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Nothing but Braided Stream

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I spent a summer living in a tent in Alaska. Salmon that swam up the river rotted in motion, sprouting with flowery mould. The Eskimo woman I cleaned hotel rooms with told me there were gnomblins by the moss rocks and we would die if they saw our eyes. We shat on the grey stones and the shit grew long, silken white hair that stood up on end, but the shit was neither eaten nor washed away. The power was not yet visible.

Our tents grew unclean and stank. Mildew skins grew on our vinyl floors and walls. We stuck whole garlic cloves in our water bottles to keep the stink down. Knots of madness got tangled in the rushes and cold swamp mallows between the grey banks, hell breaks of rotten liquid dissolution, wrack in the leaves. Voids of grey skies rained for months, brought no summer, spawned an endless, intimate, foggy entropy.

Answers were all around but still invisible, sodden-soaked into each grain in the mile-wide of braided stream, hidden next to but dominant of the blacktop snaking to the glacier. Everywhere but invisible, god. There on the sharp hillsides, enfolding us in cold rock and grainy diluvian soil.

Damp woods, reason, beauty, stumbled prone next to the Apocalyptic Orgasm River. Love glowed and grew and shivered and freshened, raindrops on an undulating river, and rotted like a dead dog under the porch.

Apocalypse spilled all over the slopes that beheld the river. I thought I wanted the mountains, or thought the mountains wanted me.

Wrong all around.

The river carried silt.

We were three: me, Tief and Delf. After a few months, we finished up our jobs, packed our shimmelig tents, drove away, went “hiking” – which really meant we got lost and battered. Twice; first in one landscape, then at another.

Tramping over river stones in the Wyoming Hills of Denali, thinking of lost loves, Delf said he wished he had a string and could draw all his guts out now now now now, slowly, slowly. Dump them all over the river bed for the bears to eat.

I tumbled in the river, was rushed some metres downstream, lost my glasses to the grey milky flow. Moments after, we got lost in creeping bushes, head high and wet, on the western bank. Exhausted, we tented on moss, us and our food scattered amidst the red-black, pencil-thin stems of the hill creep, abandoned to whatever stupidity.

The next day, random blind ascents of smooth green hill slopes that disappeared into grey banks of clouds.

Brutality of defeat, incompetence, pride, competition. Inexorably crushed by the visible we could not see. Is that a rock? Is that a bear? Will we die here? Or is our pride so big we think this little bit of rain, this little bit of forgotten mountain, this little bit of bear, rock, stream, beach, bush, wild, will turn us into this summer’s frontpage? Is that death right there on the hill, or just pride?

Seeking the apocalyptic orgasm but afraid to get in bed with it when its glistening eye crept open where the ever steepening scree slopes met the mist. It was me who convinced us to turn back.

Couldn’t see it.

The bear in the river bed came out of the bushes and menaced us a bit from fifty metres. Showed us its side, maundered towards us, changed its mind, ramble-rumbled back into the bushes it had come from (and where, delirious from failure, we would later sleep, food strewn in the bushes like raw guts).

It was the fox that got me, though. Within moments of the bear, the fox came out of the bushes, trotted to within a few metres of us, as if saying hello, and went back into the bushes.

I was tempted to take it as a sign: elusive beast, smiling trickster.

Yes?

No.

Just a fox. Looking for undigested meat-bear-shit? Hoping we were dead but salvageable?

The bear – a warning? Shiva bone dance? Just a bear.

We were still ignoring how big it all was. All of it. Focusing on the fox. Illusion of the mystical. Thinking we were saved by the fox.

Lice, death, lameness, funk, stink, chiggers, ticks. Toiling about on the lower slopes of the Wyoming Hills, aphids on bird legs.

Afterwards, Tief and I left Delf in a town, and he dropped from my consciousness so fast he may as well have sunken into the sifted stones there on the riverbeach under Denali’s dominance on our accursed and misunderstanding trip to Denali’s most wretched and forgotten backcountry.

We left him to hitchhike out on his own, and Tief and I fled to the centre.

* * *

I dreamed of god once. Autumn in the dream, high on slope, golden bear and bamboo grass. Boiling clouds, perfect calm, sound carrying for miles.

Decaying wooden two-storied hutch whose boards crumbled in your fingers like dead skin after soaking. Upstairs in this particular hut, god, up the ladder. But I couldn’t get up. Every time I tried to climb the ladder, ball lightning, discharge, aftershock fallback.

There was a corroded rusty pipe sticking jaggedly down out of the hut’s outer wall, busted off like a broken glass bottle, blatting audio feedback spattering from it like epileptic Morse code. I knew it was the devil, but spent time listening. Not dangerous, ol’ devil. Just there.

This too all wrong, as dreams tend to be: god like a man, a saint, a withered mummy, a hermit, a presence, a mind, a thought, an intention, a will, a devil, a beauty, a holiness. None of that.

* * *

By the time I got to Alaska I wasn’t looking for god anymore. Just summer work money on fishing boats that never materialised and left us riding our bicycles to the Subway to be Sandwich Artists and vacuuming up crumbs in the Wyndsong Lodge. We would blow our profits on Denali and Wrangell.

Tief and Delf and I showered with the homeless and sailors in the port public toilet and picnicked in the fjord-side park, accepting overflow overkilled halibut from the tour boat parties that flocked the park like overgrown, stinking gulls. At the Wyndsong two other seasonal transients helped remove calcified gum from the carpets under the beds, harvested leftover sacks of bread for next day’s lunch. One: a desultory East German who told me my late twenties flesh-heap was nothing but decay from here – my body had outlived its biological usefulness and was no different from the flowering salmon in the brook. Two: Eskimo, though in her baseball cap and Wyndsong terrycloth pullover she had to tell you that for you to know. Forceful and frank, sleek yet fat, our supervisor, happy to clean a toilet, careful to tell you lots of stories about her brooding boyfriend.

Still full of the moss of the woods that the Wyndsong intruded on, she believed in the gnomblins and told their story so strongly I averted my eyes from the strip of naked, spindly pines between the road and the lodge when I passed. They were in there. We all know death is cramped and cribbled up in between the slippery rocks half-buried in the hummus of tart pine needles under these gliding grey skies, everywhere, everywhere, and so her explanation seemed as good as any that summer as we sought cash by wiping the waxen cum, piss and shit of others from the sleek formica bath units, and flirted with the apocalyptic orgasm that could rain like anvils from the twenty-three hour light in the nightless skies, or creep on us like a doughy, crinkled gnomblin, surprised at lichen-scraping amidst the rock, all its fingernails torn off and algae growing in the folds of its neck, hostile to all that is wrong because nothing is right. Crawling and scuttering by the time-pickled thousands over the rocks between us and the river. Cold beach roaches, invisible until seen.

* * *

So.

