What’s going on in Canada?

Yves Engler
Interviewed by David Barsamian
Toronto, Ontario
25 March 2013

What’s going on in Canada? Justin Bieber? Snow? Hockey? Since 2006, the vast country of 35 million people has been led by Stephen Harper. He is prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. Earlier in his political career he was a Member of Parliament representing Calgary in Alberta province. To say Harper has close ties with Canada’s powerful oil and mining interests would be an understatement. He is a fervent advocate of the tar sands project in Alberta and has aggressively backed its expansion. Scientists such as James Hansen call the extraction of this particularly dirty oil a “monster” and “game over” for stabilizing the climate. Harper is strongly backing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. That project, opposed by many in the U.S., is on Obama’s desk right now

This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Yves Engler has been called “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” and “in the mould of I.F. Stone.” He is the author of many books, including Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada Israel: Building Apartheid, and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.

You can listen to Yves Engler speak for himself here.

I’d like you to read the opening paragraph from The Ugly Canadian.

“While millions disagree with Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party’s domestic agenda, fewer Canadians are aware of his government’s destructive foreign policy. Many of us only pay close attention to matters that directly affect us, or our families. So when the Conservatives make it harder to collect unemployment insurance or raise the Old Age Pension, people notice because it affects them or someone they know. When a Conservative MP introduces a private member’s bill to restrict a woman’s right to choose an abortion, media outlets across the country report on it and pundits produce reams of analysis, much of it critical. But when our government encourages a coup in Honduras or mining legislation to benefit Canadian companies over indigenous communities in Peru, there is little critical reporting in the dominant media. This is because the only direct Canadian self-interest tends to be that of the companies trying to profit from the situation. Investors put pressure on the government to promote their self-interests while few, if any, Canadians have a direct stake in defending Honduran democracy or the rights of poor villagers in a remote corner of Peru.”

Who is the ugly Canadian? Who is Stephen Harper? What are his political origins?

Stephen Harper’s foreign policy is not something that’s completely distinct from previous Canadian governments’ foreign policies. But it’s a particularly ideological bunch that are in power today, very close to the tar sands oil interests and a couple decades of right-wing ideology that comes with the oil sector in Alberta. Also, it’s a foreign policy that is very close with the rise of Canadian mining companies globally. Those companies have risen in influence around the world at incredible rates, going from about $250 million in investment in Africa in 1989 to $30 billion today. They dominate throughout Latin America with hundreds of billions of dollars of mining investments there.

So Stephen Harper comes out of a particularly right-wing regional movement from Alberta, where the bulk of Canadian oil is. And at the foreign policy level he has very much extended this sort of right-wing ideology. The rise of the tar sands and the rise of Canadian mining investment are some of the economic forces that are driving this particularly ugly Canadian.

Andrew Nikiforuk, the journalist, who has been a guest on this program, told me when I interviewed him in Calgary that Alberta was “Texas on steroids” and it was Canada’s “petrostate.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. Harper’s ties to the oil sector in Alberta are extensive familial ties. In large part the political party he represents comes out of a backlash to a national energy program in the 1980s. Basically, that was not liked by the oil companies in Alberta, and they funded an alternative Reform Party for a while. Then it morphed into the Conservative Party and a whole host of right-wing think tanks. For Alberta regionally, every position in the House of Commons from Alberta, minus one, was won by the Conservative Party. So the province is the bastion of support for this government and all those particularly regressive elements that tend to come with the oil sector.

If Alberta were an independent country, it would have the third largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

And the plan is to keep extracting that no matter what the ecological toll is. That’s where you see, with the Keystone pipeline protests, why the federal government and the Alberta government have both been so active in their lobbying in the U.S. to get that pipeline built. Because this is not just about something that’s going to play out for the next couple years. They have plans to extract billions of barrels of oil and keep expanding the extraction process. And, obviously, Alberta is cut off from a seaport. There’s opposition to building pipelines to the West Coast through British Columbia.

They want to get that oil to market and the most profitable of the options is down to the Gulf Coast. So you have a federal government that has literally spent millions, probably into the tens of millions of dollars, lobbying in the U.S. on behalf of TransCanada and the Keystone pipeline. The Alberta government also, all the ministers repeatedly in Washington speaking to governors throughout the U.S., sending letters to Congress people or senators that come out in opposition to the pipeline, going to county meetings and writing letters to The New York Times. And on and on and on, just an incredible lobbying battle. Because the Keystone pipeline is not just about the short term. The plan is to continue to expand the tar sands. And there are a number of companies that are making and will be making lots of profit from that process. From an ecological standpoint it’s a catastrophe, but from the standpoint of economic growth and profit, there’s a lot of money to be made in the Alberta tar sands.

James Hansen, the well-known U.S. scientist says that if this project continues, that it would be “game over.” You hear a lot of these kinds of apocalyptic terms around the tar sands—tipping point, game changer—but there is a solid consensus that this would significantly exacerbate climate change.

There’s no doubt about it. The first thing that people have to understand is that they have started with the easiest oil. It gets dirtier as the extraction process goes along. And increasingly, while there are efficiency improvements in the extraction of the current dominant form of extraction of tar sands oil, they’re increasingly going to in situ extraction, which is pumping moisture down to pull out the oil. And that’s even more energy-intensive. From the oil sector crowd, they say they’re getting better, more efficient, it’s less harmful to the environment. But in fact they’re moving toward a model of even more difficult oil to get out, which is more energy-intensive, plus the impact on the indigenous communities that live there, and the destruction of forest at incredible levels.

Are there not problems with coal extraction? Are there not problems with traditional oil extraction? Of course there are. There need to be radical changes in how we structure our cities and how we structure our economies. There is no doubt. The tar sands are not the only problem out there. But with the plans of expansion they have going, I think this should be seen as a line in the sand for the environmental movement. So far the mobilizations against the pipeline, certainly in B.C., have been very impressive in terms of galvanizing environmental activism; and, clearly, in the U.S., with the Keystone protests, they’ve been very good at galvanizing environmental activism and putting the question of climate justice and climate disturbance on to the political agenda, which is an incredibly important development.

More than 1200 people were arrested at the White House in the largest civil disobedience action in recent memory. And the Sierra Club, a conservative environmental organization in the U.S., has now endorsed civil disobedience as a technique to try and stop this project from going forward.

That’s a very positive development. I saw that more recently, if Obama okays the Keystone XL, up to 5,000 people are planning to use their bodies to disrupt the building process. It is just one element in a bigger fight. I’ve written a previous book called Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. I think we need to move completely away from the private automobile, for instance, among many other changes in terms of the environment and economy. So we need to be moving towards a model of walking, biking, and mass transit for people to get around. We need to be changing the ways in which food is grown to be less energy-intensive. There are lots of changes that need to be done.

Interestingly, the Keystone protests in the U.S. have really put the Conservative Harper government on the defensive on the climate issue. They, of course, pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. They’ve criticized the opposition NDP for its supposed job-killing climate change program. So they’ve been really aggressive in doing their best to do nothing on that issue. But the protests in the U.S. have forced them on to the back foot. Now they’re starting to talk about bringing in stricter measures around greenhouse gas emissions on a number of fronts. It’s probably mostly rhetorical at this point, but it’s interesting to see how the social movement in the U.S. has really impacted the official political discussion in this country around greenhouse gases. What’s needed is bigger and more militant protests. And pushing groups like the Sierra Club and other more conservative organizations to drop this desire to always be respectable and moving towards activism and taking the science seriously.

Explain NDP.

The New Democratic Party, in this last federal election, 2011, for the first time in their history became the official opposition. They’re traditionally the labor-supported party. They’re sort of the social democrats, clearly to the left of the Democrats, though increasingly less to the left of the Democrats and clearly moving to the right. But they have a history of being tied into social movements. They were the party in Saskatchewan that brought in Medicare, the national single-payer health insurance. They’re the main opposition at this point.

The premier of Saskatchewan, at the time, was the father-in-law of the actor Donald Sutherland.

Tommy Douglas was the premier when they started the process of bringing in Medicare in Saskatchewan 50 years ago.

How have the protests in the U.S. against Keystone affected Canadian activists? Have there been sit-downs and blockades?

In British Columbia there have been. There are two different main pipelines planned to take oil from Alberta to the coast through B.C. The Northern Gateway has received the most amount of protest, which looks like it’s dead in the water because of a combination of indigenous opposition, First Nations. B.C.’s unceded territory. So the First Nations have legal rights that are quite significant. That combined with the environmental movement have really put that on the back burner. And there is another pipeline planned to go into a port in the Vancouver area. There’s lot of opposition from the municipalities. At this point there hasn’t been that significant of a direct action. There have been wide-scale pledges of, If they start this process, we’re going to block it physically. At this point it looks unlikely that they will be able to get the pipeline through, because even the right-wing provincial government of B.C. has come out in opposition to the main pipeline.

There has been some direct action, sort of symbolic direct action or symbolic getting arrested, against the Keystone XL in Ottawa. But the battle to some extent in Canada has been lost, because the National Energy Board has okayed the project and the opposition has really been coalesced more on the pipelines out to B.C., because that’s where groups have much more capacity to actually block the pipelines, whereas the one down south is much more difficult to oppose.

And that Northern Gateway pipeline is an Enbridge project. And then the U.S. pipeline is being projected to be built by TransCanada.

Both of them are Calgary-based. Enbridge is a major pipeline company that wants to take that oil out to the West Coast and then export it to Asia, possibly export it down to Southern California. TransCanada is the one building the Keystone XL, has already built portions of that longer pipeline, and is now calling on the Obama government to okay the cross-border component, which he has authority to say yes or no to. I think they’re the two most important pipeline companies in Canada.

But it’s not just the companies themselves. It’s the whole Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that’s behind this, and at the end of the day all of the companies that are invested in the Alberta tar sands that have direct interest in the building of these pipelines. So the companies themselves are big multinational corporations, but they have numerous bigger multinational corporations, from Total to Exxon to many others, kind of behind them in supporting the building of these pipelines.

And China is proposing to invest quite significantly in the tar sands.

A Chinese oil company, CNOOC, recently purchased for $15 billion, Nexen, a Canadian company heavily operating in the tar sands. The purchase by the Chinese company is in part because they obviously want access to the tar sands oil, but it’s also the expertise. The Canadian companies producing in Alberta are at the kind of forefront of the extraction technologies of this really dirty and difficult to get to oil. So for the Chinese, there are other parts of the world where similar forms of oil exist, so there’s a desire to build up that expertise for use globally.

A Canadian organization called someofus.org has called FIPA, the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement, between China and Canada, “the most secretive and sweeping trade deal of a generation.”

It’s been postponed. The Harper government signed FIPA. But it has not been passed in the House of Commons because about six months ago, when it became public, there was a groundswell of opposition. Because the accord really extends the investor rights of Chapter 11 in NAFTA, which allows foreign companies to sue the government if they feel they’ve had their profits impacted. And it has a really long shelf life. Once it’s signed, it’s in effect for 30 years. Whereas NAFTA, whatever country—I think it’s six months they have to give notice to pull out of the agreement.

There’s speculation that FIPA is a way of locking in Chinese investment into the tar sands. Some even speculated that the Conservative government wants this accord with China to strengthen the push to get that oil from Alberta out through B.C. and actually be able to hang it over the heads of the provincial government in B.C. and the communities that oppose it. That by the rules of FIPA the Chinese company would be able to sue Canada. That would then put further pressure to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to get the oil out to Asia. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure.

But what is clear is this is a further intense extension of investor rights and that whole process of corporate capitalist globalization that’s been going on for a couple of decades of putting the rights of investors above those of indigenous communities, above those of governments to regulate, above environmental accords, etc.

How did the sale of Nexen to CNOOC go over?

Harper okayed the purchase but it was controversial, even fairly controversial within the government itself.

Someofus.org says that this takeover of Nexen will open the floodgates to a wave of foreign buyouts of Canada’s resources.

That’s not the criticism I would make. First of all, there’s lots of foreign investment in the tar sands already, companies from Exxon to the French company Total to Norway’s Statoil to state-owned oil company from Qatar. I think one of the reasons why the Nexen purchase received so much opposition, even from establishment voices, is that China is seen as sort of a geopolitical rival of the West, of the U.S., Canada. So when a state-owned company from Qatar invests in the tar sands the reaction is different. Qatar is an ally of the West. It’s equally as repressive as China, it’s a state-owned company like the Chinese company, but that gets very little criticism.

I oppose foreign investment in general into natural resources. In fact, I oppose Canadian corporate investment. I think natural resources should be in the hands of local communities, in conjunction with provincial and national governments. And that should be everywhere in the world. That doesn’t just go for Chinese investment into Canada, but that also goes for Canadian mining investment in the Congo. You read in the business pages of The Globe and Mail or the National Post, the two dominant business papers, about how one Canadian company has paid $3 billion to another Canadian company to buy a mine or two in the Congo. The question of the Congolese is just completely off the agenda. But foreign investment, particularly in natural resources, whether it’s an American company or a Chinese company, I’m not a big supporter of either of these options.

Talk about the First Nations in Alberta and how they are adversely affected by the tar sands project, the Athabasca Nation. There has been a huge increase in rare cancers, there’s been contamination of water, wildlife has been imperiled.

In Fort Chipewyan, which is probably the worst hit significant sized community—multiple thousands of people live there, predominantly indigenous people—the cancer rates have risen significantly. There has been just incredible pressure on the doctors—this is going back several years—when it started to become clear that the toxins being released in the tar sands extraction were increasing cancer rates. There were some attempts by a doctor working there to document the issue. He got incredible pressure, basically got run out by the provincial government. The question has been proven beyond a reasonable scientific doubt at this point, that there have been increased cancer rates, but that’s put aside for the profits that the oil companies are extracting. There is a long history in this country, obviously, of natural resource extraction being at the expense of the first peoples, that had their land taken from them and continue to have their land taken from them across what is currently called Canada.

Not unlike the U.S.

For sure.

One of the chapters in The Ugly Canadian is “Mining the World.” You quote Harper saying, “Canadians are justly proud of our mining industry for its elevated sense of corporate social responsibility.” Then you quote a Foreign Affairs spokesperson from Ottawa, “Canada’s mining sector leads the world in responsible mining practices.”

That’s just Orwellian. The way to hide a problem is by boasting in the complete opposite direction. Even the Mining Association of Canada, there was a report of theirs leaked in 2011 which showed that Canadian mining companies were engaged in the biggest number of what they call “corporate social responsibility problems” around the world. The evidence, the documentation, is just absolutely overwhelming. At this point, and unbelievable as it might sound, you can pretty much pick any country in the global south and you will find an example of a Canadian-run company that’s involved in a conflict with the local community that has spurred violence, that has spurred ecological problems, from Ghana to Papua New Guinea, Chile to Guatemala. There is an example of a Canadian mining company that hired security forces who were then involved in raping people from the local community. Oftentimes because there’s resistance to the mine, people are killed because the community opposes the mine and the company is adamant that it’s going to move forward. So the examples are just absolutely overwhelming. Mostly ignored, of course, by the dominant media in this country. But groups like Mining Watch Canada and a whole series of different independent media outlets have just documented story after story after story. Increasingly, they have trickled out into the dominant media.

But the Harper government has blocked all attempts to bring in minimal regulations for mining companies. One of the reasons there are so many mining companies based in Canada, on Canadian stock exchanges, particularly the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Vancouver Stock Exchange, is that communities don’t have the right to pursue legally a company in this country that is responsible for abuses abroad. The U.S. something like 100 countries in the world have laws that allow people from other countries to pursue a company from the U.S. or elsewhere in a home court for what they did abroad. That doesn’t exist in Canada.

It’s precisely because the whole regulatory environment is incredibly permissive to what companies based in Canada do abroad, a big part of the reason, that so many of the mining companies are based here. Sixty percent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, on Canadian stock exchanges. I think it’s something like 40% of all mining capital from the world is on Canadian stock exchanges. So Canada is far and away the biggest player in the global mining sector, particularly in the juniors; a big player among the big companies, but particularly among the junior mining companies. The Harper government is just an ardent defender of the mining sector, no matter what the companies are involved in abroad. If there are examples where the company’s security forces have killed people, they still defend the Canadian mining company.

What you described as the lack of legal redress and criminal prosecution, is that connected with what you call, “Canadian mining investment is dependent on extreme free-market capitalism”? Is this extreme free-market capitalism?

It’s not free-market capitalism when you have the Canadian government lobbying on your behalf in Ecuador to introduce Canadian miners to local authorities. That’s not extreme free-market capitalism. That’s a clear example of government supporting the mining sector. But that’s ignored in the discussion. But what the Canadian mining sector has benefited from is a whole series of pro-capitalist reforms, often pushed by the International Monetary Fund through its structural adjustment programs, things like the reforms that came alongside NAFTA in Mexico. In the lead-up to NAFTA there were changes to the ejido system. Corporations in Mexico benefited from the elimination of the ejido system, where local communities had control over the rights of the subsoil and mining. This placated Canadian and other foreign investors. They did not have to worry about having “their” property taken over by local communities. At the time of NAFTA, in the mid-1990s, there was no foreign mining company operating in Mexico. By 2010 there were 375 Canadian mining companies operating in that country. Almost the entire mining sector is Canadian-dominated.

As I mentioned before, in 1989 there was $250 million in Canadian mining investment in Africa. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole series of structural adjustment programs pushed by the IMF, which often opened up those African countries’ natural resource sectors to foreign ownership and exploitation. Canadian companies are a dominant player throughout Africa; they’ve been the primary beneficiary.

When we talk about the ugly Canadian in terms of Harper’s foreign policy, structurally an important component of that is that these Canadian mining companies that are all across the globe understand that resource nationalism and socialistic reforms are a big threat to their profits. That’s part of why you see that Peter Munk, who is the head of Barrick Gold, the biggest Canadian mining company, came out viciously against Hugo Chavez. Even though his company has had no investments in Venezuela, he denounced Chavez as a dictator and has been very aggressively opposed to him because he understands that the sort of socialistic reforms that were being pursued there are a real threat to his interests elsewhere, if other countries start pursuing those reforms.

One of the first reforms that movements against neoliberalism pursue is they call for higher royalty rates on foreign investment, in the natural resource sector they call for nationalizing of natural resources. So the rise of the mining sector has had a major impact on creating a more generally right-wing Canadian foreign policy.

Chavez, of course, passed away in March of 2013.

And the Canadian government was the only government that used the opportunity to criticize Chavez, which prompted a very hostile letter from the Venezuelan government to the Harper government. Which is just another example of this over-the-top behavior—even Obama had the good sense to write a sort of don’t-say-anything type of statement about Chavez’s death, but Harper used it as an opportunity to again show that he’s the most right-wing government in the hemisphere.

Harper’s hostility to nationalist governments in Latin America doesn’t extend to Cuba.

It is a very interesting development. First of all, there are lots of Canadian corporate interests in Cuba that have to some extent benefited from the U.S. embargo. Now, ideologically, they are, of course, incredibly hostile to Cuba, but they have kept that pretty minimal. Here and there there’s an odd criticism that’s ideologically driven, but they’ve mostly avoided an open fight with the Cuban government. But also, there are about a million Canadian tourists who go to Cuba every year. So there’s a sense of—you could almost call it solidarity among Canadians, an understanding that the American embargo is unfair and it’s a punishment of Cuba that’s not warranted. So the combination of quite a bit of sympathy among the public and significant corporate interests have led to a situation where the Harper government has just decided to try to avoid the question and has quieted down the most ideological bunch in their attacks against Cuba.

Canada is militarily involved in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Are mining companies also involved because Afghanistan is known to have huge deposits of precious metals and minerals?

There has been a whole series of articles in the business pages of the Canadian papers going back five, six, seven years about the natural resources in Afghanistan and precisely the position that Canadian companies would be in to benefit because of the heavy military involvement of Canada in Afghanistan. Some are saying as many as a trillion dollars’ worth of natural resources, of different minerals, in Afghanistan. Because of the security situation, it’s been slow in terms of developing. One Canadian company did get a quarter stake in I think it’s an Indian-led project, a fairly significant project in Afghanistan. But there is no doubt that that was one of the issues sort of hovering in the background of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, which continues with about 1,000 Canadian troops that are no longer supposed to be militarily involved, they’re just supposed to be training Afghans, but are clearly still part of the U.S.-led occupation of that country.

And in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the tenth anniversary of which was recently observed, Canada to some extent did not directly get itself involved militarily but it profited enormously from the U.S. invasion.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that Canada didn’t get involved militarily. Canada didn’t join, the Chrétien government, because of massive protests, particularly in Quebec. There were huge protests in Montreal. And with a provincial election coming up in Quebec, a fear in the Chrétien government of the time, since like 80% of Quebec were against the war, that supporting the war would benefit the sovereignist Parti Québécois, that wants an independent Quebec. They didn’t join the “coalition of the willing.” They didn’t formally endorse the war but they did a whole bunch of things that supported it. For instance, there were Canadian troops integrated in U.S. units that were part of the invasion; there were Canadian generals, one general who then became the head of the Canadian military, who was actually in charge of 35,000 foreign troops in Baghdad, and a couple of other Canadian generals in similar positions at different points; there were Canadian naval vessels off the coast of Iraq.

Actually, the government had a legal opinion that because of Canada’s role in charge of this NATO force off the coast of Iraq, that we were actually legally at war with Iraq because it was about stopping Iraqi ships. There were Canadian training missions of jets in Iraq. A whole series of different forms of Canadian support to the war in Iraq, but not the main form, what Bush wanted above all else, which was that public endorsement of the invasion.

So Iraq, on one hand, is an example of the success of the antiwar movement in this country, but on the other hand, it’s an example of how deeply integrated the Canadian military establishment is with the U.S. military establishment. There are something like 150 different military accords between Canada and the U.S., most prominently through NORAD. So this country has a deep history of being tied into U.S. militarism, going back certainly to the post-World War II period.

In North Africa and the Middle East you write that the reasons for Harper’s foreign policy may be more complex than the straightforward promotion of wealthy people’s financial interests. What are some of those reasons?

It depends on the country. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Harper government, is deeply tied to the monarchy. Part of that has an economic component. Part of it is that Saudi Arabia is a long-standing U.S. ally in the region and I guess was threatened in the context of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests.

In the case of Israel, the Harper government has made Canada the most pro-Israel, diplomatically at least, country in the world—very aggressively in support of whatever the right-wing government in Israel does, says nothing about the expansion of settlements. But I think Harper, like George Bush Jr., is tied in to a sort of evangelical Christian Zionist movement. Obviously, Israel is seen as a geopolitical ally.

I wrote a book called Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, which goes into the long history of Canada’s support for Israel, which predates the creation of Israel in 1948. There are long-standing Christian Zionist views in this country, and also a long-standing view of Israel and Zionism before the creation of Israel in 1948, of Israel being a tool of Western imperialism in the region. There were people going back to the late 1800s in this country calling for a dominion of Israel as part of the British Empire, just like Canada.

So Israel is an example where there’s a mix of motivations for this strong pro-Israel support. But two of those are a combination of a Christian Zionist movement that Harper represents and also, part of what the Conservative government wants to do. They want to replicate the sort of social model of the Republican Party, where it’s completely pro-business party. But how do you develop a base of activists and how do you have people vote for you? Part of that in the U.S. is focusing on social issues and trying to build a base of support among a certain subsector of the population through Christian Zionism, and other sorts of social issues that they’ve pursued.

Quoting Andrew Nikiforuk, “Republican religious tribalism is now Ottawa’s worldview.”

Exactly. I think Harper pretty consciously looks to the Republican Party as what to try to replicate—fortunately, in lots of ways unsuccessfully on a number of the social issues. The public has become so accepting of things like gay marriage that it’s difficult for them to go where they want to go, abortion being obviously the biggest issue. But still a big chunk of the Conservative Party MPs are people who are antagonistic to abortion, who are antagonistic to gay marriage. That’s a big part of the base of their party.

Ten percent of Canadians identify themselves as evangelical. So that’s about 3 to 3 1/2 million people, including the prime minister and some of his cabinet ministers as well. In the U.S., Christian fundamentalists see the extraction of resources as a bounty that God has given and used that as justification.

The church that Harper goes to—it’s unclear if he really believes in this stuff or he sees this as politically useful to belong to this church—has said similar kind of stuff like that about climate change and God’s role and the denial of climate change, that it’s our duty to extract these resources and the like. To me, it’s obviously a self-serving ideology from the standpoint of oil and mining companies. Nonetheless it convinces many people who aren’t necessarily directly benefiting from the process in significant ways.

Years ago I remember listening to a Noam Chomsky lecture which was recorded here in Toronto. He began with, “I landed today at an airport named after a war criminal,” the Lester Pearson International Airport at Toronto, the very one that I landed at today. Why would Chomsky describe Pearson, a former prime minister of Canada, as a war criminal?

Actually, that story that Chomsky tells in the book Understanding Power I included in the forward that he wrote for my book Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt. In Canada it’s important to note that there is this strong idea of Canada being a benevolent international actor. A lot of people, even on the left, believe that it’s Harper that has wrecked Canadian foreign policy, that prior to that it was morally directed. That’s untrue, and it’s an important part of what I’ve tried to challenge in my previous books.

Lester Pearson is the preeminent symbol of that supposedly benevolent Canadian foreign policy. He was the most important post-World War II Canadian foreign policy decision maker. He was head of External Affairs from 1949 to 1956, he was then prime minister from 1963 to 1968, and had a number of different roles in the External Affairs bureaucracy.

Chomsky’s focus for referring to Pearson as a war criminal—I agree, correctly so—is Pearson’s role in the Vietnam War, and specifically in terms of delivering American bombing threats to the North Vietnamese. That came out in the Pentagon Papers, that Pearson, in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson, had okayed having Canadian officials who were on the International Control Commission, which was supposed to be bringing peace to the region, go to the North Vietnamese and say, If you don’t do this, we, meaning, of course, the U.S., will bomb you. And the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam was quite clearly a war crime. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. There was Canadian complicity in that process, among many other elements of the war in IndoChina.

But Pearson’s record, actually, is the reason that the second part of the title of my book is called The Truth May Hurt. I think for lots of left nationalists, it hurts them to hear this stuff. But Pearson played a big role in the founding of NATO. He played a terrible role in the Korean War. He was the external minister. He actually threatened to resign if Canada didn’t send ground troops to Korea. That’s a war that left 3 to 4 million people killed. At one point the U.S. stopped bombing North Korea because all buildings of more than two stories were thought to have been destroyed. This was a war of incredible brutality, something that makes the war in Afghanistan or the bombing and the war in Libya look tame comparatively. But Pearson was a big player in that. And he was the person most responsible for moving Canada from support for British imperialism towards support for American imperialism in that post-World War II period.

Why did Canada get militarily involved in Libya?

One, it’s a strong proponent of NATO, going back to the creation of NATO. There are also significant Canadian corporate interests in Libya that were put in jeopardy with the uprising and some of the Western response to that. Another internal Canadian government document that just came out a couple days ago showed that immediately before the war was over the priority was securing Canadian investments and benefiting from the reconstruction process in Libya.

There were some specific elements. The Canadian government in the process was trying to purchase 65 F35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, which has been a very controversial issue in Canada.

Why?

Because of the cost, primarily. That’s what the dominant media focus has been on, because the cost is just escalating to $35 billion or $40 billion, and the government has sort of tried to suppress the cost. They initially said it was going to be $9 billion, and then they came out, It’s going to be twice that, and then they just tried to lie about it. That’s most of what the media talks about.

Obviously, from my standpoint, we shouldn’t be buying F35 fighter jets because the point of F35 fighter jets is to kill people. And I think there’s lots of progressive opinion in this country that opposes the F35 for that reason. That’s been a controversial issue. The bombing of Libya was just before the Canadian election and right at a time when the F35 was particularly controversial. So from the government’s standpoint, the bombing of Libya sort of justified spending more on fighter jets. The corporate media basically said, We need these F35s because this wonderful moral crusade we’re doing in Libya is an example of why we need a top-of-the line fighter jet.

But a big part of the reason why the government wants the F35 is because the military is so into it, and the military is so into it because that’s the top-of-the-line fighter jet. And to be well integrated into the U.S. military, that’s your best bet, to be that away, alongside many Canadian companies that are involved in the production of the fighter jets.

But when it came to neighboring countries of Libya, to wit, Tunisia and Egypt, Ottawa, the Harper government, supported the Ben Ali and Mubarak dictatorships right till the end.

Egypt was a particularly embarrassing situation for Harper. Three hours before Mubarak publicly announced his resignation, Harper was making a speech essentially endorsing Mubarak’s transition plan, which was something that was opposed overwhelmingly by the pro- democracy movement. In the case of Tunisia, it was a bit lower-profile, but likewise they supported Ben Ali to the bitter end. So the idea that they supported the bombing of Libya or the opposition in Libya just because they believe in democracy is absurd and is obviously shown in the case of Egypt or Tunisia. But it’s also shown in the case of Saudi Arabia, where they’ve strengthened Canadian military, diplomatic, and business ties. Saudi Arabia, of course, being a monarchy that is one of the most repressive places in the world.

The Harper government is also engaged in a major navy ship building expansion and is setting up military bases around the world. How has the post-9/11 War on Terror environment intersected with the growth of Canadian militarism?

It’s been a fundamental sort of justifying of the ramping up of militarism, the war in Afghanistan being the most obvious example, that that was sort of justified in the post-9/11 context. And then that justified a really ramping up of military budgets, which began a little bit before Harper took office but then just exploded in the first five years of the Harper government, with the Canadian military budget going from about $15 billion to about $23 billion over about five years of significant increases every year.

They’re in the midst of a massive $35 billion warship building project, which is about projecting force abroad, which is also what the setting up of seven military bases around the world is about. One is already set with Jamaica, Kuwait, Germany, and plans—this came out about a year and a half ago—the government didn’t want this to come out but it came out through a leak—for bases in Kenya, in South Korea, in Senegal. It’s a little bit unclear which countries will ultimately accept the Canadian bases and which countries the Canadian government will choose. But it’s about being able to respond to conflicts or events all around the world. And the history is that, contrary to the mythology, what the decision makers say, is that usually they send Canadian troops places because there is an economic or a geostrategic reason to send them, not because it’s about helping the poor of Haiti, for instance, which is one of the justifications they gave for the bases.

But there has been a real extension of Canadian militarism. Which has really surprised, taken a lot of Canadians aback, just how aggressive that increase in militarism has been.

So that image of the blue-helmeted Canadian peacekeeper is largely a myth.

It’s always largely been a myth. For a lot of people the Harper government has just exploded that in their faces. It’s never been true, as I’ve tried to point out in previous books. And, in fact, even the creation of peacekeeping in 1956 with the Suez crisis, Lester Pearson’s motivation, who was then the External Affairs minister, was to support the U.S., which opposed the British-French-Israeli invasion. The U.S. didn’t oppose that invasion because they had a moral disagreement. It was because they wanted to tell the former colonial powers, France and England, that there was a new boss in the region, Washington. And they were also worried that the British- French-Israeli invasion would add to Moscow’s prestige among the recently decolonized Arab countries. The motivation for creating the peacekeeping mission was to advance Washington’s geostrategic interests. But it got morphed in the history books written by the establishment to be this idea of a benevolent Canadian foreign policy, which has close to zero basis in reality.

And what’s happening further north, that is to say, the Arctic? What with global warming increasing the melting of the ice there, the sea lanes are going to be opening and Canada is going to be defending the north, presumably.

They justify the spending on the military partly on those grounds. In fact, what I understand from the F35 fighter jet, for instance, it’s actually not the right fighter jet if you really wanted to protect the north, because the distances are so large and it’s not ideal for flying in those contexts. But there’s no doubt that there’s increasing corporate interest in the north. One of those sad ironies of climate change is that they see this as an opportunity: the oil companies, that are largely responsible for the climate change, see the climate change as an opportunity to extract more oil that they previously were not able to get after. And also, of course, there are questions of significantly cutting the travel time for shipping of goods across the north. There are questions about territorial rights. The Canadian government has very wide demands or believes its rights to control over the seaways are quite strong, and there’s disagreement among a handful of countries in the north over those issues.

In post-9/11 U.S. there has been an evisceration of many guaranteed rights under the Constitution. Have similar things occurred in Canada, under the rubric of protecting the citizenry from the terrorist threat?

Defintely. There was a big increase in the security certificates, which are basically used against a handful of Muslim Canadians who were targeted by CSIS, which is the internal and external intelligence agency, sort of a cross between the FBI and CIA. There has, fortunately, on that issue been quite an impressive push-back from activist groups, which has forced a number of individuals to be released—long, multi-year protest movements that combine street activism with legal battles. But there has been expansion. Things like the G20, G8 protests in Toronto, just an incredible number of arrests and temporary legislation that was brought in that comes out of the post-9/11 rise of a security state. I don’t think it has been quite as intense as in the U.S., but nevertheless a significant rise of sort of Islamophobia and different laws that justify state control or stopping of dissent or creating fear among different immigrant and particularly Muslim communities.

At the Pearson airport today I was pulled over and questioned, basically because I have Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, and Iranian visas in my passport.

Certainly an Iranian visa would attract the attention of the authorities because the Harper government has gone out of its way to be incredibly hostile to Iran and talk up preparing for an attack on that country. Recently they shut down the Iranian embassy in Canada. There are about 200-300,000 Iranian Canadians. There are thousands, tens of thousands, I think, of Iranian students who have come to study here who overnight have no access to visas. Their ability to travel, to go home, to stay have just been thrown into jeopardy. So there’s no doubt that CSIS has been particularly interested in those questions. And that might have contributed to your being asked questions.

I should say, the official was pleasant and wanted to know where I was going, where I was staying, things like that, and she said, “Have a nice time.” But what prompted Harper to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran and to oust all Iranian diplomats in Canada?

They alluded to a threat of an Iranian government- sponsored terrorist attack against Canada. That’s how they justified it, or partly justified it. But I think what actually prompted it was they’ve taken increasingly a bellicose position on Iran and have been repeatedly condemning Iran in a whole series of different international forums.

But part of what prompted it was actually Iran had just hosted the nonaligned summit, which was a big rebuke to Washington’s, Ottawa’s, Tel Aviv’s position on trying to isolate Iran. It was a couple weeks after that that Ottawa severed relations, kicked out the Iranian embassy. It was partly a way to try to draw negative attention towards Iran. Iran is again being further isolated, was sort of what they were trying to portray.

I think one of the reasons that enabled the cutting off of diplomatic relations is because for so many years previous to that they’ve been dissuading business relations with Iran. The main objective of a Canadian embassy anywhere in the world is to advance Canadian corporate interests. But once the government has tried to stop those corporate interests in the country, to some extent what’s the point of having an embassy anymore?

There are Canadian naval vessels as part of the U.S. armada running provocative maneuvers off the coast of Iran. Canadian government officials a number of times have referred to how the Canadian military is planning for an action against Iran; repeated diplomatic criticisms, a long list of hostile comments and actions towards Iran over the past three, four, five years.

Al Jazeera had a story on Canada’s war on science. They’re saying, “Canadian campaigners are calling it a war on science, a slow and systematic unraveling of the environmental and climate research budgets under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Hundreds of researchers have lost their jobs, with those remaining reportedly forbidden from talking to the media without a government minder. The government, on the other hand, says the cuts are part of a wider deficit-reducing austerity program.”

As they cut funding for Environment Canada, they increase carbon-capture programs, that are basically a big subsidy to the oil sands companies. The Harper government, as part of this pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, part of their support for the tar sands industry, has cut a slew of different programs that deal with climate change or climate disturbance, the research element. And it’s actually prompted fairly significant protests from scientists.

About eight months ago there were a couple thousand scientists in their white coats who marched on Parliament Hill denouncing the war on them, as they see it. And there has been a muzzling of Environment Canada researchers. Where previously reporters were able to call different government researchers to ask them what research they were working on, what it means, to get an understanding of it, the Harper government has brought in this whole process of completely controlling what is said. So here you have a situation where these are public servants, researchers who are doing all kinds of important work, and they are not allowed to talk to the media. As I said, it fits within their overarching sort of hostility towards climate science. I think it also kind of fits into a little bit of their social kind of conservatism, just a general sort of anti-science position.

Talk about the corporate media and its influence in Canada in terms of shaping public opinion.

