Editor’s note: Any movement, if effective in challenging the status quo, is bound to face persecution from the state. The persecution may come in many forms, from defamation, to legal action, to outright murder. The twenty year long COINTELPRO program was run by the FBI to destabilize many movements including African-American, Native Americans and communist movements across the United States. A variety of methods was used to achieve the goal.
The Green Scare is the set of tactics used by FBI in the early twenty-first century to discredit and persecute the radical environmental movement. The following article discusses the Green Scare, putting it in context of the recent demise of Dave Foreman, a found of Earth First! and an early target of Green Scare.
By Jeffrey St. Clair – Joshua Frank/CounterPunch
Dave Foreman, whose vision spawned a radical wave of the US environmental movement, passed away this week at the age of 74 in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He was controversial, he was stubborn, but he wasn’t one to compromise the fight to save wilderness and open space. The following piece on Foreman’s foray with federal law enforcement first appeared in our book, The Big Heat: Earth on the Brink. – Jeffrey St. Clair & Joshua Frank
Dave Foreman, co-founder of Earth First!, awoke at five in the morning on May 30, 1989, to the sound of three FBI agents shouting his name in his Tucson, Arizona home. Foreman’s wife Nancy answered the door frantically and was shoved aside by brawny FBI agents as they raced toward their master bedroom where her husband was sound asleep, naked under the sheets, with plugs jammed in his ears to drown out the noise of their neighbor’s barking Doberman pincher. By the time Foreman came to, the agents were surrounding his bed in bulletproof vests wielding .357 Magnums.
He immediately thought of the murder of Fred Hampton in Chicago, expecting to be shot in cold blood. But as Foreman put it, “Being a nice, middle-class honky male, they can’t get away with that stuff quite as easily as they could with Fred, or with all the Native people on the Pine Ridge Reservation back in the early 70s.”
So instead of firing off a few rounds, they jerked a dazed Foreman from his slumber, let him pull on a pair of shorts, and hauled him outside where they threw him in the back of an unmarked vehicle. It took over six hours before Foreman even knew why he had been accosted by Federal agents.
Foreman’s arrest was the culmination of three years and two million tax dollars spent in an attempt to frame a few Earth First! activists for conspiring to damage government and private property. The FBI infiltrated Earth First! groups in several states with informants and undercover agent-provocateurs. Over 500 hours of tape recordings of meetings, events, and casual conversations had been amassed. Phones had been tapped and homes were broken into. The FBI was doing its best to intimidate radical environmentalists across the country, marking them as a potential threat to national security.
It was the FBI’s first case of Green Scare.
The day before Foreman was yanked from bed and lugged into the warm Arizona morning, two so-called co-conspirators, biologist Marc Baker and antinuclear activist Mark Davis were arrested by some 50 agents on horseback and on foot, with a helicopter hovering above as they stood at the base of a power line tower in the middle of desert country in Wenden, Arizona, 200 miles northwest of Foreman’s home. The next day Peg Millet, a self-described “redneck woman for wilderness,” was arrested at a nearby Planned Parenthood where she worked. Millet earlier evaded the FBI’s dragnet.
Driven to the site by an undercover FBI agent, the entire episode, as Foreman put it, was the agent’s conception. Foreman, described by the bureau as the guru and financier of the operation, was also pegged for having thought up the whole elaborate scheme, despite the fact that their evidence was thin.
Back in the 1970s, the FBI issued a memo to their field offices stating that when attempting to break up dissident groups, the most effective route was to forget about hard intelligence or facts. Simply make a few arrests and hold a public press conference. Charges could later be dropped. It didn’t matter; by the time the news hit the airwaves and was printed up in the local newspapers, the damage had already been done.
It was the FBI’s assertion that the action stopped by the arrests under that Arizona power line in late May 1989, was to be a test run for a much grander plot involving Davis, Baker, Millet, and the group’s leader, Dave Foreman. The FBI charged the four with the intent to damage electrical transmission lines that lead to the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility in Colorado.
“The big lie that the FBI pushed at their press conference the day after the arrests were that we were a bunch of terrorists conspiring to cut the power lines into the Palo Verde and Diablo Canyon nuclear facilities in order to cause a nuclear meltdown and threaten public health and safety,” explained Foreman.
In the late 1980s, the FBI launched operation THERMCON in response to an act of sabotage of the Arizona Snowbowl ski lift near Flagstaff, Arizona that occurred in October 1987, allegedly by Davis, Millet, and Baker. Acting under the quirky name, Evan Mecham Eco-Terrorist International Conspiracy (EMETIC) — the eco-saboteurs wrecked several of the company’s ski lifts, claiming that structures were cutting into areas of significant biological importance.
This was not the first act the group claimed responsibility for. A year prior EMETIC sent a letter declaring they inflicted damage at the Fairfield Snow Bowl near Flagstaff. The group’s letter also included a jovial threat to “chain the Fairfield CEO to a tree at the 10,000-foot level and feed him shrubs and roots until he understands the suicidal folly of treating the planet primarily as a tool for making money.”
The group used an acetylene torch to cut bolts from several of the lift’s support towers, making them inoperable. Upon receiving the letter, the Arizona ski resort was forced to shut down the lift in order to do repairs, which rang up to over $50,000.
But the big allegations heaved at these eco-saboteurs weren’t for dislodging a few bolts at a quaint ski resort in the heart of the Arizona mountains, or for inconveniencing a few ski bums from their daily excursions. No, the big charges were levied at the group for allegedly plotting to disrupt the functions of the Rocky Flats nuclear facility hundreds of miles away. Ironically, at the moment of their arrests, the FBI was simultaneously looking into public health concerns due to an illegal radioactive waste leak at the nuclear power site, which led Earth First! activist Mike Roselle to quip, “ [the FBI] would have discharged its duty better by assisting in a conspiracy to cut power to Rocky Flats, instead of trying to stop one.”
Gerry Spence climbed into his private jet in Jackson, Wyoming estate almost immediately upon hearing about the FBI arrest of Dave Foreman in Arizona. Spence had made a name for himself among environmental activists in the late-1970s for his case against energy company Kerr-McGee, when he provided legal services to the family of former employee Karen Silkwood, who died suspiciously after she charged the company with environmental abuses at one of their most productive nuclear facilities. Silkwood, who made plutonium pellets for nuclear reactors, had been assigned by her union to investigate health and safety concerns at a Kerr-McGee plant near Crescent, Oklahoma. In her monitoring of the facility, Silkwood found dozens of evident regulatory violations, including faulty respiratory equipment as well as many cases of workers being exposed to radioactive material.
Silkwood went public after her employer ignored her and her union’s concerns, even going as far as to testify to the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) about the issues, claiming that regulations were sidestepped in an attempt to up the speed of production. She also claimed that workers had been mishandling nuclear fuel rods, but the company has covered up the incidences by falsifying inspection reports.
On the night of November 13, 1974, Silkwood left a union meeting in Crescent with documents in hand to drive to Oklahoma City where she was to meet and discuss Kerr-McGee’s alleged violations with a union official and two New York Times reporters. She never made it. Silkwood’s body was found the next day in the driver’s seat of her car on the side of the road, stuck in a culvert. She was pronounced dead on the scene and no documents were found in her vehicle.
An independent private investigation revealed that Silkwood was in full control of her car when it was struck from behind and forced off to the side of the road. According to the private investigators, the steering wheel of her car was bent in a manner that showed conclusively that Silkwood was prepared for the blow of the accident as it occurred. She had not been asleep at the wheel as investigators initially thought. The coroner concluded she had not died as a result of the accident, but possibly from suffocation.
No arrests or charges were ever made. Silkwood’s children and father filed a lawsuit against Kerr-McGee on behalf of her estate. Gerry Spence was their lead attorney. An autopsy of Silkwood’s body showed extremely high levels of plutonium contamination. Lawyers for Kerr-McGee argued first that the levels found were in the normal range. but after evidence was presented to the contrary, they were forced to argue that Silkwood had likely poisoned herself.
Spence had been victorious. Kerr-McGee’s defense was caught in a series of unavoidable contradictions. Silkwood’s body was laden with poison as a result of her work at the nuclear facility. In her death, Spence vindicated her well-documented claims. The initial jury verdict was for the company to pay $505,000 in damages and $10,000,000 in punitive damages. Kerr-McGee appealed and drastically reduced the jury’s verdict, but the initial ruling was later upheld by the Supreme Court. On the way to a retrial, the company agreed to pay $1.38 million to the Silkwood estate.
Gerry Spence was not cowed by the antics of the Kerr-McGee Corporation, and when he agreed to take on Dave Foreman’s case pro-bono, justice seemed to be on the horizon for Earth First! activists as well.
“Picture a little guy out there hacking at a dead steel pole, an inanimate object, with a blowtorch. He’s considered a criminal,” said Spence, explaining how he planned to steer the narrative of Foreman’s pending trial. “Now see the image of a beautiful, living, 400-year-old-tree, with an inanimate object hacking away at it. This non-living thing is corporate America, but the corporate executives are not considered criminals at all.”
Like so many of the FBI charges brought against radical activists throughout the years, the case against Dave Foreman was less exciting than the investigation that led up to his arrest. The bureau had done its best to make Foreman and Earth First! out to be the most threatening activists in America.
Spence was not impressed and in fact argued as much, stating the scope of the FBI’s operation THERMCON was “very similar to the procedures the FBI used during the 1960s against dissident groups.” Spence was right. Similar to the movement disruption exemplified by COINTELPRO against Martin Luther King Jr., the Black Panthers, and the American Indian Movement, the FBI’s crackdown on Earth First! in the late 1980s had many alarming parallels to the agency of old.
“Essentially what we need to understand is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which was formed during the Palmer Raids in 1921, was set up from the very beginning to inhibit internal political dissent. They rarely go after criminals. They’re thought police,” said Foreman of the FBI’s motives for targeting environmentalists. “Let’s face it, that’s what the whole government is. Foreman’s first law of government reads that the purpose of the state, and all its constituent elements, is the defense of an entrenched economic elite and philosophical orthodoxy. Thankfully, there’s a corollary to that law—they aren’t always very smart and competent in carrying out their plans.”
