The Problem of Capitalist Politics, Nukes and Climate Change Edition

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

With Donald Trump soon to be exiled from the White House, four years of speculation about the precise degree of departure from the normal course of American imperial management is about to be put to the test. Any path forward will be a consequence of the trends, processes and trajectories that were set in motion at the end of WWII. These were given new meaning by the capitalist revolution (neoliberalism) of the 1970s. Two years ago various United Nations environmental committees began to issue warnings that unless dramatic changes are made, the planet will soon be uninhabitable. The question: will it be political leaders or capital that stands in the way?

The stakes— the continued existence of the species, was the background chatter in the U.S. in the 1950s and 1960s when the ever-present threat of nuclear annihilation was taught from pre-school through working life. The push-pull of capitalist democracy was the fear of imminent annihilation tied to the promise of a better future through shared prosperity and technological advances. Capitalism was to provide the shared prosperity. Politics was to assure that the accumulated technological and military might of the U.S. would go toward productive uses. That it didn’t illustrates the nature of the problem still unfolding.

Both MAGA (Make America Great Again) and the ‘restoration of decency’ relied on this image of a steady-state that never was. The industrial economy of MAGA was given away three or more decades ago. China made the investment in industrial infrastructure, and now has an insurmountable cost advantage in industrial production within the capitalist frame that MAGA references. And the restoration of decency has a hollow ring for children of the Vietnam and Iraq wars. The façade of gentility from the architects of genocidal carnage was perfected by the Brits two centuries ago, rendering the current version downright Trumpian.

For anyone who has lived through more than one or two American political campaigns, it is easy to dismiss the posturing and sloganeering as rhetoric in the service of electoral victory. However, as regards the broad frame of knowledgeable technocrats negotiating international agreements of the sort needed to avoid environmental and / or nuclear annihilation, there are crucial aspects of the 1950s – 1960s frame that are less than plausible in the current context. Recent political campaigns have taken place against the re-ascendance of capitalism since the 1970s. In 1948, with the Great Depression and serial World Wars fresh in the public experience, the New Deal held the power of capital at bay.

When Barack Obama signed on to the $1 trillion plan to modernize the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal in 2016, he endorsed the Cold War logic that emerged from the military-industrial economy that had been the bedrock of U.S. industrial production from the 1940s to the 1980s. While military producers were targets of leveraged buyouts in the 1980s, it was during the George W. Bush administration that connected insiders created private equity funds to ratchet the practice up. What had been make-work programs for displaced industrial workers was given the capitalist logic of profit maximization through cost reduction. Now, after decades of shedding workers, it still feeds off of the Pentagon budget while promoting permanent war.

By political logic, Mr. Obama’s 2009 bailouts of Wall Street were unrelated to military production. But the private equity firms that now own a large portion of U.S. military production are ‘Wall Street’. They are asset managers that borrow money to purchase companies that then have the twin mandates of 1) earning profits to 2) repay the money borrowed. Whatever the abstract politics of the people who create and manage private equity funds, through using military production— munitions, materiel, fighter jets and nuclear weapons, more gets ordered, profits are made, and debt gets repaid. And the ‘information’ that informs state policies is produced by war profiteers.

The point here isn’t to dump on Mr. Obama, but rather to make the point that capitalist motives and interests drive nominally political decisions like nuclear arsenal ‘modernization.’ Regardless of whether or not voters understand this, Wall Street, the titans of private equity, politicians dependent on campaign contributions, and their ‘bundlers’ and campaign operatives, do. And irrespective of the political merits and demerits of ‘modernizing’ the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, that $1 trillion is expected to be spent doing so provides some indication of the economic stakes involved.

The post-WWII frame, where knowledgeable technocrats negotiated the affairs of state in good faith, 1) never existed and 2) is today muddied by ‘private’ interests with complex motives, many of which are antithetical to the public good. Much of the aesthetic aversion to Donald Trump that came from within the permanent government and its bourgeois functionaries appears to have been related to his nakedly political and self-serving approach to government business being conducted under the façade of national interests. This, while the CIA has been a Nazi-loving, oil mafia, narcotics dealing, house of ill repute since its inception shortly after WWII.

