The Other Civil War: Capitalism’s Uncivil Peace

Gaunt figures wander like the dead through streets and alleyways, worn clothing hanging from emaciated bodies, their rough faces frozen in an image of utter desolation. Foodstuffs are sold at exorbitantly high rates by monopoly agro-business; those who can’t afford to buy food starve almost immediately, while those who can scrape together the funds succumb to slow death from the poisons within. Old folks, little children, widows, and former national heroes—all these are thrown from their homes while those houses are left to rot, shiny new locks gleaming on the door. The entire time, plutocrats sleep in virtual fortresses, hidden in gated communities while people starve in the streets.

This is the nature of the other Civil War. This is capitalism’s uncivil peace.

The first American Civil War has never seemed to reach an end; issues of states’ rights versus the federal centralization of power play themselves out on the nightly news, while the real question of lasting peace goes unanswered. But this issue is bigger than the United States and deeper than any partisan divide. The other Civil War is one of crypto-fascism, of neo-colonization, a war on the environment, on the right of people to privacy, and on democracy itself. It is a war of attrition. When Chris Hedges wrote in January of 2011 that “corporations have no use for borders,” he was only partially correct.

“Corporate power is global, and resistance to it cannot be restricted by national boundaries. Corporations have no regard for nation-states. They assert their power to exploit the land and the people everywhere. They play worker off of worker and nation off of nation.”

Corporate power is indeed global, but national boundaries play easily into capitalist power games. Countries are viewed as holding pools for cheap labor to exploit; when the race to the bottom within a country ends with the inevitable crash, xenophobia and racism make nationalism and patriotism the customary tools for dividing people across state lines. It becomes “un-American” to question, say, a transnational oil pipeline moving costly and toxic sludge from the largest intact forests on Earth across pristine aquifers, public and private property, indigenous communities, and the rights of all within. Resistance against digging up the Black Hills and the areas around the Grand Canyon in search of radioactive uranium is met with equal derision. After all, won’t the job creation and financial payoff be worth the destruction of a few natural wonders? It is all done, happily, in the name of progress.

The way that capitalism measures progress is a sham.

Because corporate capitalism seeks to maximize profit at the expense of sabotaging work safety conditions and standards, labor hiring and compensation standards, environmental conservation principles, and the self-determination of individual communities, our resistance must indeed be worldwide. Any other efforts will stop short of defeating neoliberal “progress.”

Gross Domestic Product, or GDP, measures the market value of all goods produced in a particular country and is used as an indicator of standard of living within that country. It is the measure by which capitalists determine which countries are on top. But while economic “goods” are evaluated, socio-political and environmental “bads” are not. GDP is an abstraction, devoid of any real connection to the world. A few examples:

  • GDP treats crime as economic gain. As crime rates increase, so does the prison-industrial complex push for more police, jails, surveillance systems, and the like. The dominant culture uses mass media to perpetuate stereotypes of people of color, poor people, immigrants, and dissident political groups to justify cycles of systemic and institutional violence. Fear of “the other” is exploited as a mechanism to control the working class. Shadow government groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council create laws to be rubberstamped by politicians of the major political parties; the fascist’s wars, domestic and abroad, are fought with weapons made by her prisoners. Like all other capitalist industries, the prison-industrial complex requires continual growth and acquisition of raw materials—in this case, people.
  • GDP treats environmental disaster as economic gain. Cleanup of contaminated Superfund sites (1,280 sites listed on the National Priority List as of November 2010) and massive oil spills like Exxon Valdez and the Deepwater Horizon oil gusher (4.9 million barrels of crude over 68,000 sq mi) mean big business for those interested in GDP rankings. Not only does environmental remediation pump money into the economy, inflating growth rates, but GDP factors in the economic activity that generated the waste in the first place. Pollution is a boon for capitalist ideology.
  • GDP treats nonmarket economies as worthless. The amount of time spent volunteering in a homeless shelter, providing free assistance to veterans, running Food Not Bombs, an Infoshop or other community center—none of this matters. At least not in the capitalist system. Capitalism doesn’t care for community enrichment; it only seeks profit and growth.

While policy wonks should strive to determine new metrics that can measure the wealth as the intersection of natural, built, financial, human, and social resources, we must strive to determine our own measure of progress in the physical world. The ratchet effect is locking in the disastrous results of cancer-stage casino capitalism; overpopulation, overconsumption and environmentally risky technologies are pushing us over a precipice.

