We have no cheering interests when two oligarchic right-wing governments fight

It is bewildering to see the Russia/Ukraine war be reduced to a cheering contest, as if a football game were being watched. For those along much of the political spectrum, this cheering for “our side” is not a surprise given the well-oiled propaganda apparatus that constitutes most of the corporate media. But many on the Left have substituted cheerleading for analysis, on both sides.

On one side, we have a capitalist country run on behalf of selected oligarchs in which a reactionary church aligns itself with a powerful authoritarian ruler who oversees an intensely patriarchal social policy featuring deep sexism and violent homophobia (Russia). On the other side, we have a capitalist country controlled by shifting alignments of oligarchs in which a virulent nationalism long intertwined with fascist ideologies are backed by far right militias given free rein (Ukraine).

Why should we be rooting for either of these? To say this is not to deny the brutality of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine or to condone it, nor to deny the reality of U.S. imperialism and the aggressive, destabilizing NATO expansion that contributed to the tensions that detonated into war. But it is ordinary Ukrainian people who are paying the biggest price of this war — if we are anti-war, then perhaps our efforts might be directed toward bringing the war to a negotiated end. Both sides still believe they can win militarily, but as the war increasingly develops stagnant front lines, it seems that negotiation may be the only way to bring the fighting to an end. From a humanitarian standpoint, ending hostilities not only will save Ukrainian and Russian lives, it will also save lives elsewhere, given the blockades on Ukraine’s Black Sea ports that have prevented the export of grain.

Dawn in the Prypiat-Stohid landscape park, Northwestern Ukraine. (photo by EnergyButterfly)

The July 22 agreement among Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations to allow grain shipments to resume was a hopeful sign, although the bombing of Odessa’s port a day later demonstrates there are many difficulties to come and that humanitarian concerns are not at the forefront of military minds.

A serious look at the two combatant countries might provide us ample reason to not engage in cheerleading. Is Russia really classifiable as a progressive bulwark because of its opposition to U.S. domination of the world as some would have us believe? Is Ukraine really a democratic beacon in which fascist groups are so minuscule as to be completely irrelevant as some others would have us believe? Let’s take a look.

Putin represents a continuation of Yeltsin

To understand President Putin’s rise and continuing grip on power, it is necessary to summarize Russia’s post-communist history. Boris Yeltsin was able to out-maneuver Mikhail Gorbachev in the last years of the Soviet Union, and upon the breakup, Yeltsin was already Russia’s leader. Yeltsin immediately imposed a program of “shock therapy” — the sudden simultaneous lifting of all price and currency controls and withdrawal of state subsidies in conjunction with rapid mass privatization of public assets and properties. The immediate purpose of such a program is to place everything into private hands so that as much profit as possible can be extracted, in conjunction with the concomitant broader goals of blocking the creation of more socially harmonious economic models. This would be a very specific ideological experiment — a “pure” capitalism. “Pure” because this would be capitalism without constraints.

There was nothing democratic about this. The plans for shock therapy were not placed before the public nor the Russian parliament; they were presented only to the International Monetary Fund. A large majority of Russians opposed full privatization, instead backing the transformations of enterprises into cooperatives and state guarantees of full employment. The shock therapy program of complete liberation of prices (except for energy), the concomitant ending of all subsidies of consumer products and for industry, and allowing the ruble to float against international currencies instead of having a fixed exchange rate was a disaster. The freeing of prices meant that the cost of consumer items, including food, would skyrocket, and the ruble’s value would collapse because the fixed value given it by the Soviet government was judged as artificially high by international currency traders. This combination would mean instant hyper-inflation. At the same time, oligarchs quickly arose, mostly from the black-market networks that flourished during the corruption of the Brezhnev era, taking control of Russia’s productive enterprises. Western governments, while doing everything they could to have shock therapy imposed, slated Russia to be reduced to a natural resources exporter as Russian industrial output drastically decreased.

The Russian economy collapsed so steeply that Yeltsin could only “win” re-election in 1996 through massive cheating, and handing the biggest prizes, giant natural resources enterprises that had not yet been privatized, to the seven biggest oligarchs for almost nothing in exchange for their financial and media support. The result of the first years of capitalism was that the Russian economy contracted by an astonishing 45 percent by 1998 as poverty and crime rates skyrocketed. Yeltsin appointed Vladimir Putin as his last prime minister, then appointed him his successor as president in exchange for a blanket pardon for him and his family. Rising prices of oil and gas helped the Russian economy strengthen during Putin’s first set of terms as president. Nonetheless, he cut taxes for the rich while reducing benefits for pensioners. Corruption became so rampant that, in Putin’s first years as president, the amount of money spent on bribes exceeded the amount of revenue paid to the Russian government.

Red Square, Moscow

It is a commonplace cliché to say that he is a product of the KGB who oversees a personal dictatorship that represents a sharp break from Yeltsin’s reign. That is not so. An excellent analysis of the Putin régime is found in Tony Wood’s book Russia Without Putin. The author demonstrates well that the Putin era is in large part a continuation of the Yeltsin era, that corruption is endemic among Russian elites and that Putin is at the apex of a system that predates him. The kleptocratic, autocratic variety of Russian capitalism was well established before Putin’s ascent to power. Putin was shaped in the massive corruption of the post-communist 1990s and the Yeltsin régime. He was brought into the St. Petersburg city government in 1990 and became a functionary in the Yeltsin national government in the mid-1990s. Loyalty to superiors and to Yeltsin enabled his swift rise. There was a gradual drift of Putin’s government from seeking cooperation with the West to dogged opposition, a change cemented by the 2014 overthrow of the Ukrainian government and the U.S. hand-picking the new prime minister for Kyiv. Unrelenting hostility from the U.S. despite Russian overtures, and NATO expansion as the U.S. pressed its strength over Russian weaknesses, played a significant role in this evolution.

Mr. Wood offers this summation of Putin’s rule:

“Putin’s first administration, from 2000 to 2004, was perhaps the most energetically neoliberal, introducing a series of measures designed to extend the reach of private capital: in 2001, a flat income tax set at 13 per cent; in 2002, a labour code scaling back workers’ rights; tax cuts for businesses in 2002 and 2003. These moves were widely applauded in the West at the time: the right-wing Heritage Foundation praised ‘Russia’s flat tax miracle’, while Thomas Friedman gushed about Russia’s embrace of ‘this capitalist thing’, urging readers of the New York Times to ‘keep rootin’ for Putin’. His second presidency, too, was marked by moves to increase the private sector’s role in education, health and housing, and by the conversion of several in-kind social benefits to cash payments — a ‘monetization’ that prompted popular protests in the winter of 2004-05, but which was carried through in modified form all the same.”

Reactionary social policies grounded in misogyny and homophobia

Not very progressive, is it? Nor is the Putin régime in social matters. Here’s an excerpt from a Human Rights Campaign press release issued after an anti-LGBT law was passed:

“Last year, the law banning ‘propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations’ was passed by Russia’s Federal Assembly and signed into law by President Vladimir Putin. Under the guise of protecting children from ‘homosexual propaganda,’ the law imposes fines or jail time on citizens who disseminate information that may cause a ‘distorted understanding’ that LGBT and heterosexual relationships are ‘socially equivalent.’ The fines are significantly higher if such information is distributed through the media or Internet.

An article in the peer-reviewed academic journal Slavic Review, authored by sociologist Richard C. M. Mole, provides further information on Putin’s anti-LGBT law:

“The politicization of homophobia in post-Soviet Russia came to a head in the 2013 ‘gay propaganda law,’ under the terms of which individuals and organizations can be fined for disseminating information about ‘non-traditional sexual orientations’ among minors, promoting the ‘social equivalence of traditional and non-traditional relationships’ or ‘the depiction of homosexual people as role models, including mention of any famous homosexuals.’

Sounds just like what right-wing Christian fundamentalists promote in the United States, doesn’t it? If we, correctly, energetically oppose such hate in the West, shouldn’t we also energetically oppose it elsewhere? Directly related to these developments, Russian Orthodox is again the official state religion — in an echo of tsarist rule, the ruler and the church are reinforcing one another. The Russian Orthodox Church is so extreme in its hatred that its top-ranking official equated same-sex marriage to “Nazism” and also “a form of ‘Soviet totalitarianism’ that threaten[s] humanity.” He has called Vladimir Putin’s rule “a miracle” while Putin grants the church “generous economic support from state-allied energy giants.” The church is deeply misogynistic, with the church opposing laws against domestic violence because such concepts are “Western imports” and church officials claiming women are less intelligent than men.

Putin is also in lockstep with the church when it comes to women. He signed into law a measure that decriminalizes domestic violence — in a country in which an estimated 14,000 women per year die from injuries inflicted by husbands or partners. Russia also has one of the world’s widest pay gaps between men and women, and numerous jobs are closed to women.

The far right ideologist who gives Putin his worldview

Although Russia is increasingly aligning with China, that alliance is perhaps more grounded in pragmatism than in any shared economy-building project. China has given rhetorical support of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but appears to have given no material aid. In any event, Moscow will be the junior partner in any formal alignment with Beijing. Who are Putin’s ideological allies around the world? Donald Trump, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, France’s Marine Le Pen and her National Rally, Italy’s Matteo Salvini and his far right League, Hungary’s Viktor Orbán and his reactionary Fidesz party, and Nigel Farage, former leader of Britain’s absurdly named United Kingdom Independence Party. Might there be a pattern here?

Taking all this into account, plus Putin’s wildly inaccurate claims that Ukraine is an artificial construct, might leave a reasonable observer in less than shock that the person believed to be Putin’s biggest ideological influence is Aleksandr Dugin. Who is this person who is frequently described as “Putin’s brain”? “Alexander Dugin is quite possibly, after Steve Bannon, the most influential fascist in the world today,” writes Dan Glazebrook, a journalist and activist who writes frequently on fascism. “His TV station reaches over 20 million people, and the dozens of think tanks, journals and websites run by him and his employees ultimately have an even further reach.”

A pro-Russian demonstration, May 9, 2022, in Vienna. (photo by Robot8A)

Mr. Glazebrook wrote a most interesting article on Dugin in the now lamentably discontinued CounterPunch print magazine (Volume 25, No. 6). Dugin’s strategy is using Left-sounding phrases as a way of coopting the Left, a classic strategy of the far right. (This has echoes of so-called “9/11 truthers” on the far right who are trying to use the issue as a way of worming their way into the Left; a strategy that, sadly, all too many fail to observe.) It is worthwhile to quote extensively from Mr. Glazebrook’s article so we get a full sense of the Dugin strategy. He writes of Dugin:

“His strategy is that of the ‘red-brown alliance’ — an attempt to unite the far left and far-right under the hegemonic leadership of the latter. On the face of it, much of his programme can at first appear superficially attractive to leftists — opposition to US supremacy; support for a ‘multipolar’ world; and even an apparent respect for non-western and pre-colonial societies and traditions. In fact, such positions — necessary as they may be for a genuine leftist programme — are neither bad nor good in and of themselves; rather, they are means, tools for the creation of a new world. And the world Dugin wishes to create is one of the racially-purified ethno-states, dominated by a Euro-Russian white power aristocracy (the ‘Moscow-Berlin axis’) in which Asia is subordinated to Russia by means of a dismembered China. This is not an anti-imperialist programme. It is a programme for an inter-imperialist challenge for the control of Europe and Asia: for a reconstituted Third Reich.

And what does Dugin propagate? “His first journal, Elementy, founded in 1993, praised the Nazis and the Conservative Revolutionaries which preceded them, and published the first Russian translations of esoteric interwar fascist Julius Evola.” Dugin’s work, Mr. Glazebrook writes, is frequently re-published on a U.S. white supremacist website. That is no aberration, as Dugin “has close links to the American far right — he has links to former KKK leader David Duke; one of his disciples, Nina Kouprianova, is married to leading US fascist Richard Spencer; whilst him and Alex Jones feature on each other’s TV shows.” But, sadly, Dugin was once invited by a Syriza government minister in Greece to give a lecture.

“Dugin’s outlook essentially boils down to a combination of “ethnopluralism” and what he disingenuously terms Neo-Eurasianism,” Mr. Glazebrook writes. “Both ideas lend themselves well to the building of a ‘red-brown’ fascist-led alliance, as both have elements which are superficially appealing to the left whilst in fact providing theoretical cover for genocide and imperial war.” While superficially saying that different land masses belong to the people who originate there, the corollary is that non-Europeans should be removed from Europe. This is white supremacist and anti-Semitic, demonstrated when Dugin condemns what he calls “subversive, destructive Jews without a nationality.” The Dugin project “is essentially the reconstitution of the territories of the Third Reich (including the parts of Russia it never conquered) under joint German-Russian tutelage. … The real inspiration Dugin appears to have gained from classic Eurasianism was its strategy of the infiltration and colonization of the left rather than direct confirmation with it.”

Mr. Glazebrook’s article concludes that “Duginism is a classic fascist blend of ‘anti-elite’ rhetoric, demands for ethnic purification, and an imperial foreign policy agenda, all dressed up in politically-correct appeals to cultural distinctiveness and anti-western tubthumping. Its particular danger comes from the deep inroads it has made into anti-imperialist and leftist circles.”

The reactionary source for claiming Ukraine doesn’t exist

The article just summarized does not mention Putin. But plenty of writers have made the connection between the Russian leader and Dugin. Writing in the March/April 2015 issue of World Affairs, Andrey Tolstoy and Edmund McCaffray write, “Dugin is the intellectual who has Vladimir Putin’s back in the emerging ideological conflict between Russia and the West. At home, Putin uses him to create a nationalist, anti-liberal voting bloc.” And not only the Russian leader: “Dugin has also been actively involved in the politics of Russia’s elite, serving as an adviser to State Duma chairman and key Putin ally Sergei Naryshkin. His disciple Ivan Demidove serves on the Ideology Directorate of Putin’s United Russia party, while Mikhail Leontiev, allegedly Putin’s favorite journalist, is a founding member of Dugin’s own Eurasia Party.” Dugin is a former sociology professor at Moscow State University, founded the Center for Conservative Studies and lectures at police academies, military schools and other law enforcement institutions.

Dugin, in 2016, praised the election of Trump as U.S. president. Olivia Goldhill, writing in Quartz, said “Dugin’s ideas are reminiscent of the alt-right movement in the US, and indeed there are ties between the two. … The Russian philosopher has published articles on Spencer’s website, Alternative Right, reports Business Insider, and recorded a speech titled ‘To my American Friend in Our Common Struggle,’ for a nationalist conference in 2015. … Dugin has also identified an ally in Donald Trump, viewing him as a triumphant opponent to the liberal global elite. After Trump was elected, Dugin told the Wall Street Journal he was elated at the result. ‘For us it is joy, it is happiness,’ he said. ‘You must understand that we consider Trump the American Putin.’ ”

Other friends of Dugin’s include the Greek fascist party Golden Dawn. The party has a picture of Dugin standing with a Golden Dawn member who was also a member of an anti-Semitic group that “praised the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”

Percentage of population that identified Ukrainian as their native language in the 2001 census. (Author: Alex Tora)

Dugin’s ideology is also sometimes characterized as “Traditionalist.” But regardless of what term might be used for his far right ideology, there seems little doubt that he is a strong influence on Putin. Interviewed in Jacobin, Benjamin Teitelbaum, an International Affairs professor who has written works on the far right, said:

“[I]t seemed quite obvious that Putin was listening to Dugin speak, because when Putin went out afterward he was recycling and learning from Dugin, almost letting him teach him how to characterize the war and Russia’s role in the world. But throughout all of this, he has basically had no significant official role in the Russian government. That’s what makes him so hard to characterize. … If Russia is being characterized or ever characterized itself as a beacon of the immaterial and the spiritual in the world (which you do hear from Putin occasionally — we heard a version of it at the beginning of his speech on Ukraine right before the invasion — that’s Dugin territory. It’s in the most deeply messianic and eschatological framings of this war that you can see Dugin’s influence.”

Dugin’s use of the term “Novorossiya” (New Russia) for territories of Eastern Ukraine, has been taken up by Putin. Three days before the invasion of Ukraine, Putin asserted that Ukraine is a fiction. He said, “Modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia, more precisely, Bolshevik, communist Russia. This process began immediately after the revolution of 1917. … As a result of Bolshevik policy, Soviet Ukraine arose, which even today can with good reason be called ‘Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s Ukraine.’ He is its author and architect.” Earlier, in December 2019, Putin said, “When the Soviet Union was created, primordially Russian territories that never had anything to do with Ukraine were turned over to Ukraine,” referencing Ukraine’s southeast, including the entire Black Sea region. But, according to a London School of Economics blog post linking to the 1926 Soviet census, ethnic Ukrainians “far outnumbered ethnic Russians” in eastern Ukraine, including today’s contested areas, at that time. Internal Soviet republic borders tended to be drawn very carefully as to the local populations; the highly complicated borders of the former Soviet Central Asian republics remain a good demonstration.

