Fake News: Chicken Little Meets the Canary in the Coal Mine

The surge of partisan vitriol over “fake news” during and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election raises some very serious though deeply misunderstood issues. What is news, what is information, what are facts, and what role does propaganda play in the “news cycle” in the various media? Is there a viable role for “fact checkers” in today’s fast-paced flow of pseudo-facts and contrived images on social media? After all, a skilled Photoshop user can create an image to match just about any fantasy. Moreover, what is happening to the communication of fact and opinion in the so-called political discourse in the U.S. today? To what extent can the average “consumer” of news actually distinguish fact from fantasy?

For a long time it has been painfully obvious, at least to some, that the quality and relevance of network news have gone steadily downhill since the “good old days” of Walter Cronkite. When Cronkite concluded his CBS evening news show in the 1960s and 70s with “…and that’s the way it is…” we believed him, more or less. We had no reason to suspect, in any case, that he was contriving stories or falsifying images, even if he left out difficult or sensitive details. Those were the days when television network-news divisions operated independently from commercial entertainment divisions and had their own budgets. In the 1950s and ‘60s, competitive pressures drove the networks, CBS, NBC, and ABC to seek news audiences based on gathering and presenting news, not on ratings driven by superficial yet attention grabbing entertainment.

Cable TV and the Internet were things of the future in the era of television network-news divisions that were more or less independent of commercial pressures. Foreign correspondents and field reporters covered the horrible details of the Vietnam War and the brutal facts of the civil rights movement on the ground. The networks’ entertainment divisions have since swallowed up television news operations, which must now muster ratings that satisfy sponsors. News budgets now reflect advertising revenue and entertainment values. News ratings reflect promoting as well as pandering to curiosity over celebrity antics and gossip about political candidates’ personal lives. Neither network nor cable news operations pursue important political or economic stories unless they are consistent with corporate interests. Trump built his initial momentum partly with free air time based as much on media voyeuristic interest as on his demagoguery.

Enter social media and “reality television.” With the proliferation of digital technology, in both constructing images and purveying “information,” the rise of “fake news” probably was inevitable. CNN had broken into the news business as a hard-hitting 24/7 international cable-news source after the networks virtually abandoned their overseas bureaus and investigative reporting. Gradually it succumbed to the dominant model of mainstream media that Paul Krasner used to call “dis-info-tainment,” in his satirical underground magazine, The Realist. (See the The Realist archives at http://www.ep.tc/realist/index.html)

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Keith Olbermann

MSNBC began as the cable-TV voice of political liberalism, or more accurately, the Democratic Party. However, it was, after all, a subsidiary of NBC, still one of the corporate media giants; its “liberalism” is strictly corporatist, just like that of Hillary and the DNC. MSNBC executives eventually drove out any reporter or commentator who tried to speak truth to power. A certain conservatism is evident in corporatized liberalism – corporate rather than cultural conservatism. The former LA sports reporter, Keith Olbermann, for while held sway on his popular news and political commentary show “Countdown with Keith Olbermann,” on MSNBC. His rants were politically biting and quite entertaining for MSNBC’s largely well-educated audience; he did not dumb down his words. Management suspended him, allegedly for donated $2,400 each to three Democratic candidates for Congress, without management approval. Executives him two days later after a viewer petition with 250,000 signatures demanded it. By January 2011, he departed by mutual agreement.

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Melissa Harris-Perry

Then, on February 26, 2016, Melissa Harris-Perry, a vibrant and moderately progressive political science professor, who hosted a popular current events and political commentary show on MSNBC, announced her departure after they took her show from her without comment. “… I will not be used as a tool for [management’s] purposes … I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head,” she said in an email to her colleagues. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melissa_Harris-Perry) Corporate media allow very little deviation from their establishment viewpoint. Yes, ratings are important to corporate media executives, but their relations to the political elite are even more essential to their power.

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Cenk Uygur

Ed Schultz, popular outspoken advocate for workers and unions also did not last at MSNBC. Then, following the rearrangement of the schedule after the Olbermann and Schultz departures, Cenk Uygur filled the prime time spot as anchor of “MSNBC Live,” but not for long. Formerly conservative Uygur’s strong voice in progressive news and commentary got him good ratings. He co-founded and now hosts a new network, The Young Turks (TYT), following his departure from MSNBC after management told him that important people in Washington did not like his tone and that “We’re not outsiders.” Now, MSNBC has picked FOX reject Greta Van Susteren over Joy-Ann Reid, MSNBC’s popular hard-hitting journalist who is widely respected for her interviewing skills and incisive commentary. So much for “the liberal media bias.”

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Joy Ann Reid

What’s all that about? Fake News, that is what. The current cross-accusations of “fake news” between Democrats and Republicans, with various intelligence agencies chiming in with highly irregular unverifiable announcements and leaks, over whether the Russians hacked Hillary’s emails or a disgruntled Democrat leaked them is the tip of the disinfotainment iceberg. Has anyone considered the possibility that both claims are true? Now, plausible claims surface that Russian agents have evidence of Trumpian philandering in Russia as well as other shocking information – but then, the shock of Trump has worn off, rendering any revelation, true or false, no longer shocking. Social media debates over the source of the Hillary emails exposure become absurd in this climate of unverified dis-information.

Most corporate mass media report the “party line” of the Republican-Democrat political elite as if it were a “fair and balanced” coverage of the political spectrum. Yet independent surveys show that the American public is far more progressive than either party apparatus. That is why the New York Times and Washington Post ignored Bernie Sanders until he got so popular they had to descend into slandering him. (It is also why the corporatist Democratic National Committee undercut his campaign.) Political reporting routinely distorts “news” and power, so that we are likely to hear just about anything we can imagine, or they want us to hear.

glenn-greenwaldGlen Greenwald, who with Laura Poitras, helped get Edward Snowden’s revelations of the NSA’s unconstitutional spying on Americans made public, started the online publication, The Intercept (https://theintercept.com/) in 2014, and edits it with Jeremy Scahill, Poitras, and Betsy Reed. The Intercept provides deep investigative reporting of government and corporate wrongdoing. Greenwald recently explained the convoluted manipulations of mainstream U.S. media, on Democracy Now!, America’s premier viewer-sponsored independent progressive news outlet. (https://www.democracynow.org/2017/1/5/glenn_greenwald_mainstream_us_media_is)

As a narcissistic sociopath with unpredictable political intensions ascents to the status of president-elect, the elite members of the “deep state” get nervous.[1] Fox News was the original butt of the puns, “Fixed News” and “Fake News” by its critics. Yet, as Julian Assange pointed out when interviewed by Shawn Hannity of Fox News, the political elite corrupts the mainstream media in the old “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” sense. We now face a situation in which the usual “managing” of news in the interests of the political class has become much more complicated. The usual political rivalries within the Washington establishment seem all jumbled up. In the new Trumplandia, we can hardly sort out the players or their interests. It seems they are all lying. But remember, political claims and the framing of “issues” are primarily means of maintaining or gaining position within the power structure. Yes, the political sky is falling, but “Chicken Little” may very well be the “Canary in the Coal Mine.”

