Political Pathology Trumps Political Democracy, or not?

Granted, the media frenzy over “The Donald,” as if he were some sort of political “outsider” riding in on a white horse to save the American people from all those “politicians” running for president, is rather astounding. Crass is in with the mass media. It is hard to find any genuine political process in all the hoopla or in the sniping among the vast array of Republican candidates for the nomination. The Democratic National Committee’s attempt to anoint Hillary as their candidate while snubbing the only candidate of either party – Bernie Sanders – who presents himself as representing actual policy positions is certainly quieter. But it is no less anti-democratic, if less blatantly demagogic, than the likes of a Ted Cruz or a Jeb Bush, or any other member of the GOP Clown Car.

Most fascinating to anyone interested in the process by which the corporate and financial elites control the political processes in the U.S.A., is the relative media attention allocated to Sanders versus Trump. The best the media can do in that regard is to compare the two as “outsiders” appealing to the vast frustration of voters with “establishment politics.” While it is said that Trump is widely despised in New York, it is hard for me to visualize the self-proclaimed billionaire real estate developer as an “outsider.”

Broken Democracy, or Is That Oligarchy Behind the Curtain?

It is also widely acknowledged that “Washington is broken.” Yet, is it really? To be “broken” implies that something was supposed to work in a certain way but due to some problem it does not work properly and needs to be “fixed.” I would suggest that the national political system is not broken; it is working exactly as it is intended by its elites. That is the problem.

Paul Cienfuegos, a regional leader of the Community Rights movement, argues that our nation “more and more resembles a corporate oligarchy.”[1] Sheldon Wolin characterizes our illusory democracy as actually being an “inverted totalitarian” system that maintains the formal trappings of democracy while a corporate-state elite controls the economy and political process.[2] Chris Hedges proclaimed the Death of the Liberal Class, saying that while liberalism once provided the controls over the excesses of corporate capitalism, only the rhetoric remains.[3] Kim Phillips-Fein documents the decades long crusade by business against the New Deal that ultimately destroyed any serious political mitigation of the social damage caused by laissez faire capitalism.[4] These authors have each identified key elements of the pseudo-democracy that has in fact become a plutocracy.

Business won the struggle Phillips-Fein describes; liberalism had provided partial management of capitalism in the public interest, but it was destroyed. Only the rhetorical claims of liberalism serving the public interest remain, as Hedges points out, mostly in the abstractions of the platform and pontifications of Democratic Party politicians. The rest is finance capital managing politics and the economy in its own interests. Legal restrictions on speculation of investment bankers using depositors’ money had restrained finance capital until the elimination of all post-Great-Depression protections. Those restrictions are gone now.

The final blow was begun by Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, and completed by the rest of the Goldman Sachs crowd, rotating through the Executive Branch revolving door from Wall Street to the president’s cabinet and back to Wall Street. Every regime since Clinton has allowed the economy to be directed by Wall Street executives such as George Schultz and Timothy Geithner in the sole interests of the Big Banks and investment houses.  That, of course, resulted in the financial crash of 2008. And now the Democratic National Committee wants to hand us Clinton II?

Avoiding Catastrophic Destabilization

The deeper problem is that these political-economic developments have accelerated the most destructive tendencies of extractive predatory capital. The planet and its peoples have been plundered at accelerated rates for over two hundred years, but especially over the last half-century. The result is climate destabilization, accompanied by accelerated species extinctions that are synergistically destabilizing local and regional ecosystems around the world. The warming of the planet already results in extreme weather conditions, but will soon also entail consequent massive food-crop failures, mass regional starvation, mass migration, water and other resource wars, and the likely collapse of the global economy. Meanwhile, the charade of political democracy shields the corporate path to human extinction.

Paul Cienfuegos argues that the national complex of legal and regulatory systems is rigged in favor of allowing the corporate destruction of the planet to continue. He suggests that the only way to avoid catastrophic climate destabilization is for local communities to resist. They must pass and enforce local laws that prohibit corporate destructive practices in their towns and counties, even though such laws may violate presumptive state or federal jurisdiction. The democratic rights of communities to protect the health and safety of their citizens must be asserted. That just might be the only way that the affirmation of political democracy can trump political pathology and protect the planet.
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[1] Paul Cienfuegos, “Local Governance,” talk given in Minneapolis, MN, 23 Feb 2015. Transcript from Alternative Radio. http://www.alternativeradio.org/
[2] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy, Inc.: Managed Democracy and the Spector of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008.
[3]Chris Hedges, Death of the Liberal Class. New York: Nation Books, 2010.
[4] Kim Phillips-Fein, Invisible Hands: The Businessmen’s Crusade Against the New Deal. New York: Norton, 2009.

