Capitalism and Its Discontents
Naomi Klein and Clayton Thomas-Muller keynoted the day and later sat on a panel about the question on everyone’s mind: “can the global convergence of disparate movements gain the traction necessary to overcome the concentration of wealth and power driving the destruction of civilization and nature.”
Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, was just published, and, as her interviews show, she is a passionate, articulate spokesperson, one with an amazing command of the facts. She explains the climate-change disaster, the nice-words-but-terrible-action policies of our government and others, and a how a climate-justice campaign has the potential to unite the concerns of disparate environmental, peace, and social-justice movements. One of our modern-day prophets, she denounces in stirring terms the fatal flaw in any kind of environmentalism that thinks it can compromise with unfettered capitalism, that backs off identifying the problem as corporations’ pursuit of endless growth and their being supported, rather than regulated, by the governments they buy.
Thomas-Muller, a Canadian like Klein, is a First Peoples climate-justice activist. He touched on similar themes, with an emphasis on an indigenous, earth-centered, and pre- and post-patriarchy perspective. I also liked his “big-tent” philosophy, that all the widely varied ways of working for change, big and small, that people are drawn to, are in some way part of the solution.
Since both speakers see clearly the scope of the problem, I was primed for a conversation about the way out. I wasn’t alone; audience member after audience member asked a version of, “But what do we do?,” each amplifying Klein’s theme that we have democracy in name only.
The answer wasn’t there, though many good subsidiary ideas were, like learning to analyze the assets of a particular campaign and the weak points of its opposition, and focusing on those, especially the poor, whose material needs make them committed to putting their bodies on the line.
Circling the Solution
I didn’t get a chance to speak, but here is what I was dying to say:
“I love hearing you speak, and I am truly grateful for your work. But there’s an elephant in this room, and in every room where activists and progressives meet in this country, and it is so big here that I can barely breathe.
“You name how corporate wealth runs an economy and government that drive us to ruin in so many ways. You note that masses of our fellow citizens are deluded, and I’m sure you know the cause: the same interests largely control public education and the mass media.
“There is a conclusion that leaps out of all this. Campaigns to influence our corrupt governments must and will continue. But those who understand what we understand must work within those movements to turn the conversation towards how to make revolution. A nonviolent revolution, for compelling strategic reasons and, in my view, for spiritual ones, but nonetheless a complete dislodging of government that oppresses and deludes and manipulates, in favor of real democracy that serves the needs and expresses the values of the vast majority.”
How do we build for that? By creating an organization of people who want it, who see how the dots are connected. An organization that supports us, and in which we support each other, in the day-to-day work of teaching our fellow citizens that we, like the Americans of 1776, have suffered “a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object,” and that we are, therefore, among those for whom “it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security.”
That organization can develop the literature and independent media with which we can inform those who are ready to listen. Someday a crisis here will finally drive millions into action. When it does, they must know our massive movement and its allies as the ones who can help coordinate that and provide information, answers, and direction. Otherwise they will turn to a right wing that has known for decades that it must be organized to influence public opinion.
How we do this all is a bigger topic. (Some thoughts are in this post on the way forward in general; others in this one, written two years ago, on how, for example, we would carry on such work in a local campaign reacting to police violence against people of color.) But for God’s sake let’s start thinking about it and talking about it!
The Truth: (a) Inconvenient (b) Will Set Us Free (c) Both
I don’t know why so few of us are thinking about revolution. Is it too scary? Too Third World or Eastern European? Are we taken in more than we know by the myth of American democracy? Do we think the state will come down on
Or are we so afraid of the errors of the Old Left (1930’s through early ’50’s) or the New Left (’60’s–’70’s), and revolutions elsewhere that have failed to live up to their ideals, that we forget their strengths and throw the
Please, friends, open your eyes. It actually feels good to embrace at least the possibility of a way out.
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I am a heretic on this one. As appalling as firearms violence is, I say gun control is a pseudo-issue. Its effect, as with other “wedge issues,” is to rile those of us on each side in self-righteous anger over the supposed idiocy of the ideologues in the opposition camp, attract our loyalty to politicians who favor our view, and distract us from the overall unity of politicians on both sides of this and other “social issues” in
To make real progress on gun violence and a host of other issues, we need to give up our self-righteousness and anger, stop being pawns in the culture wars, and turn our attention — with those who should be our allies — towards undermining the two-party system, which is the only way that the root causes of our murder rates and so much else can be seriously addressed.
