Eugene V. Debs And The Enduring History & Essential Role Of American Socialism

Socialism has been carried into the twenty-first century by way of Sanders, a Debs disciple, and by way of the utter failure of the two-party system.

By Jill Lepore
The New Yorker (2/17/19)

Eugene Victor Debs left school at the age of fourteen, to scrape paint and grease off the cars of the Vandalia Railroad, in Indiana, for fifty cents a day. He got a raise when he was promoted to fireman, which meant working in the locomotive next to the engineer, shovelling coal into a firebox—as much as two tons an hour, sixteen hours a day, six days a week. Firemen, caked in coal dust, blinded by wind and smoke, had to make sure that the engine didn’t explode, an eventuality they weren’t always able to forestall. If they were lucky, and lived long enough, firemen usually became engineers, which was safer than being a switchman or a brakeman, jobs that involved working on the tracks next to a moving train, or racing across its top, in any weather, at the risk of toppling off and getting run over. All these men reported to the conductors, who had the top job, and, on trains owned by George Mortimer Pullman, one of the richest men in the United States, all of them—the engineers, the firemen, the brakemen, the switchmen, and even the scrapers—outranked the porters. Pullman porters were almost always black men, and ex-slaves, and, at the start, were paid nothing except the tips they could earn by bowing before the fancy passengers who could afford the sleeping car, and who liked very much to be served with a shuffle and a grin, Dixie style.

“The result of the November election has convinced every intelligent wageworker that in politics, per se, there is no hope of emancipation from the degrading curse of wage-slavery. I am for socialism because I am for humanity. . . . Money constitutes no proper basis of civilization.”

Every man who worked on the American railroad in the last decades of the nineteenth century became, of necessity, a scholar of the relations between the rich and the poor, the haves and the have-nots, the masters and the slaves, the riders and the ridden upon. No student of this subject is more important to American history than Debs, half man, half myth, who founded the American Railway Union, turned that into the Social Democratic Party, and ran for President of the United States five times, including once from prison.

Sand or ashes

Debs, who wrote a lot about manliness, always said that the best kind of man was a sand man. “ ‘Sand’ means grit,” he wrote in 1882, in Firemen’s Magazine. “It means the power to hold on.” When a train stalled from the steepness of the incline or the weight of the freight, railroad men poured sand on the tracks, to improve the grip of the wheels. Men need sand, too, Debs said: “Men who have plenty of ‘sand’ in their boxes never slip on the path of duty.” Debs had plenty of sand in his box. He had, though, something of a morbid fear of ashes. Maybe that’s a fireman’s phobia, a tending-the-engine man’s idea of doom. In prison—having been sentenced, brutally, to ten years of hard time at the age of sixty-three—he had a nightmare. “I was walking by the house where I was born,” he wrote. “The house was gone and nothing left but ashes . . . only ashes—ashes!” The question today for socialism in the United States, which appears to be stoking its engines, is whether it’s got enough sand. Or whether it’ll soon be ashes, only ashes, all over again. …

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(Commoner Call cartoon by Mark L. Taylor, 2019. Open source and free for non-derivative use with link to )


Bernie Sanders’ 1979 Video Documentary On Eugene Debs

Separation of Corporation and State (7/26/15)

This was a short documentary made by Bernie Sanders in 1979. Eugene Victor “Gene” Debs (November 5, 1855 – October 20, 1926) was an American union leader, one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies), and five times the candidate of the Socialist Party of America for President of the United States. Through his presidential candidacies, as well as his work with labor movements, Debs eventually became one of the best-known socialists living in the United States.

Link to 29-Minute Video


How A Failing Capitalist System Is Allowing Amazon To Cripple America

By Paul Buchheit
Common Dreams (2/18/19)

Capitalism is failing in America, and Amazon is both the cause and beneficiary of much of the breakdown. Jeff Bezos said, “We’ve had three big ideas at Amazon that we’ve stuck with for 18 years, and they’re the reason we’re successful: Put the customer first. Invent. And be patient.” He might have added three capitalist practices familiar to his company: (1) Pay no taxes; (2) Drive competitors out of business; and (3) Exploit workers.

Anarcho-Capitalism: The Sordid Details of Amazon’s Tax Avoidance 

In 2018, according to its own SEC filings, Amazon claimed a refund on its $11 billion in U.S. profits. It did the same on nearly $6 billion in profits in 2017. The company has reportedly positioned itself to avoid even more future taxes with unspecified tax credits.

In the most extreme form of capitalism taxes do not exist. This is called “anarcho-capitalism.” Among all corporations, Amazon may be the leading advocate of this philosophy. They haven’t paid federal income tax for the past two years. They set up headquarters in Luxembourg for tax breaks that are now being challenged. They claim minimal profits on hundreds of billions in revenue, resulting in one of the lowest profit margins among major corporations, and thus much less tax. Of course, Amazon claims to be using tax credits from past losses that stemmed from investment in research and development (R&D). But the company appears to overstate and obfuscate the R&D numbers. Its only ‘explanation’ of R&D in its annual report comes in an ambiguously all-encompassing section called “Technology and Content.” Plus, that’s no excuse to dodge taxes. Walmart and Google each spent nearly $12 billion on technology in 2018, almost as much as Amazon, but Walmart paid 28 percent in federal taxes, and Google 14 percent.

