Interview with American social justice activist and writer Mark Vorpahl
Mark Vorpahl is an American social justice activist, union steward and anti-war writer. He mostly writes for the Workers Compass but his writings have also appeared on a number of international journals and news websites such as Common Dreams, Global Research, CounterPunch and Counter Currents. He is opposed to U.S. military expeditions around the world and believes that the United States is not in a position to tell Iran to abandon its nuclear program.
With regards to the emergence of the Occupy Wall Street movement he opines, “The Occupy Wall Street Movement was a damning critique of the policies of President Obama. It would not have come into existence if it weren’t for his continuation of the same policies that led to the crisis and his choice to further bail out the banks while letting working people suffer high unemployment, the loss of their homes and healthcare, and so on.”
Vorpahl took part in an exclusive interview with me and responded to a number of questions regarding the breakout of financial crisis in the United States, the emergence of Occupy Wall Street movement, the anti-Iranian policies of the United States government and standoff over Iran’s nuclear program.
Q: What are the major causes of the current economic recession in the United States? It’s said that poverty and unemployment are rising in the United States. Is that true? What factors mostly contributed to the emergence of 2007-2012 global financial crisis which encompassed the United States and Europe?
A: While there are many complex answers to what caused the current economic recession in my country, the answer boils down to a simple point. Workers, that is the vast majority of people in the US, were being paid far too little for their labor to continue to buy the goods that were being sold. Their wages, when indexed to the cost of living, had not increased in thirty years, and in fact were declining. That is a long time to go without a real raise.
During the housing boom, many were able to refinance their houses on terms that enabled them to have a little more cash to spend. However, in the months before the crash, their level of savings had dropped to record lows.
Tellingly, more wealth became concentrated into fewer hands. Inequality reached record levels. This is what happened before the “Great Depression” in the 1930s. The pattern was repeated in the build up to the “Great Recession.”
The wealthy buy luxury goods, which account for a small percentage of what is sold. Most poor and working class people buy the things they need to survive and, in good times, a little extra. It is these kinds of goods that account for the majority of what is sold. Since 70 percent of our economy is fueled by domestic consumption, when wealth becomes so concentrated in a few hands at the expense of the vast majority, it’s going to have a disastrous effect.
If people can’t afford to buy, demand drops. If demand drops, production stalls and layoffs result.
Magnifying this problem, the Wall Street high rollers attempted to get around the problem of declining demand through financial speculation, using such instruments as what came to be known as toxic assets. The effect of these schemes, involving trillions of dollars, was to extend the “boom” economy past its natural breaking point. However, it also created a series of giant bubbles that were destined to pop with catastrophic consequences.
In regards to unemployment, it is important to understand that the way the official statistics are calculated in the US greatly underestimate its actual level. They do not include “discouraged workers” or those who are no longer collecting employment compensation or those who are working part-time but want full-time jobs. More objective figures estimate that there are 24 million unemployed and underemployed workers in the US. This puts more pressure on those who have full-time work, leaving them stuck in jobs that demand more labor for less wages and benefits than before the “Great Recession”.
While every month we hear a figure about the number of jobs that have been created. Unless that number surpasses 125,000, we are falling behind. This is because there are 125,000 new people that enter into the labor market each month. Most often, the figure of newly created jobs per month falls well below this number.
Of course all this increases the level of poverty. According to the US Census Bureau, the poverty rate rose to 15.1 percent (46.2 million) in 2010. I am confident that the number has risen since then.
In terms of what factors contributed to the 2007 – 2012 global financial crisis, they are, broadly speaking, the same factors that I have discussed for the US economy. That is a growing concentration of wealth in fewer hands, leaving the vast majority unable to purchase the goods their collective labor has created, combined with financial speculation on the part of the banks and corporations that greatly magnified the problem. It is clear from events in Europe and the continuing effects of the Great Recession on workers in the US that we are still in the throes of this crisis. There is no light at the end of the tunnel.
Q: How did the Occupy Wall Street movement take shape? In one of your articles, you had talked of the role the unions played in giving rise to the movement. How do you analyze this movement and the role unions played in it? Was it the economic policies of President Obama that led to the formation of OWS?
A: The Occupy Wall Street Movement (OWS) was a damning critique of the policies of President Obama. It would not have come into existence if it weren’t for his continuation of the same policies that led to the crisis and his choice to further bail out the banks while letting working people suffer high unemployment, the loss of their homes and healthcare, and so on. Rather than raising taxes on the corporations and wealthy to create a jobs program, he maintained that it is the business of the private sector to create jobs.
