A piper needs paying

See updates through January 29, 2021, at end of post.


The idea of a general strike has come up before. It’s always fizzled and it’s important to be clear about why it fizzled and why it might not this time.

Once upon a time, labor had some power with which to resist capitalist predation. Labor once even had its own newspapers; these were undermined as more business-friendly publications moved to an advertising model that enabled them to lower prices for subscriptions and at the newsstand. Capitalists were obviously less interested in advertising in labor papers; these were unable to compete and a “free press” became somewhat less so for workers.[1]

When we think of a peak for the labor movement, this would probably be in the 1960s, but by the 1970s, with “stagflation”[2] and the rise of neoliberalism,[3] wages took an increasing share of blame for inflation as, through labor unions, workers insisted on higher wages to compensate for inflation, hence raising prices further in a wage-price spiral. Unemployment is a means of reducing worker leverage, hence reducing upward pressure on prices.[4]

The thing to understand about inflation is that it devalues money, which is a proxy for property. If you have a lot of money, inflation means that money is worth less and you are less rich. It also means that people who owe you money effectively owe you less—hence a relationship with interest rates.

Inflation hurts everyone: The staple goods that people need to survive also increase in price, making it harder for the poor to pay their debts to the rich, which also impacts the value of that debt, some of which must be considered as uncollectible “bad debt,” effectively worthless. But if you’re poor, as long as you’re getting by, inflation also means that you effectively owe less money to the rich because the money itself is worth less.

Hence, neoliberalism’s animosity toward labor. Neoliberals understand worker power as translating to higher wages, thus higher inflation, thus a reduction of value in the assets of the wealthy.

One of the ways that neoliberalism represses workers is through so-called “free” (always ask, for whom, to do what, to whom?) trade, which forces workers to compete internationally with other workers in other places. Thus an international “race to the bottom” in wages, working conditions, regulation, and taxes on the rich.[5] Note that there is no counterbalance here for the poor and even claims such as those by Jeffrey Sachs that “free” trade has improved living standards for the absolute poor[6] have been shown to be dubious at best.[7]

It seemed like the first thing Ronald Reagan did when he became president was to fire all the air traffic controllers who participated in a strike.[8] I believe some were later allowed to return to work, but not with that particular labor union, and only at lower wages. Since then, already weakened labor unions have been effectively gutless. Social inequality increases[9] as worker power diminishes.

Max Weber pointed out that a market system inherently privileges whomever has the greater power to say no. The wealthy can wait for a better deal. A worker needs money just to pay rent and put food on the table; s/he often can’t wait. Which means that the wealthy can extract concessions from the poor even beyond those the poor can really afford. Hence the rich get richer and the poor get poorer as benefits and handicaps accrue from each transaction.[10]

One of the problems that worker misclassification, that is, classifying workers as “independent contractors” when they should be treated as employees, exacerbates is a shifting of risk from employer to employee. Uber and Lyft drivers, for example, risk their personal automobiles in tens of thousands of miles of traffic and pay insurance premiums to try to offset that risk. Taxi drivers face a disproportionate risk from fluctuations in the supply and demand for taxis when they pay fixed lease fees (“gates”) to work scheduled shifts. These drivers are rarely, if ever, rich. They assume risks they really cannot afford from companies that are owned by the rich and are never really compensated for that risk. This is one way of at least keeping poor people poor, when not pushing them entirely into destitution.

An increase in social inequality is inherent to capitalism and can be restrained only through intervention in the market. This is anathema to capitalist libertarians, whose fantasy of the labor market is of an implausibly level playing field in which such inequities do not exist, let alone accumulate.[11] Such intervention has historically arisen through government regulation and labor unions, hence Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the 1930s, which capitalist libertarians have opposed ever since and neoliberals have opposed from the inception of neoliberalism.[12]

Neoliberalism intellectually derives from capitalist libertarianism but abandons the idea of a level playing field,[13] treating such inequality as, in fact, desirable and essential to “innovation,” as if the poor are incapable of innovation and therefore less deserving. Hence a morality play we have seen in the decades beginning with the 1970s that has further exalted the rich. Greed has again become ‘good’ as we continually mythologize about a rising tide lifting all boats and benefits trickling down from the rich to the poor.[14]

As the poor become ever more desperate, their ability to engage in collective action, a strike, for example, diminishes. The rent still needs paying.[15] Even the reality of destitution is expensive as the poor, often humiliated for the sake of humiliation, are forced to make costly choices that their better off counterparts don’t face.[16] How indeed, can people go on strike when they’re living out of cheap motel rooms or on the streets?

