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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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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/

It was the Democrats’ embrace of neoliberalism that won it for Trump

People have lost their sense of security, status and even identity. This result is the scream of an America desperate for radical change

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‘Elite neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class. People such as Hillary and Bill Clinton are the toast of the Davos party. In truth, they threw the party.’ Photograph: Ruben Sprich/Reuters

But this leaves out the force most responsible for creating the nightmare in which we now find ourselves wide awake: neoliberalism. That worldview – fully embodied by Hillary Clinton and her machine – is no match for Trump-style extremism. The decision to run one against the other is what sealed our fate. If we learn nothing else, can we please learn from that mistake?

Here is what we need to understand: a hell of a lot of people are in pain. Under neoliberal policies of deregulation, privatisation, austerity and corporate trade, their living standards have declined precipitously. They have lost jobs. They have lost pensions. They have lost much of the safety net that used to make these losses less frightening. They see a future for their kids even worse than their precarious present.

At the same time, they have witnessed the rise of the Davos class, a hyper-connected network of banking and tech billionaires, elected leaders who are awfully cosy with those interests, and Hollywood celebrities who make the whole thing seem unbearably glamorous. Success is a party to which they were not invited, and they know in their hearts that this rising wealth and power is somehow directly connected to their growing debts and powerlessness.

For the people who saw security and status as their birthright – and that means white men most of all – these losses are unbearable.

Donald Trump speaks directly to that pain. The Brexit campaign spoke to that pain. So do all of the rising far-right parties in Europe. They answer it with nostalgic nationalism and anger at remote economic bureaucracies – whether Washington, the North American free trade agreement the World Trade Organisation or the EU. And of course, they answer it by bashing immigrants and people of colour, vilifying Muslims, and degrading women. Elite neoliberalism has nothing to offer that pain, because neoliberalism unleashed the Davos class. People such as Hillary and Bill Clinton are the toast of the Davos party. In truth, they threw the party.

Trump’s message was: “All is hell.” Clinton answered: “All is well.” But it’s not well – far from it.

Neo-fascist responses to rampant insecurity and inequality are not going to go away. But what we know from the 1930s is that what it takes to do battle with fascism is a real left. A good chunk of Trump’s support could be peeled away if there were a genuine redistributive agenda on the table. An agenda to take on the billionaire class with more than rhetoric, and use the money for a green new deal. Such a plan could create a tidal wave of well-paying unionised jobs, bring badly needed resources and opportunities to communities of colour, and insist that polluters should pay for workers to be retrained and fully included in this future.

It could fashion policies that fight institutionalised racism, economic inequality and climate change at the same time. It could take on bad trade deals and police violence, and honour indigenous people as the original protectors of the land, water and air.

People have a right to be angry, and a powerful, intersectional left agenda can direct that anger where it belongs, while fighting for holistic solutions that will bring a frayed society together.

Such a coalition is possible. In Canada, we have begun to cobble it together under the banner of a people’s agenda called The Leap Manifesto, endorsed by more than 220 organisations from Greenpeace Canada to Black Lives Matter Toronto, and some of our largest trade unions.

Bernie Sanders’ amazing campaign went a long way towards building this sort of coalition, and demonstrated that the appetite for democratic socialism is out there. But early on, there was a failure in the campaign to connect with older black and Latino voters who are the demographic most abused by our current economic model. That failure prevented the campaign from reaching its full potential. Those mistakes can be corrected and a bold, transformative coalition is there to be built on.

That is the task ahead. The Democratic party needs to be either decisively wrested from pro-corporate neoliberals, or it needs to be abandoned. From Elizabeth Warren to Nina Turner, to the Occupy alumni who took the Bernie campaign supernova, there is a stronger field of coalition-inspiring progressive leaders out there than at any point in my lifetime. We are “leaderful”, as many in the Movement for Black Lives say.

