Why Green Capitalism Will Fail

Staying in the Environmental Frying Pan Only Gets Us Hotter


Green capitalism is destined to fail: You can’t keep doing the same thing and expect different results. We can’t shop our way out of global warming nor are there technological magic wands that will save us. There is no alternative to a dramatic change in the organization of the global economy and consumption patterns.

Such a change will not come without costs — but the costs of doing nothing, of allowing global warming to precede is far greater. Therefore it is healthy to approach with a dose of skepticism the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report that concludes the annual reduction in “consumption growth” on a global basis would be only 0.06 percent during the course of the 21st century. Almost nothing!

The “Summary for Policymakers” supplement of the IPCC’s Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change report, a dense 33-page document, estimates that the annualized reduction in consumption growth would be 0.04 to 0.16 percent, with the median value of various models at 0.06 percent. This estimate is based on projected global annual growth of 1.6 to 3.0 percent per year during the full course of the 21st century. [page 15]

This estimated cost is what the IPCC believes is what would be required to hold the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide equivalent to 450 parts per million, the level at which the IPCC believes total global warming would be 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100, which in turn is seen as the maximum temperature rise to avoid catastrophic damage to Earth.

Let’s unpack those last two paragraphs. In sum, what the IPCC panel is asserting is that the cost of bringing global warming under control will be negligible, no more than a blip noticed only by statisticians. And, best of all, there need be no fundamental change to the world’s economic structures — we can remain on the path of endless growth. We can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too.

Alas, there are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.

On the current path, you’ll need scuba gear to get around

Hundreds of climate scientists from around the world (collectively, the “IPCC Working Group III”) contributed to the report, but it does appear to have been watered down to some extent for political reasons. Indeed, the Mitigation 2014 web site’s front page says the Summary for Policymakers “has been approved line by line by member governments.” Since most of the world’s governments are reluctant to do very little more than talk about global warming, a note of caution is surely warranted.

Nonetheless, the summary does acknowledge that greenhouse-gas emissions accelerated during the 2000-2010 decade as compared to the 1970-2000 period. It declares, with “high confidence,” that half of all anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions since 1750 (the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) have been discharged in the past 40 years. Worse, population and economic growth has outstripped gains in efficiency, thus greenhouse-gas emissions have increased despite increased efficiency in, and conservation of, energy usage. Continuing on this trajectory will have potentially catastrophic consequences, the summary says:

“Without additional efforts to reduce [greenhouse-gas] emissions beyond those in place today, emissions growth is expected to persist driven by growth in global population and economic activities. Baseline scenarios, those without additional mitigation, result in global mean surface temperature increases in 2100 from 3.7 °C to 4.8 °C compared to pre-industrial levels (median values; the range is 2.5 °C to 7.8 °C when including climate uncertainty) (high confidence).” [page 9]

Many of the world’s cities would be underwater, or well on their way to being underwater, should such heating occur. The temperature range of the preceding paragraph represents atmospheric concentrations of 750 to 1,300 parts per million of carbon dioxide equivalent. To instead hold that concentration to 450 parts per million will require a monumental undertaking — the concentration is already 400 ppm. The IPCC thus concludes that the level of greenhouse-gas gases will actually rise above the 450 mark, then brought down to that level under its scenario for capping the concentration at 450 ppm in 2100.

To achieve a goal of 450 ppm in 2100 would require that greenhouse-gas emissions be “40 to 70 percent lower globally” in 2050 than in 2010 and “near zero” in 2100. How to achieve this? The report makes these recommendations:

*Further rapid improvements of energy efficiency.

*Reduce the carbon intensity of electricity generation.

*Increase the use of renewable energy technologies, which would require subsidies.

*Increased use of nuclear energy.

*The development of carbon dioxide capture and storage technology, in particular “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS) by the year 2050.

The last of these, in particular BECCS, is the key to the IPCC’s belief that techno-fixes are the way to save the day. But there is ample reason to throw cold water on this optimism.

Bioenergy likely to increase global warming

BECCS is defined as the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. One problem with BECCS is that the technology is not yet viable. Another is that the very idea that BECCS would lead to reduced atmospheric carbon dioxide is a false premise.

A Biofuelwatch study prepared by Rachel Smolker and Almuth Ernsting reports that there are significant costs associated with carbon-capture technologies. They write:

“High costs are associated with capturing … compressing and transporting [carbon] (including building new CO2 pipelines) and pumping it underground, and major technical challenges are associated with the majority of [carbon dioxide capture and storage] proposals. Storing CO2 below ground requires access to underground spaces, beneath both ocean and land areas. Current mapping of geological formations, with the expectation that these spaces will be accessed, is setting the stage for a new form of ‘underground’ land grab. Resistance has already begun with communities opposing the injection of CO2 into the ground beneath them.” [page 2]

The Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”! The authors write:

“Crucially, the promotion of [carbon dioxide capture and storage], including BECCS for climate change mitigation and geo-engineering, coincides with the oil industry’s fast-growing demand for cheap continuous supplies of CO2. … [F]looding oil reservoirs with CO2 allows for the recovery of a far higher proportion of oil than would be possible with conventional means.” [page 2]

