Sunday, April 23, 2017

Sorry Bill

Bill Mc Kibben is a dedicated, caring activist thrust into a role he probably would never have chosen so I always feel a twinge of guilt when criticizing him. But with that role comes a giant responsibility and certain crucial choices. (different from the meaningless consumption choices of my last post). As a recognized leader/spokesperson of the climate movement (such as it is), his choice of words, his analysis and proposals have tremendous weight and if he can't take the heat he should get out of the kitchen. He himself acknowledges that shit is getting serious. As Dylan put it: "let us not speak falsely now- the hour's getting late".

Bill published End of Nature in 1989 and started speaking to groups about climate change, even showing up here in Hamilton Mt in 2007. For 28 years he has been explaining the issue and proposing solutions without ever mentioning, or certainly never questioning the ideology of "democratic capitalism". In his latest piece urging people to go to the March on Washington, he uses a cryptic euphemism for our global system of production and exchange. He writes: these marches are "about the machine that has been driving the planet in a dangerous direction for decades, a machine that spans parties, ideologies and continents."

A "machine". An impersonal, mechanical force. This tells us less than nothing, and other than "rage against the machine", gives us nothing to direct our collective force at. Which helps explain why in 28 years the problem has only grown worse. In this article he identifies Trump as "the enemy" and in the past he has identified "the fossil fuel industry" as the enemy, easy enough targets in that simplistic, Hollywood "good guy/ bad guy" sort of way, but actually just smoke and mirrors, like the "greedy Wall Street banksters" or Bill O' Reilly.

He goes on to say the marches are also about a "hope" and a "vision" but who will articulate that vision and through what process was it determined? He says "the week of rallying is the logical extension of the climate justice movement" and that "all the battles currently under way will be on full display as we march...for solar panels,solar panels and more solar panels." Same as its ever been...through Clinton, Bush, Obama ad nauseum. I'm sure there will be plenty of indigenous leaders telling the gathering that NO DAPL carries on. There will be progressive Democrats urging folks to register and vote, even a "candidate training". Write your Congressperson, sign the petition, join the Resistance and Our Revolution, Indivisible, or Rise UP. They will talk about all the jobs and GDP growth we can expect from a greener, kinder gentler capitalism. Hope and Vision.

Even as he goes on in the article to admit that "the fight about the money and power...is mostly lost." Perhaps because "the movement leaders" never had the courage to dig below the superficial layers of "money and power"? (Naomi Klein excepted) Bill confronts the elephant in the room by asking if "marches really matter?" since "Trump holds all the levers of power right now". Which is another simplistic misreading but even if it were true, wouldn't that put to question your plan to "train candidates" for a democracy that is essentially hollowed out?

Towards the end of the piece Bill starts to get real and one senses his frustration and even awareness that he has been flailing, seeing hope instead of the con. He condemns both Obama and Hillary who "followed a script, which was to express alarm but take small steps, a script which has slow-walked us to the edge of hell... winning slowly is the same as losing." Now he wants "action which is actually commensurate with the problem." But you have to first identify the problem to know how to confront it. Klein said the problem isn't carbon, it's capitalism. When will Bill get the message? And the courage to speak it.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Fewer Choices, Please!

Capitalism's brainwashed sycophants never tire of explaining how to really be free, you need endless choices. For example, to have quality healthcare, you need hundreds of insurance plans to choose from. Or the latest scam, to undo Dodd-Frank they are calling it the CHOICE Act (Creating Hope and Opportunity for Investors and Entrepreneurs) (no really) which will allow you to choose between an endless range of financial advisors, from those with a smattering of ethics to those totally devoid of any ethics. Don't you feel more free already?

This is the Gospel according to WalMart; as consumers (that is what your species-being is reduced to) you are at your "freest" when confronting aisle after warehouse aisle of product choices. True emancipation, the purest liberty, is infinite consumption choices. It is what the Founding Fathers started a revolution for and what our soldiers have fought and died for through endless wars.

Reverence for this gospel transcends both the trivial boundaries of political party and less trivial ones of race and class. It is ubiquitous amongst our fellow homo economicus.But my argument here is that too many choices are just as oppressive as too few and that what is obscured is the market ideology and "political rationality" contained in freedom of choice. What I want is to spend less of my time having to choose. Shopping, that is comparing price and quality, eats into my precious leisure time making me less free. It imposes its obligation constantly and the truth of the matter is, you don't know the worth or value of what you are trading your labour power for. You can spend a week of your life researching every health insurance plan on earth and still end up with shit because the insurance market for health is shit.

