Is America (Really) Collapsing?

umair haque

We’ll come to an answer shortly. First, let’s set the bar. What does it mean for a nation to collapse? A cursory glance at history reveals three truths.

First, societies collapse “from” something “to” something. Collapse doesn’t just mean “anarchy”. It means, for example, that societies collapse from democracies to tyrannies. From prosperous economies to stagnant ones. From vibrant public spheres rich with art and science to closed and dull and dead ones, rigid with ideology and unreality. Collapse is a process of going from function through dysfunction to malfunction.

Second, collapse doesn’t mean that a society falls overnight, goes from a shining city on a hill today to Mad Max tomorrow. Rather, it means that a society degenerates slowly, as vicious feedback cycles begin to bite. The bigger the nation, the longer the fall. It took ancient Rome centuries to collapse, and it is taking modern day Turkey, Russia, and Venezuela decades. So collapse is gradual, not sudden.

And collapse is also multidimensional. A society can break in many ways, and when it is evidently breaking in most of those ways, then we can reasonably say: it’s collapsing.

Now that we have a tiny mental framework, let’s answer the question: is America (really) collapsing?

I think that we can say American is collapsing in four very real ways: going from something to something else. I’ll italicize these so they’re crystal clear.

Political collapse. America is visibly collapsing from a democracy to an autocracy, just like Rome. Again, before you cry hyperbole, let’s examine a glaring fact. 70% of American support public goods: public healthcare, higher education, transport. And yet, both parties fail to represent what a supermajority of what people want. That is a visible and telling example of political collapse. The American polity no longer represents the preferences of people. Who does it represent? It used to represent powerful lobbies. And now increasingly it represents hostile foreign states. So America is quite clearly visibly politically collapsing.

Social collapse. What does it mean for a nation to collapse socially? The most basic element of a society is trust. Social cohesion if you like. The point isn’t that trust “makes” a society…anything. Productive, efficient, and so on. Simply that to be a society, there must be the bonds of trust. That is what the definition of society is, at its most minimal. But trust has undergone a stunning collapse in America. Every kind of trust. There is trust in institutions. There is trust between people. There is “social capital”, or the quality of relationships. All of them have collapsed over the last few decades. Plummeting levels of trust are reflected in daily life: mass shootings, skyrocketing incarceration rates, soft segregation, legitimized hate, and so on. So in this way, we can visibly say that America is collapsing as a society — going from being rich in trust to being impoverished of it.

Economic collapse. We don’t need to say too much about this dimension of collapse. I’ve written hundreds of articles about it. The facts are very clear. The American economy began stagnating almost precisely when segregation ended — which implies that it was never built on a social contract able to provide genuine prosperity in the first place. Now incomes have been stagnant for nearly half a century. Yet the costs of living have risen dramatically. College didn’t cost hundreds of thousands in the 1970s. So in the simplest economic way, too, we can say that America is collapsing: going from prosperity to stagnation.

These three dimensions bring us to my fourth, which is by far and away the most important.

Eudaimonic collapse. You can simply think of this as personal collapse, if you like. It just means that people’s quality of life collapses. What’s the most basic indicator of quality of life? It’s life itself, no? But life expectancy is falling in America now — unprecedented in the history of rich nations. On nearly every other indicator of quality of life, too, American life is getting meaner, nastier, harder. Here’s just a smattering. Maternal mortality is rising, leisure time has fallen, there is little social mobility, 20% of Americans are barely functionally literate, the average person experiences profound and constant and severe, insecurity and instability, and there is an epidemic of opioid abuse as people try to self medicate the despair of it all away. America is going from a eudaimonic society, one with a rising quality of life, to one where it is falling.

Eudaimonic collapse, of course, is reflected in the fact that most Americans think their kids will have worse lives — and there is nothing that they can about it.

They are right, and also wrong.

Collapse is a poor metaphor in one sense. When we say a thing is collapsing, we also think that it is unstoppable. Like a star collapsing into a black hole or a snowpacked mountain collapsing into an avalanche.

But that is not the case with societies. Societies are human creations. And while collapse can’t always be prevented, it can always be mitigated, shrunk, and resolved.

But to do so means to think clearly and analytically about collapse. Whether it is really happening, along what dimensions, and to what degree. In America’s case, now that we have seen it is indeed collapsing politically, socially, economically, an agenda can be made to reverse precisely those three kinds of collapse.

The question, as always, is whether we see it, and then live it.

Umair
May 2017

View story at Medium.com

The Surprising Cross-Partisan Appeal of Single-Payer Healthcare

Where Trump voters and socialists agree.

BY THEO ANDERSON

“It’s not difficult to talk about healthcare with people from across the spectrum. People want to pit rural Trump voters against the educated, progressive people in the cities, and that’s not where the tension is.”

In early April, a public radio program in the Rust Belt city of Rochester, N.Y., spent an hour discussing healthcare—but not, as you might expect, the GOP’s attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare. It focused instead on the brightening prospects for a single-payer healthcare system. The guests included a Trump voter and small-business owner, Tim Schiefen, and the co-chair of the Rochester chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Karen Vitale. What was remarkable was how little they disagreed.

