an Interview with Michael Yates
Derek Seidman, an editor of Left Hook, interviewed Michael Yates, author of the new book Naming the System: Inequality and Work in the Global Economy. Yates is a radical economist, a longtime labor educator, and a former Professor of Economics at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of numerous other books, including Longer Hours, Fewer Jobs and Why Unions Matter. He is currently the associate editor of Monthly Review (www.monthlyreview.org).
DS: Thank you for agreeing to do this interview Mike. Your books, articles, and activity deal with some underlying concerns: work and the people who do it, unions, unemployment, radical economic critique, and efforts to resist capitalism. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how and why you came to be concerned with these issues?
Michael Yates: I was born in a small coal mining village about 40 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, along the Allegheny River. My mother had a job when she was about 14 unloading dynamite at a coal mine for use by the miners who used their own explosives to get at new seams of coal. She, her brother, and their mother (my grandmother) did this work to help eke out a living after my grandfather died. They all had severe asthma and collapsed on the floor when they got home. The house, which is the one I lived in for one year, had neither inside plumbing nor hot water, just a mine company shack. We soon moved up the river a few miles to a town where my father grew up. He worked in the large glass factory doing various kinds of manual labor for 44 years. He developed emphysema from cigarettes, asbestos, and silica dust and died at age 75.
I am sure that the experience of growing up in the heart of the working class and learning from my parents, and especially from my grandmother (who also worked on a barge boat as a cook and a servant for rich folks in Manhattan, Newport, Grosse Point, and Sewickley, all havens of the very rich), that life was not especially fair and always full of bad possibilities, helped shape my future take on life. Then what really transformed my thinking was the war in Vietnam and trying to be a good teacher. The war was so obviously evil and bore down most heavily upon working class youth that it made me think about things more deeply than I had before. It disillusioned me completely and forever about the government. And it made me aware that the media and the government lied almost as a matter of course. But it also opened my eyes to what was really going on in this country. With respect to teaching, I couldn’t make sense of mainstream economics when I had to teach it to college students. At the same time, I could see at the school that there was a whole lot of hypocrisy. Not much real respect for the "higher learning." So when the custodians and maintenance workers at the school began a union campaign, I jumped right in and helped them win. I tried to organize the teachers too but never did succeed. All of this looking at work, combined with the difficulties teaching mainstream crap, plus the war, all sort of worked together to move me toward a radical perspective. Why was there this horrible war? Why was the school screwing the workers? Why were some of the teachers so damned stupid? Why was mainstream economics silent on these things? A radical perspective made good sense of all of these things.
Eventually I became so disillusioned with the whole academic scene, so I started to teach workers, and I have been doing this since 1980. I had to continue college teaching to pay the bills, but in 2001 I had enough money in my pension to quit that. My wife and I gave all of our possessions to our four kids, libraries, friends, and charities, and took off. Since then we have lived in Yellowstone National Park, Manhattan, Miami Beach, and Portland, Oregon.
DS: Earlier this year Staughton Lynd published a piece in Monthly Review entitled "Students and Workers in the Transition to Socialism". In March I heard him give a talk on this article at the Socialist Scholars conference, where he said that "students and workers are different but equally necessary actors and social forces". What do you think is the political significance of youth as a social force? In the struggle for change, what is the relationship between youth as a particular group and the working class?
Yates: I was on the editorial committee which decided to publish Lynd’s article, which had won a prize set up by the estate of Daniel Singer, the wonderful journalist and writer. I still believe that workers must be the basic force which must organize and eventually transform society (along with peasants in poor countries). This is because they are the source of the profits which make capitalism what it is. They can shut the system down, and at the same time they possess the unique knowledge needed to make it work in everyone’s interests.
Having said that, I agree in principle with Lynd. First, young people are more likely to be idealistic and think that radical change is both necessary and possible. They may not yet be stuck in the routinized and sterile life that work and age often bring, nor stuck in any kind of rigid way of thinking. They have great energy and can get things done. Furthermore, most young people are or will soon enough be workers. They can help to energize and radicalize the workers’ movement. And what revolution has ever succeeded without youth?
Of course, there can be problems. Maybe youth don’t want to take time to really learn about things. And maybe older folks will refuse to give youth their chance. It might sound phony, but I was glad to quit my job, not just because I did not enjoy doing it anymore, but also because it was time to let younger people make their marks.
All of the youth ferment on campuses is a very good thing. Lots of people are being permanently transformed and will do good thing throughout their lives. However, young people must be careful not to be coopted, even by labor unions and the like. They must keep their eye on a radical transformation of society.
Of course we can talk about the radical potential of youth. But in the U.S. it is still the case that most youth are conservative and not very sympathetic to the working class.
