THE CHANGING POLITICAL ECONOMY IN THE UNITED STATES AND FLORIDA: a repost after the primary victory of Andrew Gillum

Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS)

A Presentation at Fort Lauderdale, Occupy Labor Outreach, March 15, 2014

The hatred of the poor, is it guilt gone rancid? That the rich have so much and still conspire to steal a baby's medicine, a woman's life, a man's heart and kidney. When those Congressmen talk of people who are counting their last change for gas or eggs choosing between cold and hunger they snarl. How dare we exist? (From Marge Piercy, Who has little, let them have less, Monthly Review - January 2014)

Economic Change in the United States

Fred Magdoff recently published an article in Monthly Review (January, 2014) aptly titled “The Plight of the U.S. Working Class.” In it he describes the historic process of capital accumulation of the wealth produced by workers. He points out that since the industrial revolution numerous ways have been developed to expropriate more and more of the value of what workers’ produce. These methods included cutting wages, increasing hours of work, paying workers just enough to have energy to return to the workplace to produce more, speed-up on the line, and using technology to get more labor out of fewer and fewer workers. Over time exploitation has included the use of police power to crush demands from workers for increased public services, including education, health care, housing, and transportation, that would “cost” the wealthy taxes, and the right to form trade unions. During the worst of times workers’ ability to resist increased exploitation was compounded by the existence of a desperate pool of unemployed and underemployed workers who would be forced to accept lower wages and unhealthy working conditions just to get employment. 

As this process unfolded historically rates of profit grew, capital accumulated, corporations and banks expanded, economies became more concentrated in fewer hands, and corporate/banking political influence grew. Periodically workers and their allies organized, traditional sources of division around race and gender were broken down (particularly in the 1930s), and the working class broadly defined gained some political power. For a time reforms (such as the New Deal in the 1930s and the Great Society in the 1960s) were carried out to lessen the pain and suffering of workers. As movements grew, they inspired others to make demands on the economic and political system that began to change the fabric of society. The most radicalized workers, often through socialist organizations, talked about worker controlled economic and political systems which were likely to improve the human condition for the vast majority of the population.

Magdoff argues that workers in the United States are currently under the most extreme pressure since the Great Depression. Since the imposition of the neoliberal agenda during the 1980s--deregulation, promotion of markets, cutting government programs for the many, establishing global trade agreements, and increasing financial speculation--“capital has squeezed labor ever harder.”

Magdoff presents data which describes major features of the U.S. economy:

-a decline by more than half the average rate of growth per year of GNP (from 4 percent in the 1950s and 1960s to 1.8 percent today)  

-a decline in job growth from about 2 percent per year in the 1970s and 1980s to 0.3 percent per year over the last decade   

-a dramatic increase in joblessness among those 25-54 from 5 percent in 1968 to 18 percent in 2013  

- a jobless rate for women 25-54 from 31 percent in 1990 to 27 percent in 2000 to 28 percent in 2012

-for 18-24 year olds joblessness has risen among men from 28 percent in 1990 to 44 percent in 2012 and from 38 percent to 46 percent among women

-in all worker categories there has been an increase in part-time over full-time work and growing numbers of discouraged workers who have given up looking for work   

-to reach a full-employment economy an additional 29.2 million jobs would be needed

-approximately 18.9 percent of Hispanics are unemployed and 22.4 percent of African Americans

These long-term trends are correlated with deteriorating health, stagnating wages, and rising poverty (46 million people, 15 percent of the population, lived below the poverty line in 2013)

And for the ruling class Magdoff says:

During the economic recovery from the Great Recession the top 1 percent of income earners in the United States has captured 95 percent of the total growth of income in the economy. In 2002-2012 the bottom 90 percent of the population saw their average family income (excluding capital gains) drop by 11 percent, while those in the top 0.01 percent, that is, one in every ten thousand people, enjoyed a 76 percent increase in average family income (excluding capital gains).

Today’s War on the Working Class

Robert Reich has been a visible observer of the “war on poor and working families”. Recently, he extrapolated from his new film, Inequality for All, the claim that the “war has been prosecuted across seven political fronts. 

