What the controversy over Michael Moore’s “Planet of the Humans” reveals about the “green” economy and the “Green New Deal”
On April 21, 2020, the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, at the same time as a global pandemic was exposing the human toll of the growth-obsessed capitalist economic model, Michael Moore released “Planet of the Humans,” a documentary revealing the many inconsistencies in the supposed “green” energy movement. In particular, the film revealed the links between many elements of the movement and big capital itself. On 9-7-20, Max Blumenthal published an article on thegrayzone.com showing how, as its title indicates, “‘Green’ billionaires [were] behind [the] professional activist network that led [the temporary] suppression of [the] ‘Planet of the Humans’ documentary.” Below the title, Blumenthal wrote: “The Michael Moore-produced ‘Planet of the Humans’ faced a coordinated suppression campaign led by professional climate activists backed by the same ‘green’ billionaires, Wall Street investors, industry insiders and family foundations skewered in the film.” Below this is a quote from Jeff Gibbs, the director of the documentary, exhorting is to “take control of our environmental movement and our future from billionaires and their permanent war on Planet Earth.”
The rest of this blog post contains my edited version of Blumenthal’s piece, as shortened as I can make it. It may be long, but it’s important reading, because it shows how mainstream thinking on climate change and what we need to do to stop or curtail it defeats the purpose by, as always, putting profits for big corporations and the 1% ahead of what the earth and the 99% need. (For more on this, read anything recent by Richard Heinberg, and by all means watch the film, still available in its entirety on YouTube.)
Blumental asks what “Planet of the Humans” “to inflame so much opposition from the faces and voices of professional climate justice activism? First, it probed the well-established shortcomings of renewable energy sources like solar and wind power marketed as a green panacea.” No truly green technology or combination of technolgies will allow us to continue current species-destroying, resource-depleting, and carbon-intensive Western lifestyle, especially as practiced in the United States, and “Planet,” indicates this. Its also portrays current solar and wind technologies “as anything but green, surveying the environmental damage already caused by solar and wind farms, which require heavy mining and smelting to produce, destroy swaths of pristine land, and sometimes need natural gas to operate. While major environmental outfits have lobbied for a Green New Deal to fuel a renewables-based industrial revolution, and are now banking on a Democratic presidency to enact their proposals, ‘Planet of the Humans’ put forward a radical critique that called their entire agenda into question. As the director of the documentary, Jeff Gibbs, explained, ‘When we focus only on climate change as the thing destroying the planet, and demand solutions, we get used by forces of capitalism that want to sell us the disastrous illusion that we can mine and smelt and industrialize our way out of this extinction event.’
‘Planet of the Humans’ crossed another bright green line by taking aim at the self-proclaimed climate justice activists themselves, painting them as opportunists willingly co-opted by predatory capitalists. The filmmakers highlighted the role of family foundations like the Rockefeller Brothers Fund in cultivating a class of professional activists that tend toward greenwashing partnerships with Wall Street and the Democratic Party. Bill McKibben, the founder of 350.org and guru of climate justice activism, is seen throughout the film consorting with Wall Street executives and pushing fossil fuel divestment campaigns that enable powerful institutions to reshuffle their assets into plastics and mining while burnishing their image.” Big capital, “green tech billionaires, and Wall Street investors are determined to get their hands on the whopping $50 trillion profit opportunity that a full transition to renewable technology represents,” and the documentary urges us not to take the “gestures of environmental concern of oligarchs like Google CEO Eric Schmidt, Michael Bloomberg, Virgin’s Richard Branson, and Tesla founder Elon Musk been at face value.
For years, leftist criticism of professional climate activism has been largely relegated to blogs like Wrong Kind of Green, which maintains an invaluable archive of critical work on the co-optation of major environmental organizations by the billionaire class. Prominent greens might have been able to dismiss scrutiny from such radical corners of the internet as background noise, but once Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore put his name on ‘Planet of the Humans’ as executive producer, alongside those of his longtime producer Jeff Gibbs and the scholar-researcher Ozzie Zehner,” they had to try to squelch it. Even though they failed to get the film off YouTube permanently, they’ve succeeded in overshadowing its message about “the corruption of environmental politics by the 1% with a debate about its credibility, especially the part, as Zehner told me, about the dangers of a consumption-based economic model.
The ringleader of the push to suppress ‘Planet of the Humans’ was Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of the film ‘Gasland,’ which highlighted the destructive practices inherent in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fox launched the campaign with a sign-on letter calling for the documentary to be retracted by its producers. Then, in an incendiary takedown published in The Nation magazine, accused Michael Moore of being a racist and ‘eco-fascist.’ The relentless push by Fox and others eventually triggered a striking statement by PEN America, the free speech advocacy group: ‘Calls to pull a film because of disagreement with its content are calls for censorship, plain and simple.’
As the attacks on ‘Planet of the Humans’ snowballed, director Jeff Gibbs tried to defend his film. A few left-wing journalists also pushed back on the attacks, but in almost every case, they were spiked by editors at ostensibly progressive journals. Christopher Ketcham, author of This Land: How Cowboys, Capitalism, and Corruption are Ruining the American West, was among those unable to find a venue in which to defend the documentary. ‘I’ve come across few editors radical enough to have the exceedingly difficult conversation about the downscaling, simplification, and the turn in the developed world toward diminished affluence that a 100% renewable energy system will necessarily entail,’ Ketcham told me. ‘They want to believe that they can keep their carbon-subsidized entitlements, their toys, and their leisure travel – no behavioral change or limits needed, and it will all be green and “sustainable.”’
Naomi Klein, perhaps the most prominent left-wing writer on climate-related issues in the West, not only didn’t weigh in to defend ‘Planet of the Humans,’ she was an early participant in the campaign to suppress it, calling it ‘demoralizing’ on Twitter, and promoting a ‘fact check’ of it by Ketan Joshi, a former communications officer for the Australian wind farm company Infigen Energy. Like most of the film, Joshi painted the documentary as ‘a dumb old bull in the china shop that is 2020’s hard-earned climate action environment.’ Along with other critics, he accused the film’s co-producers, Gibbs and Zehner, of wildly misrepresenting the efficiency of renewables. To illustrate his point, he referenced a scene depicting the Cedar Street Solar Array in Lansing, Michigan with flexible solar panels running at 8% efficiency, purportedly enough to generate electricity for just 10 homes. Because that scene was part of a historical sequence filmed in 2008, Joshi dismissed it as an example of the film’s “extreme oldness.”’ However, this February, the solar trade publication PV Magazine found that Tesla’s newest line of flexible solar shingles had an efficiency rate of 8.1% – almost exactly the same as those depicted in ‘Planet of the Humans.’” The more expensive mono-crystalline solar panels have an efficiency rate of 15% to 18% in commercially available form, but they still have the problem of imtermittency common to all forms of solar energy.
