persons with disabilities or even seniors who want to work (though obviously not intended to replace social security or disability insurance). Cities will need more funds than just those for salaries, however, sums dependent on the type of project. Some projects will be relatively cheap, like cleaning trash off the streets, others more expensive, like renovating a school. Extra funds could nevertheless be fixed to a city’s unemployment level. Using their allotted monies, cities could contract with local co-ops to supply equipment and raw materials for necessary ventures. Public workers would also receive help securing employment at a cooperative, where higher incomes, democracy, and ownership can be enjoyed, so that the public sector doesn’t continually grow. Rather than shrink the private sector, however, guaranteed work programs can actually expand it—fewer unemployed persons means more spenders, benefiting businesses and allowing them to expand.[25]

Co-ops could also receive federal funds, allowing them to take on more worker-owners. This needn’t be a permanent relationship. The State could fund a position for a year, giving a co-op time to absorb a new member. Cooperatives would get another worker, and thus greater productivity and more profits, for nothing, in return for guaranteeing the worker a permanent job and ownership after the year ended. Co-ops could further receive government contracts to do certain projects, as businesses do today, with increased employment stipulations. Alternatively, cities could organize unemployed persons into new cooperatives, helping fund the endeavor during the first few years, until it became self-sustaining (whether for-profit or nonprofit). If there was a need for greater production in a certain sector, from agriculture to social work, that need could be met with new co-ops.[26]

There is much precedent for guaranteed work. Generally speaking, employment by the State is something we take for granted. Critics of paying citizens to work often have no qualms over paying citizens to be soldiers or police officers. If one can be called necessary for protection, the other can be called necessary for poverty’s demise. Local governments across the U.S. employ 14.1 million people, over half of them in education, the rest in healthcare, fire and policing, financing and administration, transportation, library services, utilities, environment and recreation—and public works.[27] (States employ another 5 million, and the federal government employs over 2.5 million civilians and over 2 million active and reserved military personnel.[28]) More specifically, during the Great Depression, President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration, Civil Works Administration, and Civilian Conservation Corps hired some 15.5 million people to build roads, bridges, schools, hospitals, museums, and zoos; to garden, plant trees, fight fires, reseed land, save wildlife, and sew; to undertake art, music, drama, education, writing, and literacy projects. While not without challenges, public works saved many families from hunger, strengthened the consumer class and thus the economy, and beautified the country.[29] Roosevelt actually included “the right to a useful and remunerative job” in his 1944 Second Bill of Rights.[30] Similar federal initiatives have occurred since, such as the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act of the 1970s, which employed 750,000 people by 1978.[31] (In countless other programs, like the Public Works Administration of the 1930s, the U.S. government indirectly created jobs by paying businesses to tackle huge projects. Construction of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s and 60s entailed the federal government funding the states, which either expanded their public workforces or contracted with private companies.) Today, cities like Reno, Albuquerque, Tempe, Fort Worth, Chicago, Denver, Portland, and Los Angeles offer jobs to the homeless to help them out of the social pit. Cities elsewhere in the world do the same.[32]

Governments around the world run programs similar to our New Deal. India is pouring billions into the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), which gives, or rather tries to give, residents of a few poor, rural states one hundred days of guaranteed work annually.[33] 50 million households, 170 million people, are involved—the largest public works program in world history.[34] Other nations, especially in Europe, have made the government the employer of last resort at various times.[35] So have South Africa and Argentina. Argentina’s Jefes de Hogar program paid the heads of household with children, persons with disabilities, or pregnant women to do community service, construction, and maintenance work. 2 million Argentinians, 5% of the population, were employed at its height.[36] South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Program includes government jobs in infrastructure, tourism, environment, early childhood education, and more.[37] As in the U.S., local, state, and national governments around the world may not offer guaranteed work but do offer public works jobs. These efforts and countless others have dealt serious blows to unemployment and poverty. Wages even rise in the private sector, because it must compete with the public sector for workers. “We must develop a federal program of public works, retraining, and jobs for all,” Dr. King said, “so that none, white or black, will have cause to feel threatened.”[38]

