Posts Tagged ‘economic crisis’

Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

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Poverty, Protest and Power from Below

Friday, December 28th, 2012

A friend recently sent me a cartoon depicting two workers in conversation: One says to the other, “Remember when nurses, teachers, municipal workers and poor people crashed the economy and took billions in bonuses and bailouts?” “No”, his buddy responds; “Me neither” nods the first.

If we’ve learnt anything from the economic crisis and Great Recession it’s that big business and their friends in government are brilliantly adept at blaming the victim. And through their control of the corporate media and power to shape and influence public debate, elites have been successful at convincing many of our fellow citizens that public sector workers, unions, and the poor are indeed to blame for the economic mess created by Wall Street and Bay Street, the big banks and high flying financiers.

With cuts to social programs and the assault on unions, ordinary people are being made to pay for a crisis that is not of their making. In the meantime, cor­porations continue to benefit from large tax cuts and sit on piles of cash. The rich escape tax in­creases and park their wealth in offshore accounts while public libraries close, teachers’ wages are frozen, and the poor struggle to put food on the table, avoid eviction, and cope with the daily grind of life on a low income.

Employers have used the crisis to restructure workplaces, increasing in­security for the majority of working people. Keeping workers in fear of being replaced is one method by which bosses maintain a quiescent and com­pliant workforce. Creating precarious jobs—such as temp work that is difficult to unionize under our ar­chaic labour laws—is another. The post-recession jobs recovery has seen pre-recession full-time work replaced with part-time, temporary, and other precarious forms of employment. Quiet workers make for big profits and happy employers.

Governments have used the crisis and resulting budget deficits as an excuse to roll back the hard fought gains of the labour movement. Both Harper and McGuinty have passed or threatened to pass back-to-work legislation to stop workers from exercising their rights to bargain collectively or to go on strike to defend their wages and working conditions. Weakened unions hamper the labour movement’s traditional role as a counterweight to the influence of big business on government.

Workers on welfare or disability have also been under attack. The Ontario government’s poverty re­duction plan has been put on hold. While McGuinty has raised welfare rates, these increases have not even kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris Conservatives levels, the govern­ment would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. In addition, anti-poverty measures such as the Ontario Child Benefit have been cut.

So the next few years, and likely the next decade, look tough for all working class Ontarians, but especially for those already living near or below the poverty line; those who were vulnerable prior to the Great Recession are made even more vulnerable since. Low-income Ontarians are confronting fewer child-care subsidies, extended waiting lists for social housing, and persistent unemployment and underemployment. More people than ever are caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employ­ment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, are derided as “unfriendly to business”.

How then do we make gains in a climate of auster­ity? Confronted with the resources of the rich and pow­erful, how do we mobilize power from below to defend our past victories and fight for social justice?

We should look to history for guidance. In the 1930s and 40s, Canadian workers went on strike for union recognition and better wages and working conditions. In 1943 alone, one in three workers engaged in strike action. Unemployed workers set out to march on Ottawa to demand they be treated with dignity and respect. Those struggles led to the legiti­mization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to ordinary folks.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened in­equality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition government. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that our silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.”

We may not control great riches or other sources of power like the police and the military, but we do have the power to refuse to go along with agendas of the elites. Society’s ability to function requires that stu­dents go to classes, tenants pay their rent, workers do their jobs, and the poor remain quiet and polite. If we decide not to cooperate, not to go to classes, to with­hold our rent, to occupy welfare offices, or withhold our labour, we can exercise power from below. But we can’t do these things without organization. That’s why it’s more important than ever to join organizations like Peel Poverty Action Group and collectively defend our past victories and work toward building a better, more just world.

 

Published as “How the Powerless Can Win” in the Fall 2012 edition of the Tough Times community newspaper

Ontario’s Poor Can’t Wait

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

In my latest op-ed for The Toronto Star, I discuss how quiet acceptance of austerity is not a realistic option for those living on the economic edge.

During the last two weeks in Ontario politics, we have seen a tale of two reports. The Drummond report has received a great deal of attention and rightly so: as the Star’s own Martin Regg Cohn put it, “Cutbacks are back and bigger than ever. And this time, they’re here to stay.” Millions of Ontarians, but especially the poor and middle class, stand to be impacted should the government act on Drummond’s recommendations.

