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[This is for all those who worry and lament the “selfishness is natural” idea we’ve all been told.  Turns out science disagrees.  alex]

by Gary Olson

Originally published by Common Dreams, 12/18/08

In a recent New Yorker piece, Naomi Klein astutely observes that “The crash on Wall Street should be for Friedmanism what the fall of the Berlin Wall was for authoritarian Communism, an indictment of an ideology.” One hopes so. The financial system’s collapse in 2008 offers a rare opportunity to question certain underlying assumptions about our state capitalist economy and its neoliberal ideology.

For the last few years I’ve been writing about neuroscience research which shows that the human brain is hard-wired for empathy, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes. This is the discovery of the mirror neuron system or MNS, a finding some scientists believe rivals what the discovery of DNA meant for biology. The technical details showing how morality is rooted in biology, hardwired into our neural circuits via evolution rather than handed down from on high, lie beyond this article. But our understanding is increasing at an exponential rate and it’s compelling. Earlier this year, UCLA neuroscientist Marco Iacoboni’s superb book, Mirroring People (NY: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2008, paper) made this important research accessible to the lay public.

However, this is not to underestimate the barriers to the public’s appreciation of these findings. At the apex of misunderstanding is the cynical, even despairing doubt about the existence of a moral instinct for empathy. From doctrines of original sin and Ayn Rand to Alan Greenspan and David Brooks, certain intrepretations of human nature have functioned to override empathic responses. In the words of famed primate scientist Frans B.M. de Waal “You need to indoctrinate empathy out of people in order to arrive at extreme capitalist positions.”

We know that cultures are set up to reward some people and disadvantage others. Capitalists maintain domination, in part, through subtly but actively creating society’s prevailing cultural norms. Antonio Gramsci’s writing reminds us that this control is achieved through the mass media, education, religion and popular culture as subordinate classes assimilate certain ideas as “common sense.” It isn’t that individual deviations don’t occur within the interstices of society but generally they don’t threaten elite control.

If we assume that the human brain or more specifically, the aforementioned mirror neuron system, is the implicit target of elite propaganda, then the current economic meltdown provides an almost unprecedented opportunity for us.

Perhaps not since the 1930s have our citizens been more skeptical of received wisdom about our socioeconomic system. That is, the carefully manufactured narrative of market capitalist identity and its assumptions about human nature are now thrown into sharp relief.

Not only has economic reality made a shambles of the canonical model of Homo economicus but robust empirical evidence offers promising alternative responses to basic questions about human nature. Parenthetically, other highly regarded cross-cultural studies reveal that the self-interested behavior predicted by the selfishness axiom simply fail to materialize and cooperation is the norm.

Of course there are also predatory and cruel urges within our nature, complete with their own neural correlates and evolutionary origins. But now we know that organizing an alternative to our vicious system of “natural” hyper-individualism will enhance the opportunity for the empathic aspect of our nature to flourish. Social historian Margaret Jacobs captures my optimism with her insight that “No institution is safe if people simply stop believing in the assumptions that justify its existence.” Therein lies both our challenge and responsibility.

Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem, PA. Contact: olson@moravian.edu

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“The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry and What We Must Do to Stop it”

by Antonia Juhasz

2008 HarperCollins

Ever wondered why the US government spends trillions of dollars to launch massive wars against Middle Eastern nations that have never attacked us, but refuses to do absolutely anything about the ongoing climate crisis?  This book is for you.

The Tyranny of Oil is an exposee of “Big Oil”, meaning Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, the largest oil corporations in the world (and some of THE largest corporations in the world).  The book exposes how these enormous oil octopi have gained virtually total control over the US government, and use their money and political power to make big profits at the expense of the public and the planet. (For example, Exxon Mobil in 2003 posted the largest profits of any corporation in history, then proceeded to beat that record each of the next 5 years).

It all starts with the origin of Big Oil, the mother, Standard Oil. Juhasz stresses the importance of monopolies and corporate mergers, in a sense missing the deeper analysis of capitalism, but nevertheless we come to understand how enormous companies wielding enormous profits can and do undermine democracy.

The book progresses to tell a story about Big Oil’s development and control over the government agencies that are supposed to be regulating it, and finally Big Oil’s plans for the future (War and Trashing the Planet, basically), before an inspirational chapter on What We Can Do. (There’s also a shoutout to SDS here and to our No War No Warming action in DC last year! Cool!)

This is essential reading for all US citizens, because if you aren’t familiar with the concepts she lays out, you frankly have no understanding of the country you live in.  Environmental racism, corporate lobbyists and corrupt government agencies, the criminal behavior of Cheney’s Energy Task Force, deregulation and Enron-style fraud, tar sands, and the list goes on.

