Neoliberalism Drives Climate Breakdown, Not Human Nature

By Alex Randall, commondreams.org, August 8, 2018

Many zoos have an exhibit like this: a wall with a hatch, and under the hatch words like “Do you want to see the most dangerous animal in the world?”. Of course everyone does, and before they open the hatch they speculate as to what the animal behind the hatch will be. A lion? A crocodile? However, when you open the hatch there is a mirror, and you see yourself staring back. You are the most dangerous animal in the world.

Of course this is nonsense. Not everyone who opens that hatch and sees themselves looking back is equally dangerous. We are not all equally responsible for destruction of the world’s ecosystems. Some humans who open the hatch probably are responsible for a great deal of destruction. Other are not. Many people bear the brunt of someone else’s destruction.

The idea that all humanity is equally and collectively responsible for climate change – or any other environmental or social problem – is extremely weak. In a basic and easily calculable way, not everyone is responsible for the same quantity of greenhouse gasses. People in the world’s poorest countries produce roughly one hundredth of the emissions of the richest people in the richest countries. Through the chance of our births, and the lifestyle we choose we are not all equally responsible for climate change.

Some people through the power they wield, have stood in the way of halting climate change.

But we are not all equally responsible in a more fundamental way. Some people through the power they wield, have stood in the way of halting climate change. Not because they were stubborn or incompetent or failed to understand the seriousness. But because they acted in pursuit of a fundamental re-organising of our economies during the 1970s and 80s. And this shake-up militated against the kinds of policies and government intervention that might have halted – or at least slowed – climate change.

This is the point that is missed in ‘Losing Earth’, the New York Times’ 30,000 word feature on climate change. The piece charts the failure of the US government to act on climate change between 1979 and 1989. During this period we knew enough about the issue to act, but didn’t. The piece sets out to explain this failure.

‘Losing Earth’ presents the failure as one of political tragedy. Politicians and policy makers simply couldn’t agree. Not because of the undue influence of lobbyists, but because – as humans and politicians – they could not look far enough into the future. They could not take political risks now, in return for the long term safety of the planet.

As humans we cannot engage with complex long term problems. We favour short term comfort over long term safety, even when this is illogical. Our political systems are set up to favour short term political wins. Our politicians think only as far ahead as the next election. This failure to stop climate change was no one’s fault, ‘Losing Earth’ argues. It happened because we’re human, and because our electoral systems aren’t geared up for this kind of problem.

But is this really why the US didn’t act on climate change during the 1980s?

The late 70s and 80s were also a time when the economies of most developed countries underwent a fundamental restructuring.

Since the end of the Second World War the economies of Europe and the US had been growing steadily. Ordinary people had been taking home and ever growing slice of this new economic growth. In the US, unionised workforces were consistently negotiating better pay and conditions. In Europe people also began to see the benefits of nationalised healthcare and house building.

The very richest people in society had also been getting richer as developed economies grew. But the slice of the pie they were keeping was shrinking. In 1940 the wealthiest 0.1% kept about 20% of all the money earned. While the poorest 90% (almost everyone) kept about the same. By the mid 70s the slice kept by the 0.1% had dipped to around 7%, while the slice kept by the 90% had climbed to over 30%. The US economy was still vastly unequal, but it was becoming more equal. Many working people were gaining, at the expense of very rich.

We should not pretend that the gains of working people were evenly shared. These figures disguise cruel inequalities amongst the 90% shaped by race, religion, gender and geography.

By the middle of the 1970s it was clear to the wealthiest in society that something had to change. More and more of the spoils of economic growth were going into the pockets of ordinary people. Across the Western world, governments were taxing growing profits and spending them on housing, healthcare and education – mainly for the benefit or ordinary people.

The economy, and people’s expectations of it, needed a shake up. Crucially, a shake up that reversed the growing trend of economic equality. A shake up which would return the 0.1% to the position they had been in during the 1930s and 40s when they were keeping a much greater cut of the all the money that was earned.

To do this they turned to a collection of political ideas that had been largely ignored since their formation in the 1920s. These ideas and the economies shaped by them have come known as neoliberalism.

