Saturday, December 26, 2015

Neoliberal Austerity and the Capitalist State Rant

There are a number of stories that capitalism tells itself which assume the form of ideology. A current one is that we have entered a new (neo) era of liberal political-economy. This is supposedly a resurgence of market fundamentalism taking its theoretical cues from von Hayek and the Austrians and Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman etc, as a backlash or counter-force to the preceding era of strong labor and the welfare state. This makes a good story and there is a whole cultural apparatus built up to reinforce it, the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times and textbook- writing economics professors (Mankiw)and then lower orders of popular media(Fox News, NPR) and pundits and think tanks and politicians. All of which filters down to the average Jane/Joe as a few key catch phrases like "get government off my back" or "market driven innovation". The other thoroughly normalized meme is that we live in a time of "austerity". That due to the reckless accumulation of debt, both public and private, it is necessary for everyone to tighten their belts and be responsible and live within our means. In other words,relinquishing frills like public services and social provision, all the things the government has (mis)managed with its extravagance and waste and nanny-state coddling (true and false, war and Pell Grants). But then, if you look into something like subsidies for the fossil fuel energy industries, you see how totally absurd this narrative is. Take something specific like the coal industry and this whole push to find technologies to capture and sequester CO2 from power plant smokestacks. All the climate modelling being used to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius has an input of CO2 capture (CCS)built into them, a technology which doesn't exist but which our "oh-so-austere" governments are pouring hundreds of billions of dollars into. Yes, the evil public sector, the (capitalist) State, the government which Ronald Reagan told us never to trust( true and false), is miraculously finding billions for research into "clean coal". The money they never seem to find if you are looking for housing or tuition or healthcare or food for poor people. Or investing in renewable energy. Renewable energy, we are told, will become available "when the market" makes the price competitive. Right. My point is, this whole con is precisely where tragedy becomes farce. There is no "market fundamentalism" in reality, no austerity when you pull back the curtain. It is just a giant mafia, like Mexico and drug cartels. Only on a global scale. And with an awesome PR department. Ted Cruz and John Tester pass the exact same spending bills for Big Ag and clean coal and more fracking. They just have to use different lies to sell it to their constituents. Whew.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Post Paris- Necessary but Not Sufficient

Well, something definitely happened. An agreement was reached. So depending on your expectations going in and your politics and your theory of social change you could be "celebrating...a major leap"(NPR) or downplaying the degree of "ambitiousness". I have been doing a wide survey of websites and find quite bit of cautious optimism expressed by progressives who look to "movements" to push "leaders" into deeper change. Gradually. Incrementally. Juan Cole encapsulates the "techno-fix"/Market fetish one finds in NGO's and Big Green groups: "The more likely salvation will come from technological innovation such that renewables fall in price so low that even with installation and new-grid costs they are cheaper than continuing with coal. Solar panels have fallen incredibly in price in the past 3 years, and there is no reason to think that won’t continue. Greater efficiencies are also technically and economically feasible." It turns out a great deal of carbon capture and sequester is built into the mitigation models, a technology both untested and "expensive", but as I have droned on about at some length, this market terminology (cheap, expensive, economical, etc) is itself a huge part of the problem. I think Desmog Blog gets it right- advising we watch how investors treat fossil fuel stocks next week, especially coal. Peabody is precarious and Arch totally bottomed out. We'll see what happens to Tar Sands stocks and elite opinion as they react; seismic shift or bothersome blip?, money talks, right?.If,as many believe, a "strong signal" has been sent to capital that certain assets may be stranded, like trillions, one could expect a certain level of panic in the old markets.While some claim the agreement "signals the death knell for fossil fuels", Exxon-Mobile has gone all in with its Clean Natural Gas Will Save the Planet campaign. As a huge methane leak at Porter Ranch in California continues to spew. Bernie Sanders and James Hansen want to see an actual price put on carbon, rather than a set of non-binding pledges. The US Congress is digging in its heels, vowing to fight any action to reduce emissions.Developing countries wanted to see language about funding for past "loss and damage" (justice) but Obama nixed that from the outset. Somewhere I saw the quote that the proposed goals were "a powerful symbol, but you have to start somewhere". I agree that much of this struggle is precisely in the symbolic register. Time to widen the cracks.

