Giving Thanks for what?

Giving thanks at Thanksgiving dinner continues as an ingrained ritual. At some holiday tables, those present state in turn what makes them most thankful. At others, the most senior member gives a Thanksgiving prayer. In most cases, that is about as far as reflection on the meaning of this peculiar American holiday goes. Nobody mentions, of course, its historical origins in continental conquest and racist extermination. Only the mythical feast with natives helping colonists to survive is affirmed.

This season of giving thanks, I look at the headlines on Trumpist subservience to the barbarian brutality of a Saudi tyrant. I examine analyses of overwhelming evidence of climate chaos and its accelerating risks to national security and international stability stridently denied by the highest authorities. I struggle to find something of major importance for which I can feel genuine in giving thanks. We live in desperately dangerous if uncomfortably interesting times.

No Thank You

Around the world, I see the rise of authoritarian dictators (Brazil, Philippines, Eastern Europe, etc.) who brag of their history of assassinations and parallel future intentions. No thank you.

In the U.S., we have elected a megalomaniacal narcissistic would-be dictator, who is steadily gaining more power by demagoguery and pandering to the demands of the super-rich. No thank you.

The “administration” released the latest U.S. climate assessment report by a team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee on Black Friday, hoping to bury it in a no-news day. Drawing on resources of multiple government agencies, the report forecasts massive economic and health costs of growing climate chaos. These are imminent catastrophic consequences if our government continues to deny facts. Meanwhile, the Trumpists pursue a policy of destroying the minor federal efforts so far taken to mitigate catastrophic climate change. No thank you.

Not long before Thanksgiving, I read the brilliant and frightening small book, To Fight Against This Age: On Fascism and Humanism, by Dutch philosopher Rob Riemen. He describes the current resurgence of fascism in Europe. His list of neo-fascist tendencies strikingly parallels what we observe right here in Trumplandia today. No thank you.

I note the continuing concentration of income and wealth among the 1% of the 1% of the richest Americans and corporations. Its correlation with the destruction of the middle class and the expansion and intensification of poverty among the rest of us is not coincidental. No thank you.

I read of the growing auto-loan debt, credit card debt, corporate debt, and government debt. These threats to economic stability result from extreme income tax cuts for the super-rich and the systematic concentration of wealth and income in recent years. The risk of societal collapse that such greed portends is also extreme. No thank you.

I know that the decline of community in America has a long continuing history that parallels the rise of the corporate state. The currently exploding opioid-addiction epidemic reflects a crescendo in that trend, due to the alienation of American institutions from their claimed purposes. Like mass incarceration, it results from “health care” and “law enforcement” institutions serving themselves, not the public interest. No thank you.

Creating Grounds for Giving Thanks

Of course, the list goes on. Giving thanks inevitably seems to require us to look to our immediate families, friends, and neighbors. All indicators suggest that we must strengthen our local communities to counter the global trends that otherwise seem insurmountable as well as extremely destructive.

Giving thanks will truly mean something when we take back control of our lives by turning away from the oppressive institutions and culture of the global “technosphere.” Politics must become local again and drive decisions that will enhance rather than destroy life on planet Earth. Then giving thanks will have resulted from putting human values ahead of the demands of the machine.

Homelessness, Plutocrats, Over-population, and the Climate Crisis

The “homeless” person is part of what is perceived by the power elite as an unneeded collection of persons of no value to the system – a “surplus population.” I first ran across the concept of “surplus population” in a sociology journal article many years ago. The point was simple: a certain number of “positions” exist in society at any particular time and the number of people in society is often larger than the number of persons. The residual, or surplus population, consists of those who have no position.

It is now abundantly clear that all the production of goods and services – even including the superfluous, trivial, and just stupid products – can be accomplished using fewer and fewer workers than in the past. Overflowing suburban garages and commercial storage units demonstrate the oversupply of often meaningless products. Waste abounds. At the same time, the shrinking middle class tells the story of job shortages and a growing “surplus population.”

