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Underside of a great nation - April 11

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Hiding From Shame, Addicted to Optimism: The Tyranny of Our Collective Comfort Zones

Phil Rockstroh, CommonDreams.org
The technologies that inflicted upon the world the ongoing tragedies in both the Gulf of Mexico and Japan serve a dangerous addiction, an addiction to blind optimism, a habituation of mind that allows us to dwell within provisional comfort zones but renders vast spaces of the world into deathrealms.

After each catastrophe, there ensues a scramble to contain the damage leveled, as, concurrently, the apologist of the present system explain the anomalous nature of the event. Yet, this much should be obvious: Attempting to clean up the mess, after it occurs, as oppose to altering the way of life that incurs the damage, is analogous to an addict believing a few days in detox will serve as a solution to his addiction.

In the same way drug dealers are reliant on an addict's unwillingness to reflect on the carnage created in his life, as well as, the havoc reaped in the lives of those near him, engendered by his addiction, the small group of hyper-wealthy elites who benefit from the current system rely on collective cognitive dissidence (or, as it has been termed, the fear of fear itself) to dissuade the public at large from peering deeply into the pernicious situation.

One of an addict's biggest obstacles is his optimism i.e., he is convinced he can figure out somehow, someway to use his drug of choice in a less destructive way…and, by reflex, rebels against the deepening sorrow that he must change.

... Growing up in the deep south, ... shame is a subject with which I'm well acquainted; it has taken me a lifetime (and it remains an ongoing process) to sort through and shake out the shame-based sensibility acquired there.

... A large number of the blustering, willfully ignorant, southern men that I grew up around, whether they are khaki clad, country club smoothies or leather jacket-donning punk rock belligerents, were twisted inside out, kicked and stomped insensate by shaming authority figures before they shed their baby teeth. If one listens closely, one can detect the voice of shame-bearing demons hissing in their every utterance.

Yet the knowledge of the origin and source of their suffering remains buried deep within these men. To acknowledge shame (even to oneself) is considered a tacit admission of having something to be ashamed of i.e., "If you ain't got nothing to be ashamed of, you miserable peckerwood, then you wouldn't have no need to feel it." So, more or less, the line of thinking, rather train wreck of pathology, passing for thought, goes.

Accordingly, a strong impulse arises to explain it all away -- to claim the entire episode is a misunderstanding, or to dismiss their feelings as being trivial, or merely an indulgence of weak-willed, thin wrist losers, or impugn the motives of those who find grievance in the situation. This mode of mind has made multi-millionaires of the black magicians of rightwing talk shows, experts at performing emotional sleight of hand tricks that displace the shame of their listeners on a host of targets.

The cordiality of my fellow southerners is as facile as it is fragile. In southern culture, a great deal of psychic energy goes into distancing oneself from shame. Brooding beneath southern culture's superficial charm and gentility is the unspoken threat: "Be nice, now" that often translates to, "ya'll do as I say -- and there won't be any trouble."

... While nice liberals retreat to their comfort zones, the forsaken laboring class constructs insulating walls of resentment. In the US, more and more, the criteria that forges personality and informs our condition is wrought by the calculus of enclosure: guarded gate communities; isolation in motor vehicles; the insular pixel fiefdoms of the internet; long work hours, often spent in cubicles, comprised of meaningless labor, and cut-off from both the norms of nature and resonate human contact.
(11 April 2011)
It's not just the South with this problem! The article reminds me of the late Joe Bageant -BA



Why the United States Is Destroying Its Education System

Chris Hedges, TruthDig.com
A nation that destroys its systems of education, degrades its public information, guts its public libraries and turns its airwaves into vehicles for cheap, mindless amusement becomes deaf, dumb and blind. It prizes test scores above critical thinking and literacy. It celebrates rote vocational training and the singular, amoral skill of making money. It churns out stunted human products, lacking the capacity and vocabulary to challenge the assumptions and structures of the corporate state. It funnels them into a caste system of drones and systems managers. It transforms a democratic state into a feudal system of corporate masters and serfs.

