Nima Shirazi: Welcome to a Citations Needed News Brief. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: You can follow Citations Needed on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of Citations Needed through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener funded. And we do these News Briefs in between our regularly scheduled full-length episodes when, I don’t know, Adam, Netflix puts out a four-part series starring former President Barack Obama talking about working people.
Adam: Yeah, it’s, uh, Obama has a multi-, I guess, film documentary deal with Netflix, which I would say it’s kind of undignified for an ex-president, but then you sort of look at the ex-presidency of Trump and you see him like literally just doing a slush fund with the Saudis. You’re like, okay, I guess, you know.
Nima: I feel like, outside of Jimmy Carter, what Obama’s doing is the most dignified that we’ve seen.
Adam: Well, yeah, I mean, immediately running and doing the $400,000 Wall Street speeches was very much predicted. But again, this is someone whose politics defined a class-flattening, pro-Wall Street, extension of the Clinton, ‘I feel your pain,’ ‘but I’m not really gonna do much about it’ era of politics.
Nima: Right. ‘But I can show it back to you because that’s what we liberals do.’
Adam: Right. And so Obama’s new show, which is called Working: What We Do All Day, premiered a few weeks ago and has caused much controversy. It does not disappoint. It’s a weird 2015, 2014 artifact from a totally different time.
Nima: And so we figured who better to bring back on to the podcast than our good friend Max Alvarez, editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, former editor at The Chronicle Review, host of the Working People podcast. His book, The Work of Living, was published by OR Books in 2022. Max, it is so wonderful to have you back on Citations Needed. My condolences in advance for having you on to talk about this particular Netflix documentary series.
Max Alvarez: Oh my god, I’m losing it, you guys. I’m losing my shit. I have watched this thing eight times, and I just get more angry each time I watch it, and then you pieces of shit call me over here to talk about it. How dare you!
Nima: Aw, you’re welcome.
Adam: To give some context here, Max has written and will soon publish, if it’s not already out by the time you listen to this, a rather long article on The Baffler about the documentary, because Max himself has a somewhat similar sounding podcast called working people, where he does what ostensibly what Obama is trying to do, but does it in a very, again, very sort of poor, flat, neoliberal way, which is Max has a show where he talks to working people about their lives, unedited, in many ways, and sort of gets the worker perspective, obviously, you do a lot of pro-labor, pro-worker stuff, The Real News, this is something you’ve spent years and years on, whether it be your freelance journalism and your own personal union organizing, et cetera, et cetera, your working-class bona fides are unmatched.
Nima: You’re not responsible for, you know, passing the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Adam: Yeah, I know, I know, you won’t boost yourself up. But I will say that Max is our resident working correspondent here. So when this came out, obviously, I’m sure many people reached out to you and said, ‘lol, I can’t believe this.’ As we said in the intro, and as we’ve discussed offline, it does not disappoint. It really does give a little bit of a pre-Trump, blast from the past, Obama-era form of politics. And so I want to sort of begin there. And I know you have a lot of opinions on this, because, again, we’ve talked about this offline for a while now. And this is something very, very visceral, very personal for you. Very, very close to home, both ideologically and professionally and personally. If you can, orient the audience of what this documentary is, and what you think, just to kind of get us a 30,000-foot view here. Can you tell us what you think its fundamental problems are and how it sort of frames the issue of working?
Max Alvarez: I’d be happy to, and thanks so much for having me back on, guys. You know I love coming on the show and really, really appreciate all the kind words. Yes, I guess to answer the question, everyone keeps asking me, yes, this series pisses me off, like as, as Adam said, as someone who has more or less devoted his life to carrying on the life and legacy of the great Studs Terkel to carrying on the great legacy of oral history and trying to document and uplift and honor the humanity of our fellow workers and who sees myself very much in league with a lot of other great people, great journalists, great organizers who are also carrying on that legacy. I think one of the most beautiful things about the legacy of Studs Terkel is that there is no one inheritor to it but as someone who sees himself as trying to carry that torch and keep that flame lit, of course it pisses me off to see Obama just, you know, like cannon-ball in here. Like Well, I’m struggling, trying to keep The Real News going and get donations and build and grow and cover more stories. And then Obama gets some fat ass deal to produce this weird Netflix series.
