Carl Sagan on marijuana
January 31, 2009 by MM
Ernest Hemingway had an interesting statement:
Happiness in intelligent people is the rarest thing I know.
This was quoted in an interesting article that described an inverse relationship between intellect and happiness. Accordingly to the article, the culprit is largely education:
Western society is not set up to nurture intelligent children and adults, the way it dotes over athletes and sports figures, especially the outstanding ones. While we have the odd notable personality such as Albert Einstein, we also have many extremely intelligent people working in occupations that are considered among the lowliest, as may be attested by a review of the membership lists of Mensa (the club for the top two percent on intelligence scales).
Education systems in countries whose primary interest is in wealth accumulation encourage heroes in movies, war and sports, but not in intellectual development. Super intelligent people manage, but few reach the top of the business or social ladder.
Although it’s definitely a debatable assertion, it’s nonetheless an interesting and controversial idea. What I gather is that the “happiness” the article harps on is grounded on moral values or prioritization that is assigned by society which is implemented and disseminated by the educational system. What society “values” highly: wealth, sports, etc.–are what defines “happiness” or success.
However, is intelligence necessarily antithetical to these values? I think there’s an implicit error here in that the article seems to differentiate or dichotomize between reason (intelligence) and emotion (happiness) when there isn’t necessarily a gap between the two. This is very apparent in thus further excerpt:
Children develop along four streams: intellectual, physical, emotional (psychological) and social. In classrooms, the smartest kids tend to be left out of more activities by other children than they are included in. They are “odd,” they are the geeks, they are social outsiders. In other words, they do not develop socially as well as they may develop intellectually or even physically where opportunities may exist for more progress.
Arguably these four “streams” are really just two: mental and physical. And these two streams are really just one: since the brain is a physical organ, and the mental stream encompasses intellect, emotion, and sociology. However by dividing a person into body and mind and the mental into further compartments, on the one hand it may give insight into human motivations, but on the other hand it may also be an excellent excuse for contradictory behavior.
Consider the following statements:
Although these statements imply varying motivations: all these motivations take place in the mind, and are all still the province of reason/rationality. The contradictions and conflicts implied in these statements all exist in the mind.
The heart doesn’t make decisions–it simply pumps blood. It’s the brain that chooses the emotional route instead of the logical one. And arguably, in this case, the emotional route becomes the logical one for the person who chooses it. Society doesn’t choose for an individual, it’s the individual who values society that chooses to follow soceity’s dictates. The social need is still in the mind. Right or moral path vs. emotion is another version of heart vs. brain. In this case by choosing the right path–you are in effect putting morality as part of your logic or reasoning. What was really in conflict are the choices of what morality to value, not a choice between morality and emotion.
So back to happiness–which is an emotion, which is part of the mind. A happy person isn’t happy because he values certain things (e.g. wealth or the body) above intellect. In reality it is his intellect that produces the emotion–his intelligence that values those things. A sad person isn’t unhappy because he chooses intellect above all things–but perhaps those things his intelligence values are lacking in his life.
Maybe the proper question is not a dichotomy between the mind and happiness–but what kind of happiness the mind is looking for.
Finally–this doesn’t touch yet on that other controversial dichotomy: that of the body (which includes the brain and the mind), and the spirit/soul.
By mid-1936 Spain was economically backward, socially volatile, and politically explosive. After a rebellion’s coup failed and with a dawning civil war on their hands, it was unsurprising that the two Spains sought supplies from the great powers to make up for their deficits in armaments and technology. Foreign supplies were, as of the coup, a necessary—if not sufficient—element of victory in the dawning civil war. But only one side received the decisive support that allowed it to overcome its initial material, territorial, and financial inferiority, and it was not the side that had the initial economic, geographic, and strategic advantage. Eventually fascist intervention allowed Franco to undertake another Reconquista, cleansing Spain not of Moors but of Reds. In the thirty-two months of protracted war, all powers would somehow change their original strategic stance toward the “Spanish question,” but not enough to alter the strategic decisions at the dawn of the conflict. The course of great power diplomacy was dictated, through a web of interlocked and synchronized decision making, on a momentous day: July 25, 1936.
