If you enjoyed the global corporatocracy’s original War on Islamicist Terror, you’re going to love their latest spinoff, The War on White Supremacist Terror. It’s basically just like the old War on Terror, except that this time the bad guys are all white supremacists, and Donald Trump is Osama bin Laden … unless Putin is Osama bin Laden. OK, I’m not quite sure who’s Osama bin Laden. Whatever. The point is, the Terrorists are coming!
Yes, that’s right, some racist psycho murdered a bunch of people in Texas, so it’s time to “take the gloves off” again, pass some new kind of Patriot Act, further curtail our civil liberties, and generally whip the public up into a mass hysteria over “white supremacist terrorism.”
The New York Times Editorial Board is already hard at work on that front. In a lengthy op-ed that ran last Sunday, “We Have a White Nationalist Terrorist Problem,” the Board proposes that we would all be safer if the government — but presumably not the current government — could arbitrarily deem people “terrorists,” or “potential terrorists,” or “terrorist sympathizers,” regardless of whether they have any connection to any actual terrorist groups, and … well, here’s what the Editorial Board has in mind.
The resources of the American government and its international allies would mobilize without delay. The awesome power of the state would work tirelessly to deny future terrorists access to weaponry, money and forums to spread their ideology. The movement would be infiltrated by spies and informants. Its financiers would face sanctions. Places of congregation would be surveilled. Those who gave aid or comfort to terrorists would be prosecuted.
The Board didn’t mention the offshore gulags, wars of aggression, assassinations, torture, mass surveillance of virtually everyone, and other such features of the original War on Terror, but presumably all that kind of stuff would be included in “the awesome power of the state” that the Board would like the U.S. government to “mobilize without delay.”
The Times was hardly alone, of course. In the wake of the El Paso and Dayton shootings, the corporate media went into overdrive, pumping out “white supremacist terrorism” mass hysteria around the clock. The Guardian took a break from smearing Jeremy Corbyn as an anti-Semite to proclaim that El Paso was “Trump-inspired Terrorism.”The Sydney Morning Herald declared that the U.S. is now officially in the throes of a “white nationalist terrorism crisis.“The Atlanticlikened Trump to Anwar al-Awlaki, and assured us that “the worst is yet to come!“ Liberal journalists and politicians rushed onto Twitter to inform their followers that a global conspiracy of white supremacist terrorists “emboldened” or “inspired” by Donald Trump (who, remember, is a Russian secret agent) is threatening the very fabric of democracy, so it’s time to take some extraordinary measures!
Never mind that it turns out that two of the three “white supremacist terrorist” mass murderers in question (i.e., the Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton shooters) do not appear to have been white supremacists, and that none of them were linked to any terrorist groups. We’re living in the Age of Non-Terrorist Terrorism, in which anyone can be deemed a “terrorist,” or a “suddenly self-radicalized terrorist,” regardless of whether they have any actual connection to organized terrorism.
Terrorism isn’t what used to be. Back in the day (i.e, the 1970s), there were terrorist groups like the PFLP, ANO, BSO, IRA, RAF, FARC, the Weather Underground, and so on … in other words, actual terrorist groups, committing acts of actual terrorism. More recently, there was al Qaeda and ISIS. Nowadays, however, more or less any attention-seeking sociopath with a death wish and a knock-off AR-15 (or moron with a bunch of non-exploding pipe bombs) can be deemed a bona fide “domestic terrorist,” as long as it serves the global capitalist ruling classes’ official narrative.
The official narrative of the moment is Democracy versus The Putin-Nazis (also known as The War on Populism), which I’ve been covering in these columns, satirically and more seriously, for the better part of the last three years. According to this official narrative, “democracy is under attack” by a conspiracy of Russians and neo-Nazis that magically materialized out of thin air during the Summer of 2016, right around the time Trump won the nomination. OK, the Russia part kind of sputtered out recently, so the global capitalist ruling classes and their mouthpieces in the corporate media are now going full-bore on the fascism hysteria. They’ve been doing this relentlessly since Trump won the election, alternating between the Russia hysteria and the fascism hysteria from week to week, day to day, sometimes hour to hour, depending on which one is “hot” at the moment.
These recent mass shootings have provided them with a golden opportunity, not just to flog the fascism hysteria once again, but to fold it into the terrorism hysteria which Americans have been indoctrinated with since September 11, 2001 (the objective of which indoctrination being to establish in the American psyche “the Terrorist” as the new official enemy, replacing the “Communist” official enemy that had filled this role throughout the Cold War). If you think the original War on Terror was just about oil or geopolitical hegemony, check out “leftist” political Twitter’s response to the El Paso and Dayton shootings. You’ll find, not just hysterical liberals, but “leftists” and even so-called “anarchists,” shrieking about “white supremacist terrorism.” It was the number one U.S. hashtag on Monday.
No, the original War on Terror (whatever else it was) was probably the most effective fascist psy-op in the history of fascist psy-ops. Fifteen years of relentless exposure to manufactured “terrorism” hysteria has conditioned most Americans (and most Westerners, generally), upon hearing emotional trigger words like “terrorist” and “terrorism” emanating from the mouths of politicians (or the front page of The New York Times) to immediately switch off their critical thinking, and start demanding that the authorities censor the Internet, suspend the U.S. Constitution, and fill the streets with militarized vehicles and special “anti-terror” forces with assault rifles in the “sling-ready” position. This tweet by Geraldo Rivera captures the authoritarian mindset perfectly:
In the meantime, there must be active-shooter trained, heavily armed security personnel every place innocents are gathered.
