Remembering the Centennial of the German Revolution

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on a 1949 Stamp issued by the German Democratic Republic

By Ben M

(Remarks given at November General Meeting for the Boston Democratic Socialists of America)

This month we commemorate not just the ending of World War One, but also the revolution that brought about that peace. A week ago, the 11th, marked the centennial of the signing of the armistice that ended 4 and a half years of unmitigated carnage and destruction. Nearly 10 million soldiers died in the Great War, as well as millions more civilians, all essentially for nothing. There was no great cause, no great meaning to their sacrifice, just the callous interests of empires and capitalists re-carving the world. Trenches, bombing of civilians, mustard gas, tanks, genocide, and artillery barrages characterized this the great meat grinder that they thought to call the Great War. And those aforementioned capitalists and imperialists had every intention to continue the carnage till nothing remained of Europe but ruins if it weren’t for what Trotsky would call, “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”1

Last year there was a lot of talk and discussion about the centennial of the Russian Revolution, we here in Boston DSA had some reading groups and discussions ourselves. One of the many features of that event was it took a revolution, technically two revolutions, to pull Russia out of World War One. Truth be told it wasn’t the best of exits, Soviet Russia would be made to suffer for its willingness to obtain peace at any price, but it set the stage.

For in all of the mainstream articles and talk this past week about the centennial of the end of World War One, a particular fact is often absent. It wasn’t the diplomats, politicians, kings, presidents, emperors, generals, admirals, or well-meaning liberal journalists that finally ended the war. It was the soldiers, sailors, and workers of Germany who ended it by throwing down their weapons and refusing to die anymore for the Kaiser. In doing so, to quote Chris Harmen, “the Prussian monarchy had reigned for hundreds of years. It ruled the whole of Germany for half a century. Now it collapsed in a few short days and hardly a shot was fired in its defense.”2

So I am not going to give a quick play by play run down to the end of the Prussian Monarchy and World War One, and the start of the German Revolution 100 years ago this month:

In the weeks prior to the revolution, socialist and communist (technically the Independent Social-Democrats and the proto Spartacus League, respectively) had been agitating and even preparing for an uprising to bring to the end the war and empire. But it was at the German naval base in Kiel on November 3rd where 20,000 sailors refused to fight any longer for a pointless war that couldn’t be won. The German Navy, which had largely stayed out of the war till now with the exception of the U-Boats, decided it was time to go down fighting. Literally, the admiralty thought it was best to send the fleet out to certain death at this stage, going down in the blaze of glory, which, interestingly enough, would involve no admirals getting killed. The sailors thought this was a terrible idea and mutinied in the 10s of thousands.

The sailors and dock workers quickly formed elected councils of soldiers, sailors, and workers to plan the revolt. Socialists and Communist joined the movement. With the fear of reprisals, again they were all mutineers at this point, the only choice was to spread the revolt and by November 7th sailors were travelling along the railways freeing prisoners and recruiting more soldiers and workers to the cause.

The City of Bremen fell to the council of workers, sailors, and soldiers on the 9th, Kiel on the 7th, the provincial capital of Bavaria also on the 7th, City of Efrut on the 8th. To quote Pierre Broue, “The news from every part of Germany on the night of 8-9 November confirmed it: here the sailors and there the soldiers organized demonstrations, whilst workers came out on strike. Workers and soldiers councils were elected. The prisons were attacked and opened. The red flag, emblem of world revolution, floated over the public buildings.”3

On the November 9th revolution came to Berlin. To quote E.O Volkmann, “the day Marx and his friend desired all their lives had come at last. The Revolution was on the march in the capital of the empire. The firm tread, in step, of the workers battalions echoed in the streets.”4

Some army officers tried to organize resistance at the universities, libraries, and the Reichstag building, but they were all swept aside by the crowds without firing a shot.

At the Imperial Palace, now taken over by the crowd, Karl Liebknecht, the revolutionary socialist who was a parliament member but was sent to jail and then the front, spoke from the balcony to the crowd, proclaiming a German Socialist Republic. He said; “The rule of capitalism, which turned Europe into a cemetary, is henceforward broke. We now have to strain out strength to construct the workers and soldiers government and new proletarian state, a state of peace, joy, and freedom for our German brothers and our brothers throughout the whole world.”5

But at that same moment, just a 27-minute walk according to google maps away at the Reichstag building, the moderate and pro-war socialist Friedrich Ebert had just reluctantly proclaimed the “German Republic.” Not a socialist or workers republic, just a regular republic.

This contradiction, between the vision of a workers socialist republic, and a more moderate “normal” republic, would battle for the soul of Germany for the next five years through multiple mass strikes, aborted revolutions, attempted coups, and more. In the end it would culminate not with a republic of any form, but the rise of Nazi totalitarianism.

But that is a longer story. Regardless, on November 10th the Kaiser had already abdicated and was in exile in the Netherlands, on the 11th World War One was over. It took all of a week from the first mutiny to bring the whole war and the whole war making edifice down.

For those who want to read more on this subject I would suggest:

And with that I will give the last words to Rosa Luxemburg: “The great criminals of this fearful unchained chaos – the ruling classes – are not able to control their own creation. The beast of capital that conjured up the hell of the world war is incapable of banishing it, of restoring real order, of insuring bread and work, peace and civilization, justice and liberty, to tortured humanity. What is being prepared by the ruling classes as peace and justice is only a new work of brutal force from which the hydra of oppression, hatred and fresh bloody wars raises its thousand heads. Socialism alone is in a position to complete the great work of permanent peace, to heal the thousand wounds from which humanity is bleeding, to transform the plains of Europe, trampled down by the passage of the apocryphal horseman of war, into blossoming gardens, to awaken all the physical and moral energies of humanity, and to replace hatred and dissension with internal solidarity, harmony, and respect for every human being.”

Fundamentals of Ecosocialism

by Becca M, Chris H, Michelle Y & Nafis H

On Ecosocialism

On Wednesday, August 22nd, about 50 people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear four members of Boston DSA speak on an introduction to ecosocialism.This article is a recap of the concepts discussed at the panel and discusses the central tenets of ecosocialism, and ongoing ecosocialist struggles within DSA nationwide.

Basics of capitalism, socialism, and ecosocialism

Marx described society as divided into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the proletariat (worker) who sell their labor in exchange for wages (source). The wages paid to workers are always less than the value of the labor provided to ensure capitalist accumulation on behalf of the owner. While today, many of us cannot imagine a society without capitalism, this system of economic and social organization hasn’t been around for most of human history.

Capitalism was, in part, pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese through their genocidal colonization of the Canary and Madeira Islands in 1400s. Madeira was uninhabited, but the Canary Islands were home to the Guanches people who were either killed or enslaved by the colonizers. These islands initially served as sources for timber that would be sent to European mainland; in late 1400s, African slaves were brought to Madeira for sugarcane farming. Madeira quickly became the leading sugar producer for Europe, peaking at 2,500 tons in 1506. However, by 1530, output had dropped by 90% due to the depletion of the island’s natural resources (wood, soil), indicating the boom-and-bust nature of capitalism. Madeira served as one of the earliest examples of capitalist exploitation, and this model would be repeated by colonial powers in the New World (source).

madeira capitalism
Courtesy: https://daily.jstor.org/madeira-the-island-that-helped-invent-capitalism/

So how do we fight modern day capitalism that is driving us towards extinction? According to Michael Lowy, one of the leading proponents of the school of thought, ecosocialism is defined as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross. For ecosocialists, the market’s profit logic, and the logic of bureaucratic authoritarianism within the late departed “actually existing socialism”, are incompatible with the need to safeguard the natural environment.” (source)

Simply put, ecosocialism envisions a transformed society that is in harmony with nature, and the development of practices that can attain it. Such practices are also aimed at dismantling socially and ecologically destructive systems such as fossil-fuel based economy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism among others. An ecosocialist strategy recognizes that “a future reconciled with nature and the essence of humanity requires a radical change of perspective, a radical democratic change in certain means of production and consumption which puts in the central position of life the people’s basic needs, which should be determined democratically and in accordance to the biophysical limits of the planet.” (source).  

Examples of ongoing ecosocialist struggles

From North Dakota to Puerto Rico to Palestine, communities are rising up in ecosocialist struggles to protect their environment.For example, Standing Rock was a indigenous-led resistance against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned route was half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was more broadly a movement to oppose neo-colonialism and extractivism on stolen land that lasted from April 2016 until February 2017. Coordinated efforts between Energy Transfer Partners, the North Dakotan government, local police, private security forces suppressed the movement, including the usage of militarized “counterterrorism” tactics (source). Since the movement began, there have been over 50 anti-protest bills introduced across the country, including ones painting/tampering with infrastructure facilities as domestic terrorism, introduced by Republicans and Dems alike. The fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure continues in the US, Canada, and abroad including fights against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana which is part of the greater DAPL system.

Puerto Rico is a case study in disaster capitalism post-Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017. The government has treated the post-hurricane context not as an environmental crisis, but as a way of accelerating certain austerity measures, like the privatization of practically all public services (e.g. water distribution, public utilities, education). Additionally, the government has been courting capital investors and entrepreneurs through low taxes. Note that most of Puerto Rico is still in a deep electric power crisis as recovery has been drawn out after the hurricane. In terms of pushback against disaster capitalism, PR residents and unions have been staging protests/work stoppages against austerity. For instance, the UTIER is a radical union operating the electric power authority. They are fighting against reduced pay, safety regulations, etc. and have consistently denounced the ongoing privatization, while calling for public control over energy and water utilities. There are also several anti-capitalist organizations and coalitions based in PR working to fight disaster capitalism (source).

Water in Palestine is almost entirely controlled by Israel, per the (supposedly temporary) Oslo Agreement of 1993, which stipulated that 80% of water from a joint Israeli-Palestinian mountain aquifer would be allotted for Israeli use, and 20% for Palestinian use. However, in reality water usage by Palestinians is closer to 10% due to problems with water infrastructure. The agreement also stated that Palestine can purchase an allotted amount of water from Israel – so water is not a shared resource, but a commodity and a means of control (source). Additionally, the water crisis is exacerbated by Israeli bombings of power plants, which have destroyed (among other things) water treatment capabilities. Israeli authorities often block construction of water infrastructure and sometimes even demolish existing infrastructure. As a result, much of the water that is available to begin with is polluted (source).

There are many more ongoing ecosocialist struggles than there was time to discuss, but it’s clear how environmental issues are extremely political, and used as weapons of oppression and of upholding capitalist interests. The relation between capitalism and imperialism is perhaps best encapsulated by The Belém Declaration, announced at the Ecosocialist conference in Brazil in 2009.

Environmental Ideologies

There exists a few different schools of environmental thought that include liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism, ecofascism, and degrowth as a means to ecosocialism. Understanding these schools of thought help contextualize the above ongoing struggles.