Putin’s assertions, resting on anti-communism no less, have no basis in reality. Present-day Ukraine is where Slavic peoples settled in the fifth century CE; from there Slavic tribes expanded their territories, including tribes that would eventually become the Russian nationality. A state centered on Kyiv was founded in the late ninth century, and the name “Ukraine” has been used for centuries. It is true that for six centuries there was no independent Ukraine — it was overrun by several empires and often divided — but Poland was similarly wiped from the map for more than two centuries and Slovakia spent a thousand years under the Hungarian yoke. Does anybody deny the existence of the Polish and Slovak peoples? Putin’s statement is ahistorical nonsense.

Ukrainian attacks on its Russian minority

Now let us turn to Ukraine. The country experienced a collapse and oligarch domination similar to Russia. Ultimately, the Ukrainian economy shrank by about 60 percent in the first five years of independence, and didn’t resume growth until 2000, one of the worst performances of any former Soviet republic under capitalism. As late as 2013, Ukraine’s economy was 20 percent smaller than it was in 1990. In 2014, with the economy still floundering, the International Monetary Fund proposed more shock therapy for Ukraine. The IMF program required Ukraine to impose drastic austerity, in the usual fashion. In accepting the IMF deal, Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said the austerity package would result in inflation as high as 14 percent that year and a further economic contraction of 3 percent.

Earlier that year, U.S. diplomat Victoria Nuland imposed Yatsenyuk as prime minister, famously caught on tape saying “Yats is the guy” and offering a vulgar dismissal of any potential European Union concerns. Yatsenyuk had a reputation as “rabidly anti-Russian,” which surely featured prominently in the U.S. decision. That of course was hardly the only occasion of U.S. interference.

A Ukrainian demonstration in Kyiv on Oct 6, 2019, under the slogan “No to capitulation.” (photo by ReAl)

Ukraine, despite the previous close relationship between Russians and Ukrainians, became a bitterly divided country in the years after independence. Fighting in the Donbas provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk has gone on since 2014. The Minsk Accords were to have been the solution. Under these accords, the Donbas provinces were to have been given measures of autonomy with full Russian language rights. The Ukrainian government, spurred by nationalist agitation, had put strong prohibitions on the public use of the Russian language, making Ukrainian the only official language. The Minsk Accords would have also kept Ukraine neutral. Given the deep divides of the country, having trading links to both the EU and to Russia, and allowing Russian as an official language given the millions who speak it, would be in the country’s interest.

Unfortunately, nationalists, and in particular the far right, had different ideas. Contrary to those proffering one-sided pro-Ukrainian viewpoints, the far right is a significant factor in Ukrainian politics, regardless of the tiny size of their official parliamentary presence.

The Ukrainian refusal to implement the Minsk Accords

As we did above with Dan Glazebrook’s work, an article on Ukraine, “Towards the Abyss” in the January-April 2022 issue of New Left Review, is worth an extended study. The article is an interview with Volodymyr Ishchenko, a Ukrainian sociologist now based in Berlin. Extreme nationalists and the far right took advantage of the 2014 “Euromaidan” coup that overthrew the administration of Viktor Yanukovych, but not only them. According to Dr. Ishchenko, the 2014 Euromaidan, like previous “color” revolutions in former Soviet republics, were captured by “agents” who participated in the uprising but “were very far from representing” ordinary Ukrainians. The four major agents that grew stronger after the Euromaidan were the oligarchic opposition parties, structured around a “big man” and patron-client relations; NGOs funded by the West; the far right, organizing into militias and espousing extreme nationalism while taking advantage of a weakening state; and “Washington–Brussels.”

“The competing oligarchs exploited nationalism in order to cover the absence of ‘revolutionary’ transformations after the Euromaidan, while those in nationalist-neoliberal civil society were pushing for their unpopular agendas thanks to increased leverage against the weakened state,” Dr. Ishchenko said. Those who gained the upper hand were opposed to the Minsk Accords. “The Minsk agreements specified a ceasefire, Ukrainian recognition of local elections in the separatist-controlled areas, the transfer of control over the border to the Ukrainian government, and a special autonomy status for Donbas within Ukraine, including the possibility of institutionalizing the separatist armed forces. … The general logic of the Minsk Accords demanded recognition of significantly more political diversity in Ukraine, far beyond the bounds of what was acceptable after the Euromaidan.”

Multiple political currents that had been mainstream before Euromaidan became stigmatized as “pro-Russia,” leading to online and physical harassment. Left organizing had to be done clandestinely due to persistent unchecked threats from the far right. Although the far right comprised only a tiny portion of the post-Euromaidan governments, their ultra-nationalist agenda became government policy. Petro Poroshenko, elected after Yanukovych fled Kyiv, became widely unpopular. As a result, Volodymyr Zelensky was elected in a landslide (in part on his promise to implement Minsk), but had no pool of people behind him to fill out his government.

NATO headquarters (photo by Swadim)

Poroshenko began opposing the Minsk Accords despite his campaign promises to implement them. According to Dr. Ishchenko:

“Although in the end it appeared to be Putin who put an end to the Minsk Accords by recognizing the independence of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in February 2022, there had been multiple statements from Ukrainian top officials, prominent politicians and those in professional ‘civil society’ saying that implementing Minsk would be a disaster for Ukraine, that Ukrainian society would never accept the ‘capitulation’, it would mean civil war. Another important factor was the far right, which explicitly threatened the government with violence should it try to implement the Accords. In 2015, when parliament voted on the special status for Donetsk and Luhansk, as required by Minsk, a Svoboda Party activist threw a grenade into a police line, killing four officers and injuring, I think, about a hundred. They were showing they were ready to use violence.”

After his election, Zelensky proved to be too weak to control the far right militias, which had continued fighting in the Donbas provinces.

“At the same time, Azov and other far-right groups were disobeying Zelensky’s orders, sabotaging the disengagement of Ukrainian and separatist forces in Donbas. Zelensky had to go to a village in Donbas and parlay with them directly, even though he is the Commander in Chief. The ‘moderate’ anti-capitulation people could use the protests of the hard right to say that implementation of the Minsk Accords would mean a civil war because Ukrainians wouldn’t accept this ‘capitulation’, and so there would be some ‘natural’ violence.

From 2014 until the Russian invasion in February 2022, an estimated 14,000 people were killed in Donbas fighting and dislocations are believed to be numbered in the millions.

The weakness of the Ukrainian state and the strength of fascist fighting groups, doesn’t absolve Russia of responsibility, Dr. Ishchenko concludes:

There has been an “incapacity of the post-Soviet and specifically Russian ruling class to lead, not simply to rule over, subaltern classes and nations. Putin, like other post-Soviet Caesarist leaders, has ruled through a combination of repression, balance and passive consent legitimated by a narrative of restoring stability after the post-Soviet collapse in the 1990s. But he has not offered any attractive developmental project. Russia’s invasion should be analyzed precisely in this context: lacking sufficient soft power of attraction, the Russian ruling clique has ultimately decided to rely on the hard power of violence, starting from coercive diplomacy in the beginning of 2021, then abandoning diplomacy for military coercion in 2022.

The adoption by Ukrainian governments of fascist demands

It would be grossly unfair to characterize Ukraine as a country of fascists. Nonetheless, the extent to which fascists have gained control within the country is likely understated by Dr. Ishchenko despite his well-informed commentary. They are definitely understated by those who blindly defend all things Ukrainian. A February 2019 article in The Nation provides a dire picture of fascists running nearly unchecked. Written by Lev Golinkin, the article, “Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are On the March in Ukraine,” pulls no punches. Mr. Golinkin, widely published on Russian and Ukrainian topics, flatly states, “There are neo-Nazi pogroms against the Roma, rampant attacks on feminists and LGBT groups, book bans, and state-sponsored glorification of Nazi collaborators.”

The fascist Azov Battalion, which has been folded into the Ukrainian army, is the best known of these formations but is not the only one, Mr. Golinkin wrote.

“The Azov Battalion was initially formed out of the neo-Nazi gang Patriot of Ukraine. Andriy Biletsky, the gang’s leader who became Azov’s commander, once wrote that Ukraine’s mission is to ‘lead the White Races of the world in a final crusade … against the Semite-led Untermenschen.’ Biletsky is now a deputy in Ukraine’s parliament. In the fall of 2014, Azov—which is accused of human-rights abuses, including torture, by Human Rights Watch and the United Nations—was incorporated into Ukraine’s National Guard. … In January 2018, Azov rolled out its National Druzhina street patrol unit whose members swore personal fealty to Biletsky and pledged to ‘restore Ukrainian order’ to the streets. The Druzhina quickly distinguished itself by carrying out pogroms against the Roma and LGBT organizations and storming a municipal council.

Militia leaders have also been given high-ranking positions in the security apparatus. “The deputy minister of the Interior—which controls the National Police—is Vadim Troyan, a veteran of Azov and Patriot of Ukraine,” Mr. Golinkin wrote. Far right influence has extended beyond personnel, and to the rewriting of history. “In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed legislation making two WWII paramilitaries—the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA)—heroes of Ukraine, and made it a criminal offense to deny their heroism. The OUN had collaborated with the Nazis and participated in the Holocaust, while the UPA slaughtered thousands of Jews and 70,000-100,000 Poles on their own volition.”

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

Is the above report alarmist? Somehow exaggerated? Here are two U.S.-centric sources that also paint a disturbing picture. A group of four human rights organizations — Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, Front Line Defenders and Freedom House — issued a joint statement, “Ukraine: Investigate, Punish Hate Crimes,” that condemns unchecked hate crimes in Ukraine. The statement says:

“Since the beginning of 2018, members of radical groups such as C14, Right Sector, Traditsii i Poryadok (Traditions and Order), Karpatska Sich and others have carried out at least two dozen violent attacks, threats, or instances of intimidation in Kyiv, Vinnitsa, Uzhgorod, Lviv, Chernivtsi, Ivano-Frankivsk, and other Ukrainian cities. Law enforcement authorities have rarely opened investigations. In the cases in which they did, there is no indication that authorities took effective investigative measures to identify the attackers, even in cases in which the assailants publicly claimed responsibility on social media.”

Among the statement’s organizations, Human Rights Watch is known to tilt its reportage toward U.S. interests, and Freedom House is funded by the U.S. government and is notorious for its conservative biases. Not the sort of groups going out of their way to condemn U.S. allies. Want more? How about a report from Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, one of the U.S. government’s leading propaganda arms. A 2019 article by the combined organization reported on the arrest and quick release of far right militants that resulted in several police commanders declaring themselves “Banderites.” That is a reference to Stepan Bandera, a 1940s Ukrainian Nazi collaborator whose Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred tens of thousands of Jews and Poles, and issued anti-Semitic statements as virulent as those of Hitler.

Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reported that after a riot police officer taking part in the arrest of “ultranationalists” called them “Banderites,” Interior Department and police senior officials issued apologies for the use of “Banderite” in a derogatory way, and the arrestees were released. “National Police chief Serhiy Knyazev says he is one. So does Interior Ministry and National Police spokesman Artem Shevchenko. Interior Ministry adviser Zoryan Shkyryak is, too. From the top on down, cops and their bosses are lining up to air their admiration for Stepan Bandera,” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty wrote.

Not a government or society free of fascism, is it?

Should we cheer or should we think?

Lurking in the background, there is the specter of NATO expansion. Many advocates for Ukraine (although, here, not from people on the Left) try to claim that the U.S. never promised Russian officials there would be no eastward expansion of the military alliance. Soon after the invasion, a New York Daily News article “assured” its readers that no such promises were ever made, even claiming that Mikhail Gorbachev had “no recollection” of such a promise. Either Mr. Gorbachev has a short memory or, more likely, the Daily News writer made up that claim out of thin air. It was quite well known at the time that assurances were in fact made. For those requiring proof, George Washington University’s National Security Archive has published an extensive collection of documents demonstrating that such assurances were repeatedly made. “Not one inch” was the well-known formulation of James Baker, then the secretary of state for the Bush I administration. Such promises were made in the context of securing Soviet approval of German unification.

Finally, there are U.S. commercial interests involved. The U.S. has long sought to wean Europe off Russian natural gas and instead buy liquified natural gas from U.S. energy companies. Thus an excuse for Europeans to drop Russia as an energy supplier is not unwelcome among U.S. political and corporate leaders. At this time we have no proof, but it is likely that such considerations contributed to U.S. encouragement for Ukraine to refuse the Minsk Accords.

This has been a long discussion of Ukraine and Russia, but unavoidable if we are to seriously grapple with the complex issues of the war and the combatant countries. Who among us really has a rooting interest in this? Or in either of these two dismal régimes? The United States may be willing to fight a proxy war to the last Ukrainian and Russia is conducting its war in a savage, inhumane manner — and Ukraine has the right, as does any country, to defend itself — but this does not require us to act as cheerleaders for either side. Neither side is remotely a beacon of democracy. Russia’s severe crackdown on dissent is heavily reported, since Russia is now the No. 1 enemy of the West, but parallel actions by Ukraine are ignored in the corporate media. Ukraine has outlawed several parties for being on the Left, or simply because they were in opposition to President Zelensky, including parties holding parliamentary seats. Ukraine, as has Russia, shuts down television stations it doesn’t control.

Cheerleading for Russia simply because it opposes U.S. imperialism without regard for the nature of the country’s government represents a lack of thinking; nothing more than a simplistic chasing of anything that appears to contradict corporate media discourse and U.S. foreign policy. Cheerleading for Ukraine represents a similar lack of critical thinking; an unreflective regurgitation of U.S. government and corporate media propaganda. We really can, and should, do much better than either. War is not a football game.

Must collapse be inevitable? Imagining a “half-Earth” sustainable economy

It seems vastly easier to imagine the future as a dystopian nightmare than as a time when today’s problems are mostly behind humanity. For every work of optimism, such as Star Trek, there are dozens of works imagining a nightmare world of deprivation, environmental destruction and severe repression amidst a world of people scrambling to survive anyway they can in a war of all against all.

Even if a cultural byproduct rather than an intentional construction, this depressing ratio of future scenarios is the inevitable result of capitalism. From cradle to grave, we are endlessly bombarded with propaganda incessantly telling us that humans are competitive, not cooperative, and that individualism is the highest expression of “freedom.” Cut-throat competition is the natural way of the world, as natural as the tides of the ocean, and that participation in struggles against other human beings is the only possible method of organization in a world in which countries and nations also compete fiercely because the world must be organized into “winners” and “losers” through competition. Greed is not only good, it is the primary characteristic driving human behavior because markets sort who those “winners” and “losers” are.

All in the above paragraph is nothing more than propaganda in the service of capitalist elites, the “ruling class” of any capitalist country. Markets, in a capitalist economy, are not dispassionate entities sitting loftily in the clouds making judgements. In reality, they are nothing more than expressions of the aggregate interests of the most powerful and largest industrialists and financiers. Who is this individualistic “freedom” for? It is “freedom” for industrialists and financiers to rule over, control and exploit the vast majority of humanity. “Justice” becomes the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Those who have the most — obtained at the expense of those with far less — have no responsibility to the society that enabled them to amass such wealth. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

It can’t be repeated too often that capitalism is just another system created by human beings, and everything of human creation comes to an end. It is simply one more system of exploitation, one more system to advantage a numerically tiny class at the expense of everybody else. Increasing numbers of people do realize that the days of capitalism are numbered, and with the deprivation that capitalism increasingly imposes on people, and the stunting of human potential that goes with that, it is no surprise that multiple polls have shown young people about equally in favor of capitalism and socialism. That half of respondents are able to overcome the bombardment of capitalist propaganda issued through every imaginable channel is a harbinger that the phrase “a better world is possible” is not pie in the sky.

Imagining a concrete future better world, one based on realistic prognosis using some of the bricks of today to build tomorrow because a tabula rasa is not possible, and realistically meeting human needs in a sustainable economy, is an under-appreciated task. Especially given the endless production of dystopian futures churned out by Hollywood and other corporate cultural producers, it is vital that scenarios of better future worlds be conjured and communicated widely.