As the Industrial Age advanced, more and more goods could be produced per unit of labor; increased labor efficiency resulted from the application of technology to the production process. In the 1950s and 1960s, many people feared automation because it eliminated the need for many jobs. At the same time, we were told that new technologies would lead to shorter working hours, labor-saving home appliances, and more leisure time for everyone. From the 1960s on, women entered the workforce. But the expanding economy kept most workers employed.

Producing Waste and Wasting Lives

Because the economy was expanding so much, the need for workers expanded too, for awhile. Even the computer revolution absorbed more of the workforce as it expanded. Yet, many “middle-management” jobs were eliminated by the power of spreadsheets, word processors, and database management systems. The information economy expanded, but eliminated many jobs in the process. Through the 1980s and 1990s, as information control was enhanced, well-paid manufacturing jobs were lost as labor was “outsourced” to destitute low-wage workers in Asia and Latin America. Capital is mobile, labor is not. This trend was strengthened by a stream of international trade agreements like NAFTA and the TPP, which have increased corporate power over national economic policy. Many manufacturing jobs in the U.S. were lost. The remaining jobs were mostly retail and menial service jobs with marginal wages. Well, we all know how well that has worked out. The “American Dream” became a nightmare.

So, as the middle class contracted, Americans are left with less and less employment offering a living wage. Large numbers of people can no longer participate in the labor market while others live at or below subsistence level on minimum-wage incomes or less. Neither rents nor food are cheaper. Prices continue to rise as wages decline.

This is all well and good for the power elites who run the system, at least in the short run. More profits mean more power. For the growing numbers left out, the system seeks to either abandon them or find new ways to exploit them. They are to be 1) imprisoned for profit; 2) shot in the back by police; or 3) run out of town by any means necessary. City ordinances are commonly passed these days to make being homeless illegal! As usual, the victims are blamed.

But dark economic storm clouds are stirring on the horizon. As long as the money markets are run by the plutocrats and oligarchs for their own further enrichment, the real economy deteriorates. The economy is not run democratically for the benefit of everyone being able to make a living. The Congress represents the plutocrats, not the public. So, whoever is pushed out of the economy will be treated in these ways. The race to irreversible climate chaos continues as does the illusion that it is something about an abstract future.

The only alternative to this existential contradiction is a moral and ecological economy. And that requires locally organized movements for resistance and replacement of the mega-banks, international corporations and their political allies. These institutions have no national allegiance; they have no human allegiance. They must be overcome, not by force of arms (impossible) but by turning away and replacing corporate rule with community institutions. Otherwise, collapse.

The New Capitalism and Its Death

Unfortunately, Corporate Capitalism is the capitalism we have, and it is not about to relinquish its institutionalized greed. It is not the American Capitalism that built this industrial nation; it is a predatory capitalism that is extractive in nature and is destroying the nation. It does not merely extract the remaining resources of the planet. It also extracts monetary value from the economy to the point where instability is inevitable.

While still in control, the financial elites will never allow a hybrid economic model such as the Europeans have partially achieved, that would balance their greed with the public interest. That would not allow the obscene profits and power that it now enjoys. So, various forms of resistance are needed in concert with local ways to simply replace the “financial services” that the mega-banks fail to provide communities in their quest for phantom wealth generated from within the mega-banking system itself.

Local control can build community institutions and economies that can employ their populations instead of relegating them to ghettos and prisons. A genuine response to climate disruption would, of course, generate massive new employment. That will only be possible when we let go of our Wells Fargo, Citi Bank, and Bank of America accounts [of all kinds] and replace them with locally controlled banks with community ownership and ecologically sound policies. The new global movement of local resistance to predatory extractive capital can also direct community resources to employment in building resilience in a rapidly changing environment.