Was the presentation of renewable energy sources in ‘Planet of the Humans’ false? Ecological economist William Rees has claimed that ‘despite rapid growth in wind and solar generation, the green energy transition isn’t really happening, perhaps because it’s chasing energy growth rather than curtailing it. The surge in global demand for electricity last year exceeded the total output of the world’s entire 30-year accumulation of solar power installations.’ A September 2018 scientific study also found that solar power installations are dependent on mined minerals. [See a link to the study online.]
The negative impact of massive wind farms on the environment and marginalized communities, an issue highlighted in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ is also a serious concern, especially in the global South. Anthropologist and Renewing Destruction: Wind Energy Development, Conflict and Resistance in a Latin American Context author Alexander Dunlap published a peer-reviewed 2017 study of wind farms in the indigenous Tehuantepec region of Oaxaca, Mexico, marketed as one of the most ideal wind generation sites in the world. Dunlap found that the supposedly renewable projects ‘largely reinforced income inequality, furthered poverty entrenchment, and increased food vulnerability and worker dependency on the construction of more wind parks, which cumulatively has led to an increase in work-related out-migration and environmental degradation.’
When wind turbines reach the end of their life cycle, their fiberglass blades, which can be as long as a football field, are also impossible to recycle. As a result, they’re piling up in rural dump sites across the US. Meanwhile, the environmentalist magazine Grist warned this August of a ‘solar e-waste glut’ that will produce ‘megatons of toxic trash’ when solar panels lose efficiency and die.
Already devastated by coups and neocolonial exploitation, swathes of the global South from Bolivia to Congo – home to massive reserves of cobalt hand-mined in ‘slave conditions’ for electric car batteries and iPhones – are being further destabilized by the minerals rush. Evo Morales, the indigenous former president of Bolivia, was driven from power in 2019 by a military junta backed by the United States and local oligarchs, in what amounted to a lithium coup. Bolivia is estimated to hold as much as half of the world’s lithium reserves, and when Morales’ government passed a law that only state-owned firms could mine it, multi-national corporations supported his right-wing domestic opponents in order to get their hands on the mineral, an essential element in electric batteries. This July, Tesla CEO and electric battery kingpin Elon Musk appeared to take partial credit for the 2019 military coup that forced Bolivia’s Evo Morales from power, asserting that big tech billionaires like him could ‘coup whoever we want.’ Electric batteries are also heavily reliant on cobalt, most of which is mined in the Congo, often by child labor in illegal and dangerous conditions. In December 2019, over a dozen Congolese plaintiffs sued Apple, Google’s Alphabet parent company, Microsoft, Dell, and Tesla, accusing them of ‘knowingly benefiting from and aiding and abetting the cruel and brutal use of young children in Democratic Republic of Congo to mine cobalt.’
In his piece hammering ‘Planet of the Humans’ in The Nation, Fox touted “the proliferation of 100% renewable energy plans put forward by Stanford University Professor Mark Jacobson” as one of the most important pieces of evidence refuting the film’s grim narrative. Jacobson’s study, according to National Geographic, was ‘a foundation stone’ of the Green New Deal proposal put forward by Democratic Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. It was also central to the energy plan advanced by the presidential campaigns of Senator Bernie Sanders, who co-authored an op-ed with Jacobson that calling for a full transition to ‘clean’ energy by 2050. Jacobson helped Fox found the environmental advocacy organization the Solutions Project, alongside actor Mark Ruffalo and the banker and former Tesla executive Marco Krapels in 2011. Besides his working relationship with Jacobson, Fox failed to acknowledge that the professor’s all-renewables projection was strongly challenged by 21 leading energy scientists in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal. The scientists concluded Jacobson’s paper was rife with ‘invalid modeling tools, contained modeling errors, and made implausible and inadequately supported assumptions.’ A survey of the debate by Scientific American scoffed at Jacobson’s assumption ‘that U.S. hydroelectric dams could add turbines and transformers to produce 1,300 gigawatts of electricity instantaneously…or the equivalent of about 1000 large nuclear or coal power plants running at full power.’
The tactic of fossil fuel divestment is at the heart of the so-called climate justice movement’s plan to defeat the fossil fuel industry. Launched by Bill McKibben’s 350.org and a coalition of professional activists soon after the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012, the campaign has resulted in institutions like Oxford University and Goldman Sachs supposedly divesting their holdings in oil and gas companies. Campaigners like McKibben encouraged their constituents to invest in funds whose portfolios were supposedly free of fossil fuel companies. ‘Planet of the Humans,’ however, demonstrated that investment funds endorsed by 350.org have engaged in a shell game in which fossil fuel assets are replaced with investments in plastics, mining, oil and gas infrastructure companies, and biomass. In one of the most controversial scenes in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ Bill McKibben was seen inaugurating a wood-burning biomass energy plant at Middlebury College in 2009. McKibben and his allies have attacked the scene as an unfair representation of his current position, yet less than a week after The Nation published Josh Fox’s attack on Michael Moore and ‘Planet of the Humans,’ Nation editor-in-chief D.D. Guttenplan hosted an event with McKibben that was sponsored by Domini Impact Investments, a fund with major investments in several wood-to-energy biomass companies. One Domini holding is a wood-to-energy company called Ameresco, which builds ‘large, utility-scale biomass-to-energy plants,’ according to its website. Domini Impact also has supposedly sustainable timber holdings, including Klabin SA, a company with logging operations spanning 590,580 acres in Brazil. Klabin SA manufactures pulp and paper products and operates a 270-megawatt on-site black liquor biomass plant. This May, just days after Domini sponsored McKibben’s talk, the company purchased a second biomass plant. (Fabio Schvartzman, the former CEO of Klabin SA, was charged with 270 counts of homicide in Brazil this January, after allegedly concealing knowledge of an imminent dam burst to protect the share price of his current company, Vale. The 2019 Mariana dam collapse has been described as Brazil’s worst environmental disaster.) While introducing the Domini-sponsored event with McKibben, The Nation’s Guttenplan stated, ‘By investing in the Domini Funds, you can help build a better future for the planet and its people, and be part of a movement working to address a wide range of social and environmental issues including human rights, climate change mitigation and forest stewardship.’ Neither McKibben nor Guttenplan responded to email requests for comment from The Grayzone.
