United States: Low-paid workers rebel /FRFI! 239 Jun/Jul 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 239 June/July 2014

According to official census statistics, in 2012, the official US poverty rate was 15 per cent, with some 46.5 million people living in poverty. Most of the adults counted in these figures are ‘working poor’ – employed, but paid a very low wage. Official inflation figures do not represent real changes in the cost of living, and the cost of living index has been manipulated for political reasons. Independent statisticians calculate that the real inflation rate is about three percentage points higher than the official rate. It is therefore no surprise that low-paid workers are fighting back. Our US correspondent STEVE PALMER reports.

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Review: Shackled and Chained – Mass Incarceration in Capitalist America

Eugene Puryear, PSL Publications, 2013

A great deal has been written in recent years about the US prison and criminal justice system. Much simply graphically describes the absolute horror of torture and death which exists at the heart of the world’s largest ‘democracy’, exposing death row, solitary confinement, mandatory minimum sentencing, juvenile detention and so on, while some commentators try to explain how US society got to the point where a staggering 7.1 million people are either in prison or being monitored by the criminal justice system (on probation, parole etc).

Eugene Puryear writes from an overt Marxist perspective and Shackled and Chained locates mass incarceration squarely in the framework of the development of US capitalism, as well as exposing the key role of ‘liberals’ and the Democratic Party in making mass imprisonment the norm in late 20th and 21st century USA. Writing in a non-academic and accessible style, the author also seeks to debunk a range of right-wing ‘theories of crime’ and critiques some popular liberal view on mass incarceration, in particular the prevalent idea of the ‘prison industrial complex’.

Mass incarceration

It is of course always worth repeating the facts about US imprisonment, as they can never fail to shock and horrify. Whether relative to the population or in absolute terms, the prison system is the largest in the world by far, and the racial make-up of those incarcerated so stark that Puryear can easily state that: ‘if we separate out US prison statistics by gender and race, there is little doubt that the Black man in America is the most hunted, persecuted and incarcerated person in the world’.

In 1960 the country’s prison and jail population was 322,945; in 1970 it was 338,029. Allowing for population growth the rate of incarceration remained stable until the mid-1980s. Between 1985 and 1995 nearly twice as many people were imprisoned as in the previous 60 years combined, and during the same period the total number of those in prison or jail, or on probation or parole rose from just under three million to just over five million (p4).

For every 100,000 Black men in the US 4,374 are behind bars, as opposed to 1,775 for Latino men and 678 for white men. The ratios are similar, although the overall figures far smaller, for women, although Puryear points out that in recent years the fastest growing section of the prison population has become white women. Presumably this relates to the impoverishment of sections of the hitherto more stable white working class as a result of the current capitalist crisis.

The prison system is massively overcrowded, food is poor, health care provision appalling, education and rehabilitation programmes virtually non-existent and torture - in the form of prolonged solitary confinement - has become the norm for dealing with political prisoners, subversives, gang members and anyone else the authorities want to suppress for any reason.

‘Currently 44 states and the Federal Bureau of Prisons use solitary confinement units, nationally holding around 25,000 prisoners in near complete isolation… California’s Pelican Bay state prison has 500 inmates who have spent more than 10 years in solitary.’ (p23)

‘Clearly this system is constructed to eliminate any bonds of trust between inmates, to isolate those who stand up for themselves and break up religious and political groups considered potentially subversive. That the Pelican Bay prisoners launched a hunger strike under these conditions, kept in complete isolation from one another is an amazing feat of heroism that would have been on the front page of every US newspaper had it taken place in another country.’ (p24)

Slavery and imprisonment

Puryear takes the reader through a brief history of how the current prison system came into being, beginning with the periods of slavery and post-slavery:

‘Since the early United States emerged with two distinct but interlinked social systems, capitalism in the North and chattel slavery in the South, it should come as no surprise that the early development of incarceration came with sharp regional distinctions. The most common image that comes to mind of prisons – of specially guarded facilities and prisoners confined to individual cells – originated primarily in the capitalist North. The closer the South moved towards a “free” labour market after the abolition of slavery, the more the form of Southern prisons conformed to what was common in the North.’ (p35)

