Chris Hedges: America’s Mania for Positive Thinking and Denial of Reality Will Be Our Downfall

The ridiculous positivism, the belief that we are headed toward some glorious future, defies reality.
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The naive belief that history is linear, that moral progress accompanies technical progress, is a form of collective self-delusion. It cripples our capacity for radical action and lulls us into a false sense of security. Those who cling to the myth of human progress, who believe that the world inevitably moves toward a higher material and moral state, are held captive by power. Only those who accept the very real possibility of dystopia, of the rise of a ruthless corporate totalitarianism, buttressed by the most terrifying security and surveillance apparatus in human history, are likely to carry out the self-sacrifice necessary for revolt.

The yearning for positivism that pervades our corporate culture ignores human nature and human history. But to challenge it, to state the obvious fact that things are getting worse, and may soon get much worse, is to be tossed out of the circle of magical thinking that defines American and much of Western culture. The left is as infected with this mania for hope as the right. It is a mania that obscures reality even as global capitalism disintegrates and the ecosystem unravels, potentially dooming us all.

The 19th century theorist Louis-Auguste Blanqui, unlike nearly all of his contemporaries, dismissed the belief, central to Karl Marx, that human history is a linear progression toward equality and greater morality. He warned that this absurd positivism is the lie perpetrated by oppressors: “All atrocities of the victor, the long series of his attacks are coldly transformed into constant, inevitable evolution, like that of nature. … But the sequence of human things is not inevitable like that of the universe. It can be changed at any moment.” He foresaw that scientific and technological advancement, rather than being a harbinger of progress, could be “a terrible weapon in the hands of Capital against Work and Thought.” And in a day when few others did so, he decried the despoiling of the natural world. “The axe fells, nobody replants. There is no concern for the future’s ill health.”

“Humanity,” Blanqui wrote, “is never stationary. It advances or goes backwards. Its progressive march leads it to equality. Its regressive march goes back through every stage of privilege to human slavery, the final word of the right to property.” Further, he wrote, “I am not amongst those who claim that progress can be taken for granted, that humanity cannot go backwards.”Blanqui understood that history has long periods of cultural barrenness and brutal repression. The fall of the Roman Empire, for example, led to misery throughout Europe during the Dark Ages, roughly from the sixth through the 13th centuries. There was a loss of technical knowledge (one prominent example being how to build and maintain aqueducts), and a cultural and intellectual impoverishment led to a vast historical amnesia that blotted out the greatest thinkers and artists of the classical world. None of this loss was regained until the 14th century when Europe saw the beginning of the Renaissance, a development made possible largely by the cultural flourishing of Islam, which through translating Aristotle into Arabic and other intellectual accomplishments kept alive the knowledge and wisdom of the past. The Dark Ages were marked by arbitrary rule, incessant wars, insecurity, anarchy and terror. And I see nothing to prevent the rise of a new Dark Age if we do not abolish the corporate state. Indeed, the longer the corporate state holds power the more likely a new Dark Age becomes. To trust in some mythical force called progress to save us is to become passive before corporate power. The people alone can defy these forces. And fate and history do not ensure our victory.

Blanqui tasted history’s tragic reverses. He took part in a series of French revolts, including an attempted armed insurrection in May 1839, the 1848 uprising and the Paris Commune—a socialist uprising that controlled France’s capital from March 18 until May 28 in 1871. Workers in cities such as Marseilles and Lyon attempted but failed to organize similar communes before the Paris Commune was militarily crushed.

The blundering history of the human race is always given coherence by power elites and their courtiers in the press and academia who endow it with a meaning and coherence it lacks. They need to manufacture national myths to hide the greed, violence and stupidity that characterize the march of most human societies. For the United States, refusal to confront the crisis of climate change and our endless and costly wars in the Middle East are but two examples of the follies that propel us toward catastrophe.

Wisdom is not knowledge. Knowledge deals with the particular and the actual. Knowledge is the domain of science and technology. Wisdom is about transcendence. Wisdom allows us to see and accept reality, no matter how bleak that reality may be. It is only through wisdom that we are able to cope with the messiness and absurdity of life. Wisdom is about detachment. Once wisdom is achieved, the idea of moral progress is obliterated. Wisdom throughout the ages is a constant. Did Shakespeare supersede Sophocles? Is Homer inferior to Dante? Does the Book of Ecclesiastes not have the same deep powers of observation about life that Samuel Beckett offers? Systems of power fear and seek to silence those who achieve wisdom, which is what the war by corporate forces against the humanities and art is about. Wisdom, because it sees through the facade, is a threat to power. It exposes the lies and ideologies that power uses to maintain its privilege and its warped ideology of progress.

Knowledge does not lead to wisdom. Knowledge is more often a tool for repression. Knowledge, through the careful selection and manipulation of facts, gives a false unity to reality. It creates a fictitious collective memory and narrative. It manufactures abstract concepts of honor, glory, heroism, duty and destiny that buttress the power of the state, feed the disease of nationalism and call for blind obedience in the name of patriotism. It allows human beings to explain the advances and reverses in human achievement and morality, as well as the process of birth and decay in the natural world, as parts of a vast movement forward in time. The collective enthusiasm for manufactured national and personal narratives, which is a form of self-exaltation, blots out reality. The myths we create that foster a fictitious hope and false sense of superiority are celebrations of ourselves. They mock wisdom. And they keep us passive.

Wisdom connects us with forces that cannot be measured empirically and that are outside the confines of the rational world. To be wise is to pay homage to beauty, truth, grief, the brevity of life, our own mortality, love and the absurdity and mystery of existence. It is, in short, to honor the sacred. Those who remain trapped in the dogmas perpetuated by technology and knowledge, who believe in the inevitability of human progress, are idiot savants.

“Self-awareness is as much a disability as a power,” the philosopher John Gray writes. “The most accomplished pianist is not the one who is most aware of her movements when she plays. The best craftsman may not know how he works. Very often we are at our most skillful when we are least self-aware. That may be why many cultures have sought to disrupt or diminish self-conscious awareness. In Japan, archers are taught that they will hit the target only when they no longer think of it—or themselves.”

Artists and philosophers, who expose the mercurial undercurrents of the subconscious, allow us to face an unvarnished truth. Works of art and philosophy informed by the intuitive, unarticulated meanderings of the human psyche transcend those constructed by the plodding conscious mind. The freeing potency of visceral memories does not arrive through the intellect. These memories are impervious to rational control. And they alone lead to wisdom.