That future better world will have to be socialist, in some form. It can’t be capitalist — the system that is driving humanity toward catastrophe and shows no ability to deviate from rushing toward a cliff can’t save itself. There will be new technologies in a future better world, but there won’t be magic techno-fixes. A sustainable world will also be a world in which the peoples of the advanced capitalist countries will have to consume less and more sustainably. But limits won’t be imposed by a government, socialist or otherwise; limits will be imposed by nature and the limits to resources it provides. When fossil fuels dwindle, reduced energy usage will be forced upon us. We can begin to adjust and develop renewable alternatives now on a systemic basis, or have it imposed in a more difficult fashion later.

An extraordinary solution for an extraordinary problem

A worthy addition to the literature of a better world of the future is Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics* by environmental historian Troy Vettese and environmental engineer doctoral student Drew Pendergrass. The two authors have produced a lively, interesting book that sketches out a sustainable world that is socialist. The Half-Earth in its title refers to the thesis that 50 percent of Earth’s land surface needs to be “re-wilded” — allowed to return to forests and grasslands — because that is the only way that the majority of the planet’s species can survive.

At first glance, the concept of “re-wilding” half our planet’s land sounds nearly insane. Under present political conditions, it certainly is impossible and unthinkable. Similar to working people flocking to work in oil and gas production, even tar sands and fracking, despite the environmental damage of such work because capitalist economies offer them no alternatives, who today would have any incentive to leave their homes in the service of returning land to nature? Such a concept could only be possible in a people-centric system that would incentivize people to move and do so over a timescale of decades so that those who wished to stay where they are could do so, free of any pressures, and in a time when environmental needs are at the forefront of popular thinking.

Let us acknowledge that a concept such as re-wilding half of Earth is a proposition that seems fantastic to almost all of us, myself included. An extraordinarily drastic solution, even when acknowledging that humanity faces an extraordinary problem. So let’s take a step back for the moment from this idea, and instead allow the authors to build their case and give us a sense of what such a world might look like.

Housatonic Meadows State Park in Connecticut (photo by Morrowlong)

Half-Earth Socialism opens by sketching out what the world might be like in 2047 if present conditions continue unchecked. This is a future in which geo-engineering is unilaterally undertaken by the U.S. government after a catastrophic hurricane devastates the Northeast U.S., and it goes bad, causing a cascade of problems including atmospheric ozone depletion. There is a temporary planetary cooling because of the aerosols thrown into the atmosphere by the geo-engineering project, but in response fossil fuel usages begins to increase again, more climate disruptions cause more problems, ozone depletion becomes worse, agriculture is disrupted and the threat to the prevailing order by social movements peaks and subsides. Capitalist business as usual prevails.

“The problem was that the greens mistook slowing down the pace of the environmental crisis for victory, rather than merely a defeat postponed,” Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write in imaging this business-as-usual scenario of 2047. “Despite briefly tasting power, the environmentalists accomplished little because they never elucidated how the various facets of the environmental crisis — climate change, pandemics, and mass extinctions — were interlinked; nor did they articulate what a post-crisis society might actually look like. The ruling class had long been clever and ruthless, but they were also fortunate to face such hapless opponents.”

Does that judgment seem harsh? It shouldn’t. Mainstream environmental groups, who mostly subscribe to liberal ideas and concepts, today do seek piecemeal solutions to systemic problems, staying within the “acceptable” boundaries of capitalist discourse. This is not to suggest that a typical leader of a national environmental group is insincere, but rather that imaginations are often circumscribed and that leaders often seek “practicality” in the sense of staying within accepted parameters, failing to challenge larger capitalist orthodoxies and being mindful of how far their corporate funders would be willing to go. So although a typical leader of a large environmental group likely believes that they are doing what is possible, they nonetheless often lag well behind their rank-and-file, grassroots members. Can we really expect the totalizing ideology of capitalism not to infiltrate environmental thinking?

Why is the environment outsourced to the market?

The dystopia with which Half-Earth Socialism opens is not inevitable, the authors write, saying that they seek to encourage the environmental movement to take seriously the challenge of creating a better society in a stabilized biosphere. A rapid growth of alternative renewable energy sources is not enough if fossil fuel usage doesn’t decline drastically. The authors ask: Why is the environment outsourced to the market? They then lead the reader through a discussion of neoliberalism, as most of the world calls the present stage of capitalism, tracing its birth to a conference led by Friedrich Hayek in 1947. Hayek believed that markets “communicated information” and that neoliberals are committed to “simple and powerful axioms” that enable them to offer prescriptions and act. Neoliberals can be beaten, the authors write, if socialists and environmentalists create a diverse coalition and learn from one another. In the absence of such a coalition, “racist-libertarians” such as the “alt-right,” Brexiteers and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) will be neoliberalism’s only competition.

A crucial point that Half-Earth Socialism repeatedly makes is that nature is unknowable. “Nature is more unknowable than the market” and deserving of awe as unimaginably complex. This idea is backed up by a discussion of Biosphere 2, the 1990s experiment in which a living, sustainable biosphere was created inside a dome but failed badly, with the human “biospherians” left short of food and oxygen while most life and the coral reefs died. The neoliberal goal of “humanizing” nature — in essence, turning all of nature into exploitable capital — is not realistic. The inventor of “cap and trade” carbon and pollution schemes actually believed that clean air and water were “luxury goods”! Thus “the humanization of nature must proceed in conditions of ignorance,” Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write; with a continuation of that process, zoonotic diseases (those jumping from animals to humans) and other dangers will continue unabated.

Caribbean National Rain Forest of El Yunque, Puerto Rico (photo by Alessandro Cai)

Readers are also led through a discussion of why mainstream panaceas proposed by environmentalists are not feasible or realistic. Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS), a favorite scheme often promoted as a way of reversing atmospheric carbon dioxide buildup, is a chimera. The technology to remove carbon dioxide and store it underground sufficient to reverse global warming doesn’t exist and can’t be a solution. To do what it is advertised to do, BECCS would require land bigger than India — so much land would have to be cleared that BECCS would become a net producer of greenhouse gases. This sort of concept is an example of mainstream environmentalists seeing a “set of discrete technical problems” to be tackled through piecemeal reform while leaving capitalist foundations untouched. Nuclear energy is also no solution, despite its promotion by some environmentalists, not only because of radiation and radioactive waste, but because nuclear is more carbon-intensive than renewables. (The authors don’t mention the finances of nuclear power, but the entire industry only exists because of massive subsidies; nuclear is completely uneconomical.)

Such proposals have “almost no chance of being implemented” despite concessions that are made by proponents; BECCS, nuclear power and biofuels will fail due to “lack of utopian imagination” and because the environmental crisis can’t be understood outside the structure of the society causing the crisis.

Any half-Earth coalition “must be a broad one,” the authors stress, and suggest that the wide popularity of anti-nuclear movements would provide a firm pillar of any such coalition. Advocates of BECCS and nuclear power are trying to maintain as much of the status quo as possible. Instead, it is better to be realistic about what lies ahead and the trade-offs that must be made. Half-Earth Socialism acknowledges that giving up meat and energy quotas won’t be popular for many people, but are nonetheless better and more viable than mainstream alternatives.

Balancing human needs with planetary boundaries

So what are the specifics of half-Earth socialism? The goals, Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write, are to prevent the sixth mass extinction, “natural geo-engineering” to draw down carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and create a fully renewable energy system. Re-wilding means re-forestation, renewed grasslands, restoring wild animals and rebuilding stocks of fish and whales. Likely the only way to accomplish all this and have enough food for 10 billion people would be through “widespread veganism” and energy quotas. A quota of 2,000 watts per person would be a significant reduction for most living in the Global North but a large increase for the Global South. Needless to say, farming would become all organic. Trade-offs are inevitable, and should be addressed honestly rather than “cooking the books” as mainstream environmentalists can do:

“We offer an honest reckoning of Half-Earth socialism because we believe that a feasible utopia is one where its costs are democratically appraised rather than hidden by the pseudorational measure of money.” [page 84]

What is proposed is half-Earth socialism, with heavy stress on socialism. This is to differentiate from reactionary promoters of half-Earth re-wilding that should be rejected. “Half-Earth must be socialist,” Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write. That means fully democratic and publicly supported. The proposals of far-thinking economists in the former Soviet Union failed to gain ground due to lack of a democratic movement to support them and the inability of Western climate scientists’ models to be taken with the necessary seriousness follows from the absence of social movements strong enough to put them into practice.

Half-Earth socialism would need to balance human needs with planetary boundaries, working through a myriad of factors. A fully democratically accountable planning organization could offer several scenarios with differing parameters and trade-offs, with decisions made either by elected representatives or a global referendum where everybody is eligible to vote. The authors whimsically call their planning agency “Gosplant,” quickly adding “forgive us” with the introduction. (The name is a play on “Gosplan,” the name of the planning agency in the Soviet Union, but unlike Gosplan, “Gosplant” would be fully democratic and based on public input.)

This wouldn’t be easy at the start, and realistically shouldn’t be expected to be easy. The planning agency would need to determine energy quotas and to balance land use and greenhouse gas emissions. This would be made more challenging by the difficulty of electrifying transport and some industrial processes. Widespread veganism would make this much easier because animal agriculture uses up so much land and is responsible for significant greenhouse gas emissions. Trade-offs would be required in every plan or scenario. There would also be some temporary measures that would be phased out when practical.

“Wide-ranging improvements to industrial processes to reduce pollution, fuel use, and waste are undertaken in just about every industry. Large swathes of manufacturing become rationalized when ‘planned obsolescence’ itself is made obsolete. Resources are directed towards building solar panels, wind turbines, super-efficient insulation, and railways. Immediately after the Half-Earth socialist revolution, much of the world’s pasture is converted into biofuel plantations for the short-term decarbonization of transport and industry, while the remainder is rewilded, which in turn requires an expanded cadre of ecologists and foresters trained in both conventional science and traditional Indigenous knowledge.” [pages 110-111]

The planning agency does not dictate what the future should be or how the economy should be run, but rather would provide the public and its representatives with blueprints. Making economics understandable for everyone is a pre-condition for a socialist democracy. The planning agency would educate citizens on how the economy and the biosphere work. “Half-Earth socialism would not be some distant, top-down technocracy but rather a relatively simple democratic system, based on robust public education and involvement. An informed citizenry would be well-equipped to choose among the competing plans devised by the planners.”

Planning would need a balance of flexible local decision-making with some measure of central control, with continual refinement for specific outcomes. The idea here would be that an approved plan, whether approved by a world parliament or by popular referendum, would be “coarse” — it would be a general guide with local and regional economic plans based on it being more detailed and tailored to those local and regional needs. Decisions on plans would occur after copious popular discussion and would be flexible so that changes in raw materials and component allocations could be made as shortages appear in one area and excesses in another.

Building the future with tools we already possess

The technology to make this level of planning a reality already exists, Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass write:

“Every element of Half-Earth socialism’s ‘vast machine’ of planetary calculation is based on already existing technologies. The central algorithms in the model would take advantage of many of the insights and engineering designs that climate scientists have spent decades developing. Its tiered structure could draw on the nesting pattern found in environmental and atmospheric models, with global and local simulations constantly interacting and updating one another. … All this data does not mean that we fully know nature, only that Half-Earth socialist planners would have access to the vital signs of the planet so they could modify humanity’s interchange with nature when necessary.” [pages 129-130]

Lurking in the background is the experience of the Soviet Union and its Central European satellites, which collapsed. In acknowledging this history, the authors note that those failures must be reckoned with and that people must have a direct say in social and economic decisions.

“Socialism is a society emancipated from the relentless, unconscious, and irrational power of capital. Living in a planned society should feel better and freer, with a sense of solidarity and freedom from the threat of poverty. Democracy and meaningful work are not mere side effects of a socialist economy but central for planning to function.” [page 130]

Accepting limits and trade-offs is also central to such a project. Postulating that socialism leads to shortages just as capitalism leads to surplus production that results in inequality, unemployment and environmental catastrophe, disadvantages must be accepted if we want the benefits. Crucially, the sketches of the book are “starting points for a deeper discussion of how socialism should function in an age of ecological crisis.” The book concludes with a fictional chapter describing a functioning half-Earth socialist democracy in western Massachusetts, written with a nod to William Morris’ utopian novel News From Nowhere. Bicycling is the main transport method here because public transport, as is the case across the U.S., badly lags other countries, something the people of this region are coping with.

Downtown Amherst, Massachusetts. Might be difficult to re-wild. (Photo by AlexiusHoratius)

Half-Earth Socialism is not a utopia, even though the authors have a practical utopian streak in them. They conclude by stating that humanity’s choices are “further humanization of nature through mad [geo-engineering] schemes” or “to plan an economy within planetary boundaries.” Everyone would have the essentials but “occasionally it might be necessary to stand in queue.” As the authors put it, there will be more comfort than what Cubans experienced during the early 1990s “special period” but “less than a typical eco-Yuppie in the Global North who installs solar panels on the roof of their McMansions … and has a $70,000 electric car in the garage.”

As I have said in previous book reviews, the judgment to be made is whether an excellent contribution to the literature has been made, not whether we agree with all the details and theses. I will say here that I do agree with a huge majority of the contents but even if I had more disagreements, I would still recommend Half-Earth Socialism. Dr. Vettese and Mr. Pendergrass have provided us with a marvelous, needed concept for how to organize a realistic better world, one recognizable from the standpoint of today. The one thing missing, however, is substantial — there are no ideas provided on how we might get from today to a half-Earth socialist democracy tomorrow. Also missing is how a transition to re-wilding half the land could be carried out, other than it would be a slow, decades-long transition.

I won’t consider these fatal flaws, for how to ignite and see through a successful revolution is something none of us possess today, nor can we alone. I have long said if I knew the secret, I’d tell everybody and not keep it to myself. What is essential is that we have practical, realistic ideas based on the limits our planet imposes on us if we are ever going to be in a position to create a better world. On that important metric, Half-Earth Socialism should be widely read.

* Troy Vettese and Drew Pendergrass, Half-Earth Socialism: A Plan to Save the Future from Extinction, Climate Change, and Pandemics [Verso, London and Brooklyn, 2022]

Financial manipulation and inequality keep rising: Capitalism working as intended

Many well-meaning people lament that our economic system is “not working.” But that isn’t true if we apply some historical context. What has capitalism wrought since its earliest days?

Capitalism is a totalizing system built on slavery, colonialism, imperialism, plunder, deeply uneven power relations and exploitation. It remains a system where “might makes right” is the “rule of law.” The “innocence” of early capitalism is a fantastical myth purporting the existence of an earlier, innocent capitalism not yet befouled by anti-social behavior and violence or by greed.

Such an innocent capitalism has never existed, and couldn’t. Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. It is not for nothing that Karl Marx famously wrote, “If money … ‘comes into the world with a congenital blood-stain on one cheek,’ capital comes dripping from head to foot, from every pore, with blood and dirt.”

Mass movements can, and have, temporarily ameliorate the deep inequality. But always temporarily, as we can’t stay in the streets forever. Corporate globalization and the pervasive political apparatus that nurtures, sustains and expands it are ever intensifying. The holders and managers of multi-national capital accrue ever more power and wealth, which begets still more power and wealth, raising inequality to absurd levels.

Anti-austerity march in Dublin (photo by William Murphy from Dublin)

The object of capitalism is for capitalists to accumulate more. A macabre race: How could any human being spend billions, tens of billions, of dollars/euros/pounds? Why would an economic system that results in such mind-boggling inequality be further rigged to increase inequality? Could we soon see the world’s first trillionaire?

This is the backdrop for the latest series of reports highlighting the madness of capitalist inequality. Let’s take a quick look while we try to put those reports in some kind of context.

Trillions for speculators, crumbs for you

At the same time that wages are stagnant, living standards are falling, inflation is hurting purchasing power and labor laws are under attack, the corporations of North America, Europe and Japan handed out an astounding US$2.75 trillion (€2.63 trillion) to shareholders in 2021. At the same time, the average pay of U.S. chief executive officers is now approaching 700 times the median pay of their employees.

That massive largesse (although even “largesse” seems inadequate) for shareholders came in two forms: $1.5 trillion in dividends paid and $1.25 trillion in stock buybacks. Simultaneous with those payouts for speculators, which have fully rebounded from the temporary declines of 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic, companies are sitting on more cash than ever. Non-financial companies in the S&P 500 Index held US$1.3 trillion in cash and cash equivalents in the third quarter of 2021, compared to $909 billion at the beginning of 2020. So, yes, they can afford to give employees a raise.

Keep this in mind when financiers scream for more austerity and bigger corporate profits, and corporate executives claim they have no choice but to cut costs by eliminating jobs, holding down wages and shipping jobs to low-wage, weak-regulation havens.

