Koch brothers take aim at Republican ‘moderation’ and the Constitution

The Republican Party isn’t extreme enough. So say the Koch brothers, who are threatening to withhold the $400 million they have promised to inject into the 2018 electoral cycle.

Members of the U.S. Congress have received their marching orders: Repeal the Affordable Care Act (in other words, replace “Obamacare” with “Trumpcare”) and lavish billionaires with massive tax cuts. A June “donor retreat” at a Koch brothers’ compound in Colorado was attended by 400 people, and the “price for admission for most was a pledge to give at least $100,000 this year to the Kochs’ broad policy and political network,”  The Guardian reported.

The Koch brothers are on record as committing up to $400 million on the next midterm elections, but such largesse is not without strings. The Guardian quoted the head of the Koch brothers’ political arm, Americans for Prosperity, Tim Phillips, as frustrated at the delays in extremist legislation getting through Congress. “There is urgency,” Phillips said. “We believe we have a window of about 12 months to get as much of it accomplished as possible before the 2018 elections grind policy to a halt.”

A Louisiana bayou devastated by a nearby natural gas operation (photo by John Messina for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

As an example of what is expected to be done, one wealthy donor told the gathering that his “Dallas piggy bank” is closed for now. “Get Obamacare repealed and replaced, get tax reform passed. Get it done and we’ll open it back up,” he told The Guardian, adding that he has encouraged other wealthy donors to similarly withhold money until they get what they expect.

There really isn’t anything new here, other than it is unusual for any window to be opened into the secretive workings of Charles and David Koch’s networks. Their massive spending to buy Congress and state legislatures (they budgeted $900 million for the 2016 elections), their widespread funding of global-warming denialism, their willingness to destroy the environment in pursuit of endless profits, and their relentless focus on privatizing public assets are well known. Their Americans for Prosperity outfit was also a crucial funder for the corporate-sponsored Tea Party movement. Perhaps less known is that they are bankrolling an attempt to re-write the U.S. Constitution.

Amending the Constitution to suit themselves

There are two separate pushes for a constitutional convention. In a Truthout report, Alex Kotch writes:

“One would attempt to engineer a convention for a balanced budget amendment only, and the other tries to secure an open convention for the purpose of limiting the power and jurisdiction of the federal government. But once a convention is underway, all bets are off. The convention can write its own rules, resulting in a wide-open or ‘runaway’ convention that can make major changes to the constitution and, some argue, even change the number of states required to ratify those changes.”

Under U.S. law, if the legislatures of 34 states (two-thirds of the states) call for a constitutional convention, Congress is required to convene one. The balanced-budget resolution has been passed by 29 states, Truthout reports. Once a convention is convened, it can write its own proposals, including changing the number of states required to pass a constitutional amendment to make it easier for extreme corporate wish lists to be converted into permanent law. But even if only a balanced-budget amendment were to become part of the U.S. Constitution, such an amendment would enshrine harsher austerity with little or no recourse.

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities puts this plain:

“By requiring a balanced budget every year, no matter the state of the economy, such an amendment would raise serious risks of tipping weak economies into recession and making recessions longer and deeper, causing very large job losses. That’s because the amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both just when the economy is weak or already in recession. … [T]he amendment would force policymakers to cut spending, raise taxes, or both. That would launch a vicious spiral of bad economic and fiscal policy: a weaker economy would lead to higher deficits, which would force policymakers to cut spending or raise taxes more, which would weaken the economy further.”

A detailed analysis by Macroeconomic Advisers estimates that, had a balanced-budget amendment been in place at the time of the 2008 economic crash, there would have been an additional 11 million people unemployed in 2012 and gross domestic product would have declined 12 percent that year. Because of the decline in tax revenue this would cause, an additional $500 billion would have been added to that year’s deficit, and coupled with the cuts in spending that would have mandated by such an amendment, U.S. government discretionary spending would have been reduced to zero. As in literally nothing.

The Koch brothers and their billionaire confederates would be doing just fine, however, and that’s all that matters. A web of Koch-funded organizations are funding and promoting these pushes for a constitutional convention.

Clean air and water? Who needs them?

Koch Industries is one of the country’s worst polluters of the air and water as well as a major source of greenhouse gases. Thus it comes as no surprise that Charles and David Koch, who operate the company, are also active funders of global-warming denialism, and the two stand to profit enormously from the Alberta tar sands. They own close to two million acres that, should that land be fully exploited, would throw another 19 billion metric tons of carbon emissions into the atmosphere. The International Forum on Globalization estimates that the Koch brothers stand to make more than one million times more than the average Keystone XL pipeline worker over the life of the pipeline, based on potential profits of $100 billion.

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

The Koch brothers are major funders of the extremist American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) that writes legislation to benefit its corporate membership that is frequently passed by state legislators verbatim; and even attempted to take control of the Cato Institute, the far-right libertarian “think tank” that, despite agitating for the end of Social Security, was apparently not extreme enough for them.

Not content with control of Congress and state legislatures, David Koch donated $300,000 to U.S. Vice President Mike Pence’s gubernatorial bids, and Pence has dutifully denied global warming. A 2014 Politico article reported:

“A number of Pence’s former staffers from his days in Congress have assumed major roles in the brothers’ corporate and political spheres. And Americans for Prosperity, the Kochs’ top political group, has been holding up Pence’s work in Indiana as emblematic of a conservative reform agenda they’re trying to take nationwide. … Pence has worked to spotlight the fiscal issues that animate the Kochs’ political giving. People close to the brothers say he first earned their network’s admiration during the George W. Bush years, when he opposed what he deemed Big Government policies backed by his own party, including No Child Left Behind and a Medicare expansion, and repeatedly warned that the GOP was veering off course.”

As I have noted before, this is a lament that the Bush II/Cheney administration was too liberal!

National parks in the cross hairs

The Koch brothers’ extreme hostility to anything public — that is, anything that is not being exploited for corporate plunder — has gone so far as to oppose national parks. Unfortunately, this is not a joke. A Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling them. Reed Watson, the center’s executive director, argues that “land management agencies [should] turn a profit” by removing restrictions on timber and energy development.

To soft-peddle this extremism, the center calls for selling off other federal lands rather then openly advocating selling national parks — an immensely unpopular idea across the political spectrum — but that is where the logic of its extremism points. In a paper the center produced, “How and Why to Privatize Public Lands,” the group makes it intentions clear:

“Four criteria should guide reform efforts: land should be allocated to the highest-valued use; transaction costs should be kept to a minimum; there must be broad participation in the divestiture process; and ‘squatters’ rights’ should be protected. Unfortunately, the land reform proposals on the table today fail to meet some or all of those criteria. Accordingly, we offer a blueprint for auctioning off all public lands over 20 to 40 years.”