In a separate report, Ms. Smolker, writing in Truthoutchallenges the science behind assumptions that BECCS projects will reduce greenhouse-gas emissions:

“Virtually nobody still contends that corn ethanol is ‘carbon neutral.’ Yet the premier BECCS project that is often referred to is an ADM corn ethanol refinery in Decatur, Illinois. In fact, when emissions from indirect impacts are included in analyses, along with a complete assessment of the impacts from growing, harvesting, fertilizer and chemical use etc., most bioenergy processes actually cause more emissions even than the fossil fuels they are meant to replace. … [W]e know already from the current scale of biofuel and biomass demand — just look at the current corn ethanol debacle — that it is driving loss of biodiversity, higher food prices, land grabs and other damages. Scaling up bioenergy to the extent that would be required to supposedly reduce global CO2 levels would be a disastrous backfire.”

Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The problem here is far deeper than wishful thinking. Optimistic scenarios such as the IPCC report rest on assumptions that the world can reduce its greenhouse-gas emissions, cut pollution and enjoy another century of consumer-fueled economic growth while business as usual goes on. But that is not possible.

Short-term scramble for survival trumps the long term

The capitalist system requires continual growth, which means expansion of production. Its internal logic also means that its incentives are to use more energy and inputs when more efficiency is achieved — the paradox that more energy is consumed instead of less when the cost drops. Because production is for private profit, growth is necessary to maintain profitability — and continually increasing profitability is the actual goal. If a corporation doesn’t expand, its competitor will and put it out of business.

Because of the built-in pressure to maintain profits in the face of relentless competition, corporations continually must reduce costs, employee wages not excepted. Production is moved to low-wage countries with fewer regulations, enabling not only more pollution but driving up energy and carbon-dioxide costs with the need for transportation across greater distances. Economic growth of 2.5 percent is necessary simply to maintain the unemployment rate where it is and “substantially stronger growth than that” is necessary for a rapid decrease, according to a former White House Council of Economic Advisers chair, Christina Romer.

Under capitalism, all the incentives are to continue business as usual, no matter the dire future that business as usual is leading humanity. Richard Smith, in a tour de force paper published in the Real-World Economics Review, “Green capitalism: the god that failed,” summed up the dilemma:

“[T]he problem is not just special interests, lobbyists and corruption. … [Under] capitalism, it is, perversely, in the general interest, in everyone’s immediate interests to do all we can to maximize growth right now, therefore, unavoidably, to maximize fossil fuel consumption right now — because practically every job in the country is, in one way or another, dependent upon fossil fuel consumption. … There is no way to cut CO2 emissions by anything like 80 percent without imposing drastic cuts across the board in industrial production. But since we live under capitalism, not socialism, no one is promising new jobs to all those … whose jobs would be at risk if fossil fuel use were really seriously curtailed. … Given capitalism, they have little choice but to focus on the short-term, to prioritize saving their jobs in the here and now to feed their kids today — and worry about tomorrow, tomorrow.” [page 121, March 2011]

“Green” enterprises will not be granted an exemption. They, too, will be pushed by market forces the same as any other enterprise. Dr. Smith writes:

“Biofuels, windpower and organic crops — all might be environmentally rational here or there, but not necessarily in every case or forever. But once investments are sunk, green industries have no choice but to seek to maximize profits and grow forever regardless of social need and scientific rationality, just like any other for-profit business.” [page 142]

All the more is that so for the capitalist system as a whole. Fred Magdoff and John Bellamy Foster, in their book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, write:

“ ‘Green capitalism,’ even if products are produced using the utmost environmental care and designed for easy reuse, offers no way out of a system that must expand exponentially and thus continue to ratchet up its use of natural resources, its chemical pollution, its contaminated sewage sludge, its garbage, and its many other toxic substances. Some of these ‘fixes’ will probably slow down the rate of environmental destruction, but the magnitude of the needed changes dwarfs these approaches.” [page 120]

A duty to shareholders, not humanity

The structural necessity of continual expansion is expressed in the mandate of corporations with stock traded on exchanges to maximize profits on behalf of their shareholders above all other considerations. There are well-meaning people who wag their fingers at “excesses” of corporate plunder and claim that the focus on shareholders is not necessary, but in reply one need only observe how swiftly financiers punish companies that fail to meet expectations and the frequency with which “enhancing shareholder value” is listed by corporations as their reason for existence.

None other than the high priest of orthodox economics, Milton Friedman, put it plainly in an interview with Joel Bakan recounted in the latter’s book, The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power. John Browne, then the chief executive officer of BP, launched a public-relations offensive claiming that environmental stewardship would now be a primary goal for BP. Setting aside the nonsense of this, given BP’s dreadful record even by the standards of oil majors, Mr. Friedman had this to say, according to the author:

“Not surprisingly, Milton Friedman said ‘no’ when I asked him how far John Browne could go with his green convictions. … ‘He can do it with his own money. If he pursues those environmental interests in such a way as to run the corporation less effectively for its stockholders, then I think he’s being immoral. He’s an employee of the stockholders, however elevated his position may appear to be. As such, he has a very strong moral responsibility to them.’ ”

Putting the environment first in a capitalist economy is not realistic, and doing so anyway would be very costly due to capitalist dynamics. The IPCC is taking a head-in-the-sand approach with its claim that reversing global warming will be nearly cost-free. The more honest approach would be to acknowledge the high cost of saving the planet — and that the cost of not doing so, of continuing business as usual, will be far greater.