And indications so far this year show that 2022 is likely to top 2021’s records for dividends and stock buybacks. Reuters, citing Goldman Sachs, estimates that “S&P 500 companies in 2022 will spend $1 trillion buying up their own shares.” Those giant corporations spent a record $882 billion buying back their stock in 2021, and combined with the dividends handed out, S&P 500 corporations ladled out almost $1.4 trillion last year. (The S&P 500 is a stock market index that comprises 500 of the largest companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges.)

Indeed, life is good if you are a financial speculator. Or parasite, to be more blunt about it.

Financiers as whip and parasite

What is the point of a company using its profits to buy its own stock? To artificially boost how profits are reported. In short, a buyback is when a corporation buys its own stock from its shareholders at a premium to the current price. Speculators love buybacks because it means profits for them. Corporate executives love them because, with fewer shares outstanding following a buyback program, their company’s “earnings per share” number will rise for the same net income, making them look good in the eyes of the financial industry. Remaining shareholders love buybacks because the profits will now be shared among fewer shareholders.

There is a downside to this financial manipulation. You have likely already guessed who loses: Employees. They’ll have to suffer through pay freezes, work speedups and layoffs because the money shoveled into executive pay and financial industry profits has to come from somewhere. This is an unvarnished example of class warfare. A quite one-sided war.

The financial industry, and especially Wall Street, is both a whip and a parasite in relation to productive capital (producers and merchants of tangible goods and services). The financial industry is a “whip” because its institutions (firms that trade stocks, bonds, currencies, derivatives and other instruments on financial markets) bid up or drive down prices, and do so strictly according to their own short-term interests. The financial industry is also a “parasite” because its ownership of those securities enables it to skim off massive amounts of money as its share of the profits. People in the financial industry don’t make tangible products; they trade, buy and sell stocks, bonds, derivatives and other securities, continually inventing new instruments to profit off virtually every aspect of commercial activity.

(Artwork by Susana Anaya)

In the looking-glass world of finance, the biggest drivers of this insatiable process are “shareholder activists.” These so-called “activists” aren’t activists in any customary sense. In ordinary language, an activist is someone who advocates and organizes for social advancement. But in finance-speak, an “activist” is a shareholder who has bought stock in a company for the purpose of demanding the maximum possible short-term profit, regardless of cost to others or to the company itself. “Shareholder activists” are ultra-rich speculators who are particularly aggressive in demanding that profits be handed over to them and jobs be eliminated to extract more for themselves.

Financiers and industrialists fight over the money that workers produce — profits ultimately derive from the capitalist paying the employee much less than the value of what the employee produces — but they agree they should have all of it. You and your co-workers don’t get anything more than crumbs, even though it’s the work of you and your fellow employees who create the money that is converted into gargantuan corporate profits, multi-million salaries for top executives and towering piles of money funneled into speculator pockets. The financial industry does not create money or profit. It confiscates it. That confiscation is embodied in the massive amount of stock buybacks and dividends reported above — massive not only in the raw numbers, but in the very high percentage of overall net income directed into those buybacks and dividends.

If you consume all today, what will there be tomorrow?

How high a percentage? In some years more than 100 percent! For example, in 2015 and 2016, the companies comprising the S&P 500 paid out more money in dividends and stock buybacks than the total of their net income. In 2018, following sharp increases in U.S. corporate profit levels thanks to the Trump administration’s corporate tax cuts, stock buybacks and dividends again exceeded profits. Those years are not aberrations — for the 10-year period of 2009 to 2018, such payouts totaled more than 90 percent of net income for S&P 500 corporations.

These massive payouts to financial speculators aren’t good for employees but are also not good for the long-term health of the corporations handing out the money, something frequently discussed within industry circles. For example, the Harvard Business Review, hardly hostile to business, in a January 2020 article titled “Why Stock Buybacks Are Dangerous for the Economy,” wrote:

“When companies do these buybacks, they deprive themselves of the liquidity that might help them cope when sales and profits decline in an economic downturn. … Taking on debt to finance buybacks, however, is bad management, given that no revenue-generating investments are made that can allow the company to pay off the debt. Stock buybacks made as open-market repurchases make no contribution to the productive capabilities of the firm. Indeed, these distributions to shareholders, which generally come on top of dividends, disrupt the growth dynamic that links the productivity and pay of the labor force. The results are increased income inequity, employment instability, and anemic productivity.”

The Roosevelt Institution, a U.S. think tank that although liberal is far removed from hostility to capitalist institutions, also laments the runaway nature of these massive payouts of stock buybacks and dividends. The organization noted that these payouts are a choice. (Stock buybacks were illegal before neoliberalism took hold at the dawn of the 1980s). A Roosevelt Institute paper, “Regulating Stock Buybacks: The $6.3 Trillion Question,” had this to say:

“Total spending by all publicly traded companies on stock buybacks between 2010–2019 totaled $6.3 trillion, according to their 10-K and 10-Q public filings. Shareholder payments––stock buybacks plus dividends––have on average totaled 100 percent of nonfinancial corporations’ corporate profits over the last decade. Corporate stock is largely owned by wealthy households; the top 10 percent of US households by wealth own 85 percent of corporate equity. To allow this level of buyback activity is a clear policy choice: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has encouraged stock-price manipulation through SEC Rule 10b-18, which essentially lets companies conduct buybacks in any amount, despite purported limits, as it does not enforce its rules nor does it collect real-time data on stock buyback activity.”

With Canadian and European Union regulators lifting temporary restrictions on banks buying back stock and paying dividends in 2021, it is inevitable that we will see more of these. The European Central Bank, the anti-democratic institution that is the most powerful entity within the EU, called its lifting of restrictions “a vote of confidence in the sector’s resilience to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic” while Canada’s “six largest banks could return a combined C$47 billion ([US]$38 billion) in cash to shareholders and still exceed regulators’ capital requirements.”

An altered version of a Depression-era image. (Image by Mike Licht, NotionsCapital.com)

Even Forbes magazine, the self-described “capitalist tool,” admits that dividend payouts are “immense.” And this is a global phenomenon. “In 2021, dividends from UK, Europe and Australian markets grew the fastest compared with 2020, thanks to a recovery in the mining and banking sectors,” Forbes reports. Oil and gas companies are also joining the party — the seven biggest energy companies, including BP, Shell, ExxonMobil and Chevron, will spend as much as US$41 billion (€39.2 billion) in stock buybacks this year, according to the Financial Times.

No wonder regulatory officials are bullish on banks. The central banks of five of the world’s biggest economies have spent about US$10 trillion since 2020 on “quantitative easing,” the technical name for central banks intervening in financial markets by creating vast sums of money specifically to be injected into them and thereby inflating stock-market bubbles. This artificial propping up of financial markets is done through central banks buying their own government’s debt and also buying corporate bonds and mortgage-backed securities. As of February 2022, the U.S. Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of Japan, Bank of England and Bank of Canada spent a composite US$9.94 trillion (€8.76 trillion) from the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic on quantitative easing. And that is not the only program in which central banks showered banks with limitless largesse.

Do executives really work 700 times harder than you do?

Not unrelated to the massive amounts of money siphoned to financiers is the extraordinarily bloated pay of top executives, exemplified by chief executive officer pay. A report just published by the Institute for Policy Studies reveals that the average gap between chief executive officer pay and median worker pay in the U.S. is now 670-to-1 at 300 large corporations studied. Forty-nine of those companies had CEO-to-worker ratios higher than 1,000-to-1. The Institute’s study found that “CEO pay at these 300 firms increased by $2.5 million to an average of $10.6 million, while median worker pay increased by only $3,556 to an average of $23,968,” compared to one year earlier. Worse still, of the more than 100 companies at which employee pay increased below the rate of inflation (and thus a net cut in pay), two-thirds of them spent money on buying back their stock.

How extreme does this inequality get? Here are merely two examples. The Institute’s study reports, “With the $13 billion Lowes alone spent on share repurchases, the company could have given each of its 325,000 employees a $40,000 raise. Instead, its median pay fell 7.6 percent to $22,697.” A previous Institute for Policy Studies report determined that had a proposed law, the Tax Excessive CEO Pay Act, been in effect, Wal-Mart “would’ve owed an extra $1 billion in federal taxes, enough to cover the cost of 13,502 clean energy jobs for a year.” Wal-Mart’s CEO-to-worker pay ratio is more than 1,000-to-1.

Not even extraordinarily ruthless Wal-Mart, the entity most responsible for production being moved to China to take advantage of low wages, is immune from pressure imposed by financial speculators. In 2015, Wal-Mart’s stock price was bid down by speculators for the “crime” of raising its minimum wage to the lordly sum of $9 an hour. Shed no tears for the cut-throat retailer, however, as it receives billions of dollars per year in subsidies and dodges at least $1 billion in taxes annually.

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Having worked our way through the latest set of awful numbers demonstrating the severity of inequality, you can be forgiven if you ask yourself “What else is new?” Inequality is an inescapable feature of capitalism. A severely anti-democratic way of organizing an economy and society. Who would intentionally design such a system? Could you imagine, in a world with egalitarian distribution with sufficient resources for all, if somebody came along and said, “I’ve got a better idea. Let’s give a few people thousands of times more than everybody else and give those lucky few overwhelming political power so that they tilt the system even more in their favor.” Such a person, in such a society, would surely be deemed insane. Yet this is widely accepted as the best system that exists or can ever exist. A system that is destroying the livability of Earth while making life more precarious for billions.

Capitalism is a system that was founded on violence, was built on violence and sustains itself on violence. That force takes many forms. Horrific, state-directed violence in massive doses enabled capitalism to slowly establish itself, then methodically expand from its northwestern European beginnings. English feudal lords began throwing peasants off their land in the 16th century, a process put in motion, in part, by continuing peasant resistance. The rise of Flemish wool manufacturing — wool had become a desirable luxury item — and a corresponding rise in the price of wool in England induced the wholesale removal of peasants from the land. Lords wanted to transform arable land into sheep meadows, and began razing peasant cottages to clear the land. Peasants could either become beggars, risking draconian punishment (up to death) for doing so, or become laborers in the new factories at pitifully low wages and enduring inhuman conditions and working hours.

A process of intensifying exploitation enabled early factory owners to accumulate capital, thereby allowing them to expand and amass fortunes at the expense of their workforces; they were also able to drive artisans out of business, forcing artisans to sell off or abandon the ownership of their means of production and become wage laborers. As the Industrial Revolution took hold, the introduction of machinery was a tool for factory owners to bring workers under control — technological innovation required fewer employees be kept on and deskilled many of the remaining workers by automating processes.

The routine use of armies, private militias and police in violently putting down any attempt by working people to defend or organize themselves, and especially harsh, often lethal, measures against strikes, helped keep capitalists in the saddle. As markets at home became saturated, the endless growth required by capitalism induced industrialists to expand to new markets, encouraged all the way by financiers, and thereby expanding the reach of capitalism and subsuming more of the world under its hegemony as processes of dispossession and resource extraction accelerated.

Violence, including through military invasions and sanctions, remains a crucial means of maintaining capitalism and of keeping the leading powers of the Global North at the top of the pyramid. Other forms of force are readily used, however. The most important use of force is via financial markets. Financial power has always been a powerful lever used by the capitalist center as the apex of the financial system has moved over the centuries from Venice to Amsterdam to London to New York, with each move to a city contained within a militarily more powerful country able to project power over larger areas. Total control of the global financial system enables the United States to impose its will on other countries, even on its Global North allies, a concentrated force used to attack challenges to capitalism and to keep itself at the system’s center.

The task of transcending this is immense, but nonetheless it is the task that must be accomplished. Greed is a human characteristic but if we go to the roots, the problem is a system that facilitates and celebrates greed. Cooperation, after all, is a human characteristic as well, one that could be facilitated and celebrated in a different world.

As long as housing is a commodity, rents will keep rising

Capitalism marches on. And thus housing, because it is a capitalist commodity, has resumed its upward cost, putting ever more people at risk of homelessness, hunger, inability to access medical care and medications, or some combination of those.

There had been a temporary dip in the costs of rentals in 2020 as the pandemic threw a spanner into the economy, but the dynamics of capitalist markets have reasserted themselves. Rent is not only too damn high but getting higher, fast. And almost everywhere, not just in your city.

Here are a few numbers that begin to tell the story:

  • In the United States, rents on residential units have increased at more than double the rate of inflation since 1980.
  • In Canada, rents increased seven and a half times faster than wages from 2000 to 2020.
  • In England, rents grew 60% faster than wages between 2011 and 2017.
  • Germany’s 77 largest cities have a shortage of 1.9 million affordable apartments.
  • In Australia, rent from 2006 to 2022 has increased 12 times faster than inflation-adjusted wages.

Those are countrywide numbers, not specific to particular cities. The numbers are more disastrous in the largest cities.

“Greed” by Rolf Dietrich Brecher

Does this just happen? Could this be, as the corporate media, corporate-funded “think tanks” and the whole panoply of capitalist institutions incessantly propagate, the natural workings of the world? A federal judge in San Francisco, one with a reputation as a liberal, once declared that landlords have nothing to do with rent increases but instead rents rise without human invention in striking down a city law that would have required landlords who kick tenants out of rent-controlled apartments to pay them the difference between the rent they had been paying and the fair market rate for a similar unit for a period of two years.

Perhaps this is what is meant when right-wing ideologues praise the “magic of the market.” More profits just by showing up.

In the real world, actions don’t necessarily happen without human intervention and large trends don’t happen without larger interests. As a case in point, gentrification does not happen spontaneously, but is a result of powerful social forces.

Corporate and government backing of gentrification

A working definition of gentrification is: A process whereby an organic culture originating in the imagination, sweat and intellectual ferment of a people living in a particular time and place who are symbolically or actually distinct from a dominant moneyed mono-culture is steadily removed and replaced by corporate money and power, which impose a colorless chain-store conformity. The process of gentrification is assisted by a local government under the sway of local corporate elites, and is centered on dramatic increases in commercial and residential rents such that the people and culture who are being removed find it increasingly difficult to remain.

Gentrification frequently means the replacement of a people, particularly the poor members of a people, with others of a lighter skin complexion. A corporatized, sanitized and usurped version of the culture of the replaced people is left behind as a draw for the “adventurous” who move in and as a product to be exploited by chain-store managers who wish to cater to the newcomers. Once community members are pushed out, real estate money begins to pour in, rapidly pushing up rents and making the area increasingly unaffordable for those who remain. 

Water is a human right, the people of Detroit say. (Photo by Moratorium NOW! Coalition to Stop Foreclosures, Evictions, and Utility Shutoffs)

One city where this process was particularly harsh is Detroit. Not only are municipal services withdrawn, schools starved of resources, militarized police unleashed and homelessness criminalized, but a “gentrification to prison pipeline” is set up, with People of Color targeted by the legal system. In a “personal” article published in Truthout detailing his experience in Detroit’s Cass Corridor area, Lacino Hamilton, who was incarcerated for 26 years thanks to a wrongful conviction, gives first-hand testimony. He writes:

“I don’t know which came first, but the changes came hard and fast: mortgage foreclosures, the imposition of tax liens, governments seizing property through their power of eminent domain, the reduction and gutting of city services, city officials ignoring an influx of drugs and prostitution, rampant homelessness, and courts and prisons’ increased presence in our lives. But I am certain we were being pushed out of the Cass Corridor, displaced through a complex network of public and private interests. In the mid 1980s, Detroit Mayor Coleman Young announced that city dollars would be used to finance the development of downtown hotels, so that Detroit could attract convention business. Homes were foreclosed. Businesses were dismantled. And everyday decision-making power was shifted from families and local business owners to state legislators, venture capitalists and a combination of financial institutions and interests. It was as if a number of bombs just went off. Almost overnight the Cass Corridor resembled a war zone. …

Forcing people to evacuate a neighborhood or entire section of a city cannot be achieved by democratic means. It is inconceivable that anyone would vote to displace themselves, right? This explains why police, courts and prison are often used to remove and disappear some people. …

The grim reality of gentrification for a large portion of the Cass Corridor’s population has been evident for years. In the eyes of city officials and the big corporations that now control that section of Detroit, the ‘limits of development’ did not call for public participation but for confinement. We were viewed as obsolete commodities that had to leave whether we had some place to go or not, and many of us didn’t. This is how the city of Detroit’s approach to ‘social development’ came to rely so dramatically on the bricks and mortar of prison at the expense of other responses that would have been both more humane and more effective — such as social development with people in mind, not profit.”

