Category Archives: class war

Climate Wake Up Call from the Establishment

RiskyBusinessCaptureViaRiskyBusinessYouTubeThe political and economic establishment in the United States has finally woken up to the threats posed by climate change.

In a new report, appropriately entitled Risky Business, members of the business and policy-making establishment sound the alarm call about the potentially cataclysmic impact of climate change on the US economy.

Published by an economic modeling firm that normally works for the fossil fuel industry, Risky Business predicts starkly apocalyptic scenarios over the coming two centuries: more than a million homes and businesses along the nation’s coasts could flood repeatedly before ultimately being destroyed; agriculture will become impossible in Midwest, the nation’s grain belt; heat and humidity will become so intense that spending time outside will become impossible in much of the eastern half of the United States.

What does the group propose should be done about this dire situation? According to the summary article in the New York Times, many of the power brokers involved in the report are in favor of imposing a tax on carbon emissions.

A step in the right direction, but adequate to the horrifying scenarios depicted in the report? Not half likely! What we clearly need is a wholesale reorganization of the economy away from the cardinal principle of headlong, heedless growth. Not much about that in Risky Business.

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Austerity doesn’t work

austerity doesn't workAusterity doesn’t work, according to an article in today’s New York Times. The article focuses on the fact that the middle class in the US is falling behind its peers in other developed countries.

What is particularly interesting about the article is buried in the graph reproduced here. The nations – like the US, Britain, and Greece – where harsh austerity measures were introduced following the financial crash of 2008 all demonstrate a sharp downturn in the economic status of their middle classes, while those that did not implement such measures have continuously rising curves of middle class affluence.

The central assumptions behind the article are that growth is essential to maintaining middle class status. Seen from an environmental angle, the economic downturn has actually been a beneficial phenomenon since it has put the brakes on the developed world’s headlong expansion. But this is not much of a salve to the situation of struggling people in places like the US. And elites have continued to expand their grossly large incomes by investing in developing countries, meaning that carbon emissions have continued their inexorable, suicidal rise.

We clearly need an alternative economic system, one that benefits average people while not wrecking the planet’s ecosystems.

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A Tale of Two Sandys

images-1My friends at the Superstorm Research Lab have just released an amazing white paper on the impact of Hurricane Sandy. Titled A Tale of Two Sandys, the report focuses on the uneven impact of the storm on NYC.

In the words of the report,

On one hand, the crisis was seen as an extreme weather event that created physical and economic damage, and temporarily moved New York City away from its status quo. On the other hand, Hurricane Sandy exacerbated crises which existed before the storm, including poverty, lack of affordable housing, precarious or low employment, and unequal access to resources generally. A Tale of Two Sandys describes these two understandings of disaster and discuss their implications for response, recovery, and justice in New York City.

The paper, along with many of the other resources gathered on the SRL site, is must reading. The SRL project is an incredible example of militant collaborative research.

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Free Speech Zones

imagesAs heads of state from around the world descend on South Africa to memorialize Nelson Mandela and the struggle against apartheid, it’s worth asking how free we are today to challenge state power, as Madiba did.

In an excellent article in the Guardian, Jeff Sparrow points out that many of the same leaders who are waxing eloquent in South Africa about Mandela’s struggle for social justice are currently making it virtually impossible to engage in any form of public protest in their countries.

Sparrow’s article offers up some important historical memories about the virtually complete condemnation of Mandela by the political establishment in the UK and US. But it also itemizes the many special laws invented since 9/11 to justify the suppression of public protest.

This trend towards militarization of police forces, evacuation of political protest from public spaces, and silencing of dissent is something that ought to be fought on every level. Such struggles truly honor the memory of Madiba.

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Madiba RIP

young+nelsonThe celebrations of Nelson Mandela’s life have been both fortifying and frustrating. They are a testimony to the long road traveled, as well as the whitewashing and historical elisions that take place as we look to the past.

On the one hand, it’s amazing to hear such universal acclaim for a man that politicians like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher once condemned as a terrorist.

On the other hand, the veneration of Madiba ignores the fact that he was only one person – a peculiarly determined and charismatic one, granted – in a much broader movement against madiba1apartheid. When one speaks to South Africans who lived through the apartheid era, one immediately finds that struggle and sacrifice (as well as silent complicity or outright racism) were universal. It is a country scarred by brutal history, but ennobled by tremendous bravery and sacrifice that was nearly universal.

