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Chris Richards is a freelance writer based in the Portland, OR metro area. He is the writer/editor of The Boxing Geek, The Eclectic Radical and the Eclectic Geek and the former writer of the women's boxing column "The Sweeter Science" in The Ring magazine. He can be emailed at The.Boxing_Geek@rocketmail.com
The idea of the middle class is a legacy of the Cold War attempt to create some quasi-left wing ideology that would support social and economic progress without undermining the basic ideas of capitalism. The most privileged members of the working class were convinced that their interests were separate than those of blue collar factory workers. That's precisely why the addition of "tenant" is so important. The tenant/worker class is defined by work for wages and paying rent. As I explained in my last essay, mortgage loans are de facto rents to a de facto landlord. Therefore I am including home owners still paying on their mortgage in the category of "tenants."
Even such bastions of capitalist thought as the Brookings Institution still can't clearly define the middle class. There's a reason for this and it's because the concept is just wrong. If you admit this it becomes much easier to admit that you have interests in common with nebulously defined people like "the poor," "criminals," and "immigrants." They're all working people trying to pay their rent, just like you. The poor are having trouble paying their rent consistently. The criminals are only able to do so by breaking the law. Immigrants have been fooled by middle class snake oil the same as you and I, regardless of whether they are documented or not. We're all trying to pay the rent.
Our power is in numbers. There's a reason we write or tweet about the 99% all the time. In the end, there are a lot more of us than there are of them. It's our only protection against the landlord and the boss. So we have to stick together. Solidarity is the only weapon we have.
Middle class identity is a false identity used to alienate us from our own best interests. We think of ourselves as few steps down the ladder from wealth when we are really in danger of falling into poverty at any moment. Not recognizing this cedes an immense about of power to the right and center. We can't afford to do that. The left has to be class conscious.
The last essay I wrote was on the idea that our workplace (and much of our life) is governed by a system of managerial feudalism. Managerial feudalism is defined by owner-landlords who collect rents/profits from the tenant-employees whose lives they increasingly dominate. This domination is enforced by bosses, the executives and politicians who manage the property of the landlords. The result is a corporate government whose power over our daily lives is far greater than the imperfect representative government we often bitch about.
The boss runs our life for at least forty hours a week if we're fortunate enough to work full time. The actual achievement of the forty hour week is considered mythical by some and many people have to work more to make ends meet. Forty to sixty hours a week is a significant sacrifice of personal freedom to the boss. Every hour you spend working is an hour you could spend living instead. The fight for freedom of personal time to pursue life is one of the long struggles of radical workers' movements. We still haven't won our freedom.
The landlord's power is most obvious to those of us who rent. Rents have spiraled out of control for years now. We pay an increasing share of our income to the owners of our homes, so they can get richer. This keeps us poorer than we would be if we didn't have to pay rent. If our homes were truly ours then we would not be gifting this large chunk of our personal wealth to people who are already rich. Understanding this concept may blow your mind. You may also respond, "but it's not actually that easy for people who really own their homes, is it?"
The answer is another question: how many people really own their homes?
One liberal site famous for its numbers suggests that 32% of homeowners have paid off their mortgage. To do the math in the other direction, this means 68% of homeowners are paying a mortgage. People who are still paying their mortgage cannot be said to truly own their homes. Instead their home is owned by a landlord (the bank or mortgage company) to whom they pay rent (their mortgage payments) every month. The role of banks as landlords and home owners still paying their mortgage as renters requires us to take a hard look at what we laughingly call "the American dream."
Under our existing housing arrangements, a home owner spends either twenty or thirty years paying off their mortgage. If they are lucky they truly own their own house by the time they retire. At this point they borrow more money and relinquish ownership back to a landlord in order to have enough money to pay for retirement. Middle class success is revealed as a precarious trap that can be easily snatched away from working people at any time. Home ownership is still an elaborate rentalk contract favoring the landlord.
If you think of the repayment of debt as another form of rent then banks' role as landlords is even more important to the core economic policy of the United States. Our money is built on credit, with money being issued to pay interest on the debt owned by banks and billionaires. The means of doing so is the payment of interest on the national debt to billionaires who own the majority of US government securities. Central banks simply issue money to private banks to pay the interest on the government's debts.
