The Story: Life, the World, Now, You, and Me

Hi. I’m Umair. I want to tell you a little story about life, death, meaning, purpose, happiness, you, me, the world, and why I founded Eudaimonia & Co.

A couple of years ago, right at the peak of it all, jetting around the globe, writing books, giving speeches, invulnerable as a rock, I got sick. Keeling-over-losing-fifty-pounds-in-a-month-sick. The doctors told me I had months to live. And after the heart-stopping panic subsided, a funny thing happened: I was happy, thinking and writing about the meaning of it all, in a way I’d never really been discussing economics, leadership, and society.

Dying young — or at least thinking you’re going to — is like climbing the Mount Everest of inner clarity. You think about life. Not in a mournful way. Maybe you haven’t lived enough for that yet. Just in an appreciative one. Life is a funny thing. Unique, singular, strange. Camus famously called it absurd. It’s the only thing in a lonely, clockwork universe that struggles. Rivers flow, clouds dissipate, oceans ebb. But only life undertakes an improbable, uncertain, difficult quest for self-realization. A tree stretches into the sun. A little bird builds a nest. You strive mightily all your days long for happiness, meaning, purpose, grace, defiance, rebellion, truth, knowledge, beauty, love. That quest is what makes life so strikingly different from dust, fire, mud, air.

Only today our quest for self-realization doesn’t seem to be going so well. If I asked you, “how do you think the world’s doing?”, I’d bet your reply would be on the spectrum between not-so-well and dire, not pretty good and fantastic. Which is just as I’d had to warn of, and that’s why writing about economics always made me unhappy. Maybe the fate of the world wasn’t my cross to bear. Maybe it isn’t any of ours. But I didn’t know that then. And yet. The world seems suddenly different now, doesn’t it? The headlines now are an almost comically absurd smorgasbord of catastrophe: nuclear war, Nazis, natural disaster, societies fracturing, impotent frustration at it all.

It’s a head-spinning, anxiety-inducing time. It’s even scarier to admit it, so let’s do it together. Climate change. Stagnation. Inequality. Extremism. They feel different, more threatening. Bigger and badder than yesterday’s problems. They are. These are Massive Existential Problems. To societies, cities, democracy. To you and I and our kids. To the entire planet. Why are they all happening at once? How are we to solve them? Can we? If we don’t, problems only create more problems. Climate change creates refugees, famine, starvation. Stagnation creates authoritarianism. Inequality and extremism create war. A vicious circle, a savage feedback loop of problems. We’re at cruising altitude — but the engines are stalling. A nose dive of human possibility looms.

How did we get here? Every age has a paradigm of human organization. A set of defining principles and beliefs about what life is for. In the past, you can think of things like tribalism, feudalism, mercantilism, and so on. What’s our paradigm? Why isn’t it working?

Every paradigm’s end, purpose, defines it. We organize — whether countries, companies, societies, days, projects, investments — for just one sole end: maximizing income. Whether it’s called GDP, profits, shareholder value, all are more or less different words for the same imperative: the most income over the smallest increment of time an organization can produce. This overarching social goal of maximizing income trickles down into maximizing incomes for corporations and firms and banks and households so on.

Today’s paradigm of human organization — which is a relic of the industrial age — is economic. Our lives — in fact, all life on the planet, in fact, all life in the universe, because life on this planet is the only life that we know of anywhere in existence — are thus oriented around the pursuit of a single end: maximizing short-term income. Maximizing immediate financial income is the sole purpose of all the life that we know of, which all the life that there is.

Here’s the problem.

In the economic paradigm, well-being, the fullness of life’s quest for self-realization — whether or not lives are growing, flourishing, becoming, developing, to what degree, extent, duration, quality, whether it’s your life, my life, our grandkids’ lives, or the planet’s life — is nonexistent. It’s not conceptualized, represented, counted, measured, quite literally valued. Not in GDP, corporate reports, profits, markets, theories, models, prices, costs, benefits, anywhere. Not even in the smallest way — quantitatively, functionally, arithmetically — and so certainly not in the truest way: qualitatively, conceptually, substantively. And so because well-being, life itself, isn’t represented or valued, it’s not worth anything according to the calculus of this paradigm.

What do you with stuff that’s free? Well, you take it. So the economic paradigm uses up, drains, exhausts all the many kinds of well-being above to attain it’s sole end, how much immediate income it can produce. Let me give you two examples. If we break each others’ legs, GDP will go up, not down. We’ll have to take taxis to work, and pay for more medical care, which are counted as “gains”. Does that example strike you as absurd? It is, but it’s very real: in the extreme case, you get a society where an economy is growing, but life expectancy is falling — modern day America.

Life itself — in it’s truest sense, as a quest for self-realization — is systemically undervalued, underrepresented, and under-understood by the economic paradigm of human organization. Let me put that a little more bluntly. The economic paradigm of human organization doesn’t care. About life. Yours, mine, our grandkids, our planet’s. In any of it’s three aspects: not it’s potential, nor it’s possibility, nor it’s reality — life a beautiful and universal quest for self-realization. It’s sole end is maximizing immediate income. It doesn’t care if you’re happy or miserable, if you’re fulfilled or hollow, if you’re humane and gentle and wise or cruel and brutish and spiteful, if you flourish or wither as a human being, if the oceans dry up and die or teem joyously, if the skies turn to ash, if if you, me, our grandkids, or the planet, dies young or old, or if any of us live or die at all, in fact. It just doesn’t care. It wasn’t designed to. Thus, all that possibility, all that potential, is never realized: it’s used up to maximize immediate income. More and more, maximizing immediate income minimizes life’s potential.

And that’s the hidden thread that connects today’s four Massive Existential Problems. Climate change happens when the planet’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Stagnation happens when people’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. Inequality happens when a society’s well-being is used up to maximize immediate income. And extremism is a result of all that ripping yesterday’s stable and prosperous social contracts to shreds. Today’s great global problems are just surface manifestations of the same underlying breakdown — a badly, fatally, irreparably broken paradigm of human organization.

The paradigm is the problem. A solely, paradigmatically, one-dimensional economic approach to human organization. That old, rusting, busted, industrial-age, economic paradigm is what’s created the Massive Existential Threats the world faces today. The single-minded pursuit of maximizing short-term income (versus, for example, optimizing long-run well-being) is what’s ignited inequality, stagnation, climate change, and extremism — and the later problems that are likely to stem from them.

And so — it’s no coincidence — here we are. Desperately clutching the controls in a nose dive of human possibility. But the controls don’t seem to work anymore, do they?