Spend a week of your life researching the ethical standards of financial consultants and you will still be investing/risking your life's energy in someone's unsustainable debt to make some gambler rich and probably degrade the planet. Which you are free to do, just not really free.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Black Lives Matter

But white people's money matters more. I just returned from Portland, a progressive bastion if ever there was one, and Black Lives Matter signs are seen in the windows of homes and businesses everywhere you go. It's a fine sentiment but the harsh reality is that despite the "raised awareness", real estate prices have gone mad, hipsters are taking over traditionally black neighborhoods and resentment is on the rise. Gentrification is the mirror image of the white flight and urban decay seen in rust-belt cities by-passed by the tech boom and gig economy.

The irony is that those who support diversity and multiculturalism and even affirmative action are inadvertently undermining all of those values as they flock to hip enclaves and bring their uber-bougie tastes and fat paychecks (or trust funds or whatever) with them. The Alberta Street hip strip boasts high-end pet massage, chic "organic" boutiques, bike shops and line-out-the-door French eatries but it is almost all white. Mixed in are the Weird Portland emblems like avant garde movie houses and artist collectives. The black hair salons, quick loans and soul food joints have moved 8 blocks north and the Mexican grocery has been bought out. There were lots of "help wanted" signs in windows but making ends meet as a waitress or clerk ain't easy. Nothing weird about that.

Things are a little tense at ML King Elementary, where my grand kids go to school. But money talks and the Market decides who lives where. MLK knew there was more than one way to segregate people, more than one Jim Crow.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Antifa


The new rallying cry for lifestyle anarchists is "Antifa" , as in anti-fascist, where they can get their bad-ass militancy on and lots of media attention, and if lucky, a few proud scars. If they hear some alt-right speaker like Milo whats his name or supposed-racist like Charles Murray ( has any of them, has any body at all, actually read The Bell Curve?) has been invited to a campus to speak or are organizing a march somewhere, the Antifa gets to break out their black hoodies and skinny jeans and bandannas and confront them. Crank up the Stones' Street Fighting Man and form a "bloc" to prevent people from exercising their right to free speech. Brilliant.

Yes we are powerless in today's world and yes it sucks but these theatrical displays of knucklehead machismo play perfectly into the hands of the right-wing, and besides, wasn't it the radical labor movement that led the struggle for free speech in the first place? If they really think they are on the front lines of preventing the next Franco or Mussolini, they have been watching too much television and not reading near enough history. I just hope they aren't chanting : this is what democracy looks like! C'mon people...words/speech are not the problem.

which brings me to the upcoming protests: Earth Day and May Day. I am an environmentalist and I labor but I am obviously struggling with the movements that are supposed to be struggling for change. One thing Micah White has correct is that these one-off marches have become tragically boring and useless. Old leftists going into the attic to dig around for the old signs with the old slogans. I want to show solidarity but I want to see some recognition that, like the antifa crowd, they need to sit down and do some re-thinking.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Mowing While Rome Burns

So yesterday I Skyped into a "Keystone Strategy Session" hosted by 350.org to see what the plan was to save the planet from climate chaos. The plan, according to Bill Mc Kibben, is, I quote, "to keep mowing the lawn". Underwhelmed? Oh baby. Because Keystone keeps popping back up (like grass) apparently the only thing to do is to keep mowing into perpetuity ( and sending them money). If any of the other "climate movement leaders" on the call were troubled by this Non-Profit Preservation strategy they didn't pipe up. Michael Brune from the Sierra Club threw down the gauntlet by threatening to sue the government, to litigate to the death. The Native American from South Dakota was asked whether another camp was going to be set up and he suddenly got very vague. One suspects the last thing they want is a clusterfuck Woodstock with thousands of white wanna be's and hippies playing flutes to the sunrise.

And the scariest thing is, all these folks act as if they are winning. Brimming with confidence. Which brings us back to disavowal; they know they are getting their ass kicked ( 406 ppm with rate of emissions accelerating) but they act AS IF they don't know it. The biggest hope was placed in the Market, with the "competitiveness" of renewables. The energy market which brought us this crisis will now save us from it. They all sounded like Obama.

Then Mc Kibben was asked about the role civil disobedience would play going forward ( the question I sent in) and he said it was "one tool in the toolbox, but like any tool, if you use it too often it gets dull." Of course the other "tools" they were promoting like signing petitions and writing letters and holding marches and rallies and fighting court battles, these apparently never get dull. And then there is the whole pretense that this was a participatory strategy designing session when it was obvious everything had been pre-decided in the "leaders" closed door meetings. When someone listed the six or eight different fossil fuel infrastructure proposals out there, they just said mobilize around each one, whack-a-mole style. When someone mentioned the failure of stopping banks from investing, they said" try harder", double down on the failed strategy.

