Why do so many poor people eat junk food, fail to budget properly, show no ambition?

‘Poor people don’t plan long-term. We’ll just get our hearts broken’

Linda Tirado knew exactly why… because she was one of them. Here, in an extract from her book, Hand to Mouth, she tells her story in her own words

Linda Tirado photographed by Scott Suchman near her home in Washington DC for the Observer New Revie
Linda Tirado photographed by Scott Suchman near her home in Washington DC for the Observer New Review.

In the autumn of 2013 I was in my first term of school in a decade. I had two jobs; my husband, Tom, was working full-time; and we were raising our two small girls. It was the first time in years that we felt like maybe things were looking like they’d be OK for a while.

After a gruelling shift at work, I was unwinding online when I saw a question from someone on a forum I frequented: Why do poor people do things that seem so self-destructive? I thought I could at least explain what I’d seen and how I’d reacted to the pressures of being poor. I wrote my answer to the question, hit post, and didn’t think more about it for at least a few days. This is what it said:

Why I make terrible decisions, or, poverty thoughts

There’s no way to structure this coherently. They are random observations that might help explain the mental processes. But often, I think that we look at the academic problems of poverty and have no idea of the why. We know the what and the how, and we can see systemic problems, but it’s rare to have a poor person actually explain it on their own behalf. So this is me doing that, sort of.

Rest is a luxury for the rich. I get up at 6am, go to school (I have a full course load, but I only have to go to two in-person classes), then work, then I get the kids, then pick up my husband, then have half an hour to change and go to Job 2. I get home from that at around 12.30am, then I have the rest of my classes and work to tend to. I’m in bed by 3am. This isn’t every day, I have two days off a week from each of my obligations. I use that time to clean the house and soothe Mr Martini [her partner], see the kids for longer than an hour and catch up on schoolwork.

Those nights I’m in bed by midnight, but if I go to bed too early I won’t be able to stay up the other nights because I’ll fuck my pattern up, and I drive an hour home from Job 2 so I can’t afford to be sleepy. I never get a day off from work unless I am fairly sick. It doesn’t leave you much room to think about what you are doing, only to attend to the next thing and the next. Planning isn’t in the mix.

When I was pregnant the first time, I was living in a weekly motel for some time. I had a mini-fridge with no freezer and a microwave. I was on WIC [government-funded nutritional aid for women, infants and children]. I ate peanut butter from the jar and frozen burritos because they were 12 for $2. Had I had a stove, I couldn’t have made beef burritos that cheaply. And I needed the meat, I was pregnant. I might not have had any prenatal care, but I am intelligent enough to eat protein and iron while knocked up.

I know how to cook. I had to take Home Ec to graduate from high school. Most people on my level didn’t. Broccoli is intimidating. You have to have a working stove, and pots, and spices, and you’ll have to do the dishes no matter how tired you are or they’ll attract bugs. It is a huge new skill for a lot of people. That’s not great, but it’s true. If you fuck it up, you could make your family sick.

We have learned not to try too hard to be middle class. It never works out well and always makes you feel worse for having tried and failed yet again. Better not to try. It makes more sense to get food that you know will be palatable and cheap and that keeps well. Junk food is a pleasure that we are allowed to have; why would we give that up?

We have very few of them.

The closest Planned Parenthood [family planning clinic] to me is three hours. That’s a lot of money in gas. Lots of women can’t afford that, and even if you live near one you probably don’t want to be seen coming in and out in a lot of areas. We’re aware that we are not “having kids”, we’re “breeding”. We have kids for much the same reasons that I imagine rich people do. Urge to propagate and all. Nobody likes poor people procreating, but they judge abortion even harder.

Convenience food is just that. And we are not allowed many conveniences. Especially since the Patriot Act [aimed at strengthening domestic security in the war against terrorism] was passed, it’s hard to get a bank account. But without one, you spend a lot of time figuring out where to cash a cheque and get money orders to pay bills. Most motels now have a no-credit-card-no-room policy. I wandered around San Francisco for five hours in the rain once with nearly a thousand dollars on me and could not rent a room even if I gave them a $500 cash deposit and surrendered my cellphone to the desk to hold as surety.

Nobody gives enough thought to depression. You have to understand that we know that we will never not feel tired. We will never feel hopeful. We will never get a vacation.

Patients without medical insurance flock to a free dentistry event in Los Angeles.
Patients without medical insurance flock to a free dentistry event in Los Angeles. Photograph: Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

Ever. We know that the very act of being poor guarantees that we will never not be poor. It doesn’t give us much reason to improve ourselves. We don’t apply for jobs because we know we can’t afford to look nice enough to hold them. I would make a super legal secretary but I’ve been turned down more than once because I “don’t fit the image of the firm”, which is a nice way of saying “gtfo, pov”. I am good enough to cook the food, hidden away in the kitchen, but my boss won’t make me a server because I don’t “fit the corporate image”. I am not beautiful. I have missing teeth and skin that looks like it will when you live on B12 and coffee and nicotine and no sleep. Beauty is a thing you get when you can afford it, and that’s how you get the job that you need in order to be beautiful. There isn’t much point trying.

CONTINUED:   http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/sep/21/linda-tirado-poverty-hand-to-mouth-extract?CMP=fb_gu

Eugene O’Neill on Happiness, Hard Work, and Success in a Letter to His Unmotivated Young Son

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“Any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy.”

By the time he was fifty, playwright Eugene O’Neill had just about every imaginable cultural accolade under his belt, including three Pulitzers and a Nobel Prize. But the very tools that ensured his professional success — dogged dedication to his work, an ability to block out any distraction, razor-sharp focus on his creative priorities — rendered his personal life on the losing side of a tradeoff. Thrice married, he fathered three children with his first two wives. His youngest son, Shane, was a sweet yet troubled boy who worshipped his father but failed to live up to his own potential.

In the summer of 1939, as O’Neill completed his acclaimed play The Iceman Cometh, Shane was expelled from yet another school. Frustrated with the boy’s track record of such dismissals over the course of his academic career, O’Neill sent his 19-year-old son a magnificent letter epitomizing tough love, found in Posterity: Letters of Great Americans to Their Children (public library) — the wonderful anthology that gave us Albert Einstein’s advice to his son on the secret to learning anything, Sherwood Anderson on the key to the creative life, Benjamin Rush on travel and life, Lincoln Steffens on the power of not-knowing, and some of history’s greatest motherly advice. While heavy on the love, O’Neill’s letter is also unflinchingly honest in its hard truths about life, success, and the key to personal fulfillment.

O’Neill doesn’t take long to cut to the idea that an education is something one claims, not something one gets. With stern sensitivity, he issues an admonition that would exasperate the archetypal millennial (that archetype being, of course, merely another limiting stereotype) and writes:

All I know is that if you want to get anywhere with it, or with anything else, you have got to adopt an entirely different attitude from the one you have had toward getting an education. In plain words, you’ve got to make up your mind to study whatever you undertake, and concentrate your mind on it, and really work at it. This isn’t wisdom. Any damned fool in the world knows it’s true, whether it’s a question of raising horses or writing plays. You simply have to face the prospect of starting at the bottom and spending years learning how to do it.

O’Neill’s son seems to suffer from Fairy Godmother Syndrome — the same pathology afflicting many young people today, from aspiring musicians clamoring to be on nationally televised talent competitions that would miraculously “make” their career to online creators nursing hopes of being “discovered” with a generous nod from an established internet goddess or god. O’Neill captures this in a beautiful lament:

The trouble with you, I think, is you are still too dependent on others. You expect too much from outside you and demand too little of yourself. You hope everything will be made smooth and easy for you by someone else. Well, it’s coming to the point where you are old enough, and have been around enough, to see that this will get you exactly nowhere. You will be what you make yourself and you have got to do that job absolutely alone and on your own, whether you’re in school or holding down a job.

O’Neill points to finding one’s purpose, and the inevitable work ethic it requires, as the surest way to attain fulfillment in life:

The best I can do is to try to encourage you to work hard at something you really want to do and have the ability to do. Because any fool knows that to work hard at something you want to accomplish is the only way to be happy. But beyond that it is entirely up to you. You’ve got to do for yourself all the seeking and finding concerned with what you want to do. Anyone but yourself is useless to you there.

