We can do better than capitalist formal “democracy”

An article I read shortly after Jacinda Ardern’s re-election in New Zealand noted, with a touch of weariness, that Labour’s victory came after a campaign measured in “weeks.” Folks there ought to count themselves lucky — the United States has endured years of campaigning in what has proved, to the surprise of no one, its nastiest presidential contest in memory.

Not to mention that the sclerotic U.S. political system has yet again thrown up two dismal choices, sadly reiterating that the two major parties offer a choice of extreme right (Republican) and center-right (Democrats). And although a common lament is that a third party is needed, one that might actually represent the interests of the majority of United Statesians, very few seriously considering pulling the lever for an alternative party, and the number of those who actually do are likely to be less than usual, given the understandably fervent desire to push Donald Trump out of the White House.

Millions will hold their noses while voting for Joe Biden. The lesser evil is still evil, especially given former Vice President Biden’s dismal record of war mongering, acting as an errand boy for big banks and turbo-charging the prison-industrial complex. So why does the U.S. not only offer such abysmal choices, but seemingly worse ones every four years?

Ultimately, the stranglehold of capital on all aspects of U.S. institutions, the ability of industrialists and financiers to buy Republican and Democratic politicians and their ownership of the news media makes the idea of “democracy” a farce. But the U.S. is a formal democracy, not yet a fascist dictatorship (despite the wishes of Trump), so theoretically it is possible for a popular movement to elevate a candidate pursuing progressive goals.

Cherry Blossoms in Washington during March (photo by Sarah H.)

Not so easy, of course, as the Democratic Party leadership, obeying the wishes of its corporate benefactors, did all it could to oppose the rise of Bernie Sanders — and Senator Sanders is merely an FDR-style liberal, not actually a socialist (despite what he calls himself). That a platform emulating the time that the party enjoyed its biggest congressional majorities is now beyond the pale speaks volumes. Even if Senator Sanders had been able to win the presidential nomination, corporate Democrats would undoubtedly have undermined his candidacy; party leaders like Hillary Clinton made it clear they would have rather seen Trump win re-election than see Senator Sanders win. Just as we saw in Britain, where Labour potentates, and far from only Blairites, clearly preferred to lose to the Conservatives rather than win with Jeremy Corbyn.

But beyond the sad spectacle of Democratic fealty to Wall Street and Republican worship of industrialists, the U.S. system, as currently constructed, is as foolproof a system of maintaining elite power as exists in any capitalist formal democracy. It’s only partly due to the U.S. being saddled with an anachronistic Constitution hopelessly out of date, a document that cements this corporate lockbox. Not that the Constitution should be overlooked; the U.S. Senate is the world’s most undemocratic legislative body (Wyoming, with 570,000 people, and California, with 39 million, both have two members) and the Electoral College allows a minority of voters to elect a candidate with a minority of votes (a presidential vote in Wyoming counts three times more than a vote in New York).

A president who received nearly 3 million votes less than his opponent in 2016 is enabled by a Senate in which the controlling party received a cumulative 20 million votes less than their opponents and is able to pack a Supreme Court with extremists out of step with majority opinion (an unelected Supreme Court that is a political super-legislature with powers far beyond those possessed by other countries’ high courts).

Choice is an illusion in a two-party system

The foregoing are certainly serious contributors to the backward U.S. political system, easily the worst among all advanced capitalist countries and worse than plenty of others elsewhere in the world. And we haven’t even touched on the pathetic unwillingness of Democrats to stand up for whatever it is they believe in and the party’s bizarre tendency to “stand up” to its base, products of the intellectual dead end of liberalism. Nonetheless, the ultimate reason for the two-party system is the U.S. system of single-seat, winner-take-all representation.

Until some form of proportional representation is enacted, United Statesians will be stuck with their deadening two-party system.

A representative body based on districts each with one representative is a closed system. With two entrenched parties contesting for a single seat, there is no room for a third party to emerge. Campaigns for elections to these bodies can be conducted on larger national issues or on the basis of an important local issue, but the tendency is for these elections to become contests between personalities. If the personality representing the other party is objectionable, or the other party is objectionable, then voting is reduced to the “lesser of two evils.”

The Hague (photo by Alphaomega)

The advantage of the two-party system (for its beneficiaries) is that is offers the illusion of choice, in contrast to one-party systems. This “choice” is illusory because capitalists, through the concentrated power amassed in their corporations and the ability of those capitalists to suffuse their ideologies into other institutions, restrict the scope of debate within boundaries acceptable to them — ideas that question their dominance are far outside those boundaries. Still, there is much more scope for the contesting of ideas and for serious acknowledgement of problems and devising solutions than in a one-party system. Individual political figures can be voted out of office, unlike in a one-party system, and although changing personalities does not in itself change the system in any way, it does provide a safety valve.

Voting for a party or an individual becomes a sterile exercise in ensuring the other side doesn’t win. From the point of view of the candidates and parties, the safest strategy is one of peeling away voters from the only other viable candidate, thereby encouraging platforms to be close to that of the other viable candidate, promoting a tendency to lessen differences between the two dominant parties.

Personalities over substance

With little to distinguish the two parties, the importance of personality becomes more important, further blurring political ideas, and yet third choices are excluded because of the factors that continue to compel a vote for one of the two major-party candidates. In turn, such a system sends people to representative bodies on the basis of their personalities, encouraging those personalities to grandstand and act in an egocentric manner once they are seated. These personalities are dependent on corporate money to get into and remain in office, and the parties they are linked to are equally dependent — the views of those with the most money are the views that are going to be heard. And if the district boundaries can be redrawn any which way periodically, the two parties can work together (since they control all political institutions) so that both have “safe” seats, or if one party is much more willing to employ bare-knuckles tactics than the other, it draws the lines to benefit itself.

The two parties nonetheless compete fiercely to win elections. They represent different groupings within the capitalist class — Republicans favor industrialists and Democrats favor financiers. This is a closed competition: They act as a cartel to keep corporate money rolling in and other parties out. These are the underlying reasons for the stability of a two-party system — replacing it with a multiple-party system would require fundamentally changing political structures.

Most any other system would be more democratic. Not altogether democratic as long as capitalism exists (the built-in inequalities and power imbalances can’t be wished away but must be eliminated through the construction of a better world), but at least an improvement.

One system increasingly being experimented with is ranked-choice voting, also known as instant runoff. In this system, a voter ranks as many candidates as she or he likes. If no candidate wins a majority of first-choice votes, the candidate with the least number of votes is eliminated, and the second choices of ballots choosing the eliminated candidate are then added to the remaining candidates; this can be done multiple times until someone has a majority. In this system, a voter can vote for who they really wish to see take office and rank the “lesser evil” second to keep the “greater evil” out. Australia uses this system but because its House of Representatives uses a winner-take-all, single-seat districts, there is an effective two-party system there (the Liberal/National coalition and Labor), although 14 of the 151 seats are held by minor parties or independents.

This system is an improvement, but it’s not the panacea its promoters promote it as. Using it for single-seat, winner-take-all districts leaves the system of two dominant corporate parties intact, continues to allow them to draw district boundaries to their benefit and only very marginally increases the long odds of a third party winning. At best, this is tinkering with a fatally flawed system.

If you want more choices, you need proportional representation

Multi-party systems can only exist where there is proportional representation, no matter the content of a constitution, even if a constitution never mentions parties.

Some parliamentary systems use a combination of some seats representing districts and some seats being elected on a proportional basis from a list either on a national basis or from large subdivisions. This allows voters to vote for a specific candidate and for a party at the same time. There is more scope for smaller parties here, and this type of system generally features several viable parties, depending on what threshold is set for the proportional-representation seats. Germany, New Zealand and Scotland use this system.

There can be two dominant parties in this system (as is the case in Germany and New Zealand), but the major parties often must govern with a smaller party in a coalition or even in a clumsy coalition with each other (thus, Germany’s tendency to produce periodic “grand coalition” governments). Parties in a coalition government will run on separate platforms and maintain separate identities — the next coalition might feature a different lineup. The rules can be set to make it difficult for any party to achieve a majority, as New Zealand and Scotland do, and thus encourage coalition governments. (Labour’s victory this month in New Zealand marked the first time a party won a majority on its own since this system was adopted.)

The city of Wellington (photo by John Ted Daganato)

Some countries fill all parliamentary seats on the basis of proportional representation. Each party supplies a list of candidates equal to the number of available seats; the top 20 names on the list from a party that wins 20 seats gain entry. This is a system that allows minorities to be represented — if a party wins 20 percent of the vote, it earns 20 percent of the seats. However, if the cutoff limit is set too high (as is the case in Turkey, where ten percent is needed), then smaller parties find it difficult to win seats and voters are incentivized to vote for a major party. Thus even in this system it is possible for only two or three parties to win all seats and a party that wins less than 50 percent of the vote can nonetheless earn a majority of seats because the seats are proportioned among only the two or three parties whose vote totals are above the cutoff.

A low cutoff better represents the spectrum of opinion and allows more parties to be seated. Governments of coalitions are the likely result of such a system, which encourages negotiation and compromise. The most common thresholds are three or five percent of the vote, but cutoffs can be lower. In the Netherlands, a party need only win 0.67 percent — the country is a single constituency with 150 seats. Thirteen parties currently have seats in the parliament.

Do we really have to limit ourselves to geography?

Such a system in itself doesn’t guarantee full participation by everybody; a national, ethnic or religious majority, even if that majority routinely elects several members of a parliament, can still be subjected to legal oppression. The threshold to win a seat in the Israeli Parliament has been set as low as one percent, and no party has ever won a majority, but that hasn’t prevented the consolidation of an apartheid state that renders Palestinians third-class citizens. The most open legislative system must be augmented by a constitution with enforceable guarantees for all.

Still another variant on parliamentary representation are multiple-seat districts. Voters cast ballots for as many candidates as there are seats — a minority group in a district should be able to elect at least one of their choice to a seat. This is a system that also has room for multiple parties, and with several viable parties in the running, votes are likely to be distributed in a way that no single party can win all seats in a given district. Ireland seats three to five members of the Dáil from each constituency, and additionally uses a form of ranked-choice voting known as “single-transferable vote” in which a voter can rank as many or as few of the candidates in his or her constituency as wished. All but four of the 39 constituencies seated at least three parties.

One way to ensure that multiple parties will be seated might be to limit the number of candidates any party can run to a number lower than the total number of seats. More than one party is then guaranteed to win representation. There is such a stipulation in the District of Columbia — two of 13 seats are reserved for candidates not affiliated with the dominant Democratic Party. But that is not a guarantee that small parties will be represented. Both non-Democratic seats are currently held by independents, one of whom was previously a failed Democratic candidate. Members of the DC Statehood Party, however, have held seats in the past.