The man who was paid to infiltrate Earth First! under the guise of THERMCON was anything but competent. Special agent Michael A. Fain, stationed in the FBI’s Phoenix office, befriended Peg Millet and began attending Earth First! meetings in the area. Fain, who went by the alias, Mike Tait, posed as a Vietnam vet who dabbled in construction and gave up booze after his military service. On more than one occasion, while wearing a wire, Fain had tried to entice members of Earth First! in different acts of vandalism. They repeatedly refused.
During pre-trial evidence discovery, the defense was allowed to listen to hours of Fain’s wire-tapings, when they found that the not-so-careful agent inadvertently forgot to turn off his recorder. Fain, while having a conversation with two other agents at a Burger King after a brief meeting with Foreman, spoke about the status of his investigation, exclaiming, “I don’t really look for them to be doing a lot of hurting people… [Dave Foreman] isn’t really the guy we need to pop — I mean in terms of an actual perpetrator. This is the guy we need to pop to send a message. And that’s all we’re really doing… Uh-oh! We don’t need that on tape! Hoo boy!”
Here the FBI was publicly vilifying these Earth First!ers, while privately admitting that they posed no real threat. “[The agency is acting] as if [its] dealing with the most dangerous, violent terrorists that the country’s ever known,” explained Spence at the time. “And what we are really dealing with is ordinary, decent human beings who are trying to call the attention of America to the fact that the Earth is dying.”
The FBI’s rationale for targeting Foreman was purely political as he was one of the most prominent and well-spoken radical environmentalists of the time. Despite their claims that they were not directly targeting Earth First! or Foreman, and were instead investigating threats of sabotage of power lines that led to a nuclear power plant — their public indictment painted quite a different story.
“Mr. Foreman is the worst of the group,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Roger Dokken announced to the court. “He sneaks around in the background … I don’t like to use the analogy of a Mafia boss, but they never do anything either. They just sent their munchkins out to do it.”
But agent Michael Fain’s on-tape gaffes were simply too much for the prosecution to manage, and the case against Foreman, having been deferred almost seven years, was finally reduced in 1996 to a single misdemeanor and a meager $250 in fines. The $2 million the FBI wasted tracking Earth First! over the latter part of the 1980s had only been nominally successful. Yet the alleged ringleader was still free. Unfortunately, the FBI may have gotten exactly what they wanted all along. Dave Foreman later stepped down as spokesman to Earth First! and inherited quite a different role in the environmental movement — one of invisibility and near silence.
Peg Millet, Mark Davis, and Marc Baker were all sentenced separately in 1991 for their involvement in their group EMETIC’s acts of ecotage against the expansion of Arizona Snowbowl. Davis got 6 years and $19,821 in restitution. Millet only 3 years, with the same fine, while Baker only received 6 months and a $5,000 fine.
Little did these activists know that their capture and subsequent arraignments were only the beginning. THERMCON’s crackdown of Earth First! would prove to be a dry-run for the Federal Bureau of Investigations.
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org and trolled on Twitter @JSCCounterPunch. Joshua Frank is managing editor of CounterPunch. He can be reached at email@example.com. You can follow him on Twitter @joshua__frank.
Featured Image: by Robert J. Pleasants Papers, WWII 73, WWII Papers, Military Collection, State Archives of North Carolina, Raleigh, N.C.
Editor’s note: It is far too easy for radicals with a systemic analysis to become paralyzed at the scope of necessary change. At its best, radical analysis informs strategic actions in the here-and-now that helps us create a better future. At worst, it enables a nihilistic resignation that prevents people from taking action. We advocate for the middle ground: using radical analysis to inform a practical radical politics in the here and now.
But lest we become tempted to engage in tepid reformism, we must remember that practicality does not mean compromising on fundamental issues. When it comes to ecology, for example, any conflict between the ecologically necessary and politically feasible must be settled in favor of the ecologically necessary. However, the ecologically necessary will not spontaneously evolve; we must work for it, starting here and now.
This piece from pro-feminist and environmental activist Robert Jensen dives into this thorny balance, and challenges each us: what can you begin doing now that is based in a radical understanding of the problems we face, and also is practical and effective in the context of a profoundly conservative society? We welcome discussion in the comments section.
by Robert Jensen / February 4, 2022
We need to be practical when it comes to politics, to work for policies that we can enact today, inadequate though they may be to answer calls for social justice and ecological sustainability. We also need to maintain a relentlessly radical analysis, to highlight the failures of systems and structures of power, aware that policies we might enact today won’t resolve existing crises or stave off collapse. Both things are true, and both things are relevant to the choices we make.
Politics is the art of the possible, and politics also is the pursuit of goals that are impossible. We can pursue reforms today, knowing them to be inadequate, with revolutionary aims for tomorrow, knowing that the transformation needed will likely come too late. These two obligations pull us in different directions, often generating anger and anxiety. But it is easier—or, at least, should be easier—to handle that tension as we get older. Aging provides more experience with frustration, along with greater capacity for equanimity. Frustration is inevitable given our collective failure, our inability as a species to confront problems in ways that lead to meaningful progress toward real solutions. Equanimity allows us to live with that failure and remember our moral obligation to continue struggling. Frustration reminds us that we care about the ideals that make life meaningful. Equanimity makes living possible as we fall short of those ideals.
If these sound like the ramblings of an old person, well, this past year I got old. Not necessarily in years, because not everyone would consider sixty-three to be old. Not in health, because I’m holding up fairly well. But I am old in outlook, in my current balance of frustration and equanimity. For me, getting old has meant no longer seeing much distinction between righteous indignation and self-righteous indignation. I have let go of any sense of moral superiority that I felt in the past, but at the same time I have grown more confident in the soundness of the framework of analysis I use to understand the world. I also am more aware that offering what I believe to be a compelling analysis doesn’t always matter much to others. I have not given up, but I have given over more to the reality of limits, both of humans and the biophysical limits of the ecosphere. With age, I have gotten more practical while my analysis has gotten more radical.
In this essay I want to present a case for a practical radical politics—holding onto radical analyses while making decisions based on our best reading of the threats and opportunities in the moment. This requires consistency in analysis (which is always a good thing) while being wary of dogmatism in strategy (which is almost always a bad thing). My plan is to articulate the values on which my worldview is based; identify the hierarchical systems within the human family that undermine those values; and describe the history of the ecological break between the human family and the larger living world. From the analytical, I will offer thoughts on coping with the specific political moment of 2022 in the United States and with long-term global ecological realities. I have no grand strategy to propose, but instead will try to face my fears about the tenuous nature of life today politically and the even more tenuous nature of what lies ahead ecologically.
Working for what is possible requires commitment. Recognizing what is not possible requires humility. All of it requires us to embrace the anguish that is inevitable if we face the future without illusions.
Dignity, Solidarity, Equality
In a multicultural world, we should expect conflict over differences in value judgments. But at the level of basic values—not judgments about how to live those values, but the principles we hold dear—there is considerable unanimity. No matter what religious or secular philosophical system one invokes, it’s common for people to agree on the (1) inherent dignity of all people, (2) importance of solidarity for healthy community life, and (3) need for a level of equality that makes dignity and solidarity possible. Most conflicts over public policy emerge from the many devils lurking in the details, but we can at least be clearer about those conflicts if we articulate basic principles on which most people agree.
The dignity of all people is an easy one. If someone were to say “People in my nation/religion/ethnic group have greater intrinsic value than others,” most of us would treat that person as a threat to the body politic. People may believe that their nation embodies special political virtues, or that their religion has cornered the market on spiritual insights, or that their ethnic group is a source of pride. But very few will actually say that they believe that their children are born with a greater claim to dignity than children born at some other spot on Earth.
Solidarity is an easy one, too. Except for the rare eccentric, we all seek a sense of connection in community with others. Humans are social animals, even “ultrasocial” according to some scholars. We may value our privacy and sometimes seek refuge from others in a harried world, but more important than occasional solitude is our need for a sense of belonging. Today, that solidarity need not be limited to people who look like me, talk like me, act like me. Solidarity in diversity—connecting across differences—is exciting and enriching.
Equality may seem more contentious, given the political wrangling over taxing wealth and providing a social safety net. But there is ample evidence that greater equality makes social groups stronger and more cohesive, leading to better lives for everyone. Hoarding wealth is a feature of the many societies since the invention of agriculture (more on that later), but even people with a disproportionate share of the world’s wealth acknowledge the corrosive effects of such dramatic disparities and support higher taxes on the rich.
That’s why some version of the “ethic of reciprocity”—the claim that we should treat others as we would like to be treated—shows up in so many religious and secular philosophical systems. In the first century BCE, the Jewish scholar Hillel was challenged by a man to “teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one foot.” Hillel’s response: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah, while the rest is the commentary thereof; go and learn it.” In Christianity, Jesus phrased it this way in the Sermon on the Mount: “So whatever you wish that someone would do to you, do so to them; for this is the law and the prophets” (Matt. 7:12). In Islam, one of the Prophet Muhammad’s central teachings was, “None of you truly believes until he loves for his brother what he loves for himself” (Hadith 13). In secular Western philosophy, Kant’s categorical imperative is a touchstone: “Act only according to that maxim whereby you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law.” Rooted in this ethic, it’s not a big leap to Marx’s “from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs,” which is why a third of respondents to a US survey identified the phrase as coming from the US Constitution and another third said they weren’t sure.
Acknowledging these common values doesn’t magically resolve conflicts over public policy or bridge cultural divides. Fear, arrogance, and greed can lead people to ignore their values. But asking people to affirm these values, which most of us claim to hold, creates a foundation for public dialogue about the hierarchies we see all around us.
If everyone took those values seriously, everyone would reject the violence, exploitation, and oppression that defines so much of the modern world. Only a small percentage of people in any given society are truly sociopaths—people incapable of empathy, who are not disturbed by cruel and oppressive behavior. So, a critique of the suffering that hierarchies produce should resonate with most people and lead to widespread resistance. Yet systems based on these domination/subordination dynamics endure, for reasons that are fairly simple to articulate:
+ Almost all of the systems and institutions in which we live are hierarchical.
+ Hierarchical systems and institutions deliver to those in a dominant class certain privileges, pleasures, and material benefits, and a limited number of people in a subordinated class are allowed access to those same rewards.
+ People are typically hesitant to give up privileges, pleasures, and benefits that make us feel good.
+ But those benefits clearly come at the expense of the vast majority of those in a subordinated class.
