Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 7, 2019

A Woman at War

Filed under: Ecology,Film — louisproyect @ 10:21 pm

As the DVD’s I received from Hollywood studio publicists for our December NYFCO awards meeting gather dust on my bookshelf (including “Bohemian Rhapsody”, “Sister Brothers”, and “First Man”), I am finally getting back to the kind of films I cherish. At the risk of sounding like those reviewers who fawn over the likes of “A Star is Born”, I will start off this review by stating that “A Woman at War” is a brilliant work with a keen understanding of the central crisis of our age, namely the looming extinction of life on earth, including homo sapiens. Like “First Reformed”, and just as powerfully, it is the story of an ecoterrorist willing to sacrifice everything, including her own life, to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of the system. I refer to Edward Abbey’s great novel since the lead character of “A Woman at War” has much in common with his protagonists. They want to preserve the natural resources and beauty of the American Southwest while Halla is just as intent on preserving Iceland’s austerely beautiful biosphere while striking a blow against Rio Tinto, a corporation that is widely criticized for its mining operations that degrade nature and wage laborers alike.

Despite Iceland’s tiny population (338,349), it has a film industry that puts Hollywood to shame. Given the preoccupations of “A Woman at War”, it is clear that director Benedikt Erlingsson is attuned to the political sensibility of the majority of its population that has a much better grasp of world affairs than Americans, liberal or conservative. To paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, the USA would be much better off if we were dissolved and the Icelanders were elected to take our place.

A major difference between “First Reformed” and “A Woman at War” is the kind of action its protagonists choose. As Father Toller, Ethan Hawke dons a suicide belt with the intention of blowing himself up and everybody else who is attending a ceremony in honor of his landmark church’s anniversary. He has lost a reason for living and is anxious to take out with him the owner of a factory that has been despoiling the local soil, air and water.

In the brilliant opening scene of “A Woman at War”, we see the 49-year old protagonist, a woman named Halla, putting a powerline out of commission. It feeds an aluminum factory that is a joint venture of Iceland’s government, the Chinese, and Rio Tinto. Erlingsson has the guts to call out Rio Tinto, even though it is not a player in Iceland. By contrast, Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” features a totally fictional corporation.

Halla uses a powerful hunting bow to launch a steel cable up and over the power lines that will land on the other side of the pylon. After donning thick rubber gloves, she brings the steel cable into contact with the power lines in order to create a short circuit that cuts off power to the aluminum factory. At the risk of sounding like the typical hype-purveying reviewer, this is about as exciting a five minutes I have spent watching a movie in the past 5 years or so.

Halla is getting set to escalate her attacks on the plant when she receives word that a four-year old girl living in a Donetsk orphanage is available for an adoption that she applied for years ago. Before going off to Ukraine to pick her up, Halla is determined to go ahead with the mother of all monkey-wrench operations, even if threatens her becoming a new mother. As a fallback, she will rely on her twin sister, a yoga instructor who has also applied to become an adoptive mother and who has no idea of her sister’s clandestine activism.

It takes a great deal of nerve and artistic acumen to successfully portray such a woman as a heroine. Erlingsson has succeeded beyond all expectations. Your worry (at least mine and my readers, I would think) is that she fails to disable the factory permanently and is prevented from retrieving the girl from the orphanage. The suspense is considerable and the film’s conclusion will leave you melting into your seat.

Let me conclude with the director’s statement in the press notes. Given his political insights and his brilliance as a filmmaker, it is obvious that “A Woman at War” that opens in New York City on March 1 at the IFC Center and Landmark at 57 West theaters is one that you cannot afford to miss:

To me it seems evident that Nature’s rights should be strongly protected in all constitutions and defended by local and international laws. We need to collectively realize that untouched nature has an intrinsic right and necessity to exist, regardless of our human needs or our economic system.

I can for example imagine a more rational system in which ‘we humans’, if we wanted to spoil or use unblemished Nature for our own needs, we would need to go through a process, maybe something like a trial, in order to be allowed to do that.

These issues are really about the common good and the long-term interests of our existence as a whole. Just like the ability to take a person’s freedom away and keep them inside a prison for life. So I think now is the right time to look at this kind of approach.

Add to this the strange paradox in some of our societies, the “State”, which in democratic countries is an instrument created by the people for the people, can be so easily manipulated by special interests and against what’s obviously the common welfare. When we look at the big, existential environmental challenge we face, and what has been happening, this becomes crystal clear.

January 30, 2019

Steven Mnuchin, Russian oligarchs, and wildlife preservation

Filed under: Africa,conservatism,Ecology — louisproyect @ 5:27 pm

Who will save the elephants? Them?

Today’s NY Times has an article titled “Steven Mnuchin Draws Claims of Conflict of Interest in Decision on Russian Oligarch” that deals with his ties to a Russian oligarch named Len Blavatnik. Despite “divesting” from a film company he owned, Mnuchin was anxious to get Blavatnik to invest in Dune Entertainment. Dune was now owned by Louise Linton as if that qualifies as divestment. This is the Trump regime, after all, Mnuchin’s idiotic wife was infamous for posting a photo on Instagram of herself and Trump’s yes-man in 2017 during a field trip to Fort Knox. She used hashtags to highlight the designer clothing and accessories she wore. When she got lambasted for her ostentatious display, she called her critic “adorably out of touch”, adding that she contributed more to the US economy and paid more in taxes than the woman criticizing her. Nice.

You’d think that Dune Entertainment would make films glorifying the rich, wouldn’t you? As it happens, they were behind “Avatar”, the 3D movie hailed by many critics, including me, as containing an anti-imperialist message. They were also behind “Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps”, another ostensibly leftist film. I should have italicized ostensibly since Oliver Stone’s film was about as leftist as his series of interviews with Vladimir Putin on Showtime.

What caught my eye was a report on Louise Linton’s attendance at a charity dinner in England. Mentioned below, Deripaska is an oligarch close to Blavatnik who got American polling data from Konstantin Kilimnik, who got it in turn from Paul Manafort. None of this was collusion, of course. Just ask Max Blumenthal.

In mid-January 2018, Ms. Linton attended an exclusive 50-person charity dinner in London that was also attended by Mr. Deripaska.

At the time of the dinner, which was for the anti-poaching organization Space for Giants, the Treasury Department had been directed to put together a report on oligarchs on which it might place sanctions, which would come to include Mr. Deripaska.

A spokesman for Space for Giants said that the guests — including Prince William, the former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, the Russian-British newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev and a member of the Saudi royal family — were not provided one another’s names before or after the event.

Mr. Sayegh said that Ms. Linton, who donated $50,000 to Space for Giants in 2017, according to its annual report, “was unaware” that Mr. Deripaska was at the dinner that she “never interacted with” the oligarch.

“She recalls sitting next to Prince William at the dinner,” Mr. Sayegh said.

Evgeny Lebedev is the publisher of The Independent, a newspaper that gives a platform to Robert Fisk and Patrick Cockburn. Their eight-year reporting on Syria tends not to undermine Russian interests there, needless to say.

As for Bill Richardson, he was on the board of Valero Energy and Diamond Offshore Drilling before he became Governor of New Mexico. Valero was heavily involved in refining oil drilled in the Amazon rainforest, while Diamond used asbestos-laden equipment that made its employees terminally ill. Taken to court, Diamond sought indemnification from liability. Richardson resigned from these boards but in keeping with old habits, he now sits on the board of Genie Oil and Gas alongside Dick Cheney, Rupert Murdoch, Larry Summers, and James Woolsey. Genie is heavily invested in Israel Energy Initiatives, a company formed to exploit fracking in Israel. While I remain opposed to the Zionist state, I am just as opposed to fracking there if for no other reason that it degrades the land and water that someday might be returned to the Palestinian people.

Richardson is also on the USA board of Space for Giants, a natural complement to his work with Genie.

As for the Saudi royal family, they might be for saving the lives of elephants but that hardly compensates for the assassination of Khashoggi or the tens of thousands of Yemenis who have died from Saudi bombs and missiles.

Meanwhile, Prince William is a big-game hunter who argues that controlled killing is just what is needed to preserve elephants and other creatures in danger of extinction. I have heard this argument before but would prefer to see Africa protected from imperialist penetration, the main threat to the habitat in which the “Giants” dwell.

