George Monbiot writes: Imagine if the people of the Soviet Union had never heard of communism. The ideology that dominates our lives has, for most of us, no name. Mention it in conversation and you’ll be rewarded with a shrug. Even if your listeners have heard the term before, they will struggle to define it. Neoliberalism: do you know what it is?
Its anonymity is both a symptom and cause of its power. It has played a major role in a remarkable variety of crises: the financial meltdown of 2007‑8, the offshoring of wealth and power, of which the Panama Papers offer us merely a glimpse, the slow collapse of public health and education, resurgent child poverty, the epidemic of loneliness, the collapse of ecosystems, the rise of Donald Trump. But we respond to these crises as if they emerge in isolation, apparently unaware that they have all been either catalysed or exacerbated by the same coherent philosophy; a philosophy that has – or had – a name. What greater power can there be than to operate namelessly?
So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve. [Continue reading…]
The Guardian reports: US corporate giants such as Apple, Walmart and General Electric have stashed $1.4tn (£980bn) in tax havens, despite receiving trillions of dollars in taxpayer support, according to a report by anti-poverty charity Oxfam.
The sum, larger than the economic output of Russia, South Korea and Spain, is held in an “opaque and secretive network” of 1,608 subsidiaries based offshore, said Oxfam.
The charity’s analysis of the financial affairs of the 50 biggest US corporations comes amid intense scrutiny of tax havens following the leak of the Panama Papers.
And the charity said its report, entitled Broken at the Top was a further illustration of “massive systematic abuse” of the global tax system.
So much that matters in our world and on our planet happens in and remains in the shadows. This website is dedicated to shining at least a small light into some of those shadows. Commenting recently on the failure of the U.S. war on terror as well as the war against the Islamic State, Andrew Bacevich wrote: “To label [such a] problem ‘terrorism’ is to privilege convenience over understanding. It’s like calling big-time college football a ‘sport.’ Doing so entails leaving out all the grimy, money-soaked activity that occurs off the gridiron.” In fact, much of the activity that truly shapes our world happens off that “gridiron” and out of sight. And what you don’t see (or see reported), you often can’t imagine either.
Sometimes history helps. Today’s dispatch is an example. It is adapted from Adam Hochschild’s new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939, a dramatic account of the thousands of Americans who volunteered to fight the war against fascism before it was faintly fashionable and the correspondents who covered them. It’s a vivid tale of some very well known people like Ernest Hemingway, Martha Gellhorn, and George Orwell who saw the socialist-led Spanish Republic’s defeat firsthand, but also of quite ordinary Americans who had the urge to stop a terrible force before it could storm the world. (Unfortunately, in that they failed.) It also offers an unforgettable picture of a past America under stress and possibly of the last moment before the arrival of Bernie Sanders when “socialism” was not a curse word in this country.
In researching the book, Hochschild came across one of those crucial figures working in the shadows — an unforgettable oilman with a Trumpian personality whose acts in support of Spanish general Francisco Franco and then Adolf Hitler helped ensure that fascism would come to power in Spain and, in the end, that the globe would be bathed in blood. Somehow, his role was missed by the hundreds of journalists covering the war. As you read this piece, ask yourself who and what is no one noticing at this very second as our world spins so madly on. Tom Engelhardt
The oilman who loved dictators
Or how Texaco supported fascism
By Adam Hochschild
[This piece has been adapted from Adam Hochschild’s new book, Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936-1939.]
“Merchants have no country,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in 1814. “The mere spot they stand on does not constitute so strong an attachment as that from which they draw their gains.” The former president was ruing the way New England traders and shipowners, fearing the loss of lucrative transatlantic commerce, failed to rally to their country in the War of 1812.
Today, with the places from which “merchants” draw their gains spread across the planet, corporations are even less likely to feel loyalty to any country in particular. Some of them have found it profitable to reincorporate in tax havens overseas. Giant multinationals, sometimes with annual earnings greater than the combined total gross national products of several dozen of the world’s poorer countries, are often more powerful than national governments, while their CEOs wield the kind of political clout many prime ministers and presidents only dream of.
