Several years ago, as a full-time reporter in upstate New York, in a small town where empty factories loom over the homes below like ancient monsters frozen in time, I witnessed yet another business shut down, leaving many of the workers to wander outside, smoking, perched on the back of their cars, heads bowed. Some explained how they didn’t have means to travel outside the town for work other than catching rides with friends, and others worried over how they would even find work that suited them, since they had been working at the factory for so long.
The owner, of course, blamed China (the country being now the latest RACIST “bogeyman” for so-called patriots and honorable business owners) for shutting down the factory. Seemingly overnight, peoples’ lives changed dramatically, from having someplace secure where they could earn something to pay for what they needed, to now, wondering what else to do in the near future.
The owner, I remember, simply made that decision, “talked” about it with the employees, and moved on. That experience made it very evident to me that the problem in society isn’t government inefficiency (although that is indeed an issue at times), or even so-called government waste and corruption (which is something that even progressives like to discuss, along with consumer activism), but rather, something that Marxists have long understood as the problem of private enterprise having too much power, having too much weight in shaping our lives, in shaping who lives and dies, who suffers and who can carry on with some mode of “living” a.k.a. barely scraping by.
Today, as we stagger, the masses and policymakers alike, through a post-Covid “recovery, the major problem affecting the majority of people in the U.S. continues to be the outsized role and influence private enterprise has over the rest of society. It is, after all, because of housing in the hands of landlords, large and small, that we see people being vulnerable to eviction during a pandemic. It is because of how necessary items, like food, being commodified for the major companies to sell and profit from, that people have been so desperate as to wait in long winding lines at the peak of the pandemic outside local food pantries. It is because of the power that private companies have over their employees that we see the major owners and managers gain more and more wealth as the employees are forced to pee into bottles in order to meet their workplace demands for that day alone.
Government, yes, plays a role but it is not because of too much government that we are in this mess right now, with deteriorating living and working conditions, and with people stressed and not being able to lead the lives we deserve. In fact, it is because of the tyranny of business, of private enterprise, that we are caught in this loop, of working longer hours, of having to work multiple jobs, of spending the majority of our time being treated like collateral.
It is, therefore, important for us as organizers to talk about this clearly with people. To direct their blame to who truly deserves it, the business owner claiming to be looking out for them.
It is not “big” government but rather, the business, oftentimes, mammoth-like, hulking over us all.
THE LOBBY AGENDA
Without government, the foundation of capitalism would fall apart. Businesses do rely on government to reinforce the idea, through laws and the enforcement of such laws, that such things as “private property” will be seen as “natural” by most of the population, who ironically, lack property and land, who usually rent or have to move from one home to another.
The U.S. system of government, which is a federalist model that allows for state governments to have an inordinate amount of power (see: refusal of southern states in extending the Bill of Rights to African Americans during Jim Crow), does provide a foundation for private enterprise to dominate. As Lenin once said, accurately, that the state is a body of armed men, and in this case, it is a government willing to find ways to protect and enhance the interests of businesses, or otherwise known as, capitalists.
Even during the New Deal, in which more egalitarian policies were pushed forward (which was due to pressure from unions and Left organizers), policymakers were intent on finding a “balance” between the needs of working people and in securing a model of capitalism that was more humane, but capitalism nonetheless, where workers still toiled for business owners and managers, and profit was still seen as the motor of history, as the thing that businesses had to produce.
Yet, by the late 1970s, New Deal era reforms were beginning to crumble under the weight of capitalist instability. A recession hit, causing profits to tumble, and serving as a reminder of who truly had the real power in society. It wasn’t the laborer. It wasn’t government officials even. It was the business owners, who suddenly turned on the so-called New Deal consensus, and shut down factories in what were union heavy states, and concentrating their manufacturing in areas across the Sunbelt. It was business owners, who could apply pressure on government, through such actions, by also, going forth and taking part in “globalization” 2.0 (globalization has always been a way for companies to gather wealth), shifting resources abroad for cheaper labor, contributing to a now weakened domestic U.S. economy, which spilled into the lives of millions.
It was during this time too that businesses organized themselves to sustain pressure on government, to help eat away at regulations, to steer policies in their favor.
As Lee Drutman, political scientist and expert on the history of modern lobbying, states,
Things are quite different today. The evolution of business lobbying from a sparse reactive force into a ubiquitous and increasingly proactive one is among the most important transformations in American politics over the last 40 years. Probing the history of this transformation reveals that there is no “normal” level of business lobbying in American democracy. Rather, business lobbying has built itself up over time, and the self-reinforcing quality of corporate lobbying has increasingly come to overwhelm every other potentially countervailing force. It has also fundamentally changed how corporations interact with government—rather than trying to keep government out of its business (as they did for a long time), companies are now increasingly bringing government in as a partner, looking to see what the country can do for them.
