Last week, we wrote about the epidemic of neo-liberalism. This week, as major protests erupt in Canada, Mexico and Belgium, we discuss its sister, austerity. In neo-liberal economics, wealth is funneled to the top through increasing privatization of the public. This can only occur if those who are not at the top are subjected to austerity measures.
Those at the bottom are squeezed, suffer financial insecurity and the inability to meet basic needs. Rather than these realities weakening our ability to stand up, we must stand together in solidarity to take care of each other and build our power in the struggle.
Thousands are protesting austerity in Quebec. They give four reasons for austerity protests, each applies to all of us: austerity cripples public services, austerity undermines education, austerity is enforced by police violence and austerity impacts everything. Tens of thousands protested austerity in Brussels. Their two competing ideas: the government wants to reduce debt; while the people are calling for a fair tax where the wealthy pay their share
Workers’ Struggles Can Win
People know the inequality created by neo-liberalism and austerity is bad, but people do not realize how bad it is. Comedian Chris Rock has it right when he says “If poor people knew how rich rich people are, there would be riots in the streets.” Too many still believe the falsity that if you work hard you can become rich in the United States. The facts show this is false. To quote another comedian, George Carlin, “the reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it.”
But, when people mobilize they can make change and lift themselves up as a group. The fight for a living wage is one example. We were in Seattle last weekend and joined a celebration of a victory that would have been impossible just two years ago. The victory: Seattle’s Getting a Raise, thanks to the leadership of Councilmember Kshama Sawant and an independent movement that forced real change.
McDonald’s workers have been fighting for a raise for three years. McDonald’s has been steadfast in refusing. This week we saw a crack in the McDonald’s façade when the corporation announced that 90,000 of the 750,000 workers would be getting a 10% increase to $10 an hour. This raise does not include workers at McDonald’s franchises and is inadequate, obviously not a living wage. In response advocates did not spend a lot of time celebrating but instead held protests continuing their Fight for $15.
Thousands of farm workers in Mexico struck at some 230 farms, including the twelve largest that dominate production in Baja California, interrupting the picking, packing, and shipping of zucchini, tomatoes, berries and other products to stores and restaurants in the United States. The strikers, acting at the peak of the harvest, were demanding higher wages and other benefits. We should remember where our food comes from and how we need to support sources that pay a fair wage, not poverty wages, as is being called for by US farmworkers.
Poverty wages are also a reality for the professional class. In Canada, graduate students are striking and explaining to people what it is like to live below the poverty line. We’ve seen the same kinds of protests in the United States against the corporatization of education and neo-liberalism at universities.
Destruction of Education by Neo-liberalism and Debt
The profit-making from education is evident from grade schools that become corporate charter schools through universities becoming fronts for massive hedge funds. People are protesting the corporatization of education by Governor Cuomo in New York. Billionaire hedge funders have bought the New York Senate and are cutting public school budgets and then pushing corporate domination of education.
This is a global problem. Here is a mass protest against so-called “education reforms” in Italy. And, in London students at three major universities are occupying university buildings to protest neo-liberal education.
Students are revolting against college debt – debt so large it becomes a lifetime debt that cripples their ability to participate fully in the economy. One exciting revolt against debt began as a debt strike of 15 people refusing to pay back their federal student loans. The group has now grown to 100 and threatens to continue to expand. Some of the debt strikers met with the US Department of Education. They got no answers so we expect to see student debt resistance grow.
The immense student debt is coming at a time when universities are being seen as essentially fronts for massive hedge funds and real estate corporations. Schools across the country are buying up real estate and becoming major real estate developers. And universities are making more from their investments than from tuition. People are calling for free tuition since universities have other sources of income. Harvard University makes $5 billion annually from its investments and less than $200 million from tuition.
There is a growing movement to save public education and alleviate student loans. This is likely to become an issue in the 2016 presidential election putting candidates like Hillary Clinton, who is very close to Wall Street, in the difficult position of listening to the privatization demands of hedge funders or listening to the people who want to see a fully funded public education system.
