(00:06) Part 1. BIG EXPLANATIONS.
The world is not as it appears. The ruling class deceives us, and violently suppresses whistle-blowers and peaceful dissenters. We can expect that violence to increase as understanding spreads, but we must push on. When there are enough of us, we will win.
To end the wars, poverty, ecocide, and other torments, we need great changes. Good intentions are not enough; we must change institutions. Some institutions can’t be reformed, and must be replaced altogether. The plutocrats won’t surrender power voluntarily, so we need a revolution. It must be soon, for the climate clock is running out.
Soon, but not yet. Right now, we’d get it wrong, and just waste time we can’t afford. We’d get it wrong because right now too few people see what is really needed. For instance, if we overthrow the plutocracy but we don’t change our culture fundamentally, then a new plutocracy will quickly develop, just as in the 1776 “revolution.” Also, right now we simply don’t have enough people on our side; people are always reluctant to make big changes in their lives. But they’ll cooperate when they understand that the alternative is extinction in the very near future. So before we revolt, we need more people explaining what is really going on. This essay is one such explanation.
(01:39) Part 2. EVIL INSTITUTIONS.
We need to replace hierarchies with egalitarian networking, and replace private property with sharing. Those are enormous changes.
Hierarchy and property have been the foundation of our lives for thousands of years; why must we give them up now? Well, for thousands of years those institutions have caused war, poverty, and other torments. Most people didn’t see that connection, and only hundreds of people were killed at a time. However, modern technology magnifies all our capabilities for good or ill. In the last century those two institutions have become magnified enough to kill everyone. We can’t undiscover the technology, nor will those two institutions permit reform, so we must end the institutions.
Hierarchy concentrates power, obviously. Power corrupts the powerful, and attracts those who are already corrupt. This is evident, for instance, in workplace bullying, police brutality, prison torture, and the wartime atrocities carried out by individual soldiers. The crimes of corporations and politicians are even greater: They lie to conceal the great harms they do to people and the ecosystem for profit. In particular, the wars are all based on lies to make a few rich men richer, and so they are really mass murder. The very name Department of “Defense” is a lie.
Corporate news depicts the mass murderers as honored statesmen, pillars of the community. We must expose them as the monsters that they really are, and expose the system which makes them that way. The most powerful people are the most corrupt, because our economic and political system selects for greed and corruption: In fighting their way up the “ladder of success,” sociopaths have an advantage over those who are restrained by scruples.
Property also concentrates power, in ways that are less obvious. Economic inequality has become enormous in our society (Norton-Ariely), too enormous for it to have arisen by accident; evidently it is built into our economic system. If we don’t share, then we must trade. Professors Piketty and Boghosian have both given explanations of how trade, even when honest, increases inequality. Here is a simplified version:
Trade gives greater profit to the trader who was already in the stronger bargaining position, thus making him stronger still.
You’re not in a good bargaining position when you trade your labor for money: Your boss makes a lot more money than you do, not because he is harder-working or smarter or more productive (he’s not), but because he’s standing between you and the money. At any rate, your work can’t really be evaluated separately from his or other people’s work; even Robinson Crusoe brought to his island some tools and knowledge that other people had already produced.
An old myth in civics classes says that hierarchy and property — business power and government power — are “checks and balances” on each other. But the opposite is true: Wealth and rule have always been one, as each can buy the other. Thus the USA, which boasts so widely about its democracy, is really a plutocracy. That folk wisdom was proved statistically by Gilens and Page: The rich get the public policies they want, and the rest of us don’t, regardless of elections. Politicians serve their biggest donors, though they lie about it in different ways.
- Democrat politicians say “no, no, we put the people first.” This fools the blind voters.
- Republican politicians say “yes, we serve the rich first, but it works out better for everyone that way.” This fools the stupid voters.
The data of Gilens and Page only go back a couple of decades, but some histories (Zinn) show that the USA has been a plutocracy thinly disguised as a democracy ever since its founding in land theft, genocide, and slavery. The disguise is maintained by corporate news media, which are owned by the plutocrats.
Incidentally, democracy is overrated. It’s better than oligarchy, but it’s far from ideal. For 51% to ride roughshod over 49% is a poor solution to disagreements. We’d be better off with a culture of caring and understanding, and a habit of consensus.
Plutocracy rules most of the world, so we actually need a global revolution. But I focus slightly more on the USA. That’s because it’s my own country, the one I know best. It’s also because the USA has the largest economy and the largest military – it constantly “intervenes” in other countries – so changing the perspective of the USA is pivotal.
Anyway, plutocracy didn’t begin with the USA. The world has been ruled by imperialist plutocracies for 10,000 years, ever since the invention of hierarchy and private property made it possible for some people to game the system.