What I am trying to get firmly planted in your mind is this: In the really important decisions of life, others cannot help you. No matter how much they would like to. You must rely on yourself. That is the fate of each one of us. It can’t be changed. It just is like that. And you are old enough to understand this now.

And that’s all of that. It isn’t much help in a practical advice way, but in another way it might be. At least, I hope so.

Toward the end of the letter, O’Neill makes a sidewise remark that might well be his most piercing and universally valuable piece of wisdom:

I’m glad to know of your doing so much reading and that you’re becoming interested in Shakespeare. If you really like and understand his work, you will have something no one can ever take from you.

http://www.brainpickings.org/2014/09/15/eugene-oneill-hard-work-letter-to-son/

Professors on food stamps

The shocking true story of academia in 2014

Forget minimum wage, some adjunct professors say they’re making 50 cents an hour. Wait till you read these stories

Professors on food stamps: The shocking true story of academia in 2014
(Credit: domin_domin via iStock/Roobcio via Shutterstock/Salon)

You’ve probably heard the old stereotypes about professors in their ivory tower lecturing about Kafka while clad in a tweed jacket. But for many professors today, the reality is quite different: being so poorly paid and treated, that they’re more likely to be found bargain-hunting at day-old bread stores. This is academia in 2014.

“The most shocking thing is that many of us don’t even earn the federal minimum wage,” said Miranda Merklein, an adjunct professor from Santa Fe who started teaching in 2008. “Our students didn’t know that professors with PhDs aren’t even earning as much as an entry-level fast food worker. We’re not calling for the $15 minimum wage. We don’t even make minimum wage. And we have no benefits and no job security.”

Over three quarters of college professors are adjunct. Legally, adjunct positions are part-time, at-will employment. Universities pay adjunct professors by the course, anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000. So if a professor teaches three courses in both the fall and spring semesters at a rate of $3000 per course, they’ll make $18,000 dollars. The average full-time barista makes the same yearly wage. However, a full-time adjunct works more than 40 hours a week. They’re not paid for most of those hours.

“If it’s a three credit course, you’re paid for your time in the classroom only,” said Merklein. “So everything else you do is by donation. If you hold office hours, those you’re doing for free. Your grading you do for free. … Anything we do with the student where we sit down and explain what happened when the student was absent, that’s also free labor. Some would call it wage theft because these are things we have to do in order to keep our jobs. We have to do things we’re not getting paid for. It’s not optional.”

Merklein was far from the only professor with this problem.



“It can be a tremendous amount of work,” said Alex Kudera. Kudera started teaching in 1996 and is the author of a novel about adjunct professorship, “Fight For Your Long Day.” “When I was an adjunct, I didn’t have a social life. It’s basically just work all the time. You plan your weekend around the fact that you’re going to be doing work Saturday and Sunday — typically grading papers, which is emotionally exhausting. The grading can be tedious but at least it’s a private thing. It’s basically 5-10 hours a day for every day of the week.”

One professor from Indiana who spoke to Salon preferred to remain anonymous. “At some point early in my adjunct career, I broke down my pay hourly. I figured out that I was making under minimum wage and then I stopped thinking about it,” he said. “I can’t speak for everyone, but I essentially design my own courses. And sometimes I don’t find out how many courses I’m going to be teaching until maybe Thursday and they start Monday. … So I have to develop a course, and it’s been the case where one summer I taught English 102 where the course was literally dropped in my lap three days before it started and I had to develop it entirely from scratch. It didn’t even have a text book. That was three 16-hour days in a row developing a syllabus. … You’re expected to be in contact with students constantly. You have to be available to them all the time. You’re expected to respond to emails generally within 24 hours. I’m always on-call. And it’s one of my favorite parts of my job, I don’t regret it, but if you factored those on-call hours in, that’d be the end of it. I’d be making 50 cents an hour.”

Being financially secure and teaching at an institute of higher education are almost mutually exclusive, even among professors who are able to teach the maximum amount of courses each semester. Thus, more than half of adjunct professors in the United States seek a second job. Not all professors can find additional employment. An advanced degree slams most doors shut and opens a handful by the narrowest crack.

Nathaniel Oliver taught as an adjunct for four years in Alabama. He received $12,000 a year during his time teaching.

“You fall in this trap where you may be working for less than you would be at a place that pays minimum wage yet you can’t get the minimum wage jobs because of your education,” Oliver said.

Academia’s tower might be ivory but it casts an obsidian shadow. Oliver was one of many professors trapped in the oxymoronic life of pedantic destitution. Some professors in his situation became homeless. Oliver was “fortunate” enough to only require food stamps, a fact of life for many adjuncts.

“It’s completely insane,” he said. “And this isn’t happening just to me. More and more people are doing it.”

“We have food stamps,” said the anonymous adjunct from Indiana. “We wouldn’t be able to survive without them.”

“Many professors are on food stamps and they go to food donation centers. They donate plasma. And that’s a pretty regular occurrence,” Merklein told Salon.

Life isn’t much easier for those lucky enough to find another income stream. Many are reduced to menial service jobs and other forms of first-world deprivation.

“I ended up applying for a job in a donut shop recently,” said an Ohio professor who requested to go by a pseudonym. Professor Doe taught for over two decades. Many years he only made $9600. Resorting to a food service job was the only way he could afford to live, but it came with more than its expected share of humiliation.

“One of the managers there is one of the students I had a year ago who was one of the very worst writers I’ve ever had. What are we really saying here? What’s going on in the work world? Something does not seem quite right. I’m not asking to be rich. I’m not asking to be famous. I just want to pay my bills.”

Life became even more harrowing for adjuncts after the Affordable Care Act when universities slashed hours and health insurance coverage became even more difficult to obtain.

“They’re no better off than people who work at Walmart,” said Gordon Haber, a 15-year adjunct professor and author of “Adjunctivitis.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, other professors echoed this sentiment.

“There’s this idea that faculty are cheap, renewable labor. There’s the idea that student are customers or clients,” said Joseph Fruscione, a former adjunct of 15 years. “And there are some cases where if a student is displeased with a grade, there’s the notion where they’re paying for this, so they deserve an A or a B because of all this tuition.”

“The Walmart metaphor is vivid,” Kudera said. “There are these random schools where they’re just being terrible. But as some of the schools it seems like there’s some enlightened schools and it doesn’t seem like every single person who speaks up loses their classes. It varies school to school. They’re well aware some of their adjuncts may not afford toothpaste at the end of the month or whatever those kinds of tragedies may be.” He suggested looking at the hashtag #badmin to see transgressions and complaints documented in real time.

Robert Baum, a former adjunct and now a dean, was able to provide insights from both sides of the problem.

“That pressure [to make money] has been on higher education forever,” he said. “A lot of the time when I was an adjunct, things were very black and what I’m finding is that the graying is happening a lot. I’m losing track of the black and white.” Still, Baum noted that the current system was hardly ideal, and that change was necessary. “The Walmart model is based on the idea of putting the burden on taking care of the worker on either the state or on the worker’s credit card or on the worker’s family. And that is no different than what I’ve experienced across my adjunct life. No different. Zero difference.”

Ana Fores Tamayo, an adjunct who claims she was blacklisted over her activism, agreed with the latter parts of Baum’s assessment.

“Walmart and the compartmentalized way of treating faculty is the going rate. The way administration turns around and says, for instance, where I was teaching it was probably about 65% adjunct faculty. But the way they fix their numbers, it makes it looks as if it’s less when they show their books because the way they divide it and the way they play with their numbers it shows that it’s less.”

“As soon as they hear about you organizing, they go on the defensive,” Merklein said. “For instance, at my community college, I am being intimidated constantly and threatened in various ways, hypothetically usually. They don’t like to say something that’s an outright direct threat. … They get really freaked out when they see pamphlets around the adjunct faculty office and everyone’s wearing buttons regardless of what professional organization or union it is. They will then go on the offensive. They will usually contact their attorney who is there to protect the school as a business and to act in an anti-labor capacity.”

