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Breaking the Chains of Debt Peonage

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reprinted from Truthdig

Chris Hedges gave this talk Saturday night in Brooklyn at the People's Recovery Summit.

The corporate state has made it clear there will be no more Occupy encampments. The corporate state is seeking through the persistent harassment of activists and the passage of draconian laws such as Section 1021(b)(2) of the National Defense Authorization Act--and we will be in court next Wednesday to fight the Obama administration's appeal of the Southern District Court of New York's ruling declaring Section 1021 unconstitutional--to shut down all legitimate dissent. The corporate state is counting, most importantly, on its system of debt peonage to keep citizens--especially the 30 million people who make up the working poor--from joining our revolt.

Workers who are unable to meet their debts, who are victimized by constantly rising interest rates that can climb to as high as 30 percent on credit cards, are far more likely to remain submissive and compliant. Debt peonage is and always has been a form of political control. Native Americans, forced by the U.S. government onto tribal agencies, were required to buy their goods, usually on credit, at agency stores. Coal miners in southern West Virginia and Kentucky were paid in scrip by the coal companies and kept in perpetual debt servitude by the company store. African-Americans in the cotton fields in the South were forced to borrow during the agricultural season from their white landlords for their seed and farm equipment, creating a life of perpetual debt. It soon becomes impossible to escape the mounting interest rates that necessitate new borrowing.

Debt peonage is a familiar form of political control. And today it is used by banks and corporate financiers to enslave not only individuals but also cities, municipalities, states and the federal government. As the economist Michael Hudson points out, the steady rise in interest rates, coupled with declining public revenues, has become a way to extract the last bits of capital from citizens as well as government. Once individuals, or states or federal agencies, cannot pay their bills--and for many Americans this often means medical bills--assets are sold to corporations or seized. Public land, property and infrastructure, along with pension plans, are privatized. Individuals are pushed out of their homes and into financial and personal distress.

Debt peonage is a fundamental tool for control. This debt peonage must be broken if we are going to build a mass movement to paralyze systems of corporate power. And the most effective weapon we have to liberate ourselves as well as the 30 million Americans who make up the working poor is a sustained movement to raise the minimum wage nationally to at least $11 an hour. Most of these 30 million low-wage workers are women and people of color. They and their families struggle at a subsistence level and play one lender off another to survive. By raising their wages we raise not only the quality of their lives but we increase their capacity for personal and political power. We break one of the most important shackles used by the corporate state to prevent organized resistance.

Ralph Nader, whom I spoke with on Thursday, has been pushing activists to mobilize around raising the minimum wage. Nader, who knows more about corporate power and has been fighting it longer than any other American, has singled out, I believe, the key to building a broad-based national movement. There is among these underpaid 30 million workers--and some of them are with us tonight--a mounting despair at being unable to meet even the basic requirements to maintain a family. Nader points out that Walmart's 1 million workers, like most of the 30 million low-wage workers, are making less per hour, adjusted for inflation, than workers made in 1968, although these Walmart workers do the work required of two Walmart workers 40 years ago.

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If the federal minimum wage from 1968 were adjusted for inflation it would be $10.50. Instead, although costs and prices have risen sharply, the federal minimum wage remains stuck at $7.25 an hour. It is the lowest of the major industrial countries. Meanwhile, Mike Duke, the CEO of Walmart, makes $11,000 an hour. And he is not alone. These corporate chiefs make this much money because they have been able to keep in place a system by which workers are effectively disempowered, forced to work for substandard wages and denied the possibility through unions or the formal electoral systems of power to defend workers' rights. This is why corporations lavish these CEOs with obscene salaries. These CEOs are the masters of plantations. And the moment workers rise up and demand justice is the moment the staggering inequality of wealth begins to be reversed.

Being a member of the working poor, as Barbara Ehrenreich chronicles in her important book "Nickel and Dimed," is "a state of emergency." It is "acute distress." It is a daily and weekly lurching from crisis to crisis. The stress, the suffering, the humiliation and the job insecurity means that workers are reduced to doing little more than eating, sleeping--never enough--and working. And, most importantly, they are kept in a constant state of fear. Ehrenreich writes:

When someone works for less pay than she can live on--when, for example, she goes hungry so that you can eat more cheaply and conveniently--then she has made a great sacrifice for you, she has made you a gift of some part of her abilities, her health, and her life. The "working poor," as they are approvingly termed, are in fact the major philanthropists of our society. They neglect their own children so that the children of others will be cared for; they live in substandard housing so that other homes will be shiny and perfect; they endure privation so that inflation will be low and stock prices high. To be a member of the working poor is to be an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else.

 

It is time to halt the sacrifice of the working poor. It is time to empower the 30 million low-wage workers--two-thirds of which are employed by large corporations such as Walmart and McDonald's--to fight back.