Actually, they didn't all sound like Obama Clinton. There was one indigenous Canadian gal who dared to mention colonialism and capitalism as the roots of the problem but she was dismissed with nervous laughter. Those darned Canadians!

Monday, March 20, 2017

De-Coupling

In the beginning of January, then Pres. Obama wrote an article for the journal Science claiming that the historic relation between CO2 emissions and economic growth (measured as GDP) had been "de-coupled". This is a seductive fantasy entertained by believers in Green Capitalism like Nordhouse, Herman Daly, Tim Jackson, etc. It is intended to provide hope, promising that if we get on such a such pathway and somehow unleash all this promised technological improvement we can meet these international goals yada yada.

It is also an incredibly dangerous proposition. If mankind places its collective hope in this purported "win/win solution" and it proves to be a chimera....The consequences are, shall we say, dramatic. In his article in Real World Economic Review 76, Ted Trainer finds "negligible de-coupling" and that the slight productivity gains of late are "due largely to greater use of energy"( food production, for instance). He pulls in many studies and I find his argument convincing; a "steady state economy" (were it even possible), can not save us from resource depletion and economic collapse. To avoid that scenario, we would need "de-growth" at a fairly rapid rate. Trainer takes the opportunity to promote his "Simpler Way", a small scale, highly self-sufficient, self-governing, primarily collectivist local economy.

The only way I see any of that happening is if Janet Yellin steps up. Indeed, the fate of civilization rests in her lap; quite a responsibility for the girl from Brooklyn, now chairwoman of the Fed and self-described "admirer of capitalism", because to save the humans she is going to have to dismantle her beloved system. Picture this: the neoliberal oracle Queen (as close to royalty as there is in modern times) takes the stage and announces that due to inherent limits to growth, primarily but not exclusively climate change, the global economy will need to shrink by 10% per year for the next ten years. This is not some doltish boor like Trump speaking; this is an actual serious person the entire global financial system listens to. So Janet; this is the voice of your conscience speaking.....

Monday, March 13, 2017

Reform Blues or Demand the Impossible

Left wing activists are constantly reminded not to let the perfect get in the way of the good. That we must struggle for real material gains for real people as we work to overturn the system. But is it also possible that the "good" can preempt the possibility of the better?

Anyone who has worked in the world of social justice activism recognizes the tone of those who characterize radical goals and ideals as "utopian". Hillary Clinton's attacks on Bernie Sanders were emblematic: I can accomplish things in the real world (smirk), through a pragmatic approach to what is actually possible. At its most punishing, those who attempt to transcend the fundamental finitude and limitations of our situation are dutifully reminded of the Soviet Gulag as the end of history.

I will argue that in certain circumstances, working within the system for incremental, intermediate gains is worse than doing nothing at all. When we bestow legitimacy on the system, we undermine our own arguments and dissipate our energy. When we compromise at the outset by accepting the "rules" we are signalling weakness which the wolves can smell a mile off. Only when demands press against the "limits" of what is possible does the illusion of absolute hegemony shatter. To relay the urgency of crisis those demands must stretch what is possible.

The conscious prohibition on wanting what you desire has a long history, long enough for the prohibition to become internalized (the unconscious relation between want and desire we will leave for another time) This is the Serpents offer whose acceptance dooms us as "fallen" for eternity. It is the reason Icarus crashed to his death. The admonishment not to over-reach, to stay within prescribed limits, to tame "ambitious desire" is also a legacy of our Puritan past and imbues us with all that debilitating anxiety which keeps psychoanalysts and pharmacists in business.

Beyond merely wanting what you desire, difficult as this is, we must also act. But this is where it gets tricky. Rebecca Solnit would have us believe every act extends "hope" in some form, that every act of resistance is a success if viewed from a certain perspective. This is New Age bullshit, obvious on its face. If everything was such a success (anti-war protests, Occupy, Arab Spring, Standing Rock) why is the left in such a psychotic frenzy of hand-wringing and spontaneous, useless "opposition"?

If you rush into some Action Against Something, using the same old organizing playbook, using Hope in place of strategic planning, then end up getting your ass kicked- it matters. You demonstrate weakness, embolden you enemies and deflate your allies. You engender cynicism. We only have so many shots at this. Better get it right.