…how brutal Empire is…
We draw closer to another imperialist war and as the global economy creaks beneath our feet, red-baiting is again back in fashion.
We are to believe there is no choice between ISIS and Obama. There is no choice between abject poverty and crushing student loans. No choice between the burka and the bikini. In a culture where choice is worshipped as part of holy agency, holy self-value and atomization, the choices presented to us are rather bare bones – we will have neoliberalism or we will have death. “There is no alternative.” And don’t speak, don’t even think, about seizing the means of production.
In the clip above, released by the US State Department, we have a strange comparison. On the left, we have communism, and on the right, ISIS. The title is “Destruction of Holy Sites”.
At first blush, this might seem rather nonsensical. The two historical and geographic contexts presented to us in the video are completely different. Did the United States and its allies fund communism, for one? But then to examine the context of the propaganda: does communism have a strong history or a foothold in the Arab world? Well, the answer here is yes. Red groups and red money has shaped much of the policies of the region. Today, red groups are making some of the strongest gains against the rag-tag lot of foreign takfiris styling themselves after the sahaba who also call themselves Dawlat Islameeya, the Islamic State. These revolutionaries don’t accept the idea that the barbarity seen mounted on the spikes of the Raqqa’s city centre is homegrown, a natural conclusion to the horrific chapter of American occupation. They don’t accept the idea that this is a tribal spat, an ethnic power struggle. No, they see it as part of class war, as foreign imperialism making a play.
And so a false equivalency is generated to guide those who would otherwise gravitate towards pointing the finger (rightly) at American and Zionist designs on the region, away from a politics of liberation and towards capitalist enclosure.
I’m a red. The people dearest to me in this life are reds. I have immense respect for Mao Tse-Tung, who liberated the Chinese people not only from imperialism, but also from poverty. Maoism inspired millions of people worldwide to struggle towards their own liberation. And I don’t recall Maoists in China kidnapping women and putting heads on spikes, but perhaps this is a part of the story Maz might not want to discuss. Regardless, back to the context – really? Are reds in a position of power as ISIS is? Can we fairly compare the two? Or is this is a smear against reds in the same tradition as the US State Department video mentioned earlier.
Likewise in Ferguson, Missouri, where we again find the horrified whisper regarding “outside agitators”, a civil rights-era slur against those who struggled for the liberation of oppressed nations in the United States. Now, to be fair and give credit where credit is due, the civil rights movement was certainly supported by communists in the United States and abroad. More importantly, it would be a tragedy and crime to erase incredible leaders such as A. Philip Randolph, Paul Robeson, Bayard Rustin, Angela Davis and most of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense – all reds. But where are they now? Is the RCP secretly getting paid by a Soviet Union that no longer exists? Back to the context! While this smear of “outside agitators” was used against the civil rights movements as a dog whistle for communists, and as it is used today for reds and anarchists, it’s also an exercise in mystification, in red-baiting and in smearing the ideology of socialism as something ‘foreign’ to the people.
Stalinist (or Baathist) is just another term used to defame reds – mainly those who are against imperialist war in Syria. Even as Libya writhes in agony after a NATO war that left the African country with the highest HDI and best public infrastructure in smoldering ruin, to suggest you are against such further aggression will earn you the title of ‘Stalinist.’ And again, to give credit where credit is due, the USSR under Stalin did annihilate the Nazis and liberate most of Europe. But to be called a Stalinist (or even Baathist) by someone who is most certainly not a red is to be smeared, and is unambiguously used to discipline other reds and pinks to shy away from speaking out against NATO intervention in Syria for fear of being a secret Stalinist, whatever that word even means outside Cold War hysterics.
All of these things aside, why now? Why the recent spike in red-baiting? From Arabic-language State Department videos comparing ISIS to communists to VICE “journalists” denouncing Stalin like they’re lifelong members of the fourth international, there seems to be a resurgence on the periphery of some sort of – and I can only call it preventative – red scare. The language of being a red is gone – now you are either a radical or a barbaric Stalinist. Radicals can shill for bombing Libya, radicals can produce ‘ironic’ racist burlesque minstrel shows, radicals represent the underclass and everyone who disagrees with them are now comparable to mercenaries who crucify people (including reds) in public squares in Syria.
