Multinational Monitor

JULY/AUG 2006
VOL 27 No. 4

FEATURES:

No Choices: Australia's Unions Confront Labor Law "Reform"
by Graham Matthews

Mexican Miners Rise Up: The Explosive Dispute Over Privatization
by David Bacon

Giving Workers the Business: World Bank Support for Labor Deregulation
by Peter Bakvis

INTERVIEWS:

Disposable Workers: Layoffs and Their Consequences
An Interview with Louis Uchitelle

Undermining Democracy: Worker Repression in the United States
An Interview with David Bonior

A Kind of Modern Slavery: Labor Flexibility Comes to Indonesia
An Interview with Saepul Tavip

DEPARTMENTS:

Behind the Lines

Editorial
The Labor Flexibility Con

The Front
Pfizer vs. The Philippines -- Conflict at the Academies

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Book Notes

The Undeclared War Against the Middle Class -- Misadventures in Corporate Media -- Looting Africa: The Economics of Exploitation

Names In the News

Resources

Book Notes

Screwed: The Undeclared War Against the Middle
Class And What We Can Do About It

By Thom Hartmann
San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2006
239 pages; $22.95

One might expect a book with a title like Screwed to be a breezy read. Thom Hartmann’s book is. But it is not simplistic or glib.

Hartmann’s central argument is that a strong democracy promotes economic equality and the creation of a healthy middle class; and that maintenance of a vibrant middle class is crucial to maintaining a functioning and effective democracy.

This is true in principle, he argues; more importantly, he asserts, it is the central trope of U.S. history. The United States has witnessed two great periods of middle-class expansion, he writes. First, from the 1700s until the middle of the 1800s, fueled by the transfer of land from Native Americans to settlers — “a great deal for the settlers, who got the land virtually for free, and a raw deal for the Native Americans.” The resulting land-based middle class remained strong until the post-Civil War era, when agribusiness giants gained control over the farm economy, and industrial corporations rose up in urban areas. The Robber Baron era that followed saw the creation of great wealth, but its concentration in a few hands — and the concomitant degradation of U.S. democracy.

The second period of middle-class triumphalism flowed from the New Deal, and lasted until roughly 1980. The reason: Franklin Roosevelt “made sure that We the People had money in our pockets through progressive taxation, Social Security, fair labor laws, the regulation of business and the vigorous enforcement of antitrust laws.”

Hartmann argues that political actors in these two periods were acutely aware of the interrelationship between economic equality and political democracy, and that they self-consciously undertook campaigns against both economic and political aristocracy — indeed, that they viewed them as one in the same, and that corporations were viewed as the embodiment of economic aristocracy. He departs from the views of historian Charles Beard and those who followed in his footsteps in arguing that American Revolutionary leaders were an aristocracy of their own. As compared to the British aristocracy, he writes, their wealth was modest, and they by and large sought to advance an egalitarian agenda. Most of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention were small farmers. Hartmann’s hero from the period is Tom Paine, who wrote that charters and corporations “lessen the rights of national society” and foster a “species of feudality … kept up to aggrandize the corporations at the ruins of towns.”

Similarly, Hartmann draws on speeches of Franklin Roosevelt that seem shockingly radical for today. Railing against the “royalists of the economic order” in accepting the Democratic Party presidential nomination for 1936, Roosevelt said, “For too many of us, the political equality we once had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality. A small group had concentrated into their own hands an almost complete control over other people’s property, other people’s money, other people’s labor — other people’s lives. … Against economic tyranny such as this, the American citizen could appeal only to the organized power of Government. The collapses of 1929 showed up the despotism for what it was. The election of 1932 was the people’s mandate to end it.”

Screwed is not a history book. Hartmann’s argument is that the economic royalists have again raised their ugly head over the last quarter century, this time in the guise of “free marketeers” or “neoconservatives,” or, as Hartmann prefers, “cons” — for the con they are trying to perpetrate.

He quickly reviews the cons’ push for privatization (for everything from Social Security to prisons), corporate globalization and attendant trade agreements, union busting, deregulation, shrinking the size of government. All of this, he contends, is part and parcel of an agenda to benefit a small elite. Arguments come from those with economic self-interest in advancing the elite (predatory cons) as well as those ideological believers in classical economics (true believer cons). The true believers are as dangerous as the predatory cons, he contends, because, having discovered that their agenda is not popular, they cloak their favored policies in euphemisms and double-speak designed to fool people.