Of course we need not limit ourselves to traditional parliaments. Councils representing workplaces or other non-geographic constituencies were organized in revolutionary situations across the 20th century. Yugoslavia had a Chamber of Producers, elected from workers’ councils, one of two chambers in the federal parliament, from 1953 to 1963. For the next several years, Yugoslavia seated a five-chamber legislature! One chamber was the Council of Nationalities (10 members from each of six republic and five from the two autonomous provinces, a setup designed to dampen ethnic rivalries); the other four chambers included representatives from citizens by their economic or social-political function (economy, education and culture, welfare and health and organizational-political chamber). Unfortunately, the five-chamber federal legislature was not fully democratic because its members were delegated by members of lower bodies; there were direct elections only at the local level.

The human imagination can surely conceive of still more representative bodies. But future designers of political structures will need to eliminate single-seat, U.S.-style electoral districts — and overturn capitalism — if we are to ever had legislatures that are responsive to non-manipulated popular will.

Class warfare intensifies as labor rights violated around the world

As bad as conditions have traditionally been for labor worldwide, 2020 has seen conditions deteriorate even more. As in past years, there is not a single country on Earth that fully protects workers’ rights. And although every country continues to violate labor rights, the extent of those violations grows, continuing a sad pattern of class warfare.

The International Trade Union Confederation has issued its annual Global Rights Index, and only 12 countries managed to be listed in the Index’s top ranking, the countries that are merely “sporadic” violators of rights. But those countries are hardly paradises (this is capitalism, after all). One of those dozen, the Netherlands, had no less than seven of its corporations listed among companies violating workers’ rights. Those were not necessarily isolated instances. The report said, “In the Netherlands, unions observed an increasing trend to shift from sectoral agreements to company agreements with the intent of minimising labour costs in return for employability. Companies often used the competitiveness and employability argument with their employees to incite them to accept lower conditions of work at the enterprise level. In addition, companies, including Ryanair, Transavia, Jumbo Supermarkets, Gall & Gall, Action and Lidl supermarkets, tended to circumvent collective bargaining with representative unions.”

If that represents the “best” of conditions for working people, the world is a mighty unfair place. Which it obviously is, given the ever more intense pressure bearing down on working people as the neoliberal era continues to make capitalism ever more miserable for those whose work produces the profits swelling the pockets of industrialists and financiers.

As in past years, the Global Rights Index report divides the world’s countries into five categories with increasing levels of rights violations. They are as follows:

  • 1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries including Germany, Ireland, Norway and Uruguay (green on map above).
  • 2. Repeated violations of rights: 26 countries including Canada, France, Japan and New Zealand (yellow on map).
  • 3. Regular violations of rights: 24 countries including Argentina, Australia, Britain and South Africa (light orange on map).
  • 4. Systematic violations of rights: 41 countries including Chile, Mexico, Nigeria and the United States (dark orange on map).
  • 5. No guarantee of rights: 32 countries including Brazil, China, Colombia and Turkey (red on map).
  • 5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including Libya and Syria (dark red on map).

Hypocritical finger-wagging

Consistent with past years of the Global Rights Index, the United States, which loves to hold itself up as an exemplar of democracy and civil rights, is among the lowest-ranking countries — the U.S. has consistently had a ranking of 4 for “systemic” violations. The International Trade Union Confederation, in supplemental materials discussing U.S. violations, noted that the National Labor Relations Board has made a series of anti-union rulings, including allowing retaliation against striking Wal-Mart workers, while U.S. law permits anti-union discrimination, restricts workers’ rights to form unions of their own choosing, and places severe barriers against union organizing. 

The United Kingdom, second only to the U.S. in regular scolding of other countries, is ranked in the middle of the pack, same as a year ago. The report’s discussion of Britain reported “the number of people employed on a stand-by basis, ‘zero-hour contracts,’ at between 200,000 to 250,000 which demonstrates the prevalence of underemployment in the UK. Under these contracts employees have to be available for work but are not guaranteed a minimum number of hours. These contracts create income insecurity for workers and also undermine family life.” Additionally, the report noted multiple barriers to British union organizing.

Canada, although ranked higher than Britain or the U.S., is no paradise despite the image its governments like to project. The report noted that in Canada there are many categories of workers, ranging from domestics to professionals, barred from organizing, and there are severe legal restrictions limiting the right to strike.

A Wal-Mart protester is led away during a Black Friday action in Sacramento, California. (Photo via Making Change at Walmart.)

Globally, the report states that violations of workers’ rights are at a seven-year high. Direct attacks on unions highlight the degradation:

“The trends by governments and employers to restrict the rights of workers through violations of collective bargaining and the right to strike, and excluding workers from unions, have been made worse in 2020 by an increase in the number of countries which impede the registration of unions — denying workers both representation and rights. … A new trend identified in 2020 shows a number of scandals over government surveillance of trade union leaders, in an attempt to instil fear and put pressure on independent unions and their members.”

The global pandemic has only made conditions worse:

“These threats to workers, our economies and democracy were endemic in workplaces and countries before the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted lives and livelihoods. In many countries, the existing repression of unions and the refusal of governments to respect rights and engage in social dialogue has exposed workers to illness and death and left countries unable to fight the pandemic effectively.”

Class warfare goes on and on and on

Some of the sobering statistics gathered by the International Trade Union Confederation tell a grim story:

  • 85 percent of countries violated the right to strike.
  • 80 percent of countries violated the right to collectively bargain.
  • Workers were arrested and detained in 61 countries.
  • Workers experienced violence in 51 countries.

The Confederation, which describes itself as a coalition of “national trade union centres” encompassing 332 affiliated organizations in 163 countries and territories, determines its ratings by checking adherence to a list of 97 standards derived from International Labour Organization conventions. Those 97 standards pertain to civil liberties, the right to establish or join unions, trade union activities, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.

The Confederation’s report is one more illustration of the race to the bottom. The International Labour Organization estimates that more than 470 million people worldwide were unemployed, underemployed or “marginally attached to the workforce” in a report issued in January 2020, with 2 billion people (61 percent of the global workforce!) informally employed. That report was issued just before the Covid-19 pandemic took hold, triggering a dramatic economic crash that had been overdue, thanks to the instability of capitalism that regularly causes downturns. Inequality and lower pay are endemic around the world, and the costs of housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, rises far faster than incomes. The continual imposition of austerity on working people contrasts dramatically with the trillions of dollars thrown at financiers and industrialists since the pandemic began.

Capitalism promises nothing but more one-sided class warfare. We’re long past due to try something different.

Business as usual equals many extra deaths from global warming

Is it already too late to stop global warming? That question is not asked with thoughts of throwing up hands in despair and giving up. Rather, that question must be asked in the context of mitigating future damage to whatever degree might yet be possible.

The context here is that the carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases thrown into the atmosphere don’t magically disappear but will have effects that will persist for centuries. A ton saved today is a ton saved tomorrow.

There are the mass disruptions that humanity will almost certainly see from dramatic rises in sea levels and the disruptions to agricultural patterns and sea life. Then there is the human health impact. In what its authors say is the most detailed attempt yet undertaken to quantify what the future cost of global warming will be in terms of mortality, a new scientific paper predicts the future will see significant increases in deaths.

Sixteen researchers, collaborating on a National Bureau of Economic Research paper titled “Valuing the Global Mortality Consequences of Climate Change Accounting for Adaptation Costs and Benefits,” estimate that under “business as usual” — that is, Earth’s current trend of steadily increasing greenhouse gas emissions continues — there would be 85 extra deaths per 100,000 people annually by the end of the 21st century. To put that statistic in perspective, all the world’s cancers currently are responsible for 125 deaths per 100,000 people, according to World Health Organization data. Or to be put it another way, the 85 extra deaths represent a toll comparable to the global total of deaths from infectious diseases in 2018.

Baffin Island in the Canadian arctic (photo by Doc Searls)

As would be expected, the increased deaths will be disproportionally suffered in the Global South. Although the financial cost of mitigation is predicted to be higher in the advanced capitalist countries than elsewhere, the easing of cold weather in winter months might actually cause death rates to decline in high-latitude, high-income locations. The authors put that possibility in stark terms with this comparison:

“The costs of climate change induced mortality risks are distributed unevenly around the world. Despite the gains from adaptation … there are large increases in mortality risk in the global south. For example, in Accra, Ghana, climate change is predicted to cause damages equivalent to approximately 160 additional deaths per 100,000 annually under [the business as usual scenario] in 2100. In contrast, there are gains in many impact regions in the global north, including in Oslo, Norway, where we predict that the equivalent of approximately 230 lives per 100,000 are saved annually. These changes are equal to an 18% increase in Accra’s annual mortality rate and a 28% decline in Oslo’s.”

And thus their conclusion that “Today’s poor bear a disproportionately high share of the global mortality risks of climate change, as current incomes (as well as current average temperatures) are strongly correlated with future climate change impacts.” In other words, those least responsible for global warming will pay the highest price for it.

To make these predictions, the authors gathered mortality statistics from 41 countries accounting for 55 percent of the world’s population, which they say enables them to have put together a more comprehensive analysis than previously attempted by earlier studies.

It won’t be pretty for our descendants

In a different scenario, under which greenhouse gases are stabilized in coming years, the expected number of excess deaths would be less, although still concentrated in the Global South. Under this scenario, the amount of carbon dioxide equivalent is presumed to stabilize at above 500 parts per million (ppm), and although that is far less than the “business as usual” scenario, it should be remembered that today’s carbon dioxide equivalent content is 407 ppm. And that is with the recent downward blip thanks to the pandemic. To use non-scientific terminology for what would happen in a 500 ppm world, our descendants will be screwed.

To have a hope of keeping the eventual total of global warming from the start of the Industrial Revolution to under 2 degrees Celsius, considered the outside limit before uncontrollable, catastrophic environmental disruptions are triggered, atmospheric greenhouse gases will have to be held to not much more than present-day levels and then brought down.

Without a drastic change, soon, in global output of greenhouse gases — and no such change is anywhere in sight — even the scenario of stabilizing greenhouse gases at 500 ppm seems out of reach. But even if we could suddenly convert to a carbon-neutral economy and cease adding net gains to atmospheric greenhouse gases, it may already be too late. More worrisome still, the effects of global warming are occurring faster than expected.

The Arctic is warming two to three times faster than Earth is overall. The resulting faster than expected loss of land ice contributes to a faster sea level rise and the loss of sea ice adds to global warming in a feedback loop. That’s because a dark ocean surface absorbs solar radiation up to 10 times more readily than the brighter sea ice surface. In a 2019 paper, “Radiative Heating of an Ice-Free Arctic Ocean,” published in Geophysical Research Letters, three oceanographers and atmospheric researchers calculate that if the Arctic Ocean becomes ice-free, the loss of the ice’s reflective power radiating solar energy back into space would be the equivalent to adding one trillion tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. That would be roughly equal to adding 25 years of additional global CO emissions.