So what danger on the horizon, then, from reds?
The disciplining is remarkable – Steve Salaita is fired from a tenured position over his views on Gaza, and an unknown but certainly existing number of academics switch off their profiles, put everything to private. Reds are doxed – their address, their phone numbers, their emails, their boss’s info are posted to the internet along with their designation as DANGEROUS COMMUNISTS and they suddenly disappear. Public campaigns from neocons against leftist magazines that publish anti-imperialist articles. Visits from FBI agents with dossiers triggered by what exactly – maybe it was a tweet? Julian Assange locked in the Ecuadorian Embassy for how many years now? Chelsea Manning in solitary confinement. No wonder people go under pseudonyms – the environment is once again getting dangerous for those who don’t think imperialism or capitalism is such a hot idea.
Consider that much of this red-baiting is in response to a growing, powerful war hysteria. It’s undeniable – a comrade of mine in the states observed it’s worse than the rhetoric in 2002. Ukraine must be protected from Putin’s hordes, Syria must be protected from tyrant Assad, and Iraq must be protected from themselves and their barbarian savages. The drums are beating louder and louder, while the working class of the world stands war weary and exploited to the extreme. The most powerful challenge to capitalism in the history of the world emerged out of the first World War. Impoverished millions sent to die on the front line, and while it may not be our boys off to fight in the trenches this time, a world war that echoes the motivations and methods of 1914 will cause damage and pain such as we’ve never seen. In a global economy where billions are underserved, unemployed or barely working, this war can only be won under a red banner. Indeed, now more than ever, the spectre of working class revolution strikes terror into the hearts of the barricaded ruling class. This is why they persist in their handwringing about Stalinists and Maoists – because the moment of truth is approaching once again, and both Stalin and Mao have never been friends of global capitalist hegemony. A revolution that seizes the means of production is not something that is built overnight, as history teaches us, but we need to start on the foundations of such a project as soon as possible. Their anxiety is a cue for us to intensify in our efforts.
This is why they are resurrecting red-baiting, why they are looking nervously over their shoulders for the communist menace to arise. This is why it’s worth it for them to try and entrap the youth on a micro-level, atomize us further, discombobulate our senses and teach us not to trust what is real and what we know to be true in a material sense. Capitalism has produced its own grave diggers, and they are handed a shovel while being told to go support yet another imperialist war.
Snowpiercer (2013) is a film about revolution. The year is 2040. Global warming and man’s solution to it has caused the eradication of the human species. The only life remaining on earth is on a train that circles the earth once per year. The train is a closed ecosystem that contains the last remnants of humanity, contained in its ugliest manifestation. At the front of the train, the conductor, the worshipped “Wilford” keeps the engine running. Further back are the scenic aquariums and greenhouses, perfect classrooms, dance halls, and sleeping cars. After the water treatment, barracks and prison cars comes the caboose. A group of people live in the “tail car” as hanger-ons, refugees who did not freeze to death in the sudden eradication of the planet. They live in squalor and eat protein blocks, and their children are taken away. They seem to exist at the pleasure of those caught sunning themselves near the front. Sometimes they are recruited to go to the front to serve the more privileged of the species. Of course, the people in the tail car are plotting revolution.
In fact, the film basically starts with this revolution. After briefly seeing the brutality of their conditions, we are tossed rather quickly into what happens when the tail car inhabitants realize that their guards have no bullets to shoot them with. They spring a Korean man and his daughter (though a Korean film, about 80% of the movie is in English) to help with the doors between cars. Along the way, they discover the indoctrination other inhabitants, including the soldiers, go through. They discover that their protein blocks were actually liquefied cockroaches. They drop like flies in front of a car full of axe-wielding police. Still, the people push forward. Awed by the sights of the front cars, they suddenly sit down for sushi, which they are informed is only eaten twice per year to preserve the delicate balance of life in the ecosystem of the train. This they hear after exactly 74% of them are targeted for execution to preserve the same balance.
