ZNet, October 25, 2014. Having spent much of 2012 and some of 2013 writing a book on the wealth and power of the United States economic elite and the conflict between capitalism and democracy, I’ve followed current events ever since with a certain amount of selfish apprehension.
“Wow,” I’ve caught myself ruminating, “wouldn’t it be great if this book had come out in the fall of 2011, when the Occupy Movement was putting my book’s subject matter in the headlines?”
The big stories that have received top US media attention since I wrote most of the recently released volume They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014) don’t seem to rival the Occupy Wall Street movement/moment when it comes to focusing people on the capitalist elite and its class system. Here are some of the stories that come to mind
- The Edward Snowden revelations on the National Security Agency’s Orwellian electronic surveillance programs.
- The Ukraine crisis and the emergence of a “new Cold War” between the US and Russia.
- The Central American child refugee crisis on the southern US border.
- Israel’s mass-murderous assault on Palestinian civilians stuck in the open air apartheid prison called the Gaza Strip last summer
- The killing of an 18 year-old black man named Michael Brown by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri, and the mast protests and militarized police response that followed that shooting last August.
- The Ebola crisis.
- The recently proclaimed US war on the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria.
- The largest climate justice march in history, which took place in Manhattan last September.
I am not proud of my rumination. Besides being self-centered, it’s silly in other ways. The decision to write They Rule was prompted in no small part by the rise of Occupy Wall Street, so it’s absurd to wish the book had come out at the time of Occupy’s emergence.
The NSA’s Corporate Partnerships
At the same time, more to the point of this essay, it’s instructive to note how fundamentally the big news stories just bullet-pointed above link back to the problem of “the 1%” – to the outsized wealth and related extreme power of the US capitalist ruling class and its giant corporations. Take the surveillance issue and the Snowden revelations. As the brilliant and intrepid civil libertarian journalist and author Glen Greenwald (the leading conduit for Snowden’s heroic whistle-blowing) notes in his latest book No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA, and the US Surveillance State:
“While the National Security Agency is officially a public agency, it has countless overlapping partnerships with private-sector corporations, and many of its core functions have been outsourced. The NSA itself employs roughly thirty thousand people, but the agency also has contracts for some sixty thousand employees of private corporations, who often provide essential services. Snowden himself was actually employed not by the NSA but by the Dell Corporation and the large defense contractor Booze Allen Hamilton….according to Tim Shorrock, who has long chronicled the NSA-corporate partnership, ’70 percent of our national intelligence budget is being spent on the private sector’….[The NSA’s] corporate partnerships extend beyond intelligence and defense contractors to include the world’s largest and most important Internet corporations and telecoms, precisely those companies that handle the bulk of the world’s communications and can facilitate access to private exchanges.”
As Snowden told Greenwald during their first meeting in Hong Kong, “In [my position], I saw firsthand that the state, especially the NSA, was working hand in hand with the private-tech industry to…build…a system whose goal was the elimination of all privacy, globally.”
The for-profit companies Greenwald and Snowden are talking about happen to be under the control of wealthy US (and other) investors and to work primarily for the benefit of those investors. They have a direct interest, it should be noted, in the surveillance of US citizens and activists, many of whom are less than pleased to live a nation so savagely unequal that six Wal-Mart heirs possess more wealth between them than the bottom 40 percent of the population.
“A Perfect Storm of Suffering”
Look at the child refugee crisis that briefly held headlines last summer. It cannot be properly understood without reference to the US global neoliberal economic agenda forced through by US and other global economic elites. So-called “free trade” (really big investor rights) agreements have flooded Central America with cheap, subsidized US agricultural imports, devastating campesino communities and forcing millions of farmers off the land. They “also result,” the left commentator William Blum notes, “in government enterprises being privatized, the regulation of corporations being reduced, and cuts to the social budget. Add to this the displacement of communities by foreign mining projects and the drastic US-led militarization of the War on Drugs with accompanying violence and you have the perfect storm of suffering followed by the attempt to escape from suffering.”
The problem at the border can be traced to no small extent to the US and global “1%” and its “neoliberal’ (a fancy word for unrestrained capitalism) agenda.
“The Political Economy of Ebola”
So, for that matter, can the Ebola crisis. In a recent and incisive reflection on “The Political Economy of the Ebola Crisis.” Jacobin Magazine’s Leigh Phillips observes that “neoliberal fallout has established the ideal conditions for the epidemic.” As Phillips explains:
“Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone are some of the poorest countries on the planet, ranking 178th, 174th, and 177th out of 187 countries in the UN’s Human Development Index. Were such an outbreak to occur in northern European countries…nations with some of the best health infrastructure in the world, the situation would more likely have been contained.”
