Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Up North!

“Northland,” a 4,000 Mile Journey Along America’s Forgotten Border,” by Porter Fox, 2018

This is a travelogue and history of the northern U.S. border with Canada.  Fox starts his travels at the eastern border on Passamaqoddy Bay in Maine, traveling by flat-end canoe and 5 horse motor east up the boder-line St. Croix River.  Then he jumps over to a Great Lakes freighter hauling ore pellets and wheat from below Montreal through Lakes Ontario, Erie and Huron, docking at Thunder Bay, Canada on Superior, stopping at various ports like Hamilton.  He canoes parts of the border in the Minnesota Boundary Waters where the voyageurs traveled and then visits the Minnesota “Angle” protruding into Canada.  Fox follows that with a drive through northern North Dakota fracking country and Williston, visiting the NO-DAPL camps along the way near Cannonball, ND.  He continues his drive along the ‘medicine line’ of the Montana/Canada border after visiting the Little Bighorn Battlefield.  Then over the Rockies and through Idaho, foot trekking the North Cascades in Washington like Jack Kerouac before hitting the west ocean border point in Blaine, Washington.

In the process Fox tells the story of French explorers like Champlain, Brule and La Salle who were the first European-Americans in these areas; tribes that straddle the border – the Passamaquoddy, Mohawk, Sioux, Blackfeet and Lummi; the extensive efforts of surveyors trying to track through this sometimes trackless wilderness, following rivers, lakes and the 49th parallel; the fauna, wildlife, mountain peaks, rivers and woods that he encounters - and bits of politics, present and past.  Fox is an experienced canoeist, growing up in a small town in salty, seaside Maine.  He now lives in Brooklyn, but still has a basic feel for northern lands, though he hasn’t seen all of these.

Fox interviews many people along the way – activists at NO-DAPL fighting the pipeline; a militia leader in Idaho; lodge owners along the border; the ship’s captain and its cranky, odd and formerly violent crew; arctic explorer Paul Shurke, who takes him into Minnesota’s multi-lake boundary waters; a native American historian in Maine.  Of most import is his focus on indigenous peoples that live along the border, a theme repeated over and over, as the border separates their homelands.  The name 'medicine line' for the northern border means 'good' medicine, as fleeing native Americans like Sitting Bull could escape pursuit by U.S. soldiers.  When he returned to the U.S. he was assassinated, so that puts fact to the name.  Fox makes it clear to his fellow coffee-drinkers in Brooklyn that native Americans are not a thing of the past.

Fox’s use of the term ‘northlands’ returns the north to its rightful geographic place, as northern states are sick of incorrectly being called ‘the Mid-West.”  He reminds U.S. citizens that Canada is actually nearby, the north is a real place and that the center of the world is not the reactionary Sunbelt. This is a fascinating journey, though it skips over parts of the border as that would take much longer to travel.  While I might quibble with his archaic description of Ely, Minnesota, I’m assuming the rest of the book is not so nostalgic.  The book will increase your deep geographic and historic knowledge of the northern borderlands, though it only includes small maps.  Just use a larger map while you read.

Other prior reviews related to this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “The North is Not the “Midwest,” “The Heart of Everything That Is ( Red Cloud),” “The Dharma Bums,” (Kerouac); “Sulfuric Acid and the Boundary Waters Canoe Area,” “A Less Modest Proposal,” “Stop Tar Sands Oil,” “Oh Canada,” “Factory Days (Gibbs).

And I bought it at May Day Books!

Red Frog

April 2, 2020

Mayday is closed due to the virus and a robbery.  If you want a book, call ahead or knock and you might be let in.  We can also mail out books.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Not Ignored Any More

Going Viral

This pandemic has revealed some underlying truths about capitalism that have been ignored:

“We’re Number One!  We’re Number One! … in Covid-19 infections.  This is modern nationalism.

When is a pandemic response also like martial law?  In other words, how do you advocate for socialized medicine, for aid to New York, against Trump, against the corporate bailout, or anything else?  Suggestion:  1 person every 6 feet with signs, geared up with protective masks, gloves and face shields or goggles, on both sides of the longest street in town.

Then there are also strikes of ‘essential workers.’  Staying home might make the bosses think twice.  And think fast.  Instacart workers might go out tomorrow.  Amazon works might also go out.  Unionization doesn't look so distant.
Pittsburgh sanitation workers wildcat for protective gear
“Health versus Economy!”  Really!?  Let’s open the restaurants and churches so that we can also fill up the clinics, hospitals, morgues and cemeteries.  No mention of what losing productive workers might cost economically, not to mention the social cost.  Both are intimately connected, just as jobs and environmentalism ultimately are, but that won’t stop the capitalists from trying to divide the undividable.

