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Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, How “Revolution” Became an Adjective | TomDispatch

Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, How “Revolution” Became an Adjective | TomDispatch.

Posted by Lewis Lapham at 5:51pm, March 16, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch ReadersThis site will be a little quieter than usual this week — only one new piece instead of two — because I’m heading off on a semi-vacation.  Don’t count on me to answer mail in a timely fashion either.  Expect a new piece at the site this Wednesday, a TD classic “best of” piece over the weekend, and we’ll be back up and running at full speed next week. Tom]

In 1969, I was working as a (not very good) printer at an “underground” print shop in Boston.  There was, in fact, nothing faintly underground about it, but in what was then called “the movement,” it was a romantic label — and use it we did.  I had an older co-worker there who had played an early role in launching the movement politics that became such a part of the era. He paid me next to no mind and yet his presence intimidated me greatly.  He was, as they said at the time, “close” to PL, or the Progressive Labor Party, which was a hardline lefty outfit of the moment.  One day, out of the blue, he invited me to dinner.  I was surprised, to say the least, but took it as an unexpected stamp of approval and accepted with alacrity, experiencing a wave of gratitude that, being a guy, it was impossible to express.

On the appointed night, I arrived at his place where he and his girlfriend, also close to PL, welcomed me to the table. In the middle of dinner, however, they got into a fight.  Suddenly, it was as if I weren’t there at all.  As it turned out, they were arguing about the latest PL edict, a call to members to “build bridges” to co-workers, the category into which I obviously fell.  The question, it seemed, was which of several categories of fellow worker I fell into.  They ranged — at this great distance I can’t remember the exact descriptive details — from the equivalent of simpleton liberal dolt to equally insulting labels somewhat more to the revolutionary left.  After the meal, I slunk out into the night.

That, I suspect, was as close as I got to being a “revolutionary.”  In the generally exhilarating years we now call the Sixties, by which we tend to mean the period from perhaps 1965 to 1973, it often seemed as if an abyss had opened at your feet and the most reasonable as well as thrilling thing to do, even if you were a somewhat timid and polite boy of the 1950s, was simply jump in.  At an individual level in the America of that moment, the experience was, I suppose, revolutionary.  Certainly, in those years it wasn’t hard to bump into every shade and grade of self-proclaimed revolutionary or revolutionary group.  Still, as Lewis Lapham makes clear today, and as I learned at that dinner table, revolution was then in the eye of the beholder, an easy enough label to throw around even if, looking back, the real revolutions of the moment weren’t on the left but on the right and, as Lapham points out, also in fields that ranged from advertising to surveillance — and aimed not at liberating but controlling us all.

In those years, Lapham, as you’ll soon find out, was having far better dinners than I at far better establishments.  A half century later, he’s made “revolution” the topic of the Spring issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and so the focus of his latest essay at TomDispatch. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, this website thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

Crowd Control 
Political Revolt and the Accumulation of More 
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in “Revolution,” the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.
— Erwin Chargaff

For the last several years, the word “revolution” has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody — visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian — to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America’s political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s ReaganRisorgimento), asking itself why it’s not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.

Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?

I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death” — raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for “Freedom Now,” “Power to the People,” “Change We Can Believe In”?

My guess is next to nothing that can’t be written off as a business expense or qualified as a tax deduction. Not in America at least, but maybe, with a better publicist and 50% of the foreign rights, somewhere east of the sun or west of the moon.

Revolt from Thomas Jefferson to the Colossal Dynamo

The hallowed American notion of armed rebellion as a civic duty stems from the letter that Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris in 1787 as a further commentary on the new Constitution drawn up that year in Philadelphia, a document that he thinks invests the state with an unnecessary power to declare the citizenry out of order. A mistake, says Jefferson, because no country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance, and with it ready access to gunpowder.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Jefferson conceived of liberty and despotism as plantings in the soil of politics, products of human cultivation subject to changes in the weather, the difference between them not unlike that between the growing of an orchard and the draining of a cesspool, both understood as means of environmental protection. It is the turning of the seasons and the cyclical motions of the stars that Jefferson has in mind when in his letter he goes on to say, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion” — i.e., one conceived not as a lawless upheaval but as a lawful recovery.

The twentieth-century philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt says that the American Revolution was intended as a restoration of what its progenitors believed to be a natural order of things “disturbed and violated” by the despotism of an overbearing monarchy and the abuses of its colonial government. During the hundred years prior to the Declaration of Independence, the Americans had developed tools of political management (church congregations, village assemblies, town meetings) with which to govern themselves in accordance with what they took to be the ancient liberties possessed by their fellow Englishmen on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. They didn’t bear the grievances of a subjugated populace, and the seeds of revolt were nowhere blowing in the wind until the British crown demanded new, and therefore unlawful, tax money.

Arendt’s retrieval of the historical context leads her to say of the war for independence that it was “not revolutionary except by inadvertence.” To sustain the point she calls on Benjamin Franklin’s memory of the years preceding the shots fired at Lexington in April 1775: “I never had heard in any conversation from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression of a wish for a separation, or hint that such a thing would be advantageous to America.” The men who came to power after the Revolution were the same men who held power before the Revolution, their new government grounded in a system of thought that was, in our modern parlance, conservative.

Born 13 years later under the fixed star of a romantic certainty, the French Revolution was advertent, a violent overthrow of what its proponents, among them Maximilien de Robespierre, perceived as an unnatural order of things. Away with the old, in with the new; kill the king, remove the statues, reset the clocks, welcome to a world that never was but soon is yet to come.

The freedom-loving songs and slogans were well suited to the work of ecstatic demolition, but a guillotine is not a living tree, and although manured with the blood of aristocrats and priests, it failed to blossom with the leaves of political liberty. An armed mob of newly baptized citoyens stormed the Bastille in 1789; Napoleon in 1804 crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Jefferson’s thinking had been informed by his study of nature and history, Robespierre’s by his reading of Rousseau’s poetics. Neither set of political ideas brought forth the dream-come-true products of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution — new worlds being born every day of the week, the incoming tide of modern manufacture and invention (the cotton gin, gas lighting, railroads) washing away the sand castles of medieval religion and Renaissance humanism, dismantling Robespierre’s reign of virtue, uprooting Jefferson’s tree of liberty.