While his supporters delighted in his epater le bourgeoisie antics, his feeding frenzy at public expense was / is but a slight variant of the one degree of separation between public and self-service provided by Democratic administrations. The New Cold War has it that renewed U.S. nuclear weapons production is a response to renewed nuclear weapons production by Russia. However, seven decades of American assessments of Russian nuclear weapons capabilities have been bullshit used by the nuclear weapons industry to game the Pentagon budget. Both Obama and Trump based their policy decisions on industry propaganda, not ‘political’ facts.

In contrast, since 2018, the United Nations environmental committees of the IPCC have put out a series of analyses that are well regarded by environmental researchers, meaning that they comport with the analytical parameters and methods of the environmental industry, and are therefore conservative in their conclusions. As regards global warming, the IPCC gave twelve years from 2018, meaning ten years from 2020, for the necessary actions to be taken to avoid catastrophic and irreversible environmental damage. The only path to get there in 2018 (according to the IPCC) required large-scale carbon capture schemes that amounted to geo-engineering, the use of millions of acres of land to capture atmospheric carbon.

Donald Trump is an unrepentant destroyer of the environment. He represented the Koch Industries wing of industrial polluters who saw their ability to profit from destroying the environment as their birthright. In contrast, Barack Obama sent patrician chair-warmer John Kerry to negotiate the U.S. position in the Paris Climate Accord. The Paris Accord is an old-school agreement between technocrats acting in the public interest to solve a global problem— global warming. Had Donald Trump not pulled the U.S. out of the agreement, a $3 billion Green Climate Fund would have funded climate research. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to re-join the Paris Accord. And he will likely re-fund the U.S. grant of $3 billion to the Green Climate Fund.

For context, ExxonMobil earned $7.8 billion in 2016, the year that the Paris Accord was finalized. While Koch Industries is privately held, and therefore doesn’t publicly report profits, it reported $110 billion in revenues for 2016. However, the disproportionate scale of the American contribution ($3B) to the Green Climate Fund relative to corporate profits from greenhouse gas emissions isn’t the problem. The multi-national corporations that pollute are either quasi-stateless, or they have the ability to change and coopt the governments if they deem environmental regulations to be too onerous. In recent years, the U.S. has ‘reduced’ carbon emissions precisely this way, by outsourcing them to China.

The mismatch between national boundaries and quasi-stateless corporations produces what environmental lawyers call the ‘whack-a-mole’ problem. Huge effort and expense is put toward forcing compliance with environmental regulations in one jurisdiction, after which multinational corporations open a three-person office in a new jurisdiction and incorporate there. With PFAS litigation— a chemical contaminant that will eventually be found in nearly all of the drinking water in the U.S., something like 300 slight variations of a known toxic substance were engineered and released, with each taking decades to be ‘proven’ toxic. Government regulators can’t keep up.

This isn’t to suggest that national governments are powerless with respect to corporate polluters. Exceptionally large numbers of poor people have been put in prison in the U.S. for decades on relatively minor charges. While there is no argument here that doing so is just, environmental criminals— or would be environmental criminals if criminal laws were applied to environmental crimes, are a serious risk to the entire planet. Barack Obama granted himself the power to kill U.S. citizens anywhere in the world based on secret laws passed by secret courts in secret. While doing so is a gross violation of due process, the broader point that power is used to counter power remains.

The larger point is that the Paris Climate Accord relies on the post-War frame of nation-states to solve what are fundamentally economic problems. Mr. Biden, or any other political leader that puts themself forward, can send an august patrician with developed windbag skills to negotiate agreements that the U.S. lacks the power to enforce. This isn’t the much-debated question of whether the Accord needs to be ratified by Congress. Assume for the moment that the agreement is enforceable. Anyone who has followed the domestic (U.S.) fracking industry knows that planet-killing methane leaks are regular occurrences. There is a difference between nominal and factual regulatory power.

It was none other than Donald Trump who had the ISDS (Investor-State Dispute Settlement) provisions removed from the re-negotiated NAFTA. ISDS provisions are end-runs around government regulations that allow politicians to pose as environmental stewards while undermining actual environmental efforts. The provisions create tribunals of corporate lawyers that award corporations government payouts for theoretical lost profits from government regulations. George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama all supported ISDS provisions. With respect to the Paris Accord, ISDS provisions would render unlikely the very government regulations that the Paris Accord is supposed to motivate.

