The Boston Globe Defends the Harvard Administration’s Class War

globes

Three writers at the Boston Globe signed their name to an article that ran in Tuesday’s edition of the paper, coinciding with the start of a strike by the dining hall workers at Harvard University, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26. The headline reads, “Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 percent. It’s not.”

It is. These writers don’t substantiate this argument in the body of the piece. Because they can’t. Harvard University is one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the Boston area, the United States, and the world. The authors even do the math for us, writing “Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment is bigger than the economies of nearly 100 countries.”

That’s right: Harvard’s endowment is big enough to give it the economic power of a major player in the global economy, and that’s without accounting for the social and political elites who would hold citizenship in such a gold-plated country, with alumni status presumably the passport needed for entry. One-percenter status – no, 0.01% status – has never been so obvious.

Rather than dispute this, the authors focus on the conditions of the dining hall workers who are striking for better compensation and working conditions. Citing arguments put forward by the university administration – the boss in this labor dispute – they note that “its average dining hall worker makes nearly $22 an hour,” translating to $30,000 per year.

As one of their demands, the workers are arguing that any worker able to work year-round deserves $35,000 a year (again, this is at an institution with a $36 billion endowment).

This demand is excessive in the eyes of our dear frugal journalists.

Never mind that Vaccaro and Woolhouse, the first two names on the byline, regularly write for the Business section of the Globe, making it hard to believe they don’t make more than $30k a year. While Yoo, the third name on the article, appears to be a co-op student, her LinkedIn shows an impressive array of prestigious internship, including her current one at the Globe, suggesting she’ll also wind up making above $30k a year straight out of college.

But bringing up such vulgar details about the article’s writers is rude. “It’s beside the point to mention what Globe staff make!” we can imagine the editors crying indignantly, “This is about dining hall workers!” they insist.

So what if we know how hard it is to live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country, on $30,000 a year, much less raise a family on that. “These are unskilled workers, they’re supposed to suffer!” respond the authors. “It’s the way of the world! Fuck ’em!”

At least, that’s what the Globe means to say. But a newspaper doesn’t achieve its status as the Paper of Record in the city by writing so crudely – that’s for the Herald, not the well-mannered diplomats of the Globe. Just as Harvard accrued its $36 billion endowment by exploiting the labor of first, slaves, then low-wage workers like those on strike today, so the Globe maintains its status by legitimizing such exploitation, and insisting those at the bottom thank the bosses for whatever crumbs they receive.

People can’t live on crumbs, especially not in this city. Dining hall workers need more than that, and eventually, we – working class people in this city – are coming for the whole fucking endowment. Support the striking workers, and argue with, isolate, and ridicule anyone who advocates anything less.

Socialism or Barbarism, Basically

100 years ago, Rosa Luxemburg wrote that society stood at a crossroads: socialism or barbarism. Today, it feels like we face a similar choice and not only in this country, with the Brexit vote surprising many on both sides of the Atlantic. Pundits pen polemics about how we may face a future of either “cosmopolitan finance capitalism” or “ethno-nationalist backlash.” This is a time of urgency, inflected with the recent murder of Jo Cox, attacks on Muslims and immigrants, and the murder of 49 people on Latin night at a gay club in Orlando.

In light of so much violence, it’s right for us to be unforgiving toward our political opponents. But as the Los Angeles Times’s Vincent Brevins put it, “Both Brexit and Trumpism are the very, very, wrong answers to legitimate questions that urban elites have refused to ask for thirty years.” Such a nuanced view doesn’t do well in the media, which favors the inflammatory formulations that drive clicks, not to mention its bias toward the status quo. But when the stakes are so high, we can’t leave political analysis to “the experts” – after all, democracy is premised on the ability of us amateurs to understand the world too. That means acknowledging the relatedness of economic anxiety and the racist, xenophobic explanations people are turning to if we’re to offer a socialist alternative to either the continued administration of austerity by liberals or the reactionary nationalism of Trump or Farage.

Our crisis stems from a decrease in the standards of living for working class people that started with the onset of neoliberalism in the late-1970s. While we often associate redistribution with the left, neoliberalism is a redistributive project too. A pro-market ideology that minimizes the welfare state while expanding the state’s repressive forces, it redistributes wealth upward and from the public commons to private ownership. It reinforces globalization, which is less the borderless world implied by its name and more an order that eases restrictions on the movement of capital while reinforcing restrictions on the movement of people, as evidenced by the growth in border patrols and deportations in the US and EU.