Going to the Space for Giants website will give you a good idea of the sort of people who are behind it. The chairman of the UK board is one Peter Bacchus whose accomplishments are trumpeted there:

Peter Bacchus is a senior adviser to the global mining industry, having run Natural Resource Sector investment banking teams at Jefferies, Morgan Stanley, and Citigroup. He pioneered China’s engagements with the global mining community, advising the state-owned China MinMetals on its takeover offer for Noranda in Canada, and listed China Steel, CITIC Resources, and China National Coal on global stock exchanges. Peter has a 20-year track record of advising and raising capital for companies in Africa, having executed deals in a dozen different countries on the continent, including South Africa, Mozambique, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, and Angola.

Just the kind of background you’d expect from someone protecting biodiversity in Africa.

Finally, there is the question of what Mnuchin’s wife is doing at a charity dinner to protect wildlife when his boss is doing everything in his power to destroy it in the name of corporate greed. Last July, Trump’s Secretary of the Interior proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act that would allow economic development to go full steam ahead even if the only animals left in the USA were pigeons and rats.

That’s the state of the world today. A charity dinner to raise funds for a wildlife preservation group that depends on the deep pockets of rich people who could care less if elephants went the way of the brontosaurus. Where these large animals go, we are soon to follow unless everything changes.

January 20, 2019

Is China a model for a New Green Deal?

Filed under: China,Ecology — louisproyect @ 10:39 pm

On January 14th, Dean Baker wrote an article for Truthout titled “The Green New Deal Is Happening in China” that poses important questions for the left. Since the article is focused exclusively on reducing greenhouse gases to the exclusion of any other “green” problem areas, can we assume that climate change is the be-all and end-all of the environmentalist left? It also leads to the broader question of China’s relevance to the left. If it is in the vanguard of the fight against climate change, then can we conclude that Xi Jinping might be legitimately described as socialist? As the American democratic socialist left has committed considerable energy behind the call for a Green New Deal, can we look at the Communist Party in China as an ally of the left?

For some, the efforts mounted by the Chinese government are indications that it does have progressive aspects. For example, MRZine, the online voice of Monthly Review, posted a piece last May titled “China’s determined march towards the ecological civilization” that was written by Andre Vltchek, the erstwhile Counterpunch contributor who is well-known for his belief in the merits of the BRICS. (Whether Brazil is still considered an asset is open to question. The entire left views Bolsinaro as either a fascist or a rightwing goon, even though China has no plans to stop doing business with him and vice versa.)

Vltchek sought out a nonagenarian named John Cobb Jr., whose admiration for the Chinese governments past and present is unbounded. He told Vltchek:

The talk of moving toward an ecological civilization also encouraged reflection about “civilization” alongside “market.” That supported those Chinese who were concerned that the narrow concern for wealth at all costs was not healthy for human society. Marxism had always emphasized economic matters, but it was concerned to move society away from competition toward cooperation. It was always concerned with the distribution of goods, so that the poor would be benefited, and workers would be empowered. The idea of recovering traditional Chinese civilizational values gained in acceptance.

While Dean Baker’s article is far more measured, he does offer this:

Over the last decade, China’s GDP growth has averaged 7.9 percent annually. Perhaps there is a story where China’s economy would have grown even more rapidly without the subsidies and other measures to promote green growth, but obviously, these measures could not have been very serious impediments if the country could still sustain one of the fastest growth stretches the world has ever seen.

One cannot be sure if Baker identifies “green growth” as synonymous with reducing greenhouse gases but if so he is sadly mistaken. Even if alternative energy sources constituted 90 percent of the country’s supply, it would still be a ticking time-bomb as far as the environmental crisis is concerned. Let me review some of the key problem areas.

Water

China’s environmental crisis is deepest when it comes to water along a number of fronts. In 2008, Scientific American—not a Trotskyite journal, the last time I noticed—published a piece titled “China’s Three Gorges Dam: An Environmental Catastrophe?” that reported on problems so deep that even government officials could not sweep them under the rug. They included the likelihood of “triggering landslides, altering entire ecosystems and causing other serious environmental problems—and, by extension, endangering the millions who live in its shadow”, according to Scientific American. In a country where biodiversity is sacrificed to “socialist development”, the dam has proven deeply destructive. The Three Gorges area alone accounts for 20 percent of Chinese seed plants—more than 6,000 species. As the dam floods one area while rending others arid, that biodiversity ends up on the chopping block. By the same token, the dammed Yangtze River is host to 177 unique fish species, all of which have been subject to conditions that might cause extinction. Read the entire Scientific American article to get an idea of how far China is from an “ecological civilization”.

Moving right along, China suffers enormous water pollution due to unregulated manufacturing. Greenpeace published a report in June 2017 revealing that 85% of the water in Shanghai was undrinkable and that 56.4% was unfit for any purpose. One of the polluters was Luliang Chemical Industry that dumped 5,000 tons of chemical waste next to a river used as a drinking water source. China has targeted companies like Luliang through a new taxation policy that bases a fee on the amount of pollution being produced. A more “socialist” policy would be to begin jailing the polluters but I wouldn’t count on it. Taili Ni, a doctoral student, wrote a paper titled “China’s ineffective water pollution policy: an issue of enforcement” that strengthens my doubts. China’s water protection laws are among the strongest in the world, but there is a gap between the letter of the law and how it is enforced. Ni calls this the “enforcement gap”.

Environmental protection and enforcement of environmental policies rely on local governments to be successful. However, political corruption is a very present factor at the local level, and greatly interferes with enforcement. Local governments tend to have slightly different goals and motivations than the central government, and the system of fragmented authoritarianism allows them to act according to these motivations. Economic growth is crucial at the local level too, and in many cases local officials face high incentives to report economic success. There is a close link between local governments and polluting enterprises; in fact, local governments are often major shareholders of these enterprises, creating a common conflict of interest.

If you consider her words carefully, you will be reminded of how things work not only in China but in all countries where “economic growth” is in the driver’s seat. The USSR was a disaster area environmentally because decisions were made on generating income for the Stalinist state. For example, it was cotton production that turned the Aral Sea into a dead zone. In China, you get the same habits that were deeply engrained in Maoist time but magnified by the country’s integration into global markets. If 1.5 million people have died as a result of pollution in China, that can be rationalized by party theoreticians as the costs of building an industrial society that can meet the needs of the people. Is there much difference between this idea and Walt Rostow’s development theories? If so, I can’t detect it.

Soil

I can’t help but wonder how Xi Jinping gets a free pass in Monthly Review when his government is carrying out policies deeply at odds with John Bellamy Foster’s analysis of the “metabolic rift”.

Unlike the United States, China’s farms are smaller and less mechanized but that has not prevented them from using chemicals indiscriminately. To give you an idea of the dimension of the problem, China uses more than 30 per cent of fertilizers and pesticides sold globally (it is first in the world) but on only 9 per cent of the world’s soil. When fertilizers seep into rivers and lakes, it fosters the growth of algae that is inimical to marine life—a process called eutrophication. It has led to Chinese leisure-seekers trying to enjoy its algae-ridden lakes as the Guardian reported last year as best they can.  Here are people trying to make the best of a sorry situation at a lake overrun by algae:

China has made an effort to convince farmers to reduce their chemical fertilizer input with some success but it still does not resolve the “metabolic rift” that John Bellamy Foster has written about so persuasively. To do that effectively, it would require overcoming the breach between city and countryside as articulated in the Communist Manifesto but that is not very feasible given China’s integration into world markets. Like all capitalist countries, the cities have emerged over a century as production and export centers. To restructure China is a Herculean task even if it is a necessary one. Missing from the calculations of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s endorsement of a Green New Deal and Dean Baker’s salute to China for carrying one out is a recognition that capitalism is unsustainable. Period.

Air

Largely as a result of wide-spread dissatisfaction with the toxic air pollution in most cities, the government cracked down in 2017 making even Greenpeace impressed with the results.

But under Donald Trump’s assault on its chief economic rival, the Chinese capitalists and the “Communist” state that rules on their behalf have been forced to retreat in order to allow firms to maintain a certain level of profitability.

Last September the Ministry of Ecology and Environment removed blanket bans on heavy industry production. Monitoring was decentralized, with local governments allowed to set their own targets. As is the case across the board, economic and environmental needs clash with each other. Despite Baker’s reference to “green growth”, the reality in China is that you have green versus growth. If the world was organized on the basis of human need rather than private profit, this would not be such a big problem. However, that would require a worldwide socialist revolution that most on the left view as a hopeless project. I guess I’ll stick to that even if I am a minority of one. That’s why I call myself Unrepentant.

