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Paul Mason on Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global

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The Census Bureau’s latest report shows that the numbers of Americans living in poverty and without health insurance have skyrocketed. 43.6 million people — about one in seven — lived below the poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four in 2009, pushing the national poverty rate to a fifteen-year high of 14.3 percent. We speak with British journalist Paul Mason about his new book, Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The Census Bureau’s latest report shows that the numbers of Americans living in poverty and without health insurance have skyrocketed: 43.6 million people — about one in seven — lived below the poverty level of $22,000 for a family of four in 2009, pushing the national poverty rate to a fifteen-year high of 14.3 percent. Meanwhile, the number of uninsured Americans grew from 46.3 million people in 2008 to 50.7 million last year. The proportion of Americans with employer-based health coverage reached its lowest rate in twenty years: nearly 56 percent.

AMY GOODMAN: Many commentators have noted these numbers point to an all but disappearing American middle class. But few people are talking about the working class and the role of the labor movement, whether in this country or elsewhere.

Well, that’s the subject of an award-winning British journalist’s work. His name is Paul Mason. His book is Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global

. It’s just out here in the United States. Paul Mason’s the economics editor for BBC Newsnight and appears on BBC America. He’s also the author of Meltdown: The End of the Age of Greed.

Paul Mason, it’s great to have you in New York right before you go back to Britain. You’ve been traveling for two weeks now through the United States. Talk about the middle class.

PAUL MASON: It’s disappearing. For us, the Brits, the concept of the American middle class has always been a bit flaky. We notice that your politicians call people who earn salaries and work “workers” at election time and then “middle-class” when things are going, you know, a little bit south in terms of the economy. The figures you’ve just read out are borne out by the income statistics. We had the Census Bureau telling us that American average incomes have stagnated for a decade — on some measures, stagnated for thirty years. We know what filled the gap: credit. The credit boom is over. And I think, for many Americans I’ve met on this trip, the whole — the economic collapse of their lives. I met a couple who had lost — who had gone from 75,000 pounds a year to 14,000 pounds a year. I said to them, “Do you still feel middle-class?” They said, “Kind of, but we’re not sure what that means anymore.” To me, as a journalist looking from the outside, that’s going to have big impacts on your — on the sociology of America, and eventually on its politics.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, I was struck in your book where you basically go head on against a myth that’s been spread quite a bit in — especially in Europe and the United States: the deindustrialization of the modern world. And in fact, you say that the opposite is true, that in fact there are more industrial workers than ever before. It’s just that they’re not in necessarily the United States or Germany or England.

PAUL MASON: I think the number one fact that history will record about the three decades we’ve lived through is the doubling of the world’s workforce, “The Great Doubling,” as one Harvard academic calls it. Now, this has huge implications. I’ve had the privilege to report on this. You were speaking about contractors earlier, Iraqi contractors earlier on. I went to Lima, Peru, and found some of the people who had been working in the Green Zone, dumped back in Lima with life-changing injuries, no insurance. They’re part of the global working class.

But, you know, just as the stories in history didn’t get reported in that way, they’re not being reported in that way now. I think the story of global labor is one of the most important things we’re living through and certainly is something that everybody should own. It shouldn’t be the property of archivists and activists, because these are great human stories of individual bravery and triumph over adversity. I just wanted to retell them to people who just have no other way of knowing what their grandfathers and great-grandfathers did.

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Mason, we were just in London, where you’re going back to, and we interviewed the great spy writer John le Carré — and we’re going to play that in the next few weeks. You begin your book in the community, often called the slum, in Kenya, Kabira, where — well, people may know it in the United States only as the place — the backdrop of The Constant Gardner, John le Carré’s book. But why did you start in Kenya, in Kabira?

PAUL MASON: Because I’ve reported from that shantytown, that slum — that self-organized community, as they would prefer to call it — many times. But it always occurs to me that we see it as a poverty story. And, of course, the struggles in those streets are about avoiding your shack being bulldozed by some hoodlum. But just one mile away is the Kenyan industrial district. And every morning at 5:00 a.m., those people go out of the slums and into the factories. We don’t see them as workers, and yet, without those people living in the slums — earning, by the way, much less than a Chinese worker could earn — all our green beans in Europe and our fresh tulips would not appear.

It’s a hidden story. And they need to know, I think, just as the people here in Lower Manhattan, on your streets. You know, they’re having trouble with the geography of the place they live, recent migrants. They don’t know the history, that Irish and Jewish migrants before them fought exactly the same battles and how they won and what it did to them as people and how it raised them up as people. I just think that we’re almost living in a sort of Groundhog Day, where workforces keep repeating and reliving, just as the people in Kenya are reliving what, you know, my great, great-grandfathers actually went through in the first phase of industrialization. I’m from an industrial town in northern Britain.

JUAN GONZALEZ: The impact of the new centers of the working class and the world being China, India, Mexico, these other countries now, where labor organization is a lot more difficult because the government is so — in most of these places, in essence, controlling, even the unions that develop. What is it doing to labor consciousness, to solidarity between labor organizations around the world?