Domini Funds is hardly the only investment fund that McKibben has partnered with to promote fossil fuel divestment and which has engaged in the shell game exposed in ‘Planet of the Humans.’ In what was perhaps the film’s most devastating scene, narrator Jeff Gibbs detailed how McKibben has advised 350.org members to direct their money into the Green Century Fund, an investment portfolio that boasts of being ‘wholly owned by environmental and public health nonprofit organizations,’ and free of fossil fuel stock. As ‘Planet of the Humans’ revealed, however, the Green Century Funds’ portfolio has contained heavy investments in mining companies; oil and gas infrastructure companies, including an exploiter of tar sands, the biofuel giant Archer Daniels Midland; McDonald’s; Coca Cola (the world’s leading plastic pollution proliferator); logging giants; and big banks from Bank of America to HSBC. Asked about this section of the film, Josh Fox dismissed it as out of date. He claimed that ‘the entire idea of what constitutes a divested fund has changed radically over the last eight years, starting at first from just oil, coal and gas investments, to then encompassing things like plastics and the meat industry.’ However, a probe of the 2019 Securities and Exchange Commission filings by Green Century Funds showed the fund held thousands of shares in meat giant McDonald’s and Royal Caribbean Cruises, among other mega-polluters. The latter company’s Harmony of the Seas ship is the most environmentally toxic cruise liner on earth, relying on three massive diesel engines burning 66,000 gallons of fuel a day. By the end of one voyage across the Atlantic, the ship has expended the same amount of gasoline as over 5 million automobiles traveling the same distance. Green Century’s SEC filing boasted that it elicited a pledge from Royal Caribbean ‘to make its food waste management and reduction strategies more public.’ It also claimed to have ‘helped convince McDonald’s, the largest purchaser of beef in the world, to restrict the use of antibiotics in its beef and chicken supply chains.’ These are classic cases of greenwashing, in which corporate behemoths burnish their reputation among progressives by embracing cosmetic reforms that do little to challenge their bottom lines.
The climate ‘warriors’ criticized in the film are sponsored by many of the ‘green’ billionaires seeking to cash in on the renewables rush, as well as by the network of family foundations that help set the agenda for groups like 350.org. In perhaps the most uncomfortable scene in ‘Planet of the Humans,’ McKibben was shown visibly squirming as an interviewer asked him about Rockefeller Family Foundation support for his 350.org. ‘We’re not exactly Big Greens,’ McKibben insisted during a 2011 interview with climate journalist Karyn Strickler. ‘I’m a volunteer, and we’ve got seven people who work full time on this 350.org campaign.’ When Strickler asked McKibben how his group sustained itself, he said, ‘To the degree that we have any money at all it’s come from a few foundations in Europe and the US. A foundation based in Sweden, I think it’s called the Rasmussen Foundation, has been the biggest funder.’ After some prodding by Strickler, a visibly uncomfortable McKibben admitted that ‘the Rockefeller Brothers Fund gave us some money right when we were starting out. That’s been useful too.’ In fact, the Rockefeller Brothers were instrumental in establishing 350.org and guiding the organization’s agenda. It began when the foundation incubated a group called 1Sky with a $1 million grant, and McKibben immediately joined as board member. As documented by radical environmentalist Cory Morningstar, 1Sky’s launch was announced at a 2007 gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative by former President Bill Clinton, who stood on stage beside Rockefeller Brothers Fund President Stephen Heintz. Four years later, the Rockefeller Brothers announced “the exciting marriage of 1Sky and 350.org – two grantees of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund’s Sustainable Development program.’ Why McKibben was so uncomfortable about discussing his relationship with Rockefeller was unclear. Perhaps he was concerned that the organization he once described as a ‘scruffy little outfit’ would be seen as a central node in the donor-driven non-profit industrial complex. Whatever his motives were, since the testy exchange with Strickler, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund has contributed over $1 million to McKibben’s 350.org.
Alongside a network of foundations and ‘green’ billionaires, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and its $1.2 billion endowment serves as a primary engine of the network of self-styled ‘climate justice’ activists that sought to steamroll ‘Planet of the Humans.’ These interests have cohered around the Environmental Grantmakers Association (EGA), located in the New York City offices of the Rockefeller Family Fund. The EGA enables elite foundations and billionaire donors to cultivate a cadre of professional ‘doers’ during retreats in scenic locations like Napa Valley, California, and the Mohonk Mountain House resort in New York’s Hudson Valley.
In accordance with its relationship with the EGA’s network of environmental cadres and outfits like 350.org, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund embraced their fossil fuel divestment campaign, shedding its stocks in oil and coal while increasing assets in other industries that can hardly be described as green. A look at the most recent publicly available financial filing of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, from 2018 [PDF link online], offered a clear glimpse at the shell game that divestment has entailed. According to the filing, while the Rockefeller Brothers foundation freed itself of fossil fuels, it remained invested in companies like the oil services giant Halliburton, the Koch-run multinational petroleum transportation partnership Inter Pipeline Ltd, and Caterpillar, whose bulldozers are familiar at scenes of deforestation and Palestinian home demolitions. The foundation also padded its portfolio with stock in financial industry titans like Citigroup and Wells Fargo, as well as Newcrest Mining, Barrick Gold, Wheaton Precious Metals Corporation, and Agnico Eagle Mines.
Since the Rockefeller Brothers Fund answered 350.org’s call to divest from fossil fuels in 2014, the foundation’s wealth has increased substantially. As the Washington Post reported, ‘the Rockefeller Brothers fund’s assets grew at an annual average rate of 7.76% over the five-year period that ended December 31, 2019.’ The outcome of the Rockefellers’ widely praised move established a clear precedent for other elite institutions: by allowing organizations like 350.org to lead them by the hand, they could greenwash their image, offload stocks in a fossil fuel industry described by financial analysts as a ‘chronic underperformer,’ and protect their investments in growth industries like mining, oil services, and biomass. McKibben, for his part, has marketed fossil fuel divestment as a win-win strategy for the capitalist class: ‘The institutions that divested from fossil fuel really did well financially, because the fossil fuel industry has been the worst performing part of our economy. Even if you didn’t care about destroying the planet, you’d want to get out of it because it just loses money.’