Note that it says “all” without qualification. Oil rigs and fracking operations instead of natural scenery for all to enjoy because it would be more profitable in the short term. This mindset has reached the highest level of government as exemplified by the Trump administration’s intentions to open federal lands to mining and oil extraction at fire-sale prices without oversight, or to sell them.

It’s not as if the Koch brothers don’t know where their next billion is coming from. Combined, the two are worth about $97 billion. Each is one of the nine richest people on Earth, and together the two possess more wealth than the world’s richest person, Bill Gates. They were worth $32 billion in 2009 — nearly tripling their fortune since the first year of the Obama administration.

This is all the product of libertarianism, a a philosophy of might makes right. A belief in complete freedom of commerce, of minimal government involvement in the economy or social affairs, is nothing less than allowing the “market” to determine economic and social outcomes. The logical outcome of this is no more minimum wage, no more Social Security, no more laws against discrimination in the workplace, no more safety rules, no more consumer-protection laws, no more environmental protection. This indeed is what libertarians preach, including the Koch brothers and Ron Paul.

Who is this individualistic “freedom” for? It is “freedom” for industrialists and financiers to rule over, control and exploit others. “Justice” becomes the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists.

On an even playing field, the brutality of the programs put forth by the Koch brothers and their fellow libertarian billionaires wouldn’t pass the laugh test. But when you have hundreds of millions of dollars to throw around every two years, and an interlocking maze of organizations and “think tanks” to promote your self-serving agenda, you have the ability to make the most obscene ideas “mainstream.” On what basis should such one-sided power relations be considered democratic?

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The many hypocrisies of the Oregon standoff

When an environmentalist takes action to defend a forest in the United States, she risks being labeled a “terrorist.” When an armed right-wing militia member commandeers a forest for his personal profit, he is “standing up to tyranny.” The Oregon standoff that began January 2 demonstrates this hypocrisy, and not only that hypocrisy.

Nor is it only law enforcement and the “justice” system that treats a case such as this differently; the corporate media does as well. Start with what the sheriff of Harney County, the remote southeastern Oregon region where the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters is located, said:

“These men came to Harney County claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers, when in reality these men had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.”

Let’s set aside the laughable idea that a handful of right-wing freeloaders peddling extremist ideologies could be taken seriously. That they have zero chance of sparking anything resembling a mass movement doesn’t negate the seriousness of the standoff. Imagine that a group of African-Americans took up arms and took over a government facility, with an intention of sparking rebellion. How long do you think they would last before every police force that could squeeze itself into the action would storm them with guns blazing and bombs roaring?

Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Oregon Department of Transportation}

Steens Mountains from the Buena Vista Overlook located in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge (photo by Oregon Department of Transportation}

Remember the Philadelphia police bombing of the MOVE organization in 1985? Eleven people died and 61 homes were destroyed. Or, more recently, Tamir Rice? A 12-year-old waving a toy gun was killed within two seconds of police arriving; police shot him dead without bothering to demand the toy gun be dropped. Tamir was one of 1,134 people killed by police in the U.S. in 2015, tragically illustrating that young Black men are nine times more likely to be shot by police than other United Statesians.

Yet in the Oregon takeover, police seem content to wait. This is not a suggestion to storm the refuge headquarters; a peaceful solution should be found. But the contrast with how a White armed group is treated is sharp.

Convicted of two arsons, but they were “accidents”

The militia members purportedly are “defending” father and son ranchers sentenced for two separate arsons of public lands. The corporate media has been portraying these arsons as some unfortunate accident, when the reality is quite different. The New York Times accepts the ranchers’ explanation as fact, publishing this account on January 4:

“Dwight and Steven [Hammond] were convicted of lighting fires, in 2001 and 2006, that they said were efforts to protect their property from wildfires and invasive plant species. The fire in 2001 accidentally spread to about 140 acres of government land, documents show. In 2006, a burn ban was in effect while firefighters battled blazes started by a lightning storm on a hot day in August. Steven Hammond had started a ‘back burn’ to prevent the blaze from destroying the family’s winter feed for its cattle.”

Oh, gosh, so they were a little overzealous in protecting their ranch, what’s the big deal? So the Times would have us believe. The reality, however, is much more serious, as even a few minutes of investigation reveals. The 2001 fire, a jury found, was set to conceal the illegal slaughter of deer on Bureau of Land Management property. Here is the government account of this incident:

“Witnesses at trial, including a relative of the Hammonds, testified the arson occurred shortly after Steven Hammond and his hunting party illegally slaughtered several deer on BLM property. Jurors were told that Steven Hammond handed out ‘Strike Anywhere’ matches with instructions that they be lit and dropped on the ground because they were going to ‘light up the whole country on fire.’ One witness testified that he barely escaped the eight to ten foot high flames caused by the arson. The fire consumed 139 acres of public land and destroyed all evidence of the game violations.  … Dwight and Steven Hammond told one of their relatives to keep his mouth shut and that nobody needed to know about the fire.”

That relative was the elder Hammond’s grandson, then an adolescent who testified that his uncle gave him matches to start the fire. He found himself surrounded by the fire after being separated from his family, saving himself by sheltering in a creek. In the 2006 fire that also resulted in a conviction for arson, firefighters had to take measures to save themselves from the illegal fires, which were set in defiance of a ban put in place because of the hot and dry weather. The government’s sentencing memorandum gives this account:

“[F]ire fighter Brett Dunten, using a diagram he had drawn, testified that about 10:00 pm on August 22, 2006, there were three spot fires below the rim of Krumbo Butte. The spot fires were 300 to 500 yards from the main fire and more than a mile from the Hammond Ranch property. There were no fires between the main fire and the spot fires.” [citations omitted]

Allegations of child abuse

The grandson, a ThinkProgress article reports, had good reason to “keep his mouth shut” out of fear of his family. He later told a sheriff’s deputy that he had been abused multiple times, being punished by blows, forced to eat cans full of chewing tobacco, being driven 10 miles away and forced to walk home, and after carving two letters into himself with a paper clip having the letters removed with sandpaper.

These are the people that at least some right-wingers are hailing as persecuted heroes and whom the corporate media is sanitizing.

The standoff was prompted, its participants say, by the Hammonds’ imminent return to jail. Although the crimes for which they were convicted require a five-year minimum prison term, a right-wing judge sentenced them to far less. An appeals court overturned the trial judge’s sentence, ordering the Hammonds back to jail to serve out five-year terms. Here again hypocrisy must be noted. Even at five years, for arsons that put other people in jeopardy of their lives, the Hammonds’ sentence contrasts strongly with that of sentences handed down to environmentalists.

