Most people who know me know that Black Hole Coffee Shop is my FPH office. The coffee and food is solid, the staff is wonderful, and there are always interesting people hanging around. One of those interesting people is Dan Sharber – the bearded, tattooed, Marxist activist. Yes, as a local member of the International Socialist Organization, he’s every hardcore right-winger’s personification of evil. Yet, unlike the manner in which the left is often portrayed in right-wing media, Sharber isn’t someone who mindlessly spouts off ideology. He has carefully thought through his views, is thoughtful and never arrogant in his responses when challenged, can be critical of the left where he sees it failing, puts his beliefs into action, and, to get away from politics for a second, is just an overall nice guy. When I heard that he and Laura Taylor were moving to Austin, I thought it would be a good opportunity to capture some of his views while he was still in town. Here is the transcript of our discussion of which an abbreviated version appears in the August 2012 issue of the FPH.
FPH – I want to kick off on a good note and talk about what you see working both on the national scene and in the Houston area.
Generally speaking the occupy stuff has been very positive. I am not speaking specifically of this or that action but rather the way in which it has changed the terms of the debate. The concept of the 99% vs. the 1% is a very powerful one and something that politicians have tried to blur or ignore for a long time. Before Occupy, saying anything about the rich and everyone else got you labeled as a class warrior and while there are concerns about where to go from here, just changing the terms of the debate during this severe recession has value.
Locally it is hard to say. I think everything I said about Occupy nationally applies here too but, beyond that, I think the real positives are coming out of some other ongoing organizing. Specifically good jobs/great Houston and the Texas organizing project (top) have been doing some great work recently. Getting more and more people involved from communities of color and other underrepresented groups in the fight for a better and more livable Houston. This excitement has bled over into the fight among Houston janitors for better wages and conditions. These fights by and for the working poor are very important and, while nothing new, it is striking how positively they are being covered locally. The recent op-ed by a local janitor in the Houston Chronicle is an example. Anyone who has lived here very long knows that you can’t rely on particularly friendly coverage from the Chronicle on issues relating to the poor and communities of color in our city.
FPH – I think it’s very easy to see an opposing side as simply evil. I usually find that there are no purely evil folks out there but people who are driven by convictions that they see as bettering society. Do you agree with that and if so what are some of the root issues you think that have become twisted in the American political narrative, where people find themselves putting a lot of energy into issues that in reality should not be issues or in which they are being manipulated by forces that do not have their best interests in mind?
This is a thorny question. I do agree that there are usually not ‘evil’ people on the other side from you. The problem is that this comes from a liberal world view. The liberal view of the world almost requires the other side to be evil. Otherwise how can you explain a CEO that dumps waste in ponds? Or flaunts safety standards in their mines and end up burying miners? Why would these people do that if they were not evil? This is a big part of why I am a Marxist. A Marxist understanding of capitalist society illustrates that these individual CEOs and companies are acting completely rationally within a system that privileges profit over everything else and requires continual growth to stay alive and realize that profit. If you or I were a CEO we would act in the same way and it would be perfectly right to do. Working people are not just compelled to compete for work and look after their own self-interests but capitalists are compelled to lower their own cost and realize the profits created and grow grow grow. So I think framing people as evil is silly and lazy. Undoubtedly there are a bunch of assholes occupying high positions throughout our society but that doesn’t cause them to behave the way they do. It only helps them to sleep easier at night.
The next part of your question has more to do with ideology. A commonly quoted phrase from Marx is that the ruling ideas of any epoch are the ideas of the ruling class. I think you see that play out pretty clearly in society in a general way. For example, you see truck drivers who complain about inheritance tax or something similar. People with nothing to pass on who believe this is an important issue in our country. Or the idea that rich people create jobs and thus tax breaks for them are something everyone who cares about employment should support. These are ideology not facts. The same could be said about the debt ceiling debate.
FPH – Let’s get a little more personal. How would you define your political convictions, what shaped them, and where would you like to see this country go?