Inconvenient Truth #1: Far Worse Causes of Preventable Deaths
It is galling to see the seemingly unnecessary deaths from mass and individual murders using guns, but the annual rates of other preventable deaths add perspective.
|Prescribed Medications, Unnecessary Surgeries, Other Effects of Medical Treatment||225,000||Journal of the AMA|
|Suicide||38,364||Centers for Disease Control|
|Disease Caused by Coal-Fired Power Plants||13,000||(2): Regional Econ. Models, Inc.; Clean Air Task Force|
|Homicide by Firearms (incl. police shootings)||11,078||Centers for Disease Control|
|Homicide by Other Means||5,181||Centers for Disease Control|
Inconvenient Truth #2: No Easy Solution
Perhaps the other issues in the table require complicated reforms, while an effective gun-control policy would be straightforward. True, some things seem like no-brainers: outlawing high-capacity assault weapons and magazines, wider use of criminal and mental-health background checks. But only 300-some of those 11,000 gun deaths are caused by rifles of any kind. Nor is it clear that many perpetrators
What would really diminish gun deaths, of course, is a disarmed population, with sportsmen’s weapons kept in armories except when they are going to the range or hunting. When we compare our killing rates with those of countries that don’t have ready availability of firearms, isn’t that what we have in mind? But, as the narrator of Return of the Light describes the game of misdirection played by politicians back in our time,
“The clashes were over small, symbolic issues at the margins of public policy — sophisticated professionals on both sides knew that effective confiscation of over two hundred million firearms in private hands was impossible without a political consensus on the issue, but politicians and private advocacy groups kept large constituencies stirred up over trying to create or resist change in that direction.”
Yes, eliminating widespread gun ownership could save thousands of lives a year. All that is missing is the magic wand that would enable us to do that.
Why do right-to-bear-arms advocates resist even small steps like the banning of assault rifles? The professional agitators do so for obvious reasons. Much of their base responds because they see us — largely accurately — as disrespecting them, having no regard for the Constitution as they understand it, and trying to get a foot in the door for the complete end of private ownership.
Inconvenient Truth #3: We Flexibly Interpret the Constitution, Too
The Times Op-Ed cited above summarizes a new book’s powerful argument that only a dishonest Supreme Court flip-flop in 2008 interpreted the Second Amendment to protect a private right to bear arms. (See also Thom Hartmann’s case for it being about protecting slave patrols from Congressional interference.) But are we strict constructionists? The First Amendment reads, “Congress shall make no law” abridging freedoms of expression, assembly, and petition. Are we outraged about the 20th-Century decisions holding that the states may not do so, either? How about the one adding freedom of association? The holding banning states from criminalizing homosexual conduct? The one interpreting congressional power to “regulate . . . commerce among the several states” as including authority to pass the Civil Rights Act?
Inconvenient Truth #4: The Majority of the Gun-Rights Base is not Stupid or Crazy
There are many thoughtful comments from gun-rights advocates in the Times piece and elsewhere. A rural dweller speaks of the rabid animals he has had to kill, and how long he would have to wait for the sheriff to arrive if an intruder tried to take advantage of his isolation. An arms-safety instructor describes his embarrassment at the over-indulgent beer-drinkers on the practice range who do fit our stereotypes of “gun nuts.” Another writer points out that Elliott Rodgers’ first three killings were stabbings; let’s face it, some portion of those 11,000 homicides would occur by other means if guns were magically unavailable.
Some gun-rights advocates think it’s dangerous to leave government with a monopoly on the means of force. Most of us have grave concerns about the risk of that same government misusing the data it collects on our habits and communications. Can we really call the others “paranoid.”
Some of the logic on the other side is deeply flawed, but in our passion, we can be gullible, too. We know about “the 74 school shooting incidents since Sandy Hook,” a figure which originated with a gun-control advocacy group. Do we also know that only 10 on the list, according to one careful analysis, or 15, per CNN, involved a shooter coming onto a campus to kill students or staff? The rest were tied to crimes such as robbery or drug dealing, sometimes outside school hours and in parking lots, were unconnected to members of the school community, or were accidents or suicides. Do we know that the rate of deaths in schools has been fairly flat for 20 years, with the highest total in 2006-2007, the lowest in 2010-2011?
