Tag Archives: capitalism

Hard Truths and the “Indispensable Nation”

     I drove across the north, south and middle of United States with my sister because we had to care for my mother who resided in Florida. We moved her back to Canada where she was born after my father died because we knew she would not receive the care she needed in the States. And in those long days on the interstate I saw what America had transformed into.

The blight of corporate neglect and economic depression was nothing less than breathtaking. The main streets of town after town were boarded up, with only a smattering of dollar stores, payday loan shops, liquor vendors and storefront churches open. Hideously over sized franchise signs scraped the sky in all their familiar impertinence. Big box stores and fast food restaurants were clustered around predictable junctions along the highways in an uninspired, formulaic pattern. It became apparent to me that these islands of banality offered some of the only employment for the people who lived in these regions.

These are the hard truths about America, a “shithole” shrouded in delusions, feckless nationalism and layers of supercilious bravado, where corporations, which siphon hundreds of billions of dollars from public coffers via tax evasion and subsidies, are rarely held to account. Industry poisons the water, eviscerates ancient mountains, and devastates urban and rural communities with impunity. This is the “indispensable nation” where more of its citizens are locked behind bars than elsewhere in the world, and usually for non-violent offenses. Where police murder unarmed people in hotel hallways or for traffic violations and get away with it. Where investment in military weapons that terrorize the poor in other nations is exponential, but investment in veterans assistance is nil.

And yet despite this dire landscape where inequity is exploding and infrastructure is failing at breakneck speed, the supremacist concept of “American exceptionalism” has bamboozled millions into believing they live in the greatest nation on the planet. A comment I read recently on a rightwing social media page underscores this disconnect from reality and parochialism even when it comes to one of its nearest neighbours:

“Canada compared to the United States is a third world nation. Roads full of potholes, slums, and terrible healthcare/short lifespan/terrible infant and maternal mortality. They should let Trump work to save their sad nation.”

The ignorance about “socialized medicine” is the tragic result of decades of indoctrination by the capitalist class. And, by proxy, the insurance industry, Big Pharma and other lobbies that have done their part to crush single payer, universal care. The result has been ridiculously high infant mortality rates compared with other developed countries, skyrocketing levels of bankruptcy due to medical expenses, and the resurgence of diseases associated with poverty, like hookworm. That some still think of Trump as a saviour is risible, but there is a deeper wound that has been ignored by most establishment liberals too ensconced in their privilege to notice. Magical thinking is like a drug. It can easily become a balm to those who face a daily litany of miseries and trials.

As a medical social worker I attempted to assist scores of families and individuals navigate these miseries. But I personally know what it is like to not have any kind of insurance and be fearful of getting sick or injured with no money to pay for exorbitant bills, and then to be handed an $11,000 bill for a few days stay in a hospital. I’ve felt the stigma myself of accepting county healthcare assistance which didn’t even cover a fraction of the costs, and being treated like a social pariah because of it. I also know what it is like to watch loved ones who had no money and, although they were deathly ill, try to leave the hospital because they had incurred $80,000 in medical bills which they knew they would never be able to pay. It alters every aspect of a person’s life and leaves one in a state of perpetual anxiety where the only escape is often found in either addiction, magical thinking or some combination of the two.

Poverty is an imposed oppression, the byproduct of rampant greed and the bastard child of the capitalist class. But Americans who are poor are ladled with both the torment of financial worry and the noxious guilt of feeling like they are defective human beings. The “Oprah effect” has convinced many that their failure to succeed in this inherently unjust system is a personal flaw. It is all about the self and the deceptively cruel mantra of positive thinking. One can see this quite clearly in media and entertainment. Any one who is wealthy is cast in an almost deified light while the poor are punchlines, routinely lampooned as “trailer park trash” or demonized as “welfare queens.”

