Just before this week’s maddeningly tepid midterm elections, I had the pleasure of interviewing the sociologist Charles Derber, professor at Boston College. Charlie, along with his frequent co-author Yale Magrass, preserve and extend the sociological imagination, a tradition of the late C. Wright Mills. Put simply by Mills, this framework compels an
awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society[.]
Though it’s difficult to convey the full range of topics Derber and Magrass tackle, of initial interest to me was Sociopathic Society, a discussion of American empire and the intrinsic sociopathy of capitalist and coercive organizations; I later learned of Bully Nation, an incredible reframing of bullying in American society as a necessary feature of capitalism and militarism. Since I couldn’t complete the book before this interview, we only briefly touch on the subject. Though the interested reader will find links for several of Charlie and Yale’s books below, a more complete list appears here.
I very much enjoyed my time with Charlie, (despite his stacking more books into my already hopelessly long reading list!), and like the interdisciplinarity of sociology, our discussion meandered among many important topics. Certainly it’s worth starting at the beginning, though the reader ought feel free to jump in anywhere, as the water is fine. Unfortunately, I’m suffering frustrating cognitive impairment as of this writing, and though my participation is slow throughout the discussion, I’ve tried editing to ensure the audio is easier hear.
Introduction to a Global Sociologist
Regimes, Chomsky, Wallace, and Activism
“Lucrative” Diversity, and a Rot in the Left
There Are Welfare Bankers in Welfare Jets
Fascism and the Evolution of Economic Divinity
Piketty, Rentiers, Gladiator Technocrats, and State-Sponsored High Tech
Globalist Worker Exploitation and “Immoral Morality”
Luck Can Demand Responsibility : Hope in High Tech?
Introduction to a Global Sociologist
NP Slagle: Welcome to Scire Populum et Potentiam, to know the people and power. It’s my great pleasure to welcome Charles Derber, professor of sociology at Boston College, where he’s taught for over 30 years. Professor Derber’s the author of over twenty books covering people’s movements, identity politics, history, political science, and, notably, economics. Professor Derber and his frequent co-author, Professor Yale Magrass, more recently broke ground by explaining the bullying epidemic as an expected outcropping of a society where winners and losers, heroes and villains, militarize capitalism and, thus, the glorification of competitive violence have become the norm. Professor Derber, welcome.
Charles Derber: Thanks, Neil. That’s a nice introduction.
NPS: I thought you might approve, or at least I was hoping. The real question is whether I pronounced Professor Magrass’ last name correctly.
CD: You did. Perfectly.
NPS: Oh. Oh my goodness. Oh, wow.
CD: Yeah. As in most of my writing, much is driven by the idea that we live in a society in which people learn to identify all the problems or issues as purely psychologically and individually motivated rather than having anything to do with systemic institutional causes, which most people, that’s how it’s tracked. So, really, people don’t understand it very much. As a sociologist, or a sort of a person who looks at institutional and systemic forces like capitalism itself, it’s important for me to try to offer is how to take seriously the kinds of personal and psychological issues that people struggle with, but to root them in social, structural realities that tend to be ignored. Elites, the economic and political elites, have a big stake in making sure that people think that way and that they blame individuals for problems or blame themselves rather than thinking about the way in which larger social institutions and the culture and so forth play a big role. I grew up learning the material that I work with these days in the 60s and 70s and there was a sociologist you probably have heard of the name C. Wright Mills, who wrote The Sociological Imagination and The Power Elite. He said that sociology was all about contextualizing personal problems as social problems. In other words, what we experience as personal crises, or emotional problems or so forth, reflect very strongly structural institutional realities that tend to be read out of the national conversation, sort of excised and censored out. While in some societies, people are more naturally thinking in this way, such as in colonized societies, within western capitalist societies, there’s a kind of propagandistic ideological apparatus that really works very hard to get people into therapy or into purely psychological forms of conversation and thinking, which prevent them from making these connections between personal issues and societal issues.
NPS: Right, right. Yes. From the standpoint of algorithm design, it is the inability to see the global framework and how that actually sways local phenomena instead of just saying that it’s a localized phenomena. It’s interesting to me, because that is a substantive miss across the board when you look at the way that capitalism is designed, or at least the way that it’s propagandized. That each of us should pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps, and if we, in the school of Ayn Rand, seek only the maximization of our own profit that somehow that makes the entire system better.
CD: Right. Beyond even that, sort of, and that’s a good formulation, Ayn Rand is a perfect example of it. Beyond even that, I think, if you take neoclassical economics, which is the dominant school of economics in the United States, there’s really not even a conception of anything but the individual, not anything of the idea of society or of a public good or the commons or however you want to think about these sort of, what you’re calling the macro-level realities, really kind of disappear because the market is constructed as the action of millions of atomized individuals who have no real interdependence on each other. They’re involves in purely transactional interactions on the market.
NPS: It was Margaret Thatcher that said that everything is just based on individuals. That that’s all that there is.
CD: Right. Right. I think capitalism as, think particularly the model developed in the United States, is very, very sort of punitive in that approach. There’s such a intense focus on individual that everything that goes wrong with a person is attributed to that person’s laziness or lack of intelligence and so forth. You see that really, really strongly in Trump’s discourse now and so forth. Figure out whet it’s racialized, or genderized, or so forth.
CD: Yeah, it’s a big issue and a lot of my writing has been, [though] I’m in a sociology department, I do write for a general public and you mentioned my field accurately, but it really does come out of this sort of fundamental recognition that societies are constituted by interdependent individuals. I’m all for individual expression and freedom, it’s really, really fundamental, but that can’t be established without creating a strong sense of sort of the integrity of society-
CD: Of social connections. Yeah.
NPS: Oh, right. Yeah. We are animals that could not survive on our own in the wild. It’s preposterous.
NPS: Noam Chomsky likes to say, he can’t grow his own food. I certainly can’t grow my own food. At least he’s done some gardening. I haven’t. We depend very heavily on the super structure of society and, really, the state in the way that it provides for our needs and subsidizes agribusiness to make sure that there is cheap food available, even though there are children going hungry in this country. That’s another serious problem. There are so many different serious problems that I want to discuss with you. I’m so, so pleased to have you on the phone. This is great.
CD: Thanks, Neil. I appreciate your interest in my thinking. Yeah.
NPS: Well, the way that I came across your works, I was listening to Chomsky give a talk and he mentioned your name. Oftentimes, he’s referred to the atomization of American society and the deeply seated and rooted fear in our culture. Which I grew up in sort of an outcropping of the evangelical movement in Texas, so those are the things that I heard. Literally, I was taught to be terrified of black people in my hometown, and, of course, it couldn’t be further from the truth that they presented any danger at all. The opposite was actually true. There was police violence in my hometown that was never talked about in the daily newspaper that took place in the sort of black quarter of the city. So, yeah, as I started to discover these things, by taking college history for one, that actually has the power to open one’s eyes, I saw a completely different world that I’ve not been able to turn my back to. But we’re not here to talk about me, as much as conversational narcissism may try to take hold.
CD: No, no. I’m very interested. Your background sounds very, very interesting. Your work is very interesting, so let’s make this a shared conversation.
NPS: Yeah, yeah. Well, we’ll … When we get to Bully Nation and discussing that, I can talk about some of the horror stories that I’ve experienced, particularly in these Fortune 500 companies, where … I’ve been asked questions many times about The New York Times article that was published a year or so ago where it was something of an expose of the internal culture. I was asked whether this was actually true, and I said, “Yes, it is.” The group that I was in, I was very much immune to that. Our group and pretty much our org, which was Amazon Logistics, so we did last mile planning to replace UPS and the postal services. We were fairly well immunized from the culture, because it was recognized how difficult the problem is that we were solving. Which, that gets back to solving a problem globally versus locally or greedily. In algorithmic circles, they’ve got this stuff down, but you still see people on LinkedIn, high technologists that I’m connected with, preaching the Ayn Randian way of optimization, despite the fact that they know in their own scientific work it doesn’t work.
