The Paradoxes within Capitalist Democracy Spelled Out by the Zen Economist Rob Urie |

American Fascism

From Whence ‘We’ Came

Fascism is a loaded topic for Americans. The term is usually put forward as oppositional, as the flip side of representative democracy, e.g. authoritarian. Left unaddressed is whose interests’ American representative democracy represents. Twenty years of research by political scientist Thomas Ferguson strongly supports the conclusion that it is monied interests (a/k/a the rich) that determines public policy. And while this isn’t the authoritarian leader alluded to with the charge of fascism, neither does it contrast with it in the sense implied.

In the American iconography, slavery and genocide against the indigenous population took place from the so-called founding forward under this system of representative democracy. Phrased differently, there is nothing intrinsic to representative democracy that precludes slavery and genocide. The social, economic and political repression and exploitation they represented had economic taking as their motive and they were systemic in structure— no single authoritarian leader, no Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, created them as social facts.

The way that slavery and genocide functioned as American institutions was through oppositional definitions of the polity and not-polity. The assignation of slaves as three-fifths a human being in the Constitution was to accrue political representation to slave owners, not partial representation to slaves. Any geographic definition of the polity would have included slaves and some proportion of the indigenous population. One can argue the details of ‘the progress of history,’ but from the founding to the present, with ‘restorative’ interregnums, American representative democracy has meant class rule.

The class relations of American political economy are antithetical to the notion of a unified public interest. The point isn’t to suggest that this or that authoritarian leader isn’t authoritarian, but rather to sketch in the political backdrop to argue that the lived experience of social, economic and political repression is lived experience, not academic theories or bourgeois fantasies. The circumstances of investment bankers stripping assets, industrialists relocating factories built by workers to low-wage locations and tech ‘pioneers’ using licenses and patents to extract economic rents is systemically ‘authoritarian’ in the sense that democratic consent to do so was neither sought nor given.

This Machine Hearts Fascists

Around the time that George W. Bush’s war against Iraq began to unravel I had a chance conversation with a person near the top of the Pentagon’s ‘psyops’ (Psychological Operations) program. This person, a self-described liberal Democrat, explained the logic of the program: if people could be psychologically coerced into acting according to U.S. interests, the military wouldn’t have to kill them. In this context, ‘U.S. interests’ were determined by Donald Rumsfeld acting on orders from Mr. Bush and Dick Cheney.

The psyops ‘mission’ was framed in humanitarian terms: to save the lives of people who would otherwise have to be killed. It wasn’t nature that was going to kill them— the U.S. military was. My acquaintance largely agreed that the pretexts for the war had been a fraud— that no weapons of mass destruction had been found, that the Iraqi political leadership had no ties to the Saudis who had brought down the twin towers and that ‘U.S. interests’ were functionally the whims of the Bush / Cheney administration. Shortly after the conversation I received word that the acquaintance had been transferred to domestic operations with another agency.

Students of legal theory will likely know the precedent for rule by whim— Nazi law. In a broad sense, Nazi law was whatever the Fuehrer said it was. If ‘U.S. interests’ are clearly defined and made known, then they can be adhered to or not, but in either case doing so is possible. But this legal structure binds those setting and enforcing it to the interests as defined and made known. Even if one accepts the idea of unified state interests— given context in a Marxist frame in Lenin’s The State and Revolution, they most certainly aren’t the whims, or self-interested mandate, of the political leadership in a democracy.

A central goal of the Bush / Cheney torture regime was to coerce people into admitting their participation in events that never took place— to provide cover for the administration’s lies, not to relate them to ‘U.S. interests.’ To facilitate this goal the Justice Department wrote memos that proceeded from the facts of torture to redefine it out of existence. In a narrow sense this ties to Richard Nixon’s assertion that anything he did was legal because he was the president. If staff can absolve the political leadership of legal culpability at will, they never had it to begin with.

What unites psyops, torture and the legal structure of U.S. governance in history is the bi-partisan move to consolidate power within the executive branch and in the U.S. presidency. Following from Mr. Nixon, Ronald Reagan ran a multi-faceted operation (‘Iran-Contra’) that included drug running and wars and arms deals specifically prohibited by Congress. In the frame of a unified polity, these were crimes. Mass incarceration— the rapid expansion of the carceral-state, was well underway at the time. The actual result was a few underlings were hung out to dry while the lead malefactors retired in luxury.

Had senior (George W.) Bush administration officials been prosecuted for their crimes, the illusion of a unified polity could in theory have been restored. The political argument against doing so, that prosecutions would have been politically divisive, might have been plausible if Mr. Obama had foregone the further consolidation of power by his own administration. Instead, he expanded the reach and realm of drone murders and illegal domestic spying. And he effectively ended habeas corpus to oversee a secret ‘kill list’ legally authorized under secret laws passed in secret and prosecuted using secret evidence without the possibility of appeal.

One theory posits that Mr. Obama’s decision to forego prosecution of Wall Street executives for crimes that led to the financial meltdown of 2008 and the Great Recession that followed was motivated by class-sympathy for the malefactors— they were his friends, acquaintances, campaign contributors and ‘class-mates.’ Left out of this theory is that since leaving office Mr. Obama has enriched himself giving speeches to those he failed to prosecute and that senior members of his cabinet returned to lucrative careers working for or otherwise representing the interests of Wall Street firms. This is participation in plunder, not sympathy.

Following Donald Trump’s electoral victory, Mr. Obama continued to promote the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) that included an ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) clause establishing a supra-national court that superseded domestic sovereign power. From the 1970s forward finance has been used to render American industry (built by workers) fungible to relocate it outside of the potential reach of worker control. Through the lens of American history, this was an explicit attempt to consolidate class power outside of the political construct of the nation-state. A key clause of the TPP made it functionally impossible to reverse.

Graph: Coincident with the rise of neoliberalism, the U.S. incarcerated the largest percentage of its population and the largest absolute number of human beings in world history. Richard Nixon conceived the ‘war on drugs’ as a political tool to crush political dissent by criminalizing the 1960s counterculture. Units are the number of incarcerated persons per 100,000 citizens. This means the incarceration rate increased approximately four-fold since 1973. Source:

Goebbels and Goebbels of Fun

Twentieth century European history is at best a tangential metaphor for modern American politics. Chattel slavery and genocide against the indigenous population better follow imperial history and the burgeoning capitalist theories of property and capital accumulation than the imperial wars of the twentieth century. Racial ‘science,’ eugenics, evolved from the slave trade to be founded in America and was later adopted by the Nazis. Following WWII Nazi scientists were brought to the U.S. and integrated into American industry to form the technocratic core of the post-war economy. And American Edward Bernays’ use of psychology to coerce political outcomes was adopted by Nazi Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels.

Slave patrols from the antebellum South— the guardians of chattel property, evolved into today’s professional police departments. Convict leasing that followed the Civil War was the racialized use of state power to coerce labor for ‘private’ employers. Jim Crow laws— racialized modes of police repression, served as the model for Nazi law through racial targeting and intentional ambiguity that gave discretionary power to local authorities. Nazi concentration-camp labor benefitted key German industrialists. What ties slavery to Jim Crow to modern prison labor is use of social power to extract economic wealth.