I don’t really want to spoil the plot, because I think it’s a rather enjoyable film, visually stunning with decent acting and directing. That’s rare enough these days. This means you should stop reading here if you want to be surprised. Onward, I’ll say that despite heavy losses, the revolution makes it to the front of the train car and has to contend with the same challenges revolutions in this life face. The leader of the revolution is persuaded to take over operation of the delicate balance, as his compatriots are killed. It’s only when the girl peels up a panel in the floor, dream-like, that we see the children gone missing from the tail car are being used as replacement parts in the machines themselves.
Before our hero can change his mind, the train derails, completely oblivious of the greater ethical questions of man’s governance, killing all inside but the girl and one of the stolen children. Despite being told all their lives that they would freeze to death immediately upon leaving the safety of the closed ecosystem on the train, both children emerge from the train in fur coats, spying a polar bear in the distance. Life is possible on the outside.
From an ecological perspective, this film rings true as effective propaganda. The ridiculousness of considering revolution as a way of changing the way the world works while at the same time heading towards complete disaster comes through loud and clear, especially because so much of the “changes” we see just happen to be more of the same, if not in more cynical packaging. The only solution, it seems, is to overthrow the entire system, not simply to get someone from the tailcar into power. A system where something like Soylent exists to solve “world hunger”, where there will always be hidden slaves behind panels, is not a system I think needs to be sustained. The film does a good part in making this point as well. In our future world, things end because we were unwilling to change the economy to prevent global warming. We tried to find a workaround and ended up ruining everything. Will this be how things are? Yikes! We all deserve to get off the train, not just change the conductor.
At the start of December 4th 1969, Fred Hampton was drugged by a FBI informant after teaching a political education course at a local church in Chicago. Later, when he was passed out, fourteen cops burst into his apartment and murdered him in his bed, next to his pregnant girlfriend. After two shots to the head to confirm his death, he was dragged into the hallway and left in a pool of blood. He was 21 years old.
Almost 100 years earlier, John Brown sat at his desk, waiting for execution at the age of 59. He wrote his last words to his wife. She was waiting nearby, but he was refused the right to spend the last night of his life with her, that refusal being the only time his stoic comportment threatened to break down. He had helped lead a militant uprising of enslaved people. He was hanged and then put in his coffin, noose still around his neck, and sent back north to be buried.
The list of American radicals who died in battle against a massive system of oppression is long and should be a source of pride for Americans who seek to follow a life fighting for economic and social justice. They were those who were expelled by the society they lived in because of their beliefs, because of the color of their skin, because of their sex, the list goes on. These were people willing to die for their beliefs. Even those who were possibly not ready still died sometimes. They were those whose death would perpetuate the American machine of oppression and pain.
What is a radical? A radical is a thorn in the side of what she opposes. The radical is pushed outward like a splinter under the skin. The radical accepts that she will live a life of lack unless she gives in and changes her mind. Even then, she might not make her way back into the fold. This is to be expected – a radical seeks to disrupt the reproduction of oppression, not negotiate or change it warmly. As we edge closer to the abyss, as the planet itself threatens to crumble underneath our feet, those who would call themselves radicals must make a decision. Are they pleading or are they demanding? Are they negotiating or are they accusing?
When I was a little girl, I learned about my great-grandfather, shipped over from the old country as a child and sold to a mining company in Montana. He grew up to become an IWW organizer and was beaten, threatened and blacklisted. Blacklisted was the first radical word I learned. To be blacklisted is a heavy thing for sure, and my grandfather grew up in crushing poverty. My great-grandmother begged for food. No one offered him a warm hand because he was a thorn in the side of capitalism, because he demanded that workers have the right to the means of production and to the fruits of their labor. The labor movement was fighting for an eight-hour day. Now, as the eight-hour day slips through our fingers, today’s self-proclaimed radicals write television reviews for major American newspapers and hold court at academic conferences.
They claim they are interested in building a party – but where is the phone number? How do I get involved? Is it a party that will vote Democrat? The academics – and I am an academic, considering my education – fight over semantics and whether or not pornography is ethical. Meanwhile, people all over the country are ready for more. They are ready for disruption. Sectors of this generation see the ability to reproduce themselves being eroded away. Nearly seven million Americans are under correctional supervision. Schools are being closed. Poison is being poured in our lakes and rivers, in our oceans and all over our land. Be sure – this will not hold. It’s not sustainable. But the people in power will try every trick in the book to sustain themselves.