So it is left to Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, to acknowledge the arrival of the new world that never was with the publication in German of theCommunist Manifesto in 1848: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

Men shape their tools, their tools shape their relations with other men, and the rain it raineth every day in a perfect storm of creative destruction that is amoral and relentless. The ill wind, according to Marx, blows from any and all points of the political compass with the “single, unconscionable freedom — free trade,” which resolves “personal worth into exchange value,” substitutes “callous ‘cash payment’” for every other form of human meaning and endeavor, devotes its all-devouring enthusiasms to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the energies of the capitalist dynamic take full and proud possession of the whole of Western society. They become, in Marx’s analysis, the embodiment of “the modern representative state,” armed with the wealth of its always newer and more powerful machines (electricity, photography, the telephone, the automobile) and staffed by executives (i.e., politicians, no matter how labeled) who function as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” 

What Marx sees in theory as an insatiable abstraction, the American historian Henry Adams sees as concrete and overwhelming fact. Marx is 17 years dead and the Communist Manifesto a sacred text among the left-wing intelligentsia everywhere in Europe when Adams, his habit of mind as profoundly conservative as that of his great-grandfather, stands in front of a colossal dynamo at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and knows that Prometheus, no longer chained to his ancient rock, bestrides the Earth wearing J.P. Morgan’s top hat and P.T. Barnum’s cloak of as many colors as the traffic will bear. Adams shares with Marx the leaning toward divine revelation:

“To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed… Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”

The Sixties Swept Away in a Whirlwind of Commodities and Repressive Surveillance

I inherited the instinct as a true-born American bred to the worship of both machinery and money; an appreciation of its force I acquired during a lifetime of reading newspaper reports of political uprisings in the provinces of the bourgeois world state — in China, Israel, and Greece in the 1940s; in the 1950s those in Hungary, Cuba, Guatemala, Algeria, Egypt, Bolivia, and Iran; in the 1960s in Vietnam, France, America, Ethiopia, and the Congo; in the 1970s and 1980s in El Salvador, Poland, Nicaragua, Kenya, Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Jordan, Cambodia, again in Iran; over the last 24 years in Russia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Croatia, Bosnia, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia, South Africa, Romania, Sudan, again in Algeria and Egypt.

The plot line tends to repeat itself — first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.

All the shiftings of political power produced changes within the committees managing regional budgets and social contracts on behalf of the bourgeois imperium. None of them dethroned or defenestrated Adams’ dynamo or threw off the chains of Marx’s cash nexus. That they could possibly do so is the “romantic idea” that Albert Camus, correspondent for the French Resistance newspaper Combat during and after World War II, sees in 1946 as having been “consigned to fantasy by advances in the technology of weaponry.”

The French philosopher Simone Weil draws a corollary lesson from her acquaintance with the Civil War in Spain, and from her study of the communistSturm und Drang in Russia, Germany, and France subsequent to World War I. “One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution… This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”

During the turbulent decade of the 1960s in the United States, the advancing technologies of bourgeois news production (pictures in place of print) transformed the meaningless magic word into a profitable commodity, marketing it both as deadly menace and lively fashion statement. The commercial putsch wasn’t organized by the CIA or planned by a consortium of advertising agencies; it evolved in two stages as a function of the capitalist dynamic that substitutes cash payment for every other form of human meaning and endeavor.

The disorderly citizenry furnishing the television footage in the early sixties didn’t wish to overthrow the government of the United States. Nobody was threatening to reset the game clock in the Rose Bowl, tear down Grand Central Terminal, or remove the Lincoln Memorial. The men, women, and children confronting racist tyranny in the American South — sitting at a lunch counter in Alabama, riding a bus into Mississippi, going to school in Arkansas — risked their lives in pure acts of devotion, refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots.

The Civil Rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War protests were reformative, not revolutionary, the expression of democratic objection and dissent in accord with the thinking of Jefferson, also with President John F. Kennedy’s having said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Performed as a civic duty, the unarmed rebellions led to the enactment in the mid-1960s of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eventually to the shutting down of the war in Vietnam.

The television camera, however, isn’t much interested in political reform (slow, tedious, and unphotogenic) and so, even in the first years of protest, the news media presented the trouble running around loose in the streets as a revolution along the lines of the one envisioned by Robespierre. Caught in the chains of the cash nexus, they couldn’t do otherwise. The fantasy of armed revolt sold papers, boosted ratings, monetized the fears at all times running around loose in the heads of the propertied classes.

The multiple wounds in the body politic over the course of the decade — the assassination of President Kennedy, big-city race riots, student riots at venerable universities, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy — amplified the states of public alarm. The fantastic fears of violent revolt awakened by a news media in search of a profit stimulated the demand for repressive surveillance and heavy law enforcement that over the last 50 years has blossomed into one of the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries. For our own good, of course, and without forgoing our constitutional right to shop.

God forbid that the excitement of the 1960s should in any way have interfered with the constant revolutionizing of the bourgeois desire for more dream-come-true products to consume and possess. The advancing power of the media solved what might have become a problem by disarming the notion of revolution as a public good, rebranding it as a private good. Again it was impossible for the technology to do otherwise.

The medium is the message, and because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it substitutes the personal for the impersonal; whether in Hollywood restaurants or Washington committee rooms, the actor takes precedence over the act. What is wanted is a flow of emotion, not a train of thought, a vocabulary of images better suited to the selling of a product than to the expression of an idea. Narrative becomes montage, and as commodities acquire the property of information, the amassment of wealth follows from the naming of things rather than the making of things.

The voices of conscience in the early 1960s spoke up for a government of laws, not men, for a principle as opposed to a lifestyle. By the late 1960s the political had become personal, the personal political, and it was no longer necessary to ask what one must do for one’s country. The new-and-improved question, available in a wide range of colors, flower arrangements, cosmetics, and musical accompaniments, underwrote the second-stage commodification of the troubled spirit of the times.

Writing about the socialist turbulence on the late-1930s European left, Weil lists among the acolytes of the magic word, “the bourgeois adolescent in rebellion against home surroundings and school routine, the intellectual yearning for adventure and suffering from boredom.” So again in America in the late 1960s, radical debutantes wearing miniskirts and ammunition belts, Ivy League professors mounting the steps of the Pentagon, self-absorbed movie actors handing around anarchist manifestos to self-important journalists seated at the tables in Elaine’s.

By the autumn of 1968 the restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan served as a Station of the Cross for the would-be revolutionaries briefly in town for an interview with Time or a photo shoot for Vogue, and as a frequent guest of the restaurant, I could see on nearly any night of the week the birth of a new and imaginary self soon to become a boldfaced name. Every now and then I asked one of the wandering stars what it was that he or she hoped to have and to hold once the revolution was won. Most of them were at a loss for an answer. What they knew, they did not want, what they wanted, they did not know, except, of course, more — more life, more love, more drugs, more celebrity, more happiness, more music.

On Becoming an Armed Circus

As a consequence of the political becoming personal, by the time the 1960s moved on to the 1980s and President Reagan’s Morning in America, it was no longer possible to know oneself as an American citizen without the further identification of at least one value-adding, consumer-privileged adjective — female American, rich American, black American, Native American, old American, poor American, gay American, white American, dead American. The costumes changed, and so did the dossier of the malcontents believing themselves entitled to more than they already had.

A generation of dissatisfied bourgeois reluctant to grow up gave way to another generation of dissatisfied bourgeois unwilling to grow old. The locus of the earthly Paradise shifted from a commune in the White Mountains to a gated golf resort in Palm Springs, and the fond hope of finding oneself transformed into an artist segued into the determined effort to make oneself rich. What remained constant was the policy of enlightened selfishness and the signature bourgeois passion for more plums in the pudding.

