John Cusack interviews law professor Jonathan Turley about Obama Administration’s war on the Constitution

by John Cusack

From Truthout

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

I wrote this a while back after Romney got the nom. In light of the blizzard of bullshit coming at us in the next few months I thought I would put it out now.

Now that the Republican primary circus is over, I started to think about what it would mean to vote for Obama…

Since mostly we hear from the daily hypocrisies of Mitt and friends, I thought we should examine “our guy” on a few issues with a bit more scrutiny than we hear from the “progressive left”, which seems to be little or none at all.

Instead of scrutiny, the usual arguments in favor of another Obama presidency are made: We must stop fanatics; it would be better than the fanatics—he’s the last line of defense from the corporate barbarians—and of course the Supreme Court. It all makes a terrible kind of sense and I agree completely with Garry Wills who described the Republican primaries as

a revolting combination of con men & fanatics, the current primary race has become a demonstration that the Republican party does not deserve serious consideration for public office.

True enough. But yet…

… there are certain Rubicon lines, as constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley calls them, that Obama has crossed.

All political questions are not equal no matter how much you pivot. When people die or lose their physical freedom to feed certain economic sectors or ideologies, it becomes a zero sum game for me.

This is not an exercise in bemoaning regrettable policy choices or cheering favorable ones but to ask fundamentally: Who are we? What are we voting for? And what does it mean?

Three markers — the Nobel Prize acceptance speech, the escalation speech at West Point, and the recent speech by Eric Holder — crossed that Rubicon line for me…

Mr. Obama, the Christian president with the Muslim-sounding name, would heed the admonitions of neither religion’s prophets about making war and do what no empire or leader, including Alexander the Great, could do: he would, he assured us “get the job done in Afghanistan.” And so we have our democratic president receiving the Nobel Peace Prize as he sends 30,000 more troops to a ten-year-old conflict in a country that’s been war-torn for 5,000 years.

Why? We’ll never fully know. Instead, we got a speech that was stone bullshit and an insult to the very idea of peace.

We can’t have it both ways. Hope means endless war? Obama has metaphorically pushed all in with the usual international and institutional killers; and in the case of war and peace, literally.
To sum it up: more war. So thousands die or are maimed; generations of families and veterans are damaged beyond imagination; sons and daughters come home in rubber bags. But he and his satellites get their four more years.

The AfPak War is more H. G. Wells than Orwell, with people blindly letting each other get fed to the barons of Wall Street and the Pentagon, themselves playing the part of the Pashtuns. The paradox is simple: he got elected on his anti-war stance during a perfect storm of the economic meltdown and McCain saying the worst thing at the worst time as we stared into the abyss. Obama beat Clinton on “I’m against the war and she is for it.” It was simple then, when he needed it to be.

Under Obama do we continue to call the thousands of mercenaries in Afghanistan “general contractors” now that Bush is gone? No, we don’t talk about them… not a story anymore.
Do we prosecute felonies like torture or spying on Americans? No, time to “move on”…

Now chaos is the norm and though the chaos is complicated, the answer is still simple. We can’t afford this morally, financially, or physically. Or in a language the financial community can digest: the wars are ideologically and spiritually bankrupt. No need to get a score from the CBO.
Drones bomb Pakistani villages across the border at an unprecedented rate. Is it legal? Does anyone care? “It begs the question,” as Daniel Berrigan asks us,

is this one a “good war” or a “dumb war”? But the question betrays the bias: it is all the same. It’s all madness.

One is forced to asked the question: Is the President just another Ivy League Asshole shredding civil liberties and due process and sending people to die in some shithole for purely political reasons?

There will be a historical record. “Change we can believe in” is not using the other guys’ mob to clean up your own tracks while continuing to feed at the trough. Human nature is human nature, and when people find out they’re being hustled, they will seek revenge, sooner or later, and it will be ugly and savage.

In a country with desperation growing everywhere, everyday — despite the “Oh, things are getting better” press releases — how could one think otherwise?

Just think about the economic crisis we are in as a country. It could never happen, they said. The American middle class was rock solid. The American dream, home ownership, education, the opportunity to get a good job if you applied yourself… and on and on. Yeah, what happened to that? It’s gone.

The next question must be: “What happened to our civil liberties, to our due process, which are the foundation of any notion of real democracy?” The chickens haven’t come home to roost for the majority but the foundation has been set and the Constitution gutted.

Brian McFadden’s cartoon says it all.

Here’s the transcript of the telephone interview I conducted with Turley.


CUSACK: Hello. Okay, hey I was just thinking about all this stuff and thought maybe we’d see what we can do to bring civil liberties and these issues back into the debate for the next couple of months …

TURLEY: I think that’s great.

CUSACK: So, I don’t know how you can believe in the Constitution and violate it that much.


CUSACK: I would just love to know your take as an expert on these things. And then maybe we can speak to whatever you think his motivations would be, and not speak to them in the way that we want to armchair-quarterback like the pundits do about “the game inside the game,” but only do it because it would speak to the arguments that are being used by the left to excuse it. For example, maybe their argument that there are things you can’t know, and it’s a dangerous world out there, or why do you think a constitutional law professor would throw out due process?

TURLEY: Well, there’s a misconception about Barack Obama as a former constitutional law professor. First of all, there are plenty of professors who are “legal relativists.” They tend to view legal principles as relative to whatever they’re trying to achieve. I would certainly put President Obama in the relativist category. Ironically, he shares that distinction with George W. Bush. They both tended to view the law as a means to a particular end — as opposed to the end itself. That’s the fundamental distinction among law professors. Law professors like Obama tend to view the law as one means to an end, and others, like myself, tend to view it as the end itself.

Truth be known, President Obama has never been particularly driven by principle. Right after his election, I wrote a column in a few days warning people that even though I voted for Obama, he was not what people were describing him to be. I saw him in the Senate. I saw him in Chicago.

CUSACK: Yeah, so did I.

TURLEY: He was never motivated that much by principle. What he’s motivated by are programs. And to that extent, I like his programs more than Bush’s programs, but Bush and Obama are very much alike when it comes to principles. They simply do not fight for the abstract principles and view them as something quite relative to what they’re trying to accomplish. Thus privacy yields to immunity for telecommunications companies and due process yields to tribunals for terrorism suspects.

CUSACK: Churchill said,

The power of the Executive to cast a man into prison without formulating any charge known to the law, and particularly to deny him the judgment of his peers, is in the highest degree odious and is the foundation of all totalitarian government whether Nazi or Communist.

That wasn’t Eugene Debs speaking — that was Winston Churchill.

And if he takes an oath before God to uphold the Constitution, and yet he decides it’s not politically expedient for him to deal with due process or spying on citizens and has his Attorney General justify murdering US citizens — and then adds a signing statement saying, “Well, I’m not going to do anything with this stuff because I’m a good guy.”– one would think we would have to define this as a much graver threat than good or bad policy choices- correct?

TURLEY: Well, first of all, there’s a great desire of many people to relieve themselves of the obligation to vote on principle. It’s a classic rationalization that liberals have been known to use recently, but not just liberals. The Republican and Democratic parties have accomplished an amazing feat with the red state/blue state paradigm. They’ve convinced everyone that regardless of how bad they are, the other guy is worse. So even with 11 percent of the public supporting Congress most incumbents will be returned to Congress. They have so structured and defined the question that people no longer look at the actual principles and instead vote on this false dichotomy.

Now, belief in human rights law and civil liberties leads one to the uncomfortable conclusion that President Obama has violated his oath to uphold the Constitution. But that’s not the primary question for voters. It is less about him than it is them. They have an obligation to cast their vote in a principled fashion. It is, in my opinion, no excuse to vote for someone who has violated core constitutional rights and civil liberties simply because you believe the other side is no better. You cannot pretend that your vote does not constitute at least a tacit approval of the policies of the candidate.
This is nothing new, of course for civil libertarians who have always been left behind at the altar in elections. We’ve always been the bridesmaid, never the bride. We’re used to politicians lying to us. And President Obama lied to us. There’s no way around that. He promised various things and promptly abandoned those principles.

So the argument that Romney is no better or worse does not excuse the obligation of a voter. With President Obama they have a president who went to the CIA soon after he was elected and promised CIA employees that they would not be investigated or prosecuted for torture, even though he admitted that waterboarding was torture.

CUSACK: I remember when we were working with Arianna at The Huffington Post and we thought, well, has anyone asked whether waterboarding is torture? Has anyone asked Eric Holder that? And so Arianna had Sam Seder ask him that at a press conference, and then he had to admit that it was. And then the next question, of course, was, well, if it is a crime, are you going to prosecute the law? But, of course, it wasn’t politically expedient to do so, right? That’s inherent in their non-answer and inaction?

TURLEY: That’s right.

CUSACK: Have you ever heard a more specious argument than “It’s time for us all to move on?” When did the Attorney General or the President have the option to enforce the law?

TURLEY: Well, that’s the key question that nobody wants to ask. We have a treaty, actually a number of treaties, that obligate us to investigate and prosecute torture. We pushed through those treaties because we wanted to make clear that no matter what the expediency of the moment, no matter whether it was convenient or inconvenient, all nations had to agree to investigate and prosecute torture and other war crimes.

And the whole reason for putting this in the treaties was to do precisely the opposite of what the Obama administration has done. That is, in these treaties they say that it is not a defense that prosecution would be inconvenient or unpopular. But that’s exactly what President Obama said when he announced, “I won’t allow the prosecution of torture because I want us to look to the future and not the past.” That is simply a rhetorical flourish to hide the obvious point: “I don’t want the inconvenience and the unpopularity that would come with enforcing this treaty.”

CUSACK: Right. So, in that sense, the Bush administration had set the precedent that the state can do anything it likes in the name of terror, and not only has Obama let that cement harden, but he’s actually expanded the power of the executive branch to do whatever it wants, or he’s lowered the bar — he’s lowered the law — to meet his convenience. He’s lowered the law to meet his personal political convenience rather than leaving it as something that, as Mario Cuomo said, the law is supposed to be better than us.

TURLEY: That’s exactly right. In fact, President Obama has not only maintained the position of George W. Bush in the area of national securities and in civil liberties, he’s actually expanded on those positions. He is actually worse than George Bush in some areas.

CUSACK: Can you speak to which ones?

TURLEY: Well, a good example of it is that President Bush ordered the killing of an American citizen when he approved a drone strike on a car in Yemen that he knew contained an American citizen as a passenger. Many of us at the time said, “You just effectively ordered the death of an American citizen in order to kill someone else, and where exactly do you have that authority?” But they made an argument that because the citizen wasn’t the primary target, he was just collateral damage. And there are many that believe that that is a plausible argument.

CUSACK: By the way, we’re forgetting to kill even a foreign citizen is against the law. I hate to be so quaint…

TURLEY: Well, President Obama outdid President Bush. He ordered the killing of two US citizens as the primary targets and has then gone forward and put out a policy that allows him to kill any American citizen when he unilaterally determines them to be a terrorist threat. Where President Bush had a citizen killed as collateral damage, President Obama has actually a formal policy allowing him to kill any US citizen.

CUSACK: But yet the speech that Eric Holder gave was greeted generally, by those others than civil libertarians and a few people on the left with some intellectual honesty, with polite applause and a stunning silence and then more cocktail parties and state dinners and dignitaries, back the Republican Hypocrisy Hour on the evening feed — and he basically gave a speech saying that the executive can assassinate US citizens.

TURLEY: That was the truly other-worldly moment of the speech. He went to, Northwestern Law School (my alma mater), and stood there and articulated the most authoritarian policy that a government can have: the right to unilaterally kill its citizens without any court order or review. The response from the audience was applause. Citizens applauding an Attorney General who just described how the President was claiming the right to kill any of them on his sole inherent authority.

CUSACK: Does that order have to come directly from Obama, or can his underlings carry that out on his behalf as part of a generalized understanding? Or does he have to personally say, “You can get that guy and that guy?”

TURLEY: Well, he has delegated the authority to the so-called death panel, which is, of course, hilarious, since the Republicans keep talking about a nonexistent death panel in national healthcare. We actually do have a death panel, and it’s killing people who are healthy.

CUSACK: I think you just gave me the idea for my next film. And the tone will be, of course, Kafkaesque.

TURLEY: It really is.

CUSACK: You’re at the bottom of the barrel when the Attorney General is saying that not only can you hold people in prison for no charge without due process, but we can kill the citizens that “we” deem terrorists. But “we” won’t do it cause we’re the good guys remember?

TURLEY: Well, the way that this works is you have this unseen panel. Of course, their proceedings are completely secret. The people who are put on the hit list are not informed, obviously.

CUSACK: That’s just not polite, is it?

TURLEY: No, it’s not. The first time you’re informed that you’re on this list is when your car explodes, and that doesn’t allow much time for due process. But the thing about the Obama administration is that it is far more premeditated and sophisticated in claiming authoritarian powers. Bush tended to shoot from the hip — he tended to do these things largely on the edges. In contrast, Obama has openly embraced these powers and created formal measures, an actual process for killing US citizens. He has used the terminology of the law to seek to legitimate an extrajudicial killing.

CUSACK: Yeah, bringing the law down to meet his political realism, his constitutional realism, which is that the Constitution is just a means to an end politically for him, so if it’s inconvenient for him to deal with due process or if it’s inconvenient for him to deal with torture, well, then why should he do that? He’s a busy man. The Constitution is just another document to be used in a political fashion, right?

TURLEY: Indeed. I heard from people in the administration after I wrote a column a couple weeks ago about the assassination policy. And they basically said, “Look, you’re not giving us our due. Holder said in the speech that we are following a constitutional analysis. And we have standards that we apply.” It is an incredibly seductive argument, but there is an incredible intellectual disconnect. Whatever they are doing, it can’t be called a constitutional process.

Obama has asserted the right to kill any citizen that he believes is a terrorist. He is not bound by this panel that only exists as an extension of his claimed inherent absolute authority. He can ignore them. He can circumvent them. In the end, with or without a panel, a president is unilaterally killing a US citizen. This is exactly what the framers of the Constitution told us not to do.

CUSACK: The framers didn’t say, “In special cases, do what you like. When there are things the public cannot know for their own good, when it’s extra-specially a dangerous world… do whatever you want.” The framers of the Constitution always knew there would be extraordinary circumstances, and they were accounted for in the Constitution. The Constitution does not allow for the executive to redefine the Constitution when it will be politically easier for him to get things done.

TURLEY: No. And it’s preposterous to argue that.

CUSACK: When does it become — criminal?

TURLEY: Well, the framers knew what it was like to have sovereigns kill citizens without due process. They did it all the time back in the 18th century. They wrote a constitution specifically to bar unilateral authority.
James Madison is often quoted for his observation that if all men were angels, no government would be necessary. And what he was saying is that you have to create a system of law that has checks and balances so that even imperfect human beings are restrained from doing much harm. Madison and other framers did not want to rely on the promises of good motivations or good intents from the government. They created a system where no branch had enough authority to govern alone — a system of shared and balanced powers.

So what Obama’s doing is to rewrite the most fundamental principle of the US Constitution. The whole point of the Holder speech was that we’re really good guys who take this seriously, and you can trust us. That’s exactly the argument the framers rejected, the “trust me” principle of government. You’ll notice when Romney was asked about this, he said, “I would’ve signed the same law, because I trust Obama to do the right thing.” They’re both using the very argument that the framers warned citizens never to accept from their government.

CUSACK: So basically, it comes down to, again, just political expediency and aesthetics. So as long as we have friendly aesthetics and likable people, we can do whatever we want. Who cares what the policy is or the implications for the future.

TURLEY: The greatest problem is what it has done to us and what our relative silence signifies. Liberals and civil libertarians have lost their own credibility, their own moral standing, with the support of President Obama. For many civil libertarians it is impossible to vote for someone who has blocked the prosecution of war crimes. That’s where you cross the Rubicon for most civil libertarians. That was a turning point for many who simply cannot to vote for someone who is accused of that type of violation.

Under international law, shielding people from war-crime prosecutions is itself a form of war crime. They’re both violations of international law. Notably, when the Spanish moved to investigate our torture program, we now know that the Obama administration threatened the Spanish courts and the Spanish government that they better not enforce the treaty against the U.S. This was a real threat to the Administration because these treaties allow other nations to step forward when another nation refuses to uphold the treaty. If a government does not investigate and prosecute its own accused war criminals, then other countries have the right to do so. That rule was, again, of our own creation. With other leading national we have long asserted the right to prosecute people in other countries who are shielded or protected by their own countries.

CUSACK: Didn’t Spain pull somebody out of Chile under that?

TURLEY: Yeah, Pinochet.

CUSACK: Yeah, also our guy…

TURLEY: The great irony of all this is that we’re the architect of that international process. We’re the one that always pushed for the position that no government could block war crimes prosecution.

But that’s not all. The Obama administration has also outdone the Bush administration in other areas. For example, one of the most important international principles to come out of World War II was the rejection of the “just following orders” defense. We were the country that led the world in saying that defendants brought before Nuremberg could not base their defense on the fact that they were just following orders. After Nuremberg, there were decades of development of this principle. It’s a very important point, because that defense, if it is allowed, would shield most people accused of torture and war crime. So when the Obama administration –

CUSACK: That also parallels into the idea that the National Defense Authorization Act is using its powers not only to put a chilling effect on whistleblowers, but to also make it illegal for whistleblowers to bring the truth out. Am I right on that, or is that an overstatement?

TURLEY: Well, the biggest problem is that when the administration was fishing around for some way to justify not doing the right thing and not prosecuting torture, they finally released a document that said that CIA personnel and even some DOJ lawyers were “just following orders,” but particularly CIA personnel.

The reason Obama promised them that none of them would be prosecuted is he said that they were just following the orders of higher authority in the government. That position gutted Nuremberg. Many lawyers around the world are upset because the US under the Obama administration has torn the heart out of Nuremberg. Just think of the implications: other countries that are accused of torture can shield their people and say, “Yeah, this guy was a torturer. This guy ordered a war crime. But they were all just following orders. And the guy that gave them the order, he’s dead.” It is the classic defense of war criminals. Now it is a viable defense again because of the Obama administration.


TURLEY: Certainly part of the problem is how the news media –

CUSACK: Oscar Wilde said most journalists would fall under the category of those who couldn’t tell the difference between a bicycle accident and the end of civilization. But why is it that all the journalists that you see mostly on MSNBC or most of the progressives, or so-called progressives, who believe that under Bush and Cheney and Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez these were great and grave constitutional crises, the wars were an ongoing moral fiasco — but now, since we have a friendly face in the White House, someone with kind of pleasing aesthetics and some new policies we like, now all of a sudden these aren’t crimes, there’s no crisis. Because he’s our guy? Go, team, go?

TURLEY: Some in the media have certainly fallen into this cult of personality.

CUSACK: What would you say to those people? I always thought the duty of a citizen, and even more so as a journalist, had greatly to do with the idea that intellectual honesty was much more important than political loyalty. How would you compare Alberto Gonzalez to Eric Holder?

TURLEY: Oh, Eric Holder is smarter than Gonzalez, but I see no other difference in terms of how they’ve conducted themselves. Both of these men are highly political. Holder was accused of being improperly political during his time in the Clinton administration. When he was up for Attorney General, he had to promise the Senate that he would not repeat some of the mistakes he made in the Clinton administration over things like the pardon scandal, where he was accused of being more politically than legally motivated.

In this town, Holder is viewed as much more of a political than a legal figure, and the same thing with Gonzalez. Bush and Obama both selected Attorney Generals who would do what they wanted them to do, who would enable them by saying that no principles stood in the way of what they wanted to do. More importantly, that there were no principles requiring them to do something they didn’t want to do, like investigate torture.

CUSACK: So would you say this assassination issue, or the speech and the clause in the NDAA and this signing statement that was attached, was equivalent to John Yoo’s torture document?

TURLEY: Oh, I think it’s amazing. It is astonishing the dishonesty that preceded and followed its passage. Before passage, the administration told the public that the president was upset about the lack of an exception for citizens and that he was ready to veto the bill if there was a lack of such an exception. Then, in an unguarded moment, Senator Levin was speaking to another Democratic senator who was objecting to the fact that citizens could be assassinated under this provision, and Levin said, “I don’t know if my colleague is aware that the exception language was removed at the request of the White House.” Many of us just fell out of our chairs. It was a relatively rare moment on the Senate floor, unguarded and unscripted.

CUSACK: And finally simple.

TURLEY: Yes. So we were basically lied to. I think that the administration was really caught unprepared by that rare moment of honesty, and that led ultimately to his pledge not to use the power to assassinate against citizens. But that pledge is meaningless. Having a president say, “I won’t use a power given to me” is the most dangerous of assurances, because a promise is not worth anything.

CUSACK: Yeah, I would say it’s the coldest comfort there is.

TURLEY: Yes. This brings us back to the media and the failure to strip away the rhetoric around these policies. It was certainly easier in the Bush administration, because you had more clown-like figures like Alberto Gonzalez. The problem is that the media has tended to get thinner and thinner in terms of analysis. The best example is that about the use of the term “coerced or enhanced interrogation.” I often stop reporters when they use these terms in questions. I say, “I’m not too sure what you mean, because waterboarding is not enhanced interrogation.” That was a myth put out by the Bush administration. Virtually no one in the field used that term, because courts in the United States and around the world consistently said that waterboarding’s torture. Holder admitted that waterboarding’s torture. Obama admitted that waterboarding is torture. Even members of the Bush administration ultimately admitted that waterboarding’s torture. The Bush Administration pushed this term to get reporters to drop the word torture and it worked. They are still using the term.

Look at the articles and the coverage. They uniformly say “enhanced interrogation.” Why? Because it’s easier. They want to avoid the controversy. Because if they say “torture,” it makes the story much more difficult. If you say, “Today the Senate was looking into a program to torture detainees,” there’s a requirement that you get a little more into the fact that we’re not supposed to be torturing people.

CUSACK: So, from a civil liberties perspective, ravens are circling the White House, even though there’s a friendly man in it.


CUSACK: I hate to speak too much to motivation, but why do you think MSNBC and other so-called centrist or left outlets won’t bring up any of these things? These issues were broadcast and reported on nightly when John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzalez and Bush were in office.

TURLEY: Well, there is no question that some at MSNBC have backed away from these issues, although occasionally you’ll see people talk about –

CUSACK: I think that’s being kind, don’t you? More like “abandoned.”

TURLEY: Yeah. The civil liberties perspective is rarely given more than a passing reference while national security concerns are explored in depth. Fox is viewed as protective of Bush while MSNBC is viewed as protective of Obama. But both presidents are guilty of the same violations. There are relatively few journalists willing to pursue these questions aggressively and objectively, particularly on television. And so the result is that the public is hearing a script written by the government that downplays these principles. They don’t hear the word “torture.”

They hear “enhanced interrogation.” They don’t hear much about the treaties. They don’t hear about the international condemnation of the United States. Most Americans are unaware of how far we have moved away from Nuremberg and core principles of international law.

CUSACK: So the surreal Holder speech — how could it be that no one would be reporting on that? How could it be that has gone by with not a bang but a whimper?

TURLEY: Well, you know, part of it, John, I think, is that this administration is very clever. First of all, they clearly made the decision right after the election to tack heavily to the right on national security issues. We know that by the people they put on the National Security Council. They went and got very hardcore folks — people who are quite unpopular with civil libertarians. Not surprisingly we almost immediately started to hear things like the pledge not to prosecute CIA officials and other Bush policies being continued.

Many reporters buy into these escape clauses that the administration gives them, this is where I think the administration is quite clever. From a legal perspective, the Holder speech should have been exposed as perfect nonsense. If you’re a constitutional scholar, what he was talking about is facially ridiculous, because he was saying that we do have a constitutional process–it’s just self-imposed, and we’re the only ones who can review it. They created a process of their own and then pledged to remain faithful to it.

While that should be a transparent and absurd position, it gave an out for journalists to say, “Well, you know, the administration’s promising that there is a process, it’s just not the court process.” That’s what is so clever, and why the Obama administration has been far more successful than the Bush administration in rolling back core rights. The Bush administration would basically say, “We just vaporized a citizen in a car with a terrorist, and we’re not sorry for it.”

CUSACK: Well, yeah, the Bush administration basically said, “We may have committed a crime, but we’re the government, so what the fuck are you going to do about it?” Right? —and the Obama administration is saying, “We’re going to set this all in cement, expand the power of the executive, and pass the buck to the next guy.” Is that it?

TURLEY: It’s the same type of argument when people used to say when they caught a criminal and hung him from a tree after a perfunctory five-minute trial. In those days, there was an attempt to pretend that they are really not a lynch mob, they were following a legal process of their making and their satisfaction. It’s just… it’s expedited. Well, in some ways, the administration is arguing the same thing. They’re saying, “Yes, we do believe that we can kill any US citizen, but we’re going to talk amongst ourselves about this, and we’re not going to do it until we’re satisfied that this guy is guilty.”

CUSACK: Me and the nameless death panel.

TURLEY: Again, the death panel is ludicrous. The power that they’ve defined derives from the president’s role as Commander in Chief. So this panel –

CUSACK: They’re falling back on executive privilege, the same as Nixon and

TURLEY: Right, it’s an extension of the president. He could just ignore it. It’s not like they have any power that exceeds his own.

CUSACK: So the death panel serves at the pleasure of the king, is what you’re saying.

TURLEY: Yes, and it gives him cover so that they can claim that they’re doing something legal when they’re doing something extra-legal.

CUSACK: Well, illegal, right?

TURLEY: Right. Outside the law.

CUSACK: So when does it get to a point where if you abdicate duty, it is in and of itself a crime? Obama is essentially creating a constitutional crisis not by committing crimes but by abdicating his oath that he swore before God — is that not a crime?

TURLEY: Well, he is violating international law over things like his promise to protect CIA officials from any prosecution for torture. That’s a direct violation, which makes our country as a whole doubly guilty for alleged war crimes. I know many of the people in the administration. Some of us were quite close. And they’re very smart people. I think that they also realize how far outside the lines they are. That’s the reason they are trying to draft up these policies to give the appearance of the law. It’s like a Potemkin village constructed as a façade for people to pass through –

CUSACK: They want to have a legal patina.

TURLEY: Right, and so they create this Potemkin village using names. You certainly can put the name “due process” on a drone missile, but it’s not delivering due process.

CUSACK: Yeah. And what about — well, we haven’t even gotten into the expansion of the privatization movement of the military “contractors” under George Bush or the escalation of drone strikes. I mean, who are they killing? Is it legal? Does anyone care — have we just given up as a country, saying that the Congress can declare war?

TURLEY: We appear to be in a sort of a free-fall. We have what used to be called an “imperial presidency.”

CUSACK: Obama is far more of an imperial president than Bush in many ways, wouldn’t you say?

TURLEY: Oh, President Obama has created an imperial presidency that would have made Richard Nixon blush. It is unbelievable.

CUSACK: And to say these things, most of the liberal community or the progressive community would say, “Turley and Cusack have lost their minds. What do they want? They want Mitt Romney to come in?”

TURLEY: The question is, “What has all of your relativistic voting and support done for you?” That is, certainly there are many people who believe –

CUSACK: Well, some of the people will say the bread-and-butter issues, “I got healthcare coverage, I got expanded healthcare coverage.”

TURLEY: See, that’s what I find really interesting. When I talk to people who support the administration, they usually agree with me that torture is a war crime and that the administration has blocked the investigation of alleged war crimes.

Then I ask them, “Then, morally, are you comfortable with saying, ‘I know the administration is concealing war crimes, but they’re really good on healthcare?’” That is what it comes down to.

The question for people to struggle with is how we ever hope to regain our moral standing and our high ground unless citizens are prepared to say, “Enough.” And this is really the election where that might actually carry some weight — if people said, “Enough. We’re not going to blindly support the president and be played anymore according to this blue state/red state paradigm. We’re going to reconstruct instead of replicate. It might not even be a reinvented Democratic Party in the end that is a viable option. Civil libertarians are going to stand apart so that people like Nancy Pelosi and Barack Obama and others know that there are certain Rubicon issues that you cannot cross, and one of them happens to be civil liberty.