On the foreign policy level, the space for serious criticism of Canadian foreign policy is almost nonexistent. As a personal anecdote, I’ve written numerous op-eds on different Canadian foreign policy topics for different corporate dailies. Basically none of them ever get published. For the last 10 months I have been working for a union, and I’ve had about 15 different op-eds on domestic issues published, albeit from the institution, from the president of the union, so there is an institutional weight that comes with that. That’s part of it. But most of it is that there is just incredibly limited space on foreign policy. On domestic issues there is a little bit more space to have critical voices.

There is a more significant union movement in this country than there is in the U.S., and that does have some impact on media dynamics. Obviously, there’s the CBC, the public broadcaster, that is perceived to have been a bit more of an open voice. I think that’s mostly exaggerated, certainly on foreign policy. The CBC is absolutely unwilling to cover something like The Ugly Canadian book. Generally, it’s pretty similar. The media here in this country get most of their money from advertising, which comes from big companies. The Globe and Mail, the most important paper in the country, is owned by the richest person in the country. It’s actually more concentrated than U.S. media, because in the U.S. there are controls, as I understand it, on owning the main paper and main TV station in a single market, whereas in Canada Global Television and Post Media, which are the biggest chain of newspapers and one of the biggest TV stations, was owned by the same company.

Is that Thompson?

That was Asper. They went into bankruptcy about a year and a half ago, so it’s been busted up a little bit. For instance, in Vancouver, they owned the two daily newspapers, the Global Television TV station, which would have been the second or third biggest, one of three stations that you would have when you’re not on cable, as well as a whole slew of the weekly papers. So the concentration of the media in this country is worse than that in the U.S. And the underlying structure: owned by big companies dependent on advertising, responsive to criticism that comes from corporations, other rich people, institutions of power. So it’s pretty important in terms of shaping opinion, especially on foreign policy. As it gets further away from people’s day-to-day lives, the power the media has in terms of shaping people’s understanding is quite extensive.

Who is the richest person in Canada?

Thompson.

Your book The Ugly Canadian is published by Fernwood, a small, independent publisher. How many copies of books like this are printed?

The standard for Fernwood is they print between 500 and 1,000 copies. And Fernwood at this point is probably the biggest of radical left-wing publishers. There are only a couple of them. And this book, I think there were 3,000 copies printed, and hopefully most of them will be sold.

And what about political alternatives? What do you see challenging the hegemony of the Harper government in Ottawa?

First of all, the Harper government won with 39% of the vote, with about 60% of the public voting, only 60% of registered voters, not counting younger people. So only about 25% of the population or so actually voted for the Conservatives, and they got a majority government with that percentage. So it’s a pretty tenuous situation. They are somewhere between maybe 30% and 40% of support. So about half of the voting public that’s quite antagonistic.

In the electoral arena, I think there’s a high likelihood that in 2015, which is the next election, they won’t win, especially if the housing market crashes and if things like the Keystone pipeline don’t get built, because so much of their whole economic model is based upon the extraction of oil, particularly tar sands oil. There are lots of challenge in the official arena, with the NDP and the Liberals. And the Liberals have the son of Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau is going to almost certainly be the next head of the party. So they’re in this whole process of reviving the Liberal Party, which has been in power for 70% of Canadian history. The NDP also challenges them in the official arena.

More interesting for me are the movements of contestation from below. There are significant social movements on foreign policy issues. There’s a growing pro-Palestinian movement. There’s, unfortunately, a fairly quiet antiwar movement at the moment. There’s a significant anti-mining or opposition to Canadian mining companies abroad. That’s a growing movement in the country. There’s the environmental movement, particularly in places like B.C. There’s a plan for a pipeline across Canada. Line 9 it’s called. So here in Ontario there’s lots of opposition to that. So there are significant social movements. The labor movement is more politicized than in the U.S., a bit more class-conscious, a bit more antagonistic to bosses’ control. So that exists. That’s generally on the defensive and it’s unfortunately too much of a bureaucratized kind of movement. But there are oppositions.

There are some interesting things. The Harper government hasn’t gone after Medicare in any significant way, understanding that even among Conservative voters it’s the top issue. Overwhelmingly Conservative voters support Medicare.

This is the single-payer health system.

And the more you hear about problems with the U.S. medical system, the more support there is for the single-payer system in Canada, because the stories do trickle up about just how bad the model of private health insurance is in the U.S.

So while they’re a majority government, and they’re incredibly ideological on a whole bunch of issues—they’ve done terrible things, particularly with regard to the environment, their foreign policy is horrible, their undermining of First Nations’ rights—at the end of the day they are still constrained by the political reality.

And the political reality is that there is almost 30% of the public that’s in unions, almost three times as much as in the U.S., there is a Medicare system, there’s a sense of the correctness of the government being the main player in health care, there is a tradition, as much as they’re trying to change that, of sort of openness with regards to immigration. So there are constraints, there are social movements. But like in the U.S., there are also the institutions, the dominant media and the 1%, that at the end of the day have overwhelming control over public policy.

How did you become an activist?

I actually went from playing junior hockey. When I was 19, I stopped playing junior hockey. I have a left-wing background with my parents, but for most of my teenage years I was focused on trying to make the NHL. That didn’t work out. And I had some opportunities to travel in Latin America and had the good fortune to go to Montreal, to Concordia University, which at the time was the most politically active university in the country. I didn’t go there for that purpose, but that’s what I was exposed to, and then got involved in student political affairs and became a vice president for the Concordia Student Union. It happened that Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then the former prime minister of Israel, was going to speak at Concordia. And in the aftermath of Netanyahu not being able to speak, I was expelled from the university.

What happened?

There were huge protests that led to cops actually releasing pepper spray or tear gas inside the university building, to the point where thousands of students that were in their classes were subjugated to the pepper spray or tear gas. It’s not exactly clear. They deny the tear gas element. Windows were broken. It was quite a raucous demonstration that the police a combination of both lost control of and really exaggerated their response. But there was a really significant pro-Palestinian movement at Concordia University and a really significant radical left that for about five years running was probably the most active, very heavily involved in the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, pro-Palestinian, different feminist struggles. So I had the good fortune to be exposed to those movements. And that sort of contributed to my activism today.

Who are some of your intellectual influences?

Many of the books that you’ve done with Noam Chomsky. I’ve read I don’t know how many of them. I can remember being on a bench in Guanajuato, Mexico, having gotten one of the small ones, The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many that you did with him, in the little English library there for travelers. So people like Chomsky have been important in helping me to figure out the world. Writers in Canada like Rick Salutin, many others. Places like ZNet and CounterPunch or rabble.ca are important outlets of different left-wing voices.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977 info@alternativeradio.org www.alternativeradio.org ©2013

Posted in Big picture, Climate crisis, Corporate bonding and domination, Fossil besmirchment | Leave a comment

War and peace

Dennis Kucinich
Santa Barbara, CA
February 8, 2013

The U.S. has the world’s most powerful military machine. Its navy controls the seas, its air force the skies. Almost 70 years after the end of World War Two, its armies occupy bases from Germany and Italy to South Korea and Japan. Its CIA-operated drones attack Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Its multiple intelligence agencies have black sites and black budgets and carry out black operations. The financial costs of maintaining an empire are enormous. The moral costs are incalculable. And some would suggest the external violence connects to the murderous rampages and shootings here in the homeland. The signs of structural decay are all too apparent. Nation building begins at home. Can we imagine a culture of peace? Can we create a political and economic system that serve the needs of people and protects and honors the Earth?

This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Dennis Kucinich served as a member of Congress from 1997 to 2013, representing Ohio’s 10th district. He brought articles of impeachment against George Bush and Dick Cheney. He was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 and 2008. He was an advocate for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace. Upon leaving the House, his colleague Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota said of him, “We’re really going to miss Dennis. He is a transformative leader. He stood up and spoke eloquently and passionately about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. He was a consistent voice for peace.” He is the author of A Prayer for America and The Courage to Survive.

You can listen to Dennis Kucinich speak for himself here.

I’ve given some thought to the broader concepts that deal with the human condition, violence in our society and violence which is initiated and authorized by our government. I take you back to what I think is one of the greatest films ever made, and that is Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just after the majestic opening of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a soaring sun splits the darkness, seemingly heralding the new genesis and next a man-ape uses a femur bone to dispatch the leader of another group in order to gain control over a water hole. It is a simple act of one mammal clubbing another to death. It is what Friedrich Nietzsche, in his novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, may have countenanced as

the eternal recurrence of the same.

Yet, Kubrick does not leave us stranded upon the darkling plain of brute violence, for emotion is admitted, and so exultant is the conqueror at the demise of his extant competitor that he flings the femur skyward in triumph and, through the match-cut magic of movie making, the femur tumbles end over end, high up into the heavens, where it is transformed—into a space station!

We surf on Kubrick’s monolith into an evolutionary spiral across space and millions of years, now equipped with high technology, but burdened with the signal responses of our lower limbic system and its embedded fight/flight conflicts, ever ready to take up the electronic cudgel to drive contestants out of water holes or oil holes. Violence is. Its expression neither regressive nor progressive, it exists as a disconnection from our own divinity, a fall from the heavens, a departure from grace, a descent into the lower circles of that philosophical hell of dichotomous thinking, of us versus them, whoever they are. The invention of “the other,” the evocation of the out-group, the conjuring of the enemy are precedents of violence. We hear the siren call.

But what makes us answer the tocsin of rage clanging in our heads, in our homes, in our cities and in the world? Could it be the ripping of the moorings of our reality, the anxiety of separation shaking our core, the earthquake beneath our ground of meaning, dissecting through our bedrock beliefs when we learn that that what we thought was true was indeed false? Peter Berger once wrote that reality is socially constructed and culturally affirmed.

But what happens when the sociopathic trumps the authentic?

We cannot justify violence, but we must determine its roots. Before Kubrick, before Strauss, there was Zarathustra, or Zoroaster himself. He confronted us with this moral proposition: The central struggle of our existence is the determination of what is true and what is false. Is it our inability to strive for, to discern, and to receive and know truth which binds us to violence? Is what we see what we get? Are we bound to truth-shattering illusions? How do we know what we are told is true? Has the misuse of power in our society so distorted meaning that truth and lies are indistinguishable, or worse, morally relative?

These are questions of import in our interpersonal relations, and the consequences of untruth grow geometrically when a major progenitor of perceptions in our society—the government—stumbles or seeks and practices to mislead.

To ponder that question, let us first look at another production called 2001: September 11, 2001, the catastrophe of nearly 3,000 innocent souls perishing in waves of hate. That date is burned into our memories as one of the worst days we have ever known. We know the choices which our government made, acting with the tacit consent of we the people, to respond to the 9/11 crimes committed against our nation. But we seldom reflect on our government’s response, as though to do so publicly is either impolite or un-American. Is it rude to mention that, acting upon the choler of crime and tragedy on September 11, 2001, we began a descent to officially sanctioned mass murder called war, into the lower circles of the infernos of torture, rendition, and drone assassination? That we established an antidemocratic state of emergency, which exists to this day, with its Orwellian PATRIOT Act, its massive spying networks, its illegal detention, its extreme punishment of whistleblowers, and its neo-police state, in violation of posse comitatus, which put MPs on the streets of Washington, D.C., during the recent inaugural?

We have cut and pasted the Constitution in the manner of a disambiguated Word document, through sheer casuistry, excising those sections which guarantee protection from unreasonable search and seizure, which protect individual rights of habeas corpus, due process, which prohibit any one person from simultaneously being policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner, and coroner. Violence has enabled the government to grow and the republic to shrink.

Ten years ago the United States, despite a massive peace movement that put millions in the streets protesting the upcoming invasion, launched a full-scale attack on the nation of Iraq. “Shock and Awe” it was called. Hellfire was brought to the cradle of civilization, to its people, its culture, its antiquities in our name—for a war based on lies. In awe of our weapons, we shocked ourselves vicariously with their effect, never experiencing the horror visited upon the people of Iraq.

When I say “we,” I mean all morally conscious Americans. Over 1 million Iraqis were killed in our name. I want to say that again. Over 1 million Iraqis were killed in our name—for a war based on lies. In awe of our destructive power and its toll on innocent human life, we shocked ourselves and then returned to our normal lives. Trillions of dollars damage was done to that country, in our name—for a war based on lies. Trillions more spent by U.S. taxpayers—for a war based on lies. In awe of the monetary cost of war, we shocked ourselves with massive deficits. Thousands of U.S. troops were killed, tens of thousands wounded. In awe of the long-term human cost of war, we shocked ourselves with broken lives, broken families, suicides, PTSD.

Shock and awe indeed. We attacked a nation which did not attack us and which had neither the intention nor the capability of doing so. We attacked a nation which did not have the yellowcake to be processed into a substance fit for a nuclear warhead. We attacked a nation which did not have weapons of mass destruction. We visited upon the people of Iraq the equivalent of one 9/11 a day for an entire year, and with it the irretrievable rending of families, of places to live, places to work, places to worship, ripping apart Iraqi society in a war which soon became so remote that it was finished off by unmanned vehicles. The mission that was “accomplished” was wanton destruction, ecocide, alienation, statecraft puppetry.

And for what? What was it all about? It did not make us any safer. It weakened our military. It killed and injured our soldiers. It seriously weakened our nation financially. The long-term cost of the post-9/11 wars of choice will run over $6 trillion. Is anybody asking one reason why we have a $16 trillion debt? We borrowed money from China, Japan, and South Korea to pursue wars while these countries built their economies and their infrastructures. We blew up bridges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at such expense that we are now preaching austerity here at home, unwilling to face the fact that we have over $2 trillion in infrastructure needs in America which have not been met. Unwilling to invest in America, all too willing to invest in wars, we became the policeman of the world, and ended up being resented worldwide. We have fueled the fires of reactionary nationalism abroad, which are easily stoked by foreign occupation or invasion. We have helped further fundamentalism and made decisions which placed in positions of power those whose very existence supposedly drove us to the conflict in the first place.

What passes for our recent history is an acculturated, sleep-inducing lie from which we must wake up. We must awake from the stupor of our self-imposed amnesia or shock. We must shake off the awe which comes from the misuse of power on a global basis. We must always question governments whose legitimacy rests not upon accountability and truth, but upon force and deception. A government which assumes that we are neither intelligent enough nor loyal enough to know the truth about its actions a dozen years ago or, for that matter, a dozen days ago, is not worthy of a free people. We must bend the fear-forged bars which imprison the truth. We must seek the truth. And we must know the truth. For it is the truth that will truly set us free and lead to the wisdom that can rescue us from destruction, the wisdom that can reclaim America.

America. The mere utterance of the word should set the pulse pounding with the excitement of discovery, of possibility, of love—not fear.

The time has come for us to demand that our nation, America, establish and empower a commission on truth and reconciliation so that those who are responsible for misleading us into the annihilation of the innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere can brought forward to public accountability in a formal process of fact finding, of inquiry, of public testimony, of admission, of confession. This is a process that has worked in other countries, notably South Africa. Frankly, there is no way out of this moral cul-de-sac in which reside the monstrous crimes of massed murder, torture, kidnapping, rendition other than to have an atonement—an at-one-ment. It is in at-one-ment, atonement, that we will achieve what Blake called “the unity of opposites.” It is in reconciliation that the Blakean idea of the contrary nature of God, containing multitudes of humanity, causes us to understand the fragility of our social compact and the possibility that any one of us could be a murderer or a victim. Lacking public expiation over the unbridled use of force, the wanton violence we have writ large across the world will replicate, it will perpetuate, and it will be our ruin. This is the importance of a formal process of truth and reconciliation.

We had and we have a right to defend ourselves as a nation. But we went on the offensive. And the violence that we have visited abroad will inevitably blow back home. The violence that we create in the world in turn licenses and desensitizes us to the display of wanton violence which is exercised in our streets and, unfortunately, in our homes. We must understand the causal links. What is outermost presses down upon what is innermost, and what is innermost becomes outermost.

Once a full process of truth and reconciliation has helped us to discern the truth of our experience of the past decade, equipped with the truth of our errant descent into errant wars, we must be prepared to forgive those who would be forgiven, and forgive ourselves for having participated, with either our assent or our silence. Then we may move forward, with truth as the standard under which we organize a stronger and better America.

We must think often of our nation, reimagine it, reestablish it as the exemplification of our highest ideals. Think of those lofty sentiments present at the founding of our nation, its spiritual origins: One motto, the Latin words Annuit coeptis, “He has favored our undertaking,” an allusion to the guidance of providence. Think of the transcendent purpose in the founding of America, united states, presaging human unity. Our first motto: E pluribus unum, Latin, “out of many, one.” the paradox of multiplicity in singularity. What extraordinary faith, courage, and spirit were present at the founding of this country.

Let us renew our faith in our nation. Let us unite so that the power of unity will lift up this nation we love. Let us declare our faith again in each other, as it occurred so many years ago with that clarion call for the rights of we the people. Let us find that place within ourselves where our own capacity to evolve catalyzes the evolving character of America; where, through the highest expression of informed citizenship, we quicken the highest expression of informed nationhood.

America. America for Americans. America for the world. Let the truth be our empire, the plowshare our sword, nature our textbook, and let us once again celebrate the deeper meaning of what it means to be an American.

Then, reimagining the town hall model—that model where people get together and they talk about things that concern them—let us consider what America represented to each of us on the day before 9/11, on September 10, 2001. Let millions of people, in tens of thousands of places across our nation, meet, rediscover, and celebrate our nation and its purpose and recapture the spirit of America, which we know already resides in countless places. The spirit of America is always ready to be called forward, with a sense of wonder and joy, which our children will in time come to understand as our capacity to rise from the ashes of our own suffering and disillusionment, a quality which becomes their civic inheritance.

We were not a perfect nation by any means before 9/11. But I remember a greater sense of optimism, a greater sense of freedom, of security, of control of our destiny. We need to come together now in town halls across America to appreciate our common experiences, to share our narratives about what is best in our nation, about what we love about this country, about our own journeys to share with each other those things in our lives that directly connect us to what we call the American dream. And when we come together in that way, when we so share, we will know each other better and love our country even more.

The violence of today has cast us into a psychological wilderness. There is a path out of the wilderness of violence in which so many of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen are lost. If we are to help them find that path, it would be helpful for us to look again to the origins of our nation and find the map.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously declared the independence of 13 colonies, and the achievement of peace was recognized as one of the highest duties of the new organization of free and independent states. Peace at the founding. Yes, there was the paradox of revolutionary war, but the destination was peace, articulated and enshrined. The drafters of the Declaration of Independence appealed to the supreme judge of the world and derived the creative cause of nationhood from the “Laws of Nature” and the entitlements of “Nature’s God,” celebrating the unity of human thought, natural law, and spiritual causation in declaring,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with her certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The architects of independence, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, spoke to the activity of a higher power which moves to guide the nation’s fortunes and lends its divine spark to infuse principle into the structure of democratic governance.

The Constitution of the United States in its Preamble further sets forth the insurance of the cause of peace in stating,

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….

We must remember where we have been so that we can chart to where we will proceed. It is the sacred duty of the people of the United States to receive the living truths of our founding documents and to think anew to develop institutions that permit the unfolding of the highest moral principles in this nation and around the world.

Some of these words that I just shared with you are from the preamble to legislation that I wrote in 2001. They form the basis of my understanding of the conceptive power of freedom. The founders of this country gave America a vision for the ages and provided people with a document that gave this nation the ability to adapt to an undreamed of future. What can we give back?

When I first came to Congress, I saw how easily we slipped into conflict. I saw how normally placid representatives could get swept up in war fever. It led me to study war. I learned that during the course of the 20th century more than 100 million people perished in war, most of them innocent noncombatants. And here today, violence is the overarching theme of our time, encompassing personal, group, national, and international conflict, extending to the production of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons of mass destruction, which have been developed for use on land, air, sea, and space. Such conflict is taken as a reflection of the human condition, without questioning whether the structures of thought, word, and deed which we have inherited are any longer sufficient for the maintenance, growth, and survival of our nation and the world.

But we are still relatively at the beginning of a new millennium, and the time has come to review to review age-old challenges with new thinking wherein we can conceive of peace as not simply being the absence of violence but the active presence of the capacity for a higher evolution of human awareness, of respect, trust, and integrity, where we all may tap the infinite capabilities of humanity to transform consciousness and conditions which impel or compel violence at a personal, group, or national level. We do this towards developing a new understanding of and commitment to compassion and love in order to create “a shining city on a hill,” the light of which is the light of nations.

It was this thinking, this articulation which I was privileged to bring forth on July 11, 2001, fully two months before 9/11, to introduce a bill, H.R. 808, to create a cabinet-level Department of Peace, soon to be reintroduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee as the Department of Peace Building.

Imagine, coming from a position of love for our country and for each other, if we move forward, without judgment, to meet the promise of a more perfect union by meeting the challenge of violence in our homes, our streets, our schools, our places of work and worship, to meet the challenge of violence in our society through the creation of a new structure in our society, which can directly address domestic violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, violence in the schools, gang violence, gun violence, racial violence, violence against gays. This goes much deeper than legislation which forbids certain conduct, it goes much deeper than creating systems to deal with and to help victims. Those are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We need to deeper go if we are at last to shed the yoke of violence which we carry through our daily lives. We speak of creating a structure where all across this country we tap the creative energies of those who have committed themselves—the sociologists, the psychologists, the counselors, who commit themselves to help people through their daily lives. Across the country we begin to transform our educational system to teach children peace giving, peace sharing, mutuality, to look at the other person as an aspect of oneself.

We know violence is a learned response. So is nonviolence. We must replace a culture of violence with a culture of peace. Not through the antithetical use of force, not through endless “thou shalt nots” and not through mere punishment, but through tapping our higher potential to teach principles of peace building and peace sharing, and to teach them at the earliest ages as part of a civic education in a democratic society. Carl Rogers, the humanist psychologist, has written,

The behavior of the human organism may be determined by the external influences to which it has been exposed, but it may also be determined by the creative and integrative insight of the organism itself.

We are not victims of the world we see. We become victims of the way we see the world.

If we are prepared to confidently call forth a new America, if we have the courage to not simply redescribe America but to reclaim it, we will once again fall in love with the light which so many years ago shined through the darkness of human existence to announce the birth of a new nation. Out in the void I can see a soaring sun splitting the darkness. Behold the dawn of a new nation, our beloved America. Thank you.

Q&A

Two words: positive vision. It’s been a whole generation at least since people got out in the streets, not just against war and so on but a positive vision. We have tens of millions of people out of work while we need to build a future for sustainable energy and sustainable transportation. Why are we not calling for people to get out in the streets for a positive vision?

The potential of being able to move a new agenda in this country for economic justice is unlimited if we regain the civic capacity for action, if we are willing to be visible. This is really one of the great preconditions for being able to create change in Washington. It’s to become visible. And when you do it en masse, it has impact. There’s just no question about it.

But lacking visibility, it’s very hard to have to rely on the built-in inertia which tends to characterize activities within the Beltway.

So specifically, I introduced legislation in the Congress, H.R. 2990, called the National Employment Emergency Defense Act. The whole idea is to create millions of jobs rebuilding our infrastructure. People will say, Where is the money coming from? Keep in mind, we borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from China, South Korea, Japan to finance wars. We pay interest on that debt. We have a trade deficit with China that is about $200 billion. China, Japan are reinvesting in their country. We’re not doing that. We have the power under the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, to coin or create money. It’s an inherent power of the government that was written into the Constitution specifically so we wouldn’t be in hock to the banks. A series of presidents have warned against that.

In 1913 the Federal Reserve Act was written, and what happened was that it took over the money power, so the government then was at the threshold. You pass an income tax, you fund the government. But actually what happened is it imposed on the people a greater responsibility for coming up with the resources for governance instead of recognizing that the innate power to put money into circulation rested with the government.

Instead, what do we have? Money is debt. The whole system is upside down. So you start thinking about money and how a different concept of money could start to change things. We have the power right now to get our way out of these doldrums, to put America back to work, to reject austerity as a way of life, and to stop the raid on Social Security and any of the other programs. You’re right. Social justice and economics are twins in the same march here. Thank you for your question.

I have seen a lot of people in this country do absolutely nothing compared to what we’ve needed to move the kind of consciousness that you’re talking about moving tonight.

I mentioned in my prepared remarks that there’s a sense in which we have to forgive ourselves. This is about all of us, not just one of us. We can look back over 10 years, and it’s pretty shocking. If you were to go home tonight and Google

Kucinich October 2002 analysis of the Iraq war resolution,

you will see that, look, I’m not a swami, but I picked up right away what was going on. And anybody who really spent the time would understand what was going on. But we were pushed into this war. There’s a lot of dead people as a result. I can’t get that out of my head. To me, our nation needs to—how do we get beyond it? I really am concerned that if we just bury this whole discussion about what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan—and there’s a few other places—we’re never going to recover the country. We’ll be dragged into more wars. We’ve got to stop the beat.

I have two questions for you. How best can we support your vision, which is our vision, in both the micro of our own lives and the macro of government and the world? And how best can we support the Department of Peace?

Let me take the second part first. Before I left Congress, Barbara Lee and I had many long talks, and she agreed to take that baton and keep running with it. We made some changes to the legislation that will emphasize peace building in an active capacity, which is really good. I think that it would be helpful, for whatever Congressional district you’re from, to ask a member to sign on to the bill. But it also would be helpful, given what an extraordinary community this is, to create a forum where you could talk about some of the practical applications of this.

Keep in mind, there is a legitimate concern that, “Yes, what this country needs is a bigger government, right?” But what we’re talking about here is actually a transformative purpose. We need to get in the discussion.

This is the problem. When you create a department, it legitimizes the discussion about justice, about labor, about the environment, about health. And peace is seen back here. It’s almost like it’s an airy-fairy notion instead of central to our existence and our continuation as a species. Remember, I introduced this in 2001 in July, and I saw people’s eyes were rolling. “Yeah, right. Another department, bigger government.” Hey, wait a minute. If we’re spending half of our budget on the implements of war and preparing for war, what if we spent just a couple percentage points on trying to create peace? There are financial issues here as well, not just moral issues.

And you can come at it from the practicalities. With all the shootings that are happening around the country, and a lot more attention is paid to it, we need to get underneath that and talk about what’s happening. Why is our society becoming so unhinged? Guns are one thing that people use, an implement of violence. But even if they pass an assault-weapons ban, which I of course would vote for, we’re still stuck with the fact that there are 100 million, according to many different reports, gun owners in the country. That’s something we’ve got to be aware of, we can’t ignore it. And there’s 300 million guns. So the urgent question deals with the issues of violence in the society.

I was glad to hear you use the term ecocide. Could you comment on the burgeoning student divestment-from-fossil-fuel movement and the renormalization of civil disobedience evidenced by the tar-sands blockade, 350.org, and the Sierra Club’s commitment to nonviolent direct action for the first time in its 120-year history.

You see the response here. The public is ready for a more active approach in confronting the destruction of our planet, the destruction of the natural world. It was Thomas Berry, the late philosopher, who said that the major work of our life should be a reconciliation with the natural world. And we’ve seen this natural world being cartelized, being auctioned off. So the work that 350.org., the Sierra Club, and others are doing is absolutely important. It’s about a type of civic action that is our responsibility of citizenship.

As far as the money aspect, look, after Buckley v. Valeo, which basically said that money equals free speech, and Citizens United, which gave corporations the ability to contribute corporate dollars into federal campaigns, what’s happened is the whole thing is an auction. And the candidates that are often brought forward are the candidates who went to the highest bidder.

Does that mean they’re all crooks? Absolutely not. It means that the system is a rotten system. And if we’re going to free our country from this stigma of “pay to play,” the only way we can do it is a constitutional amendment that would stop all private funding of elections once and for all, private funding, private ownership of the process, and have only public funding, the chance that we might actually have our government back.

I just wanted to reiterate the question that was asked earlier about party politics. Bush’s crimes have become Obama’s crimes. And at this point the only person who is faced with prison for torture was a whistleblower.

Right.

At what point do we give up on Democratic politics and seek a third option?

I think that’s part of the discussion that’s going to happen in the next few years, depending on the direction that we go in. If people see whistleblowers punished and people see those who perpetuated crimes against others go free, then they’re going to ask questions. That’s why what I advocate is to look at South Africa’s experience, look at other nations that have had a process of truth and reconciliation. We need to bring the whole range of the top decision makers in to explain what happened. We’re a democracy. Just because you held a high office doesn’t mean all of a sudden you’re unaccountable. We need to do that to save our country.

And it’s not about putting anybody in jail. It’s about the truth, which has a much greater value than imprisonment. We need to know the truth. So, yes, I would like to see President Bush and Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld and all of them brought in. And it’s about loving our country. That’s what it’s about—how much do we love America.

I too am more or less a recovering Democrat. I love your analogy to the femur bone. I feel that drones are the next manifestation of that femur bone. I’m so glad you mentioned drones. I know that’s one of your issues. Do you think we finally have a chance, if we get ahead of the game, to make a difference?

Mechanized warfare, war by robots, robot planes, whatever, what it does is it removes us from our humanity, it separates us from actually having to make decisions. And it sets us on an inconscient path, going deeper into the darkness of hate and a loss of humanity. I saw this when I first heard about it back in 2005, when a wedding party was blown up in Pakistan with a drone strike. We have to watch this. And I will tell you this, that the administration’s description—people, if you get a chance, look at the 16-page legal memo which came out of the Department of Justice.

I didn’t go to law school. I play a lawyer on TV occasionally. But I will tell you this. I don’t know if they have a class in pretzel making at Harvard Law, where they twist the Constitution into a pretzel so you’re supposed to understand it, but that whole memo is an exercise in casuistry and sophistry, having no connection to any solid, bedrock constitutional principles. The use of these drones shreds the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments with respect to due process.

Look, I’m all over this. We could spend the rest of the evening talking about it. But we need to fight back on it and push back. And that cannot be who we are as Americans. We cannot permit our country to wage war without any accountability, assassinate people, whoever we want. Baloney.

Thank you for your inspirational speech. You’ve been my hero in politics ever since I started following politics. I’m an inventor and entrepreneur who is trying to start jobs in clean energy. How can people like me get the $500 billion that’s put into war and put that to where it needs to be put to rebuilding our energy infrastructure and providing jobs?

This is the whole question about resources. When you think about it, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz wrote a book the title of which is The Three Trillion Dollar War, he and Linda Bilmes, his associate. They updated it to say $5 trillion war. Imagine for a moment that instead of investing in war, that we had invested in carbon-free energy technology. We would have been energy independent. We have the ability to able to use our resources right now to invest in the creation of alternative energies.

And we should be doing that instead of our reliance on coal, on nuclear, on oil. We can no longer do that. It’s apart from our natural world. Mother Nature doesn’t make deals with politicians. Mother Nature just responds in a very powerful way to the assaults on her planet. So we need to invest in that. And it’s part of the cycle of job creation. So thank you and stay with that, because that time is coming.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977
info@alternativeradio.org
www.alternativeradio.org
©2013

Posted in Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Department of Offense, Economic injustice, Follies of empire, Guns, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action | Leave a comment

Ending corporate rule

Paul Cienfuegos
Missoula, MT
March 1, 2012

Modern corporations trace their origins to the trading companies of imperial Europe more than three centuries ago. Their rise in power and influence has been a steady trajectory to the point where today they are the dominant institution in society. Governments have freed corporations from legal constraints through deregulation, and granted them even greater power through privatization. The Supreme Court has declared corporations are people and money is free speech. The latter has turned Congress into, as one commentator put it, “a forum for legalized bribery.” Many citizens feel that pleading to corporations is insufficient and that it is time to examine the nature of this artificial institution. Endless single-issue crisis-based activism, one grievance at a time does not address the core problem, which is the corporation itself. Is ending corporate rule an obtainable goal? How would it happen?

This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Paul Cienfuegos lectures and leads workshops on dismantling corporate rule. He co-founded Democracy Unlimited of Humboldt County in Northern California. He’s based in Portland, Oregon, where he is a regional leader in the Community Rights movement, which works to dismantle corporate constitutional so-called “rights” and enshrine We The People‘s right to self-governance. He leads workshops on this topic.

You can listen to Paul Cienfuegos speak for himself here.

I’d like to begin by asking you some questions. When was the last time that you remember being asked by the people who run your local chain supermarket how you felt about them filling most of their shelves with highly processed foods that were shipped an average of thousands of miles to get to you? When was the last time that you remember being asked how you felt about your supermarket selling thousands of items containing genetically modified ingredients that had never been properly tested for their health effects? Or being asked how you felt about them paying the farm workers who harvested the fruits and vegetables that were sold there, a wage that very few U.S. citizens would ever be willing to work for?

And what if it wasn’t just you who felt that way? What if it turned out that the vast majority of shoppers at that store didn’t want it selling GMO foods or mostly highly processed foods from far away either, and would much rather have products filling the shelves that were grown or produced locally or regionally, and really did want the farm workers to be paid a living wage? Would that matter? Would the majority’s desires have any impact?

When was the last time you remember being asked by the people who run your local electric power utility how you would like them to spend the money you pay every month for your electricity bill? Year after year, their directors make one decision after another on how to spend your money. They get to choose between year-end bonuses for their CEO and directors, or offering discounted solar panels to their customers, or deciding to build a new coal-fired or nuclear power plant, or lowering everyone’s rates. The decision is left totally up to them, and rarely does a single customer ask themselves why the directors get to make these decisions, rather than it being democratically decided by those who pay their bills.

When was the last time you remember being asked by the people who run your local corporate chain daily newspaper how you feel about them printing very few of the letters to the editor that they receive? Or how you feel about the owners of your local newspaper prioritizing shareholder returns rather than hiring enough reporters to ensure that local residents get the news and analysis they need every day to fully participate in their role as citizens?

And what if the vast majority of the people who read that daily newspaper wanted to see major changes in the direction of more accountability to the community, the hiring of more reporters, opening up the editorial board so that it began to include not just Republicans and Democrats, but also Greens, Libertarians, and independent voters of all stripes? Would it matter what the majority of readers wanted?

When was the last time that the folks who own and manage the company you work for asked you whether you were satisfied with your job? Whether your work was sufficiently meaningful, or whether you were getting bored, and wanted to switch to another job within the company? Or asked you if you wanted to participate in the decision-making process about how the company profits were going to be spent next year?

What if the vast majority of the employees at your company wanted the same things you wanted? Would that matter?

When was the last time the folks who own your health insurance company asked you what services you wanted to have covered under your health insurance policy? Or asked you whether you preferred to continue being part of a for-profit health care system, or whether you would prefer to be part of a not-for-profit health care system that provides affordable health care for all who need it, similar to what already exists in Europe, Cuba, and Canada? What if the vast majority of the people insured by that same company wanted the same thing that you wanted? Would that make any difference? Does it matter what the vast majority of us want?

My guess is that pretty much every last one of us is so used to not being consulted in the endless and critical decisions that corporate boards of directors make day in and day out decisions that affect all of us in big ways. That it doesn’t even occur to most of us to even think these questions, let alone to actually complain about it.

Most of us have internalized the assumption that having no say is normal, even when it affects the vast majority of us in a nation that is based on majority rule.

Now I’ve only given examples, so far, of corporate decision-making. Let’s take a look also at government decision-making. Surely, the way in which our government responds to the majority’s desires must be different. Right?

During the entire period that candidate Barack Obama was campaigning to become president, and after he had been elected, the polls showed overwhelming support for some kind of universal and affordable public health care system that left no one out, what some refer to as Medicare For All. Those same polling numbers continue to this day. How did that public opinion translate in Washington D.C.? It’s quite striking, really. Doctors, nurses, and others who supported it were not invited to testify at the Congressional hearings that were held after he launched his health care proposals. Obama’s list of possible options never included a serious health care for all option. It was never debated. It was never on the table, even though it had overwhelming public support.

This is what minority rule looks like. This is what corporate rule looks like.