[1] See Lofgren, Mike (2016). The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government. New York: Viking.

What is Wrong with Economic Growth?

I read a report in Forbes Magazine on the sluggish character of the current recovery from the 2008 financial crash, which lamented its exceptionally weak economic growth. Apparently, we continue slogging along in the weakest recovery since 1949. Since the Great Recession technically ended in 2009, average GDP growth has averaged only 2.1%. In the September 13, 2016 issue, Forbes staff writer Rich Kalgaard reports that the current “expansion” is more constrained than any similar period since 1949. Why is this, and what is the meaning and importance of such a slow recovery?

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Kalgaard offers “three clues” as to why post-recession expansions have steadily gone downhill, if erratically, for over a half century. He blames the fact that “the rest of the world has caught up to the U.S.” He claims that the U.S. abandonment of the gold standard in 1971, is part of the problem. Finally, he offers that routine corporate allegation that “the explosion in federal regulation” has stifled economic growth. He is wrong on all three counts.

Such claims by any writer attached to Forbes should not surprise us. Explanations for economic woes from corporate utopian dreamers will always blame the federal government for poor performance of the economy. They will also project causes of slow growth onto some outside force – certainly never to corporate malfeasance or distortions of the “free markets” they worship. Never will the internal flawed logic of extractive capital or the phantom financialization of the economy come into question.

The Great Transformation

In 1944, Karl Polanyi exquisitely explained the origins and the utopian illusion of free market capitalism in his book The Great Transformation. That great transformation of human societies was what we call the industrial revolution. He also forecast the inevitable damage to society caused by the inherent flaws in the unregulated market system no longer embedded in society. The logic of its economic theory, which emerged as the intellectual justification for today’s global political economy, was deeply flawed.

Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, diverse societies have attempted to protect themselves from the damage done by market liberalism (the theory that if left to their own devices, markets will “self-regulate” and somehow produce the best result for society). The classical economists of the eighteenth century, such as Adam Smith, believed in two ideas that just never panned out in real economies.

First, they assumed that all human behavior is “rational.” That is, people will always act in economically rational ways, seeking their own best economic advantage in all their behavior. In fact, many exigencies and values in everyday life influence behavior. Economic advantage is just not the only important thing in life.

Second, the classical economists believed that markets would “regulate” themselves if allowed to do so, resulting in the best outcome for all. Adam Smith’s metaphor, the “invisible hand,” captured the essence of that belief.  Economic elites have both exploited and distorted it ever since. Due to the economic and political power of corporate and financial elites, the academic field of economics has retained those theories under the guise of pseudo-scientific analytics. All the while, “free-market” economies have failed to live up the theories of economists. Yet those theories continue to dominate economic thinking.

Utopian Dreams and Corporate Control

The theories that have controlled economics throughout the industrial era have held to these failed assumptions for centuries now, despite the overwhelming evidence against them. We now call such theories “neo-classical” economics, “neo-liberal” economics, or just plain “mainstream” economics. Despite their failings, the propaganda of the corporate media continues to glorify them as the scientific answer to all our economic problems. Corporations today routinely fight for regulations that favor their growing power, all the while claiming to seek less regulation of the markets they try to control. They never consider the social control of markets, for the benefit of society rather than for that of economic elites, as an option.

The consequences of the great transformation that subordinated society to its economic elites, as Polanyi predicted, continue to plague us today. Only this time the economic crisis converges with the climate crisis leading to global destabilization of access to resources, disrupted production and distribution of food, and escalating conflicts worldwide, all amplified by climate destabilization.

The utopian dream of endless economic growth may be the world’s greatest social illusion. However, it is also an imaginary vision that sustained itself in the centuries since the beginnings of the industrial revolution, despite repeatedly failing the test of time. Never have “free markets” operated without causing serious social damage. In each case, society has tried to protect itself from the excesses and destruction of speculative capital, with varying success.

Overcoming Illusion

In cases such as the poor laws in industrializing England or the New Deal responding to the economic and social collapse of the Great Depression, political responses protected the people from the damage caused by unregulated markets. In cases such as the communist revolutions in Russia and China, the abolishment of free markets led to their replacement by cumbersome command economies that ultimately resulted in a state capitalism unable to respond to the damage caused by its bureaucratic control of markets.

Corporatist attempts to explain the flaws of the market system, like Kalgaard’s, implicitly assume the success of a failure. Their blaming of government and outside forces disrupts any attempt to protect society from the failures of a market system in desperate need of overhaul. Promoters of the corporate economic status quo like Kalgaard demonize as “wasteful spending” or simply “socialism,” any political attempt to require the economy to serve human society rather than only itself. They are mere corollaries to the failed neo-liberal economic utopianism promoted by global power elites for their own shortsighted gain. Some serious re-thinking is in order.

Dumbing Down America Degrades the Nation and More

An article in Psychology Today, posted by Ray Williams on July 7, 2014, delineated a long list of indicators of the decline and fall of culture and education in the U.S. in recent decades. Diverse measures of that decline led the author to conclude that, as I would rather put it, “American Exceptionalism” is in fact a particularly degraded concept describing the downwardly spiraling status of our culture.

The loss of respect for education, teachers, science, and intellect, contrasts sharply with the cultures of Japan and Europe, for just two examples, where these cultural features are highly valued. Ridicule of intellectual accomplishment is quite popular. This has led to the fall of the U.S. in its ranking on various measures of competence in science and the humanities. Even more important, the anti-intellectualism and anti-science mentality that accompanies the insecurities of ignorance, can have a disastrous effect on our chances for survival as a species. No small problem.

Training for Exclusion

For many decades now, the education of Americans has been transformed into the training of potential workers for the degrading dull jobs with little creativity that remain available. At the same time, the outsourcing of well paid jobs to poor nations with extremely low wages, has forced many middle class workers into the ranks of the poor. This causes a great deal of personal insecurity and anger, especially among the formerly privileged class of white male workers.

A few bright software engineers and developers create products with increasingly meaningless connection to actual life in the modern world. It is all about distraction and disorientation to life with any intellectual content. The young are taught to respond impulsively to images and emotions in the online game culture and social media. Who now reads books and contemplates their meaning?

