Sunday, August 23, 2020

Blowout, Corrupted Democracy, Rogue State Russia, and the Richest, Most Destructive Industry on Earth, Rachel Maddow

To show the seriousness of Rachel's book, let me offer an early quote from the introduction: “... the oil and gas industry is essentially a big casino that can produce both power and great gobs of cash, often with little regard for merit. That equation invites gangsterism, extortion, thuggery and the sorts of folks who enjoy these hobbies. Its practitioners have been lumbering across the globe of late, causing mindless damage and laying the ground for the global catastrophe that is the climate crisis but also reordering short-term geopolitics in a strong-but-dumb survival contest that renders everything we think of as politics as just theater. It's worth understanding why. And why now.”

A brief history of oil, which is basically Rockefeller's Standard Oil (eventually Exxon), it's cheating shenanigans and finally a court-ordered breakup, which actually benefitted the man. To include the mad and failed use of an atomic bomb to coax along some oil exploration along the way, the book gives what at first seems a standard Chamber of Commerce portrait of the young, daring entrepreneurs that brought us fracking. It doesn't take long to get to the gist though, the corruption of Oklahoma by oil drilling and then fracking. Oklahoma city has a nice visual to show who owns it. Oil rigs sit prettily pumping on the State House lawn. It took 25,000 angry Oklahomans showing up at that State House, threatening to turn the state blue, before the bought-and-paid for republicans administration agreed to tax the oil industry such that schools could operate, teacher salaries and safer schools, highways could be repaired and the “general welfare” might have a small voice in Oklahoma affairs, heretofore excluded for many years.

The industry's overseas operations were a tad more controllable, what with one-stop-shopping dictators to pay off and all those pesty unions and demonstrators and malnourished population set aside, out of sight, burdened with the usual torture and death squads. New Guinea is Rachel's prime example of that though Russia isn't far off. The explosive story of Putin's rise to power is laid out. Seems he was the KGB/chief gangster running St. Petersburg when a Moscow prosecutor went after the eminently corrupt President Yeltsin and family. Putin intervened, faking a sex video claiming to star that very same prosecutor, who then was forced to resign. In gratitude Yeltsin turned it all over to Putin. And here we are. Putin chose, instead of building a nice capitalist-safe competitive state, to roll up all competitors, the oligarchs Yeltsin left, and install incompetent business but handily ruthless cohorts in their place, those who wouldn't demonstrate proper ball-playing behavior. A case in point: Mickail Khodorkovsky won control of Russia's chief oil company, Yukos. He was highly competent, making it a force and, his mistake, feeling he could challenge Putin. For this he suffered Putin's slogan, “For my friends, everything, for my enemies, the Law.” Nine years in prison and stripped of his wealth Khodorkovsky became irrelevant except as a lesson to the other oligarchs. Probably the key to Putin's now being the richest man on earth. His treachery and betrayal was common knowledge though less known were his extra money-power values, the ambitious dream of returning Russia to glory. His methods eventually showed him he needed western expertise which led to Exxon, a deal to drill-drill- drill the arctic. Invading the Ukraine, U.S. sanctions thwarted this plan but with the election of tRump, aided to whatever degree by Russia, one of whose first acts was an attempt to lift these sanctions. Even republicans wouldn't go for that but by appointing Exxon's CEO to Secretary of State, all could be smoothed over. Rex Tillerson, surely aware of Putin's record, has taken great risk investing billions in the arctic venture but pay-off, in the short-term, given the realities of climate change and greed, are apparently high enough to warrant it.

I should note that there is an actual multi-story building in Moscow that houses thousands of government hackers, working shifts, their mission being to disrupt democracy across the planet. Apparrently, like tRump, Putin prefers despots, sort of like the corporate one-stop-shopping situation. Much easier to get what you want from a corrupt dictator than from a messy democracy and of couse rule-of-the-rich is always fearful of the “threat” of democracy to their power.

I'll end this brief review of a timely and important book with this quote from page 365, “The oil and gas industry – left to its own devices- will mindlessly follow its own nature. It will make tons of money. It will corrode and corrupt and sabotage democratic governance. It will screw up and – in the end - fatally injure the whole freaking planet.... the end-times battle that we're engaged in now is to figure out how to get along without oil and gas – and we're plugging away but still a ways off – and in the the meantime, commit to a whole new level of constraint and regulatory protection against this singularly destructive industry to minimize its potential harms.”

