SNAP expansion helped me survive as a poor senior, but now it’s gone / by Joyce Kendrick

Seth Wenig / AP

Originally published in the People’s World on May 31, 2023

One thing I was grateful for during the pandemic was masks—and not just for safety reasons.

I’m on Medicare for disability, which unfortunately doesn’t cover dental care. At 60 years old, I’ve lost many of my teeth. It was nice hiding behind a mask for a while.

But I was grateful for another reason, too: For once, Congress actually expanded the social safety net.

With stimulus payments and extra SNAP benefits, it was so much easier to survive. Before, I had to supplement my tiny benefits at food pantries, where choices are limited. It was a challenge to get food that I could eat without my teeth.

These are things about being poor that people don’t understand until it happens to them.

I was raised in a loving family in a middle-class neighborhood. But as a child, I suffered over a decade of traumatic sexual abuse by a neighbor who kept me quiet with violent threats.

I’ve struggled with my physical and mental health ever since. It was especially hard to get a correct mental health diagnosis in the years before people understood the trauma that comes from the kind of abuse I experienced.

It was difficult to hold down a job. After two failed back surgeries, and with my mental health struggles, I was forced to rely on disability. With just $700 a month of benefits, I moved into a motel room.

That’s the life I was living before lawmakers expanded services during the pandemic.

After the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, my SNAP benefits mercifully increased to $284 per month. The stimulus payments allowed me to get back on my feet again. And at around the same time, I learned about Medicare’s Extra Help program, which got my monthly $165 Medicare premium covered by Medicaid.

At last, I could focus on more than just trying to survive.

I found housing through a family member. I received some proper mental health treatment and was finally diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I got nutritious food that I was able to eat.

But now all that’s gone. Lawmakers let the SNAP expansion and other pandemic programs expire, and I’ve been told I’m no longer eligible for Medicare’s Extra Help program. So, I’m in survival mode again.

My story is hardly unique.

The expanded SNAP benefits kept 4.2 million people out of poverty during 2021, including 14% of children out of poverty, while the expanded Child Tax Credit cut child poverty nearly in half.

Combined with the direct stimulus payments, the American Rescue Plan brought poverty down by 22%, illustrating that poverty is indeed a political choice in America. By July 2022, the unemployment level had fallen to a 50-year low of 3.5%.

With pandemic aid expired, those gains are being reversed. More of us will have to choose between paying for health care and car repairs, or between putting food on the table and seeing a dentist.

We need stronger safety net protections that won’t be torn away by lawmakers or complicated eligibility requirements. But now whenever I turn on the news, I hear politicians demanding we slash human needs programs even further so they can extend tax giveaways to the very wealthy. How is that fair?

That’s why I’ve joined the Poor People’s Campaign—a movement led by people like me, impacted by policies that harm the poor in order to help the wealthy. We know that proper social investments keep us out of poverty, drastically reduce unemployment, and give lifelong positive benefits to children. So, we’re fighting back.

In the world’s wealthiest country, we must learn this lesson and move in that direction again—not away from it. Join us.

Institute for Policy Studies / OtherWords

Joyce Kendrick is the Southwest Ohio co-leader of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. She lives in Middletown, Ohio.

Have Any of Karl Marx’s Critics Today Actually Read Him? / by Ben Burgis

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in the printing house of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung (newspaper published in Cologne, Prussia, at the time of the Revolution of 1848–49). Painting by E. Capiro. (Roger Viollet via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 31, 2023

The Right never seems to stop talking about “Marxism” and its wily tricks. But for all their denunciations, conservative pundits really just keep proving they don’t even know the basics of Karl Marx’s thought.

On Monday, Jacobin columnist Ben Burgis gave a lecture at the How the Light Gets In festival in the Welsh village of Hay. Here is a condensed and revised version.

Karl Marx deserves a better caliber of critics. I’ve thought that many times in the last few years, but perhaps never more so than in March when I saw the conservative James Lindsay post a picture of himself pretending to pee on Marx’s grave in London.

I couldn’t help but notice the lack of any actual stream of urine in the picture. In a way, that made it a perfect metaphor for the Right’s approach to their greatest intellectual adversary. They’re making a show of desecrating his grave. But they know too little about his ideas to even make contact with the target of their critique.

Lindsay, Levin, Kirk, and Peterson

Lindsay isn’t some obscure right-winger. He’s a globally prominent figure. He testifies before state legislatures explaining why they should ban “critical race theory,” which he sees as Marxism in disguise. His book, Race Marxism, was a bestseller.

So was Mark Levin’s book, American Marxism. Levin was never quite as popular as his colleagues Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but his talk radio show has blared out from hundreds of AM stations around the United States for many years. Originally, I was slated to cowrite a review of American Marxism with Matt McManus, but after many attempts to get through it, I ended up admitting defeat and letting Matt write it by himself. The book feels like the transcript of an endless, breathless, incoherent rant. I’d be surprised if Levin even cracked open Marx’s magnum opus, Capital.

Right when I was trying and failing to ingest Levin’s book, I did a public debate with one of conservative media’s most omnipresent figures: Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk. At one point, Charlie asked me what I thought about Karl Marx. I responded that while I didn’t think Marx was right about everything, he was right about a lot of important subjects — in particular, his theory of history.

Charlie seized on that to say Marx’s theory of history was “basically Hegel’s” — after all, he said, wasn’t Marx the “president of the Young Hegelians”?

This could hardly be more wrong. G. W. F. Hegel had an “idealist” theory of history — he saw it as driven by the progressive self-realization of what he called the “World Spirit.” Marx did start out as a Young Hegelian, but this was the name of a philosophical current, not an organization with membership cards and a president! More substantively, Marx — though deeply influenced by Hegel’s methodology — came to reject idealism in favor of a “materialist” theory of history in which the primacy is given to economic factors: the “forces of production” and “relations of production.”

Lindsay, Levin, and Kirk aren’t the only prominent conservatives who insist on prattling on about Marx despite not knowing the ABCs. In Jordan Peterson’s 2019 debate with the Slovenian Marxist philosopher Slavoj Žižek, Peterson said that he’d prepared for the debate by rereading the Communist Manifesto for the first time since he was eighteen.

That in itself was an astonishing admission. Here you have someone who wrote mega-best-selling books that contain strenuous denunciations of “Marxism” admitting that he hadn’t read the Communist Manifesto — a short pamphlet that can be consumed in an afternoon — in decades.

But even more striking was how little understanding Peterson seemed to have of what he’d read. He expressed surprise that Marx and Friedrich Engels “admitted” capitalism had spurred more and faster economic development than any previous system — when in fact they devote pages to the observation because it’s a crucial part of their analysis. And in a swipe at the first sentence of chapter one of the Manifesto, about how all “hitherto existing history” is a “history of class struggle,” Peterson argued:

Marx didn’t seem to take into account . . . that there are far more reasons that human beings struggle then their economic class struggle. Even if you build the hierarchical idea into that (which is a more comprehensive way of thinking about it), human beings struggle with themselves, with the malevolence that’s inside themselves, with the evil that they’re capable of doing, with the spiritual and psychological warfare that goes on within them. And we’re also actually always at odds with nature, and this never seems to show up in Marx . . . . (my emphasis)

But the way that humans are “at odds with nature” is right at the heart of Marx’s theory of history! Marx thinks the “legal and political infrastructure” of any society is downstream from the “relations of production” — i.e., the relationship between the immediate producers (whether slaves or peasants or modern wage workers) and the class in charge of the production process (whether slaveowners or a feudal aristocracy or capitalists). And Marx thinks these relations are themselves, in an important way, downstream from the level of development of the forces of production — roughly, the capacity of a society to transform what we get from nature into products that meet human needs.

Marx’s Theory of History

Marx’s account of history goes something like this:

Early hunter-gatherer societies lacked a class of nonproducers because there wouldn’t have been enough to eat if there was a ruling class that wasn’t out hunting or gathering. Absolute scarcity reined. The agricultural revolution boosted human productive capacity to the point where it could support a ruling class, but only if some of what was created by the “immediate producers” was directly taken by force — as in modes of production like slavery and feudalism.

The development of modern industry creates (and requires) a different mode of production where the immediate producers are “doubly free”— free in the sense of being free citizens with a legal right to move around and make contracts with any employer who will have them, and also “free” from any means of supporting themselves except for selling their working time to a capitalist employer — so they end up submitting themselves to a new ruling class. And yet, Marx says, capitalism pushes the forces of production to such advanced heights that there’s a new possibility: workers themselves can take over the means of production and create a better future.

Marx is very clear that having to work to transform the deliverances of nature into human “use values” is a necessity originally imposed by nature and not by any particular social system. But those systems force immediate producers not just to produce to meet their own needs, but also to spend additional hours doing unpaid labor on behalf of the ruling class.

This happens right out in the open in a system like feudalism, where serfs are legally forced to spend part of their time toiling in the lord’s field instead of the little plot of land with which they feed themselves and their families. But Marx thinks the same thing happens in a disguised form in capitalism — officially, you’re being paid for every hour you work, but in practice some of the work you do creates the goods and services that are sold to pay your own wages, and some of it goes toward your boss’s profits. Under socialism, when “free associations of workers” run the show, workers themselves would get to decide how the proceeds of their labor would be divvied up. Some portion would go to nonproducers like children, retirees, and those unable to work, but none would be taken by a capitalist class.

One of the crucial differences between Marxism and earlier forms of socialist thought is that Marx doesn’t see capitalism as an avoidable moral mistake. However ethically abhorrent, and however desirable surpassing it might be, capitalism to Marx is a necessary stage of historical development. That’s why Marx and Engels devote such space at the beginning of the Manifesto to talking about the amazing ways the forces of production have been developed under capitalism. For the first time, there’s the possibility of something better — not the combination of freedom and material hardship experienced by early hunter-gatherers, or even by independent small farmers who have to work all day every day just to produce the necessities of life, but an egalitarian and democratic version of high-tech modernity.

There are real criticisms you can make of Marx’s vision. Some people argue, for instance, that to deal with the climate crisis we need to roll back our industrial infrastructure — we need “degrowth.” I disagree, but that’s at least an argument with people who know what they’re arguing against. That’s not the argument we’re having with the Right.

One way you can tell as much is that they’ll cite the failures of authoritarian state socialist governments — starting with the Soviet Union — as a great refutation of Marx. But what did Marx actually say about Russia?