Externalities

Finally, there is a failure on the part of Dean Baker and Andre Vltchek to acknowledge the environmental impact that China has on the countries it has established trade relations with. Was trade relations a euphemism? Sorry. I meant to say colonized.

If China has eased up on coal production internally, that hasn’t prevented it from profiting from it elsewhere. It is not that different from England turning to the New World in search of timber after it had cleared its own forests in the 18th century.

Kenya has been one of the beneficiaries of this colonialism. A consortium of Kenyan and Chinese energy firms are building a coal plant on the only part that is untouched by industrial development. Scientists and economists worry that this will become the largest source of air pollution in the country. Naturally, the bituminous coal that will be fed into this plant will be imported from South Africa, one that releases large amounts of toxins, particularly if improperly burned. Does anybody believe that China, Kenya or South Africa care much about this?

Finally, there is the matter of China’s ties to Brazil, its number one trading partner. Despite Bolsonaro’s invective against China during his campaign, there are signs that nothing much will change. Li Yang, China’s Consul General in Rio de Janeiro, said, “Personally, I don’t believe there would be a radical change from the new federal government towards China. I don’t believe so. So, either economic or political ties between the two parts, both Brazil and China, will be further tightened. We firmly believe so.” So, you can expect China to benefit from the soybeans being produced in the Amazon rainforest after all the trees have been cut down and the native peoples driven out or killed.

What if Bolsonaro carries out a Pinochet-type coup? Would that make China willing to break trade relations with an anti-working class dictatorship? Given China’s history under the Communist Party, I rather doubt that especially what happened under Pinochet and a China that was arguably still socialist.

In 1973, after General Pinochet overthrew Allende in Chile, the Chinese Embassy would not provide refuge to leftists fleeing terror. Just two years later, China offered Pinochet a $50 million loan, even when European governments would not extend a penny.

Things kept on this way for decades. In 1998, Jon Lee Anderson told New Yorker readers about the red carpet treatment the murderer received in China when Jiang Zemin was president:

Curiously, Pinochet’s popularity extends to the People’s Republic of China, which he has visited twice. China is a major client for Chile’s copper exports, and Pinochet has nurtured his relationship with Beijing. “They are very fond of me,” he says. “Because I saw that Chinese Communism was patriotic Communism, not the Communism of Mao. I opened up the doors to Chinese commerce, letting them hold an exposition here, in which they brought everything they had—and they sold everything they brought.” On both his trips to China, Pinochet says, the Chinese treated him with great respect. “The first time they put me in a house, but the last time it was a palace. And I became good friends with General Chen, a warrior who fought in Korea, in Vietnam, and who doesn’t like the Americans very much.” Pinochet shot me a sidelong glance and grinned.

December 10, 2018

The Yellow Vests, capitalism and communism

Filed under: climate,Ecology,farming,France — louisproyect @ 11:09 pm

Three years ago Michael Moore made a documentary titled “Where to Invade Next” that posed the question of why can’t Americans enjoy the good life most Western Europeans do. Traveling from country to country, he showed how the welfare state created by successive social democratic governments made for better health care, education, child care, etc. He visited a public school in France where he had lunch with sixth graders who had no interest in trading their healthy and appetizing free lunch for a Big Mac, French fries and a giant Coke.

As I pointed out at the time, this social democratic dream was turning into a nightmare, especially for immigrants. It was only a matter of time that France would become ground zero for a revolt against a system that provided few benefits for those who live in the countryside and suburbia. Indeed, my first reaction to the riots is that the white people in France were finally expressing the anger that made the banlieues erupt in 2005.

If steep taxes are supposedly necessary to support the universal health care that Moore supported in “Sicko”, another paean to enlightened social democratic governance, it was lost on the average citizen not fortunate enough to work as an IT specialist or lawyer in Paris. With the closing of rural hospitals, the country’s universal health insurance is next to useless. Under Macron, subsidies to the suburbs and countryside have been cut sharply. $42 billion at the time of his election, they are now $30 billion. The pain this has caused was sufficient to spur a wholesale resignation of mayors around the country who feel too strapped to do their job.

This was not the first time a protest occurred over gasoline/diesel fuel tax hikes. Almost four years ago to the date, “Red Caps” in Brittany forced Francois Hollande to cancel a tax targeting commercial trucks. Protesters, who saw the tax as harmful to farmers who were already having trouble competing with other EU countries, wore red caps. They were first worn in a seventeenth century revolt centered in Brittany as well. As is the case today, the movement took direct action to remind the “socialist” government that it could not neglect those in the boondocks. So grievous was their situation that a virtual epidemic of suicides had plagued the countryside. A recent survey revealed that a French farmer kills himself every two days.

Echoing Donald Trump’s MAGA bluster, Macron has been pushing a Make Our Planet Great Again campaign that was worth pursuing even if it caused temporary pain for the yellow vest social base. On the campaign’s website, there are ambitious goals sounding somewhat like the Green New Deal bandied about on the American left but without the socialist rhetoric:

Regarding mobility, a tax priority has been set: to achieve tax harmonisation between diesel and gasoline before 2022, and to speed up the rise in the price of carbon without penalizing the poorest households. The Climate Plan has set the objective of ending the sale of gasoline and diesel cars by 2040. A large public consultation has also been launched, the “National Conference on Mobility”, to anticipate mobility in 2030 and draw up policies promoting soft and less polluting mobility;

The Climate Plan is striving to put an early end to the import in France of products contributing to the destruction of tropical forests and plans to develop a National strategy against imported deforestation. As far as its own forests are concerned, France has put in place a National Plan for forests and woodlands and a National Biomass Mobilisation Strategy, which advocate forestry that is more proactive and better respects ecosystems, with the aim of maintaining and extending their central role in carbon storage;

France is strengthening its actions to protect the marine and land ecosystems, in France and at an international level, which contribute to climate change mitigation and adaptation: increasing its funding for ecosystems protection projects, taking advantage of overseas to launch initiatives for biodiversity helping the climate, and calls for projects to develop nature-based solutions.

You need to understand that it does little good to promote a “soft and less polluting mobility” in 2030 when a tax hike today threatens the ability of hard-up French families to get through the month. In a highly revealing article for the NY Times on December 2nd, Adam Nossiter described the austerity that grips Guéret, a typical yellow vest town. Nossiter describes how typical families live:

“We just don’t make it to the end of the month,” said Elodie Marton, a mother of four who had joined the protesters at the demonstration outside town. “I’ve got 10 euros left,” she said, as a dozen others tried to get themselves warm around an iron-barrel fire.

“Luckily we’ve got some animals at the house” — chickens, ducks — “and we keep them for the end of the month,” she said. “It sounds brutal, but my priority is the children,” she said. “We’re fed up and we’re angry!’ shouted her husband, Thomas Schwint, a cement hauler on a temporary 1,200-euro contract.

Hill-Knowlton, the notorious PR firm that cooked up the propaganda campaign about Saddam’s troops yanking babies from the incubators in a Kuwaiti hospital to leave them on the cold floor to die, revealed rather candidly that despite the impression that the tax hike was geared exclusively for “Green” causes such as eliminating nuclear energy plants, it was not quite the case: “While the government has recently announced a new increase in fuel taxes to come in January, the prices have increased by 19 cents for the essence fuel and by 31 cents for the diesel fuel since the beginning of President Macron’s mandate. In 2018, fuel taxes brought in a total of €34 billion for the state. Of these 34 billion, only 7.4 billion are directly earmarked for ecological transition, while the rest is earmarked for the State’s overall budget.”

In effect, the remaining 26.6 billion was designed to make up for the loss of revenue from Macron’s wealth tax cut. In October 2017, a bill was passed in order to repeal the one imposed by the Socialists in the 1980s on incomes over $1.5 million. The wealth tax supposedly drove rich people out of the country, including actor Gerald Depardieu who was granted Russian citizenship in 2013. In a tit-for-tat arrangement, Depardieu defended the jailing of Pussy Riot. In keeping with his “hooligan” character supposedly praised by Putin, he was accused of the sexual assault and rape of a young female actress in August, 2018. This should give you some idea of the sort of person whose needs had to be catered to, even if it meant leaving Elodie Marton with 10 Euros at the end of the month.

