Review: The Russian Revolution: A New History

Nyjournalofbooks, Dec 12, 2017

If readers are interested in a broad work covering the essential actors and historical events leading up to and following the Russian Revolution of 1917, this book is a good place to start.

Sean McMeekin offers a comprehensive look into the background and socio-economic factors in early 20th century Russia, as well as the brutal reality of the Tsar’s autocratic regime. This is a relatively short work: the author covers the main actors and historical moments quite well, including the many minor characters of the Revolution and the following civil war, yet still gives appropriate detail. On the whole, if the reader wants a fast-paced, wide understanding of the history leading up to and after the Bolshevik Revolution, here is a good place to start.

McMeekin starts off with a broad overview of the far-flung Russian Empire at the dawn of the 20th century. Stretching from Poland to the Bering Sea, from the Arctic tundra to the arid Central Asian steppes, the Empire was a sprawling, massive enterprise, with about 125 million citizens circa the turn of the century.

Russian industry was catching up with the rest of Europe in the first decade of the 1900s, although with mass poverty in the countryside and the usual squalid working and housing conditions for the poor, similar to other European nations. The first flash points in 1905 are covered well, including the war against Japan, although McMeekin seems to underplay just how much the smoldering resentment at the Tsar’s regime as well as the brutal repression of the Okhrana (secret police) and killings by the army made a future revolution only a matter of time.

McMeekin does due diligence by focusing on the Balkan Wars and the slow collapse of Ottoman influence pre-WWI, which shifted geopolitics in the region and started one of the first sparks in the powder keg that was Europe. The details of WWI are one of this works’ highlights: There is little ideology, and McMeekin focuses on the facts.

The big shifts of WWI are covered quite well, if briskly. Fast forwarding to 1917, and McMeekin’s twist on what he considers “A New History” is that Lenin was financed to a large degree by Germans, if not outright by the German government. The evidence he provides, however, is sparse. While German intelligence did return Lenin to Russia via Finland station in the hopes of sowing chaos and lowering Russian troop morale, “in this flood of discontented humanity pouring into revolutionary Russia, Lenin was but a single individual,” as McMeekin correctly notes.

However, he then paints the canvas of Lenin’s arrival and subsequent rise to power as a grand conspiracy orchestrated by Germany, rather than as an opportunistic ploy of the return of one revolutionary figure. In revolution and war, it is assumed that tough decisions are to be made regarding funding and alliances: Lenin cannot be considered a German “agent” just because he or his party took money from shadowy figures.

The end of the WWI, and the Treaty of Breist-Litovsk are very well documented. The period of the civil war and War Communism are also explained deftly, and Lenin’s and Trotsky’s mistake by advocating for revolutionary defeatism makes for engaged reading, showing how the German high command played the Bolsheviks diplomatically.

However, it’s hard to support McMeekin’s confusion surrounding the violence and authoritarianism that followed: the Bolsheviks were attacked from all sides, basically all the nations of Western civilization attacked the Red Army, leading to further party centralization and brutality, as could be expected in nearly any other country facing such odds and violence.

McMeekin is right to describe the Revolution as a series of missed chances and random acts of fate that brought the Bolsheviks to power. McMeekin is highly critical of the Tsar’s actions preceding WWI, yet seems to imply that since the economy was expanding rapidly pre-WWI, and the Russians were beginning to show signs of turning the war towards their favor in 1917, the revolutionaries and the Soviets were wrong to place so much in the hands of the Bolsheviks.

Yet this only reinforces for the reviewer just how hard it is to understand the socio-economic forces at play of only 100 years ago, never mind the state of mind of exploited peasants, workers, women, and their desire for an authentic socialist government.

McMeekin’s epilogue strays from history toward the ideological, trying to equate theoretical Communism with the totalitarianism of the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s. Lenin and Stalin were both bloodthirsty tyrants, of this there is no doubt.

Yet when McMeekin claims that “the popularity of Marxist-style maximalist socialism is on the rise again in the United States and other Western “capitalist countries,” his misreading of contemporary politics becomes all too clear.

What is on the rise in the West are right-wing, ethnocentric, xenophobic governments, and a small undercurrent in Left-liberal politics has countered with a mild return to social democracy, exemplified by figures such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, who are not Leninists in any reality-based sense of the term.

All told, this book is an excellent resource for the facts and key players in Russian history from the start of WWI to the mid-1920s.

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Revolution, not Reform: Moral Courage, Redefining Progress, and the Myth of Social Democracy

 

Posted at Countercurrents, Dissident Voice, CounterPunch, Oct. 9-11, 2017

“Revolution in society must begin with the inner, psychological revolution of the individual. Most of us want to see a radical transformation of the social structure…however radical that social revolution may be its nature is static if there is no inward revolution, no psychological transformation…However much and however wisely legislation may be promulgated, society is always in the process of decay because revolution must take place within, not merely outwardly.”

-Jiddu Krishnamurti, The First and Last Freedom

The revolution will only come as a result of inner, mental transformation, as Krishnamurti foretold. Political movements may urge people towards an outward revolution of the economic structure, but ultimately, it is up to each one of us as individuals to awaken from the slumber that imperialism and capitalism has imposed on us.

This is a huge problem in the West: expecting some sort of political party or savior to rearrange the structure of society, from the top down of the establishment, without a viable protest movement and without on-the-street citizen engagement.

Liberal “progressives” are therefore attracted to social democracy. Piecemeal reform, led by establishment Democrats offering a “New New Deal” to industry and workers will most likely lead us to the slaughterhouse, to the bottomless pit Western civilization has been leading us for centuries. “Green capitalism” is another lie advanced by such mainstream social and environmental justice advocates and Democrats.

There’s been a lot of talk among progressives and self-styled Leftists about social democracy. Bernie Sanders talked up social democracy on his campaign, heaping praise on the Scandinavian countries as models the US should emulate.

This seems to reveal a misunderstanding of how social change functions: in Denmark, Norway, and Sweden there is more cultural contentment, higher social cohesion, which has led the political structure to allow for universal healthcare, a strong welfare system, as well as safeguards against high wealth inequality.