The European Commission estimates the cost of global warming in Europe could reach four percent of gross domestic product and estimates that almost 350,000 people per year will be displaced by flooding by mid-century. The National Resources Defense Council estimated that the U.S. government spent about $100 billion cleaning up natural disasters in 2012 — one-sixth of the federal budget’s non-defense discretionary spending and three times what private insurers paid out. Fifty billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent is being thrown into the atmosphere yearly, and a U.S. government working group estimates each ton will cause $37 in future harms in today’s dollars.

And what would the cost be of abandoning many of the world’s cities if the ice caps melt? Of the world’s bread baskets turning into deserts? Of dead oceans? Such costs are not calculated by the IPCC.

The IPCC’s flawed approach does not derive from whatever political pressures have been exerted on it. The fundamental issue is that it can’t imagine a world without capitalism. It has much company in that. But a future in which we live in harmony with nature, rather than destroying nature for profit, can only be a very different world.

Pete Dolack writes the Systemic Disorder blog. He has been an activist with several groups.



The Valley is a Trough


Mike Judge, Clovis, and the coming wave of disillusionment

Three short years ago, a little movie called “The Social Network” won a pile of Oscars thanks in part to Sorkinistic mini-monologues like this one:

Mark Zuckerberg: “I think if your clients want to sit on my shoulders and call themselves tall, they have the right to give it a try, but there’s no requirement that I enjoy sitting here listening to people lie. You have part of my attention — you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back at the offices of Facebook, where my colleagues and I are doing things that no one in this room, including and especially your clients, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Did I adequately answer your condescending question?

“Take that, Winklevi!” said everybody, simultaneously.

There’s nothing like the perfectly worded tell-off, is there? Especially one delivered on behalf of all the straight-A underdog nerds who were never invited to pledge Skull and Bones.

But that was then. Fast forward a few years and most audiences would gladly join the twins in tying Zuck’s hoodie strings to the nearest passing trolley car for giving such lip.

Of late, the public’s fawning praise for forward-thinking tech companies has turned to annoyed sneers and eye-rolls. Protestors are blocking Google transport buses. Tech luminaries—our Elon Musks and Marc Benioffs—have been outed as run of the mill Gordon Gekkos with Keen shoe-sandles (shandles?) and messiah complexes. Mike Judge has introduced the viewing public to Silicon Valley and, along with it, the special brand of disdain they should have for its deluded inhabitants (honorable mention goes to a recentVeep episode for accomplishing the same feat). It won’t be long before Grandma is using Andressen as a punchline.

In this author’s unqualified opinion, it all makes sense if you look at theHype Cycle, Gartner’s graphical tool. The IT research firm applies it to new technologies (smart glasses, facial recognition software), but I ran across it recently and think it applies to the Silicon Valley contingent pretty well, too.

We seem to have recently crested the hill of Stage 2: The Peak of Inflated Expectations. Scores of failures, few successes, and, obviously, inflated expectations. I don’t know what’s a better sign of that:Twitter’s wildly overvalued stockor companies offering billions to buy start-ups that have no actual way to make money (unless it’s all a tax shelter).

Knocking at our door is Stage 3: The Trough of Disillusionment. Experiments fail. Interest wanes. Producers shake out. Nobody wants to live in San Francisco anymore. Investors get pickier. Someone figures out that only robots and hired teams of Bangladeshis actually click on Facebook ads.

I feel the need to point all this out not because I’d like to watch overvalued tech burn, but because I’m a couple years out of school and am truly worried about my cohort. We’ve had a hard enough time as it is coming out of college jobless and debt-ridden. Now the whole world is telling the poor kids, lured by the sweet stench of VC money, to learn to code right as it’s all about to turn to shit?

It’s like some “Learn to Flip Houses!” huckster ad, except it’s a General Assembly guy in a North Face promising to tear your ticket to Silicon Valhalla for *just* twelve grand. Ping pong tables, yoga ball chairs, 60K starting salaries, kegs at the office—it can all be yours!

Except it won’t. Speculative bubbles aside, if everybody learns javascript, everybody will know javascript, including the experienced Odesk-ers from Lahore who will write it for US $9.73/hr. Companies will need one dev guy onshore for every five offshore, and that one guy is 10x more amazing at all things dev-y than you’ll ever be (sorry).

What you’ll be is a commodity—and you don’t want to be that. Just ask the journalists and lawyers furiously hunting for jobs at your nearest Starbucks. Same as the whole progressive techie company culture is looked upon less fondly by a society over-saturated with them, so too will certain easy(ish)-to-acquire skills be less valued by an over-saturated labor market.

So maybe it is high time for start-ups, and the kids of all ages who work around them, to mature along with the society and market they serve.