In another move apparently intended to burnish its green image while padding its assets, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund invested over $100 million in Generation Investment Management’s Generation Climate Solutions Fund II and Generation IM Global Equity Fund. These entities are jointly managed by Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president who negotiated a notorious carbon offsets loophole at the 1997 Kyoto Climate Protocol that’s been blamed for the release of 600 million tons of excess emissions. Gore launched the fund alongside David Blood, the ex-CEO of asset management for Goldman Sachs, in order to promote climate-friendly capitalism. In a 2015 profile of Blood and Gore’s Generation Investment Management fund, The Atlantic’s James Fallows described their investment strategy as ‘a demonstration of a new version of capitalism, one that will shift the incentives of financial and business operations’ toward a profitable ‘green’ economy. Blood himself admitted, ‘We’re making the case for long-term greed.’
The banker Blood and the green guru McKibben shared a stage together at the 2013 conference of Ceres, a non-profit that works to consolidate the mutually beneficial relationship between Big Green and Wall Street. The event featured a cast of corporate executives from companies like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and GM. Sponsors included Bank of America, PG&E, Bloomberg, Citi, Ford, GM, Prudential, Wells Fargo, TimeWarner, and a collection of Fortune 500 companies. During their conversation, the investor Blood pledged to mobilize ‘something in the order of $40 to $50 trillion of capital’ in renewables, underscoring the massive profit center that a transition to ‘green’ energy represents.
As noted above, Naomi Klein, a longtime critic of elite family foundations and the billionaire class, was among the most prominent figures to join the campaign to censor ‘Planet of the Humans.’ Her opposition to the film was surprising given the views she’s expressed in the past on mainstream environmental politics. In 2013, for example, she bemoaned the ‘deep denialism in the environmental movement among the Big Green groups [on how to fight climate change]. To be very honest with you,’ she continued, ‘I think it’s been more damaging than right-wing denialism in terms of how much ground we’ve lost.’ Klein was appointed to 350.org’s board of directors in 2011, and published This Changes Everything, her book on climate change in 2015. The book was initially launched as a project called ‘The Message,’ supported with hundreds of thousands of dollars in grants from the same who’s who of major family foundations that help sustain McKibben’s political apparatus. In one of several grants to the book and film project, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund contributed $50,000 to ‘The Message’ via a non-profit pass-through called the Sustainable Markets Foundation. Susan Rockefeller served as a co-executive producer of the documentary version of This Changes Everything. Her husband, David Rockefeller Jr., is the son of tycoon David Rockefeller, a U.S. government-linked cold warrior who co-founded the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and helped back the U.S.-managed coup that put Pinochet and the Chicago Boys in power in Chile, something Klein railed against in her 2008 book The Shock Doctrine. In 2014, the Ford Foundation chipped in with $250,000 for Klein’s project.
In April 2019, Klein released “A Message From The Future,” a video collaboration with Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and artist and pundit Molly Crabapple, which promoted the Green New Deal as a pathway to a renewable-powered economic utopia. Crabapple is an Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fellow at the New America Foundation, a Democratic Party-linked think tank substantially funded by Google’s Schmidt, the Ford Foundation, and the U.S. State Department. In a recent Intercept column, Klein took aim at Schmidt, describing him as one of the billionaires exploiting ‘a coherent Pandemic Shock Doctrine’ to begin ‘building a high tech dystopia.’ She noted that Schmidt is closely aligned with the national security state as chair of the Defense Innovation Board, which consults for the Pentagon on the military’s application of artificial intelligence. Schmidt also happens to be a proponent of a ‘smart’ energy grid, which he says will ‘modernize the electric grid to make it look more like the Internet.’ Such a model would not only benefit tech companies like Google which make their money buying and selling data, but the U.S. national security state, whose partnerships with big tech companies increase the capacity of its surveillance apparatus. The Senate version of the Green New Deal calls for the construction of ‘smart’ power grids almost exactly like those Schmidt imagined. Klein and other high-profile Green New Deal proponents have neglected to mention that this seeming benign component of the well-intentioned plan could represent a giant step on the way to the ‘high tech dystopia’ of Silicon Valley barons and their national security state partners.
In May 2018, Klein became the Gloria Steinem Endowed Chair in Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. The position was created ‘following a three-year, $3 million campaign including a dozen foundations,’ including the Ford Foundation. Contributions also poured in for the endowment from tycoons like Sheryl Sandberg, the billionaire chief operating officer of Facebook and advocate of corporate ‘Lean In’ feminism; and Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood mogul who was sentenced this March to 23 years in prison for first degree criminal sexual assault. According to Rutgers, Weinstein provided ‘a gift of $100,000 in honor of his late mother, who shared Gloria Steinem’s hopes for female equality.’
I had hoped to have a conversation with Klein, a former colleague at the Nation Institute, about her opposition to a documentary that advanced many of the same arguments that appeared in her past writings. Was the exclusive focus on carbon emissions by professional climate warriors not a blinkered approach that ignored the environmental damage inherent in producing still-unproven renewable technology? Did ‘cleantech’ tycoons not have a vested interest in advancing a global transition to the renewable products their companies manufactured? When she had clearly articulated the problems with billionaire-backed Big Green advocacy, why had Klein cast her lot with a political network that seemed to epitomize it? My emails were met with an auto-reply informing me Klein was ‘off grid,’ and referring me to her personal assistant. According to Fox, high-profile climate warriors like McKibben and Klein had no interest in speaking to me about their opposition to the film because ‘it’s like four months ago, man, everybody’s moved on.’
By August, members of the professional climate advocacy network that saw its interests threatened by ‘Planet of the Humans’ were preparing for a much more elaborate on-screen production that promised new opportunities. In the weeks ahead of the Democratic National Convention, climate justice organizations like the Sunrise Movement 501 c-4 which emerged in the shadow of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run and condemned former Vice President Joseph Biden as a tool of the establishment suddenly changed their tune. Flush with dark money from Democratic Party-aligned billionaires, Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash stated on July 14th, the day Biden released his clean energy plan: ‘It’s no secret that we’ve been critical of Vice President’s Biden’s plans and commitments in the past. Today, he’s responded to many of those criticisms: dramatically increasing the scale and urgency of investments. Our movement, alongside environmental justice communities and frontline workers, has taught Joe Biden to talk the talk.’ While it brands itself as a grassroots movement that’s organized anti-establishment stunts putting centrist figures like Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein on the spot, the Sunrise Movement was incubated with a grant from the Sierra Club, the Mike Bloomberg-backed juggernaut of Big Green organizing, and today, offices of the two organizations are located a floor apart in the same building in downtown Washington DC.
