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Capitalism and Slavery

1 Aug

I’ve mentioned Greg Grandin’s book Empire of Necessity on this blog before. It’s basically the true story—and more!—behind Melville’s Benito Cereno, which if you haven’t read, you should read right away. And then read Greg’s book. In any event, Alex Gourevitch has a wonderful interview with Greg up today at Jacobin. It’s got all sorts of gems in it, but I thought readers here would be especially interested in this:

Scholars have long examined the ways in which slavery underwrites capitalism. I thought this story, though, allowed attention to slavery’s role in shaping not so much the social or financial dimensions of capitalism but its psychic and imaginative ones.

Capitalism is, among other things, a massive process of ego formation, the creation of modern selves, the illusion of individual autonomy, the cultivation of distinction and preference, the idea that individuals had their own moral conscience, based on individual reason and virtue. The wealth created by slavery generalized these ideals, allowing more and more people, mostly men, to imagine themselves as autonomous and integral beings, with inherent rights and self-interests not subject to the jurisdiction of others. Slavery was central to this process not just for the wealth the system created but because slaves were physical and emotional examples of what free men were not.

But there is more. That process of individuation creates a schism between inner and outer, in which self-interest, self-cultivation, and personal moral authority drive a wedge between seeming and being. Hence you have the emergence of metaphysicians like Melville, Emerson, and of course Marx, along with others, trying to figure out the relationship between depth and surface.

What I try to do in the book is demonstrate the centrality of slavery to this process, the way “free trade in blacks” takes slavery’s foundational deception, its original deceit as captured in the con the West Africans were able to play on Amasa Delano, and acts as a force multiplier. Capitalism disperses that deception into every aspect of modern life.

There’s many ways this happens. Deceit, through contraband, is absolutely key to the expansion of slavery in South America. When historians talk about the Atlantic market revolution, they are talking about capitalism. And when they are talking about capitalism, they are talking about slavery. And when they are talking about slavery, they are talking about corruption and crime. Not in a moral sense, in that the slave system was a crime against humanity. That it was. But it was also a crime in a technical sense: probably as many enslaved Africans came into South America as contraband, to avoid taxes and other lingering restrictions, as legally.

Sometimes slaves were the contraband. At other times, they were cover for the real contraband, luxury items being smuggled in from France or Great Britain, which helped cultivate the personal taste of South America’s expanding gentry class. And since one of the things capitalism is at its essence is an ongoing process to define the arbitrary line that separates “self-interest” from “corruption,” slavery was essential in creating the normative categories associated with modern society.

The Limits of Libertarianism

12 Jul

If you ever needed a better example of Fear, American Style—or a demonstration of the limits of libertarianism—here’s an illustrative story out of Washington State. For years, activists—including, to their credit, libertarians—have been pushing for the legalization of marijuana. In 2012, Washington did it. This ensued:

The first person to legally purchase marijuana in the state of Washington was fired from his job as a security worker after he was spotted on television making the purchase.

At 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Mike Boyer was the first person in the door of the Spokane Green Leaf marijuana dispensary. He was captured on video by KXLY yelling, “Go Washington!” as he legally purchased four grams of Sour Kush.

The network then followed him home and filmed him smoking his legally purchased marijuana.

Boyer told The New York Daily News that a client of the security firm he formerly worked for saw him on the KXLY report and contacted his employer, who then asked Boyer to submit to a urinalysis test within 24 hours.

The test came back positive for THC, the mind-altering ingredient in marijuana.

“I’ve worked for them on and off for 12 years and several years ago, I signed a document that said I wouldn’t have [THC] in my system,” he said.

For years, libertarians have fought for the decriminalization of drugs in the name of freedom. Now, with pot in Washington (and Colorado), we have it. So what are libertarians going to do about this kind of firing? They need to come clean: either they really care about freedom, in which case they need to support the rights of workers in the workplace, or they should just admit that their real agenda is to strip the state of all of its functions, good or bad.