Activist Origins: From New Deal to Leftist for Real
NPS: Anyway, back to you, I want to ask you some questions about your beginnings. These are conversations with activists, in an effort to understand really this vast network of activists that have been in Americana all of this time but we don’t see you guys in. Well, I say, “you guys.” You gals and guys. We don’t see that network in mainstream media. We occasionally will see it in popular media like Hollywood, but we don’t see it in mainstream media for the most part. You were born in Washington, D.C. Can you tell me some about your early beginnings and how that sort of informed your activism?
CD: Well, I think my family history plays a big role, because I grew up in a Jewish liberal family that my father was a New Deal economist[, Milton Derber, during] what I call the New Deal Regime, which was a period of American history stretching from 1932 to 1980, I would say-
NPS: Right, the Keynesian—
CD: Yeah, sort of the Keynesian Era in America and where even Richard Nixon, in the 70s, looks pink compared to what we’re seeing—
CD: He was for minimum income and a guaranteed income for everybody and things like that. Even with the EPA and so forth.
CD: I grew up in a family where, at dinner, we talked every night about politics and society and the economy, and you just grow up in that world of thought. I grew up in … After I moved away from where I was born in D.C., my father was working at the Labor Department and he got a job in the Economics and Labor Institutes at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. We had this culture of conversation. I wonder now that the family dinner, now that I think about it, has sort of disappeared, how many people have lost that as a cultural breeding ground, because, sort of, that’s the way the New Deal kind of sensibility got transmitted to me. I remember my parents both being very, very engaged with issues of the New Deal and the Depression and, of course, the Holocaust was going on. The family was ripe for bringing up kids who had a focus on this. Then, when I became adolescent and then went off to high school and college, I was primed for the good match between my family background and the political era that was emerging in the sixties so that I sort of naturally emerged as really, really well primed for the kind of social activism and social critique that was coming out of the civil rights movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement. I spent my formative, young adult years in that environment, in college and graduate school. I was kind of, during that period, a full-time activist. I was literally in jail or in school reading Neo-Marxist or Herbert Marcusian-type political philosophy. It was just one of those … I think everyone in my generation was affected, impacted by that period of activists. I think that was the last real period of mass left engagement in the United States, and I just happened to be fortunate to sort of be at an age where I was being … I think there’s an age where people tend to get imprinted with their political dispositions for the rest of their life, and that was sort of what happened to me. I moved sort of from the New Deal liberalism of my father to the really left activism of my own generation in the sixties. Really, it was just sort of, I think of people as being very shaped by their history and the global histories, so to speak, as well as your microhistory. They just converged to make me a very political person and a person very concerned with social justice for working people and for the downtrodden in general. The civil rights movement, of course, made me very sensitive to racial discrimination and the war made me-
NPS: You participated in the Freedom Rides, right?
CD: Yeah, and I went down to Mississippi in ’65 for the summer and was involved with all kinds of voter registration and other efforts down there. Spent the whole summer down there and worked with a lot of both black and white activists. Then came back. I went to graduate school in ’65 at the University of Chicago in sociology and spent almost all my time in jails and Washington, going there every weekend. Literally, almost every weekend during four years, protesting the war and becoming really, really immersed in activist culture and in sort of a kind of a protest intellectual struggle with the academic departments. For example, in the sociology department at the University of Chicago, much like the economics department, which was a Milton Friedman, neoclassical economics department, there was a sociology department where it had people like Morris Janowitz, who, probably are not household names, but he was a well-known sociologist who has been very much in support of the Vietnam War. I had to grow up shaping my intellectual life in opposition or contestation with the powers that be intellectually. I was experiencing on a personal intellectual level the same thing that groups [were experiencing.] I was relatively privileged economically, because my father was a white, upper-middle class professional person, but I had to contest a lot of the dominant intellectual forces in universities at the time. There were just, I think, a whole set of factors, which, I think, helps to explain why it endured when much of the left fell apart in the seventies and we got into a regime change, as I call it.
Regimes, Chomsky, Wallace, Activism
I don’t know if you ever looked at this Neil, but I wrote a couple of books, one is called Regime Change Begins at Home, and Hidden Power is a second book that’s sort of a paperback version of that but quite revised, which looks at American history as a series of internal regime changes and I argue there are five. The first regime (these are since the Civil War) was the first corporate regime of the Gilded Age and the robber baron. Then the progressive regime of Teddy Roosevelt and then on to the New Deal Regime of my parents, which really extended up to the Reagan. I called the 1920s the second corporate regime and the Reagan revolution, the third corporate regime. I just think it was natural of me to sort of get involved in regime change sort of politics at home, as well as afflicting people they involved, because of my Vietnam experience with global imperialism and [hegemony], the kind of stuff that Noam writes about so much …
NPS: Right. At a time when it was really hard to get even students to protest the war. At least before 1965, right?
CD: Yeah, at least initially. That’s right. That’s right. Noam writes about this. I’m actually working with Noam. I don’t know if you read that. I’ve had a long friendship with him. He’s been at MIT and in Boston until they moved to Arizona just a year or two ago. As you know, he responds to almost everybody who responds.
NPS: Oh my goodness. He responded to me five years ago, and we’ve been pen pals ever since. I actually flew up to meet him, and I’m hoping to get to interview him at the end of January. I actually composed and wrote him a birthday song since his next birthday coming up in December is really the big one.
CD: That’s right. The biggest. The big one, yeah.
NPS: It’s because we’ve got 10 fingers, so that’s why. Multiples of ten are great. How did you meet him? You also knew Howard Zinn, right?
CD: Yes, I did.I was lucky because when I came [to Boston] and I was doing this kind of work, [though] after Reagan, the universities and intellectuals became, like, the whole culture became more conservative. I went into sociology not because of sociology, per se, but just because it’s very heterodox. In psychology or political science, the discipline is more restricted, and I knew with sociology you could almost do anything and required a lot of history and a lot of economics and politics. It was a good choice because I could do political economy and get away with it and get tenure in the sociology department. With regard to Howard and Noam. I had sent Noam some early stuff. He read everything, of course, and would blurb my early books right away. It was amazing because I couldn’t. He was so, even at that point, becoming very, very celebrated and incredibly busy, but he always maintained time. He’s a very generous person that way.
NPS: He is, indeed.
CD: As you know. Yeah, my connection with him was just very fortuitous, and I’ve maintained this long relation with him. I’m working with him closely now. I’m just mentioning this as part of a biography that might be relevant to you a bit.
NPS: Sure. Yeah, I read this, but I want it to be on here, as well. Yeah.
CD: Right. I had met a guy named Randall Wallace, who’s the grandson of Henry Wallace, who is the vice-president for Roosevelt in 1940 and would’ve probably ended the We would’ve not had a Cold War if he had been kept on the ticket in ’44.
NPS: It was incredible, the story of Henry Wallace and how the Democratic party forced Harry Truman, which, Harry Truman was inept by comparison, and they-
CD: Absolutely. Wallace would’ve been the most progressive president in American history, probably, and he-
NPS: We were ripe for it. We were perfectly ripe–
CD: Yeah. We absolutely were, but the corporate elites were still strong enough to knock him out. Even though Eleanor really wanted him and so forth. Anyway, he had some children and grandchildren and got quite a lot of money because he had been Secretary of Agriculture, and he had developed a breed of hybrid tomatoes and other genetically developed products. He became quite well-to-do and left a lot of money to his children. His grandkids, now, one is actually running the Global Wallace Fund. His name is Scott Wallace. He runs the Global Wallace Fund, which gives out a lot of money to good Keynesian activists, I would say. Liberal activists, progressive activists, but not far left. He’s running in a seat in Pennsylvania right now. He’s likely to win. He’s ahead right now, so he’ll be one of the new class of congresspeople. There’s this fellow, his name is Scott Wallace. If the Democrats take over the House. His other brother is named Randall Wallace. Randall contacted me. Randall runs a fund called the Wallace Action Fund and he contacted me about five or six years ago, told me he’d be reading my books for years, and invited me to come out to California for a conference on the environment and politics and capitalism that he was running. We developed a friendship, and he began funding a relationship for several books on resistance and political activism and capitalism and so forth. The connection with Chomsky is that Randall Wallace, who is much more radical than his brother and very much sees Chomsky as sort of the single most important thinker today, and he and I worked together to sort of develop a kind of legacy project with Chomsky and his new wife. After Chomsky’s wife died, his first wife, Carol, he was on his own for a few years and then met and eventually married a lovely woman named Valeria. I don’t know if you’ve had a chance to talk to her, but she’s from Brazil. They just were in Brazil during this fascist takeover that’s going on down there.