Asked his opinion of single-payer, Schiefen responded that it was worth exploring. “The problem is putting the foxes in charge of the henhouse,” he said. “Why are we allowing these gross, overspending health insurance companies … to administer this stuff?”

Increasingly, the single-payer solution is generating that sort of consensus across ideological and party affiliations. In early April, an Economist/ YouGov poll showed that 60 percent of respondents supported a “Medicare for all” system, including 43 percent of people who identified as conservative and 40 percent of Trump voters.

The energy behind single payer is partly a result of the GOP’s success in pointing out the flaws in Obamacare, then failing to offer a workable alternative. Vitale believes that, in a paradoxical way, it’s also driven by Trump.

“I think Trump broke open a lot of things,” says Vitale, who grew up in a rural small town an hour south of Rochester. She says that the Trump voters she knows trusted his populist pitch— and “now they’re activated, and they’re acting from a place of self-interest. You can’t put them back in the box.” When Trump breaks campaign promises, she predicts, “They’re going to notice really quickly. They noticed with Trumpcare.”

That doesn’t mean they’re ready to abandon Trump. On the radio program, Schiefen said he appreciates Trump’s “moxie” and has no regrets. But he also said he would be willing to vote for Democrats with better ideas. “The whole system is built too much on us [versus] them,” he said. “Let’s put aside the differences. Let’s get to the root of the concern.”

A healthy interest

Vitale and other members of the Rochester DSA are part of a coalition pushing for single-payer reform in New York State. In early April, they traveled to Albany to lobby state legislators. They also regularly canvass the city, educating people about single payer and urging them to call their representatives.

“It’s not difficult to talk about healthcare with people from across the spectrum,” Vitale says. “People want to pit rural Trump voters against the educated, progressive people in the cities, and that’s not where the tension is. The tension is with suburban Trump voters who are wealthy and doing very well in our current healthcare system, and have no interest in reform.”

The power of single payer as an organizing tool seems to hold true across the nation. As with many DSA chapters, the East Bay DSA has seen a spike in membership since the election, and much of the new energy is being channeled into the push for single payer. The chapter sends hundreds of volunteers each month to canvass on behalf of the Healthy California Act, which would create a state single-payer system.

“It’s strategic because it’s something that’s going to profoundly benefit the vast majority of people,” says Ari Marcantonio, East Bay DSA’s lead organizer for the campaign. “So this is an issue we can mobilize tens of millions around. But single mothers, people of color, poor people and immigrants will benefit the most. ”

Among some conservatives, the shift in thinking on healthcare is being driven by the idea that, as Schiefen said, the insurance companies are profiting at the expense of people’s health. That critique allows them to pin the problems on Obamacare while embracing the idea of universal healthcare.

Consider Christopher Ruddy, a Trump supporter and CEO of the influential conservative website Newsmax. In a recent editorial, he urged Trump to “reject the phony private health insurance market as the panacea” and lamented that Paul Ryan’s second plan “accepts key parts of the Obamacare law that benefit the insurance industry, but it ends the Medicaid expansion program that benefits the poor and keeps costs down.”

Ruddy didn’t embrace a full single-payer system. But he did argue that Trump should honor his campaign pledge to provide universal healthcare. It could be achieved, he wrote, by expanding the Medicaid system “to become the country’s blanket insurer for the uninsured.”

When a dramatic expansion of the Medicaid program is a prominent conservative’s solution to our healthcare crisis, we’ve entered uncharted waters.

A bigger boat

As recently as last year, the push for a single-payer system seemed virtually dead among the Democratic establishment. Hillary Clinton ran on the promise of tweaking Obamacare. The liberal economist Paul Krugman wrote that Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for all” proposal was “just not going to happen anytime soon.”

Now, the goal seems a lot closer. In January, Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.) reintroduced a bill—originally put forth in 2003—that would create a publicly financed universal healthcare system funded largely by a payroll tax, tax hikes on the rich and a financial transactions tax. Conyers’ bill, The Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act, has widespread backing from unions, medical organizations and progressive groups, and had 104 co-sponsors as of late April.

Bernie Sanders has promised to introduce a single-payer bill in the Senate, leading CNN to predict that “Democrats eyeing the 2020 presidential contest could soon face a ‘Medicare-for-all’ litmus test from the party’s progressive base.” At a rally in March, Sanders said, “Every major country on earth guarantees healthcare to all people … don’t tell me that in the United States of America, we cannot do that.”

This abrupt turnabout is partly a result of the Republican failure to replace Obamacare. The GOP’s flailing has energized and focused the resistance to Trumpism while undermining the party’s legitimacy on the issue. The videos and headlines from raucous town halls have been particularly devastating. A Pew Research poll released in mid-April found a 19-point gap regarding which party is trustworthy on healthcare, with 54 percent saying that Democrats would do a better job.