Take the notorious case of Jeff “Free” Luers, who was sentenced to 23 years in prison for setting fire to three light trucks at an Oregon automobile dealer. Unlike the Hammonds, Mr. Luers took care to commit his arson at a time and in a manner that would cause no physical harm to anyone. Two of the three vehicles were so lightly damaged that they were eventually able to be sold by the dealership. But Mr. Luers committed his 2001 arson for political reasons: To bring attention to global warming, then an issue not so much in the public eye.

It was a poor idea and bad tactics, yes. But it nonetheless was much less severe than what the Hammonds did, yet he received a stiffer punishment, ultimately serving 10 years after an appeals court reduced his sentence. As his lawyer, Lauren Regan, told Democracy Now after he was freed:

“[The sentence] was clearly imposed to send a message. And as Jeff mentioned, even in the federal system, the crime of arson normally carries about a two-year prison sentence. So the fact that this particular act of economic sabotage created very little monetary damage, but yet he, you know, got over ten times what someone who would have committed an arson for a greed purpose would have received, definitely drew the attention of the global community. … [I]t really is sort of a war of ideology in a lot of ways. If the government wants to brand you as a terrorist based on your beliefs or based on your ethical principles, there’s really no way for you to defend yourself of that. And it definitely — you know, from the beginning of the Green Scare, the government has really taken this campaign to the media.”

Corporate origins of environmentalism as “terrorism”

The term “eco-terrorist” was invented by a corporate lobbyist who advocates opening millions of acres of federal land to commercial development and logging. Kyle J. Bohrer of Beloit College, in his paper “ ‘Ecoterrorism’ in the United States: Industry Involvement in Group Prosecution,” elaborates on that, writing:

“Although radical environmentalists engage in illegal activity, they have never killed anyone or specifically targeted individuals with intent to physically harm them. Yet, radical right-wing organizations that have systematically killed doctors that perform abortions have never been labeled as terroristic.”

Now let us look at the ideology animating the militia members’ takeover. The Guardian, quoting Ammon Bundy (son of the infamous Nevada free-riding rancher Clive Bundy, to whom we will return), provided this account:

“ ‘This will become a base place for patriots from all over the country,’ [Bundy] said, inviting like-minded people to bring their weapons and join up. ‘We’re the point of the spear that’s going to bring confidence and strength to the rest of the people.’ He and [Blaine] Cooper blamed the government for the steady decline of family ranching — a slow fall driven by drought, industrial cattle farms, the rise of synthetic textiles and myriad other forces. They also blamed government for the general malaise of many working class Americans, especially in rural areas where coal, oil, manufacturing and agriculture jobs have disappeared over the last 30 years.

‘The government has beat us and oppressed us and took everything from us,’ Cooper told reporters.”

The Guardian report later added this droll observation:

“[Bundy’s] assertion that ‘this refuge rightfully belongs to the people.’ although ripped from conservative rhetoric, is vague enough that it could mean almost anything. Open rights to graze, mine and log the refuge — whether for Harney County residents or every American taxpayer —could mean either a communist utopia of shared wilderness or a free-for-all of capitalist consumption.”

One strongly doubts that the militia members had in mind a communist utopia, or any desire to share the land with others. What seems to have escaped their attention is that it is private corporations, not the government, that have been cutting jobs and shipping jobs overseas. Although it is true that “free trade” agreements like the Trans-Pacific Partnership are making it easier for multi-national capital to move production, governments are doing so at the behest of the corporations that dominate capitalist societies. Governments are reduced to granting ever more subsidies and giveaways to keep jobs from being moved, and thus are at the mercy themselves of capitalists.

Energy companies are eyeing public lands

The rhetoric that these militia members spout is no different, even if delivered in a different manner, than corporate ideology that seeks the sale of public lands on the cheap. As just one example, a Koch brothers-backed outfit calling itself the Property and Environment Research Center is advocating selling national parks. The group argues that restrictions on timber and energy development should be removed to make public lands more profitable before being sold. They are far from alone in such unpopular advocacy.

What those who took over the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge advocate is not an abstract “freedom” from “government tyranny” but a concrete desire to use public lands for their own profit without paying for the privilege. Clive Bundy is the rancher who was involved in an armed standoff with federal agents in 2014 after the agents attempted to seize some of his cattle for not paying grazing fees. Bundy owes $1.2 million in penalties for ignoring fines and court orders after grazing his cattle on public land for more than two decades.

What we have here is the petit bourgeois version of capitalist ideology, wanting to take from everybody else while paying as little as possible. Freeloading ranchers like Bundy are no different, except in scale, from corporations that don’t pay taxes and demand subsidies.

Neoliberalism equates “freedom” with individualism, but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists. This is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media, and this is the basis of the freedom right-wing militias and their supporters say they want.

Once again, can it be imagined if a Person of Color instigated an armed standoff with police that the result would be, “Oh well, he doesn’t want to pay, let’s go home then.” By refusing to enforce the law against people like Bundy, these militias with their demented phantasmagorical delusions have only been encouraged. The continual shrieking that the government and corporate media is somehow a left-wing cabal can only bring an amused smile to our faces.

Finally, it should be noted that forests in southeast Oregon are in strong need of protection. Most people’s perception of Oregon is of a lush, green land amply watered, but that is only true along the Pacific coast and in the Cascades. The southeast of Oregon is actually a desert, and forests are widely dispersed in highland clusters. For those who enjoy desert scenery, the region has its own beauty. I once spent a night in Burns, the Harney County seat and the area’s main town. In my experience, Burns is one of the friendliest towns I have ever been in, and the townspeople shouldn’t be tarred with the actions of a handful of fanatics who are mostly from out of the state.

On arriving in Burns, on my way to Seattle, I talked to the waiter in a restaurant, and mentioned that I had driven up via Route 395. She winced a bit, saying gently that I “didn’t see us at our nicest.” I replied that, on the contrary, I had really enjoyed the desert scenery and that it was just what I hoping to see, causing her to reply in turn that “I guess you don’t know what you have.” What also stuck in my memory is that she mentioned, in the same tone someone in a city might use to note a two-block walk to the grocery, that her son had been driving that day to Bend, the nearest city, to do his shopping — a four-hour round trip. We are talking remote here, and I suspect many in Burns are not happy that a militia takeover is what is giving the town its 15 minutes of fame.

The rest of us ought not to be happy at yet another expression of greed, especially one not only armed but wrapped in multiple layers of corporate-inspired hypocrisy.

You can have democracy as long as you vote for the boss

The idea that democracy and capitalism go together is a relatively recent phenomenon. The pairing don’t really go together: How much control do you have at your job? Over the development of your city? Over a political process responsive only to the greed of the one percent?

Early capitalists and their publicists believed political democracy was an outright impediment. Adam Smith and another influential classical economist, David Ricardo, among many others, opposed universal suffrage. Ricardo was prepared to extend suffrage only “to that part of them [the people] which cannot be supposed to have an interest in overturning the right to property.” Smith’s reluctance seemed to be rooted in his honest assessment of how few are able to enjoy that right to property: “For one very rich man, there must be at least five hundred poor, who are often driven by want, and prompted by envy, to invade his possessions.”