Maxime Combs, a French economist and climate change activist, wrote an article that was translated into English for the Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century website. It debunks the notion that the tax hike can help to wean people from fossil fuel usage, especially the poor. He urges a different approach to the problem from eco-tax manipulation:

By making the increase in fuel prices the central policy that must drive the inhabitants of the country to change their vehicles and change their boilers, without reducing their mobility needs and their heating needs, Emmanuel Macron and the government are making themselves prisoners of an ideology that prevents action on the structural causes of too great a dependence on fossil fuels.

Putting an end to urban sprawl and bringing economic activities closer to workplaces – rather than moving them away from already urbanized areas – relocating public services and ensuring the sustainability of local shops, developing public transport and options for alternative modes of transport, are priority areas for reducing the need for mobility reliant on carbon.

This gets much closer to the solution that is really needed even if it doesn’t close the circle. It is not just a question of reducing the need for private transportation and commercial trucks. It also points in the direction of overcoming the “metabolic rife” that is associated with separating the organic production of plant fertilizer (both human and animal) from the crops that require it.

Petroleum products do not only threaten a sixth extinction because of the greenhouse gases they generate. In addition, they are key to industrial farming that relies on plastics for a wide variety of its infrastructure including mulch, greenhouse covers and tunnels. Once crops are harvested, plastic is used to package them for sale in Walmarts and other grocery stores spread around the country. This amounts to $32.4 billion in 2016, with 14.2 billion pounds of resin consumed.

Industrial farming is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Oil and gas are used as raw materials and energy in the manufacture of fertilizers and pesticides. In addition, fossil fuels are essential for farm machinery, processing facilities, storage, ships, trucks and roads—all designed to transport food from the farming regions to cities hundreds if not thousands of miles away. Just consider the enormous amount of energy that is expended to ship soybeans, corn and other key agro-export commodities from Brazil to seaports in China or India and their transportation by truck to other destinations once they get there.

As capitalism grows apace everywhere in the world, gaining acceptance for its ability to satisfy every desire that advertising creates for a working class bewitched by commodity fetishism, the threat of extinction deepens. Even if Macron eliminated gas-powered cars in France, you still have two major automobile companies that rely on exports to produce the profits that stock prices are based on. The Dongfeng Peugeot-Citroën joint venture produced 734,000 cars in Chinese plants in 2014. Those sales are necessary for the life-blood of French capitalism to flow.

This is the miracle of capitalism. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx refers to how it replaced the system that preceded it:

Modern industry has established the world market, for which the discovery of America paved the way. This market has given an immense development to commerce, to navigation, to communication by land. This development has, in its turn, reacted on the extension of industry; and in proportion as industry, commerce, navigation, railways extended, in the same proportion the bourgeoisie developed, increased its capital, and pushed into the background every class handed down from the Middle Ages.

What Marx does not pay much attention to is the modes of production that preceded this miracle. From ancient Greece to the late Middle Ages, it was the city that formed the basic unit of production rather than the state. So, for example, a places like Tenochtitlan, London, Tripoli, and Damascus arose because they were suited to its natural terrain both in terms of resources and demography. The towns and cities were the hub of commercial activity that relied on the agricultural belt that surrounded them. Food was transported by carts pulled by oxen or horses rather than Mack trucks.

The Barada River was indispensable to the rise of Damascus as the crown jewel of the Arab world. Its name is reflected in the tormented victim of Assad’s barrel bombs Wadi Barada that means Barada Valley. In 1834 a British traveler described Damascus as “a city of hidden palaces, of copses, and gardens, and fountains, and bubbling streams.” The Barada river was “the juice of her life,” a “gushing and ice-cold torrent that tumbles from the snowy sides of Anti-Lebanon” (the mountain range that borders Lebanon and Syria.) The various water sources flowed into the city via seven canals that were built during or before Roman presence in the region. For many, the well-watered wonders of the city were paradisiacal.

Some of these cities became so powerful that they were capable of bring other cities under their sway as part of an empire based on tribute rather than capital. Rome was the most famous of these in the pre-capitalist era and arguably a victim of its own success as its reliance on long-distance exploitation of resources and slavery eroded its ability to reproduce itself.

In the 17th century, Western European nations repeated Rome’s glory but on a capitalist basis. States were created in order to support the armies and navies necessary to embark on a colonization program. Once a colony was established, the old organic unity that kept a place like Damascus viable disappeared. Furthermore, in the post-colonial epoch, the Syrian state, for example, was forced into commodity exchanges in order to subsist in a capitalist world. Perhaps the only way to avoid being sucked in was to use your own feudal military might to stave off the invader as was the case with Japan until Admiral Perry fixed their wagon. Probably, the only non-capitalist survivors in the world today are Cuba and North Korea, even though the pressure on them is enormous. Cuba relies on the tourist trade and North Korea is rapidly transitioning into a market economy in the post-Mao mold.

That leaves the naked tribesmen of North Sentinel islands to keep the faith, one supposes.

Toward the end of “Origins of the Family, Private Property and the State”, Engels writes:

At all earlier stages of society production was essentially collective, just as consumption proceeded by direct distribution of the products within larger or smaller communistic communities. This collective production was very limited; but inherent in it was the producers’ control over their process of production and their product. They knew what became of their product: they consumed it; it did not leave their hands. And so long as production remains on this basis, it cannot grow above the heads of the producers nor raise up incorporeal alien powers against them, as in civilization is always and inevitably the case.

The task before us is to return to pre-capitalist property relations, but moreover those that precede feudalism with its forced exploitation based on the rule of the aristocrats. Something closer to the city-state of the Aztecs, the Incas or the Mayans is needed but one based on the freedom made possible by machinery rather than captured slaves. In recognizing the value of such a “backward” looking goal, Mariategui remains a socialist whose vision is more prescient than ever:

The subordination of the Indian problem to the problem of land is even more absolute, for special reasons. The indigenous race is a race of farmers. The Inca people were peasants, normally engaged in agriculture and shepherding. Their industries and arts were typically domestic and rural. The principle that life springs from the soil was truer in the Peru of the Incas than in any other country. The most notable public works and collective enterprises of Tawantinsuyo were for military, religious or agricultural purposes. The irrigation canals of the sierra and the coast and the agricultural terraces of the Andes remain the best evidence of the degree of economic organization reached by Inca Peru. Its civilization was agrarian in all its important I aspects. Valcarcel, in his study of the economic life of Tawantinsuyo, writes that “the land, in native tradition, is the common mother; from her womb come not only food but man himself. Land provides all wealth. The cult of Mama Pacha is on a par with the worship of the sun and, like the sun, Mother Earth represents no one in particular. Joined in the aboriginal ideology, these two concepts gave birth to agrarianism, which combines communal ownership of land and the universal religion of the sun.”

November 21, 2018

Vain hopes in a Green New Deal

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 7:26 pm

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with climate change activists in Nancy Pelosi’s office

Largely as a result of the near total collapse of the 100 year Soviet experiment in Russia and its replicas elsewhere, there have been attempts to reorient the left to new forms of social and economic transformation supposedly untainted by failed measures such as a planned economy based on state ownership of the commanding heights of industry. First and foremost among them is the belief that cooperatives can form the basis of a socialism from below. The idea is that local initiatives such as those in Jackson, Mississippi can become so widespread and popular so that they will finally bring about a qualitative change in class relations, finally putting the working class in power.

While not advertised as a transitional step toward socialism, the idea of a Green New Deal has captured the imaginations of many on the left. For example, Jacobin editor Branco Marcetic wrote an article titled Make Them Do It just before the recent midterm election that insisted on the need for Democrats winning, “not just to keep the natural world from being fed through the shredder, but to truly start the process of reversing the march toward catastrophic climate change through bold, decisive action.” To give you an idea of the kind of Democrats whose victory would save the world, he included Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (naturally) and Tulsi Gabbard, whose climate legislation has been called “the strongest yet introduced in Congress” by Food and Water Watch. Whatever position Gabbard has staked out on reducing greenhouse gases in the USA is certainly compromised by her avid support for Bashar al-Assad and Narendra Modi, who have turned their respective countries into ethnic cleansing and ecological dead zones.

