Sunday, September 15, 2019

Managerial Feudalism: The Real New World Order

     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.

     Managerial feudalism is its economic twin. When capitalism ate our social democracy in the 1970s, it died of indigestion in the 1980s and was replaced by managerial feudalism in the 1990s when Bill Clinton broke the government's half of the New Deal.

     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.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

What's With All the Vote Splitters?

     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?

Sunday, September 1, 2019

When Is A Bill Bad? When It Isn't Any Good!

     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.

     The first thing you have to understand about the Feinstein crime bill is that it doesn't ban semi-automatic handguns (which kill the majority of people killed by guns) or even require their registration beyond existing state licensing and registration requirements. Why is this important? It's important because it ignores the biggest part of the gun violence problem in America (64% of gun deaths are caused by handguns, according to the FBI) entirely in favor of making political points by banning "semi-automatic assault weapons."

     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!