This first installment, I think he’s going to be doing more of these. Like it’s such a weird thing. Like I’m not joking, I am–The Baffler, my old magazine where I used to be a columnist. They reached out to me and asked if I would write a review of this and I was like, Sure, but you know, like, you know, you know what you’re asking for? So yeah, this thing is gonna be long as hell, because there’s a lot to unpack here. But, you know, I think like the bird’s-eye view thing that I keep coming back to now that I’ve watched for the purposes of writing this review, I’ve watched this series all four episodes like eight times already. And I think what I began to realize after maybe the fifth turnaround was I was like, man, like, this thing is just so fundamentally incoherent, like it is bafflingly, and once you keep watching it, like laughingly not held together by anything, I mean, like Obama essentially tries to himself embody the glue that would hold not just this weird Netflix series, but even more the like totally bankrupt, self-evidently bankrupt, neoliberal blast from the past vision that Obama is trying to sell in this series. And outside of this series, like I said, he embodies that role. He’s the only guy who really moves between the socio economic classes in the series, like there’s a visual metaphor, it’s very on the nose, where he’s literally going up and down an elevator. And, you know, he tries to sort of like be the daywalker vampire who can move between these classes and talk to each one at eye level, and try to sort of fuse some, like one of those like, like Technicolor Dreamcoat, like levels of absurdity, visions for a synthesis of the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism, they cannot be held together. And you see how absurd that premise is in this series. So by the end of it, it becomes itself a comedy, but also a tragedy, because there is also so much humanity, in those moments that you get when you just get to see the workers when you just get to hear them. And you can tune Obama out. And you can see from all of that pain, and will and grit and yearning and loss and all those feelings you feel about how they and we deserve so much better than this, and how Obama is offering just nothing, just no way to actually get there. You know, it’s a really bizarre, absurd, revealing at times, really touching series. I guess that’s my bird’s-eye view. And it has nothing to do with the legacy of Studs Terkel, I would say that as well
Adam: Right, because a maxim we’ve used here on the show a few times, we use the Norman Solomon definition of neoliberalism, which I actually like quite a bit, which is it’s a worldview with victims but no victimizers. And I think that really sums up Obama’s brand of politics, which is that there’s these people who are poor, and suffering and struggling, and yeah, there’s kind of like a vague nod to societal failings. But there’s no sense there’s any inherent tension with the CEOs, outside of CEOs or corporate board executives, who are in Obama’s view, sort of personally greedy, but not part of any kind of existential or systemic criticism. And in your article for The Baffler you write, quote:
In Obama’s world, and in the series politics at the grassroots level, which is to say, politics as a struggle for power that involves working people, does not exist–there are no confrontations here with management (save one intensely interesting scene in Episode Two where Sheila and her staff At Home Care are having a conversation for the camera that clearly needed to be had in the office long ago), no organized struggles against the bosses, no confrontations with powerful policymakers or CEOs, no whiff of the politics that’s happening anywhere and everywhere workers around the country are banding together and actively fighting against the injustices we see in the series, fighting to improve their workplace in their lives. There’s no real sense that all of the workers, the people represented in the series who actually do something useful for society, that we are the agents of change here, that we have it within us to make change by struggling with others for something better.
So let’s talk about this kind of Starbucks politics, something in the show we’ve criticized and it’s interesting to see its kind of zombie formations still exist in 2023. Can you talk about a world of victims, but no victimizers, and how that really kind of sums up Obama’s whole shtick?
Max Alvarez: Yeah, man. I mean, like, I think the quote from Norman Solomon like really, really does hit it on the head, right? I mean, because that is essentially the world that Obama is trying to present here. And of course, this is one of the reasons why it’s such a weird thing, because when it’s me doing it when I’m recording interviews for my podcast, like, you know, I can always keep adding more interviews, I can add more context. I’m not a former president, right? But when a former president does this, in a limited series with four episodes, every choice matters. Every choice carries some symbolic weight. And so that is kind of ultimately to kind of piggyback on my answer to the first question, that’s one of the things that really makes this series ultimately so bizarre, contradictory and unable to resolve its own contradictions, because Obama is the central character in many ways. He’s the narrator, who is also a character, you know, and he is also someone who, you know, like, has had a direct role and many indirect roles in shaping the world that he is trying to depict here, but he also tries to depict it in a way in which he is not implicated. And, you know, he like there are some victimizers, that I guess that’s the one like footnote to Obama’s interpretation of a neoliberal world that you do hear faint whispers of the victimizers, but the victimizers themselves are like, dusted up, you know, and made to seem like, you know, very unthreatening, but they’re always offscreen, right.
And so I’d like to give one example, when Obama is going up the elevator in episode four. And there’s an interesting kind of visual admission there. Because he says in the first episode, that nearly half of all American workers work in low wage service jobs. From the very beginning, you’re like, ‘Okay, well, then why are not half of these episodes devoted to those people?’
Nima: Only the first is incidentally, entitled, plainly, “Service Jobs.” And then you go kind of up to the corporate ladder, as it were for the other episodes.
Max Alvarez: Right. And when Obama is going up the corporate ladder, or in this case, the corporate elevator, there’s an interesting visual admission there, right? Because each new episode, when he’s at the service worker level, Episode One, he’s at the basement, then he goes to like middle class jobs, and the elevator goes to level one. Then he goes to like the petit bourgeois, like, you know, 9%. I mean, he calls them like, and that’s level three. And then when Obama is being filmed in the elevator going up, in Episode Four, “The Boss,” you see the elevator, just keep going up, and up and up, and up and up. So it’s like, that’s kind of like a visual representation in a lot of ways of like how, when we talk about the 1%, or the 1% of the 1%, they’re so far away from us. They’re on another frickin’ planet. And you kind of get a tacit admission of that when Obama was going up to like the 50th floor.