+ Given the widespread acceptance of basic notions about what it means to be a decent person, the existence of hierarchy has to be justified in some way other than crass self-interest.
One of the most common arguments for systems of domination and subordination is that they are “natural”—immutable, inevitable, just the way things are. Even if we don’t like things this way, we have no choice but to accept it. Oppressive systems work hard to make it appear that the hierarchies—and the disparities in wealth, status, and power that flow from them—are natural and beyond modification. If men are stronger in character with greater leadership ability than women, then patriarchy is inevitable and justifiable, even divinely commanded in some faith traditions. If the United States is the vehicle for extending modern democracy, then US domination of the world is inevitable and justifiable. If white people are smarter and more virtuous than people of color, then white supremacy is inevitable and justifiable. If rich people are smarter and harder working than poor people, then economic inequality is inevitable and justifiable.
All these claims require a denial of reality and an evasion of responsibility, and yet all these claims endure in the twenty-first century. The evidence presented for the natural dominance of some people is that those people are, on average, doing better and therefore must in some way be better. That works only if one believes that the wealth of the world should be distributed through a competitive system (a debatable point, if one takes those commitments to dignity, solidarity, and equality seriously) and that the existing “meritocracy” in which people compete is fair (a point that requires ignoring a tremendous amount of evidence about how the systems are rigged to perpetuate unearned privilege). This so-called evidence—that people who succeed in systems designed to advantage them are actually succeeding on their merit, which is proof they deserve it all—is one of the great shell games of history. That’s why it is crucial for unjust hierarchies to promote a belief in their naturalness; it’s essential to rationalizing the illegitimate authority exercised in them. Not surprisingly, people in a dominant class exercising that power gravitate easily to such a view. And because of their control over key storytelling institutions (especially education and mass communication), those in a dominant class can fashion a story about the world that leads some portion of the people in a subordinate class to internalize the ideology.
Instead of accepting this, we can evaluate these hierarchal systems and acknowledge that they are inconsistent with the foundational values most of us claim to hold.
People—you, me, our ancestors, and our progeny—have not been, are not, and will not always be kind, fair, generous, or agreeable. Human nature includes empathy and compassion, along with the capacity for greed and violence. Attention to how different social systems channel our widely variable species propensities is important. Because in all social systems people have been capable of doing bad things to others, we impose penalties on people who violate norms, whether through unwritten rules or formal laws. For most of human history prior to agriculture, in our gathering-and-hunting past, egalitarian values were the norm and band-level societies developed effective customs for maintaining those norms of cooperation and sharing. As societies grew in size and complexity, those customary methods became less effective, and hierarchies emerged and hardened.
To challenge the pathologies behind the routine violence, exploitation, and oppression that define the modern world, we have to understand how contemporary systems of power work to naturalize hierarchies. Listed in order from the oldest in human history to the most recent, the key systems are patriarchy, states and their imperial ambitions, white supremacy, and capitalism.
Systems of institutionalized male dominance emerged several thousand years ago, after the beginning of agriculture, which changed so much in the world. Men turned the observable physiological differences between male and female—which had been the basis for different reproductive and social roles but generally with egalitarian norms—into a system of dominance, laying the foundation for the other hierarchical systems that would follow. Within families, men asserted control over women’s bodies, especially their sexual and reproductive capacities, and eventually extended male dominance over women in all of society.
As with any human practice, the specific forms such control take has varied depending on place and changed over time. Men’s exploitation of women continues today in rape, battering, and other forms of sexual coercion and harassment; the sexual-exploitation industries that sell objectified female bodies to men for sexual pleasure, including prostitution and pornography; denial of reproductive rights, including contraception and abortion; destructive beauty practices; and constraints on women’s economic and political opportunities. In some places, women remain feudal property of fathers and husbands. In other places, women are a commodity in capitalism who can be purchased by any man.
Some of these practices are legal and embraced by the culture. Some practices are illegal but socially condoned and rarely punished. Men along the political continuum, from reactionary right to radical left, engage in abusive and controlling behaviors that are either openly endorsed or quietly ignored. Feminist organizing projects have opened some paths to justice for some women, but success on one front can go forward while ground is lost elsewhere. After decades of organizing work, the anti-rape movement has raised awareness of men’s violence at the same time that the sexual-exploitation industries are more accepted than ever in the dominant culture.
No project for global justice in the twenty-first century is meaningful without a feminist challenge to patriarchy.
States and Imperialism
Around the same time that men’s domination of women was creating patriarchy, the ability of elites to store and control agricultural surpluses led to the formation of hierarchical states and then empires. Surplus-and-hierarchy predate agriculture in a few resource-rich places, but the domestication of plants and animals triggered the spread of hierarchy and a domination/subordination dynamic across the globe.
Historians debate why states emerged in the first place, but once such forms of political organization existed they became a primary vehicle for the concentration of wealth and conquest. States maintain their power by force and ideology, using violence and the threat of violence as well as propaganda and persuasion.
States have taken many different forms: the early empires of Mesopotamia, Egypt, the Indus Valley, and China; the Greek city-states and Roman Republic-turned-Empire; Mesoamerican empires such as the Maya and Mexica/Aztec; feudal states; modern nation-states with various forms of governance; and today’s liberal democracies. Levels of wealth concentration and brutality, toward both domestic and foreign populations, have varied depending on place and changed over time. But even in contemporary democracies, the majority of the population has a limited role in decision-making. And some of the modern states that developed democratic institutions—including, but not limited to, Great Britain, France, and the United States—have been as brutal in imperial conquest as any ancient empire. European states’ world conquest over the past five hundred years, first accomplished through violence, continues in the form of economic domination in the postcolonial period. When imperial armies go home, private firms continue to exploit resources and labor, typically with local elites as collaborators.
In the first half of its existence, the United States focused on continental conquest to expand the land base of the country, resulting in the almost complete extermination of indigenous people. After that, US policymakers in the past century turned their attention to global expansion, achieving dominance in the post-World War II era.
Global justice in the twenty-first century requires acknowledging that the First World’s wealth is tied to the immiseration of the Third World. The power concentrated in states should be turned to undo the crimes of states.
While human beings have always had notions of in-group and outsiders, we have not always categorized each other on the basis of what we today call race. The creation of modern notions of whiteness grew out of Europeans’ desire to justify the brutality of imperialism—conquest is easier when the people being conquered are seen as inferior. Racial categories later become central to the divide-and-conquer strategies that elites throughout history have used to control the majority of a population and maintain an unequal distribution of wealth and power.
In the early years of the British colonies in North America, rigid racial categories had not yet been created; there were no clear laws around slavery; and personal relationships and alliances between indentured servants and African slaves were not uncommon. When white workers began to demand better conditions, the planter elite’s solution was to increase the use of African slaves and separate them from poor European workers by giving whites a higher status with more opportunities, without disturbing the basic hierarchical distribution of wealth and power. This undermined alliances among the disenfranchised, leading white workers to identify more with wealthy whites while blacks were increasingly associated with the degradation inherent in slavery.
Not all white people are living in luxury, of course. But all other social factors being equal, non-white people face more hostile behaviors—from racist violence to being taken less seriously in a business meeting, from discrimination in hiring to subtle exclusion in social settings. While all people, including whites, experience unpleasant interactions with others, white people do not carry the burden of negative racial stereotypes into those interactions.
The limited benefits that elites bestowed on white workers have been referred to as “the wages of whiteness,” which is in large part psychological. White workers in this system get to think of themselves as superior to non-whites, especially black and indigenous people, no matter how impoverished they may be or how wide the gap between their lives and the lives of wealthy white people.
Although race is only one component of how wealth and power are distributed in hierarchical economies today, global justice is impossible without the end of white supremacy.
Patriarchy, imperialism, and white supremacy obviously are hierarchical systems, and it has become increasingly difficult for people to make moral arguments for them. But capitalism’s supporters assert that a so-called free-market system is the essence of freedom, allowing everyone to make uncoerced individual choices. That’s true, but only in textbooks and the fantasies of economists.
First, what is capitalism? Economists debate exactly what makes an economy capitalist, but in the real world we use it to identify a system in which (1) most property, including the capital assets necessary for production, is owned and controlled by private persons; (2) most people must rent themselves for money wages to survive; (3) the means of production and labor are manipulated by capitalists using amoral calculations to maximize profit; and (4) most exchanges of goods and services occur through markets. I did not say “free markets” because all markets in modern society are constructed through law (rules about contracts, currency, use of publicly funded infrastructure), which inevitably will advantage some and disadvantage others. Some disadvantages, such as living near manufacturing facilities that produce toxic waste, are what economists call “externalities,” the consequences of transactions that affect other people or ecosystems but aren’t reflected in the prices of goods or services. The term externality converts a moral outrage into the cost of doing business, borne mostly by poor people and non-human life.
“Industrial capitalism”—made possible by discoveries of new energy sources, sweeping technological changes, and concentrations of capital in empires such as Great Britain—was marked by the development of the factory system and greater labor specialization and exploitation. The term “finance capitalism” is used to mark a shift to a system in which the accumulation of profits in a financial system becomes dominant over the production processes. This financialization has led not only to intensified inequality but also to greater economic instability, most recently in the collapse of the housing market that sparked the financial crisis of 2007-08.
Today in the United States, most people understand capitalism through the experience of wage labor (renting oneself to an employer for money) and mass consumption (access to unprecedented levels of goods and services that are cheap enough to be affordable for ordinary people and not just elites). In such a world, everyone and everything is a commodity in the market.
This ideology of market fundamentalism is often referred to as “neoliberalism,” the new version of an economic definition of “liberal” from the nineteenth century that advocated minimal interference of government in markets. These fundamentalists assume that the most extensive use of markets possible, along with privatization of many publicly owned assets and the shrinking of public services, will unleash maximal competition and result in the greatest good—and that all this is inherently just, no matter what the results. If such a system creates a world in which most people live near or below the poverty line, that is taken not as evidence of a problem with market fundamentalism but evidence that fundamentalist principles have not been imposed with sufficient vigor. It is an article of faith that the “invisible hand” of the market always provides the preferred result, no matter how awful the consequences may be for large numbers of people and ecosystems.
Capitalism’s failures are easy to catalog: It is fundamentally inhuman (it not only allows but depends on the immiseration of a substantial portion of the world’s population to generate wealth), anti-democratic (the concentration of that wealth results in the concentration of power and undermines broad public participation), and unsustainable (the level of consumption threatens the stability of the ecosphere).