It’s scary, I know, but eventually you have to call yourself what you are: a small business. Eventually you have to shelve the ratty hoodie, move out of your Silicon Valley/Beach/Alley bubble, and make friends with people who’ve never taken Glass for a test run. It’s high time to say hello world.

Maybe then we can look ahead to the next phase of the Hype curve, the optimistically named Slope of Enlightenment. Here we find worthy newcomers charging out of the trough, greeted by cautious investors and a reasonable market. For those that have created a business for tried and true reasons—they’ve identified a market need and found a way to fulfill it profitably—this will be the time to shine.

View story at Medium.com

How the digitization of everything means that corporations can monitor your every move

In the future, insurance companies will make sure that you exercise  

In the future, insurance companies will <em>make sure</em> that you exercise
(Credit: YouraPechkin via iStock/Salon)

Imagine this scene: You go to the kitchen for a beer, but your home has automatically locked the fridge; a text explains that you’ve already exceeded your calorie count for the day. You consider driving to a bar, but the beer you already drank sets off your car’s alcohol sensors: Driving privileges revoked! You decide to fire up the BBQ, but the gas line to your grill has been shut off — likely because you set off your smoke alarm twice this week while frying bacon. In the future, you can’t hide from the Internet of Things.

The Internet of Things is a venerable (in Internet time) catchphrase commonly used to describe a universe of connected hardware devices all talking to each other. In your home, for example, your fridge, your coffee maker and your baby monitor will all be two-way “smart” devices — configurable from afar and constantly transmitting data back into the cloud. Want to turn up the heat before you get home from work? No problem!  Curious about your energy consumption habits? Google will help you analyze the data! But that’s just the beginning.  The Internet of Things will also be wearable — full of fitness trackers and smart-watches and Google Glass-style devices that keep tabs on your health and whereabouts. The Internet of Things is already in your car, if you happened to have purchased one recently. Just Google the word “telematics.”

Hype over the Internet of Things has been flowing out of Silicon Valley for at least 15 years, but this week the rhetoric bumped up a couple of notches, after a rumor made the rounds that Apple is planning to roll out a new software platform that will turn your iPhoneinto a remote control for each and every device in your house. More than one industry analyst interpreted the purported move as a strategic response to Google’s  $3.2 billion acquisition in January in cash for Nest, the “smart” thermostat and smoke alarm maker — a move that many took as a sign that the Internet of Things was finally upon us.

(Silicon Valley and San Francisco are already getting their own dedicated cellular network, just to accommodate the tremendous outgrowth of traffic that such “things” might require.)

The Silicon Valley utopians tell us to get ready for a glorious future in which our “things” figure out what we want before we know we want it. Our thermostats will “learn” when we typically get up in the morning and automatically turn up the heat. Our fitness trackers will count the calories we consume and burn, watch our heart rates and make sure we’re sleeping right. Our cars will know where the nearest highly rated restaurants on Yelp are or whether we’re getting sleepy behind the wheel. Per this vision, the Internet of Things will work for us, enhancing the safety and quality of our lives.

There are qualms, of course. For one thing, the Internet of Things is eminently hackable. (Do we really want Internet script-kiddies with the power to turn off our refrigerators, jack up our thermostats or verbally abuse our families through the baby monitor?) But that’s just surface distraction. There’s a much deeper problem with the Internet of Things: It won’t be deployed merely to work for us. It will also be deployed to control us.

Why? Because that’s how the next generation of insurance companies is going to turn a profit.

The Internet of Things is poised to become the most efficient tool ever invented for helping insurance companies figure out potential risks, adjust their premiums accordingly, and reward — or punish — us for straying beyond the bounds of properly prescribed behavior.

Your smoke alarm went off three times this month? Your home insurance provider is not going to like that. You typically drive 10 miles faster than the speed limit in residential areas? Expect to get a rap on the knuckles from Geico or State Farm. You stayed in all weekend sucking down beers? Your healthcare insurer will not be pleased.

That’s the future promised by ubiquitous connected devices — a future in which insurance companies know everything about our lives, and have extraordinary powers to use that information to influence how we live.

“Insurance is going to be the native business model for the Internet of Things,” said Tim O’Reilly, founder and CEO of O’Reilly Media at a conference in San Francisco last Thursday.

In other words, the real money to be made from the Internet of Thing won’t be coming from the sale of hardware devices. It will come from exploiting the data gathered by those devices. And if what O’Reilly is suggesting turns out to be correct, then the most avid consumers of that data will be insurance companies themselves.

* * *

That name of the insurance game is all about properly assessing risk. Are you a safe driver? A responsible homeowner? Do you take good care of your body? How long are you likely to live?

Want to buy auto insurance? First thing your provider will do is check to see how many speeding tickets and other traffic violations are on your record. Do you live in a flood zone or area prone to earthquakes? Your house insurance premiums will be more expensive (if coverage is available at all). And prior to the passage of the Affordable Care Act, preexisting health conditions meant you could just forget about getting any kind of reasonably priced health plan.

Whichever company assesses risk the most accurately and prices its coverage accordingly makes the most money. What the Internet of Things promises in that regard is access to a vastly expanded universe of data that can be applied to creating “risk profiles.” The Internet of Things will enable a new kind of redlining. Discriminating against your race or location will be replaced by discrimination tied to the data you generate.