Joe Sacco and I spent the last two years in the poorest pockets of the United States, our nation's sacrifice zones, for our book "Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt." We saw in Pine Ridge, S.D., Camden, N.J.--the poorest and the most dangerous city in the nation--the coalfields of southern West Virginia and the produce fields of Immokalee, Fla., how this brutal system of corporate exploitation works. In these sacrifice zones no one has legal protection. All institutions, from the press to the political class to the judiciary, are wholly owned subsidiaries of the corporate state. And what has been done to those in these sacrifice zones, those places corporations devastated first, is now being done to all of us.

There are no impediments within the electoral process or the formal structures of power to prevent predatory capitalism. We are all being forced to kneel before the dictates of the marketplace. The human cost, the attendant problems of drug and alcohol abuse, the neglect of children, the early deaths--in Pine Ridge the average life expectancy of a male is 48, the lowest in the Western Hemisphere outside of Haiti--is justified by the need to make greater and greater profit. And these costs are now being felt across the nation. The phrase "the consent of the governed" has become a cruel joke. We use a language to describe our systems of governance that no longer correspond to reality. The disconnect between illusion and reality makes us one of the most self-deluded populations on the planet.

The Weimarization of the American working class, and increasingly the middle class, is by design. It is part of a corporate reconfiguration of the national and global economy into a form of neofeudalism. It is about creating a world of masters and serfs, of empowered oligarchic elites and broken disempowered masses. And it is not only our wealth that is taken from us. It is our liberty. The so-called self-regulating market, as the economist Karl Polanyi wrote in "The Great Transformation," always ends with mafia capitalism and a mafia political system. This system of self-regulation, Polanyi wrote, always leads to "the demolition of society."

And this is what is happening--the demolition of our society and the demolition of the ecosystem that sustains the human species. In theological terms these corporate forces, driven by the lust for ceaseless expansion and exploitation, are systems of death. They know no limits. They will not stop on their own. And unless we stop them we are as a nation and finally as a species doomed. Polanyi understood the destructive power of unregulated corporate capitalism unleashed upon human society and the ecosystem. He wrote: "In disposing of a man's labor power the system would, incidentally, dispose of the physical, psychological, and moral entity "man' attached to the tag."

Polanyi wrote of a society that surrendered to the dictates of the market. "Robbed of the protective covering of cultural institutions, human beings would perish from the effects of social exposure; they would die as victims of acute social dislocation through vice, perversion, crime, and starvation. Nature would be reduced to its elements, neighborhoods and landscapes defiled, rivers polluted, military safety jeopardized, the power to produce food and raw materials destroyed. Finally, the market administration of purchasing power would periodically liquidate business enterprise, for shortages and surfeits of money would prove as disastrous to business as floods and droughts in primitive society. Undoubtedly, labor, land, and money markets are essential to a market economy. But no society could stand the effects of such a system of crude fictions even for the shortest stretch of time unless its human and natural substance as well as its business organizations was protected against the ravages of this satanic mill."

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Chris Hedges spent nearly two decades as a foreign correspondent in Central America, the Middle East, Africa and the Balkans. He has reported from more than 50 countries and has worked for The Christian Science Monitor, National Public Radio, The Dallas Morning News and The New York Times, for which he was a foreign correspondent for 15 years.

Hedges was part of the team of (more...)
 

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Just this past weekend, a female friend who is par... by Philip Zack on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 3:33:57 PM
easily.  If you just cannot believe it, see t... by Mark Adams JD/MBA on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 11:15:03 AM
"The corporate state is counting, most importantly... by Rixar13 on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 3:59:50 PM
Their aim is to own your ass.... by Daniel Vasey on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 4:40:16 PM
"The corporate state is counting, most importantly... by Rixar13 on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 4:00:07 PM
This movement grew out of Occupy. Check it out and... by intotheabyss on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 4:24:38 PM
How, in the name of all the liberal progressiv... by Dryden Wonne on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 5:10:55 PM
as the left. If you are, you need to get to know s... by intotheabyss on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 6:18:15 PM
Excellent piece man.  I want in.  Lets s... by Adam Rocco on Monday, Feb 4, 2013 at 6:26:32 PM
No, no, no. All an $11 minimum wage will accompl... by Kate Jones on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 1:07:24 AM
you're not trying to live on minimum wage if you c... by Jill Herendeen on Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013 at 4:25:15 PM
I have much respect for Chris Hedges, but like so ... by siamdave on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 2:19:06 AM
As usual Chris Hedges has only just woken up to a ... by Ted Newcomen on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 8:10:41 AM
We have a radio show on blogtalkradio.com/soclearr... by Tom Madison on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 10:57:58 AM
My wife posted the above message "on my behalf".&n... by Tom Madison on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 12:01:47 PM
unless someone tells them?After all, very few do a... by Mark Adams JD/MBA on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 12:39:10 PM
Sorry I missed your radio show - the one question ... by Ted Newcomen on Wednesday, Feb 6, 2013 at 7:34:33 AM
Alex Wong - Getty Images The "Federal Reserve Ba... by Lance Ciepiela on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 12:09:05 PM
That's the message that the working poor, the peop... by Rob Kall on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 1:43:48 PM
We need to change the political-economic paradigm ... by Jim Miller on Tuesday, Feb 5, 2013 at 7:47:52 PM