Let’s look at another example. In Vermont, the state legislature voted in 2010 to close the state’s only nuclear power plant when its 40-year license expired on March 12, 2012. The vote was 26 to 4. The Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Plant had originally been built to be safe for just 40 years, if you can even call nuclear power “safe.” And during that 40 years had experienced very serious safety problems, so it was a no-brainer for the state legislature to make this decision. Vermont’s voters were very much in agreement with how their legislature voted. Vermont is the only state in the nation with authority over its nuclear facilities, so its legislature thought it was totally within
their proper jurisdiction to refuse the 20-year extension that the nuclear operator, Entergy Corporation, was requesting. Over the course of the next year, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission went ahead anyway, and approved the 20-year extension. And Entergy Corporation sued the state of Vermont, claiming that the legislature really did not have jurisdiction to make this decision because it violated the corporations constitutional socalled “rights” under the Commerce Clause because it interfered with the interstate electricity market, and further claiming that since the state legislature wanted to close it based on safety issues, that violated the federal government’s exclusive jurisdiction on nuclear safety questions. The federal court sided with Entergy Corporation, stating,

The safety of nuclear power is a
federal issue, not a state issue

and is requiring the state to relicense the plant for another 20 years.

So much for the right of a state legislature to try to protect its citizens from the very real threat of a nuclear power accident. On February 18, 2012, Vermont’s Attorney General appealed the federal judge’s ruling, escalating a two-year battle over state’s rights and atomic energy. And by the way, the Vermont Yankee plant is the same vintage and design of the Number 1 reactor at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan.

You can’t make this stuff up. This is what minority rule looks like. This is what corporate rule looks like.

Let’s look at one final example. The people of thirty New Hampshire communities have been adamantly opposed for some time to the building of a massive new transmission line for electricity to be sent from Quebec, Canada into New England. It’s called the Northern Pass Project. In March 2011, in their annual town meetings, voters passed resolutions in all thirty towns demanding that the transmission lines not pass through their local pristine forestlands and farmlands. How big was the majority that voted against the project? Was it a barebones majority or a significant majority? Actually, neither. In almost every one of those thirty towns, regardless of whether there were 300 voters or thousands of voters, the vote was unanimous. The people of rural New Hampshire said, No. Almost every single one of them said, No.

Did the governor of New Hampshire stop the project? Of course not. Once again, majority rule turned out to be irrelevant.

I could offer one example after another after another. You already know these stories. You hear them every day in your own communities. We participate in the ways we’ve been taught to participate. We vote, we sign petitions, we write letters to our elected representatives, we march. The list of what we do is long. But no matter how hard most of us work, it doesn’t seem to add up. We mostly lose.

What the majority of people wants usually doesn’t seem to matter to those who ultimately make the decisions that affect all of us.

It’s no wonder so few of us engage in the political process. We’re run down, we’re exhausted. We feel hopeless and helpless. Many of us get angry, many feel despair. Many of us just go numb and stop paying attention to the news altogether, because we no longer believe that anything we could do would make any difference at all. I would argue that that’s not apathy. Instead, I would argue that it’s a perfectly rational response to a system that clearly isn’t interested in what we want, in what the majority wants.

Did you, the good people of Missoula, want your local water utility to be owned by a California corporation? And this California corporation just sold your local water to the Carlyle Group, the world’s largest private investment firm, which has never owned a water utility until now. Imagine that, the Carlyle Group now owns Missoula, Montana’s local water utility. They can toss your local water, your local aquifer, from corporation to corporation, and there’s very little you can do about it.

No one asked the people of Missoula what you want. They didn’t have to ask. The law is on their side. This is what minority rule looks like. This is what corporate rule looks like.

It reminds me of what it feels like when bullies stole my cap when I was a kid, and tossed it back and forth between them. I couldn’t get it back. They had all the power. And it made me really angry because that was my cap. But it had become their plaything. I couldn’t do anything to get it back, other than to beg them for it. Now the law allows giant corporations to do that with your water, like it’s just a corporate toy, while the people of Missoula run back and forth begging the corporation to sell it back.

That’s how the system works. The law is on their side. It doesn’t really matter what the good people of Missoula want.

And yet there’s something happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But I can feel it, and I’ll bet you can too. People who have never been politically active before are rising up in hundreds of communities across this country.

Regardless of what you think about the Occupy Movement, it has had dramatic impact on what is being discussed in the cafes and on the front pages of daily newspapers. “We are the 99%” has become a slogan, a soundbite, crisscrossing the entire country, in just a matter of a few months. For the first time in decades, our politicians are being forced to discuss the obscene disparity between the richest and the poorest Americans.

There is a great political awakening taking place. Huge numbers of us are standing up for the first time and telling others,

What’s going on here is unacceptable. We cannot continue down this path. We have to do something.

But it’s not just income disparity that has people so angry. Massive numbers of us are also standing up and asking,

Who’s in charge here? Giant corporations or We The People?

What a teachable moment this is. I have been doing grassroots community organizing my entire adult life, and, wow, I have never witnessed anything like this before. So much energy. So many people mobilizing who have never been politically active before. It’s tremendously exciting.

When we were children, we all learned in school that we live in a society that is democratic, where the majority rules, where we vote for our representatives in government and they do our bidding. What I think is going on right now across this enormous country is really profound. I think that the average citizen is starting to finally wake up in large enough numbers to the reality on the ground that tells them that this story from our childhood was a great myth, a great illusion.

We The People are starting to stir again. And the big question is this: Will enough of us understand the importance, or perhaps more accurately the urgency, of reaching outside of our comfort zones, across the boundaries we rarely cross, and doing what is perhaps the scariest thing that most of us will ever do, starting conversations with starting to build mutually respectful relationships with those who are not like us?

What I’m talking about here is the essential first step in organizing our communities. Most of us these days think that all we have to do is activate our social networks, and we’ll succeed at reaching everyone who needs to be reached. Sadly, that is not how it works. Our society is incredibly fractured. And networking is not at all the same thing as organizing. Once you’ve stretched yourself a bit, and built relationships with new groups of people who you wouldn’t normally have gotten to know, then social networking is an ideal way to stay connected and get mobilized. But first you have to build that trust.

Years ago, author Carolyn Chute, who lives in Maine, was working hard to build what she called “The Second Maine Militia.” She imagined it would be some sort of pro-people, pro-democracy local army that would try to reach out to everyone. They would carry guns, just like the Maine Militia already does. But their work would be about defending grassroots democracy. She referred to them as “Your Wicked Good Militia.”

Here’s something she said at the time:

We The People must unite if we are to be a power strong enough to get our sovereign rights back. we must not squabble amongst ourselves over stuff like abortions, drugs, guns, welfare, unemployment benefits, men who whistle at women, cultural differences, race, and all that. a united people must include all of us: the homos, the heters, the yuppy, the hippie, the red necks, hairy, shaved, kinky, spiffy, the work boots, the sneakers, the black shiny pumps, the nose rings, the knit shirts, flannel shirts, pink shirts, the fat, the thin, the tall and the short and the beauteous, and the ugly. We need millions. We can’t fight the corporate scheme if we are all hissing and fluffing and puffing and snorting in little isolated groups which blame other little groups for the country’s ills.

She’s talking about the 99%. And believe it or not, on the issue of corporate power vs We The People, we’re mostly all on the same side already. We just don’t believe it yet.

When the Supreme Court ruled in January 2010 that corporations should be allowed to steal our elections even more easily than they could already, how did citizens react? 85% of Democrats, 81% of Independents, and 76% of Republicans opposed the court’s decision.

I’ll repeat those statistics because they’re so startling to most of us. 85% of Democrats, 81% of Independents, and 76% of Republicans opposed the court’s decision giving even more power to corporations to steal our elections.

The only reason that I can figure out how to explain why Democrats, Independents, Republicans, Libertarians, and Greens are not already working actively together to challenge corporate rule, is that our minds have been so completely colonized that we don’t realize we already are the majority.

Divide and conquer works. That’s why a lot of you in this room really need to be leaving this hall tonight and asking yourselves what you can do to reach outside of your comfort zone and start building sustained relationships with people who may not think the way you do on many topics, but on the topic of citizens vs corporate rule, you see eye to eye. You just don’t know it yet.

We The People of these United States of America have a lot of work to do. And we’re going to have to figure out how to mobilize ourselves at a rate that most of us can scarcely imagine if we are to effectively tackle the social crises and the economic crises and the ecological crises that are staring us in the face.

Step one is for us to get real and stop lying to ourselves about what’s going on in Washington D.C. and in our state capitols. Our so-called “representatives” are doing exactly what they have always done, since the founding of our nation representing the captains of industry. It has always been this way. James Madison, the main author of the Constitution, was quite honest about this at the time:

The primary goal of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

I’ll say that again. James Madison said,

The primary goal of government is to protect the minority of the opulent against the majority.

And if you actually read the Constitution–not the Amendments to it, but the original Constitution–you’ll see how true this is. Our nation’s history isn’t pretty to look at. Most of us prefer to avert our eyes, but that doesn’t make it go away.

The Founding Fathers were mostly very wealthy men who owned slaves. When the founders finished writing the Constitution, and sent copies of it to each state to be reviewed, the general response was outrage. In state after state, it was rejected. The general public had expected that it would be filled with specific rights and protections for people. But instead, it mostly protected commerce and property; it was an economic document.

So the men who had written the Constitution were forced to draft a number of amendments to it, which took many years to get finalized, and which became known as the Bill of Rights. Finally, there were rights for people in the Constitution, but it took citizen outrage to get us there.

For the next 100 years, only 10 or 15% of those human beings who lived in the U.S. had any Constitutional rights at all. You had to be a white male and own property to be considered a person under law. The other 85 to 90% of us had no rights. It wasn’t until the final years of the 1800’s that enough non-persons had mobilized through massive social movement, and had become legal persons with rights. Ultimately, as abolitionists organized to end slavery and turn property into people with rights; as suffragists organized for a woman’s right to vote; and as white men without property organized to win the rights of persons; it became necessary for the small minority who ruled the country to find another way to maintain their control.

What did they do? They worked diligently for decades, primarily via the Supreme Court, to transform the corporation from something that had been merely a tool, controlled and defined by state legislatures, to something that was to ultimately become the dominant institution of our entire society. Mostly through a supportive Supreme Court, the corporation was granted one new Constitutional so-called “right” after another.

And from that point forward to this very day, the original 10% of the people who ruled the rest of us found a new resting spot, inside of, and firmly in control of, the corporation. So we have always lived in a minority rule society. And the sooner we come to terms with this fact, the sooner we will succeed in effectively changing this situation.

You can argue that we still get to choose our elected officials, but did you know that the candidate who has the most money to spend almost always wins? And did you know that the vast majority of campaign contributions comes from corporations, not from people?

So until we figure out how to build a movement from the bottom up, starting locally, to drive change upward to the state and federal level, we can’t honestly claim that we live in a functioning democratic republic. If we’re prepared to acknowledge this very painful truth, enormous energy can be released in some very exciting ways. Because once you stop trying to convince your so-called “representatives” to do the right thing, and once you stop putting your energy into trying to fight one corporate outrage at a time, it frees you up to see everything from a fresh angle.

That’s exactly what has been happening for the past ten years, in a growing number of communities across six East Coast states–with very little attention paid to it by the corporate media, which is not surprising–but also with very little attention paid to it by the independent media, which is surprising. With one exception, YES magazine.

In 140 communities, some very conservative, some very progressive, local residents are pulling the wool out of their eyes and concluding that if they want to protect the local places where they live and that they love, they have to step outside of conventional law to do so–because municipal governments are not allowed to pass laws that respond directly to the grandest aspirations of their residents. It’s against the law. Local city councils are not allowed to ban harmful corporate activities if those activities are already considered normal and legal by state governments. It’s called “state pre-emption.” And you’ll come up against it quite quickly if you try to stop a factory farm from moving into your area, or a clearcut in your local woods.

Local governments also run into another barrier called “Dillon’s Rule,” which is the flip side of state pre-emption. Dillon’s Rule states that local governments may only make laws in the areas that state governments explicitly allow them to.

And then there’s corporate constitutional so-called “rights.” You can’t stop a Wal-Mart from being built over there, because that violates the corporation’s constitutionally protected property “rights.” You can’t stop that local factory that’s been providing living wage jobs to a thousand residents for decades from closing its doors and moving production to China, because that violates the corporation’s decision-making authority, which is constitutionally protected as an intangible property “right.” You can’t ask your City Council to hold a public hearing on the human health impact of cell phone towers, because just holding the hearing would violate the corporation’s constitutionally-protected “rights” under 1950’s-era civil rights law. And the Vermont state legislature learned the hard way that if you try to shut down a nuclear power plant, even after its operating license has expired, and even though state law explicitly allows them to do this, you’ll quickly discover that doing so would violate the corporation’s protected “rights” under the Commerce Clause of the Constitution.

You can’t stop corporations from throwing millions of dollars at manipulating one of our elections because that would violate the corporations’ constitutionally protected First Amendment “rights” of free speech.

What I’m talking about here isn’t just what’s taken place in the distant past. No, this is current. Corporations just keep winning Supreme Court decision after Supreme Court decision. This is living history that is still unfolding.

And until We The People decide that corporate constitutional “rights” are a real problem in this country, nothing much is going to change for the better.

Just a few years ago, Nike Corporation’s lawyers tried to get the courts to agree that corporations should have the legally protected right to lie, as a subset of their First Amendment “right” to speak. The Supreme Court chose not to make a ruling on that request, so this one is still up for grabs.

Let me be very clear here. I am not challenging or criticizing rights for people. What I am doing is drawing the line between people and corporations.

What is a corporation? It’s property. We’re supposed to not fall over laughing when we’re told that it’s essential that we not interfere when the courts grant property rights to property, free speech rights to property, civil rights to property? That’s like giving constitutional “rights” to my toaster. It’s absolutely nuts. And it amazes me that We The People aren’t already up in arms about this.

But that’s what happens when we put our attentions elsewhere, fighting one single issue after another, decade after decade, not ever connecting the dots to discover that at the root of most of our single-issue battles is corporate constitutional “rights.”

Once again, there’s state pre-emption, there’s Dillon’s Rule, and there’s corporate so-called “rights.” These three rules are what makes it literally impossible for local governments to pass laws that protect your community.

And that’s why local governments in 150 towns and climbing have said, “Enough is Enough.” And they are choosing to step outside of conventional law to do what elected officials have given an oath to do, to represent their communities the best way they know how.

What do you do when you’re elected to serve on a city or town council, and what the majority of the town wants is not legal for you to pass into law? You do what the good people of dozens of rural Pennsylvania communities did over the past ten years. They passed the “Anti-Corporate Farming Ordinance” which banned nonfamily owned corporations from engaging in farming or owning farmland. The law they passed violated corporate “rights.” It violated state pre-emption, and it violated Dillon’s Rule. These township supervisors had to step outside of the legal structures they were told they had to operate within. There was no other way to protect their towns.

They had tried pleading with agricultural regulatory agencies, but as you may already know, regulatory agencies aren’t about saying no to harmful corporate activities. They’re about regulating harmful activities, which by definition means that they’re about permitting harmful activities. The farm communities didn’t want the hog farms regulated, they wanted them stopped. But there was no one else to ask. There was no there there. So they stepped outside of the law. They had to in order to protect their rural way of life. The laws they passed succeeded in keeping the corporate factory farms out of their towns. These conservative farmers were the spark that started this grassroots movement that is now spreading so quickly.

This really is nothing new. What did the abolitionists do in the late 1800’s when they were trying to end slavery? They couldn’t turn to the law. The law enshrined slavery. The Constitution defended slavery as a normal activity. So in their rallies they burned copies of the Constitution, because there was no way to get justice for slaves within existing structures of law. The law was the problem.

What did the suffragists do when they were trying to win the right for women to vote? They couldn’t turn to the law. The law only talked about “persons”, and women weren’t persons. There was no way to get justice for women within existing structures of law. The law was the problem. So women entered polling places year after year by the thousands, and tried to vote, and they were arrested and imprisoned and treated in surprisingly brutal ways.

The people of this country have understood from the very beginning, starting with the American Revolution, that sometimes you have to break the law in order to win new rights. Quite frankly, it’s as American as apple pie.

Since the Pennsylvania farmers banned corporate agriculture in dozens of communities, this Community Rights movement has really taken off. Towns in Maine have banned corporations from pumping water out of the ground to sell in little plastic bottles. Other towns have banned corporate mining, the corporate dumping of urban sewage sludge on farmland, the corporate use of the right of eminent domain to take private property away from private land and home owners against their will and many other examples.

In 2010, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania’s city council, by a unanimous vote of nine to zero, banned corporate fracking for natural gas–a practice that commonly results in turning your tap water into something that you can light with a match. Imagine that. It’s not a pretty picture.

The latest community to be added to this map is Bellingham, Washington, which in January 2012, launched a ballot initiative campaign that would ban coal trains from passing through Bellingham. As was reported in the Bellingham Herald newspaper on December 30, 2011, and I quote,

In conventional legal terms, that doesn’t seem to make much sense. The federal government regulates the interstate rail system, and BNSF Railway Company has a legal right of way through the city.

But the Bellingham organizers don’t seem too concerned about that. They say that they are setting out to establish some new legal groundwork that would put the rights of communities and ecosystems above the “rights” of railroad corporations.

Every last one of these local ordinances is doing something as revolutionary as what the Abolitionists and the Suffragists did. They are refusing to abide by an unjust law. They’re saying in town after town, if we can’t get our state and federal governments to protect us from these harmful corporate activities, we’ll do it ourselves. No matter what it takes. Because we live here. Because we won’t let our homes get destroyed. Because we’re drawing a line in the sand. any town can do this. It just takes backbone.

I travel extensively leading workshops and giving talks about these issues. I’ve been doing this since 1996. And I have to tell you, people are fed up with the status quo in this country. They’re fed up with feeling powerless. They’re fed up with being ignored by their so-called leaders. I’ve never witnessed so much readiness to stand up collectively and say,

We will not let this harmful corporate activity happen here.

And what’s even more exciting to me is that people are taking it one step further and also starting to think about what they want for their towns. Not just what they don’t want. Not just what they’re trying to stop. But what they want.

A few communities, like the rural New Hampshire towns I mentioned earlier, are getting ready to pass ordinances that would enshrine, under law, the “right to a sustainable energy future.” Imagine that. Six communities are voting on this. These residents are no longer begging state and federal politicians to pay more attention to the fossil fuel energy crisis we’re in. They’re not waiting anymore for someone higher up to save them. There is no legal force more powerful than We The People. And they know it.

Let me read you Section One of this ordinance being discussed in the town of Lancaster, and as you listen to this, think to yourself how exciting it might be to do this sort of thing in your town:

The residents of the Town of Lancaster recognize that the current energy policies of the state of New Hampshire and the United States have long been directed by a small handful of energy corporations and the directors of those corporations, and that centralized control over energy policies forces reliance upon unsustainable industrial-scale energy production, and denies the rights of residents to a sustainable energy future.

The residents of the Town of Lancaster recognize that environmental and economic sustainability cannot be achieved if the rights of community majorities are routinely overridden by corporate minorities claiming certain legal powers that bar meaningful regulatory limitations and prohibitions concerning the generation, distribution, and transmission of unsustainable energy.

The residents of the Town also recognize that sustainability cannot be achieved within a system of preemption which enables those corporations to use state governments to override local self-government, and which restricts municipalities to that lawmaking specifically authorized by state government.

The residents of the Town of Lancaster believe that the protection of their health, safety, and welfare is mandated by the doctrine of the consent of the governed and their inherent right to local self-government.

Thus, the Town of Lancaster hereby adopts this rights-based Ordinance, which establishes a Bill of Rights for the residents and communities of the Town. This Bill of Rights includes the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future, prohibits corporations from acquiring land necessary for the construction of unsustainable energy systems, or engaging in the construction or siting of any structure to be used in the operation of unsustainable energy systems, removes certain legal powers from energy corporations operating within the Town of Lancaster that would violate the Right to a Sustainable Energy Future, and nullifies state laws, permits and other authorizations which interfere with the rights secured by this Ordinance.

What do you think of that?

What we are witnessing, I believe, are the opening shots of the Second American Revolution. The central question that each one of these towns is asking themselves is this: Who’s in charge here? We The People or large absentee corporations?

They know who should be in charge here. So they’re standing up for their communities and exercising their inherent right to govern themselves. And they’re not going to allow higher levels of
government to stop them from passing stronger protection of their farm and ranch lands, stronger protection of their creeks and rivers, stronger protection for working people, stronger protection for neighborhoods. Because that’s what a majority of them wants.

Let me read to you the first few sentences of the Montana State Constitution, which by the way is the highest law of the land in Montana.

ARTICLE II
DECLARATION OF RIGHTS

Section 1. POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY.
All political power is vested in and derived from the people. All government of right originates with the people, is founded upon their will only, and is instituted solely for the good of the whole.

Section 2. SELF-GOVERNMENT.
The people have the exclusive right of governing themselves as a free, sovereign, and independent state. They may alter or abolish the Constitution and form of government whenever they deem it necessary.

Section 3. INALIENABLE RIGHTS.
All persons are born free and have certain inalienable rights. They include the right to a clean and healthful environment and the rights of pursuing life’s basic necessities, enjoying and defending their lives and liberties, acquiring, possessing and protecting property, and seeking their safety, health and happiness in all lawful ways. In enjoying these rights, all persons recognize corresponding responsibilities.

These are your constitutional rights in the state of Montana. Are you already familiar with this document? Every state constitution contains reasonably similar language.

Earlier, I mentioned that Bellingham, Washington is organizing to ban coal trains from passing through their town. If you don’t already know about this, there’s a corporate plan to run up to 20 coal trains per day, each train up to a mile and a half long, and containing 100 to 150 coal cars each. That’s 3000 coal cars per day, stretching up to 30 miles long per day. They’ll run from Wyoming and Montana to a number of deepwater ports in Oregon and Washington. Many of these trains are destined to go through Missoula, as well as through Spokane, Everett, Seattle, Tacoma, Yakima, Longview, Vancouver, Hood River, Portland, Salem, Eugene, and many other towns and cities on numerous routes. Ports are already being dredged to handle these massively heavy ships in Cherry Point north of Bellingham, in Grays Harbor west of Olympia, in Longview and Saint Helens on the Columbia River, and in Coos Bay, on the Oregon coast.

I am helping to establish a network of communities that are considering passing the same ordinance that Bellingham has written, with the goal of stopping this entire operation before it ever starts. So please contact folks you know along these routes, and let them know that there’s something very powerful that they can do, beyond just pleading with elected officials. The time for pleading is over. It’s time for us to stand up collectively and exercise our right to say “No” to what we find unacceptable and to say “Yes” to what we actually want.

Coal is the worst of the fossil fuels for releasing carbon into the atmosphere that creates catastrophic climate destabilization. So if we care about our climate, this project has to be stopped. Each coal car is expected to release upwards of 500 pounds of coal dust as it rumbles along. Up to 500 pounds of coal dust release per train car.Imagine the health impacts of that much coal dust in the air, in the creeks, in our lungs. More than 170 Bellingham doctors have already mobilized to warn their community about this new health menace. In their own words,

There are irrefutable links between these pollutants and cardiovascular and respiratory disease, reproductive health issues and malignancy, with no threshold value for impacts on human health. Much like cigarettes, a little exposure is bad and more is worse.

Let me be clear. It’s not enough to simply stop the coal trains, although stopping them is essential, and these rights-based local ordinances can help. It’s not enough to simply stop the tar sands project in Canada, and the related pipeline to the Texas coast, although stopping them is essential, and these rights-based local ordinances can help. It’s not enough to simply stop the drilling for oil in deeper and deeper waters, although stopping this is essential. What we really need is a fundamentally new energy policy in this country, and there is no way we can get there if our entire strategy is begging and pleading with our elected politicians in Washington D.C. and in our state capitals.

Fossil fuel analysts say that Peak Oil happened just a few years ago, and it’ll be a slow decline from here on out. Peak Coal is right around the corner, at least domestically. Peak natural gas is closer than you might think. We are simply running out of most of the raw materials that are required for economic growth to continue. The reason I’m focusing for a moment on peak fossil fuels is that a vast number of us already know that we need to change direction in our energy policies, and fast.

What Lancaster and other New Hampshire communities are doing is an example of how we can get there. Or at least how we can begin the long journey from heading off the cliff, towards acknowledging that this beautiful planet that we live on has limits. And that we’ve reached those limits. And that we have to drive major political change upwards, from local communities to state and then federal government, if we are to have any chance of fundamentally shifting our energy policies in this country.

The same goes for transportation policy, agricultural policy, forestry policy, health policy, environmental policy, etc. I am absolutely convinced that we have to begin by envisioning what we want here at home first, and turning that vision into local rights-based lawmaking. In New Hampshire, it’s people exercising their right to a sustainable energy future. In Maine, it’s people exercising their right to a sustainable food system. And in Montana, what will it be? That’s where it starts. What does a majority of Montana voters want? What does a majority of Missoula voters want? That’s where it starts.

When you hear a news story on the radio tomorrow, talking about the policymakers who decided this, and the policymakers who decided that, ask yourself who these policy makers are. Ask yourself why is it that you hear that phrase day after day, but it doesn’t ever occur to most of us that We The People hold the ultimate responsibility and authority to be those policymakers.

Montana is one of the more than 30 states in this country that allows the voters to pass laws directly through the ballot box. You won that right because an enormous number of people calling themselves Populists organized here in the 1880’s and 1890’s and won that right for all of you.

The GMO issue is yet another emergency that needs immediate attention. We The People can’t keep battling these totally legal but awful corporate activities, one at a time, endlessly, into the future. We don’t have the time. We don’t have the resources. And frankly, it’s a waste of our energies, when instead we could be exercising our right of local self-governance. Instead, we could be standing up together and saying,

No, you can’t harm us here anymore. We have the right to say No. We’re drawing a line in the sand. And we’re organizing for our right to sustainable agriculture.

None of what I’ve been describing to you is easy to accomplish. Of course it isn’t. But neither is all of our endless single-issue crisis-based activism, which rarely accomplishes its goals.

For me, the central question that I keep asking in each community that I visit is this,

What do you want? What do you need?

You are the real experts in this place. No one knows this place better than you do. You have unique issues here that need to be resolved. You’re trying to figure out how to get your water utility back in public hands. You’re trying to figure out how to stop coal trains from passing through. You’re trying to stop prime agricultural lands from being turned into subdivisions. In each one of these cases, a small minority of people, organized as a corporation claiming constitutional “rights” is making all of the critical decisions. In most of these cases, they’re not even the people who live here who are making these decisions.

That’s the central issue that needs to be addressed. Who’s in charge in this place? The people who live here and vote here, or large corporations?

Every town needs to identify the primary issues that are so contentious here. Every town needs to create authentically democratic public space so that We The People can meet and talk and listen and think creatively together. So that we can find our power again as The People. So that we can learn again how to govern ourselves. So that we can think about what we want to leave for our children and grandchildren and great
grandchildren here in this place.

We can do this. We are The People. Right?

Thank you very much.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:

David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
(800) 444-1977
info@alternativeradio.org
www.alternativeradio.org
©2012

Posted in Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, Liberal ineffectiveness | Leave a comment

The grand betrayal?

by Robert L. Borosage

Washington’s obsession with deficits is illogical for two reasons: first, there is no sign of accelerating inflation; interest rates are near record lows, as global investors seek shelter in US securities from economic turmoil abroad. We will never have a better opportunity to rebuild our decrepit infrastructure, so there’s no reason for Washington to focus on belt tightening now.

Second, austerity is, paradoxically, likely to undermine the stated goal of deficit reduction. Cutting spending and raising taxes in a weak economy destroys jobs and slows growth. The increased unemployment leads to declining tax revenue as well as increased demands on government services, all of which adds to the deficit. This is the famous “debt trap” recently experienced in much of Europe, where premature and harsh austerity drove many EU countries into recession. Spain, Portugal and Greece have piled up worse debt burdens as their economies collapsed.

With the election behind us, President Obama and the lame-duck Congress return to Washington to face a fiscal showdown, occasioned by automatic tax hikes and spending cuts scheduled to kick in after the first of the year. Most economists, including the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, agree that if nothing is done, this arbitrary, Washington-created “fiscal cliff,” as Federal Reserve chair Ben Bernanke dubbed it, will likely drive the economy back into recession.

It is probably already contributing to slower growth. The New York Times reports that manufacturers are delaying capital improvements and postponing hiring for fear that no deal will be made. More than a third of the nation’s school districts have reduced programs and hiring in anticipation. If there’s no deal, domestic agencies face an 8 percent cut across the board in fiscal year 2013. Middle-class families will see an income tax hike of about $1,500, a cut in child tax credits by about $500 per kid, a cut in tuition tax credits by $700 a year, and a hike in the payroll tax of $1,000 a year. Lower-income families will suffer cuts in the earned-income tax credit. The result is renewed discussion of a “grand bargain” to avoid that self-destructive course.

But the “cliff,” with its misleading metaphor of an imminent, irreversible fall, has been misconstrued by the media. These changes are not irrevocable; it’s not as if they can’t be fixed after January 1 (more on this later). But in true shock doctrine fashion, the ersatz crisis is being used to demand changes that would otherwise be politically impossible: cuts in Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, along with deep cuts in basic government services, combined with tax increases. Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson has enlisted bankers and CEOs in a multimillion-dollar campaign spearheaded by the hysterical Cassandras of debt, Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, former co-chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission, to demand action now. Editorial opinion and much of the punditry, along with a claque of supposedly bipartisan or nonpartisan lobbying groups, have dutifully echoed the call. Gaggles of senatorial aides have been meeting to explore what a deal might look like.

In an initially off-the-record campaign interview in late October with The Des Moines Register, Obama indicated that he intended to offer Republicans a deal similar to the one he offered House Speaker John Boehner in the summer of 2011: meeting the Simpson-Bowles target of $4 trillion in deficit reductions over ten years, with a ratio of $2.50 in spending cuts for every $1 in new revenue as well as “working to reduce the costs of our health care programs.” Since the election, Boehner and Senate Republicans have indicated they would support an agreement that reduces deficits by cutting Medicare and Social Security in exchange for tax reform that lowers rates but raises more revenue through closing loopholes.

Virtually every aspect of this hysteria is wrong. The United States does not have a short-term deficit problem, and the fundamental long-term problem isn’t one of soaring debt; rather, it is the lack of a foundation for sustainable growth that includes working people. Without a political movement to achieve the latter, very little progress will be made on the former.

The grand bargain being discussed in Washington reflects an elite consensus far removed from what voters want. Americans want action on jobs, and most support the president’s call to raise taxes on the rich. Overwhelmingly, they want basic family security programs protected. Any deal that cuts Medicare and Social Security, slows growth and increases unemployment will look a lot more like a grand betrayal than a grand bargain. And virtually the entire organized base of the Democratic Party, from unions to civil rights and women’s groups, is mobilizing in opposition.

Austerity Bites

There are still more than 20 million people in need of full-time work. Mass unemployment guarantees stagnant or falling wages and sputtering growth. Long-term unemployment—40 percent of those out of work have been jobless for more than twenty-seven weeks—erodes skills, confidence and lives. The Federal Reserve, understanding the danger, has used monetary policy to keep interest rates low and pump money into the economy. Yet Americans are still strapped, given declining real wages, the collapse of the value of their homes and the rising cost of necessities, from gas to college education to healthcare. Companies are sitting on trillions in profits, waiting for demand to pick up for their products. The Fed can’t generate the growth we need through monetary policy alone. In this situation, the federal government should be acting to boost the economy.

Washington’s obsession with deficits is illogical for two reasons: first, there is no sign of accelerating inflation; interest rates are near record lows, as global investors seek shelter in US securities from economic turmoil abroad. We will never have a better opportunity to rebuild our decrepit infrastructure, so there’s no reason for Washington to focus on belt tightening now.

Second, austerity is, paradoxically, likely to undermine the stated goal of deficit reduction. Cutting spending and raising taxes in a weak economy destroys jobs and slows growth. The increased unemployment leads to declining tax revenue as well as increased demands on government services, all of which adds to the deficit. This is the famous “debt trap” recently experienced in much of Europe, where premature and harsh austerity drove many EU countries into recession. Spain, Portugal and Greece have piled up worse debt burdens as their economies collapsed.

American CEOs, fearful of the recession that would ensue from the fiscal cliff, have been clamoring for a deal to avoid it. But given the faltering recovery, the same logic applies to the less harsh grand bargain now under discussion. Job creation is barely able to keep up with new people coming into the workforce. Federal government purchases were down last year, as spending from Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill declined, and they are declining again this year. State and local expenditures continue to fall off. The results are felt all over the country as teachers are laid off, aging sewers collapse and Head Start programs close. Streets grow unsafe as police forces are reduced. Adding to the drag on the economy are the budget caps passed by Congress—as part of the 2011 debt ceiling deal—that will reduce discretionary spending by $1.5 trillion over the next ten years. Any new deal would only add to the drag on the economy in a world where Europe is in recession and emerging nations like China, India and Brazil are struggling.

The hysteria about deficits ignores both their source and their solution. Publicly held debt was only about 36 percent of GDP in 2007, before the crash. When the housing bubble exploded, the economic collapse meant falling revenue and rising spending (particularly on unemployment insurance, food stamps and other programs for the jobless). The result just about doubled the debt burden, to 73 percent of GDP. Spending from the president’s recovery act temporarily contributed to the deficits, but that has already petered out. As a result, deficits are coming down; they are currently three-quarters of what they were in 2009, relative to the size of the economy.

Putting people back to work does more to reduce deficits than any other factor. That requires more federal spending now, preferably in areas vital to the economy, like modernizing our infrastructure and keeping teachers on the job. Once the economy is growing and people are working, the deficit will come down. Additional steps can be taken, if necessary, to reduce remaining imbalances and address our long-term debt problem.

It is the long-term, seventy-five-year debt projections—illustrated in the lavish charts that Pete Peterson’s various front groups have plastered across the country—that have terrified so many people. But those long-term deficits come almost entirely from one source: our broken healthcare system. The projected increase in healthcare costs—through Medicare, Medicaid, children’s and veterans’ healthcare—drive long-term deficits. The costs of Medicare and other public healthcare programs are rising more slowly than private healthcare, but even so, in the long term they are unaffordable. As economist Dean Baker of the Center for Economic and Policy Research has pointed out, if per capita US healthcare spending were comparable to what other industrialized countries spend (with better results), we would be projecting budget surpluses as far as the eye could see. The solution requires challenging the predatory oligopolies—the insurance companies, drug companies and hospital complexes—that profit from high costs. Obamacare began that process; Medicare costs have begun to rise more slowly. The sensible solution to our long-term debt problem is continued healthcare reform, not cuts in basic security for Americans.

Other than our broken healthcare system, our structural problem is not so much deficits and debt as that the United States does not have a stable foundation for growth. In 2007, before the recession hit, annual deficits were down to less than 3 percent of GDP, a level that could easily be sustained indefinitely. This was despite the Bush administration’s two unfunded wars, tax cuts and a prescription drug benefit that wasn’t paid for (indeed, the Bush excesses and the Bush economic crash have contributed far more to the current national debt than anything Obama has done). But the low deficits reflected the growth, employment and consumption generated by the housing bubble. We can’t reinflate that bubble, and we shouldn’t want to. As discussed below, we need a different basis for growth.

The most damaging implication behind the call to balance our books now rather than get the economy moving is that it assumes the current recovery is adequate and that mass unemployment is the new normal. We will probably see a flood of articles by economists explaining that high unemployment is structural, and that workers don’t have the skills needed for the twenty-first-century economy. As New York Times columnist and economist Paul Krugman has written, this callous assumption is not only wrong; it condemns millions of people to joblessness and despair.

This election was fought over which candidate and which party would do better at producing jobs and growth. To turn to deficit reduction now would be a great betrayal. But it would not be the only one.

Chump Change

The grand bargain not only offers the wrong answer; it poses the wrong question. In Washington, the bargainers intone the same mantra: It is a time for shared sacrifice. Everything must be on the table, from Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to tax hikes. We must all do our part.

The call for shared sacrifice makes no sense given that in recent decades, the rewards have not been shared. The middle class lost ground even before the Great Recession, while the wealthiest 1 percent pocketed about two-thirds of the rewards of growth. In the first year after the recession, the top 1 percent pocketed a staggering 93 percent of income growth, as the stock market roared back but housing values and wages did not. The pious summons to shared sacrifice violates both fairness and common sense. Worse, the focus is on programs for ordinary Americans and the vulnerable, not on the people who have made out like bandits. For example: our debt burden nearly doubled because Wall Street’s excesses blew up the economy and drove us into the deepest recession in seventy-five years. So you would think any discussion of how to reduce the deficit would start by demanding that Wall Street pay for the damage it caused. You would be wrong.