Since the 1980s, whether under Democrat or Republican, government has become an enabler of businesses, either through creating so-called “public-private” partnerships, in which businesses perform duties that the government should be, like providing healthcare to people across the country, to literally, standing back and allowing the space for businesses, like Amazon, to become the behemoth it is now.
It bears repeating that not every policy that government officials fight for is always about the “donors”, i.e. business interests, local and national. There are indeed instances in which companies do not get everything they want and this has to do with government having sometimes to keep the peace, and to respond to public pressure. But that said, the relationship is not government ordering what business should do and not do, necessarily. Instead, the last forty years have shown us that business interests, even when public pressure grows, are prioritized and certainly, certain issues, like de-commodifying housing and healthcare, are kept off the table. More importantly, our entire system of governance is very much attuned to the wants and interests of “private enterprise”, even when there are more pressing demands.
Even with the rent moratorium, it took intense pressure from lawmakers like Cori Bush and AOC, to have the Biden administration (in the strongest political position across the world), finally seeking some extension. Regardless, the Supreme Court stepped in and simply reversed the decision and since then, there has not been any type of pushback from Biden or any one in a leading position in government.
Again, private enterprise, the so-called brilliance of entrepreneurs, does not mean that everything they want gets through. That too is a very narrow understanding of politics in the U.S. But indeed, especially since the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s, the political landscape is heavily in favor of what businesses desire, especially on issues that could lead to social democratic (let alone socialism) politics, such as allowing people to have a home. Period.
Instead, even when policies to deal with affordable housing are put forth, it is often done with private companies leading the way. As in New York City, under Bill De Blasio, there were newer construction being built with set-asides for more “affordable” apartments. Of course, the real issue, that housing is made private, that housing is for profit, and hence, we see more homes and than people, was never tackled, because of the power that private developers have in the city, and across major cities and towns in the country.
To this day, businesses continue to shape legislation, or at the very least, very much tilt it to their favor. While unions often lack a connection to many lawmakers (such as being able to hold a meeting with them as soon as possible) and progressive groups overall lack the funding and resources to shape government legislation consistently, businesses have the resources to fund organizations like ALEC, which bring together lawmakers and corporate representatives to create legislation together. Private enterprise, once again, gains a front-row seat in not only pushing money behind a particular legislative issue but in shaping legislation itself.
As indicated by Mike McIntire, a reporter at the New York Times (one of the few times they appeared to care about the outsized influence of business),
ALEC also sends talking points to its lawmakers to use when speaking publicly about issues like President Obama’s health care law. Last month, on the day that Supreme Court arguments on the law began, ALEC sent an e-mail to legislators with a bullet-point list of criticisms of it, to be used “in your next radio interview, town hall meeting, op-ed or letter to the editor.”
ALEC, which brings together major businesses and even ones that are more regional, find lawmakers who are sympathetic of course, most often in the GOP, but over the last forty years, they’ve literally shifted statehouses in their favor regardless, helping train people on the principles of the “free market” to then run for office or to situate themselves in critical positions in local government. Essentially, ALEC and other organizations like it have developed a cadre of their own, an army of government officials who could influence policy for them.
Alexander Hertel-Fernandez, author of State Capture: How Conservative Activists, Big Businesses, and Wealthy Donors Reshaped the American States—And The Nation, detailed how what he called the “troika” of extremely pro-business coalitions (which includes SPN and AFP) has increased their influence over policy, stating,
Clearly, the troika has itself grasped the reality of politics as organized combat. Instead of electoral spectacle, the troika—and especially ALEC—has focused on reshaping the policy positions of individual state politicians, and eventually, the Republican Party. By providing easy-to-use model bill ideas, research assistance, and political advice to otherwise harried, understaffed, and inexperienced politicians, ALEC discovered that it could define what it meant to be a pro-business, conservative official in state government. ALEC became, in the parlance of political scientists, a policy-demanding interest group squarely part of the Republican Party coalition. ALEC was aided in these efforts by the creation of SPN, and later, AFP, which could provide even more resources in support of ALEC’s policy ideas.
Hence, for over forty years now, profit takes precedence over basic human needs, and what ground labor once had in the 1960s has nearly completely been eroded.
