Wednesday, June 4, 2014

From the Front Lines of the Class War (conclusion)

"Let Us Now Praise Famous Men"

Guest Post by William Neil

Part Three: Why The Caged Birds Don’t Sing in Annapolis

And now let me take these musings, and my readings in the history of democracy and the political economy of the United States, and come back and visit the doings in that sleepy, isolated, old colonial town with the remarkably preserved architecture, but no rail connection, Annapolis.  What is the nature of the “cage” that prevents those vast Democratic majorities in the Assembly and the Senate, comparable to those that Democrats and FDR enjoyed after 1936 from doing more?   Well, we have already seen that the two Maryland Senators led the attack on the Wagner Act, foreshadowing the Southern Democrat-Republican alliance that would become a powerful national force after 1938…and especially after 1964.  But I don’t just want to hurl charges against the timid nature of the Democratic Party in Maryland, I want to try to understand the forces operating to construct that cage of ideas, of political economy limits that restrains them.  

So my first question is:  is Annapolis a unique world, reflective of the not so progressive traditions of Maryland’s’ half slave, half-free character before and during the Civil War?  Or is it also, like most of the United States, and the rest of the world, living under the “apparatuses” of “repression” and “justification” that Thomas Piketty hints have lain behind capitalism’s three century’s ability to maintain a rate of return on capital of 4-5%, enough to insure the great inequalities of wealth and income that have been the norm,  not the exception, both in Europe and the United States – and which now go under the banner of “neoliberalism,” or, if you would prefer, “free-market capitalism” – and the “managed” democracy that Wolin says now goes with it?   And Maryland, it seems to me, is not so unique in the divisions it obviously has between its rural northwest counties, and southeastern ones,  those lying outside the economically dominant metropolitan areas close to Washington and Baltimore.  You can find the same divisions and tensions in New Jersey, New York too, and as those who follow fracking have come to know, in Pennsylvania, the vast semi-rural areas that lie between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, and have always lain outside all that was meant by the term “the Main Line.”   

I think that the Democrats in Annapolis, like Centrist Democrats everywhere, and even the ostensibly more social democratic socialist parties in Europe, currently live and work inside the intellectual structures of “free-market” capitalism’s cage, and now I’m going to try to empathetically understand how its mechanisms, and justifications, work.  First of all, capital, even vast industrial chicken farms, like those of Perdue, are mobile, and they are always threatening to leave if they are not treated right in terms of light regulations, light taxes, and due deference, if not more, in the legislative halls – and pre-legislative “working dinners.”  So Maryland, like every other state, is caught up in competitive economic pressures that always operate in a “race to the bottom” of these standards, never towards the top.  

Thomas Piketty says they now operate intensively between nations in a vast race to throw off corporate taxes and hide income; the real worries about his data come not from the recent challenge from the Financial Times, he handled that very well; rather, they come from Piketty’s own worry that all governmental data understate wealth inequalities today because there is so much off shored/tax haven buried wealth and income.  Yet the warning outcome to these tactics is surely the fate of Ireland, the tax less corporate welcoming state of the 1990’s – with - echoes of Maryland’s and Montgomery County’s obsession with good education -  Ireland has the best educated work force in Europe; yet it could not escape the disasters visited upon it by being so deeply enmeshed in the destructive currents that go with “free-market” capitalism today.  Do Governor O’Malley, and our two other “famous men,” long serving Senate President Mike Miller and Assembly Speaker Michael Busch,  understand what happened in Ireland, the most accommodative and meekly subservient of welcoming states (and isn’t that a twist, a strange turn upon the ancient Irish temperament)?  What it suggests to me, and what is suggested by Piketty’s analysis, is that even the fastest and most adaptive “runners” in a race to the bottom, no matter how successful in the short and medium term, cannot “outrun” the logic of the current system’s deepest pathologies, that it has become a predatory economy on the lower half of the population – and upon nature itself.  As Karl Polanyi warned us in 1944: no one, left, right or center, can live with a “pure” free market, it is that destructive.  And I fully acknowledge here that Maryland is not the worst in these runnings, but rather lives with the constant pressures to move in that direction, never totally giving in but yet never – and who has – coming up with a way to break the vicious cycle. 
Let me give two illustrations of these forces at work inside Annapolis, but they are really national and international in scope and force.  The Majority Leader of the Maryland House of Delegates, Kumar Barve, from my own District 17, sent out an explanatory letter of his vote in support of the Estate Tax exemptions, the bill to bring Maryland’s law in line with what Congress has done, to raise the exemptions to over 5 million dollars and link them to inflation.  It was the multiple out-of-state residences of some of Maryland’s wealthiest families which made it so easy for them to flee, upon the death of a spouse, and take the tax “jurisdiction” over their wealth with them – to friendlier states.   The Majority Leader said he knew of several instances personally, and the departing sums were very large, harmful to the revenue of the state if lost.  We might ask, more harmful than the estimated loss, in the bill’s fiscal note, of reaching $100 million per year by the time the exemptions fully phase in?  Given Maryland’s repeated claim that it has exhausted progressive tax measures, how will it close that gap, especially since the legislative leaders have explicitly ruled out making the sales tax more progressive by taxing a fuller range of the services of the “service” economy?    
 Second, we were delighted to read the New York Times account of the legislative drama which unfolded over the threat of the makers of the House of Cards Television series to leave Maryland if the state did not kick in with $15 million worth of subsidies to keep them here for their third season’s filming.  Apparently, this was in addition to the $26 million they had received in tax credits from an existing state program to lure film makers to Maryland.  Here it is at  