Every age has a challenge. Here’s today’s. Crafting a new — perhaps a radically new — paradigm of human organization, that values, represents, respects, celebrates, elevates, and expands life. Life is an impossibly big word, because it is such a strange and striking and impossible thing. Yet when you and I say “life”, we don’t mean some kind of actuarial probability table, the one-dimensional way the economic paradigm values things, but life in all its fragility, messiness, emergence, contradiction, complexity. Life in that sense, as self-realization, is more and more what’s minimized by the economic paradigm of human organization, so that it can maximize income. That’s what a broken paradigm means, and because it is the problem inside all the problems, that is what needs to be fixed, reversed, upended, turned around, with a better one. So how can we —

“Wait”, you cry. “Why should I care?” I see extreme capitalism has trained you well, young Darth. I sympathize. I didn’t want to either, remember? I just wanted to die happily. And yet. We — you and I — are going to have to care for a very simple reason. No matter how glorious your startup, moneyed your giant corporation or investment fund, mighty your city or country — today’s Massive Existential Problems are going to take you down too. Think your company can function without working societies? Your startup without a planet? Your country while its cities drown? Think again. Sure, you can ignore it all, but you’re only kidding yourself. The world feels broken because it is, and none of us are mighty enough to keep on escaping its expanding catastrophes by a thinner hair’s breadth of victory on our own little treadmill. The precise opposite is true: it’s up to us to make it better, and not just some of us, but each and every one of us. Sorry. Welcome to reality. Here’s a little consolation. Even tiny ways will do, which, in their gentleness and grace, are often greater than big ways.

So. How can we begin crafting that better paradigm?

I call it moving from an economic paradigm to a eudaimonic paradigm of human organization. It has new ends for organizations: five new goals that elevate and expand life, versus blindly maximizing income. And it has new means: design principles with which to build organizations that can accomplish those ends. Together, those ends and means make up a little framework that I call “eudaimonics”. It’s meant to help us build organizations that are better at creating wealth, well-being, and human possibility, not just maximizing income, because life itself is the true measure of the success any and every organization, from a family to a company to a city to a country to the world itself.

What does such a eudaimonic organization look like? Whether it’s a company, country, or city, it’s different in vision: it has a concrete, overarching goals to To do it, it’s different in structure: it probably has a Chief Eudaimonia Officer or the like. It’s different in strategy: it doesn’t just launch products and services, but focuses on the human outcomes those have, whether lives are flourishing and growing or not. And it’s different in management: it doesn’t just report, track, manage, identify, optimize profit against loss, economic indicators, but eudaimonic ones, that are about how much life it’s really giving back to you, me, our grandkids, and the planet.

Here’s another example of eudaimonics, at macro scale. The objectives and strategies and policies and values and and roles and titles and numbers and metrics and measures and reports and the rest of it — all of the software of human organization, from “profit” to “GDP” to “markets” to “value” to “wealth” to “vision” to “mission” to “work” to “jobs“ — that power our countries, cities, companies, corporations is going to have to be updated and rewritten to realize life.

So. A brief summary. Human organizations have become treadmills. But they should be gardens. In which lives flourish, grow, fruit, and flower. The great challenge of this age isn’t single-mindedly maximizing one-dimensional income as the sole end and purpose of human existence, but elevating and expanding life’s possibility. Whether mine, yours, our grandkids’ or our planet’s. That noble, beautiful, improbable quest for self-realization — eudaimonia — is the reason we’re all here, each and every one.

Remember me? There I was, happily dying. And then the fates did what fates do. Pulled the rug out from under me. I didn’t die. The old world did. And the new world isn’t yet born. We’re going to have to create it, give painful birth to it, drag it out of ourselves, kicking and screaming, with love and grace. Even those of us, like me, who thought they’d be content watching the sun set.

Hence, this little organization. You can think of it as a lab, consultancy, thinktank — what it really is is an invitation. So if you’d like to join me on this quest, consider all this yours.

Umair


(Here are three brief footnotes for nerds. I emphatically don’t mean “economics is bad!”. It’s not. It has a great deal to teach us. The problem is that it’s used backwards. Abstractions of reality are meant only to provide academic insight and theoretical validation. But we use economic ideas — theories and models — not to validate theories, as real world levers to fulfill them. See the difference? That’s like taking a bunch of monkeys who’ve survived the clinical trials of a wonder drug and…putting them in charge of a nation’s healthcare. Inquiry has been turned around to become a method of human organization. Thus, the economic paradigm of human organization shouldn’t be one at all — economics should be just one tiny way, among many, to see, explain, think about human behavior, not a mode of organizing it, especially not the only mode.

In a similar vein, there’s often a refrain of “things are getting better! They’re not that bad!”, meaning that extreme global poverty has been reduced. That’s true, but. Those gains have been concentrated in India and China, and while the old paradigm might have raised median incomes there from $1K to $5k, it can’t raise them from $5k to $50k. Not just because the planet doesn’t have the resources, though it doesn’t — but because those societies already face the same tensions the old paradigm has produced: inequality, extremism, dissatisfaction, and so on. In other words, the old paradigm is out of steam. Technically, we’d say that the social, civic, and human externalities of the economic paradigm are too high for the world to bear.

That also means paradigm change isn’t just about going from capitalism to socialism. Both those — and all the “isms” surrounding them — still often share exactly the same paradigmatic goal, the same sole end — maximizing immediate income, trickling down from bigger to smaller organizations. As a simple example, China’s nominally socialist — but it’s overarching social objective, is precisely the same as America’s — to maximize GDP. So paradigmatic change doesn’t just mean “capitalism versus socialism”. It doesn’t mean any ism, in fact. Not liberalism, conservatism, libertarianism, leftism. None of it. Paradigmatic change means something truer, deeper, more radical — changing the means and ends of human organization, the purposes to which our days, moment, ideas, relationships, careers, ambitions, dreams are devoted.)

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Climate chaos and the capitalist system

Hurricane Irma barreled into Florida over the weekend as a Category 4 hurricane after leaving a trail of destruction on islands and island chains in the Atlantic. Less than two weeks before, Harvey caused a catastrophe in Houston and along the Texas and Louisiana Gulf Coast.

In both cases, it’s obvious how the priorities of capitalism made these natural disasters so much worse. But what can be done about it? Below is a speech, edited for publication, by Paul Fleckenstein given last week–before Irma reached Florida–at a meeting of an International Socialist Organization chapter at the University of Vermont.

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (center) and Jose (right) all visible in a satellite image

Hurricanes Katia (left), Irma (center) and Jose (right) all visible in a satellite image

WE ALL witnessed two catastrophic storm events in the past two weeks, and a third, Hurricane Irma, is heading through the Caribbean toward southwestern Florida, where I used to live.

The weather catastrophe that got the least attention in the U.S. was the extreme rainfall in South Asia over the last several weeks as a result of the worst monsoons in decades. One-third of Bangladesh is underwater, and there are over 1,400 reported deaths in Nepal, India and Bangladesh. And this is just the beginning. Millions face a longer-term crisis of hunger and lack of access to drinkable water.

In the U.S., Hurricane Harvey produced record rainfall in Houston (50 inches), caused more than 60 deaths, flooded 100,000 homes and forced 100,000s of people to flee floodwaters.

As Houston resident and SW contributor Folko Mueller wrote, “It will take weeks, if not months, for the city to recover. We can only guess how long it may take individuals to heal from the emotional and psychological distress caused by having lost loved ones or their homes.”

The Houston area is home to 30 percent of the oil refinery capacity in U.S., along with a heavy concentration of chemical plants. There were massive toxic releases from industrial plants into air and water–even by the standards of industry self-reporting, which means systematic underreporting.