Our institutions and attitudes reinforce each other. Separate property creates the illusion of separate lives (Eisenstein), and competition kills empathy (Kohn, Rifkin), resulting in hate, greed, fear, lies, bullying, authoritarianism (Altemeyer), imperialism, and random shootings. Capitalists claim that selfishness is human nature, so a better world is impossible, but that’s not true. For 200,000 years we were hunter-gatherers, living and sharing as equals, and genetically that’s still who we are. It is only our cultural overlay that has changed, and we can change that back (Sapolsky).
(08:05) Part 3. THE PRECIPICE OF EXTINCTION.
Our extinction is imminent, by two main routes.
One is nuclear war. For decades our insane leaders have been playing a game of “don’t blink” while shouting slanders at each other; many times they have come close to accidentally starting a nuclear war. Such a war would kill half of humanity immediately, and probably within a few years the other half would be killed by drifting clouds of radioactive fallout. The very existence of nuclear weapons is the simplest proof that humans have been clever but not wise; we need to wise up quickly. We will only become safe if everyone disarms; that will require a very different global culture. Until then, let us pray that our luck continues to hold, and that the unthinkable does not happen.
The other main route to extinction is global warming. The unthinkable has already begun; the question is whether we can halt it. It’s coming on bigger and faster than most people realize, because the “mainstream” press says too little about tipping points, cascading failures, feedback loops, exponential acceleration, and other nonlinearities (Schechter). The feedback loops will continue even after civilization collapses, so even the rich in their luxury bunkers and the survivalists toting assault rifles will roast before long. The press predicts flooded cities in the year 2100, but as a mathematician I’m estimating
2025: point of no return
2040: human extinction
if we stay on our present course. Some people say it’s already too late, but I reply that we don’t and can’t know what discovery we may find tomorrow. If we change course right away, and throw everything we’ve got at this problem, maybe we can still avert extinction.
But politicians are not changing course. Some of them have begun to mention global warming in their speeches, but that’s just marketing; too many of them are still doing little or nothing. The much ballyhooed 2015 Paris Climate Accords were merely an agreement among nations about what to wish for. For half a century the politicians have been dragging their feet about climate, and the reason for that hasn’t changed: They get money from the fossil fuel companies, who have lied about global warming all along (Exxon knew).
(10:49) Part 4. DESTRUCTIVE ECONOMICS.
Capitalism is a juggernaut crushing all in its path. Its basic principle is “Get all you can, every man for himself, and to hell with the commons.” Thus the commons gets destroyed. The commons is whatever is owned by everyone, or by no one. It includes the ecosystem, the life-support system of this spaceship we’re all traveling on. The ecosystem cannot survive as a waste dump. Daniel Schmachtenberger suggested whales as a representative symbol for the ecosystem: The meat and other parts from a recently killed whale have a market value of a million dollars, but a living whale has no market value at all. That is why the whales are disappearing, and more generally why the whole ecosystem is dying.
The so-called “wisdom of the market” is a lie. Markets are actually very stupid. They don’t plan for the future, and they don’t see how we are all interdependent. Capitalists are not some unified conspiracy like the fabled Illuminati — they are all competing against each other. Each can see no farther than the short-term profits keeping him in power for another day. Each says to himself, “I just need to make a quick buck right now; I’ll let the market take care of saving the world.” But the market is not saving the world. If we continue on our present course, the rich will discover too late that they cannot eat money.
The so-called “efficiency” of the market is also a lie. The market is inherently destructive, because of its externalized costs, or externalities. Any trade negotiated between buyer and seller has side effects on other parties – workers, community, ecosystem – who are outside the considerations of the negotiators (Bakan). These side effects generally are harmful (Suzuki), unmeasured, and large. In particular, the ongoing destruction of the ecosystem is an externality that will kill us all if continued.
Today it has become profitable for corporations to claim that they are changing, that they are thinking more about the well-being of consumers and the ecosystem. They claim to “do well by doing good,” and perhaps some of them even believe it. But this is just greenwashing, i.e., public relations. Let’s face it: The laws of the market are still the same; they are not changed by our growing ecological awareness. Solar panels, for instance, would be a good thing if they’re done right, but can you trust their quality when the company’s real motivation is profit? Can you trust that the production process is not generating huge amounts of pollution, doing more harm than good? Corporations put profit above all else – not so much because they are evil (though perhaps they are), but because that is what a corporation must do to survive in a competitive market. The 2013 film “Snowpiercer” is a good metaphor: The rich are as trapped in this crazy train as the rest of us; they merely have more comfy cages and the delusion that it is a good system. We will only make the world a better place when it is based on cooperation instead of competition.
(14:20) Part 5. A DIFFERENT AND BETTER WORLD.
The alternative to property is sharing. But that is a world difficult to imagine, isn’t it? Fredric Jameson said it’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. And he’s right, because we’ve all seen what a cemetery looks like, but none of us has seen the world of sharing yet, except in our dreams.
The first step is to talk about those dreams. Join the conversation.
2020 Dec 24, version 2.31. Underlined words and phrases are links to related materials. Links to beginning of sections after the first: 2 Institutions, 3 Extinction, 4 Economics, 5 Newworld. Version 2.30 reposted at Dandelion Salad.