That process is deeply related to other problems imposed on Detroit in recent years, such as the same city officials who assisted the process of gentrification being fleeced by financial industry predators who talked them into buying complex, and poorly understood, derivatives that are much more profitable for Wall Street than the issuance of “plain vanilla” municipal bonds that denominate a set amount of debt paying back a set amount of interest on a specific schedule. Following Detroit having to declare bankruptcy because of the financial fleecing, the city literally became a colony with a corporate lawyer imposed as an “emergency manager” who oversaw the shutting off of water to tens of thousands while allowing businesses to accrue vastly higher arrears without penalty. That corporate lawyer was a partner at one of the biggest law firms in the U.S., Jones Day, which supplied at least a dozen officials to the Trump administration.

Pitting renters and homeless people against each other

Gentrification is certainly not confined to Detroit. Far from it. Nor are the processes set in motion by capitalists, especially those in the real estate industry. In Boston, the United Front Against Displacement, an anti-gentrification organization, has reported on the “onslaught of gentrification being unleashed upon Boston’s working-class residents by developers, construction companies, and the city government.” A part of the city’s strategy was to create divisions between renters and homeless people. The organization writes:

“The cops were also regularly messing with people, allowing them to stay in the park for a week or two and then forcing them to move on. They often push people towards a part of the city known as ‘methadone mile’ because of the concentration of methadone clinics. ‘Methadone mile’ is not somewhere most homeless people want to end up, since there is a lot of stealing, violence, and heavy drug use. The police know this stuff is going on and don’t do anything to stop it, preferring to push homeless people from across the city into a situation where they’re likely to get caught up in violence, have their stuff stolen, or fall back into addiction. …

These dynamics have created significant divisions between homeless people in the park and working-class residents of the surrounding projects and apartment complexes. Many residents have grown frustrated after dealing with unsafe conditions in the park for years, from needles left on the playground to stabbings, fights, and other violence. These problems have so far been a significant barrier to bringing residents of the apartments and the homeless population together.

The major divisions we saw amongst people in the park and between them and local tenants are not unique to this one part of Boston. They reflect a larger strategy that the ruling elite use to keep people down by creating conflict and division between people who really should be organizing together. For instance, the police push homeless people to move into the park and the city fails to provide services or sufficient shelters to them. They do this knowing that it will lead to various negative effects for people living in the area: needles and broken bottles in the park, violence, and so on. Then a section of the tenants will start to blame the homeless for these problems, and potentially support increased police patrols and the like as a result. Then two groups of people, homeless people and working-class tenants, who have a common interest in opposing gentrification, are at each other’s throats instead of organizing together.”

Boston Public Garden (photo by Rizka)

Divide and conquer is of course one of the oldest tricks in bourgeois tool boxes. The new administration of New York City Mayor Eric Adams, shortly after taking office, began sending the police to make hundreds of sweeps of homeless encampments. Mayor Adams claims he wants homeless people to “trust” authorities, but having the police arrest them and throw away their belongings hardly seems likely to earn “trust.” At the same time, he appointed real estate-aligned people to the city board that oversees what landlords can charge tenants in rent-stabilized apartments, who promptly asked for massive increases despite steady increases in landlord profits since 1990, a trend that accelerated from 2005.

Seeing battles for affordable rent in a larger context

Although a full toolbox is needed to combat high rents, one tool desperately needed is rent control. Few localities have it, and in most places that do it is inadequate and in need of strengthening. One place with some of the strongest rent control laws in the United States, yet still not providing needed protection, is San Francisco. 

Randy Shaw, writing on the FoundSF website, has provided a brief history of rent control in San Francisco, noting that a comprehensive struggle must go beyond that issue:

“As rents rose and gentrification and displacement worsened, tenant activists unified around a common goal: strengthening rent control. While Proposition R represented a comprehensive response to all aspects of city housing policy, since 1980 the tenant movement has been a series of campaigns designed to improve the very weak 1979 rent control ordinance. This exclusive focus on rent control had positive and negative implications. The 1979 laws clearly provided tenants with inadequate legal protections against eviction, and permitted automatic 7% annual rent raises, an amount well in excess of inflation. Moreover, San Francisco’s rent control law allowed unlimited rent increases on vacant apartments. This gave landlords an economic incentive to evict, and meant that the housing stock would, as tenants vacated, become increasingly unaffordable. As a result, rent control on vacant apartments (i.e., vacancy control) became the chief goal of tenant groups throughout the 1980s.

Tenants’ exclusive focus on strengthening rent control, however, had a major downside: the movement became divorced from the larger urban crisis agenda. Tenant-landlord and rent control fights were no longer surrounded by discussions of class, economic unfairness, and redistribution of wealth. The broader context of rent control as akin to progressive taxation was replaced by debates whose dialogue excluded the tax benefits offered to landlords, their superior wealth, and the conflict between Democratic Party politicians who espoused Republican, free-market principles when rent control was involved. The tenant movement was increasingly comprised of people whose involvement arose from negative personal experiences with their landlords rather than from a broader political outlook. Progressive activists who came to tenant issues in response to an urban crisis were not drawn to tenant organizations whose only response to the crisis was stronger rent control.”

Could a broader focus have helped pass a 2014 ballot referendum that would have imposed a “speculation tax” on building owners who sell a building in less than five years after buying? The proposed law included exemptions to ensure it would have applied only to speculators. Outspent 12-to-1 by real estate interests, the referendum narrowly lost. An activist with the Tenderloin Housing Clinic believed that a greater emphasis on community organizing would have made a difference; the referendum had been placed on the ballot by four members of the city Board of Supervisors (San Francisco’s city council), rather than by activists collecting signatures.

San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district (photo by “Urban”)

United Front Against Displacement, also active there, reports that “almost all the public housing has been privatized” in San Francisco and Oakland. The organization writes:

“In San Francisco, there is an ongoing citywide privatization scheme … called HOPE SF. The city government, banks like Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase, corporations like Google, Kaiser Permanente, and foundations in the city are working together to achieve the HOPE SF scheme. HOPE SF’s plan is to eliminate the last public housing in San Francisco (Sunnydale, Potrero, Double Rock/Alice Griffith, Hunters View), which are in working class neighborhoods in San Francisco, by destroying them and building mixed income developments owned and managed by different private developers.”

United Front Against Displacement reports that the San Francisco Housing Authority actually sent them a letter alleging its organizers were harassing tenants! In response, tenant organizers at one of the targeted public housing projects sent a letter to the authority saying its “misrepresentation is particularly shocking” in light of “over a hundred tenants, voicing opposition to the HOPE SF’s privatization of Sunnydale that is destroying our homes.”

Even getting effective laws passed does not guarantee better housing policies will be implemented. In Berlin, for example, a rent cap that would have frozen rents for 90% of the city’s apartments at their June 2019 level for five years was overturned by Germany’s Constitutional Court in April 2021. The German high court ruled that because the federal government had already made a law regulating rents, which allowed landlords to raise rents by 10% above the local market level, state governments can not impose their own law. But this ruling does not simply repeal Berlin’s law, it may even result in higher rents, reports German broadcaster Deutsche Welle. The “decision could mean a windfall for landlords as rents are instantly raised by hundreds of euros a month, on top of which landlords could now demand their tenants back-pay higher rents for the past year,” DW reported.

Predatory speculations spread their tentacles

Although everybody who rents is affected by gentrification and the social forces pushing rents upwards, those stranded in low-wage jobs and in particular People of Color are most affected. Racism being an ever present reality throughout the advanced capitalist countries, it would be most surprising if that did not impact housing. And here we have no surprises. A highly useful new book, Counterpoints: A San Francisco Bay Area Atlas of Displacement & Resistance, prepared by the Anti-Eviction Mapping Project collective, provides a series of stories and colorful graphics and charts detailing the precarious state of housing in the nine counties of the San Francisco Bay Area, backed by copious research. For example, research detailed in Counterpoints revealed that although Latinx communities represented 25 percent of the populations of San Mateo County in 2014 and 2015, they were 49 percent of those evicted. Black/African-American peoples were 2.5 percent of the county’s population but 21 percent of the evictions.

Displacement is not confined to cities such as Oakland, but is underway in suburban towns. This is due, in part, to the voracious appetite of financial speculators buying up houses in large numbers to rent out, a trend that catalyzed in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Geography professor Desiree Fields, writing in Counterpoints, outlines the scale of that speculation, which contributes to rents becoming out of reach. As many as 7 million single-family homes in the U.S. have been converted to rentals since 2008. This is now a suburban phenomenon, not only an urban one, Dr. Fields writes:

“Whereas, for generations, urban crises set off by financial exploitation were largely confined to aging buildings in [the] ‘inner city,’ after 2008, the single-family home, representing middle-class suburban life, became the ‘mascot’ of the crisis. Cul-de-sacs in low-density subdivisions were lined with for sale signs, and auction notices dotted the front yards of McMansions. In sunny California, Arizona, and Florida, ‘zombie pools’ in abandoned properties grew algae and bred mosquitoes, becoming incubators for disease. Speaking to how the crisis overflowed the spatial, racial, and class boundaries of the urban core, Alex Schafran observed, ‘Just as burned-out housing projects in inner cities were the iconic images of the mid-1970s recession, trashed-out tract homes in California and the Sun Belt are the signature images of crisis in post-millennial America.’

In suburbs and exurbs like Antioch, Brentwood, and Pittsburg (and down-at-the-heels sites of industry like Richmond and Vallejo), places where African American, Hispanic, and Filipino American Bay Area residents displaced from the region’s urban core sought affordable (ultimately unsustainable) homeownership, it was these ‘trashed out tract homes’ to which investors — of all kinds — were drawn in the aftermath of 2008. Crisis as opportunity is, of course, nothing new in capitalism. If anything, crisis is one of its fundamental dynamics and how it adapts to changing contexts, thereby reproducing itself anew. And so, as crisis created a ready population of tenants comprised of former homeowners and those unable to qualify for mortgages under tightened crisis conditions, a financial industry ‘somewhere between anxious and desperate for new products’ began to reimagine single-family rental homes as financial assets. The activities of large-scale ‘corporate’ investors have been particularly notable in parts of California and the Sun Belt hit hardest by the crisis.

Able to raise cash cheaply on capital markets rather than relying on the uncertainties of mortgage credit and armed with digital technology allowing them to zero in on properties meeting their investment criteria, these corporate actors enjoyed a distinct advantage over smaller investors. … ‘Wall Street’ landlords saw in single-family rental the ingredients for a novel financial asset: once they had aggregated ownership, bundles of rent checks could replace bundles of mortgage checks, fueling a model of securitization suited to a potentially post-ownership society. … The sale of these financial assets to bondholders allows Wall Street landlords to borrow against the value of the properties, securing a cash infusion to settle previous debts or pay themselves out. Meanwhile, tenants back this loan with their rent checks.”

SkyView Atlanta (photo by Don McCulley)

Similar dynamics are at work on the other side of the U.S., in Atlanta. A U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development report, “From Foreclosure to Eviction: Housing Insecurity in Corporate-Owned Single-Family Rentals,” found that evictions are spatially concentrated, meaning minority renters are more likely to be thrown out of their homes, and that corporate landlords are much more likely to evict. The report said:

“We document a high, spatially concentrated evictions rate. More than 20 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice in 2015, and 5.6 percent of tenants received a judgment or were forcibly removed from their homes. Evictions are spatially concentrated; in some zip codes, over 40 percent of all rental households received an eviction notice and over 15 percent of all households received a judgment or were forcibly removed. … We find that large corporate owners of single-family rentals, which we define as firms with more than 15 single-family rental homes in Fulton County [the county centered on Atlanta], are 68 percent more likely than small landlords to file eviction notices even after controlling for past foreclosure status, property characteristics, tenant characteristics, and neighborhood. …  Depending on the firm, institutional investors were between 11 percent and 205 percent more likely to file for eviction than mom-and-pop firms, even after controlling for property, tenant, and neighborhood characteristics.”

Out of control rent increases vastly outpace wages and inflation

This is a trend almost certainly to get worse — the Housing and Urban Development report said that, from 2011 to 2013, institutional investors and hedge funds bought an estimated 350,000 bank-owned homes.

A New York Times report noted that “Various studies have found that corporate landlords are more likely to raise rents, evict their tenants and poorly maintain their properties than smaller landlords.” Financial speculators are rapidly buying up single-family homes and are targeting African-Americans. The report said:

“Real estate investors bought a record 18.4 percent of the homes that were sold in the United States in the fourth quarter of 2021, up from 12.6 percent a year earlier. In Charlotte and Atlanta, investors purchased more than 30 percent of the homes sold in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to Redfin. In Jacksonville, Fla., Las Vegas, and Phoenix, they bought just under 30 percent. …  More than 93 percent of homes purchased by corporations as of May 2021 were bought for under $300,000. Many of them were in predominantly Black neighborhoods.”

Regardless of whether you rent a single-family house in the suburbs or an apartment in a city, rent is going up, around the world. In the United States, average rent prices have increased at a rate of 8.9% per year since 1980, consistently outpacing wage inflation by a significant margin. By comparison, average wages increase at an annual rate of 3.44%. Thus, as stated above, rents increase at more than double the rate of wages. A report in the online publication Real Estate Witch reports that from 1985 to 2020, the national median rent price rose 149%, while overall income grew by only 35%. That 35% figure may be overstated; the Pew Research Center reported that U.S. wages, adjusted for inflation, have increased by pennies since 1970, from about $22 per hour then to $22.65 in 2019.

To put all this in another way, your rent would be hundreds of dollars less per month if rents had increased at only the rate of inflation over the past 50 years. If rents had risen at the rate of inflation from 2000, today’s rents, on a national average, would average nearly $200 per month less than they do; if rents had risen at the rate of inflation from 1970, today’s rents would average about $380 per month less than they do. That’s money stuffed into landlords’ pockets and all they have to do is put their feet on the desk and let the checks roll in.

Vancouver as seen from Lookout Tower

One final statistic on U.S. rents, this time for New York City: The Housing and Vacancy Survey, conducted triennially for the city by the U.S. Census Bureau, published its latest report on May 16, 2022. The median wage in New York City is only half of what would be necessary to pay for the median rent, a figure calculated by using the standard metric that nobody should pay more than 30 percent of income to rent. The report said, “The median rent of a unit that was available for rent was $2,750, which would require an income of at least $110,000 to afford; yet, the median household income of renters in 2021 was only $50,000.” In 2021, more than half of New York City renter households (53 percent or just under 1 million households) were rent burdened (more than 30% of income going to rent) and one-third were severely burdened (more than 50% of income going to rent).

These trends are accelerating as the brief pause in rent increases in 2020 are now behind us. Median rents for one-bedroom apartments in several Boston-area towns, including Cambridge, are up by at least 30 percent compared to last year. Boston itself wasn’t far behind with a 27 percent increase in median one-bedroom rents.

Rent gouging and spiraling housing costs in Canada, Britain

As dramatic as housing costs are in the United States, the situation may be even more out of control in Canada. Unlike the U.S. and many European countries such as Germany, housing costs did not pause following the 2008 economic collapse. Prices have risen dramatically since 2000, and the trend of institutional investors scooping up housing is more accelerated in Canada than in the United States. Better Dwelling, which describes itself as “Canada’s largest independent housing news outlet,” reports on the rapid increase of speculation in housing:

“Canadian real estate is being scooped up by investors with excessively cheap credit. Ownership data for residential real estate across four regions show a significant share owned by investors in 2020. What’s most impressive is how fast this trend must have accelerated. Cities have seen up to 90% of recently completed homes go to investors, much higher than normal. … Since we’re only looking at cities, no one’s shack in the woods is likely to be included. Only data for Ontario, British Columbia (BC), and Atlantic Canada is available. … About 1 in 5 (21.0%) homes in the median city across the four regions are investor-owned. When isolating new construction (built after 2016), that number rises to 1 in 3 (33.7%) bought by investors. …

Toronto is Canada’s biggest real estate market, and it’s seeing investor-ownership soar. Investors owned 18.4% of the housing stock in 2020, just shy of 1 in 5 homes. Isolating recently completed homes (after 2016), investors owned 39.1% of the new supply. … Vancouver real estate shows a similar trend, but a higher share of investors. Investors owned nearly 1 in 4 (23.5%) of total housing supply in 2020. For recent builds, that share jumps to nearly half (44.0%) of the supply. It’s easy to see how Toronto and Vancouver home prices are so distorted. There’s a lot less friction for home prices when you’re passing the costs on to someone else. … Atlantic Canada real estate is quickly becoming home to a robust rentier class. In Nova Scotia, investors owned 25.5% of total housing stock in 2020 but 48.7% of recently completed homes. New Brunswick has seen a similar trend where 17.2% of total housing is investor-owned, representing 41.0% of recent completions.”

