"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Worker Owned Business’

The Struggle To Save Our Planet Heats Up

In Uncategorized on April 25, 2013 at 1:46 pm

Adapting to Climate ChangeOldspeak: “To get to the root of the issue, it becomes necessary to analyze the whole economic system of production and exchange of goods and services—that is, capitalism. Only by doing this can we hope to formulate an effective strategy to combat climate change and thereby recognize that ecological and social justice are inseparably connected to each other, via an organized, grassroots and global challenge to the capitalist social order…

One doesn’t need to be an anti-capitalist to take part in this struggle, but one does need to recognize that unless the pendulum of social power swings back toward the working people in the U.S. and around the world, and that limits and regulations are placed on the activities of corporate power, we have no hope of saving our world. This struggle is not really about technology or which renewable energy models should be deployed or whether this or that politician or this corporation or that CEO is more or less evil than the other. It’s not about things or people at all—it’s about relationships. It’s about democracy, which is itself about social power, and the relationships it presumes.

The power of the oceans, the power of scientific rationality, the power of the tides and hurricane-force winds are self-evidently not enough to persuade capitalists to act. The only force strong enough to do that is the organized force of the people. We must take the place of gravity to pull the pendulum of contending class forces—wrenched rightward by 30 years of neoliberalism—back toward our side.” -Chris Williams.

YES! The root of the issue is capitalism. We have to stop nibbling around the edges. We have to recognize that capitalism in its current globalized and unrestrained form is fundamentally at odds with Democracy, human and natural rights. We have to have an honest critical discussion about global capital and how it’s destroying our planet. We must reassert our sacred commitment, as our ancestors did for millennia, to be custodians of our earth mother, not her rapists. We must recognize that infinite growth is impossible on a finite planet. The global capitalist enterprise is collapsing and blowing up all around us, one need only look to texas and Bangladesh and the explosion in unemployment and poverty, the collapse of ecosystems, to see what’s happening.  We cannot keep dumping wasteful trillions into failing, obsolete, toxic, fossil and nuclear fuel based infrastructure that is destroying and poisoning our planet. We have to fundamentally rethink how we organize our civilization and economy. The systems we have are not working.

By Chris Williams @ Z Magazine:

Capitalism stands as a death sentinel over planetary life. Recent reports from institutions, such as the World Bank, detail how, as a result of human activity, we are on track for a 4° Celsius increase in average global temperatures. Should this come to pass, the Earth would be hotter than at any time in the last 30 million years; an absolutely devastating prognosis that will wipe out countless species as ecosystems destabilize and climate becomes a vortex of erratic, wild weather events.

Despite this Americans, suffered through an election campaign in which climate change literally wasn’t mentioned—at least until the final weeks, when a hurricane forced the presidential candidates to acknowledge it.

Even as the World Bank published its report—with the conclusion that avoiding a 4° temperature increase was “vital for the health and welfare of communities around the world”—bank officials were nevertheless still handing out loans to construct more than two dozen coal-fired power plants to the tune of $5 billion.

In direct contrast to politicians and the media, fully 80 percent of Americans believe that climate change will be a serious problem for the United States unless the government does something about it—with 57 percent saying the government should do a “great deal” or “quite a bit.”

Even for the 1 in 3 Americans who say they are wary of science and distrust scientists, 61 percent now agree that temperatures have risen over the last 100 years. Commenting on the new poll, Stanford University social psychologist and pollster Jon Crosskick wrote, “They don’t believe what the scientists say, they believe what the thermometers say…. Events are helping these people see what scientists thought they had been seeing all along.”

This background of overwhelming public concern helped situate the national demonstration in Washington, DC on February 17, against the building of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from Canada to Texas. If built, the pipeline will carry 800,000 barrels a day of highly-polluting tar sands oil, effectively dealing a death blow to hopes of preventing rampant climate change. The demonstration added significance as activists attempted to draw a line in the sand and pose the first big litmus test for the second term of Barack Obama.

Given that an overwhelming majority of Americans, and even most people hostile to climate science, are in favor of action, why is it that the overwhelming majority of politicians—who presumably are subject to the same weather as the rest of us—can’t seem to see the need? Why aren’t our elected representatives proposing serious measures to prevent it from getting worse?