Consider the Danish concept of hygge, Swedish lagom, and the Dutch term gezelligheid: there are no comparable factors in the US that engender these sorts of community/quality of life feelings. The frontier cultural roots in the US are shallow, and the dog-eat-dog ethos of laissez-faire capitalism has not allowed for the fertile soil of social/collective well-being that we find in parts of Europe. For an (admittedly poor) analogy, if you work in corporate America, imagine trying to explain to your boss or colleagues how you want to implement the Taoist concept of wu-wei in the workplace.

In other words, the socio-cultural history and background affects the economic-material structure of a nation’s political economy. What Sanders and progressives are proposing is the reverse: that an economic leveling will create a more just, sane society without altering the underlying ideological sickness and contradictions in US culture. This type of argument is used by commentators who talk about a “politics of fear”. Well, politics does not exist in a vacuum: as I’ve said for years, we live in an outright culture of fear. This sort of muddle-headed thinking is naïve at best, and outright dangerous at worst.

Promoting peace and wealth redistribution to developing countries could possibly turn the tide in the US towards achieving a slightly more civil public sphere. Yet, the self-serving agendas of Sanders and social democrats (and all the baggage revolving around entryism that social dems bring with them) would mostly benefit the US middle class, and while the poor could theoretically stand to gain in an upturn of the business cycle in a future 21st century Keynesian economy, another large recession would likely wipe out many of the gains, with politicians returning to their default mode of “austerity politics”. Not to mention the fact that social democrats will continual vote to favor “good jobs” at the expense of the environment, because they have little sense of how industry externalizes the costs of doing business onto the natural world.

The Four Rotten Pillars of the American Establishment

Capitalism is the root cause of over-consumption, militarism, racism, imperialism. Any reform based on social democracy is bound to fail, because it refuses to confront the structural causes of a crumbling society: capital and its accumulation to the few at the expense of the many. Capitalism, not just simply neoliberalism, must be ripped up by the roots.

Historically, the entrenched militarism, and the hoarding of capital into the hands of a few oligarchs is linked to four ideological trends in the US. The first, I like to call “Cultural Puritanism”. This thinking goes back to the original Pilgrims, many of whom were religious extremists who believed in predestination: that God had pre-planned who will ascend to heaven and go to hell. In this formulation, it was simply the will of God that determined who was rich and poor in colonial America, and who was virtuous or wicked. Thus, this Puritan/Calvinist belief allowed for the justification for the huge gap between rich and poor, and the faithful spread the lie that the rich simply are the way they are due to God’s decision, because of their “Protestant work ethic”, while the poor were simply lazy, good-for-nothing troublemakers. Fast forward to today, and we can see this thinking hasn’t changed much at all.

The second ideological lie relates to those most abhorrent of imperialist ideas, specifically the “Monroe Doctrine” and “Manifest Destiny”. Here the expansionists of the 18th century had arrogantly decided to expand the US “from sea to shining sea”, and to subjugate and pillage Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central and South America at the behest of the capricious whims of US oligarchs. Today, the US has spread its reach worldwide, and the globe is divided into regions: CENTCOM, AFRICOM, etc., with special operations underway in over 130 countries.

The third, and perhaps the most deadly, lie spread by Western capitalists is the myth of Social Darwinism. Building on the first two ideologies above, social Darwinists believed that the poor were genetically inferior, and therefore of no use to civil society. The reserve armies of unemployed and the working poor could not be helped: their ill-health and ignorance were inexorable, terminal conditions. This led directly to the popularization of eugenics and fascism, culminating with the regimes of Hilter, Mussolini, Franco, etc.

The fourth lie, and perhaps most difficult to untangle, is the lie of positivism. There is no time here for an in-depth explanation, but positivists look to purely empirical evidence to create psychological and social theory. Feelings, thoughts, emotions, and the inner world are meaningless: this blighted view of the world led to the bizarre/deranged dead-ends of psychological behaviorism. Positivistic theory is used today to support the idea of continual technological progress and materialism, endless economic growth, a deluge of useless “self-help” literature, drugging our children in schools by abhorrently diagnosing them as hyperactive or having short attention spans, etc. Oh, and if anyone cares, almost 70% of American adults are on at least one prescription drug today, more than half take two regularly, and 20% of the population is on five or more medications.

Americans, for the most part, have become childlike, obedient, faceless drones: conformist “last men” who are too afraid and/or too intoxicated by Aldous Huxley’s “soma” brew of mass media and consumer distractions. All empires eventually crumble and fail, and eventually break apart, and the US will be no exception.  We are the fascists now, upholding a patriarchal, ultraviolent social order, “inverted totalitarians” if you prefer Wolin’s phraseology. It’s time for us to face the music, because the ship is sinking.

Only a radical reconstruction of society along participatory/direct democratic lines will allow for us to survive the coming economic, ecological, and climate change shocks. Many parts of the world may devolve into small bands and tribes of semi-nomadic “climate refugees” by the end of the century, depending on how the models of climatologists play out. Major nation-states may no longer have the power to enforce rules related to borders, genetic modifications and bioethics, artificial intelligence, cyberhacking, and a host of other issues.

America is an Empire, not a country. The USA will only be a nation when it removes the delusion of “American Exceptionalism” and joins hands with other countries to cooperate and create a peaceful, multipolar world order. America can only become a nation, and not an empire, by reconnecting with its “national soul”: by embracing leaders who embody and promote Native American values which allow for harmony between humans and nature. The egalitarianism and gender equality of the Haudenosaunee tribes was a model that the Founders looked to when drafting the US Constitution.

The solutions aren’t going to be found in technocratic social democratic financial matters: only revolutionary changes, such as orienting community around sustainable agriculture, will allow for a livable world for our descendants. We don’t need more GDP growth or even mainstream jobs: our system is destroying the Earth. We need more walking barefoot, more music and dancing around the village fire, more stargazing, more herbal medicine, more communal farming. Capitalism and the nation-states have only been around for a few hundred years, and their time is passing.

Vltchek’s Revolutionary Optimism

Quite possibly, the most poignant essay I’ve read this year was “Love and Western Nihilism” by Andre Vltchek. There is a spiritual ennui, a gray-cloud of myopia and inertia enveloping the West. Our gadgets and phones take up more and more of our time, leaving less for friends, family, and even the ability to truly love.

Conformism is the norm: we can talk about US football (for those souls still watching, I have only names for you: RIP Mike Webster, Junior Seau), or banal TV series, or what a buffoon our president is, but staring down the abyss of how empty and vacuous our culture has become is too hard for most people to bear.