Anyway, I digress. So when Obama is like, going up that elevator and he’s, again, pitching this, like folksy, you know, sincere, sounding, but like when you actually like, study the words, you’re like, What the fuck that you’re not saying anything. But he’s talking about how, I guess in a way, he’s trying to justify the series itself, because he’s like, when people at the service level job, the low-wage workers, you know, they never see the CEOs, those CEOs may be in boardrooms, somewhere, they may even be in another state.
Nima: Yeah, we actually have this whole sequence of the kind of rise from the bottom to the top from Episode Four of Working, as you said, Max, entitled “The Boss.” We have this clip, actually teed right up, so let’s listen to that. And then you can continue.
Barack Obama (as narration): Nice to see you. But the reality is that workers at the bottom rarely see the people at the top, and vice versa. The folks in charge may not even live in the same city or town as the people they employ.
Woman: Good morning, Mr. President.
Obama (narration): That’s especially true with big multinational corporations and globalization. And it’s easy to undervalue what you don’t see.
Obama (in conversation): For those leaders to know the people who are working for them, and they have to really make an effort. And think there’s some folks who do that. But, but there are a whole bunch who don’t.
Obama (narration): We see their faces on the news. We call some of them by their first names. We know their origin stories, and follow their triumphs and defeats. Top business leaders today are more than just heads of companies, some at least to become cultural figures. And with some companies now worth more than many countries, the people in charge are taking on roles that used to be reserved for heads of state with extraordinary hour to determine how we live. But we never see what they actually do. What does the CEOs work look like? What are the pressures and responsibilities they carry? And where are they taking us next?
Adam: Now, Max–
Max Alvarez: Okay, so you see what I’m talking about?
Adam: I assume you have about 100 more episodes of Working People where you’re gonna, you’re gonna do ridealongs with CEOs. So I want to sort of talk about the, 50% of working is about the rich, basically, two of the four episodes are about the rich, the sort of millionaires and then the last episodes about the multibillionaires. Obama follows around CEO and co-founder of Aurora innovation, Silicon Valley, Chris Urmson, who supposedly builds his I guess, electric trucks. And he’s kind of presented as like one of the good billionaires, I guess. And Obama even says, quote, What if CEOs prioritize more than profits? There are different ways to lead the CEO sets, the tone, their choices, their priorities, their values shape, how people work together. But of course, CEOs are literally legally required to maximize profits, that’s what’s called a fiduciary duty. And if they don’t maximize profits, they can be civilly liable to be sued. So right there, you have a kind of Pollyanna-ish, childlike, wishing for a benevolent dictator, basically, right. So can we talk about this sort of Obama, like, ‘Hey, CEOs are gonna exist, whether we have, we have no choice and what they may as well just be kind of nice’ politics.
Max Alvarez: I think after listening to that, you know, folks, even if you guys haven’t watched the whole series, that does give you a pretty clear window into just the again, like I said, the maddening, ridiculous, so Pollyanna-ish and idealistic as to be utterly meaningless vision that Obama himself is trying to force everything in this series, like into a suit, he’s trying to force everything that he’s showing you to fit like a narrative that can make this all make sense, because what you just heard Obama describing these unelected oligarchs, having the roles that he openly says used to belong to heads of state, and he says that not in a tone of justified shock and horror and disgust and rage.
You know, we mentioned Norman Solomon, and that great quote about neoliberalism being, there are victims but no victimizers. I think that maybe this is the sinister evolution of that neoliberalism where Obama’s saying is, the victimizers aren’t that bad. The victimizers are actually, our warlords, and perhaps we can make a societal peace between them. And you know, the vast, unwashed, many who labor for them, and who get exploited by them, and whose planet is being destroyed by them. Maybe, you know, like we can, if we all just get together and see how we’re connected in this great modern 21st-century world of work, by golly, maybe we can just understand ourselves and understand our way out of this mess. And, you know, like that, like you heard Obama’s prescription. He’s like, what did he say? He’s like, ‘You got to do the work, you got to, you know, you got to make an effort.’ You got to make an effort, Obama’s answer to the societal problem of our day, which is capital sucking all of the decision-making power, all of the resources, all that society has to give is being dominated more and more by the interests of capital, and the unelected oligarchy that is increasingly absorbing more and more realms that used to belong to, at least ostensibly, we thought in the modern era, the people and the governments that they elect to represent them, right, that that we are seeing this sort of massive blob take control of our world, and we ourselves are like the proverbial grist for the mill, to make that whole thing run.