After the fateful July 25 the two decisive intervening powers in the Spanish Civil War were therefore Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. Hitler and Mussolini decided on intervention in favor of Franco’s Nationalists independently, yet within hours of each other. Their analogous answer to the Spanish question would bring them closer together; but whereas Mussolini merely continued his foreign policy objective of ending the left-leaning Spanish Republic, Hitler challenged his traditional Reich diplomatic service by betting on Francisco Franco.
It would prove to be a lucrative gamble. The contrast between the two decisive fascist interventions on behalf of the Nationalists will serve to highlight the uniqueness of Nazi designs. As will become clear, Nazi intervention was not driven by ideology. While Italian leadership worried primarily about international appearances, the Germans—often ruthlessly—played their hand differently, obtaining concessions fully compatible with their domestic economic needs. In a matter of months Spain would move decisively toward becoming an informal German colony. Unlike the Führer’s daring foreign policy, Germany’s grand economic strategy did not originate with Hitler—who was uninterested and largely incompetent in financial affairs—but with a man who was, at the time of the Civil War’s outbreak, his most independent and powerful minister: Dr. Hjalmar Schacht.
The macroeconomic quandary was anything but straightforward. Although employment had seen a marked improvement since early 1933, with such depressed exports in the context of low international trade it seemed impossible to reduce the large (and growing) trade deficit. The problem was compounded by two interwoven, politically driven obsessions: maintaining the international value of the Reichsmark and resisting inflation, lest it remind the German public of bleaker Weimar days. At the time Germany’s closest trading partners were competing to see how swiftly they could abandon the “fetters” of the international gold standard of pegged exchange rates, gaining world export market share through cheaper currencies. If there was ever a currency war, this was it.Hitler’s decision on July 25, 1936, to back Franco was not the only one he took while at the Bayreuth Festival – the yearly Richard Wagner extravaganza he never missed – that shaped German involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Two years before, on July 26, 1934, he had summoned Schacht, president of Germany’s central bank, the Reichsbank, to Bayreuth for a private audience. The chancellor could ill afford to immerse himself in Wagner; the strains of a foreign exchange crisis had almost claimed the life of Minister of Economics Kurt Schmitt, who had suffered a stroke while delivering a speech. Schmitt’s subsequent leave of absence extended beyond the necessary recovery time; it appears that he was eager to find a way out of a seemingly impossible job. If this was so, one cannot blame him. Few within the Nazi regime liked the former head of insurance giant Allianz. They derided him as a symbol of outdated conservatism, a bulwark against the populist revolution so many Nazi “old fighters” hoped for. The paramilitary SAs (Sturmabteilung), for instance, sang sarcastically, “The stockbrokers are party members / and capital’s protector is Herr Schmitt.” Meanwhile Hitler and his Cabinet pressured Schmitt to deliver on their economic priorities. By mid-1934 only a few economies had begun pulling out of the Depression. German growth and employment were improving from the economic trough, but exports languished. During a publicized national tour, Schmitt called this a problem of “export fatigue”; he promoted “exports as national duty”—even if that involved “dumping” or selling abroad below cost.
Yet international markets did not buy Nazi promises; they expected a Reichsmark devaluation against the U.S. dollar and British sterling. It was neither the first nor the last time they would be disappointed. There was no way around it: in the summer of 1934 Nazi Germany faced a financial dilemma. Summoning the successful president of the Reichsbank to Bayreuth was part of Hitler’s plan to solve the crisis so that he could focus on other pressing political issues. A few weeks earlier, he had unleashed the Gestapo on his own SAs and other political rivals, including a former chancellor. The bloodbath, in what became known as the “Night of the Long Knives,” gave Hitler more power, while pleasing the conservative armed forces, the Wehrmacht. Yet managing the domestic and international backlash required the chancellor’s full attention. With Schmitt out and the financial crisis unresolved, it was time for a new face: at Bayreuth Hitler offered Schacht the Economics Ministry.
In his unashamedly unapologetic autobiography, Schacht claimed he already foresaw the dangers inherent in Hitler’s unchecked power, yet the evidence suggests that, if he did, Schacht did not let it interfere with his accumulation of power. He wanted the new portfolio to complement his second coming at the Reichsbank, and it is plausible that he had been working behind the scenes to oust Schmitt, a man he never considered his intellectual equal. But then again, who was?