Predictably, it is people who have either traveled widely or live(d) in other countries who I can commiserate with the most here in the states. Most US citizens suffer from the myth of American innocence, as Barry Spector put it so well.

Late-stage capitalism, neoliberal capitalism, whatever you want to call it: the system is not going to be able to be gradually reformed. Why not? The neoliberal market revolves so heavily around low wage service jobs, and our economic system revolves around the FIRE (Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate) corporations, so much so that simply instituting a new progressive tax policy would result in instant capital flight.

Take a look at what’s happening in Venezuela: private multinational corporations are hoarding food, household items, as well as deliberately slowing production in key sectors in lockstep with the US- backed opposition. Foreign banks are refusing to lend and extend lines of credit, citing spurious reasons of unrest: the unrest caused by those who wish to see a military-corporate coup, with the predictable reactionary, ethno-nationalist, neo-fascists already popping up, street-fighting in Caracas and the countryside.

Greece is another recent example: the EU oligarchs punked Syriza, making Tsipras blink and accept austerity measures just after a July 2015 national referendum voted 61% against accepting the EU diktat. The EU put a loaded gun to Syriza’s head: your banks will close and your people will starve and go homeless unless you accept the new deal, which ended up being even harsher than previous versions. Tsipras folded, somewhat predictably given his privileged background, and Greek society still has not recovered.

I’ve said it a thousand different ways: we must slow the pace of our lives and Settle Down from the fast-lane, consumerist lifestyles; Rewild America to conserve land for future generations; Pay Attention to current events to protect us from totalitarianism, and develop a Planetary Vision for world peace and global cooperation on a multitude of transnational issues.

There has to be a movement to lead a de-growth economy, followed up by a sustainable, steady-state system. It can be called socialist, progressive, anarchist, Green: but it has to work, and fast, or we are collectively going down the tubes. The system must be based around egalitarianism, direct democracy, along with drawing up a Green constitution based on Bolivia’s model. New amendments should be added to uphold and strictly enforce the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the International Court of Justice should be given real power to prosecute violations of human rights. Implementing these measures would re-invigorate and re-enchant society to live healthier, happier lives, and promote the type of revolutionary optimism needed.

We have to redefine progress as a world community

I have a confession to make: most political journalism, even on the alternative media, bores me. The writers I value the most are the ones who educate about ecological issues and how they relate to structural poverty and misery for most of the world: Vandana Shiva, Robert Hunziker, Colin Todhunter. The environment and most of the developing world is in a state of collapse, and endless articles about Trump’s domestic agenda are not helpful as well as being out of touch, i.e., they are first world problems.

There are plenty of voices speaking truth to power. The problem is, power has never, and will never listen without being threatened, as Alinsky was apt to point out.  That is why a mass protest movement is the best way forward. Fires must be lit under progressives and Leftists of all stripes: not just for free health care and free college tuition, but in solidarity with the poor and oppressed worldwide, as well as for threatened and endangered species. We must support a living wage for Zimbabweans and Chinese as well as for Americans, and healthy habitats for species in India and Borneo as well as American suburbs.  Progress can’t simply be measured in GDP or low unemployment rates: quality of life and ecosystem health must be taken into consideration.

Taking Them by Surprise

That’s not to say that winning an election isn’t worthwhile. If an electoral victory will seriously help your community, go for it. Yet, the Left should think deeply about how to go about this. If we are to beat The Powers That Be, we should use the element of surprise.

This is why I’m in huge favor of what my friend and mentor Richard Oxman calls the TOSCA approach (Transforming Our State through Citizen Action). In this case, a truly radical candidate runs for office (say, mayor or governor) along with a citizen committee of a small number, say 10 or 12, ideally representing a wide swath of society in terms of ethnicity, gender, class, political beliefs, etc. All of the members must be non-career politicians, i.e., regular citizens. Emphasis will be placed on taking zero money from corporations, as well as the collective deadlines faced by society.

The candidate explain throughout the campaign that she/he is only a figurehead candidate for the ballot, in order to get the citizen committee elected to power, and the committee will make all decisions involving legislation and authority as a group. All decisions are to be made in the open, not behind closed doors, in real time, with Q&A from the public, and an independent media outlet dedicated to transparent decision-making.

This power-sharing agreement could ideally open up citizen’s minds and imaginations to the possibilities of democracy and help create a brighter, more sustainable, egalitarian future. The example set by such a group, the moral courage on display, could send reverberations worldwide.

Zizek on Using Dupuy to Form an Anti-Nuclear Coalition

There was recently a great piece by Slavoj Zizek regarding the US-North Korea standoff. Rather than assessing the “realistic” probabilities of nuclear war, Zizek claims we should use Jean-Pierre Dupuy’s theory of “Enlightened Catastrophism” to prevent a future conflagration. How this would work, then, is to accept the apocalypse as inevitable, yet still, in spite of this, to work to prevent what is already “pre-determined”. In a way, human societies always have been doing this, holding off the end times generation-to-generation, all the while cognizant of the possibility that an extinction event is possible at any time.

In this case, it is obvious that asking the powers that be nicely to give up nukes using rational arguments won’t work: the elites are not going to concede anything without a fight. So, we should take Zizek’s advice seriously:

“What is needed is no less than a new global anti-nuclear movement, a global mobilization that would exert pressure on nuclear powers and act aggressively, organizing mass protests and boycotts, while denouncing our leaders as criminals and the like. It should focus not only on North Korea but also on those super-powers who assume the right to monopolize nuclear weapons. The very public mention of the use of nuclear weapons should be treated as a criminal offense.”

If this were done, it would be possible to link up protest movements worldwide, using the internet and social media, not just focusing on one-issue protests such as anti-nukes. We all share the threat of nuclear war in common, as well as the environmental threats posed by global warming, mass extinctions, ocean acidification, GMO outbreaks, pandemics, etc. Humanity must struggle together to overcome the daunting odds posed by an over-populated planet, mass poverty, and deteriorating ecosystems. In our information age, it is possible that we can bridge the gaps between nations and form a new internationalist, anti-capitalist movement. From all corners of the globe, we can build what Marcos called:

“…an intercontinental network of resistance against neoliberalism… in which distinct resistances may support one another. This network of resistance is not an organized structure; it doesn’t have a central head or decision maker; it has no central command or hierarchies. We are the network, all of us who resist.”