But now we are in a situation with the pandemic where millions of people have lost their jobs and face homelessness. Through no fault of their own, they already can’t pay the rent.[17] They already have to steal to survive.[18] They already face homelessness in, by the way, winter.[19] And they’re up against a political system that seems not merely heartless[20] but positively malicious.[21]

Desperate people do desperate things. And you really have to wonder what happens next. Whether that takes the form of a general strike or even a full-blown revolution remains to be seen.

Some things are perfectly clear: Empty apartments do not collect rent. Desperate people are more likely to steal than to buy.[22] It’s a pretty twisted morality, a pretty twisted society, that elevates the “property rights” of the rich to such heights so far above basic human need.[23] The rich can only play this game, that neoliberalism has exacerbated, so far before they get bitten by their own greed.

And if I were a politician in Washington, D.C., I’d be taking all this a whole helluva lot more seriously than the politicians who are in Washington, D.C., have been.


Update, December 20, 2020: Congressional leaders announced a new stimulus package which is supposed to help relieve economic pain from the pandemic. Stimulus checks will be for up to $600.[24] The eviction moratorium that isn’t an eviction moratorium[25] will be extended through the end of January, though Joe Biden may be able to extend it further.[26] Millions of people, who have been unemployed for months, are an average of over $5,000 behind on rent,[27] and millions have sunk into poverty.[28] So it’s hard to see what good, really, $600 will do.


Update, December 24, 2020: Political and economic elite disdain for the poor and working class appears in 1) the paucity of and long delays in economic relief packages,[29] 2) a mishandling of the economy and of the pandemic that appears more malicious than incompetent,[30] and 3) the miserable pay offered front-line workers who have too often worked without adequate protection even as retail corporate profits have soared,[31] and while millions of others face homelessness[32] and poverty[33] due to job loss. It was all entirely foreseeable, indeed foreseen, but the capitalist god indeed demands human sacrifice[34] and our elites seem determined to offer it.[35]

In the latest development, the House of Representatives failed to pass by unanimous consent[36] an increase in direct payments to $2,000 that Donald Trump, of all people, demanded,[37] from the $600 that Congress had agreed[38] after months of delay.[39] It is, at the very least, more of the same.[40]


Update, December 27, 2020: The additional unemployment benefits that boosted payments and also helped the usually unassisted self-employed that were included with an earlier COVID-19 relief bill[41] have now expired,[42] and the finger pointing has begun:

But both parties dithered for months[43] because there are exactly two real goals here:

  1. Uphold neoliberal dogma so as to protect the rich (the “donor” class).[44]
  2. Blame the other party for upholding or for allegedly but not really failing to uphold neoliberal dogma.

Meanwhile, millions face homelessness.[45] Millions have been pushed into poverty.[46]


Update #2, December 27, 2020: Donald Trump reportedly signed the COVID-19 economic relief bill[47] he had earlier criticized,[48] but not before additional unemployment benefits had lapsed.[49] Whether Trump gets the $2,000 direct payment, rather than the $600, remains to be seen.[50]


Update, December 28, 2020, revised December 29: I realized that in writing this, I neglected to cover austerity, especially as an excuse for cutting social safety net programs. This isn’t just worrying about debt that will allegedly[51] eventually need to be repaid, but a belief that increased government borrowing raises interest rates and crowds out investment by cutting into lendable funds, increases the money supply,[52] and, thus, inflation. There’s no solid explanation for why government borrowing is thus evil and not private borrowing, but neoliberals dogmatically imagine that private spending is several times more beneficial for the economy than government spending.[53]