At the same time, progressive energy has expanded the horizon of possibilities. Groups devoted to pushing the Democratic Party in a progressive direction—like Justice Democrats, Brand New Congress and Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC)—are making healthcare reform central to their work, and they’ve moved well beyond Obamacare. Brand New Congress, which recruits and supports progressive candidates for office, cites “making Medicare available to anyone who wants it” among its highest priorities. PCCC has collected more than 40,000 signatures on a petition that asserts, “All Democrats running for office in 2018 should publicly support and run on passing Medicare for All.” The goal is “to create a push for Democrats to go bold,” says Kaitlin Sweeney of PCCC.

These federal reform initiatives are working in synergy with state-level proposals. In Minnesota, state Sen. John Marty introduced legislation in January to create a single-payer system with universal coverage. More than 250,000 Minnesotans are currently uninsured.

“The Affordable Care Act was a half-baked solution,” says Marty, a member of the Democratic Farmer Labor Party. “I don’t want to minimize for a minute the difference it makes. It covered many millions more people. But … the system is dysfunctional, and it’s getting worse.”

Drop by drop

Marty compares the healthcare fight with the struggle for marriage equality, in which state laws created a domino effect. In 2008, he introduced a marriage equality bill in the Minnesota Senate and said it could pass in five years—which it did, in 2013. “This is doable stuff,” he says. “Times are changing and [single payer] could happen.”

None of the state-level campaigns are a sure thing. The November election turned the Minnesota legislature considerably “redder,” meaning Marty’s bill has no chance in the near term. The Healthy California Act, introduced in February, appears to have broad support in the legislature, but Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown has been skeptical. In New York, single-payer legislation is stuck in the GOP-controlled Senate.

But if and when one state adopts a single-payer system, it could quickly alter the national political landscape, with implications far beyond the fight for healthcare reform. For DSA, the fight for single payer is intended to be the first stage of a revolutionary program.

“The single-payer campaign is really about training hundreds of young people who have never been involved in activism or politics to get brass tacks organizing skills, which are door-todoor outreach,” says Ari Marcantonio of East Bay DSA. “We’re using it to build a mass socialist organization, city by city, and the power and the infrastructure we need to win all kinds of things—like a living wage for all workers and housing as a human right.”

Fundamentally, he says, the aim is to “challenge the very deeply ingrained notion that markets are our friend.”

THEO ANDERSON

Theo Anderson, an In These Times writing fellow, has contributed to the magazine since 2010. He has a Ph.D. in modern U.S. history from Yale and writes on the intellectual and religious history of conservatism and progressivism in the United States. Follow him on Twitter @Theoanderson7 and contact him at theo@inthesetimes.com.

http://inthesetimes.com/article/20121/where-trump-voters-and-socialists-agree-single-payer

Bye Bye, America: Collapse and Chaos

umair haque

It’s quite clear now that America is in the initial stages of collapse. Let me be clear about what that means.

It doesn’t mean that the rapture happens tomorrow, that people turn into Morlocks, and so on. It doesn’t mean you should build a bunker or pack a bug out bag (they’re not gonna help you, anyways). Life will go on.

Collapse means that America is broken in nearly every conceivable way. Go ahead, and pick an “indicator”, as the Vox types like to call it — any simple fact of social reality. Here are three of my favorites, because they determine people’s quality of life. Life expectancy, income, trust. All three are falling now.

You can try the flip side, too. Go ahead and name a way, a human dimension, in which America is improving. Can you find one? I’ll bet that if you can, it’s either trivial, easily debunked, or insignificant. Like, I don’t know, people can hail Ubers more quickly.

That is what collapse is. A society gets broken until it is broken in nearly every conceivable way. Not “until it reaches the point that “it can no longer go on” — it has already stopped being one.

In that sense, collapse is like a heart attack brought about by years of lethargy, not a wall suddenly crumbling. It means that the body social stops functioning, not just that it “falls apart”.

Let’s draw out four quick lessons.

Removing him from office will slow the rate of collapse, but not removing him won’t prevent collapse. America has deep, profound, foundational, institutional and structural problems. Inequality is too high, the average person is trapped in a life that holds little possibility, and there is no agenda or vision for a better future. One bad leader didn’t make all of this true — decades of neglect did. Thus, the challenge is undoing those decades of neglect.

The roots of American collapse run deep into the soil of hate. What was “neglected”? America neglected to invest in itself. While the rest of the rich world built public healthcare, transport, education, and so on, in the 1950s and 60s, America was still segregated by race. So American collapse isn’t just about what is going wrong today. It is about why everything is going wrong today. In the simplest analysis, Americans today, unlike nearly any other country in the word, deny one another basically good lives. You may think that is new, but it is not. They always have — that is what slavery and segregation were, weren’t they? The deep antipathy to public goods, healthare, education, and so on, in America is the result of a legacy of hate.And that legacy is what stopped America from investing in itself, ever, and still does today — hence collapse.

American collapse can be staved off — but only by a series of minor miracles. What would it take to really stop collapse? It would take at least three things. First, a Marshall Plan, to spark a stagnant economy, to rebuild pretty much everything in sight. Second, a new social contract, a la FDR’s Second Bill of Rights, to restore trust in, between, among society. But who will craft these? Certainly not today’s leaders. Therefore, third, a generation of newer, better leaders.