Militarization of the police began in Los Angeles in the late 1960s with the formation of the SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) unit to crush the Black Panthers. This constituted the para-military arm of a broad and sustained political assault on (legitimate and overwhelmingly legal) political dissent. This normalization of extreme police violence against citizens was moved forward by Richard Nixon’s ‘war on drugs,’ which was conceived as a political tactic to crush the burgeoning counterculture and more broadly, political dissent.

Mass incarceration–the creation of the largest and most intrusive carceral system in human history, followed from Mr. Nixon’s appropriation of the U.S. legal system for explicitly political ends. It would rival the more repressive political regimes in world history were it not larger in both relative and absolute terms and depend on the use of passive torture rather than more explicit forms. Given its class and race composition and targeted policing, the U.S. today is an apartheid state divided into class and race-determined ghettoes. Whether or not this is fascism likely depends on where in the social hierarchy you are sitting.

To circle back for a moment: slavery was and is primarily an economic institution designed to expropriate the product of slave labor. Genocide against the indigenous population was economic taking, the American colonial version of the European enclosure movement where commons were converted to ‘private’ property and the landless peasant population was made ‘free’ to starve. The European enclosure movement and the American genocide against the indigenous population demonstrate the social violence that is the basis of private property. Today the police target property crimes, serving to instantiate this violence in the social psyche.

Freedom Ain’t Free

A social taxonomy that supports the division of political power from economic power is necessary to pose capitalism and democracy as compatible. In the liberal frame, a government that determines when you wake and go to sleep, how you dress, which speech is acceptable, and which isn’t and what you will spend the overwhelming preponderance of your time and life’s energy doing, is totalitarian. In this same liberal frame, if your employer determines these, compliance is freely chosen. The social violence of ‘property’ is the initial condition from which this free choice proceeds.

This fantasy of freedom can be seen for what it is through the period that followed the Civil War. Nominally freed slaves were promised recompense under the understanding that freedom without property or means is hardly free. Given the distribution of political and economic power that preceded them— the land to farm was already owned, the land to hunt was already owned and doing so on another’s property was a crime, a super-exploitable class was created. This is how the so-called criminal classes of Europe and America were created through enclosure— make the means to live illegal, and the act of living is made a crime.

My acquaintance who oversaw psyops operations for the Pentagon, and does so today for a domestic agency, didn’t see the violence in the ultimatum: see the world our way or we will kill you. And in fact, it wasn’t framed in these operational terms. Psyops is hidden modes of psychological coercion based on a hidden agenda. Edward Bernays apparently saw little difference between using psychology to coerce a choice of products or to render legitimate the overthrow of democratically elected governments for the benefit of U.S. corporations. American consumer culture is itself the result of a century of propaganda intended to instantiate a capitalist theory of life.

Capitalism and democracy are both premised in ‘front of the brain’ (non-psychological) decision making. Neither ‘work’ as theorized in the presence of psychological depth. Edward Bernays was profoundly anti-democratic in that he believed that human beings are prone to making decisions based on emotions. The coercion that Mr. Bernays and Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels used was circular in the sense that it posited a view from outside of psychology—that of the propagandist, without explaining how this is possible.

The current bourgeois panic that this political personality or that is a threat to the continued existence of humanity should be flipped to ask: what crazy-assed, dysfunctional society would create the circumstances where anyone, either individually or collectively, can end the world? I understand why people don’t trust Donald Trump with the nuclear codes. But why should something so dangerous be entrusted to anyone rather than gotten rid of? Did I tell you about my friend who regaled me with stories of dropping acid (LSD) while guarding a nuclear missile silo?

Concern regarding ascendant fascism isn’t necessarily misguided— the question back is: where have you been for the last fifty years? As a teenager in suburban Atlanta in the early 1970s, Dixiecrat Lester Maddox was governor, mostly black work gangs in prison stripes lined the roads and the Ku Klux Klan in full regalia solicited contributions at traffic stops in the outlying towns. Heavily armed police regularly kicked in the front doors of counterculture houses looking for draft dodgers and drugs. They held guns to the heads of the inhabitants while they (illegally) searched houses and sent a junior cop for a search warrant when they found something.

Back in New York, moderate Republican Nelson Rockefeller passed the most onerous drug laws in the country and specifically targeted poor neighborhoods of color for enforcement. He then conspired with Richard Nixon to murder every living thing at Attica prison to quell a righteous rebellion and then conspired to prosecute the prisoners who weren’t murdered for the murder of the prison guards that he did murder. Three and a half million Vietnamese, Laotians and Cambodians were murdered, hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans, El Salvadorans and Hondurans were murdered, a million Iraqis were murdered, a hundred thousand Libyans were murdered.

None of this required a ‘strongman’ domestic political leader. The problems are systemic, not personality quirks. In contrast to liberal assurances to the contrary, slavery and genocide are actual historical outcomes of American representative democracy. But as history also has it, nothing like democracy has really been tried. Plutocracy and class rule are its antithesis. Ending these requires ending capitalism. In this sense, electoral politics are a distraction until economic is a reality.

Democratic Socialism and Political Power

Occasionally a phrase supports a wide range of political posturing while bearing little determinable relationship to actionable politics. ‘Income inequality’ is one of these phrases. Few using it are communists, a politics that recognizes concentrated economic power as both cause and effect in the skewed distribution of income and wealth. And the entire point of capitalism is the concentration of these that functions as (circular) proof of the social utility created by capitalists. As corollary to American democracy, the phrase ignores centuries of evidence that political power is determined by economic power.

Of current relevance is its place in the programs of Democratic Socialism, a rebranding of New Deal type social welfare programs that proponents (I am one) apparently intend to fit into existing American political economy. As one of ‘a multiplicity of tactics,’ the lives of the poorer 90% of the country could be vastly improved by Medicare for all, Federal government funded college educations and a job guarantee that pays a living wage and benefits. However, the improbability that Western capitalists, particularly American capitalists, will loosen their grip to facilitate functional versions of these programs was better understood in the late nineteenth century than it is today.

Missing from the inequality meme is any plausible explanation of the social mechanisms that have placed most wealth in a remarkably small number of pockets over the last four decades. The coincidence of this rising concentration with the ascendance of financial capitalism would seem to provide a clue. By rendering the product of labor fungible, finance facilitates its concentration. By itself, money produces nothing. It is a claim on real wealth. (Robots, a/k/a capital, are made by labor). Outside of the existence of labor’s product, money is worthless. The business of finance is the redistribution of social wealth, and with it, power.