In the most real sense, our taxes consist of removing money from circulation again in order to control inflation. Our taxes are rent paid to the government for the Public, even as the government pays interest on public debt to enrich billionaires. To put it simply: our government pays rent to billionaires with our money.
Capitalism is dead! Long live managerial feudalism!
I see that you don't know what that is. Let me explain.
A long time ago on this blog I used to use "corporate feudalism" to describe our economy because I believed the problem was that our society wasn't properly capitalist and needed a lot of regulation to make capitalism work better. As I fell out of the habit of writing regularly I also became more convinced capitalism was the problem and that our system was capitalist after all. When I started writing again I was long out of the habit. "Capitalism" has been my go to description of our economic disease. I have come to reconsider.
Approximately a year ago now, Professor David Graeber wrote the simple and yet profound book "Bullshit Jobs." That's pretty direct for an academic type isn't it? I'm not going to give a recap or review of the book because I am far more interested in plugging the book's existence out of respect for the author and swiping Profressor Graeber's excellent scholarly term and using it to make my own point about the modern, post-capitalist society; naturally, also out of respect for the author! If you want to read a review of the book there's a really good one at Current Affairs!
The main point is that in this book, Professor Graeber coined the phrase "managerial feudalism." Like any good writer I came to an immediate conclusion. "I remember I used to say something like this to say something similar, but this sounds better so I'm going to steal it!" Being neither a gentleman nor a scholar, I am too far beneath Professor Graeber for it to be socially acceptable for him to challenge me to a duel. So here we are.
I have referred to our political system as a "stakeholder democracy" and I still think this term is good. Feudalism and a form of democracy among the aristocratic landlords who controlled the country held up far longer than it had any right to expect to last in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This is actually an excellent model for our modern corporate society, where billionaires take the place of barons. Our constitutional government is the hapless King of Poland in this system, easily checked if a single baron chooses to exercise their veto.
You're still looking at me like you don't know what that is. I suppose I had better tell you then, hadn't I?
Feudalism is a system in which economic power is based on property ownership and economic produce is controlled by landlords who own the property on which it occurs. This is actually very similar to capitalism, except property and the control of labor bound to that property matter more than ownership of the means of production. Our form of modern feudalism is managerial for the self-explanatory reason that the greatest economic power is often wielded not, directly, by the owners of the property but by employees who manage the labor. If billionaires take on the role of barons in this system, CEOs and the tight circle of high level executives around them are the knights who enforce their will. These managers have the most contact both with the labor force and the governing elite while their billionaire liege lords engage in a life of leisure and political skullduggery.
Managerial feudalism works in simple, straightforward fashion based on the right of contract. In theory, rational individuals engage in binding agreements in a free market. Only their enlightened self interest and their means restrict their freedom. In actual fact, economic coercion forces unequal agreements in which the employer holds all the real rights and the employee has only their freedom to quit. Even then, if they do not give their agreed upon two to three weeks notice, they may not get their final paycheck on time. In a country where we are constantly a $400 expense away from bankruptcy or homelessness, not getting your final paycheck on time is a big deal.
In effect, employees are peasants bound to their agreed upon employment until they are fired or voluntarily quit. Since employees rarely become billionaires, all these peasants do when they do voluntarily quit is to exchange one corporate overlord for another. This happens fairly frequently as alienation and tedium wear at the employees. The frequent turnover helps keep wages low and allows the worst employers to hire and fire people on regular schedules to maintain the ideal sized workforce at all times. This increases economic coercion in the whole system.
It is this system of managerial feudalism that governs most of our day to day working lives. Small business owners are frequently involved in this system as franchise holders or "owner-managers" within a larger organization. Others exist outside it like the merchants, tradesmen and yeoman farmers of the Middle Ages, surviving as best they can through cooperation or pure cussedness. Most small business, remember, fails. If unable to maintain their economic independence their owners are forced back into the peasantry.