Among the many implications of the turn away from intellect and toward impulsive response to images and associated emotions, the reality of politics has detached itself from the reality of life in the nation and on the planet. Shocking percentages of the population hold beliefs that contravene massive evidence that they either fail on the facts or simply have no particular connection to reality. This cultural situation is ripe for demagogic exploitation.

Political Degradation

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False Front

Despite the flaws of Hillary Clinton, the attraction to the demagoguery of the certifiable megalomaniacal sociopathic business cheat that is Donald Trump boggles the imagination of any modestly informed citizen. The man maintains a vast store of ignorance of most matters related to national security and domestic government, with the possible exception of how to work the income tax system. His international entanglements and personal nature of his business and political connections with disreputable characters in Russia and elsewhere, make the concept of putting his financial interests in a blind trust (administered by Ivanka!) something less than laughable.

It is difficult to grasp the extent of ignorance out there. Nor is it easy to understand the widespread indifference to information in favor of impulse and emontion. No point in going on about all that; either you are paying attention to basic verifiable facts or you are a victim of confirmation bias — the common defense mechanism where any evidence that contradicts prior beliefs is simply ignored in preference to self-delusion consistent with beliefs held closely.

Ignorance or Survival

More importantly, the fate of the nation, and possibly the planet, hinges on the necessity of immediate and comprehensive actions to stave off the very worst impacts of climate destabilization. Things are so bad that not even the feigned climate-action promises of Hillary Clinton could make a significant difference in responding to this global crisis.

Species Extinction and Human Population_USGS_1451324_650954518277931_1616731734_nWhich ever U.S. presidential candidate “wins” the election in November, little hope for the kind of change we must have seems to be in the offing. The probability of adequate societal response to the emerging crises of global financial collapse and global climate collapse is very low indeed. Something very different from conventional politics or its current deranged deviations must arise in some form of broad social mobilization demanding the actions not even conceivable by our distorted, corrupt, “politics as usual.”

Calculating Human Survival:

The Role of the Social Sciences in Developing Effective Climate Action

NOTE: I presented a slightly different version of this paper at the National Social Science Association Meetings in Denver, Colorado, August 3, 2016

We need not turn to the elections of 2016 to observe the madness of the public discourse and the corporate-governmental response to the climate crisis. In electoral politics, at least, we expect duplicity, dissembling, and demagoguery as common ways to stimulate and manipulate fear in voters. It is much easier to run up fearful images of Muslim terrorists, rapist immigrants, and even evil politicians than to explain difficult issues to voters.  Try to explain to your neighbor the complexities of climate disruption or the failing neoclassical economic model of perpetual economic growth that drives it. The ranking of climate collapse in the hierarchy of public concerns is not nearly as high as the gravity of the situation would reasonably dictate.

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CO2 Concentration already over 400 ppm!

Yet, there it is. The evidence of global warming and its accelerating impacts is both definitive and available to those who are willing to look. Plenty of public analyses, whether by James Hansen, Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, or by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), point to the urgent necessity to keep fossil fuels in the ground. But, how can we accomplish that, and what does that mean for how we live our lives?

The “Greening” of Business-as-Usual

U.S. industrial culture assumes that technological innovation can solve any problem. If we divest all financial assets from coal, oil, and gas, how would we heat our homes and get to work or vacation? The economic culture assumes that new technologies and new materials substitutions will always result from industrial innovation to solve any problem. However, it is far from that simple.

Popular New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman finds comfortable answers to all sorts of disturbing problems from Israeli-Palestinian relations to maintaining the U.S. status as the only post-cold-war “super-power.” His simple solution to global warming is the “greening” of business-as-usual. Simply replace dirty energy with renewable “clean” energy sources, including nuclear power, to sustain U.S. economic growth and international domination.[1]

Sound a bit fuzzy? Well, it is. Not to worry, “help is on the way.” Bill Gates has organized what I prefer to call “Bill’s Billionaire Boys Club,” to rescue the planet by investing in the creation of a new “energy miracle” to provide clean energy to a world demanding more and more energy. The “more and more” part is beyond question; it is a key assumption of the prevalent neoclassical economic illusion. That illusion is a given in the economic culture.

Gates’ group of billionaire entrepreneurial philanthropists, which he calls the “Breakthrough Energy Coalition,”[2] would invest their billions in new high tech energy production systems, to be subsidized by the ancillary “Mission Innovation”[3] group of the 20 richest nations, formed to support his program. Gates’ strategy represents the epitome of business-as-usual. As the planet burns, the corporate state lives on…for now.

The influence of Gates’ billionaires and industry as a whole at the COP 21 United Nations climate change conference of the winter of 2015-2016, was profound. For the first time, the gathered leaders of most nations of the world made non-binding commitments to limit global warming to 2 degrees Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. With accelerating observed impacts of climate destabilization, scientists already agree that major devastation would accompany a 2-degree increase in average global temperature. They also agree that 1.5 degrees should be the limit if we are to manage the impacts of global warming without widespread devastating effects.

However, the actual plans of the nations as submitted so far would result in an increase in global temperature closer to 3.5 degrees – catastrophic for human populations. Neither corporate nor government elites offer any viable solution or recourse. Their half-baked futuristic “solutions” constitute a deeper denial of the scientific facts of climate destabilization.

The Failures of Political Economy to Face Global Reality

It is now quite clear that yet to be developed high tech-energy production “solutions” in the context of business-as-usual and continued economic growth cannot constrain global temperatures and the devastating effects of consequent climate chaos. Like the hubris of geo-engineering (and the industrial era itself), their unintended consequences are unpredictable and their pursuit will likely lead to disaster. New technological innovations are already too little, too costly, and most importantly, too late. Instead, we must apply existing appropriately scaled technologies to incorporate into communities reorganized to be locally self-sustaining and ecologically neutral or restorative. (That, of course, would be too boring and too unprofitable for the likes of Bill Gates.)

It is also clear that neither the national or state governments, nor the corporations that drive carbon emissions are capable of curtailing those emissions on their own. Nor will the paltry carbon-emissions reductions they contemplate be adequate or implemented fast enough to avoid the collapse of societies that will inevitably accompany climate collapse. They still fail to provide their insufficient goals with viable means to accomplish them.

Local social transformations are the most energy efficient way to achieve ecological communities to constrain global carbon emissions most quickly. Only social movements arising from civil society can overcome the intransigence of the corporate state. Time is clearly of the essence. The global system of economic growth and financialization will collapse under its own weight within two or three decades. However, if it does so because of the dislocations and disruptions caused by climate destabilization, the effects on humans as well as other living earth systems will be catastrophic.