Those with power have always manipulated reality and created ideologies defined as progress to justify systems of exploitation. Monarchs and religious authorities did this in the Middle Ages. Today this is done by the high priests of modernity—the technocrats, scholars, scientists, politicians, journalists and economists. They deform reality. They foster the myth of preordained inevitability and pure rationality. But such knowledge—which dominates our universities—is anti-thought. It precludes all alternatives. It is used to end discussion. It is designed to give to the forces of science or the free market or globalization a veneer of rational discourse, to persuade us to place our faith in these forces and trust our fate to them. These forces, the experts assure us, are as unalterable as nature. They will lead us forward. To question them is heresy.

The Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, in his 1942 novella “Chess Story,” chronicles the arcane specializations that have created technocrats unable to question the systems they serve, as well as a society that foolishly reveres them. Mirko Czentovic, the world chess champion, represents the technocrat. His mental energy is invested solely in the 64 squares of the chessboard. Apart from the game, he is a dolt, a monomaniac like all monomaniacs, who “burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world.” When Czentovic “senses an educated person he crawls into his shell. That way no one will ever be able to boast of having heard him say something stupid or of having plumbed the depths of his seemingly boundless ignorance.”

An Austrian lawyer known as Dr. B, whom the Gestapo had held for many months in solitary confinement, challenges Czentovic to a game of chess. During his confinement, the lawyer’s only reading material was a chess manual, which he memorized. He reconstructed games in his head. Forced by his captivity to replicate the single-minded obsession of the technocrat Czentovic, Dr. B too became trapped inside a specialized world, and, unlike Czentovic, he became insane temporarily as he focused on a tiny, specialized piece of human activity. When he challenges the chess champion, his insanity returns.

Zweig, who mourned for the broad liberal culture of educated Europe swallowed up by fascism and modern bureaucracy, warns of the absurdity and danger of a planet run by technocrats. For him, the rise of the Industrial Age and the industrial man and woman is a terrifying metamorphosis in the relationship of human beings to the world. As specialists and bureaucrats, human beings become tools, able to make systems of exploitation and even terror function efficiently without the slightest sense of personal responsibility or understanding. They retreat into the arcane language of all specialists, to mask what they are doing and give to their work a sanitized, clinical veneer.

This is Hannah Arendt’s central point in “Eichmann in Jerusalem.” Technocratic human beings are spiritually dead. They are capable of anything, no matter how heinous, because they do not reflect upon or question the ultimate goal. “The longer one listened to him,” Arendt writes of the Nazi Adolf Eichmann on trial, “the more obvious it became that his inability to speak was closely connected with an inability to think, namely, to think from the standpoint of somebody else. No communication was possible with him, not because he lied but because he was surrounded by the most reliable of all safeguards against the words and presence of others, and hence against reality as such.”

Zweig, horrified by a world run by technocrats, committed suicide with his wife in 1942. He knew that from then on, the Czentovics would be exalted in the service of state and corporate monstrosities.

Resistance, as Alexander Berkman points out, is first about learning to speak differently and abandoning the vocabulary of the “rational” technocrats who rule. Once we discover new words and ideas through which to perceive and explain reality, we free ourselves from neoliberal capitalism, which functions, as Walter Benjamin knew, like a state religion. Resistance will take place outside the boundaries of popular culture and academia, where the deadening weight of the dominant ideology curtails creativity and independent thought.

As global capitalism disintegrates, the heresy our corporate masters fear is gaining currency. But that heresy will not be effective until it is divorced from the mania for hope that is an essential part of corporate indoctrination. The ridiculous positivism, the belief that we are headed toward some glorious future, defies reality. Hope, in this sense, is a form of disempowerment.

There is nothing inevitable about human existence except birth and death. There are no forces, whether divine or technical, that will guarantee us a better future. When we give up false hopes, when we see human nature and history for what they are, when we accept that progress is not preordained, then we can act with an urgency and passion that comprehends the grim possibilities ahead.

Fracking linked to earthquakes and increased levels of radon in homes

fracking_diagram

By Philip Guelpa
4 May 2015

A newly released study indicates that a significant correlation exists between areas where fracking (high volume hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal directional drilling used to extract oil and natural gas from shale deposits) is taking place and elevated levels of radon.

Radon is an odorless, colorless radioactive gas, a known carcinogen, which accumulates in homes and commercial buildings. It is a radioactive decomposition product of radium-226, and is the second leading cause of lung cancer after smoking.

The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, was conducted by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, UC San Francisco, and Johns Hopkins University.

In a separate study, government researchers identified a statistically significant correlation between increased seismic activity and the proximity of injection wells used to dispose of huge quantities of contaminated fracking wastewater.

Neither of these findings is entirely surprising. It has been known for years that the fracking process employs huge quantities of water and a witch’s brew of toxic and carcinogenic chemicals to break open the shale bedrock in order to release oil and natural gas trapped within. It is also known that, in addition to the hydrocarbons, the resulting wastewater “backflow” may also bring up harmful heavy metals and radioactive materials. However, the industry and its political supporters have consistently denied that this is of concern.

The findings regarding radon are based on analysis of over 860,000 measurements taken in Pennsylvania homes and other buildings from 1989 to 2013. Levels of radon began to increase noticeably in 2004 as fracking activity intensified. Between 2005 and 2013, 7,469 fracking wells were drilled in the state.

Radium is a naturally occurring inclusion in the shale deposits being fracked. As it decomposes into radon gas, it normally travels to the surface in varying quantities and can accumulate in building basements, posing a health danger to the occupants. However, the significant increase in radon levels in recent years correlated with the expansion of fracking strongly suggests a cause and effect relationship, posing a marked increase in health risk.

Joan Casey of University of California Berkeley, a coauthor of the study, said in a statement released by Johns Hopkins University that, “By drilling 7,000 holes in the ground, the fracking industry may have changed the geology and created new pathways for radon to rise to the surface.”

Among the study’s findings was that radon concentrations were 21 percent higher in buildings that used well water as compared to municipal sources. Buildings in rural areas where fracking is prevalent were found to have radon in concentrations 39 percent higher than those in urban areas, where fracking is not taking place.

Radon has a half-life of about four days. Within 20 days it has lost 95 percent of its radioactivity. Therefore, the source of radon contamination must be in close proximity to the locations where increased levels have been found.

The new study contradicts earlier findings by Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, published in January, that there is “little potential for additional radon exposure to the public” due to fracking. Last fall, earlier DEP studies downplaying the dangers of fracking were brought into question when it was revealed that they omitted measurements on many important contaminants. Given that the state’s politicians are heavily supportive of fracking, the latest DEP study must be viewed as suspect. The reliability of the UC/Johns Hopkins results is bolstered by the very large sample size of the data used and the fact that the source of the data is the DEP itself.

