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I recently finished this fascinating book by C.L.R. James, detailing the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1803. This was the first (and only?) time in history that an entire colony of African slaves revolted against their masters and succeeded in establishing independence. The magnitude of such a feat, considering all the European backlash and repression, from no less than Napoleon, is shocking to this day.
C.L.R. James is famous for being one of the most outspoken anti-colonial Marxist thinkers of the 20th Century. His political career started in his native Trinidad, took him through Trotskyism to the Johnson-Forest Tendency, which defined the Soviet Union as state capitalist. After being deported from the US, he spent his final years living in London and married to Selma James, the influential Marxist feminist and founder of the Wages for Housework campaign.
The merits of this book are obvious, it is a blow-by-blow account of how the slaves of Saint-Domingue became the free citizens of Haiti. For its profound social history, it has become required reading for post-colonial theorists, pan-Africanists and anti-capitalists of all stripes. The book is made more relevant by the ongoing injustices against the Haitian people by the US government and international NGOs, which have kept Haiti in a state of poverty and dependence. It is important to remind ourselves that the Haitians are proud people with a history of self-empowerment.
The flaws of the book are perhaps more interesting. James wants to paint Toussaint L’Ouverture in the same stripe as Vladimir Lenin, who James sees as actually a heroic revolutionary leader. From this error stem all the peculiar sections of the book where Toussaint’s character become the main focus. Most interestingly, James also criticizes some of Toussaint’s worst moves, correctly charging them as cowardly or counter-revolutionary, yet does not hesitate to explain them away by referring to Toussaint’s “genius.”
For me the bottom line is that humans instinctively desire freedom. We don’t need any authorities to create it for us, we either all create it together or we lack it. Generals like Toussaint tend to want to appeal to authority, whether Napoleon or the bourgeois Jacobins in Paris. It is a simple fact that people in power are more concerned about what other people with power think, rather than what the people think. Here lies Toussaint’s mistake, and the mistake of Leninism as well.
None of this should discourage the reader from reading and absorbing the social history behind one of the greatest popular democratic victories of all time. The point is to read history critically.
One such critical reader is my friend Daniel, who wrote the excellent review which follows, and which brings the contradictions of James’ work to life. [alex]
The Black Jacobins
C.L.R. James, 1938
Review by Daniel Meltzer.
This book was an excellent read. The strengths included breathtaking battle scenes, rousing rhetoric for freedom and against slavery, brilliant stories of liberation, and page-turning political intrigue. The weaknesses in the book come from self-defeating politics of discipline for the sake of discipline, and the heart-rending compromises that Toussaint L’Overture makes with people who see him and the republic he created as nothing more than slaves to be punished for their insubordination.
The utter brutality and injustice of slave ownership, and the barbaric treatment of slaves is scandalous. You will literally shake your head at the stories of how slaves were treated under the law in Haiti. A particularly unnerving example is the slavemasters filling a slave up with gunpowder and lighting a fuse, exploding the body of the slave, perhaps for punishment, but seemingly just as often because the slavemasters could.
The slaves began creating a series of low-level daily resistance to such a situation that is tragic and fascinating. “The majority of the slaves accomodated themselves to this unceasing brutality by a profound fatalism and a wooden stupidity before their masters. […]Through the shirt of [a slave] a master can feel the potatoes which he denies he has stolen. They are not potatoes, he says, they are stones. He is undressed and the potatoes fall to the ground. “Eh! master. The devil is wicked. Put stones, and look, you find potatoes.” Read the rest of this entry »
Upheaval Productions has produced some impressive documentary and interview footage on the most pressing issues of our day. Here I am reposting 3 of their courageous interviews with 3 modern-day visionaries: Malalai Joya, a heroic voice of reason from the warzone of Afghanistan, Charles Bowden, who continues to shed necessary light on the underlying causes of US-Mexico border violence, drug trade and immigration, and George Katsiaficas, who has spent his life studying revolutions and popular uprisings around the world, and how ordinary people make positive social change.
Each video is about 10 minutes. I learned a lot from all three interviews, and I’m sure you will too. Enjoy!
Malalai Joya is an Afghan activist, author, and former politician. She served as an elected member of the 2003 Loya Jirga and was a parliamentary member of the National Assembly of Afghanistan, until she was expelled for denouncing other members as warlords and war criminals.