Liberal environmentalism

Liberal environmental organizations include groups like the Sierra Club, 350, or Audubon and World Wildlife Fund. They typically focus on campaigns with fairly narrow scopes that can be pursued by pressuring officials or passing legislation, with recent examples in Massachusetts that include campaigns to convince Governor Baker (R) to pass carbon pricing legislation, to pass a bill that would protect bees, or to ban the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban plastic straws, which some consider to have originated after a 2015 video showing a straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose and has recently been championed by Starbucks, is a perfect example of this orientation. Banning plastic straws affects individual’s consumption habits and experts ranked straws 13th out of 20 plastic items in terms of danger to marine life (Wilcox et al, 2016). For comparison, fishing gear was ranked the most dangerous and comprises about 46% of the of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al 2017). This singular focus on a winnable campaign around banning one consumer item has also ignored protest from people with disabilities who frequently have no good alternatives to single use straws and are already marginalized by our society.

In addition to typically favoring market driven and legislative approaches to problems, liberal environmentalists also have the perspective that humans are separate from nature, and pursue species and land conservation that isolates one from the other. In reality, indigenous people who use or manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface are more twice as likely to keep lands “natural” compared to other lands [sources – summary and Garnett et al, 2018]. When enacted as policy, this separation of humans from nature can cause displacement when land that is being used is turned into a conservation area if land tenure had not been established or if access to land is considered part of the commons. Enforcement of these conservation zones may require “special bodies of armed men” or other punitive measures. For example, park rangers shot and killed a man from the Batwa tribe in eastern Congo who had been looking for medicinal plants. The Batwa tribe had used this land for generations but had lost rights when a German-funded national park was put in place for species conservation.

Ecomodernism

John Bellamy Foster, in his review of the Jacobin climate change issue, wrote the following; “What is remarkable about the contributions to Jacobin‘s special issue on the environment and related works by its writers and editors is how removed they are from genuine socialism—if this involves a revolution in social and ecological relations, aimed at the creation of a world of substantive equality and environmental sustainability. What we get instead is a mechanistic, techno-utopian “solution” to the climate problem that ignores the social relations of science and technology, along with human needs and the wider environment. Unlike ecological Marxism and radical ecology generally, this vision of a state-directed, technocratic, redistributive market economy, reinforced by planetary geoengineering, does not fundamentally challenge the commodity system.”

ecomodernism
Source:http://www.ecomodernism.org/

Ecomodernism is the theory that our climate and environmental problems may be solved with little to no changes to our behavior because we will invent technological solutions (e.g nuclear, carbon capture and storage, afforestation, geoengineering, etc.), or what climate scientist and IPCC author Kevin Anderson calls a “shameful litany of technocratic fraud”. These technological solutions are purported to “decouple” GDP and carbon emissions, or more generally, GDP and environmental impact. As the Indigenous Environmental Network report on these methods describes, carbon offsetting, “clean development”, and cap and trade are market mechanisms that have not worked yet and often cause harm under capitalism with market forces.

Ecofascism

Back in 1798, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized that exponential population growth with a fixed growth of the food supply would result in catastrophe unless preventative measures were taken. These preventative measures include methods of birth control or suppression, which as you can probably guess usually ends up with race, gender, and class based oppression. Karl Marx was a critic of Malthus, calling him a “lackey of the bourgeoisie” who blamed workers for capitalist excess.

The belief lived on as society became dedicated to the idea into the late 1800s to early 1900s, partly thanks to the rise of eugenics and racism against non-white people. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that produces synthetic nitrate used in both bombs and fertilizers, and the resulting “Green Revolution” that industrialized our agriculture, cast doubts on the theory of linear food growth. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb” revived the idea of population control. Written at the recommendation of the director of the Sierra Club at the time, Ehrlich connects population with environmental impact . He also advocated for forced population control and was one of the influences behind forced sterilization programs. Otherwise, the legacy of Malthus’ concern over population is commonly manifested in “eco-nationalists” or “eco-fascists” who are very concerned with birth rates, immigration, open borders, reparations, or emissions reductions. We should all know this originates from xenophobia and white supremacy, and as socialists that see the connectedness of struggles against oppression and the threat of fascism, we should be in the forefront of countering these eliminationist ideologies [example].

ehrlich book

Ecofascism is even prevalent in liberal discourse. The United States, which remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier”. Under Obama, the Department of Defense released a report that said climate change will, aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. In other words, climate change will make it harder to uphold American imperialism that enables our unethical consumption.

Ecosocialism through degrowth

Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?’” – André Gorz (1972)

In advanced capitalist economies there is a strong correlation between increases in GDP and carbon emissions. Decoupling is the idea that GDP can grow without increased CO2 emissions because of things like increased efficiency. However we can’t just count on efficiency gains, because as the Jevons Paradox [reference] suggests we might simply use more energy/resources as efficiency increases. For first world countries, degrowth means the intentional downsizing of our economy by limiting energy, material, and labor inputs, and by shutting down socially unnecessary or harmful industries. Degrowth means a shift away from growth as a strategy of developing or organizing society.

In her article “Living, Not Just Surviving”, Alyssa Battistoni argues for reorganizing society to promote traditionally feminized type of labor, which also happen to be low carbon intensity, including care, education, and creative work. Much of this work is currently non-compensated or made invisible by gender relations. This means that degrowth in an ecosocialist, feminist society also needs to recognize and re-work gender relations. The vision of a society practicing degrowth is actually richer, with more time to do what you want to be doing (cooking, art, music, dance, seeing family, hiking, etc). For socialists in the imperial core, degrowth is an important component and first step toward climate reparations. For the Global South, degrowth means being allowed to choose their path. Right now global markets forces control their choices to a large extent. Examples like “Buen Vivir” from Andean indigenous culture (Aymara & Quechua) reject development through growth, and envision a fulfilling and radically democratic way of living.

Liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism and eco-fascism all fail to realize the solution to climate catastrophe cannot be individual change alone. Only through system change will we address the root cause of climate change.

How does the DSA practice ecosocialism?

The DSA has several ongoing ecosocialist projects across the country, particularly around divestment, public banking, and energy justice. Divestment and reinvestment campaigns aim to get rid of fossil fuel sponsorships, stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are morally ambiguous from state/union pension funds, university funds and religious institutions that use these funds to generate income to keep operations running. In New York, for example, Mayor Di Blasio announced in January 2018 a plan to divest $189 billion worth of retirement funds from fossil fuel corporations within five years, and to sue oil companies. This only happened with intense pressure from environmental groups, and it remains uncertain what the funds will be re-invested into. NYC DSA climate justice group was a coalition partner on work to divest from Wells Fargo and defund DAPL.

mazaskatalks
Graphic showing major financial investors in three key pipelines in North America (courtesy: mazaskatalks.org)

A public bank is a financial institution owned by the government, funded with taxpayer money, and is directly accountable to elected officials and civil servants. They offer a transparent alternative to private banks, lower debt costs to city and state governments. There is currently only 1 in the US, the Bank of North Dakota; the bank loaned the state $6 million for law enforcement at DAPL protest site. Public banks are not a radical idea, they are a large part of the financial sector of developed nations like Germany and Switzerland. In Massachusetts, the BDSA Ecosocialist working group did some research around a public banking bill but ultimately decided against endorsing/putting energy and resources towards moving it forward because the bank can fund capital projects including new police stations and there are few transparency measures to keep the bank accountable to the public instead of industry.

#NationalizeGrid

ProvDSA NG
Image Courtesy: Providence DSA

More than 90% of Rhode Island is served by National Grid, which serves 3.3 million people for electricity, and 3.4 million for gas (source). The state’s public utility commission (PUC) is the only regulating body that keeps it in check. The PUC is made up of three appointed commissioners and serve to set the terms of debate around utility rates, tariffs, tolls, and charges, as well as the power to approve or reject proposed rate increases and infrastructure projects (source). Essentially, the PUC functions to ensure the profits of National Grid and give green lights to their projects.

Providence DSA started a chapter-wide campaign in 2017 to fight back against National Grid’s atrocious business practices. Providence DSA partnered with George Wiley Center on the campaign, given that the Center has been working on utility justice for over 30 years. Providence DSA and the George Wiley Center began doing research on the RI energy market and started organizing people from low-income communities to show up at town hall meetings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to protest against National Grid’s rate raises and meter installment plan. Over the past year, the campaign has developed the following short term strategies: address the shut-off crisis due to smart meters by writing petitions to the PUC, joining the Wiley Center’s effort to reinstate Percentage Income Payment Plan, and engaging in militant and disruptive lobbying tactics at the PUC hearings against National Grid’s utility-rate hikes.To achieve this, Providence DSA canvassed South Providence about rate increase and upcoming public hearings to increase participation in the energy system. As a result of these efforts National Grid’s proposed rate increase was reduced by 75% and National Grid will be subjected to closer oversight of their grid modernization efforts (source). National Grid was also compelled to adopt a more robust low-income customer discount (source).

The longer term goal of energy justice work is to decarbonize, democratize and decommodify the energy grid and its generation sources. This would result in a statewide, publicly owned, decentralized, and democratically controlled utility. There is growing interest in energy justice work throughout DSA. Boston DSA’s ecosocialism working group has proposed a similar campaign as a chapter priority, and has been researching the landscape for several months. It is an especially poignant time for a campaign of this style in Massachusetts since members of two United Steel Workers unions’ local chapters have been locked out by National Grid for over three months and the recover from the Merrimack Valley gas disasters is ongoing. San Francisco DSA is currently working against a potential bailout of Pacific Gas and Electric after their inadequacy started the Camp wildfire.

To conclude, it is important to recognize that the struggle for ecosocialism must operate in solidarity with the struggle for indigenous sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and workers’ rights.

DSA_ecosoc

On the Need for Energy Democracy

by Anonymous

The capitalist exploitation of nature and labor are two sides of the same coin. The labor process is always something in which humans and nature participate1. It is in the very fibers of nature that labor becomes congealed as value that can be captured by capital, the commodity becoming a vessel through which labor-power is quite literally extracted from human bodies. Yet, just as humans come to see themselves as distinct from the natural world, we also come to see capitalism as distinct from the extractive economies through which it feeds on the planet. This is especially true of capitalist energy systems2.

Take for instance the small town of South Fork in Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Today, it’s population hovers around 1000 people. The land here has long provided the resources upon which the prosperity of cities along the eastern seaboard like Philadelphia, Boston and New York were built. From the 1850s, its principle product was lumber: pine for ships’ masts, hemlock bark to make the tannins used in the leather industry, and oak for barrels to carry sugar and molasses from the West Indies. More recently, it has had the fortune to miss out on the shale boom engulfing the northeastern and southwestern corners of the state thanks to a bit of geological coincidence: the section of the Marcellus formation upon which it is situated is “overmature” having been exposed to too much heat and pressure over the preceding 400 million years to hold retrievable amounts of oil or gas.

