Our Chemical Society

Our Chemical Society

By Matthew Barad, Jun 22, 2017

America’s Holy Trinity

Anyone who has spent time on a college campus, or even in a high school, knows that caffeine dependency has become a rite-of-passage. Be it student, teacher, or professor, you often hear people bragging about how many cups of coffee it took to finish an assignment, or even more absurdly, how they can no longer make it through the day without 4–6 cups. All told, 54% of Americans drink coffee daily, consuming three cups, or 27 ounces, on average. That’s almost 300 milligrams of caffeine every day from coffee alone.

But coffee is far from the only way we get our fix. A single energy drink, for example, can contain upwards of 500mg. The newest craze, caffeine laced candy bars, has taken campuses by storm. AWAKE brand bars, which are specifically marketed towards students, have been lauded by Wall Street as an incredible innovation. When you take all of these sources together, you find that the average American consumes nearly half a gram of caffeine daily, with younger Americans leading the pack.

It is at this point that you might expect a passionate plea to abandon caffeine, or a critique of those who rely on it. Instead, I view this as just another symptom of our production-focused culture. In this post-industrial hellscape, caffeine is one of many drugs we rely on to function, to survive, and to live.

Average Hours Worked Among Leading Economies, Acc CNN

In the United States today, the average full time employee works 47 hours a week. Perhaps more absurdly, the average part time worker still labors for just over 34. In fact, we lead the developed world in average hours worked, while still refusing to offer paid time off, or even guaranteeing paid maternity leave. And this is in spite of dramatic increases in worker productivity in the last few decades. To put it simply, we are working harder, longer, and being paid less. With such low hourly compensation, and such high demand placed on laborers, it is no surprise that we have become dependent on chemicals to keep us running. Our nation is so grossly overworked that entire brands have been built around the need for stimulants in the workplace.

But as I mentioned earlier, this reliance is built well before Americans enter the workforce. Nearly 70% of college students don’t get enough sleep, just as we face 80 hours of work every week by some estimations. For those students who drink 6–7 cups of coffee every day, it’s not irresponsibility that drives them, it’s desperation.

An Ad directed at millennials, glorifying self destruction.

And just as Americans rely on caffeine to survive, they rely on other chemicals to live. Alcohol is such a chemical. In fact, just 30% of American adults have ever gone a year without drinking, nearly 27% of Americans binge drink monthly, and more than 10% of American children live with an alcoholic parent. Without the time or energy for books, sports, or hobbies, bars have become the spas of the middle class.

Cigarettes provide a similar escape, but only for the poor. Today, low income Americans are diagnosed with lung cancer 18–20% more often than their wealthy counterparts. Facing those same long work weeks — alongside skyrocketing costs of living — alcohol and cigarettes offer some respite from an uncaring nation.

And tragically, heroin and meth have also become staples of impoverished life in the United States. In his best seller, Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance describes how his Appalachian homeland was desolated by unemployment and governmental neglect. He tells the story of entire towns being ravaged first by poverty, and then by the drug use it begot. Indeed, by some measures, poverty alone increases likelihood of abuse by 25%. In this broken world, chemical bliss is a rare refuge for the impoverished.

In 2015, 50,000 Americans died from drug abuse, and another 88,000 from alcohol. These were not casualties of moral failings, nor were these men and women responsible for their fate. They are victims of a homicidal society, which places a person’s production value over their humanity — meaningless sacrifices to the insatiable god of capital.

Contrary to the narrative of progress, we are living in a dystopia. Monday through Friday we pump ourselves full of stimulants so we can scrounge enough to survive, only to spend that money on artificially induced fantasies every weekend. If you truly oppose drug abuse, don’t blame the victims, and don’t ignore the drugs-by-other-names. Just as our society has forced reliance on caffeine, it has dragged many into the claws of opioid addiction and alcoholism. What the world might look like without the pressures of artificial poverty and neglect, I cannot know. But I am certain that there would be fewer deaths, less suffering, and much, much more living. That is the future we must fight for; that is the future we deserve.

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On Avocado Toast

On Avocado Toast

May 19, 2017 · 3 min read

Last week, while millions of students were busy studying for final exams, millionaire Tim Gurner sat in one of his 5,700 properties and explained how millennials are at fault for their current struggles. Insisting that we cannot afford homes because of our own irresponsible spending, one of the wealthiest men in the world unironically named overspending on avocado toast as a culprit in the current housing crisis.