So let’s get out of shock as fast as we can and build the kind of radical movement that has a genuine answer to the hate and fear represented by the Trumps of this world. Let’s set aside whatever is keeping us apart and start right now.

Guardian

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems

Financial meltdown, environmental disaster and even the rise of Donald Trump – neoliberalism has played its part in them all. Why has the left failed to come up with an alternative?

Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House.
‘No alternative’ … Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher at the White House. Photograph: Rex Features

Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?

Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.

***

The term neoliberalism was coined at a meeting in Paris in 1938. Among the delegates were two men who came to define the ideology, Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek. Both exiles from Austria, they saw social democracy, exemplified by Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal and the gradual development of Britain’s welfare state, as manifestations of a collectivism that occupied the same spectrum as nazism and communism.

In The Road to Serfdom, published in 1944, Hayek argued that government planning, by crushing individualism, would lead inexorably to totalitarian control. Like Mises’s book Bureaucracy, The Road to Serfdom was widely read. It came to the attention of some very wealthy people, who saw in the philosophy an opportunity to free themselves from regulation and tax. When, in 1947, Hayek founded the first organisation that would spread the doctrine of neoliberalism – the Mont Pelerin Society – it was supported financially by millionaires and their foundations.

With their help, he began to create what Daniel Stedman Jones describes in Masters of the Universe as “a kind of neoliberal international”: a transatlantic network of academics, businessmen, journalists and activists. The movement’s rich backers funded a series of thinktanks which would refine and promote the ideology. Among them were the American Enterprise Institute, the Heritage Foundation, the Cato Institute, the Institute of Economic Affairs, the Centre for Policy Studies and the Adam Smith Institute. They also financed academic positions and departments, particularly at the universities of Chicago and Virginia.

As it evolved, neoliberalism became more strident. Hayek’s view that governments should regulate competition to prevent monopolies from forming gave way – among American apostles such as Milton Friedman– to the belief that monopoly power could be seen as a reward for efficiency.

Something else happened during this transition: the movement lost its name. In 1951, Friedman was happy to describe himself as a neoliberal. But soon after that, the term began to disappear. Stranger still, even as the ideology became crisper and the movement more coherent, the lost name was not replaced by any common alternative.

At first, despite its lavish funding, neoliberalism remained at the margins. The postwar consensus was almost universal: John Maynard Keynes’s economic prescriptions were widely applied, full employment and the relief of poverty were common goals in the US and much of western Europe, top rates of tax were high and governments sought social outcomes without embarrassment, developing new public services and safety nets.

But in the 1970s, when Keynesian policies began to fall apart and economic crises struck on both sides of the Atlantic, neoliberal ideas began to enter the mainstream. As Friedman remarked, “when the time came that you had to change … there was an alternative ready there to be picked up”. With the help of sympathetic journalists and political advisers, elements of neoliberalism, especially its prescriptions for monetary policy, were adopted by Jimmy Carter’s administration in the US and Jim Callaghan’s government in Britain.

After Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan took power, the rest of the package soon followed: massive tax cuts for the rich, the crushing of trade unions, deregulation, privatisation, outsourcing and competition in public services. Through the IMF, the World Bank, the Maastricht treaty and the World Trade Organisation, neoliberal policies were imposed – often without democratic consent – on much of the world. Most remarkable was its adoption among parties that once belonged to the left: Labour and the Democrats, for example. As Stedman Jones notes, “it is hard to think of another utopia to have been as fully realised.”

***

It may seem strange that a doctrine promising choice and freedom should have been promoted with the slogan “there is no alternative”. But, as Hayek remarkedon a visit to Pinochet’s Chile – one of the first nations in which the programme was comprehensively applied – “my personal preference leans toward a liberal dictatorship rather than toward a democratic government devoid of liberalism”. The freedom that neoliberalism offers, which sounds so beguiling when expressed in general terms, turns out to mean freedom for the pike, not for the minnows.