We’re supposed to look at this through the eyes of Obama and say, ‘Hey, you know, like, we all got our place in the blob, right? And, you know, actually, if the people at the top, just put in a little more effort’–that’s going a little, you know, Bill Clinton with it, but you know, what I’m talking about–’like, if they just put in a little more effort to see the people at the bottom right to see and understand their plight, to realize that, you know, we can serve the shareholders and we can serve the community at the same time.’ Right, like, that’s his answer to all of this. That’s it. That is literally it. And like I said, the more that you watch it the more self-evidently ridiculous it is.
And in fact, the more you start to see other parts of the series kind of mutinying against this narrative that Obama is trying to hold together with his bare hands, you see in the just heartbreaking monologues of people like Elba, Randy, Carmen, Beverly Doris, you hear about their lives, you hear them talking about what they’ve gone through, you hear them talking about the future and what it’s going to mean if you know these jobs go away, or I’m not able to provide for my family, you know, I can’t even keep one job because it won’t let me plan my life reasonably enough so that I can watch my own goddamn kid like we are sitting there at points in this series, watching the real pain and misery and unjust suffering and exploitation and total waste of great human potential. We are seeing that and we feel it. I think on a gut level, that’s when the series is actually doing something useful.
And like this is the one way it’s connected to the legacy of Studs Terkel, this is the one thing that I say in my review of the show that we should at least acknowledge is a good thing. Because the more that we can connect with our fellow workers on that level, the more that we can see what Obama spends the entire series, trying to obscure, which is that this is not a system to justify this is not a system to just accept as inevitable and unchangeable. And in fact, a system that we should welcome with open arms and hope that we could just appeal to the good nature of the CEOs who are dominating these corporations that are ruling our lives, controlling our governments controlling our highways of information, our supply chains, so on and so forth, that we’re just supposed to hope that they make good on this totally bullshit. I’m sorry, like, you know, because there’s another thing Obama like, tried to find like the three CEOs, he could that would like, allow him to make this case and still, like, possibly have a chance of convincing someone. And even then, I’m just like, What are you talking about? These people are weird as shit. Like, if your goal was to get the worker side, the lower side to maybe have a little more understanding of the people at the top? Because that’s his whole thing. Right? The more that we see and understand each other.
Adam: Yeah, it’s totally empty, like empathy porn, it’s meaningless. Like, as if the worker needs to empathize with like, what the fuck use is that the rich assholes, let’s move on.
Max Alvarez: Right, and what are they supposed to empathize with? It’s like, yeah, you know what I’m here, like working people have been telling me, like every goddamn week for years, as I’ve been doing long term, you know, or deep interviews with them for my show working people, as you mentioned, for my book, for The Real News Network for breaking points, like really, really trying to uplift these stories as much as I possibly can like and who I think, you know, I tried to preach the gospel of empathy, I do think there’s something really important to empathy that we need in order to build a successful revolutionary movement to take hold of our future and make sure that we even have a future, let alone a society worth living in, in which we can all flourish.
But um, you know, again, I hope that at least in my work, I don’t come across this squishy and bullshitty and vapid. I swear to God, I will stop doing it tomorrow, if that’s the case. But I mean, like, again, like, what is the worker, who these black workers have been telling me for years after year, about the backbreaking work, the constant disrespect the fact that working people in this country been working longer and harder and have been more productive. You know, over the past 40 years, while they have seen their wages stagnate, and all of the profits that they are generating all of that excess revenue is getting siphoned up to the people at the top who we are seeing in this episode.
And we’re also not seeing a lot of the other vampires, the shareholders, the other layers of executives, there are a whole lot of terrible people in the US that make these systems run who suck out all of that profit that we ourselves generate. And we do so by missing time with our kids, because we’re being forced into overtime at a coal mine in Alabama, or a Frito Lay factory in Kansas, and we miss the you know, our parents, you know, final birthday before they die, or we you know, can’t take a day off work because of we work on the railroads and we don’t have any paid goddamn sick days, right. I mean, like all of the people that Obama is trying to get to see and empathize with, the people at the top. What does he show us? He shows us a couple of weirdos, like, Chris and Chandra, like, they’re fucking weird. They’re either weird, or they are, you know, just nothing like I feel like Obama is trying to get Chandra to be like this billionaire, titan of industry, you know, like CEO of Tata Group in India. I think Obama’s trying to get him to like, step into this role of like, the good conscientious oligarchy, earthlings you have nothing to fear. We’re here to serve you and the shareholders at the same time, literally impossible. And he Yeah, and he doesn’t. What does he says like Obama himself, in his own interviews, he says, Nothing. He says, you know, like, just, you know, like boiler-plate drivel that no one is going to be convinced by and when he’s not doing that. You’re watching him like sitting on a fucking high-rise balcony in Mumbai, drinking like a panoply of weird health elixirs, and the working people are supposed to, you know, watch this and say, ‘You know what, he’s just like me.’