One criticism of guaranteed work is that unemployment dropping too low will herald inflation. It is said if unemployment is eliminated then businesses will have to compete for fewer workers, driving wages up, which will drive up the cost of everything else to compensate, which will lead to higher wage demands, all in an unending upward wage-price spiral. This is not actually as grave a concern as one might imagine. First, the correlation between unemployment and inflation is not terribly strong: sometimes they move in opposite directions, sometimes they move together.[39] Mainstream economists are increasingly acknowledging the relationship is weak or nonexistent. It’s easy to see why more workers doesn’t necessarily mean higher prices. Increased profits from more consumers spending more money help firms absorb higher wage costs without raising prices. Again, even drastic increases in the minimum wage create only tiny increases in prices, making the wage increase plainly worth it.[40] To stay competitive there is every incentive for firms to expand production, and thus sales, or take a bite out of profits rather than raise prices on consumers. Many economists have argued persuasively that, contrary to William Phillips, Milton Friedman, and others, full employment can be achieved without inflation.[41]

Second, if upward wage pressure became so great it could not be absorbed, and prices rose, there is reason to predict this would be a brief phase, not an eternal spiral. It is not likely the upward pressure on wages would last. Say the public worker salary was set at $38,000 a year (we’ll say that is also the minimum wage). If you worked for a capitalist firm making $38,000, you would likely be able to convince the capitalist to give you a raise—otherwise you could leave, guaranteed to make the same in the public sector. You win a raise and are then making $40,000. But if you continue pushing over time, the potential loss due to ultimate failure (being let go, replaced by someone cheaper, someone from the public sector wanting to make more) rises—it’s at $2,000 now and will only get bigger.[42] So there is a disincentive that keeps higher wage demands down. The capitalist may get rid of you and you’ll be worse off financially than you were. A guaranteed job gives people more power and leverage, but not so much to create an inflationary disaster; with limits on the upward pressure of wages come limits on price increases, which tend to be tiny proportions of income increases anyway. At a cooperative, as raises are determined democratically, the majority would have to repeatedly vote to both give raises to all and to raise prices on consumers—this seems just as unlikely, perhaps more so, as a single capitalist continuously doing this.

Third, more production of goods and services through the public sector, like increased purchasing power, increases supply and thus pulls price down.[43] Fourth, various effective tactics the State uses to control inflation will still exist under socialism.[44] In practice, at least regarding partial guaranteed employment and public works ventures, skyrocketing inflation is a nonissue. The Reserve Bank of India found that the MGNREGA program did not raise food prices.[45] We know that Argentina’s inflation was extremely high in 2002, when its works program began, but declined and remained relatively low past 2007, when the program ended, until 2013.[46] South Africa’s ongoing program began in 2004; inflation grew by over 10% by 2009, during economic crisis, but then fell and remained low through 2018.[47] The four points above also answer concerns about UBI and inflation. Further, studies of Alaska, Kuwait, Lebanon, Mexico, India, and African nations have at least shown that a small UBI does not cause inflation.[48]

Whether UBI, guaranteed work, or a combination of both (guaranteed work followed by UBI, for example, so no one is stuck doing pointless work for a city while co-op members get rich off machines that can do all tasks) is implemented, one of these strategies will be necessary as a safety net for those struggling to find a job. With it we can eradicate need and want forever. “Overcoming poverty is not a task of charity, it is an act of justice,” Nelson Mandela said. “Like Slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”[49] Either system would have other significant effects on society, too, such as replacing many older forms of welfare, freeing people from the fear of quitting a job they do not enjoy, giving people greater ability to strike—a tactic that may not entirely disappear with worker ownership, as some worker-owners may be so opposed to a majority decision they walk out—and more.[50]

 

Notes

[1] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech, 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, August 16, 1967).

[2] https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/jp5wdb/only-state-free-money-alaska

[3] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/6/15/15806870/hawaii-universal-basic-income

[4] http://edition.cnn.com/2015/03/01/opinion/sutter-basic-income/

[5] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/iran-introduced-a-basic-income-scheme-and-something-strange-happened

[6] http://basicincome.org/news/2011/05/kuwait-a-temporary-partial-basic-income-for-citizens-only/

[7] http://basicincome.org/news/2017/07/wealth-partaking-scheme-macaus-small-ubi/

[8] https://mondediplo.com/2013/05/04income

[9] Milton Friedman, Free to Choose

[10] https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/debating-basic-income

[11] https://qz.com/853651/definitive-data-on-what-poor-people-buy-when-theyre-just-given-cash/; http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/617631468001808739/pdf/WPS6886.pdf

[12] http://basicincome.org/news/2017/10/overview-of-current-basic-income-related-experiments-october-2017/; http://time.com/money/5114349/universal-basic-income-stockton/

[13] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech, 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, August 16, 1967).

