The International Cult of Oligarchs: On Human Destruction by the 0.01% Here and There

In the U.S. we call them “wealthy,” as if their unbounded economic power had no political consequences. For many, they appear simply as the rich and sometimes the rich-and-famous. In Russia, they are “oligarchs.” Most of them achieved multi-billionaire status because of their close relations the Vladimir Putin’s inner circle of the political elite. Of course, there is much more to extreme wealth here or there than that.

With the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, well-connected men appropriated many previously state-owned industries, assets, and institutions. Their position within Putin’s political elite secured and expanded their vast privilege in the ‘new’ Russia. We routinely call them oligarchs and often characterize them as “the Russian Mafia,” because of their ruthless criminal power and lethal conduct.

The men and women who constitute the emergent corporate-centered oligarchy in the United States we call “the wealthy.” Too many of us look at them personally through the sanitized lens of the mass media they control, admiring and aspiring to their riches. Their public images are the stuff of the utopian dreams of individuals who buy lottery tickets and vote the straight Republican or Democratic ticket. It is as if vast political-economic power were nothing more than the well-earned personal accumulation of a lot of money through good fortune and talent.

People buy lottery tickets in silent recognition of the hopelessness of their aspirations for upper-class luxury and status. “It’s a chance,” they insist, no matter how slim. In the case of “old wealth,” we forget much of its typical illicit or criminal origins in financial manipulation, bootlegging, and war profiteering – none of it by chance. We ought to wonder why we perceive the 0.01% here and there so differently. We ignore the financial manipulations of the U.S. new rich, who remain a convenient mystery protected by their media-invoked armor of imagined superiority.

The U.S. business elites of the second half of the nineteenth century were widely disparaged as “robber barons,” because of their ruthless practices and problematic political influence. That disparaging metaphor derived from much earlier practices of some European feudal landowners of stealing from merchants, traders, and travelers, often by imposing steep tolls not authorized by the Holy Roman Empire. Sometimes these “authorities” even engaged in kidnap for ransom, or in outright theft. Wells Fargo steals from its customers today with equal flagrancy.

Modern Robber Barons and the New Corporate State

Critics of the corrupt practices of Wall Street financial elites in their shady amassing of great wealth do not use the term “robber baron” to characterize such theft. Today’s captains of industry and finance exert corrupt economic and political power in a variety of ways. They maintain cultural cover through the control of mass media. Their corrupt practices have become the new normal. Nevertheless, the power of great wealth over the political process has deepened so much that it has morphed into the new corporate state.

The political rhetoric of hate effectively distracts and shifts much blame for the destructive results of oligarchy by classic techniques of cultural diversion, patriotic bombast, and ethnic scapegoating. Demagogues target for generic blame immigrants and refugees, Muslims, and people of color, all of whom are among the economically and politically weakest sectors of the population.

In a bizarre cultural twist, many people now somehow perceive the weakest groups as the greatest threat against the nation. The power elite exploits the stress of reduced incomes and status of workers who have lost their jobs to outsourcing, by generating diversionary hatreds. Empty claims to “make America great again” (now contracted to “MAGA”), resonate with the fears and pain of many under- or unemployed once-comfortable white middleclass workers. Oprah’s September 24, 2017 focus group on Sixty Minutes, with regular folks in Western Michigan demonstrated how distorted the politics of demagoguery can become.

Ubiquitous corporate propaganda touts an elusive general prosperity by endlessly repeating the mantra of economic growth. Only outsourced slave wages and investment capital transferred to other countries to manipulate national and global resource and financial markets, makes that growth possible. Many people know that something is very deeply wrong, even if they do not understand the details of political economy.

Angst and Opposition

That is why the “Occupy Wall Street” movement that began in 2011 struck such a powerful cord with so many Americans and others around the world. Despite its immediate tribulations in occupying Zuccotti Park in the “belly of the beast,” it sparked a global surge of social movements for change. The opposition to greed, corruption, and the undue influence of financial and corporate elites and against extreme inequality hit a sore spot across the U.S. and many other nations. The “Arab Spring” that spread from Tunisia in 2010 and beyond had reflected a similar discontent, but also indicated a widespread and growing awareness of oligarchy and global injustice.

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Putin and Trump meet. Photo credit: Independent, UK.

