Category Archives: Book Review

Six Economies

By the time we come to the end of this series we will have been swimming in the primordial soup of the seeds for alternative forms of traditional capitalism! As I have long said, there is bad capitalism, the kind we have, and good capitalism, the kind we need

Part 5 is an adaptation of my review of a book about six economies written by Riane Eisler.1 She titled the book “The Real Wealth of Nations,” which to me was a repartee to Adam Smith’s magnum opus. Because she is absolutely one of my favorite authors I must begin by telling you about her.

Escaping with her parents from the Nazis in Germany led her eventually to ponder how there could be a world so cruel, insensitive, and destructive when humans, she believed, have a great capacity for caring, consciousness, and creativity (we should highlight “capacity” for she could not say “habit”). She ultimately concluded that “we have to change present economic systems” for the sake of ourselves, our children, and future generations. Being trained not in economics but in sociology, anthropology, and law was, I’m convinced, an asset for her, not a liability, in doing the research and writing for this book. And I certainly agree with her when she quotes Einstein as having said that solving problems can’t be done with the same thinking that created them, even though I hardly think it takes a genius to know that. In any case, Eisler has done some very creative and constructive thinking.

She was selected as the only woman among twenty great thinkers including Hegel, Adam Smith, Marx, and Toynbee in recognition of the lasting importance of her work.2 Her book, The Chalice and the Blade recounting the transition from earliest egalitarian to later patriarchal societies, was an international best seller and acclaimed by Princeton anthropologist Ashley Montagu as “the most important book since Darwin’s Origin of the Species.”3,4

Karl Marx once said about capitalists, “give them enough rope and they’ll hang themselves” If only that would happen! Eisler isn’t sympathetic to either Marx or Adam Smith. She contends that their theories and their application call for the control of natural resources and the means of production by a male dominated culture and as a consequence neither communism nor capitalism as we know it is capable of solving the chronic problems confronting society. Well, if you remember what I wrote about Marx in the previous part of this series, I would give him some slack here.5

Her focus in her book is on explaining dysfunctional economic structures, rules, and practices, offering an alternative perspective for a new economics along with providing convincing evidence of its superiority, and proposing necessary reforms to change the present system. Whereas Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations focused on the market, she goes beyond it to reexamine economics from a larger perspective that includes the life-supporting activities of households, communities, and nature. “Ultimately,” she says, “the real wealth of a nation lies in the quality of its human and natural capital” and the basic purpose of an economic system should thus be to “promote human welfare and human happiness,” characteristics that are missing from our present economic system. She is obviously more in tune with Aristotle’s thinking about economics than with Smith or Marx.6

A central theme of her book is that since any economic system emerges out of a larger social, cultural, and technological context, a viable system can’t be constructed without taking that broader context into account, and especially not without giving visibility and value to the socially and economically essential work of caring for people and nature. She defines care giving as “actions based on empathy, responsibility, and concern for human welfare and optimal human development.”

Our economic system is dysfunctional she contends because it, like its larger context, depends on what she calls the domination model. It has four core components; a rigid top-down social structure, much abuse and violence, a male superiority premise, and beliefs that perpetuate domination and violence. This system, where people are either dominating or being dominated rests on several erroneous assumptions such as people being inherently untrustworthy, that fear of pain (as a psychologist, I disagree with this as a source of motivation) and scarcity are the main motivators for work, and that caring and care giving are impediments to productivity or at best irrelevant to economics. For example, with regard to the last misassumption, she points out that care giving isn’t, but should be, included as a positive value in economic indicators such as the GNP, which, manifesting a domination system as it does, misleadingly includes war-related expenditures as positive values. She cites a Swiss survey and a UN report, the first, showing that the value of unpaid, care giving work accounts for 70 percent of the reported Swiss GDP, and the second, estimating in 1985 that the value of women’s unpaid work amount worldwide and annually to 11 trillion dollars. Those are amazing findings!

A functional economic system along with its larger context would be one she posits that depends on what she calls the partnership model of mutually respectful and caring relations. She leaves no stone unturned, no relevant field of inquiry unexplored in showing in various ways how this model is far superior to the other one. For example, she documents studies demonstrating that in business “it pays to care-in dollars and cents.” Organizational psychologists like me would be familiar with the evidence presented that caring and empowering corporations do indeed give a positive return on investment in their human capital. She shows how the Nordic countries, the only ones coming close to her partnership model, are faring well economically and socially.

Having a national capacity and resources for providing optimal human development is clearly necessary for having a healthy economy, and she persuasively links the domination form of child rearing (and thus suboptimal human development) to adverse consequences later in life that show up in the kinds of leaders and followers our society has, in our belligerent relationships with other countries, and in our diminished capacity for a functional and healthy economy. She presents neuroscientific evidence of how care giving rather than selfishness produces the most powerful reactions in the brain circuitry associated with pleasurable sensations. Finally, she shows how disastrous it could be if the domination model is played out with new and risky technological developments on the horizon.

Her perspective and understanding are so broad that she conceptualizes not one but six economic sectors. The first sector, the core one, is the household economy from which the rest of the sectors spring because productivity depends so much on human activity, which starts at birth and is markedly shaped by what kinds of experiences there are throughout human upbringing. Her core economy is clearly reminiscent of Aristotle’s thinking.7 The second is the unpaid economy made up mostly of volunteers. The third is the conventional market economy. The fourth is the illegal economy like illegal arms trade (and I suppose she would include Karger’s fringe economy summarized earlier in this series).8 The fifth is the government economy that includes not just the large population of government workers but also the laws, rules, and policies that (should) govern the market economy. The sixth, the natural economy, is as basic as the first in that our environment produces natural resources used and misused by the market economy.

The sectors are inextricably intertwined, and all must be taken into account in order to transform our economic system, our institutions, and our culture from the domination into the partnership model. The greatest challenge, she contends, is to develop economic models, measures, and rules where the first, second, and sixth sectors are recognized and highly valued. Our beliefs about what we value are largely unconscious, she continues, having been inherited from earlier times when anything associated with the female half of humanity, such as caring and care giving was devalued. If you scoff at this, you should read her book because I can’t do it real justice here other than to say I know of no other living scholar that has evolved a new theory of economics after having spent 30 years of research combing the data from over 20 thousand or more years of history collected by herself and others from myriad fields of inquiry.

Her book is much more than just theoretically significant, as would be expected from a social activist. She proceeds smoothly and logically from her theorizing to advocacy and conclusion. She makes a number of practical suggestions about what needs to be done on Wall Street (e.g. stiff tax on short-term speculations), in government (e.g., massive investment in child care and human development), by business leaders (e.g., changing from top-down to empowering corporations), and among social activist citizens (e.g., mounting a global movement to change laws and customs-she describes how she wrote an amicus brief that helped women legally gain equal rights). She summarizes the progress being made that she believes represents a “caring revolution.”

The only quibble I have with her summary is her assessment that “hundreds of thousands of nongovernmental organizations” are all working she says toward the “common goal of shifting to a more caring economic and social system.” I seriously doubt that claim. I’ve studied about 150 prominent NGOs in the U.S. My conclusion is that they are first and foremost compromised by the corpocracy, and secondly, represent a very fragmented activity, where even NGOs with similar missions and initiatives don’t communicate with each other let alone coordinate or collaborate in their work. Moreover, I once contacted the leadership of 176 NGOs proposing a super coalition of NGOs under the auspices of, let’s say, a U.S. Chamber of Democracy that is a counterpoint to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the advocate and lobbyist for big business that typifies the domination model. That proposal fell flat. Only five endorsed it; 32 said no; and 139 didn’t even respond.9

Conclusion

Eisler’s conclusion is my conclusion, “we have to change present economic systems” for the sake of ourselves, our children, and future generations.

I had originally intended to pair this Part 5 with Part 6 to shorten an otherwise lengthy chain of articles. But her book is so seminal, so profound, so unique that it absolutely deserves to stand alone! Furthermore, I am revising my “pantheon of brilliant, radical and humane thinkers.”10 I am telling Aristotle he must share the top spot with Eisler!

• Read Part 1 here; Part 2 here; Part 3 here; Part 4 here;

  1. Brumback, GB. Review in the Book Review Section of Personnel Psychology (2009, Vol 62, #1, 179-183) of The Real Wealth of Nations: Creating a Caring Economics, 2007, by Riane Eisler.
  2. Galtung, J.& Inayatullah S. Macrohistory and Macrohistorians: Perspectives on Individual, Social, and Civilizational Change, 1997.
  3. Eisler, R. The Chalice & the Blade: Our history, our Future, 1987.
  4. Eisler, R. Wikipedia. wikipedia.org/wiki/Riane Eisler.
  5. Brumback, GB. “Notes on Some Classical Thinking” (Part 3 of 10 Part Series) “Economic Sanity and Alternative Economic Systems”, Dissident Voice, May 20; OpEdNews, May 21, 2018.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Ibid. Part 3
  8. Ibid. Part 4.
  9. Brumback, GB. Tyranny’s Hush Money, OpEdNews 9/28/2013, The Greanville Post, September 29, 2013.
  10. Op. Cit. Footnote 5.

Fringe Economy

Fringe, adj. not part of the mainstream; unconventional, peripheral. When this definition is applied to the economy it becomes the title of a book, Short Changed: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy, written by Howard Karger, who at the time was a professor of social policy.1 Part 4 is a review of that book.

Do you have any idea what the “historical neighborhood banker” is? I didn’t until I read his book. It’s the pawnshop says Karger. Most likely not in your neighborhood, though. Indebted people have been pawning their belongings as long ago as 1000 BC. If your image of today’s American pawnshop is of a storefront operation owned and operated by a shady character, you’ll be as surprised as I was to learn that many of those storefronts have been gobbled up by five publicly traded corporations (e.g., EZ Pawn) raking in 100’s of millions of dollars yearly from pawnshop loans and with boards of directors lavishly paying their CEOs. Even the shrinking population of go-it-alone pawn shop brokers gets loans to set up their operations from big banks. Well, why not? No banksters worthy of the name will miss out on grabbing other people’s money.