However, the swamplands that covered the area in succeeding periods deposited plenty of biological matter that would eventually become the bituminous coal seams that, along with access to iron from the Lake Superior region, attracted vast amounts of capital and workers to the region in the last decades of the 19th century. For over a century, coal has been dug from beneath the Cambrian hills to be baked into coke for US Steel’s steel mills in Pittsburgh, burned in coal-fired power plants for electricity or, when ships were still powered by coal, shipped straight to the coal bunkers of New York City and Boston.

south fork pa
South Fork, PA as pictured on a map of coal deposits produced by the Works Progress Administration. Even in its most liberal modes, the capitalist state has often rendered the region as an internal resource colony. See https://digital.libraries.psu.edu/digital/collection/wpamaps/search/

At the peak of the Western Pennsylvania coal industry in the 1910s, the half square mile strip of land at the confluence of the Little Conemaugh River that makes up South Fork was home to over 4000 people making it as dense as Somerville or Chelsea. My father’s family were among them arriving sometime in the 1880s and 1890s from France. Four generations would live and work along the Little Conemaugh laboring either in the mines or for the railroad. All would die relatively young—coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (“black lung”) and a variety of cancers 3—their damaged bodies and the mountains of coal refuse that blend into the surrounding hilltops composing a tiny fraction of the negative externalities of the extractive economies that underlies capitalist modernity.

South Fork and the surrounding valley continue to bear the scars of extractive capitalism. Coal mining remains important to the local economy, even if the numbers it employs in the entire district are only a few hundred. Remediation, too, has gone hand in hand with continued extraction. In 2012, the PA DEP permitted Rosebud Mining Co. to build a water treatment plant to treat the acidic water that had been pouring out of an abandoned mine shaft since the 1960s in exchange for permission to access the coal seams underneath the site. A pilot remediation project started in 2015 across the river in Ehrenfeld saw $13 million dollars awarded to the same company to haul the 3.2 million tons of coal refuse that towers above the town to their nearby facility in Portage for processing4As of March 2018, the company planned to add 175 acres to the facility to accommodate more coal refuse. Scattered along the ridge above the facility, sit 40 wind turbines that make up Alleghany Ridge Wind Farm. They are owned by GE Power, a subsidiary of General Electric. One of their other subsidiaries, Baker Hughes, is reliably in the top 3 largest offshore drilling and oilfield services provider marketing its fracking technologies across the globe5In fact, Baker Hughes has been a major player providing the drilling equipment and expertise at the heart of the state’s shale gas boom. In short, the waters of the Little Conemaugh are no longer fluorescent orange and wind turbines dot the skyline but the cycle of boom and bust that typifies capitalist expansion continues unabated.

little conemaugh river
The Little Conemaugh River, before and after the completion of aforementioned treatment plant. Courtesy of Rosebud Mining Company

The challenge facing us today is a difficult one. How do we dismantle the infrastructures that tie us to the combustion of fossil-fuels while at the same time making sure the infrastructures we build in their place not only do not replicate a social system premised on exploitation and extraction but also repair the harm both to communities and ecosystems of centuries of past exploitation and extraction?

Part of the difficulty is that energy is especially amenable to commodification because of its already abstract nature. You never see energy: you only witness its effects.  When I turn on a light switch, if I’m not behind on my payment to Eversource, the light turns on. Where did this energy come from? Who had a hand in bringing it from its source to my apartment? Hell, at least with enough effort, you could literally follow an article of clothing from sweatshop to rack at H&M. A quantum of electricity? Except on an aggregate level, it is nigh impossible to make any claim about where it came from. In short, the additional layer of abstraction in which energy is entangled make its extraction all that more effectively divorced from our experience of it.

ISO NE graphic
Snapshot from ISO NE geographic system diagram representing the electricity grid around Boston. See https://www.iso-ne.com/about/key-stats/maps-and-diagrams/

The fact of climate change has pierced that veil to some degree. It is becoming more common thanks to the work of environmental activists to have a choice, limited as it is, about how some of the energy an individual consumer or municipality consumes is extracted from the natural environment. However, the binary nature of this choice—fossil-fuels vs. renewables, bad vs. good—does little to clarify the social and ecological effects of these choices. This is especially true when one takes into consideration that the industrial-scale renewables often touted as a solution to climate change require massive amounts of fossil fuel and mineral resources for their construction and operation6. When someone talks about wind turbines, most people’s first thought isn’t Bayan’obo Mining District in Inner Mongolia, even though it accounts for a significant portion of the rare earth minerals needed for industrial-scale wind farms. Neither is corporate land-grabs, especially of indigenous land, and the ecological disruption caused by levelling land for projects7. Nor, for that matter, does the term renewable energy suggest to most people trash incinerators like the one operated by Wheelabrator in Saugus8 or the Pinetree Power Fitchburg wood-burning generator. Biomass and municipal waste comprise two-thirds of Massachusetts renewable portfolio  and, in the case of biomass especially, are a major loophole in current carbon accounting schemes.

One answer to the challenge is energy democracy. Energy democracy is a broad concept that has emerged around a broad set of grassroots experiments and collaborations. At its center is the goal of achieving a shift to 100% renewable energy sources through means that resist the expansion of fossil-fuel infrastructure, reclaim public control over energy, and restructure energy infrastructures to better support social justice and democratic processes9. At a time when many segments of the environmental movement, especially those comprised by large nonprofits, have long settled for the sake of their continued relevance on a politics of majoritarian demands that everyone—including, a significant number of CEOs and politicians—can agree, energy democracy presents at the very least a framework for moving beyond demands on existing capitalist institutions, including the state, to building a world we can all inhabit.

Part of the novelty of energy democracy is its recognition that the sociotechnical systems that comprise the fossil-fuel economy stifle democracy by concentrating power, both figuratively and literally, in the hands of the wealthy few. Therefore, any transition must decentralize control of the energy system and put it under community control so that it can be restructured along more sustainable and equitable lines. In a more specifically socialist framing, as Providence DSA’s #NationalizeGrid campaign puts it, decarbonize, democratize and decommodify. Yet, perhaps, the most powerful argument for energy democracy is its ability to place power directly in the hands of communities, especially frontline and fenceline communities who have suffered the most from the extractive economies over which the modern world has been built. The power to choose how energy is produced and consumed is central to how power is exercised in any society, capitalist included.

Of course, wrestling the control of the current energy system away from capitalist institutions and placing it into the hands of communities, is only one step. (We want to dismantle that energy system, after all.) Supporting communities in building new energy systems that will be completely within their control is the other. If you want to help us build those, come join Boston DSA’s Ecosocialism Working Group. Reach out to ecosocialism@bostondsa.org or come to one of our monthly meetings, every first Thursday 7-9pm (rotating locations).  

What Socialists Can Learn from Community Lawyers

By Edward P

Thursday, Nov 8th, 2018, in a classroom at Harvard’s Wasserstein Hall, the Harvard chapter of the National Lawyers Guild (NLG)1 hosted a “Law for the People” event on the Housing crisis gripping the Boston area. The panel speakers, all NLG members, were Jeff Feuer and Lee Goldstein of Goldstein & Feuer, and Nadine Cohen of Greater Boston Legal Services. Jeff and Lee are also both involved with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) and have provided legal workshops to CLVU members as well as legal services to tenants and activists.

The panel discussion seemed mostly pitched to law students. They discussed how one can make a career in providing community legal services and how legal education pushes people away from that path towards big law and government. The panelists all offered students at the event to do clinical work2 with them. However, there were a few points that were applicable in a broader context.

The Housing Crisis Disproportionately Affects Women

Jeff began his talk by breaking down the statistics of the housing crisis in Boston. Renters are the poorest and most racially diverse segment of Boston’s population. Over 40,000 renter households have incomes less than $32,000 a year — about half the area’s median income — and most of those household receive no state subsidies for their housing. Over half of such renting households are Black, Latinx, or Asian.This economic precarity puts poor renters at constant risk of displacement. And this burden falls doubly hard on women tenants according to Nadine.

Nadine pointed out that sex discrimination in housing has often been overlooked in US law. It took years, after laws prohibiting racial  discrimination, for Federal Housing discrimination laws to include sex as a protected class. Women are also more likely to be evicted than men –  women are evicted at 18% higher rates because they are less to likely to strike deals with the landlord, or because a landlord finds having children at a property undesirable, or because women as a class are paid less than men for the same work.

Sex discrimination also includes problems beyond refusals to rent. According to Nadine, one in ten poor women reported having a landlord or maintenance worker demand sex as a quid pro quo for rent relief or required maintenance on their rented units. Other women face sexual assault or harassment from landlords or other housing providers.

Being the victim of domestic violence can also lead to a woman’s eviction. While states like Massachusetts prohibit evictions because a tenant called police or other reported domestic violence, landlords often use police responses as a pretext to evict tenants regardless of the law.

Around the US, the housing crisis profoundly affects poor women as a group. Any work done around it needs to recognize that this crisis is largely a crisis affecting women.

Working in Contradictory Spaces

Lee opened his pitch for a career  in community law practice by discussing what he saw as the characteristics of community lawyering – being part of the community, aware of the context, having an agreement with the community, viewing works holistically, listening to clients, acting as a connection between the community and client, and encouraging non-lawyers to act as legal advocates. Lee noted that some of those are not so different from what one would be doing at a big law firm — simply substitute community for corporation. The difference, Lee said, was in three things:1) not being neutral, 2) developing a distinct legal persona, and 3) understanding you’re working in contradictions.

This point on contradictions was the most important. Lee talked about the law not being neutral. It’s part of the systems of social reproduction that perpetuate inequality and that have led to the current housing crisis. In order for it to be useful as a tool a social reproduction, the law sometimes has to deliver fair outcomes to people it would otherwise aid in disenfranchising. As an example, during his talk, Jeff pointed out that the US Supreme Court, in Lindsey v Normet, ruled that USians enjoy no right to housing.

So a lawyer, who is working towards broad social change, has to understand that working within a system of social reproduction existing in contradiction with attempting to dismantle that system. All of us, who are working towards broad social change, exist in that same kind of contradiction. Capitalism is an inescapable totalitarian system, and everyone’s lives are bound up in its system of reproduction.

However, people who are privileged by these system — not just lawyers, but tech workers, academics, media personalities, politicians — must reckon with the fundamental contradiction between how their skills interact with the system and the goal of changing the system when they attempt to use their skills for movement. Without this reckoning, we will inevitably end up reinforcing capitalist social reproduction rather than overturning it.

We Must Be Led By the Movement

The resolution to these contradictions, according to Jeff, was to allow yourself to be led by the movement and by putting your skills at the service of the community. The place for lawyers in the housing struggle is to give support where and when they are invited by a community.