Work done, beaten by Denali, for the end of the summer we two remaining incompetents, Tief and I, went hiking in a place called the Goat Trail. It’s a little bit of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, in the same way and at the same scale the street you live on is part of the country you’re in. Wrangell is the largest National Park in the United States, bigger all by itself than some states. For all that, it is an unknown nothing, inhabited by two tiny dot-like towns of a few citizens, connected to empty portions of paved mid-wilderness Alaskan highway by long, treacherous gravel roads that slurve between flat bog wastes and scarped riverbank abysses like an engineering dare, an impossibility of forced convenience. Connecting humanity to ashy death.

Town (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

There weren’t any trails from the collection of subsiding wooden structures known as McCarthy beyond the end of one of these roads (the road slashed away by river, the town marooned on the other side, connected only by pull-cart-on-wire). Wrangell-St. Elias is not a National Park like we’re used to, with nice brown wooden signs and happy yellow-painted groove-letters cheerfully announcing “Rainbow Spring 3.4 miles.” It is a swath of country declared frightening by awed surveyors, a vast blot of natural dominance left to be that way because what else. Defeating development and enterprise. It contains an entire, dead, abandoned mining town. But no trails, no trailheads.

We looked downcast and convinced an idle bushpilot to fly us into the backcountry for half price – he knew even that money was more than we had to waste.

Entry (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

Boom. We were dropped off by tiny bi-plane in an area so slagged with natural destruction as to daunt the eye, bewilder expectation. Here, gravel mounded into high hill by glacier. There, glacier crumbled like hundred year old frozen cheese, sledgehammered on a cold fall evening against the slate-block of the river bed. Turbulent effluent flowed out from below, blocked all paths.

The watery plain dominated in turn to meaninglessness by the hills. “Mountain” is too dramatic a term; they were too big and split, riven, wrecked, huge, rampant to slot into the mystery and pleasant greenness of “mountain.” Too big and primeval. Call them hills, disappearing into rack of cloud that didn’t know land from sky. A stirred broil of the elements, water, earth and air, needing nothing of fire to show the natural world can destroy itself in its own making again and again.

We’d flown over glacial rivers that could swallow Manhattan in one gulp, beasts that defied my scientific understanding of them by lapping and overflow the valleys between the peaks, like dough swollen over the lip of a bowl. Aren’t they supposed to be produced by mountains, not consume them? They looked to shunt aside the peaks. They formed vast, blank white pools that filled the all. To call our plane gnat-like in the face of all this is to exaggerate: dust.

Droned loudly over all that and set down on a scar of scraped-up gravel in a convenient flat spot in the available vastness, Skolai Pass, the beginning of “The Goat Trail” we were to follow.

Mind, there was no actual trail.

Route (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

Everything was wet, strangled in chill by the onrushing early-August autumn.

In our minds, Tief and I were about to dare something on this Gauguin-gone-mad canvas, but we were soon to know there was no “dare” in it, just the struggle of ants against the enormous flood of time and space. Our egos were to be stricken from us like winnowed grain. We were to be husked.

The pilot tipped us out of the plane like misshapen ball bearings carelessly discarded in a thousand-acre junk-yard of rust and fresh, torn metal.

Filings. Shavings. Blown from the palm of the hand of a giant into a waste of scrapped iron, copper and steel.

The Goat Trail is no trail, but a way, direction, or idea. In places there is a scratching of path, but it may have been made by boots, may have been made by deer, may be an illusion you’re putting together for the convenience of your preconceptions. There is no sense in making it anything more, as the hills, water and wrack of sky and earth constantly remake and erase what is, a stirring of the folds of the mother.

We set out over a lip of moraine and down the river valley – here a stream, a violent trickle – that was our “route”: “follow the river for a few days ‘til you find the other airstrip in the flats; I’ll pick you up there.” Those were the pilot’s directions, either assuming we had more skills and knowledge than we did, or inured by death of self-supposed outdoorspeople in these parts to the point of a shrug: dump off the grub-worms, see if the birds eat them. Maybe you get a caterpillar in a few days. Maybe you get bird shit. All the same to him – nice guy, the pilot – but he’d been subsumed by the all here long ago.

Within an hour or two, telling ourselves all this was okay, we’d come to our first complete erasure of human endeavor and intention. Some torrent or other minor unheard local cataclysm had torn a rent down the hillside like a drunken butcher’s cleaver on raw, open cow flank. Widish, deepish – an orange gash running up into clouds and down into can’t-see-where ripped the hillside we needed to cross into a wet mulchy crumbling sand full of trickling brine. Nearly vertical and, for any normal hiker, impassable. Meaning not that we were somehow skilled beyond “normal,” but that on any other “hike” we’d at this point have just turned around: “oh look, the trail is gone!” But we were young dudes with no cell phone, radio or anything louder or more impactful than our voices, and the only thing that was going to get us into contact with the human world again was walking across that gash and going on and on and on, a couple of days, to an imagined airstrip somewhere down and below in this infinity.

We ventured into the gash gingerly, gamely. This was probably the last point of the trip that we treated the whole thing as if it was supposed to be this way, as if the danger of the gash wasn’t as bad as it looked, as if yeah, we just weren’t used to it, and this was just like being on a boardwalk to a nice pond, being worried we’d trip on a nail or get a sliver. Yeah. We just had to do it, we thought: get in there and get through it. “It will be fine.”

It would not be fine.

In a prelude of the days to come, as we were smeared by clayey mud and tempura-battered with bits of rock and sand, and slid about in the sticky crevice, I dislodged something large and chocolatey, a “rock,” I will call the biggish chunk of crumbling butterfinger that slid out of the gash-side I was clinging to, glanced off my elbow and careened into the nothing.

There was no time to pause to be startled; I still had to finish outliving the gash. I felt fine; it didn’t hurt much. Yet. I reassured Tief, and, in that oblivious moment – “this is all perfectly normal and fine!” – we chose to ignore the fact that anything bigger, even that rock itself in different orientation, could have taken me with it and put an end to all of it right there.

We climbed out of the gash on the other side and found a spot to sit in the dead grass and patchy soil. My elbow began to hurt – a lot. It swelled up, a vast fleshy mass, instant tumor, alien invader. A pulpy cantaloupe-sized flesh-ball dangling from the back of my joint. My offended mortality had put its fingers in its ears and puffed out its cheeks – “no no no this is not happening!” – and defended my brittle bones with an amorphous, swollen version of itself. I was more bemused than afraid, but that progress through the gash was the end of our nonchalance.

We’d passed out of the realm of “hiking,” and knew it. We now were animals scrambling on a hillside – nothing more.

There are linear trips from which I can count the camps. Precise pieces of trail, discrete phases of map. This isn’t one of those.

