Attacking the messenger: Planet of the Humans spears sacred beliefs

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

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

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

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

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

Should dissenting voices be silenced?

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

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

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

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

Were the dangers of biomass hidden from our eyes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t grassroots activists count as environmentalists?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is it sacrilege to point out issues with renewables?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The fight to overturn the latest corporate coup at Pacifica has only begun

Crisis is never far away at the Pacifica radio network, but it is now facing perhaps its worst crisis ever as a new “corporate coup” has, at least for now, shut down WBAI in New York City.

Pacifica listeners and on-air hosts have successfully fought back against prior attacks on the progressive network, most notably reversing the lockout at KPFA in Berkeley in 1999 and the “Christmas Coup” at WBAI in 2000. In those cases two decades ago, the national board of Pacifica had become self-selecting, with board members with corporate backgrounds selecting like-minded people to new board seats and trying to rewrite the bylaws to not only sell off one or more Pacifica stations but be able to personally pocket some of the proceeds. Intense organizing and a boycott of donations eventually not only reversed the coup but begat a new democratic structure of elected local station boards and a national board made up of local-station representatives supplemented by affiliate representatives. (Many stations across the United States carry Pacifica programs to supplement their local programming.)

In that case, many activists believed that starving listener-supported WBAI of funds would reverse the coup. (Full disclosure: I was personally involved in that struggle.) Indeed that proved to be the case. Yes, Pacifica listeners, and exiled staff members and producers won in court, but as that was ultimately a political struggle, it had to be won through the actions of its supporters.

(photo by The City Project)

Unfortunately, the latest coup, which began with a dramatic physical takeover of WBAI facilities on October 7, won’t be so simply solved. This is a fight that WBAI listeners and staff believe can be, and will be, won — and this fight is also a political fight. But in the Christmas Coup two decades ago, the intention was to maintain all five Pacifica stations intact for potential sale. This time, however, the coup mongers are strongly believed to want to destroy WBAI in order to sell its license.

The coup mongers, led by Interim Executive Director John Vernile (on the job for all of two months!) and National Board Secretary Bill Crosier, insist they executed their takeover in an effort to “save” WBAI, citing the New York station’s operating deficit. It is true that WBAI has struggled financially for several years, although Mr. Vernile has drastically overstated the size of the debt. But what really stands out is how the takeover was accomplished.

WBAI was in the midst of a fund drive, but the fund drive was stopped, the web site at which listeners could make donations was disabled and all local programming was taken off the air, replaced with canned programming from California with no local content. The team led by Mr. Vernile that descended on the station the morning of October 7 dismantled the equipment, rendering it impossible to broadcast; immediately fired all employees; ordered them to leave; confiscated the station bank account; took checks left in the office; put padlocks on the doors; and told the station’s landlord she should find a new tenant while cutting off rent payments. The transmitter was switched to broadcast the canned California programming and the WBAI web site, including all archives of past shows, was wiped clean and replaced with a one-page site with a propaganda message justifying the coup.

Do these sound like the acts of someone interested in the well-being of the station?

And if a financial deficit were really the problem, it would seem most counter-intuitive to do everything possible to prevent the station from raising funds and to block its bank account.

No, this was not an act of benevolence.

Scapegoating WBAI for the network’s problems

As with most things Pacifica, this is a complicated story. The entire network, not only WBAI, is struggling financially. A faction centered at Pacifica’s two California stations, KPFA in Berkeley and KPFK in Los Angeles, have long advocated the selling of WBAI’s license and to use the proceeds to benefit the remaining stations, particularly their own. Although WBAI has been commercial-free for its 60 years as a listener-supported Pacifica station, its frequency, 99.5, is in the commercial portion of the FM band, and thus worth tens of millions of dollars. This faction has made WBAI into a scapegoat for the financial difficulties of the network as a whole.

That is the context that is behind this latest coup. Of the nine National Board members supporting the coup, three are from KPFA, two from KPFK and three from the Houston station, KPFT. There are 22 members of the National Board, so nine do not constitute a majority. Moreover, 12 board members — an outright majority — oppose the WBAI takeover. Yet nearly two weeks into the coup, nothing has been reversed and the minority, for now, remains in control.

As noted above, this is complicated. An October 21 court date has been scheduled, when the contours of the legal case may begin to take shape. There have already been multiple court appearances, however, and those will be discussed below. Regardless of what happens, or doesn’t happen, on October 21, this standoff between the coup mongers and those opposed will not be resolved for some time, and resolving it will require considerable activist energy on the part of listeners, paid and unpaid staff, and other supporters.

So what is the takeover really about? Although there is a widespread belief that the real intention is to sell off the station’s license, despite the denials of the coup mongers, speculation is all that can be done for now. And perhaps there are other reasons.

“Make no mistake about it — it’s all about content — community voices,” said the lead attorney who has sued on behalf of WBAI, Arthur Schwartz, in an October 9 statement. “Nothing in the Pacific bylaws allows such a takeover by its executive director, who acted without even debate or a vote by Pacifica’s Board of Directors.”

A 40-year veteran of WBAI, Mimi Rosenberg, an activist attorney who has hosted WBAI’s outstanding labor program, Building Bridges, for decades, noted that although the takeover was sudden, the planning was not. “This has been in the works for a long time,” Ms. Rosenberg said. “The intent of the secret raid — or coup — was to wound the station irreparably by wrecking the fund drive, then drive the station to bankruptcy to sell it off so that the other stations in the network could feed off the monies from the sale of WBAI’s license.”

Ms. Rosenberg appears also to be slated by the coup mongers to be a scapegoat. She recently was handed a completely unjustified one-week suspension for allegedly putting WBAI in jeopardy. What was her “transgression”? It was uttering the words “stop Trump” in a promo for her Labor Day special broadcast. Pacifica claimed that uttering those words constituted an impermissible political endorsement that could put WBAI’s tax-exempt status at risk. So with the worst president in anyone’s memory in the White House, someone with the desire (thankfully not the competency) to become a fascist dictator, Pacifica should refrain from serious coverage? What sort of community radio station would WBAI be under such constraints?

Decisions of Pacifica headquarters worsened WBAI finances

Before we get to the legal twists and turns, it is proper to examine the financial situation that is the stated cause of the takeover. It is true that WBAI has experienced financial difficulties for several years and was expected to have a cash deficit for fiscal year 2020. By far the biggest reasons for WBAI’s financial woes are the massive back rent that was owed to the Empire State Building (where the transmitter was formerly located) and to the owners of 120 Wall Street (where its offices and studious used to be located.) That is significant because WBAI management had nothing to do with either contract — the onerous terms of those leases were negotiated and signed by the Pacifica national office around the time of the Christmas Coup.