These twin projects contribute to the immiseration of the many to the benefit of the few, creating a feeling of suffocation, the basis for today’s racist right-wing resurgence. “Economic suffering and xenophobia/racism are not mutually exclusive,” explains The Intercept‘s Glenn Greenwald. Rather, he adds, “the opposite is true: The former fuels the latter, as sustained economic misery makes people more receptive to tribalistic scapegoating.” Responsibility for this suffering rests squarely with the neoliberal elite, be it Barack Obama, David Cameron, or Hillary Clinton, who have chosen to administer these policies even as they insist on their status as lesser evils to the monsters they’ve created.

But this only goes so far in explaining the gains won by Trump or his British counterparts. The other side of the picture is the sustained attack on the left that began not-coincidentally with neoliberalism’s early champions: Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Both figures began their tenure at the helm of the state with  attacks on unions – air traffic controllers in the US and miners in Britain. Paired with the anti-Communism that permeates the United States, this created a contemporary situation where many working class white people see the cynical racist populism of Trump as the only alternative to the status quo. Which is not to say there aren’t Trump supporters primarily and irrevocably driven by racism – there are and I think their numbers are large. To them, we should never address our arguments, not when we have millions of Sanders supporters and liberals to win over. But unfortunately for the rest of their base, Trump, Brexit, or any other white supremacist fever dreams are false saviors. The left’s is the only vision that can address inequality in the long term.

Labour MP Diane Abbott touched on this in a response to Brexit published in The Guardian, and it’s worth quoting at length:

“If only the false promise that Britain’s malaise of disenfranchisement, voicelessness and an economic system that rewards the rich at the expense of the poor could be fixed by leaving the EU. The idea that migrants or politicians in Brussels are the problem with modern, unequal Britain was the canard at the core of the referendum debate.

Britain’s problems come from a place much closer to home. They come from successive government policies that have promoted the financialisation of our economies and public services, thereby valuing profit over people. They come from a Tory government slashing public services and widening inequality under the dubious banner of austerity. And they come from a prime minister who was passionate about nothing but his own political survival.

These problems are so systemic today that fixing them will take a radical change to the structure of both our economy and political class. Returning to the past will not resolve the very real and interconnected global issues of our time: vast and rising wealth inequality, climate change and a foreign policy trapped in a cycle of destruction.”

Whether the context is Britain or the United States, “returning to the past” cannot address the cause of distress. While one Trump supporter recently told me immigrants are “an existential threat” to society, the true culprit is domestic: capitalism.

As Kim Moody argues in a recent piece for Jacobin, trade is only responsible for 20% of the losses in manufacturing jobs in this country. And despite a real trend toward offshoring, 85-90% of US manufacturing occurs domestically, far above the global average of 72%. Instead, it is productivity gains achieved through the intensification of labor and application of new technologies that are to blame for a decrease in manufacturing jobs, none of which would be possible were there a strong labor movement fighting to ensure livable working conditions and wages.

Rebuilding the labor movement then becomes a priority. Combating the intensification of work and application of new technologies can be done with an eye toward reversing the amount of income captured by capital, which increased its portion of the pie from 18.8 percent in 1979 to 26.2 percent in 2010. In a society coming undone by inequality, it’s workers, not capitalists, that should get more of the societal income.

Alongside demands for more of the value we produce going back into our wallets, today’s labor movement should argue unequivocally for a strong welfare state, whether in the form of a universal basic income or universal health care and social security, as well as bring back the old demands of “40 hours pay for 30 hours work” and full employment. These latter demands offer a means to incorporate those locked out of employment opportunities, both the urban and rural poor, offering an alternative to under-the-table employment and desperation. These demands are particularly urgent as most jobs created since the Great Recession are low-wage service work, sectors not under immediate threat by globalization but made unlivable by the perilous working conditions and pitiful remuneration they offer. This agenda grapples with technological advances that currently serve to discipline the labor force by posing a threat to jobs across industries. In a truly democratic society, where the working class majority has a say in how we distribute wealth and income, technological advances can be beneficial to all, decreasing the hours we work in a week and increasing the time available for leisure, creativity, and family.