Nima: We’re all just laborers here.
Adam: The peasants don’t empathize enough with their feudal lords. It’s, you know, it’s an analogy we’ve made on the show before but again, asking for a benevolent billionaire, a benevolent CEO, is like asking for a benevolent feudal lord. The problem is the existence of the feudal lord.
Nima: So Max, I want to actually take us back to Episode One, “Service Jobs,” because in it, even in the narration, there’s this nod, not only to, as you’ve said, the kind of assumed inevitability and eternal nature of our system and the existing power structures. But even in its recognition of that, it has this weird kind of, ‘Eh, what are you going to do, and I don’t even really know what we’re talking about here. Anyway, let’s do some perseverance porn.’ And it’s this line, it’s in Obama’s narration, he says this, quote:
Let’s be blunt. There’s always someone at the top of the ladder and someone at the bottom, that’s especially true with capitalism, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But as a society, we do get to decide what life looks like for working people, we can make those jobs better, or we can make them worse. We can give people more dignity or less. Those are choices we make.
Adam: Who the fuck is “we?”
Max Alvarez: No, I’ve shouted that like, like in the exact tone of The Big Lebowski. I’m like, ‘Who the fuck are we? Who are you talking about here?’
Nima: So there’s that. And then, obviously, it goes into the stories of whether it’s Elba, who’s a housekeeping employee at the Pierre Hotel in New York City, or Randy, who’s a home care aide in Mississippi, or Carmen, a food delivery driver in Pittsburgh. And yet, with the exception of maybe like a faceless Uber Eats app overlord that we hear kind of shitty things about, the other employers that we see in this “Service Jobs” episode are actually quite lovely. Right? Or, like, we’re told that they’re lovely. The, you know, home care service trainer seems very nice. It’s just that Randy, you know, needs to be with her kid more. So she can’t do that job. But like, she’s treated with respect. It seems like she gets paid okay, like, and then at the Pierre Hotel, we keep hearing how wonderful this place is to work at and how it’s like, you know, American Dream made real for Elba and her family.
And so I’m just trying to reconcile the offhand mention of the even the word “capitalism” — and it’s certainly the only time we hear that word in the first episode–with then going into like the lives of you know, service employees, you know, real working people, and even there, Obama can’t show anything close to what you remind us, Max, Studs Terkel defines as the nature of work. So, if you can, please tell us your thoughts on even watching that first episode, and how it just tries to nod at the handwringing, kind of liberal ‘we care’ thing, but really just reinforces this perseverance porn, while thoroughly avoiding the actual legacy, which it explicitly talks about its connection to, the actual legacy of what Studs Terkel wrote about in his own book Working.
Max Alvarez: I read from the introduction of Studs’s book, in the very first episode of my podcast Working People, which was the episode I recorded and edited. And I was very bad at editing. But I recorded that with my dad. And, you know, Studs, says in the very first sentence of the introduction of that book, and I quote, this book being about work is by its very nature, about violence, to the spirit, as well as to the body and quote, and so like, just right there, like you just understand from the first sentence and studs, his book in the first monologue in Obama’s series, that these are just totally fundamentally different things. And in fact, they are in many ways, diametrically opposed things.
Again, the parts that I think are good about Obama’s series are the parts when the workers’ voices can sing past, whatever his narrative weaving project is, and you can just see into their lives a little bit and hear directly from them. And you as a conscious person with agency, you can interpret what you are hearing, and you don’t have to just interpret what Obama’s telling you that you’re hearing. And I think that in those moments, you really do see what Studs saw, when he conducted all these interviews for this incredible canonical oral history of the lives of postwar Americans and their lives at work that was published in 1970 form, you hear what Studs describes in this introduction about what work does to us, like what the whole system of making human beings have to work to live, and have to work the vast majority of their lives away, when they’re not sleeping at work, because that’s the way it is in this society, like, and that’s all you’re gonna get, you know, and that’s all anyone most people can really hope for. But if you’re looking by the numbers, that does a lot of things to us, that really damages us, that really inflicts a lot of harm on people. And that harm trickles out to other areas of our lives. If we feel weak and powerless at work, we’re going to be that much more likely to feel weak and powerless in relationship to our government, in relationship to the companies whose products we consume, right, we just get perpetually used to being treated like crap and kicked around and Studs talks about, you know, what getting kicked around at work, how it comes home with you, and how you can hear that in the stories of all these workers that he interviewed for his book.
And I really want to stress, you know, again, that Studs’s project is so different from Obama’s and it’s a real, in fact, crime that Obama tries to claim that legacy for himself, and tries to sully that legacy, in my opinion. And you can see it even in the construction of the series, because you guys were talking about the fact that half of the episodes in this are devoted to the rich and the exceedingly rich, right? And Obama tries to, again, pull the wool over viewers’ eyes, who haven’t read studs, terkel’s book, and Obama is like, oh, you know, you talk to people from all walks of life, right and, and we’re going to do just that. And we’re gonna see how we’re all connected, no. Studs talked to a lot of working-class people.