To me those three things together are a series of minor miracles. Yes, America can be “saved”. But let’s not kid ourselves about the scale and scope of the challenge.

Life will go on. Just not very nicely. Life doesn’t stop because societies collapse. Life just keep going. What collapse really means is that life gets worse and worse. Inexorably, like the frog in the pot. Take the example of life expectancy. It’s already falling. As millions of Americans lose healthcare, what’s going to happen? It’s going to fall further, faster, obviously. That’s what collapse means at a personal level. Life itself dwindles day by day. People live shorter, meaner, dumber, nastier lives.

And, as ever, dumber, meaner, nastier people don’t undo the mechanisms of their collapse. They only ever tug the strings faster and harder.

Umair
May 2017

View story at Medium.com

The Death of the Republic

Posted on May 21, 2017

By Chris Hedges

Mr. Fish / Truthdig

The deep state’s decision in ancient Rome—dominated by a bloated military and a corrupt oligarchy, much like the United States of 2017—to strangle the vain and idiotic Emperor Commodus in his bath in the year 192 did not halt the growing chaos and precipitous decline of the Roman Empire.

Commodus, like a number of other late Roman emperors, and like President Trump, was incompetent and consumed by his own vanity. He commissioned innumerable statues of himself as Hercules and had little interest in governance. He used his position as head of state to make himself the star of his own ongoing public show. He fought victoriously as a gladiator in the arena in fixed bouts. Power for Commodus, as it is for Trump, was primarily about catering to his bottomless narcissism, hedonism and lust for wealth. He sold public offices so the ancient equivalents of Betsy DeVos and Steve Mnuchin could orchestrate a vast kleptocracy.

Commodus was replaced by the reformer Pertinax, the Bernie Sanders of his day, who attempted in vain to curb the power of the Praetorian Guards, the ancient version of the military-industrial complex. This effort saw the Praetorian Guards assassinate Pertinax after he was in power only three months. The Guards then auctioned off the office of emperor to the highest bidder. The next emperor, Didius Julianus, lasted 66 days. There would be five emperors in A.D. 193, the year after the assassination of Commodus. Trump and our decaying empire have ominous historical precedents. If the deep state replaces Trump, whose ineptitude and imbecility are embarrassing to the empire, that action will not restore our democracy any more than replacing Commodus restored democracy in Rome. Our republic is dead.

Societies that once were open and had democratic traditions are easy prey for the enemies of democracy. These demagogues pay deference to the patriotic ideals, rituals, practices and forms of the old democratic political system while dismantling it. When the Roman Emperor Augustus—he referred to himself as the “first citizen”—neutered the republic, he was careful to maintain the form of the old republic. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did the same when they seized and crushed the autonomous soviets. Even the Nazis and the Stalinists insisted they ruled democratic states. Thomas Paine wrote that despotic government is a fungus that grows out of a corrupt civil society. This is what happened to these older democracies. It is what happened to us.

Our constitutional rights—due process, habeas corpus, privacy, a fair trial, freedom from exploitation, fair elections and dissent—have been taken from us by judicial fiat. These rights exist only in name. The vast disconnect between the purported values of the state and reality renders political discourse absurd.

Corporations, cannibalizing the federal budget, legally empower themselves to exploit and pillage. It is impossible to vote against the interests of Goldman Sachs or ExxonMobil. The pharmaceutical and insurance industries can hold sick children hostage while their parents bankrupt themselves trying to save their sons or daughters. Those burdened by student loans can never wipe out the debt by declaring bankruptcy. In many states, those who attempt to publicize the conditions in the vast factory farms where diseased animals are warehoused for slaughter can be charged with a criminal offense. Corporations legally carry out tax boycotts. Companies have orchestrated free trade deals that destroy small farmers and businesses and deindustrialize the country. Labor unions and government agencies designed to protect the public from contaminated air, water and food and from usurious creditors and lenders have been defanged. The Supreme Court, in an inversion of rights worthy of George Orwell, defines unlimited corporate contributions to electoral campaigns as a right to petition the government or a form of free speech. Much of the press, owned by large corporations, is an echo chamber for the elites. State and city enterprises and utilities are sold to corporations that hike rates and deny services to the poor. The educational system is being slowly privatized and turned into a species of vocational training.Wages are stagnant or have declined. Unemployment and underemployment—masked by falsified statistics—have thrust half the country into chronic poverty. Social services are abolished in the name of austerity. Culture and the arts have been replaced by sexual commodification, banal entertainment and graphic depictions of violence. The infrastructure, neglected and underfunded, is collapsing. Bankruptcies, foreclosures, arrests, food shortages and untreated illnesses that lead to early death plague a harried underclass. The desperate flee into an underground economy dominated by drugs, crime and human trafficking. The state, rather than address the economic misery, militarizes police departments and empowers them to use lethal force against unarmed civilians. It fills the prisons with 2.3 million citizens, only a tiny percentage of whom had a trial. One million prisoners work for corporations inside prisons as modern-day slaves.