In this context, the unfolding revelations of contacts between Russian oligarchs, Kremlin intelligence agents, and go-betweens, with members of the Trump inner circle, should not surprise us. They have intersecting, overlapping, and parallel interests, which did not suddenly spring up during the presidential campaign. Moreover, when Trump was deeply in debt and no U.S. bank would deal with him anymore, banks with close business ties to Russia saved him from financial ruin.  In particular, Germany-based Deutsche Bank loaned Trump hundreds of millions of dollars. According to the New York Times, Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigators are looking into Trump’s dealings with Deutsche Bank. Additional links of Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump with banking interests tied to Russian oligarchs and their money laundering have begun to emerge.[1]

After all, the appointments of so many captains of plunder to cabinet membership and as agency heads reflect the Trumpist pretentions to establish a new Barony of Robbery. They also mirror the consistent pattern of corrupt business practices that characterized the entire career of the man who David Kay Johnston, the Pulitzer Prize winning investigative reporter, characterized as a modern-day P.T. Barnum when they first met in 1988.[2] Meanwhile, many vacant posts with important governing functions, particularly in the State Department, remain open due to gross presidential indifference – i.e., dereliction of duty – as he centralizes power and demonstrates incompetence in the “art of the deal.”

As Karl Polanyi warned in 1944, the difficulties of protecting society from the extreme tendencies of industrial capital are great. No such protections exist in Russia. The modest safeguards installed in the U.S. during the Great Depression, fell to legislative negation in the Clinton and Bush administrations.

Now, we face an era of the new robber barons intent to extend oligarchy in the U.S. by direct plunder of the nation’s commonwealth. Will they match that of Russia? These masters of mega-looting see no reason to reject the help of the world’s premier oligarchs in achieving their own hegemonic goals. However, they are not very good at hiding their collusion or their corruption. Hubris happens to the worst of us. However, the new descent into political chaos could not have emerged with poorer timing.

We face, within a couple of decades at most, an accelerating convergence of the global crises of resource depletion and pollution, extreme weather events causing vast damage. The risks of regional food insecurity, refugee migration and armed conflict grow by the day. The petty schoolboy posturing and name-calling between the North Korean despot and the would-be American emperor is a very dangerous sideshow.

Such exercises in personal arrogance are calculated distractions from the increasingly urgent global crises that in part stem from global warming and surely will exacerbate rapidly approaching climate chaos. Many are distracted from the existential threats to human survival intensified by the politics-of-the unreality show that is a cover for the plunder of the American commonwealth. Awareness is growing, but not as fast as the converging crises we face. A new broadly based Earth activism is needed now.

[1] For details, see Bess Levin, “Deutsche Bank is Turning over information on Trump,” Vanity Fair (July 20, 2017). Accessed at http://www.vanityfair.com/news/2017/07/donald-trump-deutsche-bank-russia

[2] See David Kay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump (Brooklyn: Melville House, 2016).

Transparency, Transgressions, Bots, Trolls and Hackers

Today, we live in a world of illusion more than ever before. We cannot be certain where much of the ‘information’ we are exposed to comes from or how accurate it may be. The lie is the new normal. Deception has grown as politicians and corporate CEOs ignore calls for transparency. We must do our own research, but most do not have the resources, skills, or time.

As is clearer by the day, some yet unknown level of influence by Russian bots, trolls, and hacks of U.S. electoral computing networks and political email may have tipped the electoral balance in 2016. “Fake news,” political opinion, and facts are routinely conflated in attempts to control the public perceptions of the increasingly difficult problems we face. Deception dominates discussion. Discerning thoughts do not.

It is easy to become paranoid under the conditions we now face. The role of a “free press” is to question authority as well as any other claims to truth. News operations should challenge opinion with facts to lead where they may. More often broadcasters merely report conflicting opinions as if facts do not matter. Only a few good investigative reporters remain and judges threaten them with jail if they do not reveal their sources of evidence of official transgressions or institutional corruption. Whistle blowers have no protection in the new security state.