NPS: He was telling me about it in our latest correspondence. Yeah.
CD: Yeah. Yeah. It was … He was with Lula in prison and so forth. Yeah. I’ve been in very close contact with him and I’m actually doing a lot of my work right now; I did a film, which actually I’d like to send to you.
CD: Film called Noam Chomsky: Internationalism or Extinction. It deals with the sort of double barrel threat to survival of life of our planet from both climate change and nuclear war. Actually, if you just got to ChomskySpeaks.org, you can get it, or http://ChomskySpeaks.org, and you’ll get that.
CD: You can get both a two minute trailer, and then the whole film, which is about an hour long. It’s based on a talk Noam gave in Boston a couple years ago.
CD: It’s full of really brilliant visuals that the film director that we got, we’re pulling in. It’s a powerful film, and we’re distributing it very widely. We’re trying to get Noam to get the transcript of his talk turned into a book with some introductory material and some response by activists to it, so people don’t get too bummed out and depressed by the whole thing. It doesn’t focus a lot, and so you know, it’s a hard message to hear.
NPS: It is, yeah.
CD: I’m actually, I’m going to try to get him to do a book where we, he’ll just give us the transcript and we’ll have some activist groups responding and other intellectuals responding to how, to the kind of argument he’s making there and so we hope to get a book out called Chomsky on Internationalism or Extinction and I’m writing sort of a companion piece called Resistance or Extinction. So, that’s one line of the work we’re doing and then–
CD: We’re also, out of that film we did some separate interviews with Noam and we’re putting out a book called Chomsky For Activists, which looks, do a series of both biographical and intellectual interviews with Noam, which we film. Which is, people won’t know about because it goes back to his childhood in Philadelphia and then looks at his whole history of activism. Because I think a lot of people find Noam depressing because he has this very critical, analytical view which is, has inspired millions of people, but a lot of people don’t understand that he’s also a genuine, a genuinely committed activist and has done a lot of, you know, social change work both personally and–
NPS: Absolutely. Yeah.
CD: His organization and so yeah. So anyway I’m all embedded in that work right now. So anyway, yeah. So I, I just, yeah, that’s my, the only thing I would add about my activism, and I just, I’m dwelling on it because I think activism is so critically important now–
NPS: It’s incredibly, yeah.
CD: Not only just because of the election although I think the election is very important where we’re talking three days before the election but, the November mid-term election but, the only other thing I would add is that, on my mother’s side, a number of her family was killed in the, with fascism, you know, the holocaust and on my father’s side out of Russia. And so this resurgence of fascism and particularly globally in Europe, and of course Trump’s sort of authoritarian and kind of version of neo-fascism, I think all of that stuff has played a role in sustaining my political involvement and so forth. So anyway, that’s enough about that.
CD: Just, I do believe that, you know sort of capitalism is all about keeping people quiet and I’m always telling my students, you know, they ended the draft so you guys don’t get, you can stay detached from American militarism and you just don’t get bothered about politics. And I just feel like the main priority I have now is to wake people up to the small extent I can and recognize the power and importance that young people have, and ordinary people have, in making a difference right now, so.
NPS: You know, I was talking to my best friend, Robin Fitts is his name. And he is a, he’s a junior college professor of English and Literature in West Texas. I’ve been trying to get him, him and his wife and their little girl to leave Texas for a long time, to somewhere better. But he has been very much so involved in Beto O’Rourke’s campaign.
CD: Oh, cool.
NPS: And it’s, of course it’s easy to get discouraged because the media and sort of the superstructure of, of how we’re supposed to think in this country, the culture is, you by yourself can’t do anything.
CD: Right, right.
NPS: You’re powerless. Americans are, have this overwhelming sense of impotence, that, that, is, it’s, and–
CD: You’re absolutely right, Neil. And particularly young people, I mean because I ask my students who are pretty privileged all the time, and they say, “Well I’m just one person, I don’t have any power, as a group we don’t have any power.” And that sense of impotence and, and powerlessness is, is you know very carefully nourished I think. And it’s, I mean I understand it, I feel it myself sometimes. So I, I understand them, but it’s just so important. And I think people like Beto O’Rourke, and even though he’s much further to the right than I am, he, he–
NPS: Absolutely, yeah.
CD: I think the Democrats are, I mean the one sense of positive energy I have, you know, in terms of electoral politics today, is that there is a little bit of a wave of, you know the left, sort of energizing you know people like Alexandria Cortez. And Bernie Sanders talking about socialism, and people like Beto O’Rourke even in the south, or Stacey Abrams, or any of these people. Sort of creating, you know maybe it starts in this very modest way of people feeling that just voting can make a difference. Of course, trying to vote, for a lot of people, is very hard these days but you’re right.
NPS: Yeah, yeah. I mean, with the regression [Shelby County v. Holder] on the Voting Rights Act under the Roberts–
CD: Yeah, oh my god, yeah, it’s just–
NPS: But what I, what I do tell my best friend, and I agree with you, I think Bernie Sanders actually way to the right of me and you also.
CD: Yeah. Oh sure.
NPS: But none the less, he upended 120 years of electoral conventional thinking around how money–
NPS: Money runs the show. And this is what I told my friend Robin, that if Beto actually loses in Texas, it may be to his advantage. Because the fact remains that he’s not taking any money from PACs or corporations, and it’s still neck-and-neck in ruby red Texas with, I mean Ted Cruz is not particularly well liked, but none the less it shows that the young people are having a very powerful influence. It’s not just the change in demographics, well I guess that is a change in demographics, it’s not just that you’ve got more Hispanic people in Texas, it literally is that young people aren’t afraid of words like socialism. That’s why they were prepared to vote early.
CD: Right. Well that, that was really, I completely agree with you Neil, and I, I think that Bernie, just by calling himself a democratic socialist, and then getting a following, I often tell my students that, you know, the word most Googled the day he first mentioned that. Oh I see you just sent me a song for Noam, thank you, I’ll enjoy looking at that. That itself was transformative because, for the first time, and I’ve been teaching for you know almost fifty years, I, I’m seeing that people, the students are very, very, I mean they’ve always been receptive to the idea but the word socialism was sort of taboo. Even in university. And now, it’s a little bit different. In fact, there are a lot of interesting polls that you’ve probably seen and that I write about in some of my books where, you know, the Pew Institute and Gallup and others have been asking for about ten years people’s association with the word socialism and capitalism and so forth.
CD: And as you probably know, now, young people have about as strong, or more, a positive association with the word socialism than they do with the word capitalism and Bernie really helped push that along although it was emerging well before him. And in fact that’s true across a lot of the Democratic party and a lot of the Democratic party base. And in fact a lot of the whole American public is, in terms of issues per se, you know like money in politics and do they like labor unions, do they like big money in politics, do they like Medicare for all, you know, Medicaid for all and so forth, the public is pretty progressive. I’ve always felt like the left’s movement has got to meld more fully into conversation with the left wing of the Democratic party. And you’re seeing some of that begin, you know, with sort of the Bernie Sanders wing of the party, you know, sort of bleeding over into the movements to some degree.
CD: People like Nina Turner, people who are in congress and now running Sanders, or some grassroots organizations, I think that’s a very promising synergy. I mean I think the movements need to have a role, and you know the united front. If you look at Germany, you know I mean, there wasn’t this, Hitler got into power, all these right wing guys running around in the ’20s in Weimar Germany, were, they weren’t connecting enough to, between the cultural movements there, the political movements on the ground, and the parties. And I think that’s, that’s real something, a historical lesson to recognize today here. That political change is going to take a melding, you know sort of a united front of some form, which, whether it’s going to be a pretty big spectrum of views, but where you get less people on the ground, community activists on the ground of all kinds, melding in with electoral left wing Democratic party. And you know they’re never going to be the same kinds of people or groups exactly, but the synergy and interaction between them are really important, so.
NPS: It’s the one, it’s the one public institute, well it’s a public institution, and therefore it’s the only institution that they really have any sway over.