No corporations have been more aggressive in forging their own foreign policies than the big oil companies. With operations spanning the world, they — and not the governments who weakly try to tax or regulate them — largely decide whom they do business with and how. In its quest for oil in the anarchic Niger Delta, according to journalist Steve Coll, ExxonMobil, for example, gave boats to the Nigerian navy, and recruited and supplied part of the country’s army, while local police sported the company’s red flying horse logo on their uniforms. Jane Mayer’s new book, Dark Money, on how the brothers and oil magnates Charles and David Koch spent hundreds of millions of dollars to buy the Republican Party and America’s democratic politics, offers a vivid account of the way their father Fred launched the energy business they would inherit. It was a classic case of not letting “attachments” stand in the way of gain. Fred happily set up oil installations for Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin before the United States recognized the Soviet Union in 1933, and then helped Adolf Hitler build one of Nazi Germany’s largest oil refineries that would later supply fuel to its air force, the Luftwaffe.
Kao Kalia Yang writes: My life in America has been a series of days spent within the confines of factories. For the last twenty-two years, I have worked with machines. Since we came to this country I have worked for three different companies. I was an assembler in a company that made coolant systems for cars. I was a general machinist for a second company that made wooden plaques and metal awards. With the most recent company, I was a second-shift polisher for different components that are used in industries such as canning and oil drilling. There have been moments in each of these jobs when my supervisors said in different ways, ‘Bee, you are not here to talk to me. You are here to talk to machines.’
In America, my voice is only powerful within our home. The moment I exit our front door and enter the paved roads, my deep voice loses its volume and its strength. When I speak English, I become like a leaf in the wind. I cannot control the direction my words will fly in the ear of the other person. I try to soften my landing in the language by leaving pauses between each word. I wrestle with my accent until it is a line of breath in the tightness of my throat. I greet people. I ask for directions. I say thank you. I say goodbye. I only speak English at work when it is necessary. I don’t like the weakness of my voice in English, but what I struggle with most is the weakness of my words.
In Hmong, my children hear so much of my words that sometimes I know they become heavy with the meaning I want to impart. I tell my children that my work in America is not important, but I work hard so that one day their work will be. I tell them that my big dream is for one of them to become an international human rights lawyer and bring justice to stories and lives like ours. I want one son or daughter to cross over the petty barriers erected by nations and states and stand firm for those who do not belong to these definitions. [Continue reading…]
One of the ironies of Libertarianism in America is its soft-spot for Capitalism — as though anything that brands itself free, like free-enterprise, actually promotes freedom. Libertarians never tire of warning about the threats posed by the NSA and other intrusive government agencies, while the coercive and covert power of commerce generates far less fury.
Yet anyone who is genuinely concerned about infringements on civil liberties through electronic systems of surveillance, probably needs to be more wary of business than they are of government.
Most of the data the government collects gets poured into digital black holes — the data being collected for business applications, however, is constantly being mined to extract all its value.
Government might be watching you, but business is telling you where to go.
The New York Times reports: Pass a billboard while driving in the next few months, and there is a good chance the company that owns it will know you were there and what you did afterward.
Clear Channel Outdoor Americas, which has tens of thousands of billboards across the United States, will announce on Monday that it has partnered with several companies, including AT&T, to track people’s travel patterns and behaviors through their mobile phones.
By aggregating the trove of data from these companies, Clear Channel Outdoor hopes to provide advertisers with detailed information about the people who pass its billboards to help them plan more effective, targeted campaigns. With the data and analytics, Clear Channel Outdoor could determine the average age and gender of the people who are seeing a particular billboard in, say, Boston at a certain time and whether they subsequently visit a store. [Continue reading…]
The time scale should stagger you. Just imagine for a moment that what we humans do on this planet will last at least 10,000 more years, and no, I’m not talking about those statues on Easter Island or the pyramids or the Great Wall of China or the Empire State Building. I’m not talking about any of our monumental architectural-cum-artistic achievements. Ten thousand years from now all the monuments to our history may be forgotten ruins or simply obliterated, while what we’re doing at this very moment that’s truly ruinous may outlast us all. I’m thinking, of course, about the burning of fossil fuels and the sending of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) into the atmosphere. It’s becoming clearer by the month that, if not brought under control relatively quickly, this process will alter the global environment in ways that will affect humanity and everything else living on this planet for what, from a human point of view, is eternity.