Who knew that many workers in the U.S. were one or two paychecks away from running out of money?  Oh wait, this has been known for years.

There is life after shopping.

Learning to cook is actually good.

Reading is also not dead.

If you don't like music, you are in trouble.

Nature isn’t sick.  The sick humans have dropped environmental standards however. 

Mass layoffs in Cambodian or Bangledeshi textile industry are occurring because no one is buying fast fashion.  We now know a world economy centered on consumers in rich countries or among wealthy classes is not a stable economy.

A plunged casino stock market.  We now know an economy centered on making bets in private markets is not a stable economy.

The sadly unprepared U.S. health system, dominated by profit and right-wing politics.  We now know a patchwork, private health system is uniquely unqualified to deal with a general health crisis, let alone provide anything resembling universal health care.  But Biden’ His Time is still the front-runner!

The ruling class has been crying poverty and recommending austerity for everyone but themselves or the military for years.  In the process they counsel that the pace of ‘change’ has to be very, very slow or non-existent because it’s expensive, you see.  For the second time in 12 years when their system is at stake trillions of dollars have suddenly appeared.  Hmmmm… 

Our town now has free WIFI internet for a few months.  How could that be?

The neo-liberal strategy of building necessary things outside the U.S. has come home to roost, especially in an emergency.  And emergencies always arise. 

Matt Stoller pointed out in a Guardian article and a combative Democracy Now! interview that Sanders, Omar and Warren’s support of the Virus Bailout/Stimulus bill in the House and Senate has hidden trillions in corporate welfare - far above the $500B reported.  Every industry wanted a handout and many got one.  As part of this the investment banking firm Blackrock will be handling the issuance of funds, for a fee.  Stoller estimates that the real handouts to corporations hidden in the text amount to $6-$10 trillion.  Stoller quotes Republican and head of the U.S. National Economic Council Larry Kudlow as saying it is really a $6T bailout.  Some on Wall Street see $10T as possible.  This is on top of prior Fed actions.

If true and accurate, Sanders has officially transitioned from a pyromaniac to a sheep-herder.  ‘Disaster capitalism’ has won another round in making the rich richer and the U.S. more unequal, looting the ‘democratic’ federal government for their own gain.

We are not ‘the wealthiest country in history” or “the world” or “on the planet.”  Only our capitalist class is.  Stop repeating that cliché.

No tears for the cruise ship or oil/fracking industries.  They are both symptoms of a larger problem.

Religious services have been declared non-essential.  About time.

Notice how the 'happy' advertisements on TV seem very odd?

Small businesses shut down, large chains stay open.  Who wins?

No more primaries – the winner has been declared by the DNC and the media.

Whose important now?  Nurses, doctors, home health aides, grocery store workers and warehouse people, delivery drivers, postal workers, factory workers, unemployment clerks, teachers and so on.  I.E. not small businessmen, not most professionals, not even most white collar paper-pushers and certainly not the upper class.

The environmental subtext of this virus relates to how humanity has impinged on natural environments, disrupting habitat and then gorged on the animals it found there.

At bottom this crisis has revealed that our human body – our health – is an existential issue for society.  They call it mortality. And that every human except religious fundamentalists and the upper class share something very basic.   Which is why we obviously need socialized medicine, which will return the human body from being a commodity to itself.

May Day has a number of books regarding pandemics and health-care from a left-wing point of view.  Other prior reviews on this subject, use blog search box upper left:  “Who Gets Bailed Out?”

With apologies to Jeffrey St. Clair. 

Note:  May Day is on lockdown due to the virus and a robbery.  Please call ahead or knock on the door to pick up a book.

Red Frog
March 29, 2020

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Paupers of the World Unite!

“Wageless Life – A Manifesto for a Future Beyond Capitalism,” by IRG Shaw and M Waterstone, 2019

This is an anarcho-communist attempt by two academic geographers to solidarize and learn from the precariat in the world.  This growing segment of the proletariat is variously known as the precariat, the underclass, the lumpen-proletariat, the reserve army of the unemployed; the surplus, waste or warehoused population or re Marx, the ‘floating,’ ‘latent’ and ‘stagnant’ parts of the proletariat.  This includes paupers, peddlers, refugees, prisoners, debt-slaves, actual slaves and sole contractors.  The authors list some sociological examples like street vendors, servants and freelance recycling workers as examples of the kind of people they are concerned with. Oddly, the book ends up being a plea for a “neo-peasant ontology” of solar peasants while claiming at the same time not to be romantically yearning for a lost rustic past.  The Mexican Zapatistas in Chiapas are their template. 
Unlike Guy Standing, who claimed the precariat was NOT part of the proletariat, these authors clearly show that Marx and Engels understood that contingent labor was intimately connected to the life of the proletariat.  The authors attack the concept of waged labor as alienated, although some times they attack work in general - having a hard time keeping their concepts separate. They rename unalienated work as ‘alter-work.’  They deny that the proletariat has grown in the world, ignoring the vast increase in China or the massive historic strikes in India.  In some of their points they are short on empirical evidence but long on words and elegant turns of phrase, even using the royal ‘we’ when describing all workers, including themselves, as 'virtual paupers.'  This method is similar to the literary writings of Henry Giroux or Chris Hedges.  The book is chock-full of quotes from many familiar names on the left – Marx, Polyani, Davis, Harvey, Lefebvre, Arendt, the Invisible Committee, Negri, etc. - and we know that the more quotes used, the more true a manifesto is.