The Reichsbank president was not known for his humility. It was Schacht who was credited internationally for pulling Weimar back from hyperinflationary chaos in 1924; it was Schacht who had given legitimacy to many a German delegation in 1920s and 1930s international economic conferences; it was Schacht who was a member sine qua non of the transatlantic financial establishment. The press lauded him as the “the wizard of international finance,” an epithet that he embraced wholeheartedly.
The result of the Bayreuth meeting was the financial equivalent of the papal union of temporal and spiritual power: henceforth Schacht wielded unprecedented power over both monetary and fiscal affairs. Within months foreign media began addressing him as “Germany’s economic dictator,” while expressing confidence in his able management. Markets agreed, reacting positively to his appointment. The domestic media was no less exultant. But given the many constraints on Depression-era German economics, which path was right? The answer had escaped Schmitt and his predecessor, Alfred Hugenberg. To Schacht, however, it seemed clear: the Reich’s salvation required the emphatic— or, rather, ruthless—application of nationalist economic principles he had developed throughout his meteoric career. Schacht was not the only successful economic nationalist in the Depression. Yet it was his economic framework that changed the face of the German economy, its foreign economic relations, and eventually drove the type of foreign intervention the Nazis brought to warring Spain.
Excerpted from “Hitler’s Shadow Empire: Nazi Economics and the Spanish Civil War” by Pierpaolo Barbieri. Copyright © 2015 by Pierpaolo Barbieri. Reprinted by arrangement with Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.
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.
The spring meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank being held in Washington this weekend takes place under conditions of continuing stagnation in the real economy, combined with unprecedented levels of financial parasitism and social inequality.
Stock prices in the US, Europe and Asia have hit record highs and global corporations have amassed a cash hoard of some $1.3 trillion, fuelled by cheap credit from central banks and government-corporate attacks on workers’ wages and living standards. Yet the IMF warns in its updated World Economic Outlook published this week that the world economy will remain locked in a pattern of slow growth, high unemployment and high debt for a prolonged period.
In a marked shift from previous economic projections, the IMF acknowledges that there is little prospect of a return to the growth levels that prevailed prior to the 2008 financial crash, despite trillions of dollars in public subsidies to the financial markets. This amounts to a tacit admission that the crisis ushered in by the Wall Street meltdown nearly seven years ago is of a fundamental and historical character, and that the underlying problems in the global capitalist system have not been resolved.
A sample of headlines from articles published in the past week by the Financial Times gives an indication of the deepening malaise. They include: “An economic future that may never brighten,” “IMF warns of long period of lower growth,” “Europe’s debtor paradise will end in tears,” “QE raises fears of euro zone liquidity squeeze,” and “Global property bubble fears mount as prices and yields spike.”
The IMF report focuses on a sharp and persistent decline in private business investment, particularly in the advanced economies of North America, Europe and Asia. It concludes that “potential growth in advanced economies is likely to remain below pre-crisis rates, while it is expected to decrease further in emerging market economies in the medium term.”
It goes on to note, “Unlike previous financial crises, the global financial crisis is associated not only with a reduction in the level of potential output, but also with a reduction in its growth rate… Shortly after the crisis hit in September 2008, economic activity collapsed, and more than six years after the crisis, growth is still weaker than was expected before the crisis.”
This is a stunning confirmation of the analysis of the 2008 crash made by the WSWS and the International Committee of the Fourth International. On January 11, 2008, nine months before the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, the WSWS published a statement that began:
2008 will be characterized by a significant intensification of the economic and political crisis of the world capitalist system. The turbulence in world financial markets is the expression of not merely a conjunctural downturn, but rather a profound systemic disorder which is already destabilizing international politics.
The IMF report adds, “These findings imply that living standards may expand more slowly in the future. In addition, fiscal sustainability will be more difficult to maintain as the tax base will grow more slowly.” The meaning of this euphemistic language is that there is no end in sight to the global assault on the living standards and democratic rights of the working class.
The policies of austerity that have already thrown countless millions into poverty are not temporary. They will continue as long as capitalism continues.