Homeless Plutocrats

Fact is, weird politics aside, overpopulation is a huge globally problematic factor in trying to curtail climate disruption as well as unemployment, underemployment, and homelessness. There will be nowhere to go for all those Bangladeshis when the seas rise a few feet and wipe out much of their farmland and homes. India is already building defenses against possible climate-forced migration. Similar scenarios are unfolding around the globe.

But the main source of the impending planetary climate crisis is the plutocracy driving global economic growth; that process also excludes more and more people from participation. Of course, it is the U.S. and other industrial nations that consume vast quantities of resources and produce vastly more CO2 per capita than the populations of “developing” nations. A key way to get population to level off and for masses not to starve is for the education and empowerment of women all over the planet to be accelerated. But none of it will much matter unless the plutocrats are driven from their comfy corporate homes and the economy is turned from extractive to ecological. There will be no place for plutocrats in a new “living earth” economy.

Meanwhile, corrupt corporate capital continues to exploit “surplus populations” in the U.S. and around the world. The “carrying capacity” of the planet has been outrun by endlessly growing numbers of people clamoring to participate in the phantom wealth of the industrial nations. Only consumption constraint of the wealthy nations can begin to bring the impact of their populations in line with the carrying capacity of the land they occupy. An unwinding of the ongoing re-distribution of ever more wealth to the very rich can allow a re-balancing between population and environment to begin. Some plutocrats may become homeless in the process.

Without major climate-chaos mitigation humanity will be depopulated alright — by resource wars, including water and food wars, mass starvation, and unprecedented social chaos. Homelessness could become the new normal. Hard, mostly political-economic, decisions lay ahead.

Creating Enemies, Defining Terror, and Justifying Anything

We are known by the enemies we keep creating. Of course, one can point almost anywhere and find barbarism, now and in the past, there and also here. The dictionary definition of “Terrorism” is “government by intimidation.” It most recently devolved in the U.S. lexicon of endless war “on terror” – since 9/11– as any violence by those the ‘patriotic’ U.S. speaker perceives as a threat to U.S. “interests” anywhere in the world. Anyone who may object to U.S. military incursions into his/her country is not a “patriot” or “freedom fighter,” but a “terrorist.” In its recent usage, the term “terrorist” has become loaded with emotional content.

The term has pretty much lost its traditional meaning. It is now so widely used to refer to anyone the speaker hates or opposes that it means little more than to designate an evil other. Someone who protests the clear cutting of old growth timber in the Northwest is now called an “eco-terrorist.” The term has simply devolved into a symbol of hatred — regardless of whether the hatred is ‘justified’ by specific behavior — especially when the speaker, as is typical, represents the interests of the global business elite. The terrorism meme has become an effective tool in maintaining endless wars by fanning the fires of hatred of the evil other. Hence, the growing number of hate crimes directed at anyone who appears to the ignorant observer to look ‘Islamic.’

Empires of Terror

So-called “non-Western cultures” have experienced localized terror for centuries. Afghans suffered British attempts to colonize and later Soviet attempts to install puppet governments. The Mujahideen fought off the Russians, ran drugs, took millions of dollars in cash delivered by CIA operatives, killed villagers and became the Taliban. The U.S. has also attempted to govern the Afghans by intimidation (and bribes) ever since its first bungled attempt to kill Osama bin Laden, and has continued to do so since killing him.

Governments everywhere are corrupt, but some have more technical ‘fire power’ while others have an unfamiliar fanaticism. Taliban brutality is more than matched by the techno-terror reigned down upon wedding parties, villages, and even “insurgents,” via CIA drones. Indiscriminant murder-at-a-distance can easily be just as brutal as by those ISIS fighters who would more directly behead innocents. But one can maintain a psychological distance from one’s own brutal acts by the lexicon of “targeting” in the detached mode of video games. A person’s willingness to invoke the term “terrorist” seems mostly based on whose side executes the terrifying acts of ruthless violence. It is also an easy means of dehumanizing the ‘object’ targeted by the killing machine’s operator. Beheading is barbaric and maybe even insane, but it is as brutally honest as it is physically direct.