The Upside-Down Economy

The idea that the financial markets are the essential force that drives economic growth and progress, has dominated political thinking for too long. The financial markets and their agents have dominated politics and the Congress over recent decades more than ever before. After all, it took several decades for the financial elite to accomplish the complete abandonment of the controls instituted to prohibit the financial market excesses that caused the Great Depression. We are at greater risk today of an even bigger crash than 1929.

The U.S. and world economies are stumbling on the precipice of part II of the “Great Recession” of 2008. The global integration of financial markets and institutions put the entire world at risk and none of it has any democratic foundation. It is all happening against the will of the people and in opposition to the public interest. The massive contraction of the middle class and the swelling of the ranks of the poor are now undeniable. The so called “recovery” has been all about the financial elites and the stock market. Corporations are awash in cash. Those who lost jobs that had a livable wage can now only find minimal-wage jobs and must work at least two to pay rent. The real economy falters and the financial markets are built on quicksand.

The Disappearing Real Economy

The economy is upside down because real economic activity – the production and exchange of goods and services needed by the people in their everyday lives – no longer drives the global economic system. The most powerful economic force in the world today consists of the actions of multinational corporations attempting to continually grow consumption by reducing the costs of growing production. International “free trade” is in effect the removal of production from the nation – outsourcing.

To minimize cost and maximize output, capital is moved to poor nations with the least labor costs and environmental controls. Economic “globalization” allows U.S. corporations to import cheap goods for our increasingly poor workers to buy at Wal-Mart with credit cards. That, of course, reduces the availability of production jobs here by exploiting the destitute elsewhere. While capital is easily mobile globally, labor is relatively immobile. The globalization of capital drives wages down so that U.S. citizens can only buy cheap imported goods.

Continuing down the ruinous path of the Wall Street financial elite is supported by a lot of political rationalization. The fact that work, pay, production, and consumption are what any real human economy is actually about, is simply ignored. On the one hand, we are told that capital must be free to find its “highest and best use.” That will enable the capitalists – falsely characterized as “the job creators” – to invest in new technology and production, thereby improving employment. Well, how has that worked out? The new technologies have mostly reduced the need for skilled labor in the U.S. The free international movement of capital – they call it “free trade” – has increased demand for unskilled cheap labor abroad. Who benefits? The wealthy investors in “globalization.” Who suffers? Workers everywhere suffer the loss of control over their lives and the inability to earn a living wage.

Feed the Rich, Starve the Poor

The myth that the super rich somehow need a tax break pervades the political discourse even though wealthy corporations and individuals pay less in taxes than ever. The delusion is that such public largess economically favoring the already rich would allow them to invest in the real economy. The “news” media – owned by the same mega-corporations that feed the super-rich – go along with that fiction even in the face of several decades of decline of American work, pay, production, and consumption.

All the while, the rich continue to get richer, paying less and less taxes, by controlling politics and indebting the nation. Both the U.S. Congress and the President are elected by having access to massive political funding by so-called “political action committees” (PACs). Legislation is actually written by the biggest financial lobbyists in the Congress – the lobbyists for the financial elite that is enriched by the “globalized” economy. Worldwide corporate theft, subsidized by the U.S. government, is a scam of unparalleled proportion.

Simply put, in a real economy it is income from employment that drives economic health. Employment provides individuals and families with incomes to buy the necessities and niceties of life. It is employment that produces goods and services people need. The income from employment allows consumption to drive production. Financial speculation among the super-rich has distorted the real economy by “financializing” it and ruined all that.

That is why the economy is so upside-down today. Financial speculation drives investment in cheap overseas production, leading to domestic poverty and declining ability to buy what is produced elsewhere. It is all driven by the greed of the financial elite, not by any national economic policy. Big investment banks’ speculating in abstract financial instruments – derivatives and the like – are allowed to create phantom money by depleting the real economy in the form of consumer and government debt.

In a real economy the Big Banks would be invested in actual productive activity. But because of outsourcing, underemployment, and low wages, workers cannot afford goods produced domestically as cheap goods from abroad flood the shelves of the big-box stores. At the same time, the propaganda of marketing and advertising encourage more and more consumption of less and less meaningful products. Low wages force reliance on consumer credit, increasing indebtedness to the corporations controlled by the financial elite. It is an upside-down economy.