I’m not quite sure what “in the meantime” means. Perhaps it means until the USA, Western Europe, and the rest of the empire, can be transformed into a happy, hate-free, supranational corporate police state where there is no racism, no fascism, no terrorism, and no one ever says bad things on the Internet.
What a glorious, transhuman world that will be, like a living, breathing Benetton ad, once all the racists, terrorists, and extremists have been eliminated, or heavily medicated, or quarantined and reeducated!
Until then, the War on White Supremacist Terrorism, Domestic Terrorism, Islamicist Terrorism, Russian Terrorism, Iranian Terrorism, anti-Semitic Labour Party Terrorism, and any other type of terrorism, extremism, hate, conspiratorial thinking … oh, and Populism (I almost forgot that one), and every other type of non-conformity to global capitalist ideology, will continue until we achieve final victory! It’s coming … sooner than you probably think.
Damn, here I am, at the end of my essay, and I almost forget to call Trump a racist. He is, of course. He’s a big fat racist. I should have put that right at the top. I’m already in hot water with my fellow leftists for not doing that enough. Oh, and for the record, in case there are any other kinds of Inquisitors reading this, I also renounce Satan and all his works.
On May 13 the Oval Office in DC was graced by the presence of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Orban is known for his defense of ‘Christian Europe’ against invading migrants along with the accompanying ‘virus of terrorism’ and for what he calls ‘illiberal democracy’, which includes such initiatives as restricting press freedom, undermining judicial independence, and shutting down Central Europe University, while circulating some obvious anti-Semitic propaganda around its founder George Soros. Donald Trump, as could be expected, gave Orban a grander than most European capitals,
rambling ‘Viktor Orban has done a tremendous job in so many way. Highly respected. Respected all over Europe, probably like me, a little bit controversial, but that’s ok. That’s ok. You’ve done a good job, you’ve kept your country safe.’ Then adding ‘I know he’s a tough man, but he’s respected and he’s done the right thing, according to many people, on immigration. And you look at some of the problems that they have in Europe that are tremendous because they’re done it a different way than the Prime Minister.’
Of course Orban is far from the first strongman to receive a red carpet in Washington. The list of such specimen who have gotten a warm reception at the White House is too numerous to count. The House of Saud has been an honored guest for decades. What brought the spotlight on this encounter is that Orban is mentioned as being part of a vast resurgent right-wing populism with which Trump himself is often grouped. Meanwhile days after Orban’s visit, the Brexit crisis finally brought down Theresa May with her Tory government in Britain still trying to square the circle on Brexit having already received two extensions in the process. Shortly after May’s announcement right-wing parties, including in Britain with Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, made significant gains in the EU parliamentary elections.
Since the Brexit vote in June 2016 innumerable gallons of ink have been spilled on expanding right-wing populism, governments that bill themselves as everything from ‘nationalist’, along with its corollary ‘anti-globalist’, to ‘illiberal.’ Trump was elected in November 2016. Rodrigo Duterte won the presidency of the Philippines in that May. In Italy an alliance of the Five Star Movement and The League (formerly the Northern League) assumed power in May 2018, Jair Bolsonaro was convincingly elected in Brazil five months later. In Poland the Law and Justice Party won a parliamentary majority in 2015 (it previously was the largest party in parliament 2005-2007). Orban has been in power since 2010.
Like all narratives this one is prone to overstatement. On May 20, 2019 the New York Times had this on its front cover:
And in India, where the world’s biggest parliamentary election… the electorate seems poised to bring back Mr. Modi (Narendra Modi), extending the wave of victories by right-wing populists around the world… Around the world, it has become the age of the political big man, and no one disputes that Mr. Modi is the biggest force India has produced in decades.
Modi did indeed go on to win a landslide reelection on the back of Hindi nationalism and in the aftermath of a military confrontation with Pakistan. Yet Hindi nationalism has been building in India for decades and tension with Pakistan has been endemic since the partition back in 1947. Can a strong comparison truly be found with Trumpism in the U.S.? Such differences stand out between all these figures. Duterte and Bolsonaro were elected in the midst of very bad crime waves on ‘law and order’ platforms that emphasize ‘zero tolerance’ for alleged criminals and drug users. Both rail against ‘feminism’, ‘social justice’, and ‘socialism’ when convenient, which is often, especially in targeting the opposition to their bloody crime fighting policies (Duterte recently proclaimed he ‘cured himself’ of being gay, Bolsonaro publically proclaimed the importance of Brazil not being a ‘gay tourism paradise’). Immigration plays no part in their message. Bolsonaro pleaded ignorance on the economy, claiming only ‘superficial understanding’ and handing it off to University of Chicago trained economist Paulo Guedes as ‘Super Minister.’
Opposing Muslim immigration is the largest pillar of Orban’s and Polish President Andrezej Duda’s platform, their anti-EU rhetoric centering on negotiations during the migrant crisis of 2014-2015 and its aftermath. Their emphasis on sovereignty is in opposition to EU attempts to quota migrants. Orban’s government was successful in building a border fence along hundreds of miles of Hungary’s southern border. Orban also instituted a jobs program for his rural base, along with free school books, paid for partially by a tax increase. The Five Star/League coalition in Italy’s messaging also largely centers on anti-immigration, as does the appeal of the far-right Alternative for Germany which has made impressive gains since the migrant crisis. Trump too was elected on border security, with the same reactionary rhetoric about migrants, and he also brought a strong anti-free trade position to go along imagery about ‘American carnage’, occasional rants against political correctness, and appeals to ‘those were the days’ patriotism- infamously during the protests of NFL players during the national anthem.