There are three classes in this society, not counting the proto-bourgieousie that tries to survive outside it. There are landlords (billionaires and mega-millionaires, mostly board members and large shareholders but numbering some CEOS of particularly successful corporations as well), bosses (the various executives who fill the roll of corporate knights to the billionaire barons) and employees.
I'm going to try to remember to be consistent in my use of this language going forward. Thanks for indulging me.
Norman Solomon recently wrote an excellent piece about the importance of credible primary challengers in Truthdig. I couldn't agree more. I think he's dead on and I'm glad he gave shoutouts to great challengers like Mark Gamba and Jessica Cisneros; but he touched on something that I have been thinking about a lot lately too. As Solomon says, "... it's best to field only one progressive challenger; other the chances of ousting or jolting the incumbent are apt to be greatly diminished." So, to put it in plain English, splitting the progressive vote is usually bad. It makes it harder for progressives to win.
Yet we have a lot of progressive candidates splitting the vote in quite a few district primaries. There are several reasons for this embarrassment of riches. I believe the biggest is that there really aren't a lot of ways for aspiring civic leaders to make their mark anymore. The gutting of local media to satisfy corporate greed means that you need to make it onto television to get attention. That usually requires a national profile that the local city councilman just doesn't have. Local tv news still exists, of course, but it's increasingly controlled by the corporate robber barons as well. Running for Congress can get one an audience. That audience can get the candidate into media, politics or business in a variety of ways that weren't open before.
A more disturbing reason is that some candidates may be running to split the vote in order to stop someone else from winning. The best example of this is the CA-12, where the strongest of 2018's band of progressive challengers to Nancy Pelosi is facing two rivals for the progressive vote. Shahid Buttar is, on paper, a perfect focus for progressive energy in the district. He performed much better than expected in 2018 despite a late entry. He is a lawyer, activist and writer who has massive credibility as an advocate for civil liberties. So why are there two other candidates?
The answer rests in the shadowy alleyways of San Francisco politics. Buttar's late entry into the race engendered bad blood from the progressive candidates who he outperformed. In the style unfortunately common in the Democratic Party today, he was blamed for taking "their" votes and "giving the second spot in the general election to the Republican." Indeed, this is Tom Gallagher's rationale for running and he clearly expressed it during a debate between the three progressive candidates. It's also the reason one of those candidates, Stephen Jaffe, has endorsed the third entry, Agatha Bacelar.
Bacelar's reasons for running, and her progressive bona fides, are less cut and dried. She used to work for the Emerson Collective, a combination philanthropic trust and venture capital concern founded and run by Steve Jobs' widow Laurene Powell Jobs alongside managing partners Arne Duncan and Michael Klein. This is the kind of fake progressive influence shop popular with American billionaires today. The fact that Bacelar used to work for them and still vocally advocates for them raises serious questions about her credibility as a progressive. The Emerson Collective has deep roots in national politics and may have an interest in making sure Nancy Pelosi is re-elected.
A very different dynamic exists in the NJ-06. Javahn Walker previously challenged incumbent Frank Pallone in 2018 and is running again. Russ Cirincione announced his candidacy because he didn't think Walker could win a second attempt and he believed he would stand a better chance. Yet I have spoken to both candidates since they started running and have only the best impressions of both. While he thinks he has a better chance of winning, Cirincione has nothing bad to say about Walker and quite a bit of good. The two candidates are amicable and their campaigns aim to remove all the oxygen from Pallone's campaign by proving the district is progressive now. I can't help but think just one candidate would be better, but both men are determined to take their shot for now.
The immediate way to solve the problem would be for candidates to sit down like adults and make mature decisions. Perhaps state office would be a good choice for some of these vote splitters. Progressive Democrats have never focused on statehouses the way conservative Republicans have and it's time for that to change. The simple fact of human ambition make that kind of maturity impossible in today's political climate. The media loves the concept of "the next AOC" and this encourages young candidates like Agatha Bacelar to run as progressives even if they may not be.
In the long run we need more cohesive and coherent progressive movement with a basic litmus test and enough organization to channel the right candidates into the right races. The problem is that such an organization would need to avoid the corporate taint that inevitably overtakes progressive groups. Is that possible in today's political world?