Capitalism is not the only unjust and unsustainable economic system in human history, of course. But global justice and ecological sustainability are impossible to imagine if we do not transcend capitalism and the fantasy of endless growth.
The domination/subordination dynamic that is prevalent within the human family also defines the relationship between the human family and the larger living world today. That doesn’t mean that every person or every cultural tradition seeks to dominate and control the non-human world; there is considerable variation based on geography, history, and technological development. But today, virtually everyone—with varying levels of complicity, of course—is caught up in economic relationships that degrade ecosystems and undermine the ability of the ecosphere to sustain large-scale human life for much longer.
The idea that we humans, rather than the ecospheric forces, control the world emerged about ten thousand years ago at a key fault line in human history, the invention of agriculture, when soil erosion and degradation began the drawdown of the ecological capital of ecosystems beyond replacement levels. This destruction was intensified about five thousand years ago when people learned to smelt metals and started exhausting the carbon of forests in the Bronze and Iron ages. The Industrial Revolution and fossil fuels ramped up the assault on the larger living world, further intensified with the dramatic expansion of the petrochemical industries in the second half of the twentieth century. This history brings us to the brink of global ecological breakdown.
Today we face not only the longstanding problems of exhausted soils, but also chemical contamination of ecosystems and our own bodies; species extinction and loss of biodiversity; and potentially catastrophic climate disruption. Scientists warn that we have transgressed some planetary boundaries and are dangerously close to others, risking abrupt and potentially irreversible ecological change that could eliminate “a safe operating space for humanity.” All of these crises are a derivative of the overarching problem of overshoot, which occurs when a species uses biological resources beyond an ecosystem’s ability to regenerate and pollutes beyond an ecosystem’s capacity to absorb waste. The human species’ overshoot is not confined to specific ecosystems but is global, a threat at the planetary level.
How did we get here? Another look at human history is necessary to understand our predicament and the centrality of agriculture.
Like all organisms, gathering-and-hunting humans had to take from their environment to survive, but that taking was rarely so destructive that it undermined the stability of ecosystems or eliminated other species. Foraging humans were not angels—they were, after all, human like us, capable of being mean-spirited and violent. But they were limited in their destructive capacity by the amount of energy they could extract from ecosystems. Their existence did not depend on subordinating other humans or dominating the larger living world.
That changed with the domestication of plants and animals, especially annual grains such as wheat. Not all farming is equally destructive; differences in geography, climate, and environmental conditions have dictated different trajectories of development in different parts of the world. But the universal driver of this process is human-carbon nature: the quest for energy, the imperative of all life to seek out energy-rich carbon. Humans play that energy-seeking game armed with an expansive cognitive capacity and a species propensity to cooperate—that is, we are smart and know how to coordinate our activities to leverage our smarts. That makes humans dangerous, especially when we began to believe that we do not just live in the world but could own the world.
This deep history reminds us of the depth of our predicament. Capitalism is a problem but even if we replaced it with a more humane and democratic system, most people either are accustomed to a high-energy life or aspire to it. White supremacy is morally repugnant but achieving racial justice will not change people’s expectations for material comfort. The power of states, especially to extract wealth from other places, is dangerous, but constraining state power does not guarantee ecosphere stability. Transcending the foundational hierarchy of patriarchy, as liberating as that would be, is a necessary but not sufficient condition for social transformation.
Achieving greater levels of justice in the cultural, political, and economic arenas does not change the fact that the aggregate consumption of nearly eight billion people is unsustainable. In the past one hundred years, the population had doubled twice because of the dense energy of fossil fuels and the technology made possible by that energy. We will not be able to maintain this way of living much longer.
Today we know that continuing that fossil-fueled spending spree will lead to climate-change dystopias. Despite the fantasies of the technological fundamentalists, no combination of renewable energy sources can meet the material expectations of today’s human population. No advanced technology can change the laws of physics and chemistry. The future will be marked by a down-powering, either through rational planning or ecospheric forces that are more powerful than human desires. The slogan for a sustainable human future must be “fewer and less”: fewer people consuming far less energy and material resources.
I have no plan to achieve that result. No one else does either. No one has a plan that will make that transition easy or painless. There likely is no transition possible without disruption, dislocation, and death beyond our capacity to imagine. Our task is to continue trying without taking refuge in wishful thinking or succumbing to nihilism.
THREATS AND OPPORTUNITIES: WHAT LIES AHEAD
The worldview I have outlined presents a consistent critique of not only the abuses of the powerful but the abusive nature of hierarchical systems. In a world built on hierarchies, there will never be permanent solutions to the injustice within the human family or to the unsustainable relationship between the human family and the larger living world.
This argues for a radical politics that is not afraid to articulate big goals and focus on long-term change. Not everyone with left/progressive politics will agree on every aspect of my analysis, nor is it possible to get widespread agreement on specific strategies for change—the left is full of contentious people who have substantive disagreements. However, people with radical politics usually agree on the depth of the changes needed over the long haul. But a long-term commitment to social and ecological transformation does not mean that today’s less ambitious political struggles are irrelevant. If a policy change that can be made today lessens human suffering or slightly reduces ecological destruction, that’s all to the good. Even better is when those small changes help set the stage for real transformation.
In some historical moments, the immediate threats to an existing democratic system that is flawed but functioning require special focus. A retrenchment of democracy would not only increase human suffering and ecological degradation but also make the longer and deeper struggles to change the system more difficult. The United States in 2022 faces such a threat.
My Political Life and Our Moment in History
In my political life as an adult, the two-party system in the United States has offered few attractive choices for the left. I reached voting age in 1976, about the time that the mainstream of the Democratic Party started shifting to the center/right and the mainstream of the Republican Party began moving from the center/right to more reactionary stances on most issues. The New Deal consensus that had defined post-World War II politics broke down, the radical energy of the 1960s dissipated, and left-wing critiques of economic policy were pushed to the margins.
But US society was changed for the better in many ways by that radical activism, most notably on issues of race, sex, and sexuality—civil rights, women’s rights, and lesbian/gay rights. Activists also won more breathing room to advocate for radical ideas free from most overt state repression. Many progressive people and ideas found their way into higher education and media institutions, even if the power structures in government and the economy didn’t change much. But that didn’t stop the ascendancy of neoliberalism, marked by the election of Margaret Thatcher as UK prime minister in 1979 and Ronald Reagan as US president in 1980.
When I became politically active in the 1990s, radical organizing focused on those power structures and hierarchical systems. We saw our work as not only fighting right-wing reactionary policies championed by the Republican Party but also challenging the moderates who controlled the Democratic Party. The epitome of that corporate-friendly politics was the 1996 presidential race, pitting Bill Clinton against Bob Dole, an election in which it was easy to understand why so many on the left claimed there wasn’t “a dime’s worth of difference” between the two candidates. (We always should be careful, however, given the parties’ different positions on rights for people of color, women, and lesbians and gay men, and also because that phrase came in the 1968 presidential campaign of former Alabama Governor George Wallace, hardly a progressive.)
In our organizing, we had no illusions that a radical politics would catch fire immediately, but the patient work of articulating a radical agenda and organizing people outside the electoral system seemed sensible. I continued to vote in every election, but like many on the left I was fond of an Emma Goldman quote (sometimes attributed to Mark Twain): “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.”
Today, the assault on representative democracy from the right may leave us with voting that is legal but irrelevant in what is now called an “illiberal democracy.” No matter what the limits of our attenuated democratic system, its de facto death at the hands of authoritarianism would be a disaster.
Solidarity against the Right
The political terrain is in some ways unchanged—the dominant forces in the United States remain committed to capitalism and US domination of the global economy. But democratic socialist electoral and organizing successes in the past decade have created new opportunities within the Democratic Party, demonstrated most visibly by the unexpected strength of Bernie Sanders in the presidential primaries in 2016 and 2020, and the election to the US House of Representatives of the “squad” of progressive women of color. Building popular movements together with electoral campaigns has demonstrated that the left can press the moderate leadership of the Democratic Party from the outside and inside.
But in that same period, a new threat has emerged: the erosion of the central norms of liberal democracy from a right-wing populist movement that found a charismatic authoritarian leader in Donald Trump. Whatever the limits of liberal democracy in capitalism, that system provides the foundation from which radical political activity can go forward. This new threat is serious, and unprecedented in my lifetime.
The two democratic norms most unstable at the moment are the peaceful transfer of power based on acceptance of results from open, competitive elections; and rational political engagement based on shared intellectual principles about truth-seeking. A significant segment of the Republican Party, including many of the most visible party leaders, have abandoned the core principle of democracy and the core principle of modern intellectual life that makes democracy possible.
None of this suggests there was a mythical golden age of US politics when the democratic system produced deep democracy. The John Birch Society and Ku Klux Klan were authentic manifestations of US culture, just as labor organizing and the civil rights movement were. Concentrations of wealth have always distorted democracy, and hierarchies have always intentionally marginalized some people. But a political system based on a peaceful transfer of power after rational engagement—no matter how imperfectly it may work at times—is better than a political system that abandons those principles.
Today, a functional two-party system no longer exists. Whatever the failures of the Democratic Party to deliver on rhetoric about freedom and justice, it remains committed to those democratic and intellectual principles. The Republican Party of today is a rogue operation, openly thuggish and ready to abandon minimal democratic protocols after abandoning minimal intellectual standards. A majority of Republicans believe that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump without being able to produce any credible evidence, and a majority are likely to make the same claim if the 2024 presidential election is won by a Democrat. Almost all Republican politicians either endorse these positions or are afraid to challenge them in public for fear of alienating a significant number of core Republican voters.
Where will this lead? The direst warnings suggest a coming civil war. The best-case scenario is years of struggle over power that bring simmering social and ecological crises to full boil. I am not in the prediction business and do not know if the worst can be averted. But for now, a practical radical politics should put aside ideological differences with the moderate wing of the Democratic Party and do whatever is necessary to repel the threat to liberal democracy from the Republican Party. The difference between the two parties can no longer be measured in dimes and is now about decibels: The destructive rhetoric of the anti-democratic forces on the right is threatening to drown out any possibility of rational engagement, endangering the peaceful transfer of power in future elections.
