All posts by Chris Wright

Don’t Mourn, Organize

We live in a paradoxical time. On the one hand, workers and organized labor are in their worst state since the early 1930s. Only 6.4 percent of private-sector workers belong to unions; average hourly pay is below what it was in 1973; 40 percent of adults lack the savings to pay for a $400 emergency expense. On the other hand, there is more excitement and organizing potential on the left, and among many workers, than there has been in generations. The Fight for $15 has been remarkably successful; hundreds of thousands of teachers have gone on strike illegally and won; innovative new forms of organizing are reinvigorating both labor and the left.

Steven Greenhouse, longtime labor correspondent for the New York Times, surveys this extraordinary terrain in his new book Beaten Down, Worked Up: The Past, Present, and Future of American Labor. While he doesn’t provide a detailed history of labor, he does cover some of its most dramatic moments and significant phases from the early twentieth century to the present, with a journalistic flair for personal stories often absent from academic accounts. Much of the narrative, particularly of the neoliberal attack on unions, is bleak, but in the end Greenhouse’s argument is compelling: labor’s present weakness is not engraved in stone. A renaissance is possible.

The most interesting parts of the book are those that lend support to this argument. Too few people are aware, for example, of the spectacular successes of Culinary Workers Union Local 226 of Las Vegas. “Its membership has more than tripled since the late 1980s,” Greenhouse writes, “soaring from eighteen thousand to sixty thousand today, making it one of the most powerful and fastest-growing union locals in the nation.” Dishwashers, waiters, and hotel housekeepers—immigrants, blacks, refugees—have been raised to the middle class.

The trick has been to reject the union’s old “business unionism” model and make it a rank-and-file union, starting in the 1980s. With the help of large and long-lasting strikes at casino-hotels—one lasted over six years—the Culinary forced one hotel after another to accept “card check” neutrality (meaning it would recognize the union after a majority of workers signed cards supporting it). Even the very anti-union MGM finally changed its tune, after public demonstrations were held and the union distributed reports to MGM’s investors warning them that a Culinary strike could damage the company’s precarious finances.

Other unions could also learn from the Culinary’s dedication to politically mobilizing its members. In 2016, it was decisive in switching Nevada from ‘red’ to ‘blue’: its members knocked on 350,000 doors, got thousands of people to register to vote, and brought tens of thousands of early voters to the polls. In 2018, similarly, the union was instrumental in flipping a U.S. Senate seat from red to blue, along with the governor’s mansion and two House seats.

Greenhouse is especially interested in how activists and a “militant minority” of workers have adapted to the adverse conditions of neoliberalism. In chapters on app-based work (Uber, TaskRabbit, Mechanical Turk, etc.), the Fight for $15, viciously exploited farmworkers in Florida, the teacher strikes of 2018, and “how Los Angeles became pro-labor,” he explores the novel strategies and tactics that have been used—in some cases outside the framework of any traditional union at all.

For tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, for instance, conditions have approximated slavery. In 1993, activists founded the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) to educate and entertain workers by means of leadership training sessions, a low-power radio station, weekly skits about farmwork and social justice (with the immigrants as actors), and other programs. By the mid-90s the Coalition was organizing strikes to press growers for higher pay and better working conditions. But the strategy wasn’t working.

So they switched their focus: they began to pressure tomato-buying chains like Taco Bell and later McDonald’s and Burger King. They had two demands: that these companies require their suppliers to adopt a code of conduct, and that they pay their suppliers a penny more per pound, money that would be passed on to the pickers. With the help of university and high school students, the National Council of Churches and other religious organizations, federal prosecutions of forced labor on Florida farms, and highly visible tactics like a hunger strike outside Taco Bell’s headquarters, the CIW organized a boycott of Taco Bell until the corporation would agree to its demands. In 2005, it finally did. A few years later, other companies followed.

As a result, 35,000 farmworkers have had their wages and working conditions significantly improved. A workplace-monitoring program, which experts have called the best in the U.S., ensures that violations are investigated and punished. “[T]he tomato fields in Immokalee,” one researcher says, “are [now] probably the best working environment in American agriculture.”

Such stories as these make Beaten Down, Worked Up an inspiring read. The final chapter is particularly interesting, for Greenhouse gives concrete advice on “how workers can regain their power.” Perhaps there could be a major national workers’ group comparable to AARP, called something like the American Association of Working People, to which members would pay dues and which would advocate for their interests. Activists could champion a system of worker representation on company boards, similar to Germany’s. Union leaders should be incentivized to do more organizing. If the federal government won’t act, states could implement new laws Greenhouse outlines.

Readers familiar with labor history and the recent corporate attacks on unions might find the book’s treatment of these subjects a little superficial, but Greenhouse’s purpose, in any case, is to contribute practically to the struggle for workers’ rights. And at this he will surely succeed admirably.

Capitalism, Socialism, and Existential Despair

Decades ago, Edward Said remarked that contemporary life is characterized by a “generalized condition of homelessness.” Decades earlier, Martin Heidegger had written that “Homelessness is coming to be the destiny of the world.” Around the same time, fascists were invoking the themes of blood and soil, nation, race, community, as intoxicating antidotes to the mass anonymity and depersonalization of modern life. Twenty or thirty years later, the New Left, in its Port Huron Statement, lamented the corruption and degradation of such values as love, freedom, creativity, and community:

Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets, but only when a love of man overcomes the idolatrous worship of things by man…

Over a hundred years earlier, Karl Marx had already understood it was capitalism that was responsible for all this collective anguish. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations…are swept away,” he wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned…” Home, community, the family, one’s very relation to oneself—all are mediated by money, the commodity function, “reification,” exploitation of one form or another.

And now here we are in 2019, when the alienation and atomization have reached such a state that it seems as if the world is in danger of ending. The phenomenology, the “structure of feeling,” of living in this society is that everything is transient and “up in the air,” human survival is in question, a hectored, bureaucratized anonymity chases us from morning till night, nothing really matters, no one gets their just deserts. Young people are refraining from having children. There is certainly no collective sense of belonging—that’s long gone. We’re les étrangers, passively consuming distractions as we wait for the other shoe to drop.

Meanwhile, we read of little else but agonized suffering, from children in cages to rainforests burning, from opioid epidemics to rampaging neofascists.

The case for socialism is usually made, rightly, from the perspective of its justice. It would be just to have economic and social democracy, for one thing because it is intrinsically right that people not be forced to rent themselves to a business owner who exploits them for profit but instead that they collectively control economic activities and distribute rewards as they see fit. Moreover, economic democracy, whether in the form of worker cooperatives or democratic government control, would essentially make impossible the extreme income inequality that corrodes political democracy and ultimately unravels the social fabric.

But it’s also worth broadcasting the message that even from an existentialist point of view, our only hope is socialism. Certain types of conservatives like to complain about the demise of the family, the community, non-hedonistic interpersonal ties, and the sense of meaning in our lives, a demise for which they blame such nebulous phenomena as secularism, “humanism,” communism, and liberalism. That is, everything except what really matters: capitalism, the reduction of multifaceted life to the monomaniacal pursuit of profit, property, and power. So these conservatives end up in the realm of fascism or neofascism, which promises only to complete the destruction of family and community.

The truth is that only socialism, or an economically democratic society in which there is no capitalist class, could possibly usher in a world in which the existentialist howl of Albert Camus and JP Sartre didn’t have universal resonance. Mass loneliness, “homelessness,” and the gnawing sense of meaninglessness are not timeless conditions; they’re predictable expressions of a commoditized, privatized, bureaucratized civilization. Do away with the agent of enforced commoditization, privatization, and hyper-bureaucratization-for-the-sake-of-social-control—i.e., the capitalist class—and you’ll do away with the despair that arises from these things.

It’s true that the current suicide epidemic in the U.S. and the mental illness epidemic around the world have more specific causes than simply “capitalism.” They have to do with high unemployment, deindustrialization, underfunded hospitals and community outreach programs, job-related stress, social isolation, etc. In other words, they have to do with the particularly vicious and virulent forms that capitalism takes in the neoliberal period. But long before this period, widespread disaffection and mental illness characterized capitalist society.

Now, in light of global warming and ecological destruction, it’s possible that humanity won’t last much longer anyway, in which case capitalism will never be overcome and our collective existential anguish is perfectly appropriate. But nothing is certain at this point. Except that we have a moral imperative to do all we can to fight for socialism. It is what justice demands, and it offers the only hope that even we privileged people—not to mention the less privileged majority—can know what it is to truly have a home.

Political Correctness Is Getting Out of Hand

On June 28, the New York Times published an article by Bari Weiss that wasn’t moronic.

Titled “San Francisco Will Spend $600,000 to Erase History,” it was about the school board’s unanimous decision to destroy a New Deal-era mural by the famous Communist painter Victor Arnautoff that’s painted on the walls of a local high school. Called “Life of Washington,” the mural depicts Washington’s slaves picking cotton at Mount Vernon as a group of colonizers walks past a dead Native American. The painting is clearly meant to oppose the sanitized versions of American history that are taught in most schools.

So you’d think “progressives” would support it. Instead, some of them, at least, find it so offensive they want it gone. “A grave mistake was made 80 years ago to paint a mural at a school without Native American or African-American input,” the school board’s vice president told Weiss. “For impressionable young people who attend school to have any representation that diminishes people, specifically students from communities that have already been diminished, it’s an aggressive thing. It’s hurtful and I don’t think our students need to bear that burden.”