Peoples all over the world have relied for centuries on stable weather patterns to produce the food and basic subsistence products they need to survive. The industrialized nations must take rapid and massive actions now to curtail emissions of carbon, and the non-industrial nations must prevent themselves from going down the carbon-intensive path to development.

Such actions must also compensate for the positive feedback mechanisms that now accelerate global temperature rise because of ice melt, methane release from tundra, and several others. Scientists are just now beginning to incorporate these self-amplifying features of global warming into their modeling of climate change. Humanity as a whole is way behind the dynamics of accelerating climate destabilization. Whether we can stop it from spinning completely out of control is highly speculative. One thing we can be certain of, however, is that humanity is in for a new Great Transformation,[4] unlike any heretofore experienced.

Where do we turn to find answers to the question of how to re-organize global and local economies to align them with the ecological requirements of re-establishing climate stability? This, of course, is a social science question, a very big one.

 Where are the Social Sciences?

What does economics offer? The neo-classical economics that constitutes the ideological cover for extractive capital is, of course, no help at all. The entire global economy rests on the assumption of necessary, inevitable and endless economic growth – the core cause of climate chaos. Some “outlier” economists have made valuable contributions to understanding the need to move from an economy of earth-plunder to an ecological economy.[5] They argue for an “end to growth,” which we certainly need. That argument is not new, but it has gained little traction in the extractive economies of endless growth.

Nevertheless, we must ask, how do we get there from here? And, how will we live in a no-growth economy? What would it actually look like? Based on decades of experience in the field of global economic development, David C. Korten argues for a “new economy,” constructed in harmony with the living earth systems upon which we depend for survival. To achieve it we have to “change the story to change the future.”[6] But, how can we change the story that dominates the culture when the corporate mass media controls the public discourse, such as it is?

What does political science offer? Sheldon S. Wolin provides what may be the most important assessment of the political economy of the corporate state in his book, Democracy, Incorporated.[7] He reveals the operations of elite-managed pseudo-democracy and its limits, and argues that a popular democracy must recognize the common interests that lead to viable public policy. Wolin argues for the rise of a democratic “counter-elite” that exists to some extent in NGOs and would seek local solutions and encourage local population to “take responsibility for their own well-being,” (p. 291) to counter the contemporary version of the “enclosure” of the commons. It is precisely the struggle between exploitation and commonality that is at stake. (p. 292) But how are the global forces of exploitation and extraction to be overcome when the political discourse is dominated by the dumbed-down mentality of Trump’s Tropes?

We might describe Chris Hedges and Naomi Klein as journalists with sociological tendencies. But, they are much more than that. Hedges’ deep theological training steeped in western intellectual history, combined with his extensive experience as a New York Times foreign correspondent covering wars from Serbia to Guatemala, gave him a rich sociological perspective with a profound moral edge, reflected in his several books, including Death of the Liberal Class and Empire of Illusion. His insights on the American Empire and the failure of democracy and the liberal project reflect not just a deep respect for Wolin’s understanding of inverted totalitarianism but his own direct experience of the devastation wrought by that empire.

In his recent book, Wages of Rebellion: The Moral Imperative of Revolt, Hedges argues that resistance is not carried out for its success, but because it is a moral imperative. He reviews diverse rebellions such as the movement to abolish South African apartheid and the fracking protests in Alberta, Canada, in his call for a new American revolution.

Hedges often says, “I fight fascism not because I will win, but because it is fascism.” That is a moral imperative. Again, we must distinguish calls for change from how to achieve social transformation. Hedges’ call is deeply political and fundamentally moral, but has not grasped the even deeper elements required for social transformation. Political revolution, however righteously conceived, is not the same as social transformation.

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine[8] had a similar impact on the self-righteousness of American Empire, as did John Perkins’ Confessions of an Economic Hit Man. Klein’s work as a journalist is distinctly sociological and draws heavily on the social sciences in explaining the role of the corporate state in our current dilemma. She detailed the complex machinations of corporations and government in assuring the subservience of various nations to the American Empire.  Perkins gave a complementary insider’s view of the dirty little secrets and clandestine operations of twentieth century American Empire in economically colonizing subject nations. Despite their sociological insights, neither is a social scientist.

However, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism versus the Climate[9] may be the definitive work on the scope of the climate crisis and political urgency of taking climate action. Even so, Klein relies heavily on traditional means for political action at the national level – the same kinds of resistance movements Hedges discusses – while acknowledging the importance of growing global social movements of directly affected indigenous groups for climate justice. Despite my admiration of her work, the scope and the scale of social transformation necessary to achieve an ecological society remains underdeveloped in her discussion of political change. The need for change is ubiquitous and comprehensive. Traditional forms of political resistance will not give the Next Great Social Transformation the qualities now essential for human survival.

In search of research findings relevant to social movements and climate change, global warming, and related topics, I turned to the American Sociological Association (ASA) website and its journals. First, searching the American Sociological Review, the flagship journal of the ASA, I found a variety of articles in the last several years related to social movements and their internal workings and contexts that affect direction and strategy.

The ASA Task Force on Sociology and Global Climate Change has produced a collection of essays challenging the standard climate change discourse. Its essays argue for the need to incorporate sociological understandings of the social changes inherent in a massive transformation of the role of energy in society.[10]

The book is a valuable resource for anyone looking into the sociological implications of climate change. Yet, it is barely a beginning. An inherent limitation of social research is that it typically studies various interactions and organizations that exist rather than emerging or future forms. Modern sociology is neither prophetic nor particularly predictive. Most of the work remains to be done and done quickly, which is not typical of academic work.

Prospects for the Next Great Transformation

I have based this paper on the heavily evidenced assumptions that 1) an unprecedented Next Great Transformation of humanity is inevitable in the near future, forced by climate destabilization and by the imminent collapse of the global economy of extractive capital, and 2) that Great Transformation will inevitably entail one of two outcomes.

The first possible outcome of the imminent Next Great Transformation is total societal collapse involving political, economic, and social chaos, massive migration and widespread violence in the struggle for insufficient remaining resources, and likely extinction of the human species. Global supply chains for industrial consumer products, no less basic materials for subsistence, will collapse. In this case, we will have passed the tipping point where re-stabilization of the climate and ecological systems is no longer possible. If we reach that point, the world will be a very different place, highly incompatible with human survival. Species extinction is the most probable outcome of this scenario. Human ingenuity might allow small groups to survive here and there, unless climate destabilization is so severe that it causes complete extinction.

The second possible outcome of the coming Great Transformation has less certainty but some hope. If that social transformation entails comprehensive adaptation of social organization to align surviving human groups with their local ecologies, then it could lead to scaled down but relatively harmonious relations of humanity with our environment. The only viable strategy for stabilizing climate and ecological resources would have to reduce carbon emissions to near zero in the near term to limit global temperature increase to no more than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. That would be a huge undertaking with transformative implications for social organization both global and local.