How one answers this question is not one of semantics. Rather, it is of decisive importance because it determines how one should fight and with whom one should forge alliances. Unfortunately, it is a question that Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org and a key organizer of the February 17 demonstration, has struggled with, but not conclusively resolved. His confusion is evidenced by the title of an article he wrote in January: “Our Protest Must Short-Circuit the Fossil Fuel Interests Blocking Barack Obama”—implying that Obama would do something if he could.

The momentum generated from this demonstration may serve as the launching pad for a sustained campaign that begins to stitch together the myriad forces fighting locally around the country, transforming previously isolated or single-issue initiatives and groups into a broad united front for climate justice that draws in other forces, such as unions.

This was the position of Big Green groups like the Sierra Club. Even as it pledged for the first time to take part in civil disobedience, its executive director, Michael Brune, declared that the new strategy was part of “a larger plan to support the president in realizing his vision and make sure his ambition meets the scale of the challenge.”

The first thing Obama and his new Secretary of State John Kerry could do is say no to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That would be inordinately easy, as Obama has the final say and doesn’t require Congress’ support to shut it down. After 53 senators from both parties signed a letter urging him to green-light the pipeline, Obama is running out of ways to further delay his decision.

In spite of the rhetoric of his inaugural address, the pivotal question remains: Is Barack Obama—or any Democratic leader, for that matter—really on our side? Is it just a question of persuading a reluctant friend, hamstrung by a right-wing, dysfunctional Congress and stymied by powerful corporate interests, to act by demonstrating outside his house to let him know we’re there for him? Or should we be surrounding his house, knowing full well that he won’t give in to our demands without a social movement that acts independently of his wishes and control.

To understand the reasons for Obama’s “lack of desire” to address climate change—a microcosm of the larger inability of global leaders and institutions to do likewise amid two decades of futile climate negotiations—it’s necessary to go beneath the surface appearance of things; to examine the structure and ideology of the system of capitalism.

Systemic Causes

When their financial system was threatened by the crisis that began in 2008, political leaders didn’t sit around for 20 years arguing that they had to wait until all the facts were in and attempting to reach consensus on a solution. No, in a heartbeat, they threw trillions of dollars at the banks.

But when a far larger crisis, one that threatens the basic stability of the planetary biosphere, unfurls as a result of the same policies of reckless growth, waste and warfare, they spend their time trashing scientists and ignoring the unraveling weather outside their windows. Therefore, to get to the root of the issue, it becomes necessary to analyze the whole economic system of production and exchange of goods and services—that is, capitalism. Only by doing this can we hope to formulate an effective strategy to combat climate change and thereby recognize that ecological and social justice are inseparably connected to each other, via an organized, grassroots and global challenge to the capitalist social order.

One doesn’t need to be an anti-capitalist to take part in this struggle, but one does need to recognize that unless the pendulum of social power swings back toward the working people in the U.S. and around the world, and that limits and regulations are placed on the activities of corporate power, we have no hope of saving our world. This struggle is not really about technology or which renewable energy models should be deployed or whether this or that politician or this corporation or that CEO is more or less evil than the other. It’s not about things or people at all—it’s about relationships. It’s about democracy, which is itself about social power, and the relationships it presumes.

The power of the oceans, the power of scientific rationality, the power of the tides and hurricane-force winds are self-evidently not enough to persuade capitalists to act. The only force strong enough to do that is the organized force of the people. We must take the place of gravity to pull the pendulum of contending class forces—wrenched rightward by 30 years of neoliberalism—back toward our side.

Ultimately, as a socialist, I would argue that we need to live in a world where there are no classes with diametrically opposed interests, in perpetual conflict over social and political power. Only in such a socially just and ecologically sustainable world will there be any long-term hope for humanity to live in peace with itself, other species, and the planet on which we depend. The stepping-stones of the revolutionary road are the acts of struggle needed to create it.

In contrast to his inaugural speech, Obama’s first press conference after re-election gave a more accurate insight into the priorities of his second term. Unlike four out of five Americans who want the government to do something to address climate change, Obama made it clear that this wouldn’t be a priority for his administration: “Understandably, I think the American people right now have been so focused and will continue to be focused on our economy and jobs and growth that, you know, if the message is somehow we’re going to ignore jobs and growth simply to address climate change, I don’t think anybody’s going to go for that. I won’t go for that.”

With two mentions of the need for “growth” in a single sentence, Obama faithfully echoed the declaration of the Earth Summit, Rio+20, held in June 2012, where the representatives of 190 countries, while dismally avoiding any commitment to new targets or limits on greenhouse gas emissions, did commit—16 times in all—to “sustained growth,” a phrase taken to be synonymous, rather than in fundamental conflict, with another term: “sustainability.”