Although an ice-free Arctic Ocean is still generally predicted to be well into the future, that future might arrive much sooner than expected. Scientists at the British Antarctic Survey, publishing this week in the journal Nature Climate Change, believe it is possible for the Arctic to be ice-free as soon as 2035, a possibility based on study of Arctic sea ice during the last interglacial period, when Arctic land summer temperatures were 4 to 5 degrees C. higher than the pre-industrial baseline. By one measure, current temperatures above 60 degrees north latitude have already risen about 3 degrees C. since 1900.

There’s plenty of bad news to go around

As it is, predictions of what the world will look like are increasingly dire. For example, a 2015 paper by nine scientists led by geologist Andrea Dutton at the University of Florida published in the journal Science found that when global temperatures in the past were between 1 and 2 degrees C. above the pre-industrial base temperature, sea levels rose six to nine meters. What that finding means is that humanity may have already committed itself to an eventual sea level rise of that magnitude.

Need more? A 2016 paper published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, authored by 19 climate scientists from the United States, France, Germany and China and led by James Hansen, predicts that the melted freshwater from melting glaciers will add to the other scenarios to create a feedback loop that could culminate in a sea level rise of “several meters” in 50 to 150 years.

Still another paper, “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Effects and Consequences,” concludes that the mean global ocean temperature will increase by as much as 4 degrees C. by 2100. This 2016 paper states that Earth has tipped into a heat imbalance since 1970, and this excess heating has thus far been greatly ameliorated because the world’s oceans have absorbed 93 percent of the enhanced heating since the 1970s. This accumulated heat is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming. Dozens of climate scientists from around the world contributed peer-reviewed work to this report, research that in turn is based on more than 500 peer-reviews papers.

There is plenty more, but perhaps the foregoing is sufficient. And so what is the world doing? Very little. The December 2019 meeting of the Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (COP 25) in Madrid concluded with the world’s governments saying the conference “Notes with concern the state of the global climate system” and “Decides to hold, at its twenty-sixth (2020) and twenty-seventh (2021) sessions, round tables among Parties and non-Party stakeholders on pre-2020 implementation and ambition.” The time for “noting” there may be a problem would seem to be well past. A year earlier, at COP24 in Katowice, Poland, the world’s governments agreed to a rulebook with no real enforcement mechanism. And at COP23 in Bonn, participants congratulated themselves for their willingness to talk and agreed they would talk some more.

And so it goes, as Kurt Vonnegut liked to say. We are fortunate that hot air from political leaders doesn’t add to global warming, however weighed down they are by the piles of corporate money that keep “solutions” at the level of talking rather than action. Our descendants are not likely to be amused.

The political economy of Covid-19

Governments around the world are attempting to prop up a failing capitalist system by — surprise! — throwing money at wealthy individuals and corporations, especially in the financial industry. In other words, in this time of unprecedented crisis and economic difficulty, it’s business as usual.

We were here not much more than a decade ago, although the rise in unemployment has been more dramatic than during the economic collapse of 2008. That global economic crisis was a long time coming but was inevitable for anyone willing to pay attention. During the 1990s stock-market bubble, traders repeatedly said the dramatic price rises could not last, but as long as the consensus view was that the long bull market would continue they were not going to step off the ride. When the bubble did burst, new forms of speculation kept the financial industry’s party going for several more years. Credit was the lubricant for the later round, both inflating a real estate bubble and enabling consumer spending to continue in the face of declining wages, until the speculation became unsustainable.

No more bubbles to inflate, governments representing the world’s four largest economies alone committed US$16.3 trillion in 2008 and 2009 on bailouts of the financiers who brought down the global economy and, to a far smaller extent, for economic stimulus. Those commitments included $11 trillion for the U.S. (where money thrown at capitalists far exceeded the $700 billion in the Troubled Assets Relief Program), $4 trillion for the European Union, $750 billion for Japan and $600 billion for China. Smaller economies did that too. The Reserve Bank of Australia shoveled A$1.8 billion (US$1.5 billion at the then exchange rate) at financiers to shore up its banking system. The Reserve Bank of India did the same, handing out 60 billion rupees (US$1.3 billion).

Cherry blossoms in Washington (photo by Sarah H. from USA)

All that was simply to deal with the immediate crisis of 2008. As stagnation continued, many of the world’s most prominent central banks decided to throw new gigantic sums of money at the financial industry. Specifically, through programs known by the technical name of “quantitative easing.” What that is are central banks buying in massive amounts bonds issued by their own governments, corporate bonds and/or mortgage-backed securities. For all the talk of the world’s governments taking “unprecedented” measures to deal with the dramatic economic crash triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic, most of the money being committed is in the form of new quantitative easing.

An economic song and dance

The supposed purpose of quantitative-easing programs is to stimulate the economy by encouraging investment. Under this theory, a reduction in long-term interest rates would encourage working people to buy or refinance homes; encourage businesses to invest because they could borrow cheaply; and push down the value of the currency, thereby boosting exports by making locally made products more competitive.

In actuality, quantitative-easing programs cause the interest rates on bonds to fall because of the resulting distortion in demand for them, enabling bond sellers to offer lower interest rates. Seeking assets with a better potential payoff, speculators buy stock instead, driving up stock prices and inflating a stock-market bubble. Money not used in speculation ends up parked in bank coffers, boosting bank profits, or is borrowed by businesses to buy back more of their stock, another method of driving up stock prices without making any investments.

By any standard, we are indeed talking about massive amounts of money. Just on “quantitative easing” alone, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank, Bank of England and Bank of Japan spent approximately US$9.36 trillion, or, if you prefer, €8.3 trillion, in the years following the 2008 collapse. Here’s a breakdown:

  • The Federal Reserve spent $4.1 trillion in three QE programs that ended in November 2014.
  • The European Central Bank spent €2.6 trillion on its QE programs, which only concluded at the end of 2018.
  • The Bank of England spent £375 billion on its QE program.
  • The Bank of Japan has spent north of ¥200 trillion; precise figures are not available. Japan’s QE has been so large and long-lasting that the Bank of Japan now owns assets valued at more than the entire country’s economy.

Think of all the social needs that could have been fixed for such sums. For example, the British think tank Policy Exchange estimated in 2015 that Britain’s needs for investment in transportation, communication and water infrastructure to be a minimum of £170 billion. That is less than half of what the Bank of England spent on its quantitative-easing scheme. The U.S. could have wiped out all student debt, fixed all the schools, rebuilt aging water and sewer systems, cleaned up contaminated industrial sites and repaired dams — all for $700 billion less than what was spent on quantitative easing.

Given this recent history — by no means an aberration in the history of these capitalist governments — it is no surprise that relief for the economic crash caused by Covid-19 has been largely directed at corporate boardrooms and the bank accounts of the wealthy.

Stimulus packages to deal with pandemic, but who gets stimulated?

The Federal Reserve, like most central banks, is “independent” of the rest of government. The reason given is to avoid “political interference,” but in reality so the elites of financial institutions can continue to do whatever they want without consequence. But as is customary, the Federal Reserve doesn’t act in a vacuum; Congress and the White House are also doing what they can to shovel gigantic sums of money at financiers and industrialists.

So far, Congress has passed two stimulus packages that were signed into law, one in late March and the second in April. A third has been passed by the House of Representatives, but the Senate has shown no inclination to take it up and there is reason to doubt House Democrats are actually serious about this last effort.

The first stimulus is the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act, worth $2 trillion, which was signed into law on March 27. This is the act that resulted in United Statesians receiving one-time $1,200 checks from the federal government. Considering that the average monthly rent in most cities of the United States is more than that, those checks are tokens that serve to obscure where most of the money went. It wasn’t to households left without work.

The Federal Reserve (photo by Stefan Fussan)

A second stimulus bill was passed and signed into law on April 24 and is worth another $500 billion. Most of the money in this second stimulus bill was earmarked for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), a loan program in the CARES Act intended for small businesses that may be forgiven if firms use them to keep workers on payroll; the PPP had run out of money in two weeks. Democrats said they wanted money in this round to go to state governments struggling with suddenly shrinking tax revenue but, as is their custom, immediately capitulated when Republicans said no.

The CARES Act included $250 billion to bolster unemployment insurance, $500 billion in aid for industry and state governments, other monies going directly to specific industries and $350 billion for the PPP. Sounds nice, yes? Appearances and reality, however, diverge.

Before the second, supplemental stimulus package was passed, it had already become apparent that much of the stimulus money was going to Big Business. And that was not all, as yet more tax cuts for large corporations were included in the CARES Act. According to Democracy Now, “A congressional committee reports tax provisions in the coronavirus stimulus passed by Congress last month will overwhelmingly benefit the wealthiest Americans. Four out of five tax filers benefiting from the $70 billion temporary tax loophole are millionaires or billionaires. They’ll receive an average windfall of $1.6 million — dwarfing the $1,200 payments for working Americans.”

Manipulation of Paycheck Protection Program

Meanwhile, much of the PPP money didn’t go to mom-and-pop businesses forced to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic. At least 75 publicly traded companies received funds from the PPP, which is supposed to help small businesses. The Associated Press reports:

“The Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to infuse small businesses, which typically have less access to quick cash and credit, with $349 billion in emergency loans that could help keep workers on the job and bills paid on time. But at least 75 companies that received the aid were publicly traded, the AP found, and some had market values well over $100 million. And 25% of the companies had warned investors months ago — while the economy was humming along — that their ability to remain viable was in question. By combing through thousands of regulatory filings, the AP identified the 75 companies as recipients of a combined $300 million in low-interest, taxpayer-backed loans. Eight companies, or their subsidiaries, received the maximum $10 million possible, including a California software company that settled a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation late last year into accounting errors that overstated its revenue.”

Even the Big Business cheerleaders at the CNBC business news cable channel reported that “Hundreds of millions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program emergency funding have been claimed by large, publicly traded companies, new research published by Morgan Stanley shows.” This report estimated that at least $243.4 million of the total $349 billion handed out in the PPP as of April 21 — by which time the PPP had already run out of money — went to publicly traded companies.

The above figures might be an underestimate; a later Washington Post report said “hundreds” of publicly traded companies have received a composite of more than $1 billion in PPP funding, although some of that money has been returned under public pressure. Eighty percent of applicants were left with nothing after funding ran out.

Published reports differ in determining the number of inappropriate recipients of PPP money because there is little accountability. One reason for that, beyond the usual wanting to shield favored donors from public scrutiny, might be that several members of Congress have themselves received PPP money. The Trump administration is refusing to provide information; it would not be a surprise to find there is something to hide there as well. Politico reports that “at least four members of Congress have reaped benefits,” and the actual total might be higher. “It’s a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have acknowledged close ties to companies that have received loans from the program — businesses that are either run by their families or employ their spouse as a senior executive,” Politico reports, naming two Democrats (Susie Lee of Nevada and Debbie Mucarsel Powell of Florida) and two Republicans (Roger Williams of Texas and Vicky Hartzler of Missouri).