In essence, there’s no backsies when it comes to climate change. Once you’ve begun the full-scale destabilization and melting of the Greenland ice sheet and of the vast ice sheets in the Antarctic, for instance, the future inundation of coastal areas, including many of humanity’s major cities, is a foregone conclusion somewhere down the line. In fact, a recent study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change by 22 climate scientists, suggests that when it comes to the melting of ice sheets and the rise of seas and oceans, we’re not just talking about how life will be changed on Planet Earth in 2100 or even 2200. We’re potentially talking about what it will be like in 12,200, an expanse of time twice as long as human history to date. So many thousands of years are hard even to fathom, but as the study points out, “A considerable fraction of the carbon emitted to date and in the next 100 years will remain in the atmosphere for tens to hundreds of thousands of years.” The essence of the report, as Chris Mooney wrote in the Washington Post, is this: “In 10,000 years, if we totally let it rip, the planet could ultimately be an astonishing 7 degrees Celsius warmer on average and feature seas 52 meters (170 feet) higher than they are now.”
Even far more modest temperature changes like the two degree Celsius rise discussed at the recent Paris meeting, where 196 nations signed onto a climate change agreement, would transform the face of the planet for thousands of years and result in the drowning of a range of iconic global cities “including New York, London, Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, Calcutta, Jakarta, and Shanghai.”
This, in other words, is what the hunt for yet more fossil fuels and more profits by the planet’s giant energy companies actually means — not tomorrow, but on a scale we don’t usually consider. This is why those who continue to insist on pursuing such a treasure hunt (for a few companies and their shareholders), despite knowing its grim future results, will truly be in the running with some of the monsters of our past to become the ultimate criminals of history. In this light, consider what Bill McKibben, TomDispatch regular, founder of 350.org, and author most recently of Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist, has to say about one of those companies, ExxonMobil, and its pivotal role in our warming world. Tom Engelhardt
Exxon’s never-ending big dig
Flooding the Earth with fossil fuels
By Bill McKibben
Here’s the story so far. We have the chief legal representatives of the eighth and 16th largest economies on Earth (California and New York) probing the biggest fossil fuel company on Earth (ExxonMobil), while both Democratic presidential candidates are demanding that the federal Department of Justice join the investigation of what may prove to be one of the biggest corporate scandals in American history. And that’s just the beginning. As bad as Exxon has been in the past, what it’s doing now — entirely legally — is helping push the planet over the edge and into the biggest crisis in the entire span of the human story.
Back in the fall, you might have heard something about how Exxon had covered up what it knew early on about climate change. Maybe you even thought to yourself: that doesn’t surprise me. But it should have. Even as someone who has spent his life engaged in the bottomless pit of greed that is global warming, the news and its meaning came as a shock: we could have avoided, it turns out, the last quarter century of pointless climate debate.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has handily beaten Hillary Clinton to win the New Hampshire primary – and after being dismissed as more or less an ideological sideshow when it first began, his campaign has become an unlikely but remarkable movement.
With the Republican Party in a seemingly unstoppable rightward spiral, as the likes of Ted Cruz and Donald Trump dominate its race, the seemingly unexpected rise of as such a proud left-wing candidate as Sanders might seem inconsistent with every trend in recent American politics. At the beginning of the race, he was unknown to many voters outside his home state of Vermont. He is also the Senate’s only self-proclaimed socialist, a label that many once thought would make him utterly unelectable.
But Sanders’s support for “democratic socialism” hasn’t just been surprisingly popular: it’s rapidly changing the way America perceives socialism and all it stands for.
A major strength of Sanders’s campaign is an economic argument against income inequality. This message is at the heart of Sanders’s self-described democratic socialism, but the “revolution” he’s advocating isn’t a Marxist seizure of the means of production; it’s a democratic political uprising.
But this in itself is hardly anything new by the standards of American politics, even at the presidential level.