I want to start by thanking Dr. Christine Eady Mann for telling me to read the Feinstein Assault Weapons Ban that she supports. It was very educational. I would not have known what a colossally bad bill it is if Dr. Mann had not been so clear that I needed to read it to understand her position. Now that I do understand her position I'm afraid that it either leaves a lot to be desired or she really hasn't read the details of the bill she asked me to read. I don't want to assume which.
It's a gun violence bill that does nothing to prevent gun violence and they're not really even pretending.
"Wait," you cry! "But what about the 4% of gun deaths that actually are caused by assault rifles?" You're impassioned and you know this a small number but you are sure it must do something to prevent a tiny bit of gun violence. This was what I thought before I actually read the bill, as Dr. Mann asked me to do. I was wrong.
The one thing that most frightens centrist Democrats is the idea that the NRA's biggest talking point, "They're coming for your guns!" can never be allow to come true. If this right-wing talking point actually came to be, the centrists fear, the political consequences would be disastrous. By which I mean that they are worried they might stop getting donations from various corporate lobbies allied to the gun lobby. If your secret dream is that liberals really will come for conservatives' guns, prepare to be disappointed.
A grandfather clause exempts every single banned weapon currently in someone's possession. So the bill only bans the sale, manufacture, transport and import of the weapons on the list. It does nothing about the guns waiting to be sold illegally, loaned to a friend or stolen. It may prevent gun deaths in a few years, that might otherwise have happened at the muzzles of weapons not yet manufactured or imported. It prevents the legal sale of the weapons you already own but it doesn't even include a buyback provision if you actually want to be rid of them!
So it won't prevent a mass shooting with an AR-15 today, tomorrow or next week and it won't ever prevent a drive-by shooting with a handgun or a pump action shotgun. It won't ever prevent a violent spouse from shooting their partner with a revolver. It's an empty shell of a bill. It's exactly the sort of centrist do-nothing "Problem Solver" approved solution to a major social problem that the corporate robber barons of our modern society can donate money to pass! It's the bill I would expect to see on Dianne Feinstein's website.
Congress can and should do better than this bill! The background check provision should be strengthened by making them free to both the buyer and the seller of the weapon; let law enforcement eat the coast because we certainly give them more than enough to pay for it! The bill should require registration for all grandfathered weapons and all semi-automatic pistols not covered by the Assault Weapons Ban! The bill should require mental health evaluations and gun safety exams to maintain registration and these should also be free to the gun owner.
The bill should specifically allocate funds for the exams and evaluations; the bill should also fund a buyback program so that guns can be removed from circulation if the owners want to sell them to the government. My friend Steve Cox has a great argument for why it won't actually recover many guns, but I believe it's fair to let buyback advocates have a chance to prove it can work. If it doesn't, we save some money.
What's really important is that the common sense gun reform I noted above should be combined with a robust single payer health care system and laws requiring higher pay and greater workplace democracy. People who are healthier, happier and less financially strapped are less likely to shoot up the neighborhood!
I'm going to take a moment to say that the Congressional leadership of the Democratic Party really sucks. That's my firmly held opinion and I stand by it. They're to blame for much of their own inability to properly deal with President Trump. They're to blame, in many ways, for his election in the first place. They've gotten us into this fine mess.
Yet it's very important to remind everyone that none of this lets Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer off the hook. It makes their guilt that much worse. They knew what had happened under Bush. Nancy Pelosi had been given the heads up on the CIA torture program in 2002. In 2006, when she became Speaker for the first time, she declined to impeach George W. Bush for crimes she knew he had committed. In 2006 we didn't know that she had been aware of the CIA torture program for four years. Now that we do know, what does that say about her refusal to take the necessary Constitutional steps to address those crimes?
Steny Hoyer is guilty of his own complicity. Where Pelosi at least voted against the Iraq War in the first place, Hoyer voted for it. In 2007 he still had no regrets and thought it had been the right vote. To call Steny Hoyer anything other than a nakedly imperialist stooge for Republicans, as it relates to the Iraq War or the War on Terror, would be a lie. I don't want to lie to my readers. It sets a bad precedent. So: Steny Hoyer was a nakedly imperialist stooge for Republicans during the Iraq War. He's still way too supportive of the Israeli military's brutal repression of the Palestinians.