As many have noted, Mr. Gurner was only able to begin his real estate empire thanks to $35,000 gifted to him by his grandfather. While Gurner claims that this money was used to secure a much larger loan of $120,000, it is clear that he is anything but a “self made man” whose accomplishments could be achieved by just any hard-working individual. Today, the average American owes more than $100,000 in total debt. The fact that Gurner started above water at all shows his privilege. A girl I went to highschool with is currently working three jobs, in an effort to save enough for university, and still barely managing to cover her cost of living. That is what being self-made looks like. To equate Gurner’s blind luck with her desperate climb is frankly disgusting.

Gurner is a lottery winner standing atop an ivory tower and shouting blindly that anyone can win, if only they would buy more tickets.

Most egregiously, he chooses to target a disadvantaged generation with his tone deaf attacks. Millennials face more than $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. Even the most fortunate students are likely to spend their adult lives paying off loans for an education they were forced to purchase. Further, we are likely to die younger than our parents, breaking a trend which goes back to the foundation of our country. A startup launched this year in California preys on that desperation, offering “text book money” in exchange for the blood of millennials — blood which will not go to hospitals for emergency use, but rather will be injected into wealthy boomers as an “anti-aging” treatment.

I am incredibly fortunate by all accounts, and even still, I will graduate with just under $100,000 in debt, even before graduate studies. Growing up, I watched the older millennials enter into an economy which was ravaged by moguls like Gurner, and can look forward to one which has only recovered for the rich. Three years ago, one of my friends hung himself in his dorm room at MIT. He was the victim of a system which worked him to death while accusing him of laziness. I have trouble naming even one peer who has not suffered anxiety or depression thanks to that double standard. For Mr. Gurner to sit on his throne and label my peers as irresponsible freeloaders is not only grossly unjust, but homicidal. The blood of our generation is on his hands, and he has the audacity to blame us for bleeding.

Worst of all, I am confident that neither ignorance nor incompetence lead to Gurner’s murderous idiocy. He knows how unfair the system is, and is quite aware that our struggles are not caused by trendy meals. He attempts to mislead us because, if we recognize that the system is rigged against us, then we will try to change it. That would mean forcing men like Gurner to earn their keep without exploitation, and he knows that. So he tries to blame us, desperately hoping that we will continue working ourselves to death for his benefit.

Gurner represents a much larger problem facing our modern world. Today, a group of incredibly wealthy oligarchs wages war against the young for the crime of wanting justice. Facing economic stagnation, global environmental disaster, and ever growing inequality, we must not allow ourselves to be duped into apathy.

We deserve a better world, and we don’t have to give up avocado toast to build it.

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The Audacity of Rage

The Audacity of Rage

Jun 4, 2017 · 3 min read

On Sunday, March 1st of 2015, a friend of mine hanged himself in his dorm at MIT. The year before he died, we had worked together to change Colorado state law. He was soft spoken, but brilliant; while his peers squabbled over politics, he developed policy. With his death, the world lost an invaluable and incredible human being.

My friend, whose name I am intentionally obscuring, is just one of thousands of young people who took their lives that year — victims of a system which accused them of laziness while working them to death. We live in a world where more working millennials are depressed than any generation in recorded history. In 2015, suicide was the third leading cause of death amongst young people.

He deserved better. They deserved better. We deserve better.

While my generation works unpaid internships (aka indentured servitude), sells their blood to the vampiric wealthy as an anti-aging treatmentdies sooner than our parents, is encouraged to work beyond the point of exhaustion, and faces more debt than any other generation in history, we are hated, accused of laziness, and blamed for our own suffering.

Yesterday, Business Insider published an article accusing millennials of killing casual dining. While we face challenge after tragedy after trial, the media reports on our inability to eat out more than a few times a month. It would be humorous if it weren’t so depressing.

To make matters worse, we will inherit a dying world. As I noted in my last article, we will see the world warm more than 3.1 degrees above pre-industrial levels before the end of the century. This warming will displace hundreds of millions of people, and create dozens of regional conflicts, as refugees flee flooding cities and thirsty farmlands. And if our plight was not enough, we will be forced to clean up the 8 million tons of plastic which are dumped in our oceans every year.

A few days ago, a young woman from Vietnam messaged me and asked for my organization’s help ending pollution in her area. Recently thousands of fish washed up dead on shores near her home, all thanks to a chemical factory which places profit over people. She will spend her whole life cleaning up a mess she had no part in making. How can there be justice when any person faces such a fate?

Now, we will defeat these horrors in stride, and fix this world as best we can. I have no doubt in my generation’s ability to unite against and eradicate the evils we have endured. But we won’t do so out of virtue or wisdom — we will save the world out of fear for extinction. And we will pay dearly for salvation.