We camped somewhere that night, left enough time for the next day to be a “day off,” wasting time we didn’t know we didn’t have. For our “rest” day we hiked up the hillside to a large plateau of a consistency unfamiliar. Soft and quaky, yet easily bearing our weight. Not bog-like, but a springy mat like poorly consolidated rubber ten feet deep, or a hundred. By turns barren and brown and dirty, by turns diseased by sprays of wispy stubborn plant. I had the uneasy feeling we should get out of there. The terra firma below our feet wasn’t firm at all, a shaky hardened pudding that felt like it could swallow us up.

Dayhike (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

We ate a picnic, ran a series of stupid arguments. It’s dirt. It’s dirt-covered ice. It’s a glacier. It’s not. It reminded me most of the time I stepped onto and stood on a dead deer’s chest outside of a hunting lodge in Minnesota without realising it until I felt the rib cage start to give under my feet.

I felt the land could consume us the same way my melonning flesh had metastasized my elbow the previous day.

We wandered about on this springy deathtrap, disputing pointlessly about whether great literature needs to have an exciting plot or not to be “great.” We both thought the other obtuse, stupid, and deliberately not listening to our point.

We were actually arguing about what it means to be friends, whether you have to talk all day to be intimate together, and why youth must cover love with noise. Hate. The shivery surface under our feet noticed us not at all.

We’d camped at a place where the once measly torrent of above had become something rather more and merged with a broad flow choked with floating ice that emerged directly out of a glacier that was, like, right there in front of us, man. We had to cross both of these top forks of the “Y” shaped confluence to get out of there. The Y-stem was too deep and wide.

We were terrified.

Our jaunt on the quaking pudding now a night behind us, we contemplated the obstacle with the morning sobriety of necessity. Our sense of the real, and of our scale in it, continued to winnow as the land humped up bigger and bigger and pissed all over us. Here, at this knupf-point between the arms of the hills, at the fight-nexus where the river and glacier beat each other up, the natural was churned into an uneasy broil.

We’d begun to see bears on the other side of the river: where we had to go. The lone, close-up bear of Denali was now replaced by multiple far, seen, real bears, plus imagined ones, roaming about in this flotsam of hungry-early-fall. They shat piles of pure jellied berries that looked like blood mass. Everywhere. As it did most days that summer in Alaska, the grey gloom in the upness spat rain on us, and the damp air we lurched through was coldish. The sunny jaunt on the hill carcass the previous day was wiped out and we faced another moment where it was just us two prideful flesh-piles getting our faces ground into the hillside of mixed slate and calcified shit.

We crossed the first river without incident, schooled into caution by my falling in Denali and losing my glasses in a stream which had looked shallower than this one (I now put in contacts each morning with dirt-rimed fingers and took them out, dry and brittle, in the soggy tent each exhausted evening).

The second fork, the one coming out of the glacier, defeated us. It was broad, braided and confusing. We pointed out various routes to each other, utilising sandbars in the middle, or not, but each time soon found a channel too deep to wade, too fast to dare, too frightening to lower ourselves into. The water was literally ice cold, fresh glacial melt, carrying mini icebergs up to the size of a dorm-room fridge. They bumped off our legs and hurt considerably. Within an hour or so of multiple failed attempts and retreats, in and out of the frigid water, we were too tired to cross, too worried about hypothermia to try.

In this state, judgment reduced but the far airstrip a terror-inducing absolute – get there or stay here – we determined to climb across the tongue-end of the glacier.

We had zero experience in glaciers between us – rather, just enough reading to be terrified of them. We had no idea of the best way of doing it.

Just as we’d gingerly lowered ourselves into the hillside-gash two days previous, we simply clambered tiredly up onto the thing. And there we were. These are our lives.

That glacier may be the least flat surface I have walked on. Imagine your jumbled tray of ice cubes in your freezer. Take it out and melt it some until needles and collapsing globular-topped spires appear. Churn up a can of broken peanuts with some spoiled sour cream and sprinkle that on top. Dump several tablespoons of feta cheese on that. Refreeze. Now, you sized perhaps as big as a no-see-um, cross it.

That is your Wrangell-St. Elias glacier tongue that day. Whether this is typical or not I don’t know; it is the first and last glacier I have crossed.

Aside from the impossible ups-and-downs and arounds-and-abouts, another unforeseen problem crops up: your view of anything but the decaying glacier itself is blocked by the spires and towers, and you get lost. The river that is flowing underneath reappears in spots internally, as the structure is rotten: the glacier does not end in a flat, neat line, but a melty, chaotic catacomb. I was acutely aware that the whole thing might collapse under as at any moment, simply break away. For the first time in my life, I experienced fear as a physical sensation: I might as well have licked copper emulsion plates for the taste on my tongue. I was jolted into a hyper-awareness of being alive, but there wasn’t much to me: just fear and this ice. Radical reduction of self, ego, time, space and life. A bit of wafted fear, plastered against riven snow.

And we were fine, and lived, and climbed off down the other side. Some might say we had a good story to tell. We felt like fools. What were we doing here? Who were we? What the fuck was going on?

We were now in the main valley, but we’d lost a sense of ourselves somewhere in the valleys above. The devil had opened the door the minute we’d stepped out of the plane – “come on in, boys!” – but it was only now that we knew we were in the room.

It was here, in this valley, that the religious experiences of my life came to a sudden end. That’s twenty years ago now. Since then? No seeking, no thinking, no wondering. I was about to get my answer. Right now.

Identities erased, tamed, embarrassed. We headed down the valley. The river to our right was soon a raging beelzebub you wouldn’t want to cross in a canoe. But the airstrip was on this side, on the left, somewhere on ahead. So all we had to do was stumble across the rocks a few more miles, picking our way between the spindly cedars and splashing through the outliers of braid. Right?

We had one more night, but we feared time now. We decided to head for the airstrip, camp there.

Not to be.

The tributaries that spilled out of the eroding hills were sometimes rivers in themselves. Better experienced now, or simply inured, we crossed some easily. Then, nearing dusk, we found one so fast we could hear rocks banging together as they rolled along the bottom. We stared at it dumbfounded, sat on the ground-round rocks.

The sky pressed down. Darkness removed light. Time bubbled and frothed. The infinite was very small, because of what was behind it. People we knew were dying. We were alive.

This?

What is it? What is it?

Ragged, the hillsides humped up into the clouds. Immensity beyond imagination. Around us in every direction, the park stretched for hundreds of miles. Immensity of nothing. Total defeat. Time a fluid, blowing around in the wind. Fragility and finality. The claw-hammer power of the hill’s deafening hand. A triumph of the infinite so complete it does not dwarf or awe you. It eliminates you.

The tributary here was narrower than the ice-float-tray at the head of the valley, but ridiculously much deeper, faster. Patently uncrossable.

Well beyond the end of our rope, we pitched camp next to it. We despaired, we thought we would die, we hated and loved each other no less.