Government – neoliberals believed – stood in the way of prosperity. The size of the state should be reduced, the number of people on the public payroll should go down. Areas that had been the domain of government – healthcare, house building, transport, energy – should no longer be. Instead these should become the domain of private enterprise.

These ideas held that the role of the state should shrink. Government – neoliberals believed – stood in the way of prosperity. The size of the state should be reduced, the number of people on the public payroll should go down. Areas that had been the domain of government – healthcare, house building, transport, energy – should no longer be. Instead these should become the domain of private enterprise.

Markets should decide what receives investment and what does not. If there is demand (say) for new energy generation then the price of electricity should provide the signal for power companies to build it and profit from doing so. The government should step back and let the market decide what happens.

In addition, regulation and corporate taxes of all kinds should be stripped back. This – they argued – would drive more investment. Environmental regulation controlling pollution simply prevented businesses providing energy to people cheaply, they argued. Taxes on polluting substances did the same. Stripping these away – they argued – would give people what they wanted. In place of regulation the proposed consumer choice. If people wanted non-polluting products – if that mattered to them – they would pay extra for them. And businesses would respond to this demand by providing them.

The ideology and the practice of neoliberalism were not always consistent. While the ideology demanded the withdrawal of the state, many private businesses continued to demand (and receive) vast government subsidies. In the US during the 1980s the government continued to sponsor billions of dollars worth of research into fossil fuel extraction.

While the ideology demanded the withdrawal of the state, many private businesses continued to demand (and receive) vast government subsidies.

For an introduction to the rise of neoliberalism these podcasts are very good.

The impact of these changes on the overall economy was also well understood by those who proposed them. As responsibility for infrastructure, energy, housing and the other usual domains of the state – moved to the private sector so did the money. These became new areas in which to make profit. The lack of regulation, lower taxes and subsidies meant making these profits was easier.

The wealthiest 0.1% began to see their share of the society’s wealth increasing. Starting around 1974 the economy swung around in favour of the richest. Their slice of all the money earned began to climb, while the slice taken home by the 90% began to fall. This trend has continued until now. In the US levels of income inequality have returned to where they were before the Second World War. This was the drive behind this vast shake up, and it worked.

The reshaping of the US economy took place during the period covered by ‘Losing Earth’. It was during the decade – 1979 to 1989 – that neoliberalism truly entered the political mainstream.

However in doing this, the US government had stripped itself of the tools it needed to address climate change – regulation of polluting businesses, taxation of carbon emissions and state investment in energy alternatives.

In order to address climate change the US (and other nations) needed to do things that were no longer politically possible. Fossil fuels needed to be taxed in order to reduce their consumption. Carbon emissions needed to be taxed, or capped. The government needed to invest heavily in renewable energy. Or it needed to force energy companies to do so through legislation.

These things might have been possible in previous decades, when governments saw this kind of investment and legislation as their job. But in this new neoliberal era, these kind of interventions were impossible – especially for the US.

So the US government’s failure to act was not a political or human accident as ‘Losing Earth’ holds. Rather, the economy of the US had very deliberately been re-shaped. It had been re-shaped in order to return economic advantage to the very wealthiest people, who had been losing that advantage over several decades. However in doing this, the US government had stripped itself of the tools it needed to address climate change – regulation of polluting businesses, taxation of carbon emissions and state investment in energy alternatives.

We did not lose the earth in the 1980s. Rather, the tools governments needed to act had be taken from them.

Bannon’s Deviant ‘Badge of Honor’

By Jason Stanley, New York Times, March 13, 2018

The tactic of subverting language to turn vice into virtue has a very dark past.

In a speech last weekend in France, Stephen Bannon, the former top adviser to President Trump, urged an audience of far-right National Front Party members to “let them call you racists, let them call you xenophobes.” He went on: “Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”

On the face of it, Bannon’s advice is strange. After all, by any normative understanding, “racist,” “xenophobe” and “nativist” are negative words from both a moral and rational point of view. Their definitions, taken from any standard dictionary, will bear this out. Racism, xenophobia and nativism embody, in their very meanings, both irrationality and unfairness. Irrationality is considered to be a negative quality (except perhaps by Dadaists); so is unfairness.