She has been a vocal critic of both the US/NATO occupation and the Karzai government, as well as the Taliban and Islamic fundamentalists. After surviving four assassination attempts she currently lives underground in Afghanistan, continuing her work from safe houses. After the release of her memoir, A Woman Among Warlords, she recently concluded a US speaking tour. She sat down for an interview with David Zlutnick while in San Francisco on April 9, 2011. Read the rest of this entry »
As the “democracy uprising” spreads from Tunisia, to Egypt, and now to Wisconsin, it seems the whole world is starting to look a little more like Latin America. Social movements “south of the border” have been pumping out progressive change, and winning, for a couple decades now. This victorious and active Latin left goes back at least to the Venezuelan “Caracazo” of 1989, an uprising very similar to what we’ve been watching lately in Tahrir Square, Cairo. This was long before Chavez showed up on the scene, you may notice.
As the following interview of Ben Dangl highlights, leftist states such as Venezuela are not by themselves particularly revolutionary, and in fact often play a counter-revolutionary role. Democratic, participatory, grassroots social movements have always been the real engine of change. Political leaders can choose to follow those movements (“lead by obeying” in Zapatista language), or they can choose to be largely a facade for neoliberalism and reaction. The question is not the quality of the leader, but the quality of the movement holding that leader’s feet to the fire.
This is the reason President Obama has been largely a flop. As FDR said to labor organizers in 1932, “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Real leadership comes from below.
Let’s hope we can follow the examples of Bolivia, Egypt, and Madison, WI and continue to work towards a global movement for justice. [alex]
Dancing with Dynamite in Latin America
by Nikolas Kozloff
Originally published by Huffington Post.
February 11, 2011.
Recently, I sat down with Benjamin Dangl, author of the recently released Dancing with Dynamite: Social Movements and States in Latin America, for an interview.
NK: You’ve written an extremely ambitious book which takes the reader all across South America. One of the most impressive things about the work is that it is largely based on your own personal interviews with political participants at the grassroots as opposed to mere secondary research. How long did it take to research and what was the most fascinating country that you worked in?
BD: The book is the result of over eight years of research, traveling and interviewing across Latin America. This period of time coincided with the rise to power of most of the region’s current leftist leaders, and so the interviews I draw from in the book reflect a lot of the initial hope and subsequent disappointment among many social movements. The most interesting place I’ve worked in is definitely Bolivia, where the power of the grassroots movements is the strongest, and the impressive relationship between these movements and the government of Evo Morales is constantly changing.
NK: It can be tough in many ways to conduct research in South America. What prompted your interest in the subject matter and what were some of the obstacles that you encountered along the way?
BD: The main things that drew me to writing about politics and social issues in Latin America were the impact US foreign policy and corporate activity had on the region, and the hopeful and relatively under-reported social struggles going on. On the one hand, the connection to the US in the so-called war on drugs, and the corporate looting of natural resources, were all issues I thought more readers of English-based media in the US should know about. And the sophisticated organizing tactics, grassroots strategies and victories of social movements in the region were stories I wanted to help amplify and spread in the US, for the sake of awareness, solidarity and lessons to be learned. The main obstacle in doing this research is the actual cost of the traveling. I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs over the years, in construction, farming, and various kinds of manual labor, to pay for the plane tickets to get to Latin America in order to conduct research and writing on the ground.
NK: Here in the U.S., many on the left idealize Chávez and the like, yet you suggest that many ostensibly leftist regimes may sap the energy of today’s social movements. How has this happened, and could one say, therefore, that “Pink Tide” regimes may ultimately exert a counter-productive or even pernicious effect upon local politics in their respective countries?
BD: The way this relationship has played out is different in each country. Some Latin American presidents, upon taking power, have been more willing and able than others to collaborate with the social movements that help bring them into office. The relationships in Venezuela and Bolivia are probably the healthiest in this sense. In other countries, such as Brazil with President Lula and the Landless Farmers Movements, the Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa and the indigenous movements there, the relationship has been more difficult, with the governments repressing, criminalizing and demobilizing movements when possible. Dancing with Dynamite looks at how this relationship, this dance, has played out in seven different countries. It tells a story beyond what the presidents and major politicians have been doing or saying, and focuses more on the history of the past decade from the perspective of the grassroots. And this view from below is something I think more people in the US left would benefit from focusing on, if anything to understand the full picture of what’s been driving these momentous changes over the past ten years.
