On February 24th, Dr. Vijay Prashad spoke to a collection of Yale students, faculty, and local residents on the political economy that is at the root of black struggle and white rage. He contended that the rise of Donald Trump and of Black Lives Matter is not an unpredictable phenomena, but is instead the inevitable outcome of technological shifts and American governmental policies.
Dr. Prashad argued that there were several key changes from the 1970s to the late 1990s that fundamentally altered the relationship of capital and American labor. The first was the development of computer and satellite technology, which allowed for instant communication between people half a world away. Real-time interaction removed an obstacle of employing labor separated by a great distance. The second was drastic improvements in transportation.
“In the last thirty years, it became possible for a container in China to travel to Connecticut in a matter of days,” he marveled. The drop in transport costs removed another obstacle of outsourcing. Instant communication and rapid product movement created a “total collapse of space and a relative collapse of time.”
These technological changes, Dr. Prashad said, were accompanied by political shifts that negatively impacted American labor. Bill Clinton, among others, pushed for the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT), which strengthened intellectual property laws in signee countries. In perhaps an uncharitable account of its effects, Dr. Prashad claimed that GATT “protected the right to rent anywhere,” thereby making foreign markets more hospitable to capital. With the liberalization of Chinese markets in 1989 and Indian markets in 1991, there was suddenly an enormous potential labor supply, a labor supply far cheaper than the American one. Jobs moved accordingly.
“Capital had always been constrained by time, space, and politics,” the speaker noted. “It became ultra-mobile through technological advances and political pressures.” Moving to where labor was cheapest hurt American workers, he argued, so that “NAFTA was only pulling life support; the patient was already dying.”
NAFTA, he continued, destroyed the maize economy of Mexico and contributed to the record levels of undocumented Mexican immigrants, which further deflated wages. To me, this seems questionable at best, given that Mexican immigration had been rising for years before NAFTA. It also seemed to be a biased presentation of NAFTA, which, despite not enjoying majority support amongst the public, is viewed by most economists as having had positive effects on the United States.
Concurrently with these global shifts were national ones. “The tax strike of the rich that begins in the end of the Reagan administration constrains revenue, forcing Congress to cut benefits,” Dr. Prashad explained. Cutting benefits was made easier by the emerging political narrative that poverty is chosen, a narrative that includes such memorable rhetorical, as well as statistically unrepresentative, devices as the welfare queen. The mounting frustration of the white worker was not turned against the appropriate policies, but was instead redirected against the poorer and the minorities, Dr. Prashad claimed. The culmination was Clinton’s welfare reform, which adopted the narrative of the poor as undeserving in its very title: The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Act.
The gap that emerged between the American Dream and the American reality, according to Dr. Prashad, had to be financed by debt. In the face of stagnating wages and outsourced jobs, American consumers used debt to finance their consumption. He argued that the poor, already denied welfare, were not allowed debt either, which naturally led to a rise in crime, and this prompted Clinton’s Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act. This chronology is troublesome, as the Crime Bill was passed in 1993 and the Personal Responsibility Act in 1996, but there may be merit to the general point of increasing poverty driving increasing crime in the early 1990’s.
Dr. Prashad spoke to the massive negative effects of the 1993 Crime Bill; the rise of mass incarceration despite unexplained decreases in crime, the solidification of the prison-industrial complex, and a transfer of political power from blacks to white. The Crime Bill disproportionately imprisoned young black men, and prisoners are counted in the census but cannot vote. Predominantly white, low-populated districts containing prisons appear larger than they are, shifting political representation away from disenfranchised black prisoners and towards over-enfranchised white beneficiaries.
“So how,” Dr. Prashad asked, “is Black Lives Matter a surprise?”
“There is an evolution of struggle. It doesn’t just appear in Ferguson.” In any other social democracy, Dr. Prashad said, Michael Brown would have been going to college. Eric Garner was selling cigarettes on the street because he could not get a job; “he was choked to death because he was in the shadow economy.” It did not have to be this way.
And this is the connection, he thinks, between Black Lives Matter and Donald J. Trump. “People who feel the collapse of the U.S. through the pistol of the police, who die locked in a jail cell, are not so far away from the man who sits at home, angry at the black welfare queen for taking his tax money.” There is the anger at a system that feels unfair. The same economic and political forces that resulted in the present situation of black America, Dr. Prashad argued, are responsible for the growing anger of a slowly deteriorating white working class.
“Racism prevents us from seeing how political economy has destroyed people across the color line.” The people at Trump rallies, he argued, are united by racism, or Islamophobia, or hatred of immigrants. A new study from UMass Amherst shows that the one defining characteristic of Trump supporters is a preference for authoritarianism. “They are latching onto a strong leader who says he listens to them.”
Sounding both exasperated and amused is the problem with American politics. All the current campaigns are running on the politics of an incredible hope, that America will soon return to its once vaunted position. A New American Century. Right to Rise. Reigniting the Promise of America. Unleash the American Dream. At their heart, these slogans are the same as Make America Great Again; “the only difference is they don’t put them on trucker hats,” Dr. Prashad remarked.
“Where is the candidate who says, Let’s come to terms with the fact that our lives will not improve?”, his tone only somewhat joking. “Where is the candidate that will say, We are moving to a multipolar world? That we asked the Chinese to become powerful because they were to be our workshop?”
In an age where the effects of globalized capital can seek labor around the world, the American worker had to take a hit. But, Dr. Prashad argued, the American government did not have to deliver the blow. The causes behind the economic and political disempowerment of the black community that birthed Black Lives Matter are, fundamentally, the same ones fueling the hatred and suppressing the prosperity of the Trump supporters.
And no one is willing to tell them.