Friday, December 11, 2015


"Paranoia strikes a beat- Into your life it will creep" Buffalo Springfield Everybody is afraid of something it seems. Causing them to draw inward, reducing experience to its most instinctual, least analytical expressions; "a change in the structure of experience", the texture and meaning and even temperature- a little rougher, a little colder. Course, it ain't the first time. I was raised under the very real threat of nuclear annihilation and believe the effects of that still linger deep in the psyche. Lot of folks live through violent conflict as war or just daily life. So there is that. My other big theory about (post)modernity (copied from a dozen myths and sources) is that culture lags behind technology and the gap is expressed as alienation, dissociation, cognitive dissonance and yes, fear, paranoia and "Trump". Scare quotes because I think it valuable to think of him as a meme in the symbolic sphere. Think of him as Whiteness (supremacy as backlash), as Patriarchy (backlash to feminism), as Father/Leader (backlash to Liberalism) think of him not as an Event but as a long process and think of him as an actor in a good cop/bad cop strategy designed to push the discourse towards, what else, more profit and power for the few. As the project of liberal democratic capitalism begins to break into pieces, there is a lot to worry about. The void is the opposite of the womb. People didn't want to be in global competition. People didn't want to leave the land all at once and move to cities. People didn't want the "freedom" that capitalist democracy promised. The problem is they don't have any poetry or music or literature or art to express their "no". Certainly no politics. So it comes out shrill and reactionary and nationalist and racist or religious or any weird shard of identity they still cling to like a raft out on a very rough sea. Yes, yes, "The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity" But as Mao said "Everything under Heaven is chaos; the situation is excellent."

Thursday, December 10, 2015


Either leaders of the global climate movement are reading this blog( doubtful) or we are all tapped into the zeitgeist. Two days after publishing our call for mass civil disobedience ( actually we've been advocating this for two years) I read this on Desmog Blog this morning: The “Break Free From Fossil Fuels” campaign, online at, will involve acts of civil disobedience including forming human chains to block oil exports, interfering with coal mine operations and marching on the corporate headquarters of fossil fuel companies. Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International, described the strategy as launching “a billion acts of courage” and “intensifying new forms of resistance and struggle.” “Enough is enough, and no more. We are prepared to put our lives on the line, to go to prison if necessary,” in order to block new fossil fuel expansion projects around the globe, Naidoo said. In a separate article, authors Christopher Wright (U of Sydney) and Daniel Nyberg (U. of Newcastle) talk about the false promise of "green capitalism", very much on display in Paris at the moment.: "Such is the supremacy of our current capitalist imagery that it exacts a powerful grip on our thinking and actions. It is a grip strengthened by the promotion of every new “green” product, a grip tightened through the establishment of sustainability functions in business and government, a grip defended with every “offset” we purchase for a flight to a holiday destination. Ultimately, the “success” or otherwise of the Paris climate talks appears unlikely to challenge the fundamental dynamics underlying the climate crisis. Dramatic decarbonisation based around limits upon consumption, economic growth, and corporate influence are not open for discussion" Everyone from John Kerry to the Bob Inglis dude from my last post are promoting the pain-free common sense solution of continued consumption and growth and corporate control but with fewer emissions. Or as Rising Tide puts it, a world of "solar powered sweatshops". I went to a showing of This Changes Everything and stuck arounf for the discussion afterwards. I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the young activists have an anti-capitalist critique to compliment their environmentalism. Good news for the struggle ahead. My comrade Will asked last night how the move to mass civil disobedience affects the move from a quantitative to qualitative change, from a mere escalation to a shift or rupture? Stay tuned for theory on hegemony or the move from particular to universal.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Turn Spectacle In On Itself?