Growing suppression of public education and critical thinking facilitates the manipulation of consumer behavior. People keep trying to buy whatever represents the imagery of the consumer culture that dominates their experience. “Affluenza” afflicts some of the few who experience new wealth. But the pervasive desire for the trappings of affluence – driven by pervasive marketing propaganda – drives consumer behavior, leaving little room for “free will” in economic behavior. Mass media images dominate consumer as well as political thought. Cultural images of “the good life” all involve increased unthinking consumption of corporate products.

Converging Crises and Catastrophic Collapse

In the present context, certain fundamental factors are at work. The vast accumulation of “phantom wealth” by the Big Banks via the “bailout” has encouraged further speculation and facilitated more economic concentration. The easy availability of cheap loans to corporations already awash in cash has not resulted in their investing in the domestic economy. All that cash and cheap credit is used for mergers and acquisitions, which further concentrate corporate wealth. A stock market booms while the main-street economy remains stagnant with vast numbers of workers unemployed or underemployed. Stock market growth is without foundation in the real economy. It has little basis in actual economic value, its growth is speculative, and is at increasing risk of collapse.

After the greatest financial heist of the public treasury ever, we must ask why such vast accumulated wealth has no benefit to the real economy. Overextended consumers can no longer rely on home equity and credit cards to make up for those decades of stagnant to regressive wages. It becomes clear that another few hundred million more dollars in the coffers of billionaires will not be invested in domestic production for the suppressed consumer demand for necessities that results from stagnant domestic employment and over-indebtedness.

It is not as if this is all happening in the abstract. Real world allocation of capital has planetary consequences. The distortions of mass production induced by extractive capital are global in scope. With a world population of over seven billion people and the drive to emulate Western patterns of consumption, the carrying capacity of the planet’s ecologies is already exceeded. Whatever one’s interpretation of the world’s economic system and imagined alternatives, the convergence of overproduction, consumer culture, overpopulation, looming crises of food production, resource wars, and climate chaos, all foreshadow a catastrophic collapse of existing economic and social systems. Only a massive human effort to reorganize the way we live on this planet can avoid human tragedy on a scale as yet mostly unimagined.

Public or Private: It’s Time to Decide

The imminent conversion from fossil-fueled energy production in the U.S. to renewable sources of electricity is quite uneven. In New Mexico, it might be described as bizarre. It is not at all clear what the motivating forces driving the biggest electric utility, Public Services Company of New Mexico (PNM) or the governmental regulatory agency, New Mexico Public Regulatory Commission (PRC), actually may be. But it doesn’t look good.

We PNM “rate-payers” may be excused for feeling a bit dizzy. Each revelation of PNM attempts to avoid its duty as a public utility to serve the public interest, is bad enough. PNM’s private corporate interests prevail, with recurring foot-dragging, mission corruption, and endless corporate spin. The unspoken goal would seem to be to continue down the deadly path of high carbon emissions as long as PNM can get away with it. The falsified analyses of its proposed plan for the pollution-laden San Juan Generating Plant in the Four Corners area, is a case in point. It involves long-term coal commitments that entail huge public liabilities for intolerable carbon emissions at ever-increasing costs. It seeks to keep energy-supply contract decisions secret from the public while negotiating to keep far more coal and nuclear power in “the mix” than is in the public interest. That is simply outrageous.

PRC passivity is no less disturbing. The PRC supposedly “regulates” utility companies in the public interest. As Steve Terrell, columnist for the Santa Fe New Mexican, recently noted, some PRC commissioners and staff have met with a securities analyst, who presumably sought to learn the status of the PNM proposal for the San Juan generating plant. But high-end analyst-PNM executive lunches and private analyst meetings with PRC commissioners and staff? In Jon Stewart’s parting words, “If you smell something, say something.” Three of the five PRC commissioners just voted to drop the attempt to enjoin The New Mexican from publishing relevant documents – a small glimmer of hope.

The PRC should actively pursue the public interest. Yet it seems indifferent to how PNM might ultimately meet the State’s modest requirement for 20% of electricity generation to be from renewable sources by 2020. Why has not the PRC developed a carbon-emissions reduction plan as a baseline for negotiations? PNM should find ways to meet PRC requirements – if the PRC had any. The PRC just waits for a PNM plan it can legally accept. That is not nearly enough. Getting to low carbon-emissions energy production requires a strategy that does not add coal, nuclear, and fracked-gas sources electricity generation. That is precisely the direction that the PNM proposes and the PRC takes seriously. New Energy Economy, A non-profit intervener in the case, offered an economical emissions-reducing alternative to PNM’s financially self-serving plan. Its analysis exposed the faulty calculations and convenient conclusions of PNM’s proposal. Its plan demonstrates the superior cost-effectiveness and sustainability of much greater reliance on renewable energy technologies, while accelerating emissions reduction. PNM’s coal-laden proposal is driven by its own financial interests in direct conflict with the public interest.