While making a magical mystery tour of the Central American revolutionary scene in 1987, Deb Olin Unferth remarks on the work in progress: “Compared to El Salvador, Nicaragua was like Ping-Pong… like a cheerful communist kazoo concert… We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Nikolai Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice singalong and a ballet. We weren’t a revolution. We were an armed circus.”

As a descriptive phrase for what American society has become over the course of the last five decades, armed circus is as good as any and better than most. The constantly revolutionizing technologies have been spinning the huge bourgeois wheel of fortune at the speed of light, remaking the means of production in every field of human meaning and endeavor — media, manufacturing, war, finance, literature, crime, medicine, art, transport, and agriculture.

The storm wind of creative destruction it bloweth every day, removing steel mills, relocating labor markets, clearing the ground for cloud storage. On both sides of the balance sheet, the accumulations of more — more microbreweries and Internet connections, more golf balls, cheeseburgers, and cruise missiles; also more unemployment, more pollution, more obesity, more dysfunctional government and criminal finance, more fear. The too much of more than anybody knows what to do with obliges the impresarios of the armed circus to match the gains of personal liberty (sexual, social, economic, if one can afford the going price) with more repressive systems of crowd control.

To look back to the early 1960s is to recall a society in many ways more open and free than it has since become, when a pair of blue jeans didn’t come with a radio-frequency ID tag, when it was possible to appear for a job interview without a urine sample, to say in public what is now best said not at all. So frightened of its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies, the U.S. government steps up its scrutiny of what it chooses to regard as a mob. So intrusive is the surveillance that nobody leaves home without it. Tens of thousands of cameras installed in the lobbies of office and apartment buildings and in the eye sockets of the mannequins in department-store windows register the comings and goings of a citizenry deemed unfit to mind its own business.

The social contract offered by the managing agents of the bourgeois state doesn’t extend the privilege of political revolt, a point remarked upon by the Czech playwright Václav Havel just prior to being imprisoned in the late 1970s by the Soviet regime then governing Czechoslovakia: “No attempt at revolt could ever hope to set up even a minimum of resonance in the rest of society, because that society is ‘soporific,’ submerged in a consumer rat race… Even if revolt were possible, however, it would remain the solitary gesture of a few isolated individuals, and they would be opposed not only by a gigantic apparatus of national (and supranational) power, but also by the very society in whose name they were mounting their revolt in the first place.”

The observation accounts for the past sell-by date of the celebrity guest alone and palely loitering in the green room with the bottled water and the banana. Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in AmericaTheater of WarGag Rule, and most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces “Revolution,” the Spring 2014 issue ofLapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, How "Revolution" Became an Adjective | TomDispatch

Tomgram: Lewis Lapham, How “Revolution” Became an Adjective | TomDispatch.

Posted by Lewis Lapham at 5:51pm, March 16, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

[Note for TomDispatch ReadersThis site will be a little quieter than usual this week — only one new piece instead of two — because I’m heading off on a semi-vacation.  Don’t count on me to answer mail in a timely fashion either.  Expect a new piece at the site this Wednesday, a TD classic “best of” piece over the weekend, and we’ll be back up and running at full speed next week. Tom]

In 1969, I was working as a (not very good) printer at an “underground” print shop in Boston.  There was, in fact, nothing faintly underground about it, but in what was then called “the movement,” it was a romantic label — and use it we did.  I had an older co-worker there who had played an early role in launching the movement politics that became such a part of the era. He paid me next to no mind and yet his presence intimidated me greatly.  He was, as they said at the time, “close” to PL, or the Progressive Labor Party, which was a hardline lefty outfit of the moment.  One day, out of the blue, he invited me to dinner.  I was surprised, to say the least, but took it as an unexpected stamp of approval and accepted with alacrity, experiencing a wave of gratitude that, being a guy, it was impossible to express.

On the appointed night, I arrived at his place where he and his girlfriend, also close to PL, welcomed me to the table. In the middle of dinner, however, they got into a fight.  Suddenly, it was as if I weren’t there at all.  As it turned out, they were arguing about the latest PL edict, a call to members to “build bridges” to co-workers, the category into which I obviously fell.  The question, it seemed, was which of several categories of fellow worker I fell into.  They ranged — at this great distance I can’t remember the exact descriptive details — from the equivalent of simpleton liberal dolt to equally insulting labels somewhat more to the revolutionary left.  After the meal, I slunk out into the night.

That, I suspect, was as close as I got to being a “revolutionary.”  In the generally exhilarating years we now call the Sixties, by which we tend to mean the period from perhaps 1965 to 1973, it often seemed as if an abyss had opened at your feet and the most reasonable as well as thrilling thing to do, even if you were a somewhat timid and polite boy of the 1950s, was simply jump in.  At an individual level in the America of that moment, the experience was, I suppose, revolutionary.  Certainly, in those years it wasn’t hard to bump into every shade and grade of self-proclaimed revolutionary or revolutionary group.  Still, as Lewis Lapham makes clear today, and as I learned at that dinner table, revolution was then in the eye of the beholder, an easy enough label to throw around even if, looking back, the real revolutions of the moment weren’t on the left but on the right and, as Lapham points out, also in fields that ranged from advertising to surveillance — and aimed not at liberating but controlling us all.

In those years, Lapham, as you’ll soon find out, was having far better dinners than I at far better establishments.  A half century later, he’s made “revolution” the topic of the Spring issue of his remarkable magazine, Lapham’s Quarterly, and so the focus of his latest essay at TomDispatch. (You can subscribe to the Quarterly by clicking here.) As ever, this website thanks the editors of that journal for allowing us to offer an exclusive look at Lapham’s introduction to the new issue. Tom

Crowd Control 
Political Revolt and the Accumulation of More 
By Lewis H. Lapham

[This essay will appear in “Revolution,” the Spring 2014 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.]

In case of rain, the revolution will take place in the hall.
— Erwin Chargaff

For the last several years, the word “revolution” has been hanging around backstage on the national television talk-show circuit waiting for somebody, anybody — visionary poet, unemployed automobile worker, late-night comedian — to cue its appearance on camera. I picture the word sitting alone in the green room with the bottled water and a banana, armed with press clippings of its once-upon-a-time star turns in America’s political theater (tie-dyed and brassiere-less on the barricades of the 1960s countercultural insurrection, short-haired and seersucker smug behind the desks of the 1980s ReaganRisorgimento), asking itself why it’s not being brought into the segment between the German and the Japanese car commercials.

Surely even the teleprompter must know that it is the beast in the belly of the news reports, more of them every day in print and en blog, about income inequality, class conflict, the American police state. Why then does nobody have any use for it except in the form of the adjective, revolutionary, unveiling a new cellphone app or a new shade of lipstick?

I can think of several reasons, among them the cautionary tale told by the round-the-clock media footage of dead revolutionaries in Syria, Egypt, and Tunisia, also the certain knowledge that anything anybody says (on camera or off, to a hotel clerk, a Facebook friend, or an ATM) will be monitored for security purposes. Even so, the stockpiling of so much careful silence among people who like to imagine themselves on the same page with Patrick Henry — “Give me liberty, or give me death” — raises the question as to what has become of the American spirit of rebellion. Where have all the flowers gone, and what, if anything, is anybody willing to risk in the struggle for “Freedom Now,” “Power to the People,” “Change We Can Believe In”?

