Sunday, May 21, 2017

Ten years on, the inconvenient truths about the neoliberal response to global warming

Marlon Brando in Gillo Pontecorvo's Quiemada

-Ten years is a long time.
-It can be a very long time. Even so, it’s still only 10 years.
-No, I only want to explain, gentlemen, that very often, between one historical period and another ten years certainly might be enough to reveal the contradictions of a whole century. And so, often we have to realize that our judgments and our interpretations and even our hopes may have been wrong. [i]

In 2006, with his speaking tour and famous film An Inconvenient Truth, former American vice president Al Gore gained fame and praise for his commitment to alerting the world about the need to take drastic actions to curb global warming. The clear message of his film was that big changes were necessary, a radical paradigm shift in the way we use energy. He stated emphatically that “a moral imperative to make big changes is inescapable.” He called on Americans to take on global warming as if it were among the greatest challenges that America has dealt with in its history, such as the revolution and war of independence and the abolition of slavery. He asked:

Are we, as Americans, capable of doing great things even though they are difficult?...We formed a nation, we fought a revolution and brought something new to this earth, a free nation guaranteeing individual liberty. America made a moral decision. Its slavery was wrong, and that we could not be half free and half slave. We, as Americans, decided that of course women should have the right to vote. We defeated totalitarianism and won a war in the Pacific and the Atlantic simultaneously. We desegregated our schools... We worked together in a completely bipartisan way to bring down communism... So now we have to use our political processes in our democracy, and then decide to act together to solve those problems. But we have to have a different perspective on this one. It’s different from any problem we have ever faced before... [Earth] is our only home. And that is what is at stake. Our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization...[ii]

The reason Mr. Gore’s campaign didn’t change the world can perhaps be found in the contradictions and nonsense expressed in the above passage.
He mentioned the American Revolution that overthrew the existing political order and created a completely new one, but he never followed through to the logical implication that a revolution would be needed now. He merely advocated for local change, innovation, altering personal behavior, and getting the Washington establishment to adopt better energy policies.
He referred to the abolition of slavery, but not to the inconvenient fact that a civil war had to happen to bring about that change. Similarly, we might wonder if a civil war will be necessary now to overcome a government controlled by corporate interests. It would be wrong to assume they are going to give up their advantages without a fight.
Next he stated America “won a war in the Pacific and the Atlantic simultaneously,” neglecting to mention that in Europe the allies did all the heavy lifting until 1944 and suffered the great majority of casualties and ruined cities.
Finally, he insulted the ally that sacrificed the most to win that war against totalitarianism by saying, “We worked together in a completely bipartisan way to bring down communism.” The leaders of today’s Communist Party of China would be amused and confused by this statement, having upheld a communist system and won a thirty-year trade war with America, but in any case, such boasting about “bringing down communism” is meaningless. It is only a crude display of ignorance and arrogance about what has happened to the world in the last thirty years.
Convergence theory emerged in the 1940s among some political scientists as a way of describing how both the US and Soviet systems had come to resemble each other.[iii] Roosevelt’s New Deal showed the importance of government in controlling the commanding heights of the economy, then the war made defense spending the major factor in the economy. The Cold War race to build thousands of nuclear weapons further entrenched the role of government. By the 1970s, both the Soviet Union and the United States were highly bureaucratized techno-military complexes that had managed to deliver a decent standard of living to a majority of its citizens. A significant difference was that the Soviet Union lacked a stock exchange in which private entities could profit from government programs. It was a one-party state, but it had institutions that involved the participation of citizens in the party and civic life in ways that didn’t exist in America. America had two political parties with little ideological difference between them, and policy and leadership was largely set by corporate influence and elite managers of government institutions.
Whenever progressive politicians emerged in American politics, they went to the Democratic Party to change it from within, but always ended up being the sheepdogs that herded progressives into the mainstream while the party bosses decided the candidates and the policy. The Democratic Party became known as the place where radical ideas go to die. All in all, the Soviet and American systems had converged enough to make it difficult to say which was more democratic. By the time of the Soviet collapse, it was a matter of America having more power and control of more of the earth’s resources, and the Soviet Union being in a state of internal disarray. If anyone “brought down communism” it was Gorbachev, who did it willfully through the sort of radical reform that America is incapable of. But it’s nice of Al Gore to try to take credit for destroying another nation’s political system and way of life, as if that were America’s moral duty to perform for the world.
Convergence theory remained relevant after 1991 as the US and the EU continued to become more bureaucratic and governments became more deeply embedded in the private market, and vice versa. Today, it can be said that American global capitalism has been “sovietized,” a term meant to awaken those who believe the market is still free. The term indicates that the political, bureaucratic and corporate entities have fused together in such a way that there is no longer a distinction between the private and government sectors. Since 2008, central banks have been printing money and buying stocks to prop up private banks and corporations. One needs to be on the inside, among the fortunate nomenklatura, to avoid being on the losing side of the arrangement. In an interview on the Keiser Report, financial analyst Chris Whalen described it thus:

