Democracy at work

Richard Wolff
Brecht Forum,
New York, NY
9 October 2012

Cascading economic problems and crises, coupled with dysfunctional political responses, have plunged many societies into deepening turmoil. Capitalism, the dominant economic system of our time, has once again become the subject of criticism and opposition. A global capitalist system that no longer meets most people’s needs has prompted social movements to arise and coalesce in the active search for fundamental and structural change. The establishment responds with what are called reforms. But they are superficial and quickly circumvented. Historically, the various forms of state socialism and communism do not offer a model or inspiration to those looking for viable alternatives. People are seeking new solutions to address capitalism’s injustices, waste, and massive breakdowns. One such proposal is workers’ self-directed enterprises. Production works optimally when performed by a community that collectively and democratically designs and carries out shared labor.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Richard Wolff is Professor of Economics Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and currently a visiting professor at the New School in New York. The New York Times called him “America’s most prominent Marxist economist.” He is the author of numerous books including Capitalism Hits the Fan, Democracy at Work, and Occupy the Economy: Challenging Capitalism with David Barsamian.

You can listen to Richard Wolff speak for himself here.

I’m going to begin by talking a little bit about the failures of the capitalist system we live in now. We can compare this crisis with the last time our capitalist system collapsed. That’s the 1930s. And that has to be brought back, because that’s the only standard, the only equivalent we really have to make sense of what we’re going through now. Like with everybody, you make sense of a crisis now if you can think of a similar crisis that you or your friends or your family went through at some other point. That’s what we do.

An interesting thing happened in the 1930s. Capitalism tanked. It fell apart. It lasted for years—12 years, 1929 to 1941. But there was a big difference. After 4 or 5 years of that crisis, something happened in America then that hasn’t happened yet again. The mass of people reacted and got involved. You had in the U.S. what you now see in Greece or Spain or Italy, and so on. People in the streets. There were demonstrations of tens of thousands, and sometimes hundreds of thousands, in Union Square, just a few blocks from here. Week after week.

There were three kinds of organizations that got involved. There was the union movement. In a short period of time tens of millions of Americans who had never been in a union before joined a union. The organization was called the CIO, the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which went to the masses of people and said, You’re being really shafted in this crisis. You’ve lost your job, you’ve lost your benefits, you have no money. The union is the only institution that’s going to help you, so you’d better join it and make it strong, because it’s your only chance. Millions of Americans agreed and joined.

The second kind of organization was a group of parties who used the name socialist, socialist parties of various kinds. They basically said capitalism is a system that’s no good. We need an organization to either force it to change or to go beyond it.

And the third organization was the Communist Party, which said more or less the same thing but pushed maybe a bit harder.

There was lots of overlap among the CIO and the socialists and the Communists. They worked together, and they represented tens of millions of people. They said to the president, Roosevelt,

You’d better do something for the mass of people. None of this crap about bailing out the big banks,

which he was doing, and helping the big corporations, which he was doing.

That’s not enough. You’ve got to do something for the people at the bottom, the millions unemployed, the millions losing their homes through foreclosure and so on. And if you don’t,

they wagged their fingers at him,

then we socialists and Communists, we’re going to overthrow this system.

And to make the point, they pointed over there to Russia, where this had happened a little while earlier, and said,

Don’t think it can’t happen here.

Mr. Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He heard these people. He knew they represented tens of millions. So what did he do? Very important. He went to the corporations and the rich and he said to them—they didn’t want to hear it, he knew that, but he came from that group, he knew them all personally—

You have to give me a lot of money right now. A lot. And not only do you have to give me a lot of your money, but I’m going to use it to help the mass of people.

Guaranteed to be a tense meeting.

And here was his argument.

You’d better do it, because if you don’t, down the road behind me are coming the socialists and the Communists, and they’re going to offer you a lot worse deal. So here’s what. You give me a lot of money. I’ll take care of them. I’ll help the mass of people the way they’ve never been helped before. But on one condition I’ll help them. Don’t mess with capitalism. Let the industries be the way they are, with the major shareholders having all the power to select the board of directors, which makes all the decisions. Leave that part of capitalism alone.

He split the rich people in the corporations. Half of them bought his argument. They were scared. They saw the same demonstrations in the streets. Half of them never bought the argument. They became the implacable enemies of Mr. Roosevelt, the people who now control the Republican Party, but who were doing that all the way back. But it was enough to get half of them. And Roosevelt went to the socialists, Communists, and CIO and said,

Okay, we’ve got a deal.

And they said

Yes, we’ll downplay the revolution.

Not all of them, but most of them did.

Roosevelt created the Social Security system. He said to Americans,

If you’re over 65 and you’ve spent a lifetime working, I’m going to take care of you for the rest of your life.

In the midst of a depression, when there was no money, like the people say today, the government said,

I’m going to give you all money, a monthly check, you old people, until you drop dead.

No one ever heard of that before. A public pension for everybody. Telling the old people,

You’re not going to have to live on cat food and your children are not going to be burdened by taking care of you. We’re going to take care of you.

No sooner was that done than he announced the development of an unemployment compensation system. That had never been done before either.

You lose your job, we’ll give you a check every week, for a long time. Have a nice day.

No sooner was that done than he said,

And now the icing on the cake. I’m going to create and fill 12 1/2 million jobs and give you all work.

Where did the money for this come from? He taxed the corporations and the rich. And what he didn’t get from them in taxes, he borrowed. And there was no discussion. They didn’t say,

Maybe I’ll lend it to you.

No, no, no, no, no. You’re giving it to us.

And that got us out of the Depression, with neither the revolution of the left, which they feared, or the fascism from the right, which they were also worried about, because that’s what had happened in Italy and in Germany.

But—and here comes the punch line—they never touched the corporation and how it’s organized. They left in place the major shareholders and the board of directors. And guess what happened? The board of directors and the shareholders didn’t like this deal that Roosevelt forced down their throat. They accepted it, but they weren’t happy. And by 1945, which is only a few years later, Roosevelt dead, World War II over, the corporations, shareholders, and boards of directors went to work to undo everything Roosevelt had done.

How did they do it? Number one, they went after the socialists and Communists. They knew who made Roosevelt do what he did, and they destroyed them. Which is why those political parties are as small and as weak today as they are in this country. And they went to work to destroy the labor movement, which is why it is as small and weak today, having had 50 years of decline. They knew that was the basis on which Roosevelt acted, so they had to destroy that basis. They had to destroy the organization of the working class from the left. We live in the results of that. While that was being done, they undid the New Deal. They passed the bills, the laws, they attacked, they took it away. The regulations were deregulated. The government activity was privatized. They took all the steps necessary.

There’s a lesson there, isn’t there? The lesson is, if you don’t change the organization of enterprises, then even when you’re lucky enough to get a better system, a capitalism that you might call capitalism with a human face, one that gives you a pension when you’re old, that gives you unemployment compensation when you lose your job through no fault of your own, one that provides jobs from the public sector if the private sector can’t do it, that kind of a capitalism that you can win if you fight hard, as they did in the 1930s, will then be taken away if you leave those people in power.

Why? Because they’re nasty people? No, no, no. If you’re the head of a corporation, your job is to make money. The regulations passed by Mr. Roosevelt were impediments for a business. They wanted to get around those regulations. They made it harder to make money. They didn’t want to pay those big taxes. That meant money they couldn’t use to build the enterprise. So they saw these things as obstacles, which they worked to overcome. So, of course, they did what the system makes them do: They undid it all.

The best metaphor for this comes out of American history. And it’s the fight against slavery. In the fight against slavery in the U.S. there was an antislavery movement, and it split into two parts. One part of the movement against slavery in the U.S. was horrified that slaves weren’t fed very well, they weren’t clothed very well, their families were split up, they were bought and sold, all those terrible things, and they wanted slaves to be better treated. The other people who were against slavery were horrified by that approach. They said,

Are you crazy? The problem isn’t that the slave doesn’t have the right diet. The problem is that he’s a slave. And if all you do is give him a better diet by forcing the slave owner to feed him better, then you’re leaving the slave owner in the position to reduce the diet next month, next year. You’ve left in place the institution that can undo whatever you achieve. That’s not smart.

That second group finally persuaded Mr. Lincoln. So he didn’t pass a law improving the condition of slaves, he abolished slavery.

If you want to deal with the crises of capitalism— with its injustice, its inequality, its fundamental instability, its waste of people and resources—then you can’t just pass a regulation or apply a tax. You’ve got to deal with the decision-making institutions. Because if you don’t, you cannot win this struggle. Therefore, my proposal is, we’ve got to do that. We’ve got to change the way enterprises are organized. No more shareholders, no more people who control a block of shares and can then pick the board of directors, who make all the decisions, that the rest of the workers, the vast majority, simply have to live with. That’s out. We can’t tolerate that. We’re not going to struggle another 10 years to reimpose the regulations and taxes that our forefathers and foremothers did in the 1930s only to have them undone again. This is absurd.

We have to learn from what they didn’t do and not make that mistake again. That means changing the way enterprises are organized. Don’t shy away from it. Don’t say,

Oh, it’s a big job.

Because the alternative is it won’t work. We’re living that result. We’re worse off now, because not only do we have a crisis of capitalism, but we have no organizations of the left comparable to the CIO, the socialists, and the Communists. So no one is helping us now. We’re just standing there looking at it all and shaking our heads. So capitalism needs now to be confronted. We have to change the way we organize enterprises.

The proposal here is very simple. Enterprises should be run with the decisions made by the workers in them—collectively and democratically. If 100 workers work there, then the 100 workers make those decisions. If 10,000 work there, they make the decisions. I’m going to come back to that, but that’s it. We call those worker self- directed enterprises. No more board of directors and shareholders. The workers become their own collective directors of activity. Every worker has two job descriptions: whatever tasks he or she does in the division of labor in the office, the store, or the factory, plus every worker’s participation, full and equal with every other worker, in the decisions of a director: what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits.

And before I go into it, which is what I’m going to do for the rest of my time today, I want to tell you that this is not only the solution to the inefficiency and instability of capitalism, the way I’ve stressed; it is also a solution to the problems of classical socialism.

Quickly let me review. The Soviet Union is a prime example. What did they do? They said,

We’re going to get rid of private property in the means of production, and we’re going to have it taken over by the country as a whole. We’re going to socialize the means of production. We take them away from the private owners and run by the state in the interests of everybody.

And the second thing they said is,

We’re not going to allow the market to determine who gets what. That’s going to be done by government planning instead of markets planning. Instead of private property, socialized property.

That was the plan. That’s what the Russian Revolution introduced, that’s what the Chinese Revolution introduced, that’s what the Cuban Revolution introduced, and so on.

What did it do? It did many things. I wish I had the time to go into it—and sometime I will. But here I want to make a central point. It had also profound flaws. First, it didn’t change the organization of the enterprise. The board of directors selected by the shareholders was gone. But in its place the government put in commissars; it sent people that were government officials. The enterprise now had a board of directors, but they weren’t elected by shareholders, they were selected by the government. That didn’t change. The workers still came to work five days a week, produced, and the decisions about what to produce, how to produce, where to produce, and what to do with the profits was made by the government officials.

Likewise, when you give such power to the government, the power to own the means of production and the power to distribute goods and services, you’re giving the government a stunning amount of power. And unless you’re awfully careful, they’re going to use that power in ways you’re going to come to regret, which we all know happened. So you’ve got to come up with a way to make sure that this problem doesn’t exist. And it’s all the more powerful because we know that in the end those systems have dissolved, not by external attack, but by the weight of their own contradictions. Russia imploded, China is going through a fundamental shift, Cuba likewise.

So what do you do? I have the same answer. You transform the enterprises. You make them run by the workers themselves. That creates the political power at the base of society that’s a counterweight to the government. The only way the government can survive is then to get taxes from the enterprises owned and operated by the workers in them. Then the government can’t do whatever it wants. It has to come to terms. It’s an institutional way to overcome the concentration of power at the top. And it’s an institutional way to transform the tensions of enterprises, which survive because government officials are just as odious as the people elected by shareholders in many cases. So you’ve overcome that. So this is a proposal that addresses not only the failures of capitalism but the failures of its major 20th century alternative, classical socialism, and maybe is the basis for a whole new idea of what socialism will represent in the 21st century, which is not centralized planning, but rather workers becoming finally the masters of their own lives.

What would that mean? Let me just tantalize you with some of the delicious possibilities. Let me begin with the easier ones. Do you think the workers, if they were sitting around in an office, a store, or a factory, would decide,

Hey, I’ve got an idea. We can make a bit more profit than we’re making now if we just shut down this workplace and reopen in China.

Unlikely. The self-destruction of people doesn’t usually go that far. They’re not going to do it. They’re just not going to do it. What an interesting idea. They’re not going to do it.

Here’s another thought. What if a new technology for whatever the company makes is introduced but it happens to have a side effect, it pollutes the air or it pollutes the water or it introduces a machine that is too loud are or a chemical that is toxic? Now, if you had a board of directors elected by shareholders sitting in New York or L.A., they might say,

Well, it will make more profit. We’ll tell the workers we have a fan. Don’t worry about it.

Yes, but the workers, if they made the decision themselves, since they have to breathe it, and their wives and husbands and children and neighbors, not so quick. If you want to do something about environmental degradation, here’s a way to do it. Just like if you want to do something about jobs leaving the country, there’s a way to do it.

But I’m just getting started. Here’s a bigger one. Do you think if the workers sat around together making the decision of how to divide the profits that they all produce, which is what we’re talking about, that they would give a few officials at the top, managers, tens of millions of dollars in wonderful pay packages—wages, salaries, stock options, bonuses—and everybody else struggles to get by? I don’t think so. If the decisions were made democratically, you know what? They would distribute the profits much more equally. Some would get more and some less, of course, but they wouldn’t be giving some people $25 million a year and everybody else nothing. They wouldn’t do that.

The single most powerful way I can think of to do something about the inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. that almost everybody complains about would be this idea. Because if you made the collective of workers in every enterprise distribute the wealth, they would never distribute it as unequally as is now done by the boards of directors, who give themselves the monstrous salaries. If you want to do something about inequality, do this. Do this. What an amazing thing.

Let’s talk about it some more. How might it work? Here are some questions that are raised that I want to answer.

Gee, it takes a special skill to be a director. You kind of have to know the bigger picture. You can’t go to East Tennessee State Community College. That’s good for working at the bottom. But if you want to be a director, you need to go to Princeton or Harvard or places like that.

Here’s the very old idea: The mass of workers isn’t competent to run a business. This should sound familiar to you. For those of you who remember the history of how we in Western society finally got over 1,000 years of kings and princes and emperors and czars and we got to this idea that everybody should have a vote, there were always those conservatives who said,

Are you crazy? Running a country is something you need to be a king to do. An average schmuck [or whatever the equivalent was] can’t do that. If we don’t have the king, who [as we all know and as they reminded us] talks to God almost as often as Republicans do, then our society will fall. We can’t leave power in the hands of the average person. They’re too stupid, they’re too undereducated.

The eventual answer of the mass of people was to separate those kinds of folks from their own heads, which ended the argument definitively. And we went on to have a voting system, which we call democracy. And guess what? Society didn’t fall apart, civilization didn’t come to an end. All of the dire predictions about the incapacity of the mass of people to participate in their own governance turned out to be, to use a technical term from political science, bullshit.

I’ve got a thought for you. The incompetence of workers to manage their own workplace is the same argument, it’s the same silly idea. You think the people who run America’s enterprises were born with the capacity to govern the enterprise? Stop. We have colleges for them. We have specialized programs/degrees for them called master of business administration. That’s where you learn to do these things. You have to learn it because nobody knows it. It’s something you learn. It doesn’t take very long. And most graduates tell you, We didn’t learn all that much, but it was good to go because I made good connections. Oh, I see, that’s what it’s about— connections. The learning part is very little.

Here’s a thought. You could organize enterprises so that not only did everybody participate in directing but that there were ongoing courses available to everybody, all the time during your work life where, if you felt deficient in any area, there would be people who would, in whatever way you like, teach you this, precisely so that everybody could participate. Your job and your education would be woven together. Going to work would also be going to school. What an interesting idea. You might go to a job to learn something; it might be exciting. The bar that you pass on the way home from your job would no longer advertise happy hour, because you knew what the hours were before you got there, because you would begin to be, I don’t know, happy at work. Can you imagine? Because you would be learning, you would be participating, you would be exploring your own capabilities.

Here’s another thought. The work is divided, but the people don’t have to be. We can rotate everybody. You can be for a while this job and then a while that job. You know why? Because it stultifies your brain to always do the same thing. You want variation. Not just from this technical work to that but from running the place to letting someone else run the place, maybe while you’re taking a course to become another kind of worker because you would like to try that, you would like to develop your skills. What an interesting idea.

Now let me address another dimension of this. And you see what I’m doing. I’m making the best case I can for this. And I have to, because it’s either ignored or dismissed when there’s no justification for either. Here’s another argument that is made.

These things might work, but it’s only on small enterprises. Five people could do it, maybe ten, but anything bigger than that, no. And if you look around, most co-ops that you see where people try to do it, they’re kind of small, you know.

I love this argument.

The answer to this argument is just the history of capitalism. Capitalism grew out of another system in Europe called feudalism. Most of Europe for, say, the period from 500 to 1000 A.D., was feudal. Big or not so big plantations—feudal manors they were called—big areas of land, lots of serfs. When capitalism grew, when capitalism emerged, depending on how you count, 16th, 17th, 18th century, guess how it started everywhere? Small. A capitalist with three workers or six workers or nine workers. And feudal lords all congratulated themselves. Yes, it’s scary, but it’s little. It only applies to little. Guess what? It starts little, but it gets big. It manages, it makes adjustments, but it manages.

Is that possible for co-ops? Sure it is. Why in the world would you assume otherwise? And in case you did, let me give you the example. It’s called the Mondragon Corporation in Spain. It’s a worker self-directed enterprise. And how many people work for the Mondragon Corporation? One hundred twenty thousand, thank you very much. Over 50 years. They started as six people in the north of Spain, a priest and six people. Not an auspicious beginning—a priest, six people. Not good. But here we are. They are now the largest corporation in the north of Spain and the seventh largest corporation in all of Spain. Did they manage the transition from small to big? Yes.

Here’s another topic.

Well, these things are very nice and people would love each other and it would be charming, but it could never compete with capitalist enterprises. They can’t. How are they going to compete with a tough capitalist enterprise?

And the answer is easy. Let me explain. I’m sure nobody in this room would qualify for what I’m about to say, but some of you know a little bit that if you work in a capitalist enterprise, it has been known to happen that at the end of the day when you go home, you take a stapler with you, don’t you? Some of you are smiling. You’ve heard of it. I’m sure you never did it. Or are a ream of paper or a pen or a chair, or a computer component, right? And you do that for all kinds of complicated reasons. But you rob the employer blind. Every employer knows it. In case you’re not aware, the biggest source of theft, most corporations of America believe, is their own employees, who are of course in the best position to do that. And they do.

Suppose you as an employee of a capitalist enterprise notice on your way out of the office that the lights are all on and you remember the employer giving you a memo or six telling you,

If you see the lights on before you go home, turn them off.

To which your response is,

Screw you. Why the hell should I turn off the lights? It’s not my problem, it’s your problem. The mice need to see where they’re going. And I like mice, and I don’t care that you don’t like mice. And I could spend a lot of time at night trying to figure out a better way to make something, but why should I do that? It would just help you and your profits. I’d rather watch the presidential debate.

So what would happen in a collective enterprise run by the workers? It’s their own enterprise. Of course they’re going to turn off the light. And what the hell would they steal for? They’d be stealing from themselves. And when they can figure out a better way to do something and it makes the business more profitable, it’s their business. We say that in America. We say it’s not good to rent a house, it’s better to own the house, because if you own the house, you care more about it. Oh. If that’s true, then it would make sense in the enterprise, too, wouldn’t it? How come it doesn’t apply there? Because it scares the people who own the enterprise. They don’t want you to think like that. It’s fine to think that about your house, just not where you work. It doesn’t work, friends. That’s illogical.

Here’s another difference. When a capitalist enterprise prices what they produce, a good or a service, they have to cover the costs of the materials that go into it, of course, and they have to cover the labor, the wages they pay their workers. But they have to cover something else: the profits they give to the shareholders. The price has to be high enough to generate the profits. But a worker-owned and -operated enterprise doesn’t have shareholders, doesn’t have to raise the price to cover the distribution of profits to the shareholders. So their price can be lower, which will enable them to outcompete the capitalist. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. Look at that. It turns out that they can compete quite well.

And again, here’s the clue. Mondragon Corporation has an iron rule, which they explained to me when I visited there in May 2012. Every co-op enterprise within the large Mondragon corporation has to compete in the larger capitalist economy. No unit of the Mondragon Corporation will buy from another unit if they can get a better or a cheaper equivalent from a private capitalist enterprise. So everyone inside that corporation had to be competitive. And they were. That’s how they got to go from 6 to 120,000. They were successful capitalist competitors.

In San Francisco there’s a group of six bakeries called the Arizmendi Bakery. They’re all worker co-op, self-directed enterprises. Arizmendi, by the way, is the name they chose because it’s the name of the priest in northern Spain who started Mondragon, and it was in honor of him that they took that name. They’re very competitive. If you go to them, you get an espresso and a Danish or a croissant whatever it is you want, and you can do it at a competitive price. And they’ve been growing. They’ve made enough money with the bakeries—they started with one—and now they have six. So competition, not a problem.

The last couple of points. How do people feel who work in such a place? Not a minor matter. Here I’m going to give you some evidence from an American example that most people don’t know about and that even the people involved in don’t think about in the way I’m talking. The example comes from the Silicon Valley of California. Every year engineers, typically highly trained, well paid, working for big telecommunications and computer companies, quit their jobs. And together with 10 or 20 others they take their laptops and they gather in somebody’s garage, who has an extra garage, and they say,

We’re going to set up a new enterprise.

When you talk to them, here’s kind of the story you get.

We hate working for IBM or Cisco Systems or whatever, Oracle. We have to wear a tie and jacket. Ugh. We have to come at a certain time. We have some jerk sales manager telling us what we should invent in the way of software. We can’t bring our dog, we can’t bring our toddler, we can’t bring our Frisbee, and we’re not supposed to come high.

And if you know what an engineer in California is like, these are serious limits on what he or she would like to do.

But worst of all, we don’t like what we’re told to do. We have no freedom. We don’t do very good work. We hate this. All we get is a lot of money. But you know something, we don’t need that much.

They quit, and they set up a little enterprise.

It’s very interesting what they do. They set up an enterprise in which they say everyone here is equal—no boss, no supervisor, nobody tells anybody else what to do.

We get together on Fridays and we decide what we’re going to do and how we’re going to divide the labor. And we decide what to do with the profits from the software that we create. We can come to work the way we want. Loud Hawaiian shirt and louder Bermuda shorts. We are flying because we drank or ate or smoked something before we came to work, and we brought some with us. We have two toddlers. We’re not sure who they are, but we brought them. And we have six dogs. And we play Frisbee with the dogs and with the toddlers all day long and have a wonderful time.

Seriously, here’s what they say.

We are more creative than we have ever been. We’re free. We work out what we want to do together with engineers like ourselves who know what the issues are, what the problems are, what a reasonable solution might look like, what way to go. And we can work together. We make less money, but we love our work. We wouldn’t trade it for a million bucks. Wow. We’re more creative and we love our work.

Why are you more creative?

Well, we can invent, we can explore, we can do what we wanted to do when we went into this kind of work.

And then they point out something very powerful. I remember it blew me away when I first heard it.

We have made break-throughs in this little enterprise of 20 or 30 laptop users. We’ve made real break-throughs. And we’re angry, because the big businesses, the Oracles, the Cisco Systems, and all of them, claim they’re at the forefront of technological break-through. Crap. It’s not true. We’re the place where the break-throughs happen. In order to make a break-through, you need a different way of organizing.

Aha, listen to what they’re saying. These people have walked away from a capitalistically organized enterprise. And you know what they’ve created? A worker self-directed enterprise.

When you talk to them and you tell them,

You know, you have abandoned capitalism,

they get a sad, kind of hang-dog look, because it turns out that most of them are Republicans. They are. And they refer to what they have done as being—ready?—entrepreneurial innovators. And I always say when I talk to them,

I don’t care if you think what you did was invent a chartreuse banana. You can call it anything you want. You have done what was the dream

—and this gets them really upset—

of Karl Marx. And on behalf of Marx, who’s not around to tell you, I want to say to you thank you. Very good of you to do this, because it allows people like me to use you as an example,

just as I’m doing now.

So here we have this newborn kind of enterprise in our midst here in the U.S., proving that if you give American workers half a chance, choose you, American worker.

You want to go to work in a top-down, hierarchical capitalist enterprise? Be my guest. But if you would rather try to work in an environment of equals who make the decisions, where you can be a director as well as a drone, well, you could try this.

Of course, you could only try them if the U.S. gave you the freedom of choice, which it doesn’t. We believe in freedom of choice in the supermarket, where there should be 27 varieties of toothpaste that you can choose among.

But two different ways of organizing your work life? No, thank you. We don’t need it. Capitalism, as we all know, is the greatest system since sliced bread, and therefore no improvement or no alternative is needed.

That was a joke, friends. Sarcasm, okay?

So it turns out that if you give workers a chance, they will make these choices. They will surprise you. And when you think about it, it’s not so hard to understand why. Could it be done in the U.S.? Of course it could. Is this a feasible arrangement? No problem at all. So for those of you who think I’ve painted a lovely picture but it can’t be realized, I gotcha.

Here’s how we do it. We take some precedents from other places that have done it. First, let’s facilitate all the ways that working people who have a little money saved up could pool it to start the money they need to go into business as a collective, as a cooperative. Here’s another thought. Let’s borrow from an Italian law. It’s named after an Italian legislator, Marcora. It’s called the Marcora Law. Here’s how it works in Italy right now. It’s been on the books there since 1985. It works like a charm in Italy. They wouldn’t let it go. Here’s the deal. If you become unemployed in Italy, you have a choice. You can get a weekly unemployment check, just like we do in America. That’s choice one. But there’s choice two. Here in America there is no choice two. That’s because we believe in freedom of choice. Italy has a choice two. Here’s the choice. The Italian government will give you your entire two to three years of unemployment benefits, weekly check, in a lump sum right now at the beginning. You agree that you will make no more claims on the Italian government for unemployment; you’ve got your whole sum of money. And they will give it to you on one condition—that you find at least nine other unemployed people just like you who will agree, just like you, to take a lump sum, and then you agree to use the lump sum as capital with which to start a worker self-directed collective enterprise.

The argument for the law is, if workers start their own enterprise, they will work five times harder to make that successful than they would if they went to work as an employee for someone else. An interesting assumption, if you think about it. That’s the law in Italy. That’s how a lot of worker directed co-ops that exist in Italy today got started.

