Category Archives: Energy

Occupy the state

From X-Ray Magazine # 36...

In the two months since Occupy Wall Street began its experiment in direct, democratic dissent, “democracy” of the liberal kind has revealed its bankruptcy to the whole world.

In the last sixty days the neo-liberal, let’s call it the “post-democratic” state, its various organs cooperating across jurisdictions and across national borders, launched a coordinated attack upon our rights to freely assemble, associate and speak.

In Oakland as at UC Davis, the radical violence of the cops was inflicted upon hundreds of the innocent and unarmed, and in Toronto and New York the radical violence of the law proved that under post-democracy, flimsy legal reasoning can be a powerful tool of oppression only so long as we continue to respect liberal, post-democratic legalisms.

We have seen two elected national governments, Greek and Italian, close up shop, transferring business to a new proprietor—the so-called “Troika” of the International Monetary Fund, the European Commission, and the European Central Bank.

The abortive decision, quickly reversed, to hold a Greek referendum on the savage austerity measures being imposed upon Greek workers and Greek democracy was a disaster—for the markets.

A military coup was being prepared to prevent it if necessary. But it was not. Greek liberals and social democrats combined to carry out a coup against themselves. No sooner had Papandreou fired the commanding officers of the Greek Army, Navy and Air Force, he himself ran away.

The new Italian Prime Minister, Mario Monti, named an entire Cabinet with not a single elected representative in it. Bankers, business owners and technocrats were simply parachuted into the government of a “democracy.”

No elections were held to make these two transfers of state power legitimate. In a very real sense, the Italian and Greek states are now under the direct control of central bankers, the people be damned.

But these “technocratic governments” are not a novelty. They merely formalize and bring out into the light of day the longstanding relationships of power. Now we can really see who calls the shots.

In the United States the powers of the US Congress have been devolved to a “Super-Congress” of twelve people with deep connections to the US corporate establishment.

We are witnessing something unprecedented.

Both the 1% and the 99% are realizing that liberal “democracy” holds nothing more for them. They are reaching the same conclusion, albeit based upon two entirely opposite political perspectives, and conflicting sets of interests.

For the 1%, even the largely pantomime rituals of our “democratic” elections, with all their stage-management and scripting are too risky to their continued accumulation of super-profits to be allowed to continue.

They have come to rely on a guaranteed and ever-increasing flow of wealth into their own pockets, from us, to them. Since neoliberal, structural adjustment “reforms” were imposed upon the world in the 1970s, at the insistence of the corporations, the wages and benefits accruing to the 99% have stopped growing, and the 1% have monopolized the financial wealth and income generated by a growing economy.

The crisis for both the 1% and the rest of us arises in part, from the fact that the economy can no longer continue to grow in absolute size on a finite planet featuring a shrinking common stock of natural capital.

Growth cannot continue on a planet where there is no place left unexploited and nowhere that is not already full of our waste, or full of us. The ongoing orgy of financial speculation—of trillions of dollars of bets on essentially phony “assets” – was the last-ditch attempt of the 1% to both delay the onset of the final crisis, and to transform “crisis into opportunity.”

To accommodate an ever more predatory capitalism, liberal “democracy” first had to be structurally adjusted, along with the economy. Then it had to be abandoned altogether. Elections had to be rigged, political parties hijacked. False flag terror attacks had to be staged, the predetermined victims blamed.

Nations had to be invaded on false pretexts, the bodies buried. Inalienable civil rights had to be made alienable. Millions had to die. A vomitous river of lies had to be told, and sold. All to keep the capitalist balls in the air, all to keep the system limping along.

The capitalism system should have collapsed in 2008. Its life was extended by means of a central bank trick: the creation of an immense amount of new fictitious “wealth” in the form of bank created credit.

But this only made the inevitable reckoning that much more catastrophic. Instead of being used to facilitate production, which would have made the credit economically useful, this credit was used to backstop the insolvent speculators and their derivative bets.

As of 2011 and 2012 the mask is falling away.

If the 1% are abandoning liberal democracy because it no longer provides iron-clad guarantees of free profits from their debt slaves, the 99% are looking for new, more participatory democracy because the old, “liberal” kind can no longer protect them from the rapacious greed of the 1%.

It is a very difficult conclusion for many people in liberal “democracies.” It is often a conclusion reached only with extreme reluctance. Rarely is it embraced. But it is no less true for that.

We, especially those of us in the English-speaking world, have been educated our whole lives to equate the existing constitutional set-up with democracy.

We have been taught – wrongly – that a system of preference elections, political parties (with a combined membership of less than 2% of the population) and professional politicians is tantamount to democracy.

We are taught – wrongly – that our constitution, our courts of law guarantee our freedoms. In fact, only our disobedience of the law, of what Erich Fromm called “irrational authority”, guarantees our freedom.

As the former US President once put it, a constitution is nothing but “a goddamned piece of paper” – at least when those entrusted with enforcing it no longer hold its fundamental principles dear.

We are living in that time, when our own governments have created the apparatus of a police state to maintain their political control. Liberal “democracy” is a sham.

It’s not just me.

That’s what Ronald Regan’s former Assistant Treasury Secretary calls it. Paul Craig Roberts writes:

“Every day that passes adds to the fraudulent image of Western Democracy…  it turns out that ‘we have freedom and democracy’ is not supposed to be taken literally. It is merely a propagandistic slogan behind which people are ruled through back-room deals decided by powerful private interests.” He’s right.

The Guardian’s Peter Beaumont declares: “democracy itself is failing.” He’s right.

Cenk Uygur of the Young Turks declares liberal democracy kaput when lobbyists can openly buy American laws they want drafted. He’s right too.

Linda McQuaig notes: “democracy has become a hollow shell.” She’s right.

Glen Greenwald, commenting on the brutal police attack on peaceful passively resisting student protestors at UC Davis, as well as the inhumane treatment of Bradley Manning, describes American “democracy” as “a police state in pure form.” He’s right, and his insight is worthy of further scrutiny:

“The intent and effect of such abuse is that it renders those guaranteed freedoms meaningless. If a population becomes bullied or intimidated out of exercising rights offered on paper, those rights effectively cease to exist. Every time the citizenry watches peaceful protesters getting pepper-sprayed—or hears that an Occupy protester suffered brain damage and almost died after being shot in the skull with a rubber bullet—many become increasingly fearful of participating in this citizen movement, and also become fearful in general of exercising their rights in a way that is bothersome or threatening to those in power. That’s a natural response, and it’s exactly what the climate of fear imposed by all abusive police state actions is intended to achieve: to coerce citizens to “decide” on their own to be passive and compliant—to refrain from exercising their rights—out of fear of what will happen if they don’t.”

It reminds me of Fromm’s insight that freedom to think and speak only has meaning if one actually has original, self-generated thoughts of one’s own to speak. Freedom to merely repeat the received nostrums of authority, what Fromm calls “heteronomous obedience” is the freedom of a slave to love his chains. Real freedom means the capacity to disobey irrational, external authority.

But the debt slaves are beginning not to fear. Some of us are taking our freedom. The violent, illogical response of the authorities reveals their illegitimacy.

With the occupation camps mostly dismantled, the question arises as to what next. This is where it gets interesting, and where the limitations of the reformists and of liberal democracy to contain the hopes and dreams of Occupy become clear.