Bill Black writes: Wall Street billionaires are freaking out about the chance that Bernie Sanders could be elected President. Stephen Schwarzman, one of the wealthiest and most odious people in the world, told the Wall Street Journal that one of the three principal causes of the recent global financial trauma was “the market’s” fear that Sanders may be elected President. Schwarzman is infamous for ranting that President Obama’s proposals to end the “carried interest” tax scam that allows private equity billionaires like Schwarzman to pay lower income tax rates than their secretaries was “like when Hitler invaded Poland.”
Schwarzman and Pete Peterson co-founded the private equity firm Blackstone. Peterson leads the effort to destroy the safety net in America. His greatest dream is to privatize Social Security so that Wall Street could increase its revenues by tens of billions of dollars. Blackstone is a major owner of Sea World, and it was in this sphere that Schwarzman went beyond his delusional rants about Hitler and became vile. When an Orca killed its trainer, Schwarzman lied and blamed the death on the trainer, claiming that Sea World “had one safety lapse — interestingly, with a situation where the person involved violated all the safety rules that we had.”
Schwarzman’s claim that the global financial markets are tanking because of Bernie’s increasing support is delusional, but it is revealing that he used the most recent market nightmare as an excuse to attack Bernie. The Wall Street plutocrats, with good reason, fear Bernie – not Hillary. Indeed, it is remarkable how vigorous and open Wall Street has been in signaling through the financial media that it has no problem with Hillary’s Wall Street plan. CNN, CNBC, and the Fiscal Times, under titles such as: “Here’s Why Wall Street Has Little to Fear from Hillary Clinton,” pushed this meme. [Continue reading…]
Benjamin Naddaff-Hafrey writes: Few companies could announce a new office in the messianic way that Google did last February. Then again, few companies have ever built this sort of office.
‘Google’s presence in Mountain View is simply so strong that it can’t be the fortress that shuts away… the neighbours. It really needs to become a neighbourhood in Mountain View,’ intones the lead architect Bjarke Ingels of the Danish firm Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) in the introductory video. The camera sweeps high over an edenic Mountain View in the San Francisco Bay Area. It pulls back to reveal Google’s proposed new office: a neighbourhood nested beneath glittering glass domes.
On approximately 3.5 million square feet of commercial land, Google intended to build a campus office that might best be described as a new part of town. Beneath the glass canopies, a thriving neighbourhood hosts stores, bike paths and modular office spaces. In building this new neighbourhood, Google hoped to expand their working space while accommodating the Mountain View population inclined to view them as a ‘fortress’. The utopian campus was meant to assuage fears that spiking numbers of Google employees would create a Google voting bloc, according to The New York Times. Such fears are understandable. As of 2013, the company employed roughly 10 per cent of Mountain View’s workforce and owned approximately the same proportion of taxable property. [Continue reading…]
The New York Times reports: California’s attorney general is investigating Exxon Mobil on whether the company lied to the public and shareholders about the risks of climate change, and whether the company’s statements over the years constitute violations of securities laws and other statutes.
The investigation is similar to one started in November by the New York attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman, for which the company has already produced thousands of documents.
Mr. Schneiderman, calling climate change “the defining issue of our time,” applauded the action taken by Kamala D. Harris, the attorney general.
“Just like any other publicly traded company, these energy giants have an obligation to ensure that their disclosures to investors of known and reasonably likely risks are truthful and not misleading, and to disclose to the public the risks associated with their products,” he said.
The California investigation was first reported by The Los Angeles Times, and was confirmed by people with knowledge of details of the inquiry. [Continue reading…]
Oxfam’s latest report, focused on an increasingly obscene wealth inequality and the stranglehold exerted by a global elite, had one central message: The era of tax havens that have made this possible must be brought to an end.
The headline numbers showed that the top 1% own as much wealth as the other 99% and – even more startling – that the richest 62 individuals own more wealth than the poorest half of the world’s population (compared to 388 individuals in 2010). To put this into stark perspective, this group of 62 people own as much as the 3.6 billion people on the bottom of the heap.
Oxfam makes it clear that this distribution of wealth is not some incidental byproduct of rising worldwide prosperity. Since 2000, the poorest half of the world’s population has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth, while 50% of that has gone to the 1% of people on the top of the pile – about 74m people. While the richest have been getting richer, the combined wealth of the poorest half of the planet has fallen by US$1 trillion (41%) in the past five years alone.