In particular, one Democratic legislator, Delegate  C. William Frick (Dist. 16),  was very upset over the lack of manners displayed by what he felt was a too direct threat to leave or postpone filming if the state did not fully  accommodate the company’s -  Media Rights Capital – request.  Frick turned his indignation into an Assembly-Senate battle over competing bills that were still coming up $3.5 million short.  The differences were never settled in time, but Governor O’Malley did succeed in finding that sum from other sources, so the “demands” of the company will be fully met, despite their breach of etiquette. And that is the way I read this tale by reporter Trip Gabriel: it was about a breach of good corporate manners, not a principled opposition to shakedowns.  The message: don’ t fully embarrass us with public demands, we’ll meet everything you want as long as the subservience and power relationships are kept in the quiet, normal channels of corporate arm twisting and domination.  Viewed through another prism, the one of Governor O’Malley’s national political ambitions and his seat at the table of the National Governor’s Association, wouldn’t this have been a great time to call the other governor’s into a national moratorium of sorts, to put an end to the outrageous subsidies to gain or keep the magically evasive good corporate jobs, running to wasted billions annually?  Not a chance of that, those invisible cage bars are too strong.  In this present political universe, the caged birds do not sing (here noting the death of Maya Angelou, on Wednesday, May 28, 2014). 

As I was probing a bit more deeply into the worldview of the Democratic leadership in Annapolis, low and behold, I found a late March, 2014 joint letter by Senate President Miller and Assembly Speaker Busch, which appeared in the Baltimore Sun on the 24th, entitled “A Plan for Building Maryland’s Economy.”   It might as well have been signed by Governor O’Malley, because the contents surely bear the stamp of his policy inclinations over the past eight years. Here it is at
The plan is a remarkably short document, full of bullet point type summaries and program outlines, starting out with the announcement of something that had already happened earlier in this legislative session, the formation of a “transformational economic development commission” to be headed by Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin.  The timing of this document’s release looks a bit suspect to me, coming so late in the session, just two weeks before its close. Sounds like this document is meant to balance the likely, but shaky passage of that minimum wage bill, because it never mentions it; this is a corporate and private wealth friendly document, and a further clue, after the descriptions of the business joint ventures with higher education, is that it ends by noting that Maryland acted to reform its estate tax laws, “re-coupling” them to the national law, with the “re-coupling …supported by many foundations and nonprofits in Maryland.”  I hadn’t heard that anywhere else, least of all from the non-profits themselves.  It sounds like a cover story to me, one needed even before the Piketty phenomenon fully took off, since he says stiff estate taxes are one of the few means to reign in the growth of rampant wealth inequalities.  In fairness, citizens and legislators, the truth of my own experience with non-profits, and they are a large sector in the US, is that we look in vain to them to perform any serious countervailing “balance of power” role to offset the rise of the corporate state and managed democracy.  It makes some sense, even though I didn’t hear it announced by the non-profits themselves, that their funders and board members would be “all on board” with the generous wealth sheltering contained in this “re-coupling” legislation.   