The IMF’s updated Global Financial Stability Report, also released this week, acknowledges that central bank policies of holding interest rates close to zero and pumping trillions of dollars into the banking system by means of “quantitative easing,” i.e., money-printing, are having little impact on the real economy. Rather, they are increasing financial risk. According to the report, financial risks have risen in the six months since the last assessment in October 2014.
The IMF’s World Economic Outlook devotes an entire chapter to the slump in private investment. It notes that private investment in the major capitalist economies—the fundamental driving force of global growth—remains at historic lows. As a percentage of gross domestic product, it is below the level experienced in the aftermath of any recession in the post-war period.
But the report, setting the tone for the discussions this weekend among world finance ministers, central bankers and their myriad economic advisers, skirts the colossal role of financial speculation and parasitism in the investment slump and the crisis as a whole. All over the world, banks and corporations are using their massive profits and cash holdings to increase stock dividends and jack up their share prices by buying back their own stock, rather than investing in production. The speculative frenzy is compounded by near-record levels of corporate buybacks and mergers.
All of these activities are entirely parasitic. They add nothing to man’s productive forces. On the contrary, they divert economic resources from productive activity to further enrich a tiny global aristocracy of bankers, CEOs and speculators.
The IMF-World Bank meeting takes place amidst an exponential growth of financial parasitism, the likes of which has never been seen in the history of the capitalist system. In the past year alone, according to an article published this week in the Financial Times, some $1 trillion has been handed back to shareholders—many of them multi-billion dollar hedge funds and investment houses—in the form of buybacks and increased dividends.
Over the past decade, S&P 500 companies have repurchased some $4 trillion worth of shares. Major companies, including Apple, Intel, IBM and General Electric, play a central role in the ongoing buyback frenzy.
Last week alone, three corporate takeovers totalling over $105 billion were announced, including Royal Dutch Shell’s purchase of Britain’s BG Group. The value of all takeovers announced this year to date is more than $1 trillion, setting the pace for 2015 to be the second biggest year for mergers and acquisitions in history.
The result is massively inflated stock prices, the proceeds from which go overwhelmingly to the rich. Over the past year, the German DAX index has risen by 24 percent, the French CAC has increased 16 percent and Japan’s Nikkei has soared 36 percent.
Bank profits are also up. This week, JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs all beat market expectations, announcing near-record profits for the first quarter of 2015, mainly on the basis of speculative trading activities.
As the real economy is starved of resources, leading to lower wages, declining job opportunities, rising unemployment and the substitution of casual and part-time employment for full-time jobs, fabulous fortunes are being accumulated on the financial heights of society.
The unprecedented degree to which the world economy is wedded to financial parasitism is an expression of the moribund state of the capitalist system.
There is another significant aspect to this weekend’s gathering that points to future developments. For seven decades, the IMF and the World Bank have formed two pillars of the economic hegemony of the United States. But the post-war regime is now cracking.
This week, Chinese authorities announced that some 57 countries—37 from Asia and 20 from the rest of the world—had signed up to the Beijing-backed Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank. The Obama administration bitterly opposed its strategic allies joining the bank, but the floodgates opened after Britain decided to join despite objections from Washington that the bank would undermine US-backed global financial institutions.
The fracturing of the global post-war economic order under conditions of deepening crisis is a sure sign that the major capitalist powers are determined to assert their own economic interests, if necessary against the US. Not only are the economic conditions of the 1930s returning, so are the political and economic divisions that led to world war.
Nick Beams and Barry Grey
I am going to come out of the closet, and make a shocking, even shameful, admission. I am not a happy person. In fact I am the sort of chap who complete strangers come up to in the street and advise to cheer up, since it might never happen.
I am not, I should emphasise, an unhappy person either. I love to laugh, and some of my novels have been admired as pretty good comedies. I think I am pretty much like most people, with moods that shift and transform. Sometimes I am happy, sometimes sad, most of the time I am pretty much neutral, with my mind elsewhere. Disappointment, fear and loss are as much a part of my life as achievement, hope and joy. It is all of a piece.
However this indeterminate state no longer seems to be socially acceptable. It is required of me, both implicitly and explicitly, that I remain in a state of continual near-explosion – passionate about this, excited about that, looking forward to something else. If not, I am antisocial, a grumpy old man. Worst of all I am a failure, because if I was a success, I would be happy. Neither am I a good person, since happiness has come to be seen as a moral end in itself.
