Tag Archives: capitalism

Occupy Istanbul


Turkey’s Civil Revolt: Istanbul Rising

Halfway across the world, young people are rising up to tell their government that they expect it to work for them, not against them.  That’s a fundamental principle of democracy somehow embedded in the consciousness of a generation raised under the shadow of authoritarian rule but lit by the light of a million computer screens.  Educated, informed, and techno-savvy, these young Turks are possessed of Western values and American-style expectations.  Watch the video linked above and see it for yourself.  One young woman was absolutely aghast at the oppression of her government. The job of the Prime Minister, she says, his “obvious duty,” is to protect her; she grew up in a free society.  The problem is that the Turkish state defines freedom a bit differently than she does.

In the USA, the Occupy Wall Street movement built tent cities across the country. Young people gathered to demonstrate against the federal government’s propping up of the private sector at the expense of the citizenry (a gross but roughly accurate oversimplification).  In some places, local police forces used pepper spray on the crowds, but the tactic was met with scorn by politicians and the media alike.  Since, according to the Constitution, the people have a right to peaceful assembly, there was no official federal response.  The protests lasted in some cases for months, leaving individual cities to deal with the resulting sanitation and traffic issues, but they were largely nonviolent and of little lasting effect.

In Turkey, young people are today filling the streets to protest the actions of their government in privatizing public assets (another gross oversimplification, but a decent gloss nonetheless).  The Prime Minister has responded with threats and demands and a prodigious amount of street-clearing teargas.  The people, horrified by the brutality of their own elected officials, are driven by greater anger to hold larger demonstrations.  Both the protests and the violence are escalating.  While the Turks themselves believe that they have a right to assembly and freedom of expression, their government disagrees.

The difference, dear readers, is in the document.  As I tell my students, one should use the active, rather than the passive voice.

The most recent iteration of the Turkish Constitution dates to 1982. Yes. That’s right.  The place has been changing quite a lot over the centuries and they believe in regular updates.  Of course they tend to follow military juntas, but in general, updates are not a bad idea.  They’re due for another one.  But for the moment at least, here’s Article 34, circa 1982 — the one that is supposed to guarantee freedom of association:

(1) Everyone has the right to hold unarmed and peaceful meetings and demonstration marches without prior permission. [There should be a giant BUT right here.]
(2) The right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall only be restricted by law on the grounds of national security, and public order, or prevention of crime commitment, public health and public morals or for the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
(3) The formalities, conditions, and procedures governing the exercise of the right to hold meetings and demonstration marches shall be prescribed by law.

Read it carefully.  Note that it guarantees nothing.  Note that it uses the passive voice: “Demonstrations shall be restricted.” That says it all, really, although the active voice would have been so much more clear: “The Government shall restrict demonstrations.”

Now read the First Amendment to the US Constitution, circa 1789:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Now that’s the active voice:  “Congress shall make no law.”  (Passive voice: “No law shall be made.”)  Thus we end up with a list of very specific stuff that the government cannot do.

The Turkish people need a better editor.

Prebut of the Rebut: 2013 SOTU

2012 state of the union

I can save you a lot of time tonight, when the President will deliver his State of the Union Address. The entire affair is completely predictable.

First, the President will tell us that the State of the Union is strong. He will then go on to address its points of weakness: jobs, immigration, education, voting, and guns. He will offer practical strategies for addressing all of these, and he will go out of his way to do so in a manner that studiously avoids offending anyone.

Next, the GOP will tell us that the President is a socialist who represents the worst of “big government” intrusion into our private lives. His economic plan will hurt small businesses.  His immigration policy amounts to nothing more than a free ride for illegals on the backs of hard-working Americans. He’s taken God out of the classroom – which explains both poor test scores and school shootings. He’s coming to take your guns away and his wife wants to outlaw corn syrup.

Then they will go home to their districts, where they will proceed to manipulate the democratic process to a state of near-inversion wherein one man has $1 billion votes and most of us have none. Their gerrymandering at the state level will give sparsely populated white Republican districts each their very own representative, while starving the more densely populated urban districts down to just a few. They will change the way their states vote to eliminate the possibility of Democratic victory.

They will continue their prodding – literally – of women along The Handmaid’s Tale path toward losing all reproductive autonomy. They will work to overturn Roe v. Wade, to defend the Defense of Marriage Act, to revive Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, and to constitutionally prohibit gay marriage. They will scale the clock tower and turn the hands of time back at least half a century, and they will do it all while proclaiming themselves to be “the party of small government.”

An unwilling coalition of Ayn Rand capitalists and Christian fundamentalists, they are the New Theocracy. The only thing small about them is their minds.

Unions are the reason we’re not China

Triangle fire women picketers

The beginnings of the labor union movement in America.

Republicans appear to be mastering the art of turning back the clock. State by state, they are generating a great wave of anti-union legislation that is being met with apathy and ignorance by most Americans. I’m not sure what to do about the apathy, except to address the ignorance.

If you watch MSNBC, then you know that the reason for the Republican attack against unions is purely political: they are out to disable the funding machine of the Democratic party. Since the GOP tends to represent the interests of the business community, most of their money these days comes from titans like Sheldon Adelson. That one man almost succeeded in buying a Presidential election – talk about an American success story! The Democrats, on the other hand, tend to bat for the middle class which, by definition, has no money to give them. That’s because they work for a living. The only place you can reliably find them doling out cash is to their labor unions, who then forward it to the Democrats. Kill the unions, kill the Democrats’ funding.

That’s exactly what these so-called “right to work” laws do: The legislation is written specifically to outlaw compulsory union dues. So you can join a union and enjoy its protections without shelling out a dime. It’s a pillow over the face of the Democratic party.

