The Age of Robber Barons

Shashwat Sinha

The plutocracy in the US and in the rest of the world is facing unprecedented tremors. The epicenter of these tremors lies in New York City where over 100,000 people have come together for ‘Occupy Wall Street’ (OWS) protest. The people have camped themselves in Zuccotti park in lower Manhattan, only blocks away from Wall Street and have continued to occupy Wall Street, Times Square and other parts of wealthy Manhattan on a daily basis since over four weeks. The protesters who claim to represent 99% of the population, essentially the working class, are demanding their fair share from the top 1% who have gotten super-rich in the past few decades by the most blatant money-grab ever experienced in the American history.

The 1% in India: Licensed to Loot
At a time when the world is up in arms against the impunity and political patronage enjoyed by corporate offenders, India’s Law Minister has gone on record to say that corporations should be above the law.
“If you lock up top businessmen, will investment come?...The judiciary has to understand the political economy,” said Salman Khushid, the UPA Government’s Minister for Law and Justice in an interview recently.
In the 2G scam probe being monitored by the Supreme Court, some of the businessmen who benefited from the scam are behind bars. They are mostly small fry – the big players like Anil Ambani, Tata etc are implicated in the scam, just as Mukesh Ambani is implicated in the KG basin oil-and-gas scam, but they are yet to be arrested or even interrogated. Janardan Reddy of the infamous Bellary mining mafia, is behind bars – but his brothers are still free. Yet, the political climate of people’s anger against corporate plunder – both globally and in India – is such that the Law Minister feels the need to remind the Supreme Court of its duty to the “political economy.”
So, according to the UPA Govt., corporate lawlessness and plunder = political economy. That’s why there’s never any action against companies (such as Maruti) who blatantly break labour laws. That’s why even when the Lavasa project or POSCO are proven to have violated a host of environmental laws, they continue to get clearance from the Government. In the noble cause of the ‘political economy’ of liberalization, police and Courts must overlook corporate crimes. It’s all in the ‘national interest.’ That’s why the Government is risking so much political embarrassment to block an effective Lokpal law – because an anti-corruption law that might pose some snags for the corrupt nexus of corporates and politicians would endanger the ‘political economy’ of liberalization-privatisation-globalisation (LPG).
But in the very temples of globalization – the US, Europe – people are on the streets against LPG! They have cracked open the truth of the LPG ‘political economy’ that serves the greed of the 1% at the cost of needs of the 99%.

In India, too, the people are beginning to recognize – and reject – the political economy of corporate greed, corruption and plunder, promoted by Governments. It’s true that even a modest Lokpal law is unpalatable for the managers of the political economy of plunder. But it’s not enough for the anti-corruption movement to stop at the demand for such a law. Along with the 99% across the world, let us build a movement that names and challenges the political economy that promotes and protects the greed, corruption and loot by 1% at the cost of the poverty, devastation and suffering of the 99%!

The OWS protest, which was started mainly by poor whites comprising mainly unemployed youth and students, has now attracted support of labour unions, people of colour and suppressed classes who commonly see themselves as victims of Wall Street with the US government not only an accomplice but aiding in the loot. As Ralph Nader put it, “It carries the moral outrage and the moral authority of the vast majority of Americans who are excluded, disrespected, defrauded, unrepresented, underpaid and unemployed. The American dream has turned into a nightmare.”  

It is by far the biggest struggle against corporate greed and gross concentration of wealth the US has ever witnessed in its history. The OWS protests have gone viral and have spread not only to more than two dozen cities in the US including major cities like Chicago, Oakland, Portland, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, and Washington DC but also over 1000 cities around the world. The movement world over is now being called ‘Occupy Together’ and is turning out to be a major class struggle against corporate elites.
The protesters have organized themselves peacefully and have sustained themselves week after week with thousands of supporters bringing food and other supplies. The spontaneous, leaderless movement is now widely supported and people speak, sing, dance, live, share and protest together.

Message of International Longshore and Warehouse Union
Dear Sisters and Brothers,
On behalf of 40,000 members in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), I want to thank you for organizing your “Occupy Wall Street” protest in New York City which is inspiring millions of Americans.
Most of us are tired of seeing a handful of the richest corporations and executives behave as though they’re entitled to live like kings at everyone’s expense:
They aren’t paying their fair share of taxes, so schools are cutting back and colleges are
raising fees – leaving students with obscene debts.  It’s time for the millionaires – the richest 1% – to start paying their fair share so we can support education and other vital services.
They’re destroying our democracy and right to a voice in the workplace. By making it almost impossible for workers to form unions and negotiate fair agreements, corporate America is dragging down the living standards for all working families.
They’re threatening to destroy Social Security and Medicare for future generations.  We can’t allow corporations to privatize and profit from these programs.  Instead, we should close the loopholes so corporations and the rich start paying the same contributions as everyone else.
Your decision to bring these and other issues to corporate America’s doorstep is courageous – and involves some risks....
Like you, ILWU members in Longview have been arrested, beaten and pepper spayed.   We know that justice won’t be won by asking greedy employers for permission or waiting for politicians to pass laws.  That’s why we hope that you’ll stand your ground on Wall Street while we do the same in Longview – because An Injury To One Is An Injury To All!

