Friday, June 29, 2012

Acting from a Position of Strength

I just now posted the following on the Occupy Wall St. forum. Since it's based on what I've been writing on this blog, I decided to post it here as well:

Occupy Wall St. has done a great job of mobilizing support worldwide, especially among the young, and making the world aware of the debilitating effects of inequality on the social fabric. Unfortunately, the powers that be (i.e., the oligarchs, plutocrats and the politicians controlled by them) are not about to relinquish any fraction of their power simply because a bunch of latter day "hippies" is upset.

I learned myself, from bitter experience during the 60's and 70's, that you can shame, blame and embarrass the ruling class as much as you like, but that in itself will not have much of an effect on their actions.

If the impetus behind OWS seems now to be a bit stalled, it may well be due to the sad reality that the 1% see no reason to either share any of their wealth or give up any of their power, even in the face of massive protests and embarrassing media exposure. Nor is it likely that more aggressive, or even violent actions will make any real difference. Despite the fact that they are hugely outnumbered by the 99%, their power, economic, political, and military, is far greater than that of all of us combined -- many times over, in fact.

Was it Sun Tzu who wrote, in The Art of War, "never attack from a position of weakness"? From years of bitter experience I know that to be true. Which does not mean I lost my battles. Only that I chose them carefully, and learned to act only from a position of strength.

So. The question now is: how would it be possible for the 99% to act from a position of strength rather than weakness? My answer: there is only one force in the world, as far as I can tell, powerful enough to stand up against the forces of greed, manipulation and exploitation, and that is, very simply, the workers. The workers of the world, to coin a phrase. Workers are the ultimate source of the wealth accumulated by the oligarchy and also its secret vulnerability. It's only vulnerability, as far as I can see.

The workers of the world are a sleeping giant, though this is something they seem blissfully unaware of, so we rarely hear from them these days. They have been all too ready to accept the line handed out to them, as today in Europe, that the so-called "economic crisis" is largely their fault. They borrowed too much, demanded too many benefits, high wages, pensions, their unions made too many demands.

So now they are being called on to save "the world as we know it" by accepting "austerity," a euphemism for crushing exploitation. And this is true also not only for Europe but the entire world, the Americas, Asia, Africa, the Middle East, everywhere. The world over, workers are being duped into competing with one another for crumbs.

If these workers could manage to organize, just as the great labor unions organized early in the 20th Century, they would be capable of acting from a position of strength that could rock the world -- and in fact save the powers that be from themselves, since as should be clear, despite all their frantic efforts, their precious "economy" is on a downward spiral into the pit.


  1. I'm posting this for my friend HCE, who ran into trouble with the comment interface and emailed me instead. Here are his comments, in two installments:

    Hi, Doc G,

    I sent you a comment about this post a few days ago. It didn't appear – perhaps it didn't go through (I had some trouble with the "Select Profile" box).

    I just had some further thoughts about it.

    This is my first comment:

    Workers? Sorry, the workers had their day as a force for change in the last century. They gave it a good shot, but ultimately couldn't make it – probably because their power was subverted and fragmented by the tentacles of Bolshevism.

    Those with the strength to change things today, the sleeping giant, are the consumers. First of all, there are many more consumers than there are workers. While all workers are consumers, there probably are as many non-workers, students, retirees, welfare recipients, who are also consumers. And the 21st century economy is not based on labor, but on consumption. The wages paid for manufacturing a cell phone are nothing compared to the money that is spent marketing it.

    The consumers' weapon is the – I don't think there's a word for it yet – call it, the general boycott. What if consumers bought only what they needed, and nothing they simply wanted, without needing? I own a black belt (not a Judo trophy, but something to hold my pants up) and a brown belt. I would like to get another black belt, since the one I have doesn't seem macho enough, but I don't need it. Imagine a socially responsible billionaire (there are three or four of them in the world) who has a home on a tropical island in the Western hemisphere, but would like to have another in the Pacific, yet he knows he doesn't need one. Multiply all these austerities – and they would fall into the correct definition of the word, instead of it being a euphemism for deprivation – by the number of consumers. The effect on the big-boys would be tremendous; it would shut down the whole system.

    Of course, the big question is: what would this consumer revolt be fighting for? The right to buy Nike's at a lower price? The objective I would give up my second black belt for would be the return to power of politically motivated (as in the polis), as opposed to plutocratic, government. But others might have different objectives. Most of us, even the four good billionaires, might agree, though, that a good place to start would be "Tax the Luxuriant Rich."