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Interview with RPFront.com

‘Saudi Arabia’s attacks on Yemen have created an unmitigated disaster’

In an interview with Real Progressive Front, William Hawes says, “Saudi Arabia’s attacks have created an unmitigated disaster. It’s an absolute humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions.”

Below, the full transcript of the interview has been presented.

What are the consequences of Saudi Arabia’s military attacks as well as its blockade on Yemen?

William Hawes: Saudi Arabia’s attacks have created an unmitigated disaster. It’s an absolute humanitarian catastrophe of epic proportions. Don’t just trust me: read other sources and go look at the images of what kids in Yemen are facing. The blockade is preventing food and medicine from reaching the hard to access places inside the country. The consequences will be more death, starvation, disease, and misery for the people of Yemen. It’s important to realize just how young the Yemeni population is: nearly half the population is 18 or younger, so it will be even harder for society to pick up the pieces with so many children at risk, and so many traumatized by war.

How has the UN handled the outbreak of Cholera in Yemen?

William Hawes: The World Health Organization (WHO) is doing what it can, but from what I have read, can only reach about half the country due to the threat of violence. The WHO is predicting about half a million cases of cholera, with close to two thousand deaths already having occurred. The UN needs to put pressure allow access to rural medical sites, but diplomatically, cannot get the two sides to come to the table.

What’s your take on Washington’s support of Saudi Arabia in its bombardment of Yemen? Is the U.S. responsible for what is happening in Yemen?

William Hawes: My take is Washington is doing what it has always done: kill innocent people and create chaos so it can divide and conquer the Middle East. Consider who the US supports the most in the region: Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey, and Egypt. These are the most hardline, authoritarian regimes who will never question US imperialism and the neoliberal, colonialist, capitalist model.

Yes, the US is responsible, because it is supplying the Saudis with weapons, logistics, and intelligence. In a court of law, if you give someone a weapon knowing that person is going to commit violence, you’d be charged as an accomplice, an accessory to the crime.

A senior United Nations official in Yemen has condemned the Saudi-led air strike which killed at least 12 civilians, including children, saying it showed a complete “disregard” for human life. What role can the international community play to prevent Saudi Arabian atrocities in Yemen?

William Hawes: There’s a lot of ways I can answer this, so I’ll start with the simplest. First, the UN can call for a ceasefire, and have the parties sit down and negotiate. Then aid organizations can come, as well as international observers, peacekeeping troops if necessary, that’s the standard procedure.

The wider question to ponder, though, is this: do we really have much of an “international community”? We use empty phrases like these all the time. If we look at our world leaders and their delegates at the UN we see that they are just defending their own selfish, nationalist interests. Our political leaders are either mentally ill, or they have severe psychological issues, and have no empathy for the weak and less fortunate.

Who is looking out for kids in Yemen, besides brave Yemeni doctors, nurses, aid workers, and groups like the WHO? If we had a strong, caring international community, these wars would never happen in the first place. Humanity has been dealing for thousands of years with groups that violently compete against each other, that do not cooperate. This has to change. Every day we delay we are dooming more and more people to unnecessary suffering and death.

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Capitalism and Its Discontents: What Are We Living For?

CounterPunch, Dissident Voice, Countercurrents, Aug 10-11, 2017

“Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about fascism.”

-Max Horkheimer, from the essay “The Jews and Europe”, December 1939

Aren’t we all tired of capitalism? Haven’t most of us gotten sick of the drudgery, the monotony, the exploitation, sucking up to our bosses and management who pretend to care about the average worker? The drive to consume more and more has degraded all art, values, and sense of community in the US.

Capitalists literally are holding the people of the Earth in bondage. As liberal democracy crumbles in the West, the risk of neo-fascism continues to rise in North America and Europe.

It’s worth examining why the US has TV shows like “Hoarders”, where people have problems collecting useless crap, and where viewers publicly shame and judge the afflicted. Yet, where is the outrage at the real hoarders, the billionaires, the banks, and the military industrial complex? This is serious hypocrisy, a cultural blind spot: a double standard that is not being addressed by our society.

Capitalists are Addicts

Why does society not ask arch-capitalists the obvious questions: when is enough, enough? Who needs a billion dollars? Once you can provide a comfortable life for your family, children, and grandchildren, what is the point of hoarding your money in bank accounts and lording over a monopolizing mega-corporation? Where does this endless desire for more come from?

It’s fairly obvious that a failure to confront death is closely linked to the bottomless appetite exhibited by capitalists. The perceived need to construct towers, monuments, mansions, and manufactured narratives of their own greatness is proof. Not to mention how many of the super-rich have chosen to become cryogenically frozen post-mortem: this is in outright denial of their own mortality, and the necessity of death so that future generations may live.

In failing to confront death, any object can be used as a crutch, an addiction. Addiction is linked to social isolation and lack of community, which the capitalist class creates by artificially creating specialized divisions of labor, alienation, and class differences.

Addiction leads to a disconnection from what some would call a “reality principle”, leading to further and deeper indulgences and lack of restraint. There are further similarities between capitalists and drug addicts: the impatience, the disconnection from others, the neediness, as well as a general childlike need to be validated and pampered.

Methodology and Treatment in an Age of Insanity

We see where capitalism leads: to a permanent crisis, a never-ending state of emergency. Since the 1970s, workers have increased productivity mightily with little to zero increases in wages considering inflation and other factors. Americans are also working longer hours; young adults are even having less sex partly because of this. There is a huge problem with prescription drug abuse (not just opioids), teen suicide is rising (sadly, at a 40 year high for teen girls in 2017), and child poverty isn’t being addressed properly, if at all, by our own government.

All of these absolutely tragic issues are connected to capitalism. When we are forced to compete against each other, in grades at school, for that raise or promotion in the workplace, this breeds a mindset of dehumanization.

I would also posit that the separation of young children from their parents when they begin schooling, either day care or pre-school or kindergarten or afterwards, is one of the first steps in life where the feelings of individual atomization starts, and collective social disintegration begins. Being ripped from your parent’s arms because they have to work just to survive, and the state/private/charter school substituting for the role of a parent, is one of the first deep tragedies inflicted on many of us by the “needs” of the modern world. I believe this suffering is lodged deep in our unconscious selves, and this is not being addressed publicly at all, and barely acknowledged in our private lives.