Graph: The stock market is a proxy for the power that connected capitalists have over economic production. The greater the leverage over this production, the greater the concentration of power. Since 2007 global central banks have flooded finance with cheap leverage through low interest rates. With GDP as a (crude) measure of economic production, the ratio of stock prices to it is a measure of this leverage. The result: a continuation of the process of concentrating income and wealth in ever fewer hands. Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

In the absence of a critical politics, the atheoretical nature of ‘income inequality’ makes it emotive, an appeal to generalized feelings about social equity. The far-too-easy answer back is: so what? Oligarchy was the founding form of the American republic. The long march toward universal suffrage is so implausible a basis of social equity that the poorer half of eligible voters rarely do so. To point to what any with eyes can see, Wall Street has transmogrified a large portion of the accumulated product of labor into the possession of connected insiders in a single generation. The people who produce nothing but claims on wealth now own nearly everything.

Complicating this picture is the radical unsustainability of the capitalist project. It is hardly incidental that economic metrics like GDP (Gross Domestic Product) count the goods produced without deducting the harms that are indissociable from them. Looming environmental crises substantially diminish prospects for continued human existence. Should the worst come to pass, the whole of four centuries of capitalist production would be worth less than the total of all the goods and services ever produced by it. The flip side of the concentration of income and wealth is that the harms from capitalist production have been distributed equally.

Graph: Ronald Reagan led the revival of financial capitalism in the U.S. beginning in the early 1980s. Since then, the share of economic production that has gone into the pockets of the very rich has risen steadily in near exact proportion to what has been taken from the pockets of everyone else. Finance—the pirate capitalism of investment banking and engineered inflation in the value of assets owned by the very rich, were known a century and a half ago to be the predictable outcomes of financial capitalism. The quasi-money of stocks illustrates the growing claims of the rich on most economic production. Source L.A. Times,

Calls for progressive taxation leave the social mechanics of upward redistribution through finance substantially unaddressed. This is how (social) Democrats can argue against income inequality while rallying all available social resources to save the system that produces it. Within capitalist mythology, initial economic distribution is legitimate because it reflects the economic value that was created. Finance creates and redistributes claims on it. If subsequent redistribution is the goal, why not accomplish it more straightforwardly by ending upward redistribution in the first place? This would eliminate the right-wing claim of economic ‘taking’ through taxation.

The question of how to get from here to there politically, revolution versus reform, gets to the ultimate viability of American political economy. In terms of the public weal, the last forty or so years have been a slow grind toward oblivion for most people in the West. Granting earnestness of intent— whether deserved or not, capitalism since the Ronald Reagan – Margaret Thatcher revival has produced an abundance of consumer goods along with environmental catastrophe, unhinged, seemingly unstoppable militarism and widespread political disaffection. Suggestions that these are incidental to capitalism are countered by their facts in / as history.

Democratic Socialism and its soft-Left variants are reform movements whose proponents appear intent on working within the existing concentrations of political and economic power. Self-described socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Ortiz said as much when she recently promised to help get democrats elected. However, the point here isn’t electoral machinations— Ocasio-Cortez is young and deserves some breathing room. The problem is that these existing political and economic relationships are singularly responsible for the current political moment. Treating them as incidental to it is a fundamental misreading of history.

The income and wealth concentrations that are products of this epoch are put forward as inexplicable, the workings of mysterious forces that are beyond human understanding. In fact, the major historical outlines of the last forty years have precedence in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in Europe and the U.S. Financial capitalism was understood at the time— a century and a half ago, to be a later stage of industrial capitalism. The liberals of that era, even called ‘democrats,’ proposed social welfare programs as capitalists took everything that wasn’t nailed down and put it in their own pockets.

In the liberal social-logical frame of that period, none of what followed— recurrent economic recessions and depressions followed by violent revolutions and two ‘world’ wars, was necessary. Had governing forces only followed their (liberal, Democratic Socialist) social welfare prescriptions, political reconciliation would have prevailed, and violence been precluded. Left unmentioned is that the need for social welfare tied directly to the capitalist practice of using finance to put labor’s product in its own pockets. Their subsequent refusal to fund social welfare programs follows the logic of capitalism precisely.

Finance isn’t that mysterious. Banks are granted the sovereign’s right to create money through making loans. The premise was / is that bankers will finance socially useful enterprises. The conundrum for bankers is how to best put the money they create into their own pockets. The base strategy is to make loans to related entities that are never intended to be repaid. This leaves the institutions that made the loans on the hook while the proceeds are long gone by the time the loans default. This was done in the S&L debacle of the early 1990s using commercial real estate loans and in the housing boom and bust using residential mortgages.

In the present, an analog to the parsing of economic goods from harms finds corporate executives borrowing money to be repaid by the corporations they control in order to buy company stock that boosts the value of the stock options they have granted themselves. Company indebtedness is then used as leverage to squeeze labor— to cut pay and benefits. It is also used to legitimate the relocation of factories to low-wage countries and to argue that environmental regulations are reducing profits. To repeat, this was all well understood as capitalist looting a century and a half ago.

The term ‘Democratic Socialism’ proceeds from a dubious distinction between political and economic democracy. The myth it appeals to is that American democracy reflects the popular will in ways that more straightforwardly hierarchical political systems don’t. The paradox of capitalist democracy has always been the assertion of flat (equal) political representation in the presence of hierarchical economic distribution. Being white, propertied and male were the initial conditions for American suffrage. As late as 2016, functional suffrage was a proxy for economic class. Real democracy begins with economic democracy.

Part of the political conundrum Democratic Socialism is intended to resolve is that national Democrats have no ‘political’ program. This would seem bizarre were the roles of the political parties political in the sense usually put forward. An alternative explanation, the socialist critique, is that (social) Democrats exist to make class warfare launched from above politically palatable. Example 1: George H.W. Bush was unable to pass NAFTA. Doing so required the liberal bona fides of Bill Clinton. Example 2: Barack Obama had democratic support for his ‘Grand Bargain’ to cut Social Security and Medicare benefits. It was Republicans who balked because they wanted more.

The self-serving explanation for this moderating role is pragmatism. National Democrats position themselves as court pleaders, as the people’s representatives in the halls of power. The base frame is that it’s unlikely that much will be granted, that there are many interests at stake and that odds are stacked against the public interest. This from a party that has supported every military intervention of the last two centuries, that has prostrated itself before Wall Street while promising that no bailout is too great and which postures as guardian of the public interest while throwing grandmothers and children to the wolves (‘ending welfare as we know it’).

The liberal contention that Republicans are worse is true in the sense that they more straightforwardly represent the interests of rapacious capitalists. However, left to Republicans alone, this system would have run off the rails and remained there centuries ago. Bill Clinton was elected to repair and restore the carnage wreaked by twelve years of Reagan-Bush. Barack Obama was elected to repair and restore the carnage wreaked by eight years of George W. Bush. The Democrats do have a political program. It is to restore and repair American capitalism for the next round of carnage and looting.

Pragmatic and plain language schools of thought have long histories in the U.S. Technocracy— one of the foremost tendencies applied to American liberalism, is related to these as a non-ideological, evidence-based, mode of governance. However, as the evidence-based academic discipline of cultural anthropology has suggested since the time of Margaret Mead, there are no universal premises that stand outside of culture. Over the last forty years this evidentiary paradox has derailed the American Left in approximate proportion to the political power wielded by capital. A prime example has been serial disempowerment through accedence to the (social) Democrat’s repair and restore model.