Explosions rocked the Arkema plant in the Houston suburbs that produces stock chemicals for manufacturing. It will be many years before we know the full magnitude and effects of this and other releases that took place during the disaster.

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TO UNDERSTAND and learn from this crisis in Houston, we need to begin with the fact that Houston is a prime example of capitalism in the 21st century.

It’s a city, like others, built around extreme wealth disparities–with immigrants, people of color and the working class as a whole often relegated to the most environmentally dangerous areas. It has its own cancer alley along the Houston Ship Channel, which was, of course, swamped by Harvey.

The area is home to oil refineries owned by all the giant energy firms, from ExxonMobil, Shell and Marathon on down. Houston was the global capital of the oil industry in the 20th century and is still that, which means its elite had an outsized responsibility for global warming.

A city without zoning, Houston has been left to real-estate capital as a super-profit center. Because of the unrestricted development, wetlands and prairie that provide natural storm buffers were paved over with impermeable surfaces. Quick profits were made from building in low-lying areas.

A similar dynamic took place in South Asia with “land reclamations”–filling in wetlands to build mega-cities. As SW contributor Navine Murshid pointed out, the word itself “speaks to the entitlement that capitalist developers feel with respect to the earth.”

Houston had an estimated 600,000 undocumented workers running key sectors of the city’s economy before Harvey, and immigrant labor will be critical to rebuilding. Yet Texas’ anti-immigrant law SB 4, which deputizes state, county, city and campus law enforcement officers as immigration agents, was supposed kick in during the middle of the disaster, scaring many immigrants away from seeking aid.

The city has been devastated by hurricanes before. A ProPublica article published last year found that it was a matter of time before disaster struck–meanwhile, 80 percent of homes flooded by Harvey don’t have flood insurance.

Even for capitalists, there is a carelessness about the making of Houston that is remarkable. One-third of U.S. oil-refining capacity was shut down during the Harvey crisis, and half of all capacity is located in this region that is vulnerable to storms. These are the plants and facilities that send fracked natural gas and refined oil products around the U.S. and the world.

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THE PHYSICS of severe weather today is pretty simple. A warmer atmosphere holds more water and more energy, providing the fuel for bigger and more intense storms. More severe storms are a certainty as a result of man-made climate change.

And the trend of superstorms, extreme heat events and droughts–of extreme weather events in general–is going in the wrong direction, toward greater instability and extremes. Harvey, therefore, gives us a sobering glimpse of the future.

Naomi Klein, the left-wing author, is right that now is the time to talk about climate change–and after Harvey and Houston, it is necessarily a time to talk about capitalism.

I want to sketch out a basic Marxist understanding of the capitalist roots of the climate crisis. For everyone dedicated to fighting against climate change, Marxism is a great starting point, beginning with the contributions of Karl Marx and Frederick Engels in the 19th century.

As Marx observed in the mid-19th century: “Man lives on nature–means that nature is his body, with which he must remain in continuous interchange if he is not to die. That man’s physical and spiritual life is linked to nature means simply that nature is linked to itself, for man is a part of nature.”

Marx and Engels noted that this unity with nature is ripped apart by capitalism through a “metabolic rift”–a separation that deepened and further developed under capitalism, where a small minority of the population controls all major aspects of the economy.

Capitalists are driven by competition to single-mindedly seek more profits. The free market imposes the drive to accumulate on individual capitalists, which results in a focus on short-term gains that ignores long-term effects of production. As Engels wrote:

As long as the individual manufacturer or merchant sells a manufactured or purchased commodity with the usual coveted profit, he is satisfied and does not concern himself with what afterwards becomes of the commodity and its purchasers…

The same thing applies to the natural effects of the same actions. What cared the Spanish planters in Cuba, who burned down forests on the slopes of the mountains and obtained from the ashes sufficient fertilizer for one generation of very highly profitable coffee trees–what cared they that the heavy tropical rainfall afterwards washed away the unprotected upper stratum of the soil, leaving behind only bare rock!”

At the heart of capitalism is wage labor. Workers are compelled by the need for work to survive to carry out the labor that drives the system–including its most destructive operations, like the drilling platforms or the chemical factories.

In fact, the workers who do this particular work often best recognize the ecological consequences involved–and, unfortunately, experience many of the most dangerous ones. It makes perfect sense that the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers International Union spawned a radical labor leader like the late Tony Mazzocchi.

For Marx, the alternative to capitalism’s destructive system was a democratically planned economy: socialism–by which he meant “the associated producers rationally regulating their interchange with Nature, bringing it under their common control, instead of being ruled by it as by the blind forces of Nature; and achieving this with the least expenditure of energy and under conditions most favorable to, and worthy of, their human nature.”

Capitalism is driven by the perpetual need to produce more profit, or it snowballs into recession and crisis. So it isn’t enough for scientists to develop new technologies that could create a sustainable world. They have to be put to use, and under capitalism, they won’t be unless it is profitable to do so.

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IF WE need a radical reorganization of society, then environmentalists must set their sights not just on changes within the capitalist system, but ultimately on the abolition of capitalism itself. To avoid ecological catastrophe, we need a society based not on competition and undirected growth, but on cooperation, economic democracy and long-term sustainability.

Marx offers a compelling vision of such a society in the final pages of his three volume work Capital: “Even an entire society, a nation or all simultaneously existing societies taken together are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.”

Is it possible to reform the current system to achieve this goal? Why can’t oil and chemical corporations at least be regulated so they are not toxic polluters? They should be regulated–but environmentalist and author Fred Magdoff explained why we can’t count on this under the existing system in an interview with SW:

The companies fight against regulations, and if they see that they’re going to pass, they try to get them watered down. And then, if they actually go into effect, the companies try to make sure they aren’t very well enforced. So even if the regulations exist and are meaningful–which is rare–the industry finds ways to get around them.

Often, the fines for violations aren’t very much. You could have a good regulation, and a company violates the regulation, and they pay a thousand-dollar fine or a ten-thousand-dollar fine. For them, what’s the difference?

This is part of why reforms can’t be counted on to save the planet: At the end of the day, capitalist corporations and the pro-business parties running the government will prioritize profits over anything that would reduce them, even by a small amount.

This isn’t only true about the U.S. government under Trump. Barack Obama came into office in 2009 promising radical steps to address climate change. Instead, under his presidency, the U.S. ramped up fossil fuel extraction and processing to deliver cheap energy to U.S. manufacturing so it could better compete globally–and to turn the U.S. into a net oil and gas exporter.

Obama helped undermined the Copenhagen climate change summit less than a year into office, ran cover for BP after the company’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico and bragged to oil company executives about laying enough pipelines to ring the planet.

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FOR SOCIALISTS, there are at least two sides of this fight that we have to take up.

One is the struggle for justice in the aftermath of “natural” disasters. The establishment will take advantage of every crisis to further its agenda of privatization, accumulation and gentrification, furthering the oppression of people of color and the working class.

Naomi Klein called this the “Shock Doctrine,” and it played out in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, with mass permanent displacement of African American workers–many of whom ended up in Houston–privatization of the schools and the abolition of the teachers union, although unions are reorganizing today.