Another study, published last October, using data from five states, found elevated levels of eight toxic chemicals near fracking sites. These included benzene and formaldehyde, both known carcinogens. And, a September study by the National Institutes of Health found that Pennsylvanians who live close to natural gas wells are twice as likely to report skin and respiratory problems as residents who live farther away.

Not only does fracking pose dangers stemming from the release of toxic and radioactive materials, but the disposal of the huge quantities of contaminated wastewater that result is also a major problem. Treating this effluent to make it safe to return to the environment is technically difficult and expensive. Most sewage treatment plants are not capable of accomplishing this task. Therefore, the industry employs various methods to make the waste “disappear.”

One favored method is the injection of the fracking fluid deep underground, where it is supposedly “sequestered,” preventing environmental contamination. In Oklahoma, more than 50 billion gallons of wastewater went into disposal wells in 2013 alone, according to the Oklahoma Geological Survey. Not only does this make the water unavailable for future use, an especially troublesome problem for arid areas, but it is becoming increasingly evident that introducing large quantities of water under pressure into geologic formations where it did not formerly exist is resulting in seismic disturbances—earthquakes.

A study by the US Geological Survey, released last Thursday, demonstrates a clear correlation between the increasing frequency of earthquakes and the injection well disposal of fracking wastewater. In Oklahoma, the hardest-hit state, earthquakes are hundreds of time more likely than they were a few years ago, before the underground disposal began. Elevated seismic activity associated with this practice was found in eight other states as well.

According to the report, Oklahoma is now experiencing quakes of magnitude 3 or greater at the rate of one or two a day. Previously, such events occurred there only once or twice per year. The state government has been forced to publicly acknowledge the link between the increased seismic activity and fracking wastewater injection wells.

This comes after years of denials by industry and government representatives across the country. There has been only limited regulation of fracking fluid disposal using this method. In 1988 the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) cited a loophole in the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) which regulates hazardous and solid waste, exempting the waste from oil and gas exploration, development, and production from oversight, leaving responsibility to even weaker or nonexistent state regulations.

Earthquakes of magnitude 5 or greater are capable of producing structural damage. In 2011, Oklahoma experience a magnitude 5.6 quake, which is the largest yet recorded that can be linked to fracking wastewater disposal. The cumulative effect of increasing numbers of disposal wells, especially when concentrated in close proximity appears to increase not only the frequency but also the intensity of such events.

Estimates suggest that quakes of magnitudes up to 7 or 8 could result from this practice. This is within the range of naturally occurring tremors that caused major damage. For example, the 1995 Los Angeles earthquake reached 6.7 and the San Francisco quake of 1989 measured 6.9.

Further confirmation of the link between well disposal and earthquakes comes from the observation that in the few areas where this practice has been halted, the frequency of quakes has dropped dramatically.

The Kansas Corporation Commission (KCC), a state regulatory agency, stated in an official report, “The commission finds increased seismic activity constitutes an immediate danger to the public health, safety and welfare. The commission finds damage may result if immediate action is not taken.” However, in deference to the power of the petroleum industry, the order is limited to areas where an increase in earthquake activity has already been observed.

The influence of the industry over state regulators is illustrated by a recently revealed incident in Oklahoma. As shown by emails obtained under the freedom of information law, the state seismologist, Austin Holland, was summoned to a meeting in 2013 with Oklahoma City-based oil and gas tycoon Harold Hamm. Hamm, who has been called the founding father of the US fracking boom, expressed his “concern” that earthquakes were being linked to the fracking process. Holland indicated that meeting was “intimidating.” This was reportedly at least the second such meeting with industry executives.

The pattern seen emerging from multiple efforts by a variety of researchers consistently points to one conclusion: the combination of high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal directional drilling used to extract oil and natural gas from shale deposits, as currently practiced, poses a marked and immediate danger to human health and the environment. Despite persistent industry claims to the contrary, the process itself and the resulting waste create safety hazards.

Leakage and spillage expose humans, both industry workers and residents in nearby communities, as well as plants and animals in the environment, to carcinogens and other toxic materials at unsafe concentrations. Furthermore, tremendous quantities of water, contaminated by the fracking process, are difficult or impossible to safely return to the environment. Efforts to sequester the wastewater by injection deep underground not only remove it from any further practical use, a concern especially in more arid regions, but also causes increasingly dangerous earthquakes.

The vast proliferation of fracking in the US, where it is currently being conducted in 18 states, and increasingly around the world, is driven by a combination of the unfettered drive for profit by energy companies and increasing geopolitical rivalries without regard to the consequences.

 

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2015/05/04/frac-m04.html

 

Esther the Wonder Pig is wondrous indeed — but so are all pigs

During 10 years as a pig farmer I came to know pigs as well as I know my own dog. That’s why I quit

Esther the Wonder Pig is wondrous indeed -- but so are all pigs
Esther the Wonder Pig (Credit: Facebook/Esther the Wonder Pig)

There is a pig out there who lives with a family of humans, dogs and cats, not other pigs. Her name is Esther, and we should all get to know her. Her human family members, Derek Walter and Steve Jenkins, believe she is wondrous, so her name is not just Esther. It is Esther the Wonder Pig. Derek and Steve believe that Esther is so wondrous that they turned Esther onto social media. She has her own Facebook page. She is on YouTube. She even tweets. Over the past couple of years, Esther has garnered quite a following – her Facebook page has more than 275,000 likes. Among vegans, vegetarians and people in the animal compassion communities, Esther is a celebrity. Esther is the it pig.

Esther started out as a small “mini” pig that Steve and Derek adopted from a friend who couldn’t handle having Esther as a pet. Esther the mini pig. As is so often the case with mini pigs, not so much. Once home at Steve and Derek’s townhouse outside of Toronto, Esther, who was actually not a mini pig at all, but a baby commercial pig, quickly grew from mini straight past big beyond huge to humongo. She now weighs over 600 pounds, and is more than 5, maybe even 6, feet from nose to tail. Six hundred pounds or not, Esther is quite a cream puff, and a total ham (the good kind) for the camera.

Scrolling through Esther’s social media accounts and her website, you can see pictures of Esther in the house lounging on her bed, on Derek and Steve’s bed, or on the couch (she is quite the lounger), and of her snuggling with her canine siblings (with her feline siblings nearby – feigning feline aloofness, of course). You can also see pictures and videos of her hamming (again, the good kind) it up as she sits or stands, waiting patiently with that pretty pig smile on her face for a treat like pies, often homemade by her loving humans. You can also see Esther running and playing in the backyard. You can see her being mischievous, and, as any 600-pound adolescent will do, wreaking havoc. The videos and pictures are captivating. They are simply a joy to watch. I never tire of them. I love Esther.

