On behalf of the wageless
A pedestrian walks past a homeless encampment alongside a street in downtown Los Angles on May 31. | Richard Vogel / AP

Like many news reports I’ve been seeing lately, a BBC News feature documenting the 23 percent rise in the homeless population of Los Angeles County, California, could easily have been an addendum to a recent article of mine which appeared in the pages of People’s World.

But something else caught my ear when the BBC reporter was interviewing one of the homeless, a woman with a child. She had traversed at least three different states in search of work, found none, and was now living on the streets of Los Angeles in the shadow of expensive homes and condominiums – the products of the real estate lobbies, land speculators, and bankers.

It was an image right out of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.

The coin of capitalism seems to only have two sides, neither of which can address human problems. Both only exacerbate that system’s already familiar contradictions.

The opposite to having a glut of high-priced luxury condominiums and rental properties beyond the means of most working people is providing homes that lack any social infrastructure.

About a year after the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro assessed this other side of the coin thoroughly from the rostrum of the UN General Assembly. Speaking to that body in September 1960, he said:

“At the Bogotá, Colombia, meeting, as you know, the government of the United States proposed a plan [Alliance for Progress]. Was it a plan for economic development? No. It was a plan for social development. What is understood by this? Well, it is a plan for building housing, building schools, and building roads. But does this resolve the problem at all? How can there be a solution to the social problems without a plan for economic development? Do they want to make fools of the Latin American countries? What are families going to live on when they inhabit those houses, if those houses are really built? What shoes, what clothes are they going to wear, and what food are children going to eat when they attend those schools? Is it not known that, when a family does not have clothes or shoes for the children, the children are not sent to school? With what means are they going to pay teachers and the doctors? How are they going to pay for medicine? Do you want a good way of saving medicine? Improve the nutrition of the people; when they eat well you will not have to spend money on hospitals.

“Therefore, in view of the tremendous reality of underdevelopment, the government of the United States comes out with a plan for social development. Of course, it is stimulating to observe the United States concerning itself with some of the problems of Latin America. Thus far, they had not concerned themselves at all. What a coincidence that they are now worried about those problems! And the fact that this concern emerged after the Cuban Revolution will probably be labeled by them as purely coincidental.”

When a city like Los Angeles proposes a plan to set aside millions of dollars to house the homeless, it’s worth remembering Fidel’s words, as well as the plight of that woman who went through three different states looking for work.

For the growing numbers of people for whom housing is becoming an unattainable luxury, having a job is also becoming an unattainable goal. This was the subtext I got from the BBC feature. It was not an addendum to my earlier piece on homelessness but a part two on the dimensions of the crisis of labor that capitalism cannot remedy.

We tend to focus on living wages, or we organize around homelessness. But less often do we agitate around people who have no jobs at all, the workers whom capitalist demands have forced out of the job market altogether through innovation, technology, or some other means.

In this group, we must also add the U.S.’ prison population, the largest in the world. To a certain extent, our prisons are but a place to hide surplus workers the system has no need for and who have turned to black markets. Among them we can count some of the almost 2 million Black men who have disappeared from the official economy.

Especially in 2017, as we commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, communists must recall what that revolution achieved and what it inspired other revolutionaries to achieve.

Former minister for education and “first lady” of the German Democratic Republic (GDR, or more colloquially, East Germany), Margot Honecker, noted some of these achievements in her memoir, The Other Germany: The GDR. She wrote:

“For the first time in German history a social and human order was constructed. Although we acknowledge all the errors and weaknesses of our efforts, nothing changes the fact that a part of Germany, the people ended the dominance of monopoly capital, and they made a fundamental human right the welfare of the workers, free of labor exploitation… [T]he right to work was a reality, not unemployment, nor homelessness, not land speculation, or exploitative rents.

“Everything that the socially owned industries produced served the common good. So social security and fair wages were ensured, as was equal pay for equal work for men and women. For mothers, their working hours, which were from Monday to Friday for all workers, were reduced, yet they maintained the same wages. The concern for the family and especially for children, decent housing at fair prices; health, culture and education, nurseries and kindergartens, retirement for the elderly; all this was a reality thanks to industry as social property and its profits flowing to the social good.”

At the same time, we must remember the real political pressures the Russian Revolution put even on the worst capitalist systems. These systems, like that of the U.S., were forced to make modest reforms in favor of workers and communities.

All the capitalist “democracies” gave up their resistance to women’s suffrage after the USSR became the first to extend this right to all women. The New Deal measures in the United States must be appreciated in the context of these pressures, but we cannot forget how this pressure was not extended on behalf of Black labor who, for almost a generation, was denied social benefits.

What is needed by that woman interviewed by the BBC, the one who crossed three different state lines only to find persistent poverty and no work, is the same thing those 2 million disappeared Black men need. What the growing numbers of children in poverty need. What the homeless and houseless need. And what the prisoners in our prison-industrial complex need.

Capitalism, like any cancer, does not disappear on its own. Fighting it requires the same aggressive sense of urgency that any oncologist would bring to the lab.

Communists and other leftists need to engage in radical ideas, organizing within their communities and across communities, genders, and races. Wage laborers must show solidarity for those who have no wage. White workers must demonstrate solidarity for Black, brown, and First Nations workers. Men must show solidarity for women, whose wage disparity is growing against that of men. And we must all be in solidarity with infants and children whose food and housing is being stripped away under neoliberal reforms.


CONTRIBUTOR

Lowell B. Denny, III
Lowell B. Denny, III

Lowell B. Denny, III, graduated with a degree in political science from Washington University, but his real political education came with his membership in Queer Nation/San Francisco, spending two months of work and study in Cuba just after the demise of the USSR, three months hitchhiking around Mexico where he got to spend a day in jail, and being affected by the sovereignty movement while living in Hawaii. He has worked in publishing, retail, and as a school teacher and restaurant waiter.

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