Karger defines the fringe economy as “corporations and business practices [that pray on the poor] by charging excessive interest rates or fees, or exorbitant prices for goods and services.” He divides this economy into seven sectors and gives a chapter to each. Besides a storefront loan sector that includes pawnshop businesses, the other sectors are the credit card industry, alternative financial services such as check cashing and rent-to-own, fringe housing, real estate speculation and foreclosure, the fringe auto industry, and the “getting-out-of-debt” industry such as the multibillion dollar debt management business. Large corporations operate in each of these sectors, and some, like EZ Pawn, may not be household names, while other large corporations that operate in both the fringe and mainstream economies surely are, such as the really big banksters, Bank of America, Wells Fargo, Verizon, and then the telecommunications giant, AT & T, that depended on the banksters at the outset.

Karger fills his book with a lot of facts about his subject, so much so that he warns early on that reading them “may be tedious” yet necessary because the “devil is in the details.” He compensates nicely for them, though, by fleshing out the facts with many anecdotes. I couldn’t help but think how Charles Dickens might have novelized them into a modern classic, absent the debtor’s prison (see the next paragraph) in “David Copperfield.

Karger’s name for the last sector, the “getting-out-of debt” industry surely has to be tongue-in-cheek, for as he describes and explains it, this industry can only be a multi-billion dollar business because its customers never get out of debt. Businesses in the other sectors, as he amply shows, are no different in that they all seek to sink already indebted people further into debt by escalating the interest fees levied on them, amounting in some cases to nearly a 500% APR! It would not be profitable to put these people in debtors’ prisons. Indeed, the entire sub-prime and predatory lending businesses of the fringe economy are built on the backs of persistently indebted customers.

Obviously, it would it not be profitable either to drive indebted people into bankruptcy, an escape hatch of last resort so to speak. This explains why corporations, especially in the credit card industry lobbied heavily to get the draconian Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act passed by a captive Congress. Known pejoratively but aptly as the “loan shark law,” Karger notes that it “intensifies the economic war on the poor and credit-challenged.”

If you are thinking loan sharks might starve if people stopped spending beyond their means you would be giving, in Karger’s opinion, too much credence to what he calls the “over consumption” argument. While he agrees that such “affluenza” (see De Graaf et al., 2002) is a contributing factor, he maintains that the argument fails to address a major cause of indebtedness, “the high cost of living in a privatized society.”2 He notes that the rising cost of necessities amounted then to 75% of a family’s two-person income, leaving little left for luxuries for the “functionally poor.” Moreover, consumer spending is less than it was a decade ago then. The argument, he believes, lets lawmakers fault debtors “for an economic reality they can’t control.”

Besides its loan shark law, the government has boosted the fringe economy in various other ways. For example, what Karger means by a “privatized society” is that stricter federal and state public assistance policies more quickly than before throw former recipients into jobs with no benefits and with pay suppressed by the miserly minimum wage law that has been frozen at that time by conservative politicians since 1997. Another example is public policy on homeownership along with sub-prime mortgage lenders and their low teaser rates that lure unqualified customers to buy homes eventually foreclosed. And not to leave out the judiciary’s role, Karger cites a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allows national banks to charge the highest rate allowable in their home states to borrowers living elsewhere.

What, you might ask, is the difference between the two types of lending, sub-prime and predatory? Is the first legal and the second not? No. Illegalities exist in both. Moreover, state usury laws vary, so what may be illegal loans in one state are legal in another. Ethical considerations certainly don’t differentiate the two types of lending. Unscrupulous but legal practices abound in both types. The difference between them Karger says is blurry, offering his own blurry view that the first is generally “beneficial” and the second is “destructive.” In my opinion the only difference may be in how excessively customers are gouged. It seems to me, moreover, that sub-prime loans can’t be beneficial because the effects of being gouged benefit only the gouger.

The profitability of the fringe market has been too tempting for mainstream financial institutions not to enter it. Some observers, Karger says, believe this development will help to counteract unscrupulous lending practices. Not a chance! Anyone who tracks big financial institutions and corporations in general should know that the profit to be made and the pressure to make it every quarter will compromise the means to make it. Karger is not “optimistic” either and offers some corroborating evidence by citing some very prominent corporations that entered the fringe market. Customers of this market represent what I would call our own undeveloped “sub-country,” so why should we expect it to be any less exploited than are undeveloped countries by multi-national corporations?

The solution, Karger thinks, is not to eliminate the fringe market, as if that were even a remote possibility! He also thinks it would not be desirable because compared to fringe services the mainstream ones are not as accessible physically or as culturally compatible to poor neighborhoods.

At the end of each sector’s chapter and in the concluding chapter, therefore, he suggests numerous solutions, some more plausible than others, that would accommodate the realities of these neighborhoods while also eliminating some of the abusive and fraudulent practices of doing business with the people who live in those neighborhoods. Many of the solutions, like lending “only to borrowers who have the income or liquid assets to repay the debt” (how plausible, though, is that for some borrowers?) could be voluntarily adopted by lenders. But business being what it is, whether in the fringe or mainstream economy, socially and genuinely responsible behavior is rarely volunteered. So Karger adds some legislative recommendations. In this sense his book is very timely. As I wrote the review, for instance, Congress was considering legislation to curb the excesses of the sub-prime mortgage business. But whatever Congress passes is academic. Anything Congress does is not done without the heavy hand of large corporations in the mix.

In Closing

Were it only true that the corpocracy and its capitalism were relegated to the fringe economy and then made to vanish to never-never land!

  1. Brumback, GB. “Review of the book Short Changed: Life and Debt in the Fringe Economy by Howard Karger in the book review section of Personnel Psychology 60″, 2007, pp. 787-790.
  2. John De Graaf, J. et al. Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic, 2002.

Economic Insanity Close Up

Capitalism as it is practiced is economically insane, and it is devouring the American dream. So says the author of one of the books I have reviewed.1 Part 2 of this series adapts and adds to that review.

Roger Terry wrote a book in 1995 on “economic insanity” (no, it isn’t a “mis”fortune telling of the insane economic meltdown of 2008 thirteen years later). He’s certainly not a mainstream economist nor do I think even a maverick one. Rather, I assume business management is his professional field because he mentions once having students in his management classes in the Marriott School of Management at Brigham Young University. He is the co-founder of the “funcompany,” which is in the publishing and stationary business. His company gives him an opportunity to practice some of what he preaches.

Terry contends that the growth-driven capitalism of big, authoritarian, and unaccountable organizations is devouring the American dream. As proof he points to the erosion of the good life of being happy; how we have become a nation not of citizens but of consumers of “life-style enhancing” things, yet in actuality we produce more (in waste) than we consume in products and services; how seeking limitless economic progress is both illusory and self-destructive; how we live in a capitalistic society, but most of us are dependent wage earners, not independent capitalists; and how the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer-an inevitable result of capitalism.

I could not agree more with his aspersion toward “big, authoritarian, and unaccountable organizations.” My very first book not only railed against them, but better still, offered a model of an organization that was the direct antithesis of today’s behemoth hierarchical organizations.2

Note his reference to “independent capitalists.” We shall encounter that idea more than once as we proceed through the series.

In the first part of his book, Terry questions three underlying assumptions of our current capitalistic system that he contends are so inherently wrong that the system can’t be fixed; 1) limitless, perpetual economic growth is an imperative good, 2) increasing productivity is a cure-all for an ailing economy, and 3) maintaining a good life depends on continuous technological advances. I could add some more underlying inherently wrong assumptions, like that of assuming that debt is the basis of our economy.3

The growth imperative, he argues, is illogical, immoral, misguiding, and destructive. It’s illogical because we consumers buy products we don’t really need (e.g., personal computer upgrades) from companies that are fearful of not making and selling new products lest their competitors do so and grab more of the market share. It’s immoral because it lets companies rationalize wrongdoing for the sake of survival.  It’s misguiding because companies are diverted from what should be their true purpose, to serve society in useful ways. It’s destructive because our planet and our pocketbooks are being irretrievably depleted by a growth-driven, consumer-oriented economy. I agree with him completely, and as a side note, I have reviewed another book that propounds the opposite, “double-digit” growth.4

He argues that productivity increases, contrary to the prevailing assumption, don’t make the economy grow and thereby don’t improve our standard of living. He observes that while productivity has gone up over the last 25 years, real wages haven’t. Productivity increases, instead, are siphoned into the pockets of the rich, into pay for support people (e.g., consultants) who don’t produce anything, and into payments on un-forgiving huge debts fueled by the growth imperative. Not to mention, I would add, the unconscionable hiatus between the haves and have nots that are reflected not only in individual incomes but also in misery, insufferably poor living conditions and health, and sometimes death from failing health.

Technological advances, he claims, are “inherently self-destructive” because they are “quickly bankrupting us.” Only a few select companies and the more affluent among us can afford the technology race. The rest go out of business or into deeper debt.

In Terry’s opinion, the assumptions are so inherently wrong that the system can’t be fixed, so in the second part of his book he offers ideas for a new kind of capitalism. In that sense, Terry’s ideas are very much at home with this series (obviously, or I wouldn’t have included him).

In the second part of his book, Terry outlines the features of a new economic system. It would be a structurally different capitalism, one we’ve never seen before. It would be a “Nation of Owners,” in which there are three levels of ownership: (a) small enterprises, like his own, with the founders and a few partners who share ownership commensurate with their seniority and other factors like start-up funding; (b) larger enterprises, the corporations of today, would be owned collectively by their members, who would elect managers for limited terms of office; and (c) public enterprises, such as utilities, education, defense, and the like, would be created and managed by public boards or local governments. Now that, I would add and enthusiastically emphasize, would be real economic sanity!

Here is a sketch of what he says life would be like under this different capitalism. It would be a “truer form” of capitalism because anyone able-bodied and “even minimally motivated would own capital and in reasonably equal portions,” thus guaranteeing freedom of opportunity and markedly reducing inequality of income. There would no longer be a Wall Street since absentee owners; i.e., shareholders, would gradually be replaced by working owners, which in turn would eliminate the motive of short-term profits and its immoral consequences. Our government would be much different — it wouldn’t be controlled by a corpocracy. Our economy would be developing better rather than growing bigger. Businesses would be motivated to serve society instead of serving themselves. There would be no more drudgery at work, exploitation of workers, cutthroat competition, takeovers, downsizings, wholesale firings, ballooning personal and collective debt, frivolous products, superfluous support structures, or any other ills you might associate with the present system. Sounds like utopia, doesn’t it? Unless you’re a fat-cat CEO or you can’t wait for the next computer upgrade.