This arrangement, as the late Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. alluded to, has been a boon for the ruling classes who, year after year, strip away the last vestiges of the social safety net while they make it easier for them to amass more wealth. By deflecting analysis and criticism of the current order to things like “personal responsibility” they create the conditions of what Sheldon Wolin called “inverted totalitarianism.”  In this kind of society citizens are transformed into “consumers.” Civics and politics are reduced to spectacle. Every political leader is a millionaire or billionaire. Celebrity scandals dominate the media cycle. The wealthy are endlessly lauded for their “accomplishments.” Societal infrastructure and works for the public good are neglected or demolished. Ecosystems are denuded and degraded. And each person becomes an island unto themselves without agency.
History is replete with examples of how this type of framework fails, especially when it is sustained by perpetual war, economic oppression and the destruction of the biosphere. It will eventually break simply due to its dearth of substance and integrity. To be sure, no one knows when this will happen, or how. But we should all tremble before the storm of rage that will rise when it does.

 

Kenn Orphan, 17 January 2018

The Canaries We Ignore

The images and video that have come out of Southern California this past year have been nothing less than apocalyptic. Raging fires consume dry chaparral up to the edge of bloated freeways with 10 lanes. Entire neighbourhoods have been reduced to smoldering ash. And the lives of countless residents changed forever.
          I lived in Southern California almost half my life. Wildfires and hot, dry Santa Ana winds were a part of every autumn. But something palpable shifted in the last few years I was there. The fire season became year round, wildfires became more like firestorms and those desert winds, which I had loved so much in the early years, became more like infernal blasts from an open furnace, mercurial and desiccating to everything they touched.

Like the record breaking storms, floods and hurricanes of late, these fires are more canaries in the collective coal mine we all inhabit. And with each passing year and every accumulating catastrophe their clarion call becomes more urgent and shrill. Yet in spite of their insistence the global order remains relatively unchanged and alarmingly unperturbed.

It is becoming increasingly undeniable that human beings are now at a crossroad as never before encountered in history. In its relatively short time, industrial civilization has brought amazing technological advances. Diseases have been cured, massive feats of agriculture have fed millions, and we were able to break the gravitational bonds of this planet and become a spacefaring civilization. But its marriage to corporate capitalism was one made in hell. And the Faustian bargain that fossil fuels offered humanity unleashed a boundless and insatiable greed which blinds all who profit from it to their ruination.

The result has been the despoiling of the living biosphere on which we all rely. We have entered into the Sixth Mass Extinction where at least 150 species are lost every day to human activity. Recent studies have confirmed a catastrophic drop in insect populations worldwide thanks to petro-based pesticides used in industrial scale agriculture, climate change, and destruction of habitat. Marine life is suffering a similar fate with bird populations being decimated by loss of food sources and plastic pollution which is set to outweigh all fish in the ocean by mid-century. Fish stocks have plummeted and over 90% of Coral reefs, the ocean’s nurseries, will have disappeared by 2050 from bleaching thanks to ocean acidification. Forests are being felled at a rate akin to a New Zealand sized area every year. Yet despite these staggering developments little to nothing of substance is being done on the global scale that is needed.

Here is where people of conscience must be brutally truthful about our collective predicament. We must face the painful fact that our species has exceeded its limits in growth, population and the exploitation of the natural world. We must also grapple with the fact that the global north is most responsible for the decimation of the biosphere and the ruthless exploitation of the global south. And there will be no substantive actions taken by the corrupt political and business leaders who profit from this global arrangement, to halt this plunder or stem the carnage of the planet’s rich biodiversity. They are both unwilling and incapable of addressing the issue with the integrity and impetus necessary. Instead, they will continue their bait and switch dance of empty placation and denialism while they stuff their coffers with coin, even as the earth rapidly transforms into another planet before our eyes.

 And their criminal ineptitude has never stopped at non-humans. As this century unfolds, cities will be lost to rising seas as governments will eventually find that they are too expensive to salvage. Regions will become uninhabitable from pollution and drought. The specters of famine and disease will haunt billions of people. And mass migration will put a strain on fragile social and economic systems that already suffer from vast, structurally imposed inequities.

Their answer to the concomitant unrest will be more Orwellian doublespeak and insidious distraction, coupled with draconian crackdowns on dissent, protest or objection. They will aggressively mock, smear and persecute truth tellers and peddle in jingoism, xenophobia and nationalism. War mongering, austerity and the scapegoating of vulnerable people will become their preferred method of deferring from their culpability. None of this is fiction. It has all happened, and not only in civilizations throughout history which have faced socio-economic or ecological collapse. It is happening today in societies which purport to be democratic.

