The Serious Obama

Reflections by Fidel Castro
Fidel Castro
September 22, 2009

NOTE: Here Fidel presents the principal political points Obama made yesterday at the conference, in detail, and they are printed in the principal newspapers of the island. Such documents often are read on Cuban radio and television. AFTER presenting what the President of the United States had to say, accurately and in detail, Fidel makes essential observations and draws conclusions. He's really trying to reach a range of audiences, domestically and internationally, with this calm, rhetoric-free approach.

It is unusual for adversaries to speak of one another in the way which Fidel Castro speaks of Barack Obama here. He sets a positive example for political behavior everywhere, in my opinion.

Walter Lippmann
Los Angeles, California
Bolivarian President Hugo Chavez really made a clever remark when he referred to the “riddle of the two Obamas.”

The serious Obama spoke today. Recently, I recognized two positive features in his behavior: his attempt to make healthcare available to the 47 million Americans who don’t have access to it, and his concern for climate change.

What I said yesterday about the imminent threat to the human species could sound pessimistic but it is not far from reality. The views of many Heads of State on the ignored and neglected issue of climate change are still unknown.

As the representative of the country hosting the United Nations High Level Meeting on the subject, Obama was the first to express his opinion.

What did he say? I’ll refer to the substance of his remarks.

- He said that he recognizes that the threat on the planet is serious and growing.

- That history will pass judgment on the response to this environmental challenge.

- That there is no nation, big or small, that can avoid the impact of climate change.

- That there is a daily increase of the high tides lashing against the coastlines while more intensive storms and floods are threatening our continents.

- That the security and stability of every nation are in danger.

- That climate has been placed at the top of the international agenda, from China to Brazil, from India to Mexico, Africa and Europe.

- That these can be significant steps if we are all united.

-That we understand the seriousness of the situation and are determined to act on it.

-That we were not there to celebrate any progress.

- That much remains to be done.

- That it will not be an easy job.

- That the most difficult part of the road is ahead of us.

- That this is happening at a time when to many the priority is to revitalize their economies.

- That we all have doubts about the climate challenge.

-That difficulties and doubts are no excuse to act.

- That each of us should do his share so that our economies can grow without endangering the planet.

- That we should turn Copenhagen into a significant step forward in the climate debate.

- That we should not allow for old divisions to jeopardize the united quest for solutions.

- That the developed nations have caused most of the damage and should thus take responsibility for it.

- That we shall not overcome this challenge unless we are united.

- That we know that these nations, particularly the most vulnerable, do not have the same resources to combat climate change.

- That the future is not a choice between economic growth and a clean planet because survival depends on both.

- That it is our responsibility to provide technical and financial assistance to these nations.

- That we are seeking an agreement that would enhance the quality of life of the peoples without disturbing the planet.

- That we know that the future depends on a global commitment.

- But that it is a long and tough road and we have no time to make the journey.

The problem now is that everything he has said contradicts what the United States has been doing for over 150 years, especially from the moment --at the end of World War II-- when it imposed to the world the Bretton Woods accord and became the master of the world economy.

The hundreds of military bases set up in scores of countries in every continent; their aircraft carriers and Navy fleets; their thousands of nuclear weapons; their wars of conquest; their military-industrial complex and their arms trade are incompatible with the survival of our species. Likewise, the consumer societies are incompatible with the idea of economic growth and a clean planet. The unlimited waste of non-renewable natural resources, --especially oil and gas accumulated throughout hundreds of millions of years and depleted in barely two centuries at the current rate of consumption—has been the major cause of climate change. Even if the unfriendly emissions of the industrialized nations were reduced, which would be commendable, it is a reality that 5.2 billion people on planet Earth, that is, three-fourth of the population live in countries that are still in various stages of development and will therefore demand an enormous input of coal, oil, natural gas and other non-renewable resources that, according to the consumption patterns created by the capitalist economies, are incompatible with the objective of saving the human species.

It would not be fair to blame the serious Obama for the abovementioned riddle of what has happened until today, but it would not be fair either to have the other Obama make us believe that humanity could be preserved under the prevailing rules of the world economy.

The President of the United States has conceded that the developed nations have caused most of the damage and should take responsibility for it. It was certainly a brave gesture.

It would also be fair to concede that no other President of the United States would have had the courage to say what he has said.


Are worker-owned companies an alterative to capitalism?

Louis Proyect
September 29, 2009
This is a follow-up to my review of Michael Moore’s “Capitalism: a Love Story” where I neglected to discuss his proposals for an alternative to capitalism, which boil down to worker-owned firms or cooperatives. He interviews the top guy at the Alvarado Street Bakery in California, whose website describes a cooperative as “an autonomous association of persons united voluntarily to meet their common economic, social, and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise”. He also visits a robotics manufacturer in Wisconsin that operates on the same basis.

In an interview on Amy Goodman’s “Democracy Now” radio show, Juan Gonzalez asks a pointed question that gets to the heart of the matter: “Michael, you have obviously amassed a lot in terms of the indictment of capitalism as a system, but some would say the film doesn’t offer much in terms of the alternative.” Moore replies:

I do show in the film some very specific examples of workplace democracy, where a number of companies have decided to go down the road of having the company actually owned by the workers. And when I say “owned,” I’m not talking about some ding-dong stock options that make you feel like you’re an owner, when you’re nowhere near that. But I mean these companies really own it. And I’m not talking about, you know, the hippy-dippy food co-op, and I don’t mean that with any disrespect to the food co-ops who are listening or any hippies that are listening. But I go to an engineering firm in Madison, Wisconsin. These guys look like a bunch of Republicans. I mean, I didn’t ask them how they vote, but they didn’t necessarily look like they were from, you know, my side of the political fence. And here they all are equal owners of this company. The company does $15 million worth of business each year.