First, politicians in both state and national governments have opposed extending unemployment benefits for those who have experienced joblessness for long periods of time. 

Second, these same politicians oppose raising the minimum wage. 

Third, in several states governors have rejected federal resources to support Medicaid expansion under the Affordable Care Act. 

Fourth, Republicans, with Democratic co-conspirators among Democrats, have passed legislation (signed by the President) to cut food stamp payments. 

Fifth, at the federal level the Congress has been unable to make decisions to invest in education and expanded job training programs.

Sixth, in addition, Congress has rejected proposals to invest in rebuilding the American infrastructure (roads, bridges, transportation facilities, and green energy manufacturing).

Finally, in Red states and Congress there has been a sustained campaign to destroy the labor movement. After a thirty year attack on unions in the private sector, Congress, Red States (and in some cities like Chicago) campaigns are underway to destroy public sector unions.

Along with fight backs against these attacks the expanding Moral Monday movement has added to the critique the attack on democracy itself; that is reducing and eliminating the rights of groups of people to vote. 

In addition, others have added to the calculus of reactionary political forces at work today a “war on women.” This war includes redefining rape; cutting access to food assistance for low income women, including pregnant women and children; cutting funds for pre-school programs such as Head Start; reducing aid for senior citizens; working to eliminate Planned Parenthood and other health centers for low income women; and finally, eliminating the right of women to control their own bodies.   

The Florida Political Economy

Historically, the Florida economy was built on land theft; the Spanish, the British, and later North American occupiers of the land of Native Peoples. Also escaped slaves traveled to Florida before the Civil War, before Florida joined the confederacy and after embraced Jim Crow segregation.

After the Civil War, the Florida economy was stimulated by growing citrus, cattle raising, transportation, and early tourism. Over the 150 years since the Civil War, through cycles of growth and decay the Florida economy and population has expanded. Tourism, real estate, finance, and agriculture have become the mainstays of the economy. Governor Scott now tauts the fact that 94 million tourists visited Florida in 2013.

Florida is a right-to-work state. Data shows that right-to work states have less union density and consequently lower wages, less benefits, worse working conditions and lower wage levels for service workers, and lower wages for women, Latinos, and African Americans. As Bruce Nissen wrote in 2009 (“Benefits of Unionization in Florida: Facts and Figures,” Research Institute for Social and Economic Policy):

Even though unions are commonly associated with manufacturing, with the decline of that industry and the rise of service sector work unions have become an important way for service sector workers to maintain a standard level of wages and benefits. Unlike many manufacturing jobs, service jobs are harder to offshore and so will continue to be an important source of employment in places like Florida which depends on low-wage service jobs for a significant portion of its economy. 

The Research Institute on Social and Economic Policy at Florida International University (FIU) recently published an updated report “State of Working Florida, 2013. The report compiles a broad array of data examining changes in the economic circumstances of Floridians since the dawn of the new century as to employment, income, and inequality, living costs, and poverty. In total, the authors indicate that the living standards of most Floridians have declined over the last twelve years. They report declines in employment rates (4.99 percent), median hourly wages (4.34 percent), and hours worked (3.11 percent). They point out that over this period of time poverty rates, inequality, and consumer prices (including housing, food, and transportation) have increased significantly. While Medicaid and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) have increased, the decline in wages and increased living costs more than overshadow the gains in state benefits. Critically they underscore the impacts of the primacy of service sector employment (and implicitly low rates of unionization) on declining living standards for workers.

Florida’s main employers, private sector service-providing industries such as retail trade, accommodation and food services, and administrative and waste management services are contributing to the decline in the standard of living due to an overall decrease in the wages and work hours offered.

RISEP declares that this is so “despite increases in labor productivity.” They conclude that declining real wages lead to reduced consumer spending and overall declining economic growth in the state. Low wages, high un and under-employment and growing inequality all translate into economic stagnation for the many and the accumulation of enormous wealth for the few. In other words, the Florida economy needs more jobs at higher wages. This would include increased investment in “more sustainable industries like wholesale trade and health care and social assistance.” They could have added federal and state allocation of resources for a green jobs agenda and investments in rebuilding the infrastructure and threatened environment of the state. RISEP advocates in the short run a significant increase in the minimum wage (beyond Florida’s inadequate boost to 7.93 cents per hour), laws requiring coverage of workers’ sick leave, and new stringent laws to prevent wage theft.

