Monday, May 26, 2014

The Fog of War

Memorial Day musings on the culture of war and empire

Is there any American holiday more blatantly militaristic than Memorial Day?

Whether or not we are capable of admitting it, the entire long weekend is a celebration of war and empire. At the very least, one is unlikely to see any serious critique or challenge to either institution in one's various Memorial Day travels.

Of course, this is not how most Americans perceive the various parades and patriotic observances that mark the day's events. These parades are meant, we are told, to honor the soldiers who died "fighting for our freedom." While this refrain is no doubt comforting to the families of service members who have died, its legitimacy warrants some closer examination.

Have the long, bloody, unnecessary wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan really made us appreciably "freer" as citizens? Do our daily drone strikes of Syria, Yemen and Somalia truly enhance and strengthen our democracy? Indeed, if these wars are fought to maintain our freedom, then why have we lost so many of them--our right to privacy, to peaceful dissent, to habeas corpus to name just a few--since 9/11?

By that measure, these wars seem to be failing. Yet even allegedly "anti-war" liberals unblinkingly swallow this infantile rhetoric--the more eagerly so when the presiding Warmonger-in-Chief is a Democrat.

Our young men and women did certainly fight and die for something, but it was not freedom. They died for empire, Wall Street, global U.S. hegemony, and corporate profits. They gave their lives so Halliburton, Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR), General Electric, and Raytheon could get richer while towns across America continue to close schools, slash budgets and reduce assistance to the poor. (Because, you know, "we're broke.")

"They wrote in the old days that it is sweet and fitting to die for one's country," Ernest Hemingway wrote in his 1935 Esquire article, "Notes on the Next War: A Serious Topical Letter." "But in modern war there is nothing sweet nor fitting in your dying. You will die like a dog for no good reason."

Politicians cynically use Memorial Day to pledge their unwavering support and commitment to The Troops. Those returning soldiers who continue to read from the nationalistic script of war-as-necessary-for-freedom may even be trotted out to speak on the Sunday news shows about their "heroic" experiences in fighting overseas.

But any other time of year we cannot turn out backs on these young men and women--kids, really--fast enough.

Those that survive the horrors of war return physically and psychologically maimed. The majority of U.S. soldiers come from poor or working-class families. For many of them, the military is the only career option. A disproportionate number of military enlistees come from Maine, particularly the northern, more economically-deprived part of the state. Suffice to say, you typically do not see the wealthy, the privileged or the college-educated shipping off to Afghanistan or Iraq.

Upon returning from war, soldiers often find it impossible to re-acclimate themselves to civilian life, and struggle to find those wonderful jobs the military disingenuously promises them. After dutifully fulfilling their "patriotic" role in defending empire, they are promptly discarded like so much human cattle.

"Wars throughout history have been waged for conquest and plunder," observed Socialist leader and perennial presidential candidate, Eugene V. Debs in denouncing World War I.
...And that is war in a nutshell. The master class has always declared the wars. The subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose--especially their lives. 

Hence the importance of a national, highly subsidized military in any capitalist society. As the "CrimethInc." authors explain in their self-published book, Work: Capitalism, Economics & Resistance (2011), "The military is by far the most socialized sector of the US economy. Without the employment opportunities it offers the poor and restless, many of them might seek their fortune in another army" (p. 128, Italics theirs).

But this all goes well beyond the simplistic, nationalistic cant of the average Memorial Day parade. To the extent that Americans reflect on issues of war and peace at all (most of them spend the three-day weekend at the beach or grilling E. coli-tainted meat from Hannaford), the shallow rhetoric rarely transcends beyond, "thanking" the troops for their "service."

War has become our new religion. While membership in traditional religious faiths continues to decrease, Americans remain intimately connected through the language, rituals, and iconography of, in the words of Glenn Greenwald, "all things military."

And I am not merely referring to jingoistic conservatives, here. Allegedly anti-war liberals have, under Barack Obama's presidency, proven themselves just as hawkish.