As for the contents in the rest of the document, it is a continuation and perhaps intensification of Maryland’s attempt to become an investment broker itself, adding its own funds to match guided and supervised (how well we will see) investment gambits in research and business ventures undertaken inside the state.  It is a curious thing, though, in the nation which supposedly has the “widest and deepest capital markets in the world,” why this would be necessary, this state injection and supervision?  Is it confirmation, indirectly, that things are not quite well, that, indeed, the world of capitalist finance is not up to the job, at least not in Maryland, but perhaps more broadly, inside the old boundaries of the 50 states?  It is a sign of job desperation, to me at least, that now we will not only have the old urban “enterprise zones” (which couldn’t save Baltimore, Newark or Detroit…to name just a few…) but we will have them extended wherever the current geography of existing university or federal government research “clusters,” exist, often in quite decent surrounding neighborhoods.   And I hear the longing, shared by nearly every state with a research university, that the state government should attempt to turn these little green shoots into the vast, hoped for “Silicon Valley effect,” constructing forced feeding greenhouses to push artificially what has not unfolded through the reluctant chemistry of more “natural” business evolution.  So Maryland and business and universities and public laboratories will be working not only in the universally longed for “biotech” area, but also in nanotechnology, cyber-security (isn’t that an oxymoron now, post Snowden?)  And pure “R&D.”  Is the public interest (remember that concept, if it still exists?) and moreover, the public’s money fully protected in these ventures, and are we getting a decent share of the returns?  My initial forays into these questions a few years ago never got much beyond the official defenses and statistics which said all is well.  Good returns and no rip-offs.  But then again, I haven’t exactly sensed that Maryland is home to a vigorous investigative press or too many citizens curious about this direction for our political economy.  So I’m not blessing it at all, just saying it needs a vigorous watch-dog function because it has the potential to be abused.  And I’m not sure this was exactly the type of “co-operative” venture that Gar Alperovitz was calling for.  

I did manage, though, to get a look at the composition of this “transformational economic development commission” announced at the beginning of the “plan.”  Amidst all the private sector and educational institution “heavies,” I did manage to find one union member representative, the head of a painters union.  I’ve never heard of him, and I have to say his slot looks a bit forlorn amidst the broader biographical landscape. 

And that brings me to some further generalizations about the nature of Maryland’s bar less “iron cage” of ideology.  Can you find the average citizen, the Maryland portion of the national 28 million working in the service and retail sectors for under $9.89 per hour in this memo-plan?   I couldn’t.  The underlying message, as with the subsidies to the film makers and the attempts to keep Maryland a comfortable home for all our millionaires, is that “only the private sector” can create jobs; not a new New Deal that we don’t have, and its green CCC or WPA for a new energy economy.  We will twist the world of education to meet the ever shifting private sector demand to invent new products, including technologically adept students, but we are clueless, historically memory less, and unable to “innovate” with public jobs themselves, despite not being reluctant at all to have the public supply its capital to the inadequately functioning private sector.  And despite the fact that the Federal Reserve used the powers of its magical money creation machinery  to keep the large banks afloat, and send them on their merry way to new “carry trades” abroad, where the returns appeared to be much better – for a while, a long while, actually.  But being creative and experimental here at home, directly for the unemployed and underemployed, as the New Deal was? Forget about it, it’s ideologically forbidden.  In this realm, the millions of the “not yet middle class” birds are not going to be allowed to sing. 

May I translate this world of Senator Miller,  Speaker Busch and Governor O’Malley, the residence that they have sketched out for us inside this cage of ideology; can I do so by borrowing from Garrison Keillor’s imaginary land of Lake Wobegon? Here we are in Maryland, and Montgomery County, lands where “all the women ‘Lean In,’ the men are hedge fund operators or venture capitalists, and the children have each won ‘early acceptance’ from the Ivy League school of their choice.” 

Amen to that, say we of the 90-99% percent, depending on how you slice it. It’s good that we weren’t left out of the arrangements, as we wait for the job creators to work their magic.   Is there anything else we can do for them?  