As Steve Paxton points out in his book Unlearning Marx, Marx specifically wrote that it would be impossible for undeveloped, semifeudal Russia to skip capitalism and leapfrog into the socialist future unless a revolution in Russia was accompanied by a revolution in industrialized western Europe. Don’t get me wrong. I know twentieth-century Marxists would have preferred to see a politically democratic and materially prosperous form of socialism take root in the Soviet Union than see Marx’s theory confirmed. But that theory being confirmed is exactly what happened.

Better Critics, Please

Iactually want better critics of Marxism. Everyone should want that. Anti-Marxists should want it because they clearly think criticizing “Marxism” is important — the contemporary right never shuts up about it! — and you can’t do that effectively if you don’t know what Marx’s theory of history even is. Marxists should want it because the best version of our view will come through engagement with the smartest criticisms. I want critics who can make us think hard about our premises and revise the parts that need revising. That’s how intellectual progress works.

Give me conservative intellectuals who’ve carefully read Marx — who can formulate critiques that make me squirm. I might not like it in the moment, but we’ll all benefit from the process.

Instead, we get the kind of right-wingers who say environmentalists are secret Marxists and that the crypto-Marxist plan is to make us all eat bugs for the sake of conserving the environment. Or who express confusion about why Marx and Engels talk about rapid economic development under capitalism in the Communist Manifesto. Or who think Marx thought Tsarist Russia could skip to socialism. Or who, dear God, say things like, “We’re also actually always at odds with nature and this never seems to show up in Marx.”

Real critics can serve a useful purpose. The would-be grave desecrators, though? They’re just wasting everyone’s time.

Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

Memorial Day by a Vietnam War veteran / by Camillo Mac Bica

Image credit: Pressenza New York

Originally published in Pressenza, New York, May 28, 2023

Perhaps some may find what I will argue below as disrespectful, especially coming from a veteran who participated and lost comrades in the American War in Vietnam. But it must be said. How Memorial Day is currently observed does not, in my view, fulfill its intended purpose—that is, as a day of remembrance, reflection, and appreciation for the sacrifices of those who fought and died in this nation’s all too numerous wars.

With its focus on picnics, barbecues, and sales at the mall, Memorial Day has become primarily a celebration of the unofficial start of summer and a festival of consumerism and greed. Perhaps most regrettably, it is an expression of faux patriotism that further exploits the sacrifices of the slain and the grief of their family members and friends to encourage militarism and perpetuate a mythology that misrepresents as heroism and nobility the savagery and insanity of war, in many, if not most cases, unnecessary and immoral war. In reality, Memorial Day has significance and meaning primarily for those relatively few  who experienced war themselves or suffered the loss of friends and family members.

If you wish someone a happy Memorial Day, you fail to understand its true meaning.

March of Folly

Between the barbecues and trips to the mall, celebrants may allege to express their appreciation and gratitude by attending a “remembrance event” and applauding enthusiastically as a high school band, a local scout troop, and a contingent of aging veterans in ill-fitting military uniforms, march by in a parade of their creation before retreating to their local American Legion Post for an afternoon of drinking and commiserating about their beloved comrades whose suffering and deaths accomplished nothing.

Many march to remember, others to forget.
But for those who truly know war
and suffer its consequences,
no ceremony or parade is necessary
as the memories,
the images of war,
and the faces of our comrades wasted in battle
visit us each night in our dreams.

Nor do ceremonies and parades
help us to put to rest
the turmoil of a life interrupted
and devastated by war,
or to forget the killing and the dying.

Memorial Day ceremonies and parades accomplish nothing,
save to allow those who make war easily
or distance themselves from its insanity and horror
to feign support and appreciation
and to relieve their collective guilt
for immoral war and crimes against humanity.

Nor do ceremonies and parades
educate, inform, or lessen the burden of loss.
Rather they celebrate and perpetuate
the myth of honor and glory,
and “The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori.

I shall march no more.

If you thank a veteran for her “service” in war you fail to understand what living with the experience entails.

Air Shows: Celebrating the Military’s High-Tech Weaponry of Death and Destruction

For those whose Memorial Day observance includes attending an airshow extravaganza, celebrants experience what is, for all intents and purposes, a mobile military circus and amusement arcade. In addition to “enjoying” the thrills and excitement of precision aerial acrobatics and simulated bombing runs performed by the U. S. Airforce’s “Thunderbirds” or the Navy’s “Blue Angels,” attendees, some as young as ten years old, need only enter their contact information into the military database to receive an array of propaganda, recruitment material, and many sought-after souvenirs – personalized dog tags, T-shirts, hats, footballs, etc. To excite even greater interest, passersby are invited to operate remote control robotic devices through a “battlefield” obstacle course, “pilot” an Apache helicopter flight simulator, participate in a fully immersive, adrenaline-pumping, and highly realistic, virtual “Humvee mission experience” in which they engage “insurgents” and kill them.

Sadly, what goes unnoticed is the insidiousness of these Memorial Day activities and the mythology it perpetuates. First, celebrants and their children are conditioned to view war and military service as entertainment, desensitizing them to killing and dying, and encouraging their support and involvement, with the eager recruiters always close at hand. Second, misrepresenting war as honorable and heroic encourages the next generation of cannon fodder to contemplate enlisting in military “service”. Third, memorializing those injured and killed in war makes honest and critical conversations about American foreign policy less likely, eliciting instead enthusiastic support for sending our military to faraway battlefields to “quell” what in many cases are manufactured crises. Fourth, by affording hero status to members of the military and veterans, it provides an “illusory refuge” of sorts, whereby veterans may avoid facing the reality and the trauma of their experiences in war, a task that is crucial if they are to rehabilitate and achieve some semblance of normalcy in their lives. Finally, faux gratitude and support mask the reality of the scandalous way in which this nation ignores the needs of its returning warriors and veterans. Tens of thousands of American soldiers go untreated or undertreated for the injuries they have sustained in combat, including Traumatic Brain Injury (the “signature wound” of Iraq and Afghanistan), Post Traumatic Stress, and Moral Injury, all devastating and disabling injuries that often require lifelong care. Since 9/11, the number of veterans and active-duty military dying from suicide is 4 times higher than the number of those killed in combat.


Tragically, we have been conditioned to ignore what we have become. We live in a culture where violent video games have replaced Mr. Rogers as entertainment for our children; where the youngest and most impressionable among us cyber-kill virtual human beings for amusement, to occupy their time, and as a means to prepare them to become weapons in a perpetual war that goes unquestioned; where violence has replaced diplomacy; where torture is condoned; where truth-telling (“whistleblowing”) is a crime warranting imprisonment and solitary confinement; where murder is celebrated as a positive achievement of leadership; where drones summarily execute human beings without trial, accusation, and with little outrage; and where the adoration of the weapons and technology of killing and destruction is “guaranteed” by the 2nd Amendment and to honor those wasted in war. We have lost our moral compass and have become a culture of hate, greed, and violence—killing our own as we kill others.

It is time, long past time, that we reject this mythology and the continued exploitation and commercialization of the memory of those sacrificed in war and the suffering of their families to enhance militarism, consumerism, and profit. Instead, we must acknowledge and grieve the waste of ALL human life, at least, (perhaps of ALL living entities), not with feigned expressions of patriotism, gratitude, and appreciation, but by renewing our commitment to peace, by educating the public about the realities of war, by bringing our troops home immediately from the 750 military bases it occupies in over 80 countries around the world, and by ensuring that they receive adequate and effective treatment for their physical, emotional, psychological and moral well-being upon their return.

Camillo Mac Bica, Ph.D., is a professor of philosophy and ethics at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. His philosophical focus is in Applied Ethics, particularly the relationship between war, morality, and healing. Dr. Bica is a former United States Marine Corps Officer and veteran of the Vietnam War. He is a long time activist for peace and justice, a member of the Vietnam Veterans Against the War, and Coordinator of the Long Island Chapter of Veterans for Peace. In addition to the three books published thus far in his War Legacy Series, Dr. Bica’s writings have appeared in numerous philosophical journals and online alternative news sites.

Henry Kissinger Is a Disgusting War Criminal. And the Rot Goes Deeper Than Him / by Ben Burgis

The ugliest truth about Henry Kissinger is that he isn’t a unique monster. (Adam Berry / Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on May 27, 2023

It’s Henry Kissinger’s 100th birthday today. The fact that this monster is celebrated instead of in jail tells you that he’s part of a much bigger problem — and that problem is America’s global empire.

The late Anthony Bourdain wrote in 2001 that “once you’ve been to Cambodia, you’ll never stop wanting to beat Henry Kissinger to death with your bare hands.”

However many people might have wanted to do that over the decades, Kissinger remains with us. Today is his hundredth birthday. And he continues to be treated as a respected elder statesman. That should tell you everything you need to know about America’s global empire.

At Least He Likes Sports

Tributes have been flowing to Dr Kissinger all week. At CNN, foreign correspondent David Andelman enthuses that “at 100, Henry Kissinger is still teaching us the value of ‘Weltanschaüng.’” (Weltanschaüng roughly translates to “worldview,” and here it means something like “a comprehensive understanding of how the world works.”) On the website of the International Olympic Committee, IOC president Thomas Bach calls Kissinger a “great statesman” and “political genius” who is also a “great sports enthusiast” and has long been involved with the Olympics.

None cared to mention his various crimes.

As Richard Nixon’s national security advisor — and then secretary of state, a role he took on without giving up his original job — Kissinger personally oversaw a bombing campaign that killed 150,000 civilians in Cambodia. And among many other atrocities he abetted, he helped overthrow Salvador Allende, the democratically elected socialist president of Chile. Kissinger notoriously said that he didn’t see “why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people.”

The evidence for these crimes has never been in doubt. It’s all a matter of public record. So why hasn’t “Dr K” ever seen the inside of a jail cell?

The ugliest truth about Kissinger is that he isn’t a unique monster. He is an unusually plainspoken representative of a monstrous system of US global hegemony.

Kissinger and Nixon

Nixon didn’t live to see his own hundredth birthday. He died at the age of eighty-one in 1994. But a posthumous centennial birthday celebration was held for the disgraced former president in 2013. Kissinger spoke at that event, ending his remarks by proposing a toast to Nixon as a “patriot, president, and, above all, peacemaker.”