This is already being implemented in auto coverage, through so-called pay-as-you-drive plans that monitor your vehicle usage though information transmitted directly back to your insurance provider by technology incorporated in your car. We’re going to see a lot more of this, for obvious reasons.

(And, to be fair, that’s not necessarily a bad thing — if the Internet of Things knows when you’re too inebriated to drive, for example.)

It’s easy to see how the same principles could also be applied to home insurance. Google, through Nest, will eventually have access to all kinds of information about what kind of homeowner you are, giving it a tremendous amount of power. It may choose to sell that information to home insurance companies, or could even decide to get in the insurance game directly itself. Like the music and publishing and hotel and taxi industries before it, the insurance industry may just be next on the list of “about-to-be-disrupted” business sectors.

But the most interesting, and potentially creepy, application of the Internet of Things is as it applies to healthcare: Insurance companies could start offering discounts to people who kept their calorie intake within prescribed limits or exercised each week along prescribed parameters. And they’ll know when you break the rules, because a condition of those discounts will be constant monitoring via fitness trackers.

There’s all kinds of nightmare scenarios to consider once you invite Hal into your kitchen.Sorry, Dave, you’ve hit your two-beer maximum, so I’m locking the refrigerator. No more fried chicken for you until you’ve ridden 20 miles on your bike. The Internet of Things will be a Panopticon that has been enabled to do more than just watch. (And if you really want to freak out, well, how about brain implants designed to treat psychiatric disorders?! The Internet of Things in your brain!)

According to one observer, the healthcare industry may even be required to start incentivizing specific behaviors through technology by provisions built into the Affordable Care Act. “Outrage over NSA spying on Americans is nothing compared to how people may react to the upcoming collision with wearable computing, medical privacy and new insurance rule,” wrote Seattle Times technology correspondent Brier Dudley.

Not everyone wants to have a little computer on the wrist or head keeping track of what a wearer does around the clock. But I wonder if they won’t have much choice in the future, under new insurance laws that invite companies to scrutinize and monitor their employees’ health and fitness…

The Affordable Care Act now lets employers charge employees different health-insurance rates, based on whether they exercise, eat healthful foods and other “wellness” choices they make outside of work.

Employees (and insured family members) who don’t submit to the screening and participate in wellness programs face steep penalties; they may have to pay up to 30 percent more for their share of health-insurance costs. The law calls this a “reward” for participation. Flip it around and it’s a penalty for not authorizing your employer to manage and monitor how you live outside of work.

Dudley isn’t the only person who has noticed a potential connection between “wellness programs,” the ACA and fitness trackers. For fitness trackers to work most effectively, they will need incentives.  It’s not hard at all  to imagine a future in which your employer tells you your healthcare insurance is contingent in participating in a “wellness” program that requires active monitoring.

Of course, healthier lifestyles should be everyone’s goal. But what level of micromanaging are we willing to endure in exchange for insurance security? The prospect of an Internet of Things-enabled insurance future raises all kinds of thorny questions. For example, the Affordable Care Act is supposed to end the practice of healthcare insurers’ discriminating against people with preexisting conditions. But wouldn’t mandatory wellness programs be a kind of discrimination against people with unhealthy lifestyles?

In every realm of insurance, how long will it be before discounts offered for “good” behavior are matched by price hikes that penalize “bad” behavior? Liberals scream bloody murder when conservatives try to make welfare programs contingent on drug-testing. How different will it be when we run the risk of higher health insurance premiums because we ate too many potato chips?

There also obvious class implications. The rich will be able to afford gold-plated insurance plans that come free of prying eyes, while the poor will only be able to afford insurance plans that come equipped with onerous behavior modification shackles.

The connected society is coming. In a best-case scenario, perhaps, as a society, we’ll be able to draw lines between what is acceptable surveillance and what isn’t. But before we can do that, we need to constantly be asking an important question every time we hear about what the Internet of Things will do for us. What’s in it for them?


#DirenKazova: the Turkish factory under workers’ control

By Joris Leverink On May 29, 2014

Post image for #DirenKazova: the Turkish factory under workers’ controlOn the eve of the first anniversary of the Gezi uprising, a small group of textile workers explores a radical alternative: occupy, resist, produce!


Diren!Kazova, reads the sign above a small shop and cultural center in Istanbul’s busy Şişli neighborhood. Inside, the floor is made of cobblestones, giving the visitor the impression of arriving at a type of indoor street market. Slogans like ’1st of May!’, ‘Resist Kazova!’ and ‘Long Live the Revolution!’ are written on the stones, scattered across the room. From the walls hang racks full of sweaters, hundreds of them. At first glance they appear to be just ordinary sweaters. That is, until one learns the story behind them. Then suddenly the sweaters turn into symbols of resistance, signs of defiance, and the materialized hope for a more equal society, a more just economy — yes, for a better world even.