“It is not merely the dearth of field hospitals, lack of appropriate hygiene practices in existing hospitals, absence of standard isolation units, and limited cadre of highly trained health professionals that are able to track down every person that may have been exposed and isolate them. Or that better supportive care is a crucial condition of better outcomes, whatever the treatment available. The spread of the disease has also been exacerbated by a withering away of basic governmental structures that would otherwise be able to more broadly restrict movement, to manage logistical difficulties, and to coordinate with other governments.”
“ [In Guinea] as in many countries, a series of structural adjustment programs have been encouraged and enforced by Western governments and international financial institutions that require privatization and contraction of government services, removal of tariffs while Northern agribusiness remains subsidized, and an orientation toward crops for export at the expense of food self-sufficiency. All of this drives poverty and hunger, and, in turn, competition between food and export crops for capital, land, and agricultural inputs leads to an ever greater consolidation of land ownership, in particular by foreign companies, that limits access of small farmers to land.”
“Ebola is a zoonotic disease, meaning a disease spread from animals to humans (or vice versa)….The single biggest factor driving growth in new zoonotic pathogens is increased contact between humans and wildlife, often by the expansion of human activity into wilderness. As neoliberal structural adjustment forces people off the land but without accompanying urban employment opportunities, Wallace points out, they plunge “deeper into the forest to expand the geographic as well as species range of hunted game and to find wood to make charcoal and deeper into mines to extract minerals, enhancing their risk of exposure to Ebola virus and other zoonotic pathogens in these remote corners.”
To make matters worse, Phillips notes, the world’s leading pharmaceutical corporations have yet to find it profitable to develop an effective Ebola vaccine. Such a vaccine is fully feasible and would in all likelihood already exist but for Big Pharma’s calculation that there wasn’t much financial return in developing a remedy for a disease that has tended to have small breakouts among poor Africans every 30 or 40 years.
Policing Racial Oppression and Capitalist Decay
Consider Ferguson, a stark local window on broader national problems: racial oppression, mass structural unemployment, selfish capital flight, police brutality, and militarized policing. At Mike Brown’s funeral, the corporate media operative and civil rights charlatan Al Sharpton said that the issue in Ferguson there was “how we gonna police in the United States?” But beneath that subject is the deeper problem of what the nation’s ever-more militarized law enforcement agencies police. No small amount of what they police is deep and concentrated, hyper-segregated Black poverty in festering, de-industrialized ghettos that have long been abandoned by a viciously indifferent capitalist elite. “The 1%” has been happy to relocate production and other jobs to cheaper-labor zones of the world capitalist system as the repressive right hand of the state is wielded against those left behind in jobless ghettoes. And it is not only young Black men who can and do fall on the wrong side of the emboldened capitalist police state. As the author of a strident neo-Trotskyist screed recently handed to me in Iowa City rightly observes, “The inner cities and Barrios are hell-holes for the oppressed brown and black masses, lorded over by largely Democratic Party city administrations, who unleashed the police on largely white Occupy youth during those demonstrations, and who daily unleash them on the black and brown communities…The ruling class answer to capitalist decay is more police, more prisons and jails, more NSA spying, more repressive laws and militarized police.”
Along the way, the privately owned corporate media does its best to keep the white working class majority focused on how impoverished US Blacks supposedly create their own misery with an alleged “self-sabotaging” culture of poverty. “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man,” the future US President and veteran Southern US politician Lyndon Baines Johnson told Bill Moyers in 1960, “he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.”
It all circles back to “the 1%” – the all-too invisible capitalist elite.
Endless War Pays
The point pertains as well to the endless US war on/of terror that moved back to the forefront of the national news this fall – and to Israel’s atrocities and the Ukraine crisis as well. “War,” the leading liberal pundit Krugman informed his New York Times readers last August, “doesn’t pay” anymore, if it ever did, for “modern, wealthy nations.” This is particularly true, Krugman feels, in “an interconnected world” where “war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm on the victor.”