CUSACK: Yeah, because most people reading this will sort of say, “Okay, this is all fine and good, but I’ve got to get to work and I’ve got stuff to do and I don’t know what these fucking guys are talking about. I don’t really care.”

So let’s paint a scenario. My nephew, Miles, decides that he wants to grow dreadlocks, and he also decides he’s falling in love with the religion of Islam. And he changes his name. Instead of his name being Miles, he changes his name to a Muslim-sounding name.

He goes to Washington, and he goes to the wrong organization or meeting, let’s say, and he goes to an Occupy Washington protest. He’s out there next to someone with a speaker, and a car bomb explodes. He didn’t set it off, and he didn’t do anything. The government can throw him in prison and never try him, right?

TURLEY: Well, first of all, that’s a very good question.

CUSACK: How do we illustrate the danger to normal people of these massive overreaches and radical changes to the Constitution that started under bush and have expanded under Obama?

TURLEY: I mean, first of all, I know Miles, and –


TURLEY: –and he is a little dangerous.


TURLEY: I played basketball with him and you and I would describe him as a clear and present danger.

CUSACK: I mean, and I know Eric Holder and Obama won’t throw him in prison because they’re nice guys, but let’s say that they’re out of office.

TURLEY: Right, and the problem is that there is no guarantee. It has become almost Fellini-esque. Holder made the announcement a couple of years ago that they would try some defendants in a federal court while reserving military tribunals for others. The speech started out on the high ground, saying, “We have to believe in our federal courts and our Constitution. We’ve tried terrorists before, and therefore we’re transferring these individuals to federal court.”

Then he said, “But we’re going to transfer these other individuals to Guantanamo Bay.” What was missing was any type of principle. You have Obama doing the same thing that George Bush did — sitting there like Caesar and saying, “You get a real trial and you get a fake trial.” He sent Zacarias Moussaoui to a federal court and then he threw Jose Padilla, who happened to be a US citizen, into the Navy brig and held him without trial.

Yet, Obama and Holder publicly assert that they’re somehow making a civil liberties point, and say, “We’re very proud of the fact that we have the courage to hold these people for a real trial, except for those people. Those people are going to get a tribunal.” And what happened after that was remarkable. If you read the press accounts, the press actually credits the administration with doing the right thing. Most of them pushed into the last paragraph the fact that all they did was split the people on the table, and half got a real trial and half got a fake trial.

CUSACK: In the same way, the demonization, whether rightful demonization, of Osama Bin Laden was so intense that people were thrilled that he was assassinated instead of brought to trial and tried. And I thought, if the Nuremberg principles were right, the idea would be that you’d want to take this guy and put him on trial in front of the entire world, and, actually, if you were going to put him to death, you’d put him to death by lethal injection.

TURLEY: You’ll recall reports came out that the Seals were told to kill Osama, and then reports came out to say that Osama might not have been armed when the Seals came in. The strong indication was that this was a hit.


TURLEY: The accounts suggest that this was an assassination from the beginning to the end, and that was largely brushed over in the media. There was never really any discussion of whether it was appropriate or even a good idea not to capture this guy and to bring him to justice.

The other thing that was not discussed in most newspapers and programs was the fact that we violated international law. Pakistan insisted that they never approved our going into Pakistan. Think about it — if the government of Mexico sent in Mexican special forces into San Diego and captured a Mexican national, or maybe even an American citizen, and then killed him, could you imagine what the outcry would be?

CUSACK: Or somebody from a Middle Eastern country who had their kids blown up by Mr. Cheney’s and Bush’s wars came in and decided they were going to take out Cheney–not take him back to try him, but actually just come in and assassinate him.

TURLEY: Yet we didn’t even have that debate. And I think that goes to your point, John, about where’s the media?

CUSACK: But, see, that’s a very tough principle to take, because everybody feels so rightfully loathsome about Bin Laden, right? But principles are not meant to be convenient, right? The Constitution is not meant to be convenient. If they can catch Adolf Eichmann and put him on trial, why not bin Laden? The principles are what separate us from the beasts.

I think the best answer I ever heard about this stuff, besides sitting around a kitchen table with you and your father and my father, was I heard somebody, they asked Mario Cuomo, “You don’t support the death penalty…? Would you for someone who raped your wife?” And Cuomo blinked, and he looked at him, and he said, “What would I do? Well, I’d take a baseball bat and I’d bash his skull in… But I don’t matter. The law is better than me. The law is supposed to be better than me. That’s the whole point.”

TURLEY: Right. It is one thing if the president argued that there was no opportunity to capture bin Laden because he was in a moving car, for example. And then some people could say, “Well, they took him out because there was no way they could use anything but a missile.” What’s missing in the debate is that it was quickly brushed over whether we had the ability to capture bin Laden.

CUSACK: Well, it gets to [the late] Raiders owner Al Davis’ justice, which is basically, “Just win, baby.” And that’s where we are. The Constitution was framed by Al Davis. I never knew that.

And the sad part for me is that all the conversations and these interpretations and these conveniences, if they had followed the Constitution, and if they had been strict in terms of their interpretations, it wouldn’t matter one bit in effectively handling the war on terror or protecting Americans, because there wasn’t anything extra accomplished materially in taking these extra leaps, other than to make it easier for them to play cowboy and not cede national security to the Republicans politically. Bin Laden was basically ineffective. And our overseas intel people were already all over these guys.

It doesn’t really matter. The only thing that’s been hurt here has been us and the Constitution and any moral high ground we used to have. Because Obama and Holder are good guys, it’s okay. But what happens when the not-so-good guys come in, does MSNBC really want to cede and grandfather these powers to Gingrich or Romney or Ryan or Santorum or whomever — and then we’re sitting around looking at each other, like how did this happen? — the same way we look around now and say, “How the hell did the middle of America lose the American dream? How is all of this stuff happening at the same time?” And it gets back to lack of principle.

TURLEY: I think that’s right. Remember the articles during the torture debate? I kept on getting calls from reporters saying, “Well, you know, the administration has come out with an interesting statement. They said that it appears that they might’ve gotten something positive from torturing these people.” Yet you’ve had other officials say that they got garbage, which is what you often get from torture…

CUSACK: So the argument being that if we can get good information, we should torture?

TURLEY: Exactly. Yeah, that’s what I ask them. I say, “So, first of all, let’s remember, torture is a war crime. So what you’re saying is — ”

CUSACK: Well, war crimes… war crimes are effective.

TURLEY: The thing that amazes me is that you have smart people like reporters who buy so readily into this. I truly believe that they’re earnest when they say this.

Of course you ask them “Well, does that mean that the Nuremberg principles don’t apply as long as you can show some productive use?” We have treaty provisions that expressly rule out justifying torture on the basis that it was used to gain useful information.

CUSACK: Look, I mean, enforced slave labor has some productive use. You get great productivity, you get great output from that shit. You’re not measuring the principle against the potential outcome; that’s a bad business model. “Just win, baby” — we’re supposed to be above that.

TURLEY: But, you know, I’ll give you an example. I had one of the leading investigative journalists email me after one of my columns blasting the administration on the assassin list, and this is someone I deeply respect. He’s one of the true great investigative reporters. He objected to the fact that my column said that under the Obama policy he could kill US citizens not just abroad, but could kill them in the United States. And he said, “You know, I agree with everything in your column except that.” He said, “You know, they’ve never said that they could kill someone in the United States. I think that you are exaggerating.”

Yet, if you look at how they define the power, it is based on the mere perceived practicality and necessity of legal process by the president. They say the President has unilateral power to assassinate a citizen that he believes is a terrorist. Now, is the limiting principle? They argue that they do this “constitutional analysis,” and they only kill a citizen when it’s not practical to arrest the person.

CUSACK: Is that with the death panel?

TURLEY: Well, yeah, he’s talking about the death panel. Yet, he can ignore the death panel. But, more importantly, what does practicality mean? It all comes down to an unchecked presidential power.

CUSACK: By the way, the death panel — that room can’t be a fun room to go into, just make the decision on your own. You know, it’s probably a gloomy place, the death panel room, so the argument from the reporter was, “Look, they can… if they kill people in England or Paris that’s okay, but they — ”

TURLEY: I also don’t understand, why would it make sense that you could kill a US citizen on the streets of London but you might not be able to kill them on the streets of Las Vegas? The question is where the limiting principle comes from or is that just simply one more of these self-imposed rules? And that’s what they really are saying: we have these self-imposed rules that we’re only going to do this when we think we have to.

CUSACK: So, if somebody can use the contra-Nuremberg argument — that principle’s now been flipped, that they were only following orders — does that mean that the person that issued the order through Obama, or the President himself, is responsible and can be brought up on a war crime charge?

TURLEY: Well, under international law, Obama is subject to international law in terms of ordering any defined war crime.

CUSACK: Would he have to give his Nobel Peace Prize back?

TURLEY: I don’t think that thing’s going back. I’ve got to tell you… and given the amount of authority he’s claimed, I don’t know if anyone would have the guts to ask for it back.

CUSACK: And the argument people are going to use is,”Look, Obama and Holder are good guys. They’re not going to use this power.” But the point is, what about after them? What about the apparatchiks? You’ve unleashed the beast. And precedent is everything constitutionally, isn’t it?

TURLEY: I think that’s right. Basically what they’re arguing is, “We’re angels,” and that’s exactly what Madison warned against. As we discussed, he said if all men were angels you wouldn’t need government. And what the administration is saying is, “We’re angels, so trust us.”

I think that what is really telling is the disconnect between what people say about our country and what our country has become. What we’ve lost under Bush and Obama is clarity. In the “war on terror” what we’ve lost is what we need the most in fighting terrorism: clarity. We need the clarity of being better than the people that we are fighting against. Instead, we’ve given propagandists in Al Qaeda or the Taliban an endless supply of material — allowing them to denounce us as hypocrites.

Soon after 9/11 we started government officials talk about how the US Constitution is making us weaker, how we can’t function by giving people due process. And it was perfectly ridiculous.

CUSACK: Feels more grotesque than ridiculous.

TURLEY: Yeah, all the reports that came out after 9/11 showed that 9/11 could’ve been avoided. For years people argued that we should have locked reinforced cockpit doors. For years people talked about the gaps in security at airports. We had the intelligence services that had the intelligence that they needed to move against this ring, and they didn’t share the information. So we have this long list of failures by US agencies, and the result was that we increased their budget and gave them more unchecked authority.

In the end, we have to be as good as we claim. We can’t just talk a good game. If you look at this country in terms of what we’ve done, we have violated the Nuremberg principles, we have violated international treaties, we have refused to accept–

CUSACK: And you’re not just talking about in the Bush administration. You’re talking about –

TURLEY: The Obama administration.

CUSACK: You’re talking about right now.

TURLEY: We have refused to accept the jurisdictional authority of sovereign countries. We now routinely kill in other countries. It is American exceptionalism – the rules apply to other countries.

CUSACK: Well, these drone attacks in Pakistan, are they legal? Does anyone care? Who are we killing? Do they deserve due process?

TURLEY: When we cross the border, Americans disregard the fact that Pakistan is a sovereign nation, let alone an ally, and they insist that they have not agreed to these operations. They have accused us of repeatedly killing people in their country by violating their sovereign airspace. And we just disregard it. Again, its American exceptionalism, that we –

CUSACK: Get out of our way or we’ll pulverize you.

TURLEY: The rules apply to everyone else. So the treaties against torture and war crimes, sovereign integrity –

CUSACK: And this also speaks to the question that nobody even bothers to ask: what exactly are we doing in Afghanistan now? Why are we there?

TURLEY: Oh, yeah, that’s the real tragedy.

CUSACK: It has the highest recorded suicide rate among veterans in history and no one even bothers to state a pretense of a definable mission or goal. It appears we’re there because it’s not convenient for him to really get out before the election. So in that sense he’s another guy who’s letting people die in some shithole for purely political reasons. I mean, it is what it is.

TURLEY: I’m afraid, it is a political calculation. What I find amazing is that we’re supporting an unbelievably corrupt government in the Karzai administration.

Karzai himself, just two days ago, called Americans “demons.” He previously said that he wished he had gone with the Taliban rather than the Americans. And, more importantly, his government recently announced that women are worth less than men, and he has started to implement these religious edicts that are subjugating women. So he has American women who are protecting his life while he’s on television telling people that women are worth less than men, and we’re funding –

CUSACK: What are they, about three-fifths?

TURLEY: Yeah, he wasn’t very specific on that point. So we’re spending hundreds of billions of dollars. More importantly, we’re losing all these lives because it was simply politically inconvenient to be able to pull out of Afghanistan and Iraq.

CUSACK: Yeah. And, I mean, we haven’t even touched on the whole privatization of the military and what that means. What does it mean for the state to be funding at-cost-plus private mercenary armies and private mercenary security forces like Blackwater, or now their names are Xe, or whatever they’ve been rebranded as?

TURLEY: Well, the United States has barred various international rules because they would allow for the prosecution of war crimes by both military and private forces. The US barred those new rules because we didn’t want the ability of other countries to prosecute our people for war crimes. One of the things I teach in my constitutional class is that there is a need for what’s called a bright-line rule. That is, the value for bright-line rules is that they structure relations between the branches, between the government and citizens. Bright-line rules protect freedom and liberty. Those people that try to eliminate bright-line rules quickly find themselves on a slippery slope. The Obama administration, with the Bush administration, began by denying rights to people at Guantanamo Bay.

And then they started to deny rights of foreigners who they accused of being terrorists. And eventually, just recently, they started denying rights to citizens and saying that they could kill citizens without any court order or review. It is the fulfillment of what is the nightmare of civil liberties. They crossed that bright line. Now they’re bringing these same abuses to US citizens and changing how we relate to our government. In the end, we have this huge apparatus of the legal system, this huge court system, and all of it has become discretionary because the president can go ahead and kill US citizens if he feels that it’s simply inconvenient or impractical to bring them to justice.

CUSACK: Or if the great O, decides that he wants to be lenient and just throw them in jail for the rest of their life without trial, he can do that, right?

TURLEY: Well, you’ve got Guantanamo Bay if you’re accused of being an enemy combatant. There is the concept in law that the lesser is included in the greater.

So if the president can kill me when I’m in London, then the lesser of that greater is that he could also hold me, presumably, without having any court involvement. It’d be a little bizarre that he could kill me but if he held me he’d have to turn me over to the court system.

CUSACK: Yeah. We’re getting into kind of Kafka territory. You know, with Bush I always felt like you were at one of those rides in an amusement park where the floor kept dropping and you kept kind of falling. But I think what Obama’s done is we’ve really hit the bottom as far as civil liberties go.

TURLEY: Yet people have greeted this erosion of civil liberties with this collective yawn.

CUSACK: Yeah, yeah. And so then it gets down to the question, “Well, are you going to vote for Obama?” And I say, “Well, I don’t really know. I couldn’t really vote for Hillary Clinton because of her Iraq War vote.” Because I felt like that was a line, a Rubicon line –

TURLEY: Right.

CUSACK: — a Rubicon line that I couldn’t cross, right? I don’t know how to bring myself to vote for a constitutional law professor, or even a constitutional realist, who throws away due process and claims the authority that the executive branch can assassinate American citizens. I just don’t know if I can bring myself to do it.

If you want to make a protest vote against Romney, go ahead, but I would think we’d be better putting our energies into local and state politics — occupy Wall Street and organizations and movements outside the system, not national politics, not personalities. Not stadium rock politics. Not brands. That’s the only thing I can think of. What would you say?

TURLEY: Well, the question, I think, that people have got to ask themselves when they get into that booth is not what Obama has become, but what have we become? That is, what’s left of our values if we vote for a person that we believe has shielded war crimes or violated due process or implemented authoritarian powers. It’s not enough to say, “Yeah, he did all those things, but I really like what he did with the National Park System.”

CUSACK: Yeah, or that he did a good job with the auto bailout.

TURLEY: Right. I think that people have to accept that they own this decision, that they can walk away. I realize that this is a tough decision for people but maybe, if enough people walked away, we could finally galvanize people into action to make serious changes. We have to recognize that our political system is fundamentally broken, it’s unresponsive. Only 11 percent of the public supports Congress, and yet nothing is changing — and so the question becomes, how do you jumpstart that system? How do you create an alternative? What we have learned from past elections is that you don’t create an alternative by yielding to this false dichotomy that only reinforces their monopoly on power.

CUSACK: I think that even Howard Zinn/Chomsky progressives, would admit that there will be a difference in domestic policy between Obama and a Romney presidency.

But DUE PROCESS….I think about how we own it. We own it. Everybody’s sort of let it slip. There’s no immediacy in the day-to-day on and it’s just one of those things that unless they… when they start pulling kids off the street, like they did in Argentina a few years ago and other places, all of a sudden, it’s like, “How the hell did that happen?” I say, “Look, you’re not helping Obama by enabling him. If you want to help him, hold his feet to the fire.”

TURLEY: Exactly.

CUSACK: The problem is, as I see it, is that regardless of goodwill and intent and people being tired of the status quo and everything else, the information outlets and the powers that be reconstruct or construct the government narrative only as an election game of ‘us versus them,’ Obama versus Romney, and if you do anything that will compromise that equation, you are picking one side versus the other. Because don’t you realize that’s going to hurt Obama? Don’t you know that’s going to help Obama? Don’t you know… and they’re not thinking through their own sort of self-interest or the community’s interest in just changing the way that this whole thing works to the benefit of the majority. We used to have some lines we wouldn’t cross–some people who said this is not what this country does …we don’t do this shit, you had to do the right thing. So it’s going to be a tough process getting our rights back, but you know Frankie’s Law? Whoever stops fighting first – loses.

TURLEY: Right.

This interview first appeared on Alaska journalist Shannyn Moore’s blog.

Also see Jason Leopold’s December 2011 report: Obama’s “Twisted Version of American Exceptionalism” Laid Bare

This piece was reprinted by Truthout with permission or license.

John Cusack makes films.

© 2012 Truthout

Posted in All dumbed down, Big picture, Department of Offense, Follies of empire, John Birch ilk, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, Medium the massage, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action | Leave a comment

Unending violence comes home to roost

One of the weapons Holmes used to shoot up the Aurora theatre

by Jay Wenk, World War II veteran, member Veterans for Peace

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

What part of “regulated” isn’t understood by the people who want their guns pried from their cold, dead fingers?

Who thinks that an 18th century’s “well regulated militia” is not today’s National Guard?

Who thinks it’s all right that anyone can decide to stock up on lots of deadly weapons?

Who thinks that it’s not guns that kill and maim men, women, and children; that it’s “people” who do?

Who thinks that it’s OK for ammunition clips that hold 100 bullets to be sold legally?

Who thinks that it’s fine that automatic weapons of death and destruction are available over the counter?

Who thinks it’s part of the American dream that munitions are sold online?

Do these self-styled “patriots” consider themselves to be the Minutemen of today’s world?

How long will the selfish and violent members of the National Rifle Association and their supporters hold all of us hostage, literally?

How long will presidential contenders tremble before the votes of those who support the means to wreak lifelong grief and despair on the survivors of what happens as a result of their belief?

How long will the population listen to and accept the so-called “righteousness” of politicians wringing their hands over murders like Aurora, and at the same time consent to continuing support for the evil being committed overseas on innocent children and adults by drones and the other “toys” used by these politicians with crocodile tears?

“It’s horrible,” Obama says to Aurora. Then he swivels his chair around to push the buttons again.

If the Second Amendment can’t or won’t be enforced to mean what it’s clearly intended to be, then scrap it.

Slavery used to be Constitutional. We got rid of that, after buckets of blood and unknown numbers of lives were taken.

And what about the munitions makers? Should they be shut down and the workers fired? I say yes in order to save the lives of innocents.

The unending violence this nation exhibits comes home to roost every time someone goes out to kill and terrorize.

“The greatest purveyor of violence in the world : My own government, I can not be silent.” –Martin Luther King, Jr., April 1967. Still true, even under Obomba.

Posted in Guns, John Birch ilk, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness | Leave a comment

Dark Ages in the U.S.

Morris Berman
Elliot Bay Bookstore
Seattle, WA
November 4, 2011

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Morris Berman speak for himself here.

From the boarded-up storefronts to foreclosed homes to the homeless and unemployed, the signs of decay in the U.S. are all too apparent. The political class pretending to care about the 99% have little to offer beyond boilerplate rhetoric. We hear about the virtues of hard work. If only there was work to be had. From the White House to the state house, citizens are treated to a smorgasbord of slogans all capped with “God Bless America.” Abroad, the imperial war machine grinds on. State-of-the-art warships rule the seven seas. An air force, second to none, commands the skies. Meanwhile, back in the homeland, there are signs that the servants are getting increasingly restless. Occupy Wall Street might rock the structures of power sufficiently to generate the radical change so urgently needed.

Morris Berman is a cultural historian and critic. He has taught at universities in North America and Europe. He is an award-winning author. Among his many books are Twlight America Failed, Dark Ages America, and Why America Failed.

Despite the great pressure to conform in the U.S., to celebrate the U.S. as the best system in the world, the nation does not lack for critics. The last two decades have seen numerous works criticizing U.S. foreign policy, U.S. domestic policy, in particular the economy, the American educational system, the court system, the military/media/corporate influence over American life, and so on. I’ve learned lot from reading these books. But two things in particular, at least in my view, are lacking and have a very hard time making it into the public eye—partly because Americans are not trained to think in a holistic or synthetic fashion, and partly because the sort of analysis I have in mind is too close to the bone, it’s too difficult for Americans to hear. It’s not a question of IQ; it’s on a kind of an ontological basis. It’s primal.

The first thing that these works lack is an integration of the various factors that are tearing the nation apart. In other words, these studies are institution-specific. You can read works on how the educational system doesn’t work, problems with the military, the economy, and so on. All that’s typical. The second thing I find lacking is a relationship to the culture at large, that is, to the values and behaviors of Americans on a daily basis. As a result, for me, these critiques are rather superficial; they don’t really go to the root of the problem.

The avoidance involved enables the work to be optimistic, and that places them, in fact, in the American mainstream. The authors often conclude their studies with practical recommendations as to how the particular institutional dysfunctions can be rectified. As a result, they’re not much of a threat. It’s usually a mechanical analysis with a mechanical solution. If the authors were to realize that these problems don’t exist in a vacuum but are related to all the other problems and are finally rooted in the nature of American culture itself—in its DNA, so to speak—the prognosis would not be so rosy, I don’t think.

Two examples for me. There are many one could take, but two examples for me are Michael Moore and Noam Chomsky. I admire them greatly. They’ve done a lot to raise domestic awareness in the U.S. of what’s going on to show that foreign and domestic policy are both wrong-headed and headed in the wrong direction, dead ends, whatever. But both of these writers assume that the problem is coming from the top—in other words, from the Pentagon and the corporations. That’s basically the assumption they have. That’s partly true, of course. I don’t deny that. But the problem for me is that it rests on a theory of false consciousness. In other words, the belief is that these institutions have pulled the wool over the eyes of the average American, that basically the average citizen is ultimately rational and well intentioned.

I don’t know who they’ve been talking to. Maybe they haven’t been talking to anybody and that’s the problem. I don’t know. The idea is if you pull the wool off the eyes of these deluded individuals, the citizenry will spontaneously awaken, it will commit itself to some sort of populist, in the case of Moore, or, in the case of Chomsky, democratic socialist vision. Is that happening with Occupy Wall Street? That’s something we might want to discuss. What is going on and what is the significance of that?

But my question is, what if it turns out that the wool is the eyes? The so-called average citizen, as far as I can make out, in the U.S. really does, want, to quote Janis Joplin, a Mercedes-Benz—that’s the great American dream—and is probably grateful to corporations for supplying us with the oceans of consumer goods, to the Pentagon for protecting us from those awful Arabs lurking in the Middle East. So then, if you see that, then the possibilities of fundamental change appear to be quite small, because what would be called for in that case is a completely different set of institutions and a very different type of culture. And I doubt there’s much chance of that occurring. Even in the case of the Wall Street protests—we have to say—what’s the aim of that? America is what it is.

Surveying that critical scene, then, I find very few writers who see things synthetically or as an integrated whole and who further relate this to the nature of American culture itself. That being said, there are a few. I’m thinking of Sacvan Bercovitch, who wrote The Puritan Origins of the American Self, or Chris Hedges, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, or Walter Hixson, The Myth of American Diplomacy. The titles, I think, are very revealing. It’s also the case that a few eminent historians come to mind. C. Vann Woodward, William Appleman Williams, David Potter, Jackson Lears. There are those who are radical, in the sense of going down to the root of things. There are not many, but they do exist.

Bercovitch, for example, is a Canadian who taught American studies for decades at Harvard. He argues that as early as 1630 the colonists remained imbued with the idea that they were establishing a new nation under the direction of Providence and reenacting the drama of the Exodus in the Old Testament. So crossing the Atlantic was equivalent to crossing the River Jordan. They were entering the new world, Canaan, flowing with milk and honey. They rejected the decadence of England and Europe in general—that is, ancient Egypt. And they established a new order, the new Jerusalem. And all of this in accordance with God’s will.

Walter Hixson, a historian at the University of Akron, claims that American identity originally coalesced around the idea of the Other, whoever it was, as being savage, and thus that our identity has always been based on war. We never really negotiated anything with anyone, as other nations found out, usually too late. Chris Hedges amplifies this notion by arguing that war gives Americans a reason for being, a meaning to their lives.

All of this, to me, is much more sophisticated than some theory of false consciousness, some belief that Americans are fundamentally well intentioned and rational, and it’s just a question of removing the wool from their eyes. Instead, it essentially argues that we are, and have been since our earliest days, hopelessly neurotic, and that the belief that we can pursue a truly different path at this stage in the game is quite deluded and would require yanking out the American psyche by its roots. Ain’t gonna happen.

I like that think that I fall in this latter category of historians, only because I think that it’s this version of American history that’s faithful to reality. There are a number of themes we could get into at this point, and I have examined some of them in the trilogy I wrote on the American empire. But you don’t want me speaking for 12 or 14 hours, I’m sure, so let me just take one idea and elaborate on that.

There’s an essay in this collection, A Question of Values, called “Locating the Enemy.” In that essay I take an idea from Hegel, that of negative identity, by which Hegel did not mean a bad identity, he meant reactive. That is to say, a negative identity is one that’s formed in opposition to something or someone else. It enables you to develop very strong ego boundaries, always pushing against an enemy. But since it’s formed against opposition, says Hegel, it has no real content. It’s just basically form. As a result, it looks strong, but it’s actually weak because its self-definition is relational. “What would a master be,” says Hegel, in a very famous passage in his work, “What would a master be without a slave?” Take away the slave, the masters would have nothing to define themselves by.

So what I argue is that this concept of negative identity applies particularly well to the history of the American continent. Opposition, in whatever form, provided the colonists with a guiding narrative that enabled them to make sense of their lives. And since, as Bercovitch easily demonstrates, this was a religious narrative, as we just talked about from the Exodus, it didn’t take much to turn that into a Manichaean one, in which the enemy, whoever he was, was the darkest of the dark. The target of this self-righteous hatred has metamorphosed over time, but the form, that of Manichaean opposition, has remained the same. So native Americans were quickly seen as little more than savages, an obstacle to “civilization,” and treated accordingly. Every Thanksgiving, we all sit down, carve up a turkey, and celebrate the genocide and near extinction of an entire indigenous people. Pass the squash.

The next target was the British, which surfaced during the American Revolution, although this was already present, obviously, when the Pilgrims left for America in 1620. Britain was decadent and corrupt, in the view of the colonists, hierarchical, while we, citizens of the future, the United States, were essentially not British, not European, but republican—that is to say, antimonarchical. The terror and brutality that was visited upon the loyalists, which you should know was nearly a half a million people at that time, that is, roughly 30% of the population on the continent, those who did not go along with the simplistic black-and-white agenda, almost never gets discussed in American history books. It does in Canadian ones, it does in British ones, but never in American ones, or rarely. But it has been recorded. Constant intimidation, tarring and feathering, confiscation or burning of property, being driven from their homes, frequently murdered as “traitors.”