However, there is more going on here than mere entertainment. The videos and photographs of Esther elevate her from an abstract idea (practically none of us have any direct experience with pigs) to a real, concrete, individuated being, placing her, in terms of our ability to relate with and to her, on par with the family dog. Esther is clearly a unique individual being, with interests that are personal and particular, and that should be fostered and protected. She has great emotional, psychological and intellectual capacities. She is a being that one can bond with. Esther is every bit as dear as Fido.

And, this is evidently so. In spring 2014, Derek and Steve launched an Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign to fund the purchase of a farm where Esther would be able to fully express herself (her life in the suburbs of Toronto is somewhat limited) and that they would turn into a farm animal sanctuary. In just 60 days, nearly 7,500 people together contributed a total of $440,245 (CAD), nearly half a million dollars, and 10 percent more than the funding goal, so that a pig could move to a home better suited to her. That is a lot of love.

How is that possible? It is possible because Esther is so absolutely endearing. She seems so unique and unusual. She seems set apart from all of the rest of the pigs in the world. When we see Esther, we don’t see a pig, plain and simple, we see a wondrous pig, different and more extraordinary than all the rest of the pigs in pigdom. Esther strikes us as one in a million, maybe even one in a billion. Esther seems, then, in a word, special. She seems so special that to kill her would be a crime.

For about 10 years, until November 2014, I was a pig farmer. As a pig farmer, I raised pigs to be killed so that people, myself included, could eat their meat. Over those years, I spent well over 10,000 hours working closely with pigs. I came to know pigs – pigness, that is, what it fundamentally means to be a pig – as well as I know my own dog (and I use “my own” here in the same way I say my own brother, not as property, but as a cherished part of my family). Ultimately, I came to know pigs so well that I could no longer see what distinguishes a pig from a dog, or, on occasion, even from me, and for this reason, I quit pig farming. I did more than that. I adopted a vegan diet.

With this brief biography in mind I would like to say that there is nothing, literally nothing at all, special about Esther the Wonder Pig. She is wondrous. She is a unique individual with distinct interests and particular tastes. However, in terms of how she lives her life with her family, she is perfectly ordinary. Esther is not cute, lovable and loving, smart, playful, mischievous, gentle, well-mannered, mirthful, gregariously snuggly and fastidious because she is special. She is all of those things, so powerfully all of those things, because she is a pig. That string of adjectives does not describe Esther alone. It describes the very heart and soul of every pig on the planet. It describes pigness. Truth be told, and it should be told, any pig anywhere in the world living in a situation similar to Esther’s – granting personality, emotional and psychological uniqueness – would act and behave just like Esther.

Simply put, Esther is every pig. Every pig is Esther. If you love Esther, you love all pigs. If you think Esther’s life is cherished, you think all pigs’ lives are cherished. If you think to kill Esther would be a transgression amounting to murder, you think killing any pig would amount to the same.

At this moment, more than 60 million Esthers are languishing in pig production factories in the United States alone, a few million of whom are confined to barren metal crates so small they are unable to walk or turn around. As for the rest, they are doing their best to retain some semblance of their pigness, as they live crammed together in spaces too small and in groups too large for their instinctive, hierarchical social calculus to comprehend, making them live in anxious uncertainty about their place in the world. They spend every moment living on hard, unforgiving concrete floors; their powerful interests and desires to root, to forage, to run, to play, to bask in the sun – to do the very things that make them pigs – go woefully unmet as they pursue the one interest they are allowed to satisfy, eating. They belly up to the trough and eat, unwittingly growing themselves into meat. While their lives might indeed be better, the fate of the few 10,000 pigs raised outdoors on small pasture-based farms like mine is no different. They too become meat.

Making meat is not benign. It takes a life, a life that not only by its very nature, but by our own reckoning – by the joy Esther brings us and the love we feel for her – is precious. In order for people to satisfy what amounts to a mere gustatory craving, the beautiful essence, the fundamental core of Esther’s pigness, her being, must be wantonly and utterly obliterated.

I know this. I know this because I spent a quarter of my life sharing time with and taking care of a couple thousand Esthers. I know this because on the day that I finally came to, I realized that my efforts to raise pigs humanely had failed: in nearly 10 years I had never looked into a pig’s eyes and found them empty, vacant; they were always vibrant and full; there was always someone looking back at me, someone wondrous, someone sacred.

Note: Background details about Esther and her family come primarily from the Huffington Post article “Esther the Wonder Pig Is a 500-Pound House Pet, and So Much More” by Arin Greenwood.

http://www.salon.com/2015/05/03/esther_the_wonder_pig_is_wondrous_indeed_special_but_so_are_all_pigs/?source=newsletter

 

The Big Shift Needed for Humanity to Protect the Earth: Restore the Commons

On Earth Day, let’s talk about making the commons the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life.

Photo Credit: Garry Knight/Flickr

At a time when ecological destruction is more dire than ever, the work of protecting the planet depends on dreamers just as much as of scientists, activists, public officials and business leaders.

Earth Day, when millions of people voice support for environmental causes, is the perfect time to recognize this. While it’s critical to wrestle power away from those who believe that corporate profits are all that matter, we won’t achieve a sustainable, just future without serious attention to imagining a different kind of world. That’s why it’s great to see artists playing an increasingly active role in the climate justice movement today.

What bold blueprints for a green planet will arise if we unleash the full power of our idealism and ingenuity? What visions of new ways to lead our lives would turn the public’s indifference about climate change into enthusiasm for building a society that is more sustainable and fair for all?

The focus for most people’s dreams would be the familiar places they love—neighborhoods, cities, suburbs, villages and countryside. Think what could happen if we declared these places commons, which belong to all of us and need to be improved for future generations. Citizens would stand up, lock arms with their neighbors and demand new political and economic directions for our society. They would open discussions with business leaders, government officials, scientists and design professionals on how to create resilient, equitable, greener communities. But the conversation wouldn’t stop there. We’d plan for less carbon and waste and poverty, but also for more fun and joy and conviviality—which are equally strategic goals.

The chief obstacle to taking action on climate change and global inequality is fear of the economic sacrifices involved for people who are relatively well off today. The decline in the West’s material consumption could be more than compensated for by a richer life filled more human connections and natural splendor. We can look forward to a world with more congenial gathering places like parks, plazas, museums, playing fields, ice cream parlors and cafes—lots and lots of cafes. Millions of acres and hectares of pavement would be torn up and transformed into gardens, performance spaces, amusement parks and affordable housing.