We’ve seen it before. We talk about women as if their biggest problem is what sort of clothes they’re wearing. We talk about race as if we have the first black president. Now the very term “radical” – a comforting dogwhistle nowadays for sleepy anticapitalists – is being appropriated, subsumed into the project of class reproduction. When you broadcast your opinions and find it thrilling that major media outlets have brought you on board, you need to consider your part to play in the reproduction of class. Do you make a living on your radicalism? Do you want to? My beloved once told me: “I want to be a low-level Soviet bureaucrat, but you live the life you have, not the life you want.”
There is nothing wrong with carving out a corner and trying to feed yourself. It is quite another project you are envisioning, however, when book deals with no outlines line up and event coordinators begin to court you. When you imagine a new party, one that appeals to the so-called masses through the capitalist propaganda machine, you must be very careful. When you start getting printed in the New York Times and Washington Post, when you see your face staring back at you as the primary photo accompanying a story, you must be even more careful. A story about you is not a story of the system of oppression that cracks skulls every day in this country.
When your critics become your trolls, this is because you somehow think your points are correct because you have more of a space to speak. You forget how you got this page space, you forget why it was given to you. You (yes, you dear reader!) are part of this machine now. The skin is not pushing you outwards, it is pulling you in towards its organs. Close your eyes and imagine what is is like to have paid staffers, then wonder why so many Black Panthers were sleeping in the same apartment that tragic night in Chicago. When you yell down that someone is a troll because they have less twitter followers than you, remember that you are calling yourself a radical and placing yourself in a pantheon of radicals who gave their lives to end capitalism. Wonder then, why Fred Hampton wasn’t published in the New York Times.
Slavoj Zizek is honest when he says that he thinks there must be a vanguard party because he himself wants nothing to do with struggle, with politics. He wants to be a boring man with a boring life somewhere. Who then, will execute the ideas of those who proclaim to be on the vanguard of the Left today – who are the radicals? Do they exist? The Left Forum is this weekend in New York, and Verso, the leading publisher of leftist books, sent out invitations to their after-party. Have we ever seen such a crowd of communists who are so willing and able to rationalize away their own inaction? Watch them drink cocktails and discuss the importance of this or that idea, watch them rally around positions like it’s some sort of game. I went to an ISO meeting in Brooklyn and met fund managers, people in advertising. We must look at the way that these “radical” ideas should shape our lives. What worth does a bunch of words on paper have when there is no one that is willing to put their thoughts into action? What do these “writers” even think of their own ideas when they do not even inspire themselves to make the necessary sacrifices, adopt the necessary discipline? Here we suddenly find shivering cowards, insisting that they are caught up in their everyday lives too much to put a shoulder to the wheel and push.
Overthrowing capitalism is about sacrifice and discipline. When we fantasize class revolution or wars against Nazis, we fancy ourselves willing to give our lives to the cause. Yet when it comes to choosing paths in our lives, we hesitate in committing fully to our positions. It becomes about this or that obligation, the desire and right, we bark defensively, to lead a normal boring life. Tough shit, comrade! If even Marx shivered in poverty while shoveling what money he had into failed revolutionary causes then surely you puffing up about twitter followers, an appearance on television or in the pages of a society magazine is nothing to brag about. If people like John Brown were willing to put their head in a noose, if strikers willing to be shot in the streets for demanding eight-hour workdays, if tens of millions of Soviets died fighting the Nazis, isn’t steering clear of a lifetime of normalcy and comfort the least you can do?
Have you ever seen the Moscow International Business Center?
It’s a $12b project built on top of shuttered factories and quarries. Still under construction, the darling brain child of the government in the year of our Lord 1992. Capitalism is like a virus, and out of the ashes of those it’s mindlessly slaughtered it blossoms hundreds of hollow, glass-windowed stories. You see it on Wall Street and Canary Wharf, with their locked-down graveyard howls – now we see it in Moscow, too. Should have been where they were going to build the Palace of the Soviets, so as to get extra psychic energy from Stalin’s seven skyscrapers.
