The Black Jacobins

Dear ISR
I found the book review by Ashley Smith of C.L.R. James’s book The Black Jacobins to be an important contribution to understanding this largely overlooked but essential piece of history. There were two points I found especially compelling. One was his account of Dessalines, who took over the revolution after Toussaint L’Ouverture was arrested by the French. Other authors have portrayed Dessalines as a butcher who was not as sophisticated as Toussaint. Clearly Dessalines did not have the education of Toussaint, but he played an indispensable role in the revolution. Ashley points out that the repression by the revolutionaries was much more restrained than the routine repression by the French.

The other point was how he talked about the centrality of Haiti to the French economy at the time of the revolution. Today it is difficult to believe that Haiti, the poorest nation in the world, at one time accounted for most of the trade of France. This was the primary motivating factor behind Napoleon’s decision to attempt the overthrow of the Haitian revolution and restore slavery. Napoleon’s failure to achieve these goals was probably a turning point in the history of the Western hemisphere.

I also found two weaknesses in the article. One was the fact that Toussaint had his reasons for continuing his relations with France. At that time, Haiti was surrounded by slave-owning powers. The slaves were illiterate and would have difficulty running a nation. These problems became apparent when Haiti declared independence. Toussaint didn’t want Haiti to face that reality and this is the reason why he continued relations with France. Clearly he was wrong, but he had compelling reasons for pursuing the course he did.

Finally, I wrote an essay titled The Long Road to Washington’s Reoccupation of Haiti. This essay explores the 200-year history of Haiti and traces the parallel developments in the world. The primary conclusion I draw is to compare the current reality of Haiti to its neighbor Cuba. We can see what 200 years of imperialism has done for Haiti compared to what fifty years of revolution has done for Cuba. I believe that this is an important point to make when writing about the Haitian revolution.
Steve Halpern


Beaten up by the Bottom Line

Dear ISR
For a pathetic introductory bourgeois economics course at U-Mass Boston I’m taking, we had to watch the first and last installments of a four-part 1990s PBS video series Surviving the Bottom Line, Running with the Bulls, and Beating the Bottom Line, which counter-pose two business models. They’re worth looking at. The first is embodied by such figures as billionaire fund manager Michael F. Price and former Sunbeam Corporation CEO Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap, who champion unapologetic free-market capitalism in pursuit of maximum short-term extraction of profit for stakeholders at huge costs to both employees and the long-term health of the enterprise. The second is the “profitable partnership” exemplified by Northwest Airlines, Maine’s C.F. Hathaway Shirt Company, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney’s “new social contract,” in which unions and bosses collaborate for ostensibly mutual gain.

But what really made me irate is that the class was led to believe that these are alternatives to each other—one being excessively ruthless to a fault, and the other being a lovely humane capitalism that works well for everyone at once. Really these are two heads of the same capitalist monster. Both mean the awful abuse and objectification of working people.

There would be little controversy in indicting Al Dunlap, the “Rambo in Pinstripes,” as selfish, callous, cruel, and proud of it. Proud to do whatever it takes to maximize short-term profits for shareholders, particularly himself. This self-described “believer in predators” treats the companies he takes charge of much like a tiger treats its prey—get whatever you can as fast as you can, and leave the carcass for others to deal with.

Dunlap, for example, cut and ran with $100 million for the “massacre” he oversaw at Scott Paper in the mid-1990s, in which he laid off 11,200 workers and cut wages and benefits for the rest. “I created sixty-two millionaires at Scott in eighteen months,” he gloated.

In the religion of Wall Street, profit—the bottom line—is god. Dunlap is an old-testament-style tyrant who saves his affection for his “chosen ones” and his arrogant, bullying wrath for the rest. But does capitalism allow for other forms of worship, as it were, such that one can “beat the bottom line” and see mutual gain for all—labor and capital alike?

Northwest CEO John Dasburg thought so. “Democracy didn’t work without—without certain rights being guaranteed, what we call a bill of rights. And in my view there is somewhat of a bill of rights to capitalism. You—you just simply must take into consideration all of the various interests in society in the enterprise. And if you fail to do that, capitalism will fail.” He argued that capitalism needs “some type of balance.”

In 1993, threatening bankruptcy and mass layoffs, the Northwest bosses blackmailed the union into $900 million in work rule and wage concessions in exchange for a 30 percent union stake in the company and three seats on the corporate board. Dasburg said, “Had it not been for the concessions, no one else…would have come to the table. There’s no question about that.”

The bankruptcy courts bailed out Northwest from its previously negotiated pension agreements, which under normal circumstances would be a criminal fundamental breach of contract. And the state and local government bailed out Northwest as Checchi sucked $837 million in state and local bonds, subsidies, and tax credits for the company while earning $32 million for his firm. His personal net worth grew to $700 million. This is the real meaning of Dasburg’s “bill of rights of capitalism.” Everyone else pays for the rich to get richer.

So what “balance” is Dasburg talking about exactly? Where is the “collective good”?
Tom Arabia, Boston

Issue #100

Spring 2016

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