There are, in the book Working, there are nine different books like these big meta-chapters, and then there are a lot of mini-chapters with individual interviews in the book. And there is one mini-chapter called In Charge, which has six interviews with bosses. And this is out of, I don’t know 50 or more interviews that are in that book. So like in the proportionality was much truer to real life and study his book and it also is true, that he was not trying to prove that we are in fact all connected to the extent that a CEO is trapped by their work and feels trapped like by their work that may be the one area where studs would like entertain, you know, talking about how it connects us all. But he is not talking about how we are all sort of connected in this grand, dancing, beautiful universe in which this the all of this economic inequality, all of this you know, failure to answer threats of automation, failure to bolster workers’ rights and help them have a living wage so that they can live a fulfilling life that isn’t just dependent on working low-wage, crappy jobs, just to scrape by, like if we could do that. Again, it does such a disservice to Studs, it does such a disservice to the very working people that Obama pretends to sympathize with.
Adam: Yeah, ’cause you’ve given, you know, I think as a good critic, you’ve given some compliment to this sort of giving voice to the workers. But to me, it’s almost like even more cynical to frontload your schlocky, neoliberal bullshit with workers’ voices because it sort of gives it the air of credibility, gives the air of kind of class awareness. And this is very much in that kind of, it’s not just Obama, it’s sort of modern democratic politics, right? It’s the kind of kneeling during George Floyd before you pass the More Police Act number 75. Where it’s like liberalism, you can witness suffering, but you can’t do anything about it, you box check, you sort of have the rhetoric down, you have the right kind of represent again, he checks off all the boxes about the racism of the New Deal, how unions are important. He checks the kind of lefty boxes that you’re kind of, you know, Boomer uncle would go, ‘Yeah, that’s right.’ But then you get to the prestige, right, you get to the sort of sleight of hand, and then all that gets kind of washed away into this vague sense that the real political act is to just ask for nicer CEOs. And I want to sort of talk about one of the glaring hypocrisies of this documentary, which is that Obama’s legacy, right, sort of when he had no real political calculations left, when he was a lame duck president, he can’t legally run again, up to the 2016 election and after he has spent pretty much all of his remaining political capital lobbying for the Trans Pacific Partnership, quote, unquote, “trade deal” or otherwise known as the TPP. Now, this was a trade deal that was opposed by virtually every labor organization on Earth, if not literally every labor organization in the world, right as opposed by the AFL-CIO was opposed by the SEIU, was opposed by Teamsters, opposed by major environmental groups, the Sierra Club, normie, left-wing ones, liberal ones, was opposed by climate change activists of all stripes, food safety experts, even every Democrat running in 2016, including Hillary Clinton, even though no one really believes she opposed it. She nominally opposed it. Over 1500 progressive organizations signed a letter opposing the TPP. They said it would undermine American and foreign labor rights, it would expedite climate change, it would harm food safety, basically stripped local governments of any environmental regulations and even in many ways, indemnified and protected the rights of tobacco companies.
Pretty much everybody hated this, this bill, but Obama spent his last six months really, really pushing it to sort of quote unquote, “Pivot to Asia,” to sort of oppose China. Now, the TPP was also backed by a signed letter by 100 billionaires and was supported almost exclusively by billionaires of both parties. In fact, some people blamed Clinton’s poor performance in 2016 on the focus on these trade deals that had since fallen out of favor, right, Trump vocally opposed the TPP, as, of course, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren. I want to talk about the TPP in the context of this documentary, because in many ways, it’s kind of the last political thing he did before this. You know, he’s been windsurfing with Richard Branson and doing some speeches on Wall Street. And you know, he does he campaigns for Biden, that’s all fine. Right. But this is kind of his first kind of overtly political foray. Aside from that, he did a nature documentary. Can we talk about the legacy of the TPP? And where you feel like maybe that fits into this kind of politics we’ve been talking about?