The amendments of the Constitution, designed to protect the citizen from tyranny, are meaningless. The Fourth Amendment, for example, reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.” The reality is that our telephone calls, emails, texts and financial, judicial and medical records, along with every website we visit and our physical travels, are tracked, recorded and stored in perpetuity in government computer banks.

The state tortures, not only in black sites such as those at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan or at Guantanamo Bay, but also in supermax ADX [administrative maximum] facilities such as the one at Florence, Colo., where inmates suffer psychological breakdowns from prolonged solitary confinement. Prisoners, although they are citizens, endure around-the-clock electronic monitoring and 23-hour-a-day lockdowns. They undergo extreme sensory deprivation. They endure beatings. They must shower and go to the bathroom on camera. They can write only one letter a week to one relative and cannot use more than three pieces of paper. They often have no access to fresh air and take their one hour of daily recreation in a huge cage that resembles a treadmill for hamsters.

The state uses “special administrative measures,” known as SAMs, to strip prisoners of their judicial rights. SAMs restrict prisoners’ communication with the outside world. They end calls, letters and visits with anyone except attorneys and sharply limit contact with family members. Prisoners under SAMs are not permitted to see most of the evidence against them because of a legal provision called the Classified Information Procedures Act, or CIPA. CIPA, begun under the Reagan administration, allows evidence in a trial to be classified and withheld from those being prosecuted. You can be tried and convicted, like Joseph K. in Franz Kafka’s “The Trial,” without ever seeing the evidence used to find you guilty. Under SAMs, it is against the law for those who have contact with an inmate—including attorneys—to speak about his or her physical and psychological conditions.

And when prisoners are released, they have lost the right to vote and receive public assistance and are burdened with fines that, if unpaid, will put them back behind bars. They are subject to arbitrary searches and arrests. They spend the rest of their lives marginalized as members of a vast criminal caste.

The executive branch of government has empowered itself to assassinate U.S. citizens. It can call the Army into the streets to quell civil unrest under Section 1021 of the National Defense Authorization Act, which ended a prohibition on the military acting as a domestic police force. The executive branch can order the military to seize U.S. citizens deemed to be terrorists or associated with terrorists. This is called “extraordinary rendition.” Those taken into custody by the military can be denied due process and habeas corpus rights and held indefinitely in military facilities. Activists and dissidents, whose rights were once protected under the First Amendment, can face indefinite incarceration.

Constitutionally protected statements, beliefs and associations are criminalized. The state assumed the power to detain and prosecute people not for what they have done, or even for what they are planning to do, but for holding religious or political beliefs that the state deems seditious. The first of those targeted have been observant Muslims, but they will not be the last.

The outward forms of democratic participation—voting, competing political parties, judicial oversight and legislation—are meaningless theater. No one who lives under constant surveillance, who is subject to detention anywhere at any time, whose conversations, messages, meetings, proclivities and habits are recorded, stored and analyzed, who is powerless in the face of corporate exploitation, can be described as free. The relationship between the state and the citizen who is watched constantly is one of master and slave. And the shackles will not be removed if Trump disappears.

http://www.truthdig.com/report/item/the_death_of_the_republic_20170521

We could have been Canada?

Maybe this whole United States of America thing was a terrible mistake — or are we giving up without a fight?

We could have been Canada?
(Credit: CSA-Plastock via iStock/Salon)

Recently, as I dined at my favorite café, awaiting a return text from my speaking agent, it occurred to me that America may have been a mistake. It also occurred to me that America may be a lie, or an alternate universe, or the nightmare of a sleeping rock giant who lives beneath an enormous snowcapped mountain. What if all of it — the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the plot to steal them, as well the Civil Rights Movement, and Brooklyn in the Aughts — had been just a delusion, a fever dream, a hallucination brought on by overbrunching?

Imagine, then, if none of it had actually happened. The Civil War, Reconstruction, Prohibition, Adam Gopnik moving to Paris? All lies. Imagine if Lyndon B. Johnson had never been born or if Woodrow Wilson were reincarnated as Fiona the Baby Hippo? Suddenly, the America that you’d thought about no longer would be the America that you’d never known. What if our history were an intestinal sheath, and we were the sausage?

When I was a child, the notion of a civic society, born from a social compact written by men wearing wigs, girded our intellects and our loins. But now our loins have begun to soften somewhat. Perhaps that’s because of the gig economy, or incipient fascism, or both. Plus we can always blame millennials, and we’d be right. In the meantime, a slow awareness has dawned slowly. We’ve begun to realize that another reality might be better. Fortunately, other realities are opening up every day.

Our universities, which for centuries have perpetuated the false idea that history moves linearly, are beginning to recognize that we exist in just one of an infinite number of possible Americas in an infinite number of timelines. Look at the courses currently being offered. Yale is teaching “Beyond Utopia: Ideal Americas in the Endless Multiverse.” At Columbia, juniors can take “The Land Bridge to Russia and How it Made Vladivostok the Capital of the United States.” At The University of New Mexico, students are invited to imagine a North America that had never been discovered by European settlers, and then are invited to visit that America through an unstable dimensional portal that recently opened up near the Organ Mountains. No one has emerged from that course unchanged, or with their original number of limbs.