Geographers center on the politics of space and so the authors focus on the massive ‘enclosure of the commons’ that started in England and spread throughout the world.  Former peasants and farmers were/are forced into urban areas to become wage slaves, peddlers or paupers through the privatization of land.  Small-bore present alternatives to privatization like squats, co-op businesses, apartments and farms, community gardens, city square occupations, (no mention of factory occupations), neighborhoods run by the left or other ‘free spaces’ and volunteer work rate only a mention by them.  Instead borrowing from Lefebvre, they claim a ‘right to the world’ where virtually all space is common property instead of the present status of ‘worldlessness.’ This is another way of saying to truly socialize the land – socialism being a word they never use.   The problem with rights arguments like this, common to liberal humanists and anti-Marxists like Hannah Arendt, is that rights are not viable without power. 

So the question of the state comes up.  They quote Christian Parenti as to the need to overturn the state in order to restore the commons, then accuse him of being a pragmatist(!).  Replacing a state apparatus as a condition for progress is far, far from ‘pragmatism.’  Indeed avoiding the state might be more pragmatic.  Instead they cite the example of the Mexican Zapatistas who took over large parts of Chiapas state in southern Mexico in 1993.  27 years later there is no equivalent anywhere else in Latin America.  The rest of Mexico trundles along because the weakness of the Mexican state allows Chiapas.  In India the Naxalite free zones still exist, but also have not expanded. Again, these zones exist because of the weakness of the Indian state.   The Philippines is another example. These are rural, agrarian movements based on peasant farming or forest living and almost no leftists in the world is against them.  But that begs the question – what about the rest of Mexico?  Can regional bits be bitten off until the whole country is under the rule of different groups of farming revolutionaries?  Just asking the question in the present context answers it. Knowledge of the Mexican revolution also says otherwise, as Zapata himself returned to Morelos and Villa to Chihuahua, both uninterested in consolidating a national revolution.  Ultimately any victories in the arena of space confront the capitalist state, as Occupy quickly found out in the U.S.  Nor do they mention any revolutions led or inspired by Marxism that did succeed in taking geography back from capital or colonialism, which is a telling omission.

Street Peddler in Hanoi selling slippers
The authors discuss how ‘desire’ – i.e. strong emotions – can be harnessed by the left to reconquer the commons and counter capitalist realism.  All well and good.  However in the process they ignore any material source of the ‘desires’ bred by capital and assume it is all a psychic mirage.  Just to stay with their real estate example: the small capitalist proprietor proudly running his small shop; the farmer looking out over his land; the homeowner quietly sitting in the backyard of her home; the cabin user looking at the lake; even the apartment dweller in some exciting metropolis – all have a sense of owned ‘space’ even though the capitalist state or the bank or a landlord may actually control their land and life.  I.E. for some, spatial ‘desires’ are partially satisfied by capital.  They are real.  Just as ‘waged work’ provides a sort of a living for millions.  It cannot be willed away by turns of phrase or omissions.

Oddly, their counter-culture turn to the countryside omits any mention of the need for new organic, agro-ecology farming, which could return millions to the now depopulated farms and small towns as large-scale corporate agriculture is expropriated and cooperative, collective or small farming returns to reinvigorate agricultural land and soil.

In essence, while they avoid putting it like this, the authors' logic is to expand present counter-cultural institutions so that they become dominant in the economy and society, avoiding confrontation with the state (military and legal), the corporations, the fascists, the political system, divisions within the proletariat and the like.  They call this ‘alter-politics’ or ‘progressive localism.’ It is explicitly not based on any working class identity or waged workers, who are explicitly outside their paradigm. This unlikely scenario will only begin to be possible when society begins to crumble in the face of economic crisis, war, environmental devastation or pandemics, and a new world comes into being through the action of millions.  But it will not come alone because capital has to eventually be confronted head-on and that will also take ‘waged workers,’ not just the precariat, the ‘paupers.’  After all, workers have more clout through their labor than a peddler if they withdraw it. By itself this book promotes a version of a social-democratic ‘peaceful transition to socialism.’  We can call it ‘alt-social democracy’ instead! 