This kind of happiness fascism is a relatively recent import from America. The British, not so long ago, were perfectly at ease with being hacked off. Moaning was once a pleasurable and acceptable pastime. No longer. Everything, as the (ironic) theme song of the Lego Movie insists, is Awesome.
Happiness, we are confidently assured, is the objective of life and it is something we “get” by working hard, shopping, playing and exercising, giving to charitable causes and taking part in the drama of late capitalism. Because capitalism loves the goal of happiness – since it can offer endless products that will promise it. When they fail to do so, it can offer alternative products which make an identical promise. And so on. Commerce thrives on unhappiness. You’d be happy if you were thin enough/fit enough/popular enough/entertained enough. And here’s the product to help you.
I am not an advocate for misery – far from it. Happiness is good for you and for those around you – there is no greater favour you can do for loved ones than show them your happiness. But you mustn’t be ashamed if you can’t.
I wish I were happy all the time – I just don’t think it’s a very realistic possibility. The daily parade of disaster on the news is sobering enough. The fact of my own mortality is a downer. Old age and sickness frighten me. The difficulties of human communication produce as much isolation as connection. The corruption and venality of the powerful are daily reminders of the ubiquitous nature of injustice. The lot of most people in this country who simply work and work harder and harder in order to spend, or simply survive, strikes me as profoundly un-jolly.
And if you doubt any of that, just look at the faces of the people in the bus and train on their way to work – or for that matter the “depressive hedonism” of drunken kids in a kebab shop on a Saturday night. It’s no coincidence that all the greatest works of human drama – from Elektra to Hamlet to A View From the Bridge – are tragedies.
Of course, a lot of these truths should rightly be ignored – humankind, as TS Eliot observed, cannot bear too much reality. I just think that it is important to remember that we need Nick Drake as well as Pharrell Williams, and that we have Mozart’s Requiem Mass as well as Mantovani’s Moon River. Once it was respectable to listen Morrissey and Ian Curtis without being thought of as a loser. The lugubrious Tony Hancock and Leonard Rossiter were national heroes. There is no equivalent today.
We can, it is suggested, find happiness through good works. This is also an ideology. I am as likely to be disappointed by “doing the right thing” as I am elevated. That’s why it’s so hard to do. The secret truth is that being unselfish can leave you just as empty as being selfish. Not that I’m advocating selfishness – just pointing out that if “goodness” were easy, it wouldn’t be particularly admirable. It would simply be a form of hedonism.
I am sincerely glad that we have all cheered up since the 1970s and 1980s. But there’s a danger that all this positivity is becoming counterproductive. One of the main barriers to satisfaction is the demand that you be happy – for we add another layer of unhappiness to our lives if we feel we are failing in what is deemed to be its primary purpose. The UN now has an International Happiness Day during which we are all instructed to be happy on pain of being branded a sad sack or general all-purpose wet blanket. If I wasn’t grumpy before, I was after this particular injunction, a classic case of happiness bullying. There is plenty of evidence that cheerfulness is not fuelling the zeitgeist quite as much as we suppose. Depressive illness is at record levels. Children are stressed like never before, as are teachers. Suicide is the main cause of death for men under 35.
There is plenty of unhappiness to go around. Why dwell on it? There’s no need, I agree. But we shouldn’t refuse to acknowledge it. TV and the internet disseminate a form of propaganda by insisting on and showcasing shiny, creative, fulfilling lives. It makes me feel inadequate because my life, although creative, and fulfilling and quite well paid, does not send me into paroxysms of ecstasy every day. It is just life, sometimes good, sometimes bad, often a confusing mixture of both.
The ancients took a different line on happiness. As Oliver Burkeman observed in his excellent book The Antidote, the Stoics were particularly keen on being mindful about all the disastrous things that might happen to you – if only to understand that they probably wouldn’t be as bad as you thought. Now instead of Seneca, we have new age gurus who tell us if we think positive thoughts we will float around on a pink cloud and get what we always wanted.