The Toronto Star recently ran an opinion piece by the seasoned journalist Olivia Ward with the title, “Will Occupy movement find a place in history?” She offers several potential routes toward such a place.

We can “educate, build a social network, co-opt authority (fat chance of that!), speak to power, agitate for proportional representation (too little too late) and spread the message.” But to what end?

Though her article begins with a story about the beginning of the revolution in Serbia, nowhere does she admit to the possibility that a revolution is what we require here in liberal “democracies.” Nor could she be reasonably expected to openly voice such sentiments in The Star.

But a complete revolution, a complete takeover and dismantling of the Canadian state, and of every other liberal “democracy”, is exactly what we require. We need to have a real democratic revolution.

The democratic revolution is not going to be confined to nation states. It’s going to be both global, and local. The revolution is global because it speaks to the universal need of humanity for freedom, autonomy and independence. It will be local as those universal values find their expression in each community, in its own way.

The democratic revolution has the potential to become the fulfillment of the promise of the Western Enlightenment; the creation of a rational, self-directed society of independent producer-citizens in free association, and a return, ad fontes, towards the ancient sources of participatory democracy. There are encouraging signs that this is happening.

In Greece and Italy and Egypt, in New York, Toronto, and in all of the Occupy protest camps, the direct democracy of the Assembly was put into practice to make decisions. Rule of a simple majority – or of minority parties claiming to represent a majority – was rejected as anti-democratic.

In essence, these assemblies are an open rejection of the fundamental premise of representative, liberal “democracy.”

It’s a dual premise: that assembly democracy is not practical, and that it is not desirable because the people are not fit to rule the state. The Enlightenment critique of classical democracy is where the ruling class mythology of “the mob” arises. The Occupy experience, and the experience of months of revolution in Egypt, have put paid to that lie.

The liberal state was designed in an age just emerging from domination by the landed gentry. Most people were still illiterate when our representative institutions were created. But today we enjoy universal literacy and widespread higher education.

As Jefferson put it, “we might as well require a man to wear the suit of clothes which fitted him as a boy, than society to remain under the regimen of its barbarous ancestors.”  We have grown up. Our system of government remains a spoiled child.

In Iceland, that other great democratic device, of selection of political offices not by election, but by lottery has produced a new constitution. In 2009, one thousand Icelanders were randomly selected from the voter’s list and met in an assembly called the Thjodfundur, the National Assembly.

The Assembly drafted an outline of the guiding principles of a new constitution. The following year a constitutional committee was elected from candidates nominated by the citizens to draft the new constitution. Citizen participation was encouraged through the Internet, where the constitution was essentially crowd sourced.

The participatory nature of Iceland’s renewed democracy is a step in the right direction. The citizen body is taking on the role of legislator.

While not a revolution by itself, the Icelandic constitution is certainly a giant step away from the 18th century liberalism of the US Founders and of the conservatism of Edmund Burke, the two schools of thought to whom Anglo-Saxon “democratic” institutions owe their current forms.

Those forms have reached the end of their useful existence, for both rulers and ruled. A democratic revolution is coming. Participate! (X)

democratic fallacies part 1

A word is not a crystal, transparent and unchanging, it is the skin of a living thought and may vary greatly in colour and content according to the circumstances and time in which it is used.

Oliver Wendell Holmes

The assumption that “we live in a democracy” is the ground upon which western socialists, liberals and reactionaries stand. It’s taken to be axiomatic, that is it’s a premise automatically accepted without recourse to proof. But what would happen if we tried to prove it?

To some the question will seem absurd; to others, offensive. For some, the democratic nature of the liberal state must not be questioned. Its rituals have acquired the status of holy offices, its constitutions, that of holy writ, its idea of “democracy” revealed truth.

I am questioning this received idea in all of my work, including my film work.

What if one could prove, through the examination of the historical development of our idea of democracy that in point of fact, we do not live in a democracy as that term has been understood for 95% of its existence, and that we never have, and that contentions to the contrary – that we do – are most often supported by the most basic logical fallacies, and little supporting evidence?

What if one could show that the accepted notion of democracy has been completely altered over the course of the last 120 years, and that what we now take for “democracy” was in fact taken for its opposite until very recently? What if ancient notions of democracy could be shown to have new relevance today, when our supposedly “democratic” societies are monopolized by a tiny caste of wealthy men who are attacking our rights? Does this attack not make such a reexamination urgent?

If this point could be proven, and our argument here is that it can be, then a radical reexamination of the idea of democracy would be as much in order as it would be timely. The implications would be revolutionary; that we are called upon to establish a true democracy where we have had heretofore only an imaginary one.

In this essay, Part 1, we will take up the history of our notion of democracy in its development, and examine three societies which today claim to be democracies; Canada, the United States and Great Britain to determine if any of these societies can be proven to be a democracy. In Part II we will examine in detail how the notion of democracy evolved from 1789 to the present day, and why. In Part III we will consider possible alternatives.

DEMOCRACY – WHAT IS IT?

Let us examine the accepted definition of the Cambridge English Dictionary, which defines democracy as

“the belief in freedom and equality between people, or a system of government based on this belief, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves, a country in which power is held by elected representatives”

The first part of the definition is surprising. Democracy is here defined not as a material relation between people, but merely a “belief” in such a relation, or a government founded upon such a belief. It’s weak.

Webster’s Dictionary definition is stronger, describing democracy rather as an existing material relation between people:

government by the people; especially : rule of the majority b : a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections.

b) a political unit that has a democratic government

c) the common people especially when constituting the source of political authority

d) the absence of hereditary or arbitrary distinctions or privileges

The term democracy has evolved in meaning over time. It did not always mean “a government with periodic free elections” or that the common people were merely “the source” of political authority, with power wielded by representatives. In fact, if we examine how this word has been used in the last 2500 years, we shall find that its meaning has been radically altered only in the last hundred years or so. In the 2400 years previous, it meant something altogether different than what it has come to mean today.

Walter Lippmann, writing in the 1920s, attacked the technical ability of ordinary people to manage a democracy directly. For Lippmann there were insiders, the technical managers, and outsiders, everybody else. “Only the insider can make decisions, not because he is inherently better, but because he is so placed that he can understand and can act. The outsider is necessarily ignorant, usually irrelevant and often meddlesome.” (1) Lippmann’s thought is the culmination of a reactionary attack on classical notions of democracy which oddly enough mirrors the classical anti-democratic arguments of Socrates and Plato: that government is work for trained specialists.

But as F.I. Finley points out, Lippmann’s, and Plato’s attack assumes an equivalency between technical and political problems. Behind the assumption of technical competence by specialists there is a great deal of room to disguise anti-democratic ends, cloaked by means we accept because we believe that the technical specialists are acting in our best interests. This is a process by which decisions taken by the few are legitimized, but is it democracy?

This so-called “elite theory” of democracy as elaborated by Schumpeter and his school, by Seymour Martin Lipset and others is the “democracy” that we know today. The role of the citizen is now merely to choose between a small group of leader – specialists placed before the public by political parties. In this respect, the people are removed from their previous role as the political authority to a secondary role as its source.  It’s a curious notion, that the source of authority could be more powerful than the authority itself. But it’s one we’ve come to accept without question. Political authority, and hence coercive power, is thus delegated to specialists. We take the means by which this power is delegated, preference elections, to be the acid test of democracy.