Ahead of the DNC, the Biden campaign introduced a $2 trillion plan pledge to invest heavily in renewable technology to achieve ‘a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.’ The plan promised to erect 500 million solar panels in the next five years alongside 60,000 new wind turbines. With the demand for solar plummeting due to the coronavirus pandemic, the prospect of gigantic government subsidies was music to the ears of the ‘cleantech’ tycoons who sponsor Democratic Party-aligned climate advocacy organizations. Many of these green millionaires and billionaires had feasted at the trough of Obama’s stimulus package, which was directly responsible for powering the rise of America’s solar industry. After promising upon his inauguration to invest $150 billion in ‘a new green energy business sector,’ Obama doled out an eye-popping $4.9 billion in subsidies to Tesla’s Elon Musk and a $1.2 billion loan guarantee for Tom Dinwoodie’s SunPower US to construct the California Valley Solar Ranch. In June 2019, an ‘avian incident’ caused a fire at the SunPower Solar Ranch project, impacting over 1200 acres and knocking out 84% of generating capacity for several weeks.
‘Planet of the Humans’ presented viewers with the disturbing story of the Ivanpah solar plant, a signature initiative in Obama’s green energy plan co-owned by Google. Gifted with $1.6 billion in loan guarantees and $600 million in federal tax credits, Ivanpah was built on 5.6 square miles of pristine public land close to California’s Mojave National Preserve. In its first year, the massive plant produced less than half its of its planned energy goal while burning over 6,000 birds to death. Because of the intermittency inherent to solar power, the gargantuan energy project has had to burn massive amounts of natural gas to keep the system primed when the sun’s not shining. Despite its dependence on fossil fuel, Ivanpah still qualifies under state rules as a renewable plant. ‘The bottom line is the public didn’t expect this project to consume this much natural gas,’ David Lamfrom, California desert manager for the National Parks Conservation Association, told the local Press-Enterprise. ‘We didn’t have full knowledge that this was what we were signing up for.’
Even after the Obama administration poured billions of dollars into solar projects, solar energy output increased between 2008 and 2016 by just .88% as a total of American energy production. Meanwhile, across the country, many new wind projects remain stalled due to community concerns about land destruction. In the home state of Green New Deal advocate Senator Bernie Sanders, the only remaining wind project was canceled this January. For raising questions about the efficacy and environmental cost of renewable projects like these, and proposing an explicitly anti-capitalist solution to the corporate destruction of the planet, the makers of ‘Planet of the Humans’ were steamrolled by a network of professional climate activists, billionaire investors and industry insiders. Now, with the Biden campaign promising a new flood of renewable subsidies and tax breaks under the auspices of a ‘clean’ energy plan, the public remains in the dark about what it’s signing up for. Even if the ambitious agenda fails to deliver any substantial environmental good, it promises a growing class of green investors another opportunity to do well.
In 2019 Matthew Desmond wrote an article for the New York Times “1619 Project” that attributed the brutality of American capitalism to cotton-plantation slavery. There are many types of capitalist societies around the world, Desmond said, “ranging from liberating to exploitative, protective to abusive, democratic to unregulated.” America’s is what University of Wisconsin-Madison sociologist Joel Rogers calls “low-road. In a capitalist society that goes low, wages are depressed as businesses compete over the price, not the quality, of goods; so-called unskilled workers are typically incentivized through punishments, not promotions; inequality reigns; and poverty spreads.” The US ranks at the bottom in terms of trade union membership, regulation of temporary work arrangements, and ease of firing workers, often without severance pay. Desmond: “Those searching for reasons the American economy is uniquely severe and unbridled have found answers in many places (religion, politics, and culture). But recently, historians have pointed persuasively to slave-labor Southern cotton plantations as the birthplace of America’s low-road capitalism.
Slavery was a font of phenomenal wealth. By the eve of the Civil War, the Mississippi Valley was home to more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the United States. Cotton grown and picked by enslaved workers was the nation’s most valuable export. The combined value of enslaved people exceeded that of all the railroads and factories in the nation. New Orleans boasted a denser concentration of banking capital than New York City. What made the cotton economy boom in the United States, and not other parts of the world with climates and soil suitable to the crop, was our nation’s willingness to use violence to extract land from Native Americans and labor from African-American slaves. Slavery helped turn a poor, fledgling nation into a financial colossus and created specific economic methods still used today.
Before the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, enslaved workers grew more cotton than they could clean. The gin broke the bottleneck, making it possible to clean as much cotton as you could grow. The other problem with cotton, its quick depletion of soil, was solved by expropriating millions of acres from Native Americans, often with military force, acquiring Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Florida, then selling the land cheaply to white settlers. As slave labor camps [otherwise known as “plantations”] spread throughout the South, production surged. By 1831, the US was delivering nearly half the world’s raw cotton crop. Southern white elites grew rich, as did their counterparts in the North, who built textile mills to form, in the words of the Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner, an ‘unhallowed alliance between the lords of the lash and the lords of the loom.’ Cotton planters, millers, and consumers fashioned a new global economy whose beating heart was slavery.
Everything you do at work these days is tracked, recorded, and analyzed. This quantification feels like a cutting-edge approach to management, but many of these techniques were first developed by and for large Southern plantations during slavery. Like today’s titans of industry, planters understood that their profits climbed when they extracted maximum effort out of each worker, using both precise systems of record-keeping and the threat of vicious punishment for slacking. Overseers recorded each enslaved worker’s yield, not only after nightfall, when cotton baskets were weighed, but throughout the workday. Northern factories wouldn’t begin adopting these techniques until decades after the Civil War. During the 60 years leading up to the Civil War, the daily amount of cotton picked per enslaved worker increased 2.3% a year. That means that in 1862, the average enslaved fieldworker picked 400% as much cotton as his or her counterpart did in 1801. The technology that accompanies modern workplace supervision can make it feel futuristic, but it’s only the technology that’s new. The core impulse behind that technology pervaded plantations, which sought utmost control over the bodies of their enslaved work force. In most cases punishments were authorized by the higher-ups – it was the greed of the rich white planter that drove the lash. The violence was rational, capitalistic, part of the plantation’s design. Punishments were the worst when the price of cotton was high.
The cotton trade and the earlier trade in slave-produced sugar from the Caribbean accelerated worldwide commercial markets in the 19th century, creating demand for innovative contracts (including ‘futures’), novel financial products, and modern forms of insurance and credit. Enslaved people were used as collateral for mortgages centuries before the home mortgage became the defining characteristic of middle America. In colonial times, when land wasn’t worth much and banks didn’t exist, most lending was based on human property. Enslavers weren’t the first to securitize assets and debts in America; the land companies that thrived during the late 1700s relied on this technique, too. But enslavers made use of securities to such an enormous degree for their time, that they created a globalized financial market. As America’s cotton sector expanded, the value of enslaved workers soared. Between 1804 and 1860, the average price of men ages 21 to 38 sold in New Orleans grew to from $450 to $1,200. Because they couldn’t expand their cotton empires without more enslaved workers, ambitious planters needed to find a way to raise enough capital to purchase more hands. Enter the banks. The Second Bank of the United States, chartered in 1816, invested heavily in cotton. In the early 1830s, the slaveholding Southwestern states represented almost half the bank’s business.