The rent for the new locations of the transmitter and studios is considerably lower, but the heavy expenses of the previous locations weighed the station down for years and ultimately required the taking of a loan to pay off. WBAI does need to raise more money to keep itself afloat, but would be in much less jeopardy without the Pacifica-imposed expenses. The pro-coup faction on the National Board has taken no note or responsibility for those actions of its predecessors.

According to a document filed with the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division, WBAI is projected to have a cash-flow deficit of $394,000 for fiscal year 2020. That is the largest deficit of any of the five Pacifica stations, but is not substantially larger than some others. KPFA is expected to have a cash-flow deficit of $366,000 and KPFK a deficit of $314,000. There is no movement to sell the license of either California station. (It should be noted that not all KPFA directors back the coup, and KPFA listeners staged a demonstration opposing the WBAI shutdown, an act of solidarity cheered by advocates in New York.)

“There are so many mischaracterizations and distortions, both through ignorance and of course from distain and to otherwise misrepresent the essence and structure of how the network/stations work,” Ms. Rosenberg said.

Directly addressing the allegations that WBAI’s finances are “dragging down” the network, WBAI Station Manager Berthold Reimers said:

“The Pacifica National office is largely to blame for deals they made without consulting WBAI as well as for not doing audits which prevented the station from receiving Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) funding. … [The debt] was caused by a contract negotiated and signed by the Pacifica national office without consultation with WBAI. The station was put in an untenable position of having to pay $65,000 a month for the transmitter rental space. They also negotiated moving WBAI to 120 Wall Street, where the monthly payment was $45,000 per month.”

Mr. Reimers said that if the nearly $25,000 per month from the CPB that the station lost because the national office didn’t perform necessary audits in time is added to the unnecessarily high rents, WBAI lost close to $300,000 in annual revenue for many years.

Multiple court filings in first two weeks

Following the October 7 shutdown of WBAI, a group of WBAI producers and listeners asked the New York State Supreme Court (despite its name, that is the state’s trial-level court) for a temporary restraining order (TRO) to reverse the takeover pending further legal action. The next morning, a state judge granted the TRO directing the station to be returned to its pre-October 7 state and scheduled a hearing to consider if the injunction should be made permanent.

WBAI advocates argued that the takeover was illegal under Pacifica bylaws because no vote of the National Board was taken and thus there was no authority for Mr. Vernile to take such action. Mr. Vernile and the National Board faction backing him argued in an appeal to the Appellate Division that the TRO was “issued in the dead of night” and therefore invalid, and further argued that “Pacifica owns the property, offices and equipment of WBAI and thus cannot ‘seize’ it from itself.”

Brooklyn Botanic Gardens (photo by Daderot)

The Appellate Division ruled in favor of the appeal, vacating the TRO except for the termination of the 12 paid staffers. That order vacating the TRO was issued despite WBAI’s argument that the Appellate Division has no jurisdiction to overturn a TRO in the absence of a grant of appeal, which WBAI’s filing said had not been given, and that “We could not find a single decision where an appellate court assumed jurisdiction so that it could vacate a temporary restraining order.”

The coup faction on the National Board then sought to endorse the coup after the fact. A phone meeting of the National Board was convened and a vote taken on October 12. By any reasonable standard, this vote could not be considered fair. Apparently realizing they would lose the vote, five anti-coup members of the board had their phones muted so they couldn’t speak and were thus presented from voting! WBAI representatives on the board were told they had “a conflict of interest” and shouldn’t be allowed to vote. No such suspension of voting rights has ever been handed down under any circumstance. With the five board members blocked from voting, the motion to give after-the-fact blessing to the coup was nine in favor and seven against.

However, an emergency meeting was called by a majority of the National Board for the next day, October 13, and this time, 12 board members (an outright majority on a board of 22) voted to reverse the coup and instructed the corporate law firm that the coup faction had hired, Foster Garvey, to “withdraw from all litigation on behalf of Pacifica.” The board had never approved the hiring of the firm, which has filed all motions in support of the coup and the coup faction. According to the advocacy group Pacifica Radio In Exile, “All 12 board members, who represent a quorum of the nonprofit’s board of directors, formally waived notice requirements for the special [October 13] meeting and convened on a conference line that did not permit the involuntary muting of participants.” It is also notable that the 12 anti-coup members included at least one representative of each of the five Pacifica stations.

The Pacifica faction then moved the case to federal court, and asked that court to issue a TRO reversing the October 13 vote, arguing that proper notice was not given for the second vote and thus should be vacated. That request was granted, with the court also scheduling an October 21 hearing. Until then, WBAI remains under the control of the coup faction and, effectively, WBAI supporters argue, under the control of the court. So reports after the initial state-court TRO was issued that WBAI supporters had won were premature. Additionally, station equipment was dismantled on the day of the coup, so work will be necessary before WBAI can resume local broadcasting should it be allowed to do so.

The federal judge who issued the TRO in favor of the coup faction issued an order “Enjoining Petitioners [WBAI representatives and two WBAI National Board members] from disregarding or causing others to disregard the properly passed motions of the Pacifica National Board on October 12, 2019, until such time as this Court has issued a ruling determining the validity of the October 13, 2019, motions.” The judge ordered that no meetings be held that do not follow Pacific bylaws and further ordered that WBAI’s lead attorney, Mr. Schwartz, have no contact with any Pacifica employees or National Board members.

The law firm that the coup faction hired (with no authorization from the National Board) is Foster Garvey, one of the largest corporate law firms in the Pacific Northwest. One of the firm’s specialties is “labor and employment litigation,” which for a law firm of this type means that it assists corporations in screwing its employees, no matter the pretty euphemisms the firm uses in its description of its labor services. That ought to be inappropriate for what is supposed to be a progressive community-based radio network. What is inescapable is that corporate ideology is so pervasive that our own institutions are far from free of it.

Consumer detritus and the elevation of “freaks”: A reconsideration of Susan Sontag’s On Photography

I wrote this in 2005, after seeing an excellent exhibit of Diane Arbus’ photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As she is in the news again with another show of her work, the themes of this article seem to me still very relevant.

To say a photograph is worth 1,000 words is to repeat the hoariest of clichés. Does that make the statement completely wrong? Consider that the most unwavering of the Bush II/Cheney administration’s censorship efforts is the suppression of photos. United Statesians are not allowed to see coffins of dead soldiers nor even injured soldiers, not the carnage wrought by their invading military in Iraq, and most certainly not the horrific destruction of Falluja. The corpses of the four mercenaries hung on the Falluja bridge were shown; it was the easiest way to raise a sufficient crescendo of indignation to create the political space needed to carry out the vengeance-inspired massacre that the pitiless logic of invasion required.