That concentration of ownership helps fuel the dramatic increase in Canadian housing costs. Sales figures show a 318% rise in home prices since 2000, according to the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. House prices in Montréal, Toronto and Vancouver tripled from 2000 to 2020, and the rest of the country wasn’t far behind, as Canadian house prices overall increased two and a half times, adjusted for inflation, from 2000 to 2020. Canadian wages, by contrast, increased only 49% from 2000 to 2020, which really means wages barely improved because Canadian inflation rose 44% from 2000 to 2020.

Across the Atlantic, rent in Britain is too high as well, and it is not only London where such is the case. A report in the Shelter blog reveals that the average renter in England is rent-burdened, by the standard of paying no more than 30 percent of wages to housing. “Other government figures confirm the reality of the affordability crisis in the privately rented sector,” the blog said. “The English Housing Survey (EHS) shows that renters spend 40% of their income on housing costs — double what owner-occupiers pay (19%). Affordability is particularly acute for those with the lowest incomes in England, who spend over 75% of their income on housing costs.”

As noted above, rents in England increased 60% quicker than wages from 2011 to 2017 . The Shelter report said, “And this isn’t just an issue confined to London and the south-east, as you might expect. … So as well as affordability worsening in London, rents in Rugby in the West Midlands have risen at twice the national rate (30% vs. 16%) yet wages have increased by just 5%. Similar figures are seen for East Hertfordshire in the east of England, and in Daventry wages have fallen, while rents have increased by 26%.” In Cambridge, rents increased 36 percent from 2011 to 2017, while wages rose only nine percent. Separately, a 2016 report by the Resolution Foundation found the household income of British renters increased two percent from 2002 to 2015, while their housing costs increased 16 percent.

And on it goes, from Barcelona to Paris to Berlin to Istanbul to Sydney to Melbourne.

Capitalism is global, and it follows that gentrification is global. Rents will continue to rise as long as housing remains a capitalist commodity. That can only change if we create a better world.

Banks fueling global warming is business as usual

The gap between what needs to be done to save the Earth from the environmental disaster of unchecked global warming and what is actually being done continues to widen. Yet another exemplar of this gap is the funding practices of the world’s biggest banks.

Capitalists not concerning themselves with small things like the future ability of the planet to remain livable is nothing new, or we wouldn’t be in our present predicament. But a new report from seven environmental organizations finds that 60 of the world’s biggest banks have invested US$4.6 trillion in fossil fuel projects since the Paris Climate Accord was signed in 2015.

Our descendants, should they be faced with a chaotic climate, massive agricultural disruptions, mass extinctions on land and in the sea, drowned coastal cities and desertification — as they will be should present-day business as usual continue — are not likely to believe that their ruined world will be a fair tradeoff for a handful of industrialists and financiers of the past getting obscenely rich.

Can curses be made retroactive? Perhaps not. But perhaps a worldwide environmental movement can grow sufficiently large and militant to force the necessary changes. There are many out there trying to organize and raise attention — particularly young people, because they will be around long enough to potentially see today’s dire predictions become tomorrow’s reality — but perhaps global warming remains an abstract in too many minds. Or perhaps the daunting challenge of transcending capitalism, without which it is essentially impossible to reverse global warming, is too difficult a challenge. Throwing up our hands in despair would be easier, but if we wish our descendants (or people already alive) to inherit a living world, activism on a world scale is essential.

The Alberta tar sands (photo by Howl Arts Collective, Montréal)

What words should we use to describe an economic system under which it is profitable for a handful of powerful people to profit from the destruction of the environment, and this behavior is richly rewarded?

What words should we use to describe an economic system in which, despite overwhelming evidence of the suicidal course that system is leading humanity, is nonetheless heading straight for global calamity?

What words should we use to those who profit enormously from all this, and why do they have such enormous sums of money to be able to force a continuation of this suicidal course? None of you reading these words voted for this, and none of you can vote to put an end to this. Economic decisions are completely out of the hands of working people; current capitalist ideology has evolved to the point where it is supposed to be unthinkable that economic decisions could be subject to democratic processes. Yet more proof that without economic democracy, there can be no political democracy. A lesson capitalism imposes daily.

Nice words for the environment, gigantic sums of money for fossil fuels

The aforementioned exemplar, a report titled “Banking on Climate Chaos: Financial Fuel Report 2022,” sponsored by Oil Change International, Rainforest Action Network, Indigenous Environmental Network and four other organizations, “finds that even in a year where net-zero commitments were all the rage, the financial sector continued its business-as-usual driving of climate chaos.” Banks are investing in fossil fuels at levels even higher than in 2016, the year after the signing of the Paris Climate Accord, when the world’s governments agreed to the goal of holding the global temperature increase to 1.5 degrees from the pre-industrial level. Of the $4.6 trillion invested by 60 of the world’s biggest banks since the Paris agreement, $742 billion was invested in the industry in 2021 alone.

These banks come from countries around the world, but four United States-based banks were the worst offenders, the report said. “Overall fossil fuel financing remains dominated by four U.S. banks — JPMorgan Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America — who together account for one quarter of all fossil fuel financing identified over the last six years,” it said. “RBC is Canada’s worst banker of fossil fuels, with Barclays as the worst in Europe and MUFG as the worst in Japan.” Three Canadian banks — RBC (Royal Bank of Canada), Scotiabank and Toronto-Dominion Bank (TD) — are among the top dozen in the world for financing fossil fuels.

Even more alarmingly, Royal Bank of Canada and TD have been the “leaders” in a grotesque expansion of tar sands financing — $23 billion was invested in tar sands production in 2021, a 51 percent increase from 2020. Those two Canadian banks combined doubled their funding for tar sands in 2021 compared to 2016. Even more money was poured into fracking. Last year alone, $62 billion was poured into fracking. Wells Fargo more than doubled its fracking investments to $8 billion in 2021. Since the Paris Climate Accord was signed, four U.S. banks are far and away the biggest culprits in fracking — JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Citigroup and Bank of America.

Graphics via Banking on Climate Chaos report

Yes, the world’s governments are hypocritical in signing agreements to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions with no enforcement mechanisms and are far from meeting their announced goals. But that certainly is no reason to excuse the financial industry for its significant role in ensuring that more greenhouse gases than ever are thrown into the atmosphere. Or bank hypocrisy. Take London-based Barclays, Europe’s biggest banking contributor to fossil fuel production and the world’s fifth-largest investor in fracking, trailing only the four U.S. banks mentioned just above.

What are we to make of Barclay’s pronouncement, right on its website home page, proclaiming that “Barclays gives shareholders a ‘Say on Climate.’ ” The bank says it will give shareholders “an opportunity to vote on its climate strategy, targets and progress” at its 2022 annual general meeting. Barclays Chairman Nigel Higgins, in a slick pamphlet, claims the bank aims to be “net zero” by 2050. It would seem to be heading in the opposite direction, unless the intention is to pour billions of pounds into fossil fuels until 2049, then magically stop. If the situation weren’t so serious, we could laugh at the chairman’s assertion that “We believe that our original championing of net zero and Paris alignment has made a difference in banking.” If hot air could displace carbon dioxide, I suppose it would make a difference.

The slick pamphlet, 36 pages long, is full of aspirational goals and even goes so far as to proclaim itself a founding member of the Net Zero Banking Alliance, “part of the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero.” How lovely. The result of last year’s Glasgow climate summit was to continue the tradition of “we were happy to talk and we will be happy to talk some more” while making commitments that ensure global temperatures will soar past 2 degrees C. As for Barclay’s, a reader searches in vain for any mention of what shareholders will be asked to vote on. Those affected by fossil fuel production won’t be asked, of course.

If only hot air could be tapped as an energy source

The intent here isn’t to single out Barclays. Rather, this sort of corporate greenwashing is all too typical. The world’s biggest funder of fossil fuel projects, JPMorgan Chase, for example, claims that it has a “commitment to align key sectors of our financing portfolio with the goals of the Paris Agreement” and “we are measuring the emissions of our clients in key sectors of our financing portfolio.” It would seem there are plenty of greenhouse-gas emissions to measure. But are we supposed to be fooled by this folderol?

Similarly, Royal Bank of Canada, the largest non-U.S. funder of fossil fuels and world’s fifth largest overall funder, says with a straight face that is helping clients reach net-zero goals and is “Setting the standard for best-in-class governance, including through our Climate Strategy & Governance group.” We’d hate to see what a lower standard might look like given the $201 billion it invested in fossil fuels from 2016 to 2021, with 2021’s total double that of 2020.

Although paling in comparison to the US$4.6 trillion the biggest banks have ladled out to the fossil fuel industry over the past five years, including $742 billion in 2021, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund have done their part. The World Bank, funded by the world’s governments, in particular those of the Global North, has provided tens of billions of dollars for fossil fuels since the Paris Climate Accords were signed, reports Urgewald, a non-profit environmental and human rights organization based in Germany. This money includes $12 billion in direct project finance in over 35 countries; as much as $20 billion annually given as government budget support, including for coal projects; and billions more for infrastructure projects that enabled new coal-fired plants that would not have been built otherwise.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF), notorious for imposing extreme austerity on peoples around the world as the price for loans, sometimes imposes additional conditions mandating they “roll out the red carpet for the fossil fuel industry,” reports the U.S.-based environmental organization Friends of the Earth. An FOE report found that:

“Aside from the austerity measures it is so well known for, the IMF has been found to attach conditions in its lending to a number of countries that support new tax breaks for Big Oil. One recent study found that IMF loan programs supported new producer subsidies for coal and gas in Mozambique and Mongolia. The Fund also enabled new legislation in these countries to facilitate public finance of fossil fuel projects. As more countries turn to the IMF for help in coping with COVID-19, it is imperative the IMF does not further entrench fossil fuel dependency around the world. But a recent analysis has found that the IMF’s COVID-19 era loans failed to boost green recovery policies. Another study found that most Covid-19 era loans by the IMF call for austerity measures to be implemented once the pandemic crisis subsides, limiting the resources that countries will have to spend on a just and green recovery.”

Nor can the massive industry subsidies be forgotten. A paper prepared in 2015 by, ironically, four IMF economists, found that subsidies for the fossil fuel industry totaled an astounding $5.6 trillion for 2014. This total included environmental damages, including air pollution, in addition to direct corporate subsidies, below-cost consumer pricing and foregone taxes. No, the IMF was not suddenly questioning capitalism, nor did this report, carefully noting that it did not represent the views of the IMF, devote so much as a single word questioning the economic system that has produced such disastrous outcomes. A more recent IMF study found that fossil fuel subsidies have increased to $5.9 trillion, of which 92 percent arose from undercharging for environmental costs and foregone consumption taxes.

Perhaps those responsible for IMF lending practices don’t read their own organization’s papers (or, if they do, ignore them when they contradict the IMF’s mission of enriching capitalists and immiserating working people). Government officials don’t pay attention to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports detailing the dire state of the climate. And oil and gas executives laugh at what they get away with and continue to fund “think tanks” that pump out a steady stream of global warming denial. Canada, during the Stephen Harper régime, went so far as to invent the new crime of being a member of an “anti-Canadian petroleum movement,” equating such a stance with terrorism. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police added to this criminalization of advocating for clean air and water by challenging the very idea that human activity is causing global warming or that global warming is even a problem. The basis on which a police force can make such a declaration is unclear.

Capitalism can’t be anything other than what it is

Capitalist governments, not only those countries like Canada and Australia that are dependent on energy and/or mining exports, are beholden to not only the industrialists and financiers who are the real rulers of the world but to the ever intensifying competitive pressures of capitalism, from which industrialists and financiers are not exempt. The controllers of corporations routinely threaten to move elsewhere if political office holders don’t do as corporate executives demand, and the decisions of those executives are not reviewable no matter the effect on the local area.

For corporate executives and the speculators whom they in turn must indulge, maintaining profits means cutting costs (in the first place, the cost of labor), taking bigger shares of existing markets, forcing open new markets and developing new ways of achieving these goals. An enterprise that doesn’t do these gets run out of business by enterprises that do. Larger enterprises, those big enough to be listed on stock markets, have to increase profits, not maintain them, piling on still more pressure — not only from the competition, but from the financial industry, which holds a whip over the producers and distributors of tangible goods and services. A company that merely has steady profits, no matter how high, will be punished by financial speculators because the stock price won’t rise. Stock prices are bets and claims on future profits, and finance capital is relentless in expecting higher stock prices. A corporate executive team that doesn’t deliver will be forced out and replaced by another team that will do as financiers demand.

A corporation can achieve the necessary profits by reducing wages, through either layoffs or moving production to low-wage locations with few regulations. Corporate globalization is due to precisely that. Corporations can also buy machinery so that they can employ less workers; they are doubly incentivized to do this because the machines can be depreciated, lowering their taxes. As more people are put out of work, faster overall economic growth is needed just to maintain existing employment; thus the long-term tendency of more unemployment and lower wages as more people compete for fewer jobs. As industries in national economies become consolidated in an oligarchy of the handful of giant corporations who survived national competition, the route to growth is to expand elsewhere. As the winners in other countries undergo the same process, the relentless competition, now on a planetary scale, winnows these national winners into a small number of global winners.

And when one competitor gives itself a boost to profits (including by finding the country with the lowest wages), the other competitors have to do the same to stay in business. Profits margins decline as the initial boost is eroded by competitors doing the same; and the next round of “innovation” — finding another country with yet lower wages, more layoffs, work speedups, exemptions from environmental rules, pressure on governments to reduce taxes and eliminate tariffs, and inducing governments to enact draconian “free trade” agreements elevating multinational capital above governments — touches off another round of cost cutting and doing whatever possible to boost profits. This is a cycle that has no end under capitalism.

As this mad, endless growth continues, more must be produced, more must be transported, new sources of energy and raw materials must be exploited and more pollution must be dumped into the environment with no cost to the corporate polluter. More carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases will be thrown into the atmosphere as a direct result of this growth and frenzied activity. Thanks to the massive capital accumulated by the winners of capitalist competition, industrialists and financiers can spend gigantic sums of money spreading propaganda through a network of institutions, bend school and university curricula to their interests, own and control the mass media and buy the political system.

Growth for growth’s sake, and without controls — capitalism is a cancer. A system that nobody controls nor can anybody control it. A system, however, that runs on its own momentum and can’t be anything other than what it is. That we can somehow get control of the machine and make it do good is worse than an illusion.

The future has no value in capitalist economics

Not only is the environment an externality that corporations do not have to account for, thereby dumping the costs on to the public, but orthodox economics doesn’t account for the environment, other than as a source of resources to exploit. The same capitalist market that is nothing more than the aggregate interests of the largest and most powerful industrialists and financiers is supposed to “solve” environmental problems. A May 2009 Monthly Review article by sociologists Richard York, Brett Clark and John Bellamy Foster, “Capitalism in Wonderland,” puts this contradiction in stark perspective:

“Where [orthodox economists] primarily differ is not on their views of the science behind climate change but on their value assumptions about the propriety of shifting burdens to future generations. This lays bare the ideology embedded in orthodox neoclassical economics, a field which regularly presents itself as using objective, even naturalistic, methods for modeling the economy. However, past all of the equations and technical jargon, the dominant economic paradigm is built on a value system that prizes capital accumulation in the short-term, while de-valuing everything else in the present and everything altogether in the future.”

A melting glacier (photo by Vojife)

From that perspective, it follows that present-day environmental damage is of minimal concern to capitalists and future damage of no concern. The industrialists and financiers who reap billions today won’t necessarily be around when the environmental price becomes too high to avoid. The “Capitalism in Wonderland” authors write:

[H]uman life in effect is worth only what each person contributes to the economy as measured in monetary terms. So, if global warming increases mortality in Bangladesh, which it appears likely that it will, this is only reflected in economic models to the extent that the deaths of Bengalis hurt the economy. Since Bangladesh is very poor, [orthodox] economic models … would not estimate it to be worthwhile to prevent deaths there since these losses would show up as minuscule in the measurements. … [E]thical concerns about the intrinsic value of human life and of the lives of other creatures are completely invisible in standard economic models. Increasing human mortality and accelerating the rate of extinctions are to most economists only problems if they undermine the ‘bottom line.’ In other respects they are invisible: as is the natural world as a whole.”

Every incentive is for more

Lest we doubt that orthodox economists are moving down a down a slippery slope in which some humans are valuable and others are without value, recall the infamous memo of Lawrence Summers, written when he was chief economist for the World Bank, in which he wrote:

“I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that. … The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost. I’ve always thought that under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted.”