It’s true that Nixon was willing to pursue pragmatic détentes with America’s superpower rivals, China and the Soviet Union. But when I watched the clip of Kissinger’s “peacemaker” toast, all I could think about was an infamous snippet from the 1970 conversation between Kissinger and his deputy Alexander Haig in which Kissinger relays Nixon’s instructions for the bombing of Cambodia. Kissinger knew some members of the administration might have qualms about extending the war to a neutral country, but he made it clear that the commander in chief didn’t want to hear it.

K: Two, he wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies on anything that moves. You got that?

H: (Couldn’t hear but sounded like Haig laughing.)

A few years later, Nixon and Kissinger would burnish their “peacemaker” credentials by finally throwing in the towel after several years of ratcheting up bloodshed in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Perhaps this is the achievement Kissinger was fondly remembering when he toasted his old boss’s memory.

If so, Kissinger was conveniently forgetting that he and Nixon had been spurning essentially the same deal the whole time they’d been escalating the war. In fact, even before Nixon arrived at the White House, he’d worked to sabotage his predecessor Lyndon Johnson’s Paris peace talks — encouraging the South Vietnamese delegation to stonewall in the hopes of getting a better deal when Nixon assumed office.

That much no one bothers to deny. There is some controversy about the extent of Dr Kissinger’s role. In his CNN tribute, David Andelman defends Kissinger by arguing that while “some have suggested that it was Kissinger who sought to slow the process toward peace during Nixon’s presidential campaign,” the evidence from the White House tapes points to H. R. Haldeman as Nixon’s primary accomplice in “monkey wrenching” the talks. But even Adelman allows that Dr Kissinger “may well have tipped off Nixon’s campaign team to Johnson’s thinking.”

A small point, maybe, to hold against an Important Statesman who throws around words like Weltanschaüng.

A Story of Continuity

When Congress brought articles of impeachment against Nixon for corruption and obstruction of justice, Michigan Democratic representative John Conyers proposed including an article on the illegal bombing of Cambodia — which had initially been kept secret from the US public. The proposal was defeated 26 to 12. As Conyers reflected in an article later that year, this may have been because raising the issue of war crimes in Southeast Asia would have impugned “previous administrations” and Congress’s own failure to constrain presidential war-making power.

When Nixon left office, Kissinger stayed on, continuing to serve his highly unusual dual role as national security advisor and secretary of state for Nixon’s successor Gerald Ford. And every single president between Ford and Joe Biden — Democrats and Republican alike — has at some point extended an invitation to Dr K to come to the White House to discuss matters of war and diplomacy.

Some of those visits may have even afforded Kissinger a chance to catch up with old friends. That ghoul softly laughing on the other end of the line as Kissinger relayed Nixon’s instructions for the indiscriminate mass murder of Cambodian civilians, Alexander Haig? He served as commander of US European Command and NATO supreme allied commander for most of Jimmy Carter’s presidency. Ronald Reagan made him secretary of state.

Kissinger Isn’t the Only Kissinger

Oddly, Kissinger hasn’t been to the Biden White House, or at least not yet. I’d like to believe that the current president is disturbed by Kissinger’s long history of involvement in prosecutable crimes against humanity. But Biden’s history suggests otherwise.

Does it bother Biden that Kissinger killed lots of civilians in Cambodia? Senator Biden showed no such qualms about the “shock and awe” bombing of Iraq when he backed that war in 2003.

Does it bother Biden that Kissinger plotted coups against elected leftists in Latin America? Vice President Biden doesn’t seem to have uttered a peep of protest when President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton supported the coup against Honduran president Manuel Zelaya.

And while we’re on the subject of Hilary Clinton, it’s worth remembering that she touted her relationship with Henry Kissinger — whom she called a friend and trusted advisor — when she was running for president in 2016. When her primary challenger Bernie Sanders responded by bringing up Salvador Allende, the response from both Clinton and the moderator might as well have been, “Salvador who?”

Kissinger has never deigned to conceal his complicity in clear violations of US and international law that killed vast numbers of innocent people. The fact that he’s reached the age of one hundred as a free man isn’t an oversight; it’s a symptom of a much deeper pathology.

A willingness to bend the global rules — order an assassination heremassacre some villagers there, depose an elected leftist or two in countries that, come on, don’t really matter anyway — was integral to how the United States managed its spheres of influence around the world long before Henry Kissinger came on the scene.

It’s not like Dwight Eisenhower needed advice from Henry Kissinger, who was just about finishing up graduate school at the time, when he decided to protect the interests of the United Fruit Company by overthrowing the government of Guatemala in 1954. And Secretary Clinton may or may not have picked up a phone to consult with a very elderly Dr K about how to handle the crisis in Honduras.

I certainly won’t shed any tears when Dr Kissinger finally dies. And I’ll be ecstatic — if shocked — if he sees the inside of a courtroom before that happens. But we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that he’s unique. You don’t run a globe-spanning empire for this many decades, batting down geopolitical rivals, peasant revolutions, insurgencies in occupied countries, and inconvenient electorates in crucial client states, without a lot of people staffing your imperial apparatus who think like Henry Kissinger.

There may be something almost demonic in how unabashed Dr K is about his crimes. But when it comes to his basic willingness to disregard legal and moral obstacles to the United States working its will in the world?

It’s Kissingers all the way down.

Ben Burgis is a Jacobin columnist, an adjunct philosophy professor at Rutgers University, and the host of the YouTube show and podcast Give Them An Argument. He’s the author of several books, most recently Christopher Hitchens: What He Got Right, How He Went Wrong, and Why He Still Matters.

The U.S. military budget is a threat to democracy / by th CPUSA Peace & Solidarity Commission

CPUSA, May 25, 2023

Congress and U.S. presidents routinely ask how the government will pay for education and healthcare, for cleaning the environment, for ensuring labor justice — all the human needs. But rarely, if ever, do they ask where the vast fortune they are flooding into the Pentagon budget will come from.

After the end of World War II, the U.S. government justified its massive military budget by claiming the Soviet Union was a threat to our country. Other small and weak socialist countries like the DPRK (North Korea), Vietnam and Cuba were deemed threats to the mighty United States, which attempted to put them down. Numerous other, short-lived, progressive governments in small countries were named threats and overthrown.

Once the Soviet Union had fallen in the early 1990s, the peace dividend was ephemeral. The U.S. claimed Iraq’s Saddam Hussein was a threat, then Serbia’s Slobodan Milosovic. Then the 9/11 terrorists were the threat. Then it was Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Bashir al-Assad and Iran’s Ayatollahs.

But the existence of terrorists, or alternatively, the national leaders of various small countries, could not indefinitely justify constantly increasing funds for nuclear missile fleets, bombers, Navy vessels, foreign military bases, and a large standing army. It could not indefinitely justify a military budget greater than those of the next 9 countries combined, most of which are U.S. allies. A bigger threat had to be conceived to meet that demand.

As Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III revealed in the latest war budget this past March, the 2022 National Defense Strategy outlines the following “security priorities” for the U.S. Department of Defense:

  • “Defending the homeland, paced to the growing multi-domain threat posed by the People’s Republic of China (PRC)”
  • “Deterring strategic attacks against the United States” and its “allies” and “partners”
  • “Deterring aggression, while being prepared to prevail in conflict when necessary — prioritizing the PRC challenge in the Indo-Pacific region, then the Russia challenge in Europe.”
  • “Building a resilient joint force and defense ecosystem.”

Realistically, the United States warring class must establish threats as a precondition to its “full spectrum dominance,” a term coined by the major warmongers of the late 1990s and quickly implemented by President George W. Bush. It means simply that the U.S. will prevent any other country or group of countries from challenging its total global economic, political, financial, technological, or military hegemony. By any means necessary.

Thus, the Pentagon’s latest threats engineered specifically to justify filling its coffers and maintaining full spectrum dominance are China and Russia.

The U.S. financial-military-industrial complex is swallowing the national economy, and throwing humanity under the bus. It is depleting the capital infrastructure built over the country’s lifetime, despoiling the global landscape and, if not reined in, will incinerate all of civilization and most life on this planet.

Furthermore, as our society becomes increasingly militarized, we witness the blowback of the incessant violence of foreign wars in the mass shootings that take place everyday in our schools, malls, houses of worship, and private homes. We witness the construction of “Cop City” in Atlanta, aimed at accelerating the transformation of our domestic police into an occupying army, as the Pentagon transfers billions of dollars of outdated, surplus military equipment to local law enforcement. This strengthening of the weapons industry certainly strengthens the most fascistic forces in the United States.

While the five biggest armaments companies in the U.S. and top political donors within the defense industry contributed almost $285 million to both Democrats and Republicans from 1990–2022, the majority of that money (57%) went to the GOP, amounting to a nearly 33% donor boost overall for Republicans. Except during Clinton and Obama’s first terms, when the big armaments contributed more to the Democratic Party, weapons manufacturers have contributed anywhere from 12%–105% more to the GOP.

Nonetheless, in March, President Joe Biden requested $842 billion for the Pentagon for FY (Fiscal Year) 2024. This is an increase of $69 billion over the $773 billion requested for 2023 by the department of war (it’s a misnomer to call it defense). By including the annual amounts proposed for developing and building a new nuclear weapons arsenal — scheduled to eventually total $2 trillion, war spending is already acknowledged to reach $886 billion.

Yet there’s more. The tens of billions Congress keeps appropriating to keep the war in Ukraine going, at least $112 billion so far, is off the Pentagon’s books.

In addition, each year, Congress shamelessly pours additional tens of billions of dollars over and above the President’s request to subsidize imperialism’s war machine. Last year, pork-barrel lawmakers added $25 billion to the president’s proposal. In the next months, we can expect them to continue that shameless tradition.

According to defense analyst William Hartung, “Congressional add-ons could push total spending for national defense to as much as $950 billion or more for FY 2024. The result could be the highest military budget since World War II, far higher than at the peaks of the Korean or Vietnam Wars or the height of the Cold War.”

But that’s still not the end of it.

Tens of billions of our taxes are aimed at the activities of Homeland Security, which was created claiming to provide defense of the United States, as distinguished from the Pentagon’s more distant invasive operations — including more than 800 foreign military bases and numerous Naval fleets traversing the planet’s oceans.

The CIA and 16 or more other agencies tasked with spying on everybody (friend and foe) and sabotaging targeted governments take in untold truckloads of tax dollars.