Thus the idea and practice of democracy has been transformed into something completely unrecognizable to previous generations. In his Funeral Oration, the Athenian statesman Pericles famously remarked that anyone who did not participate in politics, the ideotes (from this word we derive our own term ‘idiot’) was “useless.” Our system encourages such political passivity. Ours is an idiocy generating machine.

**

Dr. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary, the first in the English language, defined democracy as “sovereign power lodged in the collective body of the people.” In Johnson’s definition, the common people were the authority.

In the middle of the 18th century, when Johnson wrote there were no states claiming to be democracies. Democracy was not even considered a desirable form of government. Johnson had as his basis only his understanding of classical Athenian democracy, based on ancient Greek sources.

Democracy is derived from two ancient Greek words, demos, meaning the people, and kratos, meaning power, or might. So democracy might translate as “people power.” Its etymological meaning is seldom referred to, in fact has been erased.

We might turn to Aristotle for help in broadening our idea of people power, or democracy. Since Aristotle lived in a culture which had known democracy for 180 years, whereas western states have barely known democracy for 90 years, and arguably far fewer if recent gains for women and racial minorities are taken into full account, perhaps his ideas are worthy of review. They are especially so in light of the fact that the founders of western liberalism, the framers of the US Constitution and the 19th and early 20th century formulators of elite democracy, addressed themselves directly to Aristotle’s thought on this subject.

Aristotle in the Politics makes several attempts to define what democracy is. His was the first systematic examination of political science. He based his analysis on an empirical study of the constitutions and ways of life in Greek city states, and collected their constitutional documents.

He notes that “democracy exists wherever the free-born are sovereign, and that oligarchy exists wherever the rich are sovereign,” (1290a30) and “There is democracy wherever the free-born and poor control the government, being at the same time a majority, and similarly there is oligarchy when the rich and better-born control the government, being at the same time a minority.” (1290b7)

The Greeks knew few elections, which are merely one means (of several) to the end, (democracy) not the end in itself. The aspect common to both ancient and modern notions of democracy seems to be a certain type of “class rule” that is rule by “the common people.” How that rule is exercised may vary.

The critical question is this: do the means we use today – preference elections –produce the end –“people power” or rule by the majority, by “the common people” or by the poor?

Moderns have chosen preference voting in contested elections. Or rather we’ve agreed to be included in this means to the  democratic end, which was originally a means to a far different end. The Athenians had a different means to the end, ruling themselves in person in the Eklessia, the famous Assembly, and also in the choice of representatives by lottery, as we still choose our jurors today.

Aristotle considered preference voting a feature of oligarchical forms of government, not of a democracy. He wrote, “in the appointment of magistrates, the use of the lot is regarded as democratic, and the use of the vote as oligarchical. Again, it is considered democratic that a property qualification should not be required, and oligarchical that it should be.” (1294a30)

The words which follow more accurately describe the kind of “democracy” we know today. “The method appropriate to an aristocracy or a ‘constitutional government’ is to take one element from one form of constitution and another from the other – that is to say, to take from oligarchy the practice of choosing office-holders by voting, and from democracy the practice of requiring no property qualification.” (1294a30)

Modern liberal democratic states also feature “free elections” and no formal property qualifications, although in many countries the act of running for office requires monetary resources only available to the very wealthy. Is this not an informal, but very significant property qualification in our system?

Aristotle was not a great advocate of democracy, where the poor control the government. He writes, “it seems impossible that there should be good government in a city which is ruled by the poorer sort,” (1294a1) and on the other hand that “of all the perversions from a true constitution… democracy is the most moderate, and so the least bad.” (1289a38)

The ancient elites, and most of their philosophers both feared and hated democracy. Plato and Socrates were sworn anti-democrats who thought the common people did not possess the wisdom to govern themselves or others. In contrast, the “Sophists” (the aristocrat’s term of abuse which has come down to us uncritically) such as Protagoras asserted that every man possesses politike techne, the ability to form political judgments about his best interests. If we believe in democracy today, we would have to agree with Protagoras, and not with Plato that every human being has the innate capacity for political judgment.  This is a curious thing, because our “democratic” system is based on Lippmann’s Neo-Platonic absolute denial of the proposition that the ordinary person is fit to govern herself. Whereas our system encourages mass political passivity, on the philosophical ground that the ordinary person is inexpert, the Athenian system trained citizens for political participation from an early age, and so they developed political skills to a greater or lesser degree. To borrow a common Athenian metaphor, just as an athlete develops not only his body but also his inner physical capacity, his endurance and strength, through the active and consciously directed exercise of those capacities in training, so too may humans develop and strengthen their capacity for political judgment by means of a conscious practice. Use it, or loose it. We have sadly lost it. We have been led into this debilitated condition by an elite misreading of Aristotle.

**

In Aristotle’s system of thought, democracy was a perverted form of constitution, not something desirable, if it could be avoided.

Aristotle classifies three “right forms” of political system, or constitution.

Monarchy is the rule of one man or a king. Aristocracy is the rule of the best people in society, or the aristoi. By “best” Aristotle means the most virtuous and also the most skilled, but he also recognizes that this term will be perverted so that “the best” become equal with the wealthy, as in an oligarchy. (We shall return to this point.) The third type he calls polity, or “constitutional government”, which is a mix or balance between Monarchy, Aristocracy and Democracy.

In fact, this is the very type of mixed constitution – polity – which all modern liberal “democracies” now possess. We do not live in a democracy in any sense in which that word may be correctly understood.

The United States famously claims for itself a “constitutional” government, featuring a separation of powers between an indirectly elected President (monarchy), a bicameral legislative branch featuring the House of Representatives (democracy) and the Senate (aristocracy). This is how the Founders of the American republic thought of their second Constitution (we often forget there was a first one), and argued explicitly for and against it in the Federalist and Anti-Federalist Papers based on classical political thought. According to Lippmann, it was Jefferson who first conflated the mixed, republican system of the United States with democracy, though as we shall see the two were conflated earlier and by others such as Edmund Burke. The conflation serves elite interests.

The English government viewed, and still continues to view its constitution as a mixed one. Judge Blackstone, in his massive work On the Laws of England which is still cited by jurists today, describes the English constitution of King, Lords and Commons as embodying the ideal mix between the three “right forms” of government, citing Aristotle, Cicero and Tacitus to back him up. (2)

The 18th century elite view of democracy can be clearly seen in the following cartoon. Here the mixed constitution of Great Britain sails the stormy seas betwixt the rock of democracy, represented by the Phrygian Cap (another ancient symbol from the classical world) of the French Revolution, and the whirlpool of tyranny.

Blackstone would have been horrified, as would have been James Madison, Benjamin Disraeli and others to imagine that we have confused this system with “democracy.”

They would have been quite a bit less horrified once they had appreciated that this very confusion has perpetuated the mixed constitutions and the hidden rule of the rich that they defended. Lord Jack Russell, who in 1832 first granted voting rights to English 10 pound householders declared that his reform “would not one jot advance democracy.” (3) Did he know something we have forgotten? We will fully explore this history in future posts.