Most profoundly, though, and most likely to score with editors as a pitch, is the scenario where the British won the Revolutionary War and America never ceased to be a colony. In Canada, for instance, students are taught from an early age that England is the mother country that feeds us with her delicious cheese. So let’s imagine a similar scenario: In 1770, instead of getting all bratty and slicing people up with bayonets, American colonists had instead just said, “Fine, tax us whatever, just please don’t fund any more Ricky Gervais projects.” Today, we’d all be drinking top-notch tea and singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after watching Liverpool matches. And we’d definitely be up for a couple of weeks in Spain. We would have National Health Insurance, refer to French fries as “chips,” and there’d be an old queen with a Netflix show where she’s depicted as a super-sexy young chick married to Dr. Who.

I think, at this point, we all agree that it would be better to be England than America, as long as we get to keep California and the nicer parts of Colorado. America, thanks to its fake historians, has historically imagined itself a nation of homesteading rebels. But come with me through the portal, and you will see that the entire time you were really just a British pussycat grown fat on clotted cream and sunshine.

That is what it will take for this once-great nation to shake off the lugubrious weight of autocracy. We cannot depend on institutions that have been institutionalized, cannot depend on leaders who don’t lead, and, in the end, we cannot depend on Depends themselves, because everything and everyone leaks. Like many of my fellow writers, I long to rejoin the British Empire, or at least to get a book deal that argues the case. For, as Winston Churchill once wrote in “The Endless Sentence,” his history of England, “When, in fact, great nations gather under history’s storm, harrumph harrumph harrumph.” Or, as the British King Arthur put it in “The Legend of the Sword,” the recent documentary film, “Cheerio mate. Jolly good.  Off you go to the loo!”

Of that we can be certain.

Neal Pollack has been the Greatest Living American Writer since the dawn of American letters in the early 1930s, or possibly before. He first came to the public’s attention writing for McSweeney’s in the late 1990s, and then through the publication of “The Neal Pollack Anthology Of American Literature,” the greatest book in American literary history, and possibly in the literary history of all the Americas. The author of dozens of books of fiction, nonfiction, fictional nonfiction, poetry, screenplays, interviews, and diet tips, Neal Pollack lives in a mansion on the summit of Mount Winchester with his beleaguered manservant, Roger. He has outlived Christopher Hitchens, Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer, and many more, and will outlive all of you, too. Follow him on Twitter at @Neal Pollack

What The New York Times gets wrong about Silicon Valley

The technocratic imagination of the Times can’t fathom a populist intervention in the tech industry

What The New York Times gets wrong about Silicon Valley

Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, CA(Credit: AP/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

New York Times columnist Farhad Manjoo published a disquieting essay this week titled “Google, Not the Government, Is Building the Future.” His article followed a familiar formula for a New York Times opinion column: point out a so-called problem and follow it up with an anodyne technocratic solution.

“The tech giants that are building the future would like some help changing the world,” Manjoo wrote, identifying massive private investment in artificial intelligence research as a problem. “We would be wise to chip in,” Manjoo said about public investment in such technology, “or let them take over the future for themselves.”

But there’s a glaring problem with Manjoo’s logic — apparent in the headline.

Manjoo fundamentally misunderstands the reason that the tech industry exists. The tech industry does not exist to “build the future.” It does not exist to change the world. It does not exist to “disrupt” or “innovate” or to cull from any of the biz-speak buzzwords that the tech industry uses to mask its sole intent — which is, of course, to turn a profit.

There’s some kind of reality distortion field that pervades Silicon Valley, one that even an esteemed Times (and former Salon) columnist sometimes can’t even see. Hype goggles removed, there is no fundamental difference between Google and Monsanto; between Apple and Exxon; between Facebook and Raytheon. These publicly held corporations pay people money to make things and try to make sure that the amount they pay their workers is less than those goods sell for. That’s it. Anything else that the tech industry tells you that it does — say, try to convince you that it’s not out to profit, but to make the world amazing — is false. All the world-change rhetoric around Silicon Valley is an act of branding that lets the tech industry get away with far more than it should.

I should note that I am not questioning Manjoo’s secondary point, which is about government investment in research. Manjoo proposed that, lest the tech industry become too dominant in artificial intelligence research, the federal government should invest more in it. “Technology giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future,” he wrote. “And unless the government vastly increases how much it spends on research into such technologies, it is the corporations that will decide how to deploy them.”

In general, that’s a great idea. Private research tends to enrich only private interests, while government research has the potential to more equitably distribute the gains.

What else did Manjoo prescribe we do to combat this so-called problem? Later on in his essay, Manjoo declared that there are only “two ways to respond to the tech industry’s huge investments in the intelligent future.”