Reality Show Trumps Reality

The president attacks all major media, from CNN to the New York Times, as “fake news,” never bothering to substantiate his claims with any evidence whatsoever. His fawning ‘supporters’ simply believe whatever he says. That is relatively easy for those unable to engage in critical thinking. Too many naively believe in the empty loftiness of “Make America Great Again,” as an easy rhetorical remedy for their very real pain. Trumpist spin-doctors conflate political leaks of administrative transgressions with national security threats.

Nostalgia for an imaginary past that never was nor ever will be is no basis for public policy. Neither should empty rhetoric that frames the propagation of delusions in flag-waving sleight of hand, claiming to produce jobs while stealing the commonwealth for the oligarchs. Taking deregulation to the extreme while pushing for vast tax cuts for the wealthy by cutting deeply into healthcare on the backs of under- and unemployed Americans reflects the accelerating trend toward complete oligarchy.

Tilting Toward Collapse

There will be no job-growth in a nation that has collapsed under the weight of rising sea levels, extreme draught, flash floods, failed crops, resource exhaustion, and superstorms – not to mention top-down corruption. Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer was longtime chief scientist of the Environmental Defense Fund’s Climate and Air Program. He was also an early force in the U.N. efforts to track climate change caused by global warming. Oppenheimer recently estimated that our chances for staying under the maximum two degrees of global warming called for in the Paris Climate Accords, are now less than 10 Percent. Many agree that the maximum to avoid catastrophic climate change is 1.5 degrees.

Our shrinking probability of success in meeting minimal emissions reductions to avoid climate chaos has resulted primarily from the imposition of intellectual dishonesty upon the public discourse. On top of that, various efforts to take collective action contrary to the interests of the fossil-fuel industry have faced attacks on all fronts. Massive funding of front groups and state legislation opposing climate action by the Koch brothers, the use of bots and trolls to influence elections, and the avoidance of transparency in corporate and governmental actions, all contribute to an atmosphere of fear and illusion, stifling rational action.

A website set up to help consumers choose low-emissions based products within their zip codes to reduce their carbon footprint and save money was attacked by what appeared to be Russian bots and trolls, severely damaging communications with its users and prospects. Expensive security upgrades became necessary. Its efforts to recover the losses and expand its services, the Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign of A Parallel World were stifled, apparently by trolls working in the interests of fossil energy.

More and more, a Trumpist federal administration and the propagandists it enables have taken control of the public discourse. They make every effort to stifle dissent and thwart efforts to counter the destruction of the fossil-fueled industrial economy.

Eminent Reasoning

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the popular articulate astrophysicist with a growing media presence, offers an extremely important four-minute video on “Science in America”

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Neil deGrasse Tyson  ~ Source: Brainpickings.org

containing, in his words, “what may be the most important words I have ever spoken.” It is all about finding truth in the face of emotional, ideological, and delusional denial of facts in order to avoid the difficult political decisions that are necessary to solve the monumental problems we face today. His clear common-sense approach to explaining the role science has played, demonstrates how it more than ever needs to play a central role in salvaging progress for American civilization. Please watch it and tell me what you think.

Overcoming the Trumping of Democracy to Restore the Commonwealth

Trump is not merely rolling back countless federal programs that attempt to protect society from the ravages of unrestrained extractive corporate capital and industrial consumerism. He is going one worse. Think of the premise of his actions and the way he frames those actions in claiming to “make America great again.” That premise is that The Great Leader knows best. Ignore and deny facts; abandon democratic process; submit to his will alone. Just have faith in The Great Leader.

EPA programs and operations Suppressed; Military energy-star efficiency trashed; national parks plundered for mining and drilling; safety, pollution, and worker protections in industry rolled back; plunder the nation’s public lands. These are some of the president’s ‘practical’ goals. We must ask, “Who benefits?” Certainly not the public.

In all of these actions and more, especially withdrawing from the Paris Climate Accords, the premise is that the maximal leader is the only legitimate source of power and correct action.

As Thomas Snyder, Yale historian has so powerfully explained in his recent small eloquent book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the twentieth Century, “the president” has embarked on actions that parallel those used by various demagogues to destroy democracies in Europe. Every American should read this brief but powerful essay on how fascism overcomes democracy. We tend to think our democratic institutions are inviable, but they are not. They are now at high and growing risk.

Every executive order by this president is an attack on some public value, from due process to environmental protection, from plunder of the nation’s natural resources to escalating military adventurism. Corruption of public values in service to private plunder is elevated to the status of an unassailable new normal. The greatest danger now is that it is easier to acquiesce than to resist.