We could do that. We could do that. One more time. We could do that.

Here’s another thing we could do. We could take a page from the existing law in the U.S. We have in this country, as you know, the Small Business Administration. The idea is that big businesses have advantages over little ones in America and the little ones need to level the playing field. So there’s a special branch of the government to give the small businesses cheap loans, technical advice, to give them some help. We’ve been doing that for many decades in America.

Here’s another one: the Minority Business Administration, to help minority businesses get off the ground.

I’ve got a thought. A worker self-directed business administration, whose job it would be to give Americans a chance for a choice by creating and funding and giving technical help to workers’ cooperatives around the country, Americans could see what they look like, how they work, what it’s like to work there.

I have another thought. We could require labels on all our products. And the label would now say not just “Made in China” versus “Made in Brooklyn.” It would say “Made by a capitalist enterprise” or “Made by a worker collective enterprise.” And we as buyers could choose which kind of enterprise we wish to support. What a lovely opportunity to exercise our freedom of choice, which we don’t have, but which we talk a lot about. Which is a human characteristic. The more you miss it, the more you substitute bullshit about it, because you feel so sad that you don’t have it. We could do all those things. So is it possible to do? Yes. That would be the way to do it.

Finally—and I want to make sure that this point is as clear as I know how to make it—to bring worker self-directed enterprise organization to American enterprise is also a historic act that a generation like ours, yours, could and should and would be proud of, because what you’re doing is you’re completing the otherwise terribly incomplete democratic revolution of the last 300 years. Something terrible happened to democracy as we moved in that direction as a reaction to the absolute monarchies of Europe that we came out of. We said there would be democracy in the places where we lived, in our cities and towns, in our countries. We would have voting, we would give people power.

But we never brought it into our economic system. We allowed enterprises to develop in which a tiny group of people, the major shareholders and the board of directors, make decisions like kings. The rest of us all have to live. If they decide to close the factory, our jobs are gone. If they decide to use a toxic technology, our health is gone. If they decide to distribute most of the profits to a few people, our equilibrium with other people in the society is gone. We have to live with those decisions, and we participate in them not even a little.

Capitalism as a way of organizing an enterprise is fundamentally antidemocratic, and it’s always been like that. So if you have a commitment to democracy that’s more than verbal, you have a problem with capitalism, and you need to think about worker self-directed enterprise as the antidote, as the way finally to bring democracy to the workplace.

And isn’t it strange that it hasn’t always been there? Where do we all as adults spend most of our lives? Five out of seven days we go to work. For most of the hours of that day, we’re either getting ready for work or we’re at work or we’re recuperating from work. But work defines us. And if you have a commitment to democracy, that would have been the first place it ought to have been institutionalized. Not left out. To leave the workplace out of democracy is to undo your democracy. And you all know it. We all live in a country now that is stunning. The vast majority of people are polled by Gallup, by the CBS folks. We know what the majority of Americans think, and we know that our political leaders simply ignore it. The majority don’t want to be in Afghanistan. We’re there. The majority long ago stopped supporting the Iraq war. We’re there. The majority think the distribution of wealth and income in America is inappropriate. Who cares?

We know why. We know that if you have a political system that tries to be democratic superimposed on an economic system that isn’t, the economic system wins that struggle. It buys the political system. It makes sure that the political system cannot function democratically. Because if it did, then we would use our democratic power in politics to undo the effects of economics. If the economy made a few people superrich and the rest of us not, we would use our majority power in politics to undo that.

In a sense that’s what happened in the 1930s. The rich long ago figured that out. They use their money, their capitalist positions, to control the politics. To democratize the economy, you have to democratize the enterprise. And if you don’t do that, then your commitment to democracy is as shallow and as formal as our actual democracy is. The form is there, the content isn’t.

If you have found even some of these arguments in favor of an alternative way to organize enterprise, as a serious way to address many of the economic and social problems of our society that are now impacting every life in this room, then do me a favor, think about this. And talk to people about it, which is the best way to spread this. But for those of you that have wondered: There’s no alternative to this system that is so painful, that is so inadequate, there is. And if people begin to understand that and push for it, there’s no end to what we can do.

One personal note. As I hope you can see from the way I present these ideas, I am having the time of my life. And there’s a simple reason. My message isn’t different than it was 5 and 10 years ago. So that’s not the reason. The reason is that audiences across this country keep expanding with their numbers, their enthusiasm, and their openness. Something is shifting in the United States on a scale I have never seen in my lifetime and I was born here. Way better than anything that happened in the 1960s. So don’t feel down, this is an opportunity the likes of which do not come but once in a long while. This is a country that is changing.

Thank you.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
T: (800) 444-1977 ©2008

Magna Carta: Then and now

Noam Chomsky
Denver, Colorado
7 May 2013

The Magna Carta is the foundational document of the legal system. It crucially asserted that law is sovereign, not the king. Today, the term rule of law is invoked by whoever is in the White House. But you have to wonder what do they mean? There is one set of rules for official enemies and another for Washington and its minions. Take the Non-Proliferation Treaty, the NPT. Iran is a signatory and is being subjected to collective punishment, i.e., a stringent sanctions regime as well as the threat of military attack. Both are illegal. But hey why bother with technicalities. Meanwhile, U.S. allies such as Israel, India and Pakistan are not signatories to the NPT, have nuclear weapons and Washington says nothing. Principles to have any validity must be applied uniformly. What does it mean when a president is above the law?

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Noam Chomsky, legendary MIT professor, practically invented modern linguistics. In addition to his pioneering work in that field he has been a leading voice for peace and social justice for many decades. Edward Said said of him, “Noam Chomsky is one of the most significant challengers of unjust power and delusions; he goes against every assumption about American altruism and humanitarianism.” The New Statesman describes him as “the conscience of the American people.” He is the author of scores of books, including Hopes & Prospects, Occupy, How The World Works, and Power Systems with David Barsamian.

You can listen to Noam Chomsky speak for himself here.

Two years from now we’ll be reaching the 800th anniversary of a document of quite remarkable significance, the Magna Carta, extracted from King John by the barons in 1215. Unfortunately, we’re probably not going to be celebrating its achievements; we will more likely be mourning its demise. The Magna Carta has two parts. One part is or should be well known. It’s the Charter of Liberties, widely and justly recognized as the foundations of our highest principles of freedom and justice. The other part has long been forgotten, and it may be of even greater importance. I’ll come back to it later.

The Charter of Liberties provides the origins of the concept of presumption of innocence, of due process. Its most famous part is Article 39.

No free man shall be punished in any way, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him except by lawful judgment of his peers and by the law of the land.

That’s 1215. It has a long history that enters in slightly different form into the U.S. Constitution, which says that “no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law and a speedy and public trial by peers”—the core of our concept of justice. It has restrictions.

The term person in the Constitution, of course, doesn’t mean persons. It does not include slaves, of course does not include Native Americans, it did not include women. Under the prevailing British common law of the day, women were not persons, they were property. A woman was the property of her father, handed over to her husband. In fact, it’s worth recalling that it was not until the 1970s that the Supreme Court granted women the right of actual persons, peers entitled to serve federal juries. Post-Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution repeats that guarantee but extends it beyond the limited concept of persons in the Constitution. Personhood was granted to freed slaves. In later years, and up till the present, the term person has been both extended and narrowed by the courts. It has been extended to include collectivist legal fictions that are established and maintained by state power and taxpayer subsidy, called corporations; and it’s been narrowed to explicitly exclude undocumented aliens. That goes right up to very recent court cases. So “person” still doesn’t mean person, unfortunately.

There has been progress over eight centuries—habeas corpus, other extensions, additions—but there has also been regression, particularly in very recent years. Regression is quite sharp under the Bush and Obama administrations. Under Bush, the state claimed and was granted the right to capture and torture suspects. Obama changed that. Now he claims and is granted the right to murder them. That’s a crucial change from Bush to Obama. The means for carrying this out are the secret executive army, JSOC, the Joint Special Operations Command, which is under much less supervision than the CIA and more lethal, but particularly the terror weapons that are now being used quite extensively in what is by far the leading, most prominent and widespread terrorist campaign in the world, the drone campaigns of assassination.

We should bear in mind that drones are not just guns that kill somebody; they’re weapons designed to terrorize. That’s kind of obvious. If you’re in Denver, let’s say, and never know when you’re walking down the streets whether suddenly a person standing in front of you will be blasted away by some device you can’t see up in the sky, along with whoever may be standing next to him and other people who happen to be in the way, that’s a weapon of terror. It’s designed and used to terrorize communities, regions, and in fact by now quite large regions. By now there are large regions of the world where anybody, at any moment can expect a sudden blow from the Grim Reaper in Washington, who, incidentally, is acclaimed here in his terrorist activities for administering justice to those who are suspected of maybe someday thinking about harming us, so therefore they have to be blown away. Or who happen to be standing by, as often happens. Or who are misidentified by poor intelligence. Or who happen to have made a bad choice of a father, should have chosen a responsible father.

That was explained by Obama’s press secretary, Robert Gibbs, when he was asked why the Grim Reapers had murdered 16-year-old Abdul Rahman Awlaki at a barbecue with his cousins. They went too. Why were they killed? When Abdul Rahman’s irresponsible father had been killed, murdered, in fact, two weeks earlier, along with the man sitting next to him, of course that was reported. The New York Times had a headline saying, “The West Celebrates a Cleric’s Death.” Actually, not death, but the murder of a cleric. There were a few eyebrows raised in that case, unlike others, because Awlaki and the man next to him and his 16-year-old son were American citizens, and they are supposed to fall under the category of persons, unlike non-citizens, who are what George Orwell called “unpersons” and therefore all fair game for assassination under our current moral code.

We know how this is carried out. For example, there was a long story in The New York Times by two military correspondents, probably a White House leak. It seems the White House is proud of it. What happens—I’m sure you’ve read that story—is that President Obama sits down every Tuesday morning with his counterterrorism advisor, John Brennan, now head of the CIA, a former priest, so the two of them can read a chapter of St. Augustine together about just war, and then they run through the list, the “disposition matrix,” as it’s now called, and decide who we’re going to blow away today.

This is all celebrated. The reactions from the government are instructive. The Attorney General, Eric Holder, was asked whether he didn’t think that had violated due process in the case of American citizens. He said, No, they have due process, because we discuss it in the executive branch. King John in 1215 would have been delighted with that answer—one sign of how we’re progressing. Presumably they didn’t read another chapter of St. Augustine’s work, one that should be famous. St. Augustine relates a parable of how in the reign of Alexander the Great a pirate is captured. The pirate is brought to the emperor and Alexander angrily asks the pirate, “How dare you molest the seas?” And pirate responds, “How dare you molest the whole world? I have a small ship, so I am a pirate. You have a great navy, so you are an emperor.” Augustine says he found the pirate’s answer elegant and excellent. I doubt if that was read.

The elite reactions tell us a lot about what’s happening to this country, to us. Take Joe Klein, a liberal columnist. He was asked on MSNBC, which is supposedly the liberal channel, what his reaction was to the drone killings of four little girls in Yemen. He also gave an answer that was excellent and elegant. He said,

The bottom line in the end is whose 4-year-old gets killed. And what we’re doing is limiting the possibility that 4-year-olds here are going to get killed by indiscriminate acts of terror.

So it’s a good idea to kill 4-year-old kids somewhere in Yemen because maybe those who see that will realize that they’d better not think of harming us. Although chances are quite high that what they will actually think of is revenge and try to find a way, if they can, to harm us as much as they’re able to.

This, incidentally, is well understood by high officials, by experts on the topic, for example, Gregory Johnson. He’s a Princeton University specialist on Yemen. I’ll read his words.

The most enduring policy legacy of the past four years may well turn out to be an approach to counterterrorism that American officials call “the Yemen model.” It’s a mixture of drone strikes and special forces raids targeting people thought to be al-Qaeda leaders. Testimonies from al-Qaeda fighters and interviews that I and local journalists have conducted across Yemen attest to the centrality of civilian casualties in explaining al-Qaeda’s rapid growth here.

The United States is killing women, children, and members of key tribes. Each time they kill a tribesman, they create more fighters for al-Qaeda,

a Yemeni explained to him over tea. Another, he says, told CNN after a strike,

I would not be surprised if a hundred tribesman joined al-Qaeda as a result of the latest drone mistake.

That’s an interesting illustration of the willful blindness about this.

In yesterday’s New York Times there is a lead story on the threat of what’s called “solo terrorism,” individuals who might decide to carry out acts of terror, like the Marathon bombings. They might emanate from Yemen. There are a lot of citations and learned commentary on what might be the various psychological disorders of the perpetrators of these acts. But there’s not a single word on why the Yemenis or Pakistanis or Somalis might want to harm the United States, though the answer is hardly obscure.

Also interesting is the attitude towards terror of the leading intellectual lights of the liberal establishment, for example, the highly regarded liberal commentator of The New York Times, Thomas Friedman, also a Middle East specialist. He was interviewed in May 2003 by Charlie Rose. That’s the highbrow discussion program on PBS. We’re supposed to be impressed. He was asked by Rose what his recommendations were for the U.S. occupying Army in Iraq—this is the early months of the occupation—and he gave an answer that was also simple and elegant. I have to read it; I can’t paraphrase. Friedman says,

We needed to go over there basically, take out a very big stick right in the heart of that world. What Muslims needed to see was American boys and girls going house to house from Basra to Baghdad and basically saying, “Which part of this sentence don’t you understand? You don’t think we care about our open society? You think this bubble of terrorism fantasy, we’re just going to let it grow? Well, suck on this.”

In short, a severe dose of humiliation administered by American boys and girls will teach the terrified women and children whose houses they break into that they’d better stop terrorizing us. I’m keeping to the liberal extreme. You go to right, it gets a lot worse.

The same is true of policy. Take, for example, the Marathon bombings a couple weeks ago. Plenty of people in Boston were touched, even personally, by that tragic event. So, for example, in my case, a young police officer was murdered right outside my office, friends were at the finish line where bombs went off, others were under the militarization of neighborhoods where the second suspect was finally caught. That’s rare. It’s rare for privileged people like us to get a little sense of what others live with constantly. That’s not usual. So, for example, Yemen again. Two days after the Marathon bombing there was a drone strike in Yemen on a remote village. It killed the target. We know about it because there happened to be— usually we don’t know, but in this case there happened to be testimony in the Senate a couple of days later by a young Yemeni man who comes from the village.

His testimony is interesting. He said that for years the jihadis in Yemen have been trying to turn the village against the Americans to make them hate America, but they failed, because the only thing the villagers know about America is what I tell them from here. I’m a village boy who is lucky enough to be here, and I tell them good things about America. But, he said, the one drone strike accomplished what the jihadis had failed to do for years. So we generate some more “solo terrorists.” He also pointed out that the suspect in this case was well known in the village, could easily have been apprehended. But it’s kind of easier just to blow him away, whatever the consequences.

There are other cases like that, even more serious ones, like the murder of Osama bin Laden. And the term “murder” is correct. Bin Laden was a suspect. Eight centuries ago there used to be an understanding that there’s a concept of presumption of innocence. Suspects are supposed to be brought to a fair and speedy trial. In this case it wouldn’t have been very difficult. He was apprehended, defenseless, alone with his wife, by 79 highly trained members of the Joint Special Forces Command, Navy SEALS. They blew him away on orders and dumped his body into the ocean without autopsy. That’s also easily taken care of. In fact, there was some protest about it, some question, very little, but a little, and there was a response to it by another respected left liberal commentator, Matthew Yglesias. He patiently explained that

one of the main functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate the use of deadly military force by western powers.

That means by us. So, he says, it’s “amazingly naïve” to suggest that the United States should obey international law or other conditions that we impose on the powerless. Incidentally, he’s referring specifically to me, and I happily accept the guilt.

But let’s look a little bit beyond. How did they locate bin Laden? The technique that was used, this time by the CIA, was to start a fake vaccination campaign in a town where they thought he might be located. The campaign started in a poor area, but along the way they realized that bin Laden was probably somewhere else, so they cut off the campaign. This alone violates principles of medical ethics or elementary ethics that go back to classical times, to the Hippocratic Oath. But anything is okay if you’re the Godfather. So no comment on that.

It gets worse. Throughout a lot of the poor countries is that there is fear, and quite justified fear, of what these white guys are doing. Justified. They’ve got a history. We may not like to think about it. What are they doing when they come in, these rich white guys, and start poking our arms? What are they up to? There’s plenty of fear. Okay, Obama gave them a lesson in what they’re up to. They’re involved in a campaign to murder somebody they don’t like. That had an effect, a big effect, in Pakistan, but also beyond, as far as Nigeria. It aroused fear of the polio vaccination program that’s underway. Polio is practically eradicated. It could go the way of smallpox in no time if it weren’t for our fun and games. Pakistan is one of the last places where it’s endemic. Polio workers soon began to be abducted and killed, and the UN had to withdraw its whole polio vaccination team. A specialist on this matter at Columbia University, Les Roberts, estimated that this will probably cause 100,000 cases of polio in Pakistan. He pointed out that one of these days people in Pakistan are going to point to that kid sitting in a wheelchair and say, “You did this to him,” and there’s going to be a reaction, as you would expect. The same happened in Nigeria, maybe elsewhere.

There’s more. When Obama sent the Joint Special Forces Command into Pakistan—which is, of course, aggression, a violation of international law, but we’re above that—they were under orders, to fight their way out if they were apprehended. And if they had had to fight their way out, the U.S. forces would not have let them be. They would have used the full force of American military power to extricate them. And it came very close. The Pakistani chief of staff, Kayani, was informed of the invasion, and he ordered his staff, in his words, to “confront any unidentified aircraft.” He assumed there it was probably an attack from India, the main enemy. At the same time, in Kabul, not far away, the commanding general, David Petraeus, ordered U.S. warplanes to respond if Pakistanis scrambled their fighter jets. We were on the verge of war with a well trained, disciplined army dedicated to the defense of the sovereignty of Pakistan and with plenty of nuclear weapons and, incidentally, laced with radical Islamists. So Obama was saying, Okay, we’ll take a chance on a nuclear war, which will destroy most of the world, because we have to carry out this assassination. That’s worth thinking about.

It brings up another basic human right, which wasn’t discussed in the Magna Carta, the right to security, even the right to survival. If you look at scholarship and you go to school and you believe what you hear, then the security of citizens is supposed to be the prime commitment of state authorities. In fact, that’s the foundation of international relations theory. But it’s very far from true. Actually, the Yemen assassinations are an example. The U.S. is creating future terrorists more quickly than it’s killing people who might possibly be a danger someday.

It’s worth remembering that these are self-generating processes. When you build up institutions like JSOC, the drone system, they keep expanding. In fact, they are generating targets which require them to expand. So we can expect it to go on, and we can also expect it to come back home. That’s traditional. You work out ways of terrorizing and controlling people abroad, and not long after, similar methods are used at home. There are already dangerous beginnings of that. And I’ll put that off.

However, there is a much more serious threat than terror. Instant destruction by nuclear weapons. Actually, the bin Laden assassination is an example. But it’s worth remembering that this has never been a high priority for state officials. The idea of protecting the U.S. from what would, in fact, be total destruction from nuclear weapons has just not been a high priority. There’s plenty of evidence for that. We can ignore it if we like, but it’s there.

So, for example, you go back to 1950. The U.S. had tremendous security, overwhelming power, but there was a potential threat. The potential threat didn’t exist then, but it was potential. It was the threat of ICBMs with hydrogen-bomb warheads. There would have been a way to deal with that threat. In fact, the Russians, who were the potential enemy, knew that they were way behind the U.S. in military technology, and they proposed to sign a treaty with the U.S. to ban the development of these systems. If that had been done, it would have eliminated the one and only serious, indeed massive, threat to the security of people of the U.S. There’s a detailed history of nuclear strategy by McGeorge Bundy, who was Kennedy’s and Johnson’s national security adviser. He had access to internal documents. It’s interesting to read it. He mentions, more or less in passing, that he was unable to find a single internal paper in the government that even considered this possibility when they were offered the treaty by Russia. It just doesn’t matter.

It goes on. Two years later, in 1952, Stalin made a remarkable offer. It was known, it wasn’t secret. The offer was to permit Germany to be unified and have free, internationally supervised elections, which, of course, the West would win, but on the condition that it be militarily neutralized. For the Russians that’s not a small thing. Germany alone had practically destroyed Russia several times during the past half century and, as part of a Western military alliance, it’s very frightening. That was the offer. It was kind of ridiculed. There was one well- known policy analyst, James Warburg, quite influential, who did write about it, but that was dismissed, basically with ridicule. Now, years later, with the Russian archives opened, it’s being taken seriously by conservative scholarship, that says it could have been that there was something to it. If the U.S. had followed up with it, it would have greatly reduced the threat of war. It would have also ended the official reason for NATO. That was all pretty serious. But it was ignored.

A couple of years later, Nikita Khrushchev came in. He recognized as did the Russian military that they were way behind the U.S. in military power, and Khrushchev made an offer to the U.S. to sharply reduce offensive weapons mutually so as to cut back the threat of war in Europe. The Kennedy administration was aware of the offer, they considered it, and they rejected it. They rejected it even when Khrushchev went ahead unilaterally to cut back offensive weapons. In fact, the Kennedy administration reaction was to sharply increase military spending and military force. That had consequences, too. That was one of the reasons why in 1962 Khrushchev sent missiles to Cuba to try to right the enormous military imbalance somehow. That led to what Arthur Schlesinger, historian, Kennedy adviser, called “the most dangerous moment in world history,” the Cuban missile crisis.

There was another reason for it. The Kennedy administration, after the Bay of Pigs, had launched a major terrorist war against Cuba, economic warfare but also a straight terrorist war. Schlesinger again, in his biography of Robert Kennedy, says that the goal of the war was to “bring the terrors of the earth to Cuba.” Robert Kennedy was in charge, it was his prime responsibility. It was pretty serious. We don’t read about it, but it matters to people at the other end of the guns. That operation, Operation Mongoose, was set up to lead to a U.S. invasion in October 1962. Cubans doubtless knew, the Russians knew. That was another reason for putting the missiles into Cuba. Then we get to “the most dangerous moment in world history.”

It’s worth paying attention to what actually happened. It tells you a lot about how our government, and states generally, consider, how they rank the threat of survival for their own citizens. A lot is known about this. We have a horde of internal documents that have been declassified. They’re very clear. There’s no ambiguity about what they say. On October 26th the U.S. B52 fleet was armed with nuclear weapons and ready to attack Moscow. Furthermore, the option of bombing was actually down to individual pilots. Some pilot might have decided, Okay, let’s blow up the world. Kennedy himself was leaning towards military action to remove the missiles from Cuba. His own subjective estimate of the probability of nuclear war was between a third and a half.

That evening, October 26th, Kennedy received a private letter from Khrushchev with an offer to end the crisis. How? The Russians would withdraw the missiles from Cuba and the U.S. would withdraw the missiles from Turkey. Now, Kennedy didn’t actually know that there were missiles in Turkey. In fact, when they were talking in the internal meetings and was he talking about how dangerous the missiles were in Cuba, he said, Look, if we had put missiles in Turkey, it would really be very dangerous. And McGeorge Bundy, his national security adviser, leaned over him and told him quietly, We have missiles in Turkey. But, in fact, those missiles were being withdrawn. The reason? They were being replaced with much more lethal, invulnerable Polaris submarines. So Khrushchev’s offer actually was to withdraw the missiles from Cuba if the U.S. would withdraw obsolete missiles from Turkey for which a withdrawal order had already been given. Kennedy rejected it, with the estimate of a threat of a third to a half of nuclear war.

In my view, that’s maybe the most horrendous decision in human history. We take a huge risk of destroying the world in order to establish the principle that we have a right to have missiles on anybody’s border threatening them, anywhere in the world, and no one else has a right to threaten us. This is a unilateral right. They can’t do it even to deter a planned invasion. That’s not the worst of it. The worst is that in our kind of intellectual system, Kennedy is praised for his cool courage at this moment. In my view, that’s shocking.

It continues. Ten years later, 1973, there was a Middle East war, Israel, Egypt, and Syria. In the middle of that war, Henry Kissinger, who was then in charge, ordered a high-level nuclear alert. The goal of the alert, we know from declassified documents, was to warn the Russians not to interfere when Israel violated the ceasefire that the Russians and the Americans had agreed on. Kissinger had informed Israel they could violate the ceasefire, if they want, and keep going. There was some concern the Russians might react, and the nuclear alert was set up to warn them away. Fortunately, it worked.
Ten years later, Ronald Reagan comes in. As soon as his administration opened, they began to probe Russian defenses with simulating air and naval attacks into Russia. The Russians weren’t sure what’s going on. They also installed Pershing missiles in Germany that had a 5- minute flight time to Russian targets, that provided what the CIA called “super sudden first strike capability.” Naturally, this caused plenty of alarm in Russia. Unlike us, they’re quite vulnerable and had been invaded, almost destroyed numerous times. And it led to a major war scare in 1983. I won’t go on. But this continues. The most recent case is the bin Laden assassination. Unfortunately, none of this is discussed. Try to find some discussion of it.

And there are other cases waiting. In fact, three cases are on the front pages right now, so let’s take a look at them. These are North Korea, Iran, and China.

As you know, in the last couple of weeks North Korea has been issuing wild and dangerous threats. They’re an unpredictable place. All of this is attributed here to the lunacy of North Korean leaders. Arguably, this is the worst country in the world, with the most grotesque leadership in the world. But there are some questions that we shouldn’t ignore. For example, we could ask how we would react if a superpower that had virtually leveled the U.S. in the most intense bombing in history were right now carrying out simulated nuclear attacks on our border by the most advanced bombers in the world, stealth B2 and B52 bombers. That’s part of an escalating crisis that began with U.S. South Korean war games. They’re regular, but these included for the first time

a simulation of a preemptive attack in an all-out war scenario against North Korea.

Their lunatic leaders know all this.

And they can presumably also read official U.S. military publications, which we choose not to read, though it’s not a good choice. We should read them. They’re public. So, for example, the official Air Force History and Air Force Strategic Studies Quarterly. Take a look back at the enthusiastic description of the exciting military operations that were carried out a month before the 1953 armistice. At that time there was nothing left to bomb anymore in North Korea. Everything above ground had been almost destroyed. I’ll just read what you can read there, if you turn to it.

They turned to bombing the dams.

That’s, incidentally, a war crime for which people were hanged at Nuremberg, but put that aside.

This object lesson in air power to all the Communist world [the attack on the major irrigation dam] is highly successful, caused a flash flood that scooped clear 27 miles of valley below. Along with other attacks on dams, this devastated 75% of the controlled water supply for North Korea’s rice production. It sent the commissars scurrying to the press and radio centers to blare to the world the most severe, hate-filled harangues to come from the Communist propaganda mill in the three years of warfare. To the Communists, the smashing of the dams meant primarily the destruction of their chief sustenance, rice. Westerners can little conceive the awesome meaning which the loss of this staple food commodity has for Asians—starvation and slow death. Hence the show of rage, the flare of violent tempers, and the threats of reprisals when bombs fell on the five irrigation dams.