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and the Theory of the “Deep State”

ALEC was founded in 1973 by Paul Weyrich and noted conservatives such as Senator Jesse Helms to raise money and coordinate the creation of a counter-revolution in the American political system. Its vision was one of deregulation, privatization, weakening workers rights, and the facilitation of the unbridled accumulation of private wealth. The  achievement of these goals required the abolition of public commitment to positive government; the idea that for societies to function public energies, resources, and commitments are needed to create and maintain  institutions to serve the people. This is so whether the topic of concern is national security, public safety, education and infrastructure, and/or providing for the needy.

ALEC established a network of prominent politicians at the national and state levels, created well-funded lobby groups,  funded “research” to justify reactionary public policies, supported conservative political candidates running for office virtually everywhere and at all levels of government. ALEC creates “model” legislation that is introduced in legislative bodies everywhere on subjects like right-to-work, charter schools, and privatization of pensions. While politicians pay dues to join ALEC, over 98 percent of ALEC’s bloated budget comes from corporation contributions from such economic and political influential as Exxon/Mobil, the Koch brothers, the Coors family, and the Scaife family. ALEC claims to have 2,000 legislative members and over 300 corporate members. Corporations who have benefited legislatively from their affiliations with ALEC include but are not limited to Altria/Philip Morris USA, Humana, United Healthcare, Corrections Corporation of America, and Connections Academy

One of ALEC’s prominent projects is the creation of the “State Policy Network,” a collection of think tanks in every state (funded up to $83 million) to generate research “findings” to justify the rightwing model legislation generated by ALEC. SPN studies have been disseminated on education healthcare, worker’s rights, energy and the environment, taxes, government spending, and wages and income equality (Center For Media and Democracy, “Exposed: The State Policy Network,” November, 2013, p.6)

Of particular concern to workers are the ALEC model bills that have been introduced in states attacking workers. These include:

-right-to-work legislation

-rules increasing the right for governments to hire non-union contractors

-changing pension rights for government employees

-repealing minimum wage laws

-eliminating prevailing wage laws for construction workers

-encouraging so-called “free trade” to outsource work

-privatizing public services

-gutting worker’s compensation

The role of ALEC, the Koch Brothers, and the largest multinational corporations and banks in America suggest that politics increasingly occurs at two levels. First, at the level of transparency, we observe politics as “games,” largely about electoral contests, gossip and frivolous rhetoric. News junkies like myself avidly consume this first level, glued to the television screen or the social network.

However, Mike Lofgren, a former Republican Congressional aid has introduced the idea of another level of politics, what he calls the “deep state.” Lofgren defines the “deep state” as  “… a hybrid association of elements of government and parts of top-level finance and industry that is effectively able to govern in the United States without reference to the consent of the governed as expressed through the formal political process.”  (Mike Lofgren, “Anatomy of the ‘Deep State’: Hiding in Plain Sight,” Online University of the Left, February 23, 2014).   Others have examined invisible power structures that rule America (from C. W. Mills’ classic The Power Elite, Oxford University Press, 2000 to Robert Perrucci, Earl Wysong, and David Wright, The New Class Society: Goodbye American Dream? Rowman and Littlefield, 2013).  

The distinction between politics as games vs. the deep state suggest that the power to make critical decisions reside not in the superstructure of the political process; the place were competitive games are played for all to see, but in powerful institutions embedded in society that can make decisions without requiring popular approval. In domestic politics, the “deep state” apparatus such as ALEC and its network of organizational ties has initiated a resource-rich campaign--from the school board and city council to the state and nation--to destroy the links between government and the people. Recall Marge Piercy’s reference to “war on the poor.” And the public face of the deep state include the selective and manipulative character of experts, pundits, and major sources of news in the media. This includes what news consumers are told and what they are not told.