Ocasio-Cortez has made the Green New Deal front-page news after taking part in a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office on November 13th. Most people who just skimmed the headlines on this story might have assumed that this was some kind of protest meant to discredit Pelosi and the establishment Democrats. In reality, it was much more of a bonding exercise of the sort that has been taking place ever since the “progressives” poured into the new House of Representatives making nice with Pelosi and other old-guard players. The Washington Post described the event as “an encounter that touched off a display of mutual admiration between the 78-year-old matriarch and the millennial upstart.” Ocasio-Cortez, described as “less confrontational” than in the past, said: “Should Leader Pelosi become the next speaker of the House, we need to tell her that we’ve got her back in showing and pursuing the most progressive energy agenda that this country has ever seen.”

It was a virtual love-in with Pelosi smooching back on Twitter: “Deeply inspired by the young activists & advocates leading the way on confronting climate change. The climate crisis threatens the futures of communities nationwide, and I strongly support reinstating the select committee to address the crisis.”

It turns out that the origin of the concept was in op-ed columns by Mr. Globalization himself Thomas Friedman. In a January 19, 2007 NYT op-ed, the arch-imperialist wrote:

The right rallying call is for a “Green New Deal.” The New Deal was not built on a magic bullet, but on a broad range of programs and industrial projects to revitalize America. Ditto for an energy New Deal. If we are to turn the tide on climate change and end our oil addiction, we need more of everything: solar, wind, hydro, ethanol, biodiesel, clean coal and nuclear power — and conservation.

It takes a Green New Deal because to nurture all of these technologies to a point that they really scale would be a huge industrial project. If you have put a windmill in your yard or some solar panels on your roof, bless your heart. But we will only green the world when we change the very nature of the electricity grid — moving it away from dirty coal or oil to clean coal and renewables. And that is a huge industrial project — much bigger than anyone has told you. Finally, like the New Deal, if we undertake the green version, it has the potential to create a whole new clean power industry to spur our economy into the 21st century.

Is there any difference between this and what Ocasio-Cortez is calling for? You can read her proposals that supposedly are in the best interests of the Democratic Party at https://ocasio2018.com/green-new-deal. While not mentioning the word socialism once, it makes you wonder if going through such a convulsive change is necessary since “a national, industrial, economic mobilization of this scope and scale is a historic opportunity to virtually eliminate poverty in the United States and to make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone participating in the transformation.” Eliminate poverty and make prosperity, wealth and economic security available to everyone? Sure, why not? It certainly breaks with the Neanderthal version of socialism advocated by Monthly Review and most of the people writing for CounterPunch, including me. Our dinosaur brand of socialism was rejected by Jacobin author Neal Meyer in July, 2018:

It’s one thing to know what democratic socialists fight for, and another to lay out a convincing path to realizing it. This is where democratic socialists truly differ with some of our friends on the socialist left. We reject strategies that transplant paths from Russia in 1917 or Cuba in 1959 to the United States today, as if we could win socialism by storming the White House and tossing Donald Trump out on the front lawn.

Yes, that is what Marx advocated, don’t you know? Throwing despots out on the front lawn.

Perhaps the most persuasive case for making the connections between Ocasio-Cortez, the Official Democratic Party leadership as represented by Nancy Pelosi, and the loathsome Thomas Friedman was her widely quoted statement that appeared on Huffington Post: “The Green New Deal we are proposing will be similar in scale to the mobilization efforts seen in World War II or the Marshall Plan. We must again invest in the development, manufacturing, deployment, and distribution of energy, but this time green energy.”

Ocasio-Cortez was an economics major at Boston University but she might have spent some spare time reading what Marxists have said about the New Deal, WWII and the Marshall Plan that interestingly enough flow together dialectically as a study in the contradictions of capitalism.

If FDR created jobs through the WPA and other New Deal make-work projects, that was hardly enough to lift the country out of the Great Depression. Twenty years ago, someone with a mindset identical to Jacobin, the DSA, and Ocasio-Cortez on a day when she tries to cover her left flank, submitted an article to Monthly Review that the saintly Harry Magdoff had trouble with, especially with this sentence: “Today’s neo-liberal state is a different kind of capitalist class than the social-democratic, Keynesian interventionist state of the previous period.”

Harry wrote the author explaining what was wrong with this analysis:

The term “Keynesian state” has become a catchword that covers a variety of concepts and is usually misleading. It may have some meaning for the Scandinavian countries and elsewhere. But the United States? Although the concept is often applied to the New Deal, the deficit spending of the New Deal had nothing to do with Keynes (nor did Hitler’s recovery via military expenditures). It’s true Washington economists were delighted with the appearance of Keynes’s The General Theory of Employment, Interest, and Money because it gave them theoretical handles for analysis and policy thinking (e.g.,the offset to savings concept and a framework for gross national product accounts). Nevertheless, despite a promise of heavy government spending, and Keynes’s theoretical support, the New Dealers were stumped by the 1937-38 recession, which interrupted what looked like a strong recovery. There was then as there is now an underlying faith that capitalism is a self-generating mechanism. If it slowed down or got into trouble, all that was needed was a jolt to get back on track. In those days, when farm life supplied useful metaphors, the needed boost was referred to as priming the pump. The onset of a marked recession after years of pump-priming startled Washington. Questions began to be raised about the possibility of stagnation in a mature capitalism, the retarding effect of monopolistic corporations, and other possible drags on business. These concerns faded as war orders flowed in from Europe, and eventually they disappeared when the United States went to war. The notion of the “Keynesian Welfare State” has tended to disguise the fact that what really turned the tide was not social welfare, Keynesian or otherwise, but war. In that sense, the whole concept of Keynesianism can be mystification. [emphasis added]

A number of liberal economists have disputed the idea that WWII ended the Depression but it was up to J.R. Vernon (no Marxist, by any stretch of the imagination) to make the same case as Harry in the December 1994 Journal of Economic History where he stressed that more than half of the recovery took place between 1941 and 1942—in other words when war spending had geared up. Government purchase of goods and services ticked up by 54.7 percent in this one-year period and continued to increase as the actual war began. Furthermore, in examining one New Deal supporter’s figures, he came to the conclusion that by the fourth quarter of 1940, only 46 percent of the recovery had been accomplished.

By the way, Paul Krugman wrote an op-ed piece in the November 10, 2008 that essentially made the same case: “What saved the economy, and the New Deal, was the enormous public works project known as World War II, which finally provided a fiscal stimulus adequate to the economy’s needs.”

So until we have WWIII, it looks to me that the current economic slump will not be resolved within the context of capitalism, least of all by a Green New Deal that will be constrained by its reliance on the profit motive. After all, it is automobiles exported to India that generates growth, not windmills.

As for the Marshall Plan, this was just the fix that capitalism needed after WWII to lay the groundwork for a new round of accumulation. WWII ginned up capitalist production in the USA, especially in the smokestack industries, and the Marshall Plan revived Europe and Japan as markets for American exports as well as undercutting the massive support for Communism. In his 1947 speech on the plan, George Marshall made clear its purpose was “the revival of a working economy in the world so as to permit the emergence of political and social conditions in which free institutions can exist.” Free institutions obviously meant the freedom to exploit labor.

In helping to revive capitalist production in Europe, the USA created the conditions for its own decline. The market that was created for American exports was joined at the hip by the growth of VW, Mercedes-Benz, and other corporations that would eventually reduce Detroit to a status resembling Berlin in 1945. Capitalism, after all, is a zero-sum game.

Finally, turning to the question of the feasibility of making America Green without abolishing capitalist property relations, I want to draw an analogy with the last great revolutionary struggle in the USA, namely the Civil War.

In 1860, Abraham Lincoln was the leader of a bourgeois revolution which pitted the northern industrialists against another section of the bourgeoisie—the cotton plantation owners of the South who required slave labor to maintain their class domination.

Now, 158 years later, the petrochemical sector constitutes the same kind of reactionary grip on American society that will smash any challenge to its exploitation of fossil fuels and wage labor. What cotton and chattel slavery were to Lincoln’s day, carbon-based commodity production and wage slavery are to our epoch. It is not just Exxon that is determined to keep producing oil. You have the fracking corporations who have helped to make the USA the primary energy producer in the world today. On top of that you have the automobile companies who have zero interest in public transportation based on alternative energy sources. Or the airline industry that will never replace jets with dirigibles. Then there are the industries that either produce plastic or use it, such as at least 80 percent of the manufacturers of the commodities for sale at Walmart and that are now helping to destroy all living creatures in the world’s oceans. Let’s not forget about the companies producing chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are key to industrial farming. Will they be ready to be replaced by sustainable organic agriculture?