The most telling phrase in Merklein’s words are “the school as a business.” Colleges across the country have transitioned from bastions of intellectual enlightenment to resort hotels prizing amenities above academics. Case in point: The ludicrously extravagant gyms in America’s larger universities are home to rock climbing walls, corkscrew tracks, rooftop gardens, and a lazy river. Schools have billions to invest in housing and other on-campus projects. Schools have millions (or in some cases “mere” hundreds of thousands) to pay administrators.  Yet schools can’t find the money to hire more full-time professors. If one follows the money, it’s clear that colleges view education as tertiary. The rigor of a university’s courses doesn’t attract the awe of doe-eyed high school seniors. Lavish dorms and other luxuries do.

Despite such execrable circumstances, professors trek onward and try to educate students as best they can. But how good can education provided by overworked, underpaid adjuncts be? The professors Salon spoke to had varying opinions.

Benay Blend has taught for over 30 years. For 10 of those years, she worked in a bookstore for $7.50 an hour because she needed the extra income.

“I don’t want to fall into the trap that the media use that using adjunct labor means poor education,” Blend said. “I have a PhD. I’ve published probably more than full-time people where I teach. I’ve been teaching for 30 years. I’m a good teacher.”

“On the whole, teaching quality by adjuncts is excellent,” said Kane Faucher, a six-year adjunct. “But many are not available for mentoring and consultation because they have to string together so many courses just to reach or possibly exceed the poverty line. This means our resources are stretched too thinly as a matter of financial survival, and there are many adjuncts who do not even have access to a proper office, which means they work out of coffee shops and cars.”

The anonymous adjunct professor from Indiana expressed a similar sentiment.

“I definitely don’t want to go down the road of ‘Adjunct professors, because of the way we’re handled, are not able to be effective teachers.’ I think some of us are more effective teachers than people who get paid a lot more than we do. Some of us aren’t for really good reasons which have to do with not having the resources. I mean if you’re working at three different colleges, how can you possibly be there?”

Ann Kottner, an adjunct professor and activist, agreed.

“The real problem with the adjunct market right now is that it cheats students of the really outstanding educations they should be getting,” she said. “They’re paying a lot of money for these educations and they’re not getting them. And it’s not because they have bad instructors, it’s because their instructors are not supported to do the kind of work they can do.”

The situation reached such a flashpoint that Kottner and several colleagues (some of which spoke to Salon for this article) penned a petition to the US Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. The petition calls for “an investigation into the labor practices of our colleges and universities in the employment of contingent faculty.” Ana Foryes Tamayo has a petition as well, this one to the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. They both have over 8,000 signatories.

When asked about the petition’s impact, Kottner said it was “just one tactic in the whole sheath of a rising adjunct response to contingency.” Other tools included unionization, which is difficult in many states. Kottner said the most powerful force was information. “I think our biggest weapon now is basically making the public aware of what their tuition dollars are not paying for, and that is professor salaries and professor security.”

When asked if there was any hope about the future, no consensus was reached among the adjuncts Salon spoke with. Some believed things would never change. Others thought the tide would turn if enough people knew how far the professoriat had fallen.

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/21/professors_on_food_stamps_the_shocking_true_story_of_academia_in_2014/?source=newsletter

Terry Gilliam: Hollywood is just “gray, frightened people” holding on for dear life

The godfather of dystopian cinema on the death of Hollywood, why he gave up U.S. citizenship and his new movie

 

Terry Gilliam: Hollywood is just “gray, frightened people” holding on for dear life
Terry Gilliam, on the set of “The Zero Theorem” (Credit: Amplify Releasing)

If you want to illustrate the old adage about a prophet who is without honor in his own country, look to Terry Gilliam. Mind you, I guess America isn’t even Gilliam’s country anymore, and neither is Hollywood. The onetime Monty Python member and director of “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “12 Monkeys,” although he was born in Minneapolis and spent his teen years in Los Angeles, has lived as an expatriate for many years and renounced his United States citizenship in 2006. (That was partly in protest of George W. Bush and partly, Gilliam has said, to shield his wife and children from tax liability.)

Gilliam didn’t need to repudiate his relationship with the mainstream film industry, which had pretty much turned its back on him after the commercial failure of “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas” in 1998 – a movie that looks, in retrospect, like the ultimate distillation of his grotesque and visionary directorial style. Gilliam pioneered the blend of fantasy and dystopian science fiction in the days before CGI, when those things seemed like geeky and bizarre niche interests. Go back and look at the remarkable special effects in another underappreciated box-office flop, “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” made in 1988. He was just a few years too early, but his influence is everywhere in contemporary cinema and culture, even as his later career has been a remarkable parade of near-misses and not-quites. Not for nothing is the aging, threadbare rebel leader played by John Hurt in Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer” named Gilliam!



Gilliam was supposedly J.K. Rowling’s first choice for “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,” and Alan Moore’s first choice for “Watchmen,” and can you even imagine how weird and great those movies would have been? His list of never-launched projects includes an adaptation of “A Tale of Two Cities” with Mel Gibson and an adaptation of Mark Twain’s “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” He still hopes to make “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” with Johnny Depp, a production that legendarily imploded 15 years ago. His new movie, “The Zero Theorem,” starring Christoph Waltz as an isolated computer programmer searching for the meaning of life in an overloaded info-society not far removed from our own, has been in the works for at least six years. It was originally cast with Ewan McGregor in the lead, and then Billy Bob Thornton (alongside Jessica Biel and Al Pacino), in a version that was all set to go in 2009, before Gilliam turned his attention to finding a way to finish yet another haunted film, “The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus,” after the death of its star, Heath Ledger.

Gilliam has described “The Zero Theorem” as the completion of an “Orwellian triptych” that began with his dystopian masterpiece “Brazil” in 1985 and continued with “12 Monkeys” a decade later. I won’t argue that this film lives up to the earlier two, but taken on its own terms it’s a work of wicked wit and imagination, shot by cinematographer Nicola Pecorini in classic Gilliam style: wide lenses, deep focus, and the frame overloaded with grotesque detail. Waltz gives one of his best performances as a barely functional nerd-genius called Qohen, who refers to himself in the first-person plural and works on disturbing data-crunching tasks for an enormous company that seems to have devoured the state. There are all sorts of delicious supporting turns, including David Thewlis as the cheerful boss determined to draw Qohen out of his shell, Tilda Swinton as an online therapy-bot (who performs a disastrously awful rap song) and Matt Damon as the back-room kingpin known only as Management.

As veteran Gillian-watchers will already suspect, “The Zero Theorem” is more tragedy than farce, despite all its levels of technological and social satire. It’s the story of a man who is highly skilled in some ways but finds himself out of step with the world and with his time, desperate to connect with others but finally unable to do so. Gilliam didn’t write this script (which is by Pat Rushin, a creative writing instructor), but immediately agrees that he responded to it on a personal level. He wasn’t sure whether he’d be able to visit New York for the “Zero Theorem” – as an ex-citizen, he is limited to 29 days a year in the U.S., and needs to parcel them out carefully – so he called me from his home office in London.

This must be an exhausting ritual, being grilled by Americans on the phone – and about the past, in many cases.

It’s fine. After becoming depressed like Qohen for being alone as much as I am, I’m happy to talk to people.

It’s funny that you say that. Maybe this is dime store psychology, but I was irresistibly drawn to that interpretation. The curmudgeonly guy who hates everybody, who’s locked in his house trying to solve a problem that cannot be solved. How much is that you?

That’s 100 percent me [laughs]. No, I identify with him so much. I thought Christoph made him an interesting character despite his behavior. I think I’m getting more and more curmudgeonly as the years pass, because you get angry. You look at healthy young people and realize your body doesn’t do that any more, so you get even more angry.

Well, and then there’s your relationship with the film industry, which was maybe never so terribly warm and fuzzy. Is that that you have changed or that the nature of the mainstream film industry has changed? Or have the two of you just sort of drifted further apart?

I think we’ve both changed and probably drifted apart for that reason, even more. In Hollywood, at least when I was making films there, there were people in the studios that actually had personalities. You could distinguish one from the other. And now, I don’t see that at all. It’s just gray, frightened people holding on without any sense of “let’s try something here, let’s do something different.” But to be fair, I haven’t been talking to anybody from the studios in the last few years. But the films that Hollywood is making now, it’s clear what’s going on. The big tent-pole pictures are just like the last tent-pole pictures. Hopefully one of them will work and keep the studio going. It’s become … it’s a reflection of the real world, where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and the middle class get squeezed out completely. So the kind of films I make need more money than the very simple films. Hollywood doesn’t deal with those budgets anymore; they don’t exist.