Illustration and review, Tom Ferguson

Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Capitalism, a Ghost Story, Arundhati Roy

Arundhati Roy is known for her novel, The God of Small Things, for which she received the 1997 Booker Prize. Her fame has given her activism some protection from the authoritarian boot-on-neck regime, tRump's good friend and fascist, President Ram Nath Kovind, now governing India. She has been jailed already for criticizing the supreme court. How far she can go is uncertain but she continues to relay disturbing government actions there. Like the story that India encouraged rural citizens to move to the cities. Once there they were soon forced to leave, their shanty towns bulldozed. Upon returning to their villages they found damns, mining operations, nuclear power plants under construction and police, lots of police. Roy cites 250,000 suicides by Indian farmers due to the regime's enthusiastic adoption of the Milton Friedman economic religion. With a population of 1.2 billion, one quarter of India's GDP (gross domestic product) is owned by 100 people. Absolutely in line with the “free market” fantasies glorified by the 1% who so profit from them. If you are not of this elite 100, nor the 300 million “middle class” who are, if not rich, comfortable, you fall (along with the other 900 million! citizens), under the mercy-free boot and, as the good books says, woe unto you. The book is published in 2014 so not quite up to date but plenty disturbing.

The privatization line is also pushed by the U.S. Dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, as documented by Naomi Klein in her important book Shock Doctrine. Loans to desperate “underdeveloped” nations come with stringent privatization requirements, for no other reason than to satisfy the ideology of those with the money. The goal of this ideology, Roy points out, is to enhance the penetration of global capital, a subtler form of colonialism, with the same end... profits for the 1%. Keep in mind that privatization involves heartless cutting of services for the general population, healthcare, transportation, vital food subsidies. Ever more concentrated wealth. 
Roy sketches an interesting part of the whole capitalist con. Tax-free, non-profit foundations were created by wealthy industrialists, Rockefeller etc; and have been used since for this, ah... penetration. Similar to the way unions were neutered by negotiating with “moderates”, weeding out “radicals”. Selective corporate foundation funding of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) helps keep the opposition within acceptable bounds, those NGOs not observing proper bounds are simply not funded. As my witty brother often says, “Capitalism on the march!” NGOs do some good stuff but carefully within the bounds. So corporate profits are shielded from taxes, leaving taxpayers in first world countries footing the bill for policies that essentially loot the third world. Does that loot go then to the taxpayers? It might, eventually, if trickle-down economics were not the transparent myth designed to fool the gullible that it most definitely is.

Another book I've just finished is Barbara Kingsolver's, Poisonwood Bible. A remarkable work of fiction that elegantly supports Arundhati in her general view of the monstrous economic system that currently portrays itself as the end of history, the apotheosis of humanity's highest striving which in fact, though not without many impressive accomplishments, remains at heart a life-wrenching malady known as greed. Maybe that's what it took to get here but in the imagination of many, it could be transformed into a caring sustainable global community. That is a profound vision called hope.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Philosophy as Theology for Adults

The title, deliberately provocative, or, just kidding, speaks to the difference between the two disciplines, the former trying to figure things out, the latter assuming Christianity (or whichever favored religion), has it already figured out and the object is to figure that out. In other words philosophy seeks to penetrate mystery through reason, theology through the structure of an existing (sacred?) text or mythology. Both exercise intuition and imagination but one in a more constricted language. Superficially, theology seems, as the title teases, the lesser vehicle because it excludes and assumes so much. But going deeper the difference may dissolve and amounts to merely a personal preference for a certain kind of language. Theology deals with concepts like sin and the soul and philosophy uses ethics and consciousness. You could say that by the soul, theology means consciousness, that by struggling with ethical dilemmas philosophy examines sin. Theology concerns itself with salvation, philosophy with awareness. In this notion of equivalence the creation of the world by Godis a metaphorical phrasing of the big bang and the void out of which it sprang. One could argue, I would, that philosophy carries less baggage to obscure the project but others might find that theology works for them. Whatever gets you through the night, whatever it takes to arrive at enlightenment, salvation or presence. A rose by any other name.