It seems that the contradiction between modern and ancient notions of democracy revolves around the means by which it might be organized, around the method by which “magistrates” or in our case “representatives” are chosen. We recognize that the Greek role of “magistrate” and the modern “representative” are not co-equal, as the Athenians had no representatives per se, but represented themselves, and moderns elect representatives from whom magistrates (executive offices in the state which in our system are divided between professional bureaucrats and elected officials) are chosen. The ancient meaning and the modern one both include rule by the common people. Thus we must take as the acid test of democracy whether or not the common people hold real, substantive political power in a given society. The means by which that power is obtained is secondary. The means exist to further the end. If the end is absent, the means are no use.

The modern citizen assumes that because a society holds “free and fair elections” that it’s a democracy. The idea has become axiomatic since the early 20th century. An axiom is a proposition that is taken for granted, and which is not required to be proven. This may be a mistake in this case, for it involves a conflation of the means by which the “power is vested in the people” with the end itself, the just exercise of that power to create the good society. The axiomatic reasoning also can lead into attributing the qualities of a part to the whole. Just because a society holds elections doesn’t mean it’s a democracy. Such is obviously the case in Haiti, where “free and fair elections” have been held, but without the Lavallas Party which represents 90% of the population. The fallacy that attributes the quality of the part to that of the whole serves to confuse the issue.

It’s a mistake that Enlightenment thinkers clearly identified. Thomas Paine, in his Rights of Man, which inspired the beginning of the struggle for a reformed English Parliament and the right to vote, was very clear. His book is a defense of the French Revolution and its radical democracy, against Edmund Burke’s attack on that revolution. In it Paine accuses Burke that he “confounds representation and democracy together.” Paine’s other critics at the time also acknowledged that a system of political representation is not concomitant with democracy. In an attack on Paine’s writings presented to the members of his book club, a Royalist gentleman (who wished to remain anonymous to history) wondered at Paine’s admiration for “the new representative system which has become engrafted upon democracy.” (4) Here our Royalist gets it wrong. When we examine the case further, we shall see that in point of fact, it is rather that a representative system has since been engrafted upon a mixed constitution to give it more of a democratic appearance.

If we could distill Lippmann’s and Schumpeter’s idea of democracy, we might describe it as “the rule of the expert, for the common people, for their own good.” This may also be called polyarchy, a term of modern social theorists.

If we could distill Aristotle’s thoughts on democracy and oligarchy then we could derive an alternative axiom which might help us see our own situation more clearly; that democracy is the rule of the poor, and oligarchy of the rich. He said exactly this, so no distillation is really needed. This type of oligarchy has also been referred to as plutocracy.

Using these terms of reference above, we can ask the following questions about three countries which claim to be democracies:

  1. In whose interests do “political experts” rule in practice, as opposed to in theory?
  2. How have experts protected democratic rights?
  3. Are the rich or the poor in control of the state and of the economy?
  4. Do the common people experience rule by experts as beneficial, or would they prefer participatory democratic reforms?

Further, if we take the common terms between the Cambridge and Webster definitions, that of “majority rule” and either a “belief in” or a really existing “freedom and equality between people” and the notion of “free elections” we could ask these additional questions:

  1. Does the ruling group represent a majority of voters and of citizens in each country?
  2. Does the ruling group uphold freedom and equality between people?
  3. Are elections free or rigged?
  4. Can voters radically change the direction of their country by means of the election of a different political party or leader, or do political parties represent merely the appearance of choice?

Unfortunately when we examine the evidence, we can find a great deal to support the notion that in fact so-called “democracies” are really disguised oligarchies where the few rule the many, for the benefit of a few, under the disguise of the mixed constitution.

In the next installments, we shall examine Canada, the USA, and the UK in detail against the questions above. In future posts we shall explore how these three countries developed their mixed constitutional systems under the false label “democracy” and how the people came to accept this state of affairs. Stay tuned.

Notes:

(1)  Walter Lippmann, The Phantom Public, pg 140

(2)  Blackstone, On the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter 2.

(3) Lord “Finality” Jack Russell. Hansard. British House of Commons, March 22nd, 1831.

(4)  A Protest Against Paine’s “Rights of Man” Addressed to the Members of a Book Society” T. Longman, Paternoster Row, London, 1792/

canadians head to the polls

I’ve been busy the past few months working away on a book project related directly to some of the subjects I’ve taken on in this blog: democracy, corporate power and how our representative political system thwarts the former, and nourishes the later.

I’ve also taken up making films in order to deliver the same message.

This is the first in a series of short “newsreels” that I’ll be posting in the coming weeks as we go through a federal election. In the future I’ll be bringing you more film, several essays about the history of police power, a major study on democracy in Canada, the United States and the UK, a short feature about working and commuting to work, and two feature-length documentaries about policing and the evolution of our modern (and phony) notion of democracy.

I hope you find this film amusing, enraging and enlightening. More to come. And of course the voice of the “cranky American journalist” I assume in this newsreel is a persona I’ve taken on for dramatic effect, in case you were wondering!

thermal images from Fukushima raise serious questions

Today some thermal images of the Fukushima disaster site were released. I’m afraid they are being misinterpreted, or not fully understood because not enough information is known to correctly interpret the images.

How would I know? Good question.

For the past six years my day-job has been in the solar thermal energy business. I work with the top people in the Canadian solar thermal industry, and we have used thermal cameras to analyze the performance of aging solar thermal systems in municipal buildings.

So, I’m not an expert in thermography by any means, but I have used the technology before, and I know something about it. If what I’m about to say is incorrect, I hope somebody will please correct me.

On this Zero Hedge story, you can see two thermal images (presumably from an airplane or satellite?) of the Fukushima nuclear plant.

The author inserts the following comment:

“Next, a picture from Die Welt, emphasizing Reactor 3 and confirming that previous lies that all temperatures at Reactors 1 through 4, were under 100 degrees Celsius, were nothing but. Note the area indicating 128 oC Celsius. We would assume that is the reactor core area (which refutes the lie). If, instead, that is the spent fuel rod area, then we have some very big problems, even if TEPCO is telling the truth for once.”

I don’t dispute any of the above.

But the problems are probably bigger than the author imagines, for the following reasons.

Thermography estimates only the surface temperature of objects. It’s not a magical X-Ray machine that can see the reactor core temperature, or the temperature of any object behind the surface of another object.

So, for the surface of some object (nobody I know can say exactly what we’re looking at here) to be 128C, the interior of whatever that object is, or what’s behind it, is likely a good deal hotter. And remember that if it’s the reactor, then it’s radiating energy to produce that surface temperature through many inches of solid steel and several feet of concrete and who knows what else that may be on top of it now.

(Just for reference, 62C is the temperature of the hot water inside your domestic hot water tank. 128C is scalding hot, and would be intolerable to the touch even for an instant.)

We also need to remember two other factors which influence the interpretation of this thermograhic data.

The reactor is supposedly being actively cooled by dousing it with water. When exactly was this picture taken, and what active cooling effects were being implemented on the hot spot when the thermal scan was taken? If the reactor was being actively cooled during the scan, then without active cooling the surface temperature of that object would likely have been a lot higher, as would the surface temperatures of surrounding objects.