You can’t make the film in your house for $50,000. But they’re also not going to give you $100 million. You’re in a mid-budget area they don’t like, right?

Yeah. It’s terrible. I’m not alone in the mid-budget area that’s being pushed out of work. It’s a great sadness because there are many small films that can be wonderful, or you get huge $100 million-plus budgets and they’re all the same film, basically, or very similar. It’s just not as interesting as it used to be. The choice out there is less interesting. The real problem now is that when you make a small film, to get the money to promote it is almost impossible. You can’t complete with a $70-80 million budget the studios have. So it becomes less and less interesting. That’s why, in a sense, the most interesting work at the moment, as any creative person, knows is coming out of television in America now, not coming out of the studios.

The studios have two niches, and the problem is that you don’t fit in either one of them. You’re not going to do a “Transformers” movie for $250 million. And they think you’re not the right person to do the movie that maybe costs $40 million and is aimed at the Oscars, or is a prestige literary adaptation or something. They don’t trust you with those, right?

I wouldn’t trust me with them either. [Laughs.] I just want to do what I do. And I don’t even get scripts from Hollywood. I don’t even ask for scripts anymore because I kind of know what they’re going to be. They don’t interest me, so I’ve chosen to wander in the wilderness for another 40 years. We’ll see how it goes.

Going back to the character that Christoph plays in this film, there’s so much going on on the surface, but what really got to me was the tremendous sadness. This person who has a creative drive, a creative urge, and is in a situation where there’s no way for him to fulfill that. That struck me as a situation of extreme pathos.

Well that’s how I see the film. It’s very funny but it’s basically tragedy. It’s very sad. It does move me. You can sort of do the parallels between me and that guy, but at heart that’s not really what it is. Not getting to do what you want to do is one thing, but his problem is that he lets life and relationships fall apart because he can’t grasp them. He’s so damaged — I think the scene when Bainsley [a femme fatale played by French actress Mélanie Thierry] leaves and offers for him to come along, he can’t do it. For me that’s the core scene of the film. What happened to this guy? So in the end, I had to leave him with some kind of sense of dignity and a kind of peace. It may only exist in a virtual world and at least he can let the sun set. He can control that much. I mean, when I make a film, there’s always a big autobiographical element in it, that’s the only way I know how to make films. I have to identify with the character in one way or another. And this one, in retrospect, ended up being quite interesting because when I started it I didn’t think it was going to be that film exactly, but that’s what it became.

Your portrayal of the world is so interesting, people will inevitably look back to your earlier films and other people’s. I felt like you were referencing “Blade Runner,” which came out just before “Brazil,” more directly than you ever have before. But the important thing to me was that this portrait of the informational clutter of the world is almost not a satire or an exaggeration. It’s maybe a tiny bit exaggerated, but it’s almost a portrait of the real world.

Yes. Thank you for that. People talk about it in some sort of future, dystopic view. No! It’s exactly what’s going on right now as far as I’m concerned. [Laughs.] When I walk out onto the streets of London, I’m bombarded exactly like Qohen is at the beginning of the film. It’s endless, it seems to me. And that’s why I sort of built that world around him. Everything in the world out there is colorful and people seem to be having a good time and shopping is bubbling away and things are being offered to you left, right and center. The workplace is a colorful place with people zipping around having a great time. There’s only one bit of darkness and grayness in the thing and that’s Qohen. And that’s what intrigued me about him. He’s very much like a monk. He’s in a burned-out church and it’s a church that has no meaning anymore. That particular construct of life has passed him by. And yet, that’s why I love when another character tells him, “Nonetheless, you’re a man of faith. And that is the very thing that has made you not live your life.”

I have to recommend to you a documentary called “Web Junkie” that you probably haven’t heard about, which is about young people in China being sent to re-education camps to cure them of their supposed Internet addiction. This is a movie that you could have invented, that happens to be a true story. It’s like a corollary to or the dark side of this film. You use technology in an interesting way in this film: You have tons of digital effects in here but the movie is also about the social effects of technology. What is your personal attitude about the way that it’s changed our lives?

TG: It terrifies me because I’m a junkie; I’m an addict. I’m sitting here right now in front of a high-definition computer screen. It’s consumed far, far too much of my life. It’s very seductive and that’s what makes me crazy. The days go by and I’m finding myself still sitting in front of that screen when I should be out doing something physical but it’s easier to sit there and poke around on the Web. That’s one side of it. As far as tweeting and all of that, I don’t. And I find it appalling that people cannot just get on and experience the moment. They seem to have to comment on the moment all the time. Andy Warhol’s 15 minutes of fame is 15 megabytes of fame. Everybody, it’s all about them. The world becomes background to them as opposed to them relating to the world.

We did a thing in the Python reunion show at the end, a meet-and-greet where people paid extra money to meet and greet us. And there was a barrier that kept us from touching. And people at the beginning said “Everybody does a selfie now.” So we had them all turn their backs to us and hold the phone up and we were in the background smiling while they were in the foreground of the picture. It’s just — this is crazy. You go to a rock concert and before the first song is finished, the tweets are coming through. It makes me crazy because people are not relating to the real world anymore. That’s very worrisome. Hunter Thompson predicted America would soon be a nation of panicky sheep, and I think it’s adding to the problem.

You made “Time Bandits,” “Brazil” and “Baron Munchausen” in the ‘80s, long before the rise of CGI, and now we find ourselves in an era where every Hollywood movie is either a dystopian science fiction vision or a fantasy film. Do you feel like you explored the territory first and nobody remembers that?

Well, I don’t know. I think, yeah. I keep thinking I would like to have a chance at those kinds of things, because that’s what I’ve always wanted to make and that’s what I did back then. I just don’t know what they are anymore. They’re films — fantasy without substance and sci-fi dystopia without intelligence. I don’t know really what to comment except that they all seem to be clones of each other. And people are so happy to go back and see the same thing again and again and again. And that, to me, makes me sad about the state of the world. We want reassurance now rather than being challenged, and that’s sad.

This is what I always say when people ask me about the difference between watching 300 films a year and watching just a few, like ordinary moviegoers. Ordinary people seem largely OK, or at least historically OK, with seeing the same films over and over again, for whatever reason. Maybe with technical innovations or improvements in execution …

Technically they’re brilliantly done. They’re beautiful things but there’s nothing in them. There’s nothing new. Nothing to make you think or look at the world in a different way. It’s just the same thing going on and on and on. It really is bread and circuses these days. It may be a sign of people’s impotence, that they can’t really change anything so let’s keep going back and have that McDonald’s burger because we know exactly what we’re about to get and let’s watch another Marvel Comics film because we know exactly what we’re going to get.

You have, however, adjusted to the era of doing the effects digitally. Obviously, when you did “Munchausen” or “Time Bandits,” that was all either physical effects or camerawork.

It hasn’t changed anything really, for me. Because I’m sort of forced into the world of “You have to do it the cheapest way.” And fortunately or unfortunately, CGI is cheaper than doing old-fashioned effects. So I end up doing it that way. I’ve always used digital effects. In “12 Monkeys” there’s a lot of stuff in there. I just don’t want — I want it to be a minor part of the filmmaking process, to deal with the things I can’t quite do. What’s happening now is because you can do it with CGI, anything you want, well, that doesn’t mean you should do anything you want. I like the restrictions. Maybe it’s a way of controlling myself, having to work with a small budget. This film is about $8.5 million, but it looks a lot more expensive than that. What you do is go to Bucharest, where people get paid a fraction of what they get paid in London. You call some friends up and they work for scale rather than what they normally get paid when they work for Hollywood. So I’m happy when Hollywood pays some of my friends a lot of money so they can come work for me for next to nothing.

Actors still want to work with you, right? That’s the good part.