If we cannot be driven by love or solidarity, then at least let us be motivated by sheer force of rage. We were given a broken world, and now find ourselves slave to it. And as we sell our blood, watch our oceans die, and work ourselves to death to survive, we must not lose sight of this great injustice. For if we are to leave a better world for those who come after, we need more than hope. If we are to preserve liberty, justice, and life, we must demonstrate the audacity of our rage.

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Life in the Gig Economy, or The Economics of Desperation

Life in the Gig Economy, or The Economics of Desperation

By Matthew Barad, Jul 12, 2017

A few weeks ago, I was grabbing coffee with a friend, when I saw an acquaintance from high school working behind the counter. We exchanged the usual pleasantries, after which I asked his plans for the future. He proudly described how he was working three part time jobs, one of which for no pay, in hopes of saving enough to attend the local business school. From there, he expressed his dream of becoming a stockbroker, who makes millions while sitting on a beach in the Bahamas.

On its face, that story seems innocent enough. Admirable even. If I had a nickel for every time a boomer has offered bootstraps as a solution to my generation’s woes, I would be able to pay for his college.

But when examined more closely, this tale becomes more disturbing. This young man, with ambition and an obviously impressive work ethic, is working more than 60 hours a week without benefits or decent wages, just so he can strive for an education. Whatsmore, his life’s goal is not to help cure disease or give aid to the less fortunate; his dream is financial gain without contribution.

He is the exploited, and his greatest hope is to become the exploiter.

While frustrating, I can’t blame him for that ambition. We are all slave to a system which encourages exactly that behavior. As Steinbeck put it, we Americans see ourselves as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. We support the mechanisms of our own oppression because of a religious belief that we will one day do the oppressing. The greater our desperation, the more we worship that dream.

The further into the cave we fall, the more we hate the light.

Today, nearly 20% of Americans work part time jobs. We lead the developed world in part time workers per capita. Services like Uber and Lyft, whose recent profitability is only matched by their cruelty towards their workforce, have exploded in this freshly coined “gig” economy.

The newest tool of exploitation is weaponized desperation. For the belief that they will one day rise to the ruling class, workers shed their rights to health, happiness, and dignity.

As a college grad in my Facebook feed recently put it:

The new normal

Unfortunately for us, the extent to which corporations are willing to exploit that raw desperation knows no bounds. As I regularly mention, last year a startup launched which sells the blood of millennials to the vampiric wealthy as an anti aging treatment. Worse still, they advertise as being a source of textbook money.

Our culture has become so enamored with the bootstrap fable that we not only work for low pay, few benefits, and token experience, but we sacrifice our own vitality in hopes of one day being able to survive. Meanwhile, our debt continues to grow, our lifespans continue to shorten, and our public institutions continue to erode.

The “gig” economy is nothing more than a farce which exploits the suffering it creates to suck a bit more blood out of an already zombified generation. It baits us with the dream of royalty, while sentencing us to servitude.

For this reason, I demand that we shed the cutesy facade, and call our market what it really is: the economy of desperation.

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Harvey’s Shadow: Titanic Inequality

Harvey’s Shadow: Titanic Inequality

By Matthew Barad, Sep 4, 2017

On April 15th of 1912, the Titanic collided with an iceberg in the Atlantic, taking the lives of more than 1,500 people. Aboard this ship, all were not equal. The wealthy were saved and the poor condemned to painful, restless deaths.

Info from titanicfacts.net

Survivors recall the crew guiding the wealthy to life boats, while hundreds lay beneath them, unaware that a disaster had even occurred. Humanity, as it turns out, comes at a premium. Among the first class passengers, more than half lived to be interviewed by papers and congratulated by royalty. In the third class, just 24% survived — only to return to that same society which had measured their lives as expendable.

Aged it may be, this tragedy teaches an important lesson about the true cost of disaster. While we like to imagine it as a blind horror, whose hand ruins lives without regard to class or color, such is not the case. Simply put, we live in a world where some lives are valued over others. The poor drown, the rich survive. And in spite of a century’s worth of progress, very little has changed.

As the United States reels from the catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Harvey, the lesson of the Titanic should be remembered. In spite of our morbidly egalitarian hopes, the reality is that disaster ravages the poor while inconveniencing the wealthy.

In the past few days price gouging in the Huston area has become near universal. Cases of bottled water have been marked up to nearly $100, all the while gun-toting klan affiliates have formed “anti-looting militias” to guarantee suffering and prevent the crime of survival.