Freedom from trade unions and collective bargaining means the freedom to suppress wages. Freedom from regulation means the freedom to poison rivers, endanger workers, charge iniquitous rates of interest and design exotic financial instruments. Freedom from tax means freedom from the distribution of wealth that lifts people out of poverty.

Naomi Klein documented that neoliberals advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted. 

As Naomi Klein documents in The Shock Doctrine, neoliberal theorists advocated the use of crises to impose unpopular policies while people were distracted: for example, in the aftermath of Pinochet’s coup, the Iraq war and Hurricane Katrina, which Friedman described as “an opportunity to radically reform the educational system” in New Orleans.

Where neoliberal policies cannot be imposed domestically, they are imposed internationally, through trade treaties incorporating “investor-state dispute settlement”: offshore tribunals in which corporations can press for the removal of social and environmental protections. When parliaments have voted to restrict sales of cigarettes, protect water supplies from mining companies, freeze energy bills or prevent pharmaceutical firms from ripping off the state, corporations have sued, often successfully. Democracy is reduced to theatre.

Another paradox of neoliberalism is that universal competition relies upon universal quantification and comparison. The result is that workers, job-seekers and public services of every kind are subject to a pettifogging, stifling regime of assessment and monitoring, designed to identify the winners and punish the losers. The doctrine that Von Mises proposed would free us from the bureaucratic nightmare of central planning has instead created one.

Neoliberalism was not conceived as a self-serving racket, but it rapidly became one. Economic growth has been markedly slower in the neoliberal era (since 1980 in Britain and the US) than it was in the preceding decades; but not for the very rich. Inequality in the distribution of both income and wealth, after 60 years of decline, rose rapidly in this era, due to the smashing of trade unions, tax reductions, rising rents, privatisation and deregulation.

The privatisation or marketisation of public services such as energy, water, trains, health, education, roads and prisons has enabled corporations to set up tollbooths in front of essential assets and charge rent, either to citizens or to government, for their use. Rent is another term for unearned income. When you pay an inflated price for a train ticket, only part of the fare compensates the operators for the money they spend on fuel, wages, rolling stock and other outlays. The rest reflects the fact that they have you over a barrel.

In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all phone services and soon became the world’s richest man. 

Those who own and run the UK’s privatised or semi-privatised services make stupendous fortunes by investing little and charging much. In Russia and India, oligarchs acquired state assets through firesales. In Mexico, Carlos Slim was granted control of almost all landline and mobile phone services and soon became the world’s richest man.

Financialisation, as Andrew Sayer notes in Why We Can’t Afford the Rich, has had a similar impact. “Like rent,” he argues, “interest is … unearned income that accrues without any effort”. As the poor become poorer and the rich become richer, the rich acquire increasing control over another crucial asset: money. Interest payments, overwhelmingly, are a transfer of money from the poor to the rich. As property prices and the withdrawal of state funding load people with debt (think of the switch from student grants to student loans), the banks and their executives clean up.

Sayer argues that the past four decades have been characterised by a transfer of wealth not only from the poor to the rich, but within the ranks of the wealthy: from those who make their money by producing new goods or services to those who make their money by controlling existing assets and harvesting rent, interest or capital gains. Earned income has been supplanted by unearned income.

Neoliberal policies are everywhere beset by market failures. Not only are the banks too big to fail, but so are the corporations now charged with delivering public services. As Tony Judt pointed out in Ill Fares the Land, Hayek forgot that vital national services cannot be allowed to collapse, which means that competition cannot run its course. Business takes the profits, the state keeps the risk.

The greater the failure, the more extreme the ideology becomes. Governments use neoliberal crises as both excuse and opportunity to cut taxes, privatise remaining public services, rip holes in the social safety net, deregulate corporations and re-regulate citizens. The self-hating state now sinks its teeth into every organ of the public sector.