By the same logic, the Bush II/Cheney administration and the Pentagon can’t be completely upset by the Abu Ghraib torture photos. Although word of mouth goes a long way when it comes to torture, the handful of leaked photos did demonstrate to people in developing nations around the world just what they can expect should they get in the way of multinational corporations’ asset acquisition programs.

On Photography coverPunishing the enlisted personnel who carried out their orders rather effectively — and what, after all, are enlistees for from the standpoint of the corporate elite and their governmental and military hirelings? — provides a nice public relations opportunity and also underscores that the actual crime was the releasing of the photos and not the torture itself. At any rate, the U.S. corporate media quickly tired of torture and abuse photos; intra-media competition forced torture into the news temporarily, but there soon was a tacit understanding that we had seen enough of these photos.

But however ubiquitous photography is, it has its limits. Humans see what they wish to see, which Susan Sontag amply demonstrated in On Photography, although she demonstrated that principle more than she intended. Ms. Sontag’s book is a collection of six essays written for The New York Review of Books during the 1970s, as the Vietnam War was winding down. The Pentagon certainly has taken a lesson from that war, taking strong measures to censor photography and videography today. But the military, and the economic interests for which it serves, is more than capable of using photography for its own purposes. This is not new, Ms. Sontag notes:

“The photographs Mathew Brady and his colleagues took of the horrors of the battlefields did not make people any less keen to go on with the Civil War. The photographs of ill-clad, skeletal prisoners held at Andersonville inflamed Northern opinion — against the South. … Photographs cannot create a moral position, but they can reinforce one — and can help build a nascent one.”1

Ms. Sontag also noted the propaganda value that a photo can have, although a photo can be so iconographic that it transcends it political use value.

“The photograph that the Bolivian authorities transmitted to the world press in October 1967 of Che Guevara’s body, laid out in a stable on a stretcher on top of a cement trough, surrounded by a Bolivian colonel, a U.S. intelligence agent, and several journalists and soldiers, not only summed up the bitter realities of contemporary Latin American history but had some inadvertent resemblances, as John Berger has pointed out, to Mantagna’s ‘The Dead Christ’ and Rembrandt’s ‘The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Tulp.’ What is compelling about the photograph partly derives from what it shares, as a composition, with these paintings. Indeed, the very extent to which that photograph is unforgettable indicates its potential for being depoliticized, for becoming a tireless image.”2

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Pastel portrait of Susan Sontag by Juan Fernando Bastos

Her argument here is that photography unnaturally beautifies what it captures, even “the small Jewish boy photographed in 1943 during a roundup in the Warsaw ghetto” with “arms raised in terror.”3 Ms. Sontag’s lament (critique would be too strong a word) is in contradiction to her themes elsewhere in the essays when focused on cultural analyses. This contradiction is most sharply in focus in her unwarranted criticisms of Diane Arbus, which frankly say much more about Ms. Sontag herself than Ms. Arbus. Ms. Sontag, with an air of disapproval, claimed that Ms. Arbus’ work

“lined up assorted monsters and borderline cases — most of them ugly; wearing grotesque or unflattering clothing; in dismal or barren surroundings. Arbus’s work does not invite viewers to identify with the pariahs and miserable-looking people she photographed. Humanity is not ‘one.’”4

A “freak” is in the mind of the viewer

To be sure, Diane Arbus’ work took a dark turn in her final works, a collection grouped as “Untitled, 1970-71” in the retrospective organized by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art that showed at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in spring 2005. But her mental health must have been a factor during this period; she committed suicide in 1971. Her skill, fully put to use prior to her final series, was to bring out the humanity in her subjects and to coax out their personality. Ms. Sontag’s repeated reproaches to Ms. Arbus for showing “victims” who are “pathetic,” “pitiable” and “repulsive,” in which “everybody looks the same,” only paint Ms. Sontag as uncomfortable with ordinary people even as her political sympathies were clearly with them. “Anybody Arbus photographed was a freak,”5 citing, as one of several examples, a boy waiting to march in a pro-war march wearing a “Bomb Hanoi” button.

But why is this earnest young man a “freak”? The picture is of a naïve, fresh-scrubbed boy, rather typical of the 1960s, and shows the young man as he is. His politics, undoubtedly the product of teaching from a conservative family, are horrible. We can recoil at the ignorance of wishing to bomb people for the crime of resisting an invasion; we can be amused at the absurdness of the sight (we can easily feel both), but this falls far short of reaching the status of “freak,” especially as plenty of United Statesians, sadly, supported the Vietnam War.

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

Portrait of Diane Arbus by Beppe Devalle

One picture in the Arbus retrospective that particularly stands out is “The 1938 Debutante of the Year at Home, Boston, 1966,” a picture of an extremely privileged woman well into the transition from middle age to seniority smoking in her bed. Every pore of this woman exudes privilege, captured in astonishing clarity by Ms. Arbus, a perhaps unequaled master of technique. This woman, like most of those whom Ms. Arbus photographed, was said to have loved the photo. Why not? It certainly captured this woman brilliantly. This woman most assuredly would not have considered herself a “freak.”

One photo that Ms. Sontag did specifically mention in her catalogue of horror is the “human pincushion” of New Jersey, a middle-aged man who, while demonstrating his specialty, nonetheless is very proud. The privileged once-debutante and the circus performer are both far removed from the life experiences of most people, but both, as are most of Ms. Arbus’ subjects, clearly are comfortable with themselves and thus in front of the camera. That they are “freaks” because they are different, or simply comfortable with their differences, is a terribly elitist attitude, and a misreading of Ms. Arbus’ work.

On the larger terrain of consumerist culture and national privilege, Ms. Sontag was on firmer ground, although her dismissal of Surrealism is jarring. She wrote:

“Surrealism is the art of generalizing the grotesque and then discovering nuances (and charms) in that. No activity is better equipped to exercise the Surrealist way of looking than photography, and eventually we look at all photographs surrealistically. People are ransacking their attics and the archives of the city and state historical societies for old photographs. … The Surrealist strategy, which promised a new and exciting vantage point for the radical criticism of modern culture, has devolved into an easy irony that democratizes all evidence, that equates its scatter of evidence with history. Surrealism can only deliver a reactionary judgment; can make out of history only an accumulation of oddities; a joke; a death trip.”6

Reactionary? Pressing ahead with this ultra-left phrasemongering, Ms. Sontag wrote:

“Surrealists, who aspire to be cultural radicals, even revolutionaries, have often been under the well-intentioned illusion that they could be, indeed should be, Marxists. But Surrealist aestheticism is too suffused with irony to be compatible with the twentieth century’s most seductive form of moralism. … Photographers, operating within the terms of the Surrealist sensibility, suggest the vanity of even trying to understand the world and instead propose that we collect it.”7

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photo of a Iraqi prisoner in Abu Ghraib

Photography as a privilege

Susan Sontag’s argument was part of her larger point that the ubiquity of photography is a function of the privilege of capitalist nations and that a culture based on consumerism necessarily produces photographic detritus as it does other consumer products. True enough. But consumer culture, none more so than the U.S. variety, is based on the reduction of freedom to the free choosing of products and the active trampling or co-optation of any artistic expression that does not extol consumerism, while Surrealism arose as artistic expressions in opposition to mechanized, mercantile society.