Well, as I said I’m a Marxist. I used to be a solid liberal democrat – perhaps a left liberal might be more illustrative. I thought if we just elect the right people things would get better. It never made sense why Dems caved all the time. Likewise, I thought socialism sounded good in theory but that it would never work, that people were too selfish or too self-interested or lazy even to make some truly collective society work. I met someone who made a compelling case to the contrary and I started reading. It became very clear from reading everything from anthropological accounts of pre-class societies to everyday accounts of people in crisis situations that what I believed to be fact was again ideology. There are cases we read about every day of in the papers people working together to accomplish this or that goal or to survive this or that natural disaster (read eyewitness on the ground accounts from the earthquake in Haiti and hurricane Katrina to see what I mean). The point is not that people are free-loving hippies all the time but rather that there is no specific human nature. We have the capacity for behaving collectively in an altruistic manner as well as behaving like an asshole who steals from old people. Neither of these define us. But it is easy to predict how people will behave when compelled to by the economic system we live within. Capitalism as a system encourages people to be self-interested to be looking out for themselves and their family at the expense of others. We compete for jobs in a country that provides no social safety net. We must literally work or starve. This imperative rewards selfishness and corrodes collectivity and community. I want to see a true democracy in this country. By that I mean a democracy where normal people get to make decisions about every aspect of our lives. Why do we give up our rights when we go to work? I want to see the people that do all the working and creating in this country decide what to do with the products of our labor. Clearly rich capitalists are not going to simply give up their control and privileges so this must be struggled for by all the vast majority of working people in this country and the world really. So I am a Marxist and Socialist and/or Communist and a Trotskyist etc and a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). I’ll cop to any of those and can explain them further if anyone asks.
FPH – How would we get there?
Organization. Nothing is predetermined but, as a Marxist, I have faith in ordinary people to at some point stand up and say enough is enough. At some point, the rift between ideology and material reality becomes a gulf too big to ignore. At that point, people begin to ask why there are homeless people in a country full of empty homes. Why are there starving kids in a world that yearly creates 2.5 times the global caloric need of every person on the planet (according to the UN)? Why is there war and ecological devastation? These are not things that you or I asked for. These are things that are part of a system that puts people over profit. At some point individuals are driven to action. All revolutions of the people (as opposed to a small band of guerrillas or what have you) have followed this formula. The transition from feudalism to capitalism was a progressive step in human history and has allowed the flowering of all manner of human activity from science to art but it has since worn out its usefulness. Now capitalism is a fetter on the further advancement of human society. We now have the ability to provide a good standard of living for everyone on the planet but not the system under which to do that.
FPH – Let’s address one of the Tea Parties concerns while we’re here on the off chance one of them is reading this. I think the only legitimate issue that they have brought forward is the simple question of “How do we pay for X?” The issue of passing on debt to future generations is a legitimate issue and I’d like to hear some kind of response to that concern, what you feel is wrong about their approach, and how you would address it.
This is easy. End the wars and slash the pentagon budget – there’s the money. Further we can tax the rich at the rates we used to under Reagan (though I would prefer to go back to the tax rates of Roosevelt). The pentagon/military budgets do nothing for the common good of the people of this country. Further this debt stuff is a red herring. We needed MORE deficient spending early in this recession to provide real jobs – something akin to the works programs of the 1930’s. That would’ve increased the debt but it would’ve gotten people working again and paying taxes which would then pay down the debt eventually. What you have now is what is being called a jobless recovery. Corporate profits are way up but unemployment is still high. And with tax rates being what they are, that doesn’t help anyone. So the argument becomes “debt is too high” and once you buy into that as the problem, you are half-way to accepting the ‘solution’ i.e. austerity – slash working people’s living standards to save our future generations. Belt tightening for working people who didn’t cause this problem and massive bonuses for the people who did. The tea party illustrates a type of right wing populism that is common among the middle class who do not have the advantages of the capitalists above them nor the potential for collective action like the working people below them. It’s a mish-mash of largely individualist solutions and nostalgia for what they perceive to be a ‘kinder gentler’ capitalism at some point in the past. It is similar to the people who gravitate to Ron Paul and believe that capitalism is good but it got all messed up by corporations. This is foolishness and there are loads of books about the birth and early days of capitalism that refutes this whole narrative. It, again, is largely ideology standing in for facts.