Some on the left will counter with “the lesser of two evils is still evil.” This is a dangerous sentiment for two reasons. First, is it accurate to cast political opponents as evil? I strongly support national health insurance to provide the same basic care for everyone. Are people who reject that policy evil? I strongly opposed the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Are people who supported those military actions evil? We need not settle on a single definition of what constitutes evil—philosophers and theologians have been fussing with that for millennia—to agree that the term is unhelpful in parsing most contemporary policy debates. Second, what if there were a case in which competing political forces both deserved the term evil but there was a meaningful distinction in the intensity of the evil, and the distinction meant saving lives. Wouldn’t we want to side with the lesser? Hypotheticals are of little value, given the complexity of such decisions in the real world. But to suggest that it is morally superior to never make such calculations is simplistic and irresponsible.
A practical radical politics requires collaboration with forces that can challenge the intensified reactionary politics of the Republican Party while we pursue projects to expand and deepen social justice. One organizer has called for a “block and build” strategy—block the white nationalists, theocrats, and corporate oligarchs, while building practices that support multiracial democracy in all our projects.
Debate within the Left
As we participate in a united front against authoritarianism, minimizing for the time being the serious disagreements with mainstream Democrats and rational Republicans, we should reflect on the intellectual traps in which the left finds itself ensnared. On social justice, there is not enough critical self-reflection. On ecological sustainability, there is too much magical thinking.
I don’t want to get bogged down in the debate over “cancel culture,” the banishment or shunning of anyone who breaks from a group’s doctrine. The term has been so successfully commandeered by the right-wing that it has become an impediment to productive conversation. Simply proclaiming a commitment to freedom of expression doesn’t resolve the problem, since there is no simple, obvious analysis of that freedom that can easily resolve policy disputes. “It’s complicated” may be a cliché, but it applies here.
For purposes of this essay, I will offer what should not be controversial: On matters that are long settled in both moral and scientific realms, such as the equality of racial groups, the left need not spend time on debate. On matters that are not settled in either realm, such as the definition and etiology of transgenderism, respectful debate should be encouraged. And on matters of public policy—how we can best ensure dignity, solidarity, and equality—any reasonable proposal offered in good faith should get a hearing.
After three decades of participation in a variety of left and feminist movements, I would also highlight the need to guard against expressions of intellectual superiority and assumptions of moral superiority. I offer this with painful awareness of my own failings in the past, and with a pledge to work toward greater humility. This is crucial for two reasons. The principled reason is simply that everyone can be wrong, has been wrong, and will be wrong again sometime. Adopting a posture of certainty ignores our capacity for failure. The practical reason is that no one likes arrogant people who think they are always right and always better than everyone else. Haughty and smug people make ineffective political organizers, which I know from my own failures.
I am not arguing that people on the left are uniquely subject to these traps, but rather that people on the left are people and, like everyone, capable of haughtiness and smugness. This is of particular concern on college campuses, one of the sites where the left is strongest. In thirty years of work in universities, I saw how intellectual and moral posturing on the left undermined a healthy intellectual culture and drove away those well-intentioned centrist and conservative people who were willing to debate in good faith but did not want to be hectored.
Leftists tend to think of themselves as critically minded, and so this call for greater critical self-reflection and humility will no doubt bristle. So will the suggestion that the left’s ecological program is based on magical thinking. But the major progressive environmental proposal, the Green New Deal, shows that the left is prone to reality-denial on ecological matters and can get caught up in technological fundamentalism. That faith-based embrace of the idea that the use of evermore advanced technology is always a good thing—even to solve the problems caused by the unintended consequences of previous advanced technology—is perhaps the most dangerous fundamentalism in the world today.
Human-carbon nature makes it difficult to move toward a dramatically lower population with dramatically less consumption; it’s easy to understand why a call for limits isn’t popular. But rather than talk about the need for “fewer and less,” most of the left places the ecological crises exclusively at capitalism’s door. The Green New Deal and similar proposals seem to assume that once the corporations profiting from exploitation are tamed or eliminated, a more democratic distribution of political power will lead to the renewable technologies that will allow high-energy lifestyles to continue. This illusion shows up in the promotional video “A Message from the Future” that features U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a leading progressive voice in Congress. This seven-and-a-half minute video elegantly combines political analysis with engaging storytelling and beautiful visuals to make a case for the Green New Deal. But one sentence reveals the fatal flaw of the analysis: “We knew that we needed to save the planet and that we had all the technology to do it [in 2019].” First, talk of saving the planet is misguided. As many have pointed out in response to such rhetoric, the Earth will continue with or without humans. Charitably, we can interpret that phrase to mean “reducing the damage that humans do to the ecosphere and creating a livable future for humans.”
The problem is that we don’t have all the technology to do that, and if we insist that better gadgets can accomplish that we will fail. Overly optimistic assessments of renewable energy and energy-saving technologies promote the false hope that we have the means to maintain existing living arrangements. The problem is not just that the concentration of wealth leads to so much wasteful consumption and so many wasted resources, but that the infrastructure of our world was built by the dense energy of fossil fuels that renewables cannot replace. Without that dense energy, a smaller human population is going to live in dramatically different fashion. The Green New Deal would be a step toward ecological sustainability if it included a call to take population reduction seriously along with a commitment to lowering consumption. Neither is part of the standard progressive pitch. For example, instead of advocating the end of car culture and a dramatic reduction in travel overall, progressives typically double down on electric cars, largely ignoring the destructive ecological costs of mining and production required for such vehicles and their batteries.
Reactionary and right-wing political movements defend current systems and peddle the illusion that no change is needed in how we live. Centrist and moderate political movements peddle the illusion that a kinder-and-gentler capitalism will keep modern society afloat. Progressive and left political movements peddle the illusion that a democratic socialist system will suddenly make an unsustainable level of consumption sustainable. Those on the left who reject the business-as-usual pseudo-solutions of the right and center are themselves embracing a version of business-pretty-much-as-usual that would slow the mad rush to collapse but does not set us on a new course.
In this essay I have tried to be analytical, evaluating evidence and presenting my assessments to others, who can use the same intellectual tools to reach their own conclusions. But we humans are more than rational calculating machines, of course. Our capacity for reason can guide our actions, but we all are driven by emotion, passion, and the non-rational aspects of our psychology.
One of those very human emotions is fear. Franklin D. Roosevelt is remembered for taking on fear in his first inaugural address in 1933: “[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Whatever the value of that stirring rhetoric to a nation stuck in the Great Depression in 1933, many of the fears of today are not nameless, unreasoning, or unjustified. While the threats we face in the economic and political arenas are not new in human history, the ecological crises are unprecedented in scale and scope, and heightened fear is appropriate. We are not facing discrete environmental problems that have solutions but rather multiple cascading ecological crises that have no solutions, if we demand solutions that allow us to maintain existing living arrangements. Prediction is a fool’s game, but even more foolish is to pretend that economic growth and the existing world population can continue indefinitely.
We should encourage people to be honest about these easy-to-name, reasonable, and justified fears that produce real anguish for many of us. It’s increasingly common for people to speak of grief in the face of such immense human suffering and ecospheric destruction, but I think the term anguish better captures the range of emotions—distress, dread, depression—and the degree of psychological pain and anxiety that comes with those feelings.
To update FDR: The main thing we have to fear is our fear of naming reasonable and justified fears. When people feel that anguish, it is counterproductive to tell them to ignore it. Asking people to deny what they know to be true and to suppress the emotions generated by that knowledge is a losing game. “Don’t worry, be happy” makes for a catchy song but a lousy approach to politics.
There’s no algorithm that can tell us when the structural trends that create these unjust and unstable conditions will result in the kind of dramatic changes that warrant the term collapse. Triggering events are unpredictable; the speed with which systems collapse will vary; and the suffering will not be spread evenly or equitably around the world. But when that process intensifies, we can expect a loss of social resilience, the capacity of a society to cooperate effectively to achieve shared goals. In the past, there also have been benefits when hierarchical and ecologically destructive societies collapsed—many people on the bottom of a society may live freer without those hierarchies, and the larger living world has more options for regenerating when human overshoot is finally checked. But today it’s hard to imagine anyone committed to dignity, solidarity, and equality applauding collapse. Still, collapse appears inevitable. But how we react to those changes is not set in stone. Whatever the future holds and wherever one sits in the social hierarchies, fear of what is coming makes sense—intellectually and emotionally. That fear is based on a rational assessment of reality and an awareness of the role of emotion in our lives. Given the magnitude of the threats, it’s not surprising that many people turn away. But to be fully alive today is to face those fears and live with anguish, not for one’s own condition in the world but for the condition of all of humanity and the larger living world, for a world that in some places is in collapse and is everywhere else on the brink.
A practical approach to decisions we must make today, informed by radical analyses that help us understand the potential for tomorrow, will not magically allay our fears or alleviate our anguish. No honest account of the world can do that. James Baldwin offered good advice about dealing with terror: “If you’ve got any sense, you realize you’d better not run. Ain’t no place to run. So, you walk toward it. At least that way you’ll know what hit you.” Our task is not to run from our fears but embrace them, not to ignore our anguish but share it with others.
Robert Jensen is an emeritus professor in the School of Journalism and Media at the University of Texas at Austin and a founding board member of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center. He collaborates with New Perennials Publishing and the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College.
Jensen is the co-author, with Wes Jackson, of An Inconvenient Apocalypse: Environmental Collapse, Climate Crisis, and the Fate of Humanity, which will be published in September 2022 by the University of Notre Dame Press. He is also the host of “Podcast from the Prairie” with Jackson.
Jensen is the author of The Restless and Relentless Mind of Wes Jackson: Searching for Sustainability (University Press of Kansas, 2021); The End of Patriarchy: Radical Feminism for Men (2017); Plain Radical: Living, Loving, and Learning to Leave the Planet Gracefully (2015); Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue (2013); All My Bones Shake: Seeking a Progressive Path to the Prophetic Voice, (2009); Getting Off: Pornography and the End of Masculinity (2007); The Heart of Whiteness: Confronting Race, Racism and White Privilege (2005); Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (2004); and Writing Dissent: Taking Radical Ideas from the Margins to the Mainstream (2001).
Jensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To join an email list to receive articles by Jensen, go to http://www.thirdcoastactivist.org/jensenupdates-info.html. Follow him on Twitter: @jensenrobertw
Originally published in Counterpunch.