In other words, these stupid gooks just can’t perceive the elegance of our technological achievements. They can read that, even if we choose not to because we don’t want to know anything about ourselves.

There is also a more recent history that they no doubt know very well, as does the leading U.S. scholarship on the topic. I’ll review some high points. I’m quoting top American scholarship, a study by Leon Sigal in this case. Here’s a couple of recent high points. In 1993, North Korea was about to strike a deal with Israel. The deal would be that North Korea would end missile and other weapons exports to the Middle East, which is an enormous value for Israeli security, and in return Israel would recognize North Korea. Clinton intervened. He pressured Israel to reject it. They do what they’re told. Consider the relations of power. It’s obvious. North Korea reacted. They retaliated by carrying out their first test of a medium-range missile.

A year later, there was a so-called framework agreement between North Korea and the United States as to nuclear issues. Actually, neither side observed the agreement completely, but they mostly kept to it. Things kept stable until President Bush took office. At the time when he took office—I’m now quoting U.S. scholarly studies—

the North Koreans had stopped testing long-range missiles. They had one or two bombs’ worth of plutonium and were verifiably not making more.

That’s when Bush came in. Bush’s aggressive militarism and threats and “axis of evil” and all the rest quickly led to a revival of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. By 2006 North Korea had developed eight to ten nuclear weapons and had resumed long-range missile tests. One of the many successes of the neocons.

A year earlier, 2005, an agreement had been reached under which

North Korea agreed to abandon all nuclear weapons and existing weapons programs and allow international inspections in return for international aid and a non-aggression pledge with the United States along with commitments from the two sides to respect each other’s sovereignty, exist peacefully together, and take steps to normalize relations.

That didn’t work. The Bush administration immediately undermined that agreement. Immediately. They disbanded the international consortium that had been set up to provide North Korea with light water reactors, they renewed the threat of force, they pressured international banks to freeze North Korea’s hard currency accounts that included proceeds from ordinary foreign trade. And then North Korea reacted, predictably, in their strange and incomprehensible ways.

There have been other interactions since. I won’t run through them. Sigal concludes that

North Korea has been playing tit for tat, reciprocating whenever Washington cooperates, retaliating whenever Washington reneges.

It’s doubtless a horrible place, but the record does suggest directions that could be taken to reduce the threat of war, if that were a concern, not military maneuvers and simulated nuclear bombing on the borders. You can think that one through.

Let’s turn to what’s called “the gravest threat to world peace”—I’m now quoting both presidential candidates Obama and Romney in the last foreign policy debate, duly repeated the next day in the nation’s press— Iran’s nuclear program. That raises a couple questions. Who thinks it’s the greatest threat to world peace and what is the threat? We have answers to that. It’s a Western obsession, primarily a U.S. obsession. The nonaligned countries—that’s most of the world—have vigorously supported repeatedly, quite recently again, Iran’s right to enrich uranium. As signers of the Nonproliferation Treaty, they have that the right.

What about the Arab world right next to them? What we hear and what we read is that the Arabs support the U.S. on Iran, which is not totally false, because in the U.S., when we talk about a country, we talk about the dictators, not the people. And it’s true that the dictators tend to support U.S. policy. But we know something about the irrelevant people. There are regular polls taken by U.S. polling agencies in the Arab world. The results are quite interesting. The Arabs don’t like Iran. There are hostilities that go back forever. But they don’t regard it as much of a threat. They don’t like it, but they don’t regard it as a threat. They do see threats—the United States and Israel. Those they regard as major threats. In fact a poll right before the Tahrir Square uprising in Egypt found that though Egyptians don’t like Iran, a pretty large majority of them, thought the region might be more secure if Iran had nuclear weapons to fend off the authentic threats, U.S. and Israel.

This, incidentally, is one of the reasons why the U.S. and its allies are so strongly opposed to any democratization in the Arab world. That’s not the rhetoric; I’m talking about the actions. The rhetoric is that we always love democracy, just as Stalin did and everyone did. But you don’t pay attention to soaring rhetoric. If you want to be serious, you look at actions. It’s obvious why the U.S. and England and France don’t want democracy in the Arab world. Democracy, if it means anything, means that public opinion is supposed to have some influence over policy. And what I’ve just mentioned are hardly the policies that the U.S. and its allies want.

What about the next question? What’s the threat supposed to be? Let’s say we take the U.S. point of view, that this is “the gravest threat to world peace.” What is it? Actually, there’s an authoritative answer to that. You can read it, you can find it on the Internet. It comes from the highest sources. The Pentagon and U.S. intelligence provide a review of the global security situation to Congress every year, and, of course, they talk about Iran. And they do regard it as a very grave threat. But it’s very interesting to read why. These are not secret documents, perfectly public. They say that Iran is not a military threat: it has very limited capacity to deploy force. Its military spending is low, even by the standards of the region, minuscule as compared to Israel or, of course, the U.S. They have a strategic doctrine. Their doctrine is defensive. It’s to try to deter an invasion long enough for diplomacy to set in. They, of course, talk about nuclear weapons. U.S. sources say they don’t know if Iran has a nuclear weapons program, but if it does, it would be part of their deterrent strategy. If any country needs a deterrent, it’s Iran. It’s surrounded on all sides by major nuclear powers. It’s under direct, constant threat by the global superpower, which is, incidentally, in violation of the UN Charter, if anybody cares about that. That’s what it means when Obama says all options are open. That means, I disregard the UN Charter, which bans the threat or use of force in international affairs. But by the Yglesias principle, we can put that aside. So they’re under constant, serious threat. Conceivably, they’re developing a deterrent.

Why is that a threat to us? Think it through. If you’re a rogue state and you’re the Godfather, and you have to control everything, and you have to have a right to use force wherever you like, then a deterrent is intolerable. So that’s a major threat to us. That’s what the threat is.

I might mention that there is another rogue state that follows the same principle—our Israeli client. And it can act with impunity, thanks to the protection from the Godfather. We saw an interesting case a couple of days ago. As you know, Israel bombed military installations in Syria. Why? If you read the generally approving accounts in the press, they did give a reason. It was to prevent the threat that Syria might give Hezbollah weapons. Why is that a threat to Israel? Because they could be used to deter an invasion of Lebanon. Israel has already invaded Lebanon five times. They might do it again. If Hezbollah has missiles, that’s a deterrent. And if you want to be the regional sub-Godfather, you can’t admit such a deterrent.

There’s a third question besides who thinks it’s a threat and what is the threat? And that is, how can you deal with the threat, whatever it is? There are some ways. For example, a way was found in May 2010, when Turkey and Brazil reached an agreement with Iran that Iran would send its low enriched uranium out of the country for storage to Turkey, and in return the West would provide Iran with isotopes that it needs for its medical reactors. As soon as that agreement was announced, the U.S. government and the media immediately launched into an attack on Brazil and Turkey for daring to end “the gravest threat to world peace.” Mohamed ElBaradei, the head of the International Atomic Energy Agency, commented that

the U.S. refuses to take yes for an answer.

The foreign minister of Brazil was kind of annoyed, and he released a letter that had been sent from Obama to the president of Brazil, Lula da Silva, in which Obama had proposed exactly what they did, probably assuming that Iran wouldn’t accept and he could get some propaganda points. Well, Iran accepted. So therefore Obama raced new sanctions through the UN, Washington and the press denounced Brazil and Turkey for their effrontery, and that option was gone.

There’s a more far-reaching proposal. It happens to have been raised recently by the nonaligned countries, most of the world, but it’s an old proposal. It’s been pressed particularly by the Arab states for many years, Egypt in the forefront. That’s to move towards establishing a nuclear-weapons-free zone in the region. There are such zones around the world. And it’s one of the ways to take steps towards what in fact is our legal obligation to move to get rid of nuclear weapons. These are steps. In the Middle East it would be extremely important, because, after all, that’s where “the gravest threat to world peace” is.

Can you do anything about that? Yes, you can. For example, there was a possibility last December. There was supposed to be an international conference in Finland last December to take steps towards advancing this proposal to develop a nuclear-weapons-free zone. Israel said they wouldn’t attend the conference. In November, Iran said they would attend the conference. Within days, Obama called the conference off. The Arab states said they would press it anyway, but they can’t do anything. The European parliament passed a resolution appealing for quick renewal of the proposal, but they can’t do anything. In fact, the only people who could do anything are people like you, if citizens of the U.S. could do something about that. But there’s a precondition. They have to know about it. You can’t do anything if you’ve never heard of it. And you can’t hear of it, because the press, with astonishing uniformity, did not report a single word about this, any of it. Try to find it. It’s not orders from the government, it’s not collusion. It’s just kind of an internal understanding that you just don’t report things like that. So there won’t be any protest, and we may march on to what looks like a war.

Let’s finally have a couple of words about China. That’s a potential confrontation, maybe a serious one. Actually, China also has memories, just like North Korea. For example, the Chinese no doubt remember that in 1962, six months before the missile crisis, Kennedy sent offensive missiles with nuclear warheads to Okinawa aimed at China at a moment of extreme tension in the region. In 1962 there was kind of a war going on between India and China. You know, the weird Chinese, not happy about this. They remember it. It doesn’t get discussed here, because it’s our right. We’re the emperor, after all. We can molest the world. So it’s barely mentioned here.

China also can look around and see what’s happening. China is surrounded by U.S. military forces, all around it. Japan, which China has some memories of, is a major base for U.S. power. Okinawa, right to the south, is a huge base. The Okinawans have been trying to get rid of the American installations for years, protesting against them, but nothing doing. The U.S. is now, with Obama’s pivot to Asia, establishing new bases in northwestern Australia, in the Philippines, in Vietnam, in South Korea. There’s an island in South Korea called an “Island of Peace,” incidentally, the scene of huge massacres in 1948, when South Korea was under U.S. control. The U.S. and South Korea are now building a major naval base there, which is aimed at China. And Guam, of course. They can only see this as a threatening arc of military power that surrounds them, and also surrounds the waters that are crucial for their trade with the Middle East and elsewhere.

It’s kind of interesting to see how this is all formulated here. A couple of days ago The New York Times had an article very upset about China’s military buildup, incidentally, to a small fraction of ours. This is depicted as “a serious challenge to the United States in the waters around China.” “A serious challenge…in the waters around China.” This is not a challenge in the Caribbean or off the coast of California. Everybody would be blown away if there were any such challenge. But in the waters around China it’s a challenge. If you look at the U.S. strategic journals, analysts describe this confrontation as what they call “a classic security dilemma,” in which each side sees fundamental interests at stake over control of the waters around China. So the U.S. regards its policies of controlling those waters as defensive. China regards them as threatening, obviously. Similarly, the Chinese, oddly, are not happy when the U.S. sends the advanced nuclear aircraft carrier, George Washington, into waters near China that place Beijing within the range of its nuclear missiles. They don’t like that. Of course, the U.S. would never tolerate anything remotely like that. This “classic security dilemma” again makes sense on the assumption that the U.S. has the right to control most of the world by force, do what it wants, and that U.S. security, unlike everyone else’s, requires something approaching absolute global control, otherwise we’re not secure. An interesting notion, which goes back deep into American history.

Let me put that aside and turn to another threat to survival, not immediate but imminent. You’re all aware of it. It’s environmental catastrophe. The facts are familiar to anyone who bothers to read scientific journals. And each one is more alarming than the last one. To take a couple of very recent reports, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a government administration, gave its latest report on ocean surface temperatures off the northeast U.S. coast. They’re the highest in 150 years, with drastic effects on ecosystems. They keep going up. A couple weeks before that Science magazine, the main scientific weekly, reported a study that showed that

even slightly warmer temperatures, which are less than what’s anticipated in the coming years, could start melting permafrost [mainly in Siberia], which in turn will trigger the release of huge amounts of greenhouse gases, methane—[much worse than carbon dioxide]—that are trapped in the ice and that will set off escalating nonlinear processes of destruction.

Geologists and archeologists are now considering establishment of a new geological era. History is broken up into geological eras. The new era they are discussing is what they’re calling the Anthropocene, starting with the Industrial Revolution, which is having huge effects on the Earth. The preceding era, the Holocene, begins around 11,000 years ago, about the time of the rise of agriculture. And the age before that, the Pleistocene, lasted 2 1/2 million years. You take a look at the acceleration and that gives an indication of the fate towards which we’re careening. Meanwhile, research papers in the Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, super-respectable, report,

One hundred nine countries have enacted some form of policy regarding renewable power and 118 countries have set targets for renewable energy. In contrast, one country, the United States, has not adopted any consistent and stable set of policies at the national level to foster the use of renewable energy.

That’s not because of public opinion. Public opinion strongly supports measures to deal with the looming crisis. U.S. public opinion is not very far from that in other parts of the world.

That’s kind of interesting, because, as I’m sure you know, there has been a massive corporate offensive here for years to convince the public that either there’s no global warming at all or, if there is, we don’t have anything to do with it, no human contribution. That offensive is escalating, accelerating right now in interesting ways because of fears in the corporate sector that the public is just too infected by scientific rationality. That’s as big a threat as a deterrent. An interesting program is being initiated by a group you may know of, ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. It sounds innocuous. It’s a corporate-funded group that proposes legislation for state legislatures. You can imagine what they propose. And they’ve got plenty of clout, given the wealth and power behind them, so a lot of these get accepted. There’s a new one that’s just being started that’s for K-to-12, kindergarten to 12th grade, education programs. They’re trying to convince state legislatures that they should introduce what they call “balanced teaching to develop critical thinking.” That sounds good. What’s “balanced teaching”? That means along with teaching what’s called “climate science,” you should teach climate change denial to kindergarteners and all the way up. Then they will have critical thinking and we’ll be better off. There are a couple of states that have already adopted it. We can expect a lot more like this.

Let’s put this aside and imagine what a future historian, assuming that there is one, and it’s not obvious that there will be—looks back at what’s happening right before our eyes, looks back at the early 21st century. For the first time in history humans are facing quite significant prospects of severe calamity, maybe destruction of the possibilities of decent survival, as a result of actions of theirs. It’s not secret. The facts are before our eyes. Despite the efforts of the corporate sector to conceal them, most people see them.

There’s a range of reactions around the world. At one extreme there are some who are trying to act decisively to prevent possible catastrophe. At the other extreme, policies are designed to enhance the threat, while the most powerful domestic actors are undertaking major efforts to deny what’s happening and to dumb down the population so they won’t interfere with short-term profits.

Leading the effort to intensify the likely disaster is the richest and most powerful country in world history, with incomparable advantages, along with Canada, which is in many ways even worse. We’re leading the effort. Leading the effort to preserve conditions in which our immediate descendants might have a decent life are the so-called primitive societies, the First Nations, tribal societies, indigenous societies, aboriginal societies. That’s going on all over the world. In the Western Hemisphere, for example, the countries with large indigenous populations, Bolivia and Ecuador, are pursuing efforts to introduce what they call “rights of nature.” We’ve got to protect “rights of nature.” Ecuador has a big indigenous population, it’s a majority in Bolivia. Ecuador is an oil producer, but they’re seeking financial aid from the rich countries so that they can keep the oil underground, where it’s supposed to be. That’s the backward, primitive societies. Meanwhile, here we’re racing with total enthusiasm towards quick disaster. Every time Obama or anyone else talks about 100 years of energy independence, as if it meant anything, what they’re saying is, Let’s destroy the world as fast as we can. So suppose we get every drop of hydrocarbons out by fracking and tar sands and anything else you can think of. What’s the world going to look like? Not our concern. That’s the concern of primitive, backward people, who have these sentimental ideas about the rights of nature. That’s what a future historian will see, if there is one.

Let me just make a last comment about this. All of this traces back to Magna Carta, 800 years ago. The Magna Carta had two components. One is the Charter of Liberties, the famous one, which I discussed, the foundation of Anglo-American law, now being torn to shreds before our eyes. The other part is what was called the Charter of Forests. That was dedicated to protection of the commons from the ravages of the power centers of the day. That record is preserved for us in things like the Robin Hood myths. That’s what they’re about.

What are the commons? The commons weren’t just the forests. They were the source of sustenance for the general population: food, fuel, welfare. There’s the classic image that goes back to the Bible of widows gleaning things from the commons for fuel and food. That’s what the commons were. They were very carefully nurtured and protected for centuries by people like these primitive, backward people today who are trying to save the planet.
In capitalist ethics, there’s a different concept. It’s called the tragedy of the commons. That’s familiar. The thesis is that if the common possessions are left to the population, they will be destroyed, so you have to privatize them and put them into the hands of the Koch brothers and so on. Then they’ll be protected. That’s capitalist ethics. Unless common possessions are privatized, they will be destroyed. There’s a principle behind it. It’s the principle that Adam Smith described as what he called “the vile maxim of the masters of mankind”: everything for ourselves and nothing for anyone else. That’s the concept that has to be drilled into people’s heads to make them total sociopaths. The reality is, of course, quite the opposite. Privatization leads to the destruction of the commons in pursuit of “the vile maxim.”

What happened to the Charter of the Forests that was an equal part of Magna Carta? It was dismantled with the rise of capitalism in England centuries ago by enclosures and other measures to privatize the commons. It was followed centuries later in the United States. This central part of Magna Carta has long been forgotten, apart from the traditional societies that are trying to fend off the disaster that’s approaching as we, in our brilliance, lead the way off the cliff like the proverbial lemmings.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the lecture were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P .O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977 ©2013

Corporations, communities, and the environment

Thomas Linzey
Eugene, Oregon
2 March 2013

Communities across the country, trying to stop a wide range of threats and unwanted projects such as gas drilling and fracking, mining, pipelines, factory farming, sewage sludging, landfills, coal shipments and GMOs, all run into the same problem: they don’t have the legal authority to say “no” to them. With their high priced lawyers and huge political influence corporadoes shape the law. That may be changing. A recent court ruling in Pennsylvania says that corporations are not “persons.” They cannot elevate their “private rights” above the rights of people. Others can’t wait for the legal system to catch up. Sandra Steingraber, noted biologist and scholar, shortly after appearing on Bill Moyers and on Alternative Radio, has gone to jail. In an act of civil disobedience, Steingraber and others blocked the entrance to a natural gas storage facility in the pristine Seneca Lakes region of upstate New York.

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Thomas Linzey is an attorney and co-founder and executive director of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund and serves as its chief legal counsel. He is the author of Be the Change: How to Get What You Want in Your Community. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Mother Jones, and The Nation.

You can listen to Thomas Linzey speak for himself here.

So let’s get down to business. This is being recorded for about 175 radio stations across the U.S. and Canada, thanks to David Barsamian on Alternative Radio. That basically means I can’t swear, which is what I usually do during these presentations. So let’s get down to it. We’re fucked. Generally, when I say that at smaller events—and they’re going to have gone to bleep that out, I understand—I’m sorry, David—there’s three things that people say to me.

They say,

Well, you can’t say that, because if you say that, then people lose hope. And when people lose hope, they won’t do anything. They won’t appeal regulatory permits, they won’t get active in doing regulatory work, they won’t try to ask corporations to do X, Y, and Z for them.

The second thing people say is that,

If we say it’s fucked, which is it is, then we will lose funding, because there’s no funder, there’s no foundation, program officer that wants to hear, “Hey we’re fucked,” because then there’s nothing we can do.

And the third group of people that come up to me after the talk—and some are really offended—say,

You can’t say that because it’s just not true. Things aren’t worse now than they were 40 years ago when we passed the major environmental laws.

You people snicker and laugh, but I get it all the time. In fact, I got it talking to a foundation program officer a couple weeks ago for a major foundation. He said,

Well, of course things aren’t worse today than they were 40 years ago. Rivers don’t catch on fire.

And I said,

Well, if that’s our standard now, we’ve got some really serious problems.

So on the first point that, when you say we’re screwed and that things are hopeless and that our work isn’t working—because I don’t think it is—and the things we’re doing aren’t working, on the first one, that hopeless piece, Derrick Jensen probably says it best. I think he’s one of the best writers of our generation. Here’s what Derrick has to say about hope, in a piece called “Beyond Hope,” which everybody should read. It’s the best piece I’ve read in a long, long time. He says giving up hope is a good thing. And this is a quote from Derrick’s piece. He says,

Hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.

He writes,

I’m not going to say “I hope I eat something tomorrow.” I just will. I don’t hope I take another breath right now, nor that I write this sentence. I just do them. On the other hand, I do hope that the next time I get on a plane it doesn’t crash. To hope for some result means you have given up any agency or control concerning it.

He writes further in the piece,

Having hope is about having hope that someone else is going to save you—a regulatory agency, a corporation, the Sierra Club, Alpha Centauri, beings from another world— that someone else has control over our destiny and our job is to influence them or attempt to put pressure on them because we don’t have it.

The second thing that people come up to talk to me about is you can’t say you’re screwed because the funders don’t want to hear it, money won’t come in. Well, that one is between your foundation program officer and you, if you have one.

The last one I’m going to talk about now, which is people coming up and saying,

Well, it’s just not true things are worse now than they were 40 years ago before the major environmental laws were passed.

So I have some numbers now. I used to go without these, but now I have them. And they’re very, very depressing and dismal, so we’ll get through them as quickly as possible. Here are a couple. Each year in the U.S. alone 570 billion pounds of municipal waste is produced, with 60% of that waste ending up in landfills or incinerators. Four billion pounds of toxic chemicals, including 72 million pounds of known carcinogens, are released into the atmosphere from 20,000 industrial polluters. Two trillion pounds of livestock waste laced with antibiotics, hormones, and chemicals are dumped into waterways and applied to land. Eleven million people live within 1 mile of a federal Superfund site. Eighty thousand industrial chemicals currently are in use in the U.S., with more than 700 now found within every human body. Eighteen hundred new chemicals are introduced annually. Forty percent of our waterways fail to meet even the minimal requirements of federal and state clean water laws. More than 90% of America’s original forests have now been logged. Over 70% of all biodiversity on the planet has now been lost, according to a major conservation organization. And in July of 2011 the United Nations declared our situation “a major planetary catastrophe.”

In the 1990s, when we got our start, things weren’t rosy. It’s not like these things have come into being overnight. In the 1990s, we got our start with the Legal Defense Fund. Note to law students: If you decide to start your own law firm without funding in place or some place to go for that, generally not a good idea. We raised about $3,000 the first year. I think it was the right decision to make, but there are tough times ahead for folks who form their own law firms right out of law school. What did we do when we came out of law school? We formed the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund. The point of the Legal Defense Fund was to say to ourselves when we were in law school that if the U.S. has the best environmental laws in the world—and in fact, our laws are so good, apparently, that we export them to other countries on a routine basis—that if our environmental laws in the U.S. are so good, that the reason why things are so fucked in the U.S. must be because we don’t have enough lawyers enforcing those laws. There’s several hundred full-time public-interest environmental lawyers in the U.S. doing this kind of work. We decided to add one more, which was me.

We began to do work for free. We opened our doors up to community organizations that were being inflicted upon by a toxic waste landfill or sewage sludge being dumped or toxic emissions or a pipeline coming in or all those types of things. We would represent those community groups, primarily in Pennsylvania, to go through the regulatory process.

I don’t know if anybody has ever seen the film Groundhog Day with Bill Murray from the 1990s? Groundhog Day for us would always start the same, which was a phone call from the community organization that would say,

We need your help. We can’t afford a lawyer to fight this toxic-waste incinerator that’s coming in. We need help to fight it because we don’t want it. Our community doesn’t want it here. Our definition of sustainability for our community means that we don’t have a toxic-waste incinerator in the middle of it or a 25,000-head hog factory farm in the middle of our community.

We would say to them,

Well, we’re sorry

—this was the traditional spiel, and still is today by most traditional environmental lawyers—

We’re sorry, but we can’t help you stop it because the law does not recognize your community’s authority to actually say no to the thing coming in. The entire nub of what our Democracy Schools are built around is that the law does not recognize that your municipality, your community has the ability or authority to say no to a federal or a state permitted project. Once a state has permitted it, the municipality can’t say no to it. In fact, the law is generally that if something is a legal use, l-e-g-a-l, that the community has no power to actually say no to it.

So what do we do as environmental lawyers? Well, we become experts on the regulations. We become experts on Section 25(c)(d)(I)(2)(c)(d)(i)(2)(e)(f), and we end up arguing in front of regulatory agencies or administrative law judges that something is missing from the permit application that has been put in by the corporations trying to put the project into the municipality. Most times, just by showing up, in some ways in rural communities, because 90% of these communities never hire an attorney, they never have input into the regulatory process, never show up, we would generally win. Which meant that we would find the signature that was left out or the macro invertebrate study or the hydro study that was outdated that the corporation had submitted with the permit application. And we would argue to the judge that something was missing from what was required by the environmental regulations or the permit application and we would win in front of the judge.

What would happen next was the community group that we were assisting would have a victory party. So they would call us back to the house, and we would have some wine and beer and snacks, and people would pat themselves on the back and they would say,

The system works. We came together around our kitchen table. We found a problem that we were having in the community, we found the right lawyer to represent us, the judge listened to us, he actually ruled in our favor. And now we’re not going to get the toxic waste incinerator in our community. The system worked.

What would happen three months from then or six months from then or a year later is that the corporation would come back. In fact, at those regulatory hearings I had lawyers from Waste Management Corporation and other major corporations come up to me and thank me, because we had found a deficiency or an omission or something that had been left out of their permit application. So three, six months, a year later the corporation would come back, and this time they would have a new and improved permit application for the process. They would have filled in the signature, they would have had the new hydro study or macro invertebrate study done or whatever else had to be put into the regulations and the permit application. I’m shortening this down, but we would go through this process with them for 8 or 10 or 12 cycles. Some groups are still at it, trying to stop Wal-Marts in central Pennsylvania for 8 or 9 or 10 years. Because we’re in a system that doesn’t recognize our authority to actually say no to those things coming in, we fight with what we have; we fight with what we have been given.

The nasty little secret about that time period, of our lives, at least, was that as soon as that permit application came back, that new and improved permit application from the corporation came back, that the community group would come back to us and say,

Mr. Linzey, we need you to do that jujitsu again that you did the first time around to keep the toxic-waste incinerator from being built in the community.

And we would look back at them and we would say,

We’re sorry. Unfortunately, there’s nothing we can do for you anymore, because the corporation has now dotted all the i’s and crossed all the t’s in the permit application.

So we had a win-loss record at the Legal Defense Fund of about 130 and 4. We were on fire. The problem was, if you actually set foot in the communities that we were representing, you would see absolutely no resemblance between the community that was getting the toxic-waste incinerator and our win-loss record as a law firm. But that didn’t stop the progressive community from giving us awards, from giving us money. We got invited to the White House one year by Al Gore to celebrate the best environmental law firms in the U.S. that year. It didn’t seem to matter that environmental law seemed to not be working in these situations. So we had a crisis in our office. We decided that we had not created the Legal Defense Fund just to build better permit applications for the corporations.