A short, interesting book which might introduce you to new concepts as well as old.  Its main strength is as a corrective to isolated consumerism and compulsive work addiction, attempting to turn people towards a future of collective effort, unalienated labor and shared prosperity instead.  This is a future that many are beginning to see as necessary, even if they come from different leftist perspectives.

Other prior and relevant reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “Planet of Slums,” (Davis) “The Invisible Committee,” “The Precariat,” (Standing) “Rebel Cities,” (Harvey) “Riot, Strike, Riot,” “Hinterland,” “Modern Defacto Slavery,” “Blood and Earth,” “Slave States,”The Unseen,” “Capitalist Realism,” 'Children of Men."  

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
March 26, 2020

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Internal Metabolic Rift

“Marx and Human Nature:  Refutation of a Legend,” by Norman Geras 2016

This book is a tightly-argued, logical rejection of the idea by some Marxists, like the idealist Maoist Louis Althusser, that Marx did not believe humans had any ‘innate nature.’  It is a somewhat Talmudic exegesis until you realize how basic the idea of ‘human nature’ is to right-wing arguments – and also surprisingly how fundamental it is to historical materialism and socialism.

Geras bases his analysis on the 6th thesis from the “Theses on Feurbach” - notes written by Marx in 1848 which are used as the ‘proof’ by those who believe Marx dissolved human nature completely into social conditions.  Marx was arguing against Feurbach’s view that religion was innate in human beings.  Althusser, Istvan Meszaros, Sidney Hook, Robert Tucker and a number of other Marxists, liberals and anti-communists interpreted the exact text to mean that Marx discounted humans having ANY innate characteristics.  When I read the 3 points of the 6th thesis, it clearly does not maintain that, but then I’m no errant philosopher, thank god.

Geras points out at length that the 3 points can be interpreted in several different ways, so without context they remain semi-ambiguous.  He discusses whether human nature is influenced by or manifested in social relations or is totally determined by or dissolved into ‘the ensemble of social relations’.  

Geras then brings in the works written by Marx before and after the Theses on Feurbach – the earlier The Holy Family and the later The German Ideology.  The latter was the first introduction to historical materialism.  Both these works explicitly discuss human nature as something separate from social or economic conditions and any method of production.  In a sense, Marx understood that nature was not just external to humans but INTERNAL to humans.  The sex drive, the need for food and water, the need for warmth and shelter, the reality of birth, death and disease, the requirements of community and especially what separates humans from animals – labor and the ability to create, communicate and produce.  This led to historic systems of production.  All of this seems quite commonsensical.  In a way Althusser & Co. brought the metabolic rift between humanity and nature into the human body.  Theirs is an idealist approach alienating humans from their own biologic and social needs - much as Christian ideology attempts to do.

No room for conservative hermits
Conservatives allege that social Darwinism – ‘red in tooth and claw’ – is the basis of human nature.  They identify ‘human nature’ with every negative characteristic displayed by humans in certain societies.  Ricardo and Smith did something similar, basing their whole philosophy on individualism.  For conservatives, each predator preys on those lower on the food chain – and so do humans.  In a sense it is the beginning philosophy of barbarism. Marx and Engels postulated that actually labor and community created humanity and that the basic human need for a sufficient material and cultural life are paramount.  In other words the rogue individual in the tribe is either shunned, cast out or killed.  Those who do not work for the collective wealth are relegated to lower social status – except under class societies, where they congregate in the upper reaches!  Present anthropologists generally agree. 

On the other hand, the fascist ‘philosophy’ is one of identity – encouraging ‘tribes’ to war against tribes, nations versus nations, ethnicity versus ethnicity, religions versus religions, skin colors versus skin colors, etc. These divisions actually come from the survival needs of class structures and ruling classes, not from the proletariat or humanity in general.  This is full-bore barbarism. In this context, the idea of ‘socialist man’ or ‘the new human’ is flawed, as Marx contended that socialism’s attributes are already contained in human beings, and have only to be supported and freed from material want and alienated labor.

Geras posits that while conservatives use the corrupt characteristics of humans in certain societies as a club, Marx understood real, organic human needs are the basis for historical materialism.  The Theses on Feurbach is an example of Marx rejecting religion as part of ‘human nature.’ Certainly many people have gotten along without religion quite easily!  Religion in this case is really an imprint of the specific society and mode of production, i.e. a social product. Marx’s polemic against Jeremy Bentham rejected the “English petit-bourgeois” as the model of human nature.  And so on.  Instead the cooperative needs of labor to satisfy human needs define human society - which Marx maintained also went to issues of play, happiness, cultural production and the like.  In a sense, Althusser & Co. believe there was some kind of definitive break between the young Marx and the mature Marx.  Geras proves there was always a consistent evolution, citing Capital’s continuing references to a certain kind of human nature.   