Treatment starts when we want to become free of the Great Beast of capitalism, the “Babylon system” as some like to call it. We must ground ourselves, and return to a deeper relationship with our mother Earth. Self-reliance is true freedom, and families and communities should begin to grow as much of their own food as possible. I understand the limitations for those in urban areas, or those stuck in jobs where time and effort cannot be adequately put towards farming, of course. Collectively, as a city block, a suburban neighborhood, a rural township, we are all going to have to learn to get together, share food and technology, and become independent of this beast. We must begin to develop a gift economy, an indigenous-based economy, based on reciprocity and trust, not exploitation and coercion, as Charles Eisenstein explains.

Other than that, a mass protest movement must be created so the resources that our federal government receives in taxes can be shifted from weapons of destruction to schools, health care, community projects, and renewable energy.

Analyzing a Popular Alternative

I believe it’s important to discuss some of the budding alternatives to capitalism that are developing around the globe. In the US, support for socialism has risen immensely, especially among the younger crowd, thanks to the work of Bernie Sanders (notwithstanding him not really being a socialist) and others. Yet how serious are most American socialists?

One of the most popular groups in the US is called Socialist Alternative (SA), led by the charismatic Seattle councilwoman Kshama Sawant. SA has some great ideas, and yet, some of their proposals make it seem as if they’re just going through the motions. Let me explain.

On their about page, a few things stand out. They write: “We see the global capitalist system as the root cause of the economic crisis, poverty, discrimination, war, and environmental destruction.” Very well put. Yet then, this is followed by the line below:

“As capitalism moves deeper into crisis, a new generation of workers and youth must join together to take the top 500 corporations into public ownership under democratic control to end the ruling elites’ global competition for profits and power.”

This sounds nice, but I wonder how much time was really spent thinking through the implications of this policy. What if democratic control only leads to redistribution of the companies’ wealth, and not fundamental transformation of the products, resource usage, and dangerous working conditions?  Where is the sense of urgency, the fact that deadlines are being approached regarding global warming, regarding the ecological damage being done by these companies?

One wonders, has SA bothered to take a look at the list of the 500 top companies? For some, perhaps they can be repurposed to make sustainable products. For others, maybe the factories and warehouses can be dismantled and recycled for public use. For a few, it might be feasible that they could be broken up into smaller entities and non-profit co-operatives.

Yet, we must realize that these companies have only been able to thrive due to government tax breaks, insider trading, off-shoring hidden wealth, and other financial chicanery. Further, these mega corporations rely on specialized division of labor, fueling worker alienation.

Also, the biggest companies choose not to compete against each other in entire sectors, allowing for large profit margins. What happens when “public ownership” leads to stricter competition and price wars, forcing many employees to be laid off? How will these companies be able to compete against Europe and China? Is SA committed to local and bioregional approaches to agricultural and socially responsible industrial practices?

For many of these companies, though, the only democratic thing I can think of to do is to vote on who gets to throw the first brick or Molotov through the empty building. These corporations have done irreparable harm to the planet. Some of them are simply not going to be able to be reformed.

The only way to transform these entities (the ones that can be saved) properly, with the proper protections, would be to rewrite the constitution to include environmental and social rights, as well as the rights of mother Earth, as Bolivia has done. Without a legal framework based on ecology, there is no way to make sure “democratic control” of a transnational corporation would actually lead to environmentally-safe production.

SA is notable for fighting for a $15 an hour wage. First, I want to say that I support this policy. It is a laudable goal, and may work soon in some of the nation’s wealthy, tech-savvy, coastal metro enclaves.

Yet we need to ask what would happen if this were enacted nationally, and what we should do to prepare if it ever does. The elites would pull their money out of the system, if only to spite the Left and the socialists who enacted the policy, and give them a taste of pain for disobeying capitalism. The neoliberal economy is designed around low-wage service work, and is so tightly interwoven, not to mention extremely monopolized, that a sudden wage rise would lead to high levels of inflation, and possibly to a severe economic recession or depression. Are groups like SA ready to organize outside the political structure, to make space for a civic society, domestically and abroad, which will need massive influxes of resources, food, and housing when shit hits the fan?

SA also wants to “slash the military budget”, which is great. SA does not clarify where that new money should go. SA also proclaims that they support internationalism. Allow me to make a proposal: money from the military budget should be given away freely to developing countries, with transnational groups, either under UN auspices or some new framework, helping distribute and allocate resources so they are not wasted by corrupt dictators and governments. Poorer nations will need massive influxes of revenue to help them develop and avoid using fossil fuels and habitat-destroying industry, in the realm of trillions of dollars over decades. The West has accumulated ill-gotten wealth from centuries of colonialism, chattel slavery, and genocidal policies towards the “Global South”, and now may be the last chance to give back, before it becomes too late.

Are US socialists committed to these sorts of radical proposals? Are SA and others ready to admit to its followers that real socialism will involve hard sacrifices, and almost certainly (in the short term, at least) lead to less material goods and privileges that Westerners have enjoyed for centuries? Are socialists as ready to support a living wage in China as they are in the USA? Finally, are American socialists committed to transforming the nation, or just promoting an ideology that is centered too much on human needs, and not enough on the needs of non-humans and future human generations?

Ecocentrism, not Anthropocentrism

The Left has been fragmented for decades. Liberals, socialists, communists, greens, and anarchists have all endlessly debated future models for society. One wonders, how many are just talking, and how many are willing to listen? There already are models for society to live sustainably and to prosper, very, very old ways: by following the paths set by the indigenous.

For instance: by living in the moment, and observing things as they really are, it becomes quite clear that humanity is facing huge challenges unlike at any other time in history. Just one hundred companies have pumped out 70% of worldwide greenhouse gases since 1988. Is the answer, as SA has posited, really just to democratize these corporations and hope for the best, or to shut them down completely?

Westerners are going to have to realize very quickly that despite our space technology, skyscrapers, and instant media, we are the children in the room when it comes to ecological knowledge, and the indigenous around the world are the adults. Native American tribes and various indigenous peoples worldwide have catalogued thousands if not tens of thousands of local plants in their local ecosystems, often with hundreds of different uses for each individual plant. Indigenous accept their own mortality and have constructed elaborate rituals, ceremonies, and initiations to help each other confront death. Also, and this is critical, indigenous tribes understand their carrying capacity in their local habitat, and so are able to regulate and rationally plan for their population levels. Overpopulation now threatens the world with ecosystem degradation, habitat destruction, global warming, resource wars, ocean acidification, plastics proliferation, pandemics, and mass starvation and drought.