Although “knowledge is power” is a cliché, it still holds some truth. We still have tremendous agency to affect the future, both personally and collectively. We have the power to create communities of solidarity and to meet the looming catastrophes and calamities with humanity, dignity and grace. But that agency is diluted and made ineffectual so long as we continue to lie to ourselves and others about where we are as a species. The risk we take includes being labeled an alarmist in a society lulled into a hypnotic trance by the slick marketing tactics of the consumerist wizards of Wall Street. But that risk pales in comparison to ignoring the screeching canaries in our midst.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

On Identity Politics and the Struggle Against Capitalism

“I am human, and I think nothing of which is human is alien to me.” ~ Publius Terentius Afer, Roman playwright  (195/185 – c. 159 BC)
Recently, I’ve seen the topic of identity politics coming up in certain forums. Without a doubt this is commonly misunderstood concept that has been deliberately manipulated for political reasons. But the so-called “alt-right” (see far right, white supremacists) have seized on this confusion with a vengeance. Even some on the left have decried its influence because to them it serves as a distraction and undermines the importance of fighting classist exploitation under late stage capitalism. It should not come as a surprise that many of them are white, heterosexual men with Christian European ancestry who have never experienced oppression, systemic discrimination or state violence based on their skin pigment, gender, religious expression, sexual orientation, disability, language or ethnicity. As a white man myself I concede that this is indeed a luxury most of the planet does not enjoy.
          Human beings are not a mono-crop. We have personal and shared identities based on how we look, speak, act, who we love, how we worship (if we choose to worship) and from our experiences of being different from the dominant group in our society. And it is undeniable that many are mercilessly persecuted for those differences. While it is undoubtedly true that cynical political operatives of the American Democratic Party use identity to curry support and distract from the oppressive economic structure of capitalism, it does not make the reality of white supremacy, patriarchy or oppression based solely upon identity, any less true.
          Racism and sexism, for example, are existential realities faced by the vast majority of humans on the planet every single day. Women endure the most violence of any group and while it must be understood that there is no such thing as “race” in a biological sense, there is indeed such a thing as racism. And both forms of oppression work in similar ways, through violence, loss of status, and coercion or the threat of these things. These forms of oppression predate capitalism, but as a descendant of colonialism it makes them an easy fit for an economic model which places human beings (and other species for that matter) into categories of hierarchy and class for easy exploitation. So it is undeniable that since capitalism is the dominant economic and political global order it is also the primary engine for persecution, discrimination and even genocide against the oppressed in the world today.
           It should therefore go without saying that capitalism is at the root of the problem, but even given this truth or that identity is cynically manipulated by certain political parties, it does not make the reality of oppression based upon ones identity any less real or existentially threatening. I believe anarchists, radicals and socialists offer the best solution to these monstrous problems, but not if they dismiss, ridicule or deny the existence of identity within the human species or the brutal persecution people face because of them. Recognizing ones own privilege and extending solidarity to oppressed, marginalized or disenfranchised people is not a distraction from the struggle against capitalism. On the contrary. It offers us the best bridge toward societal transformation that no stale ideology could even dream of.
Kenn Orphan  2017
Title image is “Capitalism and Racism” by Paul Domenick.