Flooded and destroyed homes in Houston

For Houston’s elite, Harvey’s flooding will mean a stressful insurance claim and an awkward reliance on family and friends while their homes are rebuilt. For the 80% of Houston natives without flood insurance, it will mean incurring lifelong debts just to escape homelessness. And while the elite are expected to recoup rapidly, the rest can expect decades of economic desolation.

The one saving grace for victims of Harvey comes in the form of government relief, namely FEMA. And in what can only be described as a tragically unsurprising move, Trump’s most recent budget proposal drastically cuts that very program, trapping future victims beneath the deck of a slowly sinking ship.

With two more hurricanes in the Atlantic, and wildfires along the entire western coast, more disaster is a certainty. As we prepare, let us drop the farce of equality. It is obvious that this nation has decided how much each life is worth — decided that the suffering of millions is an acceptable cost for the opulence of the elite. And unless you are at the top, this is quite literally a fight for survival.

I know whose side I’m on.

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Life After Progress: The Tax Bill

Life After Progress: The Tax Bill

By Matthew Barad, Dec 2, 2017

Smiling at Oblivion

Progress was my bedtime story. I grew up being told of a world on the rise — a world fated for justice. I saw graphs of shrinking global poverty, and of the rise of peaceful democracy. I cheered for Obama and made calls for Senator Bennet. Hope and change were more than promises to me. They were destiny.

And then I grew up.

I watched the Arab Spring fail. I watched hundreds of thousands of lives ruined in the aftermath of imperialism.

I watched the economy crash. I watched friends move away and bankers walk free.

I watched Rachel attempt suicide. I watched my friend struggle with the shackles of a hateful “family” for the crime of being different.

I watched my older peers march on Wall Street. I watched promises of unity and reform crumble into brutality and roundups.

I watched my home city burn. I watched two fires destroy hundreds of homes, and hundreds of lives. I watched climate change wreak havoc, while politicians looked the other way.

I watched old women beaten and bloodied for blocking pipelines. I watched the police serve and protect corporations, and disregard human life.

I watched the number of starving children increase. I watched the wealthiest country on earth fail to feed 16 million kids.

I watched my friend hang himself. I watched a “world class” university work him to death.

I watched Trump win the Presidency. I watched a celebrity whose chief characteristic is incompetence show the true face of the Reagan-Clinton legacy.

I watched dead fish coat the shores of Ha Tinh, Vietnam. I watched a community thousands of miles away ruined by corporate greed.

I watched Trump pull out of the climate agreement. I watched the United States commit another crime against humanity. I watched him destroy our future.

I watched my own university defend white supremacists and promote their organizations. I watched cries of free speech drown out the wailing of the oppressed.

I watched Heather Heyer die. I watched hundreds rally in defense of leftists, only to see them shunned a week later.

I watched the tax bill pass. I watched my last hopes for a stable future evaporate. I watched the hopes of the most depressed, indebted, and exploited generation in recent memory fall to dust.

I watched as the dream of progress became the nightmare of reality.

To be completely honest, I am utterly exhausted. I am so tired of begging for scraps, of protesting for basic decency. The false hopes of my youth did nothing to prepare me for an adulthood of sobering misery. And while I may be incredibly fortunate, even I am not immune to the soul sucking capitalist horror we have inherited.

Vive La Commune!

This legislation will make the rich richer and the poor poorer, in an era already marked by unprecedented inequity. It will add trillions to the deficit, and kill thousands. It will cripple the United States, and strip the already destitute young of what little wealth they have. This legislation is violence. It has no basis in morality, nor any shred of dignity. It will build a world in the image of unregulated capitalism — it will be the tyranny of the invisible hand.

My only hope arises from our desperation. My generation has the most awareness, the most humanity, and the least to lose, of any generation. If there is to be a revolution, if there is to be progress, we will stand at the forefront. But as I have said before, we will not be motivated by the ideals of our youth, nor by the shadows of “hope and change.” The shattered promise of progress will inspire rage, not reconciliation.

Those in power should be afraid. In the passage of this tax bill, they have shed their last pretense of dignity and humanity. And they will pay for these crimes.

We are living a life after progress. We stand on the edge of annihilation. And we’re woefully unprepared for the world that comes next.

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Millennial Desperation: A Tale Told in Memes

Millennial Desperation: A Tale Told in Memes

By Matthew Barad, Oct 24, 2017


For better or worse, my generation will be remembered for our memes. More than our achievements, or contributions to the civic dialogue, it is the birth of viral internet content which has both shaped our development and defined our legacy.

Google Trends results for the term “meme”

As google trends confirms, the term “meme” came to age just as we did. And as we have grown, entered college, and started careers, those memes have themselves matured. With age, they have trended away from the light hearted, and towards the intimately miserable. As one of my peers aptly wrote, “my generation is going to be known for wanting to die and memes.”