Cities would be greener. Suburbs would be livelier. Rural communities would be more robust. You’d see folks of all ages, incomes, and ethnicities as well as social and political inclinations sharing the same spaces, talking with one another even if not always agreeing. In short, the world would be a lot more interesting for everyone. I can’t think of many folks—from free market zealots to ardent political organizers, religious fundamentalists to confirmed hedonists—who wouldn’t jump at the chance to experience more pizzazz and spirit of community in their lives.

But the biggest change we’d see if the commons became the organizing principle of social, economic and cultural life would be felt in our own hearts and imaginations. These days, most of us experience modern life as a fragmented and alienating, which makes us retreat into ourselves as a defensive posture. We feel a growing sense of loneliness—quiet desperation in Thoreau’s phrase—that renders us passive and withdrawn at a time when it’s more important than ever to reach out.

Creating stronger, friendlier, more engaged communities is not a sideshow in the urgent cause of saving the planet. It is a central strategy. Because when people connect, roll up their sleeves and get down to work protecting the places they care about, anything is possible. There’s a whole world of people out there ready to dream big and then put it into action.

Jay Walljasper is a writer and speaker who explores how new ideas in urban planning, tourism, community development, sustainability, politics and culture can improve our lives as well as the world.

http://www.alternet.org/environment/earth-day-commons-dream?akid=13026.265072.J60ngo&rd=1&src=newsletter1035195&t=7

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction
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by LOUIS PROYECT

Two films concerned with water and environmental activism arrive in New York this week. “Groundswell Rising”, which premieres at the Maysles Theater in Harlem today, is about the struggle to safeguard lakes and rivers from fracking while “Revolution”, which opens at the Cinema Village next Wednesday, documents the impact of global warming on the oceans. Taking the holistic view, one can understand how some of the most basic conditions of life are threatened by a basic contradiction. Civilization, the quintessential expression of Enlightenment values that relies on ever-expanding energy, threatens to reduce humanity to barbarism if not extinction through exactly such energy production.

This challenge not only faces those of us now living under capitalism but our descendants who will be living under a more rational system. No matter the way in which goods and services are produced, for profit or on the basis of human need, humanity is faced with ecological constraints that must be overcome otherwise we will be subject to a Sixth Extinction. Under capitalism, Sixth Extinction is guaranteed. Under socialism, survival is possible but only as a result of a radical transformation of how society is organized, something that Marx alluded to in the Communist Manifesto when he called for a “gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.”

“Groundswell Rising” covers some of the same ground as Josh Fox’s “Gaslandia” but is more about the activism that has taken off ever since people became aware that fracking was a threat to their health and economic well-being. While most of us are probably aware that water that catches fire is probably not a good thing to drink, PBS veteran filmmakers and brothers Matt and Renard Cohen make the case that fracking’s economic benefits are dubious at best. For every farmer or rancher who has leased his land for drilling, there are many homeowners living nearby who get nothing but the shitty end of the stick: pollution, noise and a loss of property value.

One of these homeowners in rural Pennsylvania inherited his house and land from his father who taught Craig Stevens “conservative rightwing values” but it was exactly those values that turned him into an anti-fracking activist. Rooted in a space that has belonged to his family for 180 years, Stevens was shocked to discover that Chesapeake Gas owned the mineral rights underneath his land without ever having been given access to anything on the surface. His property has become collateral damage as mud spills poured across his land from nearby hills where Chesapeake cut trees in order to create a clearing for their equipment. The noise and fumes that emanate from the drilling have destroyed his way of life, so much so that Stevens is happy to speak at rallies alongside people whose views on private property are radically different than his own.

What gives the film its power is the attention paid to people like Stevens who organized petition drives and showed up at town council meetings to voice their opposition to fracking. They look like Tea Party activists or Walmart shoppers, mostly white and plain as a barn door, but they know that they do not want drilling in their townships and are willing to fight tooth and nail to prevent it. For all of the left’s dismay about its lack of power, the film’s closing credits reveal that there are 312 local anti-fracking groups in Pennsylvania made up of exactly such people who will likely be our allies as the environmental crisis deepens.

The film benefits from a number of experts on fracking who have become increasingly politicized as the White House and its friends in the Republican Party push for fracking everywhere as part of a strategy ostensibly to make American energy-independent but more likely to increase profits for a decisive sector of the capitalist economy. Chief among them is Tony Ingraffea, a Cornell professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department with a long career consulting for companies that would likely see eye to eye with the oil and gas industry. A Mother Jones profile pointed out:

Ingraffea isn’t the likeliest scientific foe of fracking. His past research has been funded by corporations and industry interests including Schlumberger, the Gas Research Institute, General Dynamics, and Northrop Grumman. His original doctoral work, in the 1970s, involved the study of “rock fracture mechanics”—in other words, how cracks in rock form and propagate, a body of knowledge that is crucial to extractive industries like oil and gas. “I spent 20, 25 years working with the oil and gas industry…helping them to figure out how best to get oil and gas out of rock,” Ingraffea explains.

But it was exactly such a background that prepared him to become a whistle-blower who now warns about the dangers of earthquakes and water contamination from fracking. Like Craig Stevens, Tony Ingraffea came to realize that there were some things more important than corporate profits, namely the right of citizens not to be poisoned by polluted water.

Besides causing earthquakes and making water undrinkable, fracking has another downside that runs counter to the claims made for it. As an alternative to the coal burning that is responsible for greenhouse gases that cause global warming, fracking also imposes a severe toll. According to Ingraffea, up to 8 percent of the methane gas that is created as part of the natural gas extraction process leaks into the environment where it hastens global warming. Because it is 80 to 90 times more potent than coal in creating the greenhouse effect, its unintended consequences negate its advertised benefits.

Global warming’s impact on the oceans is what led 36-year-old Canadian filmmaker to make “Revolution”, a film that is a follow-up to the 2007 “Sharkwater”. “Sharkwater” was made to protest their slaughter for shark fin soup, a delicacy in Chinese restaurants that has been reduced drastically partially as a result of the campaign the film helped to inspire.

“Revolution” emerged out of concerns that had been troubling Stewart ever since a question was posed to him during the Q&A of a screening of “Sharkwater”. If all marine life is facing extinction by the end of the 21stcentury, what good does it do to protect sharks that cannot survive when fish beneath them on the food chain have disappeared?” The film shows Stewart scratching his head after hearing the question and failing to come up with an answer. It is the new film that now tries to provide one.

Before making films, Stewart was a photographer who worked for the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s magazines. His skills with underwater photography and an undergraduate science degree were the preparation he needed to make the two films.

The first 1/3rd of “Revolution” consists of underwater footage of some of the world’s best-known coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. These reefs consist of millennia of accreted organic material that serves as a hub for all sorts of fishes. Without them, marine life will certainly disappear. But to Stewart’s consternation, it is the coral reef that is disappearing. Without them, there will be no fish, including the shark that sits on the underwater empire’s throne.