Yeah, that’s nice. I think because so many of them are looking for interesting parts and they’re born with the stuff — they’ll do it because it pays good money, it pays the mortgage and buys time to do more interesting things. I think that’s kind of it. I suppose what actors like about me is they know I’ll give them space to show off and have some fun and they can do things they wouldn’t normally do. I love Matt [Damon] in the film. I think he’s fantastic as that character. I’ve never seen him do that before, and that’s great. I actually said, “Matt, I’ve got a small part. A few days work.” he said “Don’t bother, I’m in.” It’s nice to have friends like that, who will do it for the joy of doing it. And we had a great time. Working with Christoph was an utter joy because he’s thinking all the time; he’s questioning. He’s utterly brilliant. Personally I think it’s the best thing he’s ever done. It might not be the most popular thing he’s ever done, but he’s never off-screen and he’s just stunning.

I don’t think anyone has ever asked Tilda Swinton to rap in a movie before. It’s possible that nobody will again.

Yes. I think she’s sealed her fate. Her MTV career is over. Here’s a wonderful thing though: I had designed this hairstyle for her and when we first met to talk about what she was wearing and the wig, she had decided that as a psychiatrist she should identify more with her patient, so she should be bald. That wasn’t in the script. That was her idea.

I need to ask whether you’ve seen “Snowpiercer,” because if there was ever a film that you’re your influence, that one is it.

I desperately want to see “Snowpiercer”! But it hasn’t arrived in this country yet. Especially since John Hurt plays a character called Gilliam. I have seen the trailer and it looks fantastic. It looks really good and really beautiful.

Well, and I think Bong Joon-ho really followed your example, in some ways. Instead of coming to Hollywood and making the film in a way that required surrendering control, he made it in Europe with European money. He got a pretty large budget, I think it was $40 million, but it was assembled from all over the place — a bunch from different European financiers and a little bit from Harvey Weinstein. And then he didn’t have to make a movie the studios were going to chop up.

And yet Harvey still tried to chop it up. At least it got made. That’s the important thing.

I’m hearing rumors that you may finally make the Don Quixote film! What’s the level of truth or fiction there?

Yep. Well, we’ve postponed it. I was planning to shoot it in October this year, but because of the Python reunion show, I postponed it. The two lead actors, their agents and the producer are in discussion as we speak. And yeah, the plan is to be shooting it next springtime. We have locations in the Canary Islands already. I’m assuming we’re going to make it. I’m just suspending all my disbelief. [Laughs.]

Your entire career has involved a certain amount of doing that, right? It’s been required.

I just don’t want to accept the world as it is out there. We’ll see how that goes this time. [Laughs.] That movie has taken 15 years. It’s reached the point where I withhold a lot of my enthusiasm at the moment. I’m waiting to make sure everything is nailed down and then I’ll let go and make this thing happen. I’ve been at it so long it’s almost like it’s fake. It’s like trying to remove a tumor so I can get on with my life.

One more question: I know you gave up your American citizenship about eight years ago. I’m sure you have followed the news about Edward Snowden and the NSA stuff. Did that sum up some of the reasons why you didn’t want to be an American anymore? And secondly, didn’t the whole Snowden episode feel like something that would happen in one of your films?

Edward Snowden is a great hero, I think. It’s quite extraordinary what he’s done and yeah, all I know is I’m luckier than him. I live in England, not Russia. I was in Moscow a month and a half ago and as interesting as it is, I’m happier here. And yes, it’s part of the reason — with George W. Bush and that whole gang that has completely restructured what America is — and a Supreme Court that is so unbelievably right wing. It’s a country that is basically ruled by corporations at the expense of the citizens. I believe.

“The Zero Theorem” opens this week in many cities, and is also available on-demand from cable, satellite and online providers.

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/19/terry_gilliam_hollywood_is_just_%E2%80%9Cgray_frightened_people%E2%80%9D_holding_on_for_dear_life/?source=newsletter

Why America will never win the war on terror

The U.S. military is neither a nation nor an army builder. It bodes ill for our future efforts in the Middle East

, TomDispatch.com

Why America will never win the war on terror
This piece originally appeared on TomDispatch.

It’s possible I’ve lived most of my life on the wrong planet — and if that sounds like the first sentence of a sci-fi novel maybe, in its own way, it is. I thought I knew where I was, of course, but looking back from our helter-skelter world of 2014, I wonder.

For most of the last several hundred years, the story in view might be called the Great Concentration and it focused on an imperial struggle for power on planet Earth. That rivalry took place among a kaleidoscopic succession of European “great powers,” one global empire (Great Britain), Russia, a single Asian state (Japan), and the United States. After two world wars that devastated the Eurasian continent, there emerged only two “superpowers,” the U.S. and the Soviet Union. They were so stunningly mighty and over-armed — great inland empires — that, unlike previous powers, they could not even imagine how to wage war directly upon each other, not without obliterating much of civilization. The full planet nonetheless became their battlefield in what was known as the Cold War only because hot ones were banished to “the peripheries” and the conflict took place, in part, in “the shadows” (a situation novelist John le Carré caught with particular incisiveness).

Those two superpowers divided much of the planet into mighty blocs, as the “free world” faced off against the “communist” one. What was left, often called the Third World, became a game board and sometimes battlefield for influence and dominance. From Havana to Saigon, Berlin to Jakarta, whatever happened, however local, always seemed to have a superpower tinge to it.

This was the world as it was presented to me in the years of my youth and for decades thereafter.  And then, unexpectedly, there was only one superpower. In 1991, something like the ultimate step in the concentration of power seemed to occur. The weaker and less wealthy of the two rivals, its economy grown sclerotic even as its nuclear arsenal bulged, its vaunted military bogged down in an unwinnable war with Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan (backed by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan), suddenly vanished from the planet.  It left behind a dismantled wall in Berlin, a unified Germany, a liberated Eastern Europe, a series of former SSRs in Central Asia fending for themselves, and its bloc partner (and sometimes-rival-cum-enemy) China, still run by a “communist” party, gunning the automobile of state onto the capitalist highway under slogans like “to get rich is glorious.”



Full Spectrum Dominance on a Unipolar Planet

As with the famous cheese of children’s rhyme, the United States now stood alone.  Never before had a single power of such stature, wealth, and military clout been left so triumphantly solitary, without the hint of a serious challenger anywhere. Economically, the only other system imaginable for a century had been banished to the history books. There was just one power and one economic system left in a moment of triumph the likes of which even the leaders of that winning state had neither imagined nor predicted.

Initially, Washington was stunned. It took the powers-that-be almost a decade to fully absorb and react to what had happened. After all, as one observer then so famously put it, “the end of history” had been reached – and there, amid the rubble of other systems and powers, lay an imperial version of liberal democracy and a capitalist system freed of even the thought of global competitors and constraints. Or so it seemed.

For almost a decade, we were told in no uncertain terms that we were, no bones about it, in the era of “the Washington consensus” and “globalization.”  The Earth was flat and we were all One, swimming in a sea of giant swooshes, golden arches, action movies, and Disney princesses.  What a moment to dream — and though it took a decade, you’ll remember the dreamers well.  Having prepared the way as a kind of shadow government, in 2000 they took over the White House (with a helping hand from the Supreme Court). After a single devastating terrorist attack (the “Pearl Harbor” of the twenty-first century), they were soon dreaming on a global scale as befit their new vision of power.  They imagined a “wartime” that would last for generations — some of them even called it World War IV – during which they would establish a full-scale military protectorate, including monster bases, in the oil heartlands of the Middle East and a Pax Americana globally aimed at preventing any other great nation or bloc of nations from arising to challenge the United States — ever.

And that should have surprised no one.  It seemed like such an obvious concluding passage to the Great Concentration.  What else was there to dream about when “The End” had come up onscreen and the logic of history was theirs to do with what they would?  After all, they had at their beck and call a military the likes of which no other 10 nations could match and a national security state, including surveillance and intelligence outfits, whose post-9/11 reach was to be unparalleled among countries or in history.  They sat atop a vast and wealthy state then regularly referred to as the planet’s “sole superpower” or even its “hyperpower,” and no less regularly called its “sheriff.”