Besides the noxious loudness of their collective personalities, along with perhaps the admiration of Steve Bannon, the one thread that runs through all of it is ‘anti-elitism.’ On the surface this translates to an obvious resentment of the influence that wealth has over governance. Trump ranted against the influence of Goldman Sachs, given the lucrative speaking fees it gave Hillary Clinton, before he appointed several Goldman figures to his cabinet. Yet the idea is vague and fluid enough to be extended in any direction. Given this easy fluidity elites are those who favor everything from immigration to secularism to environmentalism to socialism. Hence the pejorative ‘liberal’ is often attached to ‘elites’ both for clarity and scorn’s sake. In fact ‘elite’ has more or less become a replacement for ‘liberal’, the elite aspect a sort of red meat to working class cultural conservatism- ‘not only do they think you’re stupid they have more money than you do.’
Predictively when it comes to practical results populism thus far has come up short. Bolsanaro’s poll numbers are in freefall and the Brazilian economy has flatlined. Duterte’s slaughter may be producing an impressive body count but history clearly shows that ‘wars on drugs’ no matter how brutal hardly put a dent in drug trafficking. Trump constantly railed against the U.S. trade deficit during his campaign. In 2018 the deficit reached an all-time high. While the number of migrants crossing the border has declined greatly since the early 2000s, the numbers during the Trump presidency have surged to the highest they’ve been in over a decade. In December 2018 the Italian government backed off its debt exploding budget proposals in the face of EU sanction threats. Currently it is toying with a pathetic ‘mini-bot’ (mini Bills of Treasury, essentially IOUs) program to reduce its debt. None of the ‘Euro-skeptic’ parties are campaigning to leave the EU and the recent EU parliamentary election, by no means the most significant of elections, more often a forum for simple protest votes, saw about an equal increase for left wing parties, such as the Greens, as populist parties. In fact the Euro-skeptics, such as Italy’s hard-right interior minister Matteo Salvini, often cloaked themselves under the banner of saving Europe rather than leaving. Hungary and Poland have long been among the largest recipients of EU funding. Plus the European populist parties have their own divisions, primarily about the ‘Russian question’ with those parties in Western Europe, such as Marie Le Pen’s National Rally favoring warm relations with Vladimir Putin’s government and those in East cool to the idea.
The antagonists to the elites in populist imagery naturally would be the working and middle classes, any distinction between them simply blurring under the banner of ‘those who work.’ It is important to note that lack of distinction is due to the fact that this kind of producerism, defined as a conviction that the wealth produced in a society should belong to its producers, targets the allegedly parasitic poor masses just as much as it targets the rent seeking elites. The highpoint of the original Populist movement is often said to be the Omaha Platform which launched the Populist Party back in 1892. While the Omaha Platform properly railed against war and trusts there was the resolution that read:
That we condemn the fallacy of protecting American labor under the present system, which opens our ports to the pauper and criminal classes of the world and crowds out our wage-earners; and we denounce the present ineffective laws against contract labor, and demand the further restriction of undesirable emigration.
Much was made of Trump’s support from the white working class and though this proved to be overstated he did win his election through the Rust Belt. Much of the support from Brexit came from Britain’s deindustrialized heartland. In the context of working class displacement, low wages, capital flight, the endless quest for cheaper labor around the world for greater profits and shareholder value, the ‘globalism’ being railed against by the populists is simply another name for capitalism, hence the reason why these economic ‘nationalists’, who loudly wave the capitalist banner against the specter of creeping socialism, never quite get around to saying what it is they actually intend to implement. After all capitalists are perfectly free to argue that the elite doing what is in its interest is the key that unlocks prosperity for everyone but not to argue that capitalism is anything but elites ultimately doing what’s in their interest.
For instance, the economic power of China has become a pivotal issue in American politics. Indeed, if there is an actual proclaimed area of bipartisanship it is that China is an economic opponent whose progress has come at least partially, if not more so, at the expense of the United States. A study by the Economic Policy Institute estimates that the explosive growth in the trade deficit since China’s entry into the WTO in December 2001 has cost the U.S. 3.4 million jobs, 74 percent of them in manufacturing. Populists have seized on such numbers. An example comes from a piece in the New English Review titled ‘More Than a Trade War with China.’ There Brandon J. Weichert writes, under a subheading of ‘Death to American Manufacturing! All Hail China’s State Capitalism!:
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the first round of free trade deals was signed between American companies and China that would eviscerate the American manufacturing sector and help build China’s massive middle class. It was during this period that China also became the workshop of the world…There is a direct connection between the collapse of the American blue-collar community due to deindustrialization and the propulsive rise of the Chinese middle-class. Meanwhile, the coastal enclaves in the United States, where manufacturing was not as important… benefited most. It was in these bastions of prosperity where the policies to push those industrial jobs out of the American Midwest and into China were made—and these coastal metropolises rarely saw the negative downsides of these decisions. As American policy was increasingly determined by a conglomeration of corporatists, globalists, foreign-funded lobbyists, and airy academicians…
Obviously the author has never been to coastal enclaves such as New York, where deindustrialization caused the poverty rate to spiral in the last 40 years, or Baltimore where the effects of deindustrialization continue to devastate the city. The author’s use of ‘State Capitalism’ is instructive, clearly meant to distinguish it from ‘real’ capitalism thus save capitalism from itself from the criticism. If meant as a pejorative about state subsidies it obviously overlooks the fact that the U.S., much of Europe, and Japan heavily subsidize their agricultural sectors. Much is also made of technology transfers that China has required in joint ventures with multinational corporations. This again is largely theater: Last year when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ranked countries on how well they protected intellectual property China scored above Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and the Philippines. According to the Heritage Foundation annual index of ‘economic freedom’ the Chinese government intervenes less than American allies in India, Vietnam, and Brazil.