The other glaring piece of evidence that explains the detrimental influence of private enterprise, rather than government malfeasance, over our lives should be evident to us each and every day, in the workplace itself, where we spend much of our time.
The workplace itself, as Marx recognized long ago and more contemporary thinkers, like Elizabeth Anderson have laid bare in their latest work, is an authoritarian space that shapes our lives the most.
In Private Government: How Employers Rule Our Lives (and Why We Don’t Talk about It), Anderson states,
Would people subject to such a government be free? I expect that most people in the United States would think not. Yet most work under just such a government: it is the modern workplace, as it exists for most establishments in the United States. The dictator is the chief executive officer (CEO), superiors are managers, subordinates are workers. The oligarchy that appoints the CEO exists for publicly owned corporations: it is the board of directors. The punishment of exile is being fired.
Because of capitalism, especially U.S. capitalism, people need to work to earn what they need in order to pay for basic amenities, like a roof over one’s head. With the gutting of social welfare and more recently, the end of paychecks and other forms of monetary assistance, most people will need to work at a workplace or for a business. Thus, most of us will be continuing to spend our time, away from home, away from our friends and family, toiling away under the gaze of a manager, who in turn, can control what time we have to complete tasks, what time we have to enjoy our breaks, what time we have free even when we leave the workplace (i.e. emailing tasks).
Because of low unionization rates, most of us do not have any say in how businesses function. Rather, we are often told what to do, with the fear that if we do not follow orders, we are tossed out, left to fend for ourselves as debt piles high, as stress gnaws away at what little happiness we could muster.
Indeed, the influence that employers have over us extends into our lives beyond even the workplace, given that what we earn determines what we can afford, but also, determines our actions as well.
Most believe, for example, that their boss cannot fire them for their off-hours Facebook postings, or for supporting a political candidate their boss opposes. Yet only about half of U.S. workers enjoy even partial protection of their off-duty speech from employer meddling. Far fewer enjoy legal protection of their speech on the job, except in narrowly defined circumstances. Even where they are entitled to legal protection, as in speech promoting union activity, their legal rights are often a virtual dead letter due to lax enforcement: employers determined to keep out unions immediately fire any workers who dare mention them, and the costs of litigation make it impossible for workers to hold them accountable for this.
It is not government that truly governs our lives but private enterprise. In fact, with government policies either weakened or simply being used as a way for business to enhance their control, especially with the loosening of restrictions for businesses in terms of donations to political parties, the workplace has seeped into even how working people, how many of us, determine our votes electorally.
In an interview with Meagan Day at The Jacobin, Hertel-Fernandez explains,
There’s the labor law piece of it, which means that employers have a lot of latitude to change working conditions and fire workers for pretty much any reason. Private-sector workers lack any federal free-speech protections when it comes to politics. There are certain protections afforded to workers under the National Labor Relations Act, which allows even nonunionized workers to communicate about improving conditions on the job, but aside from that, employers have the ability to fire workers for a good reason, a bad reason, or no reason at all.
Ultimately, we exist under a dictatorship of the capitalists, of the bourgeoisie.
And this will continue to be an issue as more of us are increasingly desperate to earn something in the face of the pandemic just so we can remain somewhat safe from the virus.
Indeed, the solution to this issue, at least in the short-term, is for government to do more, to actually support workers’ rights, to regulate, to enforce laws that are on the books but are virtually ignored. The main thing is for the government to no longer see a division between private and public. After all, there is no such distinction to begin with anyway, at least not under capitalism. Our private lives are molded by the need to find work, to keep our jobs, to pay for what we need in a political system dominated by business interests.
Marx, Lenin, and other revolutionaries have known that this distinction is a mirage. Private interests, business interests, shape society.
Therefore, we need movements and institutions within workplaces as well as connections being made between groups across society, between workers and tenants, between the unemployed and employed. We need power to enhance government to provide healthcare, to provide housing, to provide a way forward for us to lead lives no longer shaped by work in a workplace.
As noted by Kathi Weeks, “The problem with work and the reason for its refusal are not only referring to exploitation but also concern the control that is exercised on the content and time of your work, on the relationships that you establish with others.”
People must be made to understand that their lives will not improve if private enterprise power isn’t eroded. That for now, government actually needs to be strengthened to be wielded against business. Less government, decentralized government as some on the Left also proclaim at times, is not the answer since government isn’t the problem.
Long-term the solution is to build a socialist society and that will require a rupture. But in the meantime, we must inform, show through organizing, that power for us lies in government, lies in radical labor unions pressing against the employer, lies in coalitions across society on issues like housing.
That big government is the answer, not the problem.