The State Department receives tens of billions for financing foreign militaries, such as the Israeli and Egyptian militaries. The State Department’s budget funds the U.S. Agency for International Development, National Endowment for Democracy and other operations responsible for corrupting, sabotaging and subverting the societies of various countries, including Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, Nicaragua, Syria, Ukraine, and many others. Those that have defied demands to adopt policies friendly to U.S. corporations are especially targeted with these interventions.

There is also over $300 billion our country is obligated to spend to care for veterans of the numerous wars the U.S. has initiated.

Yet there’s more.

Since World War II, the United States government has chosen to borrow money from the rich, instead of taxing them, to pay for its numerous, expensive wars and for the huge, proliferating war machine, all of which mainly benefits the rich. These loans are to be repaid with interest. The financial burden is thus kicked down the road, attempting to avoid antagonizing the working class and any concurrent resistance. Not specifically raising war taxes, however, does not avoid the exquisite suffering of military families, our communities, and the hundreds of millions living and dying in the invaded nations.

The Pentagon calculated the direct cost of the wars on Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria between 2001 and 2021 to be $1.6 trillion. That’s $8,300 from each of us taxpayers. Not one of the countries the U.S. invaded during that time frame had threatened the security of the 335 million residents of the United States. Surely we could have put those dollars to good use.

Importantly, the Cost of War Project at Brown University included indirect costs. Their figure for the Bush–Obama–Trump–Biden “war-related spending” from 2001 “through FY 2022 with estimated obligations to veterans’ care through 2050” totals at least a staggering $8 trillion. Other estimates raise that to an even more astounding $21 trillion. Even this outrageously high number does not take into account the cost — which the U.S. government now owes — of repairing the destroyed infrastructure and other horrendous damages suffered by the people of those countries attacked by the U.S.

By including national war-debt payments and all the other war spending outlined above, William Hartung and Mandy Smithberger calculated the total military budget for FY 2020 as north of $1.25 trillion. Back then the Pentagon “base” budget was $544.5 billion. The FY 2024’s base budget is at least $300 billion greater. So it now easily surpasses that monstrous amount and likely greater than $1.5 trillion.

Is that the final amount the United States is throwing to manifest war?


In reality, the military budgets of the U.S.’s NATO allies should be included in what the U.S. spends on weapons and war. Even though the U.S.’s NATO partners are sovereign countries, their militaries are largely an extension of the Pentagon and usually march in lockstep with U.S. foreign policy. NATO — read “the extended arms of the U.S. Pentagon” — requires member forces to purchase quantities of U.S.-made weaponry for “interoperability.” So we could add up to $300 billion to the budgets that feed the war machine.

In addition to NATO members we should include South Korea’s military budget because in time of war the U.S. commands the South Korean military. But why not include all U.S. military allies whose biggest spenders are Saudi Arabia, Japan, South Korea and Australia? Doing so would raise the Pentagon’s budget by $550 billion.

Now we’re approaching $2 trillion per year that the Pentagon can leverage.

But let’s consider just the amount taken from U.S. taxpayers by the financial-military-industrial complex, as we should leave veterans’ benefits intact.

What else could $1.2 trillion buy?

The National Priorities Project (NPP) has done the basic arithmetic. The numbers below are based on NPP’s alternative ways to spend that enormous sum.

Those tax dollars could be used to pay for all the following each year:

  • 5 million university scholarships
  • 2 million elementary school teachers
  • Head start slots for all of the 3.8 million three-year-olds in the U.S.
  • 5 million public housing units
  • 2 million clean energy jobs
  • Providing 10 million households with wind and solar power
  • Healthcare for all of the 38 million low-income adults in the U.S.
  • Healthcare for all of the 4.2 million children in the U.S. currently without it
  • 2 million registered nurses
  • 2.5 million $15/hr jobs with benefits (there are 1.2 million unemployed 16–24 year olds in the U.S., and real unemployment is at least double the official rate)

How realistic is it to stop squandering the treasure, natural resources and technical skills of our working class and redirect Pentagon spending to benefit the true needs of this country?

In 2020, Congressional House members Barbara Lee of California and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin, and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have cut Pentagon spending for FY 2021 by just 10%. It gained the votes of 93 members of the House and 23 members of the Senate, almost all Democrats. The amendment lost.

In 2020, House member Barbara Lee of California introduced a resolution to cut military spending by $350 billion. A little over one month later, she and Mark Pocan created a Defense Spending Reduction Caucus.

In 2019, the Poor People’s Campaign published a “moral budget” that also called for cutting the military budget by $350 billion.

Before the demise of the Eurasian socialist bloc in the early 1990s, there was a growing effort led by international president of the International Association of Machinists William Winpisinger to move funding away from war to fund civil society. Today, there is again a germ of a new such effort at conversion from a militarized to a civilized economy. More accurately, it is a “just transition” that guarantees equivalent jobs or wages to the workers moving out of the war economy industries and into peace economy jobs.

The “Move the Money for Human Needs Campaign” organizes at the level of city governments to coalesce unions and social-needs organizations to draft, lobby for, and pass resolutions in city councils demanding drastic reductions in military spending and using the billions of dollars saved to address the human needs of our people. One important example is taking place now in the biggest city in the country, New York City, where a broad coalition of trade unions, community, faith and peace organizations has introduced such a resolution.

All of these initiatives are worth building upon. We must create local coalitions to join the Move the Money campaign, participate with the Poor People’s Campaign and press members of Congress to join the Defense Spending Reduction Caucus. And we should be electing leaders who will follow the people in building a new economy that is just, green, and peaceful.

Images: Tax the rich, house the poor, money for jobs, not the war by People’s World (CC BY-NC 2.0); high school students participate with a Military Families Speak Out action by Military Families Speak Out (Facebook); #HandsOffCuba by People’s World (CC BY-NC 2.0); End endless wars by Peace Action New York State (Facebook)

Communist Party USA

The hypocrisy of the business lobby / by Ethan Strimling

Workers with the national Fight for $15 movement. | Scott Olson, Getty Images

Originally published in the Maine Beacon on May 16, 2023

In 2019, when the landmark paid time off bill, sponsored by Sen. Rebecca Millett and championed by the Maine People’s Alliance (of which Beacon is a project) with the backing of 80,000 petition signers, was passed, Governor Janet Mills insisted that a small provision be included in the bill that was demanded by the business community. 

That provision is called a “preemption.” A preemption means that the state is now “owning the field” on the regulation of paid days off. In essence, no municipality can mandate additional PTO to the policy if the town felt their workers needed more time off or to cover the 15% of workers who were left out.

The business community demanded this clause for one reason and one reason only — it is much harder for them to control 400+ municipalities in Maine than it is one branch of the legislature. They knew the bill would pass, so in exchange for their muted opposition, they wanted to control the fight in the future.

The preemption allowed them to keep their fight against expanded benefits for workers to one location. The gun lobby has a similar preemption, as does UBER over their gig workers.

But, of course, this is not the stated reason for their support of the preemption. 

The business community’s stated reason for supporting preemptions, and the reason they often use when opposing local efforts to regulate business, is that we “can’t have a patchwork of laws between towns.” They claim this will encourage a business to leave one community and set up shop in another. Or, for those businesses with multiple locations in different towns to accidentally violate the rules because they do business in both jurisdictions. Or, it is bad for consumers, because prices in one town will have to go up to meet the new minimum.

There is at least one GOP bill this session that seeks to do this —“An Act to Promote Minimum Wage Consistency by Limiting the Authority of Municipalities Regarding Minimum Hourly Pay.” It would create a preemption for minimum wage laws, basically blocking all local efforts to raise minimum wages for local workers.

None of their arguments are true, of course. Passing rent control in South Portland, as occurred this year, has not and will not push housing development to Scarborough. Or if Lewiston passed greener standards for new offices, it will not push all new businesses to Auburn. Or raising the minimum wage in Rockland and Portland to $15, as will occur for both in 2024, has not caused all the restaurants to move to Rockport and Westbrook.

Now for the hypocrisy: Last week, the Maine Legislature’s Labor Committee in the state legislature advanced a statewide minimum wage hike to $15 an hour in 2024, mirroring Rockland and Portland. 

No more patchwork. Exactly what the business community has said they want. 

Consistency between cities and towns, so small and large businesses alike won’t be incentivized to leave one town for another, and won’t have different rules to follow when their workers cross city boundaries.

You would think they would now be speaking in favor of this fight for $15. But, of course, they aren’t. Are we surprised? Of course not. Consistency from conservatives is a fantasy. 

Which is it, business lobby? Do you want a consistent minimum wage across jurisdictions or do you just want to keep the minimum wage as low as possible for as many workers as you can?

But let us all remember this day when industry opposes the next local initiative that tries to protect workers, tenants or our environment. When they say, “We need to do this at the state level,” it’s clear what they really mean is, “We don’t want it anywhere.”

Ethan Strimling served ten years as Mayor and State Senator for Portland, Maine.

We Are All Salts / by Chris Townsend

Starbucks workers confront managers at the company’s Manhattan regional headquarters on May 1, demanding that the company negotiate and stop retaliating against union activists. When workers are fired and victimized for exercising their rights to unionize, salting is a completely justified response. Photo: Jenny Brown.

Originally published in Labor Notes on May 3, 2023

Today’s revival of union “salting” could not be more welcome or more urgently needed.

A tactic as old as the labor movement itself, salting describes going to work in an unorganized workplace where there may be a chance to help initiate new union organizing.

It’s also a label for taking jobs at already unionized employers, hoping to play a positive role. But here I will deal with the former: taking jobs to help spur new organizing.


Whatever amount of salting is underway today—it’s impossible to precisely measure—it cannot come soon enough. The U.S. labor movement is mired in a crisis that threatens its very existence.

A bare fringe of the working class, 10 percent, belongs to a union. The rate of unionization has been cut in half in the past 40 years.

Virtually all employers are ferociously anti-union, and they’ve been able to construct enormous legal and illegal obstacles to unionization efforts.

The unorganized workplace is a de facto dictatorship of ever-lower wages and living standards, where blue collar, white collar, and even professional workers are held helpless in the employer’s grip.

With an army of unorganized workers arrayed against the dwindling union garrison, it is unlikely that any further forward progress for the existing unions or the working class as a whole will be possible without a revival of union organizing on a larger scale.

Widespread salting can and must be a component of these urgently needed organizing campaigns.


Union organizing efforts today are at best incidental and sporadic. Occasional large or name-brand campaigns achieve some media attention and provide an illusion of union vitality.