Where great powers had once been, only a few rickety “rogue states” remained: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea.  And with the help of a clever speechwriter, George W. Bush was soon to pump those three countries up into a convenient “Axis of Evil,” a phrase meant to combine the fearsomeness of World War II’s Axis powers (Germany, Italy, and Japan) and Ronald Reagan’s famous Star Wars-style moniker for the Soviet Union, “the Evil Empire.”  No matter that two of the three powers in question had been at each other’s throats for a decade and the third, a half-nation with a population regularly on a starvation diet, was quite unrelated.

Beyond that, when it came to enemies, there were relatively small numbers of jihadi bands, mostly scattered in the tribal backlands of the planet, and a few poorly armed minority insurgencies.  A “unipolar” planet?  You bet, hands down (or rather, as the Bush administration then saw it, hands up in the classic gesture of surrender that it quickly expected from Iraq, Iran, and Syria, among other places).  The future, according to the prevailing script, couldn’t have been more obvious.  Could there be any question thatdominance, or even as the U.S. military liked to put it, “full-spectrum dominance,” was the obvious, uncontested, and only possible result?

A Jihadist Paradise on Earth

As the present chaos across large swathes of our world indicates, however, it didn’t turn out to be so.  The planet was telling quite a different story, one focused not on the concentration of power but on a radical form of power drain.  In that story, the one for which the evidence kept piling up regularly in the post-9/11 years, no application of power seemed to work for Washington.  No enemy, no matter how minor, weak, ill armed, or unpopular could be defeated.  No jihadist group wiped out.  Not one.

Jump 13 years and they are all still there: the original al-Qaeda, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (Yemen), and a whole befuddling new range of jihadist groups, most of them bigger than ever, with one now proclaiming a “caliphate” in the heart of the Middle East; in Afghanistan, the Taliban is resurgent (and a growing new Taliban movement is destabilizing Pakistan); the Shia militias the U.S. couldn’t take down in Iraq during its occupation of the country are now fighting the followers of the Sunni military men whose army Washington demobilized in 2003.  The fundamentalists in Iran, despite endless years of threat and pressure, are still in power, their regional influence enhanced.  Libya, which should have been a nation-building miracle, has instead become an extremist battleground, while (like Syria) losing a significant percentage of its population; Africa is increasingly destabilized, and Nigeria in particular faces one of the more bizarre insurgencies in modern history; and so on.

Nowhere is there a hint of Washington’s Pax Americana in the Greater Middle East, no less globally.  In fact, across a vast and growing swath of the planet, stretching from South Asia to Africa, from Iraq to Ukraine, the main force at work seems not to be the concentration of power, but its fragmentation, its disintegration, before which Washington has proven remarkably helpless.

Thirteen years later, on the eve of another 9/11 anniversary, the president found himself, however reluctantly, on television addressing the American people on the launching of another hapless Iraq war, the third since 1991 — and the first in which those announcing it visibly no longer had any expectation of victory or could even imagine what the endpoint of all this might be.  In fact, before Barack Obama appeared on our home screens, word was already leaking out from official precincts in Washington that this new war would last not a decisive few weeks or even months, but years.  At least “36 months” was the figure being bandied about.

In other words, as he launched Iraq 3.0, the president was already essentially conceding a kind of defeat by willing it to his successor in the Oval Office.  Not getting out of Iraq, as he had promised in his 2008 presidential campaign, but getting in yet again would now be his “legacy.”  If that doesn’t tell you what you need to know about the deep-sixing of the dream of global domination, what does?

Nor was the new enemy some ghostly jihadist group with small numbers of followers scattered in the backlands of the planet.  It was something new under the sun: a mini-state-building, war-fighting, revenue-generating, atrocity-producing machine (and yet anything but the former “Evil Empire”).  Against it, the drones and bombers had already been called in and Washington was now to lead — the phrase, almost a quarter-century old, was making a reappearance in the general babble of reporting about, and punditry on, the new conflict — a “coalition of the willing.”  In the first such coalition, in 1991,35 nations were gathered under the American wing to crush Saddam Hussein’s Iraq (which, of course, didn’t quite happen).  And the Saudis, the Japanese, and the Germans agreeably anted up $52 billion of the cost of that $61 billion conflict, making it a near freebie of a (briefly) triumphant war for Washington.

This time, however, as befit the moment, the new “coalition” was to consist of a crew so recalcitrant, unwilling, and ill-matched as to practically spell out disaster-in-the-making.  Inside Iraq, a unification government was already being formed and it looked remarkably likeprevious not-so-unification-minded governments.  The Kurds were playing it cagy on the question of support; Moqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric whose militias had once fought the Americans and were now fighting the forces of the new Islamic State (IS), was warning against cooperation of any sort with the former “occupier”; and as for the Sunnis, well, don’t hold your breath.

And don’t even start in on the Turksthe Egyptians, and others in the region.  In the meantime, Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Iraq and promised that the U.S. would ante up $48 million to stand up a new Iraqi “national guard.”  It was assumedly meant as a home for disaffected Sunni fighters to bolster the American-financed, -armed, and -trained Iraqi army that had collapsed in a heap when the warriors of the Islamic State descended on them led by former officers from Saddam Hussein’s disbanded army.  And oh yes, with the help of the Saudis (who had previously funneled money to far more extreme groups of rebels in Syria), the U.S. was now planning to arm and train the barely existent “moderate” rebels of that country.  If that isn’t a description of a coalition of the shaky, what is?

Is American Leadership “the One Constant in an Uncertain World”?

From that “new” Iraqi military force to the usual set of op-eds, comments, and critiques calling for yet more military action by the usual crowd of neocons and Republicans in Washington, it’s felt distinctly like déjà vu all over again.  This time, however, it seems as if we’re watching familiar events through some funhouse mirror, everything half-recognizable, yet creepy as hell.  Ever more of the world seems this way, as for instance in the “new Cold War” that’s played out in recent months in Ukraine.

And yet it’s worth noting that some things are missing from that mirror’s distorted view.  When was the last time, for instance, that you heard the phrase “sole superpower” or the word “unipolar”?  Not for years, I suspect.  Yet the talk of “multi-polarity” has, like the Brazilian economy, faded, too, and for good reason.

On the face of it, the United States remains the unipolar power on planet Earth, or as the president put it in his TV address, speaking of American leadership, “the one constant in an uncertain world.”  Its military remains uncontested in any normal sense, with something approaching that long-desired goal of full-spectrum dominance.  No other concentration of power on the planet comes close to matching it.  In fact, even for the European Union, once imagined as a future power bloc of immense possibility, fragmentation of various sorts now seem to hover in the air.

Admittedly, two regional powers have begun flexing their military muscles along their borders (and sea lanes).  Vladimir Putin, the autocratic ruler of what is essentially a hollowed out energy state, has been meddling in Ukraine, as he did previously with Georgia, in situations where he’s felt the pressure of the U.S. and NATO pushing against his country’s former borderlands.  In the process, he has effectively brought power drain and fragmentation to the heartlands of Eurasia in a way that may prove far less amenable to his control than he now imagines.

Meanwhile, in the South China Sea and nearby waters, China, the world’s rising economic juggernaut and increasingly a regional military power, has been pushing its neighbors’ buttons as it grabs for undersea energy rights and generally tries to reverse a long history of what it considers “humiliation,” while taking its place as a regional hegemon.  As in Ukraine with NATO, so here, in its announced “pivot” to Asia, the U.S. has played its own part in this process.  Once again, division and fragmentation of various sorts shimmer on the horizon.  And yet these challenges to America’s status as the globe’s hegemon remain local and limited in nature.  The likelihood that either of them will develop into some version of the great power struggles of the nineteenth century or of the Cold War era seems remote.

Still, the conundrum for Washington remains.  For the last 13 years, it’s had access to unparalleled powers of every kind, concentrated in all sorts of ways, and yet in what has to be considered a mystery of the twenty-first century, everywhere, even at home, fragmentation and gridlock, not decisive, effective action are evident, while the draining (or paralysis) of power seems to be the order of the day.

Nowhere, at home or abroad, does the obvious might of the United States translate into expected results, or much of anything else except a kind of roiling chaos.  On much of the planet, Latin America (but not Central America) excepted, power vacuums, power breakdowns, power drains, and fragmentation are increasingly part of everyday life.  And one thing is remarkably clear: each and every application of American military power globally since 9/11 has furthered the fragmentation process, destabilizing whole regions.