We want rebuilding to guard against future floods and disasters–and to take place on the basis of racial justice and equal rights for all, including for all immigrants, regardless of legal status.

Second, we have to fight against fossil fuel extraction and for renewable energy alternatives–which means both protesting pipeline construction and joining with struggles that improve and expand public transportation.

But as we struggle for these short-term measures now, we have to raise the question of capitalism and need for socialism at the same time with everyone we organize with. Our project is for reform and revolution.

If we are organizing with institutions and people where raising the need for a socialist alternative can’t be done, then we are probably organizing in the wrong place–and likely an ineffective place as well.

Meetings and campaigns involving Democratic Party politicians are a prime example. Another is the behind-the-scenes strategies to persuade university committees that claim to be considering fossil-fuel divestment. Their loyalty, at the end of the day, is to business interests–unless they feel the pressure of a struggle that will expose them.

There is certainly no simple answer here. But a socialist strategy that prioritizes mass, democratic organizing; free and open discussion and debate on the way forward; and dedicated struggle for immediate gains, without sacrificing a commitment to the bigger goals, has the most promise.

And if we can build up the politics of socialism and socialist organization among wider layers of people involved in these struggles, that will open the possibility of the system change that we need to find our way out of climate disasters.

There is widespread understanding of the urgency for action now to stop climate change. We don’t have endless generations. CO2 levels will continue to climb despite the scientific consensus that this will have catastrophic consequences for the planet.

But the technology does exist to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as does the science that can be put to use in mitigating the impacts of past carbon emissions–if the system’s priorities were radically changed.

Anyone who thinks we need system change needs to be dedicated to all the struggles for change today–and to arm themselves with the contributions of Marxism toward understanding the roots of the crisis and the alternative to it.

Our struggle for socialism is literally a struggle for the future of the planet.

https://socialistworker.org/2017/09/11/climate-chaos-and-the-capitalist-system

Naomi Klein: Disasters are being exploited by shock politics

Hurricanes like Irma can be a gateway for shock politics that manipulate the vulnerable. To defeat ‘disaster capitalists’ and their radical agendas, says award-winning writer Naomi Klein, we need to knuckle down and get real about the future.

Naomi Klein can pinpoint the day something inside her switched. It was 6 December, 1989: the day 25-year-old Marc Lépine walked into a classroom at the École Polytechnique in Montreal and, separating the female students from the males, shot all the women in a row.

“You’re all a bunch of feminists,” he shouted, before turning the gun on himself. For Klein, a student at the University of Toronto, the shock was a call to action.

“That was my wake-up call,” she says. “It was just the most blatant hate crime.”

Klein was no stranger to activism. She’d grown up surrounded by the language of social justice – her parents moved from the US to Montreal in protest of the war in Vietnam – but had never felt the need to get involved.

As a teen, she was too busy being a mall rat. Like any child of the ’80s, Klein was more interested in designer labels than deep debate and admits being “vaguely embarrassed” by the kind of “hippiedom” that her family home represented.

But when Marc Lépine declared his mass shooting a “war on feminism”, blaming affirmative action for his rejection from engineering school, she understood that political actions have consequences: that politics is about real lives.

This was not a political time on campus, says Klein. “But because I had grown up among feminists I sort of had some tools to help my friends talk about this, even though I had never used them myself.” She put up flyers, inviting people to come together and talk about what had happened.

“Around 500 people showed up,” she says, “and I found myself having to chair a meeting for the first time in my life, so it was a bit of a trial by fire.”

For the next 40 minutes, Klein will speak non-stop – about the system that gave rise to Trump, and the conditions that could finally defeat his type – without ever sounding lofty or verbose.

She’s in London to talk about her new book, No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need, and a lot of people want to hear what she has to say.

In a few days she’ll stand in front of an audience at London’s Royal Festival Hall and explain that Trump’s “man-babyness” is a tactic in itself. She’ll also call the Grenfell Tower fire, which killed at least 80 people and could have been prevented, another case of “lovelessness in public”.

“Every decision that contributed to that epic crime was rounded in a brutal calculus that systematically discounted the lives of poor people,” she’ll say, drawing parallels with how the US government not only failed the victims of Hurricane Katrina but pushed through a wave of privatisation in its wake, all in the name of ‘progress’.

Offering a counter-narrative to this particular brand of BS is Naomi Klein’s greatest strength. The celebrated writer – who fired shots at “brand bullies” in 1999’s No Logo before cutting through the jargon of neoliberalism ever since – has made it her life’s work to debunk the myth that private wealth and infinite growth will save us all.

But there’s another truth that desperately needs outing. Donald Trump as POTUS is no shock. He’s the inevitable spawn of a failed system, says Klein, that’s been screwing us our entire lives.

“If you wrote a sci-fi book years ago and cast Trump as president, your editor would have said it’s way too obvious,” she says, laughing.

It took Klein three months to write No Is Not Enough. She normally blocks out five years for a book. But time is of the essence, she says, and the planet’s future is at stake.

“When the politics of climate change go wrong – and they are very, very, wrong right now – we don’t get to try again in four years.”

NAOMI-KLEIN_ILLO_4
Things have gone from bad to worse since those words were written. Trump has pulled the plug on the Paris Accord, flicking a middle finger at all the work, however minimal, that had already been done to minimise global warming in the coming years. But securing bigger profits for his fossil fuel friends is just one item on Trump’s “toxic to-do list”.

Banning Muslims, deporting Mexicans, controlling women’s reproductive organs, making healthcare a privilege rather than a right, and fuelling racial hate: these are just the appetisers, says Klein, the amuse bouche of a noxious buffet being prepared by Trump’s “constellation of disaster capitalists”.

All they need is the slightest tremor, she says, a natural disaster like Hurricane Katrina, or a terror attack like 9/11, and they’ll serve it up hot and fast.

It’s crises like these that can then be exploited to push through their radical agenda. Just look at the war in Iraq.

“I’ve studied societies in states of shock,” says Klein. “This loss of collective orientation is what makes people vulnerable, so I wanted to very quickly get us oriented – to show Trump in a context we know. When people tell themselves they are in a state of disbelief, they are really open to being politically manipulated.

“So I just want to say, ‘Well, is he really that shocking?’ I think he’s actually an entirely predictable, even clichéd outcome of American culture.”

Which is why she wrote this book in a red-hot minute. The final pages conclude with the Leap Manifesto – an inspiring vision of tomorrow, co-written by 60 movements, where renewable energy creates jobs and fights inequality.

It’s an alarm bell for the future, a wake-up call for the here and now, and a reminder that the only thing standing in our way is the failure of our own imagination.

Trump came as a shock to a lot of people, but you don’t quite see it that way. For those who aren’t familiar with your earlier book The Shock Doctrine, what do you mean when you refer to Trump’s ‘shock politics’? Or his plans to unleash pro-corporate ‘shock therapy’? 

The shock doctrine is this phrase I came up with to describe a theory of power. I originally used it in the context of the Iraq War in 2003. It’s this idea that in moments of extreme national trauma, when the country you thought you lived in suddenly seems like a very different place, the narrative of who you are, of what your nation is, shifts dramatically.

