It’s a Mad, Mad World

By scott parkin

Some will rob you with a six-gun/ And some with a fountain pen.”

-Woody Guthrie

I’ve recently become a fan of AMC’s “Mad Men,” which chronicles, in my humble opinion, the rise of modern corporate capitalism. As far as I’m into it, it shows a hard-drinking, chain-smoking, adulterous business culture where people ruthlessly throw one another under the bus to get ahead on Madison Avenue. I don’t find myself sympathizing with the Don Drapers, Roger Sterlings or Pete Campbells, because they live in a “take no prisoners” world. (Full disclosure: I’m only in Season One and been told things change later on in the series.)

But watching a “man’s man” like Don Draper strut around like the “cock of the walk” on Madison Avenue is quite educational about the business culture that rules New York’s other famous street: Wall Street.

Chase ptorest image via Home Defenders LeagueLike the advertising execs on “Mad Men,” these self-proclaimed “Masters of the Universe” have thrown the rest of us under the proverbial bus by wrecking the global economy. Through their perpetuation of a casino economy we saw losses in global wealth in 2008 somewhere in the neighborhood of $40 trillion.

But unlike the Great Depression, we’re not seeing the wolves of Wall Street jumping out of any windows. Quite the opposite actually. While much of the country is suffering record unemployment rates (10% nationally, 21% amongst youth 18-30), 56% of all U.S. bankers saw an increase in bonuses in 2010 with top-end bonuses ranging on average somewhere between $900,000 and $1.4 million. Furthermore, while the working and middle classes are taxed to the hilt, legalized tax evasion is standard operating procedure at Wall Street’s banks. It’s estimated that at least $100 billion is hidden in offshore tax havens every year .

They get away with this because it’s essentially an inside job. Like in the Clinton and Bush years, they’ve infested the political process through appointments within the Obama administration. This includes Obama’s Chief of Staff, William Daley, who until recently was an executive for JPMorgan Chase. And Jeffrey Immelt, CEO of General Electric — a media, manufacturing, war profiteering and financial services conglomerate — is now Obama’s liaison to the business community.

Ask yourselves this question: How many bank CEOs have actually faced any sort of investigation, let alone jail time for the economic crash?

With their arrogant talking heads on CNBC, their ruling class opinions in the Wall Street Journal’s editorial pages, and their neo-classical economic outlook, they’ve quickly become the epitome of a grade “A” asshole. Between the mortgage crisis, the financial crisis and the climate crisis, Wall Street has ruthlessly taken no prisoners in its war on the working poor, labor, the middle class and the environment. And what’s worse is, they’ve gotten away with it.

In the mortgage crisis, foreclosures and evictions are the name of the game. Systemically, it’s in a bank’s and mortgage company’s best interest to kick as many people out of their homes as possible.

As Max Rameau of Take Back the Land said: “In order for banks to get their mortgage insurance money, they must evict the families. Instead of a system or laws that try to keep families in their homes, banks have a perverse incentive to evict them. We should be rewarding banks that keep people in their homes, not the ones that kick people out.

LA grandmother being evicted by a SWAT team, via Home Defender's League

Unfortunately for the banks, people are fighting back against evictions. Community groups like Vida Urbana/City Life, Take Back the Land and workers’ centers from Oakland to Miami have made eviction defense part of their overall strategy in fighting back against banks. Some recent examples include:

  • In Boston’s Hyde Park, neighbors and the community group City Life/Vida Urbana stopped a family’s eviction by Aurora Bank. By organizing protests and lockdowns, the organizers delayed the eviction. City Life/Vida Urbana has been organizing eviction blockades since 2007 with high success rates.
  • In Rochester, NY, Bank of America sent in a SWAT team to evict a grandmother after they refused to allow her make mortgage payments on her home in her dead husband’s name.
  • Organizations like the Miami Worker’s Center fight to help residents stay in their homes even after eviction.
  • In California, the Home Defenders League has formed to help tenants and working poor folks fight Wall Street banks evictions departments.

The faux budget crisis has also led to growing antagonism against the banks as right wing politicians are using the crisis to “shock” public sector unions, public institutions and direct service organizations into the dustbin of history. While the big banks are living the high life with tax avoidance, bailouts and bonuses, their right wing allies want to widen the gap between America’s rich and poor with Milton Friedman’s economic models. And the U.S. working class and the labor-left are mobilizing to fight this effort with gusto not seen in decades. Here are some groups at the forefront of this movement:

  • US Uncut: A new all volunteer grassroots network of groups using memes and tactics from across the pond have targeted Bank of America for its tax dodging. They are taking action regularly and their next nationwide days of action is April 15-18, Tax Day!
  • The Mid-Western Tea Party governors have seriously poked the wrong dog with the wrong stick. In states like Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan, we’re seeing labor and working people pushing back hard against the Tea Party agenda with elections, recalls and direct action.
  • On April 4th, as part of the AFL’s national day of action, the Oakland teachers asked Wells Fargo for a “bailout. Over a hundred people, led by teachers of Oakland Education Association, took over an Oakland Wells Fargo branch. Participants included local community members and longshore workers union members who shutdown all the ports in SF and Oakland by refusing to work/take jobs.

In 2010, Wall Street literally lit the world on fire by giving the coal industry billions in loans and bond underwriting. From tar sands pipelines extending Alberta to Texas to coal infrastructure like coal plant retrofits, coal exports in Pacific Northwest, and mountaintop removal in Appalachia, Wall Street is funding the climate crisis while hiding behind greenwashed public relations. Wells Fargo, PNC, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, Citi and Bank of America are the culprits behind the “death cycle” of coal in North America. Citi recently underwrote a $500 million bond to Transcanada, the developer of the Keystone XL pipeline. And they led the merger between mountaintop removal villains Massey Energy and Alpha Natural Resources. But they’re meeting resistance:

This doomsday machine that destroys people’s homes, their bank accounts, their means of earning of a living, and the very earth itself has run amok for too long. Like the toad sitting in the kettle of water while the heat slowly boils it alive, we’ve let Wall Street and their minions in Washington build too much power and too much momentum. At this point, the sheer power and scale of these institutions is, frankly, beyond us or any organization that we associate with or work for. We need to start small and build out. They are scared of us, not because we pose some violent threat, but because so many people in the country agree with us. Viewed from the vantage of an organizer and direct action-ista, the economic and environmental quagmire they are putting us in is nothing more than an opportunity.

People-powered uprisings from the Middle East to Europe, driven by the collapse of the global economy, have countered the bigger institution in their countries by slowly building over decades. In the U.S. we’re seeing small scale resistance like eviction defense and anti-coal actions at bank branches grow into large mobilizations at mid-western capitals that will hopefully form the foundations for a greater environmental and economic justice movement that might well challenge the system of capitalism.

But at this point, what we desperately need is to move past photo ops and email blasts and vote with our feet on the streets.