[14] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/the-last-article-on-the-minimum-wage-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

[15] Martin Luther King, “Where Do We Go From Here?” (speech, 11th Annual Southern Christian Leadership Conference Convention, Atlanta, GA, August 16, 1967).

[16] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/09/a-basic-income-could-boost-the-us-economy-by-2-5-trillion/

[17] https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/debating-basic-income

[18] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/8/30/16220134/universal-basic-income-roosevelt-institute-economic-growth

[19] https://qz.com/931291/dick-cheney-and-donald-rumsfeld-ran-a-universal-basic-income-experiment-for-president-richard-nixon/

[20] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/05/iran-introduced-a-basic-income-scheme-and-something-strange-happened

[21] http://isa-global-dialogue.net/indias-great-experiment-the-transformative-potential-of-basic-income-grants/; http://www.unicef.in/Uploads/Publications/Resources/pub_doc83.pdf; https://medium.com/basic-income/evidence-and-more-evidence-of-the-effect-on-inflation-of-free-money-a3dcc2a9ea9e

[22] http://bignam.org/Publications/BIG_Assessment_report_08b.pdf

[23] http://books.google.com/books?id=04NPax82MZQC&pg=PA70&lpg=PA70&dq=ralph+waldo+emerson+socialism&source=bl&ots=9Cp_2uKvRI&sig=AfJfiT0oIr3L4XRC2hpxaA93sgs&hl=en&sa=X&ei=sZgkVMbKH4GUyATVlILoCQ&ved=0CDYQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=ralph%20waldo%20emerson%20socialism&f=false

[24] http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/28568-martin-luther-king-jr-all-labor-has-dignity

[25] https://democracyjournal.org/magazine/44/youre-hired/

[26] Alec Nove, Essential Works of Socialism, 555

[27] https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/21955000-12329000-government-employees-outnumber-manufacturing; https://www.cbpp.org/research/some-basic-facts-on-state-and-local-government-workers

[28] https://www.cnsnews.com/news/article/terence-p-jeffrey/21955000-12329000-government-employees-outnumber-manufacturing; https://www.csmonitor.com/Business/Robert-Reich/2010/0813/America-s-biggest-jobs-program-The-US-military

[29] http://www.history.com/topics/works-progress-administration; http://www.history.com/topics/civilian-conservation-corps; https://www.britannica.com/place/United-States/The-Great-Depression#ref613079

[30] http://www.ushistory.org/documents/economic_bill_of_rights.htm

[31] https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2017/9/6/16036942/job-guarantee-explained

[32] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/u-s-canadian-city-governments-ending-homelessness-by-offering-jobs/; http://www.newsweek.com/homeless-paid-clean-streets-texas-786311; https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/tempe/2017/10/16/tempe-hire-homeless-temporary-jobs-fight-mill-avenue/754199001/

[33] http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/dpr.12220/full

[34] https://scroll.in/article/807379/why-2015-16-was-the-worst-year-ever-for-mgnrega; https://www.huffingtonpost.com/atul-dev/the-need-for-guaranteed-e_b_6295050.html

[35] https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2000/10/art4full.pdf

[36] http://www.cfeps.org/pubs/wp-pdf/WP41-Tcherneva-Wray-all.pdf; http://www.levyinstitute.org/pubs/wp_534.pdf

[37] http://www.epwp.gov.za/; https://www.westerncape.gov.za/general-publication/expanded-public-works-programme-epwp-0; http://www.publicworks.gov.za/PDFs/Speeches/Minister/2016/Minister_EPWP_2016_Summit_closing_remarks_17112016.pdf

[38] http://neweconomicperspectives.org/2013/08/honoring-dr-kings-call-for-a-job-guarantee-program.html