The indigenous are plant people, and we can follow just a few basic ideas to help us escape capitalism: conserve what remains of the South American, African, and Southeast Asian rainforests, as many future cures from disease and chronic conditions will be found there. In the Americas, the milpa, a planting of corn, beans, squash, and various nutrient rich veggies allows for huge crop productivity in a small area. We can use hemp and legalize cannabis to make biofuels, produce paper, make innovate building materials like Hempcrete, and provide the masses with a safe, relaxing herb for recreational, medicinal, and spiritual use. Advanced technology in most scenarios will only make things worse. What is the best thing one can do to stop global warming? Not a solar array, but planting a tree. Slow down soil erosion? Plant a tree. What is resistance? Planting a community garden is a more socialist, a more significant thing to do now than attending another symposium on Marxism.

The indigenous are freer and happier than Westerners not by some innate abilities, but because they have chosen to work for their freedom: by co-producing food, tools, clothes, pottery, by hunting, fishing, and foraging together. Westerners have refused to resist thus far, because deep down, many know they are dependent on the system for survival, and don’t want to pull that plug, to bite the hand that feeds. It’s the only way, though. We are going to have to walk away from all this, and activists, protestors, and concerned citizens are going to have to metaphorically step into our own Lacandon jungle, and organize around ecology, democracy, and social justice.

Yet, we must realize that it is too late in the game to rely simply on voting. Citizens will respond to a mass movement to the degree that it represents the will of the people: to the degree it can articulate a political truth on a deeply visceral level. Most mainstream socialists (important exceptions being Ian Angus, Paul Burkett, and John Bellamy Foster) have so far been too committed to a flailing, abstract ideology; specifically, wrongly committed to a Eurocentric, technocratic, anthropocentric worldview; to capture people’s imaginations. Developing an ecological worldview, one that acknowledges our interdependence and interconnectedness with all species, is crucial.

Thus, as the 21st century progresses, Standing Rock will eventually be seen as having more influence than Occupy Wall Street. We are connected to our planet and the web of life more than we can ever know or attempt to explain. For instance, we won’t end warfare until we abolish factory farming: the two are intimately linked, as exploitation of man over animal allows fascists the ideological justification for exploitation and the killing of man by man. Ecology is the keystone science: it allows us to see the linkages between species, food webs, and provides the science needed to develop scale-appropriate, sustainable technology. Ecologists understand that an injury to one is an injury to all, and under capitalism, we’ve all been wounded, plant, animal, and human alike, even the rich, who’ve suffered spiritual decay and moral disintegration.

The only democracy possible is an ecological democracy, with a long-term planning, and rational, sustainably-oriented national constitutions, a 90-95% reduction in fossil fuel use within a few decades at most, and an international consensus which will guarantee safeguards against habitat destruction, even in the face of democratic majority opposition. If we don’t face up to these facts, and collectively and courageously organize, we may in fact be due for the Kali Yuga, as the Hindus prophesied.

Thus, perhaps we can update and re-phrase Horkheimer’s famous quote for the 21st century:

“Whoever is not prepared to talk about capitalism should also remain silent about the 6th mass extinction.”

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Interview with Phillip Farruggio

Here’s the link to the interview. Thanks for listening everyone. An hour long convo with Phillip, a very passionate anti-war activist.

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Divided by Design: A Review of Mugambi Jouet’s Exceptional America

New York Journal of Books, July 24, 2017

 

Exceptional America: What Divides America from the World and from Each Other is the type of book where you have to laugh in order not to cry when reading. Mugambi Jouet systematically explains how Americans are born and raised into an anti-intellectual culture where harsh incarceration practices, Christian fundamentalism, gun violence, and a plutocratic economic structure controls the lives of average citizens.

Jouet, a lawyer, reveals in the introduction of the book the strict, Old-Testament style of the US judicial system, where his client is faced with a sentence far longer than it should be. When Jouet appeals to reason by pointing out that lengthy sentences do little to reduce crime, put a drain on public finances, as well as explaining that rehabilitation is far more effective, the judges shut him down. His client is charged six years for a minor, non-violent drug offense. After one reads these first pages, one can hear a gavel smashing down giving judgment, but it isn’t towards Jouet’s client: it is directed squarely at the US criminal justice system. To further his point, Jouet appropriately quotes Camus: “One can judge a society by its prisons.”

Jouet explains that Alexis de Tocqueville was not referring to American exceptionalism as a simply positive characteristic, but that America was exceptional in its uniqueness. Being one of a kind has positive and negative qualities in terms of society and governance. For instance, conservatives America’s fundamentalists belief in the Christian God, and the End Times, fuels the far-right wing belief that the United States can do no wrong in foreign policy and even domestically. On a positive note, most Americans perceive themselves as classless; or at least part of a broad middle class, where the industrious can get ahead and egalitarianism is encouraged.

However, perceptions can be misleading. Although Americans pay lip-service to promoting an egalitarian society, wealth inequality continues to deepen. As Jouet shows, religious indoctrination, massive egos, and privileged upbringings have convinced citizens that one’s ignorant view deserves just as much respect as another’s reasoned, thoughtful arguments.

While liberal America tacks very close to European political worldviews, conservative America has moved off the map to the right ideologically, compared to other Western nations. As Jouet shows, right-wing America has deepened its commitment towards uninformed policy positions and demonstrates a lack of empathy regarding health care and the pro-life position, and a lack of planetary awareness regarding climate change.

In Chapter Six, Jouet devotes time to understanding how Americans vote against their economic interests, blaming anti-intellectualism among right-wingers, and makes an important connection between religious fundamentalism and market fundamentalism. He also points out how a racial divide due to slavery, segregation, and structural racism has kept white America from joining forces with minorities to form a class-based political identity.

Jouet is also quick to point out that what many Americans call patriotism is really nationalism: believing in the myth of “American exceptionalism”, which is simply a not-so-subtly coded way of saying the USA is superior to every other nation. There is a knowledge gap regarding world affairs that continues to slide Americans into a more insular, venal attitude towards the international community. Jouet provides startling statistics about how little Americans know about world geography, history, and international leaders. He does not, however, offer much of a model going forward as to how to stem the tide of anti-intellectualism in the US.

