Transcribed by Scott Senn
12 June 2009
Well, there's a far more severe crisis, even for the rich and powerful. It happens to be discussed in the same issue of the New York Review that I mentioned, [an] article by Bill McKibben [("Can Obama Change the Climage?", 11 June 2009)]. He's been warning for years about the dire impact of global warming. His current article – worth reading – relies on the British Stern Report, which is sort of the gold standard now. On this basis, he concludes, not unrealistically, that "2009 may well turn out to be the decisive year in the human relationship with our home planet." The reason is that there's a conference in December in Copenhagen which is supposed to set up a new global accord on global warming; and he says it'll tell us "whether or not our political systems are up to the unprecedented challenge that climate change represents." He thinks that "the signals are mixed". To me, that seems kind of optimistic unless there's really a massive public campaign to overcome the insistence of the managers of the state-corporate sector on privileging short term gain for the few over the hope that their grandchildren might have a decent future.
Well, the picture could be a lot more grim even than the Stern Report predicts, and that's grim enough. A couple days ago, a group of MIT scientists released the results of what they describe as "[t]he most comprehensive modeling yet carried out on the likelihood of how much hotter the earth's climate will get in this century" which "shows that without rapid and massive action, the problem will be about twice as severe as previously estimated [a couple of] years ago - and [it] could be even worse than that", because their model does not fully incorporate positive feedbacks that can occur: for example, the increased temperature that is causing a melting of permafrost in the arctic regions which is going to release huge amounts of methane (that's worse than CO2). The leader of the project says, "There's no way the world can or should take these risks." He says, "The least-cost option to lower the risk is to start now and steadily transform the global energy system over the coming decades to low or zero greenhouse gas-emitting technologies" [("Climate Change Odds Much Worse than Thought", 19 May 2009)]. And there's very little sign of that.
Well, furthermore, while new technologies are essential, the problems go well beyond on that. And, in fact, they go beyond the current technical debates about just how to work out cap-and-trade devices, being discussed in Congress. We have to face something much more far-reaching: we have to face up to the need to reverse the huge state-corporate social engineering projects of the post Second World War period which very consciously promoted an energy-wasting and environmentally destructive fossil fuel economy. It didn't happen by accident. That's the whole massive project of suburbanization, then destruction and later gentrification of inner cities. The state-corporate program began with a conspiracy by General Motors, Firestone Rubber, Standard Oil of California to buy up and destroy efficient, electric transportation systems in Los Angeles and dozens of other cities. They were actually convicted of criminal conspiracy and given a tap on the wrist: I think, a $5,000 fine. The federal government then took over; it relocated infrastructure and capital stock to support suburban areas and also created a huge interstate highway system under the usual pretext of "defense". Railroads were displaced by government-financed motor and air transport. The public played almost no role, apart from choosing within the narrowly structured framework of options that are designed by state-corporate managers. They are supported by vast campaigns to "fabricate consumers" with "created wants" (borrowing [Thorstein] Veblen's terms). One result is the atomization of the society and the entrapment of isolated individuals with huge debts. These efforts grew out of the recognition (that I mentioned) a century ago that democratic achievements have to be curtailed by shaping attitudes and beliefs – as the business press put it, directing people to "superficial things of life" like "fashionable consumption". All of that's necessary to insure that the "opulent minority" are protected from "ignorant and meddlesome outsiders" (namely, the population).
[I'll] just add a personal note on that: I came down here this afternoon by the Acela – you know, the "jewel in the crown" of the new high-speed railroad technology. The first time I came from Boston to New York was sixty years ago, and there was improvement since then: it was five minutes faster today than it was sixty years ago.
While state-corporate power was vigorously promoting privatization of life and maximal waste of energy, it was also undermining the efficient choices that the market doesn't and can't provide. That's another highly destructive, build-in market-inefficiency. So to put it simply, if I want to get home from work, you know, in the evening, the market does allow me a choice between (say) a Ford and a Toyota, but it doesn't allow me a choice between a car and a subway, which would be much more inefficient, and maybe everybody wants it, but the market doesn't allow that choice. That's a social decision, and in a democratic society, it would be the decision of an organized public. But that's just what the elite attack on democracy seeks to undermine.
Now these consequences are right before our eyes in ways that are sometimes surreal. A couple of weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal had an article reporting that the US Transportation [Department] chief is in Spain. He's meeting with high-speed rail suppliers: "Europe's engineering and rail companies are lining up for some potentially lucrative US contracts for high-speed rail projects. At stake is $13 billion in stimulus funds that the Obama administration is allocating to upgrade existing rail lines and build new ones that could one day rival Europe's..." [("Europe Listens for U.S. Train Whistle", 29 May 2009)]. So think what's happening: Spain and other European countries are hoping to get US taxpayer funding for high-speed rail and related infrastructure. And, at the very same time, Washington is busy dismantling leading sectors of US industry, ruining the lives of workers and communities, who could easily do it themselves. It's pretty hard to conjure up a more damning indictment of the economic system that's been constructed by state-corporate managers. Surely the auto industry could be reconstructed to produce what the country needs, using its highly skilled workforce. But that's not even on the agenda; it's not even being discussed. Rather, we'll go to Spain and we'll give them taxpayer money for them to do it, while we destroy the capacity to do it here.