[39] http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.526.7530&rep=rep1&type=pdf; https://wwz.unibas.ch/fileadmin/wwz/redaktion/makrooekonomie/intermediate_macro/reader/7/02_ACFC7.pdf; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/46529582_The_Moral_Imperative_and_Social_Rationality_of_Government-Guaranteed_Employment_and_Reskilling

[40] https://gsgriffin.com/2016/12/08/the-last-article-on-the-minimum-wage-you-will-ever-need-to-read/

[41] http://www.redalyc.org/pdf/601/60124701.pdf

[42] https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=718089001090029001080009094097103014067041034067091025005110119013116028124085065079106087021005066041048019022117117074085015103072012028116125001110102097111024001098096104064120025064&EXT=pdf; https://www.econstor.eu/bitstream/10419/31634/1/571704611.pdf

[43] https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=718089001090029001080009094097103014067041034067091025005110119013116028124085065079106087021005066041048019022117117074085015103072012028116125001110102097111024001098096104064120025064&EXT=pdf

[44] https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/2269/economics/ways-to-reduce-inflation/

[45] https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/economy/indicators/mgnrega-has-not-contributed-to-food-inflation-report/articleshow/44903564.cms

[46] https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/FP.CPI.TOTL.ZG?end=2013&locations=AR&start=2000

[47] https://tradingeconomics.com/south-africa/inflation-cpi; http://www.epwp.gov.za/

[48] https://medium.com/basic-income/evidence-and-more-evidence-of-the-effect-on-inflation-of-free-money-a3dcc2a9ea9e; http://ubi.earth/inflation/

[49] http://www.mandela.gov.za/mandela_speeches/2005/050203_poverty.htm

[50] https://catalyst-journal.com/vol1/no3/debating-basic-income

For the Many, Not the Few: A Closer Look at Worker Cooperatives

After pointing out the authoritarian hierarchy of the capitalist workplace—the capitalist chief at the top wielding ultimate decision-making power and owning the wealth created by the workers—John Stuart Mill envisioned instead the “association of laborers themselves on terms of equality, collectively owning the capital with which they carry on their operations, and working under managers elected and removable by themselves.”[1]

Socialistic worker cooperatives are the humane alternative to capitalist businesses. In a worker cooperative, you become a company owner soon after being hired. All workers share equal ownership of the firm, from custodian to spokesperson. This translates to equality in power (all decisions are made democratically) and in wealth (company shares and incomes are the same for everyone). Just like that, the exploitation of labor by and authoritarian power of the greedy few are consigned to the dustbin of history, replaced by cooperation, equity, and democracy. Workers control their own destinies, deciding together how they should use the profits created by their collective labor, be it improving production through technology, taking home bigger incomes, opening a new facility, hiring a new worker, lowering the price of a service, producing something new, and all other conceivable matters of business.

With the disappearance of hierarchy and exploitation comes the elimination or great alleviation of other crimes of capitalism we’ve explored. When worker-owners invest in new technologies that increase productivity and require less human labor, they won’t fire themselves—they can make more money and/or work fewer hours, bettering their standard of living and spending more time with family or doing things they enjoy. They will not outsource their own jobs to Bangladesh, either. Their greater wealth will reduce poverty, their greater purchasing power easing the throes of recession and depression (as would less competition, were cooperatives to federate). If co-ops were adopted on a national or global scale, the stock market might disappear, or at least substantially change, as the workers might want to keep all the shares of their company. Transparency and democracy should make a firm less likely to commit the kinds of profit-driven abuses against people, planet, and peace, because there are more players influencing decisions; the wider the field, the less likely everyone would feel comfortable with, say, poisoning our biosphere to make a buck. This is not to say that laws prohibiting the production of vehicles that run on fossil fuels would be unnecessary. They would. Rather, it is simply to say there would be more room for dissent in a workplace and a greater chance of a more moral or safe alternative being adopted. Socialism is not a cure for all our problems, just many of them.