DS: Four-fifths of the US working class in now engaged in service work. Union membership is at an all time low. Massive segments of the working class are first generation immigrants from other countries and are separated from other workers by their cultural heritage, language, type of work they do, and sometimes their "illegal" status. There is a great deal of national chauvinism in certain segments of the working class. What are the major changes, features, and/or problems in the development and reality of the modern working class that need to be understood in order to get a grip on the parameters of today’s class struggle?
Yates: The main dividing line is still race. This is the issue that must be focused upon in all working class organizations. Without an understanding of the issue of race and a willingness to confront it head on, the working class will not build its strength. There are some good signs in terms of the great willingness of racial minorities, including immigrants, legal or not, to organize and support unions. And a few unions are doing good work organizing these workers. But so much more needs to be done. Why no mass meetings, etc. by the AFL-CIO and its unions to discuss race frankly? Why no discussion in labor about the mass incarceration of Black men (and women too)? Racism is the most divisive force in our society, so until it is dealt with we cannot hope for much.
Another problem is what you call "national chauvinism." This is a very tough nut to crack, since a vast propaganda network is in place to keep the workers whipped up into a patriotic frenzy. Maybe this will change, but I doubt it unless it is addressed. Of course, I think the two issues, racism and chauvinism, are linked. Look at how much weaker was support for U.S. actions in Iraq among black people.
DS: In your book you talk about the resilience of capitalism. What do you see as capitalism’s most resilient aspects today in the USA, not in terms of economics, but in a political and social sense? In other words, what is it about recent history and the recent development of capitalism that has been most problematical for the Left, for the workers’ movement, for the struggle of poor and oppressed people who seem so fragmented and politically pacified? How do we begin to practically confront these problems?
Yates: One of the main things is the power of nationalism. The system has a way of convincing people that because they live in the USA they are better off than all other people in the world. This gets them focused on the wrong things, of course, but it has been a tried and true way of deflecting class struggle, something I don’t think Marx didn’t fully anticipated. The education system, and the whole culture really, has a lot to do with how these feelings are transmitted to each new generation. When parents say their kids were heroes when they died for nothing in Iraq, you can see the power of this.
Also this system is good at making it seem as if there are no real alternatives to what is, so we just have to make the best of it. Enough people do make it (at least enough to live ok) to give some credibility to the "American Dream" idea and this reinforces the idea that this is as good as it gets.
Capitalism is a powerful producer of output, crisis-mongering on the left notwithstanding, and this too makes the system seem to have a lot of promise. This is why it is so important to agitate against the system in good times and bad. We can’t depend on some super crisis to get folks thinking but instead have to focus on all of the contradictions of the system which cannot be ultimately resolved by it.
We must not forget either that some of the system’s resilience is due to its ability to coopt people with money and prestige. It is easy to get sucked right in. Those who grasp the system are also likely to be talented and capable of doing well within the system. Who will turn down a lot of money? Who doesn’t have an ego? A compromise here, another one there, and pretty soon, you are sucked right in. Look at Christopher Hitchens, Todd Gitlin, and many others. Look at most of the labor movement. Shouldn’t John Sweeney be a lot more radical? Why isn’t he?
And if you do keep the faith and continue to be radical, very bad things can and do happen to you. At the very least you will be marginalized. Same if you are poor and strike out. Prison awaits you in the USA.
Lastly, capitalism forces us into a competitive way of living: "Get yours because someone else will if you do not. Look after yourself because no one else will. Life is a bitch and then you die." Life here becomes so trivial and fucked up that you take this selfish attitude as a survival mechanism.
DS: The great workers’ organizations and internationals of the late 19th/early 20th century were products of mass upheavals, long struggle, and sustained organizing. They took decades to really develop into formidable forces that were organically rooted in the concrete struggles of the time. Whether or not it can be said that we are living in a distinctly new era of global capitalism, it is indeed the case that people-mostly from the grassroots- are beginning to fight back on a global level, with activism assuming ever more international coordination and solidarity. At the end of your book you discuss some of these new types of movements emerging to challenge capitalism. What are the unifying themes that justify calling the global justice movement a real movement? What are the major issues it needs to confront to effectively challenge capitalism?
Yates: Well, one unifying theme is that life as we know it is fundamentally unsatisfying. I think most folks feel this to be true. They know that a life of aimless consumption isn’t much of a life. And work offers us very little satisfaction. Plus our work and consumption is destroying the environment. And this is in the rich countries. Add starvation, etc. to the mix, and you have a lot of people in the world pretty unhappy with things as they are. Modern communications make all of this known to people far and wide, and we see the fundamental unfairness of it all. We are all, after all, just human beings, and most of us have a lot in common.