Towards the end of the book, Jouet touches on the rise of authoritarian nationalism which is rising around the world, citing the election of Trump, and the National Front’s influence in France. Jouet is very smart, and informed about many nation’s politics and culture, yet he either does not have the inclination or the background to connect the problems of American ignorance, religious fundamentalism, market neoliberalism, and imperialism back to our system of ever-increasing exploitation and inequality due to capitalism. Jouet offers the tepid liberal trope that Americans, if better educated, should and will accept a social democratic system, citing Sweden and Japan as models where wealth inequality is relatively low and standards of living and general happiness are high.

Unfortunately, although Jouet acknowledges that “social democracy will not lead to utopian societies in America, Europe, or elsewhere”, his mild call for what some call a “New New Deal”, while laudable, will fall on deaf ears. American political leaders, the “elite”, are mentally unfit for office (see Trump, Donald) and are not prepared to listen, take advice, or think rationally, just as in the start of the book, his judges were not willing to heed his well-reasoned argument for a reduced sentence for his defendant.

What Jouet and other well-meaning progressives fail to see is that the US elite are not simply anti-intellectual, or market and religious extremists: they are unhinged, mentally ill, and represent a clear and present danger to the world. Jouet’s call for social democracy and redistribution is like the progressive version of Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again”, except in liberal-left form, it would go something like: “Make America Keynesian Again”.  Jouet and other progressives do not want to face facts: mainstream American culture and its political system are in a steep decline, and reforming around the edges is not going to solve the core issues at the dark heart of neoliberal capitalism. Only a radical restructuring of the economy with a new emphasis on sustainability, the interdependence of nations, and international solidarity with the meek of the world, with transnational bodies able to share resources, food, medicine, and technology, will be able to guarantee a future for all of us. That would be a truly exceptional path for us to take.

 

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Lies That Capitalists Tell Us

By William Hawes and Jason Holland

CounterPunch, June 26, 2017

 

While idiotic supporters of our two-party system wring their hands over the sensationalist nonsense reported by the mainstream media, we thought it might be worth touching on the most dangerous lie of all-time: capitalism. It’s an all-encompassing delusion, including: the myth of continual technological progress, the mendacious assumptions of endless economic growth, the lie that constant bombardments of media and consumer goods make us happy,  and the omissions of our involvement in the exploitation of the planet and the resources of distant, poorer nations, among other things.

We’ve taken the time to hash out some of the most pernicious mendacities we’ve come across in our (relatively) young lives, in the workplace, in our private lives, and in the media. ***

Please share these counter-arguments far and wide, in order to educate your fellow citizens, and, if necessary, to provide the intellectual beat-downs needed when arguing with pro-capitalists. So without further ado, here is our list of the most devious “Lies that Capitalists Tell Us”:

1) Wealth will “trickle down”

It’s hard to believe an economic policy that conjures images of urination could be wrong, but the idea is as bankrupt as the lower classes who have been subjected to the trickling. Less than ten people now have the financial wealth equivalent to half the planet, and the trickling seems a lot more like a mad cash-grab by the (morally bankrupt) elites. Rather than trickle down, the 1% and their lackeys have hovered up the majority of new wealth created since the 2008 crash. After 40 years of stagnant wages in the US the people feel more shit on than trickled upon.

It’s not a mistake that the elite reap most of the profits: the capitalist system is designed this way, it always has been, and will be, until we the people find the courage to tear it down, and replace it with something better.

2) I took all the risks

It can be argued the average employee takes far more risks in any job than the average person who starts a business with employees. The reason being is that the person starting a business usually has far more wealth, where most Americans can’t afford a 500 dollar emergency. Meaning if they lose a job or go without work for any stretch it means some tough decisions have to be made. A person with even a failing business cannot be fired, but the employee can be fired for almost any reason imaginable, they are operating without a net at all times.

The capitalist uses all sorts of public infrastructure to get his/her company off the ground. From everything to the roads to get you to your job, colleges, public utilities, tax breaks, electricity, etc. Even the internet itself was created from public research. Yet still, elite business owners still have the audacity, and are so full of hubris, that they believe in the hyper-individualist, macho, rugged-cowboy/pioneer façade they affect.

3) I could pay you more if there were less government regulations

Many capitalists argue that layers of government bureaucracy prevent them from paying their employees a fairer, living wage. This is a huge whopper, as our regulations (like no child labor, a minimum wage, disability and worker’s compensation, basic environmental impact studies, etc) actually provide safety against the worst type of exploitation of workers and destruction of the land by corporations. Without these minimum regulations, an age of even more outright neo-feudalism would occur, where employees could be layed-off and rehired ad-infinitum, based on downward market wage forces, at the wishes of ever-more capricious owners, management, and CEOs.

4) If you work hard, one day you can be rich like us (We live in a meritocracy)

America is not a meritocracy, and no one should think it is. There exists no tie to the intelligence of work done or the amount of it that guarantees success. Rather to be rich depends more on either being born into it, or being exceptionally good at exploiting others so one may take the bulk of the proceeds for themselves. This is the magic formula for wealth in this ever so “exceptional” land – exploit, exploit, exploit.

Inheritance & exploitation is how the rich get rich. To understand the exploitation aspect takes some understanding of how the rich function. Next to none of the super rich become that way solely by meritocracy. Their income is created through complex webs of utilizing leverage usually to extract some form of passive income. They are the rentier class or con artists, or both.

You only have to look at what the rich are dabbling in. Like Robert Mercer for instance, who made his money via “a hedge fund that makes its money by using algorithms to model and trade on the financial markets.” . Skimming money off corrupt financial markets hardly seems like a worthwhile activity that contributes anything to humanity, it’s a hustle.

Or take Bill Gates, who did some programming for a few years, poorly, and became rich by landing a series of deals with IBM initially, and then by passively making money off the share values of Microsoft. The late Steve Jobs may have been one of the more hands-on billionaires, but even he required thousands of enslaved asian hands to extract the kind profits Apple was able to make.

Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson almost certainly has organized crime links, as if owning a casino wasn’t enough of a con to begin with.

Rich DeVos became a billionaire by running a pyramid scheme most are familiar with called Amway.

The Walton family, owners of Wal-Mart, pays a median wage of 10 bucks an hour (far below a living wage), they strong arm vendors, and also rely on products made with working conditions that resemble old world slavery, while having more wealth than the bottom 40% of Americans.