Political processes are reactive in nature; our movements must be proactive, revolutionary.

Environmental and social costs must be factored into any analysis of technology and its application. The revelation in 2012 that the Sierra Club had accepted more than $26 million dollars from Chesapeake Energy—the most active driller of natural gas wells—was a shock to some environmental groups. It shouldn’t have been.

Bright green environmentalism has long worshipped technological change as the primary vehicle for ecological interests, often jumping onto the bandwagon of untested or greenwashed technologies. The newest director of the Sierra Club has rejected notions of natural gas “as a ‘kinder, gentler’ energy source” and apologized for the group’s former support of the industry over coal. While dumping natural gas and hydraulic fracking—the dangers of which are illuminated in Josh Fox’s award-winning documentary Gasland—is to be commended, a valuable lesson remains: myopic views of industrial solutions can lead to entirely new problems. Environmental ethics must include a holistic worldview beyond anthropocentric environmentalism, the idea that the natural world is merely a resource to be exploited by humans. Our progress requires transcending mere ecology to accomplish what Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss called an ecosophy: an “evolving but consistent philosophy of being, thinking and acting in the world that embodies ecological wisdom and harmony.”

Subsidies and legislative mismanagement of sectors that create environmental and social costs, such as energy, transportation and agriculture, must be eliminated in favor of sustainability and biodiversity. Eighteen past winners of the Blue Planet prize—the unofficial Nobel for the environment—have released a statement on environmental and development challenges, calling it an imperative to act. Society has “no choice but to take dramatic action to avert a collapse of civilization. Either we will change our ways and build an entirely new kind of global society, or they will be changed for us.”

In this new society, decision-making processes must also empower marginalized groups. Being marginalized doesn’t necessitate being a member of a minority group—being wealthy is indeed a minority position; marginalization means instead that society has refused to acknowledge a particular community’s needs, beliefs, and concerns. Think apartheid South Africa.

The Occupation of New York City released their Declaration on 29 September 2011, calling for an end to “inequality and discrimination in the workplace based on age, the color of one’s skin, sex, gender identity and sexual orientation.” This is a good start. Our progress, however, must go beyond the workplace; we also have the obligation to include the voices of the poor, the uneducated, the mentally and physically disabled, single mothers, criminals, and other groups silenced by the mainstream. We must not stop there; too often, analysis of marginalization focuses on the marginals themselves and not the processes responsible.  We must seek new understanding of the connections between life circumstances of members in various marginal groups and the larger socio-political and economic processes at the root of the American political establishment.

Émile Durkheim, the father of sociology, claimed that social deviance was “a normal and necessary part of social organization”; the role of the marginalized group under traditional sociology, therefore, is to “define moral boundaries for the larger group.” Durkheim saw two reactions to deviance by marginalized groups and others: either the larger society would unite in opposition to people who violate a culture’s values (think of Dick Cheney’s call for a new Pearl Harbor moment) or that deviance would push society’s moral boundaries which, in turn, would lead to social change. Social change is exactly what we’re after.

As capitalism continues its race to the bottom, bankers and their servants in government cry out for harsh measures to save their skin. Privatization of the commons, deep cuts to social services, and dismemberment of labor unions are enacted as a way to “save the economy.” Austerity has become a reality for so-called developed nations, but the true meaning and impact of these words have been understood and felt within the developing world for decades. Even in the United States, which touts its high standards of living, there are places like Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with an average life expectancy of 48 years of age for men and an infant mortality rate 5 times higher than the national average. Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells has dubbed these areas the Fourth World; Russell Means, an Oglala Sioux activist, goes further with his solemn pronouncement linking years of economic terrorism and corruption on Indian reservations with the corporate takeover of the United States:

“America has become one big Indian Reservation.” Franklin D. Roosevelt, in an April 29, 1938 message to Congress, warned that the growth of private power and industrial empire building could lead to fascism:

“The liberty of a democracy is not safe if the people tolerate the growth of private power to a point where it becomes stronger than their democratic state itself. That, in its essence, is fascism—ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power.”

The other Civil War, the crypto-fascist encroachment on democracy, cannot be ended with a cease-fire or a truce. To surrender now is to surrender forever.