If no active cooling was taking place, we still need to take the passive cooling effect of the wind into account. Just like when you blow across the surface of a hot spoonful of soup to take heat away, a cold wind blowing across the surface of this hot object will dissipate heat from it, and reduce its surface temperature somewhat. The greater the “delta T” or the temperature difference between the hot object and the ambient temperature of the wind or the water that’s carrying the heat away from it, then the greater is the amount of energy taken away, and the lower the temperature of the hot, emissive object will be. If you take away the flow of wind or water over the hot, energy emitting object, the hotter it will be. That’s why the Japanese are frantically pouring cold water over these objects!

If we understand that these are merely surface temperatures, then the situation is likely very much worse than we’re being told by the Japanese authorities.

Take a look at the shot of the roof of building #2 in the NHK image. The whole roof of the building is glowing, which likely (not certainly) indicates energy being emitted from the spent fuel rods, a process which has heated up the roof of the building, through whatever insulation is on that roof. Because there’s no temperature scale for this image, it’s impossible to say anything other than that it’s radiating a lot of heat to the ambient air through the roof. Because there was likely no power in this building (electric or thermal) when the image was taken (still to be confirmed) that emission of energy could only be coming from the spent fuel rod pool and or the reactor. Yikes!  I actually find this image more disturbing than the others, partly because I question when it was taken.

Reactor number 2 exploded on March 15th. When was the NHK image taken?

If the temperature of that roof is even close to the temperature at building #4, which is 42C, (this guess is based on my interpretation of the colour scale) then something is either really wrong inside that building, or the Japanese built this roof without any insulation whatsoever in a climate that experiences cold winters. It remains to be determined what’s really going on with this image.

Again, I acknowledge that I could be wrong about some of this. I have done some interpreting (breaking my own rule) but given my work experience I feel confident in doing so, with the caveats I’ve stated. Knowing what I know about thermography (a bit) and being able to reason logically (tell me if I’m wrong!) I think it’s warranted to share my educated layman’s interpretation, in the hopes of reaching an understanding of what’s really going on at Fukushima, for myself and for others.

against the attack on Libya

The “Harper Government” decision to send CF18 fighter planes to patrol Libya is a crime and a bungled one, whatever the UN Security Council may have said about it. Today the governments of the UK and the United States declared that the goal of the mission is now “regime change” despite the contradictory statements of their generals.

The Harper government’s participation in the bombing of Libya and the killing of civilians is also an act of gross hypocrisy, as I pointed out in a letter published in today’s Sunday Star. (1)

Canada’s participation is motivated by profit and self-interest, and it continues what has been up to now a bungled policy towards Libya. Unfortunately space on The Star’s Letters page allowed only an explanation of the hypocrisy.

In my letter I described how the western powers are protecting the Khalifa royal family of Bahrain, who have engaged Saudi mercenaries, chemical weapons and British bullets to “kill their own people” and suppress democracy, just as Gaddafi has done. The difference between Khalifa and Gaddafi? Khalifa allows the US 5th fleet access to a massive base in Bahrain, whereas Gaddafi has been an “unreliable partner” in the development of Libya’s oil fields. In Libya, the west can gain more secure access to the oil by supporting something we call “democracy” but in Bahrain our interests in the naval base are served by continued dictatorship, and silence in the face of oppression. Its’ doubtful a democratic government in Bahrain would allow the 5th Fleet to continue to be based on the tiny island. So we say nothing while the man who crowned himself King a la Napoleon uses nerve gas on his own people. Or we say, as did Hillary Clinton to Iran, that they should not interfere.

And it’s not just Bahrain. Our governments hesitated to support the Egyptian democratic forces until the country was on the knife-edge of revolution. We are today ignoring the people of Yemen, even as trained snipers blow their brains out.

The situation in Libya is plainly very different from that in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Bahrain. In these countries, there is a politically organized youth movement for democracy across the whole society. Nothing of the sort exists in Libya. In Libya the divisions are tribal and territorial, despite the attempts of western media, and even of al-Jazeera to paint them otherwise.

The rebels of Benghazi are largely of the Senussi tribe, and their flag, that of the deposed King Idris is the Senussi flag. What will the Warfallas, the Gaddafis or the al Magrahis think of being ruled by the Senussi? Oh, but we haven’t thought that far ahead, have we?

And yet we feel we have the right to step into the situation in Libya, armed with a kind of Coles Notes guide to the tribal relationships there (or perhaps not) in the form of “intelligence briefings” from our all-powerful spy agencies in a role akin to that of the Greco-Roman gods… intervening in the lives of mere mortals, who exist to be manipulated to produce the outcomes we desire. What use is Minerva’s wisdom when we have Jupiter’s thunderbolts?

And we have the morality that goes with such an arrogant, ignorant attitude. So our Leader Maximal, Stephen Harper can say with a straight face that “risks are inherent in helping protect Libya” and that “these are difficult situations” in which “one cannot promise that there will not be civilian casualties.” We’re intervening to prevent civilians from being killed, and the price to pay is civilians being killed. (2)

The publicly stated arguments for our violent intervention are not logically coherent, and so we must search elsewhere for a rational argument for intervention. We don’t have to look far for the argument that dare not speak its name, and it’s spelled o-i-l. Most of Libya’s oil and gas is exported, and so we turn to Libya’s customers for the rationale for the attack on Libya.

The areas around and to the west and south of Benghazi in the Sirte basin are the centers of Libyan oil production. In a world past its global peak of oil production, reliant on increasingly heavy Saudi crude, Libya’s 1.8 million barrels per day of light sweet crude represent not only the loss of the principal oil supply to former colonial master Italy. They also represent a major leak from the global supply “cushion” which allows the market to smooth over the very real tensions between limited supply despite flat-out production, and ever-growing demand. The day of reckoning, in the form of local shortages and hoarding, draws ever closer. This kind of a crisis could cost international corporations billions of dollars. Crude oil prices are up hard over-supply fears from the Libyan unrest, and a stable government would create a more predictable investment environment.

It would also be an opportunity to “kick the chessboard” to  “shake the kaleidoscope” for oil investors with effectively stranded investments in Libya, and so also a tremendous profit opportunity for the new “coalition of the willing,” the “coalition of the shilling,” or whatever you want to call the former and current imperial powers of France, England, Italy, Canada and the USA militant. It’s about profit.

As production of oil goes on in a given field, the lightest, “sweetest” or lowest sulfur content, and hence cheapest to refine and highest profit margin oils are extracted first. This comes naturally, as such light oil rises to the top of a field. Gasoline is made from this “light sweet” crude. Labour cost also determines profit margins. Libya’s oil fields, the largest in Africa, and the 9th largest in the world, are relatively underdeveloped, and have a cost of production of just one dollar per barrel in some cases. (3) So, with Brent Crude trading at around $110 per barrel, that’s $109 per barrel of profit for some lucky adventurer, or perhaps for British Petroleum (formerly the Anglo-Iranian Oil Corporation which helped overthrow the democratically elected Mossadegh government of Iran, and which gave the world the ongoing Deepwater Horizon disaster) Conoco-Phillips, Marathon Oil, Amarada Hess, Suncor, Occidental Petroleum, Spain’s Repsol, and Eni of Italy. (4) Oddly enough, it is the national governments of these companies (with the possible exception of Spain) who make up the war coalition against Libya. This is what we call a “clue.”

Libya had been demanding a greater share in its oil revenue over the past two years. In 2009, Gaddafi had been pressing foreign oil firms to increase shares of the profits to Libya, threatening nationalization of some projects. Experts declared that outcome unlikely, but nationalization is a word oil companies don’t like to hear.