Teachers, their unions under attack, are becoming as replaceable as minimum-wage employees at Burger King. We spurn real teachers—those with the capacity to inspire children to think, those who help the young discover their gifts and potential—and replace them with instructors who teach to narrow, standardized tests. These instructors obey. They teach children to obey. And that is the point. The No Child Left Behind program, modeled on the “Texas Miracle,” is a fraud. It worked no better than our deregulated financial system. But when you shut out debate these dead ideas are self-perpetuating.

... [anonymous teacher:] “I cannot say for certain—not with the certainty of a Bill Gates or a Mike Bloomberg who pontificate with utter certainty over a field in which they know absolutely nothing—but more and more I suspect that a major goal of the reform campaign is to make the work of a teacher so degrading and insulting that the dignified and the truly educated teachers will simply leave while they still retain a modicum of self-respect,” he added. “In less than a decade we been stripped of autonomy and are increasingly micromanaged. Students have been given the power to fire us by failing their tests. Teachers have been likened to pigs at a trough and blamed for the economic collapse of the United States. In New York, principals have been given every incentive, both financial and in terms of control, to replace experienced teachers with 22-year-old untenured rookies. They cost less. They know nothing. They are malleable and they are vulnerable to termination.”

... The truly educated become conscious. They become self-aware. They do not lie to themselves. They do not pretend that fraud is moral or that corporate greed is good. They do not claim that the demands of the marketplace can morally justify the hunger of children or denial of medical care to the sick. They do not throw 6 million families from their homes as the cost of doing business. Thought is a dialogue with one’s inner self. Those who think ask questions, questions those in authority do not want asked. They remember who we are, where we come from and where we should go. They remain eternally skeptical and distrustful of power. And they know that this moral independence is the only protection from the radical evil that results from collective unconsciousness. The capacity to think is the only bulwark against any centralized authority that seeks to impose mindless obedience. There is a huge difference, as Socrates understood, between teaching people what to think and teaching them how to think. Those who are endowed with a moral conscience refuse to commit crimes, even those sanctioned by the corporate state, because they do not in the end want to live with criminals—themselves.

“It is better to be at odds with the whole world than, being one, to be at odds with myself,” Socrates said.
(11 April 2011)
Also posted at Common Dreams. -BA



Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%

Joseph Stiglitz, Vanity Fair
Americans have been watching protests against oppressive regimes that concentrate massive wealth in the hands of an elite few. Yet in our own democracy, 1 percent of the people take nearly a quarter of the nation’s income—an inequality even the wealthy will come to regret.
---
It’s no use pretending that what has obviously happened has not in fact happened. The upper 1 percent of Americans are now taking in nearly a quarter of the nation’s income every year. In terms of wealth rather than income, the top 1 percent control 40 percent. Their lot in life has improved considerably. Twenty-five years ago, the corresponding figures were 12 percent and 33 percent. One response might be to celebrate the ingenuity and drive that brought good fortune to these people, and to contend that a rising tide lifts all boats. That response would be misguided. While the top 1 percent have seen their incomes rise 18 percent over the past decade, those in the middle have actually seen their incomes fall. For men with only high-school degrees, the decline has been precipitous—12 percent in the last quarter-century alone. All the growth in recent decades—and more—has gone to those at the top. In terms of income equality, America lags behind any country in the old, ossified Europe that President George W. Bush used to deride. Among our closest counterparts are Russia with its oligarchs and Iran. While many of the old centers of inequality in Latin America, such as Brazil, have been striving in recent years, rather successfully, to improve the plight of the poor and reduce gaps in income, America has allowed inequality to grow.

... In recent weeks we have watched people taking to the streets by the millions to protest political, economic, and social conditions in the oppressive societies they inhabit. Governments have been toppled in Egypt and Tunisia. Protests have erupted in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain. The ruling families elsewhere in the region look on nervously from their air-conditioned penthouses—will they be next? They are right to worry. These are societies where a minuscule fraction of the population—less than 1 percent—controls the lion’s share of the wealth; where wealth is a main determinant of power; where entrenched corruption of one sort or another is a way of life; and where the wealthiest often stand actively in the way of policies that would improve life for people in general.
(May 2011 edition)
According to Wikipedia, Stiglitz "is an American economist and a professor at Columbia University. He is a recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences (2001) and the John Bates Clark Medal (1979). He is also the former Senior Vice President and Chief Economist of the World Bank. He is known for his critical view of the management of globalization, free-market economists (whom he calls "free market fundamentalists") and some international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank." -BA