Tax breaks for the one percent slipped into stimulus

One tax break inserted into the second stimulus bill only applies to companies with revenue of $25 million and another provision lets people in households earning at least $500,000 a year deduct even more of their business losses from stock market profits, The New York Times reports. These deductions will enable the recipients to reduce what they owe in capital gains taxes. Victor Fleischer, a tax law professor at the University of California, Irvine, told the Times, “Many of the tax benefits in the stimulus are ‘just shoveling money to rich people.’ ”

And given the grifters who occupy the White House, it will come as no surprise that there are special benefits for the owners of real estate. One of the goodies stuffed into the stimulus packages will allow people who own their businesses through partnerships or other similar structures to use all of the losses they claim on paper to offset taxes they might otherwise owe from other income, such as stock market profits, eliminating a cap on how much of those losses could be used. These partnerships can be very profitable, but as long as they show a loss on paper the owners can offset taxes. Jesse Drucker of The New York Times, in an interview on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air program, estimates this tax break for the wealthy will cost the government $135 billion — essentially all of which will go to the top one percent.

The Rideau Canal in Ottawa (photo by John Talbot)

This massive tax break is not specifically written for the real estate industry, but that is the industry that is likely to benefit the most as corporate real estate operations are often structured in these ways. Mr. Drucker said:

“In real estate, you can actually have, in the real world, what is quite a profitable business that generates losses on tax returns because real estate developers get to write down the value of their buildings. That turns into a deduction. And the result is that people like Jared Kushner and Donald Trump — to the degree that we have had some insight into their taxes over the last few years, we have seen that they have reported big losses on their tax returns. In many cases, it’s almost certainly the result of some of these favorable provisions that let them write down the value of their buildings. So the point is that any tax law change you make that gives people the ability to make maximum use of their losses is something that could very easily benefit real estate investors because they have so many losses. And in the case of Jared Kushner and Donald Trump, we don’t have to speculate on that. We know that in previous years, they have reported big losses, which would put them in a position to benefit from this.”

Not even the most elementary provisions to put some limits on where the money is going were inserted into these stimulus bills. For example, although there is a clause prohibiting the use of the money for stock buybacks and extra executive pay, it’s followed by another clause allowing Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin (the foreclosure king) to waive the prohibition. Nor are there measures to demand that corporate recipients even pay tax. Reuters reports that the PPP has given “millions of dollars in American taxpayer money to a number of firms that have avoided paying U.S. tax.” Twelve companies provided with $104 million in loans use offshore havens to cut their tax bills, seven of which paid no taxes.

Federal Reserve offers trillions of dollars

The Federal Reserve’s contribution to the wealthy goes far beyond the two stimulus bills. By the end of March, the Fed had already committed more than $3 trillion in loans and asset purchases in the wake of a rapidly collapsing economy. This included fresh commitments to a recently announced new quantitative-easing program in which the Fed had pledged to spend $700 billion to buy Treasury and mortgage-backed bonds in addition to multiple loan programs. Although most of this will come from printing money, $450 billion of this came from the $2 trillion CARES Act stimulus passed by Congress.

Following its March 23 announcement, the Fed announced another round of measures on April 9, this time committing $2.3 trillion in new loans and credits for business and local governments. The centerpiece of this round is the “Main Street Lending Program,” which makes it sound like these loans will be earmarked for small businesses, but loans will be offered to corporations with as many as 10,000 workers and revenues of up to $2.5 billion. Not exactly what we have in mind when we think of “Main Street.” The set of measures could inject $6 trillion into the financial system, but that money, if actually spent, seems mostly destined for the pockets of speculators.

With state and local governments dangerously short on revenue due to the economic crisis, and thus putting social programs in jeopardy, what does the White House want to do? The only “solution” demanded by Donald Trump is to cut the payroll tax, the source of money for Social Security. The president claims he wants a “temporary” payroll tax cut, but that has to be seen not only in light of his complete inability to say anything truthful but his and his administration’s stated desire to cut Social Security. Cutting the funding for the retirement program is a good way to undercut it, which has long been the wish of Wall Street. Even if there weren’t nefarious reasons at work, would a temporary payroll tax cut provide a jolt to the economy? Definitely no, says the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in a May 12 commentary.

“President Trump has said he will not support any additional relief or stimulus measures in response to the human and economic crisis caused by the Covid-19 pandemic unless they include a temporary payroll tax cut,” the Center said. Stimulus packages are only effective “if they quickly deliver resources to people and businesses that most need it and so are most likely to spend rather than save any extra dollars they receive.” But the Trump plan would fail to help either. The Center said:

“Cutting the employee share of payroll taxes gives the most help (in dollar terms) to higher earners, who are less likely to need the help or to spend most or all of the extra money. Compounding the weaknesses of this approach, it does less for those with lower earnings and nothing at all for people who have lost jobs. And cutting employer payroll taxes is an ineffective way to shore up business hiring and investment. Business’ main problem now is lack of customers for their products — both because of social distancing measures and because many customers’ incomes have fallen dramatically as unemployment has risen. Businesses will not hire (or retain) more workers or invest in more equipment than they need to produce the goods and services they can actually sell.”

Already there are signs that the windfall large businesses have received from the Trump administration have been slipped into bank accounts, not into investment. Economist Jack Rasmus has calculated that the loss of income for the tens of millions of United Statesians plunged into unemployment has cost them a composite $1.3 billion in lost wages. Ridiculing the orthodox economic “theory” that the problem with recessions are “sticky wages” — in other words, wages don’t fall fast enough or far enough during downturns — Professor Rasmus notes that businesses are not investing in the wake of the wage reductions. He writes:

“They’re hoarding the $1.74 trillion in Congressional loans and grants bailouts. And hoarding the $650 billion in business tax cuts also in the bailout legislation thus far (which one hears very little about in the media, I might add). … [T]he short term cash deposits by business in just institutional money funds (only one source) has risen from $2.3 trillion before March 1, 2020 to $3.3T today. That’s a $1T rise in cash deposits by businesses, just in institutional money funds. More is being deposited in commercial banks. The long run average of business deposits in commercial banks has been around 5% (6% under Obama and 4.6% under Trump 2016-19) to 15.8% since March 1. Businesses and investors are hoarding their cash and stuffing it in their short term accounts in banks, funds, and who knows where else, on and offshore.”

Much of that hoard of cash is likely destined for stock buybacks, dividends, speculation, buying companies and boosting lobbying efforts down the road. U.S. corporations spent more than $1.1 trillion on buying back stock in 2018 and although the pace slacked a bit in 2019, more than $700 billion went toward buybacks. Stock buybacks are completely unproductive spending — they are simply corporations buying their own stock, giving those who sell a premium to the trading price and boosting profits for remaining shareholders because the profits will be shared among fewer people. Speculators love them.

Britain, EU and Canada: Lots for financiers, crumbs for working people

Capitalism is a global system, and thus using a crisis to benefit the wealthy and powerful is hardly limited to the United States, even if it is the center of the global capitalist system and thus at the forefront of propping up its winners. Tax Watch UK, which describes itself as an “investigative think tank,” discovered that among the recipients of loans under the Bank of England’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility are 13 companies with links to tax havens or that “have seen controversy regarding their financial affairs.” Those 13 companies received £4.8 billion, or almost 30 percent of the total. Tax Watch UK reports that among these is Baker Hughes, a subsidiary of General Electric, “which is embroiled in a £1 billion tax dispute over unpaid taxes going back to 2004.”

The British government, headed by the mendacious Boris Johnson, hasn’t been shy about handing out money to business. The Bank of England has committed £200 billion to quantitative easing (bond buying), £330 billion in loan guarantees for business and an unspecified amount for “short-term liquidity” for the government, among other measures. Separately, Whitehall has committed tens of billions of pounds to three separate loan programs, property tax holidays, direct grants for small firms, grants for “innovation” and other items. For working people? A total of £14.7 billion of additional funding to the National Health Service and £7 billion for increased payments under the Universal Credit scheme and other benefits. Overall, quite one-sided toward capital.

City of London expanding (Photo by Will Fox)

Similar to the United States and United Kingdom, the bulk of money committed by the European Union to shore up the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic is for quantitative easing. The EU has committed to pouring €1.35 trillion into buying private- and public-sector securities by June 2021 under its Pandemic Emergency Purchase Program.

The EU will also offer a €540 billion addition to its European Stability Mechanism, an International Monetary Fund-style loan program under which money is loaned to governments under condition that recipients implement severe austerity. (This is the program under which the EU paid off the Greek government’s debt to European banks, meaning that Greece instead owed its debts to EU institutions rather than the banks, doing nothing to lower the debt level but forcing Athens to administer punishing austerity that left Greeks destitute.) And on top of the above, the EU has thrown in another €200 billion for businesses. For working people, nothing more than relative crumbs: €37 billion “to support public investment for hospitals, [small businesses], labor markets, and stressed regions” and €100 billion to protect workers and jobs. Once again, quite one-sided in favor of capital.

Back across the Atlantic, Canada has announced multiple programs, including quantitative easing. The Bank of Canada has implemented several QE programs for buying corporate bonds, federal and provincial government bonds, mortgage bonds and commercial paper (short-term debt issued by corporations), as well as programs to provide credit and “support the stability of the Canadian financial system.” The Bank of Canada is not forthcoming about the total cost of these programs; it has committed to spending C$5.5 billion per week, with no cutoff date, on just two programs, the purchases of federal government bonds and mortgage bonds. A measure of what has been spent so far is indicated in the central bank’s balance sheet, which reveals that total assets held by it increased from $120 billion on March 11 to $498 billion on June 11. So that’s $378 billion with more to come.

What is Canada spending on working people? $116 billion for “direct aid to households and firms” and $4 billion for the health system. So a lot less, and even some of this much smaller amount will be going to businesses.

Although more direct aid for working people is being included this time around — given the crisis of neoliberalism and that the massive subsidies to the same financiers responsible for the crash of the economy in 2008 haven’t been forgotten, political leaders had no choice but to sweeten the pot a little — the overwhelming majority of the money dispensed is going to the financial industry and to large corporations. Again it must be asked: How much more useful would it have been to use this money for practical needs and direct payments to people instead of propping up a bloated and wasteful financial system? More directly, how long can the peoples of the world continue to believe that a system in crisis so frequently and requires such massive bailouts works?

The corporate origins of the anti-science “reopen” demonstrations

Many of the same extreme right operatives who created the “Tea Party” are behind the anti-science and anti-intellectual spectacles opposing measures designed to combat the Covid-19 pandemic. And with much the same agenda.

By now, that is not much of a secret, but it is nonetheless necessary to expose these roots, and to debunk the anti-science conspiracy theories they help spread. This is an astroturf operation underwritten by Betsy DeVos, her ultra-reactionary family and veteran operatives linked to them, with FreedomWorks, primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests, and the Club For Growth, a libertarian outfit dedicated to eliminating Social Security, lurking in the background.