Chris Whalen: It’s like the pre-Reformation. They’re selling dispensation. You [corporations] come to Washington. You’re buying forgiveness, even before the fact. It’s like Minority Report. You haven’t committed the crime yet, but you have to go to Washington and pay them off so that they don’t prosecute you.

Max Keiser: This is no big secret. Why does the average American, the CNBC watcher, seem oblivious that this is a very corrupt cesspool?

Chris Whalen: They want to cling to the notion that there is a private market out there where they can invest and make money. The reality is that politics has largely subsumed the markets to the extent that the regulators call all the shots. Private companies are now subordinate to this whole process, much like in Europe. It’s the same attitude. The political figures, their companions in the regulatory world, they call all the shots. Much that drives stocks has to do with the decisions they make or do not make. Look at financials. Financials are overwhelmed by the regulatory state. And I think that is very important for people to understand: We don’t have a free market. The feds put us all into an induced coma.[iv]

We should also keep all this in mind when an American speaks of “bringing down communism,” and we should recall what that destructive effort looked like to people on the receiving end of the stick. During Al Gore’s term as vice president it involved boxes of US dollars flown into the American Embassy in Moscow in 1996 in order to help the unpopular and despised Boris Yeltsin and his oligarchs. Before this time, the Clinton administration had supported Yeltsin in 1993 when he shred the constitution and launched an artillery assault on parliament. These desperate measures were taken to stop the communist party from coming back to power. Winning this game meant propping up the oligarchs and tolerating killing of journalists and dissidents, associations that are now deemed to be such a threat to the United States simply because Donald Trump’s connections to some Russians are alleged to have contaminated the precious bodily fluids of American democracy.
Another dark episode of the 1990s has been well hidden behind the false narrative of the Rwandan genocide. As vice president, Al Gore must surely have had the security access to know that as the war in Southern Africa wound down and the USSR and Cuba backed out of supporting foreign wars, there was an American plan to manage the new Africa in rivalry with France’s traditional neo-colonial interests there. Africa’s unrecognized continental war of 1990 to 2003 led to some seven million excess deaths, so one of the ironies of “bringing down communism” is the fact that the bloodiest conflict of the late 20th century occurred when the Cold War was over, enabled by a low-level proxy rivalry between two NATO allies, the two nations that gave the world their examples of democratic republics in the late 18th century. Some scholars believe that the intensity and intentions of the France-US proxy war has been greatly exaggerated, but if it wasn't war then, it certainly was afterwards in the form of the bitter accusations that flowed about which side had provoked and enabled the genocide, then later protected parties that were guilty of crimes against humanity. That war rages still.