Hereabouts (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

Braids heaps, dumps slag. Raven pelt. The unguent flow of rock glaciers, dirty like soot, rotten curd, oozing the slowest of total destruction. Scaled to kill. Crumbling, morphous, eternity’s pestle, god the mortar. Dwarfing totality. In the lowlands, weed clot in the brack under tannin pine, the egregious suck of organ-mud blacker than bitum. Chew grubs out of dead logs. In the towns, tin roofs perishing to time, gone brown with rust, not assaulted but overwhelmed by the forest. Gravel underfoot crunches, then is soaked with the brine of deterioration, churning back to mulch. Defeat of timber, bolt, screw, dirt-clogged pipes. Graves dot fields. Molten and frozen hell. Silt river teeth. A takeover not friendly or peaceful – a savage and indifferent aggressor, blind and sweeping. Death a scattering, life a brief and unnoticed taking. A decay of the eternal into dust. Threat, fragility, purity. Cauldron of shattered cement. You can fight it and it will let you, but it doesn’t know you are there.

We both saw it, knew it.

In the morning, refreshed, sane again, without god bashing us in the face, we hiked upriver far enough that we crossed the stygian headwater at a point where it didn’t reach our knees. In the bright sunlight, we pretended god hadn’t crushed us, and ambled easily to the airstrip. The drizzle began again. The pilot came and picked us up.

We acted as if nothing had happened.

The truth was we’d slept in the bosom of god, trundled across its ass like blind beggars for days.

It exists and is around us at all times, but does not care. Though we are pieces of god ourselves, we are less than nothing to it. Yes, it is easy to fall into the pathetic anthropomorphising fallacy of seeing the hills, the all, as brooding, evil, hostile. Or great, good: unforgiving but benevolent.

They, it, god, are none of these things. To god, we do not exist. No zen recognition of emptiness, this: no, it is elimination of self, annihilation of meaning. Our stay is less than temporary and transient. In the face of god, our time does not exist.

We were overmatched, helpless, pathetic, utterly uncared for. The hills were as indifferent to us as the Big Bang to space. The landscape made all other landscapes look like toys. Total indifference. Total, total indifference.

End (Photograph: Harvye Hodja)

The post Nothing but Braided Stream appeared first on Dark Mountain.

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clonedrad
4 days ago
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Wow.
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Think Entangled, Act Spooky

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I like the concept of the Anthropocene. It finesses or postpones at least some of the conflict around the idea of climate change, broadens the conversation to include all human impact on the environment, and grounds thinking in geological (heh!) time without overloading it with burdensome sentiments like guilt or fear. The term leaves the […]
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clonedrad
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Derrick Jensen: Forget Shorter Showers

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“…don’t pretend that not buying much (or not driving much, or not having kids) is a powerful political act, or that it’s deeply revolutionary. It’s not. Personal change doesn’t equal social change.”

We have waited eight months for an article like this. Do take the time to read it.

Read here

https://orionmagazine.org/cms/assets/uploads/archive/i/article_images/06-30-09450jensen.jpg

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clonedrad
93 days ago
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By darkstar in "The Constitutional Crisis is here. It's been here." on MeFi

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"I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is repeated throughout the Bible."


Again, my years as a Biblical scholar are preventing me from ignoring that Joseph and Mary violated the King's royal decree seeking to separate children from their parents, and fled to another country to seek asylum from the King's deadly violence.

I'm not sure how much more on the nose you can get, except to point out how the Parable of the Good Samaritan demands that we take care of travelers in distress, even to the point of feeding, clothing, housing and providing health care.

Or, indeed, that Jesus himself was eventually murdered by the lawful government of the day.

I swear, the gross, willful obtuseness about some of the most fundamental teachings and themes of Scripture makes me so angry at the Evangelical Christian movement and their eagerness to embrace authoritarianism and hatred when it suits them. It's why I eventually had to give up the ministry — I just couldn't remain a part of such hypocrisy and wickedness.
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clonedrad
94 days ago
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popular
94 days ago
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Meritocratic failure

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There is an interesting review of Talent vs Luck: the role of randomness in success and failure from the University of Catania (the main University in Sicily). They start from the idea that there is a Gaussian distribution of talent (as I understand it, this Gaussian distribution is just a normal distribution, so if, say,... Read more
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clonedrad
179 days ago
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John Weeks – Free markets & the decline of democracy

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This is a long piece, but we felt it was worthy of being posted in its entirety.

John Weeks is Professor Emeritus at SOAS, University of London, and associate of Prime Economics

On 5th January 2018, Professor John Weeks gave this year’s David Gordon Memorial Lecture
at the meeting of the American Economic Association in Philadelphia, USA.  It was hosted by the Union for Radical Political Economics, and we are pleased to publish the text of the lecture, below.

 

Preface

We gather today in the year marking the 50th anniversary of the Union for Radical Economics and of the first issue of the Review of Radical Political Economics in which Michael Zweig and I had the lead articles, a publication with the rather modest appearance of coming straight off the mimeograph machine – if there is anyone here that remembers such primitive print technology.

In the context of that anniversary it is a great honor to deliver the David Gordon Memorial Lecture, all the more so because the theme I develop will draw on insights in his work, especially in his last book, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial ‘Downsizing’ .

The honor is all the greater when I reflect on previous speakers in this series, which reads like a roll call of the intellectual leaders of progressive economics:  Dean Backer, Juliet Schor, Tom Weiskopf, Duncan Foley, Nancy Folbre, Minqi Li, Gerry Epstein, Bill Darity, Jim Stanford, David Laibman, Ann Markusen, Michael Perelman, Doug Dowd and Bob Pollin.  Those who have preceded me set a tradition of excellence and that impressive tradition inspires me today.  I thank those involved in the selection process and thank you for joining me.

Discussions with many people helped me clarify my ideas.  Among these I mention without assigning blame, Ann Pettifor, Jeremy Smith, Stephanie Griffith-Jones and Susan Himmelweit.  Finally, I thank the Ford Foundation for its support for this work.

Introduction: Neoliberal Authoritarianism

Well into the twenty-first century it is difficult to find a major country in which democratic institutions are not under stress, in many cases under aggressive attack.  In the United States the government has fallen under the control of a profoundly anti-democratic regime.  In Europe long-standing authoritarian tendencies have enjoyed a quantum leap under the neoliberal austerity regime fostered by the German government with the cover of the European Commission.

The draconian austerity measures that were imposed on Greek citizens represent an obvious and shocking example of the mainstream authoritarian trend in Europe.   Authoritarian movements and political parties hold power in Poland and Hungary.  Successive elections in the last four months of 2017 brought a surge of far-right movements: 1) neo-fascism in Germany that deepens the crisis of the centrist parties; 2) near elimination of the centre left and a hard-right government in Austria; 3) imposition of direct autocratic rule in Catalonia by the right wing Spanish government; and 4) the electoral triumph of a hard-right billionaire in the Czech Republic.  Outside the EU, the efforts of the government of Europe’s most populous country, Russia, to undermine democracy domestically and in the rest of Europe are well-documented.