Case in point, during the 2012 Democratic National Convention, speaker after speaker praised the assassination of Osama bin Laden as one of Obama's chief first-term accomplishments. ("Bin Laden is dead, and General Motors is alive!" vice president Joe Biden exclaimed triumphantly.) Liberal convention-goers greeted this exaltation with jubilant cheers and banal chants of "USA!, USA!"

(For the record, it is perfectly legitimate to fervently despise an individual's criminal actions, and still refuse to rejoice at that person's death. Life is frequently full of such ambiguous complexity, despite our media and politicians' desperate attempts to reduce everything to simplistic, "us-vs.-them" sloganeering. I, for one, would have preferred to see bin Laden arrested, tried, and imprisoned for his crime against humanity.)

This type of behavior is typical of those infected with the childish, barbaric mentality of war. The language of war--like the iconography of advertising--replaces rational, complex thought with simplistic symbolism and irrational emotional appeals. Or, in the moronic words of NRA spokesman, Wayne LaPierre in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, "The only thing that stops a bad-guy with a gun is a good-guy with a gun." Such an infantile worldview is far more pervasive than most of us care to realize. It is a direct product of a culture steeped in the language of war.

As with any religion, those who offer even the most mild criticism of its doctrines or prophets, those who speak outside the narrow parameters of what is deemed "acceptable discourse," are banished and treated as unpatriotic pariahs.

This is precisely what happened to historian Howard Zinn, author of the bestselling, A People's History of the United States, when he too dared to question the priorities of Memorial Day in an op-ed column in the Boston Globe on June 2, 1976. Zinn, who was a regular Globe columnist at the time, in a piece titled, "Whom Will We Honor Memorial Day?" had the audacity to observe the holiday should be a day "for putting flowers on graves and planting trees."

"Also," he added, "for destroying the weapons of death that endanger us more than they protect us, that waste our resources and threaten our children and grandchildren."

Dear lord. Planting trees is one thing, but "destroying weapons of death"...? And Zinn calls himself an American...?

This was, predictably, the last editorial Zinn wrote for the Globe. He was fired shortly thereafter. Remind me again what George Orwell said about truth-telling becoming a revolutionary act in a time of "universal deceit."

Here's the takeaway: Let's make Memorial Day obsolete by no longer sending our service men and women to war. This is not a call for "weakness," or "surrender." It is a call for a renewed sense of humanity. War does not make us safer or freer. It does nothing to enhance our democracy. Quite the reverse--it erodes it. It makes us less safe--more vulnerable to retaliatory "blowback." As anti-war author Gino Strada urges, we must go beyond helping the victims of war to abolishing war itself.

And if we are serious about abolishing the institution of war then it is essential we understand the intimate connection between the forces that send us to war--the so-called military-industrial-complex--and capitalism.

Again, the words of the late Howard Zinn are instructive. In a chapter entitled "War is the Enemy," in his essay-collection, A Power Governments Cannot Suppress (City Lights, 2007) he writes:

My hope is that the memory of death and disgrace will be so intense that the people of the United States will be able to listen to a message that the rest of the world, sobered by wars without end, can also understand: that war itself is the enemy of the human race (p. 196).

Monday, May 19, 2014

Your Job is a Prison

My favorite scene in the 1999 film American Beauty occurs when Kevin Spacey's middle-aged, disillusioned office drone, Lester Burnham turns in his job description to his boss, who is in the middle of company job-cuts. His boss, Brad, reads aloud Lester's unhinged rant of his job description.

"My job," Lester writes, "consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge and, at least once a day, retiring to the men's room so I can jerk-off while I fantasize about a life that doesn't so closely resemble Hell."

It is a hilarious, triumphal scene, not merely because our Every Man hero finally tells the boss off. But I imagine audiences enjoy a vicarious thrill in it, perhaps imagining themselves in Lester's shoes. Later at the dinner table he nonchalantly tells his teenage daughter, played by Thora Birch:

"Janie, today I quit my job. And then I told my boss to go fuck himself and then I blackmailed him for almost sixty thousand dollars. Pass the asparagus."