The Canadian state owned Petro Canada (now owned by Suncor) in 2008 committed to invest $460 million dollars in oil exploration in the Sirte region, and pumped over 100,000 barrels of oil in that area. (5) Today they pump nothing. Sirte is the power base of the Gaddafi tribe, Mr. Gaddafi’s extended family. Does anybody seriously think that Petro Canada will be allowed to continue those operations there if Gaddafi remains in power?

On March 19th, The Street reported that, “Shukri Ghanim, who sets Libya’s oil policy as the head of the national oil company, said the country would honor its current commitments while trying to recover from a huge drop in production. As for future deals, “a friend in need is a friend indeed,” he told reporters in Tripoli. “If someone stood with you, you cannot tell him no.”” (6)

But the Harper Government has been working at cross purposes to Petro Canada’s interests in Libya for some time. This is where the bungle comes in.

In 2009, the ever petulant Harper Government rebuked Gaddafi for the celebrations which greeted the return home of the terminally ill Abdel Megrahi, the man convicted of the Lockerbie bombing (though Megrahi almost certainly is innocent, and the Harper government knows it.) (7) We know about this thanks to Wikileaks. Gaddafi was going to stop over in Newfoundland for a brief chat with the Canadian Foreign Minister on his way to the UN General Assembly. One American source in Libya cited by Wikileaks claimed that Canadian Immigration issued Gaddafi a tourist visa, instead of the type issued to a visiting Head of State. The insulted Gaddafi never visited, and retaliated by making life difficult for Canadians working in the Libyan oil industry. The relevant Wikileaks document can be found here, for now. Did Jason Kenney, the notorious Zionist and also Canada’s Minister of Immigration cook up this slight? It certainly seems plausible, given his record with George Galloway. Somebody needs to ask him, especially if Gaddafi wins.

In retaliation for this totally political and totally unnecessary row, Gaddafi halved Petro Canada’s and Suncor’s production rights, a 12% stake in what was a 100,000 BPD field, and threatened to nationalize the whole operation if the Canadian government didn’t apologize. The Harper government never forgives and never forgets, as its domestic enemies (count me in) know all too well.

Is Canada’s participation in the No Fly Zone escapade a quid pro quo to Suncor and Petro-Canada, who clearly were not helped by the partisan bungling of the Libya file by the self-styled “Harper Government” back in 2009? Is it “skin in the game” in hope of a bigger production stake from a potentially grateful future Libyan regime? Suncor’s Libyan investment represents only 9% of its total production, and the company has been trying to sell its operation due to the uncertainty created by the spat with the Gaddafi government. Suncor is the largest oil company in Canada, and politically well-connected with the Harper government.

The CBC reported one oil industry analyst as stating that “if Gaddafi is overthrown, it might actually ease some of the concerns oil companies have about working in Libya, especially after the government’s treatment of another Canadian oil and gas company, Verenex. When the China National Petroleum Corporation made a takeover bid for Verenex and its valuable Libyan operations, Libya intervened and nationalized the Canadian company for less than the Chinese offered.”(8)

Do we really think that Harper, the man who prorogued our own parliament twice, the man who spent hundreds of millions of dollars on police state measures at last year’s G20, and whose government has been found in contempt of Parliament, gives a damn about democracy in North Africa, when he doesn’t care about it in his own country?

Harper’s cronies have their eye on the prize, and the prize is a reward from the new, Senussi masters of a future “Free Libya” or whatever you want to call it, in the form of a share in the Sirte and other oil fields of greater than 12%, likely far greater. In the way of these things, no doubt the new overlords of “democratic” Libya will also get their cut.

Unfortunately the Senussi do not control Tripoli, and so if Gaddafi and the western Libyans put up a fight, and so far they are doing just that, the only solution to this crisis short of all-out bombing or ground war might be the effective partition of Libya into the oil rich east, and the oil poor west.

Let it be written that in what is hopefully the last week of his Prime Ministerial term, Stephen Harper was not content to wreck only a single country. He set out to destroy two.

(1) The letter occupied the lead spot in the print edition, as usual when the Star publishes my letters.

(2) http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/956746–risks-inherent-in-helping-protect-libyans-in-conflict-harper-says?bn=1

(3) EIA data cited in:  http://www.energyandcapital.com/articles/libya-oil-price/640

(4) See: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/aug/18/british-energy-companies-investment-libya / and also : http://www.cnbc.com/id/29494495

(5) http://www.thestar.com/business/article/446372

(6) http://www.thestreet.com/story/11051982/1/libya-oil-deals-will-go-to-gadhafi-allies.html

(7) http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/01/31/wikileaks-libya-petro-canada.html

(8) http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/story/2011/02/22/libya-suncor-operations.html?ref=rss

against corporate monopolies

The world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton wants to control the world supply of fertilizer, and thus the world supply and price of food.

Fresh from deposing an elected Australian Prime Minister, BHP has launched a hostile takeover of Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan, “the world’s largest supplier of the three primary crop nutrients: potash, phosphate and nitrogen.”

The Toronto Star’s business columnist David Olive thinks the deal is “nearly perfect.”

I beg to differ, and to ask the key question Olive never seriously asks; for whom is it nearly perfect?

Certainly not for farmers or eaters. The deal is perfect for wannabe monopolists who style themselves by the now respectable term “investors.” These would love to have the world’s farmers and the world’s eaters over a barrel of fertilizer, composed of varying proportions of nitrogen, phosphorous and potash – NPK for short. They can and do make billions in profits per year selling NPK to a hungry world.

These three minerals are essential inputs, for which there are no practical substitutes at the present scale of production and consumption.

David Olive quotes a farmer in his story.

“They already got us right now, by the throat,” Michigan farmer Wes Exelby complained to Reuters Tuesday. “They control the markets and put the price where they want.”

But the farmer is just a set up for Olive’s one two punch. His reply to farmers and eaters?

“To which all one can say is: deal with it. A sizeable portion of our natural-resource bounty already is in foreign hands, thanks to the yard sale of celebrated Canadian assets amid a global bidding frenzy in 2008.”

Notice how Olive sidesteps the farmer’s objections to the takeover. The farmer didn’t question the nationality of the owners, but rather the monopoly capitalism which concentrates in a few private hands ownership of crucial resources that ought to be under public control. This kind of “analysis” is as good as it gets in the corporate press.

But let’s not be screwed by BHP Billiton, or lulled to sleep by Olive’s empty reassurances that everything’s OK. It’s not. A BHP Billiton takeover of Potash Corp. would not only be a threat to global food security, it would constitute a threat to democracy itself.

Olive declares that Saskatchewan Premier “Brad Wall and his government will suffer no decline in the Niagara of royalties generated by Potash Corp regardless of who owns it. Actually, a BHP-PotashCorp. combo is likely to boost Regina’s royalty haul from the province’s rich endowment of potash, nitrogen and phosphate, the prime building blocks of fertilizer.”

He doesn’t say why. Either Mr. Olive has not been paying attention, or he is fogging the issues.

BHP Billiton must be feeling its strength right now, as it’s fresh from overthrowing the elected Prime Minister of Australia. [i]

Together with fellow mining giants Rio Tinto and Xstrata, BHP Billiton staged a coup d’etat against the elected government of Kevin Rudd in June of this year.