Some criticisms of worker cooperatives can be easily dismissed with simple philosophical and theoretical arguments. There’s the desire of capitalists and would-be capitalists to have all the power and hoard the wealth. Well, this is about being more ethical than that, having the empathy to support the common good, not selfish ends. As Dr. King said, “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[2] There’s the consternation at the thought of a majority of workers with little to no experience with a task overruling a worker with experience and knowledge of said task. What does the graphic designer know of welding processes and how to best use or improve them? How can we let younger, newer, brasher salespeople make policy for the veteran salesperson? Well, first, it’s important to acknowledge that both fresh blood and odd ideas from outside a field can at times prove beneficial, a spark of innovation and positive change. Second, many worker cooperatives make it a point to train all workers in multiple or all areas of the business, lessening the knowledge gap with education, training, and staff development. Some even rotate jobs! (On-the-job training and shared knowledge is a key factor for success in co-ops where most founders have no business experience.[3]) Third, a cooperative environment encourages workers to listen carefully to those with greater experience, knowing that deference will be reciprocated later. Fourth, most business decisions, if found to be ineffective or harmful, can be reversed before a total collapse of the company, just like in business today. Lastly, even if a shortsighted, unknowledgeable majority ran the cooperative—their cooperative—into the ground because they stubbornly refused to listen to the wisdom of the experts, there is nevertheless something satisfactory about the democratic nature of this failure. Under capitalism, the stupidity of a single capitalist can destroy a business, wiping out jobs for everyone. Under socialism, the workers democratically determine their own destiny. It may be a disaster, but it’s your disaster, collectively speaking. But, as we will see, cooperatives are in no way more likely to fold.

Cooperative work is as old as humanity itself, as we have seen. Worker cooperatives in their modern form have existed around the world since the Industrial Revolution began and capitalism took off, that is, before Marx’s writings.

The U.S. has a rich history of cooperative enterprises that continues to this day.[4] No, they are not always perfect. While some exemplify precisely the socialist vision, others could be more egalitarian or democratic (for example, many make use of elected managers or executives with slightly larger salaries, which can be easier with larger companies; others are too slow at granting ownership rights). But they are all a giant step up from capitalist firms. The U.S. has an estimated 300-400 cooperatives, everything from the 4th Tap Brewing Co-Op in Texas to Catamount Solar in Vermont, employing 7,000 workers (the average size is 50 people) and earning $400 million in revenue each year. (If you’ve heard it’s more like tens of thousands of cooperatives making billions, such inflated numbers are only possible by including credit unions, “purchasing co-ops,” independent farmers aiding each other through “producer co-ops,” Employee Stock Ownership Plans, and other structures that, while valuable, don’t exactly qualify.) 26% of them used to be capitalist-structured businesses.[5] Converting is a great way to preserve a business and protect people’s livelihoods; when small business capitalists retire, the vast majority of the time they do not find a buyer nor are able to pass ownership on to family, so the enterprise simply ends and workers are thrown out.[6] Cooperatives represent all economic sectors, and have annual profit margins comparable to top-down businesses—the idea that they are less efficient is a myth (not that efficiency has to be more important than democracy and equality anyway). 84% of the workers are owners at a given time.[7] Many firms are members of the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, a growing organization. Because people are put before profits, most cooperatives have a particular focus on community improvement and development, for example the Evergreen Cooperatives in Ohio. One study found food co-ops reinvest more money from each dollar in the local economy.[8]

America’s largest co-op, the Cooperative Home Care Associates in New York, has grown to 2,300 employees, about half of which are owners (to become an owner one pays $1,000 in installments). It is 90% owned by minority women. With $64 million in profits in 2013, the CHCA provides wages of $16 an hour (twice the market rate), a highest- to lowest-paid worker ratio of 11:1, flexible hours, and good insurance. Its governing board is elected; profits are shared. The company has a turnover rate that is a quarter of the industry standard. Some workers left behind minimum wage jobs and are now making $25 an hour. People say they stay because the co-op lifted them out of poverty and as owners they have decision-making power.[9] Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in The Conduct of Life (1860), “The socialism of our day has done good service in setting men to thinking how certain civilizing benefits, now only enjoyed by the opulent, can be enjoyed by all.”[10] People who join the Women’s Action to Gain Economic Security (WAGES) co-ops in California see their incomes skyrocket 70-80%.[11]

