How Corporations Rig the Rules and Crush Dissent

A new book by Gordon Lafer shines a spotlight on the super-rich.

Theo Anderson January 10, 2017

UE endorsed the call for BDS at its August convention, making it the first national union in the United States to support the boycott. (Adrien Fauth/ Flickr)

Gor­don Lafer began work­ing on his forth­com­ing book—The One Per­cent Solu­tion: How Cor­po­ra­tions are Remak­ing Amer­i­ca One State at a Timesoon after the 2010 elec­tion, which was a crush­ing defeat for Democ­rats at both the state and fed­er­al lev­els. Repub­li­cans gained con­trol over both cham­bers in 25 state leg­is­la­tures, and they won con­trol of 55 leg­isla­tive cham­bers over­all — 19 more than they con­trolled going into the election. 

'If there’s an alternative to old-fashioned, face-to-face organizing around issues, I don’t know it. I think that’s what we have to do.'

That land­slide allowed Repub­li­cans to launch a state-lev­el attack on pro­gres­sive poli­cies and insti­tu­tions. The Amer­i­can Leg­isla­tive Exchange Coun­cil (ALEC), which pro­motes and coor­di­nates right-wing leg­is­la­tion in state­hous­es, played a key role. With the elec­tion of Don­ald Trump, Lafer says, we’ll see a lot of the cor­po­rate agen­da that was pushed by ALEC and enact­ed in the states mov­ing to Con­gress. You’ll see a lot of it being pushed by the admin­is­tra­tion.” That agen­da is par­tic­u­lar­ly hos­tile to unions and the rights of workers.

Lafer is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oregon’s Labor Edu­ca­tion and Research Cen­ter. He served as senior labor pol­i­cy advi­sor for the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives’ Com­mit­tee on Edu­ca­tion and Labor in 2009 and 2010 and has worked as a union orga­niz­er and researcher.

In These Times recent­ly spoke with Lafer about The One Per­cent Solu­tion, which will be pub­lished in April by Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty Press.

What were the ori­gins of the book?

At the start of 2011, there was this huge wave of anti-union and anti-work­er leg­is­la­tion. I was asked to do research on a so-called right-to-work” law in Indi­ana, and then got asked to do more research on the same sub­ject. And I saw that a lot of peo­ple — aca­d­e­mics, reporters and polit­i­cal peo­ple — were deal­ing with these as one-off pieces of leg­is­la­tion. Here’s this bill in Indi­ana, in Michi­gan, in North Car­oli­na, as if they were iso­lat­ed events that came out of the minds of the politi­cians who had intro­duced them. But there was obvi­ous­ly a pat­tern to it and you saw the same inter­ests — the same cor­po­rate lob­bies — intro­duc­ing a whole series of sim­i­lar bills. And that got me to think­ing about who’s real­ly behind this, and what’s the con­nec­tion between try­ing to cut unem­ploy­ment insur­ance here, and try­ing do away with unions over here, and cut­ting the bud­get for health care over here.

What were oth­er key fac­tors in the state-lev­el strat­e­gy, in addi­tion to ALEC’s work?

2010 was the first elec­tion after the Cit­i­zens Unit­ed deci­sion, which came in Jan­u­ary 2010. And with­in months of that, a bunch of new ini­tia­tives were launched to take advan­tage of it. And one of the oth­er things that was launched was the Redis­trict­ing Major­i­ty Project—they called it REDMAP. And it was a project that was hatched for Repub­li­cans to take con­trol of state leg­is­la­tures in 2010, part­ly because they knew that the leg­is­la­tures elect­ed that year would be the ones to redraw the dis­trict maps for both state and fed­er­al dis­tricts. That was made pos­si­ble by Cit­i­zens Unit­ed. They worked with the Cham­ber of Com­merce and a ton of mon­ey came into that project, which was quite suc­cess­ful. Eleven state leg­is­la­tures went from being either split between the par­ties, or con­trolled by Democ­rats, to being con­trolled entire­ly by Repub­li­cans. And among the states that were tar­get­ed and came under Repub­li­can con­trol were the string of states across the Mid­west that were tra­di­tion­al­ly labor strong­holds and polit­i­cal bat­tle­ground states — Penn­syl­va­nia, Indi­ana, Ohio, Michi­gan and Wis­con­sin. And when they took over there, the politi­cians and, even more so, the cor­po­rate lob­by­ists, thought, we don’t know how long this will last.” And there was a rush to push things through, even if they had to win ugly. And I think we’re going to see some­thing sim­i­lar in the fed­er­al government.