The obligation to promote growth underlines why the root of the climate problem is systemic. If capitalism is not growing, it is in crisis. Growth must occur continuously and in all sectors. If the sector in question is highly profitable, it will grow even faster, regardless of any social considerations.

Like, for example, the fossil-fuel sector. Oil production, rather than declining, as is desperately needed to stop climate change, is predicted to increase from the current 93 million barrels per day to 110 million by 2020—with some of the biggest increases worldwide occurring in the U.S. The Holy Grail of all administrations since Richard Nixon —energy independence—is being made possible by the policies of the Obama administration, as the New York Times reported in a special feature: “National oil production, which declined steadily to 4.95 million barrels a day in 2008 from 9.6 million in 1970, has risen over the last four years to nearly 5.7 million barrels a day. The Energy Department projects that daily output could reach nearly 7 million barrels by 2020. Some experts think it could eventually hit 10 million barrels—which would put the United States in the same league as Saudi Arabia.”

As the climate blogger and former Clinton administration official Joseph Romm put it, Obama is “basically pushing a moderate Republican agenda. It’s just that there aren’t any moderate Republicans left, much as we don’t have any ‘below average temperature’ years any more.”

Again, if we examine the roots of the issue, we find that the pathetic response of an administration purporting to be concerned with environmental questions has much less to do with individual personnel than with the dynamics of capitalism.

In 1992, when George H.W. Bush flew to Rio for the first Earth Summit, all things seemed possible. The “evil empire”—as Ronald Reagan liked to call the tyrannical dictatorships of the USSR and Eastern Europe, which operated falsely in the name of socialism—had collapsed under the weight of its own economic, social, and ecological contradictions. Politicians in the West were euphoric. They had seen off what they perceived to be an existential threat to their system.

In today’s world of enforced austerity, it’s difficult to recapture the sense of optimism that pervaded Western ruling class circles in the early 1990s. The atmosphere of triumphalism was so great even Republican presidents like Bush could make promises about protecting the environment. A few years later, when the 1997 Kyoto Protocol was written, Western governments were still willing to pledge that they would do the heavy lifting with regard to reducing emissions, while developing countries would be free from such limits.

Hence, the seeming “lack of will” at Rio+20 last year can be much better explained by the onset of a huge structural crisis of capitalism, rather than the “lack of vision” of individual politicians.

Instead of optimism about acting on climate change, the real optimism these days among capitalists is about the profits they can make from the oil and gas bonanza. Oil giant and planet-wrecker par excellence BP is predicting that by 2030, the entire Western Hemisphere will be energy independent, due to the expansion of new techniques for oil and gas exploration, such as fracking in shale deposits and horizontal and deep-water drilling. Fossil fuels are expected to remain at 81 percent of the energy mix in an energy economy that will be 39 percent larger than today.

Naturally, oil executives such as Scott D. Sheffield, chief executive of Texas-based Pioneer Natural Resources—headquartered in an area of the world that received only two inches of rain for the whole of 2011 and spent most of the year with large parts of the state on fire—are nevertheless overjoyed: “To not be concerned with where our oil is going to come from is probably the biggest home run for the country in a hundred years… It sort of reminds me of the industrial revolution in coal, which allowed us to have some of the cheapest energy in the world and drove our economy in the late 1800s and 1900s.”

Depending on who you are, the outlook for natural gas is even rosier. The International Energy Agency recently released a report that asked in its title “Are We Entering a Golden Age of Gas?” The answer was a resounding “yes,” due to the North American shale gas boom and a “strong post-crisis recovery.”

The other side to this “golden age,” as the report makes clear, is that future economic expansion based on natural gas “alone will not put the world on a carbon emissions path consistent with an average global temperature rise of no more than 2° Celsius,” but on a “trajectory consistent with stabilizing the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere at around 650 parts per million CO2 equivalent, suggesting a long-term temperature rise of over 3.5°  Celsius.”

Insane Logic

In the insane capitalist “logic” of the 21st century, short-term profit-taking must be maximized at all costs. In a little-reported phenomenon, the energy companies have figured out that they can find oil in shale deposits previously considered marginal in the same way that they “frack” for natural gas. With the price of oil over $80 a barrel, it’s profitable to seek oil in this way, regardless of the environmental cost.