NK: Of all the South American countries you describe, Bolivia seems to have the most revolutionary potential. Why is this so, and what new radical developments can we expect from Bolivia in the coming years?
Republished by Energy Bulletin, Countercurrents and OpEdNews.
The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.
This is the final part of a four-part interview. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other sections.
Part 3. Life After Capitalism
MC: Moving forward, how would you ideally envision a post-capitalist world? And if capitalism manages to survive (as it has in the past), is there still room for real change?
AK: First let me repeat that even if my theory is right that capitalism is breaking down, it doesn’t suggest that we’ll automatically find ourselves living in a utopia soon. This crisis is an opportunity for us progressives but it is also an opportunity for right-wing forces. If the right seizes the initiative, I fear they could give rise to neo-fascism – a system in which freedoms are enclosed and violated for the purpose of restoring a mythical idea of national glory.
I think this threat is especially credible here in the United States, where in recent years we’ve seen the USA PATRIOT Act, the Supreme Court’s decision that corporations are “persons,” and the stripping of constitutional rights from those labeled “terrorists,” “enemy combatants”, as well as “illegals.” Arizona’s attempt to institute a racial profiling law and turn every police officer into an immigration official may be the face of fascism in America today. Angry whites joining together with the repressive forces of the state to terrorize a marginalized community, Latino immigrants. While we have a black president now, white supremacist sentiment remains widespread in this country, and doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. So as we struggle for a better world we may also have to contend with increasing authoritarianism.
I should also state up front that I have no interest in “writing recipes for the cooks of the future.” I can’t prescribe the ideal post-capitalist world and I wouldn’t try. People will create solutions to the crises they face according to what makes most sense in their circumstances. In fact they’re already doing this. Yet, I would like to see your question addressed towards the public at large, and discussed in schools, workplaces, and communities. If we have an open conversation about what a better world would look like, this is where the best solutions will come from. Plus, the practice of imagination will give people a stronger investment in wanting the future to turn out better. So I’ll put forward some of my ideas for life beyond capitalism, in the hope that it spurs others to articulate their visions and initiate conversation on the world we want.
My personal vision has been shaped by my outrage over the two fundamental crises that capitalism has perpetrated: the ecological crisis and the social crisis. I see capitalism as a system of abuse. The system grows by exploiting people and the planet as means to extract profit, and by refusing to be responsible for the ecological and social trauma caused by its abuse. Therefore I believe any real solutions to our problems must be aligned to both ecological justice and social justice. If we privilege one over the other, we will only cause more harm. The planet must be healed, and our communities must be healed as well. I would propose these two goals as a starting point to the discussion.
How do we heal? What does healing look like? Let me expand from there.
Five Guideposts to a New World
I mentioned in response to the first question that I view freedom, democracy, justice, sustainability and love as guideposts that point towards a new world. This follows from what I call a common sense radical approach, because it is not about pulling vision for the future from some ideological playbook or dogma, but from lived experience. Rather than taking pre-formed ideas and trying to make reality fit that conceptual blueprint, ideas should spring from what makes sense on the ground. The five guideposts come from our common values. It doesn’t take an expert to understand them or put them into practice.
In the first section I described how freedom at its core is about self-determination. I said that defined this way it presents a radical challenge to capitalist society because it highlights the lack of power we have under capitalism. We do not have self-determination, and we cannot as long as huge corporations and corrupt politicians control our destinies.
I’ll add that access to land is fundamental to a meaningful definition of freedom. The group Take Back the Land has highlighted this through their work to move homeless and foreclosed families directly into vacant homes in Miami. Everyone needs access to land for the basic security of housing, but also for the ability to feed themselves. Without “food sovereignty,” or the power to provide for one’s own family, community or nation with healthy, culturally and ecologically appropriate food, freedom cannot exist. The best way to ensure that communities have food sovereignty is to ensure they have access to land.