What is stunning about reading Marxist analyses like this is that other ‘philosophies’ pale in comparison, depth and scope.  Libertarianism, atheism, anarchism, positivism, liberalism, humanism, pragmatism, feminism, nationalism, idealism, Catholicism, utilitarianism, religion etc. – all are partial, irrational or deeply misleading approaches as to how individuals, society and nature actually function.

Other prior reviews on the subject of Marx, use blog search box upper left:  “Marx and the Earth,” “Old Gods, New Enigmas – Marx’s Lost Theory,” “The Young Karl Marx,” “Ecological Revolution,” “Marxism and the Oppression of Women,” “Ecology & Marxism,” “A Marxist Education,” “Marxism is Abolitionism,” “Beyond Liberal Egalitarianism – Marx and Normative Social Theory…” “Witty Lightweight Attacks Marxism.”  Etc.

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
March 23, 2020 

Friday, March 20, 2020

Ground Hog Day Again

Who Gets Bailed Out?  Who Gets Buried?

The financial ‘fix’ being implemented or discussed due to the pandemic is similar to 2008.  As the chant went then, “Wall Street Bailed Out, Main Street Shut Out.”  On March 12th the Federal Reserve said it will inject $1.5T free loans into the banking market through the over-night ‘repo’ window, which allows banks short-term over-night loans.  The week before the Fed cut interest rates down to .25% and .00% for loans to banks.  Another $700B in asset purchases involving Treasury bonds and mortgage-backed securities was also initiated, called ‘quantitative easing.’  Discount loans to banks up to 90 days went down to .25% from the Fed’s discount window.  Money market funds are also being propped up, as they are not actually cash.  There will probably be more to come for corporations and the banking industry.  Again, the capitalist state rides to the rescue of the 'private' and 'free' market.

Round II?  Now it is the 90%...
On deck are direct corporate handouts for the airline, hotel, cruise ship and oil/gas/fracking industries, with auto, drug chains and health insurance waiting in the wings.  By the way, the Trump family owns – hotels!  The top 5 U.S. airlines have given $45B to shareholders and executives in dividends and buybacks in the last 5 years and are now asking former Goldman Sachs alum, Foreclosure King and now Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin for a $54B bailout.  The 2017 tax bill was a huge gift to them.  They will get their bailout in the panic.  And why should anyone bail-out the environmentally toxic cruise ship industry or an oil industry that is destroying the planet?  As has been said many times, capitalist corporations and their governments socialize their losses and privatize their gains.  Nothing essentially changes no matter what administration is in power.

Estimates are that nearly 1 in 5 households have already had layoffs or reduced hours due to the virus - 14 million so far. Millions of gig, restaurant and service workers in the U.S. are short pay or short hours - 1 in 4. Unemployment insurance for workers with already low pay is only a percentage of that low pay.  So for ordinary citizens, the government may provide a one-time check of $1,200 per adult and $500 per child, with later aid to be determined.  Crumby sucker checks... but even that semi-popular move was opposed by Nancy Pelosi initially.  Then there is the invisible hero, Biden.  It is not sure what database they will use to provide that check, with many poor people not in the IRS database.  Look for the checks to dribble out for a long time.  Small businesses are also on the docket, but nothing concrete has been finalized through the SBA.   Nor is a dime promised to municipalities or states yet.

The class and inequality contrast is dramatic.  The Senate bill had $4T to the banks, $500B to individuals and small businesses.

Unpaid mortgages, credit card, student loan and rents will not get $0% loans because the U.S. does not have a state bank, which could lend to working-class people at low to zero interest rates.  While they halted evictions in public housing, no such plan is being implemented for private housing.  Nor will a planned, organized, socialized single-payer medical plan allow every person to get the required health care for a low or no cost.  Instead the health ‘patchwork’ in the U.S. is like a disorganized, well-dressed drunk trying to fight off a flight of bees.   Nor will student loan payments be put on hiatus, as higher education has become privatized, not socialized.  Those unable to stockpile food or essentials will be the most vulnerable – the poorer working class, the homeless, those in jail or in detention facilities on the border, those in the military, those in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Grocery, delivery, factory and health workers are the most vulnerable to the virus, not their executives.  Trump even rejected the WHO’s testing kits, which has led to the massive testing shortage in the U.S.  He probably did this to send the work to one of his Big Pharma allies. 