But he obviously wasn’t writing for the fat-cat CEOs or the impatient PC owners; no, he was writing instead for people “who will inhabit America’s future and dream the American Dream” and “leaders—among us (who) have yet to find their voices.”

Terry forged this book out of what he calls “a disjointed pile of half-baked, angry ideas.” His purpose in this less angry final product is “to identify a new way of looking at our organizational and individual lives through rejecting certain assumptions that drive our economic system.” Some of it is indeed a new way for me and maybe for you, too.

In Closing

Roger Terry has given us an innovative alternative form of capitalism. Terrific! But there’s more! Wait until you see the rest of this series!

An Internet friend of mine who is also an editor and writer wrote not long ago that capitalism is intrinsically a despicable economic system that has caused the U.S. to be the scourge of humanity, so to speak.5 I posted this response to his article:

Capitalism, on the other hand, is not intrinsically the curse of humanity as you suggest. In two of my books, The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch; and, Corporate Reckoning Ahead, I present six viable, alternative forms of capitalism, none of which resemble the present form. And I laid out a way to put the latter in the dustbin of history. Of course, Americans have been duped by the corpocracy to accept the present form of capitalism as the only form, and unless they wise up and rise up America and the rest of the world will continue to suffer until the bitter end, which will also sweep away the power elite but not soon enough.

That commentary of mine underlies this series. By its end you will have come to your own conclusion if not way before.

• Read Part 1 here;

  1. Terry, R. Economic Insanity: How Growth-Driven Capitalism is Devouring the American Dream, 1995.
  2. Brumback, GB. Tall Performance from Short Organizations Through We/Me Power, 2004.
  3. Brumback, GB. “Economic Sanity and Alternative Economic Systems: Part 1. Introduction to the Series“, OpEdNews, May 16; Dissident Voice, May 17, 2018.
  4. Michael Treacy. “Double-Digit Growth: How Great Companies Achieve It-No Matter What”, New York: Portfolio, 2003.
  5. Pear, DW. “On U.S. Imperialism, Capitalism and Fascism”, OpEdNews, May 12, 2018.

Nuclear Disaster at Chernobyl: Reality and Unreality

With the escalating doom of climate change hovering over us, it is tempting to push nuclear horror to the back of our minds.  To those of us who grew up in the 1950s, it was omnipresent.  Nuclear war could not exist without nuclear power and on April 26, 1986 the world experienced a form of nuclear horror it will never forget.

Why did Unit 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant explode on that day?  Did operator error cause it? Was design flaw the reason?  Should we look deeper into the Soviet system for the cause?  Or should we look deeper still into the very existence of nuclear power?

In May 2018, Basic Books released Serhii Plokhy’s “Chernobyl: The History of a Nuclear Catastrophe.”  It could well become the definitive story of that disaster.  Chernobyl will raise eyebrows.  The book features detailed interviews with key actors, meticulous research, and then a big “uh-ooh.”

Plokhy delves into the background of the infamous nuke, including its site selection in 1966, its location by the river and town both named Prypiat, and intense discussions over the type of reactor to build.  Should they construct the safer but more expensive VVER (Water-Water Energy Reactor) or the cheaper and more powerful RBMK (High Power Channel Reactor) which lacked a cement containment shield?

The author goes beyond looking at the people involved in building the plant and describes their mutual relationships and their interactions with construction problems and delays.  These personal relations figured heavily into the uncertainty and miscommunication regarding a turbine test that led to the explosion – something unexpected that plant operators had been assured was impossible.

The book could also gain widespread attention from its documentation of the spreading levels of disbelief.  Not knowing that burning nuclear material is completely different from other fires, dozens of firefighters were exposed to lethal and near-lethal levels of radiation.

The night of the explosion plant director Victor Briukhanov closed his ears to reports of radiation measurements.  When he finally understood how dire the situation was, politicians refused to heed his advice to evacuate the neighboring town.  Even as plant workers were admitted into the hospital with acute radioactive poisoning, seven Prypiat weddings went on as scheduled.

The terror was multiplied as actors began to realize that the “experts” had no idea of what to do.  Some said the reactor should be covered with sand, clay, boron and lead.  Others replied that would needlessly sacrifice the lives of helicopter pilots dropping the mixture and could increase the chance of a new explosion.

Some identified the main threat as the reactor burning down to the water table and causing a new steam explosion.  They focused on removing the water.  Others said that was not possible.  The unsure politicians decided to try virtually everything.

Spreading disbelief gave rise to wave after wave of cover-ups.  Attempts to conceal the dangers from Prypiat residents morphed into hiding them from all of the Ukraine.  Hoodwinking efforts spread to Russia and then to the entire world.

The cover-ups turned into blame games that festered in the Ukraine from 1987 on.  Hoping to sidetrack discussion of the faulty plant design, Moscow bureaucrats put Ukrainian operators on trial.  But Ukrainians knew that designers of the RBMK had promised that it was so safe that it had no need for a concrete containment structure and could be installed on Red Square in Moscow.  Events were seen as an assault on Ukrainian national pride.

While nationalists wrote of Chernobyl as a malicious plot by Moscow, literary artists and academics who had previously praised the “modernity” of nuclear power now joined in its vilification.  At the end of the 1980s Ukrainian environmentalists were portraying Chernobyl as a symptom of Moscow’s eco-imperialism.

By 1990, many political candidates linked denuclearization with Ukrainian independence and the new parliament approved a five year moratorium on new nukes.  That moratorium was annulled in 1993 as rulers of the newly independent Ukraine decided that the country’s market economy needed energy and employment and that nuclear power could provide both.

The big factor that could advance the popularity of Plokhy’s Chernobyl is its constant portrayal of the Soviet system as the ultimate cause of the disaster with the alternative being the safer nukes constructed by western countries.  Count on the US nuclear industry to give a standing ovation to that conclusion.

This is the “uh-ooh.” Do we really need cold war propaganda masquerading as insight to bring down the nuclear behemoth?  Instead, let’s take a realistic account of problems with the full life cycle of nuclear power:

  • mining uranium exposes every living creature in its path to radiation;
  • milling radioactive material exposes workers and nearby residents;
  • transporting nuclear fuel by rail or truck to a plant potentially exposes every living thing along the route;
  • everyday operations of nukes exposes people to radiation leaks and “near misses;”
  • the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima catastrophes continue to be devastating for millions;
  • decommissioning a nuke affects workers as it permanently degrades the surrounding area;
  • transportation of nuclear waste to a storage site again threatens every living thing en route;
  • storage of radioactive waste for millions of years has the same potential to unravel the web of life as does climate change and poses the question: How can the short term economic benefits possibly outweigh the costs of nuclear storage for eternity?
  • military use of nuclear material has always lurked behind claims of economic benefits, meaning that all nuclear power plants increase the likelihood of war; and,
  • perils of the destructive potential of nukes inherently require a monolithic and controlling state, as opposed to wind and solar power which are vastly less risky.

By catering to the crafted misperception that explosions are the single, solitary danger of nukes and barely mentioning or ignoring these obvious hazards, the book sidesteps the big picture.

Plokhy briefly notes that Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” nuclear weapon expansion forced the USSR to escalate in response, even though it was seeking an opposite course.  In doing so, the author refutes his own claim that the root cause of the Soviet plan to increase nuclear power was its internally driven urge to expand production.

If the ultimate cause of the Chernobyl explosion could be shifted from operator error and design flaw to an alleged Soviet fascination with nukes, then why not shift the cause further to the US-sponsored nuclear expansion which provoked the response by the USSR?  An honest analysis of the devastation of Chernobyl would identify nuclear technology itself as the fundamental problem, regardless of the country employing it.

Even though the book refers to the 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown in the US and Japan’s 2011 meltdown at Fukushima, it continuously blames Soviet incompetence for Chernobyl.  Clearly the author has an axe to grind against the bureaucratic mode of production and this muddles his explanations.

In particular, it muddles interpretation of nasty efforts to cover up the catastrophe at every step of its unfolding.  Yes, Soviet bureaucrats were less than forthcoming in the extreme. Interpreting this as a symptom of Sovietism implies that rulers of capitalist society are beacons of truth and openness.  To put it mildly, this is false.

Immediately after the Three Mile Island meltdown US citizens were told that there were no radiation releases; then “informed” that the radiation was “insignificant;” then told that fuel inside the core did not melt and no one needed to evacuate the area.  Similarly, volumes could be written of cover-ups of agrochemicals and other toxins, climate denial, and under-reporting of species extinctions in the US and they would still barely scratch the surface of what we do not hear.

Asking readers to believe that Western nukes are somehow “safer” than Chernobyl is a bit like saying that a high school shooter who kills 4 students is “safer” than one who kills 17.

In the 1950s, my parents heard the promise that nuclear plants would soon be producing electricity that was “too cheap to meter.”  When an elementary school student, I participated in absurd “duck and cover” exercises.  As the sirens were going off, we marched into the hall, sat with our backs to the wall, ducked our heads down and covered them with our hands.  As if that would protect us from a nuclear fallout.  A decade later, others who had the same childhood experience created the famous poster including those instructions and ending with the command to put your head down between your legs and kiss your ass goodbye.

Though assuring readers that US reactors are safer than Soviet-era ones, the author fails to mention the Price-Anderson Act, passed in 1954 at the dawn of the nuclear era to encourage private companies to build nukes by limiting total liability to $700 million.  The hushed-up fear was that no one would insure a nuke if the power company had to pay out untold billions of dollars in damages.  If US nukes are “relatively” safe, then there is no need for Price-Anderson and it should be repealed.  The fact that no power company advocates this is proof that they could never pay out-of-pocket for the full damage one of their nukes could cause.

How can a statement be true and false at the same time?  It is true if the facts given are correct.  It can simultaneously be false if it cherry-picks those facts in order to manufacture a broad interpretation divorced from reality.  Plokhy shows how to do this in an account of Chernobyl.

One of the biggest pieces he leaves out of the Chernobyl puzzle is the number of deaths caused by the accident.  Plokhy briefly quotes the estimates of 4000 by the UN and 90,000 by Greenpeace International.  But he relies most heavily of the figure of 5000 cancer deaths by WHO in 2006.  He does not even mention the far more thorough 2009 study by Yablokov, Nesterenko and Nesterenko published by the New York Academy of Sciences. That analysis cites much more research, covers a much larger area, includes projected future radiation poisoning, examines a broader range of cancers and birth defects, and estimates 985,000 deaths.