The modern corporation has a legal duty only to provide the maximum profit for its shareholders. In other words, it is expected to act to further its own interest without regard to anything else. The corporation is considered a legal person under U.S. law — one that has no biological limits nor barriers to its growth. Joel Bakan, in the introduction to his book The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power, summed up capitalism’s dominant institution this way:

“The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause to others. As a result, I argue, the corporation is a pathological institution, a dangerous possessor of the great power it wields over people and societies.”

That pathological institution is controlled by, and the wealth produced for, a tiny percentage of people. We can call them the one percent (using the language of Occupy Wall Street), the bourgeoisie (using classical terminology), or industrialists and financiers (using broad labels). Their towering piles of money, hidden away in tax havens and secret bank accounts, are directly built on the backs, the sweat and labor, of their employees. This would be the case even without the added bonus of corporate personhood. Yet no matter how successful today, corporations must expand and be ruthless in beating the competition on pain of going under tomorrow. Every incentive is for more growth, more production, more consumption. Nobody, not even the biggest or most powerful capitalist, has the ability to stop or control it. Even capitalists ride the tiger, although of course they have vastly better ability to manage the vicissitudes of capitalist competition than do working people.

Capitalism is a system that is built, and functions, to generate profit, not to meet needs. If you doubt that, then why are extraordinary amounts of money spent on advertising to get us to buy what we don’t need? If global warming is to be reversed, a rational economic system based on human need, not on private profit, is what is needed. Cooperation for the common good, not competition for the profit of a few at any cost. Is corporate profit really worth the destruction of Earth’s livability?

Corporate greed keeps the pandemic alive

More than two years on, it is hard to imagine there could be someone who is not sick of the pandemic. Although we can point to multiple reasons for the inability to bring Covid-19 under control, a prominent factor is corporate greed.

The elevation of the private profit of a few over the welfare of the many is, sadly, the ordinary course of events in a capitalist world. This is brightly illustrated by the failure of the world’s governments to prioritize health care over money as exemplified by the ongoing failure to make vaccines available to the Global South.

Business as usual, yes, and it would be easy enough to lament the standards of the United States and its wildly expensive health care system being exported to the rest of the world. The U.S. does play a role here, but this time the U.S. is not the biggest villain. The European Union, with its obstinate refusal to waive any intellectual property rule because of fealty to Covid-19 vaccine makers, has been the biggest roadblock.

As new variations and mutations repeatedly spread, achieving a critical mass of vaccinated people is the only way the pandemic will be brought to an end. Covid-19 may never be fully eradicated but it can be reduced to a background nuisance as are many other illnesses. Hesitancy among many in the Global North to be vaccinated has played a not insignificant role, whether by right-wingers believing the nonsense peddled by the likes of Fox “News” or by people on the Left who, not without reason, are skeptical of Big Pharma.

Nurse graffiti COVID-19 in Málaga, Spain (photo by Daniel Capilla)

Those in the latter category see nefarious motivations behind pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of Covid vaccines. But is this another instance of Big Pharma pushing unneeded or even dangerous drugs? Such things do happen; suspicion does have a basis. But let’s consider what Big Pharma wants, which is no different from any other corporation: To accumulate the biggest piles of money possible. Given the global health emergency that arose in the first months of 2020, the surest path to achieving that goal would be to become the first to develop a cure. The pandemic was that rare instance in which the interests of Big Pharma and the general population coincided, and the vaccine makers wouldn’t be, and indeed aren’t, at all shy about taking advantage of an emergency to rack up huge profits, even by their industry’s standards. And with the whole world watching, a vaccine had better work and not cause undue harm.

Thus, because of unique circumstances, creating a safe, effective product for a real problem was actually in a corporate interest. And the profits, thanks to these rare circumstances and government largesse, are gigantic, a topic to which we will return.

Intellectual property as a weapon

It should surprise no one that the vaccine makers are doing everything they can to keep windfall profits rolling in. That means clinging to intellectual property (IP) law, heavily skewed in their favor, to maintain a monopoly. Capitalist governments have rolled over for corporate interests for decades, making IP laws ever more rigid. National legislation has played a role, firmly augmented by so-called “free trade” agreements that are used as battering rams by the United States, the European Union and other advanced capitalist countries to force open less powerful countries’ economies and force the world’s governments, including themselves, to be subordinate to multinational capital. Seeking to undermine government health care systems, and especially the ability of governments to negotiate lower prices, is often a goal of “free trade” deals, most notably demonstrated in the efforts of the U.S. government to push draconian rules in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

These developments are anathema to the interests of working people everywhere. It is unconscionable, or should be, when IP rules are used to keep life-saving vaccines away from most of the world’s people. Struggles to make Covid-19 vaccines available to the Global South kicked off quickly, and there is no sign that this issue will anytime soon be resolved. This is not only against the interests of those for whom vaccines remain out of reach, but, given that the pandemic won’t end until a substantial percentage of the world’s peoples are inoculated and thus end the risk of still more dangerous variants arising, it is against the interests of those countries whose governments continue to elevate corporate profits over human life.

What the world needs is for manufacturers anywhere in the world to be granted the unrestricted right to manufacture the vaccines.

To achieve this necessity, what is needed is something called a “TRIPS waiver.” This will require some explanation, as once again a trip into the weeds of global trade policy becomes unavoidable.

Traffic in a British village is reduced from two lanes to one so there would be sufficient space for walkers to maintain two-meter distances from one another. (Photo by Martinvl)

Under World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, IP rights are strictly enforced. As the neoliberal variant of capitalism became dominant with the decline of Keynesianism in the 1970s, economic decision-making has been separated from politics, leaving multinational corporations free to move production to the places with the lowest wages and least regulation, constantly on the prowl for locations that can be even more exploited. With components obtained from around the world, assembled in low-wage, low-regulation havens and finished products exported, barriers to trade such as tariffs were necessary and, having won those, corporate executives and financiers next sought to eliminate the ability of governments to regulate them. Thus the era of “free trade” agreements arose, and one of the institutions that was created to enforce corporate supremacy was the WTO.

One of the legs of corporate domination is IP law. How that relates to the pandemic is this: A handful of multinational corporations, interested in the biggest possible profits for their executives and shareholders, can decide who will receive vaccines and at what price. That human life is at stake — more than 6 million have died from Covid-19 — does not make for an exception. As Alain Supiot, writing on international law in the November-December 2021 issue of New Left Review, noted:

“On the one hand, the Preamble to the [World Health Organization] Constitution states that ‘The extension to all peoples of the benefits of medical, psychological and related knowledge is essential to the attainment of health.’ But on the other, since the creation of the World Trade Organization in 1994, this knowledge has become an object of private property, precisely opposed ‘to all peoples’ by virtue of the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). Until then, it was accepted in international law that the protection of public health interests took precedence over the interests of patent-holders. The TRIPS Agreement reversed this hierarchy and gave primacy to the protection of industrial property.

Negotiations to enact a waiver are stonewalled

A waiver of TRIPS rules, then, is what is needed. In other words, a comprehensive waiver that, even if temporary for the duration of the emergency, sets aside Big Pharma’s IP rights and allows all manufacturers of vaccines, wherever they are, to produce Covid-19 vaccines. The governments of India and South Africa proposed, in October 2020, just such a waiver to allow the production of one or more of the Covid-19 vaccines. A year and a half later, the world is still waiting, with no resolution in sight.

Sarah Lazare and Paige Oamek, writing for In These Times, recently wrote an article demonstrating the “big lie” of Big Pharma talking points as the industry, in particular Pfizer, furiously resist any weakening of their IP fortresses. They wrote:

“The lie relates to an October 2020 proposal from India and South Africa that the World Trade Organization suspend enforcement of key patent rules so that cheaper, generic versions of Covid-19 treatments and vaccines can get to more people more quickly. (The proposal is referred to as a TRIPS waiver, a reference to the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights.) The pharmaceutical giants Pfizer and Moderna, concerned with maximizing their present and future profits, emerged as virulent opponents of such a measure, which still has not passed more than a year later, even as just one out of 21 people in poor countries have been fully vaccinated. It is no anomaly that the industry would reject such a proposal — pharmaceutical companies had a big hand in shaping those WTO intellectual property rules in the first place, to protect pharmaceutical monopolies and their profits.”

Negotiations have centered on four-way talks among India, South Africa, the European Union and the United States. A report surfaced in March 2022 that an agreement had finally been reached, but that has been denied, most notably by the U.S. government. Text accompanying the reported agreement was widely and loudly condemned around the world as grossly insufficient, and possibly even adding additional barriers to global vaccine access. Weeks have gone by, and there is no word that any agreement has actually been reached. What the true state of the negotiations may be can not be stated with any certainty, but there is no indication that any deal is imminent. Or that any deal will resemble what is needed by the Global South.

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

A surprise announcement by the Biden administration in May 2021, when President Joe Biden announced support for a TRIPS waiver, in a partial reversal of U.S. policy that has consistently elevated corporate profits above all other considerations, raised hopes. But the Biden administration pronouncement is less than meets the eye, and the European Union has remained obstinately opposed to any waiver. Providing a fresh demonstration of the anti-democratic nature of the EU, that the European Parliament has three times called for a waiver to be approved and many EU countries are in support have had no apparent effect on EU negotiators.

The U.S.-based watchdog group Global Trade Watch, in its analysis, says that accepting the EU proposal would be worse than having no deal:

“The European Union has been the primary obstacle to progress on the waiver. … The EU’s position had been to basically restate existing WTO flexibilities on patents that almost every WTO member already has, while requiring additional conditionalities. … Any proposal that follows the EU position is worse than no action at all, because it could further undermine current WTO rules that already allow governments to issue compulsory licenses. The need for far greater, not less, freedom to make and use medicines in a global health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic is precisely why more than 100 countries have supported the waiver as introduced by India and South Africa.”

The EU, however, is not the only obstacle. The U.S. negotiating position isn’t for a full waiver. The Global Trade Watch analysis states:

“The longstanding U.S. position to support a waiver for vaccines only, excluding the tests and therapeutics, is shameful, particularly as President Biden recently lauded testing and treatment as key tools in fighting the pandemic at this stage. The new proposal only covers vaccines, with tests and treatments to be considered six months after the proposal is agreed, if it is agreed. Given the already seventeen-month delay since the waiver was introduced, it is irresponsible to suggest further delay for tests and therapeutics. … The U.S. had also reportedly suggested limiting the geographic scope of the waiver, which would only further limit the ability to scale up manufacturing all over the world. This demand was apparently agreed, as the proposal now on offer would only apply to developing countries that contributed less than 10% of the world’s exports of COVID-19 vaccine doses in 2021.”

Public statements by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative have not been encouraging. The trade representative, Katherine Tai, “assured” the U.S. Congress that her office is not “working to give away American IP.” With the usual bipartisan commitment to corporate profits, congressional Republicans and Democrats oppose a meaningful waiver, echoing industry talking points to underline their disapproval. A bloc of Republican representatives is seeking to enforce this by introducing a bill that would grant Congress more oversight over negotiations.

Most of the world’s countries back India, South Africa

As many as 120 of the WTO’s 164 countries are said to be backing India and South Africa. Yet many of these countries would be excluded even from the limited and inadequate proposals put forth by the EU and U.S. As noted above, larger Global South countries would be excluded under the U.S. proposal to limit the countries eligible, while also limiting what would be available. Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders, for example, calls on WTO members to “tackle the current barriers to accessing all COVID-19 medical tools, including treatments and diagnostics, and also addresses patents and non-patent barriers in an effective way.” Dimitri Eynikel, EU Policy Advisor for MSF’s Access Campaign, noting the “considerable limitations” of what is on the table, said:

“It is incredibly concerning that the leaked text currently only covers vaccines, but neither treatments nor diagnostics. Excluding treatments and diagnostics is a critical weakness, especially as access to COVID-19 treatments remains a significant problem in many low- and middle-income countries, particularly in Latin America, in part because of patent barriers and restrictive licensing deals controlled by pharmaceutical corporations. Excluding countries with significant manufacturing and supply capacity like Brazil is highly problematic as it arbitrarily blocks potential critical avenues to increase access to COVID-19 medical tools for low- and middle-income countries.”

The severe limitations the EU and U.S. are attempting to impose make it unlikely that a “deeply flawed text” can be set right, according to Professor Jane Kelsey of the University of Auckland. Noting that by the end of 2021, more boosters had been given in high-income countries than total doses in low-income ones, Dr. Kelsey wrote, “The leaked ‘solution’ agreed by the informal ‘quad’ (US, EU, India and South Africa) is insufficient, problematic and unworkable. There are too many limitations to make any significant difference and it is a far cry from the original proposal from India and South Africa that would have effectively addressed the barriers.”

Perhaps activists and medical professionals going on the offensive as part of a public-pressure effort is one way that a fair deal might be forced. Nurses from 28 countries filed a complaint in November 2021 with the United Nations alleging human rights violations by the EU and four countries for “the loss of countless lives” in the pandemic. The nurses, representing more than 2.5 million health care workers around the world, named Britain, Norway, Singapore and Switzerland in their filing — the four countries known to be standing with the EU. The nurses charge that “these countries have violated our rights and the rights of our patients — and caused the loss of countless lives” through “continued opposition to the TRIPS waiver … resulting in the violation of human rights of peoples across the world.” The complaint notes human rights obligations to which WTO member states are legally bound.

Nurses demand safe staffing (Photo via National Nurse magazine)

The organizations behind the filing are mostly from the Global South, but among the 28 are ones from Canada (Canadian Federation of Nurses Unions and Fédération interprofessionnelle de la santé du Québec), the United States (National Nurses United) and Australia (Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation)).

Deborah Burger, president of National Nurses United, which represents more than 175,000 members in the United States, was unsparing in her assessment. She said:

“The maldistribution of vaccines in the face of more than 5 million deaths, many of them preventable, is a devastating reminder of the deplorable disparity of wealth between the rich nations of the north and the global south. To refuse to act simply to protect the profits of giant pharmaceutical corporations is unconscionable, inhumane, and must be ended.”

Upon receipt of the complaint, Dr. Tlaleng Mofokeng, the UN’s Special Rapporteur on Physical and Mental Health, said, “The nurses’ core demand is one I share.” She said:

“States have a collective responsibility to use all available means to facilitate faster access to vaccines, including by introducing a temporary waiver of relevant intellectual property rights under the WTO Agreement on Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement). Nurses and health care workers have been on the front line keeping us safe and have witnessed the most painful and heart-wrenching effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. Their evident commitment to the right to physical and mental health provides them with moral authority.”

No executive or shareholder is any danger of starving

Let us now return to the profit margins of pharmaceutical companies and the massive windfall profits being racked up by Covid-19 vaccine manufacturers, which will provide some context to industry arguments. The business news agency Bloomberg reports that Pfizer’s vaccine generated $20 billion in pretax profit in 2021 while Moderna “is expected by analysts to earn $12.2 billion before taxes this year.” Pfizer’s vaccine may rack up $36 billion in revenue this year.

The pharmaceutical industry was already one of the most profitable. To provide some examples, health technology was found to be the most profitable of 19 broadly defined “major” industrial sectors in the U.S. for 2015 and 2016. A BBC report found that pharmaceuticals and banks tied for the highest average profit margin in 2013, with five pharmaceutical companies enjoying a profit margin of 20 percent or more — Pfizer among them. The most profitable pharmaceutical corporations spent far more on sales and marketing than they did on research and development. With little control exerted over pharmaceutical prices in the U.S., it is no wonder that U.S. health care costs are the world’s highest, greatly exceeding any other country.

Even by these rarified standards, the boost to profit margins from Covid-19 have been noteworthy. Pfizer reported almost $22 billion in net income for 2021, only $3 billion more than it reported for 2020 and 2019 combined. Moderna, which even self-described “capitalist tool” Forbes magazine says produced a vaccine “largely funded by taxpayer dollars,” reported $12.2 billion in profits for 2021. Moderna received a billion dollars in government subsidies for its vaccine, and has, overall, received $6 billion from the U.S. government to develop, test, manufacture and deliver its vaccine.

Johnson & Johnson reported net income of almost $21 billion for 2021, a healthy gain of 40 percent over the previous year, a much larger gain than the gain it reported in revenue. And AstraZeneca reported a 37 percent increase in its core earnings per share (a comparison apparently used to exclude special one-time costs from an acquisition).

So it appears that no executive or shareholder of these four pharmaceutical makers is in any danger of being out on the street.

What is the problem in sharing the technology that would finally put an end to the pandemic? The real reason is that the maximum possible amount of profit wouldn’t be accrued. No big corporation is going to admit that, so other excuses are offered.