Hence, not only is there a natural gas boom in the U.S., but there’s also an enormous, though much less publicized, oil boom. In fact, the oil boom from previously untapped shale deposits is so large that its effects can be seen from space. The Bakken Field in North Dakota, all 15,000 square miles of it, is one of the largest contiguous oil fields in the world, with output doubling every 18 months. In Texas, production from the Eagle Field increased 30-fold between 2010 and 2012. The reason that the remote and sparsely populated Bakken Field rivals Chicago in light pollution, making it visible to orbiting satellites, is because the natural gas that comes up with the oil, rather than being collected and sold, is set on fire in a process called “flaring.” This senseless act of vandalism and waste is the result of the fact that companies are in a rush to make money from oil that they can’t be bothered to develop the infrastructure necessary to cope with associated natural gas.

As Stanford University academic Adam Brandt, who analyzes greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels, explains: “Companies are in a race with their competitors to develop the resource, which means there is little incentive to delay production to reduce flaring.” In Texas, the natural gas flared in 2012 could have provided electricity to 400,000 homes.

So while one set of capitalists is fracking for natural gas on the East Coast—thanks to political leaders like Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York, who appears to be ready to open up the state to fracking—in other parts of the country, a different set of capitalists is setting fire to the exact same gas because it’s a nuisance that slows down production of the different fossil fuel they’re after.

Nothing could exemplify the utter waste and anarchic insanity of capitalism than this fact. One of the government regulatory bodies supposedly in charge of overseeing the oil corporations, North Dakota’s Industrial Commission, gave their logic for refusing to take action against this senselessness: “If we restricted oil production to reduce flaring, we would reduce the cash flow from oil wells fivefold…. As well as cutting waste, we are mandated to increase production, which we would not be doing.”

As for the third and dirtiest arm of the triumvirate of fossil fuels, the world is predicted to be burning 1.2 billion tons more coal per year in 2017. Coal has actually declined in use in the U.S. due to companies switching electricity production to cheaper natural gas, which has reduced U.S. carbon emissions.

One might think this is a good thing. However, capitalism is a global system, so any coal not sold here finds a market overseas. The Chinese population is literally choking to death on grotesque amounts of air pollution in cities such as Beijing. And who’s to blame? The U.S. government says China is building too many coal plants, but increasing amounts of the coal in Asia is coming from mines in the U.S. According to a report in ClimateWire: “Although Chinese coal is largely sourced from domestic mines, EIA figures show that U.S. coal shipments to China have dramatically risen in recent years, punctuated by a 107 percent jump from 2011 to 2012. Chinese imports of U.S. coal surged from 4 million tons in 2011 to 8.3 million tons last year.”

This brings us to the international dimension—and the economic and military competition between countries that makes it impossible for effective international agreements on climate change and emissions reduction to be negotiated. If Barack Obama really wanted to do something about reducing energy consumption in America—and killing a lot fewer people around the world—he could start with a massive reduction in military spending. The U.S. military is the single biggest user of energy in the United States, with the Department of Defense responsible for 80 percent of government energy requirements. Just the cost of the war in Iraq would have paid, from now until 2030, for all the investment in renewable energies necessary to stay below 2° Celsius of warming.

These examples illustrate two things. First, we are in a do-or-die battle with the economic system because capitalism is in fundamental conflict with the biosphere. And second, only a committed alliance of social and ecological justice activists that is clear about the nature of the enemy and prepared to confront the political and economic architects of the crisis stands a hope of winning.

This is why fighting the XL pipeline is about much more than stopping a single pipeline or the first test of Obama’s second term. It’s about building a movement for social and ecological justice and making it clear that we are going to organize to prevent any more infrastructure being built that will drive us over the ecological cliff.

As energy analyst Chris Nelder has put it, we face a choice between keeping the old fossil-fuel based infrastructure that is burning up the planet, and adding to it at an annual cost of $1.6 trillion just to keep it running—or transitioning, at much lower economic, let alone environmental, cost, to a new energy paradigm. His figures and argument are worthy of a lengthy quote: “Instead of incremental spending on an effectively dead transportation regime, we should be thinking about one that can survive the challenges ahead, and deliver more economic benefits than costs. We should be setting an ambitious target, like replacing all commercial passenger air flights with high speed rail for trips under 1,000 miles, replacing 90 percent of our city street traffic with light rail, and moving all long-haul freight traffic to rail. Even if the cost of all that rail infrastructure were in the range of $3 trillion, it would be a fantastic investment.