Several recent sizeable graduate student wins, the Starbucks movement, Amazon, and activity in the nonprofit sector are all welcome—but are still collectively too small to reverse the overall decline.

Organizing efforts in the public sector are largely stalled, with union recognition still banned in many states and localities. In the private sector, the number of National Labor Relations Board-supervised union authorization elections now hovers at historically low levels.

I joined the labor movement in 1979; that year 7,266 NLRB elections were held, with a union win rate of almost 45 percent.

In 2021, the number of union elections fell below 1,000, with a win rate not much more than 50 percent. The 2022 numbers show some improvement, but nothing approaching what’s needed.

The size of the units organizing today has also shrunk significantly, translating into far fewer workers organized.

While the U.S. union movement is the most financially wealthy union movement on planet Earth, allocations of resources to tackle the organizing crisis are minuscule and often short-lived. (See Chris Bohner’s “Viewpoint: It’s Time to Tap into Labor’s Fortress of Finance.”

The 2022 AFL-CIO Convention’s much-publicized “transformational” organizing initiative remains invisible. Some individual unions have increased the resources they are dedicating to new organizing, but the sheer size of the task demands far more. Salting is one way that activists can dive in to initiate organizing and pull the institution along.


Employers decry salting as illegitimate. In fact, they routinely allege that workers who help lead any union organizing campaign in the workplace are “union plants.”

Bosses allege this even when it’s an absurdity—the sincerity and authenticity of everyone who challenges their total control must be discredited.

Anti-labor politicians occasionally team up with employers to denounce salting, in an attempt to somehow scandalize it. Bogus Congressional hearings have been held from time to time to denounce salting.

The current salting efforts at several name-brand corporations may catch the attention of these extremist anti-union elements in the current Congress. So be it. Their clumsy efforts in the past, given to shrill hyperbole and wild exaggeration, have always fallen flat.

The defense of labor’s salting projects must take an above-board, straight-on approach: Salting is often the required form of resistance to the employer’s workplace dictatorship.

When organizing is a de facto illegal act—when workers are fired and victimized by the tens of thousands for exercising their paper right to unionize—salting is the completely justified response.

It acts as a catalyst for the workers already on the job who are frequently supportive of unions but nearly purged of hope and terrified of organizing, for fear of retaliation. When the workplace has been reduced to this situation, those who confront it as salts are doing truly commendable work.

Ultimately, all of us are salts. We have no means to earn a living other than finding a boss to hire us—and why shouldn’t we desire to start a union, or strengthen an existing union, while we’re there?

Chris Townsend has been a union member, organizer, and staff member for 44 years, spending the bulk of his career as a staffer for the United Electrical Workers and the Amalgamated Transit Union. Contact him at

‘Whole Process People’s Democracy’ in China: What does it mean? / by David Cavendish

Ethnic minority delegates leave after the closing ceremony for China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 13, 2023. | Andy Wong / AP

Originally published in the People’s World on May 9, 2023

The expulsion of two African American representatives from the Tennessee state legislature recently is only the latest in what seems to be a never-ending series of attacks on democracy in the United States. Add to it the endless voter suppression tactics like racist purges of voter rolls, bans on mail-in ballots, restrictive voter ID hurdles, reduced poll hours, and more.

And of course, one need look no further than to the machinations of former President Donald Trump in the wake of his defeat at the ballot box in 2020 to see these attacks underway at the highest level.

Though the United States was founded on democratic principles (“All men are created equal…”), they applied to only a small segment of the population—white men who owned property.

As a result, the last two-and-a-half centuries have been marked by a continuous struggle by the working class, African Americans and other people of color, women, Native Americans, and immigrants, among others, to make those principles a living reality for all people.

The simple fact is that those who exercise power, that is the moneyed class, don’t want to give up what they see as a good thing. Hence, the class struggle.

For over a hundred years, the United States government has set itself up as the arbiter around the world of what is to be considered “democracy.” From Woodrow Wilson’s “Make the world safe for democracy” during World War (1917-18) to Joe Biden’s two “Summits for Democracy” (2021 and 2023), there has been a consistency of message: The United States knows best.

The problem is that what the U.S. government projects as “democracy” is a version coming out of centuries of Western political thought, which it tries to apply to all peoples, in all places, at all times.

Democracy is a common aspiration of all peoples, but not all democracies are identical, even among the capitalist democracies of the West. The United States’ system (the presidential model) is markedly different in many ways from what exists in Britain (the parliamentary or Westminster model). And democracy today is vastly different from that which existed in the “Birthplace of Democracy”—Athens—in the sixth and fifth centuries, BCE.

More importantly, democracy differs markedly in other economic systems. Working class democracy, based on a socialist mode of production, draws on the basic ideas of political democracy, but expands and deepens it to the economy. For example, the idea of Bill of Rights Socialism, proposed by the Communist Party USA, applies this concept to the United States.

Unfortunately, there is little chance for Bill of Rights Socialism being adopted in the near future.

There is today, however, a working-class system of democracy in practice that is growing stronger every day—in China. Called “Whole Process People’s Democracy,” its basic ideas are virtually unknown in the United States. It is vital at this critical juncture in world history that people should learn about it because we can never live and work in peace with China if we do not know the basic facts about how that country functions.

It goes without saying that most Americans would call China an “authoritarian” government controlled and run by the Communist Party of China (CPC). While no one disputes the central role of the CPC in Chinese life, few people know that there are eight other political parties that have roles to play in the government and daily life. Under the Chinese constitution, these nine parties work within a system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party.

The core principles of Whole Process People’s Democracy were expressed in a 2021 newspaper article by Guo Wei, the Chinese ambassador to Seychelles. She explained:

“The most basic criterion for democracy is whether people have the right to participate extensively in national governance, whether people’s demands can be responded to and satisfied. In China, the people participate in the management of state affairs, social affairs, and economic and cultural affairs; they provide opinions and suggestions for the design of national development plans at the highest level and also contribute to the governance of local public affairs; they take part in democratic elections, consultations, decision-making, management, and oversight….”

China, much like the United States, is organized on a federal system. There are three basic levels of government: national, provincial (equivalent to U.S. states), and local—cities, counties, towns, and villages. Each level is governed by a congress elected directly by the people. At the national level is the National People’s Congress (NPC), which meets for two weeks every year.

But Whole Process People’s Democracy is more than that. At the local level it is called Community-Level Self-Governance. There is a network of local committees, be they urban resident committees, villager committees, or trade union committees. Today in China there are 112,000 urban committees, 503,000 villager committees, and 2,809,000 trade union committees. All committees are elected by secret ballot with open vote counting (with results announced on the spot).

The villager committees must have between three and seven members, include at least one female, and a member from an ethnic minority (if there are such in the village). The urban residents committees are similar, though they can have as many as nine members. All members serve terms of five years.

All committees are empowered to “carry out democratic consultations on local affairs in various forms, and practice democratic decision-making in handling community issues and public services through committee meetings and congresses.”

The third type of committee is the trade union committee. Found in private enterprises and public institutions, its main roles are to “advocate on behalf of employees on equal footing with employers.” The trade unions have the right to negotiate with their employers [to] seek “corrections” from the employers if they violate employee rights,” such as “deducting or delaying payment of employees’ wages, [or] failure to provide safe and healthy working conditions, extending working hours arbitrarily, infringing on the special rights and interests of female and juvenile employees, [and] other serious violations of employee labor rights and interests.”

These committees are funded through membership dues as well as via “employer contributions (employers must pay a monthly fee equal to 2% of the aggregate monthly wages of all the unionized employees.)” The whole discussion on the role of China’s trade unions, organized in the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) is something for another day.

This description of aspects of China’s “Whole Process People’s Democracy” provides only the briefest and most general overview of a vast and complex subject. Yet, China’s ideas on democracy should stimulate a discussion that we in the United States need to have.

In the struggle for American democracy, the working people need a clear vision of what type of future they want, one based not on money but human needs. The People’s Republic of China provides a treasure trove of ideas to study.

David Cavendish is a retired teacher, active in the union movement, the peace movement (many years in an anti-Iraq/Afghanistan War vigil), and other progressive political activities. He is a longtime contributor to People’s World. David Cavendish es un maestro jubilado, activo en el movimiento sindical, el movimiento por la paz y otras actividades políticas progresistas. Colabora desde hace mucho tiempo en People’s World.

The Condition of the Indian Working Class / by The Tricontinental

Birender Kumar Yadav, Erased Faces, 2015. Brickmakers’ thumbprints stamped onto their portraits on archival prints.

Originally published in the The Tricontinental on May 2, 2023

Two facts shattered the appearance of calm in contemporary India. First, COVID-19 exposed the decades-long evisceration of India’s health system and the utter incompetence of a central government that was keener to ask the public to bang pots than to offer scientifically based, calm leadership. Second, Indian farmers and peasants held a year-long protest during the pandemic against three bills put forward by the central government that threatened the existence of farming in India. Their protest, which received support from the working class and from large sections of the middle class, was able to prevail against a government that does not have the habit of retreat.

Theories that emanate from the government and from think tanks that have grown to eclipse the democratic role of public universities could not explain either the impact of the virus or the political resilience of the farmers and peasants. The façade of their fine theories cracked open to display a history of naked avarice. Phrases such as ‘labour market liberalisation’ and ‘trade liberalisation’ did not produce an efficient, modern society. Instead, decades of cuts to the public health system, the use of underpaid ‘volunteers’ to provide care during the pandemic, and the promotion of unscientific ideas by elected officials resulted in a massive COVID-19 death toll. Meanwhile, these phrases – out of the textbooks of neoliberal theory – provided the intellectual cover to hand over the control of agricultural commodity markets to large corporations, many with intimate ties to the ruling party.

The cracks in this façade shone a light on the anti-social impact of the neoliberal era in India, which began in 1991. This light burned bright, refusing to be dimmed by media conglomerates and holy men, who began to praise the government for preventing even more deaths. But that light did shine through, and it made an impact on mass consciousness, even if it did not result in immediate electoral gains for the opposition parties.

Birender Kumar Yadav, Walking on the Roof of Hell, 2016. Khadau (wooden sandals).

In June 2021, Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research published our assessment of the farmer’s protest in dossier no. 41, The Farmer’s Revolt in India. That dossier provided an understanding of how neoliberal policy has undermined Indian farmers and landless peasants, increasing inequality and misery in the countryside. This dossier, The Condition of the Indian Working Class, offers a broad analysis of the living and working conditions of India’s large and diverse working class.