This line of attack is at least consistent with Ms. Sontag’s attack on Ms. Arbus, but is even more off the mark; the combination of squeamish cultural conservatism and “more revolutionary than thou” psuedo-radicalism makes for a creaky Stalinist muddle. Ms. Sontag had brilliant observations to make; it is difficult to understand these sorts of sojourns that only detract from her larger points.

Ms. Sontag began to develop her central themes in the opening pages, displaying the vast knowledge of photographic history that she was known for. Sontag posited that taking vacation photos, for many people, is a way of ameliorating feelings of guilt for not working and that travel is reduced to becoming a strategy for accumulating photographs.

“The method especially appeals to people handicapped by a ruthless work ethic — Germans, Japanese, and Americans. Using a camera appeases the anxiety which the work-driven feel about not working when they are on vacation and are supposed to be having fun.”8

Debord coverOf course, that was written before the rise of video recorders, which frequently replace the camera. This sense has only escalated with the notion that something did not happen if it wasn’t on television, and is a natural outgrowth of a hyper-consumerist society—the “society of the spectacle,” to use Guy Debord’s famous phrase. How can United Statesians be distracted, and therefore be content to buy things as a substitute for meaningful participation in their own society, unless there is a cornucopia to catch their attention. Pictures provide a part of this distraction.

Ms. Sontag took this a step further, noting that “photography is acquisition in several forms,” as a surrogate possession, a consumer’s relation to events, as an acquisition of information and furnishing knowledge independent of experience.9 But photography’s utility extends to the nation as a whole, she declared:

“A capitalist society requires a culture based on images. It needs to furnish vast amounts of entertainment in order to stimulate buying and anesthetize the injuries of class, race, and sex. And it needs to gather unlimited amounts of information, the better to exploit natural resources, increase productivity, keep order, make war, give jobs to bureaucrats. The camera’s twin capacities, to subjectify reality and to objectify it, ideally serve these needs and strengthen them.”10

Of course, the camera can point more than one way, and is a convenient tool of demonstrators and others — the police generally don’t attack when the cameras are watching. Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there are no evil technologies, only evil uses of technology, however much we may quibble with it, rings true in regard to the camera. If the U.S. bourgeoisie ever decide to go completely to the dark side, they will surely not want the counter-revolution to be televised. Or photographed. The ubiquity of cameras would work against them, caught in a consumerist contradiction that we, Surrealist or not, can appreciate.

1 Susan Sontag, On Photography [Picador, New York], page 17
2 ibid, pages 106-107
3 ibid, page 109
4 ibid, page 32
5 ibid, page 35
6 ibid, pages 74-75
7 ibid, pages 81-82
8 ibid, page 10
9 ibid, pages 155-156
10 ibid, page 178

Killing ourselves with technology

What do we do when technology spirals out of our control? Or, to put it more bluntly, when does humanity’s ability to build ever more dangerous weapons become a self-fulfilling prophesy?

Albert Einstein is said to have remarked that he didn’t know what weapons the third world war would be fought with, but the fourth would be waged with sticks and rocks. Even that classic of science fiction optimism, Star Trek, had humanity surviving a third world war. (Spock recounted the tolls of Earth’s three world wars in one episode.)

But we wouldn’t, would we? Or we might wish we didn’t. One story that has long lingered in my mind is an early Philip K. Dick story, “Second Variety,” published in 1953, a time when the cold war was looking decidedly hot. The story takes place in a post-apocalyptic France, in a world in which nuclear bombs and other equally nightmarish weapons have reduced most of North America and Europe to gray ash, with only a stubby tree trunk or a blasted wall dotting barren, depopulated landscapes.

NagasakiThe West’s governments have retreated to a bunker somewhere on the Moon, with scattered groups of soldiers huddled in hidden underground bunkers on Earth trying to “win” the world war. The land is uninhabitable because of a super-weapon developed by the U.S. — autonomous machines that hone in on any living being and rip it to shreds with whirring metal blades that make short work of whatever they encounter. The Western soldiers are protected by a belt that forces the death machines to back off. This is the weapon that turns the tide of the war into a U.S. advantage after years of “losing” the war against the Soviet Union.

But what is there to “win”? Much of the world is uninhabitable, not only because of the total destruction and residual radiation from countless bombs but from the new weapon. There is no alternative but to huddle in underground bunkers. As Dick’s story unfolds, the nightmare gets progressively worse — the weapons are not only autonomous, they are self-replicating and continually inventing newer and more deadly varieties of themselves. The last pockets of U.S. and Soviet soldiers in this slice of the French countryside are systematically killed as the machines learn to build robots difficult to distinguish from humans; robots allowed into bunkers as refugees, only to suddenly become unstoppable killing machines, and which don’t distinguish one side from the other.

Although shuddering at the mere thought of their deadliness, more than once a soldier tries to justify these ultimate weapons by saying “If we hadn’t invented them, they would have.”

If we didn’t shoot first, bomb first, destroy first, they would have. Whatever we do is justified. No culture has a monopoly on such thoughts. But such thoughts combined with the technological progress of the present day, rising nationalism and budget-busting military budgets leave the possible end of the human race a concrete possibility rather than merely a science fiction allegory.

Philip D. Dick was no prophet — no one is — but the nightmare world he created is chillingly tangible. What would happen if a technology of war was given autonomy? Such a weapon would be purposefully designed to kill swiftly and without mercy. The Pentagon has already begun a program designed to create autonomous weapons systems.

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

(Cartoon by Carlos Latuff)

But what if an artificial intelligence decided humans were in the way? Isaac Asimov famously had his robots programmed with three laws that blocked them from doing any harm to any human. The other side of this equation was explored in another Star Trek episode, when the Enterprise encountered a planet populated by advanced robots. The robots had killed their creators so far back in time that the robots couldn’t remember when, but had done so because their creators “had begun to fear us and started to turn us off.”