My only major complaint of the book was the virtual silence on the looming and imminent reality of Peak Oil and how this will transform everything.  Juhasz does recognize the scarcity of oil and the likelihood of oil peaking, but chooses to essentially overlook its importance, instead blaming oil companies and speculators for driving up the cost of oil.

This is not just a minor quibble, because the BIG TRUTH is that we’re not just in a struggle against Big Oil, we’re in a struggle against capitalism, and it’s a fight that is reaching perhaps its final act.  Peak Oil will challenge the dominant for-profit institutions of power, and can create an opening for social justice activists and organizers to push for much more radical change than appears possible within the current system.  Nevertheless, this is probably a subject for another book (mine!), and Juhasz treads on steady ground by appealing to a more mainstream audience and demonizing the oil companies exclusively.  This is a very effective book, highly recommended!

Finally, my favorite quote (pg. 325):
“As Paul Wolfowitz said in 1991, ‘The combination of the enormous resources of the Persian Gulf, the power that those resources represent – it’s power. It’s not just that we need gas for our cars, it’s that anyone who controls those resources has enormous capability to build up military forces.'”


Two days before he published this article, David Graeber spoke at the People’s Forum in DC, which was organized by DC SDSers as part of Global Justice Action. The People’s Forum ran simultaneously while the G20 met in DC to save capitalism, because capitalism isn’t in crisiscapitalism is the crisis. The activities included a brainstorming session to explore “What Comes After Capitalism?” and a celebratory “Funeral for Capitalism” where the below pictures were taken. [alex]

At the "Funeral for Capitalism"

At the "Funeral for Capitalism" - photo by Jake Cunningham

Hope in Common
David Graeber
Originally published by InterActivist Info Exchange, November 17, 2008.

We seem to have reached an impasse. Capitalism as we know it appears to be coming apart. But as financial institutions stagger and crumble, there is no obvious alternative. Organized resistance appears scattered and incoherent; the global justice movement a shadow of its former self. There is good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism will no longer exist: for the simple reason that it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet. Faced with the prospect, the knee-jerk reaction—even of “progressives”—is, often, fear, to cling to capitalism because they simply can’t imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse.

The first question we should be asking is: How did this happen? Is it normal for human beings to be unable to imagine what a better world would even be like?

photo by Christa Hendrickson

photo by Christa H

Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced. If we really want to understand this situation, we have to begin by understanding that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, to flourish, to propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and police and military intelligence apparatus, propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as they create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Maintaining this apparatus seems even more important, to exponents of the “free market,” even than maintaining any sort of viable market economy. How else can one explain, for instance, what happened in the former Soviet Union, where one would have imagined the end of the Cold War would have led to the dismantling of the army and KGB and rebuilding the factories, but in fact what happened was precisely the other way around? This is just one extreme example of what has been happening everywhere. Economically, this apparatus is pure dead weight; all the guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and really produce nothing, and as a result, it’s dragging the entire capitalist system down with it, and possibly, the earth itself.

photo by Christa Hendrickson

photo by Christa H

The spirals of financialization and endless string of economic bubbles we’ve been experience are a direct result of this apparatus. It’s no coincidence that the United States has become both the world’s major military (”security”) power and the major promoter of bogus securities. This apparatus exists to shred and pulverize the human imagination, to destroy any possibility of envisioning alternative futures. As a result, the only thing left to imagine is more and more money, and debt spirals entirely out of control. What is debt, after all, but imaginary money whose value can only be realized in the future: future profits, the proceeds of the exploitation of workers not yet born. Read the rest of this entry »



Second in the holiday movie series, The Take journals the Argentinian workers who seized their factories after the economy collapsed in 2001, and the corporations fled the scene. The parallels between Argentina 2001 and the United States 2008 are incredible, first the financial system collapsed, and now in Chicago we see the workers occupying a factory their bosses tried to illegally close. Hopefully next we’ll see the delegitimization of the government and mass popular uprisings against capitalism.
(This is just the first segment of the movie, make sure to click the Up-Arrow button to watch the rest! And you might need to do some Spanish-to-English translating!)


Originally published on my friend Will’s blog, March 23, 2008.