Where has this left us? With continuing high unemployment, growing poverty, an unstable economy, and the corporations hoarding trillions rather than creating jobs. This is a highly combustible combination – thus, the development of OWS out of what appeared to be nowhere.
The unions did not give rise to the OWS. However, when they began to organize in support of OWS, it brought out tens of thousands on numerous occasions across the nation. This helped to transform OWS from a fringe action to a Main Street movement. The political dialog was forced to shift from talking about deficits to at least acknowledging the great inequality in this country and that the 1 percent are not being held accountable for the economic crisis they created. Most importantly, the political discussions between workers on the job began to change as they recognized themselves as part of the 99 percent.
Q: Let’s turn to foreign policy. During his campaign leading to the 2008 presidential elections, President Obama had promised that he would be following a path of reconciliation and détente with Iran and other Muslim countries. But what we saw in practice was the continuation of animosities with Iran, intensification of drone attacks on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. What’s your idea? Why did Mr. Obama retreat from his promises?
A: The vast majority of the Democratic and Republican Party’s’ funding comes from big business. Our foreign policy is determined according to the interests of US big business. Regardless of what candidate Obama had to say, once he became president it was inevitable he would fall into line with what his party’s big contributors wanted.
Behind the continuing animosities with Iran, the drone attacks, as well as US military involvement in Libya and likely Syria, are cold-blooded geo-political considerations in how to secure the maximum control and the most profitable arrangements for US corporations. Humanitarian ideals or respect for democracy have nothing to do with our foreign policy – except for fooling US citizens.
Q: Many critics of the U.S. foreign policy contest that they are the poor taxpayers who should pay the price for America’s waging wars and igniting the flames of military expeditions around the world. What’s your take on that? What’s the justification for the United States’ wars of aggression? In what ways are the American citizens affected by the wars the U.S. wages?
A: Since the end of World War II, US taxpayers have been forced to pay more for the military than for all the roads, bridges, hospitals, and schools combined. Especially in a time when we need jobs, need to repair our decaying infrastructure, desperately need to fundamentally transform our health care system, and education is being cut back, the continuing cost of maintaining our massive military budget is untenable. It is an attack against working people’s interests in the US as well as a weapon used against the interests of working people worldwide.
The vast majority of our veterans joined the military because of a lack of opportunities for good jobs and a good education. They were promised pie in the sky by the military recruiters. Few ever see these promises fulfilled. In a 2011 Veterans’ Administration study it was reported that a veteran commits suicide every 80 minutes. That number has likely gone up since then. This is the tip of the iceberg for the mental and physical difficulties they are facing as well as their families. They need health care, education, and good jobs. Yet they are being denied this by the economic priorities of a political system that puts corporate profits over people.
Q: Do you see any differences between the foreign policy of President Obama and that of his predecessor? In my view, both of them have pursued a hawkish foreign policy, predicated on murdering, killing and assassinating. The only subtle difference lies in Obama’s eloquence; something which Bush lacked and was scoffed at for. Do you agree?
A: I agree that Obama is a hawk. The aims of his foreign policy are guided by the same goals that I have discussed above, as Bush. There are some minor differences in their tactical approach. In my opinion, Bush’s foreign policies were more influenced by a wing of our economic oligarchy that were more flush with confidence and willing to take bigger chances such as committing huge resources to invading Iraq and believing that they would be able to accomplish their mission in a relatively brief time. That did not work out as hoped.
Consequently, those in the more cautious wing of our ruling class have Obama’s ear. They would, for instance, rather use drones than commit ground troops to accomplish their aims, at least for now. It is easier for them to contain the reaction within the US and across the globe. Therefore, they will be better prepared to take on more aggressive military missions when the time comes.
This does not make the Obama Administration less hawkish than Bush’s, just more strategic.
Q: What do the American people, academicians and journalists think about the possibility of a war against Iran? There are many Israeli-affiliated journalists who are trumpeting for a military strike on Iran. But I want to know that what the general perception of the American people is about their country waging a new war in the region. Can you elaborate on this for us?
A: My impression is that a potential war against Iran is not on most US citizens’ radar at this time. Their heads are still spinning from the blow the Great Recession hit them with and that is what is most immediately affecting them. The corporate media takes advantage of every opportunity to vilify Iran as a mad power intent on developing nuclear weapons. However, there is no clear crescendo towards war that most US workers are hearing. No event has occurred that the hawks can use to co-opt public opinion.