We can only accomplish that reorganization by radically changing the ways humans interact with each other and with the environment. Such changes will offer the only path to human survival, and, if comprehensive and effective, to a greater human prospect than ever before achieved. Such an achievement will be possible only by abandoning the global industrial growth economy and replacing it with local ecological economies that produce primarily for local consumption.

It is fairly certain that no matter how well we mitigate global warming and adapt to climate destabilization, significant social dislocations and suffering will occur. The great test of humanity will call for a level of human cooperation never seen since the days of small bands of hunter-gatherers. This does not mean that we must limit our technology to spears and arrows.

It does mean that we must finally admit to the necessity of “appropriate technology,” originally advocated by E.F. Schumacher in his book, Small is Beautiful, way back in 1973.[11] That also means we must organize our lives around the necessities and ethical implications of living in the real world. We must honor the nature of our own place in Nature and shape ethical lives around the requirements of harmonizing freedom with necessity. That means we must not merely do whatever is possible to turn a profit, but that we must only use the means (technology) that lead to ethical and ecologically viable ends. Only then will we fully realize human creativity and innovation.

Schumacher argued that modern industrial economies are unsustainable; he offered appropriate technologies as the means for developing nations to attain economic sufficiency by empowering people rather than submitting them to the dominant economic illusion that “bigger is better.” He proposed that we replace technological cleverness with wisdom. This lesson has been lost upon the giant extractive economies of the global north. Applying its implications to the new great transformation of human economies to achieve viable societies within ecological systems will be essential to human survival in the coming decades. Contemporary social science has contributed little to this essential task of humanity. Schumacher provides a model for how social science needs to conduct its work today. Most of that work remains to be done in the narrowing window of opportunity we have left.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution – and How It Can Renew America (New York: Picador, 2008).

[2] The pitch of Gates’ group of billionaires for a finance-capital driven, government-funded program to develop and deploy new high-tech energy production technologies may be found at http://www.breakthroughenergycoalition.com/en/index.html. The group includes most of the luminaries of the super-rich, including Jeff Bezos (Amazon), Richard Branson (Virgin Group), Meg Whitman (HP), Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), along with various hedge fund billionaires, Saudi princes, and international Businessmen.

[3] The “Mission Innovation” group of 20 of the richest nations describes its intentions to collaborate with the Gates group – the “Breakthrough energy Coalition – at http://mission-innovation.net/.

[4] With considerable prescience, economic historian Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation in 1944, which delineated diverse consequences of the industrial revolution and explored the likely impacts of unfettered extractive capital. Subsequent history has validated his warnings. Yet what I have been calling The Next Great Transformation will be far more consequential for the survival of the human species as well as for the stability of all living earth systems.

[5] The fundamental flaws of the endless growth based economic system are explained, for example, by Richard Heinberg, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2011) and Philip B. Smith and Manfred Max-Neef, Economics Unmasked: From Power and Greed to Compassion and the Common Good (Devon, UK: Green Books, 2011). The first, and perhaps the most important warning was E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered, New York: Harper Collins, 1973 (Re-issued by Hartley & Marks, 1999, with an introduction by Paul Hawken and comments by several authors)

[6] David C. Korten, Agenda for a New Economy: From Phantom Wealth to Real Wealth (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2009), and Change the Story, Change the Future: A Living Economy for a Living Earth (Oakland, 2015).

[7] Sheldon S. Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[8] Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (New York: Henry Hold, 2007).

[9] Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2014).

[10] Riley E. Dunlap and Robert J. Brulle (Editors). Climate Change and Society: Sociological Perspectives. 1st Edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[11] E.F. Schumacher, Small is Beautiful: a Study of Economics as if People Mattered (New York: HarperCollins, 2010). Blond & Briggs originally published the book in 1973.

Reform is not Enough

The violence continues. It seems pervasive. The list is long and diverse. Cops shoot unarmed Black men in every major American city. A lone deranged Air Force veteran kills five Dallas police officers. A disturbed marine Iraq-returnee assassinates three more in Baton Rouge. Suicide bombers turn Brussels, Paris, and Bagdad upside down. A wife-beating suicide truck driver runs over and kills at least eighty-four people leaving scores more injured on Bastille Day in Nice. Fear spreads wildly. No limits, no recourse, no solution. But what is the nature of all this? What is the common thread, or is there one?

Sociology in the West began in the conservative lament over the dissolution of traditional societal relations and the growing instability of institutions in the nineteenth century. Concepts like anomie and alienation became important explanations of “deviant” behavior. “Social problems” dominated the thinking of the American sociology that emerged somewhat later than its earlier beginnings in Europe, as the U.S. industrialized.

Some attribute the earliest sociological writing to Ibn Khaldun, the North African Muslim historiographer who chronicled forms of empire and conflict in fourteenth century Arab societies. Khaldun’s theories explored transitions from sedentary life to nomadic life, and processes of social conflict, social cohesion, and group solidarity (“tribalism”). They were early precursors to modern perspectives on social organization and social change. Modern sociological understandings of these concepts now seem little improved over those of Khaldun. Do sociologists understand today’s global social chaos? Does anyone?

Today, new forms of change further disrupt social cohesion and even arouse new forms of alienated tribalism and violence. Violent reactions to the instabilities of the faltering global industrial economy are as diverse as they are extreme. The dominant endless-growth model of economics destabilizes all other forms of society (family, community, cities, towns, villages) in the ubiquitous corporate pursuit of economic profit and political power. Violence frequently accompanies social destabilization and transformation.

Economic “Progress” and the Destabilization of Everything

Social change has accelerated since the Middle Ages. The Industrial Revolution and its application of the energy of fossil fuels to economic production processes brought on even more rapid change. The traditional “commons” shared for village-scale farming were “enclosed” by powerful landlords to facilitate the earliest forms of industrial agriculture. Confiscation of resources, whether land or the prizes beneath it, has been the underlying theme of economic growth in the petro-industrial era. Dislocation, impoverishment, and migration inevitably accompany dispossession. What has changed? Everything and nothing.

The American westward expansion had a similar, though perhaps more deadly, effect on the native population as did the enclosures in Scotland, England, and Ireland. Settlers confiscated tribal lands across the Great Plains and westward for ranching and farming to feed the growing population in the former colonies to the east. Many of those “pioneers” descended from those European refugees – peasants who had been forced into cities where conditions of labor were deadly, and who paid dearly for the Atlantic crossing.