As one might expect, workers are more invested in a company when they are also owners, which translates into better business outcomes. Though they are not without challenges, a review of the extant research reveals co-ops have the same or greater productivity and profitability than conventional businesses, and tend to last longer; workers are more motivated, satisfied, and enjoy greater benefits and pay (with no evidence of increased shirking), information flow improves, and resignations and layoffs decline.[12] They are more resilient during economic crises.[13] Many studies come from Europe, where cooperatives are more widespread and more data has been collected. In Canada, worker cooperatives last on average four times longer than traditional businesses.[14] Their survival rates are 20-30% better.[15] Research on France’s cooperatives revealed that worker-owned enterprises were more productive and efficient, and over a four-year period cooperative startups actually outnumbered capitalistic startups.[16] French capitalist-turned-cooperative businesses have better survival rates than capitalist businesses by significant margins, 10-30%.[17] Analyzing cooperatives across the U.K., Canada, Israel, France, and Uruguay, one study found that cooperatives had similar survival rates to traditional businesses over the long term, but better chances of making it through the crucial early years. Italy and Germany experience the same.[18] Italian co-ops are 40% more likely to survive their first three years; Canadian co-ops about 30% more likely in the first five years and 25% more likely in the first ten years; in the U.K., twice as many cooperatives survive the first five years than traditional firms.[19] In Italy’s Emilia Romagna region, an economic powerhouse of that nation and Europe, two-thirds of residents belong to worker cooperatives.[20] In Spain, a study of a retail chain that has both top-down stores and cooperative ones revealed the latter have much stronger sales growth because worker-owners have decision-making power and a financial stake.[21] In the U.S., much research has been done on businesses with Employee Stock Ownership Plans, which are called “employee-owned” because employees are given stock, but most are not democratic nor totally owned by the workers (Publix and Hy-Vee are examples). ESOPs are only one-third as likely to fail compared to publicly traded businesses, suffer less employee turnover, and are more productive.[22] One rare study on American plywood worker cooperatives found they were 6-14% more efficient in terms of output than conventional mills.[23] When the economy declined, conventional mills attacked worker hours and employment, whereas the worker-owners agreed to lower their pay to protect hours and jobs.[24] Given the benefits of worker cooperatives, places like New York City, California, and Cleveland are investing in their development, recognizing their ability to lift people out of poverty and thus strengthen a consumer economy, plus offer an opportunity to focus on alleviating systemic barriers to work and wealth that minorities, former felons, and others face in the United States.[25] This is no small matter. The egalitarian structure and spirit of solidarity inherent in co-ops can help win equality for the oppressed and disadvantaged. While perfect by no means, women tend to have more equitable pay and access to more prestigious positions in co-ops.[26] 60% of worker-owners in new American co-ops in 2012 and 2013 were people of color.[27] 90% of worker-owners at one of Spain’s co-ops are people with disabilities.[28] Italian cooperatives are more likely to hire folks who have been unemployed for long periods, often a major barrier to work.[29]

Spain has one of the strongest cooperative enterprises, no surprise to those who know Spain’s Marxist history.[30] (In the 1930s, George Orwell marveled at Barcelona, writing that his visit “was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers… Every shop and cafe had been collectivized… Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.”[31]) Mondragon Cooperative Corporation is a federation of over one hundred socialistic workplaces around the globe and in many economic sectors, from retail to agriculture. It is one of Spain’s largest corporations and the largest cooperative experiment in the world, with over $10 billion in annual revenue and 74,000 workers. Those who are worker-owners have shares of the business and the ability to run for a spot in the General Assembly, the federation’s democratic body of power, which elects a Governing Council. However, each cooperative is semi-autonomous, having its own, smaller democratic body. The manager-worker pay ratio is capped at 6:1.[32] In rough economic times, worker-owners decide democratically how much their pay should be reduced or how many fewer hours they should work, and managers take the biggest hits. This stabilizes an entity during recession, avoiding layoffs. So does job rotation and retraining. Further, Mondragon has the ability, as a federation, to transfer workers or wealth from successful cooperatives to ones that are struggling.[33] Due to these flexibilities, Mondragon cooperatives going out of business is nearly unheard of. When it does happen, the federation finds work for the unlucky workers at other member co-ops.[34] During the Great Recession, Mondragon’s number of workers held steady, and the Spanish county where it is headquartered was one of the least troubled.[35] The enterprise, however, has major faults. It actually owns more subsidiary companies than cooperatives—capitalistic, exploitive businesses in poor countries where workers are not owners. Also egregious: less than half of all Mondragon employees are actually owners.[36] Nevertheless, the business is a step in the right direction, indicating socialistic workplaces can function large-scale. (In fact, on average co-ops tend to have more employees that top-down firms.[37]) Mondragon is a member of the International Co-operative Alliance, the leading global association for the movement.