After documenting the incredible suffering in the Ukraine, the author of Chernobyl makes an astounding call for more international cooperation in EXPANDING nuclear power.  Though providing a fascinating story of what happened there, he ends up amplifying the very problem he condemns.

• This review was first published at Green Social Thought

 

Remembering Big Dead Place

The image of Antarctica in common circulation is environmental and utopian.  The scientist of valour, the investigator thirsting for discovery in a litmus test environment that will give warning about current and impending variations in temperature that will affect the globe.  Noble stuff indeed.

On other occasions, the continent has tickled the conspiratorial mind.  Did Adolf Hitler find relief and sanctuary in such frozen climes instead of perishing in his Berlin bunker in 1945 before the Soviet onslaught?  Did the Nazis establish a base that would dock extra-terrestrial aircraft? Tyle Glockner of SecureTeam10 videos certainly finds food for thought there. “The continent,” he said tritely last year, “has been shrouded in a mystery of its own for years now.”
Despite being deemed a “triumph of the global commons” where “state sovereignty has remained unrecognised” in favour of “the principles of peace and environmental protection”, another, somewhat neglected view, also exists of this glacial wonderland.

Nick Johnson was one who recorded and chronicled life working in Antarctica at McMurdo Station, doing so with a degree of wit and ruthlessness that led to his masterly compilation Big Dead Place.  But it was not an account of the dingy corridors of White Hall or the dank context of a police state apparatus.  He was considering the human encrustations that had found themselves on the earth’s seventh continent, one filled with its fair share of intrepid explorer corpses.

Venturing to his website, now generally defunct in terms of links, one finds an entry by a certain Lazarus B. Danzig, described as “a manager in an unnamed department at McMurdo Station.”  White collar management is examined and revealed for its absurd guiding principles, a farce in slow motion. “The average manager in Antarctica insists on indoor temperatures that would call for air conditioning were they summering at home. And, while the outside temperatures might for months remain well below zero, they will wear clothing suitable to Sub Saharan Africa or perhaps Polynesia.”

Such is the managers’ role of defiance: to resist, and deny the environment they exist in.  Manual labour is shunned while “Blue Collar day outdoors provides more exercise than a month of inane managerial exertions.”  And it is the role characterised by certain markers: the promotion of mediocrity; the cultivation of “marooned scavengers” who clamber up the hierarchy.

Interviews were also posted, featuring the mocking bleakness rife at McMurdo.  One contractor is philosophical: “Antarctica prepared me for the War Zones, a stepping stone which made the transition to Iraq a little easier.” Another speaks about not being able to get enough disco clothes.  “They are a source of infinite delight.” Then come the somewhat sinister undertone: secrecy, clandestine insinuations and a sense of menace fostered by that big daddy corporation, Raytheon.

Johnson sketches the absurd popularity of Antarctica as façade and the station as micro reality.  “Today,” he writes in one account, “the international science community working in Antarctica is carrying on this proud legacy, helping us to learn more about global processes affecting Earth’s environment.  Consequently, we will have the solid scientific information we need to develop sound environmental policies.”

Other tasks must also be performed.  There are menial but necessary. Needs must also be met, perversions sated.  Johnson was clearing the rubbish and station detritus, an unheralded garbo, personified Blue Collar grunt.  “Though I am a garbageman and I spent Independence Day sorting through vomit-covered aluminium cans, the warm glow of your Midwinter’s Day greeting,” he pens in a note to US President George W. Bush in 2001, “reminded me of my contribution to learning and knowledge.”

Illusions are punctured; hope given a good dampening before a regulated world and hierarchy policed by Raytheon.  He dismisses the nobility of the US mission in Antarctica, which he rightly noted as being less about altruistic engagement than geopolitical fancy.  In such an environment, other projects were being pursued. NASA psychologists, for instance, take to Antarctica’s bases to examine what human behaviour might look like in a simulated lunar setting.

The manager’s response to such accounts as Johnson’s is typical: ignore, deny and repudiate.  Why did he return if he detested his experiences? Why would he actually work in such a horrid environment?  This is the usual deflection adopted by those who wish to accept the horrors they perpetuate, the ghastliness they foment.

On being refused a permit to work another stint at McMurdo, Johnson suffered inexorable decline. After taking his life at the end of a shot gun at his West Seattle home, barely a murmur registered across the US literary landscape.

Johnson seemed drawn to Antarctica, not so much as a doomed explorer finding El Dorado but as part of an intrepid life that took him to South Korea to teach English, drive a taxi in Seattle.  On the most barren of terrains, the most viciously hostile of environments, relief as a sharp observer could be found. It was then taken away from him. In refusing him return, the indifferent bureaucrat’s revenge was assured.

A Tool to Combat Washington’s Middle East Wars

The Plot to Attack Iran gives a readable and well-referenced look at Western — especially US — abuse of Iran. The author and human rights lawyer Dan Kovalik presents a concise overview of US imperial conduct since World War II. The book is a reminder, which we need from time to time, of the outrageous hypocrisy and deceit of the US government and the corporate media. Kovalik also drives home that Washington’s foreign policy operations are not just a threat to other countries, but threaten the basic safety of the US people.

The US strove to crush any Iranian attempts to create their own development path for their country, particularly as oil became an important resource. The US has continuously sought to overthrow the government since the 1979 revolution. The book reviews the US-British coup against Iranian democracy in 1953 which installed the brutal Shah, who established the SAVAK torture network. The double standard of Jimmy “Human Rights” Carter, the struggle against the Shah’s murderous regime, the rise of Ayatollah Khomeini, the background to Iran-Contra, the US playing both sides against each other during Iraq’s war on Iran, the US relations with the Taliban, and the US-Saudi war on Yemen are all covered.

One aspect that could be added to the book is a summary of the social gains made by the Iranian people in the Islamic Republic, particularly under President Ahmadinejad (2005-2013), who instituted many anti-neoliberal programs which helped the poor. For instance, poverty had been reduced to one-eighth of what it was under the Shah, while health care is free for those who can’t pay.

Kovalik does note that in 1970 only 25% of Iranian women could read and write. By 2007 it was 80.3%, compared to 88.7% for men, and 90% percent of women are enrolled in school, free for all even through university. While about one-third of university students were women before 1979, now women make up 65 to 70% of the students. Women are legally entitled to ninety days maternity leave at two-thirds pay, have an entitlement to employer-provided child care centers, both gains which are denied women in the US. Iran has an equal pay for equal work requirement, also denied women here.

1953: US Overthrows Iranian Democracy

That Iran has an Islamic government which the United States and Israel abhor, is a direct result of the US coup against Prime Minister Mossadegh in 1953. The US’ subsequent support of the Shah made popular revolt inevitable, and when it broke out the US directly supported Islamists in Iran over the secular left.

Mossadegh had taken action to nationalize Iranian oil, then mostly under British control. Britain proceeded to sabotage Iran’s oil production and export, wrecking its economy.  Mossadegh actually appealed to President Eisenhower to mediate and resolve the issue in a way Eisenhower saw fit. The US reply came in the form of a coup, which showed many of the tactics we have seen in recent color revolutions and regime change interventions, one of the most current being in Venezuela.

CIA agents bought off secular politicians, religious leaders and key military officers, newspaper editors, hired thugs to run rampant through the street, sometimes pretending to be Mossadegh supporters, sometimes calling for his overthrow, anything to create a chaotic political situation. Thousands of demonstrators, unwittingly under CIA manipulation, surged through the streets, looting shops, destroying pictures of the Shah, and ransacking the offices of royalist groups. The impression was that Iran was sliding towards anarchy.

The Shah then took power and for a quarter century established one of the most barbarous regimes in the world.

US Trains Shah’s Military and SAVAK Torturers

The CIA helped train the Iranian security services in torture techniques—techniques borrowed, as in the case of Pinochet’s Chile, from the experienced experts, the Nazis. Every year 350 SAVAK agents were taken to CIA training facilities in Virginia, where they learned interrogation and torture. Top SAVAK brass were trained through the US Agency for International Development’s (USAID) Public Safety Program. SAVAK created torture prisons that outdid Dante’s Hell. The CIA filmed techniques it had taught SAVAK to use and made them available to torture centers in other countries.

The most common SAVAK instrument was an electrically heated table called the ‘frying pan,’ on which the victim was tied down by his hands and feet. Many died on these tables. Often, the accused was already raving by the time he entered the torture chamber—few people could bear the screams they heard while they waited, nor the smell of burning flesh.

This “Made in the USA” product makes it clear why Iran calls the US “The Great Satan.”

Amnesty International stated in 1974, 20 years after the US-backed coup and US training of repressive forces, that no country had a worse human rights record than Iran under the Shah. Yet Jimmie Carter maintained weapons supplies to Iran, and the human rights situation got even worse.

In 1978, anti-Shah street protests in Tehran drew more than a million strong. The Shah’s army, trained by the US, killed 4,000 demonstrators in Tehran’s Jaleh Square on September 8 alone. Kovalik notes that if such a thing happened in Venezuela or Cuba, or in Iran in 2018, this would be cause for the United States to invade. There was an explosion of corporate media condemnation against China during the Tiananmen Square protests ten years later, where probably one-tenth the number were killed. But who knows of this Jaleh Square massacre – not the only one – outside of Iran? Yet Washington approved of it, continuing to back the Shah and his methods for another half year.

1980s: US Provides Iraq with Chemical Weapons for their War on Iran

Kovalik notes the flagrant hypocrisy of the West’s noise about chemical weapon attacks in Syria, repeatedly and without evidence blaming the Assad government. Not only did the West arm Saddam Hussein’s Iraq with chemical weapons, but it downplayed their massive use against Iranian troops and civilians.  Kovalik reminds us of the US’ widespread and criminal use of chemical weapons in Korea, Vietnam, and more recently in Iraq in Fallujah and Mosul.

The US Department of Commerce and even the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) exported to Iraq items used for chemical weapons and nuclear weapons development. The US government approved 771 different export licenses of dual-use technology to Iraq.  The CDC sent Iraq 14 separate agents “with biological warfare significance.” The CDC was not involved in controlling disease, but in spreading it.