Underlying it all is the triumph of the ego over the human instinct for civility, altruism, reason, confirmed fact, and the public good. Lies are elevated to the status of faith in the decisions of a real estate swindler indebted to Russian oligarchs, whose misogynistic narcissism and corrupt business practices we must not question.

In all this, the stock market provides an interesting indicator of the ‘state of mind’ of the investor class, including institutional investors and wealthy individuals. Shiller’s indexes of stock market confidence are now at remarkably high levels. One interpretation is that investors believe the Trumping of democracy will offer expanded opportunity for plunder capital to ravage the social and natural environments for fun and profit, even though market valuations appear much higher than underlying fundamental business value. The U.S. One-Year Stock Market Confidence Index numbers have shot up since Trump’s inauguration, reaching well beyond those seen just before historical “corrections” in market valuation preceding recessions.

Schiller one-year investor confidence index

Source: http://som.yale.edu/faculty-research/centers-initiatives/international-center-for-finance/data/stock-market-confidence-indices/stock-market-confidence-indices

As one ‘contrarian,’ Eric Parnell, a registered investment advisor, put it, “All of this implies a toxic combination. Nearly everyone is bullish, thus leaving nobody new to join the game to take on the hot potato of already expensive stock prices.” But in today’s environment, greed knows no bounds, from the offices of predatory purchasers of bad debt to the oval office, plunder is the new normal – well, not so new, but radically more normal than ever.

During the Katrina catastrophe, minor looting got all the media attention; cooperative behavior, was not sensational enough to garner media attention. However, many made personal efforts to help others. Around the world, communities are rising to protect the land, water, air, and ecosystems upon which they depend for survival. The enemy of living Earth systems, including humanity, is the endless economic growth machine that Dmitri Orlov calls the “technosphere.” The new president is the most ‘visible hand’ in perpetuating the plunder of the biosphere by the technosphere.

Resist the oppression. Replace the destruction. Restore the Earth. These choices we the people must make by learning the lessons of failed democracies of the twentieth century. These difficult actions are the only choices left to achieve the societal resilience necessary for survival. Overcoming Trumpery is a necessity in that process.

The Charlatan, the Huckster, and the Fate of the Planet

The Narcissistic Billionaire Sociopath vs. the Corrupt Corporate Crony

I once believed in the idea of progress. I did not think of progress as an inevitable march of humanity toward a better life; it was not the illusion of happiness through chemistry and consumerism, as the corporate elite would have us believe. I thought that with greater knowledge, people could act more rationally.

At the onset of my career as a college professor, I thought, we could surely do better if everyone were just more educated and understood the nature of the physical and social worlds. Then people would vote for the candidates who had the best ideas to create progress through enlightened policies. I held to that belief for quite a while, as I watched the U.S. education system deteriorate for thirty-five years. I retired no longer an optimist, but as a stubbornly hopeful realist. Back then, I was sure I would have died of old age before any major devastation from global warming would affect many people.

That was then and this is now. The world has changed so much yet remained the same. The immediate effects of climate destabilization are upon us, yet ignorance prevails. Trump’s Tropes play directly to the most ignorant forms of fear and resentment. The last half century of corporate-cash driven social policies carried out by the corporate state has deeply dumbed down and impoverished much of the population.

False Politics and the Corporate State

I have a feeling that Hillary Clinton harbors a genuine set of humanistic concerns for people and families everywhere. But I doubt that such sympathies will overcome her financial obligations to the giant institutions of the corporate state. Her claims of liberal policies and empathy for the victims of the corporate state she supports ring hollow. The liberal political class is dead in all but name and muted slogans.

The so-called conservative political class is in disarray. Its corporatist elites have played the racist scapegoating card to the ignorant resentments of the declining white middle and working classes to the limit. The Republicans have pandered to Tea Party racists and xenophobes for so long that they have lost control to a megalomaniacal narcissistic neo-fascist sociopath. The prospect for an American fascist state is no longer speculation; it is just as real as the likelihood that the neo-liberal (free-market) economic policies that favor corporations over people will continue.