Not long afterward, the influential British politician and writer Thomas Babington Macaulay said universal suffrage would be “the end of property and thus of all civilization.”  (“Property” refers to the means of production, not personal possessions.)

Along U.S. Highway 20/26/93, west of Arco, Idaho (Photo by Pete Dolack)

Along U.S. Highway 20/26/93, west of Arco, Idaho (Photo by Pete Dolack)

Because capitalism is an impersonal system, it does not require that members of the dominant capitalist class actually hold political posts, although frequently they do. It is enough that the political structure that is a byproduct of the ideologies of capitalists’ institutions, corporations, remain in place, and that capitalists exert decisive influence over a society’s other institutions.

The modern state itself is a creation of the rise of capitalism and the need of industrialists and financiers for a structure to provide protection for investments and to settle disputes among themselves. These features are wrapped tightly in nationalism, with continual references to a given nation’s mythologies, to bind working people tighter to the system. Capitalism also requires a literate, educated population, in contrast to earlier systems, and a literate, educated populace is more inclined and more able to agitate for its interests.

Self-interest in expanding the vote

There is more communication — this, too, is a necessity for the increased commerce of capitalism — and if the people of one nation wrest a gain from their rulers, people in other nations will know about it, and will struggle to get it for themselves as well. Further, in the early days of capitalism, its development was seldom in a straight line; sometimes there could be an incremental expansion of the voting franchise because one bloc of capitalists believed the new voters would vote for their party.

Once the vote is made available to more citizens, pressure builds from below to further extend the vote; moreover, the creation of a modern working class brings together masses of people, enabling the creation of mass movements that can organize struggles for more democratic rights. Social media has proven to be a powerful tool for democracy activists, although by itself it can’t substitute for real-world organizing and a physical presence at key locations.

Capitalists intended to establish democracy only for themselves, but the spaces and contradictions contained within the political systems created to stabilize the functioning of capitalism (including institutions to adjudicate conflicts among the capitalists and mechanisms for selecting political leadership in the absence of an absolute monarchy or the continued ascendency of a static landed aristocracy) enabled their workers to wrest some of that democracy for themselves. None of that came easy — untold lives were snuffed out and untold blood was shed, and even in cases when a struggle has been bloodless, many advances required decades of dedicated activism to accomplish. The process is called “struggle” for a reason.

Summing up an essay in New Left Review on the development of voting rights across the world, Göran Therborn wrote:

“Democracy developed neither out of the positive tendencies of capitalism, nor as a historical accident, but out of the contradictions of capitalism. Bourgeois democracy has been viable at all only because of the elasticity and expansive capacity of capitalism, which were grossly underestimated by classical liberals and Marxists alike.”

Not endlessly expansive, however. Hard-won political rights are not only circumscribed by the immense power concentrated in the hands of corporate institutions and the class that controls those institutions, but those rights end at the entrance to the place of work.

A democratic lack of control?

If one class of people has the ability to bend the political process to benefit itself; arrogates to itself an unlimited right to accumulate at the expense of everybody else and at the expense of future generations; has the right to dictate in the workplaces, controlling employees’ lives; and can call on the state to enforce all these privileges with force, if necessary, then how much freedom do the rest of us really have? If one developer has the right to chop down a forest to build a shopping center that the community does not need or the right to build high-rise luxury towers that force out others who already lived there because one individual can earn a profit, and the community has no recourse, is this state of affairs truly democratic?

If a capitalist decides it would be profitable to move the factory to a low-wage country and thousands are put out of work as a result, is it not capital that actually possesses freedom? If enterprises were collectively run and/or under community control, would people vote to send their jobs to a low-wage haven thousands of miles away?

If the political system is so dominated by corporate power — the concentrated power of industrialists and financiers — that a politician at the national level who might genuinely wish to give working people a better break can’t because that corporate power is decisive, or that a politician at the local level might want to make the local factory owner do a little more for the community or simply pay a fair amount of taxes can’t because to push the idea would lead to the factory owner closing the factory and sending many townspeople to the unemployment office, then can this system said to be democratic?

Men and women have the vote, and have constitutionally guaranteed rights — lives were sacrificed to gain these rights. But if there is such a concentration of power that most elementary decisions are taken by a small number of people — either big capitalists or politicians acting on their behalf or under their influence — then the rights enshrined in a constitution are mere shells. Democracy is formal, and cannot be more than formal without democracy extending to all spheres of life. That is impossible under capitalism because concentrated economic power is leveraged into power over the political, cultural, social and educational life of a nation, and that power, as wielded by capital, will be tightened at home and expanded abroad due to the impetus to expand.

Capitalism is an impersonal system, and the competition that drives it inevitably leads to this dynamic, regardless of which personality is where. The world has not reached its present state by accident, and although it does not guarantee any particular capitalist a permanent place at the top, it does guarantee extreme inequality and the immiseration of the many (working people) for the benefit of the few (industrialists and financiers). No reform can wish that away.

Taking back the imagination

Of the many myths propping up capitalism few are more essential than the carefully tended concept of “imagination.” Capitalism supposedly unleashes the human imagination, enabling individuals to fulfill their potential and continually “disrupting” older systems to bring forth the new and improved. Shattering this mythology is one of the tasks of movements.

The ever active engineers of capitalist ideology, to be sure, possess the ability to shape human consciousness through the ability to exert decisive influence over of myriad of institutions. But to what end? Is the massive failure to meaningfully grapple with the myriad of crises not a failure of imagination?

It is imagination that is stifled under capitalism, argues Max Haiven in his engaging book Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons.* The crisis is capitalism, Professor Haiven argues: The fundamental amorality of the capitalist system itself is the cause of the world’s difficulties, not a lack of regulation nor the greed of individuals.

That message is present throughout the book. In the opening pages, Professor Haiven writes:

“[C]apitalism relies not only on the brutal repression of workers in factories and fields; it also relies on conscripting our imaginations. On a basic level, it relies on each of us imagining ourselves as essentially isolated, lonely, competitive economic agents. It relies on us imagining that the system is the natural expression of human nature, or that it is too powerful to be changed, or that no other system could ever be desirable. … While the system is ultimately held in place by the threat and exercise of very real violence and the concentration of very material wealth and power in the hands of the ruling class, its imaginary and imaginative dimensions cannot be ignored.” [pages 7-8]

Crises of ImaginationThe book is mostly a series of essays written for various publications that have been revised; this format is both strength and weakness. It is a strength because the author is able to present arguments on aspects of capitalist domination that receive less attention that they should, such as the neoliberal assault on education and the enclosures of the commons, not as a historical crime of the past but as an ongoing process happening today. It is something of a weakness because the various pieces of a full picture are not necessarily welded together, however much the cumulative effect of the author’s strands of thought do add up to a powerful argument.