I’ve been in Pittsburgh all month. The city’s experiencing a tech boom led by Google and Uber. The latter’s a particular source of anxiety: the company’s testing self-driving cars here and it’s created a panicked murmur about how technology may render workers redundant, a sore spot for a city devastated by the collapse of the steel industry. It’s these concerns – of getting left out, of declining futures and an undemocratic elite benefiting from our misery – that made Bernie Sanders’s social democratic message resonate, a development that aids the left in having reacquainted millions of people with the existence of a left beyond liberalism. Having seen the numbers of people open to this alternative, we need to get moving. This is not an academic debate – these are the questions animating the day. Our success in advancing left-wing answers and implementing them in practice will determine which road we take: socialism, or barbarism.

Left-Wing Language for Your Right-Wing Needs!

Because I hate myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching language created by the left get taken up by the right. Conservatives are wielding the language masterfully, leaving many well meaning progressives disoriented and asserting the righteousness of any cause that comes packaged in the correct words, forgetting that language is meant to advance our goals, to serve us, not the other way around.

I’m not the first to note that a lot of activists today are fixated on language and that with this comes a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting iced out of a movement. The flip side of this is that when someone speaks the right words, we assume it means they’re one of us. But there’s a problem: language can be learned by anyone, it can be taught in business seminars and in online forums. If we don’t subordinate language to the material changes we’re fighting for, we lose the ability to draw clear lines between us and them.

Who’s Doing This?

Zionists are the cutting edge when it comes to hitching progressive language to reactionary ends. For the past few years, the attention of the American Zionist movement has been focused on college campuses. Campuses are bellwethers of broader political trends, making what happens on campus important for those concerned with future societal developments. For Zionists, it’s the growth of pro-Palestine groups and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement that’s the most worrying. Their response is a case study in the use of left-wing language by right-wing assholes.

Take the first #StopBDS Conference hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN and World Jewish Congress at the UN headquarters in New York this week (that’s right: a UN conference with a hashtag in the name – welcome to 2016). As Rania Khalek reported from this gathering of the trolls, the speakers struck a repetitive message: “Speak left,” said Frank Luntz. “Speak the language of the left,” reiterated Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students.

What does a Zionist “speaking left” look like? On campus, it means yoking one’s Jewish identity to support for Israel and then claiming to feel “unsafe” in response to pro-Palestine organizing. The impulse to make this claim comes from the rise of progressive students demanding ‘safe spaces’ for members of oppressed identities. While I’m not opposed to this, as it comes from the long and ugly history of violence against the oppressed by those with privilege, as I’ve said before, this demand is becoming one of the prefered tactics of campus Zionists.

A letter sent out by the university chancellor to UC Santa Cruz students offers a great example. Here’s an excerpt:

“On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.”

The chancellor invokes the campus history of social justice, positioning himself as a progressive. From there, he brings up the student union’s resolution in favor of BDS and insists this may make Jewish students feel “alienated” and “less welcome.”

More accurate would be to say the resolution could make Zionists feel unwelcome. But the chancellor’s conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israel allows him to invoke a discourse of safety for oppressed identities as the bludgeon that it often becomes; a human shield, as it were, against criticism. That this conflation inflames anti-Semitism is curiously not a concern of these douchebags, who are happy to pretend all Jews support Israel. Much better to take what power you can from the discourse of oppressed groups and use it to cover for support for an apartheid state. And that’s what makes black Zionists like Chloe Valdary doubly valuable for Israel, as they can make additional claims to the need for safety, cynically counterposing black and Palestinian struggles – a particularly coveted trait when these movements are forging stronger ties.

To take another egregious example, let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

A while back, Clinton’s team produced a chart of “intersections.” Indecipherable, it invoked the necessary know-how of the language of intersectionality as a signal to voters: “Clinton’s with it,” it shouted. No matter that the chart was absurd and that Clinton’s policies have and will continue to reinforce, not undo, oppression. No matter that Clinton doesn’t even pay her interns, who more likely than not are overwhelmingly women.

As she asked at a campaign rally in February, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make immigrants feel more welcome?”