Photo by Tania Malréchauffé on Unsplash
In this article, Suzanna explains how nihilistic relativism has spread across the environmental movement. It has altered our perception of right and wrong, and prevents the environmental organizers from taking a radical stance for the natural world.
This article was originally published August 26th in VT Digger. an off-the-grid farmer who lives in Walden.
Nihilistic Relativism Infects The Green movement
By Suzanna Jones/VT Digger
Last month, the Trump administration gutted the 50-year old National Environmental Policy Act under the guise of “modernizing,” “streamlining” and making the law more “balanced.” Here in Vermont, similar language is being used to justify eviscerating our state’s landmark environmental law, Act 250. But it’s not the ethically- and environmentally-challenged Trump administration proposing the gutting, it’s the unholy alliance between the moderate Scott administration and the Vermont Natural Resources Council.
VNRC, once a staunch defender of Act 250, now supports creating numerous loopholes for harmful development in exchange for tepid forest fragmentation “protections” that would do little to halt further incursions of development into our mountain ecosystems. At the beginning of the 2020 legislative session, VNRC acted more like the Chamber of Commerce than the environmental organization it purports to be.
It lined up developers, lobbyists, and business leaders to testify in favor of their proposed exemptions to Act 250.
One such exemption: removing downtown development from regulatory oversight, with no consideration of the consequences – particularly regarding wastewater issues.
This bill, H.926, will possibly be voted on during an unusual summer session meant to address pandemic and related budget issues. Perhaps gutting Act 250 is being considered now, under cover of Covid, because public awareness and participation are severely limited. After looking over H.926, a lawyer friend of mine asked me, “Why do we now have to defend the environment from environmental organizations?”
It’s a great question.
Part of the answer, of course, involves money. Fifty years ago, when Act 250 and other important protections were enacted, environmental organizations believed it was their role to draw lines in the sand beyond which economic interests could not go. They understood that we could not blindly expand industry, business and commerce into the landbase without inevitably degrading it.
But from the mid-1980s on, moneyed interests began co-opting the environmental movement by supporting groups that embraced “market-based” solutions to environmental problems. As environmental NGOs softened their stance against rampant development, we got “green consumerism,” “carbon trading,” “ethical investment,” “smart growth” and other business-friendly steps in place of genuine environmental protection. This form of “environmentalism” has turned corporations into “environmentalists” but failed to protect the natural world.
Were the leaders of those environmental organizations conscious of what they were doing?
Psychologist Robert Lifton’s work offers some insight. His career focused on examining how ordinary people become involved in projects with horrific consequences. This phenomenon, he explains, emerges from a shared ideology that remains unquestioned – often with a declared higher good or “claim to virtue” justifying it – thereby blinding people to the real-world consequences of their actions. He studied people responsible for atrocities throughout the last century. Expecting to find psychosis and sociopathy prevalent among them, he found something surprising: many were actually nice people. They were well-liked and respected in their communities. They had stable families and were loving parents and grandparents. They weren’t necessarily ideologues nor particularly hate-filled.
What they were was ambitious. Lifton concluded that when one is ambitious in a destructive society, one will participate in that destruction to reap the rewards. His conclusions are a cautionary tale that should alert all of us to look deep within and examine our conduct and motivations. The environmental leaders who espouse “balancing” environmental protections with the need for economic growth are more likely to win major funding, receive invitations to government roundtables, and hold the microphones that shape opinion.
Over time, the result has been that “environmentalism” is no longer about defending nature from the voracious appetite of the ever-expanding human empire, it is about convincing the public that we can continue that destruction as long as growth is cloaked in euphemistic adjectives like “green,” “smart,” “resilient” and “sustainable.”
But why has the public gone along with this shift?
The reason, in part, is that we have been afflicted by a new brand of ethics: nihilistic relativism. Originally identified by Hannah Arendt, nihilistic relativism allows us to deny our complicity because “right” and “wrong” are seen as simply relative measures. If our actions are better than the egregious actions of others, if they are disguised behind empty props such as “mitigation” and “balance,” our consciences are clear while our actions steadily eat away at the biosphere. The result, though, is that we have paved over our hearts and buried our affection for the living natural world that supports us all.
Firmly wrapped in the ideology of economic growth, the global ecocide and ultimate extinction we are hurtling toward is the logical endpoint of this dark pathology. Here in Vermont, nihilistic relativism reassures us that we are far more environmentally aware than Trump or his minions.
Meanwhile it blinds us from seeing that sometimes we are just as dangerous.
Suzanna Jones is an off-the-grid farmer who lives in Walden. This article was originally published August 26th in VT Digger: you can find the original, full article here:
Featured image: screenshot of a video taken of transactivists assaulting women at a presentation in Buenos Aires, Argentina. See video link below.
by Luis Velázquez Herrera / FRIA (Independent Radical Feminists of Argentina)
In Buenos Aires, Argentina, a group of radical women are about to speak in the middle of a crowd at the assembly “Ni Una Menos” (Not one more woman) that took place anticipating preparations for the coming March 8th, you can listen to the noise and a unison shout against them to “go away!”
There is a man standing beside them yelling with a defying fighting pose, pointing at them aggressively. He is dressed in a plaid miniskirt and white shirt. He is far taller than the average women present.
From the multitude of radical women that are preparing to speak, a woman with a calm expression appears, she wears a black blouse and short hair, asks for the microphone: “Freedom of speech, female partners, freedom of speech”!
Her name is Ana; she knows she is unwelcome, as are her partners from FRIA/Feministas Radicales Independientes de Argentina (Independent Radical Feminists of Argentina) and RADAR Feministas Radicales de Argentina (Radical Feminists of Argentina). They are attending what they thought was a democratic assembly to present their abolitionist stance against sexual exploitation. The man dressed in a miniskirt, who hasn´t stopped threatening them through shouts and flinging fists in the air, throws himself over her to take away the microphone.
Surrounding women stopped him and took him away. They defend themselves. A woman wearing a yellow jacket stands out and drives him away vehemently. She is thin and short in contrast to him. You can see in her face the fury for survival, the rage of knowing she is being invaded, and the rest of the radical women act with her. You can see many women stopping the hands of the man. They know he is a man, even though he claims vocally to be otherwise. He has invaded them and they stop him.
In a feminist assembly, women would take out the violent man in a shout for self-defense, protecting the women being harassed. Very likely, they would make a complaint to set a criminal record against a potential woman-killer and would continue talking about immediate and future security for harassed women, and all women.
But this does not happen. It is February 15, 2019. Three decades ago feminism, in the dawn of neoliberalism, changed from being about and for women to caring for aggressors and covering up pimps—in general, to protect men. Because of this, harassed women are forced to abandon the venue, being booed by the public. Nobody will protect them or even consider their safety. Nobody but themselves will take a stance against that violence; they will withdraw, scared, hurt, damaged by the support that other women gave (in a self-proclaimed feminist assembly) to a man harassing women. I found the name of the name of that woman in social media, who, in spite of the hooting crowd, came out to speak calmly before being physically attacked. Her name is Ana Marcocavallo, 43 years old, psychologist and professor in pedagogy. She lives in Buenos Aires and is a radical feminist who forms part of FRIA/Feministas Radicales Independientes de Argentina, we had a phone interview and chatted.
I´ve read what happened, are you okay?
At the moment it was quite terrible, emotionally, physically and politically…
Did you attend as member of a group?
I am part of an organization called FRIA, but at that moment various groups attended, FRIA, RADAR, Abolicionistas Independientes (Independent Abolitionists), and if I’m correct, Mujeres Autoconvocadas (Self-summoned Women) among many.
How did you arrive to Radical Feminism?
I followed the typical path many do to feminism, arriving through mainstream feminism, liberal feminism. I got to radical feminism fairly recently, only four or five years ago, which was due to fellow feminists who taught me, who gave me readings, which honestly, I read reluctantly. In that way I discovered a new world where I felt that all the ideas I had myself, and which I discarded as wrong, had a place and there were more people who thought like I did.
How has it been to organize as Radicals?
Honestly, it was difficult. At the beginning there were many radicals spread afar, placard radicals [closet radicals] so to say. It was important to find each other as fellow mates, first with small groups to then realize that these groups grew or that other small groups, with which we could coordinate, existed. But by small groups I´m talking of very small groups. For example, some groups from a whole province would only have two members. Currently, we are organized through a WhatsApp group of Radical Feminists from different provinces and the capital, from different gathering groups, a little of everything, and through that group we are discussing things, organizing, generating a tighter Radical Feminist nucleus. At least now we know others are around, even though we might not agree on all our contents.
Through social media we are in contact with radical feminists from México, Uruguay, Paraguay, Spain, US, UK… and we can see that in those countries they are living the same as we are, an advance of Liberal Feminism, which is made up of a combination of ideas like Queer Theory, transactivism and legalization of prostitution, things you won’t see in other countries. I believe that in Argentina, we live a weird case, other countries have told us, where people who are trans, drags and transactivists are also prostitution abolitionists, which you will never find in other countries.
This is how historical reality is marking us through “transfeminines” who have been building the abolitionist movement, who have left us with disputable laws regarding gender definitions, but what I believe is that these theories go hand in hand, prostitution legalization is leading transactivism and Queer Theory, who breaking a split within the abolitionist movement.
The fact that some people with radical ideas who were also trans or drags or that reified that identity, generated a kind of strategic unit where feminist women that preceded us renounced to some matters. For example, the Ley de Identidad de Género (Gender Identity Law) in Argentina, which turned out to be an incredibly deceitful law.
Why an assembly called “Ni Una Menos” (Not one more woman) has among their members people that favor sexual exploitation and are pro-transactivism?
Precisely, it is paradoxical. Basically, the problem lies in that Ni Una Menos in Argentina is in favor of legalizing prostitution and adopts a Liberal Feminist stance. As such, us abolitionists, we fight for our spaces and are being cornered, to the point we do not know if it is convenient for us to go after those particular spaces or try to generate new ones.
How does the phenomenon of the Green Wave and these last happenings relate?
The Green Wave is specifically a fight for legal abortion, for it to be safe and free. What happens within feminism is the occurrence of strategic units, where we are united by basic principles but differentiated by others. In this case, the Green Wave has such populous numbers because all sectors offer support, pro-legal prostitution, abolitionists of prostitution, Radical Feminists and Liberal Feminists.