The most recent study and probably the most comprehensive is called Liberty’s Exiles. It’s by Maya Jasanoff, and probably they have it somewhere upstairs. There are very few American books in this genre, because they violate the myth of American innocence, which is very important for Americans in their own minds.

Moving right along, we come to Mexico, in 1846-48. This involved provoking a phony war and then stealing more than half of the entire country. Remember the Alamo. As in the case of the American Indians, it was convenient to cast the Mexican people as ignorant and undeveloped, as savages of some sort, lacking the go-go energy of U.S. capitalism. And, frankly, that stereotype persists down to the present day. Just read the American papers about drug crimes and all that sort of stuff. It’s like 10% of what’s going on in Mexico, if that. But that’s the way that the U.S. likes to see Mexico. As in the case of the Native Americans, Mexicans were seen as being in the way of “progress”—and I use that word in quotes—of American manifest destiny, again, ordained by God.

The truth is that the Mexican government was quite aware of who they were dealing with. In the late 1820s, a Mexican commission wrote a secret report saying that Americans were

an ambitious people, always ready to encroach upon their neighbors, without a spark of good faith.

We have that now. It’s not classified anymore. Even without WikiLeaks I was able to get this and tell you about it. It’s actually quoted in a book by Robert Kagan called Dangerous Nation. Virtually everybody viewed the U.S. in this way, including the Spanish, the French, the Russians, and the British. French diplomats called the American populace “warlike” and “restless.”

Shortly after, that same framework was applied by the North to the American South. It was a lazy, do-nothing society sitting in the way of progress. As I discuss in a chapter in Why America Failed, it was not northern opposition to slavery that triggered the Civil War. Later on, obviously, it became an important unifying theme or rallying cry.

(I’m sure that critics of the book will say I’m pro-slavery or something. I can see it now, really. But these people are not that bright, and they’re not into nuance. It’s not their thing.)

But it could well be argued that without the Civil War slavery would have continued for several decades more. Probably that’s the case, although some historians have argued that it’s not true. But the more fundamental conflict was a clash of cultures. It was the slow, easy way of the South as opposed to the restless economic expansion of the North. Each side regarded the other as the devil incarnate. And the result was the loss of 625,000 lives and a massive destruction of the South, epitomized by Sherman’s march to the sea, which was violent beyond belief. Those scars still exist. As far as the South goes, the war is not really over. You just have to travel through the South to see that. The resentment runs very deep. And it’s because their way of life was never acknowledged as having any validity at all.

The Germans were next, although that’s an opposition that seems thoroughly justified. We got that one right.

And then the godless communists, of course. The conversion of the Russians from ally to enemy occurred almost overnight. And it isn’t difficult to see why. With the Axis powers out of the picture, there had to be an enemy in place to fill the resulting vacuum. And although the USSR as a regime was quite repressive—we all know that—it did not, as George Kennan was later to argue, have to be cast as the ultimate enemy, because its real goal was in securing its borders. That was really it. KGB files that came open after the fall of the Soviet Union revealed that Russia’s real fear was not of the U.S., but of a rearmed Germany. That was really the major thing in their minds that they were scared about. However, there was no attempt to negotiate anything with Russia. As Stalin pointed out as early as 1946, for the Americans negotiation actually meant capitulation. That was the American idea of negotiation, that the other side simply lie down, roll over.

In any case, the Cold War kept the U.S. busy for decades. And the so-called perimeter defense, which held that any disturbance in the world was a cause for U.S. military action, led to the disasters of Iran, Guatemala, Vietnam, Chile, and so on. A long and unhappy list, well documented by Stephen Kinzer in his book Overthrow and William Blum in his book Killing Hope.

Of course, the psychological structure of negative identity led to a crisis when Soviet Union finally collapsed. Suddenly we had no one to define ourselves against. The Gulf War of 1991 helped fill the gap for a time, but the Clinton years were largely meaningless. Without an enemy, we had no idea who we were, so we filled the space with O. J. Simpson and Monica Lewinsky, and that sort of kept us busy for several years.

Finally, the Islamic world did us the greatest favor imaginable: It attacked us. Overnight, terrorism replaced communism as the crucial buzzword. Bush Jr., like Reagan in characterizing the Soviet Union, said this is ultimate evil, it’s a contest between good and evil, it’s a crusade, not a good word to use if you’re talking to the Arab world.

There was no possible discussion of American foreign policy in the Middle East as having played a role in these events. In fact, the notion was tantamount to treason. Susan Sontag, who said it in The New Yorker shortly after, lost her job. Even today, you can’t talk in those terms. These people are evil and insane, end of discussion. They’re savages.

To this day, under the Obama administration, you should be aware, your tax dollars pay for workshops that teach the police and the military that Islam is an evil religion out to destroy America, and which must therefore be destroyed first. I don’t know if you’re aware of this. But if you don’t believe me, go to, Chris Hedges’s column of May 9 [2011], in which he names names: who are giving these workshops, how much they’re receiving, to whom they are giving these workshops, the funding. It’s all there. Once again, civilization and the savages. That’s the model.

Kennan tried to warn the American government that making a monolith out of communism was a big mistake, that there were huge conflicts, for example, between Russia and China. But since Manichaeanism requires cardboard figures, American presidents, from Truman on, paid no attention to his advice.

A similar thing now exists with respect to Islam. It turns out that only about 10% of American Muslims are religious. In this sense they’re like the Jews: It’s basically social. You go to the mosque, you meet people. That’s really what it’s about. Of the 10% who are religious, the tiniest minority are jihadists. But when your identity is a negative one in the Hegelian sense, this type of nuance has to be kept out of everyone’s consciousness.

For example, Americans tend to regard Pakistan as a dark and awful place, the country that hid Osama bin Laden and protected him from American troops and so on or that harbors al- Qaeda operatives—hence our drone strikes in that country that mostly kill civilians, making the president really a war criminal, basically—or that it’s in league with the Taliban and so on.

What would Americans say if they read in the newspapers—and you can’t in American newspapers. Just last June I happened to be in London and I picked up a copy of The Guardian. There was an article about a very popular TV show in Pakistan that’s run by a sort of Jon Stewart-type comedian. He pokes fun at the government and at Muslim fundamentalism. One would not think that. He hosts groups—there’s one group that has a song called “Burqa Woman,” which is based on Roy Orbison’s song, “Pretty Woman.” It’s the same music. So that song goes, “Burqa woman, walking down the street/Burqa woman, with your sexy feet,” because that’s all you can see. This did not get picked up by the American press, because basically it complicates the picture. Then the enemy is the not totally black, you see. It would open up a questioning of who we are beyond a nation in opposition to something, and that means the game would be up. So we don’t want that.

Marshal McLuhan once wrote that

all forms of violence are quests for identity.

I love that line. “All forms of violence are quests for identity.” More recently, David Shulman, who is a professor of humanities at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, wrote,

There is nothing more precious than an enemy, especially one whom you have largely created by your own acts and who plays some necessary role in the inner drama of your soul.

Boy, does that characterize an awful lot of what’s going on.

What is the American soul? Do we actually have one? It’s an interesting question. Beyond opposition, what defines the U.S.? This emptiness at the center makes our quest for identity especially violent, especially acute. The policy we pursue is always one of scorched earth, of shock and awe. That’s how we handle things. That means, at least to me, that in the fullness of time, it was we who proved to be the savages, not the savages. It’s interesting that the theme of Paul Auster’s novels, if you’ve read any of his work, is that American society is incoherent, that it lacks a true identity, and that it’s nothing more than a hall of mirrors. He’s been saying that for decades, and by and large Americans don’t know who Paul Auster is and they don’t read him. Auster is tremendously popular in Europe. He’s been translated into more than 20 languages. Those are the bulk of his sales. Americans are not interested in this kind of perception.

Criticism is not possible in a Manichaean world, of course, and the U.S. is very good at marginalizing writers who attempt to write a critique of the country in a fundamental way. Overt censorship, as a result, is not really necessary. I get this question all the time when I talk in Latin America. Aren’t your works censored? I said, there’s no need for it, the flood of information is so huge, how am I even going to get noticed? It would be like a sledgehammer to kill a fly. Why would they even bother? Famous last words.

The result is what you see in the famous Goya painting—which, if you go to Madrid, go to the Prado—Saturn Devouring His Son, Saturno devorando a su hijo. It’s really powerful. 1818. It’s really a horrifying painting. You have to see this. The U.S. is now imploding; it’s now eating itself alive. That’s what’s been going on. I argued this in Dark Ages America, in 2006.

The data for this that have accumulated since then are quite enormous. There is not a single American institution that is not seriously corrupt. I could document this for hours, but, again, you’ve got other things to do. Let me just cite a few examples.

  1. First, Ronald Dworkin, one of America’s leading intellectuals, did an essay a few months ago in The New York Review of Books showing that the Supreme Court has become a court of men and not of laws. In the case of five out of the nine justices, he says, decisions are made in advance in a right-wing political direction, and then the justification for the decisions is trotted out after the fact, even though it often violates the Constitution. What kind of a court is this? It’s a kangaroo court.
  2. In the book Academically Adrift, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa report that after 2 years of college 45% of American students haven’t learned anything, and after 4 years 36% haven’t learned anything. Included in what they didn’t learn is any kind of critical, analytical reasoning ability, skills. They don’t have it. They don’t know what the difference is between an argument and an opinion, and they don’t know what evidence is. They literally have no idea. Most of the students, when asked, defined their college experience as social rather than academic or intellectual. That was what they were there for: to meet people, make friends, drink a lot of alcohol, and so on and so forth. Half the students in the study said they hadn’t taken a single course in the previous semester that required more than 20 pages of writing. A third said they hadn’t taken a course requiring more than 40 pages of reading. What were they doing? Watching videos?

    A Marist Poll released July 4 of this year showed that 42% of American adults are unaware that the U.S. declared its independence in 1776. Forty two percent. And when you go to the below-30 age group, it rises to 69%. Twenty-five percent of Americans don’t know from which country the U.S. seceded. Bulgaria? Ghana? A recent Newsweek poll revealed that 73% of Americans can’t give the official version of why we fought the Cold War, let alone the real version. But they can’t give the official version. And 44% are unable to say what the Bill of Rights is. A poll taken in the Oklahoma public school system—this is just a few months ago—turned up the fact that 77% of the students didn’t know who George Washington was. Seventy-seven percent. In a number of cities libraries have closed for lack of funding, but I also think it’s probably for lack of interest. Who wants to bother with books?

    The new high school curriculum in American history in Texas does not have any units on Washington, Adams, or Thomas Jefferson, but it does have a study unit on Estée Lauder. It was like reading The Onion. When I first read that, I said, Oh, this is a joke. But satire has become reality in the U.S. I saw it, I think, in Common Dreams. I looked more closely. That article appeared in The Austin Statesman. It really is true. And I’ve been thinking of writing a letter to the Board of Education in Texas suggesting that they eliminate the unit on Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which I’m sure they don’t have anyway, and put in a major unit on Kim Kardashian. You laugh, but it’s only a couple of years away. Satire becomes reality in the U.S. Why not? You go to and there articles about Kim’s rear end, her psoriasis, her wedding, her divorce. Why not? If Estée Lauder can make, I don’t see why Kim should be excluded.

  3. In the aftermath of the crash of 2008, the very people who promulgated the ideology that led to the crash got appointed the President’s economic advisers. The fox now guards the henhouse. Lawrence Summers, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke, the whole crowd. Not a single Wall Street financial leader has faced jail. Major corporate figures who brought the economy down were, in fact, awarded huge bonuses. Some secured prestigious appointments at places such as Johns Hopkins University and the Brookings Institution. I couldn’t get a job as a janitor at the Brookings Institution. Let’s be clear about that. Meanwhile, the very practices that led to the crash, such as derivatives, credit default swaps, and all that sort of stuff, are now being pursued with more vigor than they were prior to the crash. It’s not that they say, “Oh, we can’t do this.” No, no. It’s more of the same. Paul Krugman asks, somewhat rhetorically,

    How is it that in the wake of the obvious failure of casino capitalism and neoliberalism, the blame for the crash is not put on the banks, which received, finally, bailouts of roughly $19 trillion, and the corporations, but on the public sector.

    So you have the crash because of the private sector and all the blame directed to the government.

  4. Between 1987 and 2007 the number of Americans that are so disabled by mental disorders that they qualified for supplementary security income or Social Security disability insurance increased 2.5 times, so that one out of every six Americans now falls into this category. For children the increase is 35 times during the same period. That’s our future. Mental illness is now the leading cause of disability among the child population of the United States. A survey of American adults conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health over 2001-2003 found that 46% of them met the criteria of the American Psychiatric Association for being mentally ill. Ten percent of Americans over the age of 6 now take antidepressants. Actually, it stretches back to at least age 4 now. Toddlers are taking Prozac. And I read elsewhere that in the global market, in terms of volume of sales, American consumption of antidepressants is two-thirds of the entire world’s consumption. So here’s a country with less than 5% of the world’s population taking 67% of the antidepressant drugs. This has got to tell you something about the U.S.

    Some time ago a friend of mine in England, an art consultant, lived for many years in New York City. She bought a plaque when she was there. There’s no Woolworth’s, but it was a store like Woolworth’s. The plaque says, Evenings at 7:00 in the Parish Hall. That’s the title. And underneath it it says,

    Monday, alcoholics;
    Tuesday, abused spouses,
    Wednesday; eating disorders;
    Thursday, drug addiction;
    Friday, teen suicide;
    Saturday, soup kitchen;
    and then finally, the Sunday sermon at 9:00 a.m., “America’s Joyous Future.”

    Yes, we have some joyous future coming up.

  5. The infrastructure in the U.S. is crumbling, and there’s no money to fix it. Also, in some cases, ideological opposition to fixing it is very strong. Apparently the levies of New Orleans are in the same shape now that they were before Katrina. I read an article some time ago about the attempt to address this. I don’t know whether it was on the municipal level of New Orleans or the state level. I can’t remember exactly. And I didn’t save the article. But the councilmen stated that they did not want to move on it because it would require a cooperative effort, and this, they said, meant socialism. So apparently working together is equivalent to socialism, and it’s better to risk another Katrina than to have that. It doesn’t get dumber than that.
  6. The national debt now stands at more than $14 trillion. The official figure for poverty and hunger is 45 million citizens, but in fact that’s based on criteria that are pretty much obsolete. In fact, something like 200 million Americans live from paycheck to paycheck, if they can get a job. As far as that goes, don’t believe those figures about 9% unemployment. It’s close to 20% in real figures. This is verified by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. If you go to the Web site of the U.S. Department of Labor, you will find it. It’s like 18%, which means that one out of five Americans is out of work, and economists say there’s little chance they’re going to find it for another 10 years. Not a rosy prospect.
  7. The President now has the right, although it violates the Geneva Accords, to designate any American citizen or, actually, anyone on the planet an enemy and have him or her assassinated. In fact, that recently happened on September 30 [2011]. Obama had two American citizens, Anwar al-Awlaki and Samir Khan, murdered. And one can say, “Well, they were al-Qaeda supporters,” and so on. First of all, that’s not proven. And the second thing is, so what if they were? The Constitution says you have a right to have your day in court, not a right to get rubbed out. There’s no worry about that on the part of the government. And furthermore, American citizens don’t care. It doesn’t make any difference to them.

    In an essay entitled America’s Disappeared, Chris Hedges writes,

    Torture, prolonged detention without trial, sexual humiliation, rape, disappearance, extortion, looting, random murder, and abuse have become, as in Argentina during the Dirty War, part of our own subterranean world of detention sites and torture centers…. We know of at least 100 detainees who died during interrogation at our “black sites.”

    There are probably many, many more whose fate has never been made public. Tens of thousands of Muslim men have passed through our clandestine detention centers without due process.General Barry McCaffrey admitted:

    We tortured people unmercifully. We probably murdered dozens of them…, both the armed forces and the C.I.A.

    So tens of thousands of Americans are being held in super-maximum security prisons now, where they’re deprived of contact with anyone and psychologically destroyed. Undocumented workers are rounded up and they vanish from their families for weeks or months. Militarized police units break down the doors of some 40,000 Americans every year and haul them away in the dead of night as though they were enemy combatants. And, of course, as you know, habeas corpus no longer exists.

    Once again, Philip Green comments on this.

    A people that accepts as a normal course of events the bombing of civilians, torture, kidnapping, indefinite detention, assassinations, secret governments at home and covert wars abroad has lost touch with the moral basis of civil society.

    A good description of us today, I think.

  8. The U.S. military, which soaks up 50% of the discretionary budget, is apparently unable to win two wars in two small countries. In fact, it has not had a serious victory since World War II, after which it decided to play it safe and stick to tinpot dictators and minor nations.
  9. A U.S. intelligence report released in 2007 called “Global Trends 2025”—you can download it on the Web—predicts a steady decline in American dominance over the coming decades, with U.S. leadership eroding

    at an accelerating pace in political, economic, and cultural arenas.

    To my knowledge, the President has never mentioned this report, nor has anyone in public office.

  10. On July 19 of 2010, the Washington Post reported that 854,000 people work for the National Security Agency, the NSA, in 33 building complexes amounting to 17 million square feet of space in the D.C. metro area. Every day collection systems at the NSA intercept and store 1.7 billion emails and phone calls of American citizens in what amounts to a vast domestic spy system. Writing in The New Yorker on May 23 of this year, Jane Mayer reported that the NSA has three times the budget of the CIA and has the capacity to download every 6 hours electronic communications equivalent to the entire contents of the Library of Congress. Every 6 hours. They also developed a program called Thin Thread that enables computers to scan the material for key words, and they collect the billing records and the dialed phone numbers of everyone in the country. In violation of communications laws, AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South were only too happy to open their electronic records to the government. I have to say that at the height of its insanity, the Stasi in East Germany—you know that Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others)—was spying on one out of every seven citizens. The U.S. is now spying on seven out of every seven citizens. Everybody in this room, your emails, your phone calls, it’s all recorded.
  11. You can now go to jail in the U.S. simply for speaking. In the late July of 2011, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to 2 years in prison for his repeated declaration that environmental protection required civil, that is to say, nonviolent, disobedience. One wonders if the same judge, Dee Benson, would have also put Rosa Parks and Mahatma Gandhi in jail had he been around during their lifetimes.
  12. This is my favorite. This was also in July of 2011. Somehow this was symbolic, it seemed to me, of what’s happened to America in the last 60 years. Police in Georgia shut down a lemonade stand being run by three girls aged 10 to 14 who were trying to save up money for a trip to a local water park. The police said that they didn’t know what was in the lemonade and, in addition, that the girls needed a business license, a peddler’s permit, and a food permit in order to run the stand. It turns out that the permits cost $50 a day. Kind of counterproductive as far as the girls were concerned.
  13. And finally, baker’s dozen, number thirteen, the deepest locus of corruption, it seems to me, is the American soul. I have to say again, it’s a question of macrocosm and microcosm. On page 56 of Why America Failed, I wrote,

    As George Walden writes in his aptly titled study, God Won’t Save America: Psychosis of a Nation, “The peculiarities of nations, good and bad, tend to reflect the temperaments and qualities of their peoples. As Plato remarked, ‘Where else would they have come from?’”

    At that point, when my editor, several months ago was working over the manuscript, at this point he wrote in the margin, “This is the turning point of the book.” This is it: this is the hinge point of the whole thing.

    So as far as evidence for that goes, Jonathan Sheldon, in an article in The Nation, October 17, [2011,] talking about some of the meetings for Republican candidates, Ron Paul had apparently said something like he would recommend that anybody who got sick and didn’t have health insurance, it’s his risk, after all. And Wolf Blitzer asked him, “So he should just die?” That was the implication. And there were cheers from the crowd at this point. They roared in approval. They also applauded enthusiastically when Rick Perry reported that the state of Texas had murdered, 235 criminals on death row. That also brought enthusiastic cheers.

    There is so much of this material now. Most recently, there was an article in The New York Times about a law firm, Steven J. Baum, located near Buffalo, New York. It’s commonly referred to as a foreclosure mill firm. It does the dirty work for banks in evicting people and so on. A year ago, Halloween 2010, they had a Halloween party and the staff showed up with their costumes being
    homeless people. They dressed as the people that they themselves evicted. Here are the pictures. So the people dirtied their faces and they had signs, “Will Work for Food.” This was funny to them. Of course, the firm immediately denied it, but the pictures are online. Deny away.

Although he doesn’t get into the issue of negative identity per se, the French writer Denis Duclos, who is a director of the CNRS, the research institute in Paris, pegged the problem of the obsession with having an enemy and the violence that results from that in his book of 1994, Le Complexe du loup-garou (The Werewolf Complex). In his epilogue to the 2005 edition, Duclos writes that

America is always dependent on a werewolf figure, a dark, savage beast that’s out to destroy it. The beast changes in content, but the form is always the same. At the center of this is a terrible fear that Americans have of emptiness, which is an anxiety of not existing, and they disguise this with a hyperactive optimism.

Have a nice day.

“A curious society,” he writes,

a people who don’t know who they really are. Like the Romans, they see themselves under siege…. This could finally trigger a fascist populism [which, of course, we’re seeing with the Tea Party]. The American fear of the monster has always marked its history, whether this exists on the inside or the outside. This leads to isolating the country in a sort of collective psychosis that can only contribute to international instability.

In fact, that’s how most of the world sees us. A few years ago there was an international poll that asked the question, “Which nation do you believe is the greatest threat to world peace?” The United States and Israel said Iran, and everybody else said the United States. Writing in Der Spiegel last August, the German journalist Jakob Augstein argues that the U.S. is basically a failed state; it’s not part of the West anymore, and that Europe needs to keep its distance from what is a very different and apparently, his word, “insane” political culture. There is, he concludes, no deliverance in sight for the U.S.

What does mental health mean in an individual case? It’s at least this: That a person knows his or her personal narrative and is able to see it from the outside and, as a result of this transparency, at least try to do something about it. Perhaps the same thing is true of a nation or a civilization. I don’t know. But what I know is that there is very little understanding in the U.S. as to what the underlying narrative is, or even the fact that there is an underlying narrative. This seems to escape most Americans, almost all.

There’s also very little interest in thinking about national identity or lack of same in anything more than a superficial way, which is provided, for example, by The New York Times. In such a situation, change is simply not possible. The odds that we’re going continue on this unconscious path are overwhelming. We saw it with the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It was still a repeat of, This happened from the outside. We didn’t do anything. We never overthrew the regime of Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953 in Iran that led to this endless Islamic resentment of us. Oh, no, that had nothing to do with it.

In that sense, my work is indeed pointless. I’m a writer and social critic. I can’t stop the plane from crashing. Nobody can. But I’m rather like the engineer who surveys the wreckage and locates the black box and takes it apart and writes up the report, the postmortem. And that, I believe, does have some small value, because finally we need to know why America failed.


The question is, we tend to vilify the enemy, whoever that is. Is there something special about the U.S. that creates that pattern? And I would say yes, for the reason that Marshall McLuhan gave, that violence reflects a search for identity. We don’t know who we are. We never did. And the notion that we were republican or anti- monarchical, those ideals of the 18th century really blew away like dandelion spores by the time the war of independence was over. The U.S. has always been—this is the theme of Why America Failed—a hustling culture. Basically, if your goal in life is more, then you have no goal. Because once you have more, then there’s always more. It never ends. So who are we and what are we doing? And once you have that kind of emptiness at the center, you’re going to be quite violent. De Tocqueville talked about this in Democracy in America. He said Americans are really strange. They live in a perpetual state of self-adoration; they’re always saying how fabulous they are. And he said, if you challenge that, they get very fierce, very quickly. This is 1831. Not too bad. Not too shabby an assessment.

The question is, I must have some observations about how we’re going to get out of this mess. I get letters on my blog regularly, especially from young people, what should I do? And I say, “What do you think is waiting for you 30 to 40 years down the line, when there’s no Social Security, no Medicare, no social safety net whatsoever and we are making yet another war on some verkakte country on the other side of the planet and spending trillions of dollars to do that? And if we run out of countries, we’re going to invade Antarctica and clean up those communistic penguins that are creating problems for the U.S.”

There’s no end to this. We don’t know how to do anything else. And the chances that we have, quite honestly, of turning this around are roughly the chances that we would have of turning around an aircraft carrier in a bathtub. So, quite frankly, not only is there no way out, but I would recommend you get out.

Things will only get worse in the U.S. And frankly, they could get very ugly. They could get quite nasty. And I think that it’s not very unusual to think that maybe 10-15 years from now a book like this couldn’t be sold, couldn’t be published. So as time goes on, who knows what’s going to happen? The Occupy Wall Street movement is an interesting thing to concern, but the general tendency in the U.S. as far as revolution goes is that it would occur from the right, not from the left. I don’t think that’s too far-fetched. It makes me edgy, I have to say. But I don’t have a crystal ball.

The question is not everybody can leave the U.S. What do you do if you’re trapped here? There are three possibilities. One is that you could change the country, turn it totally upside down. That’s not a possibility. The second is that you leave. The third is, if you can’t, you have to do a kind of inner emigration. And that’s what the monastic option was about. In other words, you have to find on a local basis, which I never was able to do, communities, groups, grass-roots organizations, study groups, whatever it is, that enable you to work toward the preservation of what’s good in the culture, and then you take your chances in terms of what’s going to happen. It’s obviously an important question. But that’s what I would recommend, fully undertaking the monastic option. You can live in a certain way, you can try to influence the people around you, you can organize in a local sense. What else do you have? But on a local level there are some possibilities. I never found it myself, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist.

I’ve always admired, for example, the Scandinavian countries in terms of how they’ve arranged their economy, but I am impressed by the fact that those countries are uniformly white, and so there’s a homogeneity that makes it easier to get along. We don’t have that luxury in the U.S., if that’s a luxury. They’ve arranged their economy a certain way. It certainly is a deeply embedded psychological trait. The only thing is that there also have been deliberate cultivations of not doing that. And the U.S., as far as I know, is not interested in that at all. You would think they could do it, because we don’t lack for a class of intelligent people in the U.S. But somehow those voices’ getting heard is very difficult.

The question is, what about our conquering Hitler and fighting World War II and that we triumphed and that was important. All that’s true. But the problem is that that was an unusual war. And what the right wing in the U.S. has convinced the rest of the country is that every war we get into is like that. So Ho Chi Minh was Hitler and Saddam Hussein was Hitler. They’re all Hitler. That becomes the model of war. When in fact there was only one Hitler and one war like that. That’s why I said, in the case of our opposition to Germany, that’s the one case that I think we were justified, that it really was the darkest of evil and that we had to defeat it. I doubt I would be here without that.

So that’s fine, that’s great. The only trouble is that it is not representative of the wars we have fought since 1945, even though every time Chamberlain, appeasement, Hitler are trotted out as reasons for us to go and kick the crap out of whatever—Grenada or something. Whatever it is we’re going to do, it’s Hitler redux, and we’re going to repeat the same story.

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

Posted in Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Department of Offense, Economic injustice, Follies of empire, Kafkaesque Amerika, Liberal ineffectiveness, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action, Racist? perish the thought!, The American Dream | Leave a comment

The super-rich and the rest of us

by Paul Buchheit
Appearing in Hudson Valley Activist Newsletter
Reprinted from CounterPunch.

Paul Buchheit teaches Economic Inequality at DePaul University. He is the founder and developer of social justice and educational websites (Us Against Greed, Pay Up Now, and Rapping History) and the editor and main author of American Wars: Illusions and Realities (Clarity Press). He can be reached at

Studying inequality in America reveals some facts that are truly hard to believe. Amidst all the absurdity a few stand out.

  1. U.S. companies in total pay a smaller percentage of taxes than the lowest-income 20% of Americans.

    Total corporate profits for 2011 were $1.97 trillion. Corporations paid $181 billion in federal taxes (9%) and $40 billion in state taxes (2%), for a total tax burden of 11%. The poorest 20% of American citizens pay 17.4% in federal, state, and local taxes.

  2. The high-profit, tax-avoiding tech industry was built on publicly-funded research.

    The technology sector has been more dependent on government research and development than any other industry. The U.S. government provided about half of the funding for basic research in technology and communications well into the 1980s. Even today, federal grants support about 60% of research performed at universities.