But as the song says, "Something’s happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear." What needs to be grasped is that the system itself is the cause of all of the misery in the world. This is a simple but powerful idea. But many activists don’t want to hear about some grand narrative, one that could unify all of our struggles. So the major issue that needs to be addressed is how to get people to see that there is indeed a grand narrative which just happens to be true. Capitalism is, in Mao’s language, the main contradiction in the world today and so our efforts have to be focused on ending this system and making a new one. I don’t say that other struggles have to be set aside in favor of this one. Far from it. We know form past experience that when you put women’s issues or face issues on the back burner, they never get dealt with. So all struggles have to be dealt with simultaneously, but within an anti-capitalist framework. A monumental task, but nothing less will do.
DS: You’ve done a lot of work with labor education, giving classes to workers. You’ve given prison classes. Today we see figures such as Michael Moore-a down to earth radical from the working class who can speak its language-really gaining a mass audience. From your experience, do most ordinary people understand something is very wrong with our society? I know in times like this it’s tough for the Left, but how do we relate to these people?
Yates: Well first off, we perhaps shouldn’t say "these people." We should assume, as Moore does, that we all have a lot in common. Speak as if our views are the only sensible ones. This resonates with ordinary people, as long as we speak ordinary language and don’t come across as elitists. Since I am from the working class, I have never had much problem with this. However, I have had plenty of battles. You can’t take the view of some of the sectarian parties that hard issues can’t be confronted when dealing with workers. If you don’t confront these issues, what will ever change? Moore sometimes fudges here. He tells us to go to the bowling alleys and car race tracks to meet the people. Well, I was a very good bowler and I hung out in bowling alleys even when I was a college teacher. You meet a lot of good salt of the earth folks, but you also meet a lot of assholes and bigots. A guy once threatened to beat me up one afternoon at the local bowling alley because I said innocently that Michael Jordan was a great basketball player. He went on a racist tirade in front of his young son. I told him his kid would grow up to be a bigot just like him. Then all hell broke loose. Maybe Michael Moore would have handled this differently. So you have to consider all workers as your equals and speak matter of factly about things. People do want to understand things and respect you if you know what they do not know. And you have to respect what they know that you do not. And you have to get out in the world and meet folks on their own turf, something which a lot of urban radical intellectuals seldom do. And don’t ask for trouble (I go get a beer at a ball game so I don’t have to stand for the national anthem, rather than risk a confrontation if I sit down in my seat). But then remember that most people in this country, while they might not be happy about things, also are woefully ignorant about many things. Sometimes people can learn, but other times they have to be confronted. When I worked for the farmworkers’ union in California and fell in love with the campesinos, my grandmother told me to remember that there are a lot of bad people among the poor too!
I really do admire Moore. Whatever flaws he might have, he sure beats most left-wingers, academics and nonacademics alike, who live in a world far removed from ordinary folks and are not keen to get too close to the unwashed masses. Not many academics do labor education. Why not? The need is great. This is where the youth are so important. If faculty were as engaged as young students are in anti sweatshop campaigns, prison campaigns, etc., it would be a good thing.
DS: You are affiliated with Monthly Review. How did you get involved with them? Can you tell the readers a little bit about Monthly Review and where you see it going in the future?
Yates: Monthly Review was founded in 1949, at the height of the Cold War by Paul Sweezy (a great left-wing economist still livingage 93) and popular writer and labor educator Leo Huberman.
After Leo died, Harry Magdoff became an editor, and he is still going strong at 90. Too younger editors are now on board: John Bellamy Foster and Robert McChesney. MR is as it says on the cover "an independent socialist magazine." It aims to provide sound analyses and critiques of every aspect of capitalism, socialist societies, and anti-capitalist movements. It is sadly probably better known outside of the US than it is here. Nearly every radical writer of merit in the world has written in its pages, including Albert Einstein who authored the very first article (Why Socialism, May 1949). We like to think of it as the radical magazine "of record." I have to say that you won’t find better analysis than the best in MR. I think John Foster is one of the best left scholars in the world today. He has been writing some great stuff on US imperialism, building on the great work of Harry Magdoff.
I started writing for MR in the mid 1970s, mainly by chance, as I relate in my new book. Eventually MR published four of my books (three authored and one co-edited by me). I later began to do some editing of MR articles and helping with the summer issues. After I retired I became Associate Editor.
I think MR has a great future. It’s firm anti-capitalist stance, adherence to Marxist analysis, and its support for revolution will come to be more appreciated as the current struggle deepen and extend themselves. Of course we need the support of radicals, and especially youth. I want to encourage young people who read this to submit articles to MR and subscribe. In fact, I will give a one-year gift subscription to the first 10 people who read this and send me an email with their addresses! My email is firstname.lastname@example.org
You can read some of Mike’s articles online:
Working to Live, Living to Work (Mike’s autobiography, still in progress)