To be organized is to do the following:

1. Keeping your word. When you say you will do something, do it. This will give you a good reputation and inherently further your goals.
2. Hard work. Cliche as it is, hard work will get things done. And in the world of activism where it feels like not much gets done, this is a crucial attribute.
3. Coordination. Stay in contact with people and coordinate your efforts. Avoid duplicate tasks and work out a system by which everyone can be working toward a goal, and know what they need to do to make sure the whole group gets it done.
4. Community. Help, protect, care for, and love each other. No other facet of being organized will motivate people more than being a part of a strong caring community. It will also provide an unparalleled sense of security that is very hard to find in life.
5. Courage. Acknowledge and accept your fears, but do not let them interfere with your activities. Change takes the courage to fight (ever non-violently) despite the seemingly insurmountable odds. Of course, courage must be partnered with understanding and vision to prevent brave but pointless acts.
6. Understanding. To be organized, we need to understand the cause and effect relationships or our actions, and how our actions will impact different audiences. Understanding other people, and how they think is also crucial. Also, a general understanding of the world is important. Overall, the more knowledge and problem solving skills you can fit into your brain, the better. It is much better to build a sturdy net to catch fish than to try to catch them with your hands.
7. Mass numbers. To truly be organized, you need lots of people working toward a common goal. They do not necessarily have to all be coordinated, but it helps.
8. Planning. Use all of your understanding to plan a campaign to actually reach the goal. Make contingency plans and make sure everyone knows what the plan is.
9. Love. By far the most important. This one encompasses everything we seek to change in the world. It can remake our entire world if we have the courage to embrace it. Love everyone, and only denounce actions. Forgive and give whenever there is the chance.

There is a strength to this outline that may not be obvious at first. It will bring people in by the droves. Having an effective and loving group actively seeking change, one that fulfills its members deep need to care for each other will be an earth-shaking movement that will fundamentally remake civilization. I have tried to outline my view on organizing, that couples the “professionalism” of corporate America with the love, courage and community that I have found to be amazingly effective at motivating and improving people.

I hope to see a movement that embraces all 9 factors, because, I believe, if I do see it, then we will be able to heal the world.


Below is an email circulating the SDS listservs that I’m reposting (I’m not the author). Workers, mostly Latin@s, have seized their workplace from management who was trying to take away their jobs and severance pay.  Hopefully this is just the beginning of increased militance and organization by the working class as economic conditions in this country deteriorate and the contradictions – of bosses and banks being bailed out while we lose our jobs – become more glaring and visible.

Here is a news article about the takeover. [alex]

Chicago factory occupied

Lee Sustar reports from Chicago on an occupation by workers who want what’s theirs from management and the Bank of America.

December 6, 2008

WORKERS OCCUPYING the Republic Windows & Doors factory slated for closure are vowing to remain in the Chicago plant until they win the $1.5 million in severance and vacation pay owed them by management.

In a tactic rarely used in the U.S. since the labor struggles of the 1930s, the
workers, members of United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America (UE) Local 1110, refused to leave the plant on December 5, its last scheduled day of operation.

“We decided to do it because this is money that belongs to us,” said Maria
Roman, who’s worked at the plant for eight years. “These are our rights.”

Word of the occupation spread quickly both among labor and immigrant rights activists–the overwhelming majority of the workers are Latinos. Seven local TV news stations showed up to do interviews and live reports, and a steady stream of activists arrived to bring donations of food and money and to plan solidarity actions.

Management claims that it can’t continue operations because its main creditor, Bank of America (BoA), refuses to make any more loans to the company. After workers picketed BoA headquarters December 3, bank officials agreed to sit down with Republic management and UE to discuss the matter at a December 5 meeting arranged by U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill), said UE organizer Leah Fried.

BoA had said that it couldn’t discuss the matter with the union directly without written approval from Republic’s management. But Republic representatives failed to show up at the meeting, and plant managers prepared to close the doors for good–violating the federal WARN Act that requires 60 days notice of a plant closure.

The workers decided this couldn’t go unchallenged. “The company and Bank of America are throwing the ball to one another, and we’re in the middle,” said Vicente Rangel, a shop steward and former vice president of Local 1110.

Many workers had suspected the company was planning to go out of business–and perhaps restart operations elsewhere. Several said managers had removed both production and office equipment in recent days.

Furthermore, while inventory records indicated there were plenty of parts in the plant, workers on the production line found shortages. And the order books, while certainly down from the peak years of the housing boom, didn’t square with management’s claims of a total collapse. “Where did all those windows go?” one worker asked.

Workers were especially outraged that Bank of America, which recently received a bailout in taxpayer money, won’t provide credit to Republic. “They get $25 billion from the government, and won’t loan a few million to this company so workers can keep their jobs?” said Ricardo Caceres, who has worked at the plant for six years. Read the rest of this entry »


Richard Heinberg (author of the seminal work The Party’s Over: Oil, War and the Fate of Industrial Societies) lays out a clear program for Obama, to move the US away from its current suicidal path and towards a green economy.  However, the danger may be that Obama has surrounded himself with people who are telling him to do the exact opposite of each of these recommendations.  Our job, as a movement, is to move the country away from fossil fuels by blocking the construction of more death machines (coal plants, oil-guzzling cars, the military…), and by simultaneously creating irresistible alternatives. [alex]

Memo to the President-elect on Energy Realism and the Green New Deal

MuseLetter 200
December 2008 by Richard Heinberg

Executive Summary

Our continued national dependence on fossil fuels is creating a crippling vulnerability to both long-term fuel scarcity and catastrophic climate change.