There may be no better argument for democratic socialism in America than the way individual state leaders have been falling over each other trying to lure corporations to their states with tax subsidies.

We learn much more at the state level. Amazon has played one state against another for tax breaks over the years, most recently negotiating an estimated $3 billion tax credit from the state of New York before residents rebelled—as well they should have. The Economic Policy Institute found that employment levels don’t significantly change in communities with new Amazon warehouses, and a recent study by The Economist concluded that the opening of a fulfillment center in a given community actually depresses warehouse wages. Furthermore, as an indication of the folly of wooing corporations with state subsidies, Upjohn research found that in the great majority of cases incentives are not even a part of a company’s decision to locate in a given area.

Most insidiously, Amazon’s seemingly fair-minded acceptance of state sales taxes likely has a dark side. For years the company fought the state tax as it built a competitive advantage over smaller firms. Now that it’s firmly established, online variety and convenience have replaced price as the primary incentives for most consumers, and so Amazon now supports a sales tax, very likely to discourage competition. Evidence comes from one study that found Walmart 34 percent cheaper than Amazon in four of five product categories.

Monopoly: Amazon and the Killing of Competition 

Kiplinger compiled a remarkable list of 49 companies, many of them familiar to almost all Americans, that are in danger of being driven out of business by Amazon. One of them, Toys ‘r’ Us, has already succumbed. Sears is nearly gone. Others include Barnes & Noble, Kroger, Rite Aid, Best Buy, Etsy, Yelp, Pandora, and even stalwarts like Target and Trader Joe’s and UPS and FedEx and Office Depot and Staples. Investopedia agrees, adding Macy’s and even Walgreen’s and CVS and Costco.

In a summary of “The Myth of Capitalism,” by Jonathan Tepper and Denise Hearn, it is argued that “an increase in market concentration across the United States has resulted in a system that is not true capitalism, since freedom is being restricted… Amazon is crushing retailers.. It can determine what products can and cannot sell on its platform, and it competes with any customer that encounters success.” Columbia University and UN economist Howard Steven Friedman adds, “Monopolies are one example of capitalism failing. Monopolies have virtually no competition and can dictate prices to their customers unless they are restricted by regulators.”

Of course, along the way Amazon has destroyed or dismantled or discouraged many smaller businesses. Like the jewelry store in New Mexico owned by Candelora Versace, who said her customers have started buying gems online, in part to avoid state taxes, and then visiting her store just for the settings. She considers the far-reaching effects of Amazon’s tax avoidance: “The roads don’t pay themselves. The schools don’t fund themselves… When they don’t want to pay the tax, it cheats us.”

Labor in Decline: The Economic and Physical Abuse of Amazon’s Workers 

Amazon warehouse workers make about $13 per hour. That’s not a living wage for a U.S. family of four, and not even for a single person in many areas of the country. So the employees of this super-rich company turn to food stamps, letting U.S. taxpayers take care of them. In Ohio and Pennsylvania, one in ten Amazon workers were recently on SNAP. In Arizona, one in three. Along with the low pay comes intolerable working conditions, with overheated warehouses and employees using water bottles to avoid bathroom breaks in order to meet their schedules. And worse, employees have suffered workplace injuries that leave them homeless, disabled, or unable to earn an income. Employees are also forced to deal with constant surveillance, anti-union pressure, and the threat of losing their jobs. Much of Amazon’s over-hyped R&D spending is focused on the development of robots to replace human workers.

Capitalism has failed workers, and it has caused a surge in inequality that gets worse with each passing year. In Capital in the 21st Century, Thomas Piketty showed that for 40 years, from 1970 to 2010, labor’s share of national income (wages and salaries) has declined. Stanford research reveals that “the declining labor share at the economy level is driven by the growth of large firms.” Like Amazon.

A Good Reason for Democratic Socialism

There may be no better argument for democratic socialism in America than the way individual state leaders have been falling over each other trying to lure corporations to their states with tax subsidies. We Americans have never been able to cooperate in ending this pointless waste of tax money that should be going to education and jobs and infrastructure.

Does Jeff Bezos have any sense of social responsibility for all the societal benefits heaped upon his company? Amazon has arguably benefited more than any other company from what The Economist calls the “game-changing breakthroughs” of the Internet, which was built with our tax money through the National Science Foundation since the 1980s, and before that by the taxpayer-funded Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Fortune refers to Amazon’s actions as “extracting public money for its own enrichment.”

But perhaps the Amazon boss doesn’t care. According to The Atlantic, “Bezos has argued that there is not enough philanthropic need on earth for him to spend his billions on.” If that truly reflects the man’s attitude, it shows an incomprehensible ignorance or disdain on his part. Bezos himself said, “The only way that I can see to deploy this much financial resource is by converting my Amazon winnings into space travel…I am going to use my financial lottery winnings from Amazon to fund that.”

Good work, Jeff. Benefit from seventy years of public inventiveness and productivity and funding, and then fly off to the skies before you have to pay for it.

(This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License.)

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To learn more about the role and rich history of socialism in America check out Wisconsin journalist John Nichols’ wonder book…