100 Years Later, to Move Beyond Our Chains

This year is the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution which brought about the USSR and as usual I’ve seen the same banal hit pieces and smug denunciations of Marxism bandied about on social media that I do every year around this time. “Communism failed, just look at the Soviet Union.”
          Of course nothing is said about the horror that Russia was for most of its people under Czarist dictatorship for three centuries. Or that after the Czar was jettisoned the new coalition had to cope with their legacy of crushing poverty, illiteracy and famine. Or that they had to deal with the onslaught of foreign invasions, embargoes, blockades by the far wealthier empires of Europe and the US, and lost over 20 million people thanks to Nazi barbarism. Or that despite all of this they managed to become a super power in just a matter of decades.
This kind of thing is unsurprising to many of us. After all, poor and obtuse analysis of historical movements are a dime a dozen, particularly in the US where the public discourse is tightly managed and capitalism has been elevated to religious status. But I’ve noticed something different of late. The arguments aren’t flying as much as they used to except in elitist circles.
          Maybe this is due to greater awareness of how capitalism ultimately always benefits the .01% to the detriment of the rest of us, and that now a mere handful of men own as much wealth as half of all humanity on earth. Maybe it is because more people are realizing their enslavement under a system of perpetual credit debt, student loans, healthcare costs and a brutalizing judicial and police state which is all too eager to crush dissent. Perhaps this is thanks to the fact that the biosphere has been brought to the brink of destruction thanks to the rampant greed of corporations which commit ecocide with impunity.
Whatever the reason might be it is, nonetheless, refreshing. As the great Rosa Luxemburg said: “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” I would only add that sometimes the forces of history compel us to move and that we should be grateful when this happens in a manner that shows us both our power and agency at once.
          Soviet Russia was a long, painful experiment in socio-economic justice that was far from perfect. In fact many pages of this legacy were undeniably written with the cruel ink of totalitarianism, including a bloody counter-revolution that undid much of the progress made by the early soviets. But it gave us a glimpse into the potential of ordinary people to be agents of societal and civilisational change. If there is anything we can glean from this remembrance 100 years later is that when the oppressed, marginalized and disenfranchised unite in solidarity against tyranny they are far more powerful than the powers that be would ever want them to realize.
Kenn Orphan  2017

(Title artwork for this essay isThe Bolshevik,” 1920, by Boris KustodievOil on canvas. 101 x 140.5 cm. State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow)

Canonizing Criminals and the Lobotomization of Public Memory

What becomes of a man who started a war based upon lies that killed thousands, displaced millions, and destabilized an entire region, decimated civil liberties with sweeping powers granted to government surveillance agencies, instituted torture programs and rounded up scores of innocent people in secret raids sending them to wither away in a gulag in the Caribbean, left thousands of his citizens to languish in disease infested flood waters in the Gulf Coast following a major hurricane, gutted environmental regulations in favour of industry, and created the predatory and neoliberal economic conditions that led to the “Great Recession?” Apparently, if you are a former US President you get transfigured into saint.
          Like a bad penny, this past year has seen the curious resurfacing of George W. Bush in public life. And in this absurd era of Trumpism he is being canonized by many top Democrats with several prominent Liberals following suit. It seems that over night a war criminal has been miraculously transformed into a lovable “senior statesman;” a granddad who paints delightful pictures and gives “inspiring” speeches against bigotry. Bush, like practically all of the ruling political class in Washington, should have been brought before the International Criminal Court in the Hague for his crimes against humanity and the living planet. But as a response to the mendacioussexistracist behaviour and policies of Donald Trump, and with the assistance of a corporate media which delights in collective, cultural amnesia, many establishment Liberals have been pining of late for the GWB presidency.

          When one understands the machinations of American political power it isn’t all that strange. Most Democratic partisans did the same for the Obama administration which got a pass (and still does) for deporting more immigrants than the previous administration and prosecuting more whistleblowers than all US presidents combined. It is what they did when they overlooked, cheered on or forgave him and his Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, for the decimation of Libya or dropping over 26,000 bombs in seven Muslim majority countries, or assassinating a 16 year old US citizen without due process, bombing wedding parties, ambulances and a grandmother picking okra in their field. It is not surprising, but it is no less repulsive and disheartening for anyone with any respect for civic or political memory.
          Time has proven the only tactic of the wealthy Liberal establishment is minimal protest and major capitulation to reactionary power in order to preserve their position in the current order. It is why most serious socialists, anarchists, radicals and leftists refuse to be allies with them. They have all too often felt the sting of betrayal. Nancy Pelosi infamously said “we’re capitalists” when she smugly admonished a young progressive disillusioned with capitalism at a “town hall meeting.” And she was not kidding. The Democratic Party establishment has benefited from and supported Wall Street over and over again and it has always voted in favour of a bloated and aggressive military industrial complex.  They have done their part to sponge away the crimes of the capitalist class so long as their place, privilege and status in this sick societal paradigm had a remote chance of being secured.