A report from Progress Florida and the Center for Media and Democracy, November 13, 2013, identified two “front’ groups who have advocated ALEC policies, the James Madison Institute (JMI) and the Foundation for Government Accountability ((FGA). Mark Ferrulo, Progress Florida executive director, said that “…ALEC relies on conservative ‘think tanks’ like JMI and FGA to insulate themselves against increased public scrutiny and widespread exposure of the controversial corporate-driven policies they promote…Be it the economy, environment, education, workers’ rights or access to health care, State Policy Network member groups promote policies that are not only designed to fatten the bottom line of their corporate funders, but are consistently harmful to Florida.” 

Florida Politics Today

Florida politics is a lot more complicated than my home state of Indiana. Emigres from the North and diverse populations of the Southeastern part of the state and urban pockets such as in Tampa and Orlando provide a base for Democratic Party and sometimes liberal politics. Rural areas, the Florida panhandle up north are more conservative. One source referred to a slogan about Florida politics: “If you want to go South go North and if you want to go North go South.” While registered voters by a small margin identify as Democrats (40 to 35 percent with 25 percent as other), 60 percent of the state legislature is Republican and the Governor, Rick Scott, is one of the Tea Party favorites. (Sixty of 160 state legislators are members of ALEC). 

For outsiders Florida is famous for stealing the 2000 election for George Bush, “stand your ground legislation,” and the targeting of young African American men for assassination. However, outsiders also are familiar with Democratic Party spokesperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, and more significantly progressive Congressman Alan Grayson. Looking to the future one progressive website indicated that “the state’s demographics are swinging to a more progressive future. Minority populations are growing, and more young people are choosing to stay and raise their families in Florida.”

One website called “Irregular States” listed some 20 progressive groups around the state engaged in campaigns about peace and justice, the environment, government accountability, transportation, abolition of the death penalty and civil liberties. Over the last two years mass Occupy mobilizations have occurred in various cities and some still survive. In addition outraged Floridians, particularly young activists, the Dream Defenders, have protested the so-called Stand Your Ground legislation and the killings of young Black men such as Trayvon Martin. In Southern Florida today are small but active political organizations and union locals concentrating on peace and justice issues, homelessness, the prison-industrial complex, and improving wages and working conditions. However, as in most states there does not exist a sizeable “left” to challenge reactionary forces in the electoral arena and/or in the streets.

The most exciting social movement development occurring over the last two years is here in the South. In North Carolina the determined, passionate, and constant protest against a reactionary Koch Brothers-like legislative agenda has brought thousands of activists to the state capital in Raleigh for almost a year. Throughout the spring legislative session activists have engaged in civil disobedience, leading by last June to over 1,000 arrests. 

The leadership of Moral Mondays includes Rev. William Barber who has argued that we are in the midst of the “third reconstruction.” The first reconstruction, after the Civil War consisted of Black and white workers who struggled to create a democratic South (which would have impacted on the North as well). It was crushed by white racism and the establishment of Jim Crow segregation. The second reconstruction occurred between Brown vs. Board of Education and candidate Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” During this period segregation was overturned, Medicare and Medicaid was established, and Social Security was expanded. Blacks and whites benefited. 

Now we are in the midst of a third reconstruction. Twenty-first century struggles are based on “fusion” politics; that is bringing all activists—Black, Brown, white, gay/straight, environmentalists—together. Fusion politics assumes that only a mass movement built on everyone’s issues can challenge the Koch brothers numerically. Also, each issue is interconnected causally with every other issue.

Moral Mondays has been gaining more and more visibility; from North Carolina to South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, soon Arizona, and up to the Midwest. The movement is based on organizational pragmatism and leadership, a multi-dimensional fight back strategy, and fusion of class, race, and gender.   