In the twenty-first century, the U.S. military has been neither a nation- nor an army-builder, nor has it found victory, no matter how hard it’s searched.  It has instead been the equivalent of the whirlwind in international affairs, and so, however the most recent Iraq war works out, one thing seems predictable: the region will be further destabilized and in worse shape when it’s over.

The Greatest Concentration of Literal Power in History

Since World War II, we’ve generally been focused on the Great Concentration, while another story was developing in the shadows.  Its focus: the de-concentration of power in what the Bush administration used to call the Greater Middle East, as well as in Africa, and even Europe.  Just how exactly this developed will have to await a better historian than I and perhaps the passage of time.  But for the sake of discussion, let’s call it the Great Fragmentation.

Perhaps it started in the twentieth century with the decolonization movements that swept across so much of the globe and took down a series of already weakening European empires.  One of its latest manifestations might have been the Arab Spring and the chaos and disintegration that seemed to follow from it.  The undermining or neutralizing of imperial power and the systems of alliance and dependency it builds seems at its heart.  With it has gone the inability of militaries anywhere to achieve the sorts of victories against even the least impressive of enemies that were once the meat and potatoes of imperial power.

The Great Fragmentation has accelerated in seemingly disastrous ways in our own time under perhaps some further disintegrative pressure.  One possibility: yet another development in the shadows that, in some bizarre fashion, combines both the concentration of power and its fragmentation in devastating ways.  I’m thinking here of the story of how the apocalypse became human property — the discovery, that is, of how to fully exploit two energy sources, the splitting of the atom and the extraction of fossil fuels for burning from ever more difficult places, that could leave human life on this planet in ruins.

Think of them as, quite literally, the two greatest concentrations of power in history.  One is now embedded in the globe’s nuclear arsenals, capable of destroying numerous Earth-sized planets.  The other is to be found in a vast array of oil and natural gas wells and coal mines, as well as in a relatively small number of Big Energy companies and energy states like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and increasingly these days, the United States.  It, we now know, is capable of essentially burning civilization off the planet.

From this dual concentration of power comes the potential for the kinds of apocalypticfragmentation it was once thought only the gods or God might be capable of.  We’re talking about potential exit ramps from history.  The pressure of this story — which has been in play in our world since at least August 6, 1945, and now in its dual forms suffuses all our lives in hard to define ways — on the other two and on the increasing fragmentation of human affairs, while impossible to calibrate, is undoubtedly all too real.

This is why, now in my eighth decade, I can’t help but wonder just what planet I’m really on and what its story will really turn out to be.

 

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book, “The United States of Fear” (Haymarket Books), has just been published.

http://www.salon.com/2014/09/18/why_america_will_never_win_the_war_on_terror_partner/?source=newsletter

A proposal on the Scottish referendum: “Yes, but…”

by Gordon Asher on September 18, 2014

Post image for A proposal on the Scottish referendum: “Yes, but…”“A ‘Yes, but’ campaign supports a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option, and supports the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side wins.”

By Gordon Asher and Leigh French

With Scotland’s referendum on “independence” and the likelihood of a very close result now sparking further interest and engagement, we catch breath to consider likely and possible future paths for movements struggling for eco-social justice. To be clear, we do so from a position of voting ‘Yes, BUT’, with no illusions, which is Richard Gunn’s useful way of framing and orienting a response to the highly polarized referendum question:

“A YES, BUT campaign would support a ‘yes’ vote as our least worst option [...] And — most important — it would support the autonomy of social movements regardless of which side in the referendum won. [...] Both an unadorned YES campaign and an unadorned NO campaign endorse neoliberal positions. By contrast, a YES, BUT campaign reformulates issues in an interactive way.”

It is important to recognize that there are a number of coherent and principled positions to take to voting in the referendum that reflect desires for eco-social justice — including choosing not to engage with the referendum vote at all. There are not simply two homogeneous opposing national positions, spoken for by party political leaders, as is represented by parliamentarianism and the media. Rather, a range of orientations around the national question can and are being expressed.

We sceptically believe that a Yes vote provides a greater likelihood for conditions favorable to ongoing struggles for eco-social justice. From a position of critique — treating Yes as our least worst option — we are under no illusion that ‘yes’ will, per se, enable struggles that speak to both resistance and necessary alternatives to our current socio-economic conditions. A Yes vote is not a solution to our contemporary crises — nor is it a new start.

Rather, it concerns the contexts of continuing present struggles. Something which requires the state-formation processes that are already underway (such as the SNP government’s proposed interim constitution) to be grasped more critically, so as to inform ongoing political action.

So voting ‘yes’, but with an awareness of the need for continuing — deepening and expanding, building and evolving — struggles for eco-social justice. And doing so through participation in and engagement with social movements, which will be necessary whatever the referendum result. In taking a critical stance in such polarised conditions of the referendum, we have repeatedly encountered demands to situate what we are for and what we are against in such binary terms that affirm one side or the other.

So as to be clear, we are against:

  • The rapacious neoliberal globalization of a corporate-state nexus — marked by growing social, political and economic polarization and integrated crises. How situations of civil disruption, social suffering and environmental crises are key strategic moments for the reproduction of capital (Naomi Klein’s ‘disaster capitalism’).
  • The idea of the nation-state as a naturally pre-given form — it is a historically contingent social construct and thus there are alternatives to it.
  • How the nation-state comes to sit above the local in importance — the way banal rituals and routine bureaucratic procedures help to assert the pre-eminence of state authority.
  • The combination of the state as the foremost institution involved in ‘binding space’ into productive territories, and the ideology of neoliberalism which exerts a pedagogical force that acts to shape social space — becoming the automatic ‘common sense’ by which the state, the media, civil society, and ordinary people relate.
  • The contradictory division between ‘good’ (civic) and ‘bad’ (ethno-cultural) nationalism — with the former linked to motifs of progress as an obligatory common destiny.
  • The use of shaming (of stigma) to modify conduct — as has been taken up in expressions and appeals of both campaigns.
  • The growth agenda of competitive nationalism — which, through a rhetoric of national competitive necessity, marshals consensus around the inevitability of market-competition, with practical consequences for international solidarity.

And, what we are for:

  • A path not a model — rather, an orientation or direction of travel beyond an improved future.
  • Asserting that our social relations should and can be different — and that we (as agents of change) can transform them in moving towards greater levels of self-determination, self-management, participatory democracy, and individual and collective autonomy.
  • Eco-social justice — an equal and just world for all with regard to all species and across the integrated spheres of society.
  • A prefigurative orientation towards critical dialogue and engagement that makes existing exclusions visible — because how we locate politics is central to the kind of society we would like to become.
  • A recognition of radical, autonomous social movements as central to living (an ongoing process of being and becoming) — the necessary prefigurative struggles of resistance, creation and evolution of alternatives.
  • Dissensus as central to democratic agonistic interaction (the positive role of political conflict) as it is key to opening up alternatives in political decision-making. Dissensus doesn’t just mean a conflict of interest, opinions, or values but, more widely, a dispute over the space of and for politics itself.
  • Agonistic pluralism — as a way to think about democracy that’s centred on that contestation, as a counter to the de-politicizing technocratic discourse of consensus, which displaces politics by determining the correct place and object of political action. As Chantal Mouffe explains: “while we desire an end to conflict, if we want people to be free we must always allow for the possibility that conflict may appear and to provide an arena where differences can be confronted. The democratic process should supply that arena.”

A ‘Yes Scotland’ and ‘Independence’

Attention to what vocabulary represents or obscures is important — not that we’re polishing any halos — particularly when it can be and is both contested and prejudicially manipulated. As such, should we be talking about a Yes vote leading to a ‘Yes Scotland’ rather than to ‘independence’? Because actual independence is not what is on offer, if indeed that is at all possible for any territory within the post-sovereign global system of nation states.

Rather, ‘independence’ is a matter of degrees and of variable power relations, both internally and externally. Certainly the nation-state that the SNP now envisages, with intentions to keep the monarchy (and hence Crown Powers), and to maintain a currency union (and thus austerity pact with the Bank of England) is, in these regards, no less independent of the rest of the UK than at present.