It seems that most students object to the mural’s removal, though a number of community members support the board’s decision. “We know our history already,” a recent high school graduate and member of the Tohono O’odham tribe said. “Our students don’t need to see it every single time they walk into a public school.”

Predictably, Weiss’s article confines itself to admonishing liberals and leftists for being “un-American” snowflakes, failing to point out that conservatives are typically far more eager to censor than the left is. Bashing hyper-sensitive leftists seems to be Weiss’s favorite activity, aside from hyper-sensitively complaining about supposed instances of anti-Semitism that are usually nothing more than criticisms of Israel’s horrifying militarism and near-genocidal policies towards Palestinians. (I didn’t see her write a column bewailing what a “snowflake” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was for advocating the destruction of an “anti-Semitic” mural in L.A. that depicts Israel as the Grim Reaper.)

But leaving aside Weiss, who’s nothing but a vulgar propagandist, her column does raise an important issue. Censorship, the destruction of art, and the sanitizing of history are appropriate agendas for reactionaries and establishment-types like Weiss; progressives and radicals should certainly oppose them. And yet, in the age of “political correctness,” there’s a disturbing tendency for those on the left to adopt the repressive tactics of their enemies.

Whether on social media, on university campuses, or in cultural spaces of whatever sort, people are shunned, shamed, and silenced for not adhering wholeheartedly to a party line. A whiff of dissent brings down the wrath of the mob; a statement or an image that someone, somewhere, might find hurtful is enough to end your career or ruin your life. Magazine editors are fired for defending “cultural appropriation,” as in 2017 when an editor in Canada lost his job for the crime of defending the right of white authors to create characters from other backgrounds. Safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggression reporting systems, call-out culture, and other such devices become ever more ubiquitous, threatening to neuter culture and intimidate even fellow leftists into silence.

In the end, all this excess reaches truly farcical extremes: political correctness eats itself, as a wonderful old mural that tells a people’s history of the United States is destroyed for being “degrading.” A paradigm of identity politics that celebrates and weaponizes victimhood brings forth practitioners who claim they’re being victimized by having to be reminded of their history as victims. In the name of “empowerment,” they want to whitewash a mural whose existence is a blow against whitewashed history, which is the very thing to which identity politics indignantly objects. Political correctness chokes on itself and coughs up self-refuting paradoxes.

In this grotesque autosarcophagy we see the reductio ad absurdum of this whole mode of aggressive liberalism: it becomes a kind of void, a black hole of infinitely dense inhumanity, the postmodern left’s version of cultural totalitarianism. It becomes kitsch, virtually without content except to prevent members of “vulnerable” groups from ever feeling the slightest pang of discomfort. That’s the universal standard, the standard of acceptable art, acceptable speech, acceptable politics, and acceptable thought. And if you stray outside the bounds of acceptable thought, we’ll “cancel” you, hopefully most aspects of your identity: career, social life, public life, especially internet life, since the beautiful anonymity and atomization of the internet are what allow us to besiege you and call out your transgressions against orthodoxy. Ultimately it isn’t permitted—or at least it’s testing our good will—even to state manifest truths, such as that men on average are taller and physically stronger than women, or that, e.g., women tend to be attracted to male dominance (e.g., men taller than they) and the dominant male. No such truths we consider insulting to “marginalized” people can be acknowledged.

Now, as I said, these totalitarian trends are only the reductio ad absurdum of political correctness, and do not invalidate the entire phenomenon known as PC culture. Historically, this multicultural politics that emerged from the radical movements of the 1960s and ’70s has had very constructive effects on society. It has been integrally tied to the collective recognition of real history, the history of Native Americans, African-Americans, immigrants, women, and European colonialism. In educational curricula, it has effectively challenged the supremacy of the Western canon of white male writers, such that students now encounter voices from many different cultures and traditions.

Feminism has raised consciousness to a far more civilized level than in the 1960s, when Betty Friedan could write about “the feminine mystique” that dehumanized women. The MeToo moment is just the latest front in a long war to advance women’s rights. Similarly, we have identity politics to thank for the historic victories of the gay rights movement, which have at long last made homophobia disreputable.

Even the much-derided concept of “microaggressions” denotes a real situation that minorities and women face. Nathan Robinson of Current Affairs gives examples. When a female physician wearing a stethoscope is repeatedly mistaken for a nurse, that surely gets irritating and can be seen as offensive. When a white woman clutches her purse as a black or Hispanic man approaches, that’s a racist microaggression. A particularly egregious example is the time when a black student asked her academic advisor for information about majoring in biology and, “without being asked about her academic record (which was excellent), was casually directed to ‘look up less-challenging courses in African American Studies instead.’” Whatever the Supreme Court thinks, the U.S. is still saturated with racism, and unconscious racism is constantly revealing itself in trivial interactions in every social context.

Identity politics and political correctness are far from being the unmitigated evils Donald Trump and Bill Maher apparently think they are. And it’s true that in popular movements, excess is inevitable. From the French Revolution to the New Left—and now to the new New Left—popular enthusiasm has been apt to get out of control and become absurd and even violent (as with Antifa). But that doesn’t mean the excess shouldn’t be fought when it becomes truly damaging. When a mode of politics starts to ruin the lives of innocent people, discourage independent and honest thinking, and advocate the destruction of valuable works of art, it’s time to rein it in.

One of the most striking features of the extreme fringe of political correctness—a fringe that seems to dominate culture more and more—is one of the least talked about: often, it is just a sublimation of the very conditions of neoliberal capitalism that leftists hate. Interpersonal atomization and alienation, gleeful cruelty, schadenfreude run amok, censorship and suppression of dissent, a universal leveling that valorizes groupthink as the highest virtue, and surveillance of daily life and every interaction: these tendencies of late capitalism are somehow refracted into left-wing forms and concerns. The mechanism, actually, of this ironic ‘refraction’ is probably quite simple: society has become so inhuman and depersonalized, so bureaucratized and anonymized, that people all across the political spectrum—not only leftists—are made pettier, more insecure, sensitive to perceived slights, and mean-spirited (especially online).

We see the “Other” as oppressing us—however each of us defines the Other—and we lash out to punish it or those who we think manifest it at any given moment. This punitive mentality at least gives us little malicious pleasures that partly compensate for the indignities we’re constantly suffering.

But while it might be understandable, it’s hardly appropriate for people on the left to be so corrupted by the anti-humanism of a fragmented and paranoid capitalist society. From Karl Marx to Eugene Debs, from A. J. Muste to Noam Chomsky, the left has devoted itself to far more elevated causes than vindictively shaming people for, e.g., using the word fútbol despite not being Hispanic, or quietly telling a “sexist” joke to a friend within earshot of a woman who doesn’t like such jokes, or in general policing the world so that every space is “safe” and people are never uncomfortable. Some such policing, within reason, can be productive and important: people should be educated, to the extent possible, out of their unconscious biases and prejudices. But those who identify with the left should also identify with the tradition’s compassion and self-critical inclinations. Perhaps a little less puritanism is called for, and a little more understanding that even good people are imperfect and have lapses. And that no one, including the most eager shamer, is perfect.

Indeed, I’m tempted to say that the hyper-moralistic mindset doesn’t belong to the left at all. Its demand for purity is uncomfortably close to the puritan obsessions of the religious right, so vigilantly attuned to the merest indication of atheism, sex, homosexuality, coarse language, and humanism. At best, leftist puritanism represents an attenuated, enervated, decadent left, a strain of the left that has lost its love of people and become thin and narrow as a reed. Brittle, misanthropic, crabbed, ungenerous, ultra-judgmental, whiny, sickly—these are the words that come to mind to describe such a “left.”

How different from the humanism, compassion, and spiritual capaciousness of a Debs or a Chomsky!

The destruction of a left-wing mural for being “hurtful” may seem like a pretty minor affair, and compared to the catastrophes occurring every day all over the world, it is. But if the cultural tendencies that have eventuated in this crime against art are not checked, we’ll continue to see more such crimes, and not only against art. Against people, too, people who don’t deserve to be publicly shamed or ruined. The left should take care lest it lose its humanity and adopt the censorship-fetish of the fascist right.

Renewable Energy Is Not the Answer; Nuclear Is

“It’s always a good idea to start by asking about the facts.” So advises Noam Chomsky. “Whenever you hear anything said very confidently, the first thing that should come to mind is, ‘Wait a minute, is that true?’” De omnibus dubitandum—doubt everything—was Karl Marx’s motto and should be the motto of every thinking person. Question even or especially what the tribe most takes for granted.

In the era of climate change, when fossil fuels are known to be driving civilization straight into the ocean, the idea that liberal and left-wing tribes take most for granted is “Renewable energy!” It is shouted confidently from every public perch. Renewable energy, scaled up to replace fossil fuels and even nuclear, is declared the only possible salvation for humanity. It has such obvious advantages over every other energy source that the world has to go 100% renewables ASAP.

Obviously!

But wait a minute—is that true?

Let’s try to shed the religious thinking, look objectively at the facts, and come to a conclusion about this most important of subjects: how to power the future and hopefully save the world.