FPH – I want to get to my favorite issue put forward by the Occupy Movement and that is the issue of how the country has “Profits are privatized, losses are socialized.” This is not even a leftist argument; it’s an argument about how capitalism is intended to work. What do you think drives this policy and how did we get here with zero accountability?
I think it is pretty straightforward as to what drives this policy. The elected officials have just as much of a vested interest in keeping the system afloat as the capitalists and bankers etc. do. So when things go south and it looks like the system is in trouble, industry of whatever stripe will be bailed out. But since that is government money which is raised through taxation, those losses are socialized – i.e. we all paid for them. I think there is nothing new about this policy but it became more straightforward with the rise of neoliberalism coming out of the recessions of the 70’s. Further the financialization of our economy makes money for everyone with the ruling class so there is no reason for it to be stopped. For real change to come (outside of massive and sustained struggles from below) there would need to be a break in the capitalist class. The changes that came out during the depression came only because there was a split and Roosevelt successfully rallied around a group of more Keynesian capitalists and pushed through the new deal reforms that we know of. Most of the rest of the capitalist class still preferred the balanced budget approach to economic policy. This time around there is no push for a return to Keynesian economics at the top and thus the neoliberal consensus still remains to a greater or lesser degree.
FPH – I recently visited the Griffith Observatory in LA and I immediately recognized that this as having a WPA stamp on it and that made me think about the legacy of the WPA and how much our country benefited from those make work projects. First off what did you think of the WPA and why do you think that model was rejected in favor of funding the private sector.
I thought the WPA was phenomenal. I love it in a real nostalgic sense (there is a poster of the WPA book that is beautiful to flip through) as well as from an economic sense. I am always a fan of putting people back to work. I spoke a little above about works programs overall and I think it was rejected for the same reasons I said on the last question. There was no desire to return to Keynesian economics at the top and thus deficit spending was out from the start and works programs (despite our real and continuing need for infrastructure improvements and jobs) was never really on the table. Though in early 2008 I really thought it might be… I was surprised with the continuation of neoliberalism that we have seen. I really thought Obama was going to be forced (even if it were against the will of some) to move to a more Keynesian model. It didn’t happen and part of it was because the left and labor was too weak and/or in disarray to demand it.
FPH – Let’s talk labor. How is it that workers from the States can compete with a person working in a plant like Foxcon it would seem that, with global capitalism, purchasing power parity would drive down the wages of the workers in the richer countries as companies move to lower wage countries in order to compete? How can unions function in a global market place?
You are right. And we are seeing that phenomenon now. When there is another class of worker who can be hyper exploited at a lower rate, it brings down the value of labor everywhere. This has been common throughout history when black workers were pitted against white workers and immigrant workers were pitted against native workers and women workers were pitted against men workers… in all cases the rates of the less exploited group fell rather than the other way around. Part of the reason the gender wage gap is smaller now (though still obscenely big) is partially because men’s wages have dropped not just that women’s wages have risen. Unions though… that is the question. Unions need to be internationalists and the old IWW slogan of an injury to one is an injury to all needs to have real meaning again. I don’t have the space to get into this but the unions are in bad shape and desperately need to be rebuilt. There are some bright spots (the Chicago teachers union is one of them) where union reformers are organizing the rank and file but it is going to be a long row to hoe… supporting the rights of international workers to unionize or otherwise fight against their conditions and exploitation must be part and parcel of that as well.