Max Alvarez: The most glaringly ridiculous part of this series is that Obama is like, you know, the Eneas figure walking us through, like walking Dante through the inferno, purgatorio, and paradiso, right? And it’s just like, you motherfucker, like you had a whole hell of a lot to do with what we’re watching here. And like you were, in fact, elected by a lot of these very same people to do something about it. And you are talking throughout this entire thing as if you didn’t, as if like, you know, again, like you’re just a sort of aw-shucks, folksy narrator of neoliberal reality, but he does that he’s sort of again like going back to that quote, you read in the in the first question from the piece that I’ve written about, just the way that Obama erases grassroots politics and he erases so much other types of politics, right? But he also erases to the point of, it’s like that, remember when the famous person who like airbrushed the Jesus painting to the point that it looked like a monkey? That’s what Obama does to American history in this series, right? He’s like, he tells such a buffed-up limited version of things that it becomes quite comical to try to like, I don’t know, like, just go with him for a second and like, oh, yeah, let me let me walk into this fantasy world of yours, Obama, where corporations like only became blood-sucking leeches in the past few decades, because Milton Friedman told them to. Yeah, fucking right. Like, you know, or that when Obama talks about the New Deal, and like the expansion of workers’ rights, the Wagner Act and the creation of the NLRB and all that stuff, he mentions nothing about the grassroots labor revolts that this country experienced in the 1930s that was really putting a lot of pressure on Washington, DC, including after FDR had his first attempt at the Wagner Act shot down by a conservative. So it was a lot of that public pressure was a lot of that worker militancy that played a huge role in creating the sort of political dynamics that helped organized labor move forward in the 20th century, yada, yada, yada.
But anyway, the point is, is that in the sort of like airbrushed, ridiculously idealistic and rosy sort of depictions of how history happened, like you said, that, um, he does still like try to kind of build a collage that hits all the right talking points, right. He and you know, he does mention, you have the racist roots of farm workers and domestic workers being written out of the National Labor Relations Act. He has a very weird way of connecting those racist roots to why wages are so low for service workers today. He basically tries to say that because domestic workers and farm workers were predominantly Black and people of color, they were written out of the NLRA.
Nima: He also only blamed southern lawmakers incidentally.
Max Alvarez: Only southern lawmakers. Yep. And so because racialized people, racialized subjects, were largely the ones doing these low-wage jobs, that created a sort of like self-fulfilling prophecy effect where any low-wage job would just hire and underpaid Black and brown people like I mean, again, like you see, when you watch it, you’ll see what I’m talking about. He does these weird kind of logic, acrobatics that are he’s not even doing the acrobatics. Again, he’s just like leaving you little blotchy signs and signals. He’s gesturing towards the racism stuff. And I promise I’m getting to TPP, don’t worry, but he’s just he’s like, he gives you these little crumbs to sort of show that he gets it. But he doesn’t ever really connect them in any coherent way. Which again, the longer you look at them, you realize that not having answers for how these things are connected, or why they’re connected or where if they should be connected. In the absence of that connective tissue, the whole thing just falls apart and sort of, you know, fades into a weird, hackneyed mess as far as Obama’s project is concerned.
But the reason I went into that detail about how he tells the history of the New Deal is because he’s kind of like, in effect sort of laying the groundwork for, I think, how he wants us to think about his or any president’s role during the time that he was president, right? Because I think like, one of the most glaringly obvious points of ridiculousness in this series, is that Obama really began and ended his two presidential terms with a giant middle finger to the working class. I mean, labor has not forgotten this. When I talked to a lot of union workers especially like they will bring up the Employee Free Choice Act and the fact that Obama like campaigned hard for Labour’s endorsements. And as soon as he got elected president, he dropped his support of the Employee Free Choice Act like a bad habit, and that would have instituted card check for unionization, meaning if you got a majority of workers at a given shop to sign unionization cards, that’s it, you got a union, you don’t have to trigger an NLRB election, you have to go through this whole drawn-out process, you got it, it would also have implemented arbitration with a time limit on it so that the management and worker side would be forced to come to an agreement within you know, like a given period of time so that, you know, bosses can’t continue to stall and drag out contract negotiations, like bosses are doing right now at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, like they were doing and are still doing at Warrior Met Coal. They’ve been doing that for over like two years. Now. This is what Starbucks is doing. All these stores that we’ve seen unionized, all of them are still trying to get their first contract, the labor unrest that we’re seeing now the surge of energy, the worker organizing that we’re seeing, but also the backlash that we’re seeing the union busting, that we’re seeing all the ridiculous hurdles, and time sucks and resource drains and all the crap that we’re seeing our fellow workers go through just to try to get to that union and get to that first contract. Obama could have helped them, he could have helped and lobbied harder and used the bully pulpit and really made the Employee Free Choice Act an issue but instead he dropped like a bad habit once he got into the presidency. And then, you know, he bookended his presidency with, as you said, pushing for the TPP. And it’s very, I would say like, you know, the AFL CIO under Rich Trumka, you know, had a lot of issues. I mean, Richard was good on like, some things and you know, man was a legend in his own right. But the fact that he was so virulently against the TPP, and like, yeah, like you said, basically all of labor was against it. That was pretty significant. And there were a lot of reasons why I guess, you know, like, we don’t have to go into all of that. I mean, like, but, you know, it did play into the limited consciousness that all of us had about what these trade deals are. And that fed into the rise of Donald Trump.