The abolition of slavery was gradually followed by the implementation of the ‘Jim Crow’ segregation laws and many of those who currently campaign against mass imprisonment and, in particular, against the use of cheap prison labour in the US couch their propaganda in terms of opposing either ‘prison slavery’ or ‘the new Jim Crow’ or both. These activists essentially maintain that slavery has not really been abolished but that its form has changed, with prisons having become the new plantation and factory in one. They cite the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution which outlaws slavery and ‘involuntary servitude’ except ‘as punishment for crime’. (Article 4 of the European Convention on Human Rights is worded in a similar fashion in relation to ‘forced labour’.) Puryear does not go along with this, arguing that instead of being all about the creation of one big factory or ‘prison industrial complex’, the modern prison system is instead a place to put those whose labour power is not currently needed and prisons are a dumping ground for what Marx termed ‘the reserve army of labour’:

‘As modes of social control and national oppression, slavery and Jim Crow were designed around Black people actually labouring. Mass incarceration, by contrast, is a political and state response to the masses of people being thrown out of the productive process altogether. (p46)

Revolution in the air

The second historical period which Shackled and Chains deals with in depth is that beginning in the late 1960s.Puryear describes how:

‘Today the mainstream media portrays the late 1960s and early 1970s through stereotypical cultural and generational clashes, but in reality it was a period of enormous social turmoil that raised the idea of revolution – both for those who hoped for it, and those who feared it.’ (p49)

The ruling class responded to social upheaval with ‘law and order’ politics, conflating protest movements and criminality to create a perception of looming anarchy which threatened every part of the system: ‘the government, the “free” market, the military, the police, the family and many others, including white supremacy’. So great and real was this fear of impending revolt, that the reaction that the state must clamp down urgently was not simply the preserve of the traditional right but was readily taken up by Democrats and liberals.

As has also been set out in greater detail by other writers, such as Christian Parenti in Lockdown America*, this counter-offensive began under the government of Republican Richard Nixon with the rapid expansion and militarisation of the criminal justice apparatus and the vicious COINTELPRO political onslaught on the Black Panther Party and other sections of the revolutionary and protest movement. Despite the ferocity of this crackdown, Nixon’s government remained essentially Keynsian and simultaneously presided over the expansion of Medicare and Social Security and the introduction of a wide range of social programmes, including drug treatment and affirmative action to promote the upward mobility of Black Americans. Following the economic crisis of the 1970s, in which ‘the pool of unemployed workers continued to increase, and… was disproportionately Black’, it was the subsequent governments of Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Bill Clinton that turned away from liberal economics to embrace the ultra-reactionary ideas of Milton Friedman and went on to implement measures which led to the mass incarceration regime which exists today.

Republicans and Democrats both ‘tough on crime’

Throughout the book, Puryear reviews and rejects a number of criminological theories, arguing that the more easily refutable, overtly racist ideology, which claims poverty and crime result from a genetic or cultural predisposition or deficiency, is not very far removed from more liberal constructs in which sociologists and criminologists describe a predominantly Black underclass which remains poor due, not to a lack of economic equality of opportunity but because it has – whether through its own fault or not - developed a ‘culture of poverty’:

‘For conservatives, bad culture created poverty; for liberals, poverty created bad culture, which then became a self-perpetuating element perpetuating poverty. These two trends offered different policy prescriptions to address the “underclass” but both conceptions focused on the behaviour of the poor.’ (p86)

‘Poverty and inequality are obscured as political issues, moreover, because the educational system, the media and politicians promote the idea that the capitalist economy fundamentally “works”. By denying the systemic imperative of capitalism to sharpen inequality and maintain a “ reserve army of unemployed”, even liberals suggest that the government must only help the “less fortunate” get an “equal opportunity” to succeed. With this pro-capitalist assumption as a starting point, the failure to emerge from poverty and deprivation is explained as a problem of the individual.’ (p87)

As neo-liberal economics, the culture of individualism and ‘law and order’ crime rhetoric took a firm hold on US politics, the Reagan government began introducing and encouraging the use of increasingly long prison sentences, many with mandatory minimums or ‘three-strikes’ provisions, resulting in life imprisonment for relatively minor crimes, as well as criminalising drug users, restricting access to bail and building new prisons. Much of this was done under the guise of the ‘war on drugs’, embraced by both Republicans and Democrats, with minor variations as to how much money they wanted directed towards community initiatives and treatment programmes, but complete consensus on the drive to increase imprisonment. Between 1980 and 1990 the proportion of drug offenders in federal prisons rose from 23% to 54%. The ‘war on drugs’ specifically targeted Black people, despite all evidence pointing to a fairly equal pattern of drug use across all ethnicities.