American capitalism of the modern era cannot co-exist with environmentally sustainable practices. One or the other will have to triumph. If American capitalism succeeds, civilization will be the loser. As Rosa Luxemburg once put it, the choice is between socialism and barbarism. Sitting in at Nancy Pelosi’s office will not change that equation unfortunately.

October 30, 2018

Did the PT in Brazil dig its own political ditch?

Filed under: Brazil,Ecology — louisproyect @ 2:23 pm

(Posted to Facebook by Rob Wallace. Rob has told me that a longer version is in the works destined for broader circulation. I will post a comment when that is available. For the kind of analysis deployed below, I recommend “Clear-Cutting Disease Control: Capital-Led Deforestation, Public Health Austerity, and Vector-Borne Infection“, a book that includes Rob as one of its co-authors.)

Brazil under the Partido dos Trabalhadores took the BRICS route on development. A recent visit showed the country indeed had parlayed a capitalism with Brazilian characteristics, simultaneously attracting foreign direct investment and raising standards of living across large sections of its population.

Whatever one makes of that choice, the PT may have effectively dug its own political ditch. The strategy, caught mid-stride, both empowered a bourgeoisie that held no loyalty to a workers’ party and left many millions behind. Along the way, PT functionaries took their cut. The soft coup by a rump of corrupt reactionaries that opened up the path to open fascist Jair Bolsonaro would have been laughed off if charges of PT corruption hadn’t held any water.

Now the neoliberal deforestation we described in our book Clear-Cutting Disease Control, driving the emergence of new outbreaks in Brazilian wildlife and human populations alike, will be let off its chain under Bolsonaro likely down to the last oxygen-producing tree.

We described some of the dynamics of what were PT-led changes in Brazilian land use. Here, (a) Ranked field size based on 1 km global IIASA-IFPRI cropland percentage map for baseline year 2005 (Geo-Wiki Cropland, Fritz et al. 2015). Huge plantations gouging the Amazon.

(b) Combinations of expansion and contraction for cropland and pasture in minimum comparable areas where both crop production and pasture production intensified, 1996–2006 (Barretto et al. 2013). Cropland and pasture growing in the Amazon even a decade ago.

(c) Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association-College Retirement Equities Fund (TIAA-CREF) farmland investments in Brazil (Rede Social de Justiça e Direitos Humanos et al. 2015). The pension fund, now called just TIAA, is investing hundreds of millions in US$ into Brazilian fund Radar Propriedades Agrícolas S/A co-created with giant sugar producer Cosan to acquire land for sugarcane and other commodity crops. Cosan manages the fund, retaining first rights to acquire parcels before Radar, through TIAA’s Brazilian subsidiary Mansilla Participacoes Ltda, and places them on the market. By 2012, Radar acquired 392 farms in Brazil of over 150,000 ha of an estimated value over US$1 billion. TIAA invests into Brazilian farmland by a second pathway: TIAA-CREF Global Agriculture LLC, a US$2 billion global farmland fund aimed at Australia, Brazil, and the USA. To circumvent Brazilian law against foreign acquisitions, TCGA invests indirectly through Tellus Brasil Participações Ltd., also managed by Cosan.

(d) Dynamic agriculture frontier in Brazilian Legal Amazon: cattle population by municipality and along road infrastructure (Pacheco and Poccard-Chapuis 2012).

(e) Urban areas as detected from nightlight glow, 1992 and 2010. Note the growing periurban infrastructure through ostensibly rural areas and deep forest (Lapola et al. 2014).

September 17, 2018

Rodents of Unusual Size; Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco

Filed under: Ecology,fashion,Film — louisproyect @ 7:23 pm

At first blush, the two documentaries “Rodents of Unusual Size” and “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” seem to have very little in common. The first is about the introduction of nutrias from Argentina into Louisiana in the 1930s, an invasive species that has wreaked havoc on the wetlands on the southern coast. The second is about a charismatic fashion illustrator who was part of the wild party scenes at places like Max’s Kansas City in New York and Club Sept in Paris in the 1970s. But what they have in common is the fashion industry and social history with fascinating glimpses into Cajun country and the cultural underground that swirled around figures such as Andy Warhol, Karl Lagerfeld and models like Grace Jones. It turns out that the nutria were introduced in order to launch a native fur industry in Depression-wracked America while Antonio Lopez was a product of the subculture of a fashion industry deeply influenced by the 1960s radicalization that unlike Depression-era has left profound markers on race, gender and sexuality. As distant as the labor struggles of the 30s seem today, the 1960s remains relevant 50 years after its passing as symbolized by the endless controversies over “diversity”.

In 1938, E.A. McIlhenny, whose Tabasco sauce is a key ingredient of Bloody Marys, started a nutria farm on Avery Island, Louisiana near his factory. For reasons unknown, he decided to release them into the wild where they began to proliferate. For the next 30 years or so, they had no big environmental impact comparable to the introduction of rabbits into Australia, another invasive species.

This was because they were a plentiful and cheap alternative to mink, chinchilla, ermine and other furs that wealthy women could afford. Trappers poured into the wetlands and bagged dozens per day, which were turned into coats in New York’s garment industry. For the wives of the men working in garment factories making mink coats, it was only nutria or muskrat that their wives could show off in Catskill hotels.

PETA changed all that when activists began to throw red paint on fur coats, not distinguishing between a 2,000 dollar mink coat and a 200 dollar nutria. This led to a collapse of the trapping industry and a mammoth expansion of the nutria population that led to vegetation being consumed to the point that swamps were turned into deserts. Under assault already from oil and gas exploration, the nutrias were destroying the natural obstacles to flooding that devastated New Orleans in 2005.

One of the victims of Hurricane Katrina was a septuagenarian fisherman whose 5 bedroom house near the shoreline was destroyed by flooding. Ironically, his part-time work trapping and shooting nutria has helped him to rebuild.

“Rodents of an Unusual Size” provides insights into the Cajun world that has had a remarkable talent for survival going back into the 19th century. We hear one man liken the local hunters to the beasts they are killing for bounty money. They feel a duty to thin their numbers in the interests of environmentalism even though they have an admiration for an animal that has become part of the local culture, to the point where sports teams use mascots resembling the 20-pound, orange-fanged rodents.

The film is currently playing at the Laemmle in Los Angeles and will open at the IFC Center in New York on October 23rd. Consult http://www.rodentsofunusualsize.tv/screenings.html for screenings elsewhere.

Now playing at the IFC in New York, “Antonio Lopez 1970: Sex Fashion & Disco” chronicles the life and times of a Puerto Rican artist who worked for Vogue Magazine and other glossy periodicals. I say the word artist advisedly since he was as much of a visionary as Andy Warhol who not only greatly admired Lopez’s work but began as a commercial artist just like him.

For those of you who were born after 1975 or so, the film might come as a surprise since it reveals the porousness between a milieu largely considered decadent and what veterans of the 1960s, like me, were all about.

Lopez was not political in an obvious way but he was the first to begin using African-American models who became part of his entourage, including Grace Jones. He was also the first to push the envelope in terms of how women were represented in his drawings. Instead of being stiff and mannequin-like, they were bold and defiant. Grace Jones represented that aesthetic perfectly.

Lopez was also a gay icon who like his good friends Karl Lagerfeld and Yves St. Laurent were open about their sexuality. Lopez, who had the faun-like appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp, loved being the center of attention and was adored by men and women alike.

He died of AIDS in 1987, although the film only mentions that close to the end. Instead, it is an affirmation of a life lived to the fullest and a testament to the spirit of the time where rebelliousness was reflected in both campus sit-ins and fashion shoots for Vogue.

September 1, 2018

Jacobin, air-conditioning, and productivist nonsense

Filed under: Ecology,Jacobin — louisproyect @ 6:32 pm

An air-conditioner

Leigh Phillips, an air-conditioner salesman

About 10 years ago, two young radicals showed up on Marxmail and soon found themselves clashing with old fogies on the list. One of them was the 19 year old Bhaskar Sunkara who unsubbed from the list to get away from all the nasty digs against Barack Obama:

I’ll be in the DSA, in the cesspool of the Democratic Party, in the mainstream unions, where the working people are, until you comrades can prove me wrong and build a viable alternative for working people and then I’ll apologize and happily join you.