Update (1:15 pm)

Turns out, after this story was publicized and went viral, the security company that fired Boyer decided to hire him back. Said it was all a misunderstanding. Mistakes were made.

A Reader’s Guide to Hobby Lobby

30 Jun

I haven’t had time to read much beyond the basics about today’s Hobby Lobby decision, but here are a few posts I’ve written over the years that should help put the Supreme Court’s decision in theoretical and historical perspective:

1. First, a general primer on neoliberalism, which makes the point—contra many on the left and the right—that at the heart of our contemporary capitalist economy are not individualistic choosers but men and women, in semi-“private” institutions, in thrall and subjugation to their superiors. It’s the Feudalism, Stupid!

2. Second, two posts on free-market types and birth control, how even the most libertarian-ish free-wheeler seeks to control women’s bodies: Love For Sale: Birth Control from Marx to Mises and Probing Tyler Cowen: When Libertarians Get Medieval on Your Vagina.

3. Last, a post that brings it all together—the private life of power; fear, American Style; and freedom, oh freedom—in one place: Birth Control McCarthyism.

In the coming days, I hope to have something more on the decision.

When the CIO Was Young

27 Jun

Was struck, in reading this piece by David Montgomery, by just how radical the CIO was after World War II. At its annual convention, writes Montgomery, the CIO called for:

continuation of government controls over prices and the allocation of production materials, “development of atomic energy for civilian purposes under United Nations auspices,” government sponsorship of housing to offset the failures of the market to provide for workers’ urgent needs, and expansion of social security to encompass all agricultural, domestic, and maritime workers and to include health protection.

That was in 1946, more than a decade after the Wagner Act, which some people think ended the radicalism of the labor movement. 1946 was also the year that saw the largest strike wave in American history, including a general strike in Oakland.

Supreme Court rules: the government can’t search your cellphone without a warrant; the boss can.

25 Jun

Good news: The Supreme Court ruled today that the police have to have a warrant to search the cell phone of someone they arrest.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the court, said the vast amount of data contained on modern cellphones must be protected from routine inspection.

The old rules, Chief Justice Roberts said, cannot be applied to “modern cellphones, which are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy.”

The courts have long allowed warrantless searches in connection with arrests, saying they are justified by the need to protect police officers and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

But Chief Justice Roberts said neither justification made much sense in the context of cellphones. On the other side of the balance, he said, is the data contained on the typical cellphone. Ninety percent of Americans have them, he wrote, and they contain “a digital record of nearly every aspect of their lives — from the mundane to the intimate.”

Even the word “cellphone” is a misnomer, he said. “They could just as easily be called cameras, video players, Rolodexes, calendars, tape recorders, libraries, diaries, albums, televisions, maps or newspapers,” he wrote.

Chief Justice Roberts acknowledged that the decision would make law enforcement more difficult.

“Cellphones have become important tools in facilitating coordination and communication among members of criminal enterprises, and can provide valuable incriminating information about dangerous criminals,” he wrote. “Privacy comes at a cost.”

Bad news: The Supreme Court ruled four years ago that employers have the right to search the cell phones of their employees.

A hesitant Supreme Court waded cautiously into a question that arises daily in workplaces and offices across the country: whether employers have the right to look over the shoulders of workers who use company computers and cellphones for personal communication.

In the first ruling of its kind, the justices said they do, as long as there is a “legitimate work-related purpose” to monitor them. But the court said it would proceed cautiously in deciding how far an employer can go in searching the “electronic sphere” that has become an inescapable part of the modern workplace.

In the case at hand, the court ruled unanimously that a police chief’s search of text messages sent and received by a SWAT team officer did not violate his constitutional protection against unreasonable searches.

Even though Sgt. Jeff Quon of Ontario, Calif., had some expectation of privacy, the court said, the police department’s review — which turned up sexually explicit messages to his wife and his mistress — was justified.

But at a time when many employers warn that they can monitor workers’ use of company computers and cellphones, the court was reluctant to draw clear lines between what is private and what is not.