    IBM was founded in 1911, Hewlett-Packard in 1947, Intel in 1968, Microsoft in 1975, Apple and Oracle in 1977, Cisco in 1984. All relied on government and military innovations. The more recently incorporated Google, which started in 1996, grew out of the Defense Department’s ARPANET system and the National Science Foundation’s Digital Library Initiative.

    The combined 2011 federal tax payment for the eight companies was just 10.6%.

  3. The sales tax on a quadrillion dollars of financial sales is ZERO.

    The Bank for International Settlements reported in 2008 that total annual derivatives trades were $1.14 quadrillion. The same year, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange reported a trading volume of $1.2 quadrillion.

    A quadrillion dollars is the entire world economy, 12 times over. It’s enough to give 3 million dollars to every person in the United States. But in a sense it’s not real money. Most of it is high-volume nanosecond computer trading, the type that almost crashed our economy. So it’s a good candidate for a tiny sales tax. But there is no sales tax.

    Go out and buy shoes or an iPhone and you pay up to a 10% sales tax. But walk over to Wall Street and buy a million dollar high-risk credit default swap and pay 0%.

  4. Many Americans get just a penny on the dollar.
    • For every dollar of NON-HOME wealth owned by white families, people of color have only one cent.
    • For every dollar the richest .1% earned in 1980, they’ve added three more dollars. The poorest 90% have added one cent.
    • For every dollar of financial securities (e.g., bonds) in the U.S., the bottom 90% of Americans have a penny and a half’s worth.
    • For every dollar of 2008-2010 profits from Boeing, DuPont, Wells Fargo, Verizon, General Electric, and Dow Chemicals, the American public got a penny in taxes.
  5. Our society allows one man or one family to possess enough money to feed every hungry person on earth.

    The United Nations estimates that $30 billion is needed to eradicate hunger. Several individuals have more than this amount in personal wealth.

    There are 925 million people in the world with insufficient food. According to the World Food Program, it takes about $100 a year to feed a human being. That’s $92 billion, about equal to the fortune of the six Wal-Mart heirs.

One Final Outrage…

In 2007 a hedge fund manager (John Paulson) conspired with a financial company (Goldman Sachs) to create packages of risky subprime mortgages, so that in anticipation of a housing crash he could use other people’s money to bet against his personally designed sure-to-fail financial instruments. His successful gamble paid him $3.7 billion. Three years later he made another $5 billion, which in the real world would have been enough to pay the salaries of 100,000 health care workers.

As an added insult to middle-class taxpayers, the tax rate on most of Paulson’s income was just 15%. As a double insult, he may have paid no tax at all, since hedge fund profits can be deferred indefinitely. As a triple insult, some of his payoff came from the middle-class taxpayers themselves, who bailed out the company (AIG) that had to pay off his bets.

And the people we elect to protect our interests are unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

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

The Election reflects America’s conservative era

by Jack A. Smith
editor, Activist Newsletter

This year’s presidential campaign is taking place within an extremely conservative era in American political history that will substantially influence the domestic and foreign priorities of the next administration, regardless of whether it’s headed by Democrat Barack Obama or Republican Mitt Romney.

Romney and his party, of course, embrace rigid right-wing politics influenced by Tea Party extremism, while Obama and the Democrats—campaign rhetoric aside—basically echo the now extinct “moderate Republicans” of a quarter-century ago in a number of particulars.

A case in point about our decades-long conservative era is the Obama Administration’s major “progressive” achievement—the Affordable Care Act (ACA) health insurance plan, which was upheld by the Supreme Court two weeks ago.

The ACA, which congressional Republicans fought furiously to oppose when put forward by President Obama, was devised nearly 20 years ago by the conservative Heritage Foundation and implemented in Massachusetts by Romney when governor in 2006.

In his column in the New York Times June 29, the liberal Keynesian economist Paul Krugman pointed out that the act, which he supports, is

not perfect, by a long shot—it is, after all, originally a Republican plan, devised long ago as a way to forestall the obvious alternative of extending Medicare to cover everyone.

A page-1 news analysis in the Times has referred to the measure as “the most significant piece of social legislation since the New Deal,” ignoring Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, and the civil rights achievements of the 1960s in order to embellish its significance.

Doubtless, the new health measure contains several important new benefits, as well as several key shortcomings.

(For details and analysis of the ACA by Physicians for a National Health Program, see the following:)

PNHP leaders released the following statement June 28:

Although the Supreme Court has upheld the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the unfortunate reality is that the law, despite its modest benefits, is not a remedy to our health care crisis: (1) it will not achieve universal coverage, as it leaves at least 26 million uninsured, (2) it will not make health care affordable to Americans with insurance, because of high co-pays and gaps in coverage that leave patients vulnerable to financial ruin in the event of serious illness, and (3) it will not control costs.

Why is this so? Because the ACA perpetuates a dominant role for the private insurance industry. Each year, that industry siphons off hundreds of billions of health care dollars for overhead, profit and the paperwork it demands from doctors and hospitals; it denies care in order to increase insurers’ bottom line; and it obstructs any serious effort to control costs.

In contrast, a single-payer, improved-Medicare-for-all system would provide truly universal, comprehensive coverage; health security for our patients and their families; and cost control. It would do so by replacing private insurers with a single, nonprofit agency like Medicare that pays all medical bills, streamlines administration, and reins in costs for medications and other supplies through its bargaining clout.

Research shows the savings in administrative costs alone under a single-payer plan would amount to $400 billion annually, enough to provide quality coverage to everyone with no overall increase in U.S. health spending.

The major provisions of the ACA do not go into effect until 2014. Although we will be counseled to “wait and see” how this reform plays out, we’ve seen how comparable plans have worked in Massachusetts and other states. Those “reforms” have invariably failed our patients, foundering on the shoals of skyrocketing costs, even as the private insurers have continued to amass vast fortunes.

Our patients, our people and our national economy cannot wait any longer for an effective remedy to our health care woes. The stakes are too high.

Contrary to the claims of those who say we are “unrealistic,” a single-payer system is within practical reach. The most rapid way to achieve universal coverage would be to improve upon the existing Medicare program and expand it to cover people of all ages. There is legislation before Congress, notably H.R. 676, the “Expanded and Improved Medicare for All Act,” which would do precisely that.

What is truly unrealistic is believing that we can provide universal and affordable health care in a system dominated by private insurers and Big Pharma.

The American people desperately need a universal health system that delivers comprehensive, equitable, compassionate and high-quality care, with free choice of provider and no financial barriers to access. Polls have repeatedly shown an improved Medicare for all, which meets these criteria, is the remedy preferred by two-thirds of the population. A solid majority of the medical profession now favors such an approach, as well.

We pledge to step up our work for the only equitable, financially responsible and humane cure for our health care ills: single-payer national health insurance, an expanded and improved Medicare for all.

Physicians for a National Health Program is an organization of more than 18,000 doctors who advocate for single-payer national health insurance. To speak with a physician/spokesperson in your area, visit PNHP actions or call (312) 782-6006.

Back to the main article:

Many liberals are now suggesting the ACA—which will still leave over 25 million people without insurance and may deprive millions more poor families of Medicaid as well (thanks to a ruling by arch-conservative Chief Justice John Roberts allowing states to reject enlarging the program)—is a first step toward the development of a truly inclusive national healthcare system. The second step, however, may be decades in coming, if ever, given probable conservative attempts to repeatedly weaken the ACA, much less allow an expansion.

Another of President Obama’s major first term “progressive” initiatives was taken from the conservatives as well. This was his proposal for a cap-and-trade system to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere, where they contribute to global warming. This flexible market-based program allowed high greenhouse gas emitters to buy the right to continue polluting the atmosphere from companies with low emissions. Cap-and-trade was a less stringent alternative to tougher regulations sought by environmentalists and it was supported by Republican Presidents Ronald President, George H.W. Bush (who adopted a similar measure in the early 1990s to curb acid rain), and by George W. Bush.

By the time Obama took office, the Republicans had lurched further to the right and corporate interests, led by Big Oil and Dirty Coal, were campaigning passionately against cap and trade. Conservatives scuttled the legislation in the Senate.

In both instances progressive legislation far more appropriate to healthcare and environmental needs was waiting in the wings but Obama—a champion of bipartisanship despite continual humiliating rebuffs—opted for the moderate Republican plans. When cap and trade failed, Obama in effect abandoned the fight against global warming rather than introduce progressive alternatives and fighting for them.

[One of America's best known environmentalists and outspoken climate scientist, James Hansen, head the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been leading a campaign against cap-and-trade for several years, charging it "does little to slow global warming or reduce our dependence on fossil fuels." Some groups fighting climate change support the measure as a first step.]

The White House didn’t even allow the labor movement’s most important legislative request—the Employee Free Choice Act that would have removed roadblocks to union organizing—to come to a vote in the first term when the Democrats controlled both congressional chambers. A probable reason is that Blue Dog conservative Democrats would have voted with the minority to quash the measure.

Today’s conservative era is the product of an unrelenting drive for strategic ideological dominance by the right wing and its big business and financial sector allies for almost four decades. It is a reaction to the liberal reforms of the post-World War II era and social advances from the mass popular struggles of the 1960s-early ’70s period. As the Republicans moved ever further to the right in the intervening years, so too did the Democrats, now situated in the center right of the political spectrum. This leaves the U.S. as the world’s only rich capitalist state without a mass party left of center to at least offer some protection to working families.

The conservative assault accelerated with the implosion of the USSR and the dismantling of most socialist societies two decades ago. The existence of extensive social welfare programs, first in the Soviet Union and then in various socialist countries after World War II, obliged the capitalist “West” to implement reforms lest its own working classes be attracted to “the communist menace.” The ending of the Cold War also ended the adoption of significant social programs in America, and the weakening of existing benefits.

Many conservative goals have already been attained since the mid-’70s, and a number of them have taken place with partial or complete support of the Democratic party. They include:

  • The severe weakening of the labor union movement;
  • the redistribution of massive wealth to the already rich through individual and corporate tax cuts while the standard of living for most Americans is in decline;
  • off-shoring of manufacturing to enhance corporate profits;
  • increased wage exploitation;
  • deregulation of the financial economy, enhancing its casino configuration;
  • privatization of government services;
  • the elimination of social programs for the multitudes;
  • threatened cuts in Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security are now “on the table,” says Obama;
  • the fact that about half the American people receive low wages or live in poverty;
  • inaction on needed tax increases for the wealthy;
  • undermining the U.S. educational system;
  • setbacks for civil liberties;
  • and a massive increase in the prison population.

The conservatives made considerable progress during the presidencies of Reagan (1981-89), Bush I (1989-93) and Bush II (2001-2009). But rightist policies also spread during the Democratic administrations of Bill Clinton (1993-2001) and incumbent Obama from 2009.

Clinton’s two principal domestic achievements during 8 years in office weakened two key Democratic reforms, much to the delight of the Republicans. In 1996 he conspired with conservatives to dismantle “welfare as we know it” by passing the “Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act.” In 1999, Clinton joined forces with the congressional right wing to repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act—a decision that in large part was responsible for the Great Recession and several more years of economic stagnation, unemployment and some 6 million home foreclosures.

Obama’s first term in office is most noteworthy for his continual concessions to the right wing and refusal to fight for progressive goals, leading his wavering centrist party to the right of center in the process. He demobilized his enthusiastic and massive 2008 constituency upon taking office, evidently because he didn’t want a large activist organization in the streets pushing toward the liberalism many Democratic voters incorrectly believed he embodied.

The conservative campaign for even more control of the political system was signaled by the emergence of the activist right-wing populist Tea Party soon after Obama took power. The political impact of this nationwide organization of older white conservatives, libertarians, and the religious right—bankrolled in part by billionaires—has been considerable, not least because no mass activist liberal movement was available to challenge Tea Party activism or put forward a progressive counter-agenda. The liberal rank and file has been isolated by the party leadership, as have liberals in Congress. The few remaining center-left politicians have been objects of criticism from the White House and Democratic big wigs.

The Tea Party added a new element to the decades-long conservative campaign for dominant power in the U.S. Now the GOP isn’t just ideologically driven right-wing politicians, their business backers, and the wealthy 1% who finance their campaigns, but grass-roots activists with their own selfish axes to grind. Some are fuming because their taxes help the “undeserving” poor. Some think immigrants are “freeloaders.” Some are racists who do not accept a black president in the White House. Some will not abide gays and lesbians. Some reject separation of church and state. Some want to subvert the hard-earned rights of American women.

The conservatives rage against “big government” and “wasteful spending,” but this is demagogic rhetoric convincing or confusing a sector of the electorate largely ignorant of history and the details of current events. Both the Reagan and Bush II administrations—vocal proponents of a smaller state and lower spending—increased the size of government and created huge deficits.

The real Republican objective isn’t a “smaller” government per se but a government driven by free market laissez-faire capitalism and entirely controlled by monopoly corporations, Wall Street financiers, and the 1% ruling class. In the process, most government regulation of the economy and financial system will be eliminated, social programs will wither along with collective bargaining and the trade union movement, and key services will be transferred to profit-driven corporations.

Since the Affordable Care Act or cap-and-trade are conservative initiatives to begin with, why did congressional Republicans and the entire right wing, including arch opportunist Romney, fight against them?

The conservative movement has gravitated further to the right than it was 5 years ago, and the Democrats have moved in tandem, perhaps a dozen steps behind and two or three to the left, but quite distant from the domestic liberalism of the 1960s and the 1930s. The last significant social programs took place during conservative Republican President Richard M. Nixon’s first term (1969-72)—a product of the still popular though fading liberal era of social reform that he could not ignore. The conservative era began soon afterward.

Experience has taught the Republicans that the modern Democratic Party—particularly during the centrist Clinton and center-right Obama incarnations—hastily retreats and offers remarkably big concessions when confronted with obdurate opposition from the right. This is one reason why Republicans have adopted a policy of non-cooperation with Obama and Democrats in Congress. Even when the right-wing political resistance doesn’t get everything it seeks, it always seems to get something.

For instance, to gain big business and conservative backing for the healthcare act, Obama first rejected the progressive option of a less expensive and far more inclusive universal Medicare (single payer) covering all Americans, then dropped the liberal halfway notion of a “public option” in favor of the Republican plan. He then privately reached agreements with the major pharmaceutical and health insurance companies and hospitals, assuring them of huge profits for many years to come. Lastly he made further concessions to Republicans and Blue Dog Democrats.

The Republican leaders who demonize “Obamacare” are well aware of its limited nature but the absurdly characterized “socialist” ACA will remain a useful conservative target for years to come as long as the opposition party would rather compromise than fight for genuine progressive objectives.

Had President Obama initiated a hard-fought populist educational campaign for single payer, he may have lost the vote but he could have won many additional supporters and tried again and again until victory. Medicare for all has important advantages in addition to covering everyone. Overhead is only 3% compared to about 30% for the profit making insurance companies. Single-payer type health coverage exists in virtually all the leading industrialized capitalist countries of the world but will remain ridiculously overdue in the U.S. until a mass progressive movement or party takes up the challenge. By not daring to struggle, the Democrats don’t dare to win.

One of the major conservative strengths, despite various internal factions, is that the Republicans entertain several concrete long-range political and ideological goals and are willing to fight for them over the years. And their dishonest, obstructionist politics during Obama’s tenure have paid conservative dividends, even at the expense of deepening the nation’s economic crisis and further burdening workers and the unemployed by refusing to finance recovery.

The Democrats have no such long-range progressive goals—or any serious progressive goals, for that matter—and the party seems to have forgotten how to fight.

Even the staunchly pro-Democratic liberal magazine The Nation noted June 25 that aside from populist campaign speeches, Obama

will offer no transformational agenda, no new foundation for an economy that works for working people, no plan for reviving the middle class. And no matter who wins, only sustained popular pressure will forestall a debilitating “grand bargain” that will further undermine the middle class and the poor….

Americans understand that the system is broken—and rigged against them. They increasingly see both parties as compromised, and they have little sense of an alternative and even less of a sense that anyone is prepared to fight for them. Progressives must therefore be willing to expose the corruption and compromises of both parties. This requires not only detailing the threat posed by the right but honestly about the limits of the current choice.

These are extremely sharp words from a publication that virtually worshiped Obama during the last campaign and has often offered excuses for him since then.

It is clear today that as a result of conservative gains in recent decades the United States has become much more of a plutocracy than a democracy, the electoral system is now utterly corrupted by big money, gross inequality is our capitalist system’s norm, and civil liberties are being shredded.

Public consciousness of this reality has been expanding in recent years, particularly since the onset of the Great Recession—an unusually severe periodic economic failing that “officially” ended 3 years ago but remains a disaster for the over 60% of the U.S. labor segment who constitute the working class. But the two mass ruling parties, each rejecting or ignoring progressive goals in favor of Republican “heavy” or Democratic “lite” conservative politics, cannot fight the plutocrats or urgently reconstruct what is left of American democracy.

Only a left-of-center contending party or a truly mass and activist movement that puts forward a fighting progressive program has a chance of dumping the conservative era. The Democrats may be several political degrees better than the Republicans, but they have been gradually tilting toward the right without respite since the demise of the party’s final center-left manifestation 44 years ago. They now appear to be hopelessly stagnant and ideologically ill-equipped to transform the conservative era they helped create, even if Obama is reelected in November.

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

Who is the real terrorist?

Please watch this short video: Amazing speech of Iraq Veteran Against War.

If tyranny and oppression come to this land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy…. The loss of Liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or imagined, from abroad….

–James Madison

Posted in Big picture, Department of Offense, Economic injustice, Follies of empire, Kafkaesque Amerika, Muslims in America, Overseas Contingency Operations and Kinetic Military Action, Racist? perish the thought! | Leave a comment

What effect does Walmart have on American jobs?

walmart's effect

What effect does Walmart have on American jobs? Thanks to Shy Girl for this infographic.

Posted in All dumbed down, Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Gimme shelter: The housing crisis

Max Rameau
Eugene, OR
April 19, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Max Rameau speak for himself here.

Max Rameau is a community organizer. He is Executive Director of Movement Catalyst. He helped establish Take Back the Land, which organizes resistance to foreclosures and assists families to stay in their homes. He works on a broad range of issues impacting the poor, such as housing, immigrant rights, economic justice, and Cop Watch.


David Barsamian’s introduction:
Anatole France, Nobel Prize winner, wrote

The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.

During the on going Great Recession, millions have lost their homes. Many of those who have ended up homeless, are living, if you can call it that, in the streets. You can see them from Santa Monica to Madison Avenue to Vancouver in Canada. In Boulder, where I live, every morning, they emerge from behind bushes and from under bridges. It is shameful, given the level of wealth, that so many are without shelter. The U.S. spends billions maintaining military bases all over the world and has 11 aircraft carrier battle groups roaming the seven seas, but at home people don’t have a roof over their heads.


It is important to do this kind of work now, when we are in the midst of a historic crisis here in the United States and the society. Not just an economic crisis, but in a real way a crisis of conscience. People are not just taking this lying down, but we are starting to stand up and starting to respond to the crisis in a way that shares values and shares visions about what we think the society can be and what we think the society should be, but ultimately where the society will be.

I want to talk to you a little bit about what this historic moment is, what we think that it is at Take Back the Land, what kind of movement we are trying to build here, and why it’s important to build a movement in this particular time in history. Of course, it’s always important to join organizations and to build movements. But we are in a unique historical moment, and during this time we think that this message of building organizations and building movements is even more important than it is under normal circumstances.

The reason, of course, it’s so important is because of the context of the economic crisis in which we find ourselves. Right now we are facing an economic crisis where millions of people in the United States are suffering incredibly as a result of the actions and misdeeds of a very small number of people who became fabulously wealthy, even more wealthy as a result of their misdeeds and really as a direct result of the suffering of many millions of people. So the housing crisis right now that we’re experiencing in this country is bad, and it’s impacting a growing number of people across sectors—across class, across race, and across gender.

To be clear, because of structural inequities, including racism and patriarchy, those who are most disproportionately impacted by the housing crisis are low-income black women. Every study has demonstrated that that is the most disproportionately impacted group in this country as it relates to the housing crisis.

Nonetheless, everyone is getting impacted by the housing crisis, and certainly large numbers of people who normally are immune to these kinds of ups and downs in the market. So we’re having this huge crisis, people are suffering as a result of this crisis.

In response to the crisis, people are looking at it and reacting to it in different extremes.

  • On one side we have people who are opening their arms to those who are suffering, who are volunteering more, who are donating more money, who are joining organizations, who are taking over lands and occupying them and doing all kinds of other things. That’s the extreme on one side.
  • The extreme on the other side are the people who watch the suffering and see the suffering and react to that suffering or respond to that suffering by saying that the government should stop giving checks to people and should stop giving handouts to people and should stop helping people who are suffering in the midst of this economic crisis.

Either way, in both extreme responses, people are reacting to the crisis and to the impacts of the crisis, and they’re changing their ideas about what the different institutions in the society are as a result of the crisis. So in both extreme responses to the crisis, people are compelled to rethink their relationship to social institutions. We’re rethinking what our relationship is to social institutions.

The truth is, when you could go out and get a $200,000 mortgage to pay for a house that was worth only $100,000 because everyone thought that in 6 months you could turn around and sell it for $300,000, nobody was complaining about banks and the finance system and interest rates, etc.

That’s because when a Ponzi scheme is on its way up, nobody is complaining about it, as long as it’s paying out. The only time people start complaining about a Ponzi scheme is when it’s on its way down and you’ve lost money in it.

But if we are really against injustice, then we have to be against injustice even when that injustice is working to our personal individual benefit, not just when it turns against us. So for better or for worse, now that what was called the housing boom has turned into a housing bust, people are questioning the system that created the housing boom in the first place as well as created the bust.

So this new willingness to rethink ideas about institutions in the society presents the social justice movement with a unique and historic opportunity. That unique and historic opportunity is to explain how we would reshape the society, how we would re-envision, reimagine, and rebuild the society.

That means that if this crisis is as bad as it appears—and I think that it is—and if people are suffering the way they are, then that means that the people who are suffering are going to rethink the institutions in their lives and they’re going to be willing to make changes to those institutions in a way that they were not willing to make changes before we got hit by this crisis. The idea that you have a crisis and as a result of the crisis people are shifting their ideas, their conceptions of social institutions, speaks directly to theories of social transformation: How does social transformation actually happen, what leads to it, and how can you predict where it’s going and what areas it’s going to impact?

There are in every society, and even in small groups and organizations and families, contradictions and there are conflicts. Sometimes those contradictions and conflicts rise to the level of a crisis. And when those contradictions and conflicts rise to the level of a crisis, in response to that crisis ideas emerge about how to resolve the crisis, how to solve the crisis, or how to deal with the crisis. Those ideas or the people behind them, the social forces behind them, then fight it out in what we call a social clash in order to advance their particular position. As a result of this fighting out, whatever existed before is overturned and something new takes its place, for good or for bad. Sometimes it’s for better, sometimes it’s for worse, but either way that is the process.

For example, you might have in a society costs which go up so quickly and so high that millions of people in that society are not able to afford health care and the society determines that there is a real health care crisis. As a result of the health care crisis, different ideas then emerge about how to solve it:

  • Some people say the way you solve the health care crisis is you prevent patients from suing doctors.
  • Other people say the way you solve the crisis is that you have the government put out an insurance policy, which then competes with the other insurance policies.
  • And others say the way to solve the crisis is by ensuring that every single person–regardless of their age, regardless of their income, regardless of their current health situation–have full and total access to health care by mere virtue of the fact that they’re human beings and that universal health care is the only way to solve the crisis.

These different ideas emerge. There are social forces behind each one. They fight it out in a social clash. As a result, the existing way of running health care in the society is overturned, and a new one replaces it. It could be a new one for good, it could be a new one for bad, it could be a new one that ends up being a wash in many ways, but either way, it’s a new one.

So the process, then, involves a crisis. As a result of the crisis, you have different ideas on how to solve it, and then you have social clash where these ideas fight it out. And then at the end of the social clash, something is destroyed and something new replaces that institution. It’s a new society or a new segment or portion of the society.

Social clashes are nothing new. They happen all the time, and they happen at different levels and in different sizes. And they happen locally, they happen nationally, they happen internationally.

But sometimes social clashes rise to the level of major social clashes. To date, the U.S. has experienced three major social clashes, each of which has significantly transformed the way this country works.

  1. The first social clash we commonly call the Civil War. There was a really crisis in that you had two economic systems competing for dominance in this country. One was slavery and the other was industrial capitalism. Of course, no country can have two economic systems operating at the same time, in the same place, so there was a social clash–in fact, the ultimate social clash, a civil war–about which way this economy, the economy in the U.S., would run and what would be the fundamental movement of the economy. As a direct result, you had the end of slavery (at least, the legal end of slavery), and you had the emergence of industrial capitalism. It completely changed the society forever. There’s no denying that. For good or for bad, for not enough, it completely changed the society.
  2. The second major social clash was what we commonly call the Great Depression. The crisis was a complete and total economic meltdown. And as a result of the economic meltdown, different ideas emerged about how to solve the economic crisis. Are we going to allow the market to resolve it? Are we going to have greater government intervention? Are we going to build some kind of social safety net to protect people from these kinds of economic downturns and also put limits on the way businesses can do whatever it is they do? As a result of an extremely well organized labor movement with very clear objectives, the latter part won out, and a social safety net was built almost from scratch in this country, and all kinds of limitations were put on corporations. Not enough of a social safety net, not enough limitations, but this society was fundamentally changed forever as a direct result of the crisis and the social clash coming out of the Great Depression.
  3. The third major social clash is commonly called the civil rights movement. First of all, there were many components to that, but just to focus in on one, there was an emerging black middle class that was beginning to develop some economic clout but couldn’t use it in any real significant way. We had people who had enough money to go out to nice restaurants and eat but weren’t allowed in because of Jim Crow laws, and they were no longer willing to tolerate that kind of behavior. So they organized and shut down parts of society and formed a real crisis in the society. There were ideas that emerged about how to resolve that. Was there going to be segregation of the races? Was there going to be complete separation, or was there going to be the end of legal segregation? As a direct result, there was the end of legal segregation in the U.S. and a complete transformation, which I think most people could not have possibly anticipated, certainly not in the 1950s.

Each of these three social clashes occurred as a result of crisis and overturned the way things work in this country and reshaped the country forever—for good, for bad, for indifferent, reshaped the country forever.

As a direct result of the ongoing economic crisis, we believe that the U.S. is on the cusp of entering its fourth major social clash. Because the economic crisis is deeply rooted in the housing and foreclosure crisis, we believe that the social clash is going to be fundamentally rooted in the housing industry and that at the end of this period we will see significant changes in how land relationships work and how housing in this country works. So therefore, because the crisis is firmly rooted in the housing sector, we think the part of the society that’s going to be overturned, transformed, and replaced is going to be firmly rooted in the housing sector.

At this time banks are reporting megaprofits, record profits in many instances. The executives of those banks are getting record bonuses at the end of the year, and all of those bonuses are being paid by our tax money. At the same time that this is happening, millions of people are losing their homes. And the ability for banks to kick those people out of their homes in a perverse way is being financed by the people who are getting foreclosed on and evicted. They’re paying the banks; they’re providing the banks with the money that the banks need to foreclose on and evict those families. So entire communities are suffering the consequences now of this housing crisis and this foreclosure crisis.

As a direct result, people are questioning the value of an economic system that can cause so much damage and so much pain to so many people while providing so much wealth, so much fabulous wealth, to such a small number of people and corporations. More specifically, people are wondering aloud, in ways that they did not before. Should people be kicked out of their homes even when the banks that are kicking them out have been compensated for that home through the federal bailout that we paid for?

What is the responsibility that we have towards our other fellow human beings to house them when they don’t have housing and to take care of them when they don’t have jobs or other support services? More importantly, what is a home? What is a community? What is our relationship to that community and what is the relationship of things like banks and other corporations to that community and to our homes? Who should control the land and the housing in our community?