The Destruction of the Environment and Climate Crisis Demands Radical Solutions
We have regularly reported on protests across the nation against fracking, pipelines, export terminals, compressor stations, tar sands, mountain top removal, off-shore oil and nuclear energy. But, if we step back from those individual protests and look at the entire energy industry there is a good argument that nationalization of energy must become a central organizing demand. Bruce Lesnick summarizes the argument for this radical transformation:
When it comes to climate change (and other struggles), there is ample evidence that we won’t be able to accomplish what is necessary under the current economic framework. But people are instinctively leery of big changes. It’s natural to wish that we could persuade the oil companies and other bad actors to reform themselves and get with the program. It would be so much easier. But the weight of reason and historical evidence shows that to be a dead end. In such a case, and in the face of the rapidity with which climate change is spinning out of control, the rational way to proceed is to get to work doing what’s necessary, however unconventional or difficult it may seem. The demands put forward by the climate change movement should reflect this.
Nationalizing the big energy companies would make all the difference to the fight to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Right from the start, it would eliminate profit from the energy calculus and remove a large pool of money that’s used to manipulate government policy. It would make it possible to embark on a plan for a sustainable energy future, which would focus on the needs of the population and the planet as a whole, rather than on the reckless aggrandizement of a few.
If we focus in on the many battles people are fighting against big energy pollution and climate injustice, it actually strengthens the argument for transformation of energy into a public utility controlled by workers and democracy. Just this week people were fighting the expansion of a compressor station in Virginia, a pipeline that runs across Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin, others across multiple New England states, Virginia, across Canada, arctic drilling by Shell Oil, fracking in violation of a democratic vote to ban fracking in Denton, TX, damage to aquifer’s from fracking in California, coal trains and oil trains, and so much more. While the movement is having victories, the reality is thousands of miles of pipelines and other carbon infrastructure are being built as profit for big energy comes before the urgent needs of the planet and local communities. Maybe it is time to link all of these issues into a call for energy transformation away from profit toward serving the public good.
Systemic Change Getting the Focus It Needs
The problems we face, while creating numerous individual battles, are all connected by a system that no longer works for the people and planet, and is designed to work for only the wealthiest people and mega transnational corporations. We need to apply our strategy of two parallel tracks of action to confront this system: stop the machine from making things worse and create the new world we want to see by developing new systems.
The critical issue of the moment that we are confronting to stop the system from getting worse is stopping fast track for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and other rigged corporate trade agreements. We are in the midst of the key moment in that political battle right now as Congress is expected to consider fast track in April and May. If we defeat fast track – and this is a winnable battle – then we will stop transnational corporations from making a devastating corporate power grab and putting in place systems that undermine sovereignty, democracy and the power of people to determine their own futures.
When we were in Seattle this week we attended a city council meeting where this important port city that relies on trade with Asia voted against fast track for the TPP. While it was amazing for a port city to vote against the TPP, it was made more amazing because the White House, US Trade Representative and big business interests did all they could to stop this resolution from passing. Even President Obama called the mayor of Seattle to try and stop it. The result: a 9-0 vote in favor of a resolution opposing fast track trade authority.
Not only is global rigged corporate trade an issue of corporate power vs. people power, it is also an example of how rigged trade connects to rigged government. It is important for people to win the campaign against fast track for rigged corporate trade, not just to stop an impending corporate global power grab but also to build the power of the people’s movement to show that people power can defeat corporate power. The next two months are critical in this campaign, please get involved by taking action here.
This week an important new project was announced to build an alternative system: the Next Systems Project. We were two of the 350 people who signed on to a letter supporting the Next Systems Project. This project is being spearheaded by the Democracy Collaborative. The purpose is to confront the issues of “the deep systemic challenges – economic, political, and social – we face as individuals, communities, and as a nation. Prominent among these: growing wealth inequality, escalating climate change, persistent racial inequities, and continued erosion of our democracy at all levels.” The goal is to put the question of our failed system on the national agenda for “ongoing national debate, dialogue, and ultimately action.”
Our individual struggles are against system-wide problems and when the people are united, we can win. Let’s keep building solidarity and unity of action so the muscle of people power grows.