One can almost understand and predict this behaviour. Trump is a living dumpster fire of grotesque vulgarity who has ignited a bolder white nationalism and bamboozled many poor whites into thinking he cares about their problems. Despite being the ultimate plutocrat, he was able to get this lie across to many of them while the Democrats in all of their smugness ignored them. He is a master at manipulating their fears and bigotries and at muddying the waters of discourse. He employs scapegoating of minorities or oppressed groups with ease. And his foreign policy is so erratic and volatile that it causes even a seasoned intelligence officer to lose sleep at night thinking of him having access to the nuclear codes.

          It is a dangerous delusion, however, to believe George W. Bush or any of the powerful elite, are any different from one another in the end. GWB’s persona might have had a makeover, but his class hasn’t. And Trump is the most accurate emblem of that class. Bush and Trump alike sit atop an extraordinarily cruel and oppressive power structure in American society. The moneyed class only hates Trump because he reveals the true face of predatory capitalism to the public without the cloak of their “blue blooded” pomp, flourishes and sentimentality. Of course he must be opposed, but this alone is meaningless unless the entire oppressive, self-destructive, planet decimating system, of which he and Bush both belong, is brought down with him.
          America may be the last, most powerfully lethal, empire on earth. Its wealthy elite have mastered the insidious art of inverted totalitarianism and ensconced corporate capitalism into every institution. What’s worse is that it has forcefully transported this malignancy around the world through the subversion of democracyeconomic imperialism,and military aggression. On a planet with dwindling resources, a climate getting angrier by the day, and mass extinction of species its powerful operate within a global capitalist class who enjoy near total impunity for their crimes against humanity and the planet as they push us closer to the precipice of collapse.
         Given all of this, going back in time may seem desirable for some. This is especially true for those who were not adversely affected by the egregious or even murderous policies, plunder and wars of the past. But it is only the privileged who can entertain such flights of fancy. To cozy up to power or erase their crimes is to become allies with the very forces that threaten our collective doom. The current order is one which is poised to destroy not just civilization but the entire biosphere.  Rapid, monumental action is required to halt a system which is leading us to certain ruin, and address and mitigate the chaos of an unfolding dystopic present and future. In politics, this is not the time to protect a murderous status quo or preserve one’s own privilege within it. This is an existential crisis which requires a global revolution in thought and practice. Nothing less will do.
I can only hope most liberals will learn this painful lesson soon, while there is still time left to do so.
Kenn Orphan  2017

The Colonial Project that Never Ended

The recent shake up in the media over President Trump’s condolence call to the bereaved widow of Sgt La David Johnson, whose body was found after an ambush in Niger near the border with Mali, has shined a light on an all too murky subject. Putting Trump’s appalling dearth of empathy aside, we should look closer and honestly at why this soldier and the others who were killed were in Niger in the first place. One of 800 US military personnel, we are told that Johnson was there to “support and train the local forces to improve counterterrorism efforts.” But in this age of deliberate obfuscation with the so-called “war on terror” used as a blanket excuse for American militarism such a statement belies the real reasons for their presence on the continent.
          Many Americans couldn’t locate Niger on a map to save their lives but the global capitalist class can. They have had their talons there and across Africa for decades. In Niger, for example, the US military has been working with the French who once held the impoverished country as a colony and now exploit it for its rich resources. Meanwhile at least 63% of Nigeriens live under the global poverty line. And like most African nations they are forced to pay “debt” to the nations that once enslaved them for the “benefits” they received from centuries of European subjugation.

 

 

Today the ruse continues thanks to the cover of “counterterrorism” which justifies the presence of US and European troops and special forces in order to protect the interests of multi-national corporations who pillage resource rich regions across Africa. Niger alone has one of the world’s largest uranium deposits along with coal, iron ore, tin, phosphates, and gold to name just a few.

          While it is true that violent extremism is a major problem from groups like Boko Haram or Al-Shabab, it is equally true that the global elite have exacerbated tensions and even fomented some by creating situations which pit one group against another. The brutal attack in Mogadishu earlier this month which killed hundreds and maimed thousands more, for instance, might have been the result of Trump’s pledge to “ramp up” attacks against the violent extremists of Al-Shabab. Incidentally, Somalia like Niger is rich in uranium.