PRC Acting Director of the Utility Division told me on the phone that the PRC’s policy criteria for ruling on the PNM proposal for the future of the San Juan Generating Plant is based on New Mexico law, which specifies that electricity generation must be 15% from renewable sources by 2015, for four years, then 20% by 2020. Proposals, objections, and agreements are to be weighed by the commission on that basis in evaluating PNM’s proposed plan. The San Juan Generating Plant and adjacent coal mine, in the Four Corners region now notorious for its atmospheric “methane bubble” visible from space. Navajo health statistics in the area are a disaster.

The Public Interest Deferred

But I think that the law allows for a lot of interpretation as to how its requirements may be met. So far it seems that the PRC is primarily passively responding to interpretations embedded in the PNM proposals rather than pro-actively framing the discussion in the interests of public safety and health as it should. The law does not say “no more than 20%” renewables by 2020. There is no reason why the PRC cannot aim for more than 20% by finding a strategy such as that proposed by New Energy Economy, which leads to the 20% minimum goal while improving the health, safety, and costs for New Mexicans, sooner rather than later.

Now, as if icing on the cake of malfeasance, two alleged clean-energy groups, “Western Resource Advocates” and the “Coalition for Clean Affordable Energy,” which are also interveners in the case, along with PRC Staff Counsel Patrick Lopez and NM Assistant Attorney General, P. Cholla Khoury, have signed a “compromise” deal that would accept PNM’s current plan and leave open the question of whether coal-fired generation at San Juan should continue operations after 2022. The two remaining coal-fired plants would remain open at San Juan through at least 2022. These putative environmental groups have acquiesced to virtually every element of the PNM proposed plan. Western Resource Advocates’ Web site brags that it has achieved a great “victory” for the environment. I guess that is how you spin allowing yourself to become a victim of cooptation by corporate polluters.

New Energy Economy had withdrawn from the negotiations. Perhaps its Director, Mariel Nanasi, smelled something. The strategy of cooptation has worked nationally for polluters in dealing with “Big Green” environmental groups for decades. Naomi Klein, Tim DeChristopher and others have independently documented the corruption of groups like The Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, and other Big Green groups by the polluters they were trying to work with. They supported climate schemes like carbon trading that gave corporations opportunity to profit from them while dodging real carbon emissions reduction. In the process of such compromises, Big Green “non-profit” organizations’ bank accounts swelled with corporate donations and the planet continued to overheat. This New Mexican “compromise” smells just like the fishy national failure of Big Green environmental groups.

Big Green Fails Again

The problem with Big Green groups in New Mexico is the same as with the national Big Energy and Big Environmental groups. Their deals are all about economics and politics – most of it self-serving. But Mother Nature doesn’t make deals. Anything short of rapid transition away from fossil fuels will accelerate the devastating climate disruptions already occurring. The convoluted legal “stipulation” filed with the PRC as a “compromise” with PNM, was also signed onto by PRC “Staff” – a peculiar element in itself. The “agreement” between PNM and the Big Green interveners kicks the emissions-can quite a ways down the regulatory road riddled with loopholes for PNM to wiggle through. I read it and found nothing that commits PNM to do any more than what it had already proposed. It’s a not-all-that-clever shell game, sufficiently convoluted as to deter all but the most persistent citizen from seeing the game for what it is.

Some PRC commissioners are happy with the compromise. Instead, the commissioners should demand robust compliance with the New Mexico State renewable energy goals set years ago then largely abandoned. We need serious emissions-reduction targets for New Mexico energy producers, not compromises that push solid climate action down the road.

Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity at Home.

Photo-voltaic Sun Tracker Generating Electricity at Home.