The corporate elite, which funds most “liberal” and “conservative” candidates, seeks stability and predictability. Neither of these political styles veers far from the established political-economic orthodoxy. The continued hegemony of the financial, military, and industrial power elites depends on the continued subservience of the political class to its corporate benefactors.

The power elites support conventional liberalism and conservatism because both are good cover stories for maintaining control over the public and private institutions of the corporate state. That is why both Republicans and Democrats in congress agree to vote for legislation such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and similar so-called free trade deals. They have no problem giving away national sovereignty to multinational corporations as long as they get to feed at the lobbyist’s trough.

Meanwhile, the charade of national political elections pits political personalities against one another in mock combat of ideas that carefully avoid addressing the great global crises of our time. No candidate other than Bernie Sanders even mentions the emerging catastrophic climate collapse. Bernie, however, does not detail the crisis or offer specific actions commensurate with the urgency of the crisis. Well, Hillary vaguely alludes to it, but no more. Climate denial is, of course, one of Trump’s Tropes.

This 2016 election cycle, however, is a little different. We must question Chris Hedges’ contention that it really does not matter whether the Charlatan or the Huckster wins the presidency, because of the apparent extreme danger of a man who has no center. Narcissists and sociopaths do not have policies; they merely seek social power and personal recognition. They are inherently dangerous because they have no human empathy. Yet, the counter argument that the Huckster will continue to serve the short-term corporate financial interests at the expense of the public interest in avoiding climate collapse, also has merit.

Two Kinds of Political Deceit 

The Charlatan plays to the ignorance fostered by climate-denial, birther, and racist propaganda, while the Huckster gives faint lip service to liberal environmental and social justice concerns while serving the financial and corporate elites. Both exhibit war-mongering tendencies. Neither represents the public interest in seeking peace, community, or climate stability.

The problem with the Obama state department was not that Hillary caused the Benghazi disaster; rather, it was that they both fostered repeated militarist interventions seeking “regime change” without a scintilla of sensibility for what might come after. They use the resulting chaos, such as the rise of ISIS, to excuse further interventions. Who benefits from all this? The arms manufacturers and dealers do, as well as the fossil-fuel industry, and their congressional cronies.

The Charlatan-billionaire’s ignorance of international affairs matches his racist scapegoating and political bullying. But what does that matter if a sociopath has the codes enabling a nuclear strike anywhere in the world? We are living through as very messy time, so far. Part of the reason for that is the rigged electoral system, which normally allows only candidates from the two-party corporatist political establishment to run for office. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, in very different ways, disrupted that “normal” political process.

Popular Progressivism Disallowed

For decades, Bernie caucused with the Democrats; a life-long Vermont independent from Brooklyn, he was one of them in all but name and moral stature. His liberalism was true and consistent, unlike the establishment Democrats whose consistent corporatist voting records belied their public protestations of concern for the people. Bernie was able to mount a near successful primary campaign by directly expressing and appealing to the real concerns of the people. His populist social-democratic programs were explicit, essentially the kind of FDR progressivism that has always been popular because of its focus on the well-being of the people. That is why he was able to draw millions of small donations via social media. His honest unpolished “Grampa Bernie” persona became his unconstructed charisma.

The contrast between the corporate media patronizing of sensationalistic Trump Tropes and his racist xenophobia, and their treatment, or should I say avoidance, of Bernie Sanders, was profound. The corporate media gave the billionaire bully billions of dollars in free television exposure, while carefully excluding the “democratic socialist” from coverage. It was an uphill battle for Bernie all the way. The Democratic National Committee had to let Bernie run in the primaries because he had worked with Democrats in the congress for decades. But the DNC had its own corporate candidate and did whatever it could to defeat him while claiming neutrality. It is remarkable that against all those odds, he came so close to victory.

Held back severely at the beginning of the race and torpedoed throughout, Sanders came closer to winning than anyone expected. In a fair race, without the DNC dirty tricks and media blackout, he surely would have won the nomination. But what is fair about normal politics in the U.S.A.?

The tragedy of the charlatan and the Huckster is not that the Democratic Party establishment unfairly defeated Bernie Sanders. Nor is it that a narcissistic sociopath was able to take over the Republican Party to the shock and dismay of both corporatists and extreme fundamentalists.  It is that the American people and the population of the planet are now put at grave risk by the inverted totalitarian of the corporate state, whether Charlatan or Huckster resides in the White House. The “choice” is now between short-term financial interests of the corporate state and the pure demagoguery of a neofascist would-be dictator. The contrast of each with the social mobilization necessary to save the people and the planet from complete climate collapse will differ, but in either case is gravely profound.