Jeff and Lee’s relationship with CLVU largely follows this model. Lee discussed how it was important to use the law to help tenants stay in their homes by using any technicality to get evictions thrown out or to force a landlord to deal with maintenance issue. However, as Jeff talked about, winning the fight because a landlord or police officer didn’t fill out a form correctly might not be the point. You can have the most airtight, brilliant legal argument to help someone, a tenant or a person arrested in a direct action, but it may not address the goals of the movement.

Instead the appearance in court can be an opportunity to advance the movement’s points to get its belief and arguments out to the public. In that case your ego as lawyer — your desire to prove your legal mind or protect your winning record — must take a backseat to the needs of the movement. You have to put yourself fully in service to the people you’re working for.

Likewise, when you’re in a space where community are discussing how to respond to issues facing them, you, as a lawyer, may know some sound legal strategy that can help fix the issues, and you should share your expertise. However, it’s not your place to insist that your expertise gives you insight into the only solution to the problem. People working together for their community’s interests are capable of immense creatively. We shouldn’t narrow our possibilities based on our understand of capitalist systems.

This fits with our understanding of our tasks as socialists. As Huey P. Netwon put it in his 1968 interview with The Movement, our goal is “…a people’s revolution with the end goal being the people in power.” Socialism is the people in power — not lawyers, coders, politicians, or union bureaucrats. Those us of us that have the privilege of working within and understanding the various systems that support and reinforce capitalist rule cannot win socialism through use of those skills alone. We have to use those skills to serve the people, not to advance our own position in the movement.

Psychology for Socialists, Part 3: Know your enemy.

by Jonathan K

“Psychology for Socialists” is a multi-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in Psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics. In fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. One way Psychology is imperfect is that, like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even for the ones I have confidence in, the ideas behind them could be overturned at some point in the future.

In another sense Psychology is imperfect because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will be discussing are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

In parts 1 and 2 of this series, I focused on ourselves and our organization, and how we could do our work better. Now I’m going to turn to less pleasant topics: Knowing the threats to our organization. The topics I’m going to cover are going to do double-duty. As it turns out, some of the psychological phenomena that are likely to tear our organization apart are closely related to the propaganda engines of the fascist right. The tools that fascists use to stoke fear, sow division, and demand obedience are taking advantage of aspects of the human mind that, without any malicious intent or really any control at all, can shatter friendships, schism organizations, and lead to types of toxic behavior we see in leftist organizations.

First, I’ll discuss intergroup conflict, which is definitely the greatest threat to DSA of any topic I’ve discussed in this series. Then I’ll discuss the strange phenomenon of “loss aversion”, and the dangers of authority and conformism. Each of these appears most obviously in fascist messaging and practice, but also has some relevance within DSA, mostly as lessons of what to avoid.

I. Intergroup conflict

Both historically and in the present, fascism depends deeply on defining an “other”, making it a feared enemy, and demanding obedience in order to destroy it. This should not be news to any of you. It also shouldn’t be surprising to many of you that much of DSA’s internal strife comes from the exact same features of the human mind.

Humanity is, for whatever reason, extremely good at breaking the world down into “us” and “them.” It seems to be a nearly universal tendency.

When this happens, the consequences are very predictable. You will treat “us”, in technical terms your “in-group”, very well. You will be more generous, more trusting, and generally think of in-group members more as individual people with thoughts, feelings, and diverse opinions. For someone in another group, an “out-group”, you will do pretty much the exact opposite: Giving less, being less sympathetic towards out-group members, and thinking of out-group members as being “all the same,”1 both in the form of stereotypes and ascribing the opinions or actions of one member of the group to the group as a whole.

The most extreme and visible form of these group effects is bigotry. However, notice that there are many different forms of bigotry that use completely different ways of defining in-groups and out-groups, some of which seem to be built on largely cultural constructs (for example: race, religion, national origin) rather than any kind of objective or intrinsic trait. This hints at the bigger problem: Humans can make in-groups and out-groups out of anything, no matter how trivial, and once those groups have formed any trivial disagreement can become a major conflict.

One of the classic demonstrations of this is Muzafer Sherif’s “Robbers Cave” experiment. This was an experiment conducted in 1950 with 20 white middle-class assumed-male 12-year-olds in the US. It took place at a summer camp named Robbers Cave. The children didn’t know each other, and before they arrived, they were randomly assigned to one of two groups, neither group knowing that the other even existed. The groups were allowed to pick their own names (they chose the “Eagles” and the “Rattlers”). For the first week, they did cooperative team-building exercises, and again, neither group knew that the other group existed. Then, in the second week, they were told that the other group existed, and the two groups were put into light competition with each other. Immediately, they started throwing insults (including some extremely racist language), fighting, raiding each others’ cabins, and basically putting on the best imitation of war that 20 twelve-year-old boys at a summer camp could produce. (The third week was spent breaking these groups down and trying to undo this hostility.)

The basic conclusion is that you can get all the behaviors of bigotry and hostility with any arbitrary grouping. Nobody has done a study exactly like this since Sherif (for a number of reasons), and because of the extremely narrow sample it’s more of a good example than a revolutionary insight into human nature, but psychologists have found similar effects pretty much everywhere in the world (though some studies report less out-group hostility in certain cultures). Even without the self-defined identity and cooperative team-building (which really strongly build up group identity), you can get versions of the same in-group/out-group effects just by giving people different color t-shirts. This is described as a “minimal group”, a grouping defined by exactly one completely arbitrary trait. Minimal groups still give you pretty strong in-group and out-group effects. If you want a quick summary of the entire literature, this comic pretty much nails it.

Fascist propaganda constantly exploits this feature of human nature. They actually use a kind of triple-whammy to make these effects terrifyingly strong. First, they clearly define an in-group and an out-group, from emphasizing white cis-male flag-waving “American” identity, to defining out-groups by whatever terms happen to be convenient for their purposes at the time (“blacks”, “illegals”, “the libs”). Second, they push the idea that the in-group is in competition with the out-group(s) (“stealing our jobs”, “threatening our way of life”). Third, they use the language of disgust. I could write a whole separate article on the dangers of disgust, but the short version is that disgust is an incredibly visceral and foundational human emotion that has moral weight. If something is disgusting people will treat it as immoral. However, with a few exceptions, what is disgusting varies between cultures2, and you can deliberately make something (or someone) disgusting without too much difficulty. Furthermore, if you want to bring about widespread hostility and even outright genocide, the fastest way to get people on board is to make the out-group disgusting. The Nazis famously described the Jews as being “smelly” or “dirty” in children’s books. Currently, in the US, you see the same language constantly leveled against marginalized racial, sexual, and economic groups from the right-wing media.

In organizations like DSA, these intergroup conflicts take a different form. First of all, people typically call it sectarianism. Second of all, everything else is exactly the same.

We define a lot of little in-groups in DSA, caucuses, working groups, etc. Most of the time it’s not an issue, but the moment there is even the tiniest amount of competition or disagreement that can be framed in terms of groups, things get ugly very quickly. This problem ties back to things that I discussed in my last article, most notably attribution and saving face. People are more likely to make dispositional attributions about out-groups (“that’s just how they are”).

Again, that only makes the problem worse: it’s much harder to assume good intentions in someone who is from an out-group, and easier to assume good intentions in someone who is in your in-group. In some cases this works in our favor. It’s how DSA as a whole holds together, at least in theory. But, when group identities within DSA come into play, and those identities become stronger than the broader group identity of being in DSA, we have trouble working together. You also save face on behalf of other members of your group, which can turn an individual disagreement or simply a mistake into a group-wide conflict.

Avoiding this kind of sectarian conflict isn’t easy. There’s a lot more that I could say about the intergroup conflicts that have arisen in Boston DSA alone over the last couple of years, but that’s a whole separate article unto itself. Even so, there are a few things we can do that will stop intergroup conflict from damaging our work.

One thing you may have noticed is that group identity is flexible and multi-faceted. Everyone belongs to many different groups at once. When it comes to group conflict, the issue is typically which of those group identities is highlighted at any given time. The effects of even a temporary group identity can be quite dramatic. Creating a minimal group with t-shirts can temporarily override racist biases, at least towards people wearing the same color of t-shirt. Marx and his successors understood this to a degree, highlighting the identity of the working class over and above any other group identity. In terms of how to counteract this aspect of right-wing propaganda, the approach is clear: make people conscious of their class identity, and who that class is really in competition with.

For conflicts within DSA, we have a convenient pre-made unifying group in DSA itself. Highlighting our shared membership and shared goals over other labels will support more respectful discussion and productive interactions. To be clear, I don’t think we need to disband the caucuses, and I do think they serve a positive purpose for their own members. That said, we must be extremely vigilant that we avoid framing any discussion as pitting one group against another.

Our best defense against this is to think of each other as comrades first and above all. It sounds cheesy, but it’s simply the truth. If you think about people in terms of their caucus or their working group or some other subdivision in DSA, you will be more likely to think of them as an individual, and not treat them as an “other.” Conversely, when you go to present ideas that are your own ideas, make clear that you are presenting them as an individual rather than as a member of any group to which you belong. If a disclaimer is not provided, we should make a habit of asking whether something is an individual position or a group or caucus position. There is nothing to be gained from ambiguity, and people will assume hostility given the chance.

II. Loss aversion

Exactly one psychologist has ever won a Nobel Memorial Prize, and his name is Daniel Kahneman. He won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for a simple insight that mainstream economists found revolutionary: People are irrational, and they are irrational in predictable and quantifiable ways.

One of the phenomena that Kahneman discovered is called “loss aversion”, and it is brutally simple: say someone offers you a mug for sale, and asks you to estimate what you’d pay for it. Let’s say $3.50. Then, later, someone gives you a mug, you own it, it is yours. Now someone asks how much they would have to pay you for you to give them that mug. Most people will say about $7.

That’s loss aversion in its simplest form: You value something roughly twice as much if you think of it as yours. That’s without changing anything about what the thing is, what it can do, how it looks, whatever. As soon as you think of it as belonging to you, you value it more. It is a deeply irrational bias.

Loss aversion shows up in all kinds of interesting forms. People will take bigger risks to acquire something than they will to risk losing it. There’s an intuitive way to think about this: You might be willing to buy a lottery ticket with a one in millions chance of giving you a billion dollars, but if you had a billion dollars, you’d never take a risk on something that had a one in millions chance of letting you keep it. That’s an extreme example, but the basic idea works anywhere. The entire idea of “opportunity cost,” the price of not doing something, is an attempt to employ the power of loss aversion to things that we would typically think of as gains, because loss aversion motivates people so strongly.

A lot of right-wing messaging uses loss aversion to drive up various forms of bigotry. As I mentioned in the last section, one of the classic anti-immigrant arguments of the right is “they’ll take our jobs”. Note that this message always uses the verb “take.” That’s because it implies that you will lose something. If you look at any right-wing propaganda, you’ll find something phrased in terms of “loss,” and that’s explicitly to make people treat the group “taking” something as the enemy, and valuing whatever it is they might “lose.”