No threat of violence or death, nor certainly any concern for human rights, caused the global economy to make China the world’s factory, only the promise of cheap labor and great profit. Technology deals with Chinese partners were considered well worth it. As if global capitalism would bypass the country with the largest amount of surplus labor and the largest consumer market. In the end the Trump administration’s tariff war vs China won’t accomplish much in terms of bucking these trends, nor will the other populists succeed in stemming the underlying causes of the discontent they are exploiting such as uneven development, capital flight, and migration. However deep the populist moment goes it will pass. The contradictions of global capitalism will remain.
I don’t write much directly about climate collapse, even though by any measure it is by far the most important issue any of us will face in our lifetimes. And I can gauge from my social media accounts that, when I do write about environmental issues, my followers – most of whom I assume share my progressive positions – are least likely to read those blog posts or promote them.
I have to consider why that is.
As I explained in my last piece, the environment has been a concern to me since my teenage years, back in the early 1980s. It should now be a concern to everyone. And while polls in the UK show that most people are worried to some degree about climate change and the state of the planet, the majority are either still not concerned at all or concerned only a little.
Part of the problem, I start to think, is that we are approaching climate change all wrong. And that addressing it correctly is just too difficult for most of us to contemplate because it demands something profound from us, something we fear we are incapable of giving.
When I share climate change material on social media, it is invariably graphs produced by climate scientists showing the alarming trends of a warming planet. Others, I see, do the same.
But really is that what all this is about? Most of us – at least the ones sharing this stuff – understand that the science is now conclusive. Even, I suspect, those who deny climate change do so not because they believe the data are wrong but because accepting the reality is too overwhelming, too terrifying.
And this gets to the heart of what we need to talk about. Those persuaded by the graphs and the data no longer need those materials, and those unpersuaded aren’t going to heed the science anyway.
So maybe we need to talk less about the science, the graphs and climate change, and much more about ideology, about the inconvertible fact that the planet is dying before our very eyes and about how we have conspired in that act of ecocide. What got us into this mess wasn’t science, what got us here was ideology.
Consumerism our god
In my last blog I noted that scientists kept a low profile when they most needed to speak out, back in the 1990s and 2000s – in part because they were denied a platform, but chiefly because they failed to push themselves forward. That was when the evidence of climate collapse was irrefutable and there was time to start changing our societies to avoid it.
The reason the scientists held back is significant, I think. It wasn’t because they had doubts, it was because the dominant paradigm of our societies – the paradigm shared by almost all of us, the scientists included – was so deeply in conflict with what was needed to bring about change.
For decades – until the financial collapse of 2008 raised the first doubts – we were driven exclusively by a paradigm of endless economic growth, of ever-increasing resource exploitation, of a spiralling personal accumulation of goods. Consumerism was our individual god, and the Stock Market our collective one.
They still are. It’s just that the real, physical world – not the one we constructed out of narrative and ideology – keeps slapping us in the face to try to wake us up from our slumber.
The oceans didn’t fill with plastics last year. Some 1 million species didn’t start facing extinction this month. And the atmosphere wasn’t suddenly polluted with the greenhouse gas CO2 this week. These are trends that have been observable for decades.
The question we have to ask is why did David Attenborough and the BBC suddenly start noticing that everywhere they filmed – from the high seas to the deepest ocean beds – was polluted with plastic? This wasn’t new. It’s that they only recently decided to start telling us about it, that it was important.
Again, scientists haven’t just worked out that there has been a massive loss of biodiversity even in the remotest jungles, that insect populations needed to maintain the health of our planet have been disappearing. The mass die-off of species has been going for decades, even before temperatures started rising significantly. So why have we only just started seeing articles about it in liberal media like the Guardian?
And, fuelled by greenhouse gases, temperatures have been steadily increasing for decades too. But only over the past year have all the record highs, the wildfires and anomalous weather conditions been reported – sometimes – in the context of climate breakdown.
Identifying with the enemy
The cause of these failures is ideology. The reality, the facts simply didn’t stack up with the way we had organised our societies, the way we had come to believe the world, our world, operated. We didn’t see ourselves – still don’t see ourselves – as in nature.
Rather, we have viewed ourselves as outside it, we have seen nature as something to entertain us, as parkland in which we can play or as an exotic place to observe through a screen as a reassuring David Attenborough narrates. Instead of considering ourselves part of nature, we have seen ourselves variously conquering, taming, exploiting, eradicating it.
Derrick Jensen, sometimes described as an eco-philosopher, offers a simple, but telling life lesson. He observes that when you get your food from a convenience store and your water from a tap, your very survival comes to depend on the system that provides you with these essentials of life. You inevitably identify completely with the system that feeds and shelters you, however corrupt, however corrupting that system is. Even if it is destroying the planet.
If you hunt and forage for food, if you collect water from streams, then you identify with the land and its water sources. Their health means everything to you.
We saw those two identification systems playing out as a terrible, tragic theatre of confrontation at the Standing Rock protests through 2016-17, between those trying to stop an oil pipeline that would destroy vital natural resources, risking the pollution of major rivers, and heavily armed police enforcing the system – our system – that puts corporate oil profits above the planet and our survival.
Anyone watching footage of those protests should have understood that the police were not just there to carry out law enforcement. They were not just there on behalf of the state and federal authorities and the corporations. They were there for us. They were there to keep our way of life, our suicidal pattern of living, going to the bitter end. To the point of our extinction.
Like them, we are battle-ready, heavily armed enforcers of an ideology, an insane ideology needed to protect a self-harming, nihilistic system.