There’s truth in his argument if by “war” we mean only major military conflicts between large and industrialized states. Such conflagrations are more than unlikely in our current “ultra-imperialist” (Karl Kautsky’s term) era marked by massive cross-national capital investment and global market inter-penetration. But many elites in rich nations, the US (the world’s sole military superpower) above all, still (quite reasonably) see bottom-line payoffs in military engagements in mostly poor but resource-rich nations and regions. Washington remains committed to the use of military force in pursuit of the control of Middle Eastern oil (and other strategic energy concentrations around the world) to provide profits for deep-pockets multinational petroleum corporations and because of the critical political-economic leverage such control grants the US over leading competitor states.
The biggest flaw in Krugman’s argument is his failure to make the (one would think) elementary distinction between (a) the wealthy Few and (b) the rest of us and society as whole when it comes to who loses and who gains from contemporary (endless) war. As the venerable US foreign policy critic Edward S. Herman asks and observes:
“Doesn’t war pay for Lockheed-Martin, GE, Raytheon, Honeywell, Halliburton, Chevron, Academi (formerly Blackwater) and the vast further array of contractors and their financial, political, and military allies? An important feature of ‘projecting power’ (i.e., imperialism) has always been the skewed distribution of costs and benefits…The costs have always been borne by the general citizenry (including the dead and injured military personnel and their families), while the benefits accrue to privileged sectors whose members not only profit from arms supply and other services, but can plunder the victim countries during and after the invasion-occupation.”
Today, as Noam Chomsky observed in his 1969 book For Reasons of State, the costs of empire are spread across society as a whole while the benefits accrue to the wealthy corporate and financial few. Another update to the young Chomsky’s conclusion can be discerned in a recent reflection by Greenwald:
“A state of endless war justifies ever-increasing state power and secrecy and a further erosion of rights. It also entails a massive transfer of public wealth to the ‘homeland security’ and weapons industry (which the US media deceptively calls the ‘defense sector’)….Just yesterday, Bloomberg reported: ‘Led by Lockheed Martin Group (LTM), the biggest U.S. defense companies are trading at record prices as shareholders reap rewards from escalating military conflicts around the world.’ Particularly exciting is that ‘investors see rising sales for makers of missiles, drones and other weapons as the U.S. hits Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq’; moreover, ‘the U.S. also is the biggest foreign military supplier to Israel, which waged a 50-day offensive against the Hamas Islamic movement in the Gaza Strip.’ ISIS is using U.S.-made ammunition and weapons, which means U.S. weapons companies get to supply all sides of The New Endless War; can you blame investors for being so giddy?…This war – in all its ever-changing permutations – …enables an endless supply of power and profit to flow to those political and economic factions that control the government regardless of election outcomes” (emphasis added).
Krugman should be embarrassed by the recent release of veteran New York Times investigative reporter and Pulitzer Prize-winner James Risen’s latest book Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War (October 2014). Currently facing prosecution by the Obama administration for refusing to divulge an inside government source for his earlier reporting on warrantless federal wiretapping, Risen shows in his latest book that “The…global war on terror has become essentially an endless war [and]…a hunt for cash.” The main driving force behind “endless war” is a vast corporate “military and homeland security complex” that rakes in lucrative profits fed by the relentless selling of fear.
It’s not polite to say, but permanent war is profitable to the US Deep State military-industrial-complex, including such giant and powerful Pentagon-subsidized entities as Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed Martin.
There’s that greedy1% again, raking in profits and pulling strings behind the scenes. (There’s a different sort of connection to note between the economic elite and the endless US war of/on error. As the noted Middle East scholar and left intellectual Gilbert Achcar has noted, the neoliberal triumph of global capitalism and its soulless so-called free market logic since the 1970s has fueled religious fundamentalism in the Middle East and elsewhere. That triumph “created a state of disarray, the loss of familiar points of reference, the spread of what sociologists call ‘anomie for all kinds of people. And this made the ground very fertile for religious revivalism or fundamentalism, because in such situations people tend to seek refuge in identity markers. Thus we’ve seen all over the world, since the shift of the last quarter of the twentieth century, a huge rise in all kinds of identity or tribal politics, whether ethnic, nationalist, religious, sectarian, fundamentalist,….”).
The Ukraine crisis, sparked by Washington and its western NATO allies/proxies, has not devolved into full-scale war – thanks in no small part to Moscow’s refusal to let that happen. It is the result of numerous and complex problems and developments, but one key factor is clearly the desire of powerful US energy corporations to block or the flow of oil and gas from Russia to Europe.