My guess is next to nothing that can’t be written off as a business expense or qualified as a tax deduction. Not in America at least, but maybe, with a better publicist and 50% of the foreign rights, somewhere east of the sun or west of the moon.

Revolt from Thomas Jefferson to the Colossal Dynamo

The hallowed American notion of armed rebellion as a civic duty stems from the letter that Thomas Jefferson writes from Paris in 1787 as a further commentary on the new Constitution drawn up that year in Philadelphia, a document that he thinks invests the state with an unnecessary power to declare the citizenry out of order. A mistake, says Jefferson, because no country can preserve its political liberties unless its rulers know that their people preserve the spirit of resistance, and with it ready access to gunpowder.

“The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”

Jefferson conceived of liberty and despotism as plantings in the soil of politics, products of human cultivation subject to changes in the weather, the difference between them not unlike that between the growing of an orchard and the draining of a cesspool, both understood as means of environmental protection. It is the turning of the seasons and the cyclical motions of the stars that Jefferson has in mind when in his letter he goes on to say, “God forbid we should ever be twenty years without such a rebellion” — i.e., one conceived not as a lawless upheaval but as a lawful recovery.

The twentieth-century philosopher and political scientist Hannah Arendt says that the American Revolution was intended as a restoration of what its progenitors believed to be a natural order of things “disturbed and violated” by the despotism of an overbearing monarchy and the abuses of its colonial government. During the hundred years prior to the Declaration of Independence, the Americans had developed tools of political management (church congregations, village assemblies, town meetings) with which to govern themselves in accordance with what they took to be the ancient liberties possessed by their fellow Englishmen on the far side of the Atlantic Ocean. They didn’t bear the grievances of a subjugated populace, and the seeds of revolt were nowhere blowing in the wind until the British crown demanded new, and therefore unlawful, tax money.

Arendt’s retrieval of the historical context leads her to say of the war for independence that it was “not revolutionary except by inadvertence.” To sustain the point she calls on Benjamin Franklin’s memory of the years preceding the shots fired at Lexington in April 1775: “I never had heard in any conversation from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression of a wish for a separation, or hint that such a thing would be advantageous to America.” The men who came to power after the Revolution were the same men who held power before the Revolution, their new government grounded in a system of thought that was, in our modern parlance, conservative.

Born 13 years later under the fixed star of a romantic certainty, the French Revolution was advertent, a violent overthrow of what its proponents, among them Maximilien de Robespierre, perceived as an unnatural order of things. Away with the old, in with the new; kill the king, remove the statues, reset the clocks, welcome to a world that never was but soon is yet to come.

The freedom-loving songs and slogans were well suited to the work of ecstatic demolition, but a guillotine is not a living tree, and although manured with the blood of aristocrats and priests, it failed to blossom with the leaves of political liberty. An armed mob of newly baptized citoyens stormed the Bastille in 1789; Napoleon in 1804 crowned himself emperor in the cathedral of Notre Dame.

Jefferson’s thinking had been informed by his study of nature and history, Robespierre’s by his reading of Rousseau’s poetics. Neither set of political ideas brought forth the dream-come-true products of the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution — new worlds being born every day of the week, the incoming tide of modern manufacture and invention (the cotton gin, gas lighting, railroads) washing away the sand castles of medieval religion and Renaissance humanism, dismantling Robespierre’s reign of virtue, uprooting Jefferson’s tree of liberty.

So it is left to Karl Marx, along with Friedrich Engels, to acknowledge the arrival of the new world that never was with the publication in German of theCommunist Manifesto in 1848: “The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionizing the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

Men shape their tools, their tools shape their relations with other men, and the rain it raineth every day in a perfect storm of creative destruction that is amoral and relentless. The ill wind, according to Marx, blows from any and all points of the political compass with the “single, unconscionable freedom — free trade,” which resolves “personal worth into exchange value,” substitutes “callous ‘cash payment’” for every other form of human meaning and endeavor, devotes its all-devouring enthusiasms to “naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.”

Over the course of the nineteenth century, the energies of the capitalist dynamic take full and proud possession of the whole of Western society. They become, in Marx’s analysis, the embodiment of “the modern representative state,” armed with the wealth of its always newer and more powerful machines (electricity, photography, the telephone, the automobile) and staffed by executives (i.e., politicians, no matter how labeled) who function as “a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” 

What Marx sees in theory as an insatiable abstraction, the American historian Henry Adams sees as concrete and overwhelming fact. Marx is 17 years dead and the Communist Manifesto a sacred text among the left-wing intelligentsia everywhere in Europe when Adams, his habit of mind as profoundly conservative as that of his great-grandfather, stands in front of a colossal dynamo at the Paris Exposition in 1900 and knows that Prometheus, no longer chained to his ancient rock, bestrides the Earth wearing J.P. Morgan’s top hat and P.T. Barnum’s cloak of as many colors as the traffic will bear. Adams shares with Marx the leaning toward divine revelation:

“To Adams the dynamo became a symbol of infinity. As he grew accustomed to the great gallery of machines, he began to feel the forty-foot dynamos as a moral force, much as the early Christians felt the Cross. The planet itself seemed less impressive, in its old-fashioned, deliberate, annual or daily revolution, than this huge wheel, revolving within arm’s length at some vertiginous speed… Before the end, one began to pray to it; inherited instinct taught the natural expression of man before silent and infinite force.”

The Sixties Swept Away in a Whirlwind of Commodities and Repressive Surveillance

I inherited the instinct as a true-born American bred to the worship of both machinery and money; an appreciation of its force I acquired during a lifetime of reading newspaper reports of political uprisings in the provinces of the bourgeois world state — in China, Israel, and Greece in the 1940s; in the 1950s those in Hungary, Cuba, Guatemala, Algeria, Egypt, Bolivia, and Iran; in the 1960s in Vietnam, France, America, Ethiopia, and the Congo; in the 1970s and 1980s in El Salvador, Poland, Nicaragua, Kenya, Argentina, Chile, Indonesia, Czechoslovakia, Turkey, Jordan, Cambodia, again in Iran; over the last 24 years in Russia, Venezuela, Lebanon, Croatia, Bosnia, Libya, Tunisia, Syria, Ukraine, Iraq, Somalia, South Africa, Romania, Sudan, again in Algeria and Egypt.

The plot line tends to repeat itself — first the new flag on the roof of the palace, rapturous crowds in the streets waving banners; then searches, requisitions, massacres, severed heads raised on pikes; soon afterward the transfer of power from one police force to another police force, the latter more repressive than the former (darker uniforms, heavier motorcycles) because more frightened of the social and economic upheavals they can neither foresee nor control.