Apparently unbeknownst to its practitioners, pragmatism is paradoxical in that there is no pragmatic way to define its realm. Even if your interests and those of the Koch Brothers are sometimes unified, they aren’t always. What is most certainly true is that the Koch Brothers’ ability to craft outcomes for their own benefit is greater than yours (and mine). In this case, is it pragmatic to take this asymmetry into account? Alternatively, would the Koch Brothers scuttle the deal if their asymmetrical power were left out of the pragmatic calculus? Accedence to asymmetrical power is the starting position of the ‘repair and restore’ model.

This appears to be the starting position of the Democratic Socialists. A problem: if the existing distribution of political and economic power is un-pragmatic in the sense of having produced the problems in need of resolution, then few, if any, calculations that proceed from it are likely to be pragmatic. For instance, Medicare For All wasn’t deemed politically pragmatic by the (social) Democrats in 2016 even though universal, state-sponsored healthcare would have been pragmatic for a majority of citizens. This was a clear-cut case of managing the polity for the benefit of existing power.

In other words, the problem— the asymmetric distribution of power, was hidden behind the political problem of what is and isn’t politically pragmatic. Within the terms of democratic representation, the polity clearly outnumbered those whose commercial interests were tied to maintaining the status quo. What was meant by political pragmatism was that the balance of economic power was against the public interest. Under theories of representative democracy, why would this be relevant? Why is it in any way intuitive that commercial interests are able to override the public interest? Yet this is what was meant by ‘pragmatism.’

The folly of this conflation could be seen when young Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was unable to answer the question of where the money needed to implement a program of increased social spending might come from. The graph of relative income shares since 1980 provided above and a photograph of a guillotine are good starting points for this ‘conversation.’ But were the Democrats tactically wrong with their deference to commercial interests in 2016? Otherwise, where is the political program that might challenge that deference? They don’t have one because their role is to repair and restore, not to enact a political program.

More ‘pragmatically,’ the U.S. already has the most expensive healthcare system in the developed world with close to the worst health outcomes. How do ‘we’ pay for Medicare For All? ‘We’ already do— it is known as the most expensive healthcare system in the developed world with close to the worst health outcomes, only it isn’t for all. And the outcomes are terrible because it is capitalist, not because it isn’t capitalist enough. The point here isn’t to answer these questions for the young Democratic Socialists. The point is that these programs don’t exist because those holding existing power doesn’t want them to exist.

How much pushback would there be if these powers, let’s call them a ruling class, did want them to exist? Let’s see, gratuitous and ruinous wars that cost trillions? Check. Bailouts for the looting class that cost trillions? Check. The largest military in the history of the world with nary a defensive war to be fought that costs trillions? Check. Prisons to incarcerate the largest number and proportion of citizens in the history of the world that cost trillions? Check. Developed infrastructure and incentives for the rich to avoid paying taxes? Check. Important aside: taxes do not fund government expenditures. Computer keystrokes do.

Within the existing distribution of power, the most likely fate of the Democratic Socialists can be found in the myriad soft-Left movements that preceded the recent ascendance of right-wing nationalism. The same major thinkers who engineered the Democrat’s ‘pied piper’ strategy in 2016 are busy engineering economic austerity to assure that the Democratic Socialists die quick, painful, political deaths. Through the ‘multiplicity of tactics,’ I support the Democratic Socialists where there aren’t Green Party candidates to vote for. But with history as a guide, the way to get political power is to seize it, not to beg for handouts.

Nuclear Weapons are a Nightmare Made in America

What transforms American elections from participatory politics into farce is the exclusion of crucial issues. Environmental crisis, the threat of nuclear annihilation and the wildly skewed distribution of political and economic power will affect how people live in coming years, regardless of how effectively they are excluded from electoral consideration.

Each of these are historical accumulations— they exist in different time-space than the binary oppositions of political marketing. Environmental crisis has been accumulating since the dawn of the industrial revolution. The threat of nuclear annihilation emerged from WWII as the lunatic id of technological innovation. Class relations have determined the realm of official power since the birth of capitalism.

This history grants presence to each, regardless of how hidden they are in any given political moment. If a bomb is dropped on a city in the forest, it destroys the lives of those it is dropped on regardless of whether you and I hear it. The subtexts of modernity are automatically written to preclude reflection.

Recently, U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would unilaterally end the INF (Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) treaty with Russia. The calculated irrelevance of American electoral politics to the side, this didn’t happen in an historical vacuum. It ties back to Bill Clinton’s unilateral placement of NATO troops on Russia’s border following George H.W. Bush’s promise not to do so.

Graph: On top of the $700 billion Pentagon budget for 2018, U.S. weapons sales abroad are big business. Among the top recipients of American weapons are Saudi Arabia, China, Japan and South Korea. The Saudis are currently funding a dirty war in Yemen that puts the lives of millions of human beings at risk. Sources: tradingeconomics.comSIPRI.

During the dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, senior members of the George H.W. Bush administration promised to keep NATO troops and equipment away from the Russian border in exchange for Russian agreement that the reintegrated East and West Germany would fall within NATO’s sphere.

After (Bill) Clinton unilaterally abandoned the promise, Russia began rebuilding its short and intermediate range nuclear arsenal to counter the NATO threat being amassed on its borders. This was followed by an American sponsored coup in Ukraine that threatened the annexation of the Russian naval port at Sevastopol, Crimea.

In response, Barack Obama proposed a trillion dollar ‘modernization’ program that shifted emphasis toward battlefield nuclear weapons of the type NATO might use against Russia in a ‘conventional’ war. Largely hidden is that this emphasis on ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons is taking place with the American Cold War weapons and plans for total nuclear annihilation still in place.

In a series of interviews with Paul Jay of The Real News, Daniel Ellsberg outlines the development of nuclear weapons from Adolf Hitler’s moral qualms about their potential for total annihilation of all life on the planet to America’s warm embrace of them as a cost-effective tool for fighting foreign wars.

Best known for leaking insider documents on the Vietnam War through the Pentagon Papers, Mr. Ellsberg worked for the Rand Corporation during the development and testing of U.S. nuclear weapons and wrote some of the key documents regarding nuclear planning. His insiders’ account adds crucial details about the military (il)logic of the American nuclear weapons program.

The U.S. program to build nuclear weapons, long explained to counter the Nazi nuclear program, was brought to its initial stage of completion after the Germans had surrendered in WWII. Following the German surrender, the Americans hindered Japanese efforts to do so until the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be annihilated to demonstrate the ferocity of the American weapon.

As per Mr. Ellsberg, by the late 1950s the U.S. military had a plan to launch a first-strike nuclear war against Russia that would encompass most of the known world and would ultimately kill, by the military’s own estimates, 600,000,000 human beings. ‘Only’ 100 – 200 million of these human beings would be Russian civilians. The rest would be collateral damage. As Ellsberg put it: the equivalent of ‘one hundred holocausts.’