Loss aversion also plays a big role in right-wing economic messaging too. The right has successfully framed taxation as “taking” something that would otherwise belong to you. They frame social programs as “taking your tax dollars” and giving them to someone else, and try to give you a sense of ownership over money that was never yours to begin with. It works, too. People are less willing to pay taxes when it feels like a loss.

Even within DSA loss aversion will sometimes rear its head. Any time any action is framed as taking something away, there is resistance to it. It’s a tried and true way to spin up opposition to anything, and we should be careful to ask when something is truly a loss, and when it’s just being framed that way. Listen carefully next time a contentious issue comes up for debate, and you will likely hear someone suggest it’s losing something or taking something away from the organization, resources, character, whatever. That’s not because they’re being disingenuous, by the way. More likely than not it’s an honest assessment of how they view the issue, and why they feel strongly about it. It’s just that whether something is a loss or not can often be a matter of perspective or opinion rather than an objective fact.

The upside of loss aversion is that it means that some gains for economic justice are almost impossible to reverse once implemented. The Affordable Care Act might have been unpopular when it first showed up, but the first whisper that you might “lose” your health insurance and public opinion almost completely flipped. In any country that has universal healthcare, trying to undo it is politically implausible without extreme antidemocratic efforts. The few places that have some form of universal basic income? Same deal. It’s a fight to create a Universal Basic Income system anywhere that doesn’t have it, but anywhere that has UBI will fight tooth and nail against anyone who tries to take it away.

In terms of counteracting right-wing messaging, there are a few ways to approach the problem. As far as I know, you can’t beat loss aversion outright, there’s no way to “turn it off” that anyone has published. Psychologists have some ideas about when it doesn’t show up, but no generally applicable way to use that information.

One strategy is to use loss aversion in our own messaging, whenever we can. Yes, it’s a propaganda technique, but it’s one that preys on how people subjectively value things rather than changing an objective truth. If you can honestly frame something in terms of a loss, that’s no less accurate than framing it as a gain, and it will resonate more with people. Another area to look for chances to use it is in policy proposals. That article I linked earlier found that a tax structure that deducts money before people ever see it and is guaranteed to give a refund is much more welcome, and creates much more compliance, than one in which people have to pay more out of their pockets when they’re doing their annual taxes. Keep that in mind if we ever find ourselves in a position to make policy.

For internal discussions, the primary resource that we have to lose is decision-making power or the work we have invested into various projects. These each take different forms. Decision-making power is the most obvious: if we are faced with a proposal that would reduce our ability to influence the decisions our chapter or working group or organization makes, our first impulse will be to push back on it. At first glance it might sound like I’m talking about things that are simply anti-democratic, in which case the loss aversion is good, but it’s more complicated than that.

Think of it from the perspective of the members of any DSA chapter prior to summer 2016. The members at that time were used to accounting for huge percentages of any vote. If your general meeting needs only ten attendees to make quorum, each person accounts for a full 10% of the decision-making power of the entire chapter. Then, the chapters grew to have hundreds of members, and any general meeting that made quorum now needed to have triple-digit attendance, and each person in attendance accounts for less than 1% of the decision-making power. That’s a form of loss. In some chapters (thankfully not so much in Boston) we saw leadership committees that were increasingly reluctant to cede power to their membership, partly because of that loss of power.

More generally, we need to recognize in ourselves when our reaction to something is governed by our own loss aversion, and ask whether that reaction is appropriate or not. To create a socialist world, we’re all going to end up giving up something. We have to be willing to look at ourselves and ask what we’re really willing to lose, and when the time comes to lose it, we must be ready for how strongly we will want to resist it.

III. Authority and conformism

Following World War II, psychology as a field turned a lot of attention to figuring out how the civilians of Nazi Germany could become servants of fascism and commit some of history’s greatest atrocities, and most of all whether humans in general could be driven to the same extremes. By the 1960s, the answer was clearly that it wasn’t a unique occurrence. The Nazis had exploited some very straightforward features of the human psyche that could be found anywhere. Any country in the world can fall under the sway of a fascist regime. Some of the tools required I’ve already covered, but when it comes to fascism there are two other necessary pieces: The psychological power of authority and conformity.

Psychology is such a new and rapidly developing field (compared to other sciences at least) that it’s relatively rare to find work from the mid-20th century that holds up today. However, two studies in particular have held up, and are guaranteed to show up in every introductory course: Milgram’s work on authority, and Asch’s work on conformity.

The Milgram Experiments are so (in)famous that the wikipedia entry for them is actually a reasonable source. The setup was simple: The participants — middle-class white people from New Haven — came into the lab and were told they would be doing a task with another subject. The other subject was actually what’s called a “confederate,” an actor employed by the experimenter. The subject would be reading math problems to the confederate, who would be in a different room and could only be heard via intercom, and the subject would deliver progressively stronger electric shocks every time the confederate made a mistake. The subject got to experience a low-level version of this shock themselves, and it was quite painful.

During the experiment, the confederate would make several pre-arranged mistakes, and make increasing noises of agony with the increasing power of the shock (they were acting; the confederate was never actually shocked, but the participant didn’t know that until after the experiment ended). Eventually the confederate would mention having a heart condition, then plead for mercy, and eventually just go silent. If the subject asked to stop, an experimenter in their room, wearing a white lab coat and holding a clipboard, would first say “Please continue.” The second time the subject asked to stop, they would say “The experiment requires that you continue.” The third time they asked, “It is absolutely essential that you continue.” The fourth, “You have no other choice, you must go on.” If, at that point, the subject insisted on stopping, the experiment would stop.

Only 14 of 40 subjects insisted. The rest continued to the end.3

The point of Milgram’s experiments was that authority, manifested as a white lab coat and direct commands, is an incredibly powerful thing. Almost two-thirds of that group  were willing to apparently kill someone, just because they were told to do so by a man in a white lab coat holding nothing more threatening than a clipboard.

The power of authority is a necessary tool of fascism and authoritarianism. There are no limits on what someone with absolute power can get others to do even without explicit threats. Note that it isn’t just authority to some great leader, either. The Milgram result works on a very small scale, with a very specific and narrow kind of authority. Police take advantage of this all the time. Their threat comes in part from force, in part from the law, and mostly from the simple fact that their uniform represents both. A police officer can order someone to do almost anything, and merely because it’s coming from someone with a particular uniform, they’ll often do it.

DSA’s structure is resistant to developing this kind of authoritarian power within itself because of the primary authority of the membership to collectively overrule its leadership at any time. However, that doesn’t mean it’s not at risk. The Danny Fetonte incident was a close call with authoritarian power, specifically in the context of the Austin chapter in which he effectively single-handedly took over a general meeting, but also, to a degree, the NPC. The management of the DSA weekly blog recently got shuffled around because of a similar episode involving a member of the NPC. It takes some effort to contradict someone yelling orders in any context, and not everyone is willing to do it.

It is something we must always be vigilant against. Never obey a command simply because it is a command.

In fighting the power of authority in the broader world, it’s important to know what does and does not work. Follow-up studies found that seeing someone else defy authority actually doesn’t make people more likely to defy it themselves, even if there are no consequences for doing so. However, people who feel more agency in themselves, and people who feel more empathy towards others, are both more likely to resist orders to hurt someone else. It’s not easy to make people feel more agency or more empathy, but DSA actually excels at it. We emphasize doing things to make the world a better place, and we emphasize comradeship and compassion. That’s actually one of the big reasons I joined DSA: It really has the tools to stand up to the effects of authoritarianism.

The other half of fascist power is conformity, and again there is an experiment that has stood the test of time and is so famous that wikipedia is a reasonable source. Solomon Asch, in 1950, put a bunch of white middle-class men in a room. Only one of them was a subject. The rest were confederates. The group was asked to do a task in which they matched line lengths: they were given a sample line, and asked to say which of three other lines matched it. On one of the trials, every confederate in the group favored an obviously wrong answer. About a third of the time, the subject would go along with the group.

There’s an important upside in Asch’s work: Two-thirds of the time, people were willing to defy the group. Simple, objective facts are not that easy to distort. However, 75% of his participants did conform at least once. That’s more of a problem. These are obviously extreme and Orwellian examples, but the power of conformity is far stronger for things that are not objective facts.

Authoritarian regimes rely heavily on conformity to induce obedience without even needing to use the power of authority, and again this is not a surprise to anyone. Combating it is usually a matter of being the voice of dissent. If there is no unified opinion within whatever you see as your group, then it’s easier to defy a majority view. If everyone who dissents is removed from your group, conformity becomes harder to resist. The modern GOP is a nearly perfect case study of this: Inasmuch as there were ever “moderate” republicans in our lifetime, they were chased out in favor of a homogeneous whole that marches in lockstep with the directives of a sole leader.

For DSA, what this means is that debate is good, differences of opinion (discussed respectfully) are good, and we should make sure we continue to be a multi-tendency organization. That’s not to say that consensus is bad, by any stretch, but there is a difference between having some clear points of unity and enforcing a conformity of opinion from our members (which certain other socialist organizations do explicitly). The ability to support internal debate keeps us from falling into the trap Asch found: We will not change objective facts to conform for its own sake, and we should make sure that never happens.

IV. Conclusions and reflections

That brings us to the end of Psychology for Socialists, for now. In these three articles, I’ve tried to give a simple introduction to some ideas that I think are truly essential to our work. The goal of this, more than anything, was to make all of us more aware of the nature of our own minds, the biases that we are prone to, and the mistakes we can make as a result. There’s so much more I could have talked about, and maybe I will at some point in the future. The human mind is a complex piece of work and psychology as a science is still in its infancy. However, the nature of democracy is that in order to succeed it must understand how people think, both as individuals and in general. Without that, democratic socialism will suffer the same fate as Esperanto: A nice idea, but implemented in a human-incompatible way.

#DonateYourVote2018 and AACC Endorsements

This year, members of Boston DSA have participated in the #DonateYourVote campaign through Emancipation Initiative‘s Ballots Over Bars campaign. The #DonateYourVote campaign partners an incarcerated person who has had their voting rights stripped away by the state, and a freeworld volunteer who will vote as their partner would. This year, 165 people volunteered to donate their vote, and 143 incarcerated participants were paired. The African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk has also produced a list of endorsements. If you were not paired but would still like to participate, consider voting in solidarity along the AACC endorsements where you are able. The AACC 2018 Endorsements are as follows:

State Elections: Tuesday, November 6th
Voter Registration Deadline: Wednesday October 17th
For more information: www.wheredoivotema.com

Statewide
1. Lt. Governor
Quentin Palfrey (D) – “We imprison too many people, for too long, for doing too little, and race has way too much to do with who ends up in the criminal justice system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

2. Attorney General
Maura Healey (D) – “We cannot incarcerate our way to a healthier, more productive state.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

3. Treasurer
Jamie Guerin (G-R) – “We must eliminate mandatory sentencing and reduce the use of incarceration as punishment.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

4. Auditor
James Stamas (G-R) “I fully support ending life without parole & full voting rights for all incarcerated people.” (Twitter)

5. U. S. Senator
Elizabeth Warren (D) – “We need criminal justice reform…we need reform of the whole system.” (EI Voter Guide 2018)

Regional
County District Attorney
Rachael Rollins (D) for Suffolk County – ”Black people are dying in the streets. That is why I’m running. It’s not a joke.” (Bay State Banner 2018)

Please have family and friends visit the Emancipation Initiative Facebook page and click the LIKE button under AACC’s Endorsements to show they’re voting in solidarity with us this election. Our goal is to reach 10,000 LIKES.