Renewable energy emits greenhouse gases

First, consider the claim that renewable energy has no carbon emissions. This is true, in a sense, for wind and solar farms (as it is for nuclear energy), which in themselves emit virtually no greenhouse gases. It isn’t true for hydropower, however, which in 2016 produced 71% of all electricity generated by renewable sources. According to one study, hydroelectric dams worldwide emit as much methane (a potent greenhouse gas) as Canada, from decaying vegetation and nutrient runoff. Another study concluded they produce even more carbon dioxide than methane.

“These are massive emissions,” one expert comments. “There are a massive number of dams that are currently proposed to be built. It would be a grave mistake to continue to finance those with the impression that they were part of the solution to the climate crisis.”

And yet in every scenario projected by renewables advocates, hydropower is absolutely essential. For instance, Stanford Professor Mark Jacobson’s famous—and deeply flawed—proposal to run the U.S. on 100% renewables by 2050 assumes the country’s dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity, over 16 times their current capacity of 80 gigawatts. (According to the U.S. Department of Energy, the maximum capacity that could be added is only 12 gigawatts, 1,288 gigawatts short of Jacobson’s assumption.)

The International Energy Agency projects that by 2023, wind and solar together will satisfy a mere 10% of global electricity demand, while hydroelectric power will satisfy 16%. Nearly all the rest will be produced by fossil fuels and nuclear energy.

Burning biomass, too, which is a renewable energy source, releases large amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. “It does exactly the opposite of what we need to do: reduce emissions,” says an expert in forest science and management.

Even leaving aside hydropower and biomass, the use of wind and solar dramatically increases greenhouse gas emissions compared to nuclear energy. This is because, given the intermittency and the diluted nature of solar and wind energy, a backup source of power is needed, and that source is natural gas. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., a guru of the renewables movement, himself acknowledges this fact:

We need about 3,000 feet of altitude, we need flat land, we need 300 days of sunlight, and we need to be near a gas pipe. Because for all of these big utility-scale solar plants—whether it’s wind or solar—everybody is looking at gas as the supplementary fuel. The plants that we’re building, the wind plants and the solar plants, are gas plants.

The burning of natural gas; i.e., methane, emits about half as much carbon dioxide as the burning of coal. So natural gas is better than coal, but not nearly good enough if we want to solve climate change. Even worse, many millions of tons of unburned methane are leaked every year from the American oil and gas industry—and methane is more than 80 times as potent a greenhouse gas as carbon dioxide. So these leaks cancel out much of the environmental good that wind and solar farms are supposedly doing.

In other words, the fact that wind and solar farms typically operate far below their capacity (because of seasonal changes and the unreliability of weather) necessitates that a more reliable power source “supplement” them. In fact, as researchers Mike Conley and Tim Maloney point out, strictly speaking it is the renewable source that acts as a supplement for the oil or natural gas plants linked to the renewables. A solar farm with a capacity of one gigawatt, for instance, will on average operate at only about 20% of its capacity, which means that if a gigawatt of energy is really to be produced, the majority will have to be provided by the “backup” fossil fuel plant(s).

The upshot is that an anti-nuclear and pro-renewables policy means an increase in greenhouse gas emissions.

California is a good example. Like other states in the U.S and countries in the Western world, it has been closing its nuclear power plants—despite their safety, reliability, effectiveness, and environmental friendliness. The carbon-free nuclear plants have been replaced with renewables + natural gas, which is to say, they’ve been replaced mostly with natural gas (prone to methane leaks). After it closed the San Onofre nuclear plant in 2013, California missed its CO2 emissions targets as a result.

In New England, after the premature closing of the nuclear power plant Vermont Yankee in 2014, CO2 emission rates rose across New England, reversing a decade of declines. When Massachusetts’ last remaining nuclear plant, Pilgrim, closed last month, much more electricity generation was lost than the state generates with all its solar, wind, and hydropower combined. Several new fossil fuel plants and a couple of small solar and wind farms will take the place of Pilgrim, increasing carbon dioxide emissions.

In their new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, Joshua Goldstein and Staffan Qvist give other examples. Between 1970 and 1990, due to its construction of nuclear power plants, Sweden was able to cut its carbon emissions by half even as its electricity consumption more than doubled. Germany, by contrast, emits about twice as much carbon pollution per person as Sweden despite using one-third less energy per person, because it has chosen to phase out its nuclear power while introducing renewables.

This means that Germany has simply substituted one (relatively) clean energy source for another, while doing virtually nothing to decarbonize. Its energy production remains dominated by coal, and greenhouse gas emissions are around a billion tons a year.

A more sensible policy would have been to build more nuclear plants and phase out coal. Or at least to let the existing nuclear plants continue to operate while adding renewables, which then would have displaced coal.

ExxonMobil likes renewable energy

The fact that renewable energy directly and indirectly causes far more greenhouse gas emissions than nuclear should already tell us it isn’t a solution to climate change.

Indeed, the willingness of the oil and gas industry in recent years to promote and invest in renewables is itself significant. Over the last three years, the five largest publicly traded oil and gas companies have invested over a billion dollars in advertising and lobbying for renewables. “Natural gas is the perfect partner for renewables,” ads say. “See why #natgas is a natural partner for renewable power sources,” Shell tweets.

By pretending to care about the environment, these companies not only burnish their reputations but also are able to associate natural gas with clean energy, which it very much is not. The formula “renewables + natural gas” thus serves a dual purpose. In fact, it serves a triple purpose: it also distracts from nuclear power, which, unlike renewables, is an immediately viable alternative to oil and gas.

Nuclear power, not renewable energy, is what the fossil fuel industry really fears. The reason is simple: the energy in nuclear fuel is orders of magnitude more concentrated than the energy in oil, gas, coal, and every other source. (Which is why nuclear reactors produce vastly less waste than everything from coal to solar.) If governments invested in a global Nuclear New Deal, so to speak, they could make fossil fuels largely obsolete within a couple of decades. Not even Mark Jacobson’s wildly unrealistic $15-20 trillion 100% renewables plan envisions such a fast transition.

Because of the diffuse and intermittent nature of wind and solar energy, all the world’s investment in renewables didn’t prevent the share of low-carbon power in generating electricity from declining between 1995 and 2017. Western countries’ shuttering of nuclear power plants in these decades was a disaster for the environment.

Another way to appreciate the disaster is to consider that global carbon emissions are actually rising, even as the world spent roughly $2 trillion on wind and solar between 2007 and 2016. (This is similar to the amount spent on nuclear in the past 55 years.) So much for the gospel of renewable energy!

Meanwhile, the fossil fuel industry has been smiling on the sidelines, giving millions of dollars to groups like the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund, and many others that work to kill nuclear power and thus exacerbate climate change. (Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth are particularly active in the war on nuclear—and they refuse to disclose their donors. Could it be because they receive an unseemly amount from oil and gas companies?)

We have eleven years

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2018 special report, we have eleven years left to avoid potentially irreversible climate disruption.

António Guterres, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, has called on global leaders to “demonstrate how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45 per cent over the next decade and achieve net zero global emissions by 2050.” They’re supposed to meet in New York in September 2019 to answer this call.

The only conceivable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the scale called for is to aggressively embrace nuclear power. It is cost-competitive with all other forms of electricity generation except natural gas—although if you take into account the long-term environmental costs of using natural gas (or oil or even renewables), nuclear is probably the cheapest of all.

A worldwide rollout of nuclear power plants on the scale necessary to save civilization would certainly take longer than eleven years, but we can at least make substantial progress by then. If, that is, we pressure our governments to stop subsidizing oil, natural gas, and the renewables they go hand-in-hand with and instead massively invest in nuclear.

It’s time to stop doing the bidding of fossil fuel interests and get serious about saving the world.

It’s Time to Embrace Nuclear Energy

It is a tragic irony of the contemporary environmentalist movement that in its opposition to nuclear energy, it is doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry and increasing the likelihood of climate apocalypse. This is the inescapable implication of the new book A Bright Future: How Some Countries Have Solved Climate Change and the Rest Can Follow, by Joshua S. Goldstein and Staffan A. Qvist. The anti-nuclear stance to which Green Parties, for example, are so fervently committed may seem enlightened, but, in fact, it is dangerous and destructive. What an informed environmentalist movement would demand above all is a rapid and globally coordinated acceleration of nuclear power plant construction, ideally at a rate of 500 or even 750 new reactors a year. This would set us on track to completely eliminate fossil fuels from the world’s electricity generation within a couple of decades, as well as displacing coal as a heat source for buildings and industrial use. We would be well on the way to making the planet livable for our descendants.

A Bright Future is hardly the only recent book to make the case for nuclear power. Others include Gwyneth Cravens’ Power to Save the World: The Truth About Nuclear Energy, Charles D. Ferguson’s Nuclear Energy: What Everyone Needs to Know, and Scott L. Montgomery and Thomas Graham Jr.’s Seeing the Light: The Case for Nuclear Power in the 21st Century. What these and other books make clear is that the “green” shibboleths about nuclear energy’s being dangerous, polluting, proliferation-prone, wasteful, vulnerable to terrorist attack, and excessively expensive are vastly overstated. The truth is closer to the opposite—although in the United States, because of the byzantine regulatory environment and the multiplicity (rather than standardization) of reactor designs built and operated by private companies, the economic costs of building a reactor are indeed very high.