That does not happen in Mexico, we never prefer to march next to Liberal Feminists under any circumstance….
Of course, what happens is that just by numbers, Radical Feminists cannot lose the chance to march with them but we march separately. It is like throwing wood to a fire, it does us no good, politically speaking, because in this moment we are being isolated, followed and threatened by liberal feminism, the kind of feminism that does not think like we do, which means, the greater majority.
What would you say to a feminist in the effort of understanding what transactivism is?
Transactivism is difficult to explain, but what we dispute is not the existence of trans people—we are not in favor of the annihilation of trans people, what we are accused here in Argentina, where we get compared with Nazis—but that our struggles can converge in some point. Meanwhile in other points, when they oppose radically against feminism, we will never accept them passively as machismo has always imposed over us women.
And those matters are the redefinition of what being a woman, where we are not allowed to define ourselves as women, which is what patriarchy has always done, it has told us “women are that which are not men,” and now it turns out that we are “cis-women,” the “women that are not trans,” that is what we are discussing now.
We argue against the current definition of gender, from the transactivism vantage, it is defined as “identity.” We have a vision of gender as oppression, oppression by material causes, not merely ideological. From transactivism’s vantage point, gender is the cause of oppression. We think that gender itself is the oppression. These theoretical differences are interpreted by transactivism as a denial of their identity, but basically it is a tautology to believe that “women are women,” that “women’s day is women’s day.”
We do not deny their existence, nor their struggle or problems. What we deny is that their problems comingle with ours, to have our spaces colonized, and of course, that they hetero-define us, which is to say, that we cannot define ourselves by ourselves, because that erases us as political subjects, and if women are troubled by something, it goes beyond countries and specific problems, and it is precisely that we are women and that we have particular pains and pangs for being born with determined genitals.
Drawing by Amanda Dziurza
And how would you explain abolitionism?
For me, abolitionism was one of the gateways to radical feminism. Radical Feminism is abolitionist by nature, however, not all abolitionists are Radical Feminists, because to begin with, not all abolitionists are feminists. It is a weird phenomenon, but that is how reality works.
Abolitionist feminisms, as I understand it, is the feminism that opposes rape culture and prostitution culture. Prostitution is seen as rape; simultaneously, pornography is understood as the educational method for prostitution and rape.
We are accused for being against the prostitution system, meant as normalization of men’s will and capacity to do to women’s bodies whatever they wish to, privately, through marriage, or publicly, through any other media or means, rape for pay, is that we are moving against prostituted women and their rights, which is false, a fallacy, a misrepresentation. In the same way as radical feminists, we are against a definition of gender by transactivism. And we are accused of being against trans people, the cause of their sufferings, their murders, and so on, which ignores that the perpetrators are men and not us feminists.
Under this stance it is that the assembly Ni Una Menos, asked you to present ourselves as an abolitionist block rather than Radical Feminists.
I asked him to present us as cold, RADAR, nothing more, and they present us as radical feminists, so right there the situation that will not let us talk arises, encouraged by Georgina Orellano who shouted at us “TERFs, TERFs, TERFs!” Georgina as you know is the most visible faces of AMMAR, which is the group that carries out regulationism, the pro-pimping.
It wasn´t that long ago that I saw some member of AMMAR with legal complaints for prostitution…
They have complaints for prostitution and even several of them remain under legal process. And precisely, many of the stances they present themselves with is to attack the Anti-Prostitution Law that has taken us so many years to obtain. One of our requirements is that the Anti-Prostitution Law is inviolable.
And even when they are marked by prostitution complaints they still receive support?
Yes, because there is a lot of misrepresentation going on, extortive appeals to the feminine socialization that we must embrace at all costs, we feel guilt that we are the sole root cause, we feel guilt to have exclusive spaces, so we have to adhere to all other causes, because otherwise, it will be our fault they are discriminated, it is our fault they suffer. Dialogue is channeled that way.
So you get up there to speak with other fellows of the assembly Ni Una Menos…
There were many of us, we were eight women, they snatched the microphone from my hands, and started chanting so that we would not be allowed to speak. There were some women asking “let them speak, I am not in agreement with them, but they must have the right to speak,” at some point I got the microphone back. The turmoil was loud, and I stepped ahead and shouted “Freedom of speech, women, freedom of speech!” so that I could read my plea and following me my fellow team from RADAR their own pleads. At that moment, I´m not sure to say if it was or not a transfeminine, or a person self-considered binary, I can´t tell, but he started an attack against me which was stopped by my friends.
Practically, he threw himself to punch you, did he hit you?
Luckily no, first he grabbed me by my t-shirt neck and supposedly was trying to snatch the microphone with the other hand, but he had the attitude that he was about to punch me, so I pushed him backwards. I swear, I reconstruct the moment through the videos from all perspectives, because honestly at that moment a fellow woman mate grabbed him from his back and pulled him, and from what I see, he also throws punches against her, that luckily don’t reach her, because surely because other people from other groups were transactivists, recognized his strength and threw him to the ground. It seems to me of extreme severity that the whole assembly shouted supporting support for transactivism after a women or many might have been punched. And it is incredibly severe that, not only he attacked me, but that he tried to punch a minor.
After this moment, what happened? Did you leave?
After this this moment in the assembly there were many people that tried to intervene for us, so that we had our right to speak, some fellow members would dissuade me, “come on, come on” but I said “no, we will stay, we will not go down.” Many people intervened, but told us, “no, there is no solution.” A representative of Ni Una Menos, took the microphone, spoke instead of us, against us. Georgina Orellano also spoke against us asking that we should not get the microphone, that we should not be allowed to speak. They insisted that we left, I said again no, that we would speak, and well, the third time my fellow members told me to leave, realized there was no solution, not to say that the supposedly democratic assembly was expelling us, and that we needed security because there were women, some very young, minors, and nobody listened. It could have gone much worse. When we left, we did it alone, by ourselves with very young members, but nobody of NUM guarded our security, and there was no communique, nobody talked about it, it was made invisible. This got to social media by our own complaints.
I read that the comments that insulted the radicals were directed mostly against young women, was this so?
No, liberals are also very young. Last year a historical feminist of abolitionism called Raquel Diselfeld was among the few that were with us in the middle of the turmoil. For example, she talked on the assembly of sexual liberty for women, pleasure, orgasms, she talked about how this has nothing to do with prostitution and she was booed by a bunch of girls who were not even yet born when this woman was already fighting for our rights, which means, that not only young feminists are in radical feminism, they are in all kinds, and fortunately the youngest of them are mobilized by general feminism, radical and liberal feminism. It is a time when young women are acquiring a level of consciousness that when we were of their young age didn’t have.
When you attended the assembly of Ni Una Menos could you foresee the attack?
We did foresee that something like this could occur. We always remain optimists, to strive for the best, that is to say, that we would be prevented from speaking and that we would have to withdraw.
During this week and the previous one, a kind of social media war was held against us, where many venues published notes that I consider terrible apologies for crime; for example, a news server called Página 12, asked for organizations that are contrary to radical feminism or that don’t manifest any posture, to abandon their tepidness and attack us.
And during these two or three weeks many articles of political parties misrepresented our posture and in social media there were many attacks and threats, even to set us on fire or break the teeth of radical feminists.
One always takes it with good spirit, the things that happen on the internet, everybody blathers on social media, but nobody is direct. I would at least consider that there would be somebody that would consider it literally and in effect that was what happened. We tried to get there the most possibly organized in our security to avoid this kind of things, but we did not expect that it would spread with such virulence and particularly, with such approval from organizations like Ni Una Menos as did the rest of the assembly.
Did you know the aggressor? Had he threatened you before?
I did not know him, but some members of RADAR noticed that this person was taking pictures of them.
So, how did you feel? How do you feel now?
Honestly, what I think now is I’m glad it did not escalate, it could’ve been much worse, I could’ve been injured if it wouldn’t have been for the intervention of my fellow companions that exposed themselves way too much, but it didn’t get any worse by miracle.
At this moment, I am hurt, emotionally fatigued, very tired, in this moment I feel personal desolation because the whole abolitionist block to which we belong, is not repudiating a violent physical action against a fellow woman, even though it would have or not been me. It establishes a very serious precedent that we do not repudiate a violent action against a woman in spaces that should be safe, we are seen as hate speech, meanwhile we would never intend or even occur to punch a person, trans or transactivist or woman transactivist, queer or even women against women’s rights, like those that are against legalizing abortion. We have never done it and never will, what we have suffered are threats and physical violence.
Let me understand you, liberal feminists have not repudiated the violence, but neither abolitionists have positioned themselves against the violence you lived through?
A letter for general repudiation has been prepared, and it has been signed by too few, the majority of signatures come from radical feminists, we are helping ourselves, but we are not having the slightest help of the Argentinian abolitionist block, we are receiving support from the rest of the world, as I said, US, UK, Mexico, Uruguay, Chile … but basically in Argentina we are not receiving enough support, and that truly breaks my heart.
What is your analysis of this situation?
I believe that the general objective of the attack was an excuse for legalization of prostitution adherents to blame radical feminists of breaking the abolitionist block, just as is happening now. There is a part of abolitionism that does not want to be related with our posture. We are not telling them to adhere to our posture, but simply to repudiate the physical attack.
It seems like bullying in school, a boy bullies another boy and there is a reaction of the bystanders like a great public that also engages in a passive way, because that way they avoid being the attack target. I believe the situation is like this or at least I understand it this way.
Regarding yourself, what follows next? How are you coping with all of this?
I am currently keeping out of the streets for a week, I need protection, I won’t go out with other people, at least for a week. There are actions I cannot participate in, for example next Tuesday there will be a meeting pro-choice to which I will not be able to go, so that my face is not recognized and to avoid other situations. As I said before, I work in institutions of pedagogy sponsored by the city government. So if I say something or they say I said something against the Gender Identity Law (which states that any person has the gender with which they themselves self-designate, without any other norm or explanation, simply put, I call myself a man and I am a man, I do not even have to change my dress code), the situation would be dangerous for me, I could lose my job.
I had to go through something like that, some transfeminine summoned men to find my address and attack me, luckily they didn’t, but I understand, it is a tough situation, a hard emotional punch…
Exactly, it’s a situation to fear, if you really have to yield to getting silenced.