Yet another report, that of the Commission for the Review of Social Assistance, slipped under the media’s radar and was greeted with little fanfare by the government and general public alike. This report discusses different approaches to improving some of the key areas of the province’s welfare system and is an important step in the broader review process headed by ex-StatsCan chief Munir Sheik and former United Way of Greater Toronto CEO Frances Lankin.

The review of social assistance plays a key role in the provincial government’s poverty reduction strategy, announced by the premier and welcomed by anti-poverty advocates back in 2008. Sheik and Lankin have embarked on an extensive consultation process, speaking with social workers, policy experts, business leaders, people with lived experience of poverty, and anti-poverty advocates. Their final report, which will make recommendations that will enable government to “remove barriers and increase opportunities for people to work,” is to be released this summer.

While the Drummond report takes a largely hands-off approach to social assistance, deferring to the work of the commission, much in it runs counter to the spirit and stated goals of both the review of social assistance and the broader strategy of poverty reduction. For one, Drummond recommends rolling back the Ontario Child Benefit (OCB), a subsidy that helps low-income families provide for their children. The OCB has been partially credited with the small but nevertheless important reduction in child poverty Ontario has seen over the past few years.

But more generally the report is silent on the concerns of the poor, from much-needed increases in child-care funding to the construction of more affordable housing. Drummond was, after all, primarily tasked with discerning where to make cuts, not how to expand social programs.

If acted upon, Drummond’s austerity package could well push Ontario’s unemployment rate into double-digits. With the federal government’s continued reticence to expand eligibility for employment insurance, thousands more Ontarians could turn to a welfare system that currently does more to punish than help the poor, who have yet to recover from the 22 per cent cut to welfare imposed by the Harris Tories back in 1995. McGuinty has raised rates slightly, but these increases have not kept up with inflation. If welfare was to be returned to pre-Harris levels, the government would have to raise rates by close to 60 per cent. You can be sure that such an increase is not in the cards in the current political climate.

So the next few years, likely the next decade, look tough for low-income Ontarians. Lower child-care subsidies, larger waiting lists for social housing, persistent unemployment and more people caught in the dire dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent. Changes to employment standards and labour law, which could create the conditions to lift people out of poverty, will be derided as “unfriendly to business.”

How then do the poor make gains in a climate of austerity? Before we mine history for answers we must first ask: “Who are the poor?” The obvious answer is, “those living at or below the poverty line,” but many of us live one paycheque away from poverty. What happens to social assistance and other social supports should be a concern for us all.

And as a recent Metcalf Foundation report concluded, between 2000 and 2005 the number of working poor increased by 42 per cent, numbering 113,000 people in the Toronto region alone. Those numbers have certainly risen since the Great Recession began in 2008. And an even larger number of people are near-poor. The poor are not only those living on social assistance.

Before the great labour struggles of the 1930s and ’40s, the poor were, like today, both working people and those out of work. Those struggles led to the legitimization of unions, the construction of the welfare state, and a greater share of society’s wealth going to labour.

In the 1960s, unions and anti-poverty organizations pushed for the expansion of social programs and lessened inequality. They marched, they protested, they made noise.

In the mid-1980s, anti-poverty, labour and women’s groups mobilized to influence the direction of the provincial Liberal-NDP coalition’s social assistance review. Poor people’s marches snaked through three of Ontario’s largest cities. The end result was a 25 per cent increase in welfare rates and the humanization of many aspects of a stigmatizing and punitive system.

History shows us that poor people’s silence will be met with government inaction. As American academics Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward put it in their classic book Regulating the Poor, “A placid poor get nothing, but a turbulent poor sometimes get something.” The Drummond report tells poor people they must wait. Now it is up to the poor to reply: “We will not.”

Simon Black is a researcher in urban social policy at the City Institute at York University and a member of Peel Poverty Action Group.

published in The Toronto Star, March 3 2012 IN6

Cities on High Alert

Tuesday, October 11th, 2011

Here’s my latest op-ed on urban issues for The Toronto Star. They have a habit of changing my titles; this one was originally “The Age of Urban Unrest?”

Last week, New York City’s mayor Michael Bloomberg rang alarm bells when he said that high unemployment could lead to mass social unrest in cities across the United States.  “You have a lot of kids graduating college who can’t find jobs. That’s what happened in Cairo. That’s what happened in Madrid. You don’t want those kinds of riots here,” Bloomberg explained. The mayor was not alone in this assessment. Former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn said as much back in 2008; “unemployment,” he declared, “represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies.”