There’s just no way to make that kind of money without having a major market advantage and then profiteering off it. Lie, cajole, coerce, manipulate, bribe, rig, and hustle. These are the tools of the rich.

No one is worth this kind of money and everyone needs each other’s help to function, but in the minds of the rich they consider themselves the primary cogs in the machine worthy of their money for doing not much else than holding leverage over others and exploiting it.

5) This is as good as it gets (there is no alternative, TINA)

Through a process of gaslighting and double bind coercion the choices we are fed are propagandized via controlled media outlets owned and operated by elites. We are told our choices must be between the democrats or republicans, attacking the Middle East or face constant terrorism, unfettered capitalism or state run communism. We are given binary choices that lack all nuance, and nuance is the enemy of all those who seek to control and exploit. They feed us a tautology of simpleton narratives which unfortunately do exactly what they hoped, keep people dumb and biting on their red herrings.

Capitalists make it seems as if there is no alternative because they hoard all the money, have all the hired guns, and pay off teams of servile lawyers, judges, and lobbyists to write and enforce their anti-life laws. Capitalists demand “law and order” whenever their servant classes get too restless. In general, the most hardened, dogmatic capitalists exhibit bewilderment and/or disgust at genuine human emotions like joy, creativity, spontaneity, and love. Many capitalists have an unconscious death wish, and want to drag the rest of us and the mother Earth down with them.

Capitalists have stolen all the farmlands, hold all the patents to technology, and don’t pay enough to mass amounts of citizens to get out of the rat race and get back to the land, to live off of. The screws are turned a little tighter every year. If we are not done in by massive natural disasters or an economic collapse, expect a revolution to occur, hopefully a non-violent one.

6) We give back to the community

Corporations set out to create non-profits as a public relations move. They cause the problems and then put small band-aids on the gaping wounds they have directly contributed to and use the charity as a source of plausible deniability to obscure the fact that they are exactly what we think they are: greedy.

Handing out bread-crumbs after you’ve despoiled, desecrated, and bulldozed millions of hectares of valuable habitat is not fooling anyone. The elite one-percenters are the enemies of humankind and the biosphere itself.

7) The system (and economic theory) is rational and takes into account social and environmental costs

People tend to think someone somewhere is regulating things to keep us safe. They look around and see sophisticated technology, gleaming towers in the sky, and what they believe to be is a complex intelligent world. But in truth no one is running the show. The world functions as a mad cash grab driven by neo-liberal ideology. Our leaders are driven by power, fame, and money, and exhibit strong psychopathic, sociopathic, and narcissistic traits.

The problems of modern industrial capitalism and its impact on the world is clear – our exploitation of the resources, people, and other species are a direct result of our consumer based infinite growth model. Just a few of the problems we face are species extinction, climate change, ocean acidification, and a toxic carcinogen filled trash dump of a planet that reached population overshoot decades ago.

If the system was rational, we would begin planning to lower birth rates to decrease the world’s population, and voluntarily provide education, decent, dignified jobs, as well as birth control and contraception to women worldwide.

We live by money values, and think in money terminology. When we discuss healthcare the topic arises about how to pay for it before nearly anything else. The priority isn’t on saving lives but how to pay for things. Yes, how will we pay for healthcare when banks can create money on a computer through the magic of fractional reserve banking, which they often use to bail out their crony friends. The money isn’t real but the implications of restricting it from the populace are. Money is created out of thin air by the magic of the Federal Reserve, yet we have all heard our bosses, and the pricks in Washington complaining that “we don’t have enough money for that” when it comes to healthcare, improving schools, and humanitarian relief for the poorest parts of the world.

Again, if the system was rational, world poverty would be solved within a few short years. Money destined for weapons and “defense” could be used domestically as well as abroad to Africa, South Asia, and Latin America, and there is more than enough money (75 trillion is the annual world GDP, approximately 15 trillion in the US alone) to pay for a good home, clothing, and food for every family worldwide, with an all-renewable powered energy grid.

8) The future will be better

When Trump’s slogan make America great again was on the lips of every alt-right fascist, most of us stopped to ask, when was it great? The truth is that politicians have been promising something better since the inception of this country and better has never arrived.

There is always another expensive war to fight and another financial meltdown occurring on average every eight years. Wait, you might say, what about those sweet post-WWII growth years brought about by the New Deal? The sad truth is those years were only materially beneficial to white, middle-class men, who were highly sexist, racist, and complicit in incubating today’s consumer-driven Empty Society.

The post-WWII era was an aberration in our history and the result of having more jobs available than people, but as the country rapidly exploited its natural resources and reached the limits of linear growth while the population exploded the leverage that allowed people to have higher wages receded. Even though efficiency increased enormously, the people lost leverage to demand higher wages.

Without leverage held by the people capitalism will return to its status quo goal – exploit, and that’s just what it did. In the US, corporations grew richer and the people grew poorer starting from the mid 1970’s to the present.

9) It’s Just Business

Employees devote years of their lives to companies and when they are let go they are told it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. This is how all bad news is delivered even when personal, it’s says we are cold-hearted organizations that adhere to a bottom line first and human needs second. So know when they say “it’s just business” what they are saying is understand we are sharks, and acting like a shark is just what we do.

This is also the logic behind defending war crimes and similar atrocities. Nations like the US claim they have a “responsibility to protect” civilians from terrorists. Then, when American bombs kill civilians (or their proxies use US-made weapons), they are referred to as “collateral damage”.

10) Financial markets & debt are necessary

The health of the entire economy is too often gauged by the stock markets. But the reality about financial markets is they are extraneous gambling machines designed to place downward pressure on companies to post good numbers to elevate share prices. These financial markets funnel capital to a smaller and smaller number of multinational corporations every year, and perpetuate non-linear economic growth (and therefore more pollutants, CO2, pesticides, strip mining, razing of forests) that is killing the planet.

Debt is the most fundamental lie in our economy. Money is only supposed to be a tool to move goods efficiently around a market, but for money itself to be a wealth engine is a Ponzi scheme. And we all know how that ends.

 

 

*** For a wider taste of our oeuvre, visit Reason Bowl Radio to watch Jason expose the Trump administration for the sorry sacks of shit that they are, and discuss current events, as well as Jason and Bill’s commentary and ramblings about topics such as psychedelics, the nature of consciousness, and reflections on how to effect social change.

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