The Lockdown

On 24 March 2020, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced – without notice – a ‘total lockdown’ for the country’s population of 1.4 billion. Small and medium-size businesses, which employ most of India’s workforce, pulled down their shutters. Due to the lockdown, at least 120 million workers, or 45 percent of India’s non-agricultural workforce, lost their jobs. Employers were under no moral or legal obligation to pay their workers, many of whom did not even receive their back wages. Some workers only had a few days’ worth of food in hand while others found themselves with no money or food at all, and many were expelled from the shantytowns where they lived. Faced with public pressure and the possibility that hundreds of millions of people would starve because of this unplanned lockdown, the government announced a meagre support package on 26 March that totalled less than 1 percent of India’s gross domestic product.

The lockdown demonstrated the fragility of the Indian working class: only a small push was needed to throw vast sections of the workforce into homelessness and hunger. Workers in cities, almost all of them migrants from far-away towns and villages, had neither any significant support from the government nor the security of community and family networks.1

Tens of millions of desperate migrant workers defied the curfew and walked thousands of kilometres to their home villages. For them, the villages represented shelter, security, and some form of dignity. Some flocked to railways and bus stations in search of transportation while others took to the national highways on foot. Millions of other workers, including those whose villages were too far to brave such a journey, remained in the cities and depended on the kindness of strangers. Trade unions, left political parties, employees on salaries (mainly bank workers and internet technology workers), sensitive individuals, and others hurriedly formed groups to provide food and water to the workers and help them to return their villages. The reaction from the state was characteristic: the police stopped workers at state borders; sprayed industrial bleach at them through water cannons, allegedly to sanitise them; confiscated their bicycles; and beat them as they violated the curfew. No corporations stepped forward to bear responsibility for the workers’ welfare, their attitude as callous as that of the government.

Trapped in cities, hundreds of millions of workers had to face the pandemic in the worst possible conditions. The majority of the urban working class – nearly half of urban India and ­– lives in slums, where the air is fetid and the surroundings squalid. Light barely penetrates the narrowly packed brick boxes and sheds, a few inches separating each dwelling from the other. Families are packed tightly into narrow rooms, where privacy and breathing space are alien. Migrant workers pile on top of each other in single rooms with their meagre belongings. In most of these slums, which do not have proper drainage systems, the surroundings becoming toilets. The social catastrophe is hard to describe: workers fall into collapsed septic tanks, drowning in filth; gas cylinders, the main form of cooking energy, explode because their production is effectively unregulated; neighbourhoods turn into swamps during the heavy monsoon rains, with dysentery, dengue, malaria, and typhoid given free rein. The pandemic was just one more burden for the workers. Confined to claustrophobic slums, where social distancing is impossible, they watched as the virus swept through their communities. Out of sight, out of mind: that was the attitude of the Indian government and elite.

The scale of the terror invoked by COVID-19 could not be concealed. Corpses of the working class and the poor were seen floating down the Ganges River and piling up in crematoria and graveyards across the country. The government began to bury the numbers, underestimating infections and casualties despite the clear evidence and first-hand knowledge in working-class areas of high rates of infection and death. A government that had overseen the evisceration of the public health system and that had turned over the pharmaceutical industry to the private sector certainly seemed more invested in the health of the ‘market’ and of the billionaires than in the health of the workers.

Two Indian pharmaceutical companies had a duopoly in the country’s COVID-19 vaccines. Even as the pandemic spiralled out of control, the government procrastinated bringing in the more than capable public-sector companies to increase the production of vaccines. Given that one of the vaccines was developed by government research institutes, the public sector could easily have been tasked with ramping up the production and delivery of vaccines. What was clearly in the public’s best interest was not in the best interest of capital. Rather than intervene in the worst public health crisis seen in the country’s history, the Indian government stood by as private firms made enormous profits and neglected to vaccinate India’s working class. One of these two pharmaceutical companies made a profit of up to 2,000 percent per a single dose while the other made a profit of up to 4,000 percent.2 From March 2020 to March 2022, the profits of India’s big businesses doubled, as did the wealth of the country’s billionaires.3

Workers in the Era Before Liberalisation

In 1944, four years before the British imperialists were ejected from India, a group of Indian capitalists drafted a text called the Bombay Plan. These capitalists acknowledged that in an independent India, the industrial sector would need to be protected from international competition and given resources to flourish. This protectionist theory is called the ‘infant industry’ thesis. Drawing from the Bombay Plan, the new Indian state developed an industrial policy (1948), set up a planning commission (1950), produced the first Five-Year Plan (1951–1956), crafted the Industrial Policy Resolution (1956), and passed the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act (1969). The new Indian government’s policy – drafted alongside private-sector industrialists – was to carve out some areas for the private sector and to ensure that no private-sector conglomerates could dominate any one sector. However, there was no democratisation of the Indian economy through land reforms or through the provision of workers’ rights, allowing the bourgeoisie to benefit greatly in the early years of independent India. In 1960, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru conceded that his government’s policies had intensified social inequality:

Large numbers of people have not shared in [the increase in the nation’s wealth] and [they] live without the primary necessities of life. On the other side you see a smaller group of really affluent people. They have established an affluent society for themselves anyhow, though India as a whole may be far from it… I think the new wealth is flowing in a particular direction and not spreading out properly.4

Unlike in socialist countries, the public sector in India was built for a limited purpose – to facilitate the growth and accumulation of the private sector. The raison d’être of the Indian public sector was not to maximise profits, but to provide a sustainable ecosystem for private industry – hence the investments in infrastructure and inputs like heavy machinery and steel, which in the absence of the public sector would have had to be imported from Western countries at very high costs.

Strong workers’ movements fought to build key trade unions that intervened to ensure that legislation regarding work hours, wages, benefits, and collective bargaining would be implemented, strengthened, and expanded to include more and more of the workforce. There are three reasons why public-sector workers were able to make these gains: first, because the capital-intensive nature of the public sector and subsequent concentration of workers in large factories allowed strikes to inflict rapid damage on profits; second, because the largely undereducated and underfed population meant that the reserve army of labour to undercut the skilled public-sector workers was not always available; and third, because of the tradition of struggle and the trade union culture that developed in these factories, the public-sector workers developed high levels of class consciousness. However, the restriction of the public sector to capital-intensive industry and the proportionally small number of its workers in the labour force ensured that only a small segment of the Indian working class could access these rights. Nevertheless, the rights of public-sector workers set a benchmark for the rest of the working class, which fought, alongside the highly class-conscious public-sector workers, to extend labour legislation to cover all workers.

This is significant given that in India, 83 percent of the workforce is in the informal sector, consisting of a multitude of small, unincorporated enterprises alongside household and precarious work. Even in the formal sector, a significant percentage of employment is informal in nature (such as subcontracted work), bringing the total of informally employed workers to more than 90 percent of the labour force.5 For these workers, laws and rights are a fantasy: most of them do not even earn the minimum wage, despite the fact that it is set just above hunger levels. Due to the lack of protections, these workers are forced into irregular and seasonal contracts, including daily wage contracts, which deprive them of reliable sources of income. The informal and unregulated nature of work has meant that – even before liberalisation – unionisation has long been alien to these workers. Only in states where the Left is or has been in power – such as Kerala, Tripura, and West Bengal – have workers been able to attain legislation that has improved their working conditions and allowed them to unionise. In these states, workers have had a higher share of income.

Labour Market Reform Since 1991

In 1991, the Indian government made an agreement with the International Monetary Fund to liberalise the economy in exchange for short-term financial assistance. This included the government’s commitment to ‘reform’ the labour market and further open up the partly protected Indian economy to foreign capital. The era of the Bombay Plan was over.

India was attractive to foreign capital not only because of the size of its internal market, but also because of its large pool of workers who were being paid criminally low wages. Over the years since independence, workers remained underpaid and underfed, but there was a significant change: a large section of them had become literate. This technically skilled and more ambitious workforce emerged by the 1980s and continued to expand due to the government’s investment in vocational and technical training, the fight for increased educational opportunities for children, and the agrarian transformation that produced new aspirations among the children of farmers and peasants. However, there was no expansion of employment to accommodate them. It was this large army of underpaid, underfed labour, accustomed to working in what are likely some of the worst working conditions in the world, but now with new aspirations and literacy, that awaited the exploitation of international capital on the eve of liberalisation.

The corporate sector pushed a full-spectrum media campaign against workers, making the argument that they were entitled and lazy and that there needed to be ‘flexibility’ in this new age of globalisation. Many academic and policy institutions jumped on the bandwagon to make the case for ‘labour market flexibility’. The general orientation of this argument is that labour must work at the whim of capital, which should not be ‘captive’ to regulations about employment and wages and must be allowed to pay wages according the simple principle of supply and demand, uninfluenced by any responsibility to maintain workers’ living standards. Such a scenario – despite the social costs to workers – would bring in foreign investment, they argued, which would allegedly raise the general technological level of industry and further increase labour productivity, thereby increasing both growth rates and wage levels in the long term.

Two impediments lay before this golden road to growth: public-sector trade unions, which continued to resist the doctrine of ‘flexibility’, and the existence of labour laws. One important illustration of the resistance of trade unions is the fight at the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant, led by workers and joined by the public, who, together, have staved off multiple privatisation attempts over the course of a decade.6 Faced with challenges from the unions, the government moved towards a comprehensive solution not to fight the unions factory by factory, but to change the law in its favour, assisted, since 1991, by a judiciary aligned with the neoliberal agenda. In the early years of liberalisation, the Supreme Court ruled that contract workers at Air India could become permanent workers in certain cases. But in 2001, the court reversed this judgement following an appeal from the Steel Authority of India and other public-sector firms, thereby nullifying the gains that workers had made through decades of struggle. This assault on contract workers came alongside other industrial disputes, such as a concerted attempt to ban strikes. Then, on 6 August 2003, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the Tamil Nadu state government’s dismissal of 170,000 employees on the grounds that they had been on an ‘illegal strike’. Only if the workers offered an unconditional apology, the Supreme Court said, would the government have to rehire them. Crucially, the Supreme Court concluded that ‘there is no question of [government employees] having any  fundamental, legal, or equitable right to go on strike’, further stating that trade unions do not have ‘a guaranteed right to an effective collective bargaining or to strike’ and that ‘[n]o political party or organisation can claim that it is entitled to paralyse the industry and commerce in the entire state and is entitled to prevent the citizens not in sympathy with its viewpoints from exercising their fundamental rights or from performing their duties for their own benefit or for the benefit of the state or the nation’.7 This judgement not only went against Indian laws: it also violated a range of International Labour Organisation conventions that the Indian government had signed over the years.

