Breaking the Chains of Debt Peonage

Published on Global Resear.ca, by Chris Hedges, Feb 3, 2013.

The corporate state has made it clear there will be no more Occupy encampments. The corporate state is seeking through the persistent harassment of activists and the passage of draconian laws such as Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act—and we will be in court next Wednesday to fight the Obama administration’s appeal of the Southern District Court of New York’s ruling declaring Section 1021 unconstitutional—to shut down all legitimate dissent. 

The corporate state is counting, most importantly, on its system of debt peonage to keep citizens—especially the 30 million people who make up the working poor—from joining our revolt.

Workers who are unable to meet their debts, who are victimized by constantly rising interest rates that can climb to as high as 30 percent on credit cards, are far more likely to remain submissive and compliant. Debt peonage is and always has been a form of political control. Native Americans, forced by the U.S. government onto tribal agencies, were required to buy their goods, usually on credit, at agency stores. Coal miners in southern West Virginia and Kentucky were paid in scrip by the coal companies and kept in perpetual debt servitude by the company store. African-Americans in the cotton fields in the South were forced to borrow during the agricultural season from their white landlords for their seed and farm equipment, creating a life of perpetual debt. It soon becomes impossible to escape the mounting interest rates that necessitate new borrowing.

Debt peonage is a familiar form of political control. And today it is used by banks and corporate financiers to enslave not only individuals but also cities, municipalities, states and the federal government. As the economist Michael Hudson points out, the steady rise in interest rates, coupled with declining public revenues, has become a way to extract the last bits of capital from citizens as well as government. Once individuals, or states or federal agencies, cannot pay their bills—and for many Americans this often means medical bills—assets are sold to corporations or seized. Public land, property and infrastructure, along with pension plans, are privatized. Individuals are pushed out of their homes and into financial and personal distress.

Debt peonage is a fundamental tool for control. This debt peonage must be broken if we are going to build a mass movement to paralyze systems of corporate power. And the most effective weapon we have to liberate ourselves as well as the 30 million Americans who make up the working poor is a sustained movement to raise the minimum wage nationally to at least $11 an hour. Most of these 30 million low-wage workers are women and people of color. They and their families struggle at a subsistence level and play one lender off another to survive. By raising their wages we raise not only the quality of their lives but we increase their capacity for personal and political power. We break one of the most important shackles used by the corporate state to prevent organized resistance.

Ralph Nader, whom I spoke with on Thursday, has been pushing activists to mobilize around raising the minimum wage. Nader, who knows more about corporate power and has been fighting it longer than any other American, has singled out, I believe, the key to building a broad-based national movement. There is among these underpaid 30 million workers—and some of them are with us tonight—a mounting despair at being unable to meet even the basic requirements to maintain a family. Nader points out that Walmart’s 1 million workers, like most of the 30 million low-wage workers, are making less per hour, adjusted for inflation, than workers made in 1968, although these Walmart workers do the work required of two Walmart workers 40 years ago.

If the federal minimum wage from 1968 were adjusted for inflation it would be $10.50. Instead, although costs and prices have risen sharply, the federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour. It is the lowest of the major industrial countries. Meanwhile, Mike Duke, the CEO of Walmart, makes $11,000 an hour. And he is not alone. These corporate chiefs make this much money because they have been able to keep in place a system by which workers are effectively disempowered, forced to work for substandard wages and denied the possibility through unions or the formal electoral systems of power to defend workers’ rights. This is why corporations lavish these CEOs with obscene salaries. These CEOs are the masters of plantations. And the moment workers rise up and demand justice is the moment the staggering inequality of wealth begins to be reversed … //

… The former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, testifying before Congress, was quite open about the role of debt peonage in keeping workers passive. Greenspan pointed out that since 1980 labor productivity has increased by about 83 percent. Yet real wages have stagnated. Greenspan said this was because workers were too burdened with mortgage debts, college loans, auto payments and credit-card debt to risk losing a job. Household debt in the United States is around $13 trillion. This is only $2 trillion less than the country’s total yearly economic output. Greenspan was right. Miss a payment on your credit card and your interest rates jumps to 30 percent. Fail to pay your mortgage and you lose your home. Miss your health insurance payments, which have been spiraling upwards, and if you are seriously ill you go into bankruptcy, as 1 million Americans who get sick do every year. Trash your credit rating and your fragile financial edifice, built on managing debt, collapses. Since most Americans feel, on some level, as Hudson points out, that they are a step or two away from being homeless, they are deeply averse to challenging corporate power. It is not worth the risk. And the corporate state knows it. Absolute power, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote, depends on fear and passivity.

The only way to break this fear and passivity is to organize workers to break the cycle of mounting debt. And the first step to achieving independence from debt—the primary form of political control by the corporate state—is to raise the minimum wage. There are other solutions—forgiving mortgage and student debt, instituting universal health care, establishing a nationwide jobs program to rebuild the country’s Third World infrastructure, and green energy—but none of this will happen until we are able to mount a sustained mass movement that discredits the corporate state. This mass movement will arise, as Nader says, when we mobilize around the minimum wage.

The lowest-grade worker at the General Electric plant that makes high-tech health care devices outside Paterson in Totowa [New Jersey]—a pay grade known as the D 04—was just raised to $14,555 a year. That is under $8 an hour. The plant’s highest-paid hourly employee, known as D 16, earns $22,000. Immelt makes over $11 million a year. This vast disparity in income, and this wage abuse, is played out in every corporation in the country. No one in Washington intends to challenge it.

Only 11.3 percent of workers in this country belong to unions. This is the lowest percentage in 80 years. And nearly all these unions, and especially the AFL-CIO, have been emasculated by corporate power.

Nader is right when he warns that we are not going to be assisted in this effort by established unions. Union leaders are bought off. They are comfortable. They are pulling down at least five times what rank-and-file workers make. Nader says we have to mount protests not only outside the doors of Wal-marts and General Electric plants, not only outside congressional offices, but outside the doors of the AFL-CIO. There is no established institution inside or outside government that will help us. They are all broken or complicit. But there are the 30 million working poor who, if we organize to break the system of debt peonage that holds them hostage, may be willing to rise up. We are bound with many chains and shackles. We will have to break them one at a time. But once we rise up, once we are able to threaten the corporate systems that keep us supine through fear, we will unleash a torrent of energy and passion that will confirm the worst nightmares of our corporate overlords.
(full text).

(Chris Hedges gave this talk Saturday night in Brooklyn at the People’s Recovery Summit … (He) spent two decades as a foreign reporter covering wars in Latin America, Africa, Europe and the Middle East. His latest books are Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, Death of the Liberal Class, and The World as It Is: Dispatches on the Myth of Human Progress).

Links:

The People’s Recovery.org
;

The Real New World Order: Bankers Taking over the World, on Global Research.ca, by John Kozy, Feb 6, 2013;

Recession, Depression or Jobless Recovery? Long-Term Unemployment under Neoliberal Capitalism, on Global Resear.ca, by Alan Nasser, Feb 1, 2013.

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