The American Revolution was never quite completed. The English mercantile class that controlled economy and polity in the British colonies in America never lost its power. It  gradually morphed into the financial and corporate elites that dominate the U.S. politics and economy today. A decline of the middle class and the explosive growth of poverty in America accompanied the resulting concentration of wealth. Post-slavery urbanization, followed by outsourcing of manufacturing and loss of well-paid jobs, impoverished the urban working class. Responses to urban poverty gradually morphed into mass incarceration as the War on Drugs. Its incentives to oppress established The New Jim Crow in U.S. cities where Black folks are as isolated from economic opportunity as ever.[1]

The colonial nations of Europe dominated the world even after their colonies in Africa, Asia, and Latin America achieved formal independence. The American case was unique in that its independence and abundant resources allowed it to become the dominant power of empire in the post-colonial world. The difference between colonialism and empire has been mostly a matter of the form of domination and the means to achieve it. Economic domination replaced political supervision.

The deployment of new technologies of fossil fuel driven industrial and military might assured the U.S. position as the most powerful nation in the world. Before seeking greater resources abroad, the U.S. extractive industrialists exploited vast oil, gas, iron, other minerals, and agricultural production at home. This allowed a unique development of industrial and military superiority – the real form of “American exceptionalism” amidst a stifling cultural stagnation. Once it exhausted most of those resources, the corporate state turned to the rest of the world to keep the supplies flowing.

The means of domination by “the only remaining super-power” after the Cold War are many and varied, from financial to military.[2] U.S. efforts to establish an empire have focused primarily on controlling the main sources of petroleum in the Middle East. Images of the attacks on “the homeland” on September 11, 2001, symbolized resistance to tyranny for many victims of bombing campaigns, invasion and occupation. Diverse U.S. invasions and occupations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen and Libya have attempted to serve the energy corporations. Those ventures have produced far more terrorists than oil. Imaginary future victories continue to define current abject failures. All the while, the corporate state ignores the devastating effects on the environment.

The purpose underlying protestations of “bringing democracy” to these nations is to secure corporate control over global resources and assure continued growth of extractive capital. The “War on Terror” was in part a genuine reaction to 9-11. It was also a cover for the prosecution of diverse largely unsuccessful resource wars. The consequences of indiscriminant drone attacks, targeted killings, and counter-insurgency night-raids has been to feed new recruits to the very terrorist groups the U.S. intends to destroy. The consequent disruption of traditional and even modern forms of social cohesion has achieved an order of magnitude unimaginable by Ibn Khaldun.

Chaos and Illusions of Social Control

The leviathan of the corporate-state may seem unstoppable. Yet wars of occupation and counter-insurgency are not won. Once they fight to stalemate and widespread destruction, occupying forces abandon the resulting chaos. More enemies are created, found and targeted.

ferguson-police

Police in Ferguson, Missouri

Domestic attempts to suppress dissent and protest over oppressive economic conditions and police violence in “the homeland,” also produce little social order. Nor are law enforcement institutions able to control general urban violence. The ebb and flow of overall crime rates has little to do with “enforcement” practices – except for the differential police actions against the poor in prosecuting the War on Drugs. Overall crime rates have declined, but “law and order” memes dominate police thinking. Militarization of police harden “us vs. them” images of the Warrior Cop. Without revolutionary transformation of law enforcement in the U.S., the bloody stalemate will continue.

Myths abound concerning the control of urban populations in the U.S. and abroad. A standoff between more forces than are recognized is occurring. In the U.S., crass demagoguery pits police authority against minority and immigrant populations. Police and politicians conflate peaceful protest against police violence with general urban violence and terror attacks. Trump’s tropes incite nativist white tribalism, a latter-day resurgence of social cohesion in the form of a pseudo-patriotic racism not unlike fascism.

The billionaire business cheat succeeded in framing his grab for political power as an anti-establishment rebellion. That feat by the crass bully astounded establishment liberals. They underestimate the nation’s susceptibility to demagoguery. The corporate media, which will succumb to any hint of sensationalism, dutifully provided billions of dollars in free television exposure to a sociopathic narcissist billionaire. (What would have happened if Bernie had had that kind of coverage?)

Analysts remain confused. All sorts of ad hoc media explanations of diverse instances of chaos and violence fall short of plausibility. Authorities seek “terrorist” propaganda associations to explain the mass murder in Nice by a mad trucker. The mad men of Nice, Dallas, and Baton Rouge, maybe even Orlando, seemed to mix confused ideological fragments with the desire for suicide by cop. These seem more like individual pathology absorbing some political patina than organized terrorism, which is happy to exploit such pathology. Even the allegiance of the San Bernardino killers to ISIS seemed more aspirational than organizational. More is likely to come.

We seek to fight the enemies we have made, without understanding the processes by which we have made them. They are many but diverse. Through it all, images of absolute good and evil distort the social realities, allowing ignorance and fear to prevail.

Reform or Revolution

Sustaining a culture of civility provides the social cohesion that characterizes a stable social order. The failure of U.S. invaders to establish stability in Iraq resulted from eliminating the individuals and institutions that had maintained a certain level of civility. Such civility had existed, particularly between Sunni and Shiite populations, even under the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein. The character of the occupation bred not only insurgents, but also civil strife.

The character of the criminal justice system in the U.S. in some ways parallels the occupation of Iraq. Police in the U.S. increasingly look like an occupying force. Their role has become one of “controlling the population,” not to “protect and serve” those whom many police despise. Too many police view urban populations as the enemy. The technology of smartphone, dashboard, and body-cam video, now facilitates the documentation of widespread police violence, primarily in communities of color. The evidence of hatred abounds.

2016-07-15-1468543542-5461644-theracistresponsetoblacklivesmatterLIbCT2p

Black Folks Response to Police Killings

The Black Lives Matter movement responded directly to the disproportionate experience of police violence by Blacks and Hispanics. The constant flow of revelations of police violence by citizens’ smartphone video on social media rivals the broadcast of racist Trump tropes on the corporate mass media. However denied, dehumanized police conduct and attitudes have achieved full public exposure. Black Lives Matter is a non-violent movement publicly protesting police violence.

The characterization of Black Lives Matter and Occupy movements as advocating violence against police, crudely promotes a self-serving prejudice against all protesters. The validity of the protest is delegitimized by the bigoted claims of the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Donald Trump. “Blue Lives Matter” implicitly denies police culpability in a well-documented national pattern of “excessive use of force,” while projecting that same violence onto those who peacefully protest against it.

What a civil society might otherwise sustain as indigenous law enforcement increasingly appears as a foreign occupying force. The police-versus-the-population image of law enforcement, whether held by officers, chiefs of police, or citizens, is doomed to create more chaos and violence. Minor ‘reforms’ – sensitivity training or use of force training for the violence-prone, or even more selective recruitment to weed out those with violent tendencies – will not be nearly enough.