“Against $6 trillion (minimum) in sunk costs and $1.6 trillion per year in maintenance, the $1.2 trillion per year, plus building the high speed rail network at a generous estimate of $1 trillion, looks very reasonable.

“Put another way: Would you rather spend another $32 trillion over the next 20 years just to maintain a outmoded, unscaleable, aged, unhealthy system, plus another $2.8 trillion in lost productivity due to delays and gridlock, only to wind up out of gas? Or would you rather spend $25 trillion to repair our infrastructure, transition transportation to rail, transition the power grid to renewables, upgrade the entire grid, and solve the carbon problem, to have free fuel forever.”

Of course, whether we travel that road or not—and whether we leave a world to our descendants as beautiful as the one we were born into—will depend on our own independent, organized self-activity to wrench control away from a ruling elite that is quite happy to continue making money from a system that must be overturned.

Chris Williams is an environmental activist, professor of physics and chemistry at Pace University, and the author of Ecology and Socialism.

Plutonomy & The Precariat: On The History Of The U.S. Economy In Decline

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2012 at 5:22 pm

Oldspeak:”We’re really regressing back to the dark ages. It’s not a joke.  And if that’s happening in the most powerful, richest country in history, then this catastrophe isn’t going to be averted — and in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter. Something has to be done about it very soon in a dedicated, sustained way.” -Dr. Noam Chomsky
Empires in decline follow the same general pattern. High debt, unsound economic policies, intransigent political corruption, perpetual war and increases in war funding to the detriment of all else , privatized military, environmental degradation, looting of resources from throughout the empire rather than producing  things, systems deplete their resource base beyond levels that are ultimately sustainable. All these conditions exist in the American Empire. Something has to be done about fundamentally changing these conditions before it’s too late.

By Tom Engelhardt & Noam Chomsky @ TomsDispatch:

By Tom Engelhardt:

If you had followed May Day protests in New York City in the mainstream media, you might hardly have noticed that they happened at all.  The stories were generally tucked away, minimalist, focused on a few arrests, and spoke of “hundreds” of protesters in the streets, or maybe, if a reporter was feeling especially generous, a vague “thousands.”  I did my own rough count on the largest of the Occupy protests that day. It left Union Square in the evening heading for the Wall Street area.  I walked through the march front to back, figuring a couple of thousand loosely packed protesters to a block, and came up with a conservative estimate of 15,000 people.  Maybe it wasn’t the biggest protest of all time, but sizeable enough given that Occupy, an organization without strong structures but once strongly located, had been (quite literally) pushed or even beaten out of its camps in Zuccotti Park and elsewhere across the country and toward oblivion.

It’s true that if you were checking out the Nation or Mother Jones, you would have gotten a more accurate sense of what was going on.  Still, didn’t the great protest movement of our American moment (on a planet still in upheaval) deserve better that day? And no matter what you read in the mainstream, here’s what you would have known nothing about: this country is increasingly an armed camp and those marchers, remarkably relaxed and peaceable, were heading out into a concentration of police that was staggering and should have been startling.

Cops on motor scooters patroled the edges of the march, which was hemmed in by the usual moveable metal barricades.  Police helicopters buzzed us at rooftop level.  The police managed to alter the actual path of the marchers partway along and the police turnout — I estimated up to 75 cops, three deep on some street corners doing nothing but collecting overtime — was little short of incomprehensible.

Though Occupy marchers used to chant, “Whose streets, our streets!” it was never so.  The streets belong to the police.  If this is the democracy and freedom to dissent that American officials constantly proclaim to the world as one of our core values, then pinch me.  If most of it is even legal, I’d be surprised.  But when it comes to legality, we’re past all that.  So any march on a sunny day is instantly imprisoned, and the protesters turned into a captive audience.  When young people break out of the barricades and the serried ranks of cops and head in unexpected directions, it has the unmistakable feel of a jailbreak.

The fact is that, in a country whose security forces are up-armored to the teeth from the Mexican border to Union Square, just behind any set of marchers, you can feel the unease of those in power, edging up to fear.  And no wonder.  We remain in a “recovery” that’s spinning on a dime.  Let the Eurozone falter and begin to fall, the Chinese housing bubble pop, or the Persian Gulf go up in flames, and hold onto your signs.  Like Bloomberg in the Big Apple, many mayors sent in their paramilitaries (with a helping hand from the Department of Homeland Security) to get rid of the “troublemakers.”  Only problem: their real problems run so much deeper and when the next “moment” comes, Occupy could look like a march in the park (which, in many inspirational ways, it largely was).  In the meantime, the streets increasingly belong to the weaponized.  Americans who protest blur into the “terrorists” who, since 9/11, have been the obsession of what passes for law enforcement.