In quitting his job, Lester regains something he thought he had long ago lost: His freedom.

And therein lies the greatest irony of America, a nation that exalts itself for its "freedom" and "democracy." (After all, didn't the 9/11 hijackers attack us because of "our freedoms?" I mean, what other motivations could they possibly have had...?)

Because the truth is we spend the vast majority of our waking lives in the most undemocratic institution in modern life: The workplace.

Unless you are part of a worker-owned cooperative (more on those later), there is nothing remotely democratic about your job. Democracy does not exist at work. The workplace is, at best, a benevolent dictatorship--and believe me, I have held more than a few jobs where the rulers were not at all benevolent.

(True story: I once worked at a "nonprofit" in South Portland where the executive director would routinely hurl her shoes and shout obscenities at the administrative assistant when she would make the most minuscule of mistakes. The only thing more astounding than her behavior was the fact the subservient secretary never actually got up and quit.)

As economics professor Richard D. Wolff observes,

The capitalist workplace is one of the most profoundly undemocratic institutions on the face of the Earth. Workers have no say over decisions affecting them. If workers sat on the board of directors of democratically operated self-managed enterprises, they wouldn't vote for the wildly unequal distribution of profits to benefit a few and for cutbacks for the many.

Here is the dirty little secret about American democracy--one your history and government teachers neglected to tell you. The Constitution, while it does, through the First Amendment, offer us the freedom of speech, religion, the press and the right to petition and assemble peaceably, it does not explicitly grant any of those things at work.

The exact wording of the First Amendment is, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..." The key word here is "Congress." The First Amendment says nothing about what employers (essentially property owners) in a private business can or cannot do. In other words, there is no public law denying citizens free speech. Outside of your job, you can, legally speaking, do whatever you desire. Should you run into any attempts to abridge your freedoms, Congress (i.e. the federal government) will have your back. (Post-9/11 exceptions, noted.)

But the First Amendment says nothing about private business. While the federal government has some regulatory control over private business (though not nearly enough, despite what conservatives may claim), its primary function is the daily operations of public life.

Therefore, the First Amendment does not apply at work.

Consider: Workers have little to no say over the duration of their work, the conditions under which it takes place or how much they get paid. (It is even taboo to ask how much a job pays during an interview, even though it is a completely legitimate question--one that may well determine whether or not an applicant accepts the position.)

In certain "unskilled" jobs--like retail--workers have no say in when they can take their break. Sometimes they cannot even use the bathroom without permission from a manager. Certain jobs, likewise, mandate what employees wear, the length of their hair, and whether or not they can have piercings, tattoos, jewelry or facial hair.

Indeed, in today's anemic economy many do not even have a say in the job itself. They must settle for whatever they can find.

Even those who work at home or are self-employed, while they may seem to have escaped the "rat-race" of the traditional work environment, are still beholden to the same rules, guidelines, and strictures as the rest of us. The only difference is they have brought the dictatorship of the workplace into their own homes. Indeed, many small-business owners often complain about how all-consuming their work schedules can be. Store owners, for example, must remain open on weekends and major holidays, because that is when they do their most business. And because small-businesses typically do not employ as many people as big-box stores, the majority of the work inevitably falls on the owner.

And forming a union? Good luck with that. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates only about 11.3 percent of American workers belong to a union today--the lowest level in 97 years (The New York Times, "Share of the Workforce in a Union Falls to a 97-Year Low..." 01/23/2013). Most retail employers--Walmart, Hannaford, Target, etc.--expressly forbid workers from unionizing, despite the fact it is completely legal to do so. Target, Walmart, and Home Depot force new hirees to watch blatantly anti-union propaganda videos as part of their indoctrination, err, I mean "training."

What freedoms we do enjoy at the job (weekends and holidays off, overtime pay, sick-time, maternity leave, child labor laws, worker's compensation, mandatory break times, etc.) are all thanks to the gains of labor unions. The United States had the bloodiest labor battles in history. Union members, labor leaders and activists were beaten, shot at and, in some cases, killed for their worker-advocacy actions.