For its part, Iran itself refused to use chemical weapons against Iraq, and also pronounced a fatwa in 2005 against developing nuclear weapons. The UN International Atomic Energy Agency determined in 2003 and 2007 that Iran did not intend to build a nuclear weapon. This was confirmed by sixteen US intelligence agencies.

The US armed Iran the same time it aided Iraq in its war on Iran and used $18 million from the $30 million in weapons sales to illegally fund the Nicaragua contra terrorists after Congress had cut off their aid. This became known as the Iran-Contra Scandal. Israel, with US consent, also sold Iran hundreds of millions of dollars of US-manufactured weapons during the Iraqi war on Iran. Later Washington funded the contras by directing them to import crack cocaine into the US, fueling a drug addiction epidemic.

Kovalik notes that “the United States is continuing this cruel policy of playing both sides against each other today by supporting, but also trying to contain, ISIS forces in order to molest and undermine both Syria and Iran.”

Incredibly the US without shame justified its 2003 war on Iraq with the claim that Saddam Hussein possessed “weapons of mass destruction,” in particular, banned chemical weapons, which the West had previously sold him. That was, as is said now, “fake news” because Hussein’s chemical weapons had been destroyed under UN supervision years before.

To heighten the hypocrisy, the US itself used chemical weapons (white phosphorus and depleted uranium) in its war on Iraq in 2003, causing spikes in cancer rates and birth defects in areas like Fallujah.

US Trains Taliban in Afghanistan

During this whole period the US had been increasingly intervening in Afganistan. It was instrumental in ousting the progressive secular government in Afghanistan by supporting Islamic extremist forces, the Mujahideen, which included Osama bin Laden. The US later aided the Taliban taking power, and backed them until 2001. Al Qaeda then turned on the United States and, among other things, carried out the 9/11 attacks against the United States.

Osama bin Laden was himself a Saudi, and, as we now know, Al Qaida has received much support over the years from Saudi Arabia, the United States’ long-time partner in crime in the Middle East and mortal enemy of Iran. Yet, while Iran cooperated with the US in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban after 9/11, and while Saudi Arabia financed the 9/11 attack more than any other country, the US has remained closely allied with Saudi Arabia against Iran.

In early 2001, the US pledged $124 million in aid to the Taliban. But when negotiations between the two worsened over an oil pipeline project, the US threatened to carpet bomb and invade Afghanistan — even prior to the September 11 attacks.  Jane’s Defense Newsletter reported that in March 2001 Washington was planning an invasion.

Kovalik notes that in 2006 the FBI listed bin Laden on its “Most Wanted List,” but it did not include the 9/11 attacks as a basis for this listing. The FBI chief of investigative publicity stated, “The reason why 9/11 is not mentioned on Osama bin Laden’s Most Wanted page is because the FBI has no hard evidence connecting bin Laden to 9/11.”

While ruling Afghanistan, the Taliban had basically eradicated opium production (from which heroin is made). Then just four years after the US invaded and allied with the drug lords there, 90% of the world’s heroin came from that country. We now have what Trump admits is a “national health emergency” due to opiate addiction, yet it was US policy that contributed to that epidemic.

This shows how Washington’s foreign policy threatens the US people: contributing to the present opiate epidemic; creating the previous crack epidemic and the ongoing cocaine epidemic (which comes from US ally Colombia); financing and supporting the Taliban allies who attacked the US on 9/11. The US aided the rise of ISIS with arms and funding and is closely allied to Saudi Arabia, the country more than any other responsible for 9/11, ISIS, and Al Qaeda affiliated groups. The US has sought to destroy secular left movements in the Middle East, in Egypt, in Iraq by putting Saddam Hussein in power, in Iran by working with the Shah to murder it off and bringing in Khomeini as the lesser evil, in Afghanistan by using the Mujahideen and Taliban to eliminate the previous progressive government. In sum, the US has helped to empower Islamic extremists.

US War on Iraq

After invading Afghanistan, the US invaded Iraq, though it had nothing to do with 9/11. Saddam Hussein, like the leadership of Iran, had been a mortal enemy of Al Qaeda. “Iran watched in 2003 as its neighbor Iraq was invaded by the United States and its coalition partners, suffering the worst destruction it ever had since the Mongol invasion of 1258 led by Genghis Khan. And Iranians are painfully aware that the United States is intent on doing the very same to their country.”

When the US overthrew Saddam Hussein, whose base was among Iraqi Sunnis, Iraqi Shiites came to power, who then allied themselves with Shiite Iran. Then Washington sought to weaken Iran, which it had just strengthened through the Iraqi invasion.

Washington turned to aiding the very forces who attacked on 9/11 as a tool to contain Iran. The US aided Sunni extremists in Libya and Syria to try to overthrow Gaddafi and Assad. The US supported the opposition in Syria from the beginning and has spent $12 billion funding it just from 2014-2017. Now Iran is lawfully in Syria (and Iraq) to fight ISIS and Al Qaeda at the invitation of the Syrian government. In contrast, the US intervention in Syria is in violation of international law. Trump has announced the US will stay in Syria, not to fight ISIS, but to counter Iran, which has become a regional power due to US miscalculations in its interventions in the Middle East.

Present Day Threats against Iran

The US under both Obama and Trump has been arming and aiding Saudi Arabia in bombing and blockading Yemen (dependent on imports for 90% of its food), alleging the Houthis are “proxies for Iran,” and creating starvation and slaughter of Yemeni civilians. In Yemen, 22.2 million people need humanitarian assistance, 17.8 million are food insecure, and 8.4 million people are severely food insecure at risk of starvation.

The Iran nuclear deal, which Trump wants to scuttle, did not serve to significantly alleviate the economic problems the Iranian people faced. Sanctions on Iran have cost the country $160 billion since 2012, and Trump has increased these sanctions.

The 2017 protests in Iran were sparked by cuts to social benefits, a consequence of sanctions and US-Saudi engineered fall in oil prices. Washington spent over $1 million trying to convert the protests into a push for regime change, and another $20 million on Voice of America’s Persian Service seeking to turn Iranians against the government.

This brutal anti-democratic US conduct against Iran is similar to what it has also inflicted on Greece, El Salvador, Argentina, Chile, Guatemala, Brazil, Dominican Republic, Indonesia, etc. – if the US did not resort to massive invasion, killing millions as in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq.

We can see the brutal present world the US has created when we compare what humanitarian Third World leaders it overthrew or sought to, compared to the US-backed leader: Arbenz and the Guatemalan dictators, Sukarno and Suharto, Lumumba and Mobutu, the Sandinistas and Somoza, Goulart and the Brazilian generals, Allende and Pinochet, Mandela and apartheid, Mossadegh and the Shah, Chavez and the Venezuelan putschists, Fidel and Batista, Aristide and the Haitian generals, Juan Bosch and Balaguer, and so on. These are great losses to creating a more humane world.

Now the US blames Iran and Russia for the problems confronting the Middle East, and the US government wants us to believe that regime change in Iran will help fix the problem. This ignores the fact that none of the other regime changes the United States has been involved in have done anything but make matters worse. Millions have been killed, modern countries destroyed, and the US national debt has skyrocketed.

The Plot to Attack Iran gives us a well-referenced summary to the US war against Iranian democracy and the complex situation in the Middle East. The US has been backing groups it is also at times fighting, groups that still engage in terrorist attacks against the US, France, and Britain.

Kovalik’s book is a useful resource for our anti-imperialist movement. We get a taste of what liberal-lefts will say and do as the US advances its regime change strategy in Iran by looking at how they responded to the US attack on Libya and on Syria. The Plot to Attack Iran will aid us when we confront the same expected capitulation by much of this “left” when the US pushes ahead with its war plans on Iran.

Nature’s Breaking Point

Ever wonder how the classical philosophers/economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo would view today’s credo of infinite economic growth, forever more, above and beyond yesteryear.  Well, in a word, they would be horrified. Ricardo, similar to the father of capitalism Adam Smith, believed in the concept of a “stationary state” when the land gets fully exploited and material progress comes to an end.

These classical economists did not advocate limitless growth, which today is how neoliberal advocates see their destiny. In fact, Ricardo added the “law of diminishing returns” to Smith’s original thesis, which included bold mention of the “stationary state.”

Well, surprise, surprise, or maybe no surprise! Today, Adam Smith and Ricardo would be labeled heretics as capitalism has morphed into a universal conviction that humankind is destined for enrichment via unparalleled unlimited economic growth. As such, GDP is revered; it’s maddeningly godly, a quarter-by-quarterly séance whilst prostrate on hands and knees in solemn prayer for profits, and more profits, and even more after that!

But, are there limits, and if so, what if limits are exceeded?

Then, what happens?

As a matter of fact, the limits have been exceeded by a country mile. That fact is beautifully expounded in graphic detail in Donald Worster’s Shrinking The Earth: The Rise & Decline of Natural Abundance (Oxford University Press, 2018).

“Always, humans run up against nature’s limits.” (Worster, pg. 49) It happened at Nantucket Island. The island literally dried up in 1864 when the last lone whaler came back nearly empty-handed. Over the preceding decades, the whalers, like wild bloodthirsty hounds chasing game, exceeded nature’s breaking point. At its peak the whaling fleet numbered 700 vessels, massacring whales and returning home filled to the brim with whale oil bounty, the massive carcasses left to scavengers.

Today’s infinite growth mind trip, seemingly “on electric Kool-Aid,” originated with the discovery of fossil fuels, a transition from an agrarian economy to an industrial revolution powered by carbon-rich remains of ancient plants. Coal created a new world order of economic endeavours, supplying 25% of all fuel energies by the 1870s. The success and growth of the emerging Industrial Revolution depended upon it.

Still, the greatest philosopher/economist of the English language of the 19th century, John Stuart Mill, one of the last of the great classical economists, similar to Smith and Ricardo, advocating trade liberalization and competitive markets, still harbored many doubts; e.g., whether endless growth was good for the human spirit.

According to the celebrated economist, reaching an end to growth might lead to a more enlightened happiness and satisfaction, freeing people from “extravagant dreams of material plenty and encourage them to seek other forms of fulfillment… In contrast, the ideology of progress, with its intense drive for wealth, was leading toward a new kind of deprivation. Increasingly, it was depriving men and women of any moral or spiritual purpose, leaving them trapped in a culture of excessive materialism.” (pgs. 53-54) Subsequently, Mill’s statement has been proven downright prophetic!