NPS: And trying to work within that framework, although I do believe, and I’m curious to get your thoughts on some of the different things that we could do to change at least the structure of those institutions, like either increasing the court size or you know, substantially increasing the size of congress and gutting the power from the executive branch. And of course those are, those are hard, we have to be in power before we can even do those things.
CD: Right, yeah.
NPS: Or at least people on the streets, you know, having peaceful protests everywhere that might enough to really start moving us in that direction. I mean, for–
CD: Well I think it’s the only thing, I think it’s the only thing, Neil, really. I mean, beyond you know massive economic collapse and that kind of thing, is it’s popular movements on the street that will move. Because, because the legal system, the constitutional order is, and you were starting to, you know, enumerate some of those, are so structured to guarantee elite influence. I mean just the way the electoral college is constituted, the way the you know the way the senate is structured, I mean almost all the dominant political institutions are, are oriented to keep popular representation from being expressed. And so that’s why I believe that you need popular movements on the ground. But that those will burn out if they don’t find ways of getting their voice heard. At all levels of electoral politics as well. And you know, that’s not an easy argument to make, either to the Democratic party or to left activist groups. You know I mean, the left activist groups see the Democratic party as sell-outs and not worth cultivating very often and they elect, the Democratic party people are often so bought into the, the mainstream just because they need so much money for their campaigns and so forth. And I think you’re beginning to see some, some productive you know shift in that where you’re getting a more progressive Democratic party person tied in, recognizing that their support is going to come partly from more left progressive movements on the ground. That’s a hopeful thing to me.
NPS: It’s interesting you mention that, I, I was at the café I frequent up the road yesterday and one of the bus girls who works there, her name is Karen, she wanted to know what I did for a living and she was wanting to go back to school and she had interest in mathematics but also an interest in activism. Of course I had your book, Sociopathic Society there with me, I take it there to make notes, and that’s what I was doing sort of in preparation for this interview. But I explained to her exactly what you said about people’s movements and that every single freedom that we can point to today comes from a people’s movement. And, and most often, it’s, it’s intertwined inextricably with labor movements.
NPS: And that the 40 hour work week and paid vacation and, you know, holidays, literally in observance of holy days, none of that would have been possible without the brutal struggles that the labor movements had to endure in earlier parts of–
CD: And are still enduring in a massive way.
NPS: Oh yes, absolutely.
“Lucrative” Diversity, and A Rot in the Left
CD: I don’t know if you had a chance to, the, one of my more recent books is Welcome to the Revolution, which is really focused on activism.
NPS: I just, right before we started this call, I was watching your interview with Chris Hedges about that book.
CD: Oh okay yeah because I developed that idea in the book and in that interview. And I mentioned it just because you were talking about how central the labor movement has been to that and I think what’s created such weakness on the left is the, and this is the center of the argument in the Welcome to the Revolution book, and my idea of universalization. Is that after the late ’60s, the left really kind of decomposed as it abandoned sort of issues about labor and capitalism and moved into a more narrow, sort of abstracted away from class concept of identity politics around race and gender and so forth. And my, well yeah as you probably know from listening to that conversation with Hedges, I, I feel that that’s been a truly catastrophic you know problem on the left and it’s almost eliminated what I think of as a real left. Not that I don’t think race and gender aren’t very, very important issues, they’re obviously critical, but if you try to, you know, do a kind of civil rights, anti-racist politics or feminist kind of politics with that abstracted away from issues of economics and political economy and capitalism, you come out with some dangerous things. And some things that have been, that really–
NPS: That aren’t useful.
CD: You know in my judgment, undermine the whole idea of what the left is trying to do in some ways, so.
NPS: I can give you a really good example of that. So the only social media presence that I have, other than being on George Polisner’s civ.works is on LinkedIn because of my professional trade but I also want to promote articles, interviews from the activist side.
NPS: But often times you will see perfectly well-meaning high technologists writing long winded arguments as to why diversity in the corporate structure is good for profits.
NPS: And of course, the underlying theme there is that profits really are the proxy for welfare. For general welfare.
CD: Right, exactly.
NPS: And that nothing else is important. And so therefore, we just hope, we hold our breath, and cross our fingers, and close our eyes, believing that race and gender being more equally distributed into the corporate hierarchy, will in fact improve profits. Because if it doesn’t, or heaven forbid it actually detracts from profits, then it will not be something that was good. So that there’s this, this broken duality. Cathy O’Neill in her book Weapons of Math Destruction talks about this, this idea of boxing one particular metric for all of the others. I work in that kind of stuff every day at work, I work as a statistician on Bing ads. I hate to say that I’m in the financial sector but fortunately I’m not doing the vicious parts of the job.
CD: Right, right.
NPS: But it gets back to that problem of saying, “This is the one thing that matters. Everything else is secondary, so we only can hope that our, you know, heartfelt, you know, I’m really rooting for the underdog because I want the underdog to actually be the one that makes more money.” You know.
CD: Right, yeah. Well you know, it’s even, I think it’s even more serious than the way you framed it in a way because it’s, it’s, when you were talking about how diverse high-tech people think about corporate diversity as a solution, that is a good model but I think of things like Sheryl Sandburg, you know the, as sort of representing a third wave feminism which, you know you remember her famous book Lean In, which tells women the real nature of feminism is to get ahead in the corporation and get that corner office by getting women right into the top. And that is such a, you know, sociopathic version of feminism you know because it, it really says women just need to join the rat race to the top of the capitalist corporate circle. As if, somehow, if we have women running a ruthless capitalist global system, we’re going to have a much better society. And I’m a strong feminist but I think her version of feminism is really dangerous, you know. And I think it’s pervaded a lot of what used to be called the left, you know, where you, you sort identify with progress of a specific identity community. Often which is very, very important, I mean like I said, I cut my teeth on black, you know, civil right activism and so forth. And I, I view, I view these communities as very important. But when the movements to empower them become separated from these larger systemic issues of capitalism, which they have been completely in the United States. I mean, Martin Luther King, as I mentioned in the Hedges interview, you know while he did toward the end of his life really did focus on economics as a–
NPS: And anti-war. Yeah.
CD: And anti-war as sort of intersectional you know realities that were essential for any kind of civil rights or anti-racist kind of politics, it kind of got erased from the history of the movement. And pulling back a little bit, I noticed on his 50th anniversary there was, there was some discussion, there was, the media had some people who talked about his writing on Vietnam and on the economy and so forth but in general it’s been–
NPS: It’s whitewashed.
CD: It’s been erased. Yeah, whitewashed. And it’s been, it’s a catastrophe for the left. I think it’s one of the reasons the left is so weak in the United States.
NPS: Absolutely. Yeah. I didn’t hear any of those stories when I was in secondary school.
NPS: In fact my, my US history teacher in high school refused to take us past the end of World War II because she thought the rest of it was too controversial to talk about.
NPS: So I mean, that, that’s–
CD: Well that was down in Texas, right?
NPS: Yep, yep. That’s a very extreme example of that kind of whitewashing is just, “Okay well we’re not going, we’re not going to touch it at all.” But I didn’t know those things about Martin Luther King until, well I guess my, my high school English teacher, favorite high school English teacher, Candace Zangoei is her name and she’ll probably read and listen to this interview, she, she did teach us some interesting items from American history because she was teaching us American literature. It’s funny that you have to go to the literature side, you have to go to the arts to hear history.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: Depending on the system. But yeah, that, so what you were saying earlier about having more women leadership or people of color leadership so that this idea that a woman dictator’s better than a man dictator, so.
CD: Right. Exactly.
NPS: So that dictatorship is okay. That’s exactly what happened with Obama’s election.
NPS: The left withered, whatever you can call the left, I mean.
NPS: You and I, you and I know what that means.
NPS: The mainstream depiction of that is wrong. But we have the first black president so it doesn’t matter that he kills–
CD: Right. Exactly.
NPS: Civilians with drones. All of that’s okay.
CD: And you know, that had a really tangible and concrete political consequence because the peace movement for example, which had emerged against Bush during the Iraq war and so forth, really vanished under Obama. Even though Obama intensified a lot–
NPS: He was more hawkish.