“On the one hand,” he wrote, “you could greet the news with optimism and even gratitude. The technologies that Google and other tech giants are working on will have a huge impact on society. . . .But the tech industry’s huge investments in A.I. might also be cause for alarm, because they are not balanced by anywhere near that level of investment by the government.”

His notion that there are only “two ways” to respond is not true. There are far more than two. We could break up Google with anti-trust lawsuits — a move that has been argued for, and which is probably past due. We could make Twitter and Facebook into public, worker-owned entities or government-regulated monopolies. Given that they basically function as public utilities, this would remove some of their negative externalities, like their questionable privacy policies and their use of brain hacking that stem from their status as for-profit companies.

Or we could reduce the length of time that patents last or demand that the maker of any product that was made with publicly funded science pays royalties to the American people. We could even just get rid of tax loopholes and use the money to invest in science or even provide a basic income.

The imagination of elites struggles to comprehend political alternatives that involve bottom-up, rather than top-down, power. Indeed, if you’re reading this and having trouble imagining an alternative future, know that examples abound. There are a number of worker-owned tech enterprises in the model of gig economy companies; “platform cooperatism” is the term for this. “’Platform cooperativism’ hopes to harness the power of tech to democratize the economy and advance labor rights,” Tom Ladendorf wrote in a 2016 article for In These Times. Ladendorf cited TransUnion Car Service as an example of a worker-owned, unionized taxi service (Uber but without the exploitation!) and Stocksy, a stock photo company, whose artists are also voting members and co-owners of the agency.

These ideas aren’t limited to a few small companies either. Next week Twitter’s shareholders will vote on a proposal to convert the microblogging social network into a cooperative that its users own and control.

The point is, Silicon Valley and The New York Times both suffer from a severe lack of imagination when it comes to considering what is politically possible. Silicon Valley believes that the future will be created from above, by the wise scions who impose their technological will on us. Farhad Manjoo believes that’s fine, but perhaps the government might spend a teensy bit more on science. These are both technocratic visions of a future ruled by technocrats from above. But we won’t have a future to build if we can’t imagine an alternative to the status quo.

Keith A. Spencer is a cover editor at Salon.

Is this the Death of Neoliberalism?

Invasion of the Putin-Nazis

So, here we are, a little over one hundred days into “The Age of Darkness” and the “racially Orwellian” Trumpian Reich, and, all right, while it’s certainly no party, it appears that those reports we heard of the Death of Neoliberalism were greatly exaggerated. Not only has the entire edifice of Western democracy not been toppled, but the global capitalist ruling classes seem to be going about their business in more or less the usual manner. The Goldman Sachs vampires are back in the White House (as they have been for over one hundred years). The post-Cold War destabilization and restructuring of the Middle East is moving forward right on schedule. The Russians, Iranians, North Koreans, and other non-globalist-ball-playing parties remain surrounded by the most ruthlessly murderous military machine in the annals of history. Greece is being debt-enslaved and looted. And so on. Life is back to normal.

Or … OK, not completely normal. Because, despite the fact that editorialists at “respectable” papers like The New York Times (and I’m explicitly referring to Charles M. Blow and Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman) have recently dropped the completely ridiculous “Trump is a Putinist agent” propaganda they’d been relentlessly spewing since he won the election, a significant number of deluded persons, having swallowed their official vomitus (i.e., the vomitus of Blow and Krugman, and other neoliberal establishment hacks) like the hungry Adélie penguin chicks in those nature shows narrated by David Attenborough, are convinced (these deluded persons are) that the Russians are waging a global campaign not only to maliciously hack, or interfere with, or marginally influence, free and fair elections throughout the Western world, but to control the minds of Westerners themselves, in some Orwellian, or possibly Wachowskian fashion. Worse yet, these deluded persons are certain, the Russians are now secretly running the White House, and are just using Trump, and the Goldman Sachs gang, and capitalist centurions like General McMaster, as a front for their subversive activities, like denying Americans universal healthcare and privatizing the hell out of everything.

If you think I’m being hyperbolic, check out #MarchforTruth on Twitter, or its anonymous Crowdpac fundraising page, which at first glance I took for an elaborate prank, but which seems to be in deadly earnest about “restoring faith in American government,” uncovering Trump’s “collusion” with Russia, and reversing his “subversion of the will of the people.” The plan is, on June 3, 2017, thousands of otherwise rational Americans are going to pour into the streets “demanding answers” from … well, I’m not sure whom, some independent prosecutor, or congressional committee, or intelligence agency, or whomever is responsible for ferreting out the Putin-Nazi infiltrators that “respected” pundits like Blow and Krugman (and stark raving loonies like Louise Mensch) have convinced them are now controlling the government. Weirdly, these same “respected” journalists, the ones who have been assuring the world that The President of the United States is a covert agent working for Russia, have failed to even mention this March for Truth, and are acting like they had nothing to do with whipping these folks up into a frenzy of apoplectic paranoia.