Perhaps the most virulent outbreak was in Lansing, where armed militia members were given free reign to roam Michigan’s state capitol building, causing a legislative session to be called off. A truly dangerous precedent — will these characters be allowed to take over the capitol next time? And that these White protestors were left untouched, even allowed to hijack the functioning of government for a day, makes for a sharp contrast with the Black Lives Matter protestors being arrested and brutalized by police around the country.

A doctor in a hospital during the COVID-19 pandemic (photo by Pablo Jarrín0

To make another comparison, recall that similar armed White militia members were allowed to take over a federal sanctuary and desecrate Native American artifacts in rural Oregon in 2016. Can anybody imagine Black protestors taking over a government facility with an intention of sparking a rebellion lasting even a day without every police agency that could mobilize mowing them down in a fusillade of bullets and bombs, much less being allowed to spend weeks and allowed to come and go as they pleased?

Let’s examine the evidence. There is plenty of it, should we wish to look.

The wealthy extremists behind the astroturf campaign

Edwin Rios, writing in Mother Jones on April 17, 2020, provided this report on the Lansing demonstrations:

“The protest, known as ‘Operation Gridlock,’ featured a fair share of MAGA hats, Trump flags, at least one Confederate flag, chants of ‘Lock her up!’ in reference to [Governor Gretchen] Whitmer, and far-right groups from the Proud Boys to the Michigan Liberty Militia. They clogged up the streets outside the state Capitol and defied Whitmer’s ban on public gatherings. The whole charade was facilitated by the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a conservative political group that doubles as a front for Michigan Trump Republicans, and promoted by the Michigan Freedom Fund, a conservative group with ties to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, a Michigan billionaire philanthropist power broker before she joined the Trump administration.”

A detailed Snopes report put together by Alex Kasprak and Bethania Palma found plenty of DeVos family money:

[T]his anti-lockdown movement was originally pushed by a small circle of fervent activists who have been protesting almost constantly since well before the onset of the pandemic. Furthermore, they have benefited from a political action infrastructure originally created to support the DeVos-funded, anti-union ‘right-to-work’ movement. These methods have apparently created the perception of widespread discontent with public health measures largely supported by the American populace and are part of a campaign playbook self-evidently resulting in an increasingly radicalized base of Trump supporters as the 2020 general election approaches.”

The article reports that the DeVos family made $14 million in political contributions to the Michigan Republican Party and other Republican groups, and also donated substantial amounts of money to the Michigan Freedom Network. The Network is in turn tightly linked to the Michigan Conservative Coalition, a group that the Snopes report characterizes as “a collection of former Tea Party-aligned groups and pro-Trump organizations whose purpose is to recruit and train an ‘army of conservative activists,’ most notably the groups Michigan Trump Republicans, Women for Trump, and the Lakes Area Tea Party. The people who run the coalition have deep ties to the Michigan GOP and to Trump campaign surrogates,” with strong links with Michigan Republican officials.

Not mentioned in these articles but nonetheless relevant is that Betsy DeVos’ brother is Erik Prince, founder of the notorious Blackwater mercenary army.

“Reopening” the economy in the corporate interest

To round out this survey, CNN reporters located two more sources of support:

“One prominent voice supporting the protests is Stephen Moore, the founder of the Club for Growth and an unofficial economic adviser to President Trump. … Moore told CNN he has been working on this organization with FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy group that gained prominence during the Tea Party era.”

The Club For Growth is an ultra-reactionary outfit with connections to the Koch Brothers dedicated to eliminating government-run social benefits. Club for Growth founder Stephen Moore is on record with this statement: “Social Security is the soft underbelly of the welfare state. If you can jab your spear through that, you can undermine the whole welfare state.” In other words, it’s work until you drop, if he gets his way.

FreedomWorks is a group of corporate lobbyists formerly run by Dick Armey (a hard-line Republican Party operative who once was majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives) that was the primary organizer of the early Tea Party protests. FreedomWorks’ predecessor organization was the Citizens for a Sound Economy, which was founded and funded by David and Charles Koch (although the surviving brother, Charles, does not currently back FreedomWorks). Sharing similar roots is Americans for Prosperity, a lavishly funded and tightly controlled pressure group founded by the Koch Brothers dedicated to promoting the family business interests and extremist political philosophies, and also heavily involved in organizing the Tea Party. Organizers of the Tea Party sought to deflect anger from corporate elites consumed by greed and arrogance who bend the country’s institutions to their benefit, and instead pin the blame on “the government,” on minorities, on immigrants and any other handy scapegoat. Sound familiar?

Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto during the pandemic (photo by Sikander Iqbal)

It will come as no surprise those readers who pay attention that the Trump administration has a hand in these events. For several weeks, the White House has been agitating to “reopen” the country regardless of health consequences — an unusually open reminder that working people are seen as nothing more than disposable peons in the eyes of Wall Street and corporate boardrooms.

The Associated Press, as cautious a news agency as exists in the U.S., has provided further details:

“Republican political operatives are recruiting ‘extremely pro-Trump’ doctors to go on television to prescribe reviving the U.S. economy as quickly as possible, without waiting to meet safety benchmarks proposed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. The plan was discussed in a May 11 conference call with a senior staffer for the Trump reelection campaign organized by CNP Action, an affiliate of the GOP-aligned Council for National Policy. A leaked recording of the hourlong call was provided to The Associated Press by the Center for Media and Democracy, a progressive watchdog group.

CNP Action is part of the Save Our Country Coalition, an alliance of conservative think tanks and political committees formed in late April to end state lockdowns implemented in response to the pandemic. Other members of the coalition include the FreedomWorks Foundation, the American Legislative Exchange Council and Tea Party Patriots.”

As always, we should member that the “freedom” promoted by these representatives of big capital means freedom for capital, not people. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

To this, we can now add the “freedom” to spread a deadly virus without regard to the danger imposed on others.

Debunking that Covid-19 was created in a laboratory

The complement of exposing the funders and organizers of the movement to ignore measures to provide for public health during a pandemic — how dare Governor Whitmer and other state governors seek to keep people alive! — is exposing the disinformation spread by their followers.

Contrary to conspiracy theories peddling the idea that Covid-19 is an artificial creation, possibly intentionally created for political purposes, multiple teams of scientists have determined that Covid-19 is a virus that originated in nature, and can not have been created in a laboratory. It does not help that U.S. President Donald Trump and his almost as ignorant secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have repeatedly implied such — in the minds of Trump followers, how could scientists who have spent a lifetime studying diseases and epidemics possibly know as much as the all-knowing, all-seeing Dear Leader?

Downtown Portland, Oregon, during the pandemic (photo by Mattsjc)

Kristian Andersen, an infectious disease researcher at the Scripps Research Institute who led a team of evolutionary biologists and virologists from several countries, said Covid-19 has components that differ from those of previously known viruses and therefore had to come from an unknown virus or viruses in nature. A human-created virus would need to work with already known viruses and engineer them to have desired properties, according to Andersen.

Writing in the peer-reviewed journal Nature Medicine, Andersen and his colleagues wrote, “Genetic data irrefutably show that SARS-CoV-2 [the virus that causes Covid-19] is not derived from any previously used virus backbone” and conclude, “we do not believe that any type of laboratory-based scenario is plausible.”

A molecular epidemiologist in Switzerland, Emma Hodcroft, who is not connected to the study led by Andersen, agreed. Hodcroft, who is part of a team studying changes in coronaviruses to track how they spread, said, “We see absolutely no evidence that the virus has been engineered or purposely released.” Andersen said there were several clues that clinched the case that the virus is natural, including adaptations protecting it from an immune-system attack that doesn’t occur in viruses being worked on in laboratories.

This ongoing work has also debunked the erroneous idea that Covid-19 contains bits of HIV. There was one paper that made the HIV assertion that was not peer-reviewed and was quickly retracted after numerous scientists pointed out serious flaws in it. There are no fragments of the genetic code of HIV in the virus, European Scientist reports in an article that then debunks this conspiracy theory from other angles.

Debunking that deaths from Covid-19 are overstated

Researchers on the Our World In Data web site provide a good explanation for why Covid-19 deaths are likely under-reported, not over-reported. To summarize, the reasons that deaths are being under-reported include that many countries only report Covid-19 deaths that occur in hospitals, meaning that people who die from the disease at home may not be recorded; some countries only report deaths for which a Covid-19 test has confirmed that a patient was infected with the virus; and that the pandemic may result in increased deaths from other causes due to weakened health care systems, fewer people seeking treatment for other health risks and less available funding and treatment for other diseases.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the official death toll attributed to Covid-19 counts only laboratory-confirmed Covid-19-associated deaths, and 5,048 probable Covid-19-associated deaths. Not counted are deaths among infected persons who did not access diagnostic testing, tested falsely negative, or became infected after testing negative, died outside of a health care setting or for whom Covid-19 was not suspected by a health care provider as a cause of death. Official Covid-19 deaths also do not include deaths that are not directly associated with Covid-19 infection.

A study of New York City deaths from March 11 to May 2 by the CDC found there were 24,172 excess deaths. The official total of deaths associated with Covid-19, however, is 18,879 deaths. Therefore, the CDC study determined, there were 5,293 deaths that were not identified as either laboratory-confirmed or probable Covid-19-associated deaths. That is an undercounting of Covid-19 deaths as high as 22 percent.

The CDC report said, “Covid-19-associated mortality is higher in persons with underlying chronic health conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and deaths in persons with these chronic health conditions might not be recognized as being directly attributable to Covid-19. In addition, social distancing practices, the demand on hospitals and health care providers, and public fear related to Covid-19 might lead to delays in seeking or obtaining lifesaving care.”

A separate study conducted by a team of scientists on the death rates in New York State, England, Wales, Scotland, the Netherlands and Italy found that the number of deaths attributed to Covid-19 through May 6 range from one-half to three-quarters of the total number of excess deaths. The scientists, led by Kieran Docherty of the University of Glasgow, concluded that the additional deaths “may represent unrecognized deaths due to Covid-19.”

Debunking that Covid-19 is no more fatal than the flu

The World Health Organization found that Covid-19 data to date suggests that 80% of infections are mild or asymptomatic, 15% are severe infections requiring oxygen and 5% are critical infections requiring ventilation. These fractions of severe and critical infections are higher than what is observed for influenza infection. A WHO report states:

“While the true mortality of COVID-19 will take some time to fully understand, the data we have so far indicate that the crude mortality ratio (the number of reported deaths divided by the reported cases) is between 3-4%, the infection mortality rate (the number of reported deaths divided by the number of infections) will be lower. For seasonal influenza, mortality is usually well below 0.1%. However, mortality is to a large extent determined by access to and quality of health care.”