For any questions or comments about AACC’s 2018 endorsements please call: 617-869-2773, or email: emancipationinitiative@gmail.com
THANK YOU FOR SUPPORTING THE AACC!

No More Pinkwashing – Capitalism and Cancer

By Nafis H

The month of October has been designated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To celebrate such an occasion, hundreds of men and women will walk or run to raise money for more research, talk about their or their relatives’ harrowing brushes with this disease, share courageous stories of breast cancer survivors on social media, and maybe even resolve to live a healthier lifestyle like signing up for SoulCycle, or getting on a detox program followed by a juice cleanse.

The narrative that has been constructed around breast cancer is one of individualism, one where the disease “is a consequence of personal rather than societal failings”. The scientific evidence presented to uphold this narrative is one of reductionism and determinism – we are told that cancers are caused by aberrations in our DNA and these aberrations are mostly due to our “bad luck.” The treatments for this disease, arising from chemical agents used during World War I, increasingly rely upon targeted destructive measures upon one’s body, and are described using military vernacular such as “magic bullets” and “battlespace vision”. The prices of cancer treatments keep increasing at a faster rate in the US compared to any other country, without significantly increasing patient quality of life or overall survival.The scientists and physicians are complicit in this endeavor – the academic field is rife with fraud, irreproducible data, researchers raking in money and not disclosing financial ties with biotech startups, and physicians making recommendations to the FDA oncology advisory council without needing to disclose their relationship to companies that do not yet have a drug on the market.

The bourgeois government has encouraged public-private partnerships since the 1980s with the introduction of the Bayh-Dole Act, the FDA’s Critical Path Initiative in 2004, and more recently the Cancer Moonshot Initiative in 2016. Over the years, more and more money has been allocated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), especially following the publication of the human genome sequence, which is believed to hold the secrets to curing all diseases, not just breast cancer.

However, this privatization has worsened the situation. As evidence shows, privatization has provided perverse incentives for researchers, and ultimately, created the current chaos that reigns in cancer research today. The current state of research shows an ailing system with spawning of predatory journals, transparency issues in established medical journals, sham conferences, plethora of reproducibility issues in basic research, corruption among scientists and abuse of public funds for personal gains. This reflects the “quantity over quality” approach where scientific trainees (graduate students & postdoctoral scholars) are often exploited in a tight budget climate.

Not that more money had resulted in better research — when NIH’s budget doubled between 1997–2003, the growth was mainly observed in ancillary markets such as reagent companies, expansion of universities, and number of NIH contractors. Although there exists a host of scientific literature on the environmental causes of breast and other cancers, only 15% of NCI’s budget in 2008-09 was dedicated to studying such causes rather than focusing on individual genes. In the meantime, independent scientists are fighting uphill battles to get chemicals, such as Bisphenol A that have shown to cause breast cancer in laboratory rodents, off the market. The regulatory agencies and government policies favor the evidence presented by the manufacturing companies and ignore the myriads of evidence that independent scientists have provided. This has also allowed profiteering entities to continue exploiting vulnerable populations, while building social capital by sponsoring biomedical research.

The neoliberalization of cancer has also pushed for creating niche markets that are aided by non-profits. The mantra “early detection saves lives” has successfully brainwashed the public into believing that it actually prevents cancer deaths effectively — in one study, 68% women thought that mammography lowers their risk of getting breast cancer, 62% were convinced that screening decreased the rate of breast cancer by half, and 75% thought 10 years of screening would prevent 10 breast cancer deaths per 1000 women. Unfortunately, this mantra has allowed non-profits such as Susan Komen Foundation to balloon, with less and less of the raised money going to supporting actual research and more into maintaining the foundation itself.

The burdens of breast cancer, and the neoliberal approaches to fight it, falls disproportionately on people of color in the US – African-Americans have the highest mortality from breast and other cancers, and native Hawaiians have the highest mortality from breast cancer in the US across all ethnicities. These disparities were originally attributed to a lack of diagnosis and the cancer being at a more advanced stage at the time of diagnosis in these non-white populations.

However, adjustment for stage of cancer at diagnosis did not solve the discrepancies observed. Even as mammography screening for breast cancer became equivalent nationally among Black and white women of all ages, these disparities persisted. This has been supported by epidemiology studies that suggest that disparities in outcome by race/ethnicity have not improved over time. In fact, between 1975–2000, disparity in death rates from all cancers combined between Black and white, men and women, increased.

While much of the blame was put on the differences in biology between races/ethnicities (e.g. — Black women have a higher risk of developing a more aggressive form of breast cancer), it appeared that the racial gap in outcomes was prominent among breast cancers with good prognosis (hormone-receptor positive, multiple treatments available). This essentially led to the conclusion that “biological factors cannot explain all of the racial disparity in morbidity and mortality.

While socioeconomic status (SES) has been put forward to explain such disparities, again it cannot be understood without a framework of historical racism in this country. In fact, as the prominent public health scholar David R. Williams states, “race is an antecedent to and determinant of SES.” The fact that non-white populations experience greater poverty just shows the success of discriminatory policies in the US. The 2010 U.S. Census found that Black populations are living in poorer quality housing, have higher exposures to toxins and pollutants in residential and occupational settings, and have less access to healthy food and quality healthcare — conditions that are cancer risk factors, or as more eloquently put by Dr. Samuel Brodar, NCI Director (1991), “poverty is a carcinogen.” Consider that Black women are 4–5x more likely to experience treatment delays and less likely to receive cancer-directed therapy for breast cancer, even when they have similar tumors to those in white women. Black and Hispanic women suffer more often from inadequate pain management; between 90–91, data from outpatient centers that treated predominantly minority patients show that these patients were 3x more likely to have inadequate pain management compared to patients seen elsewhere. When compared with the findings that patients across ethnicities, when treated equally regardless of SES, have equal outcomes, the rampant racism present in healthcare becomes very clear.

Cancer is a deadly disease – there is no doubt about it. Just as capitalism alienates the individual from the environment, reductionism alienates the disease from the body it manifests, essentially “other”-izing it and pitting the patient against their own body. This alienation promotes individualism through the language of “survivorship,” where the victim has beaten their own body into submission using “potent chemical weapons.” The “War on Cancer” is waged not in laboratories, but on the bodies of patients undergoing surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. There is nothing to “win” here – one cannot fight their own physical manifestation of their existence and expect to achieve victory. But the popular narrative of “winning over cancer”, shaped by an imperialist, capitalist government, the pharmaceutical companies and neoliberal non-profits, distorts one’s perception of cancer treatment and their own body.

None of this is to say that we should give up on trying to prevent and/or treat cancer. In order to do so, however, we need to radically revise how we understand cancer and how we can best prevent it. Consider that the biggest curb in cancer mortality in the US was achieved by public health measures such as tobacco control – why isn’t there more money in prevention of other cancers through public health measures? Why aren’t we stemming the endless flow of chemicals and pesticides into our environment that have shown to cause breast and other cancers? Why are we so focused on studying the intrinsic factors that supposedly cause cancer when research shows 85% of cancer incidence risk can be explained by extrinsic factors?

Ultimately, all of this points to the fact that the “War on Cancer” cannot be won unless the racist and capitalist system is dismantled. Sociologist Catherin Bliss notes that “the relationship between scientific knowledge and state power has been dialectical” and public policies govern the course of scientific research. We cannot expect a capitalist government to instate policies that will hold corporations accountable for poisoning our environment, or to regulate drug prices to make treatment available for all and to end racism in healthcare. We cannot allow the pinkwashing of corporations, which burden vulnerable populations with both physical and financial toxicity. Awareness about breast cancer should be a priority; however, awareness will not achieve anything unless it is framed in the context of how capitalism propagates this terrifying disease.

Silence Is Betrayal

Photo with two signs in black and red reading "End ICE Terror"
Photo from an anti-ICE protest taken by Olivia D.

By Families for Freedom

A group of people detained by ICE in Massachusetts—some of whom were on hunger strike last month—co-wrote a lengthy letter to us detailing their perspectives on detention: the conditions inside the jails, the exploitation of the incarcerated, and the hypocrisy of American values.

Below is a reproduction of the majority of that letter (some details have been changed for privacy):

The Silence is Betrayal!

It is always my intention to stand up for those issues that are the most important to me and those who have no voice. I try to follow my moral compass, even when it may have conflicted with the realities of the moment.

I have lots to say about this system. What we need in here is the support from people and organizations on the outside to help us raise our voices to denounce the system. We’ve been kidnapped. We need people to go on TV stations, radio, and social media. We need people to use every tool they might have at their disposal to help us that have been kidnapped by ICE for years to stop the virus that has spread all over the USA. I sometimes blame those of us who have been in there and got a chance to go home and did nothing after, even having witnessed the atrocity, the treatment, the unhealthy food…

In County Jail we are detainees with other inmates, without having committed a crime. We live in the same building, we share the bathroom. We share the living conditions. Unsanitary bathroom shared by 80-100 detainees/inmates, inmates/detainees. There is no privacy here. Flies, bugs all over our faces while we are in the shower or the bathroom. When we use the bathroom the next person could be right up to our face brushing their teeth. There’s one toenail clipper per one hundred who live here. Nothing is sanitized. We are not entitled to extra clothes, things that are supposed to be there for no cost are being sold in the commissary. The items are so expensive that we can’t even buy them.

Detainees are scared to complain. And when we do, or when we go on strike, nothing happens. Instead, we end up in isolation for weeks or months after that, or they ship us to a new jail. Not only have been kidnapped by ICE, they take away our rights, strip us of our freedom. We are being confined against our will. Some detainees do not have any family in the US, and some who do can’t even make a phone call because they are too expensive. ICE picked them up in a store, at work, or while they were in the streets. It is very scary and disturbing, the most painful thing that I have ever been witness to in my life. Where human lives are being trafficked by so-called peace officers or law enforcement.