FPH – Since we are discussing labor let’s discuss immigration. First off the laws here are pretty whack when it comes to immigration but there never seems to be any proper political response but I see issues on both the left and the right that each side ignores. ON the left there is the issue of how wages in this country are pulled down by immigrant labor. A bonded carpenter may fix your roof better than the fellow at the Home Depot but he won’t be able to compete on price. So that worker sees less work and less money. The argument that these are jobs US workers don’t want I feel is disingenuous because in some cases it is that they don’t want the job under those conditions or wages. On the right they see these workers are getting away with murder but these immigrants have it rough and exploited by accepting lower wages, dangerous working conditions, and other things that go with having to work in the margins of this country. These are all labor related issues and it is very easy for one side to call the other side names but how can we protect US worker wages and raise the working conditions of immigrants where everyone benefits?
First off the bonded guy’s wages are pulled down BECAUSE the other guy is undocumented. He occupies a hyper exploited strata that leads to this dynamic so the problem is not that he is here but rather that he is considered lesser because of his immigration status. Despite how this may get mystified, the bonded carpenter would be much better off fighting for amnesty for the guy at the home depot rather than fighting for his deportation. It is interesting the way you phrase this question because I think you are right in the broad strokes but what is important to ask is who benefits. Who benefits by lowering the wages of working people? Who benefits by having workers unprotected by OSHA much less unions etc.? The answer of course is the ruling class who profit from our labor. This is not some sort of conspiracy theory; it is simple economics that I elaborated on above. The answer again is that these false dichotomies need to be overcome. Working people need to band together and fight for our common interests and not let ourselves be split by language or faux designations like native or immigrant or undocumented or what have you. The history of the working class shows that the only way you ever protect wages and improve conditions it by combining into unions or other solidarity organizations and making demands of the bosses. Unions have been under attack for a long long time and it is imperative that they be rebuilt as soon as possible.
FPH – You posted this on your Facebook today, ”When localism substitutes ethical consumption for politics this isn’t an error: it’s an ideological reflection of how the petite bourgeois structure their lives.” would you like to expand on that?
Sure. I’ve been thinking a lot about the middle class and the particular individualist political solutions you often find there. Also I have been thinking about what the problems with these solutions are. I’m reading this book called no local right now (http://www.zero-books.net/books/no-local) that deals with some of these issues but specifically the localist movement where you only buy local and get your food from local sources etc. that is all well and good but when that is elevated to an actual challenge to the system, that is when there are problems. There are too many reasons here to list why going local will not change the world but I encourage people to check out the book if they are interested. It is very specifically a Marxist book so you will learn a lot about other aspects of Marxism that you might not have encountered before. But what this quote clarified for me and why I posted it on my Facebook was that the desire or attraction to localist type solutions is not some sort of bad idea someone just came up with but has a specific social basis in the lived experiences of the middle class (or what Marxists – usually derogatorily – label the petit bourgeois).
FPH – Adam Smith has a pretty simple mechanism for dealing with unscrupulous businesses. If company X does something bad, the public responds by punishing the business. Regardless of the owner’s intentions and if he is a good person or a bad person, the cost of those bad actions put him at risk by affecting his livelihood. That’s not a bad mechanism but today’s capitalism isn’t the same as Smith’s because there is such a disconnect between who own the company, the owners, and the public. It seems that the Invisible Hand that Smith envisioned is completely absent in today’s market. People invest in 401ks or mutual funds or what have you and everything is so abstracted that all they worry about is a return on investment and the people running the companies are faceless boards whose only motivation is short term gain. The stateless nature of companies and their dubious designation as having the rights of people also help to disengage what would be the only inherent control in the system. How have things gotten so bad, why is this allowed to continue, and where do you think this is leading us?
