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From Lithuania, a View of Austerity’s Costs

Landon Thomas Jr., New York Times
VILNIUS, Lithuania — If leaders of the world’s many indebted countries want to see what austerity looks like, they might want to visit this Baltic nation of 3.3 million.

Faced with rising deficits that threatened to bankrupt the country, Lithuania cut public spending by 30 percent — including slashing public sector wages 20 to 30 percent and reducing pensions by as much as 11 percent. Even the prime minister, Andrius Kubilius, took a pay cut of 45 percent.

And the government didn’t stop there. It raised taxes on a wide variety of goods, like pharmaceutical products and alcohol. Corporate taxes rose to 20 percent, from 15 percent. The value-added tax rose to 21 percent, from 18 percent.

… austerity has exacted its own price, in social and personal pain.

Pensioners, their benefits cut, swamped soup kitchens. Unemployment jumped to a high of 14 percent, from single digits — and an already wobbly economy shrank 15 percent last year.

Remarkably, for the most part, the austerity was imposed with the grudging support of Lithuania’s trade unions and opposition parties, and has yet to elicit the kind of protest expressed by the regular, widespread street demonstrations and strikes seen in Greece, Spain and Britain
(1 April 2010)

Israel’s “Green” Strategy to Defeat Enemies

Jonathan Cook, ZNet
Plan to make oil redundant in a decade

(Nazareth) — Under cover of a sudden interest in developing new green technologies, the Israeli government hopes to weaken the Gulf states by making their oil redundant and thereby defeating “Islamic terror”.

Uzi Landau, the national infrastructures minister, outlined a vision of a world without oil this week to Israel’s most loyal supporters in Washington as he searched for wealthy American-Jewish investors and White House support for the strategy.

His message was that: “The West is addicted to oil, and so is bound by states that support terrorism … Whoever wants to fight radical Islam and terrorist organizations should know that by purchasing gasoline, he’s giving terrorists increased motivation.”

Analysts say the plan’s chief goals are to cripple the large oil-producing Gulf states, particularly Iran, which is seen as Israel’s main rival in the region, and resistance groups that oppose Israel’s long-term occupation of Palestinian land.

… Mr Landau is known to be acting on the direct instructions of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, who announced back in October a “national project” to end the world’s reliance on oil within a decade.

At the same time Mr Netanyahu gave responsibility to the National Economic Council, a think-tank inside his office, to develop “breakthrough” inventions that would eradicate the world’s need for oil and coal-based electricity.

“Dependence on fossil fuels strengthens the dark regimes that encourage instability and fund terror with their petrodollars,” Mr Netanyahu told the cabinet as he unveiled the plan.

Gideon Bromberg, head of the Israeli green group Friends of the Earth, said Israel had a very poor record on environmental issues, but that he welcomed Mr Netanyahu’s belated interest “even if it is for the wrong reasons”.

… In December the United Nations criticised Israel for its poor record on using renewable energy sources. It ranked bottom for using solar sources to generate electricity, behind countries such as Senegal, Eritrea and Mexico, as well as Western countries with only a few hours of sunlight.

A government watchdog, Israel’s state comptroller, issued a report the same month arguing that Israel had not taken even basic measures to address climate change.
(2 April 2010)
Regardless of the political motivation, this sounds like a great idea. Would that all political conflicts could be transformed into efforts to create a sustainable society.

In the United States, there’s been a similar long-term effort to reduce reliance on oil for security reasons. It has attracted several former directors of the CIA and the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security (IAGS), headed by Gal Luft, a former lieutenant colonel in the Israel Defense Forces.


How to Visit a Socialist Country (Cuba)

Richard Levins, Monthly Review
Travelers from the United States to Cuba cross more than ninety miles of sea: they cross decades of history. They may be limited to one suitcase, but they carry trunks full of ideological baggage, including biases about Cuba, beliefs about communists, commitments as to what a good society should be like, and a collection of conventional poli-sci formulas about power, government, and human behavior.

… Socialism is not a thing but a process, the process by which the working classes of the city and countryside and their allies seize the reins of society to satisfy their shared needs. Through a telescope, we get a glimpse of the world-historic significance of the first efforts to replace not only capitalism but also all class society by a more generous, just, and sustainable way of life. That is, we are trying to overcome a ten-thousand-year detour during which our species adopted agriculture, deforested much of the planet, grew in numbers, and extended our life span and knowledge and destructive capacity, divided into classes so that we were no longer a “we,” and expanded our productive capacity to the point where we can dispense with classes and become a “we” again.