We are witnessing the worst inequality since the Gilded Age. The top 1 percent of taxpayers pocket more income each year than the bottom 40 percent, and they own more wealth than 90 percent of Americans. Yet their tax rates are near the lowest in post–World War II history. As billionaire investor Warren Buffett has noted—and as Mitt Romney has demonstrated with his 13.9 percent tax rate on $20 million in income—the richest Americans are often paying lower tax rates than their secretaries. You would think that any discussion of reducing deficits would begin with the assumption that there must be higher tax rates on millionaires and billionaires. You would be wrong.

Multinational corporations based in the United States pay among the lowest effective tax rates in the industrialized world. Many, like General Electric, earn billions in profits and pay nothing. Lower rates, corporate loopholes, offshore tax havens and transfer pricing have reduced the corporate share of federal tax revenues consistently since the 1950s. You would think that any discussion of reducing deficits would begin with a call for higher taxes on corporations and a clampdown on overseas tax havens. You would be wrong.

The military budget has doubled over the past decade, now exceeding what it was, in comparable dollars, at the height of the cold war. The United States and its NATO allies spend more on their militaries than the rest of the world combined. At the same time, domestic spending—with the temporary exception of Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill—has declined as a portion of the economy, despite a growing population and spreading poverty. The president brags that nonsecurity discretionary spending—everything outside the military and guaranteed programs like Social Security and Medicare—is projected to decline to levels not seen since the Eisenhower era. The result is a continued decline in public provision: decrepit sewers, airports and bridges; an outmoded electric grid; inadequate research and development; national parks in decline; infants without adequate nutrition; families without affordable shelter; glaringly inadequate investment in public education from pre-K to college. You would think the focus of any spending cuts would be on the military, not on domestic spending. You would be wrong.

Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security, the pillars on which family security rests, are not generous. The average annual Social Security benefit is $14,800, sufficient only to put a minimal floor under seniors. The average 65-year-old couple on Medicare will spend an average of $230,000 out of pocket on healthcare over the course of their retirement years. Without Social Security, 14 million more elderly Americans would live in poverty; without Medicare, few would be able to afford medical expenses.

Americans want these programs protected. They are so popular that politicians in both parties vied during the election to show who would protect them the most. Republicans strafed Obama and the Democrats by falsely claiming that they cut $716 billion from Medicare to pay for Obamacare. Joe Biden guaranteed absolutely that an Obama presidency would not allow cuts in Social Security. In an election night poll by the Campaign for America’s Future with Democracy Corps, fully 79 percent of Americans—from across the political spectrum—stated that they would find unacceptable any deal that cut Medicare benefits; 62 percent opposed an agreement that would cut Social Security over time. You would think those programs would be off the table in any discussion. You would be wrong.

The Sting

The general frame for the grand bargain violates almost all these common-sense priorities. In Obama’s 2011 talks with Boehner, the president offered to trade cuts in Medicare and Social Security for a tax reform that lowered rates on the rich and corporations while closing loopholes and exemptions to generate more revenue. Any tax proposal to raise revenue that begins with cutting top rates deserves only scorn. As Romney demonstrated with his mathematically impossible tax proposal during the campaign, raising significant revenue by cutting rates and then closing loopholes isn’t easy. To gain enough revenue, popular middle-class deductions—for home mortgages or employer-provided healthcare—are likely to get hit. And of course, as we saw with the Reagan-era tax law, such reforms eliminate loopholes but not lobbies. Pretty soon, new loopholes are slipped in, while rates remain at the lower level. The overall result: a more regressive, unjust tax system.

How did politicians arrive at this bad bargain? The essential dynamic is that Democrats reward Republican intransigence with concessions. Republicans refuse to hike taxes, so to entice them, Democrats offer the crown jewels: Medicare and Social Security. Republicans still resist tax hikes, so the austerity crowd suggests “reform” that will in theory bring in more revenue while lowering tax rates. Behind this are the big money lobbies that rig the rules: the Wall Street bankers, CEOs and private equity vultures who want to protect the scandalously low tax rates they now enjoy. The result is the outline of a deal that betrays promises made on the campaign trail and compromises the historic legacies of the New Deal and the Great Society. And it does all this while addressing the wrong problem.

No Home to Go Back To

Last fall, as part of his comeback from the disastrous negotiations over the debt ceiling, President Obama put forth the American Jobs Act, calling for a $447 billion program that included $65 billion to rebuild schools and keep teachers on the job, $50 billion in infrastructure spending, an extension of the payroll tax cut and other measures. Senate majority leader Harry Reid offered to pay for it with a surtax on millionaires. This was a no-brainer, estimated to create another 1.9 million jobs by 2013. Republicans blocked all but a few minor parts. Mysteriously, Obama walked away from his own plan, choosing not to make an issue of it during the campaign.

Many assume that the White House will seek to add some money for jobs in the coming grand bargain, as a sweetener for Democrats. But this economy needs far more than a short-term spending jolt. Although austerity and stimulus head in opposite directions, they share one assumption: that there will be a healthy economy to return to one day. Austerians would cut deficits and regulations. Stimularians would spend money and put people back to work. But the economy was not working for most Americans even before the Great Recession. The Bush years witnessed the first “recovery” in which most American households lost ground. Most real incomes went down, not up. The wealthiest few captured most of the rewards of growth. The middle class took on greater and greater debt simply to stay afloat.

The Excluded Alternative

The debate we should be having is about how to make the economy work for working people again, how to revive a broad middle class and make the American Dream more than a nostalgic fantasy. That would require both investments now in areas vital to our future and a fundamental change of course. It would include a strategy to revive domestic manufacturing and thus reduce the destabilizing trade deficits that have contributed to the global crisis. It would include an industrial policy designed to help the United States lead the new global green revolution. A serious long-term commitment to rebuild America would renovate our infrastructure to withstand the extreme weather that is already upon us. It would break up the big banks and shackle finance so that it serves, rather than threatens, the real economy. Measures to transform corporate governance, curb excessive executive compensation, and empower workers to organize and bargain collectively would help counter extreme inequality.

The new foundation would also require doing at least the basics in public education: universal preschool, small classes in the early years, greater rewards and respect for teachers, after-school programs, affordable college and advanced training. And of course it would feature progressive tax reform, compelling the wealthy and corporations to pay their fair share. It would continue healthcare reform and guarantee affordable care as a right for every citizen, not a privilege allowed only to those who can afford it. This requires taking on the most powerful and entrenched interests: multinationals that drive trade policy, Big Oil’s hold on energy policy, Wall Street’s grip on financial regulation, the military-industrial complex, the medical-industrial complex and more.

In the salad days of his presidency, Obama called for rebuilding the economy on a new foundation, not on the shifting sands of debt and bubbles. His recovery act, healthcare reform, Wall Street reforms and energy bill were first steps in that effort. But just as his premature turn to deficit reduction sabotaged the need to expand the initial recovery act, his turn now to a grand bargain will squelch any serious discussion of fundamental reforms.

Will Democratic legislators join Republicans in a danse macabre of austerity, accepting mass unemployment as the new normal? Will Democrats support a deal that cuts Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security while lowering tax rates on the rich and corporations? Will they embrace an austerity that makes vital public investments impossible? We’ve just completed a money-drenched election, and many Democratic officeholders will be tempted to curry favor with the deep pockets once more. But no one should be misled. Obama doesn’t have to run for re-election—legislators do. Voters want Medicare and Social Security protected, not cut. They want jobs and growth, not deficit reduction at the price of higher unemployment. Politicians who embrace such a deal may reap the whirlwind.

The battle lines are being drawn. The AFL-CIO, SEIU and AFSCME have announced labor’s opposition to cuts in entitlement programs and to continued tax cuts for the rich. Groups representing the base of the Democratic Party—from African-Americans to Latinos, women and the young—are lining up around a four-point program calling for jobs first; protecting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security; letting the top-end Bush tax cuts expire; and protecting programs for the vulnerable.

Reaching no deal is preferable to a bad one that cuts entitlements. Going over the so-called fiscal cliff is perilous, but probably preferable to a bargain under the terms currently in play. With no agreement, the Bush tax cuts would expire. In January the Senate would immediately push to revive the lower rates for everyone but the top 2 percent. Republicans could vote for tax cuts, but rates at the top would rise. The automatic spending cuts would not kick in immediately (although the stock market might feel the hit quickly). But the thing to remember about failure to reach a deal before January is that Medicare, Social Security and many programs for the most vulnerable are shielded from the cuts. And the new Congress would likely act rapidly to reverse the cuts to military and domestic spending. The already faltering recovery would surely weaken, threatening the loss of more jobs. But that might force Congress to address the real crisis—jobs and growth—rather than court a ruinous austerity.

Whatever the outcome, the battle is likely to be only the first skirmish of a defining struggle over the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. We’ve just had what might be called the first of a new era of class-warfare elections. The plutocracy ran one of their own, on their agenda and with their money. The American people’s rejection of Mitt Romney, despite the lousy economy, demonstrated the declining appeal of the conservative, trickle-down agenda. The budget debate will draw battle lines within the Democratic Party, between the Wall Street–dominated New Democratic wing and the progressive wing fighting for the change this country desperately needs.

We are headed into a new era of upheaval. Our money-soaked politics may suffocate growing demands for change. But if Democratic legislators join the president in a grand betrayal, they may witness a powerful Tea Party movement from the left, as Republican legislators have from the right.

Robert L. Borosage is president of the Institute for America’s Future and co-director of its sister organization, the Campaign for America’s Future.
This article is available from The Nation.

Posted in Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, Liberal ineffectiveness, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Incarceration nation

Michelle Alexander
Santa Fe, NM
September 12, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Michelle Alexander speak for herself here.

Michelle Alexander is an associate professor of law at Ohio State University and holds a joint appointment at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity. Formerly the director of the ACLU’s Racial Justice Project in Northern California, she served as a law clerk for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun. She is the author of the bestseller The New Jim Crow.

The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. once said,

A time comes when silence is betrayal.

The silence surrounding mass incarceration is one that I am desperate to break. I have to say that really this work that I have been engaged in over the last several years has become the passion of my life—trying to find ways to break silences in communities all across this country. And I’ve come to wonder whether we’ve been silent or simply asleep. Dr. King once said there is

nothing more tragic than to sleep through a revolution.

And he was talking at that time about a profound moral revolution that was underway, a struggle for the recognition of the value and dignity of all humankind, a struggle to end what was then America’s latest caste system, known as Jim Crow.

He told his audience the story of Rip Van Winkle, who fell asleep for 20 years. When he began his extended nap, there was a sign posted on a nearby inn that had a picture of King George III on it. When Rip Van Winkle awoke a couple decades later, the sign had a picture of George Washington on it. Dr. King told the audience that the most striking fact about Rip was not that he had slept for 20 years but that he had slept through a revolution. He said,

There are all too many people who, in some great period of social change, fail to achieve the new mental outlooks that the new situation demands.

I think his words are as relevant today as they were back then. Many of us, myself included, have slept through a revolution, actually, a counterrevolution. While many of us have been asleep, a vast new system of racial and social control has emerged, one that would certainly have Dr. King turning in his grave. I think one day we may look back and wonder how we could have possibly slept for so long.

I argue that today in the so-called era of colorblindness and, yes, even in the age of Obama, something akin to a caste system is alive and well in America. The mass incarceration of poor people, especially poor folks of color, is tantamount to a new caste system, one specifically designed to address the social, political, and economic challenges of our time. It’s the moral equivalent of Jim Crow.

I’m always eager to acknowledge, to admit that there was a time when I rejected this kind of talk. There was a time when I rejected comparisons between mass incarceration and slavery or mass incarceration and Jim Crow, believing those kinds of claims and comparisons were exaggerations, distortions, or hyperbole. In fact, there was a time when I thought that people who were making those kinds of claims and those kinds of comparisons were actually doing more harm than good to efforts to reform our criminal justice system and achieve greater racial equality in the U.S.

But what a difference a decade makes. After years of representing victims of racial profiling and police brutality and investigating patterns of drug law enforcement in poor communities of color, and attempting to assist people who had been released from prison reenter into a society that had never shown much use for them in the first place, I had a series of experiences that began what I now call my awakening. I began to awaken to a racial reality that is so obvious to me now that what seems odd in retrospect is that I managed to be blind to it for so long.

What has changed since the collapse of Jim Crow has less to do with the basic structure of our society than the language we use to justify it. In the era of color blindness it is no longer socially permissible to use race explicitly as a justification for discrimination, exclusion, and social contempt. So we don’t. Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color criminals and then engage in all the practices that we supposedly left behind. Today, it is perfectly legal to discriminate against criminals in nearly all the ways in which it was once legal to discriminate against African Americans. Once you’re labeled a felon, the old forms of discrimination—employment discrimination, housing discrimination, denial of the right to vote, exclusion from jury service—are suddenly legal. As a criminal, you have scarcely more rights, and arguably less respect, than a black man living in Alabama at the height of Jim Crow. We have not ended racial caste in America, we have merely redesigned it.

Like I said, though, I reached this conclusion reluctantly. I resisted it. But there are a number of experiences that finally began to open my eyes. One in particular I’ll never forget. It involved a young African American man who was about 19 years old who walked into my office one day and forever changed the way I viewed not only our criminal justice system but how I viewed myself as a civil rights lawyer and advocate. At the time, I was the director of the Racial Justice Project for the ACLU in California, and we had launched a major campaign against racial profiling by the police. We called it the DWB campaign, or the “driving-while-black-or-brown” campaign.

We had created a hotline number for people to call who believed they had been stopped or targeted by the police on the basis of race. We put this hotline number up on billboards and communities around California—in Oakland, San Jose and elsewhere—urging people to call this number if they believed they had been stopped or targeted by the police on the basis of race. In fact, within the first few minutes of us announcing this hotline number on the evening news, we received thousands of calls and our system crashed temporarily. We had to expand the capacity. So I was spending my day interviewing one young black/brown man after another who had been targeted, stopped, frisked, their cars had been pulled over, sometimes brutalized for no apparent reason other than the color of their skin.

It was late in the afternoon and I was getting tired when this young man walks in with a thick stack of papers. He had taken detailed notes of his encounters with the police over about a nine-month period of time in his neighborhood. He had an extraordinary amount of detail. He had dates of each encounter, descriptions of each incident, names of witnesses, in some cases badge numbers of police officers. Just an unbelievable amount of documentation and detail about this pattern of police stops he had experienced in his neighborhoods. And the stories of what he was describing going on in his neighborhood were corroborated by other stories we had heard coming out of his neighborhood.

I started to think, Well, maybe he’s the one. Maybe he’s going to be our lead plaintiff in the suit we were planning to file against the Oakland Police Department, a class action suit challenging their profiling practices. So I started asking him more questions. He was well-spoken and composed, and he was a good-looking young man. And I thought, He’s the one. We can put him on the television and the media will love him. This is it.

Then he said something that made me pause. And I said to him,

Did you just say you’re a drug felon? Did you just say you’re a drug felon?

We had been screening people with prior criminal convictions. When people would call our hotline number, we would send a form to them to fill out asking them a bunch of questions about their experiences with the police. And one of them was, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” We believed we couldn’t represent someone in a class action lawsuit challenging racial profiling if they had a criminal record, because we knew that if they did, the media and law enforcement would be all over us, saying, “Well, of course the police should be keeping their eye on him. He’s a felon.” And we knew we wouldn’t be able to put him on the stand in front of a jury without him being cross- examined for an hour about his prior criminal record, taking the focus off the police conduct and putting it on the prior criminal history of the man. So we had been screening people with prior criminal records, and he had not checked the metaphorical box.

So I said to him,

Tell me, have you been convicted of a felony?

And he gets quiet and he stares down at the table for a few minutes. And then finally he just looks up, looks me right in the eye, and he says,

Yeah, yeah. I’m a felon. But let me tell you what happened to me. Let me tell you. The police framed me. They planted drugs on me and they beat up me and my friend.

He starts telling me this big, long story about how he had been set up by the police and the police had planted drugs on him and beat him up. And I said,

I am sorry. I cannot represent you if you have a criminal record.

I tried to explain to him why that was the case and why we just couldn’t possibly take that kind of risk in our litigation, and it was wrong, “but I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do.” I keep trying to explain, and he keeps trying to give me more information, more detail. He says,

I just took that plea. I took the plea because I was scared of doing time. They told me I could go to prison for years, maybe even decades, if I didn’t take the plea. I pled out. They said I would just get felony probation. I could walk out of there. But just take the plea.

I said,

I’m sorry, I’m sorry. There is nothing that I can do.

Then he becomes enraged, and he says to me,

You’re no better than the police. The minute I tell you I’m a felon, you just stop listening. You can’t even hear what I have to say.

He said,

What’s to become of me? I can’t get a job anywhere because of my felony record. I can’t get a job anywhere.

He said,

I can’t even get access to public housing. I can’t even get into public housing. I have to sleep in any grandma’s basement at night because nowhere else will take me in.

He said,

I can’t even qualify for food stamps to feed myself because of my felony record. What’s to become of me?

He says,

Good luck finding one young black man in my neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet. They’ve gotten to us all already.

And he snatches all those papers and notes off the table and just starts ripping them up into tiny little pieces, throwing them in the air, snowing white paper in my house. He walks out yelling,

You’re no better than the police. I can’t believe I trusted you.

He takes off.

Several months after that, I’m doing a public-access television show that was broadcasting live out of his neighborhood. I was doing public-access TV because we were trying to organize thousands of people to attend a major protest against the then governor’s refusals to sign racial profiling legislation in California. So we were doing public-access TV, urging people to get on the bus and go to the demonstration at the capital. And it was broadcasting live. The minute the show goes off the air, he comes bursting into the studio carrying a dirty potted plant. He comes rushing up to me and he’s emotional, practically on the verge of tears. He rushes up to me, thrusts this dirty potted plant into my arms, and he says,

I’m just here to tell you I’m sorry. I’m sorry for how I treated you.

He said,

I’ve been seeing you on the news. I see you out there trying to the fight for our eople, trying to do the right thing. And I shouldn’t have treated you that way

.
He said,

I would have bought you some flowers, but I still don’t have any money. I snatched this plant off my grandma’s front porch. Here.

He pushes my arm. And then he turns around and takes off, runs out of the building. I chase after him. He jumps into a broke-down car and takes off.

Several months after that, I’m in my office. I open up the newspaper. What’s on the front page? Well, the Oakland “Riders” police scandal has broken. It turns out that a gang of police officers, otherwise known as a “drug task force,” had been planting drugs on suspects, beating folks up in his neighborhood. And who is identified as one of the main officers charged with planting drugs on suspects and beating folks up? The officer he had identified to me as having planted drugs on him and having beat up him and his friends. It was only then that the light bulb finally started to go on for me. I thought to myself, He’s right about me. I’m no better than the police. The minute he told me he was a felon, I just stopped listening. I couldn’t even hear what he had to say.

That was the beginning of my asking myself some hard questions, of myself as a civil rights lawyer and advocate. How am I actually replicating the very forms of discrimination, exclusion, and marginalization I’m supposedly fighting against? And I started asking some bigger questions about the system as a whole. I started asking myself, Why is it that we haven’t been able to find one young black man in his neighborhood they haven’t gotten to yet? What is really going on there?

So I began to do an enormous amount of research, and I started asking myself and others a lot of hard questions. And I began listening more carefully to the stories of those cycling in and out of prison. What I learned in that process truly blew my mind. But of all the things that I learned, what has stayed with me most is that my real crime was not in refusing to represent an innocent man.

My real crime was in imagining that there was some path to racial justice that did not include those whom we view as guilty.

Here are some of the facts that I learned in the course of my work and research. More African American adults are under correctional control today, in prison or jail, on probation or parole, than were enslaved in 1850, a decade before the Civil War began. As of 2004, more black men were disenfranchised than in 1870, the year the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified prohibiting laws that explicitly deny the right to vote on the basis of race. Of course, during the Jim Crow era, the era of legalized discrimination and segregation in this country, black folks were kept from the voting booth, from the polls through poll taxes and literacy tests. Well, today felon disenfranchisement laws have accomplished in many states what poll taxes and literacy tests ultimately could not.

A black child born today has less than a chance of being raised by both parents than a black child born during slavery. This is due in large part to the mass incarceration of black men. There was an interesting article published about this phenomenon in The Economist magazine, of all places, entitled “How the Mass Incarceration of Black Men Harms Black Women.” The article explained that the majority of black women in the U.S. are unmarried, including 70% of black professional women, and that is due largely to the mass incarceration of black men, which takes them out of the dating pool at the years they would be most likely to commit to a partner, to a family.

But what’s worse is that by branding them criminals and felons at very young ages, often before they’re even old enough to vote, they are rendered permanently unemployable in the legal job market for the most part, virtually guaranteeing that most will cycle in and out of prison, sometimes for the rest of their lives. Eighty percent of all African American children can now expect to spend at least a significant part of their childhood years living apart from their fathers. And contrary to the image presented in the media of black men being a bunch of deadbeat dads that don’t care enough about their children to be involved or to support them, the research actually shows that black men who are separated from their children due to divorce, incarceration, or any other factor are actually more likely to make an effort to maintain meaningful contact and relationships with their children following separation than men of any other racial or ethnic group. But no other racial or ethnic group faces as much separation, and forced separation, as African Americans.

That doesn’t mean that black men couldn’t do a better job of being fathers that they couldn’t try harder. But so could white men, so could Asian men, so could Latino men, so could mothers. And I speak from experience. We could all do a better job of parenting. But no group faces such extraordinary challenges to playing the role of a traditional father in our society today than black men.

This phenomenon does not affect some small segment of the African American community. To the contrary, in some major urban areas more than half of working-age African American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. In fact, in some cities, like Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia—take Chicago for example. In Chicago, if you take into account prisoners, if you actually count them as people—and, of course, prisoners are excluded from poverty statistics and unemployment data, thus masking the severity of racial inequality in the U.S.— but if you actually count prisoners as people, in the Chicago area nearly 80% of working-age African American men have criminal records and are thus subject to legalized discrimination for the rest of their lives. These men are part of a growing undercaste—not class, caste—a group of people defined largely by race relegated to a permanent second-class status by law.

I find that when I tell people that I now believe that mass incarceration is like a new Jim Crow, a new caste system, people react with shocked disbelief. They say,

What are you talking about? Our criminal justice system isn’t a system of racial control, it’s a system of crime control. And if black folks would just stop running around committing so many crimes, they wouldn’t have to worry about being locked up and then stripped of their basic civil and human rights.

But therein lies the greatest myth about mass incarceration, namely, that it’s been driven by crime and crime rates. It’s not true. It’s just not true.

During a 30-year period of time our prison population quintupled, not doubled or tripled but quintupled. Our nation now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, dwarfing the rates of even highly oppressive regimes like Russia or China or Iran. But this is not due to crime rates.

During that 30-year period of time crime rates fluctuated—went up, went down, went back up again, went back down again. Today, as bad as crime rates are in many parts of the country, crime rates are nationally at historical lows. But incarceration rates have consistently soared. Most criminologists and sociologists today will acknowledge that crime rates and incarceration rates in the U.S. have moved independently of one another. Incarceration rates, especially black incarceration rates, have soared, regardless of whether crime is going up or down in any given community or the nation as a whole.

So what explains this sudden explosion in incarceration, black incarceration, if not crime or crime rates? There was a drastic shift in attitudes. There was a wave of punitiveness that washed over the United States. We declared a war on drugs, and a get-tough movement was born on the heels of the civil rights movement. The war on drugs and the get-tough movement are responsible for the quintupling of our prison population in a few short decades. What has changed dramatically is not crime but what counts as crime and how we respond to it. And nothing has contributed more to the emergence of this new caste system than the war on drugs.

Drug convictions alone, just drug convictions, accounted for about two-thirds of the increase in the federal prison system and more than half of the increase in the state system between 1985 and 2000, the period of our prison system’s most dramatic expansion. Drug convictions have increased more than 1000% since the drug war began.

To get a sense of how large a contribution the drug war has made to mass incarceration, consider this. There are more people in prisons and jails today just for drug offenses than were incarcerated for all reasons in 1980. Most Americans violate drug laws in their lifetime. Most do. That’s a fact. But the drug war, not by accident, has been waged almost exclusively in poor communities of color, even though studies have consistently shown now for decades that, contrary to popular belief, people of color are not any more likely to use or sell illegal drugs than whites.

That defies our basic racial stereotypes about who a drug dealer is. Most Americans, if they’re honest with themselves, when asked to picture a drug dealer, will picture some black kid standing on a street corner with his pants hanging down. Plenty of drug dealing happens in the ‘hood, but it happens everywhere else in America as well. A white kid living in rural South Dakota does not drive to the ‘hood to get his marijuana or his meth or his cocaine. No, he gets it, most likely, from someone of his own race down the road. Drug markets, much like American society generally, are fairly segregated by race: black folks tend to sell to black folks, whites to whites. Even segregated by class. University students sell to each other. Drug dealing happens in all communities, of all colors, but those who do time for drug crimes are overwhelmingly black and brown. In some states 80% to 90 % of all drug offenders sent to prison have been one race—African American.

I find that many people when they actually see the data say,

Oh, that’s a shame. That’s a shame. That’s too bad. But you know what, we need a drug war in those communities because that’s where the violent offenders are, that’s where the drug kingpins can be found. We need to get tough in those communities because that’s where the violent offenders can be found.

In fact, in my experience, most people seem to imagine that the war on drugs was declared in response to the emergence of crack cocaine in inner-city communities and the related violence. And for quite a while I believed that as well.

But that is not true. President Ronald Reagan declared the current drug war in 1982, at a time when drug crime was actually on the decline, not on the rise. President Richard Nixon was the first to coin the term a “war on drugs,” but it was President Ronald Reagan who turned that rhetorical war into a literal one. And at the time he declared his drug war, drug crime was actually on the decline, not on the rise, and less than 3% of the American population identified drugs as among the nation’s most pressing concerns.

So why declare a national drug war at a time when drug crime is declining, not rising, and the American population doesn’t seem much concerned about it? From the outset the war on drugs had little to do with genuine concern about drug addiction or drug abuse and nearly everything to do with politics, racial politics.

Numerous historians and political scientists have now documented that the war on drugs was part of a grand Republican Party strategy, known as the Southern strategy, of using racially coded get-tough appeals on issues of crime and welfare to appeal to poor and working-class whites, particularly in the South, who were anxious about, fearful of, resentful of many of the gains of African Americans in the civil rights movement.

To be fair, I think we have to acknowledge that poor and working-class whites really had their world rocked by the civil rights movement. Wealthy whites could send their kids to private schools and give their kids all of the advantages that wealth has to offer. But poor and working- class whites, who themselves were struggling for survival, faced a social demotion in the civil rights movement. It was their kids who might be bused across town to a school they believed was inferior. It was their kids and themselves who were suddenly forced to compete on equal terms with a whole new group of people that they’ve been taught their whole lives to believe was inferior to them for limited jobs and limited opportunities. And to make matters worse, from their perspective, affirmative action programs created this impression that black folks were now leap-frogging over them on their way to Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or fancy jobs in corporate America.

This state of affairs created an enormous amount of anger, fear, resentment, anxiety, but it also created an enormous political opportunity. Pollsters and political strategists found that thinly veiled promises to get tough on “them,” a group not so subtly defined by race, could be enormously successful in persuading poor and working-class whites to defect from the Democratic New Deal coalition and join the Republican Party in droves. H. R. Haldeman, President Richard Nixon’s former chief of staff, explained the strategy this way:

The whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to divide the system that recognizes this while not appearing to.

Well, they did.

[For more on this Republican strategy, elaborated on by Lee Atwater in 1981, see this recent New York Times story.]

A couple years after the drug war was announced, crack cocaine hit the streets of inner-city communities. The Reagan administration seized on this development with some glee, actually hiring staff whose job it was to publicize inner-city crack babies, crack dealers, the so- called crack whores, and crack-related violence. The wave of media coverage that ensued when crack hit the streets was not the product of just good investigative journalism. It was the result of a media campaign launched by the Reagan administration to bolster public support for a drug war they had already been declared and to persuade Congress to devote millions more dollars to waging it.

The plan worked like a charm. Almost overnight millions more dollars were devoted to the drug war. And once the enemy in this war was racially defined, a wave of punitiveness swept the United States. Congress and state legislatures nationwide began to compete with one other to pass ever harsher drug laws, harsh mandatory minimum sentences. You would have small-time drug offenders receiving sentences harsher than murderers received in other Western democracies.

Almost immediately Democrats began competing with Republicans to prove they could be even tougher on “them” than their Republican counterparts. So it was President Bill Clinton who escalated the drug war far beyond what his Republican predecessors even dreamed possible. It was the Clinton administration that championed the laws denying drug offenders even federal financial aid for schooling upon release. It was the Clinton administration that championed laws banning drug offenders from public housing. And it was the Clinton administration that championed the federal law banning drug offenders even from food stamps for the rest of their lives. Many of the laws that now constitute the basic architecture of this new caste system were championed by a Democratic administration desperate to win back those so-called white swing voters, the Reagan Democrats, the folks who had defected from the Democratic Party in the wake of the civil rights movement.

In my experience, even many people who are familiar with this history will defend the drug war nonetheless. They will say,

We need a drug war because what about all those violent offenders and drug kingpins in the ‘hood?

But what many people don’t realize is that this drug war has never been focused on rooting out the violent offenders or the drug kingpins. Federal funding has flowed to those state and local law enforcement agencies that boost the sheer numbers of drug arrests. It’s been a numbers game. What has been rewarded in this war is the sheer volume of drug arrests. Millions of dollars in federal grant money is provided to state and local law enforcement agencies based on the number of people swept into the system for drug offenses, virtually guaranteeing that law enforcement will go out looking for the so-called low-hanging fruit, stopping, frisking, searching as many people as possible in an effort to boost their numbers and continue to qualify for that financial aid. And to make matters worse, federal drug forfeiture laws allow state and local law enforcement agencies to keep for their own use up to 80% of the cars, cash, homes seized from suspected drug offenders. You don’t have to be convicted. If you are just suspected of a drug offence, law enforcement can take your car, your cash, seize your property.

The results are predictable. People of color have been rounded up en masse for relatively minor, nonviolent drug offences. In 2005, for example, four out of five drug arrests were for simple possession, only one out of five for sales. Most people in state prison for drug offenses have no history of violence or even significant selling activity. In fact, in the 1990s, the Clinton years, the period of the most dramatic expansion of the drug war, nearly 80% of the increase in drug arrests was for marijuana possession, a drug that has now been shown to be less harmful, less addictive than alcohol or tobacco and at least, if not more, prevalent in middle-class white communities and on college campuses as it is in the ‘hood. But by waging this drug war almost exclusively in the ‘hood, we’ve managed to create this vast new racial undercaste in an astonishingly short period of time.

But, of course, being swept into the system is only the beginning. Because once you’ve been swept in and branded a criminal felon, even if you get just felony probation, like the young man in my office, for the rest of your life you will be punished. You will have to check the box on employment applications for the rest of your life. It doesn’t matter if the crime you committed happened four weeks ago, four years ago, or forty-five years ago. For the rest of your life you’ve got to check that box asking the dreaded question, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Hundreds of professional licenses are off limits to people convicted of felonies. In fact, in my state, Ohio, you can’t even get a license to be a barber if you’ve been convicted of a felony.

People often say to me,

Oh, come on. They could get a job if they try. If they really try, if they really apply themselves. So many of those people don’t even want to work. They could get a job if they try.

I say,

Really? Try getting a job at McDonald’s with a felony record.

Employment discrimination is legal. Housing discrimination is perfectly legal. Public housing projects, private landlords are free to discriminate against you for the rest of your life. You could be denied access to public housing for a crime you committed 30 years ago, in your youth. Where are you supposed to sleep? Food stamps, public benefits can be off limits to you. Financial aid for schooling. If you want to improve yourself, get an education. Off limits.

What are folks expected to do? Imagine you’re just released from prison. You can’t get a job, you’re barred from housing, even food stamps are off limits to you. What are you expected to do? Apparently, what we expect them to do is to pay hundreds or thousands of dollars in fees, fines, court costs, accumulated back child support, which continues to accrue while you’re in prison. And in a growing number of states, you’re actually expected to pay back the costs of your imprisonment. All of this can be a condition of your probation or parole. And then get this. If you’re one of the lucky few who actually manages to get a job out of prison, you actually get that job, up to 100% of your wages can be garnished—up to 100%—to pay back all those fees, fines, court costs accumulated back child support. What are folks expected to do? What does this system seem designed to do?

It seems designed to send folks right back to prison. Which in fact is what happens the vast majority of the time. About 75% of people released from prison return within three years, and the majority of those who return in some states do so in a matter of months, because the challenges associated with mere survival on the outside are so immense.

But as bad as all the formal barriers to political and economic inclusion are, many people who have been labeled criminals have told me that that’s not even the worst of it. It’s the stigma that follows you for the rest of your life. That’s the hardest to bear. It’s not just the denial of the job but the look that crosses an employer’s face when he sees, oh, that box has been checked. It’s not just the denial of housing but the shame of having to beg your grandma to sleep in her basement at night because nowhere else will take you in. It’s the shame associated with being branded that causes so many people who have been branded criminals or felons to try to pass. During the Jim Crow era, light-skinned blacks would try to pass as white to avoid the shame and stigma associated with race. Well, today people labeled criminals try to pass not just by lying to employers, by failing to check the box on employment applications or housing forms, but by lying, denying, avoiding friends, family members, loved ones.

There was an excellent ethnographic study conducting in Washington, D.C. by an ethnographer who is now a Georgetown law professor. It was a study conducted in neighborhoods hardest hit by mass incarceration in Washington, D.C. These are neighborhoods where literally every young black man expects to serve time in prison. It is difficult to find anyone who has never gone to jail. You would think in these communities that imprisonment would be so normal that everyone would just be talking about it all the time, who’s in, who’s out. To a certain extent that was true. But what they found in this study was they were unable to find even one person—one person—who had fully come out to their friends, neighbors, loved ones about their own criminal history or that of their loved ones. Children, when asked by a relative,

Honey, where is your daddy? I haven’t seen your daddy in a long time. Where is your daddy at? What’s he up to?

My daddy? I don’t know where my daddy is.

Knowing full well their father is in prison. People released from prison bumping into friends on the street they haven’t seen in a while.

Hey, I haven’t seen you. It must have been years. Where have you been? How are you doing? What have you been up to?

Oh, I’ve been out of town. I’ll talk to you later.

The shame creates an eerie silence even in the communities hardest hit by mass incarceration. And this silence makes collective political action nearly impossible.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? I think one thing that has become clear is that those of us in the civil rights community have allowed a human rights nightmare to occur on our watch. We’ve been sleeping through a revolution. While many of us have been fighting to hold on to affirmative action or the perceived gains of the civil rights movement, millions of people—millions of people—have been rounded up, locked in cages, and then released into a parallel social universe in which they’re denied the very rights that some of our parents or even grandparents fought for and some died for. As a nation we have now spent $1 trillion waging this drug war since it began—funds that could have been used for schools, for economic investment in the poorest communities. A trillion dollars could have been used to promote our collective well being. Instead, those dollars paved the way for the destruction of countless lives, families, and dreams.

So what do we do? Where do we go from here? My own view is that nothing short of a major social movement has any hope of ending mass incarceration in America. And if you imagine that something less, surely something less, will do, consider this. If we were to return to the rates of incarceration we had in the 1970s, before the war on drugs and the get-tough movement gained steam, we would have to release four out of five people who are in prison today. Four out of five. More than a million people employed by the criminal justice system would lose their jobs. Most new prison construction has occurred in predominantly white rural communities, and many of these communities have been led to believe that prisons are the answer to their economic woes. Those prisons across America would have to close. Private prison companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange would be forced to watch their profits vanish. This system is now so deeply rooted in our social, political, and economic structure that it’s not going to just fade away, it’s not going to just downsize out of sight without a major upheaval, a fairly radical shift in our public consciousness.

I know that there’s many people who say there is really no hope of ending mass incarceration in America. Just as many people were resigned to Jim Crow in the South and would shake their heads and say,

Yes, it’s a shame, but that’s just the way that it is.