We cannot truly complain because we are immigrants. We do not have any rights in this country—that’s what we are told. Some of us were picked up in state prison after doing time, and were brought here to Bristol County. We have been punished twice: for committing a crime; and punished again by ICE. We’re labeled vicious predators and violent criminals. Why does ICE consider us more dangerous or more of a threat to society when we’re only here to work, to go to school, to provide for our families? Why should we be treated like we aren’t human? Why can’t there be a path to citizenship for us? Any time we try and do something right, here comes an ICE officer to arrest us.

Our human rights are at stake. We are not allowed to be in the dayroom when the nurses do meds. We as detainees/inmates are not allowed to use the phone when they do canteen. We as detainees/inmates have to do lock up and miss our time outside. They strip search us any time they want. Locked down after each meal.

Some weeks ago a group of “rookies” came to the unit, destroyed our cells, and spent three hours to take apart our foods that we bought in the canteen with our money. Treated us like an animal. Why do we have to endure all of these senseless things? A lieutenant comes to scare us every night. Once when he saw people praying in a cell he opened the door in the middle of their prayer and stopped them, tell him them to get out. One of them said: “We were praying,” and he said “I don’t care, I don’t give a fuck. I hate you all.”

The laws say that everyone should be treated as equals, but the interpretation of the laws is different. We could be assisted by the government, but they won’t do it. Instead, they’ve organized themselves in a mafia group to make money off of us. Like human trafficking.

Please pass this on.

Thank you,

Detainees/Inmates at Bristol County

sign reading "FUCK ICE" being held against the windows of the jail at Suffolk County during an anti-ICE rally on June 30
Sign reading “FUCK ICE” being held against the jail cell windows by incarcerated people at Suffolk County Jail during an anti-ICE rally on June 30.

 

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¡Viva Allende! ¡Viva La Revolución Bolivariana!

Union Members demonstrating for Allende

By the Political Education Editorial Committee

On this day in 1973, the Chilean Military, with the support and assistance of the US Government, overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected Marxist president of Chile.

Declassified documents show how US intelligence agencies had been plotting against Allende even before the 1970 election that brought him into power, including identifying and cultivating a relationship with General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet, the contemporary object of hero-worship by fascist groups of the U.S. alt-right, was responsible for the torture of over 30,000 Chileans and the execution of thousands according to a Chilean government report.

President Allende’s moves to nationalize Chile’s copper mining industry, to reform agrarian land ownership, and to maintain close contacts with revolutionary Cuba caused the US to move to restrict Chile’s access to international credit and foreign aid, leading to an economic crisis. This crisis created the conditions that would lead to Pinochet’s coup against President Allende on September 11, 1973.

In the months following the coup, 320 people were summarily executed by Pinochet’s forces with the knowledge of US intelligence agencies. None of the US leaders, including President Nixon, who ordered the CIA to foster an overthrow of Allende, President Ford, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, would ever be held accountable for their crimes against the Chilean people.

Image of Salvador Allende from a 1973 Soviet Stamp
Image of Salvador Allende from a 1973 Soviet Stamp

The imperialist policies that led to the tragedy of the Pinochet regime continue to the present. The Trump administration has recently had meetings with members of the Venezuelan military who oppose President Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution and has issued threats to the International Criminal Court over attempts to hold the U.S. and Israeli governments responsible for war crimes.

Socialists must understand that imperialism — the domination of other nations in the interest of the U.S. bourgeoisie — is a necessary component of capitalism, and all efforts by the U.S. government to interfere in the self-determination of other nations must be opposed.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure the peaceful existence and cooperation of all nations is worker-control of the state and the means of economic production.

Presented below is President Allende’s final speech delivered at 9:10AM, shortly before his death:

My friends,

Surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación.

My words do not have bitterness but disappointment. May they be a moral punishment for those who have betrayed their oath: soldiers of Chile, titular commanders in chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself Commander of the Navy, and Mr. Mendoza, the despicable general who only yesterday pledged his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has appointed himself Chief of the Carabineros [national police].

Given these facts, the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I am not going to resign!

Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seed which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever.

They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.

Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty that you always had, the confidence that you deposited in a man who was only an interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who gave his word that he would respect the Constitution and the law and did just that. At this definitive moment, the last moment when I can address you, I wish you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital, imperialism, together with the reaction, created the climate in which the Armed Forces broke their tradition, the tradition taught by General Schneider and reaffirmed by Commander Araya, victims of the same social sector which will today be in their homes hoping, with foreign assistance, to retake power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.

I address, above all, the modest woman of our land, the campesina who believed in us, the worker who labored more, the mother who knew our concern for children. I address professionals of Chile, patriotic professionals, those who days ago continued working against the sedition sponsored by professional associations, class-based associations that also defended the advantages which a capitalist society grants to a few.  

I address the youth, those who sang and gave us their joy and their spirit of struggle. I address the man of Chile, the worker, the farmer, the intellectual, those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has been already present for many hours — in terrorist attacks, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railroad tracks, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to protect them.  They were committed.

History will judge them.

Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to [inaudible] the workers.

The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either.

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

Santiago de Chile, 11 September 1973

“One Weird Trick” to Building Socialism

Barge Haulers on the Volga
Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin, 1870.

By Frank Little

Whenever I get angry about some particular strain of left-wing thought or discourse, I’ve found it’s helpful to remember that I live in a country where a decent chunk of the population have been bombarded with the idea that politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are socialists. I think it’s good for people to know what their political beliefs are and even argue about them a little bit, but the internet is perfect for arguing and bad for every other part of organizing so it’s important to keep a level head when it comes to discussing political ideologies.

That being said, if socialism really is as “on the rise,” as various opinion columnists would have us believe, it’s important to consider what socialism would mean in an American context. To that end, I’d like to offer a response to a policy paper published by Matt Bruenig at the People’s Policy Project outlining the case for establishing a social wealth fund. In the paper, Bruenig makes the case for a social wealth fund in America along the style of the Alaska Permanent Fund or those managed by the Norwegian state as a means of tackling wealth inequality. While Bruenig doesn’t explicitly call his proposal a socialist one, he traces the history of the idea back to market socialist ideas whereby a sovereign fund could serve as a way “to collectively own, control, and benefit from the wealth of the nation.” The idea of a social wealth fund was also outlined in a column by Ryan Cooper entitled “The Dawn of American Socialism.” Since Cooper also wrote the script for a video for Bruenig’s policy paper detailing the Alaska Permanent Fund,it seems safe to assume that establishing a sovereign wealth fund is to play a major part in creating in “an economic system for the many, not the few,” the goal of the People’s Policy Project .

The central problem with the sovereign wealth fund described in Bruenig’s paper is that it fails to contend with the fact that capitalism is a dynamic system of producing and distributing commodities. That is to say, it does more than dictate the distribution of wealth in society. Of course, capitalism does create an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and between owners and laborers. But making the distribution of wealth generated from the circulation of commodities more equitable doesn’t necessarily upend commodity production, distribution, and consumption.

Why does this matter? Well, for me it matters because understanding the ways that commodities are produced, exchanged, and consumed is central to understanding how capitalism operates and to creating something that could actually replace it. That’s why Marx begins his three volume critique of capitalism and bourgeois political economy with a long discussion of the nature of the various kinds of value which, under capitalism, are inevitably turned into commodities. Much to the chagrin of many people who begin reading the book, it’s something he spends much more time talking about than he ever does outlining what socialism is really meant to look like.

Identifying and carrying out the steps needed to get from a capitalist mode of production to a socialist mode of production is probably the defining disagreement between the various ideologies typically grouped together as “the left.” For proponents of sovereign wealth funds, the fact that they seem to offer a smoother transition from capitalism to socialism with less disruption of existing systems is a positive. Financial instruments like index funds and sovereign wealth funds are proof of concepts for market socialism and would address what seems to be  the main problem with capitalism: private ownership of capital and the inequality and exploitation it brings. If the dividends of capital were socialized, as Bruenig has previously argued, it would spread the benefits of rallying financial markets to all people rather than the small group of very wealthy people who get the benefits now.

It’s certainly true that this kind of system would redistribute wealth in this country and go along way towards reducing inequality in the U.S. Making citizenship a requirement for collecting benefits means that the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country wouldn’t see much benefit, despite facing many additional obstacles to building wealth and particularly egregious working conditions. However, the problems with this proposal run deeper than just who is included within the US population.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the aspects of capitalism today that are fundamentally opposed to socialism. Because I want anybody reading to understand where I am coming from, I’ll lay out how I understand socialism, albeit in broad terms. Under socialism, the goods that any society — capitalist or otherwise — has to produce to sustain itself would be made and distributed in a way that provides a stable and fulfilling life to all, and one that doesn’t result in further irreversible destruction of our natural environment. A socialist system would distribute goods according to need rather than ability to exchange for them, and that production would be done in concert with nature rather than in opposition to it. It also would entail an end to the wage system, or at the very least the recognition that labor by people is what creates value, and that they should not have that value taken from them by the owners of businesses. Finally, there would be an end to the imperial power, exercised through corporate, military, and financial organizations, that the United States has tried to wield as the superpower left standing after the Cold War.

Marx is careful to distinguish between the production of different goods by different people (“the division of labor”) and the production of those things as commodities (“commodity production”). The former is necessary for all society unless we are to revert to a chaotic “grab-what-you-can” existence, while the latter is essential for capitalism specifically. This distinction is important to keep in mind when we examine the potential of current modes of production as potentially useful under socialism.  

In his paper, Bruenig discusses the two Norwegian social wealth funds: Government Pension Fund-Norway, which holds investments in Norwegian companies, and Government Pension Fund-Global, which exclusively invests outside of Norway. These two funds do hold a substantial portion of wealth in Norway. As Bruenig puts it, “gpf-Norway controlled assets equal to 7 percent of Norway’s gdp [and] gpf-Global owned assets equal to 241 percent of gdp.”1 Between these two and the enterprises owned by the Norwegian state outright, the Norwegian government owns 59% of the country’s wealth (76% if you exclude private home ownership). In 2017 gpf-Norway generated a return of 26 billion kroner in 2017  while gpf-Global garnered about 1.3 trillion kroner, which using current exchange rates comes to about $3,100,799,000 USD and $122,600,822,000 respectively. If that wealth had been paid out as a dividend to Norwegians, it would come to about $25,500 per person.

Bruenig is right to conclude that “the idea that a society could collectively own three-fourths of its non-home wealth through social wealth funds administered by a democratically-elected government without any negative economic consequences would be rejected as preposterous by most political and economic commentators in America today.” While this may be true,  I’d like to hold a proposal for a sovereign wealth fund to a slightly higher standard than that if it is to be a means of transitioning from the destructive and outdated capitalist system to socialism.

Below are some of the companies that the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund invested in during 2017 along with their investment in U.S. dollars. 2 Ask yourself: does the continued financial success of these companies have any place in whatever your idea of socialism is?