This is where it gets even more difficult. We are witnessing the consequences of a deeply violent culture. White nativist memes deny diversity of this nation of immigrants, in service to their illusions of a “real America.” To achieve a civil society with a civil police will require a sea change in attitude and organization. No amount of piecemeal reforms will break the cycle of police violence, protest, and suppression of aggrieved populations.

The necessary seems so far from the possible. Is a revolutionary transformation of the law enforcement and justice system even possible? Illusions of American Exceptionalism prevent recognition of the obvious successes of nations like Portugal and Finland.

To root out the culture of violence and “them against us” policing will require a total transformation of police institutions and personnel. Society must pay officers much more highly and hold them to much higher standards of civility and respect for human dignity.

In the context of the corporate cult of privatization of everything, too many view police,  since they are mere public servants like teachers, as very low-level functionaries not worthy of significant pay. As I have argued elsewhere, we must recruit them carefully, pay them very well and hold them to very high standards. That includes very high standards for admission, very high standards for training, and very high standards of conduct. One case of abuse of a citizen should mean that you are out. To achieve these things would constitute revolutionary change in law enforcement, requiring revolutionary change in society. The very difficult is very necessary.

[1] Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010) provides an exceptionally lucid, ground-breaking, though culturally denied, account of how mass incarceration of the vulnerable populations of mostly urban communities of color has replaced slavery as the primary force oppressing Black and Brown folks in America in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

[2] For an astounding and enlightening account of the exploitation of potential client nations by U.S. corporate-government cooperation in the use of financial and covert power, including assassination, to dominate the economies of those nations, see John Perkins, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man (San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2004).

New Demographic Transition: Is the Aging Global Population a Problem?

“The demographic transition” is a concept that has been around for decades, but has received declining interest as populations have changed. A half century ago, some social scientists suggested that it is the key to national development. Once a nation reached the economic “takeoff point,” it would experience both sustained economic growth and a slowing of population growth.

A good deal of data suggested that this model of development in the West might be replicable elsewhere. If a significant middle class is established and grows, people will have fewer children and population will gradually reach an equilibrium. But like so many theories, that seems to be sometimes true and sometimes not true.

What the western economic development theories ignored is the historical and contemporary processes of intercontinental exploitation of colonialism, then imperialism. The economic and military domination by Europe and North America short-circuited the development dynamic in the Global South. The industrially developed nations of the Global North have consistently extracted resources from the not so developed nations of the Global South.

The robust development of Europe and North America both depended upon and caused the underdevelopment of the Global South. So-called “developing” nations remained underdeveloped and dependent for revenue, usually from underpriced commodity sales and politically incurred debt, on the developed nations. The theory of economic takeoff falls apart under conditions of political and economic dependency that resulted from historical colonialism and modern imperialism.

Economic Growth Here, Population Growth There

Population growth and resource depletion have been problematic issues for a long time.[1] Several key issues come up and fade away generation after generation. Human populations have long influenced their environments. Sometimes too many people have strained local ecosystems to the extent that they can no longer provide the resources those people depend on for survival. Jared Diamond illustrates how this happened in several past societies in his now famous book, Collapse.[2]

World.Population passes 7 Billion

World Population passing 7 Billion

Despite world population approaching seven billion and evidence of resource depletion everywhere, the debate over how many humans the planet can support rages on. Proponents of the conventional theory of endless economic growth through technological and resource innovation don’t see population growth as a problem. The form of neo-classical economics that dominates business and government policies today requires endless economic growth to satisfy the demand for return on capital investment.

Environmentalists, on the other hand, see the damage that human populations inflict on ecosystems as a clear threat to the environments that humans depend on. This leads them to conclude that limits to growth[3] of both populations and economies must be achieved to avoid complete resource exhaustion and human devastation. Global warming and accelerating climate destabilization, along with the sixth mass extinction now underway, provide conclusive empirical evidence that the environmentalists are right.

But minds attached to economic interests are hard to change. Mainstream economists claim that human creativity and technological innovation can support growing populations indefinitely, if corporations are given enough tax breaks. The growing number of their opponents argue that at current levels of resource depletion we have already surpassed the capacity of earth’s ecosystems to sustain human life. Resource depletion is real; the evidence is clear. But the facts of physical limits to growth conflict with the ideology of endless economic growth, the presumed engine of all prosperity. This ideology dominates the thinking of most conventional economists and politicians. It is no more than collective magical thinking in the form of pseudo-science.

Another Demographic Transition

Despite having reached unprecedented numbers, population growth has slowed in some regions, notably China, Japan, and the U.S.A. The slowing of population growth means that as fewer babies are born and medical technology improves, a population grows older. That is, an increasing proportion of the population is old and a decreasing proportion of the population is young.

Under those conditions, a new demographic transition is underway. The “working age” population becomes a smaller portion of the total. This has an effect on the economy. The economic growth that is touted as necessary and inevitable requires more workers than are available. In the U.S. and Europe, that has meant immigration and all the social resentments and political turmoil that entails. In China, plenty of young rural poor are still available to fill the ranks of the urban industrial plants. In Japan, which has traditionally not welcomed immigrants in significant numbers, industrial growth has stagnated. This has made Japan a model for the fears of other industrial nations with dwindling supplies of workers.

Population patterns are not that difficult to project in the short run, but demographic trends over long periods are far less certain, both in numbers and in the complications for life on the planet resulting from changes in population composition and growth. If we hold to the myth of necessary endless economic growth, we will not find answers to our demographic dilemma. We will not consider the fact that our technological capacity for production does not require large numbers of workers anymore.

The problem is not that the industrial world has insufficient workers. It is that the economy is not organized in a way that recognizes that fewer workers should be needed with more efficient production. The extant economic system attempts to take up the slack of too many workers by expanding production. Part of that effort involves the creation of artificial wants to prop up consumer demand. The world over-produces, concentrates consumption in a decreasing segment of the total industrial population and leaves many in non-industrial regions without work.

The problem is not insufficient economic growth. The problem is not insufficient numbers of “working age” adults among industrial populations. Instead, the problem is a combination of over-production of artificial demand in industrial populations and the consequent overproduction of superfluous consumer products. Needed goods are under produced in non-industrial populations as their resources continue to be depleted by the extractive capital of the industrial nations. The result is an over-concentration of wealth and economic decisions in the world’s financial elites and the impoverishment of everyone else.