Similarly, a deeper interpretation of democracy would emphasize participation by an individual or community in the decisions that affect them. For this definition I follow in the footsteps of Ella Baker, the mighty civil rights organizer who championed the idea of participatory democracy. With a lifelong focus on empowering ordinary people to solve their own problems, Ella Baker is known for saying “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.” This was the philosophy of the black students who sat-in at lunch counters in the South to win their right to public accommodations. They didn’t wait for the law to change, or for adults to tell them to do it. The students recognized that society was wrong, and practiced non-violent civil disobedience , becoming empowered by their actions. Then with Ms. Baker’s support they formed the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and organized poor blacks in Mississippi to demand their right to vote, passing on the torch of empowerment.
We need to be empowered to manage our own affairs on a large scale. In a participatory democracy, “we, the people” would run the show, not representatives who depend on corporate funding to get elected. “By the people, for the people, of the people” are great words. What if we actually put those words into action in the government, the economy, the media, and all the institutions that affect our lives? Institutions should obey the will of the people, rather than the people obeying the will of institutions. It can happen, but only through organization and active participation of the people as a whole. We must empower ourselves, not wait for someone else to do it. Read the rest of this entry »
Republished by Energy Bulletin, OpEdNews, and Countercurrents, and translated into Turkish for Hafif.org.
The following exchange between Michael Carriere and Alex Knight occurred via email, July 2010. Alex Knight was questioned about the End of Capitalism Theory, which states that the global capitalist system is breaking down due to ecological and social limits to growth and that a paradigm shift toward a non-capitalist future is underway.
This is the third part of a four-part interview. This part is a continuation of Alex’s response to the second question. Click here for Part 2A. Scroll to the bottom for links to the other sections.
Part 2B. Social Limits and the Crisis
MC: Capitalism has faced many moments of crisis over time. Is there something different about the present crisis? What makes the end of capitalism a possibility now?
AK: As I described in the last section, the current crisis can be understood as resulting from a massive collision between capitalism’s relentless need for growth and the world’s limits in capacity to sustain that growth. These limits to growth are both ecological and social. In this section I’ll discuss the concept of social limits to growth.
The Extraordinary Power of Social Movements
Social limits to growth function alongside the ecological limits but are drawn from a different source. By social limits we mean the inability, or unwillingness, of human communities, and humankind as a whole, to support the expansion of capitalism. This broadly includes all forms of resistance to capitalism, a resistance that has arguably been increasing around the world through innumerable forms of alternative lifestyles, refusal to cooperate, protest, and outright rebellion.
As a disclaimer it’s important to recognize that not all resistance is progressive. There are right-wing, fundamentalist, and undemocratic forces that also resist capitalism, for example the Taliban, or North Korea. These are not our allies. They do not share progressive values, we cannot condone their attacks on women, or on freedom more generally, and I don’t see anything to be gained by working with them. However it is important to recognize how these forces are aligned against capitalism and U.S. imperialism, in addition to being aware of the danger they present to our own hopes and dreams.
Progressive resistance, on the other hand, has always taken its strength from grassroots social movements. Silvia Federici writes about the immense and varied peasant movements in medieval Europe that fought for religious and sexual freedom, challenging both feudal lords and emerging capitalist elites. I like to think of these rebels as my European ancestors – they were just commoners but they rose up to fight for a better world. This is the nature of social movements. Ordinary folks, daring to pursue their deepest aspirations, interests and dreams, join together with others who share those desires, and thereby create something extraordinary. The magic exists in the joining-together. Isolated individuals lack the power to accomplish what a group can achieve.
We can appreciate this extraordinary power if we look at how social movements have transformed our lives. A century ago, millions of American workers joined the labor movement and won the 8-hour day, Social Security, and workplace safety. Regular folks carried forward the Civil Rights Movement and broke Southern segregation. The feminist and LGBT movements have transformed the way gender and sexuality are viewed all over the world. It’s hard to overstate how dramatically these and other social movements have improved society. While capitalism has invented ways to co-opt social movements and redirect them into outlets that do not challenge the system on a deep level (like the “non-profit industrial complex”), movements have remained alive and vibrant by empowering people to reach towards a different world.
Have social movements limited capitalist oppression recently? To answer this we need to learn the story of the Global Justice Movement.
The Global Justice Movement
David Graeber, anarchist anthropologist, wrote a remarkable essay called “The Shock of Victory” in which he looks at this movement that suddenly flared up at the turn of the millennium and seemed to disappear just as quickly. Although most Americans may not remember the Global Justice Movement, and those who participated in it may feel demoralized by the fact that capitalism still exists, Graeber points out that many of the movement’s ambitious goals were accomplished. Read the rest of this entry »
The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
published 1939 during the last Great Depression.