Fundamentalist religion and philosophy continue this equivalence, or deny it, on a “lower” level where adherents, “believers” and “atheists”, dismiss each other as delusional. The rub is that on this level one can get hurt. Inquisitions, interrogation, prison, torture and execution seem to flourish to the degree that intolerance, fear and ego rule. Democracy has evolved as a hopeful way to steer clear of violence and domination by allowing citizen input into what sort of system we will live in and providing non-violent conflict resolution apparatus, the courts for example, for settling differences. The uncompromising fundamentalist forces, like the in-your-face Michigan militia and the billionaire's funding them, make this difficult. History could be seen as an on-going struggle between these factions, democracy and authoritarianism.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Beyond War

The Beyond War movement aimed to build consensus around the idea that war is obsolete, that we end it or it ends us. This movement saw hope in the idea that when a new idea arrives in a population a small percentage is open and adopts it. This group they referred to as early adapters. Market research established that if 5% of the population adopts an idea it is embedded in the culture. When 20% adopt it is unstoppable, it will spread of its own momentum. In building consensus it is obvious, in this thinking, that the appropriate target for persuasion is early adapters. Focusing on late adapters, those who will resist, deny with tenacity to the very end before, maybe, finally coming around would be a waste of energy.

Unfortunately we are in a situation, at a critical moment in history, where late adapters in the U.S. hold a crippling majority in the Senate and fully occupy the White House. A fair election would decisively change that arrangement but since this zealous minority has shown it will create as many obstacles as possible to prevent fair elections, a greater than usual effort needs to be funneled into the electoral process.

The major threat to our species, our civilization, in the 80s when Beyond War was born, was nuclear war. That has not diminished, may have gotten worse. Climate change must be now factored in as another major threat, along with population. This latter has a particular role in the covid-19 pandemic since expanding population relentlessly encroaches on wilderness habitat, in various ways releasing or transferring deadly stuff our way. The central faith of late adapters seems to be in laissez faire capitalism, the very driver of climate change, blind militarism and the need for desperate individuals to encroach on wilderness. It is true that we end war or it ends us. It is also true that we end laissez faire capitalism, unbridled consumption and overpopulation or they will end us.

Monday, February 10, 2020

A Words Worth

Language is a valuable (maybe essential) tool for exploring important ideas, ideas about justice in human relations, environmental or life system balance, and consciousness. Those two germs grew in my own intellectual development, you could say activism and metaphysics, in the form of support and exploration of what is loosely labeled “left” politics, and religious-ethical-philosophical studies. The two germs nurture each other, in a way, but language can actually block metaphysics when that is understood not as words about being but being itself.

Drawing, painting, music, dance and other arts language also engage in the metaphysical dialogue and they can, instead of referring to, talking about the subject, bring the artist/audience to the experience itself.

When the 1% gets nervous about its grip on the levers of power they sometimes will trot out a demagogue to seduce citizens their way, blaming this or that scapegoat for the indignities, injustices and insecurities foisted by selfish 1% policies.

Democracy is a high achievement of civilization, providing a means as it does, to settle disputes by reaching consensus, or peaceful agreement. The “losing party” might get part of their platform or can always look to another day, another issue where their view might prevail. This is a preferred option to always deciding the outcome of disputes by who has the bigger club. When the process becomes corrupted, when one party consistently cheats, or is merely perceived to, then the frustrated loser is tempted to reach for the club. If a faction is consistently excluded, even fairly, they too might see violence as useful. In a functioning democracy discontent is minimized so that “extremists” of this type cannot gather enough support to threaten the main body.

The 1% of course is such an extremist faction. They have already though corrupted democracy, by definition, to hold such disproportionate wealth, so their problem becomes masking the fact of their rule by use of scapegoats, media ownership, disproportionate influence in political, academic, religious and other institutional life, allocating relatively small portions of their vast wealth to this end.

