Thoughts About Immigration, and Labor, and Myths in America

Hatch, NM, Chile Capitol of the World - 09
I've been reading an excellent book called "'They Take Our Jobs!' and 20 other myths about immigration", by Aviva Chomsky. It's a really straightforward, easy read, and I've been highlighting key summarizing passages as I go with the intention of blogging at least a couple of times to share them. I will get to some of those soon, but I want to briefly mention one "big idea" from the book and how it relates to some other things I've been thinking about.

One underlying lesson of Chomsky's book is that, as we all keep seeing, history is such a great way to get at the truth or part of the truth that's often been glossed over in many discussions. She looks not just at the immigration situation right now but at the history of labor in the New World to show that immigration is a simply one part in the puzzle of how capital has always fought to provide itself with cheap labor. Cutting labor costs depends on having a population of workers who don't have the same rights as the rest of the people. An underclass.

Palacio Nacional, Mexico City - 10The reason we've always had an "underclass" in our society, whether it was slaves, indentured servants, immigrants, foreign workers in far-away foreign factories, or undocumented immigrants, has always pretty much been because business needs to reduce what it spends on labor. They need to cut costs so they can offer cheap prices to consumers, and so they can increase profits.

Furthermore, the need to reduce retail consumer prices has become especially important in the last half-century, because middle-class workers here, the "non underclass," in other words, the consumers, have had their (real) earnings drop steadily since the 60s. Income inequality has been increasing as money gets funneled from regular people to the upper class. This means things, to put it simply, life has been kind of bad and getting worse and worse for the last few decades, for most people in this country.

To make up for it, rather than offering a truly better, more just and fair life for most people, the folks in power have offered a few things to dull the pain: 

  1. go into more debt than used to be acceptable so you can still buy nice stuff and feel like you're richer than you really are.
  2. cheaper prices for consumer goods (on the backs of the underclasses, as described above), so you can still buy stuff and feel like you're richer than you really are.
  3. take chemicals (more booze, more coffee, more sugar, and lots more illicit drugs, all of which have become cheaper and easier to obtain than ever before), so that you can dull the pain and forget that you're not as rich as all the cheap consumer goods and easy credit are making you think you are.

Of course all of these also have their other benefits for the wealthy and powerful - the increased use of credit means more money-making opportunities for the financial sector.  The cheap prices mean more profits too for the companies selling the cheap crap. And the chemicals mean more money flowing into the health care industry that's needed to cope with all the medical problems caused by these substances, as well as money sloshing around due to the drug war - to law enforcement, prisons, the drug rehab industry, the arms industry, etc. 

It's a huge but very messy racket.

Can it go on much longer? The immigration issue is exploding and time is running out for that source of exploited underclass labor.  There's still a certain well of foreign surplus labor value to be mined, but China and other cheap worker sources are trying to build their own middle classes and won't be "racing to the bottom" for much longer.  Mexico is a bloody disaster because of the drug war. Debt has crippled our economy and people are now pretty aware of what a horrible family-sized hole they've been tricked into digging for themselves financially. I don't see a way out of this within a reform-minded vision other than the corporations and wealthy giving up some of their profits and restoring more real income equality to a large share of the populace.

How much more can or would Americans pay for their consumer goods in solidarity with the exploited laborers of the world? Or alternatively, could Apple (or Nike), for instance, pay their foreign workers more AND pay their stockholders less, AND pay their American workers more so they can afford slightly more expensive iPads and AirJordans? And on the other side: how much more can the ruling class (aka the "whining rich") push the middle and lower classes before something explodes?

And then we come to the pesky question of growth.  Doesn't the economy have to keep growing? So we're told. And doesn't the growth depend on massive profits? Or does it?  Can the economic system grow in a just manner, fair to all the people and other living things on the planet? Or if not, can it simply not grow but exist in a steady-state? 

These are the things I've been thinking about a lot lately.