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Millennials and the Slave Economy

This year’s Oscar award winning film, “Twelve Years a Slave,” positions the past as prologue. America’s stakeholder versus shareholder dichotomy has grown as large as the .01 percent versus 99.09 percent national economic class divide resulting in the unholy trinity of rising and suffocating inequalities (income and wealth, social mobility and opportunity). Economists and business leaders are beginning to measure GNP net effects but still in their rear view mirrors.

Instead of “masters,” we have local and national oligarchs and plutocrats who prove that corporations are persons and that every dollar equates to a vote by renting elections, journalists, politicians and Supreme Court judges with impunity. U.S. Chamber of Commerce “bundlers” dismember, outsource and off-shore means of production without paying U.S. taxes or creating domestic jobs while Wall Street “Flash Boys” tilt the national trading playing field so steeply that it becomes a no-way-back ravine from greedy gulch.

Similarities abound between today’s declining civic ethos and mid nineteenth century, pre Civil War era human flesh markets starting with America’s contemporary desperation class composed of minimum wage workers toiling in America’s most praised corporations (e.g. Wal-Mart & McDonalds) who need public sector-funded food stamps to make basic ends meet. “No country for any working stiff” self-sustains through a culture of oppression and subterfuge, finding new loopholes to tether human “beasts of burden,” suppress their vote, gerrymander their political districts, threaten any instinct to collectivize and incessantly cross-sell false, hobbesian choices between clean environments and sustaining employment through corporate-owned and advertisement-funded media channels. Extreme economic prejudice has morphed from purely racial to generational.

Life imitates life. FDR’s 1937 greatest generation inaugural cry of outrage (“one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished”) finds its echo in the recent New York Times editorial warning, “Recovery for Whom?” Today, America’s best educated Millennial generation is ill-paid, under-paid, unemployed or a combination of all three, ill-housed in terms of ever achieving home ownership, and illiquid due to crushing student loan indebtedness.

The Times notes that “recovering lost ground may well be impossible” and that “clearly, education alone does not create jobs and opportunities that lead to prosperity.” Rising inequalities have rusted out yesterday’s corporate career ladder rungs and materialist brass rings that allowed predecessor Boomers and Gen Xers to step up, climb, grab and then ingest their slice of the American dream.

Art also imitates life. America’s supposed post-racial society has morphed from purely skin color-fixated to fixed economic caste. The new American slave-based economy first built on and then dismembered by global labor arbitrage produces more renters instead of owners, more sharecroppers rather than empowered workers, and a rising cycle of self-fulfilling, place-centric poverty marked by statistics that whiplash the nation’s sense of itself from “We Should Be in a Rage” (Charles Blow) to “We’re Not No. 1! We’re Not No. 1!” (Nicholas Kristof).

In “Flash Boys,” author Michael Lewis lays out a Wall Street economy built on moral inertia (“So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became.”). Identical “Flash Boy” practices (front running, rebate arbitrage, slow-market arbitrage) are practiced daily on America’s workers through a predatory, market-sanctioned form of human trafficking. The economic and socio-environmental justice score card speaks for itself: more than 60,000 American factories closed since the 1992 NAFTA trade agreement resulting in 400 individuals owning more wealth than half the country’s bottom 150 million citizens combined, and the U.S. ranking as the most unequal of any developed country, “distinguishing” itself at 65th from the top most free countries based on global social mobility and opportunity measurements.

As a result, there are dual-track Americas: one is fast becoming a majority minority country within the next two decades while the other has already descended into a majority “Absentee Ownership” society. The two do not overlap. The “Eureka” moment in “Flash Boys” comes when the IEX founders realize that what’s needed is for investors and workers to “take responsibility for understanding the market, and then to seize its controls.”

This “seizing the controls” philosophical breakthrough matches Millennial Generational angst at being trapped inside “no way out” status quo-driven, “disparity creator” enterprises instead of being free to pursue triple bottom line corporate experiences, high impact investing, start-ups inventing sustainability functions, applications and products. In revolt with nothing left to lose (the 1960s’ Janis Joplin definition of freedom), Millennials in ever greater numbers seek to abandon the predatory slave-economy and design-build their generational breakthrough apps all over the national location grid starting with benchmarking lifestyle and workplace liberation models that thrive on earned generational equity chops.