SO what if ten thousand climate activists gathered in one symbolically potent location to commit a mass act of non-violent civil disobedience? Basically the opposite of the annual School of the Americas protest, where thousands of people show up to wave signs and listen to speeches, while only two or three get arrested. The rest applaud themselves, go home for another year and nothing changes. In other words, the "old playbook" that Occupy "co-organizer" (as he never fails to remind us) Micah White rightly questions in his new book The End of Protest. Deeming Occupy Wall Street "a failure" he asks lots of good questions. Unfortunately his answers reflect the same "ideological rubble" that many of us found so incredibly frustrating at Occupy General Assemblies. But the real point here is The Playbook. We can't deny that an effective climate movement has been built and has made some gains; but as with the anti-globalization movement before it, the question is: how can this disparate "movement of movements" build the kind of mass support needed to stop fossil fuel production in time? We have the intersectional Flood the System, the Divestment Campaign, Shell No and No Coal Export, RAN, Friends of the Earth,and Earth First along with and other mainstream environmental groups, all running separate campaigns under the banner of de-centralized, localized autonomy. Yes there are cross-organizational alliances and sporadic coordination, but nothing like the coordination behind the Fossil Fuel Giants we are challenging.If we are honest with ourselves we can see that all the direct action organized by scattered local groups in the run up to COP 21 have fallen short in terms of capacity building and movement growth. That is, there will need to be some intense scaling upward for the climate movement to prevent emissions from crossing scientifically established "red lines". Going back to Micah White,one of his more pointed criticisms is aimed at the 2003 gathering of millions of people around the globe to prevent the invasion of Iraq. He correctly highlights this example of protest failure, but then extrapolates to claim that therefore ALL mass protest is now obsolete. But what if the failure was tactical, was a failure of imagination and expectations? Suppose the organizers had asked all those gathered to demonstrate their commitment by risking arrest? Estimates vary but I was on the Mall in Washington DC with between 3 and 5 hundred thousand people. How might the peaceful arrest of even one tenth of those protesters changed the equation? Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter has written that social processes are driven by our thresholds- defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them. His study focused on the dynamics of riots but can be applied to other mass social phenomena. It is my belief, borne out by my experience as an activist for many decades, that US society has reached a point where the threshold for joining mass dissent, especially acts of non-violent civil disobedience, is very high. But the threshold none-the-less exists. I also believe that society loves a good spectacle on a grand scale and many good people wish to be part of something big, something collective and something historical. If they can find participation an antidote to modern "spectating", to the estrangement and alienation and cynicism and apathy which capitalist culture excels in re-producing, then the project of the Left can be re-vitalized and extended to goals beyond emission reduction. Wouldn't this type of project require a huge amount of effort and resources and dedication? Doesn't it risk putting all of one's eggs in one's basket, so to speak? Yes, precisely.

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Incentivized to destruct

I was heartened to see all the media attention on the Paris climate talks, even if much of it was focused on post-terrorist-attack crowd control. Then came the California attack and the big attention shift so that now we get vague reports from closed door sessions inhabited by delegates and representatives (of governments and industries). There is a draft. It is "somewhat ambitious". We don't know how to be optimistic. We don't want to sound naive. We wait to praise and/or criticize. The big puppets and banner waving never did much good anyway. Meanwhile, the US Congress declares its selective sovereignty (you never hear dissension when the global elite meets in Davos!)and intellectual isolation by rejecting in advance ANY deal that is made. This is actually a good thing to the degree it de-legitimizes these clowns. The issue of compromise and coalition building and "not letting the perfect get in the way of the good" is perfectly illustrated by a Bozeman climate group's promotion of Rep. Bob Inglis, a Republican hoping to bring conservatives out of denialism and into solution building. The Bozeman folks believe in the need for "bi-partisan" support for a Tax and Dividend plan devised by climate scientist James Hansen. Bob Inglis says that to do this, there is certain "language you must use". Here we enter the realm of ideology and the symbolic props which support it: sure it looks and smells and walks like a skunk (taxes, regulation, nanny-state, etc) but if we call it a striped cat (free enterprise, competition, self-interest, etc) conservatives will let it sit on their lap AS IF it were a feline. The wink and nod may be (sub)conscious, but does it really matter if it helps the climate? Yes, it totally matters. Bob Inglis knows "the invisible hand" has failed spectacularly. (Who remembers Allen Greenspan being forced into this same admission?)But he hopes to salvage his sacred market ideology by finessing an arcane argument around externaities,ie "setting a price that best approximates the marginal harm by CO2 emissions". Plenty of liberals want to go this route as well,by the way. It is precisely this ideology (equating "freedom" and abundance" and "care for the poor" with market efficiency and rationality) that Naomi Klein and Fredrick Jameson tell us must be swept into the dust bin of history. And this is the moment to do it, to seize Shock Doctrine style, if you will. Bob Inglis is in no position to wring a concession out of the climate movement. The skunk is a skunk, "externalities" is where regulation and planning and collective state decisions pre-empt the failed market because those "negative externalities" ( costs to parties not included in price negotiations, for instance, htose generations of the future) can never be fully "recognized" nor calculated. Leading to distorted pricing and perverse incentives. Bob is just going to have to figure out how to explain this to "conservatives". Sorry.