With respect to his intentions, however, I don’t view these two traits as exclusive. Our memes don’t merely parallel our desperation — they reflect it. In a world where suicide rates are climbing, where debt is unavoidable, and where the future is brutally uncertain, sanity demands trivialization. We have no choice but to laugh at our misery, to alienate ourselves from uncomfortable truths. We have no choice but to seek the solidarity of utter desperation.

Max Ernst (1891–1976) — ‘Murdering Airplane’ 1920 (photomontage)

We aren’t the first to face such a fate, nor the first to respond with absurd humor. In the aftermaths of world wars one and two, Dadaism, or the art of the absurd, grew in direct proportion to misery. Veterans who had seen men torn apart without explanation, whose friends had died for no discernible cause, wrote poetry without meaning and painted portraits without substance. If men can die for nothing, if countries can be torn apart without cause, then why shouldn’t planes have arms?

In a world where so many suffered for so little reason, the absurd brought sense to the senseless.

Now, it would be unfair to suggest that I have faced anywhere near the horrors of war, but the lives of my generation have been far from easy. I grew up being told of inequity and of coming climate disaster, only to watch both accelerate as I grew. I was told that our society was progressing only to watch my friends kicked out of their homes for being trans, and to hear tales of my peers being poisoned in mines and factories overseas. I was told my parents would solve the climate crisis, only to watch my home city burn. I was told our future would be bright, only to face the suicide of one friend, and the murder of another.

We who were promised justice are mocked for defending it, and have all but surrendered to senseless, pervasive desperation.

Last year, 8 million tons of plastic were dumped in the oceans. Last year, 80 tons of dead fish coated the shores of Ha Tinh, Vietnam. Last year, one in four children were underfed in the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. Last year Student Loan debt passed 1.4 trillion dollars. Last year a company was founded selling our blood as an anti aging treatment. Last year, half of millennials admitted they would trade the right to vote for loan forgiveness. Last year, more than 10,000 young people in the United States took their own lives.

In response to this senseless suffering, our memes have themselves become senseless. Alongside absurd “trebuchet” and “garlic bread” memes, whose popularity stems from their baseless nature, online communities like 2meirl4meirl consist entirely of half-satirical pleas for death. Even still, suicide memes do have a point. Their answer, while horrific, is still an answer. The most radically absurd memes, the memes which tell us the most about ourselves, are those of complete meaninglessness. Not unlike their Dadaist roots, these memes don’t mock reality as such; they mock the idea that any consistent and just reality exists. The appeal of personalities like Spooderman or Mr. Skeltal offer no insights on the human condition, nor do they have concrete origins. They simply exist for the sake of existing. And in their meaninglessness, they reflect a reality without meaning.

Mr. Skeltal in the flesh

A “meme” is often defined as any viral, or pervasive idea. More than a picture or clever caption, memes speak to something deeper about the world we inhabit. As such, Dadaist memes, or memes which treat suicide as a joke, are more than senseless or unfortunate artifacts of our time — they speak directly to the core of my generation’s identity. More than our technology or our beliefs, more than our tastes in fashion or in music, more than our culture or our communities, we are defined by senseless, pervasive, and self-aware desperation.

Our journey of survival in this world of malevolent apathy will not be told through articles or poems. No Orwell or Dickens could articulate the raw dread which we share. If future generations tell our story, they will not look beyond reddit, tumblr, or facebook. No, the story of this generation, of death, of crisis, of degradation, of filicide, of hopelessness, of absurdity — our story, will be told through memes.

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We are worth more than our grades

We are worth more than our grades

A final exam diatribe.

By Matthew Barad, May 6, 2018

I should be studying right now. I have three exams and two essays next week. To keep my GPA at the pre-law standard, I can’t afford less than an A on any of them — and yet, here I am at 10:20 PM on a Saturday night, writing this.

I am not alone in my fate. In the coming days, or weeks, or months, sixteen million students in the United States alone will take their final exams. In what can only be described as a whirlwind of coffee, anxiety, and flashcards, they will attempt to achieve the ever-unreachable standard of hireability. I doubt anyone reading this is surprised by our bi-annual flurry. Why would you be? In a world where one professor’s opinion can mean and has meant the difference between law school and last resort, what choice do we have but to sacrifice our wellbeing to Our Blessed Father: GPA.

Though that image edges on the melodramatic, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of these tests, and the toll that they take. In the past few years, we have seen the ever worsening job markets matched by a more anxious and mental unwell student population. A 2014 article published by the American Psychological Association put data behind the truth every student already knew — that more and more students view suicide as just as likely as graduation. Disappointingly, if tellingly, the article goes on to explore whether university counseling services are “cost effective.”