All the shiftings of political power produced changes within the committees managing regional budgets and social contracts on behalf of the bourgeois imperium. None of them dethroned or defenestrated Adams’ dynamo or threw off the chains of Marx’s cash nexus. That they could possibly do so is the “romantic idea” that Albert Camus, correspondent for the French Resistance newspaper Combat during and after World War II, sees in 1946 as having been “consigned to fantasy by advances in the technology of weaponry.”

The French philosopher Simone Weil draws a corollary lesson from her acquaintance with the Civil War in Spain, and from her study of the communistSturm und Drang in Russia, Germany, and France subsequent to World War I. “One magic word today seems capable of compensating for all sufferings, resolving all anxieties, avenging the past, curing present ills, summing up all future possibilities: that word is revolution… This word has aroused such pure acts of devotion, has repeatedly caused such generous blood to be shed, has constituted for so many unfortunates the only source of courage for living, that it is almost a sacrilege to investigate it; all this, however, does not prevent it from possibly being meaningless.”

During the turbulent decade of the 1960s in the United States, the advancing technologies of bourgeois news production (pictures in place of print) transformed the meaningless magic word into a profitable commodity, marketing it both as deadly menace and lively fashion statement. The commercial putsch wasn’t organized by the CIA or planned by a consortium of advertising agencies; it evolved in two stages as a function of the capitalist dynamic that substitutes cash payment for every other form of human meaning and endeavor.

The disorderly citizenry furnishing the television footage in the early sixties didn’t wish to overthrow the government of the United States. Nobody was threatening to reset the game clock in the Rose Bowl, tear down Grand Central Terminal, or remove the Lincoln Memorial. The men, women, and children confronting racist tyranny in the American South — sitting at a lunch counter in Alabama, riding a bus into Mississippi, going to school in Arkansas — risked their lives in pure acts of devotion, refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of patriots.

The Civil Rights movement and later the anti-Vietnam War protests were reformative, not revolutionary, the expression of democratic objection and dissent in accord with the thinking of Jefferson, also with President John F. Kennedy’s having said in his 1961 inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Performed as a civic duty, the unarmed rebellions led to the enactment in the mid-1960s of the Economic Opportunity Act, the Voting Rights Act, the Medicare and Medicaid programs, eventually to the shutting down of the war in Vietnam.

The television camera, however, isn’t much interested in political reform (slow, tedious, and unphotogenic) and so, even in the first years of protest, the news media presented the trouble running around loose in the streets as a revolution along the lines of the one envisioned by Robespierre. Caught in the chains of the cash nexus, they couldn’t do otherwise. The fantasy of armed revolt sold papers, boosted ratings, monetized the fears at all times running around loose in the heads of the propertied classes.

The multiple wounds in the body politic over the course of the decade — the assassination of President Kennedy, big-city race riots, student riots at venerable universities, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Senator Robert F. Kennedy — amplified the states of public alarm. The fantastic fears of violent revolt awakened by a news media in search of a profit stimulated the demand for repressive surveillance and heavy law enforcement that over the last 50 years has blossomed into one of the richest and most innovative of the nation’s growth industries. For our own good, of course, and without forgoing our constitutional right to shop.

God forbid that the excitement of the 1960s should in any way have interfered with the constant revolutionizing of the bourgeois desire for more dream-come-true products to consume and possess. The advancing power of the media solved what might have become a problem by disarming the notion of revolution as a public good, rebranding it as a private good. Again it was impossible for the technology to do otherwise.

The medium is the message, and because the camera sees but doesn’t think, it substitutes the personal for the impersonal; whether in Hollywood restaurants or Washington committee rooms, the actor takes precedence over the act. What is wanted is a flow of emotion, not a train of thought, a vocabulary of images better suited to the selling of a product than to the expression of an idea. Narrative becomes montage, and as commodities acquire the property of information, the amassment of wealth follows from the naming of things rather than the making of things.

The voices of conscience in the early 1960s spoke up for a government of laws, not men, for a principle as opposed to a lifestyle. By the late 1960s the political had become personal, the personal political, and it was no longer necessary to ask what one must do for one’s country. The new-and-improved question, available in a wide range of colors, flower arrangements, cosmetics, and musical accompaniments, underwrote the second-stage commodification of the troubled spirit of the times.

Writing about the socialist turbulence on the late-1930s European left, Weil lists among the acolytes of the magic word, “the bourgeois adolescent in rebellion against home surroundings and school routine, the intellectual yearning for adventure and suffering from boredom.” So again in America in the late 1960s, radical debutantes wearing miniskirts and ammunition belts, Ivy League professors mounting the steps of the Pentagon, self-absorbed movie actors handing around anarchist manifestos to self-important journalists seated at the tables in Elaine’s.

By the autumn of 1968 the restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan served as a Station of the Cross for the would-be revolutionaries briefly in town for an interview with Time or a photo shoot for Vogue, and as a frequent guest of the restaurant, I could see on nearly any night of the week the birth of a new and imaginary self soon to become a boldfaced name. Every now and then I asked one of the wandering stars what it was that he or she hoped to have and to hold once the revolution was won. Most of them were at a loss for an answer. What they knew, they did not want, what they wanted, they did not know, except, of course, more — more life, more love, more drugs, more celebrity, more happiness, more music.

On Becoming an Armed Circus

As a consequence of the political becoming personal, by the time the 1960s moved on to the 1980s and President Reagan’s Morning in America, it was no longer possible to know oneself as an American citizen without the further identification of at least one value-adding, consumer-privileged adjective — female American, rich American, black American, Native American, old American, poor American, gay American, white American, dead American. The costumes changed, and so did the dossier of the malcontents believing themselves entitled to more than they already had.

A generation of dissatisfied bourgeois reluctant to grow up gave way to another generation of dissatisfied bourgeois unwilling to grow old. The locus of the earthly Paradise shifted from a commune in the White Mountains to a gated golf resort in Palm Springs, and the fond hope of finding oneself transformed into an artist segued into the determined effort to make oneself rich. What remained constant was the policy of enlightened selfishness and the signature bourgeois passion for more plums in the pudding.

While making a magical mystery tour of the Central American revolutionary scene in 1987, Deb Olin Unferth remarks on the work in progress: “Compared to El Salvador, Nicaragua was like Ping-Pong… like a cheerful communist kazoo concert… We were bringing guitars, plays adapted from Nikolai Gogol, elephants wearing tasseled hats. I saw it myself and even then I found it a bit odd. The Nicaraguans wanted land, literacy, a decent doctor. We wanted a nice singalong and a ballet. We weren’t a revolution. We were an armed circus.”

As a descriptive phrase for what American society has become over the course of the last five decades, armed circus is as good as any and better than most. The constantly revolutionizing technologies have been spinning the huge bourgeois wheel of fortune at the speed of light, remaking the means of production in every field of human meaning and endeavor — media, manufacturing, war, finance, literature, crime, medicine, art, transport, and agriculture.

The storm wind of creative destruction it bloweth every day, removing steel mills, relocating labor markets, clearing the ground for cloud storage. On both sides of the balance sheet, the accumulations of more — more microbreweries and Internet connections, more golf balls, cheeseburgers, and cruise missiles; also more unemployment, more pollution, more obesity, more dysfunctional government and criminal finance, more fear. The too much of more than anybody knows what to do with obliges the impresarios of the armed circus to match the gains of personal liberty (sexual, social, economic, if one can afford the going price) with more repressive systems of crowd control.