The first mandatory minimum sentencing bill was introduced to Congress, not by a hard-nosed, openly racist Republican senator, but by the ‘archetypal liberal’ Edward Kennedy. By the time Bill Clinton was elected to the presidency in 1993, the ‘New Democrats’ had ditched any progressive parts of the Democrat agenda which the party had earlier adopted in response to the civil rights movement of the 1960s:

‘This convergence within ruling-class politics led to the massage of major crime legislation in the 1980s and 1990s, which resulted in skyrocketing imprisonment among Black working-class communities. “Centrist” Democrats, seeking the power and resources of Sunbelt capitalists, appealed to middle-class sectors that both feared and scapegoated “the ghetto” as the cause of the country’s economic and racial problems. Taking the Black vote for granted…top Democratic figures went to great lengths to show they could be just as tough on crime as Republicans. A moderate, and sometimes conservative, trend among the Black political establishment made it possible for the Clinton administration to carry out this racist program with a non-racist face.’ (p102-3)

Clinton, who these days is repeatedly congratulated for balancing the US books, introduced the largest crime bill in US history. The resulting Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 contained multiple punitive measures, together with funding for 100,000 more police officers, $9.7bn for prison construction and development.

The only answer is socialism

Puryear concludes that mass incarceration in the US is simultaneously a way of warehousing the unemployed ‘reserve army of labour’ and of neutralising resistance and protest. As the majority of both the unemployed and of those who have led serious resistance are Black, this cannot fail to be intrinsically racist.

Confronting this reality involves building: ‘a movement against mass incarceration [which] must not only expose the racism, inhumanity and devastating consequences of such policies. It must also tear down the ruling class theories that justify mass incarceration.’ (p107)

‘The problem is not just that the government spends too much money on prisons or puts too many people in jail. It is that the current system thrives on poverty, unemployment, national oppression, racism, militarism and stark inequality – crimes in and of themselves - while imprisoning the victims of these phenomena… We cannot “solve’ crime without solving the social question. That is the position of revolutionaries, such as the workers and activists who are members of the Party for Socialism and Liberation – join us!’ (p129)

And, of course, as Eugene Puryear encourages everyone keen to build a movement against mass incarceration in the US to join the PSL, we too would say that in order to support the prison struggle in the US and Britain, the best way is to get involved with a revolutionary organisation, which supports prisoners and campaigns for a socialist society which will end the capitalist system that runs the punishment machine. Shackled and Chained ends with an appendix entitled ‘Free all political prisoners’. Among these are Mumia Abu Jamal and the Cuban Five, just some of those behind bars who both our organisations continue to campaign for. For Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! we also say ‘join us’ to build a movement against mass incarceration in the US, Britain and across the capitalist world.

Nicki Jameson

* Locked up in the land of the free


Obama’s immigration dragnet/ FRFI 238 Apr/May 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 238 April/May 2014

Family members of those detained inside the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Wash., rallied outside the facility on Monday in solidarity with detainees on hunger strike.

On 7 March, 1,200 immigration detainees at the North West Detention Centre in Tacoma, Washington State, began a hunger strike, demanding an end to deportations and the separation of families, better food, medical care and wages for work inside the prison, where they currently receive just $1 a day for their labour. STEVE PALMER reports from the US on the struggle against Obama’s repressive immigration policies.

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The phoney US recovery

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 237 February/March 2014

According to the people who decide these things, the US economy has been recovering since June 2009. At first glance the economy does seem to be improving. Unemployment is down from 10% in October 2009 to 6.7% in December 2013. GDP rose at a 4.1% annual rate during the third quarter of last year. Housing starts in 2013 were some 18.3% up on 2012 and house prices increased by over 7%. The S&P 500 stock index closed the year at its highest ever level of 1846.87, up 31.8% over the year. Yet something is not quite right with this rosy picture. STEVE PALMER reports.

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Obamacare debacle / FRFI 236 Dec 2013/Jan 2014

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 236 December 2013/January 2014

‘Capitalist apologists are always trumpeting the supposed efficiencies of “competitive capitalism” compared to the supposedly “inefficient”, “bureaucratic” practices of socialism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of $2.5 trillion of US health spending in 2009, a staggering 31% ($765bn) was wasted.’

In mid-October, following a bitter battle over fiscal issues and a Republican-led government shutdown, polls showed that 50% of registered voters would vote Democrat, and 42% Republican. Democrats were smugly discussing taking back the House of Representatives in next year’s elections. Now, a month later, polls show 47% voting for Democrats and 49% for Republicans – a huge 10% swing. What happened? Steve Palmer reports from the United States.