One of these strands is a needed discussion of narrative — that is, the Right’s success at manipulating emotion versus the Left’s difficulties in gaining footholds in the popular imagination. There is not a level playing field here, of course. It is the very lack of content to Right-wing “values” that makes its rhetoric effective, Professor Haiven argues, because terms without content stand in for emotions, phobias and feelings. The Right uses emotion to get people to hate, whereas the Left is more “abstract, general and preachy.” Facts and statistics are important but insufficient by themselves. What is necessary are common values as the “bedrock” of revolutionary change.

Imagination as building block of social movements

Values should be flexible and negotiable, rather than fixed or dictated. Movement work and the creation of values should be a mutually reinforcing process. A central task, the author writes:

“is to imagine and build social formations that make the constant renegotiation of values central and operative. This is, for instance, the value of horizontal organizing and diversity in social movements: they force a constant questioning and recalibration of values not as hard, fixed and eternal ideals but as working models for collaboration.” [page 55]

Within capitalist logic, we are worthless and replaceable cogs, set at one another’s throats.

“[T]he Chinese teenager becomes a threat to my job because she can work for less and her company can attract the corporation that used to employ somebody like me. Meanwhile, it is my anonymous consumer appetites, driven by my dislocation from community and my need to survive in an austere world, that demands the conditions of that Chinese worker’s exploitation. And the unfortunate fact is that I’m effectively worthless in this equation too: I could choose to not buy the iPod, but someone else will. Everyone is utterly replaceable in this system.” [page 55]

And on their own. Financialization shifts risks to the individual, his or her retirement dependent on the mercy of stock markets far beyond his or her control; universities are reduced to neoliberal showpieces that convert students into individualized debtors with no mission beyond issuing a ticket for a future job; language is debased to co-opt the meaning of “creativity” to twist it into underpaid labor in a neoliberal workforce that does nothing more than hype mindless consumerism; and mass culture is reduced to the buying of corporate products.

The author produces compelling arguments detailing these and other outcomes of modern capitalist society. But the underlying economic processes and structures underlying neoliberal assaults on ever more aspects of public life are largely missing from Crises of Imagination. This is perhaps not an entirely fair criticism because the book is a philosophical work, not an economic one. The author himself concludes his introduction by humbly writing that “I cannot claim to have done anything particularly innovative” nor, he says, is the book an attempt at a systemic theory. Fair enough.

Professor Haiven is correct when he writes that confronting capitalist power today requires far more than cutting down the size of banks, that it is too simple to believe that finance is merely a force imposed on society from above, and that financialization imposes shifts in corporate behavior that lead to faster recourse to layoffs and moving production to low-wage havens. But it is puzzling to read that “the new paradigm subordinates capitalism itself to the increasingly short-term, ruthless and pathological imagination of ‘the market.’ ” [page 108]

I have no argument with that description of “the market,” but it obscures that such markets are indistinguishable from capitalism. Capitalist markets are nothing more than the aggregate interests of the most powerful industrialists and financiers, and can not be anything else. The very process of financialization — whereby financiers, acting as both whip and parasite, impose discipline on corporations to act ever more ruthlessly while simultaneously grabbing larger shares of the profits extracted from employees — is the product of the natural development of capitalism, not an intervention. Capitalism can not be separated from markets, much less “subordinated” to its own engine.

Taking back our imagination to overturn the concrete

But let us not go overboard with critiques. Crises of Imagination, while not necessarily, per its author, an innovative work, does formulate its arguments very well, with some original conceptions. For an example, in one of the book’s strongest chapters, on the “edu-factory,” Professor Haiven wittily draws an analogy between the subordination of the university to the interests of neoliberal capital accumulation and the show trials of the 1930s. He writes:

“The desperate self-privatization of the neoliberal university is the late-capitalist equivalent of the Stalinist show trial. The broken university, after years of secreted economic torture, is made to confess its own profligacy and lack of obedience to the austerity regime. Yet even this gaunt, emaciated, broken figure, which has betrayed all its once proud (perhaps vain) values, is not spared the cuts. The constant and unending attack on the university is a grim warning to all institutions and individuals from the oblique, unapologetic totalitarian power of global capital: ‘We do not care if we are wrong or if our policies are ineffective in their stated goals. We do not care if we have to kill you all and destroy the planet. We do not care if you know it. Money will rule.’ ” [page 139]

But we do not have to accept the permanent rule of industrialists and financiers. A radical rethinking of society can’t be accomplished without our taking back our imagination, although, the author cautions, current social relations are not simply ‘imaginary’ but are rooted in concrete power imbalances. But we can’t imagine or create a blueprint for the future because the future can’t be planned and any such blueprints would contain some of the poison of today’s world. As capitalism accelerates exploitation and dislocation, the possibilities for future forms of struggle also accelerate, although they will not automatically be liberatory.

The radical imagination emerges out of radical practice, but no single practice can be sufficient on its own, the author writes. Imagination is a process of collective doing; imagination creates reality and reality creates imagination. Professor Haiven concludes:

“A revolution is not made of good ideas, but rather by good ideas materialized in social spaces. Solidarity is not a matter of having the right political ideals and sympathies, but of building real, tangible relationships. … [I]magination as a shared capacity grows out of social cooperation, alternative-building and the establishment of a new commons.” [page 265]

The reader seeking an analysis of capitalist economics can find works more on point. But anybody wanting a sweeping polemic on the totalizing effects of capitalism — and polemic here is meant in the positive sense of the word, as a constructed argument logically built — will find a well-written, engaging weapon in their hands. A fine use of the imagination engaging with concrete reality.

* Max Haiven, Crises of Imagination, Crises of Power: Capitalism, Creativity and the Commons. Zed Books, London and New York; Fernwood Publishing, Black Point, Nova Scotia, Canada, and Winnipeg, 2014]

The concrete roots of capitalism’s magical thinking

Most people don’t actually like capitalism. Dislike of the jobs we head to each day is quite the norm. Resentment of the power of the corporations we deal with in our daily lives crosses all social lines. Loathing of banks is nearly universal, across the political spectrum.

A sullen resignation to the continual unfairness of the world is pervasive. And yet, “there is no alternative.” Mercenary scribblers furiously tell us so. That this barrage of propaganda ceaselessly flows from the corporate media and other institutions speaks for itself as to the necessity of reinforcing this message; but it doesn’t in itself account for the widespread acceptance of “there is no alternative.”

There is the argument that if we simply ceased to cooperate, it would grind to a halt. Tempting though that argument is — and, in theory, it holds much truth — the puzzle of capitalism’s continued acceptance is a good deal more complicated.