A virus killing its host
This is not a question of science. None of those charts and graphs and data are actually necessary to understand that the planet is dying, that we have become a virus gradually killing its host. That is obvious if we look inside ourselves, if we remember that we are not police officers, or civil servants, or arms makers, or oil executives, or tax collectors, or scientists. That the system is not us. That we do not have to identify with it. That we can cure ourselves by learning humility, by rediscovering our inner life, by being in nature, by reconnecting with others, with strangers, by protesting against the system and its values, by listening to those the system wants to denigrate and exclude.
In fact, most of the scientists are very much part of the problem. They, like the media, now tell us how bad things are only because the patient is on life support, because her condition is critical. But those scientists are not ecological doctors. They are not qualified to offer solutions for how to revive the patient, for how to get her back to health. Those scientists who worked their way up through the institutions that awarded their qualifications of expertise are as identified with this suicidal ideological system as the rest of us.
We need more ancient wisdoms, dying wisdoms, of the indigenous peoples who still try to live in nature, to live off the land and in harmony with it, even as we make the conditions to do so impossible for them. We urgently need to find ways to simplify our lives, to ween ourselves off our addictive consumption, to stop identifying with the system that is killing us, and to seek leaders who are ahead of us in that struggle for wisdom.
First buds of resistance
In my last blog post, I called for more populism – not the reactionary kind created by our current leaders to confuse us, to justify more repression, to strengthen their own hand – but a populism that seeks to take power away from those who rule over us in their own, narrow self-interest, to re-educate ourselves that the system is a menace, that we need new social, political and economic structures.
Some readers objected to my call for more Extinction Rebellions, more Greta Thunbergs, more school strikes, more Green New Deals, more climate emergencies. They believe these groups, these strategies are flawed, or even that they are colluding with our corporate rulers, coopted by the system itself.
Let us set aside for a moment the cynicism that assumes all protests to stop us killing the planet are pointless, not what they seem, or intended to derail real change.
Yes, of course, the corporations will seek to disrupt efforts to change the system they created. They will defend it – and their profits – with all their might and to the death. Yes, of course, they will seek to subvert, including from within, all protests of all kinds against that system. We cannot reach an accommodation with these structures of power. We must overthrow them. That is a given. There are no accolades for pointing out these obvious truths.
But protests are all we have. We learn from protest. From their response, their efforts to subvert, we identify more clearly who the real enemies of change are. We grow in wisdom. We find new allies. When we discover that the institutional and structural obstacles are even greater than we imagined, we learn to struggle harder, more wisely, both to change the reality outside ourselves and the reality inside. We find new values, new models, new paradigms through the struggle itself.
Extinction Rebellion and the school strikes aren’t the end of the process, our last shout. They are the very first buds of a rapid evolution in our thinking, in our understanding of where we stand in relation to the planet and the cosmos. These buds may be clipped off. But stronger, more vigorous shoots will surely replace them.
It is worth considering what “populism” represents outside the kneejerk scaremongering of the liberal media. Conditions are created for populism when there is widespread loss of faith in a society’s traditional organs of authority: the political class, the “mainstream” media and expert institutions.
Those most exercised about populism, unsurprisingly, are the professional class in charge of those very same institutions. Their job has always been to guard the economic interests of the ruling elite.
The rise of populism in both its rightwing and leftwing manifestations, and the more general political polarisation in our societies, are the symptoms of a breakdown in trust, a collapse of consensus, a rupture of the social contract. And the reasons for these developments are staring us in the face.
Brexit, Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn and Ilhan Omar aren’t the causes of our problems. They are the products of increasingly confused, frustrated and angry electorates desperate to smash the stranglehold on our societies of failed “experts” – the political, media and academic class – that have so clearly betrayed us on behalf of the real power-holders: the corporations that run our societies.
Estranged from nature
One doesn’t need to be a Marxist to see that more than 150 years ago Karl Marx offered profound insights into the society of his time – and of our time too. He correctly observed that capitalism contained within it the seeds of its own destruction, and that industrialised workers suffered from “alienation” – they had lost any meaningful sense of their own humanity as they became little more than cogs in the vast, compassionless machinery of production processes. As a result, they were increasingly estranged from the natural world.
What was obvious to Marx then should be far easier for us to comprehend now.
Even so, his analysis was inevitably limited to what it was possible to imagine about the industrialised economies of that period. He could not have properly understood then that capitalism’s logic was as much a threat to the planet’s climate as it was to the working class, or that social media would one day offer the potential for us to liberate ourselves from official propaganda, even if at the same time it overwhelmed us with so much information, good and bad alike, that many of us have been left seeking solace in simplistic counter-narratives, turning real life into our very own version of Game of Thrones.
Nonetheless, these twin developments are very much the logical outgrowths of our highly corporatised societies. Climate change highlights capitalism’s inherent self-destructiveness, making it unmistakeable to growing sections of western publics. And at the same time the information revolution embodied by social media offers the hope of personal and collective transformation, a path to change and to ending the alienation that has brought us to the brink.
Today, the battle is between those who wish to cling to the sinking wreckage of the existing order – a turbo-charged neoliberal capitalism – and those who urgently want to encourage us down the path of radical change.
In the US context, the struggle is between the new insurgency politicians, on the one hand, and the Russiagaters who dominate the political and media landscape, on the other. Between those trying to reshape the political conversation so that it addresses for the first time in living memory issues that actually matter – the US imperial role in foreign wars; America’s long-standing anti-black racism, which Trump is formalising into an explicit white supremacism; the power of the gun and banking lobbies; the rule of the corporations – and those reassured by a lazy patriotism that pins America’s woes on easy bogeymen like Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
In the UK context, the battle is between devout Remainers – those who beatify the European Union, thinking it can somehow save us from ourselves – and the activists of Extinction Rebellion, who understand that we need radical new thinking and ideas, not a return to the 1970s. The divide is between those infuriated by peaceful demonstrations that briefly disrupt major highways and those warning that the near-permanent congestion on roads is one sign of our civilisation’s imminent demise.
