By Dermot Smyth
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The Age of Inequality: Corporate America’s War on Working People

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Issue 426

This digest of 114 articles by 67 contributors from the US magazine In These Times (ITT) covers the years since its inception in 1976. David Graeber describes the massive increase in fortified borders that result when so-called free trade agreements simultaneously destroy traditional jobs in the global south and outsourced jobs in the north. Arundhati Roy’s opening paragraphs dismember the brutalities of neoliberalism with razor-sharp precision. In “Failed Prophet” (2009) Bernie Sanders rails against Chicago University’s neoliberal Milton Friedman Institute.

The section “Busted: The Decline of the Unions” makes painful reading. It chronicles the fall in union density in the US from 24 percent to 11 percent. This exhibits the same themes as in the UK, but differs in form: the smashing of PATCO (air traffic controllers) by President Reagan in 1981, the split in AFL-CIO (the US’s TUC equivalent) in 2005 and legal restrictions on public sector unions in Wisconsin and other states in 2011. One national difference is the $100 million union-busting sector that operates openly in the US. Anti-union Walmart uses blatant surveillance and sacking to suppress the very word “union” among its employees.

But all is not gloom. Many US unions have moved to the left in recent years and the Fight for $15 is having some success in low-paid, fast-food outlets.

Several articles describe in detail the Savings and Loans collapse of the 1980s. Of the 1,000 bankruptcies, 70 percent involved illegality. The $100 billion government bailout was a rehearsal for the much larger subprime mortgage crisis 20 years later. The section “Blowing Bubbles: The Rise of Finance” nails the lie that no one saw the crisis coming. Ralph Nader in 1996: “The failure of even one large bank could never be handled by the current level of insurance reserves.”

Over the period covered global inequality has morphed from unacceptable to obscene. But inequality is not a side effect and not caused by individual greed. It is fundamental to a system that, by design, generates inequality of income, wealth, privilege and political power.

Although reflected in some articles, the class war implied by the book’s subtitle, Corporate America’s War on Working People, is fudged by many. Naomi Klein comes close: “How many times can the same story of inequality be told, the same outrage expressed, before that expression becomes a paralyzing, rather than a catalysing, force?”

Ben Ehrenreich argues the unity of economic, political and military problems. Sadly, it was rejection of this unity by the World Social Forum movement leadership that contributed greatly to its failure to deliver on early promise at the beginning of this century.

“After the Crash: Searching for Alternatives” contains some useful contributions. Frances Fox Piven’s introduction (2017): “Most of the time most people conform to the rules that govern social life…because that is the condition for enjoying the routines of daily life… When [they] shrink or disappear…people are likely to rise up.”

Bhaskar Sunkara, founder of Jacobin magazine, asks (with Micah Uetricht), “Can Socialists Win Elections in the US?” (2013) and presents the argument for a party to the left of the Democrats. Martha Biondi (“The Radicalism of Black Lives Matter”, 2016) ends the book on a high note with a perspective on the Black Lives Matter movement that emphasises its united front elements, as opposed to either black separatism or the debate-stifling popular frontism.

Slavoj Žižek quotes G K Chesterton: “Merely having an open mind is nothing; the object of opening the mind, as of opening the mouth, is to shut it again on something solid.” Perhaps something to ponder for the pluralist, horizontalist leaders of many autonomist movements.

The emergence of a more focused, socialist tendency from within the broad left readership of ITT is entirely possible. Joseph M Schwartz of the Democratic Socialists of America, which has its roots in the 1960s new left, argues for “Bringing Socialism Back” (2015).

The left is certainly on the move in the US. In June Bernie Sanders supporters succeeded in getting a “Corbynite” platform adopted by the Massachusetts Democratic convention. Overall, this book is essential reading for any pessimists who reject any possibility of a rebirth of the radicalism of 1910s and 1930s America.

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