PNM has severely reduced and eliminated incentives for citizens installing solar-electric equipment that would reduce fossil-fuels use – but not add to PNM’s profits. Citizen-owned distributed generation adds electricity to the grid without adding emissions, but does not add to PNM’s cost-basis for its profits. This leads PNM to discourage the very technology that is best for the public. The PRC appears oblivious to the urgency of the renewable-energy production transition, as the crisis of climate disruption accelerates. As Peggy O’Mara pointed out in last Sunday’s The New Mexican, the race for renewable energy has already passed a turning point. Continued reliance on coal is now a high financial risk as well as environmentally stupid. The PRC also has a fiduciary responsibility to the public to protect it from undue costs and financial risk. PNM’s plan would introduce new coal and nuclear health and liability risks to New Mexicans. On the other hand, the history of regulation in the U.S. is one of corporate control over agencies ostensibly meant to regulate them.

Public Rights or Private Privilege

This whole mess revolves around an “unmentionable” flaw in the way energy is supplied to the public – through a faux public utility. The goals of a public utility should match the public interest. The goals and actions of PNM as a privatized “public utility” – an oxymoron of sorts – do not. Its obvious schemes to increase profits at the expense of the public interest should be offensive to its customers. At a deeper level, its guaranteed monopoly profits based on its capital investments and operating costs, give incentive to create investments and costs to justify rate-increase demands – and increased profits.

This setup reminds me of those corrupt “cost plus” Defense Department contracts that enrich the likes of Boeing, Northrup-Grumman, and others with “cost overruns” at the tax-payer’s expense. Without real public oversight, it’s a never-ending cycle of gouging the public for private corporate profit. Unlike some investor-owned public utilities that are moving expeditiously to solar and wind, PNM is regressive in the extreme. New Mexicans simply cannot afford the wasted water, methane pollution, coal-dust diseases, nuclear liabilities, and profligate profiteering of PNM. Now if the PRC were to really do its job…

Certainly, converting from a privatized energy supplier like PNM to a publicly owned and operated public utility is complicated. Nevertheless, PNM and PRC failures to move quickly toward significant carbon-emissions reduction and affordable energy in ways that serve the public interest would make it well worth the effort in the long run. It is time for the people of New Mexico to look after their own interests and pressure the State to change the way it does the people’s business, especially where energy and a healthy environment are concerned.

The Ideology of Predatory Capital: Social Illusions and Planetary Reality

With the fall of the Soviet Union and various other communist states, the victory of capitalism seemed assured. Ronald Reagan took on a God-like aura, anointed by Margaret Thatcher. The “Iron Lady” affirmed that there was no such thing as “society,” and there was no alternative to unfettered growth of neo-liberal capitalism. All was well in the West, or so it was said.

Now, all sorts of things were possible with the “peace dividend.” The triumph of American Individualism over Soviet totalitarianism was expected to yield huge savings resulting from the end of the arms race that had been required by the “cold war.” Yet, somewhere on the way to peace and prosperity, the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower had warned us against, just kept growing bigger and bigger. We were warned against potential new forms of conflict for which we must be prepared.

That growth relentlessly consumed more and more of the federal budget. The pursuit of military goals to assure the continued supply of energy from the Middle East left little money for “domestic programs” throughout the second half of the twentieth century and beyond. The pursuit of endless wars of choice into the twenty-first century created widespread international resentments. “Freedom fighters” in their own minds, growing numbers of “terrorists” and “insurgents” defended against indiscriminant U.S. invasions and occupations. Such groups grew much more rapidly than they ever had before nine-eleven. The costs of these military adventures have been mostly off-budget, yet have continued to bloat the national debt, their funding appropriated from nowhere. Meanwhile the congress continues to focus on cutting corporate taxes and domestic programs and subsidizing fossil-fuel extractive industry. Small government for the people, big government for the Empire.

The Ideology of Economic and Military Predation

In tandem with aggressive U.S. foreign policy, the growing dominance of neo-liberal economics – formerly called “Laisse Faire” – meant increasing control of the U.S. economy by international corporations. So called “free markets” and “free trade” operated as ideological cover for ever-increasing corporate domination of both domestic and international economies. The story was always, let individual entrepreneurs and small businessmen – the mythical “job creators” – be freed of government regulation and Adam Smith’s “indivisible hand” will assure the best outcome for all. But the hard economic reality has been quite different.

Capitalist economies work best for their people when markets are regulated to control the worst excesses of the power of capital itself. The free-market ideologists carefully neglect to admit to the power of power to accrue more power. The question, “free for whom?” is neither asked nor answered. That is exactly how the mega-corporations have ideologically controlled polity, economy, and society. The corporatists, whether pundits on CNBC or the politicians bought and paid for by the corporate and financial elites, have clear expectations and intentions. Only by reducing taxation on corporate profits and eliminating “onerous regulations” needed for public health, workplace safety, and the environment, as well as those evil “entitlements,” can the capitalist economy work best – well, best in fact for the corporations and worst for the people.