Those moments of heightened disorientation and fear have been harnessed by elites to push through some of their most unpopular pro-corporate policies that systematically stratifies society between the haves and the have-nots.

The ultimate example was Hurricane Katrina. In the traumatic aftermath, there was this frenzy of privatisation and deregulation – and of course people can’t engage in economic debates when they have nowhere to live. New Orleans now has the most privatised school system in the US; public hospitals were closed and public housing demolished in the interest of gentrifying the city.

People weren’t prepared for Trump; they told themselves it would never happen. I want to negate this idea of seeing him as this bolt from the blue, because a true shock is a rupture in a narrative. It’s, ‘We thought we were one thing and suddenly we’re something else.’

And to me, there is a fundamental dishonesty in metabolising Trump in that way because Trump is as American as apple pie. His products may not be made in America but he is so ‘Made in America’. He is just beauty pageants, and Kentucky Fried Chicken, and fighter jets – and the worship of wealth and endless consumption.

You’ve spoken a lot about the importance of storytelling, that we have to tell a different story to the one peddled by ‘shock doctors’. Why is it so important to have ownership over our own narrative? 

Well, this is what we are: a collection of stories. I remember so vividly after 9/11, whenever there would be any critique of power, people would say, ‘That’s pre-9/11 thinking.’

There was this idea of blanking the slate and I think that’s quite deliberate. History, our shared narratives, how we ended up where we are today is what keeps us oriented.

It’s a classic tool of authoritarians to deny history, to deny those shared reference points, because a population without history is easy to control.

[History can be] a shock absorber for societies. I saw it in Argentina. After the 2001 financial crisis [and anti-austerity protests that led to President Fernando de la Rúa declaring a state of siege and ordering everyone to stay in their homes], there was this period of reinvention where the whole political class was kicked out.

The slogan in the streets was: ‘All of them must go.’ People remembered what had happened during the dictatorship 25 years earlier – how they had lost their rights because they had allowed appeals to national security to trump their freedoms. That ability to collectively learn from the mistakes of history is tremendously important.

That’s part of what I mean by story, but I also think the crises that we have now are stories that are failing us. Stories of infinite growth on a finite planet, of wealth as a key to happiness.

There are so many stories that I think Trump represents the epitome of – the logical conclusion of – and those stories are failing us as a species.

NAOMI-KLEIN_ILLO_2

What do you make of what’s happening here in the UK with the resurgence of the left? Young people came out in their droves to support Jeremy Corbyn, the most socialist leader the Labour Party has seen for generations. What do you think is fuelling this turning point? For young people, it can’t be collective memory of a worse time… 

I think the spell of neoliberalism is lifting around the world, and it’s been a slow process. This ideological project that began under Reagan and Thatcher of, ‘Let’s just leave everything to the market.’ This idea that anything public is sinister and anything you try to do collectively will inherently fail.

Milton Friedman famously said in a letter to Pinochet, when he was advising the Chilean dictator, that the major mistake happened when people thought they could do good with other people’s money.

The idea that by pooling resources, i.e. taxes, we could do something good, like have public healthcare or free education – that was the fundamental error in his view. So that’s been the project.

The flip-side of the project has been a war on the imagination. The most damage was encapsulated in that Thatcher phrase, ‘There is no alternative.’ But as neoliberalism has been slowly decomposing, faith in the policies has died.

People stopped believing that privatisation would lead to efficiency, that a rising tide would lift all boats. Those utopian promises of the neoliberal age that I grew up with, that your generation didn’t, started to fall away.

But even as people started to reject those policies after the 2008 financial crisis, the courage to pose alternatives to it – to propose a radically different way to allocate resources, live together and share the planet – seemed impossible.

So the first stage was finding the courage to say, ‘No!’ But the next phase is finding the courage to say, ‘Yes!’ And it turns out that that’s a lot harder.

What I’m tremendously inspired by is that, since 2008, there really aren’t any true believers in neoliberalism anymore. There aren’t people giving the same sales pitch that I grew up with: If we outsource everything it will run more efficiently.

I mean, say that after Grenfell Tower and you’ll be chased, right? So it’s been this zombie ideology – it’s still upright, it still staggers around, it has its own momentum – but it’s without a soul. It doesn’t have that animating force.

So when young people hear a politician like Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn put forward bold ideas about redistribution of wealth, they think: ‘We do live in a time of unprecedented wealth, it’s just that the money is stuck at the top. So why don’t we get more of that and pay for things that improve people’s quality of life?’

Like, what a concept! [laughs] These ideas feel fresh and they haven’t been tarnished by that constant ideological assault that an older generation was subjected to.

It’s young people’s freedom from that sales pitch, post-2008, that is making it possible to say, ‘Yes!’ To go beyond the ‘no’, which is all my generation could really manage, this sort of ‘enough!’ That was the cry of the Zapatistas: ‘Basta! Enough!’ But drawing a line only goes so far.

Do you believe this generation is capable of providing that ‘yes’? 

Younger people getting involved in politics have learned from the suspicion of institutions that my generation have. We made a fetish of not engaging in organised politics at all.

What I see now is a really healthy inside-outside strategy, maintaining independence and creativity on the outside of politics but still understanding that if there isn’t an association with a political project – with institutions that have enough heft to tether this very atomised, amazing, decentralised internet-based activism – then it’s going to just kind of float away.

There needs to be an interplay but it has to be one that protects that amazing fertile creativity that we saw in Momentum [the grassroots movement driving support for Jeremy Corbyn], that we saw in the Bernie campaign. It’s not about trying to centralise and control this energy.

NAOMI-KLEIN_ILLO_3

The anti-free trade movement that you were part of in the early 2000s, which hit the mainstream with the ‘Battle of Seattle’ WTO protests in 1999 and again with Occupy Wall Street, was criticised for not offering an alternative. Do you look back at that as a failure? 

I think that movement was part of this slow death of neoliberalism. It was such a hugely successful indoctrination process that it really took a long time for us to reawaken. I don’t believe we are fully there yet.

But I don’t see movements in this linear way that you can say, ‘That movement was a failure and this one was a success.’ I see continuities and strong through-currents.

Many of the founders of Occupy Wall Street went on to reincarnate as Occupy Sandy, this extraordinary people’s relief organisation, in response to the total failure of the state after Superstorm Sandy. They then became the backbone of the Bernie Sanders campaign.

So we can say that Occupy failed because it didn’t have demands, but I think it just shows a really short-term view of the way movements actually work.

There are periods when they are obvious to the media and then they go underground into a gestation period – a hibernation period where they learn from their mistakes – and then re-emerge as people who have a fully articulated political platform. Which is what the Sanders campaign had.

I tend to never believe a movement’s obituary because I don’t think our media understands social movements. They’re constantly declaring our movements dead and over – and are perennially surprised when they re-emerge.

You don’t shy away from saying how bad things could get. You also collaborated on a documentary with Alfonso Cuarón, whose dystopian filmChildren of Men is set in a near-future of authoritarian states where refugees are imprisoned in internment camps. Would it be naïve to dismiss that as science fiction? 