What Does All This Mean?
I’m not saying that we don’t have a problem. I’m saying that decrying those who don’t agree with our solution doesn’t lead to change. It contributes to polarization, putting gun owners on the defensive in a way that makes it harder for moderates
Michael Goldstein will be in Chicago reading from, and signing copies of, Return of the Light: A Political Fable in Which the American People Retake Their Country, at Women and Children First bookstore Sunday, August 10, at 4:30 p.m., and at Powells’ University Village Store Monday, August 11, at 7:00 p.m.
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The woman continued, in a soft southern accent. “I
“‘How,’ I asked, ‘did talking to you help?’ He told me that if they could talk about it to someone who just listened, they could get their feelings outside of themselves and feel a little better. He said they were really just boys — 20, 21, even 19.”
The woman told us this in explaining to our group that she, too, valued a place — ours — where she could go and share what was going on with her, and just be heard. That was the point of the story for her.
I took that in, but another point had a bigger impact on me, a person who has never been near combat. These were guys in a war which virtually everyone here considered just. They were several thousand feet over their targets, not tossing grenades into peasant huts in Vietnam or “lighting up” suspected Iraqi or Afghan militants from a helicopter, for God’s sake. But even they had seen and done things so awful that the Marine Corps of seven decades ago understood that they needed a chance to “debrief.” And, as so many of their children have told us, they were closed-mouthed when they got home.
When will we ever know the full costs of this thing we call war?
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I am reading fast—my job is only to take this material in enough to write an endorsement for the cover. I feel my denial—no, technically the psychological defense is “compartmentalization”—as I try to simply take in the factual overview as evidence for my own thesis that we need a revolution in this country, peaceful but real, if we are to survive.
Part II of II
In Part I I asserted “two truths”: that the People’s Climate March was an amazing and valuable achievement, and that it was a powerful exercise in a nearly powerless strategy.
Part I recapped the history — already decades old when described in books of the early 1960’s — of the fossil fuel industry’s lock on energy policy, and its continuity through Vice President Al Gore’s silence while the Clinton Administration undermined the Kyoto Protocol, and Barack Obama’s carrying his usual balance of decent rhetoric and terrible action into the the energy-policy realm. The conclusion:
We are dealing with a systemic problem, one that displays historical continuity and is but one manifestation of a government bought and paid for with corporate money. Major concessions to the majority have come only when elite control was threatened with serious social unrest and loss of legitimacy. As labor, peace, and anti-poverty activists know well, the gains erode terribly when the pressure lessens. Even the victories of the Civil Right/Black Power movements have been partially offset by The New Jim Crow and other developments.I also quoted a recent Princeton study of nearly 2000 policy decisions made over two decades, which showed that, consistently, the 0.01 percent get what they want; we don’t — even before Citizens United, by the way.
The Futility of Just Letting the System Know What We Want
In the face of these realities, 350.org’s emailed “Official reportback from the UN meeting and People’s Climate March” called for continuing to “use people-power to ratchet up the pressure” on UN climate talks, “to increase the accountability and ambition of world leaders,” noting what they must do “[i]f they are serious at all about doing their democratic and moral duty,” and adding that “we’ll have to convince politicians that their careers are on the line if they don’t act.”
This sounds good, but only because we are accustomed to a democratic myth instead of historical reality. People cannot have careers at policy-influencing levels unless they go along to get along. “Their careers are on the line” if they don’t act according to their backers’ perceived needs. Replacements who can get the support needed to rise through the corporate-funded two-party system are no better. Americans thought we were getting a peace President to replace a war President, one who understood the climate-change crisis instead of one who was born into the Texas oil industry. And yet here we are.
Moreover, a public educated by the mass media is subject to being riled up by issues like gun control, abortion rights, immigration, “terrorism,” and crime. The system has a stockpile of would-be careerists ready to ride these waves, with the financial backing they need to do so. These people will distract too many voters from whatever they are beginning to suspect about the causes and dangers of climate change for yet another attempt at voting the right people into office to succeed.
More Militancy? Money Out of Politics?