PAUL MASON: Well, above all, I think China is the absolute pivot of what’s going to happen in the world. I’ve managed to track the emergence of the Chinese labor movement. When I first started to go into China, migrant laborers, the most oppressed people, were just happy to be living in a dormitory, to be honest. You interview a young woman who gets her first pair of high-heel, pointy shoes. That is not — she doesn’t see it as a tragedy that she has to live in a dormitory and work twelve, fourteen hours a day.

But now, five years on, it’s not just the fact that the militancy is there. I’ve spoken to some of the people who organize these Chinese strikes. You know how they organize them? I said, “How do you organize a strike?” Woman said to me, “You write on a piece of paper the size of a postage stamp the single Chinese character 'strike.' And then you pass it to the next person on the line.” She looked to me gone out, as — that there might be a difficulty organizing a strike. It’s easy, because they see the gap between what they’re promised and what they’re getting. So we are in a tremendously rapid development of a labor movement in China.

Now, don’t think that this is a labor movement that is going to bring down the Communist Party. The Communist Party has done something very clever. It has depoliticized labor disputes, so that these strikes we had this summer, in Foshan with Honda and the Foxconn, the suicide bids, it became political, but it doesn’t become insurrectionary. The Chinese government has learned its lesson from the twentieth century revolutions where those two things mixed up. But we are seeing the development of a labor movement in China. There’s no mistaking it.

AMY GOODMAN: What about these protests that are taking place now in France? And just to say, overall, I think people in the United States have very little information about what happens in the rest of the world and how we’re connected to the rest of the world. But you’ve got millions of people marching in the streets, protesting the rising of the retirement age from, what, sixty to sixty-two.

PAUL MASON: I mean, look, all over Europe, the social bargain that came with the formation of the European Union is now under question and under threat, because these are heavily welfarized societies. The states are all deeply in debt. Unlike you, they can’t just print the money. The European Central Bank won’t print the money. So they’re going to have to balance their books in short order. So the attack is on pensions. And as we know, pensions are just deferred pay. It’s like clawing back, you know, in some cases, 20 percent of your pay. People are annoyed.

Now, nation by nation, it’s going to play out differently. In Spain, later this month, there’s a general strike. It could be quite big. We’ve already seen the Greek general strikes. Here, however, I think we’re talking about old labor — labor movements that have been around for 200 years, that are not particularly setting on fire the young. And I think many people in Europe, when they look at these protests, the great worry — I mean, France, there were young and old on the streets — but the worry is the young don’t see any future. They don’t — they’re not going to have a pension. They’re not going to have much the same level of healthcare. They’re going to work 'til they're seventy. There’s a quite clever game being played about the young lose out from the benefits accrued by the old. And that’s going to be a rising story. I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a big story here in parts of the workforce where you have still good benefits, good healthcare. It’s the oldest trick in the book to say, well, play one off against the other.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, another way that one is being played off against the other in many of these countries is now over the issue of immigration.


JUAN GONZALEZ: You have in Sweden, in Italy, and even in Germany now, in France, huge anti-immigrant movements that are developing, here in the United States. And in essence, immigration is the other side of international capital. It’s international — people being forced to move to be able to survive. How is this whole anti-immigrant trend feeding into potential fascist movements in many of these countries?

PAUL MASON: Well, the interesting thing is that the European right — you know, most of the European right originated in the remnants of World War II fascism. But it’s evolving. You’d have to say that it’s evolving towards a kind of plebeian — often based on things like opposition to Islam rather than race itself, color of skin. It certainly is there. I think that you have — your news has been dominated by this whole issue of mosques. We have that in the UK.

But I think the point about my book is to say we live in a global labor market. The labor market starts at our door and ends at a bus stop in the poorest city in China. That’s the labor market. And I think organized labor has had a lot of trouble getting its head around this. They hate offshoring. The American unions don’t like it. Fair enough. Then parts of the American population don’t like the influx of migrants. But if you were to stand back and say, “What period of history are we living through?” we’re living through the history of the globalization of labor. So, one has to, in one’s life, get used to it.

My town I come from in Britain is unrecognizable demographically to what it was when I lived there in the 1980s. But when I was in there in the 1980s, it was the same as it was in the 1900s when my granddad was there. The change we’re going through is a one-time-only change, I think. It’s for everybody to decide what they thing about that. But it’s — I can’t see it as stoppable. The country of Spain is short ten million people. It won’t have a pension system, unless it gets ten million more employees by the middle of the century. Where is it going to get them from?

AMY GOODMAN: Paul Mason, why are US labor organizations, why unions, are so vilified in the United States? I mean, you have the blaming of the demise of the auto industry, by many, on the pension plans, the healthcare funds of the United Auto Workers. You have the blaming of the education budget shortfalls on teachers’ unions and their pay.