The Blowback World of Chalmers Johnson

Sheila K. Johnson, TomDispatch.com
Remembering the Man and His Work
---
In going through my husband’s files, books, and papers after his death, I’ve been forcibly struck by two things. First, contrary to what many of his obituaries said, his writings and thoughts were remarkably consistent throughout his life. In other words, he was not a right-winger who became more liberal and outspoken as he got older. More than most people suspected, he was a radical all along, whose intellectual impulses were tempered only by his birth in the Depression year of 1931 and his determination to make a decent living without “joining the establishment.” Second -- and it was an unavoidable recollection -- he worked with manic energy and maniacally hard all his life.

... he wrote his first “scholarly” article, published by World Politics, a distinguished academic journal, in which he sought to apply the wartime Chinese experience to other revolutionary situations. In “Civilian Loyalties and Guerrilla Conflict,” he presciently argued:

“To approach the subject of guerrilla warfare as a purely military doctrine is to court disaster… General political and economic considerations must be taken into account, such as the abilities of local elites, the nature of a country’s economy, its class structure, and a host of other variables that can only be altered by long-term reforms. By the time guerrilla warfare has actually broken out, the conflict may already be lost to the defenders and require a negotiated or stalemate solution.”

... in 1973, he published a little book, Autopsy on People’s War, in which he argued that Maoist theories of “people’s war” would not lead to a general Asian conflagration. “It is useful to be reminded,” he wrote, “that revolutions in the modern sense are also, in fact, civil wars. If other nations want to make a successful adjustment to them, they cannot ignore the fact that a domestic fight is going on between people who are agitated by issues other than the general course of human history. For this reason direct intervention in one is generally the worst thing that a prudent nation can do -- not because the revolution is unimportant either ideologically or to the world balance of power but because foreign intervention, if it fails, is bound to antagonize in the most direct manner the victorious revolutionary state.”

... In 1974, he was the first person to explain in English the Japanese system of amakudari, whereby retired bureaucrats were hired by big businesses to smooth their future relations with the government that regulated them -- not unlike the revolving door in Washington that regularly spins retiring politicians and retired military officers into the arms of large American firms eager to lobby the government.

... In 1991, the Soviet Union simply disappeared and the Cold War was officially over, but as Chal quickly noted, no “peace dividend” followed. The American Raj simply sailed blissfully on as if nothing whatsoever had happened. This caught Chal’s attention, along with what he later came to call “the American empire of bases” and the full-scale garrisoning of the planet that went with it. For the rest of his life he would focus his energies on the subject of American militarism, an ever more bloated military-industrial complex, and of course the growing power of the Pentagon, which in a weird sense functioned as an American MITI.

... During the Cold War, the Soviet Union had acquired an empire but, Chal argued, so had we. After the dismantling of the Berlin Wall, Eastern Europe and many parts of the Soviet Union itself -- Ukraine, Georgia, Belarus, Kyrgystan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan -- declared their independence, while the U.S. only expanded its overseas military bases. Chal decided to call his book “Blowback” (a term of tradecraft he’d first heard at the CIA for operations so secret that when they “blew back” on the U.S., ordinary Americans had no clue as to the connection). Even in those relatively quiet years of the 1990s when American pundits and others spoke of this country as the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, or even its towering “hyperpower,” he became convinced that there would be a time of reckoning for the U.S., as there had been for the Soviet Union, and that it would not be as far off as almost everyone imagined.

... The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic was published in January 2004. At its heart lay a region by region anatomy of America’s global “baseworld” and how it worked, a subject that remained remarkably undiscussed and unanalyzed in this country. Subsequently, Chal gave many speeches and interviews in an effort to help deny George W. Bush -- “likely the single worst president in the history of the American republic” -- a second term. When Bush was reelected and the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan continued to take their human and economic toll, he became determined to write a third book in what would become The Blowback Trilogy.