Recognizing these facts, some, like Chris Hedges, criticized the Climate March for eschewing more militant, disruptive actions. But such actions — necessarily involving far fewer people — are easily ignored. Worse, in most situations those who execute occasional disruptions fail to spread the message, for they are easily portrayed as crazies unworthy of being listened to.
Others, including people whom I know and respect deeply, like Michael Lerner and the folks behind California’s nascent no-corporate-money campaign, crusade for getting money out of politics via a constitutional amendment or educating voters about unfunded candidates. Think about it. Were these to be successful, they would have revolutionary implications. Literally, our government as we know it would tumble, replaced by government by and for the majority. Given the underhanded and bloody tactics which that government has pursued for decades, consistently, wherever in the world the interests it protects are threatened, such reforms will not succeed without a movement of revolutionary proportions behind them.
So what is to be done?
Time to Think Nonviolent Revolution
The answer is simple but nearly unspeakable: we need to move beyond mobilizing in piecemeal campaigns and set our sights on taking over a government which currently disserves us in every way possible.
There is nothing unique about energy policy. The telecommunications industry gets most of what it wants in telecom policy; the banking industry is regulated no more than it wants to be and its criminals escape prosecution; the military-industrial complex runs “defense” policy and the prison-industrial complex, “justice” policy; Big Pharma and the health insurance industry set the agenda for health-care reform and where public-health and research dollars go; large employers have gutted the protections won by labor; and on and on.
Fortunately, the other side of the coin is true as well. How many of those 400,000 people who showed up in New York are against climate change but for militarized police forces? Who among them want more of the policies that created Al Qaeda and ISIS and that lead to our wantonly killing civilians who have done nothing but live in the wrong parts of the world? Which of them want media further consolidated, politicians’ statements uninvestigated, whistleblowers prosecuted, and an end to net neutrality?
What they need, what we all need, is a nationwide organization for those who already see the connections among the dots. It should be one that empowers us, through training, literature, our and own media, to do the hard, slow, but ultimately far more fruitful work of one-on-one education with our neighbors, co-workers, fellow-congregants, and — yes — the people we encounter in local and national mobilizations around individual issues.
And we need a body that supports the tens of thousands of us with the capacity to be leaders, supports us in bringing that organization’s leadership and expertise to those struggles, where more and more people can learn where the problems lie and what the solution has to be, while experiencing the power of united action. (For more on how we can create that, look here, or here, or here.)
It will take a militant movement of tens of millions to wipe out the influence of energy giants in Washington, our state houses, and other parts of the world. It can happen, but not by focusing on that issue alone, nor by pursuing the safe but futile path of seeking to influence what must be jettisoned and replaced. As the instigators of our last revolution declared, “all
photo: Robert van Waarden, under Creative Commons Zero License
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The People’s Climate March was an amazing and valuable achievement.
The People’s Climate March was a powerful exercise in a nearly powerless strategy.
Who, among those with an inkling of the climate disaster already upon millions of beings on the planet, could not be heartened by the numbers, commitment, creativity, energy, joy, and diversity involved in Sunday’s protests? The movement showed itself to be . . . a movement.
And yet which of these quotations rings more true? 350.org’s emailed “Official reportback from the UN meeting and People’s Climate March” outlines a strategy of continuing to let those who have run ours and the world’s affairs for decades know how we feel, as if that matters:
The next important UN gatherings will be in Lima in December 2014 and in Paris in December 2015. Our hope is to use people-power to ratchet up the pressure on these talks, to channel the voices of millions around the world to increase the accountability and ambition of world leaders in these negotiations.And here is Chris Hedge’s assessment, in a Truthdig piece preceding the march:
If they are serious at all about doing their democratic and moral duty, they will need to be ambitious indeed — committing to transitioning from fossil fuels to clean energy which benefits everyone, and quickly.
Our democracy is an elaborate public relations charade. And the longer we accept this charade the longer we will be irrelevant.One statement accepts the myth that our wishes have real weight against the power of the fossil fuel industry, and one faces the truth. Here are a few signposts, from different historical periods.