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.

The Found Art of Self-Dealing and the Corruption of Everything

One of the effects of the penetration of money into every realm of life is the corruption of human values. The growing tolerance for, even blindness to, corruption in politics seems obvious. But it seems to pervade both everyday life and business as well.

Corruption is not new. Neither are bribes, theft, or betrayal. Americans used to cheerily compare our public institutions and business practices with those of ‘less developed’ nations considered endemically corrupt in their imputed ‘backwardness.’ When parking on the street anywhere in Mexico, U.S. tourists begrudgingly paid a small fee to a semi-uniformed “policeman” to guard their car. This “protection money” assured them that their car would be there, intact, on their return from shopping. In many “underdeveloped” countries, such services are typically offered by the otherwise unemployed. Americans look down on such activities as reflecting a corruption of the public function, nevertheless are grateful for the service. In the U.S., we prided ourselves for being ‘above’ such petty corruption. In our naiveté, we expected our public servants to perform their functions for a salary and never take bribes. Yet we quietly acknowledge much bigger backroom deals.

The disintegration of naturally formed communities in industrial society has been largely completed. Now we have “gated communities” where nobody knows their neighbor, and “sacrifice zones” where public agencies have abandoned the population. Individuals face a complex world of economic dependence on large institutions. They look forward to a fate based solely on their ability to navigate an economy uncommitted to anyone. With little or no social support, we each confront faceless institutions at work and in public. Sociologists have talked for decades about the ‘atomization’ of social relations.

Market Madness
Society is fragmented into a collection of individuals, each of whom has little if any relationships of commitment over time. We are urged to be committed solely to ourselves as “economic actors” seeking the best advantage in any situation. After all, that is the model of human behavior that has been promoted throughout the industrial era. These conditions of personal life, of course, make people most vulnerable to the power of the elites that control employment along with the rest of the economy. It’s a perfect environment for self-dealing.

Before money became the measure of everything, social norms and values were important – yet non-economic – factors that affected the decisions individuals made. People were morally bound to manage their behavior in certain ways that often served a public interest in sustained community cohesion. Sure, crimes were committed, people cheated, etc. But non-monetary norms of human conduct prevailed in most communities.

The elevation of markets as the paragon of progress imposed heavy costs on human morality and compassion. The virtues of normative communities are not cultivated by markets; the only “market virtue” is the goal of selfish gain. That breaks down bonds of affiliation and caring.

Monetizing Humanity
The assumed good resulting from the “invisible hand” that Adam imagined, does not exist in the fossil-fuel driven industrial era. Giant banks and corporations control both markets and government. Human values are sent to the back of the bus and are simultaneously declared attained. Adam Smith proffered the “invisible hand” as a metaphor to reflect the interaction of merchants and tradesmen in a local community. They bargained and produced goods and services on equal footings. They were also cognizant of community needs, standards, and judgment of their practices. Business conducted in real time in real communities occurred under conditions quite different than in today’s corporate state.

The crowning achievement of the industrial era is the monetization of everything and everyone. You are only as human as the purchasing power your employment or business dealings can demonstrate. That is the social measure of the person. But as Michael Sandel has so clearly shown in his book, What Money Can’t buy,* a full range of the most important of human dimensions from civic virtue to interpersonal honor to community solidarity, cannot be monetized except by the corruption their very essence.

This corruption of human values, of course, is a windfall for the financial, military, and industrial power elites running the corporate state. Community fragmentation and personal selfishness allow them to more easily manipulate populations by mass media indoctrination and massive distortions of the meaning and practice of justice.

Yet, the power of people recognizing the destruction of human values, cannot be overcome by advertising or the phony patriotism of war hysteria. Attention can be diverted temporarily, but people are waking up – as Occupy and the Climate March have powerfully demonstrated – especially as the elites charge headlong like lemmings as if their actions had no bearing on the destruction we all experience more and more.
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* Michael J. Sandel, What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Republicans, Democrats, and the Climate Tipping Point

Talk of the so-called “political gridlock” in Washington has become so commonplace that it certainly qualifies as a full-fledged cliché. For too long, the three branches of the federal government have been pandering to the short-term economic interests of power elites. They have done little else. Yet they also work in high conflict with one another.