There are 11.1 million worker-owners worldwide.[38] When we include folk who work for cooperatives but are not owners, our total rises to 27 million.

 

Notes

[1] Mill, Principles of Political Economy

[2] King, “Beyond Vietnam,” April 4, 1967, New York City Riverside Church

[3] http://www.aciamericas.coop/IMG/pdf/CWCF_Canadian_SSHRC_Paper_16-6-2010_fnl.pdf

[4] Curl, For All the People

[5] http://institute.coop/what-worker-cooperative

[6] http://www.sfchronicle.com/business/article/Employee-ownership-may-help-businesses-stay-open-10941974.php

[7] http://institute.coop/sites/default/files/resources/State_of_the_sector_0.pdf

[8] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[9] http://www.commondreams.org/views/2014/08/15/how-americas-largest-worker-owned-co-op-lifts-people-out-poverty

[10] Emerson, The Conduct of Life

[11] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[12] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=econ_las_workingpapers; https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[13] http://storre.stir.ac.uk/handle/1893/3255#.Wm-XeJM-fsE; https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[14] http://inthesetimes.com/article/17061/a_co_op_state_of_mind

[15] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[16] https://www.thenation.com/article/worker-cooperatives-are-more-productive-than-normal-companies/

[17] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[18] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[19] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[20] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[21] https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1849466

[22] http://www.co-oplaw.org/special-topics/worker-cooperatives-performance-and-success-factors/

[23] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=econ_las_workingpapers

[24] https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=5qcPK0MuCXQC&oi=fnd&pg=PA462&dq=%22worker+cooperatives%22&ots=rVtg5rB4Fs&sig=6OXh-j6-MTTcrYJgbIgcvvrgma4#v=onepage&q=%22worker%20cooperatives%22&f=false

[25] https://www.thenation.com/article/worker-cooperatives-are-more-productive-than-normal-companies/; https://apolitical.co/solution_article/clevelands-cooperatives-giving-ex-offenders-fresh-start/; https://www.thenation.com/article/meet-the-radical-workers-cooperative-growing-in-the-heart-of-the-deep-south/

[26] http://www.geo.coop/node/615; https://www.thenews.coop/119294/sector/worker-coops/co-operatives-ensuring-no-one-left-behind/

[27] https://tcf.org/content/report/reducing-economic-inequality-democratic-worker-ownership/

[28] https://www.thenews.coop/119294/sector/worker-coops/co-operatives-ensuring-no-one-left-behind/

[29] https://lib.dr.iastate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1098&context=econ_las_workingpapers

[30] https://gsgriffin.com/2017/07/03/socialismo-the-marxist-victories-in-spain/

[31] Orwell, “Homage to Catalonia”

[32] http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/world-s-largest-federation-of-worker-owned-co-operatives-mondragon-josu-ugarte

[33] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative; Putting Democracy to Work, by Frank Adams and Gary Hansen, p. 145

[34] http://www.yesmagazine.org/new-economy/world-s-largest-federation-of-worker-owned-co-operatives-mondragon-josu-ugarte

[35] http://www.northeastern.edu/econpress/2016/11/16/mondragon-economic-democracy-in-the-startup-age/; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative

[36] http://www.northeastern.edu/econpress/2016/11/16/mondragon-economic-democracy-in-the-startup-age/; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/07/mondragon-spains-giant-cooperative

[37] https://poseidon01.ssrn.com/delivery.php?ID=630093101127024071122112080068014068031053050050057049071105017072103089077103089094028058042052005023061081018000001123015079014012043035035115110105126071030118028095082080068011004095110081113065023069089126092123117096125095075072112084120095119024&EXT=pdf

[38] http://www.cicopa.coop/Second-Global-Report-on.html (p. 25, Table 1). If we add in people who are self-employed but members of “producer cooperatives” that support them (farmers and fishermen, for instance, especially in Asia), 280 million people are involved in cooperative employment. Bringing these workers into the analysis would also swell the U.S. numbers mentioned earlier.