Coal, Oil, and Politics: Old News Five Decades Ago
The fossil-fuel industry’s dominance over politics is not new. In 1961 Columbia Professor Robert Engler’s The Politics of Oil came out. As The Washington Post wrote of that and his followup work in a 2007 obituary, “Combing through government and company records, his work illuminated the special tax, pricing and political requests of oil companies and their effect on national and foreign policy. . . . Dr. Engler assailed what he called the lack of public accountability among the petroleum giants, which he likened to a ‘private government.'” “Government policy on oil,” Engler wrote, “has become indistinguishable from the private policies of oil.” (Politics of Oil, p. 419.) A contemporary reviewer complained that many of Engler’s facts were nothing new.
Together, these books made clear that, at the state and federal levels, fossil fuel companies had for decades used government for their own purposes.
Al Gore’s Silence as the U.S. Sought to Torpedo Kyoto
Fast forward to 1996-1997. Bill Clinton was in the White House. Al Gore had been known as an environmentalist before becoming V.P. Talks were being held to establish the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, because in 1985 “scientists at [the] Villach conference in Austria reach[ed] consensus that global warming is happening” and action on emissions was needed. (Andy Kroll, “The Long and Warming Road,” Mother Jones, Nov./Dec., 2009.) Those of us who were following media such as Mother Jones and Democracy Now! knew that the U.S. role was obstructionist, trying to water down every proposal and using tactics that seemed aimed at derailing the talks altogether.
Rather than rally domestic support for the treaty eventually created, Clinton never submitted it to the Senate, saying it would not be ratified. (An allusion to this history is in a 2012 CommonDreams article on the Doha climate talks, “Kyoto all Over Again? US Obstructive Force at Climate Talks.”) In a stark demonstration of the limits of what holders of high office in corporate-owned government can do, Al Gore was silent during the entire episode. When he ran for President in 2000, his party’s platform finally mentioned climate change, but it has never called for the U.S. to join the treaty group.
“Democracy” in Action: “Change We Can Believe In”
Fast-forward again. As I and others wrote in 2012, after four years in office, our “Change-We-Can-Believe-In” President had broken nearly every promise that had mobilized his supporters. This was predictable. While he had been elected in 2008 after receiving the record amounts of small donations he publicized, the campaign also broke the records for corporate contributions. It publicly rejected donations from lobbyists while quietly taking them from their spouses and attorneys.
Amy Goodman recently played a clip of Obama speaking in 2012 “in Cushing, Oklahoma, to announce his support for TransCanada to build the southern leg of its Keystone oil pipeline.”
Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So, we are drilling all over the place, right now. . . . [W]e’re actually producing so much oil and gas . . . that we don’t have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it to where it needs to go.Thus, as Naomi Klein cogently explained on the same broadcast, “Governments started negotiating towards emission reduction in 1990. . . . And since that time, emissions have gone up by 61 percent globally. So, it’s not just that we’re not solving the problem, it’s that we’re making it a lot worse.” Her interviewer played a clip of a high-profile climate denier, lauding the President at a 2011 U.N. conference: “[A]s skeptics, we tip our hat to President Obama in helping crush and continue to defeat the United Nations process. Obama has been a great friend of global warming skeptics at these conferences.” And today the Administration is promoting fracking, the polluting, geological, and carbon-emissions-producing effects we hear more about every day, as a clean-energy solution.
Playing on a Field Where We Lose
In virtually every policy area, Obama has abandoned the 99%. This is because corporate control of government is by no means limited to energy policy. As a recent, peer-reviewed Princeton study of 1,779 policy decisions made between 1981 and 2002 concludes, “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” Translation: the 0.01 percent get what they want; we don’t.
The corporate media are in the same game. Network television nearly ignored Sunday’s and Monday’s events. Outside New York, newspapers were not much better: The Boston Globe covered the march on page two, and The Washington Post gave it a buried paragraph in another climate-related story.
We are dealing with a systemic problem, one that displays historical continuity and is but one manifestation of a government bought and paid for with corporate money. Historically, major concessions to the majority have come only when elite control was threatened with serious social unrest and loss of legitimacy. As labor, peace, and anti-poverty activists know well, the gains erode terribly when the pressure lessens. Even the victories of the Civil Right/Black Power movements have been partially offset by The New Jim Crow and other developments.
In Part II we will look at what all this means for an effective strategy to reverse the emissions-promoting momentum of our economy and politics, and, in particular, whether the answer is to “keep the pressure on” to get these folks to do the right thing, despite their being beholden to those who want them to do what they’ve always done.
Photo: Shadia Fayne Wood, under Creative Commons license
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