What, exactly, is so special about Western culture that it’s violence escapes the label of terror? Is it merely that it perfected more powerful technologies of violence and deployed them on other cultures before anyone else? That resulted in colonialism, imperialism, and now economic ‘globalization’ – global financial domination supported by military intervention wherever thought useful to retain economic control. Is that more rational or less brutal than tribal fighters resisting U.S. invasions?

Cultural one-upmanship is pointless. Those with more power can invent and deploy more clever technologies. But remember: technology is simply a material way to do something. But, what is to be done? Well, since most money for “innovation” in technological development is spent for military purposes, death and destruction are its primary purpose. In any case, the globalized war machine continues to inflict more damage on the planet as well as its people, than any other institution – even Wall Street. But of course, Wall Street is one of the prime movers of the military-industrial-political complex and its drive for endless billions in contracts for esoteric often unworkable technologies of warfare, which cost billions to operate, and are inappropriate for the military operations they are supposed to enhance.

Justifying Terror by Creating Enemies

Does the U.S. incarcerate more people than any other nation because over the last few decades we have produced more and more evil people who must be arrested and imprisoned? The so called drug war has criminalized a huge segment of society by targeting vulnerable Black and Brown youth in neighborhoods, ignoring the white college and working classes that uses drugs at about the same rates. Is that not a form of governing by intimidation? The growing chorus of reports of police killings of Black and Brown young men on America’s streets reflects the governing of those neighborhoods by intimidation. Yet the “terrorist” meme is reserved for those others who are on the other side of the authoritarian mission of the corporate state.

The Kill Team,” a recent production of PBS’s Independent Lens, documents a platoon of U.S. soldiers some of whom participated in gratuitous killings of Afghan civilians. In their naïve boot-camp brainwashed minds, they felt the need to do what they had been trained to do: kill people. It is hard to not be stunned by the mindless dehumanization of The Other by these barely past teenage boys. Officially sanctioned night raids of civilian homes, excused by the flimsiest ‘intelligence’ are not really that different.

We know of many incidents and patterns of practice in the military from Abu Graeb to Guantanamo that are at least as irrational and brutal. Jeremy Scahill’s book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, chronicles the covert wars of intimidation waged around the world in the name of “the War on Terror.” These wars on diverse peoples only breed resentment and hatred for those who have invaded their countries. The terrorism meme has worked as domestic propaganda, even though the intimidation of the peoples of Iraq, Somalia, Yemen, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and beyond, cannot salvage the empire.

Mohamedou Slahi has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002, despite being cleared by multiple courts of any wrong doing. Even with heavy blacking out of major portions, his Guantanamo Diary reveals much more than what is widely known about the torture that goes on there. It also expresses the power of the human spirit in the face of incalculable suffering, torture, and intimidation. His enduring humanity cannot be destroyed by the terrorist meme. Can our humanity survive it too?

How to Corrupt Law Enforcement

In American political culture the idea of “corruption” is both simple and suppressed. We think of the occasional individual politician or official taking a bribe to direct funds to a particular bidder or contractor. Yet we have lost sight of the essence of corruption – exploitation – and the fact that it can take many forms but always has the same basic character. Individual instances are usually part of a larger pattern.

What is Corruption?
There are, of course, various kinds of corruption found in diverse institutional settings. The scope and scale of corruption may range from personal to systemic. An individual bureaucrat may take a bribe, or a CEO may take executive actions that serve his personal interests more than those of the company that pays him for making good decisions. He may trade securities on the basis of his inside information. If so, he has corrupted the responsibilities of his position by his unethical actions.

But systemic corruption occurs when a pattern of practices involves a number of members of an organization. In a major example, J.P. Morgan Chase and other large Wall Street banks fraudulently engaged in misrepresentation of risk, falsifying ‘due diligence’ and knowingly selling ‘toxic’ securities to clients.[1]  Senators and representatives who take political donations from lobbyists and sponsor bills the lobbyist wrote, clearly corrupt the political process. But it is accepted as ‘business as usual’ in the Congress. We live in a corrupt political culture that is taken for granted by the politicians and by the corporate media that ‘reports’ on them. The corporate state is a corruption of democracy and has replaced all but its form.