A B
Company
Invested (USD)
Apple $8,072,652,444
Alphabet $5,855,268,978
Amazon $4,472,071,992
Facebook $3,638,348,980
Berkshire Hathaway $3,269,196,109
JP Morgan Chase $3,157,074,018
Exxon Mobil $3,089,045,340
Wells Fargo $2,644,000,481
Verizon $2,029,754,082
Pfizer $1,956,054,146
UnitedHealth Group $1,849,331,576
Nike $670,398,515
Starbucks $665,126,579
Goldman Sachs $589,736,281
Aetna $576,133,911
Time Warner $570,858,233
Raytheon $523,952,347
Monsanto $393,028,228
Target $367,489,697
Tesla $252,531,626
Tyson Foods $175,547,276
Gap $149,406,029
Equifax $100,204,878
Wendy’s $28,714,688
Total $45,095,926,434

These represent about 18% of the U.S equities that gpf-Global has in its portfolio. I would guess that any American fund would be more heavily invested in these companies since they are large American firms which have consistently generated mostly positive returns over time. Even if they weren’t, I don’t think its controversial to say that the profits and dividends generated by the firms I’ve listed above are some of the most oft-cited examples of capitalist exploitation, of both workers and the environment, and rent-seeking behavior. As such, many of them have a vested interest in preventing moves towards more sustainable or equitable systems of production. That exploitation leads to their increased profitability, which is why for many of the companies shown here, the fund has maintained or increased its investment in them year after year.

Conditions set by both the executive branch and federal reserve following the recession in 2008 have led to particularly high returns for U.S. equities. Low borrowing costs set by the Federal Reserve have allowed these and many other corporations to borrow money cheaply. Cheap credit, combined with the bonanza from the recent tax cuts, have led many corporations to buy back large amounts of their own shares to reduce the number of shares available and, thus, drive share prices higher, further inflating a corporate debt bubble. This has been good news for the fund in terms of dividends, since their equity investments are concentrated in the U.S., but it is likely bad news for most working people, who have seen little of the benefit of this stock market rally, and the environment, which is heating up in ways that are quickly outpacing existing models.

The only way that this sort of policy can offer liberation is if your version of socialism is predicated on the idea that current levels of consumption in America are fine, it’s just that not enough people can get in on the feeding frenzy. I believe providing adequate food, shelter, and security to most if not all people on Earth is feasible. That is a grandiose goal and probably the hardest thing in the world to accomplish, but I wouldn’t bother with politics at all if I didn’t think it was possible. But if it is to become reality, it will be at the expense of the consumer culture in which I was raised and that I currently participate in, along with many others. As the late Samir Amin wrote in his 2004 book The Liberal Virus, “the idea that capitalism could adapt itself to liberating transformations, that is, could produce them, without wanting to, as well as socialism could, is at the heart of the American liberal ideology. Its function is to deceive us and cause us to forget the extent of the true challenges and of the struggles required to respond to them.”3

Certainly wealth inequality is a key challenge, though it is one among many. A report from Oxfam entitled Reward Work, Not Wealth, published in January 2018, elucidates another one of those challenges: the immiseration of the global working class. As they state at the very beginning of the report:

All over the world, our economy of the 1% is built on the backs of low paid workers, often women, who are paid poverty wages and denied basic rights. It is being built on the backs of workers like Fatima in Bangladesh, who works sewing clothes for export. She is regularly abused if she fails to meet targets and gets sick because she is unable to go to the toilet. It is being built on the backs of workers like Dolores in chicken factories in the US, suffering permanent disability and unable to hold their children’s hands. It is being built on the backs of immigrant hotel cleaners like Myint in Thailand, sexually harassed by male guests and yet often being told to put up with it or lose their jobs. 4

Though the report doesn’t say for sure, Dolores could very well be working in a chicken factory for Tyson Foods. Fatima could very well be making clothing for Target or Gap. Crackdowns on immigrants both here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the imperial core make an already precarious workforce all the more likely to be exploited. While capitalism has continued to develop and expand since Marx published Volume 1 of Capital in 1867, stories like those laid out in the Oxfam report show that its expansion and development have been fueled by its oldest and most reliable source of energy: extracted labor power from immiserated workers.

Some might say I’m singling out the wealth fund when plenty of workers saving for retirement or who are receiving a pension are likely also invested in these companies. Of course that is true. But pensions are not socialism, nor do they claim to be. What I’m saying is that building a welfare state or distributing a straight dividend to citizens that is built on the continued success of these companies as capital investments is not really a model for socialism either.

Since Bruenig’s paper is primarily aimed at an American audience, it’s understandable that global inequality isn’t really addressed, but as a socialist in America I think it’s important to keep a global perspective. Pew Research found that about 56% of the world’s population is considered low income, meaning they live on between $2 and $10 a day. 15% of the world’s population is considered poor, living on less than $2 a day. Nearly all the countries with a majority of their population either poor or low income can be found in Africa, South America, and Asia. Sub-saharan Africa has more of these poor countries than any other continent, likely because of global capital’s consistent and rapacious interest in seizing the continent’s mineral wealth for itself.

By contrast, about 56% of people in America are considered high income, meaning they live on more than $50 a day. Norway’s percentage is even higher, coming in at 77%. Globally about 7% of the world’s population is considered high income, with most of the majority high income countries concentrated in Western Europe and the British Commonwealth, along with the U.S.

There are problems with these kind of income designations. Moving from  poor to low income is often used as a measure of global improvement, but this seems specious at best. Similarly, grouping everyone above $50/day as high income seems to miss a key aspect of the world economy, which is characterized by astronomical wealth concentrated in the hands of an absurdly small group of individuals and corporations, something Bruenig has written on extensively. Nevertheless, this kind of disparity reinforces the need for addressing global inequality, not redistributing imperial plunder more broadly within the core.

Uncle Sam needs that extra shovelful / F. Sindelar Help Uncle Sam to win the war by following these directions: 1. Fire small amounts of coal often. 2. Keep fuel bed even by putting coal on thin spots. Avoid raking and slicing. 3. Keep fuel bed about six inches thick. 4. Look out for air leaks in brickwork. 5. Increase or decrease steam pressure by opening or closing draft damper in uptake. 6. Clean fires well when the demand for steam is small, and while cleaning have the draft damper partly closed.
Uncle Sam needs that extra shovelful, by F. Sindlear for the United States Fuel Administration, 1917. via Library of Congress.

I would suggest the Cuban system, at least in terms of its organizational structure, is at the very least much closer to the ideal I have laid out than Norwegian-style market socialism. According to the mathematician and ecologist Richard Levins, Cuba emerged from the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development determined to take the resolutions of that conference and put them into practice without sacrificing developmental progress. These resolutions included a mandate to systematically examine patterns of production, encourage the development of alternatives to fossil fuels, and address the imminent shortages of water. Writing in ReVista in 2000, Levins asserts that integrating these resolutions into their development plans “represents the final recognition that despite society’s commitment to a rising standard of living, natural limitations will not allow a world-wide consumer society with consumption of energy and materials at Euro-North American levels.” Instead of expanding the scale and scope of that consumer society, development should instead be focused on “quality of life, cultural development, education, and people taking care of people.”

Cuba has injected this ecological thinking into their model for development in spite of near-constant attempts to undermine the communist government there. As someone living in the center of the empire behind that aggression, it is important not to whitewash the tremendous pressure this has put on Cuba to forgo an ecological focus in development. Adding ecological factors into decision-making was and is the subject of fierce debate, especially given the many challenges to survival which face a favorite imperial target. However, Levins describes one local Communist Party nucleo as presenting the case in one such formal debate that “far from ecology being ‘idealist,’ it was the height of idealism to suppose that we could pass resolutions and have nature obey.”

The  sovereign wealth fund described in the PPP paper suggests a kind of “one weird trick” path to socialism, as if simply redirecting the flow of capitalism’s spoils will change where they came from. It’s a seductive idea, but calling it socialism does a disservice both to the history of radical left action, such as the struggle for independence by formerly colonized people, and to the ongoing realities of imperialism and settler colonialism that built this country and maintain its hegemony today. I am willing to admit that I can’t conclusively lay out the path to socialism, but I think that socializing the benefits of investment in the global economy as it exists today is more likely to further entrench the most egregious abuses of capitalism rather than eliminate them.

It may well be that establishing a public stake in the private wealth currently being directed almost straight upwards could play a part in the transition from capitalism to socialism, perhaps as a means of ensuring liberation for those who have difficulty working. But it is important not to forget that the returns to an American sovereign wealth fund, without significant and concurrent changes to global supply chains,management structures, and reliance on fossil fuels, would continue to come at the expense of the people whose extracted labor power creates value in the first place.

In 2017, the wealth of world billionaires increased by $762 billion, which Oxfam estimated would be enough to end extreme poverty seven times over. This suggests that wealth redistribution, in addition to greater labor protections and higher wages globally, might not be mutually exclusive. However, steps taken to mitigate even just the most extreme abuses, like slave and child labor, in global supply chains of companies like Nestle or Kellogg would have a direct and negative impact on the returns that any sovereign wealth fund would get on investing in those companies. What about if we wanted to focus on not just ending slave and child labor and extreme poverty but also help those considered “low-income”?

Even if a sovereign wealth fund was committed to using its voting power as a shareholder to influence corporate policy, enacting changes that go against the fundamental incentives of capitalism would require enough voting power to overrule every other large investor who isn’t burdened by any such scruples about where their returns come from. Where would that number of shares come from? If they would have to be purchased rather than created by the firm, where would the money come from?

I want socialism because I want a different and better world, not just for me but for people in Haiti, El Salvador, India, Congo, and Palestine too. Building that different world means reckoning with how the one we have was created. It means recognizing that America’s consumer-driven capitalism, supported as it is by dollar hegemony and a massive, seemingly constant military mobilization, robs oppressed working people both here and abroad of the things they create and, more importantly, their lives. But in addition to these more pressing concerns, it robs even the wealthy capitalist of their connections to the natural world and to each other, replacing them with competitive consumption, social entropy, and ecological collapse.

To return to the mandate of the People’s Policy Project, if we want to build an economic system for the many not the few, who constitutes the few? Who constitutes the many? The scale of wealth inequality globally does not mean that inequality in the U.S. can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. What it does require, however, is a more nuanced understanding of not only wealth inequality, but how the wealth was created in the first place.

Bruenig would have US citizens turn into socialists by becoming shareholders in Uncle Sam’s index fund. If that’s what “American socialism” is, I guess I’m gonna have to find something else to call myself.

Frank is a member of the IWW in the Midwest active in the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Unlike his namesake, he is not a tough guy, just a humble librarian.


Footnotes:
1. Side note: I’m not sure why it’s supposed to be staggering that the much larger fund that exclusively invests outside the country would hold assets greater than the GDP of just that country.
2. Find the portfolio of gpf-Global here: https://www.nbim.no/en/the-fund/holdings/holdings-as-at-31.12.2017/
3. P. 27.
4. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/reward-work-not-wealth