I would not go so far as Slavoj Žižek who, asked what he found most depressing, answered “the happiness of stupid people”. But I know what he meant. Anyone intelligent and sensitive and thoughtful cannot look at the world and themselves without some inkling that everything, although strange and remarkable, is not always awesome. Anyway, the light relies on the dark to exist. If we could acknowledge it, the weight of denial could be lifted. And you know what? We’d all be a lot happier for it.
Earlier this month, Dan Falcone and Saul Isaacson, both high school educators, sat down with Noam Chomsky in his Cambridge, MA office. In a brief conversation, edited and condensed here for clarity, they covered a wide range of topics — the projection of US power abroad and the stories told to justify it; COINTELPRO and domestic repression; the failures of the mainstream media; the West’s posture toward Putin; and much more. As always, we’re happy to publish Professor Chomsky’s invaluable insights.
I was recently in correspondence with a good friend of yours, Richard Falk, and we were discussing Juan Cole’s idea of “essentialism” as it pertains to the Muslim world. And this led me to think about how essentialism is present in liberal education.
For instance, take a good and appropriate cause like education for Muslim girls and how they face Taliban oppression. This is important to fight, obviously, but often the struggle is taught without the mentioning of American foreign policy or our own international crimes isolated from the entirety of the phenomenon. This type of lesson planning in secondary education gets laudatory reviews. Could you help me in contextualizing this?
Well take, say, the Taliban education that comes out of madrassas in Pakistan, and is funded by our main ally, Saudi Arabia, and was supported by the Reagan administration — because it was part of the support of Pakistan, primarily as a war against the Russians.
Well, the United States tried to keep the Russians in Afghanistan, and the goal was very explicitly stated by the CIA station chief in Islamabad, which got around the insurgency. What he said was, we don’t care about the liberation of Afghanistan. We want to kill Russians. A large part of that was to also support the worst dictatorship in Pakistan, the General Zia-ul-Haq dictatorship, who was allowed to develop nuclear weapons.
The Reaganites pretended they didn’t know, but of course they did, so that they could keep pouring funds in. The other thing that they were doing was radically “Islamizing” Pakistani society. So, the Saudis are not only the most extreme radical fundamentalists in the Islamic world and our main allies, but also a kind of missionary, and they have plenty of money. They have other wealthy sectors too, but they pour money into building mosques, Quranic schools, and so on. That’s where a lot of the Taliban came from.
So yes, we had a big role in it — plus, it’s worse than that. I mean if you take a look at the serious history after the Russians withdrew, they left behind the Najibullah government, which was pretty reasonable in many ways. In fact, for women, at least in Kabul and places like that, they’re way better off than they’ve been any time since the Russians.
And the Najibullah government, which was pretty popular, maintained itself until two events took place. 1) The Russians withdrew, pulled out, ended support, and 2) The US maintained support for the mujahideen, who are mostly religious extremists and fundamentalists — guys who throw acid at women if they aren’t wearing the right clothes and so on. And they devastated Kabul, they practically destroyed it. They took over. Their rule was so awful that when the Taliban came in, they were actually welcomed.
Well, that’s part of history too, you know? Plus a lot that’s happened since isn’t very pretty. So yeah, if you want to study the education of the Taliban, these are things to do. And it’s not that we can’t read things, like you can read the story of Malala Yousafzai, which is very evocative.
She talks about the warlord society and so on, which the US instituted. There are other things one could read. I mean, there’s a very good book by Anand Gopal which came out recently. Although he’s pretty sympathetic to the US position, so it’s mostly about what he calls “mistakes” — how the United States essentially reconstructed the Taliban by misunderstanding the society.
But what he describes is very persuasive. He goes through, and he knows the country very well. And he describes in great detail how the gangsters and warlords and criminals manipulated the US forces. Some group would say, you’ve got to attack these guys over there, they happen to be a personal enemy claiming that they’re Taliban supporters. So the US would send in Special Forces and bombers and beat the shit out of everyone — and upgraded Taliban supporters.
Gopal says the Taliban basically withdrew when the US invaded. But then we helped them come back by means like these; through reconstructing the insurgency, which the government now can’t control.
So, there’s a simultaneous support for the bandits . . .