  2. HCE's comments, continued:

    And these are my further thoughts:

    "The workers" is a 19-20th century concept. Out of date. In the time of Marx and through the socialist project (which, unfortunately, failed) the worker worked in order to sustain himself and his family. If you didn't have a job, you starved or were placed in a workhouse. The worker's economic goal, if he was ambitious or, as a union member, was to make himself and his family more comfortable.

    Now, it's completely different. One can sustain oneself and one's family without working, by being on welfare. Food, medical attention, education and shelter (although in some places shelter seems to be still problematical, although theoretically part of the social welfare system) will all be provided by public or philanthropic funds. Single mothers, drug addicts and other hedonists, the psychologically and socially challenged, and other adults who've been able to hobble together enough public benefits through disability insurance, etc. to keep themselves fed and housed, can all live and, to a certain degree, thrive without working.

    You don't have to work in 20th century America and Europe, and in many countries elsewhere.

    Those who do work, work not to stay alive comfortably, but to consume, to buy, to accumulate highly desired but totally unnecessary goods and services. (A strange situation, yes – but all you have to do is read some anthropology to see that strange cultural values and customs are more the rule than the exception.)

    So – it is the consumers, not the workers, who have to establish a power base, a consumers union, to oppose the sellers, by whom they currently are being exploited.

    Just thinking about how difficult it would be to form consumers' unions makes you appreciate why union leaders saw their most important activity for 50 or 100 years as, not attacking the exploiters, but organizing. Organize. Organize. Organize.

    These are the parallels between the goals of a labor movement and the goals of a consumers movement:

    (L) Better salaries = (C) Lower prices.
    (L) Better working conditions = (C) Regulated advertising and marketing (for example, the promotion of products without exploiting human weaknesses such as anxiety, lust and envy).

    And the means:
    (L) Strikes = (C) Boycotts.

    In the 19th and 20th centuries, industry also exploited its workers by selling to them. It was during this still on-going process, in which local manufactory and local businesses are being eliminated, and people are being forced to buy the mass-produced products of a few large corporations, that labor-based capitalism turned into consumer-based capitalism.


    Rev. H. Carlton Earwigghers

  3. Dear Rev. Earwigghers, the principal problem I see with your idea of a consumer boycott is that such a boycott is already in place, not as such, but what could be called, I suppose, a de facto boycott. In other words, people the world over are already spending a great deal less than they have in the past. Partly because we are all now much more wary of accumulating debt. (I'd like to say easy credit is no longer available, but that's not really the case, judging from the commercials I'm now seeing on TV.) Partly because wages are steadily eroding and unemployment is now so high.

    Corporations are responding by squeezing their workers even more tightly than ever before, in an effort to bring prices down to a level that will get consumers buying again. This is the problem I've been posting about, the reduction of so many workers today, not only in the third world, but the first world as well, to a status very close to slave labor. For the vast majority of ordinary workers (professionals not included, natch), a living wage has become more of a hope than a reality.

    You are right, of course, about welfare, which in the past has enabled people to survive without working, and many are now doing just that. But in the USA it's not that easy to get welfare anymore and even harder to keep it. About all one can hope for is food stamps and Medicaid. I've known people on Medicaid and from their experience, this is NOT the type of health care anyone but the most desperate would want.

    In past, European welfare was better, as I understand it, but now that's all changing, thanks to austerity. Many in Greece are now living in the streets, with maybe some food but no health care at all. (more later)

  4. Well, HCE, I remember a few years ago, when I was expecting a complete meltdown of the world financial system at any time, you disagreed, insisting the powers that be would never let that happen and would do everything in their power to indefinitely delay what I saw as inevitable. And I have to admit that you were right. That's exactly what they've been doing. Every time "the end of the world as we know it" seems imminent they've managed to pull yet another rabbit out of a hat.

    The problem is that each time they do this, it's on the backs of real people, "workers," "consumers," "citizens" "taxpayers," whatever you want to call it. We know from calculus that you can continue indefinitely toward a limit without ever actually reaching it. But the limit is there all the same and the ability of ordinary people to survive is reaching its limit, regardless of what is happening to the financial sector, which is of course being kept afloat purely by magic now, it seems.

    Which means that the ability of the unemployed, and even the employed, to survive either from welfare or wages is reaching a tipping point and people are going to start dying in the streets. Think Calcutta or Mumbai, if you need an image in your mind.