If you want some sense of just what’s lurking under the surface of all the police drones and helicopters and tanks and even mini-drone submarines, what underpins our fragile, edgy moment, then check out this talk TomDispatch regular Noam Chomsky gave.  It’s excerpted from his new book Occupy, with special thanks to its publisher Zuccotti Park Press. Tom

By Noam Chomsky:

The Occupy movement has been an extremely exciting development. Unprecedented, in fact. There’s never been anything like it that I can think of.  If the bonds and associations it has established can be sustained through a long, dark period ahead — because victory won’t come quickly — it could prove a significant moment in American history.

The fact that the Occupy movement is unprecedented is quite appropriate. After all, it’s an unprecedented era and has been so since the 1970s, which marked a major turning point in American history. For centuries, since the country began, it had been a developing society, and not always in very pretty ways. That’s another story, but the general progress was toward wealth, industrialization, development, and hope. There was a pretty constant expectation that it was going to go on like this. That was true even in very dark times.

I’m just old enough to remember the Great Depression. After the first few years, by the mid-1930s — although the situation was objectively much harsher than it is today — nevertheless, the spirit was quite different. There was a sense that “we’re gonna get out of it,” even among unemployed people, including a lot of my relatives, a sense that “it will get better.”

There was militant labor union organizing going on, especially from the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations). It was getting to the point of sit-down strikes, which are frightening to the business world — you could see it in the business press at the time — because a sit-down strike is just a step before taking over the factory and running it yourself. The idea of worker takeovers is something which is, incidentally, very much on the agenda today, and we should keep it in mind. Also New Deal legislation was beginning to come in as a result of popular pressure. Despite the hard times, there was a sense that, somehow, “we’re gonna get out of it.”

It’s quite different now. For many people in the United States, there’s a pervasive sense of hopelessness, sometimes despair. I think it’s quite new in American history. And it has an objective basis.

On the Working Class

In the 1930s, unemployed working people could anticipate that their jobs would come back. If you’re a worker in manufacturing today — the current level of unemployment there is approximately like the Depression — and current tendencies persist, those jobs aren’t going to come back.

The change took place in the 1970s. There are a lot of reasons for it. One of the underlying factors, discussed mainly by economic historian Robert Brenner, was the falling rate of profit in manufacturing. There were other factors. It led to major changes in the economy — a reversal of several hundred years of progress towards industrialization and development that turned into a process of de-industrialization and de-development. Of course, manufacturing production continued overseas very profitably, but it’s no good for the work force.

Along with that came a significant shift of the economy from productive enterprise — producing things people need or could use — to financial manipulation. The financialization of the economy really took off at that time.

On Banks

Before the 1970s, banks were banks. They did what banks were supposed to do in a state capitalist economy: they took unused funds from your bank account, for example, and transferred them to some potentially useful purpose like helping a family buy a home or send a kid to college. That changed dramatically in the 1970s. Until then, there had been no financial crises since the Great Depression. The 1950s and 1960s had been a period of enormous growth, the highest in American history, maybe in economic history.

And it was egalitarian.  The lowest quintile did about as well as the highest quintile. Lots of people moved into reasonable lifestyles — what’s called the “middle class” here, the “working class” in other countries — but it was real.  And the 1960s accelerated it. The activism of those years, after a pretty dismal decade, really civilized the country in lots of ways that are permanent.

When the 1970s came along, there were sudden and sharp changes: de-industrialization, the off-shoring of production, and the shift to financial institutions, which grew enormously. I should say that, in the 1950s and 1960s, there was also the development of what several decades later became the high-tech economy: computers, the Internet, the IT Revolution developed substantially in the state sector.

The developments that took place during the 1970s set off a vicious cycle. It led to the concentration of wealth increasingly in the hands of the financial sector. This doesn’t benefit the economy — it probably harms it and society — but it did lead to a tremendous concentration of wealth.

On Politics and Money

Concentration of wealth yields concentration of political power. And concentration of political power gives rise to legislation that increases and accelerates the cycle. The legislation, essentially bipartisan, drives new fiscal policies and tax changes, as well as the rules of corporate governance and deregulation. Alongside this began a sharp rise in the costs of elections, which drove the political parties even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector.