Debunking Big Pharma’s favorite talking points

The director-general of the World Health Organization, Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, had a revealing conversation with Pfizer’s chief executive officer. As reported by Bloomberg, Dr. Tedros, on a conference call with pharmaceutical executives, said, “Honestly, I’m not seeing the commitment I would expect from you.” The Pfizer chief executive, Albert Bourla, whined that Dr. Tedros was speaking “emotionally.” Consistent with that exchange, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, Paul Stoffels, declared at an industry lobbying group gathering that there was no need for any waivers because the industry’s efforts are “sufficient.”

Letting the pharmaceutical industry have its way quite clearly hasn’t been “sufficient,” given the small numbers of vaccines available to the Global South well more than a year since vaccines became available and the inability to stop the pandemic given that lack of availability. The Bloomberg report admitted that “Vaccine inequality didn’t happen by itself. It was the result of decisions by corporate executives and government officials.”

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

Big Pharma talking points have revolved around claims that restrictive patents are necessary to encourage research and development, without which supposedly nothing would be invented. (Yet Jonas Salk famously declined to pursue a patent on the polio vaccine.) A new line has emerged during the pandemic: That even if a full waiver were granted, the Global South is incapable of producing vaccines because of a lack of capability or capacity, and thus granting rights would do nothing to solve the pandemic. Government officials backing the pharmaceutical industry loudly echo these claims, among them former German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and members of the U.S. Congress who are recipients of Big Pharma donations.

The In These Times article “Big Pharma’s Big Lies About Vaccine Patents,” debunks these talking points:

“It’s clever messaging, because it has an air of expert knowledge, casting companies as patiently informing activists who are well-intentioned but don’t understand how vaccine production works. It also plays to pre-existing racist assumptions that the Global South does not have pharmaceutical sectors capable of producing quality goods, but must rely on its more sophisticated former colonizers. … We don’t have definitive proof that pharmaceutical executives sat in a room somewhere and said, ‘Let’s deceive the public about the world’s vaccine manufacturing capacity.’ But there have been enough activists, scientists, and heads of state pointing out holes in Big Pharma’s narrative to make it highly likely that the industry, at the very least, was aware of challenges to the veracity of its claims. And it was in its interest to ignore them. Remarkably, the industry has shown it would rather build its own facilities from scratch — like the BioNTech facilities in Rwanda and Senegal, which won’t even start construction until mid-2022 — than give Global South countries the ability to produce vaccines themselves.”

India, for example, ranks third in the world in producing pharmaceuticals, measured by volume, and generics already constitute 70 to 80 percent of the world pharmaceutical market. The Serum Institute of India is the world’s largest producer of vaccines by number of doses produced and sold.

It’s not only vaccines that are being held back

Beyond vaccines, what about pills that are being developed? Pfizer has developed a Covid-19 oral antiviral treatment and granted a royalty-free license for the pill to the United Nations-backed Medicines Patent Pool, but the license covers only about half the world’s population. The Associated Press reported, “The deal excludes some large countries that have suffered devastating coronavirus outbreaks. For example, while a Brazilian drug company could get a license to make the pill for export to other countries, the medicine could not be made generically for use in Brazil.”

The Medicines Patent Pool said on March 18 that 35 companies around the world will produce generic versions of the pill, which has received an emergency approval by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The countries where the generic producers are located include Bangladesh, Brazil, China, the Dominican Republic, Jordan, India, Israel, Mexico, Pakistan, Serbia, South Korea and Vietnam.

Nonetheless, health care activists note that the license is less than adequate. Yuanqiong Hu, senior legal policy advisor for Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders’ Access Campaign said:

“Pfizer’s license with the Medicines Patent Pool for its potential oral antiviral treatment offers supply to 95 countries by generic companies that take up the license, covering about 53% of the world’s population, but this again shows how voluntary licenses come up short and do not harness the full capacity available globally for sufficient and sustainable production and supply of lifesaving medical tools for all. Many upper middle-income countries, such as Argentina, Brazil, China, Malaysia and Thailand, where established generic production capacity exists, are excluded from the license territory. We are disheartened to see yet another restrictive voluntary license during this pandemic while cases continue to rise in many countries around the world. The world knows by now that access to COVID-19 medical tools needs to be guaranteed for everyone, everywhere, if we really want to control this pandemic.”

What is more important: Ending the pandemic or increasing corporate profits? Life or money? The world capitalist system is making its choice. Should that choice be allowed to stand?

Another global warming worry: Parts of Earth could become uninhabitable

When we think of the coming disasters of global warming, rising sea levels, disruptions to agriculture and disappearing species come readily to mind. We don’t necessarily think of the livability of the Earth’s surface. But if global warming continues to worsen — and every indication is that will be so — there will be places on Earth that could become uninhabitable.

Uninhabitable in the literal meaning of human beings not being able to survive there.

Such places could come into existence during this century, and perhaps sooner than even climate scientists currently fear, given that lethal combinations of heat and humidity have started to occur for brief periods of time. We are not talking about thinly populated or uninhabited desert locations. We are talking here of cities where tens and hundreds of thousands of people currently live.

Yes, one more reason for humanity to tackle global warming.

To understand why survivability could become impossible in small geographic regions in the foreseeable future and, potentially, much larger regions in the more distant future should current trends in global warming continue, we need to turn to an obscure meteorological measurement known as the “wet-bulb temperature.” This is different from the common air temperature, nor is it the same as the various versions of a “heat index” that provide a “feel like” temperature.

Dawes Glacier at the head of Endicott Arm in Alaska (photo by Sean White)

The wet-bulb temperature is a representation of heat and humidity that measures the impact on the ability of human bodies to cool. A discussion of it by the American Association for the Advancement of Science explains it this way:

“It is so named because it is calculated by wrapping the bulb of a thermometer in a wet cloth. In low humidity, water will evaporate from the cloth, carrying away heat and cooling the thermometer in the same way sweat cools the human body. In these conditions, the wet-bulb temperature will be lower than the air temperature. In high humidity — when the air is more saturated with water vapor — the water cannot evaporate as easily so the cloth stays hot. If the wet cloth cannot cool below the air temperature, neither can human skin.”

Because human skin must be cooler than the body’s core in order for metabolic heat to be conducted to the skin, human skin temperature is strongly regulated at 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit). Thus a wet-bulb temperature at that level, should it be sustained, represents the upper limit of what a healthy human being can endure without dying from overheating. It is generally believed that six hours in such conditions, even with steadily drinking fluids and sitting in shade, would be fatal for even the healthiest person, and a sustained wet-bulb temperature a couple of degrees lower would be fatal for many, perhaps most, people.

Simply put, at 35 C/95 F, sweat would not evaporate and our bodies would not be able to regulate our internal temperature.

“When wet-bulb temperatures are extremely high, there is so much moisture in the air that sweating becomes ineffective at removing the body’s excess heat, like what happens in a steam room,” said Colin Raymond, the lead author of a 2020 study on the future habitability of the climate, in an interview published by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “At some point, perhaps after six or more hours, this will lead to organ failure and death in the absence of access to artificial cooling.”

It’s the heat and the humidity

Can a combination of heat and humidity become so intense that a wet-bulb temperature of 35 degrees C (95 degrees F) — the point of effective universal lethality — be reached? Such levels have already been reached in a handful of places, albeit for only one or two hours. Wet-bulb temperatures approaching that lethal level are becoming more common — more than 250 occurrences of 33 degrees C (91 degrees F) have been recorded around the world since 1979.

But such high levels don’t have to be reached for death to occur. “Even at lower wet-bulb temperatures, like 79°F (26°C), those with pre-existing health conditions (like respiratory, cardiovascular, and renal disease), the elderly, as well as those performing strenuous outdoor labor and athletic activities, are at a high risk,” said Radley Horton, a co-author with Dr. Raymond of a 2020 academic study published in Science Advances that examined how high wet-bulb temperatures might get. The 2003 European heat wave caused more than 50,000 deaths at wet-bulb temperatures close to 26 degrees C.

The paper, authored by Dr. Raymond of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Dr. Horton of Columbia University and Tom Matthews of Loughborough University, found that “Climate models project the first 35°C [wet-bulb temperature] occurrences by the mid-21st century. However, a comprehensive evaluation of weather station data shows that some coastal subtropical locations have already reported a [wet-bulb temperature] of 35°C and that extreme humid heat overall has more than doubled in frequency since 1979.”

The three climate scientists believe that, under the “business-as-usual RCP8.5 emissions scenario” (a worst-case model in which fossil fuel use continues to increase in a world with ongoing high emissions), wet-bulb temperatures could regularly exceed 35 degrees C in parts of South Asia and the Middle East by the third quarter of the 21st century. They cite three other studies to back up this prediction. They write:

“Our findings indicate that reported occurrences of extreme [wet-bulb temperatures] have increased rapidly at weather stations and in reanalysis data over the last four decades and that parts of the subtropics are very close to the 35°C survivability limit, which has likely already been reached over both sea and land. These trends highlight the magnitude of the changes that have taken place as a result of the global warming to date. At the spatial scale of reanalysis, we project that [wet-bulb temperatures] will regularly exceed 35°C at land grid points with less than 2.5°C of [global] warming since preindustrial—a level that may be reached in the next several decades. According to our weather station analysis, emphasizing land grid points underplays the true risks of extreme [wet-bulb temperatures] along coastlines, which tends to occur when marine air masses are advected even slightly onshore. The southern Persian Gulf shoreline and northern South Asia are home to millions of people, situating them on the front lines of exposure to [wet-bulb temperatures] extremes at the edge of and outside the range of natural variability in which our physiology evolved.”

The limits to the human ability to withstand heat stress

A 2010 study published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in 2010 by climate scientists Steven C. Sherwood and Matthew Huber warned that the areas that may someday be subject to wet-bulb temperatures are currently inhabited by billions of people, in a worst-case scenario. Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Huber were writing before the Paris Climate Accord, and although the Accord remains inadequate to constrain global warming to 2 degrees C, much less the pact’s 1.5 C goal, it renders the worst-case scenarios less likely. But not impossible, given that a global temperature rise of more than 2 C would set off a cascade of events and feedback loops that are not possible to reasonably forecast.

Even if now somewhat less of a possibility than at the time of their writing, the potential disaster sketched out by Dr. Sherwood and Dr. Huber is frightening. Noting that “heat stress imposes a robust upper limit to adaptation,” they wrote:

“[E]xcedence of 35 °C … would begin to occur with global-mean warming of about 7 °C, calling the habitability of some regions into question. With 11–12 °C warming, such regions would spread to encompass the majority of the human population as currently distributed. Eventual warmings of 12 °C are possible from fossil fuel burning. One implication is that recent estimates of the costs of unmitigated climate change are too low unless the range of possible warming can somehow be narrowed. … If warmings of 10 °C were really to occur in the next three centuries, the area of land likely rendered uninhabitable by heat stress would dwarf that affected by rising sea level. Heat stress thus deserves more attention as a climate-change impact.”

Adding together the Paris Climate Accord goals, if fully implemented, and the efforts by institutions around the world to reduce carbon footprints, it might appear that humanity will avoid the worst-case scenarios. With further effort, those scenarios can be avoided. Nonetheless, it is far too early to breathe a sigh of relief. The emergence of large areas of Earth’s surface that become uninhabitable remains a possibility. The PNAS study said:

“Warming will not stop in 2100 if emissions continue. Each doubling of carbon dioxide is expected to produce 1.9–4.5 °C of warming at equilibrium, but this is poorly constrained on the high side and according to one new estimate has a 5% chance of exceeding 7.1 °C per doubling. Because combustion of all available fossil fuels could produce 2.75 doublings of CO2 by 2300, even a 4.5 °C sensitivity could eventually produce 12 °C of warming. Degassing of various natural stores of methane and/or CO2 in a warmer climate could increase warming further. Thus while central estimates of business-as-usual warming by 2100 are 3–4 °C, eventual warmings of 10 °C are quite feasible and even 20 °C is theoretically possible.”

Record heat around the world

The record heat reported around the world in recent months, even if not yet deadly in the absence of sufficiently high humidity, portends trouble. On January 13, the highest temperature ever recorded in the ocean-dominated Southern Hemisphere was reached in Onslow, Western Australia, at 50.7 degrees C (123.3 F). Three stations in Western Australia exceeded 50 degrees C that day; before that week, the entire nation of Australia had recorded only four 50 degree C days in recorded history, according to the Eye on the Storm blog. That same week, multiple stations in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay neared or beat their all-time high temperatures.

The summer 2021 heat wave in British Columbia, Washington state and Oregon is said by some climate scientists to have been without precedent in meteorological records. The village of Lytton, British Columbia, set an all-time heat record for all of Canada three days in a row and then was destroyed by a wildfire on the fourth day. Portland set its all-time high temperature three days in a row. Seattle reached an all-time high on consecutive days and broke 100 degrees F (37.8 C) three days in a row; there had only been two 100-degree days in its history prior.

Lytton, British Columbia, before the wildfire (screen grab from Google maps)

In his research, Bob Henson, a meteorologist then writing for Weather Underground, reported that 14 examples of 35 degree C wet-bulb readings that have already occurred since 1987 in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Ten of these have occurred since 2000. Six of the 14 occurrences were in one city, Jacobabad, Pakistan; five of these since 2005. Separately, my own study of an interactive map provided by the Columbia University Climate School found six locations where a 35 C/95 F wet-bulb reading had been recorded on at least one occasion. These are Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces in Pakistan (specific cities not given, but Jacobabad is in Sindh); Hisar, India; Mecca, Saudi Arabia; Ras Al Khaimai, United Arab Emirates; and Yannarie, Western Australia.

There are locations in North America that have approached that level — Palm Springs, California, and multiple locations in Mexico along the Gulf of California have recorded wet-bulb readings of 33 C/91.4 F.

To give an idea of what conditions would achieve a 35 C/95 F wet bulb temperature, these combinations would be required:
• 105 F (40.6 C) & 67% humidity
• 110 F (43.3 C) & 56% humidity
• 115 F (46.1 C) & 46% humidity

Alarm bells continue to get louder, if we want to hear

Unfortunately, the possibility of future areas of uninhabitability isn’t an abstraction or alarmist. Even if all post-Paris promises made at the yearly global climate summits, including last November’s in Glasgow, were fulfilled, global warming would almost certainly go beyond 2 degrees C, and as we have been forced to repeatedly note, there are no enforcement mechanisms to ensure these pledges are met. Following the Glasgow summit (the 26th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change or COP26), Climate Action Tracker reported that full implementation of the goals set for 2030 would be enough for the world’s temperature to rise by 1.9 to 3 degrees by 2100. Worse, what the Tracker calls “real world action based on current polices” would result in a temperature increase of 2 to 3.7 degrees by 2100.

Not that any of this is somehow unknown. The Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), summarizing the knowledge of the world’s climate scientists, issued last summer, states, “many of the changes observed since the 1950s are unprecedented over decades to millennia. Updated paleoclimate evidence strengthens this assessment; over the past several decades, key indicators of the climate system are increasingly at levels unseen in centuries to millennia and are changing at rates unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years.”

The latest report from IPCC climate scientists, released to the public on February 27, said there is a “very high confidence” that global warming of 1.5 degrees C in the near term “would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards and present multiple risks to ecosystems and humans.” For the mid to long term (2041 to 2100), there is “high confidence” that “climate change will lead to numerous risks to natural and human systems” and “the magnitude and rate of climate change and associated risks depend strongly on near-term mitigation and adaptation actions.”

There are plenty of other warnings out there. For example, a widely cited 2015 study by the Stockholm Resilience Center, prepared by 18 scientists, found that the Earth is crossing several “planetary boundaries” that together will render the planet much less hospitable. Or that two scientific studies issued in 2015 suggest that so much carbon dioxide already has been thrown into the air that humanity may have already committed itself to a six-meter rise in sea level. Or that the oceans can’t continue to act as shock absorbers — heat accumulated in them is not permanently stored, but can be released back into the atmosphere, potentially providing significant feedback that would accelerate global warming.

Lurking in the background, and not often something that many wish to notice, is the role our world economic system plays in all this. Economic incentives under capitalism are for producing and consuming more, and capitalism can’t function without growth. As has been said so many times, you can’t have infinite growth on a finite planet, and even if taking resources from the rest of the solar system were to become financially viable — something unlikely to happen anytime soon no matter how much we might enjoy watching Star Trek — the solar system is finite as well. We can create a sustainable world economy and society, or nature will impose it on us. And the harshness of the latter will only be magnified by the vast number of refugees that runaway global warming will surely impose. We are part of nature, whether or not we wish to acknowledge that.