These questions and the motivating factors behind these questions I think are forming the cornerstone of one of the pillars or posts that is going to emerge and turn into the fighting points for this coming social clash, where people will question the existing way of operating land relationships and argue that they should function in an entirely different way and we should move the society in that direction. This, again, is an unprecedented opportunity for the social justice movement to develop, articulate, and meaningfully struggle for transformation in the way society relates to land and land relationships in general and housing in particular. This presents for us a unique opportunity, which we haven’t had in many, many decades in this country.

In his seminal work, Wretched of the Earth, the great African writer Frantz Fanon said,

Every generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission and then either fulfill that mission or betray it.

As a direct result of the economic crisis and the housing crisis and this response that we are seeing now to that crisis, the mission of the social justice movement–the mission, indeed, of this generation–is becoming increasingly clear. We can in our lifetimes elevate housing to the level of a human right.

The mission of this generation, the mission of this social justice movement, is to elevate housing to the level of a human right and secure community control over land. We can accomplish that. And given what the crisis is and what the opportunity is, we have nothing less than that on our plate today. That’s what we have to address.

The opportunity, however, to go from a system where whoever has the most money can buy up all the housing and the people who don’t have any money don’t have access and have to hide in bushes and sleep there in hopes that the police do not find them and arrest them–the opportunity that we have to shift from that system to a system where housing is a human right–is here, but is by no means guaranteed. That is to say, there are very powerful people who don’t want to see it changed from the market system to the housing-as-a-human-right system because they benefit significantly from the existing way of doing things.

So in order for us to move in the direction of elevating housing to the level of a human right and securing community control of the land, we need to have clarity about what it is that we’re trying to do and how we are trying to do it so that we don’t make tactical errors during the social clash. If we’re not clear about where we’re going or how it is we want to go there, we’re going to continually make tactical mistakes as a movement, and we’re not going to get to the destination. Those who benefit from the existing system are going to find ways of ensuring that we don’t get to the destination where we want to end up at.

Confusion here is the enemy of progress. So we must develop clarity about the nature of this time in history, this particular social clash, and the potential that we have to transform society at this time. The lack of clarity about the core issues involved here will destroy this opportunity, will undermine this opportunity, and could actually force us to go backward rather than go forward.

At the end of the social clash, of course, we have a significantly different society, but the significantly different society doesn’t guarantee that it’s going to be significantly different in a better way. I think we’re heading to a T in the road, and we can take either a hard turn, where we go from the way things are now to housing as a human right, or we will go in the exact opposite direction to complete and total corporate control over our lives.

We don’t think about it this way now because we’re still in the midst of the crisis, but think about this 20 or 30 years out. The number of foreclosures and evictions that are happening, the number of banks that are taking over, there are a few, relatively small number, five banks, that are taking on the vast majority of foreclosures. It’s not difficult to imagine in 20 years that the U.S. has only five landlords and people are renting from one of the five landlords, and these five landlords are corporate barons. So just because we have this opportunity doesn’t mean that we’re going to get there. We could just as easily be either lulled to sleep and the opportunity goes in the other direction, or we could be tricked into having the opportunity go in the other direction.

The key to clarity here, I think, is to properly distinguish between a root issue and a surface issue—a root issue, or the cause of something, and the surface issue, or the manifestation or symptom of something. The failure to distinguish between the root issue and the surface issue is going to cause us great problems. It will cause you to go left when you think you’re going right, and it will cause you to go down when you think you’re going up, and it will cause you to run in circles, and because you will be running extremely quickly, you’re thinking you’re going somewhere but you’re actually not going anywhere at all.

So, to be perfectly clear, the foreclosures that we’re having during this crisis are a manifestation or symptom of the problem. It is not the actual problem. Gentrification, that has impacted low-income communities of color, closing of public housing units and all kinds of other things that have devastated communities of color and low-income communities are surface issues, not root issues. By surface issues we mean the manifestation of things we can touch and see and actually deal with. If we don’t deal with the root issue and we only deal with the surface issues, we’re going to put ourselves in a cycle where we are forced to repeat the battles in other generations to come, maybe not even in generations, maybe in just a few more years.

We have to deal with the root issue, not just with the surface issue. We saw this clearly in the 1950s and 1960s in this country. In the 1950s and 1960s, the larger white communities in many states–including, by the way, in Oregon and many local communities–was able to go to the black community and say to them,

You are only allowed to live in this area. You have to stay in between this street and that street. And you can’t go out of there at night. You can’t live in other neighborhoods. This is where you have to stay. You can’t go anywhere else.

That was called segregation, or Jim Crow laws.

Recently, in the early 2000s, as the housing boom was taking off and housing prices were going up, the larger white community was then able to go to these black communities and say,

The land that you’re sitting on right now, the one that we forced you into, is now valuable. It’s waterfront property. We want to build a stadium there, we want to build a performing arts center there. You have to get out of there, so that we can take your house, demolish it, and build condos or build a stadium or whatever it is we want to build.

That was called gentrification, or the forcible removal of low-income people in order to make room for higher-income people.

Objectively there’s no difference between someone saying to you “You have to stay over here” and someone saying to you “You can’t stay over there, you have to get out of there.” In either instance you have no real control over where you live, work, sleep, worship, etc. Either way, someone else is in control of your life and in control of the circumstances around your life. That’s because the real issue in the 1950s and the 1960s was not segregation, and the real issue in the early 2000s during the housing boom was not gentrification. Those were just surface issues or manifestations of the real issue. The real issue was land and the lack of control that we have over land. The real question was who has actual control over this land.

The failure to distinguish properly between the root issue and the surface issue of segregation led to tactical errors during the civil rights movement and ultimately doomed us to repeat today some of the same fights that we had to fight back then in the 1950s and 1960s. There were some people who actually thought that if you just changed a group of laws, the Jim Crow laws, which said that black people weren’t allowed to go here, black people weren’t allowed to eat over there, that that would somehow make the air cleaner and the water fresher and make everyone’s life better. They thought that would actually solve the problem. But the Jim Crow laws were not the problem, they were the manifestation of the problem. The problem is: You had a group of people who were saying,

We think we are better than you, and we’re human and you’re not human.

The way they made that real or the way that they made that tangible was by making these laws. You couldn’t, then, end the way they were feeling or the way they were acting just by ending the laws which they enacted in order to codify the way they were feeling or the way they were acting.

At some point we have to deal with the real issue. And that’s the fact that white supremacy existed and dominated the society. It continues to exist and dominate today. So not recognizing properly the difference between ending segregation and ending racism was a huge problem in the same way that not properly understanding the difference between ending segregation and changing land relationships was also a huge problem.

Let us be equally clear about the problem that we face today. The root issue we face today is not what interest rate you’re paying or what your principal is and whether or not you’re going to get your principal reduced, and it’s not about the number of foreclosures. All of those who are manifestations or the symptoms of the problem. The problem that we have today is faulty land relationships that are based entirely on who has the most money rather than who is a human being and what is the collective benefit or the proper collective use of this piece of land. If we don’t properly understand the difference between one and the other, we are going to make tactical mistakes in this time, and we are going to blow a huge opportunity to advance the human agenda, the right of human beings to have housing and community control over land.

To be perfectly clear, we want to stop foreclosures, we want to build more public housing. But we can’t build a movement just to stop foreclosures, and we can’t build a movement just to build more public housing. We have to build a movement to elevate housing to the level of a human right and secure community control over land.

The transformation of the society and the transformation, really, of land relationships is going to manifest itself in community control over land, and those communities will then figure out how to implement the human right to housing. As it relates to the clash, the building of this movement that we need to engage in right now in order to position ourselves to fight the social clash—because, you know, on the other side they’re building their own movement so that they can resist the fight to elevate housing to the level of being a human right and resist the efforts to secure community control over land—is going to require from us fundamental shifts in how we view certain phenomena in this society, particularly phenomena such as development.

Some people believe that development is fundamentally about tall buildings, beautifully designed buildings with curves, it’s about high-speed Internet, it’s about sleek roads, it’s about medical equipment or whatever the particular thing is. We, however, contend that development is not fundamentally about buildings or fundamentally about high-speed Internet or fundamentally about some of these other comforts that we have here in this country, but that development is fundamentally about human beings. Not about things but about human beings. If we can develop things to serve human beings, that’s one thing; but if we’re just building things, that’s not really accomplishing too much.

This society is completely and totally unmatched in terms of the building of technology, the development of technology, and the development of things like buildings and a lot of the trappings that we see. But at the same time that the society is building up these incredible structures and making these incredible technological and medical advancements, this society right here has more human beings in prison than any other society, any other country in the world, including China, with many times this country’s population. China is condemned worldwide as a human rights violator, but this country has more people in prison than China has or that any other country in the world has.

If development is fundamentally about things, then this society will go down as the greatest society in the history of humankind, because no other society has been able to create things and develop things the way this one has. If, however, development is fundamentally about human beings, the development of human beings rather than the development of things, the society will go down as one of the greatest failures in the history of humankind.

The richest country in the history of the planet is cutting education right now, it’s cutting people off of public assistance right now, and is turning people away from hospitals right now who are sick and can’t get treatment. If development is about things, this will be greatest society in the history of the world. If development is judged to be about people, however, this will be judged to be one of the worst societies in the history of the world.

In the same way that we have to adjust the way we think about development in order to engage in this social clash, at the core of what the social clash is or what the social clash will be about, I think, is the concept of the idea of what ultimately the fundamental purpose of housing is in the society. Most people think that the fundamental purpose of housing in the society should be to provide a home for human beings. That’s what most people think. But in this society, as with many others, the fundamental purpose of housing is not to provide a home for human beings but to serve as a profit center for banks, for corporations, for speculators, even for individual homeowners. This society is going to have to work out for itself what the real purpose of housing is, what the real purpose of four walls and a roof is, whether it’s to be a profit center or whether it is to house human beings in a decent way that they can afford.

The fundamental purpose of housing as well as the purpose of development–but the fundamental purpose of housing in particular–is at the core of the coming social clash. In a real way it’s about two existing rights, or at least two perceived rights. On the one hand, you have the human right to housing, and on the other hand you have the right of corporations to make a profit. The two rights seem to be increasingly mutually exclusive. If human beings get the right to housing, then corporations are not going to make the profits they want to make. If corporations get to make the profits they want to make, then there are going to be millions of human beings who don’t have access to housing.

The fact that there is a conflict here in rights, or two competing rights, is not new, it’s not unique to the U.S., it’s not even unique to countries. All the time we have people who suffer and have to work out how to resolve competing rights. One person has the right to free speech. Another person has the right to peace and quiet. How is that worked out in a society? How is that worked out in a community? This generation, I think, is going to be largely judged by how we resolve this particular clashing of rights, or clashing of perceived rights.

We assert at Take Back the Land that the right of human beings to housing supersedes the right of corporations to make a profit. And if we have to choose between the right of a human being to have housing and the right of corporations to make a profit, we must fall on the side of the human right to housing over and above the right of corporations to make a profit, even at the expense of the right of corporations to make a profit. In a real way, Take Back the Land as an organization and as a movement was organized around making this idea that human beings have the right to housing, and corporations do not have a right to profit real in practice, not just real in theory.

On October 23, 2006, in the midst of a crushing wave of gentrification to low-income communities in Miami, Florida, we at Take Back the Land, a small group, seized control of a vacant land in the Liberty City section of Miami, and we built an urban shantytown there called the Umoja Village shantytown, and we housed about 150 people in all. This is in 2006. We called this liberating land. On that piece of land, in a real way, we built a new society, where the people who lived there got to make the rules about their community, and they got to decide who moved in, who had to move out, what time the kitchen was open, and all those other different considerations. The Umoja Village shantytown 6 months later, in April 2007, fell to a fire that we can only call suspicious.

Several months later, we recognized that the forces that compelled us to seize land in the first place and to build the Umoja Village shantytown in the first place remained at work in our communities. But we also noticed something interesting, which was that the houses which were increasing significantly in value in our communities were now starting to show up vacant. We had vacant homes dotting our communities. So starting in October of 2007, we began the process of identifying vacant government-owned and foreclosed homes. We would break into them and we would move homeless people into peopleless homes. We called this liberating housing, or, again, liberating land.

In 2008 we began the process of not just doing this kind of work in Miami, which we had been doing at that point for over a year but building what we called a translocal network, not a national organization with a central body but a network of organizations that were engaged in similar types of work. We now have affiliated organizations all across the U.S.

Moving families into vacant homes made tangible the human right to housing by two inherent acts.

  1. First, we directly challenged those laws, those immoral laws, which allowed human beings to live on the street while banks were allowed to warehouse vacant buildings so that they could profit on them later by manipulating the supply and demand of housing.
  2. The second is that we affirmatively were implementing our own public policy by moving people into structures that were otherwise serving no public good whatsoever.

We liberated homes, and we defended families from eviction by engaging in eviction blockades. But we didn’t invent either one of the strategies or either one of the tactics. Take Back the Land was modeled after other land reform movements around the world, particularly the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign in South Africa, Abahlali baseMjondolo in South Africa, and the MST in Brazil.

The Take Back the Land movement is organized under four core principles.

  • The first is that housing is a fundamental human right.
  • The second is that local communities must control their own land.
  • The third is that any movement must be led by those who are impacted the most, must be led by impacted communities. For us that meant low-income black women.
  • And fourth, because of the particular political economy of this day and age, we couldn’t accomplish these objectives by lobbying or by meeting with elected officials. We had to engage instead in what we call positive action campaigns. Most people call them direct action or civil disobedience campaigns. We have another distinction that we make. We talk about them in terms of positive action or direct action campaigns.

So in order to enforce this assertion that housing is a human right and to realize the human right to housing, we must build a movement that will fundamentally transform this society in the coming social clash. In terms of leadership by impacted communities, movements must be led by those who are most severely impacted by the crisis, which sparks those movements to life in the first place. The housing crisis most impacts low-income communities. But inside of those low-income communities, it mostly impacts communities of color. A lot of poor people are impacted by the crisis. Poor people of color are impacted more than whites. Inside of those communities of color, it impacts black communities more than it does other communities of color. And inside of black communities this crisis impacted women more than it’s impacted men.

Therefore, the movement, if we are to be true to the movement, must be led by the most impacted, which is low-income black women. That means not only must low-income black women be at the leadership—that doesn’t just mean in physical appearance, being out in front of the cameras—but the solutions that we derive to the housing crisis must be based on the solutions which are most meaningful and most impactful to that group of people, not the solutions which are least meaningful to that group of people.

In terms of the positive action campaigns, on February 1, 1960, there were four North Carolina A&T College students out of Greensboro, North Carolina, who went into a Woolworth’s five and dime and sat down and they refused to leave until they were served. They were not served. Instead, they were arrested because they were violating Jim Crow segregation laws. But that didn’t stop there. It inspired many others to come immediately after them and sit in at the same place, and then ultimately sit in at lunch counters all across the South.

On the fiftieth anniversary of the sit-ins, Take Back the Land found itself greatly inspired and wanting to learn from the model and to reproduce the model except apply it in modern days. So 50 years later, Take Back the Land called for the May 2010 month of action to liberate land, to liberate housing, and to engage in eviction defenses. We had actions which took place all across the United States at that time, all across the country. But we weren’t sitting in for a burger. We weren’t engaged in sit-ins so that we could get a burger or were we weren’t engaged in sit-ins so that we could sit on the bus. Instead, we were engaged in live-ins, where we lived in for the human right to housing.

In the 1950s and 1960s, laws that were unjust were changed because people recognized those laws as immoral, recognized those laws as unjust, and they intentionally broke those laws as a means of righting a wrong. That is known as civil disobedience, where you intentionally break an immoral law. We believe that housing is a fundamental human right. Human beings cannot live without housing.

And what makes this particular crisis so bizarre and so pernicious, really, and strange is that there is not a shortage of housing, there is actually a surplus of housing.

I went to a commission meeting in Miami, and it was straight out of The Twilight Zone. They had a morning session, where they talked about the growing number of homeless in Miami-Dade County. They talked about the number of homeless individuals who were coming out and the explosion of homeless families.

How are we going to deal with this? Our shelters are not made to handle this. How are we going to solve this problem? We don’t know how to solve the problem.

They assigned it to a committee. We talked about that, broke for lunch, came back from lunch afterward. Next item on the agenda:

We have a crisis because we have all these empty houses in the county. What are we going to do with these empty houses? Are we going to board them up or what?

No one at any point said,

Hey, we have a bunch of people who need a place to stay, and we have a bunch of places that need people to stay in them. Why don’t we just match them up together?

It didn’t occur to anyone.

So what’s really bizarre about this crisis is that generally when you have a housing crisis, it takes place in one of two ways.

  • You can have a certain number of houses in a community, and for whatever reason there are more people entering that community than the houses that are available, so you have more people than houses. You have a shortage of housing.
  • In other instances you have the housing crisis because the opposite happens. An area like, for example, Detroit has huge industries. Those industries either shut down or significantly reduce, and people flee the area. There’s a crisis where you have all these empty homes and you don’t have enough people, there’s not enough of a population to fill all the empty homes.

Those are two different kinds of housing crisis.

This crisis is the worst, though, because you have a dual crisis of too many people without any places to live and too many houses that are just sitting there vacant.

It is morally indefensible to have empty houses on one side of the street and people being forced to live in bushes on the other side of the street. It is morally indefensible. So more than breaking the immoral laws, like we did in the 1950s and 1960s, where we said we have the right to sit here, we have the right to be served here—more than breaking immoral laws, by taking people who don’t have anywhere to live and moving them into a home where they have somewhere to live, somewhere secure to be—we are actually implementing moral laws. If civil disobedience is breaking these immoral laws, positive action we think of not as civil disobedience but as moral obedience. We are engaged in campaigns, therefore, of moral obedience. Positive action campaigns are those in which we implement moral laws ourselves because we recognize that the government or other people in power are not willing to do that.

If we have obligations toward one another and we have a social contract that is built up among people, among societies, among human beings that says we have some things in common and we have to move some things in common—all of us need to educate our children so we’re going to pool our money together, and we’re going to build schools and hire teachers—if we have an obligation to each other, that obligation is fulfilled through a social contract, where we say we’re going to create government as a way of dealing with some of these things that we can’t all deal with on a one-to-one basis but we can deal with collectively. That is a way of fulfilling our obligations under the social contract that we have towards one another.

But if the government part or the mechanism that we created to fulfill the social contract breaks down, we still have that obligation toward one another. We don’t lose the obligation because the mechanism that we created to deal with that obligation breaks down. We still have that obligation. If the mechanism breaks down, that doesn’t alleviate us of the obligation; it just means that we are now responsible for fulfilling that obligation in an entirely different way. We are doing that by implementing moral laws ourselves rather than just allowing the immoral laws to dominate.

Again, we’ve been doing this since 2006, and we now have a national network. We noticed something was a little bit different in the air at the very end of 2010 and throughout 2011. While we were just about the only organization in the U.S. that was doing this from 2007 all the way through the end of 2010, as 2010 faded out and 2011 came in, more and more organizations contacted us about doing the same thing and more and more organizations did it on their own without contacting us, which was a huge, huge shift that we saw.

I remember clearly, I got two emails I ignored and then I got a call, “Did you hear something happened in New York? They’re doing some kind of land takeover.” I said, “I know. They’re doing takeovers everywhere. I’m busy, I’m working on something.” And the same thing the next day. Finally we saw those iconic images of the police penning in those four women and then pepper-spraying them. And we said, “Wait a minute. Something is happening here, something is going on here.” Occupy changed forever the trajectory of what we’re doing or the way we even thought about what we’re doing.

Occupy Wall Street started on September 17, 2011, and has inspired people around the U.S. and all around the world. Occupy is doing some amazing things. We love what Occupy is doing. What we’re doing at Take Back the Land is slightly different from what Occupy is doing, but in a really good way. We think that we are in the process now of building a singular movement which will go largely toward the direction that we’ve laid out today, but we’re building that singular movement with two separate tracks: an Occupy track and a liberate track. We think the two tracks are good, we think the two tracks are important, we think it’s important to understand the distinctions and important also to not fall into some common mistakes that we could potentially make.

Just to give some characteristics—these are overly broad, these are certainly not true everywhere and there is some crossing of course, these are not pure lines—but to give some overly broad characteristics:

  • Occupy is mainly white. The core issue is the economic system, the economic injustice inherent in the system. And the way that that manifests itself is that Occupy has been taking over space, public space, space that is controlled by corporations, that kind of space.
  • Liberate, on the other hand, what Take Back the Land has been doing, has been mainly people of color rather than mainly whites. Our core issue is land rather than the economic system, although obviously the two dovetail together very nicely. And we’ve been engaged in liberating our own spaces, liberating individual homes that people are living in rather than public spaces that people are not living in but want access to the commons.

We recognize these as two separate tracks. There are tendencies, in thinking about these tracks, that we should avoid, we must resist.

The first tendency is to think that the two tracks are two separate movements and that we must keep those two separate movements apart—You do your thing and we’ll do our thing. That is a common thing. Here’s what the white people are doing, here’s what the black people are doing. Let’s keep them apart. That is a tendency. It is a mistake.

The second tendency is to think that the two tracks should, instead of remaining as two tracks, merge into one singular track because we’re all doing the same thing and doing it the same way. It is also a mistake to think of it that way, and we must resist that temptation as well.

The two tracks are different but they’re not contradictory, they’re complementary. And we can advance this movement by creating one singular movement, but one singular movement with two tracks.

Really quickly I want to cover a couple of other things: Land liberation and eviction offense. As a result of the objective conditions at this time and the explosion of Occupy, while, again, we were one of the very few organizations doing this work at one time, now there are organizations all over the U.S. doing it, including a large number of Occupy groups. This is exciting. But as we talk about it with clarity, we must move in the proper direction by understanding the time that we’re in and where we’re ultimately going with this objective.

The predominant model right now is to wage these eviction defenses for homeowners, and then once we win the eviction defense, to demand principal reduction. That the mortgage that the homeowner had, the principal will be reduced on the mortgage in order to be at market value or whatever. While we support the idea of principal reduction as a means, we do not support the idea of principal reduction as an end for the movement, as an objective for the movement. Principal reduction is necessary in order to build this movement. It’s necessary in order to achieve the kind of justice that we want, but it is insufficient, it is not enough to achieve the kind of justice that we want.

First of all, principal reduction helps only homeowners, it doesn’t help renters. It helps only homeowners who have jobs, because if you are a homeowner and even if your principal is reduced by half, that just means you have half as much of a mortgage that you can’t pay as you did before you got the principal reduction. It disproportionately helps higher-income people, because higher-income people are more likely to have mortgages than lower-income people. And it disproportionately helps whites. The majority of whites own their own homes, live in homes that they own. The majority of people of color do not live in homes that they own.

The most important thing is that principal reduction as an objective, not as a step but as an objective, fails to fundamentally transform the land relationship. It doesn’t add one more house to the housing stock, it doesn’t make any house affordable except for the individual family that benefits, and it doesn’t change the faulty parts of the system that created this Ponzi scheme in the first place.

So we must step up in two ways.

  1. The first way is to frame the issue as housing as a human right and community control over land, not frame the issue merely as an issue of principal reduction, the levels of principal or interest rates or whatever. It manifests itself in two ways.
    • First, when we win a home, we can’t just demand that the bank reduces the principal on the home. We have to demand that the bank hands the home over to a democratically controlled community land trust, not to the individual homeowner but to a democratically controlled community land trust.

      This is important on many levels. First of all, if the community gets together and they fight for the land and they fight for the housing, then the community must have some benefit in the land and in the housing. The benefit we want is we want the land and the housing to be permanently affordable. The only way it’s going to be permanently affordable is if we remove at least a portion of it from the market. If we build a movement that just gives individuals homes, either reduced-principal homes or gives the homes outright and then those individuals turn around the very next day and they sell it to the highest bidder, then we’ve not only failed to change the system, we’ve actually reinforced it and we’re probably going speed up the time in which the Ponzi scheme rolls back up and then cracks back up.

    • The second thing is that the community land trust will be a way in which communities can have real control over the land in our communities and our homes. We still have to get the family taken care of, but instead of saying that the family should get principal reduction, the house should be handed over to the community land trust.
  2. The other thing about handing it over to the community land trust is that, of course, you say, “We have to pay the banks for the house.” I just want to be perfectly clear: The banks have been paid for those homes through the bailout money. They’ve already been paid for those foreclosed homes. And this is a very strange situation, where the banks have been paid for the homes, but then after they’ve been paid for them, they get to keep the homes and resell them again later. If you went into a convenience store and you wanted a bottle of water and you went to the convenience store clerk and you gave them a dollar, you would expect them to give you the water. You would say to them, “Look, you can either take the dollar and give me the water or I’ll keep the dollar and you keep the water. I’m not going to give you the dollar and you keep the water and you get to sell it to the next person.” That’s exactly what happened here. We paid the banks for the houses, and then the bank gets to keep the house and they get to sell it again to the next person. We have already paid for these homes, and we don’t intend on paying for them again.

So the first track of demands has to be around the individual family and that the individual family gets to stay through the community land trust, not through them getting it individually. But then the second track must be that we make demands not just around the individual family but around policies. What were the laws that existed that made it possible for this family to get foreclosed on and evicted in the first place? We want those laws changed as well.

As we win these hard-fought victories, we can’t just win them for the individual families. We know how difficult it is to wage some of these campaigns. We cannot possibly wage 1,000 campaigns. And then even if we win all 1,000 of them, we only help 1,000 people. If we’re going to engage in these campaigns, we have to end foreclosures and evictions forever, not just for the individual families with whom we engage in this. So we have to change those laws.

The next thing you’re going to start seeing are not just the eviction defenses of these individual homes but entire eviction-free zones, where entire sections of cities are going to be declared eviction-free zones and no eviction is going to allowed to happen uncontested in those areas.

Now organizations, and rightfully so, are celebrating when they win principal reduction for families. We think that after this people will be unsatisfied when an organization comes to them and says, “Congratulations. We just got you a $150,000 mortgage,” when we can instead say we got this community control over land and whatever you are paying for your mortgage on the top is going to match as a percentage of your income, not just be whatever amount the bank can squeeze out of you. So democratically controlled community land trust is where we think this is going in the future. So we’re building now, Take Back the Land is and several other organizations are, a movement to elevate housing to the legal of a human right and to secure community control over land.

To be clear, social movements happen and social movements are the only way that we have seen significant advancements in our rights—in this country or in any other country. No people have ever walked and accidentally tripped into liberation. No oppressors have ever accidentally passed a law freeing the people that they are oppressing. The end of oppression only happens through organized struggle. It happens through organized struggle because people who believe in the same things join the same organization and that organization fights for the vision of the world they want to see.

If you say you are against injustice, then you have to join an organization that is fighting against injustice and fighting for the type of justice and the type of world that you want to see. If you say you are against injustice and you’re not in an organization that’s fighting against injustice, then you are not really for the end of the injustice. You must be part of an organization, because that is the only way that’s been proved to advance the idea of justice and to end injustice. You have to join an organization in order to advance the idea of justice.

Just to be clear, too, we all have an obligation to advance the human cause, to make life better for human beings. In fact, that’s the fundamental purpose of life, is to improve human life on Earth. We all have an obligation toward that. But the way we each fulfill that obligation could be different. There’s a group, organizations out there that are fighting for justice by engaging in eviction defenses and land liberation and getting arrested for it, that is the work we are engaged in. If you choose not to participate in that way, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with that, there’s nothing less than that, there’s nothing untoward about that. But just because you choose not to engage in the movement in the same way that Take Back the Land engages in the movement, that doesn’t alleviate your obligation to also participate in the movement. You still have an obligation to be engaged in the movement and to fight for the kind of world that you want to see.

If you are not joining Take Back the Land, then you have to join the Occupy movement. If the Occupy movement is not your thing, then you have to join an organization in your community that’s fighting for the type of world that you want to see. If there is no organization in your community that’s fighting for the type of world that you want to see, then you have an obligation to create that organization yourself and get other people to join it so that you can engage in the fight to see the world that you want to see. We’re building a movement to elevate housing to the level of a human right and secure community control over land. You must be part of that movement as we move forward in history.

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

Posted in Big picture, Corporate bonding and domination, Economic injustice, Liberal ineffectiveness, Racist? perish the thought!, The American Dream | Leave a comment

Ecology and socialism

Interviewed by David Barsamian Santa Fe, New Mexico 20 March 2012

Chris Williams
Interviewed by David Barsamian
Santa Fe, NM
March 20, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Chris Williams speak for himself here.