The carnage might have been less if the US and France and the rest of the “international community” had perceived Africa as a priority, learned about what they were getting into, and stayed focused on it. However, they were only interested enough to get involved out of institutional momentum or the belief that they must take responsibility for managing the new world order, but they were not interested enough to pay attention for long and understand what their "support" would lead to. America was asserting itself as the sole superpower in the early 1990s, and that meant asserting itself everywhere, even in regions that weren’t the most vital interests. The lack of full commitment was obvious in the failure to halt the war on Rwanda launched from Uganda, and the subsequent failure to stop the conflict widening into the continental war that lasted from 1996 until 2003. Ironically, it was the Bush administration, famous for launching two wars elsewhere, that was the first to signal to Rwanda that the game was up and they could no longer play upon Western "genocide guilt" to obtain unconditional aid. 
     If one wants to look for a root cause of the genocide, it can be found in the US support of Tutsi exiles to invade from Uganda, to start what was wrongly referred to in the early 1990s as a "civil war." The violation of the UN Charter (sponsoring aggression against a sovereign nation) never seemed to be a concern. One could look for causes further back in the earlier expulsion of Tutsi from Rwanda, but it should have been obvious that that problem was never going to be resolved by a foreign-sponsored invasion. 
Paul Kagame was chosen as the leader of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the army of Tutsi exiles living in Uganda since 1959. He was sent to the US to be trained for his future role. The genocide was not foreseen and not part of the American plan, but it should have been obvious that the invasion would escalate the conflict and cause chaos to spread to neighboring countries. It is not clear how much America plotted with the RPF in the takeover that came about, but it is clear that America refused to intervene in the 1990-94 war and in the genocide until the RPF had finished its invasion and seized power. Perhaps the tail wagged the dog and the Americans and the French never understood what they were getting into. The theory that it was all an imperialist plot planned far in advance is actually a racist presumption that Africans had no agency in what was happening. One must give credit to the African leaders for their Machiavellian skills as they exploited their foreign sponsors at every turn. The Western powers never seemed to have imagined a genocide was possible, and after it occurred they didn't see the next chapter caused by the Hutu regime and armed forces living in exile in the refugee camps in Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo).
The Arusha Accords of 1993 were supposed to have brought a peaceful resolution to the "civil war," but the side which had the most to lose in this deal was the RPF because they would always be a political minority. They had more to gain from a full invasion to bring down the French-backed regime in a short war, then set up a power base for the Anglo-American sphere of influence. It didn’t go so smoothly. Some specialists believe that Western access to African resources was never much of a factor. International mining companies, or buyers abroad, would have got the resources regardless. The resources were much more significant to all local military factions because controlling them was essential for financing war. With states weakening after the Cold War and the genocide, no national or sub-national group in the region could afford to not fight for a claim on diamonds, oil, coltan, cobalt etc.
The well-known narrative of the 1990s is that Bill Clinton was discouraged by the failed intervention in Somalia, or distracted by his dalliance with an intern during this time and tragically failed to respond to the urgent need for a large peacekeeping force at the time when tensions were brewing. However, this narrative doesn’t explain why nothing was done after the genocide started, or after the conflict continued in Congo. The atrocities were known, but a large UN force was never sent during the three months of April-June, 1994. It seems clear that the Americans were waiting for the RPF to finish with their invasion, and a UN force would have got in the way of that. Toward the end, France guided Hutu militia and civilians into refuge in Congo, where the Hutu government and army basically lived in exile by siphoning off aid money for refugees, who became their hostages in the ongoing conflict along the Rwanda-Congo border. The UN never intervened effectively in solving this problem, either.
The RPF was recognized as the new government of Rwanda and tasked with “reconciliation” in a country where they had been foreign invaders for the last four years. The Tutsi refugees took over a country they had never really known, as most of them had left in 1959 or been born outside the country. Their second language was English whereas the second official language of Rwanda had been French until the RPF took over and changed it to English as a way of pushing the Hutu out of the education system and other elite functions of state.[v]
Hutu militias living among the civilian refugees in Congo launched raids into Rwanda, which forced the RPF to “clear out” the reluctant refugees who were afraid to go home--for good reason. RPF revenge killings occurred, and there was a large scale slaughter at Kibeho in February 1995, witnessed by UN troops. By this time Mobuto, president of Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo) and America's Cold War anti-communist ally, had become a depraved embarrassment to his American supporters, so Rwanda had American support when it invaded to deal with the Hutu army in exile--one which might in some distant future do exactly what the Tutsis in exile in Uganda did in the early 1990s.[vi]
The war eventually involved eight African nations and twenty armed groups that financed themselves with Congolese resources.
The common denial of this history told here claims that Kagame’s training by the CIA was insignificant and that because Rwanda has no natural resources, America has no interests there. This disingenuous argument glosses over the fact that sometimes having obvious interests is not a factor. Resource-poor places can still have a great strategic value for establishing regional control. Rwanda became a stable base of operations from which the well-supplied and well-trained RPF and were able to become the most formidable force on the continent. Once the war with Congo started, Rwanda mysteriously became endowed with natural resource exports. It became a large "exporter" of gold thanks to what was being taken out of Congo. Such factors as these were well concealed under the “genocide credit” which allowed the Rwandan government to focus the world’s attention on Tutsi victimhood and deflect all criticism as "genocide denial."
One is automatically called a genocide denier for writing such accounts as this. It usually goes unreported that critics of Paul Kagame's regime do not deny any of the established facts of the genocide perpetrated by the Hutu in the spring of 1994. A good clarification of the issue was written by a Tutsi exile (writing under a pseudonym, out of fear for his life) who suffered under both regimes, before and after 1994:

I faced death not once but three times under the Hutu regime. I went into exile and faced the same under the rule of the ruthless killers of the RPF... When I went back to Kigali, I witnessed the grave cruelty of the RPF rule under Kagame... The genocide of Tutsi in Rwanda is a reality none can ignore, and it is inscribed in the history of this world. In addition, massacres of innocent Hutus in Rwanda and Congo, the pogroms of millions of Congolese killed on their own land by Kagame’s troops, is a reality political interests cannot erase in the history of this world. None can ignore these realities and call Kagame a “visionary” or “one of the greatest leaders of our time” [as Tony Blair and Bill Clinton do].[vii]

In contrast to the popular narrative that the tragedy of the genocide came to a conclusion in 1994, Africa specialist Gérard Prunier had a different assessment:

There was no political treatment of the genocide in Rwanda by the international community. No efforts were made to prevent it. No efforts were made to stop it, and no efforts were made to remonstrate with those who spoke in the name of the victims when they started to abuse their role. Mature political treatment was replaced by humanitarian condescension and diplomatic bickering... As a result, more than two million refugees poured over the borders of Rwanda, complete with the trappings of quasi-sovereignty, including an army, a treasury and a complete set of corrupt politicians. Because the treatment of the crisis, or should I say non-treatment, was purely humanitarian, the situation was allowed to fester.[viii]

     I wrote about Rwanda here because it is one of the less-frequently discussed chapters of the Clinton presidency and Al Gore vice presidency. Their record Serbia and in domestic politics on such regressive policies as welfare reform and de-regulating the financial industry have been written about elsewhere, so I leave those topics aside. The American false narrative of recent African history may seem unconnected to policy on global warming, but it is a corollary of other false solutions like the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change. If the international community couldn't react to the immediate threat to millions of lives in Africa, and had to make up a false, comforting narrative about what happened there, what are the chances that its narrative about its global warming solution consists of a serious plan to deal with this distant, abstract threat? The Paris Agreement was decried at the time of its announcement as an insufficient con job that would allow for capitalism as usual, although some critics, curiously, changed their opinion of it when President Trump took America out of the deal.
Returning to Al Gore’s global warming crusade, there is one more thing to note on his remark about “bringing down communism.” It was uttered without any awareness that socialism argues for the preservation of nature and critiques how capitalism destroys it. Marx’s critique of capitalism included observations of what it did to the public commons and nature. Thus bringing down communism, or at least ignoring Marx’s critique of capitalism, might have worsened the problem that Al Gore sought to solve.
It is well understood that Donald Trump is too poorly educated in history and international relations to hold political office, but Al Gore’s views here illustrate that the problem can be found throughout the intellectually barren political establishment. It should be clear that any possible solution to global warming, and other environmental problems, is going to smell dangerously socialist to those who want to maintain the rights of corporations to plunder the earth. We have waited a few decades now for people in Western nations to voluntarily recycle, re-use and reduce, but it hasn’t happened in any significant way. It is complete insanity to continue to advocate the same solution and expect different results.
The inescapable conclusion might be that the only thing that could work is government imposing restraint from above. Living with less and downsizing lifestyles is never going gain popular support. America is a country where SUV sales go up as soon as the price of oil goes down. The only solution may be a revolutionary vanguard that could impose environmental protection on an reluctant populace. Who knows what another socialist revolution could achieve toward this goal, if it didn’t have to fight constant wars to defend itself from reactionary backlash? Would Al Gore be ready to “bring down” capitalism this time around? After eight years of the Obama administration, the destruction of Bernie Sander’s popular and progressive campaign, and Hillary Clinton’s policy-free lesser evil presidential campaign, it is obvious that the solutions will never come from “our political processes in our democracy,” as Gore suggested in 2006.