Quon’s case may sound familiar to many workers. Even though the department told him and his co-workers that they should not expect privacy when using their pagers, they were also told that personal use would be tolerated to a certain degree. If he exceeded the monthly allotment of texts, he was told, he would have to pay the difference.

He did go over the allowed number, but his superiors tired of collecting the fees and wondered whether the plan was too limited. The police chief ordered the records from the company that provided the texting service.

After removing the texts Quon sent when he was off-duty, his bosses found that the vast majority of his texts were personal — 400 of 456 one month. According to Kennedy’s opinion, he was “allegedly disciplined.”

Quon sued, saying the search violated the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches for him and those who texted him.

A district judge and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit agreed with him.

But the justices said Quon should not have assumed that his text messages “were in all circumstances immune from scrutiny.” Kennedy said the department’s search was reasonable and, by eliminating those messages he sent while off-duty, not intrusive.

To my knowledge, the Court has not yet ruled on cases where the communication device in question was the employee’s personal property. That said, the fact that the pager in Quon’s case belonged to the employer does not seem to have been the operative issue; more important was, given the employer’s policies, the employee’s expectation of privacy. And since many employers make it explicit that employees should have little to no expectation of privacy on their communication devices at work, I’m not sure a case in which the phone belonged to the employee would make much of a difference.

So here is how things stand: when it comes to cell phone use, you have more protection against government searches than you do against employer searches. As an employer, the police have far more freedom to search cell phones than they do as an agency of the government.

Update (10 pm)

I should have noted this earlier, but it should also be emphasized that in the second case, the employer is the government. That the Court is even as solicitous of an employee’s privacy rights in that case as it is is probably due mostly to the fact that the employer in this case is the government. If the employer were private, there would be a much lower guarantee of employee privacy.

I should also note that in the Quon case, part of the employee’s expectation of privacy had to do with the fact that the pager belonged to the police. But the Court was careful to note that it did not want to make hard and fast rules about under what circumstances an employee could have a legitimate expectation of privacy.

These Housekeepers Asked Sheryl Sandberg to Lean In with Them. What Happened Next Will Not Amaze You.

24 May

Sheryl Sandberg claims to speak for working women. Especially poorer working women, according to the spokeswoman for Sandberg’s Lean In foundation: “The principles of Lean In are just as, if not more, important to women with lower incomes.”

So now comes Sandberg’s big test: Will she stand up for, and with, the women workers at a Hilton DoubleTree hotel in Cambridge, which is on a property owned by Harvard University? The workers want to be represented by a union. The hotel is resisting them. And Harvard isn’t helping.

Sandberg is going to be at Harvard this week, delivering a Class Day speech. The female employees at the hotel have asked to meet with her.

What happened next will not amaze you.

According to the Boston Globe, Sandberg “sent word she does not have time to host a ‘Lean In circle’ with the hotel employees.”

Here’s more from the Globe:

The attempt to unionize the workers began more than a year ago, when 70 percent of the approximately 112 nonmanagerial workers at the DoubleTree — housekeepers, banquet servers, front desk agents, van drivers, and Scullers Jazz Club employees — signed a petition asking for a “fair process,” Local 26 said.

Such an agreement would allow them to discuss joining a union without retaliation from the company. When a group of workers and Harvard students tried to deliver the petition to the former general manager, he refused to accept it, according to Local 26.

DoubleTree management has held meetings with employees, both in groups and one-on-one, to discourage them from unionizing, according to Local 26. It said management retaliated against one organizing committee member by putting fliers in the cafeteria and locker room calling him a “mole” and taking away extra shifts at Scullers.

Hilton declined to respond to the allegations.

Sandberg has been criticized for creating a movement aimed at financially well-off women, but her Lean In foundation says it has partnered with several organizations that serve lower-income women, including Dress for Success, and supports Lean In circles of domestic workers in San Francisco, as well as rescued sex slaves in Miami.

As part of the hospitality workers union, DoubleTree workers would get a bump in pay, more affordable health insurance, and standardized workloads.