What happened was that healthcare.gov, the internet portal for the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act – also known as ‘Obamacare’ – went live, or at least attempted to, on 1 October. In the first four days, 8.1 million Americans visited the site to obtain information about health insurance or to sign up. The administration had expected 50,000-60,000; testing the day before the launch showed that the site would grind to a halt with just 1,100 users. Users had great difficulty simply registering, and even more when they attempted to sign up for an insurance option.

It eventually emerged that just 26,794 had enrolled for insurance in the first month of operation. The total number expected to enrol by the original deadline of 15 February 2014 – 12 million people – would, at this rate, be able to complete enrolment by March 2050. The administration is putting on a brave face and attempting to present the website problems as just a temporary technical glitch, which will soon be solved.

In fact the problems with the website are just one part of the problems which Obamacare is creating. These problems go much deeper, to the very impossibility of ever being able to create a capitalist healthcare system which provides decent care to the entire population throughout their whole life. None of the national health systems which operate in the other imperialist countries are fully privatised. They were established in the years immediately following the Second World War, when the Soviet Union, which had universal healthcare, enjoyed enormous popular prestige; when the working class movement was immeasurably stronger than it is today, and capitalism was still recovering from the devastation of war. Just as the achievement of the 10-hour day in the 19th century was a progressive reform, so with the establishment of the national health systems, as Marx put it, ‘the political economy of the middle class succumbed to the political economy of the working class’.

To a limited extent, capitalists do have an interest in the welfare of their workers: they want them to be fit enough to do the work required. However, capital has no interest in the welfare of the unemployed, the disabled or those who are retired. It is the provision of universal healthcare, even in its distorted capitalist form, that represented this victory of the ‘political economy of the working class’. Since this expenditure is unproductive, financed out of capitalist profits, the capitalist state organises the system in a way that minimises costs and strives to reduce the scope of services. The service is financed by a combination of social insurance, taxation and fees. Social insurance originated in the late-19th and early 20th centuries, but was only fully universal after the Second World War. The existence of such large-scale financing enables the state to control costs as a result of its market power, reducing the cost of drugs and equipment.

The history and situation of the United States is radically different. The system of insurance that grew up was employer-based, essentially a risk-based insurance scheme to minimise absence from work for medical reasons. During the Second World War, there was a huge shortage of labour and, while wages were strictly controlled, employers competed for workers by the provision of benefits. The post-war anti-communist hysteria, prevented any possibility of true social insurance. As a consequence, there was an established system of private health insurance. In addition, the physicians, organized in the American Medical Association, fought hard to prevent any ‘government interference’ in healthcare, and capitalism was given free rein.

A completely capitalist healthcare system is inevitably more expensive – profits have to be made; huge amounts have to be spent on sales, marketing and accounting that are unnecessary in a socialist system; medically unnecessary treatments are carried out because they make money. Overall, it is highly inefficient: primary and preventive care is much less profitable than other activities, but the absence of such care increases the demand for more expensive treatments later to ameliorate the consequences. Finance capital gets its cut through issuing insurance policies. The priority is selling a commodity, healthcare, at a profit – not on keeping everyone healthy. Like any other commodity, if you can’t afford it, you go without: 48 million people in the US, some 15.4% of the population, are uninsured; it is estimated that this results in 45,000-48,000 unnecessary deaths each year.

Spending on US healthcare in 2011 was 17.7% of GDP, compared to an average of 9.3% in OECD countries – almost double. Yet the US is not getting twice the results: the number of doctors per 1,000 people was 2.5 compared to an OECD average of 3.2. Basic health indicators for the richest country in the world show below average results. The average infant mortality rate was 4.1, while for the US it was 6.1 per 1,000 live births. Life expectancy at birth was 78.7 years in the US compared to an average of 80.1 years. In addition, the United States has the highest or near-highest prevalence amongst the 17 richest countries of heart and lung disease, obesity and diabetes, sexually transmitted infections, adolescent pregnancies, injuries, homicides, and disability.

Capitalist apologists are always trumpeting the supposed ‘efficiencies’ of ‘competitive capitalism’ compared to the supposedly ‘inefficient’, ‘bureaucratic’ practices of socialism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Of $2.5 trillion of US health spending in 2009, a staggering 31% ($765bn) was wasted. This waste was attributable to unnecessary services ($210bn), excess administrative costs ($190bn), inefficiently delivered care ($130bn), excessively high prices ($105bn), fraud ($75bn) and missed prevention opportunities ($55bn). Productivity in US healthcare has steadily declined at a rate of about 0.6% per year. For every doctor there are six clinical workers (nurses, physiotherapists etc) and ten administrative workers. Private insurance creates unnecessary waste. There are about 50 significant different private insurers, each of which negotiates different plans with various employers and providers, each of which have different billing requirements, clinical care guidelines and covered benefits. These contracts are renegotiated annually, further complicating administration.