Today many people view the millions cycling in and out of your nation’s prisons and jails as just an unfortunate but inalterable fact of American life. Well, I am confident that Dr. King, Ella Baker, Sojourner Truth, and the many other freedom fighters who came before us would not be so easily deterred. It’s time for us to take the baton. We have got to be willing to continue the work. We have got to be willing to go back where they left off and do the hard work of movement building on behalf of poor people of all colors.

In 1968 Dr. King told advocates that the time had come to shift from a civil rights movement to a human rights movement. Meaningful equality, he said, could not be achieved through civil rights alone. Without basic human rights – the right to work, the right to housing, the right to quality education – he said, civil rights are an empty promise. So in honor of Dr. King and all those people of all colors who labored to end the old Jim Crow, I hope we will build a human rights movement to end mass incarceration: a movement for education, not incarceration; a movement for jobs, not jails; a movement to end all these forms of legal discrimination that deny people their basic human rights to work, to shelter, and to food.

What must we do to build this movement? First, we’ve got to start telling the truth, the whole truth. We’ve got to be willing to admit out loud that we as a nation have managed to recreate a caste-like system in this country. We’ve got to be willing to tell this truth in our schools, in our community centers, in our places of worship. We have got to be willing to tell this truth so that a great awakening can begin.

But, of course, a lot of talk isn’t going to be enough. We also have to be willing to build an underground railroad for the people returning home from prison. We have got to be willing to extend much needed help, support, jobs, housing, food, open arms, love to people returning home from prison and support for their families, who are dealing and struggling, coping with the grief of having a loved one behind bars. We have got to support with open arms all those who are willing to make a genuine break for freedom. We’ve got to be willing to create safe spaces for people, create safe places for people to admit their criminality out loud, places where people don’t feel ashamed.

How do we create those safe places? I think one thing we’ve got to do is to begin to admit our own criminality out loud, our own criminality.

Many people say to me,

What are you talking about? I’m not a criminal.

I say,

Okay. Maybe you never drank under age, maybe you never experimented with drugs. If the worst thing you’ve ever done in your unadventurous life is speed 10 miles over the speed limit on the freeway, you’ve put yourself and others at more risk of harm than someone smoking marijuana in the privacy of their living room.

But there are people doing life sentences for first-time drug offenses in the U.S. Life sentences. The Supreme Court upheld life sentences for first-time drug offenses against an Eighth Amendment challenge that such a sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court said, No, it’s not cruel and unusual to send a young man on a first-time drug offense to life imprisonment, even though virtually no other country in the world does such a thing.

So rather than imagining that the criminals are them, not us, I think we’ve got to be willing to say,

There but for the grace of God go I.

After all, President Barack Obama himself has admitted to using more than a little bit of drugs in his lifetime. In his youth he used marijuana, he used cocaine. And if he had not been raised by a white mother in Kansas or white grandparents in Hawaii, if he had been raised in the ‘hood, the odds are great that he would have been stopped, he would have been searched, he would have been frisked, he would have been caught. And far from being president of the United States today, he might not even have the right to vote.

So this is about all of us. It’s about recognizing and honoring the dignity of all of us.

But just helping a few and creating safe places for a few and telling the truth, even that is not enough, because just as during the days of slavery it wasn’t enough to build the underground railroad, you had to be willing to work for abolition, today we have got to be willing to work for the abolition of this system of mass incarceration, abolish it entirely. That means ending the drug war once and for all. It means ending all these forms of legal discrimination against people released from prison that keeps them locked in a permanent second-class status for life. And it means shifting from a purely punitive approach in dealing with violence and violent crime to a more restorative and rehabilitative approach, one that takes seriously the interests of the victim, the offender, and the community as a whole. So we’ve got a lot of work to do.

If you think it sounds like too much, if you think we can’t possibly rise to the challenge that’s before us, keep in mind that all of the rules, laws, policies, and practices that comprise this system of mass incarceration rest upon one core belief, and it is the same core belief that sustained Jim Crow. It’s the belief that some of us—some of us—are not worthy of genuine care, compassion, and concern. And when we effectively challenge that core belief, this whole system begins to fall like dominoes.

A multiracial, multiethnic human rights movement must be born, one that takes seriously the dignity and humanity of all people. And, yes, it has got to be multiracial and multiethnic. This drug war may be born with black folks in mind, but it is a war that has destroyed the lives of people and communities of all colors. A young white kid who is getting a prison sentence rather than the drug treatment he desperately needs but could afford is suffering because of a drug war declared with black folks in mind.

We now see that another war has been declared, a war on illegal immigrants that is leading to another prison- building boom. So we have got to be willing to connect the dots and build a multiracial, multiethnic movement on behalf of all of us. But before this movement can truly get under way, a great awakening is required. We have got to awaken from this color-blind slumber that we’ve been in to the realities of race in America. We’ve got to be willing to embrace those labeled criminals—not necessarily all their behavior, but them, their humanness. For it has been the refusal and failure to recognize the dignity and humanity of all people that has been a sturdy foundation for every caste system that has ever existed in the U.S. or anywhere else in the world. It’s our task, I firmly believe, to end not just mass incarceration, not just the war on drugs, but to end this history and cycle of caste in America.

Thank you.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977
info@alternativeradio.org

www.alternativeradio.org ©2012

Posted in Big picture, Economic injustice, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, Racist? perish the thought! | Leave a comment

Plenitude: The emerging new economy

Juliet Schor
Northampton, MA
July 28, 2008

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Juliet Schor speak for herself here.

Juliet Schor is Professor of Sociology at Boston College. Before joining Boston College, she taught at Harvard in the Department of Economics. She is author of many books including The Overworked American, Do Americans Shop Too Much?, and Plenitude: The New Economics of True Wealth.

This evening I will offer a vision that addresses both our economic and ecological predicaments. It lays out the logic of a small-scale, low-impact, time-affluent, high-satisfaction alternative to what I call the business-as-usual economy, or what I’ll refer to as I go on as the BAU economy or the BAU market.

It begins from the premise that standard solutions, such as the attempts to maximize indiscriminate growth, have become problems. And that without a more thorough-going reorganization of our economic lives, we will fail on many fronts, from solving unemployment and poverty to improving the distributions of income and wealth and saving the planetary home. Surveys I have done support the view that the average American understands that our way of life is not sustainable. But the elite discourse has not yet absorbed that point.

Like most of the sustainability visions that have been offered in recent years, mine requires that we adopt cutting-edge green technologies. Most importantly, we must get off fossil fuels as rapidly as we can. That’s key to averting climate catastrophe. It will involve capping carbon use. It will require the pollution sector to be made to pay for the havoc they’ve wreaked, through taxes, fees, and a commitment to leave the dirty fuels in the ground. But that won’t be enough.

Getting off fossil fuels will take some time, and in the meanwhile we also have to address the demand for energy. If we continue with business as usual with respect to demand for energy, we won’t succeed either in achieving a true energy transition, maintaining the climate at the 2-degree-warming increase or less, or with preserving the endangered ecosystems around the world that we depend on.

What the requirement to address energy demand really implies is that we need to do more than just change our technology, the terrain on which the conversation is currently stuck. We must also introduce a different rhythm of work, consumption, and daily life. We don’t just need an alternative energy system; we also need an alternative economy.

That may sound utopian. After all, the economy and the government remain firmly ensconced in the hands of a small number of powerful corporations and individuals who have made it clear they have no interest in curing what ails the U.S. or in averting climate catastrophe. The criminal enterprises that go by the name of energy companies—Exxon, BP, Koch Industries, or the coal companies—the big financial institutions that finance this dirty energy, the industrial agriculture system, and a variety of other powerful blocs and individuals have taken us backwards, reneging on earlier promises. The energy companies especially understand climate change. They see that trillions of their assets are in jeopardy of being made worthless and are spending desperately to stop other people from realizing that.

To rein them in, we need campaign finance reform, we need an awakened populace, and a powerful social movement to take back the government. But that movement hasn’t developed yet. Meanwhile, the climate clocks are ticking. What I’m suggesting is a way forward that allows us to do what we can now, at a scale where change is possible, while we push for something larger. One of the premises of my argument is that individuals, communities, cities, even some states can get started on creating the new economy today. Taking the first steps does not depend on already having achieved total systemic change or undoing the gridlock in Congress. Those are essential. But while we engage in those efforts, households and communities can also begin to take their economic futures into their own hands, and millions are already doing that. There are four principles to my vision.

The first is a new allocation of time. We’ve got to reverse the decade-long move toward longer hours of work, a trend that has propelled what I’ve called the work- and-spend cycle.

Work-and-spend has not only yielded exhausted, indebted households but more employment, as hours are concentrated in fewer and fewer people, and higher carbon emissions. As I will explain shortly, my research shows that carbon use and hours of work are closely linked, a fact that has not yet been recognized. Moving forward by funding hours reductions through productivity growth is at the core of this model.

The second principle is DIY, or do it yourself, or self-provisioning. People can use the new-found free time that they get from following step 1 to reduce what they have to buy on the market and provide for themselves in low-impact ways. Millions are already doing this. Self- provisioning not only gives people more freedom from a destructive and increasingly unreliable market, but it can help propel a more local, human, smaller-scale, greener, and fairer economy.

The third principle is an environmentally aware approach to consumption, which emphasizes the
recirculation and reuse of goods, sharing, and the creation of a new consumer culture.

And finally, we need to build new investments that are held widely and publicly. One casualty of rising inequality and an intense market orientation is that community has gotten thinner and human ties weaker. By recovering hours, individuals are freed up to fortify social networks and build common property.

I use the term plenitude to describe this economy in order to call attention to the inherent bounty of nature that we need to recover. It directs us to the chance to be rich in the things that matter to us most and the wealth that is available in our relations with each other. Plenitude involves very different ways of living than the maxims that have dominated the economic discourse for the last 30 years. It starts from our grim ecological and economic situation, but it is not a paradigm of sacrifice, despair, or desperation. To the contrary, it involves a way of life that will yield more well-being than sticking to business as usual, which has led both the natural and the economic environments into decline. It is hopeful, upbeat, and solutions-oriented. I believe that’s essential to success today.

But before getting into the specifics of the plenitude model, it may be worth revisiting the debates about ecology and economics that have been ongoing for many years. The history of this conversation is actually quite long. It began back in the 19th century with political economists like Thomas Malthus. But I will pick up the story in the 1960s and 1970s, because that debate has now again resurfaced in the 21st century. At that time the problem of the Earth’s so-called carrying capacity was famously put forward by a number of biologists. Paul Erlich wrote The Population Bomb, which argued that humans were risking collapse by overbreeding. Similarly, Garrett Hardin’s classic article “The Tragedy of the Commons” argued that humans couldn’t avoid degrading the biosphere because it is in our nature to overconsume common resources.

As it happens, both of these accounts were deeply flawed. Erlich’s racist alarm was later shown to have been sounded at the peak population growth rate, and rates of population growth have declined dramatically since then. Hardin’s grim biological determinism has been powerfully challenged by the work of Elinor Ostrom, who received the Nobel Prize in economics in 2009 for analyzing the conditions under which humans can manage common resources sustainably.

The third major intervention from this period, however, has been of more lasting value. In the early 1970s, a group of researchers at MIT, led by Donella, or “Dana,” Meadows, Dennis Meadows, and their collaborators, developed a model of a self-contained world system in which they included not only population but industrial production, pollution–they talked about climate change that early–and, very importantly, they included the powerful feedback loops that climate scientists are now looking at as key to what’s happening and going to happen in the climate system. The limits to growth analysis indicated that if we continued along the trajectory we were then following, what’s called now in the climate discourse the business as usual, or BAU, scenario, by the first decade of the 21st century there would be the beginnings of a significant collapse.

Their model was simplistic and you could say wrong in a number of ways, as economists rather arrogantly pointed out, but one has to give them credit for being fairly prescient on the big story. Because by the early 21st century, we did have evidence of rampant ecosystem degradation, particularly climate destabilization, as well as an economic meltdown.

The limits to growth and subsequent collapse narratives were based on two major ideas. One is the exhaustion of what are called nonrenewable resources. Peak oil was the most important, but other minerals were also part of the story. This is where the limits perspective was most vulnerable, because commodities prices, including the price of energy as well as many other commodities, fell in the 1980s, partly as a result of a worldwide downturn, such as the one we’ve experienced recently, as well as incentives for more exploration.

Their second idea has proved more enduring, which is that renewable resources, ecosystems such as forests, oceans, and the climate system itself, were in jeopardy. Their argument began from a simple and an increasingly commonly held trope, that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet. Eventually ecosystems would be overwhelmed with pollution and degradation.

As I said, limits to growth was mainly discredited by economists and other conservative forces, who argued that infinite growth is possible, even on a finite planet. Although many scientists signed on to the limits-to-growth perspective, the discourse was dominated by the pro-growth, pro-market, neoliberal forces for the next three decades. These people argued that GDP could “dematerialize”; that is, every dollar of growth could be associated with less and less in the way of materials flows, or carbon in the case of energy. Natural resource productivity would grow, perhaps dramatically. In the design world this perspective was known as Factor 4, then Factor Ten, Cradle to Cradle, Zero Waste, biomimicry—a whole range of perspectives that says we can dematerialize our production, and therefore our total output in value terms can grow indefinitely.

Indeed, this camp argues that capitalism is already in the process of greening itself and that this technological transformation will be sufficient to achieve sustainability. Changing the system itself is not necessary. Indeed, the profit motive, the market, highly concentrated ownership of property and investment decisions, and growth itself are all seen as beneficial for the sustainability transformation. That’s the so-called green growth perspective.

But can this be right? Are there no limits to growth? Do we not need a new economy? So far capitalism’s green potential has proven to be rather limited. Dematerialization has not happened. We can measure this by the growth of carbon use, which is soaring, as well as by total material flows, a new measurement that social scientists have just started to collect on a regular basis. It is true that there has been some of what we call relative decarbonization, or dematerialization, by which I mean that the amount of carbon or material flows per dollar of GDP has declined. Since 1980 it’s gone down by a little bit over 1% annually, 1.1-1.2%, for both of those measures, materials and carbon. But the expansion of the world economy has been much larger than that 1.1% or 1.2%, so that both carbon use and material flows have increased by more than 50% since 1980.

One could argue that dematerialization and decarbonization just haven’t been given a chance, and that without a high price for carbon, there’s not too much that will happen. But, of course, there are powerful forces preventing those punitive prices for carbon and materials. Based on the track record to date, one would have to say that the economists and the ecomodernizationists—that’s what they’re called in sociology—have been far too optimistic. Ecological overshoot continues apace.

Conversely, other approaches have been too pessimistic, including the so-called treadmill of production paradigm, which comes out of Marxism. They argue there are inherent dynamics within a market system which make ecological protection almost impossible. There’s also an emerging school of thought based in behavioral economics and psychology which says that humans are hard-wired to avoid climate risks. This perspective has trouble accounting for nations like Germany, Portugal, and the U.K., which have made serious commitments to reducing their emissions or to getting off fossil fuels.

I think the truth lies closer to a third paradigm, which believes that both the optimists and the pessimists have overstated their cases. The new economy movement believes that the system won’t green itself but that we can build a different one that can. In recent years this view has gained adherents not only for ecological reasons but also because forecasts about the economic road ahead are rocky.

One of the core principles of plenitude is diversifying out of what I call that BAU economy, the business-as-usual economy, and it is predicated on the view that for most people BAU will increasingly offer fewer options, lower returns, and higher costs. It’s a bad deal getting worse. This helps explain why people will increasingly want to work less in the mainstream market. That’s because its ability to yield lucrative returns is on the wane. The days of sky-high market returns are over. We know that many of the pre-2008 gains were illusory, bubbles which popped in that year, for example, the billions in fictitious profits that disappeared from the financial sector and housing markets. The BAU economy itself may be in for a long slide.

This view of long-term stagnation in returns to labor, to finance, and other assets comes in part from looking at historical data. Consider profits, the pool of value from which higher living standards are funded. Profits tend to have long swings in addition to short-term ups and downs. From 1948 until 1982, the long-term trend was down. Profits were so low during the stagflation of the 1970s that business revolted and induced government to undertake a major restructuring, which began in the early 1980s with, originally, Jimmy Carter, and then more in earnest with Ronald Reagan, with Margaret Thatcher in the U.K. As a result of this restructuring, profits began to rise, and continued rising until the 2008 downturn. It’s likely we’re on track for another decade of down, particularly for U.S. operations. That means there will be less income available for individuals and households. We’ve already been in 3 years of what the business press calls “the new normal,” lower growth and reduced earnings.

The dominance of the U.S. is also on the wane. For decades the country has benefited from its special position. Americans could live beyond their means with a whopping trade deficit because others have been willing to accumulate the dollars that flow outside the nation’s borders. But the economic collapse made foreign investors and central bankers nervous about all currencies, including the dollar. American workers have long enjoyed a wage gap relative to those in poorer countries. However, companies have used the downturn to reduce compensation and locate even more jobs offshore.

As we move forward, the fatal flaw of the current growth regime, climate change and other ecological limits, will increasingly rear its ugly head. These problems have already started to affect the bottom line, with weather and other climate-related losses reducing profits and incomes. There are trillions in assets that will ultimately be uneconomic on the books of American and global companies. These are not just toxic financial assets, the ones we’ve heard about, but also an estimated $27 trillion of assets in proven oil, gas, and coal reserves, which cannot be used if we are to keep the planet safe. When we own up to that, there will be another giant write-down on top of the financial balance-sheet losses of 2008 and 2009.

We’re also up against some of the factors that triggered global problems in 2007 and 2008. The prices of food and energy appear to be on a long upward climb, as would be expected in a world reaching ecological limits. Energy and food, which, after all, is eaten by workers, are inputs into virtually everything that is produced. The index of primary commodities, which includes wood, metals, minerals, fuels, food, and other inputs, rose 23% a year between 2003 and 2007. At no time in the last 60 years have commodity prices risen so rapidly. After dipping during the downturn, they have now resumed what looks like an inexorable rise. For the average American, European, or inhabitant of another country, selling one’s labor to an employer or investing in financial assets will yield less, while buying food at a supermarket or traveling on an airplane will become more expensive. The bottom line is that room to maneuver in the BAU economy is narrowing. We’re faced with a choice between stagnation and the softer prices of commodities or growth, with high prices and mounting damages.

The plenitude path transcends this dilemma and offers us a way out. It’s parsimonious in the use of scarce natural resources and a heavy user of what is comparatively in surplus: human creativity, knowledge, technology, and, as we reconstruct it, community.

The first principle of plenitude, then, is a new relationship to this declining market. For decades Americans have devoted an increasing fraction of their time and money to the market—working longer hours, at least until the downturn, filling leisure time with activities that require more income for unit of time, and buying rather than making more and more of what they consume. But we can reverse this trend and diversify out of that BAU market. Relying less on the market spreads risk and creates multiple sources of income and support, as well as new ways of procuring consumption goods. That means a moderation of hours of work in the BAU sector.

There are undoubtedly complexities for managing this shift, such as changing the incentives faced by employers and ensuring career tracks in professional jobs where people are working less. However, work-time reduction is absolutely at the core of an economic policy that will both solve our unemployment problems and reduce carbon emissions.

The importance of work-time reduction becomes clear as we consider our economic history. Between 1870, the peak of the industrial production of the 19th century, and 1970 the U.S. was on a trajectory of declining hours. Annual work time went from about 3,000 hours a year in 1870 to about 1800 hours a year 100 years later. That is almost a halving of the annual working hours. This was made possible through productivity growth. And it was not just the U.S. that was on this path. All of the other industrialized countries did the same thing.

But beginning in 1970, the U.S. diverged from those other nations and from its own historical path. Annual hours began to rise. And before the downturn in 2008, the average American worker was putting in an extra 200 hours per year of paid employment in comparison to where he or she was in 1973. The reasons were partly due to employers’ incentives. Because they were funding ever more expensive health insurance, they prefer longer hours and fewer employees. But there were other reasons, too—weakened trade unions and growing inequality.

By 2001 the average U.S. employee was on the job almost 300 more hours than many Western Europeans. In that year the gap with Germany was 296, with France 264, with the Netherlands 320 hours, with lower differentials for Sweden, about 70, and the U.K, 62. What those differences mean is that a U.S. employer needs to generate anywhere from 4% to 24% more revenue to hire an additional worker than his or her European counterparts. For the countries with the biggest hours gap, the U.S. economy is producing four new jobs for every five created in those short-hour countries, where, by the way, the collapse of 2008 generated almost no unemployment. Whether we look at our own historical experience or to other nations, the anomalous trend of rising hours in the U.S. has hobbled us with respect to both preserving jobs and creating them. High hours unfairly concentrate hours in too few people. This has become a key driver of poverty, because the poor have too little work. High hours also create stress, reduce the quality of life, and undermine community and democracy.

In the 1980s, the Dutch addressed their high unemployment by offering new government employees a four-day work week at 80% pay. It was a savvy policy, which allowed 20% more young people to get jobs than the business-as-usual policy would have. It’s a good way to begin, because youth are bearing the brunt of the unemployment crisis. Today the Dutch have not only the lowest hours in Europe, super high labor productivity, and a successful economy, but they also have a carbon footprint that is 63% of the U.S. footprint. It’s important to note that this 80% solution, as they call it, does not take away income from people that they are already attached to. That’s a bad way to design work-time reduction. Instead, it starts new hires at lower salaries than they would get if they started at 100% time. That’s a psychologically and practically much easier way to manage the transition to shorter hours.

But we can do more than the 80% solution. If we build in the principle of using productivity growth to fund reductions in work time for people who already have jobs rather than using productivity increases for higher profits or wages, people can experience steady incomes with growing leisure time. The U.S. has had a productivity resurgence over the past decade, with especially high rates of productivity growth since 2000. That may be a surprise to you, and that’s because all of it has gone to profits and not to wages. But what if we gave it to people in the form of shorter hours of work? That’s a bounty that can be used to fund a shift out of business as usual. We can get a given level of production with fewer and fewer hours. Why not take that opportunity? There’s good evidence from behavioral economics and from studies of happiness that people are far less attached to income they don’t already have than income they’ve got. In addition, once people are out of poverty, incremental income does less to improve well-being than people imagine and much less than economists typically have assumed.

And there are other ways to reduce hours. According to the surveys I’ve conducted, as well as those of others, many higher-income employees would welcome the opportunity to trade a day’s pay each week in exchange for a 3-day weekend, especially if they’re parents. The desire to trade money for time is strongest when people won’t be punished in terms of their career trajectories or future opportunities. Again, the Netherlands has been a leader in this regard, legislating the right of workers to reduce their hours without career penalties: job sharing, upgrading part-time work, and long vacations are other ways to reduce hours, increase employment, and make people better off.

Work time is also key to cutting carbon emissions. In a study I conducted recently with sociologists Kyle Knight and Eugene Rosa of Washington State University, using data from 29 high-income countries over the years 1970 to 2007, we found that when employees worked fewer hours per year, the carbon footprints and carbon emissions of their nations are lower. The reverse also holds: the high- hours countries have high carbon footprints.

We believe there are two reasons for this relationship. The first pertains to the scale of the economy. High-hours countries are growing closer to their maximums, taking less of their economic dividend in free time. By contrast, countries like Germany, France, the Netherlands, while still extremely rich by international standards, aren’t expanding the size or scale of their economies as rapidly as they would be if their workers spent more time in factories and offices.

The second reason is that having more free time changes what people do in their daily lives. Households that are time-stressed live in more carbon-intensive ways. Travel mode is the most obvious choice here. Getting places faster requires more carbon. Think of the differences between walking, cycling, public transport, driving, and flying. The faster you go, the more fuel you use. But even controlling for their higher incomes, households that work long hours also do other things, like buy more purchased foods, live in bigger houses. It turns out that the impacts of working hours on carbon emissions are quite substantial. For example, if we were to reduce work time by 10%, we would get about a 22% reduction in the nation’s carbon footprint, with about two-thirds of that from the scale effect and one-third from the changes at the household level. Bigger work time reductions yield even bigger impacts.

So it’s a kind of a triple dividend policy: shorter hours of work reduce unemployment, reduce carbon emissions, and improve people’s well-being.

How can we make this transition in such a difficult time, when it seems like the pressure is on to work longer and harder? While we build support for the kinds of labor market changes I’ve suggested—new hires at 80%, income trade-offs, productivity into shorter hours—we can also take advantage of some of the work-time developments that are already happening. There are more than an estimated 8 million people who are on part-time schedules because they can’t find more work. The more we can do to make it economically and socially feasible to live well while only working part-time, the easier it will be to transition more people into shorter-hours schedules.

That’s where the next two principles of plenitude come. They facilitate access to goods and services without having to lay out much money.

Plenitude’s second principle is what has been called high-tech self-provisioning. Self-provisioning means to make, grow, or do things for oneself. If people are working fewer hours in the BAU economy, they can use the time that is freed up to meet their needs through self- provisioning. This allows to them increase their consumption, reduce dependence on cash income, become more self-reliant, build skills, and exercise creativity. Following the philosopher Frithjof Bergmann, I use the term high-tech self-providing for this activity, and I’ll explain why in a minute.

In the U.S. these kinds of activities have become newly popular, especially since the economic collapse, and especially newly popular among more highly educated people. They are typically very green activities, with low carbon and low eco footprints. Examples include growing food, raising poultry, beekeeping, and the whole phenomenon of urban and suburban homesteading. They include small-scale generation of power through solar and wind, eco-friendly home construction, arts and crafts, clothing, and the manufacture of small household items at a household or community scale.

Part of why this is happening is that the downturn has shifted the balance between time and money, giving people more time and reducing their access to cash. That’s the difference between a boom time and a stagnation time. That leads naturally to more DIY and more self-providing. This trend is also related to the growth of what’s called peer production on the Internet, where people have gotten used to doing things for themselves or in groups, whether it’s writing open-source software, making or posting videos, or collaborating on collective projects. Today’s DIY movement is different from those of the past because it incorporates a high-tech dimension. A lot of the activity is Web-enabled and speaks to the need to self-provision in efficient, high-productivity ways. New agricultural knowledge and the invention of affordable smart machines, many of them at small scale, so-called fab lab machines, make it possible to turn small-scale provisioning into a high-productivity and economically viable use of time.

Mainstream economists have typically argued that people should specialize in one activity in the market, earn money from that, and purchase everything that’s they want and need. As I argued earlier, I believe we have reached a point at which further specialization does not make sense, and that a diversification of activities and income streams is a smarter way to go.

Why?

One reason is that market returns will be lower in the future. Another is uncertainty and future catastrophic events, stemming from both financial instability and ecological instability. Both climate and economic fragility mean that reliance on the market is more risky. Being able
to meet one’s needs, even in the event of market collapse or climate catastrophes, increasingly becomes a smart strategy. Doing that on the community level is even smarter than as an individual. This is what about initiatives such as the Transition Town movement are directed to, that kind of local self-reliance.

But even aside from this insurance function, as we might call it, there are other good reasons to think that a rebalancing between market and the so-called informal sector or the non-market sector makes sense. One is that the productivity potential of hours outside the market is rising. If self-providing meant going back to the technologies and ways of doing things of the 19th century, the mainstream economists would be right, it’s a net loss. But now there are newly available technologies, knowledges, and Web-based innovations that enhance the productivity of labor at a household and community level. We are all aware of these in the realm of information, software, and culture. There’s a vibrant peer-production model that has developed high-value products like Linux and Wikipedia, Firefox. Self-production in music, video, ads, writing has exploded, and people are sharing and learning new skills, enjoying the opportunity to be creative, and producing real value to be used by others. The self-providing model takes this activity and extends it to the material world, to the offline world—to food, shelter, power, clothing, small manufacture. It’s been dubbed the “open-source hardware movement.” The point is that the model that began in information and culture should not be ghettoized in those sectors. It’s relevant across the board.

What’s key about the new form of self-providing is that it is high productivity, because it is knowledge- intensive. It employs high-tech knowledge in both computers and ecology to raise the productivity of labor. Examples include the use of permaculture principles in food provisioning—and that’s the ecological knowledge applied to agriculture—living wall gardens, small-scale energy generation, and fab labs.

The model of retrieving labor time from the market and putting it to work at the household and community level under different economic principles also makes sense because the economics of scale have changed. What computerization and the development of the Web have done is to make small-scale production much more efficient. After all, think about the change in scale from the first computers, which took up entire rooms like this, to the computing power that is available literally in our laps, or now in our palms. I think this point is of vital importance. The rise of information technology has transformed micro-enterprise from a romantic throwback to a smart 21st century strategy. Indeed, the massive command-and-control institutions that we call corporations no longer possess the advantages they once did. Small companies are where the dynamism and the employment growth is coming.

Extend this insight farther and we see that there are new possibilities at the household and community level for creating a high-productivity local green economy. What becomes possible is a synthesis of the pre-modern household form and modern technology. By the former I refer to peasant households that did not work for others, had diverse skills, activities, and income streams, and actively managed risk through that diversity.

A key aspect of these self-providing activities is that they are low-footprint and therefore a central contributor to solving the climate problem. Furthermore, as people learn how to make things, they develop skills and affinities for particular activities and then turn these into businesses and careers. Self-providing becomes one mechanism for expanding a sector of small green businesses, and those become the basis of a new sustainable economy. High-tech self-providing is a transitional strategy to get out of BAU.

But there’s an even more important reason that the current conversation is failing, and that has to do with what’s happening to the planet. During the same time that the global economy went into free fall and in the years since then, the news on climate has gone from bad to worse to catastrophic. A growing number of scientists have warned that carbon dioxide levels beyond 350 parts per million in the atmosphere are incompatible with preserving a planet “similar to that on which civilization developed.” But we are already at 396 and rising. And the speed of climate change is well beyond anything envisioned by the last round of published models by the IPCC.

I’ll end with briefer discussions of the last two principles. They’re a little more self-evident. The third principle is the building of a new consumer culture that I call true materialism, which respects the materiality of goods and the fact that their production involves the destruction of nature’s bounty and beauty. The key here, in addition to avoiding high-impact lifestyles, is to reduce the purchase of new items and promote economies of reuse and exchange.

A silver lining of the recession is that it has dealt a sharp blow to what I have called the fast fashion model. The average American before the bust was purchasing 67 new pieces of apparel every year, one every 5.3 days. That’s changed since the downturn. Instead, there’s a growing range of new consumer innovations, swapping and selling of a wide range of goods, such as apparel, which is where a lot of the new swapping economy began, but also books, toys, DVDs. People are car- and ride-sharing, they’re couch-surfing, they’re using Airbnb, which is a peer-to-peer bed and breakfast service. There are neighborhoods that are doing tool sharing, there are soup collectives and food-swap organizations, community gardens, CSAs.

Social innovations around concepts of sharing, commons, barter, informal exchange, neighborhood exchange, reuse, resale are changing huge swaths of the consumer economy. Many of these practices have come out of the hacker culture that developed on the Internet and they’re made possible by the Web. The Internet reduces the time requirements for organizing these kinds of schemes, and equally important, helps to solve the issues of trust and reputation which arise when strangers interact directly, such as in couch-surfing or ride-sharing or any other person-to-person or so-called peer-to-peer interchange. The downturn has mainstreamed many of these practices by shifting people toward more cash scarcity and more time abundance. Together they are transforming the way many people, particularly young people, are living and are procuring goods and services. They merge the production and consumption side and they’re much lower footprint.

The final plenitude principle is to built economic interdependence among people or wealth in our relations with each other. These activities overlap with some of those I just mentioned and include not only sharing schemes on the consumer side but also time exchange or time banks, local currencies, skills transmission. These activities flourish when the first two principles of plenitude are followed. That’s because they rely on time, which is a key resource into all production, whether it’s private production or social, and they rely on skills.

But the building of economic interdependence is also occurring in the emergence of a range of new enterprises founded not on traditional private ownership but on various forms of collective holdings. These include models such as the Evergreen worker cooperatives in Cleveland, a set of worker-owned green businesses that are supported by major anchor institutions in the city—the medical complexes, the educational institutions, the foundations.

This model has generated tremendous interest around the country, and versions of it are in the planning stages in a number of cities. But it’s not only worker co-ops that are thriving. We’re also seeing consumer co-ops, land trusts, other kinds of property held in common, co-housing, community development corporations, municipal utilities, and public enterprises. These forms of property are rooted in communities and social networks. As Gar Alperovitz has persuasively argued, they already represent and command large sums of money. If they are channeled to common purposes, such as carbon reduction, employment generation, and wealth distribution, these public forms of wealth holding could be a strong foundation for the emergence of a new pluralistic, small-scale, low-carbon, high-welfare economy.

I will close with an observation. I have described the outlines of a new economy that is rich in time, that is low- impact, and that I argue will yield high satisfaction. But the plenitude idea that I’ve been discussing is not just one scholar’s vision of a good direction to move in. It is already a living, breathing entity that is growing in size, scope, and sophistication every day. It is made up of sustainability activists, conscious consumers, low-income city residents whom the formal economy has abandoned, casualties of the 2008 downturn, young people increasingly committed to a sharing and commons philosophy, and advocates of the peer-production, open- source movement in the tech world. I also include here the degrowth movement, which is gaining momentum across Europe and consists of academics and activists explicitly challenging the growth imperative within western capitalism. The plenitude movement includes groups such as Bioneers, so-called biological pioneers, the Transition Town, BALLE, the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies, much of the alternative food movement, the local currency movement, and the DIY and so-called “maker” movements. What most of these groups share is a commitment to local, small-scale, low-impact production and consumption, expanded motivations for economic activity than just profit, belief in fairness, democracy, and community, and a rejection of the dominant consumer culture.

Only through a social movement that counters the current destructive paradigm can we hope to return to a safe way of life on the planet. I believe this new, emerging economy represents that hope. We’ve got to take it seriously, we’ve got to believe in it, we’ve got to get going on it.But if we do, we have away out of both the economic and the ecological challenges that we face today.

Thank you.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
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info@alternativeradio.org www.alternativeradio.org ©2012

Posted in Big picture, Climate crisis, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, Fossil besmirchment, Halving our lives with isotopes, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Obama’s attack on Social Security and Medicare

by Dave Lindorff
Summer 2011

(appearing in Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, edited by Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank)

When Barack Obama was running for president, back in 2008, he was pretty definite about his seemingly progressive position on Social Security. While he conceded the arguable point that Social Security faced a crisis several decades hence, he also claimed, both on the stump and in debate with Hillary Clinton, that he was opposed to benefit cuts and to privatization. He also insisted at that time that the answer was to raise the cap on income subject to Social Security taxation, and he declared himself opposed to the idea of putting some “commission” in charge of coming up with a “solution.”

What a difference getting elected makes, especially when you get elected with the help of truckloads of money from Wall Street financial interests.

No sooner had Obama moved into the White House, than he changed his tune and began suggesting, in what has proved over the next two and a half years of his presidency to be his “negotiation” style, which is to give away 90% of the ground before you start to negotiate, that he was open to discussing benefit cuts. He also did a 180-degree turn and announced that he would appoint a deficit-reduction commission to come up with recommendations. When he appointed that commission, he announced in advance that he would be “agnostic” toward any recommended changes, including cuts to Social Security, thus telegraphing in advance, in case the commission members needed encouragement, that he was ready to undermine this key New Deal legacy.

Medicare was tossed into the same hopper. In fact, in the case of Medicare, it got worse. Obama had campaigned for office claiming that he would fix the nation’s disastrous health care system, which for decades now has featured the highest cost and the highest rate of cost inflation, as well as some of the poorest health statistics (life expectancy, infant mortality, etc.) in the developed world, all the while leaving some 40% of the population uninsured and without access to basic care. There was an easy fix to all these problems right in front of him–one which the majority of Americans, and the overwhelming percentage of those who had voted for Obama in November 2008, have consistently told pollsters they favored: extending Medicare to cover everyone, instead of just those 65 and older.

Medicare, while it is hardly perfect, and has been weakened by Congressional restrictions on its ability to negotiate volume discounts for drugs and pharmaceutical products, and by privatization schemes that give huge subsidies to private insurers like Aetna and Humana that compete with Medicare, has nonetheless demonstrated for years that it can deliver quality care fare more cheaply to everyone eligible for it than can private insurers. It has an administrative overhead of just 4%, compared with over 20% for private insurers, and doesn’t operate by trying to deny care, as private insurers do.