Employers did not benevolently grant workers these rights on their own. They had to be pressured, prodded, pushed.

It is curious, certainly, how Americans often react with horror at draconian working conditions in developing nations like China or garment factories in Bangladesh. But are we really any freer at our own jobs? Ours is merely a more subtle, deceptively cheery form of workplace dictatorship--propaganda in place of the bludgeon, as Noam Chomsky puts it.

"They caught me singing and they told me to stop," Arcade Fire's Regine Chassagne sings on "The Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)." "Quit these pretentious things and just punch the clock."

But increasingly workers are fighting back, demanding the same civil liberties that (ostensibly) protect us in the public sphere extend to the private one as well. Worker-owned cooperatives allow employees to do just that.

In a worker co-op, there is no boss. Rather, all employees have an equal say in running the business. All decisions are made democratically. And employees typically have the option to engage in profit-sharing. Essentially, a co-op brings the principles of democracy, into the workplace.

This decentralized operational model not only allows for greater worker participation, but higher worker productivity as well. This means less instances of workers calling out sick, or showing up late for their shift. Empowering employees tends to make them happier at work in general--something both the workers and the business benefits from.

And no--worker co-ops are not something strictly "European." (And even if they were, I do not see how that would necessarily be a bad thing...) They exist right here in the U.S. Local Sprouts Cafe, on Congress Street in Portland is one.

Guerrilla Press will continue to explore worker cooperatives in future installments and how they are altering the nature of work for the better. Stay tuned.

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Monday, May 12, 2014

Capitalism is Killing the Planet

The White House released its most comprehensive global warming report to date last week, warning of increased sea-level rise, flooding, drought, heat-waves and other ominous forms of climate disruption. The National Climate Assessment report urges lawmakers and policymakers to take meaningful action now to halt the most destructive effects of climate change.

The report, which comes on the heels of a similarly bleak summary by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) released earlier this year, is notable for being one of the first to dispel the widely believed myth that climate change is a "future threat," the effects of which will not be seen for decades to come. Global warming, the authors note candidly, is not a "looming threat." It is happening right now.

"Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future," they write, "has moved firmly into the present."

This, of course, is hardly news to those of us who are paying attention. One need only glance at the morning headlines to understand we are already experiencing the effects of climate change.

California is experiencing the worst drought in decades. Over half of the Arctic sea ice has melted. The previous decade was the warmest on record, while 2012--the year "Superstorm" Sandy wreaked havoc on New York and New Jersey coastlines--was the warmest in history. And last year, the overall concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere reached a dangerous 400 parts per million (ppm)--an amount not seen since prehistoric periods. According to esteemed climatologist and former Goddard Institute for Space Studies chief, James Hansen, any CO2 level above 350 ppm is not compatible with a "planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on Earth is adapted."

The planet is hurtling toward a two-four degree rise in temperature. While that may not seem like a lot, given the Earth's delicate natural balance any rise in temperature, no matter how modest, can have devastating repercussions for the climate. The Washington Post, meanwhile, puts the overall temperature rise at an unfathomable 10 degrees Fahrenheit.

Maine and the rest of the Northeast can expect to see more flooding from sea-level rise; greater damage to coastal homes and communities; increased threats to fisheries; and a greater prevalence of Lyme disease-carrying ticks.

Yet Congress is all but incapable of meaningfully responding to climate change. Our lawmakers have been bought-off by the very coal, oil, and gas companies responsible for the majority of greenhouse gas emissions since the start of the Industrial Revolution.

The best "solution" Congress can offer is a woefully inadequate cap-and-trade bill, which basically allows corporations to pay to continue polluting the atmosphere. Not only does cap-and-trade do nothing to lower greenhouse gas emissions but, like the Dodd-Frank Wall Street regulations, it puts the very corporations that created the climate crisis in charge of "fixing" it.

Perhaps the biggest failure of the corporate press (indeed, a failure of design) when it comes to global warming is its inability to clearly and frankly denounce the root cause: Capitalism.