It was about at that time that we started talking to some other folks that were having experiences with the regulatory system and how environmental law is practiced. One of those people was a woman named Jane Anne Morris. She bills herself as a corporate anthropologist. Jane Anne Morris said a couple things which still resonate with me today. She said,

The only thing that environmental regulations regulate are environmentalists, because they make us predictable in how we oppose projects that are coming into our community. Because the regulations are written by the very corporations that ostensibly the regulatory structure is supposed to regulate. Do we really believe that regulatory structures written by the very corporations that those structures are supposed to regulate are going to recognize any rights for the communities in which they do business, especially rights to say no, which we don’t have under the law?

In addition to that, Jane Anne Morris said another thing to me which blew my mind. She said,

You know all the monies that get spent by the corporations to fight off the permit appeals that you file

—because at least I thought we were costing the corporate boys some money when we walked into the administrative law courts—

the monies that the corporations spend fighting the permit appeals are tax-deductible as reasonable and necessary business expenses under the law. They can write them off.

Jane Anne has this great piece that she wrote which we use in the Democracy School. The title of it is,

Help. I’ve been colonized and I can’t get up.

The subtitle is

Take a lawyer and an expert to a hearing and call me in a decade.

This is what she has to say:

At regulatory agencies corporate persons have constitutional rights to due process and equal protection that human persons, affected citizens, don’t have. For noncorporate human citizens

—that’s us—

there’s a democracy theme park where we can pull levers on voting machines and talk into microphones at hearings. But don’t worry, they’re not connected to anything and nobody is listening except for us. What regulatory law regulates is citizen input, not corporate behavior.

That’s what Jane Anne has to say.

So what did we do? We had a crisis in our office. We said,

We were constructed, we were built to protect the natural environment, to protect communities and do all that mom-and-apple-pie kind of stuff. And instead we found ourselves building better permit applications for the corporate boys that wanted to come in and put in projects.

So we decided to shut down the office, we decided to close, because we decided we could do other things and other things would be more effective than trying to enforce environmental law in this context.

In addition to that I should mention, we weren’t just doing permit appeals and regulatory stuff. We were challenging environmental impact statements under the National Environmental Policy Act, we were doing Clean Water Act litigation, attempting to enforce clean water dictates. We were across the board dealing with environmental laws that seemed to us to be not about protecting the natural environment but instead about easing certain projects in by carving off some of the harms that were caused by some of those projects coming in. It wasn’t about actually stopping the projects, no matter how harmful they are to the natural environment.

The National Environmental Policy Act is a perfect example. You have environmental impact statements that have to be prepared if federal monies are used for a project, but nowhere in the law does it say that the entity, the agency, has to select the most environmentally sound alternative. So we were challenging road projects in Virginia. What the agency would say is, Yes, this is going to extinguish this ecosystem, this is going to kill this stuff off, but we still think it’s a great idea, and we complied with the federal environmental laws by simply disclosing the harms. That’s how NEPA is built, that’s how the EIS stuff is built.

As we were closing down our office in Pennsylvania, something interested happened, which was a spate of phone calls from a constituency that we were not established to assist. The constituency that started to come in our door was local elected officials from rural south- central Pennsylvania. What was their problem and why were they turning to us? They were turning to us because agribusiness corporations were driving their way up from North Carolina and South Carolina to site a bunch of mega factory hog farms in south-central Pennsylvania. These are the biggest agribusiness corporations on the planet.

Just to give you an idea of how agriculture has been corporatized over the years, six corporations currently control 80% of the pork processing market in the U.S., four corporations control 60% of chicken processing, one corporation, Kraft, controls about 80% of cheese processing in the U.S. today. Suicide among farmers is now the number one cause of non-natural death for farmers in the U.S. It’s a statistic that began in 2004. So when we’re talking about corporatization of agriculture, we’re talking about more than just changing methods of production. We’re talking about extinguishing generations-old farms and ways of life and implement dealers and open livestock auctions and all those kinds of things that keep rural communities alive.

In the late 1990s, as we were closing down our office and these calls started coming in, the calls were coming in because there was slated and proposed a span of factory farms to run through about eight counties in the south- central Pennsylvania. The municipalities and the elected officials didn’t want the factory farms coming in, for a bunch of reasons: number one, impact on farmers; number two, impact on property values; number three, the environmental pollution, water pollution, stuff that flows when you jam these animals into these intensive livestock operations.

For the last 10 years municipal governments in Pennsylvania in that area had passed very stringent manure disposal laws. We’re not going to get into the details here, but suffice it to say that those laws, in the best environmental regulatory tradition, tried to make it too expensive for liquid manure from the factory farms to be applied to land in those municipalities. So for a number of years factory farms couldn’t set up shop because of those environmental regulations. What happened when the big agribusiness corporations came into town, the town being the state of Pennsylvania, is they went to the legislature and they drafted something called the Nutrient Management Act. The Nutrient Management Act promptly removed control over any factory farm regulation from the local municipalities and centralized it at the state level, making putting in a factory farm merely a planning process that you had to file a plan with the state agency for rather than go through any kind of local ordinances that might interfere with those operations coming in.

So imagine yourself being a municipal official in south-central Pennsylvania. Your residents are screaming at you. They’re saying,

We don’t want to lose 60% of our property value if we live within three-quarters of a mile of one of these mega hog factory farms. We don’t want the smell and the water pollution and everything else that comes with us.

And there was some inkling of a conversation about, Why should agribusiness corporations decide what farming looks like in our community rather than us, rather than the farmers that actually live in that community? So the calls in to the office took on a different tenor at that point, where we still had our phones hooked up for those calls to come in.

The calls got much more complex. It might have been something in the water or the air, I don’t know. Something was changing about that time in the way people think about environmental law, I think, at least at the community level. These folks would get me on the phone, and we would say

What could we do?

and they would say,

Well, we have this corporate factory farm coming in.

And they would say,

We don’t want it. Our farmers here don’t want a 25,000-head hog factory farm in the middle of our community.

And they said,

We want to say no to it, we want to stop it.

We tried to give them the old song and dance, which is embedded in our heads, in my head since law school, which was,

I’m sorry, you can’t stop it because it’s going to have a state permit and it’s a permit operation. You can’t say no to it within the municipality.

And these folks—and keep in mind this is rural south-central Pennsylvania, an NRA membership area, local control, folks that had been in office for 30-40 years at the local level, very small municipalities—asked me one question, which threw me off for the next 15 years. They asked,

Why? Why can’t we say no?

So I was on the other end, and I said,

Well, you can’t say no because if you do try to prohibit a factory farm from coming into your municipality, you’re going to get sued, and you’re going to get sued by the agribusiness corporation that contends that you’re violating the corporation’s constitutional rights under the law. Because when you pass an ordinance that bans a legal use, the corporation comes in and uses the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to say to the court, You’ve taken our property, because you’re not allowing us to do what we want in your community. This ordinance is stopping it. Therefore, we’re going to sue you. Not only are we going to sue you for breaching or violating our constitutional rights, we’re going to sue you under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, which is a civil rights law, for damages incurred as a result of the passage of the ordinance to things like future lost profits of the corporation. That’s how the system operates. That’s not the exception, that’s the default.

So again the folks on the other end of the line would ask me another question, which I didn’t know how to answer. He said,


Being the lawyer, you give the lawyerly story, which is,

Corporations got constitutional rights way back in the early 1800s. Corporations became persons in the 1800s through the Supreme Court, through other federal courts, in which corporations now have the same rights as you or I. And by virtue of their wealth, they can exercise those rights more fully than you or I. It was those places, those Supreme Court cases and going back to 1800 and to the other jurisprudence, that corporations gained this control. That in essence the corporate board of directors has more decision making in your community than you do, because it creates that special layer of law.

To which the folks at the other end of the line said again,

Why? Why were corporations given those rights?

So, a typical lawyer, you say,

Well, it actually goes back to the U.S. Constitution.

In some ways the U.S. Constitution is a property document. It’s no secret. The U.S. Constitution protects property and commerce above other rights.

You can look at the U.S. Constitution and thumb through it all you want, but you won’t find a couple words mentioned. One is “nature.” Forget about it. Another one is “labor.” Forget about that one, too, unless you’re looking at a provision that uses the phrase “bonded labor,” which is about returning slaves to their owners as property, which is also in the Constitution. That stuff isn’t there. So when the environmental laws were passed, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, all of the good stuff that we have, the civil rights laws, the Violence Against Women Act, all that good stuff that’s been passed has all been passed under the authority of the commerce clause of the Constitution.

It’s kind of wacky. People say,

What does that matter? At least it’s there. At least we have a place to plant our feet.

And the answer is, essentially, the Constitution sees everything in terms of property protection. That’s how it works, that’s how it’s structured. And because of that, when we actually make arguments about things like protecting the environment or nature in contexts that are outside of commerce, like protecting nature for its own sake or protecting a community’s right to say no when that interferes with commerce, the system looks back at you with glazed-over eyes and doesn’t understand what you’re trying to say. It’s like speaking Greek to a French person: it just doesn’t fit, because the system runs a different way.

So these supervisors, these folks in rural Pennsylvania, said back to me on the phone, calling in, and said,

Why is that? Why is the Constitution written in such a way? The Constitutional structure seems to screw us automatically. So in our communities if we oppose a factory farm or a toxic-waste incinerator, we don’t run up against the corporation first. We run up against our own Constitution first. We run into a constitutional structure first that doesn’t recognize our authority to be self- governing within our own community, let alone talking about things like the rights of nature.

So these folks would say,

Why is that?

And we would say,

Well, it’s because of something called the English Common Law. The folks who wrote the U.S. Constitution were basted in this thing called English Common Law, which was a system of law that essentially legalized colonialism. And England was the top bill, they were the folks developing the most. So you have Hamilton and you have Dickinson and you have Madison talking about English Common Law as the best thing in the world, and that the U.S. constitutional structure was about replicating that system of law. There’s no place in that for us if we’re a community that’s being hit with X, Y, and Z or for ecosystems themselves to be treated differently as property.

Then they would say,

Why is that?

I would say,

Because God said so. I don’t know. Because we’re at the end of this conversation and we’ve got other things to do.

So that why question has actually plagued us since the Democracy Schools. We actually use 15-hour trainings to take community folks through a series of historical stuff to show them why they’re in the position that they’re in. Because when community groups get hit with something, the first thing they do is call up the DEP or whatever it’s called in your state, the environmental agency. In Pennsylvania it’s called the Department of Environmental Protection, or for many communities there it’s known as the Department of Everything Permitted. So you have the DEP. And other folks pick up the phone and call their local government. The DEP says,

Well, we’re so glad you called. Hire a lawyer and get involved in the regulatory process. It won’t allow you to stop it, but you can, of course, publicly comment and be part of that process.

The others call is to the municipal government. The municipal government sometimes says,

Our hands are tied. We can’t do anything. It’s a state issue. Go talk to your legislator and change the law.

Fat chance of that.

So through the years we started getting these questions, and we decided that we weren’t going to close down. The municipal governments and elected officials said to us,

What can we do?

And we said,

We have no idea what you can do.

And they said,

Why don’t you help us figure out what we can do?

And we said


So we started looking at the laws that have been passed in different places on agribusiness issues. It turns out that in 1902—I had no idea till 12:30 at night, falling over some old law text trying to find it—the people of Oklahoma, mostly family farmers and communities, came together and banned corporations from farming. 1902, right? Nine states followed the lead, including, in the late 1990s South Dakota and Nebraska, through Initiative 300 and Amendment E, actually took the anti-corporate farming laws and drove them into their state constitutions.

So folks in those Midwestern states began to frame the problem a lot differently. It wasn’t about water pollution or air pollution or parts per million or paper versus plastic or all the bullshit that we argue about when we get into the regulatory stuff. That if the problem was the corporatization of agriculture, then the solution is to get corporations out of agriculture. So they moved to do that. The frame was different. Rather than dealing with the manifestations of the environmental harms that flow from those projects, instead attempting to preempt them by taking control and writing the rules themselves.

So that without pride of authorship, we borrowed Amendment E, we reworked it into a local ordinance, and we actually sent it in to these Pennsylvania municipalities to begin adopting. And they did. The first one, in 2001, was a small community of 550 people, called Wells Township, a little place called Fulton County, right above the border with Maryland. Eventually the ordinances spread to eastern Pennsylvania, western Pennsylvania, north-central Pennsylvania, as communities began having a new conversation—not one about how many tons or gallons of liquid hog manure can be legally applied to an acre of land, but instead towards something based on the right of the community to decide what farming would look like there rather than a corporate board of directors located 3,000 miles away.

That conversation that started in 2001 has accelerated, expanded to today. In addition to the factory farm issues, in Pennsylvania we have a sludge problem. Typical of the environmental laws, which essentially are good at one thing—which is transferring pollution from one medium to another, so from water to land or from land to air—with the sewage sludge situation, all the sludge coming out of the centralized sewage treatment plants to clean up the waterways, we actually took the toxins and pollutants and put it into the sludge cake, which is the solid stuff, which goes to say that you can’t put “cake” after everything and make it sound that much better. The sludge cake itself we used to dump off the coast of New Jersey. And then the major environmental groups did us a real favor and worked for a program that was approved by the EPA to dump it on land where we grow our crops. So all of those 60,000 different pollutants that are in that sewage-sludge stream that we now try to keep it of the waterways, we now dump on farm land. And four corporations control 90% of the market for hauling the sludge from the treatment plants to the farmland. In Pennsylvania we’ve had two kids die from exposure to sewage sludge. We named the Democracy School after one of those kids.

The municipalities that were faced with getting sludge dumped from Philadelphia—because, guess what, Philadelphia’s municipal treatment plant doesn’t dump sludge near the multimillion-dollar houses in suburban Philly, they actually send it out into the hinterlands, into the rural T of Pennsylvania to be dumped in these rural communities—a lot of these communities said,

We don’t want it anymore. We don’t want your shit coming from your place and being dumped in our home.

So they began to work with us to take the anti-corporate-farming laws and make them into anti-corporate-sludging laws, which actually prohibited the corporations from bringing sludge into those municipalities. Those began to multiply quite quickly: we went from five to 10 to 15 to 20. We’re up to 86. And on the factory farm laws, we’re up to about two dozen in the state of Pennsylvania.

As you can imagine—and the question is probably burgeoning in your head—you say,

Mr. Linzey, you said we can’t do that. We can’t ban X, Y, and Z.

It turns out, when you attempt to actually begin to synthesize new law, and new law which is based on community self- governance, that there’s a reaction. And the reaction is not equal but an unequal one. So in the years following this stuff moving, keeping in mind that 10% of all rural municipalities in the Pennsylvania had passed our ordinances, which really began to pull the teeth from some of these corporate boys who were attempting to use those municipalities for their own projects, two things happened: one was a lawsuit was filed by one of the major factory-farm agribusiness corporations against one of our municipalities, and the other one was that state legislature started to take action.

So on the lawsuit first, there were several filed. What was fascinating to me, watching them come in, was that they could have been written on the same computer, with the same boilerplate, with the same paragraphs, with the same everything. Because in the system and structure of laws set up in this country to actually make municipalities and communities where you live subordinate to the corporations that are coming in, in addition to corporate personhood, this concept that corporations are persons and they have certain rights they can exercise against the community, corporations also have something called commerce clause rights, that corporations can use the interstate commerce clause to knock down law making that interferes with the commerce interests of those corporations. As much as we talk about corporate personhood, corporate commerce clause rights are actually used more than that to overturn laws. In addition to those two, we have things called Dillon’s Rule, which says your community can’t pass any law that’s not specifically been authorized to be passed by the state legislature—it’s written by an ex-railroad lawyer who was an Iowa Supreme Court justice—and you have preemption. Preemption is the theory that the state and federal government can preempt completely what’s passed at the municipal level. We all as lawyers, those of us who are lawyers, pretty much buy into these doctrines in many ways. They’re referred to as well settled legal doctrines by the legal industry.

So these lawsuits that came in, you could literally read the complaints that came in from these corporations that were filing suit against the municipalities, and those four doctrines were laced throughout the complaint. So on page 1 it said, We are corporations, we are persons, you have violated our Fifth Amendment rights under the law, and you now owe us damages. Paragraph two was, You were not authorized to pass this because the state legislature hasn’t authorized you to do this law making. Point number three, You can’t do this law making because the Nutrient Management Act preempts you at the local level from being able to pass these things. And, of course, the corporate personhood stuff was meshed into that fourth claim.

So our communities, who had stepped outside the box—as Jane Anne Morris says,

Take a deep breath. We’re going over the wall,

that’s what she says—these communities, because they went over the wall, because they did something outside of the box, were saying,

Hey, the problem isn’t factory farms, really. The problem isn’t the environmental impacts from those facilities or sludge or whatever else, and the problem really isn’t the corporation itself. The problem is in many ways the structure of law itself.

It’s actually those doctrines which have been in some ways so IV’d into us since birth, not just the preemption and Dillon’s Rule stuff but the constitutional stuff, that the Founding Fathers were the greatest people that ever trod the planet, that our system of government is the bastion of democracy, and that if we don’t win regulatory fights, if we don’t win these fights that we’re involved in when the corporations come in to do X, Y, and Z, it’s our fault because we have the democratic system to use. We just didn’t get enough people to the demonstration, or we just didn’t get people to the church, or we didn’t have the right podium for the pads that we write on, or we didn’t bring the right microphone, the video camera, or whatever. We blame ourselves for failing within the system.

Meanwhile, the system is fixed. We’ve been snookered for a long, long time. No offense to the folks in this audience, but the fact is, the only people who see it are the folks who have to see it. Because they’re in places like Port Arthur, they’re in places where you run up directly against those legal doctrines. A lot of us try to go around them by doing things like, well, we need to negotiate an agreement with the corporation, or we need to buy the right stuff, or we need to invest in better stock, or we need to do all these voluntary fixes, self-help kind of stuff, like changing light bulbs, because we feel so disempowered by how the structure of law works.

It’s our proposition to you that the structure of law has to be dismantled. It has to come apart, because otherwise we’re cooked. Literally, we are cooked if we do not actually take that battle on. In the communities in Pennsylvania who started this conversation to change— when you’re talking about parts per million, particulate matter, and bringing experts in, doing all that kind of stuff, it limits the number of people who actually get involved in those campaigns, because they say,

I’m not an expert. Therefore, I don’t have a legitimate place here at the table or to speak about X, Y, and Z.

But when you start talking about rights—community and local self-governance and corporations having more rights than the communities into which the corporations are coming in to build or construct or whatever, you start getting something that approximates the foundations for the beginnings of a movement, a movement that says that the state government is not going to help us, the federal government is not going to help us, and the only way that we’re going to make change to those layers of law is to force it to happen by disobeying the law itself.

And it’s not so foreign. We’ve been at that place before in our history. The abolitionists didn’t advocate for establishing a slavery protection agency, right? They weren’t interested in an agency that regulated the numbers of lashes you could give daily to a slave. The suffragists, they didn’t just write letters to the White House. They voted. Virginia Minor and Susan B. Anthony, they went into ballot places and they cast ballots and they were arrested and they were thrown into jail and then they had trials. They understood that is when you don’t directly challenge the law, you are validating it automatically.

So these communities, the least likely of activists in some ways, the least likely of activists—folks that are first-time activists, coming into the stuff for the very first time, not long-term progressive activists or people who worked in the regulatory arena—didn’t have this stuff clouding their heads, all this past that said we have to do it this way or have to do it that way. They just said, This is the right thing, is actually to seize that ability, the authority for us to make decisions about what our community is going to look like in 20 or 40 or 60 years.

So they began coming to a conclusion. And that conclusion was, they had to take these doctrines on frontally, that the local ordinance making had to be more about just the imminent harm coming in when that imminent harm could be overridden. The ordinances could be overridden by those doctrines that were being brought against them. So they decided to begin writing these ordinances to directly challenge those legal doctrines which keep our communities subordinate to these corporations, because they understood that sustainability is impossible unless those people who are directly affected by the unsustainable practices are the ones who are deciding whether those practices occur. State legislatures, folks 500 miles away, they don’t care. The community is a dumping ground, it’s a toilet. They’re going to use it for as long as they can until people stand up and say

We’re not going to take it anymore.

The kids that sat in at the lunch counter at Woolworth’s. They didn’t write letters to Woolworth’s. I suppose they did at the beginning. They said, Hey, please desegregate your lunch counters. But eventually, at some point, they said, No more. Things are so bad that we need to go in and actually break the law. We need to disobey the law. In a very structured way, but we need to do it. And so they did. In fact, this country is built on people not following the law. The Declaration of Independence, people breaking free, self-governance, all that stuff that’s built into us that we seem to have lost.

We think it’s time to return to that place. I think communities in Pennsylvania and other places certainly are beginning to lead the way, which is to say, the cost of doing nothing is more now than the cost of doing something, putting our municipalities on the line to take on these four legal doctrines. So they started to do that. Over 100 communities in Pennsylvania have passed those laws. In addition, the laws have spread. We have communities in New Hampshire and Maine who are taking on Nestlé corporation, saying, No corporate water withdrawals in our communities. There are folks in New Mexico and in Pennsylvania and elsewhere who have passed anti-fracking laws, saying, We’re not going to allow corporations to frac here. We have the first county in New Mexico which is going to ban all hydrocarbon extraction within their municipality. What are we waiting for? Seriously, how bad does shit have to get before we actually begin to be less obedient to how the structure operates?

There are real consequences to all this stuff. When we get called as counsel for municipalities, we give them the worst-case scenario. You could get sued, you could go bankrupt. This is very serious work that these municipalities are taking on, that these elected officials and other people are taking on. In places where their elected officials aren’t willing to do it, citizen groups are coming together to go override them through initiative processes and home rule charter stuff.

People ask, Where is all this headed? In other words, what’s the point, if a court is just going to come in and overturn the law as being against the doctrines? Well, we hope that courts won’t. We’ve actually found judges who have ruled in our favor in other cases before. But it’s very important that people understand, these ordinances are not the end point. Just because a judge rules that it’s in violation of these other legal doctrines, that’s not the end of the story. That’s the first step. Because these communities now in Pennsylvania and New Mexico and New Hampshire and Washington state are now stitching themselves together to talk about what state constitutional change looks like. And eventually, 10 years, 20 years down the road, these states are going to come together through their municipalities to make federal constitutional change. It all comes down to what our theory of social change is. Can we be obedient folks petitioning our legislatures to do the right thing for us, or is it time to take that shit into our own control and do it ourselves, no matter what the cost?

One hundred fifty communities across the U.S. have passed those ordinances now. In addition to that, we’ve been working on something called “the rights of nature.” One of the components of those ordinances, they contain rights of nature clauses which recognize the rights of ecosystem and natural communities to exist, flourish, and naturally evolve. Two dozen communities in Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, New Mexico, other places have adopted these ordinances, which refuse to recognize that nature is property under the law. The controversial statement that we sometimes make is that there’s never been an environmental movement in the U.S. And we say that there’s never been an environmental movement in the U.S. because movements transform things that were treated as things under the law into being rights-bearing persons. The abolitionists were about a movement to her transform slaves and African Americans from being property into being persons. The suffragists were about transforming women from being property of their husband or their brother into being persons. That’s what movements do.

We’ve had an environmental movement that’s been focused on treating nature as property to be regulated. Under our system of law, if you have a 10-acre deed to a parcel of land, it carries with it the right to destroy the ecosystems on that parcel of land. That’s the system of law that we have. These communities are beginning to adopt laws that refuse to recognize that nature and ecosystems are property under the law, and that actually allow residents to step into the shoes of a river or a mountain to bring an action as a plaintiff to protect those rights of ecosystems within those communities.

The work in the U.S. in 2001 to 2006 was carried down to Ecuador, which was beginning to work on a new national constitution in the country. They found out about the work of Wells Township and they found out about the work of Tamaqua Borough and they found out about the work of these small communities that were actually passing these laws, and they asked us to come down to help them write a new national constitution. The committee of delegates working on a fundamental rights section of that constitution, brought us in to help them fashion the law, because they wanted to become the first country in the world to transform from a regulatory, property-based system of environmental protection to a rights-based system of environmental protection. They took the rights from the U.S. communities, and they actually wrote it into their national constitution, which was ratified overwhelmingly in 2008, making Ecuador the first country to do that. We’ve been training judges in the Galapagos to deal with “rights of nature” cases that are coming in the door. The group that we work with in Ecuador has set up a 1-800 number for people to call to ask an ombudsman to begin representing “rights of nature” cases. All of that stuff has been happening.

We just got the first enforcement decisions. I just want to share them with you before we wrap up here. One was brought by a group of residents using the constitutional provisions on behalf of the Vilcabamba River, located in the province of Loja in Ecuador. The local government there was actually building a road project that was altering the course of the river by dumping that road refuse into the river. The residents there brought a case in which the plaintiff was the Vilcabamba River. They brought it in to the local court, and the local court agreed with them, in the first ruling ever in the globe on behalf of an ecosystem as a plaintiff, and then awarding injunctive relief and damages to repair and restore the ecosystem itself.

We believe that the “rights of nature” stuff is the next horizon for environmental law. It’s actually about building a real environmental movement that makes it a rights- based movement rather than just something that raises consciousness or something that attempts to regulate around the edges. We think that’s the next step. We’ve been in touch with Nepal. We just made a visit there. They’re talking about putting the rights of nature into their national constitution. The Maldive Islands, where we had a conversation last year about building in a right to climate. In other words, a right to climate that was shared by ecosystems as well as people within the Maldives that could then be used to sue polluters around the globe, including countries, to actually begin to confront the damage that’s being caused to the Maldives and other low-lying island nations on global warming. But it’s all pinned to that rights stuff, because we think it’s a rights- based movement that’s beginning to arise.

I just wanted to say, with no offense to anyone that it’s really time to take our collective heads out of our collective asses. And people all the time say, Surely you’re not saying to us we need to stop doing the front- line work that we’re doing. Surely you’re not saying to us that we’ve got to stop appealing permits and doing all that kind of stuff. I have a mixed response to that now. I used to have something different. But the first one is that there are a limited amount of monetary resources circulating out to nonprofit organizations and other groups doing environmental work. Those resources have to shift, because to build this new system of law, to give birth to this new collective consciousness, it takes money. And the funders have to stop giving money to the regulatory stuff. I think that’s about as blunt as I’ve ever said it. They have to stop. Those are sponges that are taking up money. And we have to have the elbow space to actually build new room for this stuff to happen.

As for the front-line activists, the fact is, things would be even worse now without the courageous work of people that have gone before us to fight those front-line battles. But there has to be a time when we re-examine whether those battles have been successful. We have to regird into a different position, and we need to begin to frame the different fight which is now upon us, which is the collapse of our entire planetary ecosystems.