All this is leading to what Christian Parenti[4] calls a “catastrophic convergence” of global poverty, agricultural failures, resource wars, mass starvation and forced migration, and political upheaval with climate collapse. Each crisis interacts with the others, accelerating the headlong rush of humanity to join the sixth mass extinction.[5]

Ironically, the solution to all these converging crises is the same. A New Great Transformation of human institutions will be required to align economies with their ecological sources to attain human sustainability. That will be the most monumental task humanity has ever taken on. Nevertheless, such a transformation of the deepest levels of social order is the only way to restrain the carbon emissions that drive climate destabilization and amplify these crises. It is also the only hope to retain some semblance of civility in addressing humanity’s greatest crisis ever. The only alternative is chaos and collapse. The choice is very hard, but it is ours.

[1] The classic warning of excessive population growth came from Paul Ehrlich, The Population Bomb (New York: Ballantine Books, 1971). Unfortunately, Ehrlich’s forecasts were premature, not having accounted for surges in industrial agriculture and other short term factors. It appears, however, that he will soon be right.

[2] Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin Books, 2005.

[3] The first comprehensive modeling of resource depletion, population growth, and economic growth was published in Donella H. Meadows, The Limits to Growth (New York: Signet, 1972). The research and computer modeling were done at MIT, and sponsored by the Club of Rome. The original forecasts have been remarkably accurate nearly a half century later. See Donella H. Meadows, Jorgen Randers, and Dennis L. Meadows, Limits to Growth: the 30-Year Update (Burlington, VT: Chelsea Green, 2004).

[4] Christian Parenti, Tropic of Chaos: Climate Change and the New Geography of Violence. New York: Nation Books, 2011.

[5] Elisabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History. New York: Picador, 2015. See also the scientific assessment of the sixth extinction in Gerardo Ceballos, Anne H., Ehrlich and Paul R. Ehrlich, The Annihilation of Nature: Human Extinction of Birds and Mammals. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2015.

Panama Papers: Plutocracy, Kleptocracy, or Both?

plutocracy  [ploo-tok-ruh-see]

noun, plural plutocracies.

  1. the rule or power of wealth or of the wealthy.
  2. a government or state in which the wealthy class rules.
  3. a class or group ruling, or exercising power or influence, by virtue of its wealth.

kleptocracy  [klep-tok-ruh-see]

noun, plural kleptocracies.

  1. a government or state in which those in power exploit national resources and steal; rule by a thief or thieves.

1815-20; klepto- (combining form of Greek kléptēs thief) + -cracy

Related forms:

kleptocrat [klep-tuh-krat] (Show IPA), noun

kleptocratic [klep-tuhkrat-ik] (Show IPA), adjective

[Dictionary.com Unabridged, Based on the Random House Dictionary, © Random House, Inc. 2016.]

~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Never begin an essay with a dictionary definition. It is bad form. You should assume the readers of your work understand the words you write.

Well, the Panama Papers may provide us an excuse to violate that rule. In fact, I offer here two dictionary definitions, because the two words involved are so close in meaning. Is a plutocracy also a kleptocracy? Are most societies run by the wealthiest members also societies in which the rulers are thieves? Given revelations published in the “Panama Papers,” and given what many people have suspected all along, that would appear to be the case.

Who Rules?

In various posts on this site I have used the word plutocracy to describe the fact that in the industrialized world, if not the rest of the world as well, the wealthy class rules politics, culture, and the economy. We maintain a façade of democracy, but really…who rules? Ask William Domhoff,[i] who has studied the ruling class in America since before I was in graduate school in the 1960s. Domhoff cleverly got into the social circles of the very rich and observed their behavior just like and ethnographer might observe some remote tribe in the Amazon rain forest. C. Wright Mills,[ii] in his classic, The Power Elite, wrote of the extended reach of the political, military, and economic elites that President Dwight Eisenhower had warned us against in his farewell address to the nation in 1961 with the iconic phrase, “The Military Industrial Complex.”

Mills, Domhoff, and others were astute observers of the trends already present in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s, already shaping the corporate state. I wonder whether they could grasp how far the concentration of power would go and what form it has taken today. But the crimes of the extremely rich are far more complex and deep rooted and pervasive than such otherwise exceptionally valuable analyses would suggest. And the corporate state has grown deeper and more complex with the help of digital technology than could have been imagined over a half century ago. The leveraging of the political power by digital technology has produced an astoundingly concentrated plutocracy in the U.S. and elsewhere in the industrial world.

Another Kind of “Big Data”

We usually think of “big data” as all the demographic and personal data big organizations collect on all of us to better market their products and perform political surveillance. But there is another kind, data on the economic infrastructure of the political and financial elites of the world.

It is only by way of the power of “big data” and the professional persistence of the members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists could all of this been exposed in its massive detail. These dedicated journalists carried out textual database analyses of 11.5 million digital files or about 2.5 terabytes of data anonymously leaked from a Panamanian law firm. By the collective efforts of investigative journalists around the world, the first indications of the vast scope of global corruption of the super-rich was brought to light. The revelations so far only scratch the surface of deep global kleptocracy.

More recent social science has revealed the characteristics of the new corporate state that feed the kleptocracy. Sheldon Wolin’s work developing the theory of “inverted totalitarianism”[iii] shows how the corporate state operates as a complex organizational dictatorship under the guise of democratic forms but not substance. Wolin’s project focused on the operational characteristics of the corporate state, but not how the rich and powerful steal from the commonwealth.

Plutocracy IS Kleptocracy

The integration of the nation-state with the corporate and financial elites form the corporate state, controlled by those elites. The Panama Papers give some indication of how widespread among the super-rich some key techniques of global kleptocracy. Many people had heard of secret overseas accounts held by corrupt politicians and the super-rich in places like the Cayman Islands. But most people had no idea of the extent of their use by political and financial elites to hide and launder bribes and stolen money, and to avoid taxes on profits, both legal and illegal. The kleptocracy many suspected has been revealed in far more detail than anyone imagined possible. And so far, only the tip of the data-iceberg has been exposed to the light of investigative journalism.

So, what does all this mean? Well, first, it is clear that much more depth and breadth of corruption pervades the global political economy than even the most cynical critic imagined. Second, the data reveal that, given the corruption exposed, nothing short of massive transformation of the political process can realign global politics and economics with the interests of the publics they are supposed to serve.

Remember, all corporations are chartered by the government, supposedly for particular economic purposes that are allowable by presumably being consistent with the public interest. Today, that has become a fiction waiting to be made real again, even as the fiction of corporate personhood has reached its ascendancy. Realigning political economy with the public interest will be a hard battle to win. But the physical necessity of fighting global warming will force the hand of the both the corporate state and the super-rich. Little time remains. Will their economic interests continue to override the human interest in survival?

______________

[i] G. William Domhoff, Who Rules America ? 1st ed. 1967

[ii] C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite. New York: Grove Press, 1962

[iii] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008.