Forget the politicians and the media: the issue is not whether the Brexit or Remain camp is right. Rather, the debate itself is an evasion, an endless displacement activity from the reality that we have a few years left to save ourselves; that we are just one of those 1 million species on the verge of extinction; and that all these species, us included, will either sink or swim together. No exceptions.
The Brexit-Remain debate is a symptom of our continuing arrogance, our refusal to confront the real challenge of what it means to be in harmony not only with other human beings but with life itself.
Waking from a slumber
Climate breakdown should be the wake-up call for us all, and yet there are still those who wish to distract themselves from the natural world from which we have been so deeply alienated. They still want to debate whether climate change is real; whether it is imminent and serious; whether human beings are responsible; whether we can fix it with technology; whether we can escape it by living in space.
Until we understand that these debates are an illness, a pathology that capitalism cultivated in us, such arguments will continue even as the planet’s colours, viewed from space, turn from green and blue to a scorched yellow and a burnt black.
But even as we try to wake up from our long slumber, we risk stepping into another trap. We have become so distrustful of experts and of our institutions that the starker the reality, as the facts of climate change reveal themselves physically, the more some people start to believe the dawning reality is a lie too.
This is another kind of evasion, but one that hides from itself – posing as dissent, as radicalism. These “dissidents” argue that the climate science is bogus, that the scientists are distorting the data to justify their salaries and funding, and that corporations are really behind what is simple alarmism.
This approach forgets that context is everything. Climate change is not new, even if many of us are waking up to it only now, very belatedly. It has been measurable for more than a century, even if the necessary intellectual framework for making sense of the science was absent.
The tree museum
British scientist James Lovelock, who had worked for Nasa on predictive modelling of the climates on other, unexplored worlds such as Mars, published the Gaia hypothesis in the 1970s, offering western publics the chance to understand Earth and its life systems holistically.
Of course, for decades his work was derided, including by other scientists, as a form of crackpot new ageism – even though today the idea that the planet is governed by a delicate balance of forces that can be easily disrupted and set off in dramatic new directions by feedback loops is the very basis of climate science.
Ecologists and a few artists of the time started to sense too that the western way of life was out of sync with nature, and that our species arrogance was endangering other life forms. In her song “Big Yellow Taxi” of 1970, Joni Mitchell not only condemned both our preference for the tarmac of parking lots over nature and the ecocidal habits of intensive agriculture, but reminded us of our ultimate alienation from the living world in this memorable and prophetic rhyme:
They took all the trees, and put ’em in a tree museum /
And charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em
The 1980s were my formative political years. Throughout that decade I dabbled in a simplistic environmentalism that focused on the responsibilities of individuals and the free market, rather than the state, to sort out the trail of ecological damage we were leaving.
I helped set up one of the first newspaper recycling banks in the UK and did my postgraduate journalism project on global warming. (Being trained as a “mainstream” journalist, I made sure not to alarm readers, concentrating instead on a jokey angle about the – admittedly very real – threat that ever larger herds of cows, farmed for McBurgers, were emitting through their farts vast quantities of the ultimate greenhouse gas, methane.)
The 1980s were probably the last chance we had to manage climate change in a controlled manner. And yet there was almost no pressure to make even the most superficial changes to our way of life. This was before most towns and cities had installed even rudimentary bicycle lanes, and before most shops sold long-life light bulbs – technology that had been around for almost a century and discarded because it was not profitable to the bulb manufacturers.
At that point it was all about short-term fixes that would not harm the profits of the big corporations, or better still might increase them: taking the poisonous lead out of petrol, and removing CFC chemicals from deoderants and fridges that were creating a hole in the protective ozone layer that surrounds the planet.
There were almost no scientists speaking out then, or at least not in ways that made any impact. Climate science was in its infancy, there was no funding for climate change research, and the academies trained scientists with a set of assumptions that precluded, or penalised, investigating climate change.
In a cautionary tale from that period, it was discovered that ground stations at the north and south poles had unwittingly identified the ozone hole many years before the alarm was raised in the late 1970s. But scientists had programmed the computers watching the skies to ignore anomalous results, such as large-scale ozone depletion. The data was there but the scientists’ own limited imaginations had meant they looked straight past it.
And that was what happened with climate change for many decades. It was staring the scientists in the face, but most were unable to see it – or comprehend its significance – because they were programmed, like the rest of us, to ignore it.
Secret climate research
During the 1980s that began to change. The evidence became so overwhelming, so evident on so many fronts, that most of the leading scientists were already agreed about the threat of climate change as I was mocking up my “green” newspaper front-page at journalism school in 1987.
In fact, we now know that by 1982 scientists working secretly for ExxonMobil had already plotted the future course of global warming. The science, even then, was so exact that the scientists predicted the critical moment would arrive in 2019 – 37 years hence – when carbon dioxide levels would reach 415 parts per million in the atmosphere and the mean global temperature would rise dangerously, by 0.9C. At that point, they warned, it would be impossible for the oil corporations to dissimulate any longer by pretending climate change was normal weather fluctuations.
The scientists’ forecast of 415ppm was exactly right. The threshold was crossed this week. They were slightly out on the temperature rise: it ocurred two years earlier than they had expected. The rapid track upwards of their graph from 2019 onwards should have us all terrified.