Incidentally, one of my colleagues contacted Mr. Blow directly and inquired as to whether he’d be vociferously supporting or possibly leading the March for Truth, and was chastised by Blow and his Twitter followers. I found this reaction extremely troubling, and asked my colleague to contact Mensch and suggest she check with her handlers at The Times to make sure the Russians haven’t gotten to him. However, just as he was sitting down to do that, the “Comey-firing” brouhaha broke, which seems to have brought Blow back to the fold, albeit in a less hysterical manner than his Rooskie-hunting readers have grown accustomed to. We can only hope that both he and Krugman return to form in the weeks to come as Russiagate builds to its dramatic climax.

Oh, yeah, and if Russiagate isn’t paranoid enough, apparently, the corporate media is now prepared to deploy the “Putin-Nazi Election Hackers” propaganda in any and every election going forward (as they did in the recent French election, and as they tried to do in the Dutch elections, and presumably will in the German elections, and as The Guardian appears to be retroactively doing in regard to the Brexit referendum). Any day now, we should be hearing of the “Putin-Nazi-Corbyn Axis,” and the “Putin-Nazi-Podemos Pact,” and video footage of Martin Schultz and a bevy of former-East German hookers engaging in Odinist sex magick rituals in an FSB-owned bordello in Moscow. Soon, it won’t just be elections … no, we’ll be hearing reports of Russian shipments of rocks, bottles, and pointy sticks to the “Putin-Nazi Palestinian Terrorists,” and … well, who knows how far they’re willing to take this?

All joking aside, as I’ve written about previously, what we’re dealing with here is more than just a lame attempt by the Democratic Party to blame its humiliating loss on Putin (although of course it certainly is that in part). The global neoliberal establishment is rolling out a new official narrative. It’s actually just a slight variation on the one it’s been selling us since 2001. I could come up with a sixteen-syllable, academic-sounding name for this narrative, but I’m trying to keep things simple these days … so let’s call it The Normals versus The Extremists, (the Normals being the neoliberals and the Extremists being everyone else). The goal of this narrative is to stigmatize and otherwise marginalize opposition to Neoliberalism, regardless of the nature of that opposition (i.e., whether it comes from the left, right, or from religious, environmentalist, or any other quarters).

Now, as any professional storyteller will tell you, one of the most important aspects of the narrative you’re trying to suck people into is to make your protagonist a likeable underdog, and then pit him or her against a much more powerful and ideally incorrigibly evil enemy. During the Cold War, this was easy to do — the story was Democracy versus the Commies, traditional “good versus evil”-type stuff. Once the U.S.S.R. collapsed, the concept needed major rewrites, as a new evil adversary had to be found. This (i.e., the 1990s) was a rather awkward and frustrating period. The global capitalist ruling classes, giddy with joy after having become the first ever global ideological hegemon in the history of aspiring global hegemons, got all avant-garde for a while, and thought they could do without an “enemy.” This approach, as you’ll recall, did not sell well. No one quite got why we were bombing Yugoslavia, and Bush and Baker had to break out the Hitler schtick to gin up support for rescuing the Kuwaitis from their old friend Saddam. Fortunately, in September 2001, the show runners got the break they were looking for, and the official narrative was instantly switched to Democracy versus The Islamic Terrorists. This re-brand got extremely good ratings, and would have been extended indefinitely if not for what began to unfold in the latter half of 2016. (One could go back and locate the week when the mainstream media officially switched from the “Summer of Terror” narrative they were flogging to the new “Invasion of the Putin-Nazis” narrative … my guess is, it was early to mid-September.) It started with the Brexit referendum, continued with the rise of Trump, and … well, I don’t have to recount it, do I? You remember last year as clearly as I do, how, suddenly, out of seemingly nowhere, the Putin-Nazi menace materialized, and took the place of the “self-radicalized terrorist” as the primary target for people’s hatred and fear. OK, sure, at first, there were no Putin-Nazis. It was just that the Brexit folks were fascists, and Trump was Hitler, and Bernie Sanders was some sort of racist hacky sack Communist. But then the Putinists poisoned Clinton, and unleashed their legions of Russian propagandists on the gullible, Oxycodone-addicted denizens of “flyover country,” and, as they say, the rest is history.

In any event, here we are now … stuck inside this simulation of “reality” where Putin-Nazi hackers are coming out of the woodwork, a partyless neoliberal banker has been elected the President of France, Donald Trump is an evil mastermind or a Russian operative, depending on what day it is (as opposed to just a completely incompetent, narcissistic billionaire idiot), and neoliberal propaganda outfits like The New York TimesThe Washington Post, MSNBC, CNN, The Guardian, NPR, et al., are perceived as “respectable” sources of journalism, as if their role in generating and occasionally revising the official narrative weren’t so insultingly obvious. Personally, I am looking forward to the upcoming German elections this Autumn, wherein Neoliberal Party “A” is challenging Neoliberal Party “B” for the right to continue privatizing Greece (and any other formerly sovereign nations the banks can get their hands on) in a demonstration of European unity, and fiscal austerity … and, you know, whatever.

If this is the Death of Neoliberalism, just imagine what awaits us at the Resurrection.

Counterpunch