When seeking loans, planters used enslaved people as collateral. Thomas Jefferson mortgaged 150 of his enslaved workers to build Monticello. People could be sold much more easily than land, and in multiple Southern states, more than eight in 10 mortgage-secured loans used enslaved people as full or partial collateral. As the historian Bonnie Martin has written, ‘slave owners worked their slaves financially, as well as physically from colonial days until emancipation’ by mortgaging people to buy more people. Global financial markets got in on the action. When Thomas Jefferson mortgaged his enslaved workers, it was a Dutch firm that put up the money. The Louisiana Purchase, which opened millions of acres to cotton production, was financed by Baring Brothers, the well-heeled British commercial bank. A majority of credit powering the American slave economy came from the London money market. Years after abolishing the African slave trade in 1807, Britain, and much of Europe along with it, was bankrolling slavery in the United States. To raise capital, state-chartered banks pooled debt generated by slave mortgages and repackaged it as bonds promising investors annual interest. During slavery’s boom time, banks did swift business in bonds, finding buyers in Hamburg, Amsterdam, Boston, and Philadelphia.
Some historians have claimed that the British abolition of the slave trade was a turning point in modernity, marked by the development of a new kind of moral consciousness when people began considering the suffering of others thousands of miles away. But perhaps all that changed was a growing need to scrub the blood of enslaved workers off American dollars, British pounds, and French francs, a need that Western financial markets quickly found a way to satisfy through the global trade in bank bonds. Here was a means to profit from slavery without getting your hands dirty. In fact, many investors may not have realized that their money was being used to buy and exploit people, just as many of us who are vested in multinational textile companies today are unaware that our money subsidizes a business that continues to rely on forced labor in countries like Uzbekistan and China and child workers in countries like India and Brazil. Call it irony, coincidence or maybe cause – historians haven’t settled the matter – but avenues to profit indirectly from slavery grew in popularity as the institution of slavery itself grew more unpopular.
Banks issued tens of millions of dollars in loans on the assumption that rising cotton prices would go on forever. Speculation reached a fever pitch in the 1830s, as businessmen, planters and lawyers convinced themselves that they could amass real treasure by joining in a risky game that everyone seemed to be playing. If planters thought themselves invincible, able to bend the laws of finance to their will, it was most likely because they’d been granted the authority to bend the laws of nature to their will, to do with the land and the people who worked it as they pleased. Du Bois wrote: “The mere fact that a man could be, under the law, the actual master of the mind and body of human beings had to have disastrous effects. It tended to inflate the ego of most planters beyond all reason; they became arrogant, strutting, kinglets.” What are the laws of economics to those exercising godlike power over an entire people?
In 1799 the state of New York passed the first of a series of laws that would gradually abolish slavery over the coming decades, but the investors and financiers of the state’s primary metropolis, New York City, invested heavily in the growth of Southern plantations, catching the wave of the first cotton boom. Southern planters who wanted to buy more land and black people borrowed funds from New York bankers and protected the value of bought bodies with policies from New York insurance companies. New York factories produced the agricultural tools forced into Southern slaves’ hands and the rough fabric called “Negro cloth” worn on their backs. Ships originating in New York docked in the port of New Orleans to service the trade in domestic and (by then, illegal) international slaves. As the historian David Quigley has demonstrated, New York City’s phenomenal economic consolidation came as a result of its dominance in the Southern cotton trade, facilitated by the construction of the Erie Canal. It was in this moment – the early decades of the 1800s – that New York City gained its status as a financial behemoth through shipping raw cotton to Europe and bankrolling the boom industry that slavery made. (In 1711, New York City officials decreed that ‘all Negro and Indian slaves that are let out to hire be hired at the Market house at the Wall Street Slip.’ It’s uncanny, but perhaps predictable, that the original wall for which Wall Street is named was built by the enslaved at a site that served as the city’s first organized slave auction. The capital profits and financial wagers of Manhattan, the United States and the world still flow through this place where black and red people were traded and where the wealth of a region was built on slavery.)
Speculation continued to drive cotton production up to the Civil War, and it’s been a defining characteristic of American capitalism ever since. It’s the culture of acquiring wealth without work, growing at all costs, and abusing the powerless. It’s the culture that brought us the Panic of 1837, the stock-market crash of 1929, and the recession of 2008 – the culture that’s produced staggering inequality and undignified working conditions. If today America promotes a particular kind of low-road capitalism – a union-busting capitalism of poverty wages, gig jobs, and normalized insecurity; a winner-take-all capitalism of stunning disparities not only permitting but rewarding financial rule-bending; a racist capitalism that ignores the fact that slavery didn’t just deny black freedom but built white fortunes, originating the black-white wealth gap that annually grows wider – one reason is that American capitalism was founded on the lowest road there is.”
People are still arguing over Michael Moore’s most recent film, “Planet of the Humans,” but the arguments are largely over technicalities compared with the fundamental truth, as I see it, that the way privileged Americans and others are living — a way of life that millions of others aspire to — is completely unsustainable and rapidly killing the planet (us) in multiple ways. Nor can or should it be approximated by trying to live the same way “greenly,” as “Planet of the Humans” tried to point out. The only way we can live cleanly and sustainably is to drastically simplify, giving up many of the things we’ve gotten used to, and getting rid of the competitive, war-mongering capitalist system that discourages us from doing that. This is what the corona virus pandemic, the western wildfires, and so many other things are trying to tell us. We fiddle while Rome burns…Step back, get a wider perspective, and you’ll see that we’re killing ourselves and many other beings with our addictions.
You may think you understand history, politics, and economics, but a lot depends on who you’re reading or listening to. I just finished reading David McNally’s 2020 book “Blood and Money,” and I heartily recommend it for a thorough shakeup of your previous concepts. Turns out money really is the root of all evil! (No, it’s treating others like “others,” ’cause then you need to do rude things like insist that the items you’re exchanging be absolutely equal in value — as measured in monetary units. You might even want to steal their land, their stuff, or their bodies (enslave them). Did you know that slaves were the first major “goods” traded, back in the 700s BC?) If you don’t want to buy the book and wade through it yourself (McNally takes us from those early days to the present, with war and cruelty connected to economics all the way), I’m about to post my notes on it on this site under Resources/Books (top menu).