Rudd’s government was going to impose a 40% tax on the windfall profits being generated by these three mining giants in Australia. The mining companies deposed Rudd operating via the backrooms of the Labour Party and a $100 million dollar public relations campaign. Having got rid of Rudd, they installed Julia Gillard, their handpicked puppet who immediately caved in and allowed an industry committee to draft new mining tax legislation under the leadership of BHP’s former CEO, Don Argus.

If BHP Billiton comes to Saskatchewan, Brad Wall should watch his back. [ii]

The BHP bid for Potash Corp is also about the race to accumulate super profits for global capitalist corporations.

Potash Corp’s gross margin on Potash is 80%. Two thirds of Potash Corp’s 2008 $4.9 billion in profits came from the sale of potash.

But David Olive says don’t worry, be happy. “The $850 (U.S.) peak {in the price of potash SJK} of 2008, and the worldwide food crisis of that year, had everything to do with frenzied commodities speculation rather than a sudden increase in food demand. Which means agricultural producers are not looking at oligopoly-driven price hikes in one of their key inputs. If they were, the reliably activist U.S. Justice Department and European Commission anti-trust division would be stepping in to scupper this deal.”

Olive is dissembling. Sudden increases in food demand do not occur. Olive waves a Red Herring called “sudden increase in food demand” at the gentle reader. Rather food demand is consistently increasing along with global population. The quality of demand is also changing. The emerging middle classes of Asia are driving demand for mineral fertilizers produced by Potash Corp as their diet changes from the peasant diet of the past which was predominately grains, vegetables with a small amount of meat, to one featuring a higher percentage of meat. (These countries also have depleted soils, which require more fertilizer.) More meat means more mineral fertilizers, as grain which would previously have fed humans now feeds cattle. It takes approximately 7 pounds of grain to produce 1 pound of meat. Increased meat eating in Asia means more profits for the mineral fertilizer manufacturers. Potash Corp’s investor circular is mostly devoted to explaining these realities to profit seekers. [iii]

What occur suddenly are food supply crises at the margins of global production. It’s these crises at the margin that set prices for all. We have seen such phenomena this year.

Major agricultural areas of Pakistan are under water. Fires and drought have caused Russia to cease exports of wheat. The UG99 stem rust may emerge at any time to decimate the world wheat crop, and is slowly spreading tendrils of disease out of Africa towards Asia’s breadbasket in Pakistan, Iran and India. [iv]

To western consumers the global food supply system appears to be “just in time.” However, food is produced seasonally and stored until the following year’s harvest can replenish stockpiles. Global stockpiles of grain have fallen to their lowest level on record. [v]

It’s an understanding of these kinds of supply crises in the context of the reality of food production that moves food commodity markets. Speculators on commodity futures exchanges react to these market developments, buying call or put options which can and which will drive commodity prices far above or below their moving averages. It’s therefore disingenuous for Mr. Olive to claim that herd like speculators are completely disconnected from the realities of production and consumption, or that the food price spike of 2008 was a “one off.”

Has Mr. Olive been paying attention to the wheat markets this summer?

Given the crises in Russia and Pakistan, global wheat prices have surged by as much as 80% in the last two months. Currently fertilizer prices are relatively low, but they will likely surge by the time farmers in the northern hemisphere are fertilizing 2011’s spring wheat crop. Potash Corp stock has a seasonal pattern which tends to move the share price higher towards the beginning and end of a calendar year. [vi] Fertilizer demand increases in spring and fall.

No wonder Canada Potash Corp. management rejected the deal! Based on average historical share price movement, their shares stand to appreciate by 30% by this time next year. Yet Olive calls BHP’s offer “nearly perfect.” He writes, “… the deal’s fundamentals are sound. BHP will not end up wildly overpaying for assets at the top of the market, the hallmark of the 2008 buying mania.” He simply assumes Potash Corp’s shareholders will want to cash out at current prices. But if 2008 was not a buying mania but rather a preview of what’s to come, and it’s looking more likely than not that this is the case, then Potash Corp’s share price might soon rise far higher.

Other aspects of Olive’s reasoning are less than perfect, including his trust in the anti-trust regulations of western liberal states, which have not prevented the concentration of capitalist ownership of industry that Marx predicted. Olive also ignores the current industry trends.

If oligopoly driven food price hikes are not on the horizon, why is the global fertilizer industry consolidating into an oligopoly? Russia’s Uralkali is “seeking to buy stakes in rival companies to set up the world’s largest producer” informs RIA Novosti. Uralkali’s billionaire owner Suleiman Karimov is currently trying to take over competitor Silvinit. Once global fertilizer supplies are concentrated in just a few hands, what’s to prevent the private owners from holding the world to ransom? They certainly have shown no love for Australian democracy. Why should they respect the public interest elsewhere?

To give some perspective on the strategic power which control of fertilizer and food represents, consider this graph of worldwide fertilizer use since 1880, courtesy of Business Insider, which shows how mineral fertilizers have come to dominate global food production since the Green Revolution. [vii].

We have dumped more phosphate rock on farmland since 1950 than all other fertilizers combined since 1800.

Now consider a graph of the human population set against world rock phosphate production. [viii]

The second graph shows that as mineral fertilizer use has grown, human population has grown along with it. Almost half of the global population owes its very existence to the availability of rock phosphates (and nitrogen derived from natural gas, which is not shown) for fertilizer. Without these nutrients, the food crops that sustain 3 billion people would not exist, and so those 3 billion people would not exist.

It’s a point Olive refers to only obliquely.

“….world population is projected to rise from a current seven billion to 10.5 billion by mid-century, with a resulting steady increase in food and fertilizer demand.”

Sorry to break it to you David, but world population can’t grow to 10.5 billion by mid century, as there’s not enough arable land, which shrinks at 1% per year, and there’s not enough water, with fossil water in aquifers seriously depleted all over the world, glacial water melting at an unsustainable rate, and not enough fossil fuel energy to power all the machines, not enough natural gas to transform into nitrogen… It’s just not happening. The changing climate is proving to us the limitations of the atmosphere to act as a sink for our carbon emissions. Putting bets on which of these avenging angels will reap the human population down to a size commensurate with the carrying capacity of the earth is a mug’s game. One way or another, the human population will be limited by the scarcity of whichever indispensable resource peters out first. This is Liebig’s law of the minimum, from which we are not exempt, whatever an economist or the Toronto Star has to say about it. The human population will likely have crashed by 2050 to well under 3 billion, precisely due to humanity’s adherence to the same religion of endless growth in which David Olive plays the role of evangelist. But don’t worry, a few “investors” will have won a fortune by buying NPK fertilizer low and selling it high by 2050. Our whole society, and of course the Business section of the Toronto Star is organized around the sacred right of investors to profit from their private schemes, and to hell with everyone else.

Olive’s homily concludes thus: “As the third resource megadeal worldwide in the past year, this deal signals a welcome restored health, finally, in the global credit markets, and a wider prosperity in the offing. And there’s no changing the fact that investors have made a ton of money on Potash Corp. Its stock soared 1,021 per cent over the past decade. With a handsome capital gain for investors now in store, Potash Corp. takes its place in Bay Street annals as one of the greatest investor success stories in history.”

Celebrating the mega profits of Canada Potash is akin to a crack addict getting sentimental because his dealer had a record year.