I like to quote Arundhati Roy, “Remember, we are many, they are few.” It is true, the interests of the majority are fairly common; food, clothing, shelter, education, health care. The wealthy class' strength is, obviously money, and that can be (is) used to convince, persuade, muddy the waters, hire thugs, such that many will confusedly vote against their own interests. This is the dilemma Chomsky has recently cautioned about, that a candidate like Bernie will probably unite the 1%, a formidable coalition. And an establishment candidate will likely deflate progressive enthusiasm and will, even if elected, fail to address the climate/nuclear/equity crisis, thus continuing, though with less bluster, the drift toward the falls. For those who recognize that we end war or it ends us, that climate change is addressed or civilization implodes, it seems a Bernie-or-bust stance might be fully justified.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Who Rules the World?, Noam Chomsky

Chomsky's take on his title question can be reduced to this: Nation-states rule the world but who rules nation states? The 1%. He persuasively demonstrates this, and how even in so-called democracies it holds. For example, in the U.S., when 70% of the population favor a certain policy, like diplomacy over war, or health care, the population is ignored, the minority position prevails, the majority position “not feasible”. The policy-makers, the over-seers, do not put the interests of the people as their prime concern but rather the interests of that minority who put them, and keep them, where they are, in positions of power and prestige. This is certainly at odds with the patriotic narrative woven into our lives from birth, in school, church, hell, sports events where the national anthem is played before every game as if it were the most natural thing. No, the population's function is spectator, and consumer, or, they'd like you blind yes boss your mind no thought sleepin at the tube feelin no pain*. The important actors will take care of business.

But there must be a narrative to placate anyone paying attention. In foreign policy for example, Iran is a “destabilizing” actor in the mid-east whereas the U.S., “...illegally invading Iraq, resulting in hundreds of thousands killed, millions of refugees along with barbarous torture and destruction.... igniting sectarian conflict that is tearing the region to shreds and laying the basis for the ISIS monstrosity, – that is stabilization.” In 1970s Chile, a freely elected government must be overthrown because we seek the “stabilization” of General Pinochet's dictatorship. In 1953 Iran, we must overturn a democratically elected parliament, replacing it with a brutal dictatorship, with all the trappings – torture, secret police etc; in order to create “stability”. In Central America “stability” requires the support of more dictators, death squads etc; attacks on any signs of democracy brave enough to show themselves and, when those policies produce refugees fleeing violence, why we must create more stability with, say a nice border wall. Trade agreements, like NAFTA and GATT, which are actually investor protection agreements, also have their “stabilizing” effects, undermining local food production, sending rural people to sweat shops or the border where, once in the “belly of the beast” there is some opportunity for a bare living. One constant in this desire for “stability” is that the boss must be in charge, capitalism must not be questioned, no alternatives need apply.

One area where the boss is clearly not pursuing the interests of the general population is nuclear weapons. Proposals for a nuclear-free middle-east, supported by all area governments except Israel and its, ah, U.S. Patron, are shot down by those two governments. Hair-trigger nuclear warheads remain on alert in both Russia and the U.S., and nuclear plans for massive retaliation which would annihilate the life system and civilization remain locked in, violating treaties, international law and common sense. Plans for expansion of nuclear weapons, in the trillion-dollar range, routinely sail through the system despite the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty (NPT) which, if honored, might give our species a shot at survival. There is no cry of, “How ever can we afford such projects?!” That is saved for proposals like health care and a minimum, livable wage.

Climate change, Naomi Klein asserts, is resisted so vehemently because the 1% and its minions recognize, or intuite, that capitalism, as currently practiced, is incompatible with what is needed to address that crisis. Denial at all costs! the order of the day. Apparently sea-level rise will be turned away at gated communities and elite mansions. The Republican party, Chomsky claims, is the most dangerous organization in history, committed as it is to the destruction of democracy and civilization. Via the bribery system known as campaign contributions, many democrats are also roped in as enablers.

It is clear to any serious student of history, or perhaps I should say, of Chomsky, that the narratives put forth by the ruling class have been shown to be false, on capitalism, Vietnam, the Middle-east, Central America, Latin America, U.S. History, Socialism, Cuba, Israel-Palestine... that the U.S., far from the benevolent, democracy-promoting, “exceptionalist” state, is the most murderous, plundering national entity on the planet. The current narrative, repeated constantly in the institutions and media, is difficult to shake off. The horrifying truth is immensely discouraging but, exactly where resistance must begin.