"[U]nfettered capitalism is a revolutionary force," writes Chris Hedges in his book, Death of the Liberal Class (Nation Books, 2010), "that consumes greater and greater numbers of human lives until it finally consumes itself" (17).

It is not just the supposed "excesses" of the system that are to blame, as many liberals would have us believe. It is the system itself. Capitalism is predicated on the concept of unceasing, infinite growth on a planet of finite resources--one with tangible physical limits.

Not only is such a concept unrealistic, it borders on the psychotic. When energy companies view the newly opened land in the rapidly melting Arctic as another business opportunity rather than a frightening sign of environmental destruction, something is horribly wrong. Little wonder then that the directors of the 2003 documentary film, The Corporation, using the physicians' Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), determine a corporation is essentially a psychopath.

Like a psychopath, a corporation--a legally defined "person"--displays a callous disregard for the feelings of others, an inability to make and sustain enduring relationships, and an incapacity to experience guilt among other characteristics. (In fact, new research confirms something I have long suspected: The majority of successful bosses, managers, and CEOs routinely display more than a few psychopathic tendencies.)

In essence, the business model of ExxonMobil, Chevron, and B.P.--whether or not their executives realize it--is to literally destroy the planet. The profit-motive of capitalism necessitates that they do no less.

And contrary to the claims of current "Go Green" campaigns, climate change cannot be solved by individuals alone. Even if every single American got rid of her car tomorrow and committed to walking or biking everywhere, the effect, in terms of reducing global CO2 emissions, would be negligible. Like the hippie counterculture and punk-rock before it, the current phase of "green" marketing merely represents the latest corporate co-option of what was originally a genuine grassroots artistic movement.

"We have to do away with the word 'environment' itself," writes Stefanie Krasnow in the latest issue of Adbusters magazine ("Blueprint for a New World, Part II: Eco," May/June 2014),

along with all the campaigny phrases--"reduce your footprint," "care for the planet," "live sustainably" and "go eco-friendly"--they're all just a cheap ticket to a clear conscience. This language has convinced a whole generation that you can 'buy into' saving the world, as if you can consume your way to sustainability.

As author and philosophy professor Clive Hamilton notes in his sobering book, Requiem for a Species: Why We Resist the Truth about Climate Change (Earthscan, 2010), responding to climate change will not only require collective, rather than individual, action. It will also necessitate forming a radically new relationship with the natural world.

Invoking the Greek myth of Prometheus, who stole fire from the gods and gave it to mankind, Hamilton writes:

Climate change is intimately linked not just to the transformative powers of the scientific-industrial revolution, or even the political and cultural forces of growth fetishism and consumerism; it arises from the reshaping of human consciousness. Disconnection from Nature led inexorably to a stronger orientation towards the personal self. The shift is by no means complete and has met resistance along the way, but its extent renders an adequate response to climate disruption much more difficult. For if we are mired in an existential crisis because Prometheus was unbound, salvation requires the shackling of Prometheus once more (158). 
No, Congress and "enlightened" consumer-spending cannot solve the climate crisis.

And, while many of the Big Environmental organizations--Greenpeace,, The Sierra Club, etc.--are made-up of well-meaning, environmentally-conscious activists, their questionable sources of funding and refusal to operate outside the corporate two-party duopoly (routinely supporting Democratic candidates that share none of their environmental concerns), render them virtually impotent as well. When it is impossible to tell a Keystone XL Pipeline protest from an Obama campaign rally, it is worth asking if this is, indeed, the best use of environmentalists' resources.

Rebellion is our only hope. Only through mass acts of peaceful yet defiant civil disobedience can we hope to fend off the worst aspects of climate change. And it is going to take more than merely getting arrested outside the White House lawn. Ultimately, if we are to maintain a planet that is habitable for human life, capitalism must go. It really is as simple as that.

Fawzi Ibrahim, author of the eco-socialist book, Capitalism Versus Planet Earth: An Irreconcilable Conflict, sums it up best:

"Today, humanity faces a stark choice: Save the planet and ditch capitalism or save capitalism and ditch the planet."

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