The few developments supportive of democracy come in Spain where progressive and participatory Podemos is the second strongest political force; the shift of the British Labour Party to social democracy and the imminent possibility of an election victory.  These sources of hope guide and inspire progressives in Europe, but have yet to move into government.

Beyond North America and Europe no major country counters the authoritarian trend, not China, where the government oversees a transition from socialist to market authoritarianism.  Superficial flowering of democratic participation in Brazil and India proved short-lived, with a rightwing semi-legal coup undermining representative institutions in the former, and the ruling government in India fostering ethnic-religious intolerance.  In Viet Nam where I have worked for 25 years, an authoritarian government has completed the transition from central planning to capitalism though slightly less repressive than in China.  In the Philippines, its democratic institutions dubious in the past, now suffer under the most brutal regime in Asia.

What is its source of this near universal 21st century tendency to authoritarianism?  The end of WWI, now 100 years past, ushered in the rise of authoritarian regimes provoked by the excesses of capitalism.  The Great War, as my parents named it, was the most catastrophic conflict in human history.  Ten years later came the most devastating economic crisis the world had known.  The excesses of capitalism and the apparent incapacity of representative governments to contain those excesses induced many, especially in Europe, to dismiss “bourgeois democracy” as degenerate and dysfunctional.  As the Great War ended, revolutionaries in Russia overthrew capitalism and pledged a governance system in the interests of the working-class and peasantry. The promise and hope for popular democracy went unfulfilled as the workers’ state transformed into thinly disguised authoritarian rule.

In Italy and Germany discrediting of “bourgeois democracy” led to unabashed dictatorships that celebrated their authoritarian nature. The regimes proved appallingly successful not only in crushing labor movements but also in rolling back the principles of the Enlightenment.  Destruction of these savage regimes required a war even more catastrophic than the 1914-1918 conflict.

In the wake of economic depression, fascism, war and consolidation of the Soviet Union whose military had borne the major burden of the war against fascism, there developed a near-consensus among mainstream political parties in the United States and Europe. Over thirty years of economic catastrophe, dictatorship and war demonstrated even to major elements of the capitalist class the need to manage capitalism. During its brief life this consensus maintained that stability and consolidation of capitalism required control mechanisms to prevent the excesses of the economic system, excesses generated by competition, what Marx called “the inner nature of capital”.

In the immediate aftermath of WWII this recognition of the excesses of capitalism appeared even in the foremost economics journal of the time, The Economic Journal.  In 1947 the British economist K. W. Rothschild wrote an article that I hope is on the reading list of every progressive course in microeconomics,

…[W]hen we enter the field of rivalry between [corporate] giants, the traditional separation of the political from the economic can no longer be maintained… Fascism…has been largely brought into power by this very struggle in an attempt of the most powerful oligopolists to strengthen, through political action, their position in the labour market and vis-à-vis their smaller competitors, and finally to strike out in order to change the world market situation in their favour…

…[A] theory of [competition] can be complete and relevant only if its framework includes all the main aspects of the struggle [by corporations] for security and position.  Like price wars, open imperialist conflicts will not be the daily routine of the oligopolistic market.  But, like price wars, their possibility and the preparation for them will be a constantly existing background…And the imperialistic aspects of modern wars or armed interventions must be seen as part of a dynamic market theory just as the more traditional ‘economic’ activities like cut-throat pricing…For there is no fundamental difference between the two.

The rise of financial capital, which began in the 1970s, has returned us to the capitalist authoritarianism that flourished in the 1920s and 1930s. As Rothschild argued 70 years ago, market competition is the source of authoritarian rule, and by its nature competition among oligopolies extends into social and political conflict. It is too narrow and insufficient analytically to treat competition – the movement of capital – as exclusively or even primarily an economic process.

The current authoritarian tide in European and the United States comes from the excesses generated by capitalist competition, unleashed and justified now not by fascism but by neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism pretentiously claims to be the guarantor of freedom – “free markets, free men” was the title of Milton Friedman’s infamous lecture to London businessmen in 1974 (Friedman 1974).  Reality is quite the contrary.  Neoliberal market re-regulation over the last thirty years has destroyed freedom.

I am careful to use the term “re-regulation” not “de-regulation”.  During the New Deal period, and during the European post-war social democratic and Christian Democratic consensus, governments regulated capital in the specific sense of limiting its freedom of movement.  Tariffs, non-tariff “barriers”, limitations on conversion of national currencies and strict oversight of financial institutions constrained the form and intensity of competition.  The explicit purpose of these policies was to prevent the “free flow of goods”, to restrict capital’s cross-border mobility, and narrowly contain financial speculation (Keynes 1933).

The neoliberal re-regulation does not reverse that process.  The neoliberals do not stop at eliminating competition-restricting regulations.  Neoliberal re-regulation replaces them with different legal rules, ones that actively facilitate the collective power of capital and undermine the collective power of labor.  Neoliberal re-regulation is not the negation of restrictions on capital.

Rather, it is the implementation of active policies to limit the scope for governments to act and intervene in economic, social and political spheres.  During the New Deal and social democracy in Europe governments regulated capital.  In the neoliberal era capital regulated government.

The result is not “small government’.  The central purpose of the neoliberal re-regulation is to remove economic policy from control by representative democracy.  This requires not only explicitly economic re-regulation but also social and political re-regulation. Perhaps the clearest example of enforcing limits on representative government is the right-wing German economic ideology “ordoliberalism”.  The term combines two words, “order” and “liberalism”.  This is not a philosophy of de-regulation; rather it is a philosophy of restricted democracy that advocates strict rules – “order” – to limit governments from enacting legislation that deviates from neoclassical principles.

Its combination of neoclassical economics and emphasis on the state establishing rules to enforce that ideology yields an explicitly anti-democratic system of governance, now deeply embedded in the two major treaties that serve as the constitution of the European Union.  The current German government has spent over a decade successfully inducing other EU governments to legislate limits on their legal scope to design and implement economic policy.  Examples of the ordoliberalism approach in the United States are the legislation setting the public debt ceiling and central bank inflation targeting.

The most odious re-regulation in the interests of capital has been legal measures to weaken trade unions and other popular organizations and movements.  Central to that weakening has been the consolidation of financial capital’s control of the media, itself facilitated by legal changes. This control of the means of communication is central to the re-regulation process that liberates capital. Media control facilitates the propaganda to minimize and deflect criticism, even recognition, of the criminal excesses of capitalism.

Imposing legal and extra-legal limits to personal freedom in the neoliberal era derives both ideologically and in practice from the dogma of market freedom.  Adam Smith’s ahistoric view that markets arise as a “consequence of a certain propensity in human nature…to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for another” could not be further from the reality of capitalism. So-called free markets must be enforced, enforcement achieved by the re-regulation of capital.  Over the last forty years this re-regulation involved a decommissioning of representative government while maintaining it as a rhetorical facade.