Worster takes the reader along fascinating pathways of Americana; e.g., the start of the modern conservation movement by George Perkins Marsh’s landmark book Man and Nature (1864), “man must learn to live with limits of nature,” an early trumpet of doom that represented the intellectual transition from the “age of plenty” to an “age of limits.”

Marsh argued that ancient Mediterranean civilizations collapsed due to environmental degradation, and, of course, they did, as they are faster than ever today! He saw early telltale signs of identical trends in the United States, as early as mid 19th century, over 150 years ago. Marsh’s Man and Nature next to Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was considered one of the most influential books of the 19th century.

It was over 100 years later when the public at large was roundly exposed to limits to America’s celebrated infinite growth dogma with publication of Dennis and Donella Meadows’ punch-to-the-gut treatise The Limits to Growth (1972), the best selling (over 12 million copies in initial years) and most controversial environmental book post WWII.  “It was the book that cried wolf. The wolf was the planet’s environmental decline, and the wolf was real.” (pg. 157)

That wolf, circa 1970s, emphasized natural resource depletion more so than ecological destruction. However, ever since, scientists have increased knowledge of the earth exponentially, thereby demonstrating limits on several levels, terrestrial, oceanic, and atmospheric. “To ignore those limits, they warn, would be to put at risk the planet and human life.” (pg. 189)

Thus, scientists have discovered the limits posed by the planet’s natural systems and capacity to sustain life. Nowadays, those limits stick out like a reddened throbbing thumb, chemically debased ecosystems and crazed/loopy hydrological cycles and dangerous atmospheric concentrations of GHGs heating up the planet, threatening all life like never before throughout human history.

Meanwhile, nature’s breaking point is already nearly at hand in the Western United States from where the majority of America’s food-growing capacity feeds the country. Of course, nobody rings a bell to announce the official start of “the breaking point,” but Worster is quick to point out a troubling stranglehold developing throughout this key breadbasket region. Climate change, too much human-generated CO2 warming the planet, is altering hydrological cycles, especially in the Western U.S., to such an extent that California, the most bounteous state in the union, could experience a drop of 70% to 80% in its current water supply, assuming climate change, as it is now progressing, continues, thus prompting the million-dollar question: What’ll stop it?

Alas, also at the breaking point, across the acidic-infested, CO2 laced, heated up Atlantic Ocean and thru the Mediterranean Sea to its eastern and southern landmasses, the world’s biggest drying-out of land and aquifers is fast approaching crisis levels, accompanied by more and more frequent dust storms which scientists believe may turn into the equivalence of America’s infamous Dust Bowl of the 1930s, as the incredible historical flourish of the Tigris/Euphrates Fertile Crescent dries out at record rates.1

Alternatively, technology is the catchword and modus for continual drumbeat favoring the infinite growth credo, unrelenting GDP growth for eons. But forlornly, as expressed by Worster: “Technology does not open up immense, profitable frontiers of natural resources, untapped oceans filled with fish… or atmosphere rich in oxygen.” (pg. 222)

All of those precious resources were opened up anew to humankind with the advent of Christopher Columbus’s famous, or maybe infamous, voyage in 1492, which opened up, in Worster’s words, a “Second Earth,” the Americas to “First Earth” descendants.

The Second Earth,  a vivid bounteous land of riches is now part and parcel of today’s vast unrelenting Shrinking The Earth complex. Too much of it is now gone, or totally debased, with nowhere to turn for another great discovery, no more Christopher Columbus trips. There is no Third Earth.

Worster ends his book with a chapter entitled “Field Trip: Athabasca River”, which perfectly encapsulates the theme, Shrinking The Earth:

Scientists discovered that oil sands lay under nearly a tenth of Alberta’s territory, including the Athabasca area…The uncomfortable truth is that reclamation probably cannot succeed within any single lifetime, or perhaps for centuries… The companies, led by Syncrude, cannot wait that long and retain public confidence, so they have devised a strategy that is still in the early stages of experimentation. Near an old mine site close to the river stands a model of man-made, accelerated reclamation, a ‘park’ named Gateway Hill that Syncrude offers as proof of its commitment and determination to ‘return the land back to nature’… Gateway Hill boasts a hiking trail winding through a thriving set of aspens, the early succession trees of the boreal forest. It looks over a smoothly contoured artificial lake, a large hay meadow with mowing machines, and a small fenced compound where six bison are kept for viewing. This carefully nurtured mosaic has returned the earth from sterility to a practical, recreational, and suburban tidiness…. THE END.

Postscript:

Our option is to choose our own limits, or let nature chose them for us.

— Donella Meadows, American author, The Limits to Growth (1972)

  1. NASA, Earth Data, 2016.

Commercializing Peace?

This article is an adaptation of one of my book reviews. I am adapting it for this venue because I want to share far and wide with readers what corporate citizenship and social responsibility are not versus what the corpocracy and its allies would have you think they are.

The book is about how responsible corporate citizenship can achieve peace through commercializing it (readers in the know may be scoffing or laughing already).1 The author at the time was on the faculty of the business school at the University of Notre Dame, Director of the Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business, an ordained Catholic priest, and an editor or author of fourteen books on business ethics. Sorry, but those credentials really don’t impress me.

When I review books if I am at the least skeptical about them at the outset, I do my own exhaustive literature research to check on questionable findings or claims, and never more so than with this book. You will see why as we go along.

The book’s thesis is that the road to peace is through global commerce and adherence to a global code of ethics as codified in the UN’s Global Compact, described by the UN as both a policy platform and a practical framework for companies that are committed to sustainability and responsible business practices.2 That being so either the UN or the book ought to define peace, preferably operationally, so that we know if and when the Compact has achieved its intent. Neither do. The author does define the process of peace building as “the intentional confluence of improbable processes and people to sustain constructive change that reduces violence and increases the potential and practice of justice in human relationships.”3 I suppose I could translate this verbosity into some criteria for progress toward final peace, but why should I even try? I didn’t write the book.

This compact, as many critics including me see it, is nothing but a paper code of ethics that provides an opportunity for multi-national corporations (MNCs) to “blue-wash” (the U.N.’s flag is white/blue, and so is part of the book’s cover) their dirty business-as-usual.4 The compact is a voluntary initiative. There is no monitoring by the UN to see if the compact is being honored in practice and there are no penalties if it isn’t.

Much of the book consists of discussions about corporate social responsibility (CSR), related ideas such as corporate philanthropy and corporate citizenship, and corporate partnerships with non-governmental organizations, or NGOs, in negotiating and working with foreign governments and the populace. The book barely alludes to the fact that having and touting a CSR office and program is a way for the corporation to polish its tarnished image and defend its actions.5 Moreover, CSR is a superfluous concept. Sometimes CSR is referred to as the corporation’s third bottom line, but there are only two bottom lines that matter, the bottom line of results and the bottom line of ethics.  If a corporation conducts its business ethically, it is ipso facto being socially responsible. I don’t know of any corporation that is truly social responsible in all its ramifications.

The book contains case studies written by contributors purporting to demonstrate the commercialization of peace. If commerce does indeed yield peace, the evidence should be laid out in the book. Let’s sample some of the case studies and compare them outside the book with reality. I will tell you when a case contributor’s corporate affiliation may have compromised that person’s objectivity.

The Chevron case is written by a coordinator for the UN, Chevron, and the country involved, Angola. It is loaded with mineral resources, mainly oil and diamonds, and Chevron is Angola’s largest crude oil producer.6 Other than giving a miniscule $3 million to a project to help alleviate poverty, a project where some headway is claimed while admitting that much work remains to be done, and in a country no less where social unrest, crime and public protests were rising, nothing else in this chapter told me what else Chevron did.7 Its operations outside Angola get no attention in this book, operations that “are mired in human rights, environmental, and social damages and harm.”8

The Ford Motor Company case is basically a public relations piece on how the company is becoming environmentally responsible. Two of the contributors are Ford executives and the other two are academics. A few years before this book was written, Ford was heavily criticized by activists, with one claiming that “If Ford were a country, it would be the 10th largest global warming polluter worldwide.’’ 9 The contributors do acknowledge criticisms of Ford from environmentalists and respond that the company is committed to improving its environmental performance. I would guess that Ford has improved it in the last few years. But what does that have to do with peace through commerce? Ford, incidentally, is one of the U.S. corporations that reportedly “made significant contributions to Germany’s war efforts.”10 I would call that the normal “commercializing war.”

The third case is about the Swiss-based, corporation Nestles and what it is doing in developing nations. The contributors, an academic and a public affairs manager for the company, describe how Nestles, in partnership with NGOs and governments, has helped refurbish schools, build housing for the poor, provided earthquake damage relief, helped farmers who are suppliers to the company’s milk product operations, introduced sustainable farming methods, and has become a major food distributor. The contributors highlight a project that paired Nestles with an NGO to make two video series for conflict-torn Nigeria on conflict resolution techniques. The contributors concede that it will be years before they know if the project brings peace. What does Nestles look like outside the book? I found 13 corporate crimes (e.g., “unethical marketing of artificial baby milk,” “exploiting farmers,” “illegal extraction of groundwater”) reportedly committed by Nestles.11

The fourth case is about GE improving the health of the poor in Africa. One contributor is a new university graduate; the other is the VP of GE’s Corporate Citizenship and President of the GE Foundation. GE funded a $20 million initiative to improve the health care and infrastructure of hospitals in Africa. The contributors make the unsubstantiated claim that GE has seen immediate successes. Outside the book GE has been called “one of the most destructive corporations on the planet [because of its] global weapons manufacture and trade, with international criminal convictions for weapons trading fraud and money laundering,” and a “recidivist” corporate criminal “not merely [for its] number of crimes committed — or the dollar amount of the crimes — but a consistent pattern of violating criminal and civil laws over many years.”12

In the next case, a former government affairs analyst of Occidental Petroleum comments on the preliminary findings from the implementation of a “corporate code of conduct” in Columbia. I couldn’t find in the chapter what the findings are and can’t imagine they would amount to anything in any case as you will appreciate in a moment. The company reportedly had authorized several years earlier an air raid during an anti-guerilla operation at a village where one of its pipelines is located in Columbia that mistakenly led to the killing of 18 civilians, including nine children who, survivors said, “ran out of their homes to a nearby road with their hands in the air.”13 The chapter’s contributor says nothing about the air strike. He does mention native unrest and threats of mass suicides over oil explorations, militarization of the zone, and guerrilla sympathizers. He also notes how that history combined with the company’s relocating people and cutting illegal gas and water services near a new company oil well project would “inevitably complicate relations with local communities.” What an understatement! I doubt if the company’s new corporate code of conduct could have helped the company placate the natives.