Perhaps the most dangerous impact of neoliberalism is not the economic crises it has caused, but the political crisis. As the domain of the state is reduced, our ability to change the course of our lives through voting also contracts. Instead, neoliberal theory asserts, people can exercise choice through spending. But some have more to spend than others: in the great consumer or shareholder democracy, votes are not equally distributed. The result is a disempowerment of the poor and middle. As parties of the right and former left adopt similar neoliberal policies, disempowerment turns to disenfranchisement. Large numbers of people have been shed from politics.

Chris Hedges remarks that “fascist movements build their base not from the politically active but the politically inactive, the ‘losers’ who feel, often correctly, they have no voice or role to play in the political establishment”. When political debate no longer speaks to us, people become responsive instead to slogans, symbols and sensation. To the admirers of Trump, for example, facts and arguments appear irrelevant.

Judt explained that when the thick mesh of interactions between people and the state has been reduced to nothing but authority and obedience, the only remaining force that binds us is state power. The totalitarianism Hayek feared is more likely to emerge when governments, having lost the moral authority that arises from the delivery of public services, are reduced to “cajoling, threatening and ultimately coercing people to obey them”.

***

Like communism, neoliberalism is the God that failed. But the zombie doctrine staggers on, and one of the reasons is its anonymity. Or rather, a cluster of anonymities.

The invisible doctrine of the invisible hand is promoted by invisible backers. Slowly, very slowly, we have begun to discover the names of a few of them. We find that the Institute of Economic Affairs, which has argued forcefully in the media against the further regulation of the tobacco industry, has been secretly funded by British American Tobacco since 1963. We discover that Charles and David Koch, two of the richest men in the world, founded the institute that set up the Tea Party movement. We find that Charles Koch, in establishing one of his thinktanks, noted that “in order to avoid undesirable criticism, how the organisation is controlled and directed should not be widely advertised”.

The words used by neoliberalism often conceal more than they elucidate. “The market” sounds like a natural system that might bear upon us equally, like gravity or atmospheric pressure. But it is fraught with power relations. What “the market wants” tends to mean what corporations and their bosses want. “Investment”, as Sayer notes, means two quite different things. One is the funding of productive and socially useful activities, the other is the purchase of existing assets to milk them for rent, interest, dividends and capital gains. Using the same word for different activities “camouflages the sources of wealth”, leading us to confuse wealth extraction with wealth creation.

A century ago, the nouveau riche were disparaged by those who had inherited their money. Entrepreneurs sought social acceptance by passing themselves off as rentiers. Today, the relationship has been reversed: the rentiers and inheritors style themselves entre preneurs. They claim to have earned their unearned income.

These anonymities and confusions mesh with the namelessness and placelessness of modern capitalism: the franchise model which ensures that workers do not know for whom they toil; the companies registered through a network of offshore secrecy regimes so complex that even the police cannot discover the beneficial owners; the tax arrangements that bamboozle governments; the financial products no one understands.

The anonymity of neoliberalism is fiercely guarded. Those who are influenced by Hayek, Mises and Friedman tend to reject the term, maintaining – with some justice – that it is used today only pejoratively. But they offer us no substitute. Some describe themselves as classical liberals or libertarians, but these descriptions are both misleading and curiously self-effacing, as they suggest that there is nothing novel about The Road to Serfdom, Bureaucracy or Friedman’s classic work, Capitalism and Freedom.

***

For all that, there is something admirable about the neoliberal project, at least in its early stages. It was a distinctive, innovative philosophy promoted by a coherent network of thinkers and activists with a clear plan of action. It was patient and persistent. The Road to Serfdom became the path to power.

Neoliberalism’s triumph also reflects the failure of the left. When laissez-faire economics led to catastrophe in 1929, Keynes devised a comprehensive economic theory to replace it. When Keynesian demand management hit the buffers in the 70s, there was an alternative ready. But when neoliberalism fell apart in 2008 there was … nothing. This is why the zombie walks. The left and centre have produced no new general framework of economic thought for 80 years.