Bloomberg’s warning came with his endorsement of President Obama’s new jobs creation bill. As a big city mayor, Bloomberg knows too well that the social problems associated with high unemployment, widening inequality, and economic stagnation are most acute in urban centres. Whereas Strauss-Kahn’s words proved prophetic, Bloomberg was learning from recent history.

Since the onset of the global economic crisis back in 2007-2008, cities have seen rising levels of violence and social unrest: riots and looting in the UK, intensified gang violence in major US cities, street clashes in Athens, flash robs in Philadelphia, mass protests in Madrid, ghetto dwellers and security forces facing off in Kingston, Jamaica, rival drug cartels engaged in shootouts in Juarez, Mexico; the list goes on. As many political observers have remarked, a driving force behind the Arab Spring – apart from an unquenched thirst for democracy – is unemployment, and in particular, extremely high levels of youth unemployment.

Non-governmental organizations have started making the connections as well. A recent report from the International Red Cross, entitled Urban Violence: War By Any Other Name observes, “Around the world, cities are experiencing an alarming increase in violence and its resulting misery…Chronic conflict makes daily life in some places almost like living in a war zone.”

And images of urban unrest not only flash nightly across our TV screens and occupy the pages of our newspapers, they also permeate our popular culture as never before: just watch recent science fiction films like Attack the Block, District 9, and Battle: Los Angeles. The city as a place of conflict and civil disorder is part of our cultural zeitgeist.

We have then, it appears, entered an age of urban unrest.

But London is not Philadelphia and Cairo not Kingston. From riots and looting, to mass protest, flash robs, and gang warfare, there are very different types of urban violence and social unrest with seemingly disparate causes. But while poverty, inequality, and unemployment do not tell the full story in all places, they do tell much of the story in many places.

In the case of the UK’s recent disorder, we have learned from The Guardian newspaper that the vast majority of rioters brought before the courts are young, poor, and unemployed. In the Tottenham neighbourhood, where the riots began, 54 people chase every one available job.

Where austerity and cutbacks to government services deepen poverty and unemployment, unrest soon follows.  Two Barcelona-based economists have published research which clearly shows a link between the variables. Empirical data on close to forty European and Latin American countries demonstrates a positive statistical association between government spending cuts, unemployment and levels of unrest, including anti-government demonstrations, riots, strikes and attempted revolutions.

In addition, path-breaking research by social epidemiologists has found that among advanced democracies, more equal societies (and by extension, cities) are also more socially stable and less violent.

In the absence of work and of hope, different ways of organizing human activity fill the social void. The anomie brought on by unemployment and other forms of social exclusion can be addressed through participation in other social groupings, sometimes a gang, sometimes a mob, sometimes a radical political or religious organization. When channelled into movements seeking to address legitimate grievances, as in the Arab Spring, urban unrest, disruption and disorder can be welcomed. History tells us that rough means can sometimes bring about progressive ends, especially when democratic channels are closed to those suffering injustice. Yet few urban denizens welcome the type of violence and disruption that causes misery, damage, and distress in their lives and in the life of their city.

We live in an urban age.  In 1950, less than 30% of the world’s population were city dwellers. Now, for the first time in human history, the world’s urban population outnumbers its rural. As never before, the fate of humanity is tightly intertwined with the fate of the city. And whether we live in Toronto or Tokyo, Lagos or Los Angeles, safety and security are necessary conditions for a flourishing urbanity and a decent quality of life. As even the conservative-leaning Mayor of New York City has realized, addressing inequality, deprivation and unemployment with meaningful government action is central to maintaining social cohesion in an era of economic uncertainty.

Published Oct 11 2011 in The Toronto Star, pg. A19

Occupy Wall Street!

Tuesday, October 4th, 2011

Here’s my latest Politics As Usual blogpost for POUND. More on Occupy Wall Street to come…

I doubted them; I really did. After so muted a reaction to the housing foreclosures, Wall Street’s robbery of the public purse, the disappointment of a Yes We Can President consistently uttering No We Can’t, the record number of their fellow citizens falling into poverty, the hunger, the unemployment, the homelessness, the Tea Party, the bullshit media…I didn’t think our American brothers and sisters had it in them to mount a mass protest movement which calls out the injustice being foisted on them by the rich and powerful, that names names, that challenges the oligarchs, and demands a better world…but they have. Single mums, trade unionists, college students, the unemployed, Vietnam vets, Democrats, socialists, anarchists, liberals…they have taken a downtown Manhattan park and made it their Tahrir, their Liberation Square. Could the Arab Spring be followed by an American Autumn?