CD: Of American militarism. So, so that’s a perfect example, right, of where you say, “Okay I don’t want to challenge a black president.” And so you allow the more toxic and lethal elements of the system, and by more I mean some of the most vicious aspects of the system, to go unchallenged. And the peace movement, you know, goes away.
NPS: Oh I’m sure, I’m sure that’s why the financial sector, yeah, I’m sure that’s why the financial sector ultimately endorsed Obama.
NPS: Is they, they don’t care. They just want power and money. They don’t care what color it is or what party.
CD: Absolutely. In fact they legitimate themselves by virtue of their saying that, “Look, we’re technically, you know, we are open to women and blacks and everybody.” And that’s a hugely important legitimating force for, you know, for capitalism itself.
CD: So yeah, it’s an issue that’s really hard to deal with and it’s very important. And I’m glad we’re talking about it because it just can’t be talked about enough, you know.
CD: And it’s such a sensitive issue because, you know, people in these identity communities really do face tremendous struggles and they, they often thing this is some repetition of the white students of the late ’60s who sort of became dominant and sort of marginalized black and women and so forth. I mean I understand that, that concern, fully. And that’s why the, the new waves of feminist and global movements develop but, and the left itself created it but. I just think that today, Trump would not have been elected if the Democratic party, I mean sort of Hillary ran, and this is a problem that infects the left movements themselves, I mean the real left. And then it also, or let’s say what passes as closest to the real left in America today.
CD: And also the Democratic party, you know Hillary ran a campaign where she would trot out all these black faces and women and say just being a woman was. And, and you know, in regard to the movement, I really want to be careful because it can sound very patronizing for a white male to say, “Hey all you black and female people and brown people and gay people and so forth, don’t be so obsessed with your own particular thing.” I don’t mean it in that way.
CD: What I mean is that for, for the, for liberation let’s say, of black people or brown people or women or gays or whatever, Native Americans, disabled people, I mean, it’s really important that people build organizations among those communities but I think it’s crucially important to recognize that to get any kind of, first of all, to get the masses of people behind you, you need-
CD: … a broad systemic vision and momentum and two, you’re going to end up like Sheryl Sandberg, you know, competing for the pieces of the pie that the system is willing to allocate to you rather than questioning the system itself and that’s going to lead to perpetual hopelessness, so, yeah, it’s-
CD: … just a really, really-
NPS: To temporarily pacify or supplicate these people so that then you can say-
CD: Right, right.
NPS: “Well, look, we do have a black President, so what are you complaining about?”
CD: Right, right.
NPS: And that’s-
CD: Or we passed this law. Yeah. It’s sort of a gramscian thing, right, you know, that capitalism legitimates itself by being able to say, well, hey, what do you got against us? Look at how much, you know, we can turn on the TV now and see black anchors and women in high positions and, you know, one wants to celebrate some of that, but when you recognize that oh, the wealth gap by blacks and whites has gone ten times up, you know, in the period after Obama, and-
NPS: Right, right, during the housing crisis.
CD: Same with women and, I mean, you recognize there’s something really, really wrong there and that it’s delicate to talk about, particularly if you’re a white male, and I’m sensitive to that, but it’s something that is just essential for people to think about and to organize around, and that’s really this book, Welcome to the Revolution, it’s really why I brought in a lot of different voices of people who were from these different communities but recognized that labor and economic, systemic, and political economy sorts of questions were central to all the, whether it’s Black Lives Matter or socialist, feminist, and so forth, these are issues that the hopeful thing is that I think more people in these identity movements are recognizing the importance of intersectionality and the intertwining of race, class, and gender and so forth and the need for organizing on the ground to have this kind of wider angle of vision.
There Are Welfare Bankers in Welfare Jets
NPS: Seeing and understanding, being able to perceive the common ground that they have and that the game is already rigged, the power elites from the very beginning, pre-capitalists and post-capitalists, whatever capitalists really means, it’s really state-driven capitalism, but it’s-
CD: Right, right.
NPS: But nonetheless, the corporate masters have tried to divide people, have said, “Oh, well, you’re Italian, you don’t want to hang out with the Irish, and oh, we don’t want black and white farmers to join forces.” It’s kind of astonishing when you think about the Farmers’ Alliance being formed in Texas.
CD: That’s right.
NPS: The first farmer’s union.
CD: Kansas, yeah. Right, right.
NPS: My grandparents on my father’s side were farmers in North Dakota and they settled there, and it was interesting to talk to my grandfather before he died. Of course he had some really crazy, far out there evangelical views. He was so extreme that no church was good enough for him, that he knew better than all of them.
CD: Wow, wow.
NPS: But it was funny that we could talk about far right policies. He didn’t know I was gay, by the way, that would not have gone over well. But when it came to the state swooping in and supporting farmers if their harvest didn’t go well, or in his little community, the community actually keeping the café open even though it couldn’t make enough profits to justify itself under the economic system, all of that made perfect sense. It was very interesting.
CD: Right, right, right.
NPS: I like my slice of what the government does for me, but you shouldn’t get a slice. And that’s definitely what the top one permill, I want that word to catch on, because it’s the correct term, the top one tenth of one percent of Americans you talk about in Sociopathic Society that they rely more on the infrastructure of the government than any of us. They-
CD: Absolutely. Corporate welfare is the only real welfare in America. You know?
NPS: Yeah, the rest is like dirty pennies in the couch.
CD: Absolutely, it’s chump change, yeah.
NPS: That no one cares, no one should care about, but it keeps being trotted out as this huge issue. Oh my goodness, there’s a black woman who gets her nails done and she’s on welfare.
CD: Exactly, exactly.
NPS: How dare she be entitled to any decent survival?
Fascism and the Evolution of Economic Divinity
NPS: Goodness gracious, we could go on forever. This is really good. I’m really enjoying this. I hope you are.
CD: Good, I absolutely am. Well, it’s really, really important. I mean, the issues we’re talking about are so central. I mean, one thing I wanted to add was, returning to the sort of fascist tide around the world with Trump and so forth. These kind of siloed kinds of left politics are not only dangerous to the left because they divide the left and keep people from focusing on some of the systemic things that are so central to all these kinds of hierarchies of oppression, but they’re also the things that open the floodgates to the Trumpists of the world and the sort of fascists of the world, because the white working classes, I just wrote a new book, it’s coming out in December, actually.
CD: So, just in a couple months, called-
NPS: You know you’re adding, you’re making my reading list heavier and heavier. Thank you very much, it’s already got lots of books on it.
CD: Yeah, I should apologize for that.
NPS: No, not at all.
CD: Anyway, just to add to the weight, this new book, which is called Moving Beyond Fear, and it’s subtitled Upending the Security Stories of Capitalism, Fascism, and Democracy, and what I try to show in there is that when capitalism moves into periods of extreme crisis, this is a gramscian analysis, but that the traditional legitimation stories of capitalism, which is the American dream that everybody works hard to get ahead, and so if you think of capitalism as a sort of upstairs, downstairs house, people on the downstairs accept because they think the stairways going from the downstairs to the upstairs are wide enough that anybody who tries can try hard can make it up there and live very well. But when those stairways are clearly declining, the people upstairs, the elites have got to figure out a way to keep people in line and keep them believing in the house and the architecture of the house. So actually as I reach back into pre-capitalist kinds of stories around security and fear where if you looked at the nobility and the aristocracy and the serfs in, say, the feudal era, there was never any chance of mobility so they built this idea of, you know, sort of chain of being based on God and security where the people on top simply were destined to be there for the well-being and protection against terrible threats and fears. In the Middle Ages there were these devils lurking everywhere, whether it’s disease or Satan or whatever, and the lords of the manor were there to prevent them, so I kind of look at the evolution of modern national security ideas from even these pre-capitalist things as sort of a basic form of capitalist legitimation and then, when things went really bad, this sort of fear-based enemy manufacturing, I know Noam has written a huge amount about this, but it’s really central to fascism, because capitalism can easily devolve into fascism when the economic situation is bad enough and when the elites are desperate enough that they’re willing to do what the Republican party has done, which is basically throw its lot in with these ultra nationalist sort of alt-right groups, which are based on sort of very authoritarian and-
NPS: Strong father model…
CD: … divisions, the divisions of people. You have to divide people down within the downstairs, and you divide them as enemies of the people and people who are totally catastrophically dangerous to allow, so I said people with fear about that’s being generated from their lack of economic and social well-being are being told and come to believe that, well, it’s these people who are really enemies of the people, whether it’s black people or gay people or immigrants or whoever it is, and you know, they say it was that thing, it was that kind of model, in this book, I go into a lot of Hitler’s talk about immigrants and Jews and gay people and so forth, who used exactly this kind of legitimation politics to draw people from the Weimar Republic into serious fascism. So it’s a really, this is not just abstract kind of theorizing about the left in America right now. It’s something-
NPS: It’s real.