The story starts over a year ago, in the last week of January 2013. At that time the workers of the Kazova textile factory were put on a one-week leave by their bosses, the brothers Ümit and Umut Somuncu, without having received their salaries, let alone overtime pay, for several months. The Somuncu brothers told them that upon returning to the factory one week later they would receive their back pay, but instead they were met by the company lawyer who informed them that all the 95 workers had been collectively fired because of their ‘unaccounted-for absence’ for three consecutive days. The bosses had disappeared overnight, taking with them 100,000 sweaters, 40 tons of yarn and anything of value. They had sabotaged the machines they couldn’t bring with them, leaving the workers empty-handed, without their salaries and without their means of production.

Some of the workers had spent years, if not decades, in the factory, and now suddenly, from one day to the next they found themselves without a job, without an income and without any right or possibility to bring their criminal bosses to justice.  ”In Turkey, the law is not designed in favor of the worker,” states Nihat Özbey, one of the Kazova employees, when I speak with him in their shop. “So, were it not for the use of force, we would never have gotten what we wanted.”

With this in mind, the workers did the only sensible thing they could do: they resisted. Their resistance started in the form of weekly protest marches from the neighborhood’s central square to the factory, but as soon as they learned that in their absence the factory’s former managers continued to rob the place of anything valuable, the workers decided to occupy their former workplace. “On April 28 we pulled up our tent in front of the factory,” Kazova worker Bülent Ünal recounts, “From then on our resistance became a tent resistance.”

Resistance and solidarity

In the weeks that followed the workers were attacked by hired thugs, accused of theft by their former employers and tear-gassed and beaten by the police when they staged a protest on May Day, but none of this could break their determination to fight for what was rightfully theirs. On June 30, emboldened by the Gezi Uprising, the workers moved ahead with their planned occupation of the factory.

First, they tried to sell off the remaining machines in the factory, but soon they were once again attacked by the police. When four of their comrades were taken into custody, the other eight workers who were part of the resistance staged a hunger strike to protest against this treatment by the authorities, who treated them as the criminals and their former bosses as the victims. “The boss stealing our labor, taking away the machines was no crime. But us trying to get a fraction of our dues was a crime,” states Ünal. “The police came to the factory following complaints by the bosses […]. Again investigations were conducted about us; again we were the accused. No one said a word to the bosses.”

The workers realized very well that the odds were against them, and that their resistance would be met with violence and attempts by the powers-that-be to sabotage their efforts at independently running their factory. Nonetheless, inspired and strengthened by the show of solidarity they received from their neighbors, fellow workers and comrades across the city and across the country, the Kazova workers decided to reopen the factory. They resumed production using the old machinery their bosses had left behind and the few raw materials they had overlooked when plundering the factory.

The first batch of sweaters they produced under workers’ control was sent to the women and child prisoners who had written them letters of support during their struggle. The remaining sweaters were sold at the cafe of the Kolektif 26A in Taksim and at the numerous Gezi forums across the city, which had sprung up after Gezi Park had been evicted by the authorities in mid-June. The money they made through these sales was used to repair the machines that were sabotaged by their bosses.

In order to make their struggle more visible to the public, the workers also organized several public forums and in September hosted an actual fashion show in which a number of public figures — including intellectuals, journalists, actors, academics and music groups — participated. “Fashion of resistance,” the Turkish writer, lawyer and activist Metin Yeğin called it, before pointing out the sweet irony of using one of capitalism’s own products as an act of resistance.

‘Affordable Sweaters For All!’

A recent court ruling decided that the machinery in the factory would come to the workers as compensation for their lost wages, and with the machines brought to a new location everything is now ready for production, which should be possible within two months.

The slogan adopted by the Kazova workers — ‘Affordable Sweaters For All!’ — bears witness to their belief that this struggle is about so much more than just the jobs and livelihoods of a dozen individuals. The workers are very well aware of the highly important time and place in which their struggle takes place, and the fact that its outcome of it will fill thousands of supporters, comrades, onlookers and colleagues with either hope or despair.

And just as the struggle is not socially confined to the Kazova workers themselves, so its geographical reach expands far beyond the borders of Turkey. The workers have already reached out to self-managed factories and cooperatives elsewhere, including Vio.Me  in Greece and the Mondragon Cooperatives in the Basque Country, in order to establish connections of solidarity; to learn from the experiences of others and possibly in the future exchange the products of their labor.

The Kazova workers claim to have been inspired and emboldened by the wave of Gezi protests, and now through their determination to run their future factory as an autonomous workers’ collective, their struggle has turned into a beacon of hope for all those who took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands to resist the policies of an increasingly authoritarian government.

Turkey’s poor labor rights

Turkey has a long tradition of suppression and restriction of labor rights, which was already widespread under the country’s former military dictatorship in the 1980s and has continued under the current Justice and Development Party (AKP) government (check out this excellent article on the topic). Rights to organize and strike have been curtailed, and worker rights are violated on a massive scale with unsafe working conditions and virtual impunity for company owners who fill their pockets while workers are dying.

In January alone, 82 people died after suffering work-related injuries — two of whom were just kids, 6 and 13 years old respectively, who died on the streets while collecting garbage to support their families. More recently, in a horrific confirmation of the poor state of workers’ safety conditions in Turkey, over 300 miners died when a fire broke out in a coal mine in Soma. In March, the mine received a “perfect score” from a government safety-inspector, who happened to be the brother-in-law of a senior executive of the company, highlighting the close relations between government officials and leading business figures.