Of course, corporate taxes are at all-time lows and deregulation of financial markets has been fully achieved by the Republi-crat one-party corporate state. The result is the starving of federal and state budgets and destruction of middle-class employment. Deregulation of financial markets, aided by the power of electronic computing, has allowed corporate malfeasance on a scale never before imagined. This has driven both U.S. and international economies to financial crises on a scale not seen since the great depression of the 1930s.

Deregulation of production and labor markets has released large corporations from any responsibility for environmental damage, abuses of labor, increased health risks to citizens, or unfair competition. Their domination of politics, economics, and society was thereby assured. Their control of politics and the mass media have kept at bay any serious discussion or action to counter the climate crisis that fossil-fuel driven extractive capital has created. The corporate state propels us toward the sixth great extinction while its elites grab their short-term profits.

Illusions of Separation and Dominion

All this is sustained by massive social illusions about the nature of human society and the nature of nature itself, all promoted by the power elites’ propaganda. The social illusion that the capitalism we have is what we need is promoted and sustained by the financial, corporate, and military elites who benefit economically from its unrestrained damage to people and planet. The problem, of course, is that almost all political discussion, deeply grounded in illusions and propaganda imposed through the media they control, flatly excludes reality. The power of mass media control is the power to ignore.

It is not only interesting but very important to note that the illusions fostered by the power elite about society are the same illusions promoted about nature. The perspective is atomistic and reductionist. But contrary to the pseudo-science of economics, the natural world is the world in which we live, and it is a complex living system, not a simple mechanistic causal chain. It and we are complex interdependent living systems. Despite any illusions we hold about our dominion over nature, we are inescapably part of it.

To think clearly about humanity and its place among the other complex living systems on earth, we must purge the old ideological schism over capitalism vs. socialism. (It is all internal to society anyway and the ideological debate ignores nature while assuming human domination over the earth.) Roosevelt tried to save the capitalism of the early twentieth century by modifying its destructive tendencies – it worked for awhile. Later, communism collapsed from its own dead weight. Neither was much cognizant of the natural world – that would have been anti-industrial and thereby unacceptable.

Despite the limitations imposed on him, Roosevelt did a pretty good job – the “New Deal” reforms kept U.S. Capitalism alive for almost a century. The former extreme boom-bust cycle was dampened by the regulations he imposed on banking – separating speculative investment banking from commercial depository banking. The result was “the business cycle” where relatively mild recessions between periods of growth replaced the severe crashes previously experienced. Social Security, unemployment insurance, and later programs dampened socioeconomic instabilities. But in the post Reagan-Thatcher era of deregulation, we have regressed to extreme risk of financial collapse and social chaos resulting from the abolition of those reforms. Our situation is not unlike the past, but amplified by the electronic speed of today’s financial transactions and the much greater size and power of today’s corporations.

If we continue on this path of self-delusion about economic and planetary realities, the next financial collapse will be far more severe and will reverberate throughout the world in the form of social chaos. If we continue with the self-delusions of the extractive predatory capitalism we have, not only will the world economy collapse, but the unmitigated climate disruptions produced by the delusional endless-growth economic system will put the planet over the brink, ultimately – and soon – leading to full-on climate collapse, extreme crop failures, mass starvation and uncontrollable migrations, widespread armed violence, and untold human suffering.

Interdependent Reality

The underlying reality of both human society and living earth systems resides in the fact of interdependence. Some elements of the idea of personal independence and freedom are important and true and lead to cultural creativity in a variety of ways, within a context of inherent societal and ecological interdependence.

Yet the ideology of American independence, unfettered capital markets, and “free” trade, as promoted by the power elites, is rapidly becoming deadly in its consequences for both human society and large numbers of living species, as well as the living earth systems of which we are a part.

Ecological Reality and Political Illusions

So, Bernie Sanders is a “democratic socialist,” or, in the European term, a “social democrat.” From the perspective of the ideology of the U.S. power elites, that is a political horror of horrors. That is why the mass media try to ignore Sanders. Besides, the unreality of “The Donald” is so “entertaining.” After all, the social programs Bernie Sanders advocates would disrupt their near total power over the economy. But from the perspective of a desire to secure the future against the ravages of unfettered predatory extractive capital hell-bent to destroy the living earth in favor of the next quarterly report, Bernie is a rather mild-mannered moderate. He would institute many of the same sorts of programs that Roosevelt did to save capitalism from itself. But today there is a big difference.