What did they do with their power?

What is the prob­lem that the 1% needs to solve? Polit­i­cal­ly, their sin­gle biggest prob­lem is: How can they advance poli­cies that con­tin­ue to make the econ­o­my more unequal while avoid­ing a pop­ulist back­lash? And there are dif­fer­ent solu­tions and strate­gies. But one of them is to low­er everyone’s expec­ta­tions. That hap­pens in a num­ber of dif­fer­ent ways, but the leg­isla­tive work is def­i­nite­ly part of it. Some of it is pri­va­tiz­ing pub­lic ser­vices, which means that you get used to doing with less — less health care, few­er libraries, crap­py schools. But also, when a ser­vice is com­plete­ly pri­va­tized, there’s no one that I can com­plain to. And that’s one of the things they’re try­ing to accom­plish — to make it hard­er to protest, and to take away the insti­tu­tion­al and legal chan­nels for peo­ple to protest cor­po­rate pre­rog­a­tives. All of it is part of a strat­e­gy of low­er­ing expec­ta­tions and con­di­tion­ing peo­ple to accept less and less and less.

Has Trump’s elec­tion shaped your think­ing about the book’s themes?

There’s going to be a lot of atten­tion paid to what’s hap­pen­ing in D.C. And one of the things that I think is poten­tial­ly hope­ful is that a lot of the cor­po­rate agen­da, on an issue-by-issue basis, is broad­ly unpop­u­lar. A lot of the states that elect con­ser­v­a­tive leg­is­la­tures, they vote for min­i­mum wage increas­es or vote for Cit­i­zens Unit­ed to be over­turned — all kinds of things. Ari­zona, last fall, vot­ed for Trump and also vot­ed to raise its min­i­mum wage. So, I think there’s much more con­sen­sus in the coun­try around pro­gres­sive ideas than around which par­ty to vote for, and I think that does give some grounds for hope for orga­niz­ing around spe­cif­ic issues. Peo­ple on the Left need to look at those parts of the Trump vot­ers that it’s pos­si­ble to make a coali­tion with.

Do you have sug­ges­tions for doing that?

If there’s an alter­na­tive to old-fash­ioned, face-to-face orga­niz­ing around issues, I don’t know it. I think that’s what we have to do. I don’t think this is winnable just by social media, and I think we’re much more like­ly to excite and ener­gize peo­ple around issues than around Democ­rats, or around a par­tic­u­lar candidate.

Did any­thing sur­prise you in the research?

One thing that sur­prised me is the extent to which the super-rich are already plot­ting an exit strat­e­gy in case the Amer­i­can empire falls apart. High, high lev­el Wall Street peo­ple are talk­ing about how they and their friends are buy­ing pri­vate islands and pri­vate land­ing strips. I found three com­pa­nies that are con­vert­ing old nuclear mis­sile silos — one of them is called Lux­u­ry Sur­vival Con­do. Some of it is a fear of ter­ror­ism, but some of it is that the econ­o­my could fall apart and there would be total anar­chy. Peo­ple at the very top, who pre­sum­ably have a pret­ty good view of the econ­o­my, think that things might crash. And even the fear that things might crash doesn’t move them to say, oh, we bet­ter share the wealth a lit­tle more.”

You mean they fear a crash because of ris­ing inequality?

Some of it is pure­ly based on inequal­i­ty. Some think there’s going to be anoth­er French Rev­o­lu­tion. So you would think if you’re afraid of anoth­er French Rev­o­lu­tion, the solu­tion is to say, maybe we have enough and should share the wealth a lit­tle.” Instead, they have an apart­ment in Shang­hai, or wher­ev­er their escape hatch is. And that’s a part of glob­al­iza­tion that’s not well under­stood. We’re in a sit­u­a­tion where some of the most pow­er­ful polit­i­cal actors in Amer­i­ca are Amer­i­can” com­pa­nies, in the sense that their head­quar­ters are here, but to whom Amer­i­ca is less impor­tant than it ever was before, either as a work­force or as a con­sumer base. And we’re see­ing a decou­pling of the coun­tries that are most influ­en­tial in Amer­i­can pol­i­tics, ver­sus how much the fate of Amer­i­ca actu­al­ly mat­ters to their bot­tom line. 

Theo Ander­son is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. He has a Ph.D. in mod­ern U.S. his­to­ry from Yale and writes on the intel­lec­tu­al and reli­gious his­to­ry of con­ser­vatism and pro­gres­sivism in the Unit­ed States. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @Theoanderson7.
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