Back in reality now, I am reminded of a little quoted passage from De Tocqueville, who wrote about the coming of the French Revolution as well as the meaning of the democracy emerging in Jefferson’s and Jackson’s America.  Speaking of the French Revolution, he said “Never was any such event so inevitable yet so completely unforeseen.” 

The best to all my readers,
Bill Neil
Rockville, MD

PS   Credit for part of the title of this essay, must, of course,  be given to James Agee’s difficult but now near canonical work from 1941, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  It was his account of a stay, on assignment from Fortune magazine,  with some of America’s poorest rural families, in the deep South, during the Depression, and was written, in good part,  in 1938 while he lived in Frenchtown, NJ, one of the wonderful “river towns” that most people from outside the state don’t know exist. Agee’s text was blended with photographs of the tenant farmers and their surroundings by the noted photographer Walker Evans.  

If you’ve never ventured into the book, a sample of Agee’s prose now used as an introduction by the hotel he frequented, can give you an idea of his writing.  Here at   The selection is a rendering, as only Agee might attempt to pull off, of the city of New Orleans.  I don’t think Mike Miller will like it.

And this recent essay makes the case for his heightened relevance for our times.


James F Traynor said...

White, working class voters are definitely racist, largely sexist (as far as the males are concerned), and vicariously enjoy institutional violence. Collectively, these good old boys and girls are very dangerous. They would love a right thinking leader to 'kick ass' as they are fond of saying. How the hell are you going to reason with that bunch? It's why they will always vote against their own interests in order to see that the 'other' (whoever and whatever that may be) doesn't get 'the store' that they are always afraid will be 'given away'.

And they'll give up what they prefer in the polls to prove it.

William Neil said...


I was surprised when I finished reading that "roundtable" that I supplied the link to today in my comment that their pollsters thought it would be good to switch to a more class based economic language and policy with some of the recommendations I make in my postings, esp. for a higher minimum wage and public job creation. Almost none said a word about the global warming crisis, though.

So you're not buying the Thomas Frank thesis that what's wrong with Kansas is that they haven't been given clear proposals by the Democrats - or another party - to give them, the working class, a sharp alternative. There was a lot of consensus that the more the Centrist Dems loaded up on cultural issues to please other portions of heir "constituencies" the harder it became to win the white working class.

One of the reasons I spent so much time on "Fear Itself" was that tantalizing fact that once upon a time, the South did support the early and radical New Deal. You know the rest of the story.

I once had a college professor say to me - poly sci guy, and I've heard this before: "Robert Kennedy was the last Democratic politician who had the ability to bring poor whites and poor blacks together in the same coalition."

Is that path now closed for good?

James F Traynor said...

Oh, they know what the' clear proposals' are. The smart ones know it in their gut and there are a hell of a lot more smart ones than leftist intellectuals think and that the right wing intellectuals know. Their 'affection' as Berry would put it is for their 'place' and their place is being white and all that it has meant in our society. The 'clear proposals' wold give that away and, boy, do they know it.

James F Traynor said...


I guess what I'm trying to say is that the only hope we have is in the next generation and both politically and environmentally it is a bridge too far. I hope to hell I'm wrong.

William Neil said...


I understand the pessimistic case very well and the person who recommended "Fear Itself" and "Democracy Inc" to me ends up there, with a Right wing reaction more acute than the one we're living under.

But I also see clear signs of a further leftward drift inside the progressive forces. We have to make the case to the broadest public we can and take our chances. I expected much worse from the DC memo I got this morning, much worse. The very timing of it means they are feeling some heat. A candidate for the MD House of Delegates just dropped off a yard sign for me, and a note thanking me for my essay and saying that he was finishing Piketty's book as I write. That's hard to imagine even six months ago.

The white male south will be the hardest to crack, no doubt. But that's a subset of the diverse working class, isn't it? Even modest gains in the rest of the nation can help in the Congressional composition.

I do know one thing, it may take a leap of faith from existing union leaders, the type of speech Chris Hedges gave that I linked to, from a working person's perspective, and Trumka missed that opportunity to issue their own demands to the Dems on Labor Day, 2012. The time is ripe to show that "risk taking" doesn't just exist among business types...and think about the mental monopoly the Right has on linking those two words...the fact that we have a hard time even imagining that from the strict "orbits," lesser orbits, the Dem establishment has constructed (and enforced) around itself shows how far we still have to go.