Over the course of the past few decades, there has been a change in the higher judiciary’s approach towards disputes between workers and management as well as the working class’s right to collectively protest and go on strike – a change that favours market principles and the sanctity of the contract. The judiciary’s views have allowed capital to open up a ruthless campaign against workers, but this has not stopped them from fighting back, as is evident from workers’ struggles, from the Maruti Suzuki factory in Manesar (Haryana) and the Volvo Buses factory in Hoskote (Karnataka) to the anganwadi (crèche) workers of Gujarat and the ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers of Punjab. Workers’ attempts to form unions have nonetheless been treated as criminal actions. As Maruti Suzuki’s Management Executive Officer S. Y. Siddiqui put it in June 2011, ‘The problem at Manesar is not one of industrial relations. It is an issue of crime and militancy’. Furthermore, the firm, he said, would not ‘tolerate any external affiliation of the union’, warning the unionised workers that any attempt to find political allies amongst the national labour federations to help their fledgling struggle would be met with retaliation from the company.8 In the face of continued worker struggles, the government has turned to using anti-terror legislation to arrest workers and subdue their right to strike. For instance, in 2017, when contract workers for Reliance Energy unionised and went on strike for a few hours demanding compensation for the death of a worker, five of them were arrested on terrorism charges.Furthermore, violence against union organisers along the Gurgaon-Manesar-Dharuhera-Rewari stretch (in northern India) is mirrored in the Coimbatore-Chennai belt (in southern India). The immanent violence in both of these zones led to industrial actions that resulted in workers’ deaths, such as the 2012 murder of Awanish Kumar Dev at the Maruti Suzuki plant and the 2009 murder of Roy George of Pricol Limited in Coimbatore (in the state of Tamil Nadu). In 2009, after the uprisings in Coimbatore, Jayant Davar, the president of the Automotive Component Manufacturers Association of India, put it bluntly: ‘We can’t be a capitalist country that has socialist labour laws’.10

Proponents of ‘labour flexibility’ argued that this approach would attract foreign capital and increase labour productivity and economic growth. Decades after its implementation, however, the data contradicts the theory. Instead, growth has slumped and so has employment – especially full-time, formal employment – as the workforce has increasingly shifted to a model of short-term contracts with minimal regulatory oversight and benefits. Due to deteriorating working conditions, the share of profits and wages has diverged significantly: from 1999–2000 to 2018, the share of profits increased from 17 percent to 48 percent while the share of wages decreased from 33 percent to 26 percent.11 Profits are now the national interest, and struggling workers are terrorists.

Divisive labour practices have decimated trade unions in private-sector industry and have created difficulties for the unions of the public-sector industry. This has led to hierarchies of exploitation between formal and contract workers, which most acutely impact the most exploited sectors and cause an atmosphere of resentment between workers on the shop floor. Struggles that largely focus on bargaining over wages are unlikely to rally united mobilisations, except in extraordinary circumstances.

Working-Class Desperation

Employment generated by the neoliberal dispensation is work for the desperate. The promise of large-scale industrial investment and the creation of high-quality industrial jobs did not materialise in a significant way, and both economic and industrial growth have remained at low levels not only because of the lack of investment, but also because of the suppressed demand of the Indian population. This demand was reduced because of the desperately low wages of much of the population as well as neoliberal restraints on public spending, particularly in the agrarian sector.

Since 1991, there have been two periods of significant economic growth in India, but neither of them are due to ‘labour market reforms’ or neoliberal policies in general. The first, from 2003 to 2008, was generated by the spillover from the credit-fuelled demand of US consumers, and the second, from 2009 to 2011, was generated by credit-fuelled spending by Indian corporations as they borrowed vast sums of soon-to-be defaulted loans from Indian public-sector banks to build infrastructure, such as power plants and roadways. These bubbles are not sustainable, since US consumer demand has flattened and since Indian firms are not willing to increase investment in the face of depressed demand, which is reflected in the vastly unutilised capacity of the country’s industry. Private conglomerates continue to borrow from public-sector banks, but they do so to fund acquisitions rather than create employment.

Birender Kumar Yadav, An Axe on One’s Own Foot, 2015. Iron and wood.

These large conglomerates, which are able to borrow astronomical amounts of capital from public-sector banks, employ – at their peak – no more than 2 percent of India’s workforce and no more than 5 percent of the non-agricultural workforce.12 Rather, the majority of India’s workers are hired by small enterprises, which face an entirely different reality. In these firms, which are often strapped for credit, the wage bill takes up the majority of the operational costs, there is little ‘value addition’ during the production process, the profit margins are slim, and there is relatively little access to capital. These small, scattered enterprises have limited market power, which means that they cannot mobilise the political power needed to access public resources at scale. The only way for these small enterprises to accumulate profits and capital, then, is to squeeze workers. In these sectors – almost completely unregulated – workers are overworked and underpaid, with few rights as compared to those in the formal sector. During market swings, these firms perish, as happened during the COVID-19 pandemic. Their reliance on cheap labour limits the likeliness, or even the possibility, that they will improve working conditions, which is why their workers require direct state support during an emergency such as the pandemic.

Meanwhile, the informal sector is mostly made up of a wide array of service workers who are either employed by small businesses or are ‘self-employed’. A large number of these small businesses, such as shops and restaurants, each employ a handful of workers, many of them hired daily and paid in cash or in kind. Another large section of workers in the informal sector sell their labour directly to consumers. This includes auto drivers, domestic workers, electricians, load carriers, manual scavengers, mechanics, plumbers, rickshaw pullers, ragpickers, road sweepers, and security guards. Most of them have neither an employer nor a stable occupation, and many of them hold multiple jobs. For many of these workers, there is a continuum between rural and urban spaces, as they travel to their villages during the sowing and harvest seasons either to work on their family farms or to hire themselves out as agricultural workers. These are the footloose workers of modern India.13

The development of road networks made possible the perpetual circulation of desperate workers, creating a massive reserve army of labour for the informal sector in both urban and rural areas. The expansion of mobile networks and the availability of more affordable mobile phones allow these informal workers to be in constant contact with labour recruiters (known as ‘jobbers’) and with their families and friends who alert them about the possibilities of employment on a daily or seasonal basis. These workers come from the most disenfranchised and oppressed castes of rural India. Some of them chase agricultural seasons across the country while others seek out construction projects in far-off cities. These migrant workers live in temporary dwellings at the edge of the fields or construction sites, often tents made of old sarees and plastic sheets that have no kitchens or toilets – only the open air. Children play in the rubble or are slung onto the backs of their mothers as they carry heavy loads up ladders or into the fields. The food that the migrants grow is not eaten by them, and the homes that they build are not for them. They work, and having worked, move on to new temporary worksites to work some more.

Migration puts distance between families, particularly across generational lines, draining the youngest and most able-bodied sections of communities to far-flung places in search of work that offers no security for their futures. It is not uncommon to see older men and women who were once casual workers now reduced to begging or to early deaths as they face large out-of-pocket expenses in the predominantly private healthcare sector, which push 55 million Indian every year into poverty.14 Furthermore, the Indian pension system is abysmal, dispensing meagre, and often irregularly paid, sums far below the cost of living (as low as Rs. 200 per month for many).15

As road networks developed across the country, regional disparities in industrialisation widened. Much of the industrial production concentrated in peninsular India and in mining regions, attracting private capital to areas where the needed infrastructure had already been developed. Migrant workers travel vast distances to these sites, alienated culturally and linguistically in their new, temporary homes. This alienation also means that they are often unable to mobilise community support for their struggles, from condemning cases of extreme abuse to demanding higher wages and better working and living conditions. As the journalist Siddhartha Deb writes, ‘It is an arrangement that suits employers everywhere well, ensuring that the workers will be too insecure and uprooted to ever mount organised protests against their conditions and wages. They are from distant regions, of no interest to local politicians seeking votes, and they are alienated from the local people by differences in language and culture’.16 A powder keg of conflicting regional, linguistic chauvinism is being filled up for future detonation.

Small businesses and industrial firms face significant challenges, from the disadvantage compared to the economies of scale enjoyed by large conglomerate to the enormous challenges posed both by the Indian government’s demonetisation scheme, which, overnight, withdrew 86 percent of the cash in circulation in the economy in 2016, and by its implementation of the General Service Tax (GST) in 2017.17 Demonetisation was a blow to small business that depended on cash transactions for sales, purchases, and wage payments. The new GST regime, meanwhile, placed a heavy regulatory burden on small firms as it significantly raised their overhead costs by increasing the cost of compliance, while for large firms it improved the ease of doing business across states. These two processes wiped out many small firms, which resulted in a loss of employment for the most vulnerable workers. Furthermore, the firms that were shuttered during the pandemic provide an opening for large conglomerates to expand.

The data on Indian workers is unreliable. The official unemployment rate stands at 8 percent, although some estimates place the actual rate far higher. Work participation rates remain low, at approximately 40 percent, and the income of the median Indian worker is Rs. 10,000, which is below the minimum wage.18 With 410 million workers in a population of 1.4 billion people, every Indian worker needs to earn enough wages to provide for 3.5 people, which means that they must do so on less than the minimum wage.19

The Workers’ Revolt

Class struggle is not the invention of unions or of workers. It is a fact of life for labour in the capitalist system. The capitalist buys the worker’s labour power, seeking to make it as efficient and productive as possible, and retains the gains from this productivity, sloughing off the worker to their slums at night to figure out a way to summon the energy to come back the next day. This pressure for the worker to be more productive and to donate the gains of their productivity to the capitalist is the essence of the class struggle. When the worker wants a larger share of the output, the capitalist does not listen. It is the power to strike that provides workers with a voice to enter the class struggle in a conscious way.

Since the late 1990s, Indian trade unions have joined together to call for a general strike against liberalisation almost every year, with roughly 200 million workers participating as of 2022.20 How did so many workers – most of them in the informal sector – join this strike?