This discovery led him on a search to understand what was causing the collapse of coral reefs. It turned out that a rise in ocean temperature is to blame. While most people are familiar with the threat that carbon emissions pose to the atmosphere, it is arguably more of a threat to life underneath the water. CO2 gas leads to acidification in ocean waters and thus the bleaching of coral reefs that finally leads to their destruction.

Once this became apparent to Stewart, he embarked on a mission to hear what global warming activists were doing and to put himself at their disposal. The fruit of this is contained in the final 1/3rd of the film as he shows up at the Climate Change Conference that took place in Cancun in 2010 where he was appalled to learn from activists that his native country was the world’s leading polluter. On their behalf, he accepted the Swiftian inspired “Fossil of the Day” award for Canada, a country that is host to the Alberta Tar Sands drilling sites. Activists have fought to close it for the same reasons that activists oppose fracking in the USA: it despoils the land and water while it increases global warming. It is the source of the natural gas that would have been transported by the Keystone XL pipeline, which was overruled by Obama but remains a threat to the environment as long as big oil and gas interests continue to buy politicians. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton said she was “inclined” to approve Keystone XL. Does anybody think that she will do anything differently as President?

Largely as a result of the publication of books like Elizabeth Colbert’s “The Sixth Extinction” and Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything”, as well as a myriad of scientific reports warning about the collapse of human and animal life as the 21st century stumbles forward on a path of environmental degradation, a debate has opened up on the left about what our response should be.

In the collection “Catastrophism: The Apocalyptic Politics of Collapse and Rebirth”, Eddie Yuen takes issue with an “apocalyptic” streak in exactly such articles since they lead to fear and paralysis. A good deal of his article appears to take issue with the sort of analysis developed by Naomi Klein, a bugbear to many convinced of the need to defend “classical” Marxism against fearmongering. Klein is a convenient target but the criticisms could easily apply as well to Mike Davis whose reputation is unimpeachable.

Klein’s latest book has served to focus the debate even more sharply as her critics accuse her of letting capitalism off the hook. This is not how Swedish scholar Andreas Malm views Klein’s work. In an article on “The Anthropocene Myth” that appeared in Jacobin, Malm credits Klein with laying bare “the myriad ways in which capital accumulation, in general, and its neoliberal variant, in particular, pour fuel on the fire now consuming the earth system.”

He sees Klein as an alternative to those who believe that “humankind is the new geological force transforming the planet beyond recognition, chiefly by burning prodigious amounts of coal, oil, and natural gas.” Some who share this belief, according to Malm, are Marxists.

Those who adhere to the Anthropocene myth tend to elevate the use of fire as a kind of original sin. Malm quotes Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill: “The mastery of fire by our ancestors provided humankind with a powerful monopolistic tool unavailable to other species, that put us firmly on the long path towards the Anthropocene.”

This evokes the myth of Prometheus, the Greek god who was punished for bestowing fire to mankind and who was admired by Karl Marx for the words that Aeschylus attributed to him: “In simple words, I hate the pack of gods.”

While I am inclined to agree with Malm that it is the drive for profit that explains fracking and all the rest, and that the benefits of energy production are not shared equally among nations and social classes, there is still a need to examine “civilization”. If we can easily enough discard the notion of the “Anthropocene” as the cause of global warming, the task remains: how can the planet survive when the benefits of bestowing the benefits of “civilization” across the planet so that everyone can enjoy the lifestyle of a middle-class American (or German more recently) remains the goal of socialism?

Eddie Yuen was most likely alluding to this problematic by citing the 1970s Italian revolutionary graffitiL

Con la rivoluzione caviale per tutti.

(After the revolution, caviar for everyone.)

This is presented as an alternative to the call some theorists and activists for a “managed downsizing of the scale of industrial civilization.” Speaking in the name of the poor in the Global South, Yuen wonders why they should forsake automobiles, air conditioning and consumer goods in order to pay for the climate debt incurred by their former colonial masters.

Ironically, this was the same argument made in the NY Times on April 14th by Eduardo Porter in an article titled “A Call to Look Past Sustainable Development”. He refers to the West’s environmental priorities blocking the access to energy in countries such as Nepal, Bangladesh and Cambodia now flocking to China’s new infrastructure investment bank that will most certainly not be bothered by deforestation, river blockage by megadams, air pollution and other impediments to progress.

Porter is encouraged by the findings of the Breakthrough Institute in California that has issued an “Eco-modernist Manifesto” that, among other things, proposes the adoption of nuclear energy to reduce greenhouse emissions. Not surprisingly, the Breakthrough people urge the rapid expansion of agricultural technology in the countryside and the resettlement of displaced farmers into the city since that would reduce the environmental impact on the land by backward rural folk.

For a useful response to the Breakthrough Institute, you might read Steve Breyman’s CounterPunch article titled “Climate Change Messaging: Avoid the Truth”. Breyman is appalled by their support for nuclear energy and fracking, even if muffled.

While Eddie Yuen would certainly (I hope) not identify with such charlatans, I am afraid that there is a strain of techno-optimism that is shared by both parties. Yuen’s article is filled with allusions to Malthusianism, a tendency I have seen over the years from those who simply deny the existence of ecological limits. While there is every reason to reject Malthus’s theories, there was always the false hope offered by the Green Revolution that supposedly rendered them obsolete. In 1960 SWP leader Joseph Hansen wrote a short book titled “Too Many Babies” that looked to the Green Revolution as a solution to Malthus’s theory but it failed to account for its destructive tendencies, a necessary consequence of using chemicals and monoculture.

The real answer to Malthusianism is the reunification of city and countryside as called for by Karl Marx so as to provide crops with the natural fertilizers that were common before urban life became necessary for industrial production based on profit—in other words, capitalism. In the midst of the industrial revolution, the river Thames gave off a stench of human excrement that was unbearable for those living too close while wars were fought off the coast of Latin America to gain control of the guano necessary for crops. This contradiction persists to this day, even if it takes different forms.

Finally, on Eddie Yuen’s glib reference to caviar, there’s a need to understand that even if Malthus was wrong about food production, nature is not like the goose that laid the golden eggs. Caviar comes from sturgeons. The International for the Conservation of Nature  warns that they are more endangered than any other marine life:

Twenty seven species of sturgeon are on the IUCN Red List with 63 percent listed as Critically Endangered, the Red List’s highest category of threat. Four species are now possibly extinct.