This is more important in looking at the first century of socialist innovation than how well these revolutionaries do it, the particular decisions and those unexpected changes that surprisingly occur, and even the enormous difficulties and deficiencies of this effort. But, through the microscope of daily life, all these details are of overwhelming importance, and world history is no compensation for a lack of protein in the diet. We need both the telescope and the microscope.

Socialism is a complex path, zigzagging and contradictory, because the participants have different interests, respond in diverse ways to the events along the way, differ in knowledge and goals,

… Policies change because circumstances change or because people learn. Rationing in the hardest times in Cuba has been the guarantee of at least minimal equality in food access. At other times, when more varied goods are available, it may be an obstacle to distribution and create a niche for “middlemen.” Farmers’ markets can make more produce available but also permit profiteering. Tourism may provide important flows of foreign exchange but also become foci of corruption and undermine equality.

… The logic of socialism makes some decisions seem necessary, obvious, and attractive. Among these are full employment, universal free health care and education, equality, and environmental protection. Others might appear to be self-evident goals but have to be redefined. For instance, consider “efficiency.” “Efficiency” seems to be an obvious self-evident good, and societies strive to be more “efficient.” But efficiency has had very different meanings in different contexts. In the Hebrew Bible, agricultural efficiency is measured by the number of seeds harvested per seed planted (it was about 1-3 seeds harvested per seed planted—above a ratio of 1:1, there is seed for the next sowing and, above that level, there is food!).

In land-short Europe, a reasonable measure of efficiency has been yield per hectare. In the United States, with traditionally abundant land and scarce labor, “efficiency” was yield per labor day, and the boast was that one farmer could feed forty people. More recently, ecologists have talked about energy efficiency and calories harvested per calorie invested, and have insisted that the “real costs” of a process be measured—not only production costs but also the costs of cleaning up the pollution. The feudal estate had no overall measure of efficiency. It might be very productive in grain but lacking in timber or meat, with no way to exchange timber for meat, and lots of labor power but not enough good land to use it well. Shadow prices used to integrate it all might tell us that, for three hundred years, an estate was losing money, yet supported lords and serfs. The Soviet kolkhoz (collective farm) was notoriously inefficient in terms of profit. But, among its expenses, the kolkhoz had to provide health care and education for its members, giving it an unfavorable financial spreadsheet but social net benefit.

Since labor is a major expense in production, a company under capitalism is seen to be more efficient if it reduces staff, fires workers, and extracts more surplus value per worker by expanding the working day, intensifying the pace of work, and reducing payment. Fired workers fall off the balance sheet. All this is labeled with the positive term “flexibility.” The CEO then gets a bonus. Mergers are often justified by promising to increase efficiency in this sense.

But for a socialist society, with its guarantee that everybody eats, dismissing workers into unemployment does not improve social efficiency.

… When multiple societal goals converge on particular programs, they become almost inevitable. For instance, urban agriculture in Cuba satisfied the need of the country for immediately available food when the economy collapsed after the loss of trade with the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. It offered employment at a time when factories closed for lack of raw materials or energy, and for the first time since the revolution there was unemployment. It simplified distribution from farm to consumer as transport became difficult and frequent power failures made refrigerated storage an unsure option. The Ministry of Defense was interested in promoting local self-sufficiency, in case natural disasters or military aggression disrupted national level coordination. Urban vegetable production supported the aims of the nutritionists to shift the Cuban diet from one heavily relying on meat and starch to one with greater vegetable consumption. City planners encouraged the preservation of green areas within the city that mitigated noise, absorbed rainfall and reduced flooding, countered the heating of the city, and encouraged neighborhood social interaction. And, as organic agriculture, it was healthier for the workers. The Ministry of Public Health did not want pesticides in cities. Ecologists pushed for polyculture and biological management of pests and soil fertility. Different organizations, ministries, and institutions had primary concern for one or another of these goals, but they all converged in making urban agriculture an obvious and, in some sense, an inevitable choice. There were also ideological conceptions that made urban agriculture attractive, in particular, the Marxist goal to restore the metabolism between town and countryside, and the commitment that urban development must not be determined by real estate markets.