It is no longer a matter of fixing our socially and environmentally dysfunctional version of capitalism; now it is a matter of replacing the disaster capitalism we have with a new ecological economy never before seen on the planet, except in miniature among indigenous peoples. We must create local indigenous economies at planetary scale. That is a daunting but necessary task that must be accomplished in very short order if we are to avoid much more severe social and ecological chaos in the wake of economic collapse as well as climate collapse. The system we have is destabilizing all sorts of natural systems that have been in relative balance for a very long time. Oscillations in disturbed systems tend to amplify toward system collapse. This is why tipping points are so important. The economic and climate oscillations are accelerating.

It is not just poverty, racism, unemployment, or the extreme accumulation of phantom wealth in the delusional financial markets that are at stake – as if they were not enough. Now it is a matter of social and ecological survival. The living interdependence of multiple species in multiple ecologies around the world is being disrupted on a massive scale. We are only partly aware of the complex ways humans depend on these even more complex ecological inter-relationships. Many such interdependencies are being exposed as we careen toward mass extinction. Scientists know this; politicians are not listening. We are all at extreme risk. Only massive cooperation among people, neither corporate competition nor the corporate state, will make the difference between a forming a new ecological society and our present path to an accelerated extinction of many more species, including our own.

Good Cop, Bad Cop: You Can’t Train a Psychopath to be Compassionate, But You Can Destroy a Good Man’s Compassion

The continuing surge of news stories about highly questionable police killings of unarmed civilians, is shocking enough on its own account. The victims are mostly young black or brown men but also women and even children. It is important to keep in mind that this pattern of police violence did not start with the advent of smart-phone video or police body or dashboard cameras. A new awareness of a problem is sometimes confused with the idea that it is a new problem. Understanding that police violence is a long-standing problem is made that much more disturbing by the plethora of video evidence streaming across social media on a daily basis.

New media do not create new problems, except for problems of unprecedented exposure or changed patterns of communication. They just facilitate greater awareness of problems we had been less aware of. The line between legitimate police enforcement of the law and illegitimate police use of power has always been blurred. But now, that blurry line is getting exposed in ways never before contemplated.

I have watched countless videos of violent and near violent police-citizen encounters on social media over the past year or two. The most common element that comes through is a widespread emotional distancing of police from citizen – a distinct lack of empathy. Also, an apparent need to intimidate citizens expresses an effort to demonstrate absolute authority and control by officers. A near universal police disdain for persons of color detained on the street or in their vehicles, is routinely displayed. One of the most remarkable factors is what appears to be the unawareness by police of the impact that video exposure of their behavior may have.

Professional Pathology

As in any profession, you have good cops and you have bad cops. The good ones were good before they became cops. The bad ones may have started out bad, but others only became bad after years of disenchantment with humanity along with being socialized by their senior peers. What many critics of police do not understand is the impact over time that the experiences of being a peace officer can have on a person of good will. Years of exposure to the absurdity and depravity of some human behavior can taint an officer’s outlook on life.

That officer may increasingly come to see every citizen through the lens of all the perverse situations he may have experienced in his career. In the course of time and action, compassion is lost and cynicism is gained. The process is reinforced by interaction with fellow officers with similar experiences and some who were psychopaths from the start.[1] This is very similar to the experience of the war-fighter of an invading force who is confronted daily with situations where he has no basis for distinguishing the enemy from the civilian population and quickly learns to treat everyone as the enemy. For the police officer, of course, the experience is not nearly as intense or concentrated in time.

It is common sociological knowledge that in every profession a certain “in-group” mentality develops from the specialized work and common experience of the members of the profession. We have certainly seen this phenomenon in the medical profession, among lawyers, and even restaurateurs. The consequences for each profession are different, some much more dangerous than others. If we don’t like the patronizing attitude of a restaurant owner, or a poorly prepared meal, we simply don’t go back next time. Not so in our relations with the police officer.

Among doctors and lawyers the concepts of “patient management” and “client management” suggest an attitude where the “professional” believes his special knowledge makes him superior to the person for whom he is supposed to render his professional services. The reluctance of some doctors to fully explain the details of a medical condition or procedure may have as much to do with retaining authority as with maximizing billable hours. This is reinforced by the patronizing attitude that assumes that the patient is not smart enough to understand the arcane knowledge of the physician. Such attitudes and practices are often amplified by communication with colleagues within the profession. Some “group-think” can even rise to the level of social contagion in any profession. Social contagion in police work can easily lead to violence.