To look back to the early 1960s is to recall a society in many ways more open and free than it has since become, when a pair of blue jeans didn’t come with a radio-frequency ID tag, when it was possible to appear for a job interview without a urine sample, to say in public what is now best said not at all. So frightened of its own citizens that it classifies them as probable enemies, the U.S. government steps up its scrutiny of what it chooses to regard as a mob. So intrusive is the surveillance that nobody leaves home without it. Tens of thousands of cameras installed in the lobbies of office and apartment buildings and in the eye sockets of the mannequins in department-store windows register the comings and goings of a citizenry deemed unfit to mind its own business.

The social contract offered by the managing agents of the bourgeois state doesn’t extend the privilege of political revolt, a point remarked upon by the Czech playwright Václav Havel just prior to being imprisoned in the late 1970s by the Soviet regime then governing Czechoslovakia: “No attempt at revolt could ever hope to set up even a minimum of resonance in the rest of society, because that society is ‘soporific,’ submerged in a consumer rat race… Even if revolt were possible, however, it would remain the solitary gesture of a few isolated individuals, and they would be opposed not only by a gigantic apparatus of national (and supranational) power, but also by the very society in whose name they were mounting their revolt in the first place.”

The observation accounts for the past sell-by date of the celebrity guest alone and palely loitering in the green room with the bottled water and the banana. Who has time to think or care about political change when it’s more than enough trouble to save oneself from drowning in the flood of technological change? All is not lost, however, for the magic word that stormed the Bastille and marched on the tsar’s winter palace; let it give up its career as a noun, and as an adjective it can look forward to no end of on-camera promotional appearances with an up-and-coming surgical procedure, breakfast cereal, or video game.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham’s Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper’s Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in AmericaTheater of WarGag Rule, and most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces “Revolution,” the Spring 2014 issue ofLapham’s Quarterly, soon to be released at that website.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook and Tumblr. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Ann Jones’s They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return From America’s Wars — The Untold Story.

Tomgram: Michael Klare, In the Carbon Wars, Big Oil Is Winning | TomDispatch

Tomgram: Michael Klare, In the Carbon Wars, Big Oil Is Winning | TomDispatch.

Posted by Michael Klare at 8:00am, February 13, 2014.
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter @TomDispatch.

We now have an answer to why global temperatures have risen less quickly in recent years than predicted in climate change models. (It’s necessary to add immediately that the issue is only the rate of that rise, since the 10 hottest years on record have all occurred since 1998.)  Thanks to years of especially strong Pacific trade winds, according to a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change, much of the extra heat generated by global warming is being buried deep in ocean waters.  Though no one knows for sure, the increase in the power of those winds may itself have been set off by the warming of the Indian Ocean.  In other words, the full effects of the heating of the planet have been postponed, but are still building (and may also be affecting ocean ecology in unpredictable ways).  As Matthew England, the lead scientist in the study, points out, “Even if the [Pacific trade] winds accelerate… sooner or later the impact of greenhouse gases will overwhelm the effect.  And if the winds relax, the heat will come out quickly. As we go through the twenty-first century, we are less and less likely to have a cooler decade. Greenhouse gases will certainly win out in the end.”

Despite the slower rate of temperature rise, the effects of the global heating process are quite noticeable.  Yes, if you’re living somewhere in much of the lower forty-eight, you now know the phrase “polar vortex” the same way you do “Mom” and “apple pie,” and like me, you’re shivering every morning the moment you step outside, or sometimes even in your own house.  That southern shift in the vortex may itself be an artifact of changing global weather patterns caused at least in part by climate change.

In the meantime, in the far north, temperatures have been abnormally high in both Alaska and Greenland; Oslo had a Christmas to remember, and forest fires raged in the Norwegian Arctic this winter.  Then, of course, there is the devastating, worsening drought in California (and elsewhere in the West) now in its third year, and by some accounts the worst in half a millennium, which is bound to drive up global food prices.  There are the above-the-normtemperatures in Sochi that are creating problems keeping carefully stored snow on the ground for Olympic skiers and snowboarders.  And for good measure, toss in storm-battered Great Britain’s wettest December and January in more than a century.  Meanwhile, in the southern hemisphere, there’s heat to spare.  There was the devastating January heat wave in Australia, while in parts of Brazil experiencing the worst drought in half-a-century there has never been a hotter month on record than that same month.  If the rains don’t come relatively soon, the city of São Paulo is in danger of running out of water.

It’s clear enough that, with the effects of climate change only beginning to take hold, the planet is already in a state of weather disarray.  Yet, as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare points out today, the forces arrayed against dealing with climate change couldn’t be more powerful.  Given that we’ve built our global civilization on the continuing hit of energy that fossil fuels provide and given the interests arrayed around exploiting that hit, the gravitational pull of what Klare calls “Planet Carbon” is staggering.

Recently, I came across the following passage in Time of Illusion, Jonathan Schell’s 1976 classic about Nixon administration malfeasance.  Schell wrote it with the nuclear issue in mind, but today it has an eerie resonance when it comes to climate change: “In the United States, unprecedented wealth and ease came to coexist with unprecedented danger, and a sumptuous feast of consumable goods was spread out in the shadow of universal death.  Americans began to live as though on a luxuriously appointed death row, where one was free to enjoy every comfort but was uncertain from moment to moment when or if the death sentence might be carried out. The abundance was very much in the forefront of people’s attention, however, and the uncertainty very much in the background; and in the government as well as in the country at large the measureless questions posed by the new weapons were evaded.” Tom

The Gravitational Pull of Planet Carbon 
Three Signs of Retreat in the Global War on Climate Change 
By Michael T. Klare

Listening to President Obama’s State of the Union address, it would have been easy to conclude that we were slowly but surely gaining in the war on climate change.  “Our energy policy is creating jobs and leading to a cleaner, safer planet,” the president said.  “Over the past eight years, the United States has reduced our total carbon pollution more than any other nation on Earth.”  Indeed, it’s true that in recent years, largely thanks to the dampening effects of the Great Recession, U.S. carbon emissions were in decline (though they grewby 2% in 2013).  Still, whatever the president may claim, we’re not heading toward a “cleaner, safer planet.”  If anything, we’re heading toward a dirtier, more dangerous world.

A series of recent developments highlight the way we are losing ground in the epic struggle to slow global warming.  This has not been for lack of effort.  Around the world, dedicated organizations, communities, and citizens have been working day by day to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and promote the use of renewable sources of energy.  The struggle to prevent construction of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline is a case in point.  As noted in a recentNew York Times article, the campaign against that pipeline has galvanized the environmental movement around the country and attracted thousands of activists to Washington, D.C., for protests and civil disobedience at the White House.  But efforts like these, heroic as they may be, are being overtaken by a more powerful force: the gravitational pull of cheap, accessible carbon-based fuels, notably oil, coal, and natural gas.