DoubleTree workers are not necessarily on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. Housekeeper Delmy Lemus, for instance, earns $15.82 an hour, plus tips, and has access to company-subsidized health insurance.

But Lemus, 33, said the family plan rates would consume nearly half her weekly paycheck. She decided to opt out of the benefit and enroll herself and her two daughters in MassHealth, the state insurance plan for low-income residents.

The job is physically demanding, Lemus said. When she was pregnant with her now 4-year-old daughter, Lemus began suffering sciatic nerve pain and was barely able to stand by the end of her shifts.

In her eighth month of pregnancy, she was assigned to the hotel’s laundry room. Lemus said she had to push carts loaded with linen and pull out heavy sofa beds.

“Almost every day I was crying,” the Revere resident said.

In a survey of dozens of DoubleTree workers done for Local 26 last summer, Harvard student Gabriel Bayard said every employee he interviewed complained of chronic pain, and nearly all said their workloads had increased in recent years.

More than 100 Harvard students have gotten involved in the DoubleTree campaign, including Sasanka Jinadasa, 21, president of the Radcliffe Union of Students, a feminist advocacy group. “If [Harvard] has a vested interest in the profits and the outcome of the company, it should care about what the workers want as well,” she said.

Lemus, a single mother, wants to save up enough money to send her daughters to college and eventually start her own housecleaning service. She said “leaning in” to make her voice heard, and fighting for union protections, is the beginning of that process.

“We’re just housekeepers, people without education. But we work very hard,” she said. “We have dreams. . . . We don’t want to die cleaning rooms in a hotel.”

Perhaps all the scolds who think students shouldn’t protest commencement speakers whose views they don’t like, and who think, in the face of all the evidence, that commencement speeches are an occasion of deep intellectual exchange, could now put some pressure on Sandberg to actually use her Class Day speech to say something beyond bromides and cliches. And to meet with the workers, and their student supporters, so that we can have a real exchange of ideas. Now that would be a commencement worthy of its name.

Please  support the workers’ call for Sandberg to meet with them by signing here. I know folks don’t like to sign petitions, but sometimes, particularly in situations like these, they can make a difference.

The War on Workers’ Rights

19 May

I have an oped in the New York Times on the Republican war on workers’ rights at the state level. My conclusion:

The overall thrust of this state legislation is to create workers who are docile and employers who are empowered. That may be why Republican legislators in Idaho, Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, Ohio, Minnesota, Utah and Missouri have been so eager to ease restrictions on when and how much children can work. High schoolers should learn workplace virtues, says the conservative commentator Ben Stein, like “not talking back.” Early exposure to employment will teach 12-year-olds, as the spokesman of an Idaho school district put it, that “you have to do what you’re asked, what your supervisor is telling you.”

And if workers don’t learn that lesson in junior high, recent Republican changes to state unemployment codes will ensure that they learn it as adults. In 2011, Florida stipulated that any employee fired for “deliberate violation or disregard of the reasonable standards of behavior which the employer expects” would be ineligible for unemployment benefits. Arkansas passed a similar amendment (“violation of any behavioral policies of the employer”). The following year so did South Carolina (“deliberate violations or disregard of standards of behavior which the employer has the right to expect”) and Tennessee. The upshot of these changes is that any employee breaking the rules of her employer — be they posting comments about work on Facebook, dating a co-worker or an employee from a rival firm, going to the bathroom without permission — can be fired and denied unemployment. Faced with that double penalty, any worker might think twice about crossing her boss.

What might Adam Smith, often claimed as the intellectual godfather of the American right, have said about these legislative efforts? “Whenever the legislature attempts to regulate the differences between masters and their workmen,” wrote Smith in “The Wealth of Nations,” “its counsellors are always the masters. When the regulation, therefore, is in favour of the workmen, it is always just and equitable; but it is sometimes otherwise when in favour of the masters.”

Indeed.

The oped is based on Gordon Lafer’s eye-opening report last fall for the Economic Policy Institute, “The Legislative Attack on American Wages and Labor Standards, 2011-2012,” which you should also read.

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