A recent study conducted by the Carnegie Endowment in Russia and the Caucuses determined that Stalin – still “commands worryingly high levels of admiration”. The report is littered with incredible bias, including but not limited to accusations about the “Russian Character” that include their dependency issues and lack of exposure to twitter. However the most interesting accusation, to me, is the geographical divide between the two parties – those who generally approve of Stalin and those who generally disapprove.
Beyond indifference, in Moscow, 18 percent of those surveyed perceive Stalin positively and 46 percent negatively, while in small towns the figures are 29 percent and 16 percent and in villages the difference is even more striking—35 and 18 percent.
The main reason for this being, in CF’s own words, that de-Sovietized Russians are likely to be:
…products of the new, postindustrial economy that has developed chiefly in Moscow. They belong to the modern globalized world and have learned to assume responsibility for their choice of careers and lifestyles. They have an achiever’s mentality, something the traditional Russian experience could not have taught them.
Here we have a fascinating insight into the mechanizations of the “civilizing” theory of urbanization. To digress for a moment: I only have experience in the Middle East when it comes to truly having dialogue with NA countries, but the city/village divide was coming on strong. In Palestine, it added extra injury to the situation because children leaving their families in the countryside because vacant land is soon seized by the occupation. People had to leave for the cities because that’s where restriction hit the least (almost all of Area A, the part “governed solely” by the Palestinian Authority is located in urban areas) and where jobs were the easiest to find. These émigrés changed the urban landscape as well, turning tight communities where everyone knew each other into frightening possibilities in strangers who had no communal accountability. Still, both émigré and local would down their noses at “baladeeya”, those from the countryside. In Palestine, the countryside is the root of national identity. Before the occupation, Palestinians were mainly rural.
Now, just like everywhere else in the world, communities are becoming more urbanized. The largest human migration in human history is currently taking place in China, where hundreds of millions have moved from the countryside – once Mao’s seat of power – to the cities. They flock to the promise of jobs, but, more often than not, end up in cheap housing, sometimes considered “slums” on the outskirts of town.
The culture that has sprung up around this phenomenon is that of the modern urban dweller (not citizen) – those more “plugged in” to the global economy, are more sophisticated and informed than those who live in the countryside where life is more backwards. As the $300m Carnegie Endowment for Peace says:
The key point here is not so much that Russia’s poor, depressed, stagnating, and often declining provinces are a repository of Soviet-style thinking, but the reasons behind those attitudes. These areas lack social diversity, most communication is basic and personal, and the price of human life is very low. A few institutions (mainly schools and television stations) compensate for the lack of development by indoctrinating citizens with collective symbols and ideas. In big cities, by contrast, increasing individualism and more complex social interactions lead to a rejection of the myth of Stalin, not just indifference to it. (Emphasis mine)
The city, therefore, is the factory in which the 21st century human being is made. Stalin had gulags and was the head of a system that killed a lot of people, sure. He was also the head of a system that did indeed win the Great Patriotic War. The city seeks to erase this, make the former vestiges of what was once a point of fact into a lesson on individualism.
Stalin’s death was accompanied by an outpouring of public grief. In a last act of mass murder on March 9, 1953, the deceased tyrant caused hundreds of deaths as hysterical mourners were crushed and trampled in the gigantic crowds trying to take a last look at Stalin’s body.
This kind of contempt for the people parallels with the photos of mourning we see being published from Venezuela. Collectivization is a source of shame and hysteria, the countryside and villages are bastions of backwardness. The people don’t know anything, they are dumb animals who will trample each other and languish in stagnation. The individual is the only subject to address, the only being with rationality. The hope for the future is found in a new economy based in the cities, where access to individualism and “complex social interactions” (not defined in this paper) will pull the backwards, collective-thinking global countryside into the slums and black markets – both considered admirable examples of free trade in neoliberal literature – of the 21st century.
Instead of looking at the material conditions of the countryside, where support of Stalin has risen over the last decade, the paper assigns racist and classist attitudes towards rural lifestyles and traditions. The mass automation of farming and industrialized slaughter of livestock has led to the impoverishment of billions worldwide who are left with little choice but to move into urban centers and engage in cheap manufacturing or service-based livelihoods. Their lives were probably better under the Soviets. Yet it is not their collective conditions to be examined, rather, their individual attitudes.