What this pandemic has revealed in the U.S. is that a fragile private banking and market system cannot handle large events.  It is truly a house of cards no matter how many CEOs flutter around the White House.  It will lead to many bankruptcies among individuals, small companies and even some large corporate entities.  A recession is probably already occurring. On top of that it is ridiculous that a good chunk of the retirement system is privatized and put in the hands of Wall Street through 401Ks and IRAs.  Once again many higher-end workers have to watch their savings tank, as between 30 and 40% of workers have a 401K/403B and/or IRA.  The modest CD / savings account methods were trashed years ago.

As social-democrat Naomi Klein has once again pointed out on The Intercept, ‘disaster capitalism’ will be in full swing.  The disoriented and fearful public will usually fall in line with the thugs, perhaps the reason behind Joe Biden’s comfortable, ratty-sweater politics of ‘no change.’  They may even try to postpone the election.   All while things degenerate systemically even more.  Trump is not the main problem – capital is.  Without a rational, planned, stable economy disasters become worse … and disasters are not flukes.  They are built into life on this planet.

So the question is, what large progressive wins can be gained in the present situation?  Will we nationalize the health care industry?  Will we get a state bank working through the post offices?  Will we see national sick time decreed?  Will we ever improve unemployment insurance, especially to include wrongly-classified 'independent contractors'? I see none given the absence of a true mass alternative to the two parties of different wings of capital. 

P.S. - Why Single-Payer Socialized Medicine handles massive health problems better - Guardian:

Note:  The Final tally for the 2008-2011 bailout of the banking system is $29 trillion, according to the Levy Economics Institute and a GAO audit. It was all ultimately handled by the private banking system itself, not the government. So watch this one go up too.  (CP, 4/2/2020)

Other prior reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “The Shock Doctrine,” “No Is Not Enough,” “This Changes Everything” (all by Klein and books on Wall Street:  "Griftopia," "The Divide" (both by Taibbi) "House of Cards,"  "Retirement and Wall Street," "Debt & Capital," "Liquidated," "The Big Short," "Flash Boys," (both by Lewis) "The Wolf of Wall Street," "The Ponzi Factor," "Ponzi Unicorns!" 

Red Frog
March 20, 2020

Happy Spring Equinox!

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Inconspicuous Solutions

“Inconspicuous Consumption – the Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have,” by Tatiana Schlossberg, 2019

This is a book by an upscale millennial who has just discovered that consumer capitalism is anti-environmental.  It’s sort of like Paris Hilton suddenly doing research.  It’s bracketed by lame jokes and inane comments to make her assumedly privileged readers fell like it’s just ‘us cool kids,’ all in fun. Her full name is Tatiana Celia Kennedy Schlossberg, daughter of Caroline Kennedy, granddaughter of former U.S. President John Kennedy.  She went to Harvard and Oxford.  You may wonder how she got a job at the New York Times (NYT).  I don’t.  She covers issues that have been discussed for years, so this is a bit of a primer for those who don’t know anything, She uses the phrases ‘you’ve heard’ and ‘its complicated’ a lot and apologizes for being ‘boring.’  But given she has also learned how to be a reporter, she digs up some valuable information.

Schlossberg covers the environmental impact of the internet and Silicon Valley, power generation, agriculture, clothing and transportation in some detail – all the key areas of carbon production and the destruction of nature and humans.  Only once in 239 pages does she finally say that it is not ‘you’ that is ultimately responsible, but the consumerist corporate capitalist system that nearly everyone lives in. ‘Consumer power’ and ‘voting’ are her two real solutions – nothing else - solutions no doubt pre-approved by the NYT.

Schlossberg covers common subjects like vampire power, toxic mining of heavy metals for e-devices, unrecoverable e-waste and plastic pollution, wasted food, meat-heavy diets, industrial farming techniques, over-fishing, warming/acidic oceans, artificial micro-fibers - all familiar topics.