The advantages of nuclear power

A Bright Future is framed by two contrasting stories: that of Sweden and that of Germany. From 1970 to 1990, due to its construction of nuclear power plants, Sweden was able to cut its carbon emissions by half even as its economy expanded and its electricity generation more than doubled. Germany has taken a different path, which has led to its emitting about twice as much carbon pollution per person as Sweden despite using one-third less energy per person and having approximately the same per capita GDP.

What Germany has done is to install large capacities of renewables, mostly wind and solar power, such that by 2016 they made up more than a quarter of electricity production and 15 percent of total energy production. At the same time, however, Germany cut nuclear power by roughly an equivalent amount, which means it only substituted one carbon-free source for another. CO2 emissions have hardly decreased at all, in fact, going up slightly in recent years. German energy remains dominated by coal, and greenhouse gas emissions remain around a billion tons a year.

Decades of anti-nuclear propaganda have colored public attitudes in the West, but, as Goldstein and Qvist explain, nuclear energy has many advantages. For one thing, like renewable sources, it produces no carbon emissions (although over its entire life-cycle, from mining materials to decommissioning the plants, there are some emissions—as with renewables). Unlike solar and wind but like coal, it provides baseload power, which is to say it reliably and cheaply generates energy around the clock to satisfy the average electricity demand. Renewable sources can be more flexibly deployed to match changes in demand, so they have an important role to play during periods of peak energy use, but they also tend to be intermittent and unreliable, unlike nuclear.

Goldstein and Qvist give abundant evidence for the latter claim. “As a rule of thumb,” they note, “nuclear power produces at 80–90 percent of capacity on average over the year, coal at around 50–60 percent, and solar cells around 20 percent.” In 2013, Europe saw an entire month in which solar produced at only 3 percent of capacity because of the lack of sunshine. Wind is somewhat more reliable than sunlight: at a massive 2,700-acre wind farm in Romania, for example, which has 240 wind turbines each as tall as a fifty-story skyscraper, production in 2013 was a little less than 25 percent of capacity. And the total capacity of this enormous wind farm was 600 megawatts, a fraction of a large nuclear power plant.

In fact, the amount of space and material needed for a solar or wind farm to produce as much energy as a large nuclear plant is mind-boggling. Take the example of Ringhals, a plant in Sweden. On just 150 acres it can produce up to 4 gigawatts of electricity, 24/7. A wind farm that was to produce as much energy would require three times the power capacity because wind is so variable. That is, it would require about 2,500 wind turbines 650 feet high, spread over 400 square miles. And its energy production would be intermittent, sometimes much higher than demand and sometimes much lower.

A solar farm equivalent to Ringhals would need a capacity of at least 20 gigawatts and would cover 40 to 100 square miles. “Imagine driving down a highway at 65 mph, with solar cells stretched out for a mile to the right of you and a mile to the left. It would take you about half an hour before you got to the end of the solar farm.”

Think of the environmental (and aesthetic) costs of building scores of such immense wind and solar farms to replace both coal and nuclear.

Waste and safety

Another advantage of nuclear energy is how little waste it produces. Public fears about radioactive waste are absurdly disproportionate to the reality. In the United States, “the entire volume of spent fuel from fifty years of nuclear power—a source that produces one-fifth of U.S. electricity—could be packed into a football stadium, piled twenty feet high.” Spent fuel rods can be safely stored in water for several years, becoming less radioactive, and then transferred to dry storage in concrete casks that contain the radiation. They can remain in these casks for over a hundred years. Longer-term storage, for hundreds of thousands of years, can involve burying material deep underground, as the U.S. military does for its waste from nuclear weapons.

To rebut the concerns about radioactive waste, it surely suffices to point out that spent fuel has been stored around the world for almost 70 years with apparently no adverse health effects at all.

Other energy sources produce waste as well. When the life of solar cells is over after twenty-five years, their waste remains toxic for many decades and requires special handling for disposal. Coal waste, both solid and airborne, is not only orders of magnitude more voluminous than nuclear waste—as is true of solar waste, too—but is also toxic for centuries, and contains radioactive elements. Goldstein and Qvist observe, in fact, that if you live next to a coal plant you’ll get a higher dose of radiation than if you live next to a nuclear power plant. (Humans are continually exposed to small doses of radiation that have zero or negligible health effects.)

In general, nuclear power is incredibly safe. Three famous nuclear accidents have occurred: Three Mile Island in 1979, which had no health effects because of the containment structure that surrounded the partially melted core; Chernobyl in 1986, which caused a few dozen deaths in the short term (though possibly 4,000 in the long term, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency) and was the product of terrible reactor design, terrible on-site errors by operators, and terrible bureaucratic incompetence and secretiveness by the Soviet government; and Fukushima in 2011, which caused no deaths from radiation exposure. (The authors investigate this question in depth and conclude that, on the worst possible assumptions, several people might eventually get cancer because of the accident.)

How does this record stack up against other energy sources? Coal kills at least a million people every year from particulate emissions that lead to cancer and other diseases. It also has a terrible safety record, including toxic wastes that are usually located near poor communities and coal-mining accidents that still happen multiple times a year around the world.

Methane, or natural gas, not only emits about half as much carbon dioxide as coal but also is liable to explode from time to time, killing anywhere from several people to hundreds (as when 300 children were killed in an explosion at a Texas school in 1937). And fracking, to extract oil or gas, has negative impacts on public health and the environment.

Oil, too, is less safe than nuclear (leaving aside Soviet incompetence). It spills and it blows up, as with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, and oil trains can derail and explode, as happened in Canada in 2013, when 47 people were killed.

Hydroelectric dams are not at all safe. If a dam fails, thousands of people downstream can die. In Banquiao, China in 1975, for example, 170,000 people died when a dam burst. Dam failures have killed thousands in the U.S.; just in 2017, crises in California and Puerto Rico forced the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of people.

Imagine if nuclear energy had a record remotely comparable to coal or hydropower! Worldwide, the whole industry probably would have been shut down long ago.

An uncertain future

A Bright Future is far too rich to do justice to in a single article, but Goldstein and Qvist also address the issues of possible terrorist attacks on power plants and, in more depth, nuclear proliferation. Regarding the latter, the record over the decades since nuclear technology was developed is reassuring, due in large part to the very effective IAEA and the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

But even if nuclear energy weren’t as remarkably safe as it is, we should ask ourselves if it would still be worth including as a major part of a “diversified portfolio” of clean energy. Why are we willing to tolerate so many deaths and risks from coal, oil, hydropower, and natural gas while demanding none from nuclear? (And even then, nuclear has a bad reputation!) Even if a fatal accident occurred from nuclear power every year or every few years, might that not be an acceptable cost if the benefit were a massive mitigation of climate change? We accept risks in every other sphere of life, as when driving cars, living near seismic fault lines, riding airplanes, etc. It’s odd that we rail against nuclear energy because it isn’t 100 percent risk-free.

The simple fact is that we can’t solve climate change without accelerating the construction of nuclear power plants. Since the energy in nuclear fuel is millions of times more concentrated than wind or solar power, nuclear power can “scale up” much faster than renewables. “What the world already knows how to do in ten to twenty years using nuclear power,” the authors write, “would take more than a century using renewables alone.”

And yet in the U.S., reverse action is being taken. Nuclear power plants are being shut down prematurely for political reasons, as in Vermont, California, and Massachusetts, and producers are often abandoning plans to build new plants after facing endless litigation, regulation, opposition from anti-nuclear groups, and competition from cheap and highly subsidized fossil fuels. When a plant is shut down, what that means, first, is that renewables that are introduced afterwards are not contributing to decarbonization but are simply replacing a clean (and far more powerful) energy source. Second, fossil fuels have to fill most of the gap, which causes a rise in carbon emissions.

For example, after the Vermont Yankee nuclear power plant closed in 2014, carbon dioxide emission rates rose across New England, reversing a decade of declines. When Massachusetts’ last remaining nuclear power plant, Pilgrim, closed last month, much more electricity generation was lost than the state generates with all its solar, wind, and hydropower combined. Several new fossil fuel plants will mainly take the place of Pilgrim.

Thus, Greenpeace and other anti-nuclear groups with money and political clout can congratulate themselves on exacerbating climate change.

Globally there are bright spots for nuclear energy, mostly in the developing world. Goldstein and Qvist discuss this topic in detail, placing some hope in Russia, China, and India, which are much friendlier to nuclear power than the U.S. They also devote a chapter to “next-generation technologies” that are being developed, such as thorium reactors, which have advantages over uranium, and fusion, which has advantages over fission.

But despite these (and other) bright spots, and despite the book’s overall optimism, after I had finished reading I couldn’t help feeling very, very worried about the future. We know how to address climate change. But the vast funds of the fossil fuel industry and the anti-nuclear movement, together with mass ignorance, may yet doom us in the long run. We have, it seems, a decade or two to wake up and demand government action.

Renewables, yes. But even more important: nuclear power.

The Jacobin Vision of Social Democracy Won’t Save Us

The title of Bhaskar Sunkara’s new book is both bold and smart, from a marketing perspective at least. It’s eye-catching in its reference to The Communist Manifesto. I’m actually a little surprised that apparently no previous book has had that title, since it seems so obvious. The reason may be that other writers have been more humble than Sunkara, and less willing to elicit inevitable comparisons between their work and Marx’s. For no writer, and certainly not Sunkara, will fare well under such a comparison.