It is undeniable that if Medicare were simply expanded to cover all Americans, the result would be immediate and massive savings to both the general public and employers, and even for taxpayers, since it would eliminate the need for hundreds of billions of dollars currently spent annually on veterans’ medical care, on Medicaid care for the poor, on subsidies and reimbursements to hospitals for the so-called “charity care,” and most importantly, on the hidden subsidies for such charity care. These are hidden in the inflated fees charged by hospitals and doctors to insured patients and in the inflated premiums that their insurers charge to cover those inflated fees.

Yet when President Obama assembled a session with health care industry representatives at the White House to help him develop a health care reform plan, he deliberately excluded advocates of the idea of Medicare for all, or what has been called “single-payer,” or alternately the Canadian-style health system, even barring representatives from the doctors’ organization Physicians for a National Health Plan (PNHP).

The fix was in, Obamacare was to be a plan constructed around the needs and interests of the health insurance industry, not around the needs of the people of the country.

Worse yet, Medicare, which is tasked with financing care of the sickest and most costly portion of the population–the disabled and the elderly–was left holding that bag, and even suffered cuts to help finance the additional costs embedded in Obamacare. Not surprisingly, having left Medicare out in the cold, the White House now is talking about cutting what is clearly one of the country’s most successful programs–one that even had Tea Party activists defending it during the health care debates, with their oxymoronic signs saying: “Keep your government hands off my Medicare!”

For four decades Canada has been successfully operating a health care system (called Medicare!), which, exactly like the U.S. Medicare program, is based upon private physicians, free doctor and hospital choice for patients, and which like Medicare in the U.S. remains hugely popular among Canadians and among Canadian businesses, and which covers everyone, at a cost of just over half, in terms of percent of GDP, of what the U.S. spends on health care.

How can it be that the White House, when it was developing its health reform plan, never even invited any of the Canadian system’s administrators and advocates down to Washington to explain how they do it north of the border?

Obama even lied about its relevance, at one point back in 2009, during an address to a joint session of Congress. He conceded that a single-payer system like Canada’s might work well in some countries, but then said,

Since health care represents one-sixth of our economy, I believe it makes more sense to build on what works and fix what doesn’t, rather than try to build an entirely new system from scratch.

Of course, he was dissembling. It wouldn’t be “from scratch,” since we already have a “Canadian-style” system in place for our elderly. It’s called Medicare, and people love it.

The obvious and unavoidable answer is that this president has no interest in finding, or even in hearing about, the obvious solution to the nation’s crisis in health care, which is now costing over 17% of GDP, when it costs just 10% of GDP in Canada, 12% of GDP in France, 11% of GDP in Germany, 8% of GDP in Japan and the UK, and 9% of GDP in Italy. He is interested in finding a solution that will ingratiate him with the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, and the AMA–the most retrograde, greedy, and self-aggrandizing group of doctors you could find–all big contributors to his 2008 campaign.

And so we had the Deficit Reduction Commission, which was headed by two known enemies of Social Security and Medicare, Erskine Bowles and former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson (who famously said, while serving as co-chair of the commission, that Social Security was “a milk cow with 310 million tits”).

This commission, quite predictably, came out with “rescue” proposals that featured raising the retirement age for Social Security, reducing the benefits for future retirees, and “adjusting” the methodology for accounting for inflation in setting benefit payments for current and future retirees (a downward adjustment, of course)–a sneaky and invisible way of slowly diminishing the benefits paid over time.

And on Medicare, we had the wacky and thoroughly inhumane proposal to raise the age of eligibility from the current 65 to 67. After all, if employers continue to lay people off at 65, as they certainly will, and as people leave their jobs, often not because they want to but because they are no longer physically capable of doing them (think truck and bus drivers whose vision is failing, or manual laborers whose backs, legs or hearts are giving out), what are these retirees to do when they lose their employer-provided health insurance and their incomes, and yet still have to wait 2 years to get access to medical care through Medicare?

(The idea is not even good for business, since the likelihood is that workers, knowing they would be on their own after retiring, would push forward any needed major medical procedures, such as a disk repair or a hip replacement, getting it done on the company plan before they lose it.)

Actually, it is at the other end, among the so called “old old,” where all the costs are to be found. The oldest 10% of Medicare recipients are responsible for about 90% of the entire Medicare budget. People in their late 60s tend not to need all that much care, relatively speaking. In fact, lowering the age of Medicare eligibility would add incrementally less to the program’s cost on a per-person basis as you move down in age from 60 to 50 to 40 to 30. It is only when you get to young children, and to women of child-bearing age, that per-person care costs start to rise again.

If Obama really wanted to cut Medicare’s costs significantly, then instead of making people aged 65 to 67 ineligible, he should make those over 90 ineligible. Obviously this would be viewed by the public as heartless, so he can’t do it, and is hoping that raising the entry age to the program will somehow prove more acceptable. Yet the rationale of axing one age group from access to the program is the same.

Unmentioned, of course, is the harsh reality that raising the age of eligibility for Medicare, besides meaning some people will just go untreated for medical conditions like heart problems, cancer, and diabetes, simply shifts most of the costs of care of those people onto the states’ struggling Medicaid programs, and onto the children of those who have been forced to wait for their Medicare.

But logic, economics, and humane public policy are clearly not considerations in this White House, any more than they were in the Bush/Cheney White House that preceded it. The political calculus is all about pleasing the business interest groups that have the money to give to a reelection campaign. And that would be primarily the insurance industry in the case of Medicare, and the Wall Street gang in the case of Social Security.

The saga of the wholly artificial debt-ceiling “crisis” and of the alleged “crisis” of the nation’s ballooning national deficit, were both just part of a Washington Kabuki theater set-piece in the long campaign by corporate interests to undermine and ultimately destroy Social Security and Medicare.

In truth, the debt ceiling has always been a contrivance for cutting popular social program spending. No other nation even has a debt ceiling. Their legislative bodies just pass budgets and their treasuries just make their principal and interest payments on any debt, as required to maintain a sovereign debt rating. Meanwhile, while it is true that this nation’s overall debt has risen dramatically since 2000, the reason has nothing to do with either Medicare or Social Security, which have, all through the past decade, been taking in more money than they pay out. The debt has risen for several key reasons, none of which is being addressed by either President Obama or the two political parties in Congress.

The first of these is military spending, which annually consumes more than half of all tax revenues collected by the Treasury. The wars that the nation is currently engaged in are being fought on borrowed funds, because the government warmongers, knowing the unpopularity fo these bloody adventures, has been afraid to ask the taxpayers to pay for them directly. One way they have borrowed to cover these enormous expenses is by quietly borrowing from Social Security and Medicare trust funds–the monthly tax which workers pay out of each paycheck, matched by their employers, and which now total $2 trillion, but which are required by law to be invested fully in Treasury bonds, meaning they are lent to the federal government.

Get it? The White House and Congress, for decades, have been collecting our FICA and Medicare taxes, and then taking that money to fund their wars, giving the two trust funds Treasury bills in exchange for which they have promised to pay interest. But now they are turning around and complaining that the interest money is a “burden” on the taxpayer, and that it has to be reduced.

That’s why the Congressional Budget Office in its 2011 report on the Social Security trust fund claimed that it was running a $45 billion “deficit” this year for the first time. It was a point that allowed Obama and the gang in Congress that is gunning for Social Security and Medicare to declare a crisis and to call for cuts in benefits. But the truth is, between the FICA taxes paid into Social Security by current workers and the interest payments paid by the government, the fund was actually running a surplus of $2.6 trillion.

Actually, the deception on the part of the CBO staff was even greater. In 2010, the White House got Congress to agree to “grant” workers a temporary 1-year reprieve of 2% of the 7% normally paid out of every check into the Social Security trust fund. The idea was supposed to be that this would work like a 2% tax cut, which would then put more money in the hands of consumers, who would then go out and buy stuff and stimulate the economy. But in the act of staggering betrayal, these same politicians turned around and are now claiming that the $85 billon that the government paid into the trust fund to cover the missing employee tax payments meant the system was in deficit, and thus benefits needed to be cut. That is, the extra money they said they were “giving” workers as a tax “cut” would actually be coming out of their retirement benefits later, and would also be used as a justification for attacking the Social Security system.

It really doesn’t get more obscene than this.

The other reason for the nation’s huge deficit increase over the decade is the ongoing Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations, which could have been killed easily by an Obama veto, since they expired in 2010. But Obama has chosen to allow them to continue. Oh, he complains about them, but he had all the power he needed to end them. With only a narrow majority in the House and with Democrats in charge of the Senate, Republicans could never have managed to override, even with the votes of some conservative Democrats.

There is no question but that the Social Security System, which has been piling up surpluses since 1981 to cover the coming tsunami of the Baby Boomers into retirement, is going to come up short without some additional revenue–reportedly by 2037. People are living longer than anticipated, which should be seen as a good thing, not a crisis. But President Obama knows this is not a crisis. As he used to say, back when he was a candidate, it’s a problem that can be easily solved if addressed now, by simply eliminating the cap on income subject to Social Security taxation–a cap that currently exempts all income above $106,000!

In fact, the U.S. is at the low end of developed nations in terms of the percent of retirement income provided by public pension, with the average American having Social Security cover only 40% of their retirement expenses. That percentage could be easily raised, and more of our low-income elders who have no other resources, could be lifted out of abject poverty, if Congress and the President agreed to a stock transfer tax dedicated to Social Security, and if Social Security taxation, currently applied only to wages and the Schedule C profits of small businesses, were applied to investment income, or what the IRS calls, with no sense of irony, “unearned” income.

There are easy solutions for the financial problems facing both Medicare and Social Security. But both are political problems, not actuarial ones, as Obama and the lobbyist-owned members of the two parties in Congress are trying to have us believe.

Despite a current barrage of misleading news reports on both issues, polls show that a majority of Americans instinctually get it and know that the solutions are

  • an expansion of Medicare to cover all Americans, and
  • an increase in taxes on the rich to fully fund Social Security.

It is an indictment of the American political system that despite this clear public preference, President Obama and the elected Representatives and Senators in the Congress, are not even discussing either approach.

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time and The Case for the Impeachment of George W. Bush. He edits the blog This Can’t Be Happening.

Posted in Big picture, Economic injustice, Health apathy, Liberal ineffectiveness, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Drone warfare: Killing by remote control

Medea Benjamin
Eugene, OR
July 1, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Medea Benjamin speak for herself here.

Medea Benjamin is a renowned peace activist and social justice advocate. She travels around the world and documents human rights violations. She’s co-founder of Global Exchange and CODEPINK. She is the recipient of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation. She is the author of many books including Drone Warfare: Killing by Remote Control.

When 9/11 happened, there were maybe 50 drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal. Today there are over 7,000 drones in the Pentagon’s arsenal.

The Pentagon, the government, the CIA have realized that since the American people are sick and tired of war, they’re really sick and tired of Americans dying overseas, and they’re sick and tired of our spending so much of our money on these wars. So the drones came in as an alternative, a way to keep the fighting going but do it on the cheap and do it without American lives at risk.

I was in a State Department meeting when somebody from the State Department Democracy Program said that the drones were a “miracle weapon.” The State Department. That’s the diplomatic arm of our government. A “miracle weapon,” because they allowed us to wage war in a much more humane way.

What are drones? Let’s just take a look for a minute at the concept of drones. Drones means it is something that is flying in the air, doesn’t have a pilot in it, and is conveying information back to a base, and sometimes it is also unleashing missiles. Some of these drones are tiny, tiny, tiny things. They can be the size of insects, they can be the size of hummingbirds, they can look just like a dragonfly. In fact, there is a huge industry, with a lot of our taxpayer dollars, going to something called biomimicry, taking the beauty and the miracle of nature and figuring out how we can convert this into drone technology. Then there are drones that soldiers can put in their backpacks and launch by themselves. Lots of those are being used in Afghanistan today. And then there are the bigger drones, the Predator and the Reaper drones, which are the ones being used for killing. Those are made by a company in southern California called General Atomics. And then there also really big drones, that are the size of a commercial aircraft, like the Global Hawk, a huge surveillance drone.

What about the pilots? Who are piloting these drones? Well, in the case of the Predator and Reaper drones, most of them are being piloted here in the United States. So it’s a very surreal kind of sci-fi situation, where you have people in the military or in the CIA who are sitting in air-conditioned rooms in ergonomic chairs and they are looking at screens that have been purposely designed to mimic a PlayStation, because a lot of the pilots have been recruited from young guys who have spent much of their teen years playing these kinds of video games. In fact, the UN has said that the U.S. has created a PlayStation mentality towards war. So the pilots are sitting in a place like Creech Air Force Base outside of Las Vegas, Nevada. They can be killers by day and go play the slot machines by night, or they can be killers by day and go home and supposed to be good fathers and husbands and members of their community.

It’s a little hard for some of those pilots, because we find the same level of PTSD among remote-control pilots as we find with soldiers in the battlefields. But some of these remote-control pilots would rather be in the battlefield. I have talked to some of them who say, “I joined the military to be on the ground with my buddies and to be a part of the action, not to be sitting 8,000 miles away in an air-conditioned room.” In fact, one of the things they really complain about is boredom. They say they’re sitting in front of a screen for hours and hours and hours on end just waiting to get a piece of the action, waiting to hit the kill button.

Who are they allowed to kill? Until very recently we didn’t know where the kill list was coming from. But there are two types of drone kills. One is when you know who you’re trying to kill, you have a name of somebody and you’re going after this individual. That is called a personality strike. And the other is when you are merely looking for suspicious behavior. That is called a signature strike.

The first kind of strike, when you have a name, we didn’t know how the kill list was being developed. In fact, I did a lot of research when I was writing the book to try to understand what the role of the White House was, and particularly President Obama, and it was very hard to get this information. Let’s remember, this is a secret program in the hands of secret organizations like the CIA or like the Joint Special Operations Command, also known as JSOC, of the military. But there was a remarkable article that came out on May 29 that talked about the intimate role that President Obama plays in deciding who will be on the kill list. It was to me a jaw-dropping revelation, because the article was quoting people who were still in the administration or had recently left the administration, and they talked about the gatherings that would happen on something called Terror Tuesdays. On Terror Tuesdays the President would invite the old boys into the White House, and they would be flipping through the profiles with pictures of people—they said it resembled baseball cards—and they would be deciding who would live and who would die. They would be playing the prosecutor, the judge, the jury, and the executioner all at once.

There was another remarkable thing that was revealed in this article, and that was that the administration admitted that any male of military age in the areas where we are using these drones are considered militants. So just think about that for a minute. Persons who are old enough to have a little facial hair and live in the areas where we are using these drones are militants. And if they are militants, then they are fair game. Just an astonishing revelation that we don’t know who we are killing, and that we are obviously killing lots and lots of innocent people.

Let’s look for a minute at some of the places where we are doing this killing. The drones were used quite prominently in Iraq. In fact, the Iraqis thought that when the U.S. military left, they were taking the drones with them. Little did they know that the drones were transferred from the U.S. military into the hands of the U.S. State Department, that now is running a fleet of drones in Iraq. And little did they know that the U.S. was also transferring some of those drones across the border into Turkey, where they are used to provide information to the Turkish government in its war with the Kurds. So the U.S. is now smack in the middle of another conflict that it shouldn’t be in.

The drones were also used in the intervention in Libya. Whether somebody in the U.S. thinks that it was a good thing or a bad thing for the U.S. Government to have intervened to overthrow Qaddafi in Libya, they should be aware of just how awful the process was. The process went like this. The administration said,

We can make unilaterally a decision about intervention in Libya, and we don’t have to go to Congress.

Congresspeople on both the left and the right were saying,

We think we should have a chance to talk about this.

And the administration said,

No. When we use drones, there is no American life at risk. And when there’s no American life at risk, the War Powers Act has nothing to do with this, so this is something outside the purview of the legislative branch.

Imagine this kind of usurpation of power by the executive, with the precedent already being set, and what this will mean for the next presidents in the White House, who have this power now.

We’ve also used these drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and the Philippines. And we should be very concerned that we are opening new drone bases in many places around the world. This is a time when so many budgets are being cut in all government agencies and when there is some pressure on the Pentagon to cut its budget, some pressure to close some of the 800-plus U.S. bases that we have around the world. And here we have new bases being opened for the drones in places like Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, the Seychelles, Ethiopia, Uganda, Burundi, and the newest has been on islands off the coast of Australia.

Let’s focus a minute on Pakistan, because that’s where most of the drone strikes have been used. There were about 40 drone strikes under the Bush administration. But the Bush administration had another way of dealing with what it called terrorists, and that was to capture them and throw them into Guantánamo or to use extraordinary rendition to send them somewhere to be tortured. The Obama administration realized it was a tough thing for them to close down Guantánamo, it was very messy to capture people and put them in indefinite detention, and where were they going to have trials, would they be civilian trials, would they be military trials. It was just a messy process.

So they prefer the drone strikes. Just kill people. It is

a cleaner way of doing things.

So over 85% of the drone strikes have been under the Obama administration. In Pakistan alone there have been about 325 drone strikes. Some reports have said that 175 of the victims have been children. Raise your hand if you have ever seen a drone victim on the TV screen. One person says they did. I can guarantee you it wasn’t on a U.S. mainstream TV station. And raise your hand if you have seen a photo of a drone victim in a mainstream U.S. newspaper. Nobody.

Just think about that a little bit. Think about how perhaps this is why so many Americans think it’s okay to use these drone strikes, because they don’t see pictures of the people being killed, they don’t see the mutilated bodies of children who have been killed, they don’t see the charred remains from these lethal weapons. They don’t have a chance to develop the kind of compassion one feels when one sees real people who have been so mutilated by these weapons.

In fact, the very first drone strike under the Obama administration in Pakistan came just three days after the President came into office. And it was a mistake. The drone hit an elder in the family who was a member of the pro-peace committee, killed his family members as well as a neighboring shopkeeper and two of the other neighbors. There was only one young man who survived that attack, and he too was severely wounded.

I go into great detail in the book about another incident. That’s the killing of a family of a man named Karim Khan. This was also in northern Pakistan. I want to read you just a short piece from the book.

On December 31, 2009, the drone didn’t just hover overhead watching the movement of the villagers below, as it had done on so many other occasions. No, this time it let loose a missile into the very heart of Karim’s family compound. When the chaos of the explosion dissipated, Khan’s brother and son had been blown to bits. News reports allege that the target of the drone had been Haji Omar, a Taliban commander, but the villagers insisted that Haji Omar had been nowhere near the village that night.

The tragedy that forever scarred the lives of Karim Khan’s family was the product of a mistake, a mistake made by a far-away aggressor who would face no punishment for pressing the fire button without looking long enough, without checking, without double-checking.

Karim’s son had just graduated from high school and had returned to the small village to be a teacher. Karim’s brother was not a militant, or even a militant sympathizer, but a schoolteacher with a master’s degree in English literature. For eight years he had been teaching children in the small village school with whatever meager resources he could muster. He left behind a young wife, now a widow so distraught she could not speak for weeks after the attack, and a 2-year-old boy who would never remember his father. He also left behind hundreds of students with scant chance of resuming their education, young people now mired in hatred for the drone that killed their teacher, aching for revenge.

There are also examples of drone strikes that have killed large numbers of the most respected members of the community. This is a case of a drone strike that happened on March 17, 2011, when there was a community meeting going on called a jirga. A jirga is a gathering of community leaders that happens on a regular basis. But perhaps in the eyes of somebody 8,000 miles away, one of the drone pilots, this looked like a bunch of Taliban people planning an attack. Indeed, there were people with beards, with turbans, with guns, but that characterizes just about every man in northern Pakistan. So some drone pilot unleashed the Hellfire missile and killed over 50 members of the community, the most respected leaders in the community. You can imagine the kind of hatred that spread after that attack.

I want to talk about the case of a 16-year-old boy. His name was Tariq Aziz. He was very upset about the drone strikes because his cousin had been killed by a drone strike. But instead of taking up a gun and joining the Taliban, he was given the opportunity to do something else, and that was to travel to the capital of Pakistan, to Islamabad, with about 80 other drone-strike victims and their families to meet with lawyers from Pakistan and from England who wanted to hear their stories. What was decided at the meeting was that because journalists are not allowed into that area of Pakistan, they would train some of these young people to be citizen journalists. They equipped them with video cameras and they gave them lessons about how to use the cameras.

Tariq Aziz was very excited about the chance to go back into his community and document the drone strikes. He told the lawyers that the drones in his community were not just something that happened on an occasional basis, coming in and out, but they were constantly in the community, buzzing overhead, terrifying the children. They called it “the sound of death,” and they would never know if there would be a missile unleashed and who it would kill. So he returned from that gathering eager to document the drones.

Little did he know that the first documentation after that gathering would be his own death, that happened two days afterwards. There was nothing left of his body when the drone strike hit him and his cousin. Many of the lawyers who were at that meeting were outraged about this, and they went to the U.S. government and they went to the Pakistani government and they said,

Why did you kill this young man?

First, the U.S. said,

Well, he wasn’t 16 years old, he was 21 years old,

as if 21 years old then justified it. And then they said,

He was a militant.

And the lawyers said,

Well, if indeed you had any proof that he was a militant, why didn’t you send somebody into the hotel where he was staying for four days in the capital? Or why didn’t you send somebody into the public meeting we were having for four days to capture him and give him a chance for a trial?

There was no answer to that question. What has been the response of the Pakistani people and the Pakistani government? We know from the WikiLeaks cables that at first the Pakistani government said to the U.S.,

Okay, we’ll let you do the drone strikes, but we’ll pretend that we know nothing about it or we’ll complain about it publicly.

That went on for a while, until the government realized that this was just not working, that the drone strikes were counterproductive, that it was radicalizing the local population, turning them into Taliban sympathizers, and making them anti-Pakistani government and anti-American. So they went to the U.S. government and said,

These drone strikes really ought to stop.

And the U.S. government said,

Sorry, we don’t agree.

So it went to the legislature in Pakistan, and they voted once, they voted twice, they voted three times unanimously—something almost unheard of in Pakistan—to demand that the U.S. Government stop the drone strikes. But the U.S. Government said sorry. It seems that while the U.S. says it promotes democracy around the world, when a democratically elected government tells the U.S. to stop killing its people, the U.S. Government doesn’t listen.

Not only that, they take the same program that has been so counterproductive in the case of Afghanistan and transfer it to another country. And that is Yemen. The first drone strike under the Obama administration in Yemen was also a mistake. In this case it was a drone strike in 2009 that left 14 women and 21 children dead. Only one of the dozens of those who were killed were identified as having connections with al-Qaeda. There was another drone strike in May of 2010 that killed one of the most prominent sheikhs and a deputy governor in Yemen. The entire tribe was so outraged they started to attack government infrastructure, including a pipeline, that led to a billion dollars’ worth of damages.

If you want to understand how unproductive this program is in the case of Yemen, in 2009 there were perhaps 200 people who identified as members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and they held no territory. Today, there are over 1,000 people with al-Qaeda in the Arabian peninsula, and they hold significant territory.

There was an op-ed that came out in The New York Times on June 13 written by a young Yemeni activist. It was called “How Drones Help al-Qaeda.” He was pleading with the U.S., saying how the drone strikes were causing more people to join the radical militants, driven not by
ideology but by revenge and despair. He said,

The shortterm gains from killing military leaders is minuscule compared to the long-term damage the drone program is causing.

The U.S. Government is not only killing people from Yemen, but it is also killing people in Yemen who are American citizens. Raise your hands if you’ve heard of the case of Anwar al-Awlaki. This is an unusual audience because a lot of you have heard of that. Most people in the U.S. have probably never heard of him. This is a cleric born in the U.S. who moved to Yemen, known for his fiery sermons. He was put on the kill list by the President, and he was killed with a drone strike along with another American called Samir Khan. The ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights sued the American government on behalf of Anwar al-Awlaki’s family saying,

We need to see the evidence that you used to put him on the kill list. All that is public is that he had fiery sermons, but we want to know what evidence you have that he was actually involved in activities designed to kill Americans.

The U.S. Government has refused to make that information public, and the U.S. courts have gone along with the U.S. Government in saying that that information does not have to be made public, on the basis of national security grounds.

But worse than that is that just two weeks later another American was killed with a U.S. drone in Yemen, and that was the 16-year-old son of Anwar al-Awlaki, a Denver-born teenager named Abdulrahman. This is a case that particularly pains me, because I find it hard to comprehend that my government is able to kill an American teenager with absolutely no proof of any wrongdoing and absolutely no attempt to capture or provide any kind of judicial process. In the case of Abdulrahman, you can see his Facebook page that shows the pictures of a smiling young boy. It said on his Facebook page that he liked rap and hip-hop and swimming. His friends said he was a typical American boy and that he had absolutely no interest and no involvement with any militant activities. It seems he was killed simply because he was the son of somebody that the U.S. had put on a kill list.

While there hasn’t been a huge outcry in the U.S. about all of these killings, there have been some demands by some of the legal community to ask the administration to tell on what legal basis is this killing spree happening. It wasn’t until March of this year, 2012, that the Attorney General, Eric Holder, talked to a group of law students at Northwestern University and started to give some kind of justification for the program: The U.S. Government says that it has the right to self-defense.

Well, the right to self-defense, according to international law, is a very narrowly defined right. It means that if you are in danger of an imminent attack, if somebody is just about to bomb you, or if they are amassing troops right at your border getting ready to attack, you have the right to self-defense. But you have to give your enemy a chance to surrender, and you have to make sure that this is the only way that you can do this, and the lives that you will be saving are disproportionately greater than the lives that you will be taking. It does mean that you can kill somebody because they have suspicious behavior, that someday, sometime they might want to kill you.

The U.S. Government also says they are justified by U.S. law. Remember, post 9/11 there was a terrible piece of legislation that was passed that gave the green light to the government to use military force. It was the authorization for the use of force. And there was only one Congressperson in the entire Congress who voted against that. Does anybody remember who that was? Congresswoman Barbara Lee.

So that continues to be one of the grounds the U.S. Government is using for the justification under U.S. law to use violence anywhere it wants. But there’s a problem with that, because the law specifically said that violence was authorized to kill people associated with the attack on 9/11. A lot of the people that we are killing today were maybe about 10 or 11 years old at the time of 9/11, and the groups like the group in Yemen didn’t even exist at the time of 9/11.

The U.S. Government is also saying they have the right to kill U.S. citizens overseas. Many lawyers questioned how that could be possible. Well, Eric Holder said that it seems many people are under the misunderstanding that somehow the Constitution gives them the right to due process.

Raise your hand if you thought maybe you had the right to due process. A lot of you were under some kind of misunderstanding, it seems. Said Eric Holder:

You don’t, by the Constitution, have the right to any kind of judicial process.

That’s the trick. You only have the right to something strangely called due process. And that can mean that folks get together in the White House and decide to put you on the kill list.

The best answer to Eric Holder I found did not come from Harvard legal scholars but came from a late-night comedian called Stephen Colbert. Stephen Colbert said,

Yes, the Founders weren’t picky. Trial by jury, trial by fire, rock-paper-scissors. Who cares? Do process just means there is a process that you do. In the current process, the President meets with his advisers, decides who to kill, and then kills them.

If we are going to win our never-ending war against terror, there are bound to be casualties, and one of them just happens to be the U.S. Constitution.

Let’s give a hand to Colbert for being the truth teller of our times.

This all might work for the U.S. if the U.S. were the only country that has drones. But that is not the case. In fact, there are many countries that have drones. The U.S. is the number-1 producer and user of drones. In fact, we don’t produce many things in this country at all, but we still produce a lot of weapons. And then there is a number-2 producer of drones, and that is Israel. And then there is another country that is really getting into the drone business, understands the growth market, and that is China. China is developing dozens of different kinds of drones and selling them overseas.

So you have to think, what are other countries thinking? What is China thinking? Maybe it is thinking,

We should go get some of those Tibetans or those Uighurs who we are fighting with, and they are living in the U.S. Why don’t we kill them with a Hellfire missile here?

Or maybe the Russians are thinking,

Why don’t we go get some of those Chechens who are living overseas? We think they’re extremists and militants.

Or the Cubans are probably thinking,

Why don’t we find some of those terrorists who are living in Miami and send a Hellfire missile into their Miami condominium. Maybe a couple of neighbors will get killed in the process, but, hey, that’s what the U.S. does.

Or the Iranians. You might remember when the Iranians just a few months ago downed a spy drone that they said they hacked into the system and brought it down without a scratch and put it in front of the TV cameras and said,

Thank you very much, President Obama, for this very sophisticated gift that you have given us.

They made little toy drones and they sent one to Obama, but they also reverse-engineered the big drone, and they are now producing them. They are also working with the Venezuelans to build a drone factory in Venezuela.

So these drones are in the hands of all kinds of governments as well as non-government entities. We should think that what goes around, comes around.

We don’t have to wait, though, for a drone to come at us from the hands of an enemy in a foreign land, because we already have drones here at home. Raise your hand if you think there are lots of drones, like thousands of drones, already being used here in the U.S. [many hands] And raise your hands if you don’t think there are so many drones here in the U.S. [two hands]

You two people have the right answer. That is because we don’t have thousands of drones flying in the airspace. Yet.

Let’s look at why. The airspace is controlled by the Federal Aviation Administration, FAA. One of their mandates is to keep our airspace safe, and they take that mandate very seriously. So they have been giving out permits to different entities in small numbers.

Unfortunately, they haven’t wanted to reveal to us, the public, how many permits they’ve given out, who they’ve been given out to. It took a lawsuit and a Freedom of Information Act request by the Electronic Frontier Foundation to start getting some of this information. So we now know that there have been over 700 permits given out, but only 300 of them are active right now. That some of the entities that have those permits are government agencies, like the FBI, Homeland Security, the Border Patrol. The Border Patrol is already using them on the southern and the northern borders.

We also know that some of the companies that are making the drones have gotten permits to test them here. Some of the universities—and many of them are state universities that work with the military on the drone research—have permits. And about a dozen police stations have gotten
permits for the experimental use of drones.

There is something called the drone lobby, and they are very unhappy with the FAA. They say,

Come on, guys. We’re losing a market already in Iraq, and who knows how long we’ll have this market in Afghanistan. We need to sell more of these drones. And, yes, we’re trying to sell more overseas, but we need a domestic market.

So the lobby does what lobbies do, which is, they lobby Congress. And they were so successful at lobbying Congress that there is now, believe it or not, a Drone Caucus in the Congress. A Drone Caucus in Congress, think about that. This is a group of 58 people, mostly Republicans, but also Democrats—and it includes some liberal Democrats—who feel, as in their mission statement, that there is an

urgent need to rapidly develop and deploy more unmanned systems in support of ongoing civil, military, and law enforcement operations.

So the drone lobby wrote the legislation, they gave it to their buddies in the Drone Caucus, the Drone Caucus pushed it through Congress, and President Obama signed it on Valentine’s Day, 2012. A big gift to the drone industry. This legislation says that the FAA must open up the airspace to drones by September 2015 at the latest for commercial drones, and for law enforcement it must be before that. Already, right now, the FAA is speeding up this process.

The drone industry is looking at all the different places that it can sell these drones. There are all kinds of ideas for the commercial use of drones. FedEx would love its own fleet of drones. There are restaurants that say they would like to deliver your lunch by a drone, although nobody can figure out how to keep it hot or how to keep you from stealing the drone once you got your sandwich.

But the drone manufacturers are really drooling at the idea of police stations, because there are 18,000 police stations across this country, and they would love to have every police station have their own fleet of drones.

Of the police stations that are already experimenting with drones, one is outside of Houston, Texas. It’s the Montgomery County police station. They have a cute little drone that’s worth a couple of hundred thousand dollars. You might say,

How can a little police station have a couple of hundred thousand dollars to buy a little drone?

Anybody have an idea? Very good. Homeland Security. Homeland Security is taking your tax dollars, my tax dollars, our tax dollars and giving grants to police stations so they can buy these drones. This is like a drug pusher saying,

Hey, little girl, wouldn’t you like to try a little bit of this?

get you hooked on the drones, and then get the other police stations in the area to say,

Hey, we want some drones, too.

What would these drones be used for? The Montgomery County folks were very excited about their new drone, and they held a press conference to show it off. The CEO of the company, called Vanguard Defense, was also very proud of selling the drone. He said,

It’s supposed to be used for things like search-and-rescue missions, but it could also be weaponized with what we call “less lethal systems.”

So let me tell you what some of these “less lethal systems” could be. Tasers that electrocute suspects on the ground, beanbag firing guns called stun batons, grenade launchers, tear gas, rubber bullets, or even a 12-gauge shotgun. Of course, they can also be equipped with very fancy surveillance kind of equipment: they can be equipped with thermal imaging, facial recognition techniques, Wi-Fi networking, cracking capabilities, and systems to intercept text messages and phone calls.

The sheriff was there at the press conference and he said,

You know, no matter what we do in law enforcement, somebody’s going to question it. But we’re going to do the right thing, and I can assure you of that.

Are you feeling reassured? Neither am I. I think with these drones everything is in place for a 24/7 surveillance society that would profoundly change the nature of life in this country.

So what are we going to do about it? My organization, CODEPINK, decided that one of the first things we could do was bring together folks in Washington to look at the drones that were being used overseas and the drones that are being used at home and might well in the future be used in the many, many thousands. In fact, there are predictions that in the next 15 years there would be 20,000 or 30,000 drones in our airspace.

We came up with some ideas for some campaigns. I’ll just talk about some of them now. These include ramping up the visibility of the protests against the drones. For the last couple of years there have been some organizations, like my group, CODEPINK, like Catholic Workers, Veterans for Peace, and some of the other folks in the peace movement who have been going to the Air Force bases, protesting outside the bases, trying to talk to the drone pilots, getting media attention, and raising awareness in the communities. Because, you know, by international law the places where the drones are being piloted and also manufactured would be considered legitimate targets for our enemies.

So they have not been only protesting outside the bases; they have been walking onto the bases, they have been risking arrest, they have been arrested, they have been using their trials as a way to publicize the horrendous use of these weapons, to bring in experts in international law, and to try to create a venue to talk about the violations of international law and the grotesque drone program. So we need to step up the protests, the visibility, the media attention.

We had a number of international law experts who were at the conference, and they said,

You might want to take lethal drones out of the hands of the military and the CIA. But we recommend that you start with the issue of the CIA, because, according to all international law, the CIA is a nonmilitary organization, and there is no justification for the CIA to have these kinds of lethal drones.

In fact, the law experts tell us that the CIA personnel and the private contractors who work directly with the CIA by international law are considered unlawful combatants. You’ve heard that term before with reference to the Taliban. Now you know the CIA are unlawful combatants.

You might also be asking,

What is the UN doing? Why isn’t the UN trying to stop the U.S.?

For the years the UN did come out and condemn this program. The person in the UN who is the special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings has been saying over and over that This is just wrong.

But nobody in the U.S. government has paid much attention to the UN. But just in June of this year it came up at the UN Human Rights Commission in Geneva. The head of the UN Human Rights Commission for the first time spoke out against the U.S. drone program, and they commissioned a 28-page report extremely damning of the U.S. That report says that the Obama administration must justify why they are assassinating people rather than capturing them, and it calls for accountability, justice, and reparations for the victims and their families.

Then there is also the issue in Geneva of arms control and how do you get weapons like these banned at the United Nations. There is a group of scientists that is horrified by this use of drones.

And they’re also horrified by what they see coming down the pike, because they say this drone technology is just in its beginning stages, and that this is the stage of the Wright brothers in terms of the airplane. They tell us that what is being researched and produced in research facilities are drones that do not even need a pilot in the remote cockpit. They wouldn’t need a pilot at all. These would be autonomous drones without, as they say, a human in the loop. They would be preprogrammed and they would go off and kill on their own. And they would have the ability to call in other drones—big ones, small ones—in what they call a swarm.

So these scientists are trying to bring this to the United Nations. They’re looking at the models that were done successfully in the case of banning landmines and cluster bombs, and they are trying to stop the use of autonomous lethal drones and to get some regulations for the use of all kinds of lethal drones. So we are supporting them in their activities.