Beluga sturgeon in the Caspian Sea is listed as Critically Endangered for the first time along with all of the other commercially important Caspian Sea species, which are the main producers of wild caviar. Beluga sturgeon populations have been decimated in part due to unrelenting exploitation for black caviar – the sturgeon’s unfertilized eggs – considered the finest in the world. The other species, Russian, stellate, Persian and ship sturgeon have also suffered declines due to overfishing as well as habitat degradation in the Caspian Sea region.

How will a future society guarantee everyone a comfortable and secure life? This question is not exactly germane to the struggles we are engaged with today, but there will come a time when our grandchildren or great-grandchildren will be forced to contend with it. To think of a way in which homo sapiens and the rest of the animal and vegetable world can co-exist, however, will become more and more urgent as people begin to discover that the old way of doing things is impossible. Films such as those reviewed in this article and the debate opened by Naomi Klein’s book and the question of “catastrophism” make this discussion more immediate than they have ever been. I look forward to seeing how the debate unfolds.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/17/water-capitalism-and-catastrophism/

The Myths of US Exceptionalism

Exceptional in Health, Education & Retirement?

AmericanExceptionalism-300x199

by JACK RASMUS

One of the elements of cultural ideology in the USA is that the United States is somehow exceptional compared to other countries; that is, it is different in a number of positive ways that distinguish it from all other countries.

Exceptional in Health, Education & Retirement?

In a perverted way, there is some truth to this. The United States is exceptional in that it is the only advanced economy in the world that has failed to provide universal health care for its citizens. It has a large, parasitical for-profit health care system, dominated by multi-billion dollar profit making private health insurance companies that suck $1 trillion a year from the wallets of US consumers for pushing paper around, a vast network of ‘for profit’ hospital chains that suck another $900 billion a year, pharmaceutical drug companies that charge $94,000 for drugs to treat someone with hepatitis C (that’s $1,125 per pill) and charge patients $14,000 to $64,000 a month for cancer drugs, and it has the highest paid professional medical personnel in the world. The US spends more than $3 trillion a year, and rising, on health care. That’s about 18% of its $17.4 trillion annual GDP, or almost one dollar out of every five spent on everything is for healthcare. That’s the highest spending on healthcare in the industrial world. In return for that massive spending , it ranks 39th in infant mortality rates, 42nd in adult mortality, and 36th in life expectancy. Yes, the US is exceptional in health care.

It is also exceptional in education. Its college students have become, in effect, indentured servants to the education establishment of overpaid administrators and bankers, owing more than $1.1 trillion in debt just to get a college education—more per capita higher education debt than any other country in the world. The cost of attending a four year college today is, on average, $30,000 to $60,000 a year for a four year undergraduate education. For those who can’t afford college there’s no meaningful job training programs available any longer. Meanwhile, 70% of college professors and instructors in the US are part time/temp workers, many of whom earn poverty wages and have no benefits. That too is ‘exceptional’, I suppose.

US workers work the longest hours among the industrial economies, have the shorted annual paid vacations (on average 7 days paid a year), and face the prospect of poverty when they retire or can no longer work. Social security pensions average only $1,100 a month, private pensions (called 401k plans) average less than $50,000 total savings for those age 60 and approaching retirement, and more than half of US workers live pay check to pay check with no personal savings whatsoever. As 70 million ‘baby boomers’ born after 1945 start to retire, tens of millions of them face the prospect of a penniless, poverty-ridden retirement. No wonder the fastest growing segment of the US workforce is those aged 65-74, as many return to work just to make ends meet.

Income inequality in the US is also the most extreme among the advanced economies, and growing worse every year. CEOs of US corporations make around 400 times the average pay of the average worker in their company—the biggest gap in the industrial world. (In 1980 they made only 35 times).The wealthiest 1% households (investor class nearly all), gained no less than 95% of all the net income growth in the US since 2010, which compares to 65% during the George W. Bush years, 2001-2007, and to 45% during the Clinton years in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the median family income has been declining in the US at 1%-2% every year for the past decade. (Ok, maybe that’s not exceptional, since pay for workers has been steadily declining in Europe and Japan too).

US workers may get only 6 months unemployment benefits, at less than one-third their pay, when they lose their jobs, compared to German workers, for example, who get up to two years in jobless benefits and job retraining to boot. But, what the hell, we got more aircraft carriers than the Germans.

Yes, the US is exceptional. Its workers are the sickest, most indebted, most overworked, insecure, and among the least compensated and the most fearful of the future than any in the advanced industrial world.

The US is also exceptional in that it spends more on its military than all the rest of the advanced economies combined. The US’s true ‘war budget’ is about $1 trillion a year, not the reported $650 billion or so for the Pentagon, which is stuffed away in dozens of corners in its annual economic budget. It has more than 1000 military bases worldwide. It is engaged constantly in more wars worldwide than any other country by far. And it spies every day on more of its, and rest of the world’s, citizens than all the ‘spooks’ in the rest of the world do combined. ‘Exceptional’? You bet.

The Myth of US Economic Exceptionalism

Another favorite focus of late for the ‘US is exceptional’ crowd is the US economy.

Japan may be in its fourth recession since 2009. The Eurozone may be slipping in and out of recession every couple of years. But the US economy is in full recovery. So we’re told. It is growing nicely, while the rest of the world lags behind. Or so the ideological spin goes.

The ‘exceptionalists’ like to refer to last summer 2014’s US economic growth figures of 4% to 5% in GDP growth rates, its 200,000 a month new jobs created in 2014, and its ever-rising stock and bond markets as evidence of such economic exceptionalism. But a closer look, at last year’s much hyped 5% GDP growth in the 3rd quarter 2014, and at the data for most recent months in early 2015, show there is nothing exceptional about the US economy.

Long term, it continues to grow at an annual rate about half of what is normal in past decades.

Over the past six years, occasional quarter GDP growth rates of 4-5% typically are followed by a sharp collapse of GDP growth, or even negative GDP, within months. This in fact has happened four times since 2009 resulting in a ‘stop-go’ economic recovery: in the first quarter of 2011, fourth quarter of 2012, first quarter of 2014 last year—and it appears it may happen again a fifth time in the recent first quarter, January-March 2015.

The US economy’s ‘yo-yo’, or ‘seesaw’, economic trajectory is nothing special or exceptional. Japan and Europe have been experiencing the same. Their ‘bouncing’ along the bottom is just at a level closer to the bottom (or even below it) than has been the US economy’s the past five years. Whereas the US economy’s growth spikes up to 4% or so on occasion, only to collapse back again to zero or less growth, the US economic growth longer term has been averaging about 1.7% annually the past five years. That’s about half its normal growth rate compared to US recoveries from recessions in the past. Japan and Europe might spike to only 2% on occasion, but then slip to negative growth—i.e. into a bona fide recession.