It is a tactic of these people, I believe we have to take some time for ourselves, but what they can’t predict is that we continue in dialogue with other women.
I believe that all we can do is create alternative spaces and to continue honest theory and spread it, but by some way it is as if we were mute, the prejudice is so big that we will not be heard.
Editor’s note: Feminist Current’s Raquel Rosario Sanchez also interviewed two members of (FRIA), Maira and Ana; read this interview here.
by Boris Forkel / Deep Green Resistance Germany
The idea for this article came to me when I heard a man say at a demonstration that he was confused because he didn’t know if he was “right” or “left”. It therefore seems important to define such seemingly basic political terms as sharply and clearly as possible.
The terms “left” and “right” as political terms have their origins in the French Revolution. At the first French National Assemblies, the traditionally “more honorable” seat to the right of the President of Parliament was reserved for the nobility, so that the bourgeoisie sat on the left. Therefore, those who want more equality are called “left” until today, while those who want to preserve existing power structures are called “right”.
“By ‘left’ we mean a commitment to social change towards greater equality – political, economic or social. By ‘right’ we mean the support of a more or less hierarchical social order and an opposition to change towards equality”.
“Right”: who tries to stabilize and preserve the respective centers of power (e.g. monarchy, economic elites) and the structures on which this power is based (e.g. church, colonialism, slavery, corporate capitalism).
“Left”: who advocates the recognition of the equality of all human beings and for a democratic containment of power.
The French philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie defines “left” as follows: “To define the left, I increasingly rely on a term from Sartre – authenticity. I believe that the point is to be authentic in one’s relationship to the world, to free oneself from all the preconditions that define one’s own situation. One must not bend oneself, one must not gloss over the reality of the world as it is, and that means one cannot do anything other than stand up against this world. To be left basically means not to close one’s eyes to the truth. (…) Pierre Bourdieu has, in my opinion, provided the best definition. He said: To be right means to believe that the problems of the world are that there is no order. So we need more order. The left, on the other hand, is convinced that there is too much order, so it wants more disorder. The left must defend itself against the excess of order, against the ruling systems, against oppression, against persecution, against criminal oppression. It must create disorder, chaos, resistance.”
Ultimately, these definitions can be reduced to two fundamentally different conceptions: “right”: Humans are minors and must be controlled and educated by a ruling power. “left”: Humans are of age and must be as free as possible.
“Liberalism (Latin liber “free”; liberalis “concerning freedom, liberal”) is a fundamental position of political philosophy and a historical and contemporary movement that strives for a liberal political, economic and social order. Liberalism emerged from the English revolutions of the 17th century.”
“For the first time in many countries, nation states and democratic systems emerged from liberal citizen movements.“
Historical liberalism essentially meant the liberation of the bourgeoisie from the rule of the church and aristocracy. In particular, liberalism plays an extremely important role in the emergence of modern capitalism and the history of the United States. Lierre Keith, co-author of the book Deep Green Resistance, explains the history of liberalism in dept in the chapter Liberals and Radicals:
“(…) classical liberalism was the founding ideology of the US, and the values of classical liberalism—for better and for worse—have dispersed around the globe. The ideology of classical liberalism developed against the hegemony of theocracy. The king and church had all the economic, political, and ideological power. In bringing that power down, classic liberalism helped usher in the radical analysis and political movements that followed. But the ideology has limits, both historically and in its contemporary legacy.
“The original founding fathers of the United States were not after a human rights utopia. They were merchant capitalists tired of the restrictions of the old order. The old world had a very clear hierarchy. This basic pattern is replicated in all the places that civilizations have arisen. There’s God (sometimes singular, sometimes plural) at the top, who directly chooses both the king and the religious leaders. These can be one and the same or those functions can be split. Underneath them are the nobles, the priests, and the military. (…) Beneath them are the merchants, traders, and skilled craftsmen. The base of the pyramid contains the bulk of the population: people in slavery, serfdom, or various forms of indenture. And all of this is considered God’s will, which makes resistance that much more difficult psychologically. Standing up to an abuser—whether an individual or a vast system of power—is never easy. Standing up to capital “G” God requires an entirely different level of courage, which may explain why this arrangement appears universally across civilizations and why it is so intransigent.
“In the West, one of the first blows against the Divine Right of Kings was in 1215, when some of the landed aristocracy forced King John to sign Magna Carta. It required the king to renounce some privileges and to respect legal procedures. (…) Magna Carta plunged England into a civil war, the First Baron’s War. (…)
“The American Revolution can be seen as another Baron’s revolt. This time it was the merchant-barons, the rising capitalist class, waging a rebellion against the king and the landed gentry of England. They wanted to take the king and the aristocrats out of the equation, so that the flow of power went God➝property owners. When they said ‘All men are created equal,’ they meant very specifically white men who owned property. That property included black people, white women, and more generally, the huge pool of laborers who were needed to turn this continent from a living landbase into private wealth. (…) Under the rising Protestant ethic, amassing wealth was a sign of God’s favor and God’s grace. God was still operable, he’d just switched allegiance from the old inherited powers to the rising mercantile class.
“Classical liberalism values the sovereignty of the individual, and asserts that economic freedom and property rights are essential to that sovereignty. John Locke, called the Father of Liberalism, made the argument that the individual instead of the community was the foundation of society. He believed that government existed by the consent of the governed, not by divine right. But the reason government is necessary is to defend private property, to keep people from stealing from each other. This idea appealed to the wealthy for an obvious reason: they wanted to keep their wealth. From the perspective of the poor, things look decidedly different. The rich are able to accumulate wealth by taking the labor of the poor and by turning the commons into privately owned commodities; therefore, defending the accumulation of wealth in a system that has no other moral constraints is in effect defending theft, not protecting against it. Classical liberalism from Locke forward has a contradiction at its center. It believes in human sovereignty as a natural or inalienable right, but only against the power of a monarchy or other civic tyranny. By loosening the ethical constraints that had existed on the wealthy, classical liberalism turned the powerless over to the economically powerful, simply swapping the monarchs for the merchant-barons. Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, provided the ethical justification for unbridled capitalism.“
In the meantime, capitalism and the mercantile class have conquered the whole world. Money rules the world, as we all know.
The liberal ideology and its underlying individualism has proven itself as one of the most effective instruments of power, because people who believe that they are free will not resist. “I freed hundreds of slaves. And I would have freed hundreds more if they but known they were slaves,“ said Harriet Tubman.
Yet the first step toward real freedom comes with the radical analysis: “One of the cardinal differences between liberals—those who insist that Everything Will Be Okay—and the truly radical is in their conception of the basic unit of society. This split is a continental divide. Liberals believe that a society is made up of individuals. Individualism is so sacrosanct that, in this view, being identified as a member of a group or class is an insult. But for radicals, society is made up of classes (economic ones in Marx’s original version) or any groups or castes. In the radical’s understanding, being a member of a group is not an affront. Far from it; identifying with a group is the first step toward political consciousness and ultimately effective political action.”
The basic problems today are still essentially the same as in the famous story of Robin Hood, which takes place at the time of the above mentioned Magna Carta: The rich oppress the poor and steal from them. But by now, a huge pile of ideology has been added to justify this oppression and theft.
During the 20th century, liberalism has emerged into neoliberalism, which has been described by Rainer Mausfeld as “the most powerful and sophisticated indoctrination system a political ideology has ever seen”.
“Neoliberalism, unlike traditional capitalism, is (…) from the beginning consciously twinned with a massive formation of ideology. It was clear to the founding fathers — who came from very different fields — of that what constitutes neoliberal ideology today, that this program is never feasible democratically.
“So they knew — and Hayek explicitly says it — that they have to conquer the language, they have to conquer the brains. Neoliberalism depends on that more than any other ideology. More than any, including communism. One can say in all other things that there is something positive behind it, even though it has been betrayed and might be something completely different now.
“Neoliberalism, ‘take it from below and give it to the top,’ as a gigantic redistribution programme, was from the beginning geared towards extreme formation of ideology. And it is so ingenious and so refined — it goes back to Lippman, Bernays and so on — that they have consciously developed techniques, so that what today is called the neoliberal self is so highly fragmented and actually consists only of false identities. The identity is, ideally, their Facebook account, the smartphone they use, the car they drive, the type of Rolex they wear, the food they eat and so on. Identities have become market products that can be bought. This fragmentation has the advantage that an integral self, which could be a core of resistance, is actually no longer there in a totalitarian structure, because the grown social solidarity no longer exists.
“I am part of a community only through solidarity with others. But if I no longer identify myself with others as a community, but with market products, then solidarity will also be destroyed.
“…neoliberalism has from the beginning actually stressed the importance of [destroying] our psychological resistance to the decomposition of society, which was explicit when Thatcher said “there is no community”. There is only a pile of atomized individuals and their task is to optimize their individual use as best they can. Everyone is a small “Me Inc.” and if someone fails, he/she was just a poor “Me Inc.” -that’s what the market regulates- […] and if someone succeeds, he/she has adapted well to the market. So neoliberalism is a kind of infamous combination and not just an economic program. Neoliberalism is totalitarian in the sense that — Thatcher also said that — […] ‘it’s not just about the economy, it’s about conquering the brains.’
“It is, so to speak, as ideology invisible. Many of us in our society have the feeling: the society in which there is no longer any real ideology — unlike in Russia or China — that’s us. This invisibility of ideology itself is one of the most gigantic achievements of ideology production.”
At the beginning of the 20th century, the famous catastrophe of the Titanic has already shown us in strong pictures and metaphors how this technocracy will end. In neoliberalism, the upper classes are still dancing, while the lower classes are already drowning. Those on top don’t know (and don’t want to know) how those below are doing.
The ideology rains down from top to bottom:
“The Titanic is unsinkable! Everything is fine! We are all fine! And if you’re not well, it’s your own fault, you just don’t row hard enough.”
They don’t want to see that the whole ship is already sinking.
With the words of Max Wilbert: “We are well along the path towards global fascism, total war, ubiquitous surveillance, normalized patriarchy and racism, a permanent refugee crisis, water and food shortages, and ecological collapse. We need to build legitimate movements to dismantle global capitalism. All work is useful towards this end.”
It’s time for a global uprising. The lower classes should organize and turn their gaze — and their weapons — to the top.
Our common goal must be to deprive the rich of their ability to steal from the poor and the powerful of their ability to destroy the planet.