The gripe about government spending sweeps with a broad brush. Somehow, investments in infrastructure, including roads, bridges, and airports, “crowd out” investment. Somehow, education, even at the primary and secondary levels, “crowds out” investment. Somehow, government-funded research “crowds out” investment. Further, it assumes that any money spent on the poor or unemployed is wasted, that such humans have no potential whatsoever, unless through “job training” programs that omit a broader education essential for civic participation. The very same activities, if privatized, that is, performed by private companies, somehow do not “crowd out” investment. But curiously, the brush that maligns government spending is rarely so broad as to sweep military spending or the cost of endless wars.

This is, of course, particularly relevant in whether economic relief payments for the pandemic should be $600, as originally passed, or $2,000, as Donald Trump wants.[54]


Update, December 29, 2020: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell prevented an immediate vote on a bill already passed by the House of Representatives to raise the stimulus payments to $2,000.[55]

As the legislative jockeying continued Tuesday, [Donald] Trump escalated his blistering attacks on GOP leaders for their inaction so far.

“WE NEED NEW & ENERGETIC REPUBLICAN LEADERSHIP,” he wrote.

He also said there would be consequences for his political party if they didn’t act.

“Unless Republicans have a death wish, and it is also the right thing to do, they must approve the $2000 payments ASAP,” Trump wrote. “$600 IS NOT ENOUGH! Also, get rid of Section 230 – Don’t let Big Tech steal our Country, and don’t let the Democrats steal the Presidential Election. Get tough!”[56]

Democrats object but it appears McConnell is actually trying to give Trump all of these things:

[Mitch] McConnell’s moves on Tuesday appeared to mirror demands that [Donald] Trump laid out on Sunday. In a statement released after he signed the $900 billion stimulus bill into law, he said the Senate would “start the process for a vote that increases checks to $2,000, repeals Section 230, and starts an investigation into voter fraud.” Those are the three provisions McConnell has attempted to package into one piece of legislation despite objections from Democrats.

“Section 230” is a reference to a 1996 federal law that broadly indemnifies tech platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google for the actions of their users. Trump has railed against the tech companies as they have started to crack down on his unfounded postings alleging voter fraud in the November election, as well as much more aggressive actions targeting postings made by his supporters containing threats and disinformation.[57]


Update, December 30, 2020: Mitch McConnell’s attempt to combine an increase in stimulus payments to $2,000 with a Section 230 repeal and election fraud commission has, according to Politico, “no chance of becoming law.” Some, apparently including Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, see the effort as a move to kill the increase entirely,[58] as the payment increase cannot be split off from McConnell’s bill and the House of Representatives would have to come back into session—not impossible—to approve any changes.[59]

There is still, evidently, a chance that $2,000 checks will become law. But it is also possible that neoliberals among the Democrats figured they could rely on McConnell to kill it.


Update #2, December 30, 2020: Mitch McConnell has made it clear he does not approve of the Democrats’ bill, passed by the House of Representatives, to raise the economic stimulus payout from $600 to $2,000.[60]

[Mitch] McConnell said he opposed the House-passed measure out of a belief it would greatly inflate the U.S. debt and benefit some families who are not in need of financial assistance. Some of the people who would qualify for the payments belong to households earning up to $300,000, the GOP leader contended, adding that many of them had not been disadvantaged by the pandemic.[61]

McConnell reiterated his intention to bundle it with a Section 230 repeal and the establishment of an election fraud commission. Even as the Democrats characterize these other provisions as ‘poison pills’ meant to kill the increase,[62] I continue to rather strongly suspect that this is precisely what they expected him to do, enabling them to pretend to care about people being pushed into poverty[63] and homelessness,[64] but breathing a sigh of relief as neoliberal dogma is upheld, yet again.


Update, January 29, 2021: Text previously here has been moved to a new blog post entitled, “The GameStop Squeeze.”

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