Self Selection in the Psychopathology of “Enforcement”

As shown in police body and dashboard cameras or bystander smart phone videos, the behavior of citizens subjected to police violence most often posed no threat to the officer. Well, certainly no physical threat. The sure-fire way to stimulate police aggression or even violence upon yourself is to challenge an officer’s sense of his own authority. In most cases that escalated to violence, the traffic stop was typically for something trivial. In many cases, any indicator of a lack of total subservience of the civilian to the officer is absolutely not tolerated. It becomes the basis for an escalated aggressiveness by the officer(s) followed by unjustified violence and too often, death. Even subsequent submissiveness or subservience is often not enough to satisfy the officer’s threatened sense of power, and he may just keep beating the victim until another officer pulls him off. What gives?

A student in an undergraduate sociology class I taught maybe twenty years ago reported in a classroom discussion, an observation I will never forget. I’ve mentioned this in other posts related to police. This young Black potential officer noted that in the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Academy most of the cadets who he knew from high school, “loved to beat people up.” Even at my advanced age, I too remember the guys in high school who looked for easy targets for their violence. Most of them expressed an interest in either the military or police as career choices. The process by which violence-prone individuals are self-selected into police work remains almost entirely ignored in the recruitment of candidates for law enforcement. It is even common for recruiters to seek out the most aggressive of candidates. The administration of law enforcement across this nation, instead of rooting them out, protects violent officers from discipline, dismissal, or prosecution. A police officer, of course, must be prepared for violence, but he need not prefer it. Too many do.

That brings me to the topic of the psychopathic personality. While some disagreement exists as to the exact components of this condition, certain elements, when present, are extremely dangerous to have in a police officer. One is a total lack of empathy with other human beings, combined with a learned capacity to feign empathy. Another is the pleasure the psychopath gains by inflicting pain on others – it’s a matter of exerting total control over another living being. Serial killers are psychopaths; they exert absolute control by torturing and killing their victims without remorse. I see a similarity here with the behavior of the cop who escalates his aggression at the slightest hint of “insubordination” in the civilian he has detained, continues well beyond any modicum of reason, and sees nothing wrong in his behavior.

High Standards and Critical Functions

Some experts who have used Robert Hare’s checklist [2] to score politicians and chief executive officers of corporations for psychopathic traits have concluded that a disproportionate number of persons in authority are in fact psychopaths. The argument goes that some of the traits of the psychopath are quite useful in climbing the ladder of power in an organization, and in establishing and keeping control. Psychopaths are fixated on their own power and seek to expand it, unrestrained by any moral principles. That results in a higher proportion of psychopaths in such positions than in the general population. In a somewhat different way, police officers are in positions of authority, less so within their own organization than over an entire population. They are allotted great power and great discretion in exercising it. Since police officers carry weapons as “tools of the trade,” and psychopaths enjoy hurting people, maybe we should carefully screen candidates for police academies to eliminate psychopaths. I fear just the opposite has been happening for a long time. Unfortunately, too many rookies who start out as problem-solving peace officers, gradually lose much of their compassion and take on psychopathic behaviors.

In the company of skilled psychopaths and under conditions of high stress and occasional mortal danger, it is not so difficult for an initially good man or woman to become cynical, ruthless, and uncaring. A compassionate rookie cop can become a practicing psychopath even though he was not so in terms of his original personality. Much of such a transition to “bad cop” is perceived as a survival adaptation to terrible conditions. But in a police department, such collective behavior results from a contagion of violence. How else can we explain blatant cold-blooded murder committed with full knowledge of the fact that it is being videotaped? Many idealistic youth were trained to kill in Iraq or Afghanistan and came back quite disturbed by their experience. Those who easily took to killing were probably closer to the psychopath end of the scale. As with the high-school bully, neither should end up as police officers.
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[1] Typically, “psychopath” and “sociopath” are used to describe the same general personality disorder, a pathology characterized primarily by a ruthless desire to exert absolute control over, and inflict pain on living beings, a lack of empathy or compassion, little if any sense of right and wrong, and a learned skill in masking these traits. Psychopathy is sometimes linked with narcissism and Machiavellianism, and several other traits. See Wikipedia for Robert Hare’s diagnostic Psychopathy Checklist.
[2] An amusing, if disturbing, account of the struggle to understand psychopathy and the industry that has grown up around it, is told by Jon Ronson, The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry. London: Penguin Books, 2011.