The motives were twofold. In the first, U.S. President Harry Truman had feared that a land war against Russia would bankrupt the U.S. Nuclear weapons were considered an economically efficient way to ‘win’ such a war. In the second, the number of civilian casualties was functionally irrelevant to the American plan. If more Americans survived than Russians— no matter how few that might be, the plan would be considered a military success.

Erased from the American consciousness of the present is that the senior U.S. military leadership that fought WWII had few moral qualms about inflicting massive civilian casualties. U.S. General Curtis LeMay, who led the bombing of Tokyo with incendiary devices that burned 100,000 Japanese civilians alive, spent much of his time as the head of SAC (Strategic Airforce Command) trying to launch a nuclear first-strike against Russia.

General Lemay subsequently led the incendiary bombing of North Korea that killed twenty-percent of the civilian population and reduced the country to rubble. Three million Koreans were killed. Later, three and one-half million Vietnamese— overwhelmingly civilians, were killed in the Vietnam War. In that war, U.S. forces bombed Laotian and Cambodian villages gratuitously, to clear out their payloads when returning from bombing runs.

It was a known possibility (and here) when the U.S. exploded the first hydrogen bomb that the fission-fusion process might not be contained and that all life on the planet could be instantaneously annihilated. This fear was in part why, according to Mr. Ellsberg, Adolf Hitler abandoned the German effort to build such a bomb. Tellingly, the Americans moved forward with the test despite the risks.

By the 1930s, the economic rationale behind U.S. military interventions had been laid bare by Smedley Butler in his ‘War is a Racket’ speeches. General Butler described his role in imperial adventures as a ‘gangster for capitalism.’ Butler is the human and military link between the American imperialism of ‘manifest destiny’ and modern military production as a business.

WWII ended the Great Depression. Military production, military Keynesianism in the parlance of economists, brought government spending to the levels needed to reduce unemployment and boost incomes. There are near infinite less destructive ways to put people to work than war. But geopolitical struggles unite people along national lines. As Butler might have put it, ‘nationalism is a racket.’

Later in the interviews, Mr. Ellsberg explains the business logic of weapons production. The end of WWII created the fear of a return to the Great Depression if government spending levels were reduced. Continued military production was ‘pragmatic’ in the sense that the factories, supply chains and workers were already in place. Additionally, (America’s voluntary entry into) two World Wars had instantiated a war logic into the public psyche. Enter the Cold War.

Likely not widely considered in the present is that this same static economic logic applies to looming environmental crises. Since the mid-nineteenth century the U.S. economy has been organized around dirty capitalist production. This includes the U.S. military, which is the largest single user of fossil fuels. Nuclear weapons are ‘attractive’ to those to whom they are attractive because they can kill a whole lot of people for not very much money.

As with other relations of production in history, post-war U.S. military production produced an internal logic to sustain it. The military personnel who developed and presented the plan to ‘rationally’ murder 600,000,000 human beings fit Hannah Arendt’s ‘banality of evil’ characterization quite well. The logic of annihilation fit nicely into Rand Corporation spreadsheets and presentations.

According to Ellsberg, the American plan for nuclear annihilation was presented to John F. Kennedy when he was President. Evidence elsewhere suggests that Mr. Kennedy came close to implementing it twice during his shortened time in office— once during the ‘Berlin crisis’ of 1961 and also during the Cuban Missile Crisis. American historical accounts of the latter have until recently been near complete fantasy.

Kennedy initiated the Cuban Missile Crisis when the Soviets delivered nuclear missiles to Cuba in response to the CIA’s invasion of the Bay of Pigs and the U.S. deployment of nuclear missiles to Italy and Turkey. The ‘crisis’ was an American provocation followed by domestic political concerns that balanced nuclear annihilation against a politics that conflated an unwillingness to end the world with weakness.

The nuclear missiles placed by the U.S. in Italy and Turkey were arguably and logically first-strike weapons. By the time of the crisis, the senior U.S. military leadership had unilaterally developed nuclear weapons, used them to slaughter civilian populations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki for demonstration purposes, tested the first hydrogen bomb without apparent regard for continued life on the planet and had spent two decades actively planning a nuclear first strike against Russia that would kill, by its own estimates, 600,000,000 human beings.

Astonishingly, or not, Kennedy appeared to have been unaware that he had approved the deployment of first-strike nuclear weapons to Italy and Turkey when the missile crisis began. The U.S. had vastly more nuclear capacity than the Soviets. And Kennedy had already been presented with the U.S. plan to launch a nuclear first strike against Russia that included annihilating the civilian population of China to save the trouble of doing so later.

Two decades later, in the early 1980s, modeling of the likely impact of large-scale nuclear war introduced the concept of nuclear winter. (I recall hearing the thesis in the 1975). Nuclear winter would arise as nuclear explosions sent dirt into the upper atmosphere that blocked solar warming of the earth. Subsequent research in the mid-2000s suggested that nuclear winter would be a likely result of limited nuclear exchanges.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s provided a unique opportunity to put this nuclear madness in the past. The rapidity with which it dissolved demonstrated the fragility of complex political organization. The broad distribution of the Soviet nuclear arsenal left the Russians with the logistical nightmare of trying to control weapons systems while no longer controlling the political geography in which they were located.

The political language in the U.S. at the time was of a peace dividend where the military industrial complex that had existed since WWII could be reduced and the social resources that had gone into military production could be reallocated to more constructive uses. The (finance-led) recession of the early 1990s provided the opening for military careerists and military-related industries to argue that ‘the economy’ couldn’t afford a shrunken military.

This also marked the inception of the contemporary thesis that nuclear war is no longer a risk. The INF Treaty that Donald Trump is ending reduced the arsenal of short and intermediate range nuclear weapons by about 2,600 missiles. The rationale for eliminating them was that battlefield use in conventional warfare risked escalation to all-out nuclear war. This is what makes Bill Clinton’s movement of NATO forces to Russia’s border in the early 1990s so profoundly short-sighted.

Unfortunately, the INF Treaty did little to eliminate the capacity, and with it the threat, for nuclear annihilation. Enough submarine and land-based missiles were left in place to destroy most life on the planet 15 – 30 times over. Why this capacity ever reached even 1X is a testament to the logic of military production. The Pentagon is both directly and indirectly one of the largest employers in the U.S. Debate over the efficacy of military Keynesianism centers on the economic multiplier effect, not the question of whether what is being produced should be produced?

While Donald Trump didn’t create these circumstances, he is living evidence of why nuclear weapons are a profoundly bad idea. But the same is true of the American political and military leadership since nuclear weapons were first created. Harry Truman thought it worth killing 200,000 civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki to ‘send a message’ to Russia that the U.S. has nuclear weapons. The American first strike plan against Russia, as reported by Daniel Ellsberg, included slaughtering the civilian population of China almost as an afterthought.