 

The best response to the threats of Boko Haram and Al-Shabab come in the absence of militaristic aggression. It is African women, for instance, who have mounted the most effective campaigns to fight the brutality of Boko Haram. And as history has shown militarism generally destabilizes societal infrastructure and increases the suffering of the vulnerable and the oppressed. A perfect example of this is the US war against Afghanistan. The Pentagon along with many feckless feminists promoted it in part to “liberate women” from the Taliban. Sixteen years later we can see how that lie turned out. We can also take a look at Afghanistan’s vast mineral resources and opium to understand why the American Empire keeps the longest war in its history going.

 

It’s time to be brutally honest. The US soldiers killed in Niger may not have fully understood their role but they were not there “protecting the homeland” or “fighting for freedom.” They were not “liberating locals” either. They were employed to protect the capital investments of the global .01%. And when the mask is ripped off it becomes apparent that colonialism in Africa and around the globe never really ended. Quite the contrary. It has only morphed into a more insidious and noxious form of plunder in this desperate era of late stage, predatory capitalism. And the military, whether wittingly or not, is ultimately protecting the elite, their interests and their vast, ill-gotten wealth.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

The Normalization of Perpetual Disaster

In case you missed it…

A hole the size of the Netherlands has opened in the middle of the Antarctic ice sheet. 40,000 penguins just perished of starvation on the same continent. And earlier this summer an iceberg weighing one trillion tons broke away adding more momentum to inevitable global sea level rise.
Floods have killed thousands and displaced many more over the summer and into autumn from China to India and Nepal to Southeast Asia to West Africa. Scores of people were killed and many still missing from fires that have scorched Northern California, Spain and Portugal. Three and a half million people in Puerto Rico are still in survival mode without drinking water or electricity weeks after Hurricane Irma made landfall. Parts of the Gulf Coast are a toxic soup of chemicals. The Amazon rain forest, the lungs of the planet, are belching out smoke as it reels from 208,278 fires this year alone. And Ophelia, the bizarre tenth hurricane turned mega storm of this record breaking season is battering Ireland.

In geopolitical developments, the most powerful empire on the planet is being led by a narcissistic megalomaniac surrounded by war mongers, religious fanatics and disaster capitalists. He has been madly jostling the fragile chords that stabilize nations by threatening to annihilate 25 million people in a bath of fire and countless other souls in the region and around the world, while demanding a 10-fold increase to one of the most powerfully lethal nuclear arsenals on the planet.
There is no reason to think Trump would not carry out his threats. After all, he dropped the “mother of all bombs” on Afghanistan and launched military strikes on Syria over dessert garnishing high praise from many in the corporate media and politicians from both sides of the aisle. And he will get little objection from establishment Democrats who are enthusiastic cheerleaders for US militarism and voted for the 700 billion dollar increase to the already bloated US military industrial complex.
Despite all of this an eerily bizarre normalization of this descent into global chaos continues apace. The media seems to move on seamlessly from one disaster or scandal to the next. Politicians shift focus and manufacture new outrage. Meanwhile, the real existential crises drifting us ever closer to the collapse of human civilization within this century go largely unreported and vastly underestimated. We are living in an age of convergence where the consequences of decades of excess, greed, willful ignorance and dithering are finally reaching a climax. Where the chips fall in the coming years is anyone’s guess, but if we are honest we can get a pretty good picture of our current trajectory.
Looking honestly at our situation within a profoundly sick culture can often feel alienating. If we look around we may think we are seeing thousands of people simply going about their days as if nothing is wrong. This may be due in part to the normalcy bias which is defined as “a belief people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects, because it causes people to have a bias to believe that things will always function the way things normally function.”  But this is also reinforced by a corporate culture in which distraction and denial are encouraged and celebrated as virtues.
Conspicuous consumption is peddled as a remedy to all that ails our society. Some self medicate, some absorb themselves in the shallow, or the spectacle, or the salacious, or the vainglorious.  But still many more are simply too busy for long reflection, caring for children or sick or elderly loved ones at a time when social safety nets are being mercilessly slashed, or working 100 hours a week for a pittance just to make ends meet and struggle to pay off debts for simply living.
But on some deep level I believe we all understand our dire predicament and that it will not simply get better or go away.
Each day the unraveling of the biosphere becomes more and more apparent. The illusion that we are separate from the natural world is beginning to shatter as the human generated Sixth Mass Extinction unfurls before our eyes in real time. But in this era of late stage capitalism and the prevalence of inverted totalitarianism the last thing we should expect is for the powers that be to make the bold changes necessary to stop the descent of civilization or even provide meaningful solutions or mitigation of the current and looming catastrophes.