Alfonso would say the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed. Which was a quote from William Gibson who also says, ‘I’m not writing future fiction.’

The idea of this future that white liberals try to scare themselves with is both the past and the present for people of colour on this planet.

In the book, when I say things could get worse, it’s almost exclusively things that have already happened, pushed forward by people in very powerful positions within Trump’s administration like Mike Pence, who played a central role in the looting of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.

I’m just looking at that track record. What did Steve Mnuchin, Treasury Secretary, do after the 2008 financial crisis? He was at the centre of the profiting from foreclosures.

Their credentials – as shock doctors, as disaster capitalists – are very clear and we should take them on their record.

That’s not conspiracy theory – that’s just fact. If you deregulate the markets, they’re going to have bubbles, they’re gonna bust, you’re going to have a market crash.

If you tell the whole Muslim world that you’re at war with them, you may just have some blowback on that, right? So I think it’s worth preparing for that because we do better when we’re prepared.

Our generation looks to people like you to help navigate the past so that we can learn from it. What would be your message to a young person who wants to take action, but is scared of failure?

I see movements as this flowing river – it sort of ebbs and flows and we learn from our failures. But we don’t have a lot of time to fail right now.

It is just one of these moments. There’s this quote from Samuel Beckett: ‘Try again. Fail again. Fail Better.’ But I don’t think we’re in a fail better moment. I actually think we’re in a win moment. That’s what we have to try and do.

No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need is published by Allen Lane.

This article appears in Huck 61 – The No Regrets Issue. Buy it in the Huck Shop or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

http://www.huckmagazine.com/art-and-culture/naomi-klein-interview-no-is-not-enough-shock-politics-trump-world/

Hurricanes Irma and Harvey: Natural disaster and political breakdown

9 September 2017

The catastrophic impact of Hurricane Harvey in southeast Texas and the unfolding disaster of Hurricane Irma in south Florida are ruthlessly objective tests of the ability of America’s ruling elite to manage the affairs of society. By any reasonable standard, the capitalist class has failed, and failed miserably.

Two weeks after the Texas Gulf Coast was devastated by Harvey, millions of people are seeking to rebuild their lives with minimal social assistance. Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, one million cars rendered inoperable, countless schools and other public facilities flooded and likely ruined beyond repair. At least twenty-two people are missing, most now presumed dead, on top of the more than 70 deaths officially acknowledged.

To address the costliest natural disaster in American history—at least until the toll of Hurricane Irma is tallied—with damage estimates approaching $200 billion, the Trump administration and Congress have approved a derisory $15 billion in federal assistance, ratified by the House of Representatives Friday.

The bulk of this money goes to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which doles out funds limited to $30,000 per family, through a nearly impenetrable bureaucratic process in which the victims of the storm will be treated like criminals or con-men. Other funding is routed through the Small Business Administration, in the form of loans that those driven from their homes by the hurricane will be hard-pressed to repay.

Hurricane Irma is even more powerful than Harvey. The storm has already laid waste to several of the Lesser Antilles and to the Turks and Caicos Islands, as well as battering Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Haiti and Cuba. Irma began passing the Bahamas on Friday and is scheduled to make landfall somewhere in south Florida on Sunday afternoon.

Hurricane Irma is the most powerful storm ever recorded on this planet, with the most “accumulated cyclone energy,” one measure of overall intensity. It has sustained maximum wind speeds of at least 180 miles per hour for 37 hours, longer than any previous storm. Its size is vast: twice the extent of Hurricane Andrew, which devastated south Florida in 1992. The storm is so large that it is wider than the Florida peninsula itself, raising the possibility of simultaneous storm surges on both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast, an unheard-of phenomenon.

A lethal threat faces one of the most densely populated areas in the United States. But the response of local, state and federal officials has been to tell the potential victims of Irma: “You’re on your own.” This was the theme of several press conferences and briefings on Friday, as government officials told some six million people in south Florida to leave the region if possible, or else go to hurricane shelters.

These shelters are entirely inadequate—some sizeable cities, like Ft. Myers on the Gulf coast, have none. They are unavailable to many poor and working-class residents. The Coalition for Racial Justice complained that Miami-Dade’s shelters are open only in wealthy areas, a more than 30-minute drive from the city’s poorer neighborhoods.

Mandatory evacuations have been ordered for the Florida Keys, for Miami Beach and much of Miami-Dade, the state’s largest metropolitan area, as well as portions of Broward and Palm Beach counties and much of the southwestern corner of the state as well. Combined, they are the largest mandatory evacuation in US history, leaving all highways north completely jammed with traffic. Most gas stations have run out of supplies, leaving many residents stranded in their cars as the hurricane approaches.

The most basic measures to ensure that people can leave have not been taken, such as a mass coordination of free rail, bus and airplane transportation. Many of those leaving have no idea where they will stay, as hundreds of thousands attempt to find accommodations on the route north. Many are stuck at the airport, with no open flights and all shelters filled.

The Trump administration “prepared” for the one-two punch of Harvey and Irma by proposing to slash spending on FEMA and other relief and disaster management agencies, to say nothing of its war against climate science, waged on behalf of the oil, gas and coal producers and other big industrial polluters.

Even the succession of hurricanes—with Jose and Katia lined up to follow Harvey and Irma, four giant storms in only three weeks, fueled by ocean waters now at an unprecedented temperature of 90 degrees Fahrenheit—has not produced any rethinking by the know-nothings of the Trump administration. The unending stream of disasters proves the reality of climate change—to which one must add the fires raging on the US West Coast and the floods that have devastated South Asia—demonstrating the inability of the ruling classes of all countries to take any serious measures to address the growing threat.

EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, a notorious global warming denier, denounced any discussion of climate change as “very, very insensitive” to the people of Florida. “To have any kind of focus on the cause and effect of the storm, versus helping people, or actually facing the effect of the storm, is misplaced,” he argued.

By the same logic, any discussion of plate tectonics or seismic faults should be banned during an earthquake, nor should there be any analysis of El Nino wind effects during wildfire season. Nuclear physics would be off-limits during a reactor meltdown. And, we might add, there could be no discussion of the economic laws of capitalism during a meltdown of the financial markets.

There is a distinct class content to this rejection of science, or, indeed, any serious thought. The US ruling elite, at every level, refused to plan seriously for natural disasters which were both predictable and inevitable. Once the disasters unfolded, the representatives of big business could barely conceal their indifference and annoyance at the plight of what one of Trump’s real estate colleagues, Leona Helmsley, sneered at as “the little people.”

Natural disasters have a way of exposing social and political reality. The Great Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which destroyed much of the Portuguese city, was a significant event in the development of Enlightenment thought in Europe, in the decades that preceded the French Revolution. It was proof, Voltaire noted in his Candide, of the absurdity of the claim of the philosopher Leibniz that “all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds.”

Who could follow Leibniz in making such an argument today? American and world capitalism is rotten to the core. The ruling class presides over unprecedented social inequality and unending war, in which resources are dedicated to greed and plunder, but the most basic requirements of modern society go unmet and ignored.