As a result of the fights led by informal workers (mainly women workers in the care sector), trade unions have begun to take up the issues of informal workers as issues of the entire trade union movement over the course of the past two decades. Fights for permanency of tenure, proper wage contracts, dignity for women workers, and so on produced a strong unity between all the different sections of workers, whose militancy is now channelled through the organised power of trade union structures. Similarly, women workers do not see issues that pertain to them as women’s issues, but as issues that all workers must fight for and win, as is also the case with issues that impact workers along lines of race, caste, and other social distinctions. Furthermore, unions have been taking up issues impacting social life and community welfare, arguing for the right to water, sewage connections, and education for children as well as against intolerance of all kinds. These community struggles are an integral part of the lives of workers and peasants.

Birender Kumar Yadav, May Day, 2022. Iron, wood, and charcoal on paper.

At the same time, the ideas of the right wing – notably manifested in Hindutva (the core ideology of Hindu supremacists) – have begun to take root in Indian society, including in sections of the working class. The right wing has found fertile ground in the socioeconomic conditions generated by neoliberal capitalism, such as the invisibility and alienation that workers experience in urban areas, the indignities of everyday life, the isolation and toxic socialisation engendered, especially, in men separated from their families, the solace offered by religious gatherings, and the search for community and identity. With the waning influence of secular and rational ideologies in the country and the general narrowness of the working-class movement, there has been no significant force to counter this. A working class high on Hindutva and the hallucinations of a Hindu state (Rama Rajya) turning its misery and humiliation on fellow workers of a different religion or caste and finding empowerment through degrading fratricide is the neofascist prescription to control workers. What delays a united, full-blown neofascist agenda across the country is the presence of regional nationalities, particularly in southern India. Nonetheless, the potential of working-class and peasant resistance to this kind of neofascist agenda was evident in the farmers’ movement, for instance, when farmers and peasants from a range of backgrounds took the fight against big capital to the streets.

The pandemic shed light on the clear incompatibility of the interests of the working class and capital. The former lie in public investment, generating employment, taxing corporations to generate funds for the welfare of the working class, and bolstering agriculture and small industries. Given the structure of the working class and the numerical weakness of organised workers, the confrontation with capital can only be successful when it goes beyond the shop floor and wage bargaining to compel the state on a deeper, and political, level. This is easier said than done, as the left wing of the trade union movement knows well. Yet, the pandemic has the potential to open a window into and expand workers’ class consciousness, countering the ideological and media apparatus of capital which only obfuscates the contradictions facing society.

In August 1992, textile workers in Bombay took to the streets in their undergarments, declaring that the new order would leave them in abject poverty. Their symbolic gesture continues to reflect the current reality of Indian workers in the twenty-first century: they have not surrendered in the face of the rising power of capital. They remain alive to the class struggle.


1 For more, see Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, CoronaShock: A Virus and the World, dossier no. 28, 5 May 2020,

2 R. Ramakumar, ‘State Governments Can Purchase Only 25% of Vaccines – Belying Centre’s Claim of Equitable Policy’, Scroll, 11 May 2021,

3 Mahesh Vyas, ‘Record Profits by Listed Companies’, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 31 May 2022,

4 Government of India, Problems of the Third Plan: A Critical Miscellany (New Delhi: Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1961), 49–50.

5 Government of India, Periodic Labour Force Survey (New Delhi: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, July 2020 – June 2021).

6 Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research, The People’s Steel Plant and the Fight Against Privatisation in Visakhapatnam, dossier no. 55, 23 August 2022,

7 T. K. Rangarajan v. Government of Tamil Nadu & Others, Case no.: Appeal (civil) 5556 of 2003 (New Delhi, 6 August 2003),

8 Vijay Prashad, No Free Left: The Futures of Indian Communism (New Delhi: LeftWord Books, 2015), 218.

9 Jyoti Punwani, ‘How 5 Reliance Workers Fighting for a Better Deal Found Themselves in Jail on Terrorism Charges’, Article 14, 29 July 2021,

10 Peter Wonacott, ‘Deadly Labour Wars Hinder India’s Rise’, Wall Street Journal, 24 November 2009,

11 Subodh Varma, ‘Modi’s Rule Is Boosting Profits, Squeezing Wages’, NewsClick, 24 September 2018,

12 Government of India, Periodic Labour Force Survey (PLFS)– Annual Report (New Delhi: Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, July 2020 – June 2021).

13 Jan Breman, Footloose Labour: Working in India’s Informal Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

14 Taran Deol, ‘India’s Persistently High out-of-Pocket Health Expenditure Continues to Push People into Poverty’, Down to Earth, 22 September 2022,

15 Express News Service, ‘14 States Give Rs 500 or Less as Pension, Says Report’, The Indian Express, 29 September 2018,

16 Siddhartha Deb, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India (New York: Faber and Faber, 2011), 170.

17 Shruti Srivastava and Archana Chaudhary, ‘Amidst the Digital Push, GST Transition Will Be Painful for SMEs’, The Economic Times, 23 May 2017,

18 Mrinalini Jha and Amit Basole, ‘Labour Incomes in India: A Comparison of PLFS and CMIE-CPHS Data’ (CSE Working Paper no. 46, Centre for Sustainable Employment, Azim Premji University, Bengaluru, February 2022),

19 Mahesh Vyas, ‘Employment and Unemployment Rise in December’, Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy, 2 January 2023,,pandemic%20month%20of%20January%202020

20 Peoples Dispatch, ‘Millions Strike in India Against Modi Government’s Policies’, Peoples Dispatch, 30 March 2022,

Tricontinental: Institute for Social Research is an international, movement-driven institution that carries out empirically based research guided by political movements. We seek to bridge gaps in our knowledge about the political economy as well as social hierarchy that will facilitate the work of our political movements and involve ourselves in the “battle of ideas” to fight against bourgeois ideology that has swept through intellectual institutions from the academy to the media.

Opinion: Farmworkers deserve the same rights as all workers / by Arthur Phillips

Migrant farmworkers at Wyman’s of Maine. | Getty Images

This piece was originally published at the Maine Center for Economic Policy blog and reposted in the Maine Beacon on May 4, 2023

Workers are the engine of the economy, and they all deserve dignity, respect, and to be able to take care of themselves and their loved ones. Yet, while Maine recognizes workers’ rights to bargain collectively and earn a fair wage, farm workers have long been excluded from these basic economic freedoms. Workers in Maine’s agriculture industry — which employs a disproportionately large share of Black, Latino, and Indigenous Mainers — have been subject to exemptions from basic labor laws that leave them more likely to live in poverty and make racial inequities worse.

New Deal legislation passed in the 1930s, including the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates minimum wage and overtime pay, and the National Labor Relations Act, which established federal labor law, excluded agricultural and domestic workers at a time when more than half of Black workers were employed in those sectors. Since then, more than a dozen states have taken it upon themselves to right this injustice by extending collective bargaining rights to farm workers. Maine has the opportunity to join other states and ensure farmworkers have the right to a minimum wage, overtime, and the freedom to collectively bargain with their employers. Speaker Rachel Talbot Ross (D-Portland) has introduced two bills, LD 398 and LD 525, that would do just that.

Maine’s agricultural sector does not need to exploit workers to prosper

Currently, farmworkers are much more likely to live in poverty than other Mainers: about one-quarter of Maine farmhands live in poverty, making them roughly 4.5 times as likely to live below the poverty line as other Maine workers, according to a MECEP analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data from 2015-2019. Nationally, farmworkers’ wages are roughly 60% of what all other nonsupervisory workers are paid.

While Maine has many small farms, most farmworkers are employed at larger operations. The USDA’s last Census of Agriculture found Maine farms employing at least five workers accounted for 77% of all hired farmworkers, while farms with 10 or more workers employed nearly 60% of all farmworkers. As of 2021, there were 140 farms with sales of more than $1 million, with an average acreage of 2,071. Most farmworkers are employed by enterprises that can manage to offer the most basic labor rights which nearly all other workers enjoy.

Among farmworkers who are full-time U.S. residents, data suggests more than 70% usually work 40 hours or less. Around one-in-four workers work between 40 and 60 hours per week, according to the American Community Survey data. There is no doubt extending overtime protections to farmworkers would entail increased costs to agricultural employers; however, they would be feasible, especially when phased in over several years. Studies from Massachusetts and New York found extending overtime to farmworkers would increase production costs by between 2 and 9%, which could be mitigated through a combination of productivity improvements and increased prices.

Farmworkers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation and are less likely to be fairly compensated for their labor. Data shows violations of labor law are common in the limited areas where federal labor protections do apply, such as laws governing the treatment of migrant workers and the payment of the federal minimum wage. Nationally, 70% of U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (WHD) investigations at farms reveal violations of labor law, including wage theft and providing inadequate housing. Yet, the national probability that the WHD will investigate any farm employer is just more than one in one hundred.

All workers should be able to exercise their first amendment rights which includes collective bargaining

The right to collectively bargain is a first amendment right and a basic economic freedom, one that agricultural workers have been denied for more than 90 years.

Collective bargaining is associated with better health and safety, greater economic stability, and improved racial and gender equity. Unions are also associated with less turnover and higher productivity, and union contracts provide mutually agreed upon processes for resolving disputes. Unionized workers share with their employers an interest in stability and long-term growth. While workers often organize in response to poor working conditions or bad treatment from employers, they also do so to ensure they have a voice in shaping the conditions of their work.

It is very difficult for workers to successfully organize a union and reach a collective bargaining agreement with their employers. Workers organize on an employer-by-employer basis, and doing so takes significant time and effort. If LD 525 were passed into law, farmworkers would finally have a fundamental labor right, but their successful exercise of that right would presumably be limited and gradual. The bill also includes mediation and binding arbitration language that would facilitate contract settlements and help avoid work stoppages.

Farming is incredibly hard work, and rising input prices and the outsized power of wholesale buyers make small farmers’ margins tight. But these facts do not mean our food supply must depend on depriving farmworkers of basic rights that nearly all other workers have enjoyed for nearly a century. Ensuring workers have the right to collectively bargain, the minimum wage, and overtime pay is long overdue and will help Maine’s agricultural industry thrive in the years ahead.

Arthur Phillips works on MECEP’s inclusive economy portfolio and leads outreach and advocacy on labor issues. Arthur Phillips is an economic policy analyst with the Maine Center for Economic Policy. Arthur worked for seven years as a researcher and campaign strategist with the hospitality workers’ union UNITE HERE. Before that, he conducted research published by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history with a minor in economics from McGill University.