This will be a very difficult task to pull off if the US policy makers decide they want a full-scale military attack against Iran using US soldiers. If the drum beats towards war with Iran do become louder, I am confident that many, if not most, will not be marching in line.
Before a single shot was fired in the build up to the Iraq invasion, millions hit the streets in opposition, even though it was in the dead of winter. This is something unprecedented in US history. The war makers have always taken it for granted that they could get the populace behind them to start a war. That is no longer a given.
One of the main demands against the Iraq invasion was “Money for jobs, not war.” This was during the economic boom. During the present time of high unemployment and cuts against our social safety net, the power of such a demand is exponentially increased in terms of those who would respond to it in the build up of a war against Iran.
If the US chooses another tactic such as supporting an Israeli attack against Iran, I suspect that it will be more difficult to rally US citizens in such large numbers against it initially. This is because most are pre-occupied with just getting by and they do not yet understand how such actions affect them and, most importantly, do not believe that they can do anything about it. Yet the effects of such a military attack, using Israel as a proxy army, are not likely to be easily contained. Therefore, it is possible that the results could produce massive uniting actions of US workers against our government’s war making policies.
Q: What efforts can be done in order to prevent the U.S. or Israel from coming to war with Iran? It seems that there are hawkish leaders in both countries which see no resolve to Iran’s nuclear crisis other than a military option. Should Iran abandon its nuclear program in order to preclude a war?
A: First off, I want to be absolutely clear, the US has no business whatsoever telling Iran to abandon its nuclear program. Such a demand coming from one of the world’s largest nuclear powers, and the only nation to use these weapons against civilian populations is monstrous. The word “hypocrisy” does not even begin to cover the scale of what is wrong with this line.
In addition, the US is Israel’s biggest supporter. Everyone knows that Israel has nuclear weapons and that they are quick to viciously attack their neighbors. Based on their actions, they are a much bigger threat to peace in the region than Iran. Why hasn’t the US demanded that Israel get rid of its nuclear weapons? The reason is that Iran isn’t to falling into line with US interests. On the other hand, Israel is our partner. The vilifying of Iran’s nuclear power program is convenient propaganda tool to distract US citizens from the real reasons for our government’s hostility towards Iran.
US workers need to be educated about why they should actively fight against any military actions against Iran. The best way to educate them is through the process of building a massive social movement that addresses their immediate needs and creates a space for such discussions as US relations with Iran.
Q: And finally, may you give me an overview of the operations and activities of anti-war and pro-peace organizations in the United States? Does the government pay attention to their calls for ending military expeditions around the world? Can these groups influence the decision-makings and policies of the government, Senate or the Congress?
A: Currently the anti-war movement is in remission. There is still a strong nucleus of this movement but they are unable to find the mass active support they once had. This is partly because most of the soldiers have been pulled out of Iraq. More importantly, however, it is because US workers’ attention is more focused on the effects of the Great Recession which continue to have a devastating impact.
The government likes to look as if it does not pay much attention to the anti-war movement but they are wary of its potential to suddenly explode. During the 1960s and 1970s the US Anti-war movement played a role in ending the US war in Vietnam.
Aside from huge mass demonstrations, the government also responds to the power of wealth. It is this power that big business has in abundance and it is in their interests that US foreign policy is made.
The only way to counter this is with the power of unity among massive numbers of workers and unemployed, demonstrating this with huge actions in the streets and work places. To build such an independent social movement it is necessary to organize around the issues that are of the most immediate importance to the vast majority. Today, in the US, that would be calling for a jobs program and the expansion of our social safety net, rather than cuts, as well as taxing the rich to pay for this.
Workers learn rapidly through mass experience. By joining in such a social movement, based on their own needs, they would learn of their own political power. This would encourage them to take on organizing around other issues such as opposing US war policy.
Occupy Wall Street was a harbinger of such a movement. As I participated in some of the mass OWS actions, I could not help but think that I was witnessing the birth of one of the greatest most powerful anti-war movements this nation has ever seen. It wasn’t that anyone was carrying anti-war banners. Rather it was the inspirational power that rose from the unity of these actions and how they directly confronted the economic elite who profit from war.
The youth in my country have grown up in a time where they have known nothing else but war and economic crisis. That is why so many became active in OWS and are continuing their efforts and their education today. It is only a matter of time before the promise of OWS, no matter what it is called, matures and realizes its potential. When that happens it will result in the beginning of a fundamental political shift in this country that will create an immense obstacle for the economic elite’s war plans.