“No!” her audience responded, but this cheeky remark was to a strawman – no one, not Bernie Sanders, not even weirdos on the internet, claims it will. But it’s enough to know the language for Clinton, to “speak left” as Luntz put it.

Fortunately, most working people aren’t fooled by this insincerity. We want redistribution. We want real feminist and antiracist gains: abortion on demand, universal health care, union protections and a $15 minimum wage for home care and fast food workers, defunding the police and an end to mass incarceration. Clinton won’t offer these but her cynical deployment of the language of the left is a feignt to pretend otherwise, and a quick look at the unbearable Clinton supporters penning articles about her radicalism is evidence that this is convincing a fair number of voters.

Why Does This Matter?

As usual, Adolph Reed Jr said it best: “[identity] politics is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” What he means by it is that rather than countering a strawmanned ‘class-first’ politics – the ‘break up the banks and stop there’ fantasy evoked by Clinton -the language of identity politics is elastic enough to incorporate the bourgeoisie along with the working class, particularly when it uncritically links identities to political ideologies.

It’s how we get the “black misleadership class” in Reed’s terms, bourgeois African Americans purportedly speaking on behalf of “the black community.” By pretending this community isn’t internally riven by class divides, this essentialized view of a definitionally progressive blackness lets the black bourgeoisie fill the symbolic role of a black voice, immune from criticism by their allies, who are told to shut up and listen, not question the political credentials of the speaker. This doesn’t just cause chaos at the level of institutional politics, though it does that too. It also opens up space for incoherence and misleadership in movements.

As Douglas Williams put it, “we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle.” While Williams is writing of the need to build a broader, more effective movement, the phenomena he’s referring to – the belief that the oppressed shouldn’t be criticised – is not only linked to a condescending belief that oppressed groups can’t argue their views, it hands a cover to conservative projects as long as they’re led by members of an oppressed group.

Teach for America is one of the most prominent organizations to take advantage of this opening. As Drew Franklin detailed at Orchestrated Pulse, Teach for America faced a “race problem” in the wake of the devastation of the New Orleans public school system. In Franklin’s words, this led it to “re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.”” Yet again switching out the substantive and often socialist demands of the civil rights movement for symbols, TFA could claim membership under the umbrella of social justice just as long as it had enough people of color on its payroll and knew the right words to use.

I can’t help but think that was the purpose of a recent event hosted by TFA Massachusetts. Titled “#StayWoke: Social Justice through Hashtag Activism,” the event promised to help attendees struggle for racial justice, even as the organization hosting it eviscerates black communities across the country. Want to know someone who looks like he attended one of these trainings? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pictured here wearing a shirt that reads #StayWoke while speaking with TFA alum and black misleader-par-excellence Deray McKesson despite the fact that Twitter has a severe diversity problem.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. Neoliberalism, capital, or university administrations have no problem accommodating symbols. New language can be learned by hiring a social justice consultant, new faces can coexist with old in high places, granted the majority remain shut out. It’s calls for redistribution that don’t jive with the status quo but these are ignored in favor of those demanding the easily assimilable.

Aviva Chomsky skillfully addresses this in the context of the university in a recent piece. “While schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives,” she writes, they’ve incorporated the more symbolic and individualized demands “into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking.” Those demanding changes of language – apologies, inclusive rhetoric, an end to microaggressions – are recognized while those advocating for prison divestment  or an increase in material support for students from oppressed groups are shut out.

The critical stance I and the writers I’m quoting adhere to isn’t a condemnation of anti-racism or feminism as such – I support both the symbolic and redistributive demands of college students. Rather, as Ben Norton wrote in a post on Reed and identity politics, it’s “a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs, like race or gender, rather than on material conditions.” If we focus our politics around achieving material changes, this necessarily entails fighting oppression wherever it appears. But to hitch this struggle to redistribution prevents those opposed to this project from claiming the mantle of social justice.

Where Does This Leave Us?

First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame those confused by this rhetoric – indeed, I was one of them until very recently. These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion. And I’ve seen it happen: either these activists enter into non-profits and lose sight of radical movement work altogether, or they give up completely, shifting into a consumption or lifestyle politics. If we want stronger movements, we need to argue against these politics.