CD: … that’s really embedded in the history of some of the most scary things that we can contemplate and so that’s why I think the things we’ve been talking about, about the way the left is structured, or the group that likes to think about itself as left. And again, I don’t mean to be that in a sanctimonious or punitive way, because I really appreciate any kind of activism on the progressive side that people are willing to do, people who have hard lives and it’s hard to-
NPS: Well, some forms of it are going to be more effective and some people are going to be-
NPS: … more heavily burdened because of the system.
NPS: There was something else along … oh, yes. The other thing I wanted to add in the vein of thought of what you were talking about with respect to security, and I’m very interested to see your book, is this interesting transitioning from divine intervention justifying the existence of the elites, the monarchs, the aristocracy-
CD: Right, right, right.
NPS: … to it becoming the holy market.
CD: Yeah, that’s an interesting transition, that’s right. Because, you know, in the middle ages, this sort of division between the aristocracy, the nobility, really we’re seeing is that a literally different blood. Blue blood you know, sort of godly and inspired nobility. It then becomes capitalism, you know, the feudal lords had a lot of contempt for the early merchants who would become the capitalists, but eventually, history evolved in ways that these merchants developed enough capital and enough power, but they always envied the kind of divine legitimacy, you know, the godly legitimacy of their older brothers who were, you know, the people who remained on the land and so forth, even as they were declining economically. And they always, I’m doing another book with my co-author called Glorious Causes, something about why people vote against their own interests, or act against their own interest, and it’s that same argument that, you know, what we’re seeing here is that an ancient historical force that you can see through centuries and centuries of human history where you know, it’s like you said, elites constantly need to re-legitimate their system with these very ancient views that god or nature have somehow constructed them as natural and godly and the way in which morality is maintained.
NPS: There was this fabulous quote that you have in Sociopathic Society about John D. Rockefeller. I don’t have the exact quote.
CD: Yeah, “God gave me-“
NPS: Yeah, exactly, that’s God and Darwinism combined in one statement about why he has his wealth. I thought that was a fantastic quote.
CD: Yeah, and that Godly thing, you know, you go back … have you been to Newport where they, you know, the nineteenth century robber barons, the first real American capitalists of any great consequence, they built their summer homes and they literally brought over the castles from European nobility. Capitalism itself can never really inspire the kind of moral and spiritual meaning that the aristocracy in pre-capitalist societies was able to provide, because it’s hard to get people completely morally inspired by the idea of just making a lot, being money grubbers and being successful about it. And so I think there’s always been a need in capitalism to sort of move into these areas of pre-capitalist religious and spiritual kinds of legitimation and then you see that in, you know, Hitler was very much of a moralist and a spiritualist in talking about godly, I mean, to read Hitler is to think that you’re listening to a preacher, you know, because he’s talking about moral degeneration and his whole argument was, you know, he was happy to rely on capitalists, corporations from America to rebuild his military and military Keynesianism and so forth, but his core argument was really moral and spiritual, and I think it reflects the fact that capitalism is inherently challenged to create ideas that can, particularly given the tendencies of capitalism to-
NPS: It’s amoral.
CD: … push people down in the system. It’s amoral and it doesn’t deliver on the money-grubbing materialist sides of it, so it has to go towards these more spiritual, more elevated form.
Piketty, Rentiers, Gladiator Technocrats, and State-Sponsored High Tech
CD: And you know, the economy ends up, this is the virtue I think of the work of Thomas Piketty, which I’m sure you’ve come across.
NPS: Oh sure.
CD: The French economist who really writes that-
NPS: That’s in my notes to talk to you about that, so, yeah.
CD: Yeah, I did a little book which I talked to him about, which is really a sort of exposition, a sort of “Reader’s Digest” view [Disinherited Majority], you know, sort of a simple view that people don’t want to read 800 pages of economic history. But, you know, his analysis–
NPS: It’s a hard book.
CD: Because really the capitalist … it’s a hard book to read, but it’s really interesting and it’s, one, because he writes a lot about history and he writes about the kind of culture of capitalist elite and he writes that-
NPS: It’s very well written, the translation.
CD: Yeah, very well written.
NPS: I love it.
CD: And he writes about how the capitalist elites always, back in England and much of Europe in the last three centuries, have always had this kind of aristocratic tendency, not only in their need to ape, to sort of emulate and claim blue blood, you know, glory of the kind that the feudal warrior class and nobility had, but they were basically ended up being rentiers, you know, where they basically made their money off of inherited wealth, and wealth was increasingly inherited as we see today, and Trump being a perfect example of a guy who was sort of buying into the, you know, trying to publicly promote the myth of walking and working your way up the stairs, but the guy we now know inherited, what, half a billion dollars, $423 million from his dad.
NPS: Yeah, he’s a phony. A phony.
CD: Yeah. And he didn’t work hard for his money.
CD: In fact, we now know that he had taken what he inherited and simply had put it in a savings account, he would have more money than he has today, although we don’t know exactly how much he has, we know that he would have had a lot more money if he had just put it in the bank. So the guy is, in a way, a feudal lord who just inherited his money. We haven’t inherited an aristocratic class, which claims itself as a innovative, technologically advanced, and there’s just enough technological innovation where you know this from the world you work in that again, capitalism is fluid enough and you know, complex enough that you can make these arguments with some level of credibility. I don’t mean the Trump argument so much, but these broader arguments we’re talking about, about working hard and creative innovation and so forth, particularly in a high tech economy in ways.
NPS: In my social … I was just going to mention, insert into that, what I see on LinkedIn is this gladiator worship, the technocrats, my fellow technologists, technocrats, they worship these sort of proto-sociopathic magnates like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg. Like, they can do no wrong because they’re so brilliant that they created all of this wealth. I can speak to Jeff Bezos more directly because I worked at that company. I would say that there certainly are very sociopathic tendencies at work across that entire company, but these people are-
CD: Oh, absolutely.
NPS: These are people are put up on a pillar as something to be worshiped and emulated.
CD: You know, this is an idea, as I listen to you talk about this, this is, you have a particular perch, so to speak, in which to really talk about this. It’s really important, and you know, just intuitively, I don’t know the world internally the way you do, but, I mean, this world of high-tech business and culture, but it just sounds really right to me, and it really is, it’s really important, because you know, capitalism is evolving in this direction, so Jeff Bezos is the richest man in the world, these corporations are the dominant corporations increasingly, and they’re very much embodying this new model of kind of, well, of everything we’re talking about, right, of creating a really sociopathic kind of capitalism in the name of technological progress and general social well-being and so forth. And there’s just enough virtue and fun that comes from computers and all the electronic technology that we have that it becomes one of the guiding legitimating forces of a very sociopathic system, you know. So I think-
NPS: Without the historical context of the state actually creating, at least germinating all of this technology.
CD: That’s right, that’s right.
NPS: Then it later is taken on by private enterprise, like the internet was pretty much given over to private enterprise in the mid 90s after 50 years, really 60 years of at least thinking about it in the state circles.
CD: Well, you know, this is one of Noam’s big, I’m sure you probably got to know Noam that way, because working at MIT and seeing the way in which the state was funding so much of the technology in the Defense Department and that eventually would lead into the high tech revolution. That really became, you know, Noam has always called the Pentagon the sort of backdoor socialism of American capitalism.