Can anyone cite a truly memorable speech from a major contemporary union figure, despite all the temptations of YouTube and easily going "viral?" Strange isn't it, given the times, the needs, the cruel facts on the ground.

Isaiah Earhart said...

Hi Bill,

Thank you for the wonderful essay. The territory you covered was so vast that I find myself feeling quite inadequate to comment meaningfully as I could only ever address some small part of it. Anyway, I find your resourcefulness and reasoning overwhelmingly compelling.

Would it substantially change anything in your essay if the Wagner Act was never meant to empower employees? Because that is a claim I am willing to make. The purpose of the NLRA was explicitly stated to be "To diminish the cases of labor disputes burdening or obstructing interstate or foreign commerce...."

I think it is an important realization that, without even the destructive nature of Taft Hartley, the NRLA was designed to mute the musings of the average worker and re-colonialize the structure of bargaining and remove the instance of sit in strikes.

I am not bashing the Union. I am merely making the argument that the US worker might be better off if we operated outside of the official channels of the NLRB and NLRA. I have diligently attempted to organize adjunct faculty in Colorado and now in Washington State. Universities, especially ones claiming to be religious (Seattle University and others)reject the recognition of the union on grounds that the process denies their right of the freedom of speech (firing people for no reason whatsoever or just scaring the hell out of everyone through extremely short and ambiguous contracts). The process after official denial of recognition of the union will be appealed to the NLRB, which will languish in near perpetuity until the NRLB makes a ruling in favor of the union. This decision afterword will be appealed to a court that will rule that the religious tests given to the school by the NRLB will have violated the University's privacy and freedom of speech- overruling the decision of the NRLB. This whole circus takes years, is predictable, and meanwhile, the adjunct faculty continue to be wholly exploited in secret.

I didn't mean to leave such a pinpointed comment about my personal experience, but it is just one example of the modern day fuckery that describes how even the most educated among us are being screwed in a state that that has not been stymied by the Orwellian "Right to Work Laws."

I propose a bit more anarchy in our need to -burden and obstruct the flow of interstate and foreign commerce.

To be continued....

Isaiah Earhart said...


Did I mention that I really appreciate all the work you have done here?

I have Piketty's book staring me down from the top of my desk. I know I need the information inside, but it mocks me because it knows that I am afraid of its sheer volume. I need a life Pause Button to push- so life and time would stop for me to read it without having life's entropy unravel my responsibilities.

I am not sure if my observations differ from yours as to the nature of our political parties and the political natures of our US persons. In my view, there are no interests of the average US worker or US citizen being realized in the national government. The New Deal was the amount of humanity our oligarchs offered to an enraged citizenry that would have otherwise paced their heads enthusiastically upon the top of poorly sharpened sticks.

Threats to our Oligarchy post New Deal seemed to be terminated by state violence. Eugene V. Debbs,Vietnam protesters, the assassination of Black Panther leaders under COINTELPRO, jailing leaders of the American Indian Movement (Mumia Abu-Jamal- still in jail), Executing Dr. King as soon as he joined the Poor People's March, and I can tell you that those new plastic zip-tie handcuffs the militarized police force currently use to seize Occupy protesters with hurt like hell because I was in those zip ties for about 6 hours when I was arrested for "blocking a road" (K Street in Washington DC December 2011). State use of extreme violence to kill off leftish movements discourages those movements, and it seems that there is no partisanship when it comes to brutalizing dissent from the left. None whatsoever, especially given the special way Occupy was bulldosed from the streets with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic mayors all over the country coordinating the attacks.

to be continued....

William Neil said...


Thank you very much for your kind comments. I want to give them my full attention and comment in some depth, so I will try to post-reply in an hour or so.

And thanks for your patience in getting through the middle section of the essay. I like to think that I am performing a public service for very busy Americans by condensing about 2,000 pages of reading in a "joint" review of about 22 pages...but of course, 22 pages for those in our culture is not a "bargain" but a demand, right? Some nerve I have.

Isaiah Earhart said...

@ Bill

I have come to believe that it is the job of all Democratic Presidents to kill of democratic movements.