In the last case I’ll highlight, the VP of international policy and government affairs and deputy general counsel for Bristol-Meyers Squibb (BMS) writes a very short chapter about his company’s $150 million commitment to a program for battling HIV/AIDS in several African countries. While the company has had skirmishes with the law, its program in Africa is certainly a worthy one and I suppose could be considered to represent a very early stage in the peace building process.14  A quick scanning of the Internet while writing this article shows BMS’s continuous record of various criminal activities.  It’s par for the course among pharmaceutical corporations.15

Conclusion

I’m no less skeptical and even more cynical about peace through commerce by MNCs after reading this book, especially its case studies. The book risks being an insult to people who know the real story about the UN and MNCs. Were the academic contributors in some instances bamboozled or corporatized? I don’t know. Maybe they are just very idealistic. I personally know a thing or two about idealism, and I am often called idealistic.

It’s incredibly idealistic and unrealistic to believe that the commerce of MNCs can put an end to all the warring and misery around the world today. It’s not at all inconceivable that corporatizing the world could eventually end life on the planet. The corporate balance sheet, after all, is remarkably insensitive to what matters most in life, life itself.

  1. Williams, O. Peace through Commerce: Responsible Corporate Citizenship and the Ideals of the United Nations Global Compact. 2008. Reviewed in the Book Section of the Personnel Psychology. Summer Issue, 2011, 540-545.
  2. United Nations Global Compact Office. UN. Corporate citizenship in the World Economy: United Nations Global Compact, October 2008.
  3. Williams, Ibid. pp. 98-99.
  4. See Brumback, GB. Toward Becoming a Great Corporation: Part One. The CEO Refresher Online, November 2009; Bruno, K & Karliner, J. Tangled up in Blue: Corporate Partnerships at the United Nations, Corporatewatch.org, September 1, 2000; and Knight, G & Smith, J. “The Global Compact and its Critics: Activism, Power Relations, and Corporate Social Responsibility”, In Leatherman, J. (Ed.). Discipline and Punishment in Global Politics: Illusions of Control, 2008, pp. 191-214.
  5. Brumback, GB. The Devil’s Marriage: Break Up the Corpocracy or Leave Democracy in the Lurch, 2007, pp. 144-145; Brumback, GB. “Corporate Charades. Part 2. Social Responsibility Programs”, OpEdNews, August 28, 2013; Dissident Voice, August 28, 2013; Uncommon Thought Journal, August 28, 2013; Cyrano’s Journal, August 31, 2013; Mitchell, N. The Generous Corporation: A Political Analysis of Economic Power.
  6. APS. Angola – Chevron Operations. APS Review Downstream Trends Newsletter Online, March 9, 2009.
  7. Monitor Staff. Angola. Business Monitor Online, September 16, 2009.
  8. Baker, DR. “Critics’ Annual Report Blasts Chevron”, San Francisco Chronicle Online, May 20, 2010.
  9. Buffa, A. “Activists Respond to Ford Motor Company’s Sustainability Report”, Global Exchange Online, October 19, 2005.
  10. Matthews, RA. Ordinary Business in Nazi Germany. In R.J. Michalowski and RC Kramer, State-Corporate Crime: Wrongdoing at the Intersection of Business and Government, Rutgers University Press, 2006, p. 118.
  11. Corporate Watch, Nestle SA. Corporate Crimes, June 2005.
  12. Corporate Watch. US: The Case Against General Electric, August 1, 2001.
  13. Montero, D. & Whalen, K. Columbia: “The Pipeline War”, PBS, November 2002.
  14. Reisinger, S, “Bristol-Myers Takes its Medicine: Pharmaceutical Giant is the First Company to Sign a Deferred Prosecution Agreement and then Violate It”, Law.Com, September 20, 2007.
  15. Brumback, GB. “Inside the Corpocracy: Big Pharma and Servile Government”, Cyrano’s Journal, June 18, 2013; Dissident Voice, June 18, 2013; OpEdNews.com, June 21, 2013.

Speaking the Unspeakable: The Assassination and Martyrdom of Thomas Merton

Killing a man who says ‘No!’ is a risky business,” the priest replied, “because even a corpse can go on whispering ‘No! No! No! with a persistence and obstinacy that only certain corpses are capable of.  And how can you silence a corpse?”

— Ignazio Silone, Bread and Wine, 1936

Fifty years have elapsed since Thomas Merton died under mysterious circumstances in a cottage at a Red Cross Conference Center outside Bangkok, Thailand where he was attending an international inter-faith monastic conference.  The truth behind his death has been concealed until now through the lies and deceptions of a cast of characters, religious, secular, and U.S. governmental, whose actions chill one to the bone.  But he has finally found his voice through Hugh Turley and David Martin, who tell the suppressed truth of Merton’s last minutes on earth on December 10, 1968.

This is an extraordinary book in so many ways.  First, because the authors prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Trappist monk and anti-war writer Thomas Merton was assassinated and did not die in a fabricated accident, as has been claimed for all these years.

Second, because it is so meticulously researched, sourced, documented, and logically argued that it puts to shame and the lie to so many works, including academic ones, that purport to be profound but fall apart once carefully inspected, especially all those that have been written about Merton and his alleged accidental death. These false accounts of his death, obviously presented purposely by the key players – that he was electrocuted by a fan while wet from a shower – have been repeated ad nauseam over fifty years as if curiosity were reserved for cats and a writer’s job were to repeat commonplace absurdities. And, of course, the mainstream media, the prime organs of propaganda dissemination, have carried out their function by repeating these lies at every turn. The transparency of Turley and Martin’s presentation is greatly enhanced by the presence of footnotes, not endnotes, which allow readers to easily check sources as they read. Most footnotes refer to primary documents – letters, police reports, etc. – that are reproduced in an appendix that is, however, in need of enlargement, but whose contents have, for some odd or not so odd reasons, escaped the thousands of writers who’ve penned words about Merton.

Third, because it greatly expands our understanding of that fateful year – 1968 – by adding the prophetic Merton’s name to the list of well-known anti-war leaders – MLK and RFK – who were slain that year by U.S. government operatives intent on crushing the growing opposition to their genocidal war waged on Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. The links between these assassinations are made manifest as one follows the authors’ brilliant analysis that allows an informed reader to see the template common to them all and one that clearly leads to intelligence agencies practiced in the arts of murder and cover-up.

Fourth, because it proves that in the long run the pen is mightier than the sword, and the spiritually powerful poetic words of a God-entranced man living in seclusion can rattle the cages of men who embrace the void of violence while rejecting the spiritual essence of all religions – that non-violence and love are the laws of existence.  Merton may be dead for his killers, but not for those who hear his voice whispering on every page: “The very thoughts of a person like me are crimes against the state.  All I have to do is think: and immediately I become guilty,” Merton wrote in “A Signed Confession of Crimes Against the State.”

Lastly, because The Martyrdom of Thomas Merton markedly forces the reader to face its harsh truths and examine one’s soul and complicity in evil as one learns of the perfidy and betrayal of Merton by friends, associates, and biographers whom a naïve person might assume are beyond reproach, until, that is, one reads this book.  It is a very hard lesson to accept and understand.  But Hugh Turley and David Martin sequentially force the reader to contemplate such matters; to conjecture why some have conspired and abetted in Merton’s murder and especially its fifty year cover-up.

Thomas Merton (Fr. Lewis) was a Catholic monk, poet, writer and theologian who became very well-known in 1948 with the publication of his autobiography, The Seven Story Mountain, which became a bestseller.  Over the next dozen or so years, he published many books on religious themes, mainly avoiding social or political subjects.  But although he lived in a monastery, and eventually by himself in a hermitage nearby, he corresponded widely and was tuned in to worldly events.  He became a friend and mentor to religious/political activists such as Martin Luther King, Fathers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, James Douglass, among many others.  He was a friend of Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker.  He corresponded with Boris Pasternak and Ethel Kennedy; wrote about Albert Camus and Eugene Ionesco.  During the 1960s his writing turned more overtly political while remaining rooted in a deep mystical and contemplative spirituality.  He became a major inspiration for radical activists who opposed nuclear weapons, the Vietnam War, and the materialist way of life fostered by capitalism that relied on the spread of the American empire through world-wide violence.  Although living far away from the din and drama of day-to-day politics, his writing, encouragement, and influence were profound, and he became a major impediment to the propaganda and policies of the military-industrial-political-intelligence complex.  He was an inspiration whose spirit disturbed church and state in the most radical way. Turley and Martin say of him:

Merton saw clearly that devotion to truth could not help but bring a person into conflict with sinister special interests.  The effectiveness of the truth-seeker would, of course, be greater to the extent he could rally others to his cause, but ultimately, he said, the truth seeker’s strength lay in trust in God.

Merton died on the afternoon of December 10, 1968 when those sinister special interests snuck up on him.  He had just given a talk, had lunch, and returned to his cottage shortly before 2 P.M., accompanied by Fr. Francois de Grunne, O.S.B. (Order of Saint Benedict) from Belgium, who shared the cottage with Merton and two others, Fr. Celestine Say, O.S.B. from the Philippines, whose room was across from Merton’s on the first floor, and John Moffit, a journalist editor whose room was directly over Merton’s on the second floor adjacent to de Grunne’s. The walk from the dining hall to the cottage took 10-15 minutes.  Say and Moffit were walking a good distance behind Merton and de Grunne and arrived at the cottage about 5-7 minutes after them. When they entered the unlocked building, they did not see Merton and de Grunne and presumed they had gone to their respective rooms.

Shortly after de Grunne and Merton entered the cottage, Merton was killed.  The actions of de Grunne, a mysterious figure who, according to the authors, “seems to have fallen off the face of the earth” and whose “abbey will not even respond to our questions about him,” clearly make him a prime suspect in the crime.  His actions and story are not believable and are contradicted by the most reliable witness, Fr. Say, whose statements have been absolutely consistent.