Part of it was purposeful by the Reagan administration. Part of it is maybe just kind of arrogant ignorance. Assuming we understand how to do things when you know actually nothing about the society and just hit it with a sledgehammer and you end up supporting, maybe inadvertently, the most criminal elements who then are using the sledgehammer for their own purposes. You know, to smash up their personal enemies.
I remember some of your talks after September 11, 2001, you were mentioning how there was a lot of praise for works in the social sciences where authors were reviewing books that would say America’s really only flaw is not doing enough in reaction to other people’s crimes.
It goes on right now. Take a look at the current issue of Middle East Journal. It is one of the more free, open, most critical of professional journals. It’s been pretty good in the past, but there’s a symposium. It’s a large part of the issue, and it includes ambassadors, generals, and all kinds of big shots. They’re discussing the problems in the Middle East, the total chaos and what can we do better than in the past to stabilize the Middle East?
I mean, where did the chaos come from in Iraq and Libya? We did it. But the only question you can ask is how can we perform better in stabilizing the Middle East? Then of course there are these destabilizing elements like Iran, a rogue state, and the greatest threat to world peace. How are they to be stabilized in the Middle East?
If you take a look after the nuclear agreement, immediately there’s a lot of commentary. The New York Times had a front page, a think piece, from one of their big thinkers, Peter Baker. It says basically in agreement, you can’t trust Iran. You know, they destabilize the Middle East, and then he gives a list of reasons — each of them very interesting. But the most interesting is that one of the main crimes of Iran is that they were supporting militias that killed American soldiers.
In other words when we invade and destroy another country, that’s stabilizing, and if someone defends themselves that is destabilizing. That shows up in popular culture like this horrible film American Sniper. Take a look at it. The memoir is worse than the film, but it comes out that the first kill, the one he’s really proud of, is a woman and a child who are holding a grenade when their town is being attacked by American marines.
And they are savages, monsters, we hate them, they have to be murdered, and everybody’s applauding. I mean, even the New York Times arts pages was talking about what a wonderful film it was. It’s just mind-boggling.
Speaking of mind-boggling, and international terror, I wanted to ask about domestic terror. I wanted to ask you about COINTELPRO. It does not get a lot of mentioning in the social science or historical educational curriculum. Can you tell me about COINTELPRO and the importance of teaching and learning about it in the democratic society?
It’s an understatement to say it receives little attention. COINTELPRO was a program by the national political police, the FBI, which is basically what they are. It ran through four administrations, and it was conscious. It began by going after the Communist Party in the 1950s. It then extended into the Puerto Rican independence movement and the American Indian movements, the women’s movement, and the whole New Left. But the main target was the black movement.
It was a major program of disruption and went all the way to direct political assassination. The worst case was Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, who were simply murdered in a gestapo-style attack set up by the FBI. They were very effective black organizers. The FBI didn’t care much about the criminals, but they wanted to go after the effective organizers. It happened to have been exposed in the courts at about the same time as Watergate. I mean, in comparison to this program, Watergate is a tea party, nothing.
I was asked by the New York Review to write a brief article and a symposium when Watergate was exposed. But I had just read about this. I said look, Watergate is showing how famous people receive bad names in private and that shakes the foundation of the republic? And at the very same time you get the exposure of this incredible program, which went all the way to political assassination so it’s far more significant.
The following of the stories that are the petty crimes insulate the powerful from the major crimes.
If you look at yesterday’s New York Times, there’s a very interesting comparison between two stories. One of them is a front-page story, big continuation page. It’s about the journalistic malfeasance found in the Rolling Stone article. It’s a huge statement about terrible reporting. You know, they said the crime was a lack of skepticism, a terrible journalistic crime.
They have another article on Laos, which is quite interesting. It’s about an important woman, a Lao-American woman who’s working on trying to do something about the unexploded bombs that are killing people over in Northern Laos. And it cites a source, the right source, Fred Branfman, and his book, Voices from the Plain of Jars. And that’s where they get their information from.
Then it says, for the United States, the target of the US bombing was the Ho Chi Minh Trail where North Vietnamese were coming to South Vietnam and the Lao collaborators with the North Vietnamese. What are the facts in Fred Branfman’s book? The US was attacking Northern Laos. In fact, it’s shown on the map they were attacking, and it had nothing to do with the Ho Chi Minh Trail, no North Vietnamese.