Against this recent push to reinstate economic royalism, Hartmann says we should revert to some simple historic understandings. Although he also offers a slightly more detailed agenda, at root, he contends, “we create a middle class in three ways:

  • By creating and regulating the rules of the game of business;
  • By protecting jobs inside the country with rational tariffs and trade policies;
  • By providing — to all — a healthy social safety net and the means for social mobility, such as free public education — all the way through college.”

— Robert Weissman

Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures
in Corporate Media
By Jeff Cohen
Sausalito, CA: PoliPointPress, 2006
221 pages; $14.95

Jeff Cohen probably won’t be asked to appear on cable news anytime soon. His new book, Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media, throws open the curtains of the cable news industry, exposing the corruption, bias and cowardice of network stations and shedding a critical light on his former co-workers. With witty, irreverent humor, Cohen uses his personal experience in the industry to illustrate how corporate media systematically censors, silences and eventually pushes out progressive voices, to make way for the Pat Buchanans and Bill O’Reillys of cable news.

Cohen claims that he was never “illusioned” with cable news in the first place. As the founder of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR), a nonprofit media watchdog group, Cohen’s career was based on exposing corporate media’s corruption and bias.

Cohen says he was uncomfortable with “joining a club that he’d long denounced,” claiming that the worst thing about appearing on CNN’s Crossfire was “receiving the annual season’s greeting card signed by Patrick Buchanan, a Crossfire co-host.”

Despite his anxiety, Cohen says that he pursued a career in cable media in order to put a much needed progressive voice on he networks and to spread FAIR’s media criticisms through the loudest amplifier possible.

Cohen’s career at the three major cable news stations in the United States, CNN, MSNBC and Fox, showed him first hand what progressives in corporate media are up against.

Cohen argues that so-called balanced debates between right-wing and liberal pundits are a sham. Networks match tough, hard right debaters with wishy-washy moderates who supposedly represent the left. This shifts the parameters of the debate further to the right while providing the illusion of balance. Right-wing hosts such as Bill O’Reilly are often ill informed and use their powerful platforms to spread “disinformation.” Cohen describes several appearances on such programs, saying that they were more like “scream-a-thons” than informed, intelligent debates. He writes that he was passed up for the job of permanently co-hosting CNN’s crossfire because he is too strong a progressive.

Cohen also rails against the junk news of cable networks. He describes Fox’s attempts to boost ratings by divulging base details about the sex life of Gary Condit or the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, while real news fell by the wayside.

Aggressiveness about sensationalized matters such as the murder of Chandra Levy contrast with the media timidity on issues of central public importance. He claims that network reporters, terrified of seeming liberal or un-American, failed to ask tough questions about the invasion of Iraq, leading to widespread misconceptions about the war.

Cohen complains that, “television is indeed a medium in which the visual trumps substance.” He describes several situations in which programs on which he appeared descended into frustrating shouting matches, yet, after the show, producers praised him for his “energy” — he suspects they didn’t listen to a word he said. Cohen also jokes that after his T.V. appearances, he would call his mom for her opinion. Her only response was that he looked so handsome in that tie.

Cohen’s most bitter criticism is reserved for his time at MSNBC. Cohen moved to MSNBC from Fox in hopes of finding a more moderate forum. He found that MSNBC sought to boost ratings with sensational stories about the war. At the same time, the network refused to report stories about General Electric (GE) dumping chemicals into the Hudson river, because GE owns MSNBC.

At MSNBC, Cohen became senior producer of the Phil Donahue show, with the intention of helping bring a more progressive voice to the network. To his dismay, inside management insisted that the show tone down its liberalism and demanded that every time the show booked a guest that was anti-war, they book two guests that were pro-war. Cohen jokes that he wanted to book Chomsky for the show, but the station could not accommodate the 38 right-wingers that would be needed for balance. According to Cohen, management drove the Donahue show into the ground, and, in 2002, “seized control of Donahue in a quiet coup.” All the while, MSNBC featured several shows that shoved a right-wing agenda down viewers’ throats.

In his epilogue, Cohen points to the significance of broad-based campaigns against media concentration, but suggests that the best hope for serious reporting to advance democracy lies in independent media.