Complacency, that because nuclear annihilation hasn’t happened yet, it won’t happen, is misplaced. Thanks to events dating back to the 1990s, both the U.S. and Russia are currently rebuilding nuclear arsenals. Going further back, the number of accidents with nuclear launch systems, nuclear weapons and nuclear materials is not encouraging. Would the annihilation of most life on the planet with nuclear weapons be more, or less, horrifying because it was accidental?

Given how (1) quickly, and (2) unexpectedly, the Soviet Union dissolved in the early 1990s, why is there confidence that something like that couldn’t happen to the U.S.? What would happen to the American nuclear arsenal in such an event? Whatever contingencies might be in place necessarily depend on a complex set of assumptions that might not hold. As with the factors driving environmental crisis, these systems need to be ended. The future of the world depends on doing so.

Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution

The Americanism that people will never voluntarily give up the consumption that is killing the planet represents the triumph of a long con. The problem that consumed (apologies) economists in the early twentieth century was how to get people to want the stuff that capitalism produces. Past the point of meeting basic needs, people really didn’t want consumer goods. Early on, capitalism was a method of economic production in search of a constituency.

In the present, this most likely reads as being wildly counterintuitive. China and other recent entrants into mass consumer culture prove the universal character of the desire to consume, goes the argument. But the Chinese development of a consumer culture has been driven by top-down economic policies, not ‘demand’ from below. As a strategy for maintaining political control, it is easier to satiate manufactured wants than to cede power to truly democratic inclinations.

In 1958 economist and advisor to presidents John Kenneth Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society as an explanation of post-War political economy in the U.S. Prominent in his theory of ‘dependence’ are corporations that use commercial propaganda (advertising) to create demand for the products they produce. Mr. Galbraith, a committed capitalist, understood that Western consumption is a function of what is produced, not ‘consumer demand.’

Graph: Growth of inflation-adjusted average incomes in the U.S. has been wildly tilted in favor of the rich. The time-frame illustrated covers the growth of consumer culture from its approximate inception to the present. Making this lopsided economic distribution politically palatable is the role of commercial propaganda. Source: Emmanuel Saez.

Take a moment to think about this: capitalism doesn’t satisfy self-determined wants, it creates them. Advertising is part of the production process— it produces consumer ‘demand.’ The political argument is that people want capitalism. But this is circular logic. If people wanted consumer goods, corporations wouldn’t spend trillions of dollars to convince ‘consumers’ to buy them. History supports this interpretation: before commercial propaganda, there was no consumer culture. It was created using commercial propaganda.

This theory of dependence has important implications. First, deference to what people want and are willing to do with respect to unfolding environmental crises is a con. There is nothing natural about trained acquisitiveness. Second, commercial propaganda is political in the sense that it is used to create the social conditions that capitalists pretend to be responding to. Creating consumer culture and then insisting that coerced consumers and corporations are ‘partners’ in resolving its adverse consequences is a fraud.

Think about this: assurances are that ‘smart’ growth and green technologies will minimize interruption to economic relations that few ‘consumers,’ a/k/a citizens and human beings, asked for. This, in the face of potentially world-ending environmental crises that should motivate radical reconsideration of ‘our’ relationship with said world. A natural test would be to end advertising and see how long this manufactured center holds.

With income and wealth distribution serving as proxies for who benefits from this system of demand creation, ‘consumer culture’ is an instantiated ethos that primarily serves the rich. The paradox for ‘consumers’ is that, past the point of meeting basic needs, the benefit derived from consuming is externally determined. Consumers are the primary product of capitalism. It is capitalism that needs consumers, not consumers who need capitalism.

Given (1) how capitalist production is causally linked to wide-ranging environmental crises and (2) how broadly news of these crises is being disseminated, one might imagine that every possible effort is being made to end the manufacture of consumer culture. To Mr. Galbraith’s point: before resources were put into creating consumer ‘demand,’ people really didn’t want the stuff that capitalism creates. So why keep creating demand when it is killing the planet?

This history is relevant to the ‘Green New Deal’ being put forward by newly-elected Democrats in the House. By tying a broad environmental mandate to an institutional rationale for the Federal government to fund and manage the project, the Green New Deal is the last, best hope for environmental resolution within the frame of the American nation-state. Missing from it is the revolutionary impetus needed to keep opposing forces at bay.

Soon after Galbraith wrote The Affluent Society the world he described in it began to unravel.  The managed capitalism he heralded as liberal rejoinder to Marxism fell prey to radical capitalists who had long been looking for an opportune moment to jettison New Deal reforms. As tempting as it is to blame politicians for the capitalist renaissance that followed, they are but errand-persons for a well-seated oligarchy. If you want to kill capitalism, put capitalists in charge.

With respect to the Green New Deal, the question is how to get around this oligarchy? Taxing it, outlawing commercial propaganda, and making it criminally liable for the adverse consequences of its rule would require having already unseated it. This is the paradox of accumulated power. The more secure the oligarchy is in its hold on power, the more dangerous it is for the rest of us. Unfortunately, the opposite is also true: the more threatened it is, the more dangerous it is for the rest of us.

The Green New Deal is worth supporting because again, it is the last, best hope for environmental and social resolution outside of rapid dissolution toward dystopian hell. However, the earnestness of its youthful proponents is outmatched by the aggressive dead-weight of the American political establishment that will surely counter it. Corporations and the rich spent the last four decades crafting the world in their image, and now they have it.

Here is Barack Obama just last week (10/27/2018) explaining how he turned the U.S. into the largest oil producer in the world. Here is Nancy Pelosi explaining how she intends to use procedural moves to preclude any new spending of the type that a Green New Deal would require. Without massive spending to both maintain basic economic stability and buy-off the oligarchy that feeds from environmental destruction, the oligarchy will nix the Green New Deal.

A question in need of asking is why the political leadership in the U.S. maintains the inconvenient fiction of a Federal budget constraint except when gratuitous wars or bailouts for the rich are ‘needed.’ The answer: control of the purse is control of the politics. National politicians have long claimed support for programs while working behind the scenes to assure that they never come to fruition.

Ultimately, political momentum may carry the day, but not in circumstances likely to be viewed constructively. Put differently, what would social circumstances look like were Green New Deal proponents to have the power to see the program through? The entire political establishment and the corporate and capitalist classes would have to be disempowered. You don’t get from here to there by proposing bills on the House floor.

Climate change and mass extinction arguably have different proximate causes. Industrial greenhouse gas emissions cause a greenhouse effect in the atmosphere, thereby warming the planet. Mass extinction is a domino effect of population loss in interrelated ecosystems. However, mass extinction has basis in the practices of industrial agriculture, as does climate change. In fact, most environmental degradation can be tied to industrialization.

Siloed analyses produce siloed results. Because environmental problems are broadly categorical, science politicizes analysis in the sense of defining problems in reductive categories. Likewise, the contention that isolation and reduction resolve them assumes that proposed solutions are linearly additive outside of any evidence that this is the case. In fact, this premise of modular structure— that the world is the sum of separate and distinct pieces, is what ties science and technology to the environmental crises now unfolding.

