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Breaking the Chains of Debt Peonage
Posted on Feb 3, 2013
By Chris Hedges
It is time to halt the sacrifice of the working poor. It is time to empower the 30 million low-wage workers—two-thirds of which are employed by large corporations such as Walmart and McDonald’s—to fight back.
Joe Sacco and I spent the last two years in the poorest pockets of the United States, our nation’s sacrifice zones, for our book “Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt.” We saw in Pine Ridge, S.D., Camden, N.J.—the poorest and the most dangerous city in the nation—the coalfields of southern West Virginia and the produce fields of Immokalee, Fla., how this brutal system of corporate exploitation works. In these sacrifice zones no one has legal protection. All institutions, from the press to the political class to the judiciary, are wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state. And what has been done to those in these sacrifice zones, those places corporations devastated first, is now being done to all of us.
There are no impediments within the electoral process or the formal structures of power to prevent predatory capitalism. We are all being forced to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace. The human cost, the attendant problems of drug and alcohol abuse, the neglect of children, the early deaths—in Pine Ridge the average life expectancy of a male is 48, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti—is justified by the need to make greater and greater profit. And these costs are now being felt across the nation. The phrase “the consent of the governed” has become a cruel joke. We use a language to describe our systems of governance that no longer correspond to reality. The disconnect between illusion and reality makes us one of the most self-deluded populations on the planet.
The Weimarization of the American working class, and increasingly the middle class, is by design. It is part of a corporate reconfiguration of the national and global economy into a form of neofeudalism. It is about creating a world of masters and serfs, of empowered oligarchic elites and broken disempowered masses. And it is not only our wealth that is taken from us. It is our liberty. The so-called self-regulating market, as the economist Karl Polanyi wrote in “The Great Transformation,” always ends with mafia capitalism and a mafia political system. This system of self-regulation, Polanyi wrote, always leads to “the demolition of society.”
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Polanyi wrote of a society that surrendered to the dictates of the market. “Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society. Undoubtedly, labor, land, and money markets are essential to a market economy. But no society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance as well as its business organizations was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill.”
The global and national economy because of this “satanic mill” continues to deteriorate, and yet, curiously, stock market levels are close to their highs in 2007 before the global financial meltdown. This is because these corporations have been able to suppress wages, slash social programs and bilk the government for staggering sums of money. The Federal Reserve purchases about $85 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities and Treasury bills every month. This means that the Fed is printing endless streams of money to buy up government debt and toxic assets from the banks. The Federal Reserve now owns assets, much of them worthless, of $3.01 trillion. This is triple what it was in 2008.
And while corporations such as Citibank and General Electric loot the Treasury they exact more pounds of flesh in the name of austerity. General Electric, as Nader points out, is a net job exporter. Over the past decade, as Citizens for Tax Justice has documented, GE’s effective federal income tax rate on its $81.2 billion in pretax U.S. profits has been at most 1.8 percent. Because of the way General Electric’s accountants play with tax liabilities the company actually receives money from the Treasury. They have several billion dollars paid to them from the federal government into company bank accounts—and these are not tax refunds. The company, as Nader argues, is a net drain on the Treasury and a net drain on jobs. It violates a host of environmental and criminal laws. And yet Jeffery Immelt, the CEO of General Electric, was appointed to be the chairman of Obama’s Jobs Council. Immelt’s only major contribution to the jobs initiative was to get rid of 37,000 of his employees since 2001. Jim McNerney, president and CEO of Boeing, who also sat on the Jobs Council, has cut over 14,000 jobs since 2008, according to Public Campaign. The only jobs the CEOs on the Jobs Council were concerned with were the ones these CEOs eradicated. The Jobs Council, which Obama disbanded this week, is a microcosm of what is happening within the corridors of power. Corporations increasingly terminate jobs here to hire grossly underpaid workers in India or China while at the same time stealing as much as fast as they can on the way out the door.
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