The United States has by far the most number of cases and the most deaths from the virus, something caused in large part by the for-profit health care system of the U.S., which is designed to deliver corporate profits rather than health care, and thus produces among the worst results of any advanced capitalist country while costing by far the most. A country with a health care system with incentives so inhumane that early deaths are considered to be a “silver lining” for corporations.

Some of the claims that Covid-19 is no worse than the flu rest on a single discredited report. The discredited report, concerning two studies in Los Angeles and Santa Clara counties that purported to claim that Covid-19 death rates are similar to seasonal flus, were quickly and widely debunked. An Ars Technica article said the two studies used flawed statistical models to put the number of people with the virus at 50 to 85 times higher than was actually the case at the time, thus drastically lowering the studies’ reported death rate. The methodologies used to recruit people to this study was also flawed, including using Facebook and e-mail to ask for participants and thus far from random. Finally, the antibody test used in the two studies has a low rate of accuracy.

Need more? The Federation of American Scientists notes that between 2010 and 2019, the flu killed between 12,000 and 61,000 United Statesians during each eight-month long season (October to May). In just over four months, or about half of a flu season, Covid-19 killed over 100,000 people (as of May 28), or 785 people each day, in the U.S. alone.

Finally, Northwell Health reports that each infected person spreads Covid-19 to an average of 2.2 other people. By comparison, those with the seasonal flu infect approximately 1.3. So, yes, it is more easily transmitted than the flu.

As a final thought, it has not escaped my attention that the right-wing anti-science protestors largely did not wear face masks while demonstrating, nor did they observe social distancing. By contrast, the Black Lives Matters protests that erupted after the police murder of George Floyd overwhelmingly wear face masks. (Nor did they carry weapons.) I’ve participated in three Black Lives Matters marches at the time of writing this article, and not only can I confirm that almost everyone wears masks, but there are always a couple of people handing out masks to people who need one. That’s the difference between people who think others should die so they can get a haircut and those with a strong social conscience.

Work is inevitable but its organization is not

All human societies, from the most primitive to the most modern, have an important commonality — the need to work. Water, food, shelter and other basics of life don’t arrive as gifts. Work is required to secure them and to raise the next generation.

So fundamental is this basic principal of human life that generations of Marxist theorists have based analyses of social societies and structures on the economic base of a given society. The base-and-superstructure framework is controversial to most other schools of thought, although it ought to be obvious that capitalist organization of an economy puts strong parameters on how that capitalist country can organize itself politically and culturally. Nonetheless, can traditional Marxist understandings be stretched to wider interpretations?

Computer engineer Paul Cockshott, in his latest book, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era,* answers with an emphatic yes. His premise is that Western Marxism has been too dominated by “people with a training in the humanities or social studies” who have a “reluctance to use mathematical quantitative analysis.” He intends to infuse the term “mode of production” with a “much more technological interpretation.” In other words, a study of technology is a better basis for understanding the organization of labor in the various modes of production over the course of human history.

This stress on technology is a strength of the book, but also, at times, a weakness. This perspective does enable fresh thinking about subjects as disparate as why agriculture supplanted the hunting-gathering stage, the inefficiency of capitalism and the cause of the weaknesses of the Soviet Union that culminated in its collapse. How the World Works is a book full of interesting ideas — I took double the amount of notes I ordinarily take to review a book, a good measure of its content.

How the World Works takes the reader through all the basic modes of production of human history — lengthy chapters each on “pre-class society,” slave economy, peasant economy, capitalist economy and socialist economy, plus a final brief chapter on “future economy” that revolves around the impending exhaustion of fossil fuels and the decrease in available energy that post-fossil fuel societies will likely face. Crucially, the book argues that the “idea of abstract labor” applies to all economies, not only capitalist ones.

Transitions to agriculture despite the extra work

Professor Cockshott demonstrates that agriculture required more work hours than did hunting-gathering, and asks the question: Why was the transition made? He argues that hunters wiped out big game and the population of hunter-gatherers became too large for available land to support. Although agriculture required more work, more food per unit is also produced. This change came with a crucial development — there was now a surplus. Hunter-gatherers had no storage facilities and had to be mobile; what was taken was quickly eaten. These were often egalitarian societies (although not always, based on studies of isolated societies that survived into the 20th century).

With the new phenomenon of surplus, the ability and, given the cyclical nature of agriculture, the necessity, of storing food for future use enabled the rise of hierarchy and significantly deepened the subordination of women that had its roots in hunting-gatherer societies’ tendency for women to move to other settlements for marriage, putting those young women, cut off from their original community, in subordinate positions to their husbands and mothers-in-law. But although a surplus is necessary for a nonproductive elite to arise, the book argues that a surplus on its own is insufficient to develop the social stratification that would develop:

“A class society requires a surplus, but the converse does not hold. A food surplus does not necessitate an exploiting class. Establishing that seems to have required other misfortunes: war, patriarchy, and religion.” [page 45]

Authoritarian ideologies must be developed to justify unequal status, and human sacrifice fuels high social stratification. Ideologies of superior and inferior human beings justified slavery, but Professor Cockshott additionally argues that slave economies were dependent on transport and urban markets. Labor is the source of value in slave economies. The next stage, feudalism, also featured exploitation but in a different form. A lack of transport and limited circulation characterized feudalism. Lords did not have to engage in systematic trade and peasants were self-sufficient; coercion was the glue that kept this economy in place.

The shift from feudal farming to capitalist farming required that peasants “be deprived both of security of tenure and access to communal lands” [page 93]. And that brings the book to its longest chapter, the discussion of work in a capitalist economy. Here is where the author’s technological perspective more fully comes into play. The price of labor regulates product pricing and profitability, and, crucially, if workers were paid the full value of their work in a capitalist enterprise there would be no profit for the capitalist — “in a capitalist society, there will be a markup” [page 111].

Advance of mechanical energy under capitalism

Where capitalism differs from feudal and slave economies is far greater use of mechanical energy and scientific research. In contradiction to a commonly accepted theory that the use of slave labor in the Roman Empire prevented the primitive steam engine that was developed then from being introduced into production because using machines would have been much more expensive than continuing to use slave labor, Professor Cockshott argues that Hero’s turbine was vastly inefficient to be of any industrial use. Even the first steam engines of the 18th century were exponentially more powerful and could greatly expand industrial capacity. He argues that it was this new capacity that was the catalyst for industrial capitalism: “Existence of commodity relations and wage labor would not have been sufficient to generate the capitalist mode of production” [page 123].

Limitations on productive capacity were overcome with the rise of fossil fuels and in turn advances in technology arising from more efficient fossil fuels led to innovation and new products that beget more new products. In turn, the capital required to build and operate large industrial factories was beyond the reach of workers and previously independent artisans, forcing small independent producers out of business due to the scale of competition. “[T]he application of powered machines and fossil fuels allowed rising labor productivity that closed off whole branches of production from the self-employed artisan” [page 128].

An English watermill (photo by Martin Bodman)

The capitalist who innovates early reaps an increased profit, but such benefits are always temporary as competitors will soon adopt the innovation. Perpetual competition forces increased reliance on technology, although the author argues that innovation for a capitalist is only worthwhile when wages are high. An example not examined in the book that also serves as a partial explanation for why so much production has been shifted to low-wage, developing countries is the ability to pay drastically lower wages. That is an “innovation” that competition dictates be swiftly copied. The book argues that the ability of capitalists to innovate “shouldn’t be overrated,” but the continual shifting of production and the development of global supply chains is grim evidence of considerable capitalist innovation, one of course deeply negative for working people. Control of the means of production also gives capitalists control of the technology necessary to make these transformations in production possible — yet more innovation that is bad for working people.

The mathematical approach of How the World Works does serve the author well in his theory of why the wage gap between men and women persists: Professor Cockshott argues that it is because women work fewer hours then men and as a consequence are less likely then men to be the sole wage earner in a family; he believes the wage gap won’t be closed until it is equally likely that women will be the sole family wage earner as men. The level of such a wage earner can’t fall below starvation level for the basic reason that mortality rates would skyrocket; it is the ensuing shortage of workers that would occur rather than any morality that put an ultimate lower limit on wages.

That natural lower limit of course does not prevent wages from falling to deeply exploitative levels. On top of that, finance produces still more inequality — it is not only unproductive but a huge drain of money. “Since so little finance goes into increasing real production, these rents [windfall profits] can only be sustained by depressing the real living standards of much of the population” [page 196]. Concomitant to that is the ever increasing cost of housing, which is a product of inefficiency. Because housing is an asset subject to speculation, it appreciates in price and thus speculation becomes more profitable than engaging in productive activity, which in turns draws in more speculative capital, further fueling the process. Loans by banks in turn go disproportionally to real estate. Yet more exploitation.

Judging socialism by actual conditions, not ideals

The chapter on “socialist economies” is likely to be the most controversial for many readers; certainly is was for myself. The chapter opens by noting, quite correctly, that there is no uniform definition of socialism. How the World Works argues that “as social scientists, we cannot judge the real world by the standards of an ideal one. It is not the job of reality to materialize our ideals. Reality just is in all its glories, horrors, and contradictions” [page 209]. To that, there is nothing to do except agree. Material reality is what we have to go by.

Interpreting that reality, on the other hand, leaves room for debate. How the World Works shoots down various theories of why the Soviet Union and the model it imposed on Central European countries wasn’t socialist, including that is used money, you can’t have socialism in a single country and there was scarcity rather than the plenty that socialism is supposed to provide. So far so good, although these arguments are presented in a somewhat cartoonish fashion rather than in their full complexity. Having ably dispensed with these arguments, and reiterating that there was a “common understanding” that those countries were socialist, the author offers his concept of what socialism actually is, based on what did exist.

Although he writes that “What distinguishes them are the forms of property and the way in which the surplus product is determined,” he concludes that socialism is characterized by machine industry and agriculture, the same as capitalism. His definition rests on, inter alia, a mix of technical achievements such as “widespread use of electricity” and “widespread use of machinery and applied science” interspersed with social relations such as “the absence of a class of wealthy private proprietors” and “public or cooperative ownership of most of the economy” [pages 209-201].

German hydroelectric power plant

To be sure, claims that the Soviet Union was “capitalist” is ultra-left phrase-mongering that sheds little light. But is socialism simply expropriation and building industry? If so, then one would have to agree with Josef Stalin’s boast in the 1930s that socialism had been built and Nikita Khrushchev’s follow-up boast in the 1950s that the Soviet Union was in the process of building communism, the successor to socialism. But is that all there is? A fuller definition of socialism mandates that democracy be extended to economic matters and strengthened in political matters, beyond what is possible in capitalism. It would follow then that expropriating capitalists and establishing state or cooperative ownership of most of the economy is a precursor to socialism, not the actual content in itself.