Believing that Trump chose Tulsa, OK and 6-19-20 as the place and time to kick off his 2020 presidential campaign deliberately, Robin D. G. Kelley, professor of American history at UCLA, described it in a 6-24-20 interview on The Intercept podcast as a “white rally,” opposing black emancipation, celebrated on Juneteenth, and mocking the killing of over 300 black Tulsans in “the Tulsa race massacre of 1921. Choosing Tulsa wasn’t an accident. Just like choosing Juneteenth, June 19th, as the original date for this event wasn’t an accident. Tulsa has a very interesting story, not because of what we typically talk about – the destruction of the Greenwood community in 1921, which was a Black community often called Black Wall Street. After destroying this community, including hospitals, libraries, and churches, with the support of the police and deputized white men, the city interned 7,000 Black people in camps and held them there through the winter of 1921-1922. So imagine you’re rendered homeless and you’re forced into internment camps for the crime was being Black. Trump’s choice of Tulsa is a slap in the face to that history.
Juneteenth also represents emancipation as the date, June 19, 1865, when Galveston, Texas was occupied by the Union army and there was a declaration that slavery had come to an end. Juneteenth is a day of celebration of abolition, but also, historically, at least for the last century and a half, a day of reflection and organizing on the part of Black communities. There’s a long history of Juneteenth representing the opposite of what Trump tried to claim, and his trying to turn that date into a reassertion of his authoritarian rule.
Oklahoma as a whole is an interesting place for another reason, which is that the Homestead Act of 1862, a means of dispossessing Indigenous peoples, also created an opportunity to have all-Black towns, and Oklahoma had more all Black towns than any other state in the Union. Many of these towns were, like the Greenwood district, places of Black autonomy and economic independence, and they were subject to racial pogroms and violence. Many of them were razed, destroyed. So, in some respects, Oklahoma has been a battleground state between Black freedom and white supremacy for a long time. During the late 19thand early 10th century period of Black disfranchisement, Oklahoma was also one of those places where many poor whites were disfranchised. That’s something that few of the 6,000 people at Trump’s rally have an understanding of – that even in the framework of white supremacy, class rule can lead to the disfranchisement of poor white people.”
Scahill added that “at that same rally in Tulsa, Trump claimed that Democrats want ‘rioters and looters’ to have ‘more rights than law-abiding citizens.’ How is Donald Trump using that word ‘looters’ in this instance? Set it in the historical context of this country.”
“The tradition in this country has been to identify looting as criminal behavior, which justifies the state’s relentless use of lethal violence against episodic political violence by people trying to fight back or take advantage of a temporary crisis to try to get commodities. In 2020 this is happening in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment. In the 1960s, the same question was posed. Why do people loot? The answer’s always wide-ranging: it’s economic, political, criminal, senseless, normative, deviant, all these things. But one thing that came out of the ‘60s articles on the subject became the prevailing theory of law enforcement. Looters were identified as hard-core criminals, thugs who just hadn’t been caught yet – an expression of latent criminal tendencies in Black communities rather than people acting during a lack of restraint or responding to a crisis. This became the basis of the broken windows theory, now repudiated, that ignored the structural racism creating horrific conditions in these communities, suppressing home values, and the divestment of services for working people, people of color, and the poor in urban communities. In some ways, it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy. You create policies that quite literally kill people, deny them basic goods and services, deny them employment, deny them a livelihood, and then you police them at that level of desperation with a fascist structure of violence, rendition, and torture. You’re criminalizing a community rather than dealing with crime, allowing the police to function with almost no boundaries on the basis of a racist untruth. To me, that’s part of the story of looting. Another part is to flip the question of ‘What’s a looter? Who’s doing the looting?’ And what we’ve seen, often, is that it’s the system of racial capitalism.”
Scahill’s asked him to explain that term, and Kelley said, “Racial capitalism is the idea that capitalism isn’t distinct from racism, that racism is a by-product of capitalism, a way to divide workers. It’s a way to extract greater value from, say, enslaved people, Indigenous people, etc. But Cedric Robinson argued that the ground of the civilization in which capitalism emerges is already based on racial hierarchy. If you think of race as assigning meaning to whole groups of people, ideologically convincing others that some people are inferior to others, that some people are designed as beasts of burden, what you end up getting is a system of extraction that allows for a kind of super-exploitation of Black and brown people. Racial capitalism also relies on an ideology or racial regime that convinces a lot of white people, who may get the crumbs of this extraction, to support or shore it up, even though their own share of the spoils is minuscule.
If you think of capitalism as racial capitalism, you realize that you can’t eliminate or overthrow it without the complete destruction of white supremacy. The main function of the police is to protect capital, property of all kinds, including slaves. The whole system of policing is organized around property, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the violent acts of the police are supported by capital, which needs force to terrify people. When we look at the relationship between the cost of police, police budgets, and the amount of money being shelled out to settle police misconduct cases, we’re talking about billions. In my city, Los Angeles, $880 million was shelled out between 2005 and 2018 over police misconduct suits, wrongful death suits, these kinds of things. Why do we let that happen? Companies like Target and Walmart give money to police foundations to make sure the police are operable. Wall Street benefits from police violence. You’d think that capitalists trying to be as efficient as possible would say this has to stop. But imagine if you have a police force that’s not a terror force. A police force that says, ‘of course, labor has a right to strike and to occupy a workplace. Of course, people have a right to protest and to protest freely and engage in forms of civil disobedience that disrupts business as usual.’ That’s not going to work. And we allow ourselves to be mentally deputized, brainwashed into calling the police whenever we think something, however minor, is amiss. And, too often this results in police killing someone, most often a Black man. Part of defunding the police is a recognition that the police, as constituted, make life more dangerous for vulnerable populations even as it creates a false sense of safety for white people. Part of what we have to think about is, how do we get out of the habit, or the reflex, of calling the police to solve issues that should have evoked simple compassion, neighborliness, and other thoughtful responses. Unless we learn how to care for one another, we’re going to continue to have this situation where we call the police and the police continue to kill us.”
Scahill mentioned Kelley’s new book, Black Bodies Swinging, in which he wrote, “‘Reverend William Barber [one of the leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign] is right – we’re living through a third Reconstruction, and the great rebellion of the summer of 2020 marks a moment of reckoning between real freedom and fascism.’ Can you expand on that?”