Maybe it’s a question of just doing longer term demographic math. The Wal-Mart model eventually runs out of customers who can afford to purchase goods at the cheapest possible prices that are produced anywhere but locally by the same people actually buying them. Robert Reich’s timely film, “Inequality for All,” documents that 70 percent of America’s GNP is tied directly to working and middle class consumer purchase power.

Paul Krugman, in “Three Expensive Milliseconds” and “Wealth Over Work,” points out that unrestrained public wealth transfers to a rapacious financial industry that has “grown much faster than either the flow of savings it channels or the assets it manages” produces the net economic effect of zombie locusts harvesting human productive capacity at will. In line with Thomas Pikkety’s “patrimonial capitalism” indictment, unchecked predatory capitalism literally and figuratively eats one’s young through inherited merit and oligarchic reproduction despite ever more visible declining marginal rates of return. What practical, moral and efficient steps can be taken so that the “invisible hand of the market ensures that private returns and social returns coincide?”

If it’s immoral and illegal to sell human labor on an involuntary basis (slavery), should it be equally immoral and illegal financially and socially to engineer renting labor power at substandard or minimum rates because an offsetting local ownership option is denied or because there are no other viable alternatives in that particular geographical setting? As Wal-Mart so well demonstrates, allowing one’s business to become captive to a massive publically traded company looking to squeeze ever greater profit from its suppliers is an act of suicide. Companies like Wal-Mart and Whole Foods are quick to pick up on local and organic to burnish their images and control those markets while ignoring the labor conditions deployed throughout their respective supply chains. At the same time, part of the Whole Foods strategy is to pull away customers from local food cooperatives and put them out of business.

The true struggle to regain local neighborhood economic sovereignty to achieve higher standards of individual and community freedom and self-worth starts either by halting the march towards treating corporations as persons or accelerating the treatment of individuals as corporations. In contemporary absentee shareholder-centric America, treating working class people as people clearly no longer works. The key, then, is to scale on the side of where overwhelming consumer power mathematically resides, remediate past environmental justice abuses, attain geographical infrastructure investment parity, inspire and amplify community voices, earn their votes and then deploy stakeholder critical mass to its fullest potential.

In this context, the American Sustainable Business Council (ASBC), B Lab and Benefit Corporations, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economy (BALLE), Social Venture Network (SVN), the emerging nationwide union co-op movement (www.1worker1vote.org), the Heartland Capital Strategies nonprofit and the New Economy Coalition (NEC) serve as liberation vehicles for Millennials to take responsibility for understanding the structural deficiencies of their own generational equity marketplace and then seize control to self-direct business-life experiences (e.g. MBAs Across America). By default, global labor arbitraging practices become anathema to these new domestic “laboratories of equality” and civic ecosystems that one day may serve as stepping stones to a more democratic global economy where human labor is considered more of a resource than a commodity.

Attracted first by desperation and then empirical rejection, indigenous and ubiquitous interactive social media literati without borders and without economic class restrictions can claim the right to choose work place alternatives with more productive and equitable goals and results. In one of the models Millennials study closely, Mondragon, the world’s largest employee owned and governed industrial cooperative, workers decided 60 years ago that they should rent capital instead of letting capital rent their labor.

This revolutionary principle, that labor is sovereign and that capital, while necessary, is subordinate to labor – serves both as a rallying cry and proof for those seeking to break away from predatory slave economies in favor of more healing, profitable, socially just and inclusive forms of virtuous cycle, longer-term capitalism. To paraphrase the 1974 Carly Simon song, Millennials don’t have time for slave economy pain.

This article was originally posted to the 1worker1vote.org blog.

- Michael A. Peck is Mondragon’s North America delegate and is a co-founder of www.1worker1vote.org.


GEO blogs are part of our mission to provide a platform for co-op practitioners and solidarity economic organizers to share their thoughts and experiences with a wider audience. Any views and opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the GEO Collective. If you would like to start a blog on GEO, please contact editors@geo.coop.

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