The @exxonmobil climate memo was one of several fascinating documents unearthed in 2015 by a Pulitzer-finalist series of stories by @insideclimate reporters
If this research was concealed, the public evidence was soon so incontrovertible that the oil corporations briefly abandoned trying to deny it. By 1991 the Shell oil company had funded a half-hour video on the dangers of climate change for showing in schools and colleges. The film was not intended to be controversial. It simply outlined the standard scientific view of the period, noting that a serious concerns about climate change were “endorsed by a uniquely broad consensus of scientists in their report to the United Nations at the end of 1990.”
This was a moment of reckoning for Shell and other oil corporations. The film was part of its public efforts to look responsible and serious about a well-documented threat to the planet, while at the same time, behind the scenes, the oil firms actively sought to subvert the science, to make sure it would soon have no impact on the public debate – or the industry’s profits. Those of us who lived through that period know exactly how the battle was won.
Clouded by uninformed opinion
As the science of climate change became stronger, and those studying it more expert, the noise about the danger it posed grew weaker. The science became clouded by uninformed opinion. Suddenly Margaret Thatcher’s former finance minister Nigel Lawson was regularly wheeled out by the BBC to pontificate on the climate – a subject he had precisely no qualifications to speak about. Lawson was just one of many other, self-appointed experts who were given plenty of room in the state-corporate media. They reassured us constantly that there was no reason to be concerned, that it should be big business as usual – a subject Lawson, for one, was eminently well paid to speak about.
The problem was not just climate denial. Through the 1990s a belief in what was then called environmentalism quickly came to be seen as cranky, fringe, alarmist. We were told – I was told – it reflected unresolved father issues, or a childish need for attention. We were just the modern equivalent of those Victorian doom-mongers with their blackboards warning that “The end is nigh!”
For nearly two decades the scientists seemed to be largely absent, and I – and probably a lot of other activists and potential activists – drifted away to find other issues to be concerned about (in my case Israel-Palestine). How were we to fight the general climate of climate denial if most scientists were not there to support us? How were we to persuade a confused public of the urgency of the matter if no one else, including the scientists, seemed overly concerned? If climate change really was the pressing threat we claimed, why were the BBC and the Guardian not treating it as an emergency too?
In the 1990s and the 2000s, climate change was treated as a far-off, theoretical problem, and one there would be plenty of time to think about should it turn out to be real.
Science didn’t stand a chance
It is hard for me to judge whether the scientists really did disappear. Was it the innate conservatism of the academy in capitalist societies that kept them quiet: the need for tenure, for corporate funding, for the approval of colleagues? Was it the fear of tarnishing their professional reputations by speaking out?
Or were the scientists afraid of being sent into the gladiatorial arena of the corporate media, where paid propagandists would disembowel them with soundbites, where trivialising news agendas would make them look comically earnest, where the journalists themselves would be bound to side with their billionaire owners over the science?
Or was it simpler still: that these scientists rarely, if ever, got invited by the media to offer their expertise?
It barely matters. What this period teaches us is that the whole structure of our societies ensured that the science – and the scientists – didn’t stand a chance.
Capitalism has a use for experts only in so far as they fulfil a narrow institutional role: to inflate the profits of the corporations, to shore up the media-manufactured consensus in favour of a rapacious neoliberal capitalism, to provide a veneer of legitimacy to a deeply corrupt and corrupting system of power. The science – which showed that our continued use of hydrocarbons would start killing us in a few decades – had to be coopted or silenced. And that is exactly what happened through the 1990s and the 2000s.
Time for genuine populism
Change only began in the 2010s, and alarm – the required response – has only just begun to register with a significant proportion of the population in advanced western societies, at maybe a third or so.
But the sudden concern about climate collapse among sections of the professional class – among some politicians, journalists, and academics – as well as among almost all of the expert class – the climate scientists – isn’t a reason to be distrustful. It isn’t evidence that we are being conned again by our elites, that the masters of spin are winning once more.
Rather it is a sign that, despite the best efforts of the corporations to deceive us over the past four decades, the game is up, the truth is out. Climate collapse is so close at hand, the window to avert our fate so narrow, that only the insane, the deeply propagandised and those so alienated from the natural world that they have lost all sense of themselves and what matters can still ignore the reality. We are teetering over the precipice.
Incredibly, a survey of the UK suggests that this alienated, propagandised group is still in the majority, at about two-thirds of the public. That is the true scandal, an indictment of the professional classes – the politicians, the journalists, the professors – for failing to speak out earlier, for failing to speak out more clearly, for leaving it so late.
The problem of our societies was, and is, not populism. We needed a genuine populism in the 1980s when the damage to the planet’s life-support systems became clear. Back then we needed the professionals and the experts to represent the interests of the public, the interests of themselves and their descendants, the interests of all the planet’s species, not the interests of a tiny corrupt elite determined to ignore the science and their own humanity to drive onwards oil-based economies they knew we were heading for the abyss, that would take us to the brink of extinction.
Today, we desperately need the populism of Extinction Rebellion, of Greta Thunberg and the school strikes, of politicians prepared to stand by a Green New Deal and declare real climate emergencies. Yes, the corporations – pathological to the bitter end – will try to coopt these groups and derail their actions, and produce their own versions of populism, the reactionary kind.
That is not reason to abandon populism. It is reason to stop trusting those who represent not us, not the planet, not its bounteous species but the corporations, wherever they are found – in our parliaments, in our media and in our universities. It is time to listen not to them, but to the still small voice inside each of us that was long ago battered into silence and submission.
Remember when the War on Terror ended and the War on Populism began? That’s OK, no one else does.