But I don’t want to be too harsh on the founder of Jacobin, whose magazine has (whatever one thinks of its particular political line) performed useful services for the American left. Sunkara is not a deep or original thinker, but he’s an effective popularizer—and in an age of mass ignorance, there’s much to be said for popularizations. The book is written for the uninitiated, and if it succeeds in piquing young readers’ interest in socialism, then it has served its purpose.

The title is a misnomer, however, for the book is no manifesto. It is essentially a critical history of socialism with a couple of chapters at the beginning and the end on the present and possible future of the left. The scope is ambitious: it ranges over the German Social Democratic Party up to World War I, the triumphs and tragedies of Leninism and Stalinism in Russia, Swedish social democracy, the record of “socialism” in China and the Third World, and the history of socialists in the U.S., in the process touching on the Labour Party in Britain, the Popular Front period in France, the impact of neoliberalism on the working class, and other subjects. It also has a chapter on fifteen lessons to be gleaned from the history, as well as a whimsical, speculative chapter (the first one) on what it might be like to live in a socialist society and what the transition from a social democratic to a socialist society might look like. Sunkara’s interpretations and ideas come from respectable scholars such as Michael Harrington, Vivek Chibber, and David Schweickart, in addition to younger writers for Jacobin.

Through most of the book, the arguments are anchored in sturdy common sense, however much one might contest a point or emphasis here and there. On “Third World socialism,” for example, whether in China or Africa or the Americas, Sunkara is right that it turned Marxism on its head, so to speak: “revolutionaries embraced socialism as a path to modernity and national liberation. Adapting a theory that was built around advanced capitalism and an industrial proletariat, they struggled to find ‘substitute proletariats’—from peasants to junior military officers to deprived underclasses—to achieve these ends.” None of it was socialism in the Marxist sense, as coming from the breakdown (literal or not) of capitalism and signifying the liberation of humanity from alienated and exploitative production. It was a “socialism” subordinated to nationalistic ends.

As for social democracy, Sunkara is clearly right that it always faces a “structural dilemma,” in that it exists within capitalism and depends on capitalist profitability. Historically it was safe only as long as there was an expanding economy. “Expansion gave succor to both the working class and capital. When growth slowed [in the 1970s] and the demands of workers made deeper inroads into firm profits, business owners rebelled against the class compromise.” The era of neoliberalism began.

Sunkara’s conclusion to his survey of twentieth-century socialism is appropriate: “The best we can say about socialism in the twentieth century is that it was a false start.” Personally, I would even argue (and have, in Worker Cooperatives and Revolution) that attempts to introduce socialism—which is to say workers’ democratic control of production—exclusively through the bureaucratic initiative of the state, in an international economic environment still completely dominated by the dynamics and the hierarchies of corporate capitalism, were always misconceived. If a transition to genuine socialism ever happens, it will necessarily take generations, generations of struggle around the world directed at everything from the interstitial construction of solidarity economies to the mobilization of millions on behalf of radical political parties.

What Sunkara envisions is that a new kind of “class-struggle social democracy,” of the sort that Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders advocate, may be achieved after years of popular struggle. But rather than being content with this achievement and possibly letting it be undermined by the capitalist class, as happened to classical social democracy, socialists have to keep pressing for more radical transformations, such as expansion of the cooperative or publicly-owned sector of the economy.

Democratic socialists must secure decisive majorities in legislatures while winning hegemony in the unions. Then our organizations must be willing to flex their social power in the form of mass mobilizations and political strikes to counter the structural power of capital and ensure that our leaders choose confrontation over accommodations with elites.

Eventually, this new social democracy will evolve into socialism, as the state and/or workers take over ownership and control of the remaining private firms.

Sunkara fleshes out these predictions a bit in his first chapter, but I think some skepticism is in order. Social democracy was appropriate to an era of industrial unionism and relatively limited mobility of capital. In a “globalized” age, it’s hard to see how social democracy can simply be reconstructed—in a more radical form, even, than before. History doesn’t work in this way, in which previous social formations are resurrected after they have succumbed to the universal solvent of capitalism. We can’t just return to conditions that no longer exist. That is a key lesson of Marxism itself.

In the U.S., to enact Medicare for All, safe and secure housing for all, free child care, decent public education at all levels, and other reforms Sunkara mentions would require, as he says, that socialists have strong legislative majorities. Given the power of the capitalist class, I don’t see this happening, at least not in the next twenty or thirty years. It took reactionaries decades of organization to achieve their current power—and they had enormous resources and existed in a broadly sympathetic political economy. It’s hard to imagine that socialists will have better luck.

Predicting the future isn’t exactly easy, especially not at this moment when humanity is poised on a precipice overlooking climate change, mass extinction of flora and fauna, economic crisis, complete political dysfunction, and general social breakdown. But my own prognosis would be more pessimistic than Sunkara’s. Neoliberalism has brought to its consummation the fracturing and atomizing of civil society that capitalism has entailed. The nation-state system itself seems in danger of decaying from within, from social crisis. There is no return of vitality and integration on the horizon. There is only a long period of crisis, a period of political flailing and confrontation, of stagnation and polarization, a period that will see lots of little left-wing victories and lots of defeats but few epochal triumphs. (If Sanders or Corbyn achieve power, for example, they will face a business community determined to destroy them.)

Whatever will be happening at the level of the national state, on smaller scales initiatives in the solidarity economy will be spreading around the nation and around the world, from people’s sheer necessity to survive. Activists will be pressing for changes in state policy to facilitate the growth of this non-capitalist economy, and states will be increasingly forthcoming if only because such local and decentralized projects are seen as relatively unthreatening to capitalist power. As left-wing parties acquire more influence, they will press for the expansion of this cooperative sector of the economy—along with other policies that are more directly and immediately threatening to capitalism. The reactionaries can’t control everything forever (otherwise society would completely collapse), and the left will begin to have more political victories to approximately the degree that a cooperative sector invested in the left grows. As repeated economic crises will be destroying huge amounts of wealth and thinning the ranks of the capitalist hyper-elite, a new society and economy will gradually emerge in the womb of the old regime.

In my above-mentioned book I argue that this scenario, which will unfold over many decades, is the only truly Marxist or materialist conception of socialist revolution, notwithstanding most Marxists’ hostility to any conception hinting of “gradual change.” The Jacobin social democratic scenario is naïve and ahistorical.

Nevertheless, Sunkara’s book is of value. Little in it will be new to long-time leftists, but American political culture could certainly use more popularizations like The Socialist Manifesto. We have a long, long war ahead.

The Coming of American Fascism, 1920–1940

Fascism is usually thought of as a quintessentially and almost exclusively European phenomenon, as having begun with Mussolini, culminated with Hitler, and been eradicated in World War II. The U.S., in particular, is thought to have been largely immune to it, given the absence of mass movements similar to Nazism or Italian Fascism. But there exists a different narrative, or at least there did in the 1930s, before it was buried under an avalanche of patriotic American propaganda and liberal historiography. According to this alternative understanding, the U.S. was falling victim to fascism already in the 1920s—though a different sort of fascism than in Europe. Long-forgotten Marxist journals such as The Communist, The New Masses, and Labor Notes (unrelated to the current publication of the same name), and newspapers like the Daily Worker and the Industrial Worker, analyzed with great insight the nature of this distinctive American fascism, until the struggle against the Nazis shifted their priorities to supporting a more liberal and “patriotic” Popular Front.

In a new book entitled The Coming of the American Behemoth: The Origins of Fascism in the United States, 1920–1940, Michael Joseph Roberto has resurrected the old Marxian conception. Aside from its interest as a work of history, the book is also quite relevant to the present, as the old structures of American fascism have deepened in the last generation and colonized much of the world.

The essence of fascism

Roberto’s project, in brief, is to reconstruct the arguments given in such pioneering, albeit now ignored, works as Lewis Corey’s The Decline of American Capitalism, Mauritz Hallgren’s Seeds of Revolt, Robert Brady’s The Spirit and Structure of German Fascism and Business as a System of Power, Carmen Haider’s Do We Want Fascism?, and A. B. Magil and Henry Stevens’ The Peril of Fascism, all published in the 1930s or early ’40s. These authors and others, whose insights were not taken up by generations of liberal scholarship, understood that fascism was not uniquely European, that it could easily happen in the United States. In fact, they understood it was happening: as Brady noted in 1938, “business is going political as it never has before, and it has learned to funnel its funds and pressures through highly centralized, interest-conscious, informed and exceedingly well-manned, united front organizations.”

Evidently these writers had a different concept of fascism than most of us do today. As Paul Baran wrote in 1952, according to the liberal understanding, for a political system to qualify as fascist “it has to display the German or Italian characteristics of fascism. It must be based on a fascist mass movement anchored primarily in para-military formations of brown shirts or black shirts. It must be a one-party regime, with the party headed by a Führer or a Duce… It must be violently nationalist, racist, anti-Semitic…” While it’s perfectly reasonable to consider such a phenomenon as one manifestation of fascism, the analysis tends toward superficiality insofar as it obscures the class roots and class functions of the regime. The Marxist approach, which looks beneath the surface, is more penetrating, resulting in a “dynamic definition of fascism,” Roberto summarizes, “as an inherent function of monopoly-capitalist production and relations whose telos was and remains the totalitarian rule of capitalist dictatorship.”