According to the constitution, labor unions must represent a majority of the employees at the workplace, and 3 percent of all workers in that particular sector in order to become a bargaining agent (this is down from 10 percent prior to 2012, but since the amount of sectors has been reduced simultaneously and their size increased, the 3 percent representation might actually be harder to attain than the former 10 percent). Just as any government ruled by neoliberal principles would like to see it, union membership has dropped to an all-time low with less than 6 percent of the labor force organized in unions. The government has actively promoted neoliberal employment policies that rule out benefits, cut healthcare and keep millions of people hostage in precarious and insecure work arrangements.

The use of subcontractors was one of the main reasons for the workers of the Greif burlap bag factory to organize a strike in the early months of 2014. They demanded an end to subcontracted labor, with the subcontractors being brought in-house, a pay-rise, up from the legal minimum wage of 978 Turkish liras (about €330,-) and social rights. For 90 days the workers were on strike, occupying their factory, until a police raid on April 10 brought it to an end, detaining at least 91 people engaged in the occupation, and two reporters covering the raid.

A radically democratic alternative

In the past year, the AKP’s victory in recent municipal elections, the slowing down of the Turkish economy, and last summer’s wave of Gezi protests have only radicalized Erdoğan’s government in its fight against workers in general, and the left-leaning labor unions in particular. The government recently tried to prosecute leaders of the KESK, the Turkish public-sector trade union, on trumped-up charges of terrorism. In February, 23 union members were released after one year in prison, while six of their colleagues remain behind bars.

On May Day, the center of Istanbul was again shrouded in clouds of tear gas when thousands of workers, radical leftists and other sympathizers attempted to march on the iconic and thoroughly sealed-off Taksim square. With the celebration of the first anniversary of the Gezi uprisings only days away, the streets of Istanbul and other major cities across Turkey will undoubtedly once more become the stage for a violent stand-off between the AKP’s private security forces (i.e. the national police) and protesters from all walks of life demanding justice, equality and the fall of the AKP government.

In the midst of this ongoing struggle between workers fighting for their rights and a government enthusiastically suppressing all dissident voices, the Kazova workers have come up with a radically democratic alternative: “Occupy, Resist, Produce!” — a battle-cry they adopted from the recovered factory movement of Argentina. Rather than demanding legal reforms that the government probably won’t honor anyway, or demanding a pay-rise from a boss who would rather set the police free on his own employees, the Kazova workers have taken matters into their own hands. Not demanding better pay and working conditions, but taking them; not asking for a better alternative, but creating their own; not fighting just for their money, but for control over the means of production.

“Profit is not our aim,” explains Nihat Özbey, “but rather the exchange of ideas, to create revolutionary solidarity contacts. If we succeed, it will be one of the first times in Turkey that workers have occupied their factory and successfully restarted production under workers’ control.” Whenever they open their new factory, their old colleagues — even those who did not participate in the resistance — will be welcomed back to join the cooperative, where all will enjoy equal pay and equal rights, according to Özbey.

“We won’t be focusing on the past,” he says. And that is exactly the power and the beauty of Kazova’s example. This small group of 11 workers, who have been denied their rightful means to subsistence, have been lied to and have been fooled, tricked, tried, beaten, arrested, attacked, abused and gassed, have never looked back but instead have concentrated on what lies ahead. Through their refusal to give up and their determination to succeed, the Kazova workers are an inspiration to all. Their eventual victory may well mark the start of a whole new chapter of the resistance in Turkey.

Joris Leverink is an Istanbul-based freelance writer and an editor for ROAR Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JorisLever. 


Obama’s West Point speech: A prescription for unending war

Barack Obama

30 May 2014

The US media has broadly cast the speech delivered by President Barack Obama at West Point on Wednesday as a farewell to the decade-long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and an embrace of a more multilateral and less militaristic American foreign policy.

This interpretation willfully ignores the content of the speech, which even more than those Obama has given in the past asserts a policy of permanent and global war in pursuit of the interests of the US financial elite. The media distortion is driven, on the one hand, by the partisan motives of Obama’s Republican rivals, who seek to portray him as weak-kneed, and, on the other, by the support from a wealthy and privileged “liberal” elite for wars of aggression waged under the banners of “human rights” and “democracy.”

The real content of the speech was in sync with the venue in which the president chose to deliver it. As is so often the case, the audience selected for what was supposedly a major foreign policy address was uniformed and captive, subject to military discipline. In this case, it was the graduating cadets of the US Military Academy, who are joining an officer corps that is entrusted with organizing and leading Washington’s global military interventions.

Reflecting the ever-increasing dominance of the military and intelligence apparatus over the US government and American political life, Obama’s speech was replete with paeans to the military. He told the West Point graduates that “our military has no peer” and that they would “embody what it means for America to lead the world.”

“The military that you have joined is and always will be the backbone” of US “leadership” on the world stage, Obama declared, providing his audience with a succinct definition of American militarism in the 21st century.