"Nothing is nothing" photo by Darwin Bell

“Nothing is nothing” photo by Darwin Bell, San Francisco

Advanced capitalism is intertwined with so many aspects of our lives, and the capitalists who effectively rule the world possess multiple levers of power and influence to keep themselves in the saddle. There is also the not inconsiderable problem of the livelihoods of millions being entangled in destructive production and exploitation. Nor should the power of modern ideologies, such as nationalism, to provide emotional underpinning be ignored.

Except for the hopelessly cynical, humans need something to believe in, something bigger than themselves of which to be a part. The nation is the object par excellence for this; nationalism to this point in human history has proven stronger than class solidarity or any other more general identification in a common humanity. It has also superseded tribal or other local-community loyalties. Nationalism is a unifying glue holding together what Benedict Anderson calls “imagined communities” — human constructs that are mostly recent in origin.

Professor Anderson, in his classic book with that very name, Imagined Communities, offers this definition of a nation:

“It is an imagined political community — and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign. It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the image of their communion.” [page 6]

Approaching the question from a different angle, a nation might be thought of as a group with a common ethnicity, cohesive culture and shared language occupying a particular area (diasporas excepted). Most commonly, nations are organized as countries, although some countries (such as the United Kingdom) can contain multiple nations and settler countries (such as the United States) can be organized on an idea rather than an ethnicity, although culture and language are unifying factors. Some nations are colonies of or minorities within a larger nation and some nations are split among adjoining countries.

Nationalism versus solidarity

Religious belief has obviously been, and remains, a powerful force — as Christian fundamentalism in the U.S., political Islam in the Middle East and Hindu chauvinism in India attest, to cite merely three examples. Religions offer answers to life-and-death questions that other systems of thought don’t, not to mention promises of eternal life. It’s hard to top that. But religious belief has declined in most of the advanced capitalist world as science has taken hold since the Enlightenment.

To return to Imagined Communities, Professor Anderson argues that something was necessary to fill the void left by the withering of religious belief, and nationalism became the substitute as it came into being out of preceding cultural systems. He writes:

“What then was required was a secular transformation of fatality into continuity, contingency into meaning. … [F]ew things were (are) better suited to this end than an idea of nation. If nation-states are widely conceded to be ‘new’ and ‘historical,’ the nations to which they give political expression always loom out of an immemorial past, and, still more important, glide into a limitless future. It is the magic of nationalism to turn chance into destiny.” [pages 11-12]

The erasure of boundaries (for capital) through “free trade” agreements or entities like the World Trade Organization is a function of capitalist expansion. Globalization advances as competition within a given industrial sector narrows from separate sets of local corporations dominating particular countries or regions to a handful of corporations operating around the world. Yet although the largest capitalists are today transcending national borders, the largest capitalists of the 19th century were an important force in creating unified nations. What is today Germany and Italy were once a myriad of small principalities; capitalist trade required the barriers that frequent borders represent be dismantled.

The rise of books and other printed materials, and the accompanying rise of literacy along with the construction of centralized states, bureaucracies and school systems, brought about standardized languages. Often the dialect in the capital became the standard language, and a common language became a crucial building block for national consciousness. Nationalism became a necessary prop to wage modern war with the need for mass conscription, without which imperialism and colonization are impossible. Few soldiers would fight for corporate profits, but will for “national honor.”

The abject failure of the Socialist International to have any effect on the outbreak and initial enthusiasm for World War I was due not only to nationalism being more powerful than international or class solidarity among social democracy’s constituents but that social democrat leaders themselves were nationalists.

In no sense can nationalism be said to have lost its potency. It remains a durable force to divide the world’s people and block international solidarity — a devastating development when the world’s biggest capitalists are trans-national, conscious of their common interests beyond borders and relentlessly organizing chains of production that span the globe.

Democracy as consumerism rather then participation

We can freely buy whatever we like from whatever corporate behemoth we wish (assuming we are fortunate enough to have a job that provides a living wage). Untold billions of dollars are pumped into advertising campaigns designed to induce us to buy particular products and, crucially, to define this choice as “freedom.” Democracy is reduced to the ability to buy a corporate product as opposed to being defined as the ability to meaningfully participate in the decision-making processes of your society.

That crabbed definition of democracy and the ability to freely vote in elections with little meaning or choice (although the ability to vote is being eroded in the U.S., particularly for People of Color) are promoted as the epitome of political development. But how much freedom do working people in capitalist countries actually have? We have no control over our lives when on the job, which consumes most of our waking hours, nor any control over the corporate behemoths that routinely run roughshod over communities, nor legal recourse against “market forces” that enable the relentless privatization of previously public spaces and services.

I can think of my experience at Occupy Wall Street, the encampment of which was close to my place of employment. Invariably, anytime I happened to mention that I was handing out fliers or engaging others near to where I was employed while on lunch hour or after the end of my workday, the response was always concern that I would lose my job or get in trouble should my employer discover my participation. I wasn’t discovered, but the commonality of such reactions speaks for itself on the topic of democracy.

Political control in a capitalist society is hidden in a way that it was not in a country like the former Soviet Union, and the contrast in the manner of social control in capitalist versus Soviet-style societies became an invaluable tool undergirding capitalist triumphalism. Because the power held by capitalists in a capitalist society is secure through a myriad of institutions upholding their ideologies and deferring to them, bolstered by the appearance of democratic assent provided by elections, there is far more elasticity to capitalist régimes than Soviet-style régimes (which should more properly be called “post-capitalist” than “socialist” as their form congealed far short of any socialist ideal.)

The illusion of democracy

The historian Isaac Deutscher, in a series of lectures collected in his book The Unfinished Revolution: Russia 1917-1967, outlined this difference. He said of freedom in a capitalist country:

“[I]n bourgeois society it 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. … 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. … In a society like the Soviet, freedom of association and character cannot have so formal and illusory a character: either it is real, or it does not exist at all. The power of property having been destroyed, only the State, that is, the bureaucracy, dominates society; and its domination is based solely on the suppression of the people’s liberty to criticize and oppose.

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. In post-capitalist society no automatic economic mechanism keeps the masses in subjection; it is sheer political force that does it. … Capitalism has been able to battle against its class enemies from many economic, political and cultural lines of defence, with much scope for retreat and maneouvre. A post-capitalist bureaucratic dictatorship has far less scope: its first, its political line of defence, is its last. No wonder that it holds that line with all the tenacity it can muster.” [pages 106-7]

(“Property” in the above quote refers to large enterprises and other economic entities in private hands.) The Soviet bureaucracy could maintain its privileges only through undisguised direct political force. Capitalists, in contrast, maintain their rule by virtue of owning the means of production, able to maintain power through decisive influence over a range of social institutions and thus diffusing and mystifying the roots of power.