What is really needed is proper planning of available resources globally, plus a drive, through public investment, to develop new technologies that could work... and, of course, a shift out of fossil fuels into renewables. Also, it is not just a problem of carbon and other gas emissions, but of cleaning up the environment, which is already damaged. All these tasks require public control and ownership of the energy and transport industries and public investment in the environment for the public good.
Jason W. Moore, Capitalism in the Web of Life (Verso, 2015), 267-268.

The truly telling gesture by Al Gore was his reluctant endorsement of Hillary Clinton in 2016, which he waited to give until after she had won the nomination.[ix] His reluctance showed that he knew in his heart that the status quo in Washington was not going to achieve anything, but he couldn’t bring himself to say anything radical during the election campaign, or to support Bernie Sanders. What happened to all that talk about bold solutions and rising to the challenges, as if it were a fight to end energy slavery? The obvious thing for him to do was to endorse and vote for Jill Stein of the Green Party, the only candidate on the ballot with a platform that demanded the kind of change he was calling for in 2006-07, but of course doing that would have been a stinging reminder of Ralph Nader’s third-party candidacy in the year 2000 election campaign which he lost to George Bush. Thus his personal issues trumped the call to boldly leap into the unknown and take on the big challenges of the day. “Are we, as Americans, capable of doing great things even though they are difficult?” he asked in 2006. The answer ten years later was a big, pathetic “no.” All he could find courage for was an endorsement of the lesser-evilism that paved the way to the Trump presidency. In the end, we have to ask whether An Inconvenient Truth achieved anything, and whether the carbon footprint of Al Gore’s lecture tour was offset by any meaningful effect on energy policy. There was some progress in terms of renewable energy expansion, but this probably would have happened regardless of the film.
The director of An Inconvenient Truth went on to promote the charter school movement with his next film Waiting for Superman (2010). It too has not aged well, as it was identified quickly as a vehicle promoting the privatization of public education; that is “bringing down” socialism from another sphere of American life.[x] The past decade of American life spans the time from the 2007-08 collapse of the financial system to the election of Donald Trump as president. It also includes many such neoliberal false-hope campaigns to save the environment, or the education system, or whatever. These events do indeed “... reveal the contradictions of a whole century. And so, often we have to realize that our judgments and our interpretations and even our hopes may have been wrong.”

More on this theme: Green Capitalism: The God that Failed


[i] Gillo Pontecorvo (Director), Queimada (Burn!) United Artists, 1969. Dialog from the film, 00:59:50~.

[ii] Davis Guggenheim (Director), Al Gore (Writer), An Inconvenient Truth, Paramount Classics, 2006.

[iii] Wilfried Loth and George Soutou, The Making of Détente: Eastern Europe and Western Europe in the Cold War, 1965-75 (Routledge, 2010), 25.

[iv] The Keiser Report Episode 1072, May 17, 2017.

[v] Filip Reyntjens, Political Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda (Cambridge University Press, 2013), 1-7.

[vi] Howard W. French, “The Case Against Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame,” Newsweek, January 1, 2013.

[vii] Jessie McBride, U.S. Made (Christian Faith Publishing Inc., 2015). The cover of the book credits a "J.E. Murphy" as the apparent author, while the credits inside the book list the author as "Jesse McBride." This unusual self-published book is written in broken English by an unidentified Tutsi who claims to have been persecuted by both the pre and post-genocide regimes, and known many of the key players due to his work as a journalist and government advisor.

[viii] Gérard Prunier, Africa’s World War (Oxford University Press, 2009), 47.

[ix] Nick Gass, “Al Gore Endorses Clinton,” Politico, July 25, 2016.

[x] Diane Ravitch, “Michelle Rhee's Cheating Scandal: Diane Ravitch Blasts Education Reform Star,” Daily Beast, March 29, 2011.

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