An alternative theory, not discussed in the book, is that the Soviet model represented a post-capitalist economy (certainly not capitalist) in transition to socialism, a transition never completed. Perhaps this can be seen as edging toward idealism and in contradiction to the agreement above that those countries had to be judged based on their material reality, which obviously included the fact that they had to expend so much of their resources on defense against never-ending attacks from the capitalist world. But to put forth this position is not to dismiss those experiences but rather to lament what could have been. The grassroots movement in late 1960s Czechoslovakia to keep the economy in state hands but have it managed by the workers through councils and coordinating bodies in a system of democratic social accountability was the advancement to socialism that never developed because of the Warsaw Pact invasion. That invasion was a function of closed-minded ideological prescriptions that had become calcified in one particular form, which evolved in chaotic fashion in one country (the Soviet Union) that cannot be extricated from the specific absolutist cultural heritage of that country’s dominant nation (Russia).

Socialism should be not only industrial development and an end to private capital but a democratic system that grows, develops and changes with the rise in consciousness and development of a society’s members, not a rigid formula.

Fiscal imbalances through imbalanced taxation

The term “actually existing socialism” was often used for the Soviet bloc, and despite the clumsiness of the term, perhaps that is a reasonable compromise. Those countries have reverted to capitalism, and so a discussion of their economies inevitably moves toward determining the reasons for why. Professor Cockshott puts forth an original theory on this: the system of taxation. Specifically, he argues that reliance on sales taxes and taxes on enterprise revenue rather than assessing income tax on wages hid the cost of free social services, forced up the cost of machinery and thereby discouraged mechanization and made the relative cost of providing free services more expensive. As a result, managerial hoarding of labor was encouraged with concomitant overstaffing and lack of efficiency measures. This thesis is related to his belief that the Soviet use of money was a mistake; rather, people should have been paid in “labor hours.” To this last point, we will return.

Mathematics are used to explain this theory. The economy is divided into three parts — production of the means of production (or what are called producer goods), production of consumer goods and the provision of uncharged services, such as education, health care and public infrastructure. The money for the third category has to come from some revenue stream, and the need to pay for those and the necessity of the first category of producer goods constrains what is available for consumer goods. Assuming that what is available for consumer goods must be limited to the money-equivalent of the hours spent producing consumer goods, the author suggests there were three possible methods of taxation: an income tax on employees, a sales tax or VAT, or by pricing all goods at a markup or profit.

Blockupy 2013: Securing the European Central Bank (photo by Blogotron)

Because there was no income tax in the Soviet Union, revenue for social services was raised from taxes on enterprise revenue, those producing for consumer goods and those producing for producer goods, and from sales taxes. Because of that, the costs of machinery is much greater, thereby making the provision of social services far more expensive that it would have been. It was “short-term populism that hampered efficiency” [page 256] and made labor cheap and machinery expensive.

Concomitantly, the author argues that Soviet workers should have been paid in labor hours rather than rubles. This would have been a fairer way of paying people and would have made any imbalances easier for all to see; money was necessary to disguise that, for example, that collective farmers were underpaid relative to their labor. In essense, the argument is that one hour of work should have been compensated by one hour of labor credit. Doing so would have immediate egalitarian effect:

“The significance of labor tokens is that they establish the obligation on all to work by abolishing unearned incomes; they make the economic relations between people transparently obvious; and they are egalitarian, ensuring that all labor is counted as equal. Is it the last point that ensured labor tokens were never developed under the bureaucratic state socialisms of the twentieth century. What ruler or manager was willing to see his work as equal to that of a mere laborer?” [page 263]

This arrangement would also eliminate black markets because the labor credits could not be circulated or transferred to someone else; they could only be used at communal stores. But “it is absolutely essential” that prices reflect the work value put into them to avoid imbalances. This would in turn make planning more responsive because deviations of sales from actual production would send a signal that production levels should be adjusted to real demand.

What caused the Soviet Union to collapse?

The foregoing were serious weaknesses in the Soviet economy, Professor Cockshott argues, in addition to the most skilled technical and professional employees becoming dissatisfied because their gains were not comparable to elites in the capitalist West. That social group’s dissatisfaction mattered because it was disproportionally represented in the Communist Party. The structural changes made by Mikhail Gorbachev had the effect of disorganizing an economy in which enterprises were strongly interlinked and enabling the rise of black-market criminals as state revenues plunged because declines in production resulted in less revenue due to the reliance on taxes on enterprises and sales taxes.

The author makes a strong case for his thesis that the taxation system underlaid Soviet economic crisis. I found much merit in it and considering it enriches our understanding of Soviet economics. But this is an instance where a heavy reliance on mathematics and technology leaves out some of what is a bigger picture. Left out is the over-centralization of the economy, the inability of central planners and the distribution system to have the knowledge necessary to ensure that raw materials and supplies were delivered properly and a rigid production quota system based on physical output. Base wages in the Soviet Union were low; workers counted on the bonus to be paid for fulfilling quotas. Managers and directors were responsible for fulfilling quotas handed down from ministries and their jobs were on the line if they didn’t. Thus both management and floor workers had incentives to hide capacity and keep quotas as low as possible, and keep extra materials and personnel on hand to “storm the plan” if they had fallen behind.

Surpluses of material somewhere meant shortages somewhere else; the difficulties in distributing sufficient supplies enhanced these tendencies. And because quantity and not quality was what mattered, shoddy products could be produced without real penalty. A full description of the Soviet economy can’t exclude these factors. Although the author dates the start of the imposition of capitalism to 1986, which should properly be dated to 1990, when General Secretary Gorbachev rammed through the legislature a series of measures that introduced elements of capitalism, including laws that ended working peoples’ limited ability to defend themselves and mechanisms to enable privatizations, that is a minor technical point. Reforms instituted from 1986 did place the burdens squarely on workers because of their one-sided implementation, and Professor Cockshott is entirely correct in writing that Gorbachev’s reforms ultimately disorganized the economy, precipitating a collapse.

Ultimately, the measure of a book isn’t whether we agree on all points; disagreement with some points of a book with such a large volume of interesting theories and analyses is inevitable. What is pertinent is stimulation of thought and the challenge of worthy ideas. A book that intends nothing less than to reveal the workings of the world from the earliest prehistory to the present day and beyond has set itself a sweeping goal. How the World Works succeeds marvelously.

* Paul Cockshott, How the World Works: The Story of Human Labor From Prehistory to the Modern Era [Monthly Review Press, New York, 2019]

Attacking the messenger: Planet of the Humans spears sacred beliefs

When it comes to global warming, there continues to be plenty of magical thinking going on. And such magical thinking is not exclusive to the conservative side of the political spectrum.

It is easy to take apart conservative denial of global warming, based as it is on ideology and a total lack of scientific grounding. In their own way, however, right-wing climate deniers are consistent on one point — they know that effectively tackling global warming means economic disruption, so their solution is to deny there is any global warming. Liberals, however, have their heads in the sand as well — too honest to deny the obvious, they instead deny there will be any cost. We’ll switch to renewable energy and continue business as usual.

The latter is not realistic. And that brings us to the new environmental film Planet of the Humans, which has certainly touched many a liberal nerve. Believing we can continue capitalist business as usual, merrily consuming far beyond the Earth’s capacity to replenish resources and enjoy infinite growth on a finite planet, leads to a disinclination to be realistic about the cost of dealing with global warming. The liberal idea that we can make a seamless switch to renewable energy and continue to use Earth’s resources and consume at the same rate humanity has been doing is fantasy.

And that is what underlies the fierce reaction to Planet of the Humans.  A generally unreasonable reaction that grossly misrepresents the film.

So there is no mistaking where my perspective lies, I do believe the fastest possible switch to renewable energy should be made and we should abandon the use of fossil fuels in the shortest reasonable time. But we should be realistic about the limitations. Renewables, although part of the solution to global warming, can’t save us on their own. Humanity, at least those in the Global North, has no choice but to consume much less, including less energy. Unfortunately, there is no getting around that. The limitations of renewables will be discussed below, but first let’s dismantle the disingenuous attacks on the film, produced and directed by Jeff Gibbs, with Michael Moore as executive producer. For the record, I have watched Planet of the Humans in its entirety twice.

Should dissenting voices be silenced?

The first thing to be pointed out is that the attacks on the film are led by those whose hypocrisy was exposed. Let us acknowledge that those exposed can’t be expected to take kindly to that. But the attacks are hardly limited to the leaders of the large organizations who come under criticism, such as 350.org and the Sierra Club. Josh Fox isn’t among those mentioned, but he nonetheless was so infuriated that he circulated a letter demanding the film be banned, sadly signed by several prominent environmentalists, including Naomi Klein (who really should know better) and Michael Mann (a promoter of nuclear energy, an industry that would not exist without massive subsidies).

Mr. Fox states, “The film touts blatantly untrue fossil fuel industry talking points deceitfully misleading its audience on renewable energy, disparages and attacks important climate leaders, ignores science and policy advances in energy, downplays or denounces climate and anti-fossil fuel campaigns and employs specious techniques of misinformation to deliver a deeply cynical and erroneous message.” That’s a whole lot of accusation. Let’s unpack it.

The film frontally attacks the fossil fuel industry throughout. To imply that it is somehow aligned with the fossil fuel industry is beyond laughable. The heart of the critique was that certain prominent environmentalists are too cozy with fossil fuel interests. Further, Mr. Gibbs doesn’t “disparage” or “attack” “important climate leaders,” he allows them to speak for themselves and thus reveal themselves.

I see absolutely no evidence that Mr. Gibbs forced Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, to repeatedly declare his enthusiastic support for biomass, which generates energy through massive burning of trees. It doesn’t seem a stretch to see that chopping down forests isn’t environmentally friendly or sustainable, given the immense scale of biomass plants. In the final credits, the film insinuates that Mr. McKibben changed his mind on biomass after the film was first shown. That is inaccurate as Mr. McKibben published an article titled “Burning trees for electricity is a bad idea” in 2016. It should be acknowledged he did change his mind and the film should have reported that change. Nonetheless, there was plenty of data demonstrating how dangerous biomass is before his conversion — data that should have been known to him.

Were the dangers of biomass hidden from our eyes?

Increased logging is surely not a route to reducing global warming. A paper by the British watchdog group Biofuelwatch reports:

“Increased demand for bioenergy is already resulting in the more intensive logging including very destructive whole tree harvesting or brash removal and replacement of forest and other ecosystems with monocultures. Expansion of industrial tree plantations for bioenergy is expected to lead to further land grabbing and land conflicts. At the same time, communities affected by biomass power stations are exposed to increased air pollution (particulates, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur dioxide, dioxins etc.) and thus public health risks. Meanwhile, a growing number of scientific studies show that burning wood for energy commonly results in a carbon debt of decades or even centuries compared with fossil fuels that might otherwise have been burnt.”

A Partnership for Policy Integrity study found that biomass electricity generation, which relies primarily on the burning of wood, is “more polluting and worse for the climate than coal, according to a new analysis of 88 pollution permits for biomass power plants in 25 [U.S.] states.” The partnership’s director, Mary Booth, wrote:

“The biomass power industry portrays their facilities as ‘clean.’ But we found that even the newest biomass plants are allowed to pollute more than modern coal- and gas-fired plants, and that pollution from bioenergy is increasingly unregulated.”