The unions themselves will have a difficult time surviving this. No one outside their membership appears to care. The Bureau of Labor Statistics data for 2011 shows that only 11.8% of American workers belong to a labor union. That leaves the great majority of us uninformed about their importance and perhaps resentful of their influence. So these laws get passed and we either don’t pay attention or figure they’re justified. Our ignorance is shameful.

Last night we had a dinner conversation with our teenager. You can go to the mall, we said, and get a lot of stuff for a little money. But none of it is made in the US. It’s made in China or Indonesia or someplace where the labor is cheap. Those are jobs that could be here in America but if they were, everything would be more expensive.  Labor is cheaper overseas because the people work in terrible conditions with virtually no rights for almost no money, while the companies pollute the local environments because they’re not subject to American regulations.

How can they do that to people? A good question, we said. It’s because they don’t have the history that we do. They never had a labor union movement to stand up for and defend workers’ rights. It used to be like that here, too.

47%? 30%? Let’s make it 100%!

King George III and George Washington

According to Mitt Romney, 47% of Americans believe that the government should take care of them in some way. Paul Ryan, the numbers guy, says it’s 30%. They say it like it’s a bad thing. It’s not. The number should be closer to 100%.

Let me explain: We had a revolution quite some time ago which freed us from the tyranny of a kingdom and established a democracy. Whereas a king rules by right of inheritance, a president is elected through the will of the people. A king stands above all others; a president is first among equals.

A king typically inherits his right to rule through a line of ancestry that connects him to a figure recognized as important to the establishment of the country.  His power is legitimized by his biological connection to the birth of the people and of the culture, and his authority is conceived in paternal terms. The country is his; it belongs to him and he may do with its land, its people, and its army as he sees fit. He is, however, obliged to see to it that his lands are farmed, his people are fed, and his armies are supplied.

Did these responsibilities of government just fade away when we replaced a king with a president? Clearly we are still subsidizing our farmers and supplying our armies, so what happened to the other piece of it?

Remember this: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . .”

Was this not what Jefferson was talking about? How can one be entitled to life but not medicine? Liberty but not food? A shot at happiness but not the benefit of shelter?  Don’t these things all go together? I believe that Jefferson thought his language was broad and inclusive: Let’s see, he reasoned; what three words can I use to represent all “unalienable Rights”? Oh, yes! I’ll say, “among these,” and cite the big ones! “Life,” for crying out loud! How much more inclusive can I be?

Conservatives deride an American sense of “entitlement” (oh, the irony!), where people think they deserve government assistance for which they should not have to work or pay. They think a lot of us are stupid, irresponsible, and lazy. The truth is, we are all raised to believe that life is meaningless without work – which includes raising children – and that we are useless without it. Most of us want to make an honest living. That, it’s patently obvious, is not always possible.

It has always been the job of the government to see to it that people’s basic needs are met. From chiefs to kings to parliaments, the primary charge is to keep the peace and provide the food – the latter being necessary for the former. As long as there has been government, that has been the case.

Democracy didn’t change that; capitalism did.

is there an app for the suicide hotline?

Factory Workers in Shenzhen, China

Factory Workers in Shenzhen, China, from http://sznewin.en.made-in-china.com/company-Shenzhen-Newin-Electronic-Co-Ltd-.html

I am a capitalist. I like making and spending money. I am unapologetic about my love of technology and gadgets, and I enjoy upgrading my computer and my cell phone when they cease to satisfy me. Hell, I work hard for my money and spending it at Best Buy keeps those kids employed, right?  That’s the way that our economy works:  If you have money, you owe it to your country to spend it.

I can’t help thinking, though, about all the people that are disabled, killed, and driven to suicide by my commitment to patriotism. I suffer from elitist guilt. In a global context, I am the 1%.

In Shenzhen, China, millions of Chinese kids (and I do mean kids) are thrilled to have relatively high-paying jobs, where the minimum wage is $240 a month for about an 80-hour work week.  They are proud to be the first generation of their countrymen to live the capitalist dream. They get to work in a Special Economic Zone — a big, modern city set apart by the communist government for the clearly capitalist purpose of making money for China. They manufacture everything we buy, despite the fact that quite a lot of it is unavailable in their own country.

They do it all by hand, bending over the same table at the same dull task for 12 to 16 hours a day, day after day, week after week, year after year, until their hands are crippled by it. Men in their 20s can no longer hold chopsticks. Enough people were driven to jump from the heights of Foxconn’s production tower that the company put up nets to catch them; perhaps they looked up from the iPads they would never themselves possess and determined that life was not worth living?  Would access to apps have saved them?

One thing is clear: These things happen because we allow them to.  This is what free trade gets us – abusive and exploitative labor practices overseas.  We make no demands of our trading partners, and they make no efforts to cater to our sensibilities.  Why should they? What we see as inhumane, they see as perfectly normal. Nothing compels them to change anything.

All capitalists are moral relativists; they have to be.  The only way we can do business with China is if we ignore the fact that they employ ten year-olds to work 16-hour days. That’s alright for them. The only way they can do business with us is if they block most of our commercial websites.  That’s alright for us. The bottom line is, well, the bottom line.

The thing about capitalism is, it’s not a moral system. It’s about making money, not making nice. It’s great at fulfilling its purpose — profit-making — but don’t expect it to be kind. There is no benevolence in the free hand of the market, which is ordinarily found clenched around a fistful of cash. That’s why we can’t just leave it alone to regulate itself.

Damn it. I still want an iPad.