Why were they doing it? Fred documented it. He quotes Monteagle Stearns, who was asked in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, why are we bombing this remote area of Northern Laos and wiping it out? And he gives the answer. He says there was a bombing halt over North Vietnam. And we had all these planes around and we didn’t have anything to do with them. So we destroyed Northern Laos.
That’s transmuted in the New York Times into straight government propaganda. And that’s an absolutely colossal lie. Is that going to beinvestigated by the Columbia Journalism Review? We’re going to have front-page stories? No. It’s an amazing comparison, and it’s every day.
Stephen Cohen has argued that we’re closer to war with Russia than we have been since the Cuban missile crisis. Do you think he’s overstating the crisis in Ukraine?
I don’t think so. I mean the government of Ukraine that came in after the coup, the parliament, voted almost unanimously to pursue membership in NATO. As Cohen and many others have pointed out, that is something utterly intolerable to any Russian leader. It’s kind of as if the Warsaw Pact had taken over South America and was now going to include Mexico and Canada. So, yeah, that’s serious.
It’s interesting the way Putin is treated. I think it is maybe in the same Middle East Journal I read recently, talking about supporting the US position on the Ukraine, and some serious person saying this will be opposed by North Korea, the Islamic state, and Stephen Cohen. [To question the US position on Ukraine means you will receive threats from] Stalinist apologists and get a bitter pronunciation of dismissal and ridicule.
He also suggests that we’re on the verge of a new Cold War.
It’s serious. I mean, look, Gorbachev agreed to the unification of Germany — and even its incorporation with NATO, which is an amazing concession if you look at history. But there was a quid pro quo: that NATO would “not expand one inch to the east,” that was the phrase, meaning to East Germany.
Once NATO had expanded to East Germany, Gorbachev was infuriated. He was informed by the Bush 41 administration that it was only a verbal promise. It wasn’t on paper, and the implication is if you’re dumb enough to accept a gentleman’s agreement with us, that’s your problem. Then Clinton came in, expanded NATO to the borders of Russia. And now it’s gone further, even to Ukraine which is right at the heart of, apart from historical connections, of Russian geo-strategic concerns. That’s very serious.
And it’s getting so little press, so little coverage in the US.
Not only little coverage but what there is, is insane. I mean it’s all about what a lunatic Putin is. There’s an article in one of the psychology journals about how he must have Asperger’s or some other articles about how he has brain damage. I mean, you can like him or not, but his position is perfectly understandable.
Finally, can you comment on the Holocaust Memorial and how the museum connects itself to the doctrine of the “Responsibility to Protect?” (R2P) What is America’s interest with R2P or the “Responsibility to Protect?”
The Holocaust Memorial Museum was established in the 1970s, part of a huge expansion of Holocaust studies, memorials, etc. The date is of some significance. The right time would have been decades earlier, but that was before US relations with Israel were established in their current form (after the 1967 war), and inconvenient questions might have been raised about the US’s attitudes towards the Holocaust and particularly towards survivors.
Also striking is the absence of any remotely comparable reaction to enormous US crimes, such as virtual elimination of the indigenous population and the vicious slave labor camps that had an enormous role in the prosperity of the country. The lesson seems to be clear: we can lament the hideous crimes of others, when it is convenient to do so, but only the crimes of others.
As for R2P, there are two versions of the doctrine. One was adopted by the UN General Assembly. Changes from earlier UN resolutions are slight, and crucially, it maintains the essential provisions of the UN Charter barring the use of force without Security Council authorization (or in response to armed attack, irrelevant here).
The second version, in a report by a commission headed by Gareth Evans, is almost the same, but with one crucial difference: it authorizes regional groups to intervene with force within what they take to be their domains without Security Council authorization. There is only one regional group that can act this way: NATO.
So the Evans version essentially allows NATO (meaning the US) to resort to force when it chooses to do so. That is the operative version. Appeal is made to the innocuous UN version to justify the resort to force.
The case that was in everyone’s mind was the NATO attack on Serbia in the Kosovo conflict, bitterly condemned by most of the world but applauded by the NATO countries as a wonderful tribute to their magnificence.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor (retired) at MIT. He is the author of many books and articles on international affairs and social-political issues, and a long-time participant in activist movements.