The Biofuelwatch report was published in 2012 and the Policy Integrity report was published in 2014, so claims of not knowing are disingenuous.

It is of course possible to aim at the wrong target. The pro-vegan film Cowspiracy, for example, consistently attacked environmental groups for not seeing animal agriculture as the solution to all problems, relentlessly mocked environmentalists for not agreeing 100 percent with its thesis and took industrial capitalism off the hook. That would be an example of an unfair hatchet job. Planet of the Humans, by contrast, aims its target at industrial capitalism and the fossil fuel industry.

Don’t grassroots activists count as environmentalists?

Like it or not, there are liberal environmental groups that promote bad environmental practices and even partner with investment funds that heavily invest in fossil fuels. Incidentally, it isn’t until the one-hour mark in a film that lasts one hour and 40 minutes before it begins to criticize mainstream liberal organizations including the Sierra Club. And it is careful to show the large gap between rank-and-file members and those group’s leaderships. Anybody who has experience in the environmental movement can tell you about how grassroots members and local leaders are often well ahead of their national leaders. That is particularly true of the Sierra Club, in my own experience.

Perhaps the most over-the-top attack on the film was conjured by Eoin Higgins and published in Common Dreams and AlterNet. Mr. Higgins goes to the extreme of accusing Mr. Gibbs of “arguing for ecofascist solutions.” I suppose it is better not to dignify such nonsense. The “review,” alas, gets no better as it drones on. We can only hope Mr. Higgins did not hyperventilate while writing his screed. It does not appear he took the trouble to actually see the film nor to grasp the immense differences between socialism and fascism.

Mr. Higgins quotes an assortment of critics peddling similarly over-the-top attacks. One, Emily Atkin, is quoted as saying, “This movie repeatedly claims that humans are better off burning fossil fuels than using renewable energy.” Once again, the film’s critique is of organizations being too closely tied to the fossil fuel industry. A basic premise of the film is that large amounts of fossil fuels are used in the manufacturing of solar panels and especially wind-power towers and turbines, and they have to be replaced in short periods of times. The film also notes that because wind and solar are intermittent, and current battery-storage technology far from adequate, existing fossil fuel plants have to be kept online as backup sources. Power plants thus need to run continuously because you can’t switch them on and off at will. Basic science here.

Further, because most “renewable” energy is in the form of biomass, not only do you have greenhouse-gas emissions, you also lose the carbon sink of the destroyed forests, thereby constituting a double whammy. Note the effects of biomass discussed a few paragraphs earlier — if it is true that biomass is more polluting than fossil fuels, then why use it?

Mr. Higgins goes on to allege, “In a more disturbing move, Gibbs promotes population control as the best answer to the warming of the planet,” and then quotes another critic aligning Planet of the Humans with the odious far-right website Breitbart. Thanks to watching the film on YouTube, I could stop and start at will. I added up the entire total of time in which population was discussed. It is about one minute and 30 seconds. Three professors mentioning population are given space in this brief minute and a half, and none came anywhere near advocating any eugenic ideas. The first noted there are “too many human beings using too much too fast”; one said “we have to have our abilities to consume reined in”; and all three put their remarks in the context that humanity is consuming at an unsustainable rate.

That last point ought to be obvious, but evidently isn’t, at least to Mr. Higgins. So for his benefit, Global Footprint Network (which certainly appears to me to be an environmental organization) calculates that the world is consuming the equivalent of 1.75 Earths — in other words, humanity is using natural resources 75 percent faster than they can be replenished. A figure that steadily increases. The advanced capitalist countries obviously consume at a more furious rate than the global average. That is, ahem, unsustainable. Basic mathematics informs us that either humanity learns to consume less or nature will force it on us.

Yet another “authority” is quoted by Mr. Higgins declaring, “The truth is, pinning our problems on population lets industrial capitalism off the hook.” But, once again, there was not one sentence asserting that, and the entire film was a massive indictment of capitalism. Particularly effective was a long sequence in which the film speeds up to dramatically demonstrate the massive industrial processes and heavy metals that are used to manufacture wind towers. There is an indictment of people like Mr. McKibben and organizations like the Sierra Club being far too cozy with capitalism. You really have to ask if any of these critics actually saw the film. Or perhaps they did, and seeing their magical belief that we can have business as usual exposed so throughly decided that attacking the film for things it never says would be their best response.

Is wanting a cleaner environment really “anti-working class”?

A similar line of specious attack has been launched by Leigh Phillips in Jacobin. Mr. Phillips, consistent with his belief that we can “take over the machine and run it rationally,” absurdly declares that Planet of the Humans is “anti-humanist” and “anti-working class.” I would think that desiring a clean environment would be good for working people, but perhaps Mr. Phillips has a different understanding than I. He writes, “Progress is a dangerous myth, the film argues; there are too many humans consuming too much stuff, so everyone in developed countries — including the working class — needs to consume less, while the planet as a whole must be depopulated down to a more sustainable number,” declaring such ideas “literally anti-progressive and anti-human.”

I suppose if the film actually argued what Mr. Phillips claims it does, he’d have a point. Unfortunately, as already demonstrated, the film at no point advocates forcibly reducing the population. It is necessary again to point out that you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and that capitalism can’t function without constant growth. There is no way to make the irrational rational.

Because he is a target of the film, it is only fair to note Mr. McKibben’s reaction. “A Youtube video emerged on Earth Day eve making charges about me and about 350.org — namely that I was a supporter of biomass energy, and that 350 and I were beholden to corporate funding,” he writes. “I am used to ceaseless harassment and attack from the fossil fuel industry. … It does hurt more to be attacked by others who think of themselves as environmentalists.”

The Minneapolis climate march of April 29, 2017 (photo by Fibonacci Blue)

The film shows repeated public appearance where the 350.org leader extravagantly praises biomass. It also shows him acknowledging funding from the Rockefeller Foundation, among other corporate sources, while mostly dodging a question on the source of 350.org’s funding. Are we supposed to ignore his own words? Among his appearances were sharing a stage with a Goldman Sachs executive who talked of organizing $40 trillion to $50 trillion in “green investments.” I trust the readers of this publication are quite familiar with the vampire squid and its touching interest in the betterment of humanity.

There are many other attacks on Planet of the Humans on the Internet, each claiming that the film is full of “errors” and “misinformation.” I decided to put that to the test by selecting at random two factual statements made by the film.

One was that solar (1.5%) and wind (3.1%) combined for only 4.6% of Germany’s energy consumption. In reviewing the latest figures, for 2018 as reported by the International Energy Agency, I found that the combined figure for solar and wind is slightly less than 5%. So this checks out. (Oil, natural gas and coal are by far the biggest energy sources in Germany despite its reputation as a renewable trendsetter.) The second was that solar and wind accounted for roughly one-quarter of global renewable energy; biomass accounted for nearly two-thirds. As of 2017, again the latest I could find, solar, wind and hydro accounted for 31% of world renewable energy — close to what the film reported. (The remaining 69% was biofuels and waste.) Mr. Gibbs seems to have done his homework.

The other consistent line of attack is that groups like the Sierra Club and advocates like Al Gore would never do anything questionable. The film both quotes from materials that the groups in question have published and from U.S. Securities and Exchange filings. Mr. McKibben personally and his 350.org organization recommended investing in the Green Century Funds. At the time of examination, the funds had 0.6 percent of its capital invested in renewable energy and energy efficiency, and far more in mining, oil and gas, McDonald’s, logging companies and BlackRock, a major investor in deforestation projects. The Sierra Club partnered with Aspiration, a so-called “green fund” that in fact invests in oil and gas companies, Monsanto and Halliburton.

Is it sacrilege to point out issues with renewables?

Toward the end of the film, Mr. Gibbs says, “The takeover of the environmental movement by capitalism is now complete,” and concludes “We must take control of our environmental movement.” Once again, the filmmaker repeatedly gave space to rank-and-file members of the Sierra Club and 350.org who disagreed with their leaders’ approval of biomass and gave a platform to a series of grassroots activists fighting biomass and other destructive practices in their communities. So the over-the-top claims that the film was a broad attack on the environmental movement, and on behalf of the fossil fuel industry no less, is laughable. The target is the leadership of large organizations who are too cozy with corporate interests — that’s the critique that clearly hit home, as the intensity of the attacks demonstrate.

Or perhaps grassroots activists who don’t lead national organizations that prefer to “get along” with political insiders and corporate elites are not considered proper environmentalists?

To conclude, let’s briefly examine some of the issues surrounding renewable energy sources. (Readers wishing more detail can click on the links that will be supplied.) Even wind energy has environmental issues. The turbines used to produce electricity from wind increasingly are built with the “rare earth” element neodymium, which requires a highly toxic process to produce. Turbine magnets using neodymium are more expensive than those using ceramic, but are also more efficient. The U.S. Geological Survey estimates that an additional 380 metric tons of neodymium would be necessary if the United States is to generate 20 percent of its electricity from wind by 2030. That’s just one country. Increasing rare earth mining means more pollution and toxic waste.

How about sequestering carbon dioxide? The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) rests its belief that techno-fixes will save the day through “bioenergy with carbon dioxide capture and storage” (BECCS), the capture and sequestration of the carbon produced by bioenergy processes. The carbon dioxide would be “captured” before it escapes into the atmosphere and “permanently” stored underground or underwater, thereby removing it from the air and negating its greenhouse effects. A Biofuelwatch study reports that the IPCC, among others, counts flooding oil reservoirs with carbon dioxide, to extract otherwise inaccessible oil out of the ground, as BECCS. Hardly “carbon neutral”!

And electric vehicles are only as green as the electricity that powers them. If fossil fuels produce the electricity, then how green is it really? An electric automobile still has the metal, plastic, rubber, glass and other raw materials a gas-guzzling one has. By one estimate, 56 percent of all the pollution a vehicle will ever produce comes before it hits the road.

Critics of Planet of the Humans do make one valid point — the film is too pessimistic about the likely improvements still to come in solar panels and other renewable sources. The film implies such technologies are hopeless. As a counter-argument, it is possible to get long-term energy from hydropower, a renewable not mentioned in the film. New York State gets 17 percent of its power from two hydroplants that have operated for 60 years and are maintained well enough by a state agency that they will supply energy for decades to come. So although these giant plants obviously used much energy to build, they are large ongoing net positives in terms of greenhouse gases.

Development of renewable energy sources is necessary to bring an end to fossil fuels. But only one part. Building solar panels and other renewable equipment to last much longer is another part. But there is no achieving sustainability without consuming less — or at least those of us in the advanced capitalist countries consuming less. That is the hard truth that must be faced. The liberal belief that we can have our cake and not only eat it but make more cakes and eat them, too, is a fantasy. There are no free lunches nor limitless cakes.