It's been done before: So, during World War II, it was kind of a semi-command economy – government-organized economy. That's what happened: industry was reconstructed for the purposes of war, dramatically. It not only ended the Depression but it initiated the most spectacular period of growth in economic history. In four years, US industrial production just about quadrupled, as the economy was retooled for war. And that laid the basis for the golden age that followed. Well, warnings about the purposeful destruction of US productive capacity have been familiar for decades, maybe most prominently by the late Seymour Melman, whom many of us knew well. Melman was also one of those who pointed the way to a sensible way to reverse the process. The state-corporate leadership, of course, has other commitments. But there's no reason for passivity on the part of the public, the so-called stakeholders (workers and community). I mean, with enough popular support, they could just take over the plants and carry out the task of reconstruction themselves. It's not a very exotic proposal. One of the standard texts on corporations in economics literature points out that "[n]owhere...is it written in stone that the short-term interests of corporate shareholders in the United States deserve a higher priority than...all other corporate stakeholders" (workers and community) [(W. Keller & L. Pauly, "Globalization at Bay", Current History, November 1997)]. That's a state-corporate decision; it has nothing to do with economic theory.
It's also important to remind ourselves that the notion of workers' control is as American as apple pie. It's kind of been suppressed; but it's there. In the early days of the Industrial Revolution in New England, working people just took it for granted that those who work in the mills should own them. And they also regarded wage labor as different from slavery only in that it was temporary (also Abraham Lincoln's view). There have been immense efforts to drive these thoughts out of people's heads, to win what the business world calls "the everlasting battle for the minds of men". On the surface, they may appear to have succeeded; but I don't think you have to dig too deeply to find out that they're latent and they can be revived. And there have been some important concrete efforts. One of them was undertaken thirty years ago in Youngstown, Ohio, where US Steel was going to shut down a major facility that was at the heart of this steel town. And there were substantial protests by the workforce and by the community. Then there was an effort, led by Staughton Lynd, to bring to the courts the principle that stakeholders should have the highest priority. Well, the effort failed that time; but, with enough popular support, it could succeed. And right now is a propitious time to revive such efforts, although it would be necessary – and we have to do this – to overcome the effects of this concentrated campaign to drive our own history and culture out of our minds.
There was a very dramatic illustration of the success of this campaign just a few months ago: In February, President Obama decided to show his solidarity with working people. He went to Illinois to give a talk at a factory. The factory he chose was the Caterpillar corporation. Now that was over the strong objections of church groups, peace groups, human rights groups, who were protesting Caterpillar's role in providing what amount to weapons of mass destruction in the Israeli-Occupied Territories. Apparently forgotten, however, was something else: In the 1980s, after Reagan had dismantled the air traffic controllers' union, the Caterpillar managers decided to rescind their labor contract with the United Auto Workers and to destroy the union by bringing in scabs to break a strike. That was the first time that had happened in generations. Now that practice is illegal in other industrial countries, apart from South Africa at the time (not now; now the United States is in splendid isolation, as far as I'm aware). Well, at that time, Obama was a civil rights lawyer in Chicago, and he certainly read the Chicago Tribune which ran quite a good, very careful study of these events [("Caterpillar Strikers Face the Bitter Truth", 9 September 1992)]. They reported that the union was "stunned" to find that unemployed workers crossed the picket line with no remorse, while Caterpillar workers found little "moral support" in their community. This is one of the many communities where the union had "lifted the standard of living for entire communities".
Wiping out these memories is another victory in the relentless campaign to destroy workers' rights and democracy, which is constantly waged by the highly class-conscious business classes. Now the union leadership had refused to understand. It was only in 1978 that UAW president Doug Fraser recognized what was happening and criticized the "leaders of the business community" – I'm quoting him – for waging "a one-sided class war in this country – a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society," and for having "broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress." That was 1979. And, in fact, placing one's faith in a compact with owners and managers is a suicide pact. The UAW is discovering that right now, as the state-corporate leadership proceeds to eliminate the hard-fought gains of working people while dismantling the productive core of the economy and sending the Transportation Secretary to Spain to get them to do what American workers could do, at taxpayer expense of course.
Well, that's only a fragment of what's underway, and it highlights the importance of short- and long-term strategies to build – in part, resurrect – the foundations of a functioning democratic society. One short-term goal is to revive a strong independent labor movement. In its heyday, it was a critical base for advancing democracy and human and civil rights. It's a primary reason why it's been subjected to such unremitting attack in policy and propaganda. An immediate goal right now is to pressure Congress to permit organizing rights: the Employee Free Choice Act legislation. That was promised but now seems to be languishing. And a longer-term goal is to win the educational and cultural battle that's been waged with such bitterness in the one-sided class war that the UAW president perceived far too late. That means tearing apart an enormous edifice of delusions about markets, free trade, and democracy that's been assiduously constructed over many years and to overcome the marginalization and atomization of the public.
Now, of all the crises that afflict us, I think – my own feeling is that this growing democratic deficit may be the most severe. Unless it's reversed, Arundhati Roy's forecast might prove accurate, and not in the distant future. The conversion of democracy to a performance in which the public are only spectators might well lead to – inexorably to what she calls "the endgame for the human race". Thanks.