PAUL MASON: I think you have to see both sides of this. I think when everyone finds the remains of a strong union way of life, one finds people who are grieving about the collapse of the social solidarity around them. I found this in Detroit. You find people who want to hang on to what they have. You know, I think that can sometimes lead to behavior by unions that seems to people who have no rights or benefits as selfish. Now, I think that is where that debate begins. And I think in Britain unions stick to what you’ve got. You hang on to what you hold. The episodes I cover historically in my book are when trade unions stepped out of that.

William Dudley Haywood, Big Bill Haywood, the leader of the IWW in America, was the leader of white men in the Rocky Mountains, and they were very militant, and they could dictate to the bosses. They blew up everything they didn’t like — the strike breakers, the biggest silver processor in the world. There was a lot of whiskey drunk. But then he just realized, they weren’t winning. And why weren’t they winning? Because the Italian and Lebanese and Jewish migrants in the Eastern cities were not organized. So this man, who had already done — he had lived his life — stepped out of that and said, “I’m going to organize them.” And I think that, you know, all over the world, that is the choice facing the existing organized labor. You either stick to your bastions and what you already own and the great union halls and the banners and the old strikes you won twenty years ago, or you do what Hayward did, and you rethink, certainly — I’ve reported on this process of rethinking. It’s something that’s happened in the American unions. It’s certainly happened in the UK unions.

In the financial district of London, there are Somali and Brazilian migrants organizing in the very exact place that the Jewish and Irish migrants were organized. They just — I went up to them and said, “Do you know you’re doing this? Do you even know about this?” They didn’t even know about strikes that happened twenty years ago. So I think the power of history helps educate us. And I mean, it’s not a partisan history. It’s a history that says, look, for employers who want to do the right thing, here also is the way that employer-worker bargains have worked in the past. There has been industrial democracy, believe it or not, in capitalist countries that didn’t hold themselves to be that left-wing.

AMY GOODMAN: Your previous book called Meltdown — can you talk about the issue of the United States and how it’s used as a model, despite the collapse? You talk about writing it on the train from New York to Washington as Lehman Brothers are going down.

PAUL MASON: Yeah. I mean, I lived through a very frenetic two weeks during the collapse of Lehman. I was outside Lehman on the day it collapsed, on the street, stood outside AIG trying to find out what’s going on at the moment that went the next day. And what I think we have lived through is the collapse of an economic model. I mean, the fact that people are still trying to make an economic doctrine work doesn’t — and that they can’t think of anything better — doesn’t mean that it works.

But I think the policy debate now is beginning to move towards bigger choices. Fed Chairman Bernanke said two weeks ago that he almost — he made a speech at Jackson Hole saying, “Look, I’m running out of options, guys. I can do these things you want me to do — more quantitative easing, boost the inflation target, all kinds of other things — but I’m really not sure that any of them are going to make much difference.” When you get a policymaker saying that, what you realize is that you are probably on the eve of a bigger ideological debate. The monetary stimulus does not revive America. This is why I’m here. And the fiscal stimulus, well, we’ve had it, and it’s maybe saved some jobs. It’s annoyed a lot of people. It certainly hasn’t revived America.

The next question has to be, “Well, what does?” You were talking about some of it, I think, earlier. You know, there is now a discussion about currency, big discussion about the currency. Bernanke, himself, in his book on the '30s, reminds us that countries that devalue their currency first get out of the Depression first. Now Europe's devalued its currency. Britain has relentlessly devalued. Japan has devalued. I would expect the policy debate in America to hot up in that direction.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But there are also major differences in how the different governments are responding to the crisis. Obviously Germany has taken the lead in being a lot more aggressive against the threat of financial speculators and derivatives than the United States. And there is still this issue that the finance capital has had a heyday now for so long, in terms of their being able to develop these exotic instruments that are almost like phantoms in terms of a financial system. How do you resolve these differences between Germany, Britain, the United States, and how they’re going to deal with the financial reform?

PAUL MASON: I think, look, either there’s — there’s a binary outcome. Either there’s going to be global re-regulation of the banking industry, as many of the governments want, or there isn’t. And the re-regulation will take place on a nation-by-nation basis. But, you know, in Britain, our central bankers are doing some very radical thinking about the future role of finance. They are basically saying in their academic work, we’re never going to get stung again. We are not going to have the situation where the safety net is extended again and again. Or if we do, then the banking industry has to pay some kind of much more — much, much, much bigger social insurance cost towards the state. The state, in other words, will get bigger and stronger as a result of this. I think that we either go in a global direction or, as with trade, what happens is that the whole world fragments. I wouldn’t like to know what the world is going to be like if the world finance system fragments. There are many people, I think, on the left wishing it to happen. But as Keynes said, you know, don’t wish for the failure of the palliative measures, because you might not like what comes after.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. I thank you very much, Paul Mason, for joining us, award-winning journalist, author, economics editor for BBC Newsnight, appears on BBC America. His new book is called Live Working or Die Fighting: How the Working Class Went Global. It’s just come out in the United States. Congratulations.

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