In the past few years, the ever more widespread use of new extractive technologies — notably hydraulic fracturing (to exploit shale deposits) andsteam-assisted gravity drainage (for tar sands) — has led to a significant increase in fossil fuel production, especially in North America.  This has left in the dust the likelihood of an imminent “peak” in global oil and gas output and introduced an alternative narrative — much promoted by the energy industry and its boosters — of unlimited energy supplies that will last into the distant future.  Barry Smitherman of the Texas Railroad Commission (which regulates that state’s oil industry) was typical in hailing a “relatively boundless supply” of oil and gas worldwide at a recent meeting of the Society of Exploration Geophysicists.

As oil and gas have proven unexpectedly abundant and affordable, major energy consumers are planning to rely on them more — and on renewable sources of energy less — to meet their future requirements.  As a result, the promises we once heard of a substantial decline in fossil fuel use (along with a corresponding boom in renewables) are fading.  According to the most recent projections from the U.S. Department of Energy, global fossil fuel consumption is expected to grow by an astonishing 40% by 2035, jumping from 440 to 615 quadrillion British thermal units.

While the combined share of total world energy that comes from fossil fuels will decline slightly — from 84% to 79% — they will still dominate the global energy marketplace for decades to come.  Renewables, according to these projections, will continue to represent only a small fraction of the total.  If this proves to be accurate, there can be only one plausible outcome: vastly increased carbon emissions leading to rising temperatures and the sort ofcatastrophic climate change scenarios that now seem almost impossible to imagine.

Think of it this way: in our world, the gravitational pull of carbon exerts itself every minute of every day, shaping the energy decisions of individuals, companies, institutions, and governments.  This pull is leading to defeat in the global struggle to slow the advance of severe climate change and is reflected in three recent developments in the energy news: a declaration of surrender by BP, a major setback in the European Union, and a strategic end-run by Canadian tar sands companies.

BP Announces the Defeat of Renewables

Every year, energy giant BP (once British Petroleum) releases its “Energy Outlook” for the years ahead, an analysis of future trends in global production and consumption.  The 2014 report — extending BP’s energy forecast to the year 2035 — was made public on January 15th.  Typically, its release is accompanied by a press conference in which top BP executives offer commentary on the state of world energy, usually aimed at the business media.  This year, the company’s CEO, Bob Dudley, spoke with unbridled optimism about the future market for his company’s energy products, assuring his audience that the global supply of fossil fuels would remain substantial for years to come.  (Dudley took over the helm at BP after his predecessor, Tony Hayward, was dumped in the wake of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.)

“The picture in terms of resources in the ground is a good one,” he noted.  “It’s very different to past concerns about supply peaking.  The theory of peak oil seems to have — well — peaked.”

This, no doubt, produced the requisite smiles from Dudley’s oil-friendly audience.  Then his comments took a darker turn.  Can we satisfy the world’s energy requirements with fuels that are sustainable, he asked.  “Not at the moment,” he admitted.  Because of a rising tide of fossil fuel consumption, he added, “carbon emissions are currently projected to rise — by 29% by 2035, we estimate in the Outlook.”  He acknowledged that, whatever good news might be found in that document, in this area “steps are needed to change the forecast.”

Next, Dudley tried to put a hopeful spin on the long-term climate prospect.  By replacing coal-fired power plants with less-carbon-polluting natural gas, he indicated, overall greenhouse gas emissions can be reduced.  Increasing the efficiency of energy-consuming devices, he added, will also help.  All of this, however, adds up to little when it comes to the big picture of carbon emissions.  In the end, he could point to few signs of progress in the struggle to slow the advance of climate change.  “In 2035, we project that gas and coal will account for 54% of global energy demand [and oil another 27%].  While renewables will grow rapidly, their share will reach just 7%.”

Most of the media coverage of Dudley’s appearance focused on his expectations of long-term energy abundance, not what it would do to us or our planet.  Several commentators were, however, quick to note how unusual it was for an oil company CEO to address the problem of carbon emissions at all, no less express something verging on despair over the prospect of making any progress in curbing them.

“[Dudley] concludes… [that] the world is still a long way from delivering the peak in greenhouse gas emissions many scientists advise has to be achieved within the next decade to minimize the risk of dangerous climate change,”observed energy analyst James Murray at businessGreen.com.

Europe’s Retrenchment

The member states of the European Union (EU) have long exercised global leadership in the struggle to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow the pace of climate change.  Under their justly celebrated 20-20-20 plan, adopted in December 2008, they are committed to reducing their emissions by 20% over 1990 levels by 2020, increasing their overall energy efficiency by 20%, and achieving 20% reliance on renewables in total energy consumption.  No other region has embraced goals as ambitious as these, and none has invested greater resources in their implementation.  Any wavering from this path would signal a significant retrenchment in the global climate struggle.

It now appears that Europe is preparing to rein in the pace of its drive to slow global warming.  At issue is not the implementation of the 20-20-20 plan, which is well on its way to being achieved, but on the goals that should follow it.  Climate activists and green energy entrepreneurs have been calling for an even more ambitious set of targets for 2030 and beyond; many manufacturers and other major energy consumers have been pushing for a slower pace of change, claiming that increased reliance on renewables is driving up energy prices and so diminishing their economic competitiveness.  Already, it appears that the industrialists are gaining ground at the expense of climate action.

At stake is the EU’s climate blueprint for 2030, the next major threshold in its drive to slow the pace of warming. On January 22nd, the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission (EC), released its guidelines for the new plan, which must still be approved by the EU Parliament and its member states.  While touted by some as a sign of continued European commitment to decisive climate action, the EC’s plan is viewed as a distinct setback by many environmental leaders.

At first glance, the plan looks promising.  It calls for a 40% reduction in emissions by 2030 — a huge drop from the 2020 requirement.  This is, however, less dramatic than it may appear, analysts say, because energy initiatives already under way in Europe under the 20-20-20 plan, coupled with a region-wide economic slowdown, will make a 40% reduction quite feasible without staggering effort.  Meanwhile, other aspects of the plan are downright worrisome.  There is no mandate for a further increase in energy efficiency and, far more important, the mandate for increased reliance on renewables — at 27%, a significant gain — is not binding on individual states but on the EU as a whole.  This makes both implementation and enforcement questionable matters.  Jens Tartler, a spokesperson for the German Renewable Energy Federation (which represents that country’s wind and solar industries), calledthe lack of binding national goals for renewables “totally disappointing,” claiming it would “contribute to a marked reduction in the pace of expansion of renewables.”

To explain this evident slackening in Europe’s climate commitment, analysts point to the immense pressures being brought by manufacturers and others who decry the region’s rising energy prices caused, in part, by increased subsidies for renewables.  “Behind the heated debate in Brussels about climate and renewable energy targets, what is really happening is that concern over high energy prices has taken precedence over climate concerns in Europe,” saysSonja van Renssen, the Brussels correspondent for Energy Post, an online journal.  “Many [EU] member states and industry fear that a strong climate and energy policy will be bad for their economies.”