The current economic crisis requires substantial national policy shifts and enormous new government injections of capital into the economy. This provides an opportunity for a project whose scope would otherwise be inconceivable: a large-scale, coordinated energy transition away from fossil fuels and toward renewable energy.

This project must happen immediately; indeed, it may already be too late. We have already left behind the era of cheap and plentiful fossil fuels, with a permanent decline of global oil production likely underway within three years. Moreover, the latest research tells us we have less than eight years to bring carbon emissions under control if we hope to avoid catastrophic climate change. Lacking this larger frame of understanding and action, a mere shift away from foreign oil dependence will fail to meet the challenge at hand.

The energy transition must not be limited to building wind turbines and solar panels. It must include the thorough redesign of our economic and societal infrastructure, which today is utterly dependent on cheap fossil fuels. It must address not only our transportation system and our electricity grid, but also our food system and our building stock.

Our 21st century nation’s dependence on 20th century fossil fuels is the greatest threat we face, far more so than the current financial crisis. A coordinated, comprehensive transition to an economy that is no longer dependent on hydrocarbon fuels and no longer emits climate-changing levels of carbon—a Post Carbon Energy Transition—will be the Obama Administration’s greatest opportunity to lead the nation on a path toward sustainable prosperity.

Overview: Need and Scope

As a new Administration prepares to take the reins of power, America’s economy is descending into a recession or, quite possibly, a depression. Read the rest of this entry »


[Following on the heels of another majority victory with Burger King, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), and their student allies in the Student-Farmworker Alliance (SFA) have succeeded in pressuring Subway to pay an extra 1 cent per pound for their tomatoes so that workers who pick those tomatoes will get a fair wage.  CIW/SFA have also reached similar agreements with McDonalds and Taco Bell, which means all the major fast food industry titans have now given in!  This is another great example of the power of democratic social movements to achieve change. – alex]

Originally published by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ website.


Miami, FL, 12/2/08: Gerardo Reyes (seated, right) of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Jan Risi (also seated), President and CEO of Subway’s Miami-based purchasing arm, the Independent Purchasing Cooperative, commemorate the signing of the CIW’s newest agreement with a fast-food industry leader to improve wages and working conditions in Florida’s tomato fields.

SUBWAY SIGNS!…

December 2, 2008: Subway, the third largest fast-food chain in the world and the biggest fast-food buyer of Florida tomatoes, reached an agreement today with the CIW to help improve wages and working conditions for the workers who pick their tomatoes!

What they’re saying about the Subway agreement:

  • “This agreement between Subway and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is yet another blow to the scourge of slavery that continues to exist in the tomato fields of Florida,” Senator Bernie Sanders said in a statement. “Subway is to be congratulated for moving to ensure that none of its products are harvested by slave or near-slave labor. Sadly, too many other companies continue to tolerate this travesty.”
  • “Subway strongly supports the farmworkers’ rights and has entered in an agreement with the (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) to pay the additional 1 cent per pound for tomatoes grown in the Immokalee region of Florida,” Subway spokesman Les Winograd said.
  • “Today, the fast-food industry has spoken with one voice,” said Gerardo Reyes of the CIW. “With this agreement, the four largest restaurant companies in the world have now joined their voices to the growing call for a more modern, more humane agricultural industry in Florida.” (read the joint press release in its entirety)
  • But Sherri Daye Scott, who edits QSR, a North Carolina-based food-service industry magazine, noted consumers spoke first – by supporting the coalition’s petition drives, protests and boycotts.

“Until the college students and then the consumers got involved, it was not that big a deal,” Scott said.

Will fair food become an industry watchword?

“It could,” Scott said. “I haven’t heard any rumblings yet beyond the tomato pickers yet, but it could gain traction. Look at food safety – five, 10 years ago, you didn’t hear much about it; now it’s everywhere. The same thing could happen with transparency in the food supply chain.

  • “Subway’s agreement could yield as much money as all the other deals combined. That’s because Subway is the largest user of tomatoes and has 24,000 stores in the United States. Burger King’s agreement is expected to yield about $250,000 for workers, numbers relatively comparable to the Taco Bell and McDonald’s agreement.” (Miami Herald)

Meanwhile, the Northeast Fair Food Tour continues, spreading the news of the Subway agreement and meeting with allies to discuss plans for the road ahead in the Campaign for Fair Food, including a growing focus on the other leading buyers of Florida tomatoes, the supermarket and foodservice industries.

Click here for a revised list of planned public events on the tour

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