Alex Knight, endofcapitalism.com, May 25, 2010
Arizona SB1070, signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, requires Arizona’s local and state law enforcement to demand the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, and arrest them if they lack documents proving citizenship or legal residency. Effectively making racial profiling into state policy, this law is the latest in a series of attacks on Latin American immigrants, as well as the entire Latino community, who must live with the fear of being interrogated by police for their brown skin. Then on May 11, Arizona went one step further, outlawing the teaching of ethnic studies classes, or any classes that “are designed primarily for students of a particular ethnic group or advocate ethnic solidarity”. This same law also states that schools must fire English teachers who speak with a “heavy accent.”
Perhaps these new laws make sense if we imagine that undocumented immigrants are merely “aliens”, a danger to the good, mostly white citizens of this great country. But suppose we look at the problem of immigration from the perspective of the immigrants? Why are they risking life and limb to come to a foreign land, far from their home and families? Why aren’t they deterred from making this trip no matter how many walls we put up, no matter how many police collaborate with ICE, no matter how many angry armed “Minutemen” vigilantes are conscripted to guard the border?
John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath, following the Joad family as they migrate to California during the “Dust Bowl” of the 1930s, sheds light on these questions in a way that perhaps every American can relate to. One of the most popular and well-written American books of all time, The Grapes of Wrath provides a very human perspective on the harsh lives of migrants, personified by the Joads – a family of poor sharecroppers from Oklahoma. Evicted from their family farm, just as the millions of Mexicans who have suffered enclosure from their land and become homeless and jobless because of NAFTA, the Joads travel to California in a desperate search of work, only to encounter the harassment of authorities and the hatred of the local population.
There are important differences between the “Okies” who traveled to the Southwest in the 1930s and Latino migrantes of the 2000s. The Joads, of course, were white, and did not cross a national border when they made their exodus. But at its core the story of the Joads is the story of the migrant workers, their troubles, their fears, but also their humanity, and their hope. It is a story that can inspire us to recognize the historic nature of the moment in which we live, understand why these enormous transformations are occurring, and recognize that justice for the immigrants is justice for everyone, regardless of color or citizenship status.
In order to understand the migrantes we first have to understand the story of their displacement, or the enclosure of their land, which has left them homeless and with no other options than to leave their homeland in search of a wage. What can The Grapes of Wrath tell us about this reality?
People usually do not resort to risky and desperate moves unless they have nothing left to lose. Steinbeck begins the Joads’ story with the loss of everything they had: the small farm on which they had sustained their family for generations by growing cotton. Young Tom Joad, fresh out of prison, returns to his home to find it deserted. “The Reverend Casy and young Tom stood on the hill and looked down on the Joad place… Where the dooryard had been pounded hard by the bare feet of children and by stamping horses’ hooves and by the broad wagon wheels, it was cultivated now, and the dark green, dusty cotton grew… ‘Jesus!’ he said at last. ‘Hell musta popped here. There ain’t nobody livin’ there.'” (51).
Whether as tenants or small landholders, either for subsistence or for markets, the vast majority of the poor migrantes now coming to this country are fleeing the loss of their farms and their livelihoods, just as the Joads. Perhaps for generations, maybe hundreds or even thousands of years, they had lived in connection with the land and had been able to depend on it for the survival of their families and culture. The loss of this land is devastating to those cultures, but larger forces stand to gain by driving these people into homelessness. Read the rest of this entry »
Also published on The Rag Blog.
Just two weeks after the Massey Energy coal explosion on April 5 that killed 29 miners in West Virginia, the BP oil rig Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 more workers. These back-to-back tragedies have brought attention to the fossil fuel industry’s terrible safety record – in both cases there were known safety violations on site, but the government did nothing to prevent disaster from occurring. See the interview below which explains how the federal government approved this BP rig and many more without conducting the environmental review they are legally obligated to.
Unlike the industry executives attempting to shift blame and avoid responsibility, we must look beneath the surface to discover the deeper meaning of these horrible crises.