The average reader of the Star’s Business section, confusing the “value” of money with sacred, real and living relations between humans, animals and plant life may share Olive’s ecstasy at the orgy of mega-billions which have been “made” by riding the fertilizer mega-bull market from lows to highs. We suspect that the over one billion people on the earth who are now hungry, and who will likely die of that hunger, are less than enthused.

As usual, a mega-deal “success story” for “global investors” has been a mega-disaster for everybody else.

AN ALTERNATIVE

Instead of allowing BHP Billiton to purchase Canada Potash, the NDP Government of Saskatchewan should seize Canada Potash without compensation and operate the company as a public utility under the motto “So that none shall hunger.”

Because of Saskatchewan’s low cost of production, a public fertilizer utility could sell at very low prices, which would do more to keep global fertilizer and food prices in check than would wishful thinking by David Olive. Modest profits could be invested by the Government of Saskatchewan to promote sustainable agricultural practices worldwide, to help farmers everywhere recover from mineral fertilizer dependency now perpetuated by corporate greed, and transition food production away from a linear model based on the consumption of finite mineral inputs back to a circular model in which crop, animal and human wastes are recycled back into the soil in a process powered by solar, instead of fossil fuel energy. The hour is late, but it’s not too late to act.

We need to literally throw the mineral fertilizer monopolists onto the dung heap of history.

Global investors will cringe, but Tommy Douglas would be proud.

UPDATE: As I was about to publish this story, Canada Potash management has soundly rejected the BHP takeover. Seems the deal wasn’t nearly perfect enough for Potash Corp’s management.


[i] The World Socialist Website has provided indispensible documentation and analysis of the corporate coup in Australia. See http://wsws.org/articles/2010/jul2010/pers-j15.shtml

[ii] Australian big business is not satisfied with overthrowing an elected Prime Minister. It wants more! http://www.theaustralian.com.au/business/lack-of-vision-leaves-businesses-fearing-the-worst/story-e6frg8zx-1225907976305

[iii] http://www.potashcorp.com/investors/investor_briefcase/

[iv] http://www.economist.com/node/16481593?story_id=16481593

[v] http://www.thestar.com/opinion/editorialopinion/article/845774–today-russia-tomorrow-the-world

[vi] http://www.timingthemarket.ca/techtalk/2010/07/29/tech-talk-for-thursday-july-29th-2010/

[vii] http://www.businessinsider.com/the-phosphorus-chris-2010-4#use-of-phosphorous-rock-has-increased-1100-since-ww2-3

[viii] http://energybulletin.net/node/33164

Stephen Hawking – not so smart after all

The mighty seem to be falling all over the place, and all over themselves to prove the fact that the specialists who run our society are not as smart as they would have us believe.

Stephen Hawking is the latest “really smart guy” to put his foot in it.

Hawking, now a visiting professor at our very own University of Waterloo, has declared that humanity must flee the earth into space within the next 100 years if we are to survive. One hopes that the scholar’s first impressions of Kitchener Waterloo have not coloured his judgment.

We’ve heard similar claims before, but Hawking’s extraordinary reputation as the smartest cosmologist and theoretical physicist alive gild this wilted lily with a thick patina of street cred it does not deserve.

Let’s unpack it.

Space, the final frontier… home to all things that people need, such as clean, breathable air, the feel of grass under your naked feet, water, land spreadin’ out so far and wide, fruit… you get my point.

Though there may be a planet X out there composed of a rather flinty Chablis, and another made of cheese, it’s rather doubtful that humanity will ever be able to turn either into an appetizer, let alone devour yet another planet made of rock and dirt and covered with unsuspecting, innocent and rather tasty life forms. One will have to do.

Planet Earth – the one we’re not only “on” but the one of which we are an inextricable part – currently features both flinty Chablis and an infinite variety of cheese, not to mention all of the other conditions to which humanity is most perfectly suited. It also features limited supplies of oil, metals, arable farmland and fresh air.

What force could drive humanity into the most cold, inhospitable environment, full of hard cosmic radiation and not much else? The answer is our own capacity for destructiveness. We’re destroying our only home, the garden planet of which the human mind is the most sophisticated expression. Surely the biggest brains on earth can come up with a better idea than abandoning ship for the “wine dark sea” of space?

Rather than change ourselves, we’ll indulge in Mr. Hawking’s ill thought out fantasy flight to the stars, and bring our unresolved destructive tendencies to new worlds! Rather than change our social and economic system, we’ll intensify its contradictions and pack up the dregs of our withered humanity in a pressurized can, launching it into nothingness where the desiccated contents may find a foothold on an as yet to be discovered “earth like” planet some 50,000 years hence. But what if we find the aliens don’t want us around? Even if it were practical – which it is not – Mr. Hawking’s airless scheme could at best aspire to the kind of interplanetary colonialism spoofed by James Cameron in Avatar.  This freeze dried vision sounds like the ultimate “bad deal.” Mr. Hawking may be the greatest physicist alive, but he’s no Einstein.

Albert Einstein was not only the greatest physicist of his day, he was a humanist and a socialist. Einstein would never have suggested that humanity indulge in a frankly lunatic fantasy of escape; he would have challenged us to confront ourselves here and now, and to change ourselves. We can only judge by the record of his writing on the subject.

In his 1949 Monthly Review essay, “Why Socialism?” Einstein critiqued that society where “The priests, in control of education, made the class division of society into a permanent institution and created a system of values by which the people were thenceforth, to a large extent unconsciously, guided in their social behavior.” Though Einstein was speaking of medieval society, his description reminds us of the techno-faith pushed by the priests of science today in government, business and academia, which have become a complex of interlocking industrial and military interests.

Mr. Hawking’s proposed escape seems more grounded in this technophilic fantasy land of infinite growth and expansion and infinite technological progress that is the official state religion of the scientific establishment than in any kind of rational critique of existing social relations. His proposal reflects the values of the establishment, whose goal is the perfection of a system of technological slavery, with no regard to the inherent value of nature. Nothing is so unimaginably dreadful as the whole of humanity trapped on a spaceship for eons. We can’t even be civil to each other on long haul flights. Hawking’s prescription also contains the disturbing fatalism of religion; it echoes the apocalyptic fantasies of the most regressive social forces, and it defers any struggle for human happiness, peace or justice into the infinitely far future.

Hawking’s suggestion is actually an appeal to suicide disguised as one to save humanity. In space there is only death. Life, and the solutions to the problems Hawking identifies, are down here on earth.

In “Why Socialism?” Einstein also took aim at the “scientism” he saw developing in his time, and which is today almost fully realized. He wrote that “we should be on our guard not to overestimate science and scientific methods when it is a question of human problems; and we should not assume that experts are the only ones who have a right to express themselves on questions affecting the organization of society.” The masses of humanity are  demanding justice here on earth, here and now. “Stuff me in a can and send me to Proxima Centuari” is pretty low on the list of demands.

Einstein wrote that the transformation of human social relations, from a capitalist society to a socialist one, is the solution to the problem of humanity though Einstein could not imagine a peaceful future without modern industry, which will not survive the collapse of fossil fueled industrial production, even if the workers are in charge.

Fantasies about escape to the stars are a distraction from the real task facing humanity: the building of a just, democratic, peaceful and long term sustainable world in the here and now.