Some newer facts that I’ve chosen to high-light:
1.          Internet data centers running Netflix, Bitcoin et al. produce 2-3% of all carbon emissions.  They are located in areas where power is still partially supplied by coal, like Amazon’s centers in Ohio and Virginia.  The many data centers in Tyson’s Corner, in Loudon County, northern Virginia, handle 70% of world internet traffic, used by 3,400 internet companies.  They are also partially supplied by coal. Massive amounts of water to cool processors is also required here and in places like Arizona.
2.          Kevflavik Airport in Iceland is powered by thermal power and also handles massive cloud computing because of the cool weather there – as servers need air-conditioning and that takes more power.
3.          Hundreds of diesel engines in Silicon Valley act as back-up power for local IT systems and are carbon heavy.  Silicon Valley also sits on top of old toxic waste sites from the time it manufactured p.c. boards using trichloroethylene as a flux cleaner for solder. 
4.          It is not clear that eCommerce is better than ‘old’ commerce to Schlossberg, but the idiotic and rapid 2 - 4 hour delivery times, partially empty vans, high return rates for purchases and an increase in easy buying are dark signs that eCommerce propels consumerism and carbon.
5.          Increases in electricity demand with tech devices on ‘all the time’ create coal / oil / nuclear issues on the production side. 
6.          In her wavering understanding of organic agriculture she thinks that it will require more deforestation instead of a conversion of land.  This land is now being used to feed carbon-heavy animals and cars using mono-culture corn and soybeans.
7.          Container ships are efficient, but they burn the second-most carbon-rich and toxic fuel of all – bunker fuel #6, a thick oil close to asphalt oil.  Schlossberg assumes that we should have access to all food all year around, and so again is confused on whether shipping (and attendant refrigeration) are useful or not.  Her analysis is imbued with consumerism. Nor does she understand ‘export economies’ that starve their own people of local, inexpensive food while providing food to the wealthier part of the world.
8.          60-70% of fish stock is used to make fish meal for animals, pets, other fish or oil.
9.          Rayon, the #3 fabric used in clothing, is made mostly with wood fibers, but results in deforestation. 
10.     The fashion industry is the 2nd most polluting industry in the world and produces 10% of carbon emissions according to Schlossberg.
11.     Cotton and denim are heavy water, insecticide, toxic chemical and dye users.  Schlossberg does not mention that hemp could substitute for cotton.  The Aral Sea disappeared in the USSR because of cotton production and its massive water requirements and that has continued with cotton production by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan.
12.     Schlossberg counsels her followers to not wash their jeans ‘after every use.’  Who does that?
13.     Cheap cashmere has come at the expensive of desertification in upper Mongolia and the Gobi desert as ‘fast fashion’ cashmere demand has driven huge increases in destructive goat herds.
14.     Fast fashion has increased clothing purchases exponentially.  Yet 60% of clothing gets thrown away within a year, with only 15% recycled.  So clothes are now disposable.
15.     Burning wood pellets is considered to be ‘recyclable’ because you can plant trees.  This loophole in the Kyoto protocol is leading to deforestation in the southeast U.S. where many pellet plants are located.  What is not mentioned is that it will take 20-40 years for the new trees to grow and again sequester the same amount of carbon.
16.     Coal ash is the most toxic and massive of mining by-products and leaks into groundwater and rivers regularly.  It is only partly recycled. The Trump administration is trying to remove regulations concerning it, as it is doing with many other carbon sources.
17.     HFCs in refrigeration units are powerful green-house gases.  Air-conditioning is a key energy drain.  Schlossberg thinks new energy standards could double efficiency and ‘save air conditioning.’ She doesn’t mention any other actions like smaller or collective living spaces and not keeping indoor temps so cool.
18.     Most cheap flowers come from Columbia by air.  She does not suggest not buying them.  She does suggest driving on short flights, as take-off and landings are 25% of fuel use.  She does not mention that military, cargo and business class flying are the vast majority of air transport, not ordinary travelers.  By the way, airplane emissions AND shipping emissions are not covered in the Paris accords, so subsidiary agreements have followed with no teeth.
19.     Transport ranks #1 in carbon dioxide generation. Trucks shipping goods are the largest component – 5% of vehicles but 20% of carbon.  Schlossberg shows how the ‘promise’ of Uber and Lyft are failing, as there is now MORE traffic, not less.  They are not ‘ride-sharing’ companies. Figures show public transport rider-ship is down and this could be connected to these companies.  Real ‘ride-sharing’ in autonomous electric vehicles is still a dim promise.  Again, everyone wants to be everywhere immediately.

Schlossberg is what you might call a typical environmental writer, who poses no threat to capitalism.  This while collecting facts that make it obvious that capitalism as it now stands is both creating the situation and unable to change fast enough through ‘green tech.’  What is missing from her writing is a political movement to crush the power of the capitalist class and the commodity economy and replace it with a sustainable system.  What is also clear from her manifold list of problems is that it describes a patient in a hospital with ‘complications’ of two, three or four medical issues at one time.  In those situations the prognosis is never good.

Other prior reviews on this subject, use blog search box, upper left:  “Tar Sands,” “Native Tongue,”  “Stirring Up the Bacon Eaters,” “Climate Emergency,” “Planning Green Growth,” “Ecological Revolution” (Foster);  “Ecology & Marxism,” “A Redder Shade of Green,” “Stop Tar Sands Oil,” “Ecological Revolution” and “Marx and the Earth, (JB Foster); “This Changes Everything” (Klein), “Civilization Critical.”