With Occupy Wall Street in its third week, and showing no signs of abating (even after pepper spray and 700 arrests), the movement has begun to spread. ‘Occupy (name of American city here)’ are popping up all over the US. And now we can look forward to October 15th when Occupy Toronto makes its debut. I’ll be there; will you?

The mainstream media has done such a piss poor job of covering this movement but at the least The Toronto Star’s Mitch Potter got things somewhat right with this piece. Check the link here.

Discussing the UK riots on DisRespect Radio

Thursday, September 15th, 2011

Thanks to host Geoff Langhorne for inviting me on DisRespect Radio to discuss the UK riots. We had a great conversation that covered the sources of urban unrest and the prospects for future riots in the UK and beyond. Here’s a link to the podcast. 

1763-1-disRSept1LondonRiotsVol1to58m50.mp3

The Shock Doctrine, Toronto Style

Saturday, April 23rd, 2011

The Shock Doctrine is coming to Toronto! In my latest contribution to Canadian Dimension, I argue that Mayor Rob Ford’s strategy has much in common with the right-wing machinations   documented in Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism

I doubt Rob Ford reads Naomi Klein. Between studying committee reports and football playbooks, the new Mayor likely doesn’t have the time or the inclination to keep up with Canada’s most prolific left-wing journalist. Nevertheless, Ford’s approach to urban governance cannily resembles the political strategies of right-wing politicians laid bare in Klein’s international bestseller The Shock Doctrine.

The book traces how, beginning in the 1970s, neo-liberals and neo-conservatives have exploited crises (economic and otherwise) to advance an agenda of deep cuts to social spending, government deregulation and privatization. Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman calls the shock doctrine an “agenda that has nothing to do with resolving crises, and everything to do with imposing their (the right’s) vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society.”

Take the case of post-Katrina New Orleans. In the wake of the disaster, think tanks such as the American Enterprise Institute (Canada’s equivalent to the Fraser Institute) and Republican politicians descended on the city, pushing the privatization of public housing and public education, dismantling what little of a welfare state New Orleans had. This served the ‘free market’ ideology, most clearly articulated by American conservative Grover Norquist, who once said “I don’t want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag in into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” But privatization also served the corporate interests close to the Bush administration who cashed in on the fire sale of public assets. New Orleanians, displaced and distraught, had little say in the matter.

Canadian neoconservatives have long casted an envious eye at their American cousins, and Toronto’s new Mayor has surrounded himself with strategists and backroom players whose membership in the Conservative Party, the Canadian Taxpayer’s Federation, and think tanks like the Fraser Institute neatly overlap. The Common Sense revolutionaries, many of whom cut their political teeth in the downloading and amalgamation years of the Mike Harris Tories (from which the city has yet to financially recover), have reappeared in urban guise, finally having won control over a much sought after prize: the left-leaning City of Toronto, with its myriad social programs and ‘big government.’

Yet according to the logic of the shock doctrine, Ford’s team needs a crisis to push through its agenda. Since only 25% of eligible Torontonians voted for Ford, a full-scale assault on the City’s social services would not be popular. Fortunately for Ford, he rose to office during a world economic crisis that left many Torontonians more economically insecure, wary of tax increases and ‘misspent’ tax dollars. From Europe to North America, governments are calling for ‘austerity’ in the name of debt reduction and fiscal balance. Ford won the election by articulating a simple narrative of what was wrong with the city: too much wasteful spending; City Hall’s so-called gravy train. Ford named lavish retirement parties and councillors’ penchants for taking taxis, cleverly avoiding labelling the City’s social services ‘gravy.’

Most Torontonians do not regard nutritional programs for low-income children or green energy initiatives as wasteful spending. Many agree that such programs are the markers of a world-class city. While people are rightly concerned when councillors casually spend tax-payer dollars on superfluous expenses or when a public agency is careless with its budget, actual instances of this are few and far between. Ford’s strategy has hinged on reframing most, if not all, government spending as inherently wasteful. To his chagrin, potential allies on Council, like Mary-Margaret McMahon, have discovered that “the gravy’s not flowing through city hall like originally expected.”

The second crisis that has opened the door for Ford’s agenda is the crisis of confidence in public institutions. The outdoor workers’ strike, the media hammering of errant TTC employees and the events at Toronto Community Housing have all played nicely into the Mayor’s hands.