We know the elements. A Racist Republican hatred for and visceral denial of the legitimacy of the Black President. An “end the wars” president who follows the Cheney script for imperial violence, with a mild mannered rhetoric. A Congress of millionaires who do the bidding of the corporations that fund their reelections. A Supreme Court that legitimizes the greatest corruption of democracy ever. In their fiat personhood, the corporations run the government via surrogates installed by electoral caricature.

So, we wait and hope that someone will do the right thing. Or we hope that someone who says he will do the right thing will be elected. We might as well be Hong Kong. The vetting of candidates is executed by the power elite of the fossil-fueled endless-growth extractive corporate state – not by the people. Even the few who are independent enough to raise challenges to the illusions that drive public acceptance are, like Bernie Sanders, marginalized in the media and ignored by the political elite.

Nature Trumps Politics

But here’s the thing: The biochemical and physical processes in the earth environment do not wait for political consensus or rational action, or for any political arrangement. As governments and corporations falsely claim to be making good progress, carbon emissions continue to accelerate. Their effects are not subject to political debate – they happen. The people of the most vulnerable regions also live in the least polluting societies. They are already suffering the consequences of the industrial era in which they have hardly participated.

The scientific debate over climate disruption is no longer about its reality or whether direct public action or “market forces” are the appropriate mode of response. The question now is whether or not humanity will muster the massively complex and comprehensive technical and organizational collective response in time.

Let’s face it. The only important decision-making criterion now is how much time we have and how we can execute a maximum intervention strategy within that time. The carbon buildup must be stopped in order to avert humanity being swept up in the Sixth Extinction that is already well underway. The current accelerating species extinction is not subject to dispute. Though difficult to measure precisely, hundreds of species are going extinct every day. Human general adaptability, which is greater than most species, does have its limits, especially with so many of us disrupting the earth system.

Ending the Illusion

Whoever thinks that we are exempt from the forces of nature is a captive of that old but still popular Cartesian dualism. Like so many theories in science, it worked well within a very limited context. Now, the continued illusion that we can somehow control nature in the larger context is very likely to be our undoing. The fantasy that imagines ‘man’ separate from nature is the hubris fed by our illusions of grandeur.

Republicans may be worse than Democrats. But, so what if they engage in more magical thinking and collect more bribes from corporate lobbyists? Both parties maintain politics as usual as if climate disruption were just another “issue.” People who are comfortable usually resist accepting that major changes are necessary. That is understandable. However, when lives are so disrupted that denial is no longer a plausible option, a sudden realization that we are ‘up against the wall’ will occur. At that point, a new dilemma arises. What if it is too late? What if by then we cannot do enough to dampen the positive feedback loops that will continue even if right now we stopped emitting any more carbon?

One Choice, If We Make It

A few climate scientists, such as Guy McPherson,* are now estimating that we have already reached the tipping point. McPherson believes we have pushed the climate past the point where it can still be re-stabilized. The radical environmental changes we have wrought will result in human extinction. Yet, does it matter whether he is right or wrong, since we cannot know for sure “until the results are in”? The biggest mistake would be to think, “If it is too late, then we might as well enjoy ourselves in the time we have before the inevitable end of humanity.” This is really a form of the old statistical mistake of confusing the probability of error in estimating an outcome with the importance of the outcome itself. Whatever the odds, we must try. If we don’t, then the prediction of human extinction becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, dooming the prophet.

In the case of climate disruption, the only thing that matters is the extent to which we can and are willing to take all necessary actions to avoid the worst outcome. If it is already “game over,” then any efforts we make will not have mattered – yet we will at least have gone out fighting. However, if the worst-case scenario is not inevitable and there is a slim chance for human survival, then it will have been the stupidest thing that humanity has ever done to accept as an inevitability an estimate that could be in error.

Republicans and Democrats be damned. Full speed ahead on ending the fossil-fueling of our extinction.
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* Guy R. McPherson, Going Dark. Baltimore: PublishAmerica, 2013.