Patrick Martin

http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2017/09/09/pers-s09.html

Why We Need the Liberal Arts Now More Than Ever

trump-liberal-arts-bowdoin-college-colleges-back-school
Bowdoin College Michele Stapleton
Rose is the 15th president of Bowdoin College

As I prepared to welcome Bowdoin College’s students back to campus this week, I couldn’t help pondering where we are today in the worlds of politics, of government and of the media — imperfect but essential institutions for a healthy democracy. We have evolved to a most distressing place — to a place in our society and world where intellectual engagement is too often mocked.

Facts are willfully ignored or conveniently dismissed. Data is curated or manipulated for short-term gain rather than to test or illuminate aspects of the truth. Hypocrisy runs rampant and character appears to no longer be a requirement for leadership. Instant gratification and personal aggrandizement are celebrated as virtues over the work of tackling hard problems that ultimately serve the public interest and common good.

Too often, respectful and thoughtful discourse about the tough issues and efforts to find common language for a conversation — let alone common ground for solving problems — are among the rarest of commodities.

This is decidedly a nonpartisan problem. We have evolved to this place over a long period, and there is more than enough blame to go around to all sides. Whatever one’s political and world views, we should all be alarmed. A system where skill, expertise, data, judgement, discourse, respect and character are in short supply is a system in trouble.

liberal arts education can play an important role in correcting this problem. At Bowdoin, we work hard to create an environment where students can be intellectually fearless, where they can consider ideas and material that challenge their points of view, may run counter to deeply held beliefs, unsettles them or may make them uncomfortable. We do this to prepare our graduates to effectively tackle climate change, economic inequality, race relations and so many other issues that polarize us today.

In a liberal arts setting, intellectual fearlessness is achieved through the development and enhancement of competence, community and character.

Competence comes through a rigorous education — one that builds and sharpens the skills of critical thinking and analysis; the ability to understand the political, social, natural, ethical, cultural and economic aspects of the world we inhabit; the ability to continue to learn; and the disposition to be intellectually nimble, to exercise judgment and to communicate effectively.

We don’t tell students what to think. We strive to teach them how to think, to give them the knowledge and skills to develop the courage to think for themselves and shape their own principles, perspectives, beliefs and solutions to problems.

We also provide students with seemingly endless ways to serve the common good — the notion that we have an obligation to something bigger than ourselves. This serves to strengthen our community and to make our students part of other communities, helping them better understand what binds each of us together.

We want our students to understand and celebrate their wonderfully diverse identities, experiences and backgrounds, while also enjoying and appreciating the deep bonds of being a part of our college community. Being part of a strong and diverse community requires an ability to talk honestly with one another about the real issues. That’s why we push our students to develop skills and an ability to engage in thoughtful and respectful ways with those who have varying perspectives, and with whom they may disagree — sometimes profoundly.

We also seek to promote character — principled lives, work and play that have integrity, an acknowledgment of the gifts we have been given and respect for others and ourselves. Liberal arts colleges are steeped in opportunities to engage intellectually and to reflect deeply across all disciplines about what character means, why it matters and how one might live it. And there are many chances over four years for students to actually engage in challenges that test and develop their character.

At this challenging moment in our society and world, it would be easy to despair. But I do not. I am optimistic because I know the power of competence, community and character. The liberal arts matter now more than ever.

Golden State sets the standard for resistance to Trump agenda

California’s big pushback:

Attorney General Xavier Becerra and progressive legislators are fighting back against the Trump agenda

California's big pushback: Golden State sets the standard for resistance to Trump agenda
Donald Trump; Xavier Becerra (Credit: AP/Alex Brandon/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

After Donald Trump’s shocking meltdown on Tuesday afternoon, it’s even clearer that progressives need effective strategies to blunt the effect of having a conspiracy-theory-driven, racist authoritarian in the Oval Office, backed by a congressional majority that is still too afraid to offer meaningful checks on his worst behavior. The good news is that some of the nation’s biggest cities and states remain controlled by Democrats. Activists and politicians in those states are looking for meaningful ways to throw wrenches in the Trump agenda.

At the top of that list is California, which not only has the largest population of any state but is controlled by progressive Democrats (relatively speaking) who seem ready and eager to fight Trump, especially on the issues of climate change and immigration. (New York is the next biggest state controlled by Democrats, but intra-party warfare has crippled the ability of progressives to get much done.)

California fired a significant shot across the bow at Trump on Monday, when state Attorney General Xavier Becerra declared that the state would sue the Trump administration over threats to withdraw law enforcement grants if the local and state police refuse to cooperate with federal efforts to deport immigrants. The lawsuit will be joined with an earlier one filed by the city of San Francisco.

“It’s a low blow to our men and women who wear the badge, for the federal government to threaten their crime-fighting resources in order to force them to do the work of the federal government when it comes to immigration enforcement,” Becerra said during a press conference announcing the suit. California received $28 million in law enforcement grants from the federal government this year, money it could lose if the police prioritize actual crime-fighting over federal demands that they focus their resources on deporting people.

“The government’s plan for deporting millions of people in this country is to coerce local law enforcement to be their force-multipliers,” explained Jennie Pasquarella, director of immigrants’ rights for the ACLU of California.

Pasquarella noted that most deportations currently occur because of an encounter with local law enforcement. By resisting pressure to step up efforts to persecute undocumented immigrants, she said, California can make it safe for people to “access basic services that are vital to our state and communities without fear of deportation, like schools and hospitals and libraries and health clinics.”

Some Democrats in the state are trying to take this idea even further, backing SB 54, titled the California Values Act. According to The Los Angeles Times, the bill would prohibit “state and local law enforcement agencies, including school police and security departments, from using resources to investigate, interrogate, detain, detect or arrest people for immigration enforcement purposes.”

While SB 54 is still being worked over in the legislature, California has already made progress in resisting the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal Obama-era actions to fight climate change. In July, Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill extending a cap-and-trade program to reduce carbon emissions until 2030. The bill passed by a two-thirds majority in both the State Assembly and Senate.

Many environmentalist groups have come out against the bill, arguing that it doesn’t go far enough. Still, compared to the federal government’s evident retreat, it’s progress in the right direction. California has the largest state economy in the country, and demonstrating that climate action does not have to undermine economic growth could go a long way towards convincing other states to take similar action. This, in turn, could help the country meet the goals set by the Paris Accords, defying Trump’s efforts to pull the United States out of the historic climate change agreement.

This strategy to resist right-wing policies and protect California residents predates Trump, to be clear. While much of the country was experiencing an unprecedented rollback of reproductive rights — with numerous red states passing alarming new abortion restrictions while anti-choice activists fought insurance coverage of contraception in the courts — California moved to make birth control and abortion easier and safer to get.

In 2013, responding to research showing that abortions provided by nurse practitioners and midwives are safe, Brown signed a law giving those groups authority to offer abortion services. Brown has also signed off on three provisions to make it easier for women to get birth control: Letting pharmacists dispense it without a doctor’s prescription, requiring that health care plans cover contraception without a co-pay, and allowing women to get a full year’s worth of birth-control pills at a time.