Union-busting is at the centre of the shock doctrine, as public-sector unions are the first line of defence against cuts, deregulation and privatization. As Klein notes, in post-Katrina New Orleans, the introduction of charter schools (effectively privatizing public education) broke the back of the teachers’ union. More recently, the Republican governor facing a fiscal crisis in Wisconsin has wiped out the collective bargaining rights of almost all public sector employees.

With a complicit provincial government, Ford has succeeded in designating the TTC an ‘essential service’ and plans to privatize garbage collection, effectively firing the city’s unionized employees. The Toronto Community Housing ‘scandal’ has provided the Mayor with the necessary excuse to review the City’s role in public housing, again with an eye to privatization. We can expect Ford to shed the City’s unionized public child care centres in the next round of budget cuts, contracting care to non-union, for-profit providers. Freezing property taxes and eliminating the vehicle registration tax ensure the need for increased user fees and higher TTC fares; creeping, less obvious, forms of privatization.

The Ford agenda has very little to do with resolving a ‘crisis,’ real or perceived, and everything to do with remaking Toronto in a right-wing image: a leaner, meaner city, where the market is free and the public sector and its unions disciplined.

Published on CanadianDimension.com 

Appearence on DisRespect Radio

Saturday, February 19th, 2011

Geoff Langhorne hosts a great little radio program on CFMU 93.3 in Hamilton. It’s been going for 8 years now and I’m honoured to be an occasional guest. On this week’s show we discussed the anti-poverty movement in Ontario. In particular, I spoke about the development of the Special Diet campaign, a campaign whose tactics and objectives harken back to the great welfare rights struggles of the 1960s. Here’s a link to the podcast:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/49501

See DisRespect’s homepage at: http://cfmu.msumcmaster.ca/

Debt, Riots, and the Great Recession: Making sense of the Greek debt crisis

Friday, July 2nd, 2010

I made a recent appearence on DisRespect radio to discuss the Greek debt crisis and the mass mobilization of Greeks opposed to the government and European Union’s plan to deal with it. Follow the link below to listen:

http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/43865

music is language and language is politics: a conversation with Dead Prez

Sunday, April 18th, 2010

Dead Prez @ Chung King Studios, NYC. M1 talks on their latest album (Pulse of the People), the Obama presidency, music and resistance. 

SB: Last time we spoke, you quoted an African proverb to describe your position on President Obama:  “When the axe entered the forest, the trees said, ‘Look, the handle is one of us’”.  Over a year into Obama’s presidency, has your position changed?

M1: Ain’t nothing changed man. It ain’t even about Obama. He’s a pleasant face, a breath of fresh air as far as him as a person is concerned. But as far as the administration, they are doing the same things they’ve been doing and said they were going to do and I think some people are dealing with the hope and wish that he was going to represent maybe more or that we need to give him more time. I’m not here to hate on the positive things he can do. But I know the U.S. system; the agenda is still the same. And Obama is just there to make more people believe in that system again. The world said “America is full of shit,” with the economic crisis, race relations, the prison industrial complex, the food crisis, people have been saying “America is shiting on itself”. And if it wasn’t for Obama being a black man and that new historic thing, people would have made more advances in terms of political organization independent of the Democratic Party. People were willing to try different things, maybe revolutionary things. I think people are realizing that nice guys who seem sincere are in the end just fucking politicians.

SB: With the economic crisis, the time seems ready made for a Dead Prez album. Do you think that will affect how it’s received?

M1: I don’t know. When we came out with Let’s Get Free, the ‘in thing’ was bling. So we never pick good times to come with what we come with. We just come with what we come with and the times gotta get with us. I don’t think it’s a very revolutionary time. I think the time was more right when Bush was just a blatant asshole and people were starting to equate the system with the administration. People who ain’t even up on some radical political shit were saying “Fuck Bush” and they weren’t looking at it like a radical thing, it was so common. But for us, it ain’t about what’s common, it’s a principled thing. We might be a minority voice here, but in the world who ain’t hungry? Who ain’t had a U.S. soldier’s boot on their back? Who ain’t seen the police be breaking people’s arms as they cuffing their hands behind their back? That shit is mainstream in the world and most people can relate to it. We ain’t trying to sell the illusion of the U.S. as this prosperous place. I’m not going to sell the world an image of the U.S. that really is only about 10% of our population, the very rich. That’s the minority, not the mainstream.