Can we really say that the One Who Kept The Secrets and the Warmonger are progressive when it comes to foreign policy? I think we can safely toss any such ideas out the window. They're RINOs on this shit when it really matters.
With Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer we don't even need Republicans to oppose us. Our own leaders will oppose us out of fear! This isn't really very good for our chances of actually winning on any of these issues, you know that?
I wrote on Wednesday about Rich Lowry's rather stupid decision to attack Rep. Alexandria Occasio-Cortez (D - NY) in a ridiculous little shit post on the magazine's website. The topic was whether or not temporary detention centers for asylum seekers coming to the United States from Central America qualify as "concentration camps." The definition is as follows: "a place where a large number of people, particularly political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities, sometimes to provide forced labor or too await execution."
Rep. Occasio-Cortez, naturally, came down on the side of rational common sense. We can all see how legal asylum seekers being treated as illegal aliens qualify as "political prisoners." The only reason they are being imprisoned at all is because the Trump Justice Department made the entirely political decision to lock them up! The idea that Rep. Liz Cheney (R - WY) chose to take issue with AOC's description was anything other than shit-posting is pretty silly. Yet Rich Lowry chose to double down despite the facts. Masha Gessen, of the New Yorker, chose instead to get to the real heart of the problem: that conservative denials of the facts are a gas-lighting of history that renders real atrocities as something unimaginable and unique instead of things that happen all the time.
Nor are concentration camps the only ongoing assault on our liberties. As Chris Hedges wrote for Truthdig, the ongoing political persecution of Julian Assange by the Trump Justice Department is a very real attack on the fundamental underpinnings of our so-called Constitution. The fact that there is no powerful free speech movement in the streets, protesting in Assange's defense, is proof of how well the Ministry of Propaganda of the United States of Authoritarianism has successfully twisted our perceptions of Assange. This brutality towards the free press is only magnified by what is happening to journalists on the US-Mexico border. What will happen to reporters covering the concentration camps if Assange is convicted? If you have ever read Stephen King's "The Stand," you have seen images of the narrow line between committing atrocities and committing new atrocities against those who expose them. Will the reporters try to tell us the truth about those concentration camps end up the next people sent to them?
I hear you shouting about alarmism, conspiracy theories and tin-foil hats. No one is more critical of the "Illuminati" model of political opposition than I am. I would say that conspiracy theories end up serving the robber barons a lot more than they help us defeat them. The Illuminati are both all-powerful and totally incompetent so all we have to do is eradicate the conspiracy. Do you see how that plays right into the hands of someone like Trump rather than helping us? I definitely don't believe in the Illuminati; but not believing in ridiculous conspiracies about secret governments doesn't mean that I don't understand how the government we have works.
Much of the legitimate Resistance's time has been wasted by Russia conspiracy theories without a lot of clear facts to back them up instead of the obvious targets: one of the most corrupt and incompetent administrations in history. Have any of those allegedly criminal cabinet secretaries been brought to justice yet or have the Congressional authorities bothered to refer Scott Pruitt and Ryan Zinke for prosecution? Has the Trump Justice Department begun to prosecute them? It's easy to see why at least one CNN writer thinks Trump's administration is succeeding beneath the utter shit-show. Can we really argue with his logic?
We've got a massive lack of accountability for corruption and public fraud going back to the Reagan and H.W. Bush administrations.Trump's cabinet shit-show is just one symptom. The way former Bush supporters all guilty of lying us into war with Iraq have been rehabilitated by the opposition media is another symptom and we can't blame it on Trump. Nor can we blame the way past Democratic congressional criminals like Jane Harman are treated by the opposition media on Trump. The Obama Justice Department never prosecuted the grifters and war criminals of the Bush Administration and Obama-friendly media has washed them clean of their sins.
With all this, the concentration camps are really just the cherry on top of the sundae. Our freedom is at stake. We have never had much of it but we have the opportunity to win more now!