In arguing their case, proponents of diluted climate goals note that EU policies have raised the cost of producing a metric ton of aluminum in Europe by 11% and that European steel companies pay twice as much for electricity and four times as much for natural gas as their U.S. counterparts.  These, and similar phenomena, are “dragging the EU economy down,” wrote Mark C. Lewis, former head of energy research at Deutsche Bank.

Not surprisingly, many European manufacturers seek to reduce subsidies for renewables and urge greater reliance on less-costly fossil fuels.  In particular, some officials, including British Prime Minister David Cameron, are eager to follow the U.S. lead and bring advanced technologies like hydro-fracking to bear on the extraction of more oil and natural gas from Europe’s domestic reserves.  “Europe’s hydrocarbons production is in decline,” noted Fatih Birol, the chief economist at the International Energy Agency, but “there may be some opportunities… to slow down and perhaps reverse some of these trends” — notably by imitating the “revolution in hydrocarbon production” now under way in the United States.

Read this another way and a new and truly unsettling meaning emerges: the “shale gas revolution” being promoted with such fervor by President Obama as a “bridge” to a more climate-friendly energy system in the United States is having the opposite effect in Europe.  It is weakening the EU’s commitment to renewable energy and threatens to increase Europe’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Canada’s End-Run Around Keystone XL Pipeline Opposition

Much to the surprise of everyone, climate activists in the United States led by environmental author and activist Bill McKibben and the action group he helped to found, 350.org, have succeeded in delaying U.S. government approval of the Keystone XL pipeline for more than two years.  Once considered a sure thing, the pipeline, if completed, will carry 830,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen (“syncrude”) some 1,700 miles from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.  It has, however, been held up by detailed environmental impact studies and other procedural steps ordered by the U.S. State Department.  (Because the pipeline will cross an international boundary, it requires approval from the Secretary of State and, ultimately, the president, but not Congress.)

Opponents of the pipeline claim that by facilitating the exploitation of particularly carbon-dense Canadian tar sands, it will substantially increasegreenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere.  The use of this bitumen-based fuel releases more carbon per unit of energy than conventional petroleum and its energy-intensive extraction generates additional carbon emissions.  Should all of the bitumen in Canada — the equivalent of 1 trillion barrels of oil — be consumed, it’s “game over for the climate,” as former NASA climate scientistJames Hansen has famously written.

How the Obama administration will come down on Keystone XL is still unknown.  In a speech on climate policy last June, the president indicated that he would give highest priority to climate considerations when deciding on the pipeline.  “Allowing the Keystone pipeline to be built requires a finding that doing so would be in our nation’s interest,” he said.  “And our national interest will be served only if this project does not significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution.”  At the time, his comments raised the hopes of climate activists that Obama would ultimately decide against the pipeline.  More recently, however, an environmental assessment conducted at the behest of the State Department and released on January 31st cast doubt on this outcome.  The report’s reasoning: even though the exploitation of Canada’s tar sands will increase the pace of carbon emissions, their extraction and delivery to refineries is assured by alternative means — mainly rail — if the pipeline isn’t built and so its construction will not “significantly exacerbate” the problem of greenhouse gas emissions.

While this is certainly a uniquely sophistic (and shaky) argument, it is important to note that the Canadian producers and their U.S. partners are indeed attempting to stage an end-run around opposition to the pipeline by increasing their reliance on rail cars to deliver tar sands.

“The indecision on Keystone XL really spawned innovation and mobilized alternatives, and rail is a clear part of the options available to our industry,”observed Paul Reimer, senior vice president in charge of transport at Cenovus Energy, a Canadian oil company planning to increase rail shipments from 7,000 barrels a day to as many as 30,000 barrels a day by the end of 2014.  Other Canadian firms have similar expansion plans.  All told, the Canadiansclaim that, over the coming years, they will be able to increase rail-carrying capacity from the current 180,000 barrels per day to as much as 900,000 barrels, or more than would be carried by the pipeline.

If this were to happen, count on one thing: rail transport will turn out to have itsown problems — and its own opposition.  Not surprisingly, then, Canada’s oil industry still craves approval for Keystone XL, as it would allow even greater tar sands exports and legitimize the use of this carbon-heavy fuel.  But the growing reliance on rail transportation does once again demonstrate the powerful gravitational pull of Planet Carbon.  “At the end of the day, there’s a consensus among most energy experts that the oil will get shipped to market no matter what,” says Robert McNally, a former energy adviser to President George W. Bush.

Reducing Carbon’s Pull

These three recent encounters in the historic struggle to avert the most destructive effects of climate change tell us a great deal about the nature and terrain of the battlefield.  Climate change is not the product of unfortunate meteorological phenomena; it is the result of burning massive quantities of carbon-based fuels and spewing the resulting gaseous wastes into the atmosphere.  As long as governments, corporations, and consumers prefer carbon as an energy source, the war on climate change will be lost and the outcome of that will, in turn, be calamitous.

There is only one way to avert the worst effects of climate change: make the consumption of carbon unattractive.  This can be accomplished, in part, by shaming — portraying the producers of carbon-rich fuels as the enemies of human health and survival.  It’s an approach that has already achieved some modest successes, as in the prevention, until now, of Keystone’s construction. Withdrawing funds from fossil fuel firms, or disinvestment, is another useful approach.  Many student and religious groups are attempting to hinder oil drilling activities by pushing their colleges and congregations to move their investment funds elsewhere.

But shaming and disinvestment campaigns are insufficient; much tougher sanctions are required.  To stop the incineration of our planet, carbon must be made expensive — so costly, in fact, that renewables become the common fuel of choice.

There are at least two ways to move toward accomplishing this: impose a tax on carbon emissions, raising the cost of fossil fuels above those of renewables; or adopt a universal cap-and-trade system, forcing major carbon emitters to buy permits (at ever-increasing cost) in order to release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.  Both measures have been advocated by environmentalists and some attempts have been made to institute each of them.  (Both California and the European Union, for example, are implementing cap-and-trade systems.)  There may be other approaches to the problem that could prove even more effective, but the most essential thing is to recognize that genuine progress on climate change will not be possible until carbon fuels lose their financial allure.  For this to happen, as BP’s Dudley begrudgingly acknowledged on January 15th, “you need carbon pricing.  Universally accepted carbon pricing.”

The gravitational pull of carbon is immensely powerful.  It cannot be overcome by symbolic gestures or half measures.  The pressures to keep burning fossil fuels are too great to be overcome in piecemeal fashion.  Rather, these forces must be met head-on, with the institutionalization of equally powerful counter-forces that make fossil fuels economically unattractive.  We humans have a choice: we can succumb to carbon’s gravitational pull and so suffer from increasingly harsh planetary conditions, or resist and avoid the most deadly consequences of climate change.

Michael T. Klare, a TomDispatch regular, is a professor of peace and world security studies at Hampshire College and the author, most recently, of The Race for What’s Left.  A documentary movie version of his book Blood and Oil is available from the Media Education Foundation.

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Copyright 2014 Michael Klare

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