So here’s Derrick Jensen again. I’d like to return to this hope thing. When I say things are hopeless and we’re fucked and all those things, this is what Derrick Jensen has to say in his book, and I think the words are right on target. They asked Derrick,

If things are hopeless, why do you do anything at all?

And he said,

Because I’m in love—with salmon, with trees outside my window, with baby lampreys living in sandy stream bottoms, with slender salamanders crawling through the duff. And if you love, you act to defend your beloved. Of course results matter to you, but they don’t determine whether or not you make the effort. You don’t simply hope your beloved survives and thrives. You do whatever it takes. If my love doesn’t cause me to protect those I love, it’s not love.

And he goes on, last paragraph,

A wonderful thing happens when you give up on hope, which is that you realize you never needed it in the first place. You realize that giving up on hope didn’t kill you. It didn’t even make you less effective. In fact, it made you more effective because you ceased relying on someone or something to solve your problems. You ceased hoping your problems would somehow get solved through the magical assistance of God, the Great Mother, the Sierra Club, Valiant Tree Sitters, Brave Salmon, or even the Earth itself, and you just began doing whatever it takes to solve those problems yourself. I think there’s that new world waiting to be born.

A final quote from Jensen, because I think it hits home.

If we wish to stop the atrocities, we need merely to step away from the isolation. There is a whole world waiting for us, ready to welcome us home.

Thank you.

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977

Kicking people when they’re down

Barbara Ehrenreich
Lecture, then interview by David Barsamian
(This event was presented by the Lannan Foundation.)
Santa Fe, New Mexico
13 March 2013

The rise in New York’s poverty rate as a result of the ongoing recession has pushed nearly half of the city’s population into the ranks of the poor or near-poor. Ironically, the nation’s largest city is run by a multi-billionaire. Almost on the same day, another report came out saying “Hedge Fund Titans Get Lavish Paydays Stretching to Ten Figures.” People are immiserated and dumped into the streets because of decisions made downtown in the suites. Do we lend a helping hand to the poor? Barely. Let them eat op-eds about values and the virtues of hard work. There’s billions to fund the latest F-whatever fighter jet but scant little for people in distress. The pounding the needy are taking is particulary severe because much of the social safety net has been shredded. Can anyone say compassion and caring?

This lecture and interview are available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Barbara Ehrenreich is a social critic, journalist, and activist. She received a PhD in cell biology from Rockefeller University. By the 1970s, she was involved with the nascent women’s health movement and teaching at the State University of New York, Old Westbury. After publishing an article in Ms. magazine, she became a regular columnist there and with Mother Jones. Numerous books followed including such bestsellers as Nickel and Dimed, Bait and Switch, This Land is Their Land, and Bright-Sided. In 2012 she founded the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, a website designed to place the crisis of poverty and economic insecurity at the center of the national political conversation.

You can listen to Barbara Ehrenreich speak for herself here.

I am so glad to be in Santa Fe. For me Santa Fe is something like Mecca, it’s like a very special, holy place. Because of your minimum wage. That’s what brought me here in 2007, six years ago, the minimum wage campaign. And I know there are people here from it who are here tonight.

But I was looking so much forward to coming here because last week I gave a talk at George Mason University in Virginia and, as usual in these situations, a student in the audience stood up in a Q&A and said that she had learned in her economics class that raising the minimum wage would cause widespread unemployment and economic ruin. I hear this every time I speak on a campus. I think that academic economics departments are dedicated to one proposition only, and that is teaching that the economic status quo is exactly fine, and it’s perfect even for the poor. So I said to this young woman,

Will you come with me to Santa Fe next week? Come and see for yourself.

This is the highest minimum wage city of— I think you’re only outdone by San Francisco. I’m not sure. But I think it’s San Francisco, Santa Fe. That’s it. By comparison with my trip here six years ago for that campaign, I am not seeing boarded-up businesses, I am not seeing a city brought to its knees by the raised minimum wage.

Last time I came here—and right to this theatre, in fact—I spoke entirely about my book Nickel and Dimed. I’m going to talk about that a little bit, look back at that, and also talk about things that I have been learning from much more recent research since the economic downturn.

My starting point for a lot of this, I will tell you, sort of the source of a lot of my motivation, is I get really, really upset whenever I hear someone speak disrespectfully about people in poverty, and maybe especially women in poverty. And I have personal reasons for that reaction. But in the 1990s I was hearing a lot of that kind of disrespect, especially from politicians and pundits. There is something wrong with poor people. That was the theory. And in many quarters it still is. Poor people have low IQs. We’ve had Charles Murray to point that out, as well as people of color having lower IQs, he pointed out. They have character defects. They make bad lifestyle decisions. Poor women are promiscuous, they are lazy, they have too many children, they don’t bother to get married, they eat too many Doritos and drink too much Mountain Dew. That has pretty much been the official theory of poverty in America, which is, if people are poor, they have nobody to blame but themselves.

This works its way into policy all the time. For example, the original welfare reform bill, which was in 1996, the bill that ended welfare as we knew it, ended any kind of entitlement of poor single parents to government aid. This bill provided in it originally $100 million for chastity training for low-income women. That’s the theory. So imagine the scene. Bill Clinton signing into law this provision for chastity training—not, unfortunately, for himself.

And that amount went up. The most recent amount, it was up to $400 million for training poor women to make them more marriageable. Some of us ladies aren’t married. It’s because we haven’t tried. We really need the education. Actually, I’ve tried it a number of times.

It seemed me that the problem had nothing to do with lifestyles or personal choices, or overwhelmingly it has nothing to do with those things. I started my own personal crusade for the living wage just by reading my local newspaper, seeing what wages were being offered in the help- wanted ads—and they very cleverly don’t mention them usually—then turn to the apartment rentals section see what the rents are. The math did not look good to me. That was my starting point.

I agonized and complained about it so much that I finally got a magazine editor to say,

Barbara, what you have to do is go out there and try living on these wages yourself.

I had meant somebody should do it. I did not mean myself as a journalist. But journalists need what jobs they can get and what assignments they can get. So I had to leave home, I had to find the cheapest accommodations possible. And I was not trying to find the lowest-wage jobs I could; I was not trying to find minimum-wage jobs. My rule for myself was I had to find the best-paying jobs I could, consistent with not using my actual résumé or educational experience or anything. I could have cheated very easily, though, because I never did see a help-wanted ad for a political essayist. In particular, I never saw a help- wanted ad for a sarcastic feminist political essayist.

The jobs I ended up getting, like waitress and hotel housekeeper. That’s where I fit in in the labor market. That’s what I found. It had been a while since I had worked in any of these kinds of jobs, since I was a teenager. And one of the first things that struck me about being in the low-wage work force—and this has not changed, not at all, since 2000—is the constant suspicion that if you’re willing to work for those wages, you probably have some sort of criminal tendencies. There’s something wrong with you.

First, the drug test. Anybody here ever take a drug test to get a job? Oh. How did you do? We’ll talk about that later. Then there’s the personality test. Most of the questions I thought, being kind of a smart aleck, were pretty easy. Here’s an example. And I wrote this one down, so it’s word for word. You get this in your application process,

In the last year I have stolen [check dollar amount below] worth of goods from my employers.

You see that and you really want to be a smart aleck and say,

Do you have a calculator I could use?

Then there was this question, which pops up on many companies’ tests for their low-wage workers,

Agree or disagree: It is easier to work when you’re a little bit high.

You don’t want to overthink that one. It would be so easy to get philosophical there, but don’t do it. That’s the preparation.

Then you enter into a job paying—at the time I was doing this, I averaged $7 an hour. These were hard jobs, all the jobs I had. They were physically hard jobs. And I would have to say that’s one argument for doing this sort of journalism, which is called immersion journalism, where you actually put your body into it. That is that if you ask people, “Is your job physically hard?” they will say “Yeah,” but most people don’t complain a lot. It was another thing to do it myself. I’m strong, I’m fit, but there were many jobs where after a shift my legs would feel like rubber. I had to find that out.

A more important thing I picked up about how hard these jobs were is something that was completely surprising to me. I’m educated, I’ve written a lot of books. These jobs were mentally challenging. Every one of them I had a hard time learning. It’s a humbling kind of discovery.

I’ll just mention one example of that, which was at Wal-Mart. I was assigned to ladies’ wear. I thought, Oh, great, I’ll be giving fashion advice to the women of Minnesota. No. The main thing was picking up garments from the floor or things that had been hidden— for some mysterious reason that I don’t know what consumers are thinking—in the wrong department. Somebody has to find everything and put it in its exact right place. In other words, I had to memorize the exact location of hundreds of different items, which would then be rotated every few days for no other purpose than to convince me I have Alzheimer’s disease. Why Wal-Mart wanted to do that I don’t know, but that was the plan. A very important lesson for me here. I never used the word unskilled to describe anybody’s job. Every person’s job takes intelligence and skill and concentration and deserves our complete respect.

Some of these jobs were also a lot harder than they needed to be because of absurd management rules, like no talking to your fellow employees. You can guess why that is. No drinking water, even in a sweaty job. And then there’s a whole bathroom break situation. In some of those jobs the bathroom breaks were so rare I looked back on the drug test with nostalgia. They don’t tell you that could be the last time. There is an academic book that’s been written about bathroom breaks in the U.S. work force. The title tells it all. It’s called Void Where Prohibited.

Another interesting thing. In all these jobs they suspect you of stealing. Your purse could be searched at any point, because you might be stealing, I don’t know, ketchup packets from the restaurant or something. However, in most of these jobs it’s management that’s stealing. Wage theft is a huge problem in America. I could see it going on, but I didn’t even have a term for it when I was doing these jobs. One form it can take is, Wal-Mart just changes the computers so it doesn’t look like you’ve worked so many hours. Another thing is that they can tell you to come in a half an hour before the clock starts ticking for your pay and you start working. And they’re not paying you for that. To me this is really something, the amount of this. I pressed the experts on this to come up with an estimate of the amount that is stolen from low- wage workers in America in the form of wage theft. The number they came up with for me was $106 billion a year. One hundred six billion is on the order of magnitude of some of our larger social programs—bigger, I think, than Unemployment Insurance.

I had a lot of trouble making ends meet. I had no idea how out of whack wages and rents were going to be. Obviously, I was looking at the cheapest places to stay, which included trailer parks and, very often, these places called residential motels, which you can get into without one month’s rent deposit. You pay by the week. I learned a very important thing in these living situations: It’s expensive to be poor. If you don’t have that one month’s rent and security deposit up front, which could be more than $1,000, a lot of capital, then you’re stuck with outrageous weekly payments. In this one residential motel I ended up at it was $250 a week to stay in an absolute dump that smelled like rodent droppings. And it had no fridge or microwave, meaning that everything I bought to eat had to come from a convenience store, and occasionally, as a treat, fast food. I’m not complaining about the cuisine. It’s just right away that’s a lot more expensive than being able to go to a grocery store.

With the rent, the expenses, I ultimately realized, this is not possible. I would have to, I don’t know, find a lot of roommates or something. And I had advantages, like not having children with me. I tried to get my children to come with me, but… How will you do this sort of thing? Suppose I was a single parent with one child trying to do the same thing. You can do the math here. In New Mexico the minimum wage for the state is $7.50 an hour, which is ahead of the federal amount. But a living wage calculated by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for this state for one adult and one child is $17.78 an hour. Way off. In Santa Fe, due to a heroic, exemplary struggle, you have a minimum wage that begins to somewhat more closely approach what people might need to live on, $10.50 an hour. But sad news here. A living wage for Santa Fe, according to MIT, would be $19.82 an hour. That’s for a bare-bones existence. There’s no Internet in there, there’s no movies, there’s no vacations.

Sometimes affluent people say to me,

Why don’t these people just learn how to manage their finances a little bit better?

There’s a growing movement to provide financial literacy training for poor people. What bothers me so much about this is that if you’re trying to live on his $7, $8, $9 an hour, there’s only one financial plan for you, and it’s called Just Say No. Don’t buy it, don’t eat it, don’t drink it, don’t smoke it, don’t fix it if it breaks, don’t go to a doctor in the first place. I just found out recently, due to some recent research who is funding financial literacy education in our public schools. The banks. Wells Fargo, Capital One. The same banks that brought us the mortgage crisis in the middle of the ‘00s. The banks that have depended on the gullibility and ignorance and trust of consumers all along.

We have a lot of full-time workers in this country who don’t make enough to live on, if you’re talking about living indoors, that is, homeless people who are full-time workers. I met them. I’m sure you know some of them. Even more disturbing to me in some way, hungry workers. That’s sort of an image of one in the early ‘00s before the economic downturn. What I described in the book Nickel and Dimed, in case any of you have been forced to read it in school or something, is out of date, because those were the good old days. Everything you read in there you have to correct and say, Ah, what would this be like today, when it’s so much harder to find these jobs and when in many ways wages and conditions have deteriorated?

What happened in the last four years or so of downturn? The number of people in poverty grew to 15.5% of Americans. A large part of this increase—I can’t tell you how much, I wish I knew—is not people who are poor necessarily in the long term or people whose parents were also poor, but people who have higher educations, who have degrees, people who were lawyers, IT experts, college graduates of all kinds. These are not the kinds of people that that stereotype I talked about at the beginning can apply to. These are not the people who have the bad lifestyles, so-called. They got poor because they didn’t have money. In fact, that’s become a sort of a major kind of theoretical breakthrough of mine: The cause of poverty may not be character failings, may not even be lack of education, may not be bad habits. The real, real core of poverty is a shortage of money. That’s it. It’s a theoretical breakthrough. I’m trying to push it.

Generally when we talk about doing something about poverty, we talk about things that need to be done: affordable housing, subsidized child care, all those sorts of things. We talk about budget programs. This afternoon I went to a fascinating meeting put together by Homewise, the housing organization in Santa Fe, to talk about just these kinds of things. How do we build programs and make them work effectively to help people move up? The sad truth in this country now, though, is instead of helping the down and out, we have a society that seems to persecute the poor, so that if you start sliding downhill, you’re likely to accelerate all the way into destitution, or even further. There’s another step, and that’s incarceration. This is something that has accelerated and increased since the middle of the ‘00s. I’ll tell you why I think that is, this sort of persecution of the poor.

Both government and corporations play a role in this. First of all, a number of employers openly discriminate against hiring unemployed people. It’s funny to say that. They don’t want to hire unemployed people. They want to hire people who already have jobs. Why is that? Because the same stereotypes that apply to the poor apply to the unemployed. They must be losers, so don’t hire them. In fact, there are states now that have been trying to pass laws so that you can’t have help-wanted ads that say, for example,

No unemployed candidates will be considered at all.

More and more employers—and I’ve seen numbers that go up to 70%—now do a credit check on people who apply for a job. It’s nothing to do with your ability to perform the job. Right there the people who most desperately need employment are weeded out. And if you’ve been relying on credit cards to get through these things, the poor face higher interest rates. They don’t get regular credit cards, they get subprime credit cards. I won’t even talk about payday lenders, because they’re such astronomical amounts of interest. And if you think you can get rid of any of these bills by filing for bankruptcy, I was shocked to find that the average cost of filing for bankruptcy in America is $2,000. Where are you going to get the $2,000 just to become bankrupt? Do we need a special program for that? Bankruptcy assistance?

Here’s the most sinister thing to me, though. This is research I’ve done and reporting I’ve done, but also because I work now with a group called the Economic Hardship Reporting Project, which I am proud to say I launched. We get starving journalists, who are pretty easy to find, to do really good research on these sorts of issues. The most sinister thing, it seems to me, is the ways in which government contributes its own harassment of the poor.

Ten million people are charged each year in this country with misdemeanors. Many of these are very minor misdemeanors—I’ll mention some of them—but they still lead to fines and even jail time. Seventy-five percent of the people charged with misdemeanors—this is kind of interesting—are indigent, and the average fine for a misdemeanor is in the range of $200 to $500. Let me give you some examples of what the things are that you can do. You’re already poor, right, you’ve got a low-wage job. In New York it is illegal to put your feet up on a subway seat that is empty. The whole subway car can be empty, it can be 3:00 in the morning. You’re returning from your dishwashing job. You put your feet up, and a cop comes in. You are not warned, you are not reprimanded, you do not receive a citation. You are arrested. You’re right then taken off the subway train into a police station. Next thing is you’re going to be charged, you’re going to have court costs. Because now the defendant is charged with all the court costs, or increasingly with the court costs.

In Washington, D.C., you can be arrested, not just warned or given a citation, for driving with an expired license. So you can see how this grows. The example I like to give is, if you’re driving with a broken headlight, it costs $150, maybe, to get a new one put in. You don’t have $150. You’ve got to get to work or from work or whatever. You get stopped for that. You get fined $200. If you had that money, you would have fixed the headlight, right? So you can’t pay that. Then the court is going to issue a summons at some point, because you haven’t paid that kind of cost. The summons is going to be turned over to a collection agent, which may not bother even getting your correct address. Most people who are issued summonses don’t show up and say they never got the summons. That’s now called “failure to appear.” Now you’re in real trouble. There’s a warrant out for your arrest, and the likelihood is you have no idea about that.

Another thing that is in the public-sector realm is that a growing number of cities have taken to ticketing and sometimes handcuffing children found on the streets during school hours. In Los Angeles the fine for truancy is $250. In Dallas it can be as high as $500. Crushing amounts for people who don’t have much money. In New Mexico, when there is a second conviction for a child’s truancy, a parent may face a fine of not more than $500 or imprisonment for up to six months. We want children to go to school, right? But in L.A. some community groups studied the situation because actually people were getting afraid to send their children to school in case they were a little bit late and got caught in the street and these fines started piling up on the family. So the community organizations found out that 80% of the so-called truants were simply late for school because a city bus was too full and whizzed right by their school-bus stop so they couldn’t get to school on time. I know sometimes it sounds good, Let’s really get those kids in school, let’s make the parents responsible. This has become an additional way of criminalizing the poor. It is not the kids in Beverly Hills whose families are getting tickets for this.

This sort of police harassment has increased since the recession started, as far as anybody can tell me, because it looks like it’s a way for municipalities and counties to raise their revenues. They’re really pressed for revenues, so they said, Let’s have more infractions, let’s have higher fines, let’s charge our court costs. What happens if you don’t pay a fine? Well, you may go to jail. There’s a case I found pretty fascinating about a South Carolina woman who was trying to make a living post losing her business in the recession by selling plasma, her own blood, and also scrap metal. She was charged in January 2012 with having a “messy” yard. Who knew that was a crime? Fined $480. Of course she didn’t have $480. So she was jailed for six days, until there was a community protest to get her out.

At least in this case she was not charged room and board for her jail time. I really want to know more about this. I have no national numbers. I just know it’s increasingly frequent to be charged room and board for your jail time just as like for your court costs. I want the money to do the kind of investigative work—not me, I’ll get other people, smarter people to do it—to find out, just how frequent is that now? Why are people in jail in the first place, usually? You might say they’ve done something wrong. But also because they are too poor to have private representation in court or anything else. They’re poor. So you jail them. And they come out and you say,

That will be $60 a day for your stay here.

It’s very easy to get in deep trouble. The story that I find most amazing comes from Michigan in ‘09. It’s of a woman—I should mention, this is actually a white woman, if it sounds like this is all racial profiling. It is not always. A homeless woman, a full-time worker, was arrested as a homeless person. When they got her, they found she had an even worse thing on her record than being homeless, and that is, her 16-year-old son was in jail and she was not keeping up with his room-and-board charges. So she was jailed because of that. So you have two family members caught in this situation. Fortunately, the ACLU intervened in her case.

One of the things that’s proliferated since the economic downturn is laws that forbid, outlaw essentially, homelessness. A good example, a particularly evil one, would be from Sarasota, Florida, which passed an ordinance that it is illegal there to be asleep outdoors and

when awakened, state that he or she has no other place to live.

In other words, if you’re sleeping in the park and a police officer comes over and shakes you awake and you say,

Oh, you know, I just didn’t feel like staying in my penthouse condo tonight, I really needed a change,

fine, that’s legal. But if you’re awakened and you say,

I’ve got nowhere to go,

that is a crime. Think about that. There are no laws, of course, that require cities to provide food, shelter, or restrooms for their indigent citizens. Restrooms, a big issue. Public urination is a crime almost everywhere. But is anyone going to help you to do it unpublicly if you don’t have the money or the skin color or whatever it takes to walk into a restaurant and just use the facilities?

I think the worst part of this is that in some cities, such as Orlando, it is even illegal to help the poor. There are laws forbidding the sharing of food with indigent people in public places. There’s a great group, Food Not Bombs—you might have heard of them—that like to get in those parks and serve vegan food to homeless people. And I don’t hold the vegan part against them. That’s great. Very sweet, nice, middle-class people have spent time in jail for that crime. As far as I’m concerned, that is like outlawing Christianity or outlawing ethics or something.

And how do they define indigent? I don’t know the definition exactly in Orlando, but Las Vegas had a great definition of indigent. And that was that “an indigent person is someone whom a reasonable person would consider to be eligible for public assistance or able to apply for public assistance.” That could have been me in my everyday work outfit at home as a free-lance writer. But the depth of prejudice there is incomprehensible.

So we have a pattern in this country. We have been defunding services that might help the poor while ramping up various forms of harassment of the poor, including law enforcement. So you starve school budgets, for example, you cut all the fun things, like art and drama and everything, then make truancy illegal. You cut public transportation budgets, then make lateness to school illegal. You shut down public housing and then make it a crime to be homeless. And at a time of high unemployment in most parts of this country, you make it more and more difficult for people who are unemployed who need jobs to find them.

It’s clear, the kinds of things we need to do in this country. We need affordable housing, we need to raise the minimum wage everywhere. In Santa Fe you have to go out there and be the missionaries around the country—that they can raise the minimum wage and have a better, stronger community. You can cut executive compensation at the top of the corporate hierarchy, if you just want to keep things in line. It’s amazing how some of the same economic conservatives who will say,

No, we cannot raise the minimum wage,

when you say,

How about controlling executive compensation?

No, don’t do that either.

Why not? Why not bring that down?

We’ve got health reform, or we should shortly have it, in New Mexico. The question will be whether it is actually implemented so the people can sign up for expanded Medicaid. What about some sick days for this country? Nearly half of America’s private-sector workers have no guaranteed sick days and can face firing for staying home with a sick child.

I could go on and on and on with the things that need to be done. I’ll mention this since there are college students in the audience. This isn’t working, our higher education business. It isn’t working anymore. You have no guarantee of a job when you get out. What you have is a guarantee of a huge debt. An awful lot of poor students are trying to get through college now while working full- time, which is not possible. No one should have to go through this. No one should graduate with tens of thousands of dollars in debt. In fact, I’m for an immediate debt jubilee for all those student loans.

I’m not pushing a positive agenda here. We all know what it is. My sort of short-term demand is much more modest. Could we just stop the meanness? Could we stop the relentless persecution of people who are already having hard time? Could we stop the wage theft by employers? Could we stop treating low-wage workers as criminals? Give them some rights in the workplace so they can even organize into unions, if they want to. Stop penalizing people for their credit scores. Since when is a credit score a measure of a person’s worth, which is how we act about that today? Could we stop harassing the homeless and the indigent. In a sense, to be homeless, to be indigent in America, you have entered the ranks of a population very little different from undocumented workers. It’s like you’re not a citizen anymore. It’s like you have no rights at all here. In other words, could we stop kicking people when they’re down? That’s my program. Not my whole one, but…

I don’t think this is about whether you’re a liberal or a conservative or what your religious orientation is or anything. I think these are moral issues. How we treat the people who are in need is a moral issue. I want to quote someone who is here tonight. She is one of the people who was one of the original activists behind raising the minimum wage in Santa Fe. I remember reading her quoted in The New York Times in 2006. This really meant a lot to me. She said,

What really got the other side

— and she’s talking about the opponents of raising the minimum wage—

was when we said, “It’s just immoral to pay people $5.15 on hour. They can’t live on that.”

She said,

When we said that, it made some of these business people furious. So we kept saying it over and over again.

Forget the so-called economic argument. This is a moral argument. When I speak to religious audiences, and I sometimes do, if you’re looking for some kind of biblical backup, you’re not going to find a lot on abortion in the Bible, you’re not going to find anything on gay marriage in the Bible, you’re not going to find a word about stem cell research in the Bible. But you will find 3,000 references to the moral claim that people who are hurting, chiefly because of poverty, have on the rest of us. I think it is time to start acting on that moral imperative and maybe even get to the point where we move on from stop kicking people when they’re down to the point where we’re actually constantly reaching out a hand.

Thank you.


It’s hard to be funny and discuss these issues in the same breath, but you remind me of Howard Zinn, who combined a great sense of humor while talking about very serious matters. I’d like you to talk about what’s happened to the Democratic Party over the decades in relation to issues of class and poverty. And I’m reminded of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his 1944 State of the Union address on economic justice, he had a whole list of things that he said that America must do and guarantee; for example, “the right to a useful and remunerative job; the right to earn enough to provide adequate food clothing, and recreation; the right of every family to a decent home; the right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and to enjoy good health; the right to adequate protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment; the right to a good education.” He said all of these rights spell security.

I really cannot comment a lot on our elected officials or our Democratic Party. I would just point out that it was good to hear Obama talking recently about raising the federal minimum wage to $9 an hour until you realize that when he was running for reelection he was saying $9.50. If he keeps going down at that the rate we’ll be—the national is, what, 7.25 an hour?

But still, let’s say Congress passes it. At $9 or 9.50, if you are working full-time, you are in poverty.

No question about that.

You have a background with democratic socialists, and you kind of didn’t answer my question on the Democratic Party, where the plight of the poor was once a concern.

I don’t look at it so much politically. It’s in the early 1960s this culture of poverty idea took hold, which is what I was talking about, is terrible stereotypes about the poor, that there’s something wrong with them that has to be fixed, not that there’s something wrong with wages, that there’s a lack of housing, and so on. That’s what I think has to be turned around. There are obvious things everybody is probably thinking of right now, like campaign finance, the obvious dependence of elected officials on great wealth, which I don’t know the solution to unless we prevent all advertising for candidates, which might not be a bad idea.

How has the decline in the union movement affected wages and poverty?

It’s a disaster. The unions have been pushing for raising the minimum wage. That’s a good thing. I fault them for spending the last five or so years without making a huge effort to organize the unemployed. So many people have lost their jobs in this country, in waves. I’ve met with mill workers in Maine and foundry workers in Indiana. When you lose your job, you lose your union membership. No. That’s exactly where the union should be in fighting for you harder than ever. I am quite critical of our major unions.

And I’ll say something which may get me in a lot of trouble back in D.C., but I think they have to sell off their real estate. Anyone who has visited Washington, D.C., and has seen the beautiful buildings that the Teamsters, the AFL-CIO, etc., even the SEIU occupy, I think all that has to go. It’s probably worth hundreds of millions, billions of dollars. All that has to be turned into grass-roots organizing. That’s the only thing to do with that.