… Consumption

Since all peoples and most governments claim as a goal a rising standard of living, one question that arises is, What goods are needed for that rising standard of living that would not be a descent into “consumerism”? It is worth looking at “consumption” more closely. In poor countries, there is a real need to increase consumption of basics—food, housing, health care, public transport, and such. Bill McKibben estimates that up to a per capita income of some $10,000 a year, increases in income make life better for people and show up in surveys of subjective happiness. People eat regularly, have shelter and clothing, access to healing and learning. That is roughly the level at which infant mortality stops its steep decline with national income.2

Beyond this kind of consumption, there is the consumption made necessary by particular social relations. The automobile, originally a luxury of the rich, became increasingly necessary in the United States because of the absence of low-cost public transportation, the development of suburbs and long-distance commuting, the separation of places of residence from places of employment. Office jobs demand certain kinds of clothing. Japanese men need several dark suits, not to keep warm but to keep respectable and employed. Dress codes for women are usually even more demanding.

… But for socialism, a rising standard of living is not unlimited consumption of energy and matter. Rather, it centers on a rising quality of life. Therefore, we see a large fraction of the national product in Cuba going into social consumption, health, education, culture, sports, and the environment, even though, in the short run, this may slow down growth and prolong frustrating shortages.

… There are three main prerequisites for meaningful, revolutionary criticism:

1. Criticism must come out of supportive participation. To the extent that one participates as an ally and has actually helped achieve shared goals, critical insights from visitors can be useful and welcome. …

2. Criticism has to be grounded in knowledge and understanding of the place and times. The first element of understanding is knowledge of the country’s history and culture, where it is coming from, what it is attempting to accomplish, what are its major obstacles. …

3. Criticism has to be informed by theory to protect us from being overwhelmed by, but not indifferent to, the immediate …
(April 2010)
A long thoughtful meditation on Cuba and the socialist experience by a sympathetic observer. Many people have seen The Power of Community about Cuba’s transformation to a low-oil society after the fall of the former USSR cut off oil supplies. This piece provides some necessary background.

I think any sort of transformation of society will face some of the same issues described by Richard Levins, whether it is the Transition Movment, the greening of corporate capitalism or socialist.

Related: What is the characteristic of the Latin American Left today?.

Post-Peak Oil Reality Trumps Right Wing Trend

Jan Lundberg, Culture Change
… is a peak oil website with a lot of new articles daily on related matters such as gardening, farming, climate change, and psychological aspects of economic collapse. Occasionally there are articles on politics, but they have something to do with energy or U.S. consumerism. A recent article the website posted didn’t seem to have anything to do with energy: “Is America ‘Yearning for Fascism’?” by Chris Hedges (writing originally in That it was on a peak oil website says a lot about the power of the article, and says something about many peak oilists’ views of the future.

The Shallow Focus on Federal Politics

Hedges is a strong critic of U.S. policies. How much he knows about peak oil and overpopulation isn’t known to me, but his latest article ignores entirely the possibility of petrocollapse or a new, very different future due to the end of abundant oil and energy. Like most commentators, Hedges focuses on politics and political trends. He happens to be passionate about ending war and for protecting “democracy” (an idealized notion or myth). It also happens that many people concerned with peak oil are quite concerned about his issues as well — so much so that ideas or fears on politics and social (in)justice sometimes color peak oilists’ energy outlooks.

As is the case with most citizens, Hedges does not see much change soon in our daily way of life as consumers, if at all. His big concern is change for the worse politically: in terms of fascist thugs breaking down your door. Or, almost as horrible to liberals and progressives, another Republican President gets in. After all, this might mean war on Middle Eastern countries, expanded offshore drilling, reviving nuclear power — oh, wait, Obama and the Democrats are doing all that now, with no intention of changing direction.

… Hedges quotes the independent minded ex-Democrat of Congress Cynthia McKinney who blames “the people who put us in this predicament” and laments “Our problem is a problem of governance.” She refers to the nation’s political challenges and right-wing trends, and not the looming utter loss of abundant, cheap energy. If she and Hedges believe that strife between left and right is going to be a big deal up ahead — and this may well be true — just wait until the trucks don’t pull in to the supermarkets because of a massive oil shortage. It will be triggered perhaps by a revolution in Saudi Arabia, an Israeli attack on Iran, or other geopolitical event. But the biggest pressure on the whole situation is the fact that global oil supply has peaked. Peak oil (along with the related crisis of climate distortion) is bigger than fascism or any other social movement. What about wars, for example over water?
(2 April 2010)