Technology need not be feared nor is it necessarily fated to escape all control. There are no von Neumann machines swarming everywhere (at least in this part of the galaxy!), and I am inclined to agree with Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that there is no evil technology, only evil applications of technology. Yet we live in a world where there are plenty of opportunities for technology to be used for evil purposes. We see some of this all around us as workplaces become sites of tightening surveillance and control, from computers that report on us to bosses, to the endless treadmill of work speedups. Technology is today a tool of capitalists, to extract ever more work out of us, to outsource work on scales never before possible and to facilitate ever faster and more numerous speculation in dubious financial instruments.

Technology in these hands also makes waging war easier — a drone operator can sit in a control room thousands of miles from the targets, safe from the carnage rained down on far-away peoples. If autonomous weaponry ever is unleashed, how could it be controlled? It couldn’t. Humanity won’t survive a third world war.

When we think of existential threats to our descendants’ world, we tend to focus on global warming, environmental degradation and the looming collapse of capitalist industrialism, of the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet. That is properly so, and these do seem to be the gravest challenges that will face us across the 21st century. But technology applied to perfecting military killing machines is within the human imagination. Dick conjured this at the midpoint of the 20th century and he is far from the only one.

Yes, a warning and not a prophesy. But in a world of vast inequality, of an industrial and financial elite willing to do anything, even put the planet’s health at risk, for the sake of acquiring more wealth, the potential for evil applications of technology are ever present.

One more reason, if we didn’t already have enough, to bring into being a better world, one built for human need and environmental harmony rather than private profit. We then wouldn’t need to endure a mad pursuit of fetishized technological advancement; instead we could harness technology for the greater good as necessary. Barbarism remains the likely alternative.

Trump is a Republican, but is he a fascist?

It’s hard not to chuckle at the hand-wringing going on within the Republican Party. That terrible Donald Trump: How dare he say openly what we only say in code! And, why, Republican candidates have never stooped to exploiting fears and pandering to racism and nativism.

Uh-huh. Richard Nixon attempted to provide federal money for segregated schools as he ushered in the Republican Party’s “Southern strategy”; Ronald Reagan famously opened his 1980 presidential run close to the site where three Civil Rights Movement workers were murdered in Mississippi with calls for “states’ rights,” well understood code words for supporting racially biased policies; George H.W. Bush exploited racial stereotypes with his Willie Horton campaign ads; George W. Bush’s presidency will be remembered for his callous ignoring of New Orleans and its African-American population in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and the roster of Republicans hostile to civil rights is too long to list.

So does Donald Trump really represent something new and frightful? Or does his campaign represent the same-old, same-old in more concentrated form? Or, to put the second question in a different way, does he represent a new manifestation of fascism, as many are already proclaiming.

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

A rally against Donald Trump in New York City on March 19, organized by the Cosmopolitan Antifascists

Perhaps it might be best to see the Trump campaign as constituting the seeds for a potential fascist movement rather than a fully fledged fascism. That ought to be scary enough, and enough for all of us to make a stand against it.

Fascism is a specific phenomenon, and we should not loosely throw the word around, as if it means anything with a whiff of authoritarianism that we do not like.

At its most basic level, fascism is a dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business. It has a social base, which provides the support and the terror squads, but which is badly misled since the fascist dictatorship operates decisively against the interest of its social base. Militarism, extreme nationalism, the creation of enemies and scapegoats, and, perhaps the most critical component, a rabid propaganda that intentionally raises panic and hate while disguising its true nature and intentions under the cover of a phony populism, are among the necessary elements.

We often think of fascism in the classical 1930s form, of Nazis goose-stepping or the street violence of Benito Mussolini’s followers. But it took somewhat different forms later in the 20th century, being instituted through military dictatorships in Chile and Argentina. Any fascism that might arise in the U.S. would be wrapped in right-wing populism and, given the particular social constructs there, that populism would include demands to “return to the Constitution” and “secure the borders.”

The Trump campaign’s ongoing violence

There is no shortage of peans to the Constitution or demands for border sealing, true enough, and violence has not been missing from the Trump campaign — to the contrary, the Republican front-runner has been reveling in it. Watching videos stringing together some of these incidents is sobering.

It’s been said over and over again that Germans didn’t think Hitler could ever take power (although he was never elected; he was appointed chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg). Let’s set aside that all too easy comparison. Instead, it would be more pertinent to look back to the 1980 U.S. presidential campaign that culminated in a lurch to the right. That was the first one I could vote in. Many people thought Ronald Reagan would never be elected; voters in the end would recoil from his extremism. I was one of those doubters. To this day I remember the chill of horror that ran down my back when I first saw the electoral results, well into the evening, as a television announcer called the latest state to go his way part of a “tidal wave.”

In a year in which even the Democratic primary front-runner, Hillary Clinton, eagerly white-washes President Reagan’s actual history, we should correct the record. To only scratch the surface, he lavishly funded and supported the governments of Guatemala and El Salvador in their terror campaigns against their population through military units and death squads that killed hundreds of thousands; waged war against Nicaragua, mining harbors and funding and directing terrorism through the Contras; opposed civil rights legislation at every opportunity; cut Medicaid, Medicare, school breakfast and lunch programs, and declared ketchup a vegetable for school lunches; refused to lift a finger as AIDS ravaged communities across the country because he believed homosexuals deserved their fate; and invented preposterous stories of pink-Cadillac-driving “welfare queens” raking in $150,000 per year.

There is a straight line from Reagan, whom the Republican establishment still venerates through a rather creepy personality cult, to Donald Trump. And Mr. Trump isn’t necessarily the scariest or most extreme candidate out there — Ted Cruz, determined to become the second Joe McCarthy, holds that distinction. But Senator Cruz, however much he lusts for a Medieval theological dictatorship and despite the frightening ignorance of his supporters, doesn’t command a following the way that Mr. Trump does.

The culmination of Republican pandering

He’s the front-runner precisely because he says it straight out rather than using code like other Republican candidates. He’s the logical product of 36 years of Republican pandering — half a century if we go back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy.” Or, really, a continuation, if in new packaging, of the whole history of the United States. If he were just another in a long line of demagogues, we would not be throwing around the word “fascism” so freely. But the Trump campaign comes with violence and particularly open hatreds. Alarm bells ought to be ringing.

Let’s return to the definition of fascism offered above: “A dictatorship established through and maintained with terror on behalf of big business.” Industrialists and financiers are firmly in the saddle in the United States. Opposition to the policies there that have created widespread misery and towering inequality certainly is growing not only in intensity but in numbers, yet it could hardly be said that capitalist rule in the U.S. is in any danger whatsoever today. There is no need for capitalists to create and build a corps of street thugs or brown shirts.

Rather, we have the odd phenomenon of a billionaire “populist” telling his followers that he won’t be beholden to corporate interests because he is too rich to be bought. We have seen this siren song before: Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s morbid combination of George W. Bush, Rupert Murdoch and Ross Perot. He did not work out so well for Italy. Prime Minister Berlusconi’s reason to run for office was to advance his business interests and stay out of jail. Promoting his business interests is Donald Trump’s motivation. All we have here is a billionaire cutting out the middle man and buying the office for himself instead of buying a professional politician.