Beyond speculation, however, are the facts gathered by the authors that clearly prove that from the start there was a concerted effort to make a crime look like an accident.  These efforts were initiated by de Grunne, who was the first to call it an “accident,” but ably assisted by many others, including the Thai police or their surrogates, whose police report was released by the U.S. Embassy seven months after Merton’s death and has no title, author, date, photographs, laboratory reports, or investigators’ memos, and omits the testimony of the first two witnesses on the scene, Fr. Say and Fr. Egbert Donovan, who viewed Merton lying in a position and dressed in shorts totally inconsistent with the accidental death scenario.  Most importantly, this “report” omits an autopsy report since no autopsy was conducted, a dead giveaway that a cover-up was underway.  When a person is found dead, the first assumption of a competent investigation is that a crime may have been committed, and when the victim is found with a sever gash on the back of his head, is lying in a position inconsistent with an accident, an autopsy becomes essential.  But none was performed in Thailand or when Merton’s body arrived back at the Abbey of Gethsemani.  That the United States Embassy, at the request of Most Reverend Dom Rembert Weakland, O.S.B., who was presiding over the conference, had the U.S Army take possession of Merton’s body shortly thereafter, embalm it, and five days later fly it back to the U.S. aboard a military plane together with the corpses of American casualties of the Vietnam War is not only supremely ironic but downright suspicious.

The first public report of Merton’s death was delivered on December 11, as Turley and Martin report:

On December 11, 1968, the Associated Press reported that Merton had been electrocuted when he touched a short in a cord while moving an electrical fan, according to anonymous [my emphasis] Catholic sources.  The initial news reports did not include any important details such as who found Merton, the names of any witnesses or officials at the scene, or who determined it was an accident. The Thai doctor’s cause-of-death certificate and the official death certificate said Merton died of sudden cardiac failure, but failed to mention the bleeding rear head wound seen by witnesses.

Most importantly, when Say and Donovan first saw Merton lying on the floor on his back, his legs straight, and his arms straight down by his side with palms to the floor as if placed in a coffin, with a floor fan lying across a thigh to the opposite lower waist, Donovan urged Say to take photographs of Merton before the crime scene was subsequently disturbed.  They were very suspicious.  Through great detective work, Turley and Martin have acquired a copy of these two photos, but they have been prohibited by the current abbot of Gethsemani from publishing them or even an artist’s rendering of them.  The authors say:

The photographs taken by Say are the best available evidence of the actual scene of Merton’s death… The reason the monks took the photographs, as we have emphasized, was to document exactly how they found the body.  As we have seen, people whom they would hardly have ever suspected, have consistently done their best to suppress those images.  The photographs are an essential resource to anyone interested in knowing the truth about how Merton was killed.

But it is clear that many people would like to suppress that truth and have been hard at work doing so for half a century.  But since this is intentionally a quasi-review because one must read this book from beginning to end to grasp the intricacies of this murder mystery and the cast of characters that comprise it (no review can do justice to such a detailed and brilliant investigation, and, even so, attempting one would spoil the book), I will end with the authors’ words:

Contrary to the common view, there is really no mystery about how Merton died.  The best evidence indicates beyond any serious doubt that Merton was murdered.  It’s a simple fact that the average person is far more likely to be murdered than to be killed by an electric fan, and Merton was no average person.  The story that a fan killed Merton is so preposterous that a series of fantastic stories have had to be invented to make it believable….Who did it and why? The CIA had the motive and the means.

1968: It was a very dark year: MLK, RFK, and Thomas Merton – martyrs all.

If we want to see clearly and revive hope, the time has come to face the faces of the ghastly gallery of liars and deceivers guilty of these crimes.  Only then can we live the truths their victims suffered and died for.

Then we too can confess with Merton that we have thought “Crimes Against the State.”

America’s Dystopian Future

Imagine a privatized America where rugged individualism reigns supreme within a vast network of corporate America, Inc., similar to 19th century wild west lifestyle, no social security, no Medicare, no Medicaid, no public law enforcement as individuals stand their own ground. Read all about it in Scott Erickson’s The History of the Decline and Fall of America’s Dystopian Future, (Azaria Press, 2018).

Erickson’s newly released semi-fictional satire of American history and subsequent decline into deepening pits of despair is a sure-fire treasure trove of Americana, at its best. It’s a page-turner par excellence, rich in accurate textured American history and jam-packed with imagery of a dystopian future that is simply unavoidable based upon America’s character and development over the past two centuries. The dye was cast long before onset of dystopian existence.

The History of the Decline and Fall of America highlights and exposes inherent limitations of democratic capitalism whilst explaining in full living color a future American dystopia that is fully expected based upon America’s beginnings from the time of Captain John Smith at historic Jamestown (1607). The history lesson therein is superb, not missing a beat of what shaped America up to the final tipping point of neoliberal dogma and beyond into a deep dark world order.

This beautifully written and conceived historical fiction is a witty tour de force of America past, present, and future, weaving together all of the historical elements into one coherent story from the widely accepted version of American “business success ” of the early period, but over time wistfully morphing into abject failure!

That process of failure, the root causes, is what intrigues. For example, “Americans were not only inventing a country but inventing what it meant to be an American.”  Indeed, America came into being as a brand new experiment in capitalistic democracy. Within that quest for a new way forward, inclusive of equality and fraternity amongst equals, Erickson discovers and reveals unique American traits that belie that mission, leading to a neoliberal/privatization hellhole that goes horribly wrong.

That fascinating pathway is explained via enchanting quips, for example, de Tocqueville’s remarkably astute comment: “I know of no country, indeed, where the love of money has taken a stronger hold on the affections of men.” This one isolated statement from the 1830s tells a tale of American character molded by artificiality of wealth creation simply for the sake of possessing it. America’s pursuit of happiness was the “pursuit of affluence” and remained its dominant trait for the “remaining 200-plus years of American history.”

Indeed, those predominant American character traits are flushed-out and analyzed in the context of eventual failure, of a dystopian world order emanating out of America’s clumsy experimentation with empire-building and constantly striving for the pot at the end of the rainbow, meaning economic growth above all else. It was a frontier spirit that fed into elusive goals of preeminence: “The frontier resulted in Americans being doers rather than thinkers….”

Real scenes of real American cocksuredness, as well as the clumsiness associated with raw ignorance, come to life; e.g., during the presidential race between Ike and Adlai Stevenson in 1954: “A revealing incident occurred while Stevenson was campaigning for president. A citizen shouted to Stevenson that he ‘had the vote of every thinking person.’ Stevenson replied, ‘That’s not enough. We need a majority!”

This is excellent history, comparable to a textbook, as well as a peek into the future shaped via trends rooted throughout Americana. Erickson’s lessons in American history are genuine and accurate, which gives the book depth and a powerful sense of significance well beyond similar treatises that try to lay the challenging groundwork leading to how a nation turns sour into a dystopian society.

He weaves the path of Manifest Destiny all the way from 1840s to the planting of the American flag on the surface of the moon. Until the 1970s when American pre-eminence tipped downward, humiliated in Vietnam in what future generations came to know as “The Vietnam Syndrome,” the psychological attempt to live with the unacceptable reality that it was possible for America to not win.

Not only was America no longer a winner in war, its “unparalleled level of affluence… began to decline.” The 1970s marked the high point, forever downward into a bottomless septic tank, a cloaca of messy foul shit earmarking America’s final destiny, third world status within a realm of excessive, pretense of wealth glistening behind spiked electronic gates.

The signs of decline were easy to spot by the early-mid 2000s:

… the situation had declined dramatically. According to statistics from 2015, among industrialized nations, America was notable for having the highest poverty rate, the lowest score on the UN index of ‘material well-being of children,’ the highest health care expenditures, the highest infant mortality rate, the highest prevalence of mental health problems, the highest obesity rate, the highest consumption of antidepressants per capita, the highest homicide rate, and the largest prison population per capita. By international standards, the rural counties of southern West Virginia and eastern Kentucky qualified as developing countries, as did large sections of American cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Gary, and many others. (p. 112)

Thereafter, America’s youth no longer embraced the long-standing belief that they would have more than their parents. No, they knew it would be less and less. America entered a “permanent recession” cycle.

By the late 2030s America experienced a series of extreme crises.  A number of cities declared bankruptcy. Houston, America’s 4th largest city, goes bankrupt. Cleveland goes bankrupt. The head of the Federal Reserve quits and becomes a banjo player in a bluegrass group. America’s banking system collapses under the weight of fishy loans and massive crazed derivatives all permitted by increasingly hands-off regulations. The brutal hand of libertarianism smears a once proud republic.

Regular citizens, entire families carry torches surrounding Wall Street in protest of lost savings, ATMs not functioning, banks closed. An economic death spiral unleashed. The Save America Act followed, consisting of pure right wing neoliberal fix-its to save corporate America, to save Wall Street, turning to America, Inc. as the only answer to all that ails.

And, as the financial markets unravel in the face of nationwide bankruptcies, the government convincingly informs the public: “We need to defy the Constitution in order to preserve it… Americans were so thoroughly confused about the relationship between government and economics that most of them thought that the terms democracy, free-enterprise, and capitalism were the same thing.” (Pg. 165)

As time progresses, America’s Labor Day is changed to Management Day, and the Catholic Church is permitted to re-name the Statue of Liberty as “Our Lady of Perpetual Economic Growth.” America the nation turns into America, Inc. It is the only way the establishment knows to drive the country out of its doldrums. As such, The Star Spangled Banner is changed to The Free Market Ramble.

Privatization of the entire country in harmony with massive tax cuts alongside elimination of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public education, law enforcement, postal service, and maintenance of roads and infrastructure, thereafter, people take care of themselves from birth to the death, alone with family backing. Self-directed medical care becomes a beacon of survival of the fittest of the fittest. Those that participated as youngsters in Boy/Girl Scouts have a leg up in a society that increasingly places emphasis on rugged individualism. However, the many, many weaklings stumble in rows after rows of slimy gutters.

In the end, and similar to America’s 2008-09 financial collapse, which was only a warm up for much bigger things to come:

The decisive trigger, the one that pushed America beyond the point of no return, was the total collapse of the economy. It had been something of a miracle that the doomed economy had not collapsed long before. Toward the end it had been sustained by little more than momentum, since according to all economic indicators it should not have been functioning at all. The economic system based on infinite growth had reached the point where it could grow no more. American banks could not pay off previous debt by making further loans to generate more money. The pyramid scheme was over… An eerie calm descended upon all those involved in economics and finance.