Tobacco litigation is instructive here. As early as the 1930s cigarettes were known as ‘coffin nails’ for their tendency to kill people who smoked. The causal link required to make tobacco companies legally liable for the deaths caused by their products wasn’t established until the late 1990s. Following the (civil) settlement, tobacco companies marketed their products to 10-year-olds in Malaysia and China. Science— proving a causal link between smoking and cancer, won the battle but it barely impacted the war.

U.S. president Donald Trump recently clarified the position of his class regarding climate change. He believes it is real, but that its causes and consequences remain a mystery. This was the tobacco industry’s response to the relation of smoking to lung cancer for six decades. Sure, more smokers get lung cancer than non-smokers, but that doesn’t prove a causal link. Missing from the dueling scientists theory of resolving environmental crises is that litigation is about wealth and power, not ‘truth’ in its scientific sense.

One might think that the term ‘sixth mass extinction’ would garner attention. What clever parsing places climate change and oceanic dead zones on some other plane of comprehension? Mass extinction points to the reckless introduction of GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) feed-crops that are indissociable from the late-cycle use of toxic herbicides and pesticides. How great is the leap from toxic pesticides to insect extinction?

Two recent reports have insect populations in areas as far flung as GermanyPuerto Rico and Mexico declining 65% – 80% over the last thirty years. Insects are a crucial link in the global food chain and they are essential for pollinating crops. The animals that feed on insects are in similar decline. In addition to these facts as they exist, the risk is of a complete collapse of the global food chain if mass extinction isn’t resolved.

As urgent as the recent IPCC and National Climate Assessment reports are, their narrow focus on climate change suggests that narrow resolution, as socially and logistically taxing as it might be, is too limited in scope. Assurances that renewable energy will cut greenhouse gas emissions ignores that manufacturing and disposal of these technologies is dirty and toxic. Additionally, it assumes that energy usage isn’t entropic in some greater environmental sense.

The argument over ‘smart’ or ‘green’ growth versus degrowth depends on how the realm of concern is defined. ‘Green growth’ always proceeds from limited definitions of the problem. If keeping global warming under 2 degrees Celsius is the criteria for success, then the sixth mass extinction, oceanic dead zones, catastrophically depleted fisheries, a growing vortex of garbage in the Pacific Ocean and toxic water and air will also define this success.

Again, the term ‘sixth mass extinction’ deserves a moment of reflection. There are plausible causal links between industrial agriculture, including deforestation and habitat loss, and the current mass extinction. The main causal link is between barely tested GMOs and fraudulently tested pesticides and herbicides. The science around these is contested because the corporations that manufacture them have the power to make it contested.

The value of the Green New Deal is that it takes one side of this power imbalance into account— most people. The side left out— the entrenched oligarchy that owes it fortune to gratuitous wars, impoverishment and the destruction of the environment, has the power to kill or corrupt the program into oblivion. Nancy Pelosi’s restatement of ‘paygo’ demonstrates clear understanding of where the Green New Deal is headed and how to kill it.

Environmental crises are systemic— they are linked by the sad and contorted relationship with the world that defines capitalism. Reforming capitalism isn’t going to change the nature of this relationship. Degrowth is the utter abandonment of capitalism. Other people can define it differently. It offers the possibility of creating a different relationship with this world. Either way, it seems that Mother Earth is going to force the issue. I vote that we get creative.

Ecocide as Creative Destruction

According to the WWF (World Wildlife Fund), since 1970 60% of the mammals, birds, fish and reptiles on the planet have been driven to extinction. To the extent that the WWF has it right, climate change accounts for less than 10% of these losses (graph below). As important and logistically complex as resolving climate change is, it is but one of a host of environmental ills in equal or greater need of resolution.

Habitat degradation and loss and animal exploitation (e.g. trawl-net fishing) explain most of this animal extinction. Habitat loss is primarily due to deforestation to feed factory farm animalsAccording to the Guardian, these animal losses would require 5 – 7 million years to recover from. But as of today, the causes of extinction continue unabated with no plausible plans being put forward by national governments to address it.

Graph: Of the mass extinction of animals that the WWF is reporting, most comes from habitat loss and degradation. Climate change explains less than 10% of the losses. The point isn’t to downplay climate change, but to express the breadth of the environmental crisis that the world now faces. While the role of global warming will increase in time, mass extinction is at present a related but separate crisis in need of resolution. Source:

As reported here and here, the animal extinction isn’t anomalous. Over approximately the same time frame, 60% – 80% of insects have also been made extinct. The precise balance of causes is debatable, but putting climate change forward as the primary cause reframes the concept of a ‘carbon budget’ in wildly alarming terms. If the one-degree Celsius warming experienced to date explains the insect extinction, where does that leave the IPCC’s1.5 degree warming ‘budget?’

Most of the relation of climate change to mass extinction is based on an analogy. The ‘Great Dying’ extinction of 250 million years ago resulted from global warming caused by volcanic emissions of greenhouse gases. It mainly affected marine life through oxygen depletion. While there is a logical relationship between marine, animal and insect extinction— they are all extinctions, to date, oceanic oxygen depletion has more direct causes in agricultural runoff.

The appeal of assigning climate change as the cause of mass extinction is that solving climate change would in theory solve it. However, Raj Patel of the University of Texas-Austin is one of a number of environmental theorists who argue that industrial agriculture— including deforestation, monoculture planting and the use of pesticides, explains the insect and animal extinctions quite well. That oceanic dead zones ring industrial economies supports the interpretation that they are caused by agricultural runoff.

Graph: Oceanic dead zones, the product of runoff from industrial agriculture and industrial pollution, track American industrialization and the export of the American industrial model. The red circles surrounding industrial economies represent dead zones. Following WWII, the U.S. exported American-style capitalism to Germany and Japan through the Marshall plan. The U.S., Germany and Japan also feature prominently as cumulative emitters of CO2. Source:  

The point here is analytical and tactical, not semantic. If industrialization is narrowly at fault for related environmental crises— say through greenhouse gas emissions, then ‘green growth’ is at least theoretically plausible through some combination of reduction and mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions. But this isn’t the case. The insect and animal mass extinctions appear to be related to climate change through a shared cause— industrialization.

The social, political and economic challenge is that ‘green growth’ is to tweak the status quo, whereas broader environmental resolution requires fundamentally reconsidering everything about capitalist modernity. Now. It is ultimately irrelevant that doing so has been a goal of some Left political programs for years and decades. There is no plausible exit from the current predicament emanating from the established order. The status quo is untenable, not a haven.

The habitat loss and degradation that substantially explains the insect and animal mass extinctions ties directly to animal agriculture— land is being cleared for animal grazing and to grow feed crops for factory farms. The crops grown are genetically engineered (GMO) to allow them to withstand systematic, late-stage applications of pesticides and herbicides. This agricultural ‘process’ is industrial from start to finish.

The industrial logic at work illustrates the conundrum. Factory farms are ‘efficient’ in the narrow sense of favoring commodity animals by decimating populations of non-commodity animals. This is done through monoculture planting of feed-crops to exclude / decimate non-feed crops. This decimation is accomplished using pesticides and herbicides that eliminate ‘losses’ to non-feed plants and insects. Annihilation is the point, not an accident.