Incidentally, this wasn’t only a Marxist notion. It was widespread in the 1930s, including in the very centers of power. “Many persons strategically placed in American business,” Brady wrote, “confidentially argue that [fascism] is already here in both spirit and intent.” Harold Ickes, Franklin Roosevelt’s Secretary of the Interior, gave a speech in 1937 arguing that “fascist-minded men” had “a common interest in seizing more power and greater riches for themselves, and ability and willingness to turn the concentrated wealth of America against the welfare of America. It is these men who, pretending that they would save us from dreadful communism, would superimpose upon America an equally dreadful fascism.” Other Roosevelt advisors trumpeted the same message. And finally Roosevelt himself broadcast the “Marxist” idea, when he announced in a speech in 1938 that “I am greatly in favor of decentralization, and yet the tendency is, every time we have [a recession] in private industry, to concentrate it all the more in New York. Now that is, ultimately, fascism.”

It was widely understood, then, that the essence of fascism was, in Carmen Haider’s pithy formulation, the “attempt to introduce a collective form of capitalism in the place of individualism.” It was the fusion of big business with politics, the war on democracy by a public relations industry in the service of capital, the myth-making and “business evangelism” that is so integral to the propaganda industries of monopoly capitalism (and so reminiscent of the myth-making central to Fascism and Nazism). Whether the classic seizure of power through middle-class support was present was ancillary to the dictatorial rule of capital.

The New Deal’s corporatism

Roberto tells the history of the American political economy in the 1920s and ’30s through this lens, exploring how the fascist structures of our own day were forged between the two world wars. Much of his book, in particular the long expositions of Marxian economics, will be familiar to readers versed in left-wing literature. He devotes a chapter to the ideologists of fascism, or business rule, in the conservative 1920s, notably Thomas Nixon Carver, Harvard professor of economics, and Charles Norman Fay, vice-president of the National Association of Manufacturers and author of Business in Politics. Inevitably, we encounter Edward Bernays, father of public relations and believer in the necessity of “regimenting the public mind every bit as much as an army regiments the bodies of its soldiers.” These were the prophets and soothsayers, the heralds of the New Era of untrammeled capitalism.

But by 1930, the fascist millennium had succumbed to its economic contradictions, with the Great Depression. It turns out that when all the money goes to the top, the people on the bottom don’t have enough money to keep the economy growing. What was the way out of this dilemma? Well, according to the leaders of business and politics—more fascism. Many of them pined for a Mussolini, and even liberal newspapers like the New York Times advocated “some sort of Council of State” that could rule by decree. In the end, the oligopolists only partially got their way, with the establishment of Roosevelt’s National Recovery Administration in 1933.

It may seem absurd now, but in the mid-1930s it was usual for Marxists and socialists to argue that the New Deal was simply a higher stage of fascism. In fact, they had a point. “Conceived as a means to create common ground between government and industry,” Roberto writes, “the NRA marked a decisive move toward state monopoly capitalism in the United States.” The real power was left in the hands of big business, which wrote hundreds of “codes” to regulate prices, wages, work hours, etc., all to restore profits and eliminate overproduction. It was a move towards a planned, state capitalist economy, of which big business was the sole beneficiary. Small businesses suffered, workers were not really empowered, income was not redistributed, and the economy remained sluggish. But the profits of big business recovered.

The early New Deal “bore strong resemblances,” Roberto notes, “to the corporatist state established in Italy in its approach to reconciling the antagonism between capital and labor. Both Mussolini and Roosevelt had made clear their commitment to maintain and strengthen capitalism in their respective nations. Consequently, the fascist character of the New Deal could not be easily dismissed…” Roosevelt himself admired Mussolini: “I don’t mind telling you in confidence,” he wrote a friend, “that I am keeping in fairly close touch with the admirable Italian gentleman.” It’s ironic that a few years later Roosevelt was denouncing fascist tendencies in the U.S.

Huey Long and Charles Coughlin

Roberto is on shakier ground in his chapter on the “small-fry fascisti” who populated America’s political landscape during the Depression, particularly in his argument that Huey Long and the “radio priest” Father Coughlin were reactionaries and fascists. Long was a famously progressive, albeit dictatorial, governor of Louisiana in the early 1930s who later became a U.S. senator, from which perch he criticized the New Deal for its conservatism and proposed his own wildly popular “Share Our Wealth” program. Had he not been assassinated in 1935, he might have posed a serious challenge to Roosevelt’s reelection. Coughlin, on the other hand, was never a political leader, though through his radio broadcasts he was a political force in his own right. He, too, became intensely critical of the New Deal for its conservatism—although, like Long, he denounced Marxism and communism as well.

My own research on the subject led me to conclude that, despite what some historians (including Roberto) have argued, they were more left-wing than right-wing, at least until Coughlin in later years turned decisively toward anti-Semitism. The two men certainly were politically ambiguous, and had Long become president, it is impossible to know how he would have governed. But it’s inarguable that their massive following was due to the far-left character of their rhetoric—as may be judged by the Principles Coughlin laid out for the National Union of Social Justice, the political organization he founded. He went so far as to condemn the economic system itself: “Capitalism is doomed and not worth trying to save.”

The reason I cavil with Roberto on this point isn’t that I care much about defending Long or Coughlin. Rather, I disagree with his characterization of the millions of “petty bourgeois” who were attracted to the two figures:

Angry at the ruling class for robbing it of livelihood and status, [the petty-bourgeoisie] also stood fast against the masses that they believed threatened them more. Amid the swirl of change, dislocation, and anxiety about the present and fears for the future, they made up the great wave of political reaction during the mid-1930s… Not understanding how and why those above them were responsible for the crisis that threatened them, they blamed most of it on the enemies lurking below, the Negroes, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans, anarchists, socialists, and, of course, the communists—all enemies of True Americanism.

This is a facile interpretation for which, in effect, no evidence is given. In its over-generalizing it reeks of the lazy old Marxist condescension towards the middle classes. I can’t go into much detail here, but elsewhere I’ve argued that there was no “great wave of political reaction” in the mid-1930s except among big business, that the middle and lower classes were generally far to the left of Roosevelt—and pushed him to the left in 1935, with the so-called Second New Deal that partially repudiated the fascist tendencies of the first. Long and Coughlin themselves played an important part in this swing to the left, since Roosevelt’s popularity was waning in 1934 under the barrage of left-populist criticism. As a result, in 1935 he supported the Wagner Act, the Social Security Act (which was, however, more conservative than most Americans wanted), and the establishment of the Works Progress Administration. And in 1936 he ensured his overwhelming reelection by taking a page from Long’s book and denouncing “economic royalists” who were callous to the suffering of Americans.

The truth, then, is that Long and Coughlin, together with the influential Communist Party and other leftist organizations, helped save the New Deal from becoming genuinely fascist, from devolving into the dictatorial rule of big business. The pressures towards fascism remained, as they always will in the context of corporate capitalism, and reactionary sectors of business began to have significant victories against the Second New Deal starting in the late 1930s. But the genuine power that organized labor had achieved by then kept the U.S. from sliding into all-out fascism (in the Marxist sense) in the following decades, during the Cold War.

The struggle to come

The Coming of the American Behemoth is an interesting book with lessons for the present, as we confront a polarized and oligarchical political economy so redolent of that which precipitated the Depression. All the debate about whether Donald Trump is fascist, or whether society is in danger of succumbing to fascism, can be seen, from one perspective, as missing the point. Fascism in the materialist sense has been increasingly with us, especially (though not only) with Americans, for the last forty years, as the political economy has returned to something like its state in the 1920s. It is here now, already, and would be here even if Hillary Clinton had won the presidency.

The danger isn’t so much that “paramilitary formations of brown shirts or black shirts” will take over society as that we will fail to overturn the class foundations of fascism that are at this moment racing to destroy life on Earth. Roberto is right to emphasize this deeper structural reality.

In short, while the American Behemoth was rising in the 1920s and ’30s, in the 21st century “the beast is at full strength.” It will take a revolutionary struggle of the working masses to destroy it.

Free Speech, Hassan Nasrallah, and Other Victims of Internet Censorship

The fact that we live in a world in which the distribution of information is largely under the control of private corporations (and of governments overwhelmingly influenced by corporations) is itself a sufficient indictment of our civilization. Even if, impossibly, no other crimes ever occurred anywhere and systems of power were by and large benevolent, private control and distribution of information would justify attempts to reconstruct society on a new foundation. Such control is simply too contrary to the principles of free expression and free access to information to be tolerated by a people who value democracy, truth, and rational, unimpeded communication. How much worse is it, though, when corporate control of information is an essential precondition for the non-stop commission of systematic crimes against humanity by these very corporations and governments. If the public knew everything that’s going on, it is unlikely they would tolerate it for long.

As it is, we’re living in a planetary practical joke, victims of some malevolent cosmic intelligence with a sick sense of humor: in order to organize political dissent, struggle for social progress, and spread knowledge of corporate and government crimes. We’re dependent in large part on networks that are run and policed by these criminals themselves. We function at the mercy of their good will. Internet service providers can, whenever they feel like it, deny service to some “dangerous” individual or group; media platforms like Facebook and YouTube can suspend a user as soon as they decide they don’t like what he’s saying, or if he runs afoul of some algorithm; Google can steer traffic away from particular websites, as it has lately been doing with regard to left-wing sites like the World Socialist Website, AlterNet, Democracy Now, and CounterPunch. And the victims of this censorship have, in effect, no recourse, except to appeal to the public to pressure the censors.