The other was Leigh Phillips, whose exact age I don’t know but he was most likely a Millennial based on the evidence of photos. Phillips began defending GMO on the list, a rather brave stance to take considering the animosity most of the Marxist dinosaurs on the list feel toward chemical/industrial agriculture.

Fast forward, to use a cliché I rather detest, a decade and now we see Phillips writing articles for Jacobin, the latest being one “In Defense of Air Conditioning”. Using Marxist formulations, he makes the kind of case you can read in Spiked Online. In 2006, during a heat wave in London like the kind that we have been suffering through this year, Spiked editor-in-chief Mick Hume wrote an op-ed piece for Rupert Murdoch’s London Times that stated:

Right, get your sun-addled brain around this vicious circle. Environmentalists and the authorities argue that the recent heat waves demonstrate the extent of man-made global warming. If that’s true, then we must need more air-conditioning to cope. But oh no, they tell us, that will cause -you’ve guessed it -man-made global warming.

Verily, they want us to suffer for our sins. The old puritans cautioned only that we would burn in Hell in the next life. The neo-puritans tell us we must burn on Earth in this one.

Air-conditioning and refrigeration do indeed account for a lot of energy. But then, they are technological cornerstones of modern civilisation. Much of the world as we know it would be uninhabitable without air-con. The booming growth of the American South in the past half-century, from the metropolis of Los Angeles to the space centre of Houston, has been possible only because air-con is ubiquitous there.

While Phillips does not quite have the sneering arrogance of Hume, he does say about the same thing:

In fact, if you think about it, the abstemious green options — lifestyle changes, anti-consumption, the retreat from material demands — seem rather compatible with austerity and neoliberalism’s four-decade-long march. If the liberal good guys are all telling us we already have too much, isn’t it that much easier for the bosses to tell us the same thing?

Well, they’re wrong. Nothing’s too good for the working class, including a nice, cool, air-conned bedroom on a blazing summer’s eve. To the tumbrels with the fans of ceiling fans!

You might ask yourself why Spiked, a libertarian cult around sociology professor Frank Furedi, and Jacobin would be making the same kind of arguments. I often wonder whether Bhaskar Sunkara might have a soft spot for the magazine they put out until it went bankrupt, the casualty of being on the losing end of a £375,000 libel case. A couple of TV reporters had sued LM for accusing them of fabricating a story about Bosnians being kept in concentration camp conditions.

The magazine, originally called Living Marxism and shortened to LM in the 1980s, was sold at a bookstore near Columbia. I used to glance at it from time to time, impressed by its state-of-the-art graphics as this photo would indicate. Could Jacobin be its heir, at least visually?

But when I got past the cover, the articles were a real turn-off. Defenses of GMO, fox-hunting, unprotected sex, fast cars, nuclear power plants, assimilation of native peoples, etc. It was enough to make you throw up.

Guess who once contributed an article to Spiked Online, the successor to LM? None other than our air-conditioning advocate Leigh Phillips. Titled “A Leftwing Case Against Environmentalism”, it repeats the standard libertarian horseshit found in Spiked and its American counterpart Reason Magazine but made more palatable by radical phraseology:

Today’s campaign against economic growth and overconsumption should have no place on the left. While its current austerity-ecology incarnation appears to many progressives as a fresh, new argument fit for the Anthropocene, it is in fact the descendent of a very old, dark and Malthusian set of ideas that the left historically did battle with. It is not that our species does not face profound environmental problems. Indeed, it is precisely because human society confronts such genuine ecological threats that the focus must be on the real systemic gremlins responsible for our predicament, not growth, let alone progress, industry or even civilisation itself.

Quite the opposite of all this misanthropy is what is imperative. There will need to be more growth, more progress and more industry, and, above all, we will need to become more civilised, if we are to solve the global biocrisis.

The air-conditioning article is now the eighth written for Jacobin by Phillips. They are universally in this vein, combining a gee-whiz attitude toward science and technology reminiscent of General Electric commercials on TV in the 1950s with the sort of crude productivist version of Marxism you will find in the Spartacist League and Furedi’s sect from 25 years or so ago before its libertarian turn.

Phillips recognizes that climate change is for real, even as Spiked finally does. To understand how he differs from the revolutionary left, it is crucial to hone in on this statement: “As the climate changes, we have to place as much emphasis on adapting to the warming that is already locked in as we do in mitigating its causes. And as part of this adaptation, we should view air-conditioning in most locations as a right.”

Adapting? Mitigating its causes? Maybe the right course of action is building a mass movement that can force the corporations to stop creating greenhouse gases as part of an overall movement to expropriate the expropriators. But don’t expect Phillips to have anything to do with doom-sayers like John Bellamy Foster or Naomi Klein. His affiliations should make it clear that his solutions are within the capitalist system.

Phillips is involved with the Breakthrough Institute, a think-tank founded in 2003 by Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger. On their website you can find articles hailing fracking as a model for alternative energy development and nuclear power. The board of directors includes Reihan Salam of the National Review and Rachel Pritzker, from the Chicago billionaire clan that was one of the main backers of both the Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. So, you can see the six degrees of separation without trying too hard. Jacobin>Phillips>Pritzker>Democratic Party>Jacobin.

Phillips sees air-conditioning as a basic human right that the state should guarantee, something equivalent to health care, housing and education under socialism. Unfortunately, air-conditioning requires a different infrastructure than supplying aspirins or antibiotics. It is based on energy consumption that is creating the greenhouse gases that are heating up the world. Most people would understand that as a contradiction unless you are a latter-day Doctor Pangloss like Leigh Phillips.

He castigates a Washington Post reporter for questioning the wisdom of “Las Vegas, football in Phoenix” and other attempts to build unsustainable cities in the desert. He also defends the use of air-conditioning in shopping malls that Pope Francis included as one of the “harmful habits of consumption.”

After acknowledging the drawbacks to air-conditioning, including its huge appetite for electricity, Phillips believes that it is sustainable when alternative energy sources like nuclear power and hydroelectric dams are used. Of course, you might expect someone like Phillips to be a supporter of nuclear power but what about hydroelectric dams? Aren’t they okay? After all, “Ontario, British Columbia, and Québec have grids that are almost entirely fossil-fuel free (91 percent, 95 percent, and 99 percent clean, respectively), primarily from hydroelectric or nuclear power.”

My guess is that someone like Phillips is just as dismissive of indigenous peoples as his pals at Spiked are. For productivist freaks like Mick Hume and Leigh Phillips, what’s the point of living in “primitive” conditions. Tch-tch. So barbarian when you can move to a city in Ontario and live in an electrically heated apartment rather than in a seal-hunting village near the Arctic Circle.

In 2013, I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “The Inuit in a Melting World” that described the environmental impact on both cities and countryside by these massive dams. I cited the press notes for a documentary about Inuits living on the Belcher Islands in Canada:

Hydroelectric mega-projects near Hudson Bay send power to many cities in North America. Spring runoff from wild rivers is held behind dams and released into the bays in the winter months when energy demand is highest.

This reversal of spring runoff disrupts ocean currents and influences the dynamics of sea ice ecosystems in the bay, reversing the seasonality of the hydrological cycle. Belcher Islands residents have noticed the effects for many years, but many concerns continue to go unaddressed.

Due to winter input of freshwater from reservoirs, sea ice freezes and breaks up differently. The dynamics of these critical sea ice habitats for eiders and other wildlife, such as polar bears, are now less predictable. A number of winter die-offs of eiders have been documented, while the larger scale effects are poorly understood.

Indigenous peoples living near the dams are also in danger of being exposed to mercury, a poison that is accumulated in large bodies of water impounded behind dams as the article “Future Impacts of Hydroelectric Power Development on Methylmercury Exposures of Canadian Indigenous Communities” points out.

Finally, hydroelectric dams are a major producer of greenhouse gases, a function of the vegetation at the bottom that accumulates just like mercury before being converted into methane. The Guardian reported that a billion tons of carbon emissions are produced each year. The critical literature on hydroelectric dams is extensive. I recommend Donald Worster’s books, most of all “Rivers of Empire”.