Things have progressed in exactly the way you would expect if you dig into the dynamics of capitalism. The iron law of profit is the single driving principle. That leads to further consolidation and monopolization where fewer companies own more and more and wealth in turn becomes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. That’s where we are at right now. The income inequality is unsustainable. But as to where it goes, who can say. It depends on what people do about it. Business will continue to drive down living standards in order to reap greater profits which, in turn, will lead to more inequality etc. etc. but if the profits are good then who gives a shit about the misery? But people will fight back and re-unionize and rebuild existing unions and fight for better wages and conditions. After many ups, downs, and setbacks, I am hopeful that we’ll build a better society. One where human need is more important that profits. One where everyone has a home and food and healthcare and a job and free time to enjoy the art and culture and the other truly worthy human creations.
FPH – I have similar issues with Marxism in practice. While not exclusive in this regard, it seems that in example after example, Marxism has been corrupted into fascist cult of personality states where individual freedom is curtailed under the justification of what betters the collective whole. I’ve always felt that the issue is simple human nature – when the people own the means of production it seems that eventually a power structure develops where the few control the many and we have a case of meet the new boss, same as the old boss. Why are there so many examples of these, what do they have in common, what makes Marxism susceptible to this kind of corruption, and how can Marxism escape those types of traps.
I’m sympathetic to this argument. I disagree on attributing things to human nature (as I sort of said on that earlier question). What previous ‘socialist’ experiments lacked was an engaged and active working class. The Marxist conception of socialism is that it cannot be delivered to people but must be won by the people. As a Marx says, it is the self-emancipation of the working class. The reason this is important is because everyone has a stake and is active in the process. There are other ideas and checks and balances but I think this argument is a bit of a red herring. The question for you is do you think we can do any better? I think we can. Capitalism has opened up great productive capabilities and created the capacity to abolish all kinds of material want. But now it has led to the poisoning of our environment, the total immiseration of millions of people through financial turmoil, death and destruction daily throughout the world via wars of all kinds. Do we think this is the best of all possible worlds? Isn’t something better worthy and worth fighting for? Sure it will not be easy and there is always a chance of all sorts of bad things happening but does that mean we should accept all the current and future shit out of fear it might be worse? Well it’s pretty damn terrible as it is right now and with the continual polluting of the environment we don’t have much time before something is going to give. And if we continue along the course we’re going now, 90% of species will be wiped out and humans will be living in zones near the poles to get away from flooding and heat as large swaths of the planet become uninhabitable. I think we can do better. And I think a socialism based on fundamental rights and a pure and thoroughgoing democracy would not just be a nice society to live in but I believe that it is the only society that will even guarantee our human existence. Or as the polish revolutionary Rose Luxemburg said, it is either socialism or barbarism:
“Out of all this bloody confusion, this yawning abyss, there is no help, no escape, no rescue other than socialism. Only the revolution of the world proletariat can bring order into this chaos, can bring work and bread for all, can end the reciprocal slaughter of the peoples, can restore peace, freedom, true culture to this martyred humanity. Down with the wage system! That is the slogan of the hour! Instead of wage labor and class rule there must be collective labor. The means of production must cease to be the monopoly of a single class; they must become the common property of all. No more exploiters and exploited! Planned production and distribution of the product in the common interest. Abolition not only of the contemporary mode of production, mere exploitation and robbery, but equally of contemporary commerce, mere fraud.
In place of the employers and their wage slaves, free working comrades! Labor as nobody’s torture, because everybody’s duty! A human and honorable life for all who do their social duty. Hunger no longer the curse of labor, but the scourge of idleness!
Only in such a society are national hatred and servitude uprooted. Only when such a society has become reality will the earth no more be stained by murder. Only then can it be said: This war was the last.
In this hour, socialism is the only salvation for humanity. The words of the Communist Manifesto flare like a fiery menetekel above the crumbling bastions of capitalist society:
Socialism or barbarism!”
FPH – OK, Bar fight between Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or Slim Thug. Who would win and what is the lesson we can draw from this?
I really have no idea but would love to have overheard the conversation that lead up to that fight. I suspect that there would be more drinking and hugging than fighting among this group…