It happened in the Summer of 2016, also known as “the Summer of Fear.” The War on Terror was going splendidly. There had been a series of “terrorist attacks,” in Orlando, Nice, Würzberg, Munich, Reutlingen, Ansbach, and Saint-Étienne-du-Rouvray, each of them perpetrated by suddenly “self-radicalized” “lone wolf terrorists” (or “non-terrorist terrorists“) who had absolutely no connection to any type of organized terrorist groups prior to suddenly “self- radicalizing” themselves by consuming “terrorist content” on the Internet. It seemed we were entering a new and even more terrifying phase of the Global War on Terror, a phase in which anyone could be a “terrorist” and “terrorism” could mean almost anything.
This broadening of the already virtually meaningless definition of “terrorism” was transpiring just in time for Obama to hand off the reins to Hillary Clinton, who everyone knew was going to be the next president, and who was going to have to bomb the crap out of Syria in response to the non-terrorist terrorist threat. The War on Terror (or, rather, “the series of persistent targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America,” as Obama rebranded it) was going to continue, probably forever. The Brexit referendum had just taken place, but no one had really digested that yet … and then Trump won the nomination.
Like that scene in Orwell’s 1984 where the Party switches official enemies right in the middle of the Hate Week rally, the War on Terror was officially canceled and replaced by the War on Populism. Or … all right, it wasn’t quite that abrupt. But seriously, go back and scan the news. Note how the “Islamic terrorist threat” we had been conditioned to live in fear of on a daily basis since 2001 seemed to just vanish into thin air. Suddenly, the “existential threat” we were facing was “neo-nationalism,” “illiberalism,” or the pejorative designator du jour, “populism.”
All this madness has something to do with “populism,” although it isn’t clear what. The leading theory is that the Russians are behind it. They’ve got some sort of hypno-technology (not to be confused with those brain-eating crickets) capable of manipulating the minds of … well, Black people, mostly, but not just Black people. Obviously, they are also controlling the French, who they have transformed into “racist, hate-filled liars” who are “attacking elected representatives, journalists, Jews, foreigners, and homosexuals,” according to French President Emmanuel Macron, the anointed “Golden Boy of Europe.” More terrifying still, Putin is now able to project words out of Trump’s mouth in real-time, literally using Trump’s head as a puppet, or like one of those Mission Impossible masks. (Rachel Maddow conclusively proved this by spending a couple of hours on Google comparing the words coming out of Trump’s mouth to words that had come out of Russian mouths, but had never come out of American mouths, which they turned out to be the exact same words, or pretty close to the exact same words!) Apparently, Putin’s master plan for Total Populist World Domination and Establishment of the Thousand Year Duginist Reich was to provoke the global capitalist ruling classes, the corporate media, and their credulous disciples into devolving into stark raving lunatics, or blithering idiots, or a combination of both.
But, seriously, all that actually happened back in the Summer of 2016 was the global capitalist ruling classes recognized that they had a problem. The problem that they recognized they had (and continue to have, and are now acutely aware of) is that no one is enjoying global capitalism … except the global capitalist ruling classes. The whole smiley-happy, supranational, neo-feudal corporate empire concept is not going over very well with the masses, or at least not with the unwashed masses. People started voting for right-wing parties, and Brexit, and other “populist” measures (not because they had suddenly transformed into Nazis, but because the Right was acknowledging and exploiting their anger with the advance of global neoliberalism, while liberals and the Identity Politics Left were slow jamming the TPP with Obama and babbling about transgender bathrooms, and such).
The global capitalist ruling classes needed to put a stop to that (i.e, the “populist” revolt, not the bathroom debate). So they suspended the Global War on Terror and launched the War on Populism. It was originally only meant to last until Hillary Clinton’s coronation, or the second Brexit referendum, then switch back to the War on Terror, but … well, weird things happen, and here we are.
We’ll get back to the War on Terror, eventually … as the War on Populism is essentially just a temporary rebranding of it. In the end, it’s all the same counter-insurgency. When a system is globally hegemonic, as our current model of capitalism is, every war is a counter-insurgency (i.e., a campaign waged against an internal enemy), as there are no external enemies to fight. The “character” of the internal enemies might change (e.g., “Islamic terrorism,” “extremism,” “fascism,” “populism,” “Trumpism,” “Corbynism,” etcetera) but they are all insurgencies against the hegemonic system … which, in our case, is global capitalism, not the United States of America.
The way I see it, the global capitalist ruling classes now have less than two years to put down this current “populist” insurgency. First and foremost, they need to get rid of Trump, who despite his bombastic nativist rhetoric is clearly no “hero of the common people,” nor any real threat to global capitalism, but who has become an anti-establishment symbol, like a walking, talking “fuck you” to both the American and global neoliberal elites. Then, they need to get a handle on Europe, which isn’t going to be particularly easy. What happens next in France will be telling, as will whatever becomes of Brexit … which I continue to believe will never actually happen, except perhaps in some purely nominal sense.
And then there’s the battle for hearts and minds, which they’ve been furiously waging for the last two years, and which is only going to intensify. If you think things are batshit crazy now (which, clearly, they are), strap yourself in. What is coming is going to make COINTELPRO look like the work of some amateur meme-freak. The neoliberal corporate media, psy-ops like Integrity Initiative, Internet-censoring apps like NewsGuard, ShareBlue and other David Brock outfits, and a legion of mass hysteria generators will be relentlessly barraging our brains with absurdity, disinformation, and just outright lies (as will their counterparts on the Right, of course, in case you thought that they were any alternative). It’s going to get extremely zany.
The good news is, by the time it’s all over and Trump has been dealt with, and normality restored, and the working classes put back in their places, we probably won’t remember that any of this happened. We’ll finally be able to sort out those bathrooms, and get back to paying the interest on our debts, and to living in more or less constant fear of an imminent devastating terrorist attack … and won’t that be an enormous relief?