*from Power's Your Angel, a song by the author

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Hate Inc., Matt Taibbi

Embedded in Taibbi's lively reportage, the message of Hate Inc. is that U.S. mainstream media have evolved from maintaining a more or less calm and unified take on what stories are publishable and what are not, in service to power to be sure, to frenetic, partisan coverage with a point of view aimed at a particular demographic. Taibbi uses Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky's 1988 book, Manufacturing Consent, to describe this shift, a shift he fears has accentuated polarization and created a loss of media credibility among the electorate that is irrecoverable and very bad news for democracy. The chief culprit is “left” media's irresponsible, journalistically sloppy commitment to the Russian Collusion story.

Published just before the shift, Taibbi describes how Manufacturing Consent applies to the two periods. In the pre-shift phase the media had a lock on a profitable segment of advertising which the digital age unlocked, lowering profits and sending the industry into a panicked search for audience share to deliver to its advertisers. Fox News hit on it first. Following the sports model of picking a side and rallying the fans to rabid loyalty and emotional investment. CNN, MSNBC etc; soon followed, all using the same tactics: aim for a certain demographic, build loyalty, keep them pissed-off at the other side and sitting on the edge of their seat with “breaking news” and purchasing their advertisers' products.

The pre-shift media kept what Chomsky called the “parameters of discussion” to a narrow range, usually called conservative to liberal. This reflected the range of opinion among the owners who carefully hired people with the appropriate beliefs to run their business. So vigorous-appearing debates were actually quite constrained. Search that media in vain for socialist commentators, that point of view being outside polite discourse. I was aware of Manufacturing Consent and pretty much, for that reason, avoided mainstream news for a long time. The book didn't actually recommend this but rather an eyes-open critical reading. So I was taken aback, even delighted, when encountering Rachel Maddow, Chris Matthews etc; on MSNBC mocking “wingnuts”. It took me awhile to realize that though things had stretched some, those same basic parameters were still there. Socialism could actually be mentioned now and then without hysterical demonizing, but not too often. The main thrust was going after those crazy lying right wingers on Fox, Republicans in the congress and administration, cheering for “our side”, the reasonable moderate liberals. Fox of course was the mirror image. The networks tried various mixes, CNN attempting sometimes to outfox Fox, even hire away its commentators, MSNBC fairly strictly sticking to the anti-right. The strategies were the same for both “sides”, just different targets. The big mistake, according to Taibbi, was bringing that strategy to the Russian Collusion story.

Taibbi condemns this shift as NOT journalism but entertainment. Previously news could be more like a book seller's prestige publications, not necessarily profitable but enhancing the brand. Now you had to hold your audience at all costs, with desperate measures and journalistic standards be damned. If a journalist was on a “team”, it was journalism, not a political party. This effort has been very profitable. The “product” comes from, is selected from, the same old sources, reporters, but of an ever-shrinking pool.

The author confesses that he is actually fairly non-political, more interested in his family than politics but “If tortured...” he'd confess to being progressive, voting, being lightly activist, giving a little money here and there but mostly he sees the world from an absurdist position. Humanity is the three stooges he says, we try our best but mostly fail. Taibbi confesses to having worked his audience from a niche called the vitriolic essay, a take-down artist but with always the right people being taken down. I remember sensing this reading him, being entertained as he “took down” the people I loved to hate but sensing something off. Especially if he included people I respected, like Bernie. He seems to recognize the urgency of climate change or the threat of nuclear holocaust, the obscenity of military spending, rule of the 1% etc; in one sentence then slip into, it's not all that important or the flippant statement that we used to hire people to do our vitriol, meaning elected officials. Taibbi does not mention that Hillary took the popular vote, by 2-3 million, when critiquing her campaign. Nor does he mention the obstruction of justice offenses in the Mueller report (and why didn't the dems include these in the impeachment?!). But I have to buy his take, that if you're looking for corruption you do it without partisan protection, you call a spade a spade. Without that objectivity there is a credibility loss that makes it easier to believe tRump's wild accusations of fake news.

Taibbi's book includes a section explaining why Rachel Maddow is paired with Hannity on the cover, the claim that both use the same partisan strategies to make money for their network (and selves). A second section is an interview with Noam Chomsky, discussing he and Ed Herman's book in today's context.