Then there’s the issue of drones at home. In this I think there is a lot we can do, because it’s not just folks who might call themselves progressive, it’s not just folks who care about the lives of people in places like Pakistan and Yemen. It’s folks who care about privacy here at home. And that, fortunately or unfortunately, is a much broader community. It includes libertarians, it includes Republicans, it includes Ron Paul supporters. So it is quite a large universe. In fact, some of you might have heard the statements of some folks like Charles Krauthammer, a neocon, who wrote a piece called “Rifles in the Air, America.” He said,

The first American who shoots down a drone that’s hovering over his house will be a folk hero.

I don’t know if those in the peace community want to clap for shooting down anything, but we do understand the sentiment. And there are hackers who can in other ways bring down drones and are already very excited about that chance. In fact, there is a professor and his students from the University of Austin who just hacked down a drone that the university was producing. And they showed how easily it can be done, with just a thousand dollars’ worth of equipment.

My organization, CODEPINK, has been working with a very conservative organization called The Cato Institute. You might know about The Cato Institute because they took lot of money from the Koch brothers. We certainly do not agree with them on a lot of other issues, but in this issue we are on the same page. In fact, we co-authored an op-ed piece that said that we want the government to pass legislation that says that no government agency, including Homeland Security, would be allowed to give grants to any police department for the use of drones. And Rand Paul has introduced legislation saying that law enforcement agencies cannot use drones to invade our privacy. So we have some unlikely, some strange bedfellows that we can work with on this.

We are also telling people around the country to call their police departments and ask if they have drones, if they have any plans to use drones, and tell them you do not want them to use drones. And we are also asking people in their communities to introduce legislation into their city councils to make their cities drone-free zones.

I just want to end by saying that some of you might have seen me get dragged out of a place in Washington, D.C., recently where the counterterrorism chief, John Brennan, was giving his justification for this drone policy. This is a man who called our drone policy “just, wise, surgically precise and ethical.” Well, I couldn’t sit in that audience and hear that, and I had to get up and say something. Because I don’t know how anybody could call this policy ethical. It just reflects such a huge problem that we have, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in office, that we are an economy, we are a country that is run by a military-industrial complex, and that we have a war economy.

I was just in Hood River [Oregon]. I was speaking, and an engineer came up to me afterwards and said, “Can we talk?” He worked in a drone factory. He said that he hates it, that the other engineers hate it. “But,” he said,

there’s no other work for people like me. And there’s no way to use this technology in a positive way that is economically viable, because it’s only viable with the millions and millions of dollars we get from the Pentagon.

So the task before us is much, much greater than grounding the lethal drones or stopping drones from invading our privacy at home. It’s the much, much bigger question of how do we turn from a foreign policy and economy that is based on war and militarism into a foreign policy and an economy that is based on peace, that is based on life-affirming activities, that is based on regenerating this planet that we have so destroyed, that is based on showing love and kindness and generosity to each other and to people around the world. So let’s build that kind of life-affirming economy and that life-affirming foreign policy that we so desperately need in this country and we so desperately need to show people around the world.

Thank you so much.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:

David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
(800) 444-1977
info@alternativeradio.org

Posted in Big picture, Department of Offense, Follies of empire, Kafkaesque Amerika, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action | Leave a comment

Not a drop to drink

Maude Barlow
Denver, CO
January 27, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Maude Barlow speak for herself here.

Maude Barlow is the National Chairperson of The Council of Canadians, Canada’s largest public advocacy organization, and the co-founder of the Blue Planet Project, working internationally for the right to water. She is the recipient of the Right Livelihood Award, the alternative Nobel Prize and the Citation for Lifetime Achievement, Canada’s highest environmental award. She served as the first Senior Advisor on water issues for the United Nations. She’s the author of many books, including Blue Gold and Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis.

I’m going to talk a little about the global situation and then come back here to the U.S. and to Colorado. And then I’m going to talk about what I think we need to do about the water crisis. If I’m a little negative at first, forgive me. I’ll get positive later. But I think it’s really important, particularly for young people.

Forgive me, because I hate people my age who say to young people, “Oh, my, it’s the end of everything.” Well, it isn’t, of course. We’ve got lots we can do. But I do think it’s important to have the courage to say the truth about the situation that we’re in, so I will spend a little bit of time doing that.

And that is to say this: That back in Grade 6 pretty well everyone in the world learned a lesson that was wrong. Our teachers weren’t lying, but it was wrong. That lesson was that you can’t run out of water; that we have a hydrologic cycle with a limited but finite specific amount of water, and it goes around and around in the cycle, and it can’t go anywhere and you can’t—maybe we started to realize you can pollute it, but that’s really as far as far as we got.

What we know now is that that’s not true. We are a planet running out of water, running out of accessible, clean water. I have a PowerPoint that shows the Earth maybe about this big stripped of its water, and beside it is a little around ball, and that shows all the water in the world to scale. But beside that is a tiny dot you can hardly see, and that’s the available fresh water in our world. What are we doing with it? Where is it going? We’re polluting it, of course. That’s one of the big things. We are putting the equivalent of sewage and toxins into our water systems every year equivalent to all the weight of all 7 billion of us on the planet, every single year. And we are also using water far faster as we become so-called more sophisticated, more urban, more so-called developed. The population is growing, but the use of water is doubling at the rate of population. So it’s not that we don’t have enough water for all. It’s that we don’t have enough water for the uses to which we are putting it.

We are also displacing water massively. We’re extracting our rivers to death to grow inappropriate crops and commodities in deserts and so on. We have a global trade system, and I want to tell you about something called virtual water trade. Virtual water is the water that is used to produce a commodity or to produce computers or cars or whatever. There’s water used in mining and energy, particularly like fracking or the more-difficult-to- get-at energy. All this water, if it’s then either destroyed or is exported out of the watershed with the export, it’s gone permanently from the watershed. One of the reasons that I have opposed these global trade agreements and the whole notion of unlimited growth and exponential free trade, more stuff, more growth, is that we are destroying our water system, because we grow things with it and then ship it away.

Then we’re pumping our groundwater faster than we can replenish it, with technology we did not have 50 years ago. A brand-new study on groundwater taking says that we’re doubling our exponential use and abuse of groundwater every 20 years. Several examples come to mind. The Ogallala Aquifer that runs down the spine of the western U.S. that produces most of the food here is only producing half the food it was producing in the 1970s. And the Ogallala center of the Department of Agriculture here in the U.S. says that it will be in this lifetime that it will actually run out. They say there’s no question about if it will. It absolutely will. It’s a question of when. There’s another study on groundwater takings that said that if the Great Lakes water, for instance, is being pumped as quickly as groundwater around the world, the Great Lakes could be bone dry in 80 years. I think that’s an absolutely stunning statistic.

One of the things that’s happening, then, of course, is that we’re pumping water out of aquifers, out of rivers, out of lakes, and we are sending them to big cities. When we say cities, 5, 10, 20, 30 million people. And if those cities are anywhere near the ocean, we’re dumping that water into the ocean, we’re not returning it to the land. So we are depleting the land of water sources and we are creating desertification in over 100 countries in the world. This same study on groundwater takings said that probably at least a quarter of the cause of rising oceans is not climate change as we have understood it. Rather, it is the shifting of land-based water into the ocean. It’s the dumping of freshwater, which then becomes salinated water. And if you think that desalination is an easy answer, just take it back. It is not. It’s expensive, it’s energy-intensive, and it puts a terrible polluting brine back into the ocean.

So what we’re hearing from scientists is that we’re not just experiencing drought—you will hear the word “drought”—but in fact we’re running out of water in many parts of the world. China has used so much of its water to produce its so-called industrial miracle, to send running shoes and toys all over the world. There are 4,000 cities in China in danger of having to be deserted because of the encroachment of desert. Twenty-two countries in Africa are in crisis. Every single country in the Middle East is slated for the end of water. We’re not talking water shortages. The end of water. Australia, the Murray-Darling, the major river system, no longer reaches the ocean. They had a little bit of a reprieve last year with the floods. But this is a perfect example of this virtual water. Huge industrial farms, great big agribusinesses have built up all along the Murray-Darling, and they suck the water up, they grow cotton, they grow rice, they produce wine, and they ship it all over the world, and it is shipped out of the water system. This very sophisticated, so-called, First World country is absolutely running out of water very quickly. India, Mumbai, is hitting the bottom of its water table.

The image that I want you to have is of a bathtub. There’s lots of water in the bathtub, and there are people around the bathtub and they have blindfolds on and they’ve got straws and they’re sucking the water out of the bathtub. If you could see this coming, one and one and two and two, that would be one thing. But when you have exponential overuse or exponential environmental destruction, you don’t see it coming fast enough. These people around the bathtub are getting lots of water. There’s lots of water for everybody until there’s no water for anybody. This is the image that we need to have in our mind, that we are not replacing this water in the ground.

Mexico City is sinking. They took all the water from underneath the city—it’s called subsidence—and now literally—churches are kind of half falling into the ground. And the U.S. The U.S. Midwest, the U.S. Southwest, you know the story here in Colorado. It’s very important that we understand. The RDC, our Resource Defense Council, says that there are now at least 40 states that face in either the immediate or in the not too distant future a reality of water crisis in this country. I find it astounding, in all of our countries, my country and yours, we still have federal elections in which the word “water” is never mentioned. The discussion of water just doesn’t take place. I think, Why are we talking energy only? Why aren’t we talking about our dwindling water supplies?

What we’re finding, of course, is that with this crisis coming—and, of course, it’s affecting in them different ways around the world—we have a number of conflicts growing. The first, of course, is between those who can afford lots of water for whatever they want and those who cannot. There’s a new study from the World Health Organization that says that in the Global South every three and a half seconds a child dies of waterborne disease. It is simply the biggest killer of children, far more than accidents, HIV-AIDS, and war put together. The lack of clean water, the lack of access to accessible water is the number one killer of children in the world. This is growing as the gap between rich and poor grows.

You might want to know, and I think we need to say, however, that it’s not just in the Global South. Or should I say, the Global South is not just in other countries. It’s right here in North America. A few years ago the City of Detroit cut off the water to 42,000 families in inner-city Detroit. We think the numbers are probably closer to 90,000 families now. They are eking out a water living the way people in villages in the Global South eke out water, having to go and try to find it, buy it, whatever. And social services have come in and taken a number of their children away. So this issue is growing here. As we see a growing gap between rich and poor, growing in Europe, growing in Canada, growing in the U.S., and as we see water getting more and more expensive, which is happening, we are going to see water haves and have-nots in the so-called First World as well.

Then we have nation states looking outside their borders for new supplies of water, just the way they look outside their borders for secure energy supplies. That’s what the whole debate around the Keystone pipeline to the U.S. from Canada is about. I love it when American politicians say, “We need a domestic secure source of energy.” And we say, “Wait a minute. That’s Canadian. Okay, all right, you can have it.” Actually, we give it away in NAFTA, so it’s not really Canadian anymore. Which is funny. We all kind of smile when we hear that this is domestic energy. But it’s all owned by the big energy companies; it has nothing to do with nation states anymore anyway. So countries are looking outside of their own borders.

And one of the things we’re seeing are land and water grabs. There has been land twice the size of the United Kingdom bought up by either investment companies, hedge fund companies, or countries, even countries like China and India, but certainly wealthier countries like Saudi Arabia and so on, buying up land and water for a future time when they don’t have the ability to grow food for their own people and don’t have the water they need for their own needs.

We also have conflict growing between the needs and demands of big cities and rural communities, indigenous communities, and nature. So we’re plundering our wilderness and our rural communities for water to pull into large cities. Mexico City has put pipelines into indigenous lands and just confiscated the water. You’ve got to start thinking of water as gold. That’s why I called my first book on water Blue Gold, because you will see, actually, armed fortresses, armed guards and dogs and guns around these water sources, because they are becoming contested the way gold mines or energy sources are.

But I think the biggest debate that we’re having and the one I’ve been most deeply involved in, is the issue as to whether water is a commodity to be put on the open market, like oil and gas or electricity or running shoes or whatever, and sold to the highest bidder, or is water a commons, a human right, a public trust, is it something that is a shared heritage of humanity and of the Earth, because I don’t think we can separate them. Is water a resource for our convenience and profit, or is water the essential element in the living ecosystem that gives us life? This is a very intense struggle that we’re having.

It takes a number of forms. One of them is around utilities, water services. We’ve had intense fights. Colleagues in Bolivia have got rid of not one but two big transnational water companies. I remember being in a place called Orange Farm in South Africa, poverty as far as you can see, rats in the gutters, kids with no shoes, no water anywhere, and burning garbage. But suddenly the miracle that to every block of these tarpaper shacks is a state-of-the-art pipe bringing beautiful clean water. But between the pipe and the tap is a state-of-the-art water meter. The only way you can get at the water is to get an electronic key charged up, and you have to pay for it. With unemployment at around 80% in that community, nobody can afford it. I can remember standing with one of the activists there, who said, “It gives new meaning to the old saying, ‘Water, water everywhere, and not a drop to drink.’” So the women take the vases or the containers on their heads and walk the 5 miles to the polluted water source, which is why we see the diseases like cholera coming back.

Then there’s bottled water. We’ve got bottled water fights all over the world. I noticed here in the theatre that only bottled water is allowed in here. So I just want you to know I broke the rule. I have tap water. If you were to take just the single bottles that people drank in the world last year, the little individual ones, the little plastic ones, and put them end to end, they would reach to the moon and back 65 times. It is absolutely insane to be paying for and taking care of source water and have clean, safe water coming out of our taps and have to turn to bottled water. That’s not to say there aren’t parts of the world where you cannot get clean water out of at your tap. I understand that. But that’s not the case here. The bottled water industry and the bottled water struggle is a huge one.

Then we have what are called water markets, or sometimes called water rights. We have the beginning of that here in Colorado. But it can be taken to extremes. In Australia what they did was—they thought this would make everything more efficient—they converted the licenses to these big companies to water rights, and then they said, “You will trade them, but we think, because you’re going to be able to sell them and make money, you will use less water and you will sell the excess and everybody will be happy.” That’s not what happened. The big companies bought out the little companies’ water rights and the small farmers’ water rights. Then the big investors started coming in, and then big foreign investors started coming in. Now the Labour government tried to buy back some of these rights because the Murray-Darling river system was desperate, but they couldn’t afford it. The price of water had risen so high that the government could not afford to bring this water back.

Chile has gone further than any country in the world in privatizing water. This is a direct legacy of the Pinochet regime, because he started this. But you can actually have public water auctions. They have water auctions where mining companies—and I hate to tell you, it’s Canadian, they’re the worst in the world—the Canadian mining companies are there outbidding local first nations or tribal people or communities or farmers or whatever and just buying up that water. So it can go to an extreme and is moving into areas of real private accumulation. T. Boone Pickens, the gazillionaire energy guy in Texas, is buying up huge amounts of the Ogallala Aquifer and holding on to it. I’m not sure what for. I think he’s in his late eighties, so I’m not sure what he’s going to do.

So we have a huge corporate grab. If you look at the chart for the demand—and this is my last stat I’m going to give you—this is a study that was just done by all the major water guzzlers, Coca Cola and Pepsi and Nestlé and the big food companies. They coordinated their research and they said by 2030—that’s not a very long time away—the demand in our world for water will outstrip supply by 40%. It’s an absolutely terrifying statistic. If you look at the chart, the demand goes straight up and the supply is going straight down. The private sector knows that there’s money to be made in water and there’s also power to be held. As one investment banker told a big conference in London, England, last year, “The water crisis provides an opportunity to make buckets and buckets of money.”

Now Colorado. I don’t have to tell you that you have a problem, we have a problem here in this area. The reprieve last year with the snowpacks was just that. It was just a reprieve. And I don’t think it’s going to be matched this year. I sure didn’t see much snow, coming in here today. Lake Meade is perilously near the level at which the Secretary of the Interior may have to declare a water shortage and impose severe water restrictions. There’s a study by the Scripps Institute of Oceanography that says with climate-change models they can say absolutely that the runoff in this area will decline by between 10% and 30% over the next two decades. As I say, the NRDC has come out with a new study. If you go to their website, they actually have a map of the U.S. showing all the areas of drought and coming drought and over that they overlay where the population is growing. It tells a story that is something we need to know.

Here’s something I want to say really strongly to you. We need to think about what we’re doing with our water. One of the things here in the U.S. is that you’re growing a great deal of food in places that don’t have water to grow this food and you’re shipping it away. A third—most Americans don’t know this—a third of your daily water withdrawals, a third, leave not only the watershed but leave the country altogether. You’re a net water exporter through commodity trade. This is things like biofuel, ethanol, and that kind of thing. These are the questions that we’re going to have to grapple with that people don’t particularly want to.

I also want to raise the concern of fracking. And then I’m going to stop telling you about problems and start telling you about what I think we need to do. The worst thing you could do, it seems to me—well, second worst, okay. The first is to build a pipeline over the owing Ogallala Aquifer, that is already dramatically distressed, and send the dirtiest oil in the world through it, this corrosive oil that absolutely, I promise you, will spill and would spill into the Ogallala. Except that the President has made that one very good decision to not allow it. But I guess the second dumbest thing is to allow fracking in a state where the water crisis is as perilous as this one is. There are now 48,000 fracked wells already in Colorado and each well uses between 1 and 5 million gallons. Just try to do the math here, the amount of water.

We’re not just talking here about water that’s used and then put back into the system in a healthy state. As you know, fracking requires the use of chemicals. In one study in New York the EPA there couldn’t get the answer, as you know, from the manufacturers about what chemicals are in the fracking fluid. So they did their own study by fracking sites, and they listed 257 toxins and carcinogens that are in the water in the fracking areas. It takes 10 pages to list what they found in this one study. I am Canadian, but I also chair the board of Food and Water Watch here in the U.S. We’re calling for a full moratorium on fracking. We think that it’s absolutely the most dangerous development.

So what do we do with this very bleak reality? I’m actually hopeful. My husband always says, “Do people willingly come to hear you speak? Why do they do that on a Friday night?” You could go to a movie or out to dinner. But if you take a hard look at it—we have a wonderful writer, Margaret Atwood—you may know her writing—in Canada, and she says, “The world seen clearly is seen through tears,” which I think is gorgeous. Whenever anybody gets weepy over something that they feel passionate about, I always pull that quote out, because I think it’s true.

The world right now—we are in trouble ecologically, from the fish in the sea—90% of the big fish are gone— the hunt for minerals, and it is mineral hunting, as water mining is water hunting. I see this bottled water. In a movie that just came out in Europe—I think I’m probably going to get sued—I called Nestlé “water hunters.” But they are. They’re aggressive, seeking out the last remaining non-fossil, clean fuels and forests and minerals and fish in the sea.

We really have to ask ourselves some hard questions about the whole notion of growth. It’s why I continue to talk about the issue of trade. We continue to get deeply involved in these trade agreements. The U.S. under Obama was going to question trade, he was going to take a revisit to NAFTA. None of that has happened. He’s now aggressively promoting a number of trade agreements, as is my government. We have a very, very right-wing government in Canada right now. They’re actively, aggressively promoting globalization, open markets, deregulation. So I think of Grover Norquist, who was the tax adviser to George Bush, who used to say the appropriate size of government is small enough to put it in a bathtub so that any time you need to pull the plug, you can just do that and down it goes.

So big picture, I think we have to really question this mantra of growth and we’re going to have to come back to more sustainable economies. That doesn’t we’re all going to live like our great grandparents. Nobody is saying that. But something has to change. We need to start asking ourselves some very hard questions. Here in Colorado there are going to be big questions around big corporate farms that export your water away versus more sustainable local farms. There are going to be hard questions around snowmaking and that whole industry. I’ve seen it up front. I was at the Sundance—I know, a different state but same thing—a couple of years ago for a film done on my work. And just the condos they were putting up. Every condo had a dishwasher and a washer and a dryer and shower heads that really poured the water down. This is in a state that doesn’t have water. We need to think really carefully about what we’re doing and about the notion that we continue to grow.

But what to do immediately around this? I think we need to come to some practical guidelines based on some principles. I would offer you these three, and then I’d like to talk with you, not at you. We in our movement have really struggled through a lot of work to try to come to a consensus on these, because we feel it’s very important to take the time to have the principles; otherwise your policies and your laws and your solutions are all over the place and they’re not going to work.

The first principle is that water is a sacred commons and a public trust. We go back to the notion of the commons. The commons is a very well old and yet a very new term again, and I think you’re going to be hearing a lot more about it. The enclosure of the commons in England was during a time when the peasants were allowed to hunt and fish and grow their small crops on nobility land. But it was understood that they had a right to live. Then the laws came in in the 1600s that enclosed the commons, and many people died.

So many of us talk about the modern enclosure of the commons as being this move to privatize absolutely everything. What are carbon markets if it isn’t a way of trading pollution and privatizing the air? What are water markets, if not that? So the modern commons, the language we’re trying to bring back now, is based on the notion that certain national resources, air and water and oceans, are central to our very existence, and therefore the governments have the responsibility to exercise their fiduciary role to make sure that they’re governing in the interests of all of their people, not just a privileged few, and they don’t allow a privileged few to have particular and special access to these waters or these commons.

And the public trust doctrine is basically the legal basis, it’s the legal framework that you use to articulate and to accept and to adopt the notion of the commons. For instance, the notion of a public trust is that shoreline must be open to all. Even though there might be private homes along there, nobody can stop you from walking up and down a shoreline or enjoying the water of a shoreline. So this notion that we have the right to claim certain commons for all of us because if we don’t, many will die while others have privileged access. This is going to be very difficult to move to in Colorado, because you have moved some direction in the area of water rights, and it’s very entrenched in the American West. It’s far less entrenched in the American East, and particularly in New England. But I believe that eventually every state in the U.S. is going to have to come up with a long-term plan, a statewide plan, a watershed-wide plan, that clarifies that the people here are the keepers of the watershed and the sacred water commons and set out priorities for access.

I’ll give you an example. I worked with a government in Vermont. Four years ago they realized that there was a lot of free-for-all taking of their groundwater, particularly bottled-water companies coming in and just helping themselves. So the government, with myself and a few others, drafted legislation, and then it was unanimously adopted, that said that their groundwater is a public trust, belongs to all Vermonters, belongs to the ecosystem and belongs to future generations. Those are the owners of the water. They actually set priorities in time of shortage. One of those priorities is water for local food production rather than for food production for commercial export. As I say, this is tough to do, and they don’t have the big, big agribusiness interests that exist here or in California. But I think it’s a model really worth looking at.

So that’s the first, that water is a sacred commons and a public trust. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an economic use for water or an economic purpose for water. Of course there is. But anyone who uses water—and in Vermont they say if you’re going to access it, you have to have a license and you have to ensure for the owners, the people of Vermont, that you’re not hurting that water. They’ve already used it to challenge a nuclear waste plant. So it’s a law with teeth and it’s a law that’s moving.

The second is that water is a fundamental human right. You might say that’s a motherhood and I would say, I would have agreed with you, but I’ve been involved in the fight too long to know that actually not a motherhood. We have had a very, very intense struggle over this issue. Up against us were big corporations, the bottled-water companies, the big utilities like Suez and Veolia, the World Bank, wealthy countries. My country has consistently opposed the right to water. Part of it is that the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Australia have this notion that they don’t want to extend the concept of rights to second and third generations, so more community-based and so on, so they just resist any new human right. But it’s been a terrible uphill battle.

We thought it was going to be another 20 years at the UN. A couple of years ago I had the honor of serving as the senior adviser on water to the 63rd president of the General Assembly, Father Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann from Nicaragua. He and I and the ambassador from Bolivia, Pablo Solon, came together to promote the right to water at the UN. Ambassador Solon, had the courage in the summer of 2010 to put a resolution to the General Assembly, which was adopted. I was there the day it got adopted. They had to vote on it because many countries were opposed. When you’re at the UN and they’re voting, they do it from their chairs. It’s all electronic, up on a big board. I was convinced we were going to lose. I was holding hands with my staff and saying, “Don’t worry. We’ll come back another time. We’ll win another time,” blah, blah, blah. Anyway, we won. And it was joyous and wonderful. And no country, even the U.S., not even my country, voted against. Forty-one abstained but 122 voted for it and it was adopted. And then only months later the Human Rights Council also adopted a similar resolution but spelled out the obligations on governments.

We had a test case within a couple of months. The Kalahari Bushmen of Botswana have been treated horribly by their government, which considers them an embarrassing anachronism because they still live the way their ancestors did. The government wants turn the Kalahari into an eco-theme park, and they found diamonds and De Beers wants in. So they started removing the people and making them live off the desert. The Bushmen kept coming back, so they smashed their water bore wells. In a series of court cases they won the right to go back to the desert but not to their water. But what was so lovely is when these two resolutions were adopted, the Kalahari Bushmen went back to the Supreme Court of Botswana and said, “We are armed with these two resolutions. We want the right to our water recognized.” The Supreme Court unanimously said, yes, you do, and forced government to allow them to go back to provide water, to reopen that bore well, and to pay them for never, ever all of the suffering that they’ve incurred but some of it. So it’s just a tremendous victory for us.

So that’s the second, that water is a human right. By the way, I’ve written a guide for the Great Lakes called “Our Great Lakes Commons: A People’s Guide for Saving Great Lakes.” What we want to do is have the Great Lakes named a common, as a human right, a public trust and a protected bioregion. So if you want to go to our website, canadians.org. and get a model of what this might look like, I think this could work for any watershed.

The third, then, that the sacred water commons has rights, too. The water itself and watersheds themselves and other species have rights beyond their use to us. Most human—and I would exempt indigenous peoples or first people’s in many places—but most “modern” humans, in the West particularly, have seen nature, and in this case water, as a resource for us, for our use, for our convenience, for our profit. It’s time to put that behind us. When you see nature that way, then you’re going to take the hard path, to high technology, desalinizanation, big dams, and so on. If you take the soft path, you’re going to go water restoration, you’re going to take the path of conservation, of protection of source water. Martin Luther King said, “Legislation may not change the heart, but it will restrain the heartless.” Infrastructure investment, cutting our virtual export imprint, local, sustainable food production, and so on. There are ways and there are plans that we can build to conserve water and share. There’s another water for all if we treat it very differently. If we protect it and then we share it more equitably among us, we can save the world’s water. Many of us are challenging the whole notion of the marketization of nature, the commodification of nature.

When the UN gathers in Rio in June—this is the Rio+20—you’re going to hear a lot about something called “the green economy.” At first blush you’re going to think that must be good, it’s good for the economy and it’s green. But the image that the powers that be are bringing to this green-economy discussion is basically continued free trade, continued deregulation, continued unlimited growth, continued marketization and commodification of nature, but with friendly technology. “Oh, let’s trade that technology and let’s make lots of money on it.” I’m sorry to say this, but I think we’re going to have to build a fight against this notion, as it’s being promoted by the World Bank and others, of this green technology.

So we need instead a body of law that regulates human behavior in order to protect the integrity of the Earth and other species. Our human rights must be balanced against those of ecosystems and the Earth itself. What would it look like if the Gulf could sue BP? Think of it. At the moment, you know who can sue BP? Only those individual families and businesses that can prove that they lost property in the spill. Nobody can sue on behalf of the ecosystem or the aquatic life there or the future, the inability of people to live there in the future or just the general damage done to the local population.

We came together after the failure of the climate summit in Copenhagen two years ago in Bolivia and we came out of it with something called the Universal Declaration on the Rights of Mother Earth. We are deeply hoping that one day it will take its place alongside the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as the manifesto for our time. I do believe every now and then humans take an evolutionary step forward, and this is one in which I think this is happening.

So I’m just going to finish the formal part of this with two quotes, and then I would like to talk with you. The first is from a man named Cormac Cullinan. Cormac is the person who wrote the first draft of the Universal Declaration. He’s a lawyer from South Africa, an environmental and human rights lawyer. And he says this about the rights of nature:

The day will come when the failure of our laws to recognize the right of a river to flow, to prohibit acts that destabilize the Earth’s climate, or to impose a duty to respect the intrinsic value and right to exist of all life will be as reprehensible as allowing people to be bought and sold. We will only flourish by challenging these systems and claiming our identity as well as assuming our responsibilities as members of the Earth community.

The other quote I want to leave you with is from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. I loved it before the films, but I did love the films. It’s Gandalf, and he’s facing that night when all evil may triumph over all good. He’s talking about being a steward. I’m speaking to all of you who have come here tonight because you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t stewards. I want to share this with you. I’ve kind of got Tolkien on the brain because not long ago we took a group of journalists and people up to the tar sands in northern Alberta. We took a bus and we toured and we took them up in a helicopter. I came back to Edmonton and we held a press conference. And I called the tar sands Canada’s Mordor from the Lord of the Rings. So the next day in the Edmonton Journal, front page, it had my quote, and then it had a photo of Mordor from the film and a photo of the Syncrude site in the tar sands. So help me, you wouldn’t know which was which. There were just no Hobbits in the Syncrude site. Anyway, one of the energy poobahs said—he should have said, “There’s no such thing, and that’s a terrible thing to say.” What he said was, “It’s not as bad as Mordor,” which I thought was not the smartest thing to say. Anyway, here is Gandalf speaking as a steward that night, because much, of course, of The Lord of the Rings is about an assault on nature.

He says,

The rule of no realm is mine…. But all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task…if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come. For I also am a steward. Did you not know?

Thank you.

Q&A

The a question is about information. It’s easier to let water flow than get the information out. It’s been hard with the mainstream media. There are exceptions. I would say The New York Times has done a good job of telling the water crisis story. And I’ve seen some good reports here in Colorado as well. The questions that don’t get asked, though, are the deeper ones, the ones that get to the heart of what the problem is. So we have drought, so too many people chasing too little water, and leave it at that. Instead of saying, Why do some get access to so much? Why is it that the computer companies get to have—and this is in certain states—access to cheaper water than what residents pay? This is very common. If a state wants to lure industry, it will do it by lowering standards or lowering taxes for that industry or whatever, and in this case by saying, “We’ll give you water at a cheaper rate if you come and locate here.” Because they’re desperate to bring jobs. Those are the deeper questions about where is the water going.

I go back to this again and again. As we have built a global food trade so that food that could be grown a half a mile down the road and you could be using is shipped away and you’re buying stuff from halfway around the world, it’s insane. There’s nothing wrong with trade as long as it’s based on some common sense. There was a study done a couple years ago, and they compared the number of livestock from England that were shipped to Europe for slaughter for food and then the number of livestock from Europe to Great Britain. And it was about the same. So what’s the point? It’s terrible for the environment, it’s terrible for the animals. It doesn’t make any sense except if you’re trying to get the prices down, if you’re trying to make the farmers in Europe competitive against the farmers in Great Britain. Those are the kinds of questions we haven’t heard asked.

When you read about the Horn of Africa and you read about the terrible drought there and you hear about the suffering and the death, everybody just about has the same analysis: Too many people, drought, too few resources, and corruption. That’s what you’re going to hear over and over again. What you don’t hear is that the North American and European hedge funds and investment funds and wealthy countries have come in and bought up the best land and have access to the best water. And they help themselves to water, which is used to grow food for export, and the people there get left with none. That’s the stuff you’re not going to read, maybe, in The New York Times. I shouldn’t say. I don’t read it enough that I can say for sure. But I can sure speak about the Canadian media. You’re not going to read that in our mainstream newspapers.

That’s why we have to support ways of getting this information out. I would urge you to go to the website of Food and Water Watch, foodandwaterwatch.org, here in the U.S., because it has tremendous information on fracking, on the situation here, on food, who’s growing what food, who’s got privileged access.

We live in a world of haves and have-nots. And we have to look at the depletion in our resources in connection with the growing inequality in our world. We cannot separate them. That’s why in our movement we are trying to pull together environmentalists and scientists and those who are warning about the crisis over here, because they’ve been working in isolation, with those working on the human rights development issue over here. We’ve got to put it together. If the answer is, let’s find more money to dig more wells, but you’re running out of groundwater, that’s not the answer. If the answer is, we’ll ask those people to take care of their water, but they don’t have any sanitation and they’re desperately poor and they have to use the rivers to defecate in, that’s not the answer. You can’t have one without the other. So it’s not that you’re not reading that there is a water crisis. If you want to read it, it’s around there, it really is.

It’s the deeper political set of questions. And I find in all of our countries—I’m not just saying this for the U.S.—I’m finding the level of debate at the political level inane. I don’t have another word for it. It’s inane. I don’t mean there aren’t smart people running for office. It’s just that we’re not going to the deeper level of these questions. It’s as if people are afraid to tackle the underlying questions.

I know it’s a long answer, but I deeply agree with you. I think the information flow is very important, and that’s why this event is so important. And you go home and you talk to people and you share information. That’s how we build a movement.

The question is about here you have first in time, first in right. We have it in Alberta as well. You have it in most Western states in the U.S., whereas in the Eastern states they have more of a public trust kind of law. It’s going to be very controversial here, but I don’t think you’re going to be able to do anything else. I think it’s only going to be a matter of time before California and Colorado and Arizona and every single state is going to have to take a different approach to water. If they continue to allow water to be privatized, water rights to be entrenched to those who got there first, water to be traded and sold as a property, what you’re going to go find with time is that water is cut off to people, people who can’t afford it. The way it is in communities and villages in the Global South. It is not impossible to think of in North America or in Europe poor people not having access to basic water. Look, in Greece, where they’ve plummeted in their standard of living with these austerity measures and so on, there are people going hungry, there are people begging on the streets. It’s not impossible in the so-called First World to think of this.

We never had poor people in Canada. We had a very strong set of social safety nets. We still have public Medicare for all, health care for all, but we’ve lost a lot of others. We used to look like a big egg, with a large middle class and a fairly small population of poor, well served by a social security net and a fairly small group of wealthy. We’ve totally changed shape. We bought all the neoliberal, market-based ideals. And now we have a really entrenched wealthy group at the top and we look like a pear, with more and more of us falling out at the bottom. That’s the demographic shift that’s happening in our countries, and it’s happening dramatically. We’re either going to allow the continuation of this privatization and we’re going to see all the small farms go down and we’re going to see people without water access or we’re going to come to a fair way to allocate water. This first in time, first in right made sense when they did it, and it doesn’t make any sense anymore.

I read a bunch of stuff coming here, just to bring my mind up to date on Colorado. And I saw statements from a lot of officials who said some things fairly similar to what I’ve said tonight, that we’ve got to stop living the way we’ve been living, that we have to start living more fairly and justly, that we’ve got to bring a more just economic system to the water allocation here. I saw some statements that made me happy to see, because I thought it was the beginning of real soul searching. If you’re left, right, or center, if the people who are voting for you don’t have access to water, you’re going to be held responsible. So I do think there’s a sea change.

What I would like, and this is what I would hope would come out of this gathering here, is the nugget, the beginning of a movement to start to say, Let’s put out the alternative. Let’s not just say, These are the problems, and you, government, go fix it. No, no. We’re going to articulate the principles that would work here. We’ve done this, as I say, for the Great Lakes. A man named Jim Olson—some of you may know his name—is a lawyer in Traverse City, Michigan, who fought the case against a big bottled-water company in their community, Ice Mountain, but it’s owned by Nestlé. He’s a wonderful man and he’s done huge work on public trust. He and I presented to the International Joint Commission just before Christmas—this is the Canada-U.S. commission that oversees joint waters, all the binational waters, particularly the Great Lakes.

We said to them, Okay, there’s this agreement and there’s that agreement and, yes, there have been improvements in Lake Erie, although they’re going back now, and, yes, the eagles came back because you took away DDT. But, but, but, but. We’ve got fracking, we’ve got this tar-sands oil, we’ve got mining, we’ve got multipoint pollution, we’ve got more invasive species, we’ve got over-extraction. We’re losing the battle. We’re losing the battle because we don’t have a common language. We want the common language to be that these lakes belong to the people who live on them and love them. We want the common language that nobody has the right to hurt them in any way, no one has prior or preferential access, anybody using them for a commercial purpose has to answer to those who own the lakes, the people who live around them and on them. That aquatic life and other species have a right to live and thrive, that the lakes themselves have rights. We put this message.

And let me tell you, there were some left-wingers and some right-wingers in this group, and they loved it. Because it gave them a handle on a concept that they could start to put together to move forward with in terms of what would be an alternative. If we don’t put alternatives out, if we’re not articulating what could be different and why our vision is different, then I don’t think that we’re going to succeed fast enough. Because I am very worried about catching this crisis. I think it’s catchable, and I believe that hope is a moral imperative. But I also think that we’re up against time. I think it would be wonderful if out of this gathering came that desire to start to articulate this kind of language here. It will be met with skepticism. But to hell with it. They’re wrong.

