Davos and Labor

Israel used to be a country devoted near exclusively to the working person. Her leaders were from the kibbutz and moshav movements and their early experiences were primarily blue collar. In the first decades of the Jewish state, free farmers, mechanics and factory-skilled laborers made up the qualitative differential between the army of Israel and her hostile neighbors. The Labor Party was in charge and the Labor Party was socialist. But sometime in either the 1960’s or early 1970’s, this democratic socialist model morphed into an amorphous-like creature resembling a European circus lion (with its teeth removed). The roar of the common people had become a charade of bureaucracy and political expediency as advocates of democratic socialism had no choice but to choose the democratic capitalism of the West (the multinational corporate monopoly version). The other choices, the totalitarian Marxists in the Soviet Union and their even more exotic contemporaries in Asia, were beyond the pale.

But the welfare state was never democratic socialism and now, over forty years later, the welfare state has gone bankrupt. If anything, social democracy was a weak compromise between labor and capital which never really worked for either labor or capital. It has has now ended badly, very badly. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, the fiscal crisis of the nation-state has ushered-in a brutal regime of austerity which has devastated working people across the entire globalized system. It was the globalization of labor which lowered the incomes of the working classes of the developed world leading to a slow-down of economic growth in Europe and the US. As the real wages of workers plummeted, capital was forced to invest in financial speculation. The world-wide bubble economy was born. And as this new economy crashed (2007 and 2008) the real lion’s share of the government money (the massive bailouts) was absorbed by the behemoths of the global banking and financial institutions. Labor was left holding the bag (the opposite of the bailout—depression and massive unemployment).

As it has turned out, to a great extent this has been a tragedy. Not because there are no answers to today’s problems but because some of the answers have been buried through cynicism, hostility and historical neglect. The Israeli kibbutz and cooperative moshav had been institutions far ahead of their times. Economic democracy and the market socialism of employee-owned business, along with the freedom and dignity of small business (single proprietary and family owned) and small farms kept the profits at home. Wealth remained within the community and local democracy thrived.

The egalitarianism and democracy of the Jews were in marked contrast to the anti-Semitic delusions of Europe and the blatant fascism of Arab nationalism. Some of the most enduring experiences of political life were the weekly kibbutz meetings where everyone had a say in the future of a myriad of economic enterprises. In those days, there was status in real work. The superstars of the mechanical trades were correctly perceived as gifted. Artisans and entertainers were amateur and their products enjoyed throughout the community. While unlike today, speculators and financial manipulators were as foreign to the majority of working people as cannibals or Amazon tribesmen.

The Israeli kibbutz and moshav were indeed a development model for all aspiring third-world countries. Rural development and land reform made Israel. A.D. Gordon and the farmer-soldier were the guardians of the people. Sheep farmers became generals. The diaspora Jews of the city ghetto were a noxious memory. The Jews had once again returned to the land and the politics and economics of the Jewish Bible echoed through wadi and valley. If the Torah was to mean anything for the future of humanity, it was the modern Israel of our youth which would point the way. Golda, Moshe, Yitzkak and Arik were first, teens on the land. Golda raised baby chicks better than any male in history. Jewish feminism was born in the chicken house. Israeli environmentalism was a rural in nature, as was appropriate technology in its most green form. This simpler age was not without value or content. On the contrary, it far outshines the global inequality and atmospheric (global warming) crisis of today’s mega-urban capitalism and its irrational financial monopoly.

Enter Davos and the “Global Economic Forum”. Politicians and plutocrats, financiers and fat-cats all ruminating about the “slow growth” and the “environmental crisis” which abounds. But where are the answers? On the political left, the Keynesian welfare state has run its course and the money has dried up. Meantime the very future of agriculture has been put in jeopardy by rising global temperatures and the chemical destruction of topsoil. But the 21st century political left is urban in orientation and fails to understand the ecological-economic connection between workers and land.

The social democratic political parties have spent the last two decades attempting to strip workers of government subsidies in order to revive employment growth. In this manner, the political left has taken its direction from the pro-capital political right. In Europe, the lowered personal income (through loss of subsidies and reduced wages) has meant less individual consumption, and less consumption has led directly to less growth. In the US, entire labor forces have been replaced by foreign production at a mere fraction the cost. All across the entire world the small farmer has been marginalized and urbanized and turned into low-cost units of factory production. But even if continued growth were to miraculously reappear, growth without limits has severe environmental consequences. So even if the urban-consumption economy was to survive, (the whole point of Davos), where would that leave the global ecology?

Probably worse off. Most politicians and certainly most corporate leaders have very short timelines. The next quarter or the next election are usually as far into the future as they care to extrapolate. Most people, on the other hand, just want to live and have their basic needs met. But the longer the two crises last, the more questions common people are bound to ask. But will they be the right questions? In the 1930’s, a certain German appeared to have all the answers to a nation of common people in dire need of jobs. Once again, today, ultra-nationalism and xenophobia have raised their pernicious heads across Europe. Anti-Islam and anti-Israel politics have made headway among working class and middle class voters across the continent. But the solution to the economic quagmire of the 1930’s was WWII. With the advent of nuclear weapons, war across Europe and between the US and China has made human history and its oldest institution (war) apocalyptic. In fact, we have appeared to have reached a stage of history, where the very future of humanity can logically said to be in question. If we choose war (and it’s a possibility), the nuclear question hangs over our head like the “sword of Damocles”.

However all of the ideological answers of the last century have died ignoble deaths. Capitalism has globalized into a digital financial morass unrelated to community and devoid basic human contact. Communism and fascism became mirror images and led directly to the Gulog and the Holocaust. Socialism (social democracy) evaporated within the crisis of capitalism. Nationalism led to two world wars. Conservative ideas have been defeated by monopoly, mass culture and urbanization. Even agriculture, the world’s second oldest institution, has lost its biblical connection as steward to creation and become mega-mechanized fodder for globalized bureaucrats bent on super profits. Monoculture on a landscape devoid of community counterposes the urban blight of cities approaching the population density of megalopolises.

Even religion has lost its clout. Secularism has led to relativism and the certainty of morality has come into question. Assimilation to mass culture and conspicuous consumption have been the products of a globalized corporate capitalism in constant search of customers. The western-urban-consumer lifestyle has become the goal of life. Organized religion has been usurped by a non-discriminating materialism that only envisions value in monetary terms. The awe of the universe has been replaced by a mathematical and scientific system which devours spirit and leaves no room for hope. The mystical has become the insane as the commercial has become the new normal.

But the new normal can’t last. The anarchy that it has created has reached its limit. Something has to give. Syria and the Middle East have become the talk of Davos. And Syria is all about lost labor, environmental catastrophe, mass urbanization, the failure of economics and religion, and most illuminating of all, the hopelessness of war. If Davos can’t answer the simple needs of the world’s simple people, than the entire global system is in need of dire repair. We have reached the crossroad of human history. This is labor’s message to the super wealthy at Davos. We need solutions and we need them now. And we know there are answers. We want to live and give hope to our children!

Once upon a time, in the little country of Israel, the people had the answers. The only efforts recognized as worthy were the efforts of genuine labor. Speculation was corruption and sin. So too was usury. As humanity reaches into history for answers, the economics of the Hebrew Bible will once again come alive. That’s my great hope. For Jewish theology resides on earth and is constantly being challenged by the present. Reason is the Jewish guide to revelation. And in the Torah, only the economics of labor (production for use) is revealed.

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).