Robert McEllrath

International President

It is remarkable how a few thousand people are rattling corporate supremacists and their oligarchic servants in Congress. This big group of people is a motley crowd of all colours, races, cultures strung together by the common thread of victimization by corporations and Wall Street oligarchs. The protest, which was dismissed by ‘pundits’ as outlandish, incoherent and lacking direction has metamorphosed into a representative struggle of the working class and the message for anybody who wants to see and is not affected by intellectual bias of perfect ‘wordings’ is pretty clear. The message is for equality and a fair share.

The long recession brought on by the financial sector and their extremely fraudulent schemes actually ultimately benefited the super-rich and the corporations and have pushed major population into unemployment, uncertainty and homelessness.
To see it in economic perspective, it is worthwhile to glance over some numbers. According to a report by Joint Economic Committee of Congress, the total income of top 10% of the wealthiest households jumped from 34.6% in 1980 to 48.2% in 2008. The sharpest increase was in top 1% whose share rose from 10% in 1980 to 21% in 2008. But that is just income. The fraction of wealth now owned by top 1% is 40% of the nation’s wealth. That is a staggering number, making America one of the most unequal countries in the world. The wealth has concentrated in the hands of business tycoons, CEOs and financial sector. The financial sector managed to pull the greatest scam in financial history but still managed to get the bailout money from the US government. The rich were helped on the backs of the poor; it was a bailout of the rich from the poor.

This is a legacy of Reganism in 1980s when he started cutting taxes on the rich and made policy changes to benefit only the rich. Clinton did away with welfare and with Bush-era tax cuts for the rich and Obama endorsing it, the policies favoring the rich further entrenched. As Noam Chomsky puts it, “The US business class is highly class conscious, and their members have long seen themselves as fighting a bitter class war, except they don’t want anybody else to know about it.”  Now that the war has come out in open, plutocrats have panicked.

Oct. 15 Global Day of Action Sweeps the World
Political apathy has been swept away once again by a surge of political activism. In the course of nine months, a global movement premised on grassroots political activism has spread throughout the Middle East, Europe and now the United States.
People are in the streets. They are moving. They are both angry and hopeful.
Yesterday, more than 1,500 cities organized coordinated actions against a global economic system that rewards the rich and powerful (the 1%) while hundreds of millions are unemployed and the already poor, as well as the urban and rural working classes and middle class, have seen their living standards plummet.
The central and unifying reality that has spawned this movement is the financial meltdown of the largest capitalist-owned banks on Wall Street.
The U.S. government rushed to bail out the elites and allowed millions to become unemployed. The government was exposed as a servant of the 1%.
Other national governments followed suit—saving the elites who caused the crisis and shifting the burden of the economic fallout to the rest of society. Especially hard hit have been young people. From Cairo to Athens and Rome to New York City, a new generation of young people have initiated the global uprising.
The bankers, corporate tycoons and politicians are nervous. They hope the movement subsides or fractures, or that it can be co-opted. But the bottom line is that the 1% has no intention of giving up their economic and political power.
The ANSWER Coalition believes that there must be a new political system that provides every person certain inalienable rights that are certainly realizable in a $15 trillion annual economy: The right to a job, the right to free health care, the right to free education, the right to affordable child care, the right to affordable housing, the right to nutritious food, the right to live in peace. That would require liberating society’s wealth from its tyrannical control by the 1%.

The time is now.

The protection of business class by the ruling elites ushered the Age of Robber Barons in early 19th century when the American business and finance gained wealth and power through most unethical means. It has continued till date. The fear that the poor would demand a share from the rich was the basis on which the constitution was written. The rebellious energy of people came to be partially absorbed by ‘wars.’ “I should welcome any war, for I think this country needs one,” wrote Theodore Roosevelt in 1897 who went on to become the President of the United States. A heady mix of nationalism and capitalism gave rise to a ‘War Nation’ which profited the elite, who reaped profits from foreign markets, filled their coffers, but allowed the poor to toil and barely survive. The revenue from taxes went into war, leading the country into cycles of recessions, also inherent in capitalism which so much relies on militarism. The innumerable wars the US waged can be directly linked to recessions. Today, the ‘war nation’ remains in force benefitting the rich and the corporations, while the country reels under recession.