So it’s ‘stop-go’ recovery for all three, occurring just at different levels of ‘go’ and of ‘stop’. Nothing exceptional or different economically over the longer term, in other words.

Comparing the US temporary 5% economic growth of last July-September 2014, to what will almost certainly prove to be a 1% or less growth rate for the January-March 2015 period when the final numbers come in later this May, shows that temporary, ‘one-off’ factors occurred last summer 2014 to produce the brief 4%-5% GDP US growth. Those temporary factors have since reversed or disappeared in the first three months of 2015. Take away those one-off factors of nine months ago, and one gets the less than 1% growth likely to register for the most recent three months, January-March 2015. Here’s a brief explanation:

Shale Gas/Oil Industrial Production Boom

In early 2014 the shale gas/oil boom was in full swing in the US. That boosted what is called Industrial Production and much of last year’s jobs growth. But when the global oil price glut began last June, precipitated by Saudi Arabia and its emirate friends attempt to drive the shale gas/oil producers in the US into bankruptcy, the shale boom in the US came to an abrupt halt. Industrial production slowed rapidly after the summer and has continued ever since, turning negative since December. Jobs began to disappear. It is projected that jobs in Texas, the largest shale producer, will decline by 150,000 in early 2015. 

Manufacturing & Exports

In early 2015 US manufacturing and exports continued to grow, as the US dollar remained low giving US exports an advantage. But the collapse of world oil prices and the simultaneous talk by the US central bank it would raise interest rates resulted in a 20% rise in the dollar. Japan and Eurozone QEs pushed it still higher. The result was the beginning of a collapse in late 2014 of the contribution of US manufacturing and exports to US economic growth. That continues into 2015. Manufacturing orders have declined every month since December 2014.

Obamacare Consumer Health Spending

Another one-time boost to US GDP in mid-2014 was the signing up of 9 million of US consumers into the government’s new privatized health insurance coverage program, who couldn’t get health insurance. They started paying monthly premiums, and using health care services. That provided a boost to consumer spending that didn’t previously exist. But by 2015 the sign ups have leveled off. No more additional boost consequently in 2015.

Auto Buying Boom Goes Bust

Another consumer spending element that was peaking last summer was the boom in auto sales in the US. That too has now come to an end, as the market in the US has become saturated in terms of auto sales after four years. Auto sales since December, usually a strong month for auto sales, declined and have continued declining through February. The auto boomlet in the US is over.

General US Consumer Spending

Consumer spending in general has turned negative, starting in December. The US indicator, the Personal Consumption Expenditures Index (PCE) declined in December-January, was flat in February and suggests no change in March. Consumer spending was supposed to surge, according to mainstream economists, as consumers enjoyed lower gasoline prices. Instead, consumers saved the lower gasoline prices or used it to help pay off their massive debt loads (which this writer predicted would be the case last year). US retail sales, which constitute the largest part of consumer spending, grew at a 4%-5% rate over last summer. But once again has turned negative since December 2014, falling by -1.0%, -0.9%, -0.6%, December through February, and likely falling again in March 2015. So both retail sales and consumer spending in general have turned negative.

Business Spending 

In the third quarter, July-September, of the year for the past five years, businesses in the US have boosted their spending, building up their inventories, in anticipation of a rise in year end holiday consumer spending. But the holiday spending then typically falls short of expectations, and businesses ‘work off’ the inventories in the first quarter, January-March, of the following year. This has happened yet again in 2015. Another element of business spending, on new equipment, is barely inching along, growing only 0.6% in the fourth quarter of 2014 and likely no more or even less in the first quarter.

Government Defense Spending 

It is a well-known and documented fact that in the US, every other year in which there is a national election, the federal government holds off spending early in the year so it can release it in the summer before the election. That occurred in 2012 before the national presidential elections and in 2014 before the midterm Congressional elections. That government spending gives an added boost in the July-September quarter, as politicians try to create the impression the economy is doing better than it is longer term. That too happened last summer. But that spending will contract early in 2015 relative to last summer.

US Jobs Creation 

Job creation always lags the real economy. And after growing jobs at a rate of 200,000 a month last year (mostly low paid, part time/temp, service jobs), jobs growth in March rose by only 126,000. Preceding months of January-February were also reduced. The employment data thus are now confirming the general economic slowdown in the first quarter 2015 as well. Apologists for the politicians will no doubt use the excuse of ‘bad weather’ for the feeble March jobs numbers. But what’s really happening is job creation is, and will continue, to slow due to real reasons. The ‘canary in the jobs mine’ is jobs in the goods producing sector, which have been slowing rapidly for several months and now turned negative in March. That reflects the collapse in manufacturing, mining, and good production that began late last year and now continues. The

Ideology of US Exceptionalism

In short, there is nothing exceptional about the US economy when one looks behind the ideological spin. It continues on its stop-go trajectory of the past five years. The economy weakens significantly every 4th quarter/1st quarter and the weak growth is ‘made up’ the following summer. Smoothing and averaging it all out over the year produces the longer term sub-historical average growth rate of around 1.8%–i.e. half of normal. And nothing exceptional. Japan and Europe are doing the same, just at a lower level of ‘stop-go’, sub-normal.

Long term US GDP growth is averaging 1.8% vs. 0.5% (Europe) vs. 0% (Japan). Does that make the US economy exceptional? Not really. 20 million are still jobless in the US; roughly the same as in the Eurozone. That’s not exceptional. Prices are now flat in the US (i.e. no change) and heading toward deflation; price stagnation also exists today in Europe and Japan . Real investment is declining in the US as in Europe and Japan—again nothing exceptional. And real wage incomes continue to decline for median income workers in the US—as they do for workers in Europe and Japan.

One of the favorite ideological strategies of ruling elites and classes is to convince their working classes that they are exceptional—i.e. meaning their situation may not be great, and may even be declining, but at least they are not as bad off as others. ‘It could be worse, just look at those poor workers in country X and Y. It may not be great here, but what the hell, we’re not so bad off, are we?’ The appeal to exceptionalism is just another ideological ploy to get working classes to accept their deteriorating conditions. It’s just another ideological tool to immobilize people. To accept their reality as their fate. To make them believe that, as their living conditions are getting worse, it’s not really that bad. But it is….

Jack Rasmus is author of the forthcoming book, ‘Systemic Fragility in the Global Economy’, published by Clarity Press, 2015; and the previous works, ‘Epic Recession: Prelude to Global Depression’, Pluto Press 2010, and ‘Obama’s Economy: Recovery for the Few’, Pluto Press, 2012. He blogs at jackrasmus.com.

This piece first appeared at TeleSur.

 

http://www.counterpunch.org/2015/04/08/the-myths-of-us-exceptionalism/