The active regulation of market processes in the United States in the 1930s and Western Europe after WWII suppressed the authoritarian tendency inherent in capitalism.  The re-regulation by capital, especially financial capital that began in the 1970s, unleashed that authoritarianism.  The emergence of finance capital, so-called financialization, brings to full expression the anti-democratic nature of market processes.

At the outset of the 21st century the great oligopolies and powerful industrial corporations about which Rothschild wrote no longer drive the destructive force of capitalist competition.  Finance capital not the huge industrial predators of the 20th century drive competition in this the globalized 21st century. The hegemony of finance capital brings forth overtly authoritarian political dictatorship undisguised by democratic trappings.

Capitalist Competition & Dictatorship

Before proceeding I clarify a few terms.  I employ the word “era”, as in the “era of industrial capital” to mean nothing more than a period of time, not carrying the analytical baggage of “phases” or “stages”.  I use the term “industrial capital” to refer to capitalist enterprises that produce objects and services through the application of labor to means of production, with the purpose of selling them. The word “commodity” refers to both produced objects and services.

Services include transport, education and health care, among others.  Finally, “financial capital” refers to capitalist enterprises whose reproduction involves the conversion of money into more money without to any substantial extent producing objects or services for the purpose of selling them.  With these terms clarified I can proceed.

Finance capital differs from industrial capital in its reproduction.  Industrial capital generates commodities, both physical objects and services through the combination of material inputs and labor.  Competition among industrial capitalist producers occurs in part through productivity change, “the cheapening of commodities” as Marx described it.  While the cheapening of commodities is central to competition among industrial capitalists, it should not be analyzed separately from the broader competitive conflict.

The broader conflict includes intervention of governments in support of capital and the implicit or explicit support of governments for the direct application of violence by capital against labor.  I do not mean to imply that corporations remain national. Whatever their nominal registration or geographic location, large corporations in the competitive conflict use governments to enhance their position with similar vigor and frequency as they use measures to lower the monetary cost of the commodities they generate.

Therefore, we should not think of the competitive struggle as primarily an economic process with occasional intrusion by government; rather, it is a conflict in which economic and political factors are integrated. For example, much of the negotiations in the European Union over the so-called deepening of economic integration involve large corporations using governments to achieve competitive advantage, with German governments over the last three decades perhaps the most skilled at this process.

Productivity increases can serve as a major, even primary instrument to enhance the competitive position of industrial capital. This is not the case for financial capital, whose reproduction does not require production of material objects or services that require monetization.  As for the classic rentier, financial value added accrues as an extraction from the value added generated in production of commodities.  In essence it functions as a private sector tax on the production of commodities.

In consequence, the enlistment of government intervention in the competitive conflict, always important for industrial capital, provides the only vehicle for financial capital. Unable to engage in the “civilized warfare of the cheapening of commodities” (Marx 1974, 668), financial capital must engage governments as its continuous and constantly intervening partners.

In the era of industrial capital the possibility exists for progressive regulation of competition that confines the competitive conflict to that “civilized warfare” based on technologically driven productivity increases, primarily achieved through investment in fixed capital.  This arrangement has not been nor will it ever be one chosen by capitalists.  It must be forced upon them by the political strength of labor and popular movements.

That progressive outcome is unacceptable to financial capital, ideologically and, more importantly by the nature of its reproduction.  Its reproduction lacks to any substantial degree the ability to lower costs through greater productivity, which is the basis of “civilized competition”.  The attempt by a government to restrict financial market competition to its economic components would – and will – destroy financial rents and reduce financial capital to an organ serving industrial capital.

Decommissioning Democracy

As many have argued financial capital is not anti-government, but seeks to reconstruct, or to use a favorite neoliberal term to “reform” governments.  This reform consists of establishing restrictions on what governments can do.  Analogously to the beginning of the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law”, financial capital seeks its own Bill of Rights, with its amendments beginning “Governments shall take no action to limit the movement of capital”.  The implied prohibitions on government actions decommission electoral democracy.

The purpose of destroying the post war regulatory consensus was to liberate financial capital from constraints.  The macroeconomics of Hansen (1949), Keynes (1933), and Kalecki (1943) provided both the theoretical explanation for why these constraints were needed and the practical policy tools to manage an economy within those constraints. The “Keynesian revolution” briefly institutionalized the sensible principle that representative governments have policy tools they can use to pursue the welfare of the populations they were elected to serve.

The most important of these for macroeconomic management were fiscal policy, monetary policy and management of the exchange rate.  The Tinbergen Rule provided a complementary sensible proposition, that to achieve several policy goals requires an equal number of policy instruments.[2]  For example, a government seeking internal and external stability would use fiscal policy to reach a high level of employment and output, monetary policy to make that unemployment rate consistent with desired inflation rate, and adjust the exchange rate to maintain a sustainable balance of payments.

The obviously sensible proposition that governments should use the tools available to them to pursue the public welfare, while enforcing constraints on the excesses of capitalism, has been discredited by repeated ideological attacks gathering pace in the mid-1970s. The constraints would be dismantled and tools de-commissioned by increasingly neoliberal governments. The mainstream economics profession has provided the ideology for the de-commissioning of the policy tools and support constraints on the popular will.

Active, discretionary use of policy instruments in these three areas established barriers to the hegemony of financial capital.  Public taxation is in direct competition with the private tax function of financial rentiers.  Monetary policy in support of an active fiscal policy limits the extent that central banks can service the needs of financial capital.  Fixed exchange rates and more generally government managed exchange rates undermine one of the largest sources of financial speculation.  To achieve its hegemony, financial capital required a deactivation or decommissioning of public policy instruments.

Negating Fiscal Policy

Until the Great Depression of the 1930s, macroeconomic policy in the advanced countries meant monetary policy and not much of it.  Exchange rates were tied to an international gold mechanism and the goal of public budget balancing constrained fiscal policy.  Fiscal policy was used by a few governments during the depression, notably in the United States, but in an ad hoc manner.  The first clear legal commitment to an active fiscal policy was the US Full Employment Act of 1946, the preamble of which states,

The [US] Congress hereby declares that it is the continuing policy and responsibility of the Federal Government to use all practicable means…with the assistance and cooperation of industry, agriculture, labor, and State and local governments…to promote maximum employment, production, and purchasing power.

Mainstream economics has provided the ideological arguments against an active fiscal policy, giving technical cover for political moves in the US Congress to restrict the federal government from active fiscal policy, such as the Budget Enforcement Act of 1990. The function of this and other legislation to restrict public sector deficits is to remove fiscal policy from the democratic process, however flawed that process may be.  The 2007 Treaty on European Union establishes similar and stronger limits on the fiscal policies of EU member governments.  Under pressure from the German government the vast majority of the 27 member countries have these treaty provisions written into the constitutions.