Building a Better Political Future: Fight Backs, Fusion Politics, Intersectionality, and Moving Beyond  Finance Capitalism

The growing economic devastation and political marginalization of the working class broadly defined is the centerpiece of the crisis of our age. Magdoff is correctly suggesting that the profit system, competition and capital accumulation, the appropriation of the value of all goods and services by corporations and banks, political systems that inevitably reflect the needs and interests of the economically powerful, dramatically constrict the capacity to create a humane society, one where the maximization of human possibility is achieved. The analyses of the U.S. economy and polity and the particular case of Florida raise fundamental questions of how to resist, fightback, and create the possibility of better world.

Of course, there are no simple roadmaps. Transformation from the grim realities of today to a more desired future cannot occur over night. AND tentative answers to the fundamental question of how to achieve significant social change requires a sober assessment of where we are today. What are the basic parameters of economic life in the nation and the community? Who governs our political institutions? What are the realistic forces of resistance? What are the relative merits--given power, skill, numbers of people, levels of organization and traditional values—of electoral work, mass mobilizations, and constructing alternative institutions in the intersections of existing society.

Six general points can be raised now:

First, given the varied attacks, as articulated by Robert Reich, on wages and income, on jobs, on healthcare, on education, on transportation, reproductive rights, and basic environmental survivability, fightback movements are justified on all fronts. The assault on the vast majority of humankind occurs in multiple areas, in multiple ways, and across policy areas.

Second, as opposed to the capacity to mobilize masses of people around single issues-the right to form unions, anti-racism, peace—in the twentieth century, twenty-first century movements require what Reverend William Barber calls “fusion” politics. Grassroots and national campaigns around single issues need to be cognizant of and connect with the multiplicity of issues that shape human concern. Dr. King engendered enormous criticism when he connected the struggles for civil rights with the efforts to abolish poverty and end war. Twenty first century movements should be built on the proposition that these struggles are inextricably connected.

Third, it has become clear today that what the great progressive movements of the past knew intuitively but not theoretically is that the intersection of class, race, gender, and environmental consciousness constructs our problems and how we are going to resolve them. Workers, people of color, and women, with different gender preferences and concerns about the physical survival of the planet are all in the same fight and must recognize it.

Fourth, in countries that have long traditions and institutions that regularize political competition, particularly elections, it is necessary to recognize that for lots of people those institutions matter. In the United States when most people talk about “politics” they are talking about elections. And as we see in critical moments in our history, elections matter. But, at the same time, the electoral arena is very much affected by unconventional politics: mass mobilizations, protest rallies, civil disobedience, shop floor and beer hall conversations. The history of social change in America confirms that these kinds of politics matter and matter profoundly. These assumptions lead to the proposition that the politics of reform and revolution require “inside” and “outside” strategies, often at the same time. And recent history suggests that the power of money which increasingly has shaped inside strategy usually can only be challenged by the mobilization of people, the outside strategy.

Fifth, while social movements have always been international, given twenty-first century technology they are increasingly so. Paul Robeson, W. E. B. Dubois, George Padmore informed worldwide audiences about the great movements to destroy the colonial systems in Africa and Asia. These struggles also informed and inspired struggles for liberation in the United States as well. In our own day, Arab Spring, mobilizations of workers in the Heartland of the United States, occupy movements, student protests in Quebec and Santiago, and open rebellion in Greece and Spain were increasingly seen as part of the same struggle for human liberation. Now, a modest protest in one geographic space somewhere in the world becomes a global event within a matter of hours. And the concerns are often the same even if the historical contexts vary. The old IWW adage, “an injury to one is an injury to all,” for reasons of the new technology, has been transformed from a slogan to a reality.

Finally, often what animates a movement is the embrace of an issue: access to healthcare, raising the minimum wage, ending fracking, eliminating racist laws. And, as we return to our own communities, we see that what gets people motivated to act is often that single issue that most immediately affects them. From there, the job of progressives is to promote fusion politics; highlight its relevance to class, race, and gender; develop inside/outside strategies to fight back; and to connect grassroots struggles to national and international struggles.

The specifics of this are terribly difficult but the basic outlines are clear. Now we need to act.

(And elections in 2018 in Florida and elsewhere afford progressives an opportunity to reverse the recent reactionary turn in America politics and society.) 

by Harry Targ