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The surveillance state

Glenn Greenwald
Socialism 2012
Rosemont, IL
June 28, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Glenn Greenwald speak for himself here.

Glenn Greenwald is an attorney and the author of How Would a Patriot Act?, Great American Hypocrites, and Liberty and Justice for Some. He is the recipient of the Izzy Award from the Park Center for Independent Media for his “pathbreaking journalistic courage and persistence in confronting conventional wisdom, official deception, and controversial issues.” He also received an Online Journalism Award for Best Commentary for his coverage of U.S. Army Private Bradley Manning. Greenwald is a columnist and blogger at Salon.com and his articles appear in various newspapers and magazines.

The surveillance state hovers over any attempts to meaningfully challenge state or corporate power. It doesn’t just hover over it. It impedes it and deters it and chills it. That’s its intent; it does that by design. So understanding what the surveillance state is, how it operates and, most importantly, figuring out how to challenge it and undermine it and subvert it really is an absolute prerequisite to any sort of meaningful activism, to developing strategies and tactics for how to challenge state and corporate power.

To start this discussion, I want to begin with a little story that I think is illustrative and significant in lots of ways. The story begins in the mid-1970s, when there were scandals that were arising out of the Watergate investigation and the Nixon administration, and there were scandals surrounding the fact that, as it turned out, the Nixon administration and various law enforcement officials in the federal government were misusing their eavesdropping power. They were listening in on people who were political opponents, and they were doing so purely out of political self-interest, having nothing to do with legal factors or the business of the nation. This created a scandal.

Unlike today, the scandal 40 years ago, in the mid-1970s, resulted in at least some relatively significant reactions. In particular, a committee was formed in the Senate, and it was headed by Frank Church. He was a Democrat from Idaho and had been in the Senate as of this time for 20 years or so, was one of the most widely regarded senators, and was chosen because of that. He led the investigation into these eavesdropping abuses and to try to get to the bottom of the scandal.

One of the things he discovered was that these eavesdropping abuses were radically more pervasive and egregious than anything that had been known at the start of the investigation. It was by no means confined to the Nixon administration. In fact, it went all the way back to the 1920s, when the government first began developing the technological capability to eavesdrop on American citizens and heightened as the power heightened, through the 1940s, when World War II justified it, into the 1950s, when the Cold War did, and into the 1960s, when the social unrest justified surveillance. What Senator Church found was that literally every single administration, under both Democratic and Republican presidents, had seriously abused this power, not in isolated ways but systematically. This committee documented all the ways in which that was true. And the realization quickly emerged that allowing government officials to eavesdrop on citizens, without constraints or oversight, to do so in the dark, is a power that vests so much authority and leverage in those in power that it is virtually impossible for human beings to resist abusing that power. That’s how potent of a power it is.

But the second thing that he realized beyond just the general realization that this power has been systematically abused was that there was an agency that was at the heart of this abuse, and it was the National Security Agency. What was really amazing about the National Security Agency was that it had been formed 25 years before, back in 1949, by President Truman, and it was formed as part of the Defense Department, and was so covert that literally for two decades almost nobody in the government even knew that it existed, let alone knew what it did, including key senators like Frank Church. Part of his investigation—and it was actually a fairly radical investigation, fairly aggressive, even looking at it through cynical eyes and realizing that the ultimate impact wasn’t particularly grand, but the investigation itself was pretty impressive—was that he forced his way into the National Security Agency and found at as much as he possibly could about it.

After the investigation concluded, he issued all sorts of warnings about the surveillance state and how it was emerging and the urgency of only allowing government officials to eavesdrop or surveil citizens if they had all kinds of layers of oversight with courts and Congress. But he issued a specific warning about the National Security Agency that is really remarkable in terms of what he said. This is what he said, and you can find this anywhere online, in The New York Times, everywhere. He said it as part of a written report and then in an interview.

The National Security Agency’s capability could be turned around at any time on the American people, and no American would have any privacy left, such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn’t matter.

He continued,

There would be no place to hide. If a dictator ever took over the United States, the NSA could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back.

There are several things that I find extraordinary about that statement. For one, the language that he uses. This is not somebody who is a speaker at the Socialism 2012 conference saying these things. This was literally one of the people who was one of the most established institutional figures in American politics. He was in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party but very much in its mainstream for many years. He chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And here he is warning the country about the dangers not just of the U.S. government but specifically about the national security state and using words like dictator and total tyranny and warning of the way in which this power could be abused such that essentially it would be irreversible. That once the government is able to monitor everything we do and everything we say, there’s no way to fight back because fighting back requires doing it away from their prying eyes.

If you look now, 30 years later, to where we are, not only would you never, ever hear a U.S. Senator stand up and insinuate that the national security state poses this grave danger or use words like tyranny and dictator to describe the United States the way that Frank Church did only 30 years ago, but now it’s virtually a religious obligation to talk about the national security state and its close cousin, the surveillance state, with nothing short of veneration.

Chris Hayes, who is an MSNBC host on the weekends, used the opportunity of Memorial Day to express the view, in a very tortured, careful, and pre-apologetic way, that maybe it’s the case that not ever single person who has ever served as an American soldier or enlisted in the American military is a hero. Maybe we can think about them in ways short of that. And this incredible controversy erupted. Condemnation poured down on him from Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals alike, and he was forced in multiple venues over the course of the next week to issue one increasingly sheepish apology after another. That’s how radically our discourse has changed, so that you cannot talk about the national security state or the surveillance state in these kinds of nefarious terms the way that Frank Church, who probably knew more about it, did just a few decades ago.

The second remarkable aspect of Church’s quote to me is that the outcome of that investigation was a series of laws that were grounded in the principle that, as I said earlier, we cannot allow government officials to eavesdrop on American citizens or in any way to engage in surveillance without all kinds of oversights and checks, the most illustrative of which was the FISA law, that said that no government official can eavesdrop on our communications without first going to a court and proving to a court that we’re actually doing something wrong and getting the court’s permission before they can eavesdrop.

There was a similar controversy in the mid-2000s, in 2005, when The New York Times revealed that the Bush administration had been using the NSA to do exactly what Frank Church warned against, which is spying on the communications of American citizens. The outcome of that was not new laws or new safeguards to constrain these sorts of abuses; it was exactly the opposite. In 2008, the Democratic-led Congress, with the support of President Obama and most of the supporters of his in the Democratic Party, as well as almost all Republicans, basically gutted that law, repealed it in its core, and made it much, much easier for the government to eavesdrop on American citizens without constraints, and then immunized the nation’s telecoms that had participated in that illegal program. So you see the radically different attitudes that the U.S. has to surveillance just from 30 years ago, when abuses result in a whole variety of weak but still meaningful legal constraints, versus what we do now when we find out that the government is lawlessly spying on us, which is to act as quickly as possible to make it legal.

But the third part of why I think Frank Church’s statement is so remarkable is also the most important. If you look at what he said, he phrased his warning in a conditional sense. He said if A happens, then B. A was, if the NSA starts using its eavesdropping capabilities and not directing them at foreign nationals whom we suspect of spying but instead at the American people, then B will happen, B being we’ll essentially live under a dictatorship, there will be total tyranny, where the American people will be unable to fight back because this net of surveillance will cover what we do. What’s really remarkable is that that conditional that he warned against, the apparatus of the NSA being directed domestically and inwardly rather than outwardly, has absolutely come to pass. That is the current situation, that is the current circumstance of the United States.

The NSA, beginning in 2001 under George Bush, was secretly ordered to spy domestically on the communications of American citizens. It has escalated in all sorts of lawless, and now lawful, ways such that it is now a normal part of what that agency does. Even more significantly, the technology that it has developed is now shared by a whole variety of agencies, including the FBI, so that this surveillance net that Frank Church warned so stridently about in a way that if you stood up now, you would be immediately branded as sort of a shrill, self- marginalized radical, has come to be in all sorts of entrenched and legal ways.

There are a few ways to think about the surveillance state and to try to understand its scope and magnitude. I think the most effective way to do that is just to look at a couple of numbers and to use the most mainstream sources to do that as to where we are in terms of the American surveillance state. In 2010, the Washington Post published a three-part series called “Top Secret America,” written by their Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, Dana Priest, and William Arkin. The first installment in that series looked at the national security state and the surveillance state and how it functions in the U.S. One of the sentences that appeared in this article—listen to this—said,

Every day collection systems at the National Security Agency intercept and store 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communication.

That’s every day they intercept and store, they keep for as long as they want, 1.7 billion emails and other forms of telephonic communications.

William Binney was a fairly high-ranking NSA official for several decades. He resigned in the wake of 9/11 because he was so outraged that the NSA was starting to be turned against the American people. Recently he’s begun to speak out about the NSA’s abuses. He gave an interview on Democracy Now! three weeks ago, and this is what he said about surveillance under the Obama administration:

Surveillance has increased every year since 9/11. In fact, I would suggest that they have assembled on the order of 20 trillion transactions about U.S. citizens with other U.S. citizens.

Twenty trillion transactions have been assembled by the NSA and its related agencies about U.S. citizens interacting with other U.S. citizens. He then went on to add that that’s only emails and telephone calls, and not things like financial transactions or other forms of video surveillance. So that pretty much tracks what the Washington Post reported as well. If you’re storing 1.7 billion emails and telephone calls each and every day, it’s likely that you will fairly quickly reach the 20 trillion level that William Binney identified.

The most amazing thing about the surveillance state, given how incredibly ubiquitous it is and how incredibly menacing it is, is that we actually know very little about it. We’re almost back to the mid-1970s, when nobody even knew what the NSA was. The big joke in Washington, whenever anyone would mention the NSA, was that NSA stood for No Such Agency. It was just something that you were not permitted to talk about, even in government. No one knew what it did. We’re basically at that point. We get little snippets of information, like the two statistics that I just described, that give us a sense of just how sprawling and all-encompassing the surveillance state is, but we don’t know very much about who runs it, how it’s operated, at whom it’s directed, and who makes those decisions.

In fact, so clear is that lack of knowledge that there is an amazing controversy right now about the PATRIOT Act. You may remember in the aftermath of 9/11 the PATRIOT Act used to be something that was really controversial. In September-October of 2001, Congress enacted this law, and everyone ran around warning that it was this massive expansion of surveillance that was unlike anything we had ever seen before. It became the symbol of Bush-Cheney radicalism. Now the PATRIOT Act is completely uncontroversial. It gets renewed without any notice every 3 years, with zero reforms, no matter which party is in control.

There are two Democratic senators who are mainstream, loyal Democratic Party supporters. They’re President Obama supporters. They’re like Frank Church but even a little bit more mainstream within the Democratic Party. One is Ron Wyden of Oregon and the other is Mark Udall of Colorado. What these two Democratic Party senators have been doing for the last 3 years is running around warning that the PATRIOT Act is so much worse than anything that any of us thought all that time when we were objecting to it. And the reason it’s so much worse is because the U.S. Government has secretly interpreted what the PATRIOT Act permits it to do in terms of surveillance on American citizens in a way that’s completely unrelated to what the law actually says, and it’s something that almost nobody knows.

Just listen to these two quotes that they gave The New York Times a month ago. Senator Widen said,

I want to deliver a warning this afternoon. When the American people find out how their government has secretly interpreted the PATRIOT Act, they will be stunned and they will be angry.

Now, he’s talking about a different American people than the one that I know, but the point that he’s making is that if you were paying attention and cared about these things the way you should, you would be stunned and angry to learn about what the government is doing, even under this already broad act. Senator Udall said,

Americans would be alarmed if they knew how this law is being carried out.

They are two, as I said, establishment Democrats warning that the Democratic-controlled executive branch is massively abusing this already incredibly broad PATRIOT Act.

One of the things that they’re trying to do is to extract some basic information from the NSA about what it is that they’re doing in terms of the surveillance aimed at American people, because even though they’re on the Intelligence Committee, the committee that the Church committee created to oversee the intelligence community, they say they don’t even know the most basic information about what the NSA does, including even how many Americans have had their emails read or telephone calls intercepted by the NSA. So one of the things they did a couple months ago was they wrote a demand to the NSA saying, We don’t want you to tell us anything sensitive. We just need to know the basic information about what it is that you’re doing. For example, the thing we really want to know is, how many Americans citizens on U.S. soil have had their emails read by you and their telephone calls listened to by you? That’s what we want to know most of all.

The NSA responded 2 weeks ago by saying—and I’m not exaggerating, I’m not saying this to be humorous, I’m not being ironic, I’m not snippeting out a part of it to distort it—their answer was, Look, we can’t tell you how many millions of Americans are having their emails read by us and their telephone calls listened in on by us, because for us to tell you that would violate the privacy of American citizens. Just so you believe me, because if I were you, I would be thinking, Oh, that’s ridiculous, whatever he’s saying can’t be true, I just want to read to you from the letter that the head of the NSA wrote to the Senate Intelligence Committee. They said,

The NSA Inspector General and NSA leadership both agree that a review of the sort you are suggesting would itself violate the privacy of U.S. persons.

I think the important thing to realize is how little we know about what it is that they’re doing. But the little that we do know is extraordinarily alarming in exactly the way that Frank Church described.

I just want to make a couple other points about the surveillance state that don’t get enough attention but that really are necessary for completing the picture about what it really is and what it does. We talk a lot about things like the NSA and federal government agencies like the FBI, but it actually expands well beyond that. We really live in a culture of surveillance. If you even go into any normal American city or even, increasingly, small and mid-sized towns, there are all kinds of instruments of surveillance everywhere that you probably don’t even notice. If you wake up in the morning and drive to your local convenience store, you’ve undoubtedly been photographed by all sorts of surveillance cameras on the street. If you go to the ATM to take out money to buy things, that will be then recorded. If you go into a convenience store to buy the things you want to buy, you have your photograph taken and it will be recorded.

An article in Popular Mechanics in 2004 reported on a study of American surveillance, and this is what it said:

There are an estimated 30 million surveillance cameras now deployed in the United States, shooting 4 billion hours of footage a week. Americans are being watched, all of us, almost everywhere.

There’s a study in 2006 that estimated that that number would quadruple to 100 million surveillance cameras in the U.S. within 5 years, largely because of the bonanza of post-9/11 surveillance money.

And it’s not just the government that is engaged in surveillance but, just as menacingly, private corporations engage in a huge amount of surveillance on us. They give us cell phones that track every moment where we are physically and then provide that to law enforcement agencies without so much as a search warrant.

Obviously, credit-card and banking transactions are recorded and tell anyone who wants to know everything that we do. When we talk about the scandal of the Bush eavesdropping program, that was not really a government eavesdropping program so much as it was a private-industry eavesdropping program. It was done with the direct and full cooperation of AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and the other telecom giants. In fact, when you talk about the American surveillance state, what you’re really talking about is no longer public government agencies. What you’re talking about is a full-scale merger between the federal government and industry. That is what the surveillance state is. They are equally important parts of what the surveillance state does.

I think the most interesting and probably revealing example that I can give you about where we are in terms of surveillance in the U.S. was a really ironic and unintentionally amusing series of events that took place in mid-2011. What happened in mid-2011 was that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, which, as we know, are very, very oppressive and hate freedom, said that what they were going to do was to ban the use of BlackBerrys and similar devices on their soil. The reason was that the corporation that produces BlackBerrys was either unable or unwilling to guarantee that Saudi and UAE intelligence agencies would be able to intercept all communications. The governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were horrified by the prospect that people might be able to communicate on their soil without their being able to intercept and surveil that communication, and in response they banned BlackBerrys.

This created huge amounts of condemnation in the Western world. Every American newspaper editorialized about how this showed how much these governments were the enemies of freedom. The Obama administration issued a stinging denunciation of both governments, saying that they were engaged in the kinds of oppression that we couldn’t tolerate. And yet 6 weeks later The New York Times reported that the Obama administration was preparing legislation to mandate that

all services that enable communications, including encrypted email transmitters like BlackBerry, social networking Web sites like Facebook, and software that allows direct peer-to-peer messaging like Skype, be designed to ensure government surveillance.

It was exactly the same principle that everybody condemned the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia for—the principle being that there can be no human interaction, especially no human communication, not just from foreign nationals and between foreign nationals but by American citizens, on American soil, that is beyond the reach of the U.S. Government.

This was the mindset that in 2002 led the Bush administration to dredge up John Poindexter from wherever it was that he was—he was actually working for defense contractors—to start the program that they called the Total Information Awareness program. The logo, which I actually looked at in the last couple of weeks, which you should go and look at just because you won’t believe how creepy it is, has a pyramid with this huge eye hovering over it, this eye that was going to be theawaall- seeing eye. [You can see it here.]

The only problem with the Total Information Awareness program was that they put a name on it that was too honest about what it was, and it freaked everybody out. So they had to pretend that they weren’t going to go forward with it. But, of course, what they did was they’ve incrementally and in very clear ways recreated the Total Information Awareness program under a whole variety of different legislative initiatives.

This idea that every single form of technological communication by law must be constructed to permit government backdoor interception and surveillance is an expression of what this surveillance state mindset is—that there can be no such thing as any form of privacy from the U.S. Government. That is the mindset that has led the surveillance state to be the sprawling, vast, ubiquitous, and always expanding instrument that state and corporate power users employ in order to safeguard their power.

The one other point that’s worth making about how the surveillance state works and how powers exercise through it—and this, I think, is probably the most pernicious part—is what I refer to as the government’s one-way mirror. At exactly the same time—this is really so remarkable to me—that the government has been massively expanding its ability to know everything that we’re doing, it has simultaneously erected a wall of secrecy around it that prevents us from knowing anything that they’re doing.

There was this amazing controversy when the documents from WikiLeaks were disclosed, and the American media had to rush to assure everybody simultaneously (1) that this was both a completely meaningless act and (2) that it was a completely horrible act. So the two claims that were made were, this horrible, traitorous organization of WikiLeaks has severely damaged American national security, but at the same time we want you to know, there’s nothing new in anything that they’ve disclosed, there’s nothing worth knowing. Those were literally the two claims that were made, and nobody ever bothered to reconcile those.

But what was true is that of the hundreds and hundreds of thousands of pages that WikiLeaks disclosed—it’s actually in excess of a million now—the vast bulk of it contained very banal content. It was stuff that really wasn’t particularly interesting, that didn’t reveal very much about anything that was worth knowing. And what was actually so scandalous about that was that very fact, because every single page that WikiLeaks disclosed was stamped “Classified,” which made it a crime to disclose any of it, even though so much of it was banal and revealed nothing worth knowing. What that reflected was that the U.S. Government reflexively labels everything that it does of any conceivable significance as classified and secret.

The government keeps everything that it does from us at the very same time that it knows more and more about what we’re doing. And if you think about what a radical reversal of how things are supposed to work, it’s really startling. The idea is supposed to be—and this is just basic political science, basic design of the founding of the country—that there’s supposed to be transparency for government. We’re supposed to know virtually everything that they do. Individuals, on the other hand, are supposed to live in a sphere of privacy: Nobody is supposed to know what we’re doing unless there’s a demonstrated good reason to invade that wall of privacy. We’ve completely reversed that so that the government now operates with complete secrecy and we have none.

The reason this is so disturbing is, you just look at the famous aphorism typically attributed to Francis Bacon that

knowledge is power.

If I’m able to know everything about you—what you do, what you think, what you fear, where you go, what your aspirations are, the bad things you do, the bad things you think about—and you know nothing about me, I have immense leverage over you in all kinds of ways. I can think about how to control you, I can blackmail you, I can figure out what your weaknesses are. I can manipulate you in all sorts of ways. That is the state of affairs that this surveillance state, combined with the wall of secrecy, has brought about.

I just want to talk a little bit about the mechanisms by which this has been done and the reasons why this loss of privacy matters so much in relationship to the government, and the corporate component of the surveillance state.

If you look at the way in which the “war on terror” functioned in the first, say, 5 to 7 years after it was declared and the civil liberties abuses that it ushered in, predictably and inevitably, you will find that almost without exception—there are a few exceptions but almost without exception they were directed toward foreign nationals, not American citizens but foreign nationals, who were on foreign soil, not on U.S. soil. The reason for that is that governments, when they want to give themselves abusive and radical powers, typically first target people whom they think their citizens won’t care very much about because they’ll think they’re not affected by it. That’s pretty much what happened. We detained without charges and without trials a bunch of Muslims who remain nameless, whom we picked up in places that nobody really knew about or cared much about. We sent drones to assassinate them. All of these powers were directed at foreign others.

But what has happened over last 3 to 4 years is a radical change in the war on terror. The war on terror has now been imported into U.S. policy. It is now directed at American citizens on American soil. So rather than simply sending drones to assassinate foreign nationals, we are now sending drones to target and kill American citizens without charges or trial. Rather than indefinitely detaining foreign nationals at Guantánamo, Congress last year enacted and President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, that permits the detention without trial indefinitely of American citizens on U.S. soil. Rather than sending drones only over Yemen and Somalia and Pakistan, drones are now being approved at an alarming rate, not just surveillance drones but increasingly possibly weaponized drones that will fly over American soil watching everything that we do, in ways that, say, police helicopters could never possibly accomplish.

Even when President Obama promised to close Guantánamo—and lots of his defenders will say, not inaccurately, that he was prevented from doing so because Congress blocked the closure—the plan that he had was not to close Guantánamo and eliminate the system of indefinite detention that made it so controversial. The plan was to take that system of indefinite detention, close Guantánamo, because it had become an upsetting symbol, and import it, move it onto American soil in Thomson, Illinois. That was the plan that the Obama administration had for indefinite detention.

So what you see is the gradual importation of all of the abuses of the war on terror so that now they are entrenched and not just aimed at foreign nationals but U.S. citizens on U.S. soil as well. That’s the mechanism by which this is being done. If you listen to U.S. intelligence and defense officials talk about terrorism, what they emphasize now is not al-Qaeda in Pakistan, which they will largely acknowledge has been eliminated, or even al-Qaeda in Yemen, which isn’t really much of a threat to anybody. What they will talk about is the threat of home-grown terrorism. This is now the grave menace that American terrorism officials will warn needs to be restrained. And the solution to that has been the gradual transference, importation, of all of these abuses that we let take root because they weren’t happening to us but were happening to people over there, into domestic powers.

The reason that that’s being done is not very difficult to see. American policymakers know that the financial unraveling that took place in 2008, that’s even more visible in European states like Spain and Portugal and Greece, has never really been rectified, and it can’t be rectified because these are structural problems. The way in which oligarchs in the U.S. monopolize wealth and then use that wealth to control our political processes ensures that this is not going to change, it’s only going to worsen. Mass unemployment, mass foreclosure, all of these income-inequality pathologies are here to stay. The future that American policy makers see is visible if you look at what happened in London for a brief period of time, what happens all the time in Athens, what is happening with increasing frequency in Spain. Huge amounts of social unrest. You see lots of that happening. I think that’s what the Occupy movement in many ways is. And the elite in the U.S., both corporate and government, are petrified about that type of unrest.

What people in power always do when they fear unrest is they start consolidating power in order to constrain it, in order to suppress it. This is what this surveillance state is designed to do. It’s justified in the name of terrorism, of course. That’s the packaging in which it’s wrapped. But it’s been used extremely and in all sorts of ways since 9/11 for domestic application. That’s happening even more. It’s happening in terms of the Occupy movement and the infiltration that federal officials were able to accomplish using PATRIOT Act authorities. It’s happened with pro-Palestinian activists in the U.S. and all other dissident groups that have themselves been targeted with surveillance and law enforcement, using what was originally these war-on-terror powers.

I want talk about why I think this matters, because the attitude that you will typically encounter—and it’s not a very easy mindset to address or to refute, and it’s one that government has sold continuously and peddled—is, privacy in the abstract, I can understand why it’s something to value, but ultimately, if I’m not really doing anything wrong, if I’m not one of the terrorists, if I’m not plotting to bomb a bridge, I don’t really have much reason to care if people are invading my sphere of privacy and watching and learning what it is that I’m doing. So I think it’s worth talking about the reasons why that is such an ill- advised way to think, why it absolutely matters that privacy is being invaded in these systematic ways.

One obvious answer is that any kind of social movement needs to be able to organize in private, away from the targets of the organization. So if you look at the revolutionary movements in the Arab world, one of the greatest challenges that they had was that the governments sought all sorts of ways to prevent them from communicating with one another, either at all or in privacy. The fact that the Internet was not nearly as pervasive in those countries actually turned out to be a blessing, because it enabled them to organize in more organic ways. But if the government is able to learn what we speak about and know who we’re talking to and know what it is that we’re planning, it makes any kind of activism extremely difficult, because secrecy and privacy are prerequisites to effective activism.

But I think the more difficult value of privacy, the one that’s a lot harder to think about, is also the one that’s much more important than just the one I described. And that is that it is in the private realm exclusively where things like dissent and creativity and challenges to orthodoxy reside. Only when you know that you can explore without external judgment or you can experiment without eyes being cast upon you is the opportunity for creating new paths possible.

There are all kinds of fascinating studies that prove this to be the case. There are psychological studies where people have sat down at their dinner table with family members or friends and they are talking for a long time in a very informal way, and then suddenly one of them pulls out a tape recorder and puts it on the table and says,

I’m going to tape-record our conversation, just for my own interest. I promise I’m not going to tell anybody, I’m not going to show it to anybody, no one is ever going to hear it. I’m just going to tape-record it because I want to go over all the wisdom that you’ve given me.

It’s an experiment psychologically to assess what the impact of that is. Invariably what happens is the people who are now being recorded radically change their behavior. They speak in stilted sentences, they try and talk about much more high-minded topics, they’re much stiffer in their expression of things, because they now feel like they’re being monitored.

There was a pilot program in Los Angeles 6 or 7 years ago that was in response to a couple of exaggerated news stories about rambunctious elementary-age schoolchildren on buses who had apparently been bullying and abusing other students. And the solution that they came up with was that they were going to install surveillance cameras in every single public school bus in Los Angeles County, which is the second or third largest county in the U.S. The response, when it was ultimately disclosed was, Well, this is going to be extraordinarily expensive. How can you have tens of thousands of working surveillance cameras with people monitoring them or recording them every single day for every school bus in Los Angeles County?

The answer that they gave was, Oh, no, we’re not going to have working cameras in these buses. There may be a few buses that have working cameras, just so nobody knows which buses have those. We’re going to have faux cameras, because we know that if we put cameras up, even though they’re not working, that will radically change the behavior of students. In other words, we are training our young citizens to live in a culture where they expect that they are always being watched. And we want them to be chilled and we want them to be deterred. We want them not to ever challenge orthodoxy or to explore limits or to engage in creativity of any kind. This type of surveillance by design breeds conformism. That’s its purpose. And that’s what makes this surveillance so pernicious.

One of the things about the surveillance state, one of the things that happens is that the way in which it affects how people think and behave is typically insidious. It’s something that’s very potent, and yet it’s very easy to avoid understanding or realizing, even as it affects you. Sometimes people do know about the effects of the surveillance state and the climate of fear it creates, and it affects them. I went on a book tour last October and early November, and I went to 15 different cities. In each of the cities I really didn’t care honestly about the book events; I was much more interested in going to the Occupy encampments in each city and spending time there. It was much more enlightening and energizing. Literally almost the entirety of my book tour was taken up by talking about the Occupy movement. It was what everyone was thinking about, I had written about it many times, and I thought it was by far the most significant political development in many years. And I still think that.

And everywhere I would go that I would talk about the Occupy movement, literally all the time I would get people who would say things like—and I would be on radio shows and people would call in and say this— “Look, I’m really supportive of the Occupy movement. I want to go down there and be a participant in it. But I’m a woman who has a small baby,” or “I’m a man who has a bad leg.” And “given all the police abuse that’s taking place there, and all the infiltration, I’m just afraid of going and participating in these movements.” That was definitely part of the effect that this infiltration and the police abuse had. It created this climate of fear and a way that people knew.

I spent a lot of time with American Muslims and in American Muslim communities because of what I do and the work that I do and where I go and speak. One of the things that emboldens me and keeps me very energized and engaged about these issues is, if you go and speak to communities of American Muslims, what you will find is an incredibly pervasive climate of fear. The reason is that they know that they are always being watched. They know that they have FBI informants who are attempting to infiltrate their communities. They know that they have people next to them, their neighbors, their fellow mosque goers, who have been manipulated by the FBI to be informants. They know that they are being eavesdropped on when they speak on the telephone, they know that they are having their emails read, that they are eavesdropped on when they speak or communicate to anybody. What they will say all the time is that it has created this extreme suspicion within their own communities, within their own mosques, to the point that they’re even afraid to talk to any new people about anything significant, because they fear, quite rightly, that this is all being done as part of a government effort to watch them. And it doesn’t really matter whether it’s true in a particular case or it isn’t true. This climate of fear creates limits around the behavior in which they’re willing to engage in very damaging ways.

But I think what this surveillance state really does, more than making people consciously aware of the limits—in those two examples that I just described, people not wanting to go to Occupy movements and people in Muslim communities being very guarded—is it makes people believe that they’re free even though they’ve been subtly convinced that there are things that they shouldn’t do that they might want to do.

I always use dog examples. I have 11 dogs, so it’s one of the things that I know best. I know you probably think I’m crazy, and maybe I am, but they’re all rescue dogs. It’s just one of the things that we do. I know dog behavior really well, so I draw lessons a lot from dogs. One of the things that’s really amazing about dog behavior is, if you don’t want dogs to go into a certain place because it’s dangerous for them, one of the things that you can do is put a fence around the area where you want to confine them. But eventually you can remove the fence and you don’t need the fence anymore, because they will have been trained that the entirety of their world is within the boundaries that you first set for them. So even once you remove the fence, they won’t venture beyond it. They’ve been trained that that’s the only world that they want or are interested in or know.

There are studies in what was formerly East Germany, which was probably one of the most notorious surveillance states of the last 50 years, where even once their boundaries were removed, once the Stasi no longer existed, once the wall fell, the psychological effects on the East German people endure until today, because the way in which they’ve been trained for decades to understand that there are limits to their lives, even once you remove the limits, they’ve been trained that those are not limits they want to transgress.

That’s one of the things that constantly surveilling people and constantly communicating to them that they’re powerless before this omnipotent government/corporate institution does to people, it convinces them that the tiny little box in which they live is really the only box in which they want to live, so they no longer even realize they’re being imprisoned. Rosa Luxemburg put that best. She said,

He who does not move does not notice his chains.

You can acculturate people to believe that tyranny is freedom, that their limits are actually emancipation. That is what this surveillance state most insidiously does: By training people to accept their own conformity, believing that they are actually free, they no longer even realize the ways in which they’re being limited.

There are just a few quick points that I want to make about that. One is that you can do things that remove yourself from the surveillance matrix, not completely but to the best extent you can. There are people who only engage in transactions using cash. As inconvenient as that is, it at least removes that level of surveillance. There are ways to communicate on the Internet using very effective forms of anonymity, which I will talk about in a minute. There are ways of educating yourself about how to engage in interaction and activism beyond the prying eye of the U.S. Government, to stay, in essence, a step ahead.

There are important ways to educate yourself about the rights you have when directly interacting with government agents. So much of what the government learns is because people let them learn that without having any legal obligation to do so. Much of government searches or government questioning is done under the manipulative pretext of consent, where people thought they had to consent or didn’t know they had the right not to, and give up information they didn’t need to give up. And you can educate yourself about what your rights are by going to the Center for Constitutional Rights Web site or the National Coalition to Protect Civil Freedoms or the ACLU. Lots of places online will tell you how to do that.

A very important means of subverting this one-way mirror that I’ve described is forcible radical transparency. It’s one of the reasons that I support so enthusiastically and unqualifiedly groups like Anonymous and WikiLeaks. I want holes to be blown in the wall of secrecy, because the way in which this ends up operating effectively is only because they’re able to conceal what they do. That’s why they consider these unauthorized means of transparency so threatening.

A final point I want to make about things that can be done is that there are groups that are pursuing very interesting and effective forms of anonymity on the Internet. There’s things like the Tor Project and other groups which enable people to use the Internet without any detection from government authorities, that has the effect of preventing regimes that actually bar their citizens from using the Internet from doing so, since you can no longer trace the origins of the Internet user. But it also protects people who live in countries like ours, in which the government is constantly trying to monitor what we do, by sending our communications through multiple proxies around the world in a way that can’t be invaded.

There’s really a war taking place, an arms race, where the government and these groups are attempting to stay one technological step ahead of the other in terms of technological ability to shield Internet communications from the government and the government’s ability to invade them. Participating in this war in ways that are supportive of the good side are really critical, as is availing yourself of the technology that exists to make what you do as private as possible.

I really don’t think there are many more important fronts of battle, if there are any, than combating the surveillance state. That’s why I’m so interested in the topic and why I’m so happy to be able to speak with you about it. Thanks very much.

Q&A

Let me just address a few of those questions. The comment about Bradley Manning is one that really resonates for me, because one of the things that I’ve been able to do in this work is get to know Daniel Ellsberg pretty well, who, before Bradley Manning, was probably one of my greatest political heroes. He knowingly risked his liberty and even potentially his life just out of the conscience of needing to do something that he could to stop the Vietnam War.

One of the amazing things about Daniel Ellsberg is that if you stand up, even in mainstream Democratic liberal venues, and you mention the name Daniel Ellsberg, people will stand up and cheer, and they treat him like he’s a hero. It’s just like part of the dogma of being an American progressive or whatever that you’re supposed to cheer for Daniel Ellsberg. If you mention the name Bradley Manning in those same venues, there will be dead silence. And if you call for his prosecution and even his execution, that’s the far more likely way that you will get cheers in those kinds of places.

The thing that is so disturbing about that is that Manning is every bit the hero that Daniel Ellsberg was, if he did what he’s accused of. If you read the chat logs that are purportedly his, what he says about why he did what he is accused of doing is that he was horrified by the extent of the evil that his own government was doing, something that he never knew when he went to Iraq, and it wasn’t just in Iraq but the way in which his country and its allies operate in the world, and that he felt it was urgent that this information be liberated because he thought that that would lead to reforms. He even talked about the way in which he was willing to sacrifice his life and go to prison for a long time in order to achieve that end. That to me is the classic definition of hero.

And yet not just conservatives but even most mainstream progressives view him as a villain. Part of that is because it’s the Obama administration rather than the Republican administration prosecuting him. But I think the much bigger part of it is that we’ve really changed how we think, not just about surveillance, as I talked about earlier, but even authority, and the idea that you can challenge authority by nicely going into the voting booth and picking one of the two little holes that they’ve given you, but that anything more disruptive than that is inherently illegitimate. It’s not just that surveillance is more accepted, but so, too, is the idea that those who challenge authority in a meaningful way should be punished.

Just the last point I want to make is the two excellent comments that we just heard about the virtue and power of mass movements to defeat this. I certainly didn’t mean to stand up—and I actually said this last year—you can go into a room like this and you can talk about all the sort of forces that you face and you can just produce this kind of horrible gloominess, this defeatism. Oh, my God, I just listened to this guy for an hour and a half. He talked about all these horrible things. I think I want to go jump off a bridge or take a bunch of Xanax and play video games for the rest of my life or whatever. I definitely don’t want to suggest to anybody that this surveillance state is something that anyone should fear in the sense of driving you into inaction. But the reason why I didn’t emphasize that is that I assume that anybody, by virtue of your attendance here, is somebody who has already decided that you don’t the fear that. But, yes, absolutely overwhelming the surveillance state by just having too many people engage in too much prohibited conduct is definitely their vulnerability.

And the reason why they want to collect more and more is not because they want to read it all or they can read it all. They can’t. And the more they collect, in some senses, as this gentleman alluded to, the harder it is for them to find what they’re looking for. But the reason they want to cover and blanket everything with surveillance is because of what I talked about earlier. It’s that knowledge that the Los Angeles County had that if you make people think they’re being watched, that in and of itself will change behavior, even if you’re not really able to monitor what they do.

But I’m not here to discourage anybody from engaging in disruptions and mass movements. Quite the opposite. I just think it’s important to be aware of what these challenges are, not to hide under your bed in fear of them but to figure out how to defeat them.

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