I suppose that speaks to something deeper about education in this country. More than a body of future academics or well-informed citizens, students are viewed as investments. Not only by universities and parents, but by ourselves. The graph below, taken from Emsi, shows a significant increase in STEM majors over time. Though some celebrate this news, it seems unlikely to me that students simply care less about English and Philosophy than they used to. Instead, in all probability, students are pursuing degrees they have no interest in, or degrees they were pushed into, all in the interest of survival. After all, as tuition rises, and student debt grows, what choice do we have but to drop our passions in hope of subsistence?

All of these stressors and sources of anxiety are concentrated into one week of hellish preparation. Libraries fill to the brim with drugged-up and exhausted young people — all in the name of keeping America’s cubicles well stocked, and the pool of skilled labor easily exploitable. And yet, as I type out that essential truth, I myself must feed that same capitalist horror and study for exams in the despicable aspiration of being sorted above my peers.

But to the students out there, I will leave you with this: If we are to be enslaved by such a spirit crushing, soul sucking, sleep depriving university monstrosity, then let us at least stand in the solidarity of decimation. Share your flash cards, buy each other coffee, and, please, remember that we all deserve to be happy. Not because of our grades or our accomplishments —but because we are human beings. And human beings deserve to be happy.

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On the Coup in Bolivia and the Legacy of Evo Morales

Originally written as an assignment for a college English course taught by a Pinochet defender, this essay is a brief overview of the economic and social growth experienced by the Bolivian people during the presidency of moderate socialist Evo Morales, the motivations for the coup in November 2019, and the subsequent political and humanitarian crisis. The first half of the essay focuses primarily on statistics sourced from the Center for Economic and Policy Research which highlight the rapid economic growth of Bolivia between 2006 and 2019. The second half looks at the external and internal pressures which culminated in President Morales’s deposition on November 11 and the human rights abuses performed by the interim government. Ultimately, this paper is a defense of President Morales and advocates for similar socialist policies to be implemented in other governments.

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The Cost of Privatization

The Cost of Privatization

July 29, 2018

Architecture of Odessa

World News /29 Jul 2018


In 1762, Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote in his treatise The Social Contract, “The first person who, having enclosed a plot of land, took it into his head to say this is mine and found people simple enough to believe him was the true founder of civil society. What crimes, wars, murders, what miseries and horrors would the human race have been spared, had someone pulled up the stakes or filled in the ditch and cried out to his fellow men!” Today, more than two centuries after they were first penned, Rousseau’s words ring in the air of a privatized world. Faced with that world, looking to the states of the former Soviet Union can help us understand what privatization truly means for a nation — and why Rousseau opposed it.

Since the fall of the USSR, Ukraine has been the principle case study for westerners looking to understand the realities of transitioning out of the communist world. Already in 1993, Central European University Press had published John Earle’s report: “The Privatization process in Russia, Ukraine, and the Baltic States.” As his paper reflects, it was widely believed that Ukraine would lead the post-communist world in “modernizing” its economic and political systems. Further, the assumption was that marketization would be a primary force in the democratization of Ukraine — an assumption largely founded in liberal philosophies which tie liberty to property.

John Earle in particular argued in his report that the privatization process would undermine party elites, as the leveling of economic power would surely topple their state sponsored oligarchy. Though the sheer magnitude of corruption in Ukraine was recognized at the time, it was overlooked in favor of this narrative — that privatization was liberaliziation. Even after then-president Kuchma allegedly ordered the killing of Georgiy Gongadze, an anti-establishment reporter who was covering corruption during privatization, the West largely ignored the incident and remained focused on questions like “Does privatization raise productivity?

In spite of the slew of pro-western and globalist perspectives on privatization, contemporary researches did achieve some scholarship on its harms. In 1995, The National Council for Soviet and East European Research put together a report cynically titled, “PRIVATIZATION AND CRIME: THE POST-SOVIET EXPERIENCE.” The report summarized: “The old bureaucrats dominate much of the privatization process, for example, often deciding who gets what at what price. Whereas the Party elite only enjoyed control of the state’s resources, they can now appropriate the state’s property.”