For those of us to wish to understand the way Bannon is manipulating language here, and to what end, it is important to note what he is not doing. It is typical for far-right politicians who want to attract racist, xenophobic or nativist voters to attempt to provide at least the pretense of reasons, invariably shoddy ones, for animus against racial minorities, immigrants, or foreigners.

In the United States, President Trump regularly connects individual crimes or criminal gangs with immigration in an effort to more broadly establish a link between immigrants with crime in the public consciousness. Though studies have shown that immigrants, both legal and illegal, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, Trump continues to make such claims (his statement that immigrants bring “tremendous amounts of crime” received a score of “four Pinocchios” from fact-checkers).

 

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Similarly bizarre false claims are made by non-American far-right politicians, who also regularly engage in anti-Semitic innuendo. There is a natural next step to using innuendo and the manufacturing of reasons to justify racism and xenophobia — namely to drop the facade altogether. Bannon is urging the adoption of an irrational bias against racial minorities, immigrants and foreigners, one that does not require reasons, even bad ones, to support it. And he recommends presenting such irrationality as virtuous.

Accepting Bannon’s advice requires rejecting empathy for already embattled groups. Some might view that as acceptable, preferring to weigh only statistical arguments in deciding what to do about, for example, immigration policy. But taking Bannon’s advice also requires rejecting any recognizable practice of giving plausible reasons for holding a view or position. To proudly identify as a xenophobe is to identify as someone who is not interested in argument. It is to be irrationally fearful of foreigners, and proudly so. It means not masking one’s irrationality even from oneself.

Bannon’s rhetorical move of transforming vices based on irrational prejudice into virtues is not without historical precedent. Hitler devotes the second chapter of “Mein Kampf” to explaining how his time in Vienna as a young man transformed him into a “fanatical anti-Semite.” To be fanatical is, by definition, to be irrational. To be an anti-Semite is to have irrational prejudice against Jews. Hitler presents his transformation into a fanatical anti-Semite positively. It is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, not only a good thing to harbor irrational hatred of Jewish people. One should do so fanatically. Such fanatical irrationality is, in Hitler’s rhetoric, virtuous.

Of course, comparing rhetoric and policies are two different things. No recent far-right movement in Europe or the United States has enacted the sort of genocidal policies that the Nazis did, and no such comparison is intended. But history has shown that the sort of subversion of language that Bannon has engaged in is often deeply intertwined with what a government will do, and what its people will allow. Bannon’s own cheer to the National Front members — “The tide of history is with us and it will compel us to victory after victory after victory” — shows clearly enough that he does not mean his efforts to end in mere speech.

 

 

In the 20th-century scholar Victor Klemperer’s “Language of the Third Reich” there is a chapter titled “Fanatical.” In it, Klemperer reports that the Nazis regularly inverted the meanings of ordinary words, in just the way that Bannon recommends: by turning vices or negative ideals into virtues. (This point is well-known enough to have been the basis of a famous comedy sketch, “Are we the baddies?”) To be sure, it was not only the Nazis who chose to invert the valence of words that were negative because of their connection with unthinking irrationality; some American slavery abolitionists called their own beliefs in the moral wrongness of slavery fanatical. But it was the Nazis who most thoroughly and efficiently turned the ungrounded hatred and fear of minority groups into an explicit virtue.

 

Performing such inversions is an attempt to change the ideologies and behaviors of large groups of people. It is done to legitimate extreme, inhumane treatment of minority populations (or perhaps, to render such treatment no longer in need of legitimation). In this country, we are familiar with it from the criminal justice system’s treatment of black Americans, in some of the “get tough on crime” rhetoric that fed racialized mass incarceration in Northern cities, or the open racism sometimes connected to Southern white identity or “heritage.” Its aim is to create a population seeking leaders who are utterly ruthless and cruel, intolerant, irrational and unyielding in the face of challenges to the cultural and political dominance of the majority racial or religious group. It normalizes fascism.

At the end of his chapter, Klemperer assures us that even when the practice of treating negative ideals as if they were virtues becomes routine, people nevertheless retain a clear understanding that this is indeed an inversion. He notes that as soon as World War II ended, ordinary Germans returned to using the word “fanatical” as a negative. This observation is crucial. It means that we can remind even those inclined to take Bannon’s advice that while language can be manipulated, the attempt to change its meaning, and the shape of reality with it, is ultimately temporary.