There is no dictator, no party in permanent power, and the ruling capitalists and their political servants have conflicting interests that are debated in public. Thus the illusion of democratic accountability can be maintained, on a separate track from the pervasive advertising that reduces democratic choice to consumer selection of corporate products.

There are more flavors of cola to choose from than ever before. What more could you want?

Show your individuality by buying the same product

Marketing has become so sophisticated that consumption of corporate products is equated with individual expression. Individualism must be continually stimulated to counter the development of social solidarity, without which change in the structure of any society is impossible, yet consumerism-dependent production requires the fostering of mass taste to facilitate mass production.

Consumers are encouraged to “rebel” by decorating their smartphone or buying a copy of the latest recording by a “transgressive” musical act, a work of intellectual property owned by a corporate behemoth and carefully calculated to appeal to the widest possible demographic. Today’s cultural rebellion is tomorrow’s marketing campaign. The use of the Stooges’ “Search and Destroy” in a Nike commercial is but one example; more recently, 1960s icon Bob Dylan starred in a Super Bowl commercial for Chrysler extolling U.S. patriotism.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

The word “revolution” has been reduced to a corporate slogan; the selling back to us of rebellion has attempted to shrivel the popular imagination to the point that the only change that can be imagined is an upgrade to a consumer product. This is no less true of the food we eat — as eating organic becomes more popular, large food corporations that have foisted on us unhealthy, over-processed foods are increasingly entering the organic field, both by creating new brands and taking over existing ones while being careful to not signal those corporate ownerships on the label.

Some of the largest multi-national corporations that spend millions of dollars to defeat genetically modified organisms (GMO) labeling initiatives own some of the best-known organic brands. Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream may claim it is an “autonomous subsidiary” of its owner, multi-national conglomerate Unilever, but the profits it earns go to Unilever headquarters. Those profits fund a corporate parent that opposes GMO labeling, has been cited for making false health claims, has used its market power in tea to bully tea farmers in India, and promotes the World Trade Organization. Slick marketing keeps people buying the ice cream and obfuscating where the profits are going.

Yet even if a particular company stays true to a particular value, consumerism is an individualist gesture incapable of effecting change. All the more reason for it to be equated with “democracy.” In the 1970s, a frequently run public service announcement (PSA) featured a Native American man shedding a tear when a bag of garbage is thrown out of a car and lands at his feet, ending with the tag line that “People start pollution. People can stop it.” In a discussion of this PSA in his article “On the emotional terrain of neoliberalism,” Tim Jensen writes:

“Funded by beverage bottling corporations, the campaign was intended to lessen political pressure on manufacturers to stop producing non-refillable bottles and more generally be held accountable for creating the products that create litter. By placing the onus on the individual consumer, who is positioned as the cause of the problem and thus the solution’s origin, too, these corporate interests successfully deflected growing concern about pollution away from themselves. …

The PSA performs an emotional orientation focused on guilt, an emotion that is critical to our current landscape. What makes its rhetorical strategy effective is not simply the evocation of guilt in the consumer, but a specific form of guilt that is coupled with a pathway that channels the desire for atonement—one that does not put profit at risk. Asking why harmful bottles are being made in the first place and to what degree their manufacturer should be held accountable is trumped by a framework of consumer culpability, individualized responsibility, and ineffectual chores. It marshals the potential forces of transformative collective action and individuates them in an atonement strategy.”

If it is our own fault, then the system that actually compels such waste is blameless, beyond questioning.

Blow up that mountain or be out of work

Even when we are cognizant of the waste and destructiveness of capitalist production, it is not a simple matter to de-couple. Millions of jobs, and the communities where those jobs are located, are dependent on environmental destruction and unsustainable resource extraction. Faced with dismal, or no, prospects for alternative employment, the workers in such industries naturally oppose efforts to reduce the damage done — a market economy doesn’t offer new jobs for those put out of work.

The relentless competition of capitalism mandates that costs be steadily cut, so jobs are steadily lost anyway. Individualist ideology comes into play here as well: Something must be wrong with you for losing your job. And when that fails, there is always the strategy of finding scapegoats.

Scapegoating is not unique to any system, locale or time. But when a small elite commands the mass media and possesses decisive influence over educational, military, religious and other institutions, it possesses the means of shaping public opinion. The very fact of private ownership of the mass media contributes significantly to the effectiveness of the media in shaping public opinion. If several different media outlets report more or less the same thing, then those reports tend to be widely accepted.

It is surely true that the corporate owners of various publications and electronic news sources did not consult with one another, and in a capitalist formal democracy no government official tells you what to report. But the corporate plutocrats who own the mass media have a common interest in promoting a system that benefits them and thus narratives that reinforce those interests.

Most large, influential broadcast stations and print publications are owned by large corporations, and a typical small-city newspaper is owned by a prominent local businessperson if it is not owned by a large corporation. Powerful corporate interests appoint the top editors and managers of their media properties — these mass-media decision-makers are quite likely to be men and women who already see the world through the prism of dominant ideologies, and those ideologies will be reflected in the way that news stories are covered.

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Battle in Seattle photo by Steve Kaiser, Seattle

Those ideologies are also reflected in indirect ways — pressure to increase readership or viewership easily leads to pandering to perceived (and sometimes manufactured) consumer interests such as wall-to-wall coverage of celebrity gossip and exhaustive coverage of sports teams simultaneous with the shrinking of news sections.

No collusion is needed. It is enough that corporate-inspired ideologies pervade a society and that corporate ownership ensures that decision-making positions are filled with those who hold to some variant of prevailing ideologies or are inclined to “play it safe” by cautiously remaining within “acceptable” boundaries. The mass media will then simply reflect these dominant ideologies, and continual repetition through multiple mass media outlets reinforces the ideologies, making them more pervasive until the emergence of a significant countervailing pressure.

The persistence with which stories are reported is another reinforcement — stories that serve, or can be manipulated, to uphold dominant ideologies can be covered for long periods of time with small developments creating opportunities to create fresh reports at the same time that stories that are ideologically inconvenient are reported briefly, often without context, then quickly dropped.

Nor does the structure of corporate-dominated mass media exclude sometimes vigorous debate — as long as the positions being debated fall within the range of “acceptable” ideas that don’t challenge corporate orthodoxy. A system in which the mass media is believed to be independent is far more effective at suffusing a society with an ideology than the media of a closed society. Such a system is not the result of some sort of conspiracy or a conscious plan, it is simply a natural outgrowth of corporate institutions growing so powerful at the expense of all other institutions.

A network of institutional reinforcement

A web of institutions are necessary to maintain belief in a system, or to block to the extent possible, opposing narratives to the dominant belief system.