Union membership is now at an almost 100-year low. And there have been concerted attacks, well documented in Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, to take away collective bargaining. Talk about their endorsement of Keystone XL, the pipeline project that would bring tar-sands oil to the Guld Coast.

They didn’t come right out and endorse the Keystone pipeline. They just said, There’s a lot of good stuff about pipelines, right? I found very shocking about that in the statement from the AFL-CIO that at the same time they’re saying we the unions have to be sort of a nexus of democratic forces in this country—and they included civil rights, women, etc.—they suddenly dropped the environmental movement? What was with that? I have to say, I spent a lot of time back in union organizing drives, walking picket lines. And right now I always try to remind workers, they have the option of forming their own associations. You do not have to be part of any sort of national or international labor union to be organized. Like the American Airlines flight attendants. They’re not part of the AFL-CIO. They have their own association. The clerical workers at the University of California, at least in Berkeley, have their own association. That’s another way we have to think of that people can go.

The economist Richard Wolff on this stage talked about the systemic and structural problems of capitalism that need to be addressed rather than this or that particular problem. What do you think about that?

I tend to think smaller in my actual work. I agree with Richard Wolff, obviously. But we have to break things down into a size we can deal with. In Santa Fe six, seven years ago, when the living wage movement started, they could have said, “We have to smash capitalism. That’s what’s wrong here, some people getting rich off of other people.” That would be true at some level. But they also carved out an attack. If you want to call that reformism, then we have a fight, David. And I was hoping we would have a fight.

New Mexico is a state with a large number of people in poverty. Many of them are Native Americans. Four of the five poorest counties in the U.S. are on Indian land where there’s a tremendous amount of poverty, unemployment, domestic violence, crime.

Did I mention the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?

You did.

This is my project. We’re trying to get starving journalists to write about economic hardship. We had a very good piece a few months ago, which we got out in a variety of media about what’s happening on Native American reservations in North Dakota. That’s the big oil-boom state. The frackers come in and everybody gets a job. However, at the same time, the place they’re in becomes unlivable because of giant trucks going around, there’s actually no housing. Our reporter lived in a rental car in the Wal-Mart parking lot. Everything just went to hell. That sort of shows another side. You can have economic development, so-called, that is also social collapse.

I was reminded of a Yeats couplet when you were talking about meanness and kind of the hardening of the emotional arteries in the body politic. He said, “We had fed the heart on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.” How do we stop that meanness?

It’s not meanness in us each individually. I think very few of us have an impulse, when we see a panhandler, to hit the person or call the police. But it becomes systematic. When your municipality is so starved for finances that they think that’s actually a good way to make money, by laying fines and fees on top of the poorest people, then it becomes organized. And then we can do something. A lot of that is within reach of city ordinances, of people. You want children handcuffed on the streets for being late to school? You’ve got a choice. You can vote on that, you can go to city council on that. But it means looking at all those places where the gears are turning in that kind of direction and intervening.

I’m sure glad that that truancy thing wasn’t in force when I was going to junior high school and high school, because I was playing hooky most of the time, and my immigrant parents would have probably landed in debtor’s prison, if it had existed at that time.

Debtor’s prison does now exist.

De facto.

Or de jure, whatever. I tried to sketch out the way that can happen. If you miss a court summons, you have debt. And it could be a private-sector debt. It could be that you didn’t pay your rent and your landlord decides to take you to court over that. You don’t show up because you don’t get the summons or you had to work at that time or you have no vehicle or whatever, then you are a criminal.

In recent weeks the stock market has hit record highs, but people aren’t doing as well as Wall Street. One of the characteristics of the ongoing great recession is long- term, chronic unemployment. That’s defined by the Labor Department as 27 weeks or more of people being out of work. It turns out that many of them are older. And it’s hard for them to find a job.

I’m thinking now of the white-collar, professional, managerial job market. When I investigated for my book Bait and Switch—that was really hard. You think Nickel and Dimed was hard? This was really hard. Because all the advice is, on your résumé include no experience that goes back more than 10 years, because that will give your age away. There are no jobs after a certain age. I think one of the scariest times of life for people, no matter how educated or successful they might have been at some point, is when you become too old to be employable again. Say you’re 52 and you want to go back into practicing your white-collar profession, but you’re too young to qualify for Social Security or Medicare. That’s a very scary little period in there, when you become unemployable and you don’t qualify for those limited benefits.

What does it say about the economic system when there’s obviously so much work to be done, so much infrastructure that needs to be built and repaired and restored on one side, and on the other side you have all of these people out of work that are looking for work but the system can’t bring them together?

You’re indicting capitalism again. Is there any shortage of things to do in this country? And it’s not just physical infrastructure. It’s also what you could call human or social infrastructure. The baby boomers more and more are going to need home health care aides, just to give you one example. We’re not all going to be in nursing homes. We’re going to need that kind of service. Right now home health care aides are treated terribly: they’re paid near the minimum wage everywhere. They have no more rights than the average domestic worker. We’re not putting the need together with the ability to do something about that. We have so many children who need tutoring, they need help with school, they need smaller classrooms, and then we have all these unemployed teachers. An economy like that has to be changed.

You write that there was no decision to become a writer; “that was something I just started doing.” You have a background in science, a Ph.D. in cell biology. How did you become a writer?

I never thought about it as a profession. When I decided to become “socially relevant”—that was the old term—and went to work with a little group of young activists around 1970 on improving health care for low-income people in New York City, I actually had no thought of any kind of career. I got my Ph.D. in cell biology. I threw that over, or just got tired of the bench. And then in my first little movement job, I found myself doing a lot of writing. And I liked it, and I liked doing investigations, too, because that seemed to come straight from science.

And in Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch you foreground the first-person narrative. You’re the actor there interacting in these different situations. Very different from rather distant political analysis and essays.

It was strange, very strange.

You’ve said that something that prepared you for writing was the amount of reading that you used to do.

Sometimes students ask me, “How can I become a writer?” And not just students. Writing seems very glamorous. It is glamorous. It’s wonderful. There’s just no pay. I’ll say back to a young person, “What do you read?” “I don’t really read very much.” I’m sorry, that’s the ticket. The first step is to learn the language, how the language is used. Learn the beauty in the language, learn the language as a tool. For me that was not an effort. I love to read. You can’t stop me. I’ve actually had people tell me that Nickel and Dimed was the first book they’ve finished. I don’t know how to feel about that. On the one hand, I’m really proud; on the other hand, terrible, just terrible.

A friend told me Nickel and Dimed was the most depressing book she could never put down.

It’s not depressing.

One thing that characterizes your writing is fluency and terseness. There’s much in little. There’s not this endless verbosity and run-on sentences that begin in Tampa and end in Tucson. Did your science background give you that sense of precision?

I wouldn’t be surprised. A great way to learn to write: Write some science. Anybody ever done that kind of writing? All passive voice. But as a discipline, it’s good, because you just absolutely have to focus on what you’re trying to say. What I’ve said when I’ve taught essay writing classes is, Don’t worry about saying things in lovely ways, what adjectives and adverbs you’re going to use. The first thing is to have something to say. That’s where the struggle is. I don’t find writing sentences down too difficult, probably from those years and years of reading. But the struggle, the agony, the waking up in the middle of the night, thinking, What exactly do I have to say, what needs to be said that hasn’t been said, and how can I make that clear?

And you invest it with passion and energy.

Can’t help that. It’s just infects everything.

It may be growing up in Butte, Montana, which you say was still a “bustling, brawling, blue-collar mining town.” Your father was a miner, other men in your family were either miners or railroad workers. And today, Butte, you note, is, sadly,” an underpopulated, woefully polluted EPA Superfund site thanks to the mining companies.”

It’s a story like so many others. The mining companies come in or the lumber companies or whatever it is, and they make their money and they go off. When the Anaconda company left Butte, Montana, to go get their copper from Chile, they didn’t bother pumping out the mines. They let the mines flood. They let all the toxic chemical wastes flood the city. Neighborhoods are buried under water that is so toxic that birds have been seen accidentally going into it and disappearing.

What was your take on the Occupy movement?

I loved it. Anybody here from Occupy Santa Fe? Congratulations. Thank you. I think actually that was a turning point in which we began to understand, a lot of us, that criminalization of poverty, that it is illegal to be homeless, that it is illegal to do things outdoors in public that biologically you have to do and there is no provision for. It was a turning point for me. I remember going to Zuccotti Park in New York City to visit. I’m too old to stay overnight. That’s my excuse, anyway. Zuccotti Park is pretty small. So I go there and I’m enjoying it and so much is going on. And then I started thinking, Where do you pee? There was one Starbucks about three blocks away which would let people use their bathrooms, and there was like a block-long line outside for that. There are no public facilities. A lot of things I think were brought home to a lot of us who are not homeless through the Occupy encampments. And I think in that way it was sort of a brilliant tactic, although it’s not a tactic that was easy to continue.

Occupy to some extent did inject the 1% versus 99%, and income inequality and wealth inequality into the political discourse. But except for a recent revival after the superstorm Sandy hit the New York-New Jersey area, where Occupy people helped people in distress, get them out of their homes and feed them, the movement pretty much seems to have dissipated.

I don’t think it’s as visible. But one of the things that Occupy people are working on, maybe also here in Santa Fe, but I think nationally—which I mentioned in my talk is abolishing debt. And I’m not talking about for the big banks. We have to look at this trillion dollars now in student loan debt. I don’t know what the number is on medical debt, but medical debt, as Elizabeth Warren pointed out before she became a senator, is the number one cause of bankruptcy in the U.S. I think that the Occupy demand is worth pushing for: Abolish these debts and let people live.

There was the Occupy slogan, “We got sold out, they got bailed out.” It kind of encapsulated the politics of the era. You’ve said that we’ve got to move the discussion from what can we do for the poor to what do we have to stop doing to the poor? Can you talk more about that?

Well, I think the liberal idea is a good one, how do we put these things together—housing and good jobs and education—and make all that work for people. I’m completely down with that. But at the same time, we have to not look away from the huge levels of incarceration in this country, the insanity, for example, of the war on drugs, which has resulted in the incarceration of so many African American men, and these other forms of the criminalization of poverty that are going on.

Michelle Alexander, again, from this stage spoke eloquently about that.

Her book, The New Jim Crow, is great.

What’s coming up for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project?

We have some very hot things in the works. Right now, today, go to and you will see something we got Susan Faludi, the well-known feminist, to write about Sheryl Sandberg’s intervention in feminism. Sheryl Sandberg, the Yahoo executive who has written a book called Lean In about how women can get ahead in the corporate hierarchy. Unfortunately, that book came out at the same time as the female CEO of Yahoo stopped the possibility of working from home—very, very important for parents of both sexes, but particularly women—while she built her own nursery next to her office at the Yahoo building. I’m not really interested in women making it up the corporate ladder if they don’t have concern for their women employees.

Your views on women in combat?

Fine. I’ve been saying this for a long time. My favorite of my own books is called Blood Rites.

It’s a terrific book.

Nobody ever mentions it because it’s scholarly, my own form of scholarly. The point is that ever since the introduction of action-at-a-distance weapons, like bows and arrows, upper-body strength has not been the determining thing in ability to the fight. That’s nonsense. The other thing is, when you’re using action-at-a-distance weapons—and our most common one for the past few hundred years has been guns—you don’t want to be in some kind of testosterone rage when you’re taking aim. Rage and the total sort of testosterone story of war—silly. Unless you’re fighting hand to hand in wrestling or something.

And any guy here who questions that and thinks that women aren’t capable of being really aggressive, I’ll meet you outside.

I’m not going to top that. So that’s a perfect place to stop. Thank you Barbara.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
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phone (800) 444-1977

What’s going on in Canada?

Yves Engler
Interviewed by David Barsamian
Toronto, Ontario
25 March 2013

What’s going on in Canada? Justin Bieber? Snow? Hockey? Since 2006, the vast country of 35 million people has been led by Stephen Harper. He is prime minister and head of the Conservative Party. Earlier in his political career he was a Member of Parliament representing Calgary in Alberta province. To say Harper has close ties with Canada’s powerful oil and mining interests would be an understatement. He is a fervent advocate of the tar sands project in Alberta and has aggressively backed its expansion. Scientists such as James Hansen call the extraction of this particularly dirty oil a “monster” and “game over” for stabilizing the climate. Harper is strongly backing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to the U.S. Gulf Coast. That project, opposed by many in the U.S., is on Obama’s desk right now

This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Yves Engler has been called “one of the most important voices on the Canadian Left today” and “in the mould of I.F. Stone.” He is the author of many books, including Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt, The Black Book of Canadian Foreign Policy, Canada Israel: Building Apartheid, and The Ugly Canadian: Stephen Harper’s Foreign Policy.

You can listen to Yves Engler speak for himself here.

I’d like you to read the opening paragraph from The Ugly Canadian.

“While millions disagree with Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party’s domestic agenda, fewer Canadians are aware of his government’s destructive foreign policy. Many of us only pay close attention to matters that directly affect us, or our families. So when the Conservatives make it harder to collect unemployment insurance or raise the Old Age Pension, people notice because it affects them or someone they know. When a Conservative MP introduces a private member’s bill to restrict a woman’s right to choose an abortion, media outlets across the country report on it and pundits produce reams of analysis, much of it critical. But when our government encourages a coup in Honduras or mining legislation to benefit Canadian companies over indigenous communities in Peru, there is little critical reporting in the dominant media. This is because the only direct Canadian self-interest tends to be that of the companies trying to profit from the situation. Investors put pressure on the government to promote their self-interests while few, if any, Canadians have a direct stake in defending Honduran democracy or the rights of poor villagers in a remote corner of Peru.”

Who is the ugly Canadian? Who is Stephen Harper? What are his political origins?

Stephen Harper’s foreign policy is not something that’s completely distinct from previous Canadian governments’ foreign policies. But it’s a particularly ideological bunch that are in power today, very close to the tar sands oil interests and a couple decades of right-wing ideology that comes with the oil sector in Alberta. Also, it’s a foreign policy that is very close with the rise of Canadian mining companies globally. Those companies have risen in influence around the world at incredible rates, going from about $250 million in investment in Africa in 1989 to $30 billion today. They dominate throughout Latin America with hundreds of billions of dollars of mining investments there.

So Stephen Harper comes out of a particularly right-wing regional movement from Alberta, where the bulk of Canadian oil is. And at the foreign policy level he has very much extended this sort of right-wing ideology. The rise of the tar sands and the rise of Canadian mining investment are some of the economic forces that are driving this particularly ugly Canadian.

Andrew Nikiforuk, the journalist, who has been a guest on this program, told me when I interviewed him in Calgary that Alberta was “Texas on steroids” and it was Canada’s “petrostate.”

There’s a lot of truth to that. Harper’s ties to the oil sector in Alberta are extensive familial ties. In large part the political party he represents comes out of a backlash to a national energy program in the 1980s. Basically, that was not liked by the oil companies in Alberta, and they funded an alternative Reform Party for a while. Then it morphed into the Conservative Party and a whole host of right-wing think tanks. For Alberta regionally, every position in the House of Commons from Alberta, minus one, was won by the Conservative Party. So the province is the bastion of support for this government and all those particularly regressive elements that tend to come with the oil sector.

If Alberta were an independent country, it would have the third largest oil reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

And the plan is to keep extracting that no matter what the ecological toll is. That’s where you see, with the Keystone pipeline protests, why the federal government and the Alberta government have both been so active in their lobbying in the U.S. to get that pipeline built. Because this is not just about something that’s going to play out for the next couple years. They have plans to extract billions of barrels of oil and keep expanding the extraction process. And, obviously, Alberta is cut off from a seaport. There’s opposition to building pipelines to the West Coast through British Columbia.

They want to get that oil to market and the most profitable of the options is down to the Gulf Coast. So you have a federal government that has literally spent millions, probably into the tens of millions of dollars, lobbying in the U.S. on behalf of TransCanada and the Keystone pipeline. The Alberta government also, all the ministers repeatedly in Washington speaking to governors throughout the U.S., sending letters to Congress people or senators that come out in opposition to the pipeline, going to county meetings and writing letters to The New York Times. And on and on and on, just an incredible lobbying battle. Because the Keystone pipeline is not just about the short term. The plan is to continue to expand the tar sands. And there are a number of companies that are making and will be making lots of profit from that process. From an ecological standpoint it’s a catastrophe, but from the standpoint of economic growth and profit, there’s a lot of money to be made in the Alberta tar sands.

James Hansen, the well-known U.S. scientist says that if this project continues, that it would be “game over.” You hear a lot of these kinds of apocalyptic terms around the tar sands—tipping point, game changer—but there is a solid consensus that this would significantly exacerbate climate change.

There’s no doubt about it. The first thing that people have to understand is that they have started with the easiest oil. It gets dirtier as the extraction process goes along. And increasingly, while there are efficiency improvements in the extraction of the current dominant form of extraction of tar sands oil, they’re increasingly going to in situ extraction, which is pumping moisture down to pull out the oil. And that’s even more energy-intensive. From the oil sector crowd, they say they’re getting better, more efficient, it’s less harmful to the environment. But in fact they’re moving toward a model of even more difficult oil to get out, which is more energy-intensive, plus the impact on the indigenous communities that live there, and the destruction of forest at incredible levels.

Are there not problems with coal extraction? Are there not problems with traditional oil extraction? Of course there are. There need to be radical changes in how we structure our cities and how we structure our economies. There is no doubt. The tar sands are not the only problem out there. But with the plans of expansion they have going, I think this should be seen as a line in the sand for the environmental movement. So far the mobilizations against the pipeline, certainly in B.C., have been very impressive in terms of galvanizing environmental activism; and, clearly, in the U.S., with the Keystone protests, they’ve been very good at galvanizing environmental activism and putting the question of climate justice and climate disturbance on to the political agenda, which is an incredibly important development.

More than 1200 people were arrested at the White House in the largest civil disobedience action in recent memory. And the Sierra Club, a conservative environmental organization in the U.S., has now endorsed civil disobedience as a technique to try and stop this project from going forward.

That’s a very positive development. I saw that more recently, if Obama okays the Keystone XL, up to 5,000 people are planning to use their bodies to disrupt the building process. It is just one element in a bigger fight. I’ve written a previous book called Stop Signs: Cars and Capitalism on the Road to Economic, Social and Ecological Decay. I think we need to move completely away from the private automobile, for instance, among many other changes in terms of the environment and economy. So we need to be moving towards a model of walking, biking, and mass transit for people to get around. We need to be changing the ways in which food is grown to be less energy-intensive. There are lots of changes that need to be done.

Interestingly, the Keystone protests in the U.S. have really put the Conservative Harper government on the defensive on the climate issue. They, of course, pulled out of the Kyoto Protocol. They’ve criticized the opposition NDP for its supposed job-killing climate change program. So they’ve been really aggressive in doing their best to do nothing on that issue. But the protests in the U.S. have forced them on to the back foot. Now they’re starting to talk about bringing in stricter measures around greenhouse gas emissions on a number of fronts. It’s probably mostly rhetorical at this point, but it’s interesting to see how the social movement in the U.S. has really impacted the official political discussion in this country around greenhouse gases. What’s needed is bigger and more militant protests. And pushing groups like the Sierra Club and other more conservative organizations to drop this desire to always be respectable and moving towards activism and taking the science seriously.

Explain NDP.

The New Democratic Party, in this last federal election, 2011, for the first time in their history became the official opposition. They’re traditionally the labor-supported party. They’re sort of the social democrats, clearly to the left of the Democrats, though increasingly less to the left of the Democrats and clearly moving to the right. But they have a history of being tied into social movements. They were the party in Saskatchewan that brought in Medicare, the national single-payer health insurance. They’re the main opposition at this point.

The premier of Saskatchewan, at the time, was the father-in-law of the actor Donald Sutherland.

Tommy Douglas was the premier when they started the process of bringing in Medicare in Saskatchewan 50 years ago.

How have the protests in the U.S. against Keystone affected Canadian activists? Have there been sit-downs and blockades?

In British Columbia there have been. There are two different main pipelines planned to take oil from Alberta to the coast through B.C. The Northern Gateway has received the most amount of protest, which looks like it’s dead in the water because of a combination of indigenous opposition, First Nations. B.C.’s unceded territory. So the First Nations have legal rights that are quite significant. That combined with the environmental movement have really put that on the back burner. And there is another pipeline planned to go into a port in the Vancouver area. There’s lot of opposition from the municipalities. At this point there hasn’t been that significant of a direct action. There have been wide-scale pledges of, If they start this process, we’re going to block it physically. At this point it looks unlikely that they will be able to get the pipeline through, because even the right-wing provincial government of B.C. has come out in opposition to the main pipeline.

There has been some direct action, sort of symbolic direct action or symbolic getting arrested, against the Keystone XL in Ottawa. But the battle to some extent in Canada has been lost, because the National Energy Board has okayed the project and the opposition has really been coalesced more on the pipelines out to B.C., because that’s where groups have much more capacity to actually block the pipelines, whereas the one down south is much more difficult to oppose.

And that Northern Gateway pipeline is an Enbridge project. And then the U.S. pipeline is being projected to be built by TransCanada.

Both of them are Calgary-based. Enbridge is a major pipeline company that wants to take that oil out to the West Coast and then export it to Asia, possibly export it down to Southern California. TransCanada is the one building the Keystone XL, has already built portions of that longer pipeline, and is now calling on the Obama government to okay the cross-border component, which he has authority to say yes or no to. I think they’re the two most important pipeline companies in Canada.

But it’s not just the companies themselves. It’s the whole Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers that’s behind this, and at the end of the day all of the companies that are invested in the Alberta tar sands that have direct interest in the building of these pipelines. So the companies themselves are big multinational corporations, but they have numerous bigger multinational corporations, from Total to Exxon to many others, kind of behind them in supporting the building of these pipelines.

And China is proposing to invest quite significantly in the tar sands.

A Chinese oil company, CNOOC, recently purchased for $15 billion, Nexen, a Canadian company heavily operating in the tar sands. The purchase by the Chinese company is in part because they obviously want access to the tar sands oil, but it’s also the expertise. The Canadian companies producing in Alberta are at the kind of forefront of the extraction technologies of this really dirty and difficult to get to oil. So for the Chinese, there are other parts of the world where similar forms of oil exist, so there’s a desire to build up that expertise for use globally.

A Canadian organization called has called FIPA, the Foreign Investment Protection Agreement, between China and Canada, “the most secretive and sweeping trade deal of a generation.”

It’s been postponed. The Harper government signed FIPA. But it has not been passed in the House of Commons because about six months ago, when it became public, there was a groundswell of opposition. Because the accord really extends the investor rights of Chapter 11 in NAFTA, which allows foreign companies to sue the government if they feel they’ve had their profits impacted. And it has a really long shelf life. Once it’s signed, it’s in effect for 30 years. Whereas NAFTA, whatever country—I think it’s six months they have to give notice to pull out of the agreement.

There’s speculation that FIPA is a way of locking in Chinese investment into the tar sands. Some even speculated that the Conservative government wants this accord with China to strengthen the push to get that oil from Alberta out through B.C. and actually be able to hang it over the heads of the provincial government in B.C. and the communities that oppose it. That by the rules of FIPA the Chinese company would be able to sue Canada. That would then put further pressure to build the Northern Gateway pipeline to get the oil out to Asia. Whether that’s true or not, I’m not sure.

But what is clear is this is a further intense extension of investor rights and that whole process of corporate capitalist globalization that’s been going on for a couple of decades of putting the rights of investors above those of indigenous communities, above those of governments to regulate, above environmental accords, etc.

How did the sale of Nexen to CNOOC go over?

Harper okayed the purchase but it was controversial, even fairly controversial within the government itself. says that this takeover of Nexen will open the floodgates to a wave of foreign buyouts of Canada’s resources.

That’s not the criticism I would make. First of all, there’s lots of foreign investment in the tar sands already, companies from Exxon to the French company Total to Norway’s Statoil to state-owned oil company from Qatar. I think one of the reasons why the Nexen purchase received so much opposition, even from establishment voices, is that China is seen as sort of a geopolitical rival of the West, of the U.S., Canada. So when a state-owned company from Qatar invests in the tar sands the reaction is different. Qatar is an ally of the West. It’s equally as repressive as China, it’s a state-owned company like the Chinese company, but that gets very little criticism.

I oppose foreign investment in general into natural resources. In fact, I oppose Canadian corporate investment. I think natural resources should be in the hands of local communities, in conjunction with provincial and national governments. And that should be everywhere in the world. That doesn’t just go for Chinese investment into Canada, but that also goes for Canadian mining investment in the Congo. You read in the business pages of The Globe and Mail or the National Post, the two dominant business papers, about how one Canadian company has paid $3 billion to another Canadian company to buy a mine or two in the Congo. The question of the Congolese is just completely off the agenda. But foreign investment, particularly in natural resources, whether it’s an American company or a Chinese company, I’m not a big supporter of either of these options.

Talk about the First Nations in Alberta and how they are adversely affected by the tar sands project, the Athabasca Nation. There has been a huge increase in rare cancers, there’s been contamination of water, wildlife has been imperiled.

In Fort Chipewyan, which is probably the worst hit significant sized community—multiple thousands of people live there, predominantly indigenous people—the cancer rates have risen significantly. There has been just incredible pressure on the doctors—this is going back several years—when it started to become clear that the toxins being released in the tar sands extraction were increasing cancer rates. There were some attempts by a doctor working there to document the issue. He got incredible pressure, basically got run out by the provincial government. The question has been proven beyond a reasonable scientific doubt at this point, that there have been increased cancer rates, but that’s put aside for the profits that the oil companies are extracting. There is a long history in this country, obviously, of natural resource extraction being at the expense of the first peoples, that had their land taken from them and continue to have their land taken from them across what is currently called Canada.

Not unlike the U.S.

For sure.

One of the chapters in The Ugly Canadian is “Mining the World.” You quote Harper saying, “Canadians are justly proud of our mining industry for its elevated sense of corporate social responsibility.” Then you quote a Foreign Affairs spokesperson from Ottawa, “Canada’s mining sector leads the world in responsible mining practices.”

That’s just Orwellian. The way to hide a problem is by boasting in the complete opposite direction. Even the Mining Association of Canada, there was a report of theirs leaked in 2011 which showed that Canadian mining companies were engaged in the biggest number of what they call “corporate social responsibility problems” around the world. The evidence, the documentation, is just absolutely overwhelming. At this point, and unbelievable as it might sound, you can pretty much pick any country in the global south and you will find an example of a Canadian-run company that’s involved in a conflict with the local community that has spurred violence, that has spurred ecological problems, from Ghana to Papua New Guinea, Chile to Guatemala. There is an example of a Canadian mining company that hired security forces who were then involved in raping people from the local community. Oftentimes because there’s resistance to the mine, people are killed because the community opposes the mine and the company is adamant that it’s going to move forward. So the examples are just absolutely overwhelming. Mostly ignored, of course, by the dominant media in this country. But groups like Mining Watch Canada and a whole series of different independent media outlets have just documented story after story after story. Increasingly, they have trickled out into the dominant media.