Every invocation of Lord Keynes is an admission of failure. To propose Keynesian solutions to the crises of the 21st century is to ignore three obvious problems. It is hard to mobilise people around old ideas; the flaws exposed in the 70s have not gone away; and, most importantly, they have nothing to say about our gravest predicament: the environmental crisis. Keynesianism works by stimulating consumer demand to promote economic growth. Consumer demand and economic growth are the motors of environmental destruction.

What the history of both Keynesianism and neoliberalism show is that it’s not enough to oppose a broken system. A coherent alternative has to be proposed. For Labour, the Democrats and the wider left, the central task should be to develop an economic Apollo programme, a conscious attempt to design a new system, tailored to the demands of the 21st century.

https://www.theguardian.com/books/2016/apr/15/neoliberalism-ideology-problem-george-monbiot

Disaster capitalism is a permanent state of life for too many Americans

homeless
According to the Department of Homeless Services, the number of homeless people in New York City has risen by more than 20,000 over the past five years. Photograph: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In the United States, disaster has become our most common mode of life. Proof that our daily existence was something other than a simmering, smoldering disaster has been historically held somewhat at bay by the myth that hard work equals some kind of subsistence living. For the more deluded amongst us, this ‘American dream’ even got us to believe we could be something called ‘middle class’. We were deceived.

For those not yet woke, I don’t see how y’all can stay asleep when story after story proves how screwed we are.

The New York Post, no bastion of bleeding heart liberalism, reported on Monday that “Hundreds of full-time city workers are homeless”. These are people who clean our trash and make our city, the heart of American capitalism, safe and livable, including for those who plunder the globe from Wall Street. These are men and women, living in shelters and out of their cars, who have government jobs – the kind of workers conservatives love to paint as greedy, gluttonous pigs.

When a full time government worker can’t “find four walls and a roof to call his own” in the city he serves, we are living in a perpetual state of disaster capitalism.

Across the country, the San Francisco Chronicle told the tale of the “Tech bus drivers forced to live in cars to make ends meet”. It’s arguable whether living in your car can really be considered “making ends meet”, but what can you expect of a newspaper serving a city where tech is supposed to answer all of our needs. Where housing is even more stupidly expensive than in New York City.

This, too, is perpetual disaster capitalism, creating havoc and inflicting disaster upon individual souls for corporate greed without even needing the pretense of a crisis for an excuse.

In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, Naomi Klein defined “disaster capitalism” as “orchestrated raids on the public sphere in the wake of catastrophic events, combined with the treatment of disasters as exciting marketing opportunities”. She was riffing on neoconservatives using Hurricane Katrina as an excuse for a New Orleans land grab. She witnessed the same phenomenon in the 2004 Asian Tsunami and in the aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq.

The concept of public plunder after disaster has been embraced in similar linguistic terms by Democrats and Republicans alike. Condoleezza Rice famouslycalled 9/11 an “enormous opportunity”, and indeed it was a profitable one, for war contractors anyway. Similarly, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before”. Emanuel was good to his word. While American workers lost their jobs, lost their homes and even took their own lives as a result of the 2008 financial meltdown, the Obama White House instituted financial “reforms” that arrested no Wall Street executives, and left even Forbes predicting “ten reasons why there will be another systematic financial crisis”.

When our daily life is one of a state of chaos – and with hundreds slaughtered by police annually, and folks who work full time unable to stave off homelessness, and white anchors shot on live TV, and black worshippers shot up in church, and incarcerated victims behind bars “taking their own lives” daily, it’s hard to say that it’s not – the continuous state of disaster justifies disaster capitalism continuously, and we’re barely able to notice it, and powerless to stop it.

We live in such an interminable state of disaster, we barely see the locusts for the plague. Take the other major sad story this week: that Silicon Valley investor Martin Shkrelli has bought the drug Daraprim, raising its price 5,000%. No crisis necessitated this increase. The drug is 62 years old, and its initial costs had long ago been absorbed.