So we just coming with that real shit. That’s what hip hop do. It’s the power and the platform for that. It’s the number one cultural export from America to around the world. It’s the language that young people speak in all cultures. I see that as power and that’s something we have to keep developing.

SB: As far as your international work and activism around Palestinian rights or the World Social Forum in Venezuela, how does that experience influence the music and not just the politics of Dead Prez?

M1: Well let me just touch on the politics. We went to Cuba and there ain’t no words for that experience when you see socialism in effect. When you see at 98% literacy rate in one of the poorest countries. When you see a free health care system, local organic produce; all these initiatives that make it a strong country even though they are economically weak as their shitted on by Europe and the United States. They still have their sovereignty. When you see it yourself, that’s amazing.

SB: But when you’re in those places and parlaying with the artists, do you find you’re influenced by them in a musical sense? Or maybe I should be asking has world hip hop progressed beyond American influence and do you see the hip hop indigenous to those countries as shaping your own work artistically?

M1: Oh, good question. Yeah, when we started travelling 10 years ago, we saw peeps trying to be what they see on MTV. As we keep travelling, say to Africa and the Congo, or in Senegal, we see different cats we’ve met who say “We used to rhyme in English, but now we rhyme in our indigenous language.” They realize that they can do it in their own language, their own way. So the imperialism of the English language I think is what makes American hip hop think it’s more legitimate than what else is out their beyond our own borders. But people out there are saying, “Your hip hop (U.S. hip hop) ain’t shit if I don’t support you, so support me too.”

SB: So a Palestinian artist rapping in Arabic, or Haitian artists rapping in Creole, is itself a form of resistance?

M1: Yeah, definitely. It’s being able to speak your reality, express your experience with your own people’s words. It’s like if I can’t speak freely in my music or I put it in Harvard English, it’s not going to communicate the essence and pulse of me and where I am coming from. The problem is English is the language of the colonizer. So in order to communicate we be having to use the colonizers language. So you have to figure out how to use that language without becoming trapped in it. For example, in English, the word ‘black’ is bad. It has so many negative connotations: evil, dirty, mysterious, black hole, black sheep. ‘White’ is purity, angels and shit. And that ain’t in every language. When you speak in this language and that’s all you know, this shit becomes deep in your psyche. That’s why I’ve tried to learn Swahili and different languages to know that English is not the end all and be all of reality. Music is language and language is very much tied into politics. So yes, it is about resistance.

SB: Word.  Do you see your music as a tool for mobilizing people around political and social issues? You don’t necessarily drop the names of CLR James or Walter Rodney in your verses but it has such strong political content. How do you see your music developing over the 9 years since Let’s Get Free?

M1: Well, really we are more influenced by our audience than we try to influence it. We listen to the things that are going on, what sounds are current. We’re not trying to be so different that we alienating people. If something’s hot, nigga that shit is hot. We’re inspired by the culture; we’re not anti the culture. So I won’t say we’ve changed but just Let’s Get Free was so raw and so honest ‘bout our politics that people try to say “this is who you are, we’ve done made a mould of you and everything you do must conform to it”.  So as artists we are always trying to carve out our own identity, not what people think our identity is and not no gimmick. Everything we do is genuine; whether we are talking ‘bout Obama or meeting a chick. And that’s what we as Dead Prez are about. We don’t talk politics as a gimmick, it’s a sincere interest that we have in our life. And I think it’s helpful that people see us as regular human beings with a range of interests but we are political. You can be a regular human being and care about the world. You don’t have to be the Dalai Lama and shit. You can be a regular nigga. I’m a regular man with contradictions and all but that don’t stop me from loving my people and using my platform to talk about our interests.

SB: What can fans expect from Pulse of the People?

M1: Well it’s a new sound because it’s all produced by DJ Green Lantern. It’s a hard sound cuz Green was pushing for the streets. He was saying “the streets need y’all.” So he came with a lot energy. But all our shit is hard. You know for me, rocking your child to sleep is hard. Being hard ain’t no stereotype. So you know with us, you’re going to get honest music. We have some good collaborations: with Bun B from UGK; Chuck D; a dope R and B cat called Avery Storm; Green’s artist Johnny Polygon; and Styles P.

It’s all real shit. We talk about the economy, enjoying the summer, having sex. Everything. We talking ‘bout life, you know man, the Pulse of the People.