Will Hutton writes: There has always been a tension at the heart of capitalism. Although it is the best wealth-creating mechanism we’ve made, it can’t be left to its own devices. Its self-regulating properties, contrary to the efforts of generations of economists trying to prove otherwise, are weak.
It needs embedded countervailing power – effective trade unions, law and public action – to keep it honest and sustain the demand off which it feeds. Above all, it needs an ordered international framework of law, finance and trade in which it can do deals and business. It certainly can’t invent one itself. The mayhem in the financial markets over the last fortnight is the result of confronting this tension. The oil price collapse should be good news. It makes everything cheaper. It puts purchasing power in the hands of business and consumers elsewhere in the world who have a greater propensity to spend than most oil-producing countries. A low oil price historically presages economic good times. Instead, the markets are panicking.
They are panicking because what is driving the lower oil price is global disorder, which capitalism is powerless to correct. Indeed, it is capitalism running amok that is one of the reasons for the disorder. Profits as a share of national income in Britain and the US touch all-time highs; wages touch an all-time low as the power of organised labour diminishes and the gig economy of short-term contracts takes hold. The excesses of the rich, digging underground basements to house swimming pools, cinemas and lavish gyms, sit alongside the travails of the new middle-class poor. These are no longer able to secure themselves decent pensions and their gig-economy children defer starting families because of the financial pressures. [Continue reading…]
I didn’t watch President Obama’s State of the Union speech on Tuesday, but news reports alerted me to this passage:
A better politics doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. This is a big country, with different regions and attitudes and interests. That’s one of our strengths, too. Our Founders distributed power between states and branches of government, and expected us to argue, just as they did, over the size and shape of government, over commerce and foreign relations, over the meaning of liberty and the imperatives of security.
But democracy does require basic bonds of trust between its citizens. It doesn’t work if we think the people who disagree with us are all motivated by malice, or that our political opponents are unpatriotic. Democracy grinds to a halt without a willingness to compromise; or when even basic facts are contested, and we listen only to those who agree with us. Our public life withers when only the most extreme voices get attention. Most of all, democracy breaks down when the average person feels their voice doesn’t matter; that the system is rigged in favor of the rich or the powerful or some narrow interest.
It’s easy to view politics as a marketplace in which trading is taking place as competing constituencies haggle over power. From that perspective, the only question is which group best represents your interests and if no such group exists, politics then becomes a dull spectator sport. Such a marketplace is inevitably dominated by the loudest voices.
Even if that characterization is reasonably accurate, it is likely to have a constricting effect.
Politics seen as jostling power groups, makes those groups into somewhat static entities and it saps a spirit of inquiry.
If the activity of asking and answering questions — an activity that needs to be driven by curiosity — seems pointless, it gets replaced by a much less constructive exercise: the solidification of opinion through affiliation.
In other words, politics is reduced to the question of who you want to stand with and who you stand against.
In the Republican response to Obama’s speech, South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley said:
Some people think that you have to be the loudest voice in the room to make a difference. That is just not true. Often, the best thing we can do is turn down the volume. When the sound is quieter, you can actually hear what someone else is saying. And that can make a world of difference.
It would be easy to dismiss these appeals from Obama and Haley to reduce the level of rancor in politics as simply calls for a cosmetic change — as though politics can be reformed by making it more pleasant. But I don’t think these calls for a tone change should be trivialized.
The dynamic at issue is driven by the cycle of attention-seeking and attention-giving.
Donald Trump’s success has had less to do with either his financial independence or his alignment with a large segment of the population, than it has with his skill in co-opting the services of the mass media.
He took reality TV to the next level (cliche intended) by turning a presidential campaign into a form of mass entertainment. Trump supporters commonly say that a significant part of his appeal is that they find him entertaining. The tedium of politics has been turned into a raucous circus with Trump as ringmaster.
He couldn’t have done this without the help of a media which salivates at each and every opportunity to boost ratings and make more money.
Ultimately, this is an issue of American values. If creating wealth is the axis around which American life turns, then the media will inevitably function like every other branch of commerce.
The health of any society, however, requires a balance between self-interest and collective interests.
If government, the legal system, the media, education, medicine, and the arts, are controlled by commerce then we all end up as the slaves of profit.