Nonetheless, it is impossible not to note the violence and the threats against Mexicans, immigrants, Muslims and, implicitly, to all People of Color, and to social activists of the Left. Any Right-wing movement that has gained a substantial following of people that includes more than a few willing to condone violence must target the Left. History is painfully clear on this. We need not think Trump is a fascist or capable of building a fascist type of movement to mobilize against his campaign. Not that we should minimize the ultimate threat of fascism — all capitalist countries contain the potentiality of fascism, a threat that materializes when capitalists dispense with democracy because they can no longer earn profits in the ordinary ways and working people begin to refuse to cooperate with capitalist business as usual in significant numbers.

I would argue that the Trump campaign is not necessarily fascist today, but that it carries with it the seeds of a future, potential fascist movement. That is more than serious enough for everybody who struggles for a better world.

Belief in capitalism as a material force

Violence and coercion have driven the establishment and expansion of capitalism from its start, and continue to be an indispensable glue holding together what has become a world economic system. Yet no level of brutality can itself keep a system, or any ruling structure, in place for a long period of time, much less for centuries, unless there is some level of cooperation.

That cooperation must rest, at least partially, on belief. Why did so many people in the past believe that God picked one family to rule in perpetuity? Lack of education played no small part here but, whatever the reason, that peasants did believe helped keep monarchs on thrones. Today, with education so much more available, such a belief would be laughed at. Ideology accordingly must be much more sophisticated. There are no dynasties at the head of modern capitalist countries, nor even single political parties or groupings.

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department's 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

Black Lives Matter supporters inside Minneapolis City Hall on December 3, 2015, after an early morning raid and eviction of demonstrators occupying the space outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s 4th Precinct, following the police shooting death of Jamar Clark. (photo by Tony Webster)

But here we must distinguish between governing and ruling. Presidents, prime ministers and governors may govern for set periods of time, giving way to new officials, but these men and women do only that: govern. They manage the government on behalf of the dominant social forces within their borders, and those dominant social forces are in turn, depending where on the international capitalist pecking order the governed space lies, connected to and/or subordinate to more powerful social forces based elsewhere.

It is capitalists — industrialists and financiers — who actually rule. The more power capitalists can command, the more effectively they can bend government policy and legislation to their preferred outcomes. More aspects of human life are steadily put at the mercy of “market forces.” Those are not neutral, disinterested mechanisms sitting loftily above the clouds, as the corporate media incessantly promotes. Rather, market forces are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers. Thus capitalist fundamentalism is telling us that a handful of exceedingly powerful industrialists and financiers should decide social and economic matters; that wealth automatically confers on them the right to dominate society.

Is this so different from feudal beliefs in monarchs? Without significant numbers of people believing that the rule of capitalists is just and as natural as the tides of the ocean, capitalism would not endure. When people ceased to believe in monarchs, that system of rule crumbled. Feudalism was of human construction. Everything of human construction comes to an end.

Capitalism, another human construction, is no different. But as a global downturn stretches into its eighth year with no end in sight, as the period of stagnation, and associated cuts to wages and mounting inequality, is now measured in decades, belief in capitalism is becoming more difficult to sustain. Even that old bogey word, “socialism,” is losing its talismanic ability to stifle thinking about alternatives; among young adults in particular socialism is gaining attraction.

Counterposing new ideas for old beliefs

But let us not indulge in wishful thinking. Capitalism is as strong as ever today. Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” looms large in the popular psyche. For countless millions, capitalism is indistinguishable from society; being without it would be like a fish trying to live outside water. That a furious and never-ending propaganda barrage is necessary to maintain this is not in dispute. That it is still commonly believed is what matters here. Capitalism is what people know and belief that anything else would be worse widespread. Until that belief is broken down — through persuasion and, most likely in bigger portion, an economic breakdown serious enough to compel people to confront their deteriorating living conditions — capitalism will be nearly impossible to dislodge.

Thus belief is a material force, if a sufficient number of people hold that belief. I recently had my attention drawn to an interesting article published on the Waging Nonviolence web site (tip of the hat to regular commenter Alcuin) that discussed a couple of seemingly unrelated events in Uganda. The article’s title, “Did grandmothers kill a government minister, nonviolently?,” asks a provocative question. The incidents in question here center on a group of grandmothers who stripped naked while blocking a road to prevent two government ministers and their convoys from seizing communal lands on behalf of an “investor.”

One of the two ministers died in a plane crash soon afterward. Was this an accident? Was it caused by the minister’s rumored falling out of favor with Uganda’s strong-willed president? Or, as the Waging Nonviolence article discusses, was it because of those grandmothers’ form of protest? The article’s author, Phil Wilmot, wrote, “the idea of a cultural omen or curse killing someone was hard to conceive.” He recounts his discussion of the death of the first minister, General Aronda Nyakairima, with a group of local activists:

“In November, I was participating in a training of activists in Kampala, Uganda’s capital. One young man was present who had organized [the grandmothers] and their community on that April day. Our group dialogue deviated from its intended path, and we found ourselves discussing the incident and its alleged relationship to Aronda’s death.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because he was poisoned by the government?’ I asked. A few hands rose.

‘How many of you believe that Aronda died because the women of Amuru stripped naked?’

‘Phil, we are Africans. Of course we believe that’s why he died,’ interjected activist Hamidah Nassimbwa, speaking on behalf of the mostly well-educated group. The majority of the room raised their hands to concur that Aronda’s fatality originated in Amuru in April.”

Beliefs in omens or curses are found in virtually every culture. The point isn’t where these believers are from or what culture they live in, but that these beliefs can have a material effect. The sight of the protesting grandmothers was enough to induce enough fear that high representatives of a government who could have easily used lethal force against them instead fled, and that the protestors’ action had further consequences in many minds. (The other minister subsequently lost his seat in the next election.) These are beliefs that likely arose organically in the distant past, and have survived into a time when science rather than magic or religious belief explains natural phenomenons or social interactions.

The hegemony of ideas that serve elites

How more powerful are beliefs that are intentionally inculcated by elites to maintain themselves in a position of power? Tsars and kings proclaimed they were representatives of God, and fear of divine wrath surely played a significant role in monarchal longevity, no matter how much violence was inflicted on those who stepped out of line. Belief works in the same way today, even if for a different ruling structure.

Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is useful to understand this concept. A definition found on the Marxist Archives web site provides this summation:

“Hegemony is a class alliance by means of which one, leading [hegemonic] class assumes a position of leadership over other classes, in return guaranteeing them certain benefits, so as to be able to secure public political power over society as a whole. … The term was … popularised by Antonio Gramsci who demonstrated that every nation state requires that some class is able to establish a hegemony capable of unifying the nation and resolving its historical problems. Gramsci posed the problem of the working class in Italy in terms of the need for the Italian workers, especially in the industrialised North, to understand the problems of the Southern peasantry and make the demands and aspirations of the Southern peasants their own, while refusing any corporatist bloc with the Northern industrial bourgeoisie.”

Gramsci, in his Prison Notebooks, himself wrote:

“The capitalist entrepreneur creates alongside himself the industrial technician, the specialist in political economy, the organizer of a new culture, of a new legal system, etc. … If not all entrepreneurs, at least an elite amongst them must have the capacity to be an organizer of society in general, including all its complex organism of services, right up to the state organism, because of the need to create the conditions most favorable to the expansion of their own class; or at least they must possess the capacity to choose the deputies (specialized employees) to whom to entrust this activity of organizing the general system of relationships external to the business itself.”

A result of this “social hegemony” is:

“The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.”

Capitalist ‘freedom’ can only be a formal freedom

Because in advanced capitalist countries there is formal democracy rather than an open dictatorship, it is easy to lose sight of where power derives and therefore the limits of formal democracy. In a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia, 1917-1967, the great historian Isaac Deutscher said:

“[I]n bourgeois society [freedom] can be a formal freedom only. Prevailing property relations render it so, for the possessing classes exercise an almost monopolistic control over nearly all the means of opinion formation. The working classes and their intellectual mouthpieces manage to get hold of, at best, marginal facilities for social and political self-expression. Society, being itself controlled by property, cannot effectively control the State. All the more generously is it allowed to indulge in the illusion that it does so. … Capitalism could afford to enfranchise the working classes, for it could rely on its economic mechanism to keep them in subjection; the bourgeoisie maintains its social preponderance even when it exercises no [direct] political power.” [page 106]

Even allowing for the rise of the Internet, and the better ability for dissenting news and viewpoints to be circulated (Deutscher wrote those words a half-century ago), it is indisputable the corporate media remains dominant and allows only a narrow range of perspectives to be given a hearing. The very competitive nature of mass media ownership helps dominant ideologies prevail — if so many different outlets report the same news item in a nearly identical way, that “spin” can easily gain wide acceptance. Or if stories are reported differently by competing media outlets, but with the same dominant set of presumptions underlying them, those dominant presumptions, products of ideologies widely propagated by elite institutions, similarly serve as ideological reinforcement.

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002 (photo by William M. Connolley)

Anti-war demonstrators in London, September 2002
(photo by William M. Connolley)

In a society where the state owns and controls the media, it is easy to disregard what is disseminated as all emanating from a single source, even when there is scope for differing opinions. In capitalist countries, the profusion of private ownership (even though increasingly concentrated into a few corporations) gives the appearance of competing multiple perspectives. Extremist, mad-dog outlets like Murdoch newspapers or Fox News do no more than provide reinforcement for maleducated holders of extremist viewpoints and conspiracy theories.

Public opinion is shaped by repetition, and not repetition in a handful of obviously biased publications or networks, but rather repetition of viewpoints, reporting angles and underlying themes and assumptions, across the entire corporate media.

An array of institutions to convey one basic message

There are a vast array of institutions, including corporations, “think tanks,” schools and armed forces, to suffice a society with the viewpoints of the dominant, which in a capitalist society are its industrialists and financiers. The admonishment that everything — including schools and especially government — should be “run like a business” is pervasive. This propaganda does not fall out of the sky; its seeming pervasiveness flows from the ability of capitalists to disseminate their viewpoints through a variety of institutions, those they directly set up and control, and those starved of funds that in an era of deepening austerity increasingly must accept corporate money to make up for the loss of state support.

Something as fundamental as who generates the wealth of society, and how wealth is generated, is obscured as part of this process of opinion formation. It can’t be otherwise, for this is the building block on which capitalist ideology rests. Incessant spin claims that profit is the result of the acumen of the capitalist and the capitalist’s magical ability to create profit out of thin air, when in actuality corporate profit comes from the difference between what an employee produces and what the employee is paid.

If the enterprise were a cooperative run by the workers, the product would be sold for the same price and thus the same profit would be achieved, but distributed equitably. Many people must be poor for one person to be rich, because the private profit of a few is taken from the underpayment of work to the many.

The modern working person has faced a lifetime of the most sophisticated propaganda, and the task of undoing it in ourselves and for others should not be under-estimated. Millions of people, nonetheless, have done it and more are doing it. The continuing stagnation, erosion of social protections, promise of more austerity and the looming environmental catastrophe of global warming are bound to open more eyes. Many more eyes will need to be opened, with a concomitant willingness to struggle and organize, if a better world is to be created. A “counter-hegemony” is necessary: We provide our own leaders or they won’t be provided at all.

Or, to put it another way, we have to believe that a better world is not only possible but can be created. Once a sufficient portion of society comes to believes in this, then belief in, or resignation to, capitalist exploitation goes the way of trembling at the feet of monarchs. A belief in ourselves, that cooperation rather than dog-eat-dog competition is the route to a stable economy with enough for all, becomes a new material force.

Cynicism as the cultural expression of neoliberalism

When we discuss neoliberalism, the current stage of capitalism, we naturally focus on economics and politics. But no domineering system can arise, much less remain and even intensify over decades, without a cultural apparatus that extends well beyond basic propaganda.

Feelings of hopelessness must be engendered. Although such injections can be, and often are, spread via propagandistic techniques — Margaret Thatcher’s “there is no alternative” being a prime example — an absorption into the bones of a society must be accomplished through multiple channels. Continual cultural reinforcement is critical to maintain a system such as neoliberal capitalism and the austerity that is imposed in ever more harsh forms.

Negative CapitalismA bleak cynicism — a deep pessimism that, bad though things are, there really is no alternative — keeps a populace in check better than bullets can. What is such resignation other than passive acceptance of the status quo? To believe in a better world is an act of optimism, one requiring a belief that a better world really is possible, that we don’t have to accept declining living standards, overwork, precarious employment and a corporatized monoculture that substitutes celebrity gossip and spectacle for authentic human exchange and community.