This time his tone was more alarmist, while his focus was on the way an American version of military Keynesianism was failing the country. He feared that the U.S. would be simultaneously overwhelmed by related tides of militarism and bankruptcy.
(10 April 2011)
Fascinating record of the intellectual odyssey of one of America's most influential scholars on foreign affairs. -BA



Swans and Zombies: Neoliberalism's Permanent Contradiction

Joshua Clover, The Nation
It wasn’t a black swan.

The term was coined by Nassim Taleb, a former hedge-fund manager turned author of bestselling books on finance, and it served as a popular description of the 2008 financial crisis. It refers to an event of such peculiarity that it cannot be predicted or related to preceding developments. All swans are white until they aren’t. Taleb’s characterization had that charisma of the paradoxical analysis that says this can’t be analyzed. At best you can expect the unexpected.

As months have passed and molten panic has cooled to the rocky facts of a global slowdown, this idea has been quietly abandoned. There are still a few ideologues who think the crisis was caused by the Community Reinvestment Act or by a claque of particularly invidious bankers; that it was just a few ill-advised or morally dubious decisions made by lenders, borrowers or speculators sometime in the 2000s that brought the economy to a halt. It is now high time—and highly possible—to move toward a more thorough understanding, and it is in this direction that much of the thinking and writing about the crisis has been going.

In lieu of the black swan theory, the following things have become clear. The crisis wasn’t financial but economic. The supposed failure of liquidity was, in fact, insolvency; it was a long time coming; finally there was not enough actual value (as opposed to paper profits) in the circuits to sustain the economic order. This wasn’t a momentary event; we are in the fourth year of an unfolding sequence that is itself the climax of a lengthier reorientation of politics, economics and social relations commonly known as neoliberalism.

... John Quiggin’s "Zombie Economics" ... offers itself as a compendium of economic ideas from the past several decades that should have been slain by the force of overwhelming counterevidence—ideas that, nonetheless, still walk among us, neither living nor dead.

... These are the “Great Moderation,” the idea that we may live amid the gentle swells of the business cycle but have tamed excessive risk and overcome the tendency toward dizzying bubbles and disastrous busts; the “Efficient Markets Hypothesis,” which suggests the price is always right—that the market, as an aggregate of what everybody knows and intends, is itself the best information about value, and gets more perfect the more it grows and the less it is regulated; “Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium,” an array of concepts revolving around monetary mechanisms to match supply and demand, designed to mitigate inflation before unemployment; “Trickle-Down Economics,” the proposition that economic intervention should always help profit-making enterprises, said profits then purportedly flowing naturally toward wage workers and other poor people; and “Privatization,” which is more of a worldview than an idea and should by this juncture need no parenthetical gloss, being a first principle of capitalism.

... "The Crisis of Neoliberalism" [by Duménil and Lévy] confronts the same situation as Zombie Economics, and its authors surely share much of the same skepticism regarding the intellectual landscape. Amplifying the glimpses found in Quiggin, French economists Gérard Duménil and Dominique Lévy proceed from the somewhat heterodox proposition that ruling ideas arise not from their persuasive power or inner logic but from the interest of ruling groups.

... It would not be terribly unfaithful to Duménil and Lévy’s thesis to suggest that neoliberalism is less an economic system or social order than global capital’s management style for a situation of lower profits. In this sense we might recognize the birth of neoliberalism not in the ideologies of Thatcher and Reagan but in the California tax revolts of 1978: what played at being a moral jihad of suburban homeowners was simply part of an intensifying competition for a smaller pool of profits. Similarly, New York City’s 1975 brush with bankruptcy was a struggle between municipal government and Wall Street over insufficient revenues; the utter triumph of the latter was the shape of things to come.

But the seeming restoration of profit by the financial sector proved illusory. The neoliberal strategy of opening new markets to sell more widgets, and internalizing more cheap labor into the growing empire of capital, arrived both at diminishing returns and at the limits of the globe. One could say that the ’70s crisis was a wound to the economy; the following decades provided a series of wrappings, poultices and painkillers. The blowout of 2008 was akin to their sudden removal—beneath which the old wound had only deepened and abscessed. Real profit was not restored, even if the profit rate briefly danced on air; it was a temporary fix to a permanent contradiction.
(25 April 2011 edition)

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