This story, of privatization used to simply subvert state resources and enrich individual elites, was ubiquitous throughout Ukraine. However, in spite of Ukraine’s long running and deep ties to Russia, this privatization process was used to pad the wallets of oligarchs worldwide. The same report later notes, “Ukrainian oil reserves were embezzled and sold at market prices. Most of this money was not returned to the former USSR but placed on deposit in foreign bank accounts.” Just one year after this report was published, its warnings read as prophetic. Radio Free Europe reported in May of 1996 that Ukraine’s largest auto plant was set to be privatized. This example is especially poignant, as even its legal framework was built to the benefit of existing elites: “41 percent of the shares will be offered to Ukrainian investment companies and joint ventures; 12 percent will be offered to foreign buyers; and Ukrainian citizens will be able to purchase five percent of the plant with privatization vouchers.”

This was the largest auto plant in the country. It produced 60,000 vehicles every year and employed thousands. And yet, citizens were only allowed 5 percent ownership. As comforting as Earle’s supposition may have been, the evidence pointed to privatization by the oligarch and for the oligarch. Far from the first step to liberal democracy, it merely entrenched and expanded the power of existing elites. It should be no surprise that both President Poroshenko and former President Yanukovych were captains of industry well before they became politicians.

Privatization in Ukraine resulted not only in small scale corruption and inefficiency, but systemic stratification in the economy itself. In 2012, the European Sociological Review published an article tellingly titled, “New Inequalities Through Privatization and Marketization? An Analysis of Labour Market Entry of Higher Education Graduates in Poland and Ukraine,” which suggests Ukraine’s privatization of tertiary education especially stratified the population and stifled the economy, resulting in low university attendance among blue collar students. Further, the study noted, “the share of graduates from private HEI quadrupled in Ukraine from 2.8 percent in 2001– 2003 to 12.8 percent in 2004–2006. Whereas privatization is already widespread in Poland at the beginning of the millennium (17 percent in 2001–2003), marketization is a more predominant phenomenon in Ukraine, where 38.8 percent of graduates paid fees at public universities during the period 2004–2006.”

What this shows is that the privatization of Ukrainian universities directly contributed to class divides in education. The formation of private universities split the population between those who could afford tuition and those left with decaying public universities as their only option. This divide left Ukraine less prepared than its neighbors for an increasingly service-based global economy, as fewer and fewer Ukrainians received quality higher education.

It should come as no surprise, then, that in March of 2012 the Carnegie Institute published an article outlining Ukraine’s lackluster growth after the Soviet Era. The article was titled, “The Underachiever: Ukraine’s Economy Since 1991.” However, this piece also highlights the flaws in the Western understanding of privatization’s real effects. Rather than centering the causes of Ukraine’s civil and economic stagnation around its relatively rapid privatization, Sutela argues, “As nation building came to dominate the first years following Ukraine’s independence, politics were in continued turmoil and centered around jockeying for power. Economics therefore suffered.” Here we see political “turmoil” named as the cause of economic decline — a conclusion that both fails to account for the effect privatization had in catalyzing and entrenching those political disputes, and willfully ignores how privatization caused much of that stagnation and decline.

So it is clear that privatization in Ukraine did little to provide the freedom and liberalization that Western neoliberals had promised. Instead, it merely entrenched the power of a few elites, and stratified and already desperate people. Though that reality confounded western predictions and liberal hopes, to Rousseau, the evils of property have always been, and will always remain the natural conclusion.

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Seize the Means of Distribution

Seize the Means of Distribution

Matthew Barad

Aug 12 2019

Capital in the Age of Technology

For all of human history, a person’s relationship to the means of production defined their social, political, and economic status. In the industrial age this truth was made more obvious than ever before. Because one class controlled the factories and owned the fields, they could dictate the conditions of labor and profit from its fruits. Laborers needed these “means of production” to produce goods, so they had no choice but to alienate themselves from their products and accept less than the value they produced as compensation.

To the seasoned Marxists among my readers, I apologize for the quick and incomplete review. However, in order to understand how this dynamic shifted with modernity, we need to understand this basic historical precedent. For three centuries, the control of capital has allowed one class to exploit another. Though that simple fact has not changed, its form is continuously evolving.

Today, the material conditions of the global north vary drastically from their industrial roots. Industrial production has slowed, and most workers now provide services rather than products. Nowhere is this shift more visible than in the realm of technology. In this brave new world, the means of production cannot be easily contained. Every person with a computer is capable of coding. Open source and free development software means nearly everyone has a means of production.

In order to account for this development, capitalists have been forced to shift their mechanisms of control — and have done so with great success. 6 of the world’s largest 20 corporations are tech and software firms. For an industry that has only existed on a consumer scale for just over 30 years, this constitutes incredible growth. However, this was not achieved through control of factories, but instead through the domination of intellectual property, advertisement, and most essentially, the means of distribution.