Given the graveness of the situation it is easy to feel a deep sense of powerlessness or even paralyzed. And it may not be exactly comforting, but we should not look at our unease as an unhealthy response to the existential crises of our times. Contrary to the prevailing mantra depression and anxiety should be expected as normal responses to what we face collectively, because our very DNA is threaded with this world’s rhythm. And without a doubt, that collective pulse appears to be quickening.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017
 

Puerto Rico: Climate Change on the Margins of Empire

Right now Puerto Rico, an American island of over 3.4 million people, is in ruins thanks to the rampage of two major hurricanes, Irma and Maria respectively. Most are facing months without electricity, many are homeless, more face poor access to fresh drinking water, farms have been razed, and the specter of disease looms over flooded towns and toxic industrial and military superfund sites. Officials on the island have described the situation as “apocalyptic.” Now a dam is dangerously close to bursting. This is our climate changed present and future. But if you pay attention to the corporate media you might never know these facts or what they mean.

Puerto Rico seldom gets much coverage in the US mainland press because it lies in the grey zone of Empire. In fact, polling has demonstrated that most Americans do not even realize it is part of the US. But it was one of the first victims of American global expansion and hegemony following Spanish colonialism and served as a base of operations for the US military in its forays throughout the Caribbean and Central America. It was never granted statehood thanks in part to many Puerto Ricans who resisted American occupation, but also due to elites in Washington for its geopolitical advantage to the US. As a result of this marginalized status its residents cannot vote in national elections, and it has scant control over internal issues when it comes to neoliberal austerity measures, US military installations and environmental protections.

In recent years it has been put in the vice grip of debt by vultures on Wall Street, much like Greece, Spain and Argentina. And with increasing swaths of the planet engulfed in climate chaos it has been ensnared in a widening circle of sacrifice zones where residents of impoverished neighbourhoods, cities or regions are largely left to fend for themselves when faced with pollution, climate change related disasters and ecological destruction. This has disproportionately effected immigrants, indigenous peoples and people of colour, but the lines are also being drawn based upon class.

Puerto Rico is another early example of the world to come. In truth, most of the world’s population already lives in some form of this dystopia; but it is the future for the rest of us thanks to the current course of unrestrained production and consumption of fossil fuels and the corruption, greed and apathy of the global elite. They aren’t slouches when it comes to protecting their interests and saving their own hides either. In articles from CNN to The New Yorker, tales of the sprawling estates and luxury bunkers being bought or built by them show how seriously they take the coming shocks to civilization.

So how will the powerful respond to a future of disasters and chaos for essentially anyone who isn’t part of the wealthy elite? The answer can perhaps be gleaned from a tweet President Trump sent out Monday, his first response to the devastation in Puerto Rico a full five days after the hurricane made landfall. He began by saying the island had “massive debt” that is “owed to Wall Street and the banks” and which “must be dealt with.” This was the first priority given, not the welfare of the people or the environment but how much the beleaguered people of Puerto Rico owe to vulture capitalists and the extortionists on Wall Street.

 

It doesn’t get much simpler than that.

 

Kenn Orphan  2017

 

A Tale of Two Towers

On March 25, 1911 in New York City a horrific fire swept through the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory killing 146 women, men and children and injuring hundreds more. Most of the victims were women and most were working poor, Jewish and Italian immigrants. They died from the fire, smoke inhalation or by falling or leaping to their deaths to escape the heat and flames. The factory owners had locked the stairwells and exits to prevent workers from taking “unauthorized breaks”, a common practice at the time.

The result of this indescribable tragedy resulted in massive organizing for working people to demand safety codes and measures. It was, in many ways, one of the earliest examples of the regulation of industry.  This was a major accomplishment considering this deadly day happened in the midst of the notorious “Gilded Age.”  The excesses of the wealthy few were flaunted for everyone to see while the poor masses struggled to make ends meet, working 14 hour days and getting paid pennies for their hard labour.