Cynicism, then, is the natural cultural expression of our neoliberal age, binding together collective fatalism and thereby constituting a disorganizing force, argues J.D. Taylor in his lively book Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era.* Although cynicism can take many forms, and often acts as an armor against an indifferent world, Mr. Taylor conceptualizes it as “the perverted psychological resistance of the modern individual, one that refuses to believe in governments or media, but refuses to do anything about misrule or misinformation either.” [page 102] Refusal to act can only devolve into acceptance:

“Collective fatalism is a mass belief that meaningful change is impossible, with individuals deferring decision-making in the expectation someone else will make them on their behalf, with or without their consent. This leads to an infantilisation as citizens enjoy their disempowerment as consumers alone … whereby shopping replacing voting as the final, meaningful act of affirmation, signalling a new boredom that, lacking alternatives, leads to fascism.” [pages 105-106]

Space and time themselves have been conquered by capitalism, and the stronger capitalism is, the less our lives matter. This of course does not just “happen” — it is not some natural phenomenon such as ocean tides as propagandists would have us believe — but is an ongoing project, a consensus of global financial and corporate elites. More than ever, we are consumers rather than citizens, “empowered” through more choices of what to buy simultaneous with diminishing control over our lives.

Anger is futile without an alternative

Compensations such as alcohol, drugs and a seeming consumer cornucopia that only makes the hamster wheel go faster make poor substitutes for healthy communities. The author writes:

“Frenzied working and, in between that, friends rarely seen. The laptop screen is the window through which a continuously awake and alert world bombards our neurons with to-do emails, Viagra spam, narcissism, rolling catastrophes, and DIY porn. This ontological shift in the status of the human is one of the essential reasons for the profound sense of malaise and depression one feels in young adults today. This way of living simply isn’t enough, and when one either cannot or chooses not to behave simply as customers, or interact with the world using advertising logos and applications, anger and frustration increases. …

[L]ives are getting faster, harder, more impoverished, depressed, and disenfranchised. This isn’t inevitable, and it certainly shouldn’t be acceptable, even if at present many continue to consent to the dreariness of everyday life because of a lack of credible alternatives.” [pages 15-16]

There is no alternative within capitalism — cultural rebellion is soon co-opted as the logic of economic enclosure of all spaces leads to their eventual commodification. Only economic and political transformation through decisive mass actions is possible. And mass action in turn cannot be effective without tangible, large social goals. Mr. Taylor argues that the responsibilities and rights of adults could be defined by “a new constitution and social contract that imbues citizenship,” which would be a building block toward creating an alternative to capitalism.

Full employment with reduced working hours for all would be a route to not only providing a necessary level of goods and services but also access to work. But in fleshing this idea out, Negative Capitalism offers a curious mix of reformism and revolutionary thinking. One the one hand it advocates a political movement around work that demands improved labor protections and, at one point, a movement to “force” the United Nations to impose social-welfare measures globally. In almost the same breath, the book goes well beyond such basic reforms by demanding the introduction of a global living wage, universal restrictions on working hours and swift punishment of corporations that damage workers or ecosystems.

Then again, a global movement to overturn capitalism can’t coalesce unless there are tangible goals and ideas for what a better world would look like and not simply theoretical or abstract concepts. Although he is never mentioned in Negative Capitalism, Leon Trotsky’s concept of “transitional demands” comes to mind here: Goals and demands that appear as reformist and initially can be worked toward as reforms, but are “too big” to be accommodated and ultimately can only be attained through transformation into a new and different system. The theory here is that once people see that reasonable goals are impossible, they will be prepared to go beyond reformism.

Thus we should be open-minded about goals and tactics. An effective movement will have to state goals clearly, in terms readily understood. So how do we get there? None of us knows the answer for this with certainty, but a multitude of forms of refusal to cooperate are necessary. A democratic movement can remain united in a “civil war” against neoliberal finance with a focus on simple strategic programs, Mr. Taylor argues:

“Power cannot disappear, but it is neutralised when diffused among an equal mass of democratic agents who acknowledge only the rule of the collective, not the individual. Negative capitalism can be undone. It will lead to a greater disruption of social life and period of civil war initially, but the history of human societies demonstrates that cultures are fundamentally neither ‘bad’ nor ‘good,’ as many moral critiques or defenses of capitalism assume. … It makes for less compelling polemic, but people enjoy conversation, friendship, and generosity far more than consuming or working.” [page 26]

Creativity in opposition

So how might we get there? To begin with, throwing off cynicism and a belief that nothing can change. Creativity is a necessary weapon for any effective fightback. Negative Capitalism advocates “spectacular disruption” of points of weakness as part of a mass disobeying of social conventions, disruptions as “for once as violent as the enforced poverty, lack of social care and environmental destruction” imposed by capitalism.

Hacking, debt strikes, creation of new autonomous local and national parliaments, community organizing and strategic acts of targeted violence, such as community “supermarket sweeps” and coordinated occupations of financial and governmental seats are some of what is suggested, along with a plea for the Left to abandon “moral righteousness and an elitist language.” No list of tactics, the above included, can possibly in itself lead anywhere without an overarching idea of what is to be accomplished, a realistic larger strategy and at least the contours of what a better world might look like.

Mr. Taylor will be a little too dismissive of theory for some activists’ taste (admittedly including myself), but he does himself credit by acknowledging his doubts as he grapples with these large issues as an activist himself. It simply isn’t enough for us to say what we don’t like, nor to point out the immiseration that pervades the world — we must be for something. The author’s concepts of a new social contract and constitution, guaranteeing meaningful citizenship participation and rights, can strike a reader as tepid or dramatic and perhaps some mixture of both, but as general concepts they can express the contours of a better world in the most general terms, a basic goal while the difficult work of making those abstract, if lofty, concepts more concrete and fleshed out.

Learning to take responsibility for the future, particularly on the part of young people, and imparting the skills, education and compassion to create the democratic citizenship that a better world requires is both part of the for and the means of someday arriving there. There will be no shortcut to that. Action from above can only be countered with action from below:

“Optimism cannot just mean cobbling together convenient lies to make unhappy people more able to face their misfortunes, but instead contains the creativity to sidestep all existing meanings and engage in an entirely new and unknown path or activity. Optimism is creative. … Pessimism is reactionary. … Its failure to confront the violent nature of desire in life, both cultural and biological, forces it into cynical submission to forces more willing to creatively assert themselves. Neoliberalism is one such powerful system.” [page 87]

Such a powerful system will not be thrown off until we cease to accept it:

“History will not be created by the nihilists, but by those who determine to leave behind their nihilistic contemporaries.” [page 88]

J.D. Taylor is not offering us a blueprint — and this is good for such a thing is not possible — but rather imploring us to pay much more attention to the cultural dimensions of the world’s neoliberal dominance. He has done well to remind us that an all-encompassing system such as modern capitalism cements itself through a full spectrum of institutional mechanisms and can’t be tackled without grasping the degree to which we absorb its cultural expressions.

* J.D. Taylor, Negative Capitalism: Cynicism in the Neoliberal Era [Zero Books, Winchester, England, and Washington, D.C. 2012]