The parties dissolved in many ways. It used to be that if a person in Congress hoped for a position such as a committee chair, he or she got it mainly through seniority and service. Within a couple of years, they started having to put money into the party coffers in order to get ahead, a topic studied mainly by Tom Ferguson. That just drove the whole system even deeper into the pockets of the corporate sector (increasingly the financial sector).

This cycle resulted in a tremendous concentration of wealth, mainly in the top tenth of one percent of the population. Meanwhile, it opened a period of stagnation or even decline for the majority of the population. People got by, but by artificial means such as longer working hours, high rates of borrowing and debt, and reliance on asset inflation like the recent housing bubble. Pretty soon those working hours were much higher in the United States than in other industrial countries like Japan and various places in Europe. So there was a period of stagnation and decline for the majority alongside a period of sharp concentration of wealth. The political system began to dissolve.

There has always been a gap between public policy and public will, but it just grew astronomically. You can see it right now, in fact.  Take a look at the big topic in Washington that everyone concentrates on: the deficit. For the public, correctly, the deficit is not regarded as much of an issue. And it isn’t really much of an issue. The issue is joblessness. There’s a deficit commission but no joblessness commission. As far as the deficit is concerned, the public has opinions. Take a look at the polls. The public overwhelmingly supports higher taxes on the wealthy, which have declined sharply in this period of stagnation and decline, and the preservation of limited social benefits.

The outcome of the deficit commission is probably going to be the opposite. The Occupy movements could provide a mass base for trying to avert what amounts to a dagger pointed at the heart of the country.

Plutonomy and the Precariat

For the general population, the 99% in the imagery of the Occupy movement, it’s been pretty harsh — and it could get worse. This could be a period of irreversible decline. For the 1% and even less — the .1% — it’s just fine. They are richer than ever, more powerful than ever, controlling the political system, disregarding the public. And if it can continue, as far as they’re concerned, sure, why not?

Take, for example, Citigroup. For decades, Citigroup has been one of the most corrupt of the major investment banking corporations, repeatedly bailed out by the taxpayer, starting in the early Reagan years and now once again. I won’t run through the corruption, but it’s pretty astonishing.

In 2005, Citigroup came out with a brochure for investors called “Plutonomy: Buying Luxury, Explaining Global Imbalances.” It urged investors to put money into a “plutonomy index.” The brochure says, “The World is dividing into two blocs — the Plutonomy and the rest.”

Plutonomy refers to the rich, those who buy luxury goods and so on, and that’s where the action is. They claimed that their plutonomy index was way outperforming the stock market. As for the rest, we set them adrift. We don’t really care about them. We don’t really need them. They have to be around to provide a powerful state, which will protect us and bail us out when we get into trouble, but other than that they essentially have no function. These days they’re sometimes called the “precariat” — people who live a precarious existence at the periphery of society. Only it’s not the periphery anymore. It’s becoming a very substantial part of society in the United States and indeed elsewhere. And this is considered a good thing.

So, for example, Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, at the time when he was still “Saint Alan” — hailed by the economics profession as one of the greatest economists of all time (this was before the crash for which he was substantially responsible) — was testifying to Congress in the Clinton years, and he explained the wonders of the great economy that he was supervising. He said a lot of its success was based substantially on what he called “growing worker insecurity.” If working people are insecure, if they’re part of the precariat, living precarious existences, they’re not going to make demands, they’re not going to try to get better wages, they won’t get improved benefits. We can kick ’em out, if we don’t need ’em. And that’s what’s called a “healthy” economy, technically speaking. And he was highly praised for this, greatly admired.

So the world is now indeed splitting into a plutonomy and a precariat — in the imagery of the Occupy movement, the 1% and the 99%. Not literal numbers, but the right picture. Now, the plutonomy is where the action is and it could continue like this.

If it does, the historic reversal that began in the 1970s could become irreversible. That’s where we’re heading. And the Occupy movement is the first real, major, popular reaction that could avert this. But it’s going to be necessary to face the fact that it’s a long, hard struggle. You don’t win victories tomorrow. You have to form the structures that will be sustained, that will go on through hard times and can win major victories. And there are a lot of things that can be done.

Toward Worker Takeover

I mentioned before that, in the 1930s, one of the most effective actions was the sit-down strike. And the reason is simple: that’s just a step before the takeover of an industry.