Is the universe giving us a warning that fossil fuels are going to destroy us? Because if global climate change continues at the rate it has, in the not-too-distant future we will see many thousands, or even millions more deaths as crops dry up, floods destroy coastal wetlands, and diseases migrate to temperate regions. This is no joke. Families and communities are being destroyed so coal and oil corporations can boost their profit margins.
We need to be open to hearing the lessons that are all around us, especially from those who have been silenced and beaten down by capitalism.
Immediately after the Massey explosion and the BP explosion, was Earth Day – April 22. And on this date, indigenous and poor people from around the globe were meeting in Cochabamba, Bolivia for the World People’s Conference on Climate Change, a grassroots response to the corporate fraud that was the Copenhagen Summit. Bolivian President Evo Morales, who was proclaimed “World Hero of Mother Earth” by the United Nations General Assembly in October, hosted the conference, proclaiming “The capitalist system looks to obtain the maximum possible gain, promoting unlimited growth on a finite planet. Capitalism is the source of asymmetries and imbalance in the world.”
30,000 people from 140 countries convened and approved the “Cochabamba Protocol”, which calls for an International Climate Justice tribunal to prosecute climate criminals, and condemns REDDs which put a price on wild forests and encourage development, along with carbon market schemes. The protocal proposes a Universal Declaration of Mother Earth and demands that industrialized polluting nations cut carbon emissions by 50 percent as part of a new, binding climate agreement.
Global momentum is building towards confronting capitalism in terms of the ecological devastation it is causing. Here in the United States, Rising Tide North America is calling for a “Day of Action, Night of Mourning” this Friday, May 14 to call for BP to pay for all cleanup and long-term ecological effects of their spill, for the abolition of offshore oil drilling, and for “a rapid and just transition away from fossil fuels.”
Government Exempted BP from Environmental Review
Video/interview published by Democracy Now!
May 7, 2010
JUAN GONZALEZ: Well now to the Gulf of Mexico where the enormous oil slick in the Gulf continues to expand. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has ordered a 3-week halt to all new offshore drilling permits. Emphasizing that the companies involved had made “major mistakes,” Salazar spoke to reporters Thursday outside BP’s Houston crisis center. He noted that lifting the moratorium on new permits will depend on the outcome of a federal investigation over the Gulf spill and the recommendations to be delivered to President Obama at the end of the month.
- SECRETARY KEN SALAZAR: Minerals Management Service will not be issuing any permits for the construction of new offshore wells. That process will be concluded here on May the 28th. At that point in time, we’ll make decisions about how we plan on moving forward. There is some very major mistakes that were made by companies that were involved. But today is not really the day to deal with those issues. Today and the days ahead really are about trying to get control of the problem.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Secretary Salazar added that the existing offshore oil and natural gas drilling will continue, even as public meetings to discuss new oil drilling off the Virginia coast have been canceled for this month.
AMY GOODMAN: Salazar’s announcement comes on the heel of a Washington Post exposé revealing that the Minerals Management Service had approved BP’s drilling plan in the Gulf of Mexico without any environmental review. The article notes that the agency under Secretary Salazar had quote “categorically excluded” BP’s drilling as well as hundreds of other offshore drilling permits from environmental review. The agency was able to do this using a loophole in the National Environmental Policy Act created for minimally intrusive actions like building outhouses and hiking trails. Well, for more on this story, we’re joined now from Tucson, Arizona by Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity. Welcome to DEMOCRACY NOW!, Kieran. Explain this loophole, how you found it, and what it means for the Gulf.
KIERAN SUCKLING: Well, when a federal government is going to approve a project, it has to go through an environmental review. But for projects that have very, very little impact like building an outhouse or a hiking trail, they can use something called a categorical exclusion and say there’s no impact here at all so we don’t need to spend energy or time doing a review. Well, we looked at the oil drilling permits being issued by the Minerals Management Service in the Gulf, and we were shocked to find out that they were approving hundreds of massive oil drilling permits using this categorical exclusion instead of doing a full environmental impact study. And then, we found out that BP’s drilling permit—the very one that exploded—was done under this loophole and so it was never reviewed by the federal government at all. It was just rubber-stamped. Read the rest of this entry »
This is one of the most timely and insightful articles I’ve read in a long time – the editorial from the new issue of Turbulence magazine. They discuss the economic crisis within the frame of the collapse of the neoliberal order that has been the standard-bearer of global capitalism for the last 30-35 years, resulting in a state of “limbo” where no “deal” exists tying the system together. Nevertheless, the system persists like a zombie, dead and discredited but carried forward by sheer momentum and the fact that nothing else has shown itself capable of replacing it. Our job then, is to hold up an alternative way of life (a new “common ground”) that values communities and the planet above narrow profit, and that job becomes easier by studying analysis like this. Thanks, Turbulence! [alex]
Life in Limbo?