NPS: It absolutely is, yeah. I ask people, fellow technologists, and people who are skeptical of the kinds of things you and I’ve been discussing for the last hour. I ask them the question, what would happen in the 1930s if somebody came into a corporate board room and said, “Give me $250 billion and in 70 years, I’ll give you $10 trillion.” The numbers may be off somewhat, but it sort of captures the spirit of it. They would have kicked his ass out. They would have said, “Hell no, we don’t want that kind of long term risk,” even if you can almost guarantee that there’s going to be this huge turnaround. Technology wouldn’t happen within a true capitalist system if we’d ever had one, this sort of laissez-faire imaginings of people who are trying toretrofit the history to say this is why we are great, and therefore invest all of our energy into emulating people like Musk and Bezos and Zuckerberg, which, I’m sure they’re actually aware of this, because they have to deal with the government at the highest levels just because of the way that their corporations are so intricately intertwined now with AWS at Amazon and Azure at Microsoft competing for government contracts to manage the cloud. But the people are taken aback by that.
CD: Yeah, and you know, this high tech stuff, I just wanted to say again to validate the importance of your ability to speak to the high tech, the Bezos, you know, high tech-
CD: … model of worship, I mean, it’s really infected the university.
CD: So I see students every day who, you know, who they’re, you know, if you looked like at a place like where I teach at Boston College, there’s just a massive, you know, migration of students from the liberal arts into the business schools, and they go into finance and technology, and they really do worship these people that you’re talking about, and they see this as a model of what their life will look, and these are people who are very oriented toward identity politics. You know, they’re a generation that is very open to-
NPS: Socially liberal, yeah.
CD: Socially liberal on all the socially liberal, you know, I can check off whether it’s racial diversity or you know, gender-
NPS: Marriage equality.
CD: … transgender acceptance and all that stuff and they really mean it, but on the other hand, they become completely … this is the danger of the kind of, quote, left politics that we talked about, or liberal politics, both where the socially liberal mentions of it get divorced from the systemic, you know, power and control.
NPS: Which I saw firsthand working for corporate Uber and working for corporate Amazon, so it … at corporate Amazon, I traveled to the UK and I traveled to California to tour delivery stations and go on last mile rides to just sort of get a feel for what the drivers on the ground are having to deal with, and as you might imagine, they are considered contractors. They’re not employees.
CD: Right, right, yes, I know.
NPS: Although there’s no National Labor Relations Board in the UK, but they have their equivalents over there. They are pretty much serving at the pleasure of the delivery stations that hire them. They don’t have any opportunity to unionize, the pay is terrible. They are held to standards that literally will cause them to have auto accidents because they have to go so fast to get everything delivered. You see similar happenings at Uber. When I was flying back and forth from Seattle to San Francisco working at corporate Uber, I was doing that every week. I can’t believe that I did it. My husband told me that it was terrible idea but I did it anyway. I had nothing else to do when I was down there except work, and if you stayed in the office past 10:00 PM, they would give you a free Uber ride home. So I could order Uber Black, which is the limousine, you know, it’s really just a black SUV. I got to know over 70, seven zero, Uber drivers in the course of that whole enterprise, and this is real conversational narcissism, what I’m about to say, because I’m really proud of this. With almost every one of them, I would keep them an extended period of time talking to them about American history, particularly the labor movements, and why the only thing that will work that will lift their standard of living, because I saw people whose wages dropped 30% over a period of 18 months, and this is their full time job, they have no labor protection because they’re contractors. I explained to them exactly what has worked in American history and they were enraptured. They were mesmerized because they’d never heard any of these things. They’ve not heard these aspects of American history. I also told them, you know, the truth is, I could be fired for telling you these things, because corporate Uber is not going to be happy for me to tell those things to drivers, basically.
CD: So, so true, you know, and I shop at a local Whole Foods, which as you know has been taken over by Amazon, and I’ve been asking the people there what the new management is like and what it’s like for them as workers there. It’s a pretty sad story. You know, and you read about the warehouses, Amazon ware- It’s a pretty sad story. Now, when you read about the warehouses, and then the warehouses, regrettably, how unsafe they are.
NPS: Oh, yeah. I’ve seen them, and it is terrible.
CD: I’ve never been in them but it seems just awful. And then what I did, I talk to these people on the know when I go shopping and looking for whole foods. They say that both the way the food is sourced, the way their work schedules, and so forth have taken on notable slide since Bezos took over whole foods. And I wasn’t that enchanted with his predecessor, although he kept talking about conscious capitalism and so forth.
NPS: Right. Right.
Globalist Worker Exploitation and “Immoral Morality”
CD: So, yeah. So, I think, this discussion of way in which high-tech capitalism is shaping the toxic sociopathic forces with this. Another idea that you might … not to lay on you all these books–
NPS: That’s all right.
CD: I also wrote a book called Morality Wars which talks about the ideas of immoral moralities. It’s sort of the core concept. The idea is sort of this, that the more toxic the actual behavior that any particular institution takes on, the more likely it is that they will turn to morally, or spiritually, or religiously oriented high levels of moral discourse. Well, pretty much, a linear correlation between the sociopathy of the behavior and the elevated morality, how elevated it is of this person that justifies it.
NPS: Sure. Yeah.
CD: And I sort of look at everything. Look at empires from the Roman Empire to fascism, all examples of incredibly, if you look at fascism, incredibly barbaric systems which were studiously legitimated under the most moral and spiritual. And, of course, slavery was often done in that way and, I mean, if you look-
NPS: Oh, yeah. They said they had to have slavery. They told northern industrialists, “Well, you don’t support your black workers.”
CD: Right. Yeah. They said, “You have wage slavery. We have a kind of welfare state for these people.”
NPS: And that’s a similar argument that remains in place to justify this state-driven, high-tech capitalism. That if you don’t do this then poor people won’t have jobs.
CD: Right. Well, on high tech, I’m focusing on this because it’s where you’re located. And I think it’s incredibly important because I noticed in the university, like I said before, that I think, even among the more socially liberal parts of the younger generation, the high-tech miracle, so to speak, is really what is a vast part of the new legitimating element of capitalism. People believe in the technology. Their lives have been changed by computers, and iPhones, and so forth. And that’s had a huge impact on the way they think about the world. And it makes them believe that capitalism can really, because I teach courses on capitalism, that they go back to these high-tech world as a way of believing that capitalism can produce miracles and-
NPS: All boats will rise.
CD: … moral giants like Jeff Bezos. Yeah. And it also does produce new contradictions because the high tech world, it produces a lot of creative stuff. And there is this tension within capitalism itself between sort of more cosmopolitan features of capitalism, which required a certain amount of critical thinking and scientific, innovative kind of discourse or way of understanding the world, and the more traditional forms of capitalism in their sort of core structures of capitalism, which are rooted in these primal, brutal forms of power. So I think the high-tech world really gives this kind of special, post-modern, 21st century kind of legitimacy to these ruling forms of oppression and hierarchy and stuff.
NPS: Right. You see it in the astonishing rates of sexual harassment in high tech, and we just had the big Google walkout this week.
CD: Oh, that’s right.
NPS: And it was covered on Democracy Now, and my uncle told me it was covered on CNN. I don’t watch anything other that what I … I read things online, and I listen to Democracy Now, and that’s about it for news. You get more out of Democracy Now in ten minutes than you do CNN in 24 hours.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: But just to add another story to that, I remember – actually, it’s two different stories, but it’s basically the same idea – talking to some of the younger people that worked on my team and my sister team when I was in Amazon with last mile logistics. They were unaware that there are schools in this country that don’t have power, or places where you can’t drink the water, or the kids don’t have enough textbooks to go around and the textbooks are from the 1970s. They couldn’t believe that because that’s not what they’ve been taught. If they’re from a different country, it’s not really necessarily what they’ve been taught about America, at least the high-tech vision of what America looks like. They also were completely unaware of a story that I saw on Democracy Now in which during one of the heatwaves that we had in the last couple of years, it must have been maybe five or six years ago now, in Pennsylvania, one of their fulfillment centers, they didn’t have air conditioning because you don’t need air conditioning up there a lot of the time from what I understand. I know we don’t need it in Seattle. But, in any case, they were experiencing this heatwave so the fulfillment center was just overbearing and terribly hot. And they didn’t want to open up the big doors that are used for freight transportation of goods because they were afraid the employees would steal from them.