For the first time in recorded history, more humans live in cities than in rural areas. The idea of the “citizen” is stripped away as collective society disappears and the notion of dwellers as consumers is adopted. They are not entitled to anything and should expect nothing from anyone – an individual, after all, is responsible for his own well-being. If the trajectory of the global economy continues, then the folks over at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace have nothing to worry about – Stalin should be dead soon.
Why does a fiscal cliff sound so much better than austerity? There is something so terribly final about a cliff. Once you fall, it’s over. According to definition, austerity is nothing final, nothing so tragic. Yet a more apt metaphor for the current situation is that of a parent abandoning their children. Drawn thin by difficult tribulations, momdad decides to move along. The state has been realigning its purposes for years, and soon we will see it close the door in the face of the public good.
Privatization is de rigueur in the United States. Prisons, highways, trash collection, utilities, parking meters, schools, police, medical care, armies, disaster relief – nearly everything the federal government can do can seemingly be done by a private company for profit. Journalists like Matt Taibbi have done good work on exploring the corrupt relationships between private business and the government in recent years. The City of Chicago sold its parking meters for a paltry $1.16b and caused a stir. Interest groups and Katrina spurred the charter school movement, even getting a movie made for the purpose of spreading the idea that kids are better educated for profit. Courts all over the country stand accused of “selling” prisoners to private prisons. The scramble to profit off America’s crumbling is sad and pathetic, if not just desserts. The American public, cowed into submission by terrorist attacks, plummeting stocks, disappearing assets and widespread unemployment can only sit by and pull out their hair while watching congress bicker its way into the meat grinder.
The round of austerity rapidly approaching is popularly painted as a Spielberg movie gone bad, something that could be avoided if only everyone could come to the right compromise. When it comes to austerity, the compromise is supposed to be struck between two positions: will we lose both arms, or both legs? Will the fox eat us, or the wolf? Hard decisions.
At the end of the day, while agonizing over the method of demise for our state, it seems we no longer have a choice about whether this will happen.
The matter really to be decided, rather, is when and how it will happen, and who will profit? The double-whammy of raising taxes (disproportionately on the poor, of course) and cutting social spending will tenderize even greater numbers of the American public into a desperate workforce begging hat-in-hand for even a part time job. The reserve army of labor will swell in rank. Unions are being shut down in their last strongholds, the average consumer is still swimming in debt, and the last bastion of America’s spending power – the consumer/retail economy – is poised to collapse.
This is a slow process, though. The cuts and tax hikes will come gradually, so as to lessen the shock of it all. Even the slow pace of the folding-up of Greece caused massive civil unrest, and with 360 million Americans facing a dour future, care needs to be taken to ease us all into our final resting place. Meanwhile, the private sector, still flush with taxpayer money and record profits earnings, will gallantly step in and rescue us all from total societal collapse by gobbling up more state functions and turning them into for-profit ventures. The state will still exist, no doubt, but will continue its warp into a giant police truncheon that is used to collect taxes and squeeze labor. A drip-line of “entitlement” will still come through, just enough to keep everyone alive and functioning, but things will get much worse.
Herein we can see the contradictions intensify. While the Spectator says we can continue to grow our economies with little concern as to when we will all be tapped out and dead, I do not believe this to be the case. There is a breaking point. The “industries of the mind” that employ so many marketers, Apple Store programmers and social media experts will dry up when consumer demand plummets. We were never pulling money out of thin air – it was coming from somewhere, and that somewhere is running out.
The Christmas issue of the conservative Spectator magazine featured an article titled “Why 2012 was the best year ever”, offering up positive news about the state of things in 2012. According to the article, there is more prosperity and less people dying worldwide now thanks to global capitalism. People are dying less from malaria and AIDS, inequality is dipping and the developing world is booming. Politicians, meanwhile, are a bunch of pessimists, jealous of the free market’s success where government programs have presumably failed. The Spectator offers that the reason why we weren’t popping champagne when the Millennium Goal to halve extreme poverty was met in 2008 was because “it was not achieved by any government scheme but by the pace of global capitalism”.