Cohen’s book is an impassioned and entertaining account of a media critic who takes on media goliaths and ultimately loses. While the pain and irony of this situation is poignantly expressed, the book does not focus on the root causes behind the media bias, corruption and cowardice that Cohen experienced.

That’s not to say Cohen doesn’t identify what he views as the source of the problem. “It’s no accident that corporate news is so often empty and denatured — any more than it’s an accident that supermarket white bread is sold minus the germ and bran. News is rendered nutritionless when it’s a processed product brought to market by distant and soulless corporations.”

— Sarah Lazare

Looting Africa: The Economics
of Exploitation

By Patrick Bond
New York: Zed Books, 2006
172 pages; $19.99

Patrick Bond’s Looting Africa is a short but sweeping book, offering a multifaceted analysis of African economic deprivation, and insisting that charitable efforts to address African poverty will fail if they do not confront global and national structures of exploitation.

Patrick Bond, who is director of the Center for Civil Society at the University of Kwazulu-Natal in South Africa (as well as a Multinational Monitor contributing writer) is a public intellectual. He understands his work as elaborating, assisting and reflecting the work of social movements for justice. Looting Africa is not an academic book, and it draws on activist research much more than academic material.

Indeed, a major thrust of Looting Africa is to connect the work of quite diverse authors around the world — liberally quoting from their writings — and weave their insights into a profile of the ongoing exploitation of Africa. In so doing, Looting Africa approaches its subject with a telescope rather than microscope — it covers vast territory, seriously, but without detailed discussion.

Encapsulated, Bond’s argument is that imperialism persists: Global structures of economic domination facilitate the theft of Africa’s resources, so that the rich countries grow richer from African wealth, while the vast majority of Africans grow poorer. He insists as well on the importance of national elites in directing, supporting and maintaining those structures within their borders. Overwhelmingly, he argues, African political elites absorb pressure from below, and maintain economic structures that entrench exploitation (while also benefiting a narrow African economic elite).

On the global scale, Bond says the mechanisms of exploitation are those familiar to readers of Multinational Monitor. These include the structural adjustment policies (among them, privatization, deregulation, removal of currency controls) of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank; multinational corporate extraction of resource wealth; unfair trade rules that leave poor countries unable to defend their national productive base.

One important nugget he highlights is a World Bank report, “Where is the Wealth of Nations,” which reassesses the benefits of export-reliant strategies by looking at the impact of natural resource depletion — and concludes that Africa suffers enormously from relying on exports of primary resources. The losses are two-fold — first, exploited and not replaced (or irreplaceable) resources reduce a country’s capital stock; and second, the pollution and environmental degradation so typically associated with resource exploitation exact a heavy toll.

A key subtheme of Looting Africa is that the charitable efforts of many global NGOs and rock stars like Bono and Bob Geldof (through efforts such as the rock concert-embellished campaigning to “Make Poverty History”) are fundamentally misguided. Bond insists that the claimed benefits of these efforts are vastly overstated — and, even more importantly, that the efforts to make the global economy work for Africa ignore how the rules of the global economy are actually central to Africa’s problems. Regarding aid, he cites an Action Aid report, for example, that suggests less than half of claimed aid for Africa actually reaches poor people. On trade, citing the World Bank report, he explains that much of what Africa trades actually impoverishes the subcontinent; and he contends that opening to trade has devastated African manufacturers. Opening to foreign investment has been chimerical as well — most new foreign investment is directed to oil, and financial deregulation has facilitated capital flight.

Dismissive of Make Poverty History and associated efforts, Bond places great hope in the efforts of radical grassroots initiatives. Contrasted to Latin America, Bond acknowledges that African popular movements have had relatively little effect in altering macroeconomic policies. But he sees hope in the national and global campaigns of growing power and considerable success around specific issues: to overcome the patent monopolies of drug companies on AIDS and other drugs; to keep biotech seeds out of Africa; to stop sale of blood diamonds; to protest World Bank-backed dams in Lesotho and Uganda; and to question Firestone’s exploitation of Liberia, among other cases.

Taking state power — or at least more significantly affecting how it is deployed — and constructing a more just social order remains aspirational. Still, Bond has hope for — and denies there is any meaningful alternative to — “the self-activity of progressive Africans themselves, in their campaigns and declarations, their struggles — sometimes victorious but still mainly frustrated — and their hunger for an Africa finally able to throw off the chains of an exploitative world economy and power elite who treat the continent without respect.”

— Robert Weissman

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