Worster takes aim at the mega-projects associated with the New Deal, a model for the kind of socialism Jacobin contributor Corey Robin identifies with. Most of all, Worster examines the unsustainability of cities like Las Vegas and Phoenix whose air-conditioners are powered by the electricity generated by the Hoover Dam. Author of a biography of John Wesley Powell, a 19th century explorer who was the first to look closely at the Southwest, Worster describes the way in which such cities were made possible against all ecological wisdom:

In 1878, Powell published his Report on the Lands of the Arid Region, which laid out a concrete strategy for settling the West without fighting over scarce water. Powell wanted to stall the waves of homesteaders moving across the plains and mountains. Instead, he wanted to plan settlement based in part on the cooperative model practiced in Utah by Mormon settlers, who tapped mountain snowmelt and the streams, lakes and rivers it created with irrigation ditches leading to crops. Powell wanted to organize settlements around water and watersheds, which would force water users to conserve the scarce resource, because overuse or pollution would hurt everyone in the watershed. Powell believed this arrangement would also make communities better prepared to deal with attempts to usurp their water.

“Any city — Los Angeles, for example — would have had to deal with these local watershed groups and meet their terms,” Worster says. “For Powell, the water would not be taken out of the watershed or out of the basin and transferred across mountains … hundreds of miles away to allow urban growth to take place. So L.A., if it existed at all, would have been a much, much smaller entity. Salt Lake City would be smaller. Phoenix would probably not even exist.”

Powell’s utopian vision also focused on self-reliance. Farmers would spend their own money, not government funds, on the dams and canals needed to get water to them, and their use of water would be tied to their land. They wouldn’t be able to sell their water separately to cities or syndicates. But that was all too much for a nation desperate to expand, says Worster.

“A number of Western congressmen said, ‘Oh wait, whoa, this is too radical. There’s too much planning in this. There’s too much regulation. There’s too much community control. This is not the American way.’ It would interfere with rapid development. It would interfere with free enterprise.”

John Wesley Powell was a prophet. That’s the kind of people our environmentalist movement of today needs, not people shilling for the nuclear power and hydroelectric dam industries.

 

May 25, 2018

Requiem for a mountain lion

Filed under: Counterpunch,Ecology,indigenous — louisproyect @ 12:57 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, May 25, 2018

Last Saturday, an emaciated mountain lion (50 pounds underweight) killed a mountain biker on the foothills of the Cascade Range near North Bend, Washington, a small town not far from Seattle. The city’s name is an anglicization of Chief Si’ahl, a Suquamish leader best known for what was likely an apocryphal speech addressed to the territory’s governor Isaac Stevens that warned about the threats to mother nature and native peoples posed by capitalist development. It was occasioned by the 1855 Treaty of Port Elliot that Stevens forced on them at the point of a gun:

Your dead cease to love you and the homes of their nativity as soon as they pass the portals of the tomb. They wander far off beyond the stars, are soon forgotten, and never return. Our dead never forget the beautiful world that gave them being. They still love its winding rivers, its great mountains and its sequestered vales, and they ever yearn in tenderest affection over the lonely hearted living and often return to visit and comfort them.

Day and night cannot dwell together. The red man has ever fled the approach of the white man, as the changing mists on the mountain side flee before the blazing morning sun.

American history is replete with stories of Indian removal and species extinction. After all, they go hand in hand. Perhaps the first occurrence was in upstate New York in the Catskill Mountains, an area I am intimately familiar with. I grew up in Sullivan County, the home of the Borscht Belt in the southern Catskills. While I loved the countryside growing up, there were hardly any Catskill mountains to speak of. We were blessed by the presence of the Shawangunk Mountains that I could see from our living room window. After graduating high school, I entered Bard College and eventually lived in a dorm that overlooked the Catskill Mountains proper just across the Hudson River.

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May 6, 2018

The birds, the bees, and Holden Caulfield

Filed under: Ecology — louisproyect @ 9:28 pm

In “Catcher in the Rye”, one sign of Holden Caulfield’s looming nervous breakdown is his worries over the ducks in Central Park:

The funny thing is, though, I was sort of thinking of something else while I shot the bull. I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go. I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

The title of the novel stems from Holden’s misreading of Robert Burns’s “Comin’ Through the Rye”. He sees himself as protector of children playing in a huge rye field near a cliff. If he can’t catch children as they come to the edge, they will die. In my mind, his worries over the ducks and the children amount to the same thing.

Those who don’t care about the ducks and the children are “phonies” in Holden’s world, including a girl named Sally who is much more comfortable with 50s values than him. When she goes out on a date with Holden, he asks her to blow off the city and come live in a cabin with him, like Henry David Thoreau. He said that would be a lot better than becoming typical New Yorkers who “are working in some office, making a lot of dough, and riding to work in cabs and Madison Avenue buses, and reading newspapers…”

For people my age, the novel connected deeply in the same way that “On the Road” did. Holden Caulfield, Jack Kerouac and even James Dean in “Rebel without a Cause” rejected the “straight” world. Holden even dreams about moving to someplace in the Southwest and getting a job as a gas station attendant. Getting back to nature in the 1950s was equivalent to being connected to the ducks that Holden worried about. Leave everything behind and move to Vermont where such birds can be found, as well as the bees and the bats.

65 years later, Holden might have found out that there was no place to go to since Mother Nature was in danger of being destroyed just like those kids in the rye field. They are being destroyed by the “phonies”, especially those whose class interests the White House defends.

Starting with the seabirds, there are signs that they are headed toward extinction because of overfishing and climate change as the Guardian reported on December 12, 2017. The numbers of kittiwakes have fallen by up to 90 percent because overfishing and changes in the Pacific and north Atlantic caused by climate change have affected the availability of sand eels which black-legged kittiwakes feed on during the breeding season.

The black-legged kittiwake

If it isn’t climate change and overfishing, seabirds have to contend with plastic that kills millions of marine bird species each year. The albatross is particularly vulnerable since they use their beak to skim the surface, picking plastic up along the way. Up to 98 percent of the albatross that have been studied have plastic debris in their gut. Once ingested, it can obstruct the digestive tract and can puncture internal organs.

Dead albatross with plastic in its gut

If civilization needs plastic, it also needs electric lights that are used in urban centers at night to show off skyscrapers to the public. The allure of beams and bulbs can be a death sentence for migratory birds when they reach metropolises like New York. Drawn by the light, they collide into buildings at an alarming rate. Between 100 million and 1 billion birds crash into buildings across North America every year with some deaths caused by reflective windows during the day and others by bright lights at night.

Finally, there is industrial farming that is based on commodity production. In both Europe and the USA, monoculture cash crops such as soybeans, corn and wheat require extensive use of pesticides to kill the insects that birds feed on. In 2013, the Guardian reported on the drastic decline of birds in England, the country where industrial farming was born. “Numbers of the farmland-dwelling grey partridge have halved since 1995, while the turtle dove has declined by 95%. The yellow wagtail, which inhabits farm and wetland, has declined by 45% over the same period.” The deaths are not only a result of insects being reduced but also by birds feeding on crops that have been sprayed by a type of chemical known as neonicotinoids.

Neonicotinoids are also responsible for bees dying off. Derived from nicotine (what else would you expect), they have a tendency to show up in pollen besides the cash crops they are used to protect. You can find the residue in clover and wildflowers nearby the cash crop fields, especially corn.

I suppose people like Donald Trump and Scott Pruitt could give less of a shit whether an albatross lives or dies but the extinction of honey bees is a direct threat to our ability to reproduce as a species. More than two-thirds of key crops require naturally occurring pollinators such as the honeybee. This includes coffee, cacao, and many fruits and vegetables. It will also have an impact on drinking water since a disappearance of trees will inhibit the retention ofmwater. Some scientists worry that homo sapiens can become extinct within a few hundred years if honeybees go extinct.

Why should I worry about extinction? At my age, I am facing my personal extinction before very long. I guess it is some kind of neurotic obsession thinking about how we are going to last another three hundred years let alone the billion years that will usher in an expanding sun that will evaporate all the water on earth and kill every single living thing. That doesn’t take into account an asteroid hitting earth long before that and doing a number on us like it did to the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

Like Holden Caulfield, I fret over the kids near the cliff and the ducks. If we could at least manage our resources intelligently, we’d have an outside chance of surviving. But with people like Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin in charge of an irrational system, rationality does not go very far.

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