I spent a lot of time in graduate school going over the sorts of indicators quoted by the Spectator. The program I attended was a haven for pessimists such as myself, and attending my courses and conducting research made me an even stronger and better-prepared pessimist. Of course, pessimism is out of style. My friends moan and groan about my constant doomsdaying, but the fact of the matter is that I, along with my legion of pessimist like-minders, wouldn’t be in the business of shouting to the skies about impending doom if there wasn’t a leg to stand on. Meanwhile, the status quo has every interest in making things seem like they’re better than ever. This is where loyal magazines such as The Spectator come in handy, working together with recent releases like “Abundance: The Future Is Better Than You Think” and “The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves” to paint rosy views of the future, where life will be improved by buying toys from China and fracking our way out of an energy crisis (here they linked to a BP study, ha ha) – all supplemented by advances in smart phone technology, of course.
Even a pessimist such as myself has to recognize that, worldwide, mortality indicators have improved over the last several decades. Global inequality has eased between countries, and of course, we have all made exciting advances in new technology. My pessimism is actually couched in the deep belief that human potential is far greater than is currently recognized. This is why we should not shy away from the reality of our situation.
Here are some basic facts to consider, though. Things might be getting better, but they are getting better for some far faster than they are getting better for others. For example, taking China and India out of most calculations of global indices changes the numbers completely. Even within China and India, we must admit that calculations can be misleading. China especially has refused to release GINI calculations for over a decade now. Papers published that measure GINI as meaningfully improving worldwide depend on shoddy data and tilt the numbers to their pleasure. And the real reason why the UN might not have been celebrating the drop in global poverty is because the number of those who are living on less than $2 per day (as opposed to $1 per day) have increased in recent years, and not all of them from the $1 per day crowd. People got poorer, though they middled out at a more acceptable number. Wealth is growing – at the top – and it comes from somewhere. Watching a graph about income growth in the last 10 years, it becomes clear from where this wealth is extracted. Productivity gains are out of the ballpark, the wealth at the top gets more and more massive, and the income levels of those behind the top 10% worldwide generally squeak by just a tiny bit below rates of inflation. This is the growing income gap.
Of course, it will be argued that – despite lack of strong data – the worldwide GINI has lessened. This is probably true. There are nearly a million millionaires in China now, joined by new millionaires popping up all over the global south. Having a million millionaires will certainly bring your overall standing with other millionaires in other countries closer. However, the GINI index within countries is not improving. Indeed, it’s going down. The spread of millionaires is more fair, perhaps, but the spread of wealth outside of privileged circles is not.
In countries like Russia, nearly 20% of the GDP is from counting billionaires. If we were to count millionaires in this figure, the number would be far higher worldwide. Growth is coming from spawning new millionaires and billionaires, who are hoovering up productivity gains at the expense of those actually creating wealth.
Of course, these “rising standards”, so quickly being hailed as results of the free market by magazines such as The Spectator, are actually the cause of state intervention. The neoliberal reforms of the past three decades have paved the way for this extraction at expense of labor.
So back to the idea that 2012 was better than any year in history: we must ask, by what standards? Mortality has fallen steadily since the dawn of the 20th century, but this less about free market reforms and more about lessening infant mortality rates. It’s not difficult to do this. Fifty cents worth of education can prevent most deaths in infancy, vaccines and basic childcare can do the rest. This is not a trillion dollar project, though there are plenty at the UN who have made a very nice living doing it. Advances in medicine and technology cannot be chalked up to capitalism either. The Soviets were first in space and our own domestic R&D sector is the most subsidized part of the United States government – otherwise known as the defense industry.
It used to be that you could call out a piece of filthy propaganda for what it was. If the Soviets or the Chinese were putting out ridiculous information about how great everything was, nobody felt too bad about calling it out. If the Nazis said life was never better in Germany while the Red Army was beating down their door, we knew it to be horse shit. Yet today, calling out articles such as those in The Spectator or putting down books like Thomas Friedman’s “The World is Flat” is met with groans and rolled-eyes. Our eyes are glued to our smartphones with the world collapsing down around us. Things are actually getting worse for most, though far better for some. Of course, those who are benefiting from the status quo also happen to own all the newspapers, happen to take more part in bankrolling research at universities and also have more influence in government than the guy who is living on $2 a day.