Facebook has censored countless users who didn’t deserve it, as when disproportionately targeting activists of color, suspending livestreams of police shootings, temporarily deleting TeleSur’s English page, and deleting VenezuelAnalysis’s page (until the ensuing public outcry got that decision reversed). Its army of content reviewers is constantly censoring individual posts in accordance with a 27-page set of rules, resulting in the suppression of posts about, e.g., Indian atrocities in Kashmir, Geronimo and Zapata as heroes in the “500-year war against colonialism,” and a left-wing counter-rally on the anniversary of the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The political censorship (of both the left and, sometimes, the right) is out of control: this past year, hundreds of accounts and pages have been deleted on the pretext that they’re fake or “inauthentic.” Or, as always, “extremist.” Not surprisingly, many have been quite legitimate, run by real people who were using pseudonyms for the sake of safety, or whose perspectives are just designated as unacceptable because they’re contrary to official narratives. After deleting dozens of “inauthentic” accounts and pages last summer, Facebook stated that the culprits had “sought to inflame social and political tensions in the United States, and said their activity was similar—and in some cases connected—to that of Russian accounts during the 2016 election.” In other words, users are now forbidden to “inflame tensions” or to act “similarly” to Russian accounts.

At least we’re still allowed to share cat memes and baby photos.

But the main victim of this creeping McCarthyism has been, of course, the cause of the Palestinians, and more generally anyone who objects to Israel’s decades-long orgy of bloodlust. Whether on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, or other platforms, entities resisting Israel are regularly denied a voice. Hamas’s armed wing isn’t permitted an account on Twitter, while the Israeli army is. Facebook blocks Palestinian groups so often—including Fatah and leading media outlets in the West Bank—that they have their own hashtag, #FBcensorsPalestine. Given that these media near-monopolies are an essential means of reaching followers and spreading a message, such censorship has a very destructive effect.

Recent outrages concern suppression of the voice of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General, Hassan Nasrallah. A year ago YouTube suspended a popular channel that broadcast, and provided translations of, speeches of Hassan Nasrallah, among other “anti-American” leaders (Putin, Assad, etc.). The channel, which had over 400 videos, had 10,000 subscribers and had racked up more than six million views, and was growing in popularity. YouTube’s pretext for its suspension was “violation of the rules concerning graphic or violent content.” More specifically, three videos of Nasrallah’s speeches were deemed offensive: one was titled “ISIS is Israel’s ally and aims [at] Mecca and Medina,” the second was titled “We are about to liberate Al-Quds (Jerusalem) and all of Palestine,” and the third was called “The next war will change the face of the region.” It would be hard to argue that anything in these speeches was particularly “graphic or violent,” for they contain little but sensible political analysis and exhortations to resist a brutally violent neighboring state.

The owner of the channel then created a Facebook page to post similar content, called Resistance News Unfiltered. A year later, just a few weeks ago, it was deleted. With no explanation. It had over 6,000 subscribers and was providing an important service by translating the speeches of a highly perceptive political analyst. Norman Finkelstein recently released a statement on all this censorship of Nasrallah:

It is a scandal that the speeches of Hassan Nasrallah are banned on youtube. Whatever one thinks of his politics, it cannot be doubted that Nasrallah is among the shrewdest and most serious political observers in the world today. Israeli leaders carefully scrutinize Nasrallah’s every word. Why are the rest of us denied this right? One cannot help but wonder whether Nasrallah’s speeches are censored because he doesn’t fit the stereotype of the degenerate, ignorant, blowhard Arab leader. It appears that Western social media aren’t yet ready for an Arab leader of dignified mind and person.

The New York Times has reported that “Israeli security agencies monitor Facebook and send the company posts they consider incitement. Facebook has responded by removing most of them.” In fact, typically over 90 percent of them. Meanwhile, as Glenn Greenwald notes, “Israelis have virtually free rein to post whatever they want about Palestinians,” including calls for genocide and the most grotesque celebrations of the torture and murder of Palestinian children.

All this is perfectly predictable, for the economically powerful will always cooperate with the politically powerful to suppress dissent. Companies like Facebook and Google (which owns YouTube) will always be inclined to do the bidding of the U.S. government and its allies. This fact nevertheless constitutes a terrible, proto-fascist danger to free speech that ought to be resisted as energetically as any crime against humanity concealed by such corporatist collaboration.

Only if we flood Google, Facebook, Twitter, and the others with complaints is there a chance for necessary voices like Hassan Nasrallah’s to be heard. Our endgame should be to eliminate these corporations themselves and transfer the media infrastructure they own to the public, but on the way to that goal we have to keep poking holes in the corporate blackout to let in some sunlight.

On the Use and Abuse of Rage for Life

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” How much truer is that statement now than in 1776! We’re poised on the precipice, peering over into the crocodile pit below, where fascists swarm and writhe in sanguinary anticipation. Humanity is on the verge of losing its footing and plunging headfirst into the open maw of reptilian sadism. Where you stand, in this climactic moment of history, determines whether you are reptile or hominid.

We know where the majority of the ruling class stands, in their contempt for the poor, for the future, for democracy, the working class, the natural environment, the impartial rule of law, social cooperation, community, and a rational public discourse: they’re on the side of the reptiles. Whether it’s the boorish, amoral mediocrity of a Brett Kavanaugh, the rank hypocrisy of a Lindsey Graham or a Susan Collins, the naked cupidity of a Jeff Bezos, the proud Israel-fascism of a Chuck Schumer, the unfettered evil of a Mitch McConnell, or the undisguised corporatism of a Nancy Pelosi, a Barack Obama, and virtually every other politician on the national stage, the ruling class despises morality and law as an insolent threat to its unchecked power. Almost as offensive as these people’s lack of all principles besides unwavering loyalty to the rich is their aggressive mediocrity, their transparent conformism and cowardice. One is stunned at the gall of such insipid nonentities to believe themselves superior to the rest of us.

Even from the perspective of their intelligence, these elitists don’t exactly distinguish themselves. Consider one of the more honored and allegedly intellectual specimens: Anthony Kennedy. In what I suppose constituted an attempt at self-criticism, he recently offered the following rueful analysis of the state of the nation: “Perhaps we didn’t do too good a job teaching the importance of preserving democracy by an enlightened civic discourse. In the first part of this century we’re seeing the death and decline of democracy.” The lack of self-awareness takes your breath away. The man responsible for the supremely anti-democratic decisions in Bush v. Gore, Citizens United v. FEC, Shelby County v. Holder (which gutted voting protections for minorities), and Janus v. AFSCME (which by harming unions harms democracy), and who vacated his seat during the term of a president who prides himself on his authoritarianism and disrespect for the rule of law, is chagrined and apparently puzzled that democracy is declining.

Evidently the man is an imbecile, devoid of the capacity for self-critical reflection and empathic understanding of opposing arguments. And yet he’s an esteemed member of the ruling elite. (Precisely because, one might maliciously suggest, of his incapacity for critical thought.)

How maddening it is that such indoctrinated fools have power! It’s the blind leading the sighted!

Anyway, it’s for the rest of us to decide where we stand. Will we stand idly by, cynical and apathetic, while what’s left of society is dismantled, piece by piece, as a sacrificial offering to the great god Mammon? Or will we, fueled by sheer rage, stand up as one to the orgiastic misanthropy of our “leaders” and smash their petty little self-aggrandizing ambitions into dust? Will we march in the streets, occupy offices, organize mass strikes, take over workplaces, and confront our political “representatives” wherever they turn and wherever they are at every moment of the day? Or will we remain the domesticated dogs we’ve become under the long-term impact of corporatization, bureaucratization, and privatization?

In a time of universal atomization and a zombified-consumerist public life, the redemptive power of collective rage shouldn’t be scoffed at. It is in fact key to the recovery of our humanity, our de-robotization, and to the very survival of humanity itself. We should embrace our rage, cultivate it as though it were the tree of life, cherish it, for its power of both motivation and social transformation is prodigious.

The plaintive cries of establishmentarians to restore “civility” in the public sphere are laughably self-serving and shouldn’t be taken seriously. “You don’t call for incivility,” Megyn Kelly says in response to Representative Maxine Waters’ call for exactly that. Angry left-wing responses to Trumpism are “unacceptable,” according to Nancy Pelosi. “We’ve got to get to a point in our country,” says Cory Booker, “where we can talk to each other, where we are all seeking a more beloved community. And some of those tactics that people are advocating for, to me, don’t reflect that spirit.” And poor, long-suffering Sarah Sanders sent out a tweet of Solomonic wisdom after the owner of a restaurant had asked her to leave because of her noxious politics: “[The owner’s] actions say far more about her than about me. I always do my best to treat people, including those I disagree with, respectfully and will continue to do so.”

In short: let institutions operate as they’re supposed to, and don’t enforce accountability on public officials outside the electoral process. By all means vote us out of office if you don’t like our policies, but don’t make life uncomfortable for us.