Neither is it independent of the tension between harmonization/acquiescence and conflict that exists between state politics and global circuits of capital and power — the network of inter-, trans- and supra-national bodies (such as NATO, the EU, the G7, the IMF and the World Bank) that serve to underpin, extend and evolve the processes of neoliberalism, and through membership of which nations have ceded sovereignty, or indeed had it taken from them.

A pressing example is the TTIP (Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership), intended to further lock-in, deepen and expand the neoliberal organization of society, and through doing so further weaken undesirable aspects of state sovereignty. A treaty which Scotland will likely be bound by; either through remaining in a UK that has ratified it, or through a post-yes-referendum EU membership.

For a level of independence in which, individually and collectively, we have a say in decisions to the extent that they effect us — that is, participatory democracy — it is incumbent upon us to resist such plans, which includes those of considerable sections of the mainstream Yes campaign. That is, to evolve, build and connect social movements that not only resist and create alternative visions and strategies to the kinds of arrangements and pressures just outlined, but that over time move beyond not just capitalism but the nation-state system itself.

The SNP and the Constitutional Position

It is worth closely examining the recent history of the SNP government, as well as their proposals for a technocratic future Scotland – especially their White Paperxvi and constitutional plans.xvii We hold concerns about both the inter-related process and content. Why is there need for a bill in these terms, rather than the procedural minimum necessary – a “minimal constitutional model which would still leave policy choices to the new parliament”?xviii

The SNP propose a nation-state determined by:

  • Monarchic oversight and thus a continued acceptance of anti-democratic Crown Powers;
  • A US-dominated NATO with its neo-colonial role and developing strategy of first use of nuclear weapons;
  • The ceding of sovereignty to an EU neoliberal framework;
  • The economic primacy of the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) sector, and hence continued domination by corporations — for example, through low corporate taxes and the exploitation of debt and rent at all scales, from individual to state;
  • A commitment to endless economic growth with fossil fuels a significant economic driver.

Such a “treaty-worthy/ready” state (in Chomsky’s terms) will be subjected to and driven by the same neoliberal market processes as Westminster.The realities of the SNP proposals and present policies is that they would function to close down genuinely radical alternative visions and strategies.

Whatever the outcome of the referendum, large numbers of people in Scotland have already expressed a sense of disenfranchisement and powerlessness and seek a greater say in how their lives are shaped. That aspiration cannot be satisfied by what is on offer. We will still have to work, post-referendum, to create and develop actual democratic structures and relations.

Issues Arising

Following on from these propositions are issues that we feel are either absented, paid insufficient attention, or grossly misrepresented across the referendum campaigns. They concern imagined visions of society and how we might wish to get to the many possible futures from here — something contingent upon the contemporary contexts of the integrated crises which we face.

Ecological Issues and Imperatives:

The roles of the state in creating and deepening the ecological and environmental crises of global warming, climate chaos, resource depletion and environmental degradation have been the significant elephant in the room with regard to referendum debates and positions, specifically for claims centred on a need for exploitation of oil and gas. Yet, the science tells us that to keep global warming to within a (still dangerous) rise of two degrees Celsius, it is imperative that we leave most petro-carbons in the ground, unexploited.

Further, across the campaigns, environmental policies comfortably sit within the capitalist paradigm, and thus are still based on a model of seeking infinite growth on a finite planet. A system that will continue to create climate chaos and further environmental degradation, even if we do leave carbon in the ground! Which is not to say that, if possible (a very serious question and doubt), these would not be small but significant improvements. But that we urgently need to replace these dictates and imperatives of capital — indeed the entire capitalist system.

Environmentally, we must develop resilience to eco-system changes otherwise locked-in, while rapidly moving from a carbon-based system of immense energy consumption to one that is more localized and consumes considerably less, promoting de-carbonization. Basing that on renewables — creating a low or zero carbon infrastructure — that permits the use of what carbon we do extract for the many petrochemical functions that are vital to modern society. It is worth noting that Scotland is particularly well placed to do so, with huge potential resources in terms of renewable energy.

Representative and Participatory Democracy:

Most of the debate to date has taken place within the paradigm of ‘representative democracy’ — the electoral system symbiotic with, and that is used to justify, capitalism in much of ‘the global north’. It is essential to puncture the myth that such a system is either representative of (or accountable to) those for whom it is claimed to be. Nor is it democratic. In that it does not lead to people actually being the decision makers — to people having, to the greatest degree possible, the ultimate power over decisions, regarding all aspects of society to the extent that they are likely to be affected by them.

It is this participatory democracy that must be prefigured in our movements, working towards an inclusive conflictual politics rather than a consensus that shrinks political space. The relations, processes and practices of our movements should demonstrate a possible world by reflecting the very values and objectives that we espouse.

Nuclear and Militarism — and Demilitarisation

There appears to be agreement across the Yes campaigns with the SNP policy of removal of Trident from Scotland. Yet, while welcome, as it is presently formulated this is limited, and we have to ask if it amounts to much more than a policy of ‘not in our backyard’? Central to the SNP’s stance is the hypocrisy of seeking to remain a member of NATO — a US-dominated, expansionist, and interventionist body and projectxl responsible for:

  • A military alliance with an evolving strategy of first use of nuclear weapons and a continuing history of illegitimate, immoral, and by their own logic, illegal wars and occupations;
  • Waging ‘war’ by other means — the economic pressuring of countries through diplomatic and development routes; from debt and spending, trade liberalization and privatization, to sanctions.

We should, instead, withdraw from NATO, alongside a unilateral relinquishment of nuclear weapons and, indeed, all other weapons and means of mass destruction. Further, we should demilitarize Scotland — which goes beyond divestment of nuclear weapons. A demilitarization through which we end both Scotland’s role as a constituent part of US global bases and force projection, and its part in the manufacturing and distribution chain of militarism globally.

The vast sums saved could instead underpin not just the protection but the expansion and improvement of public services, the vital rapid transition to renewable energy, and thus crucial opportunities for the creation of socially useful employment that such projects would create.

Questions

We will conclude by raising some questions. The first is relevant in the event of a ‘Yes’ vote: how do we not get the neoliberal Scotland envisaged in the SNP’s White Paper? And, more long term, how do we overcome a capitalist Scotland at the hands of any of the political parties?

Secondly, in the event of a ‘No’ vote: how do we resist, through building alternatives to, that which appears to inevitably be in store for us at the hands of the dominant powers in the UK? (Deepening and intensified so-called ‘austerity’, with extra foreclosure to stem any future challenges to UK state legitimacy). Further, what are the points of class (and other) oppressions and antagonisms that far too many national discussions have served, in large part, to overwrite or obscure?

Other questions needing to be asked whatever the result of the vote include: how do we contest the socio-economic consensus of There Is No Alternative (TINA)? That is, claims that there are no alternatives to an incontestable neoliberal vision — the entrenched dogma of competitive nationalism(s); where institutions are subject to reproduction of both banal and overt state ideology, where culture and education are pressed to contribute to a cohering of nationhood and positioned as a competitive factor, and where individuals are treated as responsible for not maximising their economising potential so relieving their burden on the state vision.

How do we address the related crisis of democracy — the political consensus of TINA; here, wedded to claims of a ‘representative democracy’ within a parliamentary system? Such that we genuinely democratize participation and engagement in political processes and decision making? How do we come to understand, and resist, the dominance of both the mainstream media and education systems as part of the state apparatus; and their roles in the manufacture, maintenance and evolution of consent? And in doing so, nourish, build, and evolve the necessary alternatives of education and communication across society?

Nothing is conceded by power without a struggle. While proposing voting ‘Yes, But’ as the least worst option on Thursday, our central focus (whatever the referendum result) needs to be on ensuring that struggles and movements for eco-social justice are continued, deepened and expanded — working to make real the claims that other, better Scotlands (and worlds) are possible, necessary and indeed, under construction.

Gordon Asher is an educator/learner, ‘activist’ and cultural worker, an editor at Variant and board member of Strickland Distribution. He works as a Learning Developer at the University of the West of Scotland and is studying part-time for a PhD at the University of Glasgow.

Leigh French is also an editor at Variant and board member of Strickland Distribution.

 

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