In addition, there are many questions about Mandela’s years in power and the legacy he left. Patrick Bond’s commemorative article offers a judicious account of the deals struck by the ANC once Mandela achieved power in the country’s first democratic elections in 1994. This involved, in Bond’s words, an “intra-elite economic deal that, for most madiba2people, worsened poverty, unemployment, inequality and ecological degradation, while also exacerbating many racial, gender and geographical differences.”

The democracy Mandela brought to South Africa was a flawed and compromised one, although it was still seemingly miraculous given many people’s fears that the country would descend into civil war and racist bloodletting. His heroism through the many years of captivity and his generosity towards his former captors was exemplary. Yet Mandela’s legacy is one that we must both celebrate and lament.

La lucha continua!

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Bad COP19

imagesUNFCCC’s COP19 in Warsaw, Poland is the most corrupt climate meeting yet. This is saying a lot. As I recorded when attending COP17 in Durban, previous COPs have see wholesale backtracking from the Kyoto Accord, the only international agreement mandating reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. But COP19 sets a new record for corporate influence.

Perhaps most egregiously, the Warsaw Climate Summit is scheduled in tandem with the World Coal Association’s Coal and Climate Summit. Coal, of course, is the most polluting form of fossil fuel. All burning of coal should cease immediately if greenhouse gas emissions are to be mitigated.

This overlap between the Climate Summit and the Coal Summit is no accident. The confluence was actually organized by the Polish government, which obtains around 80% of its power from coal.

In addition, as Pascoe Sabido of the European Corporate Observatory explains in today’s episode of Democracy Now, COP19 was explicitly sponsored by a bevvy of polluting corporate behemoths, from auto manufacturer BMW to Emirates Airlines.

These corporate-funded meetings will never be a venue for climate justice. Makes me wanna holler!

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Revolutionary Grace

What might revolutionary grace look like? How can we snatch radical egalitarianism from the jaws of authoritarianism? In what visions of the past can we find the resources to make a just future?

These seemingly abstract questions could not be more important for our present. We live at a moment when purblind elites are driving the world over the brink of environmental destruction. We need alternative visions of social justice.

As we struggle to come up with a revolutionary subject adequate to the challenges we confront, we are likely to find that the radical social movements of the past offer important inspiration. I was reminded of this recently when I came across Democracia’s amazing Ser Y Durar at the Hirshhorn Museum during a trip to Washington DC. Looking for more info online, I found that the exhibit had in fact been expurgated of some of its more radical political content.

The show features a team of traceurs (practitioners of the street sport parkour). This sport originated in Paris in the 1980s and quickly spread to become a global urban subculture phenomenon. The term comes from the French for “course,” and the movements derive from military drills designed to train soldiers to navigate over and around architectural barriers.

The traceurs have appropriated this military acrobatics and redeployed it in Almudena civil cemetery, built in Madrid in the 1880s for those forbidden internment in Catholic burial grounds, including prominent political progressives, intellectuals, founders of the country’s democratic society in the pre-Franco era, Socialists, Communists, atheists, Jews, and others.

The motto of traceurs, “never stop and never give up,” is echoed by the continuous camera movement, which pauses only briefly on various headstones. Inscriptions such as “Love, freedom, and Socialism;” “Freedom and reason will make you stronger;” “After death there is nothing;” and “To be and to last” connect those resting in peace to the bodies in motion.

A video version of the film that I found online makes some of the radical references more clear:

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Always at War

Police_State_FullDossier on Perpetual War, edited by Patricia Clough and Sandra Trappen, just published on the Social Text website.

The dossier reminds us that the War on Terror has normalized a state of perpetual war, in which militarism is both invisible to the vast majority of US citizens and also permeates our culture in ineluctible but often subtle ways.

New articles to be posted every couple of days.

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Stop Land Grabs

I’ve been writing quite frequently of late about land grabs, which can be directly tied to images-2what David Harvey calls accumulation by dispossession.  In fact, one could argue that land grabs are the most egregious instance of that dynamic today.