How Revisionist History Works

 by Cristen Conger, How Stuff Works, History.com

https://history.howstuffworks.com/history-vs-myth/revisionist-history1.htm 

German students protest against the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1932. Reaction to the treaty after World War I marked the beginning of modern historical revisionism.

When you hear the word “square,” you need context to know whether it refers to the shape, the mathematical operation or a slang insult for a conventional person. The term “revisionist history” can be similarly vague when standing alone since it usually connotes one of the three perspectives discussed on the previous page.

Let’s consider the legacy of Thomas Jefferson to understand how you can apply these different perspectives. People accept that Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence and served as the third president of the United States. But another biographical fact is that Jefferson had a slave mistress named Sally Hemings, with whom he fathered children. Despite people’s discomfort with that nugget of information, DNA evidence in the late 1990s confirmed it was true. So what did that discovery mean for revisionist historians?

Revisionism Through Social and Theoretical Lenses

Historians refer to the years immediately following World War II as the age of historical consensus [source: Foner and Garraty]. A strong sense of patriotism and unity dominated the historical framework during that time. Then, that stability began to crack apart with the turmoil and uncertainty of the 1960s. No longer was the country sitting victorious after succeeding in World War II. The combination of the protracted war in Vietnam and the struggle for equality throughout the Civil Rights movement changed the tone across the United States radically. Technicolor Uncle Sam and victory gardens were replaced by race riots and student protests. Revisionist historians understood that these events affected groups in different ways, which reshaped the overall narrative of U.S. history.

Revisionism as a Means of Correcting the Facts 

Recounting­ historical events through the centuries can be similar to playing a game of telephone. Th­e first person starts with something simple, like the meeting of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas in Jamestown. By the time the message reaches the last person in the circle, it’s become primped and polished into a colonial love story. Revising history can untangle that string of miscommunication.

Recounting­ historical events through the centuries can be similar to playing a game of telephone. Th­e first person starts with something simple, like the meeting of Capt. John Smith and Pocahontas in Jamestown. By the time the message reaches the last person in the circle, it’s become primped and polished into a colonial love story. Revising history can untangle that string of miscommunication. 

In the Disney version of the Pocahontas story, the Native American is a leggy, attractive woman who falls madly in love with Smith. Aside from the musical numbers, the plotline from the animated film isn’t too far from the history lesson that was taught in schools. But like the tale of George Washington and the cherry tree, that of Pocahontas and John Smith has been revised. Thanks to Smith’s journals and other written sources, we know now that the famous Native American was probably 11 years old when they met — there was no steamy romance or marriage between the couple. Instead, Pocahontas married a widower named John Rolfe and died around the age of 21 [source: LaRoe].

Revisionism as a Negative Term           

The inconsistent quality of revisionist theories, including those surrounding JFK’s assassination, contributes to the low credibility of historical revisionism.

In popular culture, revisionist history has become synonymous with telling lies or embellishing the truth. For instance, in 2003, President Bush used the term “revisionist historians” in reference to the media covering the war in Iraq. He claimed that certain reporters had wrongfully questioned the reasons for invading the Middle Eastern country and muddied the public’s opinion of the conflict. Some professional historians didn’t take kindly to Bush’s comment because it cast an unflattering light on the academic study of history. After all, they reasoned, all histories are revisionist at some point. A few years later, in 2006, Florida passed a law banning “revisionist and postmodernist history” from being taught in the state’s public schools [source: History News Network]. The language of Florida’s Education Omnibus Bill stated that students should learn facts, not “constructed” elements of American history — essentially equating revisionism with lies.

Why does revisionist history have a bad reputation? First, it’s associated sometimes with highly contentious theories, such as Holocaust denial. Recall the public furor in response to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s 2007 speech at Columbia University, when he stated that the Holocaust didn’t happen. Historians emphasize that people who deny the events of the Holocaust during World War II aren’t practicing revisionist history but rather negationism. Another revisionism-related scandal occurred recently in Japan, also concerning World War II. The general of the Japanese air force authored an essay asserting that Japan was bullied into Pearl Harbor by the United States and only engaged in combat as a defensive measure [source: Economist].