It’s easy to be angry at Shkrelli, his smug smile and his greedy choices that may well equal the deaths of those priced out from the malaria, Aids and cancer medicine they need. But Shkrelli is just a tool. He lives in a world where disaster capitalism will reward him. He now says he will make the drug “more affordable,” but the richest nation on earth can’t stop him from deciding what “affordable” will mean. He may repulse us, but he represents our American way of disastrous living. Disaster capitalism no longer just reacts to chaos for profit, or even creates chaos for profit. It creates the conditions by which the spectre of social, spiritual and biological death hang over our heads on a daily basis so oppressively, the crises become seamless.

And it asks us to accept that when you work full time driving workers to the richest corporation in the history of the human race and must live in your car, you should be grateful that you’re “making ends meet”, keep calm and carry on.

 

Water, Capitalism and Catastrophism

Living Under the Shadow of a Sixth Extinction
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by LOUIS PROYECT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Con la rivoluzione caviale per tutti.

(After the revolution, caviar for everyone.)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naomi Klein: “we are not who we were told we were”

by Liam Barrington-Bush on October 1, 2014

Post image for Naomi Klein: “we are not who we were told we were”On the eve of the publication of her new book, Naomi Klein talks about the things that give her hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak.

Naomi Klein rose to international acclaim in 1999 by explaining how big corporations were exploiting our insecurities to convince us to spend money we didn’t have, on stuff we didn’t need (No Logo). In 2007 she masterfully dissected the ways those steering the global economy use moments of social and environmental crisis to justify transferring public wealth into the hands of the ultra-rich (The Shock Doctrine). Less-known though are the alternatives Klein spends much of her time witnessing, documenting, and digging into, from the spread of fossil fuel divestment, to community-owned energy projects and resistance to tar sands pipelines.

On the eve of the publication of her new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Klein sat down with Liam Barrington-Bush at the Peoples Social Forum in Ottawa, to talk about where she finds hope in a world that can sometimes feel very bleak. She reminds us that in a culture that treats people as consumers and relationships as transactions, ‘we’re not who we were told we were.’

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LBB: In a recent piece in the Nation, you wrote: “Because of the way our daily lives have been altered by both market and technological triumphalism, we lack many of the observational tools necessary to convince ourselves that climate change is real — let alone the confidence to believe that a different way of living is possible.” What has helped you to believe that a different way of living is possible?

NK: I think part of it is just having been lucky enough to have seen other ways of living and to have lived differently myself. To know that not only is living differently not the end of the world, but in many cases, it has enabled some of the happiest times of my life.

I think the truth is that we spend a lot of time being afraid of what we would lose if we ever took this crisis seriously. I had this experience when I had been living in Argentina for a couple of years; I came back to the US because I had agreed to do this speech at an American university. It was in Colorado and I went directly from Buenos Aires, which was just on fire at that moment; the culture was so rich, the sense of community was so strong. It was the most transformative experience of my life to be able to be part of that.

So I end up staying at a Holiday Inn, looking out at a parking lot, and it’s just so incredibly grim. I go to this class and I do my spiel. I was talking about Argentina and the economic crisis. At this point the US economy’s booming and nobody thinks anything like this could ever happen to them. And this young woman says, “I hear what you’re saying, but why should I care?”

And it was so funny because people don’t usually say that out loud. Like, they may think it, but she was like: ‘…I don’t understand why I should care, because, I mean, I have a really great life. I drive to school and I drive to Walmart and I drive home.’ And I just thought, that doesn’t sound like that great a life, you know?

Arundhati Roy tells Americans that she feels sorry for them; that she feels like, ‘you’re staying in your house to protect your washing machine.’ The truth is, if you have been exposed to other ways of living that have more community in them, where doors are more open to one another, first of all, you want to shop less, because you’re not shopping to fulfil all these other needs you’re not getting fulfilled. You’re not shopping for identity and you’re not shopping for a sense of community.