In the case of law enforcement, you might remember hearing of a bygone era when an ethical challenge faced by the “cop on the beat” was simpler than we hear of today. While making his rounds an officer is offered a free cup of coffee or a meal at the local diner. The shopkeeper considers it good business to be ‘close’ with local police. This probably still happens somewhere. But that the practice is now recognized as currying favoritism. The “peace officer” was supposed to be a neutral figure, even-handedly enforcing the law. In our complex of corrupt institutional relations and practices today, law enforcement has become one of the institutional players. In the systematic corrupt pattern of practices within the nation’s political and legal institutions, law enforcement institutions have been severely corrupted.

Self Dealing
The “War on Drugs” is now pretty famous for having failed to stem the flow of illegal drugs into the U.S. Masses of vulnerable young men and women of color who use drugs at the same rate as everyone else are systematically incarcerated. The purpose of reducing drug use in society was turned into a practice of mass incarceration of selected target populations (blacks and browns). At the same time, the more powerful population segment (whites) is largely ignored. This is itself the corruption of a mission. But the practice of targeting the vulnerable for personal, departmental, or professional gain is yet a further level of corruption. Regardless of how ill-conceived, futile, and counterproductive the War on Drugs was and is, its conversion into a mechanism for profiteering by police departments and their corporate suppliers rates the highest condemnation.

This, of course, is closely related to the widespread militarization of civilian police. The more ‘drug arrests’ the more credits, loans, and funding for all sorts of power-imagineering paraphernalia. And once they get hold of a hammer, everything looks like a nail. ‘Use it or lose it’ has been the policy of Department of Defense when it distributes military equipment to local police. So, why not send out a SWAT team to serve a simple warrant? What is the bottom line? Well, it is the blatant shift of purpose from (legitimately) “protecting and serving” the public to (illegitimate but accepted) institutional self-aggrandizement. Power seeking and profiteering are practiced at the expense of the public interest in real public safety.

Theft as “Civil Asset Forfeiture”
By now most of us have heard of the police confiscating large sums of money, luxury cars, even mansions, from drug dealers when they are arrested. Laws were passed to support aggressive police actions against drug dealers. The loot came to be shared with local police departments that cooperated in or conducted successful raids. While such extra-judicial practices are constitutionally questionable in themselves, the practice has taken on another level of corruption. With no judicial or other check on the confiscation of the property of citizens where arrests have occurred but not necessarily indictments or convictions, the near complete corruption of the ideals of law enforcement was assured.

The practice of confiscating property from “suspects” has spread to a variety of situations where it would be hard to justify. Yet, unconstrained police now actively look for “goodies” that can be used by the department or liquidated for cash.[2]  A “reason” for an arrest can usually be constructed. This, of course, is the ultimate corruption of law enforcement, since it is essentially the use of power to engage in legalized theft. This sort of behavior is hardly different than the shakedowns of organized crime or street gangs. “Reform” is a far too weak a word to use when trying to describe what is needed to bring back law enforcement institutions into a civil society where their job is simply to “keep the peace” and protect the public. The current conflict of institutional interests and the public interest is intolerable.

The growing privatization of the public sector has squeezed state and local government operations including law enforcement. That pressure encourages police to exploit opportunities presented by ill-conceived laws allowing unconstitutional searches and seizures. In a corrupt environment, the weak are corrupted. The weakness of police culture is palpable. Only mobilized public demand can change that.
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1. Matt Taibbi, “Meet the woman J P Morgan Chase paid one of the largest fines in American history to keep from talking.” Rolling Stone, November 6, 2014.
2. Shalla Dewan, “Police Use Department Wish List When Deciding Which Assets to Seize.” New York Times. November 10, 2014.