But the Harper government has blocked all attempts to bring in minimal regulations for mining companies. One of the reasons there are so many mining companies based in Canada, on Canadian stock exchanges, particularly the Toronto Stock Exchange and the Vancouver Stock Exchange, is that communities don’t have the right to pursue legally a company in this country that is responsible for abuses abroad. The U.S. something like 100 countries in the world have laws that allow people from other countries to pursue a company from the U.S. or elsewhere in a home court for what they did abroad. That doesn’t exist in Canada.

It’s precisely because the whole regulatory environment is incredibly permissive to what companies based in Canada do abroad, a big part of the reason, that so many of the mining companies are based here. Sixty percent of the world’s mining companies are based in Canada, on Canadian stock exchanges. I think it’s something like 40% of all mining capital from the world is on Canadian stock exchanges. So Canada is far and away the biggest player in the global mining sector, particularly in the juniors; a big player among the big companies, but particularly among the junior mining companies. The Harper government is just an ardent defender of the mining sector, no matter what the companies are involved in abroad. If there are examples where the company’s security forces have killed people, they still defend the Canadian mining company.

What you described as the lack of legal redress and criminal prosecution, is that connected with what you call, “Canadian mining investment is dependent on extreme free-market capitalism”? Is this extreme free-market capitalism?

It’s not free-market capitalism when you have the Canadian government lobbying on your behalf in Ecuador to introduce Canadian miners to local authorities. That’s not extreme free-market capitalism. That’s a clear example of government supporting the mining sector. But that’s ignored in the discussion. But what the Canadian mining sector has benefited from is a whole series of pro-capitalist reforms, often pushed by the International Monetary Fund through its structural adjustment programs, things like the reforms that came alongside NAFTA in Mexico. In the lead-up to NAFTA there were changes to the ejido system. Corporations in Mexico benefited from the elimination of the ejido system, where local communities had control over the rights of the subsoil and mining. This placated Canadian and other foreign investors. They did not have to worry about having “their” property taken over by local communities. At the time of NAFTA, in the mid-1990s, there was no foreign mining company operating in Mexico. By 2010 there were 375 Canadian mining companies operating in that country. Almost the entire mining sector is Canadian-dominated.

As I mentioned before, in 1989 there was $250 million in Canadian mining investment in Africa. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, there was a whole series of structural adjustment programs pushed by the IMF, which often opened up those African countries’ natural resource sectors to foreign ownership and exploitation. Canadian companies are a dominant player throughout Africa; they’ve been the primary beneficiary.

When we talk about the ugly Canadian in terms of Harper’s foreign policy, structurally an important component of that is that these Canadian mining companies that are all across the globe understand that resource nationalism and socialistic reforms are a big threat to their profits. That’s part of why you see that Peter Munk, who is the head of Barrick Gold, the biggest Canadian mining company, came out viciously against Hugo Chavez. Even though his company has had no investments in Venezuela, he denounced Chavez as a dictator and has been very aggressively opposed to him because he understands that the sort of socialistic reforms that were being pursued there are a real threat to his interests elsewhere, if other countries start pursuing those reforms.

One of the first reforms that movements against neoliberalism pursue is they call for higher royalty rates on foreign investment, in the natural resource sector they call for nationalizing of natural resources. So the rise of the mining sector has had a major impact on creating a more generally right-wing Canadian foreign policy.

Chavez, of course, passed away in March of 2013.

And the Canadian government was the only government that used the opportunity to criticize Chavez, which prompted a very hostile letter from the Venezuelan government to the Harper government. Which is just another example of this over-the-top behavior—even Obama had the good sense to write a sort of don’t-say-anything type of statement about Chavez’s death, but Harper used it as an opportunity to again show that he’s the most right-wing government in the hemisphere.

Harper’s hostility to nationalist governments in Latin America doesn’t extend to Cuba.

It is a very interesting development. First of all, there are lots of Canadian corporate interests in Cuba that have to some extent benefited from the U.S. embargo. Now, ideologically, they are, of course, incredibly hostile to Cuba, but they have kept that pretty minimal. Here and there there’s an odd criticism that’s ideologically driven, but they’ve mostly avoided an open fight with the Cuban government. But also, there are about a million Canadian tourists who go to Cuba every year. So there’s a sense of—you could almost call it solidarity among Canadians, an understanding that the American embargo is unfair and it’s a punishment of Cuba that’s not warranted. So the combination of quite a bit of sympathy among the public and significant corporate interests have led to a situation where the Harper government has just decided to try to avoid the question and has quieted down the most ideological bunch in their attacks against Cuba.

Canada is militarily involved in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan. Are mining companies also involved because Afghanistan is known to have huge deposits of precious metals and minerals?

There has been a whole series of articles in the business pages of the Canadian papers going back five, six, seven years about the natural resources in Afghanistan and precisely the position that Canadian companies would be in to benefit because of the heavy military involvement of Canada in Afghanistan. Some are saying as many as a trillion dollars’ worth of natural resources, of different minerals, in Afghanistan. Because of the security situation, it’s been slow in terms of developing. One Canadian company did get a quarter stake in I think it’s an Indian-led project, a fairly significant project in Afghanistan. But there is no doubt that that was one of the issues sort of hovering in the background of Canada’s military involvement in Afghanistan, which continues with about 1,000 Canadian troops that are no longer supposed to be militarily involved, they’re just supposed to be training Afghans, but are clearly still part of the U.S.-led occupation of that country.

And in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, the tenth anniversary of which was recently observed, Canada to some extent did not directly get itself involved militarily but it profited enormously from the U.S. invasion.

It wouldn’t be correct to say that Canada didn’t get involved militarily. Canada didn’t join, the Chrétien government, because of massive protests, particularly in Quebec. There were huge protests in Montreal. And with a provincial election coming up in Quebec, a fear in the Chrétien government of the time, since like 80% of Quebec were against the war, that supporting the war would benefit the sovereignist Parti Québécois, that wants an independent Quebec. They didn’t join the “coalition of the willing.” They didn’t formally endorse the war but they did a whole bunch of things that supported it. For instance, there were Canadian troops integrated in U.S. units that were part of the invasion; there were Canadian generals, one general who then became the head of the Canadian military, who was actually in charge of 35,000 foreign troops in Baghdad, and a couple of other Canadian generals in similar positions at different points; there were Canadian naval vessels off the coast of Iraq.

Actually, the government had a legal opinion that because of Canada’s role in charge of this NATO force off the coast of Iraq, that we were actually legally at war with Iraq because it was about stopping Iraqi ships. There were Canadian training missions of jets in Iraq. A whole series of different forms of Canadian support to the war in Iraq, but not the main form, what Bush wanted above all else, which was that public endorsement of the invasion.

So Iraq, on one hand, is an example of the success of the antiwar movement in this country, but on the other hand, it’s an example of how deeply integrated the Canadian military establishment is with the U.S. military establishment. There are something like 150 different military accords between Canada and the U.S., most prominently through NORAD. So this country has a deep history of being tied into U.S. militarism, going back certainly to the post-World War II period.

In North Africa and the Middle East you write that the reasons for Harper’s foreign policy may be more complex than the straightforward promotion of wealthy people’s financial interests. What are some of those reasons?

It depends on the country. In the case of Saudi Arabia, the Harper government, is deeply tied to the monarchy. Part of that has an economic component. Part of it is that Saudi Arabia is a long-standing U.S. ally in the region and I guess was threatened in the context of the Arab Spring pro-democracy protests.

In the case of Israel, the Harper government has made Canada the most pro-Israel, diplomatically at least, country in the world—very aggressively in support of whatever the right-wing government in Israel does, says nothing about the expansion of settlements. But I think Harper, like George Bush Jr., is tied in to a sort of evangelical Christian Zionist movement. Obviously, Israel is seen as a geopolitical ally.

I wrote a book called Canada and Israel: Building Apartheid, which goes into the long history of Canada’s support for Israel, which predates the creation of Israel in 1948. There are long-standing Christian Zionist views in this country, and also a long-standing view of Israel and Zionism before the creation of Israel in 1948, of Israel being a tool of Western imperialism in the region. There were people going back to the late 1800s in this country calling for a dominion of Israel as part of the British Empire, just like Canada.

So Israel is an example where there’s a mix of motivations for this strong pro-Israel support. But two of those are a combination of a Christian Zionist movement that Harper represents and also, part of what the Conservative government wants to do. They want to replicate the sort of social model of the Republican Party, where it’s completely pro-business party. But how do you develop a base of activists and how do you have people vote for you? Part of that in the U.S. is focusing on social issues and trying to build a base of support among a certain subsector of the population through Christian Zionism, and other sorts of social issues that they’ve pursued.

Quoting Andrew Nikiforuk, “Republican religious tribalism is now Ottawa’s worldview.”

Exactly. I think Harper pretty consciously looks to the Republican Party as what to try to replicate—fortunately, in lots of ways unsuccessfully on a number of the social issues. The public has become so accepting of things like gay marriage that it’s difficult for them to go where they want to go, abortion being obviously the biggest issue. But still a big chunk of the Conservative Party MPs are people who are antagonistic to abortion, who are antagonistic to gay marriage. That’s a big part of the base of their party.

Ten percent of Canadians identify themselves as evangelical. So that’s about 3 to 3 1/2 million people, including the prime minister and some of his cabinet ministers as well. In the U.S., Christian fundamentalists see the extraction of resources as a bounty that God has given and used that as justification.

The church that Harper goes to—it’s unclear if he really believes in this stuff or he sees this as politically useful to belong to this church—has said similar kind of stuff like that about climate change and God’s role and the denial of climate change, that it’s our duty to extract these resources and the like. To me, it’s obviously a self-serving ideology from the standpoint of oil and mining companies. Nonetheless it convinces many people who aren’t necessarily directly benefiting from the process in significant ways.

Years ago I remember listening to a Noam Chomsky lecture which was recorded here in Toronto. He began with, “I landed today at an airport named after a war criminal,” the Lester Pearson International Airport at Toronto, the very one that I landed at today. Why would Chomsky describe Pearson, a former prime minister of Canada, as a war criminal?

Actually, that story that Chomsky tells in the book Understanding Power I included in the forward that he wrote for my book Lester Pearson’s Peacekeeping: The Truth May Hurt. In Canada it’s important to note that there is this strong idea of Canada being a benevolent international actor. A lot of people, even on the left, believe that it’s Harper that has wrecked Canadian foreign policy, that prior to that it was morally directed. That’s untrue, and it’s an important part of what I’ve tried to challenge in my previous books.

Lester Pearson is the preeminent symbol of that supposedly benevolent Canadian foreign policy. He was the most important post-World War II Canadian foreign policy decision maker. He was head of External Affairs from 1949 to 1956, he was then prime minister from 1963 to 1968, and had a number of different roles in the External Affairs bureaucracy.

Chomsky’s focus for referring to Pearson as a war criminal—I agree, correctly so—is Pearson’s role in the Vietnam War, and specifically in terms of delivering American bombing threats to the North Vietnamese. That came out in the Pentagon Papers, that Pearson, in a meeting with Lyndon Johnson, had okayed having Canadian officials who were on the International Control Commission, which was supposed to be bringing peace to the region, go to the North Vietnamese and say, If you don’t do this, we, meaning, of course, the U.S., will bomb you. And the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam was quite clearly a war crime. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed. There was Canadian complicity in that process, among many other elements of the war in IndoChina.

But Pearson’s record, actually, is the reason that the second part of the title of my book is called The Truth May Hurt. I think for lots of left nationalists, it hurts them to hear this stuff. But Pearson played a big role in the founding of NATO. He played a terrible role in the Korean War. He was the external minister. He actually threatened to resign if Canada didn’t send ground troops to Korea. That’s a war that left 3 to 4 million people killed. At one point the U.S. stopped bombing North Korea because all buildings of more than two stories were thought to have been destroyed. This was a war of incredible brutality, something that makes the war in Afghanistan or the bombing and the war in Libya look tame comparatively. But Pearson was a big player in that. And he was the person most responsible for moving Canada from support for British imperialism towards support for American imperialism in that post-World War II period.

Why did Canada get militarily involved in Libya?

One, it’s a strong proponent of NATO, going back to the creation of NATO. There are also significant Canadian corporate interests in Libya that were put in jeopardy with the uprising and some of the Western response to that. Another internal Canadian government document that just came out a couple days ago showed that immediately before the war was over the priority was securing Canadian investments and benefiting from the reconstruction process in Libya.

There were some specific elements. The Canadian government in the process was trying to purchase 65 F35 fighter jets from Lockheed Martin, which has been a very controversial issue in Canada.


Because of the cost, primarily. That’s what the dominant media focus has been on, because the cost is just escalating to $35 billion or $40 billion, and the government has sort of tried to suppress the cost. They initially said it was going to be $9 billion, and then they came out, It’s going to be twice that, and then they just tried to lie about it. That’s most of what the media talks about.

Obviously, from my standpoint, we shouldn’t be buying F35 fighter jets because the point of F35 fighter jets is to kill people. And I think there’s lots of progressive opinion in this country that opposes the F35 for that reason. That’s been a controversial issue. The bombing of Libya was just before the Canadian election and right at a time when the F35 was particularly controversial. So from the government’s standpoint, the bombing of Libya sort of justified spending more on fighter jets. The corporate media basically said, We need these F35s because this wonderful moral crusade we’re doing in Libya is an example of why we need a top-of-the line fighter jet.

But a big part of the reason why the government wants the F35 is because the military is so into it, and the military is so into it because that’s the top-of-the-line fighter jet. And to be well integrated into the U.S. military, that’s your best bet, to be that away, alongside many Canadian companies that are involved in the production of the fighter jets.

But when it came to neighboring countries of Libya, to wit, Tunisia and Egypt, Ottawa, the Harper government, supported the Ben Ali and Mubarak dictatorships right till the end.

Egypt was a particularly embarrassing situation for Harper. Three hours before Mubarak publicly announced his resignation, Harper was making a speech essentially endorsing Mubarak’s transition plan, which was something that was opposed overwhelmingly by the pro- democracy movement. In the case of Tunisia, it was a bit lower-profile, but likewise they supported Ben Ali to the bitter end. So the idea that they supported the bombing of Libya or the opposition in Libya just because they believe in democracy is absurd and is obviously shown in the case of Egypt or Tunisia. But it’s also shown in the case of Saudi Arabia, where they’ve strengthened Canadian military, diplomatic, and business ties. Saudi Arabia, of course, being a monarchy that is one of the most repressive places in the world.

The Harper government is also engaged in a major navy ship building expansion and is setting up military bases around the world. How has the post-9/11 War on Terror environment intersected with the growth of Canadian militarism?

It’s been a fundamental sort of justifying of the ramping up of militarism, the war in Afghanistan being the most obvious example, that that was sort of justified in the post-9/11 context. And then that justified a really ramping up of military budgets, which began a little bit before Harper took office but then just exploded in the first five years of the Harper government, with the Canadian military budget going from about $15 billion to about $23 billion over about five years of significant increases every year.

They’re in the midst of a massive $35 billion warship building project, which is about projecting force abroad, which is also what the setting up of seven military bases around the world is about. One is already set with Jamaica, Kuwait, Germany, and plans—this came out about a year and a half ago—the government didn’t want this to come out but it came out through a leak—for bases in Kenya, in South Korea, in Senegal. It’s a little bit unclear which countries will ultimately accept the Canadian bases and which countries the Canadian government will choose. But it’s about being able to respond to conflicts or events all around the world. And the history is that, contrary to the mythology, what the decision makers say, is that usually they send Canadian troops places because there is an economic or a geostrategic reason to send them, not because it’s about helping the poor of Haiti, for instance, which is one of the justifications they gave for the bases.

But there has been a real extension of Canadian militarism. Which has really surprised, taken a lot of Canadians aback, just how aggressive that increase in militarism has been.

So that image of the blue-helmeted Canadian peacekeeper is largely a myth.

It’s always largely been a myth. For a lot of people the Harper government has just exploded that in their faces. It’s never been true, as I’ve tried to point out in previous books. And, in fact, even the creation of peacekeeping in 1956 with the Suez crisis, Lester Pearson’s motivation, who was then the External Affairs minister, was to support the U.S., which opposed the British-French-Israeli invasion. The U.S. didn’t oppose that invasion because they had a moral disagreement. It was because they wanted to tell the former colonial powers, France and England, that there was a new boss in the region, Washington. And they were also worried that the British- French-Israeli invasion would add to Moscow’s prestige among the recently decolonized Arab countries. The motivation for creating the peacekeeping mission was to advance Washington’s geostrategic interests. But it got morphed in the history books written by the establishment to be this idea of a benevolent Canadian foreign policy, which has close to zero basis in reality.

And what’s happening further north, that is to say, the Arctic? What with global warming increasing the melting of the ice there, the sea lanes are going to be opening and Canada is going to be defending the north, presumably.

They justify the spending on the military partly on those grounds. In fact, what I understand from the F35 fighter jet, for instance, it’s actually not the right fighter jet if you really wanted to protect the north, because the distances are so large and it’s not ideal for flying in those contexts. But there’s no doubt that there’s increasing corporate interest in the north. One of those sad ironies of climate change is that they see this as an opportunity: the oil companies, that are largely responsible for the climate change, see the climate change as an opportunity to extract more oil that they previously were not able to get after. And also, of course, there are questions of significantly cutting the travel time for shipping of goods across the north. There are questions about territorial rights. The Canadian government has very wide demands or believes its rights to control over the seaways are quite strong, and there’s disagreement among a handful of countries in the north over those issues.

In post-9/11 U.S. there has been an evisceration of many guaranteed rights under the Constitution. Have similar things occurred in Canada, under the rubric of protecting the citizenry from the terrorist threat?

Defintely. There was a big increase in the security certificates, which are basically used against a handful of Muslim Canadians who were targeted by CSIS, which is the internal and external intelligence agency, sort of a cross between the FBI and CIA. There has, fortunately, on that issue been quite an impressive push-back from activist groups, which has forced a number of individuals to be released—long, multi-year protest movements that combine street activism with legal battles. But there has been expansion. Things like the G20, G8 protests in Toronto, just an incredible number of arrests and temporary legislation that was brought in that comes out of the post-9/11 rise of a security state. I don’t think it has been quite as intense as in the U.S., but nevertheless a significant rise of sort of Islamophobia and different laws that justify state control or stopping of dissent or creating fear among different immigrant and particularly Muslim communities.

At the Pearson airport today I was pulled over and questioned, basically because I have Pakistani, Syrian, Egyptian, and Iranian visas in my passport.

Certainly an Iranian visa would attract the attention of the authorities because the Harper government has gone out of its way to be incredibly hostile to Iran and talk up preparing for an attack on that country. Recently they shut down the Iranian embassy in Canada. There are about 200-300,000 Iranian Canadians. There are thousands, tens of thousands, I think, of Iranian students who have come to study here who overnight have no access to visas. Their ability to travel, to go home, to stay have just been thrown into jeopardy. So there’s no doubt that CSIS has been particularly interested in those questions. And that might have contributed to your being asked questions.

I should say, the official was pleasant and wanted to know where I was going, where I was staying, things like that, and she said, “Have a nice time.” But what prompted Harper to sever diplomatic relations with Tehran and to oust all Iranian diplomats in Canada?

They alluded to a threat of an Iranian government- sponsored terrorist attack against Canada. That’s how they justified it, or partly justified it. But I think what actually prompted it was they’ve taken increasingly a bellicose position on Iran and have been repeatedly condemning Iran in a whole series of different international forums.

But part of what prompted it was actually Iran had just hosted the nonaligned summit, which was a big rebuke to Washington’s, Ottawa’s, Tel Aviv’s position on trying to isolate Iran. It was a couple weeks after that that Ottawa severed relations, kicked out the Iranian embassy. It was partly a way to try to draw negative attention towards Iran. Iran is again being further isolated, was sort of what they were trying to portray.

I think one of the reasons that enabled the cutting off of diplomatic relations is because for so many years previous to that they’ve been dissuading business relations with Iran. The main objective of a Canadian embassy anywhere in the world is to advance Canadian corporate interests. But once the government has tried to stop those corporate interests in the country, to some extent what’s the point of having an embassy anymore?

There are Canadian naval vessels as part of the U.S. armada running provocative maneuvers off the coast of Iran. Canadian government officials a number of times have referred to how the Canadian military is planning for an action against Iran; repeated diplomatic criticisms, a long list of hostile comments and actions towards Iran over the past three, four, five years.

Al Jazeera had a story on Canada’s war on science. They’re saying, “Canadian campaigners are calling it a war on science, a slow and systematic unraveling of the environmental and climate research budgets under the Conservative government of Stephen Harper. Hundreds of researchers have lost their jobs, with those remaining reportedly forbidden from talking to the media without a government minder. The government, on the other hand, says the cuts are part of a wider deficit-reducing austerity program.”

As they cut funding for Environment Canada, they increase carbon-capture programs, that are basically a big subsidy to the oil sands companies. The Harper government, as part of this pulling out of the Kyoto Protocol, part of their support for the tar sands industry, has cut a slew of different programs that deal with climate change or climate disturbance, the research element. And it’s actually prompted fairly significant protests from scientists.

About eight months ago there were a couple thousand scientists in their white coats who marched on Parliament Hill denouncing the war on them, as they see it. And there has been a muzzling of Environment Canada researchers. Where previously reporters were able to call different government researchers to ask them what research they were working on, what it means, to get an understanding of it, the Harper government has brought in this whole process of completely controlling what is said. So here you have a situation where these are public servants, researchers who are doing all kinds of important work, and they are not allowed to talk to the media. As I said, it fits within their overarching sort of hostility towards climate science. I think it also kind of fits into a little bit of their social kind of conservatism, just a general sort of anti-science position.

Talk about the corporate media and its influence in Canada in terms of shaping public opinion.

On the foreign policy level, the space for serious criticism of Canadian foreign policy is almost nonexistent. As a personal anecdote, I’ve written numerous op-eds on different Canadian foreign policy topics for different corporate dailies. Basically none of them ever get published. For the last 10 months I have been working for a union, and I’ve had about 15 different op-eds on domestic issues published, albeit from the institution, from the president of the union, so there is an institutional weight that comes with that. That’s part of it. But most of it is that there is just incredibly limited space on foreign policy. On domestic issues there is a little bit more space to have critical voices.

There is a more significant union movement in this country than there is in the U.S., and that does have some impact on media dynamics. Obviously, there’s the CBC, the public broadcaster, that is perceived to have been a bit more of an open voice. I think that’s mostly exaggerated, certainly on foreign policy. The CBC is absolutely unwilling to cover something like The Ugly Canadian book. Generally, it’s pretty similar. The media here in this country get most of their money from advertising, which comes from big companies. The Globe and Mail, the most important paper in the country, is owned by the richest person in the country. It’s actually more concentrated than U.S. media, because in the U.S. there are controls, as I understand it, on owning the main paper and main TV station in a single market, whereas in Canada Global Television and Post Media, which are the biggest chain of newspapers and one of the biggest TV stations, was owned by the same company.

Is that Thompson?

That was Asper. They went into bankruptcy about a year and a half ago, so it’s been busted up a little bit. For instance, in Vancouver, they owned the two daily newspapers, the Global Television TV station, which would have been the second or third biggest, one of three stations that you would have when you’re not on cable, as well as a whole slew of the weekly papers. So the concentration of the media in this country is worse than that in the U.S. And the underlying structure: owned by big companies dependent on advertising, responsive to criticism that comes from corporations, other rich people, institutions of power. So it’s pretty important in terms of shaping opinion, especially on foreign policy. As it gets further away from people’s day-to-day lives, the power the media has in terms of shaping people’s understanding is quite extensive.

Who is the richest person in Canada?


Your book The Ugly Canadian is published by Fernwood, a small, independent publisher. How many copies of books like this are printed?

The standard for Fernwood is they print between 500 and 1,000 copies. And Fernwood at this point is probably the biggest of radical left-wing publishers. There are only a couple of them. And this book, I think there were 3,000 copies printed, and hopefully most of them will be sold.

And what about political alternatives? What do you see challenging the hegemony of the Harper government in Ottawa?

First of all, the Harper government won with 39% of the vote, with about 60% of the public voting, only 60% of registered voters, not counting younger people. So only about 25% of the population or so actually voted for the Conservatives, and they got a majority government with that percentage. So it’s a pretty tenuous situation. They are somewhere between maybe 30% and 40% of support. So about half of the voting public that’s quite antagonistic.

In the electoral arena, I think there’s a high likelihood that in 2015, which is the next election, they won’t win, especially if the housing market crashes and if things like the Keystone pipeline don’t get built, because so much of their whole economic model is based upon the extraction of oil, particularly tar sands oil. There are lots of challenge in the official arena, with the NDP and the Liberals. And the Liberals have the son of Pierre Trudeau. Justin Trudeau is going to almost certainly be the next head of the party. So they’re in this whole process of reviving the Liberal Party, which has been in power for 70% of Canadian history. The NDP also challenges them in the official arena.

More interesting for me are the movements of contestation from below. There are significant social movements on foreign policy issues. There’s a growing pro-Palestinian movement. There’s, unfortunately, a fairly quiet antiwar movement at the moment. There’s a significant anti-mining or opposition to Canadian mining companies abroad. That’s a growing movement in the country. There’s the environmental movement, particularly in places like B.C. There’s a plan for a pipeline across Canada. Line 9 it’s called. So here in Ontario there’s lots of opposition to that. So there are significant social movements. The labor movement is more politicized than in the U.S., a bit more class-conscious, a bit more antagonistic to bosses’ control. So that exists. That’s generally on the defensive and it’s unfortunately too much of a bureaucratized kind of movement. But there are oppositions.

There are some interesting things. The Harper government hasn’t gone after Medicare in any significant way, understanding that even among Conservative voters it’s the top issue. Overwhelmingly Conservative voters support Medicare.

This is the single-payer health system.

And the more you hear about problems with the U.S. medical system, the more support there is for the single-payer system in Canada, because the stories do trickle up about just how bad the model of private health insurance is in the U.S.

So while they’re a majority government, and they’re incredibly ideological on a whole bunch of issues—they’ve done terrible things, particularly with regard to the environment, their foreign policy is horrible, their undermining of First Nations’ rights—at the end of the day they are still constrained by the political reality.

And the political reality is that there is almost 30% of the public that’s in unions, almost three times as much as in the U.S., there is a Medicare system, there’s a sense of the correctness of the government being the main player in health care, there is a tradition, as much as they’re trying to change that, of sort of openness with regards to immigration. So there are constraints, there are social movements. But like in the U.S., there are also the institutions, the dominant media and the 1%, that at the end of the day have overwhelming control over public policy.