I watched Obama place Larry Summers and Jeffrey Immelt at the top of his economic policy positions after the two had largely destroyed the economy and revenue streams through massive tax evasion and corruption; I watched as he placed Eric Holder on top of the Justice Department after Holder had just cut a deal with the Bush Administration to keep Chiquita Executives out of prison even though they got caught red handed arming, with thousands of AK47s, terrorist groups in Latin America for the express purpose of killing and terrorizing labor organizers; I watched as Obama kept Guantanamo open while presiding over large Democratic majorities in the House and Senate simultaneously killing the public option off in a secret deal that Tom Daschle accidentally exposed; I watched Obama sign a trade agreement with Colombia after every major union and environmental groups wrote him passionate letters urging him to abandon the trade negotiations started by the Bush Administration; And all of this corruption occurred immediately after a wave of populism went to the polls and expressed the contempt for our oligarchs- voting in record numbers.

I, too, read everything I can that Chris Hedges writes or says. My favorite speech of his is titled "Calling All Rebels." And I agree that Chris Hedges is right when he calls for the elimination of the Democratic Party. Like Samuel Gompers, the Democratic Party has sold the American worker down the road in the most egregious and callous way.

Our Oligarchs have declared war on us. The conservative voter in the South does not get a smaller state, they do not get lower taxes- those are for the rich, they do not get to keep their constitutional rights, they do not get good jobs, good schools, good roads, a modern thriving internet, lower debts to the rapacious bankers, and the quality of their lives is rapidly diminishing.

I don't believe that there is gridlock and polarization in the national congress. I believe that there is only one foreign policy and only one domestic policy in the US. The policy is brutal, and both parties attempt to carry that policy out with considerable success. It is just easier to carry out the policy when an attractive Democrat sits atop the Executive.

William Neil said...

Hi Isaiah:

I'll try to cover as many of the points you have made as I can, in rough order, I hope.

The passage of the "Wagner" certainly did not immediately dampen labor insurgency, it took off and if I have the chronology correct, the massive sit-down strikes started in late 1935 and grew through the winter of 1936. The language you cite sounds tricky to me - and I am not a labor history expert although I'm making some progress. But it sure sounds like that was language meant to - not inflame the South - and by setting up an extra-congressional quasi-judicial administrative agency with some legal powers that was the compromise and the R's and the south came to hate it as it seemed to be very pro-labor in its early years. Of course Taft Hartley changed that.

It has become something of a wonderful Republican device these days, exactly the kind of inefficient, understaffed and dragged out quasi-gov't body they like to pillory, but in this case that's exactly the way they like: slow justice being no justice when you've lost work and wages and are poor to begin with. You'll get justice in about two years. Maybe.
Second, FDR was no labor radical and from all I've read, he barely tolerated the sit down strikes. He did not like John Lewis and vice versa.

I think you would like Mike Davis' very first book, "Prisoners of the American Dream," which is a true "rank and file" shop floor militant history of the the missing militance...or to be fairer to his thesis: that the American Dream wrapped middle class always seemed to desert labor when the going was toughest, accept in those 1935-=1938 days. The public hated the rampant strikes in 1946-1947 and the R's and the South moved to take advantage of it.

I also recommend Jefferson Cowie's fine, fine 2010 book "Stayin' Alive; The 1970's and the Last Days of the Working Class," as well as nelson Lichtenstein's "The Most Dangerous Man in Detroit, about Walter Reuther.

It's an open question whether the very, very diverse labor force in retail/service today, the 28 million at or below 10.00 per hour, can form their own movement, with or without the help of the AFl-CIO. In addition to the diversity I sketched out, add gender, sexual identities as the top priority for some...and vast age differences stressed by the terrible labor market conditions. I don't think it is an accident that its gaining traction in urban areas which may, my hunch, don't have the data, where ethnic and racial homogeneity is greatest...

Don't be put off by Piketty's book, and the fact that he is a data oriented professional economist. The first 50 or so pages should put you at ease, he writes very well, and the translation, you wouldn't know that it had to be, it flows that well. The math required is no more than 9th grade algebraic's the distinctions about capital that is tougher, but still reasonable; he does explain and repeat them later, as your earlier memory fades. It is readable, trust me. I do think it helps to read Katznelson's Fear Itself alongside Piketty.