These policies were already in place before Trump’s election, but they are all the more necessary now that the president is backing conservative efforts to make contraception more expensive and harder to get. It has also helped create a model for progressive cities and states to resist reactionary policies pushed by the federal government, which is already inspiring Democrats in other states. Chicago, for instance, is also suing the federal government over the threat to sanctuary cities.

There’s a deep philosophical irony here, because for decades now conservatives have claimed they wanted to reduce the power of the federal government and hand more decision-making authority to the states. That was always a disingenuous pose, of course. This conservative “principle” was largely invented to justify state resistance to Supreme Court decisions and federal legislation legalizing abortion, desegregating schools and protecting voting rights.

Still, it’s nice to see states like California calling the Republican bluff and showing that their supposed devotion to “small government” dries up the second states and cities move to protect human rights, instead of to attack them. Trump’s attorney general, Jeff Sessions, has always held himself out to be a small-government conservative, for instance. But his reaction to state and local officials who claim the power to set law enforcement priorities for themselves has been to accuse those officials of being law-breakers. This hypocrisy is already obvious, and it may soon be exposed in court.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She’s on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

Bernie Sanders, and the Unexpected Socialist Revival

CULTURE
Bernie Sanders proved socialism isn’t dead—and some young people are even open to the banished ideas of Karl Marx.

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Since his grassroots presidential campaign took the world by storm last year, Sen. Bernie Sanders has been widely credited with bringing socialism back into the mainstream of American politics and introducing an entire generation to left-wing politics. As a major presidential candidate who unabashedly identified as a democratic socialist, Sanders essentially resurrected an idea that has been considered off limits in our political discourse for many decades: that there is an alternative to capitalism and the status quo.

This radical idea has become less taboo in recent years, and today an increasing number of millennials say they reject capitalism, while a majority of Americans support “socialistic” policies like universal health care (for the first time in a long time, single-payer is gaining mainstream momentum). Clearly, Sanders deserves the credit he has received for shifting the Overton window and reintroducing a form of left-wing class politics to America. It is safe to say that no single person has done more to revive the American left than the Vermont senator.

But Sanders’ political rise did not happen in a vacuum, and it’s unlikely he would have achieved much success had the social and economic conditions not been ripe. Though the 75-year old senator played an essential role in demystifying socialism to the public and instilling a radical spirit in the progressive movement, the current resurgence of class politics on the left has been in the works for many years, going back to the 2007-08 financial crisis.

It hasn’t been white-haired socialists who have provided the foundation for this resurgence, but young people who grew up in the era of neoliberalism. This was evident last week, when progressive millennials flocked to Chicago for the biannual Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention, where delegates came together to vote on various resolutions for the party. In the past year, the DSA has tripled its membership, and what is particularly telling about this growth is that the average age of DSA members has dropped by half virtually overnight, from 64 in 2015 to just 30 today.

This trend has led to a cottage industry of think pieces speculating about why millennials have embraced old school leftists like Sanders and British Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, but it is hardly a great mystery. Millennials came of age during the worst capitalist crisis in 80 years and live in a time when income and wealth inequality have reached historic levels — as evidenced by the fact that the eight richest men in the world (seven of whom are white American men) own as much wealth as the bottom 3.6 billion people.

Millennials inhabit a planet that faces ecological collapse, and most grasp the threat of climate change on a visceral level. Young people are also crippled by record levels of debt and despite being better educated than their parents earn 20 percent less than baby boomers did at this point in their lives. Finally, millennials have grown up in a time when moneyed interests have completely infiltrated the political process, creating an oligarchic form of government that serves the economic elite rather than the majority.

In other words, millennials are increasingly ambivalent about capitalism because it is a system that has failed their generation. Not surprisingly, this has led to a significant number of young intellectuals who have also rediscovered the works of Karl Marx, the great diagnostician of capitalism’s ills. Around the same time that the Occupy Wall Street protests erupted around the country in 2011, Bhaskar Sunkara founded Jacobin, the left-wing quarterly that has grown rapidly over the past five years, publishing the work of many millennial Marxists.

Of course, it is one thing to call yourself a socialist (or a “democratic socialist”) in America, and another thing entirely to identify as a Marxist. For the past century Karl Marx has been the ultimate intellectual bogeyman in the United States. For the majority of Americans who have no first-hand familiarity with the 19th-century thinker and his work, the term “Marxism” is synonymous with Stalinism and totalitarianism.

As with the millennial embrace of an elderly democratic socialist, this Marxist revival has predictably confounded many liberal and conservative critics, who assume that youngsters simply don’t know their 20th-century history. “That Marxism is not viewed with a similar horror as Nazism is one of the greatest failings of contemporary education,” tweeted Claire Lehmann, editor of the libertarian-leaning publication Quillette magazine, last month.

One of the greatest failings of contemporary education, one might counter, is that critics of Marxism know next to nothing about Marx or Marxism, other than the fact that some unsavory historical figures identified themselves with the term. This is obviously not a new phenomenon, and more than 50 years ago the American sociologist C. Wright Mills attempted to provide an objective account of Marx’s ideas in his 1962 book, “The Marxists,” meant to counteract the propaganda efforts of Cold Warriors. Mills’ book is just as useful today when it comes to explaining why Marx remains relevant in the 21st century. (Some might argue he is even more relevant today than in the mid-20th century, as capitalism has conquered the globe). In order to uncover what makes Marx’s work so valuable, Mills makes an important analytical distinction between the philosopher’s methodology/model and his theories:

model is a more or less systematic inventory of the elements to which we must pay attention if we are to understand something. It is not true or false; it is useful and adequate to varying degrees. A theory, in contrast, is a statement which can be proved true or false, about the casual weight and the relations of the elements of a model. Only in terms of this distinction can we understand why Marx’s work is truly great.

Marx’s model, argues Mills, “is what is great; that is what is alive in marxism. [Marx] provides a classic machinery for thinking about man, society, and history. That is the reason there have been so many quite different revivals of marxism. Marx is often wrong, in part because he died in 1883, in part because he did not use his own machinery as carefully as we now can, and in part because some of the machinery itself needs to be refined and even redesigned. . . . Neither the truth nor the falsity of Marx’s theories confirm the adequacy of his model.”

Marx’s model looked at the structure of society as a whole, as well as that “structure in historical motion,” and the German philosopher and economist employed this model to examine and reveal the dynamics of capitalism. This largely explains why there has been a renewed interest in Marx’s work in recent years, especially among millennials who have lived their entire lives under a global capitalist order. Marx’s model of looking at the world, along with his exhaustive analysis of capitalism, helps us to understand our own contemporary reality and where we are headed.

While Marx’s model is essential to understanding modern society, another fundamental aspect of Marxism is, of course, the merging of theory and practice. As Marx famously declared, “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it.”

This remains the ultimate goal for millennial Marxists and socialists. Although capitalism has never been more globally dominant than it is today, this has also engendered social and economic conditions that are ripe for left-wing political movements. As the Marxist economist Richard Wolff recently said during an interview on Fox Business:

Socialism is in a way the shadow of capitalism. Nothing guarantees the future of socialism so much as capitalism, because socialism is capitalism’s self-criticism.