I haven’t been following academic analysis of this trend so intently, but just learned of an article by Saskia Sassen, available free online at the moment, which anatomizes land grabbing. In the article, Sassen describes land grabs in the following terms:

This essay focuses on the larger assemblage of elements that promoted animages-1d facilitated the sharp increase in foreign land acquisitions by governments and firms since 2006. The concern is not to document the empirics of foreign land acquisition. Conceptually the essay negotiates between the specifics of the current phase of land acquisitions, on the one hand, and, on the other, the assemblage of practices, norms, and shifting jurisdictions within which those acquisitions take place. This assemblage of diverse elements does not present itself explicitly as governance. But I argue it is a type of governance embedded in larger structural processes shaping our global modernity; in fact, it may have had deeper effects on the current phase of land acquisitions than some of the explicit governance instruments for regulating land acquisitions. This mode of analysis is based on the conceptimagesual and methodological work I developed in my book, Territory, Authority, Rights (Sassen, 2008); put succinctly it proposes that to explain the x (in this case, foreign land acquisitions) requires a focus on the non-x (in this case, that larger assemblage of elements that amounts to a structural enablement and embedded governance). This deeper structural level is also what makes the current phase of land acquisitions potentially deeply consequential, to the point of signaling the further disassembling of national territory. Such disassembling can enable the rise of a new type of global geopolitics, one where national sovereign territory increasingly is subject to non-national systems of authority—from familiar IMF and WTO conditionality to elementary controls by diverse foreign actors over growing stretches of a country’s land.

Sassen’s essay is published by Taylor and Francis, a for-profit publisher of academic journals and books, so ironically her analysis of these attacks on the global commons may not be freely available for much longer.  Read it while you can!

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What We Communists Want

Following on my last post concerning the danger of reproducing the dismal logic of contemporary capitalism in representations of uneven development, this morning I began thinking about the question of what we communists want.

well-being-map-gallopPart of the problem in trying to think this question today is that utopian horizons have been smashed and discredited by the patent failures of “really existing” socialism around the world during the last half century. But another strong problem is the way in which capitalism has gotten under our skin and into our minds, defining what is possible.

So, if we’re going to insist that another world is possible, what kind of world do we want it to be?  Certainly not the one we currently inhabit. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) has been doing a great deal of work on the issue of Well Being. Two key facts they mention: since 1970, the UK’s Gross Domestic Product has doubled, but people’s satisfaction with life has not changed; 81% of Britons believe the government should prioritize creating the greatest happiness rather than the greatest wealth.

The NEF has participated in some important attempts to redefine Well Being on a national and international level, shifting the conversation away from GDP, which, as they point out, can be augmented through increased sales of guns and tobacco just as much as through increased spending on education and child care facilities. The projects of theirs that are worth checking out: Happy Planet Index (the “leading global index of sustainable well being) and the National Accounts of Well Being project.

Part of the problem here is that prescriptions for well being can often come across as pretty banal. NEF’s Five Ways to Well Being thus includes a list of actions that seem pretty obvious:

  • Connect
  • Be Active
  • Take Notice
  • Keep Learning
  • Give

They also seem hopelessly oriented to middle class citizens of affluent, overconsuming nations of the global North. It makes sense on some level to target such hyperconsumptionist subjects since the materialistic values that we Northerners have been coaxed to embrace are at the leading edge of destroying the planet through anthropogenic climate change, and our materialism is being disseminated through the global media as the paradigm to which all developing countries should aspire. We have to shift values in the global North if we are to avert catastrophe.

We also need to dismantle the skein of false desires generated by capitalist culture. This has been a dominant preoccupation of the Left over the last century, from the Frankfurt School intellectuals’ dyspeptic critiques of consumer culture, to Thomas Frank’s more recent discussion of the rise of Right-wing sentiments among the U.S. working class in books like What’s Wrong With Kansas?, to Sara Ahmad’s The Promise of Happiness, which discusses the ways in which the imperative to be happy leads to straightened and oppressive definitions of the self and social being.

Despite, then, the importance of this discussion of alternative definitions of well being in the North, it’s important to simultaneously ask what the question of well being would look like from a global South perspective. A partial answer to this question is given in the Vivir Bien project. Growing out of the insurgent Bolivarian movement in Latin America, the project is explicitly anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist.

An immediate set of demands on the path to well being were articulated at the World People’s Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth.  The People’s Agreement crafted at this conference in Bolivia includes the following demands:

  • harmony and balance among all and with all things;
  • complementarity, solidarity, and equality;
  • collective well-being and the satisfaction of the basic necessities of all;
  • people in harmony with nature;
  • recognition of human beings for what they are, not what they own;
  • elimination of all forms of colonialism, imperialism and interventionism;
  • peace among the peoples and with Mother Earth;

I’d be very interested to hear what kinds of other models of well being have been articulated by social movements around the globe in recent years. At the beginning or the end of these lists, of course, should come the abolition of capitalism and its drive to ceaseless accumulation, which is of course at the roots of everyone’s unhappiness as well as the threat of planetary extinction.

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