Through the 1970s, as the decline was setting in, there were some important events that took place.  In 1977, U.S. Steel decided to close one of its major facilities in Youngstown, Ohio. Instead of just walking away, the workforce and the community decided to get together and buy it from the company, hand it over to the work force, and turn it into a worker-run, worker-managed facility. They didn’t win. But with enough popular support, they could have won.  It’s a topic that Gar Alperovitz and Staughton Lynd, the lawyer for the workers and community, have discussed in detail.

It was a partial victory because, even though they lost, it set off other efforts. And now, throughout Ohio, and in other places, there’s a scattering of hundreds, maybe thousands, of sometimes not-so-small worker/community-owned industries that could become worker-managed. And that’s the basis for a real revolution. That’s how it takes place.

In one of the suburbs of Boston, about a year ago, something similar happened. A multinational decided to close down a profitable, functioning facility carrying out some high-tech manufacturing. Evidently, it just wasn’t profitable enough for them. The workforce and the union offered to buy it, take it over, and run it themselves. The multinational decided to close it down instead, probably for reasons of class-consciousness. I don’t think they want things like this to happen. If there had been enough popular support, if there had been something like the Occupy movement that could have gotten involved, they might have succeeded.

And there are other things going on like that. In fact, some of them are major. Not long ago, President Barack Obama took over the auto industry, which was basically owned by the public. And there were a number of things that could have been done. One was what was done: reconstitute it so that it could be handed back to the ownership, or very similar ownership, and continue on its traditional path.

The other possibility was to hand it over to the workforce — which owned it anyway — turn it into a worker-owned, worker-managed major industrial system that’s a big part of the economy, and have it produce things that people need. And there’s a lot that we need.

We all know or should know that the United States is extremely backward globally in high-speed transportation, and it’s very serious. It not only affects people’s lives, but the economy.  In that regard, here’s a personal story. I happened to be giving talks in France a couple of months ago and had to take a train from Avignon in southern France to Charles De Gaulle Airport in Paris, the same distance as from Washington, DC, to Boston. It took two hours.  I don’t know if you’ve ever taken the train from Washington to Boston, but it’s operating at about the same speed it was 60 years ago when my wife and I first took it. It’s a scandal.

It could be done here as it’s been done in Europe. They had the capacity to do it, the skilled work force. It would have taken a little popular support, but it could have made a major change in the economy.

Just to make it more surreal, while this option was being avoided, the Obama administration was sending its transportation secretary to Spain to get contracts for developing high-speed rail for the United States, which could have been done right in the rust belt, which is being closed down. There are no economic reasons why this can’t happen. These are class reasons, and reflect the lack of popular political mobilization. Things like this continue.

Climate Change and Nuclear Weapons

I’ve kept to domestic issues, but there are two dangerous developments in the international arena, which are a kind of shadow that hangs over everything we’ve discussed. There are, for the first time in human history, real threats to the decent survival of the species.

One has been hanging around since 1945. It’s kind of a miracle that we’ve escaped it. That’s the threat of nuclear war and nuclear weapons. Though it isn’t being much discussed, that threat is, in fact, being escalated by the policies of this administration and its allies. And something has to be done about that or we’re in real trouble.

The other, of course, is environmental catastrophe. Practically every country in the world is taking at least halting steps towards trying to do something about it. The United States is also taking steps, mainly to accelerate the threat.  It is the only major country that is not only not doing something constructive to protect the environment, it’s not even climbing on the train. In some ways, it’s pulling it backwards.

And this is connected to a huge propaganda system, proudly and openly declared by the business world, to try to convince people that climate change is just a liberal hoax. “Why pay attention to these scientists?”

We’re really regressing back to the dark ages. It’s not a joke.  And if that’s happening in the most powerful, richest country in history, then this catastrophe isn’t going to be averted — and in a generation or two, everything else we’re talking about won’t matter. Something has to be done about it very soon in a dedicated, sustained way.

It’s not going to be easy to proceed. There are going to be barriers, difficulties, hardships, failures.  It’s inevitable. But unless the spirit of the last year, here and elsewhere in the country and around the globe, continues to grow and becomes a major force in the social and political world, the chances for a decent future are not very high.

Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of Linguistics and Philosophy.  A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of numerous best-selling political works, most recently, Hopes and Prospects, Making the Future, and Occupy, published by Zuccotti Park Press, from which this speech, given last October, is excerpted and adapted. His web site is www.chomsky.info.

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