I go to this bakery. It’s not a bakery really; it’s a bread factory out in northern California, Alvarado Street Bakery. And they’re all paid. They all share the profits the same. They’re all shared equally, including the CEO. And they vote. They elect, you know, who’s going to be running this and how this is going to function. The average factory worker in this bread factory makes $65,000 to $70,000 a year, which, I point out, is about three times the starting pay of a pilot who works for American Eagle or Delta Connection. And that’s another harrowing scene in the movie, where I interview pilots who are on food stamps—pilots who are on food stamps because of how little they’re paid.

As someone who has paid fairly close attention to the airline industry over the years, I could not help but remember how worker ownership did little to stave off the race to the bottom in what was once a well-paying industry with excellent benefits. On July 7th, 1996 Louis Uchitelle informed his NY Times readers that worker ownership was no obstacle to the kind of downsizing that victimized the workers at Republic Window, whose sit-in was documented by Moore. Uchitelle reported:

Or take Kiwi Airlines, founded in 1992 by former Eastern Airlines pilots. It is 57 percent owned today by its 1,200 employees. But to cut costs, 60 owner-workers were laid off in January, many of them clerks whose jobs had been automated. “If we had done these layoffs earlier, there would have been revolution,” said Robert Kulat, a Kiwi spokesman. “We still had this concept of a happy family and of employees being bigger than the company. But big losses changed that. And people realized that to remain alive, to keep their own jobs, they had to change too.”

Interestingly enough, Uchitelle claimed that a strong union allowed United Airlines, another worker-owned firm, to avoid downsizing but only four years later economic reality caught up with the company, as the January 14, 2000 New York Times reported:

Faced with rising labor and fuel costs, the UAL Corporation, the parent company of United Airlines, said yesterday that its 2000 earnings were likely to be as much as 28 percent below expectations.

United Airlines, the world’s largest carrier, is being plagued by troubles that are common to the industry and by others that are singular to its operation. Jet fuel prices increased about 24 percent last year and United predicted further jumps this year.

Adding to the carnage, several of United’s unions were demanding large wage increases, in part to keep up with competitors and to replace money generated from the company’s expiring stock ownership plan.

“UAL gave a very sobering message yesterday,” said Kevin Murphy, an airlines analyst with Morgan Stanley Dean Witter. “No airline outperforms when you’re negotiating with labor. If United gives big wage boosts to its pilots and mechanics, the other carriers may have to catch up.

In 2001 United Airlines went bankrupt as a result of the impact of 9/11 on travel and rising fuel costs and was subsequently reorganized as a regular corporation. This had nothing to do with whether the company was “democratic” or not. Even if it was the most democratic institution in the world, it could not operate as a benign oasis in a toxic wasteland. Capitalism forces firms to be profitable. If they are not profitable, management takes action to make them more profitable, including slashing wages or laying workers off. The only way to eliminate these practices is to eliminate the profit motive, something that Moore is reluctant to advocate.

It is understandable that Naomi Klein would have referred to the notion of worker owned firms this way in an interview with Moore that appears in the latest Nation Magazine: “The thing that I found most exciting in the film is that you make a very convincing pitch for democratically run workplaces as the alternative to this kind of loot-and-leave capitalism.” Klein, like Moore, has extolled the virtues of worker ownership in her own documentary “The Take”. This was my take on her movie:

In the opening moments of Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein’s documentary about occupied factories in Argentina titled “The Take,” we see Klein being hectored by a rightwing TV host. If she is not for the capitalist system, then what is she *for*. This is obviously is a tough question for autonomists like Klein who resist being pinned down, but she and her partner decided to make an attempt in “The Take.” Despite their best intentions, the film poses more questions than it answers. Ultimately, the film succeeds not as a political statement but as a record of ordinary workers trying to maintain their dignity.

For non-Marxist radicals like Klein, coming up with a model means first of all rejecting the USSR or Cuba which are dismissed as verticalist nightmares at the beginning of the film. The attraction of occupied factories in Argentina is that they are exercises in direct democracy, but do not involve the messy business of government, with its distasteful cops, courts and bureaucracy, etc. Of course, if you do not evaluate such institutions through the prism of class, you will never be able to operate politically on the most basic level. In the final analysis, cops will either support factories run by workers or they will evict them. Class power is the ultimate determinant of that outcome.

The film focuses on the efforts of workers to keep three factories running on a cooperative basis: Forja San Martin, Zanon and Brukman. Although Brukman, a garment shop, has only 58 workers, it is by far the best-known of these experiments. For autonomists, it has achieved the kind of mythic proportions that the St. Petersburg Soviet has for some Marxists. (It should be mentioned that the sectarian Marxist left rallied around Brukman as well, not so much because it was a model but because it was seen as an apocalyptic struggle between society’s two main classes.)

There’s a certain cognitive dissonance at work with Moore’s treatment of cooperatives. If it is a virtual panacea for what ails American workers, it amounts to a rightwing conspiracy when it is advocated as a solution to the health care crisis by Obama’s adversaries (of course, Obama is open to the idea himself.) If you go to Moore’s website, you will find an article by Robert Reich that makes a rather effective case against health insurance cooperatives: “Don’t accept Kent Conrad’s ersatz public option masquerading as a ‘healthcare cooperative.’ Cooperatives won’t have the authority, scale, or leverage to negotiate low prices and keep private insurers honest.” The same thing applies to outfits like the Alvarado Street Bakery in California or the robotics plant in Wisconsin. They lack the power to transform the American economy, just as health insurance coops would lack the power to safeguard the health of American workers. They would be nothing but tokens in a vast system operating on the basis of profit