“There are two things I’m trying to deal with in this book. One is to amplify the fact that this generation of abolitionists have the most visionary conception of abolition in history. The first Reconstruction in the 1860s, an effort to expand social democracy to include everyone, faced a backlash, and was crushed under the weight of racial terror, Jim Crow, and disfranchisement. The second Reconstruction, responding to the civil rights movement of the 1960s, an attempt to expand the democracy we had to include all people, and deal with some of the social justice issues of housing and police violence, was based on the idea that the constitutional basis of our system was sound; we just had to tweak it to include everyone. This generation is saying it’s not sound and never has been. It’s been based on dispossession, white supremacy, and gender violence. This vision of abolition isn’t better jails, better police, and better training. It’s no police, no jails, and no prisons. It’s creating a new means of justice based not on criminalization, but affirmation and reparation – trying to repair relationships that have been damaged and destroyed as a result of five centuries of warfare against Indigenous peoples, Africans, poor white people, Asian-Pacific Americans, and Latinx populations. It’s an opportunity to transform not just the nation, but the entire world.
In the 1970s, after the second Reconstruction, the Klan was resurrected and the prison-industrial complex expanded – another backlash and retrenchment. After 2020, we’ll see either more fascism or true abolition. This is a very exciting time, and what the book tries to do isn’t so much predict what’s going to happen, but understand that 500-year history through the stories of particular individuals who have died over the last few years and recognizing what’s unique about the generation that’s emerged since the late 1990s.”
Scahill asked for Kelley’s “big picture thoughts on what that says about our society that Trump and Biden are the two major-party candidates at this moment in history.”
“It says something about the failure of electoral politics to solve this problem. Because, imagine a political conundrum that leaves us with the choice of going back to Clinton-era policies that stripped us of the protections of Glass-Steagall, expanded the prison-industrial complex, and criminalized immigration even further than before. Biden represents that, and if we see this as ‘elect Biden by any means necessary,’ I think we’ve lost. A continued Trump White House, with the backing of the apparatus of state violence, is a much more difficult place to fight these fights, but at the same time, I think that this radical generation sees that no matter who is elected, the fight has to continue because it isn’t just a fight to restore an old democracy, but to create a new one. We can’t silence the critique of Biden and the Clintons and Obama or continue to have a foreign policy built on war and drone strikes, the same kind of violence that’s replicated in the cities of the United States, in the Arab world, and elsewhere.”
Schahill then brought up Kelley’s “book from a couple decades ago, Hammer and Hoe, which tells the story of how in the 1930s and ‘40s, coming out of the Great Depression, Communists took on Alabama’s repressive, racist police state, and engaged in a battle not so different from the analysis that you’re offering now from this newer generation of radical abolitionists. I’m wondering if you could share with people an overview of that book, and share some of the stories that you researched and brought to life in it.”
“That book told the story of a party made up of overwhelmingly Black working people in rural areas, as well as in cities like Birmingham and Montgomery, who fought for the right to organize, for relief for the unemployed, against home eviction, and ultimately for democracy in the South and throughout the country. It preceded the civil rights movement and it had a vision of social democracy that even the civil rights movement didn’t. The Communist Party in Alabama had some white membership, and organized white working people. It actually tried to organize former Klansmen into the organization and got some in there. They saw themselves as a multiracial movement that could create a democratic, anti-capitalist society – true abolition for the entire United States, in solidarity with what they saw as a worldwide movement.
One of the things that made the Communist Party in Alabama different than, say, other movements was the confidence that they had that they were part of a global insurgency. I interviewed people, like a man named Lemon Johnson. When cotton pickers went on strike in 1935, he believed that any significant violence from the planter class would be met with the possibility of Stalin sending troops through Mobile, Alabama to protect them, to engage in class warfare against the planter class.
There are many lessons to be learned from the Communist Party of Alabama, but there’s also a lesson about how movements can be wiped out, and how their history can be destroyed, because by the Cold War, by 1948, though individual communists continued to do their work, the party wasn’t simply outlawed – it was crushed under the pressure of Bull Connor and his regime. We need to come to terms with that history, because I think that the best of this generation is an echo of that moment, and it proves to me, and this is a really important lesson, that anti-racism and class solidarity are not mutually exclusive. It shows the importance of fighting all forms of oppression – not just race and class, but gender oppression, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism – that none of these things can be separated off and left to the side, that a truly, fundamental abolitionist future requires that they all be held together. And the Communist Party of Alabama shows that that actually could happen.”
Scahill: “Arundhati Roy, the great Indian writer, described coronavirus as a portal, and I’m wondering what your assessment is of the racial capitalist system at this moment in an election year with this rebellion that shows no signs of ceasing, with Trump in power and with so many people having their lives and their livelihoods put in the sniper scope of the government and the pandemic.”
“The pandemic is a portal. And as a portal, it’s just an opening. And as an opening, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s an opening because it exposed the structure of racial and gendered capitalism and the violence meted out to the people who are most vulnerable. The fact that people are already dying from Covid-19 and then dying from state violence, with the video of Ahmaud Arbery, for example, the killing of Breonna Taylor, that these kinds of things exposed both the underside of the health crisis, but also the top side of it – the continuation of racial violence, state-sanctioned violence. So when folks carry the sign around a protest saying “Stop killing us,” that’s a slogan we’ve been carrying for centuries. In some ways, it’s aimed at ending state-sanctioned racist violence, but also ending the violence of poverty, the violence of an unequal health care system, the violence of dilapidated housing, and the violence of economic strangulation. It’s not an accident that these things converge. The question is: What are we going to do in this portal? Do we have the political will to basically recognize the fact that all these conditions are inseparable, that with all these conditions, you can’t simply reform your way out of it? They have to be destroyed and a humane society created that cares about human beings and life itself, over wealth accumulation and property. Whether that happens or not remains to be seen. But I don’t think many portals open up. And this particular portal wasn’t simply rendered open by Covid-19. It was rendered open by what Covid-19 revealed in terms of the contradictions of society that claims to be a democracy and claims to care about people, but actually cares more about property and wealth accumulation than the lives of the most vulnerable. Inequality was foundational to capitalism, and as long as we hold onto those ideas and as long as capitalism exists as a means of accumulating wealth through exploitation, those ideas aren’t going to go away. To me, this is not a matter of a kind of slight redistribution, like let’s give more crumbs to the poor. Nor is it about just ending poverty as we know it. It is about creating a structure of caring and repair in which we can all benefit from our labor and our kind of collective generosity and create a whole new ethos, not just for the United States but for the world.”