What we see in the OWS protests is a continuation of the trajectory of class struggles which has been a historical driving force in the US polity. Seeing this struggle in historical perspective brings out similarities to earlier struggles that are quite striking. Intellectuals like Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Naomi Klein and others have now thrown their weight behind these protesters who at the moment don’t seem to budge unless some systemic change is initiated. Nobody knows where it will go but the protests have been welcomed all over the world especially in Europe where similar struggles like against austerity measures have been going on since quite some time.
The rage of the ruling elites over these protests is reflected in the police brutality when peaceful protesters were corralled, shoved to the ground and pepper-sprayed without any imaginable provocation. JP Morgan gave over 4 million dollars to a New York Police Department charity fund. The police have been constantly looking for some sign of riot, but the protesters have been tenaciously non-violent and peaceful denying them any opportunity of foul play. Still, over 700 protesters were arrested in one day in a march on Brooklyn Bridge in New York. More were arrested in Chicago, Boston and San Francisco. The arrests, harassment by police has continued but the still people are traveling from all over the country and joining in the protest. The disenchanted youth has laid bare the ugly face of corporate America who have displayed their sole interest in accruing profits with minimal or no regard for human life and misery.

From New York Times Editorial, October 8 2011
Protesters Against Wall Street
As the Occupy Wall Street protests spread from Lower Manhattan to Washington and other cities, the chattering classes keep complaining that the marchers lack a clear message and specific policy prescriptions. The message — and the solutions — should be obvious to anyone who has been paying attention since the economy went into a recession that continues to sock the middle class while the rich have recovered and prospered. The problem is that no one in Washington has been listening.
At this point, protest is the message: income inequality is grinding down that middle class, increasing the ranks of the poor, and threatening to create a permanent underclass of able, willing but jobless people. On one level, the protesters, most of them young, are giving voice to a generation of lost opportunity.
The jobless rate for college graduates under age 25 has averaged 9.6 percent over the past year; for young high school graduates, the average is 21.6 percent. …
The protests, though, are more than a youth uprising. The protesters’ own problems are only one illustration of the ways in which the economy is not working for most Americans. They are exactly right when they say that the financial sector, with regulators and elected officials in collusion, inflated and profited from a credit bubble that burst, costing millions of Americans their jobs, incomes, savings and home equity. …
The initial outrage has been compounded by bailouts and by elected officials’ hunger for campaign cash from Wall Street, a toxic combination that has reaffirmed the economic and political power of banks and bankers, while ordinary Americans suffer.
…When the protesters say they represent 99 percent of Americans, they are referring to the concentration of income in today’s deeply unequal society. Before the recession, the share of income held by those in the top 1 percent of households was 23.5 percent, the highest since 1928 and more than double the 10 percent level of the late 1970s.
That share declined slightly as financial markets tanked in 2008, and updated data is not yet available, but inequality has almost certainly resurged. In the last few years, for instance, corporate profits (which flow largely to the wealthy) have reached their highest level as a share of the economy since 1950, while worker pay as a share of the economy is at its lowest point since the mid-1950s.
…Research shows that such extreme inequality correlates to a host of ills, including lower levels of educational attainment, poorer health and less public investment. It also skews political power, because policy almost invariably reflects the views of upper-income Americans versus those of lower-income Americans.

No wonder then that Occupy Wall Street has become a magnet for discontent. …the public airing of grievances is a legitimate and important end in itself. It is also the first line of defense against a return to the Wall Street ways that plunged the nation into an economic crisis from which it has yet to emerge.

The corporations are sitting on over three trillion dollars in cash and the profits of many, especially oil and financial sector have been unprecedented. This really cuts through the charade of the country being broke and downgraded by S&P over debt payments. The US is definitely not broke as the ‘eminent economists’ have pointed out, but the money and wealth have become so highly concentrated that even champions of ‘free market’ like Milton Friedman might wonder to the extent, the oligarchic, crony-capitalist and imperialist system has gone to rob the people.
The difference between the rich and the poor today is unprecedented and unparalleled in the American history. In 1960s, the rich paid around 90% in highest marginal tax rates; today they pay less than 30% in highest marginal tax rates. The focused and blatant robbery, especially for past 30 years has finally roused the working class. One of the placards on Wall Street says, “It’s not recession, it’s robbery;” which quite sums up the tone and basic character of this struggle. The age of Robber Barons has not passed; the robber barons have only changed their masks.

Cornel West loosely likens the struggles and the protests that have engulfed the US to Arab Spring, calling them as the US Autumn. This is right after about a month of labor protests in Wisconsin where the state employees fought tooth and nail for their collective bargaining rights. The disillusion with the two party system has never been so stark than now. As the Democrats resolutely refuse to be progressive on any issue, the line between them and the Republicans has blurred to a non-distinguishable degree. Both have proved themselves to be servers of corporate interests and as a consequence of it, people are left with no choice but to take to streets. Whether it is Arab Spring, or the US Autumn, or the turmoil in Europe, or the uprisings in Greece, Yemen or wider Middle East; this rebellious energy needs direction to establish people-centric societies. The ground is increasingly becoming ripe worldwide for social transformation and it provides a definite window to get past the age of Robber Barons to more equitable and just societies.