Chris Williams is a long-time environmental activist. He is professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University and chair of the science department at Packer Collegiate Institute. He is a contributor to the International Socialist Review and The Indypendent. He is the author of Ecology and Socialism.

Tonight, I want to unmask and hold up to the light the root cause of our ecological crisis and pose a series of questions and suggest some answers. First, why is it so important that we identify the primary cause? It is imperative that we identify the root cause of our “metabolic rift” with nature, to use Marx’s phrase, because if we misattribute the cause, we will misidentify the solution. We will believe we are solving the problem when in fact we’re not even addressing it. We will believe we are coming to the table with some great proposals, when in reality we’re not even sitting at the right table.

In contrast to many other explanations for the dire ecological situation we find ourselves in, such as population growth, consumerism or merely poor energy choices, I contend that it is the system of free market enterprise, otherwise known as capitalism that is at the root of our ecological crisis. Indeed, there is a clue within the words themselves that all may not be as it seems in the system of free market enterprise as it is a system where nothing is, in fact, free.

If it is capitalism that is, following Aristotle, the “efficient cause” of the crisis, then the solution swims into our vision through the murk of carbon-trading, techno-fixes or lifestyle changes with great clarity and simplicity: we need to change the system. This immediately begs the next question: how? And, if we want to get rid of capitalism, which I would argue is the only rational course of action if we want to bequeath a planet to our children that looks remotely like the one on which we were born, then what economic, political and social system would we replace it with that is ecologically sustainable? What, if any, writers or alternative models can we turn to for guidance?

I’m going to begin with a debate in the scientific community. This is not the debate over climate change or whether it’s caused by human activities; that debate closed some time ago. The debate I want to touch on is whether we have entered a new geological epoch. As the last ice age ended around 12,000 years ago and there was a radical change in global climate, plant and animal life geologists felt able to designate a new epoch called the Holocene, from the Greek meaning “entirely recent.” This relatively benign and stable climatic period coincided with the rise of human civilization that saw humans for the first time living in towns. We were able to shift from small nomadic bands of hunter-gathers to permanent, fixed communities and agriculture.

Geologists are now debating whether humanity, by our activities, has so changed the living and nonliving environment that it justifies the designation of a new epoch; the Anthropocene, which translates as The Age of Man.

Unfortunately, there are many arguments in favor of this epochal change. To mention only a few: 80% of the earth’s land surface has been modified by humans, with about 40% being used for agriculture. There are now more trees existing as farmed monoculture plantations than there are in natural forests. Deforestation is continuing at a rate of 80,000km2/year. More than 90% of the total biological mass of mammals in the world is either human or the animals that we have domesticated. The oceans are more acidic than they have been in 800,000 years and new data indicates the rate of change is faster than anything seen in 300 million years. On the off-chance I’m not depressing you enough, we are wiping out species faster than we can discover and classify them–at 100 to 1000 times the geological statistical norm, leading to what some are calling the Sixth Great Extinction.

By the vast and unprecedented burning of ancient sunlight–that is, fossil fuels low in radioactive carbon–we are changing not just the amount of carbon but also the isotopic ratio of carbon in the atmosphere. Through various scientific techniques, all of these changes would show up clearly in the geological record.

As a growing number of geologists are coalescing around a positive answer to the Anthropocene debate, the next question arises: when would we say that the Age of Man began? The most compelling answer that would be easily measurable over extremely long periods of time and which was a global and highly distinguishable phenomenon brings me here to New Mexico and July 16, 1945, the year of the first nuclear test at Alamogordo. Suddenly and irrevocably Man–and we are talking about men in this instance–changed the isotopic composition of the earth’s atmosphere. In other words, a more radioactive atmosphere may be the easiest and most obvious way to spot the legacy of humanity, in a way the crowning achievement of our technological prowess.

Is it possible to use nuclear weapons and their off-shoot, nuclear power, as a metaphor for the anti-ecological, never-ending expansionism and short-term time horizon of capitalism? Without realizing it, our very language has certainly been shaped by the Atomic Age. Words are important and like radon gas seeping unseen into underground mines, the phrases of nuclear physics have slipped quietly into our culture and everyday vernacular. Think about when you last heard or used these words: critical mass; meltdown; ground zero; chain reaction; fallout.

To quote from the 1946 “Report on the International Control of Atomic Energy” by the U.S. State Department, a report drafted in part by Robert Oppenheimer:

The development of atomic energy for peaceful purposes and the development of atomic energy for bombs are in much of their course interchangeable and interdependent.

While this connection is often denied by government and corporate apologists for nuclear power, how else are we to explain the ratcheting up of war fever against Iran for its civil nuclear program, which it is perfectly entitled to pursue under international law, by the only state to have developed and actually used nuclear weapons?

In yet more bad news, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, a group formed out of the disillusionment and horror at the birth of the Atomic Age which they had helped usher onto the world historical stage, this year moved the Doomsday Clock two minutes closer to midnight based on two factors: the continued proliferation of nuclear weapons and the fact that virtually no concerted action is being taken to avert catastrophic climate change.

A small book that is mentioned as influential by one of the leading physicists who worked on the Manhattan Project, Leo Slizard, is by H.G. Wells, The World Set Free: A Study of Mankind. The book is remarkable as a piece of art and as a prophetic parable for our times. It is simultaneously a paean to the power of atomic energy as well as a warning about its dangers and connection to atomic weapons. Perhaps what is most remarkable is the prescience with which Wells writes in 1914, prior to WWI and only just after the discovery of the nucleus, about the future of the 20th century, after man has harnessed the almost immeasurable power of atomic energy:

This spectacle of feverish enterprise was productivity, this crowding flight of happy and fortunate rich people – every great city was as if a crawling anthill had suddenly taken wing – was the bright side of the opening phase of the new epoch in human history. Beneath that brightness was a gathering darkness, a deepening dismay. If there was a vast development of production, there was also a huge destruction of values. These glaring factories working night and day, these glittering new vehicles swinging noiselessly along the roads, these flights of dragonflies that swooped and soared and circled in the air, were indeed no more than the brightness’s of lamps and fires that gleam out when the world sinks towards the twilight and the night. Between these highlights accumulated disaster, social catastrophe.

There is an extreme disjunction between the technology that we have manufactured and the uses to which it is put; a disjunction that we can lay at the feet of capitalism, a social system which knows no other purpose than the accumulation of money. This dynamic was captured by the late Donald Trautlein, former CEO of Bethlehem Steel when he commented:

I am not in the business of making steel. I am in the business of making money.

More recently, you may have read the high profile resignation letter of Greg Smith, until March 14th an executive director at Goldman Sachs which was featured on the New York Times op-ed page where he stated:

I attend derivatives sales meetings where not one single minute is spent asking questions about how we can help clients. It’s purely about how we can make the most possible money off of them… It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.

Now given the kind of angry, pitchfork-toting climate that quite rightly exists against bankers and the financial industry after they brought the world economy to its knees in 2008 and then got bailed out by the government for their troubles, one might think there might be a somewhat contrite response to this rather embarrassing revelation from one of their own. Not a bit of it. An editorial appeared on the financial site later that very day:

We have some advice for Smith, as well as the thousands of college students who apply to work at Goldman Sachs each year: If you want to dedicate your life to serving humanity, do not go to work for Goldman Sachs. That’s not its function, and it never will be. Go to work for Goldman Sachs if you wish to work hard and get paid more than you deserve.

Humility is not one of their strong points. Indeed Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs believes bankers in general and his company in particular are on a righteous, messianic crusade: in a 2009 interview with The Times of London he made his infamous claim to be an emissary from God:

We have a social purpose…we are doing God’s work.

Marx captured a similarly relentless and callous dynamic when he wrote of the dichotomy between machinery, humanity and the natural world under capitalism that contains within it one of the most problematic and contradictory facets of the system; its inherent short-termism:

In its blind unrestrainable passion, its werewolf hunger for surplus-labour, capital oversteps not only the moral, but even the merely physical maximum bounds of the working-day. It usurps the time for growth, development, and healthy maintenance of the body. It steals the time required for the consumption of fresh air and sunlight. It higgles over a meal-time, incorporating it where possible with the process of production itself, so that food is supplied to the labourer as to a mere means of production, as coal is supplied to the boiler, grease and oil to the machinery. It reduces the sound sleep needed for the restoration, reparation, refreshment of the bodily powers to just so many hours of torpor as the revival of an organism, absolutely exhausted, renders essential. It is not the normal maintenance of [a healthy human being] which is to determine the limits of the working-day; it is the greatest possible daily expenditure of [one’s] labour-power, no matter how diseased, compulsory and painful it may be…

Marx goes on:

Capital cares nothing for the length of labour-power. All that concerns it is simply and solely the maximum of labour-power that can be rendered fluent in a working-day. It attains this end by shortening the extent of the [worker’s] life, as a greedy farmer snatches increased produce from the soil by robbing it of its fertility.

No doubt all of us can relate to having to eat “fast food” while on the run, work longer than we wish, often in utterly pointless activities, fall asleep exhausted, wake before we’re fully rested, live in unhealthy conditions without the time or resources to live anywhere else or in any other way. But with his reference to the “greedy farmer increasing production to rob the soil of its fertility,” Marx’s passage suggests that the exploitation of the social world is simply the mirror image for the exploitation of the natural world. Hence, if we are to overcome the challenge of our Age, and avert the incipient ecological crisis, we have to simultaneously operate and work toward a social and an ecological revolution. We must be equally social justice activists as much as we are ecological justice activists. The success of one is predicated on the success of the other.

In this part of the world, perhaps nothing demonstrates this argument better than those who were exploited in order to obtain the raw materials for the nuclear project in the first place. Unwittingly dying disproportionately from a host of malignant diseases and who continue to die because their land, now robbed twice over, remains lethally contaminated.

The Navajo, who were promised wealth and a chance to serve their country in return for their labor in the uranium mines of their reservation, were also told by their so-called Guardian in D.C. that their land would be returned to them in the state in which it was found. The hundreds of abandoned uranium mines, mounds of contaminated tailings and radioactive pools that litter the landscape of their ancestral home tell another story. One of decades of broken promises, racism and economic exploitation in the service of enormous corporate profit and the U.S. government’s nuclear weapons stockpile. The Department of Defense knew about the negative health effects of radiation from the late ‘40’s and indeed sought to carry out health studies in order to find out more.

The DoD “Program Guidance Report” of 1952 by the Joint Panel on the Medical Aspects of Atomic Warfare states:

Advantage should be taken of any opportunities for the study of the biological effects of radiation, particularly in man.

Of course, the Navajo were never told about the risks they were running from uranium mining. If they had been it seems unlikely that they would have taken to building their houses from uranium-laced mining waste or perhaps not even given permission to sink the mines in the first place. The cancer rate among Navajo’s doubled between the 1970’s and 1990’s and legal cases against the mining companies and the U.S. government to admit culpability and effectively clean up all of the contaminated land and water continue to this day, 70 years later. The clean-up is likely to continue for decades. The EPA, which by its own admission does not have an end-date, began work on remediating the reservation’s largest mine at Northeast Church Rock in 2005 and do not expect to be finished until 2019. When even some committed environmentalists talk of nuclear power as the clean alternative to fossil fuels and the answer to climate change, the long-term ravaging of once healthy communities and ongoing clean-up gives us a primary lesson in the toxic inheritance conferred by nuclear operations. Not to mention the priorities of a system based on profit.

As climate change takes hold and unusual weather patterns become the norm, ironically Los Alamos, the birthplace of atomic weapons, was itself threatened last summer by the largest fire in New Mexico state history— the Las Conchas Fire that started on June 26 burned more than 150,000 acres in northern New Mexico. The fire forced the evacuation of the lab and raises more questions about the spread of radiological waste by wind from the fire-devastated areas contaminated with nuclear waste from decades of Cold War-era nuclear experiments.

Fortunately, New Mexico and local anti-nuclear activists did obtain some good news recently as the Department of Energy announced they were deferring the construction of the Chemistry and Metallurgy Research Replacement facility and plutonium reprocessing operation at Los Alamos National Labs. While there were the predictable howls of protest about jobs going elsewhere, New Mexico is another area of the world to suffer the so-called “resource curse” of capitalist exploitation. New Mexico is one of the poorest states in the country despite receiving a disproportionate amount of federal aid, lavished almost exclusively on Los Alamos and Sandia. Furthermore, not only is New Mexico one of the poorest in absolute terms, it also suffers as one of the states with the greatest disparity between rich and poor. It is one of the poorest, most unequal states, inside one of the most unequal countries.

I just returned from an area of the world which has been on the receiving end of the weapons developed here and is once again the scene of a nuclear catastrophe. Almost 1 year ago to the day, the people of Fukushima prefecture in Japan, already reeling from a gigantic earthquake and the ensuing tsunami that killed as many as 15,000 people, found they had to simultaneously contend with three nuclear meltdowns and explosions at the critically damaged reactors at the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power complex.

We now know that such was the chaos after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear explosions, that contrary to initial reports that things were bad but under control, at one point TEPCO, the utility running the plants sent a report to the Japanese government arguing that Tokyo, a city of 35 million people, might have to be evacuated. The safety systems and emergency centers that were in place were either knocked out, unstaffed, not provisioned or not designed to be inside a high radiation zone – even though that was their express purpose. Many of the safety precautions that could have been mandated were instead voluntary. Hence, as a corporation focused on profit maximization, TEPCO took the logical decision not to implement them. If this sounds all too familiar to BP’s lack of concern for health, safety or the environment in the wake of the Gulf oil spill of 2010 or Massey Energy’s coal mine disaster in West Virginia of the same year, and you perhaps begin to discern a pattern, it’s because ultimately the dictates of bottom-line capitalism trump all other considerations.

Only through the bravery of the nuclear workers who stayed at the stricken plant, when TEPCO officials were saying it needed to be abandoned, was this much larger calamity averted. As bad as the situation is now, it is not possible to imagine what things would have been like if Daiichi had been abandoned, forcing the abandonment of the reactors at nearby Daiini and quite possibly Tokai, thereby forcing the evacuation of up to 100 million Japanese. Think about that for a second.
In Fukushima, I spoke with many people and they all said the same thing: they are now living in a state of constant fear and anxiety as they campaign for better information, more evacuations and better compensation. Because the government has clearly not been transparent, has been found to be far too cozy with the corporations and has constantly been minimizing or not testing for radiation, people have had to become amateur radiologists.

In order to minimize the number of evacuees – and there are still 110,000 of them, many of whom will likely never be able to go back to their homes in the radiation areas – the Japanese government arbitrarily raised the internationally accepted dose 20 times from 1mSv/y to 20. This new “safe” limit makes no distinction between the effects of radiation on adults versus children and pregnant mothers, nor between radiation exposure inside versus outside your body. In another sign of the importance of words, some evacuees are no longer referring to themselves as evacuees, because the word evacuee implies you will return. They are beginning to see themselves as members of the Fukushima “Diaspora” because they now think they will never go back.

A group of women from Kooriyama City showed me the government form they have to fill out for their children, noting down where their child has been for the day and what they ate, along with the radiation monitors that the children have to carry around with them. As one of the mothers, who would only give her name as Nihon Matsu, the town she is from for fear of reprisals, quite reasonably asked me, if it’s so safe here, why is the government giving us these? Imagine the kind of social, domestic and economic pressures the people are living under as they debate whether they should stay because of their jobs or leave because of their health.

I spoke with Hatsumi Terashima, a fisherman from Minima-Soma for the last 54 years. He showed me the 2-3 feet of foundations that poked up from the mud that are all that remain of his house. He was caught in the tsunami and dragged 3 kilometers inland, but unlike 5 of his family members, managed to survive. He can’t fish anymore not just because he doesn’t have a boat, a house or a crew, but because of fears of radioactive contamination of the fish off the coast. So even if he could go out, there’s no guarantee he could sell the fish once they are labeled as coming from Fukushima.

I met one inspiring person after another as people there are organizing and protesting. A young female DJ from Fukushima City called Chika Shishido ran to the local radio station after the earthquake and with one other DJ broadcast 24/7 for 10 days straight to get the word out about the state of infrastructure, emergency services and radioactive contamination. One of the striking things about the new movement against nuclear power in Japan is that it is mostly led by women who are not just challenging the nuclear power structure but also raising questions of gender equality. She was keen to tell me why that was so important:

It’s not a mother and child thing. It’s about women’s [rights]. People think that because [we are concerned with] the evacuation of women and children it makes it seem like it’s a traditional issue – [that women need to be protected]. We need to make this clear if we want change [That this is not why we are leading this fight]. It’s fundamentally about the right to life.

She would like to have a baby but is scared of the consequences and so has quit her job and is moving to Hokkaido in the north to try to find work and peace of mind.

I was taken to a mall in Kooriyama City where amongst the shops there is now a volunteer-run radiation testing center. They are testing food and they also have a full-body scanner. Anyone under 20 can get tested for free. Imagine going to a mall down the street and seeing the Citizens Radiation Testing Center. Or imagine walking into your apartment building to be met with a large chart listing weekly radiation readings from different areas in and around your building, with particularly high values circled in red. This is now the daily reality for people in Fukushima City.

I met the famous Japanese film actor, Taro Yamamoto. He has suddenly been without job offers since becoming an anti-nuclear activist. Given some of the hardships that have now been placed on him I asked him: why are you doing this? He replied:

Because I want to live. People’s human rights are being violated in Fukushima. And if they can do it to people here, eventually they will do it to me. And I don’t want to see Japan end. But this is not just about Japan, this is the whole world.

Completely by accident I bumped into him again at Tokyo train station. He was up on a soapbox with a megaphone exhorting people to sign a petition to demand a referendum on nuclear power. In the three months of the petition activists had collected an amazing 3 million signatures.

In parallel with the way the Navajo were treated as expendable labor here, so too we find in Japan that 80% of nuclear workers are subcontracted day laborers without employment rights, a pension or health plan. So even in such an inherently unsafe technology and dangerous industry as nuclear power, we still find corporations cutting corners to maximize profit. I had the honor of meeting one of the workers from Fukushima-Daiichi, Kitajima-San, when he was in New York City at a panel I moderated on the anniversary of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. He spoke of the day laborers’ situation in a recent interview:

They are paid day laborers, and they are cornered financially. They have no other choices. Those workers expect they will suffer from radiation poison or diseases caused by radiation in five years. But they have already given up hope of medical benefits or compensation from the federal government. It makes me angry to think of a system created to force these people to face this kind of danger. Sometimes I go through six changes of [radiation protective clothing] a day. They are not recycled, they are just thrown away. The clothes are disposable. And so are the people.

One has to wonder, who took the decision for Japan, a small geologically active island prone to earthquakes and tsunamis and known as “the land of volcanoes” to become so dependent upon nuclear power and in whose interests was that decision taken? Every single one of the 54 reactors in Japan is built along the coast. At the moment, only 2 of the 54 are operational and yet there are no blackouts. This is leading many Japanese to more questions, such as why did we build them in the first place? And why don’t we have a renewable energy sector worth mentioning despite the fact that we were once world leaders in solar technology?

As Kazue Suzuki of Greenpeace Japan has pointed out:

This disaster was predictable and predicted, but happened because of the age-old story of cutting corners to protect profits over people…the authorities are already recklessly pushing to restart reactors without learning anything from the Fukushima disaster and the people will once again be forced to pay the price of their government’s mistakes.

Of course, we know all about not getting renewable energy here too. Which U.S. president said the following:

Over the last three years we’ve opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration, and tonight I’m directing my administration to open more than 75 percent of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.

If you guessed the oil-and-gas misadministration of George W. Bush you would be wrong. That was President Obama in his most recent State of the Union address. And in case we were in any doubt about where his administration stands on the XL tar sands pipeline after the temporary halt forced on the administration by large anti-XL demonstrations outside the Whitehouse and the arrest of over 1,000 protesters, White House spokesman Jay Carney handily clarified that:

We support the company’s interest in proceeding with this project…We look forward to working with TransCanada…and we commit to taking every step possible to expedite the necessary federal permits.

The majority of this year’s budget request of $27.2 billion by the rather Orwellian-named Department of Energy is for nuclear weapons. While the Los Alamos project for processing plutonium was cut, there was still $7.6 billion for what is being called the “safe, secure” stockpile of nuclear weaponry, $2.5 billion for nonproliferation efforts and $5.7 billion to continue cleaning up the effects of nuclear weapons manufacture dating back 70 years that I mentioned earlier. Nuclear energy gets a further $770 million despite numerous reports documenting just how uneconomic it is. To mention one, Citibank, an institution that has rarely met a risky investment it could say no to, issued a report in 2009 on nuclear energy under the headline “Nuclear Power: The Economics Say No.” More recently, The Economist ran an article: “Nuclear Power: The Dream That Failed.” In contrast, the requested amount for solar energy was a mere $310 million.

Meanwhile, back at the Pentagon, they’re gearing up to embrace renewable technology. A front page New York Times article in 2010 reported:

Even as Congress has struggled to unsuccessfully pass an energy bill and many states have put renewable energy on hold because of the recession, the military this year has pushed rapidly forward. After a decade of waging wars in remote corners of the globe where fuel is not readily available, senior commanders have come to see overdependence on fossil fuels as a big liability, and renewable technologies – which have become more reliable and less expensive over the past few years – as providing a potential answer.

So, it appears that the U.S. military, which is the world’s single largest polluter, can have renewable energy to go and fight wars overseas, paradoxically to fight wars to secure access to fossil fuels, but we can’t have renewable energy here at home. To quote Martin Luther King from his historic 1967 Riverside Church speech in New York where he publically came out against the war in Vietnam:

A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.

To that, we can only add that we are now also approaching ecological death. So if we don’t want nuclear, and we don’t want fossil fuels, what are the alternatives? And if they exist, why aren’t they being implemented?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last year released a “Special Report on Renewable Energy Sources and Climate Change Mitigation” illustrating how it would be possible, given a change in political priorities, to generate 80% of world energy from a mix of six renewable sources by 2050. While I would take issue with promoting the extension of biofuels as a future source of clean energy the report is significant in that it has to be reached by consensus – all of the participating governments have to sign off on it. It can therefore be taken as eminently possible.

Other, more radical but still comprehensive reports have been released by Price Waterhouse Coopers, Greenpeace, the European Climate Foundation, World Wildlife Fund, and the Institute for Policy Research and Development all indicating how 100% carbon-free generation of electricity is entirely possible within 40 years. Whatever skepticism people may have, carefully and expensively cultivated by the fossil fuel and nuclear lobbies, they can’t all be wrong.

A study reported in Scientific American showed how it would be possible to have 100% of world energy provided from renewable sources by 2030. It would require manufacturing 3.8 million large wind turbines and 90,000 solar plants alongside numerous geothermal, tidal and rooftop photovoltaic installations. The cost estimate was significantly less than if the same power was generated via fossil fuels and nuclear power. The construction of 3.8 million wind turbines might sound like a lot over a 20-year period but as there are 70 million cars manufactured every year, it is in fact quite feasible.

To give you another frame of reference, there are 101,000 Terawatts of solar power falling on the earth from the sun. Current global energy use is 15 Terawatts. Hence we would only have to capture a small fraction of 1% of this energy to power the earth. I’m not saying that’s what we should do as we would need a plan, but it gives you some idea of the potential.

Furthermore, the scope for reducing energy consumption through the enactment of energy efficiency regulations for appliances and retrofitting housing, commercial and industrial stock for energy efficiency is enormous. Not to mention a massive public transit program so that we can move away from the enormous inefficiency, pollution and waste associated with reliance on private automobiles.

There are currently millions of Americans without jobs or in part-time jobs that would relish the opportunity to rebuild the infrastructure of tomorrow along sustainable and energy-efficient lines. But the priorities of capitalism dictate that they remain rotting on unemployment lines and the millions of jobs that need doing to rebuild our collapsing bridges, build new train lines, energy grids and energy-efficient buildings and infrastructure that are so urgently needed don’t get done. We are not offered those kinds of jobs, the only jobs we get offered are those that force us into a Faustian trade-off between jobs and the environment. The kind that just happen to coincide with corporate priorities such as building the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to Texas.

Then there is the production of useless things, in-built obsolescence, marketing, advertising and the military, alongside the gargantuan waste generated by the daily operation of capitalism. One half to three-quarters of resource inputs to industry are returned to the environment as waste within a year. Capitalism is only efficient at one thing, the generation of money. The generation of waste is not a sign of the failure of capitalism, but conversely, a sign of its success. The more waste is generated, the faster things are wearing out and the more things can be sold to replace them.

The problem is therefore not technical at all but entirely social and political and revolves around the question of social power: who has it and who doesn’t. Who makes the decisions in society and in whose interests are they made? What Occupy Wall Street has exposed is the reality we’ve all been living with: the answer to both those questions is the 1%; the tiny number of the ruling elite in each country who run the system in the interests of the gigantic multi-national corporations that dominate the economic and political landscape and are busily trashing the natural landscape in their relentless and insatiable pursuit of profit.

Capitalism is a system that is driven by the need to make money in order to stay afloat that in turn drives the constant expansion of the system. Marx explains it very simply in just 3 letters: M-C-M prime. A capitalist starts with money, M; he turns that into a commodity, C, which he sells on the market for more money, M prime. Then the whole process starts again but this time on a larger basis with a bigger pot of money to invest. As we live on a finite planet, there is a clear, logical contradiction. We are now finding out what the limits of the planet are to tolerate this form of unending and destructive growth. Furthermore, there is no possibility to consider the longer-term effects of whatever it is that was just made because every company is in cutthroat competition with every other company. And there’s certainly no incentive to take care of either the worker or the natural resource base except when forced to by social regulation.

So we do need to fight for more government regulation to limit feckless corporations from evading all constraints on health, safety and the environment. But we also need a much broader and more extensive vision for change. We all currently live in a world dominated by a single system of production that’s built around competition and production for profit predicated on a lack of real democracy; this is the system that has brought us to the edge of the ecological precipice. I want to live in a world defined by cooperation and production for need based on real economic and political democracy where the goal is not more money, but social equality and natural harmony. Such a system is socialism.

Whether machines control workers, as under capitalism, or workers control machines, as under socialism, is a critically important point as it relates to sustainability because the tools and machinery we use are extensions of our physical and mental abilities to manipulate, control and investigate nature. These tools are the product of tens of thousands of years of human development and are what allow us to understand nature on deeper and deeper levels, right down to the sub-atomic. Machinery is, or should be viewed as, the physical materialization of our brains and hands. It is nature’s way of discovering and linking itself to itself for we are a part of nature.

If machinery and technology was reconstructed on the basis of efficient use of resources, longevity, its labor- saving potential and minimization of waste products, then all of humanity could be freed – freed to fulfill the full range of human interests and pursuits. These would include an exploration and understanding of our fundamental connection to the earth as material beings – rather than enslaved to the rhythm and relentless pace of emails, texts, the vacuous nature of 24 hour news cycles and empty advertising slogans, automated machines and agricultural machinery, the production-line and time-in- motion studies and every other facet of our alienated existence under capitalism.

On this basis, as machines increase in efficiency, take over human functions, and save human labor for more creative activities, they will transform humanity’s former relation of life-and-death struggle against nature into a new relation; one of free time, of leisure, cultural pursuits and the opportunity for the fulfillment of distinctively human needs.

For the first time in human history, we can begin to relate to external non-human nature in non-competitive ways and not simply as a utilitarian need – what can we get from nature, how can we use it, what is it good for, how can we subdue and dominate it?

Rather we will have the time to stand back in awe and fully appreciate the natural world purely for the sake of its existence and the psychological, spiritual and material sense of uplift it gives us to know that we are alive in its midst; the serene beauty of the stars, the magnificence of a sunset, the intricate evolutionary delicacy of a bird’s wing matched so perfectly to its function.

Under an alternative ecologically sustainable and socially just system, no product would be made without it meeting the highest standards of use-value – the questions will not be as they are under capitalism: how quickly can it be made, at the lowest possible cost and how quickly can we get it to wear out before someone has to buy a new one, but instead a whole set of new questions will be asked: what need does it serve, how little energy can it be made with, are the materials adapted to its purpose, how can it be made to last as long as possible, how much waste is produced in its manufacture and how can we best deal with this.