But for those in positions of power – people like Luntz or Clinton, groups like TFA – cynically emptying out the force of these anti-capitalist words, we should be merciless in denying them access to this cover. Where those in power seek to insulate themselves from criticism by invoking the language of the left, we need to insist on placing these words back in the context from which they came: the struggle against capital and for the oppressed. By refusing to bestow any magic on words, we can render them useless to the powerful and in doing so, make the sides in this fight unmistakably clear.

Mohammed Omer interviews Gazans

Mohammed Omer, a reporter from Rafah, inside of Gaza, has been reporting seemingly 24/7 since the siege began.

In his newest piece, he interviewed Gazans during a brief calm in the violence of Operation Protective Edge.

What’s remarkable about these interviews is the clarity with which these besieged Palestinians articulate the complexity of the conflict. While Zionists and their supporters in the media cannot speak the word “Hamas” without adding “terrorists,” the interviewees express what we all know: resistance is justified when the violence being visited upon you is not.

This we know. This is why the media cannot break from the equation Hamas=terrorists. To introduce nuance is to open Israel up to a barrage of criticism, and that is unacceptable.

Instead, we can all now condemn the killing of children. But contextualizing these deaths and how militant resistance stems from a state that has long visited death upon innocents?

Well, I don’t think that’d get past the censors anyway.

Women’s Rights, from Boston to Gaza

Gaza and Clinic Defense
Gaza and Women’s Self-Determination

This was my favorite of the photos I took at a clinic defense action last week in Boston, MA.  It was directed at the anti-abortion protestors whom we were at the clinic to counter, though more broadly addressed the entire Boston community, drawing the connections between these conflicts. For analyses of this connection, I recommend this Electronic Intifada article, as well as this piece by INCITE!

The action was a response to the effects of the US Supreme Court striking down the buffer zone law, which had required that protesters (specifically, it was enacted with respect to anti-abortion protesters outside of abortion clinics) remain thirty-five feet away from the clinic being targeted.

Since its nullification, anti-abortion protestors have returned to hovering around the front of the Planned Parenthood building.  As long as they are not physically blocking entry, they are considered to be exercising their right to free speech.  However, the very real effects of their presence is an end to freedom of movement, as a patient must suffer their entreaties and company as she enters the building, and then wonder about how non-violent these anti-abortionists truly are as she passes through Planned Parenthood’s heavy security precautions.

At the action, I watched one of these anti-abortionists pace back and forth in front of the building, anti-woman literature in his hand, scanning passers by so as not to miss an opportunity to harass any who might have been entering the clinic.

The history of violence associated with these anti-abortion protestors is very recent.  The following is from the National Abortion Federation’s website:

“This foundation of harassment [outside of clinics] led to violence with the first reported clinic arson in 1976 and a series of bombings in 1978. Arsons and bombings have continued until this day. Anti-abortion extremists have also used chemicals to block women’s access to abortion employing butyric acid to vandalize clinics and sending anthrax threat letters to frighten clinic staff.

In the early 1990s, anti-abortion extremists concluded that murdering providers was the only way to stop abortion. The first provider was murdered in 1993. Since then, there have been seven subsequent murders and numerous attempted murders of clinic staff and physicians, several of which occurred in their own homes. In 2009, NAF member Dr. George Tiller was shot and killed in his church in Wichita, Kansas.”

This history was viscerally present as I watched the anti-abortion protester pacing back and forth on the sidewalk.  While this event was a controversial action in the feminist community here in Boston, it ultimately allowed women and Planned Parenthood patients, including those who attended the event but most importantly those who didn’t and instead happened upon it, to see that there are others willing to push back against the monopoly on space that has long been held by the anti-abortionists. Two of those involved in planning the action argued for it here.  They are members of Boston Feminists for Liberation, the independent feminist organization that organized the event.

The action went as I imagined it would: it was low-key, with twenty-five or so (mostly) women holding signs and speaking out on the edge of the sidewalk nearest the street.  Dozens of the neighborhood’s residents joined in on the action upon seeing it, and we succeeded in causing a few of the anti-abortionists to pack up their signs and head home early. We also became the focus of their video camera, allowing a brief reprieve for Planned Parenthood’s patients, who would otherwise have been the focus of their filming.

And, as my second favorite sign, also directed at the anti-abortionists, read:

“Life begins when you stand up to right-wing fascists.”

Who can argue with that?