Chart: The overlap of American foreign policy targets and nations with the largest proved oil reserves has been a frequent topic of political comment. While the Pentagon’s rank as the largest consumer of fossil fuels in the world provides a geopolitical motivation for the overlap, the paradox that it uses fossils fuels to launch wars to control fossil fuels, takes it back. Current U.S. geopolitical tensions with five of the nine nations suggests compound motives for American foreign policy. Bi-partisan hostility to these nations suggests that reducing fossil fuel usage isn’t on the establishment political agenda. Source: www.nsenergybusiness.com.

If memory serves (it does), a central component of Joe Biden’s Green New Deal came from George H.W. Bush’s 1988 campaign for president. Mr. Bush ran as a moderate by offering Republican answers to Democratic concerns. Mr. Bush pushed cap-and-trade, the since demonstrated fraud of establishing greenhouse gas emissions ceilings, and then allowing corporations to trade pollution rights to incentivize them to cut carbon emissions. Three decades in practice in Britain found the only determinable benefit was in making financial traders rich through gaming the rules. That it, or its neoliberal cousin, the carbon tax, is the centerpiece of Mr. Biden’s Green New Deal, suggests that Mr. Biden either doesn’t know that it is a fraud, or that he does.

At any rate, the point here is that acting through ‘politics’ without first bringing capital to heel isn’t going to work. No political solution is possible until economic power has been redistributed. The response back, that bringing capital to heel is impossible in current circumstances, and the best ‘we’ can do is work through the political system, is nihilistic. The stakes are what they are. Through American economic production, both domestic and outsourced, and American consumption, the U.S. is the primary generator of environmental degradation in the world. It isn’t the only generator— American style consumer culture was well sold abroad. However, either the political system ‘works,’ is the sense of representing the locus of power with the capacity for social determination, or it doesn’t. Power that derives from capital through campaign contributions is a second-order (dependent) phenomenon.

There is no harm, other than wasting time and energy, in pushing Joe Biden, or any of the establishment Democrats, to do what they will to reduce the threat of nuclear weapons and environmental decline. However, the time for empty gestures— and in the scheme of things, re-joining the Paris Accord is an empty gesture, was forty years ago. I was paying attention at the time. George H.W. Bush’s climate program— as it was understood at the time, was a fraud intended to buy time and draw energy away from more substantive proposals. At the time, I didn’t know either the science or the economics. What I did know was that Mr. Bush represented corporate interests, and that market-based proposals were a right-wing fraud to buy time and absorb environmental energy. That this proved to be the case wasn’t a surprise.

The issue of nuclear weapons is harder to unravel because it emerges from the heart of state-corporatism. If Joe Biden can re-enter non-proliferation agreements, great. That he spent five decades on the outer fringe of U.S. militarism bodes poorly for both his critical thinking skills and his integrity. But looking forward, not back, a question to ask is why U.S. nuclear estimates vis-à-vis Russia have been wildly inaccurate since the 1950s. And they haven’t been randomly inaccurate— they have exhibited a directional bias toward out-and-out bullshit. None other than Barack Obama committed a trillion dollars to what appears to be bullshit. So while the rational fear is that things will get out of hand, the side on which they have historically gotten out of hand isn’t Russian.

Had it not been for FDR, capitalism very well might have ended in a ditch in the 1930s. Of note is that through every crisis of the last half-century, Left economists came forward with helpful advice about how to restore capitalist enterprises to health. While there should be few illusions about what might come out the other side of the next crisis if capitalism isn’t ‘fixed,’ why not geld it in the process? If capitalism ‘works,’ why does it need multiple trillions of dollars in public largesse every decade or so? And if the fear is that the social pain of letting it fail will be too much to bear, why not apply the bailouts to averting social pain, rather than making rich people whole?

There are solid historical reasons for preferring scraping by to wholesale change. The blood-soaked history of the twentieth century was one of bold changes. But with environmental, political, and economic problems aggregating, the West now faces the boiling frog problem. Exacerbating it is that those who benefit from environmental destruction and U.S. militarism can exempt themselves from their consequences until it is too late. Without democracy of outcomes, their benefit is our loss.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.