As the political economist and artist Rob Urie recently noted on Counterpunch, moreover, there’s an intimate 1% connection between the belligerent US policies in the Middle East and Eastern Europe: “The relation of the US/ NATO proxy war in Ukraine to renewed military intervention in Iraq and Syria is about who supplies Europe with oil and gas. The strategy appears to be to break the relation between Russia and Europe and use U.S. and ‘coalition’ control over Middle Eastern oil and gas to sell it to Europe. This ties twentieth century geopolitics to the long-standing use of American state power to further the private interests of multi-national oil and gas companies.”
None of this can receive remotely serious attention in the corporate mass and so-called mainstream media, owned and operated for and by the elite segments of “the 1%.” As Michael Parenti noted seven years ago in his book Contrary Notions, “be it the Vietnam War, the invasions of Grenada and Panama, the intervention against Nicaragua, the Gulf War massacre, and subsequent invasions of Afghanistan, US military undertakings are portrayed [by that media] as arising from noble if sometimes misplaced intentions. The media’s view is much the same as the view from the State Department and the Pentagon.” A hallmark characteristic – strikingly evident in what passes for mainstream reporting ad commentary on Ukraine and the new war on ISIS in the 1%’s media – is simple “face-value transmission” of US policy as following in accord with the noble pursuit of “national security,” “world leadership” and “American interests.”
“An Elite Minority That Has a Stranglehold…”
And then there’s climate change, the ever more grave existential issue behind the historic Climate March in New York (trumped in media coverage by the Obama administration’s escalation follies in the Middle East) last month. The veteran progressive author Naomi Klein’s latest tome This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate is dedicated to demonstrating that “the really inconvenient truth that [global warming] is not about carbon – it’s about capitalism…. [and] the war [that system] is waging on earth.” By Klein’s account, it’s the wealthy Few and its neoliberal (global capitalist) ideology that stands to blame:
“What is really preventing us from putting out the fire that is threatening to burn down our collective house? I think the answer is far simpler than many have led us to believe: we have not done the things necessary to lower emissions because those things fundamentally conflict with deregulated capitalism, the reigning ideology for the entire period we have been struggling to find a way out of this crisis. We are stuck because the actions that would give us the best chance of averting catastrophe – and would benefit the vast majority – are extremely threatening to an elite minority that has a stranglehold over economy, our political process, and most of our major media outlets” (emphasis added).
There’s that nasty 1% again – not just driving the process that threatens to destroy life on the planet but controlling the nation’s political and cultural institutions and communications structures to undermine understanding and action the destructive force.
For what it’s worth, readers can find a significantly similar analysis (consistent with what eco-socialists have been saying for many years) in They Rule. As I show in that volume, however, the conflict between the rich and powerful few and “the earth” – livable ecology, actually (the planet will survive our capital-o-genic “self-liquidation”) is rooted in far more than just “deregulated” capitalism and its current neoliberal ideology. The real conflict is with the profits system as such, with its relentless pressure for the “eternal expansion of the economic product,” and the “conver [sion of] everything possible [including the air we breathe, the water we drink, the soil and plants] into monetary [exchange] value” (Joel Kovel).
Meanwhile, untold billions of taxpayer dollars are thrown into funding an endless war dedicated to exploiting and controlling eco-cidal fossil fuels that are so critically concentrated in the Middle East – and to lining the pockets of corporate “defense” (empire) and “security” (fear) contractors. In keen Orwellian fashion, this permanent war on/of terror fuels its own declared jihadist enemy/pretext. It also steals public resources from potential investment in the development of alternative energy programs that would permit life to continue.
“We must make our choice,” US Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandies noted in 1941. “We may have democracy in this country, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of the few, but we cannot have both.”
Let’s update Brandies for the age of catastrophic capital-o-genic climate change. We must make our choice. We can have democracy, livable ecology, and a decent future on this planet, or we can have capitalism, whose essence is the endless pursuit of profit and the amoral accumulation of more and more wealth in ever fewer hands. We cannot have both.
“The 1%” and its class system is killing us.
Paul Street will read from and sign copies of his latest book They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy at The Open University of the Left in Chicago, Illinois (Lincoln Park Branch Public Library, 1150 W. Fullerton Ave.) on Saturday, November 15th (2pm) and Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative in Madison, Wisconsin (426 W. Gilman Street, right off State Street downtown) on Monday, November 17th (6 pm). Street will take questions on his book and the issues it raises on the Firedoglake Book Salon on Sunday, November 2nd, 2014 at 2pm Pacific time/1 pm Mountain time/12 Noon Central (Chicago) time/11AM Eastern time.