The truth is that, from more than one perspective, the decline of civility or politeness in the “political dialogue” is a sign of progress, not retrogression. Politeness upholds the politics of “respectability,” which is the politics of conservatism, hierarchy, and the status quo. It coddles the powerful, even as they’re enacting substantively uncivil, which is to say destructive, policies aimed at everyone who lacks the money to buy influence. The essence of politics, which is but war by other means, has always been “incivility”—struggle over resources, competing agendas, bribery, corruption, the defense of privilege against the unprivileged and the latter’s struggle to wrest power from the former. There is a “beloved community” only in the milquetoast liberal imagination of a Cory Booker. The task for actual democrats is to bring the war to the doorstep of the privileged, to make them viscerally aware of the stakes involved, even if it means directly acquainting them with the wrath of the dispossessed. They’ve been sheltered far too long.

Even from the other side, the side of the reptiles, there is something to be said for Trumpian insult-flinging and demagoguery. At least it serves to take the fig leaf of high principles and public-spiritedness off the reactionary policies of almost fifty years. When Obama deported millions of immigrants and separated tens of thousands of families, it seemed as if no one cared. Now that Trump is doing it (arguably in even more sadistic ways), even the establishment media expresses outrage. The vulgarity and blatant evil, in short, tend to radicalize everyone who still has a vestige of moral consciousness in him. That’s useful.

Ultimately, though, it hardly needs arguing that Trumpian “incivility” is disastrous, e.g., in its promotion of white rage and white supremacy. But this is exactly why the time has come for the politics of extreme disruption, as expounded and defended in that classic of sociology Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, by Frances Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward.

The Usefulness of Violence

As Piven and Cloward show, mass social disruption and civil disobedience were essential to the victories of several major popular movements in the twentieth century: the 1930s’ unemployed workers movement (which indirectly brought forth the modern welfare state), the industrial workers movement that unionized the core of the economy, the civil rights movement, and the welfare rights movement of the 1960s that forced huge expansions of welfare programs. Even the scores of urban riots between 1964 and 1968 had a partially constructive impact. In the violent summer of 1967, for example, the Pentagon established a Civil Disturbance Task Force and the president established a Riot Commission. Seven months later, the commission called for “a massive and sustained commitment to action” to end poverty and racial discrimination. “Only days before,” the authors note, “in the State of the Union message, the president had announced legislative proposals for programs to train and hire the hardcore unemployed and to rebuild the cities.”

Without going into further detail, the lesson is already clear: not only “disruption” but even rioting can, potentially, be constructive, given the right political environment. This doesn’t mean riots ought to be encouraged or fomented, of course; they should be avoided at almost all costs. But when conditions become so desperate that waves of riots begin to break out, we shouldn’t too quickly condemn them (or the rioters) as hopelessly irresponsible, self-defeating, primitive, immoral, etc. The state’s immediate response might be repression, but its longer-term response might well be reform.

Other scholars go further than Piven and Cloward. Lance Hill, for instance, argues in The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement that the tactic of nonviolence wasn’t particularly successful in the civil rights movement. SNCC’s peaceful local organizing in the early 1960s didn’t bring about many real, tangible gains: months-long campaigns succeeded in registering minuscule numbers of voters. White power-structures, racism, and Klan violence were just too formidable. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “moral suasion,” his hope to shame Southern whites out of racism, failed utterly. So the strategy shifted to provoking white violence in the full view of television cameras—and, as with the Deacons for Defense in Louisiana, inflicting violence as well (mostly in self-defense). By 1964 things were threatening to get out of control, with riots and some white deaths, so the government was able to pass the Civil Rights Act—which it proceeded to enforce only sporadically, usually when compelled to by violence or its threat.

Nonviolence was a useful tactic for getting white liberal support, but without the threat of black violence always lurking in the background it would have accomplished little. “One of the great ironies of the civil rights movement,” Hill says, “was that black collective force did not simply enhance the bargaining power of the moderates; it was the very source of their power.”

In general, the point is that people have to act in such a way that authorities will feel compelled to give them concessions lest social hierarchies be threatened. In the long run, needless to say, the goal is to replace the authorities, to empower people who actually care about people. But in the meantime it’s necessary to extract concessions—by putting the fear of God, or, far more frighteningly, of revolution, into the heads of the thugs at the top. The credible threat of violence can, then, bring results, as history shows.

One last example, perhaps most apposite of all, is the near-chaos that engulfed the nation in the early 1930s, as unemployed workers took to the streets and violated the “rights of property” on an epic continental scale. As I’ve related elsewhere, the epidemic of protest, “eviction riots,” and thefts in, e.g., Chicago between 1930 and 1932 impelled Mayor Anton Cermak to repeatedly appeal in desperation to the federal government. “It would be cheaper,” he told Congress in early 1932, “to provide a loan of $152,000,000 to the City of Chicago, than to pay for the services of federal troops at a future date.” Because of the panic that widespread theft and violence induced in businessmen and government officials like Cermak, Herbert Hoover’s Reconstruction Finance Corporation began that summer to give loans to states for providing relief to the unemployed. A year later, Roosevelt’s Federal Emergency Relief Administration started distributing $500 million worth of grants to the states, followed by massive jobs programs, and the New Deal proceeded to alleviate the misery of tens of millions of Americans. All because of the power of collective rage and defiance.

In 2018, after the consolidation of a reactionary regime on the Supreme Court, it is long past the time for organized collective violations of “law and order” and “property rights.” It’s time to badger elected officials at every moment of every day, and to foster political polarization so that the ground caves in beneath the feet of the “centrists.” Conditions aren’t yet desperate enough for collective looting and rioting—since, after all, the economy is booming! (right?)—but it’s necessary at least, in the coming years, to stoke such fears in the minds of the rich. Monolithic, sustained, savage repression cannot work for long in a nominally democratic country like the U.S. Radical reforms are inevitable—if, that is, we rise up en masse.

A “Crisis of Legitimacy”

The one good thing about Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court is that it completes the delegitimization of the most undemocratic and typically reactionary institution at the federal level. Having an obvious perjurer, sexual harasser, overgrown frat boy, and overtly partisan hack on the Court strips away whatever patina of honor and impartial dignity that farcical institution still had. It has now lost all pretense of representing not only the will of the people but even the rule of law. This fact, too, will facilitate radicalization.

The entire political economy, and the august institutions that protect it, are being thrown into question.

The whiff of revolution is in the air, just starting to float, here and there, on the breezes blown back from the future into the resent. The scent is positively revivifying.

It’s a good time to be angry. And to translate your anger into action.

Three Cheers for the Decline of the Middle Class

I realize how callous the title of this article sounds. The decline of the middle class, which in recent years has been the subject of innumerable articles, books, and movies, entails a terrible increase in human suffering. The descent of millions of families into relative poverty is beyond appalling, not something to be celebrated. However, the perverse Marxist in me feels obliged to complicate the narrative of unmitigated catastrophe that dominates all journalism and scholarship on the subject. The fact is that “progress,” like God, works in mysterious ways, paradoxical, inhuman, “dialectically contradictory” ways. And the contemporary decline of the West’s middle class may end up advancing, indirectly, the banner of humanity that the Left has carried forward since the seventeenth century.

The point isn’t a very deep one. Consider the gravest threat that life on Earth faces today: global warming. This threat cannot be adequately confronted in the framework of capitalism, which indeed is responsible for it; it demands a systemic socio-politico-economic revolution, a social transformation that systematically elevates human needs above capital’s needs. The most realistic way to address the crisis is for governments to nationalize the fossil fuel industry and shift resources toward renewable energy, which should be produced and distributed through publicly owned utilities. And this is only the beginning. There have to be international reforestation and afforestation programs, for instance, and massive deployment of carbon sequestration methods and technologies. The very dynamics of the political economy have to be altered.

How can society ever get to this point? Evidently only through upheavals so painful that it becomes clear there is no other option. Revolutionary change on such a scale happens only by means of unprecedented crisis, which is to say social discontent so extreme that half-measures are cast aside as pitifully inadequate. As long as a large middle class exists to serve as a bulwark of social stability and relatively conservative politics, the requisite crisis will not happen. Society has to polarize between a tiny minority of ultra-rich and a huge majority of unprotected, insecure, ecologically vulnerable, politically desperate people whose violent discontent propels the “revolution” forward. Systems have to be radically disrupted, on a scale greater than during even the Great Depression, which led to the welfare state. If history has taught us anything, it’s that the middle class is an effective barricade against revolution.

We might also reflect that, climatically speaking, the best thing that can happen in the short term is a global economic depression. Carbon emissions in the U.S. dropped by 11% between 2007 and 2013, mostly because of the Great Recession. A deeper economic collapse would have an even more positive effect, quite apart from the contributions it would make to the sort of systemic breakdown that would facilitate radical change.

Karl Marx recognized that class polarization and economic crisis present unique opportunities for systemic disruption, opportunities that activists must seize. That’s the imperative, after all: to disrupt the smooth functioning of powerful institutions, and to create new institutions in their place. The more polarization, the more opportunities there are for revolutionaries. There are also more dangers, as we’re seeing by the rise of the far-right across Europe and the U.S. But these dangers aren’t necessarily insurmountable, if only the Left can get its act together and organize the drifting masses.

Millions of people are out there waiting to be organized. We can only hope that by the time of the next economic crash, the Left will be ready to seize the initiative.