We are trapped in a state of limbo, neither one thing nor the other. For more than two years, the world has been wracked by a series of interrelated crises, and they show no sign of being resolved anytime soon. The unshakable certainties of neoliberalism, which held us fast for so long, have collapsed. Yet we seem unable to move on. Anger and protest have erupted around different aspects of the crises, but no common or consistent reaction has seemed able to cohere. A general sense of frustration marks the attempts to break free from the morass of a failing world.
There is a crisis of belief in the future, leaving us with the prospect of an endless, deteriorating present that hangs around by sheer inertia. In spite of all this turmoil – this time of ‘crisis’ when it seems like everything could, and should, have changed – it paradoxically feels as though history has stopped. There is an unwillingness, or inability, to face up to the scale of the crisis. Individuals, companies and governments have hunkered down, hoping to ride out the storm until the old world re-emerges in a couple of years. Attempts to wish the ‘green shoots’ of recovery into existence mistake an epochal crisis for a cyclical one; they are little more than wide-eyed boosterism. Yes, astronomical sums of money have prevented the complete collapse of the financial system, but the bailouts have been used to prevent change, not initiate it. We are trapped in a state of limbo.
Crisis in the middle
And yet, something did happen. Recall those frightening yet heady days that began in late 2008, when everything happened so quickly, when the old dogmas fell like autumn leaves? They were real. Something happened there: the tried and tested ways of doings things, well-rehearsed after nearly 30 years of global neoliberalism, started to come unstuck. What had been taken as read no longer made sense. There was a shift in what we call the middle ground: the discourses and practices that define the centre of the political field.
To be sure, the middle ground is not all that there is, but it is what assigns the things in the world around it a greater or lesser degree of relevance, validity or marginality. It constitutes a relatively stable centre against which all else is measured. The farther from the centre an idea, project or practice is, the more likely it is to be ignored, publicly dismissed or disqualified, or in some way suppressed. The closer to it, the more it stands a chance of being incorporated – which in turn will shift the middle more or less. Neither are middle grounds defined ‘from above’, as in some conspiratorial nightmare. They emerge out of different ways of doing and being, thinking and speaking, becoming intertwined in such a way as to reinforce each other individually and as a whole. The more they have become unified ‘from below’ as a middle ground, the more this middle ground acquires the power of unifying ‘from above’. In this sense, the grounds of something like ‘neoliberalism’ were set before something was named as such; but the moment when it was named is a qualitative leap: the point at which relatively disconnected policies, theories and practices became identifiable as forming a whole.
The naming of things like Thatcherism in the UK, or Reaganism in the US, marked such a moment for something that had been constituting itself for some time before, and which has for the past three decades dominated the middle ground: neoliberalism, itself a response to the crisis of the previous middle, Fordism/Keynesianism. The era of the New Deal and its various international equivalents had seen the rise of a powerful working class that had grown used to the idea that its basic needs should be met by the welfare state, that real wages would rise, and that it was always entitled to more. Initially, the centrepiece of the neoliberal project was an attack on this ‘demanding’ working class and the state institutions wherein the old class compromise had been enshrined. Welfare provisions were rolled back, wages held steady or forced downwards, and precariousness increasingly became the general condition of work.
But this attack came at a price. The New Deal had integrated powerful workers’ movements – mass-based trade unions – into the middle ground, helping to stabilise a long period of capitalist growth. And it provided sufficiently high wages to ensure that all the stuff generated by a suddenly vastly more productive industrial system – based on Henry Ford’s assembly line and Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ – could be bought. Bit by bit, the ferocious attack on the working classes of the global North was offset by low interest rates (i.e. cheap credit) and access to cheap commodities, mass-produced in areas where wages were at their lowest (like China). In the global South, the prospect of one day attaining similar living conditions was promised as a possibility. In this sense, neoliberal globalisation was the globalisation of the American dream: get rich or die trying. Read the rest of this entry »