In his speech, Obama quoted Dwight Eisenhower, the supreme commander of allied forces in Europe in World War II and subsequent US president, who told the same corps of cadets in a 1947 commencement speech, “War is mankind’s most tragic and stupid folly; to seek or advise its deliberate provocation is a black crime against all men.”

That speech came barely half a year after the last of the trials of surviving Nazi leaders held in Nuremberg, and it was in that context that Eisenhower made his remark. The principal charge against the Nazi leaders was initiating and waging aggressive war.

In what immediately followed his quotation from Eisenhower, however, Obama elaborated a doctrine with which Adolf Hitler would have had little quarrel.

“The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it—when our people are threatened, when our livelihoods are at stake, when the security of our allies is in danger… International opinion matters, but America should never ask permission to protect our people, our homeland, or our way of life.”

Clearly Obama is not elaborating here a policy of defensive war to be waged only in response to an attack or the threat of an imminent attack. He is spelling out that the US reserves the right to intervene militarily wherever it believes its “core interests”—i.e., the access of its corporations and banks to markets, raw materials, cheap labor and profits—are involved.

When he speaks of “our livelihoods” and “our way of life,” he is referring not to the ever-declining living standards of the American worker, but to the eight-figure compensation packages of American CEOs, whose fortunes are founded on the exploitation of the working populations and resources of the entire planet.

The US president went on to assert the right to launch wars even where no case could be made that there was any threat posed to the US, but rather where there were issues that “stir our conscience.”

As recent history has proven, this “conscience” is highly flexible. When unsubstantiated claims were made in 2011 that the Libyan military was on the verge of invading the rebellious eastern city of Benghazi and massacring its inhabitants, Washington and NATO launched a full-scale bombing campaign and proxy ground war that killed tens of thousands and ended with the overthrow and lynching of the country’s leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Today, having already succeeded in toppling the elected president of Ukraine, Washington is providing full support to a right-wing coup regime in Kiev as its sends troops and fascist thugs to invade the eastern city of Donetsk and massacre protesters there.

And while touting “America’s support for democracy and human rights” wherever Washington seeks to carry out regime-change, Obama included a specific exception for the Sisi regime in Egypt, which overthrew an elected president, has murdered thousands, jailed tens of thousands and outlawed the country’s largest political party. “In countries like Egypt, we acknowledge that our relationship is anchored in security interests,” he said.

In America’s “humanitarian” wars of choice, Obama proclaimed, “the threshold for military action must be higher.” Washington, he said, “must mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.” He continued: “We have to broaden our tools to include diplomacy and development; sanctions and isolation; appeals to international law; and, if just, necessary and effective, multilateral military action.”

This scenario fits precisely the roadmap followed by Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, in mobilizing his “coalition of the willing” to wage the “war of choice” against Iraq.

Everything put forward by Obama is a repudiation of international law and an endorsement of the policy of aggressive war practiced by the Nazis three-quarters of a century ago.

In how many countries is the US already carrying out military interventions and proxy wars? Obama’s West Point speech was preceded by his announcement that nearly 10,000 US troops are to remain in Afghanistan after the formal end of the US occupation at the close of this year, and that a residual force will remain there indefinitely.

Drone strikes, night raids and other actions are being carried out in Yemen, Somalia, Pakistan and elsewhere, while American forces are fanning out across Africa on the pretext of combating Kony, finding the Nigerian school girls or battling Islamists.

In Ukraine, Washington instigated a coup that brought it into direct confrontation with Russia, a nuclear power, and has since sent US ground troops into Poland and the former Soviet Baltic republics, while deploying warships in the Black Sea. It has carried out even more provocative naval exercises and B-52 fly-bys directed against China.

In Syria, the Obama administration is currently discussing a plan to deploy US military forces to train and arm the so-called rebels, thereby escalating and prolonging the sectarian civil war that has decimated that country. In his speech, Obama called for the creation of a new $5 billion “Counterterrorism Partnerships Fund” to promote interventions and arm and train repressive forces in the Middle East, Africa and anywhere else on the planet that falls within the crosshairs of the White House.

Obama used the speech to defend his assertion of unlimited power to carry out drone massacres and assassinations, which have already claimed at least 5,000 victims, most of them civilians. The US president made the obscene claim that such strikes are carried out only when there is “a near certainty of no civilian casualties.”

The speech comes in the immediate wake of congressional testimony in which administration officials asserted that the president has unlimited powers to launch wars and carry out drone assassinations, including against American citizens, with no need for either congressional authorization or judicial approval. This only makes explicit what is already Washington’s modus operandi, in which Congress is nothing more than a rubber stamp for the US war machine.

The executive, embodying the power of the military-intelligence apparatus, has the right to do virtually anything. But what rights are left to the American people? Those that remain are being rapidly erased. The last vestiges of democracy must be dispensed with in order to impose conditions of war, inequality and economic austerity opposed by the vast majority of the population.

Obama’s high-flown rhetoric about the US having passed through its “long season of war” notwithstanding, what his speech indicates more than anything is that American imperialism is preparing a global catastrophe of unprecedented dimensions.

Bill Van Auken