Apple, for example, is keenly aware that its software empire is under constant threat from third party coders. Everything from its operating systems to individual applications could potentially be out-compete by aspiring coders. Their solution has been two fold — coopt developers when possible, and when all else fails, force them out of the market altogether. Compared to Android OS, IOS is draconian. Its monthly updates thwart attempts at jailbreaking. It forbids apps outside of the Apple store from competing on its platform without those jailbreaks. And crucially Apple charges a steep fee for developers to access its marketplace.

The capitalists who own Apple are able to exploit developers in a manner which directly parallels the exploitation of 20th century factory labor. Because indie devs lack the capital for advertisement budgets and are not guaranteed access to Apple’s marketplace, they are forced to surrender a portion of the value they produce to a capitalist class. Though the means of production have become ubiquitous, the means of distribution have been seized.

This helps explain why so many popular apps are clones dedicated to microtransactions and devoid of content. In order to overcome the barriers to distribution while also making enough to live, developers must alienate themselves from the act of creation and dedicate themselves to menial cash-grabs. Just as the cobbler’s of Paris were replaced with desolate shoe factories, so is the indie-dev being replaced with soulless code-recyclers.

Though this shift in the mode of capitalist accumulation is most obvious in the world of technology, it extends well beyond it. Online marketplaces like Etsy and Ebay use their control of distribution and advertisement to steal labor value from small-time crafters. Amazon uses its market to extract wealth from self-published novelists. Uber and Lyft use their control of driving apps to extort wealth from drivers. These laborers are forced to rely on means of distribution which are owned by a capitalist class, so instead of receiving the full value of their products, they receive a fraction.

To return to the Marxist lens, this has ramifications for the labor theory of value as well. In Capital, Marx famously uses linen and coats to demonstrate how labor adds value to commodities. Though the need for clothing explains its value as a commodity, labor transforms low value linen into a product with a high use-value. In this example, ownership of industrial sewing machines allowed the capitalist class to exploit factory laborers. Without access to the machines, labor could not compete, and so they surrendered a portion of their wages to unproductive oligarchs.

Today, the means of distribution allow capitalists to similarly exploit wealth by leveraging their ownership, however the transfer of value is even more extreme with software than it was with footwear. Though industrial capitalists don’t do nearly enough work to justify the wealth they steal from labor, physical means of production do require continued investment. If the coat-making capitalist doesn’t buy linen, labor cannot create coats. However, Steam, Apple, Etsy, Uber, and Amazon can extract labor value without sending so much as a cent of material to the workers. Coders create value from electricity and intellect. Craftsmen buy their own supplies. Uber drivers pay for their own cars, their own gas, and rely on their own labor.

Controlling the means of distribution has the potential to be much more lucrative than the means of production, as workers are not only responsible for their own labor, but for their continued business expenses as well.

In this way, our modern capitalist class in more akin to landlords than industrial capitalists. Just as tenant wages are exploited by property owners in exchange for shelter, many modern service workers must surrender part of the value they create in exchange for digital distributive property. This is partly why the gig economy is so often compared to Feudalism. Without the guarantee of steady income, and without the bourgeoisie’s direct involvement in production, laborers in the gig economy are paying to access the means of distribution with no promise of future wealth.

If the “risk of investment” is meant to justify capital’s supremacy over labor, then the gig economy is entirely unjustifiable. Just as serfs were forced to give up the fruits of their labor to landowners, so too must developers surrender their code to online distributors. And just as serfs suffered all the risk in planting, so do Etsy crafters suffer all the risk in production.

Of course, the two aren’t identical — after all, serfs were promised food and protection. Today’s laborers are not.

As 21st century socialists, we have an obligation to apply and reapply Marxist frameworks to our ever-shifting economic landscape. This essay was not meant as an absolute conclusion so much as an initial effort. If we do not understand the economic and political relations which define the life of laborers today, socialists have no hope of building solidarity, much less building a better world.

To that end, let us recognize that western capitalists are quickly redefining themselves as owners of the means of distribution, rather than of production. If labor unites and seizes online marketplaces, or creates its own collective alternatives, we can free ourselves from this new tyranny, and reclaim our labor value.

Let us not be mesmerized by Capital’s parlor tricks or transmutations. Exploitation clings to life with the same grotesque tenacity today as it has for all our history. Be you writer, coder, crafter, driver, or entertainer, you are entitled to all you create. Workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

Addendum: Because there has been much confusion and debate concerning the scope of this piece, I want to clarify that it does not apply to the entirety of western economies. Most workers still deal directly with means of production. However, the direction of the economy towards ethereal tech jobs and gig-based labor is worth examining. It is tech jobs and gig labor that this piece describes best.

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