How did you become an activist?

I actually went from playing junior hockey. When I was 19, I stopped playing junior hockey. I have a left-wing background with my parents, but for most of my teenage years I was focused on trying to make the NHL. That didn’t work out. And I had some opportunities to travel in Latin America and had the good fortune to go to Montreal, to Concordia University, which at the time was the most politically active university in the country. I didn’t go there for that purpose, but that’s what I was exposed to, and then got involved in student political affairs and became a vice president for the Concordia Student Union. It happened that Benjamin Netanyahu, who was then the former prime minister of Israel, was going to speak at Concordia. And in the aftermath of Netanyahu not being able to speak, I was expelled from the university.

What happened?

There were huge protests that led to cops actually releasing pepper spray or tear gas inside the university building, to the point where thousands of students that were in their classes were subjugated to the pepper spray or tear gas. It’s not exactly clear. They deny the tear gas element. Windows were broken. It was quite a raucous demonstration that the police a combination of both lost control of and really exaggerated their response. But there was a really significant pro-Palestinian movement at Concordia University and a really significant radical left that for about five years running was probably the most active, very heavily involved in the protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas, pro-Palestinian, different feminist struggles. So I had the good fortune to be exposed to those movements. And that sort of contributed to my activism today.

Who are some of your intellectual influences?

Many of the books that you’ve done with Noam Chomsky. I’ve read I don’t know how many of them. I can remember being on a bench in Guanajuato, Mexico, having gotten one of the small ones, The Prosperous Few and the Restless Many that you did with him, in the little English library there for travelers. So people like Chomsky have been important in helping me to figure out the world. Writers in Canada like Rick Salutin, many others. Places like ZNet and CounterPunch or are important outlets of different left-wing voices.

(Due to time constraints some portions of the interview were not included in the national broadcast. Those portions are included in this transcript.)

For information about obtaining CDs, MP3s, or transcripts of this or other programs, please contact:
David Barsamian
Alternative Radio
P.O. Box 551
Boulder, CO 80306-0551
phone (800) 444-1977 ©2013

War and peace

Dennis Kucinich
Santa Barbara, CA
February 8, 2013

The U.S. has the world’s most powerful military machine. Its navy controls the seas, its air force the skies. Almost 70 years after the end of World War Two, its armies occupy bases from Germany and Italy to South Korea and Japan. Its CIA-operated drones attack Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan. Its multiple intelligence agencies have black sites and black budgets and carry out black operations. The financial costs of maintaining an empire are enormous. The moral costs are incalculable. And some would suggest the external violence connects to the murderous rampages and shootings here in the homeland. The signs of structural decay are all too apparent. Nation building begins at home. Can we imagine a culture of peace? Can we create a political and economic system that serve the needs of people and protects and honors the Earth?

This lecture is available as a CD or mp3 or transcript from Alternative Radio

Dennis Kucinich served as a member of Congress from 1997 to 2013, representing Ohio’s 10th district. He brought articles of impeachment against George Bush and Dick Cheney. He was a candidate for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004 and 2008. He was an advocate for the creation of a cabinet-level Department of Peace. Upon leaving the House, his colleague Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota said of him, “We’re really going to miss Dennis. He is a transformative leader. He stood up and spoke eloquently and passionately about Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran. He was a consistent voice for peace.” He is the author of A Prayer for America and The Courage to Survive.

You can listen to Dennis Kucinich speak for himself here.

I’ve given some thought to the broader concepts that deal with the human condition, violence in our society and violence which is initiated and authorized by our government. I take you back to what I think is one of the greatest films ever made, and that is Stanley Kubrick’s classic film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Just after the majestic opening of Richard Strauss’s “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” a soaring sun splits the darkness, seemingly heralding the new genesis and next a man-ape uses a femur bone to dispatch the leader of another group in order to gain control over a water hole. It is a simple act of one mammal clubbing another to death. It is what Friedrich Nietzsche, in his novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, may have countenanced as

the eternal recurrence of the same.

Yet, Kubrick does not leave us stranded upon the darkling plain of brute violence, for emotion is admitted, and so exultant is the conqueror at the demise of his extant competitor that he flings the femur skyward in triumph and, through the match-cut magic of movie making, the femur tumbles end over end, high up into the heavens, where it is transformed—into a space station!

We surf on Kubrick’s monolith into an evolutionary spiral across space and millions of years, now equipped with high technology, but burdened with the signal responses of our lower limbic system and its embedded fight/flight conflicts, ever ready to take up the electronic cudgel to drive contestants out of water holes or oil holes. Violence is. Its expression neither regressive nor progressive, it exists as a disconnection from our own divinity, a fall from the heavens, a departure from grace, a descent into the lower circles of that philosophical hell of dichotomous thinking, of us versus them, whoever they are. The invention of “the other,” the evocation of the out-group, the conjuring of the enemy are precedents of violence. We hear the siren call.

But what makes us answer the tocsin of rage clanging in our heads, in our homes, in our cities and in the world? Could it be the ripping of the moorings of our reality, the anxiety of separation shaking our core, the earthquake beneath our ground of meaning, dissecting through our bedrock beliefs when we learn that that what we thought was true was indeed false? Peter Berger once wrote that reality is socially constructed and culturally affirmed.

But what happens when the sociopathic trumps the authentic?

We cannot justify violence, but we must determine its roots. Before Kubrick, before Strauss, there was Zarathustra, or Zoroaster himself. He confronted us with this moral proposition: The central struggle of our existence is the determination of what is true and what is false. Is it our inability to strive for, to discern, and to receive and know truth which binds us to violence? Is what we see what we get? Are we bound to truth-shattering illusions? How do we know what we are told is true? Has the misuse of power in our society so distorted meaning that truth and lies are indistinguishable, or worse, morally relative?

These are questions of import in our interpersonal relations, and the consequences of untruth grow geometrically when a major progenitor of perceptions in our society—the government—stumbles or seeks and practices to mislead.

To ponder that question, let us first look at another production called 2001: September 11, 2001, the catastrophe of nearly 3,000 innocent souls perishing in waves of hate. That date is burned into our memories as one of the worst days we have ever known. We know the choices which our government made, acting with the tacit consent of we the people, to respond to the 9/11 crimes committed against our nation. But we seldom reflect on our government’s response, as though to do so publicly is either impolite or un-American. Is it rude to mention that, acting upon the choler of crime and tragedy on September 11, 2001, we began a descent to officially sanctioned mass murder called war, into the lower circles of the infernos of torture, rendition, and drone assassination? That we established an antidemocratic state of emergency, which exists to this day, with its Orwellian PATRIOT Act, its massive spying networks, its illegal detention, its extreme punishment of whistleblowers, and its neo-police state, in violation of posse comitatus, which put MPs on the streets of Washington, D.C., during the recent inaugural?

We have cut and pasted the Constitution in the manner of a disambiguated Word document, through sheer casuistry, excising those sections which guarantee protection from unreasonable search and seizure, which protect individual rights of habeas corpus, due process, which prohibit any one person from simultaneously being policeman, prosecutor, judge, jury, executioner, and coroner. Violence has enabled the government to grow and the republic to shrink.

Ten years ago the United States, despite a massive peace movement that put millions in the streets protesting the upcoming invasion, launched a full-scale attack on the nation of Iraq. “Shock and Awe” it was called. Hellfire was brought to the cradle of civilization, to its people, its culture, its antiquities in our name—for a war based on lies. In awe of our weapons, we shocked ourselves vicariously with their effect, never experiencing the horror visited upon the people of Iraq.

When I say “we,” I mean all morally conscious Americans. Over 1 million Iraqis were killed in our name. I want to say that again. Over 1 million Iraqis were killed in our name—for a war based on lies. In awe of our destructive power and its toll on innocent human life, we shocked ourselves and then returned to our normal lives. Trillions of dollars damage was done to that country, in our name—for a war based on lies. Trillions more spent by U.S. taxpayers—for a war based on lies. In awe of the monetary cost of war, we shocked ourselves with massive deficits. Thousands of U.S. troops were killed, tens of thousands wounded. In awe of the long-term human cost of war, we shocked ourselves with broken lives, broken families, suicides, PTSD.

Shock and awe indeed. We attacked a nation which did not attack us and which had neither the intention nor the capability of doing so. We attacked a nation which did not have the yellowcake to be processed into a substance fit for a nuclear warhead. We attacked a nation which did not have weapons of mass destruction. We visited upon the people of Iraq the equivalent of one 9/11 a day for an entire year, and with it the irretrievable rending of families, of places to live, places to work, places to worship, ripping apart Iraqi society in a war which soon became so remote that it was finished off by unmanned vehicles. The mission that was “accomplished” was wanton destruction, ecocide, alienation, statecraft puppetry.

And for what? What was it all about? It did not make us any safer. It weakened our military. It killed and injured our soldiers. It seriously weakened our nation financially. The long-term cost of the post-9/11 wars of choice will run over $6 trillion. Is anybody asking one reason why we have a $16 trillion debt? We borrowed money from China, Japan, and South Korea to pursue wars while these countries built their economies and their infrastructures. We blew up bridges in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan at such expense that we are now preaching austerity here at home, unwilling to face the fact that we have over $2 trillion in infrastructure needs in America which have not been met. Unwilling to invest in America, all too willing to invest in wars, we became the policeman of the world, and ended up being resented worldwide. We have fueled the fires of reactionary nationalism abroad, which are easily stoked by foreign occupation or invasion. We have helped further fundamentalism and made decisions which placed in positions of power those whose very existence supposedly drove us to the conflict in the first place.

What passes for our recent history is an acculturated, sleep-inducing lie from which we must wake up. We must awake from the stupor of our self-imposed amnesia or shock. We must shake off the awe which comes from the misuse of power on a global basis. We must always question governments whose legitimacy rests not upon accountability and truth, but upon force and deception. A government which assumes that we are neither intelligent enough nor loyal enough to know the truth about its actions a dozen years ago or, for that matter, a dozen days ago, is not worthy of a free people. We must bend the fear-forged bars which imprison the truth. We must seek the truth. And we must know the truth. For it is the truth that will truly set us free and lead to the wisdom that can rescue us from destruction, the wisdom that can reclaim America.

America. The mere utterance of the word should set the pulse pounding with the excitement of discovery, of possibility, of love—not fear.

The time has come for us to demand that our nation, America, establish and empower a commission on truth and reconciliation so that those who are responsible for misleading us into the annihilation of the innocent people in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and elsewhere can brought forward to public accountability in a formal process of fact finding, of inquiry, of public testimony, of admission, of confession. This is a process that has worked in other countries, notably South Africa. Frankly, there is no way out of this moral cul-de-sac in which reside the monstrous crimes of massed murder, torture, kidnapping, rendition other than to have an atonement—an at-one-ment. It is in at-one-ment, atonement, that we will achieve what Blake called “the unity of opposites.” It is in reconciliation that the Blakean idea of the contrary nature of God, containing multitudes of humanity, causes us to understand the fragility of our social compact and the possibility that any one of us could be a murderer or a victim. Lacking public expiation over the unbridled use of force, the wanton violence we have writ large across the world will replicate, it will perpetuate, and it will be our ruin. This is the importance of a formal process of truth and reconciliation.

We had and we have a right to defend ourselves as a nation. But we went on the offensive. And the violence that we have visited abroad will inevitably blow back home. The violence that we create in the world in turn licenses and desensitizes us to the display of wanton violence which is exercised in our streets and, unfortunately, in our homes. We must understand the causal links. What is outermost presses down upon what is innermost, and what is innermost becomes outermost.

Once a full process of truth and reconciliation has helped us to discern the truth of our experience of the past decade, equipped with the truth of our errant descent into errant wars, we must be prepared to forgive those who would be forgiven, and forgive ourselves for having participated, with either our assent or our silence. Then we may move forward, with truth as the standard under which we organize a stronger and better America.

We must think often of our nation, reimagine it, reestablish it as the exemplification of our highest ideals. Think of those lofty sentiments present at the founding of our nation, its spiritual origins: One motto, the Latin words Annuit coeptis, “He has favored our undertaking,” an allusion to the guidance of providence. Think of the transcendent purpose in the founding of America, united states, presaging human unity. Our first motto: E pluribus unum, Latin, “out of many, one.” the paradox of multiplicity in singularity. What extraordinary faith, courage, and spirit were present at the founding of this country.

Let us renew our faith in our nation. Let us unite so that the power of unity will lift up this nation we love. Let us declare our faith again in each other, as it occurred so many years ago with that clarion call for the rights of we the people. Let us find that place within ourselves where our own capacity to evolve catalyzes the evolving character of America; where, through the highest expression of informed citizenship, we quicken the highest expression of informed nationhood.

America. America for Americans. America for the world. Let the truth be our empire, the plowshare our sword, nature our textbook, and let us once again celebrate the deeper meaning of what it means to be an American.

Then, reimagining the town hall model—that model where people get together and they talk about things that concern them—let us consider what America represented to each of us on the day before 9/11, on September 10, 2001. Let millions of people, in tens of thousands of places across our nation, meet, rediscover, and celebrate our nation and its purpose and recapture the spirit of America, which we know already resides in countless places. The spirit of America is always ready to be called forward, with a sense of wonder and joy, which our children will in time come to understand as our capacity to rise from the ashes of our own suffering and disillusionment, a quality which becomes their civic inheritance.

We were not a perfect nation by any means before 9/11. But I remember a greater sense of optimism, a greater sense of freedom, of security, of control of our destiny. We need to come together now in town halls across America to appreciate our common experiences, to share our narratives about what is best in our nation, about what we love about this country, about our own journeys to share with each other those things in our lives that directly connect us to what we call the American dream. And when we come together in that way, when we so share, we will know each other better and love our country even more.

The violence of today has cast us into a psychological wilderness. There is a path out of the wilderness of violence in which so many of our fellow countrymen and countrywomen are lost. If we are to help them find that path, it would be helpful for us to look again to the origins of our nation and find the map.

On July 4, 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously declared the independence of 13 colonies, and the achievement of peace was recognized as one of the highest duties of the new organization of free and independent states. Peace at the founding. Yes, there was the paradox of revolutionary war, but the destination was peace, articulated and enshrined. The drafters of the Declaration of Independence appealed to the supreme judge of the world and derived the creative cause of nationhood from the “Laws of Nature” and the entitlements of “Nature’s God,” celebrating the unity of human thought, natural law, and spiritual causation in declaring,

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men [and women] are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with her certain inalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The architects of independence, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, spoke to the activity of a higher power which moves to guide the nation’s fortunes and lends its divine spark to infuse principle into the structure of democratic governance.

The Constitution of the United States in its Preamble further sets forth the insurance of the cause of peace in stating,

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity….

We must remember where we have been so that we can chart to where we will proceed. It is the sacred duty of the people of the United States to receive the living truths of our founding documents and to think anew to develop institutions that permit the unfolding of the highest moral principles in this nation and around the world.

Some of these words that I just shared with you are from the preamble to legislation that I wrote in 2001. They form the basis of my understanding of the conceptive power of freedom. The founders of this country gave America a vision for the ages and provided people with a document that gave this nation the ability to adapt to an undreamed of future. What can we give back?

When I first came to Congress, I saw how easily we slipped into conflict. I saw how normally placid representatives could get swept up in war fever. It led me to study war. I learned that during the course of the 20th century more than 100 million people perished in war, most of them innocent noncombatants. And here today, violence is the overarching theme of our time, encompassing personal, group, national, and international conflict, extending to the production of nuclear, biological, chemical weapons of mass destruction, which have been developed for use on land, air, sea, and space. Such conflict is taken as a reflection of the human condition, without questioning whether the structures of thought, word, and deed which we have inherited are any longer sufficient for the maintenance, growth, and survival of our nation and the world.

But we are still relatively at the beginning of a new millennium, and the time has come to review to review age-old challenges with new thinking wherein we can conceive of peace as not simply being the absence of violence but the active presence of the capacity for a higher evolution of human awareness, of respect, trust, and integrity, where we all may tap the infinite capabilities of humanity to transform consciousness and conditions which impel or compel violence at a personal, group, or national level. We do this towards developing a new understanding of and commitment to compassion and love in order to create “a shining city on a hill,” the light of which is the light of nations.

It was this thinking, this articulation which I was privileged to bring forth on July 11, 2001, fully two months before 9/11, to introduce a bill, H.R. 808, to create a cabinet-level Department of Peace, soon to be reintroduced by Congresswoman Barbara Lee as the Department of Peace Building.

Imagine, coming from a position of love for our country and for each other, if we move forward, without judgment, to meet the promise of a more perfect union by meeting the challenge of violence in our homes, our streets, our schools, our places of work and worship, to meet the challenge of violence in our society through the creation of a new structure in our society, which can directly address domestic violence, spousal abuse, child abuse, violence in the schools, gang violence, gun violence, racial violence, violence against gays. This goes much deeper than legislation which forbids certain conduct, it goes much deeper than creating systems to deal with and to help victims. Those are necessary, but they are not sufficient. We need to deeper go if we are at last to shed the yoke of violence which we carry through our daily lives. We speak of creating a structure where all across this country we tap the creative energies of those who have committed themselves—the sociologists, the psychologists, the counselors, who commit themselves to help people through their daily lives. Across the country we begin to transform our educational system to teach children peace giving, peace sharing, mutuality, to look at the other person as an aspect of oneself.

We know violence is a learned response. So is nonviolence. We must replace a culture of violence with a culture of peace. Not through the antithetical use of force, not through endless “thou shalt nots” and not through mere punishment, but through tapping our higher potential to teach principles of peace building and peace sharing, and to teach them at the earliest ages as part of a civic education in a democratic society. Carl Rogers, the humanist psychologist, has written,

The behavior of the human organism may be determined by the external influences to which it has been exposed, but it may also be determined by the creative and integrative insight of the organism itself.

We are not victims of the world we see. We become victims of the way we see the world.

If we are prepared to confidently call forth a new America, if we have the courage to not simply redescribe America but to reclaim it, we will once again fall in love with the light which so many years ago shined through the darkness of human existence to announce the birth of a new nation. Out in the void I can see a soaring sun splitting the darkness. Behold the dawn of a new nation, our beloved America. Thank you.


Two words: positive vision. It’s been a whole generation at least since people got out in the streets, not just against war and so on but a positive vision. We have tens of millions of people out of work while we need to build a future for sustainable energy and sustainable transportation. Why are we not calling for people to get out in the streets for a positive vision?

The potential of being able to move a new agenda in this country for economic justice is unlimited if we regain the civic capacity for action, if we are willing to be visible. This is really one of the great preconditions for being able to create change in Washington. It’s to become visible. And when you do it en masse, it has impact. There’s just no question about it.

But lacking visibility, it’s very hard to have to rely on the built-in inertia which tends to characterize activities within the Beltway.

So specifically, I introduced legislation in the Congress, H.R. 2990, called the National Employment Emergency Defense Act. The whole idea is to create millions of jobs rebuilding our infrastructure. People will say, Where is the money coming from? Keep in mind, we borrowed hundreds of millions of dollars from China, South Korea, Japan to finance wars. We pay interest on that debt. We have a trade deficit with China that is about $200 billion. China, Japan are reinvesting in their country. We’re not doing that. We have the power under the Constitution, Article I, Section 8, to coin or create money. It’s an inherent power of the government that was written into the Constitution specifically so we wouldn’t be in hock to the banks. A series of presidents have warned against that.

In 1913 the Federal Reserve Act was written, and what happened was that it took over the money power, so the government then was at the threshold. You pass an income tax, you fund the government. But actually what happened is it imposed on the people a greater responsibility for coming up with the resources for governance instead of recognizing that the innate power to put money into circulation rested with the government.

Instead, what do we have? Money is debt. The whole system is upside down. So you start thinking about money and how a different concept of money could start to change things. We have the power right now to get our way out of these doldrums, to put America back to work, to reject austerity as a way of life, and to stop the raid on Social Security and any of the other programs. You’re right. Social justice and economics are twins in the same march here. Thank you for your question.

I have seen a lot of people in this country do absolutely nothing compared to what we’ve needed to move the kind of consciousness that you’re talking about moving tonight.

I mentioned in my prepared remarks that there’s a sense in which we have to forgive ourselves. This is about all of us, not just one of us. We can look back over 10 years, and it’s pretty shocking. If you were to go home tonight and Google

Kucinich October 2002 analysis of the Iraq war resolution,

you will see that, look, I’m not a swami, but I picked up right away what was going on. And anybody who really spent the time would understand what was going on. But we were pushed into this war. There’s a lot of dead people as a result. I can’t get that out of my head. To me, our nation needs to—how do we get beyond it? I really am concerned that if we just bury this whole discussion about what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan—and there’s a few other places—we’re never going to recover the country. We’ll be dragged into more wars. We’ve got to stop the beat.

I have two questions for you. How best can we support your vision, which is our vision, in both the micro of our own lives and the macro of government and the world? And how best can we support the Department of Peace?

Let me take the second part first. Before I left Congress, Barbara Lee and I had many long talks, and she agreed to take that baton and keep running with it. We made some changes to the legislation that will emphasize peace building in an active capacity, which is really good. I think that it would be helpful, for whatever Congressional district you’re from, to ask a member to sign on to the bill. But it also would be helpful, given what an extraordinary community this is, to create a forum where you could talk about some of the practical applications of this.

Keep in mind, there is a legitimate concern that, “Yes, what this country needs is a bigger government, right?” But what we’re talking about here is actually a transformative purpose. We need to get in the discussion.

This is the problem. When you create a department, it legitimizes the discussion about justice, about labor, about the environment, about health. And peace is seen back here. It’s almost like it’s an airy-fairy notion instead of central to our existence and our continuation as a species. Remember, I introduced this in 2001 in July, and I saw people’s eyes were rolling. “Yeah, right. Another department, bigger government.” Hey, wait a minute. If we’re spending half of our budget on the implements of war and preparing for war, what if we spent just a couple percentage points on trying to create peace? There are financial issues here as well, not just moral issues.

And you can come at it from the practicalities. With all the shootings that are happening around the country, and a lot more attention is paid to it, we need to get underneath that and talk about what’s happening. Why is our society becoming so unhinged? Guns are one thing that people use, an implement of violence. But even if they pass an assault-weapons ban, which I of course would vote for, we’re still stuck with the fact that there are 100 million, according to many different reports, gun owners in the country. That’s something we’ve got to be aware of, we can’t ignore it. And there’s 300 million guns. So the urgent question deals with the issues of violence in the society.

I was glad to hear you use the term ecocide. Could you comment on the burgeoning student divestment-from-fossil-fuel movement and the renormalization of civil disobedience evidenced by the tar-sands blockade,, and the Sierra Club’s commitment to nonviolent direct action for the first time in its 120-year history.

You see the response here. The public is ready for a more active approach in confronting the destruction of our planet, the destruction of the natural world. It was Thomas Berry, the late philosopher, who said that the major work of our life should be a reconciliation with the natural world. And we’ve seen this natural world being cartelized, being auctioned off. So the work that, the Sierra Club, and others are doing is absolutely important. It’s about a type of civic action that is our responsibility of citizenship.

As far as the money aspect, look, after Buckley v. Valeo, which basically said that money equals free speech, and Citizens United, which gave corporations the ability to contribute corporate dollars into federal campaigns, what’s happened is the whole thing is an auction. And the candidates that are often brought forward are the candidates who went to the highest bidder.

Does that mean they’re all crooks? Absolutely not. It means that the system is a rotten system. And if we’re going to free our country from this stigma of “pay to play,” the only way we can do it is a constitutional amendment that would stop all private funding of elections once and for all, private funding, private ownership of the process, and have only public funding, the chance that we might actually have our government back.

I just wanted to reiterate the question that was asked earlier about party politics. Bush’s crimes have become Obama’s crimes. And at this point the only person who is faced with prison for torture was a whistleblower.


At what point do we give up on Democratic politics and seek a third option?

I think that’s part of the discussion that’s going to happen in the next few years, depending on the direction that we go in. If people see whistleblowers punished and people see those who perpetuated crimes against others go free, then they’re going to ask questions. That’s why what I advocate is to look at South Africa’s experience, look at other nations that have had a process of truth and reconciliation. We need to bring the whole range of the top decision makers in to explain what happened. We’re a democracy. Just because you held a high office doesn’t mean all of a sudden you’re unaccountable. We need to do that to save our country.

And it’s not about putting anybody in jail. It’s about the truth, which has a much greater value than imprisonment. We need to know the truth. So, yes, I would like to see President Bush and Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld and all of them brought in. And it’s about loving our country. That’s what it’s about—how much do we love America.

I too am more or less a recovering Democrat. I love your analogy to the femur bone. I feel that drones are the next manifestation of that femur bone. I’m so glad you mentioned drones. I know that’s one of your issues. Do you think we finally have a chance, if we get ahead of the game, to make a difference?

Mechanized warfare, war by robots, robot planes, whatever, what it does is it removes us from our humanity, it separates us from actually having to make decisions. And it sets us on an inconscient path, going deeper into the darkness of hate and a loss of humanity. I saw this when I first heard about it back in 2005, when a wedding party was blown up in Pakistan with a drone strike. We have to watch this. And I will tell you this, that the administration’s description—people, if you get a chance, look at the 16-page legal memo which came out of the Department of Justice.

I didn’t go to law school. I play a lawyer on TV occasionally. But I will tell you this. I don’t know if they have a class in pretzel making at Harvard Law, where they twist the Constitution into a pretzel so you’re supposed to understand it, but that whole memo is an exercise in casuistry and sophistry, having no connection to any solid, bedrock constitutional principles. The use of these drones shreds the Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure, Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments with respect to due process.

Look, I’m all over this. We could spend the rest of the evening talking about it. But we need to fight back on it and push back. And that cannot be who we are as Americans. We cannot permit our country to wage war without any accountability, assassinate people, whoever we want. Baloney.

Thank you for your inspirational speech. You’ve been my hero in politics ever since I started following politics. I’m an inventor and entrepreneur who is trying to start jobs in clean energy. How can people like me get the $500 billion that’s put into war and put that to where it needs to be put to rebuilding our energy infrastructure and providing jobs?

This is the whole question about resources. When you think about it, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz wrote a book the title of which is The Three Trillion Dollar War, he and Linda Bilmes, his associate. They updated it to say $5 trillion war. Imagine for a moment that instead of investing in war, that we had invested in carbon-free energy technology. We would have been energy independent. We have the ability to able to use our resources right now to invest in the creation of alternative energies.

And we should be doing that instead of our reliance on coal, on nuclear, on oil. We can no longer do that. It’s apart from our natural world. Mother Nature doesn’t make deals with politicians. Mother Nature just responds in a very powerful way to the assaults on her planet. So we need to invest in that. And it’s part of the cycle of job creation. So thank you and stay with that, because that time is coming.

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