There’s a virtuous cycle that sets in when we build community; whether we build community in movements or in other ways, because I do feel like we are shopping to fill this void a lot of the time. I always find the only thing that makes you not want to constantly fill that void is if something else is filling it, you’re just too busy, you forget.

So that lack of imagination just has to do with what we’ve been exposed to. That’s why Occupy Wall Street, for all its flaws, was such a transformative experience for so many people. Because it was that moment where it’s like, ‘Oh! We’re not who we were told we were!’ It was that feeling of surprise that there are so many other people in this city who just want to talk to strangers and connect in this way, unmediated.

LBB: In the same article you wrote, in reference to your own ‘rootless’ life, that the poet Wendell Berry encouraged you to “Stop somewhere. And begin the thousand-year-long process of knowing that place.” How do you see the relationship between a sense of place and the solutions to something as massively daunting as either climate change or capitalism?

NK: Since the ‘70s, the icon of environmentalism has been the globe, the earth from space. And it was a really deracinated relationship with the earth, it was literally the astronaut’s view of the planet — this god-like posture — we’re looking down at earth.

A lot of the mistakes of the Big Green groups, I think, can be traced to this idea that environmentalism is about this whole planet. So if it’s about the whole planet, you can offset your carbon pollution in Richmond, to a carbon-offset in Honduras. The world becomes this chessboard.

I don’t think you can love a whole planet. I think what’s driving the most powerful resistance movements is love of particular places. And those places happen to have the largest pools of carbon underneath them and those places, because of technology, are linking up with other places.

That’s why Wendell Berry says, ‘each of our jobs is to love our place more than any other place.’ And if everybody did that we’d be fine. Nobody needs to love the whole world!

LBB: I was in Perth, Ontario recently. In some ways, Perth is just another North American small town, but it is also a place where a strong localism is bringing together a real mix of people; elements of the traditional farming community, hippie back-to-the-landers, off-grid survivalists, Transition Towners, traditional food bank volunteers, alongside those working on more participatory and sustainable ways of addressing the community’s food needs. Do you think this kind of place-based solution has the potential to bridge some of the political divides that have made so many larger scales of change impossible for so long?

NK: I don’t know if it holds solutions, but it certainly has potentials that are harder to realize in cities. Especially I think in farming communities you can definitely overcome left-right divides, because often you’re drawing on a tradition and a history of stewardship. So there’s a real disconnect between that philosophy, which has very deep roots, and modern capitalism, which is so ‘use-it-up-and-throw-it-out.’

Also around climate organizing, people often find that if you’re able to speak to and revive that conservative tradition of stewardship, it’s an opportunity to cross political lines. And even if those conservative farmers don’t even believe climate change is real, they still believe in the principles of protecting the land and protecting the water, and the responsibility to leave the land better than you found it. So if you believe in that, it doesn’t even really matter if you believe in climate change, because you’re not going to frack your land.

LBB: Are there any particular stories you have heard or experienced in your travels that give you hope for us getting out of the current mess?

NK: I think the movement that I have found most inspiring in recent years is… the movement against the Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline in British Columbia. That’s not because it’s more inspirational than other movements, I just found it to be — and still find it to be — one of the most positive and beautiful movements I’ve ever been a part of because it is this amazing combination of resisting something that people don’t want, but also just a total celebration of place.

I really felt so lucky to witness this process where people in that very special part of the world, really fell more deeply in love with their place and created these incredible coalitions to defend it, like the Save the Fraser Declaration, which more than a hundred First Nations signed.

Fighting these extreme extraction projects becomes a real space for historical healing. We use these words and we have these symbolic marches around reconciliation between settler and Indigenous peoples and it’s very empty. But what actually played out in BC is the very concrete realization among non-Indigenous British Columbians that they are tremendously lucky that so much of their province is on unceded Indigenous land.