In the years since there have been many other tragedies the world over where the poor, immigrants, people of colour and mostly women have suffered immeasurably from factory or housing fires or related disasters. In almost all cases industry has been let off the hook, allowed to continue its deadly practices at the expense of working people, children, animals and the living earth itself.

Thanks to the “market” dictates of global capitalism austerity, deregulation and the gutting or dismantling of social and physical safety nets has become the norm. Working people and the poor are told they must accept this in order to “grow the economy.” But these lies are as thin as the paper they are written on. And tragic greed-borne catastrophes are their hallmark.

The recent Grenfell Tower fire in London is the sorrowful sister to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. It is a testament to a duplicitous system of exploitation and greed on behalf of the wealthiest .001%. It may be too early to say what exactly caused the horrific fire in this residential tower in London in the early morning hours of 14th June, but it is not too early to say that the working poor, immigrants and people of colour are always disproportionately the victims of such tragedies. Prior to this event there were documented complaints about the “very poor fire safety standards” in the building and the questionable cladding that was apparently put up largely for cosmetic reasons because wealthy residents of the neighbourhood did not like the look of the towers.

The tower stands in Kensington and Chelsea which has one of the starkest divides between extreme wealth and poverty. It is on the Lancaster West Estate which houses poor, multi-ethnic families. As early as last November the Grenfell Action Group warned that “only a catastrophic event will expose the ineptitude and incompetence of our landlord, the Kensington and Chelsea Tenant Management Association, and bring an end to the dangerous living conditions and neglect of health and safety legislation that they inflict upon their tenants and leaseholders.”

We have seen similar incidents around the world where the divides between the uber wealthy and the poor are growing sharper and in areas where real estate is in high demand. In neglected slums of Manila fires are an all too common occurrence. In Mumbai and Bangladesh we have seen this time and time again in sweat shops and shanty towns. The cries of the poor are seldom, if ever, heard. And this is by design.

Global capitalism cannot afford societies built on the values of mutual cooperation or respect of the dignity and inherent worth of all human beings. There is too much profit at stake to even allow this kind of conversation among the wealthy elite. But perhaps this tragedy, much like the one at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory on that sorrowful day in NYC, will galvanize us all to challenge and dismantle this system of ruthless barbarity. Perhaps it will be a wake up call for us to begin constructing a world where the dictatorship of money is no longer acceptable.

In a very real sense we are all in that burning tower now and the wealthy and powerful are busy alighting the flames that will burn up the entire planet before our eyes. It is my hope that we will use this horrific and needless tragedy to awaken from our collective slumber and work to build the world that they will not permit. There isn’t much time left and irreparable damage may have already been done.  But we owe it to those who have already been lost to let this be a rallying cry for a revolution of the heart.

 

My deepest sympathy to the victims and their families.
Kenn Orphan 2017

The Insatiable Lust for Plunder

“Rocky Mountain Landscape” by Albert Bierstadt (January 7, 1830 – February 18, 1902), oil on canvas.

Like many of his colleagues Albert Bierstadt was captivated and awed by the beauty of the North American continent. He painted grand and sweeping scenes of the American west at a time when little was known about it to European Americans except in rumour.  His use of light and space thrusts us into the sphere of the transcendent splendor of nature and its power.

Of course Native Americans knew of this beauty for many centuries prior to colonialism. They revered it as sacred, and understood that human beings and nature were not separate entities but were one in the same whose identity and destiny were inextricably linked.  Today much of that land has be despoiled or is imperiled by industry and development.  Protected areas are increasingly hemmed in by the interests of corporations, petroleum companies and mining, creating islands of besieged wildlife.

The battle for these last remaining lands has never ceased.  The capitalist robber barons of the 21st century have never sated their lust for plunder, and Donald Trump’s executive order attempting to rescind national monuments is a living example of that sad fact.  One might wonder what someone like Bierstadt, or his contemporaries in the Hudson River School, would have thought about the reckless and insane drive to rid the continent of its last remaining sanctuaries for wildlife.  But looking at this painting it isn’t too difficult to imagine the sorrow he would have felt.

 

Kenn Orphan  2917