    "The workers" is a 19-20th century concept. Out of date."

    I completely agree. Which is one reason we've heard not a peep from workers or from the labor movement, which is now only a shadow of what it was. So what I'm proposing is an attempt to revive the labor movement and to wake workers up once again. Not only because it is their own welfare that's at stake (no pun intended) but as I see it, such a revival is our only hope.

    (continued on next post -- this one is getting too long)

  5. I can't imagine organizing an effective consumer boycott, as you suggest. Such boycotts are effective only in a very limited way, but not on the vast scale required here. Which doesn't mean that certain types of boycott might not be effective. More on that presently.

    While "the worker" as a rallying cry might be part of the past, it was nevertheless a very effective rallying cry in its day, and the labor movement, during the 1st part of the 20th century was in fact extremely successful. I'm not talking about either communism or even socialism, but the very effective organization of workers into unions throughout many parts of the world.

    Which gives me hope that a similar call could be effective today. The plutogarchs need workers, but they don't fear them because unemployment is so high that they can always find replacements. Which means that union organization or strikes on a local scale will no longer work. But such tactics on an international scale could be far more effective. Look how effectively huge numbers were mobilized in the Arab spring.

    As far as a boycott is concerned, there is one type of boycott that would I think be very effective and that would be a general walkout on the part of university and college students worldwide. Beginning with a general refusal to pay tuition. Now THAT would get some attention for sure, and hopefully change some minds.

  6. More from the good Reverend Earwhigger:

    Bonjour, Doc G.

    Consumer boycott. De facto. Yes. I agree. Why attack, weaken, the system since it's already at death's door?

    Here's the paradox, the dialectic, the fatal flaw: The more money that's accumulated by the wealthy, the less there is for the middle-class to spend.
    But! The economy on which the wealthy depends is based on an expanding and increasingly spendthrift middle-class.
    An untenable situation. But, as you say, every time "the end of the world as we know it" seems imminent they've managed to pull yet another rabbit out of a hat. The rabbit is debt.

    They have only two options, as far as I can see: print more money or increase indebtedness. Neither one solves the problem; they've chosen the second. It's a bankers' decision. (Immense sovereign debt has made the banks, instead of industry, the power brokers in this crisis. Industry might have called for inflation, for printing more money.)
    So, we have the banks in Europe calling for austerity, the banks in the US hoarding their money instead of lending it out. But all that leads to a diminution of assets, a reduction of expenditures, an implosion of wealth. They can't win.
    Their best option, which would likely cause the least pain and might allow them to maintain their hierarchical position, would be to not support the economy and let the synthesis of this economic paradox unfold naturally. The more props and supports that are put in place, the bigger will be the inevitable collapse.
    Of course, I guess you've noticed – the luxury market is strong. Maybe, if they can manage to spend enough, they can maintain a little satellite economy, so it won't matter too much what happens to the rest of the world.

    An organized consumer boycott? Difficult, improbable, but not exactly pie-in-the-sky.
    More and more consumers are beginning to understand that they are being exploited. The significance of the fact that 1% control the 99% is beginning to sink in. Unlike global warming, the 1:99 ratio is a "fact" that is accepted by both political camps. People are angry. They might be convinced that withholding their purchasing power could be a way to express it.
    Perhaps, just as the labor unions organized one industry after another, consumer boycotts could – at least at first – be targeted. For example, a boycott on buying music. Relatively painless, but effective. A boycott on clicking on internet ads. Again, painless – but imagine what it would do to the Nasdaq numbers. Or a boycott on brand-name cereals in favor of super-market brands. Pretty painless, if somehow the narcissistic brats to whom the stuff is marketed could be induced to come aboard, but effective.
    If every dollar saved by not buying music, discouraging internet advertising, buying Stop-and-Shop instead of Kellogg's, went instead to paying off credit cards and other debt, it would even further reduce the income of the banks, already hit by the diminution of the music market, the advertising market and the breakfast cereal market.
    Or would a consumer boycott be as futile as shooting yourself to make everyone feel sorry for you?

    Sorry, Doc G. Reviving the labor movement? Just a nostalgic pipe dream. Neo-romantic economics.
    The plutogarchs need workers. Well, yes, but there's no danger of running out of workers. There are billions of potential workers, and they are constantly spawning. Besides, technology actually has diminished the need for labor. What they also need, and what there is a danger of them running out of, is consumers: workers who not only are able to, but are willing to, pass back to them the fruit of their labor.


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