Against this backdrop and history of conflict — which still exists — you would hear a non-native farmer say, ‘I’m so grateful to my First Nations neighbors for never giving up these rights and defending these rights, because this is going to be what protects my water.’

So that’s extraordinary! I can’t believe how much I’ve seen my country change in such a short time. It’s that Indigenous and non-Indigenous people are fighting for what is most essential — they’re fighting for their children’s health, they’re fighting for their water, they’re fighting for their land and they understand, we understand, that our fates are truly interconnected.

So these words that we use, like solidarity and all of this, suddenly become really concrete. It is literally that if we do not deal with this past, of who created this crisis and who is largely responsible and how that’s going to translate into policy and resources, then ultimately we’re all cooked.

Another movement I’ve found inspiring this past few years is just how quickly the fossil fuel divestment movement has spread in campuses and cities. I think it speaks to the fact that people understand that there are power dynamics at play in the climate fight that a lot of the Big Green NGOs have tried to paper over. Where the discourse was just like, ‘we’re all in this together, everybody’s going to do this, the billionaires are going to join together with the Hollywood celebrities, are going to join together with ExxonMobil and the Nature Conservancy and we’ll fix this together!’

So what was really inspiring about being part of the launch of that movement was realizing that people were so up for this! It was like they were just waiting for someone to ask!

I don’t think that this tactic is going to bankrupt ExxonMobil or change everything, by any means, but what I found inspiring was seeing the readiness of large numbers of people to use tactics that are significantly more confrontational than the ones that the traditional green movement had been offering. So I think that that’s a really hopeful sign for the future.

LBB: Are there any particular themes or patterns you’ve picked up between these and other sources of inspiration, that you think could offer hints to people wanting to take action themselves?

NK: I think another inspiring movement is the rise of renewable energy in Germany. That is a really important case study because this is a post-industrial, Western, large, very powerful economy, that in the past decade has made a dramatic shift towards renewable energy, primarily wind and solar.

But what’s really interesting about it, is that it is the small-scale, decentralized, cooperatively-owned aspect of the transition that is fastest-spreading, that has people most excited. That’s an important pattern. Energy democracy is a phrase more and more people are using to describe this sort of phenomenon, where it isn’t just about switching from fossil fuel to so-called green energy, it’s also a power shift in who owns and controls the source of the power, where the resources go.

So what is driving the movement in Germany is not just that people don’t want nuclear power, they don’t want coal; it’s that they want to have control over their energy, they want their resources and the profits to stay in their communities. And this is happening in the age of austerity where it’s a big deal if you can actually get resources to communities. So these are very much pro-democracy movements. They’re not just about where your energy is coming from and what color it is, it’s really about self-determination and community control.

And there are ways of designing government policy that decentralize power. So you look at Germany none of this would be happening if Germany didn’t have a bold national feed-in tariff plan. You couldn’t just do it ad hoc, at the local level. That would not get to you what Germany has done, which is 25 percent of their electricity coming from renewable energy and that’s going to keep expanding.

You need those bold policies and you also need to say no to fossil fuels — you need regulation. So you need to have a relationship with government in order to win those policies. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be in government, by the way, because German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is no lefty, but the anti-nuclear movement and the climate movement in Germany is strong enough that they have won this, which is extraordinary.

Similarly, I look at what’s happening in Spain with this transition from the street movement of the indignados to Podemos, a political party that is intersecting with traditional politics, but in a new way. So I think that’s another pattern that we’re starting to see, of finding ways to intersect with policy, with the state, but at the same time to decentralize power and deepen local democracy.

Naomi Klein is a Canadian activist and best-selling author of No Logo (1999) and The Shock Doctrine (2007). Her latest book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, is out from Allen Lane/Penguin Books now.

Liam Barrington-Bush is an activist, facilitator, and author of Anarchists in the Boardroom. He tweets as @hackofalltrades, blogs at morelikepeople.org and posts stuff on the ‘more like people‘ Facebook page.

This article was originally published at Contributoria.