NPS: One of the experiences that I had in visiting the fulfillment center, it is like a damn prison. Getting in and out of there, if there were a fire, you’d die because just getting out is almost impossible.
CD: That’s very interesting and very, very believable. Yeah.
NPS: So what they decided to do was ask the city to send ambulances that just circled the fulfillment center for people as employees would have heatstroke’s.
NPS: I mean, you can’t make this shit up it’s so bad. And I was explaining it to my coworkers and they, of course, didn’t disbelieve me because they liked listening to me talk about history and various things that I would try to mix into the work that we were doing. But they couldn’t believe that Jeff Bezos, or his surrogates, or representatives would ever agree to such a thing because it’s so egregiously evil. And I explained, no. This is across the board. These wonderful, liberal, high-tech companies are engaged in horrific labor practices overseas, not to mention the ones that they’re doing in the United States. But it’s nothing compared to what’s going on in Africa and China and India.
CD: Right. Right. No, you’re so right. And it’s certainly my understanding of these places, although, I’ve had less direct experience with them. But it is, though, the contrast between the sort of glamorous and moralistic imagery of Amazon. It’s really kind of third-world, capitalist enterprise in a way. I mean, kind of like a sweatshop because I have been in a lot of, in Asia and Africa, I’ve been in…
NPS: True sweatshops.
CD: Sweatshops, fulfillment centers of which just exactly, when you were talking, remind of what I saw in, say, Thailand or those kinds of places.
NPS: Were these Foxconn plants?
CD: This was about seven or eight years ago, but I went on a variety of tours of various kinds of western sweatshop, sneaker shops, but these were not high-tech places, per se. But they had the sort of sense of prison, and yet of being morally save because they were taking young women who were going to be, otherwise, brutalized on a farm. And, I mean, they were working in better conditions than they were before these companies came in and on the wall, in English, they would have in some of the Nike centers or whatever, Reebok centers, they would have corporate codes of conduct written in English that nobody could understand. And at the same time, I was able to talk to the workers and these young women were working in locked areas, which where there were fires meant many of them could die. Where you’ve heard on Bangladesh–
NPS: Oh, yeah.
CD: And where they would work 20 hours. Depending on the season, they would work 20 hours and sleep under their sowing machines and that sort of thing.
NPS: Oh, my God.
CD: So, yeah. I don’t know if you know Charlie Kernaghan, and the work he did, [though] he’s not doing this work anymore because of health reasons. But for many years he was the primary sort of presenter to the western audience. And he would bring these workers over. I remember, because I was friends with Kernaghan and his partner, they would bring in from, say, Bangladesh these young women who were 17, 18 working in these American Disney cap or tee shirt sort of back sweatshops or whatever. And these girls, who were the same age as my students who are 18, 19. And they were talking about what their life was like, and how they were going to die at 30. And they were working 20 hours a day, and they wouldn’t have enough money to pay for a coffin because of the health conditions in the shop. And it just brought tears to these female students who were looking at them, the same age, and sort of wondering why am I who I am.
Luck Can Demand Responsibility : Hope in High Tech?
NPS: Why am I lucky.
CD: Yeah. And how awful it was because the sweatshop workers were so … They weren’t exaggerating or in anyway asking for anything but people to listen or understand what their lives were like. It was very compelling.
NPS: Yeah. I’ve often thought … And in recent years, this has definitely been true. I mean, except in the last year because I’ve had some really bad health crises that have come up. But certainly, before this, I read about these things. It’s hard to watch video of these things. But I read about them. And part of the reason I read about them is not only to inform my actions and help me be a better citizen and try to work on these issues, but also, the gratitude that one can get from realizing that despite the fact … and I’ve told you in some of our email correspondence before this about the bullying that I experienced earlier in life, and there were a lot of things that I wish had been different. But my God, the life that I’ve had, it is literally like winning the lottery multiple times over to have been born in late 20th century America, and be white, and I’m tall.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: And I’m also … I was good student and I was compliant. And those two things together are the reason that I’m sitting here talking to you now.
CD: Yeah. Yeah. Absolutely.
NPS: And I didn’t do anything to deserve those things. I’ve done nothing. There’s no … I don’t even believe that there’s some divine reason that I’ve been given these things. It is, literally, the roll of the cosmic dice. And I feel like that should be a call to action.
CD: Right. Well, you know, Noam’s view of social activism is really a form of education. And as you act, you educate yourself and you educate others. And, yeah. I think your story is very … I think you can attract and impact a large community by the particular nature of your experiences. And you’re an articulate guy as I’m listening to you.
NPS: I appreciate that.
CD: And I think you shouldn’t underestimate the way that your voice can make a difference.
NPS: I certainly believe that those of us who work in high tech have a degree of priv… We’re actually the last vestiges of the middle class in the neoliberal era. So, therefore, these people actually do have power. The people who work at Google and can walk out, they have power.
CD: Right. Right.
NPS: They can force corporate leadership at this gigantic, perhaps one of the most significant corporations that’s existed. They can sway leadership just by joining hands together and saying, “We’re not gonna work today.”
CD: Have you seen much of that? I mean, have you seen any emerging high tech sorts of activism that strike you as promising?
NPS: Well, certainly. I mentioned earlier George Polisner and his building of the social network product.
CD: Yeah, no. I know George. I was in touch with him 10 or 15 years ago. Yeah. I haven’t talked to him for a while but, yeah.
NPS: His work is really interesting. I actually did my first of these interviews was with him, and you’re number two. Yeah. He and I been chatting for quite a while because I discovered him on LinkedIn and saw his very public resignation from Oracle. So I saw that online, so I reached out to him. He resigned because Safra Catz, the CEO of Oracle, agreed to be part of Trump’s either transition team or-
CD: Oh, that’s right. Yes. Yes. I remember.
NPS: And so we started chatting and he was explaining to me some of the people that he’s known through the years through the work that he does. Not the activism but the actual high-tech work. So that is certainly something that gives me hope.
CD: Yeah. Yeah.
NPS: As far as the kind of organization that I would really like to see, and this doesn’t exist as far as I know, is a real union for technologist or a union for data science.
CD: Exactly. That’s funny that you’d say that because I was just thinking that there’s-
NPS: That’s precisely-
CD: … a terrible importance of getting because there would be a real potential. I mean, the laborism is strongest among professionals and among … What’s left of the labor movement is in the public sector and in professions. So as much as those groups are problematic in some ways, they are doing a lot of the organizing and, whether it’s nurses or teachers or scientists or whatever. I mean, that’s where a lot of the labor … So, I mean, I think they … it must be a right period now, given the conditions that we were talking about, for labor to get a foothold in. And I’ll say that, in a sense, that would be the new, new deal would be trying to find the way to get, given the conditions of work on these huge, glamorous, high-tech companies, a labor movement addressing the issues you’ve been talking about would be really powerful, I think. The time is right, you know what I mean?
NPS: This has been awesome, and I can’t thank you enough.
CD: I’m glad you feel that way. Its been really nice talking to you and-
NPS: Your works are very powerful. And the way that you bring together, it’s the homogenization, the universalizing and all the this spirit that there’s more or less leaves on the tree and bringing it back together towards the trunk of the tree. It’s very powerful. So I want to-
CD: Thank you, Neil. I really appreciate you saying that. I’m really happy to hear it. And that’s very affirming because I spend so much time doing this stuff.
CD: And whenever I get affirmation, it kind of really feels good. So let’s stay in touch. I’m really happy to meet you and talk to you. I think we’re very much in the same spirit and so forth.
NPS: Sure. Yeah.
CD: I’ve been really thinking about projects I can imagine you’re doing in the high tech domain that we talked about that our work of organizing on the ground. And maybe in terms of book-writing and so forth.
NPS: Yes. Absolutely. A dream come true. So thank you Professor Derber for all the work you’ve done.
CD: Terrific. Well, thanks for your work. And call me Charlie. And we’ll stay in touch Neil.
NPS: All right, Charlie.
NPS: Awesome. All right.
NPS: You take care.
CD: Thanks for talking. Take care of yourself. I hope your health conditions go well. And I look forward to talking to you next time.
NPS: Likewise, thank you so much. Bye-bye.
CD: Okay. Take good care. Bye.