The elites that own the governments behind the world’s largest economies are gathering with NATO in Chicago on May 19-20, 2012 to discuss global political and economic policy. Far from healthy international cooperation seeking to end worldwide issues like poverty and disease, summits like these push capitalist ideology into local communities, disrupting traditional ways of life. The horrifying trend of farmer suicides in India—at least 17,368 in 2009 alone—illustrates the results of globalization from above. Don Welsh of the Chicago’s Convention and Tourism Bureau illustrates the summit’s goals precisely:

“To penetrate international markets takes time and money, and this is going to help us showcase to the international markets in a quick way.”

The Group of 8 (G8) would rather the world’s citizens ignore the fact that multi-national corporations having unregulated political power has effectively derailed democratic representation by installing technocrats over elected officials in places like Greece and Italy, that elections in the United States are being turned into auctions for the highest bidder, and that deregulated financial markets and neoliberal trade agreements decimate the environment and worker’s rights in the Global South while ignoring basic issues of economic inequality in developed countries.

Draconian measures are already being put into place to squelch dissent. Under the rule of former White House Chief of Staff and current Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, police powers are being extended, along with public surveillance without oversight, restrictions on public activity, amplified sound, morning gatherings, and parades. New requirements for parades include a $1 million dollar insurance purchase and registration of every sign or banner that will be held by more than one person. They also require any organizer to “indemnify the city against any additional or uncovered third party claims against the city arising out of or caused by the parade,” and “agree to reimburse the city for any damage to the public way or city property arising out of or caused by the parade.” In other words, should some outside group decide to crash your event, the City of Chicago could hold you financially responsible. Given the history of police infiltrators and provocateurs, this guideline effectively crushes any activity the City disagrees with. Say goodbye to Saint Patrick’s Day, to say nothing of the Occupy Wall Street movement itself. Naomi Klein quoted Chicago School economist Milton Friedman, a spiritual forefather of deregulation, on the best way for capitalists to enact the reforms they wish to see in her book, The Shock Doctrine:

“Only a crisis—actual or perceived—produces real change. When the crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function … until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”

This call for a crisis, echoed in the aforementioned Project for a New American Century call for a “new Pearl Harbor” sets the stage for authoritarian controls, not only in Chicago, but around the world. Think 9/11 and nation-building, right-wing coups in South America and the Middle East, post-Communist Russia, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

After hyping a real or inflated crisis—helped by mass media in Chicago by denouncing “anarchists” and “socialists” and “illegal Occupations” on 24/7 infotainment channels—the next step is to authorize excessive force. Emanuel has set the stage by pushing legislation that allows him to marshal and deputize the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the United States Department of Justice’s Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF), and the entire United States Department of Justice (DOJ); as well as state police (the Illinois department of state police and the Illinois attorney general), county law enforcement (State’s Attorney of Cook County), and any “other law enforcement agencies determined by the superintendent of police to be necessary for the fulfillment of law enforcement functions.”

In addition to the thousands of federal agents who will be descending upon Chicago, this last provision allows Emanuel to hire Blackwater mercenaries and other private paramilitary forces to do his dirty work. Not only will this outsource city activities to private enterprises, a beloved capitalist tactic, but it gives these outside groups protection from lawsuits, while requiring none of the federally mandated civil rights protections. Lawsuits will fall on the backs of taxpayers—socializing the risk and privatizing the cost. These laws, and laws like the National Defense Authorization Act of 2012, present a chilling effect on the right to freedom of expression and propagate a culture of fear. The Nuremberg Trial of Hermann Goering further reveals the map used by authoritarian governments:

“The people don’t want war, but they can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.”

A bloodless coup by spineless technocrats has taken place. They manufacture consent, using the state to provide a patina of moral legitimacy, while they expand their security apparatus to control every aspect of waking life. Our way out of this authoritarianism will be illuminated by the fires of our resistance.

August Spies, an anarchist known for his aggressive rhetoric in bringing about the eight-hour workday, spoke of the other Civil War before his execution in 1886.

“Anarchism does not mean bloodshed; it does not mean robbery, arson, etc. These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic features of capitalism.”

When asked if anarchy was a utopian dream, Rudolf Rocker stated that he was an anarchist not because he viewed anarchism as the final goal, but because there is no such thing as the final goal. But his demand for perpetual reclamation of human rights does not mean that we should have no aspirations.

Our first goal? We must end capitalism—and its faulty notion of peace.

Dr. Zakk Flash is an anarchist political writer, radical community activist, and editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBRA). He lives in Norman, Oklahoma.

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