(For the second year in a row, I was asked by the Unitarian Church of Oxford, Mississippi, to give a Labor Day speech, the draft of which I copied below. My topic: Neoliberalism and its effects on working class people
An International Perspective on Labor Day
From Joseph B. Atkins to the Unitarian Church of Oxford
Sunday, September 4, 2022:
It is a pleasure speaking to you again this Sunday just before Labor Day. When I spoke to you last time, I focused on our labor history and traditions in the United States and the religious underpinnings that thread throughout that history.
Today I’m going to look at labor from an international perspective, something very important today in view of the interconnectedness of our modern world in nearly every aspect of our lives.
We live in a world that today is dominated by a NEOLIBERAL ORDER. What is NEOLIBERALISM? It has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism or conservatism. What it refers to is an economic philosophy that promotes the following (borrowing here somewhat from the writings of Enrico Tortolano):
- FREE TRADE with as few impediments as possible
- Free movement of CAPITAL across borders
- A belief in AUSTERITY as the best path toward economic stability. Witness the EU’s demands of Greece and other countries when they experienced economic difficulty in recent years.
- PRIVATIZATION of public space and services and reduction or ELIMINATION of the WELFARE STATE and its safety net programs
- LOW PAY and benefits for workers and RESTRICTIONS on LABOR UNIONS
Who is the PRIME MOVER of NEOLIBERALISM in the world today? The UNITED STATES and its surrogate institutions: THE WORLD BANK, INTERNATIOAL MONETARY FUND, THE EUROPEAN UNION, and even NATO, ostensibly a defense military organization but one that has waged aggressive offensive military campaigns in Serbia, Libya, and Syria, and whose expansion since the fall of the Soviet Union led to the current war in Ukraine, a proxy war for the U.S. that ultimately is being waged to preserve a unipolar world of Western dominance unchallenged by Russia or China.
(To the right, Bill Clinton)
The cause of neoliberalism rose as a philosophy in the graduate demise of the New Deal era of Franklin D. Roosevelt and aftermath of World War II, the splintering and unraveling of the Democratic Party that began in the 1960s and that reached its nadir under the Clinton Administration, and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s that led to an arrogant assumption of the subsequent dominance of GLOBAL CAPITALISM. Much of this history is detailed in the just published book The Rise and Fall of the Neoliberal Order by Gary Gerstle.
Trade treaties like NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) are essentially neoliberal vehicles to legalize a globalization of free-moving capital that enriches powerful corporations and their friendly politicians but which have had the effect of uprooting millions of workers and small farmers, forcing a mass migration across borders around the world in search of work and sustenance.
I wrote about this in my book The Strangers Among Us: Tales of a Global Migrant Worker Movement in 2016. A collection of essays by writers from around the world, including me, the book details lived lives among the world’s 200 million migrant workers, 40 million of whom are undocumented, and most of whom live marginal lives of bare existence in an economy that has awarded untold riches to a few.
What the book also details, however, are the efforts of organizations and individuals around the world to give voices to those migrant workers, to work to uphold their rights as human beings. They have had some remarkable successes along the way. Many of these organizations are religious. They include:
- the Asia Floor Wage Alliance in various countries of Asia
- the Alliance of Progressive Workers in the Philippines
- the Vietnamese Migrant Workers & Brides Office in Taiwan, run by a Maryknoll priest and also serving Vietnamese wives of Taiwanese men who are essentially sex slaves
- the Migrant Empowerment Network (MENT) of Taiwan
- the Mission for Migrant Workers in Hong Kong
- Transient Workers Count Too in Singapore
- And in the United States, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC), the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), National Farm Workers, United Farm Workers, and the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE) union.
In researching this book, I traveled around the world from Hong Kong to Singapore and Taiwan, to Buenos Aires, Argentina. These workers are their organizations are up against powerful forces, but, as Gerstle’s book details, the neoliberal world order those forces represent is beginning to crumble.
The rise of Bernie Sanders on the Left and even Donald Trump on the Right is a sign of the deep disaffection within the American public with things as they are. So are Black Lives Matter and even the Tea Party. The BREXIT vote by the British people to exit the EU has more to do with that same disgruntlement than it does with an inherent racism or narrow-mindedness. The rise of the above-mentioned organizations and the remarkable successes they’ve achieved in many cases indicate that neoliberalism’s days may be numbered.
Mainstream media, lapdogs rather than watchdogs mostly, essentially carry the water for NEOLIBERALISM, echoing its ideas and beliefs, the policies of its politicians and governments. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than in the coverage of the war in Ukraine. This tragic war could have been prevented had NATO not broken its promise to not expand to Russia’s very borders. Then there was the 2014 coup that ousted a democratically elected leader and put Western-looking leaders in power, the betrayal of the Minsk agreement, the threats to the Russian-speaking people of the Donbas. I’m not giving a pass to Russia or Vladimir Putin in this horrible war. However, the truth is Ukraine’s ZELENSKY is a puppet of the neoliberal order. If he weren’t, then why did he recently sign a law that essentially guts worker rights in Ukraine, all in the name of, and I quote, “raising the competitiveness of employers.”
According to OpenDemocracy, “The new law significantly curtails employees’ rights (on working hours, working conditions, dismissal and compensation after dismissal) and increases employers’ leverage over their workforce. … Employers can require employees to do other work not covered by their contract if it is necessary for defence purposes, as long as this work is not detrimental to their health. … One of the most controversial provisions of the bill concerns the ability to involve women in physically strenuous labour and work underground (in mines, for example), which is currently prohibited by Ukraine’s labour laws.“
Where is the push for a negotiated peace in Ukraine? Where is there diplomacy? There is none because the proxy war ultimately has nothing to do with Ukraine. It is about markets, the free flow of capital from the West without interference or competition from Russia and above all China, the reason for the recent and needless saberrattling over Taiwan.
Constant war, by the way, is another by-product of neoliberalism. Just consider the 20-year war in Afghanistan, a length of wartime unprecedented in previous U.S. history. War feeds the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower warned us about a half-century or more ago.
However, again let me say there is a growing awareness, a consciousness, about this neoliberal order, how it serves the wealthy and corporate bottom line but little else. Witness the recent protests in Prague against the Western-and-NATO-dominated leadership of that country. An estimated 70,000 people in the streets protested. A new order is bound to emerge, and it is one that Wall Street and the EU are not going to like at all.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today.
Joseph B. Atkins
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