Humanity interacts with its environment while simultaneously the environment acts back on us. In the process, both are changed. The environment is no longer a passive object to be plundered, or in the words of Marx’s lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels, made “an object of huckstering”, but would play a role in making us what we are. In this view, it is impossible to speak of any living thing, humans and their activity included, as anything but deeply enmeshed within each other, in a constant process of mutual interaction, transformation and co-evolution. This is why I avoid the word “environment,” because it posits that there are humans and then outside of us is the “environment” as if we are somehow apart from the natural world around us. That is why we ought to use the word “ecology” and see humans as just as much a part of nature as anything else.

We would be able to begin to fulfill our spiritual needs, cultivating non-utilitarian knowledge of the universe for beauty, play, recreation and for the observation of plants, animals and the inorganic world in all its diverse and wondrous forms. To paraphrase the ecological and leftist thinker Barry Commoner, nature is a self-enclosed system of energy exchanges. Nothing is isolated, nothing totally disappears, and nothing is free.

Nature and society cannot be seen as diametrically opposed but should co-evolve with one another as human naturalism and natural humanism become different aspects of the same thing. For Marx it was necessary to heal the “metabolic rift” created between humanity and nature by capitalism: “From the standpoint of a higher socio- economic formation, the private property of particular individuals in the earth will appear just as absurd as the private property of one man in other men. Even an entire society, a nation, or all simultaneously existing societies taken together, are not owners of the earth, they are simply its possessors, its beneficiaries, and have to bequeath it in an improved state to succeeding generations.” A concept which is totally alien to capitalism.

If you think talking in such terms is a utopian dream, I would answer that it is far more utopian to believe we can reform capitalism toward sustainability – and there are two decades of failed international climate negotiations as empirical evidence.

You know things are getting desperate when such a normally conservative group of people such as scientists are getting political. The March 16 issue of the leading U.S. scientific journal Science carries an article titled: “Navigating the Anthropocene: Improving Earth System Governance” where it is argued that: “Science assessments indicate that human activities are moving several of Earth’s sub-systems outside the range of natural variability typical for the previous 500,000 years,” and conclude that we have reached a “constitutional moment” in world politics. While they now recognize a significant international political rearrangement as necessary, we need to go further and indict the entire system.

Rather than have as humanity’s legacy the irradiation of the atmosphere, catastrophic climate change and planetary ecocide as implied by the term Anthropocene with which I began this talk, rather we should seek to enter an Age where we finally begin to understand what it means to be fully human; connected to each other and the land not as commodities to be bought and sold in the “callous cash nexus” of capitalism, but as a global community of cooperating humans working together toward a long term future of equality, sustainability and co-evolution with nature in all its living and non-living forms.

Capitalism itself was born through revolution as the rising bourgeoisie overthrew the previous feudal aristocratic ruling class in revolutionary upheavals such as 1776 and 1789 in order to impose the rule of the merchants and manufacturers that we have today. What was born through revolution can be ended by revolution. Thank you.



You talked about the inherent nature of capitalism and its drive for profits, privileging profits over people. What would you suggest as an alternative? You mentioned socialism several times. What do you mean by socialism? And hasn’t it been tried in the Soviet Union and other places and shown to be a failure?

I think it’s been tried once, and it did fail ultimately. But capitalism has failed many times, and we keep trying that. It’s worth giving socialism another chance. Without going into all of the details, the Soviet Union failed for very specific reasons. During its early years, in the 1920s, it had a very different attitude towards ecology. It was one of the first places that you could take a degree in ecology in 1924. There were huge parts of the Soviet Union set aside as ecological areas, where you couldn’t even do tourism or anything; it was purely for research, to see how they could rejuvenate damaged areas of the land. All that was reversed with the ultimate triumph of the bureaucracy, represented by Stalin. So I think that failed for very specific reasons.

But I don’t equate socialism with state control. If there’s no democracy, if the people aren’t making the economic and political decisions, then I don’t see how you could call that socialism. So if you think about China or Cuba or North Korea or any of these other countries that call themselves socialist, I would argue that they aren’t. You’ve just got one giant corporation called the state that runs everything. I think socialism is about real democracy. People in communities and workplaces, production for need, not profit, based on cooperation rather than competition.

In your book you talk about some of the attitudes toward nature. You quote Francis Bacon, for example. I think there is a theological aspect to the attack on nature, with people like Winthrop and his “city on the hill.” And to achieve that “city on the hill,” it was necessary to exploit nature, which was given to us as bounty by God. Otherwise it wouldn’t have been given to humankind.

Senator Inhofe has a similar opinion as to that.

The Oklahoma Republican.

He doesn’t believe that climate change is real because God has already told him that it’s not true. I think that there was a radical change. If you look at how the Earth was viewed, some of the language of which we still retain in terms of the “veins of ore” and be so on, the Earth was seen as a living thing in feudal times and before that, because people were much more connected to the land. Capitalism, if it wants to make money, has to make machines. That means it has to understand nature. Therefore, you get Bacon and others completely changing the conception. Nature is now not something that we live with and on but something that needs to be investigated and defiled in many ways. And generations before the emergence of capitalism, people would have seen that as a defilement, that actually was celebrated in very overtly sexual language, by Bacon in particular, that I mention in the book. And I think that rather than that, as I mentioned in the talk earlier, conception of nature, that we need to dominate and control it for our own ends, which are towards the profit motive, we need to see ourselves as co- evolving, as something equal.

The OECD recently came out with a very shocking report. The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development, the major economies, came out and said that we may be heading towards a world that is 3 degrees to 6 degrees warmer than anything we’ve seen for hundreds of thousands, millions of years. Most scientists will tell you that 2 degrees is the maximum that we should be going up to. So they lay all this out—by 2050 we’re going to be 3 to 6 degrees higher, which would mean the sea levels would be heading towards 300 feet higher—and at the end of it they just say, the effect on GDP will just be a 14% reduction. So there are going to be no icecaps— that’s literally what they say—there are going to be no icecaps, there are going to be deserts across large areas of the world, but there’s only going to be a 14% reduction in GDP worldwide.

In other words, there’s this idea from economists and apologists for the system that we are essentially independent of nature. We can survive without air or water or a planet and things can roll along as they always have. Clearly, we need to change that radically and think about not just where we’re going tomorrow and making money from that, but a much longer-term, future- generational thing, which Marx talks about, as I mentioned.

And the impact on the most vulnerable. A couple of years I was in Nepal. At a place called Kala Patthar in the Himalayas, the Nepali cabinet met to dramatize the fact that the glaciers are melting. And around the same time, in the Maldives the cabinet met underwater to have a meeting to demonstrate their concern about rising levels of the oceans, which will inundate and wipe out the Maldives Islands. Again, the vulnerability of people in the so-called developing world is acute. I think a lot of us here may be insulated from that while we are busy driving fuel- efficient cars and recycling and doing the right thing, environmentally speaking.

Well, maybe, unless you go to Texas or the wildfires that were all over New Mexico last year or the unprecedented floods in the Midwest. I think that on the one hand we are certainly somewhat more insulated, but that doesn’t mean to say—I mean, people are already in a desperate situation in many areas of the world and are feeling the effects already. There are already climate refugees, there are wars because of the instability that climate change is bringing about in various areas of the world.

Part of this is also about the idea that we can save nature by setting aside small, little areas called national parks to protect it. Yet, how is that going to work if the climate is completely different? How are the animals that feed on other animals or plants going to survive when those things are moving north or south or up mountains, or the will the birds be able to migrate and change? Clearly, the whole idea that we can save nature in certain individual locations goes out the window with climate. So we have to rethink the whole climate on a sustainable and rational manner.

I would be depressed about all this stuff if it was that we don’t have the answers. We actually do have the answers. It’s not a technical problem. It’s much more about how do we take power from the people who currently have it and put it in our hands so that we can actually start implementing some of the answers that we know will work.

It was Eduardo Galeano who said, “We have to save pessimism for better times.” A bit more about Marx—he’s been dead for 150 years—and his relevance today. What is it about his analysis that you find urgent and vital and applicable to the problems that society is facing today?

What’s important about going back to Marx is not just the specific things that he talks about, because obviously we can’t backdate our concerns to him. And climate change was not on his horizon. But one of the things that he and Engels were both most concerned with was depletion of the soil. What was going on in his period of time, they were very concerned in Britain that the fertility of the soil was dropping and what would they do. They hadn’t invented artificial fertilizer by then. They had already raided the Napoleonic battlefields, digging up the corpses of people who died in their wars to take back as natural fertilizer for the fields of England. They had to go further away to go and start wars in South America over guano— there were the Guano Wars of the 1800s that Marx wrote about—in order to get that fertilizer back to England. So Marx and Engels, his collaborator, were very much involved with an ecological question. He was great admirer of Darwin.

But beyond that, I would say what’s most compelling right now is their analysis of not just capitalism but the methodology which they used. Because so often we’re taught in schools that history is not connected; they’re all a series of disconnected events. That’s one of the things that makes history boring. You think that something caused the First World War, and it wasn’t connected to the Second World War. You learn about famous people. There’s no relationship to what’s going on now in your life. In contrast, what Marx and Engels did, their methodology of historical materialism, was saying that everything is interconnected and everything affects everything else. That’s a very deeply ecological viewpoint.

Furthermore, when he talked about the “metabolic rift,” the word “metabolism” had only been recently invented, but it means an exchange of materials in and out of a single cell or an organism. What was revolutionary about the way he used it in the phrase “metabolic rift” is he applied it to the whole biosphere. That is an enormously powerful tool and way of thinking about energy in and energy out, waste, far ahead of his time, and I think is useful today.

Given the extraordinary depth of the economic collapse, with its attendant millions of homes foreclosed, millions of people thrown out of work, pensions lost, etc., do you see now a kind of Gramscian possibility for an opening for socialism? Do you think there’s more space now to even talk about a word that has been viewed so pejoratively in recent decades in the U.S.?

I think there’s enormous potential. When Barack Obama was first running for election, he was being accused of being a socialist.

That’s the “Change You Can Believe In” president?

That’s right, the change that didn’t come. But when he was running, he started being accused of being a socialist because the right wing thought that this would be a negative. It became the number one word Googled, because people were, like, Well, I like Obama. They’re calling him a socialist. I don’t like them. Maybe I’m socialist, too. Let me go find out about it. I think that is significant.

The economic crisis of 2008 coinciding with the ecological crisis is raising questions in young people’s minds and others’ that maybe there is a connection between those two things, maybe one caused the other. So they are open to the idea that there are new possibilities. I’m sure you saw the Pew poll that said young people in particular were more disposed to socialism than they were to capitalism because they know what capitalism is like, and who wants that in this day and age. So I think that that is something that has woken people up.

I also think that there was a huge change last year with the revolutions in the Middle East. It has just completely changed people’s reference point for what is possible. We’ve had 30 years of defeats. It’s been a terrible time since Reagan and Thatcher and the birth of neoliberalism. I grew up in the 1980s, a terrible decade. Very bad fashion sense, pretty bad music, too, unfortunately, with a few exceptions. But now things are very hopeful again. And people said, “The Middle East, what’s going to happen there? A bastion of reaction. Nobody is interested in democracy.” Then millions of people on the streets fighting for democracy. Fantastically inspiring.

I went to Madison, Wisconsin, as part of my union to see what was going on there last spring during the uprising and the occupation. It was amazing. Another area of the world, the Midwest, where we are told people are conservative, they don’t follow politics. People there were learning Arabic so that they could write their signs in Arabic and show their solidarity with the people in Egypt and Tunisia. It was amazing to be in a town so full of pro- union sentiment.

And then, of course, more recently, something I’ve been involved in, Occupy Wall Street. Phenomenal. It completely changed the narrative in this country. We haven’t won any practical victories yet, but we’ve won an enormous ideological victory. We’re not talking about the debt ceiling or any other nonsense. We’re talking about the rich, the 1%, and the 99%, everybody else, and why we need to get rid of them so that we can run things.

That’s fantastically exciting.

Indeed, the lexicon has changed. You mentioned the Middle East, a focus first of British and French imperialism, and then their successor, the United States, ever since 1945, having to do with a certain product that is known to be there under its sands. It might be a three-letter word.

God works in mysterious ways.

Talk about U.S. imperial policy dealing with energy issues and its relation to ecology.

It’s an enormously overlooked piece of the puzzle. There are a lot of great writers who write on environmental issues and ecological questions, and this question of imperialism is so often either overlooked entirely or barely given any kind of detailed analysis. I think that’s a real mistake. Because part of the big reason why the international negotiations go nowhere is because not only is there competition between individual corporations for power and prestige and profit, but there’s also, similarly, competition, economic and political, between countries.

That competition then leads and sparks warfare. Warfare is just as integral a part of capitalism as competition. So if you’re not talking about the economic and political competition that goes on between states and their desire to control resources and the geopolitical “great game,” as it used to be called, then you’re not providing a full analysis for people.

That’s one of the major reasons why they cannot get any kind of agreement on climate change. They have a hard time getting agreement on even things that they care about, like trade; but the things they don’t care about, like climate change, that is not even part of their frame of reference, they have even more problems with. If I regulate my economy more than you, then I suffer an economic disadvantage. You now can go places and do things and produce profits cheaper than I can, and I’m at an economic disadvantage. That kind of dynamic prevents them from coming up with a rational plan. They’d rather nuke each other over a disputed oil field than come up with an internationally coordinated plan to plant some trees.

What are your views on what is called sustainable capitalism?

Pretty low.


You cannot have a sustainable capitalism, because every year every capitalist entity has to grow larger for the process that I mentioned earlier. There is this constant dynamic of growth that if they’re not growing, then they die. We see the economy today. What’s the conversation about? We need to go back to growth. Every nation on the planet needs to have 2% or 3% growth. Otherwise what happens? We fall into a tailspin of unemployment, layoffs, cuts to social spending, obviously not the military budget, but everything else. So without that growth the system starts falling apart. Capitalism is literally a system that is based on the maxim “Grow or die.” So the idea that in any way that could be sustainable or that they could somehow care about the resources that they put in or the waste that goes out is an impossibility, I would argue. They don’t even see resources as anything but a free lunch: they take something free from the environment and then they put it back in as waste. They don’t pay for that stuff.

So I infer from that, then, that you are perhaps skeptical of tinkering around the edges, cosmetic changes such as recycling.

I’m not against recycling, but I think it’s important to recognize that that’s the first thing that we’re told to do. And there’s a reason for that. Because it takes it away from the product itself and says the product is okay, it’s fine. The problem is with you as you a consumer and an individual. You are the problem because you don’t put it in the right receptacle. It evades the whole question of why was that thing made in the first place and why was it made of plastic. There’s nothing wrong with plastic. For example, people often talk about plastic water bottles, which is a $100 billion-a-year industry. Plastic is an amazing material. It lasts virtually forever. So why would you make disposable things out of plastic? It should be illegal. Really, it should be illegal.

Yes, but these are panaceas that are being served up. If you do these things, if you drive the right car, things will be hunky-dory.

Absolutely. I think the idea is very much ideological, that we feel good about recycling, that we take it away from the production and we focus on the consumption, and if we do that, then everything will be okay. However, if you look at waste, only 2 1/2 % of all waste is domestic, i.e., what all of us produce. So even if we could magically get rid of all of that, that would still leave 97.5% of industrial and agricultural waste. It would be irrelevant, in other words. Apart from the fact that plastic cannot be really effectively recycled in the first place, which is why even if you put it to be recycled, 95% of it never is. So that would be last thing that you should do, not the first thing. The first thing should be to look at the production process and then match things to their function. Then we can go from there and talk about, at the end, if we really can’t do anything, if we can’t reuse it again, or maybe we should never have made it in the first place—that’s a radical idea—we should then think about how could we best recycle it.

You can expand that to any kind of argument about this tinkering around the edges and the focus on that. Every time capitalism messes something up, it doesn’t try and correct that problem, it just tries to sell you something else. So the food system has become so toxic now that they invented another subset of the food system called organic food so that—what was wrong with the first stuff? What did you do to that to make it so bad that we have to go and pay more money, if we can afford it, to get organic food? You can replicate that on any number of levels. The food crises, the various food scandals. People may remember swine flu a couple of years ago, where they’ve concentrated the animals in such horrendous situations, totally unhealthy, that they’re diseased, they’re incubators for disease. So during the outbreak what did they do? Did they think, You know what, we really need to regulate these corporations so they treat these animals more humanely? No. They just said, No, we’ll sell them sanitary masks, and then that will be fine. So they just are constantly figuring out new ways. So if we accept that paradigm, that there’s something else that we should buy, then we’ve already fallen into their trap.

You talked in your presentation about the Bush period, the oligarchy, it was easy to kind of explain what was going on. These were people with close ties to the oil and gas industry. Yet, as you point out, Obama has followed basically the same template and has expanded and increased drilling permits and has opened up the Arctic.

It was very easy to blame George W. Bush. In some ways Obama has got away with more than Bush could have got away with in his wildest dreams. Certainly on civil liberties I think you could say that Obama has been worse than George W. Bush. And I think there’s argument to be made on ecological issues that the same is true. If you think about the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history, in 2010 the Gulf oil spill, when Obama had supermajorities in both houses of Congress and a massive amount of public support at that time, he could have done anything. But he didn’t. In fact, he let the clean up to the criminal who carried it out in the first place, BP. So this is clearly not about changing Democrats for Republicans.

I also think it’s important to remember, all of the best environmental laws that we’ve got on the books—the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, etc.—came about under the presidency of a right-wing Republican egomaniac called Richard Nixon, who had already caused colossal environmental devastation, not to mention mass murder, in Southeast Asia. Why did he decide that now was the time I want to protect the water and the air? Because there was a massive movement on the streets that demanded it. So that’s really the answer. I don’t think it’s about the politicians; it’s about what we do on the streets and how organized we get.

The gravity of the multiple ecological crises demands collective and global action—not one-off, one country doing this or Canada doing that. How to get there, to collective action?

That’s the all-important question. We’ve had some examples I mentioned in the Middle East. Also, recently the massive protests in Germany against nuclear power completely changed another right-wing government, Angela Merkel’s, who is the premier and who is pro- nuclear. Yet now Germany has already shut nine of their nuclear reactors, they’re shutting down the rest within 10 years, and has a plan in place to reduce their carbon emissions by 30% by 2020, and then by 80% by 2050. That’s not because they suddenly became a green government. It’s because they were forced to become a green government. I think those kinds of things resonate around the world. The same is true in Italy and Switzerland which are also shutting down their nuclear power stations, and hopefully Japan will be the next country.

But I think it’s also significant that the countries that are resisting the most in terms of that kind of change are also the countries that have nuclear weapons. Germany, Switzerland, Italy, and Japan don’t have nuclear weapons. So the movements there have more latitude. I think it would be extremely difficult in this country for the government ideologically to justify keeping nuclear weapons, which they want, but abandoning nuclear power. So I think that the campaign here has to be much more powerful.

How do we get to that? I think it’s the same as any other movement. I think occupy Wall Street, we haven’t been fighting for a long time and finally we are. That’s exciting. It’s finally become a two-sided battle. And we need to catch up with our organization. That is the next challenge as we move forward. Where do we go from here? Because we really are in the belly of the imperial beast. So I think it’s a question of organization more than anything else.

A lot of people may think or have the idea that they don’t need to get involved with politics or political organization. I joined my first political organization when I was 15, which was the ANC, the African National Congress, in Britain. That’s where the government in exile was. As a 15-year-old, I couldn’t understand why black people couldn’t have a vote in their own country. It just didn’t make sense. So I started finding out more about it. I got involved. Then I joined CND, Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. All of these things eventually made me realize that they’re coming from the same source, the economic system. So I became a socialist.

Around the time of resistance at Greenham Common, the big U.S. military base in Britain.

Yes, the movement in the early 1980s was started by about 35 women from South Wales who went to Greenham Common, where they had just started putting nuclear weapons in this U.S. base. They could launch nuclear weapons from Britain without the consent of the British government. So people were, like, What the hell is this? So, just like the sit-down strikes in Greensboro, North Carolina, started with 4 people, the movement against Greenham Common base started with 35. One woman was killed during the occupation by a military truck that ran her over, Karen Davis. But it evolved within a few months into an occupation of 30,000, predominantly women, where they ringed the base and shut it down so that they couldn’t get trucks in or out, which sparked an international movement, in Germany in particular, to do the same thing. That occupation went on for 19 years, which is something worth being inspired by.

Interestingly enough, I was in Japan over December and January. One of the meetings that I went to, that was run by predominantly women, showed the documentary of the occupation from Greenham Common. So women a generation away and on the other side of the world were inspired by this message and taking heart from it as they went to campaign. So the working class, the people, have a long memory.

Do you have some concrete suggestions for people, some things they can do?

It’s not about buying green stuff. It’s about getting involved in politics. It’s the only thing we have. They have all the money, they have all the guns, but there’s not very many of them. We are always more—many, many more. What we need to do is get organized and show our power, because we’re the people who make all the stuff. If we don’t go to work, nothing happens. So if you’re not involved in some political organization, you should think about joining one, whatever is your particular issue. I was first involved in an anti-racist struggle, that led me to an anti-nuclear power and nuclear weapons struggle that I kind of generalized from. So whatever is your issue, I would urge you to get involved and join an organization and think about what is connecting. I believe, as a socialist, it’s the economic system that we need to get rid of, the whole thing. If you don’t find an organization around here in Santa Fe that you like, start your own. Get some of your friends involved. I think that that is the key thing. Because ultimately, as far as I’m concerned, if we don’t get rid of this system—and we haven’t got much time left, but fortunately, as I said, we’ve got some inspiration from 2011 that is very, very exciting and points a way forward—but if we don’t get rid of the system and implement something else, as I mentioned, based on cooperation, real democracy, and a long-term time horizon, then we face a very diminished future within many of our lifetimes. I’ve been an activist, yes, since I was 15, I guess, and I think it’s the only life worth living.

As Shelley said, “Ye are many, they are few.”

(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
(800) 444-1977

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

Tar Sands: Canada’s Mordor

Andrew Nikiforuk
Interviewed by David Barsamian
Calgary, AB, Canada
March 2, 2012

available from Alternative Radio

You can listen to Andrew Nikiforuk speak for himself here.

Andrew Nikiforuk is an award-winning Canadian journalist. His articles appear in major newspapers and magazines. He is the author of Saboteurs and Empire of the Beetle. His book Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of the Continent was honored with the Rachel Carson Environment Book Award.

In Tar Sands: Dirty Oil and the Future of a Continent, you write:

The Alberta tar sands could make Canada the world’s second greatest oil exporter by 2050. Although growth has been tempered by the global financial crisis, U.S., Asian, and European investors are still pouring billions of dollars into the megaproject to extract the world’s ugliest, most expensive hydrocarbon. We are polluting our air, poisoning our water, destroying vast areas of boreal forest, and undermining democracy itself.

That’s quite a litany of charges. Before we get to them specifically, why don’t we place the tar sands geographically.

The tar sands are really a massive deposit of low-grade, junk crude in the northern forests of Canada that are located in northwestern Alberta very close to the border of the Northwest Territories. So this is a deposit of crude that at one time was light oil that has been badly degraded by bacteria. It’s now this really messy, clunky, heavy crude that is buried under the forest floor and that must be mined in order to bring it up to surface. Oil companies and geologists and scientists have all looked at this resource for nearly 100 years and said,

The day will come when we’re going to have to exploit a resource as extreme as bitumen.

Bitumen being?

Bitumen is the word used to describe this kind of hydrocarbon. Bitumen is really a mixture of, again, this low-grade junk crude with sand and clay. And it’s quite a process to remove the sand and clay and water from this resource in order to get heavy oil.

This has been actually known for more than a century. Going back to the 1880s, there’s a federal report, which you cite in your book, calling the tar sands

the most extensive petroleum field in America.

Fifty, sixty years later, The Saturday Evening Post, no radical U.S. magazine, declared,

Canada, so near and friendly a neighbor that her resources cannot thoughtfully be considered foreign and alien, has a vast bed of tar sands in Alberta, the largest known deposit of oil in the world.

That was in 1943.

Americans have always taken a very keen interest in this deposit.


The whole oil economy began in the U.S. The Americans were really, truly the first pioneers of petroleum. As a consequence, all the world’s major oil companies all started largely in the U.S., and then you had British Petroleum and Royal Dutch Shell trying to catch up. But the Americans realized that—one of the issues they always had was they kept on finding fields, depleting them, and then worrying about where they were going to get their next batch of oil from. J. Howard Pew, who was president of Sun Oil, which was a Pennsylvania-based company, the eighth wealthiest man in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s, was very much kind of an American Arab sheik, if you like. He had very strong religious beliefs, many of which today people would consider extreme, but he also valued heavy oil. He recognized the Athabasca tar sands as being a critical resource. He was actually one of the first to actually plunk down a heck of a lot of money in the 1960s to figure out an economic way to exploit it.

And bitumen you say “looks like black molasses and smells like asphalt.” Not a particularly attractive quality.

No. Because it is this really junk resource in the sense that there’s lots of it but it takes so much energy to pull it out of the ground. Then you have to upgrade it because it’s of such poor quality: you’ve got to get the sand and the clay and the water out of there; then you have got something called synthetic crude, and that requires even more complex refining, because it’s full of acids and tannins and sulfur and heavy metals. So it is what it is. It’s kind of a bottom-of-the-barrel resource. It’s a signature of peak oil in the sense that we wouldn’t be in tar sands which are capital-intensive, tenergy-intensive, and dirty if we weren’t running out of the cheap stuff and light oil. And, of course, we are.

And what about the environmental impact? Does it contribute to global warming?

The big issue with bitumen is that it is really rich in carbon. This is a resource that is carbon-heavy and hydrogen-poor. So one of the things you actually have to do when you’re upgrading it into synthetic crude is you’ve got to take those carbon atoms out, and you end up with these massive petroleum coke piles, millions and millions of tons, in the northern forest. Then you’ve got to put hydrogen in. And that hydrogen is coming from natural gas that has been cracked. So all along the way the production of this resource is much more carbon-intensive, 23% more, generally, than light oil or conventional oil. So it’s got a much bigger carbon footprint.

Now, does it contribute to go global warming? Every bit is a contribution. I put it this way: It is highly significant. It now accounts for 7% of Canada’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, and soon will surpass all emissions from transportation fuels in the country. That’s a big footprint.

What’s the political connection between Ottawa, where the federal government is located and where Stephen Harper, the prime minister sits, with these large oil corporations? This is Harper’s home turf, right, Calgary?

Alberta is his home turf. And Alberta is really kind of a Texas on steroids. It has been a petrostate for a long time in the sense that the government of Alberta is highly dependent on revenue from oil and gas. This dependence on oil and gas revenue has allowed one party to dominate politics in the province for 40 years. So the Conservatives, or the Tories, are the party that has basically run the province for 40 long years. It’s much like the Democrats in Texas. They ran Texas for 90 years on the basis of Texas’s oil wealth. So we have a similar here kind of pattern going on in Alberta.

From this power base of oil and money we now have a political party running the country, the Tories as well, that are behaving just like your typical petro-politicians, much like Rick Perry or other folks in the U.S. What’s really interesting to me is that when you look at the behavior of petrostates—and they’re very different from jurisdictions that don’t have all of this money from oil—one of the things they do is they take that oil wealth and they lower taxes. In so doing they immediately sever the very important and significant bond between representation and taxation. If you’re not being taxed, you’re not going to be represented. That’s the startling thing that happens in every petrostate. The first thing they do is say, Okay, you don’t have to worry about taxes anymore. Oil and gas revenue is going to pay for everything. It’s going to build your schools and pave your roads and run your hospitals. So you have this incredible transfer of power and accountability from duly elected political officials suddenly to an entire industry. That’s very much a force at work here in Alberta, as it is in Texas, Wyoming, Louisiana, and Alaska. The first thing all of those states did was to lower taxes and run on oil revenue.