The ideologues of financial capital present the de-commissioning of fiscal policy as a technical issue, designed to prevent irresponsible politicians from embarking on “populist” vote-buying expenditures that undermine the general welfare.  The populism feared by financial capital is a euphemism for democratic participation and accountability.

 Unaccountable Monetary Policy

One of the few progressive aspects of US economic policy institutions is the legislatively mandated political oversight of the central bank, the Federal Reserve System (FRS).  The oversight legislation requires regular reports to Congress, and a requirement that the board of governors have “fair representation of the financial, agricultural, industrial, and commercial interests and geographical divisions of the country”. It is important in this reactionary period to stress that inflation is but one of several mandated policy goals of the Federal Reserve System, which reads: “to promote effectively the goals of maximum employment, stable prices, and moderate long-term interest rates” (Mishkin 2007).  In practice the effectiveness of the political oversight has waxed and waned, depending on the chair and politics of the time.

Conventional wisdom holds that in the final decades of the twentieth century the power of central banks increased dramatically in almost all countries, including the United States. The truth is quite the opposite. The role of central banks in most countries, advanced and underdeveloped, narrowed substantially towards the end of the twentieth century. The vehicle for this narrowing was their so-called operational independence, the separation of central banking from political oversight, justified by the argument that without independence, feckless governments will force central banks to pursue reckless monetary expansion to fuel populist fiscal policy.

The so-called independence of central banks is not independence but the transfer of control from elected officials to financial capital.  It is profoundly anti-democratic, derivative from the ideologically generated fallacy that monetary policy is a technical matter.  In this reactionary framework any democratic oversight would result in reckless and irresponsible policies. As for fiscal policy, monetary decisions are not a matter for public involvement. They should be under the dictatorship of a technical elite that serves the interest of financial capital.

 Eliminating Exchange Rate Policy

The ideology of “flexible” exchange rates is as or more central to the health and welfare of financial capital as decommissioning fiscal and monetary policy.  At the most obvious level it facilitates currency speculation.  More importantly exchange rate instability generates volatility in domestic financial markets.  For large economies this volatility can undermine macroeconomic policy goals of governments, and for small and medium size economies the effects can be catastrophically destabilizing.

The instability caused by exchange rate volatility creates an enabling environment for speculation.  The speculation itself, in addition to its parasitic nature, is the source of the “judgment of markets” arguments against progressive policies – should a government implement a progressive policy such as increased corporate taxes, capital flight, the “judgment of markets”, can provoke disaster.  This constant threat of financial instability represents the anti-democratic nature of financial capital in its purest and most aggressive form, the latent threat of financiers employing their “nuclear option” to prevent progressive change.

In September 2017 the British Labour Party’s “shadow chancellor”, John McDonnell, warned in a speech to the party’s Annual Conference:

What if there is a run on the pound? I don’t think there will be, but you never know, so we’ve got to scenario plan for that.  People want to know we are ready and they want to know we have got a response to everything that could happen.

Thus, the person who would/will become the equivalent to the Secretary of the Treasury in the country with world’s ninth largest economy is preparing for the possibility of catastrophic capital flight if/when the Labour Party takes government.   And well he should, because in the City of London Britain has perhaps the largest concentration of predatory financial capital on the globe, the world’s largest center for money laundering.

The industrial capitalist can exploit and repress workers, destroy entire communities, even cities, by closing factories and going elsewhere.  But the capitalist that owns the means to produce goods and services is a petty criminal compared to financial capital that can destroy entire economies and destabilize the globe.

End of Class Rule by Consent

The wage squeeze has…broader consequences. It not only pinches workers and their immediate families. It sends tremors through entire communities, eroding their stability, ripping their social fabric. The frustration and anger it provokes begins to attack the body politic like a plague, spreading virulent strains of cynicism and discontent, of disaffection from government and hatred towards “others” like immigrants who are often blamed for the scourge.” [David Gordon, Fat and Mean: The Corporate Squeeze of Working Americans and the Myth of Managerial ‘Downsizing’ 1996, 15]

This insight moves me from the decommissioning of democracy in economic policy to the transition of formally democratic countries to overt authoritarianism.  By formally democratic I mean those countries with politically contested representative institutions that have functioned recently and could still function as intermediaries between governments and the governed.  My knowledge implicitly limits me to North America and Europe and within Europe primarily Western Europe.

In no country in North America or Western Europe has anti-capitalist revolution led to state control.  All of them have passed through periods during which progressive forces, led by the trade union movement, have established substantial limitations on the power of capital.  A major component of those limitations has been establishing the principle that employees should share equitably in the expansion of the national economy.

In almost every country biases against ethnic groups, gender discrimination and regional animosities have limited the scope of the equity principle to less than the entire population, in some cases far less.  In North America and Europe after World War II struggles against the many forms of discrimination sought with varying degrees of success to make the equity principle more inclusive.  As incomplete as it might prove in practice, the principle of an equitable sharing of an expanding economy, a key component of the so-called American Dream, provided the basis for class rule by consent.

I use the term “class rule by consent” to describe society with the following characteristics: 1) property relations based on private ownership, which implies that the many work as employees of the few; 2) a trade union movement strong enough to enforce the equity principle through its political influence and its direct action; and 3) as a result of the second, a capitalist class sufficiently constrained in its power that it must accept the equity principle.

For a brief forty years an equitable sharing of the benefits of economic growth, albeit narrowly defined, served as the prevailing ideology in North American and Western Europe. This ideology of equity, interpreted differently among countries, of each person “getting a fair share”, and the realization of that principle in pay packets, is the necessary condition to sustain democracy in a capitalist society.

This condition was the basis for the New Deal Coalition forged by Franklin Roosevelt in the depths of the Great Depression.  It would serve as the guiding principle of the Democratic Party through the presidency of Lyndon Johnson.  The policies to achieve an equitable sharing had a common theme, restrictions on the functioning of markets to prevent the anti-social consequences of capitalist competition.  Concretely these restrictions included 1) trade union rights to limit labor market competition, 2) anti-monopoly laws and other regulations to prevent concentration of corporate power, and 3) strict limits on financial capital.

Neoliberalism was and remains the antithesis of the New Deal political economy. In contrast to preventing the anti-social consequences of market competition, neoliberalism celebrates that competition, attributing any faults of capitalism to public regulation.  As the United States entered the twenty-first century, decades of increasing inequality caused falling working class incomes and stagnation for the middle classes.  Loss of hope in fulfilling “the American dream” increasingly undermined faith in US democracy. In 1932 an analogous crisis brought Franklin Roosevelt to the presidency to implement economic and social reforms that arrested the growth of inequality and, facilitated working class power through trade unions.