The realm of interest— commodity production, excludes consideration of broader environmental relationships. Rendering each step of the agricultural process efficient assumes that the total process is efficient. Another way to say this is that what isn’t known— the unquestioned and unexplored reciprocal of this efficiency in nature, is assumed to be irrelevant, and therefore benign, by intent. Environmental destruction can be hidden by industrial food production until total extinction becomes inevitable.

This last point requires elaboration. Local, regional and global food chains are webs of relationships that once destroyed, take millions of years to regenerate. Through causing mass extinction, industrial agriculture leaves no ‘plan B’ in place. By the time that industrial food systems begin to fail, alternatives to it will have been destroyed. As of now, a return to pre-industrial agriculture is possible. However, technology will never replace large, complex and barely understood natural relationships.

In the 1980s pesticide and herbicide resistant GMO (Genetically Modified Organism) crops and a new class of neonicotinoid pesticides were introduced. It took twenty years for some of the causal mechanisms behind insect extinction to be linked to neonicotinoid pesticides. Early on GMO crops were planted next to non-GMO crops, guaranteeing cross contamination. This recklessness reflects a logic: industrial efficiency is the reciprocal of the broader relationships at work.

This is one possible explanation for the insect extinction measured in Puerto Rico despite a drop in the quantity of pesticides used there. Neonicotinoid pesticides can destroy the reproductive capacity of ‘non-target’ insects, meaning that they can adversely affect entire populations rather than just exposed insects. Amongst honeybees, Queens produce honeybees for the hive — the power to reproduce isn’t generally distributed. This particularity is antithetical to the commodity (generic) conception of industrial agriculture.

Recognizing that type and quantity are separate issues, the EU (European Union) is moving to ban the outdoor use of neonicotinoids linked to colony collapse in honeybees and mass die-offs of birds and bats. However, and here is the rub— with full knowledge of the adverse consequences of earlier pesticides, manufacturers promoted neonicotinoid pesticides with little to no understanding of their long-term consequences. For twenty years neonicotinoids were sold as the safe alternative to earlier pesticides.

The commercial logic behind this ‘product development’ strategy is that the narrower the research into adverse consequences, the lower the production costs and the lower the likelihood that adverse consequences will be found. This is more than a case of perverse incentives. Neonicotinoids were developed to replace earlier pesticides that also took twenty years for their adverse consequences to become known. In other words, the research process was known to be a serial failure before neonicotinoids were introduced.

The principle that ‘markets’ determine the ultimate social utility of products is even less probable. Ninety-nine-point nine percent of ‘consumers’ have no idea what pesticides are used in the production of the food they eat. Industrial farmers— corporations, care about crop yields. Until these are impacted, they have no reason to look further. The industrial scientists who create new pesticides answer questions derived from earlier problems. At no relevant point are adverse consequences known when ‘consumer’ decisions are made.

Industrial pesticides might even be ‘adequately’ tested, meaning to the full extent of what is knowable within the given logic. But ‘true’ knowledge of their impact has followed a predictable path. Earlier pesticides and herbicides produced unintended consequences despite being tested. In other words, adverse consequences are the predictable outcome of this production logic regardless of which methods are used to predict them. The evidence: neonicotinoids were (1) tested and (2) followed this same pattern of producing unintended consequences.

Graph: Every recession since WWII has been intentionally caused by the U.S. Federal Reserve raising interest rates to limit wage demands. ‘Recessions’ are another term for ‘degrowth.’ In other words, capitalists love degrowth when it serves their purposes. This is why economists on the Left tend to reflexively oppose degrowth. But if recessions are necessary to the proper functioning of capitalism, isn’t the problem capitalism? Source: St. Louis Federal Reserve.

Given the environmental stakes, arguing against the logic of capitalism would be pointless without bringing it back to environmental logic. Whether it is cause, effect or iterative, capitalism is deeply embedded in the social complexity that defines modernity. Most in the West buy their food in a store and have no idea how to produce it. This largely explains why market relations define so much of the realm of available social logic. Phrased differently, climate change and mass extinction strongly suggest that something is missing from the available social logic.

This social complexity— deeply interwoven social, political and economic relationships that make even small changes to the existing order dangerous for large numbers of people, constitutes a doomsday device of sorts given the environmental reckoning that is underway. Agricultural complexity— systems that billions of people rely on for sustenance, can be left to collapse on their own or their unwind can be planned. Lest this seem unduly alarmist, insect, animal and marine mass extinctions are already far along.

Question: if a group of people proposed killing 60% – 80% of the animals, insects and marine life on the planet while emitting enough gases into the atmosphere to cook the planet, should their stance as ‘centrists’ be taken seriously? And possibly more to the point, does it make a difference that until around 1980 they didn’t know they were doing so, and after they were told they accelerated the damage caused? The term ‘sociopaths’ seems more descriptively accurate.

Because animal agriculture is so resource intensive, were it to be abandoned, existing food production would greatly exceed what is needed to sustain people. This would facilitate a move away from industrial agriculture toward local, small scale and regenerative agriculture. It would also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% – 50%, depending on whether deforestation is included in the calculation.

Otherwise, environmental problem solving begins with identification of the problems and then steps are taken to bring them to resolution. What doesn’t work is to spend decades ignoring and understating problems and then proposing half-measures under the theory that something is better than nothing. Half-measures proceed from the assumption that danger comes from action, rather than inaction. Mounting evidence suggests that this isn’t the case.

Another way to frame this is that problem solving can come through technological innovation, which has a long history of producing unanticipated adverse consequences, or through stopping doing what is causing problems. With the latter, the consequences are largely known— the problems are ended. To the extent that basic material needs could be met through ending animal agriculture and militarism, the capacity to resolve mounting crises exists even if the political will doesn’t.

According to decades of polls, most people want to do the right thing when it comes to the planet. This illustrates the divide between political and economic democracy. Economic concentration is used to crush political democracy. Without suggesting there are any simple or easy answers, breaking economic concentration is a necessary step to restoring the power to resolve environmental crises. Additionally, it would remove the logic of accumulation that is killing the planet.

Finally, the term ‘creative destruction’ in the title was conceived by Joseph Schumpeter to glorify the revolutionary nature of capitalism as replacement through innovation. With climate change and mass extinction at hand, what is being replaced is life on the planet. It’s good to know that there is a theory that ties to the process, although I’d hope for a better epitaph.

Rob Urie writes on political economy. His book Zen Economics is available from CounterPunch Books.

Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.

ON CONTACT: Inside the capitalist labyrinth with Rob Urie

RT America
Published on Aug 22, 2016

On this week’s episode of On Contact, Chris Hedges enters the capitalist labyrinth with Rob Urie, author of Zen Economics. Urie says the destructive way capitalism has harnessed natural resources and the political system makes it time to reimagine the way we understand and relate to the world around us, while RT correspondent Anya Parampil explores wealth disparities across the United States.

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