When you do you that, who are you accountable to? At the end of the day, those jurisdictions come to represent the resource or the developers of the resource. Which is why Louisiana, Texas, Alaska, and Wyoming are such wacky states are considered so extreme and different from the rest of the U.S., just as Alberta is considered like, Wow, this is a really crazy jurisdiction in Canada. And it is, because nothing here that’s going on is normal. It’s not based on scarcity, it’s not based on any sort of prudence or resilience . It’s all based on, Man, we’ve got lots of money and we’re going to spend it and we’re going to use it to concentrate power. That’s what petrostates do.

We’re sitting in the studios of CJSW in Calgary. Just a few miles from here is a plethora of glass tower skyscrapers, kind of representing that concrete manifestation of oil power.

The world’s seven most profitable companies by revenue are all oil and gas companies, some of them privately owned, some of them state-owned.

The prime minister, Stephen Harper, who represents the Conservatives is from Calgary. He was a member of parliament. But his father—

He is also from the oil patch. He worked as a kid on the rigs. His father was an executive for Imperial Oil. He was an accountant. So Stephen Harper is as steeped in the culture of the oil and gas industry as George Bush was, coming from Texas. The same pedigree, the same religious beliefs in the sense that Stephen Harper is a Christian fundamentalist in the same way that George Bush Jr. was a Christian fundamentalist. It’s interesting that the funders of fundamentalism in the U.S. have been since the 1900s the oil patch. It was a California oil company that was the first publisher of a document called The Fundamentals, which really serves as the basis for Christian evangelical fundamentalism in the U.S.

So are you saying that the extraction of resources, in this case of oil, is almost given divine sanction, because if God didn’t want us to do that, he wouldn’t have put the oil in the ground?

It gives it a divine sanction. But there’s this very strange and odd connection between the power and the money generated by resource extraction and religious extremism. You go to Saudi Arabia, and who did oil enrich there? They, again, enriched this fundamentalist cult, the Wahhabis, that have this incredible lock on Saudi society and Saudi politics and Saudi economics. In the same way that you go to places like Louisiana, again, Texas, Oklahoma would be another good example, and Alaska—Sarah Palin would be a perfect example of this—where, again, you find defenders of rapid resource extraction, particularly oil and gas, all have this religious ideology to go along with it. Much like slaveholders did in the 19th century in the U.S. It was called divine providence, and the idea was, God has given us the right to do what we’re doing.

We see in the U.S. an urgent connection between Washington and Riyadh. That connection, because Saudi Arabia has the world’s largest oil reserves, has caused Washington to overlook misogyny, homophobia, racism, sectarianism, a whole list of transgressions, all because of oil. Does that go to your comment about how democracy is undermined?

It does. It’s another example of it. Oil just really blinds politicians, period. There’s a reason why it’s called “black gold.” There’s also a reason why the Venezuelans in the 1930s and 1940s, when oil was really taking off in that country, came up with the expression that “Oil is the devil’s excrement,” because they could see how rapidly the money was beginning to erode political accountability, was beginning to enrich a very small sector of the economy, the oil producers, the oil workers, and was orienting all life in Venezuela to the production of oil at the expense of all other economic sectors and all other classes. So oil, then, is very much a hindrance to democracy.

In fact, a very important group of political scientists, led by Terry Lynn Karl at Stanford University, as well as Michael Ross at the University of California, have been looking at this whole issue for years. They started out by saying,

Why are there no democracies in the Middle East other than Israel and ostensibly Lebanon?

They said,

Neither one of those countries has oil.

And they said,

Okay, what is it about oil that prevents democracies from arising in the Middle East?

They conducted these studies, and what they found was really quite fascinating. Oil enriches whatever the culture is there at hand. And oil has never been interested in democracy. Oil has always been about money and power. One of the peculiar characteristics of petrostates is the fact that the money is falling in such great streams that it allows the governor of a particular state or a political party to really have these long, unhealthy extended rules, whether we’re talking about Huey Long and his family in Louisiana, the Bushes in Texas, or the Tories here in Alberta for 40 years. Qaddafi ruled Libya for nearly 40 years. The Shah of Iran was there for 26 years. There’s this very strong connection between long, authoritarian rule and petrostates.

Speaking of Iran, the war drums are beating loudly in Washington and Tel Aviv about a possible attack on that country, which I think it’s fair to say would have catastrophic consequences on the price of oil. Now it’s over $100 a barrel. It may go to $200-$300 if that occurs. Wouldn’t a war be against the best economic interests of Israel and the U.S.?

It would really screw up the works in many ways. But there’s a very strong lobby to keep oil prices high. The U.S. really hasn’t looked hard and long at what’s really going on in Iran. Iran is a petrostate, has been for 50-60 years. And it has all of the characteristics of a petrostate in the sense that the government is incompetent and not terribly smart about how it goes about doing business, and its primary aim seems to be to subsidize its people with cheap oil. As a consequence of that, it’s really mismanaged its oil fields, so poorly that the revenue stream from oil is dropping in Iran.

That presented the Iranian government with a huge problem. How do we address that? That’s what got them into their nuclear program in part, was to say, Okay, if we have nuclear power, that will free up more oil for exports so we can keep the money coming into our government. The Americans just saw the nuclear program as, Oh, these guys to want blow up stuff in the Middle East, which is probably not the Iranian intent. But it does serve oil companies and petrostates and the Middle East to actually start beating the war drums. That just keeps the price of oil high.

One of the really interesting guys in the U.S. who has pointed this all out is Roger Stern. He’s a geographer, at the University of Tulsa now. Stern made the point that, look, the only way to respond to this kind of market power and to petrostates is for the U.S. to consume less oil, and to do so in a very concerted fashion and to get going with energy taxes and to get going with conservation in a big way. That’s the only way to break the market power of any group. He’s been making that argument for years. And, of course, no one in the U.S. seems to be listening.

In the mid-1970s, when Gerald Ford was the president of the U.S., his secretary of state Henry Kissinger brokered a deal with the Shah of Iran, who was telling the Americans, Look, oil is a finite resource, it’s not going to be here forever. I have to look after the long-term interests of the Iranian people and provide for a secure, clean energy source. He wanted nuclear reactors. Kissinger and Ford went along with that. They thought, Brilliant analysis there, Mr. Shah. You’re right on. However, now, when the Iranians say the same thing, it’s regarded as propaganda and is immediately dismissed.

That’s very much what has been happening. What is curious, too, is that for the U.S.—and Stern has pointed that out—the cost of keeping navy carriers in the Persian Gulf in response to the so-called threat of an oil blockade has been enormous. Since the 1970s the U.S. has spent $7 trillion alone on what Stern calls “force projection.” That’s simply keeping a navy there in the Middle East to keep a watch on things just in case the oil gets strangled. In addition to that is the $3 trillion the U.S. has spent on buying oil from the Middle East. When you start adding up those figures, it’s no wonder that the U.S. today is now bankrupt.

You have to ask, Who benefits from had this sort of policy? Petrostates benefit, oil companies benefit, military hardware guys benefit. But the American people don’t benefit from this kind of policy at all. We are strengthening extreme regimes by pouring more fuel onto the fire rather than standing back and saying, You know what, we made this mess. It’s actually motorists in the U.S. demanding cheap oil that made this mess. The only way to address it is to begin to walk away from it and make oil less part of our lives. That’s very hard for a petrostate. And the U.S. is the world’s very first petrostate.

I don’t know how closely you follow U.S. politics, but to raise these issues, to suggest that there must be an alternative to using oil as your main energy source literally results in a cascade of abuse and derision, you’re un-American. You are questioning the American way of life. It kind of goes back to that divine sanction.

I grew up in the U.S. and I do follow American politics, and I love Americans dearly. But I think that the debate today about energy in the U.S. reminds me very much of the debate that took place in the 1840s and 1850s in the U.S. about slavery, which was essentially a debate about energy. You had the North, which was becoming highly industrialized and becoming more and more dependent on fossil fuels, in particular coal, that was challenging the South and slavery in the South and saying, What’s this all about? Why do you think this is okay?

The South being largely agricultural.

Largely agricultural and largely dependent on 4 million Negro slaves as a critical and important source of energy. Southerners used slaves the same way we use oil today. They moved their slaves around to develop different plantations, open up different areas in the wilderness to produce new crops, and on it went. So then you ended up with this very extreme debate that was really about energy that resulted in the disastrous Civil War. The debate about renewables and about oil today and the “Drill, baby, drill,” and why don’t we conserve resources is beginning to take on the same extreme tone and tenor of the conversation that really unraveled the U.S. in the 1840s and 1850s.

In an article in The Tyee—am I pronouncing that correctly?

Yes, Tyee, T-y-e-e.

What is that?

It’s a salmon. The Tyee is a brilliant Internet newspaper in Canada.

And you write for it.

And I write for it.

I was interested to note, given the enormous amount of wealth in this province, that you say the government is running a deficit.


How does that track?

The Alberta model for resource development is to give lots and lots of money to the developers and very little to the owners of the resource, which happen to be the people of Alberta. We have among the lowest royalty rates and the lowest corporate taxes in North America. We charge less for our oil and gas here in the province of Alberta than Louisiana, than Texas, than Wyoming, than Alaska, than Montana even, which is why oil and gas companies and state-owned companies are all here and want to play in Alberta, because they can take home more money than they can even by investing anywhere in the U.S. That to me is just wrong.

In Canada, what we in the U.S. call Native Americans, you call First Nations. How are they being affected by the developments in northern Alberta in the tar sands area?

First Nations consist largely of the Cree and the Dene and also Métis—they’re half-breeds—in northern Alberta. They’ve all been dramatically affected by this project. Just consider for a moment that the mining portion of the project will, when it’s fully developed, excavate an area the size of Rhode Island or Delaware in the boreal forest. Of course, you can’t do that kind of thing without affecting the traditional communities that live there. So the Dene and the Cree, those that are in this industrial area now, many are now working for the mining companies. They’ve stopped fighting, they’ve just joined in, because they really don’t have any alternative. Those that live downstream are incredibly concerned about the contamination of the Athabasca River with heavy metals and other oil pollution. People living downwind in Saskatchewan are concerned about acid rain.

All of the traditional aspects of aboriginal life in northern Alberta, whether it’s trapping or hunting or going out and harvesting bush food, they’ve all been disrupted and changed by this project. Many of the communities up there are incredibly poor. Some have made small fortunes in the scheme of things on the basis of oil wealth. So there’s also a great deal of dissension and just pure political dysfunction as a result of all this money and all these corporations.

I wasn’t able to get to northern Alberta, primarily because of weather concerns this time of year. But what does the landscape look like? I kind of see a scene from Avatar: giant holes in the ground and huge tractors and trucks and people working in lots of dust and smoke.

It is similar to Avatar. It is the world’s largest engineering operation. It is also the world’s largest mining operation and the world’s largest energy project per se. More than $200 billion have been poured into this. So you have huge holes in the ground for the bitumen mine sites that you can see in NASA photographs. That’s how big they are.

From outer space.

Yes. You have lakes of mining waste that are also extreme. The mining waste alone, which is in 20 different tailings ponds, covers an area of about 170 square kilometers. You could flood Washington, D.C., with that amount of mining waste, as you could Staten Island. Both of them would just be under mining waste. This waste is toxic. It’s sand and clay and water and heavy metals and lots of oil, all mixed into it.

The community of Fort McMurray would be like Williston, North Dakota. It’s a boom town, and you have this incredible influx of workers from all over the world. You have in the bush itself 20,000 to 30,000 workers working in these temporary work camps. You’ve got a very active drug trade, prostitution, you have infrastructure deficits. Some of the most horrendous traffic jams in all of Canada take place in Fort McMurray because there’s only one highway going north and south. So if you’re caught in the rush to get to the mines in the morning or when everyone is coming home from the mines in the evening, you can end up sitting in your car for 2 or 3 hours. It’s an extraordinary boom town, all based around the rapid extraction of bitumen out of the forest.

And who are the workers?

The workers come from all over the place. Some of the workers come from eastern Canada, from some of the poorest provinces in Canada, in particular, Newfoundland, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, and Nova Scotia. A lot of workers, too, come from northern Ontario. A great many also come from Texas and various places in the U.S. We have workers from the Philippines, we have workers from Eastern Europe, we have temporary foreign workers from China, we’ve had workers from South Africa. All over the place. And you have this kind of stratified society in Fort McMurray, where you will see the Somalis are the cab drivers, the Filipinos work as nannies for the oil workers because both mom and dad are away for 12 to 14 hours a day.

That’s an average workday?

Yes. Two hours are just spent traveling to and back from the mines, and then you’ve got a 10-hour day on top of that.

Are there any worker protections in Canada?

Our labor laws are fairly good. They don’t always apply to temporary workers. We had an extraordinary case where a group of workers from China were blown off some scaffolding. Two died, three or four were injured. These workers had all been brought in by Sinopec, which is a state-owned oil company in China. The workers were never paid. After five years, 53 charges have been laid, but no one has yet been in court. Sinopec is fighting every action, saying it’s not liable or it doesn’t really have to recognize Alberta’s health and safety regulations. That’s typical of boom towns and what happens in them.

You’re writing about this. You’ve been looking into labor and work issues.

I’ve been writing about a lot of these issues for nearly 10 years. It’s interesting, in the U.S. there’s a very big literature about boom towns and what happens in boom towns: all of the divorces, the alcoholism, the petty crime that takes place, the itinerant workers who really don’t give a damn about where they are. You end up with these incredible social tensions and carelessness because the place is all about making a killing as opposed to making a living. Some really great American sociologists have written about all this, whether they’re talking about boom towns in Wyoming or boom towns in Texas or boom towns in North Dakota. And Fort McMurray is probably one of the world’s biggest boom towns.

There are 12 major oil corporations operating in Canada: BP Canada, Canadian National Resources, Cenovus, ConocoPhillips, Devon, Imperial Oil, Nexen, Shell Canada, Statoil, Suncor Energy, Total E&P, and Teck Resources. Do they all have a piece of the action in Alberta?

Most of them have a piece of the action. If they’re not involved in the mining operations, then they’re involved in what I call the steam plants or what the engineers call in situ production, which is where you’re taking massive amounts of steam, injecting it into the ground at high pressure, and trying to melt the bitumen and then bring it up that way. Almost every major oil and gas company in the world is playing in what is called “Alberta’s magic sandbox.” Total is there, Sinopec is there, Middle Eastern companies are there. Indian oil companies want to get involved, and just about every American multinational you can think of is there.

Talk about the impact on the environment. There was an infamous case a couple of years ago, the deaths of 1600 ducks who had the misfortune of landing in one of these toxic waste pools.

That’s generally almost an annual event. These waste lakes are open in the spring because they’re quite warm and have so many salts and pollutants in them. So ducks and geese flying over them think, My God, there’s a great body of water there that I can park my butt in for a while. And then they get coated in oil and they sink to the bottom of these ponds. This has been going on for 20 or 30 years. We then had this one big event in 2008.

That’s a very small environmental concern in the scheme of things when you have a volume of toxic waste on the landscape that, if it got into the Athabasca River, would kill almost all aquatic life all the way up to the Beaufort Sea. That’s a huge, huge, huge risk and issue. We have the destruction of boreal songbird habitat throughout the boreal forest as it’s rapidly becoming industrialized. We have threats to groundwater and groundwater contamination. Some of the groundwater aquifers in that region extend all the way to Hudson Bay, so if we mess that up, we’re contaminating groundwater across three Canadian provinces. We have issues with acid rain. We have very, very serious issues with water contamination, either, again, coming from the tailings ponds or coming from air pollution. This involves rather serious levels of heavy metals and oil, equivalent to an oil spill of 13,000 barrels every year into the Athabasca River.

Talk about the Keystone XL project, which did get some attention in the U.S. In the summer of 2011, 12,000 people demonstrated outside the White House. A thousand of them were arrested for civil disobedience. There was such an uprising of popular anger with this project, which would have gone under the Ogallala Aquifer in Nebraska, that first the State Department and then Obama have kind of put a kibosh on it. It’s not dead, but it’s been temporarily postponed, until after the presidential election in 2012. What’s going on with the Keystone XL project? And I learned from Maude Barlow of Council of Canadians that there are already existing pipelines to the Great Lakes from Alberta.

There are indeed. Right now in the U.S. Midwest about 70% of the oil that goes to Illinois and Michigan and states like that is coming from Canada, and the majority of that is coming from the tar sands. And the pipeline making those connections was built a couple years ago. But Keystone is a bit different. Keystone was proposed, really, to get around a bottleneck in Cushing, Oklahoma. There’s a huge bottleneck of oil there now, because essentially Canada has overproduced bitumen. We’ve approved too many projects, too quickly. We now have this enormous amount of bitumen, and it’s all getting bogged down in Cushing, Oklahoma. As a result, we’re getting a lower price for this oil, because it can’t be moved. So the Keystone was proposed as one way—How do we get around this Midwest market and get this oil straight to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico owned by the Koch brothers or owned by Saudi Arabia or Venezuela? And how do we get it down there as quick as possible? That’s what the TransCanada pipeline was all about.

I thought it was also the name of a construction company.

TransCanada is the Canadian company proposing this pipeline. And they behaved—Americans got to see sort of the crude side of Canadians because we do stuff like this in Canada all the time, Who the hell is going to be concerned if we propose to put this over one of North America’s most important aquifers? Well, Nebraskans were concerned. They gave a damn, and then you had this huge debate. But the oil industry and TransCanada tried to pass it off as, Well, this bitumen is all about improving American security and it’s all about lowering your dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Those arguments were pure nonsense. None of it was true. As Canadians we don’t give a damn about any of that stuff. We want to sell oil. Every petrostate wants to sell oil. We want a higher price for our oil. And all we want to do right now is we want Americans to assume the risks for this pipeline. We want to get it down to refineries in Texas, where refining this stuff will not improve the air in Houston, and then get it onto a supertanker to China or someplace else so we can get this imaginary premium we hope to make by building this pipeline. That’s what it was about.

Your book Tar Sands has a map for 2019 of North America virtually criss-crossed with these pipelines, including one from Alberta to British Columbia, and from there presumably on to energy-starved China.

Another way to look at the whole tar sands development is this way. You have to say, All right, this is the world’s most energy-intensive hydrocarbon in that it takes just extraordinary amounts of energy to get it out of the ground, upgrade it, and refine it. As a consequence, it costs loads of money. So this oil costs 10 to 20 times more than oil from the Middle East. And it comes with this huge carbon footprint and environmental footprint. So when you start running on a resource that’s this extreme,
business as usual cannot go on. But oil and gas companies are in the business of producing oil and gas, and they want business to go on as usual. They think that no one is going to notice that this product, which costs so much more in every sense of the word, can continue business as usual. But it can’t. It is a great way, though, to increase the shelf life of oil. And that’s what this project then, truly is about.

One of the saws that also accompanies military weapon spending is that it provides lots of jobs. But study after study shows that in fact it’s capital-intensive but not labor-intensive. This Keystone XL project which has been proposed and is now on the shelf apparently was going to create something like 4,000 construction jobs. That’s not much.

No. And temporary. It would all be over within two years, and then it would be probably less than 100 guys monitoring that pipeline thereafter. Pipelines are not forms of job creation. In fact, the oil and gas industry itself is probably the least labor-intensive industry in the world. I think .01% of the world’s population is engaged in oil and gas extraction, yet this industry accounts for more than 10% of the world’s GDP. So this is a very highly specialized, privileged, elite industry that is capital-intensive, that is not labor-intensive.

In The Guardian in March of 2012 there was an environmental blog by Damian Carrington. He says,

Even Canada doesn’t believe its own spin on tar sands.

In public Canada’s environment minister says tar sands are “a responsibly and sustainably developed resource.” In private the government says there is “no credible scientific information” to support this claim.

One of the big issues about the rapid development of this project has been the lack of scientific monitoring and high-quality science to go along with it. And it’s taken nearly two years and a ferocious battle led in particular by one of the world’s top water scientists, David Schindler, to force the Canadian government and the Alberta government to cobble together a proper monitoring program that would look not just at water issues and water contamination but also air pollution as well as what’s happening to wildlife in the forest.

Is Canada also engaging in deep-sea oil exploration?

We are actively looking at deep-sea oil operations in the Beaufort Sea which is just east of Alaska and right north of the Northwest Territories in the Arctic.

Also in The Guardian, George Monbiot, who writes frequently on environmental issues, says with some sarcasm that journalists writing for the corporate press are all of a sudden concerned about the poor as exemplified in such statements as, “If tar sands cannot be extracted in Canada, farmers in Africa will starve.”

I don’t see how that is possible. I think the more bitumen we actually produce, the more likely it will be that droughts associated with climate change will actually cause an awful lot of people in Africa and India and China to starve.

What are your views to the economic system in which all of this takes place, that is to say, capitalism?

Capitalism, if you look at it in energy terms, is basically a system designed to dispose of cheap energy as quickly as possible and to get people hooked on goods that can be made with this cheap energy. I look upon capitalism somewhat differently than probably a lot of other folks in the sense that it is very much the product of what happens to a civilization or society when they suddenly come across an incredible pool of high energy that they gorge on. They’re kind of like an adolescent who has just got this amazing inheritance. So how do we spend it, and how do we make other people dependent on this whole process? We look at it in a variety of different ways, but we really need to seriously look at it as a system for using energy that makes it possible for very few people to accumulate enormous amounts of rather obscene wealth.

But isn’t it dedicated to amassing that “obscene wealth” in the short-term? And what may happen to the environment 10, 15, 50 years on, that’s somebody else’s problem. If I’m the CEO of one of these energy corporations in Canada or in the U.S., I have my stockholders, who are nipping at my heels wanting to see dividends. If I can’t produce those dividends, I’m out of a job. In terms of this institutional impulse for short-term gain, doesn’t that speak to the very nature of the economic

It does. And it also speaks to the nature of energy in the sense that energy is wealth, and there is no wealth without that energy. So whenever we spend energy, we are actually spending wealth and going into debt at the same time, particularly when we’re talking about hydrocarbons and fossil fuels. We haven’t quite figured out yet the relationship of energy to wealth and wealth accumulation and how it has distorted all of our economic thinking. I think it’s really instructive and really important for most Americans to realize that, I think, 10 out of the last 11 recessions in the U.S. all happened after oil-price shocks.

You don’t need much more information there to recognize that if the oil is not flowing and the oil is not being spent, then our idea of what an economy is just doesn’t work very well.

Putting all of these cogent intellectual exercises aside and erudite opinion about how destructive tar-sands oil extraction is, etc., you come back to that salient point of this is about making money. And even if I agree with your analysis, I cannot deviate from that one overweaning goal.

Oil has always been about money and greed and power. When Daniel Yergin wrote his book The Prize, which is a rather elegant history of oil, the word ethics I don’t think appears anywhere.

I notice in your book that you quote Gandhi saying,

The earth provides enough for everyone’s need, but not for everyone’s greed.

And oil really goes to the greed factor. It concentrates power, it allows people to accumulate an enormous amount of wealth. It changes the metabolism of everything, just as too many carbohydrates will change the metabolism of a child and make him fat and unhealthy.

Vandana Shiva, a prominent environmental activist and scientist in India, has been talking about the rights of nature and trying to cobble together some kind of code to protect the most vulnerable resources, like water, land, hills, mountains, etc.

She’s got a great line, too. She says, “Soil, not oil.” I think Vandana is very much carrying on the Gandhi tradition. People forget that Gandhi, when he started fighting British rule in the early 1900s, also pretty much declared what he wanted for India. He said small, agrarian villages were the way to go because they supported the local economy, they served as a great counter to the accumulation of wealth or power, they ran on solar energy, they respected a long tradition of good stewardship with the land. That’s the kind of world he saw. He also questioned this massive industrialization and mechanization that was happening then to farming. He said, We have hands and foot. We should be using them. And we should be very careful about what kind of machines we adopt and use.

It’s interesting to me that you have someone like Gandhi coming from India at the time, pretty much a peasant country; someone like Leo Tolstoy coming from Russia, again, a peasant country; someone like G. K. Chesterton coming from a tradition of small farmers in England, all arriving at the same conclusion and saying, Look, hydrocarbons are changing us not just materially but spiritually as a people, and this concentration of wealth and power is going to be bad for us, really bad for us.

Going back to your point about the connection between oil and democracy, you contend that oil hinders democracy, corrupts the political process through the absence of transparent fiscal reporting. That doesn’t have to be. That’s not a law of nature.

No, it doesn’t have to be, but it tends to be the general experience. One exception to that is generally Norway. The Norwegians had a conversation in the 1970s about their offshore oil wealth. Parties on the left, parties on the right, parties in between said, There’s so much money here that if we don’t do something about it and take it off the table, we will destroy ourselves as a country and we will destroy our democracy. The Norwegians actually took time out to have that conversation. That’s pretty unusual. Louisiana never had that conversation, Texas never had that conversation, Wyoming hasn’t had that conversation, North Dakota didn’t have that conversation, Alaska never had that conversation. The Norwegians did. They took the money off the table, and they now have a sovereign fund worth more than $500 billion to use the day when the oil runs out. So they’ve done things differently. Their government runs on taxes; it does not run on oil revenue. Again, Louisiana, Texas, Wyoming, Alaska, they are following a totally different path that makes them totally dependent on the resource.

And you call Alberta, your home province, “a classic petrostate. It has one of the least accountable governments in Canada as well as the lowest voter turnout.” Why is voter turnout so low?

The thing about petrostates is that there’s so much money and the governments are trying to reward all kinds of different groups and special interest groups at the same time that you have this incredible apathy that develops over time. Everyone sort of concedes, The government is so powerful, it’s all bloated with this oil money. As long as they spread a little bit of this money my way, why do I need to be involved in anything? You also see, too, Look, I’m not paying taxes. If I’m not paying taxes, I’m not being represented. So why the hell should I even take part in the political process here and vote and exercise my rights as a citizen? Because petrostates don’t like citizens. They want clients or servants.


Consumers. That’s what they boil everything down to. That is why political participation in this province is extremely low, appallingly low, with the result that Alberta is purely and fundamentally a dysfunctional petrostate.

You say,

Every Canadian who drives a car is part of this political emergency, and every Canadian can be part of the solution.

What about the giant neighbor to the south?

Every American is part of it, too. We all use oil. And because we all use oil every day, and in everything that we do, whether it’s from transportation to eating—you cannot eat today without eating some oil in the form of pesticides, fertilizers, one thing or other—we’re all part of this story. And it is a rather remarkable story. It is a story about power and wealth and concentration. And fundamentally it is really now a story about servitude. We think we are free, but we are not free. We are beholden to a class of oil producers or a class of oil-producing states. We need to start questioning this servitude and begin to look different ways of living again.

You have another book coming out that kind of dovetails with Tar Sands. What is that about and what’s its title?

It’s very much about this theme. It’s called The Energy of Slaves: Oil and the New Servitude. It’s very much a critical examination of how oil has changed everyday life: how it changed agriculture, how it changed city making, how it changed economic thinking, how it’s changed even our attitudes towards happiness and what is happiness all about, and, fundamentally how it really changed the United States. I think Americans have forgotten that they were on a different path before they found oil in the 1850s. There was more of a Jeffersonian ideal of resilience, independence, self-sufficiency, and communities working together, fundamentally as agricultural producers. Oil changed that. It changed every part of the American character and arguably gave the U.S.A. whole new vision or dream, which is now rapidly becoming a nightmare.

In the latter part of the 20th century the U.S. went from being the world’s number one oil exporter to being the world’s number one oil importer.

That’s correct. So the tables have turned, and so have America’s economic and political fortunes.

I’d like you to read the last paragraph of Tar Sands, where you have a quote from the American social critic and writer Wendell Berry.

“The real work of transforming Canada’s fossil fueldependent economy will not be big or glamorous. It will be humbling work. Our tasks, as social critic Wendell Berry has noted,

will be too many to count, too many to report, too many to be publicly noticed or rewarded, too small to make anyone rich or famous.”

What I really like about what Berry is saying is that all energy transitions are ultimately made by the decisions of ordinary people. And in many cases some of the most important transitions that have taken place have been a matter of people walking away from bad systems.

(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
(800) 444-1977

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