The alternative to private insurance to fund healthcare is what in the US

is called the ‘single-payer system’. Whether health services are provided privately (like Canada) or through the state (Britain), the government pays for, and hence negotiates, all healthcare costs. This allows it to negotiate lower rates with suppliers (such as drugs from pharmaceutical companies), standardize procedures and have uniform rules, cutting costs dramatically. It might be expected that US corporations would welcome this sort of cutting of their overhead costs, but corporate support for single-payer is lukewarm amongst capitalists. There are two main reasons: finance capital, which operates private insurance, is deeply intertwined with other industries; and US corporations want the entire funding of workers’ healthcare to be borne by the workers themselves, through a voucher scheme.

This is where Obamacare comes in: far from being the radical surgery needed to reform the bloated, sclerotic healthcare system, it is a grab bag of sticking plasters and bandages to patch over all the major problems. It not only leaves private insurance intact, it actually helps broaden the market by providing subsidies to those who would not otherwise be able to afford insurance. Extraordinarily, the Act requires everyone to purchase private insurance: failure to do so will result in a fine! Insurance is to be purchased through a ‘health insurance marketplace’, which dovetails with employers’ plans to move to a voucher scheme. These insurance exchanges offer a range of plans – Bronze, Silver, Gold, Platinum, and Catastrophic – those with lower premiums have much higher excess rates (called the ‘deductible’ in the US). Corporations are dropping their insurance plans and giving workers a stipend, enough to purchase the cheapest plans. The excesses in these plans are massive, perhaps $5,000, which workers must pay from their own pockets before insurance coverage begins. Charges for visits to the doctor, for prescriptions and hospitalisation have all been increased.

This is hardly surprising. The original Bill which emerged from Senator Max Baucus’s office was designed by his senior aide, Liz Fowler. Fowler was formerly Vice President for Public Policy and External Affairs at Wellpoint, the largest health insurer in the US. She helped ensure that the so-called ‘public option’, a government-run insurance option, was dropped from the Bill. In July of 2010 the administration hired her to work in the Department of Health and Human Services to oversee the implementation of the Act. In November 2012 she then left to become Vice President of Global Health Policy at Johnson & Johnson, a $67.2bn health product conglomerate.

The final Act is huge – more than 900 pages long – and impossible to describe here in any but the broadest outlines. The Act became law in March 2010, and different parts of the law have been rolled out ever since. However, only now have we come to the real core of the Act: attempting to ‘fix’ the inevitable deficiencies of private insurance. While the failure of the website was not inevitable, it was predictable. Software development is still done using craft, artisanal techniques which cannot be managed using the ‘despotic’ (Marx) methods of capitalist control. Combined with the enormous complexity of the system and the continually shifting requirements, it became impossible to deliver the anticipated result. The ‘fix’ was then rashly promised by 30 November. This is highly unlikely to work correctly, and already the part of the system which enables small business to sign up is being postponed for a year.

Obama said that those already enrolled in individual, non-employer plans would not have to change them. However many of these did not meet requirements imposed by the Act and millions have had their plans cancelled, and been offered much more expensive replacements. The administration has scrambled to try and patch this problem.

In the longer term, for the working class, Obamacare is helping implement ‘disguised austerity’ by aiding corporations such as IBM, Time Warner and Caterpillar to cut costs by dismantling the employer-based system of healthcare. It is estimated that nearly a quarter of the 170 million people enrolled in these plans will be pushed to the private exchanges within the next five years. This is going to reduce the range of services and quality of care available, while drastically increasing the cost to workers.

Far from being a progressive reform bringing universal healthcare, Obamacare is an attack on the working class. It is racist, excluding illegal immigrants from any coverage. It is an attack on women: it won’t pay for abortion at all and there are no guarantees that contraception will be covered for all. It won’t even achieve its own explicit objective of ameliorating the burden of healthcare costs on US capitalism. The one sure winner is the insurance industry and the big conglomerate healthcare providers. Any genuinely progressive healthcare reform in the US must begin by getting rid of private insurance.


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