When Roosevelt became president in 1933, US incomes inequality as measured by the most commonly used index, the “Gini coefficient”, was over 50, and into the mid-40s by the beginning of this third term.  It fell below 40 by his death in 1945 and was not again above 40 again until 1982 (Atkinson, Piketty & Saez 2011).  Fifty years of US capitalism under formal democracy was the historic accomplishment of the New Deal.  Relatively low and stable inequality provided the basis for what some call the “Golden Age” of US capitalism.  In 1974, by accident under Republican presidents (Richard Nixon, replaced in mid-year by Gerald Ford), US income inequality dropped to its lowest as measured by the Gini coefficient.

Under presidents both Democrat (Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama) and Republican (Ronald Reagan, George H W Bush, George W Bush) inequality rose inexorably.  Rising inequality revived social divisions subsumed during the “Golden Age.” Donald Trump encouraging and exploiting those divisions is the vehicle, or more appropriately the utensil, for a transition to authoritarian capitalism.   With Donald Trump, neoliberalism fulfils its logic, destroying even the illusion of a just society.

Conclusion: The Four Freedoms

Seventy-seven years ago tomorrow [5th January – ed] in his third inaugural address, Franklin D Roosevelt defined the ongoing world conflict as a struggle to protect and guarantee “the Four Freedoms” – Freedom to Worship, Freedom of Speech, Freedom from Fear, and, most radical of the four, Freedom from Want.  Forty-five years later on 17 January 1986 heads of governments signed the Single European Act containing its set of Four Freedoms for the European Union, freedom of movement of goods, freedom to bid on government services, and freedom of movement of capital, and the fourth, freedom of movement of people.

European politicians invariably refer to these as The Four Freedoms.  FDR’s Four Freedoms were fundamental rights for people everywhere. Whatever the intention, the Single European Act specified a new set of Freedoms appropriate for the neoliberal era – the freedom for capital to move without government intervention; the freedom for capital to sell regardless of origin and conditions of production of commodities; the freedom to privatize (bid for) public services; and the freedom to undercut wages and conditions.

This shift, using the same term to encapsulate freedom for capital that previously captured fundamental human hopes provides a powerful metaphor for our age, from the sublime to the grotesque.  An earlier era heralded the hope for human liberation; the current era heralds the liberation of capital.

The struggle for democracy at all levels is the struggle against the liberation of capital.  Capital must be placed under permanent house arrest, its freedom severely limited and exercised only under close supervision.  The citizens’ arrest of capital will be achieved through a democratic process that would make Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms reality.

Controlling capitalism requires at least the following fundamental reforms.[3]  First, because capitalist economies do not automatically adjust to full employment, governments must institutionalize an active counter-cyclical macroeconomic program. The active element in the counter-cyclical program would be fiscal policy, supported by an accommodating monetary policy, and, if necessary exchange rate management and capital controls to facilitate external balance.

Counter-cyclical policies, and many other sensible and humane economic measures, are dismissed as impractical because of the alleged affect they might have on “financial markets”.  This personification of markets, universal in the media and appallingly common in the economics profession, is an essential part of the justification of a capitalist economy free from the constraints of democratic oversight. This personification is applied as if the market itself were an independent actor in society.

This ideological abstraction from the real world of speculators and financial fraud is an essential part of the mystification of financial behavior.  It facilitates the myth that the dysfunctional financial system is not the work of men and women (mostly the former) within institutions that have socially irrational rules and norms. It promotes the disempowering argument that financial dysfunction is a manifestation of the inexorable operation of the laws of nature that no government can change. It seeks to hide that specific speculators act to coerce governments to take actions in narrow interests of financial capital.

The solution to the hegemony of finance capital is public control through public ownership.  In part this could be through direct nationalization, and in part by conversion of financial activities into non-profit or limited profit associations such as mutual societies and savings and loan institutions. Non-profit and limited profit financial institutions have been common in the past.

Third, government regulation of labor markets would be based on the principle in the 1944 charter of the International Labor Organization that “labor is not a commodity”.  The purpose would be to eliminate unemployment as a form of labor discipline. The most effective method to achieve this would be a basic income program covering all adults.  A properly designed program would facilitate labor mobility, by reducing the extent to which people were tied to their specific employer.  Also, by reducing the volatility of household income, it would provide an automatic stabilizer at the base of the economy, the labor market. It would be similar to the automatic stabilizing effect of unemployment compensation, and more effective.

To mitigate the individualist ideology of basic income, programs of public provision of basic non-food necessities should accompany it.  These would include a national program of public housing; centrally funded public health service that is rights-based not insurance based, “free at point of delivery”; tuition free education at all levels; and the progressive replacement of environment-destroying private vehicles with public transport. The purpose of these policies is to implement concrete the social democratic philosophy that market provision should be limited, replaced where appropriate by social provision.  To varying degrees these policies of social provision appeared in the 2017 Manifesto of the British Labour Party or will appear in the manifest for the next election, now being designed.

Fourth, and the basis for the others, would be the protection of workers’ right to organize. The fundamental reform of capitalism would built on the political power of the working class, in alliance with elements of the middle classes, an alliance based on ethnic, linguistic and gender inclusion. This will be the modern version of the political alliance that brought about major reforms throughout Europe after the Second World War.  An effective reform of capitalism that eliminates its economic and social outrages requires a democracy of labor and its allies in which the political power of capital is marginalized.

For 250 years citizens have struggled to restrict, control or eliminate the ills generated by capitalist accumulation: exploitation of labor, class and ethic repression, international armed conflict, and despoiling of the environment. When a progressive majority has allied, this struggle has brought great strides. When capitalists, the tiny minority, have been successful in creating their anti-reform, counter-revolutionary majority much is lost. The last thirty years of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first have been an anti-reform period during which capital achieved a degree of liberation it had not enjoyed since before the Great Depression. With the regulation of government by capital many of the more absurd elements of neoclassical economics, such as the alleged stabilizing effect of financial speculation, manifested themselves in reality.

The Great Depression of the 1930s, quickly followed by the horrors of WWII, generated a broad consensus in the developed countries.  This consensus focused on the need for public intervention to protect people against the instability and criminality that results from the accumulation of economic and political power by great corporations. Franklin D. Roosevelt, four times elected president of the United States addressed the US Congress in 1938:

“Unhappy events abroad have retaught us…simple truths about the liberty of a democratic people. The first truth is that the liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic State itself. That, in its essence, is fascism.”

We the citizens in the advanced industrial countries, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, have reached the point at which private power is stronger than our democratic state. This private power manifests itself in unconstrained financial greed that over-rides democratic decisions, justified by an ideology of self-adjusting markets. Rejection of that ideology requires radical reform to prevent financial capital from creating fascism. To prevent fascism we must implement a citizen’s arrest of capital that will liberate the many not the few.

 

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clonedrad
200 days ago
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