P.S. -   
Biden' Our Time
Electing Joe Biden and propping up the power of the DNC will retain business as usual in the immediate term and continue the slide towards environmental oblivion.  In June 2019 Biden told large donors at a fundraiser in New York that ‘nothing would fundamentally change’ if he was elected.  At the debate on Sunday, he pretended he is now almost like Sanders. Biden will say almost anything, including lying, to get elected, which is what bourgeois candidates do to get votes.  After that, sayonara. When Sanders loses and endorses Biden, it will be the turn of the actual left to challenge both ruling class parties on climate change and commodity consumerism. 

And I bought it at May Day Books!
Red Frog
     March 17, 2020

Friday, March 13, 2020

Death Row Records

“Just Mercy,” film by Destin Cretton, 2019

Unlike so many typical films about the special oppression of people with darker skin, Just Mercy is not set during slavery or Jim Crow.  It is set in the late 1980s, early 1990s in Alabama, which makes it especially relevant to today.  The film shows how institutional racism continues in the legal system, especially in murder cases.  Shoddy and incompetent defense counsel, lazy and racist police work, ignored evidence, bad eyewitnesses and forensics and biased judges, district attorneys, prosecutors, sheriffs and cops all play their role.   This play is set in Alabama but this happens even in the North as the 2002 Myon Burrell conviction involving Minnesota prosecutor Amy Klobuchar showed. 
The Murderous State on Death Row
This is the true story of Bryan Stevenson, that rare Harvard law school grad who decided to take up unjust convictions on death row, not a sinecure at an investment bank.  He starts the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) with federal funds and his first big case is that of Walter McMillan, who was unjustly convicted of the murder of a young white girl at a dry-cleaner in Monroeville, Alabama.  There was no evidence except a jail-house snitch who was forced to change his testimony and a young black man, who it is later learned was nowhere near the murder scene.  Witnesses who knew McMillan was at a picnic all day were ignored.  The ironic joke is that while he’s in Monroeville the prosecutor tells Stevenson to visit the Monroeville courthouse where To Kill a Mockingbird was set, even while denying that this ‘conviction’ might be bogus.  It is clear many in Monroeville do not understand the meaning of the film or book to this day.  Stevenson and his coworkers at the EJI are sort of modern Atticus Finches.  This is further proof why Harper Lee got away from Monroeville as fast as she could – and still would!

The laziness displayed by the local Baldwin County, Alabama Sheriff and prosecutor made we wonder how many murder cases actually get solved or are erroneous.  1 of every 9 people on death row are exonerated according to the film, so the error rate is very high. 1 in 25 are exonerated after their execution.  If you had that kind of error rate on your job, you’d be fired. 

The solid South has the highest incarceration rates for states, with Louisiana leading the list.  From 1965 to 2018, the national ‘murder clearance rate’ was 66.25%, which means an arrest was made, even if it was mistaken.  This is the best rate for all crimes with vehicle theft the worst - 13.8%. According to the U.S. government in 2018 62.3% of murder cases ended in arrest.  38.7% went unsolved and of those arrests, more than 1 in 9 were erroneous from the death row stat.  The National Registry of Exonerations lists 68 murder and manslaughter convictions in 2018 overturned, with “official misconduct” the chief reason.   Because of the high rate of erroneous convictions as shown by the various Innocence Projects, local bodies are setting up special investigative groups to look at the issue. 

This film is based on the inaccurate, cruel and racist nature of death row and the death penalty, not just faulty police work.  It steals part or all of an inmate’s life, damages his family and community and impacts him for life even if he is released.   The solid South, the inter-mountain West, some prairie states, along with northern states Indiana and Ohio still have the death penalty – 25 states in all.

While the film is a roller-coaster eventually ending in the exoneration of McMillan and ‘hopeful’ testimony by Stevenson before Congress, (doing his best Obama impersonation) the reality is that the whole incarceration and bail system remains for the most part intact.  While this heroic legal work puts a dent in the situation, racist capitalism remains.  The death penalty, over-policing and legal discrimination are based on the police playing a continuing role in labor discipline of the population, especially the darker-skinned and more exploited.  This has been inherent in U.S. capitalism since the beginning of the country.   It will not end until the financial and political structures behind it are removed and remade into forms of actual proletarian justice.      

Other prior reviews on this issue, use blog search box, upper left:  “Are Prisons Obsolete?”(Davis); “Klobuchar a Hot Dish Neo-Liberal,” “Slavery by Another Name,” “Prison Strike Against Modern Slavery,” “The New Jim Crow,” (Alexander) “Loaded,” (Dunbar-Ortiz) “Southern Cultural Nationalism and Southern Liberals,” “Monroeville, Alabama,” “Got Set a Watchman.” (Lee)

The Cranky Yankee
Lucky Friday the 13th! (Coronavirus and Wall Street exempted…)
March 13, 2020