And even, you know, like, Bernie Sanders ripping on NAFTA and things like that, like people know why these trade deals can suck, because they have seen and experienced themselves, the effects of them, they have seen and experienced themselves what globalization without actual working people setting the agenda or union setting the agenda or labor, really having a stronger voice in shaping how we conduct trade with our trading partners around the world. In the absence of that, what we get is people living in communities that have had the entire economic beating hearts of them ripped out, people who have like, so there, you have job losses, because of, you know, like the provisions within trade deals that make it easier for companies to offshore blah, blah, blah, blah. But I’ve talked to people, so many times who live in these kinds of places, and they associate those kinds of pains in that real experience with the whole system of like these massive trade deals, but also like these trade deals, can have a lot of disastrous effects for workers. Even if it doesn’t mean like that a manufacturing plant in your town closes down and offshore somewhere else where they can pay workers a fifth of what they’re paying you, they don’t have to deal with a bunch of troublesome things like workers rights, or environmental regulations, or so on and so forth, even minimum wages, right. And this is one of the ways that Obama was really trying to pitch TPP for workers here in the United States, but also for everyone, this is the public face of it, he’s like, Well, you know, if, if we formulate these trade partnerships, then we can set labor standards that need to be shared across all of the countries that are party to this partnership, so that they can’t undercut the other partners with a workforce that doesn’t have a national minimum wage, or that doesn’t really have any sort of, like real workers’ rights and enforceable workers’ rights or worker representation in the form of independent union, so on and so forth.
So Obama was trying to sort of pitch the TPP as sort of like, again, like he’s pitching in this documentary is like, you know, like, he was saying, with the CEOs, it’s not a thing he’s saying, with shock and horror, it’s just hey, this is it. This is where we live, this is the modern reality, get over it, like, you know, but here’s how it could be a good thing. And so like, in the same way that he’s doing that in the working series, trying to sort of normalize and in fact, make us want and to be grateful for this sort of like, oligarchic system of vast inequality that he himself contributed to, but he is not, you know, the lone source of in the same way, you know, he was trying to sort of pitch the Trans Pacific Partnership is like, this is all going to happen, like this is the way of the world, there is no alternative way to think about trade. There’s just this way. So like, we might as well just like, look at the bright side, look at the bright side, we can lift up, you know, some we can get some worker protections for, again, I keep going to Bill Clinton, well, we can get working protections for people in Vietnam. And that’s going to help you, you know, here in the heartland, because you know, they’re not going to be able to undercut your job so easily or something like that. But like, I guess the other thing I would just say about the TPP, you know, is that pushing the like people have associated, the Democrats definitely, but also like, you know, a big chunk of the Republicans who have always kind of supported these things. And that’s what again, made Trump so attractive as we know, you guys talked about it. I know on your show, even if these trade deals don’t mean that like the manufacturing plant or call center, or anything that can be offshored. Right? Where people work, that it’s going to immediately go away. But that threat that it could, right, that extra bullet that has been put in the gun of the boss is always going to put labor on the backfoot and has put labor on the backfoot for many, many years. Because that, you know, like, everyone was like, ‘Hey, do you want to be, you want to look like Flint, right? You want to be the next Flint?’ Like, we’ll do that to you. If you guys don’t take lower wages, if you don’t like you know, except this two-tiered hiring system that we want to implement. If you don’t accept cuts to your benefits, we’re just going to pack up and leave and sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. But that’s another way that it has had a massive sort of impact on the collective labor power of working people. And also when and if those operations do get shut down, and all of those jobs are lost, then you end up with a lot of people, devastated people, who have now become sort of refugees in the labor market, and they’re going to be trying to get the jobs that are available there. Thus, you know, like giving bosses more leverage to lower wages and make workers compete for lower wages, right. So like, these are I guess, I don’t know if that answered the question, but these are a lot of the ways that people I interview and talk to on a daily basis like this, the kind of thing that they tell me when I talk about trade partnerships, like the TPP.
Nima: I think that’s a great place to leave it. Your attention to detail in the Netflix series Working is obviously much higher than most as you have spent weeks of your life with this show at this point. But thank you, Max, for joining us on this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course, we’ve been speaking with Max Alvarez, editor-in-chief of The Real News Network, former editor at The Chronicle Review, former contributor to The Baffler, and host of the Working People podcast. His book The Work of Living was published by OR Books in 2022. Max, as always, such a pleasure to have you on Citations Needed. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Max Alvarez: Thanks so much for having me, guys. Love you and appreciate you.
Nima: And that will do it for this Citations Needed News Brief. Of course, you can follow the show Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, and become a supporter of Citations Needed through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast. All your support through Patreon is so incredibly appreciated as we are 100% listener funded, but that will do it. We will be back very soon with more full-length episodes of Citations Needed. So stay tuned for that. But until then, thanks again for listening. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Our senior producer is Florence Barrau-Adams. Producer is Julianne Tveten. Production Assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. The music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone. We’ll catch you next time.
This Citations Needed News Brief was released on Wednesday, June 21, 2023.