Educational institutions have been reduced to job-training facilities. University presidents and board members are increasingly prominent business leaders who seek to make educational institutions more “business-like” — pursuit of knowledge for personal intellectual enrichment is almost an after-thought. Educational initiatives at all levels are increasingly funded directly by corporate elites — instead of education being funded by the public through accountable institutions managed by education professionals, it is instead adapted to the needs of corporate-elite donors who seek to produce students grounded in technical skills without exposure to the types of courses that encourage creative or independent thinking.

Militaries in capitalist countries frequently function as enforcers of corporate prerogatives in weaker countries; militaries also underwrite corporate and university research and development, and are heavy buyers of corporate products. Politics cannot be anything but a significant corporate transmission belt because corporations provide campaign donations and give jobs to office holders when they leave office — those with money are those who get access, and thus provide the perspectives that will be heard.

The modern corporation also employs an army of lobbyists to influence politicians’ thinking. Corporate executives additionally create a network of auxiliary institutions — research centers and “think tanks” that can leverage lavish funding to disseminate class ideology through various channels. Bankrolling right-wing street movements, such as the Tea Party in the U.S. or outright fascist fronts in Europe, is another methodology for creating the appearance of popular support for anti-social tendencies.

Corporate institutions are competitors with sometimes sharply different interests — in terms of antagonisms between suppliers and buyers of raw materials and component parts; in divergence of the optimum conditions sought by different industries; and the ever present fierce fight over the sharing of profits between industrialists and financiers — yet these conflicts and antagonisms are contained within the perpetuation of the system within which they operate. As this collective power grows, it will steadily be wielded in harder forms in the absence of serious countervailing pressures in the form of mass movements.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

“Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. 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.

Ongoing belief in capitalism, despite the widespread disapproval of its concrete results, rests on multiple pillars, none on their own decisive. The perceived lack of an alternative, however, is a linchpin. Cooperatives and other social forms of enterprise management, successful in significant numbers, would provide such an alternative — if people see examples of something better, “there is no alternative” would lose its force. But much organizing will be necessary to bring forward that day, for the massive force that capitalist society can bring down on alternatives hasn’t been, and won’t, be held back.

Freedom is the most abused word in the English language

“Freedom” naturally means different things to different people, but we’ve gone far down a slippery slope when it is reduced to the right to exploit others to the maximum extent.

Humans exploiting other humans is hardly a new phenomenon, but seldom has it ever been elevated to a “democratic” principle in the way it has in recent decades. This is because freedom is morphing from something intrinsic to people to a right embedded in money. Those who have the capital are free to wield it in any way that earns themselves more capital, regardless of harm to others.

Ideologies of individualism are not simply mechanisms to atomize society through breaking down bonds of solidarity — although that is an important reason for their propagation — they grant a license for those who have more but never enough. The cult of individuality, by reducing all social outcomes to personal behaviors independent of any social structure, provides the basis for the celebration of greed while simultaneously inculcating those who have been run over with the self-defeating idea that their individual failures account for their fate.

The class interest of industrialists and financiers is presented as all of society’s interest. “Freedom” is equated with individualism — but as a specific form of individualism that is shorn of responsibility. More wealth for those at the top (regardless of the specific ideologies used to promote that goal, including demands for ever lower taxes) is advertised as good for everybody despite the shredding of social safety nets that accompanies the concentration of wealth. 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.

Imposing harsher working conditions is another aspect of this individualistic “freedom,” but freedom for who? “Freedom” for industrialists and financiers is freedom to rule over, control and exploit others; “justice” is the unfettered ability to enjoy this freedom, a justice reflected in legal structures. Working people are “free” to compete in a race to the bottom set up by capitalists — this is the freedom loftily extolled by the corporate media.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

Photo by Istvan Takacs, Budapest.

When the means of collective defense have been sufficiently eroded, material standards of living are bought at higher personal prices — longer working hours, greater workloads, ever-present insecurity from the fear of being sent to the unemployment line and fear for the future because of the lack of a secure pension. That material standard can be taken away at any moment, and for many is taken away in an era of outsourcing, corporate globalization and attacks on unions and solidarity.

Even the consumer goodies constantly dangled in front of us are a source of anxiety — commodities must be designed to lead to further consumption rather than satisfy desire so as to prop up the economy, and that wages are insufficient to buy what is produced leads to reliance on credit. The imposition of debt as a means of fattening wallets is not merely a process of saddling unsustainable levels of debt on students, retirees and everybody in between, it ensnares entire countries.

Governments borrow money from the ultra-wealthy and from corporations instead of taxing them, then have to pay higher interest rates on those borrowings because the ultra-wealthy and the corporations complain that too much is being borrowed. In exchange for continuing to buy government debt, financial institutions demand that governments cut social services, lay off workers, sell assets and impose other austerity measures.

As a result of the austerity, governments take in less revenue, so they have to borrow more from the super-wealthy and corporations, who have hoarded the country’s wealth. Governmental central banks continue to keep the interest rates at which they loan money to big banks close to zero to ensure that the banks will continue to loan money, without which capitalist economies can not function. The banks in turn loan money at much higher rates, profiting from the creation of debt.

The capital wielded in exploitative ways itself comes from exploitation — profits are accumulated on the backs of employees through paying them far less than the value of what they produce, and when there is more surplus than can be usefully invested or shoveled into luxury consumption, it goes to speculation, further destabilizing living standards when the bubble inevitably bursts.

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Graphic by Bryan Helfrich

Fables are concocted to “explain” this “freedom.” The United States declared itself to be the freest society on Earth while enshrining enslavement in its constitution. Revolutionary French leaders swore to establish “liberty, equality, fraternity” while mercilessly putting down slave rebellions in the Caribbean. Profits from the slave trade and from colonial plantations were critical to bootstrapping the takeoff of British industry and modern capitalism in the second half of the eighteenth century into the early nineteenth century.

The U.S. maintained slavery until the mid-nineteenth century, enabling the plantation aristocracy to accumulate enormous wealth on the backs of its slaves, then allowed servile relations such as sharecropping, and systematic state-backed violence, to maintain African-Americans’ subjugation for another century. The wealth of the plantation owners and the desperate poverty of newly freed slaves were both transmitted to their respective descendants, locked in through terrorism. When the civil rights movement forced a dismantling of Southern apartheid, U.S. elites countered by saying, in effect: “Look! We’re all equal now! If you are not rich it’s your own fault.” Is this not preposterous?

Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United equating money with speech are but a logical outgrowth of pernicious ideology masquerading as “freedom.” So pervasive is this ideology that, as Fredric Jameson famously wrote, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. It’s true: Hollywood movies invariably depict the breakdown of society or